Updated: Mar 23, 2020
Did you ever hear the one about the guy who thought the fireman was an arsonist? Admittedly, it’s not a very good joke, and even if it were, I’m awful at delivery. People usually think I’m trying to be funny when I’m not and same for the other way around. At any rate, the punchline is something to the effect of “Every time there’s a fire, he’s there.” Feel free to forget that joke if you want to. It’s not important, just something I was thinking about.
Jerry covered Rosa with a blanket and made every attempt to keep her comfortable while I tried to explain the situation to O’Brien.
“So you’re telling me there’s an evil doppelganger inside that cooler?”
“And how do you know that’s what it is?”
A magic radio and a monster-hunter told us.
“I just do.”
“I need more than that to go on.”
“Please, just don’t go into the cooler until after help has arrived. You can wait a few more hours, right?”
I could see the gears turning in her head and had to wonder if she thought I was crazy, or if she were about to rip off our flesh and feed on our suffering. Surely, if this actually were the shapeshifter, there wouldn’t be any better opportunity to start picking us off. Two of us were locked in the cooler, one of us was unconscious, I’ve never been much of a fighter even with all of my limbs, and Jerry was… well, Jerry.
Obviously, she did not kill and eat me. So I was forced to assume that this really was the original O’Brien and the one in the cooler was the double, but my confidence level--in anything, reality included--had hit zero and started digging a long time ago.
A pair of headlights lit up the room and we both looked outside at the snow truck pulling into the parking lot. I couldn’t believe it. The cavalry was early. In my experience, anything can happen at the gas station, but seriously that never happens!
The “cavalry” was Saul Berthelot, the retired school-bus driver and owner/operator of the only snow plow in town. He must have had plans for Christmas, because people around here aren’t exactly known for finishing ahead of schedule, especially Saul, and especially on the taxpayer dime. But I’ll take my miracles where I can get them these days.
Saul pulled up next to pump two, honked a couple times, and waved at me.
O’Brien stated the obvious, “I think the jagoff wants you to turn on the pump.”
“He knows the pumps don’t work without electricity, doesn’t he?”
“I’m guessing he does not.”
None of us wanted to open the door and go back into the freezing cold, but when the pumps hadn’t magically switched on after a few seconds, Saul decided it would be a good idea to lean on the horn until somebody came out to help him.
O’Brien pulled out her car keys and started for the door.
“Where are you going?” I asked, stumbling after her and trying my best not to make it sound like I suspected she might be on her way to kill him and strip his flesh.
“I have a can of gas in my trunk. I was going to help him on his way, if that’s alright with you, Jack.”
I suddenly felt very small. It’s bad enough not being able to trust my own eyes, or memories, or mind. It’s so much worse not being able to trust my friends.
“Hang on a second,” Jerry said just before O’Brien pushed the door open. “You just called Jack ‘Jack.’”
“So?” she asked.
Jerry looked at me and waved his hands in the air. “Your entire basis for locking the other O’Brien in the cooler was that she called you ‘Jack’!”
O’Brien shook her head at me. “I call you ‘Jack’ all the time. It’s your name, dumbass.”
"Don’t open that door!”
Behind Jerry, Rosa was floating with her eyes rolled back into pupiless white bulges. He looked back at her and casually said, “Oh snap. She’s floating again.”
"It is not safe. Something has found you. It is waiting, hungry, outside.”
She slowly started to rise into the air by a few more inches until Jerry grabbed her around the waist. “I’m gonna have to tie her to a chair or a doorknob or something. Do you remember where Benjamin left all that paracord?”
"There is something on the roof!”
I looked her in the… eye area… and asked, “Now, is this like a metaphorical something on the roof?”
"You fools! There is SOMETHING on the roof!”
With that, Rosa pointed out the glass doors, up at the covered awning over the gas pumps, at the thing leaning over the edge, staring down at the snowplow.
What followed is actually pretty difficult to describe. When we saw it, the three of us had a shared moment, a visceral animal reaction like a nut-punch to the soul.
Before that instant, I had seen some things--truly bizarre thing--that many people might have considered “horrific”: my own exposed bones, a clan of nudist zombies, a snake and spider hybrid, I could keep on listing these things all day, but my point is, after this, I’m going to have to completely reexamine my concept of “horrific.” The very image of that creature (which is not even the right word for it, if human language is even capable of one) was something that eyes were never meant to see. It forced our minds way past fight-or-flight into some third option, like my brain simply gave up and shat its pants. We all said it at the same time:
Rosa fell into Jerry’s arms with her eyes closed, and he dropped her onto the ground like a sack of dog food. We were all transfixed at the horrendous beast on the ledge of the pump awning. Its head was the size of a beach ball, shaped more or less like an enormous skull. The eyes were sunken charcoal pockets that didn’t appear to move in time or relation with the rest of its body, sort of like balls of smoke. Two nostril slits above a half open mouth filled with disorganized rows of serrated chalk-white teeth like those of a shark, each one about the size of my thumb. It had two spiraling horns, both at least a yard in length and shiny black marble in appearance. The thing’s clawed hands were tipped in jagged talons, blacker than black, and its skin resembled that of a third degree burn, pinkish deposits of scar tissue glued upon layers of giant, ropy muscles.
Even more interesting was that we could see the beast in all of its monstrous glory outlined against the sky, even though there was no light out there other than the ones on the snowplow. Our eyes were picking up a whole new wavelength outside of the normal visible spectrum, and it was all coming from this thing.
“Three way jinx!” yelled out Jerry, temporarily snapping the rest of us back to reality and in all likelihood saving us from losing what was left of our minds.
O’Brien fell to the ground and started violently barfing.
“Hey!” yelled Saul from inside his truck, “You guys got any gas left or what?”
As much as I didn’t want to look back out those doors, I had to. Saul was about to do something he had no idea would be the single worst mistake of his life.
I feel like maybe I should tell you just a little bit more about Saul. When I was still too young to drive, I would have to walk half a mile every morning to my area’s school bus pick-up spot at 5:30 AM. My house was close to Saul’s hunting camp where he parked the schoolbus, so that meant I was always first on the bus route, and if I were ever late, he would leave without me. But depending on how hungover he was, he might not start driving until 6:30 or 7:00, which meant I would have to stand in the middle of a dirt field next to the road for up to an hour and a half at the point of each day when mosquitoes were waking up.
After his wife left him, he became a much more intolerable drunk, and his kids would show up to school with bruises and broken teeth.
He would spend hours at the gas station sometimes, refilling the same cup of coffee over and over and droning on to anybody that would listen to him about which new group of people he had decided was ruining his country.
One time, his name came up on the transmission.
“There is a man… Saul Berthelot… he cries alone in deer stand… his blood alcohol content is zero point three one one zero… he owns forty-two firearms… his favorite color is purple…”
I guess my point, if I even have one, is that Saul was a shitty bus driver, a shitty husband and father, a shitty customer, a shitty person, and probably a shitty hunter, too. He was a lot like most people in this town, actually, but even still I did not want to watch him get his skin ripped off!
I got to the front doors and pushed them open at the same time Saul was stepping out of his snow truck. I screamed, “Stay inside your vehicle!”
Either Saul hadn’t heard me or he decided to ignore it, choosing instead to down the rest of his forty-ounce Natty Light before tossing it into the snow.
“Saul! Go back to your truck! There’s a gas leak or something!”
He was a couple yards from his truck when he looked at me and yelled back, “Fuck you, I need to take a piss.”
The creature lurched forward from the edge of the awning, reached its left arm down with the speed of a mousetrap, and snatched Saul into the air by his feet. The beast pulled Saul, dangling upside down, screaming and cursing, close to its mouth.
Saul was extremely lucky that he always kept a loaded pistol tucked into his pants. Not because that helped him survive this situation. No, he died. Like, so much dead. But at least the pistol saved him from what could have been a feast of agony for the thing on the awning, which I had deduced by now was actually the real demon Sagoth.
He popped off a couple rounds into the demon’s face, but the mortal weapon was as ineffective as a bee-sting, and all it did was piss off the demon enough to slam Saul full-forced against the concrete pavement below.
When he picked the man back up, his broken body dangled lifelessly in the monster’s hand. With its other hand, it poked at Saul a few times, then with one of its talons opened the man up and spilled his blood out onto the snow.
As far as last words go, “Fuck you, I need to take a piss,” are probably not the ones you want on your tombstone.
I felt myself being yanked backwards by my shirt collar and tossed onto the floor of the gas station before O’Brien closed and locked the door.
Yeah, nice, lock the door. That deadbolt will be sure to stop the twenty-foot tall demon creature from coming inside.
She pulled me to my feet and said one word. “Weapons.”
We stayed as far away from the doors as possible while we turned the place inside out looking for whatever we could use to defend ourselves, but it was seriously slim pickings. Broken glass shards, chair legs, a pair of spare crutches, three pocket knives. We didn’t have what it took to kill that thing outside if it wanted us to.
“I can’t believe he’s dead,” lamented O’Brien as she collected a few bottles of our more flammable liquor. “Just like that.”
“Whelp,” Jerry answered as he duct-taped a pocket knife to the edge of a chair leg, “He died doing what he loved. Shooting stuff.”
O’Brien shook her head in disgust. Jerry caught the gesture and asked, “Oh, I’m sorry. Were you and Rando close?”
“Dude,” I said, “I know tensions are high because it’s Christmas and all, but read the room. A man just died.”
“So what?” Jerry said defensively, “Somebody dies every 600 milliseconds. We can’t function if we have to grieve every single one of them. Are we really going to pretend that any of us are broken up over that redshirt? If we can be perfectly honest for a second, the value of human life out here at the gas station is grossly over-exaggerated, and out of the six people inside this building, Rosa is probably the only one of us that hasn’t killed anybody.”
He stared at me and O’Brien, daring us to call him on that. We all just stood still, trying to think of what to say, but there really wasn’t anything to say at all. For all his faults, Jerry could be very… Jerryish sometimes, and it’s easy for me to forget that when I first met him he was trying to get me to join a murder cult.
“Well,” I finally said, “It’s only her first day.”
We allowed ourselves a short awkward laugh before going back to hunting for weapons. I can’t say exactly how much time had passed, but the three of us were ripping open every box in the supply closet when we heard Rosa say, “Hey guys? What happened?”
We looked back and saw her standing in the doorway pointing Saul’s revolver at the floor.
“Where did you get that?” asked O’Brien.
“I saw this thing just sitting there on the ground outside. Did you guys know there’s a snow truck out there?”
“How did you get it?” O’Brien asked, even though I think we all knew the answer already.
“I just walked outside and picked it up. Why?” The annoyance in her voice had ticked up a notch.
“Don’t do that again.”
“Why not?” The annoyance in her voice had ticked up a couple more notches.
“Don’t worry about it.”
Jerry jumped in with, “You didn’t happen to see a terrifyingly huge hell-monster while you were out there, did you?”
She squinted at him and said, “No. Why? Did you lose one?”
O’Brien reached out and snatched the gun from her hand.
“Sorry, I didn’t feel like explaining to everybody why I’m the only one that should have a gun right now.”
That’s fair. I wasn’t even mad.
I was, however, mad at the plan that she laid out next. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and there was one resource we had purposely neglected to tap before now. Whatever was left inside of the cooler, we were going to need help fighting the thing outside, and whether I liked it or not, Spencer was a survivor.
O’Brien checked the revolver to see that we had four bullets left. That would almost certainly not be enough if we needed it.
The deputy opened the door, gun in hand while the rest of us stood close behind holding flashlights. Our job was to collectively point them into the eyes of anybody or anything that might try to jump out at us, if it came to that.
We didn’t know what to expect when we opened the door, but the first thing we saw was the empty chair that Spencer had been duct taped to.
“Hello?” O’Brien called into the room, “Is anybody alive in there?”
After a few seconds with no response, she stepped into the cooler, and I immediately regretted going along with this plan. Spencer flew in from next to the cooler door, hooked an arm around O’brien’s gunhand and spun her into the wall. The gun clacked to the ground and we all tried pointing our flashlights at him, but he was just way too freakin’ fast. He planted a solid boot into Jerry’s solar plexus, sending him crashing into the wall across from the cooler door, and snatched a handful of Rosa’s hair, yanking her into the cooler with him. Before O’Brien could even stand up, Spencer had Rosa in a chokehold with the pencil that we use for inventory counts pressed tightly against her neck.
“You guys get bored without me or something?” he taunted. I kept my flashlight trained on him as he slowly backed into the cooler. The deputy’s handcuffs were still around his wrists, but the chain had been snapped and now it was nothing more than a pair of fancy bracelets.
“Dude, listen,” I started.
“Shut up!” he yelled back. “Here’s how this is going to work. First-”
Spencer released Rosa and fell to the ground, his head colliding with the floor and bouncing. Behind him stood… oh shit not this again… Spencer, holding the weapon he had just bludgeoned the other Spencer with--the same flashlight that the O’Brien double had taken into the cooler and, I was just starting to realize, the same exact flashlight that I had given to the Donald Glover double earlier that night.
“Damn,” said Spencer (the conscious one), “Is that what I look like? I am one sexy motherfucker.”
The expression on his face changed once he spotted something on the cooler floor. I followed his eyes to where he was looking and saw it. Saul’s revolver.
O’Brien leapt for it at the same time as Spencer, and they both collided before reaching it. They went flying into the shelves, O’Brien catching most of the impact, and I dove into the cooler, finding the disgusting sticky ground and feeling around in the dark until my hands felt the cold, heavy piece of metal. I pointed it at Spencer, but there was no way I was going to get a clear shot, especially with Rosa’s wild flashlight job.
Spencer threw O’Brien into the rolling chair, and she flipped over it onto the floor. He wiped a bead of blood from his face and took a step towards me, but that’s as far as he made it before another body jumped out of the dark and tackled him from the side.
Here’s where things got even more confusing. Pencil-Spencer landed on top of Flashlight-Spencer and started punching him hard, but not hard enough. In no time, Flashlight-Spencer had slammed his flashlight into Pencil-Spencer’s fist, then flipped him onto his back and started wailing on him.
I had my gun aimed right at them both, completely not sure what to do. I looked at O’Brien and said, “I don’t know which one’s the real Spencer.”
“Who fucking cares?!” she yelled back. “Shoot them both!”
Flashlight-Spencer stopped punching. He and Pencil-Spencer both looked at me and said, “Huh?”
Pencil-Spencer stabbed the pencil into Flashlight-Spencer’s shoulder and twisted. Flashlight-Spencer winced and jumped off of him. Right then Jerry called out from the cooler doorway.
He was holding a lit molotov cocktail, but not for long. Before I had time to scream “Bad idea!” he had pitched the damned thing at flashlight-Spencer…
...who fucking caught it in his fucking hand!
Just when I think things couldn’t get any crazier, Pencil-Spencer punched the still-burning weapon hard enough to shatter it into a blue fireball that lit up the entire room for just a moment before burning out and leaving us all in the dark trying to catch our breaths.
Rosa pointed her flashlight at the figure running out of the cooler. The Spencer ran right through Jerry like he were made out of balloons, then disappeared out the back door. After a couple seconds, we collectively remembered that there was still a Spencer in the room with us and pointed our flashlights around to find him. First I looked at where he just was, finding nothing but specks of blood and broken shelves. Then I pointed it at O’Brien, then Rosa who was sitting on the ground pointing a flashlight at me, then the other Rosa, who was sitting right next to her holding an identical flashlight.
The Rosas both crawled quickly to opposite sides of the cooler and then stared at one another with the exact same look of frozen shock while O’Brien stood between them and spoke.
“Okay, so here’s the deal. One of you is the shapeshifter. That’s the one I’m talking to right now. We didn’t come in here to hurt you. We came in here because we need your help. There is something outside the gas station that just killed a man.”
I watched both of their faces and instantly knew. One Rosa looked up at O’Brien and asked in a soft voice, “Somebody died?”
The other waited about a second too late to mimic the look of fear and concern on the real Rosa’s face.
I walked right up to the shapeshifter and said, “You’re busted.”
She looked at me with that sweet little “What did I do?” look, but it wasn’t fooling me.
And then, the look changed into a wry smile, and then she chuckled. “Hey, what can I do? You got me.”
“So,” I started, “Who is ‘Sagoth’?”
She got to her feet as she answered, “Oh, I don’t doubt you’ve got a ton of questions, but I don’t have the time or desire to answer them. This has been a nice distraction. But if what you say is true, then I need to get to work.”
“You could have escaped any time you wanted?” I surmised.
“Yeah, but you humans are such curious creatures. And I needed something to do to pass the time until Sagoth showed up. Well, I’ll be off, and when you wake up you won’t remember any of this.”
The double waved its hand and O’Brien, Jerry, and Rosa prime all fell to the floor unconscious. I looked at each of them just to make sure they were still breathing, then back at the mimic Rosa in front of me.
“Well, that certainly is strange. But it’s time for you to go to sleep.”
She waved her hand again.
I blinked a couple times.
“What.” she said.
“I don’t sleep,” I said back, “I thought I told you that.”
“You may have told Rosa, but I can’t copy memories, Jack. Just voices and faces.”
“Who are you?”
“I really don’t have time for-”
I pointed the revolver at her and squeezed the trigger.
Now, I know that sounds bad, and I’m sure you moral absolutists out there are probably thinking to yourselves “I would not have done that if I were in this situation.” Well, you know what? You weren’t. I was. And I was actually pretty pissed off. Not just because this asshole had been screwing with us, using us as bait to lure out the real demon, and letting us all go super-paranoid on one another this whole time, but also because after all of this, after everything I’d been through that night, he just announced that I was going to be the only one to remember any of it!
Besides, I had already worked out that a bullet to the chest wasn’t going to kill it.
“OUCH!” It screamed, immediately transforming into O’Brien before my eyes. “Why would you do that?! All I wanted to do was help you! But if I have to kill you to get to Sagoth, I will! And you’re not-”
I shot it again, aiming for center mass like Benjamin always said.
The creature immediately transformed into Jerry. It smiled, and I shot again. That’s when it turned into someone else. It turned into her. She who shall not be named. The girl that would haunt my dreams if I were capable of having any. The creature looked at me with her green eyes and asked, “Well? Are you going to shoot me again?”
I sighed and lowered the gun. “What’s the point?”
It changed one last time, and then I was standing in my own presence, and I gotta say, I didn’t realize how rough I was starting to look. I desperately needed a haircut. The circles under my eyes had their own shadows. My cheekbones were getting more pronounced, and I was even skinnier than I looked in the mirror.
“Jack, I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told a human before. To me, your kind are a lot like hamsters. I don’t feel compelled to explain my actions or motivations to people because you are so primitive and unevolved that you simply couldn’t wrap your tiny mind around it anyway.”
“Ok,” I said, “that’s fair.”
“There is no such thing as demons. Sagoth is my responsibility. He sleeps inside one of the wrinkles of your universe, but something has woken him up. Something even I don’t know. Every century or so, I have to put him back to sleep, which is why I’m here. Not to hurt you, but to help.”
Benjamin, in case you’re reading this right now, you were wrong. Again. Also, fuck you.
“The legends started a long time ago of a demon. People saw a shapeshifter every time Sagoth awoke and feasted, and before long humans conflated us.”
“Oh.” I said.
“I’m going to stop Sagoth from destroying your world now, Jack. But before I do, there’s one last piece of information I want to leave you with. When I take somebody’s form, I don’t see memories, but I can feel what’s inside them. In lack of a better term, I’m what your kind calls an empath.”
“You and your friends here are all kinds of messed up. You would need an army of psychiatrists to untangle the mental slinkies inside your minds.”
“That’s not what I wanted to say. Your fucked up brains aren’t all that special. But the other one? Spencer? I looked inside of him and all I saw was… nothing. Absolutely nothing. The same as I see when I look at a table or a rock. He’s just a black void.”
“Yeah,” I responded, “I actually already knew that.”
I took a step back and let my doppelganger walk out of the cooler, then right out the front doors.
The rest of the night passed without incident. The others slept where they fell, but I tried to make them comfortable with blankets and pillows made out of bags of stale bread. While the sun came up, I cleaned. Enough to fill four contractor bags. Then I started writing up inventory loss slips for everything that had been damaged in the fights. It’s amazing how productive you can be when you don’t sleep.
After everything was back in order, I sat in my chair behind the register and read for an hour or so while the others slept off whatever the shapeshifter had done to them.
Our first customer walked into the store a little while after that. I didn’t bother looking up from my book because I had already posted a sign on the door that said we didn’t have electricity and couldn’t sell gas or run cards or accept cash and nothing worked. I added my own festive touch to the bottom with a drawing of a Christmas Tree.
The customer walked up to the counter and interrupted my book right when it was finally starting to get interesting.
“Excuse me, do you have any band aids?”
I looked up from my book and saw that the man standing there was Spencer fucking Middleton, complete with the pencil still sticking out of his shoulder. I quickly reached for the gun, which I had left on the counter, and realized that it wasn’t even there anymore.
Spencer lifted the revolver and asked, “Was this what you were looking for? Feels a little light. Did you think you were going to take me out with the first shot?”
I slowly dog-eared my page and placed the book on the counter before asking, “Is there any way you’re actually just the shapeshifter?”
Spencer shook his head.
A minute later, we were back outside in the knee-deep snow behind the gas station. Spencer dug the barrel of the gun into my back and walked me towards the woods. Before we got there, he said “Stop!” then he looked around, smelled the air, smiled, and pulled a long knife out of its sheath on his belt. “Yeah, this will work. Are you left handed or right handed?”
“Why?” I asked.
“Nevermind.” He grabbed my left hand and sliced my pinky clean off, then grabbed both of my crutches and yanked them away from me. I hit the thick blanket of snow and hugged my rapidly-bleeding hand wound against my stomach. The hot, wet liquid pouring out felt strangely comforting as it warmed my torso.
“Nothing personal, I just needed some bait. I got a new boss now, and he wants me to bag and tag something special. Do me a favor and keep on bleeding. It won’t take long for the thing to catch your scent. For what it’s worth, if this thing doesn’t kill you, I’ll let you live.”
He turned and began to walk away.
“Hey Spencer!” I yelled after him.
He stopped. “Yeah?”
“You’re a dick.”
He laughed and walked back into the gas station, carrying my crutches under his arm. I laid on my back looking up at the sky and heard the familiar sound of that gas station door closing, followed by the familiar scraping noise of the deadbolt going into place. If I were going to give survival the old college try, it would have to be now or never.
I pushed myself along with my good hand and leg, leaving a sloppy trail of bloody snow behind me. Maneuvering in my condition was going to be difficult, to say the least, and I could sense that my vision was beginning to tunnel, which for me is a particularly bad prospect. If I lose consciousness, it means I’m dead.
I managed to pull myself all the way to the side of the gas station before I finally decided that this was a waste of time. I wasn’t getting inside, and even if I did Spencer would just pull me right back out. There was nothing left to do but hope for one more miracle.
“Hey Jack. What are you doing out here?”
I looked up to see my old friend Tom, with his white hair perfectly matching the snowy landscape. Tom was the first deputy they sent out to babysit us, and the first one to die. I squeezed my bloody nub under my armpit to try and slow the bleeding as I worked out if I was looking at a ghost, hallucination, or the shapeshifter and realized that I genuinely couldn’t tell.
“Spencer’s using me for bait.”
Tom instantly morphed into a seven-foot tall, four hundred pound Samoan covered in scars and tribal tattoos. That limited the options down to hallucination or shapeshifter.
“That punk is back?” he barked.
“Well, I guess I need to teach him a lesson about-”
He stopped and turned back to the woods. Something out there was crunching loudly through the forest, snapping through branches and causing a hell of a lot of noise as it approached. The Samoan figure crouched next to me and whispered, “Sorry. It looks like we don’t have time to get you out of here. Sagoth has smelled your blood and now he comes for you.”
“Listen to me very closely. There’s one thing you need to know about Sagoth. He has one weakness, and that is this: He cannot hurt you if you don’t look at him. Do you understand?”
“Close your eyes. No matter what happens, no matter what you hear, keep your eyes shut until you hear me say the word ‘Salutem.’ Until then, he will do everything he can to trick you into opening your eyes. Once you do that, all bets are off. He’ll start with your eyelids. Do you understand?”
The shapeshifter sighed and said, “Close your eyes!”
Right then, I saw it. Sagoth. Pushing his way through the forest. He stood as tall as the trees, horrendous and humanoid, with an aura of inconceivable terrors and a face that screamed all things dark and hateful. I shut my eyes and instantly felt blessed relief.
“It’s ok,” said a sweet, gentle voice. “You can look now, it’s safe.”
He will do everything he can to trick you into opening your eyes.
“Um, no, that’s ok.” I said.
From behind me I heard O’Brien screaming, “Jack! Help me!”
Ha! You’ll have to do better than that.
All at once, I felt them crawling all over me. Insects. They chirped and squeaked as they flooded up my pants leg and under my clothes and even into my nose, ears, and mouth. I gagged and swatted at them but still pressed my eyes shut as hard as I could.
A burning heat blasted across my face as I heard the giant being scream from inches away, “MAGGOT. OPEN YOUR EYES AND BEHOLD YOUR DAMNATION!”
“No thanks!” I yelled back.
And then he brought out the big guns. The next thing I knew, I was falling. There was no earth beneath me, only air, whipping against my skin as I plummeted down, down, down. It’s a good thing I’m such a coward, because I think squeezing my eyes shut in a situation like that was actually my natural reaction.
After falling for what felt like ages, I finally landed in a warm ocean. This was about to get really tough.
I kicked and screamed at the water around me with no idea which way was up or down. I was certain that I was about to drown but still, I kept my eyes shut.
Eventually, I could feel myself rising, the air left in my lungs was maybe possibly enough to pull me to the surface? I held off for as long as I could, until my lungs ached with a pain that was almost as bad as death, and still I had not broken the surface. This was it. The moment I would finally die. But if I had to go, I wasn’t going to give that douchebag demon the satisfaction of knowing he had beaten me. I kept my eyes shut, put up two middle fingers, and took a deep breath of water.
Which of course turned out to be air. As soon as I inhaled, I was transported back to the snow-covered patch of dirt next to the gas station, completely dry and still freezing to death.
The air suddenly reeked of boiled eggs, and a girl’s voice said into my ear, “Salutem. You can open your eyes Jack. Sagoth is back where he belongs.”
I cautiously opened one eyelid and looked at the amazingly beautiful woman standing beside me and asked her, “So, he’s gone?”
“For now. It’s interesting. Most people crack at the spiders and look. But you got all the way to the ocean. I don’t expect this to mean much to you, but I’m actually impressed.”
A metal pole erupted out of the center of her chest, and she fell to her knees, coughing up copious amounts of blood. She looked down at the thing with a bewildered expression, then fell over onto her side.
The pole was thin like an arrow, covered in serrated hooks, and once she hit the ground I could see that it was actually a spear. The other end of it protruded from her back with a black cord connected to it running all the way across the yard to the feet of Spencer Middleton.
He dropped the harpoon gun and whistled to himself as he walked the distance to where the shapeshifter was still gagging, still twitching, and grabbing onto the pole that had impaled her. As he came closer, she started changing, from one form to another. A giant bodybuilder, an Olympic style wrestler, a morbidly-obese man, a child, Jerry, O’Brien, Me, Spencer, and then it started switching faster and faster. Ten different people each second, all of them holding onto the spear and bleeding out into the snow. It went through a hundred of them before it finally stopped and settled on that of a frail, old asian woman. Tiny and wrinkled, with more white hair than black. Huddled in a fetal position as tears rolled down the side of her nose into the snow. Something told me that if the shapeshifter had a “true” form, I was looking at it.
“Struggle all you like,” Spencer said to her, “That spear is a tungsten silver alloy. You can’t pull it out or break it. I own you. And in a minute, dead or alive, I’m going to sell you.”
He grabbed her around the neck and dragged her away. All I could do was watch them go. She connected eyes with me until Spencer had dragged her around the side of the gas station, and then that was it. I was alone.
I couldn’t move anymore. Even breathing was beginning to become a near impossible task. I thought about how strange this was going to look. To Jerry, or O’Brien, or whoever was going to be unlucky enough to find me out here. Clutching my four-fingered hand under my armpit and staring out at the forest. The blood in the snow was already being erased under a slow flurry of snowflakes, and after an hour or less, it would look like none of this had ever even happened. People knew I had mental issues, so this wouldn’t even be front page news. The only curiosity will be “I wonder what happened to his finger?”
Oh well. There are certainly worse ways to go. Especially in a world with monsters like Sagoth and Spencer.
I watched the snowflakes fall and focused all my effort on the labor of drawing in one more breath. And then one more. And then one more after that. It might be pointless, but I’m going to get my last few seconds.
And then the back door opened, and somebody came over to my side, grabbed me by the shirt collar, and started dragging. He dragged me through the back hall and instantly I felt the blood rushing through my veins all over again. He took me all the way into the front of the store and dropped me onto my back before crouching down next to me and smiling.
“I told you I’d let you live if I caught what I wanted. And a deal is a deal, right?”
I took a deep breath of warm air and tried to find the right words to tell Spencer just how much I hated him, but I couldn’t. He didn’t seem to need me to anyway.
“You know, Jack. Maybe things aren’t meant to change. Maybe things are the way they are for a reason. I mean, it’s been up and down for both of us. We’ve both lost so many friends here at this gas station. Kieffer, Carlos, Tom, that hunter asshole from this morning. But at the end of the day, only two things are constant. You and me. You’re like the shitty Batman to my awesome Joker. And don’t worry about the shapeshifter. I just handed her off to my new boss, so she won’t be bothering you anymore.”
He stared out the doors at something I couldn’t see and smiled a big, smug, self satisfied smile.
You’re right. Some things never change. Like how you never remember that I can pick your pockets.
“Hey Spencer,” I said as soon as my voice had come back to me.
“Yeah?” he asked.
“I’m right handed.”
I stuck the tip of the revolver into his stomach and pulled the trigger. The look on his face was that of “I cannot believe that shit just happened.”
He fell onto his ass and looked at the gun in my hand, then at the rapidly growing circle of blood on his shirt. “You little piece of shit.”
O’Brien final-fucking-ly woke up and ran out of the cooler into the front room, yelling “What was that noise? Jack, are you okay?”
Spencer grabbed his stomach and bolted out the front doors. I tried to yell to O’Brien to go after him, but I had lost the ability to talk again, and instead I just closed my eyes and waited.
I got to ride in an ambulance, which is pretty cool. I also got to take Christmas day off from work, which is the closest thing to a Christmas miracle I’m going to get, so I’ll take it.
The others all came and visited me at the hospital in shifts (somebody has to stay and watch the gas station), and I even got to eat like ten packs of chocolate pudding. There’s a nurse here that I suspect has a thing for me because she keeps sneaking me extra desserts.
Once again, the “official” report is that nothing supernatural happened. Saul’s disappearance, my beating, the damage to the gas station and all the blood were blamed on Spencer. The others have absolutely no recollection of the night, and I’m left with no proof besides my notoriously shaky memory, which is why I decided to write it all down before I forgot anything.
All in all, it wasn’t the worst Christmas I’ve ever had.
On Christmas day, the nurse brought me a neatly gift wrapped box. I asked who it was from, and she just smiled and said somebody special had dropped it off for me.
I unwrapped and opened it to find another, smaller, box. I unwrapped it to find, another box. And inside that box, another, smaller box. The last box was small enough to fit inside of the palm of my hand. Somebody had gone through a lot of trouble for this, and I was starting to get a very uneasy feeling.
I finally opened the last box and confirmed my suspicion. Inside that last box were two things: A small paper note. And my severed finger.
The note had only three words written on it in dried brown ink:
“Merry Christmas, Jack.”