This story is by Sandra Naiman and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
When the doorbell summoned her from her usual breakfast of dry toast and tea, Theresa assumed it was one of her neighbors come yet again to complain about this, borrow that, or invent some other excuse to invade her privacy and satisfy their curiosity. She was approaching 50-years-old and had orchestrated her life from this house for over 30 years, the last 20 of which she lived isolated and withdrawn, concerned only with self-preservation.
The deteriorating façade gave no hint of its once perfectly manicured lawn and precisely trimmed shrubbery punctuated with purple and red zinnias. The house was crumbing in concert with the woman who held herself captive within it. The families who lived there when Theresa’s life imploded had long since moved away, but the merciless speculation lingered, and the embellished stories were tightly woven into neighborhood lore.
“She’s been very strange since that thing with her stepfather. Not so sure that she was really right before that.”
“She was hospitalized and on suicide watch for a long time. My cousin was a nurse and she said no one ever visited or even phoned to check on her.”
“I hear Theresa has family back east, but they won’t have anything to do with her,”
“I’m sure she drinks. My kids once knocked over her trash and it was full of empty whiskey bottles.”
“I’ve never seen her leave the house or have any company.”
“I’d be afraid to climb those rickety steps. It’s a haven for termites.”
No one ever contemplated or even cared what Theresa’s life might have been like before she got lost in it. Her father died when she was quite young and all her mother’s energy went toward finding her next husband. Theresa’s days were essentially hollow as she was left to her own devices, while different men paraded in and out of the house.
When she was ten-years-old her mother finally remarried, and everything got oh-so-much better. Her new dad took an interest in her. He helped with homework, took her places, and filled the house with all kinds of ways to have fun: a new puppy, a trampoline, pool table.
After her mother died, Theresa prayed to a God she wasn’t sure existed that her “Pop” wouldn’t leave. He didn’t.
She was almost seventeen when she relocated from wherever-it-was with her stepfather and Victor, her 3-year-old half-brother. Once settled in, the family adroitly integrated themselves into their new neighborhood. They attended church, engaged in community activities and participated in a myriad of social occasions. No one had anything but kind words for the newcomers.
“Theresa is really lovely and it’s wonderful to see how much she loves her stepfather and Victor.”
“It’s nice to see a man so devoted to his family.”
“The boy is a spitting image of his father, but you can see a resemblance to Theresa. You can tell they’re related.”
“He doesn’t talk about his wife that died. He never even mentions her name. Must be too painful.”
“Theresa has really stepped up to be the ‘woman of the house’ as he calls her.”
“She volunteers at the church and the pastor told me he doesn’t know what they would do without her.”
“She sometimes dates but doesn’t seem to have any outside interests of her own. She says she’s too busy to think about herself.”
In the summer, the family could be seen planting flowers, trimming shrubs and hosting backyard barbeques. At Christmas, their house was the most lavishly decorated on the block, attracting onlookers from miles around. Theresa delighted in watching from the front window while long lines of cars slowly passed by.
Life was right then, and Theresa felt blessed. Her stepfather, whom she had always adored, truly loved and depended on her. Victor worshipped her and she took pride in guiding him to become a typical, but “always well-mannered” teenager. The days passed easily.
Then Victor stumbled upon the circumstances of his birth. Everything that held her life together was suddenly gone and her world began to dwindle into this dark and cluttered prison that she once called “home.”
In response to the insistent second ring of the doorbell, Theresa shuffled through the empty take-out containers, junk mail and old newspapers to deal with whoever this latest intruder might be. She opened the door to find a man in his late twenties or early thirties. He was glassy eyed and shivering even though it was already 90 degrees. Theresa struggled to shut down the vivid recollections of sights, sounds and smells but she could not escape the fact that it was Victor who was standing before her. She was motionless, mouth hanging open, gaping as though he were an apparition.
It had been so very long ago that he ran from the house angry, crying, screaming obscenities. Slowly the old fear and fury bubbled up in her chest and her knees buckled beneath her. Assaulted by the memory of blood and severed body parts, Theresa felt queasy. She braced herself with one hand as she yanked Victor over the threshold before anyone else might see and somehow connect him with the grisly events of that night.
She thought it was all behind her. Just the act of scrubbing the basement clean after the authorities released the crime scene was a rite of purification, of redemption. Theresa explained to the police how Victor was high on drugs and alcohol when he took an axe to his father, how she hid under the stairs until he left the house, the bloody weapon still in his hands. He disappeared without a trace and had never been seen or heard from since.
Now here he was … living testimony to the newly awakened desires of a 13-year-old girl and the unbridled lust of her lonely stepfather. Grown up, he resembled the man even more, and Theresa felt the shame and fear overrun her.
“Why are you here,” she mumbled, head down. They both knew it wasn’t a question.
Theresa steered him into the living room and cleared debris from the sofa and Victor launched into his story. He told her about living on the street, selling sex for drugs, eating garbage and the many other indignities he’d suffered over the years. Theresa knew he couldn’t stop until he had spewed everything out, and for over an hour she sat and listened in silence. When he was finally depleted, Theresa had nothing to say.
She knew that Victor would forever jeopardize her carefully constructed and protected life of a disturbed, but basically harmless recluse. He had nowhere to go, but he couldn’t stay with her. She could send him away, but he would come back. Eventually someone would unravel the nature of the uncommon bond that once held the family together. Certainly, Victor would have no stake in keeping it a secret and DNA would verify his story.
Theresa excused herself to go into the kitchen to get him some coffee. She opened a drawer, retrieved the gun she had purportedly purchased for “protection,” went back into the living room and used it as originally intended. Before he could register what was happening, Victor lay bleeding out on the living room floor.
Teresa closed her eyes, took several deep breaths and reached for the phone to tell the police about how she had just captured Victor.