“The toilet’s in there,” Merv pointed at the narrow door beside the dinette table. “But it’s broken.”
I crouched beside him. There wasn’t room for both of us in the entryway to the camper. “Is there one I can use?”
“Oh, you can use it–for storage and the like.” I saw him peek at me from the corner of his eye. “If you brought anything that needs storing, that is. But if you need to do your business, you can use the washroom in the back of the store–the door’ll be unlocked.”
I felt like I’d landed in Mayberry; Merv had a vintage, if not foolhardy, charm about him. He even looked the part in the garish glow of the overhead light, all blended hues of granite and ash. “You don’t lock up at night?”
“I do when I know where the spare key is. Unless you want to do your business in the bushes out back–but I wouldn’t if I was you.” He turned to me and leaned in close, his eyebrows furrowed into one long, silver caterpillar over his glasses. “Coyotes.”
“Yep. I’ll make a key for you tomorrow.” He straightened and tapped the dinette table. “Table goes down and turns into a bed.”
The table took up half the camper’s space but still didn’t look like it’d comfortably accommodate anyone over the age of twelve. “The table is the bed?”
“You pull the latch beneath it, and it slides into the grooves of the bench seat–the cushions become the mattress. It’s quite cozy.” He turned to me, beaming. “It’s custom.”
“I see.” I didn’t want to see. “This is truly kind of you, but I don’t have a problem sleeping in my car.”
“No need if there’s a perfectly fine bed you can use.”
“I’m only here one night.”
“So you said.” He turned and motioned towards the door. “Let me see if I have a spare blanket or two–the space heater ain’t as good as it should be.”
I slid onto the bench seat; the cushions were stiff and threadbare. A film of grime covered the table. I wiped my hands on my dress and tried not to grimace. “Can I tidy up a bit while you’re looking?”
“I’ll bring some paper towels and Windex,” he said, shakily navigating the drop-down step of the camper. “Sink’s broken.”
The sink was no bigger than a dinner plate, right in the middle of the counter. A cobweb stretched between the rounded faucet and the latch of the window behind it. “What’s wrong with the sink?”
“Same thing that’s wrong with the toilet.” He poked his head through the door and waved. “I’ll be right back.”
The camper door banged shut, and I was alone. Mostly alone. A tiny spider busied themselves in the space between the panes of glass in the window beside me, shadowed against the dying light of the day. The curtains were the same fabric as the cushion covers, only more faded and less worn. One side hung a bit lower and straighter than the other.
A small placard leaned against the window, imploring someone to Bless This Mess. The words were wreathed with daisies and mushrooms and butterflies, all hand-painted in the harvest-gold and olive-green that hallmarked the 1970s. I’d bet money whoever had sewn the curtains had also painted the sign.
Except I didn’t have money to bet–if I had, I might have rented a room at the murder motel across the street. I would risk a gruesome death; at least I’d have died in a bed I could stretch out in. As for now, I’d be spending the night in what amounted to the employee’s quarters of Thierry’s Country Corner. But it was only one night.
I jumped. My knee slammed against the leg of the table; I caught myself and bit my tongue to keep from crying out.
The door jostled again, but the latch held against the force. The hook of the hook-and-eye lock jangled against the jamb.
“I know you’re in there–I will yank you out by your greasy man-bun if you don’t open this door.”
I didn’t answer. I didn’t move. It wasn’t Merv pounding on the door, and it didn’t sound like David–not that he’d come after me himself, anyway. Had he called the police? Was there was a missing person’s report already? What if they’d found my car and–and what? Tracked me down to a dilapidated camper that’d been forgotten in the thickets behind an even more forgotten corner store? Not likely. It didn’t matter who was banging on the door; they weren’t looking for me.
Whoever it was pounded on the door again. “Last chance.”
“Go away.” Because that was a brilliant comeback.
They paused on the other side. I held my breath.
The doorknob started to turn.
I stood to lock the door, and my knee slammed against the leg of the table again. I cried out this time and fell back to my seat. The knob stopped turning. The door didn’t open. The latch was stuck in the doorjamb. The person on the other side jiggled the handle and turned it the other direction. They were not going to give up. I needed to buy myself a few minutes. I braced one hand against the seat cushion, stretched the width of the camper, and grabbed the hook lock.
The door opened. I lost my balance and tumbled off the seat, landing in a heap on the worn linoleum. This time my shin hit the table.
“Son of a–” I winced at the pain traveling the length of my leg.
The man at the door was scowling, his jaw tense, and his lips pulled tight. The crevices in his forehead were knit together and underscored by his narrowed eyes. He didn’t make a move to help me up from the floor.
Not that I would have let him.
“Who are you?” His words were as warm as his gaze.
I glared back at him. Two could play this game. “Who are you?”
He put his hands on his hips and raised an eyebrow but didn’t respond. He just stood, looking at me. Fine. Whatever. Keep waiting. I untangled myself from the table and stood up, smoothing out the front of my dress. I folded my arms across my chest and matched his raised eyebrow. My knee throbbed, and my shin burned. I’d have a bruise tomorrow.
“Evenin’, Beckett.” Merv sauntered from behind him, a stack of faded quilts in his arms. “See, you’ve met the new girl.”
“New girl?” Beckett was not impressed. “Where’d she come from?”
“Where they all come from, I reckon.” Merv ducked around him and held the quilts out to me, a small rectangle of plastic nestled on top. “Took the liberty of making you a name tag.”
Beckett grabbed the tag and looked at it before he looked at me, his eyebrow still reaching for his hairline. “I don’t think you spelled that right.”
“I’m pretty sure I got it right,” Merv handed the nametag to me. It was old, its edges worn and rounded. There were still adhesive marks from the previous names that had been placed on and peeled off before. Mine was written in black marker.
Great. I couldn’t even fake being Jolene. “No, he spelled it right.” Not like I’d admit that he hadn’t. Or that it mattered. I took the nametag and smiled. “Thank you.”
Merv grinned from ear to ear. Beckett rolled his eyes, took the stack of quilts, and helped Merv up the step.
“I already told you the latch was under the table, and the door’ll be unlocked for you if you have to–you know…” I nodded. “If you need anything else, just holler up the back steps. Make it loud, though, sometimes I don’t hear too good. You are welcome to whatever you might need in the store. Just make sure to write it down, and we’ll settle up at the end of the week.”
“I’m only going to be here one night–“
“So you said.” Merv gripped the counter as he lowered himself back down the step. “There’s snacks and sodas if you need ’em. Beckett is open until ten o’clock, if you need something of more substance.” He chuckled and patted Beckett’s arm. “Best burgers in town.”
“Only burgers in town.” Beckett turned back to me. “But we’re closed.”
Closed. Such a liar. I could still smell the char-grilled deliciousness drifting on the wind. I cursed my stomach for growling and nodded. “Of course.”
Merv waved as he headed for the backdoor of the store. “My program is on soon, but I’ll be up for a bit after that if you need something. If not, then I’ll see you at six.”
I blinked. Six? In the morning? My insomnia had been horrible for the past few months. I was lucky if I fell asleep before dawn. I wasn’t sure I could wake up before that. The backdoor closed behind him before I could say anything. It took me a moment to realize Beckett was still staring at me, just as annoyed as he had been a few moments earlier.
“I don’t know who you are–“
“–and I don’t care. Be gone before that old man opens the store, or I will remove you myself.”
I studied his face for a moment; the venom in his voice matched the dark of his eyes. Neither of them frightened me. “What is your problem?”
“You are my problem.”
My heart began to rattle in my chest. “You don’t know me.”
“I don’t need to. That man takes in stray people like they’re lost kittens, and you are not a lost kitten.”
“You have some serious stranger-danger issues.”
“You’re all either drifters or grifters–and I take issue with that.”
“Drifters and grifters? Really? That’s original.”
“More original than Joleen-with-a-double-E?” He shoved the stack of quilts in my chest. “You don’t belong here, whatever-your-real-name-is.”
“Still don’t care.” He plodded the dirt path that led to the side of the store, his boots kicking up dust. He barely glanced over his shoulder as he lobbed another comment my way. “Be gone in the morning, or I’ll show you stranger danger.”
I wanted to call after him, hurl an insult at him that would land squarely between his eyes. A brilliant insult, like the one I was sure to think of later. But I froze and silently watched him disappear around the corner. Typical.
I tossed the quilts on the table. The nerve. Did he think I was going to steal the cash from the drawer? The Cheez-its from the rack? I may not look like a Joleen, but I certainly didn’t look like a thief. I pulled on the backdoor of the store, and it creaked open. I hated that I had to go in at all but–you know, coyotes.
The stock room was organized chaos, stacks, and racks with no rhyme or reason. A calendar hung on the wall, turned to June 2008, only the first two weeks crossed out in green marker. Boxes of product towered over a desk in the corner, a ledger laid out in the middle, and an old, cumbersome calculator sat at the side. I hadn’t seen one of those since my accounting class in high school. I didn’t need to get too close to see the ledger had more red marks than black.
The store itself wasn’t much better; the live bait cooler stood next to the ice cream freezer, which butted up against the household cleansers. There was beef stew beside the pickles, mustard beside the Oreos, and tissues beside the hair dye. Merv probably carried anything a person could want as long as they didn’t actually want to find it, buy it, and take it with them, too. It was a mess perfect for scavenger hunts, not so good for business.
My stomach growled again. I didn’t dare take anything from the shelf, though the fudge-striped cookies were tempting. I didn’t have the cash to spare, and Beckett had made it clear that I wasn’t going to be here at the end of the week to settle-up any tab I might incur.
Not that I needed to be there the entire week to work off a pack of cookies. At minimum wage, those were worth fifteen minutes, tops. It would take me that long to straighten the shelf the cookies were on, which just happened to be the same shelf as the hemorrhoid cream.
My eye twitched, and I forced myself to walk away. The bathroom was in the back of the stockroom. The hand towels were not. I found those in a box at the top of a stack nearest to the desk. I ripped a pack open–surely this didn’t count as running up a tab, right?
I glanced at the ledger open on the desk. It was like looking at a car wreck, both stomach-churning and fascinating at the same time. How had he stayed in business for decades with this level of bookkeeping? It didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to stay in business long if he kept going the way the book indicated.
My tummy rumbled again. There was no way I was going to meditate myself out of these hunger pangs. There were a lot of hours between now and dawn, hours that would be as empty as my stomach. Beckett said I had to leave by dawn–he didn’t say I had to sit in one spot and not move. Besides, who was he telling me what to do?
Merv was the owner, and Merv had given me permission to do as I pleased. Well, he’d given me a nametag and an open store, and that was just as good. I could kill two birds with one stone; I could earn my cookies and maybe straighten out Merv’s bookkeeping. Fair trade.
I shoved through the swinging doors and headed for the cookies, past the mustard and the dish soap, past the tampons and the hair dye. It wasn’t like I was at home listening to David debate the pros and cons of my every decision. I could stay up all night playing with numbers if I wanted to. I reached for the cookies but stopped mid-grab. A piece of fruit might be a better choice for this late in the evening. Or maybe a granola bar, I could find a nice low-carb one–
I shook the thought from my head and grabbed a pack of peanut butter cookies. The peanut butter had more protein than the fudge striped ones, and that felt like an easy compromise. I made my way past the groupings of pickles and the beef stew and the boxes of hair dye. The shades weren’t sorted in any way that made sense; Betty Boop black next to Marilyn Monroe platinum, the Cool Ash of Gloria Steinem beside the bright auburn of–
I stopped. The bright auburn of…Jolene. I touched the box, the woman on the front smiled seductively, her eyes were green. Forget it. I grabbed the cherry cola from beside the Sun-In highlight spray and headed for the stock room.
I’d never so much as had highlights in my hair. There wasn’t any way I would be able to pull off a jewel-toned ruby red color. That demanded more bravery than I had. That kind of color took the guts of the real Jolene, the one of ethereal beauty and musical myth. I was Joleen, written in black marker on a dirty nametag.
The truth was, I wasn’t even that. I was a stay-at-home mom who’d lied to her family and run away from home to go on some top-secret rescue-mission that was going to bring her more heartache than answers. I wasn’t brave. I’d never been brave.
Even now, standing alone in a corner store in only God knows what town, I was still too afraid to eat cookies without second-guessing myself. Joleen would eat the pack cookies without guilt. Jolene would eat two packs.
Screw it. I turned around and grabbed the pack of fudge-striped wafers. And an Mt. Dew. It was going to take a couple of hours to straighten out Merv’s books, and if I was going to do it, I might as well do it right. I had the rest of the night, and I didn’t have to leave in the morning if I didn’t want to. What was Beckett going to do? Physically pick me up and put me in my car?
Best of luck, buddy. He had no idea who he was messing with. He was messing with Jolene.
I stopped again and stared at the shelf, then grabbed a box of hair dye and headed to the back.