The Thirteenth Step, by Sam Stephens

It had been fifteen years since she’d laid eyes on her home town. Fifteen years since she’d fled.
But now Reese Townsend stood at the lookout beside the winding road that led down the mountain to her old home. From up here the town looked the same as the memories from her teenage years.
Sunny Lakes. As the name suggested, the town was often blanketed in sunshine. But for Reese, a dark shadow filled the valley and touched the residents within. As she continued to stare, the memories she’d kept hidden for so long replayed in her mind; an encore presentation that brought a chill to her spine. She wrapped her arms around herself, shivered, and headed back to her still idling car. If she didn’t finish the journey now, then it would never been truly over.
As she followed the empty, winding road down the mountainside she caught glimpses of the township. The lake was actually a bulge in a river that cut its way through the steep rock faces that surrounded the town. Subjectively speaking, it was quite beautiful. But its popularity never took off, and even summer time brought only a trickle of tourists. Truth be told, most residents of Sunny Lakes preferred it that way. When a small town grew, it had to relinquish its secrets. And not all small town secrets were quaint or romantic. Reese’s sure as hell weren’t.
The road flattened and straightened as she entered the valley. Sunny Lakes was close now. She could feel its darkness like a physical weight pressing down on her.
She stopped on the side of the road and buried her face in her hands. She didn’t cry. She’d spent those tears long ago. Instead she just breathed slowly through clasped fingers and considered her plan.
She’d spent a lot of time in Alcoholics Anonymous over the past few years. It had helped, but not in the way her sponsors had thought. It wasn’t the alcohol that gripped her; it was the memory of that night so long ago.
“The rape,” she whispered.
She jumped at the sound of her own voice. It sounded foreign in the quietness of her car.
Alcohol was just a coping mechanism. While there were a lot of support groups for rape victims, she couldn’t bring herself to join. At least in AA she didn’t have to reveal her true secret to anyone, but the concepts were related.
Even the twelve step program helped, in its own way. In fact it was the reason she was here.
“Step one,” she recited to the empty car. “Admit we’re powerless over—“
rape
“—alcohol.”
She was fifteen. The guilt had lain heavily on her, but her AA friends had it right. She had been powerless.
“But not anymore,” she told herself.
But as she pulled the car back onto the road and headed into the town limits of Sunny Lakes, old doubts rekindled.
The town was emptier than she remembered. As she drove down the main street she glanced at shops she used to frequent, but were now faded and boarded up.
She pulled into a car park. There were plenty spare, and in fact she could only see three or four other vehicles along the whole strip.
As she climbed out of the car, she stretched her tense muscles. Across the road and up a block was the police station. It seemed like the logical place to start. She thought the walk would allow her to arrange her thoughts, but all too soon she found herself looking at the glass doors to the police station.
In her mind she turned and fled back to her car, and with a squeal of burning rubber put as much distance between herself and Sunny Lakes as possible. But she’d already done that once. She wouldn’t do it again.
Couldn’t do it again.
Instead she watched as her hand reached out and pushed the door open.
The foyer was empty. Still time to run.
No. Never again.
She reached out and tapped the bell on the front counter. It made a pleasant ding, and a few seconds later an officer poked his head out of the door.
“Well I’ll be damned!” the sheriff said.
Yes, you probably will be, Reese thought.
“It’s little Reese Townsend!” he said, beaming. But there was also something else behind his eyes.
Not fear, but a wariness.
“No so little anymore, Sheriff,” Reese said.
As he walked towards her, he looked her up and down, lingering over her legs and breasts.
“Well that’s a truth if I’ve ever heard one,” he said. “All grown up I see.”
Reese shuddered.
“So what brings you back to town?” he asked.
“I want to report a rape,” she said.
The sheriff stopped in his tracks. The smile was gone. Anger replaced it.
He ran his hands through thinning hair. He opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, and instead nodded towards his office.
She followed him, and he closed the door behind her. Instantly she felt trapped, but she fought the fear.
Step Two of the AA handbook: Come to believe a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Was justice a power greater than ourselves? Reese liked to think so.
She sat in the chair facing the desk, and the sheriff dropped his considerable bulk into his own well worn chair. At least thirty kilos overweight, hair gray and thinning. The years had not been kind to the sheriff.
Reese sat there silently, watching him squirm as he decided how best to handle the intrusion.
“The alleged incident was fifteen years ago,” he finally said.
“Seems like yesterday to me,” Reese said.
“The charges were dropped. We investigated the good doctor.”
“That’s not why I’m here.”
The sheriff’s face had been miserable, but now it showed only confusion. And maybe a glimmer of hope.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“Doctor Melvin was investigated,” Reese said. “But you weren’t.”
The sheriff’s jaw fell slack.
“You covered up a crime for a rich and powerful man, Sheriff. Now it’s your turn to answer for your crimes.”
He saw something in her eyes and his hand dropped to his gun but he didn’t pull it free. Not yet.
“You’re insane,” he said. “Doctor Melvin was innocent. I did nothing wrong. Now you quit with the threats young lady or I will protect myself.”
“You’d shoot an unarmed woman,” Reese said. It wasn’t a question. They both knew he would.
The sheriff seemed to process the idea. Weigh up his options.
“It’d be self defence. No one would question me. Poor little crazy girl, Reese Townsend. Comes back to town, snaps, and attacks an officer of the law. I’d have no choice but to use my weapon.”
“I was fifteen,” Reese said, a tear silently running down her cheek. “You’re supposed to protect the innocent, not the guilty.”
When she moved it was almost in a blur. The sheriff tried to reef his gun free but he was too slow. Reese buried her bunched fist into his flabby neck. He gasped, his hands clawing at his shirt, tearing the neck open, as he tried to suck in a breath. But his crushed larynx let only a small wheeze of blood and air into his lungs. His face purpled, his eyes bulged.
Step Six of the AA handbook: Be ready to have God remove defects of character.
Reese was under no illusions. She certainly wasn’t God. But she also didn’t mind lending a hand.
Now there was one last defective character that needed removing before she left town.
As she left, she lit a curtain with a box of matches she’d carried just for this purpose. She didn’t need an accelerant. Cheap curtains, wood partitions, and flammable carpet straight from the 1970’s were all she needed. The fire ate greedily away at the building.
As Reese walked back to her car, the first tendrils of smoke rose into the air.
She passed an old man she didn’t recognise.
“Smells like something burning,” he said to her.
“Someone’s burning off some garbage,” she said.
He nodded.
“Probably,” he agreed, and continued on his way.
As Reese drove away, a police car followed. Its lights were dark, its siren silent.

***

Dr Melvin was her psychiatrist when she was fifteen. There was nothing seriously wrong, but her parents had suffered an agonizing divorce and in the aftermath Reese suddenly found herself spending a lot of time alone. It wasn’t that she was withdrawn or harbouring any kind of guilt, she was just sick of the yelling. Sometimes adults could be such children.
But her mother worried, and so Reese found herself in the office of Dr Melvin. And that’s where it all began.
She shook the memory from her head. This wasn’t the time to reminisce.
The doctor lived in a large house overlooking the lake. Reese parked her car near the end of the long drive, and started the hike towards the house. Sticking to the tree line, she made her way closer to the source of the pain that had plagued her for so long.
The trees gave way to a grassy expanse, beyond which the lake sparkled. Dr Melvin sat in a heavily cushioned deck chair on his small, private wharf. Reese approached him as quietly as she could.
As she approached, fear gripped her heart with icy fingers. She shuddered but refused to give in to old fears. After all, that’s what this journey was all about: Freeing herself from her past.
Step Eight: Make a list of people we harmed and make amends to them all.
Though she was the one harmed, she was still willing to make amends by squeezing the life out of her rapist and the man that set him free. Sometimes Yin and Yang needed a manual reset.
She walked around Dr Melvin, hungry for the shock as he recognised a ghost from his past. But his chin rested on his chest, and he nodded slightly as it rose and fell as he slept. So much for a grand entrance, though this could work in her favour.
She could have brought a gun and simply put a bullet in each man’s head, but where was the justice in that? It wasn’t about the killing; it was about righting past wrongs. Coming armed as an assassin just didn’t seem right. She looked at her hands, the lines in her palms, and the strength in her fingers. Fifteen years ago they were weak. Not anymore.
She looked around the wharf as she considered her next move. There was an esky next to the doctor. There were no fishing rods, so it probably wasn’t for bait. More likely it contained beer. A nice relaxing afternoon on the lake was apparently just what the doctor ordered.
Several buoys were strung to posts with the aim of giving a maritime feel. Like everything else in the doctor’s life, it was all about show, not function.
Reese unstrung a buoy and freed up a decent length of rope. It would do nicely.
She approached Dr Melvin as he continued to sleep. He too had aged harshly. He was an older version of the man who raped her all those years ago, but he still bore the same rotted heart and misfiring mind. Some things only rot further with age.
She crept behind him and slipped the coil of rope over his neck.
He woke with a snort, and was a full second before he realised there was another presence on the wharf.
“Hi Doc,” Reese said.
As Melvin tried to twist in his seat she looped the rope around his neck again and again, tighter and tighter. The skin beneath the rope was white, the face above it an angry red that darkened further with each second. Reese tied off the rope and strolled around to face him.
His eyes were full of panic, but they widened slightly at the sight of her.
“I see you recognise me,” Reese said. “Good. A girl likes to be remembered.”
The rope was tight, but not tight enough to ensure a quick exit from this world. It would be a slow journey into darkness for Dr Melvin, esteemed psychiatrist and chronic kiddy-fiddler.
“Rope too tight to talk?” Reese asked. “Never mind, I’ll do the talking.”
His fingers tore uselessly at the rope around his neck. He had gotten fat in his old age, and his bulk kept him from leaping out of the reclining deck chair. Even without a rope choking the life out of him it looked like he’d have a hard time standing up.
“I remember the therapy sessions,” Reese said. “I remember the hypnosis. And I remember the soreness in my groin after each session. One time I even bled. I had to use a wad of tissues because it was too sore for a tampon. What kind of monster does that to a child? What kind of sick freak?”
She shook her head.
“I was too weak to do anything then, but that’s okay. I was a child. But guess what, Doc? I grew up. I grew strong. And now I’m the angel of fucking death. Burn in hell.”
A slow clapping intruded on the moment, the sound alien to her ears. Reese looked up and saw the police officer approach.
“Terry?” she asked, a little dazed.
“Reese,” Deputy Terry Miner said. “Nice speech.”
Nothing about this seemed right. The sarcastic clap. The slow saunter. The fact that he hadn’t pulled his gun and told her to get on the ground or so help him God, he’d put a bullet in her brain.
She raised her hands because it seemed like the thing to do.
“It’s not what it looks like,” she said, totally unprepared for any way to finish that sentence.
“Really?” Terry asked. “Because it looks like you turned up to town, killed my boss, and are now in the process of killing Dr Melvin. And all for a misguided campaign of revenge because Melvin here gave you a little diddle when you were younger.”
Reese was stunned.
“You knew?”
Terry shrugged.
“In his defence, you were pretty hot. I wouldn’t have minded having a go myself.”
He suddenly started to laugh.
“I just realised, you had no idea I was involved.”
“You knew all along?” Reese asked.
“Yeah, and I could have just kept my hands clean. I was waiting for you to clean up the mess and then I’d shoot you dead, and return to town a hero. And as the new sheriff.”
He shook his head like it was all just a silly game.
“You had nothing on me. Pretty funny, huh?”
“I can’t believe you covered it up,” Reese said. Tears had started to flow down her cheek at the newly discovered betrayal. “I almost told you about it before I left town, but never got the guts.”
Terry chuckled again.
“Probably for the best. You would have put me in quite an awkward situation. But enough talk.” He pulled the gun from his holster. “Time to end this for good. Reese Townsend, you’re under arrest for the murder of the sheriff and the doc.”
She stood there, glued to the spot, her mouth hanging open.
“No, no, don’t resist,” he said sarcastically. “Or I’ll be forced to shoot.”
He chuckled again, and lifted his weapon to take aim.
Reese dropped to the deck. She had no weapon. It was a long shot, but she flung open the esky, relieved to see several bottles poking from a bed of ice. She grabbed the closest and flung it at Terry.
He flinched and squeezed the trigger, but the shot went wild. And then she was upon him, punching him again and again. The gun dropped from his hand. He was groggy from the beating, blood running freely from his nose and lip.
Reese stood, kicked the gun away, and picked up the end of the rope that had now apparently squeezed the life out of the doc. His face was purple and he was no longer struggling. She felt a small twinge of disappointment that she’s missed the exact moment of his death.
Using the other end of the rope, she tied it around Terry’s neck.
He was still too groggy to put up much of a fight.
“All those years ago,” she said, “I was alone. I felt like I was drowning. You know what that feels like Terry?”
“Please,” he croaked.
She ignored it and dragged him closer to the edge of the wharf.
“You’re about to find out what it’s like,” she said. “Say hi to the devil for me.” And she pushed him into the water.
Dr Melvin was a little tougher, but Reese managed to collapse the chair and roll him to the edge.
Terry struggled in the lake, his hands grabbing for the wharf.
Reese pushed Melvin’s body into the water. To her surprise, his eyes flicked open and he kicked once, twice. Then he was still as the air bubbled from his lungs and he sunk to the bottom.
Terry coughed water, and then his were silenced as the weight of the doc pulled him under.
Reese watched for a full minute after they disappeared beneath the surface of the lake.
She stood, brushed her hands on her pants. It was over.
She picked up the doc’s deck chair and let her weary body collapse into the cushions. She grabbed a beer from the esky. It wasn’t in the AA Twelve Step program, but she shrugged. Maybe it was step thirteen.
She took a long, glorious drink, and then watched the sunlight sparkle off the lake.

***

More on Sam Stephens and his fiction can be found at www.samstephens.com.

***

The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

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4 Responses to The Thirteenth Step, by Sam Stephens

  1. Ralph says:

    That’s it!
    I’m NEVER going to AA with you again.

  2. Pingback: March Short Story Comp – Shortlist | The Australian Literature Review

  3. Pingback: March Short Story Competition Winners | The Australian Literature Review

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