My life would scare the hell out of Stephen King. Seriously, it could redefine the entire horror genre. It’s not an original story—a father I’ve never met, a mother more concerned with her boyfriends than me—but working the graveyard shift at a gas station only adds to the terror. There are no creepy clowns, which I hate, or witches casting curses in the large mini-mart, there’s worse: people with nice things, people with a future, people who will take their thirty-two-ounce fountain soda and drive their new car away as fast as possible from this dump of a town to the ‘pretty’ parts of Florida. And I’ll still be here.
So, will the super pregnant woman that lives in the woods just behind our store with her boyfriend and dog. It’s where most of the homeless people live until the cops come to do a sweep every six months or so and toss them out like the ‘white trash’ they think they are.
Every night she comes in with her boyfriend and buys a single bottle of juice, two hotdogs, and a can of dog food. And every night, like clockwork, I let them grab drinks from the soda fountain for free. She always tries to pay, but I never let her. Arrest me. I’d do more for them, but there’s not a lot an eighteen-year-old can do. It’s probably selfish I’m stashing away half my paycheck, but I never claimed to be a saint. To prove that point, I swipe a piece of fried chicken from behind the glass case. For gas station chicken, it’s pretty darn good. Much better than the nothing that was my dinner.
The second I sink my teeth into the crispy crust, a tall, dark-haired man wearing a New York ball cap enters the store, interrupting my Robin Hood moment.
He strides over to the display of candy bars, and Iike I normally do when I’m alone in here, I guess what he’s going to get while I eat my chicken leg. Hm. His jeans are worn, but not the kind of worn like I’m wearing. He bought his worn, he didn’t earn it like I did. The dark T-shirt clinging to his biceps could go either way. I’m going to say he’s not the type of man who needs an expensive T-shirt based on the tattoo peeking from beneath the sleeve, so he probably doesn’t like the expensive candy bars with fancy names. I think he’ll go for the Snickers. He’s too handsome for a candy bar that doesn’t offer at least three things.
In suspense, I nearly choke on my chicken as I watch him reach down and select a plain ‘ol chocolate bar. He moves around the display, to the chips on the opposite side. While he studies the carbs, I study his face —the hard lines and angles, the straight nose and perfect-sized lips—and guess barbecue. That flavor has a rugged appeal, like he does.
He glances up and our eyes meet. I should look away, or at least put down this chicken leg, but I can’t. I need him to walk around that obstacle blocking him from my view and show me he picked barbecue. He looks back down, and after a few minutes, his eyes volley back to mine. And that’s when I get an uneasy feeling that starts low in my belly and works its way up my spine. How long does it take to pick a bag of chips? I’ve learned working here: not only poor people steal.
My instructions are to call the cops if I see shoplifters, but by the time they get here, the thieves are usually long gone. I leave my position behind the counter and drift a little closer to the sexy potential thief. Not that I plan on trying to take him down over a couple dollars—I barely reach his shoulder—but I’m not going to just hand it to him either.
“Did you need help with something?” I ask.
“Not unless you have salt and vinegar chips back there.”
“Yuck, no,” I answer.
That feeling in my stomach takes a dip when he smiles. A dimple peeks out for a moment, dazzling me, and then I remember that’s how shoplifters try to trick you, with charm. Meanwhile, he’s probably shoving five pounds of chips under his shirt.
He turns toward the glass refrigerator doors and leans down to grab a bottled water and that’s when I see it—the handle of a gun tucked between his waistband and briefs. I’ve seen what guns can do to people.
Since I don’t want to die tonight with a chicken bone in my hand, I hustle behind the counter, toss the drumstick somewhere between the stacks of napkins and plastic silverware underneath, and hit the panic button we had installed last summer. I never should’ve taken this job, but my options are slightly limited. Though, not as limited as they’ll be if he blows my head off. I can’t tear my eyes from him as he closes the distance to the checkout.
“You alone in here,” blue eyes do a sweep over my long brown hair, across my face, down to my name tag, “Bella?”
I try to memorize everything about him, but his eyes are like being lost in the sky.
“No,” I lie. “I’ve got a good friend under the counter and I’m not afraid to use it.”
Hopefully, my implication is clear. Hopefully he thinks it’s a weapon.
Amused, he reaches behind him. “Your chicken? Well that’s a first.” Instead of a gun, he pulls out his wallet. “How much?”
Quickly I scan his items, not taking my eyes from him.
“Three dollars and thirty three cents,” I tell him, taken aback by the total filled with my favorite number. I’ve always liked the number three and the way it curves into a heart that’s not complete. Not to mention it’s a magical number. Working till three am, three days a week, didn’t deter me at the job interview.
“It’s not safe for you to be here alone,” he advises.
“It’s not safe for you to have a gun tucked in your jeans,” I counter, without thinking.
“I have a license to carry,” he says, with a half smirk.
He pays and on his way out, gives me one last glance over his shoulder before blue and red lights flash, shining through the windows of the store. The man stops just outside the door, watching the calvary arrive.
I breathe a sigh of relief, they showed. I’m half-expecting the police to draw their weapons, shouting to the stranger to put his arms up. But it never happens.
Ray Martin, the sheriff, walks up to the stranger, pats him on the shoulder with a smile, and they laugh.
I strain my neck, trying my best to see what’s going on.
They both enter the store.
“Evening, Bella,” Ray says, making my skin crawl with a smirk the devil would admire. “You called me over our new officer?”
“Evan Lacuna,” the blue-eyed stranger introduces himself, then smiles. “Nice to meet you.”
I open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. I was raised never to trust a cop, and I knew something was off about him. He may be hot, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a cop. “Hey,” I finally say.
He steps closer. “You really thought I was a criminal?”
“If the shoe fits.” I need to shut up before Ray hauls me down to the station. He’s done it before, trying to scare me straight or something stupid like that.
Evan steps even closer, and says only for me to hear, “Hands tied behind my back is not how I want to live my life.”
The circus finally leaves, and I replay his words, watching him drive away, until he’s nothing but tail lights. It’s never been proposed to me in that light before: hands tied behind my back. My life has only ever felt like a weight around my ankles, pulling me down.