Brad was a gas-station clerk; twenty, lean, and sickly-looking with circles so dark beneath his eyes he could make a raccoon blush. He’d spent his late teens in the gas-station by night, and the trend looked to continue through his twenties. To most, he was a loser. Sometimes he agreed. At least he was independent, self-sufficient, he’d say other times. It wasn’t much, but it was something.
A typical day saw him rise at noon. He went through his daily motions of coffee, showering, over the drone of scripted, daytime court shows. His dingy, one room apartment was on “the bad side” of town. Brad had learned since moving in, “bad-side” mostly meant, “unlike us” for those speaking of it, regardless of circumstances on either side. In his case, it meant poor.
Though there were a few of the truly undesirable around, the “government assist” housing surrounding his cut-rate apartment was simply filled with the “economically unfortunate.” Most called them disadvantaged, but Brad had always taken issue with this moniker, as if all those impoverished souls needed was to work a little harder and they too, could be Dukes and Dames of all they surveyed.
The truth, Brad knew, was much more difficult to accept: the “unfortunate” simply weren’t born into the wealthy elite or the middle classes above them, so they could never achieve what they’d supposedly been given a disadvantage at achieving. In other words, the “truth” was that the current social structure didn’t allow them to climb any higher without serious reformation. Brad had been born into middle-class living, but to escape the clutches of otherwise well-meaning parents, he took on the life of the impoverished. His own unwillingness to be anything else meant he’d all but cut ties with them after they’d tried to force him home for the sake of appearances. It might not have been much, he said, but it was his.
Like Brad, most of his neighbors ascribed to this method of thought. They were hard-working people that rose daily to slave for low-wages and no respect– and in the vain hope of one day lifting themselves from the muck.
The winters were the hardest for Brad and “his” people– the ones most would lump in as losers, whom like him, walked a straight and narrow just trying to get by. Most were laborers, single or child-bearing households with one wage earner. Often enough, those laborers received pink-slips en-masse when the weather turned to cold and the jobs froze with the ground. The influx often came with media-overblown sicknesses that frightened people into inoculating themselves and their children.
In truth, the monetary cost was greater than the risk, but none knew that. Meanwhile, those few claimed by true sicknesses were fraught by their afflictions’ medical costs. Between little work, rising medical costs, and the ever-creeping monster of inflation, it was a wonder to Brad that more people hadn’t recognized the slump into Third-World others had been forced along.
Brad was one of the lucky losers. Despite his sickly looks, and his emaciated build, he ate well enough to remain otherwise healthy. In combination with his hearty genetics, that had gifted him a robust immune system, it seemed no disease could overcome him. Physiologically speaking, he was an impregnable fortress of loop-hole turrets, regimental archers, and countless swordsmen. Were it not for these facts, perhaps the night the world caught up with him he would have died. Even so, he nearly did anyhow.
He rose as usual, coffee, hygiene, court-room dramas, and all. He made himself as presentable as any man unaware of such a monumental event to come could. Like those unlucky folks outside Ford’s Theater, he was merely ready to bustle onward through life, but was instead hit with a dose of reality that would’ve killed those losers of smaller luck.
He arrived at work as the walk-ins did in that season; layered in thick clothing, and with all but his eyes covered by a scarf, hat, and gloves. The only out of place item on him were the gym-shoes for hours of standing to come when others might have worn boots in the cold.
He hunched forward, hunkered into his coat and slinking toward the counter, as much at home there as in his dingy apartment. The two were similarly cramped, ugly, though the former bore considerably more color from the aisles of flashy products. In other words, had he an alley to himself, the gas station would’ve been right up it.
Like the most frigid of midweek nights, things were slow, tedious. Work had started just as the day’s last shift-change urged departing workers in and working departees out. The nine-PM rush quelled itself by ten with only the occasional hooting of night-owls or stoned-teenagers buying necessities to break the monotony. Cash and food stamps changed hands, debit and credit cards were swiped or shoved in to droning beeps, but that was it. Nothing unforgettable. These were the same, unfortunate souls that had lapsed into the haze of life; where day and night, weekday and weekend, had little meaning or distinction.
Brad sympathized most with this sect of “his” people. The all-nighters, graveyard shifters, and nocturnal creatures that prowled, patrolled, or otherwise maintained the night. And it was one of that group, most prone to prowling, that stepped up to the counter.
Brad greeted the man habitually as he stepped up to the counter. He seemed out of place, as if he fit into none of the groups Brad saw nightly. He looked almost alien, with his long, emaciated figure, skinnier than even Brad’s. Signs of addiction were present in the gaunt of his face and the brown rot of his teeth. Brad guessed Meth: it wasn’t a stretch. Those few, nearby undesirables still present in society had chosen that particular poison as their cash-cow.
Nonetheless, Brad showed no disrespect toward the man, nor in response to his request for “a pack of smokes.”
Brad turned away mechanically, lifting cigarettes from the display. He turned back and found himself staring down the end of a snubnose .38. It took his mind but a moment to connect with the steel death staring him down across the counter.
Brad dropped the cigarettes, raised his hands, “Take wh-whatever you want, man.”
“Give m-me e-everything in the d-drawer!” He stammered back with a strung-out scream.
His fury made him look more alien than any creature Brad had seen. The shaking steel death in his hand looked too familiar. Brad’s mind was slowed by terror, but the gun waggled and reality went in double speed.
“All the cash!” The man shouted, the gun pivoting left and right in a narrow arc. “Everything! Bag it. No funny stuff.”
“R-right,” Brad said with a habitual pull of a plastic bag. “N-no funny stuff.”
He rang up a false charge, opened the drawer. Hundreds in cash and change from the last few hours flowed into the bag. Had he not been alone, Brad knew, that money would’ve been locked away in the safe, and out of his hands. But the manager was home, sick, with the flu. The money was to pile up ‘til morning, when the next shift’s manager was due to collect before he clocked out.
Shaky hands fumbled paper-bills to the floor. “S-s-sorry.”
“Get ‘em!” He shouted.
Brad dropped to his knees, trembling. He felt as if standing before the firing squad. Tears fell involuntarily from his eyes. The alien creature softened.
“Nothin’ p-person, man. T-times is hard. Gotta’ support family. Nothin’s gonna’ happen to you, so long’s you pick up all that money.”
“R-right.” He stashed the last of the money into the bag, readied to hand it over.
“Yur comin’ with me,” he said, gesturing sideways with the gun. “Gonna’ cross the parking lot ‘n then you good. Can’t have the c-cops called too soon.”
Brad didn’t like it. He felt his stomach lurch. He stepped around the register, hands up and bag dangling from a thumb. He was escorted at gun-point into the cold night. The laterally-arranged fuel-pumps were vacant, save a single car just out of sight. The .38 compelled him across the lot, to the curb of the main-road, then across to its far-side. A car skidded to a stop before them.
Sirens blared through the night.
“You damn fool!” The creature barked at him.
He dove into the car, and for a flashing instant, Brad saw a human being. It was afraid, hungry. Then, the revolver rose and popped! A single round struck Brad’s gut. The shooter and his getaway car were gone before Brad hit the ground. How, he wasn’t sure until later, but those sirens screamed for the gas-station with angry vengeance. Brad lie in the snow, bleeding and half-frozen. A car inched over, its head-lights adding white to his pained and darkening vision.
Anyone else should have died that night. Brad wasn’t anyone else. In fact, he was the only “one else” for a young, espresso-skinned woman that more than qualified as stunning. As one of his regulars, she was also an independent, people-loving “loser,” content (like he) in the goings of her life.
Were she not so certain of that fact, she might never have been compelled to linger at the pump. She might never have been looking for an excuse to ask Brad out. She might never have wrestled with the decision, and thus witness the robbery, call the police, or watch Brad cross the road.
Had she refused to accept being a “loser,” she might have found herself in conflict with her feelings. Her nerves might then have gotten the best of her, and she might not have sat, waiting and arguing with herself. She might then have driven off, hopelessly romanticizing “what might’ve been.” Most of all, had she been anything else but herself, she would never have been quick enough to rush to Brad’s aid, or apply the life-saving pressure his wound required.
But she was herself, and she was there: she did apply the pressure, flag down the officers on scene, whom radioed EMT’s, then took her thorough description of the two men and their getaway vehicle. It wasn’t a half-hour after Brad was rushed to a nearby hospital that she was identifying the men. She waited two hours while she gave and signed statements, then made sure to locate and populate Brad’s otherwise-empty bedside.
What happened after he awoke is a matter of another tale, much too long to be told here. The conversation that took place immediately after he awoke was almost tedious in its way, but properly sets the tone for that lengthy tale, for those interested.
Brad awoke with a throbbing head. “Ugh. What happened?”
The woman was on her feet. She pressed him back to the bed, “Don’t try to sit up, you’ll pop your stitches.”
He hit a threshold of pain, then allowed her to ease him backward. Her espresso-skinned face, and jewel-bright eyes flitted through his mind, unseating a buried memory.
“You’re one of the regulars.”
She nodded. Her gentle hands and glowing smile forced a mental recall of the multitude of times they’d interacted. He’d seen her, felt a draw. He buried it, played it off as wishful thinking. Her smile glowed a little cooler now, but more from concern than anything.
Her hand withdrew but hesitated near his. She spoke almost breathlessly. “I s-saw everything, and… well, I wanted to stay here until someone else came, or until you w-woke up. I didn’t want you to feel alone after what happened.”
He gave an earnest smile, “Thank you. But… why?”
She chewed her bottom lip timidly, twiddled her nimble thumbs. “I was… um. I noticed they had no-one to call and … well, since I was there– and was sorta, gonna, maybe, ask you out– I figured I’d just s-stay… you know, as a f-friend. In c-case you n-needed someone… here, I mean.”
He blinked off a fog of morphine and pain. “You were gonna ask me out?”
Her big eyes glistened, “Y-yeah, I mean, i-if you wanted.”
He blushed, felt his cheeks reddened, and managed a laugh that made him wince. She looked as if about to lunge, fearing something more, but grimaced with a desperate laugh. Her gaze fell to her twiddling thumbs.
Brad watched her, found himself as equally stretched for words. “Wow.” His wishful thinking was rekindled into a blazing fire of hope, “I’m– and you’re so… I mean, why me? Why would someone so… be interested in me?”
She looked up with another timid, half-smile, having found her confidence again. “You’re cute, and I figured, since I see you everyday, we sort of have something in common. I-I really was only gonna ask for a-a date and then, well with everything now–” She sighed, “I understand if you don’t… want to, you know?”
He laughed again, shallower this time, then like her, found his confidence again. “From the sound of it, you saved my life. Least I can do is oblige such a… stunningly beautiful woman.”
Her eyes rose at him with a twinkle of hope. He let his hand rest atop hers, “I’m Brad, by the way.”
She giggled, shook it, “Sheila.”
One date: that was the agreement. And it was held to. Time and again, until long after they’d already become inseparable, they recalled that fateful meeting. No matter what anyone said about two such “losers,” they’d found perpetual joy in the fickleness of life– and in one another’s contentment of their place in it. Together, they took their own happiness and combined it, only to find more. What losers…