Guilt can be suffocating, like a blanket of shadows...
|I watched him die. My friend. Slowly. Agonizingly.
Tears welled in my eyes, but none fell. I idly wondered why. Maybe because I knew it was my fault.
I was the one who left the key in the compactor; who hadn’t bothered to turn off the machine; who had ignored every safety protocol. It hadn’t been intentional, but did that really matter? A man had died as a direct result of my carelessness.
Turning my back on his final, gurgling, gasping screams, I walked away. There was no hope for him, and I couldn’t bear to watch anymore.
I didn’t sleep at all that night. I wondered whether I would sleep again.
I sprang up, full of nervous energy despite my insomnia from the previous night. Walking into the room with a stiff-legged gait, I pulled the metal chair back from the table with an eerie, nails-on-the-chalkboard scraping sound.
My knees gave as I sat down, hitting the cold seat unexpectedly hard. I glanced at each detective with tired, watery eyes. Their faces were pale and unyielding. Dark splashes of quivering flesh lay beneath their staring eyes. Spiny salt and pepper stubble pushed out of their chins. Maybe they hadn’t slept either.
The buzz of the fluorescent lights seemed to grow in volume with every second of silence. My hands tremored, so I clenched them. It didn’t stop the shudders, merely causing it to travel up my arms.
Finally, one of the detectives flipped open a notebook and spoke.
“Did you know Mr. Johnson?”
“You mean Steve?” I asked, my voice raspy and hoarse.
“Well, yeah. We worked together. But you already know that, don’tcha?”
“Don’t worry about what we know, Mr. Murphy.”
“Don’t worry about me worrying, man.”
The detective leaned back in his chair and tilted his head back. If it had been another time, he would have pulled a cigarette out of his mouth and blown a long exhale of smoke. But it wasn’t, and he didn’t. But it still made me want a smoke.
“Don’t play games, Mr. Murphy. We’re just doing our jobs here. A man died, and we just need to make sure it was just an accident,” he said in what sounded like a practiced speech. “Now let’s get this over with, shall we?”
“I’m not playing frickin’ games. Just ask me your questions so I can leave!” I wasn’t sure why I was antagonizing these guys. It was like I was asking to get caught. Like I was caught in a blanket of shadows, choking in this obsidian chasm of guilt.
The two detectives shared a look, then both leaned forward. The other detective spoke this time.
“Who was at that machine before the victim?”
“Who do you think?”
“Does that mean you were at that machine, Mr. Murphy?”
“Yeah. What’s it to you?”
The detective frowned.
“As my partner said, it’s our job.”
“Some job. Look, some of us actually have to get stuff done for a living. Can I go back to work now?”
“Just a few more questions, Mr. Murphy.”
“Why do you keep calling me Mr. Murphy? My friggin’ name is George. Use it.”
The detective’s jaw shifted slightly.
“Fine. George. Did you follow the standard safety protocol when you left that machine?”
I shifted in my seat, stared at the table, and lied.
“So you…” He flipped through a stack of documents. “...powered down the machine, turned the key, pulled it out, and cleaned the station?”
His eyes rose from the documents to meet my gaze. His boring stare was scalding, and I had to look away.
“All of those things?”
“Fergodsakes! Yes! Dammit!”
The detective eased back in his chair again, smirking.
“There’s no need to get agitated, Mr. Murphy!”
I rose from my chair, hearing the staccato clatter of its metallic legs bouncing against hard floor tiles as it tumbled behind me.
“George. For the last friggin’ time. My damn name is G. E. O. R. G. E. Got that?”
I still didn’t meet their eyes, despite standing over them. I swallowed hard.
“Sit down, George,” said the first detective.
“Because I asked you to.”
I didn’t. Instead, I walked a small circle around the fallen chair.
“Where did you put the key?” said the second detective.
“The key, George. Where’d you put it after you shut down the machine?” said the first, scarcely pausing after my exclamation.
“I don’t know. In the usual place, I guess.”
“Which place?” said the second before I was even done speaking.
“Uh, I don’t know. I-I…”
“You didn’t take out the key, did you, George? Did you turn off the machine?” said the first.
“I turned it…”
“I don’t believe you, Mr. Murphy,” asked the second.
“For the last. God. Damn. Time. IT’S GEORGE!!!” I screamed.
“Did you kill Steve?” asked the first.
I stood there, stunned. Dark emotion twisting my guts like a medieval torture device, my jaw trembled.
I ground my teeth to the excruciating fluorescent hum in my brain and, after a long moment, dropped my head.
The detectives didn’t look surprised. They didn’t look upset. They looked like they were showing up for just another day on the line. They looked just like I had the day before. The day I had killed a man. My friend.
One of them rose in the same way I would expect him to if he were getting a cup of coffee. He strolled around the table, pulling cuffs from his belt. He pulled my arms behind my back and clasped them with a metallic whir over each of my wrists.
As he read me my rights, I looked at the other one.
I watched him. The detective. He looked... bored.