Copyright 2015 by Irene Eccleston
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without the written permission of the author. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
The Sunshine Girl is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events is entirely coincidental.
Other titles in the Rude Awakening Series:
The Dark Passenger
The Party Killer
Email the author at [email protected]
The Chevy truck came to a halt at the end of the muddy road. Amanda peered through the car’s open window at the run-down cottage surrounded by rows of pine trees. She wore short faded jeans, and a tank top revealing her perfect Californian tan.
“Is this the place?” she turned her head and looked at Jesse, who busied himself with a revolver.
“Yup. Let’s go. You take the money.”
She stepped onto the dirty gravel road, taking the heavy brown duffel bag with her.
“What about him?” Amanda shot a glance at the grey blanket in the back of the truck. Her long blond hair curled under the baseball cap as the gale of wind caught her steps.
“He can wait.”
The sun was now fiery red between the tall trees as they approached the cottage. Jesse tapped the butt of the revolver against the door. It opened with a faint screech. There was no one inside. He stepped in, threw his bloodied plaid shirt on the floor and came outside with two bottles of beer.
Amanda was waiting on the tiny porch, staring into the distance with a cigarette in her hand, the bag resting at her bare feet. She grabbed a beer from Jesse and sat down on the wooden floor, taking a big gulp of the chilled liquid.
“So what happens now?”
“What do you want to happen?” Jesse asked her.
“I don’t know…what are we doing here?”
“Celebrating,” replied Jesse and gave his biggest infectious smile she recognised from the day she met him in a pub downtown Los Angeles.
Amanda couldn’t remember the name of the bar. She had been sulking that day. Holding a small backpack with just a few clothing items and a blanket inside, Amanda entered the almost empty bar late afternoon, after she had spent a longer time than usual after school wondering if she should do it or not. Run away from home. Finally, be free. She had known the answer as soon as she stood up on the cold concrete stairs fronting the campus where students usually sat in groups. She had not wanted to go back home ever again. She was fine with it, really.
Beads of perspiration covered her forehead. It had been a torrid and humid day, the sun as bright and golden in the sky as her long loose hair. She pulled at an elongated strand, circling her index finger along the hair shaft, a gesture she was not fully aware of. Amanda looked around and saw a few people at one of the tables. They were playing cards, beers lined up in a wooden crate. She took a remote place on the farthest bar stool. A few slots machines lined the back wall, unused. She waited for the barman to show his or her face, but there was no one serving drinks at the bar.
“Is somebody in here?” she asked in a low voice, but loud enough to be heard at the bar, if indeed there was anyone there.
“Anyone?” she asked again, this time louder.
The men around the table didn’t seem to notice her at the bar. They could not care less but their poker game. Amanda could do as she pleased in that place where no one knew who she was, and no one was looking out for her either. She gave the men a reproaching eye, shook her head, and in a moment of bravery or rather foolishness hoped on the counter. She slid behind the brick structure that separated the tables from the rows after rows of hard liquors and beer taps, took a glass from the many hanging above the counter and filled it with a dark stout. She raised the glass to her lips too fast, tasting the bitter foam and almost spilling the liquid on her white tank top. Someone laughed.
“You should try the next room,” one of the men raised his voice, without looking from underneath a wide-brimmed black hat, the kind that cowboys like to wear to affirm their masculinity. “Unless you are stealing that,” he continued, placing the cards down on the table. “Straight flush, Donnie.”
“Damn you, Bill.”
Donnie took a large gulp of beer and pushed the empty bottle towards his friend. The other two men stood up, their boots clicking on the cement floor, empty bottles flying off the table and breaking onto the floor in myriads of tiny green shards.
“Grab us some beers, won’t you, sunshine?” The bald and corpulent man who had just spoken, Donnie, was seated facing Bill, the man wearing the hat. He lit a cigarette and clapped his free hand on the table. The others laughed. Bill fell back victoriously in his chair, eyes gleaming underneath that silly hat.
Amanda’s face flushed in embarrassment. She was not there to steal nor surrender to any drunk man’s call. She won’t do it anymore. She just wanted to get away and maybe have a drink (how ironic, since she hated anyone resembling her daddy and his habit of drinking like a fish). She could have done with something to eat and just be left alone. She would figure out later where to go and what to do next.
It was then when she entered the next room that she saw the four men standing around one of the three centered pool tables. The light filtered through the dark tilted shutters which covered the narrow windows. More slots machines lined the walls, and the thick smoke of burned cigarettes floated around the room. Low-ceiling lights cut through the smoke veil, all lit up to replace the natural light slowly fading outside.
“I’m leaving five dollars for the beer,” said Amanda, and cleared her throat louder when no one replied. It was as if the smoke found its refuge inside her throat, an unpleasant stinging sensation.
“I told you I am leaving the money for the beer I had, for whoever the hell is working around here in this piece of crap place,” she firmly let her anger out. She was exhausted, and her stomach rumbled in pain. She has not had a bite to eat since morning. And she hated the damn smoke. She did not mind a ciggie now and then, but these guys were like hot chimneys on a cold winter night.
The four men turned their heads in unison. The tall and skinny man wearing a cloth around his waist, the barman, stepped in front of her.
“You can pay in here,” he laughed. “Or tell you what, you play a game, you win, you don’t pay at all. Jesse, are you up for it?” he gestured towards one of the guys, who’d just made his winning move. The black ball sank in the corner pocket with a thud.
“Always, boss,” he sneered to the barman, his eyes locked on the new good-looking player joining the boys. “So who’s the girl?”
“Amanda,” she unknowingly smiled with confidence as if she’d won at the game many times before. “Does this place have any food at all?” she scoured the barman’s face, hoping for a positive answer.
“Maybe if you play my pal Jesse here will take you out,” his reply came. His right eye was badly twitching.
“I know a place,” the man named Jesse intervened, shedding his plaid shirt on the nearby available pool table to reveal strong, tanned arms. “Let’s play first.”
The game would be a welcome distraction to pass the time, to make her forget. She couldn’t care less about winning.
“So what are we doing here?” Amanda asked Jesse again. “How do you know this place?”
“You know how you talked about going away…,” Jesse replied. “I found it. It doesn’t matter.”
He looked up towards the canopy of trees to the side of the cabin. The wind wrestled the branches, but apart from it, silence prevailed.
“You are crazy, you know that?” Amanda sat still on the cracked wooden deck. “I mean, I like crazy, but this…”
“I thought you needed a change, baby.” There he was, sweet-talking his way to her heart and there was nothing she could do or say otherwise. “A place for the two of us. This will do for now. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“But we have to…this feels wrong, Jesse.”
“You cannot tell anyone about what happened, Mandy.”
“I’ll have to kill you, baby.”
Her blood froze and she squeezed the empty bottle in her hand. It took her a few seconds to realize she was suddenly feeling icy cold and forgot her leather jacket in the car.
“Is something wrong?”
“Oh…I must have left my jacket in the truck.”
She watched him throwing his beer bottle on the patchy grass and discarded pine needles, walking back to the car, bare chest, blue jeans, curly brown hair and dark olive skin. She could hardly forget that night in LA, the rounds of drinks, the coke and the ecstasy, and the exciting idea of the two of them running away together. It was now or never. She could not have forgiven herself if she did not try. Would she have survived alone out there if not for him?
“It is getting cold,” she continued when he returned, almost a whisper. She buried her head in her hands, for not even the jacket could warm her. Inside, she felt empty and cold, but part of her was strangely alive and pulsating and she knew, deep down, that she needed this. She needed him. She needed his protection. She needed the adventure. But she was afraid.
“I will get some wood from the forest, you take care of the food. See what’s left inside.”
He was long gone before she could look into his dark green eyes for any signs of remorse. Or sanity. Or whatever.
“See you later, boys. Remember, Ronnie’s place in two hours.” Jesse watched the barman exit the play room. He applied more chalk to the cue tip, readying himself to hit the cue ball and deliver the victorious shot.
“Game ball,” called out one of the other Latino men who were hovering around the table, like faithful dogs protecting their master. His tanned arms were fully tattooed and a red bandana hung low on his forehead. He threw his cigarette on the floor, stomping it with the heel of his boot, and blew out the smoke in circles. Amanda tried to avert her eyes from the pistol butt peering out of the worn-out jeans. The other man laughed and made an obscene comment. Jesse cut him short and drew closer to Amanda. She could smell the alcohol on his breath.
“Ok, you’ve made your point. It was fun, but I guess this is my cue to leave. Here’s the money,” she said reaching into her pockets, her mind still fixed on the pistol she had just glimpsed. The closeness to Jesse was unnerving. She produced a folded ten-dollar bill and he grabbed it as if it were precious gold.
“Is that all you have?” he cocked his head to the side and smiled. Then he traced his fingers alongside her face, pulling closer to her golden hair, like an animal sniffing at something new and shiny.
“You wanna get more of that?” he whispered in her ear and casually threw his left arm over her shoulders.
“My boys and I are going to crash a friend’s party tonight. You should join us,” Jesse announced loudly.
“The fun has just begun,” the tattooed men intervened. “Ain’t it right, Jesse?”
Jesse gave a nod and checked his wrist watch. “Time to go, boys.”
“I think I should better get going too,” Amanda replied, unflinching, scanning the room for her backpack. She would not leave without it.
“But where to, sunshine? Don’t you need a ride?” Jesse kept his firm grip on the girl, and she seemed to soften under his touch.
“I’ll play nice, I promise,” he whispered again, his lips moving along the contour of her ears. The boys laughed.
“Home,” she replied, and then she realised she did not have any place to go to anymore. There was no place to call home.
“Nevermind,” she whispered, confused by the mixed feelings she had for the man, and completely dazed by his unexpected kisses.
“It would be fun,” Jesse was pleading now with his eyes, the edge in his voice softening.
She played it cool, despite adrenaline rushing through her bloodstream, all the while thinking about where she could go next. There was no future plan, just the unknown swallowing her like a giant gaping hole, a potentially dangerous one. And the unknown had a face and seemed to be in charge. Jesse could have carried a gun too, perhaps concealed in his jacket. He might not have looked as daunting as his entourage, but it was clear from his demeanour that he was the one in command. Jesse would not hurt her. Otherwise, he would have already done it.
The gang drove up north to a roadhouse and ate greasy fast food in Jesse’s Chevy truck just as the sun lay to sleep on the cloudless sky. Amanda was seated in front. She thought of making conversation, asking Jesse about where precisely they were going for the night, but she instinctively kept her mouth shut, sipping Coke at regular intervals. The other boys stood in the back and ate in silence. Minutes later, the dark settled on the stretch of road going north out of the city. The car sprinted to life, taking a left turn into a far-flung suburb where Amanda has never stepped foot in. It slowly pulled in front of a shabby brick house, a weak light by the door the only guidance from the street to the narrow entrance. Bad rap music blared through the closed curtains draping the windows.
“Get inside through the back and take the stash,” Jesse ordered the two punks in the backseat, and the boys readied their guns for the party. Before she realised where she was, Jesse got Amanda out of the car and walked her to the front door, where one of Ronnie’s boys was killing time with a recreational joint. It was clear from his sparkling bulging eyes that he was pleased to see Jesse.
“Ronnie’s upstairs with the ladies…if you know what I mean,” the black man gave a very provocative look and eyed Amanda’s chest. “Stuff’s in the kitchen. I see you’re good with the ladies tonight.”
The pair made their way inside the house in the anonymous crowd of dancers. It was at one of Ronnie’s house parties where Amanda learned that she could survive more tequila than she imagined, that stuff meant a variety of different drugs, and the stash was Ronnie’s prize money piles, hidden throughout the house. Reluctant at first, she gave in to a good time with the chilling crowd and Jesse. By the time the sun was up, she’d not only got more money for the road, but someone who wanted her and understood her, and she willingly signed up for the joyride.
Later in the mild summer night in the forest Amanda and Jesse sat around a small campfire, legs covered in a holed-up blanket, downing more beers and eating from a few tuna cans they found in the cabin. They ate in silence with their bare hands, the same hands that were shovelling and unsettling the ground a mere hour ago. She closed her eyes trying to forget the swish sound of the dirt piling up at her feet and the smell of death. He had been young, just a boy, with pale freckled skin and ginger hair; someone’s son and maybe a brother.
“You’ve never told me about your folks.”
Amanda snuggled closer to Jesse and lit up a cigarette. She had picked up the bad habit long before she laid eyes on Jesse. She was only thirteen then and in a bad place. It stuck.
“There is nothing to tell.”
Jesse was not one for sharing, but he already knew about her past. Amanda told him the first time they were alone and far out of the city after the gang split the money and the boys left to fend for themselves for a while. She told Jesse everything – how her parents were splitting up, her dad’s alcohol issues and her mother’s unhappiness with another failed relationship. Amanda had never been close to any of them either.
Jesse puffed once more and threw away the cigarette stub. He reached into his jeans pocket and took out a small bag. He spread the white powder on the back of his hand and let his nose sniff the line.
“You want some?”
She waited for him to finish. The fire was still burning on the ground. Jesse’s strong-chinned face caught the orange reflections of the flames. Yes, he was beautiful to look at and he wanted her. No one had wanted her that much. Amanda placed her plumped rosy lips on his mouth, drawing him in with every ounce of her body.
“Let’s go to bed,” Jesse muttered between the kisses, his breath shallow, his pulse quickening.
By the time they got inside the cabin, she couldn’t have cared less about the dusty kitchenette, the thick worn-out rug on the floor or the rusty table and chairs that looked at least fifty years old. A paraffin lamp cast a yellowish light in the small bedroom where a thin mattress laid on the wooden floor, covered by a flimsy old blanket. She unzipped his jeans, and he tore up her top and pushed her down onto the mattress. She arched her back revealing a pair of small rounded breasts, and he smiled his dazzling smile, tugging at her long bleached hair while his mouth possessed every inch of her body curves. She squirmed with delight when he finally took off her panties and claimed her, once again, just the two of them, far away from everything and everyone else, just like Bonnie and Clyde.
Many things could have gone wrong on the road to Las Vegas, Nevada, but a little ginger boy coming out of nowhere and crossing a road on the outskirts of a small town, where the two lovers stopped for gas one foggy morning, had been unexpected. Dawn had broken in a yellow blanket over Interstate 15. Jesse swerved into the first town he could see on the map to search for a garage and fill up the fuel tank while Amanda stocked her bag with whatever food she could find inside the small unattended shop. That morning she stashed a few bags of pretzels and chocolate tabs, a six pack of diet coke and another of beer, a bottle of fresh milk and a packet of cheap instant coffee. She left a few ten dollar notes at the till and ran out in a heartbeat, before she changed her mind, taking a baseball cap from the few hanging on display at the exit.
They would probably hit a motel on the road by nightfall, preferably with a diner and a gas station nearby. She pictured cheeseburgers, chicken wings and fries. In two days they would cross the Mojave deserted area and reach the spectacular lights of Las Vegas.
The fog loomed over the town and there was no soul in sight when they headed back to the highway. The radio was playing old country tunes. They spoke about gambling part of the money. Jesse had an uncle in Springs, somewhere in the state, he was not entirely sure, but they could stop by afterwards for a fortnight. Amanda put the cap on and gawked in the overhead car mirror. She was still her charming self, just slightly puffy and tired after the few joints she served since the night before, and she hoped to get some sleep at the next motel down the road. The map showed at least two hundred uneventful kilometres ahead. She settled in the seat with a coke and bag of pretzels on her lap.
Jesse opened the lid from a beer can with his teeth and pushed the gas pedal harder. The engine fired away louder, leaving only a pile of dust behind. The fog had not lifted entirely. There should have been a crossroads straight ahead. Amanda scavenged through the food supplies for another pick-me-up. With one hand, Jesse turned the wheel to the right, the other side glued to the beer. The radio signal was fading once again – it happened quite often whenever they went through small towns. Jesse called for Amanda to find another frequency. Damn it, he would have to get some decent music from the next general store he could raid.
Amanda lifted her head from the purse and screamed. The car jerked and halted as it hit a hard moving object. At first, Jesse thought it had been a stray cat or a dog, or even a coyote in those parts of the country. Amanda stepped out of the car and let out a cry.
“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god…”
“It’s a boy,” she finally found the words to say it. “You killed him.”
Distant mountain peaks loomed large over rolling dunes and dark forests to the west, where the wilderness of the Death Valley and the remoteness of Sierra Nevada awaited. No one had spoken a word for the past hour. Only the radio hummed its country thing in the background, barely perceptible and completely tuned out at times.
“I know a place,” Jesse broke the silence between them.
“Will have to exit the next off-ramp and head to the west. No stops,” he spoke with conviction while the Chevy swerved towards the Californian forests. The lifeless body of the boy lay dumped in the back.
The morning light filtered through the rectangular wooden-framed window when she woke up and felt the empty space beside her. Jesse was gone. She pulled up her shorts and went to the kitchen. There was no smell of fresh coffee and burned toast. She rummaged through the wall cabinet and found two tin mugs and a broken plate. She remembered she bought a few instant coffee bags at the filling station two days ago, minutes before the stupid accident. The boy must have been lost at the edge of the road, or maybe he was crossing the street when it happened. She could not remember. She was still high as a kite and kept talking about their next adventure. She wanted to go to New York or somewhere upstate after Vegas. The money was enough to keep them going for another month or two, luxuries aside.
Amanda saw the rusty orange colour of the truck from the porch. Jesse must have been close by in the woods, or hunting. His gun was not on the floor near the bed where she last remembered seeing it, just before they made love. The girl saw her backpack on the porch – she must have left it there in her distress – and emptied the contents on the kitchen table next to the duffel bag. She made coffee, no milk and sugar, and forced herself to enjoy the bitter taste.
An hour passed and Amanda knew she had to go look for Jesse. She was getting impatient – not worried yet, not with Jesse’s strong sense of direction, and walked behind the cabin, catching the trail of a narrow path going south.
“Jesse,” she called out in the silent woods, “this is not funny.”
There was no response.
She must have walked for a kilometre or so, her feet striding along and birds chirping the only sounds when she heard the faint sound of water – a waterfall? A lake unveiled in front of her in the spectacular midday sun, surrounded by massive tree-lined cliffs and, to the far left in the distance, the sparkling waters of a cascading river.
She took off her clothes and stared at her reflection. She had been obsessed with her body as long as she could remember. All her life she had been searching for that earth-shattering evidence of her secure and sexual self. She wanted to be good enough for them. For him. Now, as she entered the cold waters, her nude body still remembering the touch of her lover, she was finally coming into herself. She let herself carried by her arms towards the waterfall, and there he was. Jesse was standing tall in the pool of water, at the end of the falling stream. He was gloriously naked, bathing and running his hair through the droplet curtain when he turned around and saw Amanda coming.
“Hey,“ he said in his most seductive voice, “come here and feel the water with me.”
“There you are. I was starting to feel lonely out there in the woods.”
Jesse did not reply but instead caught her tiny frame in his arms and pulled her to his chest. Amanda felt him harden under her weight. When the kiss came, it was so carnal and desperate and she could not contain her desire for this man. His arms embraced the nape of her neck and his legs curled around her naked bottom. She felt his body tense with anticipation, covering her, taking her under his spell. One moment she was kissing his wet lips, the next she was gasping for air, in the cold depth of the water. His arms were pushing her down, her chin hitting his chest. She was trapped, her legs fumbling aimlessly through the water, her lungs tightening, seconds passing. He was holding her underwater. Then she remembered.
“I’ll have to kill you, baby.”
Amanda felt sick. She screamed and tasted the rush of water invading her nostrils, her mouth and her aching lungs. She pushed herself and grabbed something – Jesse’s legs – and tucked her nails in the soft flesh. He kicked her, an involuntary reaction, and she sprung free from his embrace, legs furiously cutting the water. Her throat was burning inside, her eyes were squinting for the surface.
Why? Hadn’t she been good to him? She kept quiet to herself. She promised not to tell anyone. She loved him.
Amanda hit the surface and opened her eyes wide, blinded by the sunlight. Seconds passed until she saw Jesse swimming in her direction. Pain shot through her muscles as she kicked the water as fast as she could – she was exhausted – seeking refuge behind the waterfall. He was trailing her and she fearfully examined the moist rocky wall surrounding them. There was nowhere to hide. Jesse caught her left arm and would not let go. She turned and filled her lungs with damp air once more before diving underneath the water. Somehow his arms wrapped around her neck, squeezing the life out of her. Amanda tried to arch her body and take him under, just like a crocodile underwater would ambush its prey. She could hardly breathe as she turned around, thrusting her whole body until her neck no longer felt the pressure of his hands. Jesse let go and at that moment her eyes watched in horror the crimson hue spreading through the water like her mother’s wine spilling all over her favourite carpet, the night her mother caught her father in bed with another woman.
Blood gushed through Jesse’s open skull wound. His eyes were closed and the pulse faint. Amanda dragged him all the way back to the cabin, her mouth wet and salty. She only realized when she laid his body on the dirt ground that she had been crying. Amanda could not wait until dark – she had to leave this place for good. She did not really like it in the first place. She stayed there for him – to be with him.
The shovel hit the ground for the second time that weekend. Amanda pushed the body into the hole together with Jesse’s clothes and all reminiscences of their time together. There was no ‘us’, she thought, and sadness filled her chest. There had been only her, all along.
Later that afternoon she rummaged through the cabin. She emptied the kitchen cabinets and tossed everything she could find out on to the floor: the tin coffee mugs, the broken plate, some old food cans, a mouldy biscuit jar. On a corner shelf, she saw Jesse’s car keys, the revolver, a pack of cigarettes and a blue lighter. She buried the gun and the cigarettes in the back pocket of her jeans. She carried to the rusty old Chevy the duffel bag with the rest of the money Jesse got from what had been his last heist. There was enough money for Las Vegas and beyond. She would not need to come back here or see this place ever again. No one would.
Amanda peered through the car’s open window at the run-down cottage surrounded by rows of pine trees. She wore short faded jeans, and a tank top revealing her perfect Californian tan.
Flames engulfed every orifice of the place where, not too long ago, a runaway girl bared the signs of ecstasy and loss. A place where a frightened girl uncovered herself, whole, to a stranger she met in a bar; a place where she forgot herself and found herself at the same time.
Amanda threw her backpack on the empty passenger’s seat and drove away.
Thank you for reading.
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About the author:
Irene Eccleston (30) is a writer and publisher. She is an avid reader and enjoys thrillers, crime and fantasy fiction, as well as non-fiction and magazines (too many to count!). Other favourite pastimes are travelling, cooking and landscape/nature photography. She is a newly converted fitness enthusiast and loves being outdoors. Romanian by birth, she lives in Pretoria, South Africa, with her husband.
Discover other titles by Irene Eccleston in the Rude Awakening Series:
The Party Killer
The Dark Passenger
Email the author at [email protected]
When lonely runaway girl Amanda meets bad boy Jesse, she believes she had finally found someone who understands and wants her, but the resulting joyride is not exactly what she had in mind. A tragic accident forces Amanda to reconsider her choice. However, freedom doesn’t come without a price, and Amanda unwillingly sets the final score… The Rude Awakening Series is a collection of short stories about growing up in a cruel and wicked world. The Sunshine Girl is a short thriller about self-discovery, bad choices and life’s tragic moments.