[Original Novella] The Lonely Road, Part 5
I smiled, despite everything. That shit can’t be legal, surely? It’d make sense if this place were dilapidated and overgrown, but everything looks as if it was built this morning. The shelves are all fully stocked too, as if it’s opening day and nobody bought anything.
The brands were all unfamiliar. Alemite, Mobilgas, and Kendall, “the 2,000 mile oil” according to the label. All the others also featured labels depicting handsome, grinning men with blindingly white teeth and perfectly styled hair. One of them wore a cowboy hat.
The style was bizarrely dated. Who carries these brands anymore? I would only expect to see this stuff on the shelf of a collector’s home, or on the antiques roadshow. Expiration dates, when I thought to check, were nowhere to be found.
I picked one up and opened it. Unexpectedly light. When I tried to pour it out, I discovered it was empty. As were all the rest when I picked them up, one by one, finding none that weighed what it should if it were full.
The cash register had the same sort of rotary numerical readout as the pumps. No surprise, by this point, when I opened the tray only to find it empty. I glanced around for security cameras before realizing the foolishness of it. Whoever built this place was trying to recreate an era in which video cameras didn’t exist.
Sure enough there weren’t any, at least none that I could readily identify after scrutinizing every square foot of the ceiling. What’s this all for? Reality show? Historical reenactments? Maybe a club for some wealthy classic car collectors or something.
None of those fully explained what I saw as I continued to explore. However I tried to make them, the puzzle pieces just wouldn’t fit. Who built this, and why? Will the owner pull up outside when the sun rises in a few hours? How will I explain my intrusion to him?
Then again it’s not like the front door was locked. I’ve not yet done anything illegal, to my knowledge. I could just say that I thought it was open twenty four hours, and assumed the clerk was on a smoke break.
Speaking of which, the smokes stocked here are no more familiar to me than the brands of motor oil. “Toppers”? “Debs”? “Avalon”? “Marvels”? Where’s the Marlboro? Where’s the Kools? The only chewing tobacco they stock is “Red Man”, bearing a colorful but astonishingly politically incorrect image of a Native American chieftain, complete with a war bonnet.
Another poster pinned up on the wall behind the register depicted a happy, attractive couple in a speeding automobile. “Follow our lead!” they proclaimed. Then more writing about the importance of using tetraethyl gasoline next to the company’s logo.
There was a telephone behind the desk. As quaint and dated as everything else I’d so far found in this place. Though it was plugged into the wall and presumably receiving power, when I held the receiver up to my ear, I heard no dial tone.
I gave up on all of it for the time being, and set out down the road. After the brief respite from the cold, wet darkness while I was inside the gas station, returning outside was deeply unpleasant. I forced myself to press on though, visions of finally going to sleep in a nice, warm hotel room having something of a rejuvenating effect.
The trees were visible only by contrast, against the darker backdrop of the sky. Moonlight reflected off the shallow puddles dotting the asphalt here and there. My body ached, but I kept stubbornly putting one foot in front of the other.
The air was just cold enough to be uncomfortable. A subtle chill which nipped at the tips of my ears and nose. I tucked my hands into my pockets. This is where I always worried I would wind up, as a child. Not this road in particular, but this feeling.
I have dim memories of riding in the backseat of Dad’s station wagon at night. On some weekends he’d take me to work with him to have some company, and to supervise me while I did my homework. Then after the sun went down, we’d get McDonalds on the way home.
I’d peer out the window at the empty sidewalks. The alleys, the parking structures and street lamps. All of it so cold, so hard and uncompromising. Back then, mind still insulated by the comfortable ignorance of childhood, the worst fate I could imagine was to be trapped out there.
Alone in the cold darkness with no shelter, crawling along in desperation, palms bloodied by the rough concrete and asphalt. Nowhere soft to lay my head. Nowhere warm and dry to take refuge from the night.
After a while, I began to doubt myself. The road just seemed to keep going, more of it appearing out of the fog as I advanced. I figured I could always double back if I didn’t find anything after another mile or two. Only, I didn’t need to turn back. A few minutes later, I once again came upon a gas station. Can’t be. Can it? Maybe it’s a different one.
Must be a franchise, I assumed. But when I entered, everything looked exactly the same. The phone was where I’d left it, as were the handful of motor oil bottles I’d moved. I once again slowly explored the place, eyes wide in disbelief.
Did I get turned around somehow? I can’t remember any point at which that plausibly might’ve happened. It was a straight shot. I’d just walked continuously in one direction. I poked around the inside a while longer before returning to the road and heading back the way I came.
I took my phone out on the way to check for a signal again. Even if I couldn’t call for help, I’d have given anything just to have another person to talk to right then. Instead, for company I had only the trees, the night sky, the street lamps...and the cold, wet asphalt.
I’ve never felt so alone. So distant, not just from civilization but from light, color and warmth. From comfort and familiarity. When I saw the same gas station approaching in the distance once again, I slowed to a stop, and a tear escaped the corner of my eye.
I fought it, not wanting to break down so quickly. Not the time, not the place. I felt as if I had to keep it together if I was going to find my way back to someplace safe and dry. That’s when it occurred to me that I’ve not yet tried the woods.
I found this highway by walking through the woods in the first place. It would probably be quite a ways to the next one...but I might come upon a hill that would give me a vantage point of a town, city or intersection below. Something distinct, to anchor me in space.
So, trembling slightly, I departed from the road. Trekking cautiously into the dense woods which sandwiched it on either side, I made my way among the trees in the hopes that I might find something new in this direction.
Cold droplets occasionally fell from the pine needles and landed on my jacket’s shoulders, or lapel. A constant, slight irritation. Not enough to make me miserable, but enough that I couldn’t ignore it. I tried brushing the droplets away and got a cold, wet hand for my trouble.
Finally, the trees began to thin out ahead of me. As I approached the edge of the woods, I cried out in relief. Another highway! Now I’m getting somewhere! But it was every bit as nondescript as the one I left behind.
There was nothing to indicate which direction I should walk in, so I chose at random and committed to it. Bold, decisive, confident! That’s what women like, surely. I always thought I was bold enough, confident enough. But look at me now...more alone than ever.
It’s no use feeling sorry for myself, though that never stops me. That’s just where my mind goes when I lose control of the situation. When everything begins falling apart. Fighting it only makes it worse, sending me in a long downward spiral with death at the end.
So far I’ve always come to my senses before that. At some point, while circling the drain, I find a new reason to swim against the current. Perhaps one of these days I’ll run out of reasons, but not today.
I think that’s why I laughed instead of crying when I came back to the gas station. How could it be here again? Useless to ask. I must’ve crossed some sort of threshold when I left my car, into a world where reason will no longer avail me.
Sure enough, everything’s where I left it. Irritated by that for reasons I couldn’t pin down, I swept the contents of the shelf nearest me onto the floor. Makes no difference though. I knew I’d only find them scattered exactly as they fell, the next time I come upon this place.
Stay Tuned for Part 6!