Executed

Lay Ming awoke at the sound of the gate opening, echoing her dream where her day had finally arrived. She stared blankly at the dark figure being pushed into her cell by two wardens, not registering the fact until the gate was locked again.

"Sorry, Lay Ming. The prison is a bit crowded nowadays; we had to put her here," one of the wardens said. "We will move her out as soon as possible. Until then, please bear with her."

Lay Ming absentmindedly nodded. The wardens left and she was left alone with the new stranger. Her instinctive courtesy prompted her to extend her greetings. She got up, "Er…Hello," she waited for a response. When it did not come, she continued, "My name is Lay Ming. Mrs. Lim Lay Ming. Your good name please?" She extended her hand.

The figure, which had been standing in the shadows, broke into sudden laughter and moved into the lighted part. Long hair matted with dirt, an unrecognisable shade of brown, hung over her face. Her clothes were torn and tattered and as dirty as her hair, if not dirtier. Lay Ming slowly withdrew her hand.

"You are the first person to ask my name in years," the woman said in a coarse voice unaccustomed to speech, "the only person who was ever polite to me too. But take my word for it, sister: All this politeness won't get you anywhere in this goddamn world. They are all bastards, out for a chance to get you. You have to get them first."

Lay Ming could think of no reply except an, "Oh." She strolled to the cell gate and studied the scenery through the bars, which was a blank wall.

"The name's Leslie, though, " the voice came from behind her. Lay Ming turned around. Leslie continued, "My last name was Tan, though if you call me Mrs. Tan, I won't hesitate to kill you, just as I did Mr. Tan himself," she snorted contemptuously.

"You killed your husb…I mean, Mr.Tan?" Lay Ming asked incredulously.

"No need to add a 'mister' to that son of a . Yes, I killed him, and his bimbo mistress too. Split their throat clean with a knife. They are both happily rotting in a ditch at the back of an alley now." She cackled.

Lay Ming awoke the next morning to heavy snoring, and wondered where they came from. Then she remembered last night's events and realised anew that she now had a roommate, or rather, cellmate.

She got up and stretched languidly. Aches and pains rang bells all over her body as she did so. Prison beds weren't exactly like Ritz Hotel beds after all. Lay Ming was surprised that her body could not get used to the bed after two months the same way her mind was used to her death sentence.

She glanced at Leslie's bed. She was still sound asleep. What time was it? In prison, the only way to tell time was by the daily schedule. Get up at 5. Physical Training at 5.30. Breakfast at 7. Lunch at 12. Tea at 4. Dinner at 6. In between, prisoners were made to do manual work such as gardening, cleaning the prison and so on.

One hour was given over to reading carefully censored books in the library. This novel practice was started at the request by one of the few well-educated prisoners and thus respected by the warden. They felt that the prisoners' intellect needed to be nourished even though they were in prison, although half the inmates didn't know the meaning of the word intellectual.

To Lay Ming, reading time was the only time she was able to take her mind off her impending death as she immersed herself in the problems of the characters in the book. Thus she looked forward to it everyday. Her favourite was Dickens, and she had read "Great Expectations" 3 times.

Sometimes they showed movies (the PG versions, never RA) and once a week, a preacher and some nuns would come in and the prisoners would get the benefit of religion for 1 hour. At the end of the day, which was at 7, prisoners were back in their cells and lights were to be out, no exceptions.

The wake-up gong sounded throughout the prison. Leslie half-opened her eyes and closed them sleepily again, muttering some expletive directed at the innocent gong.

Lay Ming got up and started washing up. Toothbrush, toothpaste, even facial wash, all the toiletries for the prison were provided by the prison, with the money from tax-payer's pockets. Central Prison was actually quite comfortable, since its main occupants were lifers and capital punishment cases. After all, it is an article of humanity that the last days of a man are lived out in comparative comfort.

Lay Ming thought of it as fattening the chicken before slaughtering it.

She hesitated by Leslie's bed, wondering whether to wake her up. She reached out a hand and tapped her shoulder. She sprang back as Leslie jumped up and swung her hand wildly as if to hit her.

"What the ing hell do you think you are doing?" Leslie lashed out.

"Waking you up? We have to go for Physical Training now. " Lay Ming responded.

" physical training. Why do they have to make it so bloody early?"

"Their idea of discipline, I suppose. You better wash up."

Leslie looked up and down at Lay Ming, "And who the hell do you think you are, ordering me around?"

"I was not ordering you around, just telling you your sole option. Do whatever you want, of course. Don't blame me if the warden decides you need some special treatment. And around here, special treatment entails 5 hours of quarrying everyday for two weeks."

Leslie was taken aback by her curtness, and so was Lay Ming.

"Oh, I am sooo scared!" Leslie said sarcastically, to recover herself.

"Whatever." Lay Ming said shortly. She deliberately turned away and faced the gate, completely ignoring Leslie's presence. All prisoners rebelled against the restrictions at first, of course. How could she expect Leslie to be any different? After all, she was going to be there temporarily. Why should she bother to correct…

"So where's the toothpaste?" Leslie's voice startled her.

"You want a fight, sister? I'll give you a fight!"

Leslie jumped across at Joan, who put up her plate in a show of self-defense. The whole thing had been started when Joan had made a sarcastic remark about the way Leslie smelled, which had in the usual fashion, escalated into catty remarks thrown back and forth. Leslie was not one to stand quietly by while she was insulted.

Leslie had now tackled her to the ground, and was wrestling with her. Joan was no match for Leslie's brute strength. Suddenly, Leslie felt someone pry her away from Joan, strong arms pinning hers to her sides.

"That's enough, Leslie!" Lay Ming commanded.

Leslie was silenced by the authority in her voice. She looked back from Lay Ming to Joan. Disgustedly, she shook Lay Ming and stalked off the canteen.

Lay Ming swung the rake half-heartedly, clearing away the leaves in their various hues of auburn, brick-red and brown. She glanced over at Leslie, raking away the leaves angrily, as if cleaning the grounds would clean her own criminal record. The other prisoners were giving her a wide berth, she noticed. That came as no surprise, considering that she still had her hair in that dirty matt. Also, word of the incident in the canteen had spread. The wardens didn't dare to make her take a bath and clean herself up. Lay Ming had already gotten several pats of sympathy from her prison mates, for having been assigned with her.

The whistle blew shrilly, signalling a five-minute break. Lay Ming sat down the pavement. She plucked out a flower from the grass, and studied it absent-mindedly, noting the curves and hues of the flower, the single dew drop on top of a petal that glistened in the sun.

"You going to give that to someone or what?"

Leslie's coarse voice, coming out of nowhere, startled her. She looked up at the woman. "Yeah sure…" she pointed arbitrarily at one of the prisoners, "that one over there".

For the first time since she had seen her, Leslie's face broke into a genuine smile. She deadpanned, "Careful… she's been bragging about her boyfriend, who's a boxer, all morning."

Lay Ming grinned, "I can take a little bit of competition."

Leslie smiled again, and sat down next to her. The smile on that drawn, gaunt face somehow looked out of place. "How long have you been here actually?"

"About two months…. They transferred me here from Central Prison after my… sentencing."

"Didn't you appeal?"

Even though the original verdict may be a death sentence, the lawyers usually appealed for a postponing of date, or to over-turn the verdict in favour of a life sentence. There were many such cases, who had been sentenced to death ten years ago, but their lawyers' efforts ensured that the date was pushed back, and hence they still lived in the facility like they were not men and women doomed to death by the Constitution. The law was especially reluctant to hang women, hence Lay Ming actually had a pretty good chance of living until a ripe old age if she appealed.

"Didn't want to."

Leslie looked at her as if to ask something, then appeared to change her mind. "What are you in for anyway?"

Lay Ming stiffened. "None of your business."

"Hey sister," Leslie put up her hands defensively, "I am not prying, okay? By the way, thanks for preventing me from killing that ."

Lay Ming smiled and nodded, and stared out back at the ground. The whistle blew again, signalling the end of the break.

"Lay Ming! You've a visitor." The prison warden's voice rang out in the dark cell. Lay Ming's head snapped up. A visitor?

"Hurry up!" the warden snapped at her.

Lay Ming nodded and got up, and shuffled towards the cell doors. The warden opened it half-heartedly, as if it grudged her personally to let her out. She shackled Lay Ming's hands, and gave her a shove to get her moving. Leslie watched in half-amusement.

In the visiting room, Lay Ming was roughly shoved into a cubicle. Looking up, she laid her eyes on… her lawyer. Wordlessly, she sat down, and they stared across at each other through the thick glass. Eventually, with great reluctance, Lay Ming picked up the phone.

"Hello, Lay Ming" the pleasant alto of her lawyer's voice sounded over the line.

How can she sound so happy at this time?

"Hello," she replied.

There was a long silence over the line, as their eyes locked across the glass. The smile faded from her lawyer's face. She sighed, "Right… I guess you know why I am here." There was no response from the other side, so she continued, "The date has been set." Still no response. "March 24th. A month from now."

Lay Ming put the receiver back down, and got up. She mouthed, "Thank you". Wordlessly, she shuffled back to her cubicle under the watchful gaze of the warden. Her lawyer watched her walk away, sighed, and shut her briefcase.

Lay Ming and Leslie seemed to spend all their time together now, over lunch, breaks, gardening and reading time. Somehow, recognising that Lay Ming seemed to have a tempering influence on Leslie, the prison wardens let them stay together. Leslie stayed within rules when Lay Ming was around.

She even started to do something about her appearance. One day, Lay Ming found her combing, or trying to run a comb through her tangled her, cursing the inadequacy of the comb in several languages. Trying not to laugh, Lay Ming took the comb from her, and brushed her hair until it looked presentable.

"There," she put the comb down, and placed a mirror in front of Leslie, "You look so pretty now."

Leslie turned back and looked straight at Lay Ming, and said in a small voice Lay Ming had never heard before, "Do you really think so?"

"Of course I do. You just didn't take care of yourself before, that's why."

Leslie turned back to front, and regarded herself in the mirror again, a new look in her eyes.

Lay Ming… You don't know how much you mean to me – you rescued me from… what I was. I was a skeleton of a woman who had lost everything: her marriage, her husband, her life.

As I stood there, with the blood-stained knife in my hands, I despised myself. I did not regret the act. But I loathed the person I had become, spitting upon their cooling bodies. I felt undeserving, unloved, and unlovable. Why else would he have left me for another? My initial appearance reflected what I thought about myself: an ugly monster.

But you, Lay Ming…. You showed me love. You showed me care. You showed me that I was still worth something, worth being loved by someone. And for that, I…

Leslie stopped writing, quickly turned over the paper she was penning the letter on, and looked up as Lay Ming approached her.

"What are you writing?" Lay Ming asked, with an amused smile on her face.

"Er…. Nothing." Leslie crumpled the paper up and tossed it into the dustbin. She scrambled to get up and leave the library, avoiding Lay Ming's eyes.

"No! You've got to appeal, Lay Ming!" Leslie pleaded, tears shining in her eyes.

"I don't deserve it, Leslie! Not for a second. I don't deserve to get out." Lay Ming replied calmly. She had just told Leslie about her execution date, now a week away.

"For god's sake! What did you DO?" Leslie snapped, "I've asked all the other prisoners. They don't know a thing about why you are here."

"It is none of your business, okay?"

"We are all big-time scoundrels, murderers and worse, around here. What have YOU got to hide?"

"I KILLED MY BABY!" Lay Ming shouted.

Leslie was taken aback. She stared at Lay Ming, speechless. Lay Ming started sobbing, her head in her hands, "I killed my baby… I killed my own son…"

Leslie looked away from her, studying the blank wall facing the cell. Lay Ming continued sobbing.

He was crying. Crying in pain again. For the past few days, he cried whenever he was awake.

The doctors said there was nothing they could do. He was going to die. It was just a question of how long he was going to hold on.

Lay Ming rocked the infant in her arms, trying to soothe him. No avail. They didn't want to give him painkillers, they said. The infant body would not be able to handle it.

Her husband had left her soon after the baby was born. He could not take it, the pressures of caring for a terminally ill baby, dying before he could start living. Unable to pay the hospital fees, she brought the infant home.

Lay Ming put the baby down on the cot. On the shelf were the painkillers she had used for herself, after he was born. Drawing the fluid through the syringe, she injected it into him. He stiffened, and stopped crying. His eyes rolled to the back of his head.

Drawing another dose, she put it to her own vein, when the door burst open.

The final dawn arrived in strips of sunlight shining through the barred windows. Lay Ming was already wide awake, absent-mindedly playing with her blankets. On the other side of the room, Leslie started stirring.

Leslie sat up, and looked across at Lay Ming, "Morning," she said quietly.

"Morning."

"Had a good sleep?"

"Yes."

Leslie cast a glance at the cell doors, "They'll be coming soon."

"Mmm."

"Lay Ming," she trailed off, because she was not sure how to say this. She took a deep breath, "I love you." Even though those three words were grossly inadequate to articulate how she really felt about Lay Ming, her saviour, those would have to do.

Lay Ming just smiled, "I love you too, Leslie."

"I'll miss you."

"I know."

Tears started rolling Leslie's face, "Can I hold you?" Lay Ming nodded. Leslie got up and walked across the tiny cell. She bent down and wrapped her arms around Lay Ming. After a moment, they parted, and Leslie sat down on the bed, and rested her head on Lay Ming's lap. Lay Ming just smiled, and stroked her head.

Perched on the tree in the prison grounds just outside their cell, a bird sang, and continued to sing until the guards came.