Chapter 16

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"Who are you here to see, sir?" a correctional officer, wiping crumbs off his hands, asked. I'd never been to a prison before, and I wondered what the inside of one looked like, smelled like, and if people get in fistfights. I hoped Robert hadn't been abused in any way. Part of me wanted to bitch the bastard out for getting himself in this mess. The guards had the standard issued blue polo shirts with slacks and a duty belt. None of the guards had firearms, but they did have batons with mase. The placed smelled like a rubber factory mixed with a laundromat.

"I'm here to see Robert," I said, after handing the officer my identification.

The officer glanced at my ID. "Right this way." The officer guided me down a dark corridor to the visiting room. My heart started to quicken its beat. I'd owe Robert an explanation, but I couldn't allow that to get in the way of what I needed to say. The jail felt like a high school detention center with Christmas decorations and people in prison.

Robert was waiting for me as I approached. A screen separated us. I picked up the phone that rested on the edge of the table. Robert had gained a good ten pounds and grown a full beard. The closer I brought the phone to my ear, the shakier I'd become.

"You've got some nerve coming here," Robert said.

"I wanted to let you know that Jenna is pregnant."

"And that's what brought you here?"

"The baby is yours."

"I don't want the son-of-a-bitch kid."

"I didn't think you did."

"Well, what then?"

"I merely wanted you to know, bro."

Robert tapped the glass with his pointer finger. "You don't get to call me, bro. You're a fucking snitch. Who snitches on their brother?" Robert slumped back in his chair.

"I didn't kill the clerk. I wasn't going to prison for something I didn't do. You've always blamed me for everything, not anymore."

I was getting up to leave.

"Wait," Robert said. "I have throat cancer."

I lowered my body back to the chair in slow motion. "What?"

"I'm dying."

I swallowed hard. "How long do you have?"

"The doctor said I've got one month."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"My foster moms were used to me calling collect from the jail. I'd told myself I was on my own because I always have been."

I squeezed back tears, but that made them fall harder. "I don't know what to say."

"Well, this weight gain isn't from food. It's the medication. It causes me to balloon."

I looked down, clenching the phone with my sweaty palm. "I don't know what to say." I raked my free hand through my hair. "Now, I wish we'd traded places."

"No," Robert said. "I killed the clerk. Being turned in by my brother wasn't part of the plan. I didn't think we'd grown that far apart."

"Robert, I had to do the right thing. I couldn't go down for something I didn't do. But now, I wish I lost my self-righteousness. Jenna tells me to lose my pride, too. Look, enough about that. Is there anything I can do for you before you--"

"I always wanted to be a teacher or a doctor."

I sucked in a deep breath and blew out a sharp sigh. "How about I encourage your daughter, when she arrives, to become a teacher or a doctor?"

Up until now, I'd never seen Robert cry. "I'd like that. Listen, you'll never see me again. I want you to remember me like this," Robert said. "I don't want you to remember me dying on a hospital bed. I ask that you cremate my body."

I dropped my head, balling.

"This is important," Robert said.

I lifted my gaze.

"I need you to spread my ashes opposite side of the hotel we robbed."

"Why?"

"I feel like it's an atonement of sorts. I killed the clerk, and God also killed me. So, we're even." It was the first sign of guilt that I'd ever seen from Robert. He didn't express his feelings, especially not regret. It was like a foreign language. But now, Robert had this regret weighing on his shoulders. In roughly a few months, Robert has found his true self.

"You feel sorry?"

"Shouldn't I?" Robert dried his eyes. "What I did was wrong. I swear I didn't know the gun was loaded. I didn't mean for anyone to get hurt, and I certainly wanted no one dead."

"Why the fuck was the gun loaded?"

"Jill--"

"Wait, do you think Jill set you up by placing a real bullet in there."

"Not think, I know. You see this sweet Jill, but she's trouble. I don't think Jenna and her future child are as safe as you want to believe. Open your eyes because God knows I have."

"Wait, you don't think Jill put loaded the gun on purpose, do you?" I said as I looked over either shoulder.

"I have no doubt that she loaded the gun on purpose. She wanted to keep the money for herself. I think she got sick of me being a failure. I couldn't find a job if my life depended on it." Robert patted his cheeks with a tissue. "Jenna isn't safe."

"I don't want to say goodbye." I placed my hand on the glass. And Robert placed his on mine. "We've had it hard you and me."

Robert gave me a tight-lipped smile. "I'll see you on the other side, brother. Things might have turned out differently if we had a--"

"Don't," I said. "You did what you knew."

"Please forgive me for everything."

"There's nothing to forgive."

"Time's up!" an overweight corrections officer said. "Let's go, Robert."

"Love you, bro," Robert said. The phone cut off. It was as if God wanted those to be the last words I heard from Robert.

"I love you, too," I mouthed. I'd never told Robert I loved him. It wasn't who we were. We weren't raised to show any emotion other than hatred. And, I'd shown plenty of people just how much I hated them. 

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