I woke to what was most likely my last glimpse of sunlight. A shaft of light entered my cell for a few minutes every day at dawn. It was the only charm that the filthy cell could boast of. I touched my chest and wondered if the sharp pain near my heart meant a broken rib. Odds were I wouldn’t live long enough to find out. Certainly not long enough to heal.
I hadn’t just sat on my hands waiting for my appointment with the guillotine. During the first ten days in prison, I tried to start a riot, but one of the people I talked to turned out to be a snitch, and the guards nipped that in the bud. Then I tried to break out. Twice. I got caught both times. After the second attempt, the prison officials got fed up with my antics. The guards beat me up until I wished I were dead and threw me back in solitary for the rest of the last week.
Expecting the guards to arrive any minute, I sat on the bed in the best imitation of Lotus Pose I could manage and tried to look relaxed. My OCD mind, however, went in a hundred different directions.
Waiting on death row for execution, knowing the exact day and time of your death, was agonizing psychological torture. I considered myself a brave man, but I couldn’t eat and barely slept the last couple of days.
It wasn’t just thinking about death which became more and more unavoidable the closer I got to the execution date that clawed at my soul. All men must die, after all. It was thinking about my life, the mistakes I’d made, and the things I could’ve done differently that was killing me, no pun intended. If I knew I’d die before my twenty-ninth birthday, I’d have made a lot of different decisions. I might’ve paid more attention to religion and spirituality instead of labeling myself agnostic and not even bothering to spend a little time thinking about life after death. I should’ve visited my parents’ graves more often. We were not close. My father was so consumed with his aspiration for global peace he didn’t have time for anything else in his life, and mom was schizophrenic, living in a different world where I didn’t exist. She’d died in a long-term care facility, surrounded by a collection of dolls she had conversations with about sex, cannibalism and demonic possession. For all intents and purposes, I’d grown up an orphan, but this was no excuse. And I’d have proposed to Liz much earlier, even though if I’d done it too early, she might have said no.
I was in jail for only two weeks, but that was enough for something to change in me. It was one thing to hear about the regime’s brutality while living comfortably in a bubble; it was a different thing to experience it firsthand. They kept Kurt, Allen and me separated, but we could talk to the other prisoners. I met fathers who’d lost their sons under torture, or whose daughters had been executed by a firing squad. I met husbands whose wives had committed suicide in jail or died trying to defend them against Zheng’s goons. And there were children in jail, lots of them, imprisoned for “crimes” ranging from carrying messages for the Resistance to throwing rocks at security forces. The depth of human misery I witnessed in jail had been haunting my dreams.
I wondered why I didn’t have any of the problems I’d seen in the movies about jail. Things involving showers and soap. I chose not to interpret this as an affront to my attractiveness. I was quite a catch: tall and muscular, with crystal blue eyes, light brown curly hair, and a square chin. Other inmates left me alone because I looked like I could defend myself. The fact that everyone knew I was associated with Kurt and Allen and nobody wanted to mess with those two probably played a small role too.
The door of my cell opened. Four guards carrying assault rifles and heavy chains walked in. They wore dark-brown uniforms and looked grim. I knew all of them. These were the same assholes who beat me up a few days ago.
My stomach twisted so hard I would have thrown up if I’d eaten anything in the last few days. Being a few minutes away from execution, all I really wanted to do was to curl up in a fetal position and hide under my blanket, but I’d be damned if I showed these SOBs any weakness. I stretched, smiled and with a light tone said, “Is it time for the necktie party already? Cool. I was getting bored in here.”
One of the guards looked at the wall behind my bed where I’d carved my name a million times using a screw I’d loosened from my bed frame, covering most of the wall. He grunted and rolled his eyes.
“Take that, you bastards,” I said, clasping my hands behind my head. “I’d like to see the bill for repainting this wall. Just wait until you find the three-foot hole I’ve dug under the bed. Another year and I would escape this joint through a tunnel.”
I was whistling when the guards dragged me to the prison’s yard. Kurt and Allen were already there, both in chains. They had sunken eyes and various bruises and scars on their faces, especially Allen, who kept getting into unwinnable fights with the guards and getting his ass kicked. Still, Kurt was clean shaven, except for his ridiculous goatee, and his Disney-princess hair looked like he’d just been to a barber. I had no idea how he did it. My own curly hair made me look like George of the Jungle.
The whole place was flooded with heavily armed SCTU soldiers. There was at least a few hundred of them. Some twenty government officials whom I’d already seen in the court stood together at a corner. A cameraman was standing behind our guards, pointing his camera at us. One of the guards told me, “Smile. You are on camera. Your execution’s being televised live. “
Allen growled, “I hope my daughter isn’t watching this.”
“Or Liz,” I said.
Another guard, a tall man with wide shoulders, overheard that and said, “You don’t need to worry about that. She’ll be executed at the same time as you.”
“Cheer up. Maybe you can continue tapping that ass in the afterlife,” another guard added.
The fucking guards laughed like it was the funniest joke ever. Anger rose up in my chest. I wasn’t a martial arts expert, and even if I were, it would do me little good with my hands and legs in restraints. But I was fast, and the stupid guard had turned his head, looking at his friends, seeking their approval. I took two baby steps—literally, because of the restraints—and when he turned to look at me, I head-butted him in the face. He grabbed his nose and fell to the ground. Another guard swung his gun, butt forward. I tried to duck, but he caught me just under the nose. Being in chains didn’t stop Allen from hurling himself at the second guard. He was brought down by three others using batons. Kurt rushed in and tried to stop them from beating the old man to death before they got the chance to execute him.
The guards pushed us in front of a wall that was full of bullet holes. There were fresh bloodstains on the ground. I heaved as the smell of blood hit me. The guards blindfolded me with a piece of dirty cloth.
“Great!” I said. “Now I have to worry about an eye infection on top of everything else.”
Allen said, “Can I get a cigarette?” Apparently, he didn’t get one because he yelled, “You monsters! You deny a man his dying wish?
I spit blood out of my mouth and felt my teeth with my tongue. The mind-numbing pain told me I had a broken one.
I struggled with my bonds, trying to set myself free. With the prison yard full of soldiers, it’d be no use, but I could charge them in one last act of defiance, with the whole world watching. That would show Zheng he couldn’t use our public execution to intimidate others. When I couldn’t find a way out of my binds, I tried to remove the blindfold to at least stare my executioners in the eyes, but that didn’t work either, so I decided to use the best weapon in my arsenal.
I yelled, “Come on, you cowards. Open my hands and let’s go a few rounds. I’ll take you all, your bastard of a general included! I’ll even let you tie my right hand behind my back!”
There was a reason my nickname was the Fighter Pilot with the Mouth.
I got a gun butt in my stomach for my efforts. All air left my lungs with a whoosh. I was forced to stop.
Kurt humorlessly chuckled. “Jim, didn’t you say something about not wanting to be put up against the same wall as me?” He added, “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry I got you and Elizabeth involved in this.”
“Water under the bridge,” I said. “To be honest, now that I’m going to die, I have only two regrets. One’s that I didn’t join the Resistance when you asked me to.”
A steady rhythm of boot heels got closer as a group of soldiers marched toward us. The firing squad. They were coming to kill me. Waives of desperation swept through me, and my heart decided to hide behind my stomach.
“And the other one?” Kurt asked.
For a second, I didn’t remember what we were talking about, then grabbed at it like a life raft. “The next Star Trek will be released next month, and I’m going to miss it.”
I could hear astonishment in Kurt’s voice. “Weren’t you about to propose the night I came to your house?”
Exactly what I’d been doing my damnedest not to think about. If I did, I’d break down and beg the guards to let Liz go, saying I’d do anything they wanted. I might even have burst into tears. On live TV. Everything I’d done in the past few minutes was to prevent that outcome. I very much preferred to die with some dignity.
Venom went on a rant like there was no tomorrow. “You got her killed. You found the kindest and warmest girl in the world, and you managed to get her dragged in front of a firing squad. Well done!”
God damn it!
I had a huge lump in my throat, making it difficult to breathe. My lower lip started to quiver, and my breath quickened. If the devil came to me at that moment and said he’d save Liz if I agreed to serve him for a million years and then go to hell for eternity, I’d have accepted with gratitude. I’d have agreed to anything just to make the pain I felt for dragging her into this go away.
I said, “Yeah, that too.”
“You are back-ass weird,” said Allen.
I’d normally deflect a comment like that with a joke or a wise-ass comment like “Amen to that” or “Normal is boring,” but I was in a very bad mood, and I’d never liked Allen much. When I was a teenager and he was Thomas’s head of security, I was afraid of him. He was always grumpy and menacing, and Canadians are supposed to be nice. I remembered one of his famous quotes was “Fighter pilots are pussies. A real man kills his enemies in hand-to-hand combat while staring into the whites of their eyes.”
I was sure he’d stolen that quote from the Klingons.
It’s funny what details the mind chooses to remember right before death. Mine was skipping around like a kitten on meth. Don’t think about . . . you know. Don’t think about her.
“I’m weird?” I retorted. “Isn’t your nickname the Butcher of Macau?”
“Butcher? Huh! It’s an exaggeration,” said Allen. “There were less than fifty people in that casino, every single one of them an associate of Zheng’s.”
“Plus the casino’s employees who got caught in the crossfire.”
Someone shouted, “Ready!”
“Didn’t you get rich and famous by killing a bunch of Japanese people?” Allen said.
The same voice continued, “Set!”
I shouted, “Enemy combatants! Not innocent bystanders!”
“Really? You guys are doing this now?” said Kurt. He talked to Allen in French, which he knew I didn’t understand. If he were telling him to shut up, it didn’t work. The old man said, “Nobody’s innocent, especially a spoiled brat working for enemy’s air force.”
Good thing we were about to die, otherwise I’d have killed Allen.
At that moment, it finally dawned on me: I was going to miss out on a lot. All the plans I had for the rest of my life had been wiped off the board. I’d never fly again. I wouldn’t get married. I wouldn’t father a child and have a family of my own. Hell, I didn’t even get to propose. Worst of all, I’d never again have the chance to see the woman I was planning to do all these with. Regret burned through my soul like fire, frying up my already worn-out brain, making me forget where I was for a merciful moment.
“Vive la révolution,” said Kurt.
Liz, I’m so sorry, I thought right before the world sank into darkness.
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