by Grayson Bray Morris
This story was first published here in 2021. Its permalink is here.
It’s over. They’ve denied your final appeal.
You nod wordlessly at the warden where he sits, still fishing noodles from a box of takeout. Then you turn and let the guard lead you out. As your cardboard Exile Row slippers pad from burgundy shag to bleached linoleum, your rational mind is calm. Deep down you’ve known, ever since that night eight years ago when they arrested you at the airport, that you were a goner. But your reptile brain is going haywire, taking your body with it: the saliva’s pooling in your mouth the way it does before you vomit; your heart’s pumping adrenalin to every limb; your arm tingles where the guard clasps your faded red jumpsuit, begging you to wrench free and run.
Of course none of that helps now, this late in the game, and really, nothing has changed. But you get it, why your instincts are telling you to run. Instinct doesn’t think ahead; it deals in immediate facts, in lions closing the gap.
You reach your cell and the guard unlocks the door. You go in and the lock clicks behind you. You look at the sink in the corner, at your toothbrush, at your razor. You won’t have them after tomorrow, these tools made for creatures who can wrap their minds around the word hygiene. Around words, period.
You take off your shoes and stretch out on your mattress. It’s the only furniture in your cell aside from the sink and the shitter, and you never stop noticing its faint stink: of course it stinks, steeped as it is in seven and a half years of your daily sweat plus your occasional vomit. One more night in its fetid embrace, and it will vanish as if it never existed.
Your eyes stray back to your razor, inert at the end of its uncuttable chain. Last chance to take the out they’ve given you. Even now, the coward in you wins out. That alone should have told them you didn’t do it. If you were the kind of person who could gut six journalists alive with a fishing knife, you’d long since have slit your own throat and gone wherever it is souls go after leaving this hell.
You look back up at the ceiling. It isn’t cowardice, not really; that’s a word the rational mind invented after it forgot about the reptile brain. A razor lifting toward your throat is a lion so close you can feel its breath on your spine.
You lie awake in the dark. You really should be sleeping; you’ll need all your wits tomorrow, when they strap you into the chair and your reptile brain goes bananas. But sleeping isn’t a call your rational mind gets to make tonight.
Instead, you practice.
You’ve done it so often now you can smell the coffee brewing in the kitchen, feel the worn leather of the couch, see the dust sparkling in the light from the window. Tomorrow these details will be lost to you with the rest of your memory, but they’re not what you’re after. They’re only the original stimulus, and you’re after the response.
And there it is: the way you felt cradling newborn Ali, Rachel warm against your side, both of you laughing like fools. That feeling that everything is right in the world, for just this one moment. That feeling that you might die of happiness.
When the feeling crests, you blink.
That’s the key: binding that joy to a new stimulus. Some animal reflex that will survive the memory procedure. Something you’ll continue to do, over and over, even after you’ve lost all sense of yourself and your place in the order of things.
Something like blinking.
When the feeling starts to fade, you begin all over. Smell the coffee. Feel the leather. See the dust.
They slide breakfast through your door at six a.m. At seven two guards come for you. They lead you down a silent corridor, long and oblivion gray. The slap of their jackbooted heels against the prison-grade resin keeps dissolving your focus. You can feel your reptile brain stirring. You distract it by counting the guards’ footsteps: thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty. Simple numbers, one after another, the next extending the former; mindlessly easy, and a reminder of all you’re about to lose.
A single door looms in the distance. When you reach one-eighty-four, the door opens and your reptile brain screams lion! You falter. The two guards stop and wait with you, solemn. Granting you this last tiny freedom. Their footsteps have ceased; you seize your chance. You conjure up the coffee brewing in the kitchen, the worn leather of the couch, the dust sparkling in the light from the window.
But before you’re all the way there someone coughs, and you lose the moment. The guards pull you forward, heels rap-rap-rapping on the floor.
Your executioner—the word is only wrong in its most literal sense—is waiting in the room beyond the door. The guards lead you to the spartan metal chair and lock you into place. Behind you, your executioner flicks on an electric shaver and you jump at the sound. As the razor thrums across your skull, exposing your skin in precise rows, you imagine yourself ten minutes from now. They’ll pull you out of the chair while you look around, uncomprehending. The guards will herd you toward the door on your right, the one that opens onto the Preserve—your new home, though that word won’t mean anything to you, even if you could think it. You won’t build yourself a shelter out there; you won’t weave a cozy rug from marsh reeds, or shape rustic bowls from river clay, whatever the public imagines. You’ve had plenty of time between appeals to parse your way to the truth. What you’ll actually do is roam senselessly through a succession of seconds, each instant divorced from all others, acting solely on primal urges: hunger that drives you to eat when you manage to wander past a food trough; cold that drives you toward the glow of the nearest firepit in winter. You’ll breathe, you’ll sneeze, you’ll sleep.
And you’ll blink. Every six seconds, like clockwork.
The shaver goes silent. Your executioner spreads conductive gel across your skull while you stare at the curtain in front of you. Behind it sit the aggrieved, waiting to watch your erasure and feel avenged. The obscenity of being forced to absolve another person’s crimes erupts without warning, and suddenly you’re a hair’s breadth from screaming.
The public imagines you’ll be some kind of docile Cro-Magnon, but what will you really be, eight minutes from now? Something more than a bacterium, something far less than a dog. Even insects have some kind of memory.
You blink. Do you feel joy? You can’t tell. You’ve practiced so many times, by now it should be reflex. You’ve tested it before, in the silence of your cell, and you’d swear sometimes you felt joyful. Sometimes. At least a few times.
This is what kept you awake last night: the chance that all your Pavlovian practice has been for naught.
Your executioner pushes electrodes into the layer of gel. A guard draws aside the curtain. The viewing window is a one-way affair; you see only an opaque wall. The timer above it has come to life, and it is counting down your final sixty seconds as a thinking creature. The moment of truth is here.
You blink. Nothing. But of course the lion’s got your head between its teeth now: your heart’s on overdrive, your neck and arms and legs burn against the chair locks, your saliva’s turned rancid the way it does before you vomit. There’s not much room for something soft-spoken like joy. Never has been, really. There’s always been the rest of you in the way, thinking and worrying and doubting. Once all that’s gone, once you’re stripped down to instinct and nothing more, surely joy will be there.
The timer hits zero. A guard flips the switch.