You couldn’t lie to my sister. Not about the big stuff, anyway, the stuff that ate away at you and kept you awake at night. I don’t know if I’d call it a gift or anything, but she had an ability. She could see guilt.
I don’t mean she was good at reading expressions or picking up on body language; she could literally see manifestations of people’s guilt following them around. It started with Whiskey, our childhood cat. Mom said he’d decided to move out to the country to enjoy his old age, but Cassidy kept seeing him lying at Mom’s feet, completely still and stiff.
She asked Mom over and over why Whiskey wasn’t moving until Mom started to sob and admitted she’d had to put our kitty to sleep. She’d felt so guilty about lying and about her “betrayal” to Whiskey, her beloved companion of seventeen years, but she’d wanted to protect us from death for a little while longer.
In her grief, Mom didn’t think to ask Cassidy how she’d known the truth.
It happened again, though, after Dad was laid off and Cassidy tangled herself shyly in his legs to avoid the strange man that had followed him inside. She claimed he looked a little like Dad, but with a dirty beard and tangled hair and one of those cardboard signs like the homeless people hold outside the library.
Dad tried to calm her down and told her no one was there, but she was insistent. Assuming it was some childish ploy for attention, he sent her upstairs to play in her room. Later on, I overheard him confessing to Mom about his job loss and how he felt like a terrible father and husband and how he was worried we’d be destitute because of him.
It clicked for them then that Cassidy had somehow known that Dad had been feeling this way, that the description of the “strange man” she’d been talking about matched up with Dad’s anxiety over what he feared would become of our family because of his perceived failure as a provider.
Together, they gently asked my sister to try and explain what exactly she’d seen, but being only four years old, she barely looked up from her dolls.
“I dunno,” she said.
Even as she got older, there was no explanation forthcoming about why she could see what we came to call “guilty secrets”. She just could. Our parents considered taking her to doctors or having her examined, but ultimately, they didn’t want to put her through that kind of stress when she was otherwise happy and healthy.
It was strange, certainly, but it was part of Cassidy and my parents made it clear that we were going to embrace it just as we did all of her other quirks (except for the drinking maple syrup straight from the bottle thing, Mom put a quick stop to that).
We all learned about her ability together: that she could only see the Big Stuff that we felt guilty over, that she couldn’t speak to or touch the manifestations, that she wasn’t always sure exactly what they meant. Usually after she found out what was causing them, they’d quickly fade away and her life would be completely normal again.
We agreed early on that Cassidy shouldn’t discuss what she saw with anyone outside of the family. We were worried what people might think if they found out and wanted to protect her. After a few slip ups, one particularly frightening one where a woman followed us almost all the way home after a still young Cassidy asked why she was followed by a stroller containing a blue lipped, limp baby, Cassidy agreed this was for the best.
It did have a positive side effect. It made us a more honest family and we all communicated fairly openly, knowing that no truly guilty secret would go unnoticed.
By the time we were in high school, her a freshman and me a junior, it was such a normal part of our lives that it was easy to forget that Cassidy was “different”.
“You see the moving van next door?” Dad asked during dinner one night.
“Yeah, looks like the old Smith place finally sold,” Mom said.
“Didn’t get a chance to see who our new neighbor is. Thinking we should do a recon mission tomorrow. You feel like baking cookies?”
Mom rolled her eyes at Dad’s nosiness, but agreed to bake the cookies as a gesture of welcome.
The next day, Mom taunted us with the delicious aroma of two dozen chocolate chip cookies destined for someone else’s stomach and the four of us crossed the street to the Smiths’ old house. A few moments after we knocked, the door was open by a portly older man, whose round face split into a warm grin when we told him why we were there.
“I’m Arnie,” he said, shaking my parents’ hands.
“I’m Phil, this is Donna, and these are our daughters, Emmy and Cassidy.”
“Pleasure,” Arnie bobbed his head towards us.
I gave a little wave, but Cassidy had stiffened beside me. She was staring past Arnie, her face pale and her lower lip trembling slightly, and when I nudged her, she jumped.
“Erm, hi,” she stuttered. To our parents, she said, “I gotta go. School project to work on.”
We watched her practically run back across the street and exchanged uncertain glances. After a slightly awkward goodbye to Arnie, we hurried after her.
Inside, Cassidy was waiting for us in the living room.
“There were people,” she said without prompting, “at least five. I saw a-a little boy, a woman, there were some men.”
“Slow down, hon,” Mom said, tugging Cassidy to the couch. “There were people with Arnie?”
“They were horrible,” Cassidy’s voice cracked. “There was blood and, and, and they were dead. They were all dead!”
My parents tried to soothe Cassidy, but she continued to sob and shout that our new sweet little old man neighbor was being followed by a number of very bad guilty secrets. I’d never her get so worked up over a manifestation before and, to be honest, it frightened me.
“Are you sure that’s what you saw?” Dad asked.
Cassidy nodded adamantly.
“Ok. Let’s not jump to any conclusions, here, but until we figure this out, I want you girls to stay away from him, got it?”
We readily agreed and I took Cassidy upstairs to try and distract her while my parents talked in a hushed, urgent whisper behind us.
It wasn’t so easy to avoid Arnie, though.
He came by the next day to return Mom’s cookie platter and when Cassidy opened the door, unaware it was him on the other side, she started to scream. He was immediately confused and apologetic, but that didn’t stop Cassidy from slamming the door in his face. We found the platter on our porch hours later when Dad got home with a note taped to it.
I didn’t mean to startle your daughter. Please tell her I’m sorry and let me know if there’s anything I can do to make it up to her.
Dad crumpled it up and threw it away.
Although we tried to encourage Cassidy to go on as normal, she was having a difficult time since Arnie’s arrival. I’d find her staring out the window every time he was outside, her face twisted into confused horror, and whenever we had to walk by him, she would cross the street with her shoulders hunched and head down to avoid him.
“I’ve counted at least twelve,” she whispered to me one night from her bedroom window.
I was sitting on her bed and had been trying to coax her to join me in looking at magazines, but she was ignoring my attempts. Arnie was in his driveway unloading groceries and she was watching him through a slit in her blinds.
“There’s one little boy who’s with him all the time. The whole front of his shirt is covered in blood and he’s so pale,” she continued. “Sometimes there’s a woman, she looks pregnant, but her face is all messed up, I can’t even tell what she really looks like. There are others, too, but they’re all bad.”
She went on to list a few more she could see: a man with his belly cut open and his innards hanging out, an older teen girl with red hair and slash marks across her body, another woman, this one with half of her skull crushed inward.
“Cassidy, you have to stop,” I said as gently as I could. “You’re really letting this get to you.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it before.” She yelped suddenly and drew back from the window. “He saw me.”
“He looked right at me! They all did!”
“He’s a monster, Emmy! He killed those people! It’s his guilty secret!”
For the first time since we’d discovered Cassidy’s gift, I was starting to worry about the toll it was taking on her.
“We have to do something,” I said to my parents the next time we were alone. “She’s freaking out.”
“I know,” Mom said with a sigh. “But we just can’t go over and ask if he’s a murderer.”
“I’ve asked around, nobody knows anything about the guy,” Dad said.
“We’ve gotta do something!”
While my parents agreed that we needed to find a way to help my sister, we didn’t know how.
Cassidy ended up saving us the trouble.
We were outside playing horse at our basketball hoop after school when Arnie pulled into his driveway. I knew the minute we saw his car that there was going to trouble; Cassidy had tensed, our basketball clutched between both hands, and she was following the car’s progress through narrowed eyes. It happened so quickly, I didn’t have time to stop her.
The moment Arnie stepped out of his car, she pounced.
“Murderer!” She screamed, launching the ball at him.
He flinched sharply, first at the word and then at the ball bouncing off his trunk.
“Hey!” He was clearly shaken, but irritated. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I know what you did to all those people!” Cassidy shook me off as I tried to tug her back towards our house. “That little boy with with the bloody shirt; did you shoot him? And the pregnant lady! What did you do to her? Why is her face like that?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Arnie said.
“I know you stabbed the girl, the one with red hair and the flower tattoo on her stomach!” Cassidy was practically frothing and it took all my strength to restrain her.
The color drained from Arnie’s face at the mention of the red headed girl and be stumbled back a step.
“How do you know about her?” He asked hoarsely.
“Murderer!” Cassidy shouted.
Arnie made a move that looked like he might cross over to us and I screamed. Cassidy finally let me pull her away and we ran back into the house, where we hid in my parents’ room and waited for them to come home from work.
We were on Mom as soon as she stepped through the door and Dad came home halfway through our explanation of what had happened. He was oddly quiet while we finished and, when he got up and left the room, we just watched him go, confused and afraid.
He didn’t say a word when he came back and crossed through the living room and walked out the front door, his pistol in hand.
“Phil!” Mom cried after him, and all three of us were scrambling to our feet.
Dad marched right up to Arnie’s door and slammed his fist on it until the older man opened it. He froze when he found himself looking down the barrel of a gun.
“You threatened my girls?” Dad asked with an eerie calmness.
“What? No!” Arnie said with a panicked look from the gun to my dad.
“They said you started to come after them earlier when Cassidy confronted you.”
“No!” Arnie said again. “No, this is all a misunderstanding! Let me explain.”
“Oh, you better.” Dad said.
Arnie was trembling and it was hard not to feel a stab of sympathy for him, he looked so old and frail, huddled defensively in his doorway. But after what Cassidy had seen, I shut that feeling down quickly.
“Your daughter, she…she just said things that surprised me,” Arnie said. “She knew things and I just wanted to know how. I never meant to scare them!”
“You killed those people!” Cassidy accused from over Dad’s shoulder. “You’re a murderer!”
For a moment, Arnie just stared at Cassidy, and then, slowly, almost like every bone had given out in his body, he just sank to the floor, tears spilling freely down his cheeks, and he clutched his head in his hands.
“No,” he whispered tearfully.
Cassidy looked ready to start another tirade, but Dad held a hand up to stop her. Arnie looked up at us, and the anguish that was carved across his face was hard to stand. He took a long, deep breath and pulled himself back to his feet.
“I tried to save them.”
Arnie’s full name was Dr. Arnold Pierson and he’d been a surgeon for over forty years. In that time, he’d performed multiple operations, saved countless lives, and worked tirelessly to serve his community. But it wasn’t the successes that stayed with him; it was those he felt he’d failed.
Like the little boy who’d been shot in the chest after his brother had been playing with Daddy’s gun. Or the pregnant woman who had been in a car accident and gone through her windshield, killing both herself and her unborn twins. It was the man who’d had his belly sliced open in a workplace accident and the teen girl who’d been viciously attacked with a knife or the lady who had suffered a severe head injury after a loose brick finally fell away from its building.
They’d all been on his table and they’d all succumb to their injuries despite his best efforts.
And now, even years into his retirement, he continued to carry them with him. The guilt over their deaths never completely subsided and the weight of his self-imposed responsibility, the feeling that he should have been able to save them, continued to bear down on his shoulders.
He didn’t tell anyone about his burden; there were too few people who would truly be able to understand what it was like. No amount of empty platitudes or positive thinking would change the past or how he felt about it.
Cassidy and my dad both apologized profusely after Arnie finished his tale. He nodded and tried to smile, a small, sad expression, and wiped his eyes.
“I won’t ask how you knew about them,” he said, much to our surprise. “I know what it’s like to carry around a secret you don’t like talking about much.”
Cassidy hung her head in shame and he gave her shoulder a pat before wishing us a good night and going inside.
Arnie, while still polite, didn’t talk to my family much after that. I’m sure the gun and accusations played a large part in it, but I also think it was because we were now reminders. We knew his secret, one he’d never meant to tell, and he wanted to distance himself from that.
I’d still catch Cassidy watching him from time to time, but now there was sadness in her eyes. Arnie was the first person whose guilt she didn’t stop seeing after his confession. I think, in a way, it was her choice. Her way of apologizing for the pain she’d caused him.
Arnie would never know, but after all the years of silently and single handedly bearing his guilt, he was no longer doing it alone.