Guilt is a bird in my ribs.

If there’s a memory that I can feel the taste and smell of everything, it’s the day I did the splits and ended up in the emergency room. Not because of the splits but because of the lone piece of wood that popped up unabashedly from the floor to defend itself from me.

Into my leg it went, a pain so clean and succinct, I made myself pretend I had imagined it, the heart in my chest knowing otherwise.

I didn’t tell anyone about it until my mother came to pick me up, and only then I whispered it to her like I had been a victim of a very cruel game.

My crime was being alive and not knowing where my voice went.

Years later, I tell a friend about this event, and I laugh because children are silly, and she stares because who suffers pain due to the guilt of feeling that pain in first place?

I do.

The whole time you’re a young Catholic girl, guilt licks you like a kitten. It’s not all a horrible thing to have a pet, especially one that’s gentle. But it follows you around, and you just assume, as young children do, that everyone else is just the same.

That everyone has something small and breathing that nestles against their necks when they have the audacity to do or say something just left of what’s right.

There’s a friend I have who I truly wish wasn’t. I play with her when my other friends can’t see. Her name is Marcie, and she’s the opposite of cool. I am, too, with my big flutter bangs and coke bottle glasses, but I’m best friends with the most popular girl in our class so you really can’t mess with me.

Plus, my mom’s a teacher, and I can make her give you detention. At least I’m pretty sure I can.

I go to Marcie’s house, which is cluttered and smells like dust. There’s a fine coat of it everywhere, and some dances mid-air in the light streaming through the windows and glass sliding door. We pretend to be veterinarians, her sizable congregation of stuffed animals our patients, and I like typing on the blank-screened computer as I check our patients in.

It’s the most fun I’ve had in a very long time, and when Monday comes, I ignore Marcie completely.

My guilt is a bird in my ribs I shut up with excuses.

Marcie sings in church and her voice is the loudest in the building. She stands in front of me so I can watch her thick, waist-length hair sway like a pendulum. The girls in my row stare and giggle, and my face stares and giggles, too, but my insides wonder what it would be like to do what I really want to do. To sing at the top of my lungs to God, eyes shut to the cruelty of unrelenting hearts.

Marcie dies when we’re sixteen, but it’s been years since I’ve seen her. I moved and live in New England while she stayed and lived life in Arkansas. I imagine myself her best friend if things would have remained the same. I can see myself sitting next to her in class and having sleepovers, talking about boys. The best of friends we’d become, time and a backbone changing my outlook.

But time is vicious and they ran plumb out of backbones, so I never did tell her how much I wanted to sing next to her.

And I suppose her leukemia wouldn’t have acknowledged me as a formidable adversary anyhow.

My guilt grew and had to be fed, and it’s exhausting when it barks at me late at night. It will be a constant rendering, this existence of quiet prayer in the dark to something I don’t even understand and swallowing down that chirping bird until all I can feel is a slight flutter.

Until I can finally go to sleep.

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