THE VOICE AT THE DOOR

(c) 2009 Wm. Douglas Van Devender

      “How’s he doing?”

     “Take a look.”

     The SuperMax Duty Officer peered into the tiny isolation cell through the thick glass port. An inmate clad in sweat-stained boxers circled the confined space, talking loudly to himself. The agitated man assumed a fighting stance, throwing occasional punches at an invisible adversary. His musculature and tattoos spoke of a lifetime of physical violence and mental chaos.

     “Has the Chaplain visited?” the Major asked.

     “He came earlier, but I wouldn’t let him in. Finn’s crazy. He’d kill Chap’.”

     “Finn will fight when the time comes,” the Major predicted.

     “I suppose you’ll be sending the TAC team?”

     “Yes.” He stood at the port a moment longer. “I almost feel sorry for the guy.”

     “Not me. After what he’s done, the world’s better off without him and hell’s worse off for him.”

     Shut up! Shut up! The noise in Finn’s head was deafening. Taunts. Accusations. Provocations. So many voices, for so many years, now rising to inflame his final hours. He vomited a stream of vulgarities toward the chorus. They responded with howls of glee.

     I’m not insane! The room moved. He steadied himself. Or maybe I am.

     The Correction psychiatrist declared him competent to face execution. Her assessment read, “Angry, defiant, erratic, impulsive, unstable, violent, but in clinical terms, neither psychotic nor sociopathic.”

     Look Finn, he’s flirting with her. A vision of Finn’s court-appointed attorney floated up. The shyster was buying a drink for a fawning woman. She’s laughing at his filthy jokes, hoping he’ll choose her. His only thought is what he’ll be doing when your time comes.

     Oh, for one hour to thank the counselor personally for his incompetent defense. He’d strangle the fool leisurely, extending his death throes one gasp at a time.

     Look Finn, they’re sitting down to supper. In his mind’s eye, Finn saw the judge, his snooty wife and their preppy kids. Prosperous. Respectable. Stuffing their sanctimonious faces. Yakking about their holiday cruise. Dining with dirty hands. If you could, what would you do?

     A crimson haze blurred Finn’s vision. The self-righteous pig! The trial was a farce. His public defender presented nothing to affect the outcome. The judge waited impassively for the jury’s anticipated verdict of guilty before announcing his predestined sentence.

     The judge began with a searing lecture, “In all my years on the bench, I have not presided over the trial of a man more devoid of human sensibilities than you. You are unspeakably cruel and without remorse. If there were the slightest possibility of reclaiming you as a functional part of humanity, I would sentence you to life without parole. But neither I, nor anyone who has attended these proceedings, would suffer any suggestion that such could ever be.”

     What would I do? I’d torch the house while they sleep.

     The inner dialogue rambled on, Finn recalling those who had used, abused and betrayed him. Look at them. They’re free. Making love. Counting their money. Feeding their addictions. Playing their wicked little games. See how heartless they are, how unconcerned they are for you, how they ignore your last night. What will you do?

     Finn growled, digging his fingernails into his face, peeling skin, drawing blood. Their faces swirled around him, dismissing, demeaning, destroying. He tried to target each one long enough to hurl a fresh, sadistic threat. This one I’ll stalk. That one I’ll shoot. On went the fantasies. Cut him. Rape her. 

     But how?

     Finn frantically examined the cell walls and thick steel door for the ten thousandth time. Since the door first clanged shut behind him warehousing him with his darkness, he had obsessed about escape. He desperately needed to be free to act out his vile imaginings. Perhaps their suffering would provide temporary relief from his pain.

     For years Finn irrationally believed that he could—if he successfully focused his rage—pass through the prison walls to pursue his prey. But his passions had not overcome his predicament. His solid concrete box was impenetrable, and beyond that, SuperMax was secured with guards, gates, cameras and fences.

     The only egress available did not lead to freedom.

     My head! Finn’s tormentors were crushing him into a micro-world of mania, impotence and inevitability. He raged profanely about his cell, bashing his forehead repeatedly on the concrete walls. The objects of his rage remained insulated from his homicidal outburst, however. They would live on.

     The guard shouted through the door, “Stop it, Finn!”

     Maybe if I continue, Finn calculated, he’ll open the door. Maybe he’ll be careless. Maybe I’ll kill him.

     “Finn.”

     A second, softer voice penetrated the door. The Death Row inmate paused, his breathing labored, his forehead bruised and bloody.

     “Let’s talk.”    

     Finn knew the voices of the chaplain, the guards and the working inmates, but this voice was different. Perhaps a do-gooder with an aversion to capital punishment had talked his way onto The Row.

     “I’ve come to break you out.”

     What? Hope flickered, but suspicion also flared. Who would, who could break me out? Surely the guard must have heard.

     “How you gonna do that?”

     “Trust me. I’ve done this many times before. Piece o’ cake. You’ll see.”

     “You really think you can break me out of SuperMax?”

     “If you agree to come with me.”

     “Why wouldn’t I?”

     “There’s a condition.”

     “Ah, you want money.”

     “Not exactly.”

     “Who are you? Marty send you?”

     “My father sent me. You haven’t met him yet, but he’s been following your case with interest. He thinks it’s time to get you out of this mess.”

     “How do I know this ain’t a trick?”

     “You don’t, but what’ve you got to lose by playing along?”

     Finn’s gaming instincts stirred, “How much?” All prices were the same to him. He had nothing left with which to bargain. No outsider would pay a dime to spring him.

     Not even Marty.

     “Answer me this, ‘What question cries loudest in your heart?’”

     “How can I get out of this blanking tomb?” he responded without hesitation.

     “Try again.”

     “Who will I get to…uh…visit outside?”

     “No more homicidal fantasies. What do you need to know?”

     How could the voice know Finn had a burning question? And why would he ask about that now? Did Finn dare speak it aloud?

     “If you’ll come with me….” The voice promised. What do I have to lose? My time is up. He lowered his voice, concerned the guard might overhear.

     “Am I insane?”  

      Yes or no. Either answer would settle the matter. If insane, he could die free of guilt for his horrific crimes. Insane people aren’t really responsible, are they? If not, he could spend his last hours desperately trying to transfer his guilt to someone else.

     “No, Finn. You’re not insane. You never have been.”

     Finn edged closer to the door. The words seized him. Could they be true? He wanted to believe, but cynicism ran deep on the Row. Someone is playing me. Someone wants a final laugh before I’m gone.

     “Prove it.” 

     “Gladly,” the voice at the door said. “Voices fill your head. The babble never stops, even when you sleep.”

     No one knows that! Not even the psychiatrist.

     “You have played a double game. You hate your tormentors and wish to be rid of them. At the same time, you’ve cooperated with them by embracing their lies. That’s one reason you’re here tonight.”

     Finn was stunned, “Who are you?”

     “The question is, ‘Who did it to you?’” the voice swerved into heavily defended territory. Finn was transported out of his cell, transported out of SuperMax, transported out of time. He was back in the old rural farmhouse with his sisters and Mama and her new boyfriend.

     “My Mama’s boyfriend,” he whispered.

     “How old were you?”

      “Eight…no, seven,” the pain was unbearable.

     “Do you remember the first time?”

     Remember? That day was a bedrock cavity fouled with humiliation, confusion and fear. Do what I tell you, Claude threatened, or I’ll use the girls. Tell anyone and you’re all dead. Claude was an ex-con. Finn believed him.

     “Yes, I remember.”

     “Look carefully. When did the voices begin?”

     Comprehension struck, “The next morning.”

     “What else do you see?”

     “The voices came from the outside.”

      “Correct.”

     “They came to torment me.”

     The voice at the door waited.

     “It’s never been me,” Finn whispered as he sagged against the door.

     The voice at the door gave him a moment to process that revelation, “Tell me what followed.”

     With each new violation, Finn’s suppressed rage grew more volcanic and the voices more insistent. When he stumbled onto Claude with little Sarah, Finn said nothing. He turned quietly, walked into the den and pulled his uncle’s shotgun from the case. When Claude emerged from the bedroom, the first blast cut him down. The second finished him off.

     Mama came running. She tried to cradle what was left of Claude in her arms, weeping hysterically. When she began to scream at Finn, cursing her son for his righteous act, he killed her. She must have known. She was as guilty as Claude. She had preferred her lover to her babies. She had made a fatal choice.

     “I killed Claude and Mama.”

     “You made a vow right before you did.”

     “A vow? What is that?”

     “You made a promise to yourself just before you pulled the trigger.”

     Oh, that. He hadn’t thought of that as a vow. “From now on, I’ll kill anyone who touches me or mine.”

     “And…?”

     “I’ve keep my…vow.”

     “And…?”

     “My promise, my vow, has brought me here tonight,” the illumination was dazzling.

     “You’ve spoken the truth. You’ve paid the first installment, but a payment remains.  You must forgive him. Forgive her. Forgive everyone.”

     Finn staggered under the enormity of the demand, collapsing onto the concrete ledge that served as his bed. This was impossible. This could never be done. Then he noted with a start that the voices had quieted. There was silence in his head.

     “Why would you ask me to do that?”

     No answer.

     Finn struggled with the magnitude of the demand. Forgive the man who should have protected but ruined us instead? Forgive Mama for shielding him while he did it? Forgive myself for obeying the pervert like some damn fool? I should have done something sooner. Told a teacher. Told someone.

     “Your second vow?”

     He saw it, highlighted alongside the first. I’ll never forgive them or myself. For the ten miserable, violent years in Youth Services custody. For the girls swallowed up in foster homes. For the death of their family. Forgive? Never.

     “Your many crimes are terrible, but they alone have not brought you to this night.” Finn began to tremble, then to cry.

     “Your unholy vows continue to fuel your self-defeating behavior. They give sanctuary to torment. They nurture confusion, humiliation and fear. They provoke destruction.” The truth was more than he could bear. Finn wailed. The guard peaked through the port, but did not intervene.

     “Renounce your vows. Forgive your Mama. Forgive Claude. Forgive yourself.”

     “But they’re long dead,” Finn moaned.

     “Yes, but they hold onto you from the grave. You will not be free until you forgive them. Turn them loose. Get out of the way. Let someone else settle those accounts.”

     “I want to be free, I want to be free….” he choked.

     “Cry out from your heart. My father is waiting. I will pass your plea to him. You can do it. I’ll help you get started, ‘I recognize the vows I made as a child are unholy and have brought misery and destruction to my life and every life I’ve touched….’”

     With great effort Finn squeezed out the first few words. The second phrase came a little easier. Then his confession began to flow. He poured out his heart to the voice at the door. He admitted his hatred, his bitterness and his rage. He renounced his vows. He forgave Claude. He forgave Mama. He forgave the judge, the jury and his public defender. He forgave the many faces passing in review.

     Then his own guilt. He confessed his darkest fantasies and the crimes they had spawned. He confessed his own betrayals, failures and lies. He confessed to a life ruined and a life forfeited.

     His heart began to soften as the torment drained away. He pleaded for his victims, their families and their friends. He pleaded for his sisters, the prison staff, the warden and the chaplain. He pleaded until forgiveness prevailed. He pleaded until life permeated his dead center.

      The TAC team tensed as the Major turned the key and opened the door.

     “I’m ready to go,” Finn said softly.

     The heavily armed officers looked from Finn to each another in amazement. This was not the man they had come to restrain. Where was the madness? The rage? The violence? Where was the inmate defined by all three? The man sitting where Finn should have been was dressed, peaceful and coherent. He looked younger than the Major remembered. He looked…radiant.

     Without incident, the team chained the new man hand and foot. Finn remained silent during his transfer, except for a single statement to the attending staff, “I’m truly sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused you folks. I hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive me.”

     The Chaplain walked behind, reading aloud from the ancient words of Isaiah:

            But he was wounded for our transgressions,

                        he was bruised for our iniquities:

                        the chastisement of our peace was upon him,

                        and with his stripes we are healed.

            All we like sheep have gone astray;

                        we have turned everyone to his own way;

                        and the Lord hath laid on him

                        the iniquity of us all.

            …he was numbered with the transgressors;

                         and he bare the sin of many,

                        and made intercession for the transgressors.

     They arrived at the chamber.

     The voice at the door spoke again (oddly, no one but Finn seemed to hear), “I’ve come to seek and to save. The transaction is complete. Your guilt and shame now belong to me. I am ready to present you to my father and your father. He is prepared for your arrival. He waits in a marvelous place. A luxury suite for you is reserved in my name.”

     The TAC team strapped Finn to the gurney. The medical orderly inserted the IV. The technician took his place behind a screen. The team withdrew. The curtain was pulled back to reveal the witnesses.

     Finn looked toward the gallery and mouthed, “I’m truly sorry. Please forgive me.” He saw rage, bitterness and torment rise in the eyes of some.

     The Warden confirmed that Finn’s final appeal was denied. He ordered, “Execute the sentence.”

     “Charles Andrew Finn, the moment for your escape has come. With your permission, I will break you out of this prison.”

     “Yes, I’m ready to go.” The medical technician depressed the plunger and the lethal drugs streamed into Finn’s vein.

     “Then my friend and my brother, let’s get out of this place.”

THE VOICE AT THE DOOR was Awarded Honorable Mention in the 79th WRITER’S DIGEST Writing Competition in the Inspirational Writing Category in October, 2010.

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