Monday, March 26, 2018

Welcome Home, Sandy by Wendy Davis


Welcome Home, Sandy

The heat shimmered off the tarmac as the plane crawled to a stop. I grabbed my bag, lowered my shades, and hustled through the airport. I chuckled to myself thinking about OJ hurdling over the gates as I reached the Hertz counter. I was running, too.

My rental car was a Dodge Challenger: it looked like an undercover cop car and started with a satisfying roar. As promised, a loaded 9 mm pistol was in the glove box. I gunned it towards the interstate, heading towards Knoxville, anxious to set eyes on my old stomping ground.

A fluttering from the overpass caught my attention and I thought I saw my name. My real name. I shook it off, looked in the rear-view mirror, and startled at my reflection. It still caught me off guard. I didn't resemble the person that left here two years ago. My once-shaved head was now covered in straight brown hair. My piercings had grown back. I wore long sleeves, even in the summer, to cover the tattoos that weren't lasered off. It was a long process, erasing the scars of my past.

And then I saw it again. My real name. And his.

Sandy, I love you. Donnie.

The sign hung from a bridge crossing the interstate. "What the fuck?" I muttered, and picked up my phone. I dialed my lifeline, Raymond.


"Raymond, what the fuck is going on? I just saw a sign with my real name. And Donnie's."

"What are you talking about?"

"Someone's leaked my…what the fuck?" I yelled, as another sign waved at me from the bridge.

Welcome home Sandy. Love, Donnie

"There's another one, Raymond. Someone knows I'm here!"

"Just keep driving. I'll find out what's going on and call you back."

I hung up the phone and studied the rearview mirror; a black truck tailed me. The driver wore a hoodie and mirrored glasses. His jaw was clenched and he sped up and passed me.

My eyes darted from the mirror to the phone. It waited in the cup holder, blank and silent. Against Raymond's advice, I exited onto Central Pike, cluttered with pawn shops and legalized loan sharks. I turned by a bricked-up drug store and pulled into the parking lot of the Magnolia Inn. The derelict motel was a two-story building with a tired beige facade. Room doors stood open and dirty children ran along the sidewalk. I parked around back and stuffed the gun into my waistband.

Nell was at the front desk looking at her phone. She was a shadow of what she once was, but the shadow had a louche allure. She shot me an indifferent look. And then she slowly looked at me again. "Holy shit girl. Come here," she said. We scurried to the back office and she closed the door.
"What in the hell are you doing here?"

"Granny's dying and I'm being relocated. I have a three-hour layover, so I was granted permission to visit her." I chewed my lip and crossed my arms.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"This sounds crazy, but when I got on the road, there were signs hanging over the interstate saying, Welcome home Sandy, love Donnie."

"What? From Donnie Rowe?" She furrowed her brow.

"I know, I know… I have no idea how anyone would know I'm here. Unless there is a rat in the program."

"Or, it is Donnie."

"I don't believe in that Donnie nonsense."

"He said he'd haunt you forever."

"Yeah, well, in some ways he's right. I'll never get past what happened. Killing that girl was the final nail in his coffin."

"It wouldn't have been if you hadn't turned state's evidence."

"I was trying to do the right thing."

"Bullshit. You were saving your own ass. Doing the right thing means you fess up and accept the consequences. Not ratting everyone out and leaving town to start a new life."

I touched the silver scar on my inner wrist. "I know why I did it. I don't have to explain it to you."

"Fair enough. How much time do you have?"

"I'm down to two hours now."

"Well, what are we waiting for?"

"Raymond said to wait for his call."

"Fuck Raymond. Let's go," she said, and tucked a .45 into her waistband. We slipped outside and climbed into the Challenger. The engine rumbled and I peeled out, leaving the Magnolia Inn behind. We drove past country slums-tattered yards piled with wreckage and worn-out mobile homes. Mangy dogs barked at the car as we powered towards Sunny Meade Hospice. The russet brick building slumped on the hill, smothering the life from all that entered.

The frigid lobby was suffused with a lemon disinfectant. "Can I help you?" a young girl asked, chomping on a piece of gum. She wore ear buds and clicked her black fingernails on her iPhone.

"Yes, we are here to see Elizabeth Wright."

"I see. Are you family?"

"Yes. What room is she in?"

"I need to verify who you are before I…"

I lunged over the desk and snatched her earbuds. Gripping her cheeks in my hand I snarled, "Give me the room number. I don't have time to waste."

She gulped and said 207. We pushed through the lobby and ran up the stairs. Making a hard right at the corner, Nell pulled me back.

"Something's not right."

"What do you mean?"

"We're being followed. I can feel it." She frowned and touched her gun. We strode to 207 and pushed open the door.

The dim light filtered through sheers, casting a pall on my grandmother. Her withered lips pulled away from her teeth; her breath was a faint wheeze. The skin on her arms crinkled around her fragile bones. She was a 3D x-ray.

"Granny," I whispered.  Her eyes fluttered open and struggled to focus.

"Sandy, darling. Donnie told me you were coming," she said weakly.

"Granny, Donnie's dead."

 "Donnie loves you, Sandy," she whispered.

"Granny, I don't know what to say, except..."

The curtain fluttered and there was a trembling in the room. A prickle ran up my spine as I watched Granny's body slacken. I closed my eyes and hot tears spilled down my cheeks. I opened them to see her suspended in the air, her gown billowing around her gangling legs. Her grisly smile frightened me and I was blinded with a white light.  In the next instant, the light was sucked from the room and the space resumed its dull illuminance. Granny lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling with bulging fish-eyes.

I looked at Nell, watching out the window as if nothing had happened. "What's going on?" I whispered. She looked at me and then my grandmother. "At least you got to see her before she passed. We best get out of here."

***

The phone was rattling in the cup holder.

"Fuck, it's Raymond," I said.

"Want me to answer it?" Nell asked.

"Hand it here." She handed me the phone and I tossed it out the window. "I'm done with Raymond." I heaved a sigh. "I need a drink."

"Let's got to the Crow's Nest in the Sheraton."

"I thought our crowd was banned from there."

"Most of them are, but Percy's washing dishes there now. He vouched for me."

"Sounds good."

We purled along the highway until the half-hearted Knoxville skyline interrupted the horizon.

"You can park by the loading dock. After six, the security guard doesn't give a fuck," Nell said.

I parked by the dumpster and Nell waved at the bored guard. We ambled into the greasy alley. The heat vaporized the beer, urine, and garbage and so that it hung in the humid air. Downtown stunk.

In the lobby, a ragged clerk with eyes like billiard balls scowled at us. A crooked neck tie hung around the collar of her stained white shirt. We caught the glass elevator and peered at the city. Fluorescent rectangles glowed from the building next door; some poor chump hunched over his desk, staring at a computer screen, slowly drowning in the minutiae of his desk job.

The doors opened and we entered the lounge. Men with thickened bellies and red faces sat at the bar, watching the news and licking their fat lips. The bartender absently nodded at their dialogue. Nell caught his eye and he strutted over. "Whattaya say, Nell?" he asked in a graveled voice.

"Two Jack and Cokes, Al," she said.

He gave me a smile which I returned. Nell looked at me and said, "So, what are you going to do next?"

"I'm tired of living like this. I don't think a new identity is better than living as myself. Either way, I still worry about getting whacked."

"If you stay, Donnie's people are going to get you. They hold grudges."

"Have you seen them since the funeral?"

"Yeah, I went to the funeral. Everyone was tore up. They hate you, Sandy. Donna swore to kill you."

"I knew that already." Al set down the drinks and I fished out some cash to pay him.

"Thanks," said Nell.

"I'll never escape Donnie Rowe, will I?" I asked.

"I doubt it."

"I wish I had never met him."

"There is one thing you could try," Nell said, and gave me side look. "Annie might be able to give you some protection."

"I told you, I don't believe in all of that shit. Donnie used that black magic ruse to intimidate people, but he didn't practice it. Hell, he could barely read, much less study the dark arts."

"That stuff doesn't require a degree, Sandy. People learn it in their soul, and Donnie, his soul was black with it." The lights flickered in the bar; everyone startled.

"They're working on the AC," Al announced to the guests as the lights came back on. I sipped the whiskey and looked straight ahead.

"So, why did you leave Florida? Did you get identified? You don't look nothing like you used to."

"I didn't get identified. I got caught stealing credit card numbers from the customers at my job."

"What? What the hell, Sandy?" she cried.

"Stupid, I know."

"I thought you were given an allowance, like, I didn't know you had to work."

"I get a stipend, but I still have to be a citizen of the community. And that means I have to get a job. But the manager was a dick, he didn't know I was in the program, and was always hitting on me. I refused his proposals, but then he caught me copying the credit cards. He threatened to turn me in unless I, well, you can guess."

"So, what happened?"

"The guy ended up dead. Sliced to ribbons."

"Oh my God. Did you do it?"

"Fuck no, Nell. I don't know what happened."

"I believe you do know. Donnie Rowe happened." Nell killed her drink. "We should get to Annie's place. I don't see any other way."

***

Annie lived in Seymour, right outside of Knoxville. The idyllic landscape made it feel like the country, yet the place was ten minutes from downtown. The cottage was shadowed by overgrown wildflowers and a wrought iron fence bordered the yard. Yellow light spilled from the windows. We walked up to the dark porch where the sound of a New Age flute lilted from inside.

Nell knocked on the door. "Annie, it's Nell," she called softly. The door opened slightly and Annie poked out her frizzy head. Two beady eyes sized me up and she stepped back.

"Who do you have with you?" she asked.

"You know who it is. It's Sandy."

"Come in. Hurry." She ushered us inside, closed the door, and dropped the bamboo shades. The front room was covered in rugs and anchored by a futon decked with an orange and purple afghan. Large floor pillows were scattered on the floor. Sandalwood incense fogged the air.

"You're here about Donnie Rowe."

"Nell says I've got no other choice."

"She's right. But I'm not sure I can help you, either. He's still with you?"

"Things are happening that are like to the things he did. But I'm not convinced it's his ghost. I think someone who is loyal to him is trying to scare the hell out of me."

"Could be. His people hate you."

My face flushed. "I know. They have good reason."

"So, what do you want?"

Nell interrupted, "Can you give her a reading?"

"I can. It will cost you."

Nell looked at me and raised her eyebrow.

"I've got money," I said. We sat down at a table draped in a tapestry and she took out a large deck of tarot cards.  She shuffled the cards and fanned them out on the table. "Pick six and stack them in order."

I chose my cards and placed them in front of her. She laid them out in a pattern in front of me, clicking her tongue the entire time. A scowl remained on her face.

"The Fool," she said. "You are on a journey." She continued to study the next card for a minute before speaking. "The Wheel of Fortune. How this will end up depends on the next card." She revealed the card: Death's Grim Reaper bared his teeth at us.

"The death card is just representation. It doesn't mean you will die; it is only a change or transition to something else."

She continued to turn over all of the cards and study the entire display. After a few long minutes, she said, "You are being protected, but it's not by a benevolent spirit. What loves you may kill you."

"You're not telling me anything I don't know, Annie," I snapped.

***

We left Annie's and stopped at a convenience store to get a six-pack. When we returned to the car, the tires were slashed.

"Fuck me." I kicked the tire. I looked to see if someone was waiting to ambush us.

"I don't think that was random, Sandy," Nell said.

"Maybe it's his family," I said.

"I haven't noticed anyone following us. They would have to be quick. We were in there for less than five minutes."

I walked around the car and looked past the parking lot. Lonely cars puttered down the dark highway.

"What are we going to do about the car?" Nell asked.

"I need to ditch it anyway."

"Want me to call Harry to pick us up?"

"I think the fewer people that know I'm here, the better," I said.

"It's a little late for that, Sandy." She was right. Someone had anticipated my arrival. I was already fucked.

"Your place isn't far, let's just walk. I need to clear my head."

"Maybe you could talk to Donna. She knew what an animal her twin brother was," Nell said.

"You said yourself she hates me. I always thought she was jealous of us…"

"Well, you know twins have a strange connection."

We walked on the shoulder of the road. The sad song of crickets filled the air; fireflies blinked in the thick dark blanketing the woods. A black truck passed us and made the bend. I froze.

"That's the second time I've seen that truck." As we rounded the curve, the truck was parked on the side; the lights were off, but the motor was running.

"Fuck, what should we do?" Nell asked.

I placed my hand on the butt of the gun. "Keep walking." We approached the truck and the door swung open. A man stepped out and greeted me with a nasty smile.

"Raymond," I said.

"What the fuck are you doing, Sandy? Why haven't you called me back?"

"I lost the phone."

"Bullshit. You had no intention of coming back. You're going to get kicked out of the program."

"In case you haven't noticed, the program isn't working. Someone keeps finding me."

"Well, coming to the place where it all went down isn't helping."

"It wasn't working in Florida, either."

"Look, if you would cooperate, we'd figure out how they're finding you. It would help us and you."

"I just want my life back, Raymond."

"You can't have your life back. You have to make a new one."

"Why can't I just be me? Not another Chelsey Fisher with a story that's impossible to stick to."

"You can do that, but you won't be in the program. And you won't get an allowance. Participation is voluntary-you're free to leave at any time."

"I know."

"Get in. I'll take you somewhere safe for the night."

***

Raymond stopped at a liquor store and picked up some Seagram's Seven and Sprite. We drove to a three-star hotel in the center of downtown.

"The US Marshal Service must have a lenient travel budget," I said. Raymond glared at me and geared down, steering the truck into the garage.

"No one is going to look for you in a place like this."

"Thanks, Raymond. You know how to make a girl feel good," I snapped.

He grunted and cut the engine. We caught the elevator to his room, furnished with two double beds with fluffy white comforters. It smelled clean, the kind of clean that wasn't faking. I would have slept on the carpet.

We broke into the Seagram's and Sprite and watched TV. The Seagram's got the best of me and I fell asleep.

***

I heard a phone buzzing; confused, I jumped and realized I was in the hotel room. Nell and Raymond were asleep in the same bed; I would ask later. Raymond groggily picked up the phone. "This is Raymond." He rubbed his temple as the caller babbled into the phone.

"I'll look into it right away," he said, and ended the call. He looked at me, "It's a good thing I followed you, because I'm your alibi."

"What are you talking about?" I asked.

"Donnie's twin sister, Donna, is dead. She was found about five miles away from your rental car. Stabbed to death. It was the same knife that slashed your tires."

"What the fuck?" I gripped my head with my hands. "Raymond, I've got to get out of here," I said.

"Sandy, if you had gotten on that plane as scheduled, we wouldn't be here now. I get to explain that to the powers that be."

"Aren't you going to tell them I went to see my dying grandmother? And then all of this other crazy shit happened."

He picked up the near-empty bottle on the nightstand and finished it off. Nell was still sleeping, softly snoring.

"I'll do what I can."

***

We walked to the downtown courthouse where I was to be held in custody until arrangements could be made for a safe departure. Raymond accompanied me into the cell to make sure I was comfortable.
"This OK until we get you out of here?"

I looked around at my bare cell with white walls, a sink, and a toilet. A twin bed stood in the corner.

"I'd rather be at a hotel. Can't you get me protection there?"

"It's more secure here and you know we're cheap."

"What's the story with Donna?"

"I know a little more than I did this morning. The only prints on the knife belonged to her. She was spotted leaving the Crow's Nest and followed you to Seymour. From there, she camped out and waited for you to make your next move. She probably slashed your tires so that you would be on foot. I'm guessing she was close when I picked you up."

"How did you know where I was?"

"You think I would give you a car without a tracking device on it?"

My face flushed, "No, I guess not."

"So, she probably saw me pick you up and turned around. From there, the story gets a little murky…" he hesitated.

"You're not telling me something."

Raymond pinched his lips and looked me in the eye. "The good news is investigators found signs in her trunk painted with Donnie loves Sandy. She's definitely the one who hung those up. The bad news is, her body was flayed, like Donnie's last victim. As of now, we don't know who did it."

I wrinkled my brow and whispered, "Donnie loves Sandy."

***

Raymond smuggled me a Xanax. I lay on the rumpled mattress, staring at the ceiling until I became lost in the blinding white wall. I swiped at the empty air and turned on my side, staring at the small rectangular window in the metal door. I was trapped on the edge of sleep and dreamed that Donnie Rowe was sliding under the crack in the door. I tried to run, but the ground melted under my feet. I was choking. I opened my eyes with a gasp. Donnie Rowe was in my face, his sharp teeth bared at me. His hands around my throat.

"Donnie," I whispered.

"Sandy. Why did you betray me? Don't you know I love you?"

"I was ashamed, Donnie. The family of that girl…"

"You didn't give a shit about that girl. Stop pretending you're better than me. I know you haven't forgotten the barn. You led those people there."

"You said you were just going to scare them. I didn't know you'd…"

"Bullshit, Sandy. You knew exactly what I would do."  He licked my face and I winced. "You're a mess without me. You're still fucking everything up and I have to come in for the rescue."

A clanging noise resounded outside the door and I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping that I'd open them and he'd be gone. He disappeared, but my neck still burned from the grip of his fingers.

***

The next morning, or afternoon, I couldn't tell, the chaplain came to visit me.

"I heard you had a rough night. Guards said you screamed in your sleep."

"Yeah, I was having nightmares." My voice was hoarse.

"Want to talk about it?"

I touched my throat and looked at him. "Can the dead come back and haunt us?"

He cleared his throat and sat back. "Some people believe that souls can be restless. Do you think you're being haunted?"

"Donnie Rowe has been haunting me since I was a teen. He killed himself so he could fuck with me for eternity."

"You really think his ghost is visiting you?" He wrote in a black Moleskine.

"I need some sort of exorcism or prayer to get him off my back."

"Sandy, are you sure it's a ghost and not your conscience? Sometimes guilt brings on hallucinations.
You need redemption, not a séance."

"Look at my neck. Are there marks on it?" He scooted over and examined my throat.

"Yes, did you do that?"

"Hell no! Donnie was here. He wants to control me. Just like he did when he was alive."

"Are you under psychiatric evaluation? Intense stress can cause severe anxiety with debilitating side effects."

"Fuck yeah, I'm stressed out. It's one thing to be running from people, but from a goddamned ghost? There's nowhere to hide."

I got up and paced in the cell. "They're going to relocate me, but it doesn't matter. I'll never be free."
"Few people are truly free, Sandy." He handed a me tract and said, "Read this and I'll check on you later." He signaled the guard and was escorted out. The closing door boomed in the hallway and fear pressed on my chest.

***

Raymond sauntered in my cell as if he hadn't a care in the world.

"Did you find out who did it?" I asked.

"No, but I've arranged for you to leave tonight."

"Where am I going?"

"The plane will land in Reno. From there, someone will give you instructions to the next destination."

"Where's that?"

"I can't tell you."

"Bullshit, Raymond. I'm going to find out soon enough."

"Quincy, California. You'll have a cabin at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. It's a little slice of heaven on earth."

"I'll never get out of the hell I'm in."

"You can try. The National Forest Service needs a clerk for the fire stations. I think your personality will blend in well there."

"What do you mean?"

"It's a quirky little town. Artsy and independent, but not a big tourist destination. It's the Plumas County seat, population is about 10,000."

"Please tell me it's not a dry town."

"Of course not. There's plenty of weed, too. But you didn't hear that from me."

"I leave tonight?"

"Yep."

"What about Donna?"

"I don't think she'll haunt you."

"Fuck you, Raymond. I'm losing my mind."

"Listen, kid.  Your mind is just playing tricks on you. Here are the facts. Sunny Meade Hospice identified Donna. When your Granny's health plummeted, Donna hung those signs over the interstate, assuming that you would visit, and she was right. The receptionist was buying dope from her, and she tipped her off when you arrived. From there, she followed you, slashed your tires, and met with an unfortunate end. We are still investigating that piece, but she had plenty of enemies, just like the rest of her family. You should feel safe in going to a new place. No one is going to haunt you there."

***

The drive from Reno took about two hours. I recited my new name, Crystal Shipley, in the car and it was rolling off my tongue like honey. The parched hills were dotted with shrubs and thorny cacti; it was like a stark planet devoid of life. The topography shifted when I entered Plumas National Forest. Fragrant ponderosa pines lined Highway 70 all the way to Quincy. Main Street was the heartbeat of town, pulsing with eateries and pubs, a theater, and New Age shops. Off the main drag, homes were planted on ample parcels of land lining the base of the Sierra Nevadas. The view was breathtaking; the town was tiny.

I passed by a natural foods store as I navigated to the address programmed in my phone. The cabin was small, but it looked solid. I hopped out of the car and breathed in the pure air and for the moment, I had an ounce of hope. I opened the door and peered inside; the low light gave the stagnant room a creepy vibe. I walked over and pushed back the dusty drapes. Clear light poured in the room and I smiled at the majestic mountain view.

I turned around and frowned as I noticed the scrawling red letters on the mirror over the mantle, "Welcome home, Sandy."

-End-

Bio Wendy Davis was raised in East Tennessee and graduated from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She currently lives in Nashville with her husband and two boys. She enjoys reading, hiking, yoga, and attending her children’s ballgames. Her husband, John, is an accomplished musician and together they share a love for all things David Lynch. She also meditates, but is not convinced it’s working.

Twitter: @zeewendyd

Instagram: @zeewendyd
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7 comments:

  1. Feed the authors, show em some love.

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  2. This story was a blast! It lures you in quickly and doesn’t loosen it’s grip until the ride is over. I live in Knoxville, so it was fun for me to experience the story in that context. Mrs.Davis did an exceptional job of guiding us through the Scruffy City and bringing it to life. The characters were wonderful and left me wanting to hang out with them a little while longer. I hope I get the opportunity to do so in the future!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you so much for reading, Josh! I'm glad you enjoyed the story.

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  3. Well written, good pacing to the story. Enjoyed it.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for taking the time to read!

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  4. I read the story on the recommendation of Jeremy Stabile. Great stuff, fun to read.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for taking the time to read. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

      Delete