Yellow Mama Archives

Greg Laughlin
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Art by John and Flo Stanton

The Executioner’s Flight

Greg Laughlin


Let wickedness escape as it may at the bar; it never fails of doing justice upon itself; for every guilty person is his own hangman. – Seneca

I hate mankind, for I think of myself as one of the best of them, and I know how bad I am. - Samuel Johnson

*  *  *

I lay strapped to the table, my arms splayed out to the sides like a child acting the part of a fighter plane. Sweat lubricated the small of my back and palms of my hands. There is no ejection seat in this plane and, even if there was, it wouldn’t work—this plane flies upside down, out of control.

At least it flies. 

I know how I will die. True, I don’t know exactly how I will die, but I know the means . . . the method. I’ve lived with this knowledge for one-thousand nine-hundred and twenty-five days—ever since I was convicted for the murders of three men. Now, for less than a hundred bucks, the State intends to fill my veins with a lethal cocktail of chemicals intended to make my death as painless—for me and those witnessing the snuffing out of my flame—as possible.

The deaths of my three “victims” were not painless. By design, they each died slowly—agonizingly slow for me, because I couldn’t afford to wait around too long. I think, for what they did, they deserved far worse than death. But sometimes convenience—also known as a killer’s instinct to live to kill again—takes precedence over principal. At least I know they suffered. I will always have that.

 “Tell me something, Father,” I started, “if you knew how you would die, would it change the way you lived? If you knew how you would die, would it be a blessing or a burden? Would it paralyze you, consume your thoughts? Because the only thing that consumes my thoughts is that I might not die in there on that table, that they might find a way to screw this thing up.”

“It’s not the way you die that’s important; it’s the way you live,” the priest counseled. “Take care of your life, and death will be easy.”

The priest took a ragged breath, watched the evening shadows advancing toward his feet on the floor. His hands were ghostly white. His palms pressed tightly together to make a steeple, stretching the skin to near transparency over bony fingers.  He looked up and continued, “It’s precisely because we don’t know how we will die, that we live by His rules.”

Without hesitating, he continued, “I’m told that it’s usually painless, and that it always results in cessation of life.”

You have always called it “it,” I thought. Like State-sponsored execution could somehow be less gruesome by going unnamed. As for me, it’s easy. Just a little pin prick and then fade away. “Usually painless?” I asked. “Why should that even be a consideration? I did the crime, now I will pay my debt”—I used the term loosely—“to society.” 

“But you’re a special case, Tommy. Most in your . . . position,” the priest struggled to find the word, and genuine discomfort showed in his face. “Most death row inmates are fighting the system, grasping for any straw that might change their sentence.”

“You make it sound like I have a death wish.”

“No, I—“

“You what, Father?” I asked. “You passed judgment on me the first day you walked on to this unit. You—“

“I do not pass judgment,” he interrupted. “I simply pray for those that do, and pray they find mercy in their hearts.”

“I don’t want mercy, Father!” I was shouting now, knew I needed to calm down.

I tried again, lowering my voice, “Mercy is the last thing I expect. Not from the State and not from God.”

“ ‘For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath showed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.’” The priest whispered now, prepared to stand. “You have passed judgment on yourself, and you have pushed mercy from your heart.”

A thought flashed like fire in my mind.

“Between you and me, Father . . .” I licked my lips to bide my time, to figure out how to word my question. “Have you ever read popular fiction? You know, mysteries, police procedurals, even horror?” This last word came out weaker than I intended, separating it from the others; a psychological spotlight.

His shoulders slumped, betraying the grin spreading across his face. “Why do you ask?”

“Did you ever read the Stephen King story about the boy that meets the devil in the woods?”

Cautiously, he nodded. He had read it. “The boy went fishing in the woods,” the priest began, “After falling asleep, he awoke to find the devil had come for him.  He gave the devil his prize fish and made his escape.” 

“I’m that boy too, Father,” I said, nodding.  “Like that little boy, I can smell the devil’s sulfur, see his fiery eyes. I have been spared. But there is no escape.

“Those men—those monsters I killed—” 

“Tommy,” the priest said and stood up.

“Those monsters that I killed were the devils in the woods. Maybe they didn’t wear black suits or have flames for eyes. Maybe they looked just like you or me. But they were evil. The simple reach of their shadows wilted all that was green and fresh and good and innocent. Nothing they touched was preserved. Their mark will remain with their victims for eternity.”

The priest sat down again.

“I struggle with this, Father,” I confessed. “I believe in the death penalty. As a member of the Bar of this State, I believed in the system, and took an oath to protect it. But when those men walked free with the aid of my zealous defense, the system failed by performing exactly as it was meant to perform.”

“They were your clients?” The priest asked, whispered. His elbows rested awkwardly on his knees. He was again staring blankly, a few feet up on the wall this time. “Your obligation was to your clients.”

“My obligation was to preserve society.” I was numb, and my voice sounded distant, misty. “Do you know that the State passed legislation permitting the death penalty in some child rape cases?”

The priest looked up, horrified.

“Since 1977 this State, and thirty-seven others, has sanctioned the killing of persons convicted of murder. I’m one of those convicted murderers because I executed those monsters that murdered the innocence of their victims, murdered whatever piece of mind I held tight to, every belief I had in mankind to do the right thing.

“Now, just when our society seems to be embracing the idea of vengeance through capital punishment again, the very process of lethal injection is being attacked,” I said.

“Can you believe it?” I asked. My mind was racing. I did not wait for the priest’s input. “The method of punishment is being attacked because it might cause pain, and the condemned murderer might suffer cruel and unusual punishment if the drugs are administered incorrectly. Don’t you see—“

“The irony,” he whispered. “But you would not want to die in pain.”

“I don’t have a choice, and neither do you!” I was frantic now. My guilt and my justification collided. I believed and disbelieved so strongly in what I had done that I wanted to scream.  

“The condemned die a painful death every day they spend on death row. Cruel and unusual punishment? Death is not the beginning of the punishment, it’s the end. If the death penalty is stopped now, because the method might be painful, when will the leak in the dam stop?” I stopped at that point, dried my palms on the knees of my pants, caught my breath before continuing.

“Nothing in life is guaranteed, you see? A painful death is not cruel and unusual. It’s the sentence. The time spent alive, before death, that is cruel and unusual. The victims of the monsters I killed will not have their sentences commuted and, with the help of the Lord, will never feel the need to swallow the barrel of a pistol or free-fall from eighteen stories up.” I remember smiling at that point, thinking back to the King story, and the way the grass turned brown under the devil’s shadow. “Worse yet, those innocent kids may already be dead. Cruel and unusual is their life after death.”

“Life in His service is always worth living,” the priest said emptily.

“I know, Father.” I said. “But those who steal the innocence of children are not lead into His service. Not until it is too late. They must be condemned to die.”

“You robbed those men of the opportunity,” he said, almost defiantly.

“The State can give it to the legion of child predators and rapists that will surely follow. You see, that is my fear, Father. If opponents of the death penalty are successful in their campaign against the chemicals used in administering the injection, it further strengthens their ongoing attack against death in cases of the rape of a child.”

* * *

Until that moment, I had never voiced my thoughts. I am not really sure that my thoughts had a voice until then.

I know that I am afraid.

My heart feels like it could burst through my chest, save the State a few bucks. Sweat now runs across my lips. I imagine the ocean . . . the Pacific Ocean, with its spectacular rock formations and cool sandy beaches. I can taste the salt.

* * *

When the priest spoke again, it startled me. “What do you think the death penalty will do for the victims, for the children?”

“Every victim will be different,” I said. “For some, the healing won’t begin until the devil is defeated. For others, I suspect, the healing will begin as soon as the abuse stops. Others will never heal. It will remain a part of them that can never be released.”

“Some of them will forgive their attackers,” he said. “And if these rapists are executed, the children may even feel responsible for the death of a human being. They will be victimized again”

I nodded in agreement. That argument is already being made as part of the attack, in the U.S. Supreme Court, on the constitutionality of capital punishment in child rape cases. “I know,” I croaked.

* * *

My eyes are closed now, my nasal passages have swelled to the point where little air is getting through. I can’t feel my arms anymore. The plane is going down, spiraling. Mayday, Mayday! Spiraling down. Down. The pressure in my head is incredible. I am able to pray.    

* * *

—“and I am afraid that will continue to be the case.”

He looked at me, perhaps perplexed. “I don’t understand what you mean,” he said. “Fear that some victims—”

“May feel responsible.” I finished his sentence again, looked into his eyes. “I’m confident the Court will not end capital punishment this term. I think that if any change is made at all, it will be to the type of chemicals used or the method of their administration. It will strengthen death penalty opponents’ resolve, though. They will continue to attack capital punishment, keep it in the news, remind us all of the guilt we feel for letting it happen.”

“It sounds to me like you have changed your mind.”

“No. I haven’t changed my mind. I was a lawyer in my past life. Remember? I’ve been trained to look at both sides of the story.”

* * *

I decide to try the ejection seat, knowing it won’t work. Even if this plane won’t fly, maybe my body will. I push the button, suddenly aware that I have use of my hand. The force of the ejection causes me to jump. I shudder and a tiny yelp escapes my pressed lips. Free of the plane, I can breathe again. I blow out lungs full of air.

I float.

Something moves across my chest, and I am aware of sounds as I move through the clouds.


Faintly at first, then getting louder, I hear the mellow crooning of Roger Waters and Pink Floyd singing “Comfortably Numb.”

I reach for my cell phone.

* * *

“Newchuck,” I announce into the phone.


It’s Liz, my paralegal.

“You’re supposed to be down here to receive the verdict. Where are you?”

Shaking sleep from my mind, I say, “At the office. I forgot something last night and came by here to get it. What time is it?”

“Time for you to get your head in the game and get down here. You know this jury could—”

“I’m on my way.” I’m obviously getting good at this interruption thing. Besides, I know what she’s going to say. My client, like so many before him, stands accused of some of the most heinous acts against a child imaginable. I’ve defended him with the zeal of a rookie advocate and the conscience of a condemned man. After a brilliant closing argument yesterday, I expect an acquittal. “By the way Liz, have you seen him this morning? Have you seen Doug?”

“Yeah, dropped off his suit to him this morning. He looks . . . bad. Like he’s seen a ghost or something. He’s all pale and clammy-looking. Almost hollow.”

Good, I think, he got my message. I glance down at the photographs in my hand, and have to concentrate not to ball them up in my white-knuckled grip. “Bastard,” I say under my breath.


“I said ‘bastard,’ Liz. Doug is a bastard who abuses innocent children. And he’s about to walk free. Looks bad, does he? I’ll bet he—”

“But Tommy . . . you don’t really believe he could do what they say he did. Do you?”

“I know he did. I talked to his wife, to the parents of his victims, and I know what he’s done.”

“But you’ve been so passionate in defending him. You’re such a good lawyer, such a good man.”

“Am I, Liz? A good man, I mean?” Because that’s more important than being a good lawyer. “Good lawyers come cheap. Good lawyers know the rules of law and how to use them. They have no need for the rules of mankind unless, that is—”

“Tommy!” she said. I could almost see the way her neck muscles tightened to prevent her from shouting. “You are a good man because you use the rules of law to ensure the legal system works properly. You can’t be one without the other.”

That’s one perspective, I think. The system, as she puts it, is imperfect. No. The system is fatally flawed at its base. “The laws of man presume the justice of its actions. But you see, Liz, justice is not a creation of man.. We simply punish and reward. Justice is what you do with it.  Justice is what the accused—guilty or innocent—do with it.  Justice is what the victims do with it.” In my head I compare what I’ve just said to the soft repetition of the Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” and think maybe those boys weren’t too far off.

“Look,” I said. “I’m just tired. When this is all over, I’m retiring.”

“You’re not going to quit, Tommy. Your clients depend on you.”

“That argument just won’t fly anymore. I’m through.”

“What do you think you will do? You’ll go crazy.”

“Not really sure what I’ll do.” But whatever it is, it starts today. Whatever it is, Doug doesn’t ever live another peaceful minute on this earth. I look again at the photographs in my hand. “Whatever it is, it will be just us.”

I flick the syringe, cap it. Put it in my desk drawer with the photographs. I’ve copied the State’s lethal injection recipe. Well, part of it at least. There will be no final prayer, no drifting off to sleep before the vital organs shut down. The photographs will be the last thing he sees. He will inject himself and suffer excruciating panic when the paralysis spreads through his limbs and across his chest, closing first his throat, then advancing towards his heart and lungs. His stomach will clinch as his bowels loosen. He will die knowing, alone in the woods.

But no one need ever know.

Greg is an avid reader and fan of fiction who only recently started submitting his own fiction works for publication. His flash fiction can be found in the June issue of Pen Pricks and upcoming releases of Flashshot. His non-fiction case note, The Court Means What it Says As it Gives One Sixth Amendment Exclusionary Defense a Christian Burial, was published in the South Texas Law Review, Vol. 43. 

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