“4%” by Sophie Scott

A bead of sweat rolls down my temple. My breathing increases its pace. The only information entering my brain is that there are too many bodies in this room. I can feel every one of the 24 other criminals’ haggard breaths in my own; we are in a room made for 12 people at most. I am cramped in the corner, one side up against the cold concrete wall, another pressed into a young man with tattoos crawling up his neck and shaved head. We are in a waiting room, waiting for death.

Our government deals with criminals in one simple way: killing 24 out of every 25. They build up a number of people until they have 25, and then put 24 of them to death. Nobody knows what happens to the one person who lives. The only reason we know they’re alive is because they show them on television being lead out of the death chamber, and after that, who knows? They may be killed anyway.

The lone door creaks open and 5 people file in and start pushing us unceremoniously toward it. We walk down a blank hallway. Even with the rush of oxygen, everyone’s breath has quickened, out of nerves. 1 in 25, that comes out to an even 4% chance of surviving. 4%.

As we walk, I find my mind searching for what the death chamber could hold. Crimes are so rare that when 25 build up it becomes an event for betting: the executions are televised so that people can either cringe away or eat up the killings.

I’ve seen a fair few, and each execution is different. They’ve had people stand on platforms over pits of molten lava where all but one are lowered down to burn. They’ve had 25 people shoot guns at the criminals and only one gun has no bullet. They even had the criminals stand in boxed off sections with walls of chains, so that they could see everyone else get devoured by starving animals that rose from the ground while one of them got an innocent puppy.

illustration by Julianne Glahn

Whatever they have today will be new. They have never repeated a type of execution; they are always unpredictable.

We walk through a pair of doors into a large hall. There is a round glass bowl, filled with small rectangular white pills. Behind the bowl are 25 chairs set up in a line, and 25 guards standing behind them. Within seconds all 25 of the chairs have a person in them. A harsh female voice floods the chamber.

“Every one of you have been convicted of a crime. In result, 24 of you will be executed. What happens to the one who lives is the government’s business.”

I have heard this same sentence every time there has been a televised execution.

“Every one of you will receive a pill and it will be placed in your mouth between your upper and lower right molars.”

The guards move, each one grabbing one of the pills and placing it between one of the prisoner’s teeth. Gloved hands reach for my jaw and pry it open. The small pill is shoved between my molars.

“You will be forced to crunch down on your pill in 15 seconds, at which time it will either issue a deadly poison, or an edible gel. The poison will have a lemon flavor, the edible gel mint.”

By the time the voice stops we have 8 seconds. My mind automatically thinks of ways to escape, but my guard has a firm grip on both my lower jaw and the top of my head. 6 seconds. I can feel my heart hammering so hard on my rib cage it hurts. 4 seconds. Why did I commit that crime? 3 seconds. I basically ensured my death by doing it. 2 seconds. My name is Nala Baldwin, I am 21 years old, I live in San Francisco, California. 1 second. 0 seconds. The taste that floods into my mouth as the guard pushes my jaw up isn’t mint.

It’s lemon.