Emma Ray watched a squirrel skitter up a branch, and Lyell blurted,
"I tell you Em, something big is wrong. She looks worried. Cornelia never
"Hush, Lyell," Emma Ray said. "Maybe
shes just tired or has a disease. Or, maybe its what we read about this
morning. Did you put the letters back?"
"Of course I did, dummy!"
"She sure is a hawk about checking the
mailbox!" Lyell muttered.
"Id check it myself, too," Emma Ray
said. "Especially if I was receiving love letters."
"I want to go hunting," Lyell said.
"Blast it! I thought this week would be fun. Where is the aunt we used to have? A
ninny has taken her place!" A mournful pitch entered his tone.
"It will be fun," Emma Ray said. "Just
Lyell gave her a shove, then she gave him a shove, and
they raced to the guest bedrooms and put on their nicest outfits. Twenty minutes later
they sat at Cornelias dining room table, waiting for her to speak. She inhaled
deeply. Her fine blond hair was wrenched from her scalp into a tight, high-sitting
barrette. "Where we are about to go," Cornelia whispered, "must remain a
secret. Can you children remember that?" They nodded. "Today, we embark on a
farewell mission," she said, "a goodbye mission for a friend who will enter the
other sidewhich is to say, children, that he will be killed."
They gasped. "How do you know?" Emma Ray
said, and Lyell asked, "Can we stop it?"
"No, children," Cornelia said, placing her
fingers on Emma Rays hand. "No one can stop these acts." Cornelias
smooth fingers were flat and almost textureless, stroking Emma Rays hand like a
tanned hide. She smelled like hay, fresh and earthy.
"Why not?" Lyell asked. "We can save
him!" Suddenly, his day brightened.
"If King Hammurabi can do it, so can the state of
Missouri," Cornelia said. "Now this might be your first witnessin, but
whatever you do, dont upchuck. Ill do all I can to get you in there to see
Raymond, so dont embarrass me."
Emma Ray poked at her lacy dress and Lyell yanked at
his trousers. "You look very pretty," Cornelia told Emma Ray.
"Thank you, maam."
"And doesnt your brother just look fine?
Raymond will appreciate these gestures."
"When are we going?" Lyell asked. "And
Emma Ray elbowed him and gave him a significant look.
Out of Cornelias sight, she crooked her finger at the pile of letters theyd
replaced on Cornelias desk.
Cornelia clenched one letter to her breast and said,
"The friend I told you about. A real nice man. Hes changed his ways, no longer
a sinnerand now has becomethe love of my life." She looked down at the
letter as if she were about to eat it, then stared at the children.
Both looked down. Cornelia put her arms around them
and began to bawl. She said, "I dont often ask you for support, little birds,
but Id like some today." Emma Ray grabbed Cornelias hand, and her
aunts smooth fingers had gone cold. Cornelias hand, dangling over Emma
Rays shoulder, felt reptilian, but Emma Ray reminded herself that it was indeed
Cornelia, and she should keep hold of it.
"How do I love thee, Raymond," Cornelia
murmured. Lyell sniffed the air as if he smelled dog shit. His nose crinkled up. An
unfamiliar scent exuded from Cornelia, which was, in fact, a perfume. They shifted in
their seats. "Go outside and play, children," she said. "I need to put on
my dress. Well leave in five minutes."
"Lyell," Emma Ray said, as the screen door
whacked shut behind her, "The R is for Raymond."
"Sappy romantic crap," Lyell said. He
imitated the letters, swelling his voice with a sickly tone, "Dearest C, You
are the light of these dim days. Blah, blah. Blah blah blahthis guys a
fruitcake!" he concluded, then added, "Puke. Girl stuff."
Emma Ray sighed. "Its so romantic. I never
thought anyone would talk to Cornelia like that."
"Why?" Lyell asked. "Shes not
"Yes, but Cornelia" Emma Ray replied,
thinking how best to express it, "is different. Did you hear her say that shed
put on a dress? Does Cornelia even own a dress?" Both imagined Cornelias
walk-in closet, stuffed from shelf to shelf with slacks and flannel shirts.
"Youre right," Lyell said. "But
whats this malarkey?" Lyell stood on the nearest rock and put his hand to
his heart, "If I could only touch your blond hair and take you on a trip. These
bars are all I see. Emma Ray, if I have to talk to a girl like that before she likes
me, I think Ill die first! Hey, Emma? Do you know where Raymond is?" With a
flourish, Lyell announced, "In prison! Were going to see an e-lectro-cut-ion!
"Are not!" Emma Ray said.
"Are so! Cornys friends gonna die.
She said so herself! Werent you listening?"
"Is so, and I think its crappy. Corny loves
a jailbird. Didnt you look at the addresses? Potosi Correctional Center. And then
all that talk of the 'other side.' I feel bad about reading that stuff now, especially
after Cornys getting all dressed up." Lyells face darkened.
"What do you think the dress will look
like?" Emma Ray asked, already imagining a beautiful black gown.
"Who cares," Lyell said.
Emma stared toward the house and said, "You
better brush your hair or Cornelia will be angry."
"I dont need to," he replied.
"Cornelias not mom. Youre just peeved I dont care what shes
In that instant, Cornelia opened the door, wearing a
fitted pale blue dress, which flared into a long skirt. She looks like a pioneer bride,
Emma Ray thought. Hobbling on a pair of ivory pumps with tiny pink pearls, Cornelia looked
as odd as a horse with a hat. Both children faced her as she approached, then ran to the
passenger side of her truck.
Her ankles would be sore by days end, Emma Ray
thought. And that lipstick! It was the palest pink Emma Ray had ever seen. Before they got
in, Lyell whispered, "Told you so! Were going to death city, death central,
"Are we going to death row, Cornelia?" Emma
"What are we going to see?" Lyell asked.
"Will we be there long?"
"It wasnt always this easy," Cornelia
ranted, pushing her bobby pins deep in her scalp and starting the truck, "They used
to drown em. Sometimes, they beat em. If not those things, burn em alive
and of course there was impalement. Do you kids know about impalement? You take a nice
sharp stakeand wham!" Cornelias hand came down hard on the steering
"Cornelia," Lyell said, "What in the
heck are you talking about?"
"The death penalty," she said, pulling onto
the highway. "The history of capital punishment. Now, I believe in survival of the
fittest. Thats why we kill animals and eat them, but there comes a time, when an
individual commits a crime and runs off. If they capture him, they confine him in a cell
and then, years later, trapped in a room, they murder him. I say, why not kill him
outright? Ive never been one for torture. Do you kids like to wait for
"No," Lyell said.
"Raymond," she continued. "Will be
injected with a shot that puts him to sleep, much like a dog or a cat. Now, Raymond was a
nice boy from Tallahassee. Good thing hes not from Texas
they might have fried
"Didnt he kill someone?" Lyell asked.
"Yes," Cornelia said. "A long time ago,
he smuggled packages through the border and killed a police man. The shooting was an
accident, but today, his life will be snuffed out like a candle."
The children looked out the windows. Cornelia reached
over the seat for Lyells hand. He offered it up, but as she drove, brought his other
hand close to his head and twirled a single finger near his ear. "Loony," he
hissed at Emma Ray.
Thirty minutes later, they passed a sign that read
Potosi. Cornelia got on the 8, then hopped over to O, and they arrived at the Center. She
floored it down a dusty road and approached the gates. Barbed wire glinted dangerously
over the fences like a thousand arrowheads in the sun. "Men get raped in
prisons," Lyell announced, but Cornelia and Emma Ray paid him no mind. They could not
see far inside, but outside the gate a hundred or so men, women, and children held up
placards and chanted, "Give not take. Live not bake. Yes, he sinned; dont do
him in," and a variety of other catchy slogans.
"He has no appeals left," Cornelia
whispered, stomping her foot on the brake. The truck, a ruby red Bronco, skidded to a
halt. She rolled down her window to address the guard.
"What business do you have here,
maam?" he asked.
"Im here for Raymond Burton," she
"Whats your name?" He consulted his
Cornelia said, "Cornelia H" but he
threw up his hands, and said, "Maam, you have children in that vehicle. They
cant come in."
"They must come in," Cornelia said.
"They are his love children and want to see their daddy one last time."
Mother would be mortified, Emma Ray thought, but Lyell
sat back and grinned. At last! His vacation had begun. "Im sorry
maam," the guard said. "They cant come in. No one under eighteen
enters the facility. You should have brought them for visiting hours."
"But, they have to see Raymond," she
pleaded. She lapsed into loud, false blubbering that, due to its pitch, rapidly inspired
"Youll have to drop them at a sitter,"
he said. "No one under eighteen has access to the viewing room, no matter what the
case. Im sorry."
"We can see criminals on the street, where they
can kill us, but not here, where there are cages and guards," she replied. "Kind
of a reverse zoo mentality, dont you think?"
"No children on the facility to view an
execution, maam," he said. "This is a maximum security prison."
"Fascist," Cornelia muttered under her
breath, "pig, slimeball, dirtbag," and sopped her face with a tissue from her
"We are not leaving," Lyell announced.
"Its tough being bastards with a daddy on death row." Emma Rays
mouth drooped with a paralyzed expression.
The guard said, "Takes all kinds." He rolled
his eyes and Cornelia glared. Both children thought it lucky that Cornelia did not have
her rifle in the car.
"All right," Cornelia said regally.
"Thank you very much for nothing at all. Ill manage."
"Youve got at least an hour," he said.
"See you when you get back."
Cornelia got on the freeway cursing. "Damn
bleeding hearts," she said. "I want to share my life with you children, and what
do they do?" The children remained silent. "Keep you out!" she insisted.
"They lockdown these prisoners hours ahead of time. Raymond told me so. But now what?
Where can you go?" Lyell looked out the window, picking his teeth. "We are
nowhere near the house, andwait! I know!" she shouted. "How would you like
to go to the mall? I can give you money! I know you two are disappointedbut those
liberals have to have their stupid say. I say, if children can watch the television, they
can watch an execution." She sighed. "But, money and the mall! How about
"Money?" Lyell asked. He said the word as if
it were an oddity like "orangutan" or "Chilean pear." In all the time
they had known her, they had never seen money in her walletjust credit cards, stamps
"Oh darn," she said. "The nearest mall
is miles away." Her face clenched in agony. "So many letters," she said.
"Such a conversation was never had, children. That man could identify each and
every one of my guns." Though both began to tune out her ranting, Emma Ray recognized
one of the letters in her mumblingsCornelia recited it, word for word.
Though such a memory was unlikely, Emma Ray recalled a
nasty incident between Cornelia and her mother when Cornelia had repeated every vile thing
Eugenie had ever said to her, and Emma Ray believed Cornelia could do so. When Eugenie had
smugly asserted that she had not ever wronged Cornelia, the listing was Cornelias
response. It had been pleasant to watch Cornelia dress their mother down, Emma Ray
concluded, but she also remembered never to tell Cornelia anything she didnt want
remembered. Lyell grabbed her arm and shook it.
Suddenly, an amusement park sign cropped up from the
landscaping. Cornelia, oblivious to anything but her own thoughts, swerved delicately,
half in and half out of her own lane. "Aunt Corny," Lyell called out, pointing.
"We can wait for you there."
"Where?" she asked.
"There!" Lyell said. A miniature golf
course loomed on the hill.
Despite the angry honk of a red Honda Civic, Cornelia
hopped three lanes and got off at the next exit. "Excellent, Lyell!" she said.
She dropped them in front of an enormous blinking clown. "This clown looks like
Satan," she said. The marquee read Funland in flashing blue bulbs. She gave
each of them a hundred-dollar bill from the pocket of her purse. "Dont leave
with any strangers," she warned.
"We wont," they chorused.
"Dont vandalize," she said.
"Be good, children," she requested. She
stood under the blinking clown, patted them on the backs, then opened her door and got in.
"All right," she said. "I must be off." She screeched through the
parking lot, cutting off a beige Volvo.
Emma Ray said, "I dont think Cornelia can
drive anywhere without getting honked at."
Lyell said, "So what? She doesnt
The scent of popcorn and hot-dogs filled the air.
Pinballs from a hundred video games seemed to clang against the scoring rods, and the
children saw plenty of games up ahead. "Poor Cornelia," Emma Ray said, giving
her aunt one last thought. She sniffed her hundred-dollar bill. It smelled minty and
strange. She imagined a drug dealer using her bill like a straw to snort cocaine, maybe a
drug dealer on the run, who had shot a cop.
"Indeed," Lyell said, mimicking their
father. "A sorry state of affairs."
Cornelia drove back to the prison. Though disappointed the children
could not meet Raymond, she was happy she found a fun place to leave them. She gave the
guard her full name. As Raymond promised, hed set up clearance and the guard easily
found her on the list.
Through her drivers side window, she heard the
protesters chant, "Killers, killers, killers," but she knew they had no chance
of ousting Raymond. Protest, without a gun or important paper, was seldom effective. In
Missouri, the Governor was required to get a non-binding recommendation from the Board of
Probation and Parole to stop a sentence. She pitied their liberal souls. Mixed with this
pity, she felt an unusual connection. If only he would not die, she thought. If only, if
In trying to stop the execution, the protesters had unwittingly aligned with
her greater self, but their mooing was the idealistic bleat of liberal fanatics whereas
her pain was personal. She ignored them and focused on the matter at hand. Removing the
pink pearl lipstick from her purse, she applied it again and wiped the extra from her
teeth. She would see Raymond for the first time today and did not want to miss watching
his (she was sure) beatific face. With Raymond, Cornelia had known ecstasy. She recalled
one of his best and brightest letters by heart:
If I could only sift your blond hair through my
fingers and take you camping on the Missouri River. We could bring your rifles and do some
hunting. Some days, I try to imagine your sweet face. These bars are all I see. Day
and the faces of hardened criminals. My day is coming soonso
soon I weep for the lost days of my childhood. I weep for the loves I never knew, and
also, for how foolishly I killed Officer Hardy. If I had escaped, I would have mourned
himbut now, I do not. I am here and that is enough. Living in prison is terrible.
Some nights, I look up at the lamps and wish I could see the stars. There are no stars in
my cell, Cornelia. I feel trapped here.
I remember in your first letter, how you said that you
were interested in an affair of the minds. You did not want the physical to interfere. We
found that affair, but I cannot help but long for a female touch. I cannot help but wish
that one night Id close my eyes and you would be pressed close to my
chestsleeping beside me. I cannot tell you how much comfort that would bring. You
will never know.
PS. Did you oil your gun like we talked about? It
works better doesnt it?
As she walked down the hallway beside her armed
escort, heavy metal doors clanging behind her, Cornelia repeated his letter again and
again. "It does work better, Raymond," she said. "That gun works much
better." The men escorting her shot her funny looks, but she ignored them, saying,
"I should have sent him a picture. I should have let him get closer. Damn Eugenie for
telling me not to let these people know where I live! Men make mistakes, after all."
Her escorts stared away from her then.
She brushed past them and took her seat in the viewing
room, crossing both arms over her chest. She fingered her crucifix again, wondering, but
not really caring, if it made her look religious. Shed worn it only because it was
her only formal jewelry.
"Five more minutes," a woman wearing a cat
sweatshirt called out.
Cornelia imagined the woman was Officer Hardys
ex-wife and peered down at her own digital watch. She wanted to stand and make a sign when
he came in, something that said: "Its me, Raymond, Cornelia," but a heavy
curtain veiled the inner room and she could not see him.
Already assembled were members of the media, herself,
an old woman who bawled, some of the victims family, a priest and some cops.
Everyone watched the curtain. Not a rustle. Another letter came to her mind and she
recited it aloud:
I have been thinking incessantly about the day when
death will take me, and decided that lethal injection will be the best possible way. Since
you mentioned in your last letter that you do not know how it works, I will offer this
brief explanation. Lethal injection uses a short-acting barbiturate, combined with a
paralytic agent. They say these drugs may be harder to inject for former addicts. Since I
was an addict, this may be a problem. Minor surgery may be required to cut into a deeper
vein. I know exactly how my procedure will happen and I am prepared to grin through it. I
considered appearing repentant, but have decided that if the victims family is cruel
enough to attend my death with smiles, I shall also grin. I hope you see this action for
what it isa statement that they have not beat me, though I am enslaved by the jail
and poisoned for my own instantaneous pressure of a trigger finger. Hardy was the only man
I ever killed. I want you to know that. Though Ive killed many a bear in my time, a
few gators and a million deer, he was the only man. I have to go now, my love.
Will write more later,
Cornelia wondered when the proceedings would
start. She found herself reliving his paper words, chronologically remembering those
moments spent opening each letter, sitting at the dining room table or in the breakfast
nook and reading. Raymond will be dead soon, was all she could think, before my eyes,
dying. Over the loudspeaker, they announced that the execution was about to begin. The
curtain swung open.
Raymond lay strapped to a gurney, wearing a white
sheet. The needles were already attached to his arms. Attendants connected the tubing, and
Cornelia watched the chemicals drain into him from the IVACs. His legs were muscular
beneath the thin, white fabric, but she could not see his face. She waited for seven
excruciating moments. He twitched once. She stood up and switched seats.
When she did, she noticed a huge grin, the grin he
promised, spreading from ear to ear. A journalist whispered, "Hes smiling. Can
you believe that smile?"
A moan issued from the old woman, and everyone sat
trapped inside its echo. Cornelia leaned back in her plastic seat, holding the crucifix.
"What is going on," a newslady said.
"This is taking too long."
Abruptly, the speaker cut out. They could see the
room, but could not hear inside it. The warden shouted with flaring lips; the coroner came
in, stood over the gurney and pointed to the straps; and, as abruptly as it had opened,
the curtain dropped.
Raymond, you are a brave soul, Cornelia thought, and I
Emma Ray and Lyell rode the bumper boats, revving the smelly engines
until each craft went as fast as possible. On their first ride, they focused on hitting
each other. Emma Rays blue boat drenched Lyells orange one at least five times
before they docked. He splashed hers at least three. Exhilarated, they got in line again.
Soaked, thighs pimpled from the water, Emma Ray wondered if smashing bumper boats was
similar to enacting a car crash without injury, rocking back and forth in the impact of
someones quick hit. She decided that this was the exact game for her mood, and Lyell
felt the same.
He found his crashes most exciting, one after the
next. He was glad Emma Ray suggested this ride and told her so. "Lets hit
someone else now," he said. "Why focus on each other?"
"That lady in the blue cap, with her son."
"Okay," Emma Ray said, watching the gasoline
rainbows on the water. She barely looked up when Lyell nudged herin fact, she hardly
heard his voice at all. "Whoohoo, trippy," was all she said. The next three
turns, they paired up to annihilate strangers. Already wet, they did not mind getting hit.
Their clothing dried quickly in the heat, and with each new victim they felt a rush of
adrenaline when the stranger realized that they had targeted his or her craft, and that
whoever they were, they should prepare to get rammed, again and again.
"Very fun," Lyell said, after the last bout.
"Yes," Emma Ray said. "But lets
go inside. My hands are vibrating from the throttle and I smell like gas."
Cornelia knew that something was remiss after the injection and that
shed only see Raymond when he was declared officially dead. While the curtain was
drawn, she pictured him smiling as the chemicals poisoned his blood. To her left, a male
reporter whispered, "They tightened the straps too tight and restricted the blood
flow, poor bugger, but, were going to have a great write up! Make sure to mention
they turned off the sound. What a botch up!" The woman beside him grinned.
Cornelias gut ached. "Whats taking so
long?" she shouted. "Why has the prisoner been alive for more than twenty
minutes? Open the damn curtain." The old woman who had been bawling, bawled louder.
Her cries perforated the air. Cornelia unlatched the crucifix, warm from her neck, and
handed it to her.
"Its almost over now," a man said to
her right. "Just a little longer."
Exactly thirty minutes after the injection began, the
curtain opened, and Raymond lay dead. Cornelia strode to the glass and pressed her nose
close against it. His cheeks were pocked. His smile was gone. He looked closer to fifty
She looked at him, expecting to feel recognition, but
she did not. He was a corpse, after all, no man any longer! Still, another of his letters
rankled in her mind:
I know you are angry because you havent written
in nearly a week. I try to tell you things that will amuse you, but think sometimes that
we are only talking to ourselves. Weve never seen each other, and if we were not
attracted to each other, this connection could be lost. There are times when I appreciate
your secrecy, but in talking only to your mind, I obliterate the rest. We can be ourselves
in this correspondence. Finally ourselves. Will write more later and hope that you will
She glanced at the man on the gurney and looked
away, seeing no one she knew. Grabbing her purse, she walked out. A guard escorted her to
her car. Angrily, she drove to the amusement park. Hes right, she thought. I did not
know him. That dead thing was not the man that I wrote tobecause the man I wrote to
never existed. A hunter, like me. A romantic, like me. I am somebodys fool.
Suddenly, she laughed.
She stretched her arms above her head and mused,
"Why am I wearing this obnoxious dress?" She chucked her pumps out the window
onto the facility road. Each mile she drove lifted her spirits. She pulled into a parking
space in front of the amusement parks blinking clown and walked up the walk. Inside,
the children were busy with the joysticks of adjacent games, clicking miniature triggers.
Walking behind them, she watched each destroy toy cars and animated people. She craved her
shotgun and a vast expanse of land. A deer, she concluded, was not a deer the minute it
became meat. A corpse was not a person either, and thats just how it went.
"Lets go, kids," she announced. Emma
Ray and Lyell stared up at her, shocked to see a world beyond the screens, and to view
Cornelia, wearing no shoes, standing above them. Their quarters expired in exactly the
same instant. The game-over music played. Kill or be killed, Cornelia thought, or maybe
kill and be killed. "So my little monsters, how was your day?"
"We played bumper boats and batting cages and
games in the arcade," Emma Ray said.
"Yeah!" Lyell said. "Emma and I teamed
up to nail people."
"Did you have fun?" Cornelia asked.
"Yeah, sure as Satan," Lyell said. "Did
your friend die?"
"Yes, he did," Cornelia said, lowering her
"Was it gross?" Lyell closed his eyes as if
commiserating but smirked too, so Emma Ray said, "Lyell! Shut up!"
"No," Cornelia said. "It wasnt
gross, but all things considered I dont think Ill attend one of those
againor get another penpal."
Cornelia took one of each of their hands, clenched
them gently, and asked, "Would you like to go hunting when we get home? Hiking, or
maybe fishing?" She felt radiantly happier by the instant. The ordeal with Raymond
shifted out of her thoughts, as if it had never occurred, and the children shifted in.
"I do," Lyell said.
"Me too," Emma Ray chimed, and Cornelia
wrapped her arms around their shoulders, humming as she walked to her car. The feet of her
nylons were black from the asphalt. "We have a lot to do today, children," she
said, "so lets get started. What did your mother tell you not to do this
"She didnt say anything," Lyell said.
"But I bet I could think of things."
"How about eating a pound of candy?" Emma
Ray asked. "Or going outside at night? Or shooting something and stuffing it?"
"A grand place to start, Emma Ray," Cornelia
commended, and floored the gas pedal, skittering the car like a pinball into a volley of
traffic. Right away the children noticed the absence of the heavy cross around her neck
and the return of her fine spirits. Both thought in their private hearts: Cornelia was
back, finally, truly back.
They watched the light of the blinking clown as they
left the lot, grinning like ole crazy-face himself, then looked to the road, which curved
like a slithery snake beneath them, carving out the long route home.