by Robert Currer
Part 1: Chapter 8
1,500 Words: 6 Minute Read
This story contains references to mental illness, self-harm, and suicide. Reader discretion is advised.
Today was a hanging. A detail of guardsmen walked the gallows, inspecting the condition of the rope, testing the strength of the crossbar, experimenting with the slide of the noose. The trap door on which the condemned would stand fell away as one pulled the lever, examining the glide of the mechanism.
“It’d be a shame if everything wasn’t just right,” said Corbin. Her mouth was cut into a grim line.
Eric knew what she meant. A failure at the gallows meant prolonging the suffering but there was something unseemly about the obsessive attention to detail. “Yeah,” he said, wishing he was anywhere else.
The gallows were set in the courtyard formed between the Aid Station tents and the dig’s line of dusty work pavilions, a site chosen because it was one of the few open spaces in camp. A purely pragmatic decision but one that guaranteed Eric a front row seat to the gruesome spectacle. His leg was on the mend, but he couldn’t quite walk on it yet. Consequently, he was stuck in bed feeling like a ball of slime had settled in his gut.
“Feels cruel,” he said watching a guardsmen stomp on the closed trapdoor.
“Doesn’t seem to bother too many folks,” said Corbin. She scanned the growing crowd of guardsmen, scholars, diggers, support staff, and anyone else who could sneak away from their duties to watch.
“Vultures,” said Eric. He wanted to vomit.
The crowd grew until not a speck of dirt was visible in the rusted, orange courtyard. The roll of drums sent excitement crackling through the onlookers. A gap opened in the throng as the convicted appeared surrounded by an entourage in ODF khaki. Boos and jeers broke through the ominous rumble. As they mounted the stairs, Lojan’s pallid scar peeked out from the sea of heads, leading the procession. The condemned followed behind. Paydrin’s gaunt face was a map of ridges and shadow even in the noonday sun. The ooze in Eric’s gut soured at the sight of him.
“Just doesn’t seem fair,” he said, almost under his breath.
“What is these days?”
The guards pulled Paydrin to the front. He had been stripped of his uniform and dressed in plain clothes, but the tattooed eye on his forearm was still an inky black that stood out like a scarlet letter against his simple civilian attire. No longer one of them but still not free. That must have felt like a twist of the knife.
His wrists were bound behind his back. So he can’t fight the rope, thought Eric beads of cold sweat gathering on his brow. Eric’s heart was ping-ponging against his ribs, growing harding with each step his brother-in-arms took across the wooden boards of the gallows. Paydrin had been one of the three to save Eric’s life, and now they were going to watch him hang. Eric felt lightheaded. His eyes darted to Corbin, praying she wouldn’t notice. But her eyes were locked forward watching Paydrin. Her face was a porcelain mask again, but in the deep night of her eyes, Eric thought he saw a sheen of anguish. Eric followed her gaze back to Paydrin. Whatever his crimes, he stood tall, unbowed by the noose swinging behind him in the breeze.
Lojan stepped to the man’s right, and the drums ceased. A taut silence fell. “Wayn Paydrin,” said Lojan, addressing the crowd instead of the bound man. “You have been found guilty of hording antitoxin and aiding and abetting desertion. For your treason, you have been sentenced to hang from the neck until dead. Do you have any final words?”
Paydrin licked his chapped lips, his eyes were cast upward toward the blazing sun. When they descended, they too were alight. He said, “There are those among you who share my beliefs, that conscription is slavery, that no one should be forced to serve at their peril without their consent. Today, I become a martyr for the cause, a cause that does not end with me, a cause that will one day free the oppressed and tear down the oppressors. To a free ODF!” He snapped to face Lojan and spat in his face.
The crowd erupted with blood thirsty shrieks that echoed in Eric’s ears like the beasts of The Mist. Lojan wiped the saliva from his face, looking almost bored. The guards pulled the prisoner toward the waiting noose and held him. Eric’s throat turned to sandpaper. Lojan took the swinging rope in his hand and fitted it around Paydrin’s neck, sliding it snug against the condemned man’s throat. Eric tried to swallow and couldn’t. It was like breathing through a straw. The noose in place, Lojan leaned in close, whispering something in Paydrin’s ear. At this distance, it was hard to say but Eric thought he could see his features ashen.
“What do you say to someone about to hang?” asked Corbin. Her voice was grim. Her face was darkened.
Eric tried to open his mouth to speak but his tongue felt glued to the roof. His throat closed and for a moment, his lungs refused to breathe. A memory flooded him, unbidden.
He had pushed all his furniture to the walls, leaving a wide stretch of off-white carpet like a bald patch in the center of his old room in his old life. He was sitting on a cheap rolling desk chair that he had pulled out into the center of the void. Through puffy eyes made stiff by the cement of dried tears, he stared into the pure white expanse of a folded sheet of printer paper. Only his blue ink scrawl marred the virgin surface. In a dreamy way, he wondered if paper resented being dirtied by the inky lives pressed upon it. He hoped not, but even if it did, his life at least had been compressed to a few short lines. The things he wanted to say were so enormous they only required a handful of words. His thumb caressed the veneered tooth of the page.
With a sigh, he pushed himself to standing. His whole body felt heavy as if carrying a pack he could not put down. A few slow steps carried him to the desk against the wall where he positioned the note upright like an A-frame so that it could not be missed. He lingered, fingertips balanced on the wood of the desktop. At last, his fingers curled to a fist and knocked knuckles against the surface in three sharp raps.
Coiled like a python on the comforter was a length of coarse rope. He ran it through his fingers, feeling it scrap across his palms. When he reached an end, he looped a section before wrapping one line around the other with tremendous care. When he had finished, he tested the slide of the knot before opening it enough to fit over his head.
He climbed on top of the chair, balancing in his socks as it swiveled under his shifting weight. Securing the noose to the ceiling fan was harder than expected. He had to reach between the blades to find the downrod as he choked on a cloud of dislodged dust. He tugged the knot tight and stilled the swing of the rope before sliding his head into the loop. The noose tightened as if he were straightening a tie.
The things he had collected, the sum total of his life looked smaller up here, less important. Muted light filtered through the blinds creating slatted beams in which motes of dust wandered without aim. He could commiserate with their insignificant shuffling through life, doomed for ultimate oblivion. His whole body ached at the thought. He was tired. So fucking tired. He swallowed, took a breath, and kicked the chair away.
The fall took an age as Eric waited for the rope to go taut, to arrest his fall through this life with a snap. Rough cordage scraped up his neck and pushed against his jawline as it moved into position. He felt the hard grip around his throat that made his eyes bulge and his chest heave. When the rope went taut there was no snap but instead a terrible rending sound. He hit the floor on his back with a thud that shook his bookshelves. The ceiling fan followed him down, smashing into the carpet inches from his head. Eric coughed and sputtered as air once again rushed into his lungs. Through the snowy cloud of drywall dust, there was a hole in the ceiling where the pale scar of torn wood shone livid against the tattered edge of eggshell paint. He had laid there panting a long time.
“I wouldn’t know what to say,” whispered Corbin.
Fresh air surged into Eric’s floundering lungs. “Good luck,” he rasped, his knuckles rapping on the bed frame. “I’d wish him good luck.”
On the gallows stage, Lojan pulled a lever and the trapdoor under Paydrin swung away. He fell and the rope went taut. There was no fan to save him.
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