Following the Ghost

Flash
Fran Laniado


Photo Credit: Estitxu Carton/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

I feel him in odd moments. He doesn’t haunt our house, or the place where he died, he haunts me. Just like he promised. Sometimes its a feeling, soft as a memory. Sometimes it’s more like he’s a truck that’s just hit me in my tracks.

I saw him for the first time at a hot dog stand, on my way to work. I never ate at those hot dog stands, for sanitary reasons. I just don’t trust them. But they were Dan’s guilty pleasure. He said that the risk made them taste even better. Which made me roll my eyes.

But the hot dogs didn’t kill him. A stupid fall down the stairs did that. For a long time I was angry for that. That he’d allow himself to be killed by such a stupid accident. Likely tripping over his own two feet. All I heard was the crash. I stop remembering then. Because I can’t allow myself to remember seeing him crumpled at the bottom of the stairwell. So I was quite surprised to see him at the hot dog stand six weeks later.

He wasn’t transparent, or translucent. There wasn’t cold air around him. His neck wasn’t tilted at that angle… He wore a green button-down shirt and blue jeans. My first thought was to wonder where he got the shirt; I didn’t recognize it. Then I remembered what happened. I walked toward him slowly as if he would disappear if I moved too fast. He stayed where he was, and then, as if sensing me, he turned around and gave me a smile and a small wave. When I was almost close enough to reach out and touch him, a bicycle went by, coming between us. By the time the bike was gone, so was he.

I’ve seen him since then. In the elevator at work (the door closed before I could get on). For some reason, I once saw him riding on the back of a garbage truck. I chased the truck for several blocks until I was forced to stop or be hit by a car. I sometimes wonder what will happen if I catch him. Will he pop, like a balloon, when I touch him? Or, will he take my hand, and take me with him, wherever he goes now, when he isn’t visiting me?

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Fran Laniado usually writes longer work, however she likes to write flash fiction as a way to clear her mind and her writing. A way to remind her what she needs on the page and what she doesn’t. She has had fiction published in Synchronized Chaos and New Works Review. She lives in New York and has a secret identity as a school teacher. Email: fl827[at]hotmail.com

The View

Flash
Sabrina Hicks


Photo Credit: Jon Wiley/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The fancy restaurant had been Robert’s idea, a way to make amends for his hectic work schedule and long hours—not a far cry from what my mother had to endure with my own workaholic father. While Mom painted desert landscapes, Dad tore them down, making real estate deals for more strip malls. Much like my flexible hours being a local photojournalist were a huge contrast to Robert’s days and nights spent at his law office.

“I requested a table by the window,” Robert said to the host, who was checking off our names on the reservations list.

“Certainly,” he said, gathering menus before leading us to the back of the restaurant where expansive windows took in the vistas and red rock landscape.

He pulled out my chair next to the window, and I sat, thanking him as Robert took his phone from his pocket.

“Just a client I need to get back to,” he said, texting.

As the shadows began to descend down the mountains, bathing in a blood orange sunset, I thought how much my mother would have loved this view; how her eyes used to hold the colors of the desert as she painted, interpreting the mood of the mountains; how her work grew darker as she grew older, until she finally left my father and moved to California to live alone in a bungalow near the ocean. She would have loved the view as much as I did, and suddenly I felt sorry I had ever been angry at her for her choices.

“Get anything you like,” Robert said, setting his phone on the table between us, just as it lit up again. “The trout is excellent.”

I perused the menu, but stopped to see the sun slipping below the mountains, staining them purple. The saguaros in the distance, standing like kings crowned in a halo of sunlit yellow thorns, begged to be noticed. Robert’s thumbs typed a furious response, and I watched his brow knit in disgust, leaning further away from the table, reflected in the large window before us.

“I need to use the restroom,” I said, hesitating a moment for his acknowledgement, but his mind was elsewhere. I reached for my purse and slipped away, pausing at the ladies’ room and back at the table to see his head still bent forward, fingers moving across his phone, and the sun dissolving into a thin pink line, pooling along the jagged peaks in a final gash of day.

I rolled down the windows as I drove away, inhaling the orange blossoms at dusk, watching the last of the shadows slip off the foothills, deciding it was a fine time to text him I wouldn’t be returning.

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Sabrina Hicks lives in the Southwest. Her work has appeared in Writer’s Digest, Gyroscope Review, Spelk Fiction, The Drabble and Panoply. Email: desertdwelleraz3[at]gmail.com.

Four Poems

Poetry
Judith Taylor


Photo Credit: Amy/Flickr (CC-by)

Hindsight

Funny how old illusions stay.
I want to write: when the long black car
came for me, curtains flickered
all over the building

and where I used to live
it would have been true.
They knew me better, there
than I knew myself, so they believed

but here in the city
it’s a different story. People go to the city
not to be known, or not
to be asked for.

Eyes don’t meet.
When even the most unlikely
awful thing draws up at your door
you know your neighbours will

turn up their distraction
so as not to hear how your footstep on the stair
is taking you out to meet
whatever it is that’s waiting.

And it finds you
as you chose to be, as you came here
in the hope you’d be. Unremarkable.  And
alone.

 

Underway

Dark water now. Water you find
when you descend to the foundations
a torch in hand, a handkerchief at your mouth.

It has been waiting all this time.
It knows about cemeteries

and timber piles in the banks of missing rivers
under the avenues.

It is water the fish would die of
water the rats go out of their way
never to cross. Not cold, precisely:

but where it touches you
you’ll never be warm again.

Its scent will cling to you,
evaporate with your footprints

and anyone coming close to you will know
you’ve been a cellar-swimmer, skin-to-skin
with shadows.

But what to do
when you find yourself surrounded?
Nothing but

step down
and into a boat as tremulous as an aspen leaf
hoping whatever steers it

is a breath of air that has strayed in
from the bright world

and not some ancient current
deep beneath it, taking you down-
stream

on a heading you find
you can’t change

so gently
into the dark.

 

The Gift

Somebody gave me
two trees, as an emblem of endurance
or permanence, or the like
without a warning.

I was living
in an unfashionable district of the city, then
at a small hotel
best described as spartan:

they were good about the trees though
which arrived while I was out.

They had a narrow strip of garden
off to the side. When I got back
they had already planted the holly
and were digging a hole for the sycamore

which lay full-length on the pavement
its roots carefully packed, its leaves
grey and brittle, traumatised
by the long way it had travelled.

I stroked its bark and wondered
if it was going to survive.
And since they had everything under control there
I went inside, to telephone the giver.

I was going to say
the gift had fairly summed him up:

more trouble than he was worth.
That the hotel and I were pretending
the garden was a temporary measure
but we both knew

I wouldn’t add a couple of trees to my baggage when I checked out.
Which day seemed suddenly nearer now.

He wasn’t there
and I didn’t leave a message. I took a long breath
and went to talk to the concierge
and organise some water.

 

Here I Go

the sun’s late
and the sky is still
indigo but I’m
not staying for fanfares
or a sunrise

I’m stepping out in the cool
morning
knowledge of where
these boots are walking

stepping out
in the dark of a night that lingers
as I do not linger

one bird
in a bush to give me
warning notes as I pass
but I’m singing bye
bye birdie

care and woe
and everything
in the blue bag
with the polka-dots on the lining

and an early train
my destination

there will be light above us
when we reach the river
full sun
when we find the sea beside us
for the journey

voyager
now
it’s time

for stepping out
with your low
shoes and your settled mind
a whole day
out there is
where you’re going

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Judith Taylor lives in Aberdeen, Scotland, where she works in IT. Her poetry has been published widely in magazines, and in two pamphlet collections: Earthlight (Koo Press, 2006) and Local Colour (Calder Wood Press, 2010). Her first full-length collection, Not in Nightingale Country, will be published in Autumn 2017 by Red Squirrel Press. Email: j.taylor.09[at]btinternet.com

Two Poems

Poetry
Spencer Smith


Photo Credit: Daniel Damaschin/Flickr (CC-by)

Afterimage

That which has gone before
slowly seeps through,
new bleed from an old wound

or faint pentimento of some
framed landscape, with
artificial borders to hold in

water and wind, or less:
merely rumor of a memory
of a dream, but somehow

still present, taking up space
or the illusion of space, or
more precisely, the space

vacated by something else,
untitled as a poem or
royalty on the outer branches

of the family tree, withered fruit
with only vague recollection
of any existence at all.

 

How You Feel

I know exactly how you feel:
like an anthill trampled by stampeding hooves,
or a pinecone exploding in forest flames.

You feel like tender shoots masticated
in the maws of grazers, or the lonely blades
ignored as restless cattle feed all around.

You feel suffocated in dark trenches
of foreign seas; you gasp for air
on airless moons of distant worlds.

You feel the hunger of month-long fasts,
the thirst of desert exhaustion,
the accumulated weight of sleepless midnights.

You feel the bright sharp pain of days
and the dull aching pain of months
and the tired quiet pain of years.

You feel as if poets of no consequence
who do not know your name
are always trying to tell you how you feel.

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Spencer Smith is a University of Utah graduate and works in the corporate world to pay the bills that poetry doesn’t pay (i.e., all of them). His work has appeared in over forty literary journals, including Main Street Rag, Potomac Review, Plainsongs, RHINO, and Roanoke Review. Email: paiute6[at]comcast.net

Dog and Man

Poetry
David Sermersheim


Photo Credit: Devin Smith/Flickr (CC-by)

the man thinks
he is leading the dog
but the dog knows
the opposite is true

where the dog goes
the man follows
when the dog tarries
the man waits patiently

collecting warm souvenirs
the dog left
in its wake

a subtle reminder
of the man’s
function and presence

the dog has mastered
all of the tricks
of the trade

entangling himself around impediments
probing crack crevice and undergrowth
for evidence of those
who came before him

pausing at random moments
to leave his trace
off the beaten path

straining at the leash
like a kite
catching a whiff of air

hoping to pull free
bound off and away
leaving the man
holding the dangling leash

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David Sermersheim taught at The Hotchkiss School (Ct.) for 33 years; has had poems published in the Aurorean, Ancient paths, Sacred Journeys, Cloudbank, Iodine Review, Everyday Poems, Writing Raw, Poetry Pacific, Poetry Superhighway, Bitchin’ Kitsch, Blue Collar Review, Miller’s Pond, Blueline, Oddville Press, Third Wednesday, Wild Goose Review and other journals and quarterlies. He was a MacDowell Fellow and has a book, Meditations, listed on Amazon. He lives in Westbrook, Connecticut. Email: dsermersheim[at]snet.net

Reading the Bones

Poetry
Marchell Dyon


Photo Credit: Chocorayto/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

She said open your hands
When you did
Her black hands held your dark palms

She began to trace the lines
Every stitch of DNA in your hands
She tells you to flexed your fingers

She tells you,
To hold your fingers straight like a ruler
You watch as she reads the bones

She tells you more than a gypsy’s fortune can
That these are not lines in your hands
It’s your life tree

Branches connecting you to your history
The lives lived before your time
This is your life tree

She said branching out into your existence
Through this life and into the stars of the next
These are your life lines

Roads bending and cross with few dead ends
She considers your hand like a pool of water
A watery veil of knowledge raining down from heaven

“Look!” she assures you, “your lines are long
Your gray hairs will be many
Before your soul spirits away from this world.”

You look to your hands, your eyes all glassy
dancing with wonder, dreaming out loud,
envisioning for one long moment that maybe she is right.

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Marchell Dyon is a disabled poet. She believes her disability has inspired her creative spark. Her poetry has been published in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Full of Crow Poetry Magazine, and Rainbow Rose Ezine, Blue Lake Review, A Little Poetry, Medusa’s Kitchen, The Stray Branch, Strange Horizons, Mused Bella Online, Convergence Literary Journal, Silver Blade Magazine and Torrid Literature Journal. She is from Chicago, IL. Email: marchelldyon[at]yahoo.com

 

Celebration

Poetry
Deborah Bacharach


Photo Credit: Lauren Treece/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

If you are celebrating silence, I will bring you snow.
If you are celebrating happiness, I will drive
you to the beach in a red taxi and give you a green
daiquiri and a yellow umbrella. I will sing
morning drum songs for you.
If you are celebrating your first period, I will wrap
fear in a blanket and caress it slowly.
I will whistle long and low just for you.

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Deborah Bacharach is the author of After I Stop Lying (Cherry Grove Publications, 2015). Her work has appeared in 2River, Arts & Letters, Calyx, and Blue Mesa Review among others. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. Find out more about her at DeborahBacharach.com. Email: debbybacharach[at]me.com

Sure Things and Last Chances by Lou Gaglia

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Bill Lockwood


Sure Things & Last Chances by Lou Gaglia

Lou Gaglia has done it again in his second collection of short stories, Sure Things and Last Chances (Spring to Mountain Press, 2016). His first collection, Poor Advice, received the 2015 New Apple Literary Award for Short Story Fiction and the 2016 New York Book Festival Award for Fiction.That sets a pretty high bar for his second collection, and I don’t know if it is up for any awards. But, if I had any say, he’d get one for sure.

The first collection of his stories was reviewed in TC’s Candle-Ends Reviews in 2016 following the journal’s publishing of his story “Flat Iron” in Toasted Cheese’s  March 2012 edition. “Flat Iron” is about a kid who has just returned to school following spending the summer helping his father care for horses at a New York race track where the kid falls in love. The story is one of the twenty-three stories in Gaglia’s second collection, Sure Things and Last Chances. Most of them have also appeared in various literary publications.

In a collection sometimes the stories are all related, and sometimes they are not. In Sure Things and Last Chances, the kinds of characters and what they face in life seem very much a unifying factor even though the stories themselves are not necessarily related to each other. Also notable are Gaglia’s characters that continue to be quirky, such as the mail room supervisor in “Penance” who is obsessed by killing ants at home. They are well-depicted by good writing, like the guy in “Private Eye” who says preposition when he means proposition and refers to two security guards as the “one with a mustache and the other without.” And they often find themselves in imaginative situations and storylines, such as the guy whose encounter with a pool hustler inspires him to find a Christmas gift that is unexpectedly well received by his father in “Winging It.”

There are some constants. Lou Gaglia’s stories are all set in the greater New York City area going on rare occasion to Upstate New York. And his characters are all the “little guys” of the world, not the rich and famous and certainly not the best and brightest. They are most likely the less successful, almost all are somehow losers who are often focused on insignificant details that overwhelm their lives. Even his most uplifting stories seem to have lost souls trying to find their way. And, in a broader sense, they are all the everyday man trying to find his place in an overwhelming world. The last line in his story “Private Eye” is a good clue as to how many of his characters see the world: “It is not safe in this world at all, even if your life is just nothing.”

Gaglia’s stories are brief little scenes pulled out of the various characters’ lives. That’s what short stories are—not long narratives that tell where they came from, but rather the actions that show development and where the characters are going. In these brief glimpses, Gaglia draws us briefly into the characters’ worlds really well. He crafts his New York with a great sense of place, and he leaves you rooting for these lost little people of the urban world.

One or two of the stories stood out to me, as they were a bit out of his mold. “Burned Widow” is very different from the others. First it is told from a woman’s point of view, the wife, whose husband is the quirky, loser character. In fact, he is not real. He is made of straw. This one is a fantasy, science fiction, or perhaps just a metaphor. The guy joins the Fire Department and is burned up on the first fire call he goes out on. The other story is called “Fifteen Submissions to The Gibberish Review.” Here, Gaglia quotes a few lines from the published works of famous authors from Tolstoy to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Then he provides a humorous editor’s rejection for each one. It is very imaginative and should be well appreciated for anyone who has ever submitted anything for publication.

The final story, “About Beauty,” is about a guy who takes his daughter on a nightly walk through Chinatown in New York City and thinks about how much he loves it all in light of a job offer that would necessitate a move to upstate New York. It is very nostalgic, and one wonders, if here, Lou Gaglia is really talking about himself since he moved from New York City to upstate New York. Gaglia’s collection is definitely a good read.

*

Lou Gaglia is the author of Poor Advice (2015) and Sure Things & Last Chances (2016). His short stories have appeared in Eclectica, Columbia Journal, Loch Raven Review, Menda City Review, Toasted Cheese, and elsewhere. He lives and teaches in upstate New York and is a long-time teacher and T’ai Chi Ch’uan practitioner.

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Bill Lockwood is a retired social services worker for Maryland and Vermont. He was an avid community theater participant in the early 1990s where he wrote reviews and feature articles for a Baltimore Theater Newsletter and later the Bellows Falls Town Crier of Vermont. He was awarded the 2006 Greater Falls Regional Chamber of Commerce Person of the Year in recognition of his work as Chairman of the Bellow Falls Opera House Restoration Committee. Lockwood has four published short stories. His first novel, Buried Gold, was published in 2016. A second novel, Megan of the Mists, will be released April 5, 2017. He lives in New Hampshire.

Jesus and Magdalene by João Cerqueira

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Jesus and Madgalene by João Cerqueira

Jesus and Magdalene (Line by Lion Publications, 2016). The ambitious title intrigued me enough to give it a go. I wasn’t disappointed. João Cerqueira’s novel has elements of humor, theology, ecology, and ethics. It’s timing, perfect. So much so that I did wonder whether Cerqueira is picking a fight or just poking fun at contemporary society. The story of Jesus and Magdalene is biblical, common knowledge for many. However, Cerqueira gives their narrative a fantasy-twist as he reincarnates this ancient couple in an alternate, present day earth and through their eyes, holds a mirror up to the modern world.

What would Jesus say? What would Jesus do? Cerqueira’s prologue contemplates this idea and spins it wickedly. “[H]e won’t have to be born from a virgin … in a world where paternity tests are commonplace.” “[T]he three kings wouldn’t come, laden with gifts, … [they] would be detained on suspicion of terrorism.” “Fasting for forty days and forty nights wouldn’t be repeated either … given how easy it is to call for a pizza.” What’s more, “he wouldn’t consider that looking is a form of adultery,” “Nor would he take a stance on … the Catholic Church[.]” Instead, he might be condemned because “if [Jesus] had married Magdalene nobody would be obliged to be celibate and none of this would have happened.”

I laughed out loud as I read the first eight pages, but please don’t tell my grandmother.

Cerqueira’s writing is witty with sarcasm and humor. Lots of humor. It is a black comedy of sorts that pokes fun at religion and science, but also has ethical undertones of a cautionary tale. The story opens with an environmental group, Green are the Fields, whose keystone members are none other than the twelve apostles. They are leaderless, but at the helm are Judas and Mary Magdalene who don’t always see eye to eye, but more or less tolerate each other, as frenemies often do when working together. I found it remarkable that Judas was made a heroic character who along with Mary Magdalene and the rest of the Greenies fight for Mother Earth.

The Greens, as they are also referred to in the story, are not an ordinary environmentalist group. They are an extreme environmentalist group wielding ecoterrorism as their choice of weaponry when people don’t agree with their green opinions—the dangers of GMO, in particular. They long to be respected by Greenpeace and there is talk of other present day activists in the real world that I have actually watched on television. Here, Cerqueira does a nice job blending fantasy with reality. Then Jesus comes into the story, an innocent, partially dragged into Magdalene’s agenda. As I read further, I understood that Jesus and Magdalene knew each other from a vague reference, but somehow the others don’t recognize him. Its like they all forgot they had past lives. Jesus, himself, seems like he has amnesia, as an omniscient narrator compares him throughout the novel to his prior deeds from the New Testament of the Bible. Yet, Jesus is still the patient, loving man, but in the modern setting his passivity doesn’t work well for him nor does it satisfy Magdalene’s lust for action and justice. In this light, Jesus is not as discernible as his followers who, in this reality, he now follows.

Contrary to Jesus, is Cerqueira’s Magdalene. She is fierce. She has shed her religious trappings in the modern world and believes like a zealot that “religion only serves to hinder scientific advances, to oppress women, and to divide men.” She also believes in the “noble cause” and fills her pride with the idea of giving without expecting profit. Did I mention she slapped Jesus in an argument over abortion? I like this Magdalene. She is surprising.

It is also notable that Cerqueira also fills his story with many modern references. There are so many facts pulled in and around the storyline from academia, popular culture, economic and historical references, technology, theology, science and social injustices such as the exploitation of third-world workers by multinationals in the chocolate industry. The outer-story ring is about GMOs and the reader is led through the inner rings of Cerqueira’s story to a central theme. Along the way, readers will continue to find many footnoted sources peppered throughout the novel as well as allegory and a few obvious clichés.

Among the historical sources is the Athens Charter on page 210 that stopped me in an “oh, this is interesting” kind of way. Created in 1933 by well-known architects and urban planners of that era, the charter was designed with the central idea that all of society should have the fundamental right to happiness found in the home and in the access to the beauty of the city. This idea inspired the development of the fictional “New Europe” community created for the multi-ethnic population that live on the outside of the bigger community of St. Martin in the novel and is another example of reality blending with fiction. What’s more, in the narration about New Europe there is mention of the ancient Greek Athenian society and Thomas More’s Utopia that are also held up for the reader to contemplate. Yet, in Cerqueira’s story, this new community is broken. The irony, however, is not wasted.

Indeed, I enjoyed all the abstract concepts—with so many ideas, modern and old, that Cerqueira presented and the thinking I did during my ascent to the main storyline. In fact, I had a moment of déjà vu. I felt like I was back in my undergraduate years, sitting in a philosophy or sociology class discussing hidden meanings along with deep thoughts related to society. In this light, I can see Cerquiera’s Jesus and Magdalene being college book—listed along side the likes of Sophie’s World and, of course, the classic Utopia.

João Cerquiera’s smart novel, Jesus and Magdalene, disrupts the contemporary narrative with its provocatively witty style and its ethical pushback, creating a unique space for itself in entertaining reading. It won the silver medal in the 2016 Hungry Monster Book Awards, was nominated book of the year in 2016 by the Latina Book Award, and recently won the silver medal in the 2017 Feathered Quill Book Award.

*

João Cerqueira is an award-winning author of eight books: Blame it on to much freedom, The Tragedy of Fidel Castro, Devil’s Observations, Maria Pia: Queen and Woman, José de Guimarães, José de Guimarães: Public Art. His works are published in The Adirondack Review, Magazine, Berfrois, Cleaver Magazine, Bright Lights Film, Modern Times Magazine, Toad Suck Review, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, Danse Macabre, Rapid River Magazine, Contemporary Literary Review India, Open Pen Magazine, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The Liberator Magazine, Near to the Nuckle, Narrator International, The Transnational, Bold Type Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, All Right Magazine, South Asia Mail, Praxis, Linguistic Erosion, Sundayat6mag, Literary Lunes, Bombay Review Anthology.

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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s reviews editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

Helping Hands Retreat

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Red Lagoe


Photo Credit: Antony Theobald/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Clouds of dust lifted from the concrete and swirled in the red glow of Sarah’s tail lights as her car crept down the broken pavement leading to the retreat. After an entire day on the road, with a watchful eye on her rearview mirror, she was still not confident that Wade was not following her. Trees and thick shrubbery lined the narrowing road, and a deep ditch on each side made it too difficult to turn around to go back.

As her stomach grumbled and fear of being lost began to creep in, her headlights revealed a chain link fence stretched across the road. The gate was wide open for her to drive through, but she let the car roll to a stop. An aged plank board sign sat off the side of the road with white block letters that read: “Helping Hands Recovery Retreat.”

She released her breath in relief and drove through. The road became gravel and the trees and shrubbery cleared into an open field of weeds, so far as her headlights could see.

A clopping sound came from behind and Sarah pressed on the brake to come to an abrupt stop. It was the sound of galloping hooves. She twisted around in her seat and spotted the silhouette of a large man on horseback. He climbed off his steed and hurried to the gate to close it behind her.

Her heart sped up. She couldn’t see his face, but could feel the icy glare coming from the dark outline of the man as she pulled her car away from him toward the welcoming light of two houses.

As Sarah bounced her focus from the man behind her to the houses in front of her, a paunchy woman in a purple winter coat came from one of the rustic structures and walked up to her car. Sarah rolled down the window.

“Welcome to the Helping Hands Retreat, dear.” She oozed with kindness and gentility.

“I don’t know if I’m in the right place—”

“Of course you are.” Her voice was sugar-sweet and comforting.

“I had a brochure for Helping Hands Retreat, but this doesn’t look like—”

“You need help,” the round-faced woman said. “A chance to get back on your feet. To start over, right?”

“Something like that—” Sarah was on guard and reluctant to trust this woman. She was reluctant to trust anyone.

“That’s what we do, dear. You’re in the right place. Come in. You just missed dinner, but we can get you a room for the night if that might help.” She interlaced her white-gloved fingers and held her hands near her heart.

Sarah, exhausted from an entire day on the road, and needing shelter from Wade for the evening, brushed her skepticism away and accepted the woman’s offer, whether she was in the right place or not. “That would be wonderful,” Sarah said.

“I’m Mary,” the woman smiled.

The premises were not as upscale as they appeared in the brochure, but Sarah didn’t care. Perhaps it looked better in the daylight. She followed the small waddling woman to the steps on a simple rectangular house. Each of the three steps crepitated beneath her feet as she climbed to the entrance.

There was no time to pack a bag when she left home that afternoon, so Sarah arrived at the retreat empty-handed. The cool mid-November air chilled her skin, and reminded her of the bruises that Wade left on her arms. He would find her soon. He always had a way of finding out where she was.

*

Mary left Sarah in room number four, gave her a key to the room, and a welcome package complete with a fresh towel, toothbrush, toiletries, and a set of hat and gloves to keep warm. The package gave her a feeling of indignity—like a homeless person—but that’s what she was now. Eight rooms stretched along one side of the hallway inside, similar to a hotel. On the opposite side of the hall was a shared bathroom and a common room, but all of the guests had retired for the evening. Strange to Sarah, considering it was only seven o’clock, but she was so thankful to be away, that she washed up and retreated to her room for the evening without any questions.

The room was drafty and cold, and the gentle sobbing of a woman could be heard through the wall.

The soft blue glow of moonlight seeped in from behind the curtain of her private room, exposing shadowy lines—bars on the windows. A further peer into the darkness outside the window revealed a large open field fully illuminated by the moon. It was at least thirty acres to the edge of the property where the fence laid. Plenty of room for the horseback riding that she had seen on the brochure.

As she dreamed about her potential new life, she felt it again—an icy stare. Eyes watching her. She tried to shrug it off as paranoia about Wade following her, but it persisted. She closed her curtains and walked barefoot across the creaking wooden floors and froze in the middle of the room. The feeling was still there. From under her right foot, she could feel a gentle upward pressure from underneath the floorboard, then a swift sound of scuffing below. Sarah gasped and jumped to her bed, staring down at the floorboards as the clunking, slithery sound from under her room waned. Her blood pumped through her veins so hard, she felt sick to her stomach.

“Hey!” Sarah said toward the floor then leapt from the safety of her bed to run to the window. A shadow, consistent with the shape of a person, darted out of view around the side of the house.

“Did anyone see that?” Sarah said through the walls, but there was no reply.

Screaming began only a moment later. The deep, throaty voice of a man that sounded like it belonged to a giant, was crackling and crying out from somewhere outside the house.

Sarah shoved her feet into her shoes and left her room, then crept down the empty hallway to the outside door, and gripped the knob. It wouldn’t turn.

“Hello?” She spoke with a firm voice, while she held the door knob within her shaking palm. She shook it harder, but it was locked from the outside.

Sarah backed away from the door as the realization of the surrounding danger kicked in. It was a familiar feeling. It was the feeling she got before Wade would go into a rampage. Her vision would tunnel, her heart would throb harder, and she would become still as she awaited his outburst. But nothing came.

She went back to her room, trembling with fear, and then climbed into the bed awaiting her fate.

*

In the morning, sideways light from the rising sun glared through her window and through the lattice woodwork on the crawlspace beneath the house. She peeked through the cracks of the floorboards to see the dusty brown earth below, and enough room down there for a grown man to crawl underneath.

“Coyotes,” Mary said when Sarah asked her about it, standing in the doorway of her room.

“I didn’t see any paw prints,” Sarah cut herself off from the argument, and jumped to her next concern, hoping to inquire without setting off any red flags. “Mary, is everyone here okay? I thought I heard someone screaming last night.”

“Honey,” she leaned in closer. “I’m not gonna lie. The people that come here have problems. They got demons to work out, and sometimes those demons get the best of them. That’s why we have bars on the windows and such.”

“So there are dangerous people here?” Sarah watched as those people passed by her to exit the house. Most kept their heads down and didn’t look, but one gray-haired woman peeked from under her silvery strands to give her a glance.

Mary continued. “Everyone that’s here has got their sins they gotta atone for.”

“I’m not here because I sinned.”

“You don’t sin?” Mary smiled.

“I…” Sarah was careful with her choice of words. “I’m here because I’m escaping an abusive relationship. I thought that’s what this place was.”

“I see.” Mary shifted her weight and tilted her head. “You poor dear.”

“Am I in the wrong place?”

“Of course not. You see… you escaped a horrible man, didn’t you? But to do that, what did you have to do? You cleaned out the bank account maybe? Took his car?”

“But there was no other way. How did you know—?”

“It’s my job to know. Come now.” Mary guided Sarah outside into the cold dry air. Her tiny gloved hand pressed between Sarah’s shoulder blades to direct her to the next building.

“Where’s my car?” Sarah asked, crossing her bare arms to keep warm.

“Well that wasn’t your car, was it?” Mary smiled. “It was Wade’s car.”

Sarah’s blood turned cold at the sound of his name and her survival instincts kicked in with the new looming threat. Though she wasn’t sure what was going on, she knew how to protect herself from unpredictable people. Until she could figure out what to do, she would keep her head down and be compliant, like she had done with Wade for all those years.

She entered a cafeteria space with a wood stove in the corner that did not generate enough heat to keep the drafty old building warm. Five guests were already seated and eating at the two round tables. They were still wearing winter hats and mittens while they shoveled the food into their mouths without exchanging words. Sarah, with Mary still perched beside her, approached the breakfast bar and was scooped a meager pile of scrambled eggs by the gray-haired woman. She was wearing green latex-free gloves and a hair net. She looked to Mary, then back to Sarah.

“This is all part of it,” Mary said. “We all do our part to be helpful in our community. Helping hands…”

“Are clean hands,” the gray-haired woman muttered the words in a reflexive way.

“Thank you,” Sarah said and sat at a table with three others.

A man with spiky black hair poking out from under his hat and weeks’ worth of beard growth rocked in his seat across from her. He kept his hands tucked between his knees and his eyes on the pile of rubbery yellow eggs before him. His gaze broke from the eggs when Sarah sat down, and he stared at her pale and bruised hands.

“Sh-sh-she didn’t wash her hands!” He backed away from the table with his hands tucked into his armpits. He stood up, looking around the room in a panic, “She didn’t wash her hands!”

“I washed them,” Sarah insisted.

“Now, Jacob,” Mary approached him from behind.

“It’s not fair!” He yelled with spit strung between his lips.

Sarah looked around the room as the other guests stared at her. “I washed them—”

“Jacob!” Mary raised her voice and lowered it as soon as he took his seat. “Don’t worry about when she washes her hands. They’ll get washed after we do our chores for the day, because helping hands—”

“—are clean hands.” Six voices from around the room said it in consonance.

*

After breakfast, Sarah was given a thick flannel work shirt and a pair of heavy duty work gloves. “Come on, dear,” Mary said, and led her outside where the other six other guests of the retreat were pulling weeds along the entrance road.

A large man on the back of a brown-and-white horse sat near the entrance with his arms crossed and a shotgun slung over his shoulder. All of the guests were wearing the same black-and-red flannel that Sarah had on. She pulled weeds and piled them neatly into a wheelbarrow, and caught the gray-haired woman staring at her. Her large round eyes were backlit with urgency. Some warning hid in the intense glare, but her lips remained shut.

Sarah continued to keep her head down, pulling weeds with the others, hour after hour, wondering what was going on, and how she was going to get out of this place without incident.

Her nose turned pink, and her fingers numbed from the icy air, so Sarah removed her work gloves and rubbed her hands together. The motion caught the attention of the woman with gray hair, and she watched as Sarah blew warm, moist air onto her skin.

Mary was burying tulip bulbs into the earth near the buildings, when she broke the silence to cry out, “Tom!”

The man on the horse looked in her direction, squinting to see her pointing to the westward wall of perimeter fencing. A coyote was pacing at the fence line.

Tom nudged the horse with his heel and trotted off the gravel road, away from the open gate, and took aim at the coyote in the distance. It was too far, so he edged closer, and took aim again.

As he did, the man with the black spiky hair shifted his twitchy eyes back and forth, then darted toward the gate. Dust kicked up behind his boots as he sprinted along the gravel, unnoticed by Tom and Mary. They were both focused on the coyote, but the guests and Sarah swung their attention back and forth between the running black-haired man and the man with the gun. It seemed like a smart idea—to run—but Sarah knew better. There was nowhere to run to, not with a man on horseback and a gun nearby. She knelt down and went back to picking weeds, waiting for her opportunity, while the black-haired man escaped the open gate.

The shot gun fired, blasting up a chunk of dirt at the coyote’s feet, scaring the critter away.

“Damn,” Tom shouted, disappointed with his miss.

“Tom!” Mary yelled again, this time pointing toward the runner, and Tom spun his horse around to chase him down.

Everyone was staring as that horse closed in on his pursuit, but Mary redirected them.

“Come on folks,” Mary said, “I think that’s enough of that for today. Let’s go back to your rooms for a while.” She gestured for them to follow her as Tom chased the black-haired man into the woods outside the gates.

Sarah got in line with everyone else and walked back to her room, concealing the terror within. The gray-haired woman went into room three, next door, still with grave warning in her eyes.

Sarah paced her room until the sound of a gunshot in the distance, and a bullet cutting through the air, made her freeze mid-step. Her feet were heavy on the floor, like gravity could yank her through the wooden planks.

Sarah dropped to the floor to inspect the wood and the cracks between. They were old boards that bowed under the weight of her feet, and the rusty nails that held them in place were eroding in their holes. She pried on a board where it appeared to be weakest, and the edge lifted up.

Her fingers would not fit between the spaces to get enough torque on it, so Sarah dug into her welcome basket of supplies and used her toothbrush for some leverage. She wedged the board upward, and the nail came with it, wiggling out of place with minimal effort. She got to work on the second board—three would be enough for her frame to squeeze through. The boards came loose and she stuck her head into the space beneath the house. It was still too light outside to make a run for it. She needed to run under the cloak of nightfall.

She was sick to her stomach and her instincts told her to run—to get out, but she had to be smarter. It had to be the right time. She placed the boards back into position and waited impatiently on her bed as the daylight lingered. There was a knock at her door.

“Sarah, dear?” The soft voice was absorbed by the old wooden door of her room.

“Yes?” she asked, as casual as possible.

Mary opened her door and Sarah stood to greet her.

“What a day, huh?” Mary smiled and stepped one foot inside her door. “I want you to know that Mr. Lewis is alright now. Tom caught up with him and he’s resting in his room now.”

“I thought I heard—”

“The gunshot, right?” Mary rolled her eyes. “Coyote. There’s been some with rabies reported in these parts. Tom saw another one and took a shot. Poor Mr. Lewis could have been seriously hurt out there.”

“Mary, may I ask—” Sarah kept a kind, respectful voice.

She unclasped her white-gloved fingers and spread her arms apart as if she were an open book.

“Why wasn’t he allowed to go?”

“Mr. Lewis was a violent sex offender before he came here. We can’t let people wander off. They are in our care.”

“So, what about me?”

Mary took a step back and folded her hands back together. “You?”

“I’m not violent. I’m not a danger—”

“But you’re not perfect.” Mary’s voice lowered and her face dropped with an earnest message. “Everyone thinks they don’t sin.”

“I don’t think that,” Sarah argued, “but I don’t deserve to be imprisoned.”

“You don’t deserve…” she laughed. “It’s not about what you deserve. It’s about cleansing our hands of our sins and becoming a better community in the process, because helping hands…” She paused and waited for Sarah to reply.

Sarah hesitated, but did as expected. “Are clean hands?”

“That’s right. Dinner is at six o’clock. Tom and I will stop by for hand-washing just before that.”

“Hand-washing?”

“Hush now. It’s been a long day.” Mary left.

The sun set at five o’clock and Sarah sat against the wall on her bed and waited for the sky to darken.

“Don’t worry,” a voice made its way through the wall from the adjoining room number three. It was the gray-haired woman.

Sarah got to her knees, palms and ear to the wall to listen.

“It hurts bad the first time, but you get used to it,” she said.

“What?”

“It hurts. It still hurts. Just don’t run and don’t fight.”

Don’t run. Don’t fight. Sarah had spent too many years enduring attacks from Wade. Fight or flight should be a natural instinct, but instead she cowered and stayed, for far too long. She couldn’t do it anymore. She was determined to run this time—or to fight if she had to.

“He watches us from under the house.” The gray-haired woman was solemn and desperate.

“Who?”

“Tom.” Her nervous breathing could be heard through the wall. “He comes after dinner and tries to watch us undress. When he gets caught, he gets his hands washed.”

While the gray-haired woman talked, Sarah knelt down to remove the loose planks from the floor. Twilight was darkening and the moon was rising in the east above the tree line. Heavy feet clomped on the stairs out front—two sets of feet—and Sarah lowered her body into the crawlspace with her only chance to run. She returned the planks to their position, haphazardly, and crawled toward the open latticed board at the edge of the house. The front door opened and Tom and Mary could be heard walking down the hall.

Sarah crawled out from under the house and crouched down to be sure to stay out of sight, but curiosity and the light from room number one, drew her to investigate. The curtains were almost shut, leaving a two-inch gap that allowed a strip of light to escape from the window and onto the ground. Sarah peeked inside, adjusting her position with precision over the gap to see part of Tom’s body standing in the room. A five-gallon bucket was placed on the floor and the guest in room one removed his work gloves to expose a set of raw, burned hands. They were pink and shriveled.

He trembled, with tears escaping his eyes, as Tom held his forearms and Mary placed a cloth in his mouth. He chomped down on the fabric as Tom forced his hands in. The bucket sizzled and bubbled while the man in room one screamed through the cloth between his teeth. The acid ripped through his flesh and splattered onto the floor, hissing. Sarah backed away from the window, and for a brief moment, she considered performing a heroic rescue—rushing inside and fighting them off, or perhaps she could find Tom’s gun and…

Instead, she ran. She sprinted across the blue moonlit field toward the entrance gate that was wide open. She would come back with help. The cold air sliced through her lungs as she made her way off the property and down the beaten old road. It was at least two miles to the next road, if she remembered correctly. Get help—she chanted under her breath, and with each step, she pushed harder and faster.

In the distance, there was a set of headlights, but the ephemeral beacon of hope vanished when Sarah considered that the driver of that vehicle may someone that couldn’t be trusted. She darted off the road, into the ditch, and took cover in the thorny brush, as a pickup truck blasted by, music thumping, heading toward the retreat.

Sarah had never been so terrified, not even when she was with Wade. Not even when he had held her by the throat, threatening her life. Sarah pressed forward, and after several minutes, her run slowed to a jog, and she wondered at what point she’d hear the sound of hooves galloping up behind her. But she never heard them.

 

The man in the pickup truck left his music blasting as he pulled through the gate of the Helping Hands Retreat.

“What the hell?” He said as a little woman shuffled out of the house toward his vehicle. Tom stood in the doorway, holding the five-gallon bucket, as moaning sounds of pain poured out behind him.

“Welcome!” she said.

“I’m looking for my wife.” The man scowled.

“Are you now? You must mean Sarah.” Mary smiled. “She’s inside. We’ve been taking good care of her.”

“Have you now?” His arrogance and belligerence was transparent. “Did you know she took off with my car?” Wade got out of the truck and put his hands in his pockets while Mary guided him toward the house.

“Come. You’re just in time for dinner. Let’s wash your hands.”

pencil

Red Lagoe graduated from Cazenovia College in 2001, but did not pursue her passion for writing until a decade later. In 2011, she gave up the nine-to-five life, and pursued her passion for writing by creating her first children’s book, Drips. Since then, her non-fiction article has appeared in the astronomy publication Reflector. When Red is not entertaining her kids, she can be found stargazing or writing. She is exploring a variety of genres including speculative fiction, horror, thriller—and even some romance—by writing novels and short stories. Email: redlagoe[at]gmail.com