In my spare time, I like to write short stories of speculative fiction, horror, and science fiction.
These are some of my recently published stories:
- The Death Notice – in the Galway Review.
- The Angel – in the Del Sol SF Review.
- A Sense of Closure in the Chamber Magazine.
Read on for the full text of the Angel.
They call us angels because we help fix broken people. It’s hard work to go inside someone’s head, live there for a month, try and pull them back from the dark side and put them on a better path. That first week is the most difficult, when their mind is still strong and you are trying to uproot everything. Synapses splintered by trauma and a life of crime, they are hard-wired for badness. We angels, we get in there and we put it back together. We unbreak the broken connections, awaken their buried consciences, and set them on a better path.
It almost always works but that first week or so is like playing with gelignite on a warm day.
If you ask me why I became an angel, there are two versions of that story: the public one and the private one. The public one you probably already know.
My name is Soren and my daughter’s name was Amelia. You remember now, don’t you? You remember how Amelia was on her way home from school when a car pulled up alongside her. You remember how she got dragged into that car and never came home. You remember the man who did it, how he had killed five times before. You remember what he did to her, to all of them. You remember the trial, how I asked the judge not to hang him because I believed in forgiveness, because I believed everybody deserved a second chance. Even the judge wouldn’t listen. You remember Amelia was just fourteen years old.
That man – I can’t bring myself to say his name – is in prison now for life. His home is a small cell in a high-security sex offender’s prison. His life, so far as I can tell, is not so bad. He gets exercise, and books, has a TV, and use of a games console in his room. He’s allowed visitors, though nobody ever comes. He’s unrepentant still, used up every appeal he had, denies it still. DNA is not in the habit of telling lies though.
It’s been seven years now and I’ve been busy. For the first year, I campaigned against the death penalty, eventually had his sentence commuted to just life prison.
And then the angel programme came along. For as long as we can remember, we have been trying to fix bad people. We lock them up, we talk to them, and we try to convince them of the error of their ways. We call it rehabilitation. Sometimes it works, lots of times it doesn’t.
An angel is different. You strap the criminal down, you anaesthetise him. The angel lies unconscious by his side – both hooked up to a machine I don’t understand. You share their minds. The angel stays put, comatose, his consciousness now transplanted into the other mind. He gets to work, unbreaking things, rewiring, resetting, reconstructing the conscience, helping build self-awareness. The first week – like I already said – that’s the hard bit. Badness has a lot of fight about it; it doesn’t give up too easily. We stay in there six weeks, maybe seven. If by the fourteenth day, we’ve made no progress, we pull the plug. Some types of evil can’t be cured.
I’ve done it seven times now, only failed twice. That’s five less hardened criminals around, each now a little bit more ready to become constructive members of society. It’s rare for them to reoffend after an angel gets involved. I’m going in now for my eighth time, my first time ever with a sex offender. He’s on structured release near the end of a twenty-year sentence, says he will do anything to get back on the straight and narrow.
I’m lying on a hospital bed now. The anaesthetist is standing over me. He tells me to count to ten. One, two … for the first time, I’m smiling as I go under … three, four, five … this is my private story … six, seven … I’m coming for you … eight, nine, ten … I wake up in another man’s brain.
It’s a strange feeling to come to inside another man’s consciousness. It’s jarring at first, seeing the same thing from two different perspectives. Every thought seems split, you feel as if you’re seeing double even though the world is crystal clear. You hear familiar voices as unfamiliar; every day smells rendered a tiny bit askew.
It’s one of the first questions imaginative kids ask – does every person see colour in the same way? Is your version of blue the same as mine, or is it closer to green? Is the word just an attachment to an uncertain shade that every individual sees differently? Your mind tells you that you see through your eyes but going inside somebody else tells you differently, almost as if you can feel the light hitting the rods and cones.
The dreadful disorientation doesn’t last too long, the mind accepting the presence of the other, almost as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
I know already if I meant to cure this man; it would be relatively easy.
He is contrite, has developed insight into his crimes and his disorder. There is a repulsion in seeing how a man like this sees the world. It’s hard to keep your own faith when confronted with the mind of a genuine psychopath. This man though, he’s no psychopath – he was just made wrong, with compulsions he could not control.
He has grappled with it. He will never lose those feelings, but he can keep them where they belong – in his imagination. Maybe he deserves a second chance.
What second chance did his victims have? There’s no room now for me to be forgiving; I need to hate his crimes. I need to hate him. I need to use him.
We are in the psychiatrist’s room, our head pounding from the anaesthesia. We ask for a glass of water and two Solpadeine. The fizzy water tastes refreshing going down.
“How are you feeling?” says the psychiatrist.
It’s hard to tell which one of us answering; it takes more time before the mind settles that argument.
“OK, groggy,” we reply.
“And the procedure worked?”
“Yes, we are both here now – we can get to work.”
“Well, you can sleep it off; we will get started in earnest again in the morning.”
“Thanks,” we say.
The prison officer comes to put the handcuffs on. We put our hands out to meet him. The drive from the hospital to the prison does not take too long but the van jolts on every bump, and our head continues to pound.
We are back in the prison now. I’m observing everything; taking in what I can, sucking information from his mind, routines, cell numbers, mealtimes, exercise hours, visits to the library. He has his version of the prison, but I need mine.
We are in our cell, the television on, the prison doctor comes to see us.
“How are you feeling?”
“We are OK … this headache is awful.”
“Here’s something to help you sleep,” he says.
We take the Zimovane tablet gratefully, knowing we need it, that sleep would be near impossible as our minds continue to weld together.
Morning comes, the headache is still there. We are taken to the psychiatrist again.
“How are you feeling?”
“Better,” we say.
“Have we made any progress?”
“We are still coming to terms with each other.”
It feels like a subtle fracas, the criminal’s mind defying me, and yet working with me. He wants to let me in because he knows his freedom counts on it. But his mind resists because it is fearful of losing control. There is a complication too, because I have my own reasons for being here and he cannot be let know that. He’s the only thing that can stop me now.
We are trained never to open our minds fully to them, but it isn’t always that easy; our consciousness works in mysterious ways, not least when two of them have been haphazardly jumbled together.
The psychiatrist has certain questions he will ask. They will sound like one thing to this sex offender, and quite another to me. It is a coded language of alerts, progress, and the escape button if required.
They say we need to get out of the mind of a true psychopath relatively quickly; the type of person who is so damaged, that he has fooled us into thinking he could be saved. Too long in that type of mind can leave you corrupted, like a computer with traces of spyware that proves impossible to remove.
“How did you sleep last night?” says the psychiatrist.
“Soundly,” we reply.
We angels have five words we can answer with: soundly, restfully, moderately, fitfully, and poorly.
Soundly tells Dr Patrick Langton all is going well, that we have no concerns, that everything remains on track. Poorly means exactly what you might imagine.
You can see the flicker of recognition in the eyes of the psychiatrist, a tinge of relief even as the angel programme moves past its experimental phase. Only the desperate or egotistical would sign up in the beginning. Now, we get lifers and long sentence prisoners of all types, desperate to try something other than another unsuccessful parole hearing.
It may seem strange that I don’t set about my real task immediately but that isn’t quite how it works. The first seven days or so, control swings back and forth unpredictably between the twin minds. There are times when it starts to feel as if it’s my body, and my choices, but his sub-conscious can easily wrest it back at any moment, as if aware of an intruder.
After a week or so, it becomes more stable, more predictable, the control of the angel grows stronger with every day. It’s almost impossible then – except when dealing with a psychopath – for the target of the treatment to retrieve control.
My job in here would be easy; the sex offender is willing and ready. Most of the groundwork has already been done. His father is dead, and his mother is struggling with mobility. He wants to get home to help her; he sees it as the last good thing he can do. He will be quite happy to stay in that house for the rest of his life looking out over green fields instead of high walls.
I’m here to make sure the architecture of his rehabilitation is robust, that the foundations won’t easily crumble, that some unforeseen event won’t put him back on his old path.
We meet daily with the psychiatrist. At every session, we say we slept soundly. I can see Dr Langton is already moving on to his next project; this sex offender already marked as cured. If things go according to my plan, this will be the last time this cure ever happens.
I get to know the prison a little better, its patterns, habits, and schedules. I see that man, that swine, a few times every day. I try to keep my distance lest I lose control of my emotions or let slip my motivation. He’s older now; a pathetic and sullen creature. He isn’t strong but neither am I. My bare hands are not sufficient to finish this job.
Ten days have passed now, sleeping soundly every night. Life in the prison has become familiar; I am in total control now. This body – at least temporarily – belongs to me.
My alter ego knows now what I am planning but his consciousness is no longer strong enough to stop me.
He can get the words almost to the tip of our tongue but no further. Now, all we need to do is find a suitable weapon … not quite as easy as you might think.
The downside of a high-security prison is its security. Little enough is left to chance. Furniture is built into the cells, TVs embedded in the walls, an inventory is kept of cutlery and anything else that could be used as a makeshift weapon.
I can’t risk asking or paying another prisoner and anyway, we don’t know anyone well enough to fully trust them.
All the time, I’ve been thinking about this in my mind – I’ve had fantasies of coat hangers and broken bed springs, TV wiring, and plastic toothbrushes fashioned into shivs. Getting access to those things though is not quite so easy as it was in other prisons that I’ve been an angel inside.
I’m starting to think of how I might use my hands, knock him down with some blunt object or other, then strangle him but I’ve no confidence in this aging body that I occupy.
We are sitting in the psychiatrist’s room, distracted.
“Are you all right?” says Dr Langton, a slight note of concern in his voice.
Our mind has wandered; it’s anywhere except where it is supposed to be.
“Sorry,” we say, “just a little … distracted.”
There is a letter opener on the desk. How have we not seen that before? We go to pick up our cup of tea from the desk, accidentally knock it over.
“I’m so sorry,” we say, “leaping to our feet. Is there anything to clean it up?”
The psychiatrist looks around for a towel. There is just enough time to take what needs to be taken.
“Can I help you with that?” we ask.
“It’s fine,” says Dr Langton, as he mops up the mess. “Are you sure you’re OK?”
“Just a headache again, finding it hard to shake them, but sleeping soundly otherwise.”
“Hmmm, hmmm,” he says.
“Let’s just keep an eye on that.”
The prison officers no longer search us when we finish with Dr Langton. We are a trusted prisoner; after all, we’re no longer really a criminal at all. We are returned to our cell. He tries to sound the alarm; he can’t get the worst past me. The cold metal feels good against our leg.
It’s dinner time and we sit eating a plate of pork and mashed potatoes. It’s chewy and tasteless but we hardly notice. Three tables across sits our quarry, all by himself, eating the last meal he will ever have.
He finishes his food, gets up from the table, hands back his tray to a guard. They check that everything is still there and satisfied, allow him to return to his cell. In the time it takes us to gather our tray, another prisoner is now in front of us.
This prisoner chats with the warder, makes a joke about the meat being hard as shoe leather. Hurry the fuck up¸ half of us is thinking.
We hand over our tray.
Outside the entrance, we turn to our left, and we can see him turning a corner, disappearing from our view. No going back now.
We follow him around; he is nowhere to be seen. He must already be in his cell. This was not how I had pictured this.
The weapon is in our hand now, hidden between our fist and the sleeve of our uniform. The cell door is mostly closed; we push it open.
He turns to face us. “What the fuck do you want?” he says. Maybe the last words he will ever say.
“Do you remember the girl Amelia that you killed?” I say.
“Which one was she?” he says, laughing to himself.
We drive the letter opener into his side, pull it out. I drive it in again, and again.
That look, the look on his face; it brings me only bliss.
“I’m her dad,” I say. “It’s taken me a long time.”
He understands now, even as the blood, and life drains out from him.
I/we leave the weapon embedded in his neck, walk out into the corridor, blood dripping from my hands.
This body, my own body, I don’t care what happens to either of them now.
“It’s over,” we scream. “It’s over. It’s over.”