There’s a girl walking on the side of a country road. Her back is to the traffic. She can’t be much older than eleven, maybe thirteen. She wears faded blue jeans and a white shirt. Her hair is blonde, and it flows down to her shoulder blades—not too long, not too short. In her left arm is a brown paper bag.
It is 1982.
A half mile down the road is a convenience store, a block building painted yellow years before. A glass door at the front of the store is the only way in and the only way out. A small cowbell dangles above it, letting out a hollow CLUNK each time the door opens and closes. Most people don’t notice it.
The store sells everything a small country town could need.
Jim Baker sits behind a wooden counter. He’s a year passed sixty and looks like he could be older. His hair is thin and unkempt, his eyebrows bushy. He’s slightly overweight and a cigarette dangles from his mouth.
A cash register with small round number buttons and a fatter button used to make the drawer open sits atop the counter. There is eighty-four dollars in the drawer, mostly ones and fives, but at least one ten dollar bill. The rest of the money is in a lockbox under the counter, next to a shotgun he keeps loaded. He has never had to use it and he hopes to never have to.
Betty sits on a couch. It’s frame is wooden, the cushions orange and brown. She bought it in 1978 when the style was still popular, but she doesn’t chase bad purchases with good money. No, not since her husband died and left her and the daughter he fathered with little to nothing in money.
She’s too big to get a job. Her hair was once long and blonde and kinky with curls, but over the last three years she has kept it short, barely on the shoulders, and with no curls. She wears too much makeup, though she never leaves the house. Blue eye shadow, rosy rouged cheeks, and the lipstick color of the day.
She sits on the couch most days from sun up to sun down, watching her shows. Game shows (her favorite has always been The Price is Right with Bob Barker) and her soap operas, though there is never any singing, and as far as she knew, never any soap. Still, she loves them, and she hasn’t missed an episode of Days of Our Lives in over nine years.
They live off of Social Security benefits.
She reaches for her cigarettes only to see the pack is empty.
Carl Yelder drifts from town to town, mostly doing odd jobs for a few dollars here and there. He doesn’t carry much with him, a change of clothes in a bag, some deodorant, and that’s about all. He’s not much to look at and most people, if asked, wouldn’t remember him. Brown hair and brown eyes, a scraggly beard that wasn’t really a beard at all, but just some hairs on his face gone awry. His not big and he’s not little. He’s average in every way, shape and form, right down to his average jeans, average t-shirt and average sneakers.
Currently, Carl stands on the road, his bag in hand, and stares at a convenience store that has no name. He walks across the dirt parking lot and enters the store. A cowbell above the door CLUNKS his arrival twice. He glanced up at it. It wasn’t a big cowbell, but it did its job.
The big guy behind the counter eyes him suspiciously. Carl takes no offense to it—most people who work in small places like this eyeball him, expecting him to use his five finger discount to lift something from the store without paying.
Carl nods. The big guy doesn’t.
The young girl’s name is Alecia. She is a shade over eleven, but not quite thirteen—she is twelve and life has never been carefree for her. With no father—killed by a gunshot wound to the head that was ruled a suicide—and a mother too obese to do much more than sit on a couch all day, Alecia has had to grow up a lot faster than the few friends she has.
As if having to act like an adult instead of a kid isn’t bad enough, her body is changing. Where there were no curves three or four months ago there are now. Her period arrived two months ago and what used to be a flat chest had begun to develop breasts. The boys who never noticed her before all notice her now.
She hates it. She hates all of it.
At the convenience store, she grabs a half gallon of milk.
The sound of the cowbell grabs her attention away from the aisle with the snack cakes on them. A man enters. She glances at him, then looks back to the snack cakes. She picks out a pack of chocolate iced, vanilla cream filled Zingers. They are her favorite.
At the counter, she asks for a pack of Virginia Slims.
“You’re kind of young to be smoking,” Jim Baker says with a smile. He knows who the cigarettes are for. Then he asks about her mother.
“She’s fine,” Alecia says.
Jim punches in the prices of the few items she has. “That will be Five dollars and nineteen cents, Alecia.” He says this, then his eyes drift down to her chest for a second. He looks back at her face, but she saw his eyes, she saw how he looked at her.
Alecia hands him two fives, waits for her change, then she says, “See you next time.”
Jim nods. “You be careful out there, Alecia.”
She turns away, nods and smiles at the stranger, then leaves the convenience store. She doesn’t think the guy checked her out the way Jim did, but it doesn’t matter. She feels dirty and all she wants to do is get away from them.
Betty stands, not without significant effort. She’s not quite out of breath when she gets upright, but close enough. She walks across the room to the front window. She opens the curtain and looks out at the front yard. The lawn is in dire need of cutting. A car sits in the cracked driveway, the front driver’s side wheel flat, dirt and grime caking the windows. It hasn’t been driven in years.
Across the street is Sue Ellen Jacobs. She has no kids, and her husband is still alive. She stands at the mailbox going over the few pieces in her hands.
“Enjoy it while you can,” Betty says and places her face to the window. She tries to see up the road, but barely sees beyond her yard. She lets out a heavy sigh and heads back to her couch. The commercials only last so long and she doesn’t want to miss anything juicy.
Carl goes to the glass drink coolers against the wall. He grabs a Coke, then walks back toward the checkout counter.
The young girl is there. She hands the guy behind the counter two fives. They chat for a second, he asking how her mom was doing, she replying her mom is well. There is a see you next time and be careful out there exchanged, then the girl leaves. She glances at Carl and smiles. It’s nothing flirty or anything, just her being courteous.
He sets his drink on the counter and waits as the guy looks at him.
“Is that all?” the man asks.
Carl nods. “Unless you have work I can do, then yes.”
The man doesn’t really consider his comment before saying, “I have no work for you and the Coke is forty cents. Do you have that much?”
Alecia shakes her head. She’s annoyed with herself. She forgot the matches for her mother’s cigarettes. She turns around, bag tucked under her left arm and goes back to the convenience store.
Jim watches the young man leave, Coke in hand and his head down. The cowbell above the door makes its hollow sound as he exits. For a few seconds more, Jim stares at the door, not certain if, but believing the man might return. He doesn’t believe the man wanted work, but more likely he wanted a freebie. And what if Jim had work for him? He thought the guy would get in good, maybe work a few days, then take off with all the money in the cash register.
“Not happening,” he says and reaches down, feeling for the shotgun that brings him instant security.
When the door opens the next time, he glances up. He smiles the best he can. “Back so soon?”
Days of Our Lives ends on its usual daily cliffhanger. Betty looks at the clock on the wall near the door between the living room and kitchen. It’s now three in the afternoon.
“Where’s that girl?” she asks the air. “She should have been back by now.”
Betty smacks her lips together. She can go for a cigarette right about now. She usually has one when Days goes off. But not today. No, not today, all because Alecia hasn’t arrived back from the store.
It’s not that far away, she thinks.
It is further than she thinks, at almost three miles from here to there. For Alecia it takes an hour there and an hour back and a few minutes in between for the shopping for of the items Betty sent her for.
Like earlier, she struggles to stand and is out of breath when she gets to her feet. When she goes to the window this time there is no Sue Ellen Jacobs and her carefree world. There is also no Alecia.
Betty turns from the window and shuffles from the living room and down the hallway to her bedroom. The room has a musty smell, like sweat and armpits, but she doesn’t notice the very scent she wears. She goes to a small end table near the bed and opens it. She frowns. The pack of cigarettes she keeps there is gone.
And so is something else, the gun her husband used to kill himself with.
Carl leaves the store with no name with his Coke in hand. Even though he has been treated with the same suspicious eyes for as long as he has been on the road, it still bothers him. He is a good person who hasn’t given anyone a reason to treat him poorly. That’s the way of the travelling man, he supposes.
He crosses the dirt lot and steps into the road. He turns to the left and starts back the way he came. He’s probably half a mile up the road before he realizes he is walking in the opposite direction he means to go.
“I must have gotten shook up a little.”
He turns around and heads back toward the store. He has no plans to stop in, not with the warm reception he received the first time.
From where he is he can see the store. Someone walks out but that person is too far off in the distance for him to make out any features. He barely makes out what could be jeans and a t-shirt but could also be slacks and a pullover. He honestly can’t tell.
As he approaches the store, his stomach grumbles.
“I forgot the matches,” Alecia says and walks up to the register.
She can see Jim’s eyes roam down to her chest, then back up to her face. Color forms in his cheeks when their eyes meet. She shakes her head.
“Can I have the matches, please.”
“Umm … yeah, yeah. Sure, Alecia.”
He plucks a box from the left of the register and holds them out to her. She looks at the box but doesn’t take it.
“Can you set them on the counter, please?”
She’s young but not dumb. She’s seen that look before. She reaches behind her.
“Oh no, it’s on the house,” Jim says.
“Does that mean free?”
“Yes. Yes, it’s free.”
“Thank you,” she says and brings her hand from behind her back.
Jim’s eyes grow wide.
Betty paces the room. She doesn’t like that Alecia hasn’t returned from the store. She should have by now.
What if something happened to her?
It’s a natural thought for a mother to have when her child has been gone longer than she should have been. Then came the next thought, the true nature of her concern.
You better hope nothing has happened to her. Without her there is no Social Security check.
The true nature of her concern comes out in that moment. She licks her lips. They feel dry. Her hands and armpits are sweaty. She smells rotten onions on her skin, a sure sign she is nervous. She looks out the window, but sees no one, especially not Alecia. She steps onto the porch to get a better look but doesn’t see her daughter walking back up the street toward her.
“Where are you?” she growls and stomps back inside. She slams the door behind her and goes to her chair. She has lost all interest in the television. She wants her cigarettes. She tells herself she needs them. Her hands shake and sweat breaks out along her forehead.
“Just wait until you get home, Alecia.”
Carl stands in front of the store with no name again. He doesn’t want to go inside, but he is hungry, and hunger trumps the lack of desire to go somewhere he isn’t necessarily wanted. He takes a deep breath and walks across the parking lot.
He enters the store. The cowbell clunks its two times. There is no one standing behind the counter. He stands there for a minute. Something feels off.
“Hello?” he calls out. “I’m back.”
He waits. When he hears nothing, he takes a tentative step, then another.
“Hello? I’m just going to get a bag of chips or something. Maybe a pack of cookies. Anyone? Hello?”
Carl walks down the aisle where the snacks are. He grabs a bag of chips, then walks a little further and picks out a pack of chocolate chip cookies. He makes his way to the counter, listening and looking for the old man. He goes to set his snacks on the counter, then stops. There is a spatter of red that looks like …
That’s blood, Carl.
On the floor behind the counter is the old man. He is on his side, but Carl doesn’t need to ask him if he is okay. The amount of blood that has pooled around his head tells him, oh no, the man is not okay.
Carl runs from the store, his snacks forgotten. The cowbell clunks and he runs out to the road. Then he stops. He had seen someone leaving earlier.
What if that person saw something? Then, he thought, What if that person did something?
Carl Yelder has had his fair share of troubles in his life, but he doesn’t want to add murder—especially one he didn’t commit—to the list and be framed for it. He runs. He runs with his Coke still in his left hand and the snacks back on the counter of the store with no name.
He runs until he sees someone off in the distance walking.
A young girl walks along the side of the road with a brown paper bag in her hand.
From behind her comes footsteps and someone shouting.
She’s mad. She’s madder than she’s been in years. She thought she was mad when her Pete went and killed himself, but that’s nothing compared to how she feels right now.
That girl, she thinks. She’s done stole my gun and stole my money and ran away.
She would call the police if she had a phone, but that was one of the first things to go when the bills came due and she didn’t have the money to pay for it. She could go to a neighbor’s house and use the phone, but that means going down those steps and she isn’t sure if she could, first get down them, then second get back up them.
Maybe I misplaced the gun.
Yeah, that’s it. Maybe she misplaced the gun. Betty goes back to the bedroom, huffing and puffing like an old train trying to get up a steep hill. She searches the room, tearing it apart, pulling clothes from the dresser and the closet, flinging things around the room in anger and frustration.
She doesn’t find the gun.
There are a few seconds where Carl doesn’t believe he is running after the right person. The person not too far from him now is the girl from the store, but when she left, the old man was still alive. Still, he calls for her as he runs.
A stitch formed in his side a few minutes earlier and now it crosses his stomach and cramps the other side as well.
“Hey!” he yells. “Hey, little girl.”
She hears him. She knows it’s the man from the store. He wasn’t in there the second time she went in. She also knows he must have gone back. That’s the only thing that makes sense to her.
“Hey! Hey, little girl!”
He’s close. Too close for her liking.
She turns, lifts her right arm, and aims the gun at him.
His eyes grow wide, but he doesn’t stop running.
She pulls the trigger when he is only a few feet from her.
Carl sees the gun, but it is too late to stop.
He has time enough to think, she’s going to shoot me.
He lunges. She pulls the trigger.
On the edge of the road is a brown paper bag. It is wet and split open at the bottom and its contents lay on the ground, both in and out of the torn bag. The half gallon jug of milk has ruptured and soaks into the ground. A pack of cigarettes—Virginia Slims—peeks out the corner of the torn bag. A pack of chocolate frosted, vanilla cream filled Zingers has been crushed.
Near the torn, wet bag and ruined items is a crumpled Coke can and a puddle of blood.
Alecia falls to the ground with the weight of the stranger’s body. She lands hard beside the road but isn’t hurt. Sure, she has a scratch on her arm, but that’s nothing compared to the bullet the stranger just took to the chest.
He rolls away and is groaning.
Alecia stands, picks the gun up from off the ground and points it at him.
“No, please,” he says and backs away. She doesn’t pull the trigger as he backs away slowly. His shirt is soaked red. There is even a trickle of blood spilling from one side of his mouth.
She looks down at the bag she had been carrying. It’s contents are ruined. Well, most of its contents are. Alecia bends down and picks up the hard pack of cigarettes. She puts them in one of her back pockets and walks away.
Carl Yelder reaches the edge of the woods before he collapses. He’s seen some bad things in his life. This is the worst.
“What took you so long?” Betty yells from her seat on the couch. Her face is red, but not from the rouge she smudged on earlier in the day.
“You’re not going to ask what happened to me?”
“What happened to you?” Betty asks. She doesn’t care. She just wants her cigarettes.
Alecia pulls the trigger of her mom’s gun for the last time. She had placed it against the woman’s temple, smiled, then put her lights out for good, just like she did her lustful, molesting father. She places the gun in Betty’s limp hand, then takes a shower.
There’s a girl walking on the side of a country road. Her back is to the traffic. She can’t be much older than eleven, maybe thirteen. She wears a pair of dark blue jeans and a pink shirt. Her hair is blonde, and it flows down to her shoulder blades—not too long, not too short.
She is smiling. Off in the distance come the sounds of sirens.