Matteo was informed that he wouldn’t get visitors on his last day. Then he was told he would get a last request, and asked if it could be a dinner guest. The warden sighed and acquiesced. So Nick saw the inside of Matteo’s cell for the very first time. It wasn’t just a cell anymore. It was an inky forest, with tangled roots and squirrels and owls in the branches. There was a river on the floor and a night sky on the ceiling.
“How did you reach all the way up there?”
“Lots of moving furniture around. Also lots of falling down, but it was worth it. I was sure they’d be furious after the first tree, but they didn’t care. In fact some of them seem to like me.” Matteo grinned. “One told me I was all right, because I don’t cause any trouble.”
“That can’t be something you hear often.”
“Absolutely, the literal first time anyone has ever said that about me. So,” Matteo nodded to the table. “Dinner?”
There were two plates of eggs, biscuits and sausages.
“Looks more like breakfast,” Nick said as he took his seat.
“I didn’t count on being very hungry, so I picked more for you. We’d talked about breakfasts you like before, but not dinners. Suppose I should have thought to ask earlier.”
“That’s all right. Steaks would have been a waste. I don’t feel hungry either.”
“I feel bad for whoever cooks these things. They have to put in real effort, because it’s the last meal, but they must know half the time they’ll be tossed straight out. Or at least, that’s what I imagine happens.”
“Let’s talk about something else.”
“Sorry. How are things going with that woman? The one you said brought you here, the first time?”
“Oh, Yessenia. We had another date. Actually sat through a whole movie this time. It was fine.”
“The date or the movie?”
“The movie. She’s nice, but busy with her studies, you know.”
“Good for her. But, sorry for you, I suppose.”
A guard appeared at the cell door, looking a little awkward. A man in black robes and a white collar was standing next to him. The guard gestured helplessly. “The priest is here.”
Matteo rolled his eyes. “I told you I didn’t want one.”
“You’ll forgive me for coming anyway, I hope,” the priest said. “In my experience, many who initially reject religion come to crave it in their final hours.”
“Well, my final hours are here, and I remain apathetic.”
The priest maintained a stubbornly sympathetic smile. “I perfectly understand. But before I go, if you would just indulge me to reflect for a moment on how much you might gain, if an afterlife exists, and how little you would lose, if it does not. God is always ready to forgive.”
“So long as I sincerely confess, of course.”
“Yes. I am happy to wait until your friend leaves, so we may conduct our business privately.”
“No, we can get this out of the way right now. Let’s see, sins. I’m sure I’ve lied thousands of times, because who doesn’t, but none are really standing out. Usually I get in trouble for being too honest, and while that’s socially looked down on, I’ve never heard someone say it counts on the celestial ledger. I’ve never stolen, not because I’m a good person, but because so long as I can eat I can get by without much else. Where I live, food grows on trees. Well, it grows on trees everywhere, but there’s more trees where I come from. Violence… well, that’s a tricky one. I’ve certainly enabled it. I have tricky feelings about that. I believe court records are available to the public, so if God wants to know how sorry I feel, he can always send an angel to the registrars. Blasphemy, frequently. Send the man on high my apologies for that one. I’m sure creating the world is terribly complicated and as a creative type myself I shouldn’t be too harsh on him for his little hiccups. Happens to the best of us. Sexual immorality, ooh, that’s the one that really gets me. Because according to every pastor I’ve ever met, impure thoughts count, and I’ve hardly ever had a pure one. I’m not sure it’s even worth confessing them. As soon as that slate’s wiped clean, I’m sure I’ll have another one. I wouldn’t be surprised if my last thought is impure. I imagine I’ll be sitting in a dark, quiet box, trying not to think about what drowning will feel like, and I think one would need a nice fantasy to take one’s mind off that. As for impure actions, unfortunately there’s not much to report there. Or from your perspective, fortunately. On three separate occasions I was offered a bed in exchange for fellatio, and although none of the men were particularly appealing I took it, because they were miserable nights for sleeping outdoors and frankly I was curious to have some kind of experience. My options have always been a bit limited, you understand.”
“…And you repent of these sins?”
Matteo took a deep, thoughtful breath, and blew it out with an audible huff. “No. No, not particularly. I’m not proud of, well, most of what I’ve done, but I figure I’ve mostly done the best I could, under the circumstances.”
“Well, if you change your mind, God is always listening.”
“Pleased to hear it. Bye now.”
When Matteo turned back, Nick had his hand pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Oh, come on now. That was funny.”
Nick snorted, and his shoulders shook. Then shaking briefly overtook his body, and at the end he had to wipe tears from his eyes. “You’re such an ass.”
“Oh, before I forget,” Matteo held out Nick’s old copy of The Wizard of Oz. “You should take this back.”
“It’s yours now.”
“Right, of course. It’s just that I’ll need someone to keep it safe for me. All that water.”
Nick stared at it as if it could bite him, then took it.
“I liked the paper,” Matteo said. “As you can see.”
Nick opened it curiously, and found the margins filled with illustrations. Bean vines and corn stalks framed the first paragraphs, and turned into tornadoes, poppy fields, winding roads. Toto chased butterflies at the bottom of page 17. Where a chapter break left half a page or more of blank space, Matteo added a more detailed illustration. He seemed especially enamored of the Tin Man. There was study after study of the man, with welded muscles and sad eyes.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Matteo said.
Nick shook his head. “Like you said, it’s your book. I’m just keeping it safe for now.” He stuffed the paperback into his jacket pocket. “So, fellatio? Really?”
“A detail too far?”
“You could say that. But seriously, nothing else?”
“It’s hard to know when to ask! And honestly, given the limited options, and the way some people react – let’s just say I already get punched quite often enough.”
“Right. Guess that makes sense.” Nick looked around, then stirred his eggs in silence. “Oh what the hell.”
He leaned across the little table, put his hand behind Matteo’s nick, and kissed him.
“There,” he said. “Now you’ve had that, at least.”
“Right.” Matteo was pink and smiling.
“Don’t make it awkward.”
Matteo raised his hands innocently. “I’ll take the secret to my grave.”
“Not funny, asshole.”
Less Than An Hour
The absence, once they came to take the dishes and Matteo away, was all encompassing. Nick was allowed to sit behind the spectator’s glass, to watch the execution. At first he wanted to go. To witness. Then, in the hallway outside the door, he chickened out. He stayed, pressing his forehead against the window.
What haunted him was the memory of being kissed back. It hadn’t been that long since he ended things with Cora, but for at least two years before that, he had not been kissed back. She had just accepted his mouth like a tribute, and acted like that didn’t mean anything. After a while, he had begun to pretend that it didn’t. Even after accepting that things were not going to work out, part of him had held onto the belief that those little things had been normal. Acceptable. Not hurtful.
Now all he wanted to do was hold onto the sensation of gentle, returned pressure. The way it had made him feel wanted, down to his core. Not useful. Not kept around. Not accepted. Wanted. Craved.
Everything hurt. Everything hurt, and when he tried to imagine a future where it didn’t, that seemed so impossible that it was tempting to retreat back into empty non-feeling. So he just stared out at the trees and kept on hurting.
A black cab came up the road. That wasn’t strange. Cabs came and went from the prison all the time. But it was a thing that moved, so naturally it drew Nick’s eye. It parked. A weedy young man came out, carrying a shoulder bag with a seal on it. It looked like an eagle on a blue circle, with banners around it. He did not have Ciernik’s eyes, but what sprung into his mind was the presidential seal.
“It’s a pardon,” he said, breathlessly.
He ran to the nearest guard. “Someone just arrived. A courier. It might be a pardon.”
“Hold on sir,” the guard began.
“No, I can’t hold on. There’s no time. They have to stop the execution of Matteo Garibaldi.”
“Because it might be a pardon?”
“Sir, if it is, he will go through the proper channels, and they will call up.”
“But Matteo might be dead by then!”
The tone in that one word told Nick he did not need to wait around and keep talking to this useless man. He slammed the door to the spectator’s room open.
“Pardon! Somebody just came in with a pardon!”
The room was full of reporters, all of whom were staring at him.
“Are you sure?” one said.
“I think so. Do we have time to wait?”
A glance at the two-way glass told him they didn’t. The execution chamber was empty except for a sealed metal box, and the valve on the hose was open.
“Son, even if you’re right, none of us here have the authority to-”
“Oh for fuck’s sake!”
Nick smashed the glass. He jumped through and gripped the seal at the edge of the box. Power flowed through him, and the iron pieces parted like snow. Water poured out, flooding the floor. Nick pulled Matteo upright and gripped his soaking wet hair. Choking coughs made Nick release a long breath, and together the pair inhaled.