Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
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 Carlos scrawled this message, “Try and stay out of trouble. -C”
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 mustache 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 raccoons 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.
Carlos 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? I wondered for the briefest moment 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 Carlos.”
Right on cue, Carlos walked out from the back and froze at the sight of the bearded man still pointing a gun at my face. Carlos 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.”
Carlos 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.
“Okay,” 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 Carlos 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 Carlos’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 Carlos 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. Carlos 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 Carlos.
“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. Okay, 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 Spencer’s 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 Carlos, 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, Carlos 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 that 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…
*Click HERE for Part 8*
CREDIT: Jack Townsend
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