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Merry River

by Frank Kozusko

Hank Jones was a single parent. His wife had died nine years ago when Sarah, their only child, was just seven years old. Over the years, he had relied heavily on his sister-in-law to help him relate to the needs of his young daughter. Aunt Alice would take Sarah shopping for clothes and for haircuts. He was especially thankful to have Alice there to nurture Sarah through puberty.

Hank was an outdoorsman, a hunter and a fisherman. He loved to watch football on TV. Hank shared his passions with Sarah. He took her on all his fishing trips. When she was 13, old enough for a hunting license, he bought her a deer rifle and started taking her hunting. Sarah got her first deer when she was 14.

Hank was happy that Sarah joined him in these traditional male activities. Yet he began worrying that he might be treating Sarah as if she were a boy, the son that he had imagined for himself when he married. Sarah preferred slacks to a dress. She always wore jeans to school. Sarah did wear a dress or skirt to church each Sunday, but only through Hank’s insistence and with support from Alice.

On April 2, Hank received a notice from Sarah’s school that April 22 had been proclaimed “Take Your Child to Work Day.” Although it was a class day, the notice encouraged moms and dads to participate, the absence to be excused. It emphasized the benefit of fathers introducing male-dominated careers that might interest a girl.

Hank was Chief Facilities Engineer at the Georgia State complex at Merry River. Hank invited Sarah to go with him, and she agreed. He explained to Sarah that she would be going on a day with a special event.

Hank and Sarah remained silent as they drove in the dark to Merry River, listening to country music on the radio. Hank had to work the late shift for the event he called “the show.” They entered the facility through the workers’ entrance where they had to pass security screening. Hank flashed his State ID. Hank had arranged for a visitor’s pass for Sarah and asked the guard to look for it. The guard compared the photo on the pass against Sarah’s face, checked her ID and let them pass.

Hank led Sarah through a long, musty utility tunnel: pipes and valves, electrical panels, whining pumps and fans. They climbed a set of stairs and entered a small vestibule with several doors. Hank went to one door, pushed a red button and faced up to a security camera looking down on them. The door buzzed; Sarah and Hank passed into a small room with several electrical panels and two windows.

“This is the control room for the show tonight,” Hank told Sarah. Hank went through a series of operations using a checklist, asking Sarah to flip a switch or read a meter. When all checks were completed satisfactorily, Hank leaned back in his chair. “Now all we have to do is wait for the signals and follow the steps.”

After a short time, a yellow light on the indicator panel flashed. “That’s the signal to turn on the auditorium lights,” said Hank. “Push this button.” Sarah pushed the button.

“Now, look through this window, Sarah. You can see the audience taking their seats. Almost curtain time.”

Sarah looked through the window as a small crowd was ushered in and took their seats.

“Oh, don’t worry, it is a one-way glass; you can see them, but they can’t see you.”

A second yellow light flashed. “That’s it for the prelims,” said Hank. He again directed Sarah, who complied by pushing another button.

A green light flashed. “Push this button to open the curtain.” Sarah didn’t see any curtain opening, only the audience gazing, fixated on the new scene.

“Look through this window now,” Hank directed.

Sarah turned and looked through the other window. She could see an upright man with his arms outstretched and strapped as if to a cross. The man was flanked on one side by a man in a gray suit and the other side by a man in the black cloth of a minister. The gray suit said, “Do you have any last words?”

“That’s the Warden,” said Hank.

The man on the cross shook his head no.

“Okay,” said the Warden solemnly, nodding to the minister to depart. The Warden stepped back and closed a switch, which caused an alarm and flashing green light in the control room. Hank and Sarah replied with another button-push, which lowered the man to a horizontal position on his cruciform table.

The Warden stood silently, shifting his gaze back and forth from his wristwatch to the clock on the wall. Lowering his watch arm and taking a deep breath, he lifted the lid to a Plexiglas enclosed red button and pushed it.

An alarm sounded above Sarah’s head, a red light flashed. Hank stood up from his stool. He took just two steps to get to a small red metal box hanging alone on the wall. Without saying a word, Hank lifted the red security cover and pointed at the toggle switch unveiled.

Sarah, also silent, stood and walked towards her father. Hank held the point while he stared into Sarah’s eyes. Sarah stared back with no emotion visible in her face. Still staring at her father, Daddy’s little girl reached up and threw the switch.

A short time later a man with a stethoscope nodded to the Warden, who looked up to Hank’s window and gave his nod. Hank and Sarah closed the curtains.

Hank and Sarah rode in silence on the drive home. They only spoke once, when Sarah said to her father: “Merry River, that’s a strange name for a prison.”

“Yes, it is,” replied Hank.

Copyright © 2018 by Frank Kozusko

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