The Executioner

I

“I’ll get the right arm, you get the left. One of us will have the actual agents, and the other will have saline solution.” Dr. Kyrios nodded in response, running his hand through his hair.

Dr. Torrin went on. “The orderly who puts the boluses on the rack won’t know which set is which, and he’ll be gone by the time we get there.”

“And we swab down the arm… in case he survives?”

“Doesn’t seem like it could happen, does it? Really, it’s because a stay might come down at the last minute. You never know,” the older doctor said. “And besides, Greg, you don’t ever want to get it in your head that it’s okay to skip sterilization, because most of the time, you want to keep your patient alive.” Dr. Torrin smirked, and got a nod in response.

“Then the three boluses.”

Dr. Torrin nodded. “Pentobarbital first. Knocks him out, about two seconds after it hits. It’s marked with a green flag.”

“Got it,” Dr. Kyrios answered. “The pancuronium bromide next. That’s the paralytic, with the blue flag. No going back after that one. Last, the potassium chloride, which has the black flag. Green, blue, black.”

“Doesn’t seem that hard, does it? We practice on the dummy anyway. We don’t let anything go wrong during the actual execution. And the truth is, I still get nerves when I do it, so it’s good to practice.”

“Who watches us, Jim?”

“There’s a deputy warden, and Judge Newton has ordered that a court observer be there, too. A lawyer. Everyone will be on the other side of the glass, though.”

“Can the court lawyer stop us?”

“Yes, but she’s only supposed to do that if she sees one of us makes a mistake. Which we won’t.” Dr. Kyrios nodded to indicate his understanding. “Okay, now let’s go.”

The two doctors each approached the rubber gel figure on the gurney. Weirdly, the figure was only cast from the waist up – they were about to mock-execute only the top half of a sculpted rubber man. The older doctor walked around to the right side of the dummy and Dr. Kyrios to the left. Each one drenched a cotton round in rubbing alcohol and sterilized the clear silicone gel. Greg could see where previous practice IVs had pierced the tiny bubbles in the silicone.

“What do I do if he resists?” Dr. Kyrios asked.

“They never do. But he’ll be restrained, so the orderly can cinch up until the arm is immobile. You’re in? You’ll feel for the vein, and…. Pentobarbital. Green bag.” A few drops of water pooled atop the hole in the rubber where the needle had gone in.

“Pentobarbital.” Dr. Kyrios found the bolus with the green flag – actually a green post-it note, although there was a green stripe pre-printed on the bolus itself just above the description of its contents. He swapped out the “saline” bolus for the “pentobarbital,” although in the practice run, it was all tap water and nothing actually flowed in to the silicone dummy.

The bolus gave a brief click, and Dr. Kyrios said, “In.”

Dr. Torrin replied, “In.” Then he took out a stopwatch and set it to work. “Greg, have you thought about what you’ll say if he talks to you?”

“Yes. Since I agreed to take the job.”

The older man looked at the new assignee. “It’s not for us to say if he’s guilty or innocent, or if he deserves what’s happening to him. Someone else decided that already.”

“You’ve had them tell you they were innocent?”

“Yes.”

“Did you believe them?”

“I did my duty, son.” Dr. Torrin’s Oklahoma drawl – he was a native, after all – poked through his New England education a bit with that remark. “He is guilty. A jury said so, and about a dozen judges couldn’t find any reason to say otherwise. If that weren’t true, both he and us wouldn’t be there in the first place.”

Dr. Torrin looked down at the stopwatch and smirked again. “That’s been forty-eight seconds already. Our first mistake: the real bolus would be empty now. Do we start over and talk, or keep on going?”

“Jim, it’s saline in a rubber dummy. And if it were the real guy, he’d just be extra unconscious. Let’s finish, and try it again.”

“Good man. Stick to business from here on out. Go to blue, then… I’m in.”

II

Greg Kyrios got a text message on his cell phone at 4:03 p.m. on a Thursday, informing him that the governor had denied Hadley Washington’s plea for clemency. He finished dictating his last report from his rounds, and called his wife Sharon.

“Don’t wait up for me. It could be late, they say.” She had already seen the news, and she knew what he was talking about. All she could say in response was, “Okay. Are you okay?” He said he was, of course. It was mostly true.

The full truth was he was stunned. He couldn’t remember what had motivated him to volunteer for the position, and was no longer sure that he was glad he had. But he didn’t feel any regret, either. He figured that must be a good sign.

It was cold out, and the sun was below the horizon by the time he got to his car. Twilight would linger for a while; it was clear, but he could feel the wind buffeting his car as he drove out of Tulsa, away from his office by the hospital, and north towards the prison near the state line. An unsatisfying drive-through dinner at “the Scottish restaurant” washed down with a Sprite – he’d not taken any caffeine in over twenty years – and nearly an entire compact disc’s worth of a continuing medical education lecture later, he took the off-ramp to his destination across a landscape of farmland interrupted periodically by stands of trees, standing sentinel over the crops.

A razor-thin scimitar of the moon hung low in the sky. Millions of stars formed a band from horizon to horizon which Greg could only faintly make out, obscured by the lights of the city behind him. He more knew it was there than saw it as he drove.

Once, back when he and Sharon had started dating, they had gone camping in Cades Cove up in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The stars had seemed intensely bright through a clearing in the trees, and they had held hands and watched the brilliant sky rotate above them on a warm and cloudless night, while they kissed and wordlessly fell in love. This night’s sky was just as clear and was unobscured by trees, but from the car rushing across the plain, details could not be seen against its inky bleakness. He tried to remember how they had wound up in Oklahoma.

The protestors and supporters had gathered around the gate of the prison, holding lights. Not candles; candles would surely have been extinguished in the blustery, irregular winter’s wind. Perhaps they were flashlights, or perhaps cell phones. But every one of them turned and held up a light of some kind as his car approached. He heard singing, but he could neither make out the words nor place the melody.

He stopped at the gate and a guard shone a flashlight into his face. He rolled down his window and offered his driver’s license.

“Greg Kyrios. Special medical duty.”

The guard checked a clipboard, found the name. “Okay. You’re clear, Dr. Kyrios,” he said, and returned to his station. The gate rolled aside. No protestor tried to jump in front of his car or to sneak in to the prison grounds along with him, which was a profound relief. Now that he could see the building, he felt apprehension.

This is why we practiced so much, he realized. It was one thing to say you believed in it enough to actually do it, that you thought the state’s money was a reasonable fee, and that you were willing to take a few nights a year. Seeing the prison at night felt like taking a hard fall, just behind the temples of his skull. He was as nervous as a virgin.

At quarter after seven, Greg Kyrios walked through the wind and under sodium lights to the front door of the largest state prison in Oklahoma, and did what he could to steel himself for the task ahead.

III

Hadley Washington looked younger than Greg had thought he would. The briefing sheet had said he was fifty years old but he must have kept himself in good shape on the inside. Thinking back to the mug shot of the man who had been arrested for murder eleven years previously, it appeared that of all things, prison had actually agreed with him. The real-life face was fuller than the mug shot; the man’s frame was more muscular. He’d lost the facial hair, whether in preparation for the events of the evening or of his own accord Greg never found out.

Hadley Washington did not walk upright; the shackles prevented him from doing that comfortably. But he walked at as close to a normal pace and with his head held as high as he could when he came into the room.

The orderly, a visibly beefy young African-American man, took Washington by the elbow and guided him to the gurney. “Where are you from, son?” the condemned man asked him.

“Dallas,” the orderly said as he worked the straps. “Six years now here in OK. Does that hurt?”

“No, son, it don’t. Thank you.”

“All right then.” The orderly waved the doctors in. Greg and Jim walked through the door, Jim about half a step in the lead.

“We’re the doctors, Mr. Washington,” Jim said. “Do you know what will happen.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Where did y’all go to medical school?”

Jim and Greg looked at each other. Greg had no rehearsed response. So he answered truthfully after a beat. “Emory.”

“Really? I’m from Atlanta too. Maybe we’re going to be friends tonight, Doc!”

“I… uh, I need to take your blood pressure and your temperature. This is just a regular thermometer. Are you feeling sick?”

“Well, I’m pretty nervous, but then I guess that’s expected.” Greg did his best to remain pokerfaced, but he felt his cheeks flush as the blood rose into his face.

“B.P. 135 over 85,” pronounced Jim. “We want you to be comfortable, sir, as comfortable as you can be. Considering.”

“I’m at peace, Doc. Y’all don’t need to apologize.” Washington turned back to Greg. “Someone’s got to do it. I just want to get to know you a little bit.”

Jim asked, “Do you want the chaplain?”

“No, my friend from Atlanta here is good enough for me.” Washington actually smiled. “You think the Bulldogs are going to beat LSU? I asked for my last meal to be a hot dog while watching the Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl. The Governor said no.”

“I wouldn’t have thought football would matter tonight.”

“Doc, there ain’t no one to miss me when I’m gone. No one but my lawyer, and she don’t even like me all that much.” Washington smiled, turned to Jim for a moment. “And I ain’t a religious man.” He turned back to Greg. “What I got is my Georgia pride. Following my Dogs done got me through prison.”

“It’s time,” said a deputy warden, a finger held to his ear. “They’re ready for us.” Another deputy stepped up and opened the double doors for the assembled procession: the orderly from Dallas pushing the gurney bearing Washington, Greg and Jim flanked it on either side. Greg’s heart was pounding in his chest as it had never done before, not even when he had worked the graveyard shift in the E.R. during his residency.

Through the doors was a larger room, well lit: the theater, somehow smaller that night than it had during practice. Two steel rods jutted out from the ceiling. Each held three boluses, pre-marked in green, blue, and black, in that order, each with a plastic tube. Three large windows looked in.

On the left, two women in business suits looked in with muted scowls. Washington’s lawyer and the court observer. Behind them stood another woman with her hand on an old-fashioned corded phone.

In the middle was a bank of eight chairs, dimly lit. All of them were full. The victim’s family in them all looked alike through the glass, well dressed and ashen-faced. In the middle was a woman of about sixty years, tears running down her face. A man, about sixty-five, held her over her shoulders as he watched at the proceedings on the other side of the glass with a squint. The parents.

The room on the right held the prison warden and another man wearing a suit. Behind them sat another woman in a suit, also on a landline telephone. But the only sound that the doctors and their patient could hear in the theater was the squeak of the wheels on the gurney, the footsteps of the doctor, and the sound of Hadley Washington’s voice.

“You became a doctor to save lives, didn’t you, Emory?” Washington said, his tone lower than it had been in the staging room.

“I am saving lives tonight.” This was a challenge Greg had anticipated, he had his answer at the ready. It came out nearly automatically. Greg thought he had sounded like a cop, and maybe that was what he had been shooting for. Jim nodded approvingly.

The gurney was set in place and the orderly from Dallas turned a crank. The gurney slowly moved on its axis, elevating Washington’s head so that he and the victim’s family could make eye contact if they wished. Washington did not acknowledge them; he turned his head and looked at Greg instead.

“You believe that if you want. You go right ahead, Doc. But you root for them Dogs this Saturday, you hear? You – you do that for me.” Finally, Washington’s voice choked just a bit.

Greg barely noticed that the orderly had stepped out of the theater. “Swab,” Jim said. Both doctors dunked the cotton round in alcohol and brushed clean spots inside Washington’s elbow.

Greg nodded. “Ready.”

Washington closed his eyes and began to sing to himself. “Sittin’ in the morning sun, I’ll be sittin’ when the evening comes…”

Jim looked over his shoulder, and the warden nodded slightly through the window. Jim relayed the nod to Greg.

Washington swallowed and sang to himself some more as the doctors pressed their fingers on his arms. “Watching the ships roll in… an’ I watch ‘em… roll away… again… Ah!” Washington interrupted himself as the needles went in his arms. Not loudly.

Greg saw a small spurt of blood in the crook of Washington’s elbow. He concentrated on the subtle sensation in his hands that would tell him he had threaded the catheter into the vein. It was an easy find, in a way: he could feel the man’s pulse, working double time.

Both doctors, in chorus: “In.”

Greg had succeeded in surgical and emergency medicine early in his career because he could hold his hands still even when he was upset or nervous. It occurred to him in a flash, in that instant, that his ability to hold his hands steady while he was nervous was completely unrelated to his intelligence or his study habits or his ability to memorize body parts or his judgment or anything else he had been taught in medical school. Yet that had been what had made him into a surgeon.

“Are you in pain?” asked Jim.

“Go on, now,” Washington said back, closing his eyes, and he resumed humming the old song.

“Green,” said Jim.

“Green,” said Greg back. He reached for the first bolus and snapped it in.

A single tear came out of Washington’s fluttering left eye. “I’m a just.. sit…. Nnn….”

The doctors looked at the warden, and at the lawyer. Though the warden’s chin moved less than half an inch, both doctors saw it and understood.

The loudspeakers did not activate. The lamps above the lawyers’ telephones did not turn on.

“Blue,” said Jim.

“Blue,” replied Greg. They switched boluses. Greg heard Jim whispering to himself, counting up to ten. That was the only sound the doctors could hear at all. They looked at one another, Greg trying hard to see nothing but the other doctor’s mustache and not the victim’s family and not the warden and not the lawyer and not Hadley Washington.

“Black.” Greg’s last reserve of adrenaline moved over his kidneys.

“Black.” Turn. Switch. Click.

Greg looked up and saw in the viewing room, the victim’s parents, crying profusely, as were two of their six adult children with them. Or were they teenagers? One of them in the back row had stood up – was he saying something? The doctors could hear nothing at all in the sterile silence of the theater. Seconds passed.

“I have no pulse. Confirm, doctor?”

Greg snapped at the sound of Jim’s voice. The training slipped into place and he automatically grabbed Washington’s wrist. Nothing. Through the stethoscope he held to Hadley Washington’s chest, he heard no heartbeat. “I confirm. T.O.D. 11:16 p.m.”

IV

The garage was safe from the gusts of wind outside. Sharon stood in the doorway, wrapped in a bathrobe. She had fallen asleep on the couch but the sound of the garage door had awoken her. Greg looked exhausted. She opened her arms and hugged Greg and he stepped up to the doorway. They held one another for half a minute before she said, “Are you all right?”

“I think so,” Greg said.

“Kids are asleep. I just told them you were working late, like we said,” Sharon said.

“Do you believe, Sharon? When we go to church, and we say all those words, do you believe them?”

Of course he was thinking about religion tonight. “I do,” she said. “Do you? Do you still, after tonight?”

“I don’t remember if I did or not.”

“Do you now?”

“I don’t know anymore. I don’t know tonight.”

He put his arm around her waist and they walked up the stairs to the master bedroom. Once inside, she turned to him again, and put her hand on his cheek.

“I don’t feel anything about that, babe, not right now. Should I?”

“I don’t know how you should feel. I know how I feel. I love you.”

“And I love you,” and he kissed her. She felt his tongue touch her lips.

“You’re kidding,” she whispered when she broke the clinch. “Now? How can you possibly?”

He did not answer her out loud. Instead, he kissed her again and then eased her on the bed. He reached down to pull away her panties from beneath her nightgown, and then freed his own manhood. She was surprised to find herself growing wet for him. He entered her, and climaxed almost immediately.

“Greg? Are you sure you’re all right? I… I need the sink.” But he only withdrew slowly, and when she swung her leg around to get up, he reached for her hand in silence. “Greg, I need to wash after that.”

“I wish you wouldn’t,” was all he said. He let his hand fall away from hers, and sat on the edge of the bed. He looked to see what she would do after she stood up.

 

Note: Thanks to Russell Saunders for his guidance with the medical terminology and techniques. Any error or mistake is attributable solely to the author.
 
Burt LikkoBurt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.

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28 thoughts on “The Executioner

  1. Fine writing, Burt. It created feelings in my that I don’t quite know how to describe. There’s something coldly horrifying about death being turned into a procedure; into just a job to do.
    • Thanks, Rod. I’ve difficulty expressing how terrifying posting this was.

      Lethal injections are, or until very recently were, done in a number of states by doctors or medical techs who are not only unaware of whether they are manipulating the actual lethal agents or saline, but are actually in a different room from the “patient” and can see no one else involved in the procedure. I imagined the three-window administration theater for dramatic purposes.

    • Ditto this.

      I don’t know how many comments you’re going to get on this Burt, it’s a thought provoking piece but a very internal one.

  2. Well done Burt.

    Just a few comments:

    “There’s something coldly horrifying about death being turned into a procedure; into just a job to do.”

    Concurr.

    “I did my duty, son.”

    The guards in the camps did their duty too.

    “He is guilty. A jury said so, and about a dozen judges couldn’t find any reason to say otherwise. If that weren’t true, both he and us wouldn’t be there in the first place.”

    Yep, because the system is perfect and never makes mistakes. The self righteous tell themselves lies so they can dismiss their own guilt.

      • Nope, it’s actually on point.

        The executioner is doing his job. He’s a minor functionary within the state. How many times have you heard this excuse because someone didn’t want to rock the boat, get involved, or stand up and do the right thing? I was following orders, instructions, what I was told.

        “Remember that howsoever you are played, or by whom, your soul is in your keeping alone. Even though those who presume to play you be kings or men of power. When you stand before God, you cannot say “but I was told by others to do thus” or that “virtue was not convenient at the time.” This will not suffice. Remember that.”

  3. (+10) My heart is still tight in my chest, minutes after reading this.
    (-1) 50-year old man with 60- and 65-year old parents?
    (+2) “A razor-thin scimitar of the moon hung low in the sky.”
    • If I revise it further, do I need to make it clearer that the parents watching the execution were parents of the victim rather than the parents of the condemned man?
      • I would say yes.

        “The victim’s family in them all looked alike through the glass, well dressed and ashen-faced. In the middle was a woman of about sixty years, tears running down her face. A man, about sixty-five, held her over her shoulders as he watched at the proceedings on the other side of the glass with a squint. The parents.”

        The parents sounds like a different group than the family.

      • I was confused for a moment–I had to recall their relative ages and the condemned man’s statement that nobody would miss him before I realized they were his victim’s parents.
  4. I’m not sure if there is supposed to be a single interpretation of the ending, but here was what I came up with.

    Greg questions his religion. Presumably this is a reaction to the grand power he was able to assert with no satisfactory explanation of why he was able to assert it. E.g., he was let into the facility because his name was on a list. He was a surgeon because his hands stay steady when nervous. We feel like being able to exert Big, Important Responsibilities should happen for Big, Important Reasons. Perhaps for the first time in his life, Greg saw through this lie.

    The most obvious reason for Greg to crave sex afterwards is to demonstrate to himself that he is still alive. I can’t think of any other “normal” explanations. It seems unlikely that this is deviant behavior because Greg’s thoughts seem otherwise normal. Well, normal for a guy who might volunteer for such a task.

    Why does Greg ask his wife not to leave? I haven’t figured this one out. My hypotheses in order of likelihood are:
    (1) He wants to know whether he is still “good”. If she leaves, he is not.
    (2) He wants the evidence of his being alive around a bit longer. That was the whole point of the sex, and if she washes up, it will be erased.
    (3) He is grieving and simply wants the company.

    • Craving sex after seeing people die is instinctual
      (and kinda dates back to our rat-like ancestors).
      Why else do people get off on vore?
    • I’m particularly interested in peoples’ thoughts about this segment of the piece. I find it difficult to restrain myself from substantively adding to the discussion so as to allow others to work with it on their own, yet I also find that I must do so lest the piece not stand on its own.
      • I’ve tried my hand at the fictional short story form and a good ending is the hardest part to craft. Some stories have a natural ending point, a twist or reveal, and others don’t. In this case, if it was me writing it, I’m not sure I would have taken it much past the actual execution and just let the reader explore on their own how they would have felt about it and handled those feelings.

        Don’t take this is a criticism so much as just my expression of a different artistic choice I would have personally made.

  5. Well done, Burt.

    It does raise a question that I ask myself from time to time: “Why do we put medical or other personnel through this?” Way back in the 70s, when computer room techs would put their heads under a raised floor where the space had been flooded by a halon leak, that you pass out without knowing it’s happening and then quietly suffocate. Even earlier, when I worked in an ag field lab where we had several cylinders of dry nitrogen in the small building, we had oxygen sensors because a large leak from a pressure regulator could lower the oxygen level to the point you would pass out and suffocate without ever noticing the problem. A variation on the theme is marketed (or at least, how-to guides published) for painless suicide. Certainly we could implement this on a room-sized level. Since carrying out the sentence in such a case would involve no more than flipping a switch, it could be done by, say, the prosecutor who sought the death penalty.

    • I have the same questions. Isn’t participating in an execution a violation of the Hippocratic Oath? Now Burt dealt with that issue to some degree it seems with the exchange between the condemned and Greg:
      “You became a doctor to save lives, didn’t you, Emory?” Washington said, his tone lower than it had been in the staging room.

      “I am saving lives tonight.” This was a challenge Greg had anticipated, he had his answer at the ready.

      So he’s rationalized his actions by considering the execution to be analogous to excising a tumor or applying an anti-biotic to the “body” of society. I appreciate the logic of this and can’t actually disagree too strenuously to the principle at least, but his actions following the execution seem to indicate that he doesn’t quite buy it himself, at least not at the gut level.

      ******

      Your suggestion for execution by painless suffocation seems like a decent suggestion to me, if we’re to continue executing people that is, which I oppose. I think we have to ask ourselves what purpose the death penalty serves that isn’t served just as well by life without parole, especially given that the latter preserves the option of reversal in the case of erroneous conviction.

      If the aim is simply retribution and vengeance then it’s hard for me to see how this bloodless, sanitized, “putting the dog to sleep” sort of execution, one or two decades after the initial conviction, serves even that dubious purpose.

      If the aim is deterrence I would submit to you that, again, a gentle sloughing off into that good night, long after the crime has drifted from the public consciousness, hardly serves the purpose.

  6. Thank you, Mr. Likko. Pieces like that are why I come here. Perhaps I could comment further some day, but for the moment I have no words, and nothing even approaching thoughts, except for the recognition that you have done something of remarkable power.
    • While I support the death penalty they shouldn’t have given to Hasan for the simple reason that he wants to be a martyr. Of course I doubt Obama would confirm the sentence anyway, which he is required to do in military death cases. Heck, the DOD won’t even classify this as a terrorist attack but instead calls it workplace violence which screws survivors out of some benefits. I wonder how many of the lefty anti death penalty folks will be out protesting against his execution if it ever comes to pass?
      • I didn’t intend my comment to go in this particular direction but I was probably an idiot to not foresee that it would. We can take this argument to the new sidebar post.
  7. Excellent story — very thought-provoking.

    In a way, this sort of execution absolves all authorities, including the doctors, of much of the moral searching, which I think they need.

    ==============================

    As for why the doctor didn’t want his wife to wash up was that he was thinking that they might create a life to replace the life that he took.

  8. This was extremely well-written, powerful prose.

    Now, I am going to completely destroy the entire story and all of your future dreams by saying that I don’t think Sprite has caffeine. Please forgive me…

    • I guess that’s something else I might need to revise — if it’s unclear that the protagonist drank a Sprite rather than a Coke for the exact reason that Sprite lacks caffeine, then maybe I’ve not communicated that facet of his personality well.

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