Day three in a row. Hitting that odd mish-mash of floating while feeling full of lead up to his shoulders. One of those hard and fast rules dad had drilled into him that actually made sense, “Don't let me ever catch you behind the wheel without a full eight!” As if there was a sobriety test for insomnia. Never gave the follow-up lesson that sometimes you didn't have a choice. Sometimes you had to mount that horse and ride like the devil even if you saw the road in triplicate. God, why did sleeplessness bring out cowboy metaphors? Or maybe it was the marathon of spaghetti Westerns on TBS that he'd inadvertently locked into in his quest to find something that held the same promise as a rag dosed in chloroform. It was like he'd swapped brains with Lassie and aside from sounding dirty it was flat out... eeuuugh.
The digital clock on his wrist ticked over to 3:27am as he pulled in front of an all night gas station.
Not as big as the Quik Trip near the station, but good enough for the basics.
Killing the engine, he nudged down the kickstand on his bike - feeling the same creaks in his joints that rose from the old Norton as he lifted off the seat. Since when had thirty-four become the new eighty-six?
Loud jangle of bells as he pushed the glass door open with his elbow. He shivered at the change in atmosphere from unseasonable outside heat to excessive indoor chill. He nodded towards the old dude propping his elbows on the counter - tattered copy of Popular Mechanics scrolling pages through his fingers.
“Wow, you guys filming Happy Feet Three, here?” Shawn shivered again - tempted to blow on his fingers. Angus McGrizzled flipped another page on his magazine.
“No problem. My best friend is a penguin.” Hands making a sandpaper scrape as they rubbed together, Shawn executed a slow patrol down the third aisle.
Odd little station and one he’d never been in before. With the shelves of canned meats and an endcap loaded with fishing lures, it would be a better fit near the wharf rather than the suburbs of Santa Barbara.
Reaching the cold case at the back, his fingers stopped an inch from the handle. No Red Bull, no Monster, no sparkling iced tea… plenty of soda but all of them were those flashback to the fifties style with heavy aluminum cans and thick glass bottles. Cream soda, strawberry, Sarsaparilla? Seriously? Fished out a bottle of Coke after pondering the can of orange Nesbitts that more resembled an oil can than something containing a sugary drink.
The path back to the register was meandering - blinking out the haze in his brain, Shawn took in the wider view around him. Wow, so not just the sodas but the whole station was playing up the vintage vibe. Feeling like he’d stumbled into a Cracker Barrel he pondered asking for a slice of Coca Cola cake. Dusty wood shelves were overhung with simple signs and the shelves were loaded with candy that made his dad’s favorites look hip and funky fresh.
Okay, he seriously needed sleep if those were the words carving through his skull.
Grabbing a package of Valomilks, he tucked his soda in the crook of his elbow so he could snag his wallet from his back pocket. Shuffling up to the counter, he paged through his wallet; only coming up with a twenty. Dropping it on the counter, he set down his purchases before being blindsided by a massive yawn.
“You getting gas, too?”
Shawn shook his head. “Nah, I’m good, man.”
“Man? That how your pop raised you to talk to people? What are you, some kind of hooligan? Should have known - you pulling up here on that death machine!”
Eye blink to confirm it was still the same crotchety senior and not his father, magically taking the man’s place, Shawn scratched the back of his neck before smiling his most charming smile. “Sorry,” he squinted foggy vision at the old man’s tag, “Chuck. Been up a while and I’m afraid my mouth just gets away from me sometimes. You should see me when I’m awake.” He nudged the twenty a little closer - hoping to wrap up the transaction before the old guy came at him with a baseball bat.
“What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” Grumbles nudged the bill with a crooked knuckle.
He was up for too long. That was it. That was the only reason he’d be seeing this interaction through the lens of nutty that seemed to be coloring the whole transaction.
“Uh, just need the coke and candy. Sorry, all I got is a twenty.”
Chuckles snorted as he scooped up the money before hammering one finger at a seriously ancient cash register - cera the eighth day of creation. Or was it only five days. Whatever, that was more Gus’s territory anyhow.
The register made and an ear-shredding DING and the drawer slammed open - shaking the coins filling the small cups. Lifting out part of the drawer, Old Chuck counted out a handful of ones before scooping several coins to add to the change.
“Good thing it’s late, since you’ve cleaned me out of all my smaller bills. Gonna have to send my morning manager to the bank, first thing.”
Counting back his change, Shawn ended up with nearly the same amount he’d given the man.
“Wait, are you sure this is right?” He held out the wad of cash.
The heavy sigh was followed up by a glare that could have chewed through steel. “Soda pop was five cents, candy was on special for four cents. Plus a two and a half sales tax. You accusing me of short changing you, boy?”
“What? No - no, I just...”
Candy and soda were crammed into a brown paper bag before being shoved into his chest.
“You know, I know about your kind. Group of punks like you showed up a few weeks ago. Harassed my customers and made off with a bunch of liquor. You’re part of that same group, aren’t you!”
The joke he’d indulged, earlier, took on much scarier reality as the old man delved under the counter - hauling out a double-barreled shotgun.
Shawn dove - the blast exploding an endcap loaded with penny candies. Bright colored bits of candy and wrapping peppered down - the air shaded with the scent of sugary fruit, chocolate, and sulfury black powder. No time to check his important features for powder burns or buckshot, Shawn clawed the floor and scrambled - the tile that was just gathering his warmth the next to shatter with a second hot blast that nearly took off his foot.
Pulling a roll that would do Indiana Jones proud, Shawn wobbled in a dizzy moment, careened off a stand of chips, and managed to scramble around the far endcap.
One hand plunged into a pocket, grabbing for his phone, while he used the other to prop himself up to peer around the corner for the store clerk. Maybe a dose of panic had blocked the realization that the only thing he had managed to unearth from his pocket was a handful of Skittles. He crammed them in his mouth while leaning back to search the other pocket - still listening for Chuck the Terrible to make his next move. No phone. Back pockets - no. The hell? Puffing breaths to gear up for a faceful of shotgun blast, he leaned the other way to peek the way he’d come.
A rectangle of bright green lay on the floor amidst a pile of scattered candy and shelving. But that wasn’t what pooled cold in his gut.
The clerk was gone.