Chapter 1: .vermilion
My scooter was parked in the ditch right outside of the petrol station. Dusk was a beautiful time of the day. Maybe even more beautiful than the dawn. Emily was waiting behind the cash register, I was sure of it. She was a petite young woman, two years older than me, but far prettier. Even my boyfriend thought so, not that he would ever say so.
The petrol station was empty. It was almost an hour outside the centre of town. I usually didn't work this late at night. And in hindsight, maybe I shouldn't have accepted the midnight shift. It was half to eleven, half an hour until my shift would start. Still, I had more than enough time to clean up the aisles. Emily's shifts were usually messy. First of all, she couldn't handle the food. Hotdogs dropped to the floor and ketchup splattered everywhere. I hated working after Emily. Not that I had a problem with her, I loved her, but still, it was pretty annoying.
But that was life working at the petrol station. I didn't hate it, and I needed the money. It was for going on holiday with Chris, my boyfriend, and some other friends. Including Emily.
I turned on the lights around the outside and went into the station. Emily waved and smiled at me. She had her face full of hotdogs. I didn't understand how she could keep her shape. Emily didn't train and she ate like a pig. I trained every morning and tried to stick to that routine.
"How's business?," I jokingly asked. She had some music on. I didn't know if it was from her phone or from the radio. The tune was great. Some kind of indie music or post-punk revival. I was quite interested in music. Emily constantly made fun of my extensive record and CD-collection. I had everything from Lady Gaga to Iron Maiden on my phone, but I still didn't know what this music was.
"Business is booming! We haven't had a single customer all day. I've only seen one car. An estate wagon that was speeding like crazy." I nodded. Sounded like a normal day at Frank "France's" petrol station.
An advert came on. Yeah, it was definitely the radio. Only the radio had those dreadfully boring infomercials about God knows what. At least they weren't actively trying to sell you stuff.
The aisles were a mess. A box of cereal had dropped from she shelf and spilled all over the checked floor. I couldn't wait to start cleaning. That was sarcasm if you didn't quite catch it.
Emily stuffed her face with the second hotdog.
"Onila," she said between chews, "There's something wrong with the cash register." I strolled over and looked at it. Nothing seemed off.
"I can't open it," she said. "You should look at it." I got a weird feeling. It was like she was trying to fool me. I didn't want to get scared, but I cared for the shop.
"Did you use the key?" I asked. She held it up and I took it out of her hands. I pushed the key into the lock. I turned it around in the lock and the cash register flew open. Inside was the biggest amount of money I had ever seen in France's Petrol Station.
"When did this happen? I thought there hadn't been any activity…"
"Dylan came by this afternoon. He had all the money he owed us." Dylan was a local druggie. He constantly had run-ins with the police and he liked to pick fight in the bars in the outskirts of town. Dylan owed the petrol station quite a lot of money. He had a beat-up truck that used a lot of fuel. France was nice enough to let him fill up the tank.
"Is he clean?" I asked. I didn't know where Dylan got the drugs. We didn't have a big drug problem in the city. No drugs, no violence, no harassment. Dylan was a one off, an exception.
"Yes. He has been to rehab," Emily smiled. She was proud of him. Emily was quite fond of Dylan. Now, you might think the story of Dylan is completely irrelevant to the story, but I promise, it's not.
"I'm happy for him," I admitted. Emily nodded. I opened my mouth to say something about Dylan, but the bell interrupted me.
A skinny man came into the shop. He had long, greasy hair.
"Welcome to France's Petrol Station. Can I help you?," Emily asked in her normal chirpy voice. I looked out of the window. I hadn't heard a car drive up to one of the pumps, and I hadn't seen the light.
He shook ever so slightly, as if he was freezing. But it was pretty warm inside the shop. I suspected Emily had turned the heat on. She froze so easily.
The man didn't answer her. He had dirty trainers on his feet. They looked very old. I didn't recognise the brand, and they looked cheap.
I started stacking the tobacco into their containers. We had just got more cigarettes. The things we sold the most of were cigarettes and booze. Not that it came as a surprise to anyone. France said that booze and money made the world go 'round. He was probably right.
The new visitor didn't mind the employees watching him. I kept a watchful eye while I was stacking the different tobacco products. I had been a smoker ever since I started as a fifteen year old. I didn't cough when I took my first lungful of sweet nicotine. And while I knew it was harmful both for me, and people around me, I never really thought of quitting. The only problem was the costs of the cigarettes. I was a Marlboro fan. In my opinion there were no cigarettes better than those from Marlboro. Marlboro Ice Mints were my go to cigarettes. France made fun of me for buying those fancy ciggs, but I really couldn't help how much I loved them.
I went down to the aisle where the cereal was spilled. I brought a broom and dustpan. As I was sweeping the floor, the shaking man came 'round the corner. He took one look at me and tried to turn around.
"It's a nice evening for a walk," I said, trying to make small talk. "I didn't see a car so I imagine that you walked all the way here." He didn't answer, or even acknowledge my existence. He looked straight in front of him with big, blank eyes. It was now it dawned on me that he was a drug addict. I could smell cigarettes and booze oozing from every pore on his body, but only drugs could do this to a person. I tried talking some more. Commenting on the weather and on the conditions of the road. I told him about my scooter. I was a pretty polite girl. My parents taught me to be nice to everyone, even though I didn't like them. Maybe that's why I thought it was smart to talk to a drug addict. Dylan hadn't harmed me after all. Still I felt a little bit worried
I went to the back room and turned on the security cameras. We usually didn't have them on. We had never had a robbery, only some kids shoplifting. But I didn't want this addict to steal anything under my watch.
It was getting pretty dark outside and I wanted to have a smoke before it got too dark. The graveyard shift was, as the nickname suggested, a quiet one. That didn't mean I wanted to go out in the dead of night. Especially once Emily left in her grey Ford Mondeo.
I didn't want a car. Cars scared me. They were so big and bulky. So powerful. I always felt uneasy when it came to cars. As if a car could never protect me. I felt much safer on my scooter, even though it was cold and often wet. In the small hours of the morning I would ride to school. And in the evening I would ride home or to work. I wasn't allowed to drive it on the motorway, as it was for cars only, but I still did. Police never drove this far out of the city, and I didn't really care if they caught me. I knew most of the officers, since we lived in a small city, and most of them already knew that I rode the scooter on the motorway. None cared.
"I'm going out to smoke," I informed Emily. She smiled from behind the counter while she was counting the money. Dylan had been generous enough to pay the whole sum at once. Or at least that's what it seemed like. I grabbed my coat, waved to Em and cursed her for counting the money while that crazy man was in the same room. I doubted he would try something. Em was strong. She'd done karate, or taekwondo, or something like that. From what people told me she was pretty good at it. It seemed like the guy was in his own world. Too far gone. He didn't scare me to be honest. It was more the eerie atmosphere around him. It was like he was too high to even touch the ground. I wondered what kind of black market drugs he was one. To be honest I barely knew what the black market was. I had never been in contact with it, and I never wanted to. I looked at my watch before I found a cigarette. It was eleven o'clock. The darkness had engulfed the city and left it with sprinkled stars in the ceiling. It was quite the scenic evening. Only hours before, the fields on the sides of the motorway had been soaked in gold. Now that those rays of sunshine were gone, the fields looked intimidating, with straw high enough for a person to hide there.
I found my lighter. A rusty zippo my father gave me once. I sucked on the end of the cigarette. It was a nasty habit, and I knew it. I filled my lungs with the delicious smoke before I exhaled. I could barely see the motorway from where I was standing. The pumps were just around the corner. I had come out of the employee's door. The lights flickered every now and again. France needed to get an electrician to look at the place. Now he had the money to do so, thanks to Dylan. If I knew France well enough, he would offer Dylan a job. Not that I would complain. That might mean less graveyard shifts for me.
I turned on my music and waited for a good tune to come on. I stood like that for a while, sucking my cigarette. Inhaling and exhaling in a steady rhythm. It was quite good, just standing there. It took my mind off things. I didn't worry about my current money situation or the stranger in the shop. I just let everything go. Some people needed drugs to get high, but I still got that initial nicotine shock from smoking. I never coughed, and I had never thrown up, but I still felt it. It started as a weird tingling sensation. It spread to my arms and finger. I lost feeling in my fingertips and I got relaxed. I didn't know if that qualified as a nicotine shock, but I still counted it as such.
My favourite song had just come on when I heard a sound. It came from around the front of the station. I ran to see, not dropping the cigarette as I ran. In the distance I could see a car coming towards the station. I wanted to wave and say hello. To tell them that we were open for business. But I didn't. The car drove into the station parking lot of it's own free will. Or rather of the woman behind the steering wheels free will. She had longish red hair. The man by her side had greying dark hair and some wrinkles. I had seen them around town and I knew they lived in the outskirts. The rougher areas. They seemed like a nice enough couple. They didn't have a lot of money, but they made do with what they had.
The couple, as well as a teenage boy, stepped out of the car. The woman started to fill the tank of the dark car. It was an old Volkswagen Golf. Not exactly the car rappers wrote songs about. The man came towards me.
"Hi, fancy seeing you here so late," the man said, like he knew me. I smiled politely. I enjoyed making small talk.
"It's the graveyard shift this weekend," I said, meeting him halfway. We stood like that. Looking at the motorway and at the lack of traffic on this hour. For a motorway it was very quiet. But we thought nothing of it. It was a Monday night, and most people were at home with their families or in the library studying for a test. My boyfriend was out partying, as he often was. He didn't have a problem or anything; he just liked the rush of the alcohol. I thought he might be the chauffeur this night, so Chris might not be drinking as heavily. But even though he drove, he would still have a beer. That was his biggest flaw.
"I'm starting to feel hungry," the man said, his voice still soft.
"We have hotdogs on the grill, and all the ketchup and mustard you can manage," I bragged. I was happy to show off how well France's Petrol Station was doing. For a small, private owned, company, we were pretty well off. The pay was great. At least much better than working as a cleaning lady at the school. That's where I had started my working career.
"Well, then we should take a look inside," the man said, smiling sweetly at his wife as she was filling the tank.
"I can even give you a small discount for coming in at this hour. Just tell the cashier that Onila gave you the 10%."
"Onila," he said, chewing the inside of his cheek. "That's quite the uncommon name."
"It's what my parents gave me. I think it's a family name or something. I don't really know." Many commented on my name, said it was weird and stuff like that. I didn't really mind. It was my name, and the only one I had. Having an unusual name was funny. At least I thought so. It was like I knew people were talking to me when they shouted my name. There weren't many people named Onila, and especially not in this part of the world.
The teenager (his father tells me his name is Derrick) was pacing back and forth, trying to shake the slumber. I walked up to him, looked him in the eye and smiled. He smiled back, but his gaze shifted when he saw the packet of Marlboro I still had in my hand. Derrick looked at his parents, who were starting to walk into the shop. Then he asked me.
"Can I have one?" His hair was dark, and he had dark circles under his eyes. The clothes were tight and dark, with all kinds of pins, chains and spikes on them. I guessed he was some kind of Goth or Emo or whatever the kids are these days.
"I don't give out cigarettes to random, underage, kids," I said, putting a Z at the end of kids. Kidzzz. I didn't try to be cool, to be one of the kids. I was still, technically speaking, a teenager. I was nineteen, but very small and skinny for my age. Not at all as petite as Emily, but still pretty small framed.
Derrick looked about sixteen. He had some eyeliner on, making him look like a real rebel. (Sarcasm). I had seen my fair share of punk rockers, and he wasn't one of them.
"C'mon. One smoke. I'll even give you my zippo," he begged. He walked back to the car. I slowly followed him. He opened the front door on the passenger side. I tried not to, but I had to peak inside. Inside the car there were empty whisky and vodka bottles everywhere. He turned to see me staring at the contents of his family's car.
"It's not what it looks like," he muttered. There was something strange in his voice. He sounded almost apologetic. I wasn't in any state to judge. I had slowly been killing myself with cigarettes for years.
"I'm sure it's not," I said. He gave me the zippo. It was a nice one. Not one of the fakes that were everywhere now a days.
"Thanks for the offer. It's a really nice lighter, but you're a minor," I said. He huffed. A very angry huff. I was going to explain why I couldn't give him a smoke. If France found out that I gave minors smokes in work time, he would flip. I opened my mouth to tell him why. That's when I heard the sound that would change my entire life.
"What the actual…?," I asked myself. It was a gunshot. That much I could hear from the unfamiliar sound. I had heard it on TV and on the radio. Gunshots definitely sounded like that. The sound was a little deeper in real life. It kind of chimed on after the sound itself was gone. It was weird, and it honestly took me a few seconds to fully understand what was going on. Then I heard three more.
Then it all fell silent. I looked at Derrick. He was pale as a ghost. It was when I saw the fear on his face I realised what was going on. France's Petrol Station was under attack. And there was nothing I could do.ns 18.104.22.168da2