After a while you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course. It’s all one long funeral song. – Bob Dylan
The house is smaller than Elizabeth remembers, but the view is nicer. From the porch, she can see the Shenandoah River and the rolling hills beyond, a velvet tapestry ablaze in orange and gold this time of year. Under the terms of her house arrest, she is allowed to go into the surrounding yard and fields and tend the garden as long as she stays within the property limits.
On Saturday, the movers will drop off the rest of her things. Before they arrive, she will clean, decide which closets to use, and rearrange some of the furniture. Maybe then the home will begin to feel like hers, and she will cease to be just a guest visiting the ghosts of her dead parents. When she hears the delivery truck pull into the driveway, she recalls with relief what today’s project will be. She looks out the front window and sees the UPS driver place the large box onto a dolly, roll it to the porch, carefully tilt the box down, ring the doorbell, and leave.
She had never considered working at a prison, much less on the row. But the divorce had left her without a home and in debt, and the company running the facility was recruiting veterans and offering signing bonuses. She figured inmates needed nurses, too. Her responsibilities would be simple, routine: check vitals, attend to basic medical needs, alert the doctor to any concerns.
From her room adjacent to the death chamber, she would hear them in the holding cell with the chaplain. Some prayed, some sang, others told jokes, their voices echoing through the lonely concrete walls. Most of them never stopped pacing or stomping their feet against the floor, their bodies already in flight, desperate to control the journey ahead.
When the signal came, the chaplain would escort the condemned into the chamber, and the tie-down team would secure him to the gurney. Eight thick straps stretched skin-tight over the head, shoulders, chest, abdomen, hips, thighs, shins, feet, leaving no space for even the slightest twitch. Some fought the process, kicking and squirming, and she would be called upon to calm them while the team followed the protocol with choreographic precision. The men who didn’t fight would lie stock-still and thank the team when it was done.
Elizabeth grabs her toolbox, goes out to the porch, and prepares to assemble her purchase – a porch swing, Amish, made to order, pressure-treated pine, cedar-stained. She unpacks the box and organizes each section of the swing and hardware. Most of it is preassembled, so she’ll only need to attach the swing’s back to its seat and arms, secure the arms to the chains, and hang the chains from the ceiling; an uncomplicated project according to the instruction booklet. She must first take measurements for proper placement: 48 inches of space behind the swing, 14 inches of side clearance, 18 inches above the floor. She’ll have just enough space. The instructions advise her to place the hooks two inches wider than the length for even weight distribution and to keep the chains from rubbing against the swing.
Ten years in the army, including two tours in Afghanistan, should have prepared her. She had both the stomach and the skills to handle anything. Her job in the death chamber technically didn’t involve anything she hadn’t done before—swabbing the arms with alcohol, inserting an IV into each, attaching the heart monitor. As she waited for the warden to ask the condemned to give his last words, she would remind herself that she remained free of moral culpability, that she wasn’t the one pushing the fatal cocktail into their veins.
Then came Rodney McCoy. Thirty-four years old, on the row for fifteen years while lawyers and judges fought over whether his age and IQ were high enough when he committed his crime to award him the ultimate punishment. He couldn’t have weighed more than 120 pounds, and his veins were small, too small. After forty minutes, she’d stopped checking the clock. It wasn’t the first time there’d been complications – heroin users could be a challenge – and often the condemned would help, suggesting the leg, foot, toe, nodding at her when it was in.
Rodney was no help. He’d struggled against the straps, howling Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall…in a non-stop lament, every verse, over and over, his eyes on her through each refrain. When she’d finally gotten the first needle in, she let out a sigh and stepped back from the gurney, sweat stinging her eyes. The warden told her not to worry about the second needle. From the adjacent chamber, the three drugs were to arrive in quick succession—simple, routine. Given the previous challenge, maybe she should have expected the vicious reaction that followed: the syringe inexplicably popping out of the neck vein, the spray of poison, Rodney spitting, choking, his back arching while Dylan’s lyrics somehow still spewed forth from his gasping lungs.
The swing’s instructions don’t indicate how to secure the hooks to the ceiling joists, so Elizabeth returns to the house to consider her options. She calls Danny for advice but gets his voicemail again. She’s not ready to acknowledge the likelihood that her brother, and only remaining relative, has blocked her number. Eventually, she finds an article on a home improvement website that tells her to drill holes at each side of the joist, slide an eyebolt through the ceiling, twist it in, and secure it with washers and a nut. She’ll need to locate the joists with a stud finder, which she does not have. She stares at the website and begins to feel inadequate for the task. She fishes through the toolbox, hoping the solution will emerge from the jumble of hardware her ex-husband left for her to use or dispose of.
Prior to her sentencing, a small percentage of the public pled for her mercy, labeling her a true believer, an advocate. She was neither. She’d shoved the syringe back into Rodney McCoy’s neck and fled the chamber. In nineteen minutes, he was dead. Then later that evening, she learned why the viewing gallery had been eerily silent during the whole ordeal. Usually, the room was filled with family members of both the victim and the condemned, along with members of the press. Rodney had no family present. No mother’s wails suffocated the room as he died. No one who had ever loved him bore witness to his life’s violent exodus.
Was that the reason for the shift inside her that day? Maybe it was Rodney’s slight, childlike frame, or the way his eyes searched hers as she’d pricked his body for nearly an hour in search of a vein, or the whining strains of Dylan that had become a skipping record on a loop in her mind. She wanted the episode to be an anomaly, something to be shrugged off, forgotten. But an internet search and weeks of sleepless nights revealed all the other Rodneys, all the other ways that things could go horribly wrong. The rate of bungled lethal injections was about eight percent by her estimation, probably higher.
The warden wasn’t interested in her concerns.
There may have been another solution, but nothing came to her. It wasn’t like the State had alternative methods available. Electrocution, gas chamber, firing squad – all had been deemed “inhumane.”
The only option was to reveal this inhumanity as well.
Conveniently, the answer was available in the misfortunes of the many other Rodneys crowding her mind, day, and night: a kink in the plastic tubing going into the arm that prevented the poison from flowing; a needle pointed towards the fingers instead of the heart; another that went through the vein and into soft tissue; another not inserted far enough so that it edged out slightly, reducing the dose of pancuronium bromide and causing incomplete paralysis. Every excruciating detail behind every botched execution laid out for her like a blueprint to be exposed.
She knew only the dates of the next scheduled executions—she would not know the men’s identities until the morning they showed up to the chamber. She’d considered allowing a few killings to proceed as planned to provide the appearance of randomness.
Elizabeth leaves her toolbox and begins looking online for information on how to locate a joist without a stud finder. One article tells her to use a magnet, tape measure, nail, and hammer. Someone in a question-and-answer forum says if the house is old, the joists are likely coated in thick plaster, making the studs difficult to locate. Another says to just keep poking holes in the ceiling until she’s found it. Another tells her to take a thin piece of plywood, hold it against the ceiling, and bang with a hammer.
She sits back from her computer and tries to settle the panic rising within her. Why could she never expect the unexpected? For all she knew, the joists under the wood-paneled ceiling weren’t even strong enough to bear the weight of the swing. She gets up, retrieves the ladder from the shed, and heads back to the porch. Hammer in hand and a nail between her teeth, she climbs the ladder and starts thumping random sections. Each spot sounds the same to her, dull but hollow, so she positions the nail above her head and smacks it with the hammer. The nail slides right through the ceiling panel with no resistance. She takes it out, places it in another section, and gets the same result. Then again. And again. On the fifth try, she bangs the hammer harder, causing the wood panel to split like a cracked egg. In her anger, she strikes it again, and the hammer smacks her index finger instead of the nail.
Cringing in pain, Elizabeth steadies herself on the ladder and closes her eyes. The west sun perched just above the hills shines onto the porch and warms her face. She knows she was lucky. Her sentence should have been much harsher. She repositions the nail and swings the hammer. Again, it hits her hand, this time at the knuckle. But underneath her reddened, throbbing joints, she feels some kind of sick release.
She was a nurse, a veteran, a first-time offender; her attorney had assured the judge. She had a front-row seat to ten state-sanctioned killings over an eighteen-month period. She’d acted under duress.
Elizabeth smacks at the ceiling again, then places her hand on the top of the ladder and brings the hammer down hard, smashing each of her five fingers twice, ten times for ten lives, crying out for each one, as her hand swells, and blood begins to seep from her cracked fingernails.
It was true, as her attorney argued, that she’d believed, however misguidedly, that she could draw attention to a matter of basic human rights. She was willing to admit in her allocution that her actions contributed to the men’s unnecessary pain and suffering.
Elizabeth climbs down the ladder and drops the hammer onto the floor of the porch. She looks at her hand, bloodied and stiff, and wonders if she’s broken any bones. She should probably prepare an ice pack, but she hasn’t the strength left for another task. Instead, she walks down the steps of the porch into the front yard and towards the river. She knows her punishment wasn’t severe enough. She knows her actions were at once monstrous and ultimately fruitless. What she doesn’t know yet is how to live with these truths simultaneously.
Rachel Browning is a lawyer, writer, and musician originally from Houston, Texas. She holds a B.Mus. Degree from the Eastman School of Music and a J.D. from the University of Houston Law Center. Her fiction has appeared in The Write Launch, New Plains Review, and Wraparound South, among other journals, and she was named a 2021 semi-finalist for Bayou Magazine's James Knudsen Prize for Fiction. She lives in Maryland with her twin daughters.