|IF WE WERE VILLAINS
M.L. Rio (mlrio.com)
Titan Books (titanbooks.com)
I sit with my wrists cuffed to the table and I think, But that I am forbid / To tell the secrets of my prison-house, / I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul. The guard stands by the door, watching me, like he’s waiting for something to happen.
Enter Joseph Colborne. He is a graying man now, almost fifty. It’s a surprise, every few weeks, to see how much he’s aged—and he’s aged a little more, every few weeks, for ten years. He sits across from me, folds his hands, and says, “Oliver.”
“Heard the parole hearing went your way. Congratulations.”
“I’d thank you if I thought you meant it.”
“You know I don’t think you belong in here.”
“That doesn’t mean you think I’m innocent.”
“No.” He sighs, checks his watch—the same one he’s worn since we met—as if I’m boring him.
“So why are you here?” I ask. “Same fortnightly reason?”
His eyebrows make a flat black line. “You would say fucking ‘fortnight.’ ”
“You can take the boy out of the theatre, or something like that.”
He shakes his head, simultaneously amused and annoyed.
“Well?” I say.
“The gallows does well. But how does it well? It does well to those that do ill,” I reply, determined to deserve his annoyance. “Why are you here? You should know by now I’m not going to tell you anything.”
“Actually,” he says, “this time I think I might be able to change your mind.”
I sit up straighter in my chair. “How?”
“I’m leaving the force. Sold out, took a job in private security. Got my kids’ education to think about.”
For a moment I simply stare at him. Colborne, I always imagined, would have to be put down like a savage old dog before he’d leave the chief ’s office.
“How’s that supposed to persuade me?” I ask.
“Anything you say will be strictly off the record.”
“Then why bother?”
He sighs again and all the lines on his face deepen. “Oliver, I don’t care about doling out punishment, not anymore. Someone served the time, and we rarely get that much satisfaction in our line of work. But I don’t want to hang up my hat and waste the next ten years wondering what really happened ten years ago.”
I say nothing at first. I like the idea but don’t trust it. I glance around at the grim cinder blocks, the tiny black video cameras that peer down from every corner, the guard with his jutting underbite. I close my eyes, inhale deeply, and imagine the freshness of Illinois springtime, what it will be like to step outside after gasping on stale prison air for a third of my life.
When I exhale I open my eyes and Colborne is watching me closely.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m getting out of here, one way or the other. I don’t want to risk coming back. Seems safer to let sleeping dogs lie.”
His fingers drum restlessly on the table. “Tell me something,” he says. “Do you ever lie in your cell, staring up at the ceiling, wondering how you wound up in here, and you can’t sleep because you can’t stop thinking about that day?”
“Every night,” I say, without sarcasm. “But here’s the difference, Joe. For you it was just one day, then business as usual. For us it was one day, and every single day that came after.” I lean forward on my elbows, so my face is only a few inches from his, so he hears every word when I lower my voice. “It must eat you alive, not knowing. Not knowing who, not knowing how, not knowing why. But you didn’t know him.”
He wears a strange, queasy expression now, as if I’ve become unspeakably ugly and awful to look at. “You’ve kept your secrets all this time,” he says. “It would drive anyone else crazy. Why do it?”
“I wanted to.”
“Do you still?”
My heart feels heavy in my chest. Secrets carry weight, like lead.
I lean back. The guard watches impassively, as if we’re two strangers talking in another language, our conversation distant and insignificant. I think of the others. Once upon a time, us. We did wicked things, but they were necessary, too—or so it seemed. Looking back, years later, I’m not so sure they were, and now I wonder: Could I explain it all to Colborne, the little twists and turns and final exodos? I study his blank open face, the gray eyes winged now by crow’s-feet, but clear and bright as they have always been.
“All right,” I say. “I’ll tell you a story. But you have to understand a few things.”
Colborne is motionless. “I’m listening.”
“First, I’ll start talking after I get out of here, not before. Second, this can’t come back to me or anyone else—no double jeopardy. And last, it’s not an apology.”
I wait for some response from him, a nod or a word, but he only blinks at me, silent and stoic as a sphinx.
“Well, Joe?” I say. “Can you live with that?”
He gives me a cold sliver of a smile. “Yes, I think I can.”