Claire Jaggard


Three Little Words

Three little words can make all the difference... just not in the way you might think. This was published by CafeLit in its online magazine on May 15th 2024.

What the girl staring at Joey needed right now was a people person.

It was just her luck that Joey was more comfortable with numbers.

His last form teacher, Mrs Jefferies, had been a people person. She’d valued a firm handshake and a steady gaze. Joey’s slouchy lollop and downcast eyes had dismayed her and, regretfully, she’d pencilled “NP” beside his name in the register: “No Potential”. The fact that Joey could tot up lunch money faster than any of his classmates or remember the combination to the lock on the stationery cupboard every time she forgot it counted for nothing to Mrs Jefferies.

Starved of encouragement to look beyond the end of his nose, Joey had settled for a job at the only petrol station in town. He hadn’t even applied for the role, more fallen into it by accident when Mr Healey the owner lost his temper one afternoon and sacked the previous incumbent. Joey had been sitting on the forecourt cooling off with a can of drink, and mumbled that he could help out, maybe, until Mr Healey found someone better.

The quiet late shifts were the ones Joey preferred. Few customers called by after nightfall, and those who did rarely wanted to make small talk. As long as he offered the appropriate grunts and the correct change, Joey could keep one ear plugged into the radio as he worked, and the hours simply slipped by.

Out of habit, he memorised number plates, gradually stacking the local regulars into his mental filing cabinet. The blue van that had just pulled up wasn’t one he recognised. Must be an out of towner.

The driver opened the back of the van to let out a passenger, but that didn’t strike Joey as unusual. A new radio host had taken over his favourite show, and Joey was still in two minds about the cheeky chappie presentation style. The girl half fell out of the van and the man gripped her arm as she recovered her balance.

That left him with just one hand to fumble the petrol flap open and fill the van, but Joey couldn’t leave his post to offer help. Mr Healey had impressed this on him time and again. Joey had easily committed the van’s number plate to memory by the time the driver banged the dispenser back onto the pump.

Inside the shop, the man steered the girl towards the customer toilet and hovered nearby, fingers drumming against denim-clad thighs until she slid out again.

Joey’s own standards of personal grooming had stopped Mrs Jefferies in her tracks on more than one occasion, but even he could see this girl was a mess. Greasy hair lay plastered against her forehead, her clothes hung too loosely and her eyes were red and swollen.

Her eyes. They’d locked onto his the minute she’d emerged from the toilet, and stayed there. Her mouth opened and shut, but she said nothing. Joey felt himself redden and broke the connection, looking down at the till.

The man grabbed crisps, sweets and a large bottle of fizzy drink and dumped them on the counter, pulling out his wallet while Joey carefully scanned each item.

‘That’s twenty one fifty seven, please.’

Joey started to pack the snacks into a carrier bag, but the bottle toppled over and the girl reached out to catch it on a reflex. Their hands met awkwardly, his warmth transferring to her cold fingers, her eyes still boring into his. Joey disentangled himself and righted the bottle, but not before the man lost patience.

He tossed down two grubby twenty pound notes, snatched the bag with one hand and the girl with the other, and turned to leave.

‘Keep the change.’

Three little words.

‘But that’s…’

Joey’s brain sputtered, and for once, failed to compute.

‘… too much.’

No-one tips petrol station cashiers, and no-one walks away from the best part of twenty quid.

They were already at the door, the man’s hand pushing firmly into the small of the girl’s back. She threw Joey one last beseeching look before sagging out towards the van.

Joey shrugged, screwed up the receipt and tossed it into the bin. He turned his attention back to the radio. It was the top of the hour, and the news jingle ushered in a calmer voice. The lead story was still that girl who’d disappeared a few days ago. No-one had yet given the police any useful information, despite a handsome reward on offer.

The stories faded in importance and the newsreader wrapped up with a cheery anecdote. Joey pulled out his ear plugs. The petrol station was empty now, quiet save for the soothing background hum of lights and coolers.

Joey wondered idly how he would spend a reward that generous.

He eyed the folded notes still lying on the counter.

‘Keep the change,’ the man had said.

Should he though? Something didn’t add up. Joey sat for a long while reviewing the situation, his brain tumbling and fumbling towards an explanation that he didn’t like, but couldn’t dismiss.

Slowly, very slowly, Joey’s hand reached for the phone.