There will come a moment when you conclude that you can’t trust anyone, and that you can trust yourself least of all. Maybe that feeling will pass with maturity. Maybe it will haunt you for the rest of your life. Either way, odds are that any mistakes you make while under its spell will leave indelible marks on your mind. Call those growth rings or call them scars. It doesn’t really matter. The point is there are some things about your past you can never hide without burning away your soul.
These thoughts were going through Ethan's head as he pumped gas into an Oldsmobile Cruiser station wagon. At twenty years old, he should've been too young for such morose reflection. However, he'd spent the last week since he'd dropped out of college sleeping in that big car with its fake wooden panels. And just yesterday he'd lost forty bucks he couldn't spare.
Maybe later Ethan would say someone jumped him and stole that money, but the truth was it had fallen from his pocket because he'd kept those bills wadded up with the car keys and his cigarettes. If his father ever found that out, it would just be shit flavored icing on the big shit cake Ethan was sure to get if he ever showed his face. Can't trust others? Check. Can't trust yourself? Yeah, check and mate.
Ethan squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again, trying to figure out if the seagulls he saw next to the car were real. Sure, it wasn't as if he was in Oklahoma City or some place where the appearance of coastal birds would be a sign of the apocalypse, but even off this Connecticut highway they seemed out of place.
It was an hour inland and at the bottom of Naugatuck River Valley. Gull number one, with a grey patch on the top of his head, had fished something out of the garbage. Gull number two swooped down to investigate. He was smaller but had a scar under his left eye, probably from some knife fight at an avian bar over in New Haven. That would explain why he'd wandered this far north. Maybe someone was after him.
Regardless, Lefty definitely looked like he could take Patches. It was also important to note, Ethan thought to himself, that it was two in the goddam morning. These were not normal specimens of their kind. Maybe they weren't even gulls at all. Ethan wouldn't put it past an exceptionally clever crow to die its feathers and bulk up at the gym.
He ventured across the frozen lot to the all night convenience store. Given the number of diesel pumps and the highway location, he was placing his bets on hot dogs or maybe even a frozen pizza and a microwave to heat it in, the sorts of things that a trucker might buy at this hour besides gallons of coffee. Once his eyes adjusted from fluorescent lights so bright he could almost smell them, Ethan was happy to find his hunches correct. He also discovered something else that he was not expecting.
There was a man about his age at the counter. This man was unremarkable, save for the fact that near the register he had one of those orange pill bottles you get from the pharmacy. It read "fluoxetine", which Ethan knew was the generic name for Prozac. He knew this because until about one week ago, he used to take it. He couldn't say that it did him a whole hell of a lot of good, but maybe a half of a hell or something like that.
In high school he'd been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and started taking the pill. He quickly discovered that doctors threw Prozac at everything from depression to OCD to - who knows - alien implants maybe. It was the holy water of psychiatry. A priest flicking drops off his fingers wasn't likely to frighten the devil, but at least the robes made you feel like some kind of authority was taking the bleeding walls seriously. In Ethan's case the bleeding walls were...
He squeezed his eyes shut again. This time it wasn't seagulls. This time it was a vision of the store clerk's feet sticking out from behind a shelf and a stream of blood flowing between the soles of his shoes. As in a dream, Ethan felt himself compelled to go there even as another part of his brain screamed that he really did not want to see what the rest of the body looked like. Then he glanced at his hands and saw more blood. He was also holding the medicine bottle.
In a moment, the vision passed. What did not pass was the fear that he might do something horrific to get his hands on the Prozac. He didn’t even want it that bad. What dogged him was a paranoia that, should the urge ever come over him, he was capable of grabbing a sharp object and running it through the clerk’s face. How did he know he wasn’t a monster? When a guy burns down his house with his family inside, the neighbors always say they’d never seen that side of him. Maybe the guy didn’t either, until the moment before he lit the match.
There was a door that lead to a backroom. Ethan walked down the aisles and looked for empty slots. Maybe he could find something that wasn’t in stock, ask the clerk to check in the backroom for more, and swipe the bottle. Would eating the pills relieve his obsessions? Maybe not, but if all he did was get his hands on the pills without any violence, it would prove his fears wrong. He even checked the angle of the one and only security camera as if he was an actual criminal casing the joint and not just a stupid kid. It was, of course, pointed directly at the counter. Scratch that.
“Can I help you find something?” said the clerk.
Ethan’s gaze was stuck on the bottle and the shadow of its pills, visible through its translucent skin. He noticed that the label read Harold Faulkner. The clerk looked Pakistani or Indian and his tag said Ali. Maybe he full name was Ali Harold Faulkner - but no, not really. Ethan got a picture of someone a little like himself. Maybe Ali was tormented and in need of something, anything, to ease the pain. Could his parents not afford drugs? Did they not believe in modern psychiatry? Ethan couldn’t blame them on that last count. It hadn’t done much for him. He tried repeating to himself the mantra that he would not steal the bottle or attack Ali because these two kids were kindred spirits.
You don’t want to harm this guy or steal his stuff.
But you will. Why else do you see his death in your mind over and over and over?
“Just go home, idiot.” he sighed to himself.
“Huh?” said Ali.
A work van pulled up and two people hopped out. The van said “Duke Carpentry”. The first person, the driver, was a boney woman wearing a tee shirt and a gray knit cap. It was hard to know her age because of her hollowed out cheeks, but Ethan wouldn’t have put her past twenty five. The passenger was a man in his thirties. He wore a carpenter’s belt, leather gloves, and a forest green ball cap with no lettering. Neither of them looked like anyone called them “Duke”.
The junkie stayed outside, pressing her back against the glass and blowing cigarette smoke into the bitter cold. The wind and snow flurries didn’t seem to bother her. Band-Aides covered her arms, which were little more than ribbons of skin. The carpenter shuffled with his head down and his shoulders slumped. If these two were a pair, Ethan figured the junkie was in charge. She’d been at the wheel… and besides, the carpenter just had that look. Despite a muscular build that could snap the bitch in two, he was more comfortable taking orders. He also dragged his right leg behind him. Perhaps he’d had an injury. This made Ethan think of the man as Lefty. Guess that made the woman with all the bandages Patches. Jesus, Ethan needed some sleep. Lefty walked up to the desk and, without making eye contact, asked Ali for a pack of Marlboro Lights.
"Sorry man, we're all out." said the the clerk.
"Could you check for more?" asked Lefty.
"No man, I'm pretty sure..."
"People always say that."
Lefty glanced back at the door, where Patches was shaking a little. It wasn’t the cold. Lefty looked nervous and that anxiety was contagious. Uncertainty passed over Ali’s face. Even Ethan felt a chill of discomfort spread over him. What did it mean that the carpenter was frightened of that little woman’s twitching? Patches dropped her cigarette and crushed its burning head. Then she turned her face and fired a long look into the light, her eyes peering beneath the shadow of her heavy lids and the thick rolled brim of her hat. Ali shrugged and went to the backroom.
Lefty moved with surprising speed. He produced a heavy nail and held it against the frame of the store room door. With a single swing of the hammer, he drove that nail halfway into the wood. Ali yelled and shoved the door, but this did nothing to bend the nail. Lefty shot two more nails into the frame. Patches waltzed inside and walked down the aisle next to where Ethan stood. She tore open a box of trash bags and removed one. She gave this to Lefty. As he filled the bag with bottles of Tide and Dove detergent, Patches crossed her bare arms and watched Ethan. She raised an eyebrow and grinned. Ethan was frozen.
Where were all the murderous thoughts now? Where were the visions of Patches and Lefty soiling the checkerboard linoleum floors with their blood? Well, at the very least he should be able to muster some ruthless ire for Patches. Lefty seemed like just as much a victim in this scam as Ali, though Ethan couldn’t figure what hold his partner had over him. It didn’t matter. They left the store and threw their haul into the back of Duke’s truck, leaving Ethan with the hard reality he was neither a criminal nor a hero. He was a shadow.
Ali was still screaming. Ethan looked around for something to pry the nails out. Tools were not an item this store seemed to sell. He walked up to the counter and scanned across it. Maybe there was something here. Yeah, this pills. Take them? Then his eyes landed on a cardboard box with a wooden handle sticking out. On closer inspection, this turned out to be a plunger. There was a metal toolbox in there too. Ethan pulled it onto the counter and rifled through it. He pulled out a small hammer with a claw and glanced at the camera as if to say… see?
He went to the rear door and pried the nails. Ali came barreling out and swept past Ethan. He ran down the aisles until he found the one Patches and Lefty had emptied.
“What did you do?” he shouted.
Ethan said nothing. What did he do? He busted Ali out of his prison is what he did. Ali, on the other hand, seemed to think Ethan was in league with the Duke twins.
“I saw you looking around.” said the clerk.
It was clear that Ethan’s little survey of the store had looked to Ali like a real casing. Did this guy actually think Ethan was somehow a legit gangster? He honestly didn’t know whether to feel insulted or flattered. His response was to mutter something about how he’d let the other guy out and all that, but whatever, it didn’t seem to make a difference. Ali was angry, and crazy when it came down to it.
“What’s wrong with you?” he said.
Ethan turned to the exit and, while Ali was shitting himself over the stolen detergent, brushed his hand along the counter and took the Prozac. He climbed back into the Olds wagon and drove away, his heart vibrating in his chest.
image courtesy of pixabay