Guilt Eats Away at Me
Guilt is devouring me.
Guilt is devouring me.
Inch by inch.
It feels slimy and cold and it makes this weird slush-suck sound as it creeps up my calves. I can no longer feel my feet. They’ve gone numb. As the guilt gnaws along my legs, they’re going numb, too. I don’t have a lot of time left, but I’ll tell you as much as I can before the guilt finishes the job.
Tonight, I got my 30-day chip from AA. I’m only 22, but I picked up my first beer when I was 12 and from that day onward I found more than enough reasons to keep drinking. It’s the usual stuff, you know? Dead mom. Abusive asshole dad. Foster care. Juvie. Blah, blah, blah.
Forget about all the bad decisions I made through the years. I’ll skip to the day I decided to never drink again. I woke up in a cheap motel room. I was lying in the bathtub with an empty fifth of Wild Turkey abandoned on my chest. Clenched in my hand was a glittery pink barrette. Inside it were long strands of blonde hair.
I was covered in blood. Mine, I thought. But as I checked myself over, I realized I didn’t have any injuries. I pushed the bottle off me, flinching when it clinked loudly against the ceramic tub. Every part of me ached. By the time I got to my feet and staggered to the sink, I felt like I’d lost multiple rounds in an MMA brawl.
Ugh. The guilt’s creeping past my knees, its slimy tendrils twisting around my thighs. Did I mention the smell? Guilt reeks. Rotten and sour like expired meat wrapped in sweaty gym socks. I’m trying not to gag. The closer it gets, the harder it is to ignore the stink.
Where was I? Oh, right. I felt like I’d been stomped on by Godzilla.
My head throbbed, pain pulsed in every muscle, and my mouth felt like I’d been gnawing on cotton balls. I remembered renting this room for a couple of nights. Going to the bar up the block. What was it called? Maverick’s? Mackaw’s? Something with an M. I sat at the bar and drank myself stupid. I stumbled out at closing time, pulled up my hoodie and hunched my shoulders against the cold, and then…
I didn’t remember a goddamned thing.
I’d blacked out before, waking up to a haze of memories floating through my mind like cigarette smoke. Sometimes the images were mere flashes. Spilled beer. Dropped joint. Falling on my ass because I felt like I was trapped on a Merry-Go-Round spinning, spinning, spinning.
But this time? I had an empty place in my head. My own personal black hole.
I stared in the mirror at the dried blood on my face and neck. I looked down at my T-shirt and saw blotches all over the light blue cotton. I opened my hand and studied the barrette. What the fuck, man? This was obviously a little girl’s hair accessory. I didn’t know any kids. So how’d I end up with it? And why was I covered in someone else’s blood?
I’ll admit that I was afraid to leave the bathroom. I wasn’t sure what I’d find. Before I could wuss out, I opened the door.
The motel room was empty.
The queen bed hadn’t been slept in. My black hoodie was on the floor and my wallet and smokes were on the dresser. I exited the bathroom and scooped up the hooded fleece jacket. I stuck it under the lamplight and studied the fabric.
I shed my clothes and took a long, hot shower. I scrubbed my skin until the tiny soap was gone. I got dressed in the only pair of jeans I had left, a wrinkled T-shirt and my ratty sneakers. I rolled up the bloodied clothes and balled them inside the hoodie, tying it up like a present for the Grim Reaper.
Oh, man. The guilt has almost reached my hips. I can’t feel my legs at all now. It’s weird not to have any sensation below my torso.
I’m only half a person now.
Better than nothing, right? Hah. I’ve been nothing my whole life.
Anyway. With the clothes under my arm, I walked to the greasy spoon down the block. I entered the alleyway, opened the Dumpster, and shoved the clothing under a pile of rotted cabbages.
Since I’d just ditched only jacket I owned, I hit a nearby thrift store and snagged a camouflage hoodie for $3. Between the motel fees and my bar tab last night, I was down to almost nil. As I headed back toward the motel, thinking about what I could do for some quick cash, I saw the sign.
Alcoholics Anonymous. All Are Welcome.
I don’t know why I turned toward the building, or pulled open the glass door, or walked down the hallway into a room with threadbare carpet and rows of metal chairs. But I can tell you why I stayed. They had donuts and coffee. For the price of the only meal I’d get that day, I attended my first meeting.
The last 30 days have been a mixture of hell and hope. Mostly hell. Until I got that chip. The only thing in my life I honestly earned was that shiny token of my sobriety. It’s nestled in my pocket with the barrette.
I was so happy after the meeting, I walked into the greasy spoon and asked about their Help Wanted sign. I applied for a job as a busboy. Can you believe it? I was trying to be an honest-to-God working joe. After I handed in the application, I almost felt worthwhile.
The slimy crap squeezes up my rib cage. How can I feel both numb and freezing? I’m really fucking cold. Even my teeth are chattering.
So…so I’d been staying at the local shelter, and if I didn’t get in by curfew, they’d give my bed away. I left the diner, intending to haul ass.
She waited for me outside.
“I wanted to thank you,” she said. She looked like one of those moms in TV commercials touting sugary cereal as part of a nutritious breakfast. Her shiny blonde hair was pulled into a bouncy ponytail and she wore a heavy coat over jeans tucked into ankle boots. An oversized purse dangled from her arm.
“Um…you got the wrong the guy,” I said. “I don’t know you.”
Valerie. She even had a TV mom’s name. I shifted from foot to foot. I don’t know why she made me feel so uncomfortable. Maybe it was because I’m not used to talking to people who don’t worry about food and shelter. People who have jobs and pay bills and live in houses without holes or graffiti or the smell of cooked meth.
“You are not the wrong guy,” she insisted. “I’ve been looking for you ever since the…the accident.” She paused, licked her lips. “Don’t you remember? It was about a month ago. After 2 a.m. on a Tuesday night.”
I’m stumbling out of the bar. My head is swimming. I can’t walk straight, but I want more booze. I’m not numb enough. Across the street is a 24-hour liquor store. I stagger between two parked cars. I got enough money for a fifth of Wild Turkey. I know exactly what it costs down to the penny. I hear the blast of a horn. I look up and see the truck’s headlights aimed right at me.
“I’d picked up my daughter from the babysitter’s and I wanted to get home. I tried to take a shortcut, but I got lost. My daughter was whining because she was tired,” continued Valerie, her voice stark. “I was tired, too, and I snapped at her. Then she started wailing. Screaming. I only took my eyes off the road for a second.”
The truck veers around me, missing my sorry ass by mere inches. I get to the sidewalk, the neon sign of the liquor store shining like the bright welcome of a church. That’s what this place is. My church. Then I hear the crash. The smash of metal against metal. I wheel around…
“The truck hit my car hard. We flipped over.”
I don’t want to hear anymore of Valerie’s story. Dread swirls in my gut like I ate those rotten cabbages. And underneath the moldy vegetables were my secrets. My sins.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. You need to take off, okay? It ain’t safe around here.” I attempted to move past her, but she put her hand on my arm. I looked down into her sorrow-filled blue eyes and knew I couldn’t escape.
I hear the roar of an engine and the squeal of tires. The truck’s tail lights disappear into the darkness. Then I see the other car. The Volkswagen Beetle is rocking upside down like a turned-over turtle.
The woman crawls out of the car. She’s dazed. Her head is bleeding. I help her to the curb. “Grace…” she whispers. I crawl inside the car and unbuckle the unconscious kid from the seatbelt.
“You were drunk,” she stated. “But it didn’t stop you from being a decent human being.” Valerie’s hand still gripped my sleeve. Maybe that’s why I noticed the green sludge on her shoulder. No bigger than a lime, but as she spoke, it flattened and started to expand. “You didn’t know it, but Grace was already dead when you got her out.”
I swallowed the knot clogging my throat. “She was dead?”
I don’t think Valerie heard me. She kept talking. Kept filling the space between us with her anguished words. “You were so careful with her. Like she was the most precious thing you ever held. That’s why I needed to find you before I…” She shook her head. “Thank you. For your kindness to her.”
She let go of my jacket and dropped her arm. The purse slid off and landed sideways on the ground. She didn’t seem to care. She started sobbing, covering her face with her gloved hands, so she didn’t see the pill bottle roll out. I bent down to retrieve the purse and the little orange container. I glanced at the label. Klonopin. Filled today. A sick feeling curled inside my stomach. I pocketed the pills and stood up, handing her the purse.
“Thanks,” she said, wiping her cheeks. “God, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
The sludge on her shoulder stretched longer and wider. It was an ugly green color and looked like someone puked up spinach gelatin on Valerie’s coat.
“You have other kids?” I asked.
“Tommy. He’s six. I … haven’t been myself lately. I feel like I’m drowning. I can’t breathe. I can’t sleep. I can’t ... anyway. My husband is a really good father. The best.” She huffed out a breath. “He wants me to go to therapy. He thinks that will help.”
“Maybe it will.”
“Maybe.” The goop on Valerie’s shoulder crawled down her arm. “I used to think I was strong. But I’m not.” She leaned close and whispered, “I took my eyes off the road for a second. I killed my baby. The guilt is eating me alive.”
In her eyes I saw the hopelessness that I’d seen too often in my own gaze. Reflected in her agony was the decision that I’d always been too cowardly to make. I glanced at the gelatinous thing undulating on her coat. I knew what the vile creature was. Valerie had given it a name.
She cocked her head. “Did you introduce yourself? I don’t remember.”
Valerie held out her gloved hand. “Nice to meet you, Charlie.”
Was it nice to meet me? I didn’t think so. She was right, you know. Her daughter was the most precious thing I’d ever held. And I was the reason little Grace had died. If the truck hadn’t swerved to avoid me…goddamn it. I grasped Valerie’s outstretched hand and then pulled her into a tight hug. While she clung to me, I grabbed the slime and yanked it off her. It felt like cold snot and it struggled in my grip like a wet cat.
After a moment or two, Valerie moved out of my embrace. “Thanks. I needed that.” She blinked up at me. “I feel better.”
“I’m a professional hugger,” I tried to joke. I put my arms down, and thought for sure she’d see the blobby creature wiggling in my hand. But she didn’t notice it all.
She smiled. A genuine smile filled with warmth and caring. The kind of smile I’d never seen on another human being’s face until I went to AA. Valerie rolled her shoulders. “This will sound strange, but I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off me.”
“I’m glad,” I said.
I saw the relief in her gaze. The sorrow was still there, but now I saw hope. If you have hope, you can heal. That was one of the lessons I learned during my whole month of sobriety.
“Take care of yourself, Charlie.”
“You, too,” I said. “Go home to your family, Valerie.”
She nodded, her expression thoughtful. She offered me one more smile before she walked away. I felt like she was gonna be alright.
I hurried into the diner’s alleyway and dropped the wiggling slime into the Dumpster. At least I thought I did. I turned to leave, but I couldn’t move my feet. I looked down and saw the guilt clinging to me. I tried to get it off me, but removing the creature was an impossible task. Then I realized I’d stolen its original victim.
I was its new sacrifice.
I dragged myself around the big green trash can, sliding between it and the diner’s brick wall. I took out the Klonopin prescription and dry swallowed pills.
The fetid slime is climbing up my neck and spreading down my arms. Soon, it will cover my chin and slip into my mouth. It will crawl down my throat. Squeeze my lungs. Suffocate my organs. Fill my heart. Then it will make me disappear.
Look, I’m no great loss to society, okay? I’m an asshole always looking out for number one. What have I contributed to the world? Jack shit. Getting thirty days of sobriety was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but what was that compared to a mother’s grief for the loss of her child?
Shit, man. I told you.
Nothing at all.