"There ain't no way that's him."
Three young men peered through the gas station window at the skinny clerk sitting on a stool behind the counter. If he noticed the fly buzzing around his head, he made no sign of it. He just blinked at a spot on the wall with sleepy eyes. The flickering fluorescent lights washed his skin in a sick white-blue hue. A mop of dull brown hair curled behind his ears. A short growth of hair grew on his chin, making him look a like a dirty goat. His left eye socket bore a red splotchy mark, like he had been suckerpunched by the Kool-Aid Man. He looked like he had been there since the building was first built. He looked neglected, like someone forgot to water him; and above all, he looked bored in the persecuted way that people looked in old-timey photographs.
"That's him, all right." The young man with an unfortunate lazy eye adjusted his hooded cloak around him. "The Master of Shadow-Beyond-Shadow, King of the Dark Yet Darker Still."
The other two made complicated hand signs in the air. "All things will return to black," they recited in unison.
"So, what's your plan?" The man who asked had a thin, scraggly beard trailing from his jaw. He, too, wore a hooded cloak though it had gotten stained last time he went muddin’.
"We go in there, pay him respect, and ask to be taken in as apprentices." The third man tried to straighten his lank, straw-colored hair.
"We should have brought him something." Lazy-Eye said.
"I don't know. A virgin?"
"What virgins do you know?" Straw-Top snapped. He whirled on Lazy-Eye, yanked his cloak, and snapped off an orange-colored tag that happily announced 'The Spirit of Halloween'.
"Really, dude? Really?" Straw-Top shook his head. "Get your shit together!"
"I brought him some beer." The man with the sad beard held up a six-pack. Each can claimed it was the 'Champagne of Beer'.
"That'll have to do," Straw-Top said. "Let's go."
The clerk didn't even look up when the three entered the store. He just sat behind the counter, waiting for his shift to be over and was content to stare at the wall until it was done.
The gas station was like any other, with a small cooler section for beer and Coke and aisles of candy and beef jerky. Over by the counter stood a locked cabinet displaying seemingly mismatched items: pairs of socks, fake roses in long narrow glass tubes, and whipped cream cartridges were some of the offerings.
The cloaked men strode up to him, trying to appear simultaneously humble but confident. They glanced at each other, mentally willing the other to be the first one to speak.
"Excuse me, sir. Have you seen the empty spaces?" Straw-Top finally asked. He pitched his voice so that he sounded like the announcer for the Saturday Late Night Monster Movie Feature.
"Yes, sir. Truck didn't come today like it should," the clerk said. "We ain't gonna have Combos, Hot Pockets, or Gatorade for a while."
Straw-Top blinked and, not knowing where to go from there, retreated. Sad-Beard patted him on the back, as if saying “At least you tried”.
"Excuse me, sir. I heard you know about stuff that most folks don't," Lazy-Eye said. "Stuff that can't be seen by most."
The clerk blinked his sleepy eyes. "No, sir, I ain't sellin'. You're gonna have to go down the road a ways and try the diner. Dishwasher there is usually carrying though it ain't what he says it is."
Lazy-Eye sighed and retreated next to Straw-Top.
Sad-Beard pulled out his six-pack and laid it on the counter. "This is for you."
"Why?" the clerk asked.
"Ain't you Ezra Carmichael?" he asked.
"No, sir. My name is Tom Gaster."
"Sure, sure." Sad-Beard gave him a conspiratorial wink. "I know how it is. I'm sure there's some who would seek to do you harm, sir. Not us though. We wanna be your apprentices."
"Lucky's 85 Gas ain't hiring." The clerk sneered. "Hard enough for me to get this damn job."
"No, I mean about the sorcerer stuff."
The clerk fixed Sad-Beard with a hard look from under his sloppy mop-hair. "Those are just stories. Plenty of people got birthmarks. I ain't a witch or nothin' like that. Now if you ain't buyin', I suggest you get on your happy way. I'm busy here."
"Doin' what?" Straw-Top asked.
"Keepin' this here stool in place." The clerk resumed staring at the wall behind the three. "Can I help you gentlemen with anything else?"
The fluorescent lights flickered.
"Can I use the bathroom, sir?" Sad-Beard asked.
"You gotta buy something."
Sad-Beard glanced around the store. "You got strawberry Twizzlers?"
The lights flickered again. This time they stayed off for too long to be comfortable.
"Nope. Just regular."
"Oh. I guess I’ll just hold it."
"Then take your beer and get out," Tom said. "Take it to Jeff's Garage. You know, the one by the old chicken and fish place? He's tryin' to put together a metal band and I think he's lookin' for someone to play the zither."
"What's a zither?" Sad-Beard asked.
"Fuck if I know. Could be anything. But make sure you call him Lord Wrongness. That's his stage name," Tom said.
"Metal is gay," Lazy-Eye said.
"Yeah, it's kind of queer for grown men to dress all in black and go around talkin' about Satan and magic and shit. Isn't it, fellas?" The clerk put an edge into his voice but never took his eyes from the far wall.
"Hey man, fuck you," Lazy-Eye said. "I'm gonna get behind this counter and kick your scrawny ass."
"Dude, what?" Straw-Top asked. "This wasn't the plan!"
"No, this guy has been an asshole to us since we got in here!" Lazy-Eye said. "He ain't even look us in the eye." He finally turned around to see what the clerk could possibly be staring at
"I thought we had a deal," the clerk said, glaring at the wall.
"What deal?" Lazy-Eye asked. Tom kept staring past him. The would-be apprentice finally turned around to see who the clerk was talking to. but he just saw a dingy gas station wall covered in Budweiser posters from two decades ago...and then perceived something else.
The only way Lazy-Eye could comprehend it was to view it as a Magic Eye poster. It was all just color and pattern, a smorgasbord of visual sensation that made no sense. But when he relaxed his vision and moved his head in just the right way, he saw it. Mouths upon mouths gaped at him then coalesced into eyes that opened back into mouths again. Teeth. Countless teeth of all shapes and sizes grew, flowed, collapsed, and emerged again. Noses protruded and fell back into the master shape, only to return as delicate forms with ridges and whorls, to become ears and chins and faces on faces on faces on faces.
Everything was faces. And they were all looking at him.
"Go on!" Tom shouted at it. "Git!"
"Oh man, he's flippin' out! He ain't a sorcerer. He's just crazy!" Sad-Beard said and Straw-Top laughed.
The wall of features trembled but remained. Lazy-Eye felt his pants become wet, but he was of no mind to be ashamed.
"I warned you." Tom uttered sounds that had no place in a healthy language, not even Klingon, which Lazy-Eye would never admit to knowing. The clerk's voice wasn't just his anymore. It shook with a reverberation that caused the obscene wall to flinch and flicker. Tom stepped forward, holding out a hand that contained something girthy and wrapped in foil.
"Now he's gonna beat us up with a burrito!" Straw-Top said. "Oh my God, buddy. I'll pray for you."
"I was planning on giving this to you later, but you had to go and act a fool," Tom said. He unwrapped the burrito, took a bite and shook it at the wall. "Mmm! Beef and bean this time. What a shame you're missing it."
The thing in the wall let out a squeal far beyond the edges of hearing. Lazy-Eye grabbed the counter to keep himself from collapsing. He lost the battle and slumped to the greasy gas station floor.
"Here, buddy. Take this." Tom handed Lazy-Eye what was left of the burrito. "No good without hot sauce, but you can have it."
Another ungodly cry echoed throughout Lazy-Eye's existence as he sat, staring at the burrito in his hand. It was the only real, only good thing left in his world. It was the flotsam that a drowning man clung to after going overboard.
"I tried to be nice. I tried to give you a place to stay but you had to go and throw it in my face. You gonna be good now?" Tom asked. Sad-Beard and Straw-Top kept laughing.
"Well, then. Fuck you!" Tom made a gesture in the air, repeating something that sounded like 'akaluthra', getting louder and louder until he finally ended with 'zhro!'.
The wall-thing was gone. Sad-Beard was doubled-over, laughing. Straw-Top snickered until he noticed Lazy-Eye.
"Hey, are you okay?" Straw-Top asked.
He tried to respond but as soon as he opened his mouth, a high keening whine escaped from him. Tears rolled down his face.
"Where'd you get the burrito?" Sad-Beard asked. "Dude, you need to pay for it before you eat it."
"Don't worry fellas," Tom said. "It's on the house. Now kindly get the fuck out of my store."