A Special Penance

Written By: Mark Shields

At this time of the year I know it's best to layer warm clothing. Regardless of the temperature really, I always feel colder than usual when I leave for my dreaded walk. Stepping outside I gently place the key in the keyhole and turn it to the right, I like to hear the solid thud of the bolt sliding into place, giving me confidence the door is locked. A brief sense of comfort, with few to follow.

I turn and lock eyes with my companion, who has been quietly waiting for me. I should be happy to be greeted by a familiar face. This one is too familiar.

"It's been too long James. Longer than last time."

"Let's hurry, I don't like being seen by the neighbours." It's late, and I am fearful of raising suspicions. With my companion on my left side we make our way almost in lock step down the street.

The changing leaves flutter in the light breeze, making that incomparable sound of fall. The ones already fallen scatter beneath our repetitive, methodical footsteps. The streetlights shimmer through the heavy, foggy air

"But really, why do we keep doing this to ourselves? They say time heals all wounds don't they?"

"Time won't heal hers" I mutter.

"That is true. But don't you wish it would all go away?"

“I don't think I'm capable of wishes. All my wishes are consumed by my desire for the opportunity to change the events of the past.”

Each time I make my way out on these cool autumn evenings, though it is too difficult for me to bear to recall in detail, I am delivered flashes of intense memory that sear into my conscience, which in fading prompt me to take this journey again. Transported back to that night, I hear the roar of the car engine revving and gathering speed, the crunch of bone under the tire, the splattering of mud on the fenders. Her muffled whimpers on the long drive out to the lake...

My hideous crime. Long forgotten by the society around me, surely documented in ink in some judicial archive, but written in blood on my hippocampus.

"How often do you think of how our lives could have been different?" My companion asks.

"Always, Matt in every moment it affects my thinking. It influences everything I do. Why do you ask me that everytime we do this?"

"It helps me understand why we do this."

"How? All it does is give guilt more power over me." I say with unhidden hopelessness.

"Exactly." My companion retorts with a sneer. His tone undergoing a predictable change.

My breath turns to ice crystals as I speak, which disappear as quickly as they arrive. How I wish that could be so for my body, that I could simply disappear - without guilt, without repentance. That someone, something could exhale and release me from this pilgrimage.

"You had one simple job that night. One simple job. If you could have kept hold of her none of this would have ever happened. She'd have gone back to her family; you and I, we'd have left all of this long behind and, dare I say, lived happily ever after. Now all we have is this, and it's your fault!"

"I lost my confidence that night." I say as I hang my head a little lower. “And I never got it back."

I remember the cool metal of the trigger warming slightly as my index finger began applying pressure, the recoiling force of the gun pushing me back again and again, the shattering of the driver side window...

The walk continues with a silence, perforated only by Matt's familiar questions, and digs at my constitution. I find moments of solitude in watching my shadow dance along the street, cast onto the fog by the streetlamps. Its jaunting movements unrecognizable in my own demeanor. I never seem to notice any other souls but ours on this journey. I'm not sure if its because they're not there or my mind is too frayed to recognize them.

A couple more corners turned. A few more blocks traversed.

Many would say I was lucky. I never faced earthly justice for my deed. I suppose that's true. I should be grateful, but gratitude has the weight of a feather while guilt has the weight of an anvil. Maybe a stronger person wouldn't cave to the guilt, he could go on seeking and finding pleasure. All I have is a compulsion to return to the vestiges of her. To ask forgiveness that cannot be granted. Asking a grave for forgiveness is a special penance. It's inanimate, apathetic response absorbs one's feeling into its permanent depths.

"I don't understand you, how you live with yourself. You're just pathetic, coming here over and over." Matt's quips turn to outright scorn, always as we approach the final corner.

"Stop it!" I plead with him, feeling a tear cooling as it wanders down my cheek.

The cast iron gates of the cemetery slowly become visible, the eternal torch drawing me there like a moth, inescapably. Any futile thoughts of turning back now disappear.

Once inside the gate silence grips the world around me. The air seems a little clearer now. I glance at the all too familiar names adorning the tombstones of strangers. I offer a solemn greeting to each of them.

"You're as scared now as you were then aren't you?"

"You know I am."

"You deserve to suffer like this, you ruined us! And it pains me to remind you each time we do this, but it must be so! You must know you can never escape! I need you here just like you need me!"

I have no response to his increasing hostility. They have become stains on my character, having been delivered for so long without being washed off. But where can you wash yourself when you've done what I've done - Destroyed a friendship, killed an innocent victim.

I place my left hand in my pocket and another familiar feeling travels from my finger to my brain. That cool metal of the trigger. I'm getting close now. I lighten my footsteps as one might when attempting not to wake a sleeping child. I don't want to disturb her. The path curves to the left slightly, I count three rows of headstones and make a hard right turn down the fourth row. I count the eight silhouetted stones along the way and stop at the ninth. Just enough moonlight washes the stone to let me make out her name- Emily.

"Maybe our presence here disturbs her as much as it disturbs you." he exclaims.

"Then it's a disturbance to which we are both fated, I have no other course of action."

"Yes you do. I know what's in your pocket. You always have another course of action. You're just too weak to take it. You come out here every time thinking you can make it right, that if you do it in front of her that will make it better, that she'll forgive you for what you did."

His words shatter me like the glass in the car. I remember walking up closer, seeing the blood on the inside windshield, the deformed set of legs stretched out from underneath the front left wheel. I look into her cold eyes as the last signs of life flicker away.

We both stand still for several moments. The epitaph, barely visible but which I could recite if ever prompted, reminds me why I make this morbid pilgrimage. Once again I lift my hand, empty, out of my left pocket.

"I'm sorry." I whisper, truly hoping that this time it will be heard. In return only silence. The air around me feels as though it has dropped in temperature by whole degrees.

After some time Matt places a hand on me. "Well, that was fun once again. Until next time?"

I look over my right shoulder, and gaze upon those familiar eyes, but find no words.

We both turn and step away from the plot, back to the leaf-strewn path. “In my heart, James, we'll always be together,” the ethereal last words of my companion who now drifts his way off toward the southwest corner of the cemetery. He has another grave to visit, one which I am always careful to avoid, and will never lay my eyes on as long as I continue to live. He will be there a long time.