So it happens like this.
You’re fifteen miles deep in a nightmare and two hundred miles away from its end. Like one of those dreams where you know you’re dreaming but you can’t shake yourself awake. And you know with every fiber of your being that the endless sickly brown of the landscape you’ve been coasting at an even 80 is fake because it’s the exact same shade of the carpet in that hotel you left behind.
They say that real life influences your dreams.
Your life is one of heat waves and rust and pretending your radio is more interesting than the gas attendant rambling about ghosts in the canyons and gold in the mountains.
And so you continue on.
Your car is a ‘77 but that’s just part of the nightmare. The first part. The second part and most nagging one is that you’re throwing your trust into one of those ghosts that the attendant was talking about.
And so it happens like this.
A diner appears on the horizon, rising out of the ground like a beacon, and this is a dream because Luck left you a hundred miles back yet here it is again. You see the rust on the sign and the truck parked in the front before you realize that it is, in fact, a diner and not the set of a Twilight Zone Episode. Before you realize that he didn’t lie to you and such a place actually existed.
The wind picks up slightly when you park and walk inside, dust kicking up across the dry yard and expanse of desert just outside the western windows. But you’re not watching that.
Your eyes are on him.
A man—not him—stands behind the counter humming along to the radio and running a rag around a glass, and you’re fairly certain he’s creating more smudges than he’s cleaning, but he stops and you stop, and for a long second it’s just the air conditioner and Diana Ross in a duet before you realize this man is staring at you.
“You’re not from around here,” and said by anyone other than this man with a grin wrinkling his cheeks, you would’ve thought it an instigation. You take a seat at a window booth, tugging a laminated menu off a holder as he glances over, long enough to tell he was sizing you up but short enough that by the time you return the look he’s looking back down in his mug.
You try for a smile but it comes out as a grimace instead.
“I’ll have a coffee.”
The man hums and disappears into the kitchen, and you’re left toying with the menu and watching the road.
“Not many people come through here, huh?”
It’s a statement and an observation. You don’t expect an answer. Not from him at lest. You don’t get one.
He only sits in silence at the counter. His back to you and the radio is going through commercial after commercial after commercial but he’s drumming his fingertips to music only he can hear. And you want to laugh at the roundabout way that things happen.
You know, Blondie, what they say about rust? That it’s the start of decay? An introduction to ruin? We both know what it really is. A sign of the times. A reaction. A meeting of two things towards a new state of being. And we’ll be new after this, won’t we? Richer, if nothing else.
“It’s all passerby and college kids mostly,” the host announces, rounding the counter with a mug and a short laugh. “Treasure. Can you believe it? People really think there’s something buried out there and I...” he trails off, setting the mug on the table and shrugging with a blush. “Sorry, I just don’t buy it.”
“To each their own.” You say.
And he nods and goes back into the kitchen and your silent companion stands up with deliberate slowness and joins you at your booth.
“Took you long enough.” He says, still not meeting your eyes. His own coffee is just a drop at the bottom of his mug and you wonder how long he waited.
“Is it any good?” Head jerking towards your own cup.
A long time then.
You sigh, leave enough money on the table for the both of you, and stand up to leave without even checking to see if he’s behind you, though it’s his shadow in your peripheral that tells you he’s there.
A ghost, but there.
fact: author was born in ‘95 and knows jack about the 80’s which is probably painfully obvious by this point but googles got me
You’re leaning in the doorway of a gas station that looks more a relic from the 50’s, and he’s leaning across the counter talking to the lone attendant.
Your friend doesn’t look so good, Attendant had said, eyebrows pinched as he looked you up and down.
You wonder, briefly, just how bad the damage is.
You open your mouth to ask where the bathroom is only for needles of pain to shoot across the skin on your cheeks. You shut your mouth with a grimace.
Attendant—Evan, going by his name tag—gives you another pitying look and hands you a bottle of water.
“It’s on me.”
So now, you’re standing in the doorway. Dry heat warming the glass at your back and listening in half interest, half amusement to the conversation in front of you.
“We’re trying to get to a hospital,” he’s saying. “Saint Raphael’s. My brother is chaplain there. Do you know it?”
“Oh yeah, yeah, I know it. That non-profit one, right?”
For a split second his face shifts, eyes fall to the crack in the counter. You’d seen this look before. On other people, not him. When you’re in a strangers threshold asking with forced patience in your voice why they skipped their court date. On your sisters face the week before you left. You told her there was nothing for you here—there—anymore. She had traced three rotations on the rim of her coffee cup and that look came.
“I d—“ he clears his throat, “I couldn’t say for sure what kind it is. It’s my first time visiting him.”
Evan nods sympathetically, rifling through a stand of maps before pulling one free and spreading it between them.
“‘S not that far from here, first you go up this stretch, and you see where it turns into—”
And a mile or two or five back, this hospital wasn’t even in the itinerary. Guilt wasn’t a thought or idea when he finally unlocked the passenger door in defeat. The pay phone door still open and the phone number on the back of the receipt discarded in a crumple on the floor.
“He wouldn’t pick up, Blondie,” he bemoans. “What now? It rang and rang and…what now?”
And then it had only been two constants in your life at that present. One of which you’d rather focus on. The dull throbbing in your face and across your neck, and Eurythmics on the radio, drowned out almost completely by the noise of the engine. You stare at the dial, straining to listen to place the song, and he’s staring at you expectantly, and you remember he asked you a question.
Wordlessly, you pick the receipt off the floor and walk towards the phone booth.
Fifty cents later, purple blotches of color swimming in front of eyes tormented from sun glare and there’s a click on the other end.
“Hello?” Came a voice, cut short by a harsh cough.
“—and then it’ll be on your right.”
Evan hands the map to him, giving you a soft smile and you’d return it if you could but settle for a nod instead.
“Thank you,” he’s saying, already headed to the door. “You’ve saved our lives.”
Saved mine, you think, and in the confines of the car, he’s turned to you and you think he’s going to cry.
You’ll be okay soon, we’ll get you to the hospital and you’ll tell me won’t you?
You’ll tell me what he said on the payphone?
You wave away his attempts of a peace offering or guilt rambling or whatever this is. And as your eyes slip shut and the familiar rumble of the car meets your ears, you remember what song it was.
The one before you called that man Carson.
You liked that one.