The 8’ by 10’ cell he had been condemned to for the past six years had held him, but it was beginning to give way, as if it was at capacity. Or maybe it was him that was threatening to burst. The secret he had kept for so long was the catalyst, especially now that he was the only one left that knew it. It tugged and it pulled at him daily, compounding and then growing some more.
The air had its familiar musty smell. The sink had a perpetual drip that ticked like a clock, only slower. He glanced over to the stained white sink, wondering how many drops he had already endured. He had no way to stop it. Every day was a struggle of will to ignore it. And every day he was losing by a larger margin. He was starting to realize the truth…it was a fight he couldn’t win. If prison had taught him anything, it was that pain can be infinite, even when physical boundaries are not. This jail wasn’t his true incarceration. To be haunted by your thoughts was a worse kind of prison.
He had tried to stay strong, keep his mind sharp, but that was a tall order, especially in a place like this. His cell resided in the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville, the “Walls Unit” as it was called—the high, red brick walls giving it the nickname. It was designed to house the worst kind of criminals. The prisoners were rough and the guards worse. Most of the inmates were here on murder or rape convictions, and since this was Texas, many would never leave. Not walking out the front door anyway. The worst ones exited in a sitting position by a bolt from Old Sparky, at least that’s what the inmates called it.
The 1950s had been a particularly robust period for executions, even by Texas standards, having put 65 names on the list of executions already. It was shaping up to be a banner decade. He wouldn’t be leaving that way though, he knew that. A robbery charge by itself didn’t come with a death sentence. Instead, it came with five-to-ten years of lock up. He had been hoping for five, but it was starting to look like ten, especially after being denied parole the day before last.
He scratched mindlessly at his unshaven cheek as he stood looking out the tiny window to the yard, watching the sun rise. On the inside, time changed slower than the seasons. Even the rising sun took too long. For most people, it would have been tough to even see out the high window, but at 6 feet, 5 inches, he had to bend down slightly and, after a while, his back would ache.
As he moved away from the window to stretch up to his full height, he turned to look at his cellmate who was fast asleep on the top bunk. His current companion was a smaller man, nothing noteworthy. He was doing time for holding up a bank. Perhaps the warden thought they would have something in common. They didn’t. Not that it mattered. This had been his tenth cell mate. He had lost interest in connecting with them. Isolation wasn’t smart in prison but he no longer cared. There was only one thing that filled his mind lately, as it did again this morning. He was ready to get out.
He moved back to his bed and sat down. The mattress was about as thick as his fist and equally hard. Under his 250 pounds of pressure, it provided little comfort. The springs that jabbed him in the back at night squeaked riotously as he sat.
He stared straight forward, wondering if he even needed to pull the letter from his shirt pocket. He had long since memorized it. Still, out of habit, and a desire to see his brother’s handwriting, he pulled it out, slowly, careful not to dog ear the corners any worse than they already were.
He read the words in his mind as he stared at the paper in his hand.
We did the work in Logan. It went as planned. But a few days later it was taken from us by a kid and his girl. Eddie was hurt, but has since recovered. We went to the Northwest to do another job. That’s why it’s taken so long to write. But we know who the kid is and are heading back to get it now. Once I have what’s mine, I will come to Texas and you can tell me what to do next. I’m sorry I got you put there. Maybe I can buy your way out and we can go see Ma and Pa together.
Your brother, Oliver
P.S. If something happens before we get it, you collect the debt when you get out. Jack Pepper for $300,000.
That was it. The letter was four years old. He felt the roughness of the paper, now yellowing, in his hand. It was the last time he would hear from his brother. It felt strange to him to have someone so close for an entire life time, only to have it end so abruptly, so undignified.
As identical twin brothers, they were uniquely connected. Donovan and Oliver. Or ‘One’ and ‘Two’ as his Pa called them. Donovan had been born first so he was nicknamed One. His brother, Oliver, came second and was called Two. It didn’t matter what their real names were when their father was around so I guess it shouldn’t matter now, but it did. He wanted his real name back, no more pretending.
Their mother, on the other hand, did use their real names. While equal in their large stature, Donovan had been given the brains. His mother picked up on this early in his life and took a keen interest in developing his mind. He got extra time to study his school work while his brother, Oliver, was out doing the manual labor around the farm. It’s not that she didn’t care for Oliver, but she knew her sons, how each would turn out, like a mother does. She wanted to put each boy to their task in order to properly prepare them for their life ahead. She didn’t outright say that she had a preference between her two sons, but he knew she did. She had a greater hope for him to succeed. It made sense to him then and it still made sense now, as he sat pondering in his cell.
Donovan turned his head as the guard walked briskly by. He knew what that meant. They were getting ready to open the cell doors so the inmates could head down to breakfast and then for their designated time in the yard. An hour’s time, no more and no less. It was important that they get their exercise, the warden would say. No one knew why, but he kept saying it. When one guy finally asked, the warden just stared at him with an incredulous look before having one of his guards haul him off to solitary. It made no sense, but then nothing on the inside did.
Donovan listened as his cellmate turned above him on the bed. He pulled the letter in towards him but when the fellow didn’t stir further he decided to read on a little more.
Underneath the letter, he kept a newspaper clipping. Newspapers were of particular interest to bank robbers. It was a medium that had always existed between the cops and the robbers. Journalists were happy to oblige, as they fed the tantalizing news to their readers, who followed along with keen interest. Those newspapers unwittingly served as a tell-all of what schemes were working and what the police had picked up on. Once a pattern broke one way or another, the strategies changed, the players adapted. It was like a communal game of chess and the papers were busy notating the moves of the game, and the position of the players.
Donovan looked down at the headline. It read, Cache County Bank Robbery Solved. It was front page news on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in the fall of 1954. It may not have happened in Texas but everyone remembered the robbery two years earlier in Logan, Utah, when $300,000 disappeared from a bank overnight without a trace. When he first read the news, he was ecstatic because he knew what it meant. It meant his brother’s gang had pulled it off. The robbery had worked.
Donovan and Oliver had wanted to join a successful gang and Eddie, despite his vulgar ways, seemed like the best way to guarantee their success. But once Donovan concluded he would be sent away (pretending to be Oliver), he didn’t want to hold his brother back. It was right, it had seemed, for Oliver to leave with the gang.
Fast Eddie had a lengthy track record of robbing banks. He ran a tight gang and appeared to appreciate his brother’s talent as the muscle. Eddie was even willing to listen when Donovan told him about this unusual bank branch in Northern Utah he had heard of. He knew Eddie would take the credit, but he didn’t mind as long as Oliver got his even share.
But something must have gone wrong after the heist. And as for those details, he was left with limited information to sort through. The little he could garner from the papers suggested it was carried out to perfection, but he never heard from his brother. At first, he figured that was a precaution. You don’t exactly write to a prison and share the details of a crime. But Oliver never came for a visit either and that worried him. It was only when he received the letter nearly two years later that he realized something went wrong.
Donovan continued reading. The sub heading exclaimed, Four Suspects Killed in Shoot out with FBI. His brother was one of those named, although only a first name was given. Donovan. He knew that much wasn’t true since he was the real Donovan. He wondered what else wasn’t true. It mentioned an FBI Agent Travis, the hero who had solved the case and put his brother in the ground, but no mention of a Jack Pepper. Only that a young man and his girlfriend stumbled upon the injured FBI Agent and called police. Was that young man the Jack Pepper his brother told him about?
His stomached twisted as he finished reading. He closed his eyes, slowly folding the papers back together, and slid them into his pocket. It was early but he could already feel the Texas heat, humid and suffocating. This would be another long day. He had no interest in breakfast this morning. He couldn’t eat the same slop anymore. Today he would go straight to the yard.
The doors clanged open. Right on cue, the man in the bed above him leapt down to his feet. Donovan watched as he put on his white trousers and white button-up shirt. They were made of cotton and lacked any differentiating characteristics other than the size. It seemed like the prison was trying to strip them all of their identity.
The man spoke first. “You coming?”
Still seated, Donovan shook his head.
“Suit yourself, Oliver,” the man said as he shrugged and walked out the door to join the masses noisily making their way down the hall.
There it was again. Oliver, number two. The man left seated in the cell. That’s who he was now to the rest of the world. It had to end. In that moment, his limits had finally been breached. That was the last time he was willing to be called by that name which wasn’t his own. He may have had good reasons six years ago to make the switch, but time was up. According to the paper, the real Oliver was dead. He died lying in a field up Green Canyon in Logan while this ‘Oliver’ had been patiently suffering a different kind of death in prison, the death of his true self.
Today would be his last day of being Oliver. He was ready to resume his life as Donovan, number one. His mother’s favorite. It wasn’t meant to disrespect his brother. It was, in fact, the opposite. The first thing he would do is avenge his brother’s death and collect the debt owed. What else even mattered? He would collect the debt, visit his brother’s grave and then return home to Australia to his parents.
His back no longer ached; free of a weight he had been carrying for too long. He rose to his feet and stared into the polished metal secured above the sink, a poor substitute for a mirror. His reflection was skewed by its wavy surface and the bad lighting. Still, he knew who he was. When he finally spoke, he said only two words.
His real name. He let the sound rest on his ears. The words felt good, like the strike of a match destined for gasoline.
He took one last look around the tiny cell. The cement walls dared to stare back at him. In his mind, he pictured those walls cracking and crumbling down before him. He knew they could no longer hold him. Parole or not, it was time for him to leave Huntsville.