I write a lot of goofy nonsense, I know. But I’ve been itching to write a story that, regardless of humorous content, has a serious message. I want to preface the story, though, with another story. A true story.
I used to work at Starbucks. It was kinda my first job. Technically my first job was at a Starbucks inside a Target, and the Starbucks where the following took place was a different store, but whatever. I was young. Just 18. I was dealing with a lot of stuff in my non-work life. And, y’know, even for a kid whose outside life is perfect, retail food is hard. I once got shouted at for making a hot chocolate that was, er… hot. People are interesting. They’re often finicky and cruel, and so many times they treat you so inhumanely that you wonder what it means to be human in itself.
Then, if you’re damn lucky, someone will remind you. For me, that person was Sheila.
I don’t know her last name. I don’t know where she lives, or her phone number, or anything. Hell, do I know if she’s still alive? No. Because to me, she was just a regular customer at my Starbucks. But she was also Sheila.
Sheila would come in and tell us stories as she waited for her coffee. She told us how she picked up hitchhikers and how she left her front door open on Thanksgiving, letting in anyone who wanted a free meal and free conversation. She was constantly inspiring us with tales of kindness that most people deem “going too far.”
Sheila was not one for this rhetoric that your generosity should only extend as far as your own neck. I remember her telling us, in some number of words, that if she went out doing nice things, then that was just okay.
I admire the heck out of that. I know it’s scary to risk yourself for somebody else. I know people will disparage you for supposed foolishness. But when I think about her, I don’t think about someone who needs to learn to take more than she gives.
I think about that time, on a hectic Black Friday, where she brought us Thanksgiving Turkey. For the record, yes, it was delicious. But it was also the single most thoughtful, touching thing that anyone has ever done to me, for me, while I was at work. I have to fight back tears of appreciation every time I remember it. Quite frankly, she’s what reminds me what it means to be truly human and have humanity.
Between the time that I put in my two weeks notice and the last time I walked out those Starbucks doors, I didn’t see her again. I wish I could have given her the heartfelt goodbye that she deserved. Alas, that’s life. A glorious human being touches your heart for a flitter of a moment, and then they’re gone. At least in physicality. Never in your mind.
So this story is for her. It’s also for you, dear reader, to remember the good in the world, and to remember that you can be that good.
Without Further Adieu,
I clutched the red gas can in white knuckles. Of course. This was, what, my third week on the job? Nevertheless, I already had to make an uncomfortable phone call to my boss, already had to be chewed out for having the gall to run out of gas.
Maybe if the bastard could write a check that could fill my tank, we wouldn’t be here right now.
Death-gripping my phone with the other hand, I looked at the map screen. Still a mile from the nearest gas station. I swear to god, they were everywhere until you needed one.
As I walked, I got a sense of something being off. I looked over my shoulder. A plain, powder blue sedan was slowing down on the shoulder. I took in a sharp breath.
“Hey!” The woman in the driver’s seat called.
“Ah– hey?” I sputtered back.
“You need a lift to the gas station?”
I froze, squeezing my phone and the handle of the gas can with fingers quickly losing blood.
“Hey now, don’t worry! I don’t bite, and I know nobody wants to be out in this heat if they can help it.”
I grit my teeth. “Oh… yeah. Okay. Okay. Um–”
“Come around the passenger door. Seriously, it’s all good.”
With mechanical movements I approached the door, pulled the handle, and slid myself inside. As I clicked the seat belt in place, I felt as though I was strapping myself in to my own demise. I looked at the woman in the driver’s seat. Olive skin, brown pixie cut, skin cut into wrinkles and lines. She could have been my mom’s age.
“Right, gas station.”
I didn’t say anything as the car joined traffic once more.
“Hey. What’s your name?”
I forced my throat open. “Joel.”
“Well, Joel. This is gonna sound odd, but– thanks for letting me help you.”
My retreating blood froze in place. “What?”
The woman huffed before pursing her lips. “You know, when I was a kid, we ran around in the neighborhood and just assumed nobody would hurt us. We kinda felt like people were good. Now, everyone’s afraid that everyone else wants to kill them and drop them in a ditch.”
I nodded, my neck stiff.
“But… heck, I know it’s scary to trust other people, but thanks for trusting me. It would have killed me to wonder if, I don’t know, if you died of heatstroke on the way to the station, or if you got hit by some asshole driver.”
“You don’t know me, though.”
“Oh, darn.” She laughed, the wrinkles by her eyes looking deeper. “Did I pick up a shapeshifter again?”
I blinked. “Pardon?”
“Ah, alright, no. You’re human. A human being. That’s all I need to know, hon.”
“But I could–”
“Be a murderer? Mugger? Serial flasher? Yeah. Of course. And you know, the first few times I did this, I was worried about that.”
“And not a damn thing has happened yet. Yeah, you could be a sicko, a creep. But I’m willing to gamble that you’re not, and so far the dice have been in my favor. At least with everyone else.”
I frowned. At first I was just confused at her generosity, but now I was worried for this poor woman. She was going to get herself killed.
I cleared my throat. “You know, all it takes is one person with issues–”
“Last guy said that too, y’know. If I’d listened to him you’d still be in the heat.”
I clutched my gas can tightly. “Fine. But… don’t you worry?”
The woman slowed down before a stop light, turning to look at me with stony eyes. “Every damn day I worry. Every damn day. I worry that I’ll be walking down the street with my groceries and some dude’s gonna reach out and grab me. I worry that I’ll be driving in my car, and some drunk who couldn’t get a safe ride will t-bone me, and that’ll be that.”
I said nothing when she paused. I’d learned my role in this.
“So, y’know, there is a good chance I’ll die at the hands of some other human. But if I get to choose between dying by luck of the draw, or getting killed doing something I chose, I’m taking the latter.”
I stayed silent.
“And you know what else I worry about? I worry that the poor dude walking along the service road with a gas can is going to get run over, and that I could have prevented that.”
I blinked. I still didn’t say anything, even though she was clearly done talking now. We sat in silence as the car lurched back to speed. I kept wanting to say something, but there were too many thoughts in my head. I felt bad leaving her hanging, leaving the air heavy like that.
“Hey, we’re here. Eh,” she paused, pursing her lips, “I gotta ask. How much money you got for gas?”
My head tilted down and I stared at my phone. I could check my bank balance, but that was an exercise in futility. My plan had been to get to the gas station first, and then deal with the money aspect.
I guess she was used to this. She’d probably come to expect certain things.
“Right, I know that non-answer.”
“Oh, no, I–” She was already retrieving her wallet from her back pocket.
“That’s a, what, two gallon can? Here.” She handed me a five dollar bill. “It’s not much, but I mean, you can’t fit much more in there, and gas is a little over two bucks a gallon right now…”
I stared at the dollar. I looked up at the woman, examining the lines in her face and the lights in her eyes, before gingerly taking it from her dainty fingers. “I… thank you.”
I got out of the car without any further words. As I filled the gas tank, thoughts swam in my head. Fears, gratitude, and a hell of a lot of embarrassment were sloshing around like the precious, precious gas in that red can.
I climbed back into the passenger seat.
“Hey, you wanna do me a favor?” She was looking at me with dark, sparkling eyes again.
I blinked and sighed. “Sure.”
She handed me a twenty dollar bill. “Don’t get yourself in this situation again. Fill up your car– all the way, now– at the first chance you get.”
“I can’t possibly–”
“It’s a two part favor.” She leaned in close. “Let people help you. It’s scary, yeah, and shitty people will give you shit for it, but listen to me. They’re the shapeshifters here. You, me, we’re human, and humans help each other.”
My vision blurred, but I refused to acknowledge the tears in my eyes until she’d turned her attention to driving again, at which point I dashed them away with my bill-holding hand.
She took me back to my car, which was thankfully unharmed. As I said my goodbye to her, I tried to thank her as best I could. She waved my gratitude away with a hand and a smile.
“Do me my favor,” she said as she pulled away.
I sighed as I watched her drive off. Shaking my head, I filled my car’s tank. Later, as my car grumbled to a start, I looked on the horizon of the road. She was long gone, lost in a sea of traffic.
I merged onto the road, heading back to the lair of soul destruction I called a place of employment. At least now I knew there were souls you could destroy. Kind, giving people who just wanted to do the right thing.
I bit my cheek as I drove, gripping the steering wheel tightly as I grimaced. I never caught her name.
I looked over to the empty gas can on the passenger seat. I sighed.
She was human.
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