By Chef Nightwatch_SRB
My name tag reads: Hi! I’m Jimmy. How can I help you?
I work at a gas station in a forgettable little town in Illinois about six hours south of Chicago. When I was a kid I never thought I’d end up working the graveyard shift five nights a week a hundred feet from the off ramp. I always dreamed of being a firefighter or a teacher, maybe even playing guitar in a rock band. But by your late 30s you start to realize the difference between dreams and reality. I don’t know whether it was my own bad luck or my inability to stick with college. But I was stuck working from nine at night to five in the morning for my paycheck. Que Sera, Sera.
You meet a lot of interesting people in my line of work. Maybe interesting isn’t the best word. I’ll just say there’s a lot of characters roaming around at two in the morning. To tell the truth, I like the night shift. It’s slower and I get paid an extra 75 cents an hour. Though, I haven’t been robbed yet and I’m sure looking down the barrel of a gun would change my tune.
I have my regulars, and I’ve come to enjoy their company. Mostly. Some I could do without. There’s Scratchy. I don’t know his real name, but he comes in around eleven nearly every night to buy ten dollars-worth of instant lottery tickets.
There’s Mrs. Fletcher. She lives down the block and rolls up on one of those mobility scooters every week to get milk and cat food. Nice old lady. Made me a plate of cookies last Christmas.
One of my favorites was Steve, and not because he was a great conversationalists. He wasn’t as far as I knew. I only know him from his name tag on his McDonald’s uniform. He sometimes rolled in around 3:30 in the morning to get gas before his 4:00 shift. Whenever I saw good ‘ole Steve I knew it wasn’t long before I got to go home.
Those are some of the nicer ones I get to interact with. Now let me tell you about one of the nasty ones.
It was a Wednesday morning in early spring, I think. I was reading a horror anthology; King, Bradbury, Bloch. The usual suspects. An oldie but a goody turned off Main Street and rolled up to the entrance. That’s what I call classic cars. I always liked older cars, and since I started working here I would often glance through the many “Hot Rod” magazines we sold.
I recognized it immediately. A 1978 Diamond Jubilee Edition Thunderbird. All black with tinted windows. A tall man with pale drooping features stepped out. If I had to guess his profession from how he was dressed I would say something like funeral director. A black suit jacket hung from his rigid frame. I noticed mud on his shoes and the hem of his slacks.
I nodded and mumbled, “Hello.”
He walked to the aisles, ignoring my greeting as if I didn’t even exist. He brought a box of garbage bags, a roll of duct tape, our biggest size bottle of Clorox bleach, and a hacksaw to the counter. And yes, we sell hacksaws. You’ll find them between the ratchet sets and the shot glasses.
I make it a rule not to think too hard about what people buy. It’s none of my business unless it’s an underage kid trying to buy booze or wannabe meth maker trying to buy up all our cold medicine or nail polish remover.
The old guy’s selection was suspicious, but suspicion and guilt are two different things. It wasn’t until I rung him up that I got that uneasy feeling that comes so easily to someone who works alone late into the night.
He pulled a small red purse from under his jacket and rifled through it. A long uncomfortable moment later he pulled out a two twenty-dollar bills to pay for his stuff. I glanced at the purse in his hand and noticed a woman’s driver’s license amongst the jumble of items within. That wasn’t really strange. Married couples often co-op each other’s wallets, checkbooks, debit cards and various other devices used for payment. It all went toward the family’s needs anyway.
But his too-perceptive eyes caught mine looking. I counted his change then handed it to him. He smiled, but it seemed more like he was baring his teeth. For whatever reason he reminded me of a predatory animal gloating over wounded prey.
“Your name is Jimmy?” he asked. The accent was something I had never heard in real life. Only in movies or television. It was something Eastern European, very thick too.
“Yes,” I replied. “Let me bag this up.”
I bagged it then pushed it across the counter.
“You work alone at night do you?”
I panicked. Said nothing.
He smiled again. “See you around, Jimmy.”
I was glad he was gone. I hoped I would never see him again. Some people just make your skin crawl and I’ll be damned if could really tell you why. It wasn’t his transaction, but his presence. Does that make sense? I’ll admit it doesn’t. Maybe I shouldn’t read horror stories when I get bored at work. As my manager likes to say, “If you got time for leaning you got time for cleaning.”
Two nights later I found myself grabbing the local paper. I saw a woman’s face. The story was brief. She had left a bar two towns down the highway a couple of nights earlier. She never got home. I didn’t know this woman, but my mind insisted that I’d seen her face before. But the mind plays tricks. I see a lot of faces. Who am I to make a fuss without something better than a fleeting look at a woman’s face on a driver’s license?
Spring turned to summer, and sometime in late June I had another visit from the man in the black Thunderbird. This time I knew I had seen something I shouldn’t have. He walked inside stoically and made his way to the bathrooms in the back. I noticed his hands were coated in something red. I wanted to tell myself it was ketchup or maybe paint, but I knew it was blood. Tiny scarlet drops fell to the floor creating an intermittent trail leading to the back of the gas station.
I considered running to my forest green Cavalier accentuated with bondo and rust. But I choked down the rising terror, telling myself no one could be so audacious as to partake in a foul deed then walk in public with blood soaked hands. I reasoned that he must have injured himself. Right? What murderer in his right mind would walk around with bloody hands for the world to witness? But murderers aren’t in the “right” frame of mind. And is a gas station at three in the morning really that public? No one had been in for nearly two hours. I heard the bathroom door open and my whole body tensed.
I stared, paralyzed by the man’s approach. Now his hands were clean and wet with water from the sink. But his face was decorated in thin lines of red that radiated out from the corner of his lips. He grabbed the local paper and the USA Today and tossed them on the counter. I must have stared too long.
He dabbed his cheek delicately then inspected the red spot on his finger. “I suffer from gum disease, Jimmy.”
Hadn’t he seen the blood around his lips? The fluorescent light in the bathroom is bright, almost overbearing. And there’s two mirrors. One above the sink and a full length mirror next to the little machine that sells cologne and condoms.
He paid then went outside. He placed the newspapers on the roof of his T-bird then stood to peer into the night as if contemplating something. I watched him stand there for at least five minutes, watching the sky and occasionally sneering with his blood smeared mouth. Then his body snapped into action, turning to rush back into the building. The automatic doors opened. I saw his face, but his animalistic smile was missing. He bared his teeth. I saw large canines set in his mouth like tiny white daggers.
Before he could step inside, a SUV sped into the parking lot. The man in black retreated to his T-bird, started the car and drove into the night.
I was never so glad to see a group of drunk club-hoppers in my entire life. There’s only one bar in the county that stays open until 4 in the morning. There had been an ordinance proposed to restrict last call to midnight throughout the county. It was voted down. If it hadn’t, I wonder if I would be alive to tell this story.
They were a slightly obnoxious group. I think one of the guys stole a candy bar. The women stared into the screens of their iPhones while I rung up their transactions. I wished them good night. They walked out not saying a word. They were my best customers of the night.
In the parking lot were the bloody man’s newspapers. All summer and into the fall I wondered if he was reading up on the people who went missing that summer. There were at least two in my part of Illinois. But people go missing all the time in America. All over the world really. Most of them disappear for good.
I kept an eye out for the man in the black Thunderbird, but I haven’t seen him again. However, something last night got my attention. I was reading Dante’s Inferno (Scary stuff). Steve had been by to get ten bucks in gas before his shift. I was looking forward to breakfast and sleep.
I saw something move in the alley across the street. It was a long black car with its lights off. The kind they don’t make anymore. It could have been a Mercury Cougar or Lincoln Continental. Maybe even a Thunderbird.
I would have quit this job long ago, but where would I have gone? I’ve got to pay the rent. Que Sera, Sera.
I should be cleaning the bathrooms right now or doing inventory, but I bought Bram Stoker’s Dracula today. Think I’ll read a few chapters first. No hurry really. The place is really dead tonight.