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.