Last Gasp

(This is a 750-word short story I wrote as an exercise. The first sentence had to be: “I could only hold my breath for 2 minutes.”)

I could only hold my breath for 2 minutes, so my timing would have to be perfect. First I’d collapse on the floor loud enough for the guard to hear, then I’d hold perfectly still. When the prison doctor showed up, I needed to seem completely lifeless, so for the last six months, I’d practiced slowing my heart rate down to less than 40 beats per minute.

The doctor was notoriously squeamish about dead bodies, so he only did the bare minimum to verify a prisoner’s death. He’d just lightly touch their wrist to check their pulse and hold a compact mirror near their face to see if it fogged up. After a minute or so, he’d scurry off to fill out the paperwork. I heard he even threw up once.

Once the doctor signed my death certificate, the guard would toss my body on a gurney and move me to the morgue. After that, my buddy in the morgue had it all planned out. As soon as I got carted in, he’d arrange for a hearse to come and pick me up.

“I laughed at my cousin when he bought a used hearse,” he said. “Now we’re both laughing all the way to the bank.”

My wife paid him off with the last six thousand bucks in our savings account. He and his cousin insisted on getting the entire payment in advance.

“Escaped prisoners aren’t exactly trustworthy,” he said.

The plan was ambitious and a bit dangerous, but it would be worth it in the end. A death certificate meant a blank slate, and after all, what was the penalty if I got caught? Another consecutive life sentence? A bit less stew in the chow line? There was no harm in trying.

I woke up early on a Monday morning and took a dump. I pulled up my pants when I finished, but instead of flushing, I just turned on the sink and dropped to the floor, making as much noise as possible. The guard walked over, banged on the bars and shouted my name, but I kept my eyes closed and stayed silent. After a few seconds, he called for the doctor.

During a medical crisis, the guards weren’t allowed to open the cell or touch the inmate until the doctor showed up. While the guard watched, I took shallow breaths and focused on lowering my heart rate. After another couple of minutes, the doctor arrived.

“Mornin’, Doc,” the guard said as he unlocked the cell door.

“Good morning,” the doctor said. He sounded tired and a bit nervous. “Was the inmate like this when you arrived?”

“Yeah, he hasn’t budged.” They crowded into my cell. “Looks like he just took a shit.”

“I imagine he did. You’d be surprised how easily the heart can give out.”

I took one last shallow breath before the guard kicked me face up. The doctor knelt down by my side, took out his mirror and held it in front of my face. He touched my wrist but didn’t press down. I could feel him staring even though my eyes were closed.

I tried to count the seconds but kept getting distracted by the guard’s whistling. I figured about a minute had gone by when the doctor removed his hand. He was still holding the mirror in place, so I kept my heart rate down, just to be safe.

After another 45 seconds, my lungs were burning, but the doctor wouldn’t move the damned mirror. I couldn’t tell why he was taking so long until I realized he was panting for breath himself.

“Doc, are you okay?” the guard said. “You look a little pale.”

“Yes, yes. I’m sorry, I just, um, thought of something I need to take care of in the office.”

I was starting to see spots when the doctor finally took away the mirror, stood up, and said, “He’s as dead as a doornail.” He sounded queasy, but didn’t retch.

“Alright, Doc, I’ll call the morgue crew to come get him.”

The doctor left. I was relieved, but for some reason, I couldn’t start breathing again. My lungs were frozen, my chest felt tight, and my heart began to flutter. Panic set in. I needed to let the doctor know I was still alive, but I couldn’t even move.

The second before I blacked out, the doctor walked back in and whispered to the guard, “Make sure you break his neck, just in case.”

“I always do, Doc.”

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