Updated: Mar 24, 2020
It was some time later when the store phone rang. I had gone to the supply closet to grab a bucket of salt for the front steps so Rosa was the one to pick up. I could hear her side of the conversation, and didn’t think too much about it until I heard the very last word.
“It’s not bad, I think. This is my first day here.”
“Oh, I like it. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
“Yeah, actually, he’s right here. Did you want to talk to him?”
“Sure thing. I’ll let him know.”
“You too, Spencer.”
Then she hung up the phone.
She smiled at me and said, “That was a friend of yours.”
“Spencer Middleton,” I said with a sigh.
“Yeah.” Once again, I watched her happy smile disappear. I guess she could tell from the look on my face that this was not good news.
“I need to make a phone call, then I think it’s probably about time that I told you something.”
Back in high school, we all pretty much knew that Spencer was a certifiable psychopath, but growing up in a small, boring, podunk town, we didn’t have the societal framework to process this sort of thing. Finding him the help he needed was simply not a feasible option, and most people just said a prayer for him and called it done. At one point, the principal delegated the responsibility to the school counselor slash gym coach, who tried talking to Spencer about his feelings. But all of that was just the equivalent of putting a band-aid on a grease fire.
There was a rumor around that time that Spencer was the one who had killed all those dogs, but when I told my mother about this, she just looked at me and said, “Well then don’t go near him with any dogs.”
After dropping out, he joined the army and worked his way up through the ranks until somebody recognized his… let’s say “talents,” and gave him a special assignment in a black budget program specializing in enhanced interrogation techniques (which is just a flashy way of saying “torture”). There’s no official record of any of this, and the only reason I know is because he told me all about it one night to pass the time while I dug my own grave at gunpoint.
I managed to pick his pocket while he was distracted with the blood-lust blinders and send an SOS text from his phone to Deputy O'Brien, who showed up just in time to arrest him before he could follow through, but Spencer escaped captivity after only a few days and for the last couple months has been a wanted but elusive fugitive.
Sometimes he calls me at work to remind me of the “good times we had together” and to assure me that he’ll be seeing me again soon. I don’t know if it’s luck that has kept him from killing me, or if the sadist in him is prolonging this intentionally.
Tonight he told Rosa to let me know that he was in the area.
As for why Spencer wants to kill me, let me simply say that maybe I deserve it and maybe I don’t and we should leave it at that.
The first thing I did was call O’Brien, but it went straight to voicemail. The second thing I did was tell all of this to Rosa, who listened patiently until I finished to ask the obvious question. “So do you have a gun or anything? In case he comes back?”
“No, I’m not really a gun guy.”
“Ninja stars? Bazooka? Flame thrower? Chainsaw? Any sort of weapon at all?”
“Well, shit, maybe you deserve to be killed. Should we lock the doors or something?”
“Yeah, that’s another thing. Spencer knows how to get inside the gas station even when the doors are locked. He’s done it a couple times before and we haven’t been able to figure out how.”
“Crap, man! Is there anything else terrifying about him that you want to tell me?”
I once saw Spencer get his head cut halfway off and bleed out on the gas station floor, and he still somehow came back without any lasting damage.
“No. Not really.”
The gas station door swung open, causing Rosa to squeak and jump.
“Hey guys,” said the inebriated man in the oversized fur coat as he staggered into the store.
“Hi, Jerry.” I said back. “Where ya been?”
“Y’all know the roads are all shut down?” he said, avoiding the question. (It didn’t matter. I already knew the answer.)
Rosa asked, “What about the roads?”
Jerry braced himself against the frozen drink machine and answered, “Yeah, it’s been all over the radio.”
If he were a little closer, I probably would have smacked him. God knows he deserved it.
Really, Jerry? The Radio?
We’re not supposed to talk about it, but some time ago Jerry started a pet project building a POW-style shortwave radio just to see if he could. He uncoiled an old brillo pad and wrapped it around a toilet paper roll for the inductor, went vulture on a bunch of electronics in storage, and eventually ended up with something that actually picked up a few low-quality AM country stations.
It also picked up something else.
The signal is always weak, but if we put the radio in just the right spot, we can hear a man with a Slavic accent reading or discussing news relevant to our town in short, simple, choppy sentences. The weird thing is, he’s always talking, no matter what, twenty-four hours a day without taking any breaks and never repeating himself.
“The temperature is 84 degrees… there are three more people in town than yesterday… the ratio of pig to human in the town is approximately two point zero seven eight to one… The mayor is asleep… the mayor’s wife is asleep… the time is twenty hours and sixteen minutes… the butcher shop is closed… the light is on at the high school gym...”
He talks about the people in town, what they’re eating for dinner, how many pairs of shoes they own, their favorite colors and numbers. Random facts. Sometimes connected, sometimes not.
We did a couple experiments and learned that the radio signal gets a little stronger the further we go into the woods, and once we get past the gas station heading into town the signal drops to nothing.
We listened to him off-and-on for a few days as a way to stave off boredom during slow shifts. But eventually we started to get a little concerned. The things he reported on were always so specific and bizarre, and some of what the voice reported nobody should have been able to know. Who didn’t love who anymore, what high school student was about to find out she was pregnant, which local business was about to receive a random health inspector visit, how many days the milk at the grocery store had left before it turned bad, and who was going to buy it and when. We had theorized that it was just an elaborate work of fiction until one day the voice announced Sean Buckley’s death in a car accident eight hours before it happened. Then the voice started talking about us. Talking to us, even.
“There’s a man at gas station… he uses name “Jack”… he still has one baby tooth… he has been diagnosed with fatal familial insomnia… he is threat level eight… he is aware of transmission… There is another man at gas station… His name is Jeremy… He is threat level echo… He is aware of transmission... He is thirty years old… He is looking at Jack… The men at gas station have built transmission receiver… Jeremy at gas station is moving towards transmission receiver… He is disassembling transmi-”
After that night we made a pact to never listen to that radio again, and to add the transmission to that long list of “try and forget stories.” I think when most people swear on their lives not to do something again, they don’t do it.
Did I mention that Jerry isn’t most people?
“There’s a freak snow storm. The worst one in a decade. All the roads leading into town are completely impassable. You know the drill. Mandatory curfew. State of emergency. Cats and dogs living together.” Jerry waved his arms in the air dramatically, “Two dead, one missing.”
He grabbed a cup, filled it with a cherry-cola flavored frozen drink, and started to down it.
“If all the roads are impassable then where the hell did you just come from?” asked Rosa.
I whispered to her “Remember that thing I told you about ignoring the weird stuff?”
“What is it?!” yelled Rosa.
“Well,” I said, “At least we still have-”
Right then the power went out, leaving the gas station in complete pitch blackness.
I used my phone’s flashlight until I could find our box of emergency supplies, then somehow managed to drag it from the storage room with one hand while holding both crutches in the other. I’m sure Jerry was just being kind by allowing me to do it on my own so I could retain my independence and sense of worth, but seriously dude, you see me dragging this heavy-ass thing. You really not gonna offer to help?
Once I had made it to the front of the store, Jerry sat down cross-legged and started going through the box, handing supplies out to the four of us.
I had packed plenty of extra batteries, half a dozen flashlights, some bottled waters and emergency rations, matches, flares, and more than enough- Wait a second. FOUR of us?
“Holy shit!” I yelled, fumbling with the flashlight Jerry had just handed me. After a painfully awkward few seconds, I managed to get the damn thing to turn on and I pointed it at all the other shadows standing in the room.
Jerry, Rosa, and Deputy O’Brien.
“You mind not pointing that thing right in my eyes?” she asked.
Deputy Amelia O’Brien was the latest in an ever growing list of deputy baby-sitters assigned to the gas station dating all the way back to as long as I can remember. Some of them died, one of them went crazy, and then there’s her, a tough-as-a-brick Brooklyn transplant with an itchy trigger-finger and a long history of giving as many fucks as there are planets named Pluto. She was a very welcome sight.
“Sorry,” I said, pointing it back down. “When did you get here?”
“Just now while you were off bumblefucking around in the closet. I called to check on you thirty minutes ago but nobody answered, and I nearly killed myself ten times driving through this blizzard to get here. What the hell happened?”
Rosa perked up, “Oh, we were probably outside doing the funeral when you called.”
She unsnapped the gun on her holster and said, “What?”
I explained quickly, “It was for a bunch of mice.”
Jerry bristled, “And you didn’t invite me?!”
O’Brien shook her head and said, “That actually does not clear anything up.”
I took a deep breath and broke the bad news, “It’s a good thing you’re here though. Spencer called again. Said he’s in the area.”
Jerry opened one of the emergency packs of jerky, took a bite, then said, “That kid is so in love with you.”
The deputy raised an eyebrow at the new girl and asked “Who are you?”
“Hi, I’m Rosa. It’s my first day.”
“Really? You don’t look like an O’Brien.”
“What does an O’Brien look like?”
An awkward silence followed, and then Jerry broke it by exclaiming “Yay! We finally passed the Bechdel test! This is a nice change of pace. Usually when we end up trapped at the gas station, it’s a total sausage fest.”
“Usually?” asked Rosa. “This has happened before?”
“Once or twice,” I answered.
O’Brien spoke into her walkie-mic, “Dispatch, this is O’Brien, do you read me? Over.”
“Dispatch, are you hearing me? Over.”
She sighed and dug a dollar out of her pocket, handing it over to me as she said, “I need to use the store phone.”
But before I could even take the money, the phone started ringing. She shot me a look and said, “Hey Crutches, pick it up and put it on speaker.”
Without thinking, I tucked the flashlight into my mouth and crossed to the counter. When I got there, I reached out to answer, then immediately spat the flashlight out and yelled, “Oh my God!”
“What?!” O’Brien shot back.
“I put that in my mouth and mice could have done weird stuff to it and I put that in my mouth!”
The phone rang a couple more times before O’Brien said, “Just answer the damn phone.”
“Hey there, Jack. It’s been too long.”
I pressed the button to switch on speakerphone.
“Who’s your new friend?”
I looked at O’Brien, who made a weird hand gesture that could have meant “keep him talking,” or “yeehaw, let’s rob this bank.” Given the current context, I assumed it was the former.
“Oh, her. That girl you talked to earlier is my new Jiu-Jitsu instructor. I had to fire the last one because he said he’d already taught me everything he knew. I’ve been getting pretty rad since the last time I saw you. Also, I’m taller now.”
“She doesn’t look like a Jiu-Jitsu instructor to me. And neither does the lady deputy next to her. And... is that Jerry? He looks drunk.”
O’Brien pulled out her service pistol, criss-crossed it with her flashlight in the opposite hand, and started pointing it at each of the windows and doors.
“Jerry always looks drunk,” I said.
“Hey!” yelled Jerry with a hiccup.
O’Brien took the phone from me and slammed it into the cradle before yelling, “Everybody get away from the windows right now! Jack, take the others and lock yourselves in the storage closet. Go!”
I sighed and said, “Fine.”
The next few hours were pretty damned boring.