GM: “In CASH? What is this, 1995?!” Lena sputters.
“A few years rather later. Knowing your brother, though, I’d rather not have any paper trail linking us,” Villars replies with an oily grin that all but dribbles down his face.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Ah-ah, if you want my advice, I’m billing you by the hour.”
“This is highway robbery. It’s a simple phone number!”
“Yes, it is. And yes, it’s that too. You do seem fairly desperate.” Villars draws out the pause. “Of course, if you’d rather Bud come by the house when you’re away, and find Em missing… he doesn’t like surprises very much. I suppose he could always stop by somewhere else. Like your childrens’ schools, to pick them up… what grade is your youngest in? Kindergarten?”
The leer on Villars’ face looks like he could swallow a spider without pausing.
“Bud loves kids. Why, he has a little girl who-”
“No! We’ll pay. We just… need a little time to get the money together.”
Villars grins. “Don’t worry about making my deadlines, Eveline.”
“You’ve got far bigger problems.”
GM: “Hello, are you Mrs. Merinelli?”
Lena looks between the two police officers at her front door. “I am. Can I help you?”
“Yep, by coming quietly. You’re under arrest.”
Lena blinks. “I’m sorry?”
GM: “So, let me try to summarize this,” the lawyer frowns. “You’d kept silent about your brother’s criminal activities for years. Your brother murdered Miguel Rodriguez in his apartment, and several other men with the aid of accomplices, over a cocaine deal gone sour. In retaliation, Rodriguez’ friends kidnapped your brother and cut off his legs.”
“He went to the hospital, and was arraigned for a variety of misdemeanors. He paid his attorney’s fees with a loan from… the Mob, and they threatened to kill his family—that is, your family—if he didn’t repay them. After he told you this, you paid his attorney $5,000 cash so that you could contact the Mob and pay them the $11,000.”
“I don’t mean to belabor the point, but… you realize how that missing money looks, the same time as this drug deal gone sour?”
Lena spreads two hands that are cuffed to the table. “I know it sounds ridiculous.”
“Well, moving around $11,000 simply isn’t possible for you right now. And the police protecting your family over your brother’s word is unlikely too. However, there is another angle to this. It’s possible that your brother was lying to you. Asking for $16,000 could have simply been an attempt to defraud you, before he was caught for murder. This Villars could have been his partner.”
“You think I actually trust anything he said?” Lena scoffs. “I’m just not going to gamble my children’s lives that he was lying.”
“Well, if you believe him, the most they can do is get out of town. As for your plea bargain, I think I can get you down to just five years as an accessory to murder…”
GM: A boy sobs against a man’s chest. “I don’t wanna move, Dad.”
The man gives his shoulder a squeeze. “I’m sorry, kiddo. I’d like to stay too.”
A girl cries. “W… why can’t we?!”
The man is silent for a moment as he tries to piece together an explanation. “Mommy lost her medical license when she went to prison. That means she can’t be a doctor anymore when she comes home.”
The man tries to say something comforting, about how everything will turn out all right. The boy cries some more. “I—I don’t wanna go. I don’t want her… to go. I don’t…”
The man struggles to keep his face composed. His failure gives his children their first memory of seeing their father cry.
“Neither do I, sweetie… neither… do I.”
GM: “…hello, sir. We’re here on behalf o’ yer brother-in-law. Might we step in?” the smiling man asks as he does just that, closing the front door behind him. Daniel Merinelli barely has a chance to yell before his guest sharply yanks his arms behind his back in a painful lock, while a young girl in cowboy boots plasters duct tape over his mouth.
“I helped!” Sue smiles.
“Thatcha did, darlin’,” Bud grins.
“Yessir,” he drawls as he casually breaks the thinner man’s left arm, “this is mighty overdue.”
“I’m a patient man, see,” he continues over Dan’s muffled screams, "and three months ain’t that long in the grand scheme. Long ‘nough fer things with yer family and the cops ta blow over. Lot o’ time fer your brother’s interest ta rack up, too. By ma count, he owes us thirty-one thousand, three hundred and eighty-four dollars, and twenty-eight cents.”
“That there is compound interest,” Bud explains as he breaks Dan’s right arm with another sickening crunch. “It makes the math all funny.”
The tape-gagged man gives a strangled half-scream, half-moan as tears well from his eyes.
Bud exaggeratedly cocks a hand to his ear. “Whas’ that? Yer gabbin’. I can’t understand a word yer sayin’.”
Snot leaks from the crying man’s nose.
“I won’t charge ya the twenty-eight cents, though. Heck, we can even roun’ down to jus’ three-eighty dollars. I’m a man who likes ta do things nice an’ even.”
Bud clucks his tongue as he looks around the home’s living room, dragging the shattered-armed man along by the scruff of his shirt. “Y’all ain’t as rich as I thought. Losin’ yer doctor wife musta tightened some belts. Still, ‘tween yer car, ’lectronics, and credit cards, I’ll get ma ten-kay investment more than back.”
Sue smiles and pulls off Dan’s shoes. Then his socks. Bud pats her head and drawls at his equal parts bewildered and moaning victim, “Sadly fer y’all, that ain’t all I’m here fer.”
Sue plasters some more strips of duct tape over Dan’s mouth.
“Yer brother’n law owes us some other interest. I’m here fer that too.”
Dan snorts more snot over his tape gag, his eyes wide and feverish.
“Thank ya, Sue, that’ll do jus’ dandy,” Bud smiles at the girl, then smashes her passed sledgehammer over Dan’s bare feet.
Bud brings down the hammer over Dan’s other foot.
“Ooh hoo, bullseye!” Bud whoops. Flecks of blood coat his wide smile. “Ya e’er hit the center o’ the big-toe-nail jus’ likeyat, an’ see the bits go a-flyin’ everywhere?”
Dan screams past the gag. “MMM-MMMMMMM!!!”
“Nah, don’t reckon you have. It’s like hittin’ one o’ em,” Bud snaps his fingers, “whatcha-ma-call-’em’s, at the state fair? Ah, can’t remember the name. It’ll come ta me, though.” His smile widens. “Things have a way o’ comin’ back ta me. They always do, in the end.”
Buds sucks his gums. “Shit, if ma eyes ain’t lyin’, I think some o’ yer toenail jus’ landed in that outlet!”
Dan brokenly sobs and convulses. His tape gag bulges as beads of sweat trickle down his reddened, snot-nosed face. His head shakes as choke-like noises rasp from his throat.
“Don’t go throwin’ up now,” Bud chides. “I seen more painful ways ta go, son, but you believe me, there ain’t many pansier ways than chokin’ ta death on yer own barf.”
The crippled man’s eyes roll back in his head.
Dan sets down the sledgehammer and walks up to the house’s stairs. He then turns and smiles, “Don’t go a-runnin’ now,” with a wag of his finger.
Sue smiles. “I helped!”
Bud comes back downstairs with two crying, squirming burdens slung under each arm. Duct tape is plastered over their mouths and hands. The broken-limbed man screams past his gag and thrashes impotently in place. Sue sets up a video camera, aims it at the kitchen, and skips off.
“They got chipmunk-cheeks like that ’cuz I stuffed socks up their traps,” Bud explains as he lays down the sobbing children on the breakfast bar, belly-first. “This part gets a lil’ noisy.”
The girl gives a muffled scream and kicks at Bud’s hands.
The big man clucks his tongue, scoops up both children under the crook of one elbow, and pulls open the freezer door. He tosses out ice cream cartons and bags of frozen fruit and vegetables, sticks the now even fiercer-struggling girl inside, then closes the door.
“Don’t worry, I’ll have ‘er out ’fore her teeth e’en chatter,” Bud remarks over her father’s renewed scream-muffles. “Yessir, she’s a-gonna get hotter’n sweatier than a sinner in church, soon ’nough.”
But flicks on the video camera one-handed. The little boy hoisted over his shoulder just cries.
“Y’all will ‘scuse Sue takin’ off. But ya know there’s people who’ll pay top dollar ta jack off ta this?” Bud casually asks as he slams Noah face-first onto the ‘set.’
Twisting the burner stove’s knob to 400 degrees only takes him a second.
The family’s screams last far longer.
GM: Em’s heard as much about prison as any moderately well-to-do white boy has. He’ll wear an orange jumpsuit. There are racially segregated gangs. He shouldn’t drop the soap.
Death row hasn’t been much of anything.
Twice a week, Emmett strips to his boxers and is escorted, handcuffed, to a shower where his cuffs are removed and he is permitted to luxuriate under lukewarm water for ten minutes. The rest of his existence is spent locked in a 6-by-9 concrete cage for 24 hours a day. The toilet is an arm’s length away from his bed. There are no windows or natural light.
At some unknown time, for Em has neither a clock nor other means to track the sun’s passage, breakfast carts rattle across the concrete outside. The first sounds of his morning repeat the last sounds of night—remote-controlled locks clanging open and clunking closed, electric gates whirring, heavy metal doors crashing shut, voices wailing, klaxons blaring. A prison’s maximum security wing has no soft or delicate sounds.
At that interval, a ruler-sized slot opens in Em’s featureless concrete box. A tray with powdered eggs, undercooked grits, and a plastic spork is wordlessly pushed through. Em never sees the face of whoever feeds him. It could be a man. It could be a woman. It could be Bud. Christina Roberts. Bert Villars. Maybe even Lena.
Em hauls back his tray and eats from it over the stumps that used to be his legs. Sometimes there is a cockroach for him to squash. When he is finished he returns the tray to the slot and goes back to sleep. Sleeping, he soon learns, is the best way to pass time on death row.
He can’t sleep for long enough. Later, though Em cannot tell at what time, more food is deposited through the slot in his cage. It is a thin sandwich, carton of milk, and runny mashed potatoes without gravy. Em can lose maybe another hour with a nap after lunch.
He has heard of a luxury called “the canteen.” Men in prison maintain a type of bank account where they can deposit money sent from family and friends. Once a week, such men can fill out an order sheet and spend up to $99 on cigarettes, chips, soap, soup, sandwiches, pastries, and even shoes. Their goods are delivered through the grill in their cells several days later.
Em cannot buy anything from the canteen. No one sends him money.
Dinner comes an unknown span of time after lunch. It consists of a processed pork chop, piece of liver, or half-raw chicken together with more potatoes. Potatoes come in each of his meals. Prisons, he soon learns, have a million ways to serve potatoes.
Visitors’ days are on Sundays. Em is authorized to receive a single visitor between 9 AM and 3 PM. The visitor can purchase items from vending machines and share a single hug or kiss (but not both) with him.
Em receives no visitors. Sundays are the same as any other day.
Em knows that he will eventually face execution by lethal injection, and his monotonous existence will come to an end. He does not know when. Some inmates are said to die of old age while on death row. The monumental task that is every condemned man’s burden until he is permitted to die is how to fill the hours until he can sleep again. His options are few. He can watch black and white non-cable TV, if he’s earned that as a reward for good behavior, but Em isn’t sure how he’s supposed to demonstrate good behavior. He can do his laundry by running his clothes through the toilet and hanging them up to dry. He can talk to himself, endless disembodied and mostly inane chatter. He can lie on his thin three-inch mattress and think. And think. And think.
Sleep eventually comes, and for a few hours, he has a preview of existence after he faces the needle. Then sleep recedes and he is back in his concrete cage. Another day on death row begins. It unfolds in almost exactly the same way, then it ends. More days pass. Then even more days. Maybe they grow into weeks. Maybe months. Maybe years. Em cannot say. He has no piece of chalk to mark the days with like he’s seen inmates do in movies. He can feel hair growing on the face he has no mirror to gaze upon. His constant companion, like a grim reaper hovering over his shoulder, is the knowledge that he will die. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps after a month. Perhaps after many years.
Eventually, he will get to sleep forever.
Emmett: For now, though, he dreams.
A king of two courts, a crown made of teeth and a smile made of gold. He does not dream of walking. He flies, over New Orleans. He points and laughs at a vomit-streaked hustler with a badge. He cries over the Quarter, and his tears look like snowflakes, and Maya and Noah laugh and swallow them whole like pills.
He hovers over prince Talal al-Faisal al-Saud’s penthouse. Did that castle ever seem so close? He sits in Bud’s lap. “Hello,” he says into a phone. “Goodbye!" Breaking bones answer, and screams hang up on him.
He flies towards the sun. He can make it out of here, he knows. Nothing can keep Emmett Delacroix down. He soars. His wings melt like ice in untouched water, and he falls—he lands in a booth in Café Soulé, across from Christina Roberts. Anastasia is his waitress. She pours him a cup of cyanide. It smells delicious.
“Maybe you should try being smarter,” Roberts says with Villars’ rasping lungs.
“Maybe,” he admits. “Maybe.” He drinks. She tuts and her spoon gouges the crust of her soup, and she slurps, slurps, and he plunges forward, burning, scalding… hell smells like onions.
Clarice is on her bed, dying, though she doesn’t remember what that is. She doesn’t even recognize him. He leans forward and whispers, “You’re going to burn for what you did, you know?” She opens her eyes and whispers, “You too.”
Emmett doesn’t know where he is. Or when. Death row is like the womb; everything is noise and waiting, and he doesn’t know what for.
It echoes, a meaningless question. There is no more too late. There is no arrival, there is no departure. He’s just a cripple stuck in time.
What should he say? Is he sorry? Only that he failed. Does that make him a monster? If that’s all a monster is, how do most people live with themselves? What should he have done different, anyway? Lied to himself, and not everybody else? If being a good person means being a fucking idiot like Mercurial Fernandez, then what the hell is the—
Mouse probably doesn’t know he got arrested. Probably broke his back, asking for money. Oh, that’s funny. He’s still hurting somebody. Maybe Mouse will even try to have a concert.
“Ha. Hahahaha. HAHAHAHA…!”
Laughing burns his throat, but he swallows the pain like a pill. Everything is so goddamn funny. There is no punchline, there is no final bow. He probably can’t pull one off anyway, without legs.
They’re yelling at him now, to shut his mouth. They want him to die quietly, too. But there’s no quiet for people like Emmett Delacroix. They boo. He pays them no mind. He deserves a standing ovation. Somebody should throw him a bouquet. The noise inside his head is drowned in the laughter. He claps for himself, because nobody else will. And then there’s no noise at all, except the rushing of curtains, curtains for Emmett…
GM: A white concrete cross sits among a field of other crosses: the true crop of the Farm, officially known as Louisiana State Penitentiary. Each cross is spaced exactly three feet away from its neighbors laterally and nine feet longitudinally. Such sameness is only possible at a place like Angola. Even the dead still wear uniforms. Simple plaques are inscribed with DOC numbers, names, and dates by which sentences could no longer continue to be served.
The undertaker’s spade shovels on the last of the earth.