I met death once... or maybe it was Stephen King. They've been said to strike the same fear in the heart of those who bear witness. Until the only thing particularly scary about working at a truck stop in Texas was how horrifyingly mundane it was. There were stories of women being snatched up and never heard from again. It was a very real thing, but for me trouble never really rocked up with a name I didn't know by heart. Still somewhere between midnight and 3 AM, the eerie feeling of being too alone but not so much so began to set in. It was a nightly occurrence, fighting through the anxiety that someone you hadn't seen had come in and was lurking around you. I remember, it was foggy that night, almost to the point of irony. Ghosts never show up on a sunny day or a hot night in June. It was always at 2:33 AM in weather conditions that made it hard to see each other on the road.
I was executing my nightly duties, cleaning the grills that our grease filled snacks rotated on all day until they were inevitably tossed out at the end of the day. While being fairly decent for gas station food, it was still below average for human consumption. On a busy day, the truckers and plant workers would scarf it down, but that was a Sunday night. Hardly any through traffic on the weekends. The sound of crusted food chipping off the metal rollers was the only thing to break up the silence besides the droning radio in the background playing over the loudspeakers. If you spend long enough in the store you can't even hear it anymore.
At around 1:30 that feeling started to set in. In the back of my mind I wondered if it would make sense for the place to be haunted, and in a way it would. There were men that spent more of their lives here than with their families, men and women we saw anywhere from once a day to a few times a year. If any of them died, it wouldn't be so far fetched to think they'd still show up to check in or to get their nightly beer... if you believed in that kind of thing. It had been brought up at a company Christmas party once and the owner's son had jokingly said that if the place was haunted you would know because he would turn it into a tourist attraction. He was good at stuff like that, forever in a marketing state of mind. No matter what I believed, I still jumped when a loud crash emitted from the stockroom.
It's just the ice machine.
After a few months I had managed to identify the various noises the store made, morning to midnight. One of the double doors in the front of the building made an unsettling groan when it was opened, but only when it was cold outside like tonight. All of the cooler doors had a high pitched squeak and if you stood by the beer chest the floor creaked just a little from the broken tiles. I knew the sound the mountains of ice made when you dug through them to get to the beer underneath and the way the register sounded like jingling change when you shut it too hard. I even knew what sounds different boots made. Some days it made me feel crazy, but I was aware on every level how paranoid I was having to be in there alone. If I thought too much about it it made my stomach turn.
The grills were coming clean like they always did and I was humming alone to whatever song was playing too loud. It was the only thing I could focus on at night when there weren't too many customers. Everything else was like autopilot. Clean the lounge, stock the beer, do the paperwork, scrub the grills, etc. Then put a nice pretty bow on it at the end of the night for the morning cashiers. I was half way through it, a few hours from a much needed nap, and exhausted from working so many hours. It was getting hard to keep my eyes open. When I walked it was like my body was doing it on it's own. My mind was somewhere else, daydreaming about a good night's sleep. At first I thought I'd hallucinated him, that the caffeine pills were finally getting to me and I was losing it, but upon second glance there was no doubt a person standing at my counter. I hadn't heard him come in. There was no creak of the door. He hadn't said a word and there was no telling how long he had been standing there. He was just staring at me, with eyes that seemed too dark. Dark, but not cold. They were inviting and the most dangerous ones always were. He stood taller than me, at least 6' 3”, gangling almost. All skin and bones. His grey hair fell board straight down to his chin, framing his eyes, making them almost black and complementing his full black outfit. He reminded me of someone, someone I knew but I couldn't figure out who. My heart began to beat faster, already sped up from the caffeine pills. Was this it? Was I dying? Had I already? Maybe I had had a heart attack and was lying on the floor. Maybe I had finally passed out and I was having a nightmare right now.
We were just standing there and staring at each other. He still hadn't said anything. I averted my attention to the floor, afraid to make eye contact. He wasn't moving. He didn't walk towards me. He hadn't gotten angry like he was wondering why I wasn't helping him right now. He remained stoic with his hands in his pockets and a creepy smile on his face. At some point, my feet did what they do best. They moved towards the counter of their own accord to help the man. They moved to do my job.
Thanks, feet. I really appreciate that you value my job over my life.
When I reached the counter, I briefly looked him in the eyes, sending the wrong kind of shivers down my spine. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end. With a low, deep voice, he finally spoke.
“Can I get a receipt on pump seven?”