My best friends and I do a lot together. They are always there for me, even if I don’t want them to. They’re stubborn and persistent, and I eventually learned that arguing with them would not work, and that I would just have to do what they said for them to quiet down. They suggest for me to do things, because they can’t do it themselves; they don’t have a body, so they have to use mine. So they direct me to perform, and I just listen and do.
I crouch in the shadows cast by the walls of the house. It’s empty except for its one resident, the target of my next act. My friends giggle gleefully, and reassure me once more that what I’m doing is the best for me, and that it is for my own safety and wellbeing. My heart is pounding, and I can hear the woman moving around in the room I’m hiding next to.
She opens the door and slides out, and I slip around a corner, hiding on the other side, holding my breath and waiting for her to return. My friends comment that I’m getting good at being stealthy. I tell them that I owe it all to them. Deep inside me, I don’t feel that this is right. But when I tell this to my friends again, they repeat that it’s perfectly fine to do it.
I hear the front door close. The woman had left the house! What now, I ask. My friends tell me to wait. The woman would not have to walk down this corridor to reach the room when she returns. I would be safe hiding here, and so I sidle down to the ground, and close my eyes. My friends wait silently with me, and I revel in the quietness that has been blessed upon me for once.
I met my best friends when I was six. They just came one day, all at once. I don’t know their names. Not a single one. But that didn’t matter; they talked about other things with me, and eventually I forgot about the importance of names.
They stayed after that day. They were loud and loquacious, and babbled constantly. The world was too mundane for them; I was just a six year old, with nothing to do, as I hadn’t learned to do anything. They were beginning to annoy me, and they insisted on doing something. So we looked around the house for fun. But my family was poor, and I didn’t have anything to play with.
I remember the day clearly. I had turned my head to glance out the window at Abby’s yard, and I had felt jealous that she had so many toys to play with, and I had none at all. My friends felt the same way. There was a blue rubber ball lying on the lawn, forgotten. Abby and her family had been out of town that day. There was a yearning deep inside of me: a yearning to take it, to just borrow it and play with it while she was absent.
Take it, my friends whispered fiercely. She’s got so many toys, she won’t notice.
Mother said stealing was wrong, I replied.
It’s not stealing, they said smoothly. You’re just borrowing it to play with. Go on.
And so they willed me to move my legs, trudge across the moist green grass to pick up the ball.
What am I supposed to do? I asked.
My friends didn’t have a response. So I decided to just put it down. It was wrong.
Pick it up! My friends scolded suddenly, coming to life again. I obliged, startled at the sharpness.
Well, what am I supposed to do with it? I asked again. Play with it?
Silent. So I brought the ball back with me, not wanting to put it down in case my friends yelled again. I tried not to annoy them.
And I played with it, and it was the most fun I’d had in months. It was nothing, just a ball, but to me it was the world. My friends were laughing with me and telling me how worth it it was, and how simple it had been to just take that ball. And I agreed with them.
When my parents asked where I got the ball, I told them I’d picked it off of the street, when it was rolling down from somewhere. The wind blew it, I said. It was the wind. There was no way I could tell them about my friends. I’d finally made some, and I wasn’t about to risk that.
I kept the rubber ball for two more months, and school had started. I went to the same school as Abby. My friends had made a mistake, however: Abby had noticed its absence in her yard, though it took a few days, and my parents told me that she’d cried about a missing ball for days. She had also gone on and on about how it had been her favorite toy. It’s my favorite, too, I wanted to say. My parents were suspicious at me for a while, but my friends and I vehemently denied my ball was definitely not the same one.
I began to feel worse and worse about keeping that ball. It was my only toy, and my only plaything. If I played with it, and kept it, my friends would have play with me instead of prattling nonstop. If I had any intention or want to return it, they would all start protesting at once and try to stop me. So I resisted.
One day at school we were allowed to bring whatever toys we wanted. My friends and I agreed not to bring the ball, because Abby would then know I had it.
But what would it be like if everyone had a toy to play with, and I didn’t? I asked. And I really should return it to Abby.
My friends were astonished that I had even brought this to mind. Don’t do it!
It’s not mine, I argued. But they insisted, too, and I just grew tired of them after a while. So I decided not to bring it. In the morning, I walked to school empty-handed, wishing that I’d taken it with me. My friends were relieved that I was safe. They looked out for me, took care of me, even if they were annoying. They constantly worried that I was in danger, and talked me into behaving erratically to save myself. It’s the thought that counts, I know, but sometimes I don’t know if their suggestions will do me any good. But they talk so much, I just comply in the end.
I could feel my classmates’ eyes on me as they walked in the door with their toys. I remember the burning embarrassment I felt for being poor. I lowered my head, and kept to myself. Abby had brought a doll. She didn’t seem sad about not bringing a ball. But I was.
That day was the first day my friends got mad at me. It wasn’t my fault, really. But I remember seeing my parents hurrying up to the door, my dad with the blue rubber ball tucked under his arm. The teacher lead them over to me, where I’m staring at them in horror and gratitude already.
“You forgot your ball,” my mother said, smiling gently. I received it from my dad silently, and gave Abby a furtive glance. She had her back turned. Wordlessly, I smile and wave my parents away. My friends are yelling for me to make a run for it and get out of Abby’s way. But I sat there, unsure of what to do. Then, Abby turned around, and I stood up.
“I found your ball,” I blurted out. She frowned, walked up, and snatched it snootily.
“Where did you find it?” she asked, her suspicious glare causing me to break down.
“Abby, I’m really sorry,” I cried, caving into my moral conscience. My friends were screaming now, all of them furious at me. It made me even more scared. I wanted to them to stop, and I already regretted my words. But there was really no turning back; my friends, however, didn’t seem to understand that. “I’m sorry,” I said again. “You were gone, and you left it on your lawn. So I picked it up and played with it. I didn’t have any other toys.” Half of me hoped that Abby would take pity on me and let me keep it; but the disdainful look on her face made me doubt that.
Abby was staring at her ball, as if checking to see if I got it contaminated. Deciding that it was in good condition, she glared at me. “Well, you still should’ve asked first,” she replied haughtily, even though we both knew that she would’ve said no regardless. The entire class had been looking at us now: me, trembling, standing in the middle of the room, but feeling as if I’d been backed into a corner; Abby, chin high, looking me down, holding all the power. I wished my friends could’ve shown a little support, but they were churning around, mulling things over, frustrated that I hadn’t listened to them. “Thief!” Abby yelled, and pointed a stubby finger at me. “Thief! Look here! She stole something! She should go to jail!”
The teacher pulled Abby away from me, and then came over to talk. Kneeling down, she looked me in the eye. “Why did you steal that ball?”
The quiet excitement of my classmates had been unnerving. I said in a quiet voice, shattering the silence, with its thick, concentrated, palpable tension, “I don’t know.”
And really, that had been true. It was my friends who had came up with the idea in the first place, and I just did it to make them stop. Part of me had so desperately wanted that ball; but the other part knew that it was wrong. And still, I had done it. Was the two months of keeping the ball worth this moment?
Yes, my friends breathe.
No, I say. No it wasn’t. Now everyone hates me. What am I supposed to do?
What am I supposed to do? I ask again. But my friends refuse to answer; maybe they don’t have one. They always fell silent on that question. They only knew what they wanted. But they didn’t consider the outcome. And neither did I. It was up to me, though, to come up with a response.
Abby sniffed and turned her back on me. The rest of the class followed her example. The teacher continued to look at me, worried.
“Stealing is bad,” she said in a gentle but cautionary voice. I know! I wanted to say. But I’d still done it. I squeezed my eyes shut, not wanting to be admonished. I didn’t do it! It was my friends who made me do it!
You agreed with us, they remind me. It’s you who did it in the end.
You wouldn’t be quiet!
You still could’ve resisted.
I couldn’t. I can’t. Not today, not tomorrow, not that day. I just wanted them to stop. I just wanted some peace and quiet. For that to happen, I knew I had to obey them. We made up eventually. And they looked out for me. From that day on, they were my only friends. I didn’t want to lose them.
Abby and I ended up going to the same junior high school. She still had not gotten over me stealing her ball six years ago. And she still calls me a thief. That’s why I had no friends at school. You could say that my friends caused me to have this reputation. But they seem to have forgotten about it, and I let it go anyway. I try not to think about it, but it follows me around, as well as the regret.
My friends were getting restless again. Now that I was attending junior high I had a bit more privilege, such as staying out later.
Abby had moved out of our poor, dilapidated neighborhood. She lived on the rich side of town now, with all the other affluent families. She must have a thousand rubber balls now. Meanwhile, I still had nothing. Except my friends.
School was difficult. I had a desire not to try hard, probably because I knew I wouldn’t succeed anyway. Even if I tried, my grades were abysmal. My friends could not offer help on academics. Everyone around me had a life of their own: they played a variety of sports, took increasingly hard classes, and joined multiple clubs. I, on the other hand, was still struggling to do homework, trying to block out my friends’ moans and complaints of being bored. They were about adventure and action, but I had less and less time for that.
One day, I discovered that my lunch account was empty. I could not purchase a meal, and so I asked my friends what I was supposed to do on the third day.
Again, they didn’t reply.
I’m hungry, I said. I can’t wait until dinner.
We know, they responded.
So what am I supposed to do?
They weren’t very good guides when it came to making decisions. I had been walking back towards an empty table when Abby got up to use the restroom. Her wallet was stick carelessly out of her back pocket.
My friends got excited then. Take the wallet, they all insisted excitedly, milling around again. Take it! Take it!
I can’t, I said. I’m already in enough trouble with Abby. Plus, that’s her money. Not mine.
She doesn’t care about it.
So? It’s not right.
But you’re hungry, my friends said, using my argument against me. I got up and followed her to the restroom. And, quite fortuitously, she dropped her wallet when she was walking down the antechamber.
Quickly, I hurried over to pick it up as she disappeared into the stalls. The amount of money kept in that wallet, which was so halfheartedly guarded, was overwhelming. My friends urged me to take all of it, but I reasoned with them. I’d only take what I needed. Greed, and jealousy overtook rationality and morality, however, and I swiped an impressive amount away, tucking it carefully into my shirt pocket. Throwing the wallet back onto the ground, hurrying away just as the toilet flushed.
I had a decent lunch that day. I would’ve felt better if the money was my family’s, but the food took away my feelings of contrite. Abby later discovered the missing sums (perhaps I really shouldn’t have stolen so much), and immediately suspected me.
“It was you again, wasn’t it?” she growled, cornering me in the hall one day. Heads turned towards us, and Abby’s gang blocked the escape.
“No,” I replied mindlessly.
“It was you,” she said disbelievingly. “I know it.”
“I haven’t done anything in six years.”
“Whatever. God knows how poor you are, and poor people are always desperate.”
Yes, it’s true. Still, I shake my head. “It’s not me,” I insist. My friends are quiet, listening. “I swear.”
Abby sniffs, and turns her back. “I will expose you for who you are,” she warns. “One day. One day. You’re a loser, and always will be.” Gesturing to her friends, they toss their hair and walk away, leaving me to stand there, unsure, again, of what to do.
Somehow, I made my way to my senior year of high school. Abby and I shared the same school again. She still detested me, as well as everyone else. I kept to myself, said little to nothing, and if I did have something to say, it was testy and defensive. So people learned to ignore me. And I learned to ignore them.
But in high school, everyone expects you to get involved. I never had the time. Everyday, when the school bell rang, I knew I’d have to spend two hours trying to understand what the teachers had lectured about. I’d have to spend another couple of hours to do the homework. No one would want me on their club, or sports team, or in their class. I was partnerless for every project.
I wish my friends could’ve help me. All they wanted to do, though, was play. They were getting more and more agitated. I had not stole something, or done something akin to that, in six years. I was going to graduate soon. I did not want to screw up.
My friends insisted that I take a break and have, for once, a wild time. I refused. Still, they persisted. What am I supposed to do, then? I demanded, knowing the answer.
They just wanted to do something, anything. And I felt myself getting agitated, too. I was tapping my foot constantly, twirling my pencil, darting my eyes. The world of education and schooling was getting too boring for me. But it was my only way out of poverty; unfortunately, my friends didn’t seem to understand that.
Stop it, I told myself and my friends. I need to pull through high school. I’m graduating in two months.
We want to play, my friends replied, ignoring me, swirling around in my head. I put it down, feeling nauseous and confused. Frustrated, I slammed my hand down upon my desk, crumpling my math homework. Putting on my coat, I decided to go for a walk. My friends crowed triumphantly, eager to get drunk on the excitement and energy of the rest of society. The streets were unusually quiet, with the occasional roar of a truck or car. I turn into a rich, pristine-looking neighborhood, and stroll down the crisp white sidewalks. My friends groan at the sudden return of normalcy again, but all I do is admire the houses, and secretly think about which one I’d like to live in, if I ever had the cash.
I was heading up a hill when footsteps rose up from the other side. As I reached the top of the hill, Abby came into view, walking a large, fierce-looking German Shepherd with a spiked collar. She saw me, and her face knitted into a sneer.
“What are you doing here, trash?” She yelled at me. I didn’t answer. The dog was looking at me curiously, and I felt a shiver of trepidation as its glare seemed to bore straight through me, like an invisible arrow. Abby glanced at her dog. “Think we should chase the little thief out of here, Spike? So she doesn’t steal anything?”
I say it before I stop myself. “I didn’t steal anything!”
“Yeah, right,” Abby leers, then reaches for the dog’s neck. I sense what she’s about to do and take off down the hill, and she and her dog disappears from sight. But her voice slices through the air, and blood pounds in my ears as I heard her shout a command: “Spike, go!”
There is a loud bark, and I hear a thunder of paws following me. There is no way I can outrun the dog. But the street is right in front of me, about two feet away, and if the dog has any sense, it won’t follow me across. My friends shout at me to run faster, faster, faster. So I run as hard as I can, and leap off the curb without stopping.
I narrowly evade a semi, and the driver slams on the breaks, and skids past, swearing out the window. There is a huge bumping sound, but I don’t look back until I reach the other side, and I collapse with my hands on my knees, breathless. My friends shout at how exciting it was.
I suddenly hear a scream of horror and fury. I dare myself to look up; Abby had caught up, but her dog was not at her side.
It was lying on the road, dead. The semi must’ve hit it when it tried to stop; black skid marks lead up to the corpse. My heart started pounding again; I had gotten in trouble with Abby again.
It was an accident, my friends remind me gently. And it’s Abby’s fault that she set her dog loose.
I was the one who made her mad at me, I retorted. Now look at the consequences.
Abby’s face was contorted into an emotion unrecognizable; a mixture of grief and anger. Even from across the street, she looked deadly. My friends’ courages melted away along with mine.
Run! We both said in union. And so I did, turning around and sprinting back home without looking back. Abby’s last words to me that day still rang in my head.
Abby and I chose separate paths after graduation. She went to law school; I, on the other hand, got a job as a janitor. After she finished, though, she moved into a neighborhood near mine.
I had not done anything bad in a long time, but it was nothing to be proud of. It was to be expected. My friends, however, were getting restless again. Where’s Abby? They asked.
Why do you care? I retorted. It’s good that she’s gone. We can’t torture each other anymore.
She deserved those things, my friends argued. She’s been so mean to you.
She wouldn’t be if I hadn’t taken that ball, I snapped. And you made me!
I couldn’t stop the thought from forming, but the instant I said it, I wished I could’ve taken it back. My friends became angry and their voices echoed inside my head, forming one big cacophony. The headache I get getting became unbearable, and I remember shaking my head violently, trying desperately to get rid of the thoughts that plagued me.
You followed through with it.
It was you who did all these things. Abby didn’t see us stealing her ball. Or her money. Or killing her dog–
Stop it, I begged. Okay, it was me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. It’s not your fault. It’s mine. I’m guilty. Now, please leave me alone.
Leave you alone? We can’t leave you alone. You don’t want us to leave you alone, and you know that. There are still things to be done.
The “thing” my friends had mentioned six years ago was what I was doing now. I crouched next to the corner of the corridor, clutching the envelope with the wad of cash close to my chest, as if it would run away at any moment.
My breath hitched slightly when I heard the door open again, hours later, and slam shut. Footsteps sounded on the stairs, and I peeked around the corner to see Abby returning to her room again. I knew she was a prominent lawyer with more money than she could handle. It wouldn’t hurt to take her money. Again.
It was I who had suggested it. Deep down, I had a bad feeling about it. But I brushed it away. Last time I’d done it, I hadn’t been badly affected. Just embarrassed, and ostracized, but that phase of my life was over. So what could happen now? My fist tightened around the envelope again, as if it was my lifeline. In a way, it was. I inched closer to the room.
Get on with it, my friends urged.
Okay, I know I’d said that I’d suggested the stealing. But what I am about to do is not my idea. It would never be. My friends pushed me to finish everything once and for all.
No, I had immediately said. No. I can’t. The dog was an accident. No matter how much I dislike her, I can’t kill her.
You’re in danger. You could be caught. What will happen if Abby catches you? You’ll be sent to prison. Or a mental asylum. You’ll lose us.
Yes. We’ve been with you for this long, and this is how you thank us? You’ll be alone on this one. We just want the best for you. Always.
I hesitated. They were my best friends. My only friends. And though I hated some of they things they made– no, suggested— I do, I dreaded to be alone. They were there for me. They’d gotten me through life.
So here I am. I creep closer to her room, and silently place my hand on the door handle, touching as carefully as I would touch a ticking bomb. I slowly take a deep breath, tuck the envelope inside my ragged jacket, and instead produce a knife. Then, I close my eyes for a moment, and push the door open.
It’s been ten years since Abby’s death, but I have nightmares about it all the time. My friends haven’t left me, but my morality has. And the will to live. Because I have done the unthinkable. I have done the worst thing a human can do.
My friends haven’t gotten more quiet. I’ve been slacking off in my life, letting the guilt consume me, and they’ve been taking care of me. They convince me to wake up each morning. Go to work. And occasionally, when there’s a chance, steal. I ask them, what am I supposed to do? They don’t answer that. They just want to have fun. I’ve been their robot my entire life.
I quit my job as a janitor and fled out of state. I receive welfare checks now, but every time the checks come it reminds me of the envelope with the money I took from Abby.
I never used the money. It was a sizable sum, but it felt like a sin to spend it. So I keep it under my mattress. I went through all of that for nothing. It’s even more shameful.
So today, for the first time in a decade, I draw out the envelope, slightly yellowed and wrinkled with age. I take it outside, to what’s more or less my backyard, and I set it carefully on the concrete, piling dirt around it. Then, I retrieve a lighter I use for smoking and set the envelope with the money on fire, watching it turn to ashes that disappear with the spring breeze.
Suddenly, the guilt overwhelms me. I can’t just let this problem disappear. It’s an unforgivable, irreversable mistake. All my life I’ve never sought help. And now, it was too late.
I feel numb as I walk down the sidewalk. The voices in my head get louder and louder, screaming for me to stop as they realize what I’m about to do. I grit my teeth and begin to jog, to run, to my destination. It would all be over soon. Please let it be over. I can’t take it anymore. My whole life was a mess. And I let it be. My friends weren’t really friends at all. They were in it for themselves.
I push the door of the station open, and everyone looks at me in shock. I must look terrible. Like a crazed maniac, which I am. I stumble to the nearest policeman, gripping his arm for support.
“Please,” I say. “Please help me. I’ve committed a murder.”
I’ve just settled into my new room. It feels safe, but I know I’ll never find true security. There’s no escaping the voices inside my head. I’m shaking, shivering, still traumatized. Everything happened so fast. They threw me into a cell just like that.
I need support. No one’s here to comfort me. Except…
What am I supposed to do? I ask the voices.
What am I supposed to do? I try again, feeling desperate and alone.
I sit down on the cot, feeling tears roll down my cheeks. I tuck in my knees, resting my head in between them, staring at the empty, blank wall ahead of me. I’m alone now. What should I have done? What would’ve gotten them to stay? They wanted the best for me. So why didn’t they let me do this? It doesn’t feel better, being here. Locked up. I should’ve talked to the voices more. See what they really wanted. There’s no one else to help. How could I explain that it wasn’t me? Was it me? Were the voices in my head just myself? I didn’t want them to go. They were my only friends. They were with me my entire life. They just wanted what was best for me. They said that. They never said they would stay.
The silence is unnerving.