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charmer & gentle

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Purchased: 2 pallets bottled water.

She gets there early on her first night. To make a good impression, she supposes, though it's not as if Ahmed can fire her. No one else will take the shit shift. No one else is desperate enough, that is.

Afternoon Shift is still there when she walks in, anxiously rearranging the pull of her shirt where it tucks into her work pants. The girl behind the counter obsessively turning over change in her hands wears a name-tag that says Ashlee. She's short, fat. Her braces are blinding under the fluorescents.

“You're the new girl, right,” she says, a question spoken like a statement. Her tiny eyes never leave the coins in the palm of her hand.

“Yeah.”

“Grace, right.”

“Yeah.” Grace can't decide if she should reach out to shake hands or not. She rearranges the strap of her bag instead.

With lightning speed, Ashlee Afternoon Shift shunts the coins back into the open cash register; something makes a few loud dings, her shoes squeak on the linoleum, and she's out in front of the counter before Grace can react.

Hi,” Ashlee says, as if, now that the money is out of her possession, she can speak like a normal human being again. Now that Grace thinks about it, her smile is kind of pleasant. “Sorry. Been slow, I wanna get out of here.”

“No problem,” Grace says, glancing at the door, hoping she won't be left on her own with a cash register she's never seen before.

“Okay, let me show you how things work.”

She is polite enough not to remark on the loud sigh of relief that comes out of Grace.

But she does talk a million miles a minute, opening and closing cooler doors, opening and closing things on the soda fountain, rearranging packages on the shelves so quickly it looks like a tic of some kind. She leaves things neat in her wake.

“It's mostly regulars in here,” she's saying, as they're winding through the snakelike aisles of junk food and engine oil. “Don't worry about taking fuel payment in here, Pump Three's the only one that doesn't let you pay out there. You twenty-one?”

“What?” Grace says, startled, and then, “Not yet. End of the month.”

“Okay. Be careful, then, you can't sell nobody booze until then. But that'll be okay, we don't sell good stuff anyway. Like I said, regulars. You're gonna know everybody's name.” Ashlee lashes out with her twitchy hands to correct the errors of a pack of powdered doughnuts. She takes the corner into the next aisle with the precision of a stunt driver. “It's lucky, we're so small we almost never get whackos. Only ones you might wanna watch out for—we call 'em Big and Tall.”

“Big and Tall?” Grace echoes, stopping short behind her as she replaces a fallen packet of something sugar-free on its rack. “Who's we?”

“Oh—the gal before you, Cindy. She moved south to the technical college. You're on her shift.”

“Who are Big and Tall?”

“These two fellas. I think they moved to town a few weeks back.”

Grace laughs, and Ashlee throws her a strange look. She can't help it. The idea of anyone moving to Lebanon is ludicrous to her. It's not a place you come to, it's a place you leave—like her dad six years ago, like the family down the street whose house still stands empty, like Cindy at the technical college.

“Anyway. They're pretty normal, I guess.”

“Why should I watch out for them?”

Ashlee shrugs. “They always come in real late. Always pay in cash. I dunno. Cindy thought they were a little sketchy but they never stole anything or nothing. They were always real polite to her.”

No real problem at all then, Grace thinks.

She follows Ashlee back to the register and learns it in ten minutes; learns how to tear off lotto tickets in less. Learns where the mop and bucket are in the back closet, learns who to call if something happens in the bathrooms. Ashlee shows her the shift list, shows her the name of the boy who will relieve her at one AM, gives her a broad, silvery smile and is gone, out into the low sun-streaked nighttime falling over town, and she's alone under the fluorescent buzzing.

The highway outside the broad glass windows is completely empty.

At nine PM Grace turns up the radio and makes a sweep of the store, looking for spots to clean. Finds a stain near the coolers where the Miller Lite is stocked and spends a half hour scrubbing at it with the heavy, dirty mop in the closet. When she's satisfied it isn't even ten.

Ten-thirteen an hour, she reminds herself, under her breath. It isn't so bad.

For a while she watches the security feed pointed at the four pumps, following the black leaves that blow across the lot with her eyes, tapping her fingers absently to the beat of the music. For a while after that she wanders the aisles, rearranging things that have already been rearranged.

Around eleven someone finally stops for gas, but doesn't come inside. Pump 2. Grace waves to them as they stand by the nozzle, and they wave back. A man in a black cap. She names him Black Cap in her head.

By half-past midnight she can barely keep her eyes open, and the radio has played the same Brad Paisley song six times in the last four hours, and she's losing hope that she'll see another soul tonight besides Late Late Shift, the boy named Drew who's coming to replace her. A few headlights pass on the highway but none turn towards her.

At 12:43—she knows, because she's staring blankly at the white numbers on the security feed—there's a rumble as a long black car turns off the road into the lot, and she brightens immediately, hoping to God they'll stop at Pump 3 so she can talk to someone, anyone.

She expects someone passing through from the city, or some kids on a late roadtrip. She doesn't expect the two tallest men she's ever seen, ducking into her mini-mart with their hands in their jean pockets.

Immediately she feels afraid, and she isn't sure why. It's their bigness, probably, and their lateness; she can't help but wonder if she's about to be robbed. But they don't even look at her. They head straight back towards the huge cardboard pallets of bottled water stacked in a corner, twenty-four dollars each, and she watches while each one of them hefts a separate pallet into their arms and comes toward the counter.

“Good evening, hi,” Grace stammers. The shorter of the two men grins at her, almost wolfishly, and rests his pallet on the counter. “Hi, um, will that be all for you tonight?”

“Hey, sweetheart,” says the one who grinned at her, reaching back for his wallet. “Yeah, this is all.”

The taller one is smiling at her, too, though his smile is less wolfish. He looks tired.

The wolfish one pulls out three bills and slides them across the counter, and she tries not to stare at them while she punches in the numbers on the register. Ding, pop, she pulls out his change and slides it back, “would you like a receipt?”, no thanks, and then they're gone, carrying a fuckton of water as if it's nothing. She watches them open up the back door of their black car and slide the pallets in. The taller one holds up his hand to her through the window, a silent thanks, and she does the same, her fingers curling and relaxing as they climb in and drive away, into the center of town.

Grace sort of stands, her hand resting on the drawer of the cash register, idly reading the tobacco laws printed underneath the transparent countertop, until a red truck pulls in and a boy she recognises from two streets over comes in, pinning a name tag reading Drew to his shirt.

“Hey,” she says, as she's gathering her bag to leave, and Drew looks up at her. “You know those two guys? Ashlee called them Big and Tall.”

“Sure, yeah. They come in real late sometimes.”

“I think I just met them.”

“No shit. They're pretty cool.”

“Yeah?”

“Hey, drive safe.”

“Thanks.”

She won't admit it to herself, but she's looking for their car all the way home.





Purchased: 6 packets gauze. 4 packets personal tissues. 1 box microwave popcorn. 1 pocketknife ($12.) 1 large bag chips. 2 cases beer.

She doesn't see them again for weeks. Every time she relieves Ashlee's shift Ashlee asks breathlessly if they'd come in the night before, or tells her how she saw them that morning. Ashlee thinks the shorter one is, as she puts it, sex on legs. Grace keeps to herself that the short one's smile scares her, that she likes the taller one more, though both their faces are fading in her mind. She's seen their car only once more, passing her outbound on the way out of town. The windows were too dark to see them, but that car is impossible to miss.

Grace asks Drew, after they've been MIA for a few weeks, if he knows where they live. He shrugs. The next afternoon she wanders around the periphery of the abandoned house down the street, wondering if they're squatting there, but it hasn't been touched. And of course there's the old sealed-up factory a few miles outside of town, but they can't be there. No one can get in there.

Things fade into routine. Ashlee was right—she learns everyone's names, or at least the names she creates for them. Black Cap is a regular, and always wearing it. Then there's Mom Of Three, and Grove Stoner, and Ashlee's Brother, who comes in, without fail, every Tuesday at eleven PM to buy a case of Red Bull. When she's bored she cleans the soda fountain; when she's really bored she takes the quizzes in the trucker magazines they sell at the front.

It's good money and easy work. She just wishes something would happen. Wishes someone would buy a winning lotto from her, or strike up conversation. Absently considers fucking with the pumps so that everyone has to come in and buy gas from her directly. Anything for human contact beyond the exchange of cards and bills.

And then, finally, one of them comes in again—Big, she thinks, though she's never figured out which name belongs to which—and she spends the few excited moments she has before he comes to the counter watching him, peering out the window at the car parked right up against the mini-mart, trying to think of what he'll buy. Wondering where the other one is.

Her excitement fades when he comes up, arms full of stuff. The smile he gives her is weary, not wolfish. He watches while she punches in each code, waiting for the slow green numbers on the register to figure out his total.

She fumbles trying to find a plastic bag to put his things in—most people don't buy enough for bags. He's silent while she works.

She slides a box of microwave popcorn in against a bag of chips and glances up at him.

“Movie night?” she says, tapping the box with one finger, and he looks startled that she has spoken, clears his throat.

“Um—something like that. Yeah.” He pulls at his nose, smiles at her again. He looks tired. Way more tired than she is. She's used to the shift, but he looks like he hasn't had real sleep in days.

“Drive safe,” she says, as he's leaving.

“Thanks, sweetheart.”

She watches him leave. Thinks about following his taillights with her mind to the place where he rests his head.

The next day Ashlee asks how her shift was. She doesn't mention him.





Purchased: 1 pack spearmint gum. 1 bottle water.

Tall, she thinks, isn't the right nickname.

It's a little past ten, and he's the only one in the store, idling through the aisles as if he can't decide what to buy. There's no purpose in his movements. Grace has gotten good at reading the people in her store.

Tall isn't right because he seems—very small. At least right now. Granted, she hasn't seen this one since her very first shift. She wonders if he's been sick. He's gaunt, thinner than she remembers; his hair is a little longer. His shirt hangs off him in a way that bothers her.

He wanders for fifteen minutes before he comes up to her with nothing but a pack of shitty gum and a bottle of water in his hands.

“Hi,” she says. “That all for you?”

He laughs. “Yeah. Just killing time out here.”

“Long day?” She doesn't have to look at the number pad while she punches anymore. Gum is ninety-nine cents, water a dollar-fifteen.

“You have no idea.”

He doesn't look so good, but his manner is easy. He seems relieved to have someone to talk to. He towers over her, but she doesn't feel intimidated, not at all like she had the first night—she feels at ease. She thinks it's something to do with his voice.

He watches her, waiting with her hand to catch the receipt as the machine chugs it out.

“You okay out here at night like this all by yourself?” he asks, which surprises her. She frowns, thinks.

“Well—yeah. We're not exactly crime-ridden.”

He laughs at that. It makes her feel good.

“Well.” He takes his gum and his bottle from her, pockets the gum, ignores the change on the counter. “That's good. I thought so.”

“Have a good night,” she says. She feels warm. Almost wishes he wouldn't leave.

The bell above the door almost knocks him in the head as he ducks out to leave, and she has to laugh a little.

Tall's not right. She watches his car—not the black one, a different one, some beat-up piece of shit truck—back out and disappear into the late dark. He's Gentle, she decides. Like his voice. And his friend, or whoever—Charmer. He is, after all. With that wolfish smile.





Purchased: 1 pack cigarettes. 2 cases beer. 1 bottle hydrogen peroxide. 1 bottle engine oil. $40 fuel on Pump 3.

Charmer and Gentle come in, weary-stumbling, looking like they've just driven a thousand miles, covered in bruises and scratches and blood, at 12:30 AM on a Saturday, and she has no idea how to react.

“Oh—oh my God,” she says, one hand reaching automatically for the phone, her body wanting instead to come out from behind the counter and do something, though she doesn't know what. Charmer barely acknowledges her; Gentle immediately turns to hide his cut-up face.

“Are you okay? Are you both okay? Do you need—”

“It's all good, sweetheart,” Charmer says. He smiles briefly as if to show that he can. “Rough night.”

“Do you—I mean. We have a First Aid kit. In the back.” And it's for employees, mostly, she knows, but Gentle's got blood in his hair, and they both look like they've gone six rounds with a ton of bricks.

“We're good. I promise,” Charmer says. “Just need to—get a few things.”

She sees the two of them make eye contact, and Gentle heads for a back aisle where their tiny collection of travel necessities and miniature First Aid kits are. Charmer idles by the door, shooting glances back out towards the empty space beyond the town, as if looking for something following them inside.

Grace feels paranoia rising in her throat.

“Is everything okay?” she says, unsure why she's speaking so softly.

“We'll be outta your hair in a minute, promise,” Charmer says, without looking at her, staring still into the blackness.

Gentle comes back with a bottle of peroxide and takes Charmer's place, peering out at the road.

“I'm—look, I'm sorry, but I need to know that—”

Gentle looks at her, pauses to reach up and scrub blood from his mouth. He looks as if he's about to say something, but Charmer comes back, arms full of other things, and Grace punches them in as fast as she can, feeling deeply uneasy.

“And we need this on Pump 3. And a pack of menthols.” Charmer pushes three twenty-dollar bills in amongst the lump of crumpled change on her countertop, over the tobacco warnings, and Grace looks hard at the security feed out of the corner of her eye.

Gentle pulls him away from the counter, and Grace watches them from just over the till, listening. It's hard to hear them, but she thinks she hears a name—Dean. Charmer reaches up to look more closely at a cut on Gentle's face.

When they leave, she considers calling the cops, but decides against it, because she doesn't know what she'd say.

She keeps a wary eye on the security feed until Drew shows up, and hangs around, unsettled, near the coolers, until he tells her to go home.




Purchased: 4 bags chips. 2 packets beef jerky. 6 glazed doughnuts. 4 taquitos. 3 cases beer.

Grace's shift has barely started when Gentle arrives, breezing in on the last strings of the setting sun, looking a thousand times better than the last time she saw him, though his arm is in a sling, now, and he looks about as tired as she feels.

“Looks like a party,” she says, hesitantly, when he comes up, arms laden with junk food and booze. She can't get the image of him out of her head, cut-up and bruised and staring out the window. He seems to get that she's a little intimidated. She thinks she can see him getting smaller, putting himself back on her level, curling his shoulders, softening his face.

“Kind of.”

“Taquitos,” she says, popping the styrofoam box to do a quick count for the register. “What's the occasion?”

Grace knows without looking that he's weighing his words.

“Um—my brother just got—back. We're kind of celebrating, you could say.”

“With gas-station taquitos?”

He laughs; it's a weary sound. “With gas-station taquitos.”

“Your brother, huh?”

“Yeah.” He pauses, watching her work, and then seems to remember. “You've met him. He's in here with me all the time.”

“That's your brother?” She compares their faces in her mind—supposes she can see it. “Huh.”

“Hey, look—I'm real sorry about last time. We shouldn't have come in. We didn't meant to freak you out.”

She doesn't know what to say, so she tells him his total instead.

He looks a little embarrassed as he pays her and takes his change, his shitty junk food clutched in his big arms, taquito box balanced on top. But he smiles as he leaves, and she's glad to see him sliding into that long black car again.





Purchased: 1 bottle lighter fluid.

Something's wrong. There's too much space between them. Grace feels like she could fit a thousand people into it.

They don't look at each other.

Charmer stands by the counter. Gentle goes to the front aisles, where engine oil and WD-40 stand on display. He picks up a bottle of lighter fluid. Fumbles cash from his pocket.

Charmer stares at him while he pays, and Grace feels a discomfort she's never known before with these two. Something's really wrong. It's like buying this bottle is some kind of punishment, as if Charmer's watching him to be sure he feels it, feels what he's doing. He isn't smiling, but he's wolfish all the same. She wants very badly for the both of them to leave.

Charmer mumbles something about filling up and leaves, back to the pump, before Grace is finished. She's glad he's gone, but Gentle is still here, waiting for his lighter fluid, and he's weighing down the store like a lead balloon.

“Everything okay?” she says, because it's always been easiest to talk to this one, and somehow it grates on her bones to think that there's something wrong with her two favourite weirdest customers.

Gentle looks at her. Head-on, which feels new. “No,” he says. Like always, he leaves his change on the counter.

Grace eyes the security feed, watching Charmer fill up his long black car, watching Gentle sit quietly in the front seat like a punished child. Somehow the departing growl of the car fills her with a kind of dread.





7. Purchased: ——

Her mother begs her not to go to work. The forecast is all wrong, she says, from the armchair where she sits, molded to it, too obese to stand on her own. Stay here, Gracie. Somethin' ain't right.

But it's ten-thirteen an hour, even if night is coming on a little faster than usual.

281 is deserted. When she gets to the station Ashlee is standing outside, staring north. There's an ugly black cloud on the horizon. Where it meets the sunset the pinks and oranges are curdled and strange.

“Thank God,” Ashlee says, as soon as she's stepped foot out of her car, and before Grace can ask what's wrong, she's taking off toward her sedan and peeling off toward home.

The lot is deserted. The radio inside is all static. Grace stands outside, up on her tiptoes, looking out towards the clouds.

They're spread out on the sky like a storm, but the breeze is sour.

Maybe she should have stayed home.

She hasn't seen the brothers since they came in to buy lighter fluid. For some reason she finds herself wishing they were here. She stands in front of the counter where the view is best, watching the black cloud leach southward. Like no storm she's ever seen before. And coming on fast.

The sun is swallowed up completely a few minutes before nine. Everything—everything—is black. Darkness like she's never seen.

At nine-thirty Grace locks the front door.