At first we posted guards outside the Senator's cell on rotating shifts, day and night, but for two weeks he meekly followed our instructions, he spoke rationally, he respected the whole staff, may I, excuse me, please and thank you. So we took him off strict suicide watch. Some prisoners try climbing onto the steel sink and diving headfirst, arms at their sides, onto the concrete floor. It rarely works. At the last moment most of them instinctively throw out an arm and break their wrists instead of their heads. Whatever you think you want, your body has a mind of its own and you can't make it want to die.
I'm doing one of my walks down the segregation corridor, looking in on the four occupied cells, when I hear an odd sound from the Senator's cell. I walk back up the range, lift the grilled slat and peer through. I can't make sense of what I see. Under his grey blanket the Senator – it can only be him, though you wouldn't know it from here – is thrashing around and making gulping sounds. For a moment I think he's having a really bad dream, which wouldn't be surprising under the circumstances, except it's noon and he's always wide awake at noon, sitting on his cot with excellent posture, feet on the floor, a book open in his hands, the blanket beside him folded neatly, almost contritely. I pull out my handset and call for help. I'm on my own – Rinaldi is on break and Taylor, last I saw, was charging into the bathroom, his stomach giving him grief all morning.
I'm not supposed to go into a seg-cell alone, but back-up will arrive in a minute at most and I have a taser in my hand. How much can happen in a minute? But now I can't get the key in – somehow something has been forced into the lock. I keep trying while ramming my shoulder into the door, hoping to jar loose whatever's in the lock.
"Senator," I'm yelling stupidly, "you all right?"
More of those sounds, like he's trying to swallow something and cough it up at the same time.
"Unblock it, sir – let me in!" I feel something give, the key clicks, I haul the door outward. From where I stand tensed on the threshold to where he's writhing on his cot is just a couple of strides.
"Need help here now!" I holler back into the corridor. "Throw it off, sir – the blanket."
I'm assuming he wants to hurt himself somehow, not me, and I'm younger than he is and way stronger, but I'm scared all the same. He could be faking. Turns out he has spent a lifetime faking and not just in the little ways we all do. Plus, it's like there's something non-human under the blanket, moving nonsensically, spastically, making bestial sounds. In different circumstances it might look funny – a kid at a sleepover, wired and giddy, clowning for friends. One of my own kids, clowning.
My hearing is weirdly alert – the ducts of my ears seem as wide as the corridor – so the Senator's rasps and grunts seem more and more amplified. I think I hear a toilet flush far away. I cross the cell in two steps, clutch the moving blanket in my fist and pull it clear, recoiling. He's lying on his side, his pampered, well-fed face purple, his mouth gawped open. His brown eyes roll up toward mine like a veal calf's. I drop to one knee, holster the taser. I grab my handset and say, "Get a doctor down here."
In the distance a door slams, voices yell.
"Have to pull it out," I tell him. My voice is thin, throttled. "Don't move. Try to bite me and I'll break your jaw."
He twists his body away so he's facing the wall – where now I notice lines of words, graffiti in yellow finger-paint. Then the smell hits me – mustard. His squirming twines the blanket tighter. My eye takes in: NO LONGER ABLE TO ENDURE, while an oddly calm quadrant of my brain wonders Why not the shortest words possible, with only a few squeeze-packets of mustard? He slams his red, shining forehead against the daubed wall, maybe not as hard as intended – he's weakening as his body fights for air, as his body fights him, the Senator wanting to die, his body insisting on more life, life at any price, life in any form. It's like his body wants him to walk into that courtroom tomorrow, wants him to face the judge and the attorneys and the media and the jury and the seething families of those young men. Those boys. MY CULPABILITY, the wall says, and I wonder Why not just "guilt"?
I tell myself I too want him dead, that it's a shame we don't do that to his type up here – and a man in his position too, a position of trust, prestige, a man respected and admired, imitated … He must have thought he was specially exempt on all levels, maybe all the way up to God. For a long time he seemed to be. I mean, who'd have given odds? Not the cops, he must have felt. They weren't smart enough to finger him. But they got him, and now if anyone deserved to die, he did, and I thought I wanted that too but I'm not supposed to let it happen and now, it seems, I genuinely don't want it to happen – I'm restraining him in the ways I've been trained to, bringing my torso down on his back, my hand forcing his head down sideways into the thin, smelly pillow. "Stop," I'm telling him.
I've immobilized him. Now I have to remove whatever's choking him. The others are almost here, steps pounding in the corridor, but I don't need them. I will do this, do this to the Senator, do it in my own way. He's bucking beneath me. How does a face go this colour? I smell his fear, or maybe my own fear. I hear his muffled, heaving grunts, like there's something alive in his throat trying to come out. If you passed the cell and knew no better you'd think: prison rape, torture, some kind of brutal, excruciating intimacy. PROFOUND REMORSE AND SHAME. I force fingers into his mouth and whisper in his ear, "Bite me and I'll kill you." It's completely untrue – nothing he can do now would prompt me to help him die.
I pinch something and tug and it starts to come, a spiral ribbon of sodden paper. He sputters, retches. The rest pulls free: the remains of a cardboard toilet roll stuffed with bits of foil, emptied mustard packets. He's gulping air helplessly. His inflamed eyes stare at the wall and shine with sudden tears. Others crowd into the cell behind us.
"Keep back," I say. "I've got this."
"Oh … God," the Senator gets out in a sort of death rattle, though his breathing is slowing to normal, whatever "normal" is for someone like him. Every second he's more inescapably alive. Tears streaming.
His body, of course, could not be more normal.
"You're going to live," I hear myself tell him, to no clear purpose. I hope the others didn't hear. Someone is pulling me off him – not roughly, as if I'm an attacker, the winner of a cell fight, but gently, like I'm a mourner at a funeral leaning over the casket of the brother I always hated, not quite able to tear myself away.
Steven Heighton's most recent books are the short-story collection The Dead are More Visible and the novel Every Lost Country.