Fantasy Horror Humor spiritual Light medium & dark supernatural Light fate worse than death religious

A Cruel and Unusual Punishment

By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
Jul 4, 2019 · 11,590 words · 43 minutes

Photo by Jon Tyson via Unsplash.

From the author: This story has a checkered past. It started life as a 7500 word science fiction story but, after a very helpful critique by Shawna McCarthy at Realms of Fantasy (when she rejected it), it ended up as a 11,500 some odd word fantasy novelette in Interzone and later anthologized in INFINITE SPACE, INFINITE GOD, from Twilight Times and in the "Dark" part of my WindyCon Guest of Honor collection, BIMBO ON THE COVER. It is broken into fourteen parts—each corresponding to a Station of the Cross.


—The First Station—

And what have you laymen made of hell? A kind of penal servitude for eternity, on the lines of your convict prisons on earth, to which you condemn . . . ”enemies of society,” as you call them . . . . 

Hell is not to love any more, madame. Not to love any more!

— Georges Bernanos, “The Diary of a Country Priest”

oOo

It was an act of war. Pure and simple. But the world courts didn’t get it—didn’t understand that there was an essential difference between an act of war and garden variety terrorism. No one was innocent in a war. Everyone was either an ally or an enemy. Murder did not exist. Liam Connor knew that, if none of his accusers did. And he knew that one land’s butcher is another land’s hero.

That knowledge supported him through the trial and fed his natural courage, tested and fired through years of fighting. Courage allowed him to stand, unblinking, while the prosecutor read the charges and the witnesses described the carnage. While mothers wept and fathers hated him in silence. He’d confessed, as well, to the killing of a policeman in Derry a month before. It made no sense to conceal it; he was going to prison in any event, and was not ashamed to have done it.

He was not a terrorist, he told the jury; he was a soldier. His act was political, his intent to bring world attention back to Ireland. The Sinn Fein might consider her freedom won. He did not. Freedom was not a matter to be compromised. 

He was found guilty on twelve counts of first degree murder. The jury called for the death penalty. He’d expected no less. He would be a martyr as well as a hero. 

oOooOooOo

—The Second Station—

Human imagination long ago pictured Hell, but it is only through recent skill that men have been able to give reality to what they had imagined.

— Bertrand Russell, Skeptical Essays

oOo

He was transferred to an international prison facility outside of Prague. He saw the protestors as his transport pulled through the gates, milling in the sharp sunset patterns of umber shadow and orange light, their placards waving, condemning the death penalty. He gave them no thought.

They put him in an antiseptic cell next to an American. The two cells shared a wall with a transparent section that darkened and lightened at the whim of the gaolers and a door of sorts composed of gleaming metal bars that could retract into the ceiling—at the whim of the gaolers.

Through the transparent panel Connor could see the American as he sat on his bunk, pale and sweating, wringing his hands. He whispered to himself and addressed the ceiling as ‘God.’ 

Connor sent a glance at the ceiling of his own cell. There was a water stain above the bunk. Or perhaps it was a shadow—it was hard to imagine a stain would be allowed to exist in such sterile surroundings. Squinting, he saw it as a guardian angel—here the wings, there the long flowing robes. He wondered what the American saw hovering over his bunk.

When he could stand the babbling of Bedlam prayer no longer, Connor rapped on the translucent barrier between him and the American. “Hey!” he said. “What’s your name?”

The young man blinked at him, eyes pale and watery in a damp, gray face. “Uh . . . Roarke.” His voice was as clear as if the barrier were made of fishnet.

Connor smiled. “Good Irish name,” he said. “What’re you in for?”

Roarke giggled nervously and shrugged, then straightened his shoulders. “I did my wife and kid,” he said. 

Connor tried not to look appalled. “Why?”

Roarke radiated a halo of machismo. “She was cheating on me. Kid probably wasn’t even mine.”  

“So you killed them?”  

The shoulders sagged; the halo evaporated. “Yeah.” He blinked and squinted. “Yeah . . .  Oh, God,” he said to the ceiling, and started to sob.  

Connor lay down on his bunk.

oOooOooOo

—The Third Station—

If it’s heaven for climate, it’s hell for company. — J.M. Barrie, The Little Minister 

 oOo

 “Hey, you! Irish!”  

He woke with a start and stared across the cell. The little American was hunkered down on his haunches, peering at him through the transparent panel, looking like a faded orangutan cadging peanuts.

“Connor,” he said. “The name’s Connor.”  

“The terrorist?” He pushed forward, steaming the transparent barrier. “They said they were sending an IRA terrorist up.“

“I’m a soldier. We’re at war.”  

The American laughed. “Right. You and nobody else. Did you know Ireland is about the only place in the world that’s not at peace?” he asked, suddenly pert. “I read that in TIME magazine. Really embarrassed the Sinn Fein. Doesn’t do a whole lot of good to sign treaties when a bunch of fanatics won’t give up the fight. The only place in the world that’s not at peace.” He repeated and shook his head. “Man, I sure wouldn’t want that on my conscience.”

“I’d say you have enough on your conscience already.” 

Roarke laid his palms flat against the panel, smearing it with oily little streaks that were quickly broken down by the citrifier in the material. “They say,” he almost whispered, “you blew up a school bus full of little kids. How the hell could you do something like that?”

“The price of freedom is often high. How the hell could you do what you did?”

Roarke’s mouth wriggled. “Troop cuts. Lost my job. Army was my life. Couldn’t stand losin’ them, too.”

“Dead’s not lost?”

Roarke started to shake. He got up and moved away from the bars, wiping his hands on his pants . . . over and over. “I’m payin’ for it. God, two days!”

“That's when the axe falls?”

Roarke threw his head back and looked down his nose like a startled horse. “Naw. I did a deal. Instead of death, I get The Light. The God-damned Light.” Connor could hear the capital letters. 

“What light?”

“S’got some doctor’s name—uh . . .  Z’gorsky—something like that. The Z’gorsky Wave—that’s what the doctors call it. Everybody else just calls it The Light.” He glanced back over his shoulder as if ‘it’ were prowling the corridors.

Connor shrugged and shook his head.

“It’s an experiment. They told me if I’d participate in the experiment, I didn’t have to die.” Roarke giggled and his Adam’s apple bobbed like a fishing float. “I said ‘yes.’ Jesus, now’m not sure.”

Connor sat up. An alternative to death. “So, what’s it do? Brainwash you?” He’d lived through brain-washing and torture. He glanced down at his three fingered left hand—even that.

“I don’t know.” Roarke swallowed, making a gulping sound. “To hear them”—he jerked his head toward the corridor—“you’d think it was worse than dying.” 

Connor puzzled. “Them?”

“Listen.”

He did. Out of the background noise of the cellblock he picked out a high-pitched gibbering. 

Roarke grinned manically. “J-Block. The one’s who’ve ‘seen the light.’” He giggled at his poor joke. “Maybe I was better off with the shot.  . . . When’re you going up?”

“Three weeks.” Connor shivered involuntarily. He hoped Roarke hadn’t seen it. He wasn’t afraid to die.

“Hey, why’d you confess to killing that cop? The kids were enough to get you hung.”

“What does it matter? It’s not as if they can kill me more than once.”

“Yeah, but a lot could happen to you before you die. I heard rumors about what they do to cop-killers.”

“In this nice little safe house?” Connor chuckled. “Who could break in and get to me?”

“Who says they’ll need to break in?” Roarke went to sit on his bunk. “Dinner real soon,” he said, smiling affably. “Food’s pretty good here. Better than Army chow.”

The food was good, but Connor’s hunger was overwhelmed by the pungent, metallic taste of terror that wafted up from JBlock. On the way to the cafeteria, he listened. There were voices that shrieked things like: “I won’t eat, damn you! You can’t make me eat!” There was a keening wraithvoice that chanted “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry” in an endless litany. He concentrated on not getting the food stuck in his throat. Then he slept.

When he woke the next morning, Roarke was full of news.  The prisoner in cell A25 had tried to kill himself with a plastic spoon. “Tried to choke himself,” he said soberly. There were dark circles under the diluted eyes. “They took him to the hospital for an imp.”

“A what?“

“Nutritional implant. Your stomach shrivels up, but you don’t starve. Read all about it in a medical journal.”  

“You read a lot.”  

“Not a whole lot else to do unless you’re into pumping iron. I been here for two months. Lawyer's been trying to get me a retrial—you know, a sanity thing. Huh! I don’t think they buy that any more. Anyway, my appeals ran out, so-“ He shrugged. “Isn’t your lawyer trying to get you a lesser sentence?”  

“No chance of that.”  

“He could ask about The Light. I mean, after all you’re a celebrity.”  

“So, where do you do all this reading?” asked Connor.

“Library. Anybody can use it. Even terminals like you. We go after breakfast. You can have books or disks. I look forward to it.” 

Anticipation, mused Connor—a precious commodity among the damned.

oOooOooOo

—The Fourth Station—

There are only two countries: heaven and hell; but two conditions of men: salvation and damnation.

— George Bernard Shaw, John Bull’s Other Island

oOo

They went to the library after breakfast. Connor spent his time ferreting out articles on the Zagorsky Wave. What he found made little sense. He understood the claim that the Wave affected the workings of the brain, but the terminology was impenetrable. He knew precious little about neural pathways or endorphins or what happened during REM sleep. There were references to sodium amytal, the so-called ‘truth serum’—something with which he was familiar.

That afternoon, he asked his attorney if he could cut a deal to be part of the Zagorsky experiment.

“A lab rat, Liam? Are you sure you want that?”

“Beats the alternative, don’t you think?”

The lawyer stared down at the lapels of his impeccable blue suit. “What do you know about the Zagorsky process, Liam?” 

“I read some about it, today. Fancy name for brain washing. Kind of like going to a salon instead of a barber shop.”

“It’s a little more than that.” Counsel jerked his wellgroomed head toward the corridor. “You may have noticed that some of your fellow inmates are . . . "

"Mental? Hell, this place is more Bedlam than prison. Grown men trying to choke themselves with plastic spoons. But I'm not mental.”  

The lawyer gave him a long, steady look, then said, “I’ll see what I can do. But I think you might want to talk to your man with the spoon.”  

Connor pondered the meeting as he stood in the yard that afternoon, watching nearly naked tree limbs toss in the chill wind, stubborn leaves clinging to them like bright stars fallen and tangled in the twigs. Mountain peaks gleamed above the walls, pristine and white. It was a most pleasant place. One could do worse than to live out one’s life here. Except perhaps for those who seemed bent on self-destruction—who seemed to Connor legitimately mad. 

Was that the effect of Zagorsky’s Wave? He crossed himself. God . . . suicide. Never that. As long as there was life, there was hope. He flexed his halfruined hand and felt the wraith-pain of the missing fingers.   

That evening in the library, he read more about criminal medicine—about how lobotomizing the violent supposedly made them forget what it was to be violent. Was that what the Wave was about? Making someone forget why he’d done what he’d done? Did they think Roarke could be redeemed by clipping a few neural pathways?  

Redemption. Was that what it was about? Redemption was not something the criminal justice system generally concerned itself with. If the Wave was some scientific way of redeeming souls, it hardly answered the human conception of justice. If it was a form of truth serum, they’d have no reason to use it on him. He’d never claimed he wasn’t guilty of blowing up that school bus. He’d told the truth at his trial and the truth had damned him in the eyes of a jury that did not understand the nature of the struggle. Some things were simply larger than life.

He liked the sound of that. It read like an epitaph: Some things are larger than life. 

oOooOooOo

—The Fifth Station—

Suddenly to realize that one is sitting, damned, among the other damned—it is a most disquieting experience; so disquieting that most of us react to it by immediately plunging more deeply into our particular damnation in the hope . . . that we may be able, at least for a time, to stifle our revolutionary knowledge.

— Aldous Huxley, Grey Eminence 

oOo

On Roarke’s day, they took him at sunrise. He was white-faced and terrified; his stubble of mousy beard stood out on his face as if every pore were squeezed tight. He seemed about ready to beg for the death his attorney had worked so hard to put off.  

They brought him a Protestant minister. He’d told Connor he was Protestant the first day. “I s’pose that means you hate me, huh?” he’d asked.  

“It’s not that simple.”  

Now he was begging information from the minister, a wearylooking man with bottomless, dark eyes and a mouth devoid of smile lines.

“Tell me, please,” begged Roarke. “What’s it like? Will it hurt?”  

The minister hesitated. “I don’t know what it’s like, son. But I promise you, there will be no pain.”  

Roarke went away down the corridor with his two guards and his frayed minister, feet dragging the shining tiles. Connor watched the surveillance cameras swivel to follow the little parade, then went back to his bunk. 

Later that morning, he tried to pry more information out of the library’s medical journals. Difficult, even with a dictionary. Rather than occluding select involuntary background neural processes, he read, the Wave produces the opposite effect. It defeats the natural occulting influences of the conscious.  

The dictionary was American, but he figured the word definitions had to be fairly close. Occlude, he read, to close or shut off; obstruct. He shook his head and looked up ‘occult.’ As he expected, it said something about supernatural influences. The second definition wasn’t any clearer: Available only to the initiate; secret. And the third: Beyond human understanding.

Beyond the understanding of Liam Connor, at any rate. “Hell!” He gave up in a flash of temper, closing the books. Damned scientific voodoo. He wouldn’t be half-surprised to find out this whole business was some slick psychological shell game intended to drive the inmates mad. Smoke and mirrors. He’d seen the state Roarke was in this morning. The man was primed to go mad. The mere suggestion that some unknown fate awaited him might send him over the edge. 

But he wasn’t Roarke. He wasn’t some guilt-ridden chauvinist. He hadn’t destroyed his own family and, with them, any dignity or integrity he might have possessed.

His lawyer appeared while he was still sitting in the library—no longer reading, but just watching tongues of autumn flame dance in the trees. They went to a small, gray, glass-fronted room with a flat-screen monitor set into one wall. They sat at an austere table across from each other.

The lawyer folded his hands atop his fine leather briefcase. “The judge feels your crime warrants letting you enter the experimental program. The press is all over it, of course. Have you seen the crowd in the forecourt?”

“I saw a bunch of sad-looking rowdies when they brought me here. What’s it to do with me?”

In answer the lawyer turned to the television screen. “Voice ID—John Woods. SecureCam, forecourt, please.” 

The screen leapt to life. It showed Connor a rabble among which no two looked as if they’d come from the same neighborhood or stock. They waved placards, they held hands and prayed, they stood in mute dissent. They were adults of all ages, they were children. Closest to the camera’s watchful eye, was an entire family: a woman with hair the color of black cherries, a weary looking man with a three day growth of graying beard, a girl who possessed the same deep auburn hair as her mother. Pressed against the woman’s breast was a photograph of a young girl who could only be daughter to her and sister to the other girl.

God in heaven, he thought, who brings a child to a place like this? 

As if she’d read his thoughts through the camera eye, the girl raised her eyes to the lens.

Connor glanced away. “I suppose these folks think I should be executed.”

“They're divided. Some believe the Z-Wave is a superior alternative to the death penalty. Others believe it meets the criteria for a cruel and unusual punishment. They want the execution to proceed . . . as a kindness.”  

Connor gazed thoughtfully at the display. “And those?” He gestured to the family.

“Which?”

“The couple there with their girl. What do they want?”

“They’re from Kilhenny,” the lawyer said. 

It was answer enough. "Death, a kindness?”

The lawyer tilted his head and studied Connor at a cant. “They say there are worse things than death.”  

“They are full of shit. Nothing you can live through is worse than death.” He unconsciously twitched his half-hand, then focused his eyes on Counsel’s studious face. “Stop your lobbying. They’re not going to repeal my conviction, and I’d sooner face Dr. Zagorsky’s wee light bulb than an infuser full of poison. I’ve been studying this Wave thing and I think I’ve figured it. I’ve watched how they twitched the poor bastard in the next-door cell all to pieces before they took him. It’s nothing but a high-tech light show, but by the time a guy gets there, he’s a guilt-bomb just waiting to explode. It’s all up here, you see.” He tapped a finger to his forehead. “They play games with the mind and then put on the show. And when it’s all over.” He snapped his fingers. “But I don't snap. I already know that. Christ, there isn’t a kind of pain made that I haven’t lived through.”  

Counsel pursed his lips. “Liam, what do you remember about the Kilhenny bombing?” 

“I remember all of it.”  

“Do you? You watched the bus burn?”  

“Hell no. I was a little busy trying to get away—for all the good it did me.”  

The lawyer nodded, watching his fingers tap the table top. After a moment of hesitation, he put his briefcase onto the tabletop, opened it, and pulled out a collection of papers. He spread them out on the table.

They were not papers; they were photographs of children. Of families. "Recognize any of these?"

"No." Liam felt anger flare behind his breastbone and tamped it down. This was a stupid ploy.

"They're-"

"I know who they are. Or at least who you'll tell me they are. Kids killed in the bombing. You'll not catch me in a moment of sentimental weakness." He pushed the closest photo—a school yearbook shot of an auburn-haired girl—back across the table. He didn't have to ask to know that it was her family praying him to death in the forecourt. She was the image of her mother and sister.

"Her name was Heather Rose."

Liam shook his head and smiled. "You'd make a lousy shrink."

The lawyer showed no embarrassment at being caught out. “You’ll go in three days . . . Wednesday,” he said, gathered up the photos, laid them in his briefcase, and left.

oOooOooOo

—The Sixth Station—

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed / In one self place; for where we are is Hell, / And where Hell is, there must we ever be.

— Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus

oOo

Connor heard Roarke’s high-pitched gibbering before he reached their cell block. He passed the departing minister in the corridor.

“Didn’t hurt, eh, reverend?”  

The worn out eyes surveyed him and he swore they missed nothing. “Physically, no.”  

“Ah, merely destroyed his mind?”  

The man uttered a ghost-laugh. “No. Not that either.” He moved away, clutching his naked Protestant cross.  

Roarke was on the floor of his cell, banging at his head with closed fists. “He saw-he saw-hesawhesawhesaw!” 

Connor got down on his haunches at the barrier between their cells. “Roarke!” he called. “Army boy!”  

The pale eyes found him and fixed on his face. They were awash in tears and startlingly transparent. He could see through them right into Roarke’s soul. Right into his complete and utter emptiness. He was a vacuum. Sucked inside out. 

Connor shook himself. “What happened to you? Can you tell me what happened?”  

Roarke’s mouth twitched. “It’s a room,” he said softly.  “Just a room. Looks like a—a”—he giggled—“like the places Jenny gets her hair . . . ” He blinked and his mouth opened and closed soundlessly.  

“A room?” prompted Connor.  

Roarke nodded. “With a chair. The Light is over the chair. You . . . I sat down. No straps. You just sit. And they turned on the Light and-and then it was Dark." He whimpered. "I smelled her perfume." 

He began to gibber again, pitch rising. Then he flung himself at the door of his cell and thrust his arms through the bars. “For Godsake! Please! Please! Please!”

Connor rocked back on his butt and covered his ears. “Please what, dammit?” he yelled. “What the hell do you want them to do?”  

Roarke’s face turned toward him, pressed against the metal bars, twisted with anguish. “Kill me! Oh, God, please make them kill me!” His eyes lit suddenly and he moved away from the door toward the connecting wall. “You! You kill people all the time.”  

Connor backed away, repulsed. “I’ve no reason to kill you.”  

Roarke put out his hand. “Please.”  

Curiosity nailed him. “Why?”  

“Because I saw . . . ” Madness began to seep in and lap around his eyes. “He called me 'daddy.' Oh God, Cody!”   

“See what? Who’s Cody?”  

“Me.” He disappeared into himself, then, and all Connor’s attempts to reach him failed.

While Connor lay awake, Roarke slept, exhausted, on the floor next door. It was not a quiet sleep. He twitched like a dying insect, mumbling and grinding his teeth. The grinding was bad—worse when it was interspersed with his whimpered pleas: “Take me please take me please take me . . . ” Litany of the damned. 

Morning brought no relief. Roarke didn’t go for more than minutes at a time without lapsing into his guilt-horrors. That meant Connor got no more than a catnap, but he'd lots of time to wonder what kind of deal he’d struck—as perhaps he was supposed to wonder. Perhaps, having observed that he was not, like his near neighbor, a guilt-burdened lunatic, his captors had settled on sleep deprivation as a means to soften him up. They’d be disappointed. He knew as much about sleep deprivation as he did about other forms of torture, and seeing Roarke like this only made him more determined not to succumb.

They took Roarke away to J-Block while he was in the library. Connor didn’t see him again. After, Connor wondered if the whole thing wasn’t a scam and Roarke an actor playing a part. 

oOooOooOo

—The Seventh Station—

Heaven gives its glimpses only to those / Not in position to look too close.

— Robert Frost, A Passing Glimpse

oOo

Wednesday morning Liam Connor went down to the Lab. His curiosity about the Zagorsky process had blossomed into strange anticipation. If this was a test of his will, he welcomed it. He was more uneasy of the watchful, stoic guards than he was of the Light. 

The Catholic priest they brought to walk with him to the Lab was every bit as dog-eared as Roarke’s minister. 

“I won’t need last rites,” Connor told him dryly. “I’m not dying today.”  

“You may wish to make your peace with God,” the priest said. 

Connor bristled. “I’ve no peace to make, Father. I did my duty before the Lord, and I’ll work it out with Him in the next world.”  

The priest merely looked at him through eyes Connor told himself saw nothing but his skin, then moved his side down the hall. He began to pray somewhere along the way. Connor found it annoying.  

As Roarke had said, the Lab was just a room with a chair on a revolving pedestal, like a dentist’s chair. The floor was carpeted in a soft, institutional pastel; the walls were dove gray. It wasn’t an unpleasant room. The only things about it that screamed laboratory were the monitoring cameras . . . and the Light itself. That was bracketed to the ceiling directly over the chair.

Connor examined it as he sat beneath. It looked like nothing so much as a great crystal egg with deeply incised facets radiating from the crown. It was the sort of thing a little boy or girl dreamed of finding in their Easter basket. The sort of thing that would hold their attention for hours as they turned it and marveled at the way colors burst from its facets.  

Connor smiled up at it, then looked over at the white-coated doctor who hovered near the door. “Pretty,” he said.  

She moved to stand beside the chair. “Do you understand the procedure?”  

“I think so. It’s some sort of neural gag. It’s supposed to de-occult my synapses.” The corners of his mouth curled into a half-grin. “Take the devil out of me, I guess.”  

She nodded. “I suppose that's one way of putting it. You understand that it won’t harm you physically or mentally?”  

“No? You wouldn’t lie to me now, would you, doctor?”  

“I have no reason to lie, Mr. Connor.”  

“Then explain it to me.”  

“All right. The procedure . . . causes the mind to work more . . . efficiently. It clears the pathways between the conscious and the subconscious.” She stopped and looked at him the way he was sure she looked at all her other lab specimens. It wasn’t very flattering to have a pretty woman look at you as if you were sitting in a petrie dish. “That doesn’t disturb you, does it?” 

“Not a bit.”  

“Then, I think we’re ready to proceed.” She drew a small, flat packet from the pocket of her lab coat and produced an infuser. "This is a muscle relaxant. It will keep you from getting the jitters."

"I don't have 'the jitters,' doctor."

"Not now, but you may. It happens."

"I don't get the jitters."

She gave him the shot anyway. "Procedure," she told him, then turned and left the room, the door opening and closing of its own accord. The ambient light dimmed. 

Connor sat and waited, watching the crystal egg. There was nothing, he realized, to keep him from taking his eyes from it or from closing them. Odd. You'd think they make sure he looked at the damn thing. What would they do, he wondered, if he simply refused to look?

After several moments the light began to glow softly; deep azure light pulsing from its depths to wash through the facets. The hues shifted toward purple, deepened, brightened, flowed to crimson. When it was an amber that rivaled any sunset Connor had ever seen, it blossomed into a golden rose of surreal beauty. 

He forgot he'd meant to look away. He had no desire to close his eyes. He was bathed in a divine glow that reminded him of Jacob's Ladders on a clouded day and in which he could imagine Angels descending and ascending along ladders of light. He could almost see them floating in their brilliant auras, faces radiant. Singing. “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war . . . ” It was a song from his youth—familiar, comforting.

He grinned at the memories that evoked of great, stone halls alight with candles and smelling of polished wood and musty cloth. Of the blazing, rose-amber splendor of sun-filled stained glass from which a river of light to cascade over the altar with its life-sized crucifix and sea of votive candles. The candles caught the Holy Light and rose up to meet it, forming a shroud of glory that grew brighter, deeper with every breath Liam took, until the Christ Figure was completely ablaze with it, swaddled in lucent brilliance. 

In a heartbeat, the blaze lost its divinity. It was earthly flame now, torrid and rapacious, and it formed an impenetrable wall about the altar. He could feel the heat of it on his face. The altar and crucifix would be destroyed. Already they were blackening and he could hear the sounds of the fire consuming them—the cracking and groaning of wood and glass, the roar of many tongues of flame.

He struggled to penetrate the veil of fire and found he could just make out the shape of the blackened altar. Oddly, the flames seemed not to diminish it. Instead, it grew as if the fire fed it. It was emerging from the holocaust, and Liam felt a surge of something like victory in the symbology. 

Victory lasted a matter of seconds, for the altar changed, twisted by fire into something other. It took Liam only a moment to recognize it—a school bus. And he remembered that fleeing the scene, he had heard the windows cracking like rock candy from the heat, the groan of dying metal. 

The Angels didn't sing now, they screamed. 

Liam's rage was hotter than the remembered flames; he already suspected the infuser had contained more than a simple 'muscle relaxant.' He was madder at himself for getting sucked down memory lane. He shut down his memory and his imagination, feeling a fierce sense of triumph. 

Nice try. That's what he'd tell them when this was over. Nice try, but I knew what you were about. 

He looked up into the blaze of glory again. Where he had glimpsed Angels and flaming school buses, now he saw only light and deception. He wondered if there were subliminal images in the Light—movies being played into his eyes. He smiled. Knowledge was power.

With a suddenness that stole his thoughts, the Light went out and he was plunged into darkness so thick it seemed to have mass and weight. Did they realize he'd figured them out?

He waited for the room lights to come up, waited for the doctor to reappear and tell him he was impervious to their machinery—or to lie and tell him he was not. But the darkness continued.

Perhaps the session wasn't over. Perhaps this was all part of it. Roarke had mumbled something about darkness. It was pitch black—a strange, close darkness, stagnant, almost stifling. 

 After a time—it might have been five minutes or fifteen—a breath of air fanned his face. He stiffened involuntarily. 

"Who's there?"

The darkness did not blink; the silence did not breathe.

“Who’s there?” he insisted, but no one answered.

Well, of course, no one answered. The room was empty. Had someone entered he would have heard the door open and close. It made, he recalled, a distinctive popping sound, like on those old science fiction shows. 

The air must have come from a vent somewhere in the room. He tried to recall if he’d seen one. He had not. Which didn't mean there wasn’t one. As he considered whether to get up from the chair and try to find the door, the room breathed once again. This time there was about it a faint smell of hot oil as if a motor somewhere in the bowels of the building was overheating. 

The smell was accompanied by a soft sound as if someone in shuffled across the institutional gray carpet. An uncontrollable chill scurried up Liam Connor’s spine. He sat forward in the chair, put his feet to the floor in order to rise. Behind him, something brushed the wall, though it might have been the sound of his own hair rising. He held very still, stopping even his breath. He heard breathing. Where did it come from?

“Who’s there?” he asked again, and felt foolish. No door had opened, no one had entered. He imagined the cool, crisp doctor sitting in a chair before a bank of monitors, observing him. Seeing what effect the combination of darkness and stealthy sound had on his nerves. Sweat trickled down his back, and he cursed himself for seven kinds of a fool—quivering at simple darkness and a wee sound.

He got to his feet and tried to pinpoint the source of the noises. But they seemed placeless. Recordings, he suspected. The stuff of séances. 

“Where’ve you hidden the speakers, doctor?” he asked the darkness.

A sigh answered him, seeming to come from all about him. He turned and moved away from the chair, picking a direction at random. He stopped when he met the wall and tried to calculate at what height the sound had seemed to originate. He ran his hands over the wall, seeking some flaw in the surface. There was none within reach. 

He was engrossed in this when the sounds came to him again, this time from behind him. He turned, putting the solid wall at his back and moved back toward the center of the room, steps careful, silent. Drawing near where he thought the chair should be, his mind tried to tell him that someone sat there in front of him, perhaps watching him with extended senses. The thought was ludicrous. He would find the chair empty. He moved forward, hands extended.

“There is nothing there,” he said aloud.

His assertion was answered by a sob and the smell of roses. The voice was man’s, he thought, and the chilling thought came to his mind that somehow someone had shut down the power and come in here to kill him. The place was full of career guards who might have very personal feelings about the death of the Derry cop. 

He reached for the chair, missing it, swearing he felt the subtle field of warmth given up by another person’s body. 

A man’s voice said, “Why?” and Connor found himself awash in a great wave of sorrow. He’d asked that question of God at his father’s funeral. Sorrow was a hateful emotion. 

“Why what, damn you?” He lashed back and withdrew, looking for a patch of darkness that was blacker than the rest—a piece he could suck himself into and hide.  

The man said, “What have you done?”

Liam lunged forward and came into violent contact with the infernal chair. He fell against it, over it, and landed heavily on the floor. He struggled to a sitting position, reaching upward for the chair. His fingertips touched flesh—warm, soft as sunlight. 

“Go with God,” whispered the unknown in a new voice—a woman’s voice, or a girl’s.

The world tilted. He recoiled, spilling himself onto the floor again. While he lay there, immobile, something brushed his face. Something warm, gentle, like a mother’s kiss. He reached for the voice, for the fingertips, for the scent of roses, but there was nothing but the chair—hard, cold, unyielding. 

The lights came back up, suddenly, blinding him. He blinked rapidly, rubbing at his eyes. Spots chased each other across his field of vision. Realizing how awkward and pathetic me must look crumpled before the chair, he pulled himself to his feet, straightened his clothing and his thoughts, and waited.

There was a soft hum, the door hissed back into its frame and the lady doctor reappeared, her face completely neutral except for a slight warping between her brows that could have been frustration, anxiety, or merely distraction. Liam was willing to bet on frustration. He'd failed to buckle, which meant either that he was proof to their brainwashing or that he’d exposed their fraud.

“Sodium Amytol?” 

She gave him a level look, her lips slightly compressed. “Something like that.”

He nodded, smiling.  “Who was in here with me? Or was that all special effects?”

Her eyes came to his face, curious and bright. “What do you mean?”

“The smell of oil, then roses. The man’s voice, then the little girl’s . . .  It’s about the copper, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Excuse me?”

“The policeman. In Derry.”

“Mr. Connor, we have no control over what happens in here.”

“The hell you don’t. Come on, doctor. I’ve seen through you. There’s no sense in keeping up pretense. Your damned ‘procedure’ failed. Now tell me: who was in this room with me?”

“No one and nothing that you didn’t bring in with you.”

Intentionally ambiguous, it was a psychologist’s answer. A sphinx’s answer. 

“I saw that old movie,” he said and let himself be taken back into the custody of his guard.

oOooOooOo

—The Eighth Station—

Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven . . . . So I awoke, and behold, it was a dream.

— John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress 

oOo

Not unexpectedly, he dreamt that night of a church with breathtaking stained glass windows, of a crucifix ablaze with the glory of God, of an altar that morphed into a school bus, of a fire raging out of control. He woke soaked in anger and sweat. The quality of light in the cell and the stirrings up and down the corridor told him that it was close to sunrise. He didn’t try to return to sleep; his anger wouldn’t let him. Instead, he thought about what he would have for breakfast.

The guard who came to fetch him to the cafeteria looked at him through narrowed eyes that seemed to weigh and judge. Connor wanted to shake him and demand to know the contents of his thoughts, but instead, ground his teeth and kept silent. Was this the one who’d tried to kill him? Or had he merely hallucinated someone into the room because he could feel the hatred the guards were too professional to show?

No. He’d hallucinated nothing. Anything in that room had been put there by his gaolers. He had taken nothing into that room with him. And he had taken nothing away from it but an abiding rage.

There were sprays of roses on the tables today. Their scent was heavy in the air, all but overwhelming the aroma of food. Connor asked the woman behind the service counter why. 

It was just past Mother’s Day, she explained. A local nursery had more roses than they could sell. They had come here. She smiled then, not at him, but at herself. “My Jenny brought me a rose in a spray of heather,” she said, and fingered a sprig of the stuff that was pinned to her pristine white smock.

He looked at her face for the first time, and caught the look she directed at the tiny purple flowers tucked amid the gray-green foliage. The same look the Madonna gave to the Christ child.

He went to his rose-laden table, wondering what his own mother would have done yesterday. His father had passed when he was a youth, but his mother still lived in Belfast, on the same street in the same house she had shared with her husband from the day they married. Now she shared it with a ghost and a memory.

How did she remember her only son, he wondered? As the hard-bitten soldier shown in mug shots on national TV? As the angry teen who had disappeared into the underground of an IRA splinter group? Or as the little boy who had brought her handfuls of pilfered flowers and crumbled cookies on Mother’s Day? Did she know what he’d done? Was she proud of him for continuing the fight? Did she know where he was? Did she care?

It occurred to him that he should contact her. He should write. He used his library time at the computer. There was a word processor, access to the Web, but no facility for email. He started a letter, but found he didn’t know what to say. “Belated Happy Mother’s Day, Mum?” Or, “Dearest Mother, I’m having a wonderful time here in prison. The company is peculiar and they like to play games with my head, but the food is good.”

In the end, he gave up the task and pulled up the browser, his mind tired and wandering. A click told him he was still in the news, that Ireland was still awash in the wake of his trial, still stung by the memory of Kilhenny. 

That was as it should be. Let them remember.

Click.

Security had been stepped up at schools all over Ireland and parents were reluctant to let their children board school buses.

Click.

The wife of a murdered Derry policeman made a plea for peace and the mothers of Kilhenny celebrated their first Mother’s Day without their lost children. 

Connor chased after other links, suddenly hungry for news of the war, of battles won and enemies bewildered.

He found news—none of it good—but he'd had a profound effect. In a wave of reaction, other members of his cell had been captured, killed. The few left had gone into hiding. 

There were no glorious battles. No victory. Only treachery. They had been betrayed to the authorities by friends, by family, by each other. One had been ratted out by his own priest. 

Connor got up and wandered to the magazine rack. Sport’s Illustrated’s swimsuit issue was the only form of porn they allowed here, but it would do. He leafed through the magazine, thrusting his mind into steamy fantasies until it was time to return to his cell, where he lay on his bed and stared at the ceiling, trying to make erotica of his guardian water spot. He failed. It reminded him, instead, of the stains on the ceiling of his neighborhood church, stains he’d studied from the confessional where he'd recited his trivial list of boyhood sins to Father Blaine. He’d tried to make erotica of those blots, too, he recalled, but they'd insisted upon being the Virgin Mary or angels or saints.

At what point he’d slipped from waking reverie to dreamscape he didn’t know, but he smelt old varnish, candle wax, and incense, heard the muttered prayers of worshippers in the sanctuary beyond the confessional he now inhabited.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned . . . ” And what would he confess? “Father, I have lusted after a woman in a magazine . . .  Father, I have allowed myself to be consumed with rage  . . . Father, I have killed.” 

As if he heard such things every day, Father Blaine asked: “Who have you killed and why?”

From a darkening street corner, he watched a school bus burst into riotous flame—and woke. He looked for the guardian saint or angel on the ceiling of his cell, but the shadows had shifted while he slept and she was gone.

Would he have said those words to Father Blaine if he had been sent to confessional instead of court? Why? He had acted on behalf of a Cause—the future of Ireland. He was no less a soldier of the Church than any other Crusader, and it could be said he'd made martyrs of those Protestant children. Did he need absolution for that? 

oOooOooOo

—The Ninth Station—

You cannot do justice to the dead. When we talk about doing justice to the dead we are talking about retribution for the harm done to them. But retribution and justice are two different things.

— Lord William Shawcross

oOo

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” He sat behind a plain lattice screen in the confessional of the prison chapel, noticing that the ceiling here was scrubbed and clean. “It has been four years since my last confession.”

Connor expected Father Harrison to make a comment about the length of time, but there was only silence. He continued: “I have lusted after a woman in a magazine and have committed adultery with her in my heart.” It was actually under the covers of his cot, but he thought the poetic more appropriate to the confessional.

The Father said nothing.

“I have allowed myself to be consumed with futile rage.”

Still the Father said nothing.

“I have killed.”

At last the priest spoke. “Why have you killed?”

“That Ireland might be free from oppression.”

“Then these were her oppressors you killed?”

“They were the children of her oppressors.” In his mind’s eye, Connor saw the family of the forecourt—the washed out man and his rock-like wife. It was hard to credit that they had ever oppressed anyone.

Again the priest was silent. Connor imagined that the silence was not without effort.

“Father, it seems to me that these children were martyrs to a Cause. And I wondered if you knew, as a man of the Church, where their souls have gone.”

“Their souls?” There was unmistakable surprise in the priest’s voice. “According to the doctrine of the Church Fathers, they go to Hell.”

Connor sat back. He had expected the priest to say Purgatory, where souls awaited the return of their Savior, or perhaps Limbo. He tried to recall what he had learned of these places in Confirmation Class and failed. 

“Why?” he asked.

“They were Protestant children, were they not?”

“And if they’d been Catholic children, they’d have gone to Heaven?”

“That would depend upon whether they had committed any sins since their last confession. At worst, they would have gone to Purgatory to await Judgment. But they were not Catholic.”

“They were children. Children who died for a Cause.”

“Children sin. And these children were born in the sin of apostasy.” 

Oddly, Liam found the idea absurd. Unjust. They were children. How much evil could they have done or even imagined in their short lives? "They might have found the Church-"

"Had they lived. But, Liam, your Cause is not the Cause of the Church."

Connor's mind recoiled from the pronouncement. A free Ireland not the Cause of the Church?

“Why did you kill?”

Connor wiped sweat from his lip. “I told you—“

“No, I mean to what end? What did result did you intend?”

A bridge out of the abyss. Connor recognized it immediately. The priest was offering absolution.

“We wanted the world to take note,” Connor said. “We wanted the British and the Sinn Fein to see that the new status quo was not good enough. We wanted them to realize that the fight was not over until the Brits had completely let go.”

“And to that end the lives of these children were sacrificed.”

“The ends justify the means.”

The priest uttered something that sounded like a laugh, but could not have been. “Do you think you’ll find that in the scripture?"

Connor was taken aback. Wasn't it in Proverbs? Proverbs was full of such truisms. 

"Since you have time to read, you might try Machiavelli’s The Prince. You'll find the concept there. A comforting cliché of secular politics and big business, but not an article of faith. If the Church has used it as such, it’s to her shame.”

There was a rustle of cloth, a creak of wood, and Father Harrison’s voice fell upon him from above, like dust from the rafters. “I can’t absolve you, Mr. Connor. My faith isn’t strong enough.”

“What do you mean, you can’t absolve me? You have to absolve me. You’re a priest.”

“You say the ends justify the means. If I were you, Mr. Connor, I’d look to those ends. Go with God.” 

Go with God. 

Connor sat frozen on the hard bench for a long moment, his mind twisting this way and that. At last he shook himself. Look to the ends. How could he look to what would be so long in coming? There were so few left to carry on the fight. Half his group had been wiped out in the raids and arrests following the Kilhenny bombing. 

Because of the Kilhenny bombing? 

He thrust the thought aside and left the confessional, resolving not to return. The guard waiting to escort him back to his cell was a young man with smooth skin and clear blue eyes. He was a stereotype—big, muscular, silent, hard, cold. Connor found himself scrutinizing the man, looking for some sign of personhood. He found it in the wedding band on the thick left hand. He had a wife then, and possibly children. 

Connor tried to imagine him with his wife, holding hands, kissing. Balancing a child on his knee. Smiling. It was impossible.

The guard caught him looking; his gaze sharpened.

“You’re a married man, I see,” Connor said. 

Mild surprise flared in the blue eyes. “I am.”

“Children?”

“Trying. What do you care?”

“Do you hate me?”

“I suppose I do.” No hesitation. 

They didn’t speak again and Liam returned to his cell to read the stains and shadows on its ceiling. Their meaning eluded him. 

He tried again that evening to write his mother. He finished the letter this time and had it sent. He didn’t speak of sin and absolution or of causes and wars. He wished her a belated Happy Mother’s Day, knowing as he framed the words that she had little to be happy about. Her only child sat in prison, hated by millions for the act that had put him there. Perhaps hating her for having borne and raised him.

oOooOooOo

—The Tenth Station—

Damnation is in the essence. / A damned person could be in the highest heaven: /He would still experience hell and its torments.

— Angelus Silesius

oOo

He saw his lawyer the day after his aborted confession. And before he could stop himself, he’d asked if the demonstrators were still crowding the entrance of the prison. 

The lawyer showed him. There weren’t as many this time, but they stood divided by the entry road and the great, looming gate house, and belief. Death to the right; life in prison to the left. The Kilhenny families were there, too, raggedly split between the two sides. The girl’s family—Heather Rose’s family—was on the side of life. He found that odd. The girl’s mother carried a new picture with the first—a strange thing; Liam couldn’t make it out.

“What’s that she’s got there?” he asked his lawyer.

In answer, the lawyer opened his briefcase and took out the yearbook picture of Heather Rose. 

“I’ve seen that.” 

The lawyer dropped a second picture to the tabletop. It was unrecognizable, at first, then Connor realized it was a burned corpse—a skeleton wearing a tight shroud of blackened ash. A few wisps of charred hair still clung to the scalp. There were holes where the eyes had been. The teeth, not completely blackened, showed in a mummy’s grin.

“They had to identify her from dental records,” the lawyer said. He scooped both the photos up again and put them back into his briefcase, as if he couldn’t bear to look at them.

Connor found the image stuck with him. As surely it must stick with the mother, coming unbidden every time she closed her eyes. He raised his own eyes to the video screen; it didn’t show in her face.

“You hate me, too, don’t you?”

The lawyer didn’t answer. He locked up his briefcase and rose. Connor noticed, for the first time, that he wore a wedding band. A family man.

“What will happen to me?” Connor asked. “I’ve had their treatment. Nothing happened. They’ll want to execute me, after all, won’t they?”

“You’ll serve out your sentence. It’s as simple as that.”

Simple as that.

oOooOooOo

—The Eleventh Station—

Hell is oneself, / Hell is alone, the other figures in it / Merely projections. There is nothing to escape from /And nothing to escape to. One is always alone.

—T. S. Eliot

 oOo

Three days after he'd written it, the letter to his mother came back to him unopened with a note paper-clipped to it. The note read: You are mistaken. I’ve no son. He died as a child.

For some time, Connor could not move. Time ceased to flow, suspending him in the realization that he was alone in the world. She’d abandoned him. 

Or had he abandoned her?

He lay down on his bunk, his eyes unfocused on the ceiling. The stain was there, swimming above him. No guardian Saint now, it was only a stain. That, too, had abandoned him. He slept without meaning to. He was wary of sleep. And with good reason. Sleep took him back to the confessional—back to the vaulted sanctuary of childhood memory and adult nightmare. 

“Father, forgive me, for I have sinned.”

“I can’t forgive you what you are not ready to be forgiven.”

Angry, Connor stood up in the tiny booth, wanting to tear through the ornate grille-work, wanting to confront the invisible Confessor face to face. But even as he rose, the confessional shifted and blurred, grew, and filled with light.

“Sit down, Liam!” said a child’s voice. “You’ll get us all in trouble if you don’t sit down.”

Disoriented, he stared down a long row of seats, saw the faces of children turned toward him. In a moment, the bus driver would see him and he’d be in trouble. His mother said Trouble was his middle name. But she smiled when she said it, so the words warmed instead of wounding. 

He slid into a seat next to a girl who smelled of roses. She smiled at him before glancing away out the window. They were drawing up to the stop, the bus was slowing. He could see a small knot of parents gathered at the corner, waiting. A woman with black cherry hair turned from her conversation, smiled, and waved. The girl beside him put her face to the window and waved back.

There he would not go. Before the hot flash of light, before the searing flame he knew would come, Liam Connor willed himself back to the sanctuary—back to the confessional. 

This he would walk away from. He opened the door and stepped out into the rear of the sanctuary. He would walk to the doors. He would step through them. They would lead him out of the dream.

The main aisle was clotted with people; a procession pressed toward the altar. Connor had no interest in the ceremony, but at the head of the aisle, he eddied. Music, incense, and candle light surrounded him, invading his senses, and beneath his feet the flagstones felt solid and real.

He turned toward the altar, telling himself he would look away if it showed any sign of changing its shape. It was all but buried in flowers, haloed in votive light, obscured by the smoke of incense and the circle of people that stood before it. He heard the mumbles of priests, the whispered sobs of supplicants. 

No, not supplicants, mourners.

Without having moved, he was at the altar, where a closed casket lay amid the flowers and candles. A photograph sat atop it. Liam had seen it before, and it made him angry that these people—his legal counsel, the doctors, the cherry-haired woman with her sad little Protestant family—so out-of-place here—could invade the sanctuary of his dreams and turn them traitor. 

Was that what the Zagorsky Wave did—lay a man’s dreams open to manipulation? Well, he would not cooperate.

The cherry-haired woman stood just in front of him, her hand on the lid of the coffin, her body sagging toward it. He reached out his three-fingered hand, grasped her shoulder, and turned her about. He would look into her face and tell her what he had said all along—this was war. Her child was a martyr, had died for the sake of Ireland. He opened his mouth to speak the words, but realized that the woman who’s eyes poured grief into his was, in the peculiar logic of dreams, at once his mother and the girl’s. 

I’ve no son. He died as a child.

Words passed his lips; not the words he had intended. “I’m sorry.”

Liam Connor awakened from his dream filled with the words. Free of sleep, comprehension dawned, clear, shining and immutable: I am Liam Connor and this is what I did. These are the lives I touched, ravaged, destroyed. I am a nexus, a cause followed by consequence. I am a pebble dropped upon the face of a pond. 

Liam Connor awakened from his dream with the litany of enlightenment on his lips, in tenuous possession of what men and women had sought for ages, what had driven countless souls to brave untold dangers, mortify their bodies, lock themselves in monasteries with austerities he had never understood. He now wondered whether they did those things in search of enlightenment or in fear of it. Having found the object of their quest, did those ascetics cower and flagellate themselves because they fully understood ripples?

Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.

He’d heard and read the words without comprehension. They had been a platitude until this moment. And by them he reinterpreted his world. In the days that followed, they transformed even the most mundane of objects. The Virgin of the Water Stain was a charred corpse laid out on a stainless steel bed. A school bus glimpsed through the trees a mile distant made him quake. He could not see a woman with a child without seeing her suddenly childless—her arms achingly empty. He could not watch a television screen without seeing own his mother cloistered in her dark parlor with images of her son’s handiwork parading across her face in an endless play of light and shadow.

I’ve no son. He died as a child.

He called the priest to hear a new confession. He had no expectation of forgiveness; confession had become habit. He said the words anyway: “Father, forgive me, for I have sinned. I’ve excused the murder of children as an act of war. But it wasn’t an act of war, Father, it was my act. It destroyed families, first of all, my own. I’ve dishonored my father and mother and murdered their only son. I have murdered myself and not known it. Father, can there be forgiveness for such things?”

There was a silence from behind the screen that stretched Connor’s nerves. Then his confessor said, “I will pray God that He might forgive you.”

Whatever Connor might have expected, it was not this. This was neither forgiveness nor condemnation; it was Limbo. He would gladly trade the possibility of absolution in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost for the certainty of forgiveness in the name of another human being.

But he was not to have it. 

He stayed awake for thirty-six hours, staring at whatever was in front of him—food, a magazine, a wall. He couldn't take to his bed, for his eyes might stray to the ceiling and he feared what he would see there. So, he sat in a corner of his room, his eyes on the door, willing himself not to sleep. 

Contemplating forgiveness, suspended in that ambiguous state between the dark and the dream, Liam Connor came at last to the conviction that it was not the priest's personal or vicarious pardon he must have, nor the absolution of the Holy Trinity, but the forgiveness of a different Trinity altogether. 

He called for his lawyer and said, "I need forgiveness."

The lawyer seemed puzzled. "You can arrange confession-"

"I've done with confession. It's neither God nor priest I need to be forgiven by, but the Mothers. You'll bring them together for me, so I can beg their forgiveness."

"The mothers . . . you mean the mothers of the . . . the children?"

"Yes . . . No. I mean my mother, Heather Rose's mother, and the Holy Mother. The Mother of Christ."

The lawyer stared at him for a moment in disbelief, then said, slowly, "Liam, I'm not sure you understand what you're asking. The Holy Mother isn't . . .  That is, she can't be . . . "

Connor caught himself back from the edge of the abyss and said, "Of course, I know that. What I mean is, if you can bring the other two to the chapel, where I can beg their forgiveness before the Holy Virgin . . . "

“I don't know if it can be done, Liam."

Connor leaned forward across the gleaming table in the austere little room and pressed his three fingered fist into the sanitized surface. "John, it must be done."

It was the first time he’d called his lawyer by his given name, and the man clearly marked it. He nodded, said he would try, and went away, leaving Connor to face another day and half of trying not to sleep or look at water stains.

oOooOooOo

—The Twelfth Station—

Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed and governed their passions . . . but because they have cultivated their understandings.  . . . The fool shall not enter into Heaven let him be ever so holy.

— William Blake, A Vision of the Last Judgment 

oOo

"It was the best I could do," the lawyer told him. "I tried, I swear to you, Liam. But she's adamant. She won't come here."

"Well, why should she, then? The child she loved is dead."

John Wood shrugged as if his impeccable suit had suddenly ceased to fit him perfectly and said, "I'm sorry."

"You've no reason to be. None of this was your doing." Connor squared his own shoulders then and walked into the chapel to meet the women that awaited him inside: one human, one divine.

She was there, sitting in the pew before the little side altar that held the effigy of the Holy Virgin. She stared up at it, her eyes on the serene face, her own face nearly touching an outstretched ceramic hand. There were two guards just beyond her, stun guns at the ready. Their eyes were fathomless, mute. 

He stopped in the side aisle at the end of the pew and waited, unable to frame words. 

She spoke first, her eyes never straying from the face of the Virgin. "I can't look at you," she told him. "If I look at you, I'll hate you. And I don't want to hate. She wouldn't want me to hate." She tilted her head to one side and candlelight burnished the cherry strands to the color of blood. 

Did she speak of the Virgin, or of Heather Rose? 

"Your lawyer said you wanted forgiveness."

"Yes." The whispered word was all but lost amid the flutter of candle flames.

"What could my forgiveness possibly mean to you? I'm your enemy."

"I thought so. I was wrong. Now your forgiveness means . . .  all." He watched her continue to gaze up at the Holy Mother, watched her face play her emotions. The two of them blurred as he watched—the human mother and the divine, the flesh and the clay—until they were one.

The human woman rose suddenly. "I forgive you. But I pray you live long enough to understand what you've done." She fled the chapel, her head down, tears spilling from eyes that had never once touched him.

I've already lived long enough. 

He did not say the words aloud, but realized their utter truth in a moment of chilling epiphany. This one woman had forgiven him, but there were others who would not, his own mother among them. As to the Holy Mother, he could live a hundred years locked in this prison, visiting this chapel every day to stare up into that serene, immovable face and not know if she had forgiven him.

To his lawyer, he said the words he’d sworn would never would pass his lips, “I want to die.”  

“You didn’t want to die before,” the lawyer’s eyes fell to the three-fingered hand that clutched the sleeve of his suit. “What changed your mind?”  

“I changed my mind.” 

“Someone once told me that nothing is worse than death,” said the lawyer softly.  

Connor laughed. It wasn’t yet the laughter of a madman. "Enlightenment,” he said. “Enlightenment is worse than death.” He met the lawyer's eyes and saw no trace of surprise, only a certain resignation. 

"You contemplate suicide?"

"I contemplate atonement." 

"Is atonement yours to make?" John Wood's gaze did not waver.

Liam realized the import of his words and felt a chill touch upon his heart. "Punishment then."

"You are being punished now. As I understand your beliefs, if you request the death penalty, you are in essence committing suicide. Surely, you understand what that means."

Liam pulled himself back from the brink. "Yes. Yes, dammit."

Wood opened his briefcase and took out a simple form. "Do you still want to make this request?" 

Trapped, Liam could only shake his head. "You know I can't." He sat back in his chair, painfully savoring the irony; to avoid Hell after death he must live there until death. "Do you know what I think, John? I think there is no Zagorsky Wave. There's only a man, and the truth, and the lies he dresses it up in. The Light didn’t come out of that machine." 

The lawyer opened his mouth as if to speak, then shook his head and put the form back into his case. 

oOooOooOo

—The Thirteenth Station— 

Hell is where no one has anything in common with anybody else except the fact that they all hate one another and cannot get away from one another and from themselves.

— Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

oOo 

A month went by in which Liam Connor thought much about a Trinity of Holy Mothers, and the unbearable weight of Enlightenment, and the searing horror of empathy. At the end of that month, his lawyer paid him an unexpected visit. 

“Next month,” John Wood told him, “you will die.” 

His heart leapt as if the man had said, "You will meet your beloved." Perhaps he had. They were the sweetest words Liam had ever heard. He’d no desire to live in a world where an innocent curl of smoke brought nightmares or a random stain on a ceiling, condemnation.

"How?" he asked. "I didn't ask it."

"Due to the efforts of the bereaved parents, your case was reviewed. Two judges that previously abstained from enforcing the death penalty reversed their position. They have essentially withdrawn the choice they offered."

Liam Connor was executed by lethal injection. He kissed the hand of his executioner. He took the infusion with a smile, closed his eyes and gave up the ghost.

oOooOooOo

—The Fourteenth Station—

The human mind is inspired enough when it comes to inventing horrors; it is when it tries to invent a Heaven that it shows itself cloddish.

— Evelyn Waugh, Put Out More Flags 

oOo

Liam Connor found himself engulfed in a great, golden Light. It was sunrise. It was sunset. It was glorious. It bathed him in a divine glow that reminded him of Jacob's Ladders on a clouded day and in which he could see radiant Beings descending and ascending along beams of light. They floated in brilliant auras, faces gleaming, singing as they circled the source of the glorious Light. 

He'd heard of this—read about it in near-death accounts. He strained to define shape and color, to see what Form the Divine took. Perhaps he would see Christ, or perhaps the Holy Mother. Clouds of glory danced and leapt and writhed like flame. And in the heart of the flame he saw the Form of the Divine.

A school bus.

There was Someone near him, with him or in him—he could not say which. Someone listening, waiting.

“What is this?” he begged, terrified. “Is this Hell?”  

“No, this is the gateway to Heaven. This is Enlightenment.”

This story originally appeared in Interzone.


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Assistant DA Harry Ferguson is a man with two gripping problems: a murder weapon that cannot be found and a new house that defies his family's efforts to find things where they were put. With his prosecution and his home both in chaos, Harry makes an unsettling discovery under his daughter's bed.

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Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Writer of speculative fiction as the result of a horrible childhood incident involving Klaatu and a robot named Gort.