Guilt Complex

by Hayli McClain

Guilt was invisible, until an underfunded research team discovered a liquid compound that could turn it red. In rats, it was their tails: scarlet to the tip, fascinating all those who never realized an animal could feel so complicated an emotion.

“Maybe it’s a fluke,” they said.

But in human trials, they proved the catalyst, and the results of Compound 85-A were just as plain across the palms of their subjects’ hands. Red as blood, wrist to fingers. Almost invariably.

The government swooped in.

They bought the discovery and wove a tapestry of utopia. Living, as they did, in an age of dishonesty and increasingly volatile threats both domestic and international, the research team could surely imagine what good Compound 85-A might accomplish. Transparency. Honesty. Schemes and lies stomped out at the first flicker of kindling. No one burned. A straightforward world.

The team could only nod, dumbstruck, as they handed their discovery over to the future. Compound 85-A was introduced slowly to the public water supplies. Six days later, the effects began to show, and two days after that—amid national panic—a spokeswoman went public to explain. She assured everyone that rigorous safety tests had been completed. But she said it with her hands buried in her pockets, so nobody believed her.

“This will usher us forward into a wonderful new era,” the spokeswoman said. Nobody was sure about that, either.

People flooded to church with red hands, desperate to escape the public embarrassment of guilt. When they pulled their palms apart from prayer, the crimson had gone, and they rejoiced on their way out the door. Others, meanwhile, came to church unblemished, only to feel their hands blush during the sermon.

Struggling to find a pattern in guilt, police made more false arrests than ever. Many finally lost their faith in the system. They turned in their badges, shaking their heads in shame while their riot-gloved colleagues held staunchly to the saying, caught red-handed.

Controversy littered social media when a teacher lost his job over a student’s claim that every time he looked at her, his hands turned red. He insisted that the law existed to punish action, not thought. The court wondered at what constitutionally upright point thought became threat became action became crime.

Politicians diverted their bribe money into water bottling companies, and stocks for brands that sourced away from Compound 85-A skyrocketed. Blue collar workers were fired for showing up with a guilty conscience. Marriages broke under the strain of presumed affairs, love now defined by shame or the lack thereof. Mayhem shook dreams of a better society. What finally broke it was a man walking into a daycare center and open-firing on parents and children. Eleven people died; eight of them were under the age of five.

At the vigil, parents whose children lived glanced at those in mourning and felt a rush of sick relief that rusted their hands around their candles. It lingered even as they tucked their kids into bed. When their kids asked what it meant, they could only say, “It means I love you very much.”

Parents whose children died wore gloves to hide the unbearable rot of scarlet across their palms. It shouted that if they’d only been faster or gotten there sooner or done something differently, they wouldn’t be burying their babies.

The nation watched the shooter plead guilty at his trial. They watched as his hands never changed a shade.

Hayli McClain would gladly walk off into the woods and live forever with the fey, if there weren’t too many good friends holding her back. So she reluctantly sticks to her reality-bound routine of writing stories, drinking too much tea, and thinking about that time she accidentally bit Neil Gaiman at a signing. 
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