Updated: Mar 24, 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.