Fiction by Katy Haas
I’m working the night shift and counting the cigarettes when Marnie stops in. Out of everyone that works at the gas station, I count the cigarettes the fastest, using my thumb and pinky finger to tap the top of the packs as I count them two at a time, but I falter and lose count when I see her push through the side door and head back to the coolers.
I position myself between the lottery tickets so I can watch her as she stands in front of plastic pop bottles and shifts her weight from one flip-flop to the other. I can’t see it from here, but I know her stomach is round and bulging, and when she turns with a Faygo bottle in each hand, she reveals it, leading the way down the snack aisle, peering out from the bottom of her faded tank top.
She lingers in front of the chips and I study the side of her face, shiny with dried sweat, mascara smudged in little shadows in the outer corners of her eyes. Her roots are grown out so half her hair is pale blonde, the other a shade of brown, and she’s got it pulled back into a ponytail but there are tiny wisps of hair that fall free around her ears, drooping outward like cat whiskers.
When she turns to the counter, I spin back around to the cigarettes as if I haven’t been watching her, as if I won’t have to talk to her in just a few seconds, and when I hear her set her stuff down on the counter, I turn to her and try to pretend to look surprised but not too surprised. She adds a see-through purple lighter to her pile of things.
“Hey, Jimmy,” she says and her voice is tired and low. There are dark circles under her eyes and there’s acne she’s picked around her chin and it’s red and angry and I remember her in high school and we’d all be fucking around at the beach and she’d be lying on a towel, fucked up but reading books, studying things, really trying to learn stuff. She knew all sorts of shit too, like trivia and almost all the Jeopardy answers and stuff like that. I heard she was accepted to college in New York. Some other really brainy east coast schools. I can’t remember which ones. I just know David planned to follow her there, work days at a garage, enroll in some community college classes he’d go to at night.
“How’s it been going?” she asks me as I scan her items and stuff them into a plastic bag that I spread open flat on the counter between us.
I shrug. “Oh, you know,” I say. I don’t want to ask her how it’s been going for her, so I lie, thinking of David, and say, “I signed up for some classes. At the community college. Just a couple.”
She smiles and it doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “That’s cool. You wanted to do stuff for bands, right? Like sound stuff or whatever?”
My face feels hot. “I mean. Yeah. I kind of wanted to be an audio engineer. But I’m just going to be doing those general classes, you know? Just like figuring out what I’m doing. Maybe it will be audio engineering. Who knows, you know?” I feel myself babbling and clench my teeth shut, spinning the display on the screen around to show Marnie her total.
“Yeah. Who knows,” she repeats. She slides over a dollar for her lighter and her EBT card for the rest of it, and I run it through the system.
Sometimes it takes awhile to process so a few long seconds stretch out where I’m not sure what to say or where to look. Her belly stares up at me, her belly button a single eye boring straight at my forehead. She looks so pregnant, like so fucking pregnant, like her skin could just burst open and a red, wet baby could appear bawling on top of our scratched-up display of $2 lotto tickets. I imagine David’s face as I last saw it on this baby’s body and feel a little sick so I put my arms on top of my head and take a deep breath, wishing someone, anyone else would walk into the gas station and interrupt this. The coolers hum and Eminem barks from the little radio balanced on the windowsill behind me and it only emphasizes the silence between us.
Marnie seems unsure of where to look too. She scratches at her nose and narrows her eyes at the display on the credit card machine where it finally flashes a message that her card has been declined.
“Shit,” she murmurs and looks down at her card, flipping it back and forth as if it might reveal a message, an explanation for everything that’s led up to this. “Can we try running it again? I swear I checked my balance this morning and it was okay.”
I nod and hit a couple keys on my cash register, restarting the payment. I run her card through again and she punches in her PIN. While the computer sends numbers through the air, or whatever, Marnie shifts from one foot to the other. She puts one hand down on the counter and leans on it.
“Hey, Jimmy?” she asks.
I stare straight ahead at the screen in front of me. “Yeah?”
“Why didn’t you come to David’s funeral?”
I take in a sharp gulp of air at the sound of his name and look past her head out to the gas pumps, willing someone to pull in and save me from this moment. The lights glow dull and yellow. Moths whip in wild circles. No one comes to help me.
“Fuck, Marnie,” I breathe. I try to think of an answer. I try to explain how I saw him that night and then he was leaving, he was driving home, and then I never saw him again. And every spare moment of every single day since then, I’ve thought of him giving one last grin and wave before disappearing onto the road, and I’ve imagined what comes next, so vividly I almost believe I was there when it happened.
Nearly every night I dream I’m in the car with him and sometimes I see the combine harvester parked on the road before he does and I jerk the wheel and we don’t smash into the back of it, crushed in the machinery, and sometimes I don’t jerk the wheel, and sometimes I tell him he’s too fucked up and he should just spend the night and he does, and most times I dream I’m the one in the driver’s seat and I see the harvester but I don’t even try to swerve.
I feel Marnie’s eyes on me and I’m helpless, feeling sick to my stomach.
“Fuck,” I repeat. “I don’t know. I couldn’t do it.” I couldn’t sit in a church and listen to a pastor Mad Libs his name into a prayer written for everybody and nobody while everyone he ever knew cried and cried and cried around me. I couldn’t go to a place like that and not want to beg for forgiveness, but I don’t really think I deserve any sort of absolution. “I just couldn’t do that.”
The computer screen flashes DECLINED again and I sigh. My eyes feel tight, like they’re trying to disappear somewhere in the back of my skull. “I’ll get it,” I tell her. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Are you sure?”
I nod and gather up the handles of the plastic bag, futilely shoving them toward her.
“Well, thanks.” She pulls the bag off the side of the counter and it falls beside the swell of her stomach. She follows my eyes downward and puts a hand on the bump. “It’s a boy,” she says, “and I’m naming him after David.”
I nod. “That’s great. A great choice.”
She takes a step toward the door and then hesitates, turning her body back toward me. “I’m not telling anyone he could be yours, you know. I think he’s David’s. I really believe it.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I’m sure he is.”
She lifts a hand in a wave good-bye and then disappears out the door, traversing across the liminal space under the yellow lights, back to her car. I watch her taillights pull out of the lot and fade away down the road.
I wait for the air to feel still again, to stop buzzing around my peripherals, and then turn back to the cigarettes. I look at the little cardboard tops wrapped tight in plastic. My hands shake as I tap them two by two. I can’t stop losing count.
Katy Haas is a queer non-binary poet, artist, and Furby enthusiast from mid-Michigan. Their work can be found in Peach Magazine, Stanchion, HAD, and elsewhere. Find them on Twitter (@katyydidnt) & Insta (@mouthshroom).