The Boiler

Kate Arden McMullen

PATTERSON FIELD

Leffe passed his keys from one hand to the other, stopping only to check the time, eight eighteen, eight twenty-one. He would miss the breakfast Bishop’s wife offered to serve them before they headed together to the Patterson field. Jones said they had to be on the road by eight forty-five. It took thirty minutes to get there and another forty, give or take, to prepare, to load the rifles, to mark the paces, to sit the man in the chair twenty-five feet from the ends of their barrels. They made a promise, Jim Jones said, to the state and the man on the other end of the field that ten o’clock would be the time. Jones had done this five times before, the most of all of them. They lived in one of two states where an inmate could request death by firing squad. Dean, the man who would die today, had been waiting to die for twenty years.

Searching for the babysitter’s number in the mounds of paper on the kitchen table, Leffe found the letter that told him his name had come up on the waitlist for an upcoming execution. Would he kindly respond to claim a position at the following address or phone number. That letter had come a month ago, and he realized only last week that he would need to find someone to watch the baby.

The Bishop’s first-floor powder room smelled like roses and cupcakes. Bishop locked the door and took a nip from the flask lining his back pocket, leaning against the clean white sink. He needed at least half of what was inside to keep his aim steady. His first time, fifteen years ago, the CO had loaded the single live round in one of the five rifles, and whoever had it missed. He could not remember the sound that came from his own gun, did not have the ability then to listen and feel the kickback that could tell him whether or not his weapon held the fatal shot, whether or not he had been the one to miss entirely.

To the right of the toilet a magazine caddy held a foot high stack of outdated issues of Southern Living. Bishop turned and opened the mirrored medicine cabinet. It yielded little of interest. He hardly ever went in this room. His wife knew better than to keep secrets in a guest bathroom.

Bishop had the nicest house and the shittiest gun. The rifles of course were essentially the same, but Bishop didn’t take care of his near as well as he took care of his house. He hardly used it but for the two times he had gotten the firing squad slot. Bishop glugged back another tug on the flask. He rode the burn in his jaw back out into the kitchen to mask the smell with the rest of his biscuits and gravy. “Where the hell is Leffe?” he asked as he sat back down.

On Hannah’s first date with Travis he took her to see The Goonies and her daddy sat two rows back. She held her breath when Travis put his arm around her shoulders, but her daddy left them alone and even let Travis kiss her goodnight. On the cheek, but she counted it. It was 1985 and she was seventeen.

By their fourth date they could be alone. He bought her a milkshake and fries at Coole’s and she showed him about dipping the salty fries into the sweet strawberry shake, and he told her it was the best idea anyone ever had.

She took him in her mouth in his car two blocks from her house. That made her more nervous than anything. She did what her friends told her to do. It didn’t hurt. She didn’t throw up. He let her spit in an old Dairy Queen cup. Was it okay, she wanted to know, and he told her she did good.

The babysitter arrived in her mother’s Honda at eight thirty-three. Leffe had to choose now whether to speed through the instructions to care for his child and make it to Bishop’s on time or to take his time here and be late, risk having to drive to the Patterson field alone. At first a firing squad carpool seemed ridiculous, but now Leffe dreaded the alternative, and as the girl came up the concrete stoop, he chose the first option.

“You’re late,” he said, opening the door before she could ring the broken doorbell.

“Sorry?” she answered. “Mom wouldn’t give me the car.”

“Jesus. Okay, in here.” He let the girl walk in and didn’t offer to take her purse or anything nice like that. She followed him back to the living room where the kid sat fat and happy in the swing thing he bought last month. “Here she is. She’s pretty easy. She gets a bottle at eleven. I’ll be back, well, actually I don’t know when. Afternoon.”

“I charge double after six hours.”

“Double what?”

“Fifteen.”

“Jesus,” he said again. Would it take him that long? She had experience, though, so he guessed she could charge what she liked. The lady at church gave her a glowing recommendation. She had used the phrase glowing recommendation. “Okay. Come here.”

When they entered the kitchen, Leffe finally felt embarrassed. The house was a mess, the papers on the counter, dishes undone, baby smell everywhere. The only things on the counter were his detailed instructions, written with help from the church moms, emergency numbers on an index card, an extra key, and to the left of that stuff the toaster and the George Foreman, the only ways he knew how to cook apart from the microwave he didn’t have. When she opened the fridge, she’d find formula, a loaf of white bread, lunchmeat and condiments in the crisper.

“All the instructions are right there. They tell you were everything’s at. If you need anything, call, but try to wait until after ten.”

“What if something happens before ten?”

“Well, call, obviously, but try to avoid it unless it’s life threatening.” Leffe patted his pocket for his keys, didn’t find them, spun around, found them on the counter beside the index card. “Just don’t fuck up before ten.”

“Excuse me?”

“I have to go.” Leffe jogged back into the living room, kissed the kid on the top of her head, said something like have fun be good I’ll be back, and sprinted out the door.

They shot Dean at ten in the morning. The five men drove in two cars to the Patterson field. Jones took Leffe. Bishop drove the other two in his Ford. The cars spat dust. When they arrived at the Patterson field they found it uncommon dry as their own, as the rest of the town.

Bishop and Jones pulled up beside the patrolmen’s cruiser and the long white van that had brought Dean to the field from the prison at the west end of the county. They each let the patrolmen and correctional officer pat them down. Each handed off their rifles, .30 caliber Winchesters.

Bishop wiped at his hairline and whistled low. “Damn hot,” he said. No one answered. They could make out down the field Dean’s shape already in the wooden chair.

The sun shone hot. Bishop wore his church shirt with the pressed collar. He felt the back of his neck reddening.

By nine thirty they stood in a clump and smoked near the house while the correctional officer loaded the Winchesters at the opposite end of the field. Only one rifle carried a live round. The rest held blanks and it was a courtesy done to them that they did not see the guns loaded.

Leffe and the others shared a cigarette a yard or so away in the shade of the old farmhouse. One of them kicked rocks and looked impatient and sweaty. Only Jones watched the CO across the field, and Bishop watched Jones. The man had to be in his seventies but it didn’t show. Five times on the squad meant he’d have started volunteering young, as young as eighteen. It meant he’d been on almost every scheduled execution since then.

Bishop wished he hadn’t eaten the second helping at breakfast. It felt strange to be so uncomfortably full before shooting a man.

Even at this distance, he could hear Leffe’s stomach growl. He’d offered the kid something before they left, but Leffe declined.

Bishop sidled up to Jones. “You know how many times you got the shot?” he asked.
Jones did not look at him. “Three,” he said. “Could be four.”

Hannah didn’t know why she told the neighbor boy. She liked that he wasn’t shy about it. He nodded and even asked questions. He wanted to know, did she feel different. She said yes, but not in the way she thought she’d feel.

They spoke over the fence in the back corner of their yards. It looked like he had been weeding the garden, but with the weeds were several daffodils, roots and all.

Did she look different, she asked him. He looked her square in the face, squinting so hard she laughed. Then his face grew serious. Yes, he said, I think so.

They took up their rifles and moved down the field, where the sheriff and another correctional officer had secured Dean to the chair, hooded and marked over the heart with a circle of white cloth. Here Bishop always wondered how much they told these men about what would happen. Did they go through it blind or was there a manual, some kind of orientation, here is how you will die.

They lined up. Jones, Bishop, then the two others and Leffe, the youngest. They took aim and fired. Dean kicked a little and slumped. They felt it, the thing they had done together.
They held the line while a CO strode across the field toward Dean. He bent at the waist and found the entry wound, centered in the white cloth, a clean through and through to the heart. He searched Dean’s limp wrist for a pulse. At twenty-five feet, they could see how still the body became, a body now. The man straightened and raised a hand, and it was finished.

Leffe turned first. Jones followed. They peeled off one by one. Behind them the body removed from the chair, packed away. Bishop, the last to leave, tried to remember what Dean had done.

Leffe thought of his wife as dead because that was easiest. She had no obituary listing, no wake or funeral. He had paid none of those expenses, inherited nothing from her, but her disappearance had been so swift and complete it almost felt like he had done all those things and forgotten. The kid stayed, as she had no choice. Being left was something that had happened to her, and one thing she had in common with her father.

Leffe thought of her less and he imagined he would, of the kid less while he aimed and fired. Back in Jones’s truck he found his phone vibrating in the cab, the babysitter’s number in pixelated white on the small front screen. “Shit.” He fumbled with the thing, answered, “What’s wrong?”

“She won’t stop crying.”

“She’s a goddamn baby.”

“She’s screaming.”

“Let her cry.” He hung up.

Bishop still stood on the line. The others walked ahead of him. Jones stood closest, shaking the patrolmen’s hand. Leffe balled a fist and punched the truck door, then climbed up and sat sideways, boots on the step pad, elbows on his knees. A scraggily piece of grass below reminded him of the kid’s hair, how it had grown in stick straight in one clump.

“You okay?” Jones barked at him.

Leffe lifted a hand. Jones and Bishop reached the truck at the same time. Leffe checked his watch. Ten eleven.

Hannah did it again homecoming night, under the bleachers, her idea. The fear of getting caught stood the little hairs on her neck up. She didn’t need any Dairy Queen cup.
He walked her home, a short cut he knew between the high school and their neighborhood through an undeveloped swath of pine. She let herself feel lost, let him lead her by the hand. They stopped and kissed against the thick trunks. He wiggled his hand down the front of her jeans.

Is this okay, he wanted to know.

She knew where they were now, heard the deep part of the river to their right, remembered a mossy place near its edge where she played as a child.

Yes, she said, that’s okay.

The babysitter still had not seen him. Leffe stood in the kitchen door, watching the girl bounce the kid in her arms, turning in circles and wiggling a finger in her face. A triangle of sweat stuck Leffe’s shirt front and back to his skin. The hair around his ears, sweat-slick, stuck out in curled strands. His wife had called them whiskers, which made no sense. The girl sang little bits of a pop song at the kid’s contorted face. The lyrics talked about being young and single. The babysitter replaced some of the words with pleads for the kid to stop crying.

Leffe imagined coming home to this scene everyday. Only the girl was his girl, and the kid was laughing, not crying her new brand of crying, more a scream than anything else. He imagined kissing his girl on the cheek and helping cook dinner, something that involved the oven. After they put the kid to bed he would turn to her in the dark and explain how he knew by the sound the shot made and how it felt in his hands and the timing of Dean’s spasm that the live round had been in his rifle. Jones had explained what to listen and feel for when Leffe called him after he’d had gotten the bid for a spot on the firing squad. She would hold his hand while he looked for her eyes in the dark.

The babysitter still hadn’t noticed him. He thought about turning around and leaving.

After, she lay still and let the moss tickle her palms. She tried to feel nothing but the moment around her, and when she had finished committing it all to memory, she noticed Travis no longer stood by the river.

She waited crisscross-applesauce for him to come back, even spoke his name to the dark. Her daddy would be angry with her for how late it had gotten. Nervous, she stood and walked along the river, turning over reasons why he might have left her alone.

This would be why when a hand gripped her arm she would not be alarmed. Why when in the dark she tumbled to the ground she would assume Travis held her. It would take too long to realize her last mistake, and by then the neighbor boy would have her pinned to the ground, his hands feeling her windpipe working under them and then nothing. She would have no choice but to be still for him. She would have then no way to stop him from removing her sweater and skirt, peeling her thin socks and placing them inside her shoes, arranging her hair. She would not see him wade with the clothes into the river and let them go. They would sink a little and then the current would take them out of the swath of pines and on south past the Patterson field.


Kate Arden McMullen received her MFA in fiction from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Her work has appeared in Lady Parts Zine, Paper Darts, is forthcoming from Foglifter, and was featured as an honorable mention in the Randall Library Annual Flash Fiction Anthology in 2016 and 2017. Her short story chapbook The Girls of Indigo Flats and Other Stories was the 2015 recipient of the Colbert Chapbook Award. She lives in Spartanburg, SC and is the assistant director of Hub City Press.