The Sin Jar by Elizabeth Guilt

My aunt kept a sin jar by the door. It was thick, brown glass, taller than a child, and everyone who visited dropped in their misdeeds.

Every year, on April 1st, the jar would be empty again.

As kids we were always told not to touch it. We didn’t understand what it was, or why it made my aunt’s home such a wonderful place to be. People rarely looked at the jar properly—they tossed things in as casually as you would into a wastepaper basket—but someone who walked up the stairs with the cares of the world on their shoulders would be smiling and stepping lightly by the time they reached Aunt Julia’s parlor.

“Sweep the hall, dear,” my aunt would instruct and I’d grab the broom, always eager to help her. “Don’t forget to do under the doormat. And mind the sin jar.” I swept around it, thinking of other things. Like how lovely it was to sit in her parlor, where people were laughing and always so happy.

I was nearly seventeen when I left Sara Heatherley sobbing in the little copse. She wouldn’t let me comfort her, and she wouldn’t stop crying. In the end, I just walked away. It had been obvious she wanted me to kiss her, even though she said no, and the feel of her bare skin under my fingers had been too good to let go.

As I headed home, an unpleasant, gnawing feeling grew in my stomach. The sound of her no echoed in my ears, ringing now with real pain and fear instead of the coy, playful tone I’d heard at the time.

Had I hurt her? The memory of her eyes, staring hatred, drove into me. Could I go back, apologize? Would she listen?

Why should she?

What had I done?

I walked faster, trying to escape my thoughts.

I don’t remember deciding to head home via Aunt Julia’s. My feet took me there and, as I let myself in, I rolled up all the messy, complicated feelings that twisted inside me and dropped them into the sin jar. They settled stickily among the other contents.

I realized then that I was making a big deal out of nothing, and laughed at myself for getting into such a state. It was just a little misunderstanding, surely Sara would see that. I stayed at Aunt Julia’s for a drink, and a long chat, and when I walked home a little before midnight, I passed Sara in the High Street. Her face still looked blotchy, and her eyes red, but I smiled and waved to her.

She ignored me. She wouldn’t see me the following day, either, and after a couple of weeks, I gave up. There wasn’t much I could do if she wouldn’t even speak to me.

I had, however, become fascinated with the big brown jar.

In a rare moment when there were no visitors in Aunt Julia’s flat, I asked her if anyone else had a sin jar.

“Not that I know of, dear,” she said. “Never seen one anywhere else, nor heard tell of one.”

“Where did it come from?”

“Your Uncle Jack brought it back from his travels.” Her eyes twinkled as she smiled fondly. “He thought it would make a good umbrella stand.”

“How does it work?”

“I don’t know, dear. It just does.”

And that seemed to be the end of it. Everyone knew what it was, and no one appeared in the least curious about it.

By everyone, of course, I meant Aunt Julia’s family and friends; I wondered what the rest of the world did with their sins. In just our city alone, there must have been thousands of people who didn’t know Aunt Julia.

I talked to her about it whenever I got the chance. Where in the world had Uncle Jack been traveling? Why had he picked up that particular jar? How did people know they could drop things into it?

She shook her head at every single question: she had no idea. It baffled me that she didn’t seem to care.

“But don’t you want to understand it?” I demanded.

“Not particularly, dear. I prefer not to think about it.”

“How do you empty it?”

“I don’t,” she shrugged. I loved my aunt, and for a while, I’d found her complacency endearing.

“Then what happens?”

She didn’t know that, either. She had never sat up on March 31st—as I had on Christmas Eve—to find an answer.

“And you’re not to do it, either,” she snapped, apparently reading my thoughts.

“But…”

“But nothing. Does Santa Claus still visit?”

“No, but…”

“There you are then,” she sat back in her chair, content.

“It’s not the same! Father Christmas was never real, and dad was never going to keep stuffing stockings as I got older. This is different.”

“That’s enough. I won’t have you messing about with it.”

Her tone was firm, so I let her think the matter closed.

I went to Aunt Julia’s on the last day of March, when the sin jar was almost full. I automatically dropped everything I could into it as I passed; the guest beside me flicked her fingers casually and a pretty cascade of adulteries fell into the gaps between her husband’s affairs.

When the others left, I hung around, helping to clear away. Aunt Julia took the last of the coffee cups firmly from my hands.

“Go home.” She was a dear, but her dismissal—as if I were still a child—needled me.

“I will do, I’m just…”

“Go home. Now.”

I left.

I gave her an hour or so, then, having seen that all the lights were out, let myself back in and settled down in the hallway to wait. I huddled in my coat; with the radiators off for the night, it was surprisingly cold.

In the dark, I could make out the hands of the clock: just before one.

Two.

Three.

The sin jar was as full as it had ever been.

Four.

I woke with a start, freezing cold and with biting cramp. Rubbing my calf and trying not to cry out, I was relieved to see that the jar was still full. I had always assumed that whoever—or whatever—emptied the jar would come in the darkest part of the night. Whereas now, it was… I leapt up in horror. It was almost seven in the morning.

I lunged for the door, hobbling down the stairs and trying to ignore the horrible feeling sinking through my chest.

It was April 1st. It was daylight. My aunt would be up and about any moment—she would see that the sin jar had not been emptied. And she would surely guess what I had done.

I moved as fast as I could. I stamped feeling back into my legs, and managed to shin painfully up the trellis beside our house and in through my bedroom window. I threw off my clothes and huddled into bed, listening to my mother clattering about in the kitchen.

It would be fine. By the time Aunt Julia got up, the jar would be empty. I’d panicked, but it would be fine. I told that to myself, over and over again, as I shook under the blankets.

I didn’t believe it.

I think I already knew that I’d broken the sin jar.

Half an hour later I headed downstairs, pantomiming sleepiness, ate my breakfast and headed out to work. If my family noticed anything wrong, no one mentioned it.

In the evening, I walked a longer route than usual home. It was a nice evening, a walk would do me good… Really, I was scared to go home. My mother was sure to have called in on Aunt Julia for a cup of tea, and would know if the jar had not been emptied as expected. I dreaded what was waiting for me.

Fried fish, it turned out, when I eventually slunk in through the door. A normal family supper. No one said anything about the sin jar. I pushed my fish around my plate, and went to bed early.

I lasted two days before I went to my aunt’s. Knowing that I might have ruined things was wearing me so thin; facing her had to be better than the constant worry. Even then, I found myself slowing as I approached her street. Everything must be okay. I would have heard if it wasn’t. It must be fine—the jar had been emptied. I would just go home again. If I believed it enough, it would be true.

Wouldn’t it?

Aunt Julia was standing on the porch as I arrived, waving farewell to someone in a fancy suit. Everything looked exactly as it should be, the man beamed cheerfully as he turned to walk up the street. Relief ran sweatily across my chest as I followed my aunt indoors.

I scrunched up the churning fear from the past two days, and dropped it into the jar.

The jar was full. Sins mounded up over the fat, round lip and mine slid to the tiled floor and broke apart like dandelion clocks in high winds. My vision shattered as all the strands straggled raggedly back up through my body, choking in their intensity.

“You did this,” they whispered. “This is your fault.”

I sat in Aunt Julia’s parlor with her other guests, tears in my eyes, and my hands shaking enough to rattle my cup in its saucer. When the last couple rose to leave, I followed them out, suddenly desperate not to be alone with my aunt. She must have seen my stare at the overstuffed jar, because she suddenly smiled at me.

“I’m sure it’ll empty out any day now.”

When I went back a week later, Aunt Julia was sitting in her parlor alone. Although that wasn’t unheard of, the house had a cold, lonely atmosphere. She assured me everything was fine, her smile only a tiny bit brittle.

“It will be empty soon. There’s no reason it wouldn’t.”

The knowledge of what I’d done burned inside me. All week it had dragged me down, stopped me from sleeping, and cast shadows over everything. Seeing Aunt Julia’s desperate hope turned the knives in my stomach. I wondered for a moment if I was going to be sick, and hurried from the room.

I’d tried to find out, during the week, where other people—people who didn’t know Aunt Julia—left their sins. What did they do, when the knowledge of things they had done became too much?

However carefully I put my questions, people looked at me strangely. Unbelievably, they had no answer: it seemed they simply tried to live through the pain.

No wonder Aunt Julia had always been so popular. Everyone who had felt as I did now—knowing they had irreparably broken something or someone—had had a place to turn. In the bathroom mirror, my aunt’s smile hung before my eyes.

How did all those other people carry on like this?

I lunged down the hall, plunging my hands into the jar’s cold, slippery layers. I raked out handfuls to clear space, and threw in everything I had done.

Calm welled through me instantly. And then all the sins on the floor began to break apart and, one after another, crawl into me. The pain and despair wrenched me down until my knees hit the tiles, and I clawed at my body, desperate to put the things back into the jar. But they were in me, deep inside me, and feasting on my guts. They ripped and rended, chewing away my substance, and I had nothing to stuff into the ragged holes but more sins from the jar.

At first, I tried to pick the little sins—the venal, the inconsequential—but the holes gaped hungrily. Soon I was grabbing fistful after fistful, trying to plug the wounds to keep the bulging sins from bursting me open entirely.

When the jar was almost empty, I heaved it over, plunging my arm up to the shoulder to scrape out the last morsels. I scrabbled for the tiny white lies and uncomfortably sharp words, trying to wrap them around my disintegrating self. Slick against the glass base was the knowledge of how the sin jar worked. Then there was nothing left, and I cowered on the floor.

I was nothing but a heaving, swelling mass. The glistening filth of the sins pressed on me, a heaviness that almost—almost—smothered the pain. They weighed me down, my limbs leaden, sinking me out of the world I knew and into a grim, gray half-space. I could hear their uneasy groaning, and knew that in time the ravening would begin again. But for now, glutted, they dragged me into a festering sleep.

As I sank, I heard the distant clatter of the jar on the tiles, and Aunt Julia’s voice.

“Oh, lovely. I knew someone would empty it sooner or later.”


Elizabeth Guilt lives in London, UK, where history lurks alongside plate glass office buildings and stories spring out of the street names. Her fiction has appeared most recently in Cosmic Horror Monthly, Luna Station Quarterly and The Colored Lens. You can find her at her website, or on Twitter.