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Down to the River to Pray by Laurence Jones

Double Take by J.R. Hayslett

 

Down to the River to Pray

by Laurence Jones

It was most beautiful at dawn on a winter’s day when there was no one else to see it. A secluded clearing on the banks of Snake River, hidden deep inside the forests of the Oregon Trail. Marvin Reid remembered clearly the first time his father had taken him there. He was ten years old, a lonely child, lying belly down on the wooden slats of their porch in Oxbow, a pile of crumpled comic books stacked high by his side.

“Marvin,” shouted his father, “come on.”

Dewey Reid was an aging man with a penchant for drink. The floorboards groaned beneath his footsteps, as he lumbered across them until his mudstained boots came to a halt inches from Marvin’s head. Dewey was often likened to the ashen embers of a bonfire, the flames of which had long since died, but, to Marvin, he was a friend, a father and a hero.

Dewey took the Detective Comics from Marvin’s hands and tossed it on to their front lawn. “We’re going fishing,” he said, his breath ripe with whisky.

Marvin had learned long ago not to question his father. He stood up and did exactly what Dewey asked, even though there wasn’t a bait box or fishing line in sight.

They walked for an hour through the undergrowth without a single word spoken until at last they reached a wall of thick angry brambles. “Follow me,” said Dewey. He waded a path straight through the undergrowth, beating back branches and bushes like they were made from cotton wool.

Marvin followed close behind but, in truth, he had become afraid. It scared him to think where they were going, how his father had discovered such a place. The path seemed to close up behind them as they walked and the embers of daylight were fading bleakly into shadow. He wished they had gone fishing after all.

All that changed as he stepped out in to the clearing. Marvin could scarcely believe his eyes. It felt like he had been beamed on to an alien planet or sucked in to the pages of a Flash Gordon comic. The earth beneath his feet was scorched as if some great fire had taken place, and waves of freakish fluorescent bugs took turns dive bombing against his bare skin. In front of him, rows of giant pine trees lined the river bank like citadels, reaching up toward the sun which fractured through their tops in wide angular shards and partitioned the space in a maze of misty transparent walls.

It was unlike any place he had ever seen.

It felt magical.

For Marvin, the clearing was a place where the true spirit of nature ruled unencumbered. It was a place he loved more than any other. And, as the years passed, he came to know the trees and rocks as friends, carving his initials in to bark and chalking his father’s name against smooth grey stone. No matter that Dewey would eventually pass in body. His spirit would always belong to Snake River.

Now, Marvin found himself upon those banks again.

A decade had passed since his last visit, so many years lost in a haze of listless work, blue pills and alcohol. Now, the sky above him was a sullen grey and an acrid white mist drifted across the surface of the river, rising and falling upon itself like cigarette smoke.

Not for the first time, Marvin felt lost.

He closed his eyes and sank to the ground‘God,’ he said. . “Help me. Please just help me.”

The world felt like it was ending and all because of her.

Marlene.

He picked up a handful of leaves and dirt, felt them cool and rubbery in his palm then glanced over at the tightly packed suitcase on the ground beside him. The battered leather tan had darkened in the morning dew, and its contents bulged tightly beneath it, a bloated membrane incubating the toxic remnants of his past.

Marvin scratched at the side of his head. The sight of the case troubled him more than he cared to think about. He suddenly felt ill at ease. The last few days had tested him more than ever before, made him question the very fabric of his being. Maybe Marlene was right after all. “You’re a boy trying to be a man,” she had told him, her teeth stained with cheap red wine. “And we can’t be together. Not ever.”

Marvin hated her for it. She had caused this mess.

And now the life he had was gone.

The wind picked up suddenly, brought a chill to his bare arms, as the mist on the water shifted in its wake. A voice seemed to murmur beneath the breeze, a seductive call he had heard many times before.

He looked down at the river’s swirling waters.

Join us, the voice said, find salvation in us.

Marvin couldn’t bear it. He touched at the scar across his left wrist, a warning of the siren’s song carved in to his flesh. A familiar anger overcame him, and he kicked at the suitcase, raging and hating at all the world like a spoiled child.

“God damn you, Marlene!” he screamed.

Marvin remembered seeing her for the first time. She had appeared at the call center like a devil, a twenty something whirlwind of dark red hair and thick black eyeliner, a perfume of strawberry chewing gum trailing in her wake. Marlene worked on a different bank of desks but he watched her from afar, mesmerized as she spoke to strangers each day like she’d known them her whole life. She was beautiful, confident and carefree. Marvin was smitten from the start.

And then the recession hit.

The phones stopped ringing, and the desks emptied. Soon, they were a skeleton crew with no guarantee of a future. They kept Marlene of course. She was too good for morale to let go but even she was getting nervous. Then one day, she approached his desk for the first time. He could remember it vividly even now. The wiggle in her walk, her bright red lipstick and skinny indigo jeans. He pulled his gut in so tight he could hardly breathe.

“You want to go get a drink,” she said. “We got to stick together now.”

Marvin’s heart soared that day, much as it did each time he came to the clearing, each occasion he heard the river thundering along its banks. It was the thrill of something greater than himself. He had been waiting his whole life to drink with a woman like Marlene. A woman to make his daddy proud.

And now he had found her.

She trusted him with her drunken secrets, confided in him about the ones who had gone before, and then, when the time was right, he made his move. Even the thought of it now made his blood pump hard, rushing wild and treacherous as Snake River itself; to experience every part of her, know how it felt to caress her face and kiss her neck, to stare deep in to her blue eyes as she trembled beneath him.

But now all that was gone.

He glanced at the suitcase on the sodden earth then looked upward as the day began to break. The sunlight brightened beneath a thick blanket of amorphous clouds and gradually dispersed to reveal a clear blue sky. It reminded him of the first sunrise he ever saw with his father, how a blaze of reds and yellows had spread across the treetops like wildfire. It was perfect.

Maybe God was listening after all.

Marvin dragged the suitcase to the river’s edge, unfastened the straps and opened it up. “Morning,” he said, though Marlene could no longer answer back.

Her lifeless body lay contorted inside the case, vacant eyes turned upwards and mouth locked open as if trying to utter one final word. Marvin took one look at her and smiled. He tipped the body out of the suitcase like he was emptying a wheelbarrow filled with dirt.

Another man might have taken a moment to reflect upon the awfulness of what had passed but Marvin found only joy at the sight of Marlene’s body. The fierce anger, so constant inside of him for all those years, seemed to have dissipated with the morning mist. He realized then, in the clearness of day, that what had been was now gone. The last of them – Marvin and Marlene – had been snuffed out with the light in her eyes.

It was time to move on.

Marvin scoured the side of the river for loose rocks and stones then measured their weight in his hands. Without hesitation, he stuffed them in to Marlene’s jeans, and the tight fabric of her bra, until he could fit no more inside. He took a moment to admire his handiwork, the strange angles and undulations beneath her clothing, as if her body had been shattered in to a thousand tiny pieces. An enormous sense of gratitude swelled within him. The river would make things right again.

It always did.

He picked Marlene up over his shoulder then flipped her down the steep incline into the murky waters below. Snake River swallowed her up with a single splash then dragged her quickly against a mass of rocks downstream. There was barely any sight of her, strands of her hair against the rocks perhaps, but Marvin could not be sure. No matter, he thought, he had made his peace. Now, he felt joyous about the journey ahead, so many other women he might meet along the way. And so he headed back along the Oregon Trail and left behind his secret clearing, a sacred place beside ancient violent waters, where the dark denim of a young girl’s jeans rose briefly to the water’s surface then vanished down below.

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Double Take

By J.R. Hayslett

 

Traffic thinned as Greg and Janet left the city and cleared the suburbs.

“Good traveling weather,” Greg said, surveying the lamb’s wool clouds puffing against the blue sky.

“I just wish our mission were as pleasant,” Janet said, turning sideways in the seat and tucking a strand of her shoulder-length hair behind an ear.

“Just keep in mind that it’s for your dad’s own good,” Greg said.

“I know,” she said with a sigh.

As they drove, Janet thumbed through a magazine and marked recipes to clip when they returned home. Greg turned on the radio and ran his fingers through his wiry brown hair. He resented having to make this 500-mile trip at the peak of the real-estate season, the meat-and-potatoes part of the year, but Janet insisted. And he had to admit that someone needed to save the old man from his folly.

He glanced in the rearview mirror and eased off the gas. Getting a ticket wouldn’t help anything.

“What approach are you going to take with him?” he asked.

Janet laid the magazine in her lap. “I’m not sure, yet.” She stretched and the magazine slipped to the floor. “But I’ve got to somehow make him see that she’s just after his money, that she’s a gold-digger.”

Greg searched the expanse reflected in the rearview mirror, then pressed back down on the accelerator.

“Well, it might be tricky. If you aren’t careful, you could end up chasing him into her trap

all the faster.”

He scowled at the rearview mirror, again. “Hunh. That’s funny.”

“What’s funny?” Janet asked, flicking a look at him.

“A car back there,” Greg said, studying the mirror. “It’s been hanging a little ways behind us for quite a while—not gaining and not dropping back.”

“What’s so odd about that?”

“Nothing, I guess, except that for the last several miles, I’ve been varying my speed, but it’s stayed the same distance back. Like it’s playing some kind of game.”

Janet turned and looked out the back window. “It’s probably nothing. Look. Another car has passed that one and it’s behind us now.”

But that car, a small foreign sports model, gained on them, pulled into the passing lane and sped by.

Greg, glaring at the mirror, gritted his teeth. After a minute, he pushed the gas pedal to the floor. The little red import in front of them blossomed from a tiny dot to full size as they overtook, then passed, it.

Praying no cops were lurking on a shoulder or in the median beyond a knoll of the interstate, Greg kept up this breakneck speed for several miles, watching the mirror more than the road ahead.

“Damn!” he muttered.

Janet looked back and saw the car behind holding its own at the same distance as it had before Greg poured on the gas.

“Hold on!” Greg warned and, swerving suddenly, he cut onto the shoulder and jammed

on the breaks. Their car careened and slued drunkenly.

Janet shrieked and grabbed the edge of the seat and her armrest.

“Are you crazy?” she yelled. “So what if a car is following us! It’s not worth getting killed over. What do we care if it’s back there?”

Greg leaned on the steering wheel and rested his forehead on his arms. “I—I don’t know. I guess I got spooked.” He blew out a long breath. “You’re right. I must be nuts. As soon as it passes, we’ll go.”

But it didn’t. Nothing did. Greg looked out his side window. There, about 500 yards back on the side of the road sat the car. Eerily, it was positioned at the same angle as theirs, with the back end toward the ditch.

“I’m NOT nuts,” Greg said. “THIS is nuts!”

As Janet looked from him to the other car, her mouth fell open. Still staring at the blue sedan with white landau roof, she grabbed her husband’s arm. “Greg! That car is just like ours.”

Greg stared at it, twisted around to Janet, then gaped back out his window. “What’s going on here!” he shouted.

He threw the car into gear and spun out, gravel and dirt spewing in a great gray cloud and Janet gripping the seat with both hands. They rode in silence for several miles, watching the road ahead and the car behind as Greg clenched his jaw and alternated between mashing down on and letting off of the accelerator.

Finally, he spoke. “I feel like we’re in some sort of carnival crazy house with mirrors set up so we can see ourselves coming down the road before we get to where we are.”

As he talked, the dot of something appeared on the road far ahead. Greg sped up and the

dot grew into the shape of a big-rig. Soon, the rig’s rear double doors loomed in front of them. Greg pulled into the passing lane and rode alongside, gauging the truck’s speed. Then he pulled ahead. After he cut back into the right lane, he slowed so their car stayed a couple hundred yards ahead of the semi.

“I feel better with a buffer between us,” he said. “Now I don’t care if that nut’s back there or not.”

With the truck shielding them from the other car, they rode for some time without talking. Janet turned on the radio and twisted the dial until she found an oldies pop station.

After a while, she grew restless. “Do you think we can stop for lunch soon?” she asked. “I’m getting hungry.”

“Good idea,” Greg said, his stomach rumbling at the suggestion. Food, gas and motel signs began to dot the roadside as they neared an exit. “We’ll try one of these places.”

They both breathed out with relief as theirs was the only car that took the off ramp. Greg turned into the side parking lot of a restaurant and they got out. The place was the standard traveler’s fare—half eatery and half stop-and-go snack and cheap, gaudy souvenir shop fronted with a sentinel of gas pumps.

They slid into a booth overlooking the occupied parking spaces in front of the building and soon had bowls of soup and club sandwiches in front of them. But Janet picked at her food.

“Not hungry after all?” Greg asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. I feel so unsettled. Dad’s making such a fool of himself over a woman half his age and Mother in her grave less than six months.” She sipped her iced tea. “I don’t want

to interfere with his happiness, but it’s so obvious that he’s being victimized by a money-grubbing vixen who thinks she’s spotted an easy mark. Poor dear. I know he’s lonely. But he’s so vulnerable, and I just know that as soon as she’s got him hooked, he’s going to be miserable—and most likely broke.”

Janet stared out the window. Suddenly, she sat up straight.

“Greg! Didn’t we park around on the side?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Look!”

Greg followed her pointing finger. A blue sedan with white landau roof was nosed into a parking place in front of the restaurant at the other end of building from the side where they had parked.

“Wait here,” he said as he slid out of the booth. Hurrying toward the cash register and a window beyond it that faced the side of the restaurant where they had parked, he looked out. When he sat back down in the booth, he said, “Our car’s there.”

Janet stared at him, then glanced around. “They’re here, Greg. Whoever is following us is in here.”

A dozen or so people were eating. Several more browsed the shelves of snacks and souvenirs in the shop. It was impossible to know which one the driver of the other car might be.

Greg started to get up. “Let’s get out of here and get a jump on them.”

“No.” Janet put her hand on his arm. “Let’s wait them out. They can’t hang around here all afternoon.”

With refilled iced-tea glasses and half-hearted attempts at small talk, Greg and Janet waited.

By twos and threes, customers who were there when Janet saw the car like theirs parked

in front left until, after nearly an hour, only one other couple remained.

“That must be them,” Janet whispered.

The pair, with their backs toward Janet and Greg, were examining some shot glasses in the gift shop. Finally, they headed for the cash register, paid for their purchases and left.

“They must be parked around the side,” Janet said. “They didn’t come this way toward the car like ours.”

Only new customers and restaurant and shop employees were left. But the blue sedan was still parked out front.

Janet leaned forward and clasped her hands so tight her fingers turned white. “What should we do?”

Greg raked his fingers through his hair. “Let’s go, but we’ll keep an eye out for anyone who might be watching us or who might head toward that car.”

They tried to saunter, but Janet suspected they looked more paranoid than casual. After paying their bill, they went out and rounded the corner of the restaurant. They stopped short and gaped. The space they had parked their car in was empty.

“What the hell!” Greg exclaimed as he ran to the vacant spot. He stared in disbelief then looked around at the few remaining cars in the parking lot. “This is screwy!”

He ran his hand through his hair again, squinting in the bright sunlight in all directions, then at Janet. “I—I guess we should call the police and report it stolen.”

Janet nodded, then stopped. “Wait. What about the car like ours in front?”

“What about it?”

“Well, whoever drove it here might have taken ours by mistake—or not—or for whatever

reason. They might have taken our car instead. Maybe it was that last couple that left the restaurant.”

“How could they?” Greg looked incredulous. “Their key wouldn’t fit.”

“Could they have hotwired it?”

“I don’t know. I guess so, but why would they have done that?”

“Who knows, but I’m going to check.” Janet was already headed for the front of the building.

The other car was still there. Greg caught up with her just as she looked in the window. He looked, too. His jaw dropped.

“What the—?”

A key ring dangled from the ignition.

“Where are your keys, Greg?” Janet asked. “Did you leave them in our car, so maybe whoever this belongs to took ours by mistake?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, digging in his pocket. “I never do that. Besides, ours was parked around on the other side of the restaurant, not even in sight of this car. It’s ludicrous to think they could have gotten them mixed up.”

Greg’s full attention was now on the contents of his pockets. He’d pulled everything out, including a hanky and his wallet from ones in back. Anger and incomprehension scowled his face.

“I didn’t give them to you, did I?”

“No. I’ve got mine,” she said, reaching into her bag and pulling out a large ring with multi-colored yarn knotted on it. “You want to use them?”

“No! I want to find mine. They can’t have just disappeared.” He turned and headed back

to the restaurant. “Wait there. I’m going to check where we were sitting or see if anyone found them and turned them in.”

It took only a half beat for the fear of standing out there alone to send Janet hurrying after him. “Wait!” she said. “I’m going with you.”

The search was futile. Greg even ran his fingers between the seat and backrest of the booth where they sat and scoured the floor around it. No keys had been turned in to the cashier, either.

Back outside, they looked up and down the parking lot.

“What are we going to do?” Janet asked.

Greg hesitated, then stared at the car still sitting in front of the restaurant. “Take that one,” he said.

“What? We can’t do that. It would be stealing.”

“No,” Greg said, striding toward it. “We’re just borrowing it so we can find ours. Come on.”

Glancing around, he grabbed the handle and opened the door. He and Janet looked at each other, then got in. He twisted the ignition key and the engine roared to life. Both of them half expected someone to come charging out of the restaurant to stop them. No one did.

Putting the car in reverse, Greg backed out of the parking space, wheeled around and headed for the highway. Janet swiveled, first one way then the other, still looking for someone

who might be trying to get their attention or stop them.

Then music playing on the radio caught her ear.

“Listen, Greg.” It was an oldie as if the dial was set on the same station they had been listening to.

“Coincidence,” Greg said. “Lots of people listen to that kind of music.”

“I guess so,” Janet said.

As she sat back, her eyes sweeping the landscape ahead for any sign of their car, she noticed something on the floor by her foot.

“Greg,” she said, her voice quavering and her hand shaking as she picked up a magazine. “Look at this.”­ It was just like the one she had been reading before they stopped for lunch. Corners of the pages with recipes she wanted to clip were folded down the way she had done in her magazine.

Greg glanced at it. Once, then twice. “My God, Janet! What the hell is going on?”

“You’re asking me? I don’t know! How could I? It’s spooky, is all I know, like some kind of science-fiction movie.”

“More like a nightmare,” Greg shot back. His hands clutched the steering wheel in a death grip as he pressed harder on the gas pedal. “I wonder if we can catch up to our car. God, I wish we never started this trip.”

Janet cut her eyes at him and twisted the magazine. “Do you, Greg? Do you think we’re doing the wrong thing, that maybe we shouldn’t be going and this is some sort of sign?”

“What? How could that be? That’s just crazy.”

“And this isn’t?”

“I—I don’t know, Janet. I don’t see how the screwy stuff that’s been going on could be connected to our plans. I must say, I thought we were on track, even though the timing is lousy for me. I sure don’t want to see the old man get hurt or throw his dough away on some chick who

just wants to get her hands on it. But you know, it is his money and if marrying that woman will make him happy, isn’t he entitled to that?”

Instead of answering, Janet leaned forward and peered ahead.

“Must have been an accident or something,” she said. “Look at all those cars up there.”

“Yeah. Damn! So how long is this going to delay us?”

They slowed as they neared the backed-up traffic, then crawled for a mile or two before an overturned car in the grassy median came into view. Blue lights atop police cars whirled dizzily and the mournful wail of a departing ambulance hung in the air. The traffic in front of them pulled past the wreckage giving Janet and Greg their first good look at the smashed remains.

“Oh, my God, Greg,” Janet shrieked. “That’s our car!” She didn’t see any other vehicles that might have been involved in the accident.

“I’m stopping,” Greg said, his face ashen. He steered beyond the knot of people and vehicles around the wreck, pulled over to the edge of the pavement and jumped out of the car.

One of the highway patrolmen directing traffic trotted toward him. “Hey, there,” he shouted. “You can’t stop there. Move on!”

Greg ran to the officer. “Who was in that car? Where are they?” he asked.

“Look, bud, we’re taking care of everything. You just get back in your car and keep going. Traffic’s bad enough without people stopping to gawk.”

“But I need to know who was in that car. I think it might have been stolen.”

The policeman’s cold stare bore into him. “What makes you think that? You know them?”

“I—I’m not sure. I might. Were they in that ambulance? What hospital did they go to?”

“Those folks won’t be needing any hospital, mister, not the shape they’re in.”

Greg recoiled as if punched. “They’re dead? Who were they? What happened?”

“Don’t know. Haven’t located any I.D. yet. It was a young couple about your age, I’d say, though it was hard to tell. They’re really messed up.”

The blare of a horn stopped him. “Move on now, or I’ll cite you for blocking traffic.”

Greg looked from the wrecked car to the officer and back again before jogging back to the car where Janet waited. As he approached it he froze. The license plate on it had the same number as the one on their car that was now a smashed mass of metal.

His mind made up, he turned back toward the wreckage. He didn’t get to take one step, though.

He actually felt the explosion before he heard it. The flames that followed engulfed the upside down automobile. Greg stumbled backward, staring. He couldn’t tell if anyone closer to

the inferno was hurt. Somehow, he found the handle of the car with Janet inside. He pulled the door open and got in.

He didn’t speak until he had driven to a spot where he could turn around. Janet was silent, too, as she stared straight ahead.

As they approached the wreck from the opposite direction, the interstate had been closed down. They followed the cars ahead as they were directed to an off ramp and detoured onto surface streets until they were well clear of the wreckage. The detour took them too far from the

interstate to be able to see what might have been left of the car they were sure had been theirs, or the remains of anything else that might have been caught in the explosion, but the air was rank with smoke and the smell of burned rubber.

Janet opened her mouth a couple of times but didn’t say anything. She was full of questions, but couldn’t put any into words.

Finally, Greg spoke.

“I think our mission might have been a mistake,” he said. “Well intentioned, but misguided. Just because we think your dad is using rotten judgment and might get burned, doesn’t mean we should interfere. He’s a big boy. If he chooses to be with that woman, it’s his choice, his destiny.

Janet nodded. “Yes,” she said. “Fate.”

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