“Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
– James 1:15
At lunchtime, my best friend will be hanged in town square. It’s okay, though. Hank deserves it.
The moron took a stone and shattered the front window of Miss Gilette’s pawn shop so he could steal the 32” TV he’d been eyeballing for weeks. His dad got rid of his when Mr. Mulle called and told him Hank, more than likely, wouldn’t be passing 12th grade algebra. Which freaked Dr. Harrison the hell out, considering he’s a doctor and all, making education right up there with Jesus. So no more TV for Hank.
It pissed Hank off. I know because he told me several times. “Dude, I’m so pissed,” is how the conversation basically went. “Like, what the hell has TV ever done to my old man? Don’t those damn documentaries he watches all the effing time mean anything to him? My games are not why I’m flunking, you know that, right? You believe me? You should be pissed, too. No more online campaigns till the foreseeable future. Come to think of it, maybe you’re better off. You might be tired of getting your ass handed to you.”
I thought that’d be the end of it. I thought he’d take out his frustration on me like he’s always done, from fourth grade on, and then talk about something else – like all the different ways he’s pictured Annie Jean naked, or how he can fit a whole orange in his mouth. (Not an orange slice; an actual, whole orange. The Cutie type.)
I never thought he’d come knocking on my second story window at eleven at night – an hour before his eighteenth birthday – asking me to slip on some black clothes and help him rob Miss Gilette.
“We’ll be killed, y’know that?” I hissed through the tiny slit at the bottom of my window. That’s all I would give him, a tiny slit. I didn’t want him stomping around my room. Evidence is evidence, and I didn’t know how much the police could actually backtrack.
“You’re not eighteen for another four months, and I’m not eighteen for another hour.”
“Still damned for trouble.”
“Maybe, but I can’t live out the rest of senior year without a TV. That’s torture.”
“And the noose is just a waltz through a meadow on a warm summer’s day?”
“Hanging’s a cinch. Confinement in one’s bedroom for long periods of time, staring at one’s wall or, even worse, unfinished history report, is a form of prolonged torture. Yeah, you heard me, prolonged–freaking–torture. Besides,” he continued, waving a black bandana that he was intending to be mine, “Miss Gilette is, like, half-blind. She probably won’t even know it went missing.”
Anyone else would’ve said Ha – just kidding! by now.
“Hank . . .”
“Relax, would’ja? This is my last chance to do something like this. Go big or go home, amiright?”
“Go home, Hank”
“Don’t worry, I’ll call you from the police station before I’m dead. Don’t answer, though, ‘cause I’m gonna leave you one of those sappy voicemails that you can play over and over to remember the melodious sound of my voice.”
I slammed my window shut and went back to bed.
I heard about the robbery on the news the next day. I hate the news. Always have. I hate when the weather man tells us there’s only going to be a chance of scattered showers when it’s obviously already pouring outside. I hate sports and everything related to them, probably because I’m a bitter soul who always secretly wanted to join some sort of league but never had the mad skills to do so. The only thing semi-interesting is the updated list of criminals who’ll be sentenced to death the beginning of next month – at the First Friday Hanging. Some people you expect, some you don’t.
The morning the news announced the pawn shop robbery, I waited for Hank’s name to be listed somewhere amongst the death row-ers. If they had caught him, if they had immediate evidence, it would still take at least a few days before he was an official row-er. Because, y’know, juries and trials and all that freedom stuff we’re allowed. Still, three lone Fruit Loops became soggy in my spoon as I held it, hovering, in front of my mouth. Waiting.
“Anyone you know?” my little sister, Jess, asked as she hopped onto the countertop, picking the blueberries out of a packaged blueberry muffin. She fixated her gaze on the TV, too, kicking her scrawny legs against the cabinets.
“Has there ever been?” I asked, dumping the spooned Fruit Loops back in the bowl with a milky plop plop plop.
Jess plucked out three more wrinkled blueberries, setting them next to the other four resting on a paper towel. “Did’ja hear Katie Peterson’s sister’s ex-boyfriend’s aunt was on there a week ago? Protest attempt. Tried to rile up a crowd two towns over. Something about how tax fraud wasn’t a good enough reason for a death sentence, or something.”
Jess is only twelve (and a half). She shouldn’t have know anything about protest attempts or tax frauds. She probably still doesn’t. Probably only heard it thrown around by Katie Peterson’s family.
“Guess she had it coming,” I said.
“Guess so.” Jess plopped down off the counter and carried the blueberry-filled paper towel over to me like a stork delivering babies. “Eat these.”
I took them. The death row list concluded and the station skipped over to its next segment: Puppies currently up for adoption. One had a charcoal circle around its eye and yapped every time the reporter gave it kissy faces.
It’s almost lunchtime. Mom has the checkered picnic blanket smoothed across a patchy section of grass, one of those sections that has rocks you can feel but can’t find. There are vendors stationed around the square, selling overpriced fried-things on sticks. One of the merch booths sells various trinkets commemorating today’s row-er lineup – like t-shirts that parody touring musicians. We bring our own food to avoid overspending; Dad sets the basket on the blanket and starts unloading our roast beef sandwiches (turkey for Jess), bottles of Gatorade (Jess claims the blue flavor), and many, many, baggies of snacks.
We have a great view.
Hank joined my family’s grocery shopping trip on his birthday. He did that often, unless he was deep in a video game match or grounded. Mostly it was the latter.
“Get the white,” Hank said as Mom put a loaf of wheat bread in the cart. “White keeps preserved longer.”
“Yeah, ‘cause it’s filled with preservatives,” Jess muttered.
“I like white,” I said. Hank gave me a thumb’s up.
“Why don’t you three go pick out snacks you’d like,” Mom said, sticking a loaf of white in the cart next to the wheat. “My treat, for the birthday boy.”
Initially, Jess tagged along with Hank and me. But when she turned down our suggestions of Cheetos, Cheese Puffs, and Cheese Balls (because powder cheese will give us “cancer,” apparently), we ditched her in the cereal aisle before she could ask us about our granola preferences. Instead, we made our way toward the candy, stopping only for a moment to check out the latest game releases in the electronics aisle. (“New TV works fantastically, by the way,” Hank mentioned. “Hooked it up in my closet. Happy birthday to me.”)
Candy had always been a friend of Hank’s and mine. We used to dress up on Halloween but, instead of going door-to-door, we went grocery store-to-grocery store and bought jumbo bags of fun-sized candy. Like, the kind that’s marked half-priced prematurely. Usually, it was the garbage stuff, like candy corn and those hot red candies old ladies keep on their coffee tables next to AARP magazines. But sometimes we got lucky and scored the Twix/Snickers/Kit Kat mix bags. We didn’t do that this year. This year we nuked marshmallows in the microwave and watched B-rated zombie movies.
Hank still brought over a bag of candy, though. The good kind. I don’t remember if he said Dr. Harrison bought it at full price, or if he smuggled it past management in the pocket of his hoodie. I’ve slept since then.
Since Mom was paying for our treats this time, we took full advantage and gathered bags upon bags until they towered in our arms and scratched against our Adam’s apples.
“Aw, man! Lookie here!” Hank said, jabbing a bag resting on the bottom shelf with the toe of his sneaker. It was one of those cheap-o, knock-off candy bags, generically labeled Gummy Bears. “Mom got me these all the time when I was, what, maybe five? Six?” He maneuvered around the candies already in his hand to try and grab the bears, dropping a bag of pixie sticks in the process. “Yeah, yeah. Sure thing. These are them, alright.”
“My mom got those for Jess and me, too,” I said. “Only once. We sucked on ‘em, then threw ‘em on the ceiling fan. Dad was the one who flipped it on first, and they went flying. Took years for Jess and I to find all those. The clear ones were the worst. Heck, a month ago I was sitting on the couch when I found one of those damn things still in the cushion crack.”
“Why the hell were you sticking your hand down the crack anyway?”
“That’s what she said.”
Hank rolled his eyes. “Did your mom ever make hanging bears?”
I reached for a bag of Tootsie Roll Pops. I don’t even like Tootsie Roll Pops. I just like counting how many licks it takes to get to the center of them. “Hanging bears?”
“Yeah, y’know, hanging bears? Like, you take a strand from a Twizzlers and wrap it around the bear’s neck? Mom used to send them that way in my lunch bag on First Friday Hanging days.”
I saw the Twizzlers from where I was standing, but I didn’t pick them up. “Hey, Hank?”
For some reason, I thought of checking out. Of going up to one of the self check outs with my family and Hank, and looking straight into the camera that makes us appear on the screens above the conveyor belt. “Nothing.”
He hated it when I did that. “Shut up, asshat.”
“Do you want me to ask about what I’m actually thinking about?”
“Does it have to do with my birthday?”
“About the TV?”
“Then, no. Unless you’re asking me to kick your ass in a tournament tonight.”
“Why did you break Miss Gilette’s front window? Why did you do the most obvious thing possible?”
Why are you an absolute moron?
Hank shrugged. “The back door was locked.”
“But the cameras–”
“Are all fake. She’s never had them installed. They’re just duct-taped on the wall to make cheap jackasses piss themselves.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because the place is as old as her. Duh.” He grabbed one more bag of peppermints by his teeth. “I’ll be online at midnight,” he said through plastic. “Unless you can’t stay awake, meaning you lose by default. Which just makes you my bitch.”
We didn’t play a tournament that night. Instead, Hank was taken into custody. Because those cameras sure as hell were not just duct-taped to the wall. And the time-stamp on the tape said 12:01 A.M.
Mom and Dad have both found people to chat with amongst the crowd – AKA: the population of our city, packed together in a limited amount of grass and concrete space. Mom talks about sports bras with her yoga instructor, and Dad explains the difference between “weather” and “climate” with someone he may(?) have gone to school with. Weather is the brief state of the atmosphere; climate is its long-term behavior.
Jess doesn’t trail far, even though her friends wave at her from the distance. She smiles and waves back, then plops down next to me; the blanket crinkles underneath her. At first, we don’t say anything. She drums on her bare knees and tries whistling something I don’t recognize (probably because it’s off-key). Then, she says, “You doing okay?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Oh, I dunno. Maybe because you’re about to lose your video game buddy you’ve had since the fourth grade?”
“He’s a moron. I told him he’d get caught.”
Jess smirks. Sometimes her smirk looks innocent, sometimes onery. Today it’s the initial, and for some reason it makes me feel sick but in a word-vomit sort of way. Like I want to tell her all these life lessons I have no business telling her. Like don’t mack on people you don’t know, and don’t have premarital sex, and don’t get drunk, and don’t harbor people who’ll get you in trouble, and get good jobs so you can pay your bills, and just be good – for the love of all that’s good and decent in this shitty world – just be good. I mean, dammit, it’s not difficult.
“Did he tell you why he did it?” she asked.
“He wanted a freaking TV.”
“I think it’s kinda unfair.”
I give her a side glance. “That he broke the law?”
“That he’s being tried as an adult.” Her smile softens. “Remember when you guys were eleven and I was five and Hank sprayed Febreeze in my face and I pretended it made me go blind?”
“Yeah. I guess to me he never got older than that. Even I’m older than he was at the time, and I still think of him as the boy with the Febreeze bottle who got belted in the front yard.”
“Like the second brother you never had?”
My phone rang the Friday before today, and I knew it was him. I knew it because I saw the caller ID, saw it was the number for the police station, saw that he had called me instead of his mom or dad – which would piss them off immensely, considering he was about to tell me his final words. To me. That moron.
I let it go to voicemail. He didn’t leave a message.
When I went to my first downtown hanging, Mom had brought an afghan for our picnic blanket, and I watched the entire event under that thing, peeking though one of its many, knitted holes. Now, I watch full-on. Of course I do. Most kids grow out of the initial shock and the But where does he/she go after the swing ride? conversations by the second grade, if not sooner.
I invented a game for myself to get over this young fear. Every time I thought the shrieks were too piercing, or the smell of wet rope and wood during hangings in rainstorms were too pungent, or the imagined taste of blood – when a victim’s mouth pooled over after biting their tongue – was too sour, I’d imagine something different. Instead, it was a yo-yo that lost its momentum. Or a fish too heavy to be reeled into the boat. Or, my personal favorite (not to toot my own horn), a skydiver whose parachute got stuck in a tree; that one’s the more humorous one. I even pretended they were kicking and squirming. Get me out of this confangled contraption, they might’ve said.
When I was Jess’ age, I watched my first rapist hang, and I didn’t play that game anymore.
I thought Hank’s name would miss the deadline of this First Friday Hanging. But he made it on the death row-ers list right before cut-off, right behind a marijuana dealer, drunk driver, and a man who siphoned gasoline from a Mercedes Benz.
The marijuana dealer is first, name and crime announced by a woman wearing a swimming, ebony cloak, and holding a chunky manuscript with a ratty spine. The Death Row Manuscript, is what it’s usually called. Some simply refer to it as The Judgement Book.
I can’t help but wonder how Death Row workers become qualified for this job. Like, who goes to college with the idea of, Gee, I can’t wait to rope people’s necks once a month. Like, what do they do for the rest of the month? Practice? The guys who shove the dealer’s head through the noose seem pretty skilled in what they do. They even double-check to make sure the wrists and ankles are still manacled firmly together, though I don’t see how anyone would be able to loosen them beforehand. Those things are sturdy.
A prayer is said, and the floor drops from beneath the dealer. Polite applause ensues. Polite applause is reserved for the petty crimes. We cheer and give standing ovations for the really bad crimes; the ones who we can’t forgive.
When I first met Hank, he convinced me to steal a glasses case from our classmate Holly Rich, who sat across from me and diagonal from him in home room. Hank didn’t own a pair of glasses, nor did he need them, but he told me Holly had it coming because she always insisted on being the goalie for their team in P.E. when he, obviously, was the better defender. It was the only time he ever convinced me to steal for him, and I only did it because I was new to the area, new to the school, and new at making friends. I didn’t have to make friends with Hank; he came up to me on the playground and introduced himself. He never thought about things; he just did them. I wanted to see what it felt like – to not care about the consequences.
It ended up feeling a lot like getting caught by Holly Rich, who squealed and got me sent to the principal’s office.
I only ever went to the principal’s that one time, but I heard the experience was the same with every student, every grade. You sat in a hard plastic chair and watched a documentary about the consequences of criminal behavior once you crossed that threshold into adulthood. No prisons, no varied punishments depending on the severity of crimes – no criminals mucking up society’s streets.
When the documentary ended, the principal asked if I had any questions.
I asked him about forgiveness. I wasn’t trying to question anyone’s authority; I was genuinely curious – thought it was Biblical, even. I thought I could forgive Hank easily enough, and I was hoping Holly Rich would forgive me, too, because I really couldn’t afford to let go of any potential friendships when I’d just gotten started.
“You can forgive people who have been hanged,” the principal said. “We’re not asking the living to be punished alongside the the guilty. Forgiveness is Biblical, yes, but so is our criminal system.”
Hank never asked me to steal for him again. Not until the television incident. Not until he realized his childhood was ending.
Hank never goes by his real name, so my heart knocks its head on my voice box when I see him step out onto the platform, manacled and sweaty, after the woman with the book reads, “Henry James Harrison,” into the microphone. (I think “Hank” was the name of his rambunctious great grandfather – a man who was also hanged for crimes Hank never told me about; but I can only assume his great grandfather’s genes skipped a couple generations and imbedded themselves into Hank’s DNA. But, who am I to rationalize things?)
And then Hank looks at me.
Out of all the people in this damn crowd, he finds me. And it’s so obvious because his eyes get wider and he doesn’t blink, not even when the death row workers shove his head through the noose.
Mom pats my knee. She pats it as if to say, Oh, look, there’s your friend! We should have his family over for dinner sometime! Hank’s family would probably love that, coming to dinner. Immediate families aren’t allowed to attend hangings, so they’d probably ask us all about Hank’s. I saw one of my third cousins hang in Oregon a couple years back for identity theft, but that’s as close as I’ve come to knowing someone guilty and watching them swing back and forth amidst applause.
Stop staring at me.
This is the longest prayer of my life. The woman prays for Hank’s forgiveness. He knows not what he’s done, but she prays he feels the weight. How can he not – he’s weighed down by the largest freaking manacles I’ve ever seen. I don’t even remember how he made it up those uneven steps, up to the gallows.
Why is he still staring at me?
It’s not like I didn’t warn him. It’s not like he should be shocked. This is what happens. He knew the price, and he told me he knew the price. He deserves it. He’s a moron who couldn’t just wait to get his TV back and he deserves it. You hear me, you bastard? You deserve this.
He’s gone so long without blinking that his eyes turn pink. When the floor drops beneath him, they turn red. They no longer stare at me. They stare through everyone as the body slowly creaks back and forth in the rope. Not yet dead. Everyone politely applauds. Perhaps he can still hear them.
Jess taps on my shoulder. I swipe at my cheeks to brush some stupid gnats away.
She extends the bag of gummy bears to me. “Want one?”
I nod and grab a handful after she does. We both stick one in our mouths, but neither of us chews it up right away. Instead, we suck on them like we used to do back in the good old days, and I pretend Hank is laced around a Twizzler’s strand, ready for his mother to place him in his lunch box.