The Late Shift
by L B Gschwandtner
During the day the Gas N Go looked like any ordinary filling station. It had a two-bay garage attached to a grimy office that housed a stand-up desk for the cash register and credit card imprinter. A pay phone attached to the outside wall butted up to a battered Coke machine. The double pump island offered regular, super and diesel. A kerosene pump and an air vacuum that you had to prime with quarters sat on their own concrete slab near the dumpster. Behind the station was a large field overgrown with weeds and small scrub pine. The Gas N Go was situated at one end of a scruffy little Southern town that hadn’t changed much in a hundred years, except for the standard twentieth century additions. You could walk from one end of Main Street to the other in less than five minutes and be on the way to the next town, which was a good thirty miles away. This was corn country, and beef, and there wasn’t much else around, except for the old pants factory which had been laying people off for a year now.
When night fell, though, the big, red, electric Gas N Go sign came on and cast a tint over everything within its reach, giving the station and half of Main Street a ghoulish crimson glow.
Zeb Mueller, who owned both the Gas N Go and the Eat N Go diner at the other end of town, always closed out at ten. In a town this size there was no reason to stay open later. On this particular night, the late spring air was warm and pleasant. Zeb was not in a hurry. He stood at the register counting out ones, fives, tens and the occasional twenty. No fifties today.
An unfamiliar crackling sound momentarily disturbed his concentration.
Damn sign. Must be a short in that thing. I’m gonna get the ladder out tomorrow and take that plastic cover off and see where it’s at.
The sign flickered slightly as if a squadron of bugs had flitted across its face. Zeb collected the rest of the cash and credit card receipts from the register drawer, dropped them into a bank sack, then stood at the open door, one hand on the knob, the other reaching for the light switch next to it, the money sack hanging between his fingers. He flicked the switch down and pulled the door shut. A single spark pinged against the metal door frame and glanced off his shoulder, leaving a small dot where it singed the cotton fabric of his blue work shirt.
Zeb turned toward the sign. His face looked like it had been scorched by the sun.
A small pop, like a champagne cork, came from one of the cars waiting in the bays for the mechanic who would come on at seven next morning.
What the hell…
Zeb turned to the sound at the same instant a louder explosion erupted from the garage.
The Gas N Go sign flicked on and off once. A third explosion blew up the first car and sent pieces of metal tearing through the one sitting in the next bay.
Zeb darted toward the street but the blast from the garage flung him face forward onto the ground. The sack shot from his hand, the string around it breaking from the force, the money spewing out in a cascade of change and bills.
As he hit the pavement Zeb cried out, “What’s going on around here?”
Gerald Underwood Mattson came on duty at the sheriff’s office at nine that evening.
“That you, Gum Boy?”
Christ Almighty, why can’t he use my rightful name?
The nickname had stuck since the fifth grade when Miss Adams had noted his initials and assigned him to be Gum Monitor, which meant every Friday just before school let out, it was his job to scrape the wadded up gum stuck under all the desks into an old coffee can. Every special school task was given the title Monitor. At the end of the year, the principal honored all the Monitors with a blue ribbon. Gum threw his ribbon in the trash on the way home from school.
“Come on in here, Gum Boy.”
Gum stood at attention in the sheriff’s office doorway.
Look at that belly. I’ll bet he downs about a dozen doughnuts a day.
“Gum Boy, I got a call a little while ago that some folks is having trouble with electric outages. Seems to be just random. I told ’em to call the power company. They got a 800 line for reporting stuff like that.”
Gum rested his hand on the pistol butt in the holster at his hip.
“So I tell you what you’re going to do, Gum Boy. After you finish your sign in and paperwork, you’re going to scout around town. Be quiet about it now. We don’t want nobody getting their knickers in a wrinkle about a whole lotta nothing.”
Gum left the room.
Crazy old man. What’s he think I’m going to find?
It had been busy at the Eat N Go and Minnie was cleaning up for the night, her arms halfway into soapy water in the deep, stainless sink behind the counter. She looked up at the clock.
Nine-fifty-nine. Zeb better get here on time. I got a ache in my feet like to kill me.
She turned to grab the coffee pot off its burner stand but as she was about to touch the handle, for no apparent reason the glass pot burst, spilling coffee all over the floor, spattering Minnie’s apron and pale yellow uniform skirt. The lights dimmed and Minnie became aware of a faintly acrid smell. Definitely not coffee. Curious about its origin, she walked to the door and pushed it open. A smell like burning wool overwhelmed her. She gasped for air, inhaling a large quantity of the foul fumes.
I gotta get over to Zeb. Let him handle this.
Before bolting out the door she pulled her apron over her mouth, the spilled coffee and broken pot no longer a concern. She walked fast on the deserted sidewalk. Behind her, Minnie heard a loud pop. When she turned to see what it was, she saw that Melrose Street beyond the diner, usually brightly lit by one lone pole light, was now shrouded in darkness. Then she began to run.
Gum had just finished preparing a list of places to visit on his nightly rounds, places that might yield some clues about any power problems. If there was any evidence of tampering with the power supply, Gum felt sure it would show up in businesses rather than in homes. But not too many businesses were open nights. He would check the Gas N Go and the Eat N Go first.
As he pinched the paper crease hard between his thumb and index finger, Minnie crashed through the door of the police station. Her hair was singed, her face stained with smoke and tears. Her apron had a big rip along one side. Her dress was stained with coffee. Her hands shook, her voice was nothing but a croak and both her arms had gone numb.
“Zeb,” she rasped, and fell to the floor.
For a couple of seconds Gum was too surprised to move. Then he jumped up from his chair and tried to pick her up. She smelled awful. He felt a wave of nausea catch below his throat.
Minnie’s eyes floated open for a second before her head dropped back against Gum’s forearm.
“Sheriff.” Gum yelled.
“What the hell’s going on out here, Gum Boy? You burning trash?”
“Help me get her up onto a chair or something. She’s in bad shape, Sheriff.”
“Who’s that?” the sheriff peered around from the doorway.
“It’s Minnie, from the diner,” said Gum.
“Don’t move her none. Just let her lay there. Here, put this chair cushion under her head. Phew, what’s that smell? I thought you had a fire out here.” He picked up the phone and punched one button.
“Yeah. It’s the sheriff. At the station. Get the squad over here right away. No, ain’t nobody been shot. Just get your lazy asses over here pronto.”
He slammed down the phone.
“What’s happened to her?”
“Don’t know, Sheriff. Before she went down she called out for Zeb.”
“Sure smells terrible. Look like her hair’s all burned, don’t it?”
“We’ll see what the rescue squad says about her.”
“I saw someone passed out like this once.” Two rescue squad volunteers were loading the stretcher carrying Minnie into the back of an ancient ambulance. A third stood next to the sheriff. “A lightning strike victim. Same smell. Same burnt hair. Numbness. No voice.” He looked up at the night sky.
“Sure is a quiet night.” He got into the back and slammed the door.
The sheriff and Gum looked at each other.
“Get out the squad car, Gum Boy. You and me’s going over to the Gas N Go.”
“What do you think of it, Gum Boy?”
They had roped off the Gas N Go and Gum had called the coroner, who was also the town pediatrician, to come over and examine the body. He had pronounced the cause of death: Blunt trauma. For the second time that night the ambulance had come screeching over and now Zeb’s body was on its way to the town morgue.
“Pretty obvious he got hit on the head a good one.”
“You’re right on that. I think I’ll put in a call to the state bomb squad when we get back to the station to come down here and check what’s left of this garage. I don’t know what else but a bomb could do that kind of damage.”
“A bomb?” Gum followed a few steps behind the sheriff. “Why would anybody want to bomb the Gas N Go?”
“Ain’t that a kick in the head? And what about that smell?”
The sheriff continued back to the edge of what was left of the garage. He directed his flashlight beam down at the bits of wreckage from the explosion.
“Come over here and look at these power lines. They used to attach to the wall of the garage and bring electric power into the building.” He followed the lines with his flashlight.
“Now they go straight into the ground. I wonder if they’re still live.”
“Nope. Them lines is all dead as a doornail. Lucky it’s late and everything’s shut down or we’d have some hollering customers in this town. I gotta get out to the relay station and see what’s the problem.” The man from the power company tossed his clipboard onto the truck seat and pulled himself behind the steering wheel.
“How you figure them lines got dug down into the ground like that?” The sheriff stood by the truck window.
“I don’t figure them things out. I get my orders, and that’s to make sure the power gets back on. You’d be surprised if I was to tell you how many power failures and power surges we get that nobody can figure out. I just make sure the customers are back up and running. I don’t ask questions. It ain’t healthy.”
“You don’t mind if we follow you out there, do you? Come on Gum Boy, you the designated driver tonight.”
“Don’t mind at all. You fellas is welcome to keep me company. I hate working the late shift alone.”
They drove down Main, took a left at Elm, then turned onto Melrose. Two blocks away the Eat N Go sign was still dark.
“That’s where Minnie must’ve come from.” Gum pointed to the diner.
The sheriff looked through the darkness past the beam of headlights toward where Gum was pointing.
Gum stopped the car. The two men watched the Eat N Go sign begin to glow. The plastic showed a bulge across the top. Ahead of them, as the power company truck came up to the diner, the sign started to crackle. Gum and the sheriff opened the windows. The crackling changed to popping. Sparks flew from the sign. As the truck passed the diner, a visible wave of electricity, wide and pale green to almost white, swept out from the sign, illuminating the area, engulfing the truck and surrounding it, crackling like a huge griddle. In a few seconds the metal truck body was glowing almost white hot. The driver never had a chance.
Gum gripped the steering wheel tightly.
“Sheriff, did you see that?”
“I seen it all right.” The sheriff’s whisper was almost inaudible.
“What if this thing turns on us?” He began whispering too.
“Gum Boy, that’s crazy talk. As if this thing has a brain. It’s just electric power gone haywire.”
“How do you know that?”
“You got a better explanation?”
“Maybe it’s that stuff they call ball lightning.” Gum reasoned. The thought of lightning made the cloud seem almost plausible. He was quiet for a few minutes as he inched the car closer to the pale green vapor. The two men watched it hover for a moment then start to circle back toward the other end of town.
“But there aren’t any storms tonight.”
“You can have lightning without a storm. Just drive, Gum Boy. Drive.”
Gum leaned his head sideways above the steering wheel to look out the top of the windshield.
“Looks like it’s heading back the way we just came.”
“We gotta follow and see where it’s headed.”
They drove slowly, keeping what seemed a safe distance from the cloud.
“Look, Sheriff. It’s headed back toward the Gas N Go.”
“I wonder what it’s after out there.”
“Maybe it’s going to the old mine shaft in the field out behind the gas station. The one that’s been sealed up for years. Remember, there was an explosion in there once and it blocked up the mine and killed all the men who were down there? They could never even dig out the bodies. And no one could explain what caused the explosion. They put it down to mine gas. Maybe that’s what this is.”
They watched the cloud arrive at the garage and just hover for a few moments. Then it began to move again. Gum steered the car right up to the gas pumps.
The two men got out slowly. They watched the cloud crackle and sputter its way across the field behind the building. The sheriff grabbed his big steel flashlight and they crept along the side wall trying not to make any noise. At the corner they crouched down and peeked around the back.
“I say we get out of here and get some help.” Gum kept his voice low.
“What kind of help you mean? What have we actually got here?” The sheriff was still whispering. “We got two people dead and one woman all burned like she put her face in a wood stove. We got a garage exploded and a sign that burst with some kind of electric power surge. We got a truck that’s melted to hell and back. And we got you and me not knowing what’s going on. We go to get help and by the time we get back who knows where this thing might be or what it might be up to. I say we stay put and see what’s what.”
“You’re crazier than that thing. I’m getting out of here even if you’re not.” Gum stood up but the sheriff grabbed his ankle and pulled him back down.
“You stay put. That’s an order.”
The green cloud was floating above the middle of the field.
“That’s where the old mine shaft was boarded up,” said Gum. “Right where that thing is hanging now. I know because a bunch of us used to go and try to pull the old boards off when we was kids. It’s all overgrown now but I still remember it.”
“You kids hadn’t ought to have been playing out there. How many times your parents told you that?”
Yeah well it’s too late now, you old coot.
As the two men watched, streaks of light shot out from the ground in lines that suggested the spaces between the old boards. The green cloud hovered, expanding and contracting like a breathing organism. The crackling had reached a level so high that the men could no longer communicate by whispering.
“That thing’s gonna blow.” Gum was yelling as hard as he could.
“I know,” The sheriff yelled back. “Stick hard against this wall.”
The cloud seemed to be gathering energy, turning into a yellowish, hot green and changing shape into a piercing twister, like a funnel pointing down toward the shaft entrance.
The sheriff crouched low to the ground.
“I see something. Look there. Don’t you see it?”
“What is it?” Gum couldn’t see anything but the fierce light.
“I think there’s somebody stuck out there.”
The sheriff pulled forward on hands and knees toward the shaft opening. He held his head down low to his chest to shield his eyes from the light in front of his face and clutched the flashlight in his hand his knuckles hard against he ground.
“Come back,” Gum was screaming now but the sheriff couldn’t hear him. Gum watched, unable to run away, unable to move forward, his body stiff, the inside of his mouth spitless, his hands so cold he couldn’t feel the fingers. Feet like concrete blocks.
The first blast ripped a board off and sent a stream of electricity shooting into the night sky followed by a sonic boom a hair’s second later.
The sheriff turned back to Gum screaming something at him that Gum could not hear. Gum thought he should go to the sheriff but he had lost control of his feet. Then the earth began to rumble and under Gum’s feet what had been solid now seemed as if gophers were tunneling, pushing his feet around in a crazy dance.
Gum watched helplessly as the earth in front of the sheriff started to crack in fissures that unsettled the old man’s footing. Boards began to fly off the shaft entrance and hurl through the air, landing back toward the wooded area to the side of the garage, breaking some branches and landing with mighty bangs. The open meadow looked like a battlefield lit by flak, shrapnel flying everywhere, ground reverberating in great booms.
Gum saw the sheriff go down, one leg disappearing beneath the earth’s crust, the hand holding the flashlight sticking straight up in the air.
And then, although Gum refused to believe what he was seeing, he sensed what the sheriff had seen in the field. But it was too inexplicable to fathom. From the boiling ground where the sheriff was sinking fast, disembodied hands began to emerge. They waved in the air trying to grab at something that was not there. Hands stained with dark soil, gnarled and gray with age, like some pieces of old tree roots, desperate hands, hands that now grabbed at the sheriff, trying to pull him down or to pull themselves out. Hands that writhed and twisted like vines stretching upwards for light.
Something in Gum broke at that moment. Tears rolled down his cheeks and he ran forward and dove at the sheriff’s arm.
“Hang on,” he yelled. “I’ve got you.”
“Hold tight,” he yelled again pulling with tremendous effort, and a strength he never knew he possessed, against the chasm that was widening beneath the sheriff’s legs, even as the electric field beyond them grew more intense, blasting heat into the air as they fought to break away from its charge.
And then the hands made contact with Gum’s warm body and tried to grab hold of him. An upwelling of violent nausea rose in his throat giving him one more thing to fight against in that night of horror. The same smell that Minnie had brought to the station surrounded the two men as they struggled to break free of the pit that wanted to swallow them whole.
The last and heaviest board still in place across the shaft tunnel finally catapulted into the air allowing a piercing white light to stream from the shaft.
“They’re pulling me down.” The sheriff looked up at Gum with eyes full of terror. “Get out,” His yell barely audible above the chaos, “Save yourself.” He let go his hold even as the twisted dark hands seemed to be gaining strength and Gum felt the sheriff’s arm slide through his fingers.
“No sir. You can strip my badge, but I’m damned if I’ll let you go.” He lunged down toward the sheriff, grabbed him around the chest and began slowly, inch by inch dragging him from the split in the earth and the grasping, mocking hands, groveling from the edge of the gaping hole that had so long ago become the burial mound of a group of hapless men.
It was slow going but Gum kept at it, inching backwards on his stomach, terrified to stop and unable to stand and run. Finally they reached the edge of a wooded area where Gum could release his hold on the sheriff’s chest. Propping him against a tree, Gum sank onto the leafy ground, completely spent.
But the show was not over.
The crackling turned to popping. Two streams of electricity met at the shaft opening, one from inside and below, the other from outside and above. Clear, bright lines of electricity like so many bolts of lightning shot up into the air where they met the vapor cloud that had now coalesced into one throbbing, funnel-shaped electrical field.
The two energy masses battled in a dance of power that dazzled the night and terrified anew the two men watching, riveted to their spot at the edge of the stand of trees as the two streams of electric current wound around each other like mating snakes.
Gum turned his face away from the battle as the streamers of electricity shot toward the sky. His voice was hoarse, his hair stood on end, his lashes were singed and his eyebrows had been burned clean off.
An explosion ripped through the darkness collapsing the back wall of the garage. A wide, white-yellow streak shot straight up from the mine shaft before it seemed to be pulled down into the ground at enormous speed, leaving behind a great boom of thunder that shook the earth under them and collapsed the rest of the garage into rubble and smoke.
Afterwards only an acrid smell and silence remained.
Gum surveyed the devastation, wanting to believe the event had spent itself. He looked over at the sheriff, whose chest was heaving, hair burnt down to the scalp. “Do you think it’s over?” Gum asked in a hoarse whisper.
For some time the sheriff said nothing, just stared at the hole in the ground. Finally he looked over at his deputy.
Neither of them spoke for awhile until the sheriff broke the silence.
“You saved my life, Gum Boy.” His voice sounded like an old scratchy record.
Gum said nothing for a full minute. When he did speak, his voice was still hoarse, but strong.
“You know something, Sheriff?”
“I’d rather you called me by my given name.”
“Sure,” the old man croaked back. “Sure thing, Gerald.”
They sat there, in the moonless spring night air, as a soft breeze picked up the scent of lilac from somewhere beyond the field.