by Jennifer Fliss
The boy didn’t know what the man was in for. Was he a pervert? A murderer? Did people just not get him? Was he all three? The boy only knew that he was a bad man and he was going to die. He understood about death. In his eight years, he had lost a cat, two rabbits, his grandfather, and a cousin to death. His mother said they’ve gone to heaven. The boy thought it seemed wrong that heaven was muddy and cold and that they had to leave flowers every so often at the gates of heaven. Weren’t there flowers there already? Wouldn’t they not die? Isn’t that the whole job of heaven?
At the appointed time, when the big hand is here and the little hand is here the boy was to push the button. He had practiced the day before. The button was blue, like that bus he saw with his mother that one time. The button was half dollar sized and affixed to the wall. There was no sign to indicate what this button did. No warning at all, which struck the boy as odd, since the button could be pushed accidentally and awful bad things would happen. But, when he practiced, the boy couldn’t press down hard enough. The warden held his potato fat thumb over his and showed him to press in the center very hard. You gotta mean it, son.
Mom, why is that school bus blue? The boy had asked when he saw the bus stopped at a traffic light. What school were the kids going to? Was Carol also driving that bus? Did people scratch rude drawings and their names into the seats? His mother explained it was filled with filthy and evil people. He wondered what schoolchildren had to do to be considered evil. His mother dragged him across the crosswalk and when he looked up, he saw that it was not Carol in the driver’s seat and that bars covered the windows. In the back, the boy thought he saw familiar jagged teeth in an invisible face. His mother pulled him onward.
The bad man shuffled and was shoved along by one of the guards. It seemed like he was scared of what was to come. The boy knew the feeling. Every Sunday night, his father and his girlfriend came for dinner. When the boy was called downstairs from his room and had to kiss his father on the lips, the boy also found that he shuffled like the bad man.
He was tall, like his father, but bald, not like his father, who had red curly hair, sometimes worn in a ponytail. The bad man wore a khaki jumper. It didn’t have feet, and his sneakers didn’t have laces.
Before he walked out on the boy and his mother, his father gave him a stuffed bear. The boy thought the bear looked sad, so he surveyed his sister’s dolls and determined that the perfectly round cherry cheeks were what made a doll happy. He used bubblegum to create doughy pink blush on the bear. Eventually the gum lost its tackiness, turned gray, and had to be sheared off. The bear was named Gummy and his marred face reminded the boy of the bad man’s face, uneven craters and shadowy facial hair. One day, his mother threw Gummy out with the trash. It was an accident, she said.
Behind the boy, two guards discussed the bad man’s last meal. Peanut butter and jelly on white bread. Pickle. Chocolate milk. Like his mother would have made, one of them said. Asshole, said the other.
The boy was allergic to peanuts. When he was four, his father and his mother took him to a seafood restaurant where peanut shells carpeted the floor. When the boy began wheezing before even the water was poured, his father told him to quit his dramatics. When the chowder was delivered, the boy passed out. His mother cradled him as his father finished his soup, wiped up the rest with sourdough, and then they left with the anaphylactic child.
For his last meal, the boy would have chosen fried chicken; strawberries – fresh, not store bought; potato chips with ridges; waffles; and chocolate milk – just like the bad man.
The room the boy was in had dials and knobs and buttons covering the wall. Two black and white televisions hung in the corners and four women congregated. Two were guards, one wore a tight black dress, that even the boy knew was inappropriate, and the other woman stood behind the boy and gripped his shoulder. When he tried to look into her face, she clawed tighter. He stopped trying to look. Her nails were painted green and the boy thought how her fingers looked like carrots gone bad, all shriveled left in the crisper drawer too long.
Large windows looked down over the execution room, which looked like a barn, but instead of red walls and animals, it was gray and had twelve people in the room, the boy counted. The bad man was led to a chair in the center of the room. His arms were strapped down and a priest stood beside him. The boy could see the priest’s lips moving.
“I don’t want to do it,” the boy said.
“You don’t have to,” the owner of the green claws said.
“I’m not going to do it,” he said.
“You don’t have to,” she repeated, but she didn’t remove her hand from his shoulder.
On the wall above the boy a large digital clock read 00:10 in big blood-colored numbers. Okay then, said one of the guards. The claw squeezed the boy’s shoulder and in his ear, whispered, are you ready? The boy nodded, except he was lying. The numbers began to tick downward. 9, 8, 7. The boy looked at his thumb. Push hard, he thought. If you don’t . . . if you don’t . . . he couldn’t remember what he had been told. What would happen if he didn’t push hard? There had been some sort of warning. His was the most important job, he knew. 5, 4, 3. He flexed his thumb, he bent his thumb – stretching the small muscles. The boy looked down at the bad man, who, he saw had his head turned upward. He looked at the boy and nodded. The clock reached zero and flashed red.
Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared in PANK, The Rumpus, Pacifica Literary Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She recently won the Fiction Southeast Hell’s Belles Short Fiction Prize. She can be found on Twitter at @JFlissCreative or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com