Thursday, April 11, 2019


THE AIR WAS THICK with the scent of coffee and hot dogs.

The coffee smelled as if it had been brewed in Heaven from God’s personal pot. The hot dogs on the other hand, not so much. The two scents combined to make for something unique that only those who worked in gas stations could fully appreciate. Some find the mixture a stench that they simply can’t live with and are quick to find work elsewhere. Others find an odd comfort in the aroma. Tracey Fisher, the overnight clerk at the Gas and Stuff could take it or leave it. For her, the worst smell in the store has always been Adam Vance’s breath.

The Gas and Stuff was located on the north side of Highway 24 between Perry and Topeka, Kansas. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, in the middle of nowhere. There was the town of Grantville to the south over on the other side of the highway, but to call Grantville a town would be like calling a flea an elephant.

Besides, Grantville was far enough to the southwest that no one would hear her scream were the occasion to call for it. So really, when all the cards were lain upon the table, she would be all alone out in the sticks were it not for Adam Vance, his eye-watering breath, and the occasional customer.

Tracey had the misfortune to work the overnight shift. Not the safest of jobs in the world. Not when you take into consideration the store’s remote location and its direct access to a highway that is none to widely traveled. It was as if the place was just begging to be robbed. Which was why Tracey chose to put up with the stench that rolled from Adam’s mouth whenever he spoke to her. His presence made her feel safe. It helped, of course, that he was a cop. A Deputy Sheriff for Jefferson County.

Like Tracey, Adam worked the overnight shift. Apart from the occasional patrol, or order from dispatch to respond to a call, he liked to spend most of his time at the Gas and Stuff, talking to Tracey. Just having his patrol car sitting in the lot was enough to scare away any middle of the night would-be-miscreant out looking for an opportunity to score some quick cash.

At the moment, Adam sat out in his patrol car, which he did now and again to work on his paperwork. These were times that, normally, Tracey would relish, for it meant that she could be allowed some time alone with nothing but a good book, the music from the local Classic Rock station, and her thoughts. After all, at nearly Three in the morning, The Gas and Stuff was typically dead.

Tonight, however, had been proving to be anything but typical. While the store had been empty for the last two hours, it had suddenly become a hive of activity as no less than five customers roamed the short aisles looking for snacks or something to drink. And that didn’t include the guy out at the pumps fueling up an old motorcycle, or the guy in the bathroom.

Tracey, in the midst of such chaos, had been trying her best to get in some reading. She’d picked up the new Alex Grecian book on the way in and was hoping to get most of it finished before the morning. She knew, deep down, in the logical part of her brain, that with so many customers in the store, attempting to read, and actually enjoy it, was nothing less than futile. Despite that, she’d soldiered on.

“Excuse me.” It was one of the five. “Where is your gum?”

The man was balding and wore a tan cardigan and round glasses. He reminded her a bit of her grandpa.

“I still have some driving ahead of me tonight,” he continued. “And though I can’t explain it, chewing gum helps to keep me awake and alert.” He smiled and scratched absently at the bald patch atop his head.

“It’s just here,” Tracey said, gesturing to the shelves to the right of her, beneath the counter.

“Thank you, young lady,” the man said, then turned and called out to a woman back by the coolers. “Over here, Connie. I found the gum.”

A woman joined him, her hair short with streaks of silver. She too wore a cardigan. With her was a little girl, maybe six or seven.

“Can I have gum too?” the girl asked before a yawn split her face.

Tracey didn’t hear the answer. She was looking out the front of the store, which was mostly glass. She didn’t like the customers much. Not just these, but any customers. She was always polite, always helpful, all with the perfect smile. But it was all an act. She simply didn’t get people. Just last night this guy had come into the store and asked her out for breakfast when her shift was over. She’d never met the guy before in her life, and he expected her to go spend social time with him. It made no sense.

So, rather than be sucked into a social moment with a chatty customer, Tracey liked to gaze outside, lose herself in the headlights that sped by now and again. If given the choice, she’d rather work somewhere that she didn’t have to interact with other people. But life doesn’t always give you the options you want. So, she always tried to make the best from what life dealt her.

Laughter split the air, pulling Tracey from her trance. It had come from the soda fountain in the back. Luke and Dan. They were regulars.

Luke and Dan lived together over in Grantville. Most nights they would come by on their way home from hitting the clubs in Topeka. They were both college age and were both, on the outside, so different from each other that they should be staring in their own sitcom.

Luke, for example, clung to the hipster look like a drowning man to driftwood. He had a full beard which he kept meticulously groomed, and typically wore a stocking cap, regardless of how warm it might be outside.

Dan, on the other hand, dressed like he woke up every morning in the Salvation Army. His clothes always looked second hand, his hair was unkempt, yet clean, and his face habitually looked to be in need of a shave. Which, once she really thought about it, was also somewhat hipster-like, depending on the decade.

To go even further, Luke was thin as a whip and moved with a natural grace. Dan, despite his slacker attire, was built like an all-star linebacker. He stood over six feet tall and looked as if he’d spent most of his life in the gym. While he was no greased up body builder, the guy had a set of muscles on him that, combined with his height and broad shoulders, would make most people turn around were they to come upon him down the other end of a dark alley.

Tonight, they both stood back by the soda fountain, giggling loudly, and lurching about a bit unsteadily on their feet.

She tried to ignore them and go back to her night gazing when the little girl, now standing with the cardigan couple at the gum, screamed.

“It’s only a moth,” the man said, lifting her from the ground and holding her close. “Nothing to worry about.”

The girl, however, didn’t look convinced. Instead she burrowed into the man, eyes full of tears.

“Sorry about that,” the man said. He looked a little embarrassed. “She’s tired.”

“No worries,” Tracey replied.

Luke and Dan laughed again over at the soda fountain. Their laughter rubbed her the wrong way for some reason. Were they laughing at her? They were probably drunk. She’d have to let Adam know before the two left.

The man at the pumps had finished up and was soon roaring off east, the sound of the motorcycle carrying far in the nothingness. As she watched him go, Tracey found her eyes pause on something across the four lane highway.

For a moment there, as the motorcycle swung out onto the blacktop, the light from the bike’s one headlight had swept past the field and small clump of trees over on the other side of the highway. And in that light, she could have sworn she saw someone standing out there, maybe ten yards from the asphalt back by the trees. If that was true, if she had actually spied someone out there, they were now standing alone out in the dark, watching her.

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