Gas Station People

Krystyn Helman sat amidst the straw wrappers, grease-stained napkins, and mismatched “lost” earrings in her car. Meticulously, she ripped open a fast-food bag with her long, pointy, and lime green painted acrylic nails. As she pulled out a large container of French fries, she spied the order’s receipt: “Order 69 Kristin to-go.” Poetic. Apparently, the sarcastic seventeen-year-old McDonald’s worker hadn’t shared her mother’s dramatic flair or love for the letter Y. In the third grade, Taylor Pavlov had told her that the two Ys in her name let everyone know that she was white trash. Looking around at the state of her car, it seemed like Taylor Pavlov might have been right.

With her green claws that desperately needed to be filled, she pulled down the car’s visor and flipped open the small mirror. Looking at her grimy reflection, she tried to wipe away some of the mascara that had bled down onto her under eyes. She did this until she was happy with the raccoon eyed result; she thought it was as good as you could get with two-day old eye makeup. Then, she arched her back and used the brake as a counterweight to lift herself up so that she could see her chest in the mirror. She centered the sterling silver butterfly pendant necklace that she wore every day and adjusted her boobs so that they spilled over the top of her lilac-colored tank top. If you were supposed to replace bras every six to twelve months, Krystyn was about twenty-four months behind, and the push-up padding was starting to need more and more manual assistance. Finally satisfied, she flipped the mirror closed, stuffing the McDonald’s receipt between the plastic cover and the reflective material, turned the visor back up, and focused her attention on her lunch.

As she slowly picked at the mildly cold, fully stale fries, Krystyn looked around the parking lot of the gas station that she came to every day on her lunch break. Spending all day in Mr. Tafferty’s office with no one but him and the half-dead goldfish bored her; Krystyn had an awful habit of judgement fueled people watching that wasn’t satisfied by her secretarial work. In fact, Krystyn hated everything about her job, partly because she’d lied in her interview about her familiarity with Microsoft Excel and had never bothered to learn how to use it in a non-frustrating way. But despite the boring work, Mr. Tafferty’s old man smell, and Mr. Tafferty’s wildly sexist beliefs, he paid her on time and didn’t care if she wore homemade jean miniskirts to the office, so she’d been working there for the six years since she’d graduated high school.

Moments later, an old, rusty pick-up truck pulled into the small lot and caught Krystyn’s attention. A stumpy man with a backwards baseball hat hastily got out of it and dashed into the gas station’s convenience store. He didn’t bother to lock the truck’s door behind him, and his eyes never lifted from the cement ground, which she thought was odd. Quickly, Krystyn began her game.

After a long shift at the meth lab, Billy Benjamin needed a refill on Diet Mountain Dew and Rolos. An unbelievably disgusting combination for a fascinatingly gross man.

She waited for the man deemed Billy Benjamin to buy his items and exit the store, wondering if she’d guessed his order correctly. It wasn’t long before he did. In his hands were a bag of peanuts, a canned energy drink, and a Rolos candy bar; she’d been close. Billy Benjamin also held the door open for another man, who exited the convenience store with a large Styrofoam cup of soda, a bag of plain Lay’s potato chips, and two gas station hotdogs. Krystyn watched as the second man, heavy set with a ponytail, clamored into a large, windowless van. There was a toy poodle in the van’s passenger seat, who was patiently waiting for one of the two hotdogs.

Mother had told Martin that Fluffy wasn’t to eat human food, but what Mother didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.

Krystyn slurped away at her own large Styrofoam cup of soda as she watched Martin in his car. She’d spilled some of the fries, but she hadn’t bothered to pick them up. She was so enthralled with Martin and Fluffy that she almost missed the bumper-less Honda park in the spot that Billy Benjamin had vacated. A woman, about Krystyn’s age, with box blonde hair that bordered on banana yellow, climbed out, pulling an oversized bag out with her. She heaved the bag over her shoulder and marched into the convenience store on her platform flip-flops.

Mandy was seeing Jackson after work, so she’d be feasting on a lunch of cigarettes and Diet Coke. She’d already painted her toes bright pink and shaved everything the way he liked it. She just had to last another eighteen hours and then he’d be on his way back to Tampa and she could eat as many cheeseburgers as she wanted.

As Mandy disappeared into the store, Krystyn reached into her own purse, absentmindedly pulling out a pack of Camels and a glittery pink lighter. Quickly, she stopped herself and shoved the pack back into the depths of her bag. Instead, she reached for the now cold cheeseburger she’d forgotten about; she wasn’t seeing Johnny until next month when he was back in town on business. She unwrapped it, tossed the paper wrapper into her backseat, and took a large bite.

It wasn’t long before Mandy marched out of the store with a pack of cigarettes and a Diet Coke in her hands, and Krystyn couldn’t help but grin as she wiped ketchup off of the corner of her mouth. Mandy peeled out of the parking lot, blasting Shania Twain music, when a dark black Tahoe pulled into the spot directly in front of the door. A sixteen-year-old girl got out of the passenger seat with a look on her face that Krystyn recognized but couldn’t place. The windows of the car were so dark that Krystyn couldn’t see the driver.

Jenny hadn’t nailed her back handspring at practice today and her mom was pissed. She knew she was being sent in to buy a bottle of water so there was time for her mom to call her dad and yell about how much of a disappointment she was.

The girl, wearing low-rise jeans and a white top, looked nervous as she opened the door and entered the store. Krystyn scoffed. She didn’t know how anyone who rode around in a fancy, black Tahoe had anything to worry about.

She returned to her cheeseburger, which she was going to finish despite the fact that the cheese, ketchup, and mayo had congealed into waxy paste. Right as she took another large bite, Jenny dashed back out of the store, shaking her head at whoever remained in the car.

Immediately, two large men with ski masks and shotguns jumped out of the car and ran into the convenience store. Jenny waited outside, skittishly tearing at her fingernails.

Fuck.

Krystyn watched as Jenny’s eyes darted back and forth. She was very clearly the lookout, but she didn’t seem so keen on being there anymore. And the men seemed far older than sixteen. Krystyn couldn’t keep her eyes off of the girl. But both of them were pulled out of their nervous trances at the sound of one of the shotguns going off and glass shattering.

As soon as she registered what happened, Krystyn watched Jenny shudder and look towards the road to the left of the gas station as if she was thinking about running. But then, one of the ski masked men opened the convenience store door and grabbed her around her small arm, pulling her into him. Krystyn watched Jenny’s eyes flash with the feeling of both comfort and discomfort as the man tucked her into his chest.  Then, she was dragged into the chaos of the store. All the while, Krystyn was glued to the straw wrappers, greasy napkins, and her car’s seat.

As she sat, paralyzed, Krystyn heard the men start screaming at whoever was working the register. She couldn’t see Jenny anymore. She couldn’t see anything inside the store with the midday glare. She didn’t know what to do; all she knew was that Jenny definitely wasn’t supposed to be there.

As Krystyn sat for what felt like eons, she remembered the feeling of clammy hands wrapping around her own arm and pulling her into a chest.  She remembered not knowing if she wanted the hands on her or not, and she imagined that was what Jenny had felt in that moment. Krystyn still couldn’t move and all she could think about was how that girl was not supposed to be there.

Certainly, someone was coming to save her. Right?

When Krystyn was sixteen, her mother had brought home a forty-two-year-old boyfriend named Ronald. Ronald worked at the FedEx down the street, but soon he was spending a lot more time in the trailer with Krystyn and a lot less time at work. And it wasn’t long after that that spending time with Krystyn turned into fucking Krystyn when her mother was gone. She’d thought he’d loved her, but then he’d up and left in the middle of the night and neither she nor her mother ever heard from him again. She hadn’t thought about Ronald since until this very moment.

It was then that Krystyn recognized the look Jenny had had on her face when she’d first gotten out of the Tahoe and entered the store; it had been a look of misplaced love and devotion that only sixteen-year-old girls could express, and older men so often took advantage of. It was the same look Krystyn had given Ronald every time he’d pulled back the curtain that separated her bedroom from the living room and walked in uninvited.

She needed someone to save her.

Before Krystyn knew what she was doing, her car door was open, and she and the garbage spilled out onto the cement. Quickly, she crept up to the store’s window and peered in. The men were still brandishing their shotguns; one of the employees was hurriedly emptying the register while the other laid on the floor, surrounded by candy bars and gum in a growing pool of his own blood; and Jenny was there, curled up near the door and shaking.

All Krystyn had was a potentially expired can of pepper spray. No matter how strong her will was, there was no way she’d win in a fight against two men with shotguns. But it was then that Krystyn had remembered what her mother had told her the day they’d woken up to find Ronald gone: “men aren’t sneaky.” She had known that Ronald wasn’t going to stay, his actions the week before he left made it pretty obvious. That was the week he’d given her the butterfly necklace. She just hadn’t wanted to acknowledge that he had planned to go.

But she acknowledged it now as she slowly pulled the convenience store door open, knowing that the men would be too focused on the money transfer to notice that Krystyn was pulling on Jenny’s hand.

It wasn’t long before Jenny realized what Krystyn was doing. Jenny inched along across the floor to the gap in the door that Krystyn was slowly widening so as not to make any noises. She just hoped that the cashier had already called the cops to deal with the rest of the mess.

Jenny locked eyes with Krystyn right as she reached the door. It wasn’t opened wide enough for her to squeeze through but opening it any more would ring the small bell positioned at the top. Jenny nodded once and Krystyn shoved the door with all her weight.

Immediately, Jenny sprinted out. Krystyn was right behind her and already frantically unlocking her car’s doors. Before the men even realized what was happening, Krystyn and Jenny were in the car and speeding out of the lot.

They drove for a while. No sounds filling the car aside from the Juice Newton CD that Krystyn listened to every single day. Krystyn kept her eyes on the road. Jenny ripped off more of her cuticles.

“Here,” Jenny said suddenly. “You can drop me off here. It’s my stepmom’s house. They won’t know to look here.”

In a silent agreement, Krystyn pulled the car into the gravel driveway and parked. She looked out at the plastic lawn chairs and pink flamingo decorations as Jenny took a slow, deep breath. As Jenny reached for the door handle, Krystyn found herself unclasping the butterfly pendant. Without a word, she placed it into Jenny’s hand. Jenny looked at it and smiled softly, as if she knew what it meant.

*****

Kellene Adkins is a writer and comedian. She graduated from the University of Arizona amidst the 2020 chaos with degrees in Creative Writing and English. She is currently an MFA candidate in Television Writing and Producing at Chapman University.