Chapter 6 - Strangers
There are three cars at the gas station; one is filling up, an old man with white hair and a long wide beard resting on his chest as he leans over the trunk of his car, the gas nozzle in his hand. The other two cars are parked off to the side of the building nearly hidden in its shadow.
He pulls into the parking lot swinging the big truck between pumps so that he can park just to the right of the entrance to the store. The key is turned off and the engine rumbles to a halt. The both of them open their doors and step to the pavement, a cold autumn breeze sending a chill through their clothes causing them to shiver and rush for the door.
He holds the door open for her and they enter, a rush of warm air directed at the door from an overhead heater flowing ever faster over their bodies as the door closes. With a snap the door slams shut and the whistle of the rushing wind abides, the fan motor automatically turned off with the slam at their back.
They head for the climate controlled section in the rear of the shop where she notices a big sign with the simple depiction of a woman in solid blue color and white outline below which "Rest room" had been printed. She turns to him and says, "I have to pee, I will be back in a minute." He nods as she rushes off to the ladies room.
Standing in front of the glass doors he looks at a large selection of drinks. He prefers normally a Pepsi when on the road at night, it helps him stay awake for the long drives but they are almost home and instead grabs a water for himself.
While waiting for his wife to return he wanders towards the snacks located nearer to the checkout counter looking for some beef jerky. While his eyes are scanning the racks, he catches bits and pieces of a conversation between the clerk behind the counter, a lady of middle age with shoulder long brown hair, thick round breasts and chunky arms leaning over to listen to the whispers of a thinner, older man standing before her.
He is attracted to woman, all women that are hygiene conscious. Whether they are bigger, not obese, taller, shorter, thinner, no matter. Her finds the female gender of the human race to be the most perfect organism to ever be put on this green Earth and is attracted to all of those that take some pride in their appearance. The woman behind the counter was no exception. Although heavier set and of middle age, one could tell by the styling of her hair and the crows feet at the corners of her eyes that she is a gentle natured woman who would be quick to laugh and for those she cared about it, quick to cry. His glance to the counter caught these details and the fact that the incoming chilly night breeze had caused her nipples to contract and press through her bra, a turn on for him every time. The man standing across from her was hardly noticed except for the dingy blue overalls that he was wearing and his slightly bowed back which indicated years of hard work.
"It was a slaughter I tell you, a killin' on Hathford Hill near the old bridge to Pennbrooke. Old Johnson was there, the first to see it and he told me that there was blood everywhere, body parts strewn in all directions." The wrinkles of the man's face drawn taught with concern.
"Oh my God." The lady seemed to say, her voice no louder than the wings of an owl in a midnight flight.
Having heard of Hathford Hill, which is not that far from the campground, the conversation between the two just became of extreme interest.
As if hardly noticing the ladies comment or the fact that someone was listening behind him, the elderly man continued, "Ol' Johnson isn't exactly sure who it was but it must have been a man because of the hunting clothes he had on, what was left of them anyway. Johnson's boy found a rifle not far away and got a good scolding from Sheriff Wheeler for picking it up."
The old man stopped for a moment, seeming to try and recall any other details that he may have missed. Slowly he stammers on, "There was foot print I guess, a big one from what I heard but not in shoes. The police aren't sure if it belonged to the hunter or whoever,… or whatever got that poor guy. All I know is that I won't sleep tonight. Me and Ma have called the boys and they are home now with her. The house isn't big enough for three families with grandkids but we'll manage 'till the police know more."
The clerk in her green shirt leaned back sucking in air through closed teeth. "I'm going to call Jerry and let him know. His house is about seven miles away but he should know of this now if no one has let him in on it already."
The conversation has more than perked his attention and had him listening intently to the conversation. When touched on the arm his feet nearly left his shoes! "Shit Honey!" His voice was low but a bit shaken.
With a big smile across her face she asks, "What has you all jumpy?"
The commotion of the two catches the attention of the clerk and following the lady's eyes the old man turns to gaze at them. His wrinkles deepen and an expression of disgust and mistrust spread from the down turned corners of his lips to the hair line of his forehead. The man looked at them as if they were the culprits, the skulking sinister killer of the Hathford Hill woods standing right before him.
The look didn't go unnoticed and though a man of great inner strength, the thought of someone thinking of him as a lesser man has him feeling small inside. Confronting strangers who carry themselves with an air of arrogance or high stature have always been a bit imposing to him and it makes him feel uncomfortable often causing him to avert his eyes. This odd feeling that he gets when confronting others has always bothered him. He has stated more than a few times to friends and those that were not his friends, "Your shit doesn't stink any better than mine." Meaning that regardless the persons' position, status, or title, that person was in no way, shape or form better than he but he expressed this thought verbally only when pressed to the point of emotional fury, a state of mind that he seldom reaches. The only foundation for this reaction in him, as far as he can tell, would have to be the constant moving around as a child, constantly having to confront new kids as he changed schools which was often accompanied by the standard childish verbal abuse, or possibly the fear of inferiority instilled in him by his stepfathers persistent pressure. Regardless, these feelings are something that he has over the years tried to subdue, mentally pushing them to the rear of his head then attempt to display a person that he really isn't. One might compare his inner conflict with that of a bush boy of Africa scrambling to place fallen braches over his head with trembling body as he attempts to ward off a pack of hyenas by making himself look bigger than he really is.
Turning to the beef jerky, he grabs a couple of his wife's favorites at the same time mustering his self assurance, then turns for the counter his wife not realizing what had transpired over the last few minutes in tow, her hand in the nook of his right arm.
His eyes fall on those of the man next to the candy bar rack and is met by a scolding blue eyes set in the somewhat sunken sockets of a sullen face ravaged by the hardships of time and of intense labor. The mans' scrawny arms baring serpent like veins and sinewy muscles attached to bulging tendons at his wrists, his arthritis infested fingers with knots where knuckles should be all spoke volumes to his physical strength and endurance even at his ripe age of sixty seven. These details flooded his brain as he took in as much of this potential foe in seconds required to reach the counter. Under other circumstances, he would certainly have admired this man. Those people that have taken what life has dished out and made the best of what they had, move him emotionally. In the light of the current situation and the hostility literally oozing from that furrowed face has him on the defense though, all of his senses have been put on red alert and this is a feeling he is not comfortable with.
"There have been a lot of strangers in town of late" The old man's voice carries like the hiss of snake ready to strike. "It wouldn't wonder me if one of those bastards from down south are to blame. Bringing their fucking problems up here to us simple folk, thinking they can do what they want and have no consequences. That bastards gonna pay, mark my words."
The lady behind the counter, her name tag placed above her right breast showing her name to be "EMMA" in big bold black letters set below the wavy logo of the gas station, quickly injects "Hey, haven't seen you guys around for a while."