“The radio!” Luis screamed. Everything about him since they had gotten back in the car was tight and intense. His voice was constantly on the edge of ragged, and as he reached for the power button Evan could see the muscles in his arm tight and practically twitching.
Evan had forgotten about the radio. Whenever they wanted music they always hooked the aux cord up to someone’s phone. Even as part of him knew getting something on the radio meant nothing, would not save them, another part of him wanted desperately to hear something. To know someone else was out there.
With the power button pressed the radio burst into static. Undeterred, began scanning. The Buick was old, older than any of them, and he had to scan manually, spinning the little dial with the sort of slow control Evan didn’t think Luis would be capable of right then.
“Come on…Come on…give me something…”
Even Alex was leaning forward on the back of the front bench seat, eyes shining from the lights on the dash. With every twitch of the dial, every new static sound, Evan gripped the steering wheel harder and harder.
“Stop!” Evan and Alex said at the same time. They didn’t need to. Luis had heard it, too. Evan’s heart was beating hard enough to make the blood in his ears pulse as Luis fine-tuned the radio. It only took a little tweaking for whatever station they found to come in clear as the night sky above.
“Is that…” Evan’s mouth had gone dry. “Is that polka music?”
“No.” Luis was staring at the radio, breathing through his mouth. “I mean, sort of. It’s norteño. My grandmother listens to this.”
Sure enough, when voices began to join the accordion and the oompa oompa they crooned out in smooth Spanish syllables.
Evan cocked his head and strained the high school Spanish twelve years behind him. “What are they saying? Is there a message or something?”
Luis listened for a few seconds, then his shoulders slumped. “No, just the normal stuff.”
He scanned the rest of the band but came up with nothing but static, static, static. Eventually he made it all the way around and came back to the norteño music. The three of them sat in silence, Alex still leaning on the seat between them, listening to the Spanish and staring out at an unchanging world.
The car chimed.
“The fuck was that?”
Evan swallowed. “Low gas.”
Alex sat back and whimpered.
“Nothing changes,” Luis said. “Nothing changes in the God-forsaken place but the God. Damned. Car.”
He punched the dash in front of him with the last three words, as though he could show it who was boss.
After a pause, Alex spoke. “I’m hungry.”
“Yeah,” Luis said, miserably. “Me, too.”
Evan was going to make another stupid joke. Maybe something about hunting. Finding jackalopes. His stupid jokes didn’t ever work but it was all his panicking brain could come up with and-
“There’s a light,” he said instead.
The others didn’t ask what he meant. They both leaned forward, straining to look.
It was dead ahead. It was bright.
It was new.
“Did we…” Luis swallowed. “Did we escape?”
“We don’t know what it is,” Alex said cautiously.
“We will soon.”
Despite the new light on the dash, the one in the shape of the gas pump, Evan pushed the accelerator toward the floor. What if the light escaped them? What if it was a mirage? What if it disappeared before they could reach it?
70 miles an hour. 80. 90.
The old Buick started shaking or he would have pushed it further. The sound from the tires on the road was unbearable, roaring in their ears, drowning out those old Mexican crooners. It was a straight shot, no curves, the setting sun always to his right.
“It’s a gas station,” Luis muttered. Then he whooped, cutting through the road noise. “It’s a gas station!”
Alex made a choked sound. Through the rearview mirror Evan could see the way relief cut the strings pulling her face taught, making her looking round and puffy. He could feel the grin on his own face, pulling the corners of his mouth to his ears with such intensity he thought his cheeks would split.
It was a little brick building on the side of the road with a couple of old-fashioned pumps out front. Flood lamps lit the pumps, and lights were pouring out of the windows of the little, nameless convenience store. Evan had never seen anything so beautiful. He kept the car going at close to ninety until it felt like they’d fly past it. Then he stood on the brakes and whipped the car into the little lot. The car stopped on a dime in front of the pumps and then all three of them were climbing out, running across the still baking blacktop, trying to be the first one in the little store. The first one to see someone new.
Despite the faded look of the outside, the inside seemed fairly modern. The three aisles were stacked with chips and sweets and snacks in packages they all recognized. The coolers along the back had Cokes and Pepsi and Dr Peppers in bottles they knew well. A counter on the other side had a Slushee station and one of those rolling machines. Fresh looking hot dogs rolled and rolled and rolled and rolled.
“I’m so hungry, I’ll eat one of those,” Alex said, making a beeline. “Two, even.”
“Where’s the can?” Luis asked, running for the back.
Evan went to the counter, hoping to see the owner. A smiling, maybe confused face who would welcome them in and tell them not to steal anything. Even when he didn’t see anyone at first, he thought maybe they were sitting down. Reading, or doing a crossword, and as he got close they would look up and smile and say-
There was no one behind the counter.
Ignoring the acid climbing his throat, Evan followed Luis to the back. A short hallway had three doors. Men’s. Women’s. Break room? Whoever owned this place would be in there.
The door opened easily and swung open. It was a break room.
An empty break room.
There were no other spaces back here.
There were no other doors in the store.
Evan went out the front. Walking at first, running by the time he came back around the building.
Alex was halfway through a hot dog and Luis was putting new snacks on the stack he already had in his hands.
Norteño music was playing softly over the speakers.
Without a word he walked out the door and into the evening, moving slow so the bells above the door didn’t make much noise.
Did he expect anything different out there? Some change in temperature, maybe? A shift in the stars, or the sands? The little brick gas station faced east. The sunset was behind him. A little part of him still thought that if he walked around the back, he would see that the oranges had turned to reds and the reds had turned to purples.
A little part. No more. Maybe a part of him that would never go away.
The pump was old and partially sand-blasted from high winds in the desert, but it still worked as it should. It took his credit card, although he doubted the machine had talked to a bank in the real world. He put the pump into the gas tank and clicked the holding lever. Leaning against the car he studied the gas station. The flood lamps above him. Not a single moth.
They had gotten hungry. Needed to use the bathroom. But the wind still blowed, too. Were they changing? Evan turned from the empty light to his own hands, trying to determine if he was still aging.
Cries from inside the shop turned to panic-streaked screams as Evan calmly stared at his palm and tried to decide if he would ride this road until he died, or if death was as far out of reach as life seemed to be.