Category Archives: Justin Swartz

Fill ‘Er Up

You wish you had some money. Working at Phil’s Gas-And-Go in Baker, California doesn’t pay the bills. It doesn’t pay for your Playstation addiction, either.
+++++There’s the annoying “ding-ding” of the bell. You have a customer. You pull yourself away from Game Pro Magazine. Peek through the window blinds at the new arrival.
+++++He’s fat. Real fat. Sweat comes off him in buckets in this heat. You don’t want to leave the air-conditioning in the office. But those annoying bills…
+++++You walk out into the heat. It hits you like your father’s fist. Rips the breath from your lungs. The fat guy isn’t doing much better.
+++++“How can I help you, sir?” you say in your best attempt to be cordial.
+++++“Fill ‘er up, boy,” the fat man says.
+++++“Regular or Premium?” you ask.
+++++“Whatever works,” he replies. “Say, you guys have a phone?”
+++++“Near the restrooms, in the back,” you tell him. “Cost you fifty cents.”
+++++“No sweat,” the fat man says. He waddles toward the back of the station. Wipes his forehead with a handkerchief.
+++++You watch him. Wonder how he ever made it through life with his paunch. Wonder if that’ll be you someday.
+++++You open the door to his gas tank. You pull the nozzle from pump one and jam it into the hole. You push the lever for premium. He won’t know the difference, you think.
+++++The fat man waddles back over. You finish refueling his car. Notice the make and model. And smile.
+++++“Nice Camaro,” you say. “Sixty-nine?”
+++++“Seventy,” the fat man says, annoyed. “What’s my damage?”
+++++“Eighty-two fifty,” you tell him.
+++++The fat man removes his wallet. It’s bent from being jammed in his back pocket. He thumbs through the bills. Hands you one.
+++++“Keep the change, boy,” he tells you. Shoves himself back in his Camaro. The car purrs. Roars. Stirs up dust as it blasts away.
+++++You think to look at the bill. It’s a ten thousand dollar bill.
+++++You double-take. Can’t be true, you think to yourself. Who would pay for eighty-two bucks with ten thousand bucks?
+++++Your feet carry you inside the office. Has to be fake, you think. Phil’s going to be mad as hell if it is. Probably fire you again.
+++++Your hand shakes as you reach for your marker. You twist the cap off. Run the yellow tip over the green ink.
+++++It’s not counterfeit. It’s not counterfeit. The fat man really gave you ten thousand dollars.
+++++You start thinking dangerous thoughts. Phil doesn’t need this money. The fat man gave it to you. It’s your money now.
+++++You take the keys hanging from the wall. Unlock Phil’s office door. Look at the safe in the corner.
+++++Phil isn’t around.
+++++The safe has money in it.
+++++And you know the combination.
+++++You open the safe. Reach inside. Remove the eighty-two fifty. Close the safe back up. Twist the knob. No one will know, you think. Not even Phil.
+++++You head back to the register. Ring up a sale for the eighty-two fifty. Stuff it in the drawer. Slam the drawer shut. Check the printed receipt. Everything looks like it should.
+++++Ten thousand dollars, you think. That could buy a butt load of Playstation games. You’d be able to buy those out-of-print ones that go for hundreds on Amazon.
+++++You pocket your newfound friend. No sense leaving it out in the open. Someone might steal it.
+++++But there’s a voice, in the back of your head, that tells you what you don’t want to hear.
+++++“There’s no such thing as a ten thousand dollar bill, pal.”
+++++You try to ignore it. The more you do, the louder it gets. The marker test proved it was real, you tell the voice. This is my lucky break.
+++++“You should be calling the Treasury Department, pal.”
+++++You know you should. They can figure out if the bill’s counterfeit or not. But if they do come, it’ll cause trouble for you and for Phil. He’ll definitely fire you again.
+++++You know the Treasury guys will confiscate your ten thousand dollars, too. It becomes evidence in a case. You’d never see it again.
+++++“Since when did the bill become yours?”
+++++Good point, you tell the voice. Then you tell it to shut up and leave you alone. You argue with it. Pace back and forth. Look like something out of a Kubrick movie.
+++++You barely hear the “ding-ding” of the car when it pulls up. The office door is open and you’re still pacing, still arguing with the voice, only now you’re doing it out loud.
+++++“Hey, kid!” a gravelly voice calls. “Can we get some service here?”
+++++You freeze. Turn around. See the two men in their suits and ties. See the Ford Taurus they’re driving. See the government license plate on the back.
+++++You trip over your own rubber feet. Walk toward them. Steady your voice. Hell, you have a hard time finding it.
+++++“What’ll it be, sir?” you ask.
+++++“Give her twenty bucks of regular,” the first man says. He’s tall. Broad-shouldered. Barrel-chested. Has a scar on his left cheek. Has hands like your father’s.
+++++“No sweat,” you hear yourself say. Both men give you funny looks. There’s no room for bad jokes, you think. Don’t start acting stupid and blow it.
+++++“You thirsty?” the second man asks the first. He’s just as tall as his comrade. A bit slimmer. Has a bushy mustache. Has a tattoo on the back of his right hand. Just like your father did.
+++++“I’m parched,” the first man replies. “Hey, kid, you got something cold to drink around here?”
+++++“We have Coke, Sprite, and Mountain Dew,” you tell him. “It’s inside, in the fridge. Cost you a dollar.”
+++++Both men leave. You remove the nozzle from pump number one. Jam it into their car. Slam the lever up for regular. And start pumping.
+++++The men return with bottles of Coke. They drink their sodas before paying for them. Just like your father did. You hate it when people do that.
+++++You stop pumping. Replace the nozzle. Close the little door. The first man approaches you. Slips a twenty and a ten into your shirt pocket.
+++++“Keep the change, kid,” he tells you. You give him a forced smile. He smiles back. He has your father’s smile.
+++++You walk back to the office. The second man approaches you. Spins you around. Smacks his empty soda bottle against your head.
+++++Something breaks inside your skull. Your world spins. You slam into the dirt. Your eyes stare at the blue desert sky.
+++++The first man runs over. Shoves the second man against the side of the station. Points a finger at him.
+++++“You didn’t have to do that, Neil!” he shouts. “He’s just a kid!”
+++++“He knows!” Neil shouts back. “Look at him! He knows why we’re here!”
+++++The first man looks back at you. You try to sit up. And fail.
+++++“You could’ve just asked him,” the first man grumbles.
+++++“That’s your problem, Morgan,” Neil says to his comrade. “You talk too much. Actions always speak louder than words.”
+++++You see Morgan roll his eyes, like he’s heard this a million times before. The two men walk back over to you. Kneel by you. Get way too close to your face.
+++++Morgan reaches inside his sport jacket. Removes a picture. You try to focus on it despite the headache that’s throwing hammers at your brain.
+++++“Do you recognize this man, kid?” Morgan asks you.
+++++You try to focus again. You focus hard. A shiver runs through your body.
+++++The man in the picture is the fat man who gave you the ten thousand dollar bill. It’s his mug shot.
+++++Shit, you think. He’s a wanted criminal. You took property from a wanted criminal. Does that make you his accessory?
+++++“Don’t know him,” you blubber out. Your face hurts. Probably because there’s glass shards in it.
+++++“Sure you do, kid,” Neil sneers at you. He jams his broken soda bottle against your throat. “Think hard.”
+++++“Did he give you a ten thousand dollar bill?” Morgan asks you.
+++++You shake your head. Get dizzy. Pinch your eyes shut. Your head falls back onto the dirt.
+++++“This is a waste of time,” Morgan grumbles. He pockets the photo. Stands. Points that finger at Neil. “We’re outta here.”
+++++Your eyes close. Open. Close. You force them open. The sun melts your retinas.
+++++You don’t see Neil jam his bottle into Morgan’s neck so much as you hear it. You hear Neil’s battle cry. You hear Morgan’s cry of pain. You hear Morgan’s body thud against pump number two, the one that doesn’t work. You hear Neil’s labored breathing. You hear him curse at Morgan. Call him foul names. Spit on him. Humiliate him.
+++++You shrink your eyes to slits. Neil storms over to you. Picks you up by your shirt collar. Reaches for your wallet. Rips it out. And tosses you back onto the dirt.
+++++Everything inside you tells you to fight for your money. Even that voice in the back of your head tells you to fight. Wait, you say to it, you told me the money wasn’t mine, and now you’re telling me to take it back? Whose side are you on, anyway?
+++++The voice shuts up. You like it when the voice shuts up. It takes away some of the pain from your throbbing headache.
+++++You sit up, just in time to see Neil throw your wallet on the ground. He holds the ten thousand dollar bill in his hands.
+++++“Hot damn,” he says. “It’s all mine!”
+++++You don’t know where the strength comes from. It’s just like in your video games, where your life bar is down to nothing, and you pull off a desperation combo that totally thrashes your opponent. That’s how you look at it as you push your feet forward, bend your legs, and tackle Neil to the ground.
+++++Neil elbows you in the face. You don’t feel it. Adrenaline takes over as you hit him with everything you have. He blocks a few of your punches. Most of them land. They do little good, you realize. You’re not a fighter. The only hand-to-hand combat you know is from your Playstation games.
+++++Neil grabs you by your left arm. Tosses you against pump number two. You slump next to Morgan. He’s bled out all over his suit and the dirt. Deader than dead.
+++++Your vision clears. You see the ten thousand dollar bill lying in the dirt between you and Neil.
+++++Neil stands up. Rubs the bruises on his face. He sees the money too.
+++++He dashes for it. Stays low to the ground.
+++++You reach for the nozzle on pump number two. Switch it to premium on instinct. And drag the nozzle in Neil’s direction.
+++++Neil slides toward the bill. Snatches it up. You see his greedy smile.
+++++He doesn’t see you squeeze the trigger on the nozzle. He screams as you douse him in premium unleaded. You’re in shock that pump number two works. Maybe it’s always worked. Maybe it’s an act of God.
+++++Pump number two empties out all over Neil. You drop the nozzle. Run toward the back of the station.
+++++Neil tries to follow. Slips on the gasoline. Falls on his back.
+++++You find Phil’s old blowtorch and the cardboard box he keeps it in. You turn it on. It sparks to glorious life.
+++++You spin around. You see Neil charging toward you. And you throw the blowtorch at him.
+++++The idiot catches it in his hands like it’s a foul ball. Then he goes up in flames.
+++++The flames are hotter than the warmest day you’ve spent in the California desert. You throw your hands up to protect yourself. Peek through the space between your fingers.
+++++Neil writhes on the ground. His body burns. His flesh melts. That mustache of his disappears.
+++++In a strange way, you’re happy. Neil deserved it. But then you remember the ten thousand dollars. Where did that bill go?
+++++You skirt your way past Neil’s blazing body. You run back out front. You find it in seconds.
++++++++++Your ten thousand dollar bill sits in a pool of gasoline.
+++++Shit, you think to yourself. What do you do? Take the chance of picking it up and possibly setting it and yourself on fire? Hell, you think, what if Neil gets a second wind? Don’t the villains always get a second wind?
+++++That’s when you see the line of gasoline leading from pump number two all the way to Neil. An orange-blue flame trickles through it. Pushes toward pump number two. Pushes toward your ten thousand dollars.
+++++You’ll never make it in time, you tell yourself. Go back inside. Lock the door. And pray you don’t get blown up.
+++++You do as your mind tells you. You dash inside the office. Slam the door shut. Lock it. Hide under the counter. And pray for the first time since you were ten.
+++++The last time you prayed, it was to stop your father from beating you. God didn’t come through that time, or any of the other times.
+++++You close your eyes, cross yourself, and pray the Lord’s Prayer out loud. Loud enough for the entire universe to hear. You want to make sure God listens this time.
+++++The first explosion is pump number two. Whatever gas was in it blows Morgan’s body to bits and pieces. Those bits and pieces splatter against the office’s window. They cloud your view of the outside world.
+++++You keep praying.
+++++The second explosion is pump number one. It’s followed by a slightly louder one–the Taurus. Flames blast across the dirt. Set it ablaze. Throw smoke and soot on the office window. The office goes black.You keep praying.
+++++The third explosion is pump number one’s underground tank. It goes up in a succession of quick and thunderous booms. Like a triple-barreled super-shotgun blast in a first-person shooter. The flames rise into the air. Fill the sky with smoke. Practically set the clouds on fire.
+++++You keep praying.
+++++The fourth explosion is a small one. The scream that precedes it is not. It’s Neil’s scream of mortal terror as his ravaged body explodes from the pressure of the flames. What’s left of his limbs tumble across the dirt and continue to burn.
+++++Silence follows.
+++++You stop praying.
+++++You crawl out from under the counter. Scoot to the office window. All you see is fire. Smoke. Blood.
+++++You reach for the phone. Dial for help. Nine-one-one answers. You tell them to hurry, but forget to give them your address. You call back. Get the same lady. You apologize, thank her, and hang up.
+++++You unlock the door. Open it a crack. Look outside. And close it up again.
+++++Phil’s going to kill you. He’ll never hire you back this time. Maybe he’ll understand that those two Treasury Agents–if they even were from the Treasury–tried to kill you and take your ten thousand dollars. Maybe he’ll understand that a fat man with a wallet full of money handed you a ten thousand dollar bill and drove off into the sunset. Maybe he’ll understand that none of this was your fault.
+++++“The eighty-two fifty is your fault, pal,” the voice in your head says.
+++++You put a hand to your heart. It slams against your ribs. But ribs don’t crinkle like paper.
+++++You pull Morgan’s thirty bucks from your shirt pocket. You forgot all about it. Maybe you could get one or two of those rare Playstation games on Amazon.
+++++Phil doesn’t have to know. Phil’s going to be too busy firing your ass.
+++++“Here we go again,” that voice groans.
+++++And you tell it to take a hike.