This story is by Jennifer Rubino and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Crowds gathered around the tables that filled DiPaolo’s Red Lion Inn Italian Restaurant in celebration of the Fourth of July. Later that evening, packs of people would fill the streets, yards, and parks to witness the fireworks display. Christina Sabazio was spending the holiday working her shift at the restaurant but at least she knew the tip money would make it worth her while.
She was standing at the register ringing up his table’s bill when he first approached her.
“I’m really sorry my dad is such a dick,” he said.
“It’s okay.” She replied. “Trust me, I’ve had worse customers.”
“My dad just wants us to have the perfect New Jersey experience. He grew up in Red Bank.” The boy with sandy blonde hair and blue eyes said. “My name is Billy by the way. Do you think I can get your number?”
She could feel the attraction like electricity traveling through her body as she tore off a piece of receipt tape and jotted down her number.
“So where are you and your family staying?” Christina asked. She didn’t really have time to make small talk during her busy shift at the iconic Red Lion Inn Italian Restaurant, however she was interested in the boy. The sign on top of the building stood proudly with the signature red lion at the top and attracted many tourists to the location.
“Econo Lodge by Wharton State Forest in Hammonton,” he said. “The blueberry capital of the world.”
“Then I’m sure you’ve seen some interesting wildlife in the pinelands?” she asked.
“Yeah, we saw the state bird, the goldfinch,” he said. “I would have liked to have seen the Jersey Devil. My dad told me the legend involved a woman named Mother Leeds who cursed her baby, and it was born as the Jersey Devil with hooves as feet, bat wings, and a head like a horse. Supposedly it’s known to wander the pine barrens of New Jersey and there have been sightings of it here in the area.”
“If the Jersey Devil was ever real, I’m sure it’s dead by now.” Christina explained before returning to her shift.
They had made plans to meet the following night at Red Star Pizza for dinner. As they were leaving the pizzeria, Billy put his arm around her and kissed her on the cheek. Then, he wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her closer and gazing into her eyes. She felt the attraction travel up and down her spine and a longing sense of desire manifested in her stomach. They were pulled closer to each other as if an imaginary magnet existed between them; their lips met and parted as they started to kiss. After a few seconds, Christina pulled away to prevent things from going any further.
“Maybe we can hang out for a bit before calling it a night?” She suggested. Surely, they could find something to distract themselves from each other.
“Wanna hang out in my car and listen to music?” Billy asked.
She nodded and they walked over to Billy’s bright blue BMW with their hands linked together. They sat down and Billy turned on the radio. A song by The Red Hot Chili Peppers made its way through the speakers.
“I made sure my dad tipped you extra after being so rude to you last night.” He told her. “I spent the entire night thinking about you at the fireworks wishing you were there with me.”
“I need all the money I can get to afford my tuition in the fall. I’m going to Monmouth University,” she announced proudly.
“I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to earn the money,” he said. “You’re pretty amazing.”
He gazed into her eyes and slowly inched his face closer, their lips parting and meeting again in a heated moment of passion. Grabbing the bottom of her shirt, she threw it over her head and began unbuttoning Billy’s jeans. Desire overtook her as she allowed herself to give into temptation. She didn’t realize the consequences until two weeks later.
The blue line on the test revealed she was pregnant. Even worse, Billy wasn’t answering any of her messages. She compulsively checked her phone and the more she saw a blank screen, the more preoccupied she became with looking at it.
“Damn this child,” she thought to herself in a moment of frustration. She couldn’t be pregnant. There was no way she would be able to afford her tuition and a baby. She would have to choose. She didn’t want this baby. Overwhelmed by the options she had, she decided to investigate each one.
She Googled “curses to end a life” on her phone. There was something called black magic that used spells to curse a life and bring about its demise. It said she would need a black candle to burn while she recited the words to set the intention. She didn’t exactly believe in this sort of thing, but she had nothing to lose so figured it was worth a try. Once she finished the ritual, she heard a sound come from her phone.
Finally, a message appeared on the screen from Billy. “Sorry I was busy with my family. What’s up?” She read it and immediately dialed Billy’s number to tell him the news.
“I don’t know what to do.” She said, “I can’t afford a baby and college.”
“What if I help out?” He asked. “When you start to show, I’ll come to New Jersey and take care of the baby with you.”
It wasn’t until almost the end of her first semester that she started to notice the bump in her belly. They decided to stay at the Econo Lodge together. They spent time in nature walking the Batona Trail and admired the many species that inhabited the pine barrens including the bald eagle, ospreys, swans, beavers, river otters, and deer. There was even the Pine Barrens treefrog that would breed in the cranberry bog and woodland ponds. In April of the following year, the baby was born.
“I think your baby is albino.” The nurse said. “Does this condition run in either of your families?”
They shook their heads and looked into the baby’s red irises. Aside from the red eyes, the baby’s features were hideous. It had a nose like pig snout, and the ears and mouth looked like they belonged to a chimpanzee.
“This cannot be my baby.” Billy declared. “I don’t know who else you were with, but this baby looks like the Jersey Devil reincarnated.”
Billy stormed out of the room, leaving her alone in the hospital.
“Wait, Billy come back!” She screamed. “I swear this this is your baby!”
But it was too late. Billy was gone and he would most likely never return. The curse had worked, but not the way she intended.
Christina looked at the baby and tears filled her eyes. How could she have done such a thing to an innocent baby? It was all her fault.
After she was released from the hospital, she and the baby took a taxi back to Econo Lodge to gather her things. But instead of returning to their cabin, she walked towards the forest with the baby screaming in her arms. The gnarled branches of the pitch pine and dwarf pine trees encircled her as she walked the sandy path deeper into the forest. Many of the trees appeared stunted and twisted with multiple trunks due to resprouting. She thought she saw a deer sprinting from the corner of her eye as she bent over to put the baby down and turned around to walk away with tears in her eyes.
She placed her hand over her mouth, stifling her cries. Looking ahead at the trees that engulfed her, she couldn’t bear to look back at the child she was abandoning.
She returned to Econo Lodge to gather her belongings. Billy must have already been there and gotten his things because they were gone when she returned. Once she was packed, she began to have second thoughts about her decision. Instead of asking the Uber driver to take her home, she asked if she could be dropped off at Wharton State Forest instead.
“I’m sorry ma’am but there appears to be a detour due to a wildfire.” The driver said. “I don’t think you’ll be able to go there today.”
She knew that she wouldn’t be able to enter the forest anytime soon. The fires were allowed to burn since the pine trees depended on the fire for regeneration. She had cursed the baby, but surely curses weren’t real, or were they? Maybe there was no other choice but to move on with her life. And while she never knew what became of her baby, she couldn’t help but wonder every time she traveled through the pinelands.