Walk Into Splintered Sunlight
By Trevor James Zaple
Carrie pulled into the Gas 'n' Gulp on the fumes of her gas tank, dripping sweat from seemingly every available pore in her body. She killed the engine next to an available gas pump and clamoured out of the car. She gulped down the dry desert air but it did little to relieve her, and the temperature outside of the car wasn't much better than that inside. Carrie felt exhausted and shaky, as though she were on the edge of panic.
She fumbled the gas nozzle into the yearning empty tank of her car like a virgin in the grips of the sudden realization that it was all happening. She wiped the sweat away from her eyes and caught sight of something near the gas station proper.
The station was a squat, unassuming sort of thing, a tired little toad hovering at the edge of the desert highway waiting patiently for thirsty flies. It seemed as though it had been built to resemble a big ranch house, although Carrie couldn't figure out why anyone would have originally tried to put a ranch in the middle of the Mojave. A raised wraparound porch jutted out of it, and on the porch sat a wizened old woman in a patterned grey dress, rocking away on a white rocking chair and staring directly at Carrie.
Carrie stared back at the old woman, and it seemed as though they were destined to lock eyes forever beneath the Nevada sun but then the trigger of the pump shuddered beneath her hand and she broke the deadlock gaze to shake out the last few drops.
She studiously avoided looking at the old woman as she climbed the thin wooden steps onto the porch and walked into the station.
The interior was slightly cooler, but not enough to change anything for Carrie. Just inside the entrance, behind a cluttered shop counter, a grey-haired man in a busy black t-shirt was reading a battered paperback novel with intensity. He looked up and gave Carrie a smile as she walked by. He was missing a few teeth but his eyes had a gentle sparkle to them that let Carrie continue onward with an easier gait. Things would be all right. She was in good hands.
The station sprawled out for quite a while. There were rows of shelves everywhere, carrying anything that a traveller might need on their way to or from Las Vegas and any number of things that Carrie suspected no one had ever needed. At the back of these rows was a long bank of refrigerators, stocked with every cold drink that could be named. Carrie walked past the others to the last one on the left, which was filled with cold bottles of simple water. Carrie opened the door, retrieved the first large bottle her hand came across, and rubbed the shocking surface of the bottle over her face and neck. She let it dip into the neck of her shirt, cooling her chest, and then unscrewed the lid. Her tongue and throat soothed, she was in the process of returning the lid onto the bottle when she caught movement from the corner of her eye.
To her right was a man with a mop. The man had a wide-eyed expression on his slack doughy face; his lips were parted in shock, and his right eye twitched convulsively. He was wearing a navy blue workshirt with a blank name tag pinned to the right breast.
"You can't be doing that!" the man shouted, and his voice was high and quivering, a bird caught rudely in a net. He removed one hand from his mop and pointed his finger at Carrie. "You shouldn't, you can't, you musn't! Put it back! Put it back before they-"
"Ay!" a raspy voice shouted from the other end of the station. "Moppie! Stop bothering the customers and get back to work!"
The man, Moppie, clamped his hand back on the mop and spun around, a childlike whimper coming out of him as he disappeared down one of the aisles. As he left, she saw that there was a jagged, hairless scar running down the back of his head, and a similar angry red grimace carved into the back of his neck. Carrie stared at the spot where he'd been standing, waiting for something else to happen. When nothing did, she grabbed several more bottles out of the fridge and walked them back through the store to the counter where the grey-haired man continued to thumb through his dog-eared book.
He looked up as she put the water bottles on the counter. With a smile and a nod he began to add up the prices in an ancient register that clattered with every keystroke. Carrie let her attention wander into the aisles, and tried to catch a glimpse of the strange Moppie. After a moment she felt a finger on her wrist and she gasped loudly.
The man behind the counter shrank back in surprise, a nervous chuckle escaping his throat. He put his hands up, palms facing her.
"Sorry, ma'am," he said genially, "You seemed lost in thought. I said that'll be eight dollars even."
"Oh, of course," she said, reaching into her pocket for her bills. "I also have gas, the white Neon out there."
"Oh, sure, sure," the man replied, looking over at something under the counter. "In that case, that'll be fifty-six dollars."
Carrie pulled out three twenties and handed them over. As the man made change, she found her gaze wandering back into the aisles again.
"What's with that man?" she asked.
"Which man is that?" the man behind the counter asked, counting out singles.
"That Moppie person. He really threw me for a loop back there."
"Oh, him. Not sure, really. He's always been like that."
"I see," Carrie said, unsure of what she meant. She accepted her change and slipped it into her pocket. The old woman appeared from one of the aisles, hobbling slightly on her right leg and staring at Carrie. Carrie took an involuntary step back, surprised by the old woman's appearance. The old woman walked by her and went through the door. Even though her line of sight had been broken by the old woman's motion past her, Carrie was sure that she had still been staring at her the entire time.
"Do you want a bag for that?" the man behind the counter asked. Carrie shook her head, gathered up the bottles, muttered a thank you, and followed the old woman through the door.
Carrie tried to walk quickly off of the porch and down the stairs, but the old woman put a stop to it.
"Ol' Chuck there doesn't know a goddamn thing," the old woman rasped at her. Carrie stopped in her tracks, considered continuing on regardless of how rude it might seem, and then turned to face the old woman.
The old woman's face was lined deeply, indented by the force of the sun and the sand. Her eyes were an intensely faded blue, and they seemed to stare simultaneously at and through Carrie.
"What do you mean by that?" Carrie asked, her voice sounding small; the air pushed by her throat seemed to disappear into the vast sun-baked expanse surrounding them.
"I mean that he doesn't know anything about Moppie there. When Chuck came to work for me, Moppie was already here. Moppie had been here for a long time already, since before my husband died and left me running this pit stop by myself."
"I'm sorry," Carrie said reflexively. She felt sweat bead on her forehead, only partially the result of the desert heat. What was she sorry about? Why was that the first thing to come to mind whenever anyone mentioned a tragedy? The old woman saved her from self-flagellation by simply waving a hand.
"A long time ago, back when the stuff I sell cost a hell of a lot less." She turned her head and watched the cars jet by on the highway, hard and glinting in the unforgiving sunlight. "Moppie's been here since, oh, '70? '71? I was still young then, at any rate, and my face didn't look just like the landscape. A while ago, if you get me."
"Back then he wasn't named Moppie, of course. Don't quite know what his name was, to be honest with you. There were a lot of young people on the road those days. Some were on their way to California, looking for other young people to hook up with and do young things. Some were on their way from California, looking for an escape from whatever they'd found when they were there. Moppie was one of them. Showed up one day in a busted-up old Chevrolet, hair longer 'n' Jesus, wearing one of those colourful shirts the young ones wore back then. You know the type? Riot of colours, look like they spilled all sorts of ink all over themselves."
"Tie dye," Carrie said, and the old woman's rugged face split open into a canyon of a grin.
"That's the one. Anyway, he comes in for gas, starts telling my husband Jim that he's on his way to San Francisco, going to join up with a bunch of people that were following that band all the young ones used to follow. The Grating Dead, or whatever they were called. Kept going on about it like he wasn't quite right in the head, Jim said later he must have been high on something. He paid for his gas but later on after he'd gone Jim saw that a bunch of the drinks in the coolers were missing. How he stuffed them in his clothes I'll never know, but he must have made off with ten dollars worth of water and cola, and that was a lot of money back then, especially for us. We cursed him up and down, but we figured we'd never see him again. Lot of young people on the road in those days. I might have said that."
The old woman reached down beside her rocker and picked up a sweating bottle of water. She took a swig, smacked her lips a couple of times, and continued.
"Well, a couple of months later, we're hitting the late afternoon lull, the kind where no one wants to stop, they just want to make it as far into or out of Las Vegas as they can. Jim was cleaning something in the back of the store and I'm sitting for a spell on my rocker here, watching the highway and waiting to see if anyone was going to turn in. Out along the side of the highway, something caught my eye. There was some sort of figure coming towards me, walking along the side of the road, staggering a little here and there. It was a man, I could tell that much. When he got closer I could see that he was naked, burnt right red, covered in bruises. Well, stupid me, I go rushing out there, running along the highway like any old idiot towards this man. Not thinking, 'oh, is this man going to hurt me?', not wondering if a stray car might swerve off the road and end me, nothing like that. Just, 'this man looks hurt, he obviously needs help, and I'm the only person around.'"
She paused and stared directly into Carrie's eyes. There was no strange feeling of being looked at and through at the same time; her gaze was going right into Carrie's pupils, and maybe into the brain that lay a few inches beyond.
"Do you know what that's like?" the old woman asked quietly. "To see someone in distress and know that there's no one else around that can help? My husband was too far away, there were no cars that were going to slow down, and it's not like I could call the Emergency line. By the time they would have gotten there, who knows? He'd have been collapsed and dead in my lot, more likely than not. So I go out there, and I grab his hand. He raved at me, and it wasn't even in English, not then. I grabbed his hand and led him back to the house here, brought him inside and took him upstairs. Jim and I had a guest room we kept nice for when our friends stopped in, not that they did much. I laid him out on the bed, brought in a fan, and snatched a few of the water bottles from the cooler. Made him sip at it, which was quite an effort. He kept trying to knock the bottle away, and raved a lot more. Eventually, as I got him cooled off, he started speaking in English. Not that it made a lot more sense, mind you. Eventually I got scared and brought Jim upstairs. He was a little perturbed by the idea of a burned-up naked man lying in our guest room, but he knew we couldn't turn him out. He did see one thing, though, something I hadn't seen in my rush to bring him inside.
'God almighty,' my Jim said. 'Ain't this the boy that stole the drinks from us a while back?' I can hear that voice in my head like it was yesterday. The shock in it. The disgust. That boy had been a little off in the head, to be sure, but he was still a normal sort of boy, full of life and looking forward to the times ahead. This...this was something else, a creature beaten into the rocks and driven out into the desert. Where he wasn't red he was purple, and he had the big scars on him, the ones you must have seen. The big one on the back of his head and the deep one on the back of his neck. He didn't have his hair anymore, someone had cut it off short, but patchy. Like they'd cut his hair with a machete, but they were doing it fast and loose and missed a couple of times."
"Jesus Christ," Carrie said. She suddenly wanted nothing more than to be away from this gas station in the middle of scorched I-95, on her way to the hotel in Vegas and her friends.
"Oh, I suspect he had nothing to do with it," the old woman rasped, "despite anything the boy might have done. Even Christ himself doesn't walk the rocks in this desert, and I suspect that whomever the boy ended up with never much thought of Him. We took care of the poor boy, Jim and I, rubbing aloe on him and keeping him hydrated. He raved a lot for a few weeks, talking about monsters in tents in the high desert, ten foot tall ogres with swords that snorted and raged in the heat of the sun and the frozen grasp of the night. Men covered in scars and obscene drawings that killed for fun. Who knows? I'm sure a lot of it must have been true, at least to him, but there have never been any articles or news reports about these sorts of men. I've asked the police cars that stop by from time to time if they've ever heard of such a thing, and they tell me that they haven't. They never quite look me in the eye when they say it, but not a single one has ever said anything different."
Carrie took a step down towards the gas pumps.
"Listen," she said, her tongue creeping and numb, "I need to go."
"Be careful out there," the old woman said. She rocked back and forth, back and forth, and the canyon smile that had gaped open on her face had sewn itself up into a puckered, sickly scar. "Don't stop for anyone and never stop if you're all alone. If your car breaks down out there, between here and the city, well...I hope they taught you to pray."
Carrie fled down the steps, the bottles of water seeming to weigh down each footfall. She reached her car, flung open the rear door, and threw the water into the back seat. She then climbed into the driver's seat and started up the car with a speed befitting a stock racer. As she pulled out of the gas station lot, she saw the old woman, rocking in her rocker, staring directly at her as she merged onto the highway and sped away towards the towering heights of Las Vegas.