If only they paid me by how long I felt I’d been here. The thought lingered in Frankie’s mind, and not for the first time. Second shift hours on weeknights could drag. Not many people hit up the Kwik-Stop in tiny Melville on Saturday night, much less at 7 p.m. on a Thursday.
Since coming on shift at 4, Frankie had only occasionally looked up from his phone, and then only long enough to ring up some soccer mom buying juice for her kids on the way home from practice or a grizzled factory worker buying cigarettes. Sometimes, like tonight, it got so quiet he could hear the buzz of the neon lights in the window.
Frankie laid his phone down on the counter and ran a hand through his thinning blonde hair. He’d seen everything there was to see on his Facebook newsfeed. He’d liked every dumb post about what some former co-worker had eaten for lunch, every family photo of classmates he hadn’t seen in ten years because they’d been smart enough to move away. He sighed and looked down at the new Storm Trooper tattoo on his wiry forearm, part of a growing collection that twisted up from his wrist and now reached his elbow.
“Hey, do you want me to stock shelves?”
The sudden explosion of noise right next to him made Frankie jump.
“Shit, Derek! I didn’t see you there,” he said with a mixture of annoyance and relief.
“Oh, sorry,” Derek apologized in that nasally, flat, atonal way of his.
“Uh, yeah, go ahead, we’re dead tonight,” Frankie shrugged. He couldn’t believe that Derek, who had been working here for years, still needed to be told what to do on a nightly basis by a guy who’d only started last summer.
Derek hurried back to the storeroom adjacent to the counter as fast as his corpulent frame would carry him, as if he needed to do what was on his mind as quickly as possible before he forgot it. For someone who thought and talked so slowly, Derek was the fastest walker Frankie had ever met. He emerged a few moments later pushing a hand cart stacked with boxes of chip bags, packages of cookies, and other assorted snacks. He arranged them on the shelves matter-of-factly. The guy did everything matter-of-factly, Frankie observed. The rest of the employees regarded Derek with a kind of fascination. He was bland and polite to a fault but had an oddly detached way that made him seem mysterious. Frankie always ended up shaking his head or rolling his eyes when he tried to ponder what made Derek tick.
The night wore on without much incident until 12 a.m.— quitting time—approached. Frankie heard the familiar electronic tone that accompanied the front door opening, but in this case it wasn’t a customer in search of caffeine or nicotine, just his buddy Jay showing up to take over on third shift. His lanky figure swaggered across the store. He was the king of cool, even if he was the only one who thought so.
“How’s it going, man?” Jay asked.
“Boring as hell. I don’t know how you do it on third, man.”
“That’s the best part, not dealing with assholes all shift.” Jay laughed loudly at his own remark.
“Just the one in the mirror,” Frankie smirked, earning a playful but firm punch to the shoulder.
“Fuck you. Who’d you work with tonight?” Jay asked as he scanned the magazine rack.
“Oh, shit,” Jay scoffed. His eyes lit up. “How’d that go?”
“Not bad,” Frankie said with a shrug before remembering the way he’d been startled earlier, “Except when he scared the shit outta me by ghosting behind the counter and just blurting something random without warning.” Jay cackled. Talking about Derek’s eccentricities was his favorite subject.
“He’s done that shit to me, too, dude! I came in early for some overtime last week and worked four dead hours with him. He about gave me a heart attack while I was reading Rolling Stone and he just blurted something about his damn cat.” The two friends shared a knowing laugh.
“He talk about his plant at all?” Jay asked in a tone fully aware of how weird the question sounded.
“What?” Frankie smirked.
“He showed me a video he’d posted on YouTube of a plant in his house.”
“A plant?” “Yeah, not weed, either,” Jay quipped, “Like just a regular house plant that he waters every day.”
“OK?” Frankie was lost.
“There’s no point, Frankie. There’s never a point with him. The guy’s a fucking freak.”
“Oh, what, Mr. Sensitive now?”
“No,” Frankie said with a touch of insecurity, “It’s just that…I don’t know, the guy’s a vet, you know? He’s probably got PTSD or some shit.” This caused Jay to roll his eyes.
“Yeah, more like he’s some bipolar weirdo who can’t function without his meds. He’s a damn robot. If that guy graduated from West Point and was in Desert Storm like he said he was, I’m fucking worried for our country.” Jay had a habit of saying crass things for the shock value and then reveling in the attention. Frankie had heard it since high school.
“Whatever,” he decided to cut off the conversation, “Time for me to get outta here.”
It was midnight. As Frankie gathered up his hoodie from behind the counter, Derek walked out of the storeroom with his windbreaker on, ready to head for the door.
“Hey, Derek, how the hell are ya?” Jay greeted him while shooting a smart-ass look to Frankie.
"Oh, pretty good,” Derek replied in his always-steady melody. Frankie and Jayson bumped fists under the counter. He’d done it again. No matter how many times you asked him how he was, Derek was always just, ‘Oh, pretty good.’ His predictability was like a game to them.
“Any hotties come in tonight?” “Uh,” Derek chuckled awkwardly, “Not really, I guess.”
“I’ll see ya tomorrow,” Frankie interjected before Jay could press Derek’s buttons anymore.
“See ya, man.”
With that, Frankie hit the door, crossing paths with Karen, a middle-aged divorcee arriving to work third with Jay. She was the gruff type but had a soft spot for Derek.
“Hey, Karen,” Derek said, breaking free of Jay’s juvenile questioning.
“How you doing, Derek,” she asked.
Frankie stopped with his arm on the door and waited for it. “Oh, pretty good,” Derek replied. Frankie glanced back at Jay, who was bent over, shoulders heaving, silently losing his shit.
Jay wiped his eyes and took a deep breath. “Well, you should get going,” he said to Derek as Karen stomped past them into the storeroom to clock in. “Probably should get home to water your plant.” He bit down hard on his lower lip. He could hardly contain his smirk.
“Yeah, I probably should.” Derek was seemingly oblivious to the sarcasm. “Have a good one,” he said as he strode to the door, leaving Jay baffled as always. Frankie held the door open for him. He was going to say goodbye but by the time he looked up from pulling his keys out of his pocket, Derek was already in his car.
Same shit, different day.
Friday night only differed from Thursday night in that the store sold a few more cases of Bud Light. By ten minutes until twelve, Frankie was in the familiar position of scrolling through social media on his phone as he waited for Jay and Karen to come in. About ten feet down the long counter, Derek sat reading the newspaper, silent enough that Frankie would occasionally glance his way in order to keep up his guard against surprise bursts of conversation.
He couldn’t stop from glancing at Derek tonight. The last time he had seen the guy, his short, perfectly combed hair had been streaked with gray. Today it was jet black. He had given himself a very bad dye job and had the proof of it all over the end of his fingers still. As amusing as it was, he dreaded Jay seeing it. This was going to be too much and might finally send him over the line from joking to outright cruel mockery to Derek’s face.
Jay and Karen arrived within moments of each other. Jay saw it immediately. He beamed with joy and glanced over at Frankie, who just nodded and gritted his teeth. Here it comes.
“Oh my God. Dude. Derek. What did you do?”
Derek looked up from his paper. “What do you mean?”
“Your hair! What did you do to your hair?” “Oh, that. Yeah, I dyed it.” His attention went back to the news.
“Holy shit. I see that. It’s--”
“Hey, Derek, what’s happening in the world?” Karen saved the day, stopping Jay before the attack began. She flipped him off and walked up to Derek.
After a brief pause, without looking up, Derek blurted, “These ATM skimmers are getting bad, I should take all my money out of the bank.” There was no context, just an awkward, self-satisfied laugh for punctuation. The other three were used to it by now.
“Yeah, sounds like a good idea, man,” Jay said, unconvincingly, his voice full of bored defeat. His fun had been taken away from him. He turned his attention to Frankie. “You coming over tomorrow night?”
“Yup,” Frankie replied, “To ingest totally legal substances.”
Karen rolled her eyes as they smirked. “You guys better be glad they don’t piss test us here.”
“Hey, I have chronic pain,” Jay pleaded while halfheartedly grabbing his lower back. Frankie laughed. Derek looked lost.
“God, it’s gonna be a long night,” Karen observed.
Jay’s apartment was one of four in a slightly run-down building on a hill overlooking what passed as downtown Melville. If it was a Saturday night, he and Frankie could be found sitting among the shoddy furnishings packing bowls and getting high as music thumped through the small living room.
“You working next weekend?” Jay asked.
“Shit, why can’t they give us the same weekends off more often?”
Frankie smiled as he took another hit. “Because they want to make sure that at least one of us shows up sober on Monday.” Jay chuckled at this as he got up and went to the fridge for a fresh beer, snatching his copy of the work schedule from its magnet when he closed the door and returned to the living room.
“Oh damn, you’re working with Derek both nights,” Jay observed, studying as closely as he could in his impaired state. “At least you can fuck with him. You should try a twelve hour shift with Karen,” he suggested, pantomiming sticking a gun in his mouth.
“You’re the only one that messes with Derek,” Frankie observed.
Jay swigged his beer. “You should try it, I know he annoys you, too.”
“Yeah, but he’s harmless, you know? A little odd, but harmless.”
“A little odd?!” Jay echoed, incredulous. “Let me show you just how odd that retard is.”
After rummaging around the couch for a moment, Jay located his smartphone and started searching furiously on it.
“What are you doing?” Frankie asked, puzzled.
“Here, look,” Jay offered the phone to him.
“You’re friends with the guy on Facebook?” It was Frankie’s turn to be incredulous.
Jay laughed. “Check it out, dude, it’s hilarious.”
For the next few minutes, Frankie scrolled and explored Derek’s profile: there were pictures of random household items and of his beloved cat, Goldie, shared stories about random news from West Point, and dozens of status updates that were, like his verbal declarations, gloriously free of irony. Frankie chuckled as he read a few aloud, then finally burst into laughter as he came across one that sought the answer to a simple question:
What’s that smell?
He read it aloud in his best Derek impression as Jay howled.
A few seconds later, Frankie came upon a picture of his wooden front door. “Is that duct tape?” He tilted his head quizzically for a closer look. It was, in fact, duct tape, all the way around the door’s frame.
This is my theft deterrent system, Derek flatly stated in the caption, This is the only way I can make sure it’s secure. Also, it keeps the cold air out.
Frankie was nearly in tears with laughter as Jay shook his head in amazement. “Scroll through the comments. There’s more,” Jay said.
In the comments were perplexed questions from what looked like Derek’s family: Why did you tape the door? Why don’t you get a deadbolt? How do you get in the door if it’s taped shut?
Derek answered the question. I go in the back door. I keep it unlocked in case I forget my keys.
“Wait, what?” Frankie scratched his head. “Did I read that right? He tapes his front door shut because he’s so worried about people breaking in, but he keeps his back door unlocked? And he lets the whole world know on Facebook?!”
Jay laughed himself into a coughing fit. He pounded his chest. “I know, right? What a dipshit!”
“Goddamn, if he did some of this stuff on purpose, he’d be a comic genius,” Frankie observed. Jay’s eyes lit up as he snatched the phone back.
“Bro, there’s more!” He searched excitedly for something else.
“The YouTube channel?” Frankie knew.
A few moments later, they were exploring Derek’s wonderfully weird collection of uploads.
“Have you seen all of them?” Frankie asked.
“No, he just showed me the plant one. Look at some of this shit,” Jay laughed. There were brief videos of Derek watering his very common-looking plant and speaking about it as if it were a rare vine in the rainforest. There were even more of Goldie the cat. Derek spoke to it like it was a person, asking him how he was doing, if he liked his new food.
“What’s the point of these? It’s kinda sad,” Frankie observed. Jay scoffed.
“There you go, again. Look…”
They pulled up a longer video of Derek taking viewers through a tour of his house. It was bigger and nicer than Jay’s place, a house instead of a small apartment, but it was nothing special. The décor was predictably plain. Goldie occasionally darted through the frame as Derek catalogued his mundane household, saying it was because he was thinking of refinancing. “What the fuck is refinancing?”
Frankie said as they watched. “I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s something I have to worry about,” Jay responded as he threw his now-empty beer can towards the kitchen trash can where it missed and clattered to the floor.
The tour wound its way into Derek’s bedroom, a plain room with just a twin bed and a small dresser, where his arm emerged into the picture to open his closet.
“This is where I keep the bodies,” Jay quipped in a whiny impersonation.
The closet door opened to reveal nothing so dramatic. Just some hanging clothes, some shoes on the floor. Right next to a small safe.
“Good one, Derek,” Frankie rolled his eyes, “Show everyone where your safe is located…and that you don’t lock the back door.” He smirked at Jay. His friend returned the expression for a moment before it abruptly faded. Frankie looked confused. “What is it?”
“What do you think is in that safe?”
“Hell, I don’t know. The most boring shit imaginable, probably. Why?”
“Remember what he said last night about taking all of his money out of the bank? With him, how can you tell when he’s joking? We could find out,” Jay said, too seriously for Frankie’s liking.
“You’re shitting me,” Frankie responded.
Jay shook his head. “You just connected the dots for me: we know where the safe is, we know all we’d have to do is go in the open back door and we’re in the house. It’s like he’s asking for it. It’s his own fault, really.” His wheels were turning and had Frankie worried.
“Dude, you’re not serious.”
“Why the fuck not? The guy’s the perfect mark. And look…” He picked up the work schedule off the couch. “He’s working a twelve next Saturday night. He’s with you until midnight and then Karen until 4 a.m. I’m off. We could roll his place in the wee hours and be gone before he gets off work.”
“You’re crazy. What are you going to do about the safe, genius? It’ll be locked.”
Jay shrugged. “It’s not that big, we could throw it in a bag, just take the whole thing. Once we get it back here we can figure out how to pry it open. When we’re done, I’ll take it back. He’s so dumb, living in his own little world. He’ll never know we were there.”
Frankie laughed. “Stop saying ‘we.’ We are not doing this.”
“C’mon, Frankie, don’t be a pussy.”
“You always do this, man. You get some dumb idea and don’t let off until you rope me into it, too.”
“You still sore about that detention?” Jay asked, caustically.
“Shut up, dude, we’re not kids anymore. You’re lucky you didn’t get popped when you were running around stealing cars with your idiot cousin. This could mean jail. I’m out.”
After a hard stare, Jay relented. Sort of. “Fine. Whatever I take is mine, then. Fuck our shitty jobs, fuck Derek. I’m getting paid. And the least you can do is have the balls to keep an eye on him while he’s at work with you.”
Frankie could see there was no way to change his mind. “Okay, I’ll keep you posted. But if the cops start chasing you, throw your phone in the river…then yourself, while you’re at it.”
Frankie couldn’t sit still.
It was Saturday night, just after 10, and he and Derek had been selling cases of beer and packs of cigarettes to the townsfolk for hours. To Derek, it was the typical Saturday night at work. Frankie’s paranoia about Jay, however, had him on edge.
Around 10:30, he felt his phone vibrate in his jeans pocket, and the vibration seemed to shudder his whole body. Glancing over at Derek, who was, as usual, busily stocking shelves, Frankie turnedaway and glanced down at the screen as he pulled the device just over the top of his pocket. A text from Jay, a thumbs-up emoji followed by 28 a question mark. Frankie took a deep, fretful breath, and responded with a thumbs-up, sans question mark. Derek was where he was supposed to be.
Across town, Jay was hiding in the shadows.
He had parked his car halfway down the block from Derek’s house and walked, backpack slung over his shoulder, as casually as he could up the sidewalk. So as not to be noticed by any suspicious neighbors, he walked around the block, into the vacant lot adjacent to Derek’s fenced-in back yard. He approached from there, walking quickly to the rear of the house.
This was it. He had been planning all week, driving around the neighborhood, studying things, visualizing. He made sure to wear a black hoodie, black jeans, and gloves. Jay was confident he could pull it off once inside, but this was the one moment he feared most. He had to open the door. It was the easiest part of the job, but it was the biggest step. He played it cool with Frankie, but Jay was scared to death. Then it occurred to him, what if the door was locked? What then? He hadn’t planned for that.
His heart racing, Jay cracked his knuckles and slowly reached for the knob, as if it might come to life and bite his hand off with any sudden movement. He turned it and pushed. It held for a moment, but then with a creak the door opened inward, revealing a semi-dark laundry room. There was a very old washer and dryer to his left. Straight ahead was another closed door leading to who knows where. Jay started forward and to his right, where the laundry room led into a kitchen. He tiptoed through it then came to a sudden and terrifying stop. The moonlight was passing through the kitchen window and the way it fell across the fridge made Jay think that for a moment someone was standing there with him.
He wiped away at the sweat that had started to form on his brow with his sleeve. “Jesus Christ. Keep it together, man,” he whispered. He left the kitchen and was now in the front of the house. Ahead of him was the front door, still duct taped heavily along three sides. One long strand had come loose and hung from the frame. “Unbelievable. Nice security system, you fucking idiot.”
Walking into the living room, Jay heard a jangling sound a moment before Goldie darted into his view. Startled for a second, Jay calmed himself as the cat glared at him from a perch on the couch. With this feline sentinel watching over him, Jay began to explore the living room, opening drawers and closets, looking for cash or anything valuable enough to be sold. There were books and magazines in the drawers, old jackets in the closet. In the small entertainment center beneath the TV, Jay noticed a DVD player and a few dozen DVDs. Fuck it, he thought, it’s something. He quickly threw the player and DVDs into his backpack before wandering down a hallway and finding Derek’s bedroom.
Back at the store, Derek had finished stocking the shelves and was now situating himself down the counter from Frankie, who was starting to feel guilty about the whole thing. He watched as Derek pulled out his phone and intently started tapping away with his thumb before smiling to himself at whatever was on the screen. The guy’s so honest, doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, Frankie thought. Do we really want to do this to him? For a moment, he considered telling him the whole thing, but thought of Jay’s fate before opening his mouth.
“Whatcha looking at, man?” Frankie decided, for once, to 30 make small talk with his co-worker. Derek’s eyes stayed on the screen as he spoke.
“Just Goldie, my cat,” he said, the smile growing wider.
“Your cat? You got pictures of him on your phone?”
“No, it’s my webcam,” Derek informed. Somewhere between “web” and “cam,” Frankie felt the blood rush to his face. “Oh…really?” he said, at a loss.
“Yep, see?” Derek held the phone out toward him. Frankie leaned closer to see a high resolution picture of Derek’s half-lit living room, complete with Goldie slinking along the wall.
“Cool,” Frankie choked out, his heart pounding.
“Yeah, sometimes I call my house phone and talk to him on the answering machine while I watch. He’s so silly.” Derek was practically giddy that he could interact with his pet this way.
“Watch.” Frankie was powerless to do much else as Derek picked up the store’s landline from behind the counter and punched in his number.
Jay poked his head into each door as he made his way down the hall, briefly stopping in the bathroom to rifle through the medicine cabinet, finding prescription pill bottles bearing names he couldn’t pronounce. He assumed they were Derek’s anxiety meds and tossed them in his backpack. I should pop a couple right now, he thought before moving on. He had to stay focused.
As he was entering the last room on the right, Derek’s bedroom, he heard a shrill tone cut through the silence from somewhere else in the house, making him flinch nervously. It was the phone. Derek still had a landline, because of course he did.
His heart still pounding, Jay waited patiently as the phone on an end table in the living room rang about ten times. Finally, Jay heard an electronic beep. “A fucking answering machine? Really?” He rolled his eyes. He heard Derek’s monotonous voice awkwardly stumble through an away message followed by another beep. And then the same voice continued talking.
“Goldie? Hey Goldie...”
It couldn’t be, could it? He cautiously walked back to the hallway and looked toward the living room. Being closer, the voice now sounded louder and was unmistakable: it was Derek. What the hell?
“Goooooldie....” Derek cooed over the answering machine as Jay stood there, dumbfounded for a moment before returning to the bedroom. Forget the weirdo. It was time to find that safe.
Goldie tentatively walked into the living room from the kitchen and looked around at the sound of Derek’s voice, stopping before the end table with his back arched curiously. Derek chuckled. Frankie watched the screen, a 32 nervous wreck, thinking Jay might waltz into the frame at any moment. The realization snapped him out of the state of shock he’d been in for the last few minutes.
“Hey, do you think you could watch the register for a minute? I need to use the restroom,” Frankie was already power-walking down one of the aisles before he finished the sentence. Once he was out of Derek’s sight, he pulled his phone out and called Jay as he hurried into the small restroom and locked the door behind him.
Jay answered on the third ring. “What the fuck, Frankie?”
“Dude, where the hell are you?” Frankie asked in a panic.
“I’m in his bedroom,” Jay responded, feeling his pulse skyrocket as he stared down at the safe in the closet.
“He’s got a fucking camera!”
“I asked him what he was looking at on his phone, it’s a fucking webcam so he can watch his cat!”
At hearing this, Jay felt like laughing and screaming at the same time. “Has he seen me?”
“I don’t think so, he seems happy as can be, but there’s no way you can go through the living room without him seeing you.”
“There’s no other way out, man! What do we do?”
“Goddamn it, I told you not to do this,” Frankie said, exasperated.
“Don’t preach to me, OK? Where are you now?”
“In the store’s men’s room.”
“Well, get back out there and keep an eye on him!”
Frankie wanted to scream at his friend but bit his lip and hung up. Walking back down the aisles, Frankie craned his neck over the shelves to see Derek sitting dutifully at the register, phone still in front of him on the counter.
“Slow night for a Saturday, huh?” Frankie said, trying to divert his attention from the screen any way he could. Derek’s eyes squinted in concentration then went wide as he continued to look at the screen.
“I gotta go,” Derek said, something like urgency in his voice for the first time Frankie could remember. With Frankie standing there awkwardly, Derek jumped up and bolted out the door.
What to do?
Jay was sweating in the darkened bedroom. The small safe weighed about twenty pounds but did just fit in the backpack with the electronics and the pills. Once it was secure on his back, Jay stepped over to the bedside window and looked out. The neighborhood was still quiet, but several of the neighbors were home, as evidenced by lights and TV screens glowing through their front windows.
Jay stopped and steadied himself when he reached the hallway, as for a few nervous seconds he blanked on what to do. There was no other way, he decided. He had to make a break for it. The lamp in the living room felt like the spotlight of a police helicopter as he passed through. He lurched through the doorway into the kitchen but heard a shriek and felt something tangle up his fast-moving feet. Before he knew it, Jay had tripped over Goldie and slammed his head into the tile floor, the weight of the backpack’s loot multiplying the force of the blow.
Lying there in semi-consciousness, Jay wasn’t aware that several minutes had passed. He was still groggy but shaken back to life by the phone vibrating in his pocket. With considered effort, he pulled it out and held it to his throbbing head.
“Hello?” he said, barely able to process what he was doing.
“HE KNOWS! HE’S ON HIS WAY NOW, GET THE FUCK OUTTA THERE!” Frankie screamed.
Jay’s eyes went wide. This news forced him to pull it together and regain his feet, legs unsteady beneath him. It took him a few tries to jam the phone back in his pocket and he took a moment to lean against the stove and get his bearings. His head was spinning and he grabbed onto the counter, afraid that he might pass out again. As he bent over a few spots of blood dripped onto the linoleum. He felt his cheek and came back with a long streak of red.
“Shit. You really fucked yourself up, Jay,” he mumbled. Stumbling through the darkness, Jay made it back to the laundry room before collapsing against the washer. He laid his head against the cool metal and tried to calm himself.
“Oh, God. Come on, man, you can do this.” Jay took a deep breath and stood up. He turned right for the door and opened it, stepping through. He was out. He made it. Except he hadn’t. He looked around at his surroundings, completely bewildered. This wasn’t the backyard. He was in another room. This one was long and narrow, boxes stacked around the corners, the center of the room revealing an empty concrete floor. A large metal door took up the entire other end. He was in the garage.
“The fuck?” He stumbled into the center of the garage, rocking back and forth on his heels, willing his brain to focus and get him out of there.
Suddenly, the garage door started to go up. His head still ringing, it took a few seconds for Jay to figure out what was happening. By the time his dulled reflexes kicked in, he turned around directly into a pair of headlights a moment before feeling his legs blasted from beneath him as he went flying back into the wall, the scream stuck in his throat.
Derek got out of his car and considered the young man in a black hoodie lying in a heap of agony on his garage floor. “Jay?” he said, more with curiosity than surprise. Jay couldn’t move and was on the verge of passing out from the pain. “Is Goldie okay?” Not getting a response, Derek rushed into the house. A few moments later, Jay could hear sirens in the distance, growing louder.
Red and blue lights bathed every surface of the neighborhood as people rubbernecked to try getting a look at the house. Jay had been arrested and loaded into an ambulance. A patrolman had just finished taking a statement from Derek and headed out to his car, leaving Derek holding and stroking Goldie in the living room.
“We’re okay, aren’t we?” he said, reassuringly, as Goldie nuzzled his chest. “Yeah, nobody messes with us, do they, buddy?”