I can feel the damp seeping into my jeans where my knees are pressing into the mud. The rain is not falling hard, it is the kind of dreary drizzle that makes a day grey but at night really changes nothing, except you are getting wet. The water is dripping down my face, my uncovered hair is slowly getting water logged; I want to wipe my hand across it so that I don’t feel the drops creeping down across my nose and cheeks, but I cannot risk moving my hands from by my sides. I have been told not to move.
The barrel of the shotgun is not touching the back of my head, but I can feel it there, hovering behind me as if it were actually touching me. I close my eyes and I can see its twin black bores hovering behind my skull, swaying very gently back and forth as he breathes. He is almost entirely silent now, but it is only seconds since he tersely commanded me to kneel.
There are so many clichés about time slowing down in moments of extreme stress, specifically moments of peril, that it occurs to me that I am not experiencing that phenomenon. I would want to sense that time is stretching out like a bungee cord being stretched, so that I may savour every tiny instant before he kills me, but no.
I can hear him breathing, but I am becoming more scared because his breath is soft and slow. He is not exhibiting any signs of stress himself; he sounds calm. I wonder why he has not pulled the trigger yet?
Fear is gripping me now, it has already been ten seconds that I have been waiting to die. Involuntarily I begin to tremble, desperately trying to not move. He said not to move. Tears are welling up in the corners of my eyes and mixing with the trails of water flowing down from my sodden hair and all I can think about is that no one is going to know what happened to me. I try not to look down at the hole in the ground in front of me, but my eyes are drawn there, inexorably, as though led there by invisible threads, pulling my gaze towards the dark cleft in the ground. It is so deep. I realise that the depth of the grave really has to be the least of my worries; it’s not as if I am going to feel it when I hit the bottom. Again I cannot help but fixate on the fact that if it is that deep then really no one is ever going to know what happened to me.
Six hours ago I was in a café, eating by myself and sending messages to friends, reaching out across the globe to people that I was thinking of, on my phone, as I finished the simple but hearty meal and then lingered over my coffee. My last meal was an omelette with fries and a plain filter coffee, in a roadside diner in New Hampshire. Not what I imagined, but then I also start to wonder whether anyone ever really considers their last meal unless they are on death row. My mind clings to this line of thinking and launches itself down the mental rabbit hole of wondering if the stories are true and that people on death row sometimes order insanely showy things for their last meal when awaiting their death sentence. One hears stories of double lobster dinners and Wagu steaks being served up in the death houses of American prisons, but now I have no way of knowing if this is true or not. I am on my knees in the dark and the rain. In front of my grave. Waiting to die. There is no way to Google that shit.
He coughs and I hear him adjust his stance. I feel the presence of the shotgun barrel leave the proximity of my head, I assume that he has stepped back to shoulder the stock. It is coming now, isn’t it? I start to wonder if I will feel anything. Something in the back of my mind jokes with me that there is no time to Google that shit either.
He coughs again. I hear him sniff and hack and then spit. I wonder why he bothered to not spit on me; surely it had to be an unconsidered norm, rather than concern about DNA evidence? Surely saliva and snot would not survive for long on my corpse under six or seven feet of dirt, and anyway, no one is ever going to find me.
I close my eyes. What is he waiting for?
Time is still not slowing down. Where is my elongated final moment? How am I supposed to consider my life and what it may have meant?
More coughing. I can hear that he is struggling. I can hear that he has lowered the gun. I start to wonder if there is any way that I can run with the way that he has tied my feet. I try to gently tense so that I can spring up to my feet, without giving away that I am anything other than surrendered to my fate. If he is going to kill me I don’t want it to be a slow lingering death after he rushes the shot because I started to move. I wonder if that is dark or just good sense? I can tell that I can’t spring up from my current position, my feet are tied together too tightly and there is a surprising stiffness that is setting in from kneeling in the mud.
The coughing fit subsides; I realise that I spent my last moments wondering if I could escape and that gives me a sudden rush of pride. I did not give up, not really.
My mind drifts back to my inner world while I wait for the trigger pull that will mark the end. I see my youth behind my eyelids; I watch my memories of long summer days, the hammock hung between the porch and the big maple in the front garden where I read so many books as my siblings played in the dirt and the neighbourhood kids rode up and down on their bikes. The distant soundtrack to my teenage reading was the peals of children’s voices as they swirled around me, and the soft creaking of the hammock’s ropes against the bole of the tree as I gently rocked in the breeze while I learned the fates of countless protagonists.
Will Nell wonder why I never made it to her? What will happen to her, now that I won’t be there in Ithaca the day after tomorrow? How long will she stand by the sidewalk outside her apartment, looking up the street for my ageing Volvo , wondering where her father is, starting to worry that I have not called or texted? I can see her there, in my mind’s eye, she will probably have her hair down, no makeup, jeans and sweater, her bags and boxes around her. Will she get to a point where she sits on one of the boxes, perched nervously, checking her phone every thirty seconds? Will she regress and start fussing at the nails on her other hand with her teeth? My daughter, alone on the street, waiting for a parent that will never come, that will have disappeared to no one knows where. I can see her starting to cry, thinking that I have forgotten her, deserted her, never once considering that something bad may have happened to me. That is my legacy; I will be assumed to have failed, at least until it becomes clear that no one knows where I am.
He coughs again, and I am snapped back into the moment, I am not dead yet. Why?
I hear him fuss at one of his pockets and then I hear the series of moves and sounds that tell me he is lighting a cigarette. Suddenly I am gripped by the absolute awareness that I want to smoke. Surely I am entitled, no? The condemned man is allowed a last smoke, at least that is how it goes in all the World War Two movies, I am sure of it. I can feel myself wanting to turn, wanting to ask him to let me have one, and yet being too scared to move at all.
I hear him coming closer and all thoughts of turning to speak are banished, but then I see the open pack being held in front of my face. He shakes it gently, silently indicating that I am able to take one. In for a penny… I move my right hand up very slowly and in plain view, no sudden moves, and I gingerly take one. I put it to my lips and I am suddenly blinded by the flame of his lighter springing into life as he lights it for me.
I take a long, lingering drag, eyes closed, as I hear him step back again. I try not to wonder if he is going to let me smoke it all; why do I care at this point? I inhale and the sweet, acrid, menthol smoke trickles down into my lungs and ancient body memories come flooding into view as I remember the dangerous and self-destructive joy of smoking. With coffee, after eating, in bed after sex, when my Dad died, when I needed a break from work, when there was nothing else to do, when I drank whisky. My mind is swimming in a cacophony of unbidden sense memories, moments of joy and pain alongside utterly mundane moments all marked out, picked out as if in a spotlight, by the act of smoking. My inner movie settles on a truly memorable, specific moment.
I am sitting outside the dive bar in Cambridge where my friends and I were barflies when we were not cramming for a final or actually making sure an assignment was done. I have a Negra Modelo in my hand, the cool, slightly damp glass neck nestling in the crook between thumb and forefinger and a cigarette crammed between forefinger and middle finger, the filter pointed out towards my thumb so that I could smoke or drink without changing anything, just choosing which tube to put into my mouth. It is Fall, but early in the Fall and the Massachusetts weather is being kind as the afternoon gives way to the beginning of the evening. I take a long, slow drag on the smoke and then chase it with a good deep pull on the bottle and as my head comes back down she is there. Harriet is standing maybe five feet away, staring hard at me with those deep brown eyes and her crooked smile that will come to be so familiar but in that moment strikes me as beautiful and honest all in one go, with no reason to assume the latter.
I realise that the moment must be coming, and all I can take as some small comfort is that at least Harriet will not think that I failed our daughter.
I take another drag and try to shut out any other thoughts, try to hold her face in my mind. I push away all the doubts about the hereafter and assume that she will be there to be with me again, desperately hoping that when I do come to this squalid and lonely end then she will greet me on the other side.
I hear the shot and I realise that I cannot have, but I do hear it even so. Now time stretches out like the bungee cord I was expecting. My eyes flick to the side and I see the cigarette fall from my fingers, its bright red cherry tumbling slowly end over end as I tip forwards and all I can see is the deep, dark hole rushing towards me.