Why must they do it on December 28th? John Stapleton considered the question. That was the worst part of it, the date.

December 28th, tucked neatly between the brightest holidays of the year.

         Stapleton spun from the small window in a characteristic rush of motion. Hands locked behind him, he stared at the door. In the back of his mind he knew there was a good reason for the date. They had picked the anniversary of the day he and Ardelle had married, a day of special gladness, in the heart of the holiday season. Yes, December 28th was a time for many things, but it was not a time for a hanging.

         In three steps Stapleton was at the door; he took the bars into his two great hands. Understanding the reason for the date did nothing to sap his anger at all. Most of the world celebrated, and it seemed to Stapleton that this universal jubilee was at his expense. The world danced at his hanging.

         Stapleton somberly began his exercises. The guards saw and looked at each other uncomfortably. Stapleton took the pencil-thin bars into his two hands and methodically tried to pull them apart. First, the right hand directly in front of the massive chest, the left hand off to one side. The tendons stretched audibly. Then the hands were reversed, and again the tightening of great muscles. Then both hands on a single bar and both feet on another. The soft grunts and the low rumbles deep in the throat echoed in the chamber as Stapleton worked on the bars, worked until his body was covered with a fine sweat. Stapleton knew, and the guards knew, that the thin shafts were of an alloy capable of withstanding the best efforts of ten men such as Stapleton. Yet the slow and careful straining, the deliberate and intense attack on the bars by the massive man created the illusion that he was able to rip them out of their moorings. Twice a day Stapleton took his exercises on the bars, and twice a day the guards watched with a fear that knowledge could not dispel.

         Stapleton finished. He stood at the door breathing deeply, his hands clenching and unclenching, the fingers making a scraping sound as he forced the tips across the callused and furrowed palms. The guards visibly relaxed and turned away. Stapleton looked at the clock and grunted. It was almost time. In a few moments now, they would come for him.

         He grunted louder. Let them come. Ardelle was dead, Ardelle and that other. And no matter what they said or did, it was right it should be that way. There are things a man knows who has been one with a woman like Ardelle. Between such a man and such a woman there could be nothing concealed, not for long. How strange that she should have tried.

         But the time came when he looked at her with a mild question in his eyes. The response—the incredible, soul-shaking response—was a flicker of the panic of discovery. Just a brief flash in her eyes, but he read it well; it was enough.

         Ardelle was silent throughout all that followed. She understood this man of iron and fire, and so through it all she made no sound, no moan. With the other it was different. The other had been playing a kind of game, and he was not at all prepared to pay the price of losing. He died badly.

         And Stapleton? There was an enigma. Here and now, when men need no longer die for their crimes, was a man who refused to admit that a crime had been committed. So little was needed to save him, but that little he refused to give. Here and now, a man need only cry out, “Forgive me, I was wrong. Forgive me,” and he was saved.

         Stapleton turned to watch as the outer door opened to admit a tall gray-haired man. With measured strides, the man came close to the bars and looked through at Stapleton. The pain was as strong in his face as ever, the sorrow and pleading as eloquent. His words when spoke were husky with suffering. “John Stapleton, how say you? Have you erred?”

         Stapleton looked at him and said, “I have not erred. I did what had to be done, nothing more.”

         The man with the gray hair turned away. The walk back to the door was solemn, for his head was bent and his shoulders trembled. Then he was gone.

         There was a stirring and a shuffling of many feet outside the outer door. Stapleton knew they were coming for him, and he stepped back to the center of the cell. He knew how this would be. They would come into his cell fearful that he would unleash his physical might; yet they would be unable to look at him. He would wait a moment, then laugh, then lead the procession to the gallows chamber. He would stand with his head in the enfolding blackness, feeling the snug rope around his throat and the knot behind his left ear. When the moment came, there would be no sensation of falling; there would be a mere lightening of pressure against his feet. And the thudding shock and the searing flash of light. Then blackness.

         These things he knew well, but there were other things. There was the doctor who stood by to pronounce him dead at the earliest possible moment; the oxygen-carrying blood must not be kept from the brain longer than 4.3 minutes. Once dead, the intravenous needles were inserted and the pumps took over where the heart had failed.

         The surgeons came on next. With high dexterity they repaired the broken cervical vertebra, the torn muscles, the crushed veins and arteries. When they were finished, they placed the head and neck in a cast and turned their attention to the restoration of the heartbeat. This was soon accomplished and, unconscious, Stapleton was wheeled to his cell.

         Usually he recovered consciousness during the middle of January. By March he was out of bed, still wearing his cast. In June he started his exercises, for he insisted on being strong. In August he put aside his cast. All during the fall he grew strong in order that the cycle might begin again on December 28th. How many times had it been since that first time back in 1997? Fourteen? Eighteen? One loses count, but no matter. If this is what they must do, let them.

         But why must they always do it on December 28th?

Theodore L. Thomas (born 1920) is an American chemical engineer and attorney who is the author of more than 50 science fiction short stories. He has been nominated for a Nebula award and a Hugo Award.

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