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.
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
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
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
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
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.
Kenneth James Crist, firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.