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!”