Fault and Blame

I’m an honest man, never hurt anybody. I pay my bills, I feed my cat, and I don’t stick my nose into other people’s business. None of it was my fault and neither is this.

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1. Fault and Blame

 

I’m an honest man, never hurt anybody. I pay my bills, I feed my cat, and I don’t stick my nose into other people’s business.

Still. With all that in mind, I caught him staring at me again today.

He’s the opposite of me, you see. He’s sticking his nose in where he’s not wanted. Sooner or later, someone might just come along and cut it off.

Am I threatening him when I say that? Of course not- I don’t threaten, I could never bring myself to threaten. I’m a good man, and I can swear that with my hand on the Bible. Everything that happened last year, all that stuff with Mary- all that was just an accident. It's the kind of thing so preposterous that it couldn’t be made up.

 My hand slipped when cutting the Christmas turkey; she leant forward to peel the sprouts.

Her scream. My scream. Blood everywhere, and most of it on my hands. I got a really bad stain on my shirt that day, the kind you can’t simply scrub out with hot soapy water and patience.

It was just an accident, the court said. People trust the court because if they didn’t, they’d have to rely on street gangs to deal out justice.

It wasn’t my fault, the court told me, and then they sent me off to counselling. Now my counsellor’s dead, too. But please, don’t make assumptions. That wasn’t me either.

I’m an English teacher at the local high school. A respectable job for a respectable man. My students aren’t all that bright, but I help them scrape through their exams. They’re decent kids, most of them. They're alright.

There's this boy that sits at the back of the class, though. He stares at me all lesson, every lesson, like the only thing he wants to be doing scraping is a knife against my neck. His gaze is cold, like he’s dipped his eyes in liquid nitrogen, hard like a solid testimony given to the judge. Someone once accused my buddy Mark, who’s a lawyer at the practice, of messing with my testimony after Mary passed on.

All lies, naturally. I didn’t murder Mary and I didn’t rig the trial and none of it, none of it at all was my fault.

But this boy – Owen, he’s called Owen, which is just the sort of name for a troublemaker – the way he looks at me, it’s as if he’s set up security cameras on the inside of my soul. He’s watching, always watching, and he knows I know he’s watching.

He knows.

I’ll be standing at the front of the classroom, talking about the ins and outs of the semi colon, or maybe some anthropomorphism. Owen stares at me all through that, his eyes a sniper’s beam. I don’t say anything, because I’m a good teacher, a kind teacher, and it’s not staff policy to single kids out.

Then I’ll maybe set the class some sort of essay to write. I’ll sit down on the wobbly chair next to the computer, and I’ll start some prep for next lesson. Ten minutes later, I’ll look up, check the time.

Owen will still be staring at me. He’ll see that I’ve noticed his gaze, and then he’ll have the open audacity to give a sheepish kind of smirk, a little shrug.  Then his eyes lock back down on his work as if he never looked up.

“Eyes on your work, class,” I’ll say, struggling to keep my voice steady.

It’s always the same. Owen is always watching and he thinks there’s nothing I can do about it. He taunts me constantly, and when his lip curls when he’s talking to his friends after class, I know that he’s thinking about me.

He thinks that he can taunt me like this forever.

It’s not working, though. I can hold my head high and tell anyone in the world this: Owen’s taunts don’t bother me in the slightest.

After all, it’s not like the thing with Mary was on purpose, or I really rigged my trial, or any of this was actually my fault. No. Obviously not; it’s senseless, lunatic - completely and utterly asinine - to think so.

I’m an honest respectable man, and that kind of man would never do that kind of thing.

Yet. Just thinking of Owen and his eyes of indomitable ice is enough to make my head ache. It hurts so much it’s hard to breathe, and I blow out air in short, puffing gasps, the way they teach you to do when you’re hyperventilating.  My hands reaching upwards, I clasp them both to the sides of my head, rocking back and forth.

The school bell rang two hours ago, but I’m still sitting on the wobbly chair by the computer. I love this classroom, of course I do – every happy man must love his workplace, that’s what my counsellor told me – but it’s hard to know where to look without seeing the smudgy black stain that Owen’s left on the room.

I close my eyes, but the memory of Owen creeps up my nostrils on plasticine tendrils, an acrid scent that makes my mind falter and blunder inside me.

It’s not fair, I think, tilting my head downwards to hide my nose in my shoulder. It’s not fair, and this is an invasion of privacy. And the worst thing is, Owen knows that he’s an alien crusader invading everything that’s right and well in my world, and he knows that I know. It probably amuses him, to see me in pain. The way he stares at me from the back of the classroom, it’s like he knows everything about me.

He knows.

My tears fall, hard and fast and burning, like cigarette ends I forget to put out.

It’s not my fault, I tell myself, my voice shaky inside my skull. It resounds off every wall inside my head, an ongoing wobbly echo to remind myself how feeble I sound.

“It’s not my fault,” I repeat, out loud this time. Then again, louder, so I’m screaming the words until they’re loud enough that I truly believe them. Hopefully, if I yell them loud enough, they’ll stick a knife into the side of any kernel of doubt. “IT’S NOT MY FAULT!”

“I know,” I answer myself, in a high pitched whisper that, if I was hard of hearing, might sound a bit like Mary. “I know, I know, oh, I know.”

The real Mary isn’t here to say the words herself.

Owen knows why. I can tell he knows why, because the way Owen looks at me it’s like he knows everything about me, can read all the hidden inscriptions that the angels carved into the casing round my heart. If I ever needed further evidence to prove it, all I need to do is meet his gaze, look back into his eyes.

The eyes are indeed the window to the soul, and Owen’s have told me everything.

He knows what I did. He knows about how I killed Mary, and what happened when I went to court, and about what was really behind my counsellor’s heart attack. And it’s not my fault- honestly, truly, it’s not my fault. To Owen, though, it probably seems like it is. And that’s why he’s been staring at me for so long. He’s jeering at me, mocking me purely because he knows that he can, that I can’t do anything about it.

I hate him, and that hatred is smothering. Slowly, I lower my hands from my ears, open my eyes.

I’m a good man, see, but all good men have their limits.

There’s an idea, nestled in the corner of my brain. It’s the sort of idea that cowers away from the sun’s shattering light that searches it out and sticks into it like shards of glass. It’s the kind of idea that needs the cover of night in order to flourish.

It’s five thirty in the middle of November. I don’t even have to glance out the window to know that it’s already dark outside: dark like melted tar and molten anguish. This is just as well. My one, great idea is not the sort of idea that an honest man can have during the day light.

It’s an idea based primarily on revenge.

The thing that Owen seems to thrive on, more than anything, is making fun of me. Staring at me, and letting that stare stretch on forever. Laughing behind his bitten, closed lips at the fool he’s making out of his teacher. That kind of thing every troublemaker would enjoy.

Surely, then, the thing that would cause him the greatest pain would be putting a complete and total stop to his taunting. And by that, I don’t mean stitching his eyes shut, or ripping away his sheepish little smirk. The best way to stop a boy from making fun is to remove the thing that he’s making fun of.

Namely, me.

It makes me want to laugh, thinking how much it’ll spoil his fun when he comes to school in the morning and there’s no teacher there to taunt.

I jump up from the wobbly chair and run in the direction of the cupboard at the back of the classroom. The leftover stain that used to fill up the whole classroom has retreated til it merely hangs over Owen’s seat like a shroud. I turn my face away from it so it can’t taint me.

Inside the cupboard, there’s a tray full of scissors. Normally, they’d be used for cutting up bits of paper to stick into books and not much else.  Tonight, it’s different. Tonight, I’m using them to deliver my revenge.

Giggling like the child Mary was always saying we should have, I run the blade of the scissors over my wrist. It leaves a mark, a darker red than I expected. Mary’s blood was brighter.

I whistle through the gap between my two front teeth.

Humming softly to myself, I take the scissors and carve a scarlet letter ‘R’ into my forearm. The ‘R’ is for revenge, and when Owen sees it, I know that he’ll understand. He’s clever, Owen. I’ll give him that. Not clever enough to realise that I wouldn’t let him stare at me forever, but still. Clever.

He knows things, sure, but I’ll bet this week’s wages that he’s not been expecting this.

With each stroke from the scissors, another letter ‘R’ appears on my skin. After a while I am gasping in half horror half rapture, my body convulsing. My skin is soaked, as if I’ve dip dyed my arms in blood so thick it could be paint.

My back arching, I throw back my head, my arms rising towards the ceiling in triumph. A drop of red from my wrist dances through the air, landing on my face like the glory of rain after a drought. It hurts, all this blood. Then again, Owen’s stifled laughter, his arctic stares… They hurt more, so much more.

I’ve never been all that good at maths – the arts are more my thing, always have been – but I can predict from all this blood that I’ll be dead within the next hour or so.

And though I may be hurting now, and have been hurting for all the weeks and months that Owen has held the cruel insult of his gaze over me, I know that he will be the one to hurt the most, in the end.  I will not be here to teach him how to use apostrophes in the morning. The brutal, teasing memory of his stares will be all Owen has left, with nothing to direct his jeering at. And I know what it’s like to have the reason for your life disappear so suddenly. It happened to me with Mary. I know that what I am doing now will twist and tear Owen, my great tormentor- rip his insides and bludgeon his mind.

This will be my legacy. This is my revenge.

 I look wistfully towards the door on the other side of the room. It hurts too much to get up and lock it. Hopefully none of the cleaners will find me.

If they do, though, it’s not my fault.

"It’s not my fault," I say, speaking aloud because there's no one here to brand me crazy for it. They’re my last words, as my eyes flutter open to stare at the blank white ceiling, a last, final mockery of the way Owen would stare at me. Well, no longer.

I scream to the sky and the stars and Mary, God bless her soul. The stars weep for me with tears of dust and ash, and the sky paints itself blue come the morning, in its mourning, and Mary watches me from Heaven and forgives me for everything I did.

Then, I scream and I scream and my screams don’t stop until my throat is rubbed raw as if by sandpaper, my body limp as it flops to the floor.

Even then, still, the echo of my voice stays here in this room.

When  they find me dead, there'll be rumours. Whatever they begin to tell you, believe this, and only this: 

None of this is because of me. Honest men don't start this kind of thing- and I'm telling you, I'm an honest man. I pay my bills, I feed my cat, and I don’t stick my nose into other people’s business. 

None of this is my fault, but at least I'll have my revenge as compensation. 

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