In the near future, prison overcrowding has led to some changes in the judicial system of the United States. In the case of capitol crimes, a new alternative sentencing has been introduced. The condemned has the option of foregoing all appeals in exchange for at least thirty days of relative freedom, under what is considered "invisible surveillance." This new option has become known as the Last Wish.
There is a hitch, however: at some point following those thirty days, the condemned man or woman will be killed. They do not know how or when they will meet their fate; all that is certain is that they will.
The following is the story of an ordinary man named James Mailer, and how he lives out the last days of his life.
"Will the defendant please rise."
With a deep, nervous breath, James took to his feet, shrugging the wrinkles from his suit. He wondered yet again if the decision he had made was the right one. It was difficult to convince himself that thirty days or so as a free man, followed by certain death, was worth the sacrifice of the rest of his life behind prison bars.
The judge was a middle-aged man who had scowled all through the trial. There was always the chance he might overrule James' request, if only out of spite or principle. James was uncertain as to whether that would be a good thing.
"It is your request that you forgo all further right to appeal by taking the Last Wish option?"
James nodded heavily. "Yes, your honor."
The judge looked down upon James with narrowed eyes. "Tired of living?"
James frowned. "Not at all, your honor."
"Current life expectancy in the United States is eighty-three years," the judge continued. "Even though it may be spent in prison, you could still make a contribution to the community over the next five decades or so. Why decide to end your life, instead?"
James hung his head, contemplating his words. A hundred pairs of eyes and more bore into his back, many belonging to friends and relatives. Their hatred and desire for retribution weighed upon him. Finally, James lifted his head and stared directly at the judge.
"I deserve it."
The judge pursed his lips, thinking. He leaned back, drumming his fingers upon the polished wood of the podium that all but surrounded the man. "Far be it for me to question the wisdom of a condemned man," he said at last, taking up his gavel. "Sentence so ordered. You got your Last Wish, Mr. Mailer."
The world sped by outside the car. James stared at roaming cattle as they grazed on dry grass, at the looming grey clouds that waited above the horizon. The landscape, the skies, everything seemed out of focus to James, as if he looked at everything through a clouded lens.
"So, you could have picked anywhere in the country to go," the US Marshall said as he drove. "And you wanna go to BFE, Texas?"
James smiled ruefully. "My grandfather's cabin," he explained simply.
The stocky lawman chuckled. "Okay, kudos for nostalgia," he said. "Still, if it was me, I'd be living it up in Vegas. Tequila, tits and twat. But that's just me."
James self-consciously rubbed the ring on his finger. "You didn't murder your wife."
The cabin was small, essentially a single large room with walls constructed of red oak, dominated by a brass-framed bed and a grandiose Victorian-era couch, both draped by dust covers. A fireplace occupied one wall, a kitchenette the other. French doors at the rear of the small dwelling looked out upon a lake that was popular with bass fishermen and weekend wakeboarders.
The Marshall lead James into the cabin, looking around cursorily. He took a small metal rectangle from the pocket of his jacket and glanced around for a suitable place. He finally chose a section of wall that was not covered by framed pictures of an elderly man holding up various prize fish. Pressing a few buttons on the device, the Marshall then set it against the wall. It adhered itself instantly.
"You want a quick and easy way out, there you go," he drawled as he came back.
"What do you mean?" James asked with a frown.
"That's part of how we keep an eye on you," the Marshall explained, removing James' cuffs. "You can't go more than five miles from that device. If you do, you'll hear a pinging in your ear."
James self-consciously touched the small welt behind his left ear.
"If you hear that, you have one hour to get back inside your safety zone. If you don't, the small charge that was implanted in your head will do a pretty good job of turning your brains into strawberry jelly."
James winced at the comparison.
"Also, tampering with either that device, or the implanted charge, will set it off. So, like I said, if you want an easy way out, there you go. Give it a good whack with a hammer, and bye-bye Mr. James Mailer."
James swallowed thickly. "Got it."
The Marshall stepped back. "No matter what you do or where you go, we're gonna know about it. You step out of line, and we can remote activate that brain-bomb at any time. But, be a good boy, and you'll never see us again. Is that clear?"
James nodded, massaging his wrists. The handcuffs had become a bit snug after hours of driving. "I understand."
The Marshall glanced around at the sheet-covered furniture. "Been a while since this place was used, huh?" he asked, abruptly changing the subject. James new the man was being amiable only out of professional courtesy, not because he truly cared or was interested in the details of James' life.
James nodded. "My grandfather passed away a few years ago," he said, smiling nostalgically. "When I was growing up, I'd come visit him in the summer. He always brought me here to teach me to fish."
"I saw the pictures," the Marshall commented. "Looks like the old man was pretty accomplished."
"Champion bass fisherman," James said proudly.
"You any good?"
James chuckled. "I couldn't catch a cold if I tried," he remarked dryly.
The Marshall laughed, then extended his hand. "Well, enjoy the last days of your life, Mr. Mailer."
James' smiled faded. He said nothing as he shook the lawman's hand, nor as the man left the cabin.
Thanks for the reminder.
The first several days were spent in a melancholic daze. James called a grocer just a mile away, in the small town beside the lake that catered to the weekend tourists and sportsmen. They delivered, and he ordered enough food to keep him supplied for a few weeks, perhaps more depending on his appetite. At first, his appetite had not been particularly healthy. His time was divided between philosophical meanderings and prolific weeping.
By that Monday morning, however, nearly a week after his arrival, James had fallen into an equilibrium. Introspection and self-pity had come together under the umbrella of acceptance.
Late spring in the Texas hill country was warm and humid to the point of being uncomfortable at times. Without air conditioning in the cabin, all James had to cool himself off with was a pair of standing oscillating fans. They did an adequate job, for the most part, except during the middle of the day, when the heat and humidity was oppressive.
He watched a squirrel foraging for acorns as he sat upon the stoop of the rear patio, and tossed it pieces of the crust from his ham and cheese sandwich. The small act of kindness gave James a hint of a smile. The squirrel, at least, appreciated his generosity before scampering away with its booty.
This is too peaceful, James thought as he stared out across the glimmering water. A small boat floated lazily on the lake, just close enough that James noticed the two young women with their bikinis and bronzed skin. In a general way, one of them reminded him of Angie. Blonde and voluptuous.
Sourly, James reached for the glass of orange juice beside him. Almost.
He heard the rhythmic crunching of feet along the lakeside before the woman appeared beyond the trees that bordered the cabin's property. Long brunette hair was confined in a ponytail that bounced behind her head as she jogged. Her skin was lightly tanned and shimmered with sweat, which had soaked into her plain white halter. Both the top and her tiny red shorts clung to her body, outlining the shape of her small, firm breasts and her rather inspiring backside. Lean, toned legs quivered with each pounding footfall . . . until she noticed James and stumbled to a halt.
"Oh! Where did you come from?" she asked breathlessly.
James laughed softly under his breath. "This is my cabin."
The woman – she appeared to be in her mid-twenties – frowned, placing her hands on her hips. She did not seem to care that her soaked top was nearly transparent. "Did you know Jerry?"
James smiled. "My grandfather."
She cocked her head, a curious smile stretching her lips. A few cautionary steps brought her closer to James as she studied his face. She finally smiled broadly. "Yeah. You have the same nose. And eyes."
He nodded, setting aside his sandwich and juice. Although the woman's presence made him a little unnerved – he had not wanted any real human contact – his sense of manners bade him to introduce himself. "I'm James," he said, offering his hand.
She shook it with a firm, yet still womanly, grip. Her skin was warm and supple. The sweet aroma of her exertion wafted off her body like perfume. "Megan."
"So, uh, how did you know my grandfather?"
Megan's face warmed with a touch of fondness. James noticed that her eyes were a pale green. "We used to talk," she said simply. "Every morning, I'd see him standing out there with his hip-waders and fishing pole. He was a really nice man." She suddenly smiled at a memory. "He'd always share his lemonade with me."
"Sounds like Gramps," James said, then mimicked a gruff, older voice. "'Freshly squeezed, Jimmy. Don't ya ever drink that Minute Maid crap! And real sugar!'"
Megan laughed lively. "God! You almost sound like him!"
James laughed as well, somewhat startled by how comfortable the sound was coming from his throat.
An awkward moment of silence fell between them as their mirth was born away on the breeze. As if suddenly conscious of her appearance, Megan crossed her arms over her breasts.
"It wasn't the same for a while after he passed away," Megan finally said. "I changed my route. Just didn't seem right to jog through here anymore."
James gritted his teeth a moment, looking down at his sandaled feet. "Yeah. A few things changed for me after Gramps died, too."
Megan glanced down the slope to the lakeside path. "Well, uh . . . I guess I better get back to my jog," she said awkwardly.
James nodded. "Nice to meet you, Megan."
She smiled, backing down the slope. "My place is back along the lake," she revealed. "Maybe I'll see you again if you're going to be around for a while."
"I'll, uh, probably be here for a few weeks."
Megan nodded. "Cool."
He watched her resume her jog, ponytail bouncing once more as she continued along the edge of the lake. James followed her with his eyes until the trees once more obscured his view.
With a heavy sigh, he sat back upon the steps and took up his juice. Okay . . . maybe it won't be so bad to talk to one person now and then.
It had been months since he'd had the nightmare. It was always the same: pushing open the bedroom door to find two naked bodies rutting atop the bed, her muscular legs splayed wide as he thrust inside her again and again. Moans and gasps of pleasure filled the air. Her long nails raked his muscular chest, leaving red marks in their wake. Finally, the screech of sublime passion that erupted from her lungs, signaling her orgasm, as the man grunted and shoved deep inside, pouring his seed inside her womb . . . .
James rolled up in bed and swung his legs to the floor, rubbing his face as the cobwebs of the dream drifted away. There were times, like now, that the dream felt like a memory. But he had never actually caught them in bed.
I wish I had, James thought bitterly. Then it would have been a crime of passion, and not premeditated murder. I might have just gotten twenty years, out in seven.
With a tired huff, he stumbled to the bathroom, flipping on the light. The glow of the morning sun was just beginning to illuminate the cabin through the French doors, but he needed more than that to see. After splashing cold water on his face, he stared at his reflection.
Growing a beard, Jimmy? He asked himself, touching the growth on his face. He chuckled dryly, then reached for his toothbrush. You might be a condemned man, but you don't need to meet God looking like a homeless bum.
Fifteen minutes later, following a shower and a shave, James ran his fingers over smooth, damp skin. He touched the knick beside his Adam's apple, considering his grandfather's straight razor in his hand.
Careful with that. The wrong angle, and it could all be over.
He shook his head ruefully. I'm going to die in as soon as twenty-one days, and I'm worried about accidentally slitting my throat.
He dropped the razor in the sink and contemplated his reflection. It may just have been his imagination, but it seemed to him that his eyes were getting darker every day. For a few moments, his heartbeat pounded in his ears. A wave of anger washed over him, anger directed at himself.
You can't change your mind, now, Jimmy. You all but literally dug your own grave.
He closed his eyes and fought down the emotions. The pressure rose behind his eyes, threatening to spill out, but with effort, he swallowed the tears. Several deep, calming breaths did little to return a sense of calm to his mind and body.
Finally, with a frustrated grunt, James shoved away from the sink and left the bathroom. He paced back and forth in the cabin for a few minutes, pushing down the hysteria that threatened to consume him. He was aware that he needed something, a diversion of some kind, to occupy him, else he would break down again. He did not want to entertain the anxiety he felt over his impending and inescapable fate.
His eyes darted out through the French doors to the lake beyond. The air within the cabin was cool, but it was well-insulated. The temperature outside, he figured, was in the low sixties. Fuck it, he thought, grabbing a pair of shorts from the open suitcase by the bed. Pulling them on, he jerked open the doors and ventured into the crisp morning air. Without hesitation, he jogged down the slope to the lake, ignoring the bites of twigs and small rocks in the soles of his feet, and splashed into the water.
The lake was nearly frigid, the water a good ten degrees colder than the air above it. James gritted his teeth against the response of his body to the invasive chill, driven by the nearly self-destructive impulse which gripped him. It took only a few blundering, hurried steps before the water reached the edge of the cotton shorts, at which point James dove in head-first.
The shock of the algid water ran through him like an electrical current, making his muscles tighten painfully. James ignored the pain and forced his arms to swim, his legs to kick. He surfaced a good ten yards from the shore and began dragging himself across the surface of the lake with all the desperate drive of an Olympic swimmer going for the gold. Hands splashed down through the water; every fourth stroke of his right arm, he tilted his head to draw breath.
After less than a minute, James slowed, then stopped, breathing heavily as he treaded water. The lake undulated gently around him, making the shorelines bob in his field of view. His cabin lay along a point of the lake that was essentially a bubble of the main body, an aquatic cul-de-sac. In three directions, the shore was only a few hundred yards away. To his left, the north, the lake itself loomed.
I could just swim out there until I was exhausted, James thought. The only people out this time of day are shoreline fishermen. They'd never see me. I could just swim and swim, as hard as I could, until I got cramps in my arms, then . . . .
Then what? You wanna end it now, Jimmy, you could do it a lot less painfully than drowning. Just go back in the cabin and beat the hell out of that monitor until your head explodes.
For several minutes, James floated in the water, allowing himself to be carried around by the minimal current. A thousand thoughts and memories flashed chaotically through his mind, but the soft lapping of the water and the misleading warmth supplied by immersion calmed him. The self-directed anger faded, replaced with self-admonishment.
Resignedly, James made his way back to the shore, but at a more comfortable pace. When he finally reached the shallows, he set foot upon slippery, muddy rocks and emerged, dragging his legs through the water.
He snapped his head up at the sound of the feminine voice. Megan stood on the shore, watching him with a curious smile on her face. Her choice of colors for the day were yellow and blue. "Isn't the water a little cold for swimming?" she asked.
James played it off with a shrug. "It's not that bad," he claimed, even as a shiver traveled through him.
She frowned with what James thought might have been concern. "Are you all right?"
He sighed, wiping away water from his face and slicking his hair back. "Just a, uh, rough morning," he said dismissively. His eyes wandered over the young woman for a moment, again noting the points of her nipples through a sweaty top. The gentle bulge of her pubic mound was somewhat noticeable as well. James wondered, briefly, if she wore such tiny shorts with the knowledge of how much they actually revealed.
"I guess . . . ." she trailed off, her own eyes appraising James' body. He was a little soft around the middle, but not much, and possessed nicely-defined arms and legs. A soft laugh left her lips. "You better dry off before you get pneumonia."
James nodded unconvincingly, his breathing returning to normal. "Yeah."
A sympathetic look crossed the brunette's face. "Hey, look, I know we don't really know each other, but if you wanna talk--"
"I'm fine," James said abruptly, then marched up the slope to the cabin.
Megan frowned after him, her mouth still open as if she was prepared to say more. Finally, after watching James step through the doors of his cabin, she shook her head in frustration and once more took up her jog.
The following morning, James sat upon the steps of the cabin, watching the squirrel that had come once again to forage. He knew it was the same one he had seen before by the cropped left ear, most likely a scar from a rival. The squirrel chanced a little closer this time, intrigued by the aroma of the toasted croissant James was eating. But just when James thought it might get close enough to take a piece of the pastry, the Squirrel suddenly stiffened, then sped off toward its tree.
A moment later, James heard the crunching of jogging feet, and he looked up expectantly.
Megan appeared, this day clad in a lime green top and white shorts that were a bit more loose than the previous day's blue ones. Her face shone wetly, a look that, James realized was very sexy on her. She slowed to a stop as she approached the slope to the cabin. Her expression was one of uncertainty.
"Hi," she said softly, the ghost of a smile upon her lips.
James glanced down a moment, unsure of what to say. He lifted his head and smiled sheepishly. "Sorry about yesterday."
She shrugged, approaching up the slope. "You were having a bad day."
He sputtered in mirthless laughter. "Been having a lot of those," he said.