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Running on Empty
By Julia Borcherts

Part One

The minute I pushed open the glass door of that ghetto gas station, baby on my hip, I realized that the clerk had been shot. He wasn't behind the counter on the left; no, he was splayed across the back wall as though he'd tried to make a break for it, blood pooling through the two holes under the patch that said "Kevin" on his blue uniform shirt, one mangled and bloody hand stretched out in front of him as though he'd been pleading for mercy or trying to block the final shot that pierced the front of his skull and blew out the back of his head. Bits of his long, light-brown hair hung from the chunks of blood and bone smeared along the wall where he'd hit and then slid down. He'd been a tall man, I noticed, because his legs, positioned awkwardly akimbo in ways that would have been too painful to maintain if he'd been alive, had knocked over a display of motor oil three feet to the right. He was a young man, too, I realized, probably younger than I was then, which was twenty-three.

I froze in the doorway, $10 clutched in my hand, until my daughter wiggled on my hip.

"Bottle," she demanded punching me on the shoulder. That, not Mama, had been her first word, and she used it often. It was eight p.m. and she should have eaten an hour ago, but we'd run out of gas and had to trudge through a blizzard in this bombed-out stretch of neighborhood on the west side of Rockford, Illinois.

"Bebop, be quiet, we'll be home soon," I lied, sliding my own back away from the glass front of the building and across to a rack of roadmaps. I didn't know whether to bend down and try to get a pulse or go back out into the dark, and I kept asking myself, what would my mother do, but she was way too competent for something like this to happen to her in the first place, and this was exactly the kind of situation that made her judge me as inept. There was a pay phone across the lot, but I hadn't seen or heard anyone screeching out into the street, and I'd been staring at the gas station for half a mile as we walked down Auburn Street, willing it to not close before we got there. This meant, to me, that the perpetrator could still be skulking around the building, and if I tried to use the phone, my back would be exposed.

There'd been a series of murders that week, and I knew as soon as I saw this gas station clerk slumped on the floor that I'd walked into another one by the same killer. The day before, an attendant at the EZ-Go Service Station up the street had been murdered, and the day before that, two clerks at Willie Fredd's corner grocery store had each been shot in the head five times. Later that week, two shoppers would be gunned down at a Radio Shack twenty minutes away in Beloit, WI. By the next week, we would learn that the killer's name was Ray Lee Stewart. His own father would turn him in for the reward money, Stewart would get the death penalty, and in 1996, he would be executed.

But that night in January, 1981, I didn't know any of this. All I knew was that I was trapped in a gas station with a dead body and a nine-month-old baby crying for her bottle. I shivered as she squirmed in my arms. She reached over my shoulder with her fat little hand, and I felt the wisps of her hair, light-brown and fine like those on the dead man, brush against my cheek as she grabbed a road map and threw it across the room, where it hit the open cash register. The window rattled as the freezing rain hit the glass and I realized that I could stay in there all night but aside from the weather, we weren't any safer inside than we were out in the parking lot and that sooner or later, someone would show up and at this point, I'd rather it was the police. So I pulled Bebop around to the front of my chest, pushed the door open and staggered back out into the snow.

Part Two

So, what the hell kind of mother, I can hear you asking, takes her kid out in a blizzard, during a killing spree, in a car with no gas, and doesn't even bring a bottle? Well, the easy answer is that my husband and I had separated a week earlier, I was exhausted from shuttling my kid between babysitters while I worked two jobs, I was taking my work clothes and a load of shitty diapers to the Laundromat, and I had no idea how I was going to make the house payment, let alone fix the broken gas gauge on the car.

But the true answer is that I really wasn't ready to be a mother. I was twenty-one when I discovered I was four months pregnant, and while that may not seem criminally young, it had taken me four months to discover this because my husband Greg, a lazy but patient roofer with spiky, dark hair who moonlighted as a drug mule for the Hell's Angels, was bringing home so much speed that I hadn't gotten my periods for almost a year. Right around the time Bebop was born, I had stopped speaking to my mother-a good-looking, no-nonsense brunette who reminded me of Emma Peel from the Avengers: proficient at everything from needlepoint to martial arts, which I was not. She was funny and generous, a great companion for Scrabble games and old movies, and I always felt like nothing truly bad could happen as long as she was around to watch over me, but she couldn't help pointing out how I was to blame when any event in my life went wrong, no matter how trivial the consequences. The last straw was when I asked her for advice on how to get my newborn to sleep through the night and rather than suggest any actual techniques, she'd insisted that I was so completely inept as a mother, that Bebop subliminally understood that it wasn't safe to fall asleep around me. Then she insisted that Bebop and I stay with her for a week so that she could try to undo whatever damage I must have done. To make matters worse, I overheard her telling Greg to keep an eye on me because I wasn't dumb, exactly, I just had no common sense.


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