The Prayer

Matthew Downing

The Prayer

Ashley moved to New Mexico because her mother’s relentless grief was driving her mad. It’d been six months since Dad died, and she couldn’t brush her teeth in the morning without hearing Mom’s moans drift down their lifeless hallways like a specter cursed to haunt her every waking breath. She tried to hide Dad’s pictures in the attic, but she saw his waxy corpse in every tear that slipped off Mom’s hollow cheeks.

“Don’t take it personally,” she told Mom, hoping empty platitudes were enough to placate her. “It’s natural for a girl my age to want to live on her own.”

“But why must you go all the way down to New Mexico? It’s dangerous down in the desert,” Mom warned, sniveling like a toddler who’d lost their favorite toy.

It wasn’t like abandoning a widow didn’t make Ashley sick with guilt, but she couldn’t bear another second in her father’s house. She couldn’t articulate why New Mexico appealed to her—not in any way that would make her mother understand. There was something about the harshness of the desert that she fantasized could smack life back into her.

As soon as she stepped out of the El Paso airport and into the dry, scorching heat, she knew she’d made the right decision. The burn of the August sun on her alabaster skin was so satisfying after months of numbness; she looked forward to turning as red as the desert sand. Her dark eyes surveyed crooked black mountains bursting out of the hazy horizon.

She rented the cheapest apartment she could find online, sight unseen, then started the dreadful and degrading process of finding a job. Despite her college education, Ashley found it challenging to find work that suited her. She loathed the authority of bosses, despised the arrogance of customers, and was too introverted to be in charge of anyone else. Isolated jobs like pet sitting and freelance copywriting had paid well enough when she lived with her parents, but they lacked the consistency she now needed to pay the water bill and feed herself.

She spent deadly hot afternoons emailing job applications in front of her cranked-up window air conditioner. The only time she went outside was during her daily runs in the cool darkness of the pre-dawn morning. Sometimes, she stayed on the safe, predictable trails that led from her apartment complex to the nearby mountains, panting greetings to the desert’s other early risers. More often, an unseen force pulled her off the path and as far out into the wasteland as her lungs could take her. She’d race off toward the rising sun until it touched the mountain tops and scream bloody murder at the new day. And when she screamed, it felt like she was draining the memories that had flooded her dreams the night before.

Two weeks and no calls for jobs, Ashley resigned herself to her fate and stepped into town to apply for jobs in person. Her first stop was a quaint breakfast diner called “The Sizzle” on the corner of a small liberal arts college. She wasn’t a fan of the red 1950s bar stools or the American flag covering half of the wall behind the booths. Lucia, the young Hispanic woman with streaks of fuchsia in her brown hair, was eager and friendly throughout Ashley’s on-the-spot interview. She asked a few questions about waitressing experience (Ashley had none), work ethic (Ashley had little), and what she described as a tip-worthy personality (Ashley was painfully shy), then offered to hire Ashley anyway. Ashley accepted, encouraged by the measly three customers she saw sit down during what Lucia called the lunch rush.

It took Lucia less than two shifts to tell her new coworker all about how her four brothers teased her, her new puppy refused to be potty-trained, and her dream of going back to school to study anthropology. The diner’s owner was some rich, retired white guy who moved to Florida after several public sexting scandals, leaving Lucia to run the place. Since Lucia was the type of person that never asked someone to do something she hadn’t already done ten times herself, Ashley didn’t mind taking the occasional order from her. Not wanting to talk about her dad, Ashley diverted all questions about her previous life in New Hampshire. Lucia was impressed and frightened by Ashley’s morning runs through the desert.

“You be careful out there,” she warned Ashley. “There are a lot of freaks that get into trouble out there in the dark.  Chances are there’ll be nothing but rattlesnakes around if you ever need to holler.”

Ashley smirked at the irony; she wondered if Lucia would think she was crazy if she told her about her daily scream meditation. Lucia never elaborated on what kind of trouble Ashley might find in the desert, but Ashley could guess.

A few weeks after she started working at The Sizzle, Ashley saw a bald man kneeling near Tortuga Mountain. He had fresh cuts all over his hands, which were clasped in prayer. The blood pooled under his knees, staining the sand beneath him.

“You all right, sir? Do you need an ambulance?” Ashley called, uneasy about getting too close.

She hadn’t seen anyone else near the trails this morning, and they were on the far side of the mountain—hidden from the watchful eyes of the town.

The man didn’t answer her. Instead, he grinned like a possum and stared. He pulled out a flask filled with red wine and dumped it over his head.

“Sir?”

The man shouted to the heavens.

“Behold, I will do something new. Now it will spring forth. Will you not be aware of it? I will even make a roadway in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.”

Suddenly queasy, Ashley cut her run short, sprinting away from the man’s maniacal laughter and back to her apartment without looking back. She never told Lucia about the man, despite how close they’d grown while working the afternoon shift together. She knew the creep would worry Lucia, whom she relied on to always be bubbly and carefree.

Ashley had enough worry in her life from Mom, who insisted on calling her at six each morning to make sure she’d survived her run. It was easier for Ashley to answer after she’d had a good scream, but most days, she ignored the call and sent a pre-typed “I’m okay” text. Mom sounded like she was adjusting to what she called the loss of her daughter better than she had to the loss of her husband. Her fear of airplanes kept her from scheduling a New Mexico trip, but she had rejoined her book club, which Ashley thought was an important social step.

“And look who’s talking, miss locked herself in her room since she was thirteen,” Mom laughed, unphased by Ashley’s lack of reciprocation. “Sometimes, I worry if I didn’t check on you, you could vanish, and nobody would be the wiser.”

“I have a job now,” Ashley reminded her, “and I see my friend Lucia almost every day.”

The tense phone call led to another Ashley and Lucia late morning therapy session at the counter. Though Ashley still refused to mention Dad, Mom’s ability to wreak chaos was always up for analysis. They had no customers, and their cook, Marshall, was busy cleaning the grill, which he liked to do alone because he found the scraping therapeutic.

“There is no excuse for it,” Ashley rambled. “My mother has an unhealthy attachment to me because she is too unstable to hold long-term relationships with any of her friends.”

Lucia reached over the counter and patted Ashley’s wrist.

“You and your mom love each other. That’s why you can’t shut up about her,” she said, not unkindly.

Two bald men walked through the front door. They wore baggy blue jeans and long, plain, gray tee shirts. The older of the two greeted Ashley with a lingering smile, displaying his two gold front teeth. He had small scars up and down his arms and hands. His friend kept his head down, staring at the black and white tiles on the floor like they were a chessboard on which he needed to make his next move.

Winking at Lucia, Ashley walked over to seat them.

“Thanks again, doc,” she playfully called over her shoulder.

“Add it to my tab,” Lucia replied, sliding over the counter and landing with her hands on her hips.

The men were silent as Ashley led them to their table. Ashley was busy watching Lucia race to the kitchen when the man with gold teeth startled her by grabbing her wrist.

“I’m Walter, and this is my pupil, Grant,” he said.

Grant’s chewing tobacco sloshed around his gums; he spit the black tar into an empty plastic water bottle. He still hadn’t looked up at Ashley. Pulling two pocket Bibles out of his jeans, he slid one over to Walter.

“Well, Walter, Grant, I’m Ashley, and I’ll be your server today. Is there anything I can get you two started with drink-wise?”

“Water with ice will do fine, sweetheart,” said Walter.

Ashley waited, but Grant said nothing as he flipped through his Bible.

“Okay then, two waters with ice coming right up,” she said.

Grant looked up at her, his pale eyes narrowed as they wandered down Ashley’s petite figure.

“No ice,” he grunted, his voice as raspy as an eighty-year-old smoker.

“Thank you, darling,” said Walter, running his hand up Ashley’s lower back. “You take care of us, and we’ll take care of you real good.”

He pulled out his wallet and tapped on the money sticking out of it. She thought of the bleeding man in the desert; had he had the same bent nose? He’d been too far away to make out much of his face.

Ashley shivered, racing off to the kitchen as fast as she could. Lucia pulled her inside as soon as she reached the door; Marshall was standing with her, holding out his spatula with two hands like it was a sword. He was a big man with shark tattoos on his triceps, but that didn’t stop him from shaking like a puppy left out in the rain.

“What’s gotten into you two?” Ashley asked.

“Oh, Ashley! I’m so, so sorry,” Lucia cried, pulling Ashley into a tight embrace.

Ashley was confused, but she couldn’t help but enjoy the feel of Lucia’s touch on her skin and the smell of her lavender perfume. She pictured them tangled together in bed, Lucia cuddling her after another nightmare of her father’s corpse jolted her awake.

“Should we call Officer Quienten?” Marshall asked Lucia.

Lucia scratched her head, standing on her tiptoes to look out the small window at the top of the kitchen door.

“I should’ve recognized them as soon as they walked in,” she whispered to herself.

“Lucia? Should we call Officer Quienten?” Marshall repeated.

“Call Officer Quienten? Why would we do that?” Ashley asked. “What’s going on here? Are those guys dangerous?”

Marshall grabbed Ashley’s shoulders.

“You mean you ain’t heard the rumors about the dudes in gray shirts that stand in circles and speak in tongues in the desert? Two girls have gone missing since they came to town, and one of them, Bethany, wore the same pink headbands as the one the cops found by Tortuga Mountain. Lots of sightings of them by Tortuga Mountain. That’s why folks don’t go hiking over there anymore.”

Lucia shook her head.

“Bethany used to come in here every day. It was a damn shame what happened to her. All this started before you came to New Mexico,” she explained to Ashley. “They haven’t had any incidents since you came to town. God knows I hoped they’d finally disappeared. I’ve never seen a pair of them come into town before. No one knows where they come from, and each time the cops go into the desert to find them, they vanish.”

Ashley didn’t want to believe them. It felt safer to dismiss them as foolish.

“You think because these guys have on gray shirts, they're part of some cult?” she asked.

“Tongues, Ashley! These dudes speak in tongues!” Marshall exclaimed. “My cousin’s best friend’s ex-boyfriend, Garett, told me about a time he and this girl named Heather were hiking Tortuga, and one of the dudes in gray started following them on the way down. The dude stayed about twenty feet back, but he was breathing really heavy and shouting these Bible verses at the sky. So my boy, Garett, tries to let the dude pass, but every time they stop, the dude stops. Garett shouts for him to get lost, but the dude starts chanting in tongues and chasing them down the mountain. Heather started running, so Garett sprinted after her, and by the time they reached the bottom, the dude was nowhere in sight.”

“And I let you take their order like nothing was wrong,” Lucia cried.

Ashley patted her friend’s wrist before filling up two glasses of water from the sink. She wasn’t about to let small-town rumors stop her from getting a good tip: her car needed new hubcaps.

“Nothing is wrong. Some guys chanting in the desert are no stranger than any other religion. It sounds like the police aren’t sure how those girls disappeared, but nothing is going to happen to me in the middle of the diner.”

Ashley backed out of the kitchen and toward the men’s table.

“Be careful,” Lucia hissed after her.

She and Marshall scrambled over each other to get a good view from the kitchen window.

“Here are your waters,” Ashley cheerfully announced.

She placed the glasses in front of the men, who were deeply engrossed with a Bible verse. Ashley cleared her throat.

“Do we think we’re ready to order, or do you two need a few more minutes?”

Walter looked up from his Bible and whistled.

“Do you pray, sweetheart?”

“Excuse me?” Ashley asked, genuinely taken aback by the question.

Grant sloshed around and spat out more chewing tobacco.

“He asked if you prayed,” he grunted, furiously flipping to the next page in his Bible.

“No … I mean, not really,” Ashley answered honestly. “When I was little, my dad and I used to go to church, but—”

The memory made the words catch in Ashley’s throat. For a moment, she was back in her dad’s pickup, getting to sit in the front as they stopped for ice cream on the way back from his sermon. Tears flooded her vision.

“But he … he died not too long ago. Excuse me,” Ashley exhaled.

Walter pulled her in close and ran a finger across her cheek. Lucia stepped out of the kitchen, looking like she was going to tackle Walter.

“Ashley, we could use some help back here with the fryer,” she said.

Jolting back to reality, Ashley yanked herself out of Walter’s grip; he’d pulled her so close his nose grazed her neck.

“Girl needs a proper daddy,” Grant asserted, staring at Ashley as she raced back to the kitchen.

Wiping tears from her eyes, Ashley let Lucia and Marshall push her into a chair.

“Don’t worry about it,” Lucia said, tucking Ashley’s hair behind her ear. “I’ll take care of it.”

Lucia raced out of the kitchen. Ashley didn’t know what she would say to the men, and she didn’t care. Marshall tried to keep her seated, but she wiggled free. He tried to chase after her, but she sprinted out the back door and ran as hard as she could until she collapsed on the soft carpet of her apartment floor. Locking the door behind her, she wept.

Racing to her bedroom, she found the one picture of her father she’d stuffed at the bottom of her still unpacked suitcase and tossed it out her window. Locking her bedroom windows and door, she pushed her bed into the corner of the room and wrapped herself in every blanket she had. Lucia called her ten times before she shut off her phone; she heard banging on her front door, but she refused to answer. She drifted off to sleep around two that night; images of her dad’s waxy face with Grant’s pale, cold eyes haunted her dreams. She watched him sit up in his coffin and slosh around his chewing tobacco.

“Girl needs a proper daddy,” he growled.

Ashley woke before her alarm. Leaving her phone behind, she took off into the dark desert, needing more than ever to escape into the nothingness and scream into the void. Out here, she wasn’t afraid of anything. Out here, she was a warrior. She ran to Tortuga Mountain, daring the men in gray to come after her. Veering off the trail and into the wild brush, she climbed higher, the thinning air burning her lungs.

She was halfway up the mountain when she heard a slosh in the dark. She stopped, and the sound moved closer. She squinted down the mountain, searching for the outline of her pursuer, but all she could see was black. The slosh moved closer, followed by a hacking spit and heavy breaths.

Ashley knew she should run, but her knees locked, and her breath stopped. She closed her eyes, praying with all her heart that the noise would go away.

Slosh, slosh, slosh.

Ashley felt a rough, familiar hand on her cheek. Two men were breathing behind her.

“The girl has come for prayer,” Walter snickered.

“The girl has come for a proper daddy,” Grant growled in Ashley’s ear.

His hot breath smelt like tabasco.

“What do you want?” Ashley whispered, her eyes still shut tight.

The men didn’t answer her; they each lifted her by an armpit and carried her up the mountain.

“My mom will call the police as soon as I don’t answer her phone call,” Ashley started to cry. “Lucia! The girl from the diner! She knows exactly where I run and how long it takes me to get back, and she’s probably calling the cops right now, so you better let me go. Let me go! Let me go!”

“Scream all you like. Ain’t nobody up here. Ain’t nobody coming, sweetheart,” Walter said. “Pray, and your fate will be in our Father’s hands.”

Ashley opened her eyes. Atop the mountain were ten bald, middle-aged men in gray tee shirts and baggy blue jeans. They stood in a circle; a cross lay at each of their feet with a photo of Ashley’s father tapped to its center. It was the same photo Ashley had thrown out the window yesterday; her father was posing in his cassock with a Bible in his hand.

The sun rose, turning the black stone a soft orange as the men began their Latin chant.

“Et erunt ei in patrem, et eris mihi in filiam. Quæ cum non malum, ut doceret te et in eius modi solito.”

Walter let Ashley go to join his place in the circle. Grant held her from behind.

“Get on your knees and find your true Father,” he spat in her ear.

Ashley started to kneel, but halfway down, she jerked her foot back and kicked Grant’s groin with all her might. Flopping like a fish out of water, Ashley broke free and screamed. She screamed for her father, for her mother, for Lucia, for tomorrow, and for every breath left in her life. The men closed in around her, but she was faster than them all.

Ducking under a cursing Grant, she jumped toward the mountain’s ledge and rolled down at least a hundred yards. Covered in fresh, sticky hot blood, she scrambled to her feet. Adrenaline pumped away the pain as she sprinted down the mountainside. She didn’t need the trail; she knew the foothold: she’d run them all in the dark.

Lucia came running toward her as she reached the base.

“I saw the blood while you were coming down,” she cried as Ashley collapsed into her arms. “I was so worried about you. I’ve been searching the trails all morning. I’ve called the police. It’s all going to be okay.”

The police never found the men in gray shirts. There were no signs of crosses or pictures of Ashley’s Dad left on the mountain. Ashley and Lucia started living together not long after that morning; Lucia thought it was too dangerous for Ashley to be alone for a while. Their friendship soon blossomed to love. When Lucia was accepted to a state university in New Hampshire, Ashley went with her. They rented an apartment five minutes from Ashley’s childhood home, and she got lunch with her mother every Sunday. Sometimes, she still heard the slosh of Grant’s chew behind her, but with time the nightmares grew less vivid and further apart.

One Sunday, late in spring, Mom showed up to lunch in a red dress that reminded Ashley of the New Mexico sunrise. They sat at a booth in a local diner. Mom looked confused as she pulled a sheet of crumpled notebook paper out of her purse. Ashley and Lucia never told her about the men in New Mexico; Ashley refused to give them another woman to scare.

“What’s this? Another recommendation list from your book club?” Ashley giggled. “You know we have different tastes in books.”

Mom shook her head.

“No, it’s the strangest thing. The cat opened the door to your old room yesterday. I hadn’t been in there in so long, so I poked around and sat on the edge of your bed like I used to when you were a little girl. I was about to leave when I felt something under the covers.”

Mom slid the paper across the table.

“Is this yours? It’s a bizarre note.”

Ashley’s hands trembled as she flipped over the blank paper. There was a tobacco stain in the corner. Holding back tears, she read the note aloud.

“Still praying for the girl that needs a daddy.”

About the Author

Matthew Downing

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Matthew Downing is a writer in Chicago. He lives with his partner, Caroline, and their puppy, Ripley. He has been published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Bangalore Review, South Florida Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. You can find his work at matthewdowningstories.com.