Thursday, April 18, 2019
#054: THE WATCHER
IN HER TWO YEARS working overnights at the Gas and Stuff, Tracey had often had the same nightmare. Except, since she worked nights, she’d have it in the daytime. Which, for some reason, had always made it feel more real.
In her nightmare, she would be at work, behind the counter, and alone. Time would stand still and she would feel the unnerving suspicion that she was being watched. Outside the dream, in the real world, when she was alone in the store, she would sometimes recall the nightmare and the notion would come to her that whomever had been watching her must have been out there in the dark on the other wide of the highway. The front of the store was all glass, after all. She was fairly certain that if she was standing out there in the dark, anyone behind the counter would be lit up like a Broadway premier.
The restroom door banged open and she nearly jumped from her seat.
“Sorry about that.” The man stood just outside the doorway, one hand holding open the restroom door. “Guess I don’t know my own strength.”
It was her sixth customer, and seeing him shook all thoughts of being watched from her head.
“It’s okay,” she said with a smile. “The door does it all the time.”
“Appreciate it, ma’am,” the man said, and tipped his hat to her like some sort of cowboy. He talked like a cowboy as well, though he sure didn’t dress like one. Not at all. In fact, he looked more like someone out of an old gangster flick, what with the suit, the trench coat, and the fedora.
She watched the man in the fedora out of the corner of her eye as he made his way back to the dairy cooler. The electronic bell over the front door chimed, however, and drew her eyes forward once again to greet the new customer. She opened her mouth and then closed it just as fast as soon as she saw that her new customer was Adam Vance.
She sighed inwardly.
Adam was in his late twenties with a sad, wispy little mustache that struggled with all its might to grow on his upper lip. He was thin, almost too thin, and walked in a rubbery sort of way. She was often surprised that his gun belt didn’t fall down around his ankles. The first time he had walked into the Gas and Stuff over a year ago, her first thought had been of Barney Fife from that old black and white TV show.
“Place is hopping,” Adam said as he approached the counter. He smiled and chewed on a toothpick.
“Tends to happen now and again,” she said, staring out at the lot through the front glass.
Tracey was just twenty-three, and though she liked having Adam around, if only to steer the bad element away, she was not at all interested in dating him. He was attractive enough, in a nerdy sort of way, but she just couldn’t see herself with a man with a mustache. Even if his breath had smelled of freshly laundered linen, she’d still say no. But then, he’d never asked. He just liked to hang out and look at her.
“That guy come back in tonight?” he asked as he leaned on an elbow on the counter.
“The guy that asked you out last night,” Adam smiled. “Didn’t you say he was wearing a cape?”
She laughed. Adam wasn’t such a bad guy. Not really.
“He said it was a cloak, but it had sure looked like a cape to me.”
“I bet you broke his heart when you turned him down.” Adam said.
“Too bad,” she said. “Tracey’s Rules of Dating Number One says that I will never go out with a total stranger, regardless of how attractive he is.”
“So he was attractive,” Adam said. “You didn’t mention that last night.” He was all smiles.
“I didn’t mention it because it didn’t matter,” she said.
“But he was attractive?” Adam said, cocking an eyebrow.
“Yes he was,” Tracey said. “But he was also wearing a cape. That never bodes well.”
Adam laughed at that.
“No,” he said. “I supposed it doesn’t.”
Tracey leaned forward.
“You might want to talk to Luke and Dan before they leave,” she said in a quiet voice. “They seem a bit drunk.”
Adam directed his gaze at the pair and watched them for a few moments.
“Yeah,” he said. “Good idea. I’ll wait for them to get behind the wheel, then I’ll box ‘em in.” He smiled again, like he was some kind of super cop.
She returned the smile and turned her gaze once again out of the front glass. A small red convertible shot into the lot, its headlights blinding her momentarily. But as the convertible pulled in at one of the furthest set of pumps, as the white haze faded from her eyes, she saw him.
The figure she had thought she’d seen standing off in the trees just minutes ago was now in the lot. He was still a ways out, but she could see that it was a man, and he crept along toward the Gas and Stuff as if he’d closed down every bar in a twenty mile radius.
“Uh-oh,” Tracey said. “You might have another issue to deal with first.” She nodded outside and Adam turned.
“Good Lord,” he said. “What’s wrong with him?”
There was something off about the guy, and it was more than his slow drunk walk. She couldn’t quite put a finger on it, though. It was something about his clothes, his build. But before she could give it much more thought, a women stumbled out of the dark a few paces behind.
“There some kind of creep convention?” Adam said, then barked a laugh.
“What’s going on out there?” It was the old man. He still held the little girl, who had fallen asleep in his arms.
“Are those two okay?” the woman with him asked. “Was there some kind of accident?”
That’s when it hit her. What she couldn’t see before but couldn’t help but see now. The two shambling figures moved as if they had been injured, as if they had just crawled from a downed plane and were looking for help. As that thought wound through her brain, a third figure emerged from the dark, then a fourth.
The man at the pumps had his back to the four strangers and had no idea what was coming up behind him. Tracey felt that she ought to warn him, but didn’t know why, didn’t quite understand what the threat was, and yet knew one when she saw it. She picked up the microphone next to the register and pushed the button at its base.
“Sir?” she said with little energy, the sound escaping her lips in a quiet rasp. She cleared her throat and tried again, this time with a bit more strength.
All she got back was the sound of the man’s car stereo blasting away at an intolerable volume.
“Sir,” she said with more force. But it was no good. He couldn’t hear her. “Adam, you need to go out there.”
“What?” Adam laughed again, but this time it had sounded forced. “Just a few people crossing the highway. They haven’t done anything.”
By now Luke and Dan had joined them, watching the people outside along with the rest of them. They weren’t laughing now.
“Someone has to go warn that guy,” Luke said.
“Warn him?” Adam forced another laugh. “About what? Customers sharing the lot with him? Watch out, buddy, other people are walking around out there.” He laughed again, but it sounded even less genuine than the last.
The man in the fedora had moved to the front of the store and stood at the front window, looking out at the strange people who had wandered in from across the highway.
The first of the strangers on the lot had nearly reached the man at the convertible. She could see him better now. He was even thinner than Adam, almost wasted away. She could seek the dark hollows on his face where his cheeks were sunken in. In fact, in the light, she would swear that the guy had pieces missing from his face. And his clothes. They were like something you would wear to church, but they were in tatters. The woman behind him was in the same condition.
“You got the keys to this door?” the man in the fedora asked without looking back at her. He had a drawl to his voice, like one of them good ole boys.
“Do you have the keys to this door?” he asked again, this time turning to look her in the eye.
“Y-yes,” she couldn’t quite speak. What was going on? “They’re right here.” She held them up.
“Bring ‘em to me,” the man said.
“What? I can’t just—”
“Look, Tracey. It’s Tracey, right?”
“Tracey, I’m Norman. I need all y’all to trust me right now. Everyone in this store is in grave danger. Please, I need you to bring me those keys.”
She looked to Adam who looked from her to the man in the fedora. “Give them to me,” Adam said, holding out his hand.
She handed the keys to Adam and he walked them over to the man by the door.
“Okay, good,” Norman said. “I’m going out there. When I do, I want you to lock these doors behind me. Then I want you to lock the back door. Is there any other way into this building?”
She couldn’t take her eyes off of the people in the lot. The Strangers, that’s how she thought of them. They were nearly on the man at the convertible.
“Tracey!?” Norman shouted. “Is there any other way into this building!?”
She shook her head.
“Alright, then,” Norman said. He turned to Adam. “Lock this behind me. And no matter what you see out there, you do not, I repeat, do not open this door for anyone else other than me. Got it?”
“Look, what the hell is going on?” Adam asked.
“You gotta protect these people while I’m gone, okay?” Norman said, ignoring the question. “I shouldn’t be long, but things are about to get really bad really quick—”
Tracey had stopped listening. Instead, she watched as the lead Stranger stumbled up the man at the pump and sank his teeth into the man’s neck.
Everything went white, and all Tracey could hear after that was the sound of her own screaming.
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