One of the very few perks to living with a rare terminal illness is the way nothing ever seems important enough to get stressed about. I'm speaking from my own limited experience, and in no way would I recommend you go out and get your own rare terminal illness if you don't already have one, but in my case I was able to make peace with the reality of my impermanence early on. Before the diagnosis, when I was a teenager, sometimes I would worry about living up to my own expectations of adulthood, which is absurd when you consider that the town I grew up in is the capital of lowered expectations, whose only claim to fame is being the home of a famous bloody Civil War battle and the place where it rained frogs that one time. Don't ask; it's not as interesting as it sounds.
I work at the twenty-four hour gas station near the woods at the edge of town, and as far as jobs go, it’s not the best but not the worst either. Knowing that I won’t be here too much longer dulls any ambition to climb the corporate ladder.
Some days churn by without incident, moving the world one step closer to oblivion or whatever. Those are my favorites, when I can pass an entire shift reading a book and minding my own business. I don’t need to climb a mountain or visit the Grand Canyon to know what Zen feels like. Tranquility is a quiet, empty gas station at 4:00 in the morning.
Of course, some days aren’t as uneventful. I’ve experienced rude customers, drunkards, vicious raccoons that fall on the chaotic evil spectrum of the D&D alignment, a handful of armed robberies, and some other things that I can only describe as… weird.
I had one of the last type of days yesterday.
We had been busier than normal in the weeks leading up to this. Some of the wildlife and fisheries agents from neighboring towns had been patrolling the woods pretty heavily, and our gas station is the only place for miles to get fuel or fresh coffee. I don’t know what the hubbub was about, but I would guess everyone’s been on edge ever since those cows were mutilated.
Ok, I think that maybe “mutilated” is too strong of a word to use. Somebody has been sneaking onto cattle farms and shaving the cows bald. Who knows why? Small towns get bored.
I wasn’t paying attention to the time because I never do, but it was late in my shift and the middle of the night when the deer poked his head inside the gas station. I had just finished my book and was checking my phone for weather updates when it happened. The glass door was pushed slightly ajar, and a large deer with an eight-point rack of antlers was slowly inspecting the store, scanning its gaze from one corner to the other, nostrils flaring with each sniff. It stopped moving and pointed its giant black eyes right at me. I remained perfectly still, except to put my phone down because this was way more interesting than the possible snow storm headed our way in the next few days.
We stared at one another for just a moment longer until the deer pushed the door the rest of the way open and stepped one foot inside.
Whatever you’re imagining right now, it’s wrong, and I know that’s my fault because I’m telling you this story, so I apologize. There were a few key details to this deer that I haven’t mentioned yet.
First, the deer’s head was about seven feet off the ground. And second, I could see through the glass of the front doors that this deer was standing upright. From antler tip to pelvis, the deer was just like any other ordinary white-tailed I had ever seen in the woods or the side of the interstate. Tan fur, long neck, confused expression. But at the legs, he turned into something else. If kangarooish were a word, I would call his legs kangarooish.
He stepped a kangarooish foot into the store and waited like he was making sure that the ground wasn’t going to fall out from below him. When it didn’t he put the next foot forward. The door shut behind him and the deer started walking down the gas station aisles, his antlers barely missing the fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling by millimeters.
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but when I got to work earlier that night, the other worker said something interesting. I was taking over the safe from the only other full time clerk, “Jerry,” who--according to what I heard from a reliable source--has been pretty salty ever since his cult went and had a mass suicide without inviting him. Before he left he told me that the lag was getting worse and maybe it was time we do something about it.
You see, there’s something wrong with the mirror in the gas station bathroom. There’s a delay in the reflection by about a half a second. Sometimes, if the weather’s acting up, it gets much more noticeable. We had plans to replace the mirror but couldn’t do it because we’re lazy and mirrors are expensive and besides, how important is it to see your exact reflection anyway? It’s a gas station bathroom, not a salon.
That wasn’t the weird thing he told me. The weird thing was that a man had come by earlier wearing hunter’s camo and left his number, telling Jerry that it was “imperative” that he contact him in case we see anything unusual.
I had dismissed that as being too vague to have any meaning at all. What is “unusual” at that gas station? A solar eclipse? A bipedal deer? A completely normal day? Besides, I don’t work for him, and if he’s looking for the deer creature he can find it on his own.
I watched the deer walk slowly towards the bagged chip display and put his nose to it, sniffing voraciously before stepping back and scanning the entire store again.
His arms (or front legs? I’m not really sure...) dangled at his sides with cloven hoofs as he walked over to the refrigerated drink case. He tapped the glass a couple times with his antlers before figuring out how to reach out and pull the door open.
It was like watching a toddler figuring out a puzzle. Funny at first. But then, just frustrating. I almost got up to help him before finally, mercifully, he got his hand-toe (clove toe? Foot finger?) around the handle and the door creaked open.
I had to hold back my laughter as the deer fumbled at a bottle of water and somehow managed, barely, to pull it out of the case before sticking the top of it into his jaws and chewing at the cap until it ripped opened.
The deer leaned his head back with the bottle sticking out of his mouth and stared right at me as he guzzled the whole thing down in one continuous stream.
Next, the buck sauntered over to the coffee machine and gave it a whiff. The smell apparently didn’t gee haw with his disposition, as he reared back and shook his head fiercely. Probably for the best.
Finally, the buck finished his rounds and walked up to me and stopped on the other end of the counter. From this close I could smell the creature and, surprisingly, he smelled like grape soda. He tapped his hooves (fingers? hands?) on the counter a couple of times, then looked back to where he had dropped the bottle of water, then back to me.
“Okay,” I said.
He tapped the counter again, so I went ahead and punched in the code for a bottle of water at the register.
“That’s going to be 89 cents.”
The deer took a step back and looked down at himself, then started patting his body where his pockets would be, if he were wearing any pants, then he looked up at me and blinked a few times.
“You’re putting me in an awkward spot here.” I said.
Right then, the creature started belting out a strange animalistic noise that I can only describe as a combination between donkey and dolphin.
“I don’t know what that means.” I said over his noises. But then he just got louder and louder, and threw his head back, emitting that weird call into the ceiling.
“I don’t know what you’re saying,” I said back. “I don’t speak deer!”
The creature threw its head back down and barfed up a green wet clump onto the counter in front of me, and then it was silent.
I looked at the clump. The deer looked at the clump. The deer looked at me, then back at the clump.
I reached out and grabbed it by the corner. Sure enough, the deer had just coughed up a mucus-covered one dollar bill.
I wiped the sliminess off on a dishrag I keep near the register for spills and then put the bill into the till with the rest of the money before fishing out two nickels and a penny, which I offered to the deer and which the deer promptly ate out of my hand.
He turned towards the door and flicked his tail a few times at me before I noticed the strange tableau outside the store. At least half a dozen other deer were out there, each standing tall on two kangarooish feet, and staring right at me. There was another stag, a pack of does, and at least one fawn, only four feet tall.
The buck struggled for a few seconds to pull the door open.
“Do you want me to-”
Before I could finish, he had it wide enough to slip outside, and then they all left, walking proudly towards the forest line.
It wasn’t until about five minutes later that it occurred to me I should have taken a picture or something. But without any proof, I guess it’s just going to turn into one more weird story that nobody will ever believe.
I dug through my backpack until I found a book I hadn’t read yet and opened it to the first page. It was at least an hour before I had another customer come into the store.