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Stern Agony---prologue

By the time the world starts for us, we’ve survived a bloody mess. It gets worse.
It’s why we tell stories.

This is no house of glass. Here, in Big Mac solitary, prisoners don’t throw stones—we eat them. 

     It’s 10:00 pm. Something whirs. Hum of an electrical impulse. Nine cell doors slam shut in unison. Twice latched—twice bolted, like the clang of coupling boxcars.

In an underground corridor at the bottom of D-Max-3, the lights, one above each cell, imprint shadows along the walls. Nine solitary bulbs caged to the ceiling like wayward suns. 

In a padded cell, a man reclines on a mattress. He turns toward the wall, curls fetal. He’s been ramming his head. Scabs crust his forehead, his eyes bloodshot with sleeplessness. Post-concussion syndrome, they call it. His ears sing in dial tones.

Despite insomnia, or because of it, he dozes. And as his perception dissolves into those first oily portals of slumber, the sordid allegations, the details of his crime, bleed through a hypnagogic haze. Gruesome apparitions—flashes of a brown car in the weeds, the girl, the hushed voices of men—jolt his brain. Paramnesia, the blackout from his drunkenness, eviscerates memories he cannot grasp, the details spasming, evanescent, slippery as grease. 

Hints of remembrance shudder through him. His mind convulses, his conscience revolting from the notion he could have done as they say. He fights these visions, his dreams, rocking himself on the bed, constantly rocking—wanting to remember, and terrified he will.

Frantic, distracted, he monitors every noise, voice, footfall, as if all sound were portent. Later in the night, there are only his heart and the drip by drip of water leaking. Transfixed to the beat-beat rhythm of time in his chest, he rocks himself to the thump-thump-thump as if his pulse were music—drumbeats, sounding off his sentence. 

In this gray room. In this hard place.           

                                                                 *   *   *
I poured more wine, and looked at Joe. Neither spoke. I drained my glass.

Here I was again. I’d come to know Shaw Pence, now sixty-six and on death row, back when I was a teenager. He’d been a childhood friend of my mother. Became an uncle of sorts after my parents died. At least, that’s how I thought of him then—until his conviction. If it weren’t for Shaw, I’d never have gone to college. And it wasn’t just the money, the man had inspired me. But since the trial for rape and murder, almost twelve years ago, we’d not communicated. The evidence against him was overwhelming.

“Why does he want me to read this, Joe? What’s he after?”
“Details he can’t put his finger on,, maybe. All he gets are flashbacks. Maybe he’s looking for clues to what happened? Something he can’t remember?”
“Or that you would read it, Joe. You’re the psychologist. A plea for help?”
“No. That’s not it. Like he said in the letter. There’s things he wants you to know. He said the writing has been cathartic.” Joe tapped the stacked pages of the manuscript with his forefinger. “Something happen when you were a kid? Something that caused… created, a rapist? A murderer?”
“Maybe we’re about to find out.”

                                                                *  *  *

I’ve edited what follows, Shaw’s manuscript; it’s my profession. To get distance, I’ve changed the writing from first person to third. Even in edits, I can't bring myself to write Shaw’s story as “I.” 

We start on a ranch in Kansas, decades ago--April, 1970. Shaw had just turned fourteen. 
So far as I know, every word of what follows is true.


  1. Can't wait to see Stern Agony in print. Have read everything here and want to read it all. Read some of this to my girl friend, who teaches English and her response was, "excellent writing," "great metaphors."

  2. I love this intro. Amazing how you are able to convey the look and feel of a place and the workings of a mind in such few but powerful words. I am anxious to get the full story, to know what choices/actions led Shaw Pence to that place. Not being a writer, I have given little thought to your craft until I began reading your blog, but I have read books that left me feeling like "what a waste of time" as opposed to those where I felt privileged to get to know the characters and enlightened by the reading. Your writing does the latter for me. Thank you.