Third Wheel, by Kevin Hopson
Photo by Sofia Sforza on Unsplash
As I approached the cash register, the woman’s blue eyes met my gaze, a warm grin stretching across her face.
“Did you find everything you’re looking for?” she asked.
I nodded and smiled. Then I rested the items on the counter. “I did, thanks.”
The woman looked young. Perhaps she was in college and worked the night shift to help fund her studies. Or maybe this was a part-time job for her so she could make ends meet. Either way, her rosy complexion and shoulder-length brown hair drew me in like a magnet. I figured I was at least ten years older than her, perhaps too old for her liking, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say she was attractive.
She rang up each item, and I noticed a clock on the wall behind her. It was half past midnight.
“You look familiar,” she said.
“I get that a lot. But I do come in from time to time. Not so much to buy gas. Just to get some food after a long day.”
“What do you do?” she asked. “If you don’t mind my asking.”
I shook my head. “It’s no problem. I’m an Uber driver.”
She raised an eyebrow. “That’s interesting. It seems to be a popular job nowadays. Does it pay well?”
“It pays the bills,” I said with a shrug. “But it also allows me to splurge on convenience store food.”
A chuckle escaped her lips. I even liked her laugh.
“Your total is eighteen dollars and sixty-three cents,” she said.
I pulled a credit card from my wallet.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “I should have mentioned it earlier, but the credit card machine is on the fritz.”
I glanced inside my wallet.
“Is that a problem?” she asked.
“No. I’ve got cash.” I handed her a twenty-dollar bill. “You can keep the change.”
“That’s sweet of you.” She took a dollar bill from the register and put it in a jar next to her. “You just made a donation to our local charity. If that’s okay with you.”
“That works for me.”
“Do you need a receipt?”
“No. I’m good.”
I pocketed my wallet, and she was about to hand me the plastic bag when the interior of the convenience store suddenly lit up. I glanced outside, squinting my eyes and recoiling at the sight. Someone had parked up front next to the store’s entrance, the high beams from their car nearly blinding me.
A few seconds later, the door dinged. A man entered the store, his feet unsteady. He wobbled around as if he’d been drinking, and he staggered in our direction. The man was imposing. Well over six feet tall with some serious girth.
“Sir,” the woman said. “Is that your car out there?”
The man turned his head ever so slightly, the motion almost causing him to fall over. “It,” he stuttered. “It sure is.”
“Do you mind turning off the lights?” she asked.
“Oh,” he finally spit out. “It’s fine.” He meandered toward the counter. “You’re cute.”
“Sir,” she said again. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave. You’re clearly drunk, and you’re disturbing our customers.”
The man eyed me and snickered. “I only see one customer, and he looks ready to leave.”
I was shocked he could even make that observation given how inebriated he was.
The air around me turned heavy, and I felt moisture along the back of my neck.
It’s okay. I can handle this.
Another ding came. This time a bearded man with a baseball cap walked inside. I spotted the cab of a big rig parked next to the diesel pump, which I assumed was his.
The drunk man spun around to face the trucker, and this time he did tumble, dropping to one knee.
“Is everything okay?” the trucker asked.
“I’m trying to get him to leave,” the woman said.
“Let me give you a hand.” The trucker bent over and grasped the drunk man’s arm, pulling him to his feet.
“Hey. Don’t touch me,” the drunk said, his words slurred. But he couldn’t put up much of a fight in his condition.
“Let’s get you outside,” the trucker said.
The drunk man didn’t resist, and the trucker guided him through the door.
“I’ll be back,” the drunk said, his voice trailing off as the door closed.
The woman let out a breath and stared at me. “I’m sorry about that.”
“No worries,” I said. “I’m the one who’s sorry.”
“That you have to deal with people like that.”
“It doesn’t happen as often as you’d think, but it is one of the joys of working the night shift.” Her smiled returned, but it seemed forced this time.
“Are you going to be okay?”
“I should be fine. I have a gun in my purse. I told my boss it was the only way I’d work the night shift, and he eventually agreed to it. Maybe I’ll lock up early just to be safe. But—”
I waited for her to finish, but she pursed her lips.
“But what?” I said.
“If he sticks around, I’d feel safer if I didn’t have to drive myself home.”
I deliberated. “Do you have a pen and a piece of paper?”
“Maybe I can help.”
The woman obliged, and I wrote something on the sticky note before handing it back to her.
“Your name is Jessie?” she said.
“It’s nice to meet you, Melissa. That’s my cell number. If you need a ride home, give me a call. Don’t worry what time it is. I’ll feel much better knowing you’re safe, so it’s no problem at all.”
“I don’t know what to say.” She grinned. “Thank you.”
Chad was a bully. He’d been one ever since I laid eyes on him. Though a number of middle-school kids had been victims of his, Chad always seemed to have an infatuation with me. To make matters worse, he rode the same bus as me, so there was no escaping him even after the last bell rang.
Actually, that isn’t entirely true. There were other options besides riding the bus. For example, on occasion I’d have my mother pick me up from school. However, because she was a working mom, she didn’t take kindly to it, so I only beckoned her when it was an emergency.
Most of the time I found myself walking the two miles to get home. It ate up part of my afternoon and left me exhausted, but at least I’d avoided Chad’s physical and mental torment.
I remember one day during gym class, when all of us were outside, Chad managed to corner me behind one of the supply sheds. He’d pushed me to the ground. I lay on my back as he stood over me, his fingers clenched into fists.
Just as he was winding up his right fist to deliver a blow, I noticed one of his fingers uncoil. It snapped back in a completely unnatural way, and Chad let out the most horrific cry of anguish I’d ever heard. As much as I hated him, no one deserved that fate.
A buzzing noise jarred me from my thoughts. My cell phone lit up, and I grabbed it from the coffee table. It was an unknown number. I considered letting it go to voicemail, but then I remembered Melissa, so I accepted the call.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hi. Is this Jessie?”
It was a woman’s voice.
Yes,” I replied. “Who is this?”
“It’s Melissa. From the gas station.”
“Is everything okay?”
“I think so, but I’m still a little shaken.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“After the trucker left, the drunk guy stuck around. He didn’t come back inside, but not for a lack of trying. I locked the door. But he hung out in the parking lot for two hours. He finally left a few minutes ago, but I’m nervous. He could be hiding out somewhere just waiting for me.”
“I’ll come get you,” I said.
“Are you sure? I feel bad for imposing.”
“It’s not a problem,” I reiterated. “I’ve been working evenings lately, so I usually go to bed when most people are waking up. I’ve got a couple of hours until I hit the sack, and I’ll feel better knowing you’re safe.”
“Thanks again for doing this,” Melissa said from the passenger seat of my car.
When I arrived at the gas station, there was no sign of the creepy drunk guy, so I just had to wait for Melissa to lock up before hitting the road. It was one of my missions in life to avoid awkward or potentially dangerous situations whenever possible, so I was grateful that trouble had eluded us.
“Of course,” I said. “But how will you get to work tomorrow?”
“I’ll have a friend drop me off. I guess you could have walked me to my car, but I didn’t want to drive home alone in case that guy decided to tail me.”
“No. I completely understand. I’m curious about something, though.”
“About what?” Melissa inquired.
“In theory, you could be trading one risk for another.”
“What do you mean?”
“I could be a serial killer for all you know.”
I immediately wanted to take those words back. It was definitely a weird, and possibly unsettling, thing to say. However, If Melissa had any regrets about having me drive her home, she certainly didn’t show it. She just grinned at me.
“Don’t be silly,” she said, gently touching my forearm with her hand. “I can read people well. You’re a good soul.”
I let out a nervous chuckle. “I’ve never had anyone tell me that, but I appreciate it.”
Melissa pulled her hand away, and that’s when I noticed something in the rear view mirror. Headlights. Bright ones. Quickly getting closer.
She stared at me, apparently sensing my worry. “What is it?”
“Someone’s coming up fast behind us, and they have their high beams on.”
“Oh, God,” she said, spinning around to look. “Could it be him?”
I shrugged. “It’s three o’clock in the morning, so not many people are out. I’d say the odds are pretty good.”
“What are we going to do?”
My first instinct was to speed up, so that’s exactly what I did. I pressed my foot against the accelerator, and the car shook briefly before picking up speed. We were on a serpentine-shaped road along the coast, so I could only go so fast. I’d rather not wreck the car or send us plummeting over the side of the cliff to our deaths.
“We’re not losing him,” Melissa said, panting.
“I know. It’s the best I can do. We don’t have much of a straightaway on this road.”
The lights in the rear view mirror grew, looming only a few feet from my rear bumper.
“Pull over,” Melissa demanded.
“Pull over,” she repeated.
This time I glanced at her, and she had a gun in hand. I guess she wasn’t kidding about carrying one, but what the hell was she doing with it?
“What’s going on?” I said.
“There’s a scenic overlook ahead. Pull off there.”
“Are you crazy?”
She didn’t reply.
“What do you plan on doing?” I said. “Are you going to shoot him?”
“Just do it.”
I was at a loss for words, and I couldn’t focus. I didn’t think Melissa would shoot me, but I wasn’t about to make that gamble. I slowed and pulled off at the overlook, putting the car in park.
“Get out,” she said. “Leave the car running.”
I obliged. I eased out of the seat and stood beside the car. The car behind us stopped a few feet short of me, blocking my path to the road. The driver got out. It was the same guy as earlier. The drunk.
Then Melissa got out of my car. She circled around the front, pointing the gun at me. The guy pulled something from his waist. Great. Another gun. Now I had two aimed at me.
“Give me your wallet,” Melissa said to me.
“Wait,” I said, pondering. “This was all a setup?”
“Just hand it over.”
I grasped the wallet from the front pocket of my jeans and threw it at her feet.
She lowered her gun. “Keep your gun on him, Roger.” She bent over and picked up the wallet, rummaging through it.
“How much?” Roger said.
“Only thirty dollars,” Melissa replied. “But he has a bunch of credit cards.”
“That’s a decent haul. Did you turn off the video cameras earlier? Before I came into the store,” he elaborated.
“Of course. I’m not an idiot. I killed the feed at midnight before either of you stepped inside. And he paid in cash, so there’s no evidence he was ever there.”
“So,” I interrupted. “The credit card machine wasn’t really on the fritz?”
“Nope,” Melissa replied.
“What if I didn’t have enough cash to pay for my stuff?”
“We have an ATM at the store.”
If I’d withdrawn cash, there’d definitely be a record of it, but would the police even think about checking ATM activity? Paying with a credit card would have left a more obvious fingerprint, figuratively speaking. She’d obviously thought it through, but I was still curious.
“How did you know I would fall for all of this?” I asked.
“I didn’t. It was just a hunch. And my hunch tends to be right more times than not.”
“I guess so,” I muttered to myself.
“Anyway,” Melissa said, looking to Roger. “I did my part. Now it’s time for you to do yours.”
Roger glared at me and took a step forward, his index finger hugging the trigger of the gun.
“You’re going to kill me?” I said.
“We can’t keep you around,” Melissa said. “You’d go to the police. And even if you didn’t, we can’t take the risk.”
“So, you’re going to kill me for a measly thirty dollars?”
“It’s not the cash. Roger does a good job burying bodies, so it will be a while before they find you. Which means we have plenty of time to max out those credit cards of yours. Or even sell them. But, if I’m being honest, the thrill of it outweighs the financial gain.”
“Jesus,” I said. “I definitely had you pegged wrong.”
“Don’t feel bad. I’ve worked over other men, too, but you’re definitely my favorite. Which is why I’m actually going to be a little sad to see you go. Good thing Roger does the deed and not me.”
I gawked at Roger, and that sensation from the gas station started to wash over me again. The air weighed on me, and perspiration built along the back of my neck.
Roger’s arm moved. I flinched, waiting for the bullet to come. But, much to my surprise, Roger’s arm shifted away from me. I could see Roger fighting it, his face strained with tension. Before I knew it, his gun was aimed at Melissa.
“What the hell are you doing?” she said.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Roger answered. “I can’t control it.”
Don’t do it! There are other ways of dealing with this.
“What do you mean you can’t control it?” Melissa asked. “You’re the one holding the gun.”
“But I’m not the one moving my arm.”
A blast followed, the noise of it echoing throughout the canyon below.
“No,” I shouted.
But it was too late. Blood seeped from a bullet hole in Melissa’s chest. She slumped to the ground, getting off a shot of her own before falling on her back. The bullet struck Roger in the abdomen. He relinquished his grip on the gun, and it ricocheted off the pavement. Then Roger wrapped an arm around his gut as he fell to one knee.
I made my way over to Melissa. Her lifeless eyes stared into the night sky. I didn’t check for a pulse, but I knew she was gone. I glanced at Roger, who appeared to be circling the drain himself. His breathing was labored and blood was already pooling along the ground.
I walked toward Roger, kicking the gun away from him.
“Did you do this?” Roger managed to spit out.
“No,” I said. “It was my brother.”
“He drowned when we were kids, and he’s looked out for me ever since. I don’t always agree with his methods, but there’s not much I can do about it. He never was a good listener.”
Roger collapsed to the ground, soon taking his last breath, but at least he had his answer. And he would take it to the grave with him.
Kevin has dabbled in many genres over the years. His stories have been included in anthologies by Black Hare Press, Black Ink Fiction, Sweetycat Press, Iron Faerie Publishing, Hiraeth Publishing, Raven & Drake Publishing, MuseItUp Publishing, Blood Song Books, and Wolfsinger Publications.
Leave a Reply.
HalfHourToKill.Com is a literary website publishing authors of Flash Fiction and Short Stories in the genres of Fantasy, Horror and Noir. Feel free to submit your Fiction, Poetry and Non-Fiction work to us year round.
Site powered by Weebly. Managed by SiteGround