Content warning: physical violence, suicide
Ed’s wife had made him a paper bag lunch and left it next to his keys. He never expected her to, but she always did. He could hear her soft breathing coming from the bedroom. It had been five years now of peaceful, unmedicated sleep. Six years since they’d had to listen to the doctor’s euphemisms of “routine” and “standard procedure” before each surgery. Gradually, it had become “complete remission,” “cured,” and “very lucky.”
He picked up his keys, quietly so they didn’t jingle, and his lunch, quietly so it didn’t crinkle, and headed into the still-dark dawn.
He had been starting this drive at dawn for over a decade, although he made it much less frequently these days. Maybe only two, three times a year now. His wife had long stopped asking him about his work, and their son had always known not to ask. His coworkers, if he could call them that, didn’t ask him any questions at all. He, in turn, also knew nothing about them, never wondered if the drive they made two, three times a year looked anything like his.
They lived in a neat little cottage in a quiet, pretty town near the ocean, just like his wife had always wanted. Around sunrise, he would drive past the farmlands. Around midday, the car engine would get a little too hot and start complaining, but he understood all its noises and knew it was just talk. He and his dad had worked on this car for as long as he could remember. He’d spent many of his teen years under this hood. They seldom exchanged words, only wrenches and dirty rags, but this was where Ed’s dad taught him how to be a man. And a mechanic. And, eventually and to this day, an electrician.
His dad had been sick in bed the day the men’s prison had called for a handyman, something gone wrong with their lights. The family needed the money so he went himself, shaking in his too-big boots and pretending he knew what he was doing. Luckily, or maybe just because his dad had taught him well, he didn’t need to pretend very hard. It was straightforward maintenance problem and he knew exactly what to do. That’s how Ed became the prison’s full-time electrician. It was steadier pay than what they’d gotten from their increasingly fewer odd jobs, and his dad had been so proud.
He remembered his first “Dark Thursday,” as the inmates called it. He wasn’t supposed to be there, something had gone terribly, terribly wrong. He’d been brought into the room he’d spent so much time avoiding, the “Death Chamber.” The smell had hit him before the smoke did. And the smell had not left him since.
The chair was empty, but they hadn’t wiped the blood off yet. The mask was there, too, black and especially singed around its one hole for the nose and mouth. But it was the bullet still lodged into the back of the chair that made Ed look away and fight to keep his lunch down.
They had to shoot the prisoner, one of the men stammered, the electric charge was supposed to last forty-five seconds but it stopped too soon, and the prisoner had been screaming and screaming, they had to shoot him. They had to. Ed was only dimly aware of the man who was speaking. It must have been someone on the death row team. Ed would sometimes eat with them in the cafeteria, never asking about their work, never noticing the same empty, weary look they all shared. Until now.
The others continued to stutter about it having been maybe a voltage problem, maybe an equipment problem. All the while the guard who’d had to fire the shot stood silently in the corner, looking down at his right hand. His killing hand.
It had been a circuitry problem. Ed fixed that one, too, and that’s how he’d gotten his promotion. It paid for him to marry his high school sweetheart. It paid for their little cottage near the ocean. It paid for his wife’s recovery.
Ed opened the crinkly paper bag and took out the ham and cheese sandwich she had made him. There was even a chocolate chip cookie. He chewed and felt her love fill the old car. She and their son both knew he was still working part-time at the prison, and he left it at that. He had to.
It was dark again when he finally arrived at the prison. Some nights, and only ever on the nights he was here, there would be protestors outside. He was glad there were none now, no angry eyes or harsh words.
Visiting hours were long over so he parked in his usual guest spot, in between the two cars that also only ever appeared on the nights he was here. One of the cars was different tonight, shiny and still bearing dealer’s plates. Clearly this job was paying for someone else’s things, too.
He took out his old ID, more out of habit than anything. The front guard had been there almost as long as he had, and knew his face.
“Ed,” the guard said now, nodding curtly. Ed wished the old man could look at him for longer than his customary one second. It made him feel like death was on him, like the guard was afraid he would catch it if his eyes lingered too long. Ed continued down the halls that had been growing less familiar with each visit. New lights he probably wouldn’t know what to do with. New technology.
But the same chair.
He was grateful not to have to enter the Death Chamber anymore, only the booth that looked into it, separated by thick glass. He was grateful, too, that from here in the booth he could only see the back of the condemned man and the back of chair. The only visible faces in the chamber belonged to the witnesses, the death row team, the doctor who would make the pronouncements at the end.
The other two electricians were already here, along with the one they called the conductor. Ed had seen many conductors over the years, and many witnesses, and many doctors. And many condemned.
He took his place in front of one of the three buttons on the control panel. Each electrician stood in front of his own button. The men never exchanged glances, let alone words. Never acknowledged that they might be the only ones in their respective lives who could understand what they were each going though.
Ed recalled knowing at some point that one of the men was younger than he was, and the other one older. But it was hard to tell in this moment under the empty, weary look they all shared. They could’ve all been the same age, could’ve all been equally close to death.
“Did you get a new car?” The maybe-younger man asked the maybe-older man suddenly, surprising them all.
“Yes, I did,” the maybe-older one said after a moment.
“It’s nice,” the maybe-younger one said.
“Could we proceed?” Ed interrupted. This process had to be like clockwork, had to be smooth like they’d always rehearsed, and conversation was not on the schedule.
The three men lifted the hinged covers on their respective buttons and looked into the Death Chamber.
How many times had he done this now, how many Dark Thursdays had he participated in? Ed always made a point to focus solely on the equipment, solely on the wires, and not on the head they were attached to. This was a straightforward electrical procedure and he knew exactly what to do.
Behind him, the conductor started his countdown.
“Three,” he began.
Even after all these years, the counting slowed time nearly to a stop for Ed. He always felt the same nausea, like he was hanging over the edge of a precipice, the eternal moment before he fell into the darkness far below.
Once it had only been him, had only been one button. But the state had added two more men and two more buttons, because they were discovering things like PTSD and depression, and they figured this way no one would know who actually pushed the button that delivered the charge. This way all three electricians could have something to tell the darkness when they were lying awake in it at night. But the darkness would respond that they still would have delivered the charge a third of the time.
“Two,” the conductor continued.
Ed scanned the faces of the witnesses in the chamber, the death row team that would have spent the last two weeks preparing this man for this night. He wondered which one of them had shaved the prisoner’s head. Which one had delivered the last meal. As Ed took in one hollow face after another, the man in the chair turned his masked head slightly, as if to look over his shoulder.
As if to look at Ed.
All three men pressed their buttons at the same time, the forty-five second charge began, and Ed fell over the precipice.
He was very familiar with this forty-five seconds of what always felt, to him, like falling at terrifying speed. On the way down, he saw in his life all that he had paid for with other people’s deaths. He saw in his son all the children that he had left fatherless. He saw in his wife all the loved ones he had left permanently broken. He heard last prayers, last pleas, last words. He plummeted towards the end that he knew was inevitable, the empty bottom of this black pit.
But tonight, it was not empty.
There was a prisoner at the bottom, sitting in a chair, looking over his shoulder at Ed. But the prisoner was not masked, and Ed could look into the eyes of this condemned monster. And he saw only a frightened man.
And now the question, the one question Ed avoided at all costs on Dark Thursday and every day in between, would not be ignored:
What if this man were innocent?
The forty-five seconds ended. A naked bulb in the booth grew white hot and burnt out with a pop. No one took any notice.
“This is one hundred for me,” Ed said into the silence. Not for the first time, he wondered if his was the only button that had ever worked, if he had been the only one to kill all those men.
One hundred executions.
They walked down the halls in silence.
They walked to their cars in silence.
Before they got into them, the maybe-younger man looked like he was going to say something to him. What could he possibly say?
They drove off in silence.
Ed always stayed at the same motel afterwards, checking in at night and leaving at dawn. At some point on his drive home, a sizable sum of money would appear in his account. That was another thing the state added, more money, when more buttons were not enough to keep more men doing this work.
He flicked on the light switch in his usual motel room, expecting to be greeted by the same old carpet and faded wallpaper, but the bedside lamp did not turn on.
He stood with his hand still on the switch. After a moment, he crossed the dark room and sat on the bed he knew was there. He imagined his hands out in front of him. He imagined his right hand. His killing hand.
Then, he picked up the lamp that had not turned on and went into the bathroom. He usually took a shower, extra hot, and scrubbed his skin raw, telling himself that would get the death out his pores. But tonight he would take a bath.
As the tub filled, he opened up the lamp. It was a straightforward wiring problem and he knew exactly what to do.
Once the tub was full, he turned off the water. The lamp, still disassembled, was plugged in next to him as he got in.
Tonight would be his last execution, he had decided with relief. No more secrets, no more lies. No more killing.
He picked up the lamp and plunged it into the water with him. He saw bright flashes and heard sizzling. The single bulb over the bathroom mirror grew white hot and burnt out with a pop.
One hundred and one.