THE HORSESHOE • by Jared Shaffer

They tied Bill again and again to the Horseshoe. The longer he was strapped in, the more he felt the black nylon rope grow teeth that dug into his forearms. The Horseshoe—U-shaped, wooden—sat on top of a counter, and he was on his knees before it. The lukewarm water that pooled in spots on the concrete floor left sores on his knees. He thought of sprinklers and hoses and the sweet plastic smell inside a toy water gun.

In the corner of the warehouse diagonal to the Horseshoe, he slept and ate, chained to the wall. Light jazz music played at all times. His captors wore masks, but he saw their hands. Sores grew and cracked along the edges of their knuckles. Once, he watched as a dark fingernail drifted off one of their fingers, the man not noticing. These men bathed him each day in a third corner, smelling his head. They smelled like rot, like skin if it had been covered by electrical tape and left unwashed for a week. He didn’t know where they went when they left here, if they had homes, if they slept in cardboard boxes or minivans or houses.

They’d snatched him through his bedroom window one Saturday morning. His baby had finally gone to sleep after a night of crying, and Clare was taking a nap with her in the nursery. He sat on the floor against the window, eyelids going up and down. Then those hands were under his armpits, on his shoulders, dragging him outside, hands all over him, his face pressed against mulch, his bare feet smashing flowers.

He asked about Clare and the baby every day. He didn’t have anything to bargain with, but he offered the men his life if they’d just tell him the two were safe. They swatted his hand away as he reached out toward their masks.

They strapped weighted bags to his back while he was in the Horseshoe. He was pulled back by the bags and forward by the Horseshoe, and the idea of his body splitting promised relief. Your body isn’t a pile of sticks that falls apart when kicked. It is resilient to a fault. It can accommodate a range of motions. You will survive being pulled, weighed down, prodded, tagged, grabbed, bit, torn, twisted, scrubbed, rearranged, balled up, stretched out. This truth, he believed, is what the men were showing him, and if he made it through, he would join them.

A man without a mask appeared. He had a ponytail and wispy sideburns that looked accidental. He was their leader. They moved out of his way. He wore the shoes, pants, and coat off a rented tuxedo. Standing in front of Bill’s cot, he nodded. Bill thought he looked like a convenience store clerk who drank too much 5-Hour Energy.

Then, they were in a jeep, driving. He was tied up, sitting in the backseat beside the clerk. The driver wasn’t wearing a mask, and his jaw seemed tight. Bill recognized his hands.

“You ever done anything like this?” the clerk asked, smoothing out his ponytail.

By evening, they arrived at a cemetery he didn’t know. Then, the three of them were standing. He had a rag in his mouth and was looking anywhere but down. The clerk was watching him. The driver was looking down at the already dug hole.

A nodding security guard had let them through the gate. Into the heart of the cemetery. Bill didn’t have to guess. He had guessed Clare liked him when he first asked her out. He was incredulous that no one else at the bar had bought her a drink or hit on her. She was tall, but so what? So he guessed that he could convince her that he was not just interesting but worthwhile. A tall woman with a short man always seemed like a temporary arrangement, but theirs was not. And could he be a father? He could. Faces, voices, songs rose up from nowhere to make his baby laugh. All because he had guessed.

In the warehouse, he had guessed. He had guessed that the Horseshoe was preparation, a test. His back was straining, but not so that it would break.

Now, there was no guessing. He was standing above the hole but not for long. He looked down. Water was at the bottom. Leaves spun in circles. He promised himself that he would imagine that the leaves were water lilies and that he was diving into his future lake. Clare and the baby would wave from the bank. Farther up the bank was their kayak and their summer house, with a kitchen full of tomatoes, oranges, and iced tea.

The clerk pressed his index finger onto the rag and into his mouth, rubbing the cotton along his gums and tongue. He untied the rag.

“I think he’ll cry,” the clerk said to the driver, who crossed his arms and held his elbows in his palms.

As he fell, he thought of nights stretched out at the warehouse, where he lapped at the cuts on his arms, pretending he was cleaning the wounds of his wife and baby.

The water level was low in his grave, and he hurt his shoulder when he hit. It must have rained earlier that day. He lay sideways and moved his head up when he could for air. Dirt was being shoveled down on him from above.

Jared Shaffer’s stories have appeared in Cellar Door, Red Cedar Review, West Trade Review, and the anthology Songs of My Selfie.

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