Author’s Note: This is the second chapter of a six part story. If you would like to read the first chapter, please visit The key.
The numbers inscribed on the brass key filtered through Damon’s consciousness. As the initial adrenaline rush of the discovery diminished in magnitude, the gears began to turn in the dormant recesses of his mind. Initially searching for a pattern in the numbers that simply wasn’t there, he stumbled upon an idea. Racing back to his laptop sitting on the bed, his loyal golden retriever, Gryffin, was following closely behind.
Lifting the lid and opening a browser window, Damon typed furiously into the search engine box. Upon submitting his request, the results staring back at him confirmed that his suspicion was indeed correct. The map shown on the screen after typing in the numbers on the key – 35.6109, -83.4250 – displayed latitude and longitude coordinates. It pointed to a location just off the Appalachian Trail, a sixteen hour drive from his present location.
High in the Smoky Mountains on the North Carolina/Tennessee border resides a scenic overlook named Newfound Gap. Its name – Damon was researching – had originated from the newly found pass through the mountains in the year 1872. Even though more than a century had elapsed since this discovery, Damon felt as though this site held at least one more discovery waiting to be revealed.
As he rotated the key through his fingers, Damon came to a metaphorical fork in the road – remain on the safe path towards another record quarter of revenues in his admittedly unfulfilling position, or throw caution to the wind and embark upon a quest filled with uncertainty. Damon knew what he should do – he should stay exactly where he was and keep on the well-paved path. Whether it was the curiosity of his awoken mind, the feel of the cold brass against his skin, or the animated actions of his canine friend, the endorphins began to flow freely. Cutting a piece of the wet twine that was previously clogged in the drain, Damon looped the key on to it like a necklace and hung it around his neck.
Gryffin could sense what this meant. Whether it was his canine sixth sense, or simply a recognition of the aura emanating from his master, he began to wag his tail vigorously and jump upon Damon in anticipation. Truth be told, Damon felt the same way inside. He just wasn’t quite ready to release that excitement outside of his protective shell yet.
The first night in his new home left Damon sleepless. The drafty crevices exposing the cold exterior, the dripping sink, and the wind blowing untrimmed branches against the windows kept him awake for most of the night. His second night would also be sleepless, but for a different reason – anticipation. If he thought that a twenty-four hour period could change his perspective so abruptly, Damon wouldn’t have believed it. With plans to leave at daybreak and break up the sixteen hour journey over two days, he didn’t bother with any more than a cursory email to his boss requesting an undisclosed number of vacation days to take care of some personal business.
With the sun rising in the east, Gryffin darted out of the house, waiting by the pickup truck while Damon locked the front door. It was a crisp, fall morning – a perfect day for a road trip – similar to the ones that Damon recalled from his college days. Somewhere along the way since those carefree days, he had adopted a more conservative attitude towards life. Even this slight departure from the norm, taking the metaphorical road less traveled on this particular morning, left Damon filled with a healthy dose of euphoria that would carry him two hours farther on his journey than he expected on the first day.
With daylight fading and his night blindness providing a high degree of anxiety towards attempting to drive after sunset, Damon exited the interstate and found himself on a county road running through rural Virginia. The road signs had indicated dining and lodging options available off this exit. He wasn’t buying it. After about a three mile drive down the road, Damon was ready to turn the truck around, return to the interstate, and try again one exit to the south. It was just then he saw a light on the side of the road up ahead. He muttered to Gryffin next to him, as if looking for validation, “We’ll turn around up there if we don’t find anything, okay buddy?”
The building coming into view resembled a diner. There was another structure behind it, a bit taller, that could pass for some sort of lodging option – in a horror movie, maybe. The venti sized cup of coffee he had consumed since his last pit stop was beckoning for attention. Talking to himself and not Gryffin this time, Damon offered up, “Well, at least I can see if they have a restroom.”
Walking through the front door of the establishment, Damon was surprised. The old adage – don’t judge a book by its cover – was certainly appropriate here. It wasn’t a highly sophisticated diner, but it was clean and had quite a few eclectic decorations scattered around the restaurant.
“Hi darling,” came a voice from behind the counter, “take a seat wherever you like.” The waitress offered up a greeting as if it was perfectly normal for guests to be coming through the front door. Based upon Damon’s experience, he was wondering how anyone ever found this place. Glancing at his truck parked outside, Gryffin was seated in the driver’s position, keeping watch through the windshield. With a cool breeze blowing through the rolled down windows, he would have been happy to remain parked there the entire night.
Damon took a seat in the booth closest to the door, just in case he found the need to depart quickly. He’d seen enough movies to know how plots unfold on desolate rural roads. Approaching from behind the counter, ponytail bobbing back and forth, the waitress introduced herself with a smile, “Name is Jo, can I get you something to drink while you look over the menu?”
Damon replied, still uncertain as to the peculiar surroundings, “Um, how about a lemonade … and, um, do you have a restroom I can use?”
“Sure,” Jo replied, “just around the right side of the counter there, second door on the right.” His gait coming back from the bathroom was more relaxed, due to the relief in bladder pressure as well as his increasing acceptance of this odd location, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
Sitting back down in the booth, Damon realized that his lemonade had already been delivered. As he perused the menu, he decided that he would just order a burger. That should be safe, he thought. As Jo returned, she inquired, “Ready, honey?”
“Yeah, I’ll have a burger, well done please, and an order of fries,” replied Damon.
“Lettuce, tomato, and onion?” asked Jo. “Yes on the lettuce and tomato, no on the onion,” retorted Damon. This was all pleasant, cordial, non-confrontational, and expected communication between waitress and customer.
Damon ventured a little beyond the expected into the unexpected, as much out of curiosity as it was to make sure his hamburger was going to be ground beef and not some variant of back-country squirrel. “So, what is this place? I mean, I know it’s a diner, but it doesn’t seem like it’s really along the main drag if you know what I mean.”
Jo’s shoulders drooped just a bit, a sort of resignation to her position here. “This place used to be a plantation long, long ago. It’s been in my family for generations. My great grandfather converted it into a diner and motel about forty years ago. My sister and I have kept it running for the past ten years. It’s not really on the map, per se, but it’s well known by a lot of the truckers that come through this area. All the artifacts you see laying around are from the original plantation.”
Damon was fascinated and now felt more comfortable about the safety of his burger. It was then that Jo responded with a question that would trigger an acceleration of his heartbeat.
“So, what’s the key around your neck?” asked Jo.
As if by protective instinct, Damon reached down and grasped the key to make sure that it was still, in fact, there. He rubbed it between his fingers before replying. The funny thing about Damon, he was never very forthcoming with people close to him. However, put him in a conversation with a complete stranger and he was ready to bare his soul. Perhaps it was the lack of scrutiny from a stranger’s eye that permitted him to be so open with his communication. Or, maybe it was Jo’s charming and homey personality that led Damon into a detailed account of the previous twenty-four hours.
“It’s funny you should ask that,” began Damon. The hamburger he ordered didn’t arrive until much later. As he began to tell his story – and that was something he was really good at – the words and emotions began to flow effortlessly. When he finished his tale and returned from the fantastical land of adventure in his mind, Damon gazed across the table. Jo, now seated in the booth directly across from him, was utterly captivated by his words.
“Really,” inquired Jo, “you are headed to the Smoky Mountains?”
Damon hadn’t even realized he had told the entire story. It was like some surreal experience recalling the events of the past day. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s where I am supposed to end up. I have no idea what, if anything, is waiting for me there.”
Jo, somewhat sheepishly, replied, “I know you’re gonna say these are coincidences that only happen in the perfectly plotted movie or novel, but this is the honest truth. I don’t own a car. I have been trying to find some way to get down to that area for the past six months.”
“Oh yeah, what for?” asked Damon.
Taking a moment to gather her thoughts – and composure – Jo responded, “Let’s just say it’s some personal business I need to take care of.” Damon could tell she would not provide any further information, so he let it rest.
Something inside tugged at Damon. And even though he didn’t formulate the words in his own consciousness, they nonetheless emerged from his mouth, “I have an extra seat in my truck if you don’t mind dogs.”
The response from Jo came quicker than either she or Damon expected, “I love dogs.”
And so it came to be, Damon without overtly asking, and Jo without explicitly answering, that the pickup truck continuing its journey south the next morning would carry Damon and Gryffin – plus one more – each with their own agenda, even if they didn’t yet realize that their intentions were all one and the same.
Author’s Note: This is the second part of a six part “not-so-short” short story about self-discovery. A new segment will be published each Wednesday in December with the closing chapter being posted on the first Wednesday of 2015. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment – best wishes for an inspired day and new year!