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.
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.