The plan Taryn Potts came up with was simple: Just stand up in the courtroom and run. Up the aisle. Past the guards. Past the lawyers. Right at him. Right at his cold, mean, guilt-free, despicable face.

No. Even better:

Here's what we'll do, Taryn's friend

Helen suggested. I'll come to court, too, and I'll bring a friend in a wheelchair, and at some point I'll tip the wheelchair over, and when the guards are distracted by the crash -- that's when you go at him.

No, better even than that, Taryn thought the next day as she sat in the courtroom in Chesterfield, Va., third row back, the moment at hand, watching him on the witness stand as he tried to save his life.

"Do you want some water?" his lawyer asked.

"No, I'm all right," he said.

And Taryn thought: I'll stand on the arms of the chair.

"Tell them your full name, please," the lawyer continued.

"Everett Lee Mueller," he said.

And Taryn thought: I'll jump.

"Today's your birthday?"

"Happy birthday, yeah."

Not just jump, she thought, as he continued to talk, but soar.

"What are your first memories?"

"Of what?"

And land on him, screaming: You killed her.

"Can you remember when you weren't a failure?"

"No."

And choke him.

"What do you feel good about that you have accomplished?"

"In 42 years, I have not accomplished nothing."

And dig every fingernail into his arms, his back, his neck, his cheeks and his eyes.

"What went wrong with you?"

"I just didn't seem to fit in with people, you know?"

And hurt him. Hurt him. Hurt him. Hurt him.

"You were the one on the outside looking in?"

"Always. That's how I felt."

Now, Taryn thought, as he kept talking. Now.

"You want me to get you some water?"

Now.

But instead, as the prosecutor took over the questioning, and Mueller angrily said, "You want to put me on death row, that's no goddamned problem," she stayed where she was.

Her hair was brushed.

Her hands were fists.

She wore a dress.

"Get this goddamned [expletive] over with so I can go smoke a cigarette," Mueller said.

The crime involved rape, mutilation and murder. The victim was a 10-year-old girl.

And Taryn, the mother of the victim, remained seated, and sickened, and civilized, wondering whether to surrender to revenge.

Nine years later -- enough time for Everett Lee Mueller to have been convicted, sentenced to death and executed for the killing of Charity Powers -- Taryn Potts, now 45, is trying to awaken from an afternoon nap. She fell asleep at 2, expected to be awake at 3, was sure she'd be up by 4, and is surprised it's nearly 5. "Sometimes it seems a whole day goes by and I don't get anything done," she says, blinking and groggy -- and then tries to focus on all the things she has to do. There is the matter of her 16-year-old son, Brian, who is sometimes somber and other times anxious and needs to get to the doctor for some prescriptions. There is the matter of her 11-year-old son, Nathan, who sleeps poorly and pulls out his eyelashes and is visiting his grandmother in North Carolina and wants to come home. There is the matter of driving to get him: At the moment, Taryn's driver's license is suspended because she didn't pay some tickets, which she got because she's been driving a car that failed inspection, which happened because someone stole it and crashed it and it took months to get fixed, which has meant nothing to the police officers who keep pulling her over and telling her the next time they stop her she's going to jail.

"I really do the best I can," Taryn says, and somewhere beyond the lowered blinds of her living room is an entirely different world filled with things she doesn't have time to pay attention to, including a presidential election in which one of the issues is the fairness of the death penalty.

Are innocent people being executed? That's the focus of the current debate -- but there is another one as well, more philosophical in nature, based in morality rather than science, in which Taryn Potts can be considered a main character: In a civilized society, why is there a need to put people to death?

It is not a new debate, this one. For a while, proponents of the death penalty argued that the penalty was necessary as a deterrent to future killers, but that argument seems to have been distilled down to an acknowledgment that the only person being deterred is the person being executed. As Attorney General Janet Reno noted earlier this year, "I have inquired for most of my adult life, about studies that might show that the death penalty is a deterrent, and I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point." Or as the philosopher Hannah Arendt noted in her classic study of the Adolf Eichmann trial in the 1960s, "No punishment has ever possessed enough power of deterrence to prevent the commission of crimes. On the contrary, whatever the punishment, once a specific crime has appeared for the first time, its reappearance is more likely than its initial emergence could ever have been."

Pragmatic arguments about the cost of keeping someone in prison for life versus the cost of execution also have receded against studies showing the cheaper way by far is imprisonment because of the legal expenses incurred in death-penalty cases, and so have arguments saying the death penalty is reserved for only the most unspeakable of crimes rather than the merely atrocious.

What's left, then, according to Conrad Brunk, a philosopher at the University of Waterloo in Canada who specializes in legal issues, is a penalty "based on the need to satiate the public outcry, that there's all this pent-up rage, and that an outlet for it, a cathartic release, is necessary to maintain social stability."

In other words, it's the moral need for retribution, the necessity of revenge.

"It's this impulse that people deserve it," says Brunk. "It has its roots in the very primitive religious notion that God has to be satiated by death. It's not just in Christianity but in most of the religions of the world. It's very deep-seated, and it's reinforced by the ethic of the Golden Rule."

The paradox, Brunk notes, is that the death penalty actually violates the Golden Rule because "you, in fact, would not want to be punished in this way, even if you had committed an offense." But paradoxes don't rule public opinion, perceptions do, and the perception of justice, he says, and equality, is that to even things out, murderers deserve no less than what they did to their victims.

As William Davenport, the commonwealth's attorney for Chesterfield County, said in his closing statement to the jury in the Mueller case, "There is only one punishment for the ultimate crime, and that is the ultimate punishment."

Or as Warren Von Schuch, Davenport's chief deputy, who has put 16 people on Virginia's death row, 10 of whom have been executed, said, "A society that doesn't see an adequate penalty for crime soon becomes a vigilante society."

Or as Von Schuch said in urging Mueller's jury to choose nothing more merciful than death, "You may want to wonder what a 10-year-old girl thought and went through when she was being led into the woods by Mr. Mueller. You may want to wonder what a 10-year-old girl felt when her first sexual experience was rape, and you may want to wonder what she felt when she literally watched herself bleed to death in the woods behind Mr. Mueller's house."

Or as Taryn Potts says of the feeling she had when she wanted so desperately to fly at Mueller:

"There's an instinct. There's an instinctive urge."

Which, 10 years after the murder, nine years after the trial and one year after the execution, isn't entirely gone.

"She liked to chew gum," is what Taryn is suddenly thinking of. "And when they found her she had a piece of gum in her hand, clenched around it, and can you imagine? She was holding it for security. It's the only thing she had. And it was still in her hand when they did the autopsy."

She knows this because she has a copy of the autopsy.

She has a copy of the autopsy because she wanted to know everything.

She wanted to know everything because what she did know was filling her with the most nauseating kind of rage: that she dropped Charity off at a skating rink; that she went out with some friends who were celebrating their anniversary; that her friend Steve came to her house to watch her two sons; that he had also volunteered to pick Charity up; that she knew he was tired from working so she gave him an alarm clock; that at some point he fell asleep; that for some reason the alarm clock didn't go off; that somehow the phone was knocked off the hook; that Charity, according to a friend she was with, kept calling home and getting a busy signal; that when the skating rink closed for the night Charity walked up the street to a Hardee's; that when Taryn called home to check on Charity and got a busy signal she wasn't surprised because Charity was always on the phone with her friends after a night of skating; that when the Hardee's closed Charity sat outside on a curb; and that sometime after midnight a 42-year-old man who drank a lot and lived alone and had a history of raping women and was in his old station wagon eating a hamburger made his way over to her.

"What are you up to?" he said.

"I need a ride home," she said.

"Well, hell, I'll give you a ride home," he said.

She knows about this conversation because it was detailed in Mueller's confession, as was what her daughter said when Mueller turned out of the parking lot.

"You're going the wrong way."

And Mueller's response.

"I know."

And some of what happened in the woods.

"She wasn't screaming at all," he said. "She never did."

But what happened exactly? What was going on when there was no screaming in a patch of woods littered with trash and junked tires and the first fallen leaves of early October and, after Mueller was done, a knife? So Taryn managed to get a copy of the autopsy even though no one was supposed to see it, and she learned of the preserving qualities of 50-degree soil when a human body is buried in it for four months before its discovery by a search dog, and that death was caused by "acute neck injury," and that the absence of nicks in the bone at the back of the neck was indicative of a knife that sliced rather than stabbed, and that there were bluish ink stains imprinted on various parts of Charity's body along with an imprint of the letter E in the middle of her back.

And Taryn has wondered ever since: Ink stains? The letter E?

More questions, then. No peace. More noise. She read the autopsy again. And again. So many times that the phrase, "Her nude body was found buried in woods," no longer felt like a punch, and when she realized there were no more answers to be gotten she put the autopsy in a safe place, and has it still . . . somewhere. She looks around the living room. There are a couple of old chairs, a broken console TV, bare walls, and a cabinet with warped doors and, in one of the drawers, a pile of papers in no particular order. Not there. She looks in the kitchen drawers. More stacks. A Mother's Day card from Charity. Some keys to a storage facility where she eventually put Charity's bedroom furniture and toys. An old envelope covered with scribbled phone numbers, which has a January 15, 1991, postmark, which would have been three months after Charity disappeared and three weeks before her body was found. And suddenly Taryn is back in the living room, in a chair, quietly crying, because she can't find the autopsy, and she can't seem to find anything, and she's been in this apartment three months now, and she needs to unpack, and she needs to get organized, and she needs to stop thinking about, focusing on, dreaming about, allowing herself to be consumed by, the day that's approaching, Charity's birthday, what would have been her 20th.

The phone rings.

"Hello?"

Her voice is suggestive of cigarettes, even though she doesn't smoke, and whiskey, even though she doesn't drink, and a time in which, if things had turned out differently, it could have been shaped into something melodic. But the throatiness turns out to be from allergies, and any melody has sagged into a lethargy from an inability to sleep, and the result is something as flat as her face, her hair, her eyes.

"Nathan? . . . I was going to call you . . . I'm trying to figure out what to do . . . I'm thinking of driving in the night because I still don't have my license straightened out . . . What's going on with you, dear? . . . Well I want to come get you . . . Maybe I'll come tonight, okay? . . . Have you taken your medicine?"

The phone goes dead. It's a cell phone, the only phone in the house since the regular phone was disconnected, and the battery's low, and instead of recharging it, Taryn fell asleep with it at her side.

"Mom?"

It's Brian now, out from his room, in search of the phone.

"Mom?"

"What, Brian?"

He is a tall boy who stands with his eyes down, and is aware that he doesn't laugh much, and wondered for years if his mother was going to spend the rest of her life crying, and remembers saying to her, over and over, "You still have me and Nathan." And now, more than anything, he wants to see if a girl who seems to like him would be willing to meet him for a walk. He takes the phone, and the recharger for the phone, and disappears back into his room, and as Taryn hears the click of his door she is reminded of how for years he had difficulty being out of her sight. He would panic, she says. He would get sick to his stomach. "Mama, I'm getting that feeling," she remembers him saying so often she lost count, and she would run him to doctors who said, well, it's because of Charity, as if she didn't know, and then came a psychiatrist who had lost his own child to violence, and now, after talking to that doctor, Brian seems to be a hundred times better.

Unlike Nathan. Who not only pulls out his eyelashes but his eyebrows, too, until there are bald spots. Who suffers from separation anxiety and attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity. Who, "when he doesn't take his medicine," says Taryn, "breaks things. He doesn't mean to. He just moves so fast. He tries to fix things and make them better and breaks things. He broke my stereo several times. He broke about everything in the house. He broke the knobs on the cabinets. Not broke, really. He took every one of them off and tried to replace them with ones he had made himself. He wants me to say, `Nathan, how creative.' But they didn't need changing, and the apartments wouldn't approve them anyway, and I was kind of frustrated, and I said, `Gosh.' "

Who was 2 when Charity disappeared, and who some years later asked his mother, as Taryn recalls it, "Mama, is it true I knocked the phone off the hook?"

"Son," she remembers answering, "I'm not sure. You may have. But you wouldn't have known you did, and all babies play with phones, and I didn't see it."

Out from his room comes Brian, just about vibrating with urgency. The girl, he says, can meet him, but he'll need a ride. Now. Right now.

"I don't know," Taryn says.

"Please?"

"Brian, I can go to jail for driving."

"Please?"

"Brian, it's not the end of the world."

"Come on."

"I am under so much pressure. It's not good for me to take a risk like that . . . Brian, don't get mad like that."

He walks away. Back to his room. Then back to the living room, out the front door and down to the parking lot, where he gets in the car and closes the door. And after a while, Taryn goes to the car, too, but instead of getting in stands just outside the closed door, paralyzed.

"I don't know what to do," she says.

She shouldn't drive anywhere. She needs to get Nathan in North Carolina. Brian is waiting, eyes down.

"I'm sure it's because I lost a child," she says, getting in, and off she goes, under the speed limit, to the other side of town, where she drops Brian off, turns for home and is just beginning to relax when she sees a police car coming in the other direction.

Closer . . . "oh gosh" . . . passing . . .

She watches its retreat in the rearview mirror, and shifts her eyes to the road in front of her.

And that's when she sees the animal stretched across the stripe, trying to get out of the way.

"Oh God, oh God, oh God," she says, swerving.

She doesn't think she hit it. But maybe she did. Did she? She needs to know. But before she can turn around, the cell phone rings.

"Hello?" she says. Her life is chaos. Her eyes are frantic. "Hi, Nathan."

A day at a time. That's what the counselors suggested. And the therapists. And the psychiatrists.

"I woke my children up about 7:30 that morning. I fixed them some hot chocolate and oatmeal," she testified at the trial. "I went to get my hair fixed. I went to the store and then when I come home, Charity was in the yard playing, and she ran up to the car, and she says, `Mama, can I go to Skateland?' "

"You've got two sons," people remind her. "You should be glad."

"She had on a pair of bluejeans. She had on a white blouse with black buttons, and she had on a jeans jacket and white L.A. Gear high-topped tennis shoes. She had a white pocketbook that was mine and I let her use, and it had straps on it and it had a couple of zippers that opened it."

"She's in heaven now," people say.

"Mrs. Potts, I would like to hand you another item and ask you to identify it," said Davenport, the prosecutor.

"This was part of a powder compact," she said. "It was a Merle Norman powder compact, which was almost empty. I gave it to Charity, you know, it had a little mirror in it, and she thought it was special, and this was the inside of it."

"You live under a dark cloud," friends tell her, and maybe she does, she thinks, but what about the darkness that other people live under, the darkness of being heartless? What about the anonymous person who kept filling out subscriptions for teen magazines in Charity's name and having the magazines mailed to the house? What about the boys who knocked on the door one day and asked Brian, "Are you the one whose sister was sliced up?" What about the people who said Taryn should be prosecuted for negligence, or as an accessory to murder, for being a trashy, big-haired, uncaring, unfit, wrong-side-of-town-dwelling mother who, can you imagine, would drop her daughter off at a skating rink? What about the woman who told Taryn that she'd heard from a very reliable source that after Charity had been killed, Mueller kept her body in a freezer so he could have sex with it?

What about Mueller himself?

"Doctor," a clinical psychologist named Mariah Travis, who'd examined Mueller, was asked at the trial, "I get the impression, to be just simple about it, he is just plain mean. Is that a fair statement?"

"I haven't seen anything to the contrary," Travis replied.

Buttons from her jean jacket, discovered in the woods. The zippers from the pocketbook. An earring her best friend had given her for her birthday. The clasps from her bra.

"Was it a training bra or a regular bra?" the prosecutor asked.

"It was a training bra," Taryn answered.

And where was everything else? Burned, it turned out. The jacket. The shirt. The pants. The purse. Everything, except what was made of metal, and one piece of gum.

"How about her shoes?" they asked Mueller.

"Burnt," he said.

That exchange was during his confession, when he said he had intercourse with Charity, killed her, burned her clothes, went to a drive-in flea market, "bought a damn shovel," and buried her. He said, "I ain't never even touched a dead person in my life." He said, "I just dug a little hole and pushed her in it and covered it up and threw some little brush on top and little stickers on it."

Then, at his trial, he tried to take it back. Yes, he said, he burned her clothes. Yes, he bought a damn shovel. Yes, he buried her. But he didn't kill her, he said. Rather, on the night she disappeared he was at a bar, and the next morning he was out in the woods and discovered her body, and he decided not to tell the police because he'd spent so much of his adult life in prison for raping a series of women in California and Virginia.

"Are you going to tell this jury that you found her body there the next morning?" Von Schuch asked Mueller when he took the stand at his trial.

"You're damn right I did."

"And are you going to tell this jury -- "

"And I ain't going to tell you a goddamn thing in the first place."

And it was so easy to get Mueller to show the jury his true colors, Von Schuch would say later. Because by that point the prosecutor knew just about everything about Mueller. That he was lonely. That he was, in the words of one Chesterfield police officer, "a pathetic figure." That the two cops who got him to confess did so after four months of befriending him, one of them taking the role of trusted older brother, the other taking the role of a father figure who wasn't a drunk, wasn't abusive, didn't beat him, didn't choke his mother until she was unconscious, whom he didn't hate -- and then, one day, after four months of showing nothing but understanding, said to him, "Look, you killed her, and I'm disgusted with you, and I thought you were a better man, that you'd admit it." Soon after which Mueller confessed at last, telling his "father" and "older brother," according to a transcript, "Let me shake your hand. Both of you. Y'all are good detectives. Y'all got the right man."

So that's what Von Schuch did when Mueller's trial reached the stage for the jurors to decide between life and death -- acted disgusted. First, he had Mueller's first rape victim testify. "He raped me on Valentine's Day," she said. Next, came his second victim. "I kept saying, `Please, just put the knife down.' " Then his third victim, and fourth, and then, after Mueller's own lawyer put Mueller on the stand in an attempt to make him a sympathetic character ("Is it fair to say that you wished it was somebody else's fault, and that you have blamed it on other people through the years from time to time?" the lawyer asked. "Do what now?" Mueller replied), Von Schuch arranged blown-up photographs of Charity's body so the jurors could see them and "went after him."

"You haven't shed a tear for not one of those rape victims, or Charity Powers, have you?" he said.

"You don't know that."

"I haven't seen any."

"Not here you are not going to."

"And you can't even feel sorry for them," Von Schuch continued. "You don't feel anything for what you did to [one of the rape victims]."

"Which one is that? Ha-ha," Mueller said.

"That's all the questions I have," Von Schuch said.

The jury took three hours to vote for the ultimate punishment for the ultimate crime.

Justice, then. Fairness. Equity. Balance. Harmony.

Except:

"I've got things to say that I'll only tell the mother," Taryn heard Mueller say in a TV interview after his arrest.

What did he want to say to her?

Was it about the ink stains? The letter E? Something Charity said? A last message? Was it a taunt? Was he sincere?

She tried to get approval to visit him in prison. Was unsuccessful. Tried again. Was unsuccessful. Kept at it. 1994: No. 1996: No. 1999: A letter arrived from the Virginia Department of Corrections. Mueller's execution had been scheduled for September 16. Was she interested in attending?

What did he want to say to her?

Did she want to witness the death of Everett Lee Mueller?

"Yes."

That this was an option was due to a policy change in Virginia in 1994. Prior to that, media members could be witnesses, law enforcement officials could be witnesses, defense attorneys could be witnesses and certain at-large members of the community could be witnesses, but family members were specifically excluded. Half a dozen other states, however, specifically allowed the attendance of family members, and in early 1994 the Virginia legislature took up the matter in a debate that, as with so many death-penalty discussions, was filled with both trumpets and vitriol.

Said one legislator, explaining why he favored allowing the inclusion of relatives, even though he couldn't imagine why anyone would want to see such a thing: "The scales of justice tilt in favor of the feelings of the victim's family."

Said another, explaining why he opposed it: Relatives want "to drink to the [inmate's] death and feast on his carcass" and maybe Virginia should just put "a red Delicious apple in his mouth."

The vote, ultimately, came down to a tie in the Senate, at which point a nay vote from the lieutenant governor caused its defeat, followed by the issuance of an executive memorandum by then-Gov. George Allen saying that "close family members of the victim of a capital murder should, whenever feasible, be offered the opportunity to witness the execution of the person who murdered their loved one," and adding, "This policy is adopted with the recognition that witnessing such an execution may have unforeseen consequences and impact for the family members involved, and thus is neither to be encouraged or discouraged."

Fifty-five executions later, Allen, who is now running for the U.S. Senate, says he occasionally runs into family members at campaign appearances who tell him what it was like for them to have been witnesses. "They've thanked me. Yes, they have," Allen says, which he says supports the reasons he issued the memorandum: "It seemed eminently sensible and thoughtful and respectful to victims who are often ignored.

"The point is not revenge. The point is justice."

But maybe there's the need for revenge at work, too -- not only in Virginia, where one family member said he wanted to be a witness, at least in part, because, "naturally, there's a little bit of vengeance in the back of your mind," but wherever family members are allowed to be witnesses. Because as a Maryland woman named Marjorie Surrell said, explaining what she hoped to see when watching her mother's killer die: "I would like to see him suffer." And as a Florida man named Mark Parker said with some satisfaction after watching the execution of a man who shot him and killed another: "I saw fear in his face." And as a man named Marc Klaas, of California, wrote recently in a guest column in Newsweek: "When Richard Allen Davis gets executed for killing my 12-year-old daughter Polly, after kidnapping her from a slumber party in 1993, I'll be there to watch him go down. I'd like my eyes to be the last thing he sees, just as his eyes were the last thing my child saw."

Understandable? Of course. Vengeful? "Suffering is what pays the price," notes Brunk, the legal philosopher, putting himself in the mind of someone seeking revenge. "Think of the horror the victims went through. Benign death does not compensate for that."

How, then, does a civilized entity, such as a state, keep an act that some participants see as retributive from degenerating into a kind of savagery to which the notion of justice no longer applies?

"This communication will serve to confirm arrangements for you to witness the execution of Everett Mueller at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt Va.," began the letter sent out by the Department of Corrections one week before the execution. A form letter, it is part of Virginia's attempt to make an execution as orderly, predictable, even civilized, as possible; part of a day-by-day, hour-by-hour script that tries to anticipate every imaginable detail of putting someone to death. Protesters will stand in this area. Media will stand in that area. The last meal will consist of such and such and be served at so and so. Here's how the electric chair will be prepared and tested; here's how the chemicals used in lethal injection will be administered; this is when the last shower will occur; on and on, including, since 1994, a guide for family witnesses: where to meet, what they'll hear, what they'll see.

"They explained exactly what was going to happen," a man named Earl Powers, Charity's grandfather, is saying, describing a briefing he received 90 minutes before Mueller's execution.

"They told us how fast it would be, that there really wouldn't be much to it," says Gwen Bibb, Earl's daughter and Charity's aunt.

"That we'd be in a room, that there'd be windows we could see out of but he couldn't see in," Earl continues. "They explained exactly how they do it. That the nurse hooks up the IV, and the machines are automatic, and they have a pastor there, and they have a microphone there in case he wants to say anything . . ."

And as Earl goes on, sitting with Gwen at Gwen's kitchen table, another of his children, Mike, who has had several beers, and is a little drunk, and is visibly furious, and is unable to hold still, is pacing in the background. This is Charity's father. Who was with Taryn for four years. Who was supposed to pick Charity up the morning after her night of skating and take her on a boat trip down the James River. Who has since renamed his boat Miss Charity. Who remembers going to the Hardee's after he learned she'd disappeared and finding a wrapper from the kind of gum she liked by the pay phone. Who remembers standing outside the courthouse during the trial and "scoping it out." Deciding where to stand. What kind of rifle to use. How much dynamite to bring.

"I would have killed him," he says.

"Well, I don't think I would have," Earl says.

"Well, I would have," Mike says. "I would have."

"Mike, no," Gwen says. "You're not that kind of person."

"If someone takes your most prized possession in the world, what are you going to do?" Mike says. "You're going to try and get it back. If you can't get it back? You're going to retaliate."

He goes to the refrigerator, takes out another beer, leaves the room.

"You know the saying: two steps forward, three steps back?" Gwen says. "That's Mike. When he does good, he thinks he doesn't deserve it."

"Alcohol's the main thing," Earl says. "Mueller didn't just destroy one person, he destroyed a whole lot."

"A whole family," Mike says, circling back into the room.

"He can't deal with this," Gwen says as Mike leaves again. "He doesn't know how she was killed. He only recently would go to the grave."

"He doesn't know how bad it was," Earl says.

"He doesn't know," Gwen says. "He did not want to know anything."

"I don't think Taryn even knows," Earl says.

"No, Taryn wanted to know everything. Everything," Gwen says. "But Mike cannot deal with it."

She hears Mike coming back and falls silent. It's been nearly a year since the three of them drove to the sheriff's office in Emporia, just as the letter said to do, and arrived by 7:30 p.m., just as the letter said they should, and were given their briefing, just as the letter said would happen, and taken by van to the prison, arriving in darkness.

"No," Mike says, "I wasn't nervous."

They were driven past the protesters and media and into the bowels of the place.

"They told us we'd be screamed at by the prisoners, and we were," Gwen says. "We were told do not, under any circumstances, scream back. So that was unnerving."

They were thoroughly searched and escorted into a room separate from the area containing the other witnesses, a room exclusively for them.

And there, just beyond the window, was the gurney.

"Not nervous," Earl says. "An anticipation-type thing."

And on the gurney, Mueller.

"They allowed us to stand up against the glass," Gwen says.

"They couldn't stop us," Mike says.

"Which made it better," Gwen says.

"And Gwen took a picture of Charity out of her purse and held it up against the glass," Mike says.

"I wasn't holding it up against the glass. I was holding it in my hand," Gwen says.

"It only was a few minutes. I counted it on my watch," Earl says.

"I was kind of narrating it. `Okay, right now, his heart is stopped. Now you can see he's gurgling,' " Gwen says.

"Rot in hell, you bastard," Mike remembers yelling.

"That's right. You said `bastard,' " Gwen says. "And we were all crying."

"That was after they pronounced him dead," Earl says.

"No, that was when he was doing his flinching," Mike says.

"When he was doing his gurgling," Gwen says.

Mike sits. Stands. He needs a cigarette. He needs a beer. "It was too easy," he says. "It says in the Bible, an eye for an eye. This wasn't an eye for an eye."

"I said a prayer for him," Gwen says. "I hate to say it in front of my brother, but I did."

"I did, too," Earl says quietly, and now all three of them are quiet, thinking about whatever there is to think about, eyes for eyes, prayers and gurgles, until Mike says that he thought he'd feel better than he does.

"But you don't hate somebody with all your heart for 10 years and then feel better," he says. "I mean, for 10 years I thought about killing this bastard. Choking him to death. And then in a minute it's over. And what do you do with your anger?"

And where was Taryn?

Not in the witness room.

Instead she was outside the prison gates because this is what September 16th was for her:

It was the day that Hurricane Floyd, after traveling across the Atlantic and growing so huge that it caused the evacuation of 3 million people along the East Coast, had made landfall and was moving through Virginia. It was the Department of Corrections deciding to go ahead with the execution anyway.

It was a phone call, just after noon, between Taryn and Elizabeth Bernhard, director of Chesterfield County's victim-

witness assistance program, who was going to drive Taryn to the prison. "She had been wavering all week: `Yes, I want to go. No I don't. I don't know,' " Bernhard says. "I said, `Honey, look out the window.' "

It was Bernhard, after spending an hour on the phone with Taryn waiting for her to make up her mind, calling the Department of Corrections to say that neither she nor Taryn would be attending: "Case closed. Our names were scratched from the list."

It was a succession of visitors to Taryn's apartment throughout the afternoon, including the young woman who was with Charity at the skating rink, who said she very much wanted to be at the prison, and Taryn's brother, who said he wanted to be at the prison, and Taryn's close friend Dena Waddell, who said she was willing to drive.

So they went. It was late. Too late, of course, because, as Department of Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor says, "Once the system has started, it's kind of tough to stop it," and, as he also says, "We have to be concerned with people who interrupt because they could be trying to disrupt," but Taryn arrived at the prison with more than an hour to spare, and she just about ran up to the entrance, and she showed the guard her letter saying she was an official witness, and she showed him her driver's license to prove that she was really Taryn Potts, and the guard, she says, pointed her to the spot where the protesters stand, and she said, confused, "But I'm the mother," and the guard, she says, said, "Go back to your car," and she said, again, more anxiously, "I'm the mother," and the guard, she says, shouted, "Get out," and at 9 p.m., when she should have been pressed up against the glass, holding a picture of Charity, saying a curse, saying a prayer, receiving her release, she was instead in the storm-soaked parking lot of a convenience store, in hysterics, because she wasn't going to hear the final words of a dying man.

Who, in the end, said nothing. Just shook his head and died, and that was that.

A civilized ending.

But of course it wasn't:

"Come on, Nathan," Taryn is saying.

It is 2 in the morning, and he is home from North Carolina at last, a drowsy 11-year-old in the dark back seat of a car.

Dena's car.

Not Taryn's.

Because the day before, the police got her. She was driving Brian home from a place he had to be, giving him a ride he had to have, when a policeman pulled her over. Followed by another policeman. Middle of the day, lights flashing, cars going by, people looking. And there she was, on the side of a road, standing in the wet grass, trying to explain about the car theft, and the accident, and the repairs, and the suspended license, that she was trying to work it out, and the bottom line was that she had to leave the car right there and walk home. The afternoon passed. She didn't know what to do. She needed someone to help her. Dinner time came. She was low on food. Darkness came. She walked half a mile to a Taco Bell, went inside, sat against a window. She was the only customer in there, other than two kids slapping each other by the gum-ball machine near the entrance, and she drank a soda, and wondered what to do, and ate a taco, and wondered what to do, and then Dena called on the cell phone. Dena, who remembers when Taryn was 16 and "a perky thing" who "liked to wear her hair up in a bouffant, and she weighed like 90 pounds soaking sopping wet." Dena, who came right over in her T-shirt and sweat pants and leopard-print slippers and not only helped Taryn get her car home, but offered to drive her down to North Carolina to get Nathan. And that's where they went this afternoon, driving south until they reached a trailer where a boy with patchy eyebrows was ready to go, and an aging, lonely woman stood by the door saying to Taryn, "Nobody cares about me." "Goodbye, Mama," Taryn said, and back north they came on a route cruel with memorials -- past the prison, past Skateland, past the Hardee's, past the dirt road that Mueller had driven Charity down as she chewed her gum and held onto her purse, past the courthouse, and into the parking lot by Taryn's apartment. Where, as the car rolls to a stop, Nathan sits up. He rubs his eyes. He picks up a grocery bag containing his clothes, walks inside and lies down across one of the old blue chairs in the living room. "Nathan," Taryn says, "come on, Mama will tuck you in," and then she goes into her own room, collapses on her bed and falls asleep in her dress.

Day by day, the counselors tell her. But Taryn knows what they don't know, that in a single day so much can happen.

"I couldn't find Charity," is how the worst day of all, and the one that has defined every one since, began.

"What do you mean?" Taryn said.

"I couldn't find Charity," Steve said again, and that was when a child who was 22 hours of labor and an attempt to come out sideways, who fell asleep next to her mother every night for years, who liked to write, who liked to sing, who seemed not to have a mean bone in her body, who tried for instance to resuscitate some dying frogs after Brian announced he had scooped some out of a creek and buried them in the sand, who liked to roller-skate, became an autopsy report, and furniture in a storage facility that her mother can't bear to look at, and a series of photographs for a jury of strangers to see as they considered the notion of justice, photographs of which Von Schuch, the prosecutor, says, "We blow them up huge, so they're disgusting. They stay with you."

Into the courtroom came Taryn. She sat. And there was her daughter.

"Her leg," she remembers, "was one picture. Where he had cut it. Two inches deep and two inches wide and six inches long. This is what flashes in my mind. He cut her other places. He cut her neck. He cut her arms. He cut her nipples off. She was a very sweet child and we went to church together and she was a very good little girl . . ."

She saw the photographs, and that's when she wanted to stand on the arms of the chair and jump. Not to kill him. But to hurt him. And then to kill him.

But in the end, it turned out that what she needed the most was to meet him.

"Because maybe he had something to say to me about my daughter," she says.

What did he have to say?

The question possesses her. He is dead. As she wanted him to be. But now that he is, what is she? Her days: She survives them. They are reminders, they are questions, they are chaos, they are storms, and so she imagines they will continue until she reaches the only day she has been able to look ahead to, and plan for, since Charity's death.

At the funeral, they told her they could arrange the grave site to accommodate two.

How? she asked.

Vertically, they said. By stacking.

Yes, she said.

Surrender. At last.

Except:

"I'd rather be under her," Taryn says. "Do you know what I mean?"