Updated: Dec 16, 2018
Something isn’t right.
I was halfway through my Monday overnight shift, sitting behind the cashier’s counter eating a sandwich and mulling over the thought processes that had led me to this unsettling conclusion.
Something was bothering me, and I couldn’t figure out what it was.
Why am I so anxious right now?
My subconscious had spontaneously latched onto some small detail inside the gas station that wasn’t as it should have been, and I couldn’t decide which was worse: the mysterious nagging thought that was going to town on the back of my mind like a horny pomeranian in a pillow factory, or the fact that something in this room with me was bad enough to still register on my weirdness scale.
I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging when I say this, but I’ve seen some pretty bizarre things working at the shitty gas station at the edge of town. I’ve seen things that have legitimately made grown men lose their minds (I heard poor Arnold still won’t leave his house without a security blanket and his emotional support Falcon, “Screecher.”). My point is, I’m probably a little desensitized when it comes to what the average Joe may consider abnormal. But this--whatever it was--had left me feeling particularly troubled.
But what is it?
It’s hard to put into words exactly how I felt. Have you ever walked into a room and immediately forgotten whatever it was you came into the room to do? It was almost like that, only worse. It was a mental itch I couldn’t mental scratch. Like a pain in a phantom limb, I was having a disconnect between my conscious and subconscious. Probably yet another lovely side effect of my chronic insomnia.
I tried to retrace the breadcrumbs. I’d had a thought. That thought bothered me. In fact, I wouldn’t consider it an exaggeration to say that the thought had shaken me to my core. But when I attempted to bring that thought to the forefront of my mind, it simply wasn’t there anymore. My brain was straight-up glitching.
The store phone rang. And even though it was the middle of the night, and I wasn’t expecting a phone call, and most of the phone calls to the store come from a deranged psychopath hellbent on torturing me to death after I shot him in the stomach, I answered because that’s part of my job and I’m a decent employee.
The voice on the other end was deep and sonorous, like a film trailer narrator. “It’s four thirty A.M., Jack. Do you know where your children are?”
He dropped the fake voice. “Heyo. What’s up?”
“Not much. Did you or Rosa change something before I came into work?”
“What do you mean?”
“The gas station seems off and I can’t put my finger on exactly why.”
“Sounds to me like you have what the French call ‘ce traducteur ne fonctionne pas correctement.’”
“I don’t know what that means, but I’m sure it’s wrong. Did Rosa attempt to clean the place? Did you rearrange the lawn gnome display again?”
“First off, I’ve never touched the gnomes. I did, however, light some incense and candles to realign my chakras, but then Rosa tried spraying some disinfectant to cancel out the smell because it was bothering her, but then the disinfectant spray hit one of my lit candles and we found out it was flammable and we accidently made a big fireball and then we attached the spray can to a lighter to create a poor man’s flamethrower and took it out front to try it out and torched a couple of watermelons. It was hella rad. I’m sorry, I forgot what your question was.”
“Nevermind. Why are you calling?”
“I wanted to tell you that Coca Cola used to make a coffee-flavored soda called Coke Black and I just found an entire case of it. Also, I need to see what time I’m supposed to come in to work today.”
I checked the schedule and informed him that he had the day off, to which he responded “Cool beans,” and hung up.
I took another bite of my sandwich and looked around the room for anything noticeably out of place, but nothing jumped out at me figuratively or literally.
Well, maybe this has something to do with the undeniable fact that the hallucinations have been getting worse. For a while, I imagined that things weren’t really so bad. In foolishly optimistic moments, I’d even considered it a possibility that I was getting better. But the last week had proven this was not the case. The last week had proven that the hallucinations were back, and here to stay.
On Monday night, I noticed a strange black cloud hovering in the far corner of the store. It didn’t have much of a shape or size other than that of an amorphous blob bigger than a breadbox and smaller than a blue whale. I watched as it floated around, over the aisles, shifting in size and shape as if it were breathing, with smokey black tentacles that expanded from the hovering mass to grab the displays. It picked up a bag of potato chips and a can of sardines and absorbed them into itself, then stopped and hung in a still suspension near the doors.
“You know you have to pay for that, right?” I called out, prompting the black cloud to continue floating. It stopped next to an air vent in the ceiling and began to shrink and shrink and eventually, the entirety of its body disappeared through the metal slits of the ventilation airway.
I wrote up the inventory loss slips, and under ‘Reason’ I checked the box next to ‘Theft’ and penciled in a note: “Giant black cloud.” Then I spent a few minutes drawing a sketch of the thing
to post on our “Do Not Serve These People” wall.
Things aren’t so bad during the daytime, or when I’m not alone. But during those long stretches when most people sleep, the world gets weird.
During my shift on Tuesday, I swear I saw a small pack of lawn gnomes dragging a possum by the tail into the drink case. But by the time I made it around the corner and across the store, they were nowhere to be seen.
Later that night, my old friend Tom came in to visit. His pure-white hair and frown wrinkles were starting to show off just how old he was getting. He drank a cup of black coffee and we caught up on all the things that had happened since he retired from his job at the sheriff’s station. The Christmas thing, Beaux, the carnival.
He asked how his replacement was doing.
“O’Brien’s hanging in there. I think she’s finally starting to accept that not everything at the gas station is going to make sense.”
“Hmm,” Tom grunted. “It takes a special kind of person to work gas station duty. The weirdness. That kind of thing don’t sit right with most people.”
I told Tom about the book I was writing.
“I wouldn’t be too cavalier about that if I were you,” he warned. “There are plenty of people around here that won’t exactly be happy to learn you’re keeping records.”
“I think it’s okay. Most people think I’m crazy.”
Tom tossed his styrofoam cup into the garbage and asked, “Now why would they think that?”
That’s when the realization fell into place like a pallet of bricks.
“Oh shit!” I yelled, “Tom, aren’t you dead?”
Tom stretched a little before responding, “That’s what they tell me.”
“What’s it like?”
Tom gave me a sad look and answered, “Being dead is a lot like dreaming. Sometimes it’s good; sometimes it’s bad; but most of the time, you don’t even realize you’re doing it.”
On Wednesday night, someone new came through the doors. He had a long, pointy nose, light blue hair down to his shoulders, a black pork pie hat with a red feather sticking out of it, and a faded yellow wife-beater showing off a chest full of bristle-like hairs. He wore thick glasses with coke bottle lenses and a wide smile that showed off way more gums than teeth.
He asked me if I wanted to see something “really cool.” I said ‘No,’ but he showed me anyway by lifting a birdcage and setting it on the counter with a loud, triumphant “Voila!”
Inside the cage was a tiny, live elephant, the size of a purse-dog. It looked at me and made a high-pitched toot before digging its miniature trunk into a saucer of birdseed and shoveling it into its tiny, scaradorable mouth.
“Okay.” I said.
“Well, what do you think?”
“My creation!” he exclaimed.
“I don’t know, it’s pretty weird. I don’t see what the point is in having a baby elephant.”
“It’s not a baby! It’s a miniature-” he closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. His smile disappeared. “Do you know how long it took me to create these things?”
“I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
“No, no, it’s fine. I just, I don’t know what I was thinking. All they do is eat and poop. They aren’t any good for farm labor. I tried cooking one, but they taste like meatballs made of gristle and cauliflower. You know what? Forget it.”
He scooped the birdcage up with both hands and turned to leave. As he walked out the store, I noticed that he was wearing a red-and-white striped bathing suit and flip-flops.
It wasn’t until the next morning that the thought finally occurred to me: Probably none of that was even real.
On Thursday, well, absolutely nothing strange occurred on Thursday. Sometimes that happens.
O’Brien told me before my shift started Friday that they had found what remained of Beaux Couvillion lying in the middle of the street a few miles from the gas station. On the one hand, this is good news. It means Beaux probably won’t try to kill me again. On the other hand, if his body is back, it means that the portal to hell must have reopened.
There wasn’t much left of him besides a scorched skeleton, and they had to identify him by his dental records. Officially, they’re going with “suicide” again. I feel like the ones in charge aren’t even trying with these coverups anymore.
Saturday was a good day. Saturday was the day that I had been looking forward to for months. The doctors told me to take it easy, and not to overdo it on the first day. No cartwheels or jumping. No sports for a while. And maybe give it some time before I go back to driving a car. I assured them that I wouldn’t be doing any kind of physical activity if I could help it and silently hoped that I wouldn’t find it necessary to run away from anyone (or thing) anytime soon.
Rosa showed up to work about fifteen minutes before her shift was supposed to start with a big, excited smile on her face and ran up to the counter where I was seated. “Okay!” she exclaimed with even more mirth than normal, “Come on out and let me see it, you bipedal S.O.B.!”
After all this time, I was back to walking like a normal human being again, more or less, and when I came around the front of the counter, Rosa slammed into me with a tight and completely unexpected hug that nearly knocked me over.
“Okay, wow. I didn’t know we were on a hugging basis already.”
“Oh shut up,” she said as she detached and looked down at my legs. “I can’t even remember... Which one is it again?”
Before I could answer, Jerry appeared out of nowhere and tossed a construction paper card onto the counter next to us and said “Y’all sign this card I made for Mel.”
“You made Mel a card?” I asked.
“That’s so sweet!” Rosa chimed in before picking it up and reading it out loud, “‘Hey Mel. Sorry you got stabbed in the heart.’ Oh look, he drew a picture of it and everything.”
“Yeah,” Jerry said, “I’m just a really caring kind of guy.”
I could tell Jerry must have been in a particularly crafty mood lately. He was wearing a white t-shirt with the words “My Name is Jerry” written across the front. Well, I’m just glad he’s got a healthy hobby now.
He cocked his head at me and asked, “Did you get a haircut or something? You look taller.”
“No, I got rid of the crutches.”
“You used to have crutches?”
“Yeah, Jerry. I used to have crutches. Now I have this thing.”
“Well? How good is it? Are you able to run and stuff? Can you dance?”
“I couldn’t dance before, so no.”
Rosa asked with a smile, “You feel like going on a short walk? See how that bad boy handles?”
I told her that I was still getting used to long distances, and I didn’t want to press my luck just yet. This was only my first day with the prosthetic, after all.
I must admit, a month earlier I had come to peace with the idea of never going anywhere without crutches again. Like so many things, the whole leg situation had started bad, then gotten out of control, and before I knew it, it was too late. I don’t know all the technical terms, but basically my body forgot how to heal broken bones. I had to get a few surgeries. Then a few more. And then, just when it started to look like the leg was going to get better, I caught an antibiotic-resistant superinfection, and the doctors decided that yeah, it was time to quit throwing good money after bad and just say “to hell with it.”
Turns out, if you ask nicely, they let you keep the removed body part once they’re done.
We held a viking funeral for my amputated limb at the creek down the road from the station. Jerry loaded up a little makeshift boat with a fireworks pyre soaked in kerosene and shot roman candles at it from the bridge until the whole damn thing exploded in a fireball of glory and gratuitous gore. It was definitely one of the nicer funerals I had been to.
That was back in December, but now I had four limbs again, and it felt good.
Sunday night, the man in the trenchcoat returned. He stood just on the other side of the doors, scratching the glass but refusing to actually come inside. I considered calling O’Brien to come and shoo him away, but I didn’t want to bother her over something so trivial. Especially when, as much as I hate to admit it, I knew he probably wasn’t even real to begin with.
That had been my week leading up to this moment. So was that it? Was it the continuance of hallucinations that had left me with this sensation of presentiment?
Whatever was bothering me had a stronger sense of immediacy attached to it.
Was it adjusting to life without crutches?
Could it have something to do with all those people that died at the carnival?
No, that was like a week ago.
How is this possible? How could I lose the memory of what was bothering me, but not the feeling it left behind?
Jerry once told me about an idea he had to travel the country visiting retirement homes and informing patients with severe Alzheimer's that they had won the lottery and that their grandkids loved them and that Matlock had been renewed for ten more seasons. By his reasoning, the fogies would become extremely happy and promptly forget why, leaving him with no responsibility to follow through while still making the world a better place. He had pitched the idea to his “church group,” who agreed it would satisfy their mission of increasing the happiness/suffering ratio of the world, but ultimately declined to foot the bill on the grounds that it was still a pretty stupid idea.
But now I was starting to think that maybe he was on to something.
I took another bite of my sandwich and pondered the situation. Maybe I was overthinking it. Maybe I needed to put it away for a while and let my subconscious work it out for me. If it were really all that bad, surely I’d figure it out sooner or later. Until then, I would be sitting here in this poorly lit, stuffy gas station, waiting for customers and eating a mediocre ham sandwich.
The bread-to-meat proportion wasn’t quite right. But the lettuce was crisp, and the inner bread lining was coated in butter instead of mayonnaise, a decision I greatly supported. It was a little dry, and I could probably use a root beer or something to wash--HOLY FUCK WHERE DID THIS SANDWICH COME FROM?!
I stopped mid-chew and stared at the sandwich, then opened my mouth and allowed the partially-masticated concoction to fall out onto the counter.
Well, that was definitely it. The entire source of my misgivings. The sandwich.
I did not make that sandwich.
I did not bring that sandwich to work with me this morning.
I don’t have a car, and we don’t sell the ingredients necessary to make a ham sandwich here at the gas station.
Most troubling, I don’t even remember when I started eating this thing! And by the time I had realized what I was doing, it was already halfway gone.
I poked at it to make sure it wasn’t just another hallucination. (Is that even how hallucinations work? I should look that up.)
Focus! Ok, think, Jack, think. There’s no way a sandwich just showed up out of nowhere and you started eating it. That’s not how sandwiches work.
I decided to play it safe and move the sandwich into another room until I could figure out what was going on. I instinctively leaned back and reached for my crutches, only to experience a momentary panic before remembering that they weren’t there. Old habits die hard, I guess. For months, those crutches were like an extension of my being. Hell, they even stood in as makeshift weapons a handful of times. And now, they were gone. I was almost going to miss them.
Yeah, almost. What I wouldn’t miss were the perpetual bruises under my armpits, or all those “affectionate” nicknames from O’Brien (Crutches, Gimpy, Dumbass). Or all the annoying stares. Or all the annoying stairs.
I stood up and admired how normal it felt. For someone with an odd number of limbs and fingers, it’s comforting to know that a body can somehow find a way to feel symmetrical again.
Anyway, what was I doing?
I looked around the room, trying to remember why I had stood up in the first place.
Oh, right, the sandwich!
Damn. That thing was tricky! But I wasn’t going to let it get the jump on me again. I put the sandwich under a bucket in the cooler, then I stacked a few heavy boxes on top to make sure it wasn’t going anywhere.
When I returned to the front of the store, there was something standing there, waiting for me. Something terrifying. And if I’d had the hiccups at that moment, they would have been cured.
The figure was tall, lumbering, the top of his hood nearly touching the ceiling. In his left hand he held a long, black scythe made of dark, knotted wood. The weapon alone was taller than me. His thin body was covered in the floor-length black velvet robe. Where his hands protruded from the cloth, they were covered in gloves, and his face was a dark void invisible below the hood.
He was a rather cliche vision of death, and definitely one of the more ominous presages to walk through those doors (like, easily in the top ten for the month).
I collected my nerves, taking comfort in the realization that this was probably just another vivid hallucination. But just in case it wasn’t, I should make an attempt to be a good customer service representative.
“Good morning,” I said, “Can I help you with something?”
The figure of death slowly pointed his right hand at me and spoke.
“Jack. I’ve come here for you. The time has come for you to shed this mortal coil.”
His voice was deep and menacing, like a grossly overweight Darth Vader.
“I’m afraid so.”
“Oh. Well that sucks. Was it the sandwich?”
“Yes. It was indeed the sandwich.”
Death turned his hand over and extended it to me. “Come, Jack. You’ve done well with your time on this planet. But now we leave the earth to the living.”
“Hang on,” I said. “Don’t I get to play you in chess or something?”
“This isn’t Bill and Ted’s excellent adventure!” he snapped back. “I’m on a bit of a tight schedule, here.” The fact that he didn’t make a “deadline” pun will forever haunt me.
“Hey, I’m not trying to be a bother or anything. I just wasn’t expecting to die so undramatically, you know? After everything I’ve been through, I thought for sure there would be some kind of stupid monster involved.”
“Yes. I’m aware of your history. I’ve been watching you for some time. You and I have been as two ships passing in the night. Never close enough to connect before now.”
I looked around the store for my own dead body, hoping to find that I wasn’t dead face-down in the mystery sandwich. When I couldn’t see myself anywhere, I once again came up with that nagging feeling that something wasn’t right. And I had just gotten rid of it!
“Hey! Where’s my body?”
“This world is merely an in-between. An object outside of your seven dimensions. In an effort to make your journey more palatable, I created this reality from your memories. You will not find anything here that doesn’t already exist in your mind other than you and I.”
“Isn’t it ‘other than you and me?’”
“Look, I don’t want to sound pedantic or anything, but if you’re the literal incarnation of death, shouldn’t you speak English perfectly? Like, where did you even learn how to speak? Why aren’t you speaking Aramaic or Greek or something?”
“Did you understand what I meant, Jack?”
“Then maybe stop being an asshole about it, okay?”
“Nobody likes a grammar Nazi, Jack.”
“I said I was sorry.”
He still had his hand outstretched, but I wasn’t exactly ready or eager to go. He finally lowered his arm and turned to the door, saying, “It is time. I shall lead you to the other side, where you will be reunited with the ones who’ve gone before you.”
“Hang on,” I said, “I have so many questions for you. What was the deal with the glow worm thing that Rita ate? Who is the man in the trenchcoat? What happened to the shapeshifter?”
Death let out a long, annoyed sigh and said “Look, dude. I don’t know the answer to any of that stuff, alright? I’ve got one job. I take you to the other side. You can ask all your questions to whomever is over there. But we need to get moving. Do you have any idea how many people die every day? Literally hundreds! And I have to ferry every single one to the other side, so can we please get on with it while you’re still relatively fresh?”
He held the door open for me and I walked through, imagining how the others were going to take finding my corpse here at the gas station. It’s not like they didn’t have enough warning to prepare themselves, but still, it’s going to suck. In this, my final moment connected to the only world I’d known, the only thing I could think about was Rosa, Jerry, and O’Brien. And then, right before I could selfishly push those thoughts away, I remembered one other person.
I shuddered at the thought of her showing up to my funeral.
I didn’t even realize it, but I had stopped walking about ten steps outside. Death put a warm hand on my shoulder and tried to gently push me forward, but I turned around to face him.
“I have one more question.”
“Whaaat?” he bellowed.
“What’s going to happen to the people I left behind?”
“You should be worried about the ones that left already. Tom, Carlos, Vanessa, every cute puppy that has ever died. They’re all waiting for you on the other side.”
“Wait.” I said, looking up at Death’s shadowy face. “Carlos isn’t dead.”
“No. That’s really weird that you don’t know that. It sorta puts everything you’ve said up to this point under suspicion.”
“Hey, look over there!” Death said, pointing with his scythe at a peanut-butter-green windowless van parked next to the gas pumps with the engine still running. “It’s your chariot to the other side.”
“My what now?” I asked.
“This entire reality is a sort of dreamscape created from your mind. And your mind has chosen this vehicle as the vessel to cross into the netherworld. Why don’t you go get in the back, and I’ll drive? You may want to lay down and close your eyes. If it feels stuffy, feel free to take off your shirt.”
Right then, O’Brien’s cruiser peeled into the parking lot at lightning speed and came to a screeching stop just a few feet away.
“Oh shit. Seriously?” Death muttered to himself.
“What’s going on?” I asked, “Is O’Brien dead too?”
She got out of the car and casually drew her weapon, then said “Hey Jack. What’s going on here?”
Death stepped between us and faced me with his back to her and said, “Jack, this woman isn’t really Amelia O’Brien. She’s a manifestation of your desire to remain chained to this place. You musn’t believe anything she says or you will be trapped here forever.
“Like a ghost?” I asked.
“Why didn’t you tell me that was an option to start with? I’d love to be a ghost!”
O’Brien called out to me again, “Jack, is everything okay over here? I tried calling the store but the lines were down.”
Death shoved me forcefully towards the waiting vehicle and shouted, “Shut up and get in the fucking van, Jack!”
“Hey!” yelled O’Brien.
Death turned to her and said, “What are you doing here, lady? Poking your nose around where it doesn’t belong? Everything was going perfectly before you showed up!”
“Mister, I’m going to have to ask you to drop that stupid-ass weapon and step away from the scrawny cashier before I light you up.”
If this really wasn’t O’Brien, it was a damned good facsimile.
Death screamed, “I’m not going to let you ruin this!” Then he raised his scythe and charged.
O’Brien didn’t even flinch before discharging her taser and filling the grim reaper with fifty-thousand volts of neuro-muscular incapacitation. He hit the ground and started flopping like an epileptic fish at the disco.
“This a friend of yours?” O’Brien asked with a single raised eyebrow.
It slowly dawned on me that this probably wasn’t the real Death.
It turned out that the man in the elaborate grim reaper costume was just another overly obsessive fan of my blog that had tracked me down. His name was Gregg Walton, and he had driven all the way here from California after stealing his outfit from a community theatre in his hometown that had used it as the costume for the Ghost of Christmas Future.
The inside of his van contained duct tape, massage oil, and several notebooks filled with what I can only describe as “erotic fan fiction” about me and the other gas station employees. He even included a few comics and sketches and some of them weren’t too bad.
O’Brien had driven out to the area to check on Jerry after a belligerent drunk dial. She was worried he might have overdosed on some new street drug called “Coke Black.” After finding him alive and stupid, she tried contacting me, only to find that somebody had cut the phone lines to the gas station. That’s when she came and found Gregg trying to trick me into the back of his dad’s old Ford Econoline.
His actual intentions were anybody’s guess, but I prefer not to think about it.
We never did figure out where that sandwich came from...