by Waldo Wesley
I stared at my hands resting palms down on the picnic table. A ring of gold on the left. A thin white line of scar tissue ringed the forefinger of my right. Symbols of the battle between good and evil.
“A penny for your thoughts,” Melinda smiled at me as I raised my head. Concern clouded her eyes.
“Such a generous offer,” I grinned, but her expression rejected my weak attempt at levity. I didn’t want to talk about it. I glanced at my watch, stood and looked around the park for our daughters. “Let’s round up the girls and walk over to Tony’s for pizza.”
Melinda and I have a hers-mine-and-ours family. I spotted Emily and Melanie at one of the concrete chess tables along the central walkway. A study, in contrast, focused on the chessmen white and black, heads down, hair flaxen blond and raven black.
Melinda slipped her arm in mine and looked up. I turned away to scan the playground for Mardula, the ours in our trio of female wonders. She stood near the bottom of a slide, arms akimbo, glaring at another kid. Why did she have to be like me?
We gathered our flock and headed for Tony’s. The girls devoured the pizza, animated and laughing one minute, and squabbling the next. Melinda played referee, and except for the occasional sober and inquiring glance at me, appeared to enjoy it too. I tried, but my spirit refused. My foul mood soured my lunch.
Memories of that night fought for entry into my mind. I didn’t want to see it again. I squeezed my eyes and refused to open the album of horror. Melinda watched me.
She knew me better than anyone. Her recognition of my mood changes helped me recover. I could never repay her for the concern and selfless devotion to my care. She’s the reason I’m better now.
I’m amazed she loves me.
We walked through the park. The girls skipped along ahead of us. “You haven’t been the same since the District Attorney called,” Melinda said. “I can see the change. You’re slipping back into the guilt. Don’t let regret and remorse take hold. That dark sadness nearly destroyed you. It’s been years. Let it go.”
I stretched my neck to ease the muscles. “After January 23rd, it will be over. No reason to think about it anymore.”
“It can be over now, Charles. You don’t have to go.”
“I do. For Bob, for Seliece, and for me. I need the closure.”
We walked on in silence and spoke no more about it. The girls wanted to see the latest Disney adventure. I tried to relax in the darkness of the theater and lose myself in the story. It worked for a little while. I didn’t have to talk or maintain a happy face.
The movie provided the main topic at supper. The girls reviewed their favorite parts. Later, after the brushing of teeth, prayers, and bedtime stories, Melinda brought it up again.
She switched off the bedside lamp and turned to me. “You and I both know many sleepless nights, bad dreams, and nightmares are coming before January.” Her head snuggled against my shoulder. “Please, Charles, let it go.”
Time proved Melinda right. I spent many nights awake in the following weeks. Nights of avoiding sleep when the sadness crept into my soul. I sat in silence and stared, paced the floor, and read until the wee hours. Anything to avoid sleep and the nightmares.
Ten years since my brother died. In the hospital, under sedation and fighting for life, I couldn’t attend the funeral. Months later, I visited the grave for the first time.
Many considered my recovery a miracle, due in large part to the talented surgeons who sewed me back together. But, I knew God fed the feeble, flickering flame of my spirit. He gave me the strength to hold tight the small spark of life.
My heart ticked through a year of surgeries. My mind floated through the narcotic fog and ignored pain. My body endured the frustrating exhaustion of rehab for another ten months while it learned to function again.
My mind cleared. I could speak complete sentences. But, I could not answer the questions. Why Bob? Why Seliece? Why not me?
I joined the ranks of ex-husbands but won custody of Emily. Taking care of my daughter inspired me to live again. Long walks became a daily ritual in the final days of rehab. A habit I continued. I pushed Emily’s pram to the park, pushed it to the library, and pushed it to Starbucks where I met Melinda.
She also had a young daughter in a pram. Our shared condition of single parenthood was connection enough for greetings, short comments and exchanges. Long hours of conversation soon followed, then romance, and finally marriage seven good years ago.
The holidays helped, but in January, the bad nights returned. Sleep bordered on the impossible.
The night before the scheduled execution I couldn’t stay awake. Exhausted, I slipped into a deep sleep, beyond any thought, guard down and defenseless. The nightmare, a patient predator, waited for my return to a level of thought and feeling.
It attacked. Full blown, in vivid color with stereophonic sound, it roused me from the deep slumber. Slow like a diver avoiding the bends, I rose to the surface of awareness, already ensnared in the nightmare’s tentacles. Forced once again to relive the horror, scene by scene, thought by thought.
Back in the noisy restaurant, I cut another bite from the half-eaten platter of enchiladas, the fork halfway to my mouth. Across the table, Bob laughed and nodded until a hand grabbed his chin and jerked his head back. A bright metal blade slipped across and deep into his throat. It left a thin red line momentarily before the carotid arteries spurted a scarlet geyser of bright blood. The shiny, slick shower painted the table, the wall, and coated my glasses.
I tore off the glasses and attempted to stand. The next swipe of the blade aimed at me, reflex threw my arm up to deflect it. The upward thrust of the knife sliced my forefinger to the bone. When it came down, the blade stabbed into my chest and cut deep from the sternum to below my navel.
I slumped back in my chair, stared at the wound, and pressed hard with both hands in a desperate effort to keep my guts and organs inside. Blood seeped between my fingers and dripped to the floor, melding with rivulets from the table.
I looked at the face of the assailant. Teeth clenched, nostrils flaring, and demonic eyes transformed into a monster I didn’t recognize.
The questions echoed in my head. Before I blacked out, I heard the knife hit the floor. The bloody blade an obscenity on the gay Mexican tile.
Later I learned Bob’s wife, Seliece, and my unborn niece sprawled on the ladies room floor in their own puddles of blood, the first victims.
I woke drenched in sweat and shaking. All hope of sleep gone, I took a shower and waited for morning.
The afternoon I-45 traffic flowed north from Houston. I made fast time coming from the opposite direction and drove into Huntsville before five. The 30-foot walls enclosing the prison stood like a lighthouse. I waited in a lounge area with a group, most reporters.
The families’ of the victims and condemned are allowed to have five witnesses each. My parents deceased and my brother, a casualty, left me to see justice done. Silent we followed an official down a corridor to the outside, walked past white trellises in a small flower garden, and entered the steel door of the death house.
I approached the large window of the execution chamber. The murderer lay strapped to a stainless steel gurney in a room no bigger than a small bedroom. The gurney filled the space between the turquoise walls. Too big for the room, and too big for the small person held down by the heavy leather straps. An IV in each arm, face pale under the fluorescent lighting.
She turned her head toward me, recognition and surprise in her eyes. “I’m glad you came.” A tear fell from the corner of her eye onto the white sheet. “I’m sorry. How is Emily?”
I stared at her, unable to speak. I could not respond. She shook her head and turned it away from me.
I touched the thin white scar on my forefinger, looked up and forced myself to watch. Her chin stiffened from the first jolt of the toxic drug. She soon relaxed and drifted off into a final sleep.
The blue eyes closed and serene expression reminded me how much Emily looks like her mother.