Free Kindle Nation Shorts -- January 18, 2012
plus a link to enter to win a brand new Kindle Fire!
In This Issue
About the Author: Barbara Taylor Sissel
KINDLE FIRE Giveaway Sweepstakes!
Two More For Kindle by Barbara Taylor Sissel
An Excerpt from THE VOLUNTEER by Barbara Taylor Sissel

 About theAuthor:  Barbara Taylor Sissel

Barbara Taylor Sissel
 

 

Barbara Taylor Sissel was born in Honolulu, Hawaii and grew up at various locations, mostly in the Midwest. She has always been a lover of stories, the ones her big sister told to her and her younger brother, and the wild tales she related herself that often left her mother perplexed. They were too crazy to be from true experience the way Barbara claimed and yet they were vivid enough that they weren't quite lies either.


Reading and admiring Wuthering Heights got her thinking about becoming an author and it was a dream that stayed with her through marriage, life as the wife of a prison warden in Kentucky and the births of two sons. It wasn't until the last child was off to school that she finally sat down to write and then what came was influenced by her experience living with her family on the grounds of a prison.

Justice is a central issue in her stories. Justice and forgiveness. How far is it to unforgivable? Is it ever too late? These are the themes that resonate. What happens when an ordinary family is impacted by a sudden, extraordinary calamity?

Along the way to publication, Barbara has placed twice in the William Faulkner/William Wisdom writing competition. She works with a group of successful, talented authors and in addition to writing fiction, she also works freelance as an editor and writer. Her articles and short stories have appeared in several venues. Currently Barbara lives and writes in The Woodlands, Texas.

 

  

 

 

 

   

 

 

Here's a Link to our KINDLE FIRE Giveaway Sweepstakes!

Win a Kindle Fire tablet!
Win a Kindle Fire tablet!

Click here for a link to our KINDLE FIRE giveaway sweepstakes before it closes on Sunday!   









 

 

 

Volunteer

An Excerpt from

The Volunteer

A Novel

 

by

Barbara Taylor Sissel

Through a haunting sequence of events beginning in today's 14,500-word Free Kindle Nation Short, psychologist Sophia Wilmot finds herself reluctantly holding the power to save death row inmate Jarrett Capshaw from execution.

 

But when, as a result of her involvement, the details of her old crime resurface, she discovers it's not only his life that is at stake, but her own

 

 

by Barbara Taylor Sissel

5.0 Stars  -  2 Reviews

 

Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled

 

Click here to begin reading the free excerpt

 

 

 

Here's the set-up:

 

In the fall of 1999, psychologist Sophia Wilmot is compelled by the court to give testimony on behalf of a death row inmate that results in his sentence being overturned. It is an act that brings her unwanted media attention, a notoriety and reputation that given her past and its secrets, she can ill afford. 

 

Soon other prisoners' families come seeking her assistance. There is one family in particular, the wife, children, and brother of Jarrett Capshaw, that is especially insistent. Forty-one days ago Jarrett's request to die was granted by the State of Texas, and he became a dead man walking, a man they call a volunteer.

 

Jarrett has his own secrets. Most notably, it is rumored he knows the whereabouts of the missing Mayan codex that lies at the heart of his crimes. The U.S. and South America are equally anxious to recover the priceless artifact that scholars believe holds the key to the Mayan-posed mystery of 2012. 

 

As pressure increases on Jarrett to give up the location of the ancient codex in exchange for his life, Sophia is drawn into a relationship with his wife and, in particular, with Jarrett's oldest son, Thomas.

 

There will be consequences, she knows. There will be a price to pay. But not even Sophia is prepared for it when the brutal truth is exposed, the unalloyed facts that, incredibly, deliver Jarrett's fate straight into Sophia's hands. The execution clock is ticking. She has the power to save him, if she chooses. If he will let her. And in the end, it could destroy her.

 

Reviews:

 

Another richly told story from a wonderfully talented author. Barbara Taylor Sissel weaves beautiful novels from fine, unexpected threads. Characters are complex and thoughtful. Places are fragrant and real. Conversations ring true and meaningful. Plots unfold with startling but graceful turns. This is a terrific author I want everyone to discover. She does an amazing job of first making us care about these people, pinging curiosity just enough with the mystery surrounding the codex, then pretty much tearing our hearts out with the beautifully written final chapters.

 

THE VOLUNTEER is a satisfying read, and that's enough in itself, but I think book clubs will find a whole additional dimension for discussion. Beyond the big questions that gray the core topic of capital punishment, there's the complicated realm of family relationships, the definition of "the honorable thing" and whether or not it's even possible to redeem oneself by living or dying for a private cause.

 

This is the kind of indie fiction I'm thrilled to see: a beautifully crafted book by a creative, accomplished author. ~ Joni Rodgers, NYT bestselling author of Crazy for Trying and Sugarland

 

"THE VOLUNTEER is a story of so many things that are not talked about ... you can only learn about them by noticing the empty shape that people talk around. It's exactly like negative space in art, when you depict the object by drawing the space around it." ~ Darla Tagrin, Artist

 

  

 

Volunteer

 The Volunteer

  

By Barbara Taylor Sissel

            

  

 

  

 

  

 

Visit Amazon's Barbara Taylor Sissel Page

  

  

UK CUSTOMERS: Click on the title below to download  

 
Two More for Kindle 
By Barbara Taylor Sissel
Excerpt    

Free Kindle Nation Shorts - January 18, 2012 

 

An Excerpt from

The Volunteer

 

By

Barbara Taylor Sissel

Copyright © 2012 by Barbara Taylor Sissel and published here with her permission


     

 

 

 

 

 

Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth. ~ Buddha

 

1

 

Tuesday, September 14, 1999 - 33 days remain

 

Sophia doesn't register the sound when the truck pulls into her driveway. She doesn't hear the sharp click of the truck's door when the man makes his exit or the approaching scrape of his steps that slow and then stop at the foot of the stairs. She isn't aware that he's watching her. She's on the small landing above him, outside her office. She came out when her mother called, when the conversation grew heated, needing fresh air, a remedy, knowing there isn't any. Not in this situation. She holds the cordless receiver a little away from her ear in a vain attempt to soften the complaint in her mother's voice.

"I won't have it, Sophia," her mother declares for at least the fifth time. "You had no right to take my car keys. I will not have you treating me like an incompetent teenager."

"Believe me, Mother, I'm not too thrilled about it either." Sophia could laugh, it is such an understatement. "But the State of Texas has left us no choice. They've taken your driver's license."

"They're a bunch of fools! I told you that accident wasn't my fault. The policeman who gave me the ticket was a smart aleck. He wouldn't listen."

"Oh, Mother." Sophia isn't sure who she's sorrier for. The only way she and Esther have managed to stay civil to one another is by keeping their distance. Now they will have to be involved almost daily. Sophia is disturbed by the prospect; she resents that it is all on her shoulders now and she's unhappy with herself, that she can't summon a more generous spirit. Loosening her gaze, she lets it wander over the backyard toward the lake. She will walk down there, she thinks, when her mother is finished with her tirade. She will take a glass of iced tea and sit at the end of the rickety dock and listen to the water slide against the shore.

The man at the foot of the stairs shifts his feet. Above him Sophia registers the sound, but subliminally, the way you might divine a tiny foreshock, the one that in the moment seems  random, but that is actually part of a larger pattern, an announcement of the greater explosion yet to come.    

"Frances wants to make peach cobbler," Esther's voice needles Sophia's ear, "but she can't because we haven't any peaches. And we need a new birdfeeder. The old one's lost its perch. I could drive us to get these things, but no, you took the car keys all because of a little fender bender. Everyone has them, Sophia."

"What is she saying, Sister?" Frances speaks in the background.

"Just make a list, Mother," Sophia says. "I'll shop on Satur--"

"No." Esther is adamant.

Sophia closes her eyes. She isn't young herself anymore. How much of this can she do? Without losing her temper, her sanity? But now there is a discreet cough behind her and she turns and sees him, the man at the foot of the stairs.

"Someone's here, Mother. I have to go."

The man says her name: "Dr. Beckman? Sophia Beckman?"

She clicks off the cordless and in the moment before she answers, along with a dart of annoyance, she has an unreasoning urge to run. Perhaps it is something in the man's voice that unsettles her. The impulse is gone before she can decide.

"I hope I didn't scare you." The man smiles.

She doesn't.

"I'm Cort Capshaw," he says.

Sophia sets the phone on the small bench beside her office door and looks beyond him to what she assumes is his white pickup truck parked in her driveway. When she looks back, his gaze seems intense. The line of his jaw, the set of his shoulders is very determined, but not in a way that makes her feel threatened, only more impatient. He's selling something. He's going to have some take-no-prisoners spiel. "Can I help you?" she asks. He's younger than she is but older than her daughter, Sophia decides. Carolyn is twenty-six. He's nearer forty. Medium height, solidly built, cropped sandy-hair. There's a quality of stillness to his presence that she could admire, but she won't. She's not buying regardless.

"I'm a house painter." He half turns to gesture across the street. "I've been working at Miz McKesson's and before that I painted the Nelson's house, around the corner?"

"I'm not interested in having my house painted," she says, although she's well aware that the house needs work. In fact, she and Russ had discussed getting bids last fall.

"Oh, I thought--that is Miz McKesson told me you might be putting the house on the market, that you mentioned it would need a bit of sprucing up beforehand."

"I'm sure she meant to be helpful." Sophia averts her glance. Nosy woman. It was true; she had told Lily McKesson that she was considering a move. Into something smaller. A rabbit burrow maybe or a tree hollow. Someplace small and obscure where life never fell into uncertainty.

"Painting isn't just for looks, you know. Can you see there?" His gesture describes an area of siding over the backdoor. "The old paint is flaking. Plus, I noticed a lot of mildew and just an overall chalking."

Sophia thanks the man for the information. She comes down the remainder of the steps. She's thinking how warm it is for autumn, as if summer is reluctant to give up its tenancy. She's thinking if she were rude, she would cut the painter short, tell him she has something more pressing to do.

"What if I come back later and talk to your husband?"

"He died a year ago," Sophia announces and then wishes to bite off her tongue. What has gotten into her that she would blurt out to a complete stranger that she lives alone? Russ would be appalled.  

Cort Capshaw apologizes and says he had no idea.

Sophia is murmuring the obligatory reassurance and thinking Nosy Lily must have failed to inform him of her loss when Lily's Cadillac pulls to the curb. Speak of the devil. . . .

"You said you needed a painter," she calls through the lowered car window.

"Yes, I suppose I did." Sophia raises her voice.

"Cort does excellent work, all by hand. There wasn't a speck of damage or a drop of paint to be found on a single one of my azaleas. You won't find anyone better, Sophia."

The painter hollers his thanks.

Lily waves and drives off.

Cort hands Sophia a business card.

Capshaw and Company it reads in addition to his name. House painting, custom remodeling and renovation. Quality service.

"If you like, you could call the historical society in town. I do a lot of preservation work for them. Actually it's what I prefer, but circumstances being what they are, you know, with the economy. . . ."

Sophia angles her gaze toward the house.

"Why don't I work up a bid and leave it with you along with a list of references? In case you change your mind," he adds. 

She hesitates, feeling herself frown even as she agrees. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt." She isn't sure what prompts her. His talk of hard times, perhaps, her inclination to be helpful.

She asks how long the job will take, "Assuming I accept your bid," she cautions.

He paces the drive, eye to the roofline. "A couple of weeks, if the weather holds, which this time of year. . . ."

She nods. He could mean because it's the tag-end of hurricane season, or perhaps he's referring to the vagaries of south Texas weather in general.

A pause falls. One heartbeat's worth of silence is followed by two and three. A hot wind scoots a swirl of sun-dried leaves along the driveway, scattering them over the grass where it verges on the concrete.

Sophia lifts her hand indicating the iron-railed steps she had, minutes ago, descended. "I have an office upstairs. People coming and going. Will they have access?"

"Shouldn't be a problem. I'll use a ladder over here instead of scaffolding. It'll take up less room."

"I'm keeping a limited schedule of appointments at present."

"That's understandable, considering your recent loss."

"I'm a psychologist."

"I know," he tells her. "I know who you are."

Their glances clash. His look is searching as if he's waiting for Sophia to recognize him. Should she?

"Two years ago," the painter says, "I followed Jody Doaks' trial; you were interviewed on TV. The story was big news."

Sophia shifts her glance, thoroughly regretting now that she has encouraged him. What is it about appearing on television that causes perfect strangers to assume you welcome their attention? In the months since the trial she has been approached in the grocery store and the dentist's office; people have followed her across parking lots, argued with her over the median at the gas pump. Once, a woman blocked Sophia's exit from the ladies room at the mall threatening to hold her there until she agreed to recant the testimony she'd given on Jody's behalf. The woman had ranted that Sophia was the devil incarnate. If only, Sophia had thought. She would have whipped out her pitchfork and prodded the woman in her ample behind. 

"I'm against the death penalty, too," the painter says, assuming, erroneously, that Sophia shares his opinion, when, in all honesty, she isn't certain. "I don't think it works as a deterrent to anything other than our humanity, do you? Don't get me wrong. It's not that I think Doaks should ever get out."

Sophia thinks of Jody. Poor demented, pathological Jody. Charming in the extreme. A baby-faced man who called his sister Momma because she'd raised him. A man who professed to love children, but who, in actuality, loved having sex with children. When the police searched the farm where Jody lived, they turned up the bodies of eight children buried John Wayne Gacy style in a crawl space under an old shed on the property. Jody had given Sophia this detail along with others that were more horrifying when he'd broken down during his third session with her in as many days. She is still uncertain how she managed to stay calm, handing him tissues to dry his copious tears, while he confessed he was doing things, hideous things to children, and he couldn't stop. Sensing there was more, Sophia had prodded him very carefully and gotten him to confide in her about three-year-old Benny Chu, who at that very moment had been locked inside a room of Jody's house. Jody hadn't cleared the driveway before Sophia called the police.

Without a single thought of the ramifications. It had been like running into a burning building. That was how she explained it to Russ. She hadn't considered the risk. Hadn't reckoned that as a result of her impulse she would be caught up in a maelstrom of publicity, hounded by reporters for weeks on end and subpoenaed by the State to give expert testimony, all of which, as Russ had pointed out, left her, and by association, Russ, himself, vulnerable to exposure. Which was unfortunate, but they both knew there was no question of letting Jody go. And in any case, for all Sophia knows, the very fact that Jody chose her to confess to, and not some other psychologist, might very well have been a test, the gift of a second chance to do the right thing.

Not that it absolves her. She can never be forgiven for her past wrongdoing. But at least Benny was found alive and relatively unharmed, to his parents' eternal gratitude. But that's something else Sophia doesn't deserve.

"It was a good thing you did saving that boy," the painter says now.

Sophia doesn't respond. Admiration is one more thing she isn't comfortable with. A lot of it turned sour anyway when during the punishment phase of Jody's trial, she made the controversial statement that she was unsure whether it was right to execute a man who couldn't understand why he was being put to death. Certainly what Jody had done was of the blackest evil, but should he die for it? Who is she to judge? She of all people?

"Do you still see him?"

Sophia glances sidelong at the painter. Suppose he isn't a painter but a reporter? That would explain the overly meaningful looks he's been giving her. But in all likelihood he's merely curious like the countless others who have no qualms about approaching her. "If you could leave the bid on the patio table under the hurricane lamp. . . ?"

"That'll work," he says. "It was nice meeting you," he adds. "Interesting." The word is tacked on.

Sophia has no idea what he means. Not then.

  

 

2

 

Friday, September 17, 1999 - 30 days remain

 

Grace has told him that she repainted their bedroom the same shade, robin's egg blue. She still sleeps under the quilt they shared, one that his mother pieced for them as a wedding gift. His favorite ball cap hangs where he left it on a hook in the mudroom. She talks as if she expects him to walk back through the door one day and magically, their lives will be restored to the time in the beginning of their marriage when they were happy.

Often when she visits him, she'll put her palm to the thick sheet of Plexiglas that separates them and say, "If only you could see it," as if he's in a hospital and suffering from a loss of memory. But he isn't. No.

Jarrett swings his feet over the side of the bunk onto the concrete floor. He's housed at the Terrell Unit outside Livingston, Texas, prisoner number 22116. The black block letters DR on the back of his shirt stand for death row. Forty-one days ago the court granted his request to end all appeals on his behalf and set the date for his execution. Forty-one days ago he became a dead man walking, a man they call a volunteer.  

He's not winning any popularity contests for it. The other guys on the row look on what he's done like it's an act of treason. "Why you gotta make it easy, Capshaw?" they ask.

"The death penalty is wrong, bro, why you gotta go and ask for it?

"What the hell, man? What the fuck. . . ?"

What's the point? That's Jarrett's comeback. If he was innocent, it would be different. But he isn't. He murdered two of the three people who died that day during the government raid. Two men within minutes of each other. And the hell of it is, he didn't intend on shooting either of them. One was Grace's father. But the other one, the murder for which he received the death penalty, had been a federal marshal, someone Jarrett didn't even know.

A complete stranger.

And he'd gunned him down. A guy near his own age, Jarrett found out later, with a wife and three kids he loved the way Jarrett loves Grace and their three children. They say Jarrett took the marshal's life in cold blood. But Jarrett's blood had not been cold; it had been hot to the point of boiling him alive. And that short, heated, brutal act that had taken so little time or space preys on him daily. His mind replays it, an endless loop: the figure looms in the doorway, he whips around, Grace's father's .38 in his hand. Bang-bang. The two shots come in quick deafening succession.

He'd fired twice, automatically, without thinking.

Kill or be killed.

That simple. And complex. And incomprehensible now. In a world where babies laugh and shopping carts have crooked wheels and the light bulb in the shower needs replacing, it's unbelievable. Jarrett can't forgive himself. The memory is like a sucker punch. When it comes over him, he goes loose in his knees; he can't breathe. A person would have to be insane to want to live with it, the terrible knowledge of what he took from that federal agent's family. From his own family.

In news stories that delve into his background, the press has labeled Jarrett a trafficker, not of drugs or humans, but of pre-Columbian artifacts; they have called him a tomb raider and a grave robber, although he never did any actual unearthing of the relics he helped to smuggle into the country from South America. It seems surreal; it has been characterized as romantic. It is neither.

Stupid. He'd been stupid and reckless and not just with his own life but with that of his children and Grace.

Every day, in the clear, twenty-twenty vision that hindsight renders, he can see a dozen, a hundred other ways he could have handled the situation. Ways that do not include killing. No one had to die. The fact that they did is on Jarrett and knowing this, living with the memory is like a fly that won't leave, one that bites and bites the same sore place.

Grace is adamant that he is a different man today and that's why his life is worth fighting for. Believing this comforts her. But it torments Jarrett. He isn't different; he has no better understanding of himself or his nature or what drove him now than he did then and she has no idea how her faith burdens him.

He sticks his feet into his shower slides and wipes his hands down his face, pausing when he encounters the old V-shaped scar tissue that dashes his right eyebrow, then pulling furrows down his cheeks. Somewhere along the darkened corridor now a man groans, a toilet flushes. It's two-thirty a.m., fairly dark and quiet. In another half hour, the guards will switch on the overhead lights. They'll bring breakfast. Another day is beginning, one of the handful that is left to him.

#

Later that afternoon on the other side of the Plexiglas, the free side, Cort watches as Jarrett pushes his fists through the slot in the door of the visitor's booth to allow the guard to unlock his cuffs. Jarrett remembers when Cort would look away from this, but now, after six years, it's routine: the sight of his brother being shackled and unshackled like an animal has become ordinary. Crazy ordinary.

Jarrett rubs his wrists, unhooks his phone. He thanks Cort for coming the way he thanks everyone who visits him. "I know it's not easy."

Cort shrugs. They're brothers. Thanks isn't required.

"What's wrong?" Jarrett asks because he can tell there's something.

"A couple of punks jumped Brian at school yesterday. Thomas ran interference on them."

Jarrett grins. "Tell me he knocked them on their ass."

Cort gives him a look.

"What?"

"How can you be such a damn idiot?"

Cort is always asking Jarrett this question and it pisses him off although not as much as it once did. It was the first thing Cort said after Jarrett's arrest when he was booked into the county jail in Houston. There'd been other questions since that are even more unanswerable: "How could you get yourself involved in . . . let this happen . . . do this to Grace, your children, Mom, your family?"

Cort and Jarrett had shared a room growing up; they'd shared beers, cars, advice, the usual minor league hell raising. But not murder. Cort never got caught up the way Jarrett did. Cort isn't wound as tight. When she was alive, their mother used to say she thought Jarrett was born furious. She wasn't sure because he'd been a toddler by the time she and Lonny adopted him. They'd adopted Cort as an infant a few months later after his birth parents drowned in a boating accident. Like Jarrett, Cort knows how it feels to be without a history, a true home place. A family to whom you belong by blood.

But Cort is all right inside his head about it. He knows who his real family was; he knows they're all dead, that dead was the only way they'd have left him. Cort has that, where Jarrett only has himself and the understanding he came to growing up, that his real family didn't want him. He'd worked at not caring, at making himself believe he didn't need them, people who would abandon him, who would leave a child behind like yesterday's news. But the hurt is back there; he feels it inside himself sometimes, the small painful weight of that lost little kid. It closes his throat and pisses him off. It makes him want to punch somebody.

Jarrett switches the phone to his other ear now. He meets his brother's gaze and asks if Thomas is okay, if everybody's okay. He asks because it's expected, because he's supposed to care and he does on some level; he truly does.

But Cort isn't feeling it and leaning his head on his knuckled fist he says he's got to hand it to Jarrett. He says, "You probably won't believe this, but I envy the hell out of you sometimes."

"Huh?" Jarrett's at a loss.

"Your wife's got to take off from work to see the principal and try to talk him out of expelling your kid, but you've got nothing more to do than sit in here acting all proud and that's my boy."

"No, that's not--gaaah--" Jarrett's groan is pure disgust and it's followed by the incongruous sound of children laughing. Cort and Jarrett turn in that direction.

"It's Mo D's grandkids," Jarrett says.

Mo D's daughter Ruthie brings them every week. Mo D robbed a Stop and Go, abducted the owner and killed him eighteen-and-a-half years ago and he's still not through all his appeals. He's watched Ruthie grow up through the window; she's watched him grow old. Jarrett would rather be dead.

"So, this latest thing with Thomas," Cort finds Jarrett's glance, "I guess it's one of those places where it's just not real for you."

They've discussed it before, how disconnected Jarrett feels from life in the outside world: Grace might lose the house, Brian failed a math test, Thomas wants a motorcycle, Megan has started wetting the bed again. What is Jarrett supposed to do when he hears this stuff? Offer condolences? Beat his head on the wall? No one understands how nuts it makes him. Life inside isn't real, but, anymore, neither is life "out there".

In his mind he's done the only thing he can do to make it right. He's asked to die. He thought it would bring his family relief. But Thomas, who's fifteen and the oldest, is so angry at Jarrett, he refuses to visit. And Brian, who is eleven, and Megan, who's in kindergarten now, won't visit him without their big brother. Jarrett doesn't want it to end this way between them, but he never wanted them to see him in here either. He doesn't want to say good-bye; he doesn't want them at his execution. His head is full of shit he doesn't want.

"Even if I could talk to Thomas, he wouldn't listen," Jarrett tells Cort. "You," Jarrett adds, "he listens to you now."

"What do you expect? Your kid says he hates you and a day later you drop your appeals? He won't admit it, but he blames himself."

"One thing has got nothing to do with the other."

"Tell that to Thomas."

"I did. I wrote him a letter."

"He's scared, Jarrett, and it's coming out as anger. It's the only way he can deal with the fear; he's the same as you."

"Don't say that."

They look at each other.

Jarrett turns his palm over. "I don't know what you want me to do."

"Live. Say you want to live."

But Jarrett can't.

"Goddamnit!" Cort slaps the Plexiglas. "Why are you giving up? Thomas doesn't understand. None of us do. You've always been tough. That's what we're used to."

"Yeah, well that was a front, a stupid act."

Cort hoots as if he can't believe Jarrett would admit this about himself.

"Haven't you heard?" Jarrett says. "Honesty is a side effect of imminent death."

The joke falls like a brick. A silence comes. Tight, full. Over-full.

Cort breaks it. "I'll talk to Thomas again. See if I can get him to change his mind."

"Yeah, why don't you? After all you're the expert, the Capshaw fix-it guy, Mr. Perfect, always running your damned interference. You meddle more than an old woman."

Cort sits like stone, wearing his Buddha face, waiting for Jarrett to get over himself.

And Jarrett knows his attitude sucks, but still, he wants to say it. Say: "Okay, asshole, how would you handle it, if you were the one dying in here and I was out there picking up the pieces of your life?" But now his teeth clench and the sharp saw of his resentment grates over the tougher fiber of his regret and he wonders: Where does it end? The list of what he has to atone for, to find words to ask forgiveness for? And there's so little time, he's out of time.

"Why do you always have to make it so hard on yourself?"

"Forget it." Jarrett rubs his head. "Tell me about Thomas, the fight, what was it about?"

"You remember Jody Doaks."

"Like I could forget. That psycho had a cell two doors down from me until that shrink got his sentence commuted. Tell me, what was she thinking?"

Cort doesn't answer. He doesn't look at Jarrett. And it's weird somehow. Jarrett's getting an odd vibration off him. "What's up, bro?" he asks.

But Cort only shakes his head and says he wonders about the shrink too. "I don't know why she'd defend a pervert like Doaks. Why work that hard to get a guy like him off? People say she's got a thing about death penalty cases, like she's an advocate. She doesn't seem that way though. From what I've seen of her on television, I mean," Cort adds. "She's hard to figure."

"What's she got to do with the trouble that went down with the boys?"

 "Her? Nothing, but Doaks-- Well, you probably won't believe it, but the media ghouls are drawing a parallel. They're saying stuff like you're a mental case, that you're depressed, incompetent, suicidal, you know. Thomas and Brian are taking flack."

"The retard's sons."

"Yesterday these punks in Brian's class jumped him and Thomas got in the middle of it. Just his luck a couple of those media jerks were there filming."

"They can't use it."

"No." Cort dips his glance.

"What else?"

"The parents are upset; they want something done." 

"Like what? They want my kids kicked out of school?"

"Yeah."

"But it's not fair to punish them."

"You know how it works."

Fuck how it works. Jarrett would have said it, but anymore, his anger is so crippled with the sense of his disgrace that it's useless. There's nowhere to go with it, no one to point to but himself. "Accept it," that's the advice Jarrett gets from the prison shrinks.

Martin Trumble the prison chaplain advises that Jarrett should accept Christ as his savior. And then what? Jarrett has wondered. You hope for the best? But he doesn't ask. The padre, and a woman who writes to Jarrett, his prison pen pal, who signs her letters with the single initial L, are the only ones who have expressed concern for Jarrett's immortal soul, the only ones who are looking beyond this world on Jarrett's behalf, for whatever it's worth.

"I have to pick up supplies, get to work." Cort is standing now.

"Wait."  

He sits again looking wary.

"I fired my attorneys."

"Yeah, I know. So?"

"So, Grace hired them back. No, don't deny it," Jarrett says when Cort opens his mouth. "We get as much news in here as anybody out there. Maybe more. It's on her account that the media is all stirred up. Because she's got the attorneys going back into court to petition the judge for a stay. She thinks if I take meds for depression, I'll change my mind, but I won't. And don't either one of you bother talking to that nutcase psychologist that Doaks used either. It's not happening."

Cort shifts his glance.

"I mean it, Cort. You have to get Grace to stop. She'll listen to you." The taste in Jarrett's mouth is sludge. It is salt, the salt of tears that are packed solid like dirt in his throat.

Cort opens his mouth and closes it as if he can't find anything to say.

"It's not a problem, is it? You're making all the decisions, right? You and Grace together?" Jarrett pushes the words between them, hanging them out there, sweet and mean, and it's a satisfying thing to see Cort redden. An image fills Jarrett's mind, of himself smashing his fist into Cort's face until it is no longer recognizable. For all that he loves Cort, he hates him, that he is free, that he has hope, a life. Grace. 

Cort knows this. It's all over his face when he looks at Jarrett and he's as broken over it as Jarrett is. His guilt is there, too. And Cort's grief so tears at the shadows in his eyes that he looks as if he is the one facing death. He opens his mouth again, but before he can speak Jarrett cradles his receiver; he flattens his palm for a moment on the Plexiglas. Then he shouts for the guard.

  

 

3

 

Friday, September 14, 1999 - 30 days remain

 

Sophia tunes in to the local televised morning talk show, Good Morning Texas, and adjusts the volume. She doesn't do more than register the series of images that flash over the screen: the mug shot of a white male, early-to-mid forties, inscrutable gaze, is followed by a series of film clips taken of him and some other official types. Detectives or lawyers, is Sophia's subliminal guess. But she isn't really paying attention. She's thinking of the things she needs to do before she leaves for the airport to pick up Carolyn who is flying in from Chicago for the weekend.

Without Larry.

What will they do by themselves for two whole days? What will they find to say to each other? Sophia bites back a sigh. She will miss Larry. At least she can have a conversation with him; at least her daughter's fiancé seems to enjoy her company. But when Sophia mentioned him the other night when Carolyn called and announced her plans to visit, she made some excuse about his having to work. And to make matters worse she asked Sophia to buy Hershey Kisses, the large size, which usually means trouble is afoot. Big trouble. Sophia pulls a crystal candy dish out of the cabinet. The chocolate kisses are a family tradition. Russ's answer for Carolyn's every hurt, from a scraped knee to a broken heart. What can it be this time? Carolyn would only say it was complicated. And that Larry wasn't coming.

Sophia's heart falls. She loves Larry.

She misses Russ. His willingness to take over the cooking. His weight beside her in their bed, their companionable silences, all those little things she'd never taken much notice of when he was alive. He was so much better at dealing with their daughter too. He and Carolyn had been so close. Why isn't he here? Why did he have to go and die? It's not fair.

But it irritates her, all this brooding. She picks up the remote and raises the volume to distract herself. The news anchor, a pretty young woman named Pat Dubois, is giving a story lead explaining the film footage, something about death row. Sophia gets that much, but when Pat says, "Stay with us," and the program cuts to a commercial for breakfast cereal, Sophia walks away.

Puts on the kettle for tea, runs water over the sink full of dirty dishes she's allowed to accumulate. Yesterday she'd dusted, run the vacuum, changed the sheets and cleaned the bathrooms, in her zeal, overworking herself. She let the housekeeper go after Russ died. It didn't seem reasonable to have her come in and mop up after one person. But now Sophia worries that someone, specifically Carolyn, will drop in, pronounce the house a disaster and Sophia unfit. Everyone waits for it once you're a widow: the signs of mental weakness. Senility. Dementia.

The next thing you know, they're taking your car keys.

The way Sophia has taken Esther's car keys. On purpose, out of revenge. That's her mother's latest claim, that Sophia holds a grudge against her and is now punishing her, and it's ridiculous. As ridiculous as Esther calling the collision she'd had a fender bender when in actuality she'd driven herself head-on into the back of a U-haul trailer parked at the curb on her own street, in broad daylight. Not a small U-Haul either but one of the big ones. Esther claims she swerved to avoid hitting a dog, but a neighbor out jogging who saw the entire thing said there was no dog, that Sophia's mother had driven up on the curb and into the back of the trailer as if it weren't there. She'd been lucky to come away without injury.

There have been other worrisome incidents too. A week before the accident, Esther called from the mall to say she'd forgotten where she'd parked the car. And one afternoon last March she'd left the post office, settled in behind the steering wheel and found she was unable to remember how to insert the key into the ignition.

Cold. Esther had excused herself by saying her brain was cold.

It's hard for Sophia to imagine, to accept that her mother's mind is going. Esther has always been sharp and aggravatingly opinionated. Esther knows best. Always. Sophia has joked to herself that her mother would outlive her on the strength of her opinions alone. After all, if Esther were to die, who would be left to tell Sophia what to think, what to do?

". . . declared competent and the motion to dismiss the balance of Capshaw's appeals was granted in August."

Capshaw? Hearing the name, Sophia returns to the breakfast nook to stand in front of the television. Pat Dubois is talking about an execution that is scheduled for next month. She says the date: "October the eighteenth." Now the camera angle widens to include another commentator, a man seated next to Pat. Sophia makes a face. She doesn't care for Trent Hunter. He reminds her of Geraldo Rivera with his slick good looks, his coy, practiced demeanor. His regular segments for Good Morning, Texas called "The Heart of the Story" have earned him a reputation for sensationalism. People shake their heads at his tactics, but they watch him even as they complain. It never seems to occur to them that it's their own appetite for Hunter's sort of drama that keeps newsmen like him in business.

Sophia's been the object of his scrutiny. During Jody's trial, Hunter had been everywhere she was. He'd stuck to her side, agitating her with his constant questions, cajoling and demanding by turns, so insistent, she'd become alarmed.

". . . unless the situation changes." Trent is answering Pat. "There are a couple of avenues that could be pursued," he says, "for instance, there's talk that Capshaw's attorneys might attempt a similar course of action as Jody Doaks' attorneys."

At the mention of Jody's name, Sophia's breath stalls and while Hunter goes on to talk about the wife of the condemned man, she waits to hear her name linked with Jody's. She wouldn't put it past Hunter to lie and say she will become involved in this matter and she is hardly relieved when he doesn't.

She brings her fingertips to her temples. It can't be possible that Cort Capshaw, the painter she has hired against her better judgment, and this man, whose mug shot fills the screen, are related. She searches the image, hunting a resemblance to Cort, not finding any. She tells herself he would have mentioned it if there was a connection. She tells herself he isn't the only one who's brought up the trial to her. Many people have questioned her. People she is less acquainted with than Cort. Sophia drags her fingers back through her hair. Please don't let these men be related. The words run through her mind, a prayer.  

She'll tell Cort no, that's all. If it turns out that's why he's here, why he pressed her for the job of painting her house, if it's her help he wants with this volunteer's case, she'll say no. She's done it before. Not long after Russ died, as recently as six months ago, a woman had the nerve to come to Sophia's front door and demand she step in to help her nephew who was within days of execution. The woman had been furious when Sophia refused. She had accused Sophia of having a thing for perverts. Sophia had been shaken. But the whole experience with Jody, the trial and its aftermath has left her feeling hollowed out. Conflicted in ways she is afraid she might never settle.

She looks back at the television, where Jarrett Capshaw's competency to decide his fate is now under discussion. Hunter says he doesn't think the judge will reverse the court's earlier decision that declared Capshaw of sound mind.

"But the court isn't the only authority or even the final authority in this case that has been filled from the beginning with twists and surprises," Hunter continues, briskly eager. "In fact, there's been talk of a much higher power stepping in to stop the clock."

Pat bounces her index finger at the ceiling. "I'll assume you're not talking...?"

Hunter snickers. "No. This authority would be our own government. Inside sources who agreed to speak to me exclusively have indicated there may be a joint effort underway between the US and Mexico to halt the execution."

"On what grounds?" Pat asks.

Sophia starts to sit, to wait for the answer, but then catching herself, she switches off the set, gives the kitchen a final distracted inspection, finds her purse, tugs out her car keys, mind tripping over a rubble of worried thoughts. She doesn't want Cort Capshaw to be related to this man, this volunteer. She can't help them. Can't take the risk even if she were so inclined, which she isn't. Getting drawn into the very public eye of Jody's case was a fluke and, thankfully, nothing came up about her past. But to tempt fate again in the same way would be foolish, nothing short of insanity. She'd never get away with it, not a second time.

#

Sophia's glance passes right over the slightly-built, dark-haired girl pushing an overloaded airport luggage cart across the sidewalk and then returns to her. It is Carolyn looking frayed and disheveled behind a virtual mountain of suitcases and boxes. What on earth. . . ?

After a hug and a flurry of greetings, Carolyn offers the explanation that she's been cleaning out closets. Sophia waits to hear something more plausible, but as they stow what they can in the trunk and pack the overflow into the back seat, Carolyn chatters about everything else: the flight, her talkative seatmate, the weather.

Sophia turns south on the feeder road heading toward Houston.

"We're having lunch at Grandmother's?" Carolyn is looking at herself  in the visor mirror

"Couldn't be avoided. Aunt Frances is out of her blood pressure medication and I have the refill."

"I can't believe they took Grandmother's driver's license. Is she making you crazy?"

"Nearly."

"Is it Alzheimer's, do you think?"

"Her doctor claims it's too soon to tell."

"Well, I hope not. You're on your own now. It's not as if you have Dad to help anymore." Carolyn pulls down the visor mirror again and fiddles with her hair, a dark cap of pixie curls that frames her face. Her fingers dart like nervous birds. 

"I'll manage," Sophia says. "Is something wrong?"

"No, why?"

"You seem jittery."

"Too much coffee."

Sophia glances in the backseat. Too much baggage. . . .

Carolyn asks about paint colors for the house.

"I'm leaning toward shades of green," Sophia says. "Are you too warm?" She eyes Carolyn hands that are busy now with adjusting the A/C vent.

Carolyn claims she's fine. But she isn't. After a stream of animated chatter, she has fallen abruptly silent and the way she's sitting, with her hands clutched in her lap and her face turned to the passenger window, suggests that if she isn't crying, she's close. "Do you want to talk about it?" Sophia asks.

At first Carolyn shakes her head, but when her gaze comes around, her eyes are brimming; her mouth is knotted. It's obvious she can't speak. Sophia cups her palm over Carolyn's clasped hands and finds that Carolyn's diamond solitaire is missing. Her heart sinks.

"Have you and Larry broken up?"

Carolyn sniffs and wipes her face. "I'm not sure."

"You've seemed so happy all this time. What's happened?"

Carolyn's shrug is somehow both noncommittal and defensive. She says, "There's something else you might as well know. I turned down the job with Vanderburg and Dodge."

"What?" Sophia backs her foot off the accelerator, she can't help it. "Why would you do that?" She talks over the squeal of brakes, the staccato sound of honking. Within moments an angry driver wheels around her, glaring, middle finger stabbing skyward.

Carolyn thanks him. She mentions his IQ.

Sophia won't be distracted. "You aren't thinking you can do better? You said yourself the salary and benefits, the retirement package, was more than you had hoped for. Please tell me you've left the door open."

Carolyn says that she hasn't. She presses herself into the seat corner as if she might escape the onslaught of Sophia's dismay. Somehow Sophia manages to stifle herself. She's a psychologist, good at waiting, good at giving space, however little she wants to practice the skills at this moment.

"They want someone innovative, someone creative who can think on their feet." Carolyn manages to sound both furious and contrite at the same time and Sophia thinks of pulling over, of drawing Carolyn into her embrace. Never mind, she will say, it doesn't matter. But she is very concerned that it does matter. A profession is the way a woman maintains her independence in her marriage. Without that, Carolyn could well be made vulnerable to her husband's decisions about how she will conduct her life. 

Sophia says, "It's all you ever wanted to do, follow in your dad's footsteps."

"No, it's what you wanted me to do."

"Me?"

"You said I should find a career."

"Yes, all right, I did say that, but--"

"I knew you wouldn't understand."

"People can wait a lifetime for an opportunity like this, Carolyn, and you're giving it away." Sophia is saying everything wrong. Russ would put it differently; he would be more diplomatic. Carolyn would listen to him and do as he said. It was always his advice she relied on. He'd been the parent she could relate to and now he's gone.

They ride through a gnawing silence.

"I don't think I want to live in Chicago either." Carolyn addresses the passing scenery outside her window.

"Then what do you want?"

"Honestly? I don't know, Mom. Not to be stupid? That would be good for starters."

Sophia glances at her. "Why are you talking this way? You aren't making sense."

"Who will give me away?"

"What? Uncle John, I suppose. At least Aunt Floy offered."

"But I hardly know him. He and Dad weren't close even when they were growing up."

It was true. Of the two Beckman sons, Russ had been the oldest by eight years, the brilliant one, adored by their wealthy parents. John had been the rebellious, pot-smoking, perennial student. Now he's a fully-tenured college professor at Fordham University in New York. Sophia doesn't see much of John, but she's always liked him. The day Russ brought her to meet his family, John went out of his way to welcome her, unlike Madeleine. Sophia can never think of that initial meeting with her mother-in-law without remembering how Madeleine had peered down the thin ridge of her patrician nose at her as if Sophia were some variety of strange fruit. They had never warmed to each other.

"If the engagement is off," Sophia says, changing lanes, "it would seem a discussion of who is to give you away is moot."

"I don't know that it is. I don't know anything for sure. I'm scared, Mom." Carolyn is peering into her lap. The tremor in her hands, in her voice, stalls Sophia's heart. 

"Has Larry done something?" She keeps her eyes on the Houston city skyline that is lost in a light-shot haze of smog.

"No. Maybe."

They share a look that is quickly full of Sophia's panicked question.

"Not that! Why would you think--?"

"Because even people we love can lose their temper with so little provocation." Sophia bites her lip; she tells herself to settle down. Carolyn would never do it; she wouldn't let herself get mixed up with an abuser. But there's the baggage and her talk of dissatisfaction with her life. It's the portent of something ominous. It has to be. What Sophia can't decide is whether to delve into it or leave it alone. If only someone would hand her a script. . . .

"I won't go to the barbeque tomorrow, if you'd rather I didn't."

"Of course, I want you to go. Phil and Dorie couldn't believe their luck when I said you'd be in town on the very weekend of their annual bash. They're thrilled you can make it."

"But I don't want to embarrass you."

"What do you mean? You could never--"

"They'll ask about the job, Mom, the wedding and Larry. I don't want to explain and you shouldn't have to."

"We won't mention it," Sophia says. She will call Phil, she thinks, and warn him. He'll worry if they don't show. Phil Stedman is a psychologist too, Sophia's mentor in fact, and one-time office partner, but she is convinced he is also part Jewish mother. His wife Dorie agrees. They joke about it.

"They're bound to ask though."

"If they do, we'll say everything is fine. Because it will be. It will work out, you'll see." Sophia pats Carolyn's knee and when Carolyn takes her hand, Sophia's heart wallows and the warm and surprising sea of her love blends with the cooler current of her apprehension.

 

#

 

Frances is peering out at them as Sophia and Carolyn climb the front porch steps. "Sister's furious at me," she says instead of hello. She pushes open the screen door.

"Why?" Sophia bends to hug Frances. Her cheek next to Sophia's is withered and soft, like creased tissue paper. The blades of Frances's shoulders are bent as delicately as a bird's wings. But she's spry and right now her eyes are bright with worry.

"She ran over a pencil with the vacuum cleaner," Frances explains while at the same time Carolyn is saying, "Mmm . . . something smells divine . . .

"I made vegetable soup for our lunch," Frances tells Carolyn. "How are you, honey?" Not waiting for Carolyn's answer, she turns back to Sophia. "It was only a little stub and it got caught in the hose and the vacuum won't go and Sister says it's my fault, but she's the one who was using it. The pencil, I mean. She was working the crossword and she was mad because she couldn't think of half the answers. I wish she wouldn't--"

"Where is Mother?" Sophia interrupts.

Frances gestures them toward the living room. "We were trying to fix it."

"I'll see if I can help her," Carolyn offers.

Sophia links arms with Frances. "How about we tend to the soup?"

A few minutes later, when Sophia goes to the living room, Carolyn is crouched beside the sweeper using a screwdriver and Esther is watching her. She's a sturdier version of her sister, taller and bigger-boned. Sophia takes after her, while Carolyn is more agile and slender like Frances. When Esther turns at Sophia's approach; her still-handsome features knit into a frown.

"I wanted the house to be clean when you brought Carolyn by. Now here she is down on her knees because of Frances's carelessness."

 "Come on to the kitchen, Mother, and have your lunch. Frances and I have the soup ready."

"Did you bring her medicine? Did she take it? It's her own fault if she's in a state." Esther sounds fretful and it is so uncharacteristic that it draws Carolyn's glance.

Her reassurance, "It's okay, Grandmother."

"Frances is fine," Sophia soothes. "Carolyn, do you need me to help?"

She waves the screwdriver. "I'll just be a minute more. It's no big deal," she adds.

"Hmmph," Esther grumbles, following Sophia into the kitchen.

At the stove, Sophia concentrates on ladling the soup into bowls and carries them to the table. "Tarragon, I'm guessing," she says setting Frances's bowl in front of her.

Frances nods. "With just a tish of cayenne pepper and those wonderful fresh mushrooms you brought us."

Sophia smiles. Frances is an imaginative chef. She never works from a recipe and no dish is ever the same twice.

Esther drags out a chair and sits down, making more noise than necessary. "If you'd been paying attention," she tells Frances, "when you carried the newspapers to the recycle, you would have seen the pencil fall on the floor."

Frances dips soup into her spoon and sips. "Do you think we should add more salt, Sophia?"

"I think it's fine." Sophia clatters the lid back onto the soup pan. Don't start, please don't start. . . .

"All fixed," Carolyn says going to the sink to wash her hands.

Esther sniffs. "I doubt it'll hold. We'll have to buy a new one because of Frances's foolishness."

Sophia mentions she's forgotten the crackers and Carolyn picks up the basket on her way to the table handing it to Sophia as she sits down.

"Where is Larry?" Esther asks.

"Yes, where is he?" Frances echoes.

"What about the wedding?" Esther wonders.

"Sophia never tells us anything," Frances complains.

"Mom and I were talking about it on the way here," Carolyn says brightly.

When the sisters ask for details, she seems happy to elaborate. She's been thinking about color schemes, she tells them. Sophia frowns.

Carolyn pays her no mind. "What do you think of shades of ivory and green with maybe a touch of lilac, or should the accent color be pink?" she asks.

Sophia butters a cracker, feeling a thrust of irritation. She resents having to sit here, having to share Carolyn's visit, having to pretend everything is oh-so-happy. Coming here is a worsening chore. The drive between her house in Hardys Walk north of the city and their house here near Houston's 610 loop is an hour each way, longer if there's traffic, and now there's the shopping to do and the ferrying to various doctors, the endless running of idle errands, and after all that, the sisters will still treat Sophia like the twelve-year-old girl they had used to send off for a loaf of bread or to fetch the laundry from the clothesline before it rained. She thinks how tired she is of it, the sisters' endless squabbling, their furtive whispering.

Their secrets.

They have no idea Sophia has such feelings. Feelings aren't to be discussed. Esther's rule. It's understood.

Sophia realizes Carolyn is into it with them now, over something to do with Russ's funeral. She's brought it up again, that Esther and Frances hadn't attended.

"They weren't feeling well," Sophia says. "Remember? I told you."

"Sister said your mother didn't want us there," Frances tells Carolyn. "We would only have been in the way. Sister says nobody wants to entertain two old women."

"Mother!" Sophia is appalled. "Why on earth would you say such a thing to Frances? Honestly."

"Honestly, what?" Esther arches a single eyebrow.

Sophia shifts her gaze, blinking, defensive, and hating herself for it. Why is it she can never learn? It's not as if she hasn't had plenty of experience. Take the day Russ died for instance. It had happened suddenly, without warning, and when his brief struggle was over, Sophia had called Esther wanting only the simple comfort of her mother's voice, but instead, she'd been made to listen while Esther tut-tutted that she'd warned Sophia about marrying a man so much older.

"I'm surprised he lasted this long," she had declared.

"Younger men than Russ have coronaries, Mother. Much younger," Sophia had repeated. "As young as twenty," she had said uselessly.

"The never-ending cold war." Carolyn's comment now slices into what is a tart silence. No one protests; Carolyn is too old to be fooled.

 

 

4

 

Friday, September 17, 1999 - 30 days remain

 

Cort is rounding the corner of the house when they pull into the driveway and Sophia wonders whether to explain her reservations about him to Carolyn, but she is too quickly out of the car. Sophia joins her, making introductions, opening the trunk.

He peers in and his eyes widen at the sight of all the luggage. Sophia stifles a sigh.  Carolyn repeats her closet cleaning story and it sounds even less plausible. Cort must doubt it too. She thinks the glance he gives her is nothing if not commiserating.

Hefting the suitcases, he looks at Carolyn. "Where to, ma'am? Garage? Attic? Goodwill?"

She laughs. "Only as far as my bedroom. I can show you." She shoulders her tote and lifts two smaller boxes.

Cort falls in behind Carolyn mentioning that Sophia had a visitor while she was gone. "Wick Bowen? He left a basket of fresh tomatoes for you on the patio table."

"Who's he?" Carolyn asks.

"A patient," Sophia says and she rues the lift of pleasure hearing Wick's name gives her. She deliberately keeps her gaze from Carolyn, thinking to herself, Please don't ask. She has no idea what she would say. That Wick is a patient and she feels something for him and it's most certainly inappropriate? That he pays her in tomatoes?    

Sophia comes around Cort to unlock the backdoor and she follows him and Carolyn into the kitchen. Cort sets down the suitcases. Carolyn goes into the hallway, but then pauses to look back at him. "Forgive me, but it's so much in the news, are you by any chance related to Jarrett Capshaw, the man on death row, the one they call the volunteer?"

"He's my brother."

"Oh my God! There's an article about him in USA Today. I read it on the plane. How terrible. I'm so sorry." Carolyn is stammering, astonished. She comes back into the kitchen, sets the boxes on the countertop. "Mom, did you know?"

Sophia puts her purse down on the kitchen island, feeling grim. "I saw something about it earlier." She meets Cort's glance. "On television. Trent Hunter's segment on Good Morning Texas? I was going to ask."

"I hate that guy, Hunter." Cort smacks his open palm with his fist. "He's all about the hype, never about the truth."

"I wish you had let me know you were related." Sophia holds Cort's gaze until he looks away.

Plucking a rag from his pocket, he busies himself cleaning his hands, one finger at a time. Each one trembling, Sophia notes, and against her will, her heart softens. It hadn't occurred to her that these men would be so closely related, although why the fact that they are brothers makes a difference to her she doesn't know. She is disturbed by Cort's expression too, his grief, the calamity in waiting that so painfully shadows his eyes, the element of awful incredulity. How has he landed in this situation? A brother on death row? How did it happen?

Cort says he's sorry. "You'd think talking about it would get easier, but it doesn't."

"I shouldn't have brought it up," Carolyn says.

"No, it's all right." Cort's grin is wry, engaging. "I get the 'Are you that Capshaw?' from a lot of folks. It's one of the perks of having a celebrity in the family. Name recognition."

"The story's big in Illinois." Carolyn says. "There was something about your brother in the Chicago Sun  last Sunday."

"Because of Anthony Porter," Cort says.

"Who is Anthony Porter?" Sophia asks.

"An inmate who was found innocent within two days of being executed," Cort says. "Someone else confessed and now, instead of being dead, Anthony Porter is free."

"The governor is calling for a moratorium. He wants to reopen every single death penalty case and drag them all back through the court system." Carolyn sounds incensed. "The next thing you know, he'll open all the cell doors too and let the murderers out on the street."

Sophia looks at Carolyn and wonders when and where she came by her opinion regarding the death penalty. As far as she can remember, they had never discussed it. Unless Carolyn and Russ had talked about it when they were off having one of their long afternoons together.

"He said he'd sleep better nights," Carolyn continues. "But there are a lot of folks who don't care about his sleep. Imagine if you were the family of one of those killers' victims and you had to endure having the whole tragedy raked up again. I feel sorry for them."

"Well, you don't have to worry about that happening in Texas," Cort says. "Juries in this state don't get another option other than death in capital murder cases and they won't, not as long aswe've got cowboys like Bush in office."

"People call him the Texecutioner," Carolyn says.

"Because he's a serial killer." Cort waves his arm. "He's sent more men to their death than any other governor in the history of the United States, more than one hundred this year alone. Talk about losing sleep. I couldn't close my eyes if I was him."

There is a ringing pause and then Cort goes on at a lower volume. "It's on all of us, though, killing people this way. It's not just the fault of the judges or the juries or the governors. We go along, all of us, blind, like sheep."

"But what's the answer?" Carolyn asks.

Cort's silence is eloquent in its bewilderment, its appeal. Someone should provide a remedy. Someone should rescue his brother. He, Cort, is failing in the attempt. Powerless to prevent this terrible thing that is going to happen. It's his fault. He should be able to do something. Sophia sees all of this; she reads it in the ether. And she turns from it, taking her purse from the kitchen island to the desk as if presenting her back will absolve her.

Cort is saying if his brother's jury had been given another option, they might have chosen it. "There are extenuating circumstances."

Sophia faces him, feeling somehow compelled and when he meets her gaze, she gets the sense that he is appealing directly to her now and it seems inevitable.

He says, "If we can just get the right information in front of the right judge, maybe a miracle will happen. Maybe Jarrett can win clemency. At least then he'd be here where his wife and kids could visit him. At least I would still have my brother in my life."

"Does he want that?" Carolyn asks.

"He doesn't want anything except to die. His family, we're the ones who want to stop the clock."

"I read about his wife," Carolyn says. "She's trying to get a court order, right? She wants her husband to take medication for depression. She doesn't agree that he was in the right frame of mind to call off his appeals. I was really amazed by that since--"

"Since Jarrett shot and killed her dad. Yeah. I know. It's weird. Complicated."

"I remember when it happened." Sophia says this slowly almost speaking to herself. The pulse at the base of her throat flutters and she puts her hand there. "It was around six years ago, wasn't it? There was a raid, a government raid on Louis Tilley's restaurant." Sophia looks at Cort.

He nods.

"They went there to recover artifacts," Sophia says. "In particular, I remember a Mayan codex that was stolen. An agent was killed."

"A federal marshal. That meant the death penalty was automatic. But no one's excusing what Jarrett did. No one's saying he's innocent. He isn't. He did the crimes."

"But he could still have his sentence overturned, couldn't he?" Carolyn says. "I mean, look at Jody Doaks. You know about him, don't you?"

"Carolyn. . . ." Sophia protests.

"You know Mom's testimony got his sentence commuted."

 "No," Sophia corrects, "that was the Texas pardon board's decision per Governor Bush's instruction. He said that the jurors hadn't been told certain facts about Jody during his initial trial. I only stated what those facts were and provided my professional opinion. What I observed of Jody's behavior that seemed to support the claim of mental deficiency."

 "The media called the clemency an unprecedented act of mercy," Cort says, "which may mean Bush has a heart after all."

"I'm sorry," Sophia says, "but if you came here thinking I would intervene in a similar fashion on behalf of your brother, I can assure you, I won't."

"I don't need your help," Cort says. "Or your pity."

Sophia frowns. "I'm not offering pity."

Cort picks up Carolyn's suitcases. "I should get back to work. Want to show me where to put these?"

"This way." Carolyn gestures him toward the stairs and then casts a glance at Sophia and her expression seems to contain a reproof, but she's gone before Sophia can decide.

 

#

 

Sophia hears Cort come back downstairs and the click of the front door when he closes it behind him and now the muffled tread of Carolyn's step overhead is audible and steady, as if she's agitated, but perhaps she is only putting things away. Not home an hour, Sophia thinks, and already they are at odds. She would like to go and talk to Carolyn. Explain that she is not without sympathy; she would help the Capshaws if it were possible. But it simply isn't. Sophia fills the kettle and puts it on for tea. And now, there is this other thing to worry about with the stolen artifacts, that Mayan codex. She had nearly forgotten about it.

Russ had been perturbed when the story broke. He had collected pre-Columbian art too. Sophia didn't care for it; it was too crude and primitive. She hadn't liked Russ's preoccupation with his collection either. It had seemed obsessive to her. The way he'd looked at the pieces when he'd handled them. He had appeared so enrapt as if there was nothing in the world of more importance. Really, it had been as if no other world existed. She could be in the same room and he wouldn't notice. If she spoke to him, he wouldn't hear. It had bothered her. It still does.

But now the phone rings and she reaches for it, glad for the distraction.

"I wanted to be sure Carolyn got in all right," Phil says, "and to make sure you're both still coming tomorrow."

Sophia carries her cup of tea out onto the deck outside to the patio table. "Wouldn't miss it. Shall I bring the potato salad?"  

"It wouldn't be the same if you didn't." There is the slightest hitch before Phil says what Sophia is thinking. "Of course it won't be the same anyway, will it, without Russ?"

"No," Sophia agrees. Phil and Russ had been on friendly terms; they'd played an occasional round of golf together after which the four of them, Phil and Dorie, Russ and Sophia, might go out to dinner or to the ballet or the symphony. It had been a pleasant relationship, a comfortable routine, gone now, or at least altered beyond recognition. Three's a crowd, three blind mice, three strikes and you're out. . . . Sophia sips her tea that is too hot and scalds her tongue . . .

. . . and now, inexplicably, a thought of Wick Bowen appears in her mind, something to do with being able to picture him in a theater seat at the ballet but not on a golf course. She wouldn't mind if Wick hated golf right along with pre-Columbian art. What she does mind are her thoughts about him.

"Are you all right, Sophia?" Phil asks. "I didn't mean to upset you."

She says it's all right, that she's all right. She says, "You know I'm having the house painted," and when Phil asks how the job is coming, she says, "It's fine," adding, "but you won't believe who the painter is or I should say who he's related to."

"You're kidding," Phil says when she's finished explaining.

"I wish I were. Truly, I should have known. The day Cort came and asked for the job, he brought up Jody Doaks, but I thought it was out of curiosity." Sophia fiddles with her spoon, eyeing it unhappily.

"You think he wants your professional help with his brother."

"He denied it." Sophia makes a tiny snick with her tongue. "Did you happen to see Trent Hunter's segment about Jarrett Capshaw this morning? Hunter mentioned Jody and I kept waiting to hear my name too. I'm surprised he or some other reporter hasn't called me. I can't take it again, Phil. All that awful publicity."

"Well, you can bet it's getting ready to explode. You've got two governments mixed up in it and a man on death row sitting in the catbird seat. Personally I don't think they'll execute Capshaw, not as long as there's a chance he'll tell them where the codex is."

"I had nearly forgotten about all of that. Louis Tilley, involved in a smuggling ring. Why? The man could have bought whatever he wanted. Why steal it?"

"That's what greed does for you. Or to you."

Sophia is quiet.

"Russ knew Tilley, didn't he?"

"Not well." Sophia pushes her hair behind her ear. She gets up to pace, sits down again. "At least not that I know of."

"You seem upset. Are you? You don't think Russ was involved, do you?"

"Russ? Heavens no." Did she? "Russ didn't like Louis; he called him a blowhard."

"Huh. Did you realize that his daughter is married to Jarrett Capshaw?"

"Louis Tilley's daughter is Jarrett's wife?" Had she known this?

"Uh-huh. Grace's Table? Louis's restaurant? He named it for her. She's been running it ever since he died."

Sophia doesn't answer. She walks into the yard trying not to notice the birdbath, crusted with algae and tipped far to one side. Underfoot the scratchy assortment of yard litter, what is the drab discarded dress of a summer's worth of neglect muffles her steps. She's been an indifferent gardener in recent months, but until today, she hasn't noticed really. She supposes her awareness is a sign of healing, but there's a part of her that doesn't want it. Some errant impulse that doesn't want to recover, to start over. To take up the thread and face her life again. In the cold light of Russ's absence.

That empty, heartless light.

She looks down the path at the arbor that is smothered now in the faded blooms of an old Bourbon rose as lavish as its name, Zephirine Drouhin. It needs pruning, an overall tidying.

"Sophia?" The note of caution is back in Phil's voice and catches her attention. "This changes the subject, but you remember Greg Slade, the young man who was treated in the ER a few years ago after a drug overdose?"

"How could I forget?" She'd been with Phil the night he'd been called to the hospital by Greg's parents. The Slades had taken their son there after finding him at home nearly dead from the effects of a toxic cocktail of methamphetamine mixed with cocaine. Sophia had sat with Greg's mother Sharon, while Phil dealt with Greg's doctors. It had been a long, strange and hideous night that had somehow ended in the grace note of a miracle when Greg survived. But that night is just one more thing Sophia wishes she could forget. "Please tell me the Slades aren't coming tomorrow. You said before they couldn't make it."

"I know, but it turns out they're going to be in town after all attending a presidential campaign fundraiser for Governor Bush."

"I suppose it was foolish to assume I would never run into them again."

"Sharon asked me specifically whether you'd be here. She asked about Carolyn, too. She mentioned Carolyn and Greg knew each other, that they went to high school together. I don't know that I ever knew that."

"They worked together on Greg's dad's first run for state senate. Carolyn was a huge fan of Jasper's, but I think she's lost touch with Greg."

"He lost touch with most of his friends when he took up company with whatever drug was available," Phil says dryly.

"Suppose all of that comes up tomorrow?"

"I don't know why it would, but it's not a problem, is it? Unless you didn't tell Carolyn."

A pause jitters.

"Sophia?" Phil prompts. "Please tell me you told her."

"About Greg's overdose, yes, but not--" Sophia bends her head to her hand pinching the bridge of her nose. "I didn't tell her about my experience."

"But during the Doaks' trial when Hunter was nosing around, when you were worried he could find out, you said then you were going to tell her."

"I meant to."

"I know Russ was against it, but he's--" Phil expels a huge, frustrated breath. He won't say it, the word dead and it hangs between them.

Sophia says, "I still plan to, in time."

"You mean once Russ has been gone long enough."

"And Mother, too. When there's no one left who can be--" Hurt. Another word shimmers in Sophia's brain. She touches her temple, the corner of her mouth. She has patients like herself, who keep information from her. They keep secret certain crucial facts that might be helpful in treating them. She has said to those patients: How can I help you if I don't know your whole story? If you keep things back. She has been frustrated by them. She is frustrated with herself. She could tell Phil; she could explain it all to him; she knows he's safe and even if he found what she had to say appalling, he would still only want to help her.     

He says her name, asks if she's all right. He says, "If it's any consolation, Sharon made a point of mentioning how much she and the Senator appreciate your continuing discretion."

"As I appreciate theirs. Sharon did promise," Sophia adds.

"I'm sure they'll honor--" Phil begins.

Sophia cuts in. "What I don't understand is why they're making such a thing of it. Greg was your patient. You're the one who helped him kick his addiction, not me."

"You're splitting hairs, Sophia. The important thing is that between us, they got their son back. You can't put a value on that."

Sophia didn't want to put a value on it; she wanted it forgotten.       

 

 

5

 

Saturday, September 18, 1999 - 29 days remain

 

After breakfast, Jarrett lies on his bunk; he closes his eyes. He would sleep but the air is full of noise from the new kid, Cameron Dancey, housed in 29 cell halfway down the run. He's howling and the sound is brutal, a jackhammer of fear. It's got everyone stirred up, pacing, yelling. There are answering shouts: "Shut up! Shut the fuck up!" The discordant chorus bangs off the concrete walls. The guards pace back and forth. They'll call out the goon squad and gas Dancey's cell if he doesn't stop. He bellows on, oblivious, calling for his mama, Jesus. Anybody. He's a man lost, abandoned in a remote galaxy, beyond hope of rescue. Condemned. Like every man in here. Jarrett cocks his elbow over his eyes. The ragged cries eat at him; they shake the ground of his apathy, pierce the cultivated shroud of his indifference. He sits up.

Yesterday, in the rec yard, Mo D said Cam was a meth-head, that he'd been on the stuff when he abducted and murdered his girlfriend. Mo had called Cam a drug-crazed kid. Mo had been on a rant about it; he'd come off like drugs were to blame. Like Cam isn't the one who took the drugs in the first place. Like if you just took away all the drugs people wouldn't be violent. Jarrett thought of saying it wasn't that simple. He thought of telling Mo D that he'd been as sober as daylight when he'd pulled the trigger and shot the men who were his victims. But his life is so short now, he doesn't want to waste time arguing.

Reaching under his bunk, he pulls out the book L sent to him. It's a collection of talks given by an eastern mystic named Jeddu Krishnamurti. Jarrett never heard of the guy until L gave him this book. On the flyleaf she's written that she found it in a prison library and that it saved her life. Like Krishnamurti, Jarrett has no clue who L is either, or how she knows of him. He's only sure L is female because in her first letter to him, she said she wasn't the sort of woman who stalked prison inmates. "I don't want to be married to you or any of that," she had said. "I'm not a religious nut. . . ."

In the note she enclosed with the book, she had written that she knew what it was to seek death, to know utterly and completely that death was what you deserved and that orchestrating it yourself was the final act of courage. She had tried for it twice herself and failed, she said. After the second time, she had found Krishnamurti's book and ever since, she's been unsure about her beliefs. L had ended that letter by saying she would be interested to hear Jarrett's thoughts.

He opens the book now at random.

Questioner: "So you have the two energies, you have the violence and the love."

Krishnamurti: "It is the same energy, sir."

Jarrett closes the book. Cam is quiet. The run is quiet. There is no nose-burning, eye-watering smell that would be pervasive by now if the guards had made good on their threat to gas his cell. Jarrett wonders who to thank for the blessing. God? Does he believe in God? A hereafter? Given that he has less than one month to live, he should probably decide.

The prison chaplain has offered to baptize him. Martin said that once a man is saved, he will often look back on the sinner he was and not recognize himself. The padre has counseled that this should be a moment of extreme joy. He has warned that shame and guilt are their own jailors. Jarrett understands the padre's meaning in his head, but it's hard to keep to the high road when what you see behind your closed eyes are the wounded images of your family's faces and what your heart knows is that you're their Judas.

He wonders who L is. She has seldom given him much of a clue and seems more interested in who he is, his history, his background. When she asked what led him to become involved in smuggling, Jarrett wrote back that he'd married into it. He'd explained it was what his father-in-law had been into. Pre-Columbian antiquities and Cuban cigars. He had written that running artifacts across the border was safer than running dope or illegals. Although, looking back, Jarrett guesses they had all been wrong about that.

In one letter, L wrote that prison wasn't a building, but a locked room in your mind. She has written to him of isolation, anguish and remorse, the unrelenting anger and frustration you can feel when you're locked up, and it's as if she's walking around inside his head taking down dictation. Something in the way she puts words together makes Jarrett think she's been incarcerated herself. He's written things to her that he would never tell anyone else.

He has said to L that if by some fluke he ever got out, he would go after Cort; he would kill his brother, whom he loves, with his bare hands, for loving Grace. Jarrett has written to L that he is sorry he ever married and became a father. He has admitted that he is afraid for his children. Suppose the evil in him is something he has passed on to them? He has spoken to L of his fear that he is going to hell and nothing can save him.

Later when he sits down in the visitor's booth opposite Grace as he's lifting the heavy old fashioned receiver, a bizarre thought occurs to him: What if she is L? The notion takes his breath. But almost immediately he sees it for the head game that it is. It happens a lot when you're locked up; your brain conjures all sorts of craziness. Jarrett had known this guy in the county lock-up, Beaner, who thought he'd been abducted, that the jail was a planet located somewhere in a remote corner of the universe. He'd talked to his abductors, Jarrett had heard him, Beaner, thrashing in his bunk, begging the little green men to carry him home.

Grace is saying something about Brian, a visit to the dentist. Jarrett tries to focus, to care, but Jesus, where does she think they are? At the breakfast table? It occurs to him that he feels more of a connection to L, a woman he has never seen, never touched, never made love to and somehow the idea is vaguely sickening. It's as if he's committing some kind of emotional adultery against Grace, his wife, who has done everything but lay down her life for him. He watches as she noodles her finger along the edge of the countertop that separates them.

"You won't believe this," she says, "but I heard Blanca Salazar is coming."

"To watch me get the needle?"

"Jarrett! For God's sake."

"It's a long trip from Guadalajara. I didn't realize she hated me that much."

"She blames you because Rafe's dead and she's a widow left to raise her poor little fatherless child alone. When I heard her say that on the news, I almost gagged. As if she and Rafe weren't in it up to their eyebrows."

More than that, Jarrett thinks. Deeper than he ever knew. Rafe Sanchez had been Grace's father's pilot, his South American connection. Someone whom Jarrett had believed was his friend. Tilley hadn't expected that, Jarrett thinks, that he and Rafe would hit it off. Rafe was supposed to be Tilley's man. But Rafe had played Tilley, played him and Jarrett both, and Rafe had died for it. Jarrett looks at Grace. "Why do you care anymore what she says when it's done?"

"It's not done, Jarrett. She's out there deliberately courting the media, looking for attention. She's got them so stirred up they're stalking our kids. She's after a book deal, a movie deal, whatever, and she'll twist the facts, you watch! She'll try to make herself and Rafe look like victims. She'll cast you as the monster. You would never have been involved if it wasn't for Rafe and my dad. And Blanca knew. I know she did."

"She lost her husband too, Gracie." Jarrett lowers his face; his gaze is soft, pleading. "Let's not waste time--" he begins.

But she explodes. "I lost my father! I'm losing my husband! I'm raising three children alone. We were friends, guests in Blanca's and Rafe's home. We were Carlito's godparents, Jarrett." Grace pauses. Her jaw trembles, but her gaze is fierce. "I didn't know what Dad was doing. How could I not know?"

Jarrett looks at the ceiling; he brings his gaze level. "This has to stop."

"What?"

"Everyone being hurt by what I did."

"How will your execution stop it, Jarrett, except for you?"

He puts up his hand. He wants her to shut up, to not tell him again what a coward he is, to not recount the cost of his actions.

She lays aside the receiver, pulls a tissue from her pocket, presses it against her face, blows her nose. Retrieving the phone, she asks "Why won't you face facts?" and her voice is as deadly flat as her expression.

"What do you mean?"

"Ending your appeals, you aren't doing it to save us grief. You're getting the State to do what you can't."

"Which is?" he asks although he's heard the term state-assisted suicide used in conjunction with his name before.

"Kill yourself. You always do this, make decisions without  considering the effect on your family. You keep your secrets and do what you want and the hell with everyone else."

"It's my life."

"It isn't just your life, Jarrett. Why can't you see that? You aren't the only one effected. Look at Thomas. He's angry and fighting all the time. He won't even come here."

"So, if you were the mother of the marshal I murdered would you feel the same? Or suppose you were Blanca, Carlito's mother? Never mind how you feel about her, do you think you would be asking me to live?" 

"I've told you before, that's an unfair question. I'm not their mother. I'm your children's mother.  I've already lost my father. What good is it if you're dead too? It won't bring Dad back or Rafe or the U.S. marshal. I'm sorry if I sound cold and unfeeling; I'm sorry for their families, but you aren't the same man who did those things." Her eyes fill. She bites the inside of her mouth.

God. The word bursts in his brain. "I can't stand to see you suffering this way." But this is only part of it. The rest of what he can't stand is knowing that, contrary to what Grace says, he is the same, the very same broken, angry man he was when he came in here. He thinks what his mother said about him is true, that he was born angry and he'll die the same way. Grace says people can change, if they want to badly enough. Now she's talked herself into believing he has.

She sniffs and swipes at her cheeks again. "It's not that I'm suffering constantly," she tells him. "No one is. Wounds heal. Grief ends."

"When the debt is paid."

She shakes her head.

"It's no kind of life for our kids or Carlito or the marshal's kids. As long as I'm alive, all their lives stay wrecked."

Grace shakes her head faster.

Jarrett keeps talking. "You, Cort, the kids, lawyers, the financial burden, it's a constant drain. You think I can't see the toll it's taking? It's like I'm committing the murders over and over and over."

"It's suicide."

"It's the punishment that fits the crime, Grace. Sweetheart," he adds and, again, he's pleading.

"Well, you keep winning, don't you? Judge McPherson agreed you're in your right mind. But even he said that if the depression were treated--"

He interrupts. "I'm not depressed."

She talks over him. "--it's possible you might change your mind."

"What McPherson said was that an inmate can be considered competent as long as he has a rational and factual understanding of the consequences of his decision, which I do."

"But that's like saying you understand what death is. How can you? When none of us do? And if you do understand it so clearly, I wish you'd explain it to me and to our children."

"I would if they would see me."

Grace props her forehead on her hand. A sweep of her hair falls over her knuckles. Jarrett thinks how soft it is. He remembers the silken feel of it sliding through his hands and a sudden hurtful warmth tightens his groin. The sensation is so useless, so futile. He tightens his teeth against it.

The silence captures the sound of their breath.

"Cort tells me he's back to painting houses.

Grace looks up at Jarrett.

"He's doing that instead of renovation work because it pays more money, right? He's doing it so he can help you out." Jarrett slaps the counter. "Answer me." 

"Yes," she hisses. "I don't know how I'd make it otherwise. Between the legal fees and the mortgage, not to mention the credit cards--"

"The house is still on the market?"

"Yes, not that it matters. The real estate agent says the asking price is too high, but if I come down, I'll lose money. I can't afford to keep it either. There's just no place left to go except foreclosure."

"You've got to stop paying the lawyers. You know once the government is done with it, there won't be one red cent left of your dad's money."

She drills him with her gaze. "Okay, I will, I'll call off the hearing if you promise me right now you'll take an anti-depressant. We can petition the court for a thirty, or even a sixty-day stay, to see what effect it has."

"It won't have any effect, assuming you would even get a ruling in your favor--"

"If you won't lift a hand to help yourself, then you leave me no choice."

Jarrett rocks forward. "I can't stand to see you this way."

"Then take the medication."

"Gracie, please." He holds her gaze. "Please, please, babe. Let this end. Let me do what has to be done."

  

... continued ...

 

Want to continue reading? Click on the title below to download the entire book for just $2.99

 

Volunteer

The Volunteer

  

by Barbara Taylor Sissel
Kindle Price:$2.99
Buy Now

  

Click here to download 

  

(or a free sample) to your Kindle, iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, BlackBerry, Android-compatible, PC or Mac and start reading within 60 seconds!

 

 

 

UK CUSTOMERS: Click on the title below to download 

The Volunteer

 

 

Thank you for reading this free Kindle Nation feature.