There was someone in here with her, someone watching her.
Was that the door? No, just the wind rattling an upstairs window. She peered down the hallway to make sure. Nothing; nobody there. Not her boyfriend back early from the gym, where she should really be; instead of in the kitchen, rifling through the tins in the cupboard to get to her hidden stash of chocolate.
Nobody here. Nobody watching. It was just her imagination playing tricks, her conscience having one last stab at changing her mind.
It didn't work.
She reached in and felt around for the Mars bar, her hand like a sniffer dog seeking out dope. Her fingertips recoiled when they touched the wrapper, then caressed the bar, grabbing, pulling it out through the silver barricade of processed peas and soup before closing the door. She fumbled with the plastic-coated sheath, finally ripping it open with her incisors and biting into the delicious gooey sweetness. A thin ribbon of caramel draped itself over her lip and chin; she licked at it with her tongue, not wanting to sacrifice a single morsel. In seconds the bar had been devoured, leaving her with just the black, red and gold remains. She opened the pedal bin with her foot and dropped it inside, pushing it down below the other garbage, to keep the crumpled fish and chip paper company at the bottom. She knew Tim would never find them down there…
But you'll know they're there, Jodie, said a voice in her head. You'll know…and you'll only regret it when you step on those scales…
'Shut up,' Jodie told it.
And telling Tim that you had to work late just so you didn't have to go and exercise…Just so you could secretly binge on chips and chocolate…I hope you're proud of yourself, I really do.
'Shut up, just shut the fuck up!'
You've been doing so well lately too. Lost a couple of pounds at your last meeting. You do realise you'll have put that back on and more besides.
And so it began. First the pleasure, now the guilt. Jodie bit her lip; if it hadn't been for the pain it caused she might have chomped clean through and swallowed the chunk whole - just like she'd done with the Mars bar. It was her nerves, you see, that's what made her-
Quit making excuses. We both know it's got absolutely nothing to do with your nerves. You just like eating; admit it. You always have done and always will. Sure, when you first met Tim you hadn't looked too bad, but it's not as easy to hide those rolls now is it? No wonder he wants to keep the lights off when-
'Just fucking shut up!' Jodie brought her hands up to cover her ears, as if it would somehow block the voice out. And for a few seconds it did. But it soon returned again when she took them back down.
If you carry on like this there's no way you'll be able to fit into that bridesmaid's dress for your sister's wedding. It's only a few weeks away you know, and look how much weight you've put on since you were measured for it!
Jodie ran out of the kitchen, ran down the hallway. From the corner of her eye she spotted the mirror at the bottom of the stairs.
Why don't you take a look? Go on…
What are you so frightened of? Go on, take a good look at yourself, Jodie.
Jodie found herself moving towards the mirror, almost as if she was being pushed. Then she was standing in front of it, looking directly at her reflection, scrutinizing every extra bulge, imagined or otherwise. The baggy t-shirt and skirt at least hid some of the damage. Thank God she wasn't naked!
But you can imagine it, can't you? You try your best not to catch a glimpse when you step out of the shower, but you can't help it. You see…You see…And you can see it now…can't you, Jodie? You've done this to yourself. You've lied and you've let yourself down…It won't be long before Tim sees right through you…It won't be long before he leaves you for somebody less…
'Stop it, stop it, stop it!' Jodie broke into tears and ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time. There was a slamming of the toilet door.
Another reflection appeared in the mirror now, as the sounds of retching wafted down the staircase. Distorted, blurred almost, it shifted in and out of focus as if it didn't really belong in this reality at all. Parsley sauce skin, pock-marked green and stretched taut over a lean frame. Two burning yellow eyes, accusing eyes.
The Guilt Demon smiled with crazy-paving teeth. It would move on in a moment, Its work here done for the time being. The words It had whispered to Jodie would haunt her for a good few days, play on her mind and cultivate the eating disorder she would eventually develop. And then the demon would make her feel guilty about that, too. For spewing up good food when there were people starving in the world. She'd never win. By the time It was finished Jodie wouldn't know what she was doing.
To eat or not to eat, It said. That is the question…
These were interesting times for the Guilt Demon, exciting times. At no other period in history had there been more reasons to feel guilty. Oh, there had always been guilt - ever since the first man and woman stood apart from the animals and realised they were different. Realised they were naked. But so very often in the past the reprehensible acts of this curious species had been blamed on religion, on affinity to a particular group or country. People were burnt at the stake, beheaded and ripped apart with bullets, but this was justified because it was all for the greater good. There were too many constrictions, hardly any room to manoeuvre.
It was all so different now. The inhabitants of this spinning blue and white ball no longer had faith. They no longer followed blindly, they had minds of their own - and that meant they made their own decisions, their own choices. And inevitably those choices turned out to be wrong.
The Guilt Demon didn't interfere, didn't influence these outcomes. Rather, It stepped in after the fact, after the damage had been done. It dealt in remorse, in shame and humiliation. It thrived on lamentation, using hindsight with skill and aplomb. It hadn't forced Jodie to eat the chips or the chocolate…but It would certainly make her wish she hadn't. It would return to taunt her again and again, just as It did with all the others - just as It had for longer than It could remember.
And It revelled in the torment It caused. The sound of Jodie heaving up her guts as It left her house were like music to Its ears. A concerto in vomit major. She'd had no idea It was there…not really. Jodie put all this down to her own guilt, which made the whole thing that much…sweeter.
Desire had a lot to answer for. Greed in Jodie's case, lust in the case of the next two It was visiting.
A little after 8 o'clock at night. The Guilt Demon watched for a few seconds at the window, hovering several feet above the ground. It watched the couple in the throes of passion, their coupling animalistic. All sweat and moans, sucking and licking. It had never seen the attraction, but was thankful for this ritual's existence. The act was over relatively quickly and the pair lay back on the bed exhausted. It'd been monitoring their progress for some time and knew that this moment was coming - if you'd pardon the expression. Tonight they'd finally given in to their feelings…The confusing tangle of love and lust proving too much.
Sara's husband, Adrian, was away for the night - his mother had been taken ill. Their daughter, Laura, aged five, was staying at a friend's house. Sara had met Gary at the evening course she'd taken in photography. He made her laugh, made her feel special. Made her feel attractive. Over the ten weeks of the course Sara found herself looking forward to Tuesday evenings more and more; couldn't wait to get out of the house and get to the local college. To see Gary. Always Gary. He was on her mind all the time and she knew it was the same for him. A group of them had gone out for a drink at the end of term, and that's when they'd kissed for the first time. He'd caught her on the way back from the ladies, their eyes had met again. She'd tried to resist him but couldn't, and Sara found herself being dragged outside into the pub's yard. The kiss had been electric, the touch of lips on lips, tongue against tongue, neither had been able to deny it.
'I want you so badly,' he'd said to her, brushing a strand of dark brown hair out of her eyes.
'I want you too,' she told him. 'But not here…not like this…'
So when the opportunity arose, they took it.
And now it was time for the Guilt Demon to go to work.
When Gary finally got up to go to the bathroom, the creature seized Its moment. It crouched down next to Sara on the bed, and as her gaze trailed Gary out of the room It said:
Well that was stupid…Do you realise what you've done? And for what? For a cheap fumble with a guy you hardly even know.
'I know enough,' Sara replied, her voice low.
Do you? Do you really? You've seen him a couple of hours a week…and most of that time was in class. It's infatuation, that's all. And now you've got it out of your system…
'It's not like that,' said Sara. 'I…'
You what…? Just couldn't wait for Adrian to get lost so you could do it with him in the bed you share. Jesus, Sara, don't you have any thought for anyone other than yourself? Do you know what this would do to Adrian if he found out, what it'd do to Laura? I just hope it was 'good for you' that's all…I hope he was worth it…
You love him, is that what you're saying to me? The Guilt Demon pressed Its face up close to hers, spitting as It spoke. You don't know the meaning of the word. Love isn't about all this, it isn't what you've just been doing. That was sex, Sara. Pure and simple. Sex. Love is when you care so much about someone you're willing to do anything for them, you put them before yourself. Is that what you've done with Adrian tonight? You might not know the meaning of the word, but he does. He worships you, Sara, and you've betrayed him for a bit of fun!
Sara drew her knees up to her chest. She could hear water running in the bathroom, the splashing as Gary washed his face…washed his face in the sink Adrian used every morning to shave. Next to the bath they'd once shared together, the room filled with candles on their wedding anniversary.
Don't you feel any shame for what you've done, Sara? Don't you feel any…guilt?
Images flashed in Sara's head now, of a life not yet lived with Gary. Of a messy divorce, of Adrian's face when she told him - told him? She wouldn't even have to. He'd be able to see it in her eyes, he knew her so well. And this man, Gary, arguing with her because he didn't want to take on another man's child. Laura growing up resenting her mother for what she'd done, for splitting the family apart all because she didn't have the courage to say no. One simple word: no. Sara put a hand to her mouth, a mouth that still tasted of Gary. She tried to wipe the flavour away but found that she couldn't. It wouldn't go away, ever…
The Guilt Demon found Gary drying his face on a towel, washing away the slick sheen of his labours. It looked the man up and down. Then It began.
So what's the plan of action now, Gary? It asked. You've taken advantage of this woman, so now what? Are you going to walk out of her life, just like you've done with all the rest? Are you going to do that to Sara?
'No, Sara's different. I…I really like her.'
Well, you fucked her, so you must have liked her. But she has no idea about your past, does she? No idea of your track record…You really liked all the others as well, didn't you? You're not going to stick with her for five minutes. You'll be off looking around again before you know it…Leaving her to pick up the pieces of a broken marriage. You know she's falling for you. You like her…but do you like her enough? Three wives already, Gary, it's hardly a glowing testament…
'Maybe we could make it work…'
Maybe…and maybe not…There's a first time for everything, I suppose. And maybe you'll win the lottery on Saturday as well…Face it, you're just never going to let anybody into your life like that. You don't like losing control, you'll never tire of the thrill of the chase…and when you've got what you wanted…It always ends the same way. Remember what happened with Patsy? Remember how you fucked her, and then really fucked her? You left that woman in such a state…
'No, I didn't mean to…'
You never do. Just don't know when to stop, though, do you? Never know where to draw the line.
'Sara's an adult. She knew what she was doing.'
That's right, put the blame on her. That's what you always do, try to shift it onto someone else. Try to make it right in your own mind. How many times have you crossed them over, been seeing two at the same time? Never have the decency to drop one first before moving on to the next…Always tell yourself you're protecting the woman you're with by keeping your sordid little affairs a secret…Why didn't you tell Sara about Beth?
Gary sat down on the edge of the bathtub.
Or you make excuses and say that there's something wrong with them…Well, no, Gary. There isn't anything wrong with them. But there's something very wrong with you. Always has been. You're a user. And you don't care who gets hurt in the process, don't care how many lives you wreck…
The phone chose that moment to ring and Gary started.
The Guilt Demon returned to the bedroom and found Sara holding the receiver to her ear with both hands. It was Adrian, telling her that his mother had had a massive stroke and died tonight, a little after 8 o'clock. He was trying to keep his voice even, but it was cracking and she knew instinctively that he'd been crying.
'I just wish you were here right now, Sara. I just want to hold you.'
Sara closed her eyes and a tear trickled down her cheek.
'I love you so much,' Adrian told her. 'You know that, don't you?'
Gary appeared at the door and the tragic scene was complete. There was no need for the Guilt Demon to hang around any longer. Sated, It moved on to Its next appointment.
* * *
It's always a mistake to claim you have no conscience. To insist you don't feel guilt. Whenever you tell yourself this you're throwing down the gauntlet, issuing a challenge. And usually when you say it, you've probably got more reason than most to be afraid.
Roy returned to his small flat around eleven. He walked in and locked the door behind him. Then he tossed his bag onto the small bed and peeled off his gloves. He sighed; it had been a long day.
He switched on the TV and flicked around with the remote control. A stupid arts programme on one channel and on the other, a sitcom so bad it had to be screened when most of the viewing public were fast asleep. He finally found a documentary on shark attacks and let it settle there. Roy cocked his head as he watched a Great White take a lump out of one scuba diver's leg. As it was post watershed, they showed most of the gory details and Roy found it hard to tear himself away from the screen.
Keeping one eye on the television, Roy went over to the bag and unzipped it. He pulled out the tools of his trade: a selection of knives in various sizes and shapes, from large Bowie to the smaller scalpel-like blade. He'd wiped them at the scene with a cloth, but would still have to clean them properly in the sink to get all the blood off. This he did now, adding the implements to his washing up pile and soaking them in Fairy Liquid, then leaving them on the yellow plastic drainer along with the plates and cups from his dinner earlier.
Next Roy popped the cloth and bag in the washing machine and set the cycle in motion. Easing down into his favourite armchair in front of the TV, he stared intently at the programme, at the bloodletting, the biting, the splashing. He admired the way the sharks crept up on their victims, gliding effortlessly behind them until…
He watched the rest of the documentary, his eyelids heavier by the second. It really had been a long day. But he wanted to watch this; it wasn't very often they put something decent on TV. And besides, he didn't like to sleep…afterwards. Roy's eyes closed, and he quickly snapped them open. Shaking his head to fight off the tiredness.
On the screen another diver was struggling - in the jaws of a Tiger shark this time. Roy leaned forward to get a better view. The diver turned and looked at the underwater camera, his face frozen with shock and fear. No, he was looking right at Roy - staring directly at him, as the shark continued its attack. Then the diver pulled off his mask, ripped the oxygen out of his mouth. 'What the hell's he doing?' Roy asked himself. He must be panicking, half out of his mind.
Bubbles floated in front of his face but when they cleared Roy could see him properly.
And he recognised him.
'Why?' gargled the diver, a young boy no more than twenty. 'Why, Roy?'
Roy twitched in the chair, opening his mouth. No, it couldn't be…
'Why'd you do it, Roy? Why'd you…kill me?' The shark was really going to town on the lad now, shaking him. Blood was rising with the bubbles, filling the screen, turning it crimson.
Roy jumped up and snapped the TV off. He shook his head…It was late; his mind was playing tricks.
There was a noise from the kitchen.
Roy hesitated, then walked into the room. The washing machine had come to the end of its cycle, that was all. It clattered slightly as the bin inside stopped spinning. Roy let out the breath he'd been holding. Stupid. He was about to move forwards when the door swung open, spilling water onto his kitchen floor. But it wasn't fresh, clean water. It wasn't soapy, detergent-infused either. This was dirty: muddy brown. It reached him where he stood, and it stank. Roy could see green tangles of weed in the spillage.
A body flopped out of the washing machine, covered in the slimy substance. It raised its head, opened its mouth… It was the boy from the shark documentary. Roy gaped at his pleading face, those dead, glassy eyes, those same green weeds clinging to his neck and chin.
'Why, Roy?' he asked again. 'Because you enjoy it? Because you like to see them squirm? Because of the feeling of power it gives you? You can decide - do they live, do they die?'
Roy began to back off, but the boy scrambled after him along the wet floor.
There was someone behind him. Roy spun around. There, standing not three feet away, was the figure of a young woman, the flesh missing from one side of her face, bone jutting through the decomposing skin. When she reached up her hand, earth and worms dropped from the appendage. 'Why? Why did you kill us, Roy?' she said. 'We had our whole lives ahead of us. I was about to start at university.'
'I was going to be a fire-fighter,' spat the boy from behind, 'just like my dad.'
'My girlfriend sits alone in our home and cries every night,' said a third voice to his left. Roy snapped his head sideways and saw another man, covered in bits of garbage. Maggots crawled over his many knife wounds.
And now more joined the throng: a woman slit from neck to groin, holding her bowels in her hands; a man with no fingers on his right hand, sliced off one by one; a child sobbing, her neck wide open…So many they filled his small flat: all demanding to know 'Why?'
'No, keep back. You're not real, none of this is real.' The sink exploded in a geyser of crimson. The fountain rained down on them all, painting the scene blood red. 'This isn't real!' shouted Roy.
Of course it isn't, said one final voice in his ear. You're fast asleep in that armchair, Roy. You're having a nightmare. But this was the only way I could get to you - the only way I could make you see. Don't like to think about them afterwards, do you? The things you did, the places you left them: dumped in the river, buried in shallow graves, or abandoned on rubbish tips. They're just meat to you when you're satisfying your hunger…But look, Roy, look at their faces now.
The Guilt Demon grabbed hold of his head and shoved it in this direction and that, prising open Roy's eyes. You did this. You did this…But you're so hard and emotionless, aren't you? Such a…cold fish. You could never feel 'cut up' about what you've done. Or could you?
Roy's victims approached, pressing him against the wall, piling on him. The Guilt Demon was handing out Roy's knives to the crowd and one by one they were taking it in turns to slash at him, to have their revenge.
* * *
It had many more visits to make in the space of that twenty-four hours. A twelve year old boy who'd just discovered self abuse, whilst thinking about one of his mother's friends and the low-cut blouse she liked to wear; an ageing headmaster whose past at a private school was rapidly catching up with him; an office worker who'd cheated a colleague of a job promotion and snagged it for herself; a high ranking politician who'd hired a hit-man to bump off a former lover so she wouldn't jeopardise his marriage or career; the hit-man himself after he'd done the deed; a film star who'd promised his fans and his loved ones he was off drugs, but simply couldn't abide the taste of cold turkey; and a charity worker who was siphoning off money to pay for her very expensive fashion tastes… In every single instance, It goaded and mocked, irritated and argued, until It was content with the results.
But the last stop on this particular guilt trip was a favourite of the demon's. It had returned often to this one home, this one woman. Because unlike all the others she was not the architect of her own downfall. No. Instead fate had pointed its finger at her and prodded hard. What had happened wasn't her fault; she'd done nothing wrong - and yet she was still worthy of Its attentions…
The Guilt Demon let Itself into Kim's semi and looked around. There was nobody home, just a note on the coffee table. It picked up the note and scanned the words.
Kim shivered. She watched the sun setting and knew it would be her last.
The wind buffeted her and she pulled the coat around her tighter. It was an instinctive thing really; in a few moments she'd be colder than she'd ever been before, so what did a little chill matter?
Kim looked down from the top of the multi-storey car park, the most appropriate place she could think of. The view made her feel dizzy. Her eyes were red but no tears came. There were none left.
Night after night, pouring out her sadness until there was nothing left to give.
The parents hadn't blamed her, not even at the funeral. If only they'd kept a closer watch on their son…Their son, Joshua. That name hurt Kim physically. She saw snatches of the accident, everything happening so quickly and yet in achingly slow motion. The parked cars, the small blur dashing out from behind them - rushing across the road to an ice cream van. She'd braked, but he'd bounced over her bonnet and roof like a rubber ball. He only bounced once on the concrete behind her though.
In her lowest hours, Kim thought she remembered seeing Joshua's eyes, his blue eyes. Thought they'd somehow stared at each other, somehow connected…before…
All she could remember after that was the flashing light of the ambulance. The paramedics trying to revive him, then covering him with a blanket.
She hadn't been speeding, hadn't been drinking. Christ, she'd only been to the shops to pick up some milk and eggs. If she'd known what the cost would be, she never would've eaten or drank again. And although she was cleared by the police, forgiven by Joshua's parents, Kim couldn't even begin to forgive herself.
The voice returned time and again over the months, without fail. If only you'd seen him sooner, if only you'd reacted more quickly. If only, if only, if only…
It didn't seem right, didn't seem fair that she should be alive today and he wasn't. So she'd decided, finally, to settle the score. It was time to pay her dues. This wasn't a life she was living anyway, it was just an existence - and a tormented existence at that. Soon she would silence the voice forever. And hopefully, God willing, she would find peace.
Kim had waited till there was nobody around, waited till she was alone on the top of the building: a building filled with the killing machines she'd been driving that day. And she climbed up onto the ledge, swinging her legs over the barrier railing. Heights had never really bothered her, which was why she'd chosen this method of release, but they were bothering her right now. The flat, paved space at the back of the lot loomed up at her and she swallowed dryly.
Could she do it? Could she really do it? Yes, yes she had to…It was her duty to atone. But still she wavered on the precipice, her legs failing her. For one split second she thought she might even climb back down again, her courage wavering. Then she saw that look in Joshua's eyes once more, and she let herself fall. Over the edge, plummeting to her death.
The Guilt Demon arrived too late to witness the event. It looked down over the side of the multi-story at the body of Kim, arms and legs at odd angles, a thick puddle seeping out from under her, the dying sun covering her with its own blanket of darkness.
Look at what you did - you pushed her too far. You know that the accident couldn't have been helped. Just one of those things…And now instead of one wasted life there are two. How can you do what you do each day? How?
It almost felt…
No. Stop. That wasn't going to happen.
Pulling away from the edge, the creature departed.
What was done was done - and It had exorcised Its own guilt demons so very long ago.
(C) Paul Kane 2004
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.