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Close By

First Published in The Cabinet of Heed

I’d been sent all over the country to do these studies, but this prison was my local. It was a category B, meaning all but the most terrifying heidbangers were housed at Our Lizard Queen’s leisure.

He was a murderer, or at least, was charged with being one. There was no doubt that he had killed, the only question being whether he had intended to, if he was aware of doing so. He stated that he had got drunk, then woke in the morning with two dead bodies in his house. He had met them in the pub, then gone back to his after closing time, as it was close by. There were multiple stab wounds found on each victim. I didn’t read the rest of the report, nor look at the pictures. I’m no fan of horror.

I was led to his cell by the guards, then left alone with him and my equipment, bundles of pastes and cables, thinking that he could use these to garrotte me at any moment. I started to apply the electrodes to him, firstly to his flaking scalp, through his slicked back black hair, then around his pale impassive face. He was deathly silent, stripped to his yellowing Y-fronts, occasionally picking at a sore on his thigh.

The TV was on in the background. A smug presenter of a news satire show laughed and mugged to camera as he told his audience that murderers were often presented as calculating masterminds in films and TV show, but in reality they were sad and lonely individuals. The temperature fell, my hands froze in their task, and the stained white cell walls squeezed in closer.

I finished wiring him up, trying to make a joke about how the electrodes stuck to his head and pulled round the back of his neck in a ponytail looked like a multicoloured dreadlock, and this was met with a barely audible grunt. I ran the electrode cables through the hatch in the cell door and out into my laptop in the C-Wing corridor, where I was to spend the night, staring at the wiggly lines representing the undulating electrical flows in his brain, heart and limbs, watching for abnormalities in his sleep.

Around 2 a.m. whilst I was in a dreamless fugue, wrapped up in my cheap suit and clutching a long cold coffee, a commotion began close by. The man in the neighbouring cell had been making grunting noises, getting louder until they were screeches, which eventually go the attention of the guards. One flipped down the hatch in the cell door to tell him to be quiet, and a handful of shit was flung through, the digested remains of the food that had passed in the other direction some hours earlier.

I was instructed to leave the corridor and wait in the staff kitchen close by. The previously cheerful guards’ faces were now fixed into either weary or uncompromising expressions, depending on their age. They passed the kitchen dressed as stormtroopers, but with disposable paper suits over their helmets and padding. I nervously boiled the kettle and let it cool twice whilst I waited for instructions, forgetting to make more coffee as I imagined what was happening in the cell. I finally remembered to pour the hot water into a chipped ‘world’s greatest dad’ mug, jumping back as it splashed onto the lino, and turned around to see the guards troop back, freshly rumpled paper suits now ripped and covered in shit and blood stains.

-You can go back to your computer now, they told me and I did so, acutely aware of the lack of sound now being emitted from the neighbouring cell. Some more twilight hours passed and again I found myself drifting, hypnotised by the flickering, wiggling red and black lines on the screen.

The fragile silence was once again broken, this time by my subject’s other neighbour, the one in the opposite adjoining cell. He started to shout “Peanut” over and over, gradually morphing this into “Peanut the Destroyer” and finally concluding “Peanut the Destroyer, he’s gonna get you, he’s gonna kill you all.”

The remainder of the night was punctuated with these cries, ignored by the staff, perhaps they had become immune to this tip off, perhaps they were selectively deaf to the outbursts coming from cells overnight.

A grey dawn made the corridor less foreboding, and I entered the cell to wake the patient as soon as 8 hours recording of data had completed. After picking gently picking the glue that I had used to secure the electrodes out of the killer’s springy hair, I gathered up the equipment and fled the big house, feeling that I had done a stretch myself, not simply a shift.

I got back and analysed the data, in order to send a report to the psychiatrist, who was to be the expert witness on the killer’s trial. I noticed some abnormalities on the study. The patient did indeed have sleep-walking type events, sitting up bolt upright in bed more than once in the study whilst clearly remaining in deep sleep.

I highlighted this in my report, but forgot to mention the commotion overnight, and didn’t think anything more of the case until I discovered that the psychiatrist had suggested to court that there was a reasonable doubt whether the killer was aware of his actions, given that he had a strong drive towards sleepwalking, and so it was determined that he was not fully in charge of his mind when the killings took place, he was acquitted following a plea of non-insane automatism.

It wasn’t until later that I realised the odd events I had seen in his sleep were most likely caused by the actions of his cell neighbours, the commotion caused by the dirty protest, the outbursts about the dreaded Peanut the Destroyer. It was too late to amend my report, or to let anyone know. But it’s curious, the unintending outcomes that can occur, simply from having certain people close by.

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