This story is by Erin Beck and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Hope is a strange thing. What is it, exactly? An emotion? It’s not like happiness, that he truly believed one could choose. Not like anger, which, with age, he had also been able to choose; or, more accurately, not choose. No, hope was more like love. Love was difficult to choose, or to un-choose. Love just happened to you, whether you liked it or not, and although one could tell themselves to not love someone, it could happen anyway. Hope was inconvenient like love. Hope was uncontrollable, often miserable; people described hope, and love, for that matter, like they were good things, great things, even. But he knew that both only led to misery and disappointment.
He’d told himself not to hope. Willed himself not to hope. He’d hoped before and look where it had gotten him: he was still here, still counting down the days until all of this was over. In the beginning, there had been no hope. In the beginning, there had been nothing. The reporters had accused him of feeling no remorse, pointing to lack of remorse as an indication of premeditation. But the truth was he felt nothing. He’d been numb. During the trial, for years afterward, and before that for as long as he could remember.
He’d spent years that way, learning somehow to shut off his emotions. Not to choose happiness or anger or anything else, but instead choosing nothing. Nothingness was the only way he knew to survive, to keep on living with the memories he couldn’t escape. And so, instead of feeling shame, and fear, and anger, and physical pain, he felt nothing. Until meth. Meth made him feel again, but without having to remember. It was the closest he got to what he imagined joy would be, although he couldn’t be sure he’d ever felt joy so maybe it wasn’t that at all. But he was able to relax, able to live, and able to finally forget.
Like anything else, it started slowly, recreationally. It started as a choice. He didn’t know how long it was before it wasn’t a choice anymore, but it was probably around the time he’d lost his job at the hardware store. He couldn’t remember how he’d become this person, this…thing, as hard as he’d tried to piece together the decline that led him here. The problem was that he didn’t have those memories. It was almost as if, rather than being lost, like his daughter’s first steps or the way his wife looked on their wedding day, or being buried, like the cigarette burns from his father or his father beating his mother, they had just never been created at all.
That’s how the murder was. Or wasn’t, was more like it. It didn’t feel shadowy, like when he tried to recall his childhood. It didn’t feel too bright, like when he thought of his daughter, like the sun was in his eyes and he wasn’t able to squint it away enough to focus on her face. It was just…nothing. There was nothing there at all.
He learned about what he’d done in the courtroom, alongside the jury, the reporters, and his family. He hadn’t cooperated with his attorney, not the way someone on trial for their life should, because he’d been too sick to help. Or maybe, without the drugs and out of practice at being numb, he couldn’t bring himself to care enough to cooperate. He wasn’t able to remember now, or maybe he didn’t know then and never would, why he hadn’t cared enough.
And now, he counted down. He waited, and counted the days. At some point he’d switch to hours, then to minutes, when the numbers were small enough to make more sense that way. And he hoped. Hope, that sly minx he couldn’t shake, no matter how many times and how many ways he told himself it was futile. He’d start to feel free of her presence, only to awaken from sleep and know she was there again.
Then the anger would creep into his cell beside her, but anger he could will away. Being angry at the young, hotshot lawyer was pointless; he hadn’t approached him with the intent of giving him false hope. Being angry at himself hadn’t done him any good for all these years. Who was left to be angry with? The jury? The prosecution? The drugs? His dealer? His parents? He’d tried to blame everyone but himself at some point, and at some point he had realized that anger and blame were useless.
The lawyer didn’t care about him, that much he knew. He cared about the case; the case wasn’t about him, the case was nameless, faceless, a notch on a belt. His appeal, won, was the lawyer’s leading role in a precedent that would win subsequent cases, the hero of a brand new kind of defense. He could have been anyone; nothing about his previous life mattered.
Nothing he’d done prior to the murder had warranted this kind of special treatment, and certainly murdering someone did not make one worthy of a high-powered team of legal minds scrambling at the eleventh hour to save his pitiful excuse for an existence. No, this was a professional coup, should it be achieved, with little regard for those affected. Not him, not the victim, or the victim’s family.
He’d declined meeting with the lawyer and his team for months. He knew he wasn’t worthy of a pardon. He knew death was what he deserved. It was so close he could feel it. He’d accepted it, prepared for it, and now this young attorney wanted to come in and sabotage the end he’d readied for. When the lawyer’s team persisted, he’d eventually agreed to the meeting, and although he promised himself he wouldn’t hope for a pardon, and that he would continue to mentally prepare for execution, he had called his wife.
His ex-wife…his brain never thought of her that way. She’d of course never been a part of this world, never been a fixture in the prison like she had in their home. Instead of her being absent from his life, he just imagined that life in their home had gone on as it always had, he being the one who was absent.
Obviously he knew that wasn’t true. He’d received and signed the papers. He’d not spoken to her since the trial. Since she, along with him and everyone else in that courtroom had learned of the violence he’d committed in his drug-fueled rage. He’d stopped trying to remember the last time she actually spoke to him. In the months before his arrest, he’d spent most of his waking moments so high he couldn’t remember anything, and after years of contemplating how she could have abandoned him like that, stolen their daughter away from him, he’d realized she may not have spoken to him for a lot longer than “since the trial.”
She didn’t answer. Or the number wasn’t hers anymore. She’d probably moved. It was impossible to tell what happened on the other end when a collect prison call had been declined. Did she know his execution had been scheduled? Was she, too, counting down? Did she know about the appeal? As much as he tried not to think about any of these things, he found himself hoping she would be there.
Was it sick to hope for something that could only last a matter of minutes, just before your death? He imagined it was human nature to hope for your loved ones as you took your last breath, but he wasn’t sure if it was that or if his years of imprisonment had somehow made him look forward to his execution so he could see her one last time. And if the appeal worked, if the hotshot lawyer could convince a jury that it was the drugs, and not the man, who had committed such an atrocity, would she agree? Could she be convinced, too?
He awoke late that morning to the guards making a ruckus in the hall. Today was the day. The countdown was over. He dressed and left his cell for the last time, preceded and flanked by multiple guards. He felt a strange sensation in the pit of his stomach. Hopeful anxiety. He’d stopped trying to fight it and given in to unequivocal hope that she would be there.
The entourage led him down a dimly lit hallway and around the corner, and he held his breath as the door opened. He struggled to find hers in a sea of faces, in the rush of bright light. He’d spent the majority of the past few days wondering if the crowd would be mad or glad at his outcome. Wondering if he was mad or glad at his outcome. But she wasn’t there. Instead, he was swallowed by misery and disappointment, exactly the reasons he’d never wanted to hope.