Joe Niehues carefully set up fifty chairs; Simon Parker, his boss, had warned that the execution might draw a decent crowd. Niehues observed the effect once he was finished, the neat rows of chairs facing the larger, ominous chair, with its restraining straps and its legs anchored with metal screws; a grotesque thrown facing its subjects. He was ashamed to notice that his hands were shaking.
Niehues returned to their small office; it contained a filing cabinet, a messy desk, and a small bookshelf. Parker had his feet on the desk as he read in a posture of complete relaxation which belied the night’s task.
“All square in there?” Parker asked Niehues, tipping himself back in his chair and not looking up from his page. Parker was a portly man in his mid-fifties, with a relaxed and cheerful manner completely at odds with his job.
“The floors are mopped and the chairs are all set up,” Niehues replied, and then hastily added, “the witness chairs I mean, I didn’t touch the chair.”
“Okay then,” Parker replied, finally looking up at Niehues. His joints cracked and popped as he bent his knees to bring the four legs of the chair back to the floor. “I checked Old Sparkey this morning, so no need to concern yourself with that. She’s all good to go.”
Parker spoke again, this time with far more animation and excitement, “Now listen to this bit, would you. So it’s these three weird sisters - like witches - on a moor in Scotland." Parker looked back down at the page, cleared his throat and read resonantly: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair: hover through the fog and filthy air.”
Niehues was usually unsure how to respond when Parker read excerpts from Shakespeare and then looked up at him, expectantly, as he was doing now. It reminded Niehues of times at school, when the teacher would ask him a question in front of the whole class which he didn’t know the answer to. However, this time, the words stirred something in Niehues. The Texan summer night was about as far from a cold and foggy Scottish moor as you could get, yet the words had struck a chord. They had put a voice to his feeling of unease - to the sinister feel of the night.
“Creepy,” Niehues said simply. He felt himself shudder involuntarily, and then felt foolish.
“Exactly!” cried Parker, looking pleased. He stood up behind his desk and reluctantly replaced his bookmark. “Now, let’s check in with our charge - shall we?”
Niehues felt his stomach lurch and then clench in dread. The men on death row were aware that Niehues was new to the block, obviously, but more than that, like horses around a nervous rider, they sensed his newness; they sensed his anxiety, his self-doubt and his fear.
“Neeeew boy Nieeeehues,” they would call softly at him.
There was no yelling or clamouring like in other parts of the prison. Just that mocking crooning - quiet and unnerving - almost melodic, as their eyes followed him from behind the bars. When he met their hard eyes - which he invariably regretted but was often drawn to do - Niehues always looked away first.
“They’ll be well behaved tonight,” Parker assured Niehues, seeming to read his mind; “you won’t hear a peep. Execution night always has that effect.”
Just as Parker had said, the men were quiet, lying on their bunks, seeming lost in contemplation. Parker and Niehues’s steps seemed loud as they strode down the quiet, cell-lined corridor to McMarn’s cell.
Outside the cell-block windows and down the street, the town was also unusually quiet. Often on summer nights, a light breeze played around the leaves of the oak trees or set the town signs squeaking, but tonight the air was still. The promised afternoon storm had not materialized, so the evening was heavy and damp with moisture. The dogs were quiet and watchful. Many of their owners were getting dressed into starched collars or dresses, which soon wilted in the moist air. They were getting dressed in their best - it felt odd to be going through these Sunday morning motions on a Thursday evening - because they would be watching a man die. He was a vicious and criminal man, but still a man; the occasion seemed to demand some formality.
Further still from the jail, past the dump in an overgrown tangle of grass and rusted cars, sat Danny McMarn’s childhood home. His mother, Mrs. Jeannette McMarn - known as Jeanie - was alone in the dilapidated bungalow. With shaking hands, she lit a candle - the bulb in the kitchen had blown months ago - and sat at the worn and pock-marked table. The newspaper, open in front of her, described the violent murder of two women four months earlier. Jeanie reached for the bottle of cheap whiskey and poured herself a generous measure. She had been invited to the lawful execution of her son, which would be taking place at eight o’clock that very evening - August 31st, 1953.
The invitation had been delivered by one of the cops, a man called Parker, who had kind eyes and a round stomach. He had brought her the clothes Danny had been arrested in, folded neatly, as well as his boots. In a gentle voice, Parker had told her the date of the execution and asked whether she planned to attend. Jeanie had yelled at the man to get off her property; she had felt the spittle fly from her lips like a rabid dog - wild and ferocious.
The man had raised his hands placatingly and returned to his police cruiser. Jeanie had grabbed the handful of clothing which he had left on her stoop and slammed the door shut. She had put the boots down and then had carefully hung her son’s clothing on the nails by the door - one for the shirt and one for the pants - and then had burst into angry sobs. It had felt good - screaming in wild fury at the stranger and then sobbing those heaving, snotty sobs with abandon.
Now, instead, she was silent; she felt tense and hollow with dread. Her eyes strayed to the clock in the kitchen; its hands seemed to be speeding up. Hadn’t it just been six? Now it was almost seven. She took another sip of whiskey. She had been picking absently with her yellowed index-finger nail at the cuticle of her thumb. She noticed that it was bleeding.
A mother might have been expected to protest, shocked, when her only child was arrested for murder. But Jeanie had wasted no time in lying to herself. Instead, she knew immediately and completely, in the very marrow of her bones, that Danny was guilty. She had sensed something sinister about the little boy who had delighted in pulling the wings off fireflies and crushing grasshoppers in his hands. Next, he had drowned their cat.
Jeanie had smacked Danny - hard - hoping to beat the strangeness out of him. But of course violence begets violence; his eyes had hardened as she hit him and soon he sought around for his next object. Jeanie knew that her son was as unkind as a person can be, and that he delighted in hurting and humiliating those weaker than him. She also didn’t want him to die. She looked up at his clothing, hanging on the nails she had put it on eight days before. Danny's brown canvas pants were oddly upright; the pant legs expanded roundly where they hung, as if a ghostly owner was wearing them.
In his cell, Danny McMarn was picturing the very same pants; “I said I wanted to wear my own fucking clothes,” he snapped at Parker, not for the first time. Danny was a small man; he had folded the cuffs of the pant legs and the sleeves of the faded prison uniform, and clearly he found this to be yet another small humiliation.
“No can do,” Parker replied brightly, also not for the first time; “this is the stuff you gotta go in. You don’t wanna be wearing any metal on you - zips or buckles or whatnot - when you’re in the chair.”
Niehues was once again impressed with Parker’s pleasant nonchalance in the face of McMarn’s aggression. McMarn turned to glare at Niehues; Niehues felt himself flinch.
The small man’s lip curled in hatred as he turned back to Parker, “so I can’t wear metal cause I’ll get too fried? Isn’t that the fucking point?”
Parker chose to ignore this. “Now, as I was saying,” he resumed patiently, “we’re gonna come get you here in forty minutes. The priest will be along shortly to hear what you have to say and to sit with you until it’s time. Then we’ll walk you down the corridor to the room with the chair, like we practised. You’ll sit down and then Niehues and I will strap you in. We’ll put a hood on you and then you’ll feel the wet sponge and the cap go over the top of that. The current is going to go right to your brain so you’ll be off and gone before you feel a thing. Painless.”
“How would you know it’s painless?” McMarn snarled, “everyone who’s had it done is dead and gone.”
Niehues considered this to be a fair point. He found it hard to believe that the procedure was entirely painless, but this wasn’t the moment to raise this.
Parker clearly felt the same; “this method here was developed as an ethical way of execution. You won’t feel a thing. Here’s our priest along now.”
Parker allowed the priest, greying and stooped, entry into the terrified and angry man’s cell. Niehues very much doubted that McMarn was the sort to experience a transformative, ‘come to Jesus’ moment; he felt sorry for the priest.
In town, the still night was disturbed; porch doors yawned open and snapped shut as people made their way onto the streets. It was a new moon and the night was dark. Street lights provided pools of inadequate yellow light in the blackness on the short walk to the jail.
In dribs and drabs they arrived, sombrely and quietly. Nieheus was relieved that he had set up extra chairs; most were full by half past seven. The front row chairs remained empty until a few reluctant stragglers moved quickly into them at a quarter to eight.
The gathered crowd felt a thrill as Parker described the effects of the electricity which they might witness; the condemned was likely to buck and seize in an unsettling way. There might be involuntary noises. The crowd was tense with anticipation, fear, and morbid curiosity as Parker left the room and returned, this time holding the elbow of Danny McMarn. Niehues held McMarn’s other elbow as they steered him into the chair and began to strap his limbs down firmly. McMarn - who was shaking and white with fear - looked more like a scared, overgrown child than a monstrous criminal. The crowd was relieved when they were saved from watching the tears fall down his sweaty cheeks as the hood was placed over his face.
Parker soberly declared that the legal execution of Daniel McMarn was to take place; he raised his hand to the lever. The crowd tensed in nervous anticipation and held a collective breath. The lever was pulled. They stared at McMarn’s body; they were ready to see any manner of disturbing movements. Instead, they saw nothing, which was somehow more shocking. McMarn sat stock still. Niehues looked at Parker, who was frowning. A low murmur began among the onlookers.
In Jeanie’s kitchen, which was empty and silent save for her hiccuping sobs, Jeanie’s eyes were drawn to a sudden movement across the room. The leg of the pants, which had been hanging still on the nail, suddenly kicked outwards as if from the empty knee. Jeanie’s sobs stopped abruptly. Her mouth opened slowly in horror and her eyes widened in fright as a sleeve of the shirt suddenly whipped upwards, slapping the wall above.
With electric intensity, the movements increased; suddenly the pants were kicking and bucking in a frantic jig and the shirt was flailing so vigorously that it slipped from the nail onto the floor, flapping there like a frantic fish. The discarded boots began to stomp and tap a feverish beat on the wooden floorboards.
One of Jeanie’s hands flew up to her chest and the other grabbed for the edge of the kitchen table; it missed and knocked the candle over. She gasped a final time and then fell stiffly sideways onto her kitchen floor just as the clothing fell still and silent once more. The newspaper, still open, began to smoke.
At that same moment, the doctor in attendance at the execution hesitantly approached McMarn’s body and confirmed that - despite the absence of outward signs of electrocution - there was no pulse. Danny McMarn was declared dead.
The keyed up crowd discussed the strange events as they made their way home; there was a palpable sense of unacknowledged disappointment in the uneventful death - they had spoken loftily of seeing justice being served, but really, they had come for something thrilling and macabre. Nevertheless, there was certainly a sense of relief that the thing was done; there was more animated conversation on the way back than there had been on the way there. A blessedly cool breeze began, rustling the ladies’ skirts and sending wispy clouds racing across the dark, star-speckled sky above. Perhaps, they mused, the heat might break with a rain storm overnight after all.
They were right; the rain, which began at about midnight, extinguished the blaze which had consumed Jeanie’s bungalow before the firefighters arrived the next morning. A preliminary inspection of the wreckage had turned up Jeanie McMarn’s charred remains. Parker and Niehues had been invited along to inspect the wreckage; the strange circumstances seemed tied to their department, given Danny McMarn’s execution the night before. Perhaps it was a dramatic suicide committed by Jeanie, some mused, or an act of vengeance against the McMarns for the murders committed by Danny in the Spring.
The morning was damp and chilly. The air that whipped through the open windows of the police cruiser carried with it the freshness of the rain storm, which had washed away the summer’s dirt and grime from the asphalt and pavements. As they passed the town’s boundary, Niehues began to smell the acrid tang of smoke and ash. Niehues noticed that Parker, usually totally unflappable, had strained forward in his seat as they approached the McMarn’s place. They got out quickly and moved towards the still smouldering remnants of the home.
Niehues watched Parker stiffen in shock and take an involuntary step backwards. His face paled. A single wall stood among the blackened mess. Below the wall, a patch of unburned flooring remained - these parts of the house alone were completely intact. On the floor, pooled in a messy pile, was a man’s shirt. It was not even singed. Beside it was a pair of men's boots. Above this, dangling from a single nail by a belt loop, was a pair of pants, hanging eerily upright, as if they were filled by the legs of a short, stout man.