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