Rest Stop by Ana Crouch Ureña
Since I can remember, I’ve spent summers at my grandmother’s house on the coast. It’s a long drive, but this year will be the last time I make it. Mimi died in the spring. I was so upset, I even told my students about her. I was as surprised as they to find myself recounting how Mimi came to the US as a war bride. Really, I knew almost nothing about it; she never talked about that time.
Mimi was the one who got me into Classical Studies. She used to read to me from a beat-up Bullfinch’s Mythology, and I used to dream of Cupid and Psyche, of Perseus and Medusa. I am to clean out her old beach bungalow, and I hope to find the book among her things. It was not at her house in Charlotte. I haven’t seen it in years, actually, but when she died I remembered it, and I’ve been looking out for it since.
Mimi left all her grandchildren a moderate bequest, and in addition, for each of her other grandchildren, she left some specific gift. But she left nothing in particular for me. I think if I can find the book, it will serve. I can tell myself she expected me to find it.
I pull into a crowded rest area somewhere in North Carolina. It’s one of those places just off the highway, with a squat brick building housing the bathroom, another the concessions. I buy a Coke, walk back to my car holding the bottle against the back of my neck, letting it drip down my back. I look for some shade under which to park my car for a while. For months I’ve been suffering from a persistent exhaustion for which no one can find a cause. Far at the back of the parking lot, behind the bathrooms, behind the semis, there are some spindly loblolly pines and elms. I decide I can rest there a while.
It’s hot enough to peel paint, even in the shade. I recline in my driver’s seat and point all the air conditioning vents at my arms. I close my eyes, and turn my face into the crook of my elbow where there is a pool of dimness.
But soon there is a rapping on the glass of my window. Standing there is a man. He’s in a Hawaiian shirt, his hair close-cropped and tending more towards salt than pepper, pudgy stomach distended over the belt of his cargo shorts, and he is bespectacled, with the mild, sweet face of a person with something to ask of you. I wish I hadn’t opened my eyes. I don’t want to roll down my window. I don’t want to be rude, though. When I press the button, I touch it a second too long, and the window rolls all the way down rather than the three inches I intended.
“Can I help you?” I ask.
“Hey,” he says, leaning down and putting his elbows on my window sill, “I saw you getting a drink.” He lets a beat pass, and then, in a voice made low by excitement or shame, he asks, “Do you wanna come to my truck for a little bit?” He leans away, turns his body in the direction of the trucks, which sit huge, heavy, gleaming in their spaces. People walk in and out of the bathrooms, sticky children, nice mothers, none of them look over here. They seem very far just now.
He reaches into my car and touches my hair. I recoil, and he draws his hand away, looking confused.
“No,” I say, emphatically. I roll my window up, and I feel so embarrassed for both of us. A part of me even wants to apologize to him, as if his problems are my responsibility. I’m sorry, sir, that you mistook me for a prostitute. He stands on the other side of the glass a moment, then, rather uncertainly, gives me the finger. I almost laugh. Normally, I’m a very calm person, and I know how to laugh things off. So I don’t know where this sudden, boiling fury comes from. I wish I could tell him what errand I was on my way to do, and I wonder if it would make any difference. I am not a person of any particular faith, but I can’t stop feeling like this trip to Mimi’s house is a sort of pilgrimage, and now this ugliness, which I will always remember, has marred it.
I’m furious, and then this pain starts at the back of my head. In a moment it’s as if someone were pressing a live coal to the skin at my crown, and it spreads downwards like something boiling over. I hear myself moaning. Something bad is happening to me: the thought seems to come from a great distance, lazily. I have to get help.
When I step out of the car, into the enveloping heat, I have a fleeting impression that this rest stop is not really what it seems. The ground seems to be shimmering. Is it the heat? I fall to my hands and knees. I stay there, on all fours. The man is walking away, but he turns.
“Are you ok?” he asks, in a wary voice.
I cannot speak; I am out of breath with pain. It feels as though my skull is ripping apart. My heart feel like a hummingbird, trapped in my chest.
The trucker takes a step forward. I reach out a hand to him: help me. He stays where he is, uncertain. No, he isn’t going to come closer. I press one of hands to my head, and there is something there, moving under the skin. My scalp is very warm. I feel so faint. I let myself drop all the way to the ground, and lie there on my side on the hot asphalt.
I close my eyes. Deep breaths. When I calm down a little, I start feeling something aside from the pain. The feeling is familiar, but so distant. It comes to me, again, slowly: it’s just like when I was small and hung upside down from the monkey bars, so that my hair was all hanging down, and I could feel the breeze in it. A feeling like my scalp had come alive. I feel something moving against the curve of my ear, something gentle as a finger tracing me, and then I hear a hiss.
“The fuck?” asks the trucker.
I am looking at his white sneakers when his transformation begins. First, his feet turn to stone. I watch him struggle to move them. He tries to pick up a leg with his hands. His pink ankles go chalk-pale and dry looking. Then his calves, covered in their sparse, gray curls, take on the look of limestone. The clothes don’t turn. Now it is he who holds his hands out to me in entreaty. I hear my ragged breathing and his, growing shallow and short as the change reaches his chest, moves up his neck. I am looking in his eyes when it ends. They are huge and dark brown, like a dog’s. We exchange something intimate. I feel as if I’ve taken something from him, but I could not tell you what. Fear or disbelief or wonder.
For a moment his eyes are cloudy, then they are stone.
My pain recedes very quickly. In shock, I take my hands and carefully place them on my head. All scales and writhing movement amidst my familiar hair. Snakes. I cannot panic; it’s as if the pain and its departure have sapped my capacity for panic. The things on my head hiss again, softly. Somehow, the sound is not unfriendly.
I pick myself up from the hot asphalt. The rough ground has left its imprint on my bare arms and legs. Tiniest pebbles cling, embedded, to my skin. Still, no one at the rest stop has looked over here.
I go over to my car door and look at myself. It doesn’t even occur to me that this might be dangerous, but it turns out that part of the myth isn’t true. Sprouting from my head, their bodies just the same shimmery brown color as my hair, are five snakes.
I run my hands over my head again, and I take hold of one. At first, I am too scared to really touch her, but I force myself. She is warm, smooth-scaled. I move my hands up her body, to feel where she is connected to my own sore head. I gasp when I feel it.
She moves gently under my touch, as if she were dancing, reveling in the sunshine, the joy of having accomplished a great and terrible thing. The trucker’s face is frozen in surprise.
Something strange is happening to me inside as well as out. I didn’t realize how lonely I was feeling, since Mimi died. I only sense it now, because of the relief I feel. It’s their doing, of course. I feel light. Alone, I was vulnerable. I take a deep, shaky breath.
“You should have known better,” I tell the statue, softly. I say this out loud because one of the snake whispers that he can hear me.
I have so many things to ask them. I know already that they are older than me, that they have lived other lives. I can feel that about them. One of them tells me: We knew your Mimi. She tells me that the time for being sorry for people is behind us, and that we are a different kind of woman now.
Ana Crouch Ureña is a fiction writer originally from the Dominican Republic, now living in Charlotte, NC. She has work appearing or forthcoming in the Black Warrior Review, Little Fiction, and the Spark Anthology. She earned her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and is working on a novel about women in 16th century Santo Domingo.