“All right, Karen, you all set up?”
I nodded and slipped on my headset. “I’ll be speaking to a Mr. Markus Bruno, correct?” Wife beater. Murderer. A truly amazing person, I thought sarcastically.
The coordinator, a man with not enough hair on his head, chewed his bottom lip. “Unfortunately, that will not be the case. He committed suicide about twelve hours ago. Got ahold of another inmate’s medication and took the whole bottle. You’ll be speaking with… Grant Byrd?”
My spine went cold. The coordinator eyed my nametag.
“Huh. Byrd. Same last name as you, nasty coincidence, huh?”
I swallowed, my mouth completely dry. “Y… yeah. All right.”
“Aren’t you curious what he did?”
“No!” I cleared my throat. “No, no, it’s no big deal. They’re all out there for a reason, right?”
The coordinator seemed to eye me over before looking at the clock. “The Chimerawill reach the hole in twenty minutes. Talk with him the whole time, make sure to get every detail about what he’s experiencing and what he sees.”
“Got it.” I clicked on the screen, beginning the video call. Thank god the coordinator walked away to talk with the other volunteers for Project: Path to Hades.
In a few seconds, the call was picked up.
Grant Byrd hadn’t changed much. He’d lost some hair, put on fifteen to twenty pounds. Now had a different pair of glasses, they were bifocals now. But he was still absolutely the same person.
And he recognized me just as quickly.
“K… Karen? Is that you?”
Again I swallowed but nodded. “Hi dad.”
He slowly smiled. “Karen! Oh thank god, a friendly face in here is a hard thing to-”
“Tell me what you see so far.” I cut him off. No. We weren’t talking. We weren’t friendly.
My father’s expression wilted, before he sighed and looked outside the window of his cell. I could only catch a glimpse of the darkness behind it. “I mean, same old space? Lots of stars. The stars we used to look outside at together… it’s just as pretty out here as you’d think. No sign of, well, The End yet.”
The End. It’s what we called the black hole so many light years out of our galaxy. Not a threat. But close enough that with our enhanced travel that within fifteen years we could have a ship reach it.
But we couldn’t send the good, the amazing people out there first. No.
We sent the pieces of garbage that weren’t allowed to live anymore.
I nodded and glanced at the clock. “You shouldn’t be seeing it for another… five minutes. Things will go fast then. But you must keep me updated on what you see.”
“I know I know. It was either this or electric chair within six months. It could be worse.” Dad shrugged. “I learned Chinese? And Spanish. Spanish was easier, since I took it in highschool… how about you, pumpkin? What did you do?”
I cleared my throat. “Well, after you got sent to this for torturing and murdering my mother and her friends, I… went into psychology. I really enjoyed it. Helped kids from broken families. Got signed into Project Path to Hades due to my personal experience with dealing with bastards like you.”
My dad seemed to shrink with every harsh insult I sent his way. I didn’t care. It was deserved. His gaze dropped. “I… I see.” He managed a weak smile. “That’s my girl, ya know? Always helping others.”
Don’t cry, don’t cry. I squeezed my eyes shut and took a deep breath, in and out. “It’s pretty satisfying work. I’m uh… I’m married.” Why was I sharing this with him? I was I bothering? “H… her name’s Georgia. We have a daughter. Her name’s Flossie.”
“Flossie? Like your mother.” Damn it. I wanted him to yell. Scream. Call me a dyke so I could have an excuse to end the call. I didn’t want to be here anymore. But Dad just looked proud. So proud. Like I’d made his last day perfect. “Georgia? What’s she like? Do you have a picture?”
I scrambled for my phone, hesitating before I finally pulled up a picture with her and Flossie, the day we were approved for her adoption. Held it up to the camera. Dad smiled even wider, even leaning in closer as if he could get a better look. “Damn, you really got a looker! And your daughter, she’s cuter than a bug in a rug! Almost wish…” He trailed off before he leaned back. “I could meet them.”
I dropped the phone and readjusted my headset, dropping my gaze. “… I need to ask for your last words, you’re almost there.”
“… It wasn’t me, baby girl.”
I slammed my fists down. Damn it. “Fuck you. It was one of your knives that gutted her. You thought she was cheating on you. Her two friends were just collateral- You plead guilty!”
My dad swallowed, now he was looking away. “Your brother, he committed suicide when he was twenty, right?”
“What’s your point?”
Dad looked me dead in the face at that moment.
“I did own a lot of knives, Karen. But did you ever see me with a red handled pocket knife?”
My stomach dropped into my shoes. Slowly, I shook my head.
My dad looked so heartbroken. “I didn’t want your brother’s life to end so soon… guess after he heard what was going to happen to me he uh, couldn’t take it. So he won’t get in trouble, at least.”
The waterworks couldn’t be held back. I burst into tears and buried my face in my hands. “Dad, you’re going to die! It’s going… it’s going to be awful, why, why didn’t you-”
“I don’t have regrets.” My dad was perfectly calm now. It was my job to keep him from wigging out, and here I was, bawling my eyes out now that I knew the truth. “It’s okay, pumpkin, I’m not afraid. These last fifteen years, it wasn’t bad. Like I said, I learned some languages. We gotta watch some cool movies… even made one, a movie director got thrown in here. I was the lead, it’ll be sent back to earth. Maybe you’ll see it on the big screen someday.”
God that was the dad I remembered. Not the man the nation called a murderer. I wiped off my face and then smiled. “I hope so. Is it appropriate enough to show to Flossie?”
“Nah, wait until she’s sixteen…” My dad trailed off. Something caught his attention. “… We’re here.”
The ship lurched and my dad fastened a belt around his waist to keep himself from falling from the chair. His face had gone chalk colored, his eyes fastened on the window. “It’s like the pictures. Like someone took a hole puncher to… to space.” The ship lurched again and my dad swallowed. “I love you, you know that Karen? I love you, and your brother, even if he did something wrong. Tell Flossie about relaxing on the roof, counting the stars.”
“I… I will.”
The camera started to fuzz. I grabbed the screen. “Dad! I love you too!”
Silence. I couldn’t see his face anymore. Just static.
Then the screaming started. I jerked back, my headphones ripping from the speaker. I wasn’t the only one to have this reaction apparently as I heard screams come from around the room. Fingers shaking, I plugged it back in.
He kept screaming. I don’t know when I passed out, but when I woke up I still heard the screaming coming from down the hall. A look at the clock confirmed it had been three hours since they entered The End.
The End wasn’t killing them. It was keeping them.
And right before I passed out, I remember hearing one thing.
A laugh. A sinister laugh.
“We’ve been waiting for you.”