Joshua Schafer knew the corridor well. Since the state had re-established capital punishment, he as death row chaplain had ministered to twenty inmates, and there were three more executions slated for later in the year. With luck, he wouldn’t be here for those. He’d done the paperwork for an unpaid leave of absence hours before, and there was no reason to think he’d be denied. He’d read the newspaper that morning and was certain he’d made the right decision. The headline had assaulted him. He knew that when a man of the cloth feels hatred and revenge in his heart, it’s time to step back. And not only step back but reconsider whether he was prepared to go on—with everything.
The corridor looked the same as last time, smelled the same, sounded the same. Light, shadows, echoes, the inelastic ambiance of fear: all the same, except for one thing. The young prison guard kept glancing back at him as they walked down the hallway to unit 05, where an inmate had been transferred to the death house just yesterday. At first, it was only a slight sideways look and Schafer thought nothing of it. But then it happened two, three more times and Schafer touched his clerical collar wondering if something was out of order.
They stopped at 05, and the guard hesitated.
“What is it guard?”
Again the look, this time more of a stare, making Schafer even more uncomfortable.
“I get the feeling there’s something about me that’s bothering you,” said Schafer.
“I’m just amazed, sir,” said the guard, a shadow of embarrassment passing over his face.
Did the kid even shave yet? thought Schafer.
“You look astoundingly like Cullen,” said the guard.
Schafer had seen the photographs, flipped through the file. Yes, he’d noticed a resemblance in the sandy-colored hair, high cheekbones, over-large ears, and a nose that was long and narrow and a bit crooked from a straight-on angle. But it hadn’t concerned him, and what could you tell from a photo anyway?
“Hmm,” said Schafer, as he looked away. “I think we should get on with this.”
“Sorry, but it’s hard to ignore,” the guard said. “You’d think you were the man himself. What’s that word people use? Uncanny? That’s it, uncanny.”
Schafer felt heat rise from his chest and neck. He took a long breath. “Look, I haven’t got a lot of time, and quite frankly it’s been a rough morning for me. Daunting, to tell the truth. I’d like to move this along as quickly as possible.”
Joe Bob Cullen looked directly at the chaplain as to the two men shook hands. For a moment Schafer had the sensation he was staring into his own slate-blue eyes. They sat facing each other at a metal table inside a small meeting room a few paces from Cullen’s open cell. The room was without a door and separated from the rest of the unit by a cinder block wall painted white. There were three guards, but they couldn’t be seen from where the two men sat. Cullen wore the usual death row inmate’s uniform, a white jumpsuit with DR printed in black on the back.
“I’m sure you’re aware that on the day before an execution the inmate has a chance to meet a chaplain. The new rules allow us ten minutes in a semi-private setting. I’m here to introduce myself, and to say I’ll be there for the procedure unless of course, you would prefer me not to be. We can also have one more visit before the execution tomorrow.”
“Fine by me,” said Cullen. “Whatever the rules and regulations say.” He laughed.
“I’m glad I’m dying in a more liberal state where they treat us guys like human beings.”
Schafer nodded and studied the file he’d brought with him. He noted that Cullen was born two days after him, in 1977. He looked up. “I can pray with you as well, offer communion, answer any questions you might have. And I can…”
Schafer stared at Cullen’s face, impassive as granite. Photographs did little justice to the resemblance between the two men. Was it true that somewhere in the world my exact double exists? thought Schafer.
“Cat got your tongue, padre?”
“Er, no, it’s just that…”
“I know what you’re thinking, pastor. By the way, you prefer to be called pastor or are you one of those down-and-dirty, streetwise padres? You prefer Joshua or maybe Mr. Schafer?”
“Mr. Schafer’s fine.”
“Mr. Schafer it is, then.”
Schafer fidgeted with the file in front of him, ran his hand across his sandy colored hair. His knees bounced to an unknown rhythm. He stroked his chin and realized he’d forgotten to shave. He’d left his house in a hurry after reading the morning paper. Had he switched off the toaster?
Cullen watched as he sat leaning against his chair back. His legs were crossed. “People tell me I’m your Doppelgänger,” the prisoner said. “That’s the word, ain’t it? Doppelgänger?”
“Yes it is,” Schafer said, trying for nonchalance. “I must say, I’d never realized how strong the resemblance is until now.”
“Makes you sorta nervous, don’t it? Like it’s one of those there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I sorts of things.”
The chaplain shrugged and smiled. “The world is full of chance occurrences, coincidences, marvels. There are so many unpredictable things they’re almost predictable. It’s all part of God’s wondrous, mysterious universe.”
“Like the twist of fate that left me taking the rap for a murder I didn’t commit? The lousy break that allows me to be the fall guy and another bastard goes free?”
“My remit is not to discuss your sentencing but to minister to your spiritual needs.”
Cullen smiled, and Schafer noted that his bottom teeth were so closely packed that one tooth had been pushed forward. He instinctively raised his finger to his mouth to feel a misaligned incisor in the same position.
“I’m thinking you may have some spiritual needs too, padre.”
Schafer frowned. “We all feel the necessity of having a relationship with God. In some it’s sharper than in others, but it’s there for everybody.”
“I read the papers,” said Cullen. “Saw the headline. What was it? Former Accused Murderer Wins Lottery. Yeah, that was it.”
Schafer glared at the prisoner. “That has nothing to do what we are about here, Mr. Cullen. What we are about here is the fact that tomorrow evening at 6 sharp you will receive a lethal injection. My goal is to assist you spiritually in any way I can between now and that moment of truth.”
“Well,” said Cullen as he picked at a fingernail. “I don’t believe much in the truth, frankly, since I told the truth and look where it got me. But I ain’t a dumb man, padre, and I know a little bit about human nature. You know, prison is about the best place I can think of to read up on the world, get your bearings. Some of the boys call it FelonyU. And my education tells me your seeing that headline must have just torn you up.”
“Mr. Cullen, if you have no questions or requests for me, then I’ll say my goodbyes until tomorrow.”
“Now wait a minute,” said Cullen, as Schafer was about to stand. “I read how the man who’d been acquitted of raping and murdering the prison chaplain’s young wife—Magdalena, right?—goes out and lives a fine-and-thank-you-very-much kind of life. And then what happens? Bastard wins the lottery and becomes an overnight millionaire. How’s that for luck, padre? I’m reading that paper and thinking, why, that must be hell for the chaplain. Pure hell. Because the chaplain still thinks the man did it. Still thinks his wife’s former lover is the murderer. Or so says the paper. Were you misquoted?”
Schafer rose. “I think we’re done here.” He stood but didn’t move as he stared at the inmate.
“Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world,” said Cullen.
Schafer’s face darkened.
“I know a little bit of the Good Word too, padre. It ain’t only newspapers and pornography I read. I know that when John the Baptist said he was thinking of Christ as the Lamb of God, he was thinking of sacrifice.”
“You’re no sacrificial lamb, if that’s what you’re saying,” said Schafer. “You killed a convenience store owner in cold blood. Just because you wanted what little cash the poor man had. God forgives you, of that you can be certain, but the people have a right to seek justice, and tomorrow they will have it.”
“Well we can disagree on the sacrifice part,” said Cullen. “An innocent man killed for something he didn’t do is a sacrifice, I’d say. I’ve got the job of somehow atoning for the crimes of all the good citizens out there. I’ve never been big on sharing, if you know what I mean, but there it is.”
“I can see the Lord has not yet opened your heart. In the next 24 hours I will pray that he does.”
“Well you go right on and pray, padre. I can’t stop you from doing your job. But I thought I’d remind you that the Book of Revelation also speaks of the wrath of the Lamb. That’s right, the Lamb’s wrath. And it even says, ‘These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them.'”
“I will not stand here and allow you to misuse the Lord’s Word.”
“But I bet you’ll allow me to be your wrathful Lamb, won’t you, padre?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll take care of the fucker who did your wife.”
“I have no idea what you’re going on about, Mr. Cullen, and this is highly inappropriate anyway—”
“You and me. Exchange places.”
“This is preposterous.”
“You and me, we look alike. So close I could be you. I know you see it. I know you know.”
“And you’re suggesting I stand in for you, so you can…what? Kill the man who killed my wife? If I had that much hatred in my heart I’d do that myself.”
“But you won’t. I know you won’t. You’re a man of God. You’ll carry around the hatred all your life. You’ll ask for forgiveness, do good works, think you’re helping guys who are ready to get a chemical stew in their veins. But you won’t do anything but get on your knees. Meanwhile the acid of revenge eats away at your insides. Always eating until there’s nothing left. You take my place and you can rest assured you’ll get the one thing you want more than anything else in the world, more than life itself. That man will die. The minute I get out of this shithole, I’ll hunt that man down and kill him. All you need to do is give me the key to outside. They’ll probably catch me for it too, so don’t go thinking I go scot-free. But it will be worth it to have a little more time outside.”
Schafer straightened his shoulders. “You underestimate how God’s grace works in our hearts. How it enables us to move on.”
Cullen harrumphed. “How’s that working for you so far, huh? I know I couldn’t move on from something like that. A pretty little wife, you find out was screwing with this guy, and then he stabs her full of holes—and then lives the life of fucking Riley. No, padre, a man doesn’t move on from something like that. That sits with a man. Claws at him. That kind of injustice makes grace melt like snow in April.”
“You said you weren’t a murderer. You didn’t kill the convenience store owner.”
“I said I didn’t do that murder.”
The chaplain heard the door to unit 05 close behind him. His knees were mercury. His heart thumped and he feared the guard could hear it. His mind raced. He was in the courtroom a year ago watching the defendant. He saw how the man smirked when the judge said four fateful words, “acquitted of all charges.” He felt as if some dark soul of revenge and destruction had come to colonize his life. He was in the bedroom where he’d found Magdalena’s naked body, the sheets soaked in red, walls splattered. He imagined her and the man together, in that bed. On the carpeted floor he saw what would be identified as the murder weapon, a kitchen knife, and he’d wished many times since then he could drive it into his heart to stop the burn of hatred.
Again he walked the corridor. The guard was an older man and he didn’t study the pastor’s face as the young guard had yesterday. The sounds and smells of death row seemed strangely muted, as if he were in some other place and some other time, or no time at all. His black trousers and black shirt felt snug, as if he’d donned someone else’s clothes. His white collar scratched his neck.
He thought about his duties. Praying with the condemned man, offering to take care of any last-minute things for a spouse, a child. Ensuring the prisoner was able to say his last words at the execution. Standing at the end of the gurney as the procedure went on.
Cullen was already seated at the metal table when the chaplain entered. The prisoner looked up and smiled, a picture of casualness.
“We have five minutes at most,” said Schafer. He stood behind the white cinder block wall and undressed.
“Perfect fit,” said Cullen as he shed his uniform and began dressing in the pastor’s clothing. Schafer slipped on Cullen’s white shirt and trousers. They exchanged shoes.
Cullen handed Schafer a folded piece of paper. “My last words,” said Cullen, smirking. “There ain’t much so you can memorize it quickly.”
Schafer nodded. “All you have to do is stand there by the gurney and let me say my piece, I mean, your piece, and…”
“I seen the documentaries. I know what the padre does when they start feeding the poison.”
They looked at one another, not sure what to do next. A guard strolled past the entrance to the small room. “Couple more minutes, gentlemen,” he said, barely glancing at them.
“You kneel,” said Cullen in a hushed tone.
Schafer went down on his knees and bowed his head as Cullen raised his arms and whispered, “And they said to the mountains and rocks, fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb. For the great day of his wrath is come, and who shall be able to stand?”
Schafer opened his eyes and looked at the linoleum floor. He heard the buzz of fluorescent lighting overhead.
Cullen walked out and the chaplain was alone, still kneeling.