By Mason Yates
For Korbin Ratner, the rural Illinois town Oakdale Ferry could not end its day unless the cotton candy sky melted blue and pink together, or his girlfriend, Tiffany Earman, drove him to the small mom and pop gas station uptown, where he worked overnight as a cashier. On this particular evening, both end of the day events transpired. The teenage boy—calling him a teenager would soon come to an end, however, because his twentieth birthday was nine days away—placed his hand on his girlfriend’s thigh as she drove and craned to look at the blending sky. Soon, the sun would set, and the unique Midwest firmament would sink to an inky black. With that, Korbin made sure to admire the sight while he had time. The nights with Tiffany often warmed his heart, and though teenage love grew wild like dandelions in an open field, he knew he didn’t harbor a child’s infatuation but actual love. He hoped to marry the girl beside him someday.
Ahead, the road went on for as far as the eye could see. Oftentimes, Korbin and Tiffany joked about leaving everything behind and journeying the road. They told themselves they would never come back. No bags would be packed either. Instead of being cramped in a useless town, they imagined living on the edge with no limits, no rules, and no one to tell them what to do. Korbin gazed down the road, staring at how the colorful sky met the earth like Heaven meeting reality. Then, Tiffany turned down a new road, and through a patch of oak trees, Korbin saw the gas station.
“Who’s he?” Tiffany asked as she turned into the parking lot and parked next to the building. She pointed at the man smoking next to the front door.
“I don’t know,” Korbin said with a shrug and watched the man. The smoker’s eyes reflected the embers of the cigarette. “He stands there every night for the whole night. He started just last week. He smokes at least twelve packs. By morning, he goes away, but I don’t know where to.”
“Why don’t you ask him?”
“It’s none of my business,” Korbin said with a headshake. “He gives me the creeps.”
“Why not call the cops?” Tiffany asked, not taking her eyes away from the chain-smoker.
“He’s not hurting anybody,” Korbin said, staring at the man too. “No one notices him anyway. It’s like he’s a ghost.”
“So, when nobody is filling up or getting late night snacks, it’s just you and him here?”
“Isn’t that scary?”
“Creepy, but it doesn’t scare me,” Korbin whispered as if someone was listening in on the conversation. “At least not anymore.”
“I feel like I’d be calling the cops to have him taken away,” Tiffany said with a shudder.
“For some reason, I doubt the cops would prevent him from standing there,” Korbin said in an odd manner. “If he wants to stand there, he’s going to find some way to stand there.”
“Well, if you need—”
“Why don’t we just back outta here and drive down that road, Tiffany? Never look back,” he interrupted.
“Because life isn’t a game, Korbin.”
“I never said that, but why can’t we just run away and live?”
“Because of responsibilities.”
Korbin hung his head for a moment, knowing she was right but not willing to admit it. Nevertheless, Korbin nor Tiffany lived with their parents. They lived together, and the world belonged to them. If they wanted to run away forever, they could. But something—though both did not understand what that something was—restricted them from leaving Oakdale Ferry. It felt like a cloud hovered over the two of them.
“Someday,” Korbin muttered under his breath and looked back at the gas station.
“Someday,” Tiffany agreed, now smiling at her boyfriend sitting in the passenger seat. “Now get out and have fun at work. If you can, try to figure out who that guy is.”
Korbin chuckled. “Okay.”
Seconds later, the sun set, and Tiffany drove off, leaving Korbin alone in the dark with the chain-smoker in blue jeans.
Korbin took over for the owner, an elderly woman named Miss Wilke who worked the register the whole day from five in the morning to eight at night, and made himself comfy for his long shift. Being a young man with a heart full of ambition, he pulled a notebook from his back pocket and grabbed the pen beside him. He began to write the next chapter of his novel entitled Psychic from the Cornfield, which started to feel more and more like an eighties horror flick with every chapter he wrote. Despite this, he knew most kids were either partying or smoking dope at night, so it gave him a boost of confidence for a hopeful future. Ever since childhood, Korbin dreamed of being a writer—someone like Stephen King or Dean Koontz would be nice, but he knew writing books like The Stand or Twilight Eyes involved more effort than he put in. Nonetheless, he knew he did more for his future than the other kids in town, and that alone made him feel good.
“Now where to from here?” he asked himself, staring at the last words he had written.
Whenever he wrote, his mind often became a speeding train racing through lands of endless possibilities. When this occurred, he had to decide which possibilities were the better of them. On the other hand, when his mind refused to become a speeding train, he sat in a stew of silence and contemplation, waiting for the next big idea. Most of the time, ideas came. Sometimes, they didn’t. In those dull moments, he sat there with sweat streaming down his forehead, and his brows furrowed in disappointment. Tonight happened to be one of those moments. Korbin itched at his temples as if doing so would spark creativity.
By the time the front door of the establishment opened, Korbin had been sitting there for a few hours. Customers normally strolled in and out until about ten or so, filling up on foam soda cups, cases of beer, or party snacks, but tonight, the world felt empty until somebody entered at eleven. Korbin glanced up from his notebook, first thinking the chain-smoker from outside had finally decided to come pay him a visit, but the teenager recognized the customer as Bart Pinker, the local meth head who actually ended up being a nice guy for the most part.
“Slow night?” Bart asked as he wobbled to the soda fountain.
Korbin flicked his eyes to the front window before responding. Outside, the outline of the chain-smoker. “Yeah, you’re the first customer since my shift started at eight.”
“No kidding?” the drug addict said, grabbing a foam cup and putting it against the soda machine. The typical swoooosh of falling soda came next, and Korbin could see the shaky hands try to catch the stream of what looked like Mountain Dew. “Usually this place is decently busy until about ten. If I would have known you weren’t busy, I would have come earlier. You know how I don’t like people all that much.”
Korbin knew Bart did not associate with anyone other than him and whoever his drug dealer was, but Korbin also knew coming to the gas station late at night had to do with avoiding the police. He watched as Bart filled the soda cup to the brim—even overflowing it a little—and stumbled to the cash register. With no lid, some of the soda splashed onto the floor, a mess Korbin would have to clean up.
“You’re a good kid, though,” Bart said like he did every night as he placed the cup on the counter. “I wish I had you as a son, you know? You’re a swell boy.”
Korbin chuckled. “Well thank you, Mr. Pinker.”
“Boy, you know you can call me Bart.”
With a smile, Korbin told him the price.
The young man watched as the drug addict left, then turned his eyes to the silhouette of the chain-smoker. The stranger’s back was against the glass, and the small fire at the end of the cigarette illuminated half the man’s face. From inside the establishment, Korbin could see the Italian nose, shaved cheeks, and deep-set eyes. Bart Pinker had walked right past the smoker and crossed the parking lot, not even acknowledging the strange man with a head nod or a “how are you?” Perhaps, Korbin thought as he left the register to grab a mop, the chain-smoker existed as a phantom only seen by a few.
Among the racks of candy, magazines, and car air fresheners, Korbin stopped where Bart Pinker had spilled his Mountain Dew. Quickly, so he could get back to writing his story, the teenage boy put the mop against the yellow-green liquid and wiped the tiled floor clean. He stared at the ground for a moment to make sure he had gotten everything, then made his way over to the soda machine to make sure Bart had not had another accident over there. Approaching the soda fountain, Korbin found himself impressed. On normal nights, Bart left a trail of soda. Tonight, Mr. Pinker must not have been as stoned as usual, for the floor was spotless.
Korbin chuckled. “Must have been a good night for—”
Something—he had no clue what that something was, probably the same something that left it impossible for him to escape Oakdale Ferry with Tiffany—told him to look up from the floor and stare out the window. He did so, first seeing nothing but the black outside world. Then, he saw the two orbs: eyes staring directly at him. They glowed in the night, and the illumination at the end of the cigarette could have been brighter than the sun. Chills raced down his spine, over his arms, and clung to his neck. His legs became pudding. He could no longer feel his fingertips, and his feet felt like they were made of iron.
Korbin tried to utter a word, but the eyes seemed to choke him. All he managed to say was a faint “ehhh” sound. Instead of words, drool dribbled from his mouth. Though his jaw did not move, his eyelids could. He forced a blink. By the time his eyes opened, the chain-smoker’s back was to the glass.
“What the hell,” Korbin finally muttered.
He stayed put for what felt like hours, only staring at the glass with a dumbstruck expression written all over his face. The mop, nor the half-written story, crossed the teenager’s mind. He only thought about what he had seen in the glass. Could he have actually seen the chain-smoker staring at him, or did his mind just play a nasty trick on him?
If you can, try to figure out who that guy is, Tiffany’s words sounded in his wandering thoughts.
Surprisingly, Korbin found himself making towards the front door. He had no plan of action. No words came to mind. He only wanted to understand the chain-smoker in blue jeans.
“Is there a reason you stand out here every night, mister?” Korbin asked as he stepped out into the night. The fluorescent lights above the front door buzzed.
The stranger took the cigarette out of his mouth with his thin, scissor-like fingers and cocked his head to the side to get a better view of the young boy. He stood in silence.
“Did you hear me, mister?” Korban asked.
“I heard you, young man,” the stranger said in a rough voice, probably a symptom of all those nights smoking multiple packs of cigarettes.
“It’s in the air,” the man continued, putting the cigarette back in his mouth. Smoke rose and drifted away in the breeze.
“What’s in the air?” Korbin asked.
“The reason I stand here.”
Tired of the riddles, Korbin said, “You’re not making any sense. Speak normally.”
“I am speaking normally,” the chain-smoker laughed, pulling the cigarette out of his mouth again and gazing into the air as if staring at something Korbin could not see.
“No,” Korbin started, “you’re not.”
“I’m here because something in the air told me to be here. Do you ever feel like something is guiding you, young man?”
Korbin remembered the something holding him back from leaving Oakdale Ferry with Tiffany, and he remembered from just a few minutes ago that something had forced him to look up from mopping the floor.
“No,” Korbin lied with a shake of his head. “That would be crazy.”
“Why do you lie?”
“But you are,” the chain-smoker in blue jeans told him, staring with those haunting eyes. “You know you feel that… that something too. You feel it just as much as I do.”
“I’m afraid I have no idea what you’re talking about, sir,” Korbin muttered in a shaky voice, “but I’d appreciate it if you’d leave.”
Korbin turned and started to walk towards the front door, but the stranger spoke up, saying, “I’m glad someone finally took notice of me, Korbin. I’ve waited a long time for someone to see me, to acknowledge my presence.”
Terrified, the teenager turned and said, “How do you know my name? I never told you.”
Everything around him- from the station beside him to the gas pumps under the metal awning, from the nearby silent road to the green trees rustling in the Midwest breeze- felt lost in infinity. The chain-smoker and himself stood together, just the two of them, on a floating slab of concrete in a vacant space where nobody would ever find them.
“I know all things,” the stranger said with a grin.
“Who are you?”
“A man. You know me as the chain-smoker, or, as I’ve heard a few times before, the chain-smoker in blue jeans. I’m not sure which one I prefer.”
“What’s your name?” Korbin asked, his voice cracking out of fear.
“That doesn’t matter,” the stranger chuckled. “You’re asking the wrong questions.”
“What do you want?”
“I want to be seen,” the smoker said, taking another drag of the cigarette. “Noticed. I want someone to see me standing here. I want my presence to be noticed, and though you are just now coming to me for the answers, I know you’ve… felt me before.”
Korbin took a step back. The situation had taken a leap into the strange a few minutes before, but now it became downright terrifying, horrifying, inescapably eerie.
“What do you mean?” the teenage boy asked, terrified but entranced by the stranger.
“Do you know that something you feel? That something that tells you not to leave Oakdale Ferry, or that something that says to look up at the window?”
Korbin nodded, knowing he could not lie anymore. The chain-smoking stranger knew too much. The man in the dark had it all stored inside his thoughts. He had it all planned out.
“Well,” the stranger continued, “I am that something. I’m the reason you can’t leave this miserable town or run off with that lady friend of yours.”
Korbin could not believe he was buying what the man said, but he asked, “Why?”
“Because I wanted you to know me before you ran off and left everything behind.”
“Why do I have to know you?” Korbin asked.
“I want to be known, Korbin. There’s nothing more to it. I want to have the dignity of being known. Everybody, including Mr. Pinker, just walks by me without a word, without a glance. Nothing. I want to be seen.”
“I’ve seen you,” Korbin told him.
“I know you have,” the chain-smoker said with a nod and grin. “You’re free now. Leave when the sun rises, Korbin. Ask her if you can drive the car, then go on. You can move on from Oakdale Ferry. As for me, I think I need to move on too.”
For the first time since the chain-smoker’s appearance in Oakdale Ferry, the man flicked his cigarette away. The two of them watched as it hit the concrete, sending up a flurry of sparks with every bounce. Something about the act felt beautiful, as if throwing the cigarette was the chain-smoker’s final goodbye to the small Midwestern town. Afterwards, the stranger nodded to Korbin and stepped off the sidewalk. He started for the quiet road.
“Where are you going?” Korbin asked, no longer terrified but curious.
“I’m moving on to another town,” the man said without looking back.
“Wherever the air takes me,” the stranger said, his body starting to fade into the night.
“What are you?” Korbin shouted.
“I told you, boy,” the man said. His words drifted on the night breeze and lingered in the air with an eerie chill. “I am something.”
“Can I drive?” Korbin asked Tiffany when she pulled into the parking lot. For Korbin Ratner, an Oakdale Ferry morning could not start without Tiffany picking him up and giving her a fresh cup of coffee. He handed a steaming cup to her through the driver’s window and hitched a thumb, signaling her to get out. She obeyed.
“Why do you want to drive?” she asked him, getting out of the car and moving to the passenger seat.
Getting into the driver’s seat, Korbin said, “I want to show you something.”
“Show me something?” Tiffany pondered aloud. “I wonder. What is it?”
“I can’t tell you that just yet.”
“Did you talk to that guy last night?” Tiffany asked. “I don’t see him here anymore.”
Korbin reversed the car out of the parking spot and made across the parking lot to the still quiet road. He turned to Tiffany. “Yeah, I had a great conversation with him.”
Trees on either side of the car raced by, and the orange-yellow sunrise blended with the light blue sky in the distance. Dew-covered grass blades sparkled, and tree branches shook in the early morning breeze. A hum of crickets sang. Black birds soared overhead. A normal Midwest morning.
“We talked about life,” Korbin said. If he wanted to be honest with himself, the conversation last night did not make much sense. However, there had been something important mentioned: leaving Oakdale Ferry.
“Well,” he started, “I wouldn’t say we only talked about life, but he told me something that I had to do.”
Tiffany did not say a word, just stared at Korbin with curious eyes. She bit her lip and thought about what to say next. Her eyes glistened in the morning sun.
“Leave?” she managed to utter after a moment of silence.
“We’re going on that road that leads to the horizon, Tiffany,” he told her with a smile spreading across his face. A child-like wonder shone in his eyes. “We’re finally going to get out of this town. There’s so much more.”
“How are we going to live, Korbin?” Tiffany asked in a terrified voice.
“We’ll live.” Korbin shrugged. “We just live. Nothing much to it.”
“I don’t… I don’t understand.”
“There’s a lot more to life than this small town, Tiffany. There’s a world out there, and finally, I feel like what’s been holding me back has been lifted off my shoulders.”
“What’s been lifted off your shoulders?” “That… something,” he said, thinking of the chain-smoker while he stared out the dusty windshield at the expanding road. “Something.”
Mason Yates is from a small town in the Midwest, but he currently lives in Arizona, where he is studying at Arizona State University. He has interned with the magazine Hayden’s Ferry Review and has served as the fiction editor for ASU’s undergraduate literary magazine Lux during the 2021-2022 school year. His works can be found in magazines/webzines such as Land Beyond the World, Scarlet Leaf Review, Blue Lake Review, Page & Spine, Pif Magazine, and others.
9 thoughts on “Chain-smoker in Blue Jeans”
Thos is one of the best stories from Mason that I’ve read.
I enjoyed the read and look forward to more from this young author, Mason Yates.
Mason’s story makes you stop and think, what keeps us from doing what we’d really like to do? What holds us back?
I liked reading that the chain smoker in jeans just wanted someone to acknowledge his existence. It reminded me of a Bible Study that I participated in called “Angels of the Bible”. Also another book that I read titled Encounters with Angels. I could imagine the the chain smoker could have been an angel. Great job, Mason. Keep up the great writing!
Enjoyed the story, very well written. Love all the details, can’t wait to read more!
Another story that draws you in and makes you want more. Keep up the great work Mason!
This is such a great story! I really enjoyed it
Very thoughtful story that empowers the reader to think and make it more powerful by assigning their own personal meaning and end. I look forward to his next writing.
Nice story!! It makes me wonder if I have listened to that “something” through my life thus far. Thank you for another thought provoking story!