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“Six. Seventeen. Nineteen. Forty-five. Twelve. And…Twenty-three,” he finished, the last of the lotto numbers rolling off his tongue, which was suspiciously dry considering the speckles of spit that now clung to the sneeze guard separating him and the attendant. He cleared his throat before wetting his whistle with a gulp of his unpurchased Mega-Chug and wondered why the attendant didn’t ask for his cash.

That was supposed to be his cue.

The attendant had seen this all too often: a straggler—one of the pesky pricks that moseyed on in five minutes before closing time, making a last-minute run for their munchies, or whatever the hell they were gonna blow their five dollar scratch-off winnings on.

It was so routine that he had to do a double-take when the numbers all aligned: the ones coming out of the stranger’s mouth, and the ones Sharpied onto that little strip of paper taped against the translucent wall, just behind the 'Smile, You’re On Camera’ sticker. What were the odds that they’d finally line up? Probably pretty slim.

Yet sure enough, tonight they did.

“And…lemme do twenty on pump two,” the impatient patron said, awaiting the clerk’s response—maybe a plea for his payment. None was given. And instead of saying anything to the stranger in his station, the attendant silently trembled and reached just below the register.

Shit.

The barrels of two handguns met one another at the threshold of the see-through wall, still littered with the remnants of spittled lotto numbers and the smudges of oily fingers, which it held onto quite well, but both of them knew it would never catch a bullet.

There was a tense and somewhat awkward silence that seemed to drag on for a solid minute, only interrupted by the occasional passing car or noisy cricket.

“Is it bulletproof?” the patron asked, breaking that silence once again. The attendant shook his head.

“Your gun's not cocked,” he replied, fumbling with his accent.

What?”

“Your gun. You didn’t cock it,” he said, the hammer on his sh’tick-ing into place as he nervously grinned, “Like that.”

Now the silence was tenser, built up by the endless sound of buzzing fluorescent lights, as the patron gulped not on his Mega-Chug, but on his own hot saliva, sweat accumulating under his palm. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

“What is this? Self-defense?”

The attendant shook his head, popping open the register and shoving a five into his pocket, “If I told you,” he said, his once thick accent completely gone, “you wouldn’t believe me. I don’t even believe me.”

Confusion smeared across the patron’s face as he lowered his gun and took a step backward, ending the deadlock, defeated.

“Forget it, man,” he said, “keep the damn money.”

“You don’t understand,” the clerk said, scooting around the register, knocking bags of potato chips onto the unwashed floor, his sight locked onto the unpaying patron, “I can’t let you go.”

Another car passed as the attendant waited for a clearing. When he felt the road was empty, he nudged the former robber forward, a door chime reverberating into the cool, nightly air as the duo waddled into the parking lot. The attendant scanned the lot and made eye contact with the stranger at his gunpoint.

“That’s yours on two, right?”

The man nodded.

“Throw me your keys. And the gun.”

After an apprehensive hesitation, the stranger agreed, handing over the aforesaid items.

“What’s this all about?” he asked.

“Get in the car,” the attendant said, “passenger side. And if you try to run, I will shoot you.”

The man sighed in self-pity, pleading for an ounce of mercy, “Look man, I didn’t even take the money.”

“This has nothing to do with the money. All you did was make this easier for me. Now, get in.”

Without further protest, the man marched over to the passenger’s side of his car, sitting atop a pile of crumbs, ash, and unpaid parking tickets. He waited in there for many long moments—contemplating making a run for it—until the attendant emerged from the darkness, carrying a rope made of metal twine—which choked out any dreams of escape.

“Lean forward so I can tie this around you.”

Why?”

“Because if you don’t, I’ll kill you,” the attendant said, waving the cocked gun in his hand.

The stranger distrustfully agreed, leaning forward and allowing himself to be tied up. When the attendant was done with the dirty work, he slammed the door and walked around the hood to the driver’s side, surveying the empty road and plopping himself in the stranger’s vehicle. With a turn of the key, the engine roared.

“Look, if you’re gonna kill me…just do it,” the tied-up man said, his head hung against his chest as he fidgeted with the corded wire snugly strapped across him. The attendant finally sighed.

“What’re the odds that you’d pick the exact numbers?” he asked, a faint and ironic chuckle on his lips.

“What’re you talking about?”

“It doesn’t matter,” the attendant said, shaking his head and letting his foot off the brake as the car rolled into motion. His passenger’s heart sunk into his stomach as they looped around to the back of the building, wondering if the crazed gas station clerk was actually something of an ax murderer, ready to hack him into chop suey as soon as they faded from the florescent limelight.

As they pulled up before the car wash at the rear of the station, the clerk pressed firmly onto the breaks, forcing the vehicle to a halt before shifting it into ‘neutral’ atop the metal tracks. He let out one last sigh as he stared ahead, the beams from the car’s headlights shining onto a sign draped from a chain rope that blocked off the dark void of the wash’s entrance, reading, simply, ‘OUT OF SERVICE.’

Thank you,” the clerk said.

“The hell do you even mean?” the tied-up passenger replied, more confused than frightened at this point. The attendant simply chuckled under his breath once again, wagging his head as he pushed open the driver’s side door, light filling the car from above.

“I thought they were crazy, too—the people that found it. But now I know, as you soon will, that they were right. And if we don’t do this, God knows what this thing’ll do in its hunger.”

What?” was all the passenger could say, high-pitched and squeaky-like. But he was too late to protest. The clerk, approaching the wash, yanked the chain from its anchor on one side and tread carefully to the other. He rested the sign and its chain on the soaked concrete as he staggered over to a small metal kiosk machine, slipping the five from his pocket into it. The car wash whirred into motion as a low, growl-like sound rumbled the ground.

“Thank God it doesn’t hunger often.”

Within seconds, the car, and its estranged passenger, were already halfway tugged into the gaping chasm that frothed and gnashed with sputtering, spinning brushes that flailed all-too organically. And the bubbling liquid that secreted from every orifice of the machine rained down onto the car with a sizzling simmer, shattering the glass windshield on impact and eating straight through the metal roof—burning into the seats and the seated passenger.

The brushes clasped onto the tied-up man just as he began to scream, only for the entire commotion to be drowned out by the sound of echoed music that played from the station’s speaker system, coordinated by the clerk who feared a passerby might’ve heard the cries for help. They didn’t, of course. And even if they did, the screams were short-lived; soon the wash had finished cleaning its plate, sloshing chunks of flesh through its bristles like a baleen whale.

What remained of the car found its way to the other side, still dripping with the strange substances that resembled ordinary industrial soaps and waxes, but were clearly anything but. It didn’t take long to clean them, however, and they, along with the pools of blood that formed beside them, swiftly spiraled down the gutter drains and out of sight—out of mind.

The final touch was actual soap and actual bleach. And after it had soaked up the foul smells, the only thing to remain was the soap scum that had accumulated on the concrete. And as he cleaned and closed up in the small hours of the morning, making sure to carefully reapply the chained-up sign to the defunct wash, the so-called attendant Sharpied a curved, black line onto that number twenty-three; a twenty-eight in its place, hoping that the next poor soul would never consider it to be their lucky number.

“Uh,” the weary traveler said, “and let’s do fifteen.”

Thank God,” the clerk thought, glancing from the Sharpied twenty-eight to the man. He was a tired-looking, somewhat husky guy who must’ve been in his early thirties. “Best of luck.”

“Eh, I’m usually not so lucky,” the man shrugged with a sniffle, taking the lotto ticket and shoving it into his jacket.

You have no idea,” the attendant thought. The man chuckled to himself from across the counter.

“My momma always thought this kinda stuff was a waste of money. I told her it’s a game, y’know? Like cards or whatever.”

“Yeah,” the attendant said, yawning. It was four hours into his night shift, and he hadn’t gotten his break.

To be fair, he never got his break.

“Yeah. God rest her soul, though,” the man said with a sigh. “Say, you got a bathroom around here?”

Without hesitation, the attendant lifted the key, dangling from a license plate, and handed the unusual pairing over to the man, who accepted it hesitantly.

“All the way down on the left,” the clerk said, pointing.

“Thanks.” The man strode down the aisle of gummy bears and cheese puffs, clutching the dirty license plate that was suspiciously damp until he reached the door with the little picture of the stick figure about to wet itself. He pushed the key into the handle, twisted it, and walked in.

The stench hit him like a sack of potato chips, but it wasn’t anything he hadn’t smelled before. He passed the toilet, which seemed to have been left unflushed since the mid-nineties, and approached the urinal attached to the wall with one of those pink patties in the center. He unzipped and began to piss, lifting his hand, still clutching the license plate, leaning on it with his elbow against the wall. And as he was pissing, he turned and studied the thing, worn and wet as it was. And because it was sideways, he had to kind of bend his neck to get a good read of the thing.

WEHVFUN is what it said. It was an Ohio plate, a pretty beat-up one at that, with holes that littered the rusted metal and left no trace of paint around them. It was ugly, and yet, it seemed so familiar.

Where had he seen it before?

“Where’d you get this?” the man asked, setting the plate onto the countertop across from the clerk. The clerk settled his eyes on it and swallowed, trying not to show any emotion at the sight of the thing.

Ohio,” the clerk grinned. The man wasn’t laughing. “I don’t know…probably found it on the street,” he lied.

On the street?”

“Yeah, y’know…they fall off all the time.”

The man, smelling the shit from a mile away—or at least, from the bathroom—lifted the plate, took another good glance at it, and then dropped it back to the counter.

“It was my neighbor's. WEHVFUN? I saw that shit every day I pulled outta the drive. But not for the last week or so. He went missing.”

The clerk swallowed. He knew the man could see right through him. Why the hell did he have to hold onto that stupid plate? It wasn’t even that funny. He should’ve let the lake have it.

“I, uh-”

“I hated that son of a bitch. He was such a douchebag. He stole my bike from my garage. Like, who the hell does that?”

The clerk shrugged, in a daze and unsure of what to say or do. He did still have the gun. And they told him if anyone should find out…well, they shouldn’t.

“He was the kind of sick bastard that’d kill animals and stuff—for fun—real sadistic.”

The clerk nodded, “He tried to rob me.”

The man didn’t know what to say, and neither did the attendant.

“Is he…dead?” the husky man finally asked.

The clerk, looking out the glass door to the empty road outside, scooted up and around his tiny, little office, brushing by the rack of potato chips. He gestured for the man to follow him, and, without a word, the man followed.

At first, he thought it was a joke. But as the clerk explained it so nonchalantly, the more the man wanted to believe him. It wasn’t until a squirrel, or a chipmunk, or whatever the hell it was dashed past the two strangers and ran into the thing before he realized that what the clerk had been telling him was true. Because that squirrel or chipmunk or whatever had only just run into the thing for but a split second before the clerk slipped a five into the machine. And then what followed was the sound of the little thing squeaking, its bones cracking, and the sputter of the wash swallowing it down.

They both stood in silence for a long moment after that.

“So how’d you find it?” the husky man asked, unable to take his eyes off of the now motionless wash.

“I didn’t,” the clerk said, the vocal façade completely dropped, “I was hired by some government pricks to watch it. Whatever the hell it is.”

“Well, what is it?”

The clerk shrugged, “I dunno. But they told me they’d kill me if I told anyone. And that I was supposed to kill anybody that found out.”

The husky man turned to face the clerk, a horrified expression plastered on his face, only more realized when he noticed the gun strapped to the attendant’s hip.

“Nah, I’m not gonna kill you.”

The man sighed.

“But they still might.”

The husky man nodded, he scanned the large wash, or whatever the hell it was, and scratched his chin.

“What do they do with it?”

The clerk shrugged again, “Hell if I know. Every now and again they come around and mess with it. I’m supposed to watch it, feed it-”

“The lotto number thing?” the man asked. The clerk nodded.

“And no one else has ever found out? No police?”

The clerk shook his head, “Nope.”

The man bit his lip, “And it doesn’t leave any trace of nothin’? No bones?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” the clerk yawned.

The man chewed over the whole, bizarre scenario in his head a couple of times, thinking about his ex-neighbor.

“He really did have it comin’,” the man said. “He was a scummy guy. I heard him hollerin’ to his girlfriend night after night. Poor girl. Her face was all sorts of colors.”

“Mmm,” the clerk said, “guess, sometimes, things work out.”

The man nodded, “You did a public service as far as I’m concerned. Hell-” he stopped midway through his sentence. The clerk looked over.

“What?”

“Well,” the man faltered, “I mean, have you ever thought of choosin’ people to go into that thing?”

The clerk chewed on his question, “You mean, like, not randomly?”

“Yeah.”

“No. I couldn’t choose.”

I could,” the man said. “I mean, think about it. Your whole ‘lotto’ system might mean that some good folks gotta die, too. But, if you chose ‘em right, you could essentially clean up this town.”

The clerk laughed in his throat, “I just run the station, buddy. Okay? I’m not a hero. I just happened to get lucky.”

And the man chewed over what the clerk had said.

Two days later and five miles down the same stretch of road at a similar-looking station, that same man—the same tired, husky-lookin’ guy—had found himself crouched in the back of a Chevy POS, rag in one hand, bottle in the other.

Meanwhile, the door chime, busted as usual, didn’t alert the cashier that anyone was inside the station—the place itself being a lot smaller than the joint down the street, and far more run down. It wasn’t until the late-night customer had passed the security camera—which he had smugly winked into as he chewed his unpurchased bubblegum—that the cashier noticed he wasn’t alone and sat up accordingly.

The sketchy-as-all-hell customer was cradling a bag of potato chips, can of beer, packet of beef jerky, and the already-opened sleeve of bubblegum in his arms. He looked aptly fit to be the kind of guy there at eleven at night, and something told the cashier he wasn’t there merely for a pile of snacks.

“How’s it goin’?” the customer chewed, dropping the collection of junk food to the countertop from across the cashier. He flashed a smile, and the cashier began reaching for the price scanner.

“Hey, y’ever watch The Price is Right?” the customer asked, his wad of gum still smacking against his cheeks. The cashier shook his head, his English not being the best.

“They play ‘dis game where they gotta guess a price. And if ‘dey goes too high, the lil’ guy falls off the cliff.”

The cashier smiled and nodded, pulling the little scanner from its holster on the counter, aside the register.

“You wanna play?” the customer grinned. The cashier shook his head, but by the time he finished, the man had snatched the scanner from his hand, leaving him to tremble.

“It’s gon’ be fun, trust me. Here’s how you play,” he said, waving the little scanner around as he spoke, “you gotta tell me how much ‘dis, ‘dis, ‘dis, and ‘dat is,” he said, pointing to his four items, “but here’s the catch…if you go over…” he smiled, lifting the little scanner to the cashier’s head and pulling the tiny trigger, his forehead now glowing red. “Boop!” the customer squeaked.

“I don’t wan’a play,” the cashier said.

“I didn’t say you had a choice. Now, c’mon, tell me. How much?”

The cashier glanced down at the four items: the unwrapped gum, the chips, the jerky, and the beer, sweating onto the counter. He was, too. He knew the gum was fifty cents, and the chips were a dollar. Was the jerky two for five again? Or did that end last week?

“I don’t got all day, buddy,” the customer said, though he was certainly no customer by this point.

“Seven ninety-nine,” the cashier said, not an ounce of confidence in his voice.

“Mmhmm. You a mathematician? Let’s see if you’re right-” the unpaying customer said as he lifted the gum and pulled the tiny trigger.

Bleep. Fifty cents.

The man smiled and aimed at the bag of chips, the barcode turning a blood-red color.

Bleep. One dollar.

The jerky was next. The scanner got awfully close this time as he looked deeply into the cashier’s eyes as the quiet beep filled the entire store.

Bleep. Two-fifty.

And last, but certainly not least, the beer, covered in dripping sweat from the condensation on the bottle. The cashier, too, was wet and dripping.

Bleep. Three ninety-nine. The total was right: seven ninety-nine.

“Well shit my pants,” the unpaid customer said with a smile cracked into his cheeks, looking to the cashier, “what’re the friggin’ odds of ‘dat?”

The cashier sighed.

“Only one problem,” the man grinned wider, pulling a beretta from his waistline and cocking it, “you forgot the tax.”

The husky man still pinched in the backseat of the Chevy, heard the shots. There were three, followed by a long silence. And after the silence had ended, the door chime—which must’ve started working again—beeped the unpaid customer farewell as he jogged to his car, across the rain-speckled lot, popped open the unlocked door, and slid inside. He cracked open the lukewarm beer and took a gulp, pushing his key into the ignition, but as he did, the husky man from behind him wrapped his arm around his neck, shoved the soaked cloth into his face, and pulled back on both sides. And pulled. And pulled. And eventually, the man stopped resisting.

It was eleven fifty-nine, nearly one minute before closing, when the sound of the squeaking door and the haunting sound of its chime, reverberated throughout the desolate station five miles down the road, and the clerk moaned to himself in his fake accent and rolled his eyes because of it.

“Sorry, we’re clo-” he was about to finish, but choked on his own words when he watched the husky man—a mere stranger to him, really—drop a fully grown man, bound in duct tape, to the floor that he had just washed with Fabuloso.

“What the hell are you doing?” he spat. The husky man, looking up from the body squirming around on the floor, screaming into the tape over his mouth, seemed surprised at the clerk’s response.

“Well, you remember the conversation we had the other night, right?”

The clerk stammered, “Y-yeah?”

“Well, I thought ‘bout it and you were right…you got lucky. But how often does that happen?”

The door chime interrupted the clerk’s answer and he turned to see who it was. Force of habit nearly caused him to start up the whole “sorry we’re closed” thing again, but before he could speak, he choked back on his words at the sight of two men, dressed in black suits, standing at the doorway. The husky man had turned to face them, too, as did the taped-up man, who was looking up at them from the floor.

It was a second stroke of the ol’ “force of habit” that prompted all three parties to throw up their guns: the two black-suited men with matte-black, government-issued handguns, the clerk with his pistol, and the husky man with his tied-up hostage’s beretta. It felt like déjà vu—the clerk had found himself in another standoff, and this time he had not one, but two guns pointed at his head.

Actually, it was one again. The husky man couldn’t make up his mind.

“The hell’s going on?” one of the black-suited men said. His voice was cold, like he had seen far screwier situations, and his gun was focused on the clerk.

“Are these the ‘government guys’?” the husky man asked, twisting his head over his shoulder, gun still aimed at the two men.

“He knows?” the other suited man snapped, his gun trained on the husky stranger. Both of the black-suited men were now eyeing the clerk through their jet-black shades.

“I-” the clerk stammered. He didn’t know what to say. If he told them that he had told, they would’ve surely pumped his face full of lead. But if he denied it, the husky man with the loose lips would’ve surely squealed, and then they would’ve popped him for lying to their faces.

Something was about to come out of his mouth, but then someone walked through the door. The little chime beeped, and the two black-suited men separated in confusion to allow the stranger to enter the station. He was a dumpy man, middle-aged, and half-awake. Of course, when he saw the guns, he woke right up.

“Who the hell is this?” one of the black-suited men asked. The clerk and the husky man glanced over at one another and shrugged.

“I, uh-” the dumpy man began, “just need ten dollars on pump one.”

The station got really quiet. The guns were still crisscrossed in every direction, yet no one made a move—not even a sound. Then the taped-up man grumbled underneath his taped-up mouth, and the husky man kicked him, and the clerk twitched.

“I-I can come back,” the dumpy man said.

“No, it’s fine,” the clerk said and began walking behind the counter. The dumpy man, lifting his eyes from the duct-taped gentleman writhing around on the ground, slowly approached the counter and stretched out his twenty.

“What the hell is going on in here?” the dumpy man said under his breath, leaning over the counter. The cash register chimed, and the clerk handed over his change—a less-than-crisp ten-dollar bill.

“Can you make that two fives?” he asked. “I gotta use the wash.”

“It’s broken,” the clerk said.

“Actually,” one of the black-suited men spoke up, “we were just about to fix it.”

The dumpy man’s eyes darted back and forth between his own reflections in the dark-shaded glasses of the men in black. Then, finally, one of them spoke:

“Get your ass out of here, and don’t come back,” he said firmly. The dumpy man, without another word, scurried from the station and into the night, leaving the clerk, husky man, and his hostage alone with the two black-suited men.

“Let’s go outside,” one of the men said through the cold gaze of his shades, never once lowering his handgun, which, against the starless sky through the glass door, almost matched the sheer pitch-blackness of the night. If not, that is, for the noticeable greasy fingerprint smudges that the clerk hadn’t cleaned with Windex yet.

When the entire group had migrated outside, the two men in the black suits gestured with their handguns for the three strangers to keep shuffling forward, right toward the back of the station—where the car wash was.

“Look, I didn’t tell ‘em a damn thing, alright? A friggin’ squirrel ran into it. He saw the whole damn thing.”

Who did?” one of the black-suited men snapped.

The clerk pointed over at the husky man.

“Then, who the hell’s that?” the man in black’s cold voice probed, pointing now to the duct-taped man, some of the tape (and hair) removed from his legs so that he could walk.

“He’s scum,” the husky man said as he shuffled alongside his hostage, his voice gruff and attempting to be intimidating. It wasn’t, especially not looking down the barrels of two guns.

“Get in,” the other man in black said. His voice, on the other hand, was intimidating, especially when accompanied by the black handgun pointed in their faces. The clerk and the husky man looked over their shoulders and gulped deeply at the sight of the wash. And the man bound in duct tape was confused as all hell as to why.

“Just…shoot me then,” the clerk said, turning back to face the government pricks. “I don’t-”

BAM. The handgun in the black-suited man’s hand shot a hole straight through the clerk’s face. His body fell to the ground as the man in black watched, and then he pivoted the gun to face the husky man, whose face was pale and sweaty.

“What’s it gonna be?” the man in black asked, his voice void of rattle.

The husky man, rattling and trembling, turned again to face the wash, and then back to the two men. He thought of the squirrel, or the chipmunk, or whatever the hell it was, and then watched his reflection defeatedly nod in the sunglass lenses.

BAM.

The man bound in tape watched as the husky man’s body hit the pavement. The other man in black leaned forward and ripped the black tape from his mouth, pulling along some peach fuzz with it. He moaned.

“You want a bullet or a wash?” the man in black asked. He wouldn’t ask a second time.

The previously taped-up man, who now had permission and the freedom to speak, began laughing.

“Go in a car wash or get shot in’da face?” he reiterated. The men in black nodded. He laughed again; his answer was clear.

And it was a decision that seemed all too obvious. That was, until, about three steps into the wash, after one of the men in black had slipped a five into it. It began spinning and whizzing and frothing. He thought nothing of it, at first. But once the brushes and scrubbers began stretching out toward him like tendrils did the terror wash over him, which happened to coincide with the foaming liquids that began to ooze from every crevice of the place, right onto his skin. It bubbled and burnt as he screamed, but his cries only lasted but a second, before the man was reduced to nothing but piles of human Hamburger Helper at the bottom of the wash, which soon found their way down the drains, or whatever the hell they were to the thing.

The two men in black stood silently outside before one of them lifted a calm finger to his ear and pressed it firmly into the hidden earpiece that he had been wearing the entire time.

“Targets neutralized, and subject nourished,” he said. But no sooner did he say it before a bullet shot through both his head and the head of his colleague beside him. And then, from the shadows, the dumpy stranger emerged, gun in hand and finger in ear.

“Both targets neutralized,” he said, walking up to the bodies, “and, sir, you’re never gonna believe this. You remember that prick that escaped from Bronson County last month?”

“Yeah,” the voice over the earpiece said, “the Drew Carey SOB?”

“Yeah, well he was here, sir. Wrapped in duct tape or some shit. I think the wash got him.”

“What’re the odds of that happening?” the voice said.

“I don’t know, but there’s one less dirtbag we gotta knock off the list.”

“Mmhmm,” the voice said.

“How come the MIB didn’t think of using this thing as a human trash compactor, huh?” he asked, lifting the dead man in black’s limp arm with the top of his gym shoe.

“Eh,” the voice groaned, “they’re all about conservation—they’re glorified tree huggers. They don’t give a shit about the public.”

“And we do?”

The voice chuckled.

“Just enough. Look, we got enough political prisoners to get through as it is, not to mention all the homicidal sons of bitches running the streets. The world could use a wash.”

The dumpy man bit his lip and agreed.

“So, uh, what do you want me to do about the bodies?” he asked plainly.

“Just clean ‘em up.”



Written by MakRalston
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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