Inside the small, windowless booth of the execution chamber, I was prepping the equipment and dosing the chemicals. We were hours away from the appointed time. The work normally takes fifteen minutes on a bad day, but I could barely concentrate. I was more nervous than the first time I’d performed an execution. My eyes were clouded with tears and my hands trembled as I filled the syringes and transferred the chemicals into canisters so they could disperse into the veins of the convicted. They could have postponed the execution but somehow I’d been able to convince everybody I could do it. I shouldn’t have been there.
I sank onto the stool. I covered my eyes with my left hand and banged the metal table with my right fist. I was losing it. I shouldn’t have been there.
But I also knew that it was the safest place for me. If I hadn’t followed through with my duty and gone to work that day, I would have been at home, wallowing in my grief. God knows what I might have done. All I wanted was to see my wife, in this world or the next. The execution chamber, a room filled with massive quantities of lethal chemicals, was the safest place for me. I had a job to do, and that was the only thing pulling me forward.
I buried my head in my hands and shook with grief. I yelled to myself, and the noise echoed off the concrete.
Suddenly the phone rang.
I had never heard the phone in the booth ring before. To my knowledge, only one person in the state, the Governor, had the number to that phone. That phone served only one purpose, and it was far too early for the Governor to be calling to stay the execution. That had never happened, not one time in my ten years, and even if he wanted it stopped, he still had plenty of time to go through the normal channels.
I stared at it as it rang. It rang twice, three times.
I lifted the receiver to my ear. “Hello?”
Someone chuckled on the other end.
“Who is this?” I demanded.
“Kurt, Kurt, Kurt…” the voice taunted me. “He who lives by the sword…”
I could hear him breathe, but I didn’t recognize the voice.
“Who is this!?” I yelled into the phone.
“This is judgment day, Kurtis,” the phone clicked dead.
“Hello?” I frantically pushed the switch hook. “Who is this?”
There was no response. I banged the phone back into its cradle and sank to the floor. I balled my hands into fists and pounded the floor. I bit my lower lip until I tasted the blood.
I clenched my jaw and yelled through my teeth. Suddenly I knew. Something snapped inside of me. Like when a burglar breaks into a man’s house in the middle of the night, and a formerly-peaceful man will stop at no violence to protect his family. Like when the minutemen heard the call that started the Revolutionary War. Through my grief, I saw a greater clarity than I’d ever seen before, and I saw a path of action laid out before me, and I knew I had no choice.
Trembling, I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and dialed my son. He picked up on the second ring.
“Hey, Michael,” I said, struggling to calm my quivering voice. “It’s so good to hear your voice.”
My only son, my world—strong and insightful. He continuously surprised me with glimpses of the man he would become. I don’t know why I thought I could fool him.
“Dad, what’s going on?”
“Michael, when you get home, I’m going to tell you something about Mom.”
“Listen, I can’t talk right now, but I need you to know that Daddy’s going to take care of this.”
“Dad, what are you—”
“Michael, I can’t explain. I’m so sorry, buddy, I’m so, so sorry. But I’m going to do what it takes. I love you more than anything.” I tried to fight back the tears. “You’re the best thing I ever did, Michael. I can’t let this stand. For you, for me, for your Mom, we’re going to make this right. I’m the only one who can do this. You hear me?”
“Dad, you’re scaring me—”
“You trust me, don’t you?”
“Sure, but why—“
“I’ve got to go, Michael. I’ll make it right, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to call you next. I love you. Know that I’ll always love you.”
I heard him say he loved me too as I hung up the phone and powered it off. And then I wept.