| Fiction, Visual Art

Conscience Round

Brendan Egan

The pharmaceutical cocktail necessary for lethal injection being unavailable, the State had determined, pursuant to sentencing matrices, XXXXXXXXXXX should be executed by a firing squad composed of anonymous volunteers.

Officer XXXX knew only one of the other men sitting silent at the breakfast table. There were five shooters (XXXX included), two standbys, and Jock Berry, the prison warden, who’d gathered them there in his own kitchen. Slots of sunrise fell through the blinds onto the picnic-checked tablecloth.

Jock stood—thanked everyone for their high moral fiber and love of justice. He reminded them there was still time: if anyone was unable to perform their function, the standbys were available.

“That’s what my girlfriend keeps telling me,” one of the younger men joked.

“Let’s pray,” Jock said. 

Officer XXXX’s father and Jock were hunting buddies. They’d taken XXXX once to the lease outside Eden for trophy bucks. As a rookie cop, he wouldn’t have been there in Jock’s kitchen otherwise. When he’d gotten the call asking if he’d be willing—could he shoot a man?—he’d hesitated, but Jock had reassured him. Told him he was just the kind of person they needed: a marksman, imperturbable.  

“You took that cougar a few summers back…” Jock had said.

Jock’s wife served coffee, juice, biscuits and gravy, bacon, sausage, eggs, hash browns, ham steaks, pastries. XXXX picked apart a jelly doughnut.

“Amen,” the men said.


Through slits in a black partition, the shooters aimed. The chamber was black: black sandbags flanked a black backstop before which XXXXXXXXXXX sat in a black chair, a black muslin bag over his head and a black paper target pinned over his heart. A deputy cinched black belts around XXXXXXXXXXX’s arms, ankles, head—to gird him against any movement that might mar the shooters’ aim. 

Black lead in four rifles. In the fifth, a bullet of wax. 

No one knew who held the dummy. Jock told them it was to keep their conscience clean. As if any of them needed that, they promised themselves. But XXXX knew you’d feel the difference—a weightless pop versus the consequential slug of a live round against the counter of your shoulder. 

None of the shooters requested to be replaced. 


His father believed you should have to kill an animal at least once. Didn’t you have to wipe your own ass? It was too easy to hide from the slosh and stink of this world.

The cougar was something else, though. Their first day, it’d dragged off a twelve-point that XXXX had shot clean, into the thicket. The rest of the trip he cared fuck-all for deer. During the last sunset, they tracked the cat up a crooked oak, and XXXX put a semi-jacket through its ear.


The shooters listened for Jock Berry’s voice to call the final command over the tinny speaker above them. XXXX exhaled half a breath and held his lungs. His finger began to squeeze.

You were there, too, reader—in the black of the execution chamber, screened safe behind your one-way glass. Though you could not see the shooters’ faces as they fired (XXXX sucking at the pocket in his lip where ordinarily he’d have tucked his dip), you imagined yourself in their formation. But you couldn’t ever bring yourself quite close enough to know.  

You’ll never crouch chin-deep in mesquite, second-guessing while another pronghorn dances into possibility. You’ll never wonder yourself back into this place, as if through the maw of a sinkhole, when you click off the bedside light. Even in your most vivid imagining, you’d always figure yourself the lucky one. As XXXXXXXXXXX’s body slumped (black into black into black), you’d always feel that soft recoil’s promise: that you alone have been blessed with the conscience round.

Brendan Egan

‘s fiction has been published in Witness, North American Review, Catapult, and other journals. He is the winner of the Greensboro Review’s 2020 Robert Watson Award. A graduate of the MFA program at McNeese State University, he lives in West Texas where he teaches at Midland College and attempts to keep a garden.

ART: Caveira de Cabra by Tiago Jazel


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