Anyone who’s ever worked the night shift before can tell you, it’s not easy pushing your body past its natural inclination to stop and rest. Something about nightfall triggers a subconscious urge to lay low, stay safe, and wait it out until morning. Sure, you can manually override that impulse, but there’s a certain point you never want to reach. When something deeper in your mind starts to push back. When your own brain starts playing tricks on you.
I work at the shitty twenty-four hour gas station at the edge of town, and the night shift here is, to put it nicely, something else. On the best days, it’s an exercise in maintaining sanity in a state of self-imposed solitary confinement. On the worst days... well, it’s a lot worse.
A few months back, we had a part-timer named Drake. He seemed like a bright guy. Hadn’t had any problems with him during the daylight hours, so the owners gave him a shot at the night shift. He seemed fine when he took over my clerking duties one midnight. By dawn, he’d already lost all of his clothes. By which, I mean, he genuinely lost them. Told us he has no idea where they ended up. A regular named Old-Bob came in the next morning and caught Drake standing butt-naked by the hot dog roller, a blank stare on his face and drool running down his chin.
An overly optimistic young hire named Lindsey was the one who replaced Drake. After a week of training, she insisted she was ready to take on the overnight challenge. To her credit, she made it three nights before cracking. Poor Lindsey called the sheriff’s department at four in the morning, ranting about how she’d fallen into a “time vortex” while cleaning behind the frozen drink machine. She swore she’d been trapped in a pocket dimension inhabited by dog-people for several weeks (before any of you get excited, let me assure you that her story falls apart upon closer examination; I checked behind the frozen drink machine and didn’t see any time vortices).
When I came in to start a morning shift a few days later, there was nobody at the register. I eventually found the new hire, Gus, standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom. When I asked what he was doing, he told me he’d been trying to remove his contact lenses for the last hour and a half. After the paramedics got him cleaned up, he came to his senses and confessed that he wasn’t even wearing contact lenses. In fact, before that night, he had perfect 20/20 vision and had never used contact lenses before. (I’m not sure what was more concerning: the fact that he’d permanently blinded himself in his left eye, or that thing he managed to pull out of the right one.)
My point is this, the night shift is no place for amateurs. It can be crazy. It can even be dangerous. The very worst cases are those where the clerk loses the battle--when they actually fall asleep on the job. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say that it’s never a good thing...
We were quickly running out of employees faster than we could bring in fresh hires. Rather than cut their losses and eliminate the night shift altogether, the owners of the gas station decided to promote me to the newly-created position of “night shift manager.” It’s a fancy title, and it came with a twenty-five cent pay bump, but I’m not sure exactly who I’m supposedly managing, considering I’m the only one here each night. I guess it makes sense. The owners can’t have employees falling asleep, and--for reasons I won’t go into--I don’t have to worry about that.
It works out fine as a temporary solution. And to be honest, I never minded the after-hours. Fewer customers to deal with means less work for me. It also means fewer distractions from reading books and browsing the internet. On the other hand, it puts me at ground zero for some of the weirdest occurrences at the gas station. Like the time I met the crow…
It was somewhere between way-too-late-at-night and way-too-early-in-the-morning. I was sitting behind the register with a cup of coffee in front of me and a book about vampire penguins in my hand (don’t ask), when suddenly I heard a tapping, as of someone gently rapping at the gas station door.
I looked up from my book to see what the hell that noise was, but as soon as I moved, the rapping abruptly ended. The parking lot was empty, and there was nobody standing on the other side of the glass door. “Well,” I thought to myself. “That’s pretty weird, but not weird enough to warrant getting up and checking.”
I went back to reading, but soon again I heard a tapping, somewhat louder than before. ”What the fuck is that?” I said to nobody in particular. That’s when I realized the noise was coming from the other side of the store window near the booth seat, and it was getting louder, as if somebody were standing outside knocking.
“Hello?” I said.
The noise stopped.
I went back to reading my book, but before I could find where I'd left off, the knocking started back up again.
“Oh, come on!” The tapping grew louder, but I stayed put. After all, the only thing dumber than sitting back and trying to ignore that mystery tapping was getting up and investigating the mystery tapping. But eventually, it became unignorable, and against my better judgment, I put the book away and left my post to check and see what was going on.
I was only a step from the front door when the noise stopped again. I cautiously pushed it open enough to peak out and see if I was dealing with another crazy hobo, but the moment the door opened, a crow fluttered in over my head, flapping its wings frantically and caw-screaming at me. I covered my eyes and face and rushed back to my spot behind the counter, the bird shrieking and grabbing at my hair the whole time. I swung at it, trying to bat it away, but it was too fast, fluttering just out of my range with each pathetic strike, then swooping back down to peck at my hair before retreating back into the air. A few panic-stricken seconds later, I was hiding underneath the counter and searching for a weapon.
As the thumping in my chest slowly returned to reasonable levels, I became aware of two unsettling facts about my current situation. First, there were no weapons anywhere in range. And second, the screaming animal currently perched atop the cash register right above me was not actually saying “caw.” It was saying a completely different word. A word no animal outside of the human variety should ever be able to say.
I sat on the floor, leaning against the wall of the counter, and focusing on the noise. There was no mistaking it. The crow was definitely saying:
In a pathetic attempt to scare it off, I punched the counter above me and shouted, “Hey! Get out of here!”
The crow responded with a squawk and then, “AMWAY! WORK FROM HOME! BE YOUR OWN BOSS!”
I slowly pulled myself out from under the counter, got myself upright, and reached for the phone while the jet-black bird stood on the cash register and stared at me. As soon as my fingers reached the receiver, it started screaming louder, faster, “EXCITING NEWS! JOIN MY NETWORK! ORGANAGOLD IS THE FUTURE OF COFFEE! IT WORKS! INFINITUS FOR BEAUTY!”
“Shut up!” I yelled, but the bird just kept screaming, even louder, drowning me out and filling the room with its multi-level marketing bullshit pitches:
“HERBALIFE! BUY DIRECTLY FROM THE WHOLESALER! NU SKIN! STAY YOUNG FOREVER! DOCTORS DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW THE SECRETS OF PERPETUAL YOUTH! VECTOR MARKETING! CUTCO! SELL KNIVES DOOR TO DOOR IF YOU WANT TO BE A MILLIONAIRE!”
I tried dialing the number for my contact at the sheriff’s department, but the crow was way too loud. Even if the call went through, I wouldn’t be able to hear or talk to anyone on the other end. The crow wasn’t slowing down, and it sounded like it wasn’t even taking a breath between rants. I grabbed a praline from the display on the counter and threw it at the noisy son-of-a-bitch, but the crow hopped into the air to avoid it.
“LULAROE! SELL LEGGINGS FROM THE COMFORT OF FACEBOOK! GET RICH AND MAKE FRIENDS! VERY SEXY! VERY COOL!”
I put the phone down and screamed, “Those are all scams, you stupid bird!”
In an instant, the gas station went deathly quiet. The bird ceased its squawking and dropped onto the counter a few feet away. The only sound was the thumping in my chest. Now, I finally had a moment to catch my breath and take in the situation.
The crow was massive (by crow-standards, I mean). Other than that, I don’t really know how to describe it. He was, you know, a crow. Black eyes, black beak, black feathers with a strange oily sheen when the light hit it just right, but other than its eerily human voice and unusually aggressive sales-pitches, it wasn’t all that noteworthy.
This was not the first bird to get inside the gas station by a long shot. Normally, all it takes to correct that problem is patience, a ladder, an extension cord and a shop vac. But something told me this case wasn’t going to be so simple. In fact, as we stared at one another, I couldn’t help but feel like the crow was studying me, coming up with some kind of nefarious plan.
I kept my movements slow and deliberate. The last thing I wanted was to spook the bird and set it off again. It watched as I picked up the receiver, cradled it under my ear, and dialed Deputy Love’s personal number. We maintained eye contact as the phone rang. And rang. And rang. After about twenty seconds of ringing, I was starting to wonder why the voicemail hadn’t taken over yet. Finally, the ringing stopped, and a tired voice said, “Hello?”
“Hey, it’s Jack, from the gas station.”
“I know who you are. You’re the only one that would be calling me at… wait, what time is it? Jesus Christ, Jack, this had better be an emergency!”
“I’ve got a bit of a situation here. There’s a crow. Inside the store.”
“And it’s talking.”
“And… I’m sorry, maybe you didn’t hear me. I said there’s a talking crow inside the gas station.”
“He’s talking in English.”
“Did you really call me for this? Jack, let me remind you about the rules of our relationship. If it’s not life-threatening, I don’t care. Crows can talk, they’re like parrots. Call animal control in the morning and don’t go near it. I assure you, it’s more afraid of you than you are of it. Now leave me alone. Don’t call me back unless someone’s dead or dying.” With that, he abruptly hung up on me.
I stared at the receiver as the crow squawked, “What did he say?”
“He says crows can talk,” I answered.
“Well that’s a relief,” squawked the crow.
“Hang on,” I said. “Something about this still doesn’t feel right.”
I reached for my backpack under the cigarette case and pulled out my laptop. A minute later, I had it set up and connected to the internet. The crow bounced up the counter and over to the side of the keyboard. It looked at the pictures of crows on the screen and squawked, “What does it say about me?”
“It says Deputy Love was right. Some crows can imitate humans. It also says crows are extremely intelligent.”
“Cool,” squawked the crow.
“No,” I said. “This still isn’t right. The experts say crows can ‘imitate’ voices.”
The crow bristled and asked, “So?”
“So, you’re obviously not imitating someone. We’re literally having a conversation right now.”
“How do you know I’m not just repeating a series of very specific phrases I’ve learned over the years?”
We stared at one another for a moment longer. I tried not to blink first, but eventually my eyes began to sting and I caved. The second my eyelids closed, the crow squawked loudly, flapped its massive wings, and landed on top of my laptop screen, riding it down as it snapped shut in front of me.
“Hey!” I yelled. “What’s your problem?!”
“Listen up,” the crow said. Its voice was different. No longer a squawk. Now, somehow, he’d evolved into a smooth whisper like that of a dealer in a dark alley. “I’ll be honest with you, Jack. All that pyramid scheme stuff, it was just a ruse. I wanted to test your reaction, see if you were the gullible sort. I’m happy to say, you passed. You’re just as clever as I suspected.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“I need a favor from you. A big one. I’m willing to pay for it.”
I shook my head. “I don’t use crow money. Is that even a thing? Crow money?”
“I can make it worth your while. Trust me. I have skills. We can trade favor for favor.”
Right then, the front door swung open. Mr. Crow had me so distracted I didn’t even realize that a truck had pulled into the parking lot, and a real human customer was about to require my attention. The crow flew back to his spot on top of the cash register and sulked as the young man in the camo jacket walked inside and threw me a “Heya, Jack!”
Only then did I realize my mistake. This was not a customer. This was just another inconvenience. One of the locals with the distinct honor of gracing our "Do not serve these people" wall of shame. He walked up to the counter, pointed at the display behind me, and said, “Pack of Skoal original, please.”
I took a deep breath. “What are you doing, Travis? You know you’re banned for life.”
“What?” Travis asked with a confused head shake. “Still?!”
“Yes, still. Always.”
“Alright, well in that case, just give me a pack of Marlboro reds.”
“I can’t. You’re banned.”
“Hey, what’s with the bird?”
Travis gave the crow a come at me face.
“Oh, he talks.”
“Cool. Polly wanna cracker?”
The crow squawked, “Fuck you.”
Travis went red in the face. “Fuck me? Fuck you, bird!”
The crow shot back in a deep voice, “Your mother sucks cocks in hell!”
“The fuck did you just say to me, you cricket-eating no-armed mother-fucker?!”
Travis took a step towards the animal, but the crow reacted by going airborne, flapping its wings and emitting a deafening sound like a hundred car alarms going off at once. It flew towards the man with its talons extended at eye-level. Travis spun around and screamed incoherently while racing out the door. As soon as it had shut behind him, the crow went silent and landed on the counter.
I snapped a couple times next to each ear just to make sure I hadn’t gone deaf from the explosive crow noise, then asked “What the hell was that?”
“What?” the crow asked defensively. “That gentlemen clearly didn’t understand that he’d outworn his welcome. You were having trouble communicating this. No need to thank me.”
“I wasn’t planning on it.”
“So, listen, I was sort of in the middle of something when you showed up. What’s it going to take to get you to leave me alone?”
The crow hopped over to the edge of the counter in front of me, looked to both sides like it was checking to make sure we were still alone, and whispered, “I need you to kill a cat.”
There’s an expression in French called “l’appel du vide” that refers to a short burst of subconscious desire to do something absolutely crazy and irrational. Literally translated, it means, “the call of the void.” If you’ve ever leaned over a building’s ledge and thought for one brief second, “I could jump right now,” that’s l’appel du vide. As I looked at the animal in front of my face, I had a sinister thought pop into my mind… From this close, I could easily reach out and grab the crow by the neck before it had any time to escape. Was it testing me? Or was it showing off how little of a threat it considered me to be?
I dismissed that crazy thought, then took the next one in line. “Wait. A cat? Like, any cat? Why? Also, no.”
“There’s a specific cat that’s been harassing me for the last couple weeks. He’s a real pain in the cloaca. I need you to off him for me. In exchange, I’ll take care of an enemy for you. Anyone you want. Seems to me, your life might be a little easier if that Travis guy weren’t around anymore.”
“Why do you need me to kill a cat? You seem more than capable of doing it yourself.”
“Of course I am!” The crow laughed. (As in, it genuinely let out a loud human guffaw that lasted all of five seconds.) “Have you ever seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train?”
“I’m a crow, Jack. Of course I’ve seen it.”
“Here’s the deal. My girlfriend loves this cat. She considers him her pet. And she’s smart. If I kill him, she’ll figure it out and never forgive me. No, I can’t risk that. I need a rock-solid alibi. That’s where you come in. If you were the one to kill him, she’d never even know I was involved. Then I can take care of someone of your choosing, and nobody will ever trace it back to you. No one could ever link us. We don’t hang out in the same social circles. We’re not friends. We’re not even the same species. We’re just strangers on a train.”
“I think I liked you better when you were pushing scams.”
The crow’s head spun around almost 180 degrees, aiming at something on the other side of the store by the boiled peanuts. “Be silent, human! You hear that?” it asked in another brand new voice, this one sounding suspiciously like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“No. Hear what?”
It leapt from the counter and dive-bombed towards the other end of the room, swooping around a grocery aisle and disappearing from view. For the next minute, I didn’t see or hear anything. It was enough time for me to truly reflect on the absurdity of the situation. Here I was, talking to a crow. Negotiating with a crow. Did any of this make sense? No, of course not. What the hell am I even doing? Is any of this real?
Just as I was beginning to suspect the answer might be no, the crow flew over the shelves and returned to the counter, a dead and half-eviscerated rat corpse dangling from its beak. He dropped the rodent’s body right on top of my closed computer, where it twitched a few times before the crow proudly announced, “You’re fucking welcome, Jack!”
“Well that’s the grossest thing I’ve seen all night.”
I moved to grab some paper towels, but the crow jumped, landed on my right shoulder, and squeezed its claws through my shirt and into my skin. Then it moved in close, putting its bloodied beak uncomfortably close to my eye. I stayed perfectly still.
“DO WE HAVE A DEAL?” it squawked in its loud Amway voice.
To be perfectly clear, I was never going to kill a cat. I didn’t want the crow to kill anyone for me, either. There was absolutely nothing appealing about this bird’s offer. However, his claws had already broken my skin and drawn blood, so I was feeling highly motivated to say whatever I needed to say to get this over with.
“Okay,” I said in my gentlest voice. “Sure. Sure, we have a deal. How do I find this cat? What does it look like?”
A surge of pain shot through my shoulder as the bird released its death grip. Its wings smacked me in the eye and it took flight, landing atop the cash register once again while blood slowly soaked into the shoulder of my riddled shirt. “Get a pen and write this down,” he barked. “His name is J.P.; his last name is Maroney. He lives at 534 Second street.” I opened the drawer where we keep stationary supplies and grabbed a pen and paper, but I could sense that something wasn’t quite righ