“The Three Hundredth Day” by Bruce Memblatt

He was never an emotional man. Even as a child when his brother Billy teased him something awful Taylor never showed his cards, but what happened to him, what he brought on, changed everything.

“Even the air stank of death,” Taylor whispered running his fingers across the bars. The metal was always cold. Everything was always cold down to the coffee. Day three hundred on death row was going to be just as dark as day one.

Down the corridor Taylor could hear the sound of keys jangling– always the sound of keys jangling, locks turning, but never the sound of anyone leaving.

Then again why was he bellyaching? He brought it all on himself.

“Taylor, you look like shit today. Here you have some mail,” Carl said sliding an envelope between the bars.

“I look like shit every day.”

Carl was the only screw with any sense of humour, the others weren’t worth piss. Taylor even almost smiled watching Carl and his big butt make his way down the hall.

Walking down that hall was something Taylor would do only one more time on that happy day when they took him to the gas chamber.

In the meantime, nothing– hours, weeks, months, years of nothing wait ahead like some deranged purgatory.

He threw the envelope onto his cot. Having exhausted all his appeals whatever sat between that wrapping could wait. It wasn’t a million bucks. That was certain as the next turn of a key, not that a million, let alone a billion bucks, could do his sorry ass any good.

Fate sucked; if he could only live that day over. What if he’d gotten up two minutes later or two minutes earlier? What if he didn’t down that extra glass of whiskey? What if it was snowing? What if his car broke down? What if the universe wasn’t made of what ifs.

Taylor stood above the cot staring at the envelope noting there wasn’t a return address on it when he heard Carl making his way back up the corridor. The shuffling of shoes breaking through the silence was always more pronounced there. It wasn’t just a matter of acoustics. Quite appropriately, there were so few sounds of life on death row that any sound made stood out more, from a whistle to the drip of the faucet.

Carl hardly ever whistled but he was whistling that day. When he reached Taylor’s cell he poked his head in.

“Well, are you going to open that thing up, or are you just gonna stare it all day?”

“I think I’ll stare at it all day.”

“Suit yourself; you know why I like you Taylor? Because you are the unluckiest son of a bitch in the world.”

Taylor grinned with sarcasm, “Thanks, Carl. Have a nice day.”

“Only you could make that sound like a curse. You have a nice day too, Taylor.”

As he watched Carl walk towards the doors at the end of the corridor his grin fell and his mouth took on all the signs of a sadness that would never die. Then a tear formed in Taylor’s eye and he cried. He cried every single day. His words echoed across the empty hall, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Sadness was the only thing death row didn’t kill. He had bankrolls full of limitless sorrow to spend.

Taylor stared at the envelope again. He picked it up and ran it across his nostrils like he was trying out a fine wine, and he tossed it down on his mattress.

The mattress looked worse every day. If he was destined to die there couldn’t they at least provide a decent mattress? He kicked the side of the bed, and then he stepped over to the toilet and spat in it with a look of disgust on his face that would have turned the queen of England’s head. He didn’t come from the streets. He wasn’t some common thug. He had a Master’s degree. He had a life before all this happened, before he fucked it up, like he always knew he would, before he killed that poor child.

He sat down on the cot, promising himself he wasn’t going to cry again. He grabbed the envelope and ripped it open. Inside, a single page of unlined white paper with the words written in black ink, One day pass to live that day over stared at him like a ghost.

His hands began to shake. The paper fell to the crumbling mattress as Taylor lurched from the cot feeling the kind of fear one feels when they think someone has just seen them at their most vulnerable. A memory of his bedroom door swinging open when he was fourteen and Billy’s face laughing at the sight of Taylor pleasing himself sped through his mind.

Then anger suddenly crossed his face; someone’s idea of fun? Maybe it was Carl teasing him? But would Carl do that? They both joked around a lot, but not in a cruel way. Whoever sent this was either crazy, or sadistic. Carl wasn’t sadistic, he may have been crazy, but he wasn’t that crazy. No, Carl wasn’t behind this letter, but someone was, someone out there was playing some kind of strange game with him.

He felt a slight tingling sensation fall over his arm as if the light were changing in his cell. At first it was something he barely noticed. He continued to brood, continued to stare at the letter, continued to wonder who was behind it until off in the distance he heard the sound of music, music he recognized, music anyone would recognize as the kind that accompanied a Ferris wheel or a roller coaster, or just about any ride in an amusement park.

He heard the distinct and clear winding sound of amusement park music.

Taylor was a rational man, he knew that wasn’t possible, yet even stranger, he could smell fresh air as if he were outside, and then the most impossible thing followed; he felt a breeze hit his face. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt an honest to God breeze. His body didn’t know how to react; to run for his life or to cheer his imminent freedom.

Then suddenly the light completed its change and Taylor found himself surrounded by darkness. It was night. He was outside somewhere, somehow in the night air. The music became louder and the bright lights of a Ferris wheel sped past him close as if one of the cars were about to sideswipe him.

He lunged and rolled across what he knew was grass- real grass. The light from the wheel raced across the ground. Taylor watched it flash over his legs. His eyes shot up and he saw a roller coaster, a merry go round, booths with stuffed animals, dolls, clocks. He saw tents, all varieties of rides he remembered from his childhood spinning and lurching-The Round Up, Tea Cups…Lights speeding against the night, and the sounds of bells, of whistles, and the insane toy music.

He was smack dab inside some kind of amusement park. He didn’t know if he should stay on the ground and hide, or get up and take a look around; none if it was possible, none of it.

The sound of a bell from a High striker rang through his ears. He looked up and saw the back of a man in an overcoat taking another swing with the mallet, and next to him in a shiny blue suit wearing a glittering top hat Taylor saw a carnie barker man grinning. His teeth white as sharks, the barker called out through a megaphone pointing to the ground where Taylor was hiding, as the man in the overcoat pounding the mallet hit the bell, “That’s right, Taylor you are a winner! The brass ring! The grand prize! You, Taylor Mackey are no longer the unluckiest son of a bitch in the world, you have a chance now! One chance! Can you change that day? I know you can, Taylor!”

As the barker’s words ended the music began to spin out of control. Taylor covered his ears and cried. Dear god, where the hell was he?

“Make the music stop! Please!” He raised his fists, rolling on the ground as if the force of his movements would slow everything down, but of course it didn’t. The music became louder, and more strained.

He pulled himself from the grass. He had to make a run for it; to where he had no idea. He had no idea where he was, or if he was anywhere. Maybe that was it? Maybe they took him to the gas chamber and this was hell? There was no time to think. Everything was going too fast- the lights, the cars, the bells, his heart.

He was a winner of what? You can’t live days over. You can’t change the past. You can’t put a genie back in a bottle no matter how hard you try, Taylor repeated in his head as he began to run.
Then the barker called again, tipping his shiny hat towards the sky, “We’ll slow things down a little, Taylor, don’t go anywhere. Come here you have a prize to claim, a past to change, a boy’s life to save!”

Taylor got a closer look at the barker. All that glitters is not gold, his skin was jaundiced and his white shark teeth were green around the edges, but his eyes glowed, they glowed with a glassy stare that sent chills through Taylor’s veins.

A sick nausea entered Taylor’s stomach as the music slowed down and changed to a vaudevillian style.

The barker now stood on a small platform stage with stripped silver curtains suspended behind him. Taylor could see the Ferris wheel turn above, its lights changing the image of the barker from bright to dull and back again. Then from behind the curtain two females who looked like they just stepped out of the Miss America Beauty Pageant of 1973, wearing bathing suits and pink sashes with the words (in white lettering) We Love Taylor sprawled across them, stepped out and joined the barker, one stood on his left side the other on his right.

At that point Taylor had almost given up looking for rational explanations. He told himself he was too in it, and what if it was possible? What if he could change his past, wipe his slate clean?

Then the barker held a cane in his hand tapped it on the floor of the stage and he and the pageant girls began to tap dance a soft shoe. Their eyes stared at Taylor sending more chills through him. Everything about the strange performers seemed too exaggerated; their smiles–too broad, their gestures–too forced, and their stares–too intense.

The old fashioned music changed from pleasant sounding to a deranged version of itself, the notes bent, the rhythm sputtered. The lady on the right side of the barker lifted a bottle of whiskey in the air, and said in a Kewpie doll voice, still tapping her feet to the strained beat, “We should drink a toast to you, Taylor, to wish you success on your mission,” and she puckered her lips.

Then the girl on the left side of the barker held four glasses in her hand and in the same saccharin voice eked out, “Yes! I have a glass for each of us, you too, Taylor.” She puckered her lips too.

The barker grinned and said in a mocking tone, “But if Taylor drinks he’ll get drunk and run that boy down again.”

The two girls sighed loudly, swooned and moused out in the same mocking tones as the barker, “Poor Taylor, poor, poor Taylor.”

The notes of the music became more bent, more dissonant. The barker and the pageant girl’s grins increased in exaggerated intensity growing insanely surreal like a Fellini film gone mad.

Terrified, Taylor covered his ears, and he screeched out, “It was an accident I swear!”

“No it wasn’t, but we love you anyway, Taylor.” They sang too sweetly, smiling too broadly, still tapping to the swirling sickening refrain.

Taylor screamed out, “Stop the music! I can’t take it anymore!”

Sweat beaded on his forehead, his shaking hands tried to wipe it away. If he could wipe everything away. He kept telling himself this wasn’t happening, but he knew it was, somehow it was. Suddenly, he found himself longing for death row.

He should try and make another run for it but inside he knew there was nowhere to run. Wherever he ran he would wind up right back in the strange park that existed everywhere and nowhere. How could this desperate place possibly give him the chance he needed? How could this wretched dance change that day? He stepped away from the stage and began to walk in the direction of a tent that seemed to be calling him.

Strangely drawn, not knowing why, he made his way to the tent just a few yards away from the stage. His steps were slow. He didn’t want to set the barker off, but he had to see what was in that tent.

As he neared the entrance and pulled the white burlap back, he heard the barker call, “It’s okay, Taylor go see what that tent has to offer. We’ll all still be here waiting for ya.”

The barker sadistically grinned in Taylor’s direction and puckered his lips, just like one of the beauty pageant girls. They all stared at Taylor, lips puckered, blowing kisses, as he made his way into the tent.

The toy music sped up again.

A few bare bulbs hanging by wire from the wood frame ceiling of the tent gave off the only light Taylor had to make his way through the relatively small, but wide edifice. Several old splintery wooden crates and trunks lined the side walls of the structure otherwise it was bare, with the exception of one small oak table and chair which sat in the center of the tent.

The music still edged his every nerve, but what he had to do was sit in that chair. He had no clue why but he had to, and so Taylor inched his way to the table, sat under the dim light and waited for what he did not know. One thing he did know; the idea of changing that day seemed more and more tangible. Maybe he could do it? After all he was brought to this crazy place for just that reason even if it didn’t make any sense. Maybe he could change his destiny, only two things had to occur; the premise had to be the absolute truth, what the note said, what the barker said had to be real, if it was then all he had to do was stay sober. Surely, he could accomplish that small task, anyone could.

No sooner had Taylor thought the words when a bottle of scotch appeared on the table. When his eyes caught the bottle he nearly jumped out of his chair. Its appearance, though out of nowhere, shouldn’t have stunned him any longer, not in that place, but it still did. Obviously it was some kind of test that that Barker had planned. He’d pass it with flying colors why not? He hadn’t had a drink in years. He couldn’t; he was in prison. Oh maybe he could have obtained something when he was with the general population, but not since they sent him to death row.

He didn’t want to drink anyway; it was his drinking that brought him here.

He was finally alcohol-free just in time for his impending execution. Taylor being Taylor didn’t miss the sad irony of that, he wallowed in it, like he wallowed in everything.

Then he thought, as Taylor only would, maybe he could have just one sip?

One sip wouldn’t make him drunk would it? He could still change that day, save that boy’s life and have a taste of that fine scotch. It must have been the best, considering the situation, whoever, or whatever force was ultimately behind this wouldn’t send over cheap whiskey.

That was the last sober thought Taylor had before he downed the entire bottle.

He sat in the chair, head on the table bawling his eyes out for what seemed like an eternity. The sleek brown empty bottle lay on its side on the table next to Taylor’s head as if it was winking at him.

When he heard the barker’s voice call from outside interrupting his drunken haze Taylor’s arm swung over and knocked the bottle to the floor.

“Oh no, Taylor what have you done? How are you going to change your destiny now?”

“Poor Taylor,” he heard the pageant girls sing and swoon,” the unluckiest man in the world.”

Taylor lifted his head and cried out, “I can do it anyway. I can change it drunk or sober because I’m aware of it now, keenly aware of what I have to do. Just you watch me. I will change that day! I promise!” And his head fell to the table again.

The barker’s voice rang out in mocking cheer. “Did you hear what he said girls? Taylor said he can change that day, anyway!”

Suddenly there was a drum roll, like a game show was about to start. Taylor heard it loud and clear even in his stupor.

The barker called in a voice that would put Bob Barker to shame, “C’mon down, Taylor. You are the winner of this fine 1999 Gold Chevy Impala, just like the one you used to run that boy down. As a matter a fact, it is the very one you used to run that boy down! C’mon down!”

Taylor stood from the table drunk but determined. He could manage it somehow he just knew he could.

How on earth could he drink again and on this day of all days? What the hell was wrong with him?

He could kick himself if he could manage not to trip over his own leg. A child’s’ future was at stake, not just his own.

He was pathetic, unlucky and pathetic, he thought as he made his way out of the tent.

His breath nearly stopped because when he stepped out of the tent it vanished. The entire amusement park fell away. All that stood before him was the gold Chevy impala and an open road that seemed to go on forever into a cloudy grey horizon.

If anything could sober him up that sight could. So vast, it made Taylor feel incredibly insignificant.But he knew what he had to do. He got into the car. The car was idling. The key was already in the ignition, all he had to do was push his foot on the gas pedal, and he’d be off.

He’d take it slow, careful and slow. He could do it, he kept repeating in his head.
The highway passed by empty and grey with nothing on the side of the road except trees for miles, and miles.

Taylor began to wonder if anything was going to happen when he saw it; the outskirts of town.
The intersection where it all took place, he was approaching it. His nerves began to tense and then, like a shot out of a cannon, he saw the boy riding his bike crossing the street where Taylor ran into him just mere feet away.

This time he wasn’t going to hit him. He pushed his foot to the pedal to slow the car down even more, but in his drunken state he accidently hit the gas and he began to speed toward the boy again.

His heart thumped like it was going to explode.

He grabbed the wheel and slammed his foot on the brake.

The car swerved and screeched, and turned and to his amazement he just missed the boy.

He did it! He really did it! He shouted inside his head, when out of the corner of his eye he saw the tractor trailer that was speeding into the side of his car; the one that he didn’t see coming as he pulled into the intersection.

Taylor’s car burst into flames. Black smoke covered the street.

Soon a crowd gathered. As the paramedics pulled Taylor’s charred remains out of the torn metal a bystander said to another, “Did you see that? He came barrelling into the intersection at the same time that tractor trailer was pulling in. If wasn’t for him that truck would have mowed that boy down. He is a hero.”

“Was. Now he’s just the unluckiest son of a bitch in the world.”

END

Copyright © 2013 Bruce Memblatt

Bruce Memblatt is a native New Yorker, and a member of the Horror Writers Association.

He is on the staff of The Horror Zine as Kindle Coordinator and writes a bi- weekly series for The Piker Press based on his short story, “Dinner with Henry.”

His story “Dikon’s Light” is a recipient of Bewildering Stories 2012 Mariner Awards and his works have been published over one hundred times in anthology books, magazines and zines such as Aphelion, Cycatrix Press, Post Mortem Press, Dark Moon Books, Sam’s Dot Publishing, Strange Weird and Wonderful Magazine, The Horror Zine, Midwest Literary Magazine, Danse Macabre, Parsec Ink, The Feathertale Review, Yellow Mama and many more.

Visit Bruce’s blog @ http://brucememblatt.wordpress.com

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