DISCLAIMER: The Tomorrow Series belongs to John Marsden.
WARNING: SPOILERS for much of the third book (The Third Day, The Frost)
RATING: T (Mainly psychological)
This is the track my life is setting on,
Spacious the spanless way I wend;
The blackness of darkness may be held for me?
And barren plunging without end?
- 'This is the Track', Wilfred Owen
A week before she's scheduled to die, Ellie is informed there will be a photo session for her. And they tell her she will get to keep the photographs.
A voice speaks to her through a speaker at the top of her door. In the grating static, the voice sounds as if it's got something stuck down its throat. The voice does not waver, and as it goes on she knows it's following a script. There's no hint of an accent. The formality injected into the sentences startles Ellie. Please note that you will… kindly be advised – Why say please, she thinks, when as a prisoner she doesn't have a choice anyway?
But there's more. The voice announces that she will be permitted a television set at a fixed date and time. It will be caged to avoid her doing any damage to it, or herself. She will also be granted one request, which must be submitted, in writing, to the guard within the next 24 hours. Then, a pause. The voice rushes back, and it declares the exact time and date she will be picked up for her photo session. It instructs her to look good. And then, silence.
In the aftermath of the announcement she realises she's lost track of time completely, and needs someone else to remind her that her time is coming to an end.
At least, she thinks, there will be a change of scenery. Anything to stare at but the dead white walls would be good. She nourishes that thought in her head and, moving back to her desk, thinks of the request she will pen down.
She blinks out the fluorescent buzz of her cell while writing, her pen looping around the g's and j's in her words like a noose. When she's done, she asks for the guard. She hands it to him, the paper nestled among the folds of her fingers like the tongue of a thirsty man.
Every day, shortly after lunch, Ellie is allowed the use of the exercise yard for half-an-hour. While she jogs and moves around in the square of sunlight, armed soldiers watch from the exits, perched like loitering condors over a dying kill.
The yard is filled with exercise equipment: a set of weights and a family of mouldy sports balls. A shelf at a corner is stacked with celebrity magazines from before the war. On the covers, the faces of these pretty men and women have been rubbed into glossy white flowers. Astroturf covers the yard, so green that it reminds her of the hills outside Wirawee in winter.
As it has been for some time now, Ellie spends her exercise time alone. She used to have the company of Homer, but one day he simply stopped showing up. There were other prisoners, but Ellie never spoke to them. They had gone on with their routines in complete silence, protected by their own solitude.
Sometimes, as she jogs, she thinks about Homer. She wonders about the inevitable: that they could have already proceeded with him, without informing her.
It's been days, weeks, months maybe. She can't really tell. She wants to believe that Homer's all right. But sometimes, thinking about Homer, she feels her heart slamming against the confined prison of her chest. Still beating madly after she stops jogging, she wonders if its doubt or exertion or affection or all three that makes her heart struggle so.
Adjacent to the exercise yard, behind the smudged silhouettes of the guards, a man in uniform prepares the arrangements needed for Ellie's last hours.
He will put up the documents of execution and see to the condemned's last requests. He will select a suitable venue for the firing squad. (The relevant authorities in his home country conduct capital punishment by hanging to the death. But death by firing squad is, as the relevant authorities have decided, appropriate for war criminals). He needs to engage a doctor to issue the certificate of death. Following tradition, the execution will take place on a Friday, before noon.
He scans through the nominal rolls of soldiers on duty on Friday morning, and selects seven at random. They will need excuses from their sentry duties, instructions and post-event refreshments for Friday. He puts up an order (to be signed by the relevant authorities) to authorise arms and ammunition to be reserved. Following tradition, he requests only two live magazines out of seven. For the morale of the soldiers, no single soldier must feel that he or she has killed a helpless person. He will inform them of this in the briefing prior to the execution.
He also requests a revolver, with three rounds, for himself. Three rounds, as it has been decided, are enough for him to finish the job in case the firing squad fails to deal a fatal bullet wound.
Finally, he indents a single roll of white linen, measuring seventy-five centimentres by fifteen. For the blindfold.
A man in a peak cap Ellie has never met before shows up at her cell. A rank of gold stars on his uniform outline the slope of his shoulders. The guards salute him, and he frowns at Ellie, his face like a sunburnt fist.
The man in the peak cap leads, with two armed guards behind. A third opens and ushers them through doors. Ellie loses count of them amidst the chorus of locks grinding open and screaming shut. Then they bring her to a door that opens with the simple twist of a doorknob.
She enters an office. Blood-brown bookshelves dominate the room. An air-conditioning unit purrs. Sunlight filtered through Venetian projects symbols on the floor. A poster with a black frame surrounding a picture of men rowing a boat hangs on the far wall says THERE IS NO 'I' IN TEAM. And behind the desk, stand a uniformed female officer and a man in a tie.
"Good morning Ms Linton," the man says. His words come out crisp, sharp like a teacher talking to a student. "Please come forward."
He presents Ellie with a set of clothes: starched white blouse, black skirt and a pair of court shoes. He places a deep navy-blue blazer by a chair. In a small case, he assembles nail polish, lipstick, eye shadow, eyebrow pencils and mascara. There's even a collection of earrings for her to choose from, he says.
To choose? Ellie looks to the men around her, then to the other lone female in the room, who's trying to avoid her gaze. Then it comes to her: they are trying preparing her for the photo session, dressing her up for her last parade.
At some invisible command, the men in the room move out the door, like the dregs slipping into a drain. The man in the tie is leaves last. Before he leaves, he tells her:
"We'll give you fifteen minutes for make yourself look presentable, Ms Linton."
But, Ellie thinks, presentable for whom? Who will see her photos? Her parents? Her friends? But more importantly, who in this destroyed nation will care?
Other than her cell and the exercise yard, Ellie is allowed to visit the viewing gallery, where receives visitors. She gets two hours every Thursday afternoon to speak to her friends, but most of the time it's just Robyn.
Robyn's always there when she arrives, separated by a solid pane of glass. Watching her through the translucent barrier, Ellie hears the warping echo of her voice trickle through to her. Ellie lets Robyn talk. She finds her voice comforting.
Through the glass and the scratchy voice, Ellie can see the dark shadows under Robyn's eyes and the flakes exfoliating from her bottom lip. Robyn's voice has a rough edge to it. Sometimes, Ellie sees crescents of dirt under her fingernails.
When Ellie does speak, she asks about the others. She feels compelled to know, even if Robyn often doesn't have any news. Even with all of them imprisoned, she's envious of them, not under such strict restrictions. Robyn tells of her time outside, sometimes digging trenches around the prison. Then there are her stories of the others: Fi's correspondence with her parents, Kevin's emotional visit to Corrie's grave and their classes.
Classes! Ellie thinks. But Robyn indulges her by describing what they're learning.
But when Ellie senses the time for Robyn's visit is running out, she looks away, as if trying to focus on some clearer, distant point, and forces the question she must ask out to Robyn. Whom she knows already expects it.
"Have you heard anything about Lee? Or Homer?"
After all their face-to-face exchanges, Ellie can also tell when Robyn has bad news or, worse, none at all. From the nine out of the ten times she's asked this question, she'll see Robyn's gaze falter and then shake her head. No one has heard – and none of the guards will answer – anything about Homer. And Robyn's last news of Lee was his solitary confinement for fighting back against the guards.
Yet, in the precious final seconds before the time-out bell sounds to shred them back to their isolated worlds, Robyn smiles. Ellie sees her touch her fingers to the glass. Emotionally exhausted by this meeting, Ellie finds the strength to meet Robyn's ghost warmth with her own knuckles. She paws at the sweat prints left by Robyn.
And Robyn's last words before being escorted out are like an unstated, closing benediction at the end of day:
"I'll pray for you, Ellie. Please stay strong."
"Do I have to wear the blazer?" Ellie asks the female officer.
"Only if you want to."
Ellie dons the blouse and the skirt, wearing them over her prison clothes, leaving the blazer untouched. She slips into the court shoes. When it comes to makeup, she examines herself in the mirror, and then decides just on a bit of eyeliner. She doesn't need kohl-blackened eyes or masacara-ed lashes. But it seems like the first time in a long time she has imagined herself as pretty.
When she's done, the female officer knocks on the door, and the others enter. The guards sneak glances at her. The man in the tie gives her a thumbs-up. While Ellie sits behind the desk, the guards clear the remaining clothes from the table, and the men in the tie arranges various bits of furniture almost compulsively: books, book-ends, a miniature globe, plush velvet curtains, an academic-looking scroll –
Then Ellie understands it. The photographs, the clothes, the setting – everything. It's not her, not part of her character. It's not part of her experience of growing up in Wirawee. All this – dress-up – All someone else's idea of what fulfilling life might be: working in an office, dressed well, with fancy-looking pieces of paper to pass for qualifications and a shelf of books to pass for the depth of gained experience.
It's not just someone else's version of a successful life. It's their's – the prison, the guards, the men in the tie's – their mirage of what her life could be. They'll take my picture, she thinks, for someone to remember me by. But also for everyone else to say: look what she could've been if she didn't fight back.
From that moment on, Ellie knows what she'll do.
Once, Ellie remembers, she had the whole exercise yard to herself. No Homer, none of the other prisoners - just the shadowy presence of guards standing at the edge of the Astroturf. She surveys the yard, imagining what to do with all the space, before her eyes get drawn upwards to the sky above.
She thinks that everything about the yard is fake: from the Astroturf meant to look like eternally cheerful pasture to the illusion of space to exercise. The yard is no different from her cell. It's just a larger space, with more useless things, with more air circulating. In many ways, she understands, the yard is worse than a cell. It's an excuse the prison uses to show the world that she isn't treated badly, that she, on her march towards an administered death, has rights.
So she decides: she will exercise her right of movement by not moving at all. She steps into the middle of the yard and lies down. She faces the overcast sky, watching the clouds like thick tubes hairy with rain. She relaxes, absolutely still, her chest hardly rising.
The guards are puzzled. She sees them emerge from their places and look at each other, then at her, the prisoner who has chosen to lie down in the middle of yard at exercise time. One moves towards her, asks in stammering English: "Miss? You ok?"
Ellie nods. As the guard leaves she hears the first raindrop hit the Astroturf, and then more that remind her of rhythm of rain out in bush. She imagines herself among the gum trees and rain-washed ferns, moonlight spilling silver along the banks of whispering creeks. She closes her eyes. The last thing she sees before complete darkness are the guards, getting more agitated.
The photographer arrives late. When he enters the room he apologises and then begins handing out business cards to everyone around. He stops short when he Ellie puts out her hands, expecting one.
Ellie sees that he's a local, with perhaps a week's worth of stubble artistically curving across his chin. He pauses, his card perched between his fingers, before he finally relents. He looks reluctantly at her, before going to set up his equipment.
She fingers the card – its matt finish, his name embossed in white – and watches him assemble a tripod.
"So you're from Statton?" she asks, glancing at the card twirling in her hands.
The photographer pauses again, then nods.
"I had a grandmother there," Ellie continues, thinking of her house and its garden. "The town still surviving?"
The photographer looks to the guards this time, as if seeking for approval to carry on the conversation. But none of them – the guards, the uniformed girl, or the man with the tie – say anything. He resolves this by dabbling with his many lenses.
But he finally replies, "They're doing ok, given the circumstances."
More silence, but Ellie decides to pushes her luck:
"Nice Nikon digital lens you got there," she says. "I thought you'd be doing this with a Polaroid."
"You a photographer, sweetheart?"
"Nope. But I can recognize a DSLR when I see one. They're a bit rare and expensive in Wirawee."
Ellie waits, then says without thinking: "Doesn't really matter now, doesn't it?"
The photographer arms his camera, its monstrous flash attached to it like an additional weapon. He looks at Ellie, and with his free hand pulls up her collar. He sighs.
"Let's get some pretty pictures of you today, sweetheart."
In the chief warden's office, out of Ellie's control and understanding, the clerk prepares the letter that will be issued after the execution.
Following the practice back in her home country, she types the letter in English first. Under the official letterhead of the ministry and the opening salutation, she begins the letter with: PLEASE BE INFORMED THAT. Her senior clerk had used this format before and now, at war, she sees no reason to replace it.
The letter will then be translated into the language of her country. The authorities have deemed it fit that two languages can be represented on the letter to promote each nation's language. The letter will be sent to the deceased next-of-kin (she has only recently located their work detail). A copy will be made and filed for recording purposes.
She uses Google Translate to find out some English words that have no equivalent in her language, especially the phrase PLEASE COLLECT THE BODY AT THE STIPULATED TIME. The letter, she plans, should be dispatched shortly before the execution to reach them over the weekend.
Finally, she types in the name of the prisoner. She glances at the picture: the head of a girl staring defiantly into the camera, jaw clenched, a lock of hair spilling across her face.
And the clerk shakes her head. Just a girl, she thinks, what a waste.
The photo session is not going well. Ellie knows this: they are into the sixth picture and the photographer has already begun to plead with her.
"Look sweetheart, I'm not your enemy here. I'm just here to make you look beautiful," he says, letting out an exasperated sigh. "Don't you want something good your parents or friends out there can remember you by?"
Ellie responds by shrugging. She will not openly defy the photographer's orders, but has decided she will take control of this last major event in her life. She still goes along the photographer's recommended poses, sometimes standing, sometimes sitting, sometimes her hand on the bookshelf or serenely beside the globe. But she eyes with camera with a blank stare. She thinks it borders between contempt and unwillingness to play along. She hopes it will project an ambiguity that will rob the photographer and the prison's chances to cast her in their light.
She knows she's getting somewhere when the guards start to ask the man in the tie what to do next.
"Can you give me a nice smile this time, please?" the photographer looks at her, then through the camera. "Even if you don't care, why don't you do it for me?"
Ellie takes a deep breath, and closes her eyes. When she opens them, she presses her gaze till it eats through the lens and dissolves the flash that attempts to absorb her.
On her final visit before Friday, Ellie is led into the viewing gallery. The first thing she sees are the cloudy shadows behind the glass.
Then the voice: "Long time no see, Ellie."
She sees them blossom into faces as she nears: Homer, Robyn, Fi and Lee – all crowded into a space meant for one. There's a moment when she sits down and everyone starts talking for almost a whole minute. It's almost like the old days, under the stars, their voices mixing in with the sound of the trees and bush at Hell.
"Wait! One a time!" she says, then turns to Homer. "What happened to YOU?"
"It looks like they granted both of our last requests," he says.
"You mean –"
"It seems mine will happen at the same time as yours," Homer says.
Ellie stops, her thoughts cut short by this. She finds it unfair that, despite their circumstances, she has to be on the other side of the glass.
"So," Homer continues, tapping gently on the glass. "Smile when they take your photos."
"I'll bet you'll be sticking your tongue out when they take yours."
"I feel like giving them the finger, really."
"All this time in here hasn't changed you, I see," Fi says.
Again, another moment of laughter. It breaks the feeling that threatens to force Ellie into her usual silence. She brings her face closer to frame, the thick dusty plate of fingerprint-smeared glass. She nearly knocks her nose into it, believing her friends so close.
"Still trying to kill the guards, Lee?"
Lee's smile breaks. When he speaks, Ellie thinks his voice sounds unnaturally smooth:
"Getting a bit difficult without you around to give me ideas."
"Yeah right." And before she can help it, she says to him: "Take care of yourself. Because I will not be around to help, I'm afraid."
"You think I don't know that already?" Lee sounds dismissive, almost resentful. "Don't act like you're the only one that's going to be missed here."
Robyn elbows him hard. But Ellie forces a hollow, sharp laugh. She tries to sound like she's back in the bush arguing with Lee again:
"Oh really? Don't bawl like a baby when I'm gone then."
"Speak for yourself."
Then, before she can control herself, Ellie begins to sniff. A tear floods her vision, and she angrily wipes it away. But from across the glass, she realises that Lee's eyes are red too. She holds out her damp palm to the glass; Lee places his in the exact outline of hers.
As if all the hours of holding back have come to an end, Ellie watches her friends attempt to clear their eyes, their snot and their tears. Even Robyn, controlled and always so cheerful, buries her face into Fi's shoulder. Instead of the back-and-forth banter, Ellie cries with them – because she's not sure who she should be really sad for.
And then the guards, not wishing to interrupt a group of crying teenagers to tell them that their time will be up soon, give them notice by shutting off all the lights.
Ellie is back in her cell after her photo session. The photographer's professional pleading and the shuttling clicks of his DSLR have stopped. The clothes have been returned. She's alone.
Now more than ever, she wishes she had a mirror in her room. She would like to see her face, her expressions. She wants to see how her final act of freedom had been defined by just a twitch of muscle, a lump in her cheek, the narrowing of her eye. In the absence of a mirror, Ellie runs her fingers over her face, running the grooves in her expressions, the contour of her feelings.
Here, in the semi-dark worlds created by her own hands she can hear the silence of her cell. She knows that the next footsteps slapping on the floor down the hallway might be the last steps on concrete she'll ever hear. So she tries to shut everything out: whatever sounds, thoughts, fears, regrets –
But it's not working. There's the guards shuffling outside, the sound of her own heavy breathing and – maybe she's imagining it too – the hot liquid tears falling through her hands and onto the floor.
A note on capital punishment:
Sometime in December 2011, I read an Amnesty International report about the death sentence in my country. It just so happens that my country has one of the highest per capita execution rates in the world. In that report were some testimonies of what went on death row in some of the local prisons. And then the idea for this story was born. All the procedures in this story are actual procedures: the TV in a cage, the photo session, drawing of arms (that's more from my police experience), the dreadful letter and, yes, the Friday execution date which usually takes place just before dawn.
I don't want to preach a certain ideological stand, but in doing research on these practices (and writing the story), I've become quite against the death penalty. Whether or not you believe it should be part of how people are judged, I leave that up to you to consider.
Thanks for reading :)
This piece was written in early March but went through some edits before I decided to post it up here. I will probably write one more TWTWB fic before calling it a day.
If possible, comments on the structure, POV and whether the technical aspects of being administered in prison overwhelmed the plot would be appreciated.
Once again, thank you for reading.