My name is Charlie. Charles Daniel Bandshaw. Those who know me well call me Chuck. Those who don’t learn soon enough not to make any wisecracks about my name.
My mama, Georgia Bandshaw, had a sense of humor and my daddy wasn’t around to stop her from cursing me with her play on words when I was born. He was playing around, too – on his wife when he knocked up my mom; him a big fancy professor and all, my mom just a freshmen with her whole life ahead of her. He didn’t stick around too long after he found out she was pregnant. Yeah, the devil went down, alright.
Maybe she should’ve had an abortion or given me up for adoption, but she didn’t. She kept me and did her best to raise me. I never doubted she loved me, even when we didn’t have enough to eat or when I had to wear pants three inches too short because of a badly-timed growth spurt. Well, maybe I did doubt a little, during those long nights when I could hear her crying through the thin walls of our apartment.
By the time I was in high school my course was set. I was in and out of Juvie Hall so often I figured they should rename the place after me. It seemed the harder I tried to stay out of trouble the more temptation tripped me up. Doors were left unlocked, cash registers left unattended, invitations always opened before me, impossible to ignore.
Now? I sit in a cell, dressed in my loose-fitting jumpsuit and well-worn shoes, separated from temptation and most of society. I’m fifteen years into a life sentence. And when this life term is done, there are three more waiting. One life for each life I took. Plenty of time to consider what went wrong on that last job and how all of my luck seemed to have run out at once. My luck, and the luck of that man, his wife and their kids.
I’d watched the family leave home that evening; they drove off in their fancy car, dressed in their fancy party clothes. By my calculations, they should’ve been gone for hours. But that poor little girl, the precious…her face haunts me the most. Later I figured out that she’d thrown up on her pretty dress and shoes; they probably never even left the neighborhood, but were back in the driveway before I’d half cleared the wife’s jewelry box. I froze where I stood in the master bedroom, one hand holding the upended box, the other holding up the pillow case, my mouth open in a silent “O,” my breath locked in my chest.
I heard them come in. I heard them talking, though I couldn’t understand the words. I considered my options. I did. I know I did, but I couldn’t seem to think straight. I felt betrayed by their presence. I didn’t know yet about the little girl. Maybe if I’d known they were going to be downstairs for a while I’d have tried to climb out the window, but I didn’t know. How could I?
There have been many sleepless nights since then, spent thinking through those minutes that felt like hours. Wondering.
I quietly set down the box on the dresser and the sack on the floor, then made my way to the head of the stairs. I took several long, slow breaths, trying to quiet my racing heart. From the sounds, I figured they were in the kitchen. I crept down the stairs, pausing, listening, careful to step close to the rail, avoiding creaks.
I don’t remember when exactly I pulled out my pistol. I’d almost forgotten I had it with me. Almost. I didn’t usually carry. Armed robbery carries a much higher penalty than plain old B&E, and I’d planned this job. No one was supposed to be home, so I shouldn’t have needed a weapon.
But there I was, gun in hand, at the base of the stairs, when the kitchen door swung open and the husband stepped through, silhouetted by the kitchen light behind him. He never saw me in the darkness. I didn’t mean to shoot him. I believe that, and will surely die without an explanation for how it happened. In court I swore before God that I didn’t pull the trigger; the gun just went off.
The Prosecutor found a lot of humor in that, or he seemed to anyway. He talked to me the same way my high school principal talked to me, like I was an idiot. My Defender was one of those guys paid for by the public. He was no help. The trial was a joke, but what could I expect? Four people dead, one orphaned.
Once I fired the gun, the mother came running, screaming. I shot her too. Right behind her came the boys. Two more pops from the pistol and they were sprawled across the backs of their parents. And that poor little girl with vomit on her dress and shoes, left behind to cope with the loss of her parents and her brothers. She was too sick to come running. I was the one running, instead. I took off through the front door moving as fast as my feet could carry me. But it was foolishness. Even if she hadn’t seen me, which she did, it was early enough in the evening that the shots had drawn out curious neighbors.
Three eyewitnesses were presented to the jury, and the Prosecutor offered to bring out more. My Defender politely declined. In all, the trial lasted five days. Only an hour of that was spent by the jury in deliberation. I’m not sure what took so long, I’d have bet they decided in minutes without any discussion. Guilty.
I don’t know how to tally the expense of a trial such as mine, including the hours spent in preparation or the obligatory but fruitless appeals. I don’t know how to tally the cost of my room and board, laundry, medical and dental coverage. And I know there’s no way to account for the loss of life. Mostly, I wish that I could restore the childhood I stole from that little girl, her family torn from her in a bloody spray of my fear and bitter resentment of all she had.
My life is nothing, and when I die, three unpaid lives remain. And even if I could be born again and die for each of the lives I took, the debt can never be repaid.