Sunshine and Poppycock: Chapter 4 [Final]
That following late afternoon when I awoke, I found that my mom had come and gone from one job to another, having left behind much-needed groceries somewhere in between. I double checked the date to confirm that it was, indeed, her payday. I was also surprised to find that we- or rather, just my mom- had finally bought some of the things I had asked for on my list. My mom had always cooked at home for as long as I could remember, but I, however, could not say I took after her. Luckily, finding the fridge stocked with things like hot dogs and microwaveable almost-foods always refueled my hope for surviving until my mom would return and cook for the both of us. On top of that, she seemed to have finally caved to my requests and picked up the fudge-sickles I had asked for, likely now that it was warm enough to be eating ice cream.
My only true form of repayment, while essentially being boarded up at home, was to make sure my grades always stayed the best they could be. Free from having to worry about the superfluous task of preparing foods before they could be eaten, I settled into those next few days for the studies that I had promised. I can work properly when my mind and stomach allow it. I caught up to the big assessment, and with its completion, I turned to my special outing as a reward. The night was slightly cooler, but with a hint of humidity.
I was surprised to find Poppy not at the convenience store for once. Cashier didn’t mention anything about him, sticking rather to his familiar, reassuring silence and the provision of the clanking bits of change into my hand. I returned home, somewhat solemnly, with my rattling cup of caramel colored soft drink and candy and chocolate covered peanuts.
Despite not having the regular cravings, I went again the following night. Poppy was once again absent, and to add insult to injury, or perhaps the other way around, Cashier was gone, replaced by Coworker for that particular shift. I forced myself inside and gathered up my prerequisite things, knowing that if I returned home without them, I would simply regret coming in the first place.
Those following nights at home I was left considering the things that Poppy had said, saying how I was smart and all. As if to subvert my bleak self-esteem and my notions about the blond crazy man, my periodic assessment scores returned with grossly high marks. I manged to offer up the results to my mom one night, but rather than the usual tired praise that always followed, her face turned strangely serious. She told me in a hopeful tone that I would easily make any college with scores like that.
I accepted her words without much celebration. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to afford any real college, not to mention even getting to classes during normal people hours with my condition. Then she did it. My mom sprang upon me the financial aid forms she had been quietly filling out on lunch breaks and the time between her two jobs. She also said that the college back on the coast- where we had moved from- would be a perfect fit for me and my condition.
In the following weeks I found myself registered for the required standardized tests. My routine gained an extra period of studying possible questions that may appear. After that, I was headed down to the testing hall. It was very early in the morning, and I was dressed in my thickest layers and a wide hat and sunscreen. My mom had taken the day off work to transport me there. There were many people my age there, and they all looked at me funny. I took the test, and several weeks later, those results came back with what seemed to be a high score. Then the application went in for the school, and… I was accepted. Soon after, it was the financial aid check coming in, followed by the tiniest of notes telling us of the move-in date of the dorms.
It was a few days before I would be moving. It had been a long time since I had made it down to that little convenience store, or had the urge, really. I kept expecting to see the same blond mop, but alas, he was absent, like the previous few times. Nevertheless, I could not forget the other reasons for which I had come there, the same as it was before Poppy existed as a part of my world. I fumbled with the soda machine, on the verge of forgetting the amount of time it required to collect the amounts of liquid I would need. Cashier was there the same as I remembered, and he accepted me back with the same elated silence as always. That night, however, I spoke up to him just before offering my payment.
“Have you seen… Poppy lately?”
Cashier pursed his lips in thought. “Poppy?”
“The hippy with the blond bowl-cut.”
“Oh, that guy! No, I haven’t.”
I lowered my eyes and took out my wallet. I had a fine wad of bills, my allowance, counted out from some of the tips my mom earned at work. “How much are those tall blue cans of beer?”
“Two… fifteen, with tax.”
“Can I… buy one?”
“I’d have to make sure you’re old enough…”
“Not for me, but like… if I could pay it forward for him, if he happens to come around.”
Cashier turned his eyes up to the ceiling. “I guess I could… put it in an envelope or something.”
I put my things up on the counter and forked over my payment, plus two extra dollars for the beer. Cashier counted out my change, and divided up the coins between the extra two dollars and the amount still owed to me. I stared at him as he brought the beer money to the back counter, and I realized that it would be likely my last time at this same spot. “Thank you.” I said, possibly to this man, properly, for the first time. Before he could turn back around, I had already made my way to the door.
That weekend we drove over to the coast and I moved into the dorms. College was fine, and rather than avoiding the sun like before, I took my time avoiding the masses of roving people, all of them my age. There was even a little student store open late, a facsimile of what I had in the past. The workers there, other students, talked too much.
That winter, my mom returned to pick me up to spend time at home over the holiday break. She had to spend a lot of money on gas as well as take time off work. In the end, she had to work most of the nights, save Christmas. It was just before I had to go back that I decided to head back down the road and around the corner and down the stairs and across the street one more time.
There was something different. The sign above the gas pumps was a different design, and the plastic and paint adorning the facade of the store was a different color. When I walked in, I discovered the same store intact, though, despite the change in ownership and pigmentation.
The candies were in almost the same positions, and the soda machine had changed to coke. The foam cups were now also paper cups. I dared myself back to the cooler to grab the plastic bottle of what would suffice.
I barely made eye contact with Cashier, only knowing that it was not the same person. Then, the name came back to me. “Sunshine?”
I jerked my head up and stared into the wrinkled blue eyes. The man had high-cut sides, fading up to a patch of slightly wavy blond hair. “Poppy?”
“Well, hot damn, it is you!”
“Your hair… and… everything!” I looked around to make sure I was not holding up the nonexistent customers.
“Same to you, Sunshine! You look, like, more mature and stuff. Oh, but not like in a sex-you-up kinda way.”
“Thanks.” I bit my tongue and glanced back between my items and the man. “You have a job here and… I guess you’re wondering where I went off to, huh?”
“You’ve been gone?” Poppy tilted his head.
“Yeah, and…” I stuttered, trying to make sense of his words. “Wait, where have you been?”
Poppy looked to either side of him for his nonexistent coworkers. “In Jail!”
“I was lookin’ for you, Sunshine!”
“It was like, I don’t know, a week since I’d seen ya’. So I went around that way, up the stairs, you know, your way, and I took to lookin’ in windows. Makin’ sure nothing happened to you and your mom, since it’s just you two. I saw one lady who might’a been your mom, she looked it, but with some big guy. I got scared for her. Tried to bust through the door and tried to save her.”
“So you broke into a house… someone’s place… while they were there? And how do you know what my mom looks like?”
“Well, it wasn’t your mom. But the police was called! And I was in there, jail you know, for like a week, then I got a trial and got put away for a good bit of time. I’d say I got off pretty easy, comparatively.”
“And now you work here?”
“The place got bought up. When I was released from the slammer, they were hiring, wouldn’t you know?”
“Maybe… me not being here put the old owners out of business.” I shrugged.
I stared at my bottle of soda slowly dripping the gathering condensation onto the counter, and the candy patiently waiting beside it. “Well, if you could…” I motioned toward the items.
“Oh, have it on me!” Poppy shoved them back my way. “After all, you bought me that beer!”
I cautiously took my items into my arms. “So you got it, huh?”
“That guy still works here, days now, though.”
I began to backtrack to the door, causing the bell to jingle the same as it always did. “Well, tell him I said hi-”
“Goodnight, Sunshine!” Poppy called back, one last time. “See ya’ around, then.”