Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born and raised in Pumpkin Center aka Punkin’ Center, North Carolina. I’ve drank moonshine, gathered fresh eggs, fallen into cow manure, and been shocked by an electric fence. Cornbread and story-telling were staples around our dinner table.
Jack Was in Atlanta
Jack was in Atlanta, and he didn’t mean to be. He never really meant to be anywhere. He just ended up there through one circumstance or another. Adriana had said, “Let’s go to Georgia. I have people there,” and it was a done deal. They packed in the morning.
Who knows what “people” she meant, Jack wondered as he sat in the living room of a powder blue single-wide on Armageddon Loop, half an hour outside the city. It was the second day they have been in town. Adriana introduced Billy, the owner, as a friend of the family. He was a six-foot-four and sandy-haired guy, which would have been intimidating if not for his welcoming smile. The owner said his dad named the road, which circled right back around to the beginning; he was the only person who had lived down there at the time.
Ten or so people lounged on mismatched furniture in the living room and drank beer amid an intermingled odor of cigarette smoke, lavender-scented candles, and hamster shit; Jack’s stomach turned. The scent was faint, and no one seemed to notice it but him. The hamster cage sat on an end table beside the TV. Two hamsters lay curled together in a corner. Another one sat by itself in the other corner, wide-eyed against the glass and looking right at Jack.
More people arrived. Adriana and her cousin Jen pulled out a tray of raspberry Jell-O shots from the fridge. People started to put them down. Jack joined in. One shot. Two shots. Three shots. Four. The room spun intermittently. He noticed the hamster was still watching him. His eyes appeared to stare with more desperation, and Jack considered dumping a Jello shot into the cage for it.
Adriana and Jack sat in the floor, legs folded over each other. Adriana passed over a blunt; her hand rested on Jack’s leg. She slipped a plastic bag into his pants pocket and whispered, “I got a little present for us.”
“For now?” Jack whispered back.
“For later,” Adriana said, leaning back and relaxing against the bottom of the chair. “I don’t want to share. We have plenty for when we get back too. We’ll be able to take a trip even after we’re home,” she said with a giggle.
Sometime after midnight, Jack and Adriana climbed in the car and headed for home.
The blue lights flashed and sirens wailed behind them before they even made it back to South Carolina.
“What if they search the car?” Adriana’s voice shook. She put her hand on Jack’s leg.
“I was only going ten over.” Jack grumbled as the cop emerged from behind an open car door. “How much of it do we have left?” Jack asked.
“I don’t know. 10 hits. Maybe more.” Adriana replied, her eyes squeezed shut.
The cop started toward the car. Jack pulled the Ziploc bag from his pocket and slid out the packet of tin foil. He unwrapped it. They each took 15 hits, followed by a deep, shaky breath. It didn’t go down easy. Adriana slipped the remnants of plastic and foil down the front of her pants.
The moon was bright. Mocking. Jack was in Atlanta- he thought. The moon glowed. A beacon beckoning him home. Where was the car? Jack looked around. Stumbled. Fell. His elbow hit a rock and bled out in a thin stream of red. An orange-bellied spider waded across the stream and disappeared into a crevice.
Jack pulled himself to his feet, his eyes darting up and down the highway. Adriana? Trees along either side reached with outstretched, rubbery arms toward him. The moon glowed. Then it trembled a little, as if it was a creature trying to break out of its shell. Jack staggered toward it in anticipation. The shadows and craters on its surface growing wide, shifting along the surface, morphing into distinct features – a face. Jack saw a face – a jolly, round-cheeked, grinning face – a peculiar amalgamation of Santa Claus and The Cheshire Cat. Jack gaped into the face hovering in the sky above him, growing fuller and brighter. It winked back at him. Jack gasped and took a giant, unsteady step backward. Slender strips of moonlight reached down and encircled his arms and torso. They were light like feathers and tickled against his skin. Jack squirmed while the light feathery moonbeams wrapped around him loop after loop.
Jack grinned up at the moon. It smiled back at first, but its face started to change. Its eyes squinted, harsh and cold. Its jolly cheeks sucked in and turned gaunt. The moonbeams engulfing Jack grew stronger. He looked down. The moonbeams were gone, replaced by a scaly belt, olive green with speckles of black.
The snake clenched him tight, crushing his breath. Jack twisted, tried to scream, and clawed ferociously. He felt its eyes before he saw them. They were high-set on the snake’s head. It loomed above him now, watching patiently while Jack’s breath waned into faint, sporadic gasps.
Mrs. Pruitt was driving her pickup down I-85 when she spotted a homeless drunk on the side of the road. She slowed down and pulled over into the far right lane thinking she might call the police. It was too cold for him to be out here. The man stood frozen as if his feet were stuck to the dirt beneath them. His hands flailed about awkwardly, his elbows pinned to his sides.
The man looked old. Lost.
Her heart leapt in her chest, recognizing the shape of her son. Mrs. Pruitt had not heard from her son in days. She parked the truck beside him. The last she had heard was that he was with Adriana in Atlanta. No one had heard from her either.
She stopped, reached over and swung open the passenger door. “What are you doing,” she asked the tattered, wild-eyed figure.
He broke his arms free and swung around to face her.
His eyes softened. He smiled and fell into the seat. “I was coming home.”