INTRODUCTION TO A PIPER'S SONG
Many lines began their journey to A Piper’s Song out of pure frustration. Each writer deals with creative struggles in their own unique way. I let myself write with the intention that no one will ever see. My go-to medium is poetry because I’m a storyteller not a poet. If I write a story and like it or think one of you might, there’s a chance it ends up under the scrutiny of a stranger’s eyes as part of a novel or short story. If, however, I freestyle a few sheets of poetic verse, I get to be me cause ain’t nobody ever seeing that $h!t, right? Freedom from the fear of scrutiny loosens our minds. At least mine.
My first serious brush with death (that I’m aware of), came January 8th 2019 during the final edits of two stories from A Piper’s Song collection, Wordslinger and Last Confessions. Internal bleeding, infections, nasty business all the way around. As the bleed in my stomach progressed and infection worsened over the Christmas 2018 holiday season, several characters in other various shorts decided to switch plots. Most nights, word production ceased with plenty of lines but very little forward progress. So, during those crazy weeks when my blood wasn’t staying where it should and neither were my characters, I scribbled and typed a lot of ‘frustration freestyle’. Somewhere along the way, I decided to clean it up, slick back it’s hair, and toss it the keys to the family car.
Scattered throughout and within these first few stories and the rest of A Piper’s Song collection are parts, pieces, and portions of those and many other frantic nights’ writing. If you’re a pure “story” reader, this model probably isn’t your style. If, however, the prospect of navigating a dimly lit, sometimes disturbing, psychological house of mirrors excites you, then hop in for a quick trip. I’m with you the whole way.
Follow along and see, how often lines deceive. Subtle lies open eyes, so learn the story of me.
NOT A HAIKU
He was a young lad who almost died.
Almost but not, a foe Piper cried.
I’ll summon dark.
Kill this spark.
Unless he agrees to hide.
But to The Throne many saints did go,
to save his life, a plea from below.
Feed him bread.
Revive his lead.
Craft him for war, so he may show.
The same young lad could not hide.
Words poured onto the page as he cried.
Arrows from the spark.
Light over dark.
Evil shall wish this Piper had died.
See how fun learning can be? Even when the writing is lazy?
My tales stand for right, though some feel born in the dead of night. See, some Piper’s sing. Here, others write. Lyrics, lines, notes, and prose. All used by Pipers, all gifts He chose.
Next glimpse into a war of words often waged in-between. Down below...dig deep. Meanings can mean much more than they seem.
Lock me in a box with no keys. Bars slam down, click click click I’m free.
Some see prison but at the end hope.
I hear words and grasp language by the throat.
Like Alice in a hole, the deeper you dig the further we’ll go.
See you in there,
Wish you were here, Wish you could hear the fire in my mind. Wish you could feel the storm that blew this line...wish you could tell me I'll be fine. Wish I could catch it, tell it where to go. Wish I could uncage it and watch the waters flow. Wish I could go fast. Wish. I. Could. Go. Slow. Wish the night was longer but the day would never end. Wish the war was over so I could do it all again. Wish the whirlwind knocked...I might even let it in.
“Are you sure you want to try this again?” The chaplain stood just inside the Death Watch Cell. “Some stories are best left to die in peace.”
Jackson James Reader turned from the small window overlooking a portion of Nashville’s Riverbend Maximum Security Institution to his final-day spiritual advisor. “I wanna tell it, real talk.”
“Are we going to discuss how the Greggs died?”
“Damnit chaplain, I told you I didn’t kill them and don’t know who did. Didn’t kill the parents and sure as hell didn’t kill the kids.”
The chaplain, tall, slender, and older than Jackson’s fifty-five years, though he had no idea by how much, motioned to a small steel desk with attached chair. “May I?”
Jackson nodded, turned back to the window, and rested his forehead against the cool shatterproof glass.
The chaplain talked as he moved to the seat. “Have you reached your mom?”
“When’s the last time you spoke?”
“I haven’t heard from her since they set my date, a hundred and twenty-seven days ago. She had her first heart attack a week after I caught my bid and ended up here. Did I mention that earlier?”
The chaplain didn’t question Jackson’s prison speak. “I don’t believe so.”
“Yeah, she’s had two, the second was worse.” Jackson turned back to the window, watched a cloud skirt the setting sun, closed his eyes, and imagined the warmth on his cheeks. “Eleven years ago. She made it…health ain’t worth shit now, but whose is right?” He opened his eyes and the sun’s warmth vanished. “On up there in years but she’s fine. Ain’t handled this very well. None of it.”
Neither had Jackson. How do you prepare for the final hour of your life?
The Extraction Team Leader explained the protocol earlier that afternoon, and though Jackson knew it by heart, he listened without interruption and shook the man’s hand after their brief conversation. At 7PM Central Time, the team of five officers would arrive at his cell and call him to the front. One would handcuff him and order him against the far wall. He was to remain motionless as four officers positioned the gurney beside him. The team would allow Jackson to mount the bed himself…one last chance at dignity. If he refused, the officers would force compliance. Once strapped and secured, an I.V. team will enter the cell and start lines into both arms. After a private moment with the chaplain, the extraction team would wheel him through a solid metal door and into the Death Chamber where the State would administer life ending drugs.
“That’s what they call it Jackson, a Death Chamber.” Words his mother repeated several times during her last visit.
Jackson moved from the window to the edge of his bed. “She’s not part of the story, not this one. I hope I can tell her I love her one more time, but if…” Jackson tried to continue but couldn’t and nodded to the metal door. “You going into the room with me Chaplain Rowen?”
“If you wish. It will be us, the warden, and two other prison officials. As long as you…” the chaplain paused, “as long as final protocol goes smooth…and it’s Ronwe. My name’s pronounced Ronwe.”
“No, not French, but let’s not talk about me. I’m here for you as you transition from this life to the next.”
“And to tell my story. You said you would.”
“And I will.” The chaplain smiled and patted Jackson’s knee. “Probably better than you. Are you ready to finish?”
The man with less than an hour to live, nodded. “Do you want me to start over or pick up where we left off this afternoon?”
“Either way, it’s your story to tell.”
“Fair enough,” and Jackson started again.
“We lived fifteen happy years together. Lot of fun times, a few rough patches. It ended good. I kissed her in the driveway, told her I loved her, then we got into our cars and headed opposite directions for work. I’ll never forget the way she held my face and kissed me that morning. It wasn’t a morning kiss. I miss her. All these years later and I still remember her taste.
Anyway, I sat down for lunch that afternoon and my phone rang. A trooper from the Georgia Highway Patrol. He told me Mandy had an accident, and I needed to get to the hospital. He didn’t call her Mandy, said Amanda. Saying her name like that sounded cold. She was Mandy, my Mandy, but by the time I got to the emergency room she was gone. Coded as EMTs slid her out of the ambulance. The doctor called her time of death fourteen minutes later. The other driver wasn’t hurt. Seems his dump truck absorbed most of the shock from Mandy’s hatchback.
They took me to a room with furniture that looked like it belonged in a hotel. You know what I’m talking about…flowers and cheap artsy shit everywhere. Doctor came in and told me she’d sustained massive internal damage; lacerated liver, brain swelling, I don’t remember much of the conversation…just the important parts and the doctor’s crooked teeth. Son of a bitch is telling me my wife’s dead, and I kept wondering why a doctor couldn’t afford braces.
Four days later, the day after her funeral, a kid at the wrecker company walked me around her car so I could gather personal items. He pointed to a little patch of chunked blond hair stuck to splintered metal inside the door frame…did it like it was contagious or something. Looking back, he was young and wasn’t thinking how those words might sound to the man who ran his fingers through that hair a million times, but I broke his jaw when he said it. Then I went home and drank until I passed out.
The prosecutor charged Melvin Otts, driver of the truck, with Vehicular Manslaughter, but he pled down. Wasn’t drinking, speeding, no drugs in his system, claimed Mandy swerved into his lane.” Jackson took a deep breath and paused before slowly releasing. “Anyway, nobody saw it. No witnesses, no good tire marks. Evidence showed they were both near or on the centerline at impact, whatever that means.
Melvin’s lawyer didn’t want a jury to see pictures of what happens when a dump truck loaded with gravel gives a pretty girl in a compact a makeover. The State worried about the lack of evidence and Melvin’s spotless driving record. D.A. got good press with the manslaughter charge, then everyone went behind closed doors, washed off the blood, shook hands, and finished the deal. No time.”
“Do you hate this man?”
“Who, Melvin or the D.A.?” Jackson waved away his own question. “It don’t matter. Either way she’s dead, and in about forty minutes…” He couldn’t finish the thought and paused several beats before continuing. “Insurance company awarded me a little money. The next few months are a haze, but I see a lot of whisky and cigarettes. Somewhere in the fog I lost my job. Mom tried to drag me to church but that wasn’t my thing. Maybe I should have listened more and talked less.”
The chaplain raised his palms. “And, here we are.”
“A man in my position has limited options, and I want my story told.”
“So, did you request a spiritual advisor to walk you through this last day for the good of your soul, or to tell the world your version of how the Gregg family died?”
Jackson turned and motioned to the officer stationed outside his cell. “I want to try mom again.”
The officer spoke into his radio and a few seconds later passed a phone into the cell. “Other than legal calls, this is it without the Warden’s approval.”
Jackson dialed the number, waited, but by the third ring knew. “Hello, this is Eve Reader. I can’t come to the phone, leave a message. Thanks.” Jackson’s mind raced. What does a son say to his mother knowing it will be the last words she hears him speak? What if she listens to it over and over like he did with Mandy’s message…the one that started this whole thing?
The beep caught him off guard. He hesitated, considered hanging up, but said the only thing that came to mind. “Hey mom, it’s me again.” Jackson’s voice waivered, “I love you.” He disconnected the call, and the officer took the phone and returned to his desk without speaking.
“Have you told her everything you need to tell her?” The chaplain asked.
“I just did.” Jackson reached under his pillow and pulled out an envelope. “And in here. I wrote it earlier.” He sat the letter to his mother beside him on the bed.
The chaplain nodded. “Do you want to continue with your story, or would you rather talk about her?” He pointed to the letter.
“I want to talk about Mandy.” Jackson glanced to the television outside his cell. The last inning of a baseball game played without sound. “The summer after Mandy died, I went to a psychic. Creepy joint on the ass end of a strip mall in Dalton, Georgia. Never been to one before but loneliness is a powerful motivator for adventure.”
“Why a psychic?”
“Nothing better to do on a Friday night that didn’t involve jail the next morning.” Jackson shrugged. “Hoping she was still out there I guess, but that’s where I met Scott Reynolds.”
Jackson stood and asked the guard to turn off the television. “I used to love watching baseball with my dad when I was a kid. Lost him when I was ten. Over forty years now. He left for work one afternoon and kept driving. Haven’t heard from him since.” Jackson waited a couple of breaths. He hadn’t thought about his dad in years and the memories stung. “Anyway, Scott was at the psychic on a date. She bailed after their reading, and he and I ended up at the coffee shop next door. I hadn’t talked to anyone besides mom in months, so the easy conversation felt good. Scott needed a couple of people to help him start-up a paranormal research group, I still had plenty of insurance money and hadn’t even thought about another job, so I told him I was in.
Scott knew a husband and wife team, Dan and Vickie, who were good with computers, cameras, you know, shit like that. I bought most of the equipment and helped where I could. None of us had ever done anything like it before, but hey, what the hell, right? Gotta make a living somehow.”
The chaplain obliged a weak smile but didn’t answer, so Jackson went on. “The Gregg case was a few months into our new venture. We had six investigations behind us…thought we knew it all. Vickie took the call about a monster three-story Victorian in Chattanooga. The family at 421 Spruce, a full-on minivan clan with mom, dad, kids, and stickers to prove it, was ready to sell. According to Mrs. Gregg, the noises began five months before they contacted us. Started with her, but Mr. Gregg got in on the fun when she called him up to the second-floor bathroom. He gets up there, knocks on the door, and his wife tells him it’s unlocked. Goes in expecting to find her taking a piss needing some toilet-paper, but instead, sees Mr. Paws, one of the boys' old stuffed teddy-bears perched on the throne. The door slammed behind him, water faucets and lights turned on and off,” Jackson paused and shook his head, “he told us the last thing he remembered before he passed out was his wife’s voice coming from that bear telling him it wanted privacy."
The chaplain interrupted, "So, this all started with a toy."
"Yeah, I guess you could say that...or a dump truck, or a rigged system, or...what the hell's it matter?” Jackson shrugged and continued without pause. “We sent the Greggs a couple miles down the road to stay with her sister, then set up for the investigation. Vickie and Dan tested the equipment while Scott and I walked the property to get a sense of its history. Really an excuse for us to grab a quick smoke before we started.
Everyone did their job. Lots of sitting around in the dark, lots of pictures, recorders. We had some premature excitement early in the night…a shadow that turned out to be lights from a passing car and a whisper from Dan’s ass, not a disembodied spirit. Around midnight, we took a break and let the recorders run. Dan and Vickie fiddled with the computers while Scott curled up in the back of his car. I thought ‘what the hell’ and fetched four coffees. By one, we were back at it. Scott and I decided to take Mr. Paws and investigate the downstairs living-room. That's where it happened. Her first message.”
“Through the toy bear.” The chaplain nodded.
“No, through the phone in my pocket.”
"How did it feel?"
"'How did it feel?' What the...how'd it feel? My leg vibrated." Jackson closed his eyes and pulled a long, slow, deliberate, breath. "Scared the hell out of me. I checked the time so we wouldn’t spend an hour tracking the sound when we reviewed the tape, then went outside to see who had died or who was getting their ass kicked for calling me at two in the morning.”
“And your phone showed Mandy’s number?”
“What did you do?”
“What do you think I did? I dropped the phone and pissed myself.” Jackson eased out a long breath. “I’m sorry preacher, starting to feel a little anxious. Don’t put that part in there. The part about me pissing myself.”
The chaplain smiled. “Don’t apologize on my behalf. Sticks and stones. Sticks and stones.”
“Yeah well, words started me down this path, didn’t they?”
“They usually do, but remember, your journey is not over. Though you know when your path ends, there are still choices to be made.” The chaplain motioned for Jackson to continue. “Enough from me for now. Go ahead with your story.”
Jackson did. “I didn’t tell anyone on the team about the message, but I couldn’t finish out the night. Told them I was sick. An easy sell considering my frame of mind back then. Not much traffic at two in the morning on I-75 south, so I made it home in thirty minutes. I bet I listened to that voicemail a hundred times before sunrise. Same word over and over, ‘Jackson’.” He whispered his name in a poor imitation of Mandy’s voice.
“And you believe it was her?”
Jackson stood from his bed and walked to the edge of the cell. “Oh yeah. Even if I didn't after her first message the rest would have convinced me.”
“And the team found nothing in their investigation?”
“Nothing supernatural. At least not at first. Scott didn’t find the voices until weeks after the fire.”
“The voices you claim he captured while investigating the living-room that first night?”
“It’s the truth. Scott wouldn’t lie about something like that. Came to me when I was in county waiting on the trial. Said something never felt right about the investigation so he’d been going through the recordings again. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was hearing, but he told me his thoughts on it and asked me what I wanted him to do.”
“And you told him?”
“Take it to Dan and Vickie. They were our technical people. Get their opinion.”
“Why come to you first? Visitation at county jail is a much bigger hassle than a quick trip across town to see friends.” The chaplain’s eye’s softened as the corners of his lips crept up. “I’m in and out of them all the time.”
Jackson leaned back against the white cinderblock wall but didn’t return the chaplain’s smile. “Scott heard Mandy’s name on his recording. Hers, mine, a few ancient words he knew, a few more he didn’t.”
The chaplain leaned forward. “Was your friend able to determine the source? I’m good with ancient languages, and some will want to know the whole story.”
“Dan and Vickie never got the chance to hear it. Scott was on the way to their house when he ended up in the river.” Jackson eased back down on the bed, but a flurry of activity in the Control Room interrupted the conversation. Two prison officials, one of whom Jackson recognized as the Deputy Warden, spoke briefly with the officer at the desk outside his cell. “We don’t have…I don’t have time to hit every detail. It’s all in the letter, the one to mom. She’ll let you read the pages about the recording.” Jackson’s foot tapped the white tile floor. “She’ll know which pages are just for her.”
The chaplain crossed his legs and studied Jackson. “This is your story Jackson, but you’re not very good at telling it.”
“It’s all in the letter to mom,” Jackson held up the twelve-page note, “at least the stuff about Scott and his recording. I need you,” he pointed the envelope at the chaplain, “to believe me when I say I didn’t kill that family and burn down their house. I’m all she has left. Promise me you’ll see that she gets this tonight.”
“I heard she’s at a hotel a few miles away. Been there since yesterday.” Jackson waived the envelope at Ronwe.
“Of course.” The chaplain took the letter and tucked it into his jacket. “It’s almost time. Are you sure you want to continue?”
When Jackson nodded but didn’t reply, the chaplain prompted him. “Your team had finished the investigation of the Gregg house, an investigation you left early after receiving a seemingly supernatural message from your deceased wife.”
“Yeah,” he took a breath. “The team was supposed to meet with the Greggs a few days after the investigation to go over the results, but I couldn’t wait. I wanted back in the house and the Greggs weren’t coming back until Sunday. I knew Scott, Dan, and Vickie would have the equipment loaded and be out of there before sunrise Saturday, so I let myself into the empty Gregg house around nine that morning. I had a key and nowhere to be.
A message from her popped up as soon as I stepped into the foyer. Then another later that afternoon. Her telling me she’s okay, she misses me and wishes we could be together. I didn’t sleep from then until after the Greggs came back from the in-laws to meet about the findings…over twenty-four hours. Texted Scott I couldn't make the meeting, found a spot in an unfinished part of the third floor behind a dismantled pipe organ, and threw down a few blankets…old house, big attic. I heard Mr. Gregg yell and call the team frauds when Scott told them nothing supernatural showed up. Never knew I was there.”
“Why that house?”
Jackson shrugged. “Who the hell knows? Why that family? Why that street? Why my Mandy and not Melvin Otts? Why’d he get to live his life after taking hers, and now mines over for something I didn’t do? That’s the terrifying shit isn’t it, preacher?” Jackson locked eyes with the chaplain for the first time. “I thought it was your job to answer me those questions.”
The chaplain nodded but didn’t reply. “Let’s skip to the day of the fire. That’s why we’re here right?”
Jackson’s posture relaxed, but his hands joined the conversation. “I can’t skip to it completely, but the short of it is I couldn’t bring myself to leave. I lived in the attic for two weeks until, well the end.”
“They didn’t suspect anything?”
“No. I knew the house well enough and stayed tucked away most of the time. Bathroom breaks and snack runs when the house was empty.”
“How about the rest of your team? Weren’t they worried?”
Jackson shook his head. “Texted Scott that I needed some time to myself, and nobody questioned it. Sent a few more texts letting them know I was okay, but I spent most days asleep in their attic or scavenging food downstairs, and every evening waiting on her message.”
Jackson glanced at the time. “Look, I don’t know what happened when all hell broke loose that night. I was upstairs waiting on Mandy’s message and heard Mr. Gregg cry out, couldn’t hear what he said, but it sounded like it hurt. Split second later Mrs. Gregg let out a scream that lasted a couple of seconds, then nothing. I jumped up, then shit really hit the fan down there. Not sure what they were looking for, but it sounded like they tore the place apart, at least from what I heard.”
“What you heard?”
“Stuff breaking, furniture thrown all around, shit preacher, I don’t know. I’ve told this before. Didn’t hold water with a jury but it’s the truth.”
The chaplain leaned toward Jackson. “You don't want to talk about the children, do you?”
The children. No, Jackson did not want to talk about them, the local news did enough of that twenty years ago. He remembered seeing their pictures in the papers and on the T.V. every day for a month. Two brown-eyed, scruffy haired boys, T-ball bats slung over their shoulders and smiles on their twin faces. Only once did he see the crime scene on the news. Channel 7 aired a photo of it the day after a volunteer fireman found four bodies underneath the burned-out rubble. You couldn’t tell which parts belonged where, they never showed the picture again, and the producer for that segment lost his job.
“No. No I don’t.” Jackson closed his eyes, pulled a lung-full of air, and savored the staleness. “I didn’t kill them.” He let the air escape with his last word. “Any of them.”
“But the autopsies confirmed they all died prior to the fire,” chaplain Ronwe paused, “there is no evidence to support your story. No records, no witnesses, no recording. Those are the facts Jackson, and that’s why a jury convicted you and then unanimously sentenced you to death.”
Jackson had heard the facts for the past twenty years. Fact was, he didn’t kill anyone. When those people died, how they died, and who killed them were not questions he could answer. “I did not murder the Gregg family. Do you understand? I did not do it. The shit started downstairs and I ran! I ran, okay! Busted one of the old fancy glass windows, jumped to a tree, and got the hell out of there. Didn’t see the fire until I was three houses down.”
“You didn’t call the authorities?”
Jackson shook his head no. “Lost my phone getting out.”
“But even if you didn’t kill them, you knew the kids were in the house and you let it burn. You didn’t wake a neighbor, wave down a car?”
“Look, I ran! I ran because I was scared! You want to tell the world that? Go ahead!”
Chaplain Ronwe started to speak but was interrupted by the guard outside the cell. “It’s your lawyer.” The officer passed the phone through the bars to Jackson but remained near.
“What’s the word from above?” Jackson spoke before he had the phone to his ear.
“Not good.” Jackson’s lawyer, a frumpy loaf of a fellow everyone called Buddy. Great with a story about coins but horrible at mounting a reasonable defense, at least in Jackson’s opinion. “It doesn’t look like the Governor’s going to intervene,” Buddy paused, and Jackson heard what he thought was whispering then a woman’s muted reply.
“Sorry,” Buddy again, “Jackson, your mother is here beside me and would like to speak with you. We just received final clearance from the warden. You’ve only got a few minutes, so I’m going to put her on now.”
“Jackson?” His mom’s voice. “Oh, Jackson…” Soft, not quite silent, sobs.
“Mom?” More a plea than question. “Is it you? Are you there?”
Jackson struggled to speak. “I love you mom.”
“I love you son. I…” Her voice broke again. “I’m trying to be strong, Jackson.”
“I know momma, me too. I didn’t do it, you know that.”
“I love you either way.”
“Why can’t you just say you believe me?” Jackson felt the pain in his voice briefly give way to anger. “Not once since I’ve been in here have I heard those words! Not once!” Jackson caught himself, “mom, I just want you to believe me.”
“Jackson, I…” More soft sobs.
“Mom, please listen. I need to tell you something important.” Slow your breathing Jackson. “Something about the recordings that I never told you. There was another one, another recording.” Jackson waited a moment, and the sobs waned. “Scott, my friend that started the paranormal research group, he caught some voices about the time of Mandy’s first message.”
“What do you mean? Then why are they still going to do this? If there’s something new why are they doing this?” Confused, hopeless elation is how Jackson would describe his mother’s tone.
“No, mom. Nothing’s changed. No new evidence. No evidence at all. We lost it in Scott’s accident, remember that? When he went into the river? He was on his way to let some people listen to it…” Jackson stopped, acutely aware of time. “Mom, Scott caught some things on his recorder that sounded like an argument between two or three spirits. It happened right before Mandy’s first message, but nobody caught it in time. All I know is what I remember Scott telling me before we lost him.”
His mother interrupted. “But why can’t we…” Then away from the phone to someone else, “Why can’t we stop it? None of this came out at trial. I’ve never heard-” Muffled words and rustling on the line, “don’t understand.” A return to soft sobs.
“Mom. Mom? Listen to me. Are you there?”
“Are you okay? I can’t hang up if you’re not okay.”
“Then I’m not okay! You can’t hang up! I can’t let you hang up.”
“Mom, don’t do this. I need you to be strong. I need you to help the chaplain tell my story.”
“Mom, you can do this. You can. I wrote you a letter, used all twelve sheets of paper they gave me.” Jackson smiled as he spoke hoping to coax the same from his mother. Without knowing if it worked, he continued. “The chaplain is going to give it to you after. He’s been with me most of the day. He already knows some of what’s in there, promised he’d tell people my side.”
“I don’t understand! Why didn’t you tell your side in court? Why didn’t you tell your side all these years on death row? Why Jackson? Why?”
“Tell what mom? That once upon a time there was a recording that caught a few dead people, or angels, or demons, or aliens, or who knows what, arguing about something in languages not even Scott fully understood? No copies, no one else to corroborate the story, nothing at all but my memories of what Scott told me he thought he heard; a heated argument between two or three spirits that happened about the same time Mandy left her first message. Hebrew, Latin, Aramaic, two or three others, Mandy’s name, my name, the supposed name of a demon, Ronove. That’s all. That’s the evidence that doesn’t exist anymore. Gone with Scott and his recorder into the Tennessee River.” Jackson stopped himself. “But it’s all in the letter mom. The one the chaplain’s going to give you. What’s important right now is that you know I didn’t kill anyone. I’m sorry that family died, but I ain’t no killer. I don’t deserve this.”
A pause on the other end of the line. “Mom?”
“I’m here Jackson. I love you son. Your momma loves you.” His mother’s voice gave way to muffled whispers. “Jackson, Buddy said I’ve got to go. They’re going to disconnect the line. I love you Jackson, I love you-”
“I love you momma!” Jackson cut her off as the line went dead. He slumped to his knees, and the phone slipped out of his fingers. “I love you.”
The chaplain walked to Jackson and knelt beside him. “It’s time to prepare yourself. The extraction team is here.”
Activity outside the cell signaled commencement of final protocols, and the chaplain stood and moved to the far wall as the officers approached. Jackson tried to control his breathing but struggled. He’d thought about this moment a thousand times over the past three months. He knew the day, hour, almost down to the minute… depending on how the drugs worked…he’d leave this life.
“James Jackson Reader, please step to the front of the cell with your hands together, extended in front of you.” The Extraction Team Leader, the same man who’d shook his hand six hours earlier.
Jackson obeyed without thinking, and another officer cuffed him. “Please turn and walk to the back of the cell, then raise your hands over your head as you face the wall.” The team leader again, and Jackson did.
The shuffle and creak of casters echoed in an otherwise silent room as four officers positioned his deathbed in the cell. When the team leader asked Jackson to lay on the gurney, his knees buckled. Two officers caught his fall and assisted him into place. Once stable, the officers pulled straps tight across his ankles, knees and pelvis. Other members of the extraction team secured straps across his chest and forehead. Finally, handcuffs were removed, and each arm strapped tight to a padded armrest extending along each side of the gurney. Jackson winced at the first prick of an I.V. line. Then another. And another.
The officers stepped away from the gurney and motioned for the chaplain. Jackson closed his eyes and thought of Mandy. Their first date, when he told a joke and she laughed so hard she dropped her ice cream in his lap. Their first kiss at a friend’s bon-fire underneath an October full-moon. Chilly mountain air and music cranking in the pines. Their last kiss, the one in the driveway the day she died. Images so powerful his mind conjured her scent, Jasmine.
“It’s time to listen Jackson.” Mandy’s voice whispered in his ear as the chaplain’s warm breath rolled down his neck. “I’ll make it quick.” Chaplain Ronwe stood and nodded. The officers took another step back. Her voice from Ronwe’s lips to his ear again. “Privacy for the condemned and his spiritual advisor, as it should be, don’t you think?” Ronwe didn’t pause for an answer. “Don’t scream or they’ll gag you. They’ll gag you and you’ll never speak another word aloud. No last statements, no final goodbyes or piss offs. They’ll wheel you straight into the room and off to hell.”
Jackson gasped and jerked but the straps caught tight. One member of the extraction team stepped forward, but Ronwe held up his hand and smiled. “It’s okay. One more moment please.” The officer stood down, and the demon leaned close and stroked Jackson’s forehead. “So sad your mother doesn’t believe you, but she will.” Jackson closed his eyes to escape, but Mandy’s voice filled his head from a whisper. “My inattention to detail as you and your friends eavesdropped is a mistake I’ve spent twenty-one years erasing. Words and names the living were never meant to hear. I thought it was over when I sent your friend and his recorder into the river. I knew he told you about me, I was there. But you’re in an environment easy to control. Perfect situation for someone like me to take the role of student and study your kind…how you handle situations like this. Look at it this way though, your other friends, Vickie and Dan, they never heard the recording. Still a happy couple. Retired, living in Florida. So, Scott’s death saved two lives…brave little guy right till the end.”
Jackson opened his mouth to cry out, but no sound escaped. He could neither draw or push the air, and Mandy’s voice, carried by Ronwe’s breath, resumed in his ear. “Mr. Gregg however, he cried and begged me to kill his wife first. He just couldn’t leave it alone and did his own investigation. Caught my name in the background of one of Mandy’s,” the chaplain’s voice briefly took it’s male tone, "my,” then back to the whispers of Mandy, “messages to you. Unfortunately, Mr. Gregg played his little recordings for the family. Foolish. I gathered them together…mom, dad, kids…and sat them down. I explained what happened and what was going to happen to them…then, well you saw the picture.” Ronwe paused a moment before Mandy’s voice returned in his ear. “I thought your death would end it, but you mentioned my name to her Jackson. You mentioned my name to your mother and that will not do. I hoped I’d never have to meet her. I really wanted my mistake to die with you and your letter, but it seems I have one more task.”
The chaplain stood and nodded to the extraction team. “He’s ready.”
Jackson’s lungs came alive and his scream echoed in the painted cinderblock room.
The extraction team moved quickly, and an officer snatched the gag across his face. Leather cut into the corner of Jackson's mouth, and as the strap tightened, padded foam forced its way against his tongue. The team leader took the chaplain by the arm and moved him toward the cell door.
Mandy’s whisper didn’t fade from his head as the officer led Ronwe out and down the hall. “I’m sorry son. I can’t go in the room with you now that you’ve resisted the procedure…prison protocol. I’ll keep my promise though. I’ll finish your story,” he patted his jacket and the letter, “and fill in the parts you left out.”
Jackson heard the last sentence as the extraction team rolled him through the steel door and into the Death Chamber.
Activity to his right as someone wearing a surgical mask hooked clear lines into his IVs. Beeping, whirring machines, white tile ceiling, plain white walls…all but the one with a shade pulled tight. The window into the witness viewing room. People on the other side of that window would watch him die then write about it in papers and online the next day. Or frame an engaging post, drop a witty comment or two, whatever the medium, they’d tell the story…. how a monster died.
And the curtain lifted.
“Jackson Reader,” The Warden began.
Jackson’s muted scream against the gag didn’t register in anyone’s ears but his own.
“You have been sentenced…” Both continued without pause; the Warden until he finished his official speech…Jackson, until the first drug rendered him physically unable to move or speak.
My Mandy: A Piper’s Song
Through the darkness, Mandy’s voice hit Jackson’s mind. “I’ll be waiting my love, in a place that knows no time. Any last words for your mother?"
Is it real or a dream? It has to be one or the other. Jackson swam in the abyss…the transition from one life to another.
Ronove smiled at the guards as he walked. They waved him by without any talk. Letter in pocket and murder in his eye, one more Reader about to die. He’d heard of the mother once or twice. Strong in the faith, covered in prayer, more than one vice. Then from his left blinding light! A warrior from The Host joins the fight.
Jackson felt it in his soul. His dreams blurred as the sentence took hold. Truths from the Bible, spoken by his mom. God and love. Jesus, sin and him. He couldn’t grasp the words, no doctrine did he know. Buried under darkness, he felt his breathing slow - panicked…then let go.
Like the thief on a cross, Jackson surrendered to Christ. In a war already lost, the demon fled an onslaught of Light.
But the hero of this story is one who never knew. Eve Reader prayed and wept the whole day through. She believed her son was guilty but loved him anyway. “Lord save his soul. Let him see. Draw him to you before he dies. Don't hide your face. Lord pour out your grace. I’ll take his place,” gasping for air as she cried.
Twelve miles away, her son confessed.
Drew a breath.
One perspective rarely gives the whole story. Jackson wanted to make this one about Mandy and him...the injustice it showed and how we’re quick to condemn.
Ronove the demon thought he was smart. Tried to hijack the story but saw only part.
Eve Reader knew her God wasn’t small. She didn’t say much. Couldn't keep in touch, but He heard her call.
So many perspectives.
Only the Author sees them all.
The calm after it's over is my favorite time to play…when the whirlwind blows through, and I see the mess it’s made. All pieces in place. All things made right. Wish you could hear it again, catch what the storm sounds like.
We can walk together, you and I, but please remember, often there’s more than meets the eye. So, follow along and find the real me. See...
I am the Marvin Blick who wrote while he bled, and the Daniel who peed his bed.
I am Alton, traveler from Parasite, and the Darkness that Watches you at night.
Yes, I am Jackson, or you can call me James. Really doesn’t matter…Ronove and Ronwe, weren’t they the same? Buddy, I got so many names.
I’m Cathy Lewis mother of two. Big brother got me popped in the head and we both ended up dead. Yeah, turned the blue tarp red cause they didn’t like what I said. Said I needed a new view. I said, I knew about the Jew, The One who bled, and His view is what we're going to do.
I am the one who whispers words in your head. Don’t hear me here? I’ll catch you in bed. We’ll talk in your dreams as my sentences take hold. My brush, my lead…my canvas, your soul. Hand in hand we’ll dance in the eye, chaos all around, over head clear sky. Twirling in the whirlwind, dancing in the rain, oh what a combination we’ll be! Alone in your mind, a room you can’t flee, can't wait to see when he meets we, just us three, you and him.
Dear child come hear and follow along.
I am a Piper. This is our song.
I hope you enjoyed your time reading as much as I enjoyed mine writing. You can keep up with new releases, specials, promotions, and other random, sometimes useless, information with me on Facebook, Amazon, Goodreads, or by subscribing to my mailing list. Really, for now, Facebook and the mailing list should cover it unless you're just really hardcore into reading...probably be cooler if you were.
A Piper's Song: Short Tales of Good and Evil. First Round
The Ghost Story
Copyright 2019 Jason Parrish
East Star Publishing 2019