© Isabella Bailey 2021
All rights reserved.
Kramer frowned. Estevez was watching him over the rim of her coffee mug, seemingly more interested in him than she was in the breakfast in front of her.
“What is it?” he asked.
Estevez furrowed her brow, looking away. “Nothing,” she replied.
“What do you mean, ‘nothing’? It’s never nothing with you.”
“Jeez, Kramer, I said it was nothing,” Estevez snapped, picking up a dry piece of toast and examining it distastefully. “Is there some rule against looking at you now?”
Kramer sniffed. “No,” he replied after a moment. “I guess not.”
They sat there in silence, listening to the low hum of the refrigerator. Distant voices carried from elsewhere in the building, electric with anticipation, and the accompanying scuff and squeak of boots on linoleum echoed through the cavernous halls. The only other sound in the cafeteria came from the coffee maker on the far table, which bubbled and sputtered like it was on the verge of finally giving out. It seemed like everything around here was on the verge of giving out these days — with the exception, of course, of the Regression room. That was kept state of the art.
Estevez tossed her toast back onto her tray and brought the remnants of her breakfast over to the trash can. She hadn’t yet learned that it wasn’t worth bothering with the slop they served here. If they gave it to the inmates, then edibility was never guaranteed. For his part, Kramer returned his attention to the tablet in front of him, but he was aware of his partner’s restlessness, even with his nose buried in the headlines. After another moment of fidgeting, along with a healthy dose of foot-tapping, Estevez sighed and spoke up again. “We’ve got Reed today.”
Kramer cleared his throat. “Yeah.”
There was another pause, and then, “I just don’t get how you manage to stay so composed on Regression days.”
Powering down his tablet, Kramer looked up at her, shrugged, and replied, “I guess I’ve been here long enough that it doesn’t really bother me anymore.” Seeing the dismay on her face, he held up a hand. “I mean, it’s not easy. It’s never easy. But it gets easier. And it will for you too, if you stick around long enough.” That was a hard sell; Kramer, who had been through five partners in as many years, understood this. These sorts of things took a certain kind of person: someone not easily rattled, even when it came to the stuff that most of respectable society would rather not think about.
Idly, he wondered what that said about him.
Estevez snorted. “Right. Maybe. They’re never putting me on the switch, I don’t think. Warden Stevens told me I don’t have the stomach for it.”
“Yeah.” Kramer gave a humorless chuckle. “That’s what I figured.”
“I mean, you’d think it would be easier than executing someone, right?” Estevez asked, more to herself than to him, as she took another sip of her coffee. “It’s not like you’re killing them.”
“Not technically, no,” Kramer acknowledged. “But you’re killing a part of them.”
“I guess so.” They lapsed into silence once more, giving him just enough time to contemplate taking a leak before his shift started. Today was big, and they all knew it — hell, even the prisoners seemed to know something was going down. “So how do you feel?” Estevez asked abruptly. “About Regressing Reed.”
Kramer thought for a moment. “After everything he’s done,” he replied slowly, carefully, “I think it’s the only thing that’s appropriate. Don’t you?”
“I don’t know.” She sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. “I think some people deserve to be put down.”
Kramer lumbered to his feet. “I’m surprised to hear you say that, Estevez.”
“How come?” she asked, having to crane her neck to meet his eyes.
He shrugged. “I mean, they got rid of the death penalty for a reason.”
“Not a good enough reason, if you ask me.” Seeing his expression, she pursed her lips. “Look, just because I don’t want to be there for it doesn’t mean I don’t think it should happen. He killed thirty people. Thirty-one if you count his wife.”
“They couldn’t charge him for that one.”
“Fine, say thirty.” Estevez gestured with her mug. “And those are just the ones we know about.”
“What’s your point?” Kramer asked, leaning back against the counter.
“How many is too many for a second chance? Fifty? A hundred? At what point does an eye for an eye stop making the world blind and start making the world safe?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted, shaking his head. He’d thought about this himself, and often, usually on the nights when sleep eluded him and the darkness outside his window seemed a little too dark. “Sometimes it’s hard to imagine rehabilitating these people. Especially people like him.”
“Yes,” agreed Estevez, her eyes tumultuous. “That’s exactly it. Like, what if it doesn’t work?”
That caught him off-guard. “The Regression? It always works.”
“Yeah, but…” His colleague rubbed her forehead, and he noticed that her nails were all chewed to the quick. “What if it doesn’t, though? I mean, have you ever thought about that?” She licked her lips. “What if a person is so horrible that you can’t wipe it out of them?”
Kramer looked away, an uncomfortable laugh escaping him.
Estevez shot him a glare. “I’m serious.”
“Come on. That’s impossible.”
“Look, I’m talking hypothetically.”
Kramer stared at her. She didn’t seem willing to meet his gaze. “What’s really going on, Estevez?” he pressed. “You’ve done Regressions before. Today won’t be any different.”
Estevez didn’t respond, still avoiding eye contact. The room suddenly felt too quiet. There was always an air like this on a Regression days, and it descended on the prison like a shroud. It was a kind of fearful awe, not only at the capabilities the facility possessed, but at the fact that, under different circumstances, those same capabilities could just as easily be turned on you.
“I saw him yesterday,” Estevez said at last. “Anthony Craig Reed.”
“Really?” Kramer’s brows knit together. “What were you doing in Zone C?”
“Stevens sent me down there to check on Pressley. Said he’d been hurting himself again.” She took a shaky breath. “I know they say you’re just supposed to ignore them. I mean, they can’t hurt you from where they are. And usually I’m able to do that.”
“But not this time.” It wasn’t a question. “What did he say to you, Estevez?”
“Nothing,” she replied, finally looking up, and there was a haunted look about her that made Kramer profoundly uncomfortable. “He didn’t say anything. That was what was so scary about it.”
“What do you mean, he didn’t say anything?” He hadn’t crossed paths with Reed in years — Stevens usually had him in Zone A when he wasn’t on the switch — but he had been here long enough to know the Regression Row attitude: blusterous, aggressive, inappropriate. There were the typical hollow threats and vulgar insults, but nothing you wouldn’t expect from the worst humanity had to offer.
“He just looked at me,” Estevez replied. “Except it wasn’t like he was looking at me, exactly. It was more like he was looking into me. Like he could see right through my skin, and knew exactly where my weak points were. No remorse, no reflection. Like he was a robot.” She shook her head, searching for the right words. “Or a wolf, or something.”
“You’re starting to sound paranoid,” Kramer told her, but now it was his turn to break eye contact.
“Maybe I am,” she retorted, her voice hard, “and maybe I have the right to be, after what he did.”
“That’s what Regression is for,” Kramer insisted. “After today, Reed won’t even remember who he is. He can be resocialized.” He straightened up, and there was conviction in his tone, so why did he suddenly feel like he was trying to convince himself?
“Are you sure about that?” Estavez asked. “Do you think an evil like that can just be deleted, with the flip of a switch? What if they got it wrong?”
“They never have before,” Kramer replied. Something stirred deep in the pit of his stomach.
“There’s a first time for everything,” was all Estevez said.
At twelve noon, they gathered in the Regression room: Kramer and Estevez in front of the bank of monitors on the wall, Warden Stevens standing rigidly by the window, and the audio technician setting up in the far corner. Behind the glass were the witnesses: family members of the victims, the proxy for the Attorney General, and Reed’s lawyer, who was talking with his assistant, his eyes darting periodically into the Regression chamber. Journalists were rarely ever allowed to witness the procedure, and for someone as notorious as Reed, it was out of the question. Outside the prison, there would no doubt already be a crowd of animated reporters, microphones in hand, waiting in feverish anticipation for the news that America’s most prolific living murderer had been erased from the world, but inside, it was quiet. The enormity of what was about to happen hung heavily in the air, and even among the guards, conversation was subdued.
This was always the part that bothered Kramer the most: the waiting. Somewhere not far from here, Anthony Craig Reed was living his last minutes as the person he now knew, and no one could be sure what was going on in that mind of his except the man himself. Idly, Kramer thought back to breakfast with Estevez, his eyes flicking over to his colleague. Whatever nerves she had displayed earlier were now hidden behind a mask of cold neutrality.
A technician came into the room to check that the systems were working, and after he had given the all clear, Reed was brought into the chamber. He was bound, flanked on either side by a pair of guards, his head bowed as if in quiet contemplation. His hair had grown gray and unkempt during his imprisonment, his back hunched and his bones sharp under his pasty skin. It was hard to imagine this was the same clean-cut father of three who had arrived here all those years ago. All eyes were on him, but he didn’t say anything, and that silence made Kramer's skin crawl. Was this what Estevez had experienced yesterday?
After Reed had been strapped into the chair, Kramer was up. Moving slowly, deliberately, he affixed the helmet-like amplifier to the other man’s head, lining the nodes up with his temples. He made a point to avoid skin-to-skin contact, as if through some freak osmosis, the madness between Reed’s ears might seep into him.
His hands had begun to shake, and he struggled to secure the amplifier in place. This went on for several agonizing moments, and at one point, Reed made a low scoffing sound. Like he was impatient. Like this was all a game. A finger of fear ran down Kramer’s spine.
After what felt like a hundred years of calibrating the device and double-checking the straps, he returned to the monitors, briefly meeting Estevez’s eyes as he went. The fear he saw there was palpable, a thundering echo of his own.
“We’re clear to proceed,” he announced in a thin voice.
Warden Stevens nodded and moved to stand in front of Reed, who remained motionless. “Anthony Craig Reed,” he began, “for the crimes of aggravated murder, sexual assault and battery, and desiccation of a corpse, as defined in section 1161.1 of the New York State Penal Code, you have hereby been sentenced to Regression to the age of…” He consulted his notes. “Six months and zero days, after which you will be given over to custody of the State. Do you have any last words?”
There was a long pause. Then, finally, Reed slowly lifted his head, his eyes sweeping over the warden with a look of vague disinterest. He barely seemed to notice the witnesses behind the glass as he appraised his attorney, the other guards, Estevez (who had wisely averted her gaze), and then, finally, Kramer.
Don’t move. The thought came to him unbidden. They can’t see you if you don’t move.
He froze, but those eyes, dark and bloodshot, settled on him anyway, and by then it was too late to look away. They burrowed, tunneling through sinew and bone, probing and exploring. Testing. Feeling. Sizing him up. And it was only now, burning under that stare, that Kramer understood what Estevez had meant.
Reed wasn’t afraid.
He didn’t know how he knew, but he knew, and even at his height, Ray Kramer felt very small indeed.
He won’t remember, he reminded himself, half-hysterical as he battled the irrational fear that had taken hold of him. In a minute, he won’t remember any of this.
Reed grinned then, a smile that was all teeth and no humor. “None,” he said at last, his eyes not leaving Kramer’s, and then he fell silent.
Warden Stevens cleared his throat. “Very well,” he said. “Mr. Kramer, you’re free to proceed.”
Estevez shot him a glance, her face painted with questions that Kramer was no longer sure he had the answers to. “On my mark,” she said in a small voice, turning to the bank of monitors to adjust the frequency. A low hum emitted from the device, nearly below the audible range, and it toyed unpleasantly with their eardrums for a moment before Estevez brought it down another level, her lips pressed together in concentration.
Kramer took the switch in his hand, the sweat from his palm making it hard to get a good grip. When was the last time he’d gotten clammy during one of these things?
Never. It had never happened.
“Clear,” Estevez said at last, and Kramer threw the switch.
The frequency ran from the machine and into the amplifier. Reed immediately seized up, his muscles all tensing at once, his eyes rolling back in his head. For a moment all was silent as he sat there quaking in his chair, but then he let out a bellow that ripped through the silence of the chamber like a knife. The agony in it was something you could never quite prepare yourself for.
The seconds ticked away, and the assembled witnesses watched, fidgeting, as the whole of a man’s life — memories from infancy to adulthood, relationships, emotions, aspirations — was scrubbed away before their eyes. Reed struggled against his restraints, the pain of the procedure drawing more inarticulate noises from him as he thrashed around, fighting to maintain a hold on what had made him the person he was before. Kramer, for one, couldn’t be more glad to see that person disappearing.
He was disappearing, right?
That feeling of being sized up was scorched into Kramer’s memory, as was his conversation with Estevez. Against his wishes, her words played again in his mind.
What if they got it wrong?
The process drew out until it was nearly unbearable, but then, finally, Reed went still, his head falling to his chest and his tongue lolling from his mouth.
It was over. No sudden awakening, no eyes flying open, no burst of maniacal laughter. Reed just sat there, slumped forward and drooling, no more than a man after all.
Kramer flipped off the switch, his heart racing, and Estevez, her eyes glued to the monitors, made her announcement: “Anthony Craig Reed is no more. Time of Regression: 12:31 PM.”
“Thank you,” Warden Stevens said, and motioned to Kramer.
Kramer nodded, relief welling up in his stomach, and went to Reed. He wouldn’t wake up for several hours, long after he’d been brought to the Care Facility. There, he would be overseen like the child he now was until he was ready to return to the world… if that day ever came. If his body didn’t fail him first. He would never take another life, that much was certain.
Kramer fumbled with the device, thankful it was over and ready to forget the whole thing. Just another day at the office. As he was removing the amplifier, his pinky finger, still trembling with adrenaline, brushed against the top of Reed’s ear. He recoiled like he’d just touched a hot stove, and that was when he thought he heard something — a low scoffing sound. Like this was all a game. It was so soft that it might have been no more than a breath, a whisper, an illusion.
That was probably it, Kramer told himself. Just an illusion.
But as they wheeled Reed out of the room, a single, nagging question stayed with him, as it would for the next day, the next week, and the next year. It would creep up on him when he least expected it, prodding at him when he was alone and nipping at his heels like a dog. It would stay with him for the rest of his time at the prison. Even after Stevens retired and Kramer himself became the new Warden, overseeing more Regressions than he could count, those three little words never quite left him alone.
But what if…?
© 2021 Isabella Bailey
All rights reserved.