Two women sat across from each other at a no-nonsense Formica table, their relaxed postures conveying the familiarity of two old friends. Only by carefully scrutinizing the ramrod straight cast of the younger woman's shoulders would you be able to tell how much of her ease was real and how much was feigned.
The younger woman drew a small black rectangle out of her purse, pressed a button on the side and spoke into it briskly. "Caroline Philips, Veronica Lancaster, interview number one." Caroline set the tape recorder down onto the table, where it hummed comfortingly.
"Oh, please, Ms. Philips," the older woman smiled, "call me Ronnie. Nurse Ronnie, it's what they always used to call me, whether I'd asked them to or not. Veronica," she made a face, "it's so formal and dour." She motioned at their surroundings. "And things are dour enough as it is, don't you think?"
Caroline smiled pleasantly, brushing a few loose strands of blonde hair away from her face. "All right. Ronnie it is, then. So," she began, "what is it like? In here, I mean."
"Nothing like you'd imagine, I'd be willing to bet," Nurse Ronnie replied, her hoarse smoker's chuckle oddly encouraging. "They try and keep me out of the general population. For my own protection, of course. And it's comfortable enough."
Their voices echoed against bare concrete, lending an eerie echo to the conversation. The older woman sat well back in her chair, a softly glowing cigarette held delicately between the fingertips of her right hand. The handcuffs clinked as she lifted both hands to her faded red mouth in order to take a drag. She exhaled a small cloud of smoke, her blue eyes glittering and hard as diamonds in her weathered, salt of the earth face. Veronica Lancaster was about as impressive in real life as any off duty nurse would be. Her friendly, competent manner was strangely not out of place under the bright fluorescent lights of the interrogation room.
"You could have delayed your sentencing by prolonging the trial. In fact, you could have pled insanity and, with a bit of luck, gotten off entirely. There was very little evidence pointing to you in the first place. But instead you confessed and pled guilty."
"Yes, that's right. I did."
"That's an odd tactic, to say the least. Why would you do that?"
"Can you honestly say I don't deserve what I'm going to get?"
Caroline folded her hands in her lap. "I'm not here to pronounce judgment on you, Ms. Lancaster-"
"Ronnie," she corrected firmly, tapping the ashes from her cigarette.
"Ronnie," Caroline smiled wanly. "I'm here to find out about you, to find out why you were convinced you had to do it, even if you knew you would end up here. I want to find out why you are the criminal exception. Most people protest their innocence even with the blood still fresh on their hands. But you didn't."
"It all comes back to the hospital."
"To what you did there?"
"Yes. What I did, in all aspects of the term. My job, and… well. The other. You know."
"Of course. What I did was too deliberate to deny."
"This is probably a ridiculously unprofessional question, and you're well within your rights to refuse to answer. But, why did you do it?"
"Most people just figured I was crazy," she smiled. "I tried to convince myself I was, too. Like, the surest sign that I was is that I thought I wasn't? That old adage about crazy people not knowing they were crazy. But I know I'm really not." Ronnie laughed suddenly. "Listen to me. That made no sense at all. If I was crazy and believe I'm not, what does that prove? Nothing. If anything, it just proves that I am."
"You don't seem crazy to me," Caroline said, meaning to reassure.
"Do you think a person can do what I've done, and not be crazy?" There was a dangerous edge to her words. The cigarette glowed fiercely.
"You still haven't told me why you did it," Caroline sidestepped the question carefully.
Ronnie chuckled. "Well. There isn't much more that could be done to me now, is there, now that sentencing is done and I'm tucked safely away awaiting my execution? Of course, that's a rhetorical question." Ronnie took another pull on her cigarette, exhaling pensively. "There's a reason why I did it, and then there's the reason why I did it."
Caroline folded her hands in her lap complacently, her eyebrows slightly raised.
"I won't deny that I hated everyone who came into that hospital," Ronnie mused. "Bunch of leeches. Couldn't do a thing for themselves, wouldn't lay off the call button. And rude, too. Never a single thanks for those of us who were always at their beck and call. That's a reason for what I did. But it's not really the reason, not the whole reason, in any case. I assume you know I was fired about a month ago?"
Caroline nodded. "It was in the police report and the hospital's staff records. Smoking in the maternity ward."
"I was putting my cigarette out in the maternity ward," she corrected. "It doesn't matter now, just like it didn't matter then. What you won't find in any records, though, is that I'm dying." Her voice afforded no bitterness, and she calmly took another drag on her cigarette.
Caroline's eyebrows lifted querulously. "Excuse me?"
"Cancer, my dear," Ronnie flicked the ash from her cigarette into a waiting ashtray. "Cancer is the bitch that equalizes us all. And it decided that my remaining time on this earth would be spent in agony, because, no longer having medical coverage, there is no way I could possibly afford to pay for treatment myself."
"What kind of cancer?" Caroline found herself leaning forward, morbidly fascinated.
Ronnie regarded her cigarette fondly. "Lung. And liver." She laughed. "And even breast. What do you think the odds are of that? Contracting it in three places at once? Must be fucking astronomical. Maybe they'll put me in Guinness, after I die, of course. Hell, I might even get put in twice, though I don't know what the record for infanticide is." She chuckled merrily at that.
"Cancer. So you were terminal."
"Yes. No way to stop it. Not even a way to die with dignity. But in the end I found a way."
"I'm afraid you've lost me," Caroline frowned.
Ronnie gestured around her. "This. This is my escape. I wouldn't live, in any case, so all the therapy in the world, even if I could afford it, would really be worth nothing in the end. But here, I have medical attention, painkillers, good food, cigarettes when I want them, and eventually, a painless, quiet, and well-deserved euthanization. I'll live and die better in this prison than I would have out there, as a free woman." She stubbed out the cigarette. Smoke curled from the ashtray between them in blue wisps that floated toward the fluorescent lights.
The tape recorder droned on deafeningly as Caroline sat back in her chair heavily. She was silent for a few moments, trying to process this monstrous new information.
"The babies," she said, numbly.
"They didn't feel a thing. They were sleeping. They just never woke up."
"One of them wasn't."
Ronnie glanced down at her handcuffs. "I had to make sure that I got the death penalty. You don't know how important-"
Caroline half-rose out of her chair, her hands gripping the edge of the table. "I think I know," she growled angrily, abruptly, startling Ronnie and, to some extent, herself. All semblance of professional control flew out the window as she continued, in whispers. "I think everyone knows how important it was for you to save your own ass. I think there are a lot of mourning parents out there who know. You cowardly bitch, I hope all this was worth the lives of those innocent children."
"Don't you judge me until you've stood in my place. You wait until you're staring a horrible death in the face, and then you tell me what you'd be willing to do to spare yourself from it!" Ronnie spat back. The cigarette lay forgotten on the table, singeing a black mark into the plastic table-top.
Both women were suddenly on their feet, all pretenses of camaraderie tossed aside. The door to the room opened, and two uniformed security guards entered. Before they could reach her, Caroline threw a wildly aimed punch and caught Ronnie a solid blow directly to the bridge of her nose. The older woman shrieked in pain, anger, and surprise. She lunged toward the reporter with her fingers splayed and nose gushing blood, only to be yanked back by both security guards. They wrestled her out of the room between them, whereupon one of them forced her down the hallway back towards her cell, and the other remained to make sure Caroline was okay.
"Ma'am? Are you all right?" His nametag read 'Crawford'.
Still breathing a bit heavily, she waved away his concern and straightened her skirt. "Yes, thank you." Picking up her tape recorder and clicking it off, she brushed her hair out of her eyes and allowed herself to smile at him. "Am I going to be in trouble for that?"
He smiled back. "I don't think so, ma'am. She's an unconscionable bitch. I, for one, didn't see a thing go on in this room aside from a well-composed interview."
Caroline picked up her coat and slipped the tape recorder into the pocket. "Thank you," she said, as she passed him in the doorway. "This is going to make one hell of a story."
Her heels clicked coldly against the blood-spotted linoleum as she left the room.