Elizabeth pulled her shirt tight against her torso and watched as the fabric stretched thin. She turned to view her profile in the full length mirror. Below her open window, a street car rattled around the corner, throwing up an effluvium of recycled bourbon.
“Dammit,” she exhaled and picked up her phone to call her parents.
Many excuses for skipping Christmas slid behind her eyes, but none would have absolved her worries. Really, any excuse, even if a believable one, would have only delayed her problems and highlighted the existence of a secret lying within for her family to scrutinize until she lost her mind and confessed. She was only in her second year at Tulane, but had never missed a family Christmas. Inevitably the alarms would sound. Realizing this, she closed her phone and threw it back into the worn-out couch.
She had already asked Zach to come home with her before deciding whether she was actually going; somewhat testing the new father. His awkward hesitation and irrelevant questions told her everything she needed to know. She did not press the issue. Ever since the stick turned blue, the question of commitment had been the silent scythe passing between their breaths with each conversation, waiting for a moment to cut to the bone. She chose not to call him before leaving, not wanting to actually hear the certain disappointment.
It typically took around five hours to drive from New Orleans to Brundidge, Alabama. Perhaps longer on Christmas Eve, especially when missing the necessary turns. Elizabeth flew past the I-65 connector without blinking and had to continue on I-10 across Mobile Bay. Almost to the middle of the bay bridge, she was forced to pull over, unable to wait until she reached the other side. She sprinted to the cold steel rail and vomited Grape-Nuts into the bay below. The mullet flashed about in a frenzy as if God himself poured slop down from heaven. Cars honked and threw gusts of wind as they angrily accelerated past her.
“Christ!” she gasped, wiping her small mouth with her sleeve.
The winter clouds tumbled overhead as she watched the fish pick apart her offering. Elizabeth was tired already and began dreading the coming months.
“Men get out of everything!” she cried to the striking fish.
She continued to spit into the bay until her mouth was dry. The mullet ate that too, picking apart the saliva like bread crumbs. Gulls immediately took notice of the feast and began to call out, each one of their alternating cries ricocheting off the passing cars. She released her ponytail holder and let the bay wind comb through her curls. A brief calmness fell over her as if she was just baptized in a warm Gulf current. Her eyes brightened for a moment.
After eventually connecting to I-65 and travelling over thirty miles northeast, the Wind Creek Casino caught Elizabeth’s attention as it towered above the modest Atmore horizon. She decided to pull off at the exit, but turned left away from the casino and the traffic, into a solitary gas station, exhaling fully as if she were holding her breath the entire trip. The station appeared open, but with few signs of life. The pumps sat quietly in the frigid Alabama air. A feral cat jumped down from the dumpster, shaking its back leg as if emerging from a tub. The door to the store chimed as she entered.
“Good afternoon,” the short clerk said from behind the counter, looking up from his trade magazine.
She nodded and continued to the bathroom. A wall-length mirror greeted her within, but she turned away immediately as if trying to avoid eye contact with an annoying acquaintance. After finishing in the stall, she chose not to wash her hands, turning her back to the sink and the all-seeing mirror. She grabbed a Sprite and headed to the counter. Bing Crosby sang “The Little Drummer Boy” from an old radio in the corner.
“This all, ma’am?”
She nodded, pushing back her strawberry blonde hair. The clerk hopped off his stool and appeared to shrink. Elizabeth could see the top of his dark thick hair.
“You a Saint?” he asked with sincerity.
She looked to him awkwardly, not sure what he said or meant, her mind floating in distant realms, “No…I don’t—”
“No, Saints?” he asked, removing the reading glasses from his small dark face and pointing to her full breasts.
Her face flushed red as she looked down at her sweatshirt, “Oh, oh, New Orleans. Yes, yes, I am.”
A smile appeared under his thick moustache as he put his glasses back on, “That’ll be $1.89, ma’am.”
She rifled through her purse.
“I like Saints, too. You on way down?”
She continued looking in her purse, “No, I wish. Just left there. On my way home.”
“Ah, you from here?”
She looked up, trying her best not to appear annoyed, “Brundidge.”
“Ah, I just moved from that area—well, Troy actually. You familiar?”
She glanced at his name tag and tried to pronounce Nirabadha three times in her head. “Yea, I am. Know it well,” she said, faking a smile. “Too well,” she mumbled under her breath.
“Nothing like going home,” he said, placing the change in her small hand, looking for her eyes.
“Nope, nothing compares.”
He smiled and cocked his small head, “Be safe, ma’am. And have a Happy Holiday.”
“You too,” she nodded, looking down as she pushed open the door to the cold.
A bobtail truck from Arkansas now rested by the dumpster. The round driver waddled around from the back, pulling at his belt as if he had been sitting so long the leather forgot its job. He immediately focused his thin eyes on Elizabeth, groping her with a long gaze.
“Well, hey there, sweetheart!”
Her head instinctively turned to the voice, but quickly realized the mistake.
“Yes, ma’am, look at you,” his call echoed.
She pulled at her purse and eyed the ground. No other cars entered or pumped fuel; the two were alone in the wilderness of the remote lot. The feral cat scampered back across the pavement, hoping someone brought food. As Elizabeth approached her Accord she sensed a strange air close in, then felt the warm breath of the highwayman rain down on her neck. It smelled of Red Bull and damp tobacco.
“Don’t tell me you all alone now?” he whispered, rolling his head on his neck like a bull with a slow itch.
Her heart pumped through her thick sweatshirt. Her mind raced. She immediately thought of her baby’s heart, floating within, he or she counting on mother to make the right decisions. She longed for Zach more than ever, his family was in danger and needed him. She regretted the unspoken games. She regretted not calling him.
“I know I am. Shoot, lonely out ’ere on the road,” he said, grabbing her wrist with a snake-like quickness as she reached for the car door. “Really hate to be alone now. Especially this time of year. Just ain’t right.”
They both looked at his rough hand on her skin. She then peered directly into his thin eyes, as if she could not believe the words were real, as if she could not believe the interaction was truly taking place. His grip was cold and tight. His breath overwhelmed the air. She felt cornered. He pulled her closer, his overworked belt rubbing against her fleur-de-lis. At that moment, a primal energy swelled up inside Elizabeth, eclipsing all fears, insecurities or hesitations.
Then like a mother grizzly she roared back, “Really? You’re shitting me, right? That’s your pick up line to the random pregnant girl at the truck stop? Why don’t you go beat off to your barnyard animals, dick!”
A rogue wind blew across the lot. The door then chimed as Nirabadha stepped out to smoke, curiously eyeing the two. The truck driver glanced back to Nirabadha and slowly released Elizabeth’s wrist. The feral cat purred and stretched below their feet.
“Well now, you have a Merry Chri’mas, hear” he said, tipping his cap and smiling, showing off his butter bean teeth as he walked towards the store.
The primal instinct slipped in her being and then out as quickly as it came. An Elizabeth she had never met and instantly revered. She looked back at Nirabadha and ducked into the Accord, not letting either man see her wipe her eyes.
The tires and wind provided the only external sound. She left the radio off since her thoughts were too loud to allow any other occupants in the car. Around Greenville she again almost missed her turn. Maybe subconsciously or maybe fate sending her a flash of a road—an option—to take and not look back. Nonetheless, she reacted without thought or preparation, like a reflex, swerving the Accord from the left lane straight across to the white warning tracks of the ramp. Fortunately, the eighteen wheeler cruising parallel to her for the previous nine miles had slowed to sixty-five for reasons unknown.
Before turning off the ramp to head deeper into the Wiregrass country, she again questioned her decision to come home. She ran through the scenarios and the conversations, then began to hate them, all of them, from second cousins to sisters, foreseeing their reflexive nods and fake smiles, imposing their small town judgment onto her, not knowing what she had been through, not knowing her, not knowing Zach, not knowing temptation or anything tangible outside their church picnics and tree stands.
I will never be the same in their eyes, Elizabeth sighed with finality in her head.
Then, inadvertently, her thoughts turned back to the perverted truck driver and the cold, indifferent road. She already missed the new Elizabeth that she just briefly met. Before she realized it, she had made the right turn, traversing further into her homeland.
A dry winter grey blanketed the pastures that flanked her. It was a dense grey, as if the ghosts of some battlefield were congregating and hiding the foreground. She then passed rusty trailers with colorful plastic manger scenes and reindeer lined in the yards and trees. At dusk these storybook figures alight and twinkle red and green on the dark desolate highway until midnight. When Elizabeth passed they simply sat as weathered toys left scattered in the yard. She tried to watch only the road, while thinking of Zach and holding her silent phone. Her thoughts pounded.
The winter sun had long since faded when she entered Brundidge. White lights strung across the derelict downtown sparkled like diamond laces on an old leather boot. She quickly eyed the old record store, the drug store, and the old gas station meeting spot, as if shuffling through someone else’s family pictures she did not ask to see. She passed through her old town as silent as she came.
Away from the downtown lights, darkness enveloped the Accord, allowing only two beams in the night, limited in distance and spread. Ten miles further east she turned into her family’s driveway—her home. The gravel lane wound for eternity through the thick dark pines until the Accord emerged before a modest two-story house, dwarfed by the untamed land and dense pines surrounding it. A bright glowing star hung on the weather vane and the wreaths twinkled on the windows, highlighting the warmth inside that only home could offer.
Elizabeth first noticed the large tree where she kissed Timothy, before he came out of the closest. She pictured the fort it made. The tree still stood as strong as ever, without one complaint for the weight it carried. She removed the seat belt and fluffed up her oversized Saints sweatshirt. Off to the side of the old barn she saw a Moutaineer, a Blazer, and a Cadillac parked in the grass.
“They all came,” she sighed.
Elizabeth looked into her own eyes staring back at her in the rearview: she tried to see traces of her mother serenely waiting within, but instead caught visions of harlots languishing about with cigarettes and dirty rags. She quickly closed them. A barn owl, veiled in the darkness, called deeply to the still night. She opened her watery eye-lids to the blurred mirror. This time, deep within the green iris, she saw her grandmother’s patient wrinkled smile.
Elizabeth jumped as her cell phone ringtone played “Joy to the World.” breaking the five hour silence within the vehicle. Wiping her eyes, she tried to focus in the dark and slowly read aloud the text message from Zach, “Have you told them yet? Just know that I love you and will be there by morning.”
She felt as if both hearts smiled underneath the black and gold fleur-de-lis. A calming warm current seemed to fall over her again. She closed her phone and opened the Accord, embracing the cold Alabama air.
Samuel Wilkes is an attorney, writer, and musician living on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay with his wife and large wiener dog, Gus. His work has previously been published in Mod Mobilian Press’ Tributaries 2012.