The only places in the world that still allow the electric chair as an option for execution are the U.S. states of Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee. On February 20th of 2020, Nicolas Todd Sutton died by electrocution in Tennessee, becoming the seventh man executed by the state since Tennessee resumed capital punishment in August of 2018. His last words were: “I want to uplift the name of Jesus Christ, Lord of Lords, King of Kings. I’m just grateful to be a servant of God, and I’m looking forward to being in his presence. And I thank you.”
Inspired by Heinrich von Kleist’s The Foundling
James Learner, a wealthy and respected businessman in Tennessee who owned twelve Dollar Generals, was a faithful member of his community’s megachurch. One Sunday in the late summer of 2020, as churches were opening in defiance of a resurgence of the Covid-19 epidemic (several churches even suing the government, claiming stay-at-home orders violated their religious freedom), Learner travelled to church with his twelve-year-old son, Oliver. His second wife, Rachel, stayed at home because of a splitting migraine.
During the service the pastor made a special announcement: he wanted to introduce a thirteen-year-old boy who had lost both of his parents to the Covid-19 virus in the past six months. The orphan, Paul, was looking for a home and the pastor implored the congregation to look within their hearts to see if they could take this young boy in, so he wouldn’t have to enter the foster-care system. James initially recoiled at this this request, thinking the pastor was overstepping his clerical bounds, but kept this disagreement to himself.
Later that night James told Rachel about this orphan and was about to comment on his disfavor of the pastor’s bold entreaty when his wife replied,
“Oh the poor little boy. We should adopt him. We have the money and we have the space.” Rachel could not give birth to children herself (she was born with Müllerian agenesis), and she had been waiting to broach the topic of adoption to her husband. Their son, Oliver, was from James’ first marriage, and Rachel wanted a child they could both equally share.
“Now’s not the time,” replied James.
But as ill luck would have it, Olivier (who had a weak constitution) had contracted the Covid-19 while at the megachurch, and became one of the few children in the country to experience severe symptoms. A week passed, Oliver went on a ventilator, experienced lung failure, and died.
In James and Rachel’s grief, they decided that it was their duty to God to use their despair for a better purpose, to save a life, and with Rachel’s insistence they adopted the boy from their church. After filling out the necessary paperwork and jumping through the bureaucratic hoops, James and Rachel drove home one rainy afternoon with their new son.
During the drive James observed Paul out of the corner of his eye. Paul was handsome in a bizarrely statuesque way; his black hair hung down on his forehead and formed a straight line, hovering above a serious face with hollowed cheeks which never changed its expression. The old man asked him several questions, but he answered them only briefly; he sat there in the passenger seat, uncommunicative and absorbed in himself, with his hands in his pockets, looking pensively and diffidently out of the windows of the car as it sped along. From time to time, with a noiseless movement, he picked out a jolly rancher from a box in one of his cargo pockets, and while James quietly wept and wiped his eyes, thinking about his dead son and how life can change so quickly, Paul cracked the hard candy between his teeth.
Back home James showed Paul the bed in which Oliver had slept and gave him all the latter’s clothes to wear. James sent him to school where he performed well, eventually attending Princeton University, James’ Alma mater, where he majored in marketing and business, and went to work for his adoptive father. James understandably become gradually fonder of the boy, often remembering the circumstances of the adoption and proud that the boy was applying himself academically.
Nine years later, having dismissed a manager from one of his Dollar Generals with whom he had for various reasons been dissatisfied, he hired Paul in his place, (Paul had been working in a Dollar General every summer since he was sixteen) and was delighted with the active and useful assistance which the latter gave him in his managing the store, soon giving him two more stores to manage. The only fault that the old man, who believed that everyone has their place in society, had to find with him was the excessive company he kept with the employees of the stores, who were paying very friendly and ingratiating attentions to the young man on the account of the large fortune he would one day likely inherit from his adoptive father; and Rachel’s only criticism of Paul was that he seemed to have a precocious propensity for women. For at the age of seventeen he had already, while working at one of the stores, been caught having sex with one of the employees, Tiffany Gotchim, a high-school drop-out with a criminal record; and although on James’ stern insistence Paul broke off this liaison, Rachel had reason to believe that in these delicate matters Paul was not a model of self-denial. When, however, at the age of twenty-three he married Rachel’s niece, Justine Corsino, an attractive young NYC women who had been educated in anthropology at Columbia University, this trouble at least seemed to have been cured at its source. Both his adoptive-parents were equally pleased with him, and to give him proof of this they drew up a splendid marriage gift, making over to him a considerable part of their large and beautiful mansion, leaving only a small part of it to themselves to live when they were visiting. And in short, when James reached the age of sixty-five he took for Paul the final step that a benefactor could take: he gave him legal possession of the entire fortune on which his Dollar General businesses rested, retaining only a small capital for himself, and withdrew during the winter months with his faithful, virtuous Rachel, whose worldly wishes were few, in retirement in Florida.
There was in Rachel’s nature an element of silent melancholy, originating in a horrifying experience during her adolescence. When she was seventeen she witnessed a school shooting, and her boyfriend (who she had been dating since the age of thirteen) at the time was killed while trying to protect her. On one ill-fated afternoon a boy wearing a black trench coat and carrying a suitcase full of automatic weapons (that he had purchased legally since he was 18 years old), walked calmly into Rachel’s high school and began murdering students and teachers. Rachel was in the gymnasium at the time, with her boyfriend, and when they tried to flee the shooter entered with malicious laughter. Rachel’s boyfriend shielded her and tackled her as the shooter fired, but one of the bullets went through her boyfriend’s head. Terrified, Rachel remained motionless on the ground, feigning death, while her boyfriend’s bleeding corpse covered her. She heard the shooter walk by, shooting any students that moved or made a noise. For years Rachel would have nightmares about this experience.
James, who had business connections with the young man’s family, and made acquaintance of Rachel at the wake and the funeral, married her five years later; he was particularly careful never to mention the young man’s name or otherwise recall him to her, as he knew that her traumatized mind was deeply disturbed by the memory. The slightest circumstance that even remotely reminded her of the time when this youth had protected and died for her sake always moved her to tears, and on such occasions, there was no comforting or quieting her. She would at once leave whatever company she was in, and no one would follow her, for they knew by experience that the only effective remedy was to let her weep quietly by herself until her grief was stilled. Many people were ignorant of the cause of these strange and frequent fits of emotion, for never in her life had she uttered one word alluding to the episode. Her outbursts were usually explained as a nervous disorder, the aftermath of a violent fever which she had contracted just after her marriage, and this account served to forestall any further inquiry into their origin.
Paul, who despite his father’s orders had never completely severed his connection with the above-mentioned Tiffany Gotchim, had on one occasion secretly met her at a Halloween party, without his wife’s knowledge, pretending to have been invited to a friend’s house for poker night; and late that night, when everyone was asleep, he returned home dressed up as Neo from The Matrix, wearing a black trench coat. It so happened that during the night the elderly James felt unwell and Rachel had got out of bed to assist him and had gone to fetch a bottle of NyQuil from the kitchen (the bottle in the bathroom was empty). She was half-asleep and carelessly didn’t turn on the lights, and had just opened the cupboard in the corner and was standing on a chair to search among the plastic cases of bottles purchased in bulk, when Paul softly opened the door and stepped into the kitchen in his black trench coat. Unsuspectingly, without seeing Rachel, he crossed the kitchen to his side of the mansion and just made the disconcerting discovery that it was locked, when Rachel, standing on her chair behind him with the NyQuil in her hand, caught sight of him and immediately, as if stricken by some unseen horror, fell to the floor in a dead faint. Paul turned around, pale and startled, and was just about to rush to her assistance when he reflected that the noise she had made would certainly bring James to the scene; being anxious to avoid the old man’s reproaches at all costs, he snatched with panic haste at the spare keys hanging on a hook nearby, and having found the one that opened his side of the mansion, opened the door and vanished. James, ill as he was, had jumped out of bed; he turned on the lights, lifted up his unhappy wife, and presently Paul too came out of his part of the house in a bathrobe and asked what had happened. But Rachel, her tongue numbed by horror, could not speak, and since Paul was the only other person who could have cast any light on the matter, it remained an unexplained mystery. Rachel, trembling in every limb, was carried to her bed, where she lay ill for several days with an acute fever; nevertheless, she had enough natural good health to recover tolerably well, and apart from a strange depression with which it left her the incident was without consequence.
A year had thus passed when Justine, Paul’s wife, died of breast cancer. The loss of this virtuous and well-educated young woman was an event not only regrettable in itself but doubly so in that it gave fresh occasion for the indulgence of Paul’s primary vice; his passion for women. Once again he began to linger late at night with the employees of the Dollar Generals, on the pretext of working hard to forget the sorrow of his wife’s death, although it was known that when his wife was alive he had shown her very little love or fidelity. Indeed, before Justine had even been buried, Rachel, in the course of making arrangements for the funeral, entered Pauls’ room one evening and found him there having sex with a woman whom, with her heavy make-up and large, floppy breasts, she recognized only too well as Tiffany Gotchim. On seeing her, Rachel lowered her eyes and turned and left the room without a word to Paul. She said nothing to James or to anyone else about this, and contented herself with kneeling down in her room and weeping for Justine, for the latter had loved Paul passionately. But it so happened that James, who had been out of the town, met Tiffany as he was entering the house; and well realizing what her business here had been, he accosted her sternly and induced her, half by subterfuge and half by force, to give him her cell phone, along with the password to unlock it. Fearful of losing her job, she gave him her cell phone, and he read her text messages. As he had guessed, he saw messages from Paul to Tiffany, one even being sent less than a minute prior, telling her that he wanted to see her again as soon as possible, and asking her to pick a time and place. James sat down and replied on Tiffany’s phone: “Meet me in the megachurch parking lot tomorrow morning, in front of the statue of the crucifix.” Then he told Tiffany to not interfere with his plans or discuss this encounter if she wanted to keep her job. The ruse was entirely successful: Paul left the house the next morning, under the pretense of filling in for an employee who had called in sick last minute, drove to the megachurch, and was astonished to see James and Rachel approaching him, as the statue was not something you would pass if you were going to attend the service. Paul asked his adoptive parents what they were doing, since they normally didn’t attend services on this day. But the old man, after glaring at Paul with seething anger, merely answered, “Tiffany Botcher,” then spat at his feet and walked away.
As a result of this deeply humiliating episode, Paul was filled with a burning hatred for Rachel, whom he believed to be responsible for the disgrace which her husband had inflicted on him. For several days James did not speak to him; and since Paul nevertheless stood in need of his favor and goodwill in connection to Justine’s estate (a family lawyer was handling it), he was constrained to repent before his father one evening with every appearance of remorse and swear to give up Tiffany once and for all. He had, however, no intention of keeping this promise; on the contrary, in the face of opposition he merely became more defiant and more cunning in the act of evading the good man’s vigilance. At the same time he thought he had never seen Rachel looking more beautiful than at the moment when, to his consternation, she had opened his door and closed it again at the sight of him and Tiffany fornicating like rabid animals. A soft flush of indignation had lent infinite charm to her gentle face which only seldom showed any emotion; and Paul arrogantly thought that she had lingered in the doorway longer than necessary to admire him in primal action; in addition he thought it incredible that she, with so many attractions, should not herself occasionally get tired of her old husband, desire a younger man, and wish to partake in the indulgence for which she had just punished him so shamefully. He burned with desire, should this turn out to be the case, to repay her in kind by informing her husband; and all he needed and sought was an opportunity for carrying out this plan.
On one occasion, when James happened to be out of the house, Paul was passing Rachel’s door when he heard, to his surprise, the sound of someone moaning in her room. He couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman. A malicious hope at once flashed through his mind; he stooped down to listen through a crack in the door and there, great heavens! what should he see but Rachel lying, naked, on her bed with an arched back and tightly-shut eyes. But he couldn’t see beneath her torso. Was there anybody in the room? Was she completely naked? While trying to see through the crack he quite clearly heard her as, in the very accents of what seemed to be passionate lust, she whispered ‘Paul.’ With beating heart he rushed outside to the window and there took up a position from which he could watch her bedroom secretly; but it was too late; presently he saw her stand up, put on a silk robe, and leave the room. Here at last, he told himself, was the exquisite moment of his unmasking of this spurious saint: but when he ran back inside and crossed Rachel, she cast him a completely unperturbed and indifferent glance. She walked calmly into the kitchen then to the gym at the other side of their mansion. To Paul this hypocritical display of composure seemed the very height of cynical cunning; she was scarcely out of sight when he rushed to enter her bedroom. But to his amazement the room was quite empty, and though he searched every nook and cranny he could find no trace of a man, but in the bottom drawer beneath some papers he did find some faded, polaroid photographs. Paul was startled because in the pictures was a boy who looked very similar to him. But maybe he was wrong and he was merely imposing his fantasies on these images. A host of thoughts and conjectures rushed through his mind. But before he could collect and compose them he began to be apprehensive that Rachel would discover him and punish him in some way; he snatched two of the polaroid photographs, closed the bedroom door again in some confusion and withdrew.
The more he thought about this remarkable incident, the more convinced he became of the importance of the pictures he had discovered, and the more acute and urgent grew his curiosity to know who the boy in the pictures was. For he had clearly heard Rachel moan as if experiencing an orgasm. In the uneasiness of mind that possessed him he went to Tiffany Gotchim and told her of this strange experience. Tiffany was just as anxious as Paul to discredit Rachel, whom she falsely blamed for all the difficulties that were being put in the way of their liaison; and she declared that she would like to see the polaroid photographs. For she could boast of an extensive acquaintance in their town, and if the young man in question was a person of the least consequence, the chances were that she would know him. Sure enough it happened before long that James and his wife went into the country one Sunday to visit a relative; and no sooner was the coast clear that Paul brought Tiffany to his house, accompanied by a small daughter whom she had had by a mechanic, and showed them the photographs. But no sooner had he placed the photographs in front of Tiffany and her daughter, whose name was Amber, than Amber exclaimed, “Holy cow! Mr. Lerner but that’s a picture of you!” Tiffany fell silent. The photo did indeed, the longer she looked at it, bear a singular resemblance to him. Paul tried to laugh off the sudden flush of embarrassment which came over him; he kissed the little girl and said, “Sure it does, my little Amber, it’s about as much like me as you are like the man who thinks he is your father!” But Tiffany, in who the bitter pangs of jealously were stirring, merely looked at him; and after squinting at the photos and remarking that after all the identity of the person was a matter of indifference, she took her leave of him rather coldly and left the room.
As soon as Tiffany had left, Paul fell into a great state of excitement over this scene. His suspicious had been correct and he remembered with delight the strange and violent turmoil into which Rachel had been thrown by his appearance on the night of the Halloween party when he was dressed up like Neo. And the thought of having inspired a passion in this walking model of womanly virtue was almost as sweet to him as that of taking his revenge on her. Having now the prospect of gratifying both desires at one and the same time, he waited impatiently for Rachel’s return and for the moment when he would look into her eyes and crown his still hesitant hopes with certainty. In this elation the one thing that gave him pause was the recollection that when he had spied on her through the crack in the door, the name she had moaned might not of have been Paul. Could it have been Rob? Col? And yet the coincidence of the photographs and his desire caused him to convince himself that it was indeed ‘Paul,’ and this reflection filled him with sweet reveries, though he could not tell why; and faced with the choice of disbelieving one of two senses, his eyes or his ears, he naturally inclined to the evidence that was more flattering to his desires.
Meanwhile several days passed before Rachel returned from the country, where she had been staying with a cousin; from his house she brought back with her a young woman who wanted to see Tennessee, visit Graceland, and eat BBQ. And being occupied with polite attentions to this young woman, Rachel cast only a fleeting and insignificant glance at Paul as with the most amiable courtesy he greeted her in the driveway and carried in her luggage. For several weeks, which were devoted to the entertainment of her guest, Rachel was busy, visits were made to places in and outside the city which would be likely to appeal to a young and lively girl; and Paul, busy at the Dollar Generals and therefore not invited on any of these expeditions, began again to harbor keen resentment against Rachel. Bitter feelings rankled in him as he thought of the unknown man she so devoutly adored in secret; and the torment of his depraved heart reached its height on the evening after the young cousin’s departure, an evening for which he had waited with longing, but on which Rachel, instead of speaking to him, sat in silence for an hour at the dining-room table, scrolling through images on her iPad. It so happened that James, a few days earlier, had been inquiring after the whereabouts of a toy firetruck with which Oliver had played with; for since no one needed it now, it had occurred to him to make a present of it to small child in the neighborhood. Before dinner he found the firetruck and left with it to give it to the neighbor, and Paul used this opportunity to execute his plan. He sat next to Rachel and quietly placed one of the polaroid photographs beneath her iPad and waited for her to see it. With secret delight he pondered the implications of her discovery that he knew about this mysterious boy. He waited with beating heart for the moment when Rachel would become aware of the photograph. His expectations were not disappointed; for no sooner had she, in an idle moment, noticed this photo beneath her iPad and unsuspectingly leaned forward (for she was a little short-sighted) to get a better look, than she fixed a sudden strange look of anguish on Paul’s face as he sat gazing down at the photo with mocking indifference. She resumed scrolling on her iPad with an indescribable expression of sadness; she wept quietly, and a soft flush covered her cheeks. These signs of emotion did not escape Paul, who was unobtrusively watching her, and he no longer had any doubt that she had feelings for him. She grabbed the photo, and his wild hopes reached their height as she rose, laid aside her iPad and disappeared into her bedroom. He was just about to leave his seat and follow her when James entered and, on inquiring for Rachel, was told by Paul that she had felt unwell and gone to lie down. James, without seeming particularly alarmed, turned and went to her room to see how she was; and when he returned a quarter of an hour later, announced that she would not be eating dinner, and then did not mention the matter again. Paul remembered the many mysterious scenes of this kind that he had witnessed growing up, and felt convinced that he now held the clue to their meaning.
The following morning, as he sat gloating over his new discovery and considering how he might best exploit it, he received a text from Tiffany in which she asked him to come and see her, as she had some interesting news for him about Rachel. Tiffany enjoyed the intimate acquaintance of bartenders throughout the town, and Paul had no doubt that Tiffany must have succeeded in eliciting some information about the secret history of Rachel’s feelings in relation to the photograph which would prove favorable to his unnatural desires. There was, however, an unpleasant surprise in store for him; for Tiffany, after greeting him with an oddly roguish air and drawing him down beside her on to a lumpy couch in her apartment, declared that what she had to tell him was simply that the object of Rachel’s love was a boy who had died sixteen years ago during a school shooting. The polaroid photographs he had found in her bedroom beneath the papers in the drawer were likely taken right before the tragedy. They were of Solomon Lifchitz, who everyone called Saul. He had saved Rachel’s life. Tiffany added that she must ask Paul not to make any use of this secret, as it wouldn’t be right to rekindle such memories of trauma. Paul, flushing and turning pale by turns, assured her that she could set her mind at rest; and being quite unable to conceal from her mischievous glances the embarrassment into which this disclosure had flung him, he excused himself on the pretext of having some business at the Dollar General and took his bag, his upper lip twitching unpleasantly as he left her.
Humiliation, lust and a desire for revenge now conspired in his mind to engender a deed of unutterable vileness. He well knew that deception would be the only access to Rachel’s pure soul; and at the first opportunity James gave him by going for a few days into the country, he prepared to execute the satanic plan on which he had decided. He dressed himself in clothes identical to the ones in the polaroid photographs, fixed his hair like Saul did, and stealthily entered her room just before bedtime. He stood in the corner of the room and awaited Rachel’s adoring homage. And his reckoning, sharpened by shameful passion, had been entirely correct; for she presently entered, undressed quietly and calmly, and had no sooner drawn back as usual the silk curtain of the alcove and set eyes on him in the corner, than with a cry of “Saul! My love!” she fell senseless to the floor. Paul stepped out of the corner of the room; he stood for a moment absorbed in contemplation of her charms and gazed at her delicate figure now suddenly paling in the embrace of death; but presently, since there was no time to be lost, he took her up in his arms and carried her to bed. Having done this he went to lock the door, but found it already locked; and confident that even after recovering her disordered senses she would offer no resistance to the fantastic and supernatural apparition for which she must take him, he now returned to the bed and set about reviving her with burning kisses on her lips and breasts. But the Nemesis that dogs the heels of crime had decreed that James, who was to have been absent, as the wretched Paul supposed, for another few days, should chance to return to his part of mansion unexpectedly at that very moment. Thinking Rachel would already be asleep, he crept softly along the hallway; and as he always carried the keys with him, he was able to open the door without making a sound and stepped suddenly into the room. Paul stood speechless; and as there was no possibility of dissembling his disgraceful intentions, he threw himself at the old man’s feet and implored his forgiveness, vowing never to cast eyes upon his wife again. And James did, indeed, feel inclined to deal with the matter discreetly. Bereft of words of something which Rachel whispered to him as she revived in his arms and gazed with horror at her assailant, he merely closed the curtains of her bed, took a handgun from a safe in the closet, opened the door and pointed to it, indicating thereby to Paul in what direction he must now immediately betake himself. But the latter, seeing that nothing was to be gained by his show of penitence, behaved at this point in a manner worthy of the lowest, most reckless bastard; he suddenly stood up and declared that it was for James and Rachel to leave the house, for he, Paul, was now its owner by deed of gift and he would defend his title to it against all comers. James could scarcely believe his ears; disarmed by this inconceivable piece of effrontery, he put down the gun, left the house with Rachel, and drove to the house of an old friend, the lawyer Dr. Nathanial Lee. On reaching his friend’s house he collapsed unconscious in the foyer before he could utter a word. The lawyer let him and Rachel stay the night, and the next morning contacted the police to procure the arrest of the abominable Paul. But the infernal scoundrel’s legal position was strong; and while James vainly sought ways and means to dispossess him of the property over which he had already given him full rights, Paul had at once paid an enormous sum of money to a well-connected lawyer and appealed to him for protection against, as he said, the old fool was now trying to evict him. In the end, wickedness prevailed, and this prince of evil was able to induce the authorities to issue a decree confirming Paul’s title to the property and enjoining James to leave him in possession without further interference.
Two weeks later James buried the unhappy Rachel, who as a result of the recent episode had fallen into a burning fever and died. Maddened by this double blow he went into Paul’s mansion with the injunction in his pocket, and with rage lending him strength he felled Paul, who was of a weaker build, to the floor, and crushed out his brains against the wall. There was a cleaning lady in the horse, but she did not notice James’ presence until the deed was already done; by the time she arrived at Paul’s room, to investigate the screaming, she found James holding Paul between his knees and stuffing the injunction into his mouth. Having done so he stood up, surrendered himself, called the police, confessed his crime, and was then imprisoned, tried, and condemned to death by the electric chair.
Since James had been a faithful member of his community’s megachurch there were attempts by the religious community to convince him to receive absolution while he was on death row. When a pastor (the same one who had presented Paul in the megachurch) came to James’ cell, he refused to receive absolution. After all the arguments of religion had been vainly adduced to convince him of the heinousness of his behavior, he tried to unsuccessfully hang himself with a strip of bedsheet tied to the top of his bunk. The pastor returned and described to him all the terrors of hell in which his soul was about to be plunged if he succeeded in killing himself. He spoke to him of the glorious abodes of eternal peace if he repented: ‘Will you accept the blessed gift of the sacrament?”
“No,” replied James.
“I do not want to be saved, I want to go down into the deepest pit of hell, I want to find Paul again – for he will not be in heaven – and continue my vengeance on him which I could not finish here to my full satisfaction.” And so saying he told the pastor to leave and asked to see his lawyer.
In the end the death penalty was delayed and the wretched man had to stay in his solitary confinement cell, watched 24/7 to prevent more suicide attempts. Lawyers prolonged the process and sometimes James would scream into the door, the walls, pounding his fists in bitter rage, and curse the inhuman law that forbade him to go to hell. He called upon the whole legion of devils to come and fetch him, swore he had no other wish but to be doomed and damned, and vowed he would throttle the next person who came to hand if by so doing he might get to hell and lay hold of Paul. When this was reported to the judge, he ordered that James should be executed as soon as possible; one month later James convulsively shook in the electric chair as the prison guards strapped him in, shouting his last words, “I’M COMIN’ FOR YA, YOU LITTLE FUCKER!” before a 2450 volt charge coursed through his body. Then there was nothing but silence and the smoke from his charred scalp rising up to the ceiling.