Estimated reading time — 11 minutes
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 Carlos. He doesn’t seem to be taking this so well.
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 all of 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 out of it 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 – Carlos 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 bought 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 Carlos know. He had been hiding under a blanket in the walk-in cooler, although I can’t really understand why.
Carlos explained to me exactly what happened. He finished his shift a couple nights ago and had just left the gas station when he saw Kieffer’s SUV pulled over in a ditch at the bottom of the hill. Carlos, 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.
Carlos went to investigate. That’s when he saw something. When I asked Carlos 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 Carlos 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.
Carlos 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. Carlos was on parole. There was that thing in the woods, and Carlos had to make a decision. So, he heaved the body into the trunk of his car and drove off.
Carlos 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 lessthan 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 Carlos confided in me. On the one hand, Carlos had killed someone. On the other, it was an accident and Carlos’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 – Carlos came in for his shift half an hour ago, 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 Carlos’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.
Carlos popped his trunk.
Kieffer and I stared at each other, keeping eye-contact the whole time while Carlos 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. Carlos 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 jeans at his ankles. He wore red and white checkered boxers and a cowboy hat. He smiled when he saw me and simply said, “Come on now. Come on with it.”
I took the opportunity to ask him something that has been burning at the back of my mind.
“Do you know, is everything going to be okay?”
The bathroom cowboy took a second to think, then he pulled up his pants, fastened his enormous belt buckle, 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 this 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 Carlos about it when he came in for his fourth shift today, but Carlos simply looked at me blankly and told me that he doesn’t speak Spanish.
*Click HERE for Part 5*
CREDIT: Jack Townsend
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