hunched at his plain table, his back to the corner of the room. His face was
lit by the reading lamp with a cocked elbow that perched on a corner of the
table. Laid out before him was a deck of cards, arranged as for solitaire but
still waiting on his first trick. The shard of light revealed a half-empty coffee
mug, its contents long cooled, and a pitcher of water with a plastic beaker to
the side. The glow of the lamp shone at an angle across the table, casting
short shadows of pitcher, beaker and mug onto the cards. Jack's freshly shaved jaw
caught the light. Otherwise, everything was smothered in darkness so thick it
would move if touched. Jack pressed the heel of his hand against his chest in
small, circular motions.
towards the door, feeling a disruption to the stillness. He opened his mouth as
though to speak. Without a sound, he gestured to the empty chair facing him.
crossed the room and folded his long body onto the chair.
he said, "it's nice to meet you."
"I've only ever been called that here."
Jack answered. "It's not a measure of respect."
looked at the
man. “Call me Jack," he said.
"Sure", the man said as he placed
his hands on the table, drumming lightly with his fingers. "How are you,
"Living the dream ," Jack said,
twisting his lip into a grin. It was something he had heard people say. He
liked the tone. It was as good a response as any.
seem surprised?" the man said.
looked to left and right. He raised his hands as though to introduce the room.
said at last, "but aren't you early?"
"Yes, of course," the man said.
"I thought we might talk a while."
his chair, dropping his eyes from those of his visitor. He picked up an ace
from the deck and turned it over.
to an arrangement?" he asked after a few moments, raising his eyes. The
man was certainly tall, his body lean and strong. His features were distinct,
his skin smooth. His age was impossible to guess, the unblemished face that showed
no sign of wear contrasted with the greying locks that swept to the shoulders.
He was handsome of a sort, Jack thought, girls would like the groomed,
met with a burst of laughter, loud and earthy, amplifying the silence that
surrounded them. Jack searched for mockery in the man's tone but found none.
man said at last, "You flatter me, Jack. I am honoured you consider me
reasonable, someone ready to bargain. Unfortunately, you inflate my position if
you think I have either authority or discretion in these matters. I have
way?" Jack tried again, his voice little more than a whisper.
way," the man echoed, uttering each word with firm clarity.
cards and shuffled.
play?" Jack said, placing two cards face down in front of his visitor.
"Why not?" the man replied.
"Just be mindful. You will win some. I will win some. It will make no
Jack said as he picked up his cards.
silence. Jack stirred, tossed his cards onto the pile and sat back into the
chair. He reached to a shelf directly behind and brought forward an ashtray
with three crooked butts. From his pocket, he produced a small silver box. He
removed two papers and a small ball of tobacco and quickly rolled two
cigarettes. He offered one to his companion and placed it into the box when it
was declined. From his other pocket, he removed a brass-coloured petrol
lighter. On his third attempt, the wick caught light. He squinted at the bright
flame as he brought it to the cigarette and drew deeply. With a cough, he
cleared his throat, breathed audibly and watched the grey smoke dance around
"What's it like?” he asked. He pinched
the cigarette between thumb and forefinger, removed it from his mouth and blew
on the lighted end. Tiny sparks flew from the smoke and disappeared into the
"You will know soon enough," the man
answered with authority.
"You’ve got to give me something?" Jack
"It makes no difference," the man
said. "Nothing I could say would be of use to you. Besides, someone might
believe you." The man smiled gently, raising his index finger to his nose
and tapped lightly.
on the cigarette, held the smoke momentarily and exhaled. He stubbed out the
cigarette and returned the ashtray behind. He was tired and raised no argument.
"So be it," he conceded.
there came the sound of crisp, rhythmic steps. A flap on the darkened door was
lifted. A pair of illuminated eyes looked in the darkness and asked, "You
ok, Mr Mackey?"
"All good," Jack replied and raised
his thumb to confirm. The flap dropped and the crisp, rhythmic steps faded back
fifteen minutes," Jack said, “seems I'm on suicide watch."
"Go figure," the man replied as he
sat back down.
come here, you know, on these nights," the man said, breaking the silence
once more. "In here, there's theatre but no drama, no pleading, no
screaming. There will be no-one shedding tears for you."
the man's eyes. The words held no cruelty beyond their truth, no judgement.
"The only tears will be for a boy long gone, an anguish that is buried in
time to surface briefly in a mother who has long abandoned comfort. You will be
gone and she will feel no better. But my job, you understand, is uncomplicated."
seemed to deepen around the man as he spoke, stirring something in Jack's gut.
He swallowed, grimacing as a rising bile threatened to overcome his efforts.
making it easy for you," he said, the venom of the bile infusing his words
with a bitter sarcasm.
"uncomplicated," the man said. “Not easy. Never easy." The man's
tone was almost soothing.
Jack snapped. “I think we’re done here. Maybe you should go. Leave me in peace."
He started to rise from his chair but his legs did not respond.
"I can do that. Sure. Are you at peace?"
the man's voice anchored Jack's panic, pulling him from the swirling images
that flooded his mind, scenes of violence and its aftermath, nameless faces
mingling with those more familiar. He concentrated on the face of his visitor,
the depth of his dark eyes transfixed. He could breathe again, the tightness in
his chest eased and he felt fluid, as though only his skin held him from
flowing free onto the floor.
done," Jack said, his voice lowered. He looked across the table and
scrutinised the man's features. "I was never meant for peace."
"That is a choice you make," the man
head, touching his shoulder with his chin, straining until he heard the
clicking of his vertebrae, and then repeated to the other side.
"Too late now," Jack said.
"That, too, is a choice," the man
"I've my whole life ahead of me,"
Jack mumbled, entwining his fingers as he raised his eyes to meet those of his
against the chair. "Where else would it be? Six years, six months or six
hours. It will always come to this. It is a curious thing but people feel
immortal until the very last moment. The resistance starts with knowing the end
was drawn to
the soft tone, lulled by the gentle lilt in the man's accent that betrayed
neither time nor place. "Go on," he said, resting his elbows on the
leaned forward, paused briefly, then said, "I come to everyone eventually.
Sometimes in shock, sometimes expected, sometimes even welcomed. I will be
meeting three wardens from this place before this year is out. Two of them have
no idea, so carry on with absolute confidence. Only when I stand before them
will they admit my existence. You, my friend, do not have that luxury. Your
fate has long been sealed by twelve of your peers."
cigarette box again. He offered his guest the cigarette. Anticipating the
refusal, he lit the cigarette. Blowing the smoke from his mouth, he grinned as
he spoke. "Name the three," he said and both men laughed.
of him?" the man asked.
"The boy? Yes. Every day," he
"You wish you could go back, do things
"I think about that day every day,
running it over and over of how it all happened, imagining I had gone left
instead of right. I never meant to hurt him, you know. I want that to be clear.
I was strung out, the sickness was really bad. I couldn’t get right until I
cleared some debts. I just wanted the money. He had to be the fucking hero. He
reached for a gun under the counter. I reacted, shot him first. He should've
just given me what I needed."
without moving, listening without comment.
truth," Jack pressed, speaking more quietly, leaning forward so that half
his face was entirely illuminated. "Bad shit happens. You know this. I
know this. We all know it. At that moment, it was him or me."
the man said. "You’re a victim in all this as well as that kid working in
the store?" The tone was neutral but Jack shifted in his seat,
not the same," he said, "hands up I did wrong but it wasn't what I
set out to do."
"Interesting, don't you think, the lies
we tell ourselves," the man said, looking straight at Jack. He casually
moved forward to meet Jack’s intense gaze and rested his chin on his hand. He
ignored Jack's interruption and continued, "I find it curious that we
often reveal more about ourselves in the lies we choose than the truths we tell."
himself, holding his shoulders rigid. "It's what happened.”
"No Jack. We both know different."
admitted my crime," Jack said, his eyes moistened, catching the light.
"I'm paying for it. I had no choice."
"I was there, Jack. You know this to be
true. You know I know."
"He went for a gun..."
"There was no gun."
under the counter... "
"He never moved."
"You never spoke."
"I just wanted the money...”
"You never asked for the money."
"I'm sorry...” Jack broke off, his face
contorted, his eyes clenched shut, his mouth open in a silent scream. "I'm
sorry," he repeated. He buried his face in his hands and emitted a muffled
tall man placed
his hand on Jack's shoulder. "I'm not here to judge," he said.
looked up at
the man, his eyes reddened. Barely audible, he said again, "I'm sorry."
stared at the
"I went into that store just looking for
money to get high," he said. "I had the shotgun under my
jacket." He looked up at the man. "I'd never even held one before."
no-one in the store except the young kid behind the counter. He was talking to
someone on his phone and laughed at something that was said. He was young, not
even out of his teens but looked so much at ease, confident and unashamed. He
saw me coming and signed off his call with "love you". He was
ordinary and uncomplicated and happy. Fuck, I hated him, hated him more than I
have ever hated anything. I wanted to rip him apart. I went right up to the
counter, pulled out the shotgun and gave him a few seconds to see the world for
what it is. He was about to speak when I pulled the trigger. There was blood
everywhere. I looked down at him as he gasped for the last time and watched him
die. Even then, I had no regrets, just felt a calm come over me. Here now, I'm
not proud but back then…I felt sated. I walked out of the store with the
shotgun held high, didn't even take the money. I thought the police would end
it quickly but, here we are."
behind again for his tobacco tin and rolled a rough cigarette with trembling
the man said, smiling broadly, "it's a pleasure to finally meet you."
He lit Jack’s lighter and held it to the cigarette. Jack drew in the black
quietly, ruefully. "Truthfully, I do regret killing that kid. I heard
afterwards his mother was still on the line, heard everything. I can't imagine what
that did to her. I destroyed her life just as much as his."
all that torments you tonight," the man said.
"I think often about my mother,"
Jack said, feeling no urge to disguise his pain. "She had a tough life. She
deserved better. Better than him. Better than me." Jack paused as his
voice quivered. "I've done lots of bad things, things I wish I could
change. If you gave me the choice, first on that list to change is the lie I
told her as she lay dying. I promised her that I would stay clean, that I'd do
it in her memory. I made a solemn vow that she could pass peacefully knowing I
was okay. Even when I was saying it, I had two bags of heroin in my jacket. I
went to the backstairs in the hospital and smoked one when she was sleeping.
When I came back, she was dead.”
never lost sight of you, you know," the man said, lowering his eyes to
"Yeah. She could always see through me,"
yes, but that's not the same thing. When she looked at you, she still saw the
baby she had held, the little boy of six years looking through broken glass in
her mother’s house while his parents were led to city vehicles with flashing
lights, your father in handcuffs, your mother on a stretcher. Her heart broke
every time you got into trouble and she always held herself responsible for the
life you lived."
only good thing in my life," Jack said, a tear gathering at his cheek.
"And you in hers, I imagine," the
"Will I see them...afterwards?" Jack
asked, uncertain of what answer he wanted.
"I can't tell you what is to come. All I
will say is this; don't fight me."
man rose from
the chair and placed his hand against Jack's face. He wiped the tear. "Go
easy," he said.
again. The pain had left his chest and he sat back against the chair.
Nugent is Irish, aged 53 years, married for 24 years with two adult children. He
is new to creative writing and the above story is his first completed short
story, which he started when attending a creative writing class in 2018.
He has written a number of short
stories, flash and novelettes that he will sending out for consideration. Black
Petals is happy that we could give him his first publication.