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First pages

Sunny sat on a wooden crate with her back against the wall, and she watched him tuck her son to sleep in the station wagon. The door was open, and Eddie was saying a prayer with her boy. Their ritual was to say thank you for as many things as the child could think of, and when he stalled out, they would say night, night.

              Eddie said, “Thank you for...”

              “Momma.”

              “Thank you for...”

              “Daddy.”

              “Thank you for...”

              “Our car.”

              “Thank you for...”

              The boy started giggling. She couldn’t see him, but heard him and saw the flashlight’s glow from inside the car. The rain out front of the abandoned service station continued to fall.

              Sunny was soaked, wet, uncomfortable. Waves of nausea rolled over her, and she took a swig of the warm malt liquor. The service station bay was dry, and something skittered in the dark like a lizard on dry leaves.

              “Thank you for...”

              “Beans for dinner.”

              “Thank you for...”

              “Blankets. And a pillow!” The boy started giggling again.

              Eddie leaned over him in the door, and Sunny saw him smile through the windshield. She looked at the can of beans they’d shared. A single plastic spoon stuck there, and she grabbed it and scooped some into her mouth.

              Chased it with warm Mickey’s.

              Wiped tears from her face.

              The flashlight went out in the back of the car, and Eddie said, “I love you, Jackson Cody.”

              Her son replied, “I love you, too, Daddy.”

              “Night, night.”

              “Night, night.”

              The rusty door squealed shut, and Eddie looked through the glass a moment, waved, and then turned and walked toward her in the darkness.

              “Any more to eat?”

              She nodded toward the can.

              He grabbed a wooden crate and pulled it up beside her. Took the can in his lap. Stood the flashlight on the floor. Off.

              He stretched out his legs beside hers, and she watched him lift a spoonful to his mouth. They sat there with their backs against the wall of the service station bay, and they stared out into the darkness and rain.

              “How’s the baby?”

              “I’m tryin’ not to hate you, Eddie. Tryin’ real hard.”

              “Ain’t always gonna be like this.” He motioned toward her drink. She hesitated, angry as hell with him, and then handed it over. “Thanks.”

              “I’m scared, Eddie. Pregnant like this. We runnin’ on empty.”

              “Been runnin’ on empty my whole life. Ain’t ever known nothin’ else. Save your love.”

              She looked at him in the darkness. He had pretty eyes. Kindness shone in them like a beacon. Glistening. He glanced at her and smiled a bit.

              “Sick all the time,” she said. “Goddamn I love you so much.”

              “You don’t love me.”

              “Fuck you.” She nodded and looked at the floor, then the open bay door.

              Eddie said, “I just want to take care of you, baby. One day we’ll have it right and you ain’t gonna have to worry. Piece of land. Kids that ain’t a couple of assholes.”

              She stared at him in the darkness trying to figure if he believed his dream. Believed it enough to make it so.

              “Lovely dream, Eddie.”

              “Ain’t just a dream.”

              “Ain’t what I meant.”

              “You think I like raisin’ my family in a car? Get so angry at myself sometimes, Sunny, I just want to end it all. Guilt. Eats like cancer.”

              “You ain’t got no reason to feel guilty.”

              “Suicide.”

              “You tried to find work like nothin’ I ever seen. Jesus. They just ain’t no jobs to be had.”

              “Shelter. Ain’t ever sendin’ you there again.”

              She felt his hand caress her own, and she took it in her grip. They held one another for a long time. The silence in the rain was like her own private island.

 

“Reckon we safe here?” Sunny called to him.

              Eddie didn’t look back at her. He held the flashlight in his hand and rummaged through a desk in an office at the back of the station. The room smelled of gasoline, decaying papers, and something skunky, piney that he couldn’t define.

              “Kill somebody if I have to,” he said over his shoulder.

              He opened each of the drawers, found nothing. The metal squeaked as he shut them.

              “Ain’t ours,” Sunny said.

              Eddie swiveled in the chair and shone the light along the wall. He brightened a calendar, rose to his feet, and checked the date. The corners were wrinkled and brittle from age.

              He thumbed the pages and said, “Ain’t nobody’s. This place belongs to the jungle now. Creepers and vines.”

              “I couldn’t kill nobody,” she said. Her bottle rang empty on the concrete when she set it down.

              Eddie scanned a bookshelf that held Chilton’s. He opened one and saw that the paper was brown. Oil smudged the edges.

              Something skittered along the floor behind him, and he spun around and shone the flashlight under the desk.

              Mice.

              He saw droppings on the floor by one of the desk legs. A phone book had been chewed up in the middle.

              Eddie stepped to the center of the office. Sunny sat on the crate in the garage. She looked at him through the doorway.

              “What you lookin’ for anyways?”

              He shone the flashlight at a closed door at the back of the office. Closet, likely.

              “You look drunk,” he said.

              Sunny took a drag from her cigarette, exhaled through her nose. Said, “Ain’t nothin’ here but junk.”

              Eddie asked, “Is the gun in the glove-box?”

              “Why?”

              Eddie’s eyes went to the closed closet door. The flashlight’s white circle rose from floor to ceiling. “’Case you got to kill somebody, Sunny.”

              There was a padlock a few inches above the doorknob. Fixed the door to the doorframe. The lock itself looked new.

              That won’t right.

              “Who I gotta kill?” Sunny asked. “I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch.”

              Eddie stared at the padlock in the flashlight’s white circle.

              Now, why would somebody lock a closet like that?

              He crossed to the door and fingered it.

              Sure enough.

              The MasterLock brand was written in gold script on a blue rubberized band around the bottom. Key operated. He tugged at it.

              Locked.

              He crossed to the desk and searched through the drawers once more. Sunny rose to her feet in the garage and checked on Jackson Cody sleeping in the car.

              Eddie called, “You see anything that looks like a crowbar? Tire iron? Somethin’ like that?”

              She must not’ve heard him, and Eddie swung around in the chair and saw her in the passenger seat. He shone the light in her direction. Windshield glass reflected the light, but he saw that she was retrieving the gun.

              She stood up and closed the door.

              Eddie asked, “He asleep?”

              “I love his snorin’.” She crossed back to her crate, gun in hand, swerving a bit, and Eddie asked her again if she saw a crowbar in the garage. She said, “Reckon we ought’a close the door? Ain’t no need to broadcast we up in here.”

              “Crowbar, baby,” he said, “you see one?”

              “Looks like we could pull it with the chains.”

              “Are you listenin’ to me?”

              “Less of course, it’s broke.” She crossed to the far wall and tried to pull the chain to close the garage door. Metal on metal shrieked loudly, but the door hung half closed.

              She pulled hard. “It’s stuck,” she said.

              “Could you make any more noise?” Eddie said exiting the office. He approached the car, glanced in the back window, and saw Jackson Cody on the backseat with his blanket up around his chin. He was still sound asleep.

              Eddie tried to help Sunny close the garage door, but it just kept screeching on its rails.

              “Metal’s all bent up,” he said. He shone the flashlight. “See them rails? Bent and rusted to hell.”

              He heard a car.

              “Oh, shit,” Sunny said.

              They could see headlights in the distance.

              “Quick,” he said, “the office.”

              He killed the flashlight, and they stood in the back of the garage by the office door and watched the car pass in front of the service station on the highway in the night. The vehicle did not slow, and soon vanished into the rain.

              Eddie’s heart hammered in his chest. “All I want is a place I don’t feel I’m a be run off in the night. Jesus.”

              Sunny giggled and pointed. “There’s a crowbar right there, Eddie.”

              Eddie said, “I need to feel you and the baby.”

              He took Sunny in his arms. Had to bend a bit on account of her pregnant belly. Held her and smelled the cigarettes and beer and felt the warmth of her body, still damp from the rain. He looked into her eyes in the darkness.

              “I love you,” he said.

              She kissed him.

              Then she asked, “Reckon I could kill somebody?”

 

 

              He pried the crowbar behind the padlock latch and pulled. The screws holding the latch to the doorframe came up out of the wood, and a minute later, the door swung wide.

              The smell hit him like a wave.

              “Jesus.”

              “We almost out’a beer,” Sunny said.

              “You smell that?”

              “Ain’t gonna be able to sleep ain’t no more beer.”

              Eddie shone the flashlight around the closet. It was small, hardly large enough to stand inside, and a piece of plywood covered the floor.

              “What the hell?” Sunny said.

              He slid the plywood out of the closet and saw the seams in the floor.

              “Hold it a sec,” he said, and he killed the flashlight.

              “Hell,” Sunny said.

              They both stood in the doorway of this abandoned service station in the middle of nowhere about an hour southeast of Raleigh, and they saw light pouring up from the cracks around the seam in the floor.

              Eddie looked from the floor to Sunny. He knew what it was. Could smell it.

              He knelt down and picked up the trapdoor. He had to pry it up with the crowbar as the seam wasn’t wide enough for his fingers. The lid leaned against the wall at the back of the closet, and they both saw the ladder descending into the ground.

              They saw the lights.

              Sunny swayed hard, caught herself against the doorframe.

              “Y’alright?”

              “Eddie, there’s lights down there.”

              The ladder looked like the kind painters used when working on the sides of houses. Eddie knelt over the hole. He raised an index finger to his lips.

              He listened to the sound of oscillating fans from down below, but could not see much because of the angle. The smell was pungent and sweet. Almost like mint.

              “Eddie, come on.”

              “Shhh.” He leaned his ear to the hole. “Hear the fans?”

              “Let’s get out’a here, Eddie.”

              “Ain’t nobody here.”

              “What the hell, Eddie? There’s a hole in the floor.”

              “Give me the gun.”

              “What you doin’?”

              “The gun, you drunk.” He took it from her and started down the ladder, leaving the flashlight on the floor inside the closet. There was plenty of light from down below, and he soon reached the floor at the base of the ladder.

              “Holy shit.”

              “What you see?” Sunny called from above.

              He looked up at her leaning over the hole.

              “Don’t fall.”

              Sunny said, “You think I’m stupid?”

              She came down the ladder. And a moment later they stood side by side and gazed out over the largest crop of marijuana either one of them had ever seen.

              “Looks like rail cars.”

              “Jesus, Eddie.”

              He walked forward and touched one of the plants. Realized they were standing underground inside two rows of buried rail cars that extended for about a hundred yards into the distance.

              As far as he could see, marijuana stood tall under grow lights.

              Each rail car had several standing floor fans, each of which moved back and forth. In the ceiling, misters sprayed a fine humidity over the crop.

              Eddie said, “Looks like the owner of this fine gas station done found himself another line of work.”

 

Eddie found the forty-gallon Tupperware bins stacked against a wall. He counted twelve total. They were dark blue. Two were green. Each was lidded, and he pulled one down from the stack surprised by its weight. He popped the lid.

              “Jesus,” he said.

              Sunny bent over beside him, her hands on her knees. Eddie pulled one of the gallon-size Ziploc bags right off the top and held it up to the light.

              Cured.

              “Wanna smoke it?” Sunny grinned.

              Eddie put his gun down atop one of the bins and drove his hands deeper into the open one before him and pulled out bags and dumped them on the floor until he reached the bottom.

              “Damn,” he said. He looked into Sunny’s eyes. She blinked at him and had a crazy, cute grin on her face. He just stared at her. “This is recently cured.”

              “How much you reckon it’s worth, all this?”

              Eddie grabbed another bin, slid it out across the floor, and opened it. Filled just like the first one. He took a third, opened it.

              Same.

              Eddie stood upright. His eyes were a little wide as he stared at the other nine forty-gallon bins stacked against the wall.

              Finally he said, “That’s a lot of pot.”

              His mind tried to do math. Each gallon-sized Ziploc held about a pound. Ballpark estimate. Three grand per bag. Thirty bags per Tupperware bin.

              “Three grand times thirty,” he said. “Ninety thousand.”

              “Total?”

              “Per bin.”

              Sunny just stared, her head bobbing a little.

              Eddie said, “Ninety grand times twelve. That’s like a million bucks worth of pot.”

              “Million,” Sunny said, “dollars?”

              Eddie just stared at the stack of Tupperware containers before him.

              Sunny touched her stomach and said, “I think I just felt the baby kick.”

 

 

              Eddie found guns on an office supply shelf. Boxes of ammunition. Two M-16s. Enough weaponry for a small battle.

              Found lines and clothespins and hangers where they’d cured it. Tables with a half dozen chairs, scissors, spent stems and leaves. The crop in the bins had not been packed long ago. Maybe a day or two. Maybe more.

              Maybe less.

              The rail cars went on for a long way, and the smell of pot and the humidity and the anxiety building inside his head was dizzying. As much as was in the Tupperware bins, there was probably five times that growing under the lights.

              The lighting, the watering. The buried rail cars. Weapons.

              “We need to get out’a here, Sunny.”

              “What you talkin’ about?” She swayed.

              “People that grow like this. They don’t stay away long. And you sure as hell don’t steal from ’em.”

              “Eddie, we could take a few of those bins easy in the back of the station wagon. How would they know who did it?”

              Eddie stared into her eyes, his mind not made up one way or the other.

              Sunny said, “If we go now, we’re on the road in minutes. Gone.”

              Eddie’s eyes looked up the ladder at the hole in the floor. He glanced at the bins on the ground.

              “I ain’t got no idea how to move pot like that,” he said.

              “We’ll find a way.”

              “Sunny, this is a bad idea.”

              “Leavin’ your pregnant wife and son in a homeless shelter was a bad idea, Eddie.”

              “Don’t.”

              “Don’t what, you chickenshit? Give me the gun.”

              “It’s stealin’, Sunny. Stealin’ from bad people.”

              “Who ain’t ever gonna know who we are.”

              “It ain’t right.”

              “Give me the gun, Eddie.”

              “Listen.” Eddie froze. “In everything I done, I ain’t ever broke the law.”

              “You nearly killed a man. Skipped bail. Can’t even rent a damn trailer no more ’cause the law is lookin’ for you.”

              “That’s a lie, and you know it.”

              “Eddie, you can’t get a real job. You’d get arrested.”

              “Like you been tryin’ to find work.”

              “We’re takin’ this weed. We’ll sell it. And we’ll never have to work again. Can move to the Florida Keys or wherever we want.”

              “I’m out’a here, Sunny. Ain’t stealin’ this shit. You go down that road, ain’t no comin’ back.”

              “So, what? So we can go down to Southport and watch you lose your temper on another crap job.”

              “This time’ll be different. I’m sober now.”

              “Oh, that’s a good one. Took a drink just thirty minutes ago. Sober my ass. Just as soon as you start thinkin’ people’re followin’ you, you’ll be back on the juice.”

              “That ain’t fair, Sunny. Law was on us. You said it yourself.”

              Sunny put her face in her hands. She shook her head and turned away from him.

              Eddie asked, “Why else would you move out?”

              She turned and looked at him, and her eyes looked red as though she might cry. “Because I love you, you crazy son of a bitch. Because you don’t hit me. Because you love our boy, and he loves you. And we’re a family. A goddamned stupid, crazy, family.”

              Eddie stared at her. He motioned for her to come to him. “Then come on, baby. We ain’t thievin’ this shit.”

              “I love you,” Sunny said through tears. “But you gotta give me the gun.”

              Eddie held it out. “Take it. I don’t care. Let’s just go.”

              She took the gun from him, and Eddie hugged her. And then he wiped away the tears from her cheeks and he kissed her again and he told her that he loved her and that he would work himself to the bone to take care of her and Jackson Cody and the baby on the way.             

              Sunny turned one last time when they reached the ladder and said, “We ain’t really gonna leave this?”

              “Baby, I love you.”

              “Just walkin’ away from cash?”

              “Walkin’ away from trouble.”

              “Hold me,” Sunny said, and they embraced again.

              They held each other a long time.

 

 

              Eddie was helping Sunny out of the hole when the truck pulled into the service station behind their vehicle. He saw the headlights shining into the garage, heard the rumbling motor, and adrenaline flooded through his body like it would crush his heart and bones.

              “Eddie?” Sunny said.

              He grabbed the flashlight and closed the door behind her, and Sunny stepped into the middle of the office. He tried to make the padlock look as though it hadn’t been dismantled from the doorframe, turned and stepped toward the garage. Killed the flashlight.

              He could see nothing in the darkness and rain, except the highbeams shining into the garage over their station wagon.

              “Stay right here,” he said, motioning to the spot behind the door. “I’ll go talk to ’em. Probably just somebody needs gas.”

              “Eddie?” Sunny said again.

              He could tell she was paralyzed with fear, but she took a position behind the door to the office and Eddie walked out into the garage and held a hand up as a wave in the shining highbeams of the truck. His station wagon was completely blocked in, and the truck’s driver’s-side door squealed open and a man stepped down.

              He held a flashlight and a shotgun, and Eddie saw another man in the truck’s passenger seat. He could see nothing through the highbeams but the contours of the man. The second man stayed in the truck.

              The one with the shotgun and flashlight stepped into the bay and put his light on Eddie.

              Eddie held both hands up in front of him. The rain fell. Eddie could see it through the headlights.

              “What y’all doin’ up in here?” the man with the shotgun said. He moved the flashlight around the darkness of the garage bay looking for who else might be with Eddie.

              “Just me and my boy,” Eddie said. “We on the road.”

              The man said, “Looks like you’re off the road to me.”

              “Rain was fallin’ too hard,” Eddie said. His voice felt like it would crack. “Couldn’t see. We pulled up in here to wait it out.”

              The man stepped over to the station wagon and shined his flashlight in on Eddie’s son.

              “He asleep?”

              “We’re happy to get back on the road if this is your property. Don’t mean to trespass. Was just the storm.”

              The man kept the shotgun pointed in Eddie’s direction but turned and motioned for the man in the cab to join him.

              “What’s your name?” the man asked.

              “My name,” Eddie said. “Why you want to know my name? What’s with the shotgun anyway?”

              The other man came into the bay. He was shorter than the one with the shotgun. Looked Mexican, and he had some kind of pistol. Semi-auto.

              Tidal forces gripped Eddie. Felt almost like something beyond the physical world had him in its web. Like he was powerless to act of his own free will.

              “Don’t do that,” Eddie said, “you gonna wake him up.”

              “My compadre here’s gonna keep an eye on your boy,” Shotgun said. “While you show me what you was doin’ back there.”

              “What you talkin’ about?” Eddie said. “We’re just on the road. I got an interview in Southport in the mornin’ for a job cleaning docks. I been out’a work--”

              “Shut up!” Shotgun said. “Move to the office.”

              “Daddy?” Jackson Cody murmured from the backseat of the open car. He sounded half-asleep.

              “It’s alright,” Eddie called.

              Shotgun nudged Eddie away from the car with the barrel.

              Eddie said, “Just take it easy.”

              The Mexican with the pistol started to lean into the station wagon and clutched at Jackson Cody in his pajamas.

              Raw fear in his voice now. “Daddy?

              Eddie said, “Man, don’t touch him.”

              The man picked the boy up in his arms, and Eddie saw his son look from the two men to him.

              “Where’s momma?”

              Both men froze, and a wild drunken scream came from the office, “Put my son down!”

              Sunny came through the doorway with the gun drawn and pointed at the man with the shotgun. Jackson Cody’s pajama pants had monkeys screen-printed on them. The monkeys were throwing baseballs, footballs, swinging bats.

              The man with the shotgun stepped backward, stumbled over something metal on the ground, and maybe didn’t even mean to but fired in Sunny’s direction. His shot went wide. At a distance of ten feet and with a double-handed grip, Sunny fired two rounds into the man.

              He fell back against the side of the station wagon, and the man holding Jackson Cody dropped the boy and ran out into the storm.

              “Oh, shit,” Eddie said. He watched as Shotgun collapsed onto the ground at his feet.

              Eddie dropped his flashlight, and it rolled under the station wagon.

              Sunny went to the bay door and fired at the fleeing man. He fell hard to the ground in the lot just a few feet from the truck. He started to crawl, and Sunny walked out into the rain, stood over him, and fired twice more into his back at point blank range.             

 

Eddie stared at his wife in the pouring rain in the darkness at the side of the truck standing with her gun over the man she had just shot.

              The garage smelled of discharged gunpowder. His ears were ringing. His son looked up at him for direction.

              Eddie picked up the shotgun from the floor and glanced at the man at the door of his station wagon.

              The man cried, “Oh, Christ, I’m dyin’. Oh, Christ. Help me, man.”

              In the shine of the truck’s highbeams, Eddie could see blood soaking the man’s shirt. The man clawed at his chest. Coughed. Wrecked.

              Jackson Cody stared at the man. They were both on the ground just a few feet from one another.

              Eddie said, “Get in the back seat.”

              Boy asked, “Is he gonna die?”

              The man said, “Help me, man. Oh, my God, I don’t wanna die. I don’t wanna die, now.”

              “Jackson Cody, get in the back seat, now.”

              His boy stood up, still staring at the dying man, and opened the station wagon door and climbed inside and shut the door and stared out at his father through the window.

              Eddie walked out into the storm. “Sunny!” he called.

              The gun now held at her side, her back to him, her hair soaked, she looked down at the writhing figure on the pavement.

              “They were gonna kill him,” she said to Eddie. Her eyes fixed on the man at her feet.

              The man groaned, “Mi hermano te va a matar. Mi hermano es un Zetas, vete a la mierda.”

              Sunny said, “It was self-defense.”

              Eddie pulled her away from the man, grabbed her chin in his hand, and made her look into his eyes. He said, “I did this. You understand. You were in the office the whole time. These men drew on me, and I killed them in self-defense. That’s what happened here.”

              “Eddie?”

              “We gotta get him out’a here. Pull him up yonder.”

              “He ain’t dead.”

              Eddie grabbed the man’s leg in one hand and started dragging him toward the garage.

              Sunny said, “Cars comin’!”

              Eddie looked up and saw headlights through the rain on the road maybe a quarter mile in the distance.

              “Kill the lights on the truck,” he said.

              “How?”

              “Kill the lights!” Eddie dragged the man who was not dead yet through the garage door and into the bay beside his station wagon.

              Sunny climbed up into the truck cab, but the car was going to pass the station. The truck lights went out as the car passed, more signal than camouflage, and Eddie stood in the garage door glancing from his wife in the truck cab to the car on the road, which did not appear to slow at all. He watched its red taillights vanish into the darkness and rain.

              Behind him in the dark, the man who had carried the shotgun said, “I can’t feel my legs.”

 

The digital bank clock out front of the Carolina Savings & Loan in Southport flashed 3:23 as Eddie pulled into town. The lights from the Gas ’n Go beaconed, an oasis from the rain, and Eddie pulled the wagon into the lot and looked at Sunny who sat in the passenger seat holding a cigarette between her fingers. She stared at the store like a refugee.

              “Stop here a spell,” Eddie said.

              Sunny stared at the doorway and bright lights and said, “Feel like I got blood all over me.”

              Eddie parked at the side of the store by the bathroom doors, and he glanced at Jackson Cody asleep on the backseat.

              “He’s out.”

              Sunny turned and looked at Eddie. He saw desperation carved into the creases of the skin around her eyes. “Can you see blood on me?”

              “You’re fine, baby.”

              Sunny looked at her hands, turned her arms over appraising them in the Gas ’n Go’s fluorescents. She pulled her shirt out away from her body and inspected.

              “I’ll check the bathrooms.” He closed the door behind him and stepped up onto the sidewalk and tried the Men’s Room door.

              He motioned that he needed a key, and started to walk toward the front to ask for one.

              A police cruiser with Southport PD printed on the door pulled into the lot. Eddie almost fell off the sidewalk. His heart started to jackhammer. He tried not to stare, but the cruiser pulled up to a space at the corner perpendicular to their station wagon.

              Eddie froze at the door, saw Sunny’s terrified eyes looking at him from inside the station wagon. The store clerk looked up at him from the counter.

              Eddie opened the door and said, “Got a key to the john?”

              The man lifted a wooden stick that had been drilled and held a key ring and key. Eddie took it and had to walk right in front of the marked unit on his way back to the station wagon and the bathrooms around the side of the building.

              He glanced at the officer who appeared to be looking at a laptop computer on the seat next to him. Eddie opened Sunny’s door and leaned inside.

              “Don’t do anything weird,” he said. “We’re usin’ the toilet.”

              “You think he knows? We should just go.”

              On the backseat, Jackson Cody started to stir. He made a murmuring sound.

              Eddie put the key in Sunny’s hand and said, “Go to the bathroom. I’ll stay here.”

              “Won’t that look strange?”

              “What looks strange is me standin’ here talkin’ to you. Get out of the car and go to the bathroom.”

              Eddie didn’t consider how drunk she was until he helped her from the car. He saw the gun on the floor, and Sunny swerved hard as she stepped up onto the sidewalk by the bathroom door and had to brace herself against the hood to keep from falling down.

              “Jesus,” Eddie said, slamming the door and going to her side. “Let me help you.”

              His eyes seemed to have a mind of their own and he wanted to look at the cop to see what he was making of all this, but he didn’t. He helped Sunny to the door and then realized the key was for the Men’s Room.

              In his haste, he hadn’t thought through gendered keys. He tried it on the Women’s Room. It didn’t unlock the door.

              “Just use the Men’s Room.”

              Sunny said, “Eddie.”

              “What’s the matter? Just use the Men’s Room.”

              He helped her to the door and unlocked it with the key and practically pushed her through the doorway. He shut her inside and held the key and glanced back at his station wagon, and then at the police officer who now looked at him and held the CB microphone to his mouth.

              Eddie walked back to the driver’s-side door, stood there for a moment, hesitating, and then opened it and climbed inside. The murder weapon seemed to have bright lights and bells and whistles on it, and it just lay there wide open on the floor.

              Eddie looked at the closed bathroom door, adjusted the rearview to look at Jackson Cody sleeping on the backseat.

              The police officer exited the cruiser and stepped up to the sidewalk. Eddie did not know what to look at. He reached down and took the gun in his lap. He was going to shove it under the seat, but the officer started walking toward him.

              Beer bottles lay strewn all over the floor.

              Eddie put the gun on the seat beside him, covered it with a jacket. The officer looked at him as he passed in front of the station wagon. He stopped and turned to face Eddie from the front of the vehicle. The window was blurry with rain.

              At just that moment, the bathroom door burst open, and the officer turned to look at Sunny as she emerged. She walked past him, her head turned down, and Eddie just stared at her certain she was going to fall down beside their car.

              The officer grabbed the door before it closed and went inside.

              Sunny climbed inside and said, “Let’s go.”

              “Would you relax. Guy just needs to piss.”

              He saw that Sunny was staring at the door. She said, “Eddie, I’m really scared.”

              “Just act normal.”

              “Where’s the gun? Oh, my God. Where’s the gun?”

              “Chill out, Sunny. It’s under my jacket.”

              “We should throw all these empties away.” She started to pick up bottles from the floor at her feet.

              He fought the urge to grab her. From the backseat, Jackson Cody murmured, “Daddy?”

              “Everything’s alright, Son. Just go back to sleep.”

              “I had a bad dream.”

              “It’s gonna be okay. Just had to stop to use the bathroom.”

              Eddie’s eyes ticked back and forth as the Men’s Room door opened. The police officer stepped out onto the sidewalk and gave them a long once over. Young guy, late twenties. Brown hair. Square jaw like a box. Big shoulders. He looked like a bulldog.

              Eddie’s hand found its way to the gun underneath the jacket. His other hand still clutched the key to the Men’s Room.

              The officer stood there a moment. It could have gone either way.

              He would only kill him if this turned south, and the officer came to his door.

              Eddie turned and looked at Sunny whose eyes held an expression that was beyond words. It seemed to say, I’m terrified and I love you, and if we have to kill this cop to save ourselves I’ll do it. Or I’ll turn myself in. I’d give myself up to save you and Jackson Cody.

              If a look can say all of that in less than a second, Sunny’s said it and more.

              Eddie watched out of the corners of his eyes, as the police officer passed in front of their station wagon and headed toward the front door of the Gas ’n Go. He and Sunny were locked in a stare of guilt and shame and humiliation and love and fear that fully comprised its own universe complete with its own laws of nature.

              “I love you,” he said to her once the policeman was inside the store.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Stacey Cochran was a finalist for the 1998 Dell Magazines Award for Fiction, a finalist for the 2004 St. Martin’s Press/PWA Best First Private Eye Novel Contest, and a finalist for the 2011 James Hurst Prize for Fiction. He is the author of In Love with Eleanor Rigby and The Loneliest. He teaches writing at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where he lives with his wife Susan, son Sam, and daughter Harper Jane.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
Four years ago, I worked on a documentary about women and children who live in homeless shelters. So many of their stories were about perseverance, hope, and love in the face of tremendous pressure. I wanted to give voice to the women I came to know who endure and love and fight for a better life.
Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
A.
Compassion. Ultimately this is a story of compassion and love and triumph of the human spirit. Eddie & Sunny are the ultimate underdogs – bound by love, torn apart by tragedy – and their triumph at the end of this novel is one that I hope stays with readers long after the book is done.
Q. Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from this book?
A.
I love this question! How about Matt Damon as Eddie and Jennifer Lawrence as Sunny… they would be amazing together in these roles. One can dream, right?

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