The Heriot by Dale Stromberg

Flash Fiction, Punk Noir Magazine

Nighttime, at home, alone:

“Right now, I’m not hurting anyone”

—a terribly comforting illusion.

When they administer Brad Merle Gost’s execution by lethal injection, they will dab his needle wounds with cotton swabs. To prevent infection, presumably.

The last he saw of the world outside was a merciless winter morning years before. It had been the sort of mean, sharp-eyed weather that reminds you that the fix is in, that the ugly-natured racketeers always win, that the weeping innocent still suffer. He has forgotten what day of the week it was.

Brad sits in his cell, waiting for morning. Tapping his foot, without realizing it. Tapping out a slow waltz—the syllables of a name.

A convocation of prisoners crowds into his cell at midnight. Hundreds of them, packed in. Practitioners of automatic writing, inquiring about pardons and paroles in the hereafter. Seeking word from beyond. One of them must have snuck the writing table past the guards. A camera crew appears. A host in a bow tie laughs like a laugher who’d like to be laughing, wipes sweat with a handkerchief, tests his lapel mic. This is just a dry run, people. Cue laugh track. Brad wakes up short of breath. He didn’t know he’d fallen asleep.

He blew it big time. His whole life, he puled and schemed and fantasized and double-dealt. Cheating bits of happiness out of life like an unfair transaction fee. Perpetually baleful. Treating unverified hunches like facts from the encyclopedia. Alone everywhere, and everywhere alone.

He had this job as a kid, hauling pianos in a truck with his granddad. They once went out to this housing project, and, as they drove around trying to find the address to deliver to, his granddad had told him the story of the guy who’d owned that particular piano before, telling it like it was confidential information, in his low weathered voice. It was a sad story of a man with some dirty secret everybody knew about—that’s all Brad recalls of it now. They pulled out of the project and tried to circle back through a shopping arcade, and Brad turned his face up and saw a tall painting of an angel just above the truck window. It was the sign for a bakery.

Morning will come soon. There won’t be a pardon. He remembers a particular person. If he could talk to her now, he’d say something like, “I even felt grateful for the folds in your clothes, when you wore them.” Though he doesn’t really talk like that.

The heavy damp smell outside a bakery. The gradating shadow on a sleeping woman’s cheek. Sad, secret stories. Things he can only despair of recalling now. No chance to refresh his memories, nobody to ask. When they used to guillotine people, they’d pick up your head and show you to yourself. Where had he read that?

He’d always been clumsy: he’d never been able to conceal the painfulness of life. Instead he—he did—it. She’s dead. Because of his—choice. It’s—he still can’t face it. He can’t say her name. And now the comeuppance. The terror of it crumbles through his flesh, but, when he pays this debt, will it make him not so bad?

He waits for morning in his cell, a scared lost lonely little boy.

Dale Stromberg grew up not far from Sacramento before moving to Tokyo, where he had a brief music career. Now he lives near Kuala Lumpur and makes ends meet as an editor and translator. His work has been published here and there.