My shift ended at four that night, just before the dinner crowd came in. I was still smiling to myself when Lucy, a diminutive white woman in her fifties with Dolly Parton hair and a froggy voice thanks to thirty years of smoking, replaced me.
My good mood evaporated on the ride home. The AC in the Jeep wouldn’t come on. I muttered a few of Momma’s favorite non-curse words and rolled all the windows down. It didn’t help. Just felt like someone had set a hair dryer to high and pointed it in my face. Hoping to distract myself, I turned on the radio. Nothing happened.
“God fucking damn it,” I said, punching the button a few more times. Momma would have washed my mouth out with soap.
The radio I could live without, and, I suppose, the AC too, though it would feel like riding in a sauna come August. Technically, I could afford to replace them, but I was loath to do so. There was a reason I lived as meager as I did. Each week I contributed to the bank account Momma had started for me when I was little. I scrimped and saved and ate meals at work and clipped coupons because every cent that I didn’t spend on myself now could go toward my future.
I had a plan, you see. The local library had more than just books. They had the internet, and one Sunday morning during my junior year I had sat there plugging numbers into a calculator for two hours straight. Four grand. That’s what I would need to move to Atlanta. It would cover what most apartment contracts required: first and last month’s rent, as well as a security deposit, with some left over to keep me afloat while I found a job.
If I lived as thriftily in Atlanta as I did here, after a few months, maybe a year, I could take a class or two at one of the local community colleges. Eventually, I could get my degree. No matter how long it took, I would get it, I told myself. Because a degree meant a better paying job. A degree meant not having to argue with someone about whether or not we could afford potatoes.
Three months. I had three months left until that bank account hit four grand at my current rate of contribution. And then I was out of this shitbag town and this shitbag life.
I pulled into my driveway and parked, fighting the urge to slam the door when I got out. The way my night was going, I’d probably break something that I would have to pay to fix. I closed it carefully instead. Just as the latch clicked shut I caught a flash of crimson out of the corner of my eye.
I brushed my sweat-slicked hair off my face and turned fully toward it. There was something lying in the dirt a few feet behind my Jeep. Something tan and brown and scaly. It didn’t look like it was moving, but I still crept toward it cautiously. Good thing. Turned out it was a copperhead – one of the many poisonous snakes that slithered through the woods and the swamplands that surrounded my house. It was definitely dead. Judging by the tire-sized flattened portion of its body and the blood that slowly oozed from it, I must have just run it over.
I frowned as I stared at it, trying to figure out what the hell it had been doing when I did. The thing was arranged in a near perfect circle, half of its own tail jammed down its throat like it had been…eating itself.
Despite the oppressive heat, a shiver slipped down my spine. I whirled away from the snake and went to grab a pair of sticks. I used them like elongated tongs, picking the serpent up and carrying it to the edge of the woods. I tossed it as far in as I could, not wanting the skunks or coons the corpse would attract anywhere near the house.
Then I went inside and bolted the door.
For once I wished I had splurged on the internet. Or a smart phone. I had a vague memory of reading about snakes eating their own tales. Something about the Egyptian underworld. Or was it a Grecian symbol of life? Damn it, I couldn’t remember. And I had no way of looking it up.
The sight had deeply shaken me. Perhaps, by itself, it wouldn’t have, but this was the second animal that had died around me in less than a week, both in what could be described as suicides.
To distract myself, I found the happiest, fluffiest romance novel I owned, settled down on my sagging, paisley-patterned couch, and read until my stomach growled, reminding me to eat dinner.
The next morning I stood at my bedroom window with my hands wrapped around a steaming cup of coffee. My gaze was fixed eastward as I watched the coming dawn stain the sky variegated tones of putrescent purple and nascent yellow, sprays of arterial red streaking in between.
It was ugly, violent.
“Storm’s coming,” Momma would have said.
I took a sip of coffee and turned away from the sight. I’d slept like shit again. My dreams had been…weird. Not nightmares, per se, just strange. The one I still remembered had featured a jackal-headed man that smiled toothily down at me from where he sat atop a gold gilt throne. He’d asked me to go for coffee in Levi’s voice.
I’d finally given up on sleep about half an hour ago, my mind filled with the snake and the bird and the man I was going to meet later. And how the three could be related. The first time I had seen Levi, a bird had died. The second, a snake. It was an odd set of coincidences that I should have known better than to read into.
But then there was Momma, filling up my head, telling me otherwise. She had been a big believer in signs. There was no such thing as chance in her world. If a tire went flat on the way to town, it was because Jesus was telling her not to go. If she tripped on her way out the door, he was telling her to stay home for the day. The same went for me.
I missed twelve days of school because of Jesus my senior year alone.
That amount of superstition sticks to your skin like spider silk, clinging on no matter how hard you try to brush it off. I had resented Momma for it right up until the morning she had died. Her car wouldn’t start right away and she had come back into the house planning to call in sick. Again. I had lost my temper, yelled at her about how much we needed the money, gone outside, and got the car started. A drunk kid from two towns over hit and killed her forty minutes later.
My mother was dead because of me. You can try to rationalize it all you want. But she was going to stay home. And I, in a temper, had bullied her into going to work. It was something I would never forgive myself for. And even though I knew that it had been nothing more than a freak accident, a small, irrational part of me still thought otherwise.
Despite my mother’s quirks, not everything she said had been steeped in superstition. Some of what she did had been quite literal. “Don’t trust men as far as you can throw ‘em, Ruby” was one of her favorite pieces of advice. “If you can’t pick that sucker up and toss him around, don’t trust that he won’t try to do the same to you.”
A crime thriller had taught me last year that people with the right computer skills could find out all sorts of intimate details about you with just your phone number, and I had been paranoid about it ever since. Levi was definitely large enough to overpower me. I had no idea who he was, where he came from, or what kind of man he was beneath that bright smile, those flashing blue eyes, and that easy, charming manner. Which was why I had offered to meet him downtown this morning instead of exchanging phone numbers.
We had planned for ten at the coffee shop. Both the bakery and the salon opened an hour earlier, and so that would give the old ladies plenty of time to finish their morning chores and settle in for a bit of mid-morning gossip.
Part of me was tempted to let my hair air dry after I got out of the shower, but then I remembered that the AC in the Jeep was broken, and any attempt to tame my curls would be ruined by the humidity. I pulled it into a tight braid instead. Makeup was a luxury I refused to shell out for. The time that would have gone toward applying it, I instead put toward picking out an outfit.
Shorts were obvious. But which shorts? I only had three pairs. And which of my tank tops would go best with each? Fashion was another luxury I couldn’t afford, and so it took me an embarrassing amount of time to pair a black tank top with olive-colored khaki shorts.
When I was done, I hung up everything I had yanked from my closet, carefully refolded the things I had pulled from drawers, and then checked the time.
Damn. Still an hour to go.
I had promised myself that I wouldn’t get worked up over this, but the butterflies in my stomach belied my failure. I tried to look at it logically, telling myself that I would also be anxious if I had been befriended by a strange woman. It was the unknown, the what if, that caused my nerves. In part. That Levi was a handsome man also played a part. So did the fact that I was about to antagonize all the old women who had once shunned my mother.
Hoping to kill some time, I paced to the living room and flipped on the TV. We still had rabbit ears on the thing, and so we only picked up a few of the local signals. The morning news was just drawing to a close. I watched it long enough to learn that a couple of idiot kids had nearly died of smoke inhalation after setting fire to a shed, one of the elderly citizens the next town over had died of a heart attack, a notoriously troublesome Billy goat had gotten out of his pen again and wandered five miles before he was caught and returned to his owners, and that we might see some passing thunderstorms today.
Life in a small town. So exciting.
Levi was already in the coffee shop when I got there, standing back near the windows as he looked over the limited menu. As this was the only place with a real life latte machine in the local area, the small interior was packed.
Because of the crowd, I saw Levi before he saw me. He was wearing jeans and a white v-neck again. The shirt was slightly rumpled and pulled tight across his chest and biceps, as if he’d just gotten it out of the laundry and thrown it on, and it hadn’t had time to stretch out yet. The simplicity of the outfit meant that there was less to detract away from that beautiful face. I paused, just inside the doorway, and studied it for a few heartbeats, my gaze lingering on his square jaw before tracing the arrow straight line of his nose to those impossible blue eyes.
His expression was unreadable, blank almost. It was the least animated I had ever seen him. Despite the crowd, there was plenty of open space around him, like the townsfolk were keeping their distance from him for some reason. As if sensing me there, Levi turned. His eyes lit with merriment and a hint of devilry, and his full lips spread into a welcoming smile.
“Ruby!” he said loud enough to carry.
People turned to glance between the two of us. Some whispered to their neighbors. I felt an unwelcome little thrill to have my name tied to him in their conversations.
“Hi, Levi,” I called back, swimming toward him through the sea of humanity that spread out between us.
I paused here and there to say hello to the people I was acquainted with, which was most of them, Momma’s lectures on propriety loud in my ears, prompting me to ask about someone’s kids or brothers or sisters or parents or cousins, when all I wanted to do was beeline toward Levi. One or two of them asked me who he was, the women with interest, the men with distrust. I kept my answers short and simple. He was new in town, and I was showing him around. Let them make of that what they would.
Levi was grinning ear to ear by the time I reached him.
“That took longer than I would have expected.”
“Welcome to life in a small town,” I told him.
He turned back toward the menu. “What’s good here?”
The crowd seemed to have followed me, and I found my left side pressed against his right as I was jostled, all the space I had noticed a moment before having evaporated. He smelled good. Like some dark, earthy cologne. Expensive cologne, most likely, because it lacked the chemical edge I was accustomed to.
“Depends on what you like,” I told him.
“What do you like?” he asked, something about the way his smile changed and his tone dropped making the question sound slightly lascivious. Just in case I didn’t pick up on it, he simultaneously winked and elbowed me in the ribs.
It was playful, and kind of dorky, and I rolled my eyes at him, my grin probably echoing the one he wore. My nerves fled in the wake of his teasing, all my earlier distrust and confusion and superstition forgotten. I felt just as I had with him in the diner, at ease like we were old friends, mischievous and adventurous like I was a kid again. It was unlike me, and I liked him more for bringing it out of me. It had been a long time since I had felt this type of kinship with another human. Over two years, in fact, since the day that Momma had died.
“In this heat, the only thing I like is their iced coffee,” I said.
“Cream and sugar?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Sugar will rot your brain. And I’m lactose intolerant.”
We joined the line then.
He leaned in so that I could hear him over the buzz of the other patrons, his breath warm on my neck. More than a few sets of eyes tracked the movement through the crowd. “Mind if I buy? As a thank you for showing me around town?”
I was never one to turn down free anything. “Sure,” I said. “And thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” he said, straightening.
We ordered our coffees – me, a small black iced coffee, and him a large frozen caramel macchiato that would have put a diabetic in a coma – and left.
“The rumor mill begins churning,” he said, glancing over his shoulder.
I followed his gaze, and saw that people were openly staring now. “Like I said, life in a small town.”
“It’s kind of like living under a microscope,” he said. “Makes me feel a bit twitchy.”
He gave his body a little shake to demonstrate, right there on the street where everyone could see him and wonder what the fuck he was doing. I nearly snorted coffee through my nose. Something about watching a man that handsome make an ass out of himself in public was hilarious to me.
“Careful,” I said. “Or you’re going to start the wrong sort of rumors.”
The smile he gave me was devil-may-care. “Ruby, there’s no such thing as the wrong sort of rumors. There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
I stopped dead in my tracks. “Did you just quote Oscar Wilde?”
He stopped too, turning toward me with a sheepish grin. “I was really into The Picture of Dorian Gray for a few years.”
I stared at him for a minute without saying anything back. He was gorgeous. He was nice to me. He was a little weird. And he had been really into one of my favorite novels.
“Who the hell are you?” I asked.
I would learn the real answer to that question far too late to save myself.