No Man’s Land

Bloated clouds float above the prison, obscuring the sun. I linger outside the narrow cell window, which is no more than a barred gap in the wall, waiting for the time when I must enter the execution room. I always avoid watching the final proceedings, which I find disturbing. Alas, it’s an unfortunate reality that death can transpire in countless unsavoury ways. I find suicide victims particularly difficult to manage – they inevitably come to me in a state of distress, which I am powerless to abate. As for the subject, who is the focus of my attention, I know everything there is to know about his latest incarnation, including all the times he lost his way; but it’s not for me to judge how he has lived. I am merely a guide – nothing more, nothing less. As such, I am charged with leading him to the central gathering point in No Man’s Land. There, he’ll learn his fate, as all humans eventually do.
Staring through the cell window, I observe the situation. The subject’s name is Tom. He’s sitting opposite the pastor, who has a bible resting in his lap. The pastor waits. It would seem he’s a patient man. I know the subject can relate to this quality; he’s spent years behind bars, hoping he’ll be vindicated, but no one’s bought his story. Instead, the authorities believed an elderly woman who said she’d seen the subject gun down a police officer. The defence attorney argued there was substantial doubt surrounding the killer’s identity, but to no avail. The subject was found guilty of First Degree Murder.
Apparently deciding to recount events one last time, the subject says, ‘My friend lost his nerve when we were running from the hold-up, turned his gun on the two cops chasing us, then got himself killed. We were dressed the same, wearing jeans and balaclavas. Even the cop who survived the shoot-out told the court he couldn’t be sure who shot his partner.’
The pastor nods. ‘I’m familiar with the circumstances.’
‘The man they want is already dead,’ the subject says.
I itch to proclaim the verity of this assertion, but nobody on the physical plane can hear me, so I must simply listen. It can be a frustrating aspect of the job.
Seated on a wooden chair, the pastor watches the subject. From the edge of his bed, the subject stares back. Before long he’ll be taken away, never to return. I suppose there’s a silver lining in his pending release.
Daylight tumbles into the cell and dust particles glint like tiny stars. I understand the subject wishes he could drift on out the door like one of those motes. I follow him mentally as he gazes into space and lets his mind slip back to when he was ten years old.
Tom hears the gargling of the river as it rushes through the woods and towards the east. Last night, his mother and her boyfriend were fighting again, but here it’s quiet. I sense he loves the local wildlife, especially the wolves that come to drink; but he knows to keep his distance – the creatures are not to be trusted.
Through the glistening trees, he glimpses strips of light-spangled water. He walks on and soon gains a better view of the river, which has become swollen after the recent rain. Tom catches sight of something on the far bank downstream and guesses it’s a dead animal. He sets out to investigate, making his way through tall grass and low-lying branches. Drawing near, he sees pale limbs protruding from a torn and dirty gown. The image claws at his insides, stopping him dead in his tracks. Even across vast expanses of time and memory, I can detect his fear. The body lies face-down, but somehow Tom already knows who he’s about to find. He continues on, dread flooding his veins.
Tom wades into the water and pushes his way across the current. He crawls up the bank and stops beside the body, his pulse pounding inside his ears. Swallowing hard, he reaches out to discover the flesh is ice-cold. Tom moves closer, places one hand beneath a shoulder, the other near a hip, then turns the body over. He recognises his mother’s face and sucks in a breath. The whites of her eyes are bloodshot and her stare is vacant. There’s a ring of dark purple blotches around her neck. He realises she’s gone and knows who’s responsible. He leans to the side and retches.
Rocking back on his knees, he takes in the endless summer-blue sky. A white-bellied bird is circling above and he guesses it’s a goshawk. He watches it, hoping his mother is flying around somewhere like that, free at last. Tom looks back down into her face. For a moment, he can see all the colours of the rainbow sparkling within her eyes, then his vision blurs.
Tom sits, thinking. There’s no one to take care of him now. He can’t stand the idea of being sent off to live with people he doesn’t know and decides he’ll jump on a train and head for the city. But first he must bury his mother, before the wolves come.
A voice brings us back. In an instant, I have withdrawn from the inside of his mind and reeled myself in emotionally.
‘Did you hear me, Tom?’
The subject rubs his left temple. ‘Sorry?’
‘You need to accept the situation.’
‘What good’s that gonna do?’
‘It can help you find peace, which is important – the clock’s ticking, after all.’
‘That ain’t exactly news, Father.’
Opening his bible, the pastor says, ‘I’m going to pray, if that’s okay?’
The subject doesn’t answer.
The pastor begins: ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…’
Looking through the barred window, I see patches of blue sky reflected in the subject’s eyes.
The cell door opens and a guard appears. He stands with his hands by his side, waiting.
The pastor finishes his prayer.
The subject stares at the concrete floor.
‘Is there anything you’d like to say?’ the pastor asks.
I catch a glimpse of the subject’s imaginings – he sees himself out in the forest, surrounded by wolves.
‘I’m no saint, Father,’ the subject says, ‘but I never killed anyone.’
‘It’s time,’ the guard says.
The shackles around the subject’s ankles clink as he stands.
Following suit, the pastor gets to his feet. ‘Then you’ll not be forsaken, son. God bless.’
The subject tries to muster a smile, but fails.
The guard approaches and takes the subject by the arm. I follow, gliding through the cell’s brick wall. They walk down the hallway. Having his feet shackled means the subject can only shuffle forward. Overhead, fluorescent lights emit a steady hum. The subject speaks in what I suspect is an attempt to distract himself. ‘I bet you’ve walked this corridor a few times,’ he says.
The guard doesn’t respond.
The subject gives a nod. ‘I guess you’ve gotta tune out.’
The guard shrugs.
‘I keep thinking of my mother – I can see her face clear as anything, even though she’s been dead for years. She was murdered when I was a kid.’
The guard affords the subject a glance. ‘Sorry to hear it.’
‘You wanna know what really gets me?’
‘The bastard who killed her never paid for what he did.’
‘It’ll catch up with him in the end,’ the guard says. ‘That’s how things work.’
The subject doesn’t reply, but I know he’s hoping the guard’s prediction is on the money.
They reach the doorway of the execution room. Inside, three people dressed in personal protection suits are standing near a gurney criss-crossed with sturdy straps. A mirrored window fills one of the internal walls. I detect a hard, unyielding energy radiating from behind it and know someone is there, watching.
‘I’ll take you in and strap you down,’ the guard says. ‘The execution team will inject you with anaesthetic.’ He pauses, adding, ‘You shouldn’t feel anything after that.’
I see the subject’s legs have begun to tremble. Tapping his mind once more, I understand he’s dreaming of being reunited with his mother.
The men cross the threshold and I wait in the doorway, my gaze averted as the necessary preparations are made.
Time passes.
When I sense it is appropriate to do so, I slip inside the execution room. I am ready to escort the subject to that transitory, in-between place where the recently departed congregate before commencing their next journey. I am ignorant about what happens from that point on, as are the other guides who inhabit this realm. We are the blind leading the blind, so to speak, temporarily imprisoned in a strange interstice between worlds. Perhaps one day I will be required to move on, to evolve. Then, like the being of golden light heading my way, I will finally discover that which awaits me in the great beyond.

The featured image accompanying this piece, entitled ‘Et tu, mm up pop, a trouble’, has been used with the permission of Malaysian artist, Airahnn. You can find out more about Airahnn on Deviant Art and Tumblr.

Eileen Herbert-Goodall

Eileen Herbert-Goodall holds a Doctorate of Creative Arts, which she earned at the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC), Queensland, Australia. She teaches high school students through the university's Creative Writing Excellence Program. Along with a colleague, she also runs the Field of Words writing and editing website. She has had several pieces of short fiction published and is presently working on a collection of short stories.

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