I’d come five years and two thousand miles to stand in the rain while they prepared my brother for his own murder.
He had less than two weeks to go before they strapped him down and injected poison into his heart. I knew Collie would be divided about it, the way he was divided about everything. A part of him would look forward to stepping off the big ledge. He’d been looking over it his whole life in one way or another.
A different part of him would be full of rage and self-pity and fear. I had no doubt that when the time came he’d be a passive prisoner right up to the moment they tried to buckle him down. Then he’d explode into violence. He was going to hurt whoever was near him, whether it was a priest or the warden or a guard. They’d have to club him down while he laughed. The priest, if he was still capable, would have to raise his voice in prayer to cover my brother’s curses.
I was twenty minutes late for my appointment at the prison. The screw at the gate didn’t want to let me in because he’d already marked me as a no-show. I didn’t argue. I didn’t want to be there. He saw that I wanted to split and it was enough to compel him to let me stay.
At the prison door, another screw gave me the disgusted once-over. I told him my name, but the sound of it didn’t feel right anymore.
The fake ID I’d been living under the past half decade had become a safe harbor, a slim chance to better myself even though I hadn’t done much yet. I resented being forced to return to the person I’d once been.
The screw made me repeat my name. I did. It was like ice on my tongue. Then he made me repeat it again. I caught on.
Expressionless, he led me off to a small side room where I was frisked and politely asked if I would voluntarily succumb to a strip search. I asked what would happen if I said no. He said I wouldn’t be allowed to proceed. It was a good enough reason to turn around. I owed my brother nothing. I could return out west and get back to a life I was still trying to believe in and make real.
Even as I decided to leave I was shrugging out of my jacket and kicking off my shoes. I got naked and held my arms up while the screw ran his hands through my hair and checked between my ass cheeks and under my scrotum.
He stared at the dog tattoo that took up the left side of my chest, covering three bad scars. One was from when Collie had stabbed me with the bayonet of a tin Revolutionary War toy soldier when I was seven. I got a deep muscle infection that the doctor had to go digging after, leaving the area a rutted, puckered purple.
Another was from when I was twelve and my father sent me up the drainpipe to a house that was supposedly empty. A seventy-five-year-old lady picked up a Tiffany-style lamp and swatted me three stories down into a hibiscus tree. A rib snapped and pierced the flesh. My old man got me into the car and pulled the bone shard through by hand as the sirens closed in and he drove up on sidewalks to escape. The scar was mottled red and thick as a finger.
The last one I didn’t think about. I had made an art of not thinking about it.
The screw took pride in his professional indifference, courteous yet dismissive. But the tattoo caught his attention.
“Your family, you’re some serious dog lovers, eh?”
I didn’t answer. One last time he checked through my clothes for any contraband. He tossed them back to me and I got dressed.
I was taken to an empty visiting room. I sat in a chair and waited for them to bring Collie in. It didn’t matter that there was a wall of reinforced glass between us. I wasn’t going to pass him a shiv and we weren’t going to shake hands or hug out twenty years of tension. The only time we’d ever touched was when we were trying to beat the hell out of each other. I’d been thinking hard about the reasons for that on the ride back east. How could it be that I had such resentment and animosity for him, and he for me, and yet when he called I came running?
They led him in, draped in chains. He could shuffle along only a few inches at a time, his hands cuffed to a thick leather belt at his waist, his feet separated by a narrow chain, bracelets snapped to his ankles. It took ten minutes to unlock him. The screws retreated and Collie twirled his chair around and sat backward, like always.
Like most mad-dog convicts, prison agreed with him. He was a lot more fit than he’d ever been on the outside. The huge beer belly had been trimmed back to practically nothing, his arms thick and muscular and covered in twisted black veins. There was a new gleam in his eye that I couldn’t evaluate.
He had old scars from drunken brawls and new ones from the joint that gave him a sense of character he’d never exhibited before. Like me, he’d gone gray prematurely. He had a short but well-coiffed mane of silver with a few threads of black running through it. I noticed he’d also had a manicure and a facial. He glowed a healthy pink. He’d been moisturized and exfoliated and closely shaved. The nancies on C-Block could open up a salon in East Hampton and make a mint off Long Island’s wealthy blue-haired biddies.
I expected that with his execution only two weeks off, and with five years gone and all the uneasy blood still between us, we would need to pause and gather our thoughts before we spoke. I imagined we would stare at each other, making our usual judgments and taking each other’s measure. We’d then bypass trivial concerns to speak of extreme matters, whatever they might be. With a strange reservation, a kind of childlike hesitation, I lifted the phone and cleared my throat.
Collie moved with the restrained energy of a predator, slid forward in his seat, did a little rap-a-tap on the glass. He grasped the phone and first thing let loose with a snorted, easy laugh. He looked all around until he finally settled on my eyes.
He usually spoke with a quick, jazzy bop tempo, sometimes muttering out of the corner of his mouth or under his breath as if to an audience situated around him. This time he was focused. He nodded once, more to himself than me, and said, “Listen, Ma hates me, and that’s all right, but you, you’re the one who broke her heart. You—”
I hung up the phone, stood, and walked away.
I was nearly to the door when Collie’s pounding on the glass made me stop. It got the screws looking in on us. I kept my back to my brother. My scalp crawled and I was covered in sweat. I wondered if what he’d said was true. It was the best trick he had, getting me to constantly question myself. Even when I knew he was setting me up I couldn’t keep from falling into the trap. I wondered if my mother’s heart really had broken when I’d left. I thought of my younger sister, Dale, still waiting for me to read her romantic vampire fantasy novels. My father on the porch with no one to sit with. My gramp losing his memories, fighting to retain them, now that there was nobody to stroll around the lake with and discuss the best way to trick out burglar alarms.
Collie kept on shouting and banging. I took another step. I reached for the handle. Maybe if I’d made my fortune out west I would have found it easier to leave him there yelling. Maybe if I’d gotten married. Maybe if I’d raised a child.
But none of that had happened. I took a breath, turned, and sat again. I lifted the phone.
“Jesus, you’re still sensitive,” he said. “I only meant that you need to stop thinking about yourself and go see the family—”
“I’m not going to see the family. Why did you call me here, Collie?”
He let out a quiet laugh. He pointed through the huge glass window off to the side of us, which opened on an area full of long tables. His gaze was almost wistful. “You know, we were supposed to be able to talk over there. In that room, face-to-face. On this phone, talking to you like this, it’s not the way I wanted it to be.”
“How did you want it to be?”
He grinned and shrugged, and the thousand questions that had once burned inside me reignited. I knew he wouldn’t answer them. My brother clung to his secrets, great and small. He’d been interviewed dozens of times for newspaper articles and magazines and books, and while he gave intimate, awful details, he never explained himself. It drove the courts, the media, and the public crazy even now.
And me too. Words bobbed in my throat but never made it out. The timeworn campaigns and disputes between us had finally receded. I no longer cared about the insults, the torn pages, the girls he stole from me, or the way he’d run off on short cons gone bad, leaving me to take beatings from the marks. It had taken a lot of spilled blood to make me forgive him, if in fact I had. If not, it would only matter another few days.
On the long night of his rampage, my brother went so far down into the underneath that he didn’t come back up until after he’d murdered eight people. A vacationing family of five shot to death in a mobile home, a gas-station attendant knifed in a men’s room, an old lady beaten to death outside a convenience store, a young woman strangled in a park.
None of them had been robbed. He hadn’t taken anything, hadn’t even cleaned out the register at the gas station.
It wasn’t our way. It had never been our way. I thought of my grandfather Shepherd again. One of my earliest memories was of him telling us all around a Thanksgiving dinner, You’re born thieves, it’s your nature, handed down to me, handed down from me. This is our way. He’d been getting ready to cut into a turkey Collie had boosted from the King Kullen.
Collie turned on the charm, showed me his perfect teeth, and said, “Been a long time, Terry. You look good. Trim, built up. You’re as dark as if you’d been dipped in a vat of maple syrup.”
“I work on a ranch.”
“Yeah? What, busting broncos? Roping cattle? Like that?”
“Where? Colorado? Montana?”
That question made me frown. I’d been eager to know how he’d managed to track me down. I’d been off the grift for years, living under an assumed name, doing an honest job. I thought I’d covered my tracks well, but four days ago, after coming in from digging fence posts, I’d received a phone call from a woman whose voice I didn’t recognize. She’d told me Collie wanted to see me before he died.
“You already know. How’d you find me?”
“I put in a call.”
“Who do you think?”
He meant our family, who had connections all over the circuit. I’d half-expected that they’d somehow kept tabs on me. They must’ve gotten in touch with the people I’d bought my fake ID from and shadowed me through the years. I should have realized my father wouldn’t let me go so easily.
But that voice on the phone didn’t belong to anyone I knew. I wondered if my other identity had been completely blown and I’d have to start over again, rebuild another new life. How many more did I have left in me?
“It’s been good seeing you, Terry. I’m glad you came. We both need a little more time.”
I’d barely slept over the last four days, and all the miles gunning across the country suddenly caught up with me. I felt tired as hell. “What are you talking about, Collie?”
“Come back tomorrow or the day after. They gave you shit at the door, I can tell. Rousted you, strip-searched you? If they try that again, tell them to fuck themselves.” He raised his voice again and shouted at the screws. “Dead man walking has at least a couple of extra privileges!”
“Listen, I’m not—”
“Take some time to settle yourself.”
“I don’t want to settle myself. I’m not coming back tomorrow, Collie.”
“Go home. Visit the family. I’ll tell you what I need when I see you again.”
I started breathing through my teeth. “What you need. I’m not running drugs for you. I’m not icing anybody on the outside for you. I’m not sending around a petition to the governor. I’m not coming back.”
It got him laughing again. “You’re home. You’re going to see the family because you’ve missed them. You’ve been gone a long time and proven whatever point you had to make, Terry. You can stick it out on your own. You’re your own man. You’re not Dad. You’re not me.” He cupped the phone even more tightly to his mouth. “Besides, you love them and they love you. It’s time to say hello again.”
Life lessons from death row. Christ. I felt nauseous.
I stared hard into my brother’s eyes, trying to read a face I’d always been able to read before. I saw in it just how plagued he was by his own culpability. He was shallow and vindictive, but he rarely lied. He didn’t often deny responsibility and he never cared about consequences. There was absolutely nothing I could do for him.
“I’m not coming back,” I told him.
“I think I need you to save someone’s life,” he said.
“Tomorrow afternoon. Or the day after, if you want. And don’t be late this time.”
I hung up on his smile and let out a hiss that steamed the glass.
Already he’d bent me out of shape. It had taken no more than fifteen minutes. We hadn’t said shit to each other. Maybe it was his fault, maybe it was mine. I could feel the old singular pain rising once more.
I shoved my chair back, took a few steps, and stopped. I thought, If I can get out now, without asking the question, I might be able to free myself. I have the chance. It’s there. The door is three feet away. I can do this. I can do this.
Excerpted from The Last Kind Words by Tom Piccirilli. Copyright © 2012 by Tom Piccirilli. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.