Annie walks into Quickie Mart at nine twenty and finds Lainie, her older sister, leaning by the register reading a magazine. She looks even more bored than she does tired.
“You’re early.” Lainie’s voice is tired, too.
“It’s nothing but re-runs on TV,” Annie says. “They aren’t better the second time. Or funnier.”
“Different commercials, though.”
“I suppose.” Annie looks down the three aisles and tries to count the things they sell that show up on TV. Fritos, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Dr. Scholl’s, Right Guard. If the rest of the night is as slow as right now, she can make a list. There must be easier ways to drive yourself crazy.
Lainie points to Annie’s hair. “That gets any higher, you’re gonna get it caught in the ceiling fan.”
Annie looks up at the blades, rotating so slowly she could probably grab onto one and let it carry her around in a circle. Another way to go crazy.
“Something for when Missus Atwood tells us to write what we did on our summer vacation.”
Lainie rolls her eyes. She’s got beautiful eyes, not as happy as before, but still big and blue. She shouldn’t use all that eyeliner, though. Sixteen Magazine says don’t use as much now.
Maybelline, that’s something else they carry that’s on TV.
“Has it been like this all night?” Annie asks.
“A guy stopped about an hour ago for gas,” Lainie tells her. “He wanted to know where the nearest motel was. Think he had Pennsylvania plates.”
Annie looks out at the two Shell pumps, one regular and one premium. “An hour ago?”
“Yeah.” Lainie jerks her thumb at the cartons on the floor behind the counter. “Good thing the new magazines came in this morning, ‘cause I’ve read all the old ones. Except Field and Stream and Playboy. If I thought it’d stay like this, I’d close up and tell you to go on home.”
“I need the money.” Annie’s barely sixteen. Moms and Dads didn’t want her working the ten to six shift, but it pays five percent more, that’s seven and a half cents an hour. She does six nights a week, so that’s eight hours at time and a half.
“Don’t we all.” Lainie had to drop out of school when she got pregnant. Their parents watch her daughter while she works.
“If it’s gonna be so slow, I can restock the magazines,” Annie says.
“Yeah.” Lainie holds up a clipboard and shows her the invoices. “I’ve already counted them and checked them in, so you can switch out the old ones and dump them into the same cartons.”
“OK.” Annie picks up the new Playboy and looks at the model on the cover. “I like the way her hair curls. You think I could do that with mine?”
Lainie rolls her eyes and lights a cigarette. “You’ve got such a small face, it’d disappear you wore your hair down like that. Besides, you’re too young.”
“I’m only three years younger than you,” Annie says. “Besides, nobody looks at these girls’ hair.”
“Yeah, well you shouldn’t be looking at that magazine anyway.” Lainie blows smoke toward the ceiling and watches the fan blades slice it up.
“I heard the articles are good, they do interviews.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“Some guy at school, I don’t remember who.”
“None of the bozos at school can read,” Lainie says. “The only way they get out of this dump is the Army.”
Annie lets the magazine fall open to the centerfold. “I heard they pay lots of money for these pictures.”
“Well, sure. Strippers can do it every night. But you do it here once, everyone’s seen you so you better get a lot.”
“How much you think they pay?”
Lainie frowns. “You shouldn’t think about stuff like this. Come on, let’s count the register.”
Annie moves behind the counter with her. “If they paid enough, I’d pose for them.”
Lainie’s eyes widen. “Don’t talk like that. Moms and Dads’d never live it down. I screwed up bad enough.”
“If they paid me enough, I’d leave this town and never look back. Maybe there’d be enough to take you with me.”
“Yeah, and if our fairy godmother turns a pumpkin into a Corvette, I get to drive.”
Lainie counts the twenties and passes them over to Annie to re-count.
“Can I have a cigarette?”
“You’re too young for that, too. Moms knew I gave you a cigarette, she’d kick my butt clear to Toledo and back.”
Lainie passes the tens over and takes the twenties back.
Cigarettes, Annie thinks. They’ve got commercials for them on TV, too. Winston, Tareyton, Marlboro. . .
A car rumbles up near the door and stops. The light shines on a red hood and Annie’s glad Lainie’s still here.
Sure enough, Duane Peasey walks in. Tight white tee shirt, greasy jeans, black high top Converse sneakers.
“Hey, honey. Hey kid.” Duane’s eyes might be raisins in a doughy face, and he looks smarter than his buddy, who’s built like a coat hanger and has zits to make raspberries jealous.
“We got names,” Lainie says.
“Yeah, me too.” Duane leans on the counter and Annie can smell his breath, cigarettes and beer. “You play your cards right, you could be screaming it all night long.”
“I’d rather choke on a rusty rake.”
Duane drops his eyes to Annie’s chest, then back up to her face. “How ‘bout you, little one?”
“I’m working.” Annie feels her skin crawl. Duane and a bunch of other guys got Lainie drunk at a party and one of them—maybe Duane himself—is her little girl’s father, but she was passed out so she couldn’t tell who did it. Duane’s supposed to go into the Army in August now that he’s graduated from high school after five years.
“Your loss. Gimme a pack of Camels.”
“Filters or regular?”
“Regular. Guy what smokes filter cigarettes probably squats to pee.” Duane’s laugh reminds Annie of a mule braying.
Annie bends down to get a pack and feels both boys looking at her rear. When she stands again, she can almost smell Duane’s smile.
“You ain’t a bitch like your sister, are you?”
Annie rings up the sale.
Duane gives her a crumpled dollar bill and she runs it between her fingers to smooth it out.
“You want me to work that hard, the least you could do is give me one of those.”
Lainie’s mouth drops open.
Duane taps the pack against his palm a few times before he pulls off the strip and peels back the foil. He slides one into his hand and points it at Annie’s chest. He gives her that same slimy smile and she remembers everyone calls him “Sleazy Peasey.”
“Give me a light.” Duane sticks the cigarette between her lips and a lighter appears in his other hand. He holds the flame under her cigarette. She feels heat in her mouth.
“You gotta suck on it, little girl.” His voice slithers into her ears. “Like you smell fresh apple pie, right outta your mamma’s hot oven.”
Sharp heat claws down Annie’s throat. She leans over the counter, coughing so hard her eyes tear up and her head feels light. The cigarette drops between her hands and she almost burns herself on the flaming tip.
Duane gives that mule-bray laugh again and his buddy does the same. Annie coughs until she thinks she’s going to throw up, fighting for air, her eyes and nose running and her face burning. When she stops, Lainie shoves a few tissues into her hand.
“You two about done here?” she asks.
Duane drops two more crumpled bills on the counter.
“Gonna put in two dollars of reg out there.”
He leads his buddy back outside. Annie blows her nose and wipes her eyes and doesn’t look at Lainie.
“I’ve got half a mind to close up and drag you home by your ear like a four-year-old.” Lainie sounds like she wants to slap her.
“I didn’t want them to think I’m just some stupid kid.” Annie can barely hear her own voice. One drag on that cigarette, her throat feels like she swallowed a blow torch.
“Guess you showed ‘em, didn’t you?” Lainie watches the two guys laugh by the gas pump. “I should go make sure he only pumps two dollars, but I don’t feel like talking to him again.”
When the Mustang roars off into the darkness, Lainie opens the cash register and they count the fives and singles and then the change. She tucks her cigarettes into her purse and gives Annie a look that reminds her of their mother.
“I know you want the money, but some things aren’t worth it. If nobody shows up by midnight, you can close up early. I’ll be up when you get home, and I’ll fill out your card tomorrow like you went all night.”
“You shouldn’t do that.”
“You’re my sister. One of us has to make it out of this dump.”
Lainie strides out the door and up the road. She’s nineteen and walks like she’s twice that. Have a baby and losing your dreams makes you old quick. The Quickie Mart’s only two miles from their house, which is good since neither sister has a driver’s license.
Annie stands behind the counter for twenty minutes before she remembers her transistor radio in her purse. She turns it sideways and finally gets the best signal she can from Cleveland. The Beatles new record comes on, “A Ticket to Ride.” She turns it up and stacks the magazines on the counter.
Life, Time, Newsweek, Sixteen, Woman’s Day, Tiger Beat, TV Guide, Sports Illustrated, Car & Driver, Field & Stream. One at a time, she carries the new issues to the rack next to the anti-acids and pain relievers. She replaces the old ones and counts them before putting them back in the cartons. Playboy stays behind the counter so the little kids don’t see it.
Eleven o’clock, and nobody’s come in yet. A few cars whoosh by the gas pumps, but the most excitement so far is clouds floating across the half moon. Thrillsville. The radio plays Elvis, the Supremes, and Herman’s Hermits. She wonders if they’ll play that new Beatles song again.
She looks at the hair styles in Sixteen. One model has long hair with that fishhook curl at the end Annie’s working on, just brushing the top of her shoulders. The lady on the cover of the new Playboy has the same hairstyle. Annie wonders how old she is. You probably have to be twenty-one to take your clothes off for pictures.
She doesn’t look anywhere near twenty-one. If she looked older and a rich man showed up for gas, could she talk him into taking her with him, leave all this behind?
How can she look older?
Can she make her hair look like that girl on the cover?
She walks down the notions aisle across from the candy and picks up a can of Aqua Net. She shakes it up on the way back to the counter and digs in her purse for her compact.
The door opens and a man comes in, eyes heavy, feet dragging.
“You got any No Doz?”
“Second aisle,” Annie tells him. “About halfway down. You want some gas, too?”
“Might as well.” The man’s shirt is all wrinkles and his shoulders stoop.
“Let me have three dollars, the high-test.”
Annie looks out at the big station wagon and makes change for the man’s ten. He leans against the back fender while he pumps, then slams the door and pulls back onto the road. Annie watches until he’s long gone.
The radio plays “Louie, Louie.” All the boys at school say the words are dirty, but nobody can make them out. Probably just a story to sell more records.
Annie finds her comb and leans forward so her hair tumbles around her face, spraying with the Aqua Net until she’s dizzy from the aerosol and her blood rushing to her brain. She straightens up and teases her hair with the comb before looking in her mirror.
She holds up the magazine and looks at the lady, back in her mirror, then back at the magazine. Not bad. Not great, but it makes her look a little older. Like a junior, maybe even a senior.
Not enough. She puts the magazine back and stares at the blacktop outside.
Eleven forty. Another six hours and twenty minutes. That’s three hundred eighty minutes. She’s wondering if she can figure how many seconds that is without using a pencil and paper when she hears her transistor by the register.
It's what’s up front that counts.
Winston, they carry them, too, of course. Duane laughed at her when she choked on his cigarette. She felt like a stupid little kid.
How hard is it to learn to smoke?
Annie turns to the cigarette display behind the cash register. Duane smokes Camels, which Dads calls “coffin nails.” Annie knows filters are milder and studies the colorful packs in their neat little rows. Kools have soothing menthol, so maybe she should try one of them.
Thirty cents a pack. She’s making a dollar thirty-two an hour. She opens the pack with her fingernail and slides a white cylinder out between her fingers. It’s slightly longer than her middle finger, the filter the tan of her mother’s pancakes. She sniffs it and thinks she can smell menthol.
Nobody in sight on the road. She takes a book of matches and twists one free. Close cover before striking. OK. She rubs the head against the flint and nothing happens. She tries again, harder, and the match bends in her fingers. She throws it away, takes another one and pushes harder but still not hard enough. How can people use these things?
One more match, third time’s the charm. She pushes the head against the rough surface with the ball of her thumb and rubs it away from her. The head flares up and she drops everything.
“Damn!” She sucks on her thumb until the sting fades, then pulls it out of her mouth. She can already feel a blister forming. Damn, damn, damn.
There has to be a better way.
She runs her fingers across the cigarettes again, then past the yellow cans of. . . lighter fluid.
Of course, a lighter. She digs under the counter and finds the cheapest Zippo in the display. She grabs a can of Ronson fluid and totals her sale on the cash register. Jeez, how can people afford to smoke?
She’s watched Moms and Dads fill their lighters so she knows enough to slide the shell off and moisten the cotton. Drip, drip, drip. The smell fills her head. It’s a little like that Aqua Net, still standing by the cash register. She has to pay for that, too. She puts the Zippo back together, sticks the Kool filter between her lips, and presses her thumb against the wheel on the lighter.
Fire. At last. She holds the end of the cigarette in the flame and takes a deep breath.
A cool nail jams its point into her throat and she’s coughing again. She fights for breath and feels more tears coming to her eyes. It’s not as bad as Duane’s Camel, but it’s not that much fun, either.
She walks outside and drops the cigarette on the ground. Blue-white smoke snakes upwards until she grinds the burning end into the gravel. She’s still coughing.
She finds a box of Luden’s wild cherry cough drops in the aisle next to the pain relievers and returns to the cash register. She’s going to have to work through the night just to pay for all this stuff. She pops a lozenge into her mouth and lets the taste spread across her tongue.
One-fifteen. She sucks another cough drop and wonders if she wants to read Tiger Beat—Paul McCartney is on the cover—or try a crossword puzzle book.
A car pulls in by the gas pumps and two people sit there. She can’t tell whether the car is black or dark blue, but it has a dent in the back fender and the engine needs a tune-up.
Two men walk through the door, both wearing jeans and Ohio State sweatshirts. It’s late at night in June, but they both wear ski masks over their faces, too. The taller one holds a hunting knife in his hand, and the blade looks big as a car bumper.
Annie’s chest turns to ice.
“Open the cash register and nobody gets hurt.”
“We don’t got much here, mister.” She fights to keep her voice steady. “Not enough for you to go to jail for.”
“We’re not going to jail. Just shut up and open up.”
Annie punches the No Sale button and the door clangs open. She reaches for the cash, but the guy comes around the counter and sticks the knife in her face.
“Back up, kid.”
Annie does. The skinny guy scratches his neck and looks around the store while the man with the knife stuffs the bills in his pocket. Two hundred in twenties, a hundred sixty in tens. . .
Annie tells herself it’s a good thing she and Lainie counted it. She’ll be able to tell the police exactly how much they got. The guy shakes his head.
“This is all?”
Annie nods. The knife blade flickers under the lights.
“Pump some gas,” she whispers. “You can fill your tank.”
“Oh, don’t worry, we’re gonna do that anyway.” His raisin eyes look through the red knitted mask. “Maybe I should fill your tank too, you like that?”
Annie feels her throat burning again and her hands turn cold. Her lips move but her voice doesn’t work.
“Whatta you say, kid? Just you and me, right here on the counter.” The guy points the knife at Annie’s tee shirt and she feels three years old, not grown-up at all. She shakes her head and feels her lips trembling.
“P-please,” she whispers. “I’m not. . .”
The skinny guy speaks up. “Don’t do that, D—”
“Shut up.” The man with the knife whirls. “No names, you dope.”
He backs Annie up against the cigarette display and hooks her tee shirt on the point of the knife. He slices through the fabric and goose bumps spring out on her chest and arms. He looks down.
“Hell, not even enough here to grab onto and steer.”
“Don’t do that, man.” The skinny guy speaks up again. “We got the money, let’s get out of here before someone comes.”
“You want us to leave, kid?” Annie feels her eyes cross while the knife hovers under her nose. She presses her lips together and nods.
Her throat burns and her knees shake. The word struggles up from her lungs.
“Please. P-please leave.”
His eyes stare into hers for hours before he steps back.
“OK. You’re going to be that way about it.” He steps back and his eyes lower. “At least I can grab some smokes, too.”
He pushes her out of the way and takes two cartons of Camels. When he turns back toward the counter, he sees the pack of Kools by the register.
“What’s this? Little girl cigarettes, filters and menthol? You kidding me, kid? You trying to be a big girl?”
He brays like a mule and turns to his buddy. Annie wants to slide through the floor and disappear from the whole wide world until she recognizes his laugh.
Of course! Nobody else calls her “kid,” either. It’s Duane Peasey and his idiot buddy. Annie feels her fear turn to rage. These are the guys that raped her sister, and they were going to. . .
He shows the Kools to his buddy. “Gonna smoke like the big girls. What a joke.”
Annie clenches her teeth.
“You said you were leaving,” she whispers.
“Yeah, I did, didn’t I?” He drops her Kools next to the can of Aqua Net. “Well, one more for the road, OK?”
He takes another carton of Camels and puts it on the other two. He tucks them under his arm and steps back. Annie reaches into her pocket for her brand-new Zippo.
“You want a light before you go?”
“Huh?” Duane turns back and his knife lowers.
Annie yanks the cap off the Aqua Net and sprays it into his face. She pops the cap on the lighter and her thumb finds the little wheel. She holds it under the spray and flicks.
Duane Peasey’s ski mask explodes into bright orange and his shriek fills the whole store. Annie drops the Aqua Net and watches his hands claw at his burning face. Footsteps pound toward the door but she can’t look away. A car engine roars, but she barely hears it between Duane’s screams and the crackle of yarn and flesh.
When he stops screaming and thrashing, Annie steps back. Her nostrils fill with a stench like charred pork and her hands won’t stop shaking, but somehow she manages to dial the Sheriff’s office. The deputies arrive minutes later and find her on all fours, throwing up near the premium gas pump.
Someone calls an ambulance and someone finally thinks to call Lainie, who shows up with her hair in curlers and her nightgown tucked into jeans. Annie falls into her arms and holds on. She hears herself sobbing like a little kid.
“Are you all right?” Lainie asks. “I mean, are you hurt?”
Duane’s knife sliced through Annie’s shirt and bra and she’s hanging out for all the deputies to see. They don’t pay her enough to move out of this dump either, and now she’ll never get a second chance.
The scratch on her chest burns.
“I don’t want to work the midnight shift.”