Guilt is a curious thing, isn't it? I think so. I watch it on the television every night. Yesterday it was the millionaire who touched kids. The day before yesterday was the politician who took money that wasn't his. Before that—was it a murderer? Or another rapist? I forget. There are just too many faces. I change the channel and watch a person on a unicycle get the big shiny buzzer. I clap.
Tonight I walk through the streets. It's dark and everything is very still. I see a bird flying overhead. Alone, while the whole world is asleep. I feel a sense of kinship with it. Maybe we are kindred spirits, our fates entwined forever. It flies out of sight. I shuffle along, trying to get under the reassuring light of the next streetlamp. It's night and everything is very still and thus it is deadly. Like a sleeping serpent, it takes but a wrong step to awaken it and become its prey. So I clutch my small can of pepper spray. Because it's only after they do it that they feel all guilty.
My father used to say that guilt is a useless thing. He had a saying for it: that God wants us to forsake guilt as it will only keep us from becoming who He has created us to be. I took it to heart and believed it until the day I found him hanging in his bedroom. They said it was PTSD. I later found out that he had plagiarized that line from a musty self-help book. I gave it away at the next Christmas drive. May it help someone else forsake their guilt.
I spot two kids running along, chattering excitedly in whispers. They must have snuck out while their parents were watching TV. I glance at my watch and realise that I would probably miss the talent show finals. I make a mental prayer that the unicycle guy wins. He is poor. I walk past the stealthy kids and remember the nightly escapades of my childhood. After Father died, Mother became distraught and a shell of her former self. She let me and my sister go out wherever and whenever we wanted to—or more accurately, she didn't care. She would hole herself up in Father's room, wailing that it was all her fault and muttering other things we didn't understand. We would shrug and run out to play tag instead.
But the older we got, the more problematic the situation became. She wouldn't pay attention to anything. She would just nod at our voices and stare into the distance, lost to the material world, her dead eyes a reflection of her broken soul. Every week, she would take Father's clothes from his room and do the laundry, even though he wasn't there to wear it anymore. I thought it was a waste and tried to swipe a shirt or two. She wouldn't let me. She would say it was Father's. That was the only time she would ever talk. I resented her for it. We drifted apart. My sister, always the kinder one, would put up with her. She was a regular pushover. We always made her the 'it' in tag.
I stare at the kids who reappear and realise that I just lied to myself. My sister was too much of a goody-two-shoes to ever sneak out at night to play tag. It was always me. Alone. I remember the nights I spent under the neighbor's streetlamps, trying to catch the moths which danced so pointlessly under the artificial light, as if afraid of the dark. I only succeeded once. I took it home and pasted it in my scrapbook. I remember how my sister's body shuddered as she threw up. I still have it in my basement cupboard.
I see the kids run into a dark alley, away from sight. It is dangerous. I don't stop them. Nobody used to stop me either. Except that one time when old man Richard from the neighborhood caught me frolicking in his yard at midnight. He dragged me by the ear to my house and started chewing Mother off, telling her she didn't know the first thing about being a parent. She looked him dead in the eyes and said that he better stop or her husband would make him stop. Old man Richard's eyes softened in pity and he made a small bow of apology and left. He never stopped me again.
My sister used to say that Mother felt guilt. I was confused. Guilt of what? She had nothing to do with his death. My sister would shake her head and say that it was complicated. That I wouldn't understand. Then she would look at Mother with those same dark eyes of guilt. It scared me. My sister, my mother, my dead father—all trapped in this vicious chain of regret and remorse. I then look at my sister and feel a small sense of guilt creep up inside. I suppress it in horror and run outside.
I recognise the old withered trees along the road and realise that I am nearing my destination. The sights and the smell are all too familiar. Every bend of the road, crook of a fence, bark of a tree brings with it a jolt of childhood. I feel nostalgic but not overwhelmed. My sister used to say that she wanted to live here her whole life. I would scoff at her, but the look in her eyes was disconcerting. Forever chained. I ended up living just a few miles away. My ego would always push me to say it was not technically 'here'. She would smile kindly. I look for the moths. They are gone.
I reach the quaint old abode of my memories. It still looks as gloomy and antiquated as it did all those years ago. I climb the porch stairs, the rickety wood creaking in protest with every step. I take a deep breath (the same old musty smell) and press the doorbell. One minute passes. I sigh and turn to leave when I see a dark shadow pop up at the window. It disappears as soon as it appears. But that is enough for me. I ring the bell incessantly. I hear some cursing and then footsteps approaching. The door opens and presents a small apron-clad woman with a look of disapproval on her face. I squint. However you look, she's not my mother. I open my mouth to question her but she cuts me off.
"Go away. She doesn't want to see you."
Of course she doesn't. I know that. But that doesn't stop me. I straighten up and try to increase my presence, applying the age old technique of physical intimidation. Looking at her unchanged expression of scorn, I conclude that the attempt failed. I then resort to the much more modern method of verbal communication.
"Let me see her. Tell her—" I gulp. "Tell her that I want to talk."
This is met with a dry laugh.
"Of course you do. They always come around when something like this happens. Why do you want to see her? To make amends? To scratch that little itch of guilt?" She sneers derisively. "Maybe you should've thought about it before you abandoned her. She doesn't need you anyway. She has me to take care of everything. And the other daughter is always here for her. She's a good girl, that kid."
"She's not here now, is she?"
The woman looks taken aback. I relish that expression. She looks much better with her trap shut.
"How did you know? She was here last week, and said she would be back by yesterday. But she never showed up." She sighs. "Now Mrs Andrews thinks she relied on her too much and she got tired. I say it's no such thing, that girl is just too sweet and pure to just up and leave her. Unlike a certain other daughter…"
Oh no, my dear, that's where you're wrong. She was tired. And I saved her.
The chain of guilt is finally broken.
I turn around without another word and leave. I hear a snort of contempt and the door shutting. Though I couldn't see Mother, I can't help but feel a sense of smug satisfaction. Now she was feeling guilty for having abused my sister's kindness. But an uncertain feeling also gnaws at my insides. Why do you want to see her? To make amends? To scratch that little itch of guilt? Was that it? Even if I want to refute it and huff about it, I find that I can't. There was no other reason to go there. After all, I didn't go to see her even once these past five years.
And now the cancer struck.
But I still find it hard to beat myself too much about it. I know my reasons and I am satisfied. But guilt is an irrational thing. It crawls from the past and takes over the soul, choking it to a slow and painful death. But I can't let that happen. I must save myself. Like I saved my sister.
Thus lost in my thoughts I find myself at my doorstep again. I enter. I hold my nose. The smell has spread to the living room.
It was time to take it out of the basement cupboard. I clear the fridge.
Then I look at the TV and remember. I turn it on. The unicycle guy has won it all. He is crying tears of joy with his family. I clap. He is poor. I change the channel and see another guilty face. This time it is a murderer. He says he did it in a fit of rage. He didn't mean to. I wonder whose face will be on tomorrow. I turn off the TV.
And find my face staring back at me.