Work Header

In Search Of

Work Text:

"You're sure this is where the show is happening?"

"I least ninety percent sure. Let's say ninety-five percent."

The gas station bobbed and swayed in the water. Somewhere far below—Emily couldn't begin to guess how far—some great anchor was sitting in the rock and silt, securing it to this spot while the world of the river sped around and below the gas station floor. (Floor? Deck? More of a deck.) It was in the Echo but not of it.

"And you're sure it's Death of a Salesman."

"I—yeah. Well, I don't know a lot about theater. Whatever I said it was before, that's what my friend said it was. Actually—" Ben cut himself off, then went on with renewed certainty. "Yeah. That's what it was, it was Death of a Salesman. Tonight, before dawn. At the weird gas station run by the old guy with the cat."

"There's a cat in there," Bob said, "but that guy wasn't old."

"Wasn't he?"

"Was he?"

Emily tried to recall any feature of the gas station attendant's face.

"You know, I was seriously just looking at him, and now I have no idea what that guy looked like. Literally none."

"—Me either, actually," Bob said.

"...Yeah," Ben said. "Now I want to look but I feel weird about it."

"How well do you know this guy?"

"The gas station guy?"

Emily rubbed her forehead. "Your friend, Ben. The actor who's in this very experimental Death of a Salesman."

"Maybe that wasn't the play. It was something really close to that, though. Is there a sequel to Death of a Salesman?"

"No, I don't think so."

"Could it be one of the gas stations up on the surface?" Bob asked.

All three of them looked up, which gave Emily a little momentary vertigo, as there was nothing above them near enough to see clearly, and the station deck below her feet continued to sway, gently but unpredictably, in the current. "Ugh, it's been raining cats and dogs up there," Ben said. "I don't wanna go back out in that."

"Maybe if we wait long enough the show will come to us," Bob said.

"Stranger things have happened," Emily said. "I'm freezing my ass off, though." She jerked her head toward the door into the gas station mini-mart. "Ben, you owe me a cup of coffee."

"That's not true," Ben said. "At last count I owed you at least three cups of coffee."

"I'm not counting the diner," Emily said as they went back inside. "For obvious reasons."

The same guy as before was working the register, she was pretty sure—like, obviously it would have to be the same guy?—but she really wouldn't have been able to swear to it if she'd had to. Ben bought them all coffee. It was warm, but it kind of tasted like a substitute coffee. Chicory?

She looked for cream and sugar on the counter, but there was only fake cream and fake sugar, neither of which she felt would improve her fake coffee. Though Ben seemed to disagree, emptying packet after packet into his cup until it approximated redneck-latte status. She couldn't see where Bob had wandered off to.

The fluffy white cat that they'd seen earlier reappeared to rub up against Emily's ankles. "Hey, sweetie," she said, crouching down to scratch behind the cat's ear. "At least I know you're for real."

"How many cats does this place have?"

She looked up at Ben. "I've only seen this one..."

"It's not the same as the one I saw before." The cat gave Ben a penetrating look. Ben met the cat's eyes and seemed to get defensive. "Well, it's not," he said, more quietly, into his coffee cup.

The cat turned and walked away, pausing expectantly at the closed door.

"Can she go outside?" Emily asked the gas station attendant.

"Not my cat," the gas station attendant said.

"Okay, kitty." Emily held open the door for the cat, who walked out and headed right, or, starboard, or whatever.

She and Ben followed the cat around the corner of the deck, where they found Bob standing with a group of three other cats.

"Hey guys," he said. "Did we decide we want to try the surface? We can get a ride from here, like, right now, but it's a long haul, so there's no guarantee when exactly it'll make the next stop."

The cats made Emily feel colder. "I think we should wait."

"For the play? Or for a different ride?"

"For the play," Emily said, because she didn't want to offend any of the cats. "We've waited this long. I'm still curious."

All four cats walked off then, unhurried but without giving them a second glance, and turned another corner of the gas station. Emily hadn't seen any other boats parked back there.

"I've always kind of wanted to go on a long haul freighter," Bob said. "Like as a tourist. But it takes a lot of planning ahead of time. And it's not cheap."

"I thought it was a matter of, like, finding one at the docks that needs people and you work your passage or something?" Ben said.

"No, nobody does that anymore. The companies rent out two or three little cabins, if they've got them open. Mostly to retired people. Folks with lots of time and who don't mind not having a phone for weeks on end."

"I guess if you've got the space, you gotta make money off it."

Something floated past them, water-worn glass unevenly reflecting the lights of the gas station; Emily thought it was a bottle with a note in it at first. Part of it looked a little melted. As it came closer she saw it wasn't a bottle—it looked more like a jar, except it had a rounded end where you would have stood a jar up, and then on the other side it was kind of pointy?—and there was something metal inside it, but there was also a note, though she couldn't figure how you could get it in there in the first place, let alone how you would get it out.

"Was it Danton's Death?" Bob asked after a minute.

"No," Ben said. "That wasn't it. It definitely started with death. I'm just not sure what the rest of it was."

--- ⎔ ---