“Offender” by Christopher Lowe

Steven’s wife set it in motion. She found the webpage. “Right down the street,” she said. “Two doors down.”

Caitlyn, their daughter, reached for the stuffed puppy Steven held. He was holding it out of her reach, just letting it dangle, and though it hurt him to do so, hurt him to listen to her fuss and squeal, he knew that it needed to be done, knew that what she needed was some motivation to stand. “What’s there to do?”

“Something.” Susan took the puppy from Steven, handed it to the child. “These people don’t leave on their own.” She went back to the computer. “His name’s Warren.”

Steven laid Caitlyn on her back. He held her ankles and bicycled her legs the way Dr. Forester had shown them. Caitlyn didn’t squirm, didn’t seem to mind anything he did to her legs.

“I can’t find anything about the charges,” Susan said.

“Maybe it wasn’t anything major.”

“Aren’t they supposed to come around, introduce themselves so you know they live in your neighborhood?”

Steven stopped rotating Caitlyn’s legs. He let go of the left and pulled on the right, extending it so that it was close to being straight. “I don’t know.”

“He was supposed to.”

Steven pulled out the left, holding it out until Caitlyn started to fuss. He let go. The leg curled back. “I’ll go talk to him, if it’ll make you feel better.”

Before she could argue, he’d handed Caitlyn off and was out the door. The night was turning cool. He’d left his shoes off, and he cut through the lawn of the vacant house that separated their home from Warren’s.

He was nearly to the front walk when he stepped in the poop. It was runny, and the smell of it came to him immediately. He scrapped his foot across the grass and thought of the man inside, the man who had failed to clean up after his dog, who had, as Susan had pointed out, failed to come by and introduce himself.

He could still feel the mess between his toes when he climbed the steps to the porch and rapped on Warren’s door. After a moment, the door opened and Warren stood there. He was more clean-cut than Steven had imagined.

“You need to pick up after your dog.”

“It’s my yard.”

“This neighborhood, we pick up after our dogs.”

“Look,” the man said, “if you don’t want to step in Franklin’s business, don’t walk in my yard.”

Before he could do anything, Warren stepped back and let the door click shut.
Steven walked back down the porch and through the yard. He moved into the yard of the vacant house, and after a moment, he walked over to the realty sign that had been left there, untouched, for nearly a year. He leaned down, grabbed the post close to the ground and pulled. It slid free easily. He moved around the side of his own house, back to the shed, the sign cradled heavy in his arms.

The paint was right where he’d left it. Dark, rich purple, the only color he and Susan could agree on. He’d put primer on the walls, spent all morning doing it. They’d worked together on the painting, using rollers to layer and re-layer. When they were finished, when the walls were dry, they’d hung line drawings that Susan had done, pictures of boys and girls playing, kicking soccer balls, riding bicycles. One frame was larger than the others. It hung just above where Caitlyn’s crib would go. The matte was scrawled over with more of Susan’s drawings, kids running and jumping, tumbling over one another happily. In the center of all this was a photo from Susan’s first ultrasound. Caitlyn, a bean still, huddled in the womb, no arms or legs, just a little oval of gray on a static-filled background. When the room was finished, they sat in the middle of it. He put his hand on Susan’s belly. He kissed her shoulders, and she turned to him, slid her hand into the waistband of his shorts. They both knew that her back would hurt after, but they still made love there on the floor. When she came, Susan called out his name, and Steven remembered now how the words had echoed in the furniture-free room.

Steven used an old brush to scrawl the letters across the realty sign. He spaced them evenly, made them as neat as he could. He carried the sign to Warren’s yard, drove it down into the soft earth using a rubber mallet. It made a loud thudding sound, like a basketball bouncing in an empty gym. He expected Warren to come out at any moment, roused by the noise, but he didn’t.

When he was done, Steven walked out into the street. He’d angled the sign so that drivers could see it as they approached. SEX OFFENDER. He looked down at his hands, spackled with paint.

He closed his eyes, thought of Susan’s line drawings, the picture framed in the center of them. His daughter, still unformed, still unbroken. He thought too of Dr. Forester saying in a calm voice, “These things just happen.”

He imagined the bean growing as it must have, arms and legs shooting out, a head rising from the mass, fingers and toes and ears and all of it. He pictured her getting bigger, stronger, pictured her as one of Susan’s drawings, strong, running hard after a soccer ball, a smile sprouted on her face.

He walked to the edge of the yard. He wanted Warren to come out, for there to be a confrontation. He wanted to go home with a black-eye, wanted Susan to hold ice-packs to his face, but he knew now that Warren wasn’t coming out on his own. It was easier than he wanted to climb the man’s steps, his fists clinched.

Chris LoweChristopher Lowe is the author of Those Like Us: Stories (SFASU Press, 2011). His fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared widely in journals including Third Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, Grist, Barely South Review, Baltimore Review, and War, Literature, and the Arts. He is an assistant fiction editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal. A native of Mississippi, he lives with his wife and daughter in Lake Charles, LA, where he teaches English and Creative Writing at McNeese State University. You can find out more about him at http://www.christopherlowefiction.com/.