Don’t Leave The Counter

by: M.J. Orz

I’ve been traveling for most of my adult life. I was always the kind to get up and go whenever things got too serious or too heavy for me to bear. Needless to say, I was never great with relationships. The last few good years have just been me, my car, and my dog, Max, traveling the country, making a thousand new starts, and sneaking our way out of the world right before things got interesting. It was just life and we were living it.

I got Max when he was a puppy. I’m a pretty skinny guy – always have been since I was a kid – and Max was a German Shepherd, which was incredibly helpful for a guy living out of his car. My friends in high school, before I dropped out, used to call me Beanpole and joke that I could never find a girlfriend because I weighed less than ninety-five percent of the girls at our school. Max was my muscle. He had a large bark and a bigger bite. I’ve only seen him on the attack one time, when someone came up and tried to break into my car one evening as I slept in it. I opened the door and let Max out – he tore the man’s sleeve off of his shirt, bit his forearm hard, and sent the man running, crying and screaming as he bolted. It was only that one time, but I knew from there on that Max was a force to be reckoned with. And he was my best friend.

I had just left the west coast – started out in Washington then made my way south towards L.A. before cutting east into the heart of America. I didn’t know where I was headed to, but I knew I wanted to get away from Seattle and was thinking that maybe the other half of the country would treat me better. I lived all over this side of the good ol’ U. S. of A. and couldn’t help but wonder if maybe there would be something I could actually settle into over on the other end of the Mississippi. So I turned onto the highway and began yet another new journey in my life with Max sticking his head out the window, smiling as he always does.

Now, one of the nice things about these Middle America shitholes is that if you are hurting for work and you’re not too picky, you can make yourself a buck or two without a problem. I’m not saying that you are going to get yourself a nice cozy job in an office or that you are even going to find yourself working indoors at all, but if you are willing to put some sweat on your brow, dirt on your jeans, and break your back a little each day, there are plenty of opportunities for a young man to fill his pockets. The economy may be in the tank, but for a vagabond, it couldn’t be better. Everyone wants someone temporary. Everyone wants to save a buck. If you got the cash, us travelers are happy to fill in where you need us. And by the time I hit Texas, I was damn happy that this was the case.

My funds were pretty low a few hours out of Fort Worth on Interstate Twenty and it hit me that I need to find something to do before I continued any further. Max’s stomach growled as much as mine did at this point, so I lucked out to find that the gas station off the highway was looking for some help. I figured it couldn’t hurt to talk to the manager about staying and doing some stuff under the table before crossing the state line. Luckily, the manager was one of them evangelist Christian types who got his rocks off helping out poor souls like mine, and when I told him that I wanted to start a new life out east – with the Lord, of course – you’d think the man needed a new set of trousers.

I started work that night and he told me he would pay be sixty dollars a night to keep the shop open from eleven in the evening until six in the morning. He said that he spent most of his nights sleeping behind the counter and would love to have someone there to let him go crash in his own bed for a change. He told me that he had a young man working for him before, but that he had gone off to school somewhere and he felt like he hadn’t been home in days. He was one of those lonely types, I could tell. I asked him if there was anything around the shop that he needed to get done. He shook his head, said no, and that everything would be finished for me by the time I started. All I needed to do was to stand behind the counter and help customers as they came into the store.

That’s when it started getting weird.

I asked him if there was any time that I could take a quick break to eat or smoke and his eyes got very wide. He placed his hand on my shoulder and stared me down for a hard minute before speaking.

“Son,” he said to me, “You can eat and I’ll even let you smoke all that you like, but I need you to stay behind the counter. Do you understand?” I cocked my head a little to the side, curious and thrown off by how serious he was being about this.

“Yea, I understand. What if I need to take a leak or anything?” I asked him. The man stepped behind the counter and pushed open the skinny door behind it revealing a toilet and sink.

“You can step up to the front door to lock it, but leave the bathroom door open. I know it’s weird, son, trust me, but it’s something you’ll get used to. In these parts, you just can’t be too careful. And don’t worry, once you lock the door, nobody can get in and the windows are mostly blocked so even if you’re taking a while or what not on the pot, it’s not like anyone can see you. Just promise me that you will stay in. Do not leave the counter. Clear?”

It was crazy and I know now that I should have just walked away, but I couldn’t think to turn down an easy sixty bucks. I asked a few more simple questions to break the tension and found that the man loved dogs. I mentioned Max and he stepped out into the hot Texas sun to my car to pet him. When I told him that Max would sleep in the car while I worked, the man said that would be nonsense and that Max would come in and keep me company. I was genuinely grateful for this and shook the man’s hand before stepping outside for a smoke and to read a little bit before my shift started.

Come eleven o’clock, I made my way into the tiny gas station once again to find the man leaning back in his chair, watching the small black and white television that was perched up on the windowsill.

“Not a lot of channels, but it’ll keep you busy. We don’t get many people in here at night. I’ll be surprised if you get more than six or seven customers. Those customers will be truckers though and they’ll need a lot of gas, so we got to stay open for ‘em, you know what I’m saying, son?” I nodded, letting the man pet Max as he got up from his chair, unbuttoning the top button of his flannel shirt. “Alright, now if you need anything, my number is taped to the bathroom door for you. Remember, I do not want you to leave the counter, ok? I’m serious now, son. Don’t leave it. Not even for a minute.”

I said ‘ok’ and took his place in the chair as he left. The cash register was broken, so the man just had a metal box next to it with money lying inside of it. Next to the register was a bunch of hand-written receipts. You could tell that this place had seen better times and I could kind of understand that with low level of security, I probably wouldn’t want my new employee to walk away from the cash either. Max curled up next to my foot as I watched reruns of Andy Griffith on the television, and got myself comfortable for a long, but what I assumed would be a fairly easy, night.

About halfway through the shift, come two-thirty or three in the morning, I had only had four customers or so and was starting to itch for something to do. The late night reruns were all fine and dandy and I even found myself drinking as much water as I could just so I had a reason to lock the doors and piss every hour or so. I was happy to be inside and to be making the money as simply as I was, but I really just wanted to do something. Anything. Maybe even just a lap around the building to stretch my legs. I got up and walked over to the doors, looking out the window. The lot was completely empty and all the lights were on. I figured that, as long as I remembered to lock up, that one quick lap wouldn’t hurt. It’s not like anyone could actually get into the building. There was no back room or back exit, as dangerous as that may be. There was one way in and if it was secure, so was the store. I even decided to leave Max in the shop to protect the cash box as an over-reactive, almost embarrassing last line of defense.

I step out into the night air which felt nice and cool compared to the Texas daytime heat, and turned to lock the door behind me. With the sound of the click, I smiled and began my lap. It felt great to stretch and whistle a bit with my hands in my pockets. I remember thinking how nice the open desert is and just how isolated I was. The only lights for miles were coming from the gas station and the stars were beyond impressive. It was like nothing I saw in California and a totally different experience than Washington. There was something magnificent about the whole thing.

I stepped back up to the door and clicked the lock back to ‘open’. Stepping in, I could still hear the TV on across the room. I called for Max, but he didn’t come. I thought that maybe he had fallen asleep. I stepped behind the counter and dropped to my knees.

Max was dead, split open from neck to hips. Written in his blood on the inside of the covered window were the words:

“He told you not to leave the counter.”