The Cleanup Crew

The Cleanup Crew

A Story by Haunzwürthe

The beginning of a story I'm working on. I'll add more as it comes to me.


     The rain pelted relentlessly on the windshield.  The droplets beaded and were quickly swept aside as the wipers raced back and forth against the glass.  The visibility wasn't terrible although it had still taken an hour to pass the Burgaw exit on I-40.  Ben Cready was headed west out of Wilmington for Raleigh, where the weather was clear and they had already passed.  Long gone were the days of cruising at 75-80mph down the interstate.  The speedometer read 35.  It wasn't the rain that was slowing him down.  It was them and what they would do.

     He held the wheel firmly with both hands while continuously monitoring the road and the rear view mirrors of his blue Dodge Avenger.  It was textbook; the DMV would be proud.  It's not like there were any idiot drivers to watch out for.  In fact, there was no one else on the road.  He didn't expect, nor would he want, there to be.  The rich and smart could avoid the storms or ride them out; he was only lucky.  Going all in and taking a fool's chance to get to Raleigh just to have his car serviced would have seemed ridiculous by most before they showed up.  Rightfully so.  But here he watched as each mile, each precious mile, counted down from the dash mounted service meter.  A small, gray box with a red LED display above 3 smaller lights was now the determining factor of success.  A steady green light from 10,000, a lazy, blinking yellow light at 500, and a frenzied red light from 100 down to 0.  Admittedly, he had taken each servicing for granted.  Ben had been lucky before, with time and money to have it serviced in the dry spells between their visits.  Though, being car stupid, he could only do the bare minimum, changing flats, checking fluids, and installing windshield wipers.  It was 122 miles to Raleigh and the service meter was 93.  Frenzied red light.

     Seemingly, as soon as the thought of being alone drifted back out into the storm, his heart sank.  Up ahead, a faint red glow appeared through the downpour.  The distance closed and the glow focused into a pair of rear tail lights.  An annoyed sigh escaped his throat with the darkened shape of the vehicle becoming visible through the rain.  The vehicle traveled at a slower pace and he easily crept up on the sedan.  Ben eased into the left lane and looked over at the driver.  Their eyes met; the frantic, red blinking illuminated their faces.  They stared at each other; the man held a death drip on his steering wheel.  He was younger, maybe mid-twenties, had barely started his life by the time they arrived.  The look of fear on his face was very evident.  The days of the Good Samaritan were over.  The young man knew he wouldn’t make it but Ben was in no position to help.  They were both on their last ditch attempts of desperation.  So they traded nods and Ben drove on. 

     He was desperate sure, but not stupid.  Taking a risk to help when both of them were so close to hitting zero was asking for a quick death.  Darwinism and altruism had battled with the former inevitably defeating the latter.  To each, his own demise whether natural or otherwise.  The man’s headlights fell behind Ben as quickly as his taillights had been approached.  He watched the vehicle guardedly and increased the distance between them.  A muffled bang caused him to catch his breath and he watched as the headlights swerved a bit.  This was it.  “Get out man!” Ben yelled to himself and hit his steering wheel.  He could almost see the faint glow from the vehicle’s interior light.  Ben saw his opportunity with the upcoming overpass and came to a slow stop underneath.  He watched his rear view mirror intently.  He was almost sure the guy was getting out and then it happened.  A chomping, metallic crash and his scream were clearly heard in the night.  A few flames from the igniting gas briefly outlined the bulky object gripping the car.  The headlights flickered, disappearing into the storm.  The man’s second breath let out a final, fading yell.  He was gone, existence wiped from the earth and not a shred of evidence left behind. 

     Ben held his breath and waited because they weren’t gone yet.  The humming became prevalent and his lungs nearly burst from his chest.  He clenched his seat belt with a racing heart and gasped in short, panicked breaths in hope that each one would not be his last.  He closed his eyes and waited.  The humming grew into vibrations.  It was a low, guttural drone of a noise and it penetrated every bone.  They were beside him; they surrounded him.  Their presence jingled the coins in the center console cup holder, adding a cheery, treble overtone to the dreadful hum.  Ben wouldn’t look at them.  He didn’t want to at this point.  It just wasn’t worth it.  It wouldn’t matter if he looked or not.  He would either die or be passed by.  The sweat beaded on his forehead and the buzzing surrounded everything.  Then it was done.  They were gone.  He relaxed in his seat, put his hands to his face, and slowed his breathing.  When he had regained himself, he looked outside and all around to find that he was completely alone again.  He had dodged the bullet by the skin on a chicken’s tooth.  He hadn’t been that scared since his first encounter.  Ben waited a few more moments before starting his engine.

3 years prior

     The old Exxon station sat on the northbound side of highway 17, what used to be the first stop into Porter’s Neck.  It was, however, a victim of the bypass.  Now accessible only by outgoing traffic, business had steadily nosedived under changing management, leaving the station in a worsening state of disrepair.  The current owners, Avery Oil & Gas Company, hadn’t put much effort into the place.  The fuel bay had three double-sided islands underneath a badly painted roof.  The cheap, white paint left streaks of color that did little to hide the former logos.  Pump #6 no longer worked and they were all in a desperate need for an update although there had been credit card readers installed along the line.  The islands were painted in the same lazy manner.  The convenience store was no more inviting.  Steel bars lined the windows and an old, empty ice cooler remained out front with one of its doors putting mounting pressure on the last remaining hinge. 

     Inside, a plexi-glass window enclosed the counter along with the cigarettes and lottery tickets.  Dust layered the nonperishable food and snacks in the two short aisles.  Many of the bulbs were out in the drink coolers if not flickering their final woes.  Only the beer coolers were well lit.  Imagine that.  In the far back corner were the restrooms.  The women’s bathroom had since become unisex since the plumbing went out in the men’s.  The faded Out of Order sign on the locked door showed how long absolutely no one had given it a second thought.  A door in the other corner led to the small back room where Ben Cready had his office.  It was an overstatement really; the room was only big enough for a small desk, chair, and a two drawer filing cabinet.  The walls were covered with tacked papers overhanging one another and an old calendar from 2007.  The desk held no more hope of organization than the walls.  Aside from the computer, it was itself a repository for scraps, notes, and other regulatory notices meant to be on display somewhere in the store. 

     The one clean area was a black plastic document tray labeled INVOICES which held a few nicely placed papers of the kind.  That was Ben’s only real job function as manager other than opening in the morning.  The vendors stocked the coolers and displays themselves and he signed the invoices.  Every Monday, someone from the main office would come by and pick them up for processing and payment.  Usually it was Donovan, obviously gay, but fiercely in denial.  He always looked like he had come straight from a 90’s workout video shoot.  Styled brown hair stuck up and over a leopard print headband.  He wore a vest over an ever changing array of workout shirts with unattractively small bicycle pants and neon green running shoes.  It was clear he wasn’t a runner.  Ben would’ve liked Donovan more except for the fact that he was such a condescending a*****e.  Whether it was a snide comment about the cleanliness of the store or the way he handled the invoices like they were diseased, Donovan made it his duty to be hated.  But he worked for dear old daddy Avery and exercised his immunity freely.  Ben was just glad he wouldn’t come by today.  It was Tuesday.

     It had been a slow morning and Ben was already bored.  The Pepsi and Budweiser drivers had been by early so it had mainly been himself until Jeremy came in at 10.  He was a good guy, that blond mullet notwithstanding.  It actually worked with his lankiness and he didn’t cause problems.  Just another guy with bills to pay.  Only a couple of gas customers and the usual beer and cigarette sales were all to show for the morning.  Out back, an HVAC service tech was busy with the central air.  It had gone out yesterday and was just another reason for Donovan to show his a*s.  He had huffed and puffed about bringing someone in to fix it though reluctantly agreed to have it repaired.  The store was falling apart.  It was still bearable inside with the cool morning and the early afternoon sun had only begun to bake.  He settled himself to finish the shift with some internet spades and with two wins quickly in the bag, he worked on the third.  He preferred straight spades; the joker-joker-deuce, 10 for 2, and Boston rules just made it easier.  With his hand dealt, he looked at his options and decided to bet three books. The game was on.  His partner led with the ace of diamond winning the hand and gave it back to Ben with the two of Hearts.  Ben took it with the King and took the next book with the Ace of Hearts.  He heard the bell chime as someone entered the store and he threw a five of clubs to pull out the high cards.  The service tech came back to the office wearing a blue work shirt tucked into khaki cargo pants with a worn leather tool belt.  Jason was on his name tag.  “That unit is completely out for the count.  When is the last time it was serviced?”

     “I couldn’t tell you, man,” Ben responded. “It’s not been touched since I’ve been here so at least 4 years.  So what’s it gonna take?”  His partner threw a seven and their opponents won with a ten.

     “A new unit at best.  I would also bet that your duct work needs help as well.”  King of Diamonds lead.

     “I wouldn’t doubt it.  The hard part is going to be getting the main office to approve it. Good luck bro. Is there an invoice to sign?”  They took the book and led with the Ace of Clubs.

     “Nah, not since the call came from the office.  I gotta take it over and see what they want to do.” His partner broke spades.

     “Gotcha.  Well looks like I’m buying a fan after work.”  Ben killed his queen, his last club.  He should have bet more books, maybe four or five. 

     “Yeah, with the heat this week you’re gonna need it.  We could use some rain though.  Well, have a good one,” Jason said.  Ben nodded, showing his lack of interest in the conversation and his attention locked into the game.  His partner led with the Ace of Spades and clearly they underbid this round.  Jason yelled out before he left the store.  “Hey, it may rain after all.  There’s some pretty dark clouds towards Jacksonville!”  Ben didn’t respond and continued the game. 

     They bagged four books but set the other team back.  90 to -100.  Three hands later it was 300 to 80.  He left the office to use the bathroom while the new game loaded.  Jeremy was talking to a customer at the window who was getting some cigarettes and a couple lottery tickets.  Ben closed the door behind him and unzipped.  The bathrooms stayed cool since they were next to the coolers.  Sometimes condensation gathered on the brown tile floor and ran down the off white walls.  No one had fallen yet even though it did get slippery at times.  He realized how warm he had become sitting in that little office.  His forehead was damp and his shirt stuck to him.  He finished and buttoned his pants, sucking his gut to get them fastened.  The flush failed and he gave a kick to the silver pipes to get it going.  That worked and the yellow water swirled back to clear.  He turned to wash his hands and saw that there was no soap.  Well, there was soap in the broken dispenser and an ugly, gray bar caked to the sink.  He didn’t use the soap and instead splashed some water on his face.  He wiped with a paper towel and met his gaze in the mirror.  He needed a haircut.  It hung down the side of his face and added to its roundness.  The fat underneath his jaw completed the circle and he could no longer hide the double chin.  His game would be ready so he left the bathroom and headed back to the office.  Jeremy was still assisting the customer but the store was otherwise empty so Ben let them be.

     The sun was getting further in the sky and the rays closer to Ben’s office so he closed the door behind him.  He sat down and saw that the new game was still loading.  The computer wasn’t frozen so it must be the connection.  Indeed it was.  The internet icon in the bottom right corner showed no connection.  He checked the modem and all the lights were on.  “Hey Ben!” Jeremy called out.  “I think there’s something wrong with the system, the card reader ain’t working.”

     “Hold on!” Ben answered, getting agitated that the new game still hasn’t started.  He checked the cables and restarted the modem.  The card readers were on a separate system and he could wait a bit.  The lights flickered on the modem as it went through its cycles and again, until all were lit again.  He refreshed the page and it went white still showing no connection.  Ben was not frustrated having lost a game he was ahead in.  He got up and went out to the counter.  The sun had been blocked by clouds and it was unusually dark outside.  He remembered Jason saying something about rain.    

     “Everything is on, it’s just not taking the card.  Is the system down?” Jeremy asked.  He wasn’t technologically inclined when things weren’t working and really, neither was Ben.  He took the guy’s card and swiped it again.  Nothing.  He used the slot on the screen and still did not get a response from there either.

     “I guess so,” Ben replied.  Fat raindrops began pelting outside.  “Crap, I gotta go roll up my windows.  Keep working with it and if it’s not up when I get back, I’ll call it in.”  Nearly as soon as he stepped outside, the skies dropped.  “Sonuva!!”  He ran around the side of the building and to his blue Avenger parked in back.  His seats were already soaked as he was and he sat inside for a minute until he heard it through the deluge.  It was a faint boom, then one after another and getting louder.  He got out and trotted back toward the entranced and stopped in his tracks.  The hum penetrated him like nothing he had ever felt before.  He had just rounded the corner and saw headlights coming down the highway being picked off the ground by massive dark objects.  It was only about 3pm yet it looked like the sun had already set.  Ben looked the other way and saw the quickly disappearing blue sky in the distance.  The storm was moving south and faster than any storm he had ever seen.  He was brought back to the reality of the danger he was in by something crashing through the roof of the fuel bay in into pump #6.  The flickering lights of the damaged roof illuminated a hulking dark gray object for a moment and then it was gone, along with the pump.  The rain no longer concerned him, he was worried about the fuel bay.  He took slow steps backwards.  Another object crashed into the fuel bay and another into the store itself.  Ben, in shock with the events unfolding did the only thing his brain could conjure.  He turned and ran. 

© 2017 Haunzwürthe

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Added on January 20, 2017
Last Updated on March 17, 2017



Bland, VA

-------------------------------- I am Mark but Haunzwürthe is more fun. -------------------------------- A brand new life sputtering in the wake of a broken family and the dissipating path o.. more..

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