The Substitute Excerpt 


Though I am not afflicted by it, I won­der about guilt. When I was a child, I would crouch on the cement floor of our base­ment, build­ing elab­o­rate con­trap­tions, and think­ing which piece of this sys­tem is cul­pa­ble? Some­times a slen­der knife would fly for­ward and mar the wall­pa­per, or a nee­dle would lift and destroy a bal­loon. Once I even built a sys­tem where the sharp­ened legs of scis­sors closed on pho­tographs of my father. Straight through his skinny neck. As the grainy image of his face drifted left, and his suited body drifted right, I ques­tioned what part of my machine was respon­si­ble for that destruc­tion. The sys­tems were not more than a mess of inan­i­mate objects: cro­quet balls, yard­sticks, greasy springs, plas­tic bowls, and bent spoons. If each one fol­lowed the sim­ple rules of cause and effect, could the steel bear­ing be accused if it never came in con­tact with the fly­ing paint? Would the rub­ber band be guilty when it had no choice but to stretch and snap? I imag­ined the lia­bil­ity lay some­where within them all. Guilt trapped inside the weighty poten­tial of the machine. Never in the tip of my fin­ger. Never in the bend of my wrist. Never cupped in the palm of my hand.



I started this hobby for But­ton. Not only was she my lit­tle sis­ter, she belonged to me, and I took full respon­si­bil­ity for own­er­ship. I had thought the con­trap­tions would engage her cre­ativ­ity and help develop her mind. When­ever I was build­ing, she was hov­er­ing nearby. A happy con­stant. I admit I did not mind the atten­tion. As each machine was near­ing com­ple­tion, she would whim­per, wait­ing to ignite the chain of events. Gen­er­ally, I allowed her this priv­i­lege, and while she was cer­tainly amused by the whirr of move­ment, that was not my pri­mary goal. I thought it was impor­tant for her to rec­og­nize her con­tri­bu­tions, her abil­i­ties. For her to under­stand that she, too, had the capac­ity to set things in motion.

But I was wrong. Drop­ping a stone in a bucket or rolling a ball down a tun­nel made no dif­fer­ence to the out­come — of the sys­tem I had con­structed, or my sister’s life. I acknowl­edge, though, that watch­ing her die cer­tainly had an impact on mine. I learned an inte­gral les­son. Never again would I hide my face, and hes­i­tate. Or allow things to spi­ral out of my control.

When a cur­rent sit­u­a­tion took a par­tic­u­lar turn, my first thought was of my fail­ure with But­ton. This time would be dif­fer­ent. I was deter­mined to han­dle the issue quickly and effi­ciently. Though a blade or flat rock would have elim­i­nated the prob­lem, I decided to hon­our my sister’s mem­ory and build a contraption.

Day after day, I worked on a plan, but noth­ing suited me. My annoy­ance grew, and I found it increas­ingly dif­fi­cult to tem­per my rage. And then, cap­tured within the bonus ques­tion of a sim­ple class­room sci­ence quiz, I found my inspi­ra­tion. I sketched my scenes on white paper with red ink, and kept them hid­den in a clever place.

As I orga­nized every­thing, I could prac­ti­cally feel But­ton vibrat­ing in the air around me, excited about this new game. I knew she would be with me. Of course she was. I knew she would under­stand I was doing what needed to be done. That this time, I was not going to stum­ble. A friend once said to me, “the only point to a mis­take is if you don’t repeat it.” I heard him, and I also listened.

Prepa­ra­tions in the back­yard were sim­ple. My design was uncom­pli­cated, and I saw no point in try­ing to be inven­tive. I com­pleted every­thing within a two-hour win­dow. First I shim­mied up a tree, and with my back against the trunk, I man­aged to screw two large pul­leys deep into the flesh of the thick­est branch. A lit­tle fur­ther out, a hefty O-ring. Back on the ground, I glanced up at the hard­ware. Nearly invis­i­ble among the dying leaves and autumn shad­ows, the items I had bor­rowed from the class­room cup­board were in a neat row.

Next I worked a thin rope. It was cold and stiff, but I formed it into a c-shape, then looped it into an s-shape, and pinched the mid­dle. Eight twists around, a lit­tle poke here, a tight­en­ing tug there, and the length of dirty yel­low was trans­formed into some­thing beau­ti­ful and pre­cise. I sighed, moved my hand in and out of the teardrop-shaped open­ing, and then I secured it to the metal ring on another pul­ley. In the bushes, I hid the third pul­ley and an addi­tional coil of rope. Sat­is­fied, I walked home to my empty house, lay in bed, lis­tened for heavy rain­fall wash­ing away any traces left behind.

A few days later, I returned to the back­yard and waited. I had no wor­ries about being seen; the dark­ness was thick. I gath­ered my hid­den sup­plies and climbed the tree. Slip­ping slightly on the way up, I bit the inside of my cheek. Blood pooled around my teeth, but I could not spit. I had to swal­low and swal­low, and though it made me feel sick, it did not slow me down. With some stretch­ing, I threaded the rope through the pul­leys (one fixed, one not), then tied one end to the o-ring. Secured the other end with a slip­knot around my stom­ach. I gripped the snare in my hands, and mar­veled at my hand­i­work. How I loved these sim­ple machines.

In that moment, I real­ized I was also a mov­ing part, an ele­ment in my own pro­duc­tion. I imag­ined But­ton join­ing the line, perched behind me, her pudgy hands on my shoul­ders, ready to push. We would share this expe­ri­ence, but nei­ther of us would accept a shred of guilt. I would not allow it, as we did not deserve it. In her per­fect voice, But­ton would squeal, “Thwee-ah, two-ah, one-ah, go!” straight into my ear.

But­ton. My sis­ter was the rea­son I was there. Every­thing changed when she was born, when she adhered her­self to me. That bond came with intense respon­si­bil­ity, and when it actu­ally mat­tered, I fal­tered. In the months since she died, I have blamed oth­ers, but I know But­ton is rot­ting away in a white box, deep under­ground, because of me. Acknowl­edge­ment is dif­fi­cult, but it dri­ves me for­ward. Makes me move when oth­ers stiffen.

So I wait. I watch the mouth of the path, rope gripped in my fist, and lis­ten for the sound of unsus­pi­cious foot­steps. And to engage myself, I think of my lit­tle sis­ter. The story that we shared.