The late shift always saw the dregs of humanity rise to the surface. From this prominent position as the sole attendant at the petrol station, the 24hr access meant that from 2-3am, Reece served some truly gruesome sights.
There were odd exceptions. Hurried fathers and partners who had been sent on urgent errands to pick up cough medicine, pregnant cravings and other assorted products that you only ever need when in the small hours. The majority of his customers though, came to the petrol station simply for the alcohol and cigarettes.
So it was fitting that Reece was a bum himself.
He had left school early about five years ago, and after being in the right place at the right time when picking this job up, he had since spent the next years keeping hold of his job by his fingertips. It wasn’t due to any form of gross incompetence – more like a general lack of caring about pretty much anything.
His old school friends had either moved away from this crummy old town and onto bigger things, or they had taken up the few positions that mattered. Reece simply turned up for work – sometimes – and collected his paycheque every week. He still lived at home, and had the same battered Ford that he had inherited from his older brother.
Reece was just existing. Waiting for something to happen? Perhaps. If it didn’t come though, Reece didn’t really care. There was no feeling sorry for himself, he just plodded on. There was no intense periods of self-examination in the lulls at work. Reece just planted his chin on his hands and looked out on the forecourt.
Frustration at Reece from his parents died out after a couple of years when they noticed that it achieved exactly nothing. They just wanted their son to achieve what he was capable of. He had been brought up well, so why was he now simply treading water – and even worse – showing no urge to end this purgatory?
This night was no different to the last thousand night shifts. The usual clientele of heathens interspersed with a harried parent needing some over the counter remedy for their child. He performed his duties, and his outer shell made the right perfunctory motions, but inside there was nothing but a hollow wind.
The clock ticked off its last minute, and the changing of the guard at 4:30am saw Toby and Marion come in. The early crew, this pairing were everything Reece wasn’t. It gave this daily two minute meeting an odd contrast. Sunshine and anecdotes clashing with blank stares and wordless acknowledgment.
Reece hurried away, the cheeriness and willingness to engage really didn’t make him feel comfortable. True, this job had zero prospects, but the lack of merriment and people to deal with meant it was perfect for him.
Reece simply wanted to be left alone.
So, as he sat in the sinking and well worn seat of his car, a sigh of relief escaped his mouth. The sanctity of his car meant zero chance of conversation. Go home, sleep and eat. That is all he wanted right now.
The key turned in the ignition, but there was nothing. Not even a strangled gurgling which would signal the car was trying. Nope, with every turn of the key, all you could hear was the metal on metal of key in barrel. Nothing more.
He knew this day would come, and it was only a few miles from his home so the walk wouldn’t be too painful. His car would be fine where it was, and he would get it sorted in the next few days.
Reece was walking alongside the main road for the first mile, and the traffic, whilst not busy, was picking up as the day was starting for most people. Head down, hood up, Reece paid the whizzing cars no mind.
The path he was on veered to the left and cut alongside a barren field. He had taken this route many times, and it used to be the place where he and his friends went to drink and smoke. There was a bench that they all used to huddle on and try and impress girls with their non-existent skills.
Reece shuddered at the memory. He truly was an idiot, and when he looked back on his juvenile actions at school, he wanted nothing more than to erase them.
He raised his head and blew out his breath in an exaggerated sigh. As his eyes met the horizon, he looked up at the bench in the near distance, and sitting there was a dog.
Reece was never a people person, but he had always loved animals. So there was no hesitation at seeing a strange dog in his midst. He continued the same pace of walking, but he would go to the dog. He would check for a collar and return it to its home if he could.
The dog was a labrador – the most domesticated of breeds. Clean coat, shining eyes, this boy was well kept and must have an owner. Reece held his hand out for the dog to grab his scent, but there was no movement from the dog. He just looked at Reece. No blinking, no sign of interest, other than those dark eyes with gold rings fixed upon him.
Reece rubbed the hair on the top of the dog’s head.
“Have you got a collar boy? Where is your home?”
Just as Reece put his hand into the neck hair and felt a collar, the dog stood up and started walking.
“Come here boy! C’mon! Here boy!”
The dog didn’t turn or deviate from his path. He continued to walk along the path, and it was the same direction Reece was going, so he followed. He would see where the dog was going, it was clear he had a destination.
The dog’s path eventually branched off from where Reece needed to go, but Reece followed the canine. He would do what is right. It was clear this dog had a home, and he would make sure he was returned there.
He was focused so much on the dog that when his hairy companion stopped and sat down, he hadn’t noticed where he was.
This was the other end of town, where the woods were. He had camped out here as a kid with his friends, but on the edge of the forest. This was a fair amount into the forest, and he and the dog now were in front of a house that he had never seen before. Reece knew this town well, but he had never heard of a house in the woods before.
The sun was being broken into shapes by the canopy above, and it gave the house a welcoming look. A random house in the woods could’ve been a little unsettling, but this place gave off zero vibes.
He looked at the dog, who was staring intently at the front door of the house.
Reece walked up toward the door, a clean but well worn blue door. He picked up the brass knocker and rapped it three times.
The door snapped open on the third knock.
A small woman, in her late fifties maybe, opened the door. Her face showed the marks of a happy life. She had laughter lines, she had eyes that shined, just like the dog. She was wearing an apron that had been in recent action, and she rubbed her hands in it as she spoke.
“Oh, my! Thank you, thank you! You’ve found my Caesar! Thank you!”
She placed one hand on Reece’s arm as she flew past him, and it was warm to the touch. She knelt down and swooped her arms round Caesar in a hug.
Reece couldn’t help but smile.
He started to walk off. He still needed to sleep, he had a shift tonight.
“Thank you so much for this! Please come in for a lemonade or a tea, or a muffin!”
Reece would normally swerve any sort of interaction, but this lady smelled of baking and looked like the perfect Grandmother material.
Plus, he could always eat.
He nodded, and followed Caesar and the lady to the door.
As they walked in, the lady ushered Reece to the kitchen, which was dead ahead.
There were trays and sieves everywhere, and flour had peppered the worktops. This lady had been busy, and the aroma from the large oven in the corner was a signal that she was an old pro at this. The smell was luring every bit of saliva out of his mouth.
“My name is Martha by the way. Sorry, I should’ve started with that! I cannot thank you enough for what you’ve done. I’d be lost without my Caesar!”
Still wringing and wiping her hands on her apron, she took two glasses from a cupboard and poured some pink concoction into them.
Damn, that oven smell was amazing! Reece’s stomach was not just knocking on the door, it was beating it down.
“This pink lemonade is a family recipe. It really gives you a lift! Ooh, please forgive me. I must rush upstairs. Have one of these while you wait.”
She reached over to the worktop and produced a plate of sugar dusted biscuits. Then she shuffled quickly toward the stairs in the hall.
Reece didn’t hesitate to grab a biscuit, and the sweetness from both the pink lemonade and the biscuit gave his head a slight rush. After going through his last shift with nothing but a packet of crisps, this was pure heaven for his tastebuds.
Caesar had padded alongside Martha as she went upstairs. Reece stood up, and looked out the one window in the kitchen. A large fenced enclosure was the back garden, and there were no other garden furniture save four large cages. There were water bowls in each of them.The metal structures seemed a little archaic and not in keeping with the warmth of the house and Martha, but who was he to question their pet-raising techniques?
Reece wondered where the other dogs were, but he wasn’t left long to his thoughts as Martha and Caesar were in the doorway.
“I bet you are rather famished after that long walk! Let me fix you up something for your journey back home, I have to return the favour after the selfless thing you did!”
Before he could answer, Martha had gone to the large oven and opened it up. The dribble-inducing smell swimmed up his nostrils.
Reece sat, or rather slumped back into the chair he had been sitting in. He had done about six consecutive shifts, so he was pretty knackered. Still, he really needed some fresh air. He tried to get up, but his legs felt like they had been covered in cement. any strength he had, had been sapped in the last few minutes.
What the hell? Was he ill?
Martha had continued on regardless, and had amazingly lifted the biggest tray he had ever seen from the oven. In the tray was a gargantuan slab of meat, still sizzling from the oven.
Even though Reece was barely hanging onto the reins of being awake, the smell still stirred his stomach. His head was lolling onto his chest now.
Martha was slicing up the meat and talking as she did it. Caesar was sitting next to her, sentry-like.
“You remind me so much of the last boy who came here. Such a kind heart. Caesar loved him.”
Martha dropped a few slices onto the floor for Caesar, who dipped his head, chowed down on the succulent looking meat, and returned back to his posting.
By now, Reece had blacked out.
He awoke outside. It was dark, but he could see the stars through the canopy above. He lifted his sluggish body from the floor and noticed he was in one of the cages that he had noticed from the window earlier. The bowl of water was on the floor.
His alertness snapped back to him in his hour of urgency. His hands wrapped around the thick metal mesh, but there was no give. His throat expelled a guttural roar of desperation.
The back door swung open. Martha skirted down the stairs, with Caesar alongside her. A new person was behind her, a portly man in a dirty shirt. He was carrying a shotgun on his shoulder, and a large knife lolloped on his leg as it hung from a loop on his massive belt.
They made their way to Reece. Martha was the only one who spoke.
“Oh, son. I’m sorry it has come to this. You were the chosen one though. Caesar found you, and your kind heart has led you here. We know that you go from day to day not caring about anything, so this should be a relief to you!”
A smile sliced out from her face, and Reece again roared, but this one was hewn from cold fear as well as desperation.
“Now now, that’ll do you no good. Even if anyone could hear you, which they can’t mind you, the ones who matter know about our little enterprise. They are the ones that just can’t get enough. So they’ll do what it takes in order for us to keep doing what we do.”
Reece’s vision was shimmering as the tears rolled free, but he could see that the sinister smile had gone, and all he could make out was her eyes. And the man with the gun. And Caesar.
Their eyes, still shining.
“Plus, all that anguish really spoils the meat. Now hush.”