Black Petals Issue #89 Autumn, 2019

Gas Stop
Home
Mars-Chris Friend
BP Artists and Illustrators
A Tale of the Dark Web-Fiction by Blair Frison
Drop, Pt. 2: Help Thy Neighbor-Fiction by Michael Mulvihill
Gas Stop-Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
Grandad's Legacy-Fiction by Jan Cronos
Hive-Fiction by Dan Cardoza
My Nighttime Parents-Fiction by Malik Mandeville
Orphans at the Dark Door-Fiction by Roy Dorman
The News that Night-Fiction by June Driver
The Raft-Fiction by Stephen Caesar
The Voice from the Dark-Fiction by Scott Kimak
Dear Pneumonia-Two poems by Michael Mulvihill
The Well-Poem by Jason Rice

bp89gasstop.jpg
Art by Hillary Lyon 2019

Gas Stop

 

By Kenneth James Crist

Warning all coffee lovers

 

 

They say hindsight is always 20-20. I wish that were true, but in my present position, even though some things have become very clear, perhaps blindingly so, other things have not. Looking back, I know I should have just bought the gas, paid with my Platinum card, and headed on down the road.

If I had done it that way, maybe, just maybe, I might be safe now. But, I was thirsty and it was a convenience store, not a chain store that I was familiar with, but still...

Rural Nebraska is really a pain in the ass, just something you hafta get through to get somewhere else—miles and miles of endless farms and corn fields; secondary, two-lane blacktop, well-maintained, but pretty empty. Seems that the further west I go, the emptier it gets. I’m due to be at a meeting two states away at nine in the morning, so it’s already a given that I’m not gonna get any sleep. The car needs gas and I’m gonna need caffeine, if I don’t wanna wind up a statistic, smeared all over a tree somewhere.

The gas gauge needle hovers over the empty bar and I start to worry. And, of course, no sooner do I get worried than the little chime goes off and the idiot light starts flashing. Supposedly, that means we’re on the last two gallons. Might or might not be accurate, though. We’ll hope it’s a little off, to the good side. Walking in Nebraska with a gas can has no appeal for me, especially at night. It’s late afternoon right now, but it would be dark before I could get anywhere with a gas pump. Leaving a Mercedes C-300 sitting on a two-lane road in Nebraska has no appeal, either.

Sixteen minutes later, as though it was planted out here in the middle of nowhere with the corn, I roll into Ardway: population 216 souls. Says so on the sign. Speed limit 30. Rotary. Lion’s Club. American Legion. Big grain elevator with “Co Op” painted on the side. Tallest thing in sight. Second-tallest structure is the water tower. I find a service station/convenience store at the main intersection, where the only traffic signal, a four-way red flasher, dangles in the breeze on cables over the middle of the intersection, mindlessly flashing away.

Also, mindlessly functioning is a quaint old clock, standing eight feet tall, black cast iron, in front of a bank. An antique, to be sure, but as I check the time on the old piece of history against my Rolex Submariner, I realize it’s still doing its job. Right on time—to the minute. Amazing.

I wheel the Mercedes up to the left-hand set of two pumps. One of the pumps has an “Out of Order” sign clumsily taped over the glass and a plastic bag taped over the nozzle and handle assembly. Not the most modern pumps I’ve seen lately. Not the nifty new jobs with the pain-in-the-ass TV screen that screams ads at you all the time you’re filling up. Thank God for small favors. Modern enough to have card slots for credit cards, though. I start the pump with my Platinum card ($35,000 line of credit), and start the tank filling. One problem taken care of. I check out the little plastic tub and bug scrubber and find it’s dry. Walk over to the other island and check there. I could really stand to clean some of Nebraska’s bounty of beetles and moths off my windshield. No luck. Everything’s dry over there, too.

That’s moderately disgusting, but I can live with it. Maybe the store will have some cleaner I can buy. Maybe they will have fresh coffee. Maybe rockets will shoot outta my ass. Ya never know. I’m not tired enough yet to be really grumpy. That shit will come later. The pump kicks off and I hang it up, and leave the car where it is. There’s not exactly a line forming for gas. Matter of fact, I have not seen another vehicle in twenty minutes. I walk inside the store, a place called Hasty, and at that exact point, my life changes.

As I walk inside, a bell chimes quietly somewhere toward the back of the store. I look around and see the place is pretty well kept, although the shelves seem to be stocked very sparingly. I head to the back without seeing anyone else. I find the coffee service bar and check to see if the coffee’s fresh. Stick a cup under the “Columbian fresh-ground” tap and give it a small tug. I get nothing. I try the “House Blend”. Nothing. I try the rest and get the same deal: no coffee. Now, I realize there is a burnt-coffee smell, but it’s faint, like maybe it was burnt last week. The machines all appear to be in working order, and I debate whether I should just start a pot and wait on it. It’s not rocket science. Even a guy like me, admittedly a pampered, white-privilege executive type, can make fucking coffee. Why this asshole who runs Hasty can’t get it done is beyond me. Maybe he doesn’t sell enough coffee to bother.

Before I start tampering with his machinery, though, I decide I’ll go look for the guy and see if I can get him off his ass. Things are running through my mind. Maybe the guy got robbed. Maybe he’s tied up in the walk-in cooler. Maybe he got shot hours ago and nobody’s found him. I head to the front of the store, where I can see a register, surrounded by the usual junk, including lottery tickets, key chains, flashlights, and other crap. As I approach the counter, I do see one thing that’s rather curious. There’s a pile of cash on the counter: dollar bills, fives, tens, twenties and change, just all heaped up there in a sort of jumble. As I get closer, I can see that, mixed in with the money, there are a number of hand-written notes on scraps of paper. A few are on Post-it notes of various colors, stuck to the milky old plexiglass cover on the counter. This is strange and not very reassuring.

When I get very close to the counter, I can finally see why all the money is piled there and the reason for the notes. The reason is honesty. People who don’t want to steal. People who take pride in paying their own way. People who don’t want to take advantage of the proprietor…especially this proprietor.

He is seated behind the counter in an old, yellow-oak swivel chair that was probably manufactured in the 1940’s. He is old and his skin is dark. His hair is fuzzy and white, and his features are very shrunken and dry. He has on a white shirt, open at the collar and dark blue cotton pants, a black belt with a chrome buckle and black shoes. These details jump out at me, maybe as a way to avoid looking at the obvious. He has been dead for a very long time, or so it appears.

Not my first rodeo. Not my first corpse, either. He is mummified and there is little or no odor. I look some of the notes over on the counter. The most recent is almost a month old. “Mr. Paps: Took 4 Twinkies. Left 4 bucks. Julie” I look around, spot the Tax Collection License on the wall, and check the name: Frederico Papadopolous. Mr. Paps, to all the neighborhood kids, evidently.

For a few minutes, I stand, completely unsure what I should do. Mr. Paps is one dead dude, and someone should be notified. At the very least, his mortal remains should be removed. Might even be a health department concern. Now I know why there was no coffee and why the shelves seem to be stocked so sparsely. In the end, I do what every good citizen would do. I pull out my cell phone and dial 911.

I am rewarded by silence. I check the little graphic at the top of the screen and see I have no bars, and thus, no service. I look around some more and spot a black phone on the wall behind Mr. Paps. I slip back there, carefully avoiding touching Mr. Paps, and pick up the phone. No dial tone. Well, okay. Not that big of a town. The police station can’t be that hard to find. I walk out to the Mercedes and crank it up and head out to find the cops.

As I roll through the streets, I look for people. I see none. I look for any clue of recent activity. I see lights on in some houses, no lights in others. Evening is starting to come on and, as I drive slowly up and down the empty streets of Ardway, the streetlights suddenly come on and I have a flash in my mind of some guy somewhere throwing a big red switch, but then I realize, they would be automatic, either on a timer or some type of electric sensor that could discern daylight and dark.

Four blocks over from Mr. Paps’ Hasty heaven, I find the courthouse, and attached to it, the county sheriff’s office and the county jail. There is one marked patrol car parked in front, and a set of concrete steps leading up to double glass doors.

I step inside to silence, broken only by the slight stir of a ceiling fan above the desk sergeant’s raised platform. I step up and look behind the desk and find the desk sergeant. He looks like he’s been there since about the same time that Mr. Paps bought the farm—mummified, just like the Hasty store proprietor. On his back on the floor, his features a grimace, like he might have been in pain when the end came. He’s completely intact, right down to gun belt and pistol. On the console are a two-way radio microphone and several telephones. Several lines are blinking, and I step around and up onto the desk platform and answer the lighted lines.

“Hello. Sheriff’s office.” Try the next one. “Hello. Sheriff’s office.” Silence on every line. I give up on that and look around some more. I see a set of big jail keys hanging on a hook behind the desk and I grab them up. I head back through some offices, including that of the actual sheriff, dead at his desk, the county attorney, ditto, and finally come to the jail entrance. I try keys until I get the right one. I swing open the heavy steel door and I’m hit with a blast of hot air laced with the smell of death.

I stand aside for a minute and let the air clear a bit, then I take a deep breath and walk in like I own the place. Eleven cells hold nine prisoners, who were probably in for minor offenses and wound up doing life, now all dead. All are mummified, but the poor air circulation has trapped some of the odor of decomp. I turn and leave, dropping the keys on the desk on my way back to the Mercedes. And that’s when I should have left...

 

Somehow, I knew I wasn’t going to make that meeting over in Colorado. I began a house-to-house, building-to-building search of the entire town. Spent six hours looking at the dead of Ardway, Nebraska. Almost every house had someone inside, almost every building. Strangely, I saw no pets: no dogs, no cats, not so much as a parakeet.

I’m almost 200 miles west now and they’re going to find me somewhere in Wyoming—wherever this thing finally finishes with me. It actually started before I even made it out of town: the itching, the burning, the skin starting to dry and flake. The circulation slowed, my heart pounding to try and push thicker and thicker blood through veins that were drying perceptibly, even as I drove like a madman to get away from that place.

My eyeballs feel dusty and my mouth is completely dry, my tongue sticking to my teeth and the roof of my mouth. At first, I’d hoped by getting away, maybe the effect would diminish, but it’s not happening. The sun is coming up and I’m most definitely dying. I have cell service now, but I cannot speak. I have traffic passing by, but my foot is frozen on the gas. I still have enough movement in my arms to steer, although I can’t feel the steering wheel. Thanks, Nebraska. I always thought I’d make it through, and the “Welcome to Wyoming” sign just flashed by. I need to weep, but I have no tears.

Wanna know the funny part? I’d still give anything for that cup of coffee.

 

The End







Kenneth James Crist, blkptls@cox.net, www.blackpetals.net, of Wichita, KS, wrote BP #89’s “Gas Stop” (+ BP #87’s “God’s Canyon”; BP #86’s “Tingles”; BP #85’s “It’s Out There…”; the SF serial, starting in BP #76,  SURVIVING MONTEZUMA;  BP #78’s “Those Other Guys”; “The Big Well” & “Virtuality” for BP #75; “Gift of the Anasazi” for BP #73; “The Weeping Man” for BP #72; “Pebbles” for BP #71; “The Diner” for BP #67; “New Glasses” for BP #61; “Ones and Zeros” for BP #50, & the novelette Joshua) and has edited BP for many years, continuing as Editor Emeritus, then Coeditor/Webmaster. Widely published, esp. in Hardboiled and on Yellow Mama, he also has four chapbooks currently for sale in Kindle format on Amazon.com: Dreaming of Mirages, The Gazing Ball, Joshua, and Groaning for Burial, his latest zombie fiction.





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