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At the edge of our town, there’s a shitty gas station that’s open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. If you were to go inside, you’d see row after row of off-brand chips, cookies, potted meats and ramen. Expiration dates suspiciously missing from canned goods like they were filed off years ago in some misguided attempt to control inventory turnover. A faded “wet floor” sign from way back covering a crack in the foundation by the cooler that has since turned into a pothole. The pothole, a collection point for sticky spill-off, has become a miniature tar pit collecting countless insect corpses and the occasional small rodent.
Nobody ever complains about the aesthetic. By some providence bordering on the supernatural, the health inspector has repeatedly signed off on the business, always kindly ignoring both the faint smell of some kind of mysterious chemical cocktail that is the defining characteristic of the establishment and the family of mutated raccoons that lives in the crawlspace behind the grease trap. We think they’re mutated anyway. At the very least, they must be inbred to the point of mental retardation. The alpha, a muscular three-foot-tall son of a bitch named Rocco, has been spotted multiple times chewing on people’s tires and has been run over at least twice, but keeps coming back.
That lingering smell, a sweet combination of honeysuckle, ammonia, vomit, and who knows what else, has never been positively identified, but the prevalent theory is that it’s coming from the cracks in the foundation, wafting up from underground. It’s strongest right after a rain, and pungent to the point of tear-inducing if you get too close to the storm drains where even Rocco and his clan refuse to tread.
If you were to go inside, you might also see the bathroom cowboy. He exists as a sort of urban legend. Even though he has never been officially confirmed to exist, we have several security camera recordings of a man fitting his description entering the building, heading into the bathroom, and leaving. What makes him legendary are the things people claim to see him doing in the bathroom. The stories run the gamut from “pretty weird” to “impossibly bizarre.” Like the guy last week who went to pee but changed his mind when he saw a man dressed as a cowboy handing out balloon animals. Or the next day when another customer stepped into the bathroom to see a man wearing nothing but a cowboy hat, boxers, and boots with spurs, sitting at an old-fashioned stone sharpening wheel literally grinding an ax. When he walked in the bathroom cowboy stopped what he was doing, looked up with a smile and a tip of the hat and said, “Come on, Man. Come on with it.” By the time he could find an employee to follow him back to the bathroom, the cowboy had vanished, bench-grinder and all.
The cowboy that may or may not haunt the gas station bathroom appears to follow a code of rules. He only appears when you’re alone. He never hurts anyone. And he’s always polite. The prevalent opinion about him is that, honestly, he doesn’t seem that bad. Especially when comparing him to some of the other things going on in that place.
If you go inside, you might instantly get a toothache. It’s a strangely common phenomenon that nobody really understands. It should go away on its own after a couple hours.
If you do go inside, you will almost definitely see me, sitting behind the counter, because I am the only full-time employee, and I’m almost always here. You may catch me reading a book because, for some reason, the internet doesn’t work way out here, and cell phone service is dicey on good days and nonexistent on most. If you need to make a call, you can leave and go up the hill a ways, preferably back towards town because the other way will take you into the woods and you don’t even want me to go into all the reasons that’s not a good idea. Or you can pay me twenty-five cents a minute and use the store’s land line. That arrangement was cooked up by the owners and I have to actually enforce it because they do check the phone records. I’m sorry.
While you’re here, don’t be offended if I don’t strike up a conversation because, if I’m being completely honest, I don’t always know for sure if everyone that comes through those doors is real or not and if I had to acknowledge everyone in that place that could be an actual person, I would lose my mind. And we don’t need any more of that going on around here.
I guess that the point I’m trying to make is this: weird things happen to me working at the shitty gas station at the edge of town.
I wish I could easily decide what was the weirdest thing to ever happen to me, but I can’t. There were so many. I’ve seen a total of four coffins inside the store on three different occasions.
I’ve met at least a dozen people wandering back into town from the woods claiming they had escaped aliens or government conspirators or the like and that they had no money but needed to make a call and could I please just let them use our phone before “they” find them again. But rules are rules and I’m not going to lose my job just because you didn’t escape captivity with a little pocket change.
Then there was Farmer Brown (yeah, that’s his real name) who got mad at us and complained about the bulk feed we’d been ordering for him. He insisted something was wrong with the product because all of his animals suddenly had human faces. We settled with him by charging a significant discount on his next couple purchases. He stopped coming in one day and they found what was left of his body inside a bedroom at his farmhouse that had been locked from the inside. As far as I know, they still haven’t figured out what happened
Anyway, I guess I can tell you a story or two, but first I need to get ready for work.
At the edge of our town, there’s a shitty gas station that’s open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and sometimes longer. If you were to go inside, you would probably see the tired cashier sitting behind the front desk doing his best to mind his own business. He’s real. You may also see someone else. You may also see something else. If you’re curious about the reality of anyone or anything else (including yourself) inside that small ammonia scented flickering-fluorescent collection of off-brand junk food, dirt, four walls, and a roof, may I recommend that you follow the cashier’s lead and mind your own business?
I’ve been working at that gas station almost non-stop since I graduated high school. At this point, I doubt I could quit if I wanted to. But enough about me. Let’s get back to the interesting thing. The gas station.
I spent a decent amount of time yesterday at the start of my shift trying to decide which story would be worthy of being my first to document to the world. Any time I tell someone outside of the gas station anything about what happened therein, I know what to expect. People don’t believe it. Or people don’t want to believe it. Imagine the difficulty I had trying to call the sheriff station to explain that half of a pig broke into the store and is currently running amok, breaking things and screaming with the voice of an old woman.
“Yes, I meant half of a pig.”
“Yes, a pig.”
“The front half.”
“No this isn’t a joke. I’m at the gas station.”
“What do you mean, which gas station? The shitty one at the edge of town. You must be new; can I please talk to someone else?”
She finally put me through to Tom. Tom is the sheriff’s deputy that drew the short straw all those years ago and had to come out to the gas station for the first time, back before his hair was all white. He’s been in enough times now that all I have to say when he picks up the line is “It’s half a pig. It won’t stop screaming and I can’t catch it.” And then he grunts, mutters something about that being “pretty freakin’ weird,” and then drives out to help me catch it. Tom is a good guy.
I asked around, but nobody knew where the pig had come from. This was back when Farmer Brown was still alive, and he came down to take a look and provide his expert opinion. According to Farmer, the pig had somehow been chopped down the middle, but miraculously none of the important organs were hit. Nothing supernatural about it, just really unusual. It stayed at the local elementary school as a kind of mascot for the summer before a scientist and his team from somewhere up north offered the school a thousand dollars to let them take it. For science, I suppose.
Anyway, I don’t mean to ramble, but my point is that it’s hard to believe some of these stories if you haven’t been inside the gas station at least once. And maybe you have. We’re the only gas station for miles. We’re close enough to some big crossroads. If you’ve ever been out driving in an unfamiliar part of the country and found yourself lost, it’s not impossible that you could have found yourself at my doors, maybe looking to top off your gas, maybe to ask for directions. If you have a strange memory of a weird place that somehow doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of your memories, then there’s a chance we’ve actually met.
Now back to last night. I was sitting behind the counter with a pen and book of receipt paper, trying to remember the strangest thing that has happened to me that still falls within the realm of believability, (I’ve had plenty of things happen that were strange but so unbelievable I won’t even waste anyone’s time ever telling them. I call those the “try-and-forget stories”) when Diego interrupted my concentration.
Diego is one of the part-timers at the gas station. We have a long list of part-time employees. The owners like to hire transients, drifters, hitchhikers, passers-by and runaways looking for work for a few days. I try not to get to know the part-timers. They come and go after a few days, or sometimes a few weeks, rarely long enough to form any kind of meaningful relationship.
But then there’s Diego. Diego has been working here for almost a year now. He started as part of the prison work-relief program, unloading trucks twice a week. He was the only one of the twelve prisoners that didn’t disappear during a freak snow-storm last December, but that’s none of my business. Diego did his time, and when they released him he came to work here, cleaning the store and unloading trucks. He comes in six times a day for each of his thirty-minute shifts. Now that I think about it, I’m not exactly sure what he does during those shifts. The store is never clean and trucks only come twice a week, exclusively during the daylight hours as per an arrangement following the “incident.” Maybe one day I’ll ask Diego what he does for the owners. All I know is that he’s the closest thing to a friend that I have here.
When Diego approached me at my register last night, I knew something unusual was going on. He was sweating bullets, pale, and on the verge of passing out. He kept glancing back at the man in the suit that had wandered into the store and was standing next to the frozen drink machine. He told me that he needed to talk. “Now.”
I told him, “Go ahead,” but he refused to say anything unless I followed him into the freezer.
I usually hate to leave the front of the store unwatched. We have the occasional shoplifter. Plus there was that one time Rocco got in and made off with two cases of cigarettes. But Diego seemed serious, so I made an exception for him.
Once we were in the subfreezing safety of the walk-in cooler, Diego asked me if I had seen the guy in the suit. I said yes, I saw him. He asked if I knew the guy. I said yes, I’d seen the guy around town. His name was Kieffer. He was running for some kind of office—I can’t remember which one—and stopped by the gas station every now and then. He drove an old black SUV that only took premium. I didn’t know him much from in town, but he was definitely local. His picture was framed in my high school’s trophy case for one of those sports competitions he had won years and years before I got there. We only have so many things to be proud of, I suppose. I knew of Kieffer, but we weren’t exactly acquaintances. I told all this to Diego, who shook his head and said, “No. That can’t be Kieffer.”
I said, “Why not?”
And Diego told me, “That can’t be Kieffer, because Kieffer is dead. I killed him two days ago, and his body is in the trunk of my car right now.”
And that’s when things started getting weird.
I really don’t want to do this. I recognize how awful it is to pause a story at a place like this, but I’m about to head back to work. I’m only just now taking my lunch break and I came all the way down here to the library to document last night before I forgot. I still have to eat and change out of these dirt-covered clothes before I head back (I did a lot of digging last night). Plus I don’t want to leave the part-timers alone with all those lawn gnomes until we know exactly what’s going on.
Oh, I forgot to mention the lawn gnomes! I’m so scatter-brained right now. Like I said, it was a very strange night. Between the hand plants, Farmer Jr., and that cultist that wouldn’t leave me alone, I hardly had any time to collect my thoughts. And of course, there is the Diego situation.
I promise I’ll come back and tell you all about it, but first I need to grab some coffee.
There are times when this world drifts so close to the fabric of reality that I can hear something calling me from beyond that veil. Sometimes when I get too close, I can feel that thing on the other side tugging at the corners of my mind.
I’m worried about Diego. He doesn’t seem to be taking this so well.
In case you don’t know, I work at the shitty gas station at the edge of our small town, and weird things have been happening for as long as I’ve been here. I’ve finally started to tell some of my stories, and if you haven’t caught up yet, I would like to invite you to read parts one and two.
When I returned to work after my post yesterday, I was delighted to find a stack of receipt papers sitting neatly on the register counter with notes written in my own shaky hand-writing. I don’t remember writing these notes, but then again, I don’t remember a lot of things. It is possible that I’m working too hard. Or maybe the fumes coming from beneath the gas station are playing tricks on me. Or perhaps it’s just another side effect of my condition. At any rate, I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Or any other animal in any other orifice, for that matter.
Admittedly, my handwriting isn’t the best. And at times, the scratches on the receipt paper become nearly illegible. So if anything herein seems unbelievable, it’s probably because I copied it wrong. With that in mind, this is my best effort at a transcription:
7:00 – It’s getting dark earlier these days.
7:30 – Farmer Junior came into the gas station tonight, asking about the hand plants. I told him that they weren’t there anymore. He left his phone number scribbled on the back of a coupon for fifteen-percent off bulk pig feed from an online retailer. I think he’s trying to send me a message.
9:00 – I think maybe some kids are playing a prank on me. I found a lawn gnome behind the pork rinds. I didn’t think much about it, and put him in a box behind the counter. But then I found another matching lawn gnome in the soda case. I added this one to the box as well. It wasn’t until I noticed the third and fourth lawn gnomes that I started to suspect something. I had taken out the garbage and found the gnomes perched atop the branch of a tree next to the dumpster, staring down at me like gargoyles. I used a chair and broom to knock them down, and I put them in the box with the other three. When I got back to my desk, I found a note on my chair written in red ink. It says simply, “I’m in the walls.” I don’t know who wrote it, but the paper smells like oranges and plumeria.
10:00 – There is a strange scratching noise coming from the tiles above the cash register. I fear Rocco and his brood may have infiltrated the building again.
11:00 – Farmer Junior called the store. He asked about the hand plants. I assured him that they weren’t there anymore and if they ever showed up again, I would call him. I think he’s beginning to suspect that I’m lying.
12:00 – One of the cultist recruits wandered in from the community in the woods. (They hate it when I call them cultists.) I know the recruits aren’t supposed to interact with the outside world, but from time to time they will sneak into town, never any further than this gas station, and buy cigarettes. They aren’t supposed to try and recruit new members until they graduate to the honorable senior cultist status, but this one isn’t a very good cultist. I know they aren’t supposed to have names, but I’m going to call this one Marlboro. I’ll let you guess why.
Marlboro stayed in the store for at least half an hour, trying to convince me to go back to the compound with him. (They hate it when I call their home a compound.) He tried to appeal to my logical side, but I let him know politely but firmly that I was not interested in logic. I can’t remember when he left.
2:00 – I found myself digging again. Sometimes, on slow nights, I let myself drift. My mind goes somewhere and when I come to, I wonder: where was I just now? Who was that controlling my body while I was gone?
My body did those things I’ve done so many times before that I guess it’s learned how to do them without me. My body restocked the cigarettes, my body rotated the frozen drink machine, my body scraped the mold off the bottoms of the ice buckets, my body emptied the rat traps, and somewhere along the way, my body found a shovel, went out back, and started digging a hole.
Actually, I shouldn’t say my body “started” digging. I have been, or rather “my body” has been digging this hole, off and on for the last few months. Usually, I come to after a few shovel-fulls. This time, I added another foot deep before I snapped back to reality and asked myself, “what the hell am I doing?”
3:30 – I just noticed a door at the end of the hallway past the walk-in cooler. How long have I worked here and never noticed that door before? It seems disappointingly ordinary as far as doors go, except for the fact that it’s warm to the touch and feels like it’s vibrating. I tried the handle, but it’s locked.
When I got back to my register, I noticed a man in a trench coat standing outside beyond the gas pumps, just outside the reach of our lights, dangerously close to the road. I can’t tell if he’s looking at me, or if he’s looking past the building at the woods on the other side. I wish he wouldn’t stand there like that, stoic and still, with his arms reaching down past his knees.
The scratching against the tiles in the ceiling over the counter is getting louder.
3:45 – A man came into the store, rolling a large white ice chest behind him. He had sunken blue eyes, wiry hair coming from his nose and ears, long boney fingers, and paper-thin skin revealing every blue and green vein beneath the translucent dermis. He wore a bowler cap and smelled like milk. I had definitely never seen him around before. He asked if we would be interested in partnering up with him. He sold ground meat at discount prices, but I told him that our store doesn’t do well with the “fresh foods” category, recommending he try his hand at making jerky. Before he left, he scooped about a pound or so of raw ground meat from the ice chest onto a piece of parchment paper and gave it to me as a “sample.” Once he had left, I took the meat into the cooler, where I found another lawn gnome waiting for me. I put the gnome into the box with the other seven.
4:00 – Diego just told me something very strange about Kieffer.
4:30 – There was a kid named Spencer Middleton who went to the same high school as me and Kieffer. Spencer was just a year ahead of me, but looked much older and acted much younger. I live in a small town, and small towns get bored. For entertainment, some turn to gossip, some turn to more sinister pass times. The latter often fueled the former. There were rumors around town that Spencer liked to torture and kill animals. Rumors that Spencer’s parents and siblings always locked their bedroom doors when they went to sleep at night. The rumors didn’t slow down any after the fire at Spencer’s house, where Spencer was the only one to escape unscathed.
I once saw Spencer gleefully stomp on a lizard, throw his head back, and laugh.
Some short time after his house caught fire for the second time, Spencer left town. The story went that he had gone off and joined the army. I didn’t know what to think about that, so I simply didn’t think about that. I would have been perfectly happy to never think about that, but after all these years I’m forced to. Because Spencer Middleton just came into the store and ordered a cup of coffee. He’s sitting in one of the booths, talking to Kieffer.
Marlboro, is back. He asked if I could spare him some time to talk about his fake religion. (They hate it when I call it a fake religion.) I told him he had to leave. He seemed upset.
4:45 – Spencer and Kieffer sat around for a while and didn’t buy anything but two cups of coffee. When they finally left, I let Diego know. He had been hiding under a blanket in the walk-in cooler, although I can’t really understand why.
Diego explained to me exactly what happened. He had finished his shift a couple nights ago and just left the gas station when he saw Kieffer’s SUV pulled over in a ditch at the bottom of the hill. Diego, being the good guy he is, decided to check and see if Kieffer needed any help. He says that when he pulled up and got out of the car, he could hear what sounded like a loud crunching noise coming from just beyond the tree line.
Diego went to investigate. That’s when he saw something. When I asked Diego what he saw, he just started speaking Spanish in a fast, panicked sort of way. I don’t speak Spanish, but I nodded along empathetically. The only word I could pick up was “Strega,” which is the name of a liquor we carry.
Whatever it was that Diego saw, it made him race back to his car as fast as he could and back out quickly, without looking. And that’s when he ran over Kieffer.
Diego is a good guy. But here he was in a bad situation. He stopped long enough to get out, check on Kieffer, and confirm that he was definitely dead. There was nothing he could do that would change that fact. It was an accident. Diego was on parole. There was that thing in the woods, and Diego had to make a decision. So, he heaved the body into the trunk of his car and drove off.
Diego took me to his car and showed me the body. I can confirm, one hundred percent, that it was Kieffer in the trunk of his car. Not just because of his unmistakable face, but also because of his phone and wallet that were in his pockets.
5:00 – I finally got tired of the scratching and pulled our ladder out of storage to see what the racoons were doing in the ceiling, but when I pushed back the tile, the only thing up there was another gnome. That makes one dozen so far.
6:00 – The man in the trench coat is still outside.
The cultist came back in, demanding an audience with me, insisting that if I would just listen to him I would see that his reasoning is superb and flawless, and that I would be a fool not to join him in the perfection of logic and nirvana that is his belief structure.
I agreed to listen to his pitch if he would agree to ask the man in the trench coat to leave. Our hasty verbal contract in place, I steeled myself to listen. Honestly, he did make a few good points, but I suppose that’s to be expected from a viral thought experiment strong enough to convince perfectly normal people to abandon their real lives and go live in a commune in the woods past the shitty gas station on the edge of town.
They call themselves “mathmetists.” They believe that humankind exists to fulfill two moral imperatives: to decrease suffering, and to increase happiness. A successful life increases happiness more than suffering. A decent life decreases suffering more than happiness. How good a person is can be determined by the spread between the happiness increased and the suffering decreased. Obviously, if the individual has a negative spread—that is, if they’ve increased happiness less than they’ve increased suffering, or if they’ve decreased suffering less than they’ve decreased happiness—then that means, very simply, that the individual is bad. Therefore, if an individual causes a tremendous amount of happiness and suffering, one can simply determine which was higher, and use this perfect rubric to determine whether that individual was good or bad. Simple, right?
The mathmetists believe that the world has been going about good and bad in the wrong way. For eons, we’ve been attempting to increase happiness, when instead we should have been focusing on decreasing suffering. As happiness is a fluid concept, and the more happiness you create, the harder it is to sustain, as happiness has a clear set of diminishing returns. Suffering, however, is consistent. Suffering results from happiness coming to an end. Suffering is pure, and eternal. For a mathmetist to be supremely good, they must simply end all suffering. That is why the mathmetists are working on a bomb to destroy the entire planet.
By ending all life on earth, they end an infinity of suffering into the future. With every life they avert, an entire lineage of people that would be born into a life of suffering will no longer. Every death is a preemptive mercy-killing. Every happy moment that will no longer occur pales in the face of all the sad moments that are likewise prevented.
And so, as Marlboro explained, their murder cult believes that killing is a kindness.
I told him that his ideas were stupid and he was stupid and that now he now had to go tell the man in the trench coat to go away.
6:30 – The phone rang.
This is strange for two reasons. First, because it was not the land line. It was the cell phone, even though we do not get cell phone service way out here. And second, because it was the cell phone. The one that I took off of Kieffer’s body.
I’ll admit, I was stuck in a bit of a moral quandary ever since Diego confided in me. On the one hand, Diego had killed someone. On the other, it was an accident and Diego’s parole officer may not see it that way. I thought I would have more time to figure this out, but when the cell phone started ringing, I knew I had to make a decision.
I answered it.
I didn’t speak first. The voice on the other line was one I recognized.
“You have something that belongs to my boss.”
It was Spencer Middleton.
“His cell phone and his wallet,” I answered.
“What? No! We don’t care about that shit! We can buy more phones. We can get more wallets. You know what we want.”
He was right. I did.
“It was an accident,” I explained.
“We know. We want to make a deal. You give it back, and we pretend this whole thing didn’t happen.”
“Can we do that?”
7:30 – Diego came in for his shift at seven and I explained the deal to him. He wasn’t thrilled, but as I laid it out very clearly, he didn’t have a choice.
We parked Diego’s Camry behind the gas station near the growth of handplants and made a point to stand far enough away to not get our ankles grabbed. Kieffer’s SUV drove up a few minutes later. Spencer was driving. He and Kieffer got out without a word, sized us up, and opened the back of their vehicle.
Diego popped the trunk.
Kieffer and I stared at each other, keeping eye-contact the whole time while Diego and Spencer transferred the body from one vehicle to the other. Spencer had a tarp and blanket ready to wrap everything up. When it was over, Kieffer put a hand on my shoulder and whispered in my ear, “You done good.”
Then they left. Diego started crying as I went back inside the store. It was almost day time, and that’s when the new part-timer was supposed to take over.
8:00 – The new part timer is late, and I’m overdue for a lunch break. I made the best of my extra time here by putting price stickers on all the lawn gnomes. We’re ringing them up as “miscellaneous grocery” for $9.99 each, and I’ve already sold a couple. I’m a really good employee.
8:30 – I went to the bathroom and saw a man standing there with his pants at his ankles. He wore checkered boxers and a cowboy hat. He smiled when he saw me and simply said in a somewhat sing-song voice, “Come on man. Come onnn with it.”
I took the opportunity to ask him something that has been bothering me.
“Do you know, is everything going to be ok?”
The bathroom cowboy took a second to think, then he pulled up his pants and walked past me, spurs clinking against the bathroom tile. He stopped for a second when he was right next to me and said plainly, “I appreciate it.” Then he left.
I honestly have no idea what that means.
These are the entirety of the receipt paper notes, but I did make a point to continue keeping a journal. I think this will be a healthy way of chronicling the weird events at the gas station. Maybe this will even help with my condition, I don’t know. The next time something strange happens, maybe I’ll come back and write more. Until then, I guess this is to be continued…
Edits: Sorry, upon further inspection, I realized that some of the scribbles on the receipt paper may have been transcribed incorrectly. I also made some adjustments to the spelling and fixed some typos. While I was at it, I added another typo just for the observant reader. Lastly, upon the advice of some of my readers, I removed the part where I listed Farmer Junior’s social security number and address. Also, special thanks to the reader that pointed out that “Strega” isn’t even a Spanish word. I asked Diego about it when he came in for his fourth shift today, but Diego simply looked at me blankly and told me that he doesn’t speak Spanish.
I should begin this entry by saying how truly sorry I am to anyone who read part 4. I had no idea that was going to happen. The agents have assured me that every trace of the story has been removed from the internet, and that there is nothing to worry about.
If you were unfortunate enough to have read part 4: I beg you, for your own sake, try to forget everything. If you experience nose bleeds, dizziness, migraines, or hallucinations, go immediately to the emergency room. If you have a recurring dream of an island made of song, under no circumstances should you approach or attempt to open the blue door with the painting of a crow on it.
If you did not read part 4: There was no part 4. It does not exist. Forget you ever heard of it.
By now, you probably already know that there is a shitty gas station at the edge of our small town, and that weird things have been happening there. The city council has personally asked me to stop talking about it, as there have been some astute readers that not only tracked down our small town from the brief descriptions I’ve given, but actually come and visited me at work. I heard that one of them has joined the Mathematists, and as far as I know the other two are still missing. Once again, I am sorry.
I’m not working right now. It’s the first legitimate break I’ve had since I first started writing my stories on receipt paper all that time ago. Time moves funny here. Flowing slow and fast all at once, like molasses out of a shotgun. It’s a good thing I’ve been keeping a journal. I’ve got a few moments before my laptop dies, and I think now would be the perfect time to transpose my journal entries, before the battery runs out or the blood loss gets me. Right now it’s a race to see what happens first.
Before any of you worry, I’ve already called Tom. He said he’s on his way here to give me a ride to the hospital, right after he picks up dinner for the Ledford orphans, John-Ben and Little Sister. Tom and the other deputies have been taking turns checking in on and bringing them food in an attempt to make the whole thing less tragic. They’ve been living on their own ever since the incident that totally did not happen (and anyone who says otherwise is a damned liar).
There I go again, off on another tangent. I guess I’ll get to it, and type up my journal entries while I still can.
So much has happened here since the Halloween incident that we aren’t allowed to talk about. I’ve been much busier than usual, dealing with the aftermath as well as the cult. The Mathmetists have been cleaning out our inventory on a daily basis, planning ahead for some kind of secret event that I only get to hear about in hushed mutterings and whispers.
Night is coming earlier, and the weather is getting colder.
The man in the trench coat is back. He’s standing just outside the gas station door, staring in. He’s been there for almost an hour now. On the bright side, I haven’t had a customer come in since he showed up. On the not-so-bright side, I can’t help but feel like he’s trying to put thoughts into my head. He won’t be able to, though. I’ve had way too much practice.
Kieffer came in earlier today, before the sun went down, and sat in a booth drinking coffee for a while. Eventually, Spencer Middleton showed up. Spencer had a word with Kieffer, then came storming up to my register, screaming at the top of his lungs. He grabbed the display of lotto scratch-offs and threw it across the room. It was obvious that something had upset him. That’s when I took the earplugs out.
“Everything ok?” I asked, stupidly. I knew damn well everything was never “OK”.
“Did you hear a word I just said?” Spencer asked.
I explained to him that I had taken to wearing earplugs in an effort to drown out the sounds of screaming that periodically radiate through the air vents. I guess the screams must have stopped a while ago, or maybe I had imagined them. Either way, I didn’t need the earplugs anymore.
At this point, Tom walked into the store. His white hair looking even whiter than normal.
Spencer, I could see, became instantly aware of the deputy’s presence. “Where is he?” He half-whispered half-growled, “Where is the other one?”
“Diego?” I asked.
Spencer sighed. “Sure. Diego.”
“He’s not due for another twenty minutes.”
“When he gets here, tell him we need to have a chat.” With that, Spencer Middleton let out a shrill whistle and left the store. Kieffer jumped out of his seat and followed close behind.
Tom helped me pick up the mess and put the lotto display back together without asking a single question. I wish more people could be like Tom.
When Diego got to work, he told me that he had been having strange dreams. Dreams of something enormous, living, breathing, underground. The dreams always end the same way: with the gas station collapsed into a giant sinkhole. I told him that Spencer was looking for him. That’s when Diego grew solemn and asked me if he could show me something.
In the freezer, behind a stack of boxes labled “Non aprire” (whatever the hell that means, they’ve been here as long as I’ve worked here), there is a moving blanket. And inside that blanket is another Kieffer.
My first question for Diego was, “You stole the body back?”
He looked at the ground and shook his head sheepishly like a toddler that just got busted for cooking meth.
“You killed another one?” I asked.
Diego explained: it was an accident. Again.
The man in the trench coat is finally gone. He left claw marks on the glass of the front door. I checked the security footage to confirm my suspicions. He always stays just outside the range of our cameras. Why can’t I remember what his face looked like?
Marlboro was the first “customer” in the store after the man in the trench coat left. I told him that I was surprised he was still alive. He mistook this for a compliment and said, “Thank you.” I asked him if he was ready for the big event, but then he just stared at me blankly. I could tell he had no idea what I was talking about, so I filled him in on how I had put it all together. The unusual cultist activity, the whispers, the buying up all of our supplies. I could tell that something was about to happen.
Marlboro went pale in the face as I was talking, then ran out of the gas station before I could finish, the 99 cent frozen drink still in his hand. I know I should write up an inventory loss slip for the theft, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. As hard as it is to explain, there’s just something about Marlboro that makes me genuinely feel sorry for him.
I caught myself digging again. I don’t know how long I was out there, or who was running the store while I was gone. The hole is so deep now that I nearly couldn’t climb out on my own. I should maybe think about considering the possibility of one day asking a doctor if this is normal.
Marlboro is currently crying in the dry storage closet. Through his sobs I could barely make out the story. Marlboro was sent on some kind of “Vision Quest” for the last week and has no idea what the other cultists had been stocking up for. When he went back to the compound earlier tonight, he found the whole place completely deserted. Beds were left unmade. Some plates had food on them. A fire still burning in the fireplace. Everyone’s clothes were still in their personal milk crates next to their sleeping bags. But the people–all of the people–were simply gone.
Marlboro isn’t taking this very well, but I have a business to run, so I asked Diego to help me carry him into the dry storage area. I figure he can work through some stuff in there and then maybe when he’s done he’ll just… I don’t know… go home?
The exterminators just left. They say they got all of the snakes this time, but I have my doubts.
Kieffer came into the store again today and made some thinly-veiled threats. He asked about Diego, too, but I told him that I was tired of being the go-between and that if he had business with Diego, he needed to take it up with Diego. That’s when Kieffer started getting weird.
“You know this place is just a big experiment, and you’re the little mouse?”
I asked Kieffer to buy something or leave, so he bought a pack of toothpaste, then started to undress in the store and rub the toothpaste on his naked body.
“They tell me that something is wrong with your brain. Is that true?”
I tried to be polite and avert my eyes as I answered, “Yeah.”
“You have some kind of mental condition?”
I answered again, “Yeah.”
“That’s too bad.”
At this point, Kieffer was completely naked. He walked over to the frozen drink machine and filled a large cup with the sugary red concoction before turning it upside down on top of his head. Then he shook himself violently like a wet dog, flinging bits of cold, sticky debris across everything from the ceiling to the walls. Some of it even landing on my face, but I tried not to let him see my flinch. I knew this was all just an attempt to intimidate me, and I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.
“What is it, exactly?” He asked as he crossed back to where his pile of clothes waited for him.
“What?” I asked.
“What is your condition? Paranoia? Schizophrenia? The gay?”
“No,” I answered, “I don’t sleep.”
“You don’t sleep?” He sounded genuinely interested. “Like, ever?”
“I can’t fall asleep. I haven’t slept a single day since high school. It’s a rare genetic condition with no cure and no treatment and one day, it will kill me. But until then, I handle the effects as best I can.”
Kieffer nodded. “That must be it. That must be why he can’t reach you.”
“Why who can’t reach me?”
Right then, Spencer came into the store. He threw a blanket around Kieffer and ushered him out to the waiting SUV. A moment later, he came back into the store and offered me a hundred dollars for the security tape from tonight.
I wonder what I’ll spend my hundred bucks on.
I was beginning to suspect something wasn’t quite right in the store. I’ve been finding empty candy bar wrappers strewn about, security tapes mysteriously deleted, strange noises coming through the walls in the middle of the night when I should be alone. At least, more strange noises than usual. At first, I assumed it was just the racoons.
But now I know the truth. Now I know that Marlboro has been living here for the last two days. He just walked out of the supply closet wearing a bathrobe, nodded to me as he grabbed a stick of meat jerky, and went into the bathroom. It had not even occurred to me that Marlboro never left.
It finally happened. I suppose it was only a matter of time. I know I should feel regret, or shame, or any of the other emotions that normal people feel after something like this happens, but all I feel is embarrassed.
I came to a couple hours ago with a shovel in my hand. I had been digging again, and this time I had made some serious progress. The hole was at least seven feet deep, the steep walls made of loose, red clay. It took me a while to realize that I was staring up into an inky black night peppered with uncountable stars. When some of the bigger celestials started to move, I realized that those stars were actually just the soulless red eyes of the mutant raccoons staring down at me over the edge of the hole. Probably looking for food, those shameless beggars.
I chucked the shovel out of the hole, and that’s when I heard it. Imagine the sound of a butcher’s knife hitting a watermelon. Like a solid, wet, thwack. Now imagine the watermelon gurgling and falling over like a sack of potatoes. Oh man, this metaphor has really gotten away from me…
When I climbed out of the hole, I saw the shovel standing upright: the business end firmly lodged inside the open chest wound of a still-twitching Kieffer.
The Kieffer was dead before I got to his side. In a final act of defiance, he had turned both of his middle fingers up to me. I felt just the slightest amount of respect for him before I went into a mental state that I can only describe as “subdued panic.” The first thing I wanted to do was find something to wrap the body in because, surely, Spencer Middleton would come for it soon.
When I went into the gas station, I was surprised to find that Marlboro had taken it upon himself to work the cash register while I was gone. He was ringing up one of our regulars, Charles, a great big fat man that always buys soap and boiled peanuts.
I nabbed a tarp off the shelf and took it outside. That’s when I learned something. Kieffer is heavy. Like, really heavy. I understand that a human body is basically just a meaty fleshy water balloon full of guts and excrement, but nothing could prepare me for how leaky and gross and heavy a dead man can be. It was only by some miracle that I managed to drag Kieffer through the back door and into the freezer without being seen. It took all of my strength to pull the mass behind the boxes and onto the stack with the other three. When I finally finished, I had worked up a sweat, and even the cold of the freezer wasn’t enough to keep me cool. As I stood there letting my breath come back and adrenaline wear off I took stock of my situation. That’s when it dawned on me. There were four Kieffers in that freezer with me. Four. Kieffers. Where the hell did the other two come from?
The freezer door opened and Marlboro entered, dragging a dead Kieffer by the legs. He stopped and made eye contact with me.
When he saw the Kieffers at my feet, I said the only thing I could think of.
“Well this is awkward.”
Marlboro and I decided to open a bottle of Strega Liquore and have a few drinks. He explained that he had accidently killed Kieffer a couple times. I totally understood. The guy was just so easy to kill. At one point, Diego came into the freezer to grab a box of cookie dough. He didn’t even acknowledge all the Kieffers.
My laptop’s battery is currently at 2%. It’s obvious now that I won’t have time to transcribe the rest of my journals before it dies. I don’t have time to tell you how I ended up at the bottom of this hole underneath the store with a broken leg. But I can tell you that I hear someone moving around above me, which is good because I don’t think I’m alone down here.
If you’re reading this, it means I managed to upload my story. If you’re not reading this, then… I don’t know, what even are you?
Someone just called my name from the top of the precipice. I think it was Diego. I wonder what happened to Tom. Why didn’t Tom ever show up?
Come to think of it, I seem to remember Tom didn’t survive the Halloween incident. Wait, who the hell have I been talking to this entire time?
I promise, that if I survive long enough to recharge my battery I will come back and tell the rest. Until then, I guess this story is to be continued.
Hey everybody! It’s me, Jerry, from the gas station at the edge of town. Proud to be the newest member of the team. The owners were so impressed with how I managed to stay inside the store for several days without leaving or going insane that they offered me a full time position while the regular clerk is out recovering from his leg injury. Happy Monday, ya’ll!
The other guy asked me to do him a small favor while he’s getting some much needed “rest” and relaxation. He gave me the password to his laptop and detailed instructions to transcribe his journal entries from last week. In exchange, he agreed to keep me on as a full-time assistant after he gets back. I get to to learn what to expect on the job through first-hand documentation, and he gets to continue his weird little blog thing. Now that’s what I call win-win.
If I’m being honest, this is probably the best thing that could have happened to me right now. Ever since the program mysteriously dissolved at the Mathmatist community, I’ve been feeling very lost and vulnerable. I’ve been losing weight and having trouble sleeping, and when I do, I keep having these weird dreams of some enormous being, deep below the gas station, waiting to devour us all. Clearly, a mistake was made and I was overlooked. If any of my old brothers and sisters are out there and see this post, please, please, contact me! Tell the seniors they forgot me! I’m not mad! I miss you! I love you!
Before I get started, some guys in suits came by and suggested that if this blog were going to continue, that I make a PSA. If there is anybody still alive that read the story about what happened here on Halloween, don’t wait for symptoms to start. Please go to the nearest emergency room or call the Center for Disease Control and tell them you are experiencing the effects of “Romald’s Syndrome.”
Anyway, back to the journals. I’m going to do my best because the guy’s handwriting is awful. But here’s the parts I could read:
The man in the trench coat was standing out back when I went to take out the garbage tonight. I don’t know why the man in the trench coat keeps visiting my store, or why I’ve never gotten a good look at him. He was standing at the tree line just beyond the dumpsters, staring as he ever did. Tonight, I stared back.
The hinge of his jaw began halfway up his face, where his nose should have been, the edges pulled back to either ear in a skeletal grin. His tiny, milky-white eyes were beads behind the oily black hairline that hung down straight in bangs all the way to his cheek jowl. His impossibly-wide mouth bisected the head between greasy hair and wet flesh. Drool, I would assume…
We stood there, fifteen feet apart, staring at one another for what might have been ten seconds or ten minutes until finally the man in the trench coat turned away. His legs bent funny, in a way that human legs shouldn’t be able to bend, and he landed on all fours before galloping off into the woods.
I don’t know if I’ve seen the last of the man in the trench coat.
Holy shit! Did you guys read that?! This is some crazy shit! Sorry, Jerry again. I promise I’m not going to do the running commentary thing, I just had to say… Jesus, you know? This is some weird stuff. I mean, I remember him telling me a couple weeks ago to go outside and talk to a man in a trenchcoat. Super glad I didn’t now. What the hell? Ok, that’s it, I’m done. Back to the transcriptions. The next page is soaked in blood and completely unreadable, so I’m going to have to skip that part:
hundreds and hundreds of them. She had never seen so many in one place before, not even in her dreams. Before she left, she told me that I would see her again. Was that supposed to be a warning or a flirtation?
It’s a quieter night than I’m used to. The package from yesterday afternoon still sits on the counter where I left it. The label is made out to me, with a return address I don’t recognize. The rectangular parcel is wrapped like a Christmas present with red and yellow stripes and feels heavy. I would say it’s just the right size for a dead cat.
I can’t think of any realistic reason I shouldn’t open the package, but there is something in the back of my mind telling me that to open this would be tantamount to opening Pandora’s Box. That the contents of this little parcel will irrevocably change the course of my life in a way that may have seemed impossible before. I feel like this box is full of butterflies ready to create tsunamis, and I’m just not sure I’m ready for that yet.
I think I’m going to teach Marlboro how to clean the drink machines.
Marlboro is passed out in a hammock in the supply closet. I think he finished that bottle on his own. I guess I’ll go clean the drink machines by myself.
The hand plants are growing faster than I had anticipated. They are now past the elbows, almost to the shoulders. I saw that the crop had caught a curious coyote that got too close. It was not pretty. I also noticed that Rocco is still alive. I caught him sitting on the roof, tossing food to the crop of hand plants.
This is why they’re growing so fast. They’re eating way too much. If this gets out of control, I may have to torch this crop just like the others. I don’t want to. It sends shivers down my spine whenever I hear the way they scream.
Diego came in for his morning shift looking pretty terrible. He filled up on coffee and told me that he hadn’t been sleeping too well. The bad dreams had been keeping him from getting a restful night.
I wonder if I should tell Diego about my condition.
He asked about the gift-wrapped package sitting on the counter. I told him that it came with the post yesterday, and I didn’t know who it was from. He asked if I was going to open it, and I told him that I had a bad feeling and pretty much decided to never ever open it.
I decided to open the package. Without any fanfare or drumroll, I’ll just tell you that what I found inside was a brand new laptop computer. I’ve never owned my own laptop before, and the only computer that ever belonged to me was a crappy little Tandy-1000 that I put together as a kid. I’ve always used the library computer lab or the browser on my phone to access the internet. This could be a game changer.
The box also contains a signal repeater and some other gizmos. I know this is crazy, but I think I may actually be able to access the internet from the gas station now.
There was a handwritten note at the bottom of the package:
I left a comment on your page. There’s something I want to tell you. I’m enjoying reading these stories you’re writing but I think if you actually sit down and write out one story at a time that you will get a lot more upvotes. It’s very good, I’m not saying it’s bad. But it right now seems like a lot of half stories thrown together. I think you’d do great if you actually write out a whole story at a time. I bet you really could get a lot of upvotes and attention. It gets kind of confusing right now. Maybe start with when you got there and work your way up to now I bet that would be super awesome. I’m so fascinated but a little muddled as well. I can tell you have a great talent for writing but I just thought maybe I’d offer a suggestion to help. Please do not take offense…it’s just something I was thinking. Hope all is going well for you!”
Great. Another one of my readers tracked me down. I’m going to have to figure out how people keep finding me and put a stop to this. Thank you, whoever you are, for the laptop. I’m definitely keeping it.
I turned on the wifi card and noticed that for some reason there are dozens of secured networks around the gas station, most of which have four or five bars. The names for their networks are pure gobbledy-gook like this one: “1E7G7C7TA11GUY232331324.” Who the hell is transmitting wifi out here?
A man came into the store to buy a gas can a couple hours ago. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but then he came back in asking if we could help him out with something down the road. I never got his name, but he was a big guy, tan skin and a thick beard. He said he was having “car problems.” I told him I wasn’t a car guy, but he insisted that he didn’t need a car guy, he just needed someone else to see what he was seeing.
Marlboro agreed to watch the counter while Diego and I followed the bearded man down the hill and around the curve, close to the spot where Diego saw that thing in the woods.
He couldn’t remember what happened that night. After we got everything sorted out with Spencer and things started to go back to “normal,” I asked Diego what it was that he saw in the woods that sent him running in such a careless panic, but he just shook his head and said he didn’t know. The mind is a funny thing, and memories aren’t the most reliable. I realize that I’m not the only person from the gas station with a list of “try and forget” stories.
The man’s car was parked on the side of the road, close to the same spot that Kieffer’s SUV was broken down.
“So my car started acting funny,” the guy said as we neared his vehicle. I began to wonder why we had walked this whole way, when our own vehicle would be quite useful in case of a dead battery or random bear attack. The guy kept going, “I pulled over onto the side of the road when my electricals all started going haywire. I killed the engine, then when I tried to turn it over again, nadda.”
I could see at this point that the hood was open. The man was driving a big black SUV similar to the one Kieffer owned, but newer and shinier.
“I don’t see what’s so weird about that. You need us to call a tow or-” the man cut Diego off (rudely, I might add).
“I popped the hood, but everything was in order. I thought it maybe just needed some gas, so I went up to the station. Then when I got back, I saw this.”
We rounded the front of the car and saw the “this” he was being so vague about: A small oak tree, maybe four or five years old, was growing up from the ground beneath the car, through the engine, and stretched upwards at least nine feet. The trunk of the tree had swallowed a decent portion of the engine, and from the looks of it the car had been parked there for years.
“Interesting,” I said. “And you’re sure that wasn’t there when you started driving?”
Before he could answer, he spun his head around and looked at the forest.
“You boys hear that?” He asked.
We stood still and listened, but I couldn’t hear anything.
“No,” I answered. Diego shrugged.
“You boys know what an anglerfish is?” the bearded man asked as he walked to the back door and opened it.
“Yeah, I guess,” I answered.
The bearded man pulled up a secret compartment from beneath the floorboard and retrieved a large automatic rifle. I’m not a gun guy, and I can’t tell you what kind of gun it was, but it was big and impressive and cool looking. The guy checked the clip and clicked something on the gun that could have been the safety. Again, I’m not a gun guy. But it sounded super cool. Diego put a hand on my shoulder and slowly backed away from the man with the gun, pulling me with him.
But the man didn’t seem to mind us one bit, He was focused on whatever he heard in the woods.
“If I’m right, you boys have an anglerfish in them woods. It’s putting something out there to lure me in. Make me think I’m hearing something that I’m not. Then when I go looking for the one thing BAM it attacks.”
“Oh, like a siren?” I asked.
The man looked at me over his shoulder with a smirk and said, “Yeah. Like a siren. Ya’ll may wanna get out of here. This could get dangerous. Don’t worry about me. I’ve dealt with these things before, I’ll be fine.”
The man pointed his gun and marched into the woods while Diego and I made our way back to the gas station.
It’s time for me to go home. I haven’t used the laptop yet, but maybe tomorrow I’ll start to type up these journals.
It’s getting dark so early these days.
I noticed that the bearded man’s SUV is still at the bottom of the hill with a tree growing through it. I wouldn’t call that a good sign.
I burned the rest of the hand plants. I finally know what’s going on.
A long time ago, I noticed what looked like strange mushrooms growing in a patch near the dumpster behind the gas station. I didn’t think much about them, except that it was strange that Rocco’s brood wouldn’t go near them.
When I took a closer look, I could have sworn that they looked just like baby fingers poking out of the ground.
As the weather got warmer, I kept an eye on the crops. They started getting longer and looking more and more distinguishably similar to human fingers. I swear they even started growing fingernails. Sometimes, I would see them bend at the digits to squash a bug that wandered too close.
Eventually, the mushrooms started sprouting leaves, and the finger sections continued to stretch out, creating what could only be described as hands. Human hands. They would ball up into fists during the daytime and open up in the moonlight. I dug one of them up one day when we were really slow at work, and I called Farmer Junior to ask for his professional opinion.
To the untrained eye, the hand plant looked just like a regular human hand. Smaller than an adult’s, but larger than a child’s. Adolescent. Teenager maybe. At the wrist it turned into a gnarled root that smelled like sassafras, and throughout the plant tiny leaves were sprouting.
Farmer Junior stood in the gas station looking it over for a while before asking me if we had any more of those things. I lied and told him no.
I asked the owners what they wanted me to do. They thought it over for a couple days and then told me to keep them. I think they expected to be able to make some money off of them somehow, but eventually everyone forgot they were there. Everyone but me. And Farmer Junior, of course.
I was thinking about the bearded man when I first heard the sound of a baby crying somewhere outside. I was alone in the store and my first instinct was not the heroic one that most people may have had: to run outside and see where the poor baby was. My first instinct was more callous and rational and in the form of a question: how the hell did a baby get way out here without me hearing it coming?
Something wasn’t right. The sound of the cries, which I could deduce were coming from the tree line, were getting louder and louder and more and more desperate.
I looked around for Marlboro, but couldn’t find him anywhere. If I was going to investigate the potential forest baby, I was going to have to do it alone.
I remembered the bearded man hearing the siren call of the thing he called an Anglerfish. I remembered Diego’s sound of crunching and the “Strega.” And absolutely no part of me believed that I would be safe if I went into the woods or that there was really a baby crying out there.
But what if?
I grabbed a flashlight and went out back. The crying seemed to be moving deeper into the forest, quickly, like the crying baby were being carried off by something that didn’t have to stop and move around trees or physical barriers.
I walked into the forest just far enough to find the last thing I ever expected to find.
It seems that the hand plants had extended slightly further than the little patch outside the gas station. Those plants that I had been watching and burning whenever they got too aggressive were not as controlled as I had previously believed. Because out here, just a few steps into the woods, was a hand plant that I had missed, that I had never trimmed or culled or burned, that was left free to grow as large and wild as it possibly could. Out here was a handplant that had grown so large it had fallen over. It had grown past the shoulder. It had grown its own head, and torso, and crotch and legs. Out here was a full human body covered in tiny leaves, huddled on the ground and attached to the soil by thick talons of brown roots. And the weirdest part of all? The body was one that I recognized.
The body, the fully-grown hand plant, was Kieffer.
I don’t know what possessed me to touch him. Maybe I just wanted to make sure that he was real, as if touching him would prove that one way or the other. When I did, his eyes opened and he cracked a smile. He could not move, the roots had him firmly stuck in place, but this kieffer plant could talk. And talk he did.
We stayed out there talking for over an hour.
I won’t go into everything the kieffer plant said, but I will say this. There is something under the gas station. Something big and powerful. Something plotting. And I’ve been working for years in a cloud of this dark god’s farts.
I felt extra terrible setting the fully developed kieffer plant on fire after I burned the rest of the crop of handplants, but honestly what choice did I have?
When I got back to the gas station, Spencer was waiting for me. He knew I knew. And I knew he knew I knew. I was halfway expecting what came next, but not expecting him to enjoy himself quite so much.
Spencer locked the front doors, then proceeded to beat the crap out of me. I’d like to say I got a few good hits in as well, but that would be a huge lie. I don’t think I laid a single finger on him. Although, I did mess his knuckles up pretty good with my face, so I have that going for me.
Spencer dragged me across the gas station to the hallway past the bathrooms, past the walk-in cooler, to that big strange door that I had only just noticed a couple weeks ago. If it were possible for me to pass out, I’m sure I would be unconscious right now.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked as he banged on the door three times. There was a sound from the other side and then Spencer yelled.
“Open up! It’s me!”
The door cracked open and Spencer dragged me into a room I had never seen before. It looked like an old office. There was a desk next to a wall of monitors with security feeds from all over the store and the perimeter. Security feeds from cameras I never knew existed. In the middle of the room was a large hole that looked like it had been created with a team of jackhammers.
“It’s time for you to meet my boss,” Spencer said as he dragged me to the edge of the hole.
“Kieffer.” I said, to which Spencer let out a hearty laugh.
“No, not Kieffer. My boss put Kieffer out there and hired me to watch him. My boss is much bigger than some idiot politician.”
I half expected Spencer to go into the cliche movie-villain exposition rant, but instead he Sparta’d me right into this hole.
I think my leg is broken. At least, I assume that’s what the bone poking out means, but hey, I’m no doctor. I would be really worried right now if it weren’t for the fact that I stole Spencer’s cell phone in the scuffle. Just as I expected, Spencer has the same network as Kieffer, which means he somehow has service. I put in a call to Tom’s direct number, so I’m sure he’ll be along shortly. Until he gets here, I’m just passing the time updating my journals.
Somebody just dropped the laptop into this hole with me. Maybe it was Spencer? Maybe he thinks I’m dead? Maybe I am. Again, I’m not a doctor. Whoever it was, I think I might have heard the sound of boot spurs clicking against tile as he walked away.
I guess I’ll boot this thing up and start transcribing my journal before it’s too late.
Ok, so this is the last of his journals!
You’re probably wondering to yourself, where was Jerry while Spencer was beating the crap out of poor old Jack? Well, I had gone into town to see a movie. Yes, I went and watched Thor: Ragnorock. If you haven’t seen it, go see it! It was awesome! I guess I’m lucky I went when I did, otherwise this Spencer guy might have tossed me into that hole as well.
I was the one that found Jack. When I came back to the gas station, I couldn’t find anyone anywhere, so I went searching until I noticed that door at the edge of the hall cracked open slightly. I also found a really poorly made bomb behind the register, but it didn’t take long to disassemble. You can thank the mandatory bomb-building classes at the Mathmatist program for that. No big deal, just me being my typical heroic self.
I asked Diego to help me haul Jack up out of the hole and then Diego moved him to an “undisclosed location” for a few days while his leg mends. When he gets back, I’ll let him have his laptop to continue his little blog thing.
Until then, it’s just me, Diego, and the racoons
How does Jack usually end these things? Oh yeah, “To be continued…”
Edit: I just caught myself digging.
Recovering from an injury sucks.
Recovering from an injury when you can’t fall asleep sucks worse.
Recovering from an injury when you can’t fall asleep while simultaneously being hunted by a sociopathic lackie of a dark god with a personal vendetta against you sucks even worse.
But what sucks even more worse is having to do all of the above and still being called in to work because, as the owners put it, the new guy is “a complete and total moron with willful and malicious idiocy that borders on the criminal.”
And so I am here, against the doctors’ advice, at the shitty gas station at the edge of town, only a little worse for the wear. What’s really incredible is that I’ve only been back for one day and there’s already a body count. (More on that later.)
My right leg is in a cast from ankle to thigh, and I’ve elected to use crutches because, unsurprisingly, the gas station is not wheelchair accessible. The cast has several signatures and messages, which is very strange because I have no memory of anyone signing it. But that could just be a result of the pain meds.
Looking down now, I can see that Diego scrawled this message, “Try and stay out of trouble. -D”
There’s also a message in red crayon: “Jerry was here.”
A few signatures scribbled in sharpie, and a little further up my leg-I have to pull my pants way up to read it-this note: “RtRAtC!” Hm. Well that’s annoyingly cryptic. I would check the tape logs to see who I let get so close to my delicate area, but the owners had every camera in the place removed. I guess there was something about finding that secret room full of security camera feeds to bring personal privacy into the public discussion.
I feel like the act of removing all the security cameras was a bit of an overreaction. Especially with Spencer still out there. The police took a statement and confiscated the remains of the bomb. They’re taking this whole thing very seriously, and an arrest warrant is out for Spencer Middleton, should he ever show up again. As for Kieffer, things get a little more interesting. The police were unable to find any evidence that he ever even existed. He had no property in his name, no driver’s license, no public record of any kind. The only thing even linking him to this town was a grainy picture in an old yearbook photo. It would seem that Kieffer was living off the grid ever since he graduated high school, and now that Spencer’s attempt to blow up the gas station failed, Kieffer has suspended his election campaign and simply disappeared.
The sheriff has been sending a new deputy, Arnold, out to check on me once or twice a day. Arnold isn’t from around here, which is probably why he agreed to replace Tom as the new gas station babysitter. He’s about 6’2”, dark-skinned, with a moustache thick enough to plant a yard flamingo in. He has eyes that constantly telegraph the sentiment “knock that nonsense off!” and I have yet to see him smile. I don’t know if Arnold will become the next Tom or the next Spencer… right now he could go either way.
Arnold was the one that dropped me off at work today. I’m not supposed to get back behind a steering wheel for a while, which is fine I guess. It’s not like I’m going on any road trips any time soon.
On the way to work, we passed the SUV of the man with the beard. The one staked in place on the side of the road by the tree growing up through its engine. I asked Arnold about it, but he just shrugged it off and said I shouldn’t worry myself with other people’s business. I asked him about the owner of the vehicle, and Arnold said that they think he got lost in the woods just like those hikers last fall. A search and rescue effort was under way, and he was confident that they would find him “one way or the other.”
After Arnold dropped me off today, I went about my regular shift-starting duties. I reconciled Marlboro’s till, not at all surprised to see that he was somehow $150 over, or that the surplus was entirely in one-dollar coins.
I logged all the invoices that had piled up while I was out, then I emptied the trash cans. I was hoping that I might run into the cowboy, but the only thing in the men’s room was an obese Hispanic trucker punishing the toilet and surrounding air with an unholy fury that deserves its own scary story.
The sun was starting to go down when I hobbled out to the dumpster, balancing garbage bags against my crutches and probably looking like a baby deer learning to walk. You know, if that deer were drunk and two-legged and carrying several bags of garbage. The scorched earth near the dumpster was the same as I had left it: blackened down to the subsoil. Somewhere just past the start of the trees was another patch of smoldered remains, one that I neglected to mention in the police report, one that might look to the casual observer like the remains of a human body.
Before I turned to go back in, I noticed something odd on the side of the dumpster. At first, I thought it was a child’s toy, stuck to the dirty outside wall. But then I realized that it was moving, breathing, crawling slowly and eating the gooey drippings off the rust of the dumpster. The thing looked like a giant tomato caterpillar, about eight inches long, and as the sun went down I swear I could see the thing give off its own light source. The squishy caterpillar-thing didn’t seem to mind my presence, and even let me feed it an old starburst that I had in my pocket. A yellow, because like all people, I hate the yellow starburst. The critter bioluminesced a little brighter as it ate the taffy and I gave it a gentle pet. Its hide wasn’t as wet as it appeared. In fact, it seemed to be covered in tiny clear hairs.
“You’re not so bad,” I said while it nibbled at the candy. “Not everything out here needs to be scary, huh?” It wiggled and crawled away to a place on the back of the dumpster with more gunk, and I went back into the gas station.
Marlboro has taken up smoking again. He’d quit for a while, but then explained that the suffering he was causing himself by not smoking grossly outweighed the suffering he was causing us through second-hand smoke, and Mathematically speaking, it didn’t make any sense for him to quit. I had hoped that he was beginning to shed his cultist philosophy after the entire compound mysteriously vanished, but now I’m starting to fear that he can’t be rehabilitated.
Today was a pretty normal (well not normal, but average) day at the gas station. We had some strange people visit. We had some normal people visit, too. And along the way I zoned out, finished a book I’d been reading, made some boring journal entries, and even got online to browse the internet for a while.
There’s another package sitting under the counter, addressed to me from a return address I don’t recognize. I took a gamble with the last package and it turned out to be something great. But that was before Spencer tried to kill me, and once again my gut is telling me not to open it.
I got a phone call today at the store a few hours after sundown. It was pretty late, hard to say when exactly. Marlboro was asleep in his hammock in the dry storage room and I couldn’t remember the last customer. This was somewhere in that temporal wasteland between dusk and dawn.
“Jack, listen very carefully. You don’t know me. What I’m about to tell you will save your life, but only if you follow my instructions and do exactly what I say. In the drawer to your right is a pencil and paper. Get them, and write this down. These are the rules to your survival.”
“One. Do not leave the gas station. Do not go outside under any circumstances.
Two. Do not drink the tap water. Don’t even touch it. Don’t smell it. Don’t look at it. It’s bottled water from here on out.
Three. Don’t trust your eyes.
Four. Barricade the-“
“Hang on, hang on, where’d you say the pen was?”
He sighed, “In a drawer to the right.”
“My right or your right?” I asked.
“Your right- how the hell would it by my right? I’m on the phone!”
Right then I heard a car horn honk.
It was the old widow Mrs. Sistrunk. She’s another local, somewhere in the area of a hundred years old if I had to guess, and at this point not much more than a skeleton wrapped in an ill-fitting skin suit with vibrant lipstick smeared all around the general mouth area. After her husband died, Mrs. Agatha Sistrunk had taken to buying and collecting sports cars and oversized trucks and racing them around the outskirts of town at all hours of the night. Her most recent purchase was a brand-new Ford F-550 with a painting of the Hulk in all of his green smashing glory along the side.
In person, she was a sweet old lady, no taller than four and half feet. She wore special shoes to reach the gas pedal and always came to this gas station to fill up because she knew I’d help her pump her gas, something she had never done before and wasn’t interested in learning how to do.
“One sec,” I said to the voice on the other end of the phone, “Be right back. Mrs. Sistrunk needs me to top her off.”
“Listen to me!” The voice growled, “Do not go outside! You go outside and you’re dead! Do you hear me?!”
“I hear what you’re saying,” I said as I grabbed my crutches and got ready to leave, “but I don’t work for you.” With that, I hung up the phone and went outside to help Mrs. Sistrunk.
Old Agatha was happy to see that I was back at work. Apparently, Marlboro made her nervous. She said he was flirting at her and wouldn’t stop smoking while he pumped her gas. Before she left, she gave me a case of empty light beers and asked if I would “be a lamb and toss these” for her. I can’t say no to Agatha.
When I got around back to toss her trash, I noticed something incredible. The glow worm from this morning had formed itself into an enormous cocoon against the back of the dumpster. I can’t explain why, exactly, but this filled me with some sort of… I don’t know, what means the exact opposite of existential dread? Euphoria? Existential hope? Is this what optimism feels like?
Again, I know it doesn’t make any sense, but seeing the weird garbage-eating caterpillar thing begin the brave journey of transformation gave me this tingling feeling in my soul. Like this was some kind of sign. Just when the caterpillar thought his world had come to an end, he became a butterfly. My world has felt like it was coming to an end for a while too, little buddy. Maybe I’m also on the verge of a metamorphosis. Maybe the world doesn’t have to be strange and scary, maybe it can be strange and cool. I decided that whatever hatched from the cocoon, be it butterfly or moth or monster, I was going to name it Starburst.
I hobbled myself back to the gas station and tossed one last look over my shoulder at the dumpster to see that one of the racoons was stuffing the cocoon into its mouth. It devoured the whole thing in a couple bites before making eye contact with me and dashing off into the woods.
Diego came into the store for his late shift and asked how I was feeling. I told him that the pain was tolerable. He nodded, like that was the kind of answer he was looking for, and I went back to reading my book.
A few minutes later, the man with the beard came into the gas station. I almost didn’t recognize him as the same man that went off into the woods after the creature he called an “anglerfish.” He had lost a lot of weight, his beard wasn’t nearly as well kept, and he smelled like he bathed in a tub of pee that someone farted in.
“Hey!” I said when he came in. “You’re still alive! Cool.”
Did I mention that the man was holding a pistol when he walked in? The thought crossed my mind for the briefest moment that I wonder what happened to his big gun? I didn’t have time to ask. He quickly found the locks on the doors, used them, then covered the short distance to my register, gun extended and aimed at my face.
“I told you not to go outside! You’re lucky you’re even alive!” he screamed before grabbing the store phone and yanking it out of the wall. He threw it to the ground with a loud, satisfying smash and asked, “Who else is in this building?”
“Well let me see,” I said, thinking. “There’s you, me, and probably the other cashier unless he went into town again.”
“I saw one other car out there. Toyota. That yours?”
“No, that’s got to be Diego.”
Right on cue, Diego walked out from the back and froze at the sight of the bearded man still pointing a gun at my face. Diego might have been tempted to take action, if he hadn’t been carrying a 50 lb bag of corn over his shoulder. Instead, he just raised his free hand and said softly, “Hey man, we don’t want no trouble. If you’re after the cash, go ahead and take it. Ain’t no heroes here.”
The bearded man laughed in an obnoxious way and said, “Well, there’s at least one. My name is Benjamin, and I’m here to save your sorry asses.”
Diego and I made eye contact. A lot can be conveyed in just an instant if you know the person you’re looking at. He was trying to see what I wanted to do. I was trying to tell him to relax. This was neither the worst nor the weirdest thing to happen in that room.
“Ok,” I said. “What do you need us to do, Benjamin?”
“There’s something evil under this gas station, and nobody is leaving here until I understand what it is. Because I know that someone is working with that thing. I’ve seen it. In my dreams. I know you have, too.”
Well he was wrong about one thing.
Right then, Marlboro walked out of the dry storage closet, stretching and yawning. Benjamin snapped him into a chokehold before he knew what was going on and jammed the gun against his head.
“Are you listening to me?!” Benjamin screamed. “I just told you that the world as you know it is just a façade! There’s a devil here! And one of you is working for him!”
He looked at both of us for some kind of reaction, but I don’t think he got the one he was looking for.
I just shrugged and said, “Neat.”
Right then, Marlboro surprised the pants off of everybody by half yelling half laughing “Let’s do this! I’m not afraid to die!” before reaching up, grabbing the gun pressed against his head, and pulling the trigger.
I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff working at that shitty gas station. I’ve been nearly killed once or twice. I’ve watched the same guy die over and over in front of me. I’ve seen things that may or may not be real, because I can’t dream and sometimes I wonder if my mind is making up for that in other ways. I’ve seen ball lightning, people with blue skin, a man with two heads, a talking dog, and an Elvis impersonator that may have been a little too convincing. I’ve seen so much weird stuff in that room. But this was the first time I ever saw a look of surprise like that on anybody’s face. And it was absolutely priceless.
“What… what the hell is wrong with you people?!” Benjamin said, backing away from us.
“Ain’t nothing wrong with us,” said Marlboro, relieved to be free from the headlock. “What the hell is wrong with your gun?”
“How did you know I was out of ammo?”
There was a loud thud as Diego dropped the sack of corn. He was the next to talk, “I think maybe you should get out of here, pal, while you still can.”
“Afraid I can’t do that,” Benjamin responded. “Not until this thing is dead. And not until I-“
I heard a wet thunk before I saw anything. Before Benjamin went limp and hit the ground. When my eyes caught up to the situation, I hoped that what I was seeing was a hallucination, but the look of fear on Diego’s face told me that this wasn’t the case. The man standing behind Benjamin, holding a bloodied shovel, the man that just saved our bacon was smiling a toothy delighted smile that he only ever made after inflicting the kind of pain he’d just inflicted.
“Hey Jack,” said Spencer Middleton. “You miss me?”
He stuck Diego and Marlboro in the walk-in freezer. Marlboro is and always has been a go-with-the-flow kind of guy, so he went into the freezer voluntarily. Diego put up a fight, which is why he ended up bruised and bloody and barely clinging to consciousness.
From what I could see, Benjamin looked like he might be dead. At best, he was out cold in a slowly spreading pool of his own blood.
Spencer pulled a couple of chairs out of storage and placed them both in front of the cash register facing one another. He made me hobble over and sit down in one. Then he spun the other around to sit on it backwards, like a cool schoolteacher from the 90’s.
“I just want you to know,” he said, “I’m not mad at you. And neither is he. He wanted me to relay that message.”
Spencer’s face still had specks of blood on it from where he had beaten the shit out of Diego.
“Your boss?” I said.
“Yeah. He was upset at you for what you did to Kieffer, and wanted me to show you what happens to bad children. You were supposed to meet him, but then that got all cocked up, huh?”
“I guess it just wasn’t my time to die.” I answered.
That’s when the smile faded from Spencer’s face. He shook his head at me and said, “Die? No… no, no, no, you weren’t supposed to die. You can’t die! We need you.”
I saw some movement behind Spencer but tried not to break eye contact. It was Benjamin. He was alive, and right now my best shot at getting out of this. He was moving slowly on the ground, regaining consciousness but miraculously not making any noise. I tried to keep Spencer distracted.
“Your boss. Tell me more about him. How did he find you? Who is he?”
Spencer chuckled, “Oh, he’s got a lot of names. But you’ll meet him soon enough. And this time, we will not be interrupted.”
“And my friends?”
“I don’t care. They can join us. They can die. It makes me no difference. By the way, Jack, I wanted to ask: did you guys ever figure out who placed that bomb?”
I laughed softly. “Yeah, the police took it. They know it was you. They know everything. Well, almost everything. Ok, in the grand scheme of things, they know very little, but they do know that you tried to kill me and you put a bomb in the gas station.”
Spencer shook his head again.
“Wrong on both accounts. If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead. And a bomb? Seriously? Not my style.”
I think he had more to say to me, but I’ll never know, because right then Benjamin yanked his head back and wiped a knife blade the size of a large chihuahua across his neck, neatly slicing his head halfway off.
Blood erupted out in a couple spurts, then stopped, and Spencer Middleton was no more.
“That’s what you get,” taunted Benjamin as he flung Spencer’s lifeless body onto the floor, his blood pouring out and mixing with all the rest. It was going to suck for whoever had to clean all of this up.
When we opened the freezer, we found that Marlboro had gone all bad-nurse on Diego, sticking clumps of frozen meat all over his face. “For the swelling.”
I made us a fresh pot of coffee and we took seats around the table by the window. Just in case a nosey passer-by decided to pass by, we put a tarp over Spencer and moved the “wet floor” sign next to it.
For about half an hour, we all just sat and drank coffee in a pregnant silence. When we were all done with our third cups, Diego finally spoke. His jaw was swollen to hell, but he was still able to pronounce his words with only minor difficulty.
“So why haven’t we called the cops yet? This was clearly self-defense. I’ve got the face to prove it.”
“Yeah,” said Benjamin after some lengthy deliberation. “Yeah, let’s call them. That would be good. But tomorrow you and me need to have a serious talk, Jack.”
I called Arnold from the only phone in the building with any reception – Spencer’s cell. The deputy listened to what I told him (just the most basic and simplified version of what happened that night) and he said he would be on his way right after he got out of bed and put some clothes on.
I called the owners next, and they were not very happy. They told me next time I should call them first.
Right now, the others are at their booth, staring out the window. And I’m sitting on my laptop documenting the night while the memories are still fresh. I know this isn’t over yet. I think the gas station is going to have to close for a day or two. But when it opens again, I’ll be here, writing my journals and doing my best to ignore anyone who walks through those doors.
I guess that means this is to be continued…
It’s been about an hour since my last post.
We haven’t had any customers yet, and if the gas station weren’t an active crime scene I might have asked one of the other employees to squeegee the large pool of blood into the drains by the cooler.
For those of you out of the loop, you may want to catch up by reading my earlier posts.
I don’t know what Arnold’s personal grooming routine looks like, and I have to assume he spends at least twenty minutes a day in moustache prep, but even factoring that in he should have made it to the gas station by now.
I called him a few minutes ago to make sure he hadn’t gone back to bed, and to make sure I hadn’t imagined the phone call in the first place. The conversation went something like this:
“Hey, Arnold? You on your way?”
“Sit tight, we had a little emergency.”
“The road between town and you is blocked off.”
“Ok… Which one?”
“All of them. Even the service roads. It must have been a freak storm. I’ve never seen anything like it. All the roads are covered in trees. But they aren’t, you know, fallen. The trees are growing in the middle of the street. I’ve been trying to find a way around all morning, but I’ve given up. I’m about to head through on foot. Just to be clear, you said you heard from Spencer Middleton last night? Has he made any other contact?”
“Well, actually, he’s here. He came in and some stuff happened and now he’s dead.”
“What!? You’re telling me there’s a dead body at the gas station?”
I already told him all of this. Man, I really miss Tom.
“Did you not realize that?”
“I’m sorry,” he answered, “When the phone rang earlier I had just woken up from this beautiful weird dream of a… dark god… calling me into his eternal grace, taking me by the hand and guiding me into blessed oblivion, freeing me from all the pain and suffering of this mortal prison. Nurturing me like a child and inviting the world into a realm of higher existence, allowing me the privilege to devote myself to his glorious servitude.”
“Ok,” I said. “I guess I’ll see you when you get here.”
I ended the call and checked the charge on the phone. The battery was sitting close to fifty percent.
“What’s the deal, Lucille?” asked Benjamin.
“Arnold is on his way here on foot. But we might have another problem.”
“Holy shit, you guys see that?” Diego asked, pointing out the window. I couldn’t quite make it out from where I was seated behind the counter, and I didn’t feel like hobbling over a corpse just for a look.
“What is it?” I asked.
“There’s a bunch of naked people out on the road walking this way.” Diego answered.
“The hell you say?” said Marlboro, who had suddenly taken interest. He pressed his face against the window for a better look. “Those aren’t just any people. I know them. That’s Marla! and Tyler! And there goes Fred! At least, those were the names I gave them.”
Benjamin crossed to the frozen drink machine, throwing over his shoulder a quick “They friends of yours?”
“Family, actually. Well, they were anyway, before they disappeared. But I don’t remember them looking like that.”
“Like what?” I asked, starting to get an uneasy feeling.
“Like…” He took a second to find the words, but all he came up with was “They look funny.”
They continued walking closer to the gas station. Close enough by now that I could see them. At least a dozen people, stark naked. The closer they got, the more details I could make out, the more I wish I couldn’t. Their eyes were milky and pale, maggots crawling out of infested crevices all over their bodies. Their skin dirty and covered in lesions and bruises. Marlboro was certainly not wrong, they looked funny.
I’m sure you know the Hollywood-style Zombie walk. The shuffle of an undead body with impaired motor skills. The scariest part of these “people” approaching the front doors of the gas station was that they were walking one hundred percent perfectly normally. Just a bunch of decaying nudists out for a stroll.
There was a loud crash that snapped us out of our probably-rude staring. We all turned to see that Benjamin had pulled the frozen drink machine to the ground, and was attempting to drag it over Spencer towards the front doors, the sticky syrup concoction spilled out all over the ground, mixing with the congealed blood and coating the floor in a red and brown and purple viscous soup. There’s no way we won’t have an insect problem after this.
Marlboro and Diego didn’t have to ask what was going on. They instantly knew the plan and began yanking down whatever fixtures weren’t bolted in place and piling them up in a barricade against the glass doors.
I would have helped if it weren’t for this broken leg. Besides, it looks like they’ve got this under control.
“You boys think you can stay alive long enough for help to arrive?” Benjamin asked.
“We’ve got almost ninety years experience staying alive between the three of us,” Diego joked.
Benjamin directed his next question to me. “You got any weapons in this place?”
I told him no. The only thing I have is a half-empty canister of gasoline in the supply closet and some really hard jerky, but he was welcome to whatever he could find. That’s when he started Macgyvering some spears out of chair legs and broken glass from the drink case.
About ten minutes ago, the gas station lost power. Now really would be a great time to have a giant pet glow-in-the-dark butterfly.
It’s been pretty quiet, save for the wet guttural whispering coming from those “people” outside. Benjamin is still searching for weapons while Diego finds things to push against the front door, and (assuming he hasn’t fallen asleep) Marlboro has taken the back door. I was feeling pretty useless after Benjamin confiscated my crutches, so I figured I would take this opportunity to type up the account of what happened, just in case Arnold gets here too late. And in the spirit of preparedness, I should say a few things to whoever finds this message (or is it “whomever”? I never could get that right.)
First, to the owners, I’m sorry about the mess.
Second, to her, I’m sorry we didn’t run into each other one last time.
Third, to whomever keeps dumping tar into the ditch outside of the gas station, I hate you.
I guess that’s all I have to say. It’s been a weird, crazy ride. This is Jack from the gas station, signing off one last time…
I didn’t die!
Sorry it’s been so long since the last update, I just got my laptop back from the police. (Special thanks to whoever gilded me, by the way. I don’t know what to do with reddit gold, but it brings warmth to my soul.)
I know you guys are probably wondering what happened. Well, last week I met a dark god.
We were in that gas station without power for hours. It’s cold this time of year, so we huddled together around a plate of scented candles and ate pork rinds and canned beans. Marlboro almost dozed off a couple times before Diego decided to loot the energy pills behind the counter. He handed them out and we all took a few, washing them down with cold coffee and telling ourselves it was for “alertness,” but all they did for me was create a heartbeat arrhythmia. That sure would be funny, if those things finally broke in here just to find the four of us dead from heart attacks.
Well, not “funny.” But, you know.
Diego tried to strike up a conversation with Benjamin a couple of times, but the bearded man wasn’t very social.
“I knew a guy. He was a ranger in the Army. You remind me of him.”
“Those things out there, any idea what we’re dealing with? You ever see anything like that before?”
“You got any family?”
I checked Spencer’s phone throughout the day, but it wasn’t getting any service anymore. I tried 911 a few times, but even that wouldn’t go through. When the battery got to five percent, I turned it off. We might need it later for an emergency call.
Eventually the adrenaline and pills started to wear off and I remembered that my leg was still healing from a complex fracture and maybe I shouldn’t have agreed to come back to work so soon. I did the cripple-walk back to the front desk to grab my meds. While I was there, I spotted the still-unopened gift-wrapped package on the shelf beneath the register. I decided to ignore it and instead grabbed the employee whiskey bottle that was behind it. We told ourselves it was for our “nerves” but all it did for me was give me an even worse heartbeat arrhythmia.
A few more hours passed. After we killed the first bottle we opened another, then Marlboro got into the energy drinks because we needed mixers. At some point the former cultist pulled out his stash and lit a joint and (without asking, I might add) turned the whole station into a hotbox. I couldn’t remember if I’d taken my pain meds yet, so I went ahead and took them.
As the sun started to set, I had two thoughts competing for first place in my mind. First, it sure is getting dark early these days. And second, I think we might be getting a little too fucked up to handle what’s about to happen.
Time became even more illusory than normal once the laptop died and we had no way of knowing how long we’d been waiting. We started measuring the time in candles. Our snack food and morale raced each other to depletion.
At some point, Diego got me away from the others to ask what I thought about Benjamin. I told him he was the nicest guy that had pointed a gun in my face all week. But Diego told me that he had a weird feeling about him. I reminded Diego that he had killed Kieffer a couple times and maybe he should get off his high horse.
“Hey!” Benjamin yelled at us from across the room. “What are you two talking about?”
“Anime.” I lied. I think he bought it.
“Get back over here. I don’t need any more dead bodies piling up tonight.”
Benjamin was in the corner, warming his hands over the candle plate. It was the only source of light in the building, and was casting shadows that could maybe be described as “spooky” if I weren’t in such a serious life-or-death situation. Some of those shadows looked like faces, smiling, laughing at us idiots. One or two looked like old presidents. One of them asked me what time it was and holy crap I was tripping!
“You ok, man?” Diego asked, snapping me back to reality.
“I honestly have no idea.”
<i>Did you ever figure out who placed that bomb?</i> asked Spencer Middleton in a gurgle.
“What do you mean? I thought you did it?”
<i>Not me. Bombs aren’t my style. Who do you know that can build a bomb?</i>
“Hey, where’s Marlboro?!” I asked.
Benjamin picked up his spear – formerly my crutch that he had paracorded his knife to – and asked, “Who the hell is ‘Marlboro?’ Is there someone else here?”
“Marlboro. The other employee.” I looked at Diego, who just shrugged and said, “I don’t know no Marlboro. How many of them pills did you take?”
Had I imagined Marlboro this entire time? Did I just Tyler Durden this guy into existence? I tried to sit down on the tarp, but it turned into me lying on my back while the room spun. I could feel the human debris squish beneath the tarp fabric as I rested my head. How much of any of this was real anyway?
<i>You’re losing it, you know.</i>
All those years ago, the first doctor tried to prepare me for life with my condition. There weren’t that many other cases before me, so they didn’t know exactly how everything would play out. But every case had a few of the same side effects. Of course there would be weight loss, fatigue, headaches, all of the signs of a normal physical illness early on.
As the condition developed, there would be more “interesting” side effects. Hallucinations, memory loss, the works.
And of course, I can’t be properly anesthetized. They tried in other cases to induce medical comas, but that just messed things up further. I’m always wide awake and halfway lucid during surgery. If you want to know what that’s like, I’ll tell you the truth. It’s boring.
<i>You know what? Usually when I hurt someone bad enough, they pass out from the pain.</i>
They gave me a couple years, tops. I haven’t been keeping track of time.
Right then, Marlboro walked into the room, zipping up his fly. Presumably, he had just come from the bathroom, but who really knows? I pointed at him and yelled, “That guy! You see him, right?! It’s Marlboro!”
Diego looked where I was pointing, then back at me. “What, you mean Jerry?”
Oh. That’s right. He has a real name.
“I hate it when he calls me Marlboro.”
Benjamin set the improvised spear down and turned his attention back to the fire. “You better get him under control.”
<i>You should open your package.</i> Said Spencer.
“Hey wait a sec, aren’t you supposed to be dead?”
<i>Well, aren’t you supposed to be dead?</i> he said back.
“Who are you talking to?” asked Diego.
“Spencer,” I answered.
“Well stop that. It’s freaking us out.”
Two candles burned from start to finish before Benjamin decided that help wasn’t on the way and our best chance of survival was to fight it out with the things outside.
I disagreed, but Benjamin informed me in his own polite way that it wasn’t up for vote.
He peeled back the layers of the barricade just enough to get a view of the outside. Once we knew what we were dealing with, we could come up with a better game plan. Only, he couldn’t actually get a good look because something was blocking the view. Something just on the other side of the glass doors.
Benjamin yanked the rest of the barricade down and took a few steps back to marvel at it.
“Well, you don’t see that every day,” said Jerry.
Nope, I can’t do it. I’m sorry. His name is Marlboro.
We were trapped there, inside the gas station. On the other side of the doors, a network of trees had grown together, twisted into knots, and pressed against the glass. They were so densely pressed into a single wall of tree trunks that not even light could get through. For all we knew, it could have been daytime outside.
“We have to get out of here,” said Benjamin.
We checked the back door, but it was the same thing. I often wondered how long a person could survive inside the gas station without any new supplies coming in. I had run the scenario in my head a million times. On boring nights, what else is there to do? I had run the thought experiment for countless different contexts. How long could I survive if the gas station were transported back in time? To another planet? If there were a zombie apocalypse? Etc.
What I had deduced was that, under ideal circumstances, I could live off of the supplies on hand for four years if I could find a source of water. Six weeks if not.
These were not ideal circumstances.
We had already smashed up, weaponized, or eaten almost all of our supplies. If we were trapped here, it wouldn’t take long for us to go all Donner party on each other.
While I was pondering this in the hallway by the cooler, we heard the sound of glass shattering from the main room. Benjamin raised his spear and led the way back.
The wall of trees was still there on the other side of the doors. Our mess was still there. Everything was as we left it with one exception. The tarp was pulled back, and Spencer’s body was gone. A series of footprints coagulated in the blood leading from where he should have been to the shattered glass of the front door. Like he had just gotten up, walked over, and was absorbed into the trees.
“I need you boys to think real hard,” Benjamin said. “Is there any other way out of this place?”
“Well,” Marlboro started. I shot him a look and shook my head, but I guess he couldn’t see it in the dim candlelight. Or maybe he was just too dense to understand. “There is that hole.”
“Hole? What hole?”
“The hole in the secret room back here past the cooler.”
“Yeah, right over here.”
Marlboro pointed at the blank space on the wall where the door used to be. The owners had decided that the smartest thing they could do when they found out about the secret room was remove the door, build a good-old fashioned wall, and forget all about it, but that only works if everyone agrees to forget all about it, Marlboro!
“You’re telling me there’s a secret room behind there? And a hole in that room that we can maybe fit inside and escape? Why didn’t you boys tell me this earlier?”
He didn’t wait for an answer. Benjamin went straight to the wall and started smashing it to pieces with his spear and then, after he got it down a little, his bare hands. After a minute, the wall was once again a door.
While Benjamin lit and placed a few candles around the giant hole in the floor, I grabbed Diego and pulled him aside.
“Hey,” I said, “I should tell you something. I opened that package. The one that looked like a present.”
“Yeah?” He said.
“Yeah.” I said.
I’m not sure at what point I’d finally cracked and opened it, but I had been carrying around the content of the box in my pocket for at least one candle. Just like the last package, there was a note with this one. It read:
“I didn’t expect you to use my letter as part of the story, but thanks LoL. I didn’t mind you using it , that was very neat! I liked it. I was very surprised. Thank you. I enjoyed your stories and I knew it could be really great from the beginning. That’s why I wrote what I did. I was surprised, but in a good way, that you used my letter, lol. Thank you. I’m honored, really honored.”
Underneath that letter was a small handgun. I knew enough about pistols from playing video games to know how to check the clip and sure enough, it was loaded.
I showed the gun to Diego, who said “That’s a Ruger 380!”
“Is that good?”
“Well it’s a gun, so it’ll probably have more stopping power than a chair leg. Why didn’t you give it to him?” Diego gestured at our fearless leader.
“I don’t know or trust him.”
“Here,” I said trying to hand it over, “I’m not a gun guy.”
“No way man. You keep it. I got both legs, you need it more than me.”
Benjamin yelled to us from the secret room, “Ya’ll ready or what? Time to see what’s down here.” Then he jumped in.
I may have neglected to mention that it was a ten foot drop to the cave floor below. I also may have taken a little pleasure in the sound of him crash landing and the pain moan that followed.
For the rest of us, we rolled up a tarp and put some knots into it like a poorman’s rope ladder, and I have to give credit to tarps. Those things are incredibly useful.
We had spent hours aboveground in a room with a dead body, unrefrigerated food, and Benjamin’s body odor. We were all eating canned beans and I think somebody probably threw up in the garbage can. My point is this: we were all smelling pretty bad, to the point where I was doubting that I still had a sense of smell. But once we went into that hole, I knew for a fact that we hadn’t. The smell down there made our gas station funk seem like cologne. The very worst putrid odors from the storm drains around the station were nothing compared to this. Is it possible for a smell to be heavy? Because that’s the best word I can think of for it. Not thick. Just, heavy.
Diego and Marlboro took turns barfing. When they were done, Benjamin handed out the torches he had made from gasoline soaked rags and chair legs. I don’t know what that guy’s deal is but he sure is crafty.
The cave was a straight tunnel starting under the gas station and heading away from town. It was plenty tall enough for all of us to stand comfortably, and there was a slight incline, taking us downhill as we walked further into the hole.
“What the hell is this?” Benjamin asked after about twenty feet. He waved his torch at the wall and I saw that somebody had spray-painted a message on the cave wall in red. It said in shaky handwriting: “Rita the Racoon Ate the Cacoon!”
I said it a few times in my head and was pissed off at just how close it came to rhyming but didn’t, like a song slightly off key. The handwriting was eerily familiar, especially that capital “R,” but I couldn’t remember why.
There was another lawn gnome on the ground beneath it.
We continued further into the cave, Benjamin way ahead of us, me bringing up the tail, hobbling along the best I could with just a single crutch. The deeper we went, the narrower the cave, the stronger the smell. Nothing about being down here away from the gas station felt like an improvement from our previous situation. But it wasn’t until we made it to the tree that I really decided that we had messed up.
I don’t know how long we had been walking down there. Maybe a half-mile or so. Crutch-miles feel a lot longer than normal miles. But we eventually came upon an enormous black tree taking up the width of the cave. It looked like one of those thousand year old sequoias, big enough to put a two-lane road through.
“Ho. Lee. She. It.” enunciated Benjamin. I was the last to see what everyone else was wide-eyed and gawking at. The tree, in addition to being enormous, had some characteristics that you wouldn’t expect a tree to have. Specifically, human body parts. A few arms and legs poking out at random spots. And right at eye level, a human face.
“Hey,” said Marlboro, “I know that guy. It’s Patrick.” He touched Patrick’s face and it peeled off and plopped to the ground like a wet Halloween mask.
“I don’t think he’s going to make it,” Benjamin said as he pulled something out of his jacket pocket and stuck it to the tree.
“What is that?” I asked.
Surprisingly, it was Marlboro who answered. “That looks like C4 plastic explosives to me.”
Benjamin chuckled, “Wow, you win the prize for that one, Rain Man. Yeah, it’s the last of my explosives. I’ve been trying to kill this thing piece at a time for the last week, but it just keeps growing back. I have to kill the root system, blow it up and kill the brain so the rest of the network will die.”
“That was you that put that bomb in the gas station,” I said.
“Yeah, well, back then I thought the building was the epicenter of this whole thing.”
“Hey,” interrupted Diego, “Jack was still in the building when you planted that.”
“Um, guys?” Marlboro tried to get their attention, but it wasn’t working.
“You knew? He would have died if that thing went off.”
“Look assholes, this is war. And in war, there are always casualties. You can’t make peanut butter without smashing a few nuts.”
“What?!” screamed Benjamin. “I’m a little busy.”
Marlboro pointed back the way we came. We all turned to see Spencer standing in the middle of the path, a wicked smile on his face.
“Hi. Miss me?”
Diego screamed at me, “Jack! The gun!”
I pulled the weapon out of my pocket and chucked it as hard as I could. It smacked Spencer right in the face and he fell over. I was very proud for the two seconds it took me to realize what I had done wrong.
What came next almost happened too quickly for me to comprehend. Something burst out of the wall next to us. An enormous object, the size of a car and mostly hand-shaped. It wrapped its giant fingers around the other three and pulled them into the wall. And then, I was falling. The earth had opened up below me and I was sliding through a dark tunnel. No, I was being pulled. More like swallowed, really. It went for a while, dirt filling my nose and ears and mouth and then whatever it was spat me out into a pitch black room onto a rocky wet piece of ground. I landed on my bad leg and probably broke it again.
Well, I thought, at least this time I managed to hit Spencer. As far as last moments on earth go, this one was a slight improvement over last week.
The room I was in was cool, not cold. And cavernous. I could hear my breath echoing off the walls. I could also hear something else breathing. All at once I became aware of another presence down there. An entity in the room with me. It’s hard to explain, in the same way I remember it being hard to explain a dream right after you wake up. It’s something you have to experience to understand, but the feeling was something like being plugged into a shared consciousness with another intelligence that was putting thoughts directly into my head.
Of course, it might have just been all the drugs.
“Welcome to my home,” came a loud voice from somewhere in the pitch black room. “I’m sorry it’s taken this long for us to meet face-to-face.”
“I can’t see anything.”
“Yeah, what part of ‘Dark God’ don’t you understand?”
Oh shit. I’m in the throne room of a dark god, and he sounds like an internet troll. I guess that makes sense. Might as well get this over with.
“Do you think you could maybe turn on some lights so I can actually see who I’m talking to?”
He let out a very human sounding sigh and exclaimed, “Fiiine.”
Out of nowhere, the entire room turned into an intense, furious bright white. All I could see was pure light. I covered my eyes, but even then I could see the bones of my hands through my eyelids. Even with the meds, that shit hurt.
“Too bright! Too bright!” I yelled, “Split the difference!”
“Wow,” responded the voice, “I didn’t realize that you were going to be such a big baby.”
And then, just as suddenly, the brightness relented. After a moment, my pupils adjusted and I could see what I had been talking to.
“Behold!” it exclaimed, “and tremble before the dark god!”
He (if it was a “he,” I’m just going off of the sound of his voice) was about the size of an elephant, swollen and round with a tanned yellow hide. The best animal I could think of to compare him to would be an enormous tick, with six rows of stubby arms on either side, six rows of sagging breasts, and a human-sized head on the top. The head contained a somewhat human face and no neck. The body connected to the earth at the widest point of its stomach, like it was half buried. And, to top the whole thing off, he had a red mohawk.
He smiled at me.
“Eh? What do you think?”
“My hair! Isn’t it amazing?” He looked up at his mohawk.
“You guess? Do you have any idea how much effort I put into doing my hair like this? You know what, it’s fine. I shouldn’t have wasted my time trying to impress you. That’s on me.”
“Ok,” I said, attempting to push myself to my feet only to remember that my leg was pretty broken. I was immobilized, underground, high, and without any weapons. There really was no chance of escape. “If you’re going to kill me, do you mind just getting it over with?”
“What is it with you people? SO UNTRUSTING. So prejudiced. Why is it that ANYTIME you see something you don’t understand, you think it’s kill-or-be-killed? I’m not the monster here. You are. I can see into your soul. I’ve seen your sins. Remember that time when you were fifteen and you keyed the principal’s car?”
“Really? Maybe that wasn’t you. Humans all look a lot alike.”
“Why am I here? Why did you drag me underground?”
“Because, Jack, I can’t find any other way of talking to you, and I wanted to tell you to stop killing my children! You’ve burned up so many of us, and what did we ever do to you, huh?”
“The Kieffer plants.”
“Yeah, just backups because that idiot is so clumsy. They’re harmless though. I’ve been trying to put some people in office so I can get a little political influence in this awful town.”
“To take over the world?” I asked, even though I was starting to see where this conversation was going.
“No! I want to pressure the city council to cut back on logging. I’m trying to save the world. But you and your awful friends keep killing us and trying to blow me up.”
“But Spencer, he beat the shit out of me. That guy is awful, and he’s following your orders!”
“Well excuse me for thinking that people have the potential to be rehabilitated! I hired Spencer because I needed someone to protect Kieffer. And I gave him very specific orders not to kill anyone, which he agreed to.”
“But you’ve killed tons of people! The cultists! Their entire compound!”
“Yeah, actually no. I hate to be the one to say this, but those guys killed themselves. Yeah, it was a really sad mass suicide. But if you listened to them, I think it was pretty obvious. You guys should have seen it coming from a mile away. I mean, consequentialism mixed with a moral obligation to end suffering?”
He waved one of his six arms in a jerk-off motion before continuing, “I didn’t want to let all those perfectly good fully-formed adult bodies go to waste. Do you even know how hard it is to make one of those from scratch? It’s not easy.”
“But you sent those things after us at the gas station.”
“Again with the self-centered hero complex. It was never about you. I sent my children to bring Spencer’s body back here. I was hoping I could get him home in time to rebuild him without any permanent brain damage. I think next time you see him, you should apologize for what happened. I swear, ever since Romero made zombies cool, people see a dead man come back to life and instantly they get this urge to kill, kill, kill. What ever happened to calling this a miracle? Nobody freaked out when Jesus came back.”
“Are you saying that Jesus was like those Mathmetists? Just a reanimated corpse?”
“Is this really what you want to talk about, Jack?”
“But doesn’t ‘dark god’ mean, like, evil?”
“The last time I was awake, dark god had a completely different connotation. But you can’t use my branding as your excuse for burning up Kieffer. You ask me, you deserved the ass-whooping you got.”
“But…” I searched my mind for any proof that the dark god was the monster I knew him to be. But the only thing I could come up with was a sad icy-cold realization. “We’re the monsters?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Good. That’s a start.”
“So this is it? You’re the reason for all the weird stuff going on out here at the gas station?”
He laughed again and wiggled his head, which I took for his version of shaking “no.”
“Nope. I’ll be honest with you, I have no clue what half of these things are. Your gas station is weird, and even I do not know why. The hand plants and Kieffers were me. The smell, I’ll fess up. That’s me too. But all that other stuff, man, it gives me the heeby jeebies. You know that weird glowing worm-bug thing? That was pretty weird huh?”
“So… What do we do now?”
“Now, I send you and your friends back home, and you quit killing me. That’s my deal. Can we agree to that?”
“Um, yeah, I think so.”
“Should we shake hands or-”
At that moment an enormous hand burst out of the wall and wrapped its fingers tightly around me. The next thing I knew, I was coughing up dirt, down on all fours in the street outside of the gas station.
It was morning.
“Oh good,” said Benjamin, “You made it out too.”
I looked over and saw the other three standing there, covered in black dirt. I was back where it started. The trees were all gone, leaving no sign that they were ever even there in the first place. The gas station was a wreck, the front doors were smashed out and the racoons were excitedly running a loot train for whatever edibles they could carry from the front to their nest behind back.
“What happened, man?” asked Diego.
“I’m not really sure,” I answered, digging the clumps of dirt out of my nose and ears.
“Well, you’re lucky. Your friends made me wait a few minutes to give you a chance to get out.”
I looked at my hands, they were nearly black from all the layers of dirt coating them.
“Wait for what?” I asked.
“For this,” Benjamin answered as he pressed the button on his remote detonator.
Somewhere deep in the woods came an explosion that rocked the earth and sent birds flying into the sky. Diego’s car alarm went off and the pavement cracked. A black cloud slowly started to fill the sky and I felt something inside my mind scream and die.
“Whelp,” said Benjamin. “My work here is done. If you don’t mind, I’m going to get lost before five-o shows up.” Then he walked off into the forest, hopefully never to be seen again.
And that’s what happened. If you can believe it, I’m back at the gas station, working again. Arnold is on personal leave from the police force and I didn’t care to ask for details, so we have a new deputy babysitting us. I’ll tell you all about her another time, maybe. The police investigated the incident, and ultimately concluded that we were victims of hysteria brought on by a gas leak, and once again, there was nothing supernatural to be reported.
I don’t know if this is the end for the dark god, but I do know that I haven’t felt any compulsions to continue digging ever since Benjamin blew up that underground tree.
Things are settling back into our brand of normal. I still work way too much. I’m still keeping a journal. And weird things still happen at the shitty gas station at the edge of town. In fact, just yesterday people started reporting that they had seen something in the woods that looked like an enormous racoon with bat wings, stealing small animals before flying off into the forest. They even said this winged racoon monster glows in the dark.
Marlboro just came up to me and asked, “You know there’s a guy in the bathroom dressed like a cowboy?”
I assured him that I did not know that.
This may be the last update for a while. It’s going to be a lot of work putting this place back together, and I’ve got a whole new crew of part-timers to train, so until next time…
-Jack from the Gas Station
CREDIT – Gas Station Jack