Midnight came and went sometime when I was sleeping, slipped right past me while I dreamed. My blankets were heavy and wrapped tight around me, the way they ought to be, and the house was quiet. The only thing moving was time, rolling over all with irresistibly gentle steadiness.
O (the roommate you’ll recall from another story) woke me up with a hand on my shoulder. She was dressed, and she was angry.
“Wake up, Dee,” she commanded. “S is stranded.”
S had gone out for an event in Austin when the sun was still up, and I hadn’t expected him home for a long, long time. Wait, what time was it? I reached for my phone and checked; 1:30 AM. I clicked the screen off and on a few times, then looked back up at O with horror.
“He didn’t get gas in time and the car stalled. C’mon, wake up, I’m not doing this by myself. It’s way too late for that.”
I slid on some tennis shoes and shorts, grabbed my ID and debit card (you never know) and followed her to her car.
First stop was Wal-Mart to get a gas can. If you’ve never been to a Wal-Mart in the dead of night, it’s quite an experience. Bright and clean and buzzing from the lights and coolers, filled to the brim but utterly empty. Footsteps snap like gunshots in the place Dead of Night Wal-Mart becomes, all the more so because O and I were stomping.
The drive through the city was pleasant, if not the circumstances surrounding it. Our side of town has a lot of clubs, and they were all pulsing, parking lots full, lights flashing. In some cases that might have been because the neon was failing and needed replacing, but it only added to the effect. You really learn the character of a city when you see it at night.
Our city’s character is ‘foreboding, cheap neon, that man is selling drugs.’ Hey, it’s an aesthetic.
We were bathed in neon one second, cast out into the ocean of black hills and scant cell phone towers the next. Civilization gives way abruptly, more abruptly than seems proper. Probably the hills. They have a tendency to get in the way of things and it’s easier to just build around them than to try and dig them away.
The road curves along the contours of the hills. O drove at a pretty fair speed, and I kept my eyes on the shoulders. Shapes coalesced out of the shadows now and again. Clusters of deer, their staring eyes bouncing our headlights back at us in little green points. A remarkably large possum crouched like a furry gargoyle by the roadside with its rictus grin spread wide. And other shapes, unidentifiable at our speed and their position so far back off the road. Trees, of course.
At a crossroad, where two highways intersect, we saw a cat.
O didn’t believe it was a cat at first, but I’ve seen enough of the bastards in my day to identify that low, long shape anywhere. It was black, pitch black and fluffy, darting across the road ahead of our car.
It looked back at us over its shoulder. The sole exception to its black color was its pale white face. In the flattening spotlight of our high beams, for a second I swore it was a human face. O told me it was just the late hour, and my tiredness and general flightiness, conspiring against me. This is most likely the truth.
The town we found ourselves in was lit by a single street light, and the lights beneath the gas station S was lucky enough to have stalled at. Across the way was an abandoned building, a few rusted signs it was too dark to read probably showing its name, and to either side rundown businesses. S’s car sat, deader than roadkill, next to one of the station’s two pumps. Apparently, they’d been turned off for the night.
O pulled up alongside S’s car and lugged the gas can out of the trunk. I stayed in the car so the dressing-down she was about to give him would be a little easier to bear. After what seemed like no time at all, O flew back into the car and slammed the door. S came in after her.
“Uh?” I inquired, with fast wit and astuteness.
“S’s car has an anti-siphon cap,” O said, jamming her key in the ignition and jerking it forward. Her car growled to life and we slingshotted onto the highway. “We have to go back and get a funnel.”
I did some math. I screamed a little, but I made sure to do it internally. No reason to add to the troubles.
All the way back from wherever the hell this was, through the black pit of a yawning night, then back again. The smell of gas permeated the cab, soaked into O’s shoes, her hands.
I saw the white-faced cat as we went back over the crossroads. It was sitting on the shoulder and didn’t start as we rocketed past it. You get used to things and I supposed cats are no different.
We went back to the Wal-Mart, nodding congenially at the same employee who greeted us initially but this time with S in tow. We went back to the very back corner of the store, the very very back, to the automotive section to get a funnel. I had not put on socks, so I was getting a blister.
We got back in the car. Took a few centering breaths. And went back into the night.
“How did you end up there?” I asked S.
“I followed my GPS,” he answered. “I was looking for gas stations and I couldn’t find shit. And I ended up on some backroads in the spooky part of the county.”
“Spookier than that?”
He considered this.
“About as spooky. Winding dirt roads and fences with trees on them. Cows. Falling-down sheet metal houses.”
That’s the kind of place I grew up in, so I nodded and reminded myself that it probably wasn’t as comforting an image to people who grew up in the city. Anyway, I didn’t see any cows coming or going, either time. Not a single soul on the road that took us off the main highway and to the town S stalled in.
With the funnel and a bit of wiggling with the key, S and O got his tank filled up. It was then we saw our first person. He was driving a beaten up minivan, a bald man with olive skin and glasses. He went up to the Glacier ice machine and started filling up a cooler.
I looked at the clock.
“It’s four AM. What is he doing?”
“Well, it is Veteran’s Day weekend,” O noted. “Maybe he’s having a party.”
“That’s one fuck of a party, then, if he needs ice at four AM.”
“What else is there to do out in this shithole?”
I glanced down the otherwise empty street, stretching into darkness and turning into equally shadowed corners as it went further into the town.
“Nothing, I guess.”