There’s this painting my wife loves, called “Death and Life”, by Klimt. I don’t know what she finds so fascinating about it. I made all the right noises when she showed me her beloved framed print when we were first dating, “oohing” and “ahhing” and making up some bullshit about warm and cold color schemes and the specific choice of angles and line. She was an artist, our first few dates involved long walks through museums, starting in Picasso’s blue period and ending in heavy petting and blue balls.
I took an art history course as an elective when I was finishing up my doctorate, I remembered enough of the lingo to charm my fantastically gorgeous future wife and lure her back to my stupidly filthy apartment. We’re talking me as the foul bachelor frog, sitting on a lily pad made of empty take out containers surrounded by pond of enough unwashed clothes to keep a laundromat in business for a cool six months.
I remember scrambling to find two of any sort of cup-like container for the bottle of wine we had brought back while she was in the bathroom. I rinsed out a couple of coffee mugs and ran into the bedroom to try to clean up the condom wrappers that had been sitting on my bedside table since 2003. On the bed, neatly laid out against the rest of the chaos, were my wife’s dress, bra and panties. She came out of the bathroom completely nude aside from a pair of high heels, took the wine from me and took a swig straight from the bottle. I fell totally, completely and irrevocably in love.
I have no head for artistic things – I work in finance, I get creative with numbers, not paint – but I fucking love her stuff. She’s made a name for herself over the past few years, critics call her the American Damien Hirst. One of her first exhibits was composed of a dozen oil paintings of rotting pastries, surrounding an actual cake filled with thousands of dead ladybugs being fed to a mummified tarantula dressed up as Little Miss Muffet. I have no idea what it meant but it was sick, successful and catered by Balthazar so I ate about 20 croissants. They did not have bugs in them. I checked.
She was amazing. She had the body of a Laker girl and the face of a Modigliani model, and still does. She’s charming, charismatic, deep – the kind of person people flock to, want to be around constantly. She fucked like she had something to prove, she had a twisted sense of humor. As soon as I hooked a job with enough figures to keep a girl like her satisfied the way she should be, I proposed, bought her a historical brownstone in the city with a garden full of roses and hardwood mahogany floors. And for the first few years, she seemed happy. We were the kind of couple you see in New York Magazine and scoff at because they’re just too damned lucky.
But we had a rough spot, like all married couples do. She was still the superficially the same woman I fell in love with – looked amazing, people always asked me when she was going to host the next dinner party, she still had an amazing eye for art. I knew, though – I knew she was miserable. I could see it – the misery – in the corners of her eyes and the curve of her mouth.
It happened gradually. First it was the shower curtain. She bought three or four from a small boutique downtown, brought them home so we could choose one out together. We decided on one, pale blue, made of material that was impractical and way too expensive for a drapery in a bathroom but we had the money and it made her happy so why the hell not. A few days later, I was shaving and realized she still hadn’t put the curtain up. It wasn’t until about a month after that I caught a glimpse of it hanging up in her studio, cut to shreds and dyed till it was almost unrecognizable.
I chose to ignore it because I had learned it’s usually not the best course of action to call an artist out on their creative license, unless you want to start an all-out war with no discernible end.
A year after that, though, I had no choice. She had been so on edge it was like she was standing on a razor. She usually had a show every 3, 4 months or so, and if anything she had too many ideas, the galleries always asked her to trim down her collections. When the year passed without so much as a single finished painting, I started to worry, both about her well-being and our bank account. We were extravagant spenders, and each of her shows would bring in a cool $20,000 that paid for a few months of European beaches and ski trips in Aspen.
The final straw, though, is when she burned down the roses. It turned out she had finished dozens of projects over the year, she had hated all of it and had either destroyed or painted over everything. While I was at the office, she flew off the handle, doused about 16 canvases in lighter fluid, and set the yard on fire. When I got the call from the fire department, I rushed home to find her sitting in the back of the ambulance, covered in ashes, blonde hair singed at the ends. She was smoking a cigarette. I looked over the burnt flowers, the skeletons of her paintings, the ruined limbs of broken sculptures, and asked her what happened and why. She took a drag of the cigarette and said, “It was mine to burn.”
She took big, fancy pictures of the inferno. A family of bunnies suffocated in the smoke, she had them stuffed and mounted in size order on a baking soda volcano like the kind you see in middle school science fairs. She gathered up a few of the charred bits and pieces, wired it together, and made some warped, pained-looking kind of phoenix thing weighing in at 400 pounds and easily over eight feet high. She called the whole thing “From the Ashes”, and the reviews in the Times called it “…incendiary. Her first foray into becoming a true artist.” Someone bought the phoenix. I pity the person who wakes up every day and looks at that strange thing, suspended in constant agony.
We were both drunk, at a random, expensive, vaguely Dante’s Inferno-themed bar in San Francisco when I finally got a chance to ask her what was bothering her. We had been making dark jokes all night about the beautiful irony of her show and our current locale. At first she vehemently denied anything was wrong, angrily pointing out that we had made four times as much off of her last show as anything before it, that it had more than covered the damages, that it had paid for the vacation we were on. I stayed silent. She tossed her newly cropped hair, and looked like she was going to open up for a second. I saw her soft blue eyes fill with tears, then she took a shot of whiskey from a glass that had a bull’s head and smirked.
“Well, for starters,” she slurred, nonchalantly dangling the glass from the bull’s nose ring. “I’m fairly certain I’m pregnant.”
She let the glass drop from her finger and it shattered on the floor as she slid out of her seat and stumbled to the exit. I sat there for awhile and drank more, feeling furious, confused, and miserable. I remembered her face when she showed me that Klimt painting. I remembered how she wore glasses back then, and how she pushed them up the bridge of her nose when she smiled as I talked about the fucking warm and the fucking cold colors and the fucking angles and lines.
We converted her studio into a nursery. Rather, I did, while she stayed in San Francisco and did God-knows-what with her artist friends. I had a landscaper come in and replant the roses. I worked a lot of overtime, drank myself to sleep while I skimmed through parenting books. She came back when she was almost full term; I came home from work one night to find sonogram pictures posted all over the fridge of two healthy-looking twins, big baby girls. I walked into our bedroom and saw her dead asleep on top of the covers, belly swollen, smelling faintly like pot and paint thinner. She had a rainbow of dried paint on her fingertips. I loosened my tie and walked to the nursery.
She had been busy.
The canary yellow I had chosen was covered in a layer of translucent blue, and she had covered one wall in Klimt-esque patterns and curlicues. The creamy plush carpet was covered in paint splatters – she had worked furiously to finish. She had cut a swathe from one of the new rose bushes and made a giant bouquet, shoving them so tightly in the vase that some had escaped and made their way from their perch on the changing table to the floor. She had scattered them in the bassinet, on the windowsill. It was chaotic and beautiful. The next few years were peaceful, for the most part. We bonded over raising the girls. Despite my wife’s less than careful prenatal preparation, they were wickedly smart and beautiful. They both looked like her, with long, curly blonde ringlets and blue eyes. Sometimes, when I put them to bed, I wondered if any of my DNA was in them at all. They were like miniature versions of her.
My wife agreed to see a psychiatrist for a little bit. She took some medication for awhile, Xanax, some mood stabilizers. Eventually she and her doctor decided her crisis had been hormonal and temporary. We started having dinner parties again, soothed the gossip that had infected our social circles.
She stopped painting and took up teaching at a university. She seemed content again, even happier than she was before. Every once in a while I would catch a look in her eyes like repressed artillery fire, like she was ready to explode at any second, but it never lasted for longer than a few seconds before they went back to the soft cornflower blue I knew so well. And who doesn’t get a little agitated every once in a while?
I rose through the ranks at work. I loved the feeling of power that came with promotions. I loved my girls. And by God, I loved her. My crazy, disgusting, beautiful, hateful and loving, extraordinary wife.
Then came today.
Today, I came home from work early.
Today, my wife took the day off to be a chaperone on a class trip to the MET. They were after her for months because of her expertise in the art world, they wanted the children to experience the culture in the most sophisticated way possible. I thought it was ridiculous, they were one to three-year-olds in a private daycare; they saw more beauty in Cheerios than in Monet’s water lilies. But they wore my wife down, and she was given a gaggle of toddlers and wide-eyed teachers to tour around the museum.
I came home for lunch because I had forgotten my iPad that had notes on it for a presentation I was giving that night. I walked through the rose garden and noticed a tiny piece of sculpture left over from the Ashes exhibit from so long ago. It was half of a tiny bird – it had the kind of exquisite detail that my wife used to be so famous for. I was pretty sure it was an actual bird that she had cast in clay. I thought I could see a small piece of feather in one of the cracks. I idly wondered why I hadn’t noticed it before.
I went inside and poured myself a glass of orange juice. The fridge had pictures that my daughters’ drew – happy, crooked stick figures that looked nothing like the beautiful horrors their mother used to churn out. I was happy about that. I hoped they would fall in love with numbers like I did.
It was absolutely silent, and I sipped the sweet citrus and enjoyed the nothingness. Then I thought I caught a vague scent of fresh paint in the air.
Curious, I walked into the living room. And there was my wife, sitting on the leather couch with a bottle of wine, looking like an angel of death.
She was covered head to toe in blue-gray body paint, with a special concentration underneath her eyes. She was wearing a revealing patchwork blue dress, covered in crosses of various shapes and sizes. Not a dress, I realized, but the shredded shower curtain from so many years ago. I could see most of her still-perfect breasts, the curve of her waist. The bottle of wine was elongated and painted a strange shade of orange. The smell of paint was stronger in here, an overwhelming smell of lighter fluid, and something else I couldn’t place. She had shaven her head.
I stared at her for awhile – minutes? An hour maybe? Eventually she took a swig of wine from the bottle, swirling it around in her mouth. I noticed paint, deep blues and even deeper reds, around her fingers. I sat down in the arm chair across from her, unable to think of what exactly I wanted to ask her.
Maybe because I knew.
Maybe because I didn’t want to know.
I noticed a camera on the table between us, I went to pick it up and she rested her gray hand on mine before I could, softly, gently, with all the familiarity of years of marriage. She opened her mouth to speak, soft pink lips made pallid by the paint.
“They were mine.”
And I’ve been sitting here, knowing what’s behind the door to my daughters’ room, with the Klimt wall we never repainted. Knowing why my phone keeps ringing with calls from the school, from the NYPD. Knowing why I couldn’t find my sleeping pills last night. Knowing what that smell is. Seeing in my peripheral the red pooling and staining the carpet from underneath the door, the pile of clothes neatly folded next to my wife on the couch. I can picture that thick wire she used to fit all of her subjects where she wanted them, what a perfect, detailed recreation it must be.
Because she’s so perfect.
I see the phoenix in my mind’s eye.
I hope, when she flicks that cigarette she’s about to light, we both fucking burn.
Estimated reading time — 6minutes“Did you hear about Sal?”
Jimmy lifted his eyes from his work, looked at George’s reflection and replied, “Sal, no, what’s up with him?” He probably spent more time hovering over people, talking to their reflections in the large mirror on the wall than he did conversing with them face to face. This unique perspective of people in his profession never failed to make him feel more like a fly on the wall than an actual participant in a conversation.
Jimmy looked at people like he did puzzle pieces. Sure, most of them seemed the same or quite similar, but if you picked one piece out of the pile you could see its own unique shape. It amazed him how all these singular pieces somehow managed to fit together. Sure, every now and again you’d have a piece that needed to be pressed into place with a little more force than the others, or a piece that went missing, but no picture was perfect. All the one-on-one conversations he’d had with most of the male inhabitants in town over the past 40-odd years made him feel like a kind of counselor or advisor to the town.
“Oh, you haven’t heard? Sal’s in the hospital, some sort of coma.” George hoped his enthusiasm for delivering this juicy bit of gossip didn’t come off as uncaring.
“Coma? He was just in here last week.” He lowered his scissors, and looked right at George’s reflection with a stunned look on his face. “Come to think of it, he said he had a doctor’s appointment later that day. He wasn’t looking too good either.”
“Yeah, according to Sue the doctors don’t know what’s wrong with him. He just collapsed last night while playing bingo at the church. Oh, and get this; Carl’s son Kevin, the one with the exterminator business, disappeared the other day. Nobody’s seen hide nor hair of him in a few days.”
Jimmy stood there thinking about his conversation with Sal the other day. “Hmm, That seems normal enough to me. Doesn’t Kevin have a girlfriend who lives out of town? He’s probably just shacked up with her.”
“He does, but he’s missed appointments, and nobody has heard from him,” answered George with an air of certainty. He loved to be the guy with all the answers.
Jimmy scratched his head. “You know, now that I think about it; Sal mentioned having Kevin spray his attic last week. Said he had some sort of infestation up there. Get this, according to him his entire attic was covered in some sort of webbing, and it was all squirming with what looked like thin, short strands of string.”
George turned his head to look at Jimmy, his expression a big question mark. “What, like silk worms? I’ve never heard of an infestation like that before.”
Jimmy spun George around in the barber chair and looked straight at him. “Me neither, but that’s what he said; little white strands hanging from webs. It was strange the other day. Sal comes in here for a haircut every two weeks like clockwork. I don’t recall him ever going longer than two weeks without one, but when he came in here the last time he looked like he hadn’t been in the shop in a couple of months. His hair was a lot longer than it should have been and it was stark white.”
George didn’t seem too impressed. “Eh, he’s an old white hair, has been for years.”
“No, his hair used to be gray, there’s a difference. Trust me, I notice these things. Who else but me knows about that dent on the back of your head?”
George defensively reached back and rubbed the back of his head. “Okay, okay, you’re the expert but…”
“And another thing,” Jimmy said, cutting George off. “He had the wildest werewolf ears I’ve ever seen.” Georges puzzled expression beckoned Jimmy to elaborate. “Oh, it’s something my father used to say to customers with hair in or on their ears. Sal never had much ear hair before, but the other day his ears were a damn jungle.” Jimmy decided not to mention that he thought he’d seen some of the werewolf hairs twitching when he was sweeping them up later on. He had blamed it on drinking two more cups of coffee than usual that day.
George settled back in his chair. “Well, it seems to me like we’re carrying on three different conversations here. I don’t see what any of this has to do with Sal being in the hospital. I’m going to check in on him later when I pick up Sue from there.” Jimmy absentmindedly brushed a white hair off of his arm, spun George back around, and returned to the task at hand.
Jimmy didn’t have another customer after George left. He’d had plenty of boring days like today. Waiting for people to drag themselves into the barbershop for a haircut was just part of the job. He tossed back three aspirin, and washed them down with a swig of old, burnt coffee. He decided to go see Sal if he could just get his headache to subside a bit. He’d been feeling it slowly ramping up all day, and now it was making it hard to think straight.
“That’s it!” he said aloud to the empty shop. He was tired and just wanted to go home, and sleep off whatever he was coming down with. He shut off the lights, grabbed his coat, and locked up. As he stepped out of sight of the front display window something about the size of a child’s fist slipped down from the ceiling on a thin strand of filament. It landed on the counter littered with the tools of the barber trade, and swiftly headed towards the back room.
It came across a stray white hair, attached it to a strand of silk hanging from it’s spinneret, and dragged it along behind it as it crawled down the counter to the floor, and entered the back room. It approached a garbage bag laying in front of the back door; easily slit the plastic bag of hair open, and began to emit a shrill sound reminiscent of a whistling kettle. Slowly over the next several minutes little white hairs slipped out of the bag, and slinked towards the source of the noise.
It then attached them one-by-one to the ever lengthening strand of silk trailing behind it. It crawled back to the place in the ceiling it originally came through with its collection of twitching white things in tow, and slipped out of sight. The laden silk strand quickly followed, and vanished into the ceiling as well.
A cargo van was haphazardly parked about ten feet off of an old dirt road in the middle of the forest. Its sides were emblazoned with identical logos that read, “K-Pow Extermination.” A pale skinned man sat stiffly in the front seat. The top of his skull was ripped open like the top of a pan of Jiffy Pop. Chubby, white worms, engorged with brain matter, squirmed inside of the man’s exposed skull. They wiggled here and there all over his lap, and the front seats of the van.
A spider about the size of a baseball sat in the passenger seat. Its silvery sheen gave it an almost mechanical appearance. It had a worm pinned to the seat by its pedipalps. Emaciated little husks of worms lay all around it. The back seat was covered in a glistening, almost translucent pattern of silk. Little white strands were woven into the pattern like some sort of twitching tapestry.
My friends and I were always trying to dare each other into doing stupid stuff. Generally, it involved us all getting super drunk, then making suggestions. If we all agreed somebody had to do something, they would have to do it…or they’d have to have a drink from “the Bottle.” The Bottle was a former bottle of vodka that now contained any sort of nasty, vile fluids that we collected over time. One sip was guaranteed to make anyone hurl.
Looking back on it now, my friends and I were dicks. But things definitely would have been better if I had just drank from the Bottle that night.
The night I’m talking about was the night I was chosen to get a tattoo…from the lowest-rated place Yelp had to offer. I never wanted a tattoo. Everyone else in our group had at least one, with Frank covered in the things, but I had always been a holdout. That was why I was chosen. Being super drunk, as I said, I was less willing to say no. It didn’t help that I was the last contributor to the Bottle and definitely didn’t want my lips anywhere near it.
It didn’t take long to find a place online. We had never seen a place get so many negative reviews and still be in business…without it being a trolling prank, anyway. These looked genuine, ranging from being stabbed with the needles to getting the wrong tattoo to getting a staph infection from leaning against a stain on the wall.
The guys thought it was perfect for me.
I’d never actually been to a business that had its front entrance come in from an alley, but this did. Everyone else waited back at my place while Frank drove me there, to make sure I did the deed right. He sat in the lobby with me until I was called back behind a yellow curtain.
The guy doing my tattoo looked like an ex-biker who had recently gotten into voodoo. He wore a bandanna on his head (probably to hide the fact that was going bald, most likely), a Killing Joke jean jacket (the band, not the Batman story), and had a beard long enough to hide gravy stains on his belt buckle. On the shelf behind him were a collection of painted skulls (those calavera ones from the Day of the Dead festivals) and vials filled with used needles, fresh needles, and at least a few shrunken heads. I hoped they were fakes, but they were really leathery looking.
He looked me over, and then pointed to a binder full of designs to pick from. I flipped through them, looking for anything unusual enough that I’d never seen it on anyone before, but not so lame that I’d regret my decision in the morning…though I was still drunk enough that I’d probably regret anything at this point.
I finally found one, towards the middle…an hourglass. A real Goth-looking hourglass, with spider webs and curled, pointy edges, very Tim Burton-looking. I gave it to the guy, pointed to the back of my neck (right where a nice business shirt would cover it up), and prepared myself.
It took three hours. It shouldn’t have taken three hours for something as small as I got, but it did. Every second the needle was running hurt, and hurt bad. But after sweating, swearing, and plotting revenge on all of my friends one by one, he said it was done. I thanked him, paid him (though the tip was certainly smaller than he probably expected), and went to go see Frank.
Frank, mad that he’d waited for so long, asked to see it on the way back to the car. I pulled back my shirt and angled my neck. “So, what do you think?”
He looked at it. “Christ, dude, I knew it had to be big, but wow, that’s commitment. I can’t believe you’d get something that disgusting and realistic looking.”
Disgusting? Realistic? Maybe he’d had more to drink in the lobby. It was a stupid hourglass; realistic I could buy, but disgusting?
We got in his car and started driving back. With my neck itching, I asked if he had a mirror in the car so I could take a look at it, maybe even rub some of that greasy lotion the artist gave me to keep it from drying out. He said there might be a signal mirror or something in the glove compartment; I checked, and he was right. I raised it up to look at my hourglass.
It was dark in Frank’s car, but even I could tell something was wrong. My hourglass, which had looked fine when I was in the tattoo parlor, wasn’t an hourglass anymore. It couldn’t have been. It was too big… it stretched across my neck completely. I would have never gotten a tattoo like that.
But there it was. And I could see why Frank said it was disgusting.
It was a car wreck. A truly disturbing one, with twisted metal and a corpse hanging out of the windshield. Blood and glass everywhere.
What in the hell was I looking at?
Frank must’ve noticed my look of surprise. “What, did the guy give you the wrong one? I guess that’s why they’re so low rated. You really got to be careful, I almost had the same thing happen to me on the one on my forearm here. You know the guy thought I wanted a Garfield and not a snow leopard? It would’ve been embarrass…”
I never heard him finish. He was cut off by a loud roar as something smashed into the car. I felt it spin through the air, but I remembered nothing else before waking up on the road. It can’t have been a long time, because there were no emergency vehicles around. But I stood up, with only a dull pain in my arm the only injury I could feel. I was lucky, considering I had been wearing my seat belt and yet had still been thrown from the car.
Frank wasn’t so lucky. The car lay in a puddle of leaking fluids, and when I came closer I saw he was hanging out of the driver side window. He was shredded by glass, and not moving.
The way he was hanging looked familiar, and the longer I looked at his ruined body, the more I realized what I was looking at.
The tattoo on my neck. The wreck looked just like the tattoo.
I was checked by the emergency personnel who arrived, who confirmed that I had bruised my arm and gotten a few superficial cuts. Frank had been killed on impact. The truck driver who had hit us had fled the scene and was caught a little ways up the road. Thing is, if he had stayed he wouldn’t have been at fault; Frank had run a stop sign.
I didn’t talk to anybody for awhile. I wasn’t sure if I was just in mourning, or if I was still scared about my tattoo. Since the night of the accident, it was clearly back to being an hourglass. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought there was more sand in the bottom than there had been when it was first done.
The night of Frank’s funeral (closed casket, obviously), the guys and I got together to have some drinks in his honor at a local microbrew.
Eric was the first to remember that I had gotten the tattoo, and wanted to see it. I let him, but I was reluctant.
“Dude, sick! What the hell? Who’d even let you get that?”
My stomach twisted. I had to see what he had seen. I excused myself and went to the bathroom.
I still had the mirror from Frank’s car. It had survived the crash, and I held onto it just in case. Looking in both mirrors, I saw the tattoo had changed again.
It showed a man whose head had been smashed to a pulp, but the body was still holding a glass raised in toast.
I ran back out to the group, and told them maybe we should go on home and meet back up tomorrow. They all agreed, except for Eric, who said he’d call for an Uber or something, that he wanted a couple more drinks.
I thought maybe that if I left, he’d be okay. Maybe if my neck was cursed or something, it would leave him alone if I got as far away as I could.
I went to sleep. The next morning, I got a frantic call from Jeff. It was Eric. He had gone missing. A few hours later, Jeff called again. Eric was dead.
He had apparently gotten blind stinking drunk and started getting loud and screaming that he wanted to fight someone. He got kicked out, and he thought it would be a great idea to walk home by himself. He passed out on the railroad tracks. The train hit his head and never even slowed down. They found him early in the morning, but it took awhile to find out because they needed fingerprints to identify him.
I checked my tattoo. Hourglass again. More sand was definitely in the bottom than there was.
I went back to the tattoo parlor and asked about the guy who gave it to me. I found out he’d been fired. Turns out he falsified his application form. The name and address he gave weren’t his. He had taken his stuff and left before anyone could call the police. No one knew who he really was.
After Eric’s funeral, I didn’t go out drinking. I stayed at home. I found myself watching the tattoo. It was the only thing I could do.
It was a mistake to be alone, though. My remaining friends decided to check in on me and make sure everything was OK. Jeff brought The Bottle with him, not to drink from, but just to remember better times. And then he made a comment asking if I got the tattoo worked on, because he didn’t remember it being big enough to see over the top of my shirt.
No. I wouldn’t let it hurt anyone else. I would stop it.
It was the stupidest thing I had ever done without being drunk. I grabbed The Bottle, and smashed it on the table. Everyone shouted as I ran out of the room and up to the bathroom, where the mirrors were still set up, where I watched every day to see what shape the tattoo would take next. I saw it was no longer the hourglass, but didn’t look at what it was now. I locked the bathroom door, held tight to the gooey, liquid coated edge of the Bottle’s neck and started cutting.
It hurt. It hurt so bad. But it had to go.
I vaguely remember the door busting open and some calling an ambulance, going to the hospital.
I did live, as I’m writing this now. One skin graft and many psych evaluations later, I was discharged.
So far, nothing more has happened. But I’m still afraid.
You see, nobody found the piece of skin I had cut off. I had stared at it, long and hard, before my friends broke down the door. I’d thrown it into a drawer and hid it. When I came home, I found it. It was the hourglass again. But even on that now dead tissue, it still changes…I think. I swear more sand is still falling through the hourglass, even without it being attached to me. There’s only a few grains left.
Which means now I look for it to change. To go back to that image I saw that night. The image that I know realize nobody ever saw but me. Jeff never got a good look at it. It means that was my fate. And with the grains left in the hourglass, it’ll be any day now.
On that piece of severed skin that night was an image of a man. A flayed, skinless man. He sits in a puddle of his own blood, holding strips of his own skin and a knife. The strips are all covered in tattoos. And he’s laughing.
I’m into BDSM, bondage – shit like that. Some people might find that weird, but I’m sure those people are into things others might find strange, so let’s not judge. I mention this because it’s important to what happened, it gives you an idea of the kind of company I often keep, the kinds of places I often find myself. A BDSM club I’m a member of, that’s where this all started.
It was last weekend, around 1am Saturday night (or early Sunday if you wanna be a dick about it), and I was just an observer for the night. In these kinds of places, one sees all manner of… interesting attire; lots of latex, zippers, chains. The man that summoned my attention and kicked this whole thing into gear was wearing a red latex suit that looked as if it were painted on.
He said he’d seen me there over the past year, and that he “knew I was serious about the life we’d chosen”. He spoke cryptically, and everything about his tone and his choice of words made it seem like he was almost like a… BDSM purist. He commented on my piercings and tattoos, commending me for my commitment to body modification (I don’t have anything extreme, just sleeves and a few piercings). He then told me I “was ready to ascend to the future, only now”.
It was fucking weird. But I like weird, so I was intrigued. I asked what he meant, and he said that the club in which we stood was a child’s playhouse, a diet, sugar-free version of where “I belonged”. Mind you, he said this as we stood in room featuring a woman suspended from the ground, hogtied, having her stomach and legs whipped with a cat ‘o’ ninetails. I’ve never been particularly into the most extreme stuff, but again, I was intrigued. Part of me thinks that I wasn’t the person who was supposed to get the card, and that the man in the red latex suit mistook me for someone.
The man in the red latex suit handed me a business card that gave only an address and brief instructions. He told me to go “join the upper echelon” that night, because I’d “earned the opportunity”. When prompted, I was to give that night’s password, “Omega”. I put the address into the GPS on my phone and found that it was located in the downtown area of the city in which I live. Had it been a rough neighborhood or the middle of nowhere, I’d have given it more consideration, but the address was to one of the largest buildings in the city, and for some reason that gave me a little peace of mind (I know that’s foolish, but curiosity, as they say, killed the cat).
I left the club and went to the building. I pulled into the parking garage and drove to the fourth level, per the instructions on the card. Once there, a valet opened my door and I was walked into the building and up to the 27th floor, the hallways of which were lined with people holding odd positions, like some kind of live art installation.
I was taken into a part of the building that was cordoned off, and I saw what I thought was the aforementioned “upper echelon”…and it looked no different than where I’d been a half hour prior, only better lit, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing. There were maybe 60 people there, and they were all wearing the same sorts of BDSM gear as the club I’d come from, only these people had more body modification work done.
I hadn’t been asked for a password at that point, so I wasn’t exactly sure why I’d been sent to this place as if it were such a huge step up from what I’d been into for years. But then the lights dropped and two bowls filled with a flammable liquid that sat upon waist high pillars were set ablaze and a man stepped between them. The man was wearing a normal business suit, but his face had all sorts of modifications done to it, from tattoos to piercings to all sorts of bumps to his nose having had the skin between his nostrils removed, leaving simply a nose with a large hole.
He gave a speech, welcoming everyone, inviting them to have a good time. But then he began talking about something more.
“This place is inclusive of all…all the most extreme, the most imaginative, the most…different. There should be a few of you in the crowd that were given a password. I invite those of you with that password to form a line at the elevator, and we will escort you to the main event of the evening. If tonight is your first night, you should consider yourself quite lucky. You’re going to witness the final product of Miss Bennett’s transformation.”
A light applause swept over the room.
“Password holders, please, to the elevator.”
I, along with about 15 other people, went to the elevators, and before we stepped into either of the two made available to us, we whispered the password to a large man in a suit. Up to the 30th floor we went, and stepping off the elevator there were sheets on either side of us, creating a sort of makeshift hallway. We followed this path until we reached a large open area, at the back of which was an area hidden by yet another sheet, this one hung horizontally, almost like a stage with its curtain pulled.
We were led into the open space and for about 40 minutes – we all just kind of stood around, conversing amongst ourselves. I found someone else who was also there for the first time, and when we tried to ask others what we were going to be seeing, each person said that we just needed to see it for ourselves. One man did say that the last time they’d had one of these events was over a year prior, so he couldn’t be exactly sure what they’d be seeing, but he had an idea.
“You have all seen the most extreme of body modifications.” a voice boomed as the lights dimmed. “Holes where holes shouldn’t be, splits where things should be together, things together where they should be apart. Well…we’ve got something new for you today. Something you’ve never seen. Something that will amaze you, as it amazed us to perform on the lovely, the brave Miss Bennett. In a few moments, you will be the first to see what will undoubtedly become the new rage in the body modification world. Welcome to ‘The Stretching Party’.”
I began trading guesses with my new friend as to what was going to have been stretched on this Miss Bennett woman, both of us eagerly anticipating the reveal while also a bit nervous. I mean, I was into the lifestyle, but I didn’t want to see anything too gruesome, and all signs were pointing to the fact that this was going to be more hardcore than I was used to.
A short time later, a drumroll began emanating throughout the room.
“Ladies and gentlemen…prepare yourselves for a truly one of a kind woman.” That same voice blared over a loudspeaker. “Over the course of two and a half years, nineteen procedures have been implemented to complete Miss Bennett’s transformation. They–Well, you all don’t wanna hear me talk. I give you, Phase 24…of The Stretching Party…”
And with that, the curtains slowly drew back, revealing what was indeed a stage. The whole room got so quiet, you’d have been able to hear a mouse skitter across the floor. Then came the footsteps. Clunky, uneven footsteps coming from somewhere behind and to the side of the stage.
Pat…patpatpat…pat pat…patpat…pat…pat…pat pat patpat…
The steps got louder as they got closer to the stage. Then I saw the silhouette and my heart sank to my stomach. A black figure, thinner than thin, standing tall…tall…leaning hard to her left. Two spotlights burst on, flooding the stage with light, as gasps and hushed whispers filled the viewing area. She limped towards the stage on legs that were twice as long as my own, with braces on them to keep her standing.
Her torso was extended, with a space each above and below her ribs that isn’t there on the average person. As I said, she was hunched over, hard, to the left, and her arms, which looked like they had two extra wrists each, hung down and swayed as she stutter-stepped out, aided by a man in a suit on either side of her.
Her jaw had somehow been unhinged, making a deep underbite on a mouth that couldn’t possibly close, a massive black hole on a face that was twice as long as it should have been. Her nostrils had been stretched the the size of half dollars, and her earlobes hung down to line up with her bottom lip.
The men helped her to the center of the stage, and stood ready to catch her if she fell as she slowly, clumsily, awkwardly twirled around in a circle. As she did, I saw that there were several more notches in her bent spine than there would normally be. The voice came back over the loudspeaker.
“Miss Bennett has dedicated herself to our community, becoming without question the most modified woman on the planet. We have added several titanium rods in her to act as new bones, and performed a number of skin grafts to cover the extra space. This woman is the eighth wonder of the world, and you all have the privilege of being the first to lay eyes upon her.”
The room filled with a light clap from guests both amazed and horrified. A gurgle left the gaping maw of the at least nine-foot-tall Miss Bennett as she stood on braced, yet still wobbly legs. I looked around the room and found one couple aggressively kissing each other, another man masturbating, and others whispering to themselves and pointing up at the stretched woman.
It was at that point that I decided I’d had enough. I said bye to the guy I had been talking to, who ignored my departure and just kept staring at the woman on the stage with what I can only describe as rapacious eyes. As I tried to leave, I was stopped by two men in suits at the elevator door who made me sign a non-disclosure agreement form, which I did. They then accompanied me to the fourth floor parking garage and only finally turned around as I began driving.
I called the police immediately because…well why wouldn’t I? Nothing about what I’d just seen seemed remotely legal or ethical. The police went to where the party was being held, getting there probably an hour after I’d left, and it was almost as if no one had been there at all. According to the police, the only evidence they found of anyone being there on either of the floors I’d been to was a few pieces of duct tape that had ostensibly been used to hold the sheets up, and a puddle of what looked to be drool on the stage area. The parking garage was empty and the police quickly lost interest, even suggesting I’d made the entire thing up.
Then a few minutes ago I got a text.
“You were not prepared for the upper echelon. You attempted to compromise our hard work. But we are a forgiving group, fortunately for you. Despite your transgression, you will have the privilege, like Miss Bennett, of being the guest of honor for the next Stretching Party. See you soon!”
I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I know that I should have heeded the warning of the curious cat.
We haven’t had any customers yet, and if the gas station weren’t an active crime scene I might have asked one of the other employees to squeegee the large pool of blood into the drains by the cooler.
For those of you out of the loop, you may want to catch up by reading my earlier posts via the links above.
I don’t know what Arnold’s personal grooming routine looks like, and I have to assume he spends at least twenty minutes a day in mustache prep, but even factoring that in, he should have made it to the gas station by now.
I called him a few minutes ago to make sure he hadn’t gone back to bed, and to make sure I hadn’t imagined the phone call in the first place. The conversation went something like this:
“Hey, Arnold? You on your way?”
“Sit tight, we had a little emergency.”
“The road between town and you is blocked off.”
“Okay… Which one?”
“All of them. Even the service roads. It must have been a freak storm. I’ve never seen anything like it. All the roads are covered in trees. But they aren’t, you know, fallen. The trees are growing in the middle of the street. I’ve been trying to find a way around all morning, but I’ve given up. I’m about to head through on foot. Just to be clear, you said you heard from Spencer Middleton last night? Has he made any other contact?”
“Well, actually, he’s here. He came in and some stuff happened; now he’s dead.”
“What!? You’re telling me there’s a dead body at the gas station?”
I already told him all of this. Man, I really miss Tom.
“Did you not realize that?”
“I’m sorry,” he answered, “When the phone rang earlier I had just woken up from this beautiful weird dream of a… dark god… calling me into his eternal grace, taking me by the hand and guiding me into blessed oblivion, freeing me from all the pain and suffering of this mortal prison. Nurturing me like a child and inviting the world into a realm of higher existence, allowing me the privilege to devote myself to his glorious servitude.”
“Okay,” I said. “I guess I’ll see you when you get here.”
I ended the call and checked the charge on the phone. The battery was sitting close to fifty percent.
“What’s the deal?” asked Benjamin.
“Arnold is on his way here on foot. But we might have another problem.”
“Holy shit, you guys see that?” Carlos asked, pointing out the window. I couldn’t quite make it out from where I was seated behind the counter, and I didn’t feel like hobbling over a corpse just for a look.
“What is it?” I asked.
“There’s a bunch of naked people out on the road walking this way.” Carlos answered.
“The hell you say?” said Marlboro, who had suddenly taken interest. He pressed his face against the window for a better look. “Those aren’t just any people. I know them. That’s Marla! And Tyler! And there goes Fred! At least, those were the names I gave them.”
Benjamin crossed to the frozen drink machine, throwing over his shoulder a quick “They friends of yours?”
“Family, actually. Well, they were anyway, before they disappeared. But I don’t remember them looking like that.”
“Like what?” I asked, starting to get an uneasy feeling.
“Like…” He took a second to find the words, but all he came up with was “They look funny.”
They continued walking closer to the gas station. Close enough by now that I could see them. At least a dozen people, stark naked. The closer they got, the more details I could make out, and the more I wish I couldn’t. Their eyes were milky and pale, maggots crawling out of infested crevices all over their bodies. Their skin dirty and covered in lesions and bruises. Marlboro was certainly not wrong, they looked funny.
I’m sure you know the Hollywood-style Zombie walk. The shuffle of an undead body with impaired motor skills. The scariest part of these “people” approaching the front doors of the gas station was that they were walking one hundred percent perfectly normally. Just a bunch of decaying nudists out for a stroll.
There was a loud crash that snapped us out of our probably-rude staring. We all turned to see that Benjamin had pulled the frozen drink machine to the ground, and was attempting to drag it over Spencer towards the front doors, the sticky syrup concoction spilled out all over the ground, mixing with the congealed blood and coating the floor in a red, brown, and purple viscous soup. There’s no way we won’t have an insect problem after this.
Marlboro and Carlos didn’t have to ask what was going on. They instantly knew the plan and began yanking down whatever fixtures weren’t bolted in place and piling them up in a barricade against the glass doors.
I would have helped if it weren’t for this broken leg. Besides, it looks like they’ve got this under control.
“You boys think you can stay alive long enough for help to arrive?” Benjamin asked.
“We’ve got almost ninety years experience staying alive between the three of us,” Carlos joked.
Benjamin directed his next question to me. “You got any weapons in this place?”
I told him no. The only thing I have is a half-empty canister of gasoline in the supply closet and some really hard jerky, but he was welcome to whatever he could find. That’s when he started Macgyvering some spears out of chair legs and broken glass from the drink case.
About ten minutes ago, the gas station lost power. Now really would be a great time to have a giant pet glow-in-the-dark butterfly.
It’s been pretty quiet, save for the wet guttural whispering coming from those “people” outside. Benjamin is still searching for weapons while Carlos finds things to push against the front door, and (assuming he hasn’t fallen asleep) Marlboro has taken the back door. I was feeling pretty useless after Benjamin confiscated my crutches, so I figured I would take this opportunity to type up the account of what happened, just in case Arnold gets here too late. And in the spirit of preparedness, I should say a few things to whoever finds this message (or is it “whomever”? I never could get that right.)
First, to the owners, I’m sorry about the mess.
Second, to her, I’m sorry we didn’t run into each other one last time.
Third, to whomever keeps dumping tar into the ditch outside of the gas station, I hate you.
I guess that’s all I have to say. It’s been a weird, crazy ride. This is Jack from the gas station, signing off one last time…
I didn’t die!
Sorry it’s been so long since the last update, I just got my laptop back from the police. I know you guys are probably wondering what happened. Well, last week I met a dark god…
We were in that gas station without power for hours. It’s cold this time of year, so we huddled together around a plate of scented candles and ate pork rinds and canned beans. Marlboro almost dozed off a couple times before Carlos decided to loot the energy pills behind the counter. He handed them out and we all took a few, washing them down with cold coffee and telling ourselves it was for “alertness,” but all they did for me was create a heartbeat arrhythmia. That sure would be funny, if those things finally broke in here just to find the four of us dead from heart attacks.
Well, not “funny.” But, you know.
Carlos tried to strike up a conversation with Benjamin a couple of times, but the bearded man wasn’t very social.
“I knew a guy. He was a ranger in the Army. You remind me of him.”
“Those things out there, any idea what we’re dealing with? You ever see anything like that before?”
“You got any family?”
I checked Spencer’s phone throughout the day, but it wasn’t getting any service anymore. I tried 911 a few times, but even that wouldn’t go through. When the battery got to five percent, I turned it off. We might need it later for an emergency call.
Eventually, the adrenaline and pills started to wear off and I remembered that my leg was still healing from a complex fracture and that maybe I shouldn’t have agreed to come back to work so soon. I limped back to the front desk to grab my meds. While I was there, I spotted the still-unopened gift-wrapped package on the shelf beneath the register. I decided to ignore it and instead grabbed the employee whiskey bottle that was behind it. We told ourselves it was for our “nerves” but all it did for me was give me an even worse heartbeat arrhythmia.
A few more hours passed. After we killed the first bottle we opened another, then Marlboro got into the energy drinks because we needed mixers. At some point the former cultist pulled out his stash and lit a joint and (without asking, I might add) turned the whole station into a hotbox. I couldn’t remember if I’d taken my pain meds yet, so I went ahead and took them.
As the sun started to set, I had two thoughts competing for first place in my mind. First, it sure is getting dark early these days. And second, I think we might be getting a little too fucked up to handle what’s about to happen.
Time became even more illusory than normal once the laptop died and we had no way of knowing how long we’d been waiting. We started measuring the time in candles. Our snack food and morale raced each other to depletion.
At some point, Carlos got me away from the others to ask what I thought about Benjamin. I told him he was the nicest guy that had pointed a gun in my face all week. But Carlos told me that he had a weird feeling about him. I reminded Carlos that he had killed Kieffer a couple times and maybe he should get off his high horse.
“Hey!” Benjamin yelled at us from across the room. “What are you two talking about?”
“Anime.” I lied. I think he bought it.
“Get back over here. I don’t need any more dead bodies piling up tonight.”
Benjamin was in the corner, warming his hands over the candle plate. It was the only source of light in the building, and was casting shadows that could maybe be described as “spooky” if I weren’t in such a serious life-or-death situation. Some of those shadows looked like faces, smiling, laughing at us idiots. One or two looked like historical figures. One of them asked me what time it was, and holy crap I was tripping!
“You okay, man?” Carlos asked, pulling me back to earth.
“I honestly have no idea.”
Did you ever figure out who placed that bomb? asked Spencer Middleton in a gurgle.
“What do you mean? I thought you did it?”
Not me. Bombs aren’t my style. Who do you know that can build a bomb?
“Hey, where’s Marlboro?!” I asked.
Benjamin picked up his spear – formerly my crutch that he had paracorded his knife to – and asked, “Who the hell is ‘Marlboro?’ Is there someone else here?”
“Marlboro. The other employee.” I looked at Carlos, who just shrugged and said, “I don’t know no Marlboro. How many of them pills did you take?”
Had I imagined Marlboro this entire time? I tried to sit down on the tarp, but it turned into me lying on my back while the room spun. I could feel the human debris squish beneath the tarp fabric as I rested my head. How much of any of this was real, anyway?
You’re losing it, you know.
All those years ago, the first doctor tried to prepare me for life with my condition. There weren’t that many other cases before me, so they didn’t know exactly how everything would play out. But every case had a few of the same side effects. Of course there would be weight loss, fatigue, headaches, all of the signs of a normal physical illness early on.
As the condition developed, there would be more “interesting” side effects. Hallucinations, memory loss, the works.
And of course, I can’t be properly anesthetized. They tried in other cases to induce medical comas, but that just messed things up further. I’m always wide awake and halfway lucid during surgery. If you want to know what that’s like, I’ll tell you the truth. It’s boring.
You know what? Usually when I hurt someone bad enough, they pass out from the pain.
They gave me a couple years, tops. I haven’t been keeping track of time.
Right then, Marlboro walked into the room, zipping up his fly. Presumably, he had just come from the bathroom, but who really knows? I pointed at him and yelled, “That guy! You see him, right?! It’s Marlboro!”
Carlos looked where I was pointing, then back at me. “What, you mean Jerry?”
Oh. That’s right. He has a real name.
“I hate it when he calls me Marlboro.”
Benjamin set the improvised spear down and turned his attention back to the fire. “You better get him under control.”
You should open your package. Said Spencer.
“Hey wait a sec, aren’t you supposed to be dead?”
Well, aren’t you supposed to be dead? he said back.
“Who are you talking to?” asked Carlos.
“Spencer,” I answered.
“Well stop that. It’s freaking us out.”
Two candles burned from start to finish before Benjamin decided that help wasn’t on the way and our best chance of survival was to fight it out with the things outside.
I disagreed, but Benjamin informed me in his own polite way that it wasn’t up for vote.
He peeled back the layers of the barricade just enough to get a view of the outside. Once we knew what we were dealing with, we could come up with a better game plan. Only, he couldn’t actually get a good look because something was blocking the view. Something just on the other side of the glass doors.
Benjamin yanked the rest of the barricade down and took a few steps back to marvel at it.
“Well, you don’t see that every day,” said Jerry.
Nope, I can’t do it. I’m sorry. His name is Marlboro.
We were trapped there, inside the gas station. On the other side of the doors, a network of trees had grown together, twisted into knots, and pressed against the glass. They were so densely pressed into a single wall of tree trunks that not even light could get through. For all we knew, it could have been daytime outside.
“We have to get out of here,” said Benjamin.
We checked the back door, but it was the same thing. I often wondered how long a person could survive inside the gas station without any new supplies coming in. I had run the scenario in my head a million times. On boring nights, what else is there to do? I had run the thought experiment for countless different contexts. How long could I survive if the gas station were transported back in time? To another planet? If there were a zombie apocalypse? Etc.
What I had deduced was that, under ideal circumstances, I could live off of the supplies on hand for four years if I could find a source of water. Six weeks if not.
These were not ideal circumstances.
We had already smashed up, weaponized, or eaten almost all of our supplies. If we were trapped here, it wouldn’t take long for us to go all Donner party on each other.
While I was pondering this in the hallway by the cooler, we heard the sound of glass shattering from the main room. Benjamin raised his spear and led the way back.
The wall of trees was still there on the other side of the doors. Our mess was still there. Everything was as we left it with one exception. The tarp was pulled back, and Spencer’s body was gone. A series of footprints coagulated in the blood leading from where he should have been to the shattered glass of the front door. Like he had just gotten up, walked over, and was absorbed into the trees.
“I need you boys to think real hard,” Benjamin said. “Is there any other way out of this place?”
“Well,” Marlboro started. I shot him a look and shook my head, but I guess he couldn’t see it in the dim candlelight. Or maybe he was just too dense to understand. “There is that hole.”
“Hole? What hole?”
“The hole in the secret room back here past the cooler.”
“Yeah, right over here.”
Marlboro pointed at the blank space on the wall where the door used to be. The owners had decided that the smartest thing they could do when they found out about the secret room was remove the door, build a good-old fashioned wall, and forget all about it, but that only works if everyone agrees to forget all about it, Marlboro!
“You’re telling me there’s a secret room behind there? And a hole in that room that we can maybe fit inside and escape? Why didn’t you boys tell me this earlier?”
He didn’t wait for an answer. Benjamin went straight to the wall and started smashing it to pieces with his spear and then, after he got it down a little, his bare hands. After a minute, the wall was once again a door.
While Benjamin lit and placed a few candles around the giant hole in the floor, I grabbed Carlos and pulled him aside.
“Hey,” I said, “I should tell you something. I opened that package. The one that looked like a present.”
“Yeah?” He said.
“Yeah.” I said.
I’m not sure at what point I’d finally cracked and opened it, but I had been carrying around the content of the box in my pocket for at least one candle. Just like the last package, there was a note with this one. It read:
“I didn’t expect you to use my letter as part of the story, but thanks lol. I didn’t mind you using it , that was very neat! I liked it. I was very surprised. Thank you. I enjoyed your stories and I knew it would be really great from the beginning. That’s why I wrote what I did. I was surprised, but in a good way, that you used my letter lol. Thank you. I’m honored, really honored.”
Underneath that letter was a small handgun. I knew enough about pistols from playing video games to know how to check the clip and sure enough, it was loaded.
I showed the gun to Carlos, who said “That’s a Ruger 380!”
“Is that good?”
“Well it’s a gun, so it’ll probably have more stopping power than a chair leg. Why didn’t you give it to him?” Carlos gestured at our fearless leader.
“I don’t know or trust him.”
“Here,” I said trying to hand it over, “I’m not a gun guy.”
“No way man. You keep it. I got both legs, you need it more than me.”
Benjamin yelled to us from the secret room, “Ya’ll ready or what? Time to see what’s down here.” Then he jumped in.
I may have neglected to mention that it was a ten foot drop to the cave floor below. I also may have taken a little pleasure in the sound of him crash landing and the pain moan that followed. For the rest of us, we rolled up a tarp and put some knots into it like a poorman’s rope ladder, and I have to give credit to tarps. Those things are incredibly useful.
We had spent hours above ground in a room with a dead body, unrefrigerated food, and Benjamin’s body odor. We were all eating canned beans and I think somebody probably threw up in the garbage can. My point is this: we were all smelling pretty bad, to the point where I was doubting that I still had a sense of smell. But once we went into that hole, I knew for a fact that I had. The smell down there made our gas station funk seem like cologne. The very worst putrid odors from the storm drains around the station were nothing compared to this. Is it possible for a smell to be heavy? Because that’s the best word I can think of for it. Not thick. Just, heavy.
Carlos and Marlboro took turns barfing. When they were done, Benjamin handed out the torches he had made from gasoline soaked rags and chair legs. I don’t know what that guy’s deal is but he sure is crafty.
The cave was a straight tunnel starting under the gas station and heading away from town. It was plenty tall enough for all of us to stand comfortably, and there was a slight incline, taking us downhill as we walked further into the hole.
“What the hell is this?” Benjamin asked after about twenty feet. He waved his torch at the wall and I saw that somebody had spray-painted a message on the cave wall in red. It said in shaky handwriting: “Rita the Raccoon Ate the Caccoon!”
I said it a few times in my head and was pissed off at just how close it came to rhyming but didn’t. The handwriting was eerily familiar, especially that capital “R,” but I couldn’t remember why.
There was another lawn gnome on the ground beneath it.
We continued further into the cave, Benjamin way ahead of us, me bringing up the tail, hobbling along the best I could with just a single crutch. The deeper we went, the narrower the cave, the stronger the smell. Nothing about being down here away from the gas station felt like an improvement from our previous situation. But it wasn’t until we made it to the tree that I really decided that we had messed up.
I don’t know how long we had been walking down there. Maybe a half-mile or so. Crutch-miles feel a lot longer than normal miles. But we eventually came upon an enormous black tree taking up the width of the cave. It looked like one of those thousand year old sequoias, big enough to put a two-lane road through.
“Ho. Lee. She. It.” enunciated Benjamin. I was the last to see what everyone else was wide-eyed and gawking at. The tree, in addition to being enormous, had some characteristics that you wouldn’t expect a tree to have. Specifically, human body parts. A few arms and legs poking out at random spots. And right at eye level, a human face.
“Hey,” said Marlboro, “I know that guy. It’s Patrick.” He touched Patrick’s face and it peeled off and plopped to the ground like a wet Halloween mask.
“I don’t think he’s going to make it,” Benjamin said as he pulled something out of his jacket pocket and stuck it to the tree.
“What is that?” I asked.
Surprisingly, it was Marlboro who answered. “That looks like C4 plastic explosives to me.”
Benjamin chuckled, “Wow, you win the prize for that one, Rain Man. Yeah, it’s the last of my explosives. I’ve been trying to kill this thing one piece at a time for the last week, but it just keeps growing back. I have to kill the root system, blow it up and kill the brain so the rest of the network will die.”
“That was you that put that bomb in the gas station,” I said.
“Yeah, well, back then I thought the building was the epicenter of this whole thing.”
“Hey,” interrupted Carlos, “Jack was still in the building when you planted that.”
“Um, guys?” Marlboro tried to get their attention, but it wasn’t working.
“You knew? He would have died if that thing went off.”
“Look assholes, this is war. And in war, there are always casualties. You can’t make peanut butter without smashing a few nuts.”
“What?!” screamed Benjamin. “I’m a little busy.”
Marlboro pointed back the way we came. We all turned to see Spencer standing in the middle of the path, a wicked smile on his face.
“Hi. Miss me?”
Carlos screamed at me, “Jack! The gun!”
I pulled the weapon out of my pocket and chucked it as hard as I could. It smacked Spencer right in the face and he fell over. I was very proud for the two seconds it took me to realize what I had done wrong.
What came next almost happened too quickly for me to comprehend. Something burst out of the wall next to us. An enormous object, the size of a car and mostly hand-shaped. It wrapped its giant fingers around the other three and pulled them into the wall. And then, I was falling. The earth had opened up below me and I was sliding through a dark tunnel. No, I was being pulled. More like swallowed, really. It went for a while, dirt filling my nose and ears and mouth and then whatever it was spat me out into a pitch black room onto a rocky wet piece of ground. I landed on my bad leg and probably broke it again.
Well, I thought, at least this time I managed to hit Spencer. As far as last moments on earth go, this one was a slight improvement over last week.
The room I was in was cool, not cold. And cavernous. I could hear my breath echoing off the walls. I could also hear something else breathing. All at once I became aware of another presence down there. An entity in the room with me. It’s hard to explain, in the same way I remember it being hard to explain a dream right after you wake up. It’s something you have to experience to understand, but the feeling was something like being plugged into a shared consciousness with another intelligence that was putting thoughts directly into my head.
Of course, it might have just been all the drugs.
“Welcome to my home,” came a loud voice from somewhere in the pitch black room. “I’m sorry it’s taken this long for us to meet face-to-face.”
“I can’t see anything.”
“Yeah, what part of ‘Dark God’ don’t you understand?”
Oh shit. I’m in the throne room of a dark god, and he sounds like an internet troll. I guess that makes sense. Might as well get this over with.
“Do you think you could maybe turn on some lights so I can actually see who I’m talking to?”
He let out a very human sounding sigh and exclaimed, “Fiiine.”
Out of nowhere, the entire room turned into an intense, furious bright white. All I could see was pure light. I covered my eyes, but even then I could see the bones of my hands through my eyelids. Even with the meds, that shit hurt.
“Too bright! Too bright!” I yelled, “Split the difference!”
“Wow,” responded the voice, “I didn’t realize that you were going to be such a big baby.”
And then, just as suddenly, the brightness relented. After a moment, my pupils adjusted and I could see what I had been talking to.
“Behold!” it exclaimed, “and tremble before the dark god!”
He (if it was a “he,” I’m just going off of the sound of his voice) was about the size of an elephant, swollen and round with a tanned yellow hide. The best animal I could think of to compare him to would be an enormous tick, with six rows of stubby arms on either side, six rows of sagging breasts, and a human-sized head on the top. The head contained a somewhat human face and no neck. The body connected to the earth at the widest point of its stomach, like it was half buried. And, to top the whole thing off, he had a red mohawk.
He smiled at me.
“Eh? What do you think?”
“My hair! Isn’t it amazing?” He looked up at his mohawk.
“You guess? Do you have any idea how much effort I put into doing my hair like this? You know what, it’s fine. I shouldn’t have wasted my time trying to impress you. That’s on me.”
“Okay,” I said, attempting to push myself to my feet only to remember that my leg was pretty broken. I was immobilized, underground, high, and without any weapons. There really was no chance of escape. “If you’re going to kill me, do you mind just getting it over with?”
“What is it with you people? SO UNTRUSTING. So prejudiced. Why is it that ANYTIME you see something you don’t understand, you think it’s kill-or-be-killed? I’m not the monster here. You are. I can see into your soul. I’ve seen your sins. Remember that time when you were fifteen and you keyed the principal’s car?”
“Really? Maybe that wasn’t you. Humans all look a lot alike.”
“Why am I here? Why did you drag me underground?”
“Because, Jack, I can’t find any other way of talking to you, and I wanted to tell you to stop killing my children! You’ve burned up so many of us, and what did we ever do to you, huh?”
“The Kieffer plants?”
“Yeah, just backups because that idiot is so clumsy. They’re harmless though. I’ve been trying to put some people in office so I can get a little political influence in this awful town.”
“To take over the world?” I asked, even though I was starting to see where this conversation was going.
“No! I want to pressure the city council to cut back on logging. I’m trying to save the world. But you and your awful friends keep killing us and trying to blow me up.”
“But Spencer, he beat the shit out of me. That guy is awful, and he’s following your orders!”
“Well excuse me for thinking that people have the potential to be rehabilitated! I hired Spencer because I needed someone to protect Kieffer. And I gave him very specific orders not to kill anyone, which he agreed to.”
“But you’ve killed tons of people! The cultists! Their entire compound!”
“Yeah, actually no. I hate to be the one to say this, but those guys killed themselves. Yeah, it was a really sad mass suicide. But if you listened to them, I think it was pretty obvious. You guys should have seen it coming from a mile away. I mean, consequentialism mixed with a moral obligation to end suffering?”
He waved one of his six arms in a jerk-off motion before continuing, “I didn’t want to let all those perfectly good fully-formed adult bodies go to waste. Do you even know how hard it is to make one of those from scratch? It’s not easy.”
“But you sent those things after us at the gas station.”
“Again with the self-centered hero complex. It was never about you. I sent my children to bring Spencer’s body back here. I was hoping I could get him home in time to rebuild him without any permanent brain damage. I think next time you see him, you should apologize for what happened. I swear, ever since Romero made zombies cool, people see a dead man come back to life and instantly they get this urge to kill, kill, kill. What ever happened to calling this a miracle? Nobody freaked out when Jesus came back.”
“Are you saying that Jesus was like those Mathmetists? Just a reanimated corpse?”
“Is this really what you want to talk about, Jack?”
“But doesn’t ‘dark god’ mean, like, evil?”
“The last time I was awake, dark god had a completely different connotation. But you can’t use my branding as your excuse for burning up Kieffer. You ask me, you deserved the ass-whooping you got.”
“But…” I searched my mind for any proof that the dark god was the monster I knew him to be. But the only thing I could come up with was a sad icy-cold realization. “We’re the monsters?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Good. That’s a start.”
“So this is it? You’re the reason for all the weird stuff going on out here at the gas station?”
He laughed again and wiggled his head, which I took for his version of shaking “no.”
“Nope. I’ll be honest with you, I have no clue what half of these things are. Your gas station is weird, and even I do not know why. The hand plants and Kieffers were me. The smell, I’ll fess up. That’s me too. But all that other stuff, man, it gives me the heeby jeebies. You know that weird glowing worm-bug thing? That was pretty weird, huh?”
“So… What do we do now?”
“Now, I send you and your friends back home, and you quit killing me. That’s my deal. Can we agree to that?”
“Um, yeah, I think so.”
“Should we shake on it or-”
At that moment an enormous hand burst out of the wall and wrapped its fingers tightly around me. The next thing I knew, I was coughing up dirt, down on all fours in the street outside of the gas station.
It was morning.
“Oh good,” said Benjamin, “You made it out too.”
I looked over and saw the other three standing there, covered in black dirt. I was back where it started. The trees were all gone, leaving no sign that they were ever even there in the first place. The gas station was a wreck, the front doors were smashed out and the raccoons were excitedly running a loot train for whatever edibles they could carry from the front to their nest behind back.
“What happened, man?” asked Carlos.
“I’m not really sure,” I answered, digging the clumps of dirt out of my nose and ears.
“Well, you’re lucky. Your friends made me wait a few minutes to give you a chance to get out.”
I looked at my hands, they were nearly black from all the layers of dirt coating them.
“Wait for what?” I asked.
“For this,” Benjamin answered as he pressed the button on his remote detonator.
Somewhere deep in the woods came an explosion that rocked the earth and sent birds flying into the sky. Carlos’s car alarm went off and the pavement cracked. A black cloud slowly started to fill the skyline and I felt something inside my mind scream and die.
“Whelp,” said Benjamin. “My work here is done. If you don’t mind, I’m going to get lost before the police show up.” Then he walked off into the forest, hopefully never to be seen again.
And that’s what happened. If you can believe it, I’m back at the gas station, working again. Arnold is on personal leave from the police force and I didn’t care to ask for details, so we have a new deputy babysitting us. I’ll tell you all about her another time, maybe. The police investigated the incident, and ultimately concluded that we were victims of hysteria brought on by a gas leak, and once again, there was nothing supernatural to be reported.
I don’t know if this is the end for the dark god, but I do know that I haven’t felt any compulsions to continue digging ever since Benjamin blew up that underground tree.
Things are settling back into our brand of normal. I still work way too much. I’m still keeping a journal. And weird things still happen at the shitty gas station at the edge of town. In fact, just yesterday, people started reporting that they had seen something in the woods that looked like an enormous raccoon with bat wings, stealing small animals before flying off into the forest. They even said this winged raccoon monster glows in the dark.
Marlboro just came up to me and asked, “You know there’s a guy in the bathroom dressed like a cowboy?”
I assured him that I did not know that.
This may be the last update for a while. It’s going to be a lot of work putting this place back together, and I’ve got a whole new crew of part-timers to train, so, until next time…
Recovering from an injury when you can’t fall asleep sucks worse.
Recovering from an injury when you can’t fall asleep while simultaneously being hunted by a sociopathic lackie of a dark god with a personal vendetta against you sucks even worse.
But what sucks even more worse is having to do all of the above and still being called in to work because, as the owners put it, the new guy is “a complete and total moron with willful and malicious idiocy that borders on the criminal.”
And so I am here, against the doctors’ advice, at the shitty gas station at the edge of town, only a little worse for the wear. What’s really incredible is that I’ve only been back for one day and there’s already a body count. (More on that later.)
My right leg is in a cast from ankle to thigh, and I’ve elected to use crutches because, unsurprisingly, the gas station is not wheelchair accessible. The cast has several signatures and messages, which is very strange, because I have no memory of anyone signing it. But that could just be a result of the pain meds.
Looking down now, I can see that Carlos scrawled this message, “Try and stay out of trouble. -C”
There’s also a message in red crayon: “Jerry was here.”
A few signatures scribbled in sharpie, and a little further up my leg -I have to pull my pants way up to read it- this note: “RtRAtC!” Hm. Well that’s annoyingly cryptic. I would check the tape logs to see who I let get so close to my delicate area, but the owners had every camera in the place removed. I guess there was something about finding that secret room full of security camera feeds to bring personal privacy into the public discussion.
I feel like the act of removing all the security cameras was a bit of an overreaction. Especially with Spencer still out there. The police took a statement and confiscated the remains of the bomb. They’re taking this whole thing very seriously, and an arrest warrant is out for Spencer Middleton, should he ever show up again. As for Kieffer, things get a little more interesting. The police were unable to find any evidence that he ever even existed. He had no property in his name, no driver’s license, no public record of any kind. The only thing even linking him to this town was a grainy picture in an old yearbook photo. It would seem that Kieffer was living off the grid ever since he graduated high school, and now that Spencer’s attempt to blow up the gas station failed, Kieffer has suspended his election campaign and simply disappeared.
The sheriff has been sending a new deputy, Arnold, out to check on me once or twice a day. Arnold isn’t from around here, which is probably why he agreed to replace Tom as the new gas station babysitter. He’s about 6’2”, dark-skinned, with a mustache thick enough to plant a yard flamingo in. He has eyes that constantly telegraph the sentiment “knock that nonsense off!” and I have yet to see him smile. I don’t know if Arnold will become the next Tom or the next Spencer… right now he could go either way.
Arnold was the one that dropped me off at work today. I’m not supposed to get back behind a steering wheel for a while, which is fine, I guess. It’s not like I’m going on any road trips any time soon.
On the way to work, we passed the SUV of the man with the beard. The one staked in place on the side of the road by the tree growing up through its engine. I asked Arnold about it, but he just shrugged it off and said I shouldn’t worry myself with other people’s business. I asked him about the owner of the vehicle, and Arnold said that they think he got lost in the woods just like those hikers last fall. A search and rescue effort was under way, and he was confident that they would find him “one way or the other.”
After Arnold dropped me off today, I went about my regular shift-starting duties. I reconciled Marlboro’s till, not at all surprised to see that he was somehow $150 over, or that the surplus was entirely in one-dollar coins.
I logged all the invoices that had piled up while I was out, then I emptied the trash cans. I was hoping that I might run into the cowboy, but the only thing in the men’s room was an obese Hispanic trucker punishing the toilet and surrounding air with an unholy fury that deserves its own scary story.
The sun was starting to go down when I hobbled out to the dumpster, balancing garbage bags against my crutches and probably looking like a baby deer learning to walk. You know, if that deer were drunk and two-legged and carrying several bags of garbage. The scorched earth near the dumpster was the same as I had left it: blackened down to the subsoil. Somewhere, just past the start of the trees, was another patch of smoldered remains, one that I neglected to mention in the police report, one that might look to the casual observer like the remains of a human body.
Before I turned to go back in, I noticed something odd on the side of the dumpster. At first, I thought it was a child’s toy, stuck to the dirty outside wall. But then I realized that it was moving, breathing, crawling slowly and eating the gooey drippings off the rust of the dumpster. The thing looked like a giant tomato caterpillar, about eight inches long, and as the sun went down, I swear I could see the thing give off its own light source. The squishy caterpillar thing didn’t seem to mind my presence, and even let me feed it an old starburst that I had in my pocket. A yellow, because like all people, I hate the yellow starburst. The critter bioluminesced a little brighter as it ate the taffy, and I gave it a gentle pet. Its hide wasn’t as wet as it appeared. In fact, it seemed to be covered in tiny clear hairs.
“You’re not so bad,” I said while it nibbled at the candy. “Not everything out here needs to be scary, huh?” It wiggled and crawled away to a place on the back of the dumpster with more gunk, and I went back into the gas station.
Marlboro has taken up smoking again. He’d quit for a while, but then explained that the suffering he was causing himself by not smoking grossly outweighed the suffering he was causing us through second-hand smoke, and Mathematically speaking, it didn’t make any sense for him to quit. I had hoped that he was beginning to shed his cultist philosophy after the entire compound mysteriously vanished, but now I’m starting to fear that he can’t be rehabilitated.
Today was a pretty normal (well not normal, but average) day at the gas station. We had some strange people visit. We had some normal people visit, too. And along the way I zoned out, finished a book I’d been reading, made some boring journal entries, and even got online to browse the internet for a while.
There’s another package sitting under the counter, addressed to me from a return address I don’t recognize. I took a gamble with the last package and it turned out to be something great. But that was before Spencer tried to kill me, and once again my gut is telling me not to open it.
I got a phone call today at the store a few hours after sundown. It was pretty late, hard to say when exactly. Marlboro was asleep in his hammock in the dry storage room and I couldn’t remember the last customer. This was somewhere in that temporal wasteland between dusk and dawn.
“Jack, listen very carefully. You don’t know me. What I’m about to tell you will save your life, but only if you follow my instructions and do exactly what I say. In the drawer to your right is a pencil and paper. Get them, and write this down. These are the rules to your survival.”
“One. Do not leave the gas station. Do not go outside under any circumstances.
Two. Do not drink the tap water. Don’t even touch it. Don’t smell it. Don’t look at it. It’s bottled water from here on out.
Three. Don’t trust your eyes.
Four. Barricade the-“
“Hang on, hang on, where’d you say the pen was?”
He sighed, “In a drawer to the right.”
“My right or your right?” I asked.
“Your right- how the hell would it by my right? I’m on the phone!”
Right then I heard a car horn honk.
It was the old widow Mrs. Sistrunk. She’s another local, somewhere in the area of a hundred years old if I had to guess, and at this point not much more than a skeleton wrapped in an ill-fitting skin suit with vibrant lipstick smeared all around the general mouth area. After her husband died, Mrs. Agatha Sistrunk had taken to buying and collecting sports cars and oversized trucks and racing them around the outskirts of town at all hours of the night. Her most recent purchase was a brand-new Ford F-550 with a painting of the Hulk in all of his green smashing glory along the side.
In person, she was a sweet old lady, no taller than four and half feet. She wore special shoes to reach the gas pedal and always came to this gas station to fill up because she knew I’d help her pump her gas, something she had never done before and wasn’t interested in learning how to do.
“One sec,” I said to the voice on the other end of the phone, “Be right back. Mrs. Sistrunk needs me to top her off.”
“Listen to me!” The voice growled, “Do not go outside! You go outside and you’re dead! Do you hear me?!”
“I hear what you’re saying,” I said as I grabbed my crutches and got ready to leave, “but I don’t work for you.” With that, I hung up the phone and went outside to help Mrs. Sistrunk.
Old Agatha was happy to see that I was back at work. Apparently, Marlboro made her nervous. She said he was flirting at her and wouldn’t stop smoking while he pumped her gas. Before she left, she gave me a case of empty light beers and asked if I would “be a lamb and toss these” for her. I can’t say no to Agatha.
When I got around back to toss her trash, I noticed something incredible. The glow worm from this morning had formed itself into an enormous cocoon against the back of the dumpster. I can’t explain why, exactly, but this filled me with some sort of… I don’t know – what means the exact opposite of existential dread? Euphoria? Existential hope? Is this what optimism feels like?
Again, I know it doesn’t make any sense, but seeing the weird garbage-eating caterpillar thing begin the brave journey of transformation gave me this tingling feeling in my soul. Like this was some kind of sign. Just when the caterpillar thought his world had come to an end, he became a butterfly. My world has felt like it was coming to an end for a while too, little buddy. Maybe I’m also on the verge of a metamorphosis. Maybe the world doesn’t have to be strange and scary, maybe it can be strange and cool. I decided that whatever hatched from the cocoon, be it butterfly or moth or monster, I was going to name it Starburst.
I hobbled myself back to the gas station and tossed one last look over my shoulder at the dumpster to see that one of the raccoons was stuffing the cocoon into its mouth. It devoured the whole thing in a couple bites before making eye contact with me and dashing off into the woods.
Carlos came into the store for his late shift and asked how I was feeling. I told him that the pain was tolerable. He nodded, like that was the kind of answer he was looking for, and I went back to reading my book.
A few minutes later, the man with the beard came into the gas station. I almost didn’t recognize him as the same man that went off into the woods after the creature he called an “anglerfish.” He had lost a lot of weight, his beard wasn’t nearly as well kept, and he smelled like he bathed in a tub of pee that someone farted in.
“Hey!” I said when he came in. “You’re still alive! Cool.”
Did I mention that the man was holding a pistol when he walked in? I wondered for the briefest moment what happened to his big gun. I didn’t have time to ask. He quickly found the locks on the doors, used them, then covered the short distance to my register, gun extended and aimed at my face.
“I told you not to go outside! You’re lucky you’re even alive!” he screamed before grabbing the store phone and yanking it out of the wall. He threw it to the ground with a loud, satisfying smash and asked, “Who else is in this building?”
“Well, let me see,” I said, thinking. “There’s you, me, and probably the other cashier, unless he went into town again.”
“I saw one other car out there. Toyota. That yours?”
“No, that’s got to be Carlos.”
Right on cue, Carlos walked out from the back and froze at the sight of the bearded man still pointing a gun at my face. Carlos might have been tempted to take action, if he hadn’t been carrying a 50 lb bag of corn over his shoulder. Instead, he just raised his free hand and said softly, “Hey man, we don’t want no trouble. If you’re after the cash, go ahead and take it. Ain’t no heroes here.”
The bearded man laughed in an obnoxious way and said, “Well, there’s at least one. My name is Benjamin, and I’m here to save your sorry asses.”
Carlos and I made eye contact. A lot can be conveyed in just an instant if you know the person you’re looking at. He was trying to see what I wanted to do. I was trying to tell him to relax. This was neither the worst nor the weirdest thing to happen in that room.
“Okay,” I said. “What do you need us to do, Benjamin?”
“There’s something evil under this gas station, and nobody is leaving here until I understand what it is. Because I know that someone is working with that thing. I’ve seen it. In my dreams. I know you have too.”
Well he was wrong about one thing.
Right then, Marlboro walked out of the dry storage closet, stretching and yawning. Benjamin snapped him into a chokehold before he knew what was going on and jammed the gun against his head.
“Are you listening to me?!” Benjamin screamed. “I just told you that the world as you know it is just a façade! There’s a devil here! And one of you is working for him!”
He looked at both of us for some kind of reaction, but I don’t think he got the one he was looking for.
I just shrugged and said, “Neat.”
Right then, Marlboro surprised the pants off of everybody by half yelling half laughing “Let’s do this! I’m not afraid to die!” before reaching up, grabbing the gun pressed against his head, and pulling the trigger.
I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff working at that shitty gas station. I’ve been nearly killed once or twice. I’ve watched the same guy die over and over in front of me. I’ve seen things that may or may not be real, because I can’t dream, and sometimes I wonder if my mind is making up for that in other ways. I’ve seen ball lightning, people with blue skin, a man with two heads, a talking dog, and an Elvis impersonator that may have been a little too convincing. I’ve seen so much weird stuff in that room. But this was the first time I ever saw a look of surprise like that on anybody’s face. And it was absolutely priceless.
“What… what the hell is wrong with you people?!” Benjamin said, backing away from us.
“Ain’t nothing wrong with us,” said Marlboro, relieved to be free from the headlock. “What the hell is wrong with your gun?”
“How did you know I was out of ammo?”
There was a loud thud as Carlos dropped the sack of corn. He was the next to talk, “I think maybe you should get out of here, pal, while you still can.”
“Afraid I can’t do that,” Benjamin responded. “Not until this thing is dead. And not until I-“
I heard a wet thunk before I saw anything. Before Benjamin went limp and hit the ground. When my eyes caught up to the situation, I hoped that what I was seeing was a hallucination, but the look of fear on Carlos’s face told me that this wasn’t the case. The man standing behind Benjamin, holding a bloodied shovel, the man that just saved our bacon, was smiling a toothy delighted smile that he only ever made after inflicting the kind of pain he’d just inflicted.
“Hey Jack,” said Spencer Middleton. “You miss me?”
He stuck Carlos and Marlboro in the walk-in freezer. Marlboro is and always has been a go-with-the-flow kind of guy, so he went into the freezer voluntarily. Carlos put up a fight, which is why he ended up bruised and bloody and barely clinging to consciousness.
From what I could see, Benjamin looked like he might be dead. At best, he was out cold in a slowly spreading pool of his own blood.
Spencer pulled a couple of chairs out of storage and placed them both in front of the cash register facing one another. He made me hobble over and sit down in one. Then he spun the other around to sit on it backwards, like a cool schoolteacher from the 90’s.
“I just want you to know,” he said, “I’m not mad at you. And neither is he. He wanted me to relay that message.”
Spencer’s face still had specks of blood on it from where he had beaten the shit out of Carlos.
“Your boss?” I said.
“Yeah. He was upset at you for what you did to Kieffer, and wanted me to show you what happens to bad children. You were supposed to meet him, but then that got all cocked up, huh?”
“I guess it just wasn’t my time to die.” I answered.
That’s when the smile faded from Spencer’s face. He shook his head at me and said, “Die? No… no, no, no, you weren’t supposed to die. You can’t die! We need you.”
I saw some movement behind Spencer but tried not to break eye contact. It was Benjamin. He was alive, and right now my best shot at getting out of this. He was moving slowly on the ground, regaining consciousness but miraculously not making any noise. I tried to keep Spencer distracted.
“Your boss. Tell me more about him. How did he find you? Who is he?”
Spencer chuckled, “Oh, he’s got a lot of names. But you’ll meet him soon enough. And this time, we will not be interrupted.”
“And my friends?”
“I don’t care. They can join us. They can die. It makes me no difference. By the way, Jack, I wanted to ask: did you guys ever figure out who placed that bomb?”
I laughed softly. “Yeah, the police took it. They know it was you. They know everything. Well, almost everything. Okay, in the grand scheme of things, they know very little, but they do know that you tried to kill me and you put a bomb in the gas station.”
Spencer shook his head again.
“Wrong on both accounts. If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead. And a bomb? Seriously? Not my style.”
I think he had more to say to me, but I’ll never know, because right then Benjamin yanked Spencer’s head back and wiped a knife blade the size of a large chihuahua across his neck, neatly slicing his head halfway off.
Blood erupted out in a couple spurts, then stopped, and Spencer Middleton was no more.
“That’s what you get,” taunted Benjamin as he flung Spencer’s lifeless body onto the floor, his blood pouring out and mixing with all the rest. It was going to suck for whoever had to clean all of this up.
When we opened the freezer, we found that Marlboro had gone all bad-nurse on Carlos, sticking clumps of frozen meat all over his face. “For the swelling.”
I made us a fresh pot of coffee and we took seats around the table by the window. Just in case a nosey passer-by decided to pass by, we put a tarp over Spencer and moved the “wet floor” sign next to it.
For about half an hour, we all just sat and drank coffee in a pregnant silence. When we were all done with our third cups, Carlos finally spoke. His jaw was swollen to hell, but he was still able to pronounce his words with only minor difficulty.
“So why haven’t we called the cops yet? This was clearly self-defense. I’ve got the face to prove it.”
“Yeah,” said Benjamin after some lengthy deliberation. “Yeah, let’s call them. That would be good. But tomorrow you and me need to have a serious talk, Jack.”
I called Arnold from the only phone in the building with any reception – Spencer’s cell. The deputy listened to what I told him (just the most basic and simplified version of what happened that night) and he said he would be on his way right after he got out of bed and put some clothes on.
I called the owners next, and they were not very happy. They told me that next time I should call them first.
Right now, the others are at their booth, staring out the window. And I’m sitting on my laptop documenting the night while the memories are still fresh. I know this isn’t over yet. I think the gas station is going to have to close for a day or two. But when it opens again, I’ll be here, writing my journals and doing my best to ignore anyone who walks through those doors.
Hey everybody! It’s me, Jerry, from the gas station at the edge of town. Proud to be the newest member of the team. The owners were so impressed with how I managed to stay inside the store for several days without leaving or going insane that they offered me a full time position while the regular clerk is out recovering from his leg injury. Happy Monday, ya’ll!
The other guy asked me to do him a small favor while he’s getting some much needed “rest” and relaxation. He gave me the password to his laptop and detailed instructions to transcribe his journal entries from last week. In exchange, he agreed to keep me on as a full-time assistant after he gets back. I get to to learn what to expect on the job through first-hand documentation, and he gets to continue his weird little blog thing. Now that’s what I call a win-win.
If I’m being honest, this is probably the best thing that could have happened to me right now. Ever since the program mysteriously dissolved at the Mathmatist community, I’ve been feeling very lost and vulnerable. I’ve been losing weight and having trouble sleeping, and when I do, I keep having these weird dreams of some enormous being, deep below the gas station, waiting to devour us all. Clearly, a mistake was made and I was overlooked. If any of my old brothers and sisters are out there and see this post, please, please, contact me! Tell the seniors they forgot me! I’m not mad! I miss you! I love you!
Before I get started, some guys in suits came by and suggested that if this blog were going to continue, that I make a PSA. If there is anybody still alive that read the story about what happened here on Halloween, don’t wait for symptoms to start. Please go to the nearest emergency room or call the Center for Disease Control and tell them you are experiencing the effects of “Romald’s Syndrome.”
Anyway, back to the journals. I’m going to do my best because the guy’s handwriting is awful. But here’s the parts I could read:
The man in the trench coat was standing out back when I went to take out the garbage tonight. I don’t know why the man in the trench coat keeps visiting my store, or why I’ve never gotten a good look at him. He was standing at the tree line just beyond the dumpsters, staring as he ever did. Tonight, I stared back.
The hinge of his jaw began halfway up his face, where his nose should have been, the edges pulled back to either ear in a skeletal grin. His tiny, milky-white eyes were beads behind the oily black hairline that hung down straight in bangs all the way to his cheek jowl. His impossibly-wide mouth bisected the head between greasy hair and wet flesh. Drool, I would assume…
We stood there, fifteen feet apart, staring at one another for what might have been ten seconds or ten minutes, until finally the man in the trench coat turned away. His legs bent funny, in a way that human legs shouldn’t be able to bend, and he landed on all fours before galloping off into the woods.
I don’t know if I’ve seen the last of the man in the trench coat.
Holy shit! Did you guys read that?! This is some crazy shit! Sorry, Jerry again. I promise I’m not going to do the running commentary thing, I just had to say… Jesus, you know? This is some weird stuff. I mean, I remember him telling me a couple weeks ago to go outside and talk to a man in a trench coat. Super glad I didn’t now. What the hell? Okay, that’s it, I’m done. Back to the transcriptions. The next page is soaked in blood and completely unreadable, so I’m going to have to skip that part:
…hundreds and hundreds of them. She had never seen so many in one place before, not even in her dreams. Before she left, she told me that I would see her again. Was that supposed to be a warning or a flirtation?
It’s a quieter night than I’m used to. The package from yesterday afternoon still sits on the counter where I left it. The label is made out to me, with a return address I don’t recognize. The rectangular parcel is wrapped like a Christmas present with red and yellow stripes and feels heavy. I would say it’s just the right size for a dead cat.
I can’t think of any realistic reason I shouldn’t open the package, but there is something in the back of my mind telling me that to open this would be tantamount to opening Pandora’s Box. That the contents of this little parcel will irrevocably change the course of my life in a way that may have seemed impossible before. I feel like this box is full of butterflies ready to create tsunamis, and I’m just not sure I’m ready for that yet.
I think I’m going to teach Marlboro how to clean the drink machines.
Marlboro is passed out in a hammock in the supply closet. I think he finished that bottle on his own. I guess I’ll go clean the drink machines by myself.
The hand plants are growing faster than I had anticipated. They are now past the elbows, almost to the shoulders. I saw that the crop had caught a curious coyote that got too close. It was not pretty. I also noticed that Rocco is still alive. I caught him sitting on the roof, tossing food to the crop of hand plants.
This is why they’re growing so fast. They’re eating way too much. If this gets out of control, I may have to torch this crop just like the others. I don’t want to. It sends shivers down my spine whenever I hear the way they scream.
Carlos came in for his morning shift looking pretty terrible. He filled up on coffee and told me that he hadn’t been sleeping too well. The bad dreams had been keeping him from getting a restful night.
I wonder if I should tell Carlos about my condition.
He asked about the gift-wrapped package sitting on the counter. I told him that it came with the post yesterday, and I didn’t know who it was from. He asked if I was going to open it, and I told him that I had a bad feeling and pretty much decided to never ever open it.
I decided to open the package. Without any fanfare or drumroll, I’ll just tell you that what I found inside was a brand new laptop computer. I’ve never owned my own laptop before, and the only computer that ever belonged to me was a crappy little Tandy-1000 that I put together as a kid. I’ve always used the library computer lab or the browser on my phone to access the internet. This could be a game changer.
The box also contains a signal repeater and some other gizmos. I know this is crazy, but I think I may actually be able to access the internet from the gas station now.
There was a handwritten note at the bottom of the package:
I left a comment on your page. There’s something I want to tell you. I’m enjoying reading these stories you’re writing, but I think if you actually sit down and write out one story at a time, that you will get a lot more upvotes. It’s very good, I’m not saying it’s bad. But right now it seems like a lot of half stories thrown together. I think you’d do great if you actually wrote out a whole story at a time. I bet you really could get a lot of upvotes and attention. It gets kind of confusing right now. Maybe start with when you got there and work your way up to now. I bet that would be super awesome. I’m so fascinated, but a little muddled as well. I can tell you have a great talent for writing, but I just thought maybe I’d offer a suggestion to help. Please do not take offense… it’s just something I was thinking. Hope all is going well for you!
Great. Another one of my readers tracked me down. I’m going to have to figure out how people keep finding me and put a stop to this. Thank you, whoever you are, for the laptop. I’m definitely keeping it.
I turned on the wifi card and noticed that for some reason there are dozens of secured networks around the gas station, most of which have four or five bars. The names for their networks are pure gobbledy-gook like this one: “1E7G7C7TA11GUY232331324.” Who the hell is transmitting wifi out here?
A man came into the store to buy a gas can a couple hours ago. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but then he came back in asking if we could help him out with something down the road. I never got his name, but he was a big guy, tan skin, and a thick beard. He said he was having “car trouble.” I told him I wasn’t a car guy, but he insisted that he didn’t need a car guy, he just needed someone else to see what he was seeing.
Marlboro agreed to watch the counter while Carlos and I followed the bearded man down the hill and around the curve, close to the spot where Carlos saw that thing in the woods.
He couldn’t remember what happened that night. After we got everything sorted out with Spencer and things started to go back to “normal,” I asked Carlos what it was that he saw in the woods that sent him running in such a careless panic, but he just shook his head and said he didn’t know. The mind is a funny thing, and memories aren’t the most reliable. I realize that I’m not the only person from the gas station with a list of “try and forget” stories.
The man’s car was parked on the side of the road, close to the same spot that Kieffer’s SUV was broken down.
“So my car started acting funny,” the guy said as we neared his vehicle. I began to wonder why we had walked this whole way, when our own vehicle would be quite useful in case of a dead battery or random bear attack. The guy kept going, “I pulled over onto the side of the road when my electricals all started going haywire. I killed the engine, then when I tried to turn it over again, nadda.”
I could see at this point that the hood was open. The man was driving a big black SUV similar to the one Kieffer owned, but newer and shinier.
“I don’t see what’s so weird about that. You need us to call a tow or-” the man cut Carlos off (rudely, I might add).
“I popped the hood, but everything was in order. I thought it maybe just needed some gas, so I went up to the station. Then when I got back, I saw this.”
We rounded the front of the car and saw the “this” he was being so vague about: A small oak tree, maybe four or five years old, was growing up from the ground beneath the car, through the engine, and stretched upwards at least nine feet. The trunk of the tree had swallowed a decent portion of the engine, and from the looks of it the car had been parked there for years.
“Interesting,” I said. “And you’re sure that wasn’t there when you started driving?”
Before he could answer, he spun his head around and looked at the forest.
“You boys hear that?” He asked.
We stood still and listened, but I didn’t hear anything.
“No,” I answered. Carlos shrugged.
“You boys know what an anglerfish is?” the bearded man asked as he walked to the back door and opened it.
“Yeah, I guess,” I answered.
The bearded man pulled up a secret compartment from beneath the floorboard and retrieved a large automatic rifle. I’m not a gun guy, and I can’t tell you what kind of gun it was, but it was big, impressive, and cool looking. The guy checked the clip and clicked something on the gun that might have been the safety. Again, I’m not a gun guy. But it sounded super cool. Carlos put a hand on my shoulder and slowly backed away from the man with the gun, pulling me with him.
But the man didn’t seem to mind us one bit. He was focused on whatever he heard in the woods.
“If I’m right, you boys have an anglerfish in them woods. It’s putting something out there to lure me in. Make me think I’m hearing something that I’m not. Then when I go looking for the one thing – BAM – it attacks.”
“Oh, like a siren?” I asked.
The man looked at me over his shoulder with a smirk and said, “Yeah. Like a siren. Ya’ll may wanna get out of here. This could get dangerous. Don’t worry about me. I’ve dealt with these things before, I’ll be fine.”
The man pointed his gun and marched into the woods while Carlos and I made our way back to the gas station.
It’s time for me to go home. I haven’t used the laptop yet, but maybe tomorrow I’ll start to type up these journals.
It’s getting dark so early these days.
I noticed that the bearded man’s SUV is still at the bottom of the hill with a tree growing through it. I wouldn’t call that a good sign.
I burned the rest of the hand plants. I finally know what’s going on.
A long time ago, I noticed what looked like strange mushrooms growing in a patch near the dumpster behind the gas station. I didn’t think much about it, except that it was strange that Rocco’s brood wouldn’t go near them.
When I took a closer look, I could have sworn that they looked just like baby fingers poking out of the ground.
As the weather got warmer, I kept an eye on the crops. They started getting longer and looking more and more distinguishably similar to human fingers. I swear they even started growing fingernails. Sometimes, I would see them bend at the digits to squash a bug that wandered too close.
Eventually, the mushrooms started sprouting leaves, and the finger sections continued to stretch out, creating what could only be described as hands. Human hands. They would ball up into fists during the daytime and open up in the moonlight. I dug one of them up one day when we were really slow at work, and I called Farmer Junior to ask for his professional opinion.
To the untrained eye, the hand plant looked just like a regular human hand. Smaller than an adult’s, but larger than a child’s. Adolescent. Teenager maybe. At the wrist it turned into a gnarled root that smelled like sassafras, and throughout the plant tiny leaves were sprouting.
Farmer Junior stood in the gas station looking it over for a while before asking me if we had any more of those things. I lied and told him no.
I asked the owners what they wanted me to do. They thought it over for a couple days and then told me to keep them. I think they expected to be able to make some money off of them somehow, but eventually everyone forgot they were there. Everyone but me. And Farmer Junior, of course.
I was thinking about the bearded man when I first heard the sound of a baby crying somewhere outside. I was alone in the store and my first instinct was not the heroic one that most people may have had: to run outside and see where the poor baby was. My first instinct was more callous and rational and in the form of a question: how the hell did a baby get way out here without me hearing it coming?
Something wasn’t right. The sound of the cries, which I could deduce were coming from the tree line, were getting louder and louder and more and more desperate.
I looked around for Marlboro, but couldn’t find him anywhere. If I was going to investigate the potential forest baby, I was going to have to do it alone.
I remembered the bearded man hearing the siren call of the thing he called an Anglerfish. I remembered Carlos’s sound of crunching and the “Strega.” And absolutely no part of me believed that I would be safe if I went into the woods or that there was really a baby crying out there.
But what if?
I grabbed a flashlight and went out back. The crying seemed to be moving deeper into the forest, quickly, like the crying baby were being carried off by something that didn’t have to stop and move around trees or physical barriers.
I walked into the forest just far enough to find the last thing I ever expected to find.
It seems that the hand plants had extended slightly further than the little patch outside the gas station. Those plants that I had been watching and burning whenever they got too aggressive were not as controlled as I had previously believed. Because out there, just a few steps into the woods, was a hand plant that I had missed, that I had never trimmed or culled or burned, that was left free to grow as large and wild as it possibly could. Out there was a handplant that had grown so large, it had fallen over. It had grown past the shoulder. It had grown its own head, and torso, and crotch and legs. Out there was a full human body covered in tiny leaves, huddled on the ground and attached to the soil by thick talons of brown roots. And the weirdest part of all? The body was one that I recognized.
The body of the fully-grown hand plant, was Kieffer.
I don’t know what possessed me to touch him. Maybe I just wanted to make sure that he was real, as if touching him would prove that one way or the other. When I did, his eyes opened and he cracked a smile. He could not move, the roots had him firmly stuck in place, but this kieffer plant could talk. And talk he did.
We stayed out there talking for over an hour.
I won’t go into everything the kieffer plant said, but I will say this. There is something under the gas station. Something big and powerful. Something plotting. And I’ve been working for years in a cloud of this dark god’s farts.
I felt extra terrible setting the fully developed kieffer plant on fire after I burned the rest of the crop of handplants, but honestly what choice did I have?
When I got back to the gas station, Spencer was waiting for me. He knew I knew. And I knew he knew I knew. I was halfway expecting what came next, but not expecting him to enjoy himself quite so much.
Spencer locked the front doors, then proceeded to beat the crap out of me. I’d like to say I got a few good hits in as well, but that would be a huge lie. I don’t think I laid a single finger on him. Although, I did mess his knuckles up pretty good with my face, so I have that going for me.
Spencer dragged me across the gas station to the hallway past the bathrooms, past the walk-in cooler, to that big strange door that I had only just noticed a couple weeks ago. If it were possible for me to pass out, I’m sure I would be unconscious right now.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked as he banged on the door three times. There was a sound from the other side and then Spencer yelled.
“Open up! It’s me!”
The door cracked open and Spencer dragged me into a room I had never seen before. It looked like an old office. There was a desk next to a wall of monitors with security feeds from all over the store and the perimeter. Security feeds from cameras I never knew existed. In the middle of the room was a large hole that looked like it had been created with a team of jackhammers.
“It’s time for you to meet my boss,” Spencer said as he dragged me to the edge of the hole.
“Kieffer.” I said, to which Spencer let out a hearty laugh.
“No, not Kieffer. My boss put Kieffer out there and hired me to watch him. My boss is much bigger than some idiot politician.”
I half expected Spencer to go into the cliche movie-villain exposition rant, but instead he Sparta’d me right into this hole.
I think my leg is broken. At least, I assume that’s what the bone poking out means, but hey, I’m no doctor. I would be really worried right now if it weren’t for the fact that I stole Spencer’s cell phone in the scuffle. Just as I expected, Spencer has the same network as Kieffer, which means he somehow has service. I put in a call to Tom’s direct number, so I’m sure he’ll be along shortly. Until he gets here, I’m just passing the time updating my journals.
Somebody just dropped the laptop into this hole with me. Maybe it was Spencer? Maybe he thinks I’m dead? Maybe I am. Again, I’m not a doctor. Whoever it was, I think I might have heard the sound of their boot spurs clicking against tile as they walked away.
I guess I’ll boot this thing up and start transcribing my journal before it’s too late.
Okay, so this is the last of his journals!
You’re probably wondering to yourself, where was Jerry while Spencer was beating the crap out of poor old Jack? Well, I had gone into town to see a movie. Yes, I went and watched Thor: Ragnarock. If you haven’t seen it, go see it! It was awesome! I guess I’m lucky I went when I did, otherwise this Spencer guy might have tossed me into that hole as well.
I was the one that found Jack. When I came back to the gas station, I couldn’t find anyone anywhere, so I went searching until I noticed that door at the edge of the hall cracked open slightly. I also found a really poorly made bomb behind the register, but it didn’t take long to disassemble. You can thank the mandatory bomb-building classes at the Mathmatist program for that. No big deal, just me being my typical heroic self.
I asked Carlos to help me haul Jack up out of the hole and then Carlos moved him to an “undisclosed location” for a few days while his leg mends. When he gets back, I’ll let him have his laptop to continue his little blog thing.
Until then, it’s just me, Carlos, and the raccoons.
How does Jack usually end these things? Oh yeah, “To be continued…”
I should begin this entry by saying how truly sorry I am to anyone who read part 4. I had no idea that was going to happen. The agents have assured me that every trace of the story has been removed from the internet, and that there is nothing to worry about.
If you were unfortunate enough to have read part 4: I beg you, for your own sake, try to forget everything. If you experience nose bleeds, dizziness, migraines, or hallucinations, go immediately to the emergency room. If you have a recurring dream of an island made of song, under no circumstances should you approach or attempt to open the blue door with the painting of a crow on it.
If you did not read part 4: There was no part 4. It does not exist. Forget you ever heard of it.
By now, you probably already know that there is a shitty gas station at the edge of our small town, and that weird things have been happening there. The city council has personally asked me to stop talking about it, as there have been some astute readers that not only tracked down our small town from the brief descriptions I’ve given, but actually come and visited me at work. I heard that one of them has joined the Mathematists, and as far as I know the other two are still missing. Once again, I am sorry.
I’m not working right now. It’s the first legitimate break I’ve had since I first started writing my stories on receipt paper all that time ago. Time moves funny here. Flowing slow and fast all at once, like molasses out of a shotgun. It’s a good thing I’ve been keeping a journal. I’ve got a few moments before my laptop dies, and I think now would be the perfect time to transpose my journal entries, before the battery runs out or the blood loss gets me. Right now it’s a race to see what happens first.
Before any of you worry, I’ve already called Tom. He said he’s on his way here to give me a ride to the hospital, right after he picks up dinner for the Ledford orphans, John-Ben and Little Sister. Tom and the other deputies have been taking turns checking in on and bringing them food in an attempt to make the whole thing less tragic. They’ve been living on their own ever since the incident that totally did not happen (and anyone who says otherwise is a damned liar).
There I go again, off on another tangent. I guess I’ll get to it, and type up my journal entries while I still can.
So much has happened here since the Halloween incident that we aren’t allowed to talk about. I’ve been much busier than usual, dealing with the aftermath as well as the cult. The Mathmetists have been cleaning out our inventory on a daily basis, planning ahead for some kind of secret event that I only get to hear about in hushed mutterings and whispers.
Night is coming earlier, and the weather is getting colder.
The man in the trench coat is back. He’s standing just outside the gas station door, staring in. He’s been there for almost an hour now. On the bright side, I haven’t had a customer come in since he showed up. On the not-so-bright side, I can’t help but feel like he’s trying to put thoughts into my head. He won’t be able to, though. I’ve had way too much practice.
Kieffer came in earlier today, before the sun went down, and sat in a booth drinking coffee for a while. Eventually, Spencer Middleton showed up. Spencer had a word with Kieffer, then came storming up to my register, screaming at the top of his lungs. He grabbed the display of lotto scratch-offs and threw it across the room. It was obvious that something had upset him. That’s when I took the earplugs out.
“Everything ok?” I asked, stupidly. I knew damn well everything was never “OK”.
“Did you hear a word I just said?” Spencer asked.
I explained to him that I had taken to wearing earplugs in an effort to drown out the sounds of screaming that periodically radiate through the air vents. I guess the screams must have stopped a while ago, or maybe I had imagined them. Either way, I didn’t need the earplugs anymore.
At this point, Tom walked into the store. His white hair looking even whiter than normal.
Spencer, I could see, became instantly aware of the deputy’s presence. “Where is he?” He half-whispered half-growled, “Where is the other one?”
“Carlos?” I asked.
Spencer sighed. “Sure. Carlos.”
“He’s not due for another twenty minutes.”
“When he gets here, tell him we need to have a chat.” With that, Spencer Middleton let out a shrill whistle and left the store. Kieffer jumped out of his seat and followed close behind.
Tom helped me pick up the mess and put the lotto display back together without asking a single question. I wish more people could be like Tom.
When Carlos got to work, he told me that he had been having strange dreams. Dreams of something enormous, living, breathing, underground. The dreams always end the same way: with the gas station collapsed into a giant sinkhole. I told him that Spencer was looking for him. That’s when Carlos grew solemn and asked me if he could show me something.
In the freezer, behind a stack of boxes labled “Non aprire” (whatever the hell that means, they’ve been here as long as I’ve worked here), there is a moving blanket. And inside that blanket is another Kieffer.
My first question for Carlos was, “You stole the body back?”
He looked at the ground and shook his head sheepishly like a toddler that just got busted for cooking meth.
“You killed another one?” I asked.
Carlos explained: it was an accident. Again.
The man in the trench coat is finally gone. He left claw marks on the glass of the front door. I checked the security footage to confirm my suspicions. He always stays just outside the range of our cameras. Why can’t I remember what his face looked like?
Marlboro was the first “customer” in the store after the man in the trench coat left. I told him that I was surprised he was still alive. He mistook this for a compliment and said, “Thank you.” I asked him if he was ready for the big event, but then he just stared at me blankly. I could tell he had no idea what I was talking about, so I filled him in on how I had put it all together. The unusual cultist activity, the whispers, the buying up all of our supplies. I could tell that something was about to happen.
Marlboro went pale in the face as I was talking, then ran out of the gas station before I could finish, the 99 cent frozen drink still in his hand. I know I should write up an inventory loss slip for the theft, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. As hard as it is to explain, there’s just something about Marlboro that makes me genuinely feel sorry for him.
I caught myself digging again. I don’t know how long I was out there, or who was running the store while I was gone. The hole is so deep now that I nearly couldn’t climb out on my own. I should maybe think about considering the possibility of one day asking a doctor if this is normal.
Marlboro is currently crying in the dry storage closet. Through his sobs I could barely make out the story. Marlboro was sent on some kind of “Vision Quest” for the last week and has no idea what the other cultists had been stocking up for. When he went back to the compound earlier tonight, he found the whole place completely deserted. Beds were left unmade. Some plates had food on them. A fire still burning in the fireplace. Everyone’s clothes were still in their personal milk crates next to their sleeping bags. But the people–all of the people–were simply gone.
Marlboro isn’t taking this very well, but I have a business to run, so I asked Carlos to help me carry him into the dry storage area. I figure he can work through some stuff in there and then maybe when he’s done he’ll just… I don’t know… go home?
The exterminators just left. They say they got all of the snakes this time, but I have my doubts.
Kieffer came into the store again today and made some thinly-veiled threats. He asked about Carlos, too, but I told him that I was tired of being the go-between and that if he had business with Carlos, he needed to take it up with Carlos. That’s when Kieffer started getting weird.
“You know this place is just a big experiment, and you’re the little mouse?”
I asked Kieffer to buy something or leave, so he bought a pack of toothpaste, then started to undress in the store and rub the toothpaste on his naked body.
“They tell me that something is wrong with your brain. Is that true?”
I tried to be polite and avert my eyes as I answered, “Yeah.”
“You have some kind of mental condition?”
I answered again, “Yeah.”
“That’s too bad.”
At this point, Kieffer was completely naked. He walked over to the frozen drink machine and filled a large cup with the sugary red concoction before turning it upside down on top of his head. Then he shook himself violently like a wet dog, flinging bits of cold, sticky debris across everything from the ceiling to the walls. Some of it even landing on my face, but I tried not to let him see my flinch. I knew this was all just an attempt to intimidate me, and I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.
“What is it, exactly?” He asked as he crossed back to where his pile of clothes waited for him.
“What?” I asked.
“What is your condition? Schizophrenia? Protanopia? Meningitis? The gay?”
“No,” I answered, “I don’t sleep.”
“You don’t sleep?” He sounded genuinely interested. “Like, ever?”
“I can’t fall asleep. I haven’t slept a single day since high school. It’s a rare genetic condition with no cure and no treatment and one day, it will kill me. But until then, I handle the effects as best I can.”
Kieffer nodded. “That must be it. That must be why he can’t reach you.”
“Why who can’t reach me?”
Right then, Spencer came into the store. He threw a blanket around Kieffer and ushered him out to the waiting SUV. A moment later, he came back into the store and offered me a hundred dollars for the security tape from tonight.
I wonder what I’ll spend my hundred bucks on.
I was beginning to suspect something wasn’t quite right in the store. I’ve been finding empty candy bar wrappers strewn about, security tapes mysteriously deleted, strange noises coming through the walls in the middle of the night when I should be alone. At least, more strange noises than usual. At first, I assumed it was just the racoons.
But now I know the truth. Now I know that Marlboro has been living here for the last two days. He just walked out of the supply closet wearing a bathrobe, nodded to me as he grabbed a stick of meat jerky, and went into the bathroom. It had not even occurred to me that Marlboro never left.
It finally happened. I suppose it was only a matter of time. I know I should feel regret, or shame, or any of the other emotions that normal people feel after something like this happens, but all I feel is embarrassed.
I came to a couple hours ago with a shovel in my hand. I had been digging again, and this time I had made some serious progress. The hole was at least seven feet deep, the steep walls made of loose, red clay. It took me a while to realize that I was staring up into an inky black night peppered with uncountable stars. When some of the bigger celestials started to move, I realized that those stars were actually just the soulless red eyes of the mutant raccoons staring down at me over the edge of the hole. Probably looking for food, those shameless beggars.
I chucked the shovel out of the hole, and that’s when I heard it. Imagine the sound of a butcher’s knife hitting a watermelon. Like a solid, wet, thwack. Now imagine the watermelon gurgling and falling over like a sack of potatoes. Oh man, this metaphor has really gotten away from me…
When I climbed out of the hole, I saw the shovel standing upright: the business end firmly lodged inside the open chest wound of a still-twitching Kieffer.
The Kieffer was dead before I got to his side. In a final act of defiance, he had turned both of his middle fingers up to me. I felt just the slightest amount of respect for him before I went into a mental state that I can only describe as “subdued panic.” The first thing I wanted to do was find something to wrap the body in because, surely, Spencer Middleton would come for it soon.
When I went into the gas station, I was surprised to find that Marlboro had taken it upon himself to work the cash register while I was gone. He was ringing up one of our regulars, Charles, a great big fat man that always buys soap and boiled peanuts.
I nabbed a tarp off the shelf and took it outside. That’s when I learned something. Kieffer is heavy. Like, really heavy. I understand that a human body is basically just a meaty fleshy water balloon full of guts and excrement, but nothing could prepare me for how leaky and gross and heavy a dead man can be. It was only by some miracle that I managed to drag Kieffer through the back door and into the freezer without being seen. It took all of my strength to pull the mass behind the boxes and onto the stack with the other three. When I finally finished, I had worked up a sweat, and even the cold of the freezer wasn’t enough to keep me cool. As I stood there letting my breath come back and adrenaline wear off I took stock of my situation. That’s when it dawned on me. There were four Kieffers in that freezer with me. Four. Kieffers. Where the hell did the other two come from?
The freezer door opened and Marlboro entered, dragging a dead Kieffer by the legs. He stopped and made eye contact with me.
When he saw the Kieffers at my feet, I said the only thing I could think of.
“Well this is awkward.”
Marlboro and I decided to open a bottle of Strega Liquore and have a few drinks. He explained that he had accidently killed Kieffer a couple times. I totally understood. The guy was just so easy to kill. At one point, Carlos came into the freezer to grab a box of cookie dough. He didn’t even acknowledge all the Kieffers.
My laptop’s battery is currently at 2%. It’s obvious now that I won’t have time to transcribe the rest of my journals before it dies. I don’t have time to tell you how I ended up at the bottom of this hole underneath the store with a broken leg. But I can tell you that I hear someone moving around above me, which is good because I don’t think I’m alone down here.
If you’re reading this, it means I managed to upload my story. If you’re not reading this, then… I don’t know, what even are you?
Someone just called my name from the top of the precipice. I think it was Carlos. I wonder what happened to Tom. Why didn’t Tom ever show up?
Come to think of it, I seem to remember Tom didn’t survive the Halloween incident. Wait, who the hell have I been talking to this entire time?
I promise, that if I survive long enough to recharge my battery I will come back and tell the rest. Until then, I guess this story is to be continued.
My grandfather is 95 years old and doesn’t have long left in this world. There’s nothing but a mess of tubes and wires to tether him here with us. It’s difficult for him to speak, but each rasping whisper carries a severe weight that cannot be interrupted. My family doesn’t talk about things like death though, so whenever I visit with my dad, we tend to spend most of the time sitting in near-silence.
“What a news week, huh?” my dad might say.
“Mmmm,” Grandfather will grunt. “Crazy world.”
Then silence again. Small talk seems almost disrespectful to the gravity of the situation, but no-one wants to be the first to broach the irrevocable goodbye. When the silence gets too loud, my dad will start to fidget with his phone or pull out a book until one of us makes an excuse to leave. That’s how it went yesterday, with my father mumbling something about a dentist appointment and hurrying out the door almost as soon as we arrived.
“You’ll stay though, won’t you?” my grandfather asked when we were alone in the room together. “You’ll listen to an old man’s last secret?”
This was it then. The end of the road was in sight. “Would you like me to call Dad back?” I asked.
Grandfather shook his head as far as the oxygen tubes would allow it to turn. “I’d rather he didn’t know.”
I already knew some of the story he told me. It began when my grandfather was 20 years old living in Nazi Germany. He’d been working forced labor on a farm, but managed to smuggle my grandmother and infant father out of the country, hidden in a grain shipment. He’d been caught almost immediately and sent to the concentration camp at Buchenwald where he endured the next two years until he was liberated by allied forces.
“You don’t have to tell me what happened there if you don’t want to,” I told him. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear the gruesome details. He was unusually animated and persistent though, promising it was something that needed to be said.
He wouldn’t have survived the ordeal if it hadn’t been for a friend he’d met there. One of the Nazi officers, a Rottenführer squad leader, had taken a special interest in him because of their striking similarity in age and appearance. The two would sit on either side of a barbed wire fence and swap stories about their childhoods. My grandfather would talk about my grandmother, how beautiful she was and how he wouldn’t give up until he found her again.
The SS officer had gone straight from the Hitlerjugend (Hitler youth group) to the army and had never been intimate with a woman. He became enraptured in my grandfather’s tales of romance, and the two became close friends despite the circumstances. The officer twice spared my grandfather’s name from work assignments that meant certain death, and he’d often slip extra rations through the fence, which my grandfather would then distribute to other prisoners.
“It wasn’t a good life, but it was life,” Grandfather said.
Things changed as the war began drawing to a close. The Nazi officers became increasingly paranoid and desperate as the allied forces moved in. It became common practice for lower ranking officers to be held as scapegoats when impossible work orders were not met. Besides that, the rumor that the Rottenführer was protecting my grandfather put him in a dire position with his own officers.
Faced between protecting my grandfather and his own hide, the Rottenführer signed the order for my grandfather to be sent to a nearby armaments factory. Eighteen hour work days, starvation rations, no medical attention — the factory might as well have been a death sentence. The three month survival rate was less than 50%.
In the name of love, my grandfather pleaded to let him survive to find her again. She was waiting for him in America. The Rottenführer was moved, but his decision was final. His only compromise was to record the address of where she went and send her a letter to let her know what happened to him.
“So how did you survive?” I asked. “Did he change his mind? Were you rescued from the factory?”
“Shielded from the worst of the camp by the Rottenführer, the transition to the factory proved too difficult for the young farmer. He didn’t last the first week.”
“What do you mean, ‘didn’t last’? How’d you get out?”
The exertion of the long story was taking its toll on my grandfather. He coughed and wheezed, struggling to draw breath for several seconds before clearing his throat a final time.
“On April 11th, 1945, the Buchenwald camp was liberated. Many of the Nazi’s had already abandoned their position and fled into the country. Others decided to lock themselves inside, pretending to be prisoners themselves so the allied forces would have mercy on them. This was especially convincing for those who had taken the time to get to know the prisoners and could assume their identities. When the SS officer gave the information and address of his lost love, he was allowed to board the next transport ship returning to America to be reunited with her.”
The gears in my head were turning. Turning. And then stopped.
“Your grandmother was suspicious at first when I met her, but she accepted that the war had changed me. Besides, I knew so many stories about her that she couldn’t deny our shared history. I raised his boy as my own, and lived the life he dreamed of every night until his death. Do you think your real grandfather would forgive me if he knew?”
I didn’t have an answer for him then, and I didn’t get another chance. He died in his sleep that night after a long and happy life that wasn’t his.
(In honor of Gas Station Jack’s new book, we are re-releasing his famous Tales from the Gas Station series, one part at a time, spread across the month of October. If you’re new to the story, enjoy! If you’ve read it before and have no interest in reading it again, scroll down to the bottom to check out Jack’s new book, a mix of old and new gas station tales that are guaranteed to leave you horrified. Thanks for reading.)
At the edge of our town, there’s a shitty gas station that’s open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. If you were to go inside, you’d see row after row of off-brand chips, cookies, potted meats, and pickled curiosities. Expiration dates suspiciously missing from the canned goods like they were filed off years ago in some misguided attempt to control inventory turnover. A faded “wet floor” sign from way back covers a large crack in the foundation by the cooler where layers of sticky spill-off have formed a miniature tar pit, preserving countless insect corpses and the occasional small rodent.
Nobody ever complains about the aesthetic. By some providence bordering on the supernatural, the health inspector has repeatedly signed off on the business, always kindly ignoring the faint smell of some kind of mysterious chemical cocktail that is the defining characteristic of the establishment. More noticeable than the steady mechanical hum of the frozen drink machine that was installed in the seventies and never once serviced. More distracting than the random pockets of cold and warm air that seem to follow you around. And more annoying than the family of mutated raccoons that lives in the crawlspace behind the grease trap.
We think they’re mutated anyway. At the very least, they must be inbred to the point of genetic deformity and mental retardation. The alpha, a muscular three-foot-tall son of a bitch named Rocco, has been spotted multiple times chewing on people’s tires and has been run over at least twice, but keeps coming back.
That lingering smell, a sweet combination of honeysuckle, ammonia, and vomit, has never been positively identified, but the prevalent theory is that it’s coming from underground, wafting up through the thin fissures in the concrete that grow and spread with each year of architectural settling. It’s strongest right after a rain, and pungent to the point of tear-inducing if you get too close to the storm drains where even Rocco and his clan refuse to tread.
If you were to go inside, you might also see the bathroom cowboy. He’s sort of an urban legend around here, only ever appearing when you’re alone and unsuspecting. What makes him truly legendary are the stories people tell after an alleged encounter. The accounts run the gamut from “pretty weird” to “impossibly bizarre.” Like the guy last month who went for a pee but changed his mind when he saw him standing there next to the urinal, wearing a duster, bandanna, boots, and chaps, handing out balloon animals.
Or a couple weeks later when another customer stepped into the same bathroom to see a man wearing nothing but a cowboy hat, boxers, and boots with spurs, literally grinding an ax on an old-fashioned stone sharpening wheel. When he entered, the cowboy stopped what he was doing, looked up with a smile and a tip of the hat and said, “Come on now. Come on with it.”
If you should be lucky enough to see the cowboy that may or may not haunt the bathroom, don’t worry. He’s harmless, and in fact usually quite polite. Honestly, he doesn’t seem so bad. Especially compared to some of the other things going on in that place.
When you go inside, you might instantly get a toothache. That’s a strangely common phenomenon that nobody really understands. It should go away on its own after a couple hours.
If you do go inside, you will almost definitely see me sitting behind the counter, because I am the only full-time employee, and I’m almost always here. You may catch me reading a book because, for some reason, the internet doesn’t work way out here, and cell phone service is dicey on good days and nonexistent on most. If you need to make a call, you can leave and go up the hill a ways, preferably back towards town because the other way will take you into the woods and you don’t even want me to go into all the reasons that’s not a good idea. Or you can pay me twenty-five cents a minute and use the store’s land line. (That arrangement was cooked up by the owners and I have to actually enforce it because they do check the phone records. I’m sorry.)
While you’re here, don’t be offended if I don’t strike up a conversation because, if I’m being completely honest, I don’t always know for sure if everyone who comes through those doors is real or not and if I had to acknowledge everyone in that place that could be an actual person, I might lose my mind. And we don’t need any more of that going on around here.
I guess that the point I’m trying to make is this: weird things happen to me working at the shitty gas station at the edge of town.
I wish I could tell you the weirdest thing that’s ever happened there, but I doubt I could ever decide. There were just too many.
I’ve seen a total of four coffins inside the store on three different occasions.
I’ve met at least a dozen people wandering back into town from the woods claiming they had escaped aliens or government conspirators or the like and that they had no money but needed to make a call and could I please just let them use our store phone before “they” find them again. But rules are rules and I’m not inclined to lose my job just because you didn’t escape captivity with a little pocket change.
And then, of course, there was Farmer Brown (yeah, that’s his real name) who got mad at us and complained about the bulk feed we’d been ordering for him. He insisted something was wrong with the product because, as he put it, all of his animals suddenly had human faces. We settled with him by charging a significant discount on his next couple purchases. He stopped coming in not long after, and they found what was left of his body inside a bedroom at his farmhouse that had been locked from the inside. As far as I know, they still haven’t figured that one out.
Anyway, I guess I can come back and tell a story or two, but first I need to get ready for work.