Where you live, there is a 7/11 with the parking lot slowly turning into gravel at the edges. The girl that runs the counter is missing her lower left bicuspid. Something you wouldn’t be able to see on a normal person, but her skin is tight like leather and pulled back from her mouth, her eyes exposing the hollow parts of her skull. She says she’s twenty-seven, but you’ve been coming here for fifteen years, and she still looks the same. There’s never been anyone else behind the counter. She wears a white starch shirt, with a neatly folded collar, and a small plastic nametag, with Anna Lin written on it in black sharpie.
She is missing her lower left bicuspid because she was hit in the face with a baseball bat during a robbery. This was her only injury, although she complains of loose teeth and jaw pain. If you ask her enough, if you’re nice, she may pull out a plastic baggy from under the counter, in it is her missing tooth, yellow and afflicted by a suspected cavity.
“It reeked for a while, because there was a bit of my gum stuck to it.”
When the 7/11 is robbed, Anna Lin is not upset. Teenage boys steal cartons of cigarettes and fifty dollars from the cash register. Often, their guns are not loaded. When a sixteen-year-old boy rushed into the 7/11 on a dare, to steal five cartons of cigarettes, he had the unpleasant experience of meeting Anna Lin’s patient face. His friends had given him a baseball bat as a weapon, but no one had ever had to use force against Anna Lin before. She was so accommodating; sliding wrinkled twenty-dollar bills across the well-polished counter. She never panicked about a robbery; she strongly believed that everything we lose comes back to us eventually. So the fact that the young man had swung the baseball bat at the left side of Anna Lin’s face had been quite a surprise. The fact that she had spit out her tooth, and rung up the next customer’s condoms and Sprite was not.
When you later suggest that her jaw might be broken, tell her that the left side of her face has become unintelligible, the eye completely covered in two swollen sacks of flesh, she’d shrugged.
“Don’t you want to go to the hospital?”
“Shift’s not over.”
“I mean maybe you should-“
“Buy something, or go home.”
She spat blood into a Big Gulp cup and turned her head to look out the grease-stained window.
Your future is in the foothills of West Virginia, in the Appalachian Mountains, in the sun burned necks of thick men with shovels for hands and black lung on the worried mouths of their frail Virginia wives. Women who use dishtowels like whips in sun-warmed kitchens, and have Irish Spring under their fingernails.
Your future is in the barren branched trees, and the wet mountain rock. If Hispanics believe in La Llorona wandering the river for her drowned children, then there must be thousands of mothers barefoot in the woods thinking they’ll find the sons they sent to the graveyard.
La Llorona is a legend your mother tells you. She is the crying woman. She drowned her children in the river to get revenge on her cheating husband. Punished in the afterlife, she was sent back to find her missing children. She waits at the bank of the river, her bare feet in the muddy water, long thin fingers reaching out. She is always crying. Tears have worn deep divots into her cheekbones. Her bloodshot eyes are always open scanning the tree line. Her sticky, tear stained eyelashes clinging to the worn skin around her eye sockets. She is very patient; she knows that not all rivers go out to the sea. She knows that the things we’ve lost will always find a way back to us eventually, and she’s got plenty of time for waiting.
Your mother believes in La Llorona, this is why she tells you to never go out alone.
When a seventeen-year-old boy gets shot at Anna Lin’s 7/11 in between pump five and six over some dispute about the improper payment for an ounce of methamphetamine, he is air lifted to the children’s hospital in Charleston. Anna Lin calls for an ambulance from behind the counter.
“Somebody’s been shot.”
“You know” she says, and hangs up.
You wouldn’t expect a West Virginia trauma ward to be that good, but they sewed up the hole in his shoulder with ease. If La Llorona lives near the river, then maybe a Witch Doctor lives in the hospital, waiting in the celling tiles during the day, clutching her staff to her withered breasts, eyes wide open, wrinkled claw hands lovingly caressing a baby’s blanket or a child’s toy. She would have to be an old woman, with clumps of hair clinging to a wrinkly scalp. She would have to have big, long fingers that look like twigs.
When it’s late, and all the nurses are half-asleep, she’ll contort through the ventilation, and crawl around on all fours from the NICU to the cancer ward, to intensive care to the emergency room. She’ll go into a child’s room, and mark one for death by pricking its thumb with her long sharp nail, and putting the smallest droplet of blood into a vial. She’ll take the parent’s blood, too, because the parents are always in the room, by bedsides.
You hope that none of the children die alone, but it happens. A mother goes for lunch, to change her clothes, to grab something from home, and returns no longer a mother. When this happens, the Witch Doctor takes the mother’s place, but only for a moment. The child cannot tell the difference, some say “Mommy?” and some reach out to her. Some turn away.
Nevertheless, she’ll hold their hands, she’ll steal the moment for herself.
Maybe she and all other mythical women know one another. Witches and Sirens, the Succubus and the Old Maid, La Llorona, play a game at your expense. You wouldn’t want to know what kind of bets they are making; you wouldn’t want to hear the assorted cackles when one of them carelessly moves a pawn.
There is something inherently eerie about my mother, and your mother, and the mother before her, a chain of blood soaked thighs and strings of sweat-drenched hair.
Two weeks after Anna Lin was robbed with a baseball bat, she installed something behind her counter, right behind her head, mounted on the wall. Although she never turns to look at it, you can tell she is proud of it. It is wooden and forty-two inches in length. It is cylindrical, and no more than two inches in diameter at it’s thickest. It’s width tapers down to a size where two palms, one stacked on top of the other, can easily fit around it. It is mounted lengthwise, with two nails at each end driven straight through, and into the cement wall behind it. You can just barely read the faded words Louisville Slugger on the handle.
This and her departed tooth in a baggie are Anna Lin’s only decorations.
The first time you see it, you ask her if she used to play baseball.
“No, it’s not mine. Someone donated it.”
Your future is in the foothills of West Virginia, in the deep winding roots of the mountain. Your future is in the big, broad leaves of the elm tree, the wide sturdy branches of the oak. Your future is in the thick West Virginia forest, where the foliage muffles the sounds of running feet.
Where you live, if you spend too much time outside you’ll get grit in your teeth. It comes up from the mine and out from the highway. Gravel, coal, and concrete, the ground is rich with minerals. A fist full of dirt will do wonders for your health. You can find frail and wrinkled old men dried out by the mountain wind, and the summer sun rubbing our Appalachian dirt into the crevasses of their faces, filling in the lines of their age with earth.
Once a mountain is mined empty, there are left behind mounds of dirt that drift in giant clouds under the wind.
In the fall, the forest retracts, sucks leaves back into branches and turns its back. Foliage is meant to hide how empty the forest actually is. Without it you can see how thin the trees are. The little boy next door calls them popsicle sticks; the same boy, the neighbor’s boy, wondered into the woods in late winter just before the sun was setting. It’s hard to find your friends in the dim light without the city’s glare reflected in the night sky, much less a six-year-old who was chronically short for his age. Flashlights don’t see much in the dark, except the darting eye shine of raccoons and startled deer. A mother cries on the back porch, which faces the woods, which faces her missing son.
They send out the dogs, but the dogs won’t go deep, and they lose the scent at the foot trail that leads up to the Greenriver Knob behind the 7/11. Anna Lin, behind the counter knows nothing about little boys. The search dogs whimper in the parking lot.
The leaves begin to grow back in covering his little fingers, drawing him into the roots like water. Or this is what his mother believes.
Someone puts fake plastic eyes on the giant oak tree out front; people hang bottles from the branches because there’s a rumor that it keeps away the evil sprits.
The bottles clink together at night.
Anna Lin’s 7/11 backs up to the woods, like everything else. Some girl went missing behind it three months ago. Kidnapping was suspected, but if you go out behind the dumpster you can find the foot trail that leads to the Greenriver Knob, where there’s a brown bear that likes to wander into campsites. He took off a man’s arm last fall. Teenagers wander off; it’s in their nature. Some of them fly off mountain roads at night when they take a curve too fast. Some of them climb to the top of the ridge, on purpose, and never come back.
There’s a broken down semi-truck outside of town with the tires stolen off and something rancid stinking up the truck bed. Our stretch of highway is a double yellow line and a wooden safety rail used for shotgun practice. You won’t find road kill, and I bet you can guess why. There’s a man that lives in a one-room shack next to the gravel road that leads up to the mine, he’ll skin anything you find if he can keep the pelts.
Your mother used to tell you not to be so picky. You hear about men who run over rabbits with their trucks on purpose.
A deer wandered into the parking lot of the 7/11 once between pumps two and three. An enormous buck with a rack still covered in fresh fuzz, the heat from its muzzle forming clouds of steam in the November air, its dull eyes not quite as dull as they should be.
It’s not uncommon to see a doe on the side of the road, or on the edges of the woods, soft and unassuming, darting in and out of your field of vision, but a buck is a rare occurrence. A hunter’s prize, hidden in the tree line, not in plain sight in the parking lot of a 7/11 between pumps two and three. Certainly not at Anna Lin’s 7/11, where there are no bugs in the bathroom, no raccoons in the dumpster, no living creatures besides herself and her patrons, and the buck, this once, between pumps two and three with fuzz on its antlers, and steam around its mouth.
If Anna Lin ever left her counter she might have gone out to meet it. But the parking lot is not her station, and her shift isn’t over.
There are two radio stations: one is fire and brimstone, the other scratchy classical that goes dead static every night at seven and wheezes back to life with Bach around four in the morning. In the 7/11 Anna Lin plays neither. You can occasionally hear the shift of her sneakers on the greasy tile floor. You have never seen her below the waist, and have no idea what type of shoes she wears. No idea what is attached to her hips. If she ever restocks the shelves it is when no one is watching.
You do not like the 7/11. You do not like Anna Lin. You do not like the woods. You have childhood fears of La Llorona, even though you live twenty miles from the river. You do not like to be out alone. Your mother told you it’s reasonable to be afraid of the dark.
Anna Lin is impartial to you. You buy your gas.
“Fifteen dollars on pump five.”
You pump your gas, and you leave. You swerve into the oncoming lane around curves, but everyone here does that.
Someone accidentally ran their car into the corner of Anna Lin’s 7/11. They broke through the large glass display window on the left side of the building and skidded to a halt half way in and out of row one, knocking over a rack of sunflower seeds and beef jerky, spraying Anna Lin and a woman at the counter with glass shards and cement dust. The woman took the resulting chaos as an opportunity to steal the package of cigarettes and bottle of aspirin she almost had to pay for. She lifted a pack of gum as well for good measure. The driver was unconscious; his head slumped down onto his chest in a way that didn’t promise recovery.
Anna Lin did not leave the counter when she called for the ambulance, and then the police, the tow truck, a contractor who tried to lowball her, and a contractor who knew better. The driver had apparently swerved to avoid a large buck that had appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the road straddling the double yellow line, its enormous rack turned toward the gas station. The driver swore it from his hospital bed, the same type of bed that he would later have to buy and have install in his home, a bed where he would spend the rest of his life. Not because the accident was terminal, but because it had severed a vital communication between his brain and his body.
Witnesses said they saw no deer.
“He was probably drunk, you know how it is around here.”
During his first few weeks in the hospital he bothered the nurses almost every night, swearing that he could feel someone watching him through the ceiling tiles. Once he saw long twig like fingers creeping over the white sheets of his hospital bed. He tells his doctors there’s an old woman in the room with him. The doctors chalk it up to brain damage, but the patient notices that they never look to closely at the corners of the room.
The wall and the glass window of the 7/11 were replaced, but when the contractor offered to buffer the skid marks off the tile floor, Anna Lin had declined.
“No, thank you. It’ll stay the way it is.” She didn’t grin when she looked at them, but it’s her own private joke.
You are a child lost in the woods. You have had mean schoolmates that tell you stories about La Llorona and Witches. In the real world Hansel and Gretel do not survive. Your mother told you not to wander. You disregarded this advice. There are unclear things in the shadows. That’s how horror stories go. Eye shine is a funny word, used to describe the reflection of light off the irises of unknown animals within the same vicinity. Eye shine means whatever you have seen has seen you, too.
You are a child, in the woods. You wear a green coat, with silver buttons. You wear galoshes. You are afraid you will miss dinner if you do not come home soon.
Anna Lin does not have children. That would be a ridiculous thing for Anna Lin. She works too much.
“You need the 7/11,” is something she would be inclined to say, although you know she means something different.
If you were to ever catch Anna Lin out from behind her counter, even though you never would, she would be wearing jeans and white sneakers. She would have her back to you, giving you the opportunity to pretend you have not seen this moment. Anna Lin does not need things from outside the counter. Maybe, the image of her lower half would be a little hazy, like a hologram. But that’s a bit of a stretch. Why would that happen?
There’s nothing strange about Anna Lin, or her 7/11. Just like there is nothing strange about the woods. There is nothing in the foothills but deer.
Late at night when you are supposed to be asleep, Anna Lin stands behind her counter. The overhead light may flicker. The parking lot is empty. She is holding a baggy with a tooth in it. Or maybe there are many teeth and you can only see one. Maybe it is your tooth, but that’s not how the story goes. You’re only making up the pain you feel in your jaw. Your tongue feels bone and mountain rock.
There is a shelf under the counter in which Anna Lin keeps many things, but you wouldn’t know about it, and she won’t share. You imagine they are ordinary things, like the muddy sneaker of a little boy, a single bottle of red nail polish, or a small pillbox full of coarse, brown, fur. You are not afraid of Anna Lin, only weary, cautious, like a small animal. There is a buck in your back yard that has been watching you, but only out of curiosity.
You are a child in the woods. You are lost. You are wearing a green coat with silver buttons and galoshes. The sun has set. You have missed dinner. Your mother told you not to wander. Your mother calls your name, but you cannot hear it. You cannot tell if there are branches or antlers above you. You think you hear crying, and you are certain it is not your own. You are nowhere near a river. You cannot tell your breath from the breath of another.
Anna Lin is behind her counter. She has nothing to do. She knows nothing about missing children, and why would she? She’s been here all day. Her shift isn’t over yet.
There is a single silver button in her pocket.
Rachel Dotson recently graduated with her Masters in Clinical- Counseling from Radford University. She received her Bachelors in English and Psychology from Western Kentucky University, and currently lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Southwestern Virginia. She will (hopefully) be traveling to Armenia next year to participate in a youth development program for the Peace Corps. She and her pet rat, "Squish" enjoy long walks on the beach, Taco Bell, and of course creepy, mythical women.