by Buzz Dixon
He snapped a picture of the greasy haired snaggle-toothed stranger holding a knife to the woman’s throat.
“Open the door and let me in!” said the stranger.
Not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin, Patterson thought, then aloud: “No.”
The stranger and his hostage both blinked. “I said open up!”
“And I said no.”
“I’ll kill her!” said the snaggle-toothed man. “You gonna get in trouble if I do that.”
“Not as much trouble as you.”
“You gonna lose your job.”
“Really?” Patterson said. He didn’t feel like explaining to snaggle-tooth that his brother-in-law gave him the gas station’s graveyard shift as an act of charity, that there weren’t enough customers on the road between midnight and sun up to cover his meager wage, and that he took the job because it minimized his interaction with other human beings.
Patterson had a rough history of interaction with other human beings.
“He’s gonna kill me,” the woman said, not at all convincingly. A female version of the snaggle-toothed male, she stood a few inches shorter, several pounds lighter, with slightly less facial hair. Their dirty T-shirts and torn jeans might as well have been uniforms.
“I don’t think so,” said Patterson. He dialed 9-1-1 on his phone and reported the attempted robbery to the state police. The dispatcher said they’d send someone, and Patterson knew from prior experience that meant 45 minutes at best.
Not that it mattered to Patterson. The gas station security booth could double as a fortified pillbox: Thick bulletproof glass windows, cinderblock walls filled with concrete and rebar, a single fireproof metal door in the rear.
The heavy duty roof, made of railroad ties as a precaution against Arizona twisters, could conceivably be burned through, but it would take a lot longer than 45 minutes to do so.
And besides, Patterson would not turn on the gas pumps, so that option was out.
The couple standing on the other side of the grill weighed their options. “I’ll kill her, I really will,” said the man, but he now sounded even less convincing than she did.
“Here’s why you won’t,” said Patterson. “I know every person and every vehicle with any business on this road. I see a strange vehicle maybe two, three times a month, out of state plates rarer than that.
“So when you went by in your beat up ol’ Alabama clunker about an hour ago, I noticed. And I noticed when you came back in the opposite direction, more slowly this time, and I noticed you when you came back fifteen minutes after that.
“Only that time I noticed the lady here driving, not you.”
“We didn’t — “ the man started but the woman said, “How’d you see that?”
Patterson didn’t feel like telling them about his three tours of duty in Afghanistan or the friends in lost in ambushes or the suicide bombers he shot before they could get too close or any of the myriad other things that gave him a debilitating case of paranoiac post-traumatic stress disorder so he boiled it down to “I’m hyper-vigilant” and let it go at that.
“I figured something was up when she came here all by herself, and sure enough, you came sneaking out of the shadows to grab her and threaten her if I didn’t open the door.
“Now ask yourself, what would somebody be doing out in the middle of the desert at three in the morning, a good seventeen miles from the next nearest building? Some thief hoping to make a random big score on the outside chance a victim might roll along?
“Or a criminal confederate trying to put one over on the rube running the gas station?”
. . .
The man saw they were outmaneuvered and lowered his knife though he kept his arm around the woman. “Okay, mister, you win. Just give us some gas and we’ll get out of here.”
“No,” said Patterson. “If you had politely given me some hard luck story — no matter how bogus — I’d have let you top off your tank then thrown in a few beef jerky sticks and a couple of bottles of water for the road.
“But I don’t appreciate people who threaten people with violence, real or not. Sticks in my craw. So you can either hop back in your car and try to get as far away as you can before the Arizona highway patrol sends out your description and plate number, or you can sit here and wait for them.
“Makes no never mind to me.”
The man and woman looked at each other, clearly lacking a Plan B.
“What if I said I had a gun in the car?” the man asked.
“Then you would have used it instead of that knife,” said Patterson. “Even if you did have one, it wouldn’t do you any good.” He rapped the glass for effect, forcing snaggle-tooth to admit it sounded far denser than mere glass should.
“We weren’t going to hurt you, mister,” said the woman. Like the man, she had more scabs on her arm than teeth in her mouth.
I’m alive and my friends are dead because I always believe people are trying to hurt me, thought Patterson.
The woman looked down dejectedly, then her eyes went wide with horror and she screamed. The man looked down and screamed, too. He and the woman practically jumped into each other’s arms.
Patterson begrudgingly acknowledged their screams sounded pretty authentic, and more out of curiosity than anything else stood up and peered over the edge of the window to see what terrified them.
Tarantulas swarmed across the gravel of the gas station parking lot.
. . .
“Letusinletusinletusin!” the woman screamed. “There’s tarantulas everywhere!”
“Let us in, mister — please!” said the man.
Patterson hesitated. He heard too many terrified screams in Afghanistan to ignore.
No matter how fierce his enemy, he could still identify with the helpless fear he heard in their voices, and now these would-be robbers sounded just as terrified.
He swore softly under his breath and dragged out the ancient .45 revolver his brother-in-law kept under the cash drawer.
The revolver, more for show than actual use, held three bullets, but for someone like Patterson, that would be more than enough.
“Okay, he said, “listen up. You want in, you do exactly as I say.
“First off, pal, throw that knife away.”
The man needed no further urging. He hurled the knife across the narrow two lane road running in front of the gas station.
Inside the security booth, Patterson backed up to the fire door, keeping an eye on the couple. They jerked and twisted, freaking out over the horde of spiders swarming around them.
“Listen up!” Patterson shouted so they could hear him through the grill. “When I open the door, the lady comes in first.
“Lady, when you get in here, you lay down flat on the floor with your fingers clasped behind your neck, got it?”
“You, slick, come around when you see she’s in and on the floor. You lie down next to her, same deal, then we’ll take it from there.”
The man nodded, too. Patterson unlocked the door and opened it slightly.
The woman bolted around the security booth, shrieking with every step as she tried hopping around the tarantulas.
She bolted through the door.
“Down!” Patterson said, and she needed no further reminder: She hit the floor hard and clasped her fingers behind her neck.
“Now you,” Patterson shouted at the man.
He ran around the security booth more quickly than his female companion. The woman wore thin sandals, but he wore boots, so he felt braver facing the arachnids.
He took two steps inside the booth. Patterson stepped back and cocked the pistol.
“No! I’ll get down! I’ll get down!” the terrified man said, laying flat on the floor beside the woman.
“Kick the door shut,” said Patterson, and the man did.
“Okay, said Patterson. “You’re safe. Just stay there on the floor and as soon as the cops arrive they’ll put you in their nice, safe squad car and take you to a nice, safe holding tank.”
“What about my baby?” the woman asked.
. . .
“Are you shining me on?” Patterson asked.
“She’s not!” the man added.
“Where is this baby?”
“In the backseat,” said the woman. “Please, mister, I’m sorry we tried robbing you but we wuz desperate, we needed money, we didn’t know what to do.” She looked up at him with a tear-streaked face. “You can’t leave my baby out there to get eaten by them tarantulas.”
“They aren’t going to eat her,” said Patterson. “It’s tarantula mating season, they’re out swarming the desert every night, looking for females.”
“Males? Ain’t they even more dangerous?” the man asked.
“They won’t harm your kid,” said Patterson. “The state police will be here in a few minutes, they’ll contact child protective services, your kid will be looked after properly.”
The woman started crying. “I don’t want her hurt! Oh, please, don’t let her get hurt! She ain’t had anything to eat all day, please go help her — please!”
Patterson flashed back to the last three seconds of his platoon sergeant’s life, when a desperate Afghan mother begged him for help, and —
Patterson shook his head. He hadn’t hallucinated for weeks and while the memory felt intense and vivid, it stayed just a memory, it didn’t crowd in on reality.
What to do about these two? he wondered.
They’re not suicide bombers, so I can relax on that. They’re just a pair of dumb peckerwood meth-heads, not master criminals or commandos. All I need to do is incapacitate them long enough for me to go out and get the kid and bring her back.
One minute, tops. I can do that.
He took a roll of automotive duct tape from the rack by the counter and tossed it beside the woman’s head. “Tape up your boyfriend’s ankles,” Patterson said. “Then tape his hands together behind his back.”
She hesitated. “If you want me to get your kid…” Patterson said, and the snaggle-toothed man look at her and nodded.
The woman quickly taped her companion’s ankles and then his wrists together.
“Okay, tape your ankles together,” Patterson said, and once she complied: “Now toss the roll to me and extend your arms above your head, wrists crossed.”
Face down, she obeyed. Keeping the revolver aimed at her head, Patterson kneeled on her elbows, then put the gun out of her reach atop the counter, grabbed the remaining tape, and bound her hands together.
“Now stay here and don’t move, don’t try anything funny,” Patterson said, tucking the revolver into his waistband. “I’ll get the kid and bring her right back.”
Patterson stepped around them and grabbed the broom in the corner of the booth, then opened the door and went out.
. . .
Tarantulas look scary, and their bites hurt like hell, but unless a person is extremely allergic to their venom, they’re not fatal to humans.
Just a bunch of lonesome guys on a Saturday night, Patterson thought, looking for love wherever they can find it.
More threatened than threatening, predators who kept harmful insects in check, tarantulas did not alarm native Arizonans.
Patterson kept the broom not just to clean the security booth but to sweep out any tarantulas that managed to crawl in during their mating season.
He used it now to brush a path for himself through the swarming arachnids to the beat up old car.
They mean me no harm, I won’t harm them.
He got to the car and peered in the rear window.
The sole light on the gas station lot threw a deep shadow across the back seat, and while Patterson could make out the baby seat among all the trash, he couldn’t get a clear look at the child.
The couple left the front doors unlocked so they could jump back in as soon as they finished robbing him; Patterson open the passenger door then recoiled at the smell.
This time he did hallucinate back to Afghanistan, to a recovery mission deep in the sun baked hills, to a mangled Humvee blown apart by a mine…
…to the stench of corpses left to bake three days in the heat.
Reacting with horror, he slammed the door shut.
He took several deep breaths, forcing himself to calm down the way his therapist taught him. Breathe, breathe, he told himself. Maybe it’s just some garbage they left rotting in the car.
But he knew it wasn’t that and, steeling himself for what he knew he would find, he open the passenger door again, reached inside, and opened the rear door.
Using his cell phone as a flashlight, Patterson held his breath and leaned inside the rear of the car.
Even without breathing the stench of decaying human flesh reached him. The child was dead, had been dead for several days, and maggots crawled across her face.
Patterson backed out and slammed the door shut. He turned to look at the security booth.
The couple somehow managed to escape their bonds and jimmied open the cash drawer. They grinned mockingly at him as they waved the bills they found.
. . .
Patterson drew his revolver and strode to the security booth but, seeing him coming, the man locked the fireproof door.
He peered at them through the window. They made goofy, mocking faces at him, playing with the dozen bills that they found as if it were a million dollars.
“She’s dead,” Patterson said. He felt a tarantula crawling up his leg and kicked it off. “The little girl is dead.”
The couple didn’t hear him. They were too far gone in their meth-addled fantasy.
“How do you plan to get away?” Patterson asked. “The state police are on their way here.”
“You gonna to let us go,” said the man with brilliant drug addict logic. “You gonna tell ‘em you felt sorry for us, that we wouldn’t hurt nobody, and you let us go. Otherwise — “ here he cackled with glee. “ — otherwise you gonna hafta tell your boss how you let us get inside and steal your money!”
Patterson ignored him and turned to the woman. “She’s dead,” he said.
The woman ignored him, counting the cash over and over again.
Patterson rapped on the window with the muzzle of his revolver. “She’s dead!” he repeated.
The woman finally looked up, blinking with incomprehension.
“She’s dead!” Patterson said again.
“The little girl. Your baby. In the back seat. She’s dead.”
The woman slowly processed this. “…dead…?”
The man saw the woman paying attention to Patterson. “She ain’t dead,” he said. “She just soiled her britches, that’s all.”
“Why didn’t you clean her?” Patterson asked.
“She don’t need to be cleaned, not yet anyway.”
“How long has she been back there?” Patterson turned his glare to the woman. “When was the last time you fed her?”
The woman’s mouth worked soundlessly as she processed this, then: “…two, maybe three days ago…”
“She ain’t dead!” said the man.
“You told me she just crapped herself!” shouted the woman.
“He’s lying!” the man said, pointing through the window at Patterson. “He’s just trying to get me in trouble!”
The two began screaming at each other, and Patterson turned away from them, shaking his head in disbelief.
Another memory rocked back to him, this one after Afghanistan, when his wife could no longer weather his depression and mood swings and took their daughter with her to go back to her folks and filed for divorce.
Patterson missed his daughter every day and every night, but deep down inside he knew she was better with her doting grandparents than with him.
He looked longingly at the beat up old car, unable to comprehend how anybody, no matter how far gone in their addiction, could let a child die of neglect…
The screams behind him changed in tone and tenor.
Turning, he saw the couple reacting with the raw authentic horror they displayed earlier when they first saw the tarantulas.
While secure, the gas station booth used a simple metal grate covering a three inch pipe for drainage; the pipe ran under the lot and emptied into a gully out back.
While the thin slits on the grate kept most desert vermin out, tarantulas and scorpions and centipedes could slither through, and when they did Patterson would sweep them out with his broom.
But the broom lay outside the booth now, and the couple inside did not know anything about tarantulas.
The woman climbed up on Patterson’s stool, pointing and screaming at the big hairy spiders that crept inside. The man tried to kill the tarantulas by stomping on them with his heavy boots, but being timid creatures the surviving tarantulas soon scurried behind the boxes of candy and automotive products the gas station kept on hand.
Taking a can of aerosol lubricant and a butane cigarette lighter, the man improvised a handheld flamethrower to incinerate the tarantulas.
The surviving tarantulas retreated further behind the boxes, and the terrified man sprayed them with the burning lubricant and the woman saw what he was doing and grabbed her own can of lubricant and began burning tarantulas with him and of course the plastic wrapped cardboard cartons soon caught fire and before the couple knew it the petroleum based products ignited.
And in the tight fireproof confines of the security booth, the flames fed upon themselves, and the fire soon erupted with fierce intensity and Patterson watched the two gibber and scream in the white hot inferno the same way he watched the crew of a downed helicopter gibber and scream in Afghanistan.
By the time the state police arrived the fireproof windows had blown out and the thick heavy roof collapsed and all that remained of the security booth were the solid concrete walls and the now impotent fire door.
The tarantulas moved on in their quest to find mates.