Everything is metal on metal at the Ramsey Unit. Doors don’t close, they slam. Prison guards don’t speak, they buzz from behind bullet proof glass. Steady strain.
It’s worse on execution day. The atmosphere is electric, even though in Texas designer drugs have replaced ol’ sparky as the angel of death.
In the 6 by 9 holding cell Sarge awaits his maker. Two chairs, a table, and a clock, gray government issue. One hour left. Nothing prepares a man for this. Not a military career, or even a shooting war.
The door opens and a woman of color slips in. Dressed in black, she brushes aside a knit scarf to reveal a necklace with silver cross hanging from a clerical collar.
“What are you doing here?” he grunts.
“I’m a minister, in case you want to talk,” she responds with a lilt.
“I’ve seen a lot of ‘um in the last month, but none like you. No matter. I’ve been talking for 12 years. No one’s listened yet.”
“You never know,” she replies taking a seat.
On the table is a legal pad. The yellow kind that, though filled with endless notes by nameless lawyers, had proven useless at his trial. Stucco walls stained mustard by years of cigarette smoke complete the motif.
“Can’t believe they’d let a woman in here alone after all their lies.”
She studies his hands, calloused, powerful…. trembling. “I’m not afraid. Everybody in here’s innocent.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“I know a jury said you and your friend raped and killed an Algerian girl in Beaumont.”
He looks down, shaking his head. “They framed me. The shooter croaked and they needed a fall guy.”
“I know you lured her into your place to see pictures of your family,” the minster says softly.
Sarge looks up, eyes squinting. “You’re guessing.”
They sit in silence, thirty minutes left. Leaning forward she whispers, “I know she told you about her father and how much he respected his sergeant.”
Beads of sweat glisten on his brow. Avoiding her gaze he chokes, “How do you know that?” The quiet is deafening.
He glances at the clock. Fifteen minutes to go. He puts his head in his hands. “What do you want, a confession?”
“The facts look bad,” she responds. “Can you blame them for convicting you?”
He grimaces. “Blame them? You mean forgive them don’t you? Now there’s an idea. First they steal 12 years of my life, then finish the job with an arm full of battery acid. Forgive ‘um? Sure. You’d do the same for me, right?”
She touches his sleeve. “Perhaps.”
He pulls his arm away. “You’re no different than the rest. All you want is something for your wall…no, something to sell. Confession from a dead man. Beautiful.”
They wait. He paces, eventually sinking back into a chair. His eyes lock onto the cross swaying from her neck, like the pendulum of a clock. Minutes melt away, his life now parsed into bits each more rare than the last.
The cross is hypnotic, a portal to the past. The year is 1999. He’s with the girl again, so young and fragile….then chaos, a struggle, a shot from behind….she falls to the floor.
The spell is broken by voices outside. “It’s time, Sarge.”
He takes a deep breath, grabs the yellow pad and slashes out the story. Spent, he signs his name, tears off the page, and hands it to her.
“Wait ‘till I’m gone,” he says.
“Did it help?”
“Is confession good for the soul?” he responds. “It might just be my version of things… how they framed me.”
She pats his shoulder. “And, it might be more.”
He looks her in the eye. “It might.”
In an instant she’s gone, supplanted in the doorway by a priest.
The convict turns and looks away. “Another messenger from God?”
“What?” the priest responds breathlessly.
“First her, now you.”
“Who? Don’t know what you’re talking about, but I’ve got news.”
“The execution’s off! You got a stay, a new trial!”
Sarge collapses into a chair. His relief, though, morphs quickly to panic. The yellow note.
“Father. Please find the minster, the black woman. I need to see her!”
The priest puts his arm around the prisoner. “Calm down, Sarge. Try to get some rest.”
On death row, the warden visits cell number 1. “You dodged it, Sarge, but the State’s looking for evidence.”
Sarge leans forward. “Can I please see the lady minister?”
The warden laughs. “Are you kidding? We haven’t had a woman preacher in this prison for years.”
He turns then stops, handing a white box through the bars. “This came for you today. No post mark, no return address.”
Inside a silver cross and necklace lay on a bed of finely shredded paper….yellow paper. The warden walks away. All is quiet on death row except his footsteps, and crying from cell number 1.
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