It looked like they had been walking for a very long time. The one with straighter hair bent down, catching her breath. The other one stared at her blankly before quickly scanning her surroundings. It was painfully hot for how late it was, but that's just how summer is here. They weren't dressed for the weather, though, they were both wearing long sleeves. Though one of them was noticeably tired, they didn't seem to be sweating. I also thought I noticed an umbrella in the wavy-haired one's hand, but I'd always blamed it on my exhaustion after spending two-thirds of my 12-hour-shift in scorching heat. The umbrella didn't drip. I think I would have noticed that.
The girl who had needed to take a minute to catch her breath was now scanning the iced tea drinks. The other one wandered farther towards the back of the store, the hand that may have been holding the umbrella now out of my sight. They were my first customers in just over two hours. I'd been reading a book the whole time and listening to music, which I had learned to instinctively turn down whenever I noticed customers I needed to greet. I generally hated working in customer service, but here it was less of that, and more muscle memory; walk in, stock things from the back, say a short 'hello', maybe a 'how are you', surely a 'thank you', and a 'have a nice day', stock again, clean some surfaces, turn music on, take my book out, turn the music down, say a short 'hello', put some money in the cash register, over and over. It definitely helped that most of the people who came to this gas station were the type to avoid small talk in the first place.
It was in a fairly bare-bones neighborhood; most of the apartment buildings within it had become vacant in the couple of years before I got hired. Even more had become vacant since then. There was a hotel around the block, its customers being most of our traffic. It was mostly businessmen, but there were sometimes foreigners, who were naturally even less keen on small talk, besides the rare ones who'd practiced conversational vocabulary for months before travelling here. Luckily, those conversations never required much thought; "Yes, it's a hot day," or, "I love that drink, too." If there were ever customers my age, they were staying in the hotel for a trip to the city because of how cheap it was. You might think a cheap hotel would attract more customers, but there's only one bus stop near it, and the sources of entertainment are very limited: this gas station, and the bar across from the hotel.
I'd been to the bar once or twice, but it was usually fairly empty, save for the businessmen, and I didn't particularly enjoy the company of the businessmen. Once, I'd seen a businessman who'd been in the store earlier on. Clearly, after a few drinks, he was much more talkative, in a way that seemed almost combative to someone like me. He was peculiarly inquisitive, I felt threatened. I never felt like going back. If anything, I'd rather buy a bottle of wine before I clocked out for the day, drink it out of my water bottle on the bus ride home, step off the bus, feel dizzy, stumble up six flights of stairs and eventually collapse on my flimsy mattress, all alone, not answering to any questions from anyone. Simply put, there was hardly a reason to be anywhere near where I was. But here were two girls, my age. Lost, maybe?
I couldn't see the wavy-haired one at all anymore. Maybe she was shorter than I thought, maybe she was bending down. The straight-haired one had decided on a sports drink, after everything, and was browsing through the snacks. She seemingly hadn't noticed her friend disappear, so I decided I wouldn't worry. I take pride in my peripheral vision, most customers I am able to see no matter where they are, but I couldn't imagine what would come of me not taking this situation seriously. I decided to look back at my book while they shopped; better not to look like I'm suspicious of them. They looked like normal girls, of course, just not dressed properly for the weather. I was wearing short-sleeves and still suffering, but these two girls had walked maybe for miles in layers upon layers without too much trouble.
I had finished reading a chapter and a half, albeit short, of the book when I heard a thud, and a gasp. It was then I looked up and noticed that neither of the girls were there. The noise came from the back of the store. The door would've chimed had they left, and while I'd deeply considered the possibility of one of them bending in a way that they were hidden from my sight, the possibility of both of them doing so seemed much less likely. I put my bookmark in and gently set the book on the shelf behind me before I got up to analyze the scene. I felt a pang of fear in my gut. I often worked alone now, but when I first started working here, I constantly trained with the assistant manager. The general manager avoided the place as often as he could. He lived in a much more upscale neighborhood that had another branch of this gas station, where he, his fiancee, and his fiancee's friends usually worked.
That branch saw a lot more traffic than this one. Though this neighborhood was characteristically un-picturesque and worried me sometimes, such as the instance with the gentleman in the bar, and many other interactions with hotel customers, what worried me more was having to spend my entire day acting out the persona of a corporate-loving people-person. The assistant manager had worked there a few times, almost exclusively now, and described the customers who came in as a lot more entitled, a lot more demanding. Businessmen had their faults -- their impolite outbursts, their comments ranging from offensive to grotesque -- but a lot of them had been in the place of someone like me. A lot of them were working hard, just trying to live, day by day. Not all of them, but some of them. Enough of them that I never faced excessive vitriol. In the other neighborhood, most customers had never really worked a day in their life, and had hardly any respect for all those who were forced to do so about every day of their life.
So, I liked it here. The assistant manager told me he loved watching the trains go by from the window of that gas station, that there were a lot of fashionable, attractive people in situations outside ranging from annoying to bizarre, and that you could even see the church building, hear its bells. It sounded intriguing, but in comparison to the simplicity I experienced here, it was of no interest to me. I once asked him why all the buildings in this neighborhood were becoming vacant. Whenever I asked about the condition of this part of town, I noticed he would kind of tense up. I'm not sure if most people wouldn't have noticed something like that, but along with my peripheral vision, I prided myself in my ability to analyze facial expressions. Sometimes simple facial expressions would mix me up; someone looks angry, they're just tired, they're just tired. But I'd thought I had a special ability to know whether they were lying, whether they were just tired, just tired, or just saying that.
"Well, look around, would you want to live here?" he had said, his nonchalant words blatantly misaligned with the worried expression I'd seen seconds before. I instantly processed it as a lazy response. And maybe I would. I liked working there, anyways, so what'd be so bad about living in a place where no one looks at you, no one talks to you, and no one bumps into you on the street?
"Maybe I would," I'd said. Maybe I would. "But that's besides the point, I mean, they had to have had a reason to move here in the first place, right?" At first, I thought he worked there because he was like me; someone who doesn't want to do much of anything. His eagerness to work at the other location quickly diminished that thought, and distinguished him as a different type of person. Maybe, the type who just wants the day to go by, or, maybe, just someone who wants a pretty view, or to be entertained. I couldn't tell. I'd never really been able to.
"I guess," he took a big pause. "I guess it's because they saw potential here." He seemed like he wanted to say more, but he continued to hesitate. I looked at him blankly. It was a moment that I still always fear, and never know how to avoid; an erratic pause in conversation, a response that doesn't allow for response. I racked my brain.
"Are you okay? You look pale," I said, bluntly, as a way to insinuate that I knew that he was hesitating on something. "Did any customers come in who lived around here? Any regulars? Or always just businessmen on trips?" He took a moment to drink a sip from his water bottle, and then to take a breath before speaking again.
"Fine," he took another deep breath. "You got me. I never tell people this anymore. I lived here for a bit. That's why I started working here. I live closer to the other store now, and there's a reason I moved away. There's a reason I moved here, too." I was surprised he opened up without much of any coaxing. "This gas station has been here a long time, but the bar and the hotel were only built in the last decade. Before that, there were even less customers here; just people who were lost, or on a long drive, wanting directions, a snack, or to go to the bathroom. The manager says they were pretty talkative. He worked here from the start, it was a family business. They had that house on the hill, the big yellow one with the overgrown wildflowers in the grass, you know? I don't know if he told you that." He hadn't.
"I don't know how they were able to live such a comfortable life just owning a gas station in the middle of nowhere, but I guess some people are just born with that luck." It wasn't luck. I turned the music down a little more. "But anyway, they had a nice garden back then, looked really pretty from down here, or so I heard. There was a park that they built an apartment building on, then knocked it down, made it a park again, but now it's an apartment building again. Nobody in it. When they built the hotel, the owners started throwing events at the park, encouraging people to stay overnight. They've always been reasonably priced. There were concerts, nothing too fancy, mostly just local stuff, but the hotel got a few big names to play. Well, not so big, they were bigger back then...well, it doesn't matter..." I got the impression he'd never really talked to anyone about this neighborhood. Who would ask?
"There was also a summer festival, the same week as the grand opening of the bar, next door to the hotel. At that time, it also doubled as a restaurant, and it generated a lot of traffic. There were a few little boutiques across the street as well, young entrepreneurs who saw potential here, like I said. I came here because it seemed the right balance of quiet and entertainment. It was pretty, in development, but at the same time I didn't see it becoming too much bigger. If it did, I'd be prepared by then. It's embarrassing to even say it now, but I was thinking of opening a bookstore somewhere in this neighborhood. I didn't have the money to do it right away. It took a lot of money for me to even move out. I was eating like shit back then, it was cheaper to do. I got a job here, saving up for a specific spot. It was a nice scenic walk from here, so I thought it would be good for grabbing a cheap lunch, though ideally at that point I wouldn't need such cheap lunches, it had a nice view, and I could already picture in my head how to set up the space. That's what I thought about all day working here."
"To answer your question, yeah, there were regulars," he said. I was more confused at this point than I had been when I first started asking questions. Did he hesitate because he thought I'd scrutinize him for having dreams? I still wonder. "I met a lot of people here back then. A girl I liked came in a lot, and a family, who I think lived in the apartment building across from mine, and a short old man. He came in all the time, went straight to the back, and I could never see him. I thought, how convenient, to be short, to be able to hide and steal if you really wanted to. He took longer shopping than other customers, especially relative to what he bought. Just one pack of beer. Couldn't be that hard to find, you think? Same brand every time, too. But he was a nice guy, probably just liked to get out of the house, I guess. I don't know."
"He talked my head off, sometimes. Not in a way you'd mind, I think. I prefer it to the businessmen. They're nicer to you than me because you're a girl, you're pretty. They know I'm inferior and treat me like it. The old guy treated everyone the same, with an equal amount of trust. I wondered if he was already drunk when he came in. It's hard to tell, but sometimes he told stories like a drunk guy in a bar would. Kind of like I'm doing right now, huh? But you asked. Anyway, he stopped coming in after a while. Before he did, though, he told me stories that convinced me he was drunk or crazy. I think I felt bad for him, so I always listened thoroughly. One night, he came running from the back of the store, he surprised me, like I said, I could never see him, so he's basically coming out of nowhere, out of a void or something."
"He was just making a bunch of hand signals at me for a minute. It might have been legitimate sign language, but I wouldn't know. I just remember I kept saying, 'hey, sorry, what's wrong?' over and over for a few minutes until he suddenly started talking frantically. He was slurring his words pretty hard, and the situation was honestly pretty disorienting for me so it was harder to make it out, but he said something about being followed, he was finally about to get there, I didn't know where, and someone chased him away. I was really freaked out, I said, there's no one here but us and the manager, who's chasing you, where did they come from, where are you trying to go? It was like talking to someone sleepwalking. After a few more minutes, the manager came out, not ours, the old one, his dad. He took the man aside, asked him to leave, and when the man responded as he did to me, as in, not at all, he shook him fiercely. I was taken aback, but my manager was acting like this guy was actually possessed. There was such fear in his eyes, like I'd never seen him before, that I started to seriously consider that he could be."
"I don't know how much time it took for him to keep shaking him and screaming at him for the man to stop talking, but it felt like forever. When he was done talking, the man analyzed both of our faces, looked to the back of the store, and then left. The manager took me home after that. I didn't live far, but he didn't feel safe letting me walk home. I also think he was scared, and might've just wanted the company, but maybe not. I didn't say anything. I couldn't even process what had happened, really. After that, the man came in a few more times. Most of those times, he just went about his usual small talk, and once, he asked me if I noticed anything different about him. Honestly, since the incident, I had. I'd looked at him as crazy, or possessed. When I saw him in reality, I couldn't find a trace of any of that, but that was my perception now. But I just said no. He looked disappointed. He looked to the back of the store again, and I don't think I ever saw him after that."
"The month after the incident, which was about two months before the man stopped showing up, the manager decided to relocate his family and leave the house and this gas station to his son, while he started one in his new neighborhood, you know the one. His son didn't keep up his garden. The hotel didn't have enough money to pay anyone noteworthy to play at the park, so they built a building on it. It was really cheap, I almost considered moving there, because business was declining, and I wasn't making any progress on my savings with my current place. It was demolished before I could ever finish thinking it through, no one would ever tell me why. The place seemed really depressing by then. The girl I liked moved in with her boyfriend and stopped coming in. The family relocated to the countryside after an incident they vaguely informed me about, regarding some creepy businessmen, the demographic that were quickly becoming the only people to stay at the hotel."
"On top of the old man's disappearance making me paranoid, I just felt the need to get out. My dreams weren't going to make it here, and I felt like I was being watched every time I walked home alone. So I begged the old manager to let me work some shifts at the new gas station on top of my shifts here, I moved over there, and that's when they hired you. Now here we are." It was a lot to take in, and it was more than I'd ever heard him speak before. He had looked calmer than before, still pale. I'd felt a twinge of guilt for making him relive experiences he clearly hadn't wanted to. At the same time, I felt that I'd helped him lift a weight off of his chest, but no one can be sure. I remember saying something along the lines of, 'holy shit', realizing we were both off work now, feeling something between paranoia and wonder, and asking him questions as he gave me a ride to my apartment. I don't remember the questions now, they were all pretty irrelevant to the big picture; I was in a weird state of being, there are many questions I wish I'd asked now.
Especially now. I hadn't forgotten his story, of course, but the fine details had gotten smoothed out over time. Considering the paranoia they were liable to bring me, I'd pushed them to the very back of my mind. But now, taking small steps towards the source of the thud, I had to think about the seemingly drunken, possibly possessed man, what he was doing back there, where he had been hiding. I saw nothing on the floor that looked like it had fallen. The store felt notoriously empty. The lights felt like they would burn through my eyelids if I closed them. I tried to force away a feeling of my head pounding, heart pounding. How could I have just heard something like that, and done nothing? I asked nothing more, never got to the bottom of it. I wondered how often he thought about it, if he longed for answers, if it still haunted him.
I forced out a faint 'hello', and 'anyone there?' to no avail. I could've been hallucinating the whole thing and I wouldn't find out for months, were I to try to get access to the security camera footage. If something bad had actually happened to me, I'm sure they'd comply, but my story was pretty shaky, I'd be more likely to get drug tested. The entire presence of the girls had seemed odd, and they'd barely seemed to have noticed me, if at all. Winter clothes on the hottest night this summer, then they disappear. I peeked around each corner, reluctantly, considering all the horrifying possibilities that all seemed to end up with someone cleaning up my corpse, or vice versa. Every crevice appeared to be empty. I heard no movement anywhere around me. No laughs, no whispers, no breaths.
In the back of the store, the brightest light emanated from the ice cream container. It illuminated the vast emptiness around it. There was nowhere these girls could have been hiding. If they'd dropped the umbrella, it had seemingly vanished into thin air seconds after it hit the ground. The anxiety of the situation had made me start to sweat. Before, I was comfortably warm, now, I felt I was overheating, melting into a puddle. Consequently, I decided to stick most of the upper half of my body in the ice cream container. The light was bright against my eyelids, squeezed shut. It was overwhelming in contrast to the dimness my eyes were rummaging through just seconds before. As such, I did something quite unusual; making sure I was as obscured from any camera or mirror's view as possible, I piled all the ice cream on one side, clearing a space for me to sit on the other. It was surely unsanitary, and I had other things to worry about, but it simply felt right.
When you're losing your mind over whether you've been hallucinating or seeing ghosts, crawling into a freezer seems as good a course of action as any. At least now that I didn't have to worry about regulating my body temperature, I could devote all of my mind's power to the mysteries unfolding before me. I'm generally sleep-deprived, I always had been, never to the point of hallucination [that I'd realized], but perhaps the brain-rot was catching up to me. Maybe I could've left it at that, concluded a mild heat-stroke had messed with the holes already opening in my skull, but there was another factor: my assistant manager and the drunken old man. Was there some connection between this old man I'd never met, and these teenage girls, whose faces seemed to be fading from my memory rapidly, thawing like ice cream on a day like today? I closed my eyes, thinking it'd help me focus to block out all my surroundings.
I saw their outfits as a blur of colors, like a painting from an impressionist slowly but surely losing his vision, barely making out a small yellow blob that appeared to be the dry umbrella. I conjured an image of an old man, staring right at me, he as the customer and I the cashier. I saw him turn his head to the back of the store, I saw the freezer glowing, it seemed like the only light in the room even from up here. It was like someone really did turn all the other ones off; I could hardly make out the man's features, it glowed all around him but all I saw was a glint of worry in his eyes when he turned around. I of course had never asked my assistant manager if the old man had seemed to be glowing like an angel or a vision of the Virgin. He had asked if he seemed different, to me he seemed holy. I wanted to ask, had he always seemed holy, ethereal?
I tried to stare hard at his face, tried to plead with something inside me, though I couldn't sense where my body was. It felt like he was looking straight at me, but at the same time it felt like there was no me. The harder I stared, desperate to find any clues, the quicker he seemed to dissolve. A butterfly appeared over his right eye, then his left, then his mouth, then his nose and then his ears. Before I could process it, his entire body had been replaced by hundreds of different colors of butterflies. They scattered around the room to where the glow of the freezer could barely reach them, so that it was all I could see. I pictured myself walking toward it and finding myself inside of it, but I didn't have a body that I could force to walk. I didn't know how to get over there.
I stared at it so long it started to feel like I was staring at the sun. It was the biggest thing. It was blinding me. I didn't know if the gas station had actually melted away or if it was just that I was so fixated on the fluorescence of the freezer. I got the sensation that I was either falling asleep or floating. I heard the crashing of waves coming from under me. I was still blinded by the freezer, or the sun. I looked below me and caught a glimpse of light, clear blue water, and sand a purer white than I'd ever seen. It seemed inexplicably vivid; when trees and bushes started entering my line of vision they came in an endless range of shades of green. I saw the bright yellow umbrella resting on top of a rock. I felt like I wasn't looking with my own eyes anymore, though of course I never was. I was spinning but I wasn’t becoming dizzy. I saw one of the girls, but she was moving quickly, zig-zagging in front of and behind the bushes and the trees. Every image felt like it was taking years for my brain to render.
I was overcome with desire; I wanted to run like that. Desire encompassed my body so wholly that it sunk me into the sand, I swear I could even feel its warmth. I finally had my body back. I didn't want it that bad, but it felt better than ever in this moment. It was completely buried in sand, except for my head, I felt like a child. I heard rumbling in the bushes that seemed to be miles behind me. I stared at the real sun. The tide rose higher and higher until the sand I was buried under started to become soggy. I dug my way out. Unlike the weather in the real world, the temperature here was perfect. Somehow I had changed into a white summer dress, it was soft, swaying in the light wind. It was all just as I thought heaven would be; perfectly air-conditioned. However, I was pretty adamant I was still alive, despite it being one of the last thoughts on my mind overall.
I spotted the yellow umbrella in the distance, and skipped over to it, sat down beside it, gripped it in my left hand. It was warm like it'd been laying there for hours. There's no way I could ever tell how much time I spent there, assured that this view of the mountains and endlessly vast sea certainly rivaled whatever they saw at the uptown gas station. I reflected on my life in a way that would make anyone in their right mind sure that they are really dying. I saw several different stages and seasons, like a victim of the ghost of Christmas past. I saw scenes from every adaptation of the holiday tale I'd seen, I felt the visceral fear I'd felt towards it as a child. Unlike Ebenezer Scrooge, I felt that I had no glaring faults immediately needed to be made up for, but noticed many moments of selfishness along the way. It's a weird sensation, watching your life like a film. The lighting was wrong, the script felt off, but it's reality.
I watched every moment leading up to this one; once it returned to the glow of the freezer, I felt the umbrella in my hand yet again, the wind on my skin, the dress I was sure I'd never seen. I followed the sound of the rumbling, eager to see if those girls were real, what they could be doing. I yelled as loud as I could, but it was a meager squeak, not that that was particularly unusual for me, I was always quiet. I thought I saw them multiple times in my peripheral vision, but after searching to the point of exhaustion, I collapsed on the ground. I just lay there, feeling the sunbeams wash over me, melting, utmost carelessness. Time was no longer a concept in my head. My head was decidedly clear of any conceptions.
Until I felt the handle of the umbrella jut into my hip, and my eyes slowly cranked themselves open. I was no longer on the ground, the vivid blues and greens had disappeared, there were no sunbeams, no wind, just the cold air and glow of the ice cream freezer, and several sharp edges of boxes colliding with my hip bone. I had known in the back of my mind that this was where I'd been the whole time, but it felt wrong in many ways. I was disoriented, to say the least. I sat there, analyzing the room, trying to absorb the situation. It had felt like years since the last time I wondered the time. I stuck my head and chest out and stared at my reflection for a few moments before actually committing to climbing out of it. For an instant, I’d thought it looked like I was basking in the light as an angel as well.
As I walked towards the register, I noticed something behind the counter, where I'd generally put any items that would be considered 'lost and found'. These items were usually never retrieved by whoever lost them, but instead sat there for months and months until some random person would ask if they could take it, typically a regular who'd witnessed firsthand the unlikeliness of its retrieval. It was an umbrella. It was yellow but the color had greatly faded -- almost cream. It was also dripping onto the countertop. I picked it up but it was not cold. It was still certainly humid, certainly not raining. I couldn't feel the wind as vividly as I could in the freezer, but I knew now the perfect weather I was longing for. I couldn't think of any logic behind the umbrella being wet and warm, not to mention the logic behind the umbrella being in the store at all.
I couldn't bring myself to consider it all, though, everything. I really couldn't. I tried to picture it a puzzle in my mind, but I would mix it up, pieces all jumbled, and be satisfied with that. I'd think, 'there's no other way for it to be', no matter how wrong it would've looked to someone like you. There were no other customers for the last hour of my shift, which I spent cleaning up the puddle the umbrella had left, and putting it outside to dry. I locked up twenty minutes early and sat in the humidity of the sunset watching it dry. I almost wanted to go to the bar, but instead I bought a six-pack of beer from the back of the store. I never asked the assistant manager what brand of beer the old man bought, but still pretended I got the right one. Something felt right about it, like a puzzle piece, but I wasn't particularly proficient in puzzle pieces, as performed prior.
I walked up the hill and sat on the fence surrounding the old, big, yellow house. The fence was becoming increasingly overgrown with wildflowers and vines. I drank one of the beers as fast as I could muster. I tried to look in all the windows. I pulled a few flowers out of the ground. And then I ran to the station, I drank another beer on the way home, I got off at my stop, galloped to my house, collapsed on my bed, dreamt of the girls, running free through the forest, jumping into the water, screaming, with joy, at the top of their lungs.