Face to face. Eyeball to eyeball. Staring at me is the man who killed my uncle with a single shot on a wintry night more than 20 years ago.
He’s standing with a carpenter’s chisel in his right hand and a hammer in his other. He is dressed in denim jeans and a well worn blue work shirt with his number stamped in dark blue above a torn shirt pocket. A faint smile across his freckled face appears to welcome me as a friend, except I know otherwise.
The fried chicken dinner I gorged following Sunday morning worship feels as if it’s rushing to escape through my throat. Beads of perspiration are popping out on my brow and I just know my heart will burst through my chest any second. I struggle to cry out to my wife who is cleaning dishes in the kitchen, only my scream can’t break through the sound barrier.
“Remember me?” I hear as Roger argues in my racing brain. “We’re still cousins and we were best friends before I killed Daddy. Look, can’t you see I’m all grown up?”
I recall a few years earlier when prison officials campaigned for any family member to permit my cousin to live with them. The officer said Roger had been rehabilitated since his incarceration at 19 and had mastered carpentry like Uncle Joe. He claimed Roger could support himself with his acquired skills, and as long as he stayed on his meds, he wasn’t any threat.
Part of me had wanted to forgive and accept my cousin from the prison release program. However, I decided Roger was better off incarcerated; I wasn’t jeopardizing my wife and newborn son.
As children, Roger was considerably older, but I’m sure we were about the same age mentally. We played Cowboys and Indians in the woods while my father cut my uncle’s hair. Then when our turn came, due to our fidgeting, my father yanked out more hair than he cut with his old clippers. We cried, but laughed later when we saw ourselves in the mirror.
Once a month, Roger and my uncle rode to town with us to shop for groceries since they didn’t have a truck. That’s when trouble started. Uncle Joe, who had been divorced for many years and had full custody of Roger, fell in love with the lady cashier. A few months later, he happily announced he was marrying the pretty woman.
My cousin protested. He didn’t want any woman bossing him. I never dreamed Roger meant to kill my Uncle Joe as he entered the back kitchen door that bitterly cold Saturday following a late night date. A single rifle shot through the heart ended Uncle Joe’s dreams and ignited Roger’s nightmare.
Roger was crying by my uncle’s coffin the last time I saw him. He was dressed in shiny orange and his hands and legs were in chains. He hunched over the casket pleading with his father to wake up. Finally, the deputies had to force him from the funeral home.
Now, two decades later, here he is staring at me, dressed in blue prison work clothes.
I hear my wife returning from the kitchen.
“Are you finished with the Sunday paper?”
I welcome the escape from the newspaper. An oversized photo of my cousin is plastered on the front page of the features section. The accompanying story focused on a prison program that had successfully rehabilitated an inmate, but no forgiving person had stepped forward to grant the killer a second chance.
“Here, you can have the comics too.”
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