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Astoteph

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Extra capital punishment - Editor

Astoteph

by Joseph Rubas

Warden Raymond Haines looked at himself in the mirror and shuddered. His face was flabby and the color of dough, his eyes were bloodshot and worried, and his once black hair was losing its color.

He looked down at his hands, and they trembled slightly.

With a sigh, he moved away from the mirror and toward his desk. He sank down into his chair with a grunt, and tired to focus on the paper before him. The words blurred, and he couldn’t have wrapped his minds around them had they not.

He looked up at the clock above his door; it was 11:00.

His stomach rolled. He shuddered, and opened his desk drawer. Inside he found his bottle of Tums, and plucked them from the midst of papers and loose staples. He wrestled with the top, his clammy hands jittery, and finally removed it in a cascade of multicolored tablets. He popped several into his mouth, and struggled to sweep the rest back into the bottle.

That done, he looked again at the clock; only six minutes had passed. His gaze traveled to the door, his stomach settling into a horrible, hallow quiet. He licked his dirty lips, and yearned for a cigarette. He had quit seven years before because Brooke realized that they weren’t exactly young, and feared losing him. The patch worked well; he only had cravings after a good meal, a good lovemaking, and on nights when Astoteph came to visit.

He stood, and paced around the small, lambently lit room, his unseeing eyes darting from his many plaques and certificates on the walls to the clock and the door.

He moved to the window behind his desk, and peered absently out. The night was brightly afire with the many lights along the razor wire fence. Beyond the outer gate, across a dark, barren gulf, the small red light of a radio station tower blinked rhythmically, like a beacon to wayward alien crafts.

Haines moved back to his desk, and then back to the window in indecision. He finally moved back to his desk, sat down, and rummaged around in his desk until he found the small transistor radio that Paige had gotten him for Christmas years before, when she was still a scrawny, brace-faced kid in school, relying on her daddy’s bedtime stories to lull her to sleep.

He smiled thinking of her. She was just like her mother: smart, beautiful, endlessly compassionate, and hardheaded as hell.

Mind miles away, Haines switched on the radio, and found WGRQ a deep pit of static. He turned the dial up and down the band, and finally settled for a station playing Kesha.

He ignored the music, his mouth dry and throbbing for a smoke. He thought of finding Jim Dumfries, the assistant warden, and bumming one off of him, but decided against it. Brooke would smell it on his clothes and give him hell.

Soon, the song ended and a newsflash came on. Obama was giving a speech at a banquet somewhere in Washington, a hurricane that nearly obliterated Cuba was heading for Key West, an immigration protest in Phoenix turned violent, the Dow had lost big time…

“Tonight at midnight, convicted murderer Charles Jackson will be executed by lethal injection at Shawnshank prison in Marion…”

Haines scrambled to turn it off, not noticing until then that he was biting his nails.

Folding his hands in his lap, Haines looked up at the clock. 11:18.

With a perturbed sigh, he stood and switched off his lamp. He moved to the door, opened it, turned the overhead lights off, and shut the door behind him, his chest tightening.

He clap-clocked down the lonely hall, his eyes vacantly scanning the yellowed walls and bare piping as he went.

Shawshank South had been built in 1953 after an agreement between the governments of Maine and Virginia; Maine prisons were overcrowded, and Virginia prisons were overcrowded with violent felons. South was connected directly with a prison in Maine, the original Shawshank, and any inmate who entered either prison could be transferred to the north or south, thus becoming the problem of the other state, if the need ever arose.

It hadn’t been renovated since the riot of ’65, when the prisoners took the place over and burned what they could before the National Guard was mobilized.

Walking down the long hall to the door which led outside onto the commons, Haines became sure that his echoic footfalls actually belonged to something, a hungry ghost, maybe, coming in fast from behind.

Forsaking any shred of composure that he had previously enjoyed, he bolted and ran for the door, his neck tingling as if in expecting a blow.

He finally reached the door, his vision graying, and barreled through and into the muggy night.

It hit the concrete side of the building with a horrible sound, but the glass did not shatter.

Slowing, realizing that he would make a fool out of himself in front of the guards in the tower (and possibly get himself mistaken for an escapee), Haines stopped. He sagged forward, rested his hands on his knees, and caught his breath, letting feelings of embarrassment wash over him. He was being stupid.

But was he? Astoteph was real. Zombies and vampires were real, or at least Astoteph made them real…

Shoving these thoughts aside with great effort, he stood erect, wiped his sweaty brow, and walked toward the main building along the asphalt walk as though nothing had happened.

#

Haines squeezed past a small milling crowd of well dressed people, and entered the deserted viewing chamber. Three rows of cheap chairs, each successive row higher than the last, stretched from the door to the far wall, on which hung several laminated placards of rules and regulations; the seats faced a large screen of one sided glass, through which several bored-looking guards milled around a winged table. Another guard, a tall youth with close cropped sandy hair and a knobby Adam’s apple, stood rigid and pale by the red wall mounted phone, which hadn’t delivered a man since 1984. The boy, who had only been employed at Shawshank since September, looked sicker than Haines felt, and the warden’s heart went out to him. He was the one tonight.

Why don’t they just outlaw this shit?

For a moment he took in the room with a turn of the stomach, the expectancy hanging thick in the air like cigarette smoke, some possibly left over from previous midnight shows. Some were under the impression that the room, and the execution chamber, was haunted, and they were right.

He hated nights like these.

Behind him, the low, almost ghost-like chatter of the witnesses drifted to him through the open threshold, communing with the dim lighting and his own growing apprehension to unnerve him all the more. He wanted to go home to Brooke’s loving arms and forget the whole damn thing.

With a heavy sigh, Haines moved to his usual seat, the last one in the last row closest to the wall. Once seated, he checked his wristwatch, and found with an intestinal twist that it was already 11:30, half an hour to show time. Charles Jackson was no doubt enjoying his last meal now, provided his nerves let him. Most men didn’t have a very big appetite on their night. They usually evaporated into pools of blubbering jelly as midnight ticked maddeningly closer. They didn’t mind raping and killing whoever they wanted, but when their turn came…

The first man that Haines had seen off to the nether world was Gus Sanford, an illiterate truck driver from Fauquier County who killed several women with a wrench in the late 70s. He wasn’t a marvel of physical glory, being short, pudgy, and bald, but he had treated the prospect of death like a joke. Even as he walked dead man’s mile, chained like an animal and shouted on by the other inmates, he had a sunny grin on his face and a light in his faded blue eyes. He was no doubt thinking what they all think as they are led to the slaughter: This can’t happen to me; the governer’ll call.

But his happy face slowly fell and drained of blood as he was strapped down, and his aura of confidence disappeared like a puddle on a hot day. When it became clear that the governor was not going to spare his life, the blubbering began. He even begged to see the prison chaplain, who he had earlier called a stupid faggot.

The juice in the arm didn’t work quite quick enough, and this horror went on until he faded from life, leaving even the most hardened guard and the victims’ most angry relatives feeling dirty and sympathetic.

“Fond memories, huh?” came a raspy voice dripping with faux delight, sending an icicle of surprised terror and dread into Haines’ heart. He now noticed that the temperature in the chamber had fallen several steep degrees; the chilly air also smelt of sulfur. He shuddered.

Haines had been Shawshank’s warden since 1998, when Murray T. Knoble, the black, flamboyant, effeminate man who had held the job since 1970, suffered a heart attack and smashed his car into an overpass support column. He didn’t know the man, only enough to nod to when passing, so he wasn’t sure if he had also been visited by Astoeph. Haines was pretty sure that millions of wardens throughout history had known him.

“No,” he was surprised to find himself replying, shocked even more so that his voice was sharp and steady. The dark form to his right loomed large in his peripheral vision, and he forced his gaze to cling to the sandy guard as if he were a flotsam in a restless sea. But that didn’t help enough, for Astoteph was like a vision in a bad dream, seen even through closed eyes. Haines had never seen him out of his shadowy shroud, but from the monster’s outline he had ascertained that he wore a Dick Tracy fedora and a long, flasher’s coat.

“How’s the family?” Astoteph asked, his voice that of an ancient smoker, obviously deriving malicious glee from the torment he enacted.

“Fine,” Haines snapped, still looking at the white face of the young guard by the phone, and was taken aback to find himself adding, with a swelling of pride, “Paige is studying criminology.”

Astoteph laughed devilishly. “Following in pop’s footsteps, huh? At Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, isn’t she?”

A shock of body-wide fear shook Haines. He turned from the window, and regarded the hulking darkness. “You bastard, if you touch…”

Astoteph laughed hatefully. “Don’t flatter yourself. What would I want with that dog? No. I was there the other day to…console a very distraught young man who was gonna ice himself. He couldn’t find a date to a party or something; afraid he’s end up the ninety-year-old virgin. You know how teenagers are.”

“I’m sure you gave him great advice,” Haines said sourly, settling into his seat. He looked into the chamber, and saw that the young guard was not by the phone. He probably went somewhere to throw up, as Haines had done before he injected Sanford.

“Nah, I don’t believe in suicide, if that’s what you mean; such a waste of life and potential.”

He inhaled, putting Haines in mind of the obscene noises made by a peeping Tom. Did he really have to breathe, or did he just to that?

“I sat him down and told him a story,” Astoteph said.

Haines sighed deeply, knowing what was coming.

“There was this priest, see? And he hated sin like the liberals hate Palin. He was always on the lookout for it. And he had this daughter, from before he decided to join the God crew. She was sixteen, nice, tight ass, big tits. So one night, this nigger breaks into the house, finds the girl asleep in bed, and starts bashing her face in and buttfucking her. Dada comes in, chases the darkie off, and then goes after his daughter and chokes the life outta her right there for being a whore.”

God, that voice! A bright hot spot of pain smoldered in the middle of Haines’ forehead.

“Now who was at fault here?” Astoteph asked, “the coon or the cunt?”

Haines refused to reply.

“I asked him ‘Why punish the innocent, you, for what the guilty, all the sluts that told you to fuck off, did?’”

It took a moment for Astoteph’s words to sink in, but when they did, they exploded within Haines. “You didn’t!” he cried.

“I did,” Astoteph replied coldly. “There was a…moral wall we had to knock down first, but all’s well now. He’s doing us all a favor, getting rid of those stuck up sluts.”

God, Paige.

“Oh, no,” Astoteph forestalled. “I made sure that he knew not to touch her, or else he’d be…mistreated. See? I’m not totally bad.”

“Go back to hell,” Haines panted, his heart and stomach one churning pit of blackness. He needed to find a phone and call the police in Fredericksburg; he couldn’t just let that boy…

“You’ll see him soon enough,” Astoteph said, “he’s a sloppy customer…never even watched CSI. And I never been to hell in the first place.”

“Yeah?” Haines asked breathlessly, “too bad they didn’t burn you at the stake, then.”

Astoteph chuckled. “Those puritan assholes? The mighta tried. They really woulda seen something if they fucked with me!”

Blessed silence descended then over them. A few witnesses had begun to bleed into the room and take their seats. The sandy youth returned to his post, still ashen.

“You shouldn’t treat a guest like you do,” Astoteph said, “bad manners turn people off.”

“You’re not a guest,” Haines spat, “I don’t want you here. I ought to have the place blessed.”

“Oh, no,” Astoteph said in mock fright, “don’t do that! I get the point; Swiper no Swiping!”

He chuckled again. “Get an old priest and a young priest; in the name of the Christ! In the name of the Christ!”

“It’d keep you away,” Haines shot back.

“Yeah, but this isn’t the only prison in the world.”

“At least you’ll be out of my hair,” Haines hissed over clenched teeth, even though there was no reason to talk lowly; whenever Astoteph was around it was as though they were on a different plane of reality.

“Yeah?” Astoteph asked mockingly, “then my little friend’ll be in Paige’s hair, and not the kind on her fat head…”

“Fuck you,” Haines said shakily, his heart throbbing in fear and rage, “I’ll find a way to kill you if you touch my daughter.”

“Or Brooke,” Astoteph reminded him, “she’s a looker for her age…”

“Touch her and you’re dead.”

“Oh,” Astoteph snickered, “try. Put a stake in my heart; blow my head off with a silver bullet, burn me up; I’ll still be around after you’re dust.”

An icy fist gripped Haines’ heart; he believed Astoteph.

“That’s right, just sit there and shut up if you don’t want Paige’s tight little ass ripped in half.”

A shiver of impotent rage shook Haines.

More victims’ families had taken their seats before the glass, eager to see justice dealt.

Thankfully, Astoteph was disinclined to talk for the moment. It was actually Haines who

jump started the accursed conversation when Charles Jackson, short, bald, black and cocky, was led into the chamber by two grimfaced guards. He seemed…content, as if pleased with the deal he had made with Astoteph.

Jackson, thirty-four, had, at the age of seventeen, peppered a Richmond street corner with bullets in an attempt to thin the ranks of a rival gang. He ended up not only completing his mission, but also killing a mailman on his route and a little girl playing in her room nearly a mile away.

“Did you talk to him?” Haines asked, his mouth sour against speaking to the beast.

“Yep,” Astoteph responded after a moment, “your chaplain, weak willed drunk, was a breeze to take. You know he’s a pedophile with one foot in the grave?”

“Who?”

“The chaplain,” Astoteph replied impatiently, “got two nieces in Atlanta, twelve and fourteen, that he just loves to visit…”

“Okay,” Haines said, hoping to forestall any further details.

“He’s “known” them for years. Made the youngest bleed like Niagara last Christmas…”

“That’s enough,” Haines nearly pleaded.

“…But Mother Nature’s got his number. One more bender and its lights out for the shaman.”

Haines hoped desperately that Astoteph was lying about Father Potter. He just couldn’t be doing those things, not the kindly old beanstalk.

“And you shoulda seen CJ’s eyes bulge when I took Father Mulcahy. It’s kinda like…you ever seen Ghost, when Whoopi gets possessed and she jerks…?”

“What did she want?” Haines asked, and after a moment realized his mistake. “I mean

he,” he said with a shake of the head.

“Who? Whoopi’s fat ass? Probably a piece of Swayze.” After a slight pause, Astoteph said thoughtfully, “Isn’t he dead yet?”

“Jackson, damnit!” Haines said. “You know who I mean. What did he want?”

“Now, I can’t tell you that,” Astoteph said, “that’s confidential.”

“Don’t play games,” Haines said, his voice rising, “what did the son of a bitch want?”

Presently, under the harsh florescent glow, the guards were strapping Jackson to the table. The prison doctor, a tall black-haired man in his early fifties, looked on. A bald man had taken sandy boy’s place by the phone.

“He wanted a chicken dinner,” Astoteph chuckled.

Jackson was now tied to the table, looking straight up into the lights above him, sneering defiantly at God. An immobile hush now fell as the last wait for the governor’s call began.

“He won’t,” Astoteph said disdainfully to no one in particular, like a man frustrated with the stupidity of a movie character.  “Bob’s got his face between an intern’s legs as we speak; a male intern.”

“What did he want?” Haines asked firmly.

“Something,” the demon finally relented, just a little, “that shocked even me. I couldn’t do it, of course, but…that was a new one, alright.”

“What?”

Astoteph continued as if he had not heard Haines. “Once there was this retarded guy down in Florida who killed his momma because she wouldn’t make pizza for dinner.”

Astoteph laughed as if regaling a close friend with his favorite joke. “I got in there before they fried his ass, and asked him what he wanted me to make him, and he wanted to be Spiderman!”

Astoteph roared a gale of graveyard laughter which was deafening in the small space.

“But Charlie Jackson…he was actually pretty smart to think of what he did.”

“What?” Haines ejaculated.

“He wanted me to turn him into an angel.”

Looking at the sneering devil on the table, Haines had a hard time believing that.

“I couldn’t do that,” Astoteph explained, “just let him fly off into the clouds, so he had to settle.”

“For what?” Haines asked breathlessly.

“He’s coming back as a werewolf,” Astoteph finally said, a prideful, paternal smile in his voice.

“Oh, God,” Haines drew, blasphemous visions of Paige and Brooke laying bloody chunks on the floor danced painfully before his mind’s eye, turning his stomach. A kind of desperation descended over him then, and he was moved to fall to his knees before Astoteph for the sake of his family. But he somehow kept his composure.

“Don’t let him touch my family,” Haines said meekly, “anything but that; anything at all.”

“I won’t,” Astoteph reassured him, “I’ve set some ground rules. I can’t promise your safety…”

“Thank you,” Haines breathed, relieved, a large chuck of the oppressive agony lifting

from his chest. “Thank you.”

“See? I’m not such a dick, after all.”

©2010

 

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