THE GUILTY ONE: a short story by E.R. Arroyo
The Guilty One
“Why do you want it to be a boy so badly?” my sister asked. Meredith had chosen to be surprised and was currently hee-hee-hoo-hoo-ing her way through labor, leaving me in the agony of anticipation.
I met her eyes but couldn’t answer. She knew the reason, she just thought maybe after six years I’d gotten over it. She squeezed my hand when another contraction hit, and I squeezed back, hopefully letting her know how much I loved her because I never said it. Neither of us did. Not in six years.
“Please, don’t tell me this is about Mom, Riley. It’s ridiculous. The women in our family are not cursed. We’re just…unlucky.” I looked at her other hand which gripped the rail instead of the baby’s father. This was her unlucky lot, becoming a single mother, abandoned by a worthless deadbeat. Just like the worthless deadbeat who abandoned us as kids.
The next contraction came and it was intense. I was lost in my thoughts by then, thinking about the baby and about hoping desperately to deliver good news to our mom later. Please, God, let it be a boy.
Soon, the room was swarming with people, it seemed, and my head was buzzing.
“Time to push,” said Doctor Sims.
“Deep breath,” the nurse encouraged.
I was no longer holding Meredith’s hand. She gripped both rails so much her knuckles were white. After what felt like a very long time, the baby still wasn’t coming, and honestly I didn’t understand what they were talking about until they whisked her away, making me stay behind.
“What’s going on?” I shouted at the nurse trailing behind my sister’s gurney.
“We have to perform a cesarean,” she called back.
“C-section.” A stranger leaning against the wall regarded me with his arms crossed. “It means they’re going to do surgery to get the baby out.”
“Will they be okay?” I asked, panting, seriously wishing I hadn’t doubled my meds this morning. Or did I triple? Was this place literally spinning?
“Probably, but what do I know?” The man kicked away from the wall and traipsed away leaving a muddy trail from his boots. He turned back to me before he got too far and grinned. He had a nice smile considering he was so ugly. “Good luck, kid.”
Minutes or hours later, the nurse came to inform me my sister wasn’t out yet but the baby was in the nursery and I could go see it if I wanted. Of course I wanted to!
When we reached the glass window that separated us from all the babies like a zoo exhibit, she pointed to one. “There he is,” she cooed. I soaked in the blue of his blanket and registered the word “he” a moment later.
“A boy?” My smile lit up so big my face hurt, and she smiled, too, nodding. I pulled out my phone and snapped a picture of him. “Did she name him?”
“Not yet. Meredith had a complication; she’s still in surgery. We’ll let you know when she’s out.”
I stuffed the phone back in my pocket and fished out my keys. “I gotta go. She can call me!” I yelled, running toward the exit. “Thank you!”
I ran to my car and cranked the engine, still mumbling, “Thank you,” to myself over and over all the way home. The front door was unlocked and I rushed in to connect my phone to Aunt Dottie’s printer. I printed the photo of my nephew and ran right back out without replying to Dottie’s questions.
The drive to Mable Valley was usually almost two hours, and visiting hours were only open for another hour and forty-five minutes. I hit the highway with all the anxiety of the day building up and pressing on me to just make it there in time. Then the phone rang. I picked it up and put it on “speaker.”
“What?” I asked, not bothering to look at the caller ID.
“You just left me! By myself!” Meredith screamed.
“Mer, I have to get to Mom before visiting hours end. She deserves to know.” I hit the windshield wipers to clear the mist. Rain was the last thing I needed.
“It doesn’t matter,” she cried. “She’s being executed tomorrow! Riley, you need to accept that! She killed our stepdad!” She panted into the phone as I hammered harder on the accelerator. She sighed, “Listen, I understand why she did it. Really, I do. But what she did was wrong. It was her choice—not some dumb curse.”
I huffed, knowing she couldn’t hear me over the car noise. “She didn’t do it.”
“Oh, God, Riley, did you get off your meds again? You were right there. You saw her do it.” I considered hanging up because I knew she’d never understand. “You testified at her trial!”
Meredith was hysterical now, and I knew it was because she never wanted to have this conversation again. And I didn’t mean to make her have it.
“I testified because she asked me to.” I gripped the wheel harder, swerving around a tractor-trailer and just missing another. I felt like the pounding rain was controlling the car more than I was.
She sniffled, lowering her voice. I knew she wouldn’t believe me. “Why would she do that if she was innocent, Riley? You’re not making any sense.”
“Because she would do anything to protect us. If you’d been there, you would understand.” I pulled the phone closer to my mouth. “What did you name him, Mer?”
“He’s beautiful,” I whispered before ending the call and dropping the phone in the passenger seat.
I arrived at the prison with only twenty minutes to spare. I rushed through security where I turned in my keys and phone, then I was promptly seated on one side of a pane of glass. Ten minutes later, they brought in my mother. I only had five minutes left with her. This was the last time I would see her, and it would be the last time she’d see the face of someone who loved her. She demanded I not come to her execution, and I understood why.
I slapped the picture of her grandson against the glass as she sank into her chair. She was already crying, but even more so now. She touched the glass on the other side of the photo, soaking in the image.
I picked up the phone and she did likewise. “His name is Jackson.”
A fresh wave of tears overcame her, and I watched a glimpse of joy flicker before she hardened her face, once again, being strong for the ones she loved. She would never know Jackson. She would never know if he was a good kid, or if he was unlucky like Meredith, herself, and me.
Time was running out, so I said the only thing that felt important. “Mom, I love you so much. I could never thank you enough….”
“Help your sister with my grandson,” her voice cracked. “That’s thanks enough. Take your meds, Riley. And don’t you feel guilty, not once, you hear me?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I cried.
“I love you,” she said. Then she hung up the phone, and pushed her shoulders back. She took one last glance at the photo still pressed to the glass, then kissed her fingertip and touched it to Jackson’s picture. With her chin up, she smiled, her tears no longer streaming.
Still clinging to the phone, I cried harder. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. And she didn’t give me the chance. She just nodded and let the guard take her.
Tomorrow, she would face her death, punishment for another’s crime. I could only take comfort in knowing that my family would never again be abused by the man I killed.