Getting Roger inside my house had been the easy part.
The ethereal sweetness of a freshly baked lemon poppy seed coffee cake wafting through my kitchen window was all it took. Like every morning after his wife would leave for work, he’d station himself on his adobe-red deck to scratch parts of his body awake. Then he’d smoke a cigarette until the bespectacled girl arrived. Today, there will be no girl. Today, I’ll do for her what no one did for me.
Once inside, I’d offered tea, though I suspected the ink on Roger’s arms meant he was a beer man. Bottom lip between my teeth, I watched and waited as he sipped.
“What kind of tea is this?” He smacked his lips and frowned from something his tongue couldn’t place.
“Chai. It’s probably the pepper you taste.” Or the bitter bite of ground-up anxiety pills I need to contemplate the daily nine-foot walk to my mailbox.
Yes, getting him here had been easy. What nearly did me in was dragging him down into my basement and duct taping him to a wooden dining chair. It was a heavy antique thing that needed only an array of spikes to complete the gothic effect. Good thing I’d already dug the six-by-four-foot hole at his feet and covered everything with thick construction plastic.
Behind those transparent curtains hangs a large portrait of my family in happier times, back before a monster stole my innocence and ability to leave this house without drugs or a vice squeezing my lungs.
Roger’s coming-to is taking too long, so I pinch his nostrils closed until air explodes from his mouth. He swears at me and struggles against his bindings, but the heavy chair and the silver tape don’t budge. The point of a butcher knife aimed at the lump between his legs stops that. With my free hand, I retrieve a palm-sized square of folded paper from the pocket of my bathrobe. It pops open with a flick of my wrist, revealing abbreviated lines of information and a depressing photograph of him.
He blanches. The Adam’s apple bobs in his throat. “Where’d you—?” I raise the knife to just beneath his chin. His eyes cross, honing in on the blade. Then he looks up at me. “It’s not what you think.”
“You need a better line.”
“No, you don’t understand—”
“Why haven’t you checked in with your new address?” The paper crackles with each stab of my knife. “You’re supposed to check in.”
“We just moved here!”
I strike a vacant piece of chair with my knife, jolting my glasses to the end of my nose. “You’re supposed to check in!”
“I know! It’s just…” His head bows. He squeezes his eyes to shut out what I can only imagine are shadows of what he’s done. “I shouldn’t even be on that list.”
I fake a cry and speak as if he were a child with a boo-boo on his knee. “Did the rape fairies put you there?”
“I didn’t rape anybody!”
I smack the internet printout against his forehead. “This says you did.” About all he can do is turn away his scrunched up face.
“Stop that!” He looks past me. “Is that your family in that picture back there? Do they know what a psycho you are?”
I return the blade to his crotch and slowly twist it into his flesh until red accentuates the weave pattern of his white shorts. The pain in his voice when he screams sends a chill of pleasure through me.
“I mean, look,” he says. “I’ll—I’ll register tomorrow, okay? I’ll do it right now if you want.”
“What I want,” I say through my teeth, “is for once, people like you get what they deserve.”
He whimpers and sniffs. “Not people like me. You got this wrong. I’m not like that. Ask my wife!”
I take a deep breath and begin a slow orbit around the chair. Arms tucked behind my back, I tap the edge of the knife against my backside. “You’re a sick man, Roger. An open wound that shouldn’t be allowed to fester on this earth any longer. Just because your wife turns a blind eye to your, uh, hobbies, doesn’t mean the rest of us have to.” I raise the knife across my chest, ready for a backhand slice. “I promise you, this will hurt.”
“I failed a test!” he shouts. My swing pauses in midair at the sudden rush of words. “I-I flunked a state reading test in the 3rd grade so they held me back. A-and my birthday was already late so I was almost twenty by the time I was a senior, and she was just a freshman, and it didn’t occur to me that she was too young because we were both in high school, and her dad didn’t know how old I was, but we were in love, and we…” He stomps his feet in protest as if tamping out a fire. “I didn’t rape anybody! Ask her!”
“My wife! Ask her. She’ll tell you the same story, honest. Please, just ask her.”
“Your victim married you?”
“She wasn’t my victim. Not then. But now…” His head and voice lower until I barely hear him say, “Now I can’t even support her. Nobody cares about the truth. All they see is what’s printed on that paper of yours.”
I take in his sweaty, tear-stained face. I remember pleading with my attacker, begging him to let me go. He didn’t. And while he’s somewhere enjoying the last fifteen unpunished years, I’m trapped here, reliving that torture whenever I close my eyes. Or whenever I see that young girl follow Roger into the same house where my soul died. I don’t care about his back story. I need this knot out of my chest. I need to know that somebody will pay for making me this frightened, pathetic thing I’ve become. If I can’t get blood from one animal, I’ll get it from another.
“That doesn’t explain that girl coming to your house,” I say.
“Don’t play stupid!” I snap. “She’s there every morning, right after your wife leaves.”
“What girl? There’s no girl!”
“The one with the glasses and the long ponytail, wearing the same dress every time. What, polka dots turn you on or something?”
He leans to the side and frowns as if displeased or confused. “A blue and white polka dot dress?”
“Now it’s coming back to you?”
“The girl, she’s about fourteen with braces on her teeth?” He gives his head a quick tilt in my direction. “Behind you. Like her?”
I turn and, through the construction tarp, emerges the girl I’d seen over the last two weeks coming—but never leaving—Roger’s house. She’s there in the portrait, standing between my parents, with a smile as bright as her future, clad in the same dress, braces and hairstyle Roger and I had just described. That same dress I’d burned when nothing else got the blood out.
“Something terrible happened to you once, didn’t it?” he asks.
The whole time, the knife has been suspended high in the air. Now it feels like a brick weighing down my arm. I lower it and blood rushes to my tingling fingertips. “You don’t get to talk to me!”
“The girl you see coming to my house, that’s you, isn’t it?”
I squeeze my eyes shut, thinking it would mute his voice as well. “Shut up!”
“Whatever happened to you has nothing to do with me.”
“It has everything to do with you!” I scream. My body shakes. I’m losing control. “People like you who think they can just get away with ruining someone else’s life.”
“I didn’t ruin anyone’s life. I made a mistake, but my in-laws forgave me.”
“The justice system didn’t,” I remind him. I remember my knife, remember my whole purpose for bringing him down here. The nightmares, the fear—it was all supposed to end today; it’s going to end today. I could hardly contain my excitement this week, so ready was I to make Roger and the pain all go away. To finally become…normal.
It can’t end like this. I raise the blade to his chin again.
“Killing me won’t fix you,” Roger says quietly. “Trust me, I know. Let me help you. No one has to know about you, me. About any of this. It’s just us here.”
And it won’t be until Roger is gone and the hole in my basement is filled with the reminders of today and all the days before, that I can stand outside, feel the waning sun on my face, and for the first time, breathe cobwebs from my lungs.