Less Brave

This isn’t something he can back out of. Not now, with the flaps of his sports coat being patted down, his cell phone, keys, and wallet confiscated – only a pair of latex gloves allowed to remain in his pocket. Not while a metal detector slides up and down his starched chino pant leg.

It’s too late.

The prison guard leads through a hall of concrete floors, white cinderblock walls, and chrome gates. Derek follows. Even the guard’s gray uniform is belted with shiny parts: badge, gun, clicking cuffs. His I.D. tag reads, Ralph. His strides are powerful and his arms swing to carefree heights, hinting at a complacency with the job.

Derek is here as a favor. And Derek doesn’t back out of favors. He would never call his colleague pretending, my wife and I are leaving town for a horse show, or one of the mares fell ill, very ill… No. Just the thought of shirking an obligation humiliates him.

“You could call off,” his wife Gillian teased. When he tried to envision it – a free day to maybe ride to the coast, air whipping through his car windows, his speed accelerating, and then accelerating some more with an illogical attempt to outrun his thoughts of undue chaos at the hospital, a possible delay of procedure at the prison, and a mess of scheduling headaches he’d cause everyone to suffer – even his benign fantasy couldn’t break from the promise he’d made.

He’s a man of his word.

A man whose mouth shrinks against his teeth when he smiles, as if recently stripped of a mature mustache, and who wears socks with clogs in the summertime to account for Florida air-conditioning. His steps brush the floor with the comfortable rhythm he finds with respecting authority, though he has never been to a prison. He’s startled by a beeping alarm and then stopped in front of the first solid gate, one with only a crescent of spindles at the top, too far above anyone’s head to offer a view. It unlatches with a hard clack.

Officer Ralph directs him to pass through first. Derek offers a cooperative grin; the office bares a closed-jaw set of teeth at him in response. No need for him to take it personally.

He guesses drawing smiles from transplant and tonsillectomy patients might seem out-of-place too, but that’s his routine during preoperative rounds at Vernon Hospital. Major surgery to standard procedure, all patients are a little nervous about the hours ahead. What if I do wake up, they often fret. Or what if I don’t?

Derek obligates himself to quiet their worries, not just because it’s appropriate bedside manner, but because it’s his nature. Whether it be with pep-talks to colleagues or agreeable nods to Gillian, he appeases those around him, makes them comfortable, happy. It is just as common for his patients to feel eased by his tireless goodwill as it is for their pain to be numbed by his administration of anesthesia.

But here, where a door opens out from the white wall, revealing another guard who inspects him, he can barely maintain eye contact with the officers. Ralph begins muttering to the other guard, and the gesture is exclusive. The whole facility, Derek begins to notice, hums with its hidden devices and the buzz of white lights. It’s like the electronics section of a department store, where even muted screens raise arm hair.

“…Fries,” Derek hears pop from their chatter as they walk ahead of him. “And a milkshake.” The word milkshake is delivered as a curse, because they’re talking about Uriel Deed.

Uriel Deed the murderer, who drank a chocolate shake with his last meal and will never have another. Who will never have another taste of anything—except the metallic tinge that will cool the back of his throat when Derek retracts the first injection.

This stuns Derek.

He didn’t think about this before. The significance of a last meal. It didn’t cross his mind three days ago, while he was relieving himself in the hospital men’s room.


He was thinking about Uriel Deed pressing record on an old boom box before cutting into someone. Murder wasn’t enough to describe it. Even ten years later, the crimes were still known as, The Deed Recordings—a collection of adolescent voices being cut-short by commonplace kitchen cutlery.

Death songs, some called it.

“A hunt for the grittiest scream, or what?” Derek’s colleague, Jay Adams, stood two urinals over, speculating motives at a volume that dominated his tinkling.

“Quite possible,” Derek said.

“Whatever the case, he deserves what’s coming. Just wish I hadn’t double-booked procedures.”

“Need me to cover?”

“You up to it?”

“Sure.” Derek zipped-up and, in the time it took to relieve himself, had agreed to take a life. Though, it wasn’t obvious at first.

Everyone knew the execution was on Friday, which meant Adams had another procedure that same day and time. Derek began hushing thoughts of coming off a long Friday shift and coasting into an evening at home—Gillian’s pizza craving playing out as usual (him agreeing without mention of his hunger for pork in a saucy lo mein) and a movie of her choice, waiting to blur the hustle of his work week… He stopped the thoughts there. Derek wouldn’t be selfish. He was selfless. Missing pizza night was a small sacrifice for resolving a friend’s dilemma.

“You’re savin’ my ass.” Adams closed the sink faucet and tore off a paper-towel, telling how prison guards were in training for future ‘sticks.’ “Leaving us out of it. Think of it, you could be the last M.D. to do it.”

“Wait. Me?”

“Yeah, can you imagine? Listen, I’ll call County right away, tell them to expect you.”

Derek stood at the sink, forgot what to do with his hands in the water. County prison. He’d be the one going there to…

“Well, ah… Wouldn’t you rather I take the other procedure? The—what’s the other?”

“Nah. You take the high-dollar one. My treat. You’re doing me a favor here.”

“Really, I didn’t expect to—”

“C’mon, I’ll be insulted if you don’t. It’s the least I can do.”

Awkward in this perceived kindness and the embarrassment of misunderstanding, Derek turned his hands in the water without words; Adams crumpled his towel and was moving towards the men’s room exit. But Derek didn’t know how—in the twenty seconds it was taking Adams to thank him, calling him ‘a hell-of-a-guy’—to retract his offer without deflating Adams’ delight with both solving his problem and repaying Derek. And why not? Derek had no immediate reason why not to assist the execution, and every reason to: because he’d already agreed.

“Hey,” Adams said, halfway out the door. “I owe you one.”

The door closed, and Derek’s hands idled in the frigid cold water.


As they slow their progression down the corridor, Ralph and Derek approach a tiny table against the wall that displays a neat row of plastic-wrapped masks.

“Optional,” Ralph says, pointing to them without breaking his stride. “If you’re one to conceal identity.”

Derek passes them by, curious to hear that a reporter, a few locals, and a couple of Uriel Deed’s family members will be watching. Ralph calls them ‘witnesses.’

Imagining a handful of people in any one room of this place only emphasizes the empty buzz that fills the halls. It’s as if the place is new, open only for private showings. The mess of spit and violence Derek had always expected of a prison is so cleanly absent that he begins to wonder if it’s all caged in one room.

Ralph stops in front of a chrome door with a double-paned window. He taps a combination into the keypad, and the door beeps. “PG-13 compared to Ol’ Sparky,” he says, with another smiling-at-you grin. He backs his body against the door to hold it open. “After you.”

Again, Derek smiles back. Such an easy smile, so quick to give in. His mouth tightens as he enters the small room that remains uncluttered by the tight course of activity: Uriel Deed being propped onto a white-sheeted gurney.

Deed’s eyes are open wide, yet withdrawn. His face is shaven and damp hair sticks to his forehead. He wears a loose, sky-blue jumpsuit, the color of hospital gowns where Derek works. Last week, a strung-out ER patient who required sedation struggled against the collective hold of four medical staff.

Here, Uriel Deed is steady and compliant as the guards belt his arms to the gurney. They tighten the suitcase-like straps around his ankles, below his knees, around his thighs and hips, and across his shoulders.

When finished, they prompt Derek to approach.

He takes the latex gloves from his pocket. One vein is all that’s needed.

Derek thinks Deed must have smiled once – as a small boy, singing cartoon theme-songs or being tickled by his father. Now he stares, detached. Not a flinch, while Derek presses two fingers into the meat of his left arm. No heed toward Derek’s placating grin.

A grin Derek must restrain from offering to a man who recorded kills. Who labeled one of the cassettes, A Girl Called Joanne – Cries for Mom and Sister.

“I can still hear them,” Deed says, as if he forgot to tell them.

“Quiet,” Ralph orders.

Deed laughs, a quick, satisfied laugh. A reminder that he knows more than what the news reported: …a boy spat curses between breaths… a girl, in accepting no escape, had mumbled a rhythmic, religious chant. He holds no shame in his posture as Derek sticks his vein, and Derek wonders if he’s proud of his guilt and resists the urge to hurry, flushing the IV with care.

Ralph hands him surgical tape and Derek wraps the IV to Uriel Deed’s arm, not too quickly, not too tight. He smooths the last piece of tape and then flips a valve to open the bag that hangs from the IV pole. Saline runs into Deed’s bloodstream.

Ralph pulls a lever, and the gurney hums, tilting Deed semi-upright to face the curtain. The retracting curtain reveals a female reporter in a suit with loose hair banded by bulky sunglasses and a steno pad in hand; two women sitting close together, one of them trembling from grief or age, Derek isn’t sure; and two middle-aged men wearing college T-shirts.

“Uriel Deed,” Ralph announces. “Your last words.”

Deed stares at the audience.

The reporter is vigilant, wide-eyed, with pen aimed at steno pad, waiting and ready. The trembling woman squeezes a crumple of tissue, her other hand grasped by the woman’s beside her, who doesn’t look toward the chamber window.

“They all screamed,” Uriel Deed says. “Different sounds.”

The trembling woman closes her eyes. Then opens them. The reporter’s pen moves with intent.

“The tapes could never capture the true noise. The mess of it. So sorry.”

The two men scoff.

“I tried to listen. I tried. But it always came off fake. Like it wasn’t real.”

The reporter looks up from her notes. A hush consumes the room, and it’s hard for Derek not to imagine an audio tape rolling into its bumpy static until that first, meek, No, then, PLEASE, no— 

He refocuses, waiting for Uriel Deed to finish, feeling ready for the job. It should be quick and easy. He’ll turn each syringe into the insertion point and push the solution into the tube, sending it swimming toward the threaded vein.

Ralph turns to Derek with a nod. 

Uriel Deed has said all he’ll say.

Surprised by this, Derek does his job and attaches the first syringe. Then pushes—sodium thiopental, to numb consciousness.

Derek watches the solution run its course and, in the moment, finds unexpected comfort in his surroundings. The white walls and shiny chrome. The slick, clean chamber. He is even-keeled, confident in his task.

Uriel Deed closes his eyes, appearing to doze. The many straps holding him becoming less and less necessary.

Ralph’s cautious stare and crossed arms are no distractions to Derek now. There’s a familiar method to the order here: the empty syringe comes off. The next one on: pacuronium bromide, to paralyze the body like the hardening paste in a papier-mâché mask. It prevents squirming, wringing of hands. Screaming.

The reporter rests the steno pad in her lap; the trembling woman kneads tissue between finger and thumb, her face dry.

The potassium chloride in the last syringe will disrupt the electrical signals of Uriel Deed’s heart. And with one fluid push, Derek empties it.

Deed’s eyelids twitch. His lips part. A rush of air escapes his throat.

The trembling woman sits up; the reporter writes a word; the woman who didn’t look before, watches.

His pulse rushes his large artery, bulging at his neck, and then stops.

His body is vacant. No twitching. No breath.

He is gone.


The ignition rumbles in the parking lot, and Derek sits at the wheel with the car in park.

He was told to expect a check in the mail as he left the prison. Ralph thanked him, shook his hand with, no longer a smirk, but a cool nod that Derek could only describe as gratitude.

None of the witnesses cried or covered their eyes. No one even stood from their seats; they had to be told it was over.

It is done.

They all screamed, Uriel Deed said, and this bothers Derek now. He shifts into drive, switches the radio on. Then off. He is nothing like Uriel Deed. No, no. Nothing like him. But somehow, he feels far less brave. 

Birthday Cake

She was ninety-three and had nineteen nine-inch diameter chocolate birthday cakes from Bill Knapp’s restaurant in her basement freezer. How could she say no?  They were a free gift, no coupon necessary.  Each cake came with a sixteen-year-old waitress smiling straight rows of braces; with a balding manager clapping chapped hands to that tune everyone loved.  (Except  her, the ditty going round and round her brain and into her dreams, waking her at 3:00 am.  Alone.) Each came with her son and his family, who brought her every year in their Dodge Caravan, even in blizzards.

The restaurant’s parking lot was always plowed. Inside, the January sun glistened off the vinyl booths, off the menus in large print. Still, the type was getting hard to read, even with her bifocals. The last several years, she had had to hand the laminated list over to Howard, ask him to read in his lawyer-like voice.  She was sure he had practiced one winter when he was laid off from the office and watched the soaps for three months until a cousin got him on in the next town over. (What exactly did he do there?  She couldn’t remember, but it must be something important.) Even then he took her out and read the menu aloud. He was a good son.  She had brought him up well.

Of course, she knew each appetizer, entrée, and dessert by heart and always ordered Salisbury steak and “homemade” mashed potatoes (not as good as hers) with a side salad. That was not the point. It was nice to hear him read like that, the way she had read so many Uncle Wiggly stories before tucking him in at night, then, such a brief time later it seemed, to Howie and Ben (both named after her dear husband, rest his soul).  They, too, were good to her. Miriam and the boys (who weren’t so little anymore, now were they?), they all made time.  Goodness knows, it wasn’t easy with boys these days and all their this and thats. They even dressed up (Howard would never let them wear jeans for this) and brought photos of their latest girlfriends though they claimed she was still their best girl. The cake, of course, came with all this, candles and song included. The boys sang harmony, the way they’d learned in Glee Club. Howard brought his camera.

The restaurant was family-owned and operated, a nice place—clean, close, affordable. They knew her there by name. She had taught the wife’s sister in her eighth-grade class and back before all that Nixon craziness was a den mother to two of her brothers. (What were their names?) The owner or his wife always made a point of coming over. They’d kiss her on the cheek, shake Howard’s hand. The wife was a bit dowdy, it’s true, but what a personality. She knew all kinds of stories about the old school before it was torn down for the fancy schmanzy one where the boys went now.  My, how they’d all laugh. Howard nearly burst a seam. Miriam would pat her on the back, and they’d both giggle like girls. Even the boys smirked, looking back and forth at all of them.

With all this, how could she complain, turn down the double-layers heaped with icing? Each time, her family  insisted a waitress box up the “free birthday gift” and have her take it home for later. “It is, after all, your birthday,” Howard would explain. “and you are the only one who can afford the calories. Besides, the roses remind me of the ones you used to grow.”  And he was right there.  She was the thinnest by fifty pounds and still had her  figure.  And the sugar blooms did, in a strange way, look like the Rosa New Days she had coaxed into life.  How she missed those days in the garden with her Howard when they were first married, long before the arthritis, the blood clots in his legs.  She’d bring him unsweetened ice tea in the late afternoon and sometimes  fresh scones.  She’d had glasses with yellow buds twined around the lip and a butter dish shaped like a rose. They’d sit together under the oak, their knees dirty from digging.  They’d raise their glasses and cheer the day.

Not like this restaurant.  Not like this cake. Her husband had hated the sight of the cakes (too much goo), but she had talked him into keeping her secret (“It means so much to the kids.”) and he obliged her.  Now, these last ten years, it was only her secret to keep. But not for long. She smiled to think of it.

Nine-inch diameter chocolate cakes. Later, when he found them, Howard Jr. would be pleased. The cakes were, of course, arranged neatly, each in its own square box, marked with the year, the first when Howard’s Howie was just a tot, the last would arrive in about an hour.  She would bring the pastry box home from the restaurant in a white plastic bag, take it out carefully and date the box with one of those fat magic markers she kept in the kitchen.  The basement light would flicker as she descended the stairs; the furnace would hum more loudly. She liked the noises of the house; found them familiar, comforting. She would miss that, even the mustiness of the cellar.  She’d look around at the 30-year-old Maytag, the clothes ironed and hung, the Christmas ornaments in storage, the extra freezer. Finally, she’d take the cake box, tuck it tightly in its waiting space, and close the freezer lid for the last time.

Howard could serve them after the funeral. There was bound to be a crowd, and Miriam had so much else to prepare. Surely the owner’s wife (what was her name?) made good cakes, just a little too sweet perhaps.  They froze well. She had held out for this last one.  An even twenty, now that’s something you could be proud about.  No one could say she wasn’t prepared. It would be her “birthday gift” to them.

She was so tired. She waited by the door. Howard would be there soon. She could see the lights of the Caravan approaching.  The weatherman was calling for a blizzard. It was going to be a big one. She prayed the electricity would hold.

SELFIE INTERVIEW | Nicole Miyashiro

What captures your interest most in your work, now, as a reader?

I’m interested in lyrical flow and urgency, and savor moments when all other story elements blend to elevate these two and keep the story moving.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on a collection of fictionalized vignettes — linked to “Spectators” and “I Will” — that explores the psyches of those who mobilized around one man’s dream to introduce orca captivity to Seattle (and to the US). In between, I work on other short stories and poetry, always poetry.

Who and what are your artistic influences?

For me, it all started with Joyce Carol Oates and Tim O’Brien – add to that Caitlin Horrocks, Otessa Moshfegh, Ito Romo, Melinda Moustakis, Melissa Febos, Dorianne Laux, Ted Kooser, Lorrie Moore, Anthony Doerr, and more… News reports, visual art, film, and music/song lyrics have also had their influence along the way…

Read “Spectators” by Nicole Miyashiro

This killer whale broke surface twelve feet out, arching its oily mass out from the water, and then it dove, aimed in our direction. One of us grabbed the shotgun. Our catch was good, but orcas could eat our salmon right through the nets, swarm us in packs of up to forty. We knew the risks. It was the wretched ‘blackfish.’ We’d heard how a pack of them had come up on a whaler’s catch recently, attacking its haul in a fury of relayed darts and tears, mucking up the water with their methodical peeling back of the blue whale’s skin…. READ MORE