Guilt is a heavy burden
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I dress in my best clothes before setting out to see my daughter, the same as every Sunday. Somehow, it seems important to dress nicely even though she won’t see me, won’t even know I’m there.
This rooming house is really shoddy – it would have to be for the landlady to take me – and probably never sees a suit other than my Sunday outfit. But it’s the only place I can afford. Money’s tight: the court froze everything except my pension fund, and that pretty much went for bail.
I haven’t worked in nearly a year and won’t be able to until after the trial – if I get acquitted. Oh, yeah, that’s going to happen! When the only witness won’t be cross examined and I can’t even testify on my own behalf. The best I can hope for is that the prosecution gets nervous as the trial nears and my attorney is able to negotiate a plea to manslaughter or maybe even assault.
It’s a long walk to the cemetery’s old back gate, especially taking a different roundabout way each time. But better that than somebody spotting me there. Besides, the doctor says walking will speed my rehab.
I relax only when I’m finally settled in the laurel copse a couple of hundred feet from the grave. Not quite the hundred yards specified in court’s conditions, but an acceptable risk.
As usual I’m over an hour early and sit back idly watching the passing clouds, prepared for a long wait before Sylvie and her half-brother Michael, my stepson, show up. Technically, Sylvie’s my stepdaughter, but I’ve been there since she was eleven months old: that makes me more her father than blood or surname. Certainly more than her biological father who didn’t even stick around long enough to see her, but still wouldn’t sign the damn adoption papers.
Suddenly, there she is at the grave: my precious daughter! God, she looks good. Her brother and his girlfriend are with her. Michael’s an army medic, now on compassionate leave to take care of his sister. He’s the one who hates me the most – with good reason. The grave is his mother’s, their mother’s, my wife’s. And he knows I’m the one who put her in it.
After they exchange old flowers for fresh ones, Michael squats and talks earnestly to Sylvie. She nods her head and he looks around in all directions, almost as if he’s searching for something, or someone – me? He says something else to her and she turns and points to the laurels, straight at me!
Michael immediately gets up and starts walking quickly toward my hideout. I can’t outrun him; even before I got hurt I couldn’t have outrun him. The thicket isn’t very large but I squirm back into it as far as I can. At least whatever happens will be out of Sylvie’s sight. In her twelve years she’s already been close to more than enough violence for two lifetimes.
“Curtis, wait! I just need to talk to you,” he calls, “Honest!” It doesn’t make any difference what he wants: if I go back any father I’ll be out in the open, out where Sylvie can see.
Michael stops at the edge of the bushes and puts up both hands in a placating gesture, “Honest, Curtis, Sylvie told us what really happened. Everything’s all right; the DA’s dropping all the charges.”
“Sylvie told you? She talked?” I ask in wonder. She hasn’t said a single word since… that night.
“No, not in words, but she let us know,” he replies, “Before the cops asked the wrong questions while she was still in shock, before the doctor kicked them out. They told her what you said about Mom and asked her if it was all accurate. When she shook her head, they interpreted that as you made it up just to have an excuse for killing Mom. I read your statement, how it was almost an accident: Mom was upset, you tried to calm her and it got out of hand – that didn’t make sense to anyone. It also didn’t make any sense that you’d stipulated, over your attorney’s objection, that the jury could be told Sylvie had contradicted your statement and you wouldn’t testify on the condition that she wouldn’t have to testify either – that just didn’t match up with a heartless killer. Or the man I knew. We never got on well, but that was more my fault than yours, and you were always good to Mom and Sylvie.”
Michael pauses a moment, then continues, “I asked her if Mom was really that bad and she shook her head for me, too. But then she said one word…”
“She spoke?” I interrupt, “She really talked out loud?”
He nods impatiently, “Yes, yes, she actually spoke out loud. She said, ‘Worse.’ I asked if she meant Mom was worse than you said and she nodded; I said, ‘A lot worse?’ and she nodded again.”
“Did she say anything else? Has she told you anything more?”
“No. That one word was all she said then, and she hasn’t spoken since. But that was enough: I knew what to ask. I made the DA see us this morning – got his ass right off the golf course – and this time made sure he asked the right questions. Sylvie nodded or shook her head – still can’t or won’t talk – but we got the whole story. At least up until Mom came at her with a knife and you jumped in between. Her last memory that night is you wrestling Mom to the floor, blood squirting like a fountain. She can’t even remember calling 911 – on the tape of the call you just hear her screaming, ‘Blood! Blood!’ over and over. The psychiatrist doubts she’ll ever remember any more than she already has, given her age and how long it’s been.” So there’s still hope.
“God!” Michael shakes his head, “How could that happen? I know it must have happened but I just can’t wrap my head around it: Mom attacking Sylvie with a knife!”
“Yeah, I know: I can’t either and I was there,” I reply, “Although I don’t think, in her mind, she really wanted to kill Sylvie; she wanted to save her: she kept ranting about having to, ‘cut the evil out of her!’ When she first started to change, I thought it was the drugs, pain meds after the accident. But I had it backwards. It wasn’t the pills that caused the changes, it was whatever was going on in her head that led to the pills. She was in a lot of pain, especially really bad headaches, and her doctor prescribed strong pills and scheduled some tests.
“The drugs helped so she skipped the tests. When the doctor wouldn’t give her more pills without the tests, she went to another doctor, and then apparently to the street based on what I found in her closet. She got those herself, regardless of the cops’ claim I got them and drugged her without her knowing. By then her mood swings were getting worse and she’d get really paranoid at times. All this while, I thought she was still treating with the doctor, trying to adjust the meds to a combination that would help the pain without the emotional roller-coaster side effects.”
I’m on my feet now, stepping out of the bushes. A body hurtles into me, hard. Oof! Oh, that’s going to hurt later! An NFL linebacker shouldn’t be able to hit that hard, and certainly not a little girl. I grab her up and she hugs me so tightly I can hardly breathe. “I’ve missed you so much, Silly Bear,” I whisper in her ear, “I’ve been here every week, watching you.”
She speaks again, two words this time, “I know,” with no protest for the pet name she thinks she’s outgrown.
Michael gives us a couple of minutes, then says, “Curtis, I’ll support you if you want legal custody. I had planned to get discharged so Grace and I would take care of her, but she wants to be with you. And she should. If the court won’t give you custody, I’ll get it and she can still live with you.”
“Thanks,” I manage to utter – what else can you say when somebody gives you back your life? “You know you’ll always be welcome…”
“I don’t know about that,” he replies, “I can’t blame you: you did what you had to do, for Sylvie and for yourself. But, man, you killed my Mother! I don’t know if I can ever get around that.”
“Yeah, I’ve been having a lot of trouble there, too,” I say sadly: knowing it was self-defense won’t lessen the guilt. “I tell myself I didn’t actually kill Marcie: whatever screwed up her head did that. It destroyed the real Marcie, the goodness, the love; killed her and turned her inside out and backwards. What was left was the opposite of everything she was: that’s what I killed.”
“Does it help?”
“I’ll let you know,” I reply. “I figure if I tell myself often enough maybe someday I’ll believe it.”
Michael looked at me with what I hoped was respect. “Sylvie’s my sister and I’d take a knife for her without even thinking about it. But I never had to – you did. The doctor said it’s a miracle you survived, and even more a miracle that you could move at all after such a wound, let alone… stop Mom. From what little he would tell me, it was far more than a miracle. Soldiers with injuries like yours seldom move an inch from where they fall!”
“Oh, he exaggerated quite a bit. He overheard one of the cops speculate that my injuries were self-inflicted and wanted to make a point. But then the cops just decided that Marcie stabbed me in a futile effort to save herself.”
I pray Sylvie never remembers any more about that night – memories no one should have to carry, especially a child. I’m also grateful that Dr. Zimmerman remains properly discreet regarding my injuries. Given Michael’s experience with wounded men in two war zones, he might wonder how anyone in such condition could have found the strength to get across the floor to where my wife was crawling toward the knife – and Sylvie, let alone do anything to stop it. Perhaps it might be possible, but even though I tried with everything in me, I couldn’t.