An Explanation of Guilt
I’m looking through junk mail with a dead friend. Six months ago, he overdosed and was buried in the earth, but now he’s in my apartment. We’re sitting on the floor in front of my couch, surrounded by local fliers and Valpak leaflets.
“So you’re really back with us, huh?” I say.
He shakes his head. “Afraid not,” he replies. He’s wearing a ratty black t-shirt and smoking Camel Wides.
I say, “I wish you were here.” I feel like crying.
He ashes on the rug and looks away. “Yeah, well. Write me a song about it,” he says, flipping through Food Lion coupons.
He’s a little rude. But it’s nice to see him.
It’s Wednesday night. It’s church night. Dad remembered we needed Band-Aids, so we stop at CVS. For some reason, all four of us pile out of the car.
My sister finds a tiny stray cart in an aisle, and I hop on the back as my sister pushes.
I am 9, and my sister is 12. We’re in the middle of the stomachache aisle and giggling. I say “Ex-Lax” just loud enough to feel naughty, and we lose it. But then she lets go of the cart to cover her mouth, and I’m flying backward and onto the floor, a knife pain ripping through my calf.
From the ground, I watch the flipped cart come toward me. My sister catches the cart, but I don’t see her catch it. It hovers in midair, suspended above my head like a miracle.
We are not the type of people who make scenes. We all walk out of there quietly, Band-Aids forgotten. In the car, my mother turns toward us and says, “I’m ashamed to be seen with either of you.”
My lower left leg throbs. When we arrive at church, I walk all the way from the parking lot, up the sidewalk, toward the front doors, into the sanctuary. I walk up to greet a few elderly people. I shake their hands, say something charming.
I sit in the pew and listen to the sermon. I rise with the congregation to sing a hymn. There is a knot of hot fire below my knee.
I sit down again, smiling inwardly. I think of what an amazing magician I am, fooling all these people.
The dead friend is alive. We work together at an office supply store, and we are covertly snorting pills in the stockroom. We’re using cut-off party straws I brought to work for the occasion. No one has died yet. It is difficult to imagine anyone dying, ever, in this moment.
What a lark! I think. I am one year into what will be a six-year addiction. I’m honeymooning.
My friend leaves to refill shelves, and I am walking up toward the register. We are both happy and smiling. I have a secret, which allows me to judge everyone, but I can only form generous thoughts. I think: I love you and you and you. I love the customers and coworkers and my boss and my boss’s boss. Everyone here is lovable!
My brain. My brain. I love it.
Later that day, after work, I’m in my friend’s kitchen. We’re drinking cheap whiskey and smoking indoors. It’s his grandma’s trailer, he tells me, but it was bequeathed to him.
There’s an abelia bush out front he tends every year. I’ve met his sister, his aunt, his nephew. He is not what books and movies have told me a drug dealer should be. Two years from now, when his dog gets old and sick, he will call me and we will each hold a paw while the vet finds a vein. Three years from now, he will attend my grandfather’s wake. We are friends.
In his kitchen, he counts out pills and I peel off bills. I rake the little white discs toward me like one would poker chips after a fortuitous hand.
This is not something I normally do, I say to my friend in a confidential tone. I want you to know that. This is not something I, [my name], daughter of [parents’ names], should be doing. This is not my greatest idea or proudest moment, and I am not in the habit of getting behind unproud moments or less-than-great ideas, I say. I say a lot of things.
The friend, who is at this moment alive but in six years and four months will be dead, only smiles. He doesn’t get it. He, [his name], son of [mother’s name + estranged biological father + estranged stepfather], started down this path at 13. At 16, he nearly died in his cousin’s front yard from a gin-related dare. Since then, he’s been arrested three times and survived two overdoses. He is 32 and has lived to tell. He was destined for this shit.
At the hospital, they cut off my pants to cast the leg. “Your fibula broke clean through,” says the attending physician. “The fibula supports the tibia,” he says. I want to tell him that I got a 100-percent on my bone quiz last year in third grade. I am aware of what the fibula is. The fibula is the same as a fib, which is a smaller or lesser lie, which is to say that the fibula is the lesser of all the leg bones.
There was an infection. I limped around on the broken bone so long it turned on me, became poisonous. Now I’m sprawled on an examining table in the ER, hot and sick with ache.
“So much for being tough!” the doctor says, wrapping warm, wet strips of fiberglass around the leg. I go red with humiliation. I shut my eyes. The fiberglass tightens around my leg like a kind hand.
“The truth will out,” the doctor adds.
I stay overnight for observation with an IV hooked to the crook of my arm, flushing my blood with antibiotics. In the morning, my sister comes to visit me. She offers up a giant mood ring from Sears she knows I’ve been coveting. It comes with a tiny card that tells me what mood each color indicates.
Turning it over in my hands, I get the impression that the ring directly influences emotions, that wearing it will unlock some longstanding mysteries. I wear the ring for years despite it turning my finger green and poking at my skin. I wear it until the surface is so scratched and chipped the mood I am in is no longer discernible to anyone, myself least of all.
I see my dead friend on the loading docks at the back of the office supply store. This time he’s a scientist, dressed in a white lab coat. He’s built a laboratory on the macadam. I run to hug him, clutch at him in disbelief. “I thought you were dead!” I invariably exclaim when he appears like this. It feels new every time. “You sure tricked me.”
Ten months before he died, my friend had disappeared into the next state over. Last I’d heard, he’d been stealing televisions and shooting heroin. His house, which I drove by every day on my way to work, had gone dark. Plastic bags carried by the wind fluttered from the abelia’s winter skeleton like sad ghosts.
Meanwhile, I’d gotten clean. I told no one. I was able to shuck off a private addiction like a smelly cloak, no one else the wiser. I had no record; I had not been a loud partier. Before all of this started, I had graduated from the community college with honors. I had been earning trust from the day I was born.
At the store, I had been promoted to assistant manager.
“I’m real sorry about not checking in,” I tell him now.
He shrugs. He doesn’t look at me. “Oh, well. So I’m dead, so what.” He shrugs again and fiddles with a beaker. “What’s another addict on the pile, am I right?”
Suddenly he’s hopping on a bike, pedaling away fast.
When my friend dies, I see the news first on the computer. I call his sister.
“It’s true,” she says. “He got back into town a few months ago. Didn’t he call you?”
“No,” I say.
He had texted me, in fact, many times. I had let the messages slip by, unacknowledged. I figured I would stop on the way home from work and see him. I was not afraid. I was busy. That is what I told myself.
“Look, he OD’d on some shit,” she says. “We don’t know what, but we’re telling people heart trouble. Okay?”
“Okay,” I say.
At work, I tell people this. I tell them that he was alone, that there was nobody around to save him. No one knew he had heart problems, and yeah, it is a shame. It is a terrible shame. He was 38 years old.
Later that afternoon, in the printer aisle, my dead friend appears.
I’m stunned to see him. I could reach out, pinch his cheeks, embrace him. But he has a look about him. There is something dangerous here. Angry.
I notice he’s wearing a mood ring. His is uncracked, unblemished.
He catches me looking and narrows his eyes. He waggles his finger at me. “See?” he says. “I have one too.”
I wear a cast for six weeks, and the first three involve crutches. The crutches allow me to take giant, swinging steps. I don’t want to give them up.
Before the final appointment, the one where they will saw off my cast, I’m sitting in the waiting room with my mother and reading an ancient issue of Highlights. A kid I recognize from school comes in with a woman I assume is his mother. She looks hard and sick and leans on a cane and wears a skull-pattern bandana on her nearly hairless head. When they come through the door, the smell of cigarette smoke settles over everything.
The kid’s mom goes up to the window, says to the receptionist, “Yeah, I’m here for my appointment.” She speaks in a defiant, hoarse voice. In no universe can I imagine her fussing over anyone for making scenes.
The kid always smelled funny and stayed to himself at recess. Now he doesn’t look at me, just sits in the chair, waiting it out. I don’t say anything to him either. His mother sits down beside him, and he shifts in his seat, leaning as far away from her dying air as he can. But he can only lean so far.
I’m called back to the doctor’s office, where my cast is sawed off. My mother and I are patient through the dust and searing noise, expecting the best of all outcomes. The best of all outcomes has always found us and will always find us.
The doctor smiles. Everything is healing up just fine, he tells my mother. Better than expected.
I roll my pant leg down over my dry, tender skin. I walk around the office, testing out the leg.
The doctor looks me over. “You’re a lucky one, aren’t you?” he says.
Ashley Hutson lives and writes in rural Maryland. Her work has appeared in Fiction International, McSweeney’s, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Conium Review, The Forge, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. Read more at www.aahutson.com.