By William Cass
Jack’s mother woke him, like always, at 9:40pm. That gave him a little better than an hour before his overnight shift began at the prison. He’d worked there for almost nine years, starting right after a short stint in the Navy following his high school graduation.
Jack shaved, put on his uniform, and joined his mother in the kitchen where she had his breakfast waiting on the table: scrambled eggs, dry toast, hot tea. He sat down and started in on it while she busied herself with her back to him at the counter.
After a few bites, he said, “Smells good in here.”
“Making you some blueberry muffins to take.” She turned around. “For you and the other guards. Big night.”
His stomach fell. He nodded slowly, chewing, then said, “It is. Thanks.”
Twenty minutes later, he was on the road in his truck, the muffins warm against the side of his leg in their Tupperware container. The night was black, starless, cold. There were few other vehicles on that two-lane highway, just empty fields on both sides until he reached the prison at the county line. Several television news teams had set up shop with floodlights outside the gates.
There was only one other guard, a big guy like himself named Mitch, in the staff break room off the row when Jack entered it. They exchanged nods. Mitch sat slouched at the table drinking coffee, his girth straining his uniform’s shirt. Jack glanced up at the clock above the door; there was still a quarter hour before shift change. He set the muffins in the middle of the table, loosened the container’s lid, and said, “Brought treats.”
Mitch grunted, a small smile creasing his lips. “Your mom make those?”
“What’s the occasion?”
Jack fixed him with a hard stare.
“Oh,” Mitch rubbed his bald head. “That.”
“Things all set?”
“So, I’ve been told. The warden just came through a few minutes ago. Guess there’s already quite a crowd downstairs ready to watch.”
Jack nodded. “Busy out front, too.”
There were thirteen inmates on the prison’s death row, but it had been six years since the last execution. It was scheduled for midnight. The sweet smell of muffins had filled the room. Jack sat down at the table, lifted out a muffin, and held it out to Mitch. The big man took it, and Jack took one, too. They both peeled down the paper sleeves, pinched off hunks, and ate them.
“Yum,” Mitch said.
Jack nodded again, then shifted in his chair. “So, warden say who gets the honor of escorting Dale?”
Mitch pointed to himself, and a wave of relief passed over Jack. He took another bite and tried not to show it. They’d both been working in another part of the prison during the last execution, so had been removed from it. Also, they hadn’t known the prisoner personally. They finished eating their muffins in silence.
Mitch stood up suddenly and said, “Think I’ll go check on Dale.”
Jack glanced again at the clock. “Still ten minutes until we go on.”
“Yeah, well. See if he needs anything.”
They looked at each other until Jack said, “He did murder someone. Don’t forget that.”
Mitch nodded and started for the open door.
“Wait,” Jack said. He took another muffin from the container and held it out. “See if he wants one of these.”
Mitch said, “Not sure that’s allowed.”
“What are they going to do?”
Mitch held his gaze a moment longer, then shrugged, took the muffin, and left. It was quiet then, just the regular sounds from inside. With what was about to happen, Jack wondered if any of the other inmates on the row had been able to sleep. He hadn’t slept much himself. A memory crossed his mind of his mother sitting on the edge of their couch weeping quietly the night his father left; Jack was eight at the time. Another replaced it from a couple of years later of finding a dying squirrel under a tree at the edge of their woods, the way its marble-like eyes followed him as he circled it before running away. He listened to Mitch’s footsteps echoing down the corridor heading towards the cell where Dale’s eyes awaited. He stared at the abandoned mug on the table until he heard Mitch’s footsteps stop. Jack balled his paper sleeve into his fist. He held his breath, blinking.
William Cass has had over a hundred short stories appear in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Conium Review. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.