After walking for what seemed like hours – but was actually around 15 minutes – Casper crested a small hill in a seemingly endless and scorching ribbon of black asphalt. As his luck would have it, Casper’s car breaking down on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, on the hottest day of the summer, was as reliable as time.
Shielding his eyes against the blazing sun and trying to see through the shimmering mirage rising from the sticky road, Casper couldn’t trust his eyes. The solitary building he thought was in the distance could as easily be his heat-addled brain tricking him into believing shade and aid were near.
As Casper walked on, the building became more substantial and he quickened his steps, hoping to get out of the noonday sun and perhaps find something cool to quench his parched mouth.
His mouth so dry he could barely speak, Casper tried calling to an old man sitting outside a dilapidated gasoline station in a rusty, metal chair, but couldn’t work up enough saliva for a single word.
The man, of indeterminable age, was dressed in grease-stained overalls, no shirt, a ball cap so dirty is was impossible to tell its original color and scuffed work boots, the toes worn away to show dented steel safety caps. He sat under an equally dilapidated awning. Small tears in the dull blue canvas let in laser beams of sunlight, giving little shelter from the heat. The man was stirring the air around his face with a faded and dog-eared cardboard fan from Notter Memory Gardens, occasionally spitting brown, tobacco juice into the dirt in front of him.
He barely looked up when Casper’s shadow fell across his face. Miming drinking, Casper presented his prayer-folded hands when the man pointed to a paint-chipped cooler outside the store’s entrance. The hum of its compressor was a promising sign of possible cold drinks inside.
The rush of frigid air hitting his face nearly toppled Casper over. He spent a little too long, head first in the ice box. A not-so-subtle, “ahem,” brought him out of his refreshing daydream. Casper popped off the bottle cap of his drink with the opener on the front of the ice chest, downing the cold, life-giving liquid in one, sustained gulp. He didn’t linger a second time in the icy oasis when he reached for another bottle.
Sitting on an overturned plastic mixing bucket beside the other man, Casper rapidly popped the front of his shirt, trying to stir up some air between it and his sweat-slick chest. A wet stripe ran down the back of his shirt, sticking it to his skin like wallpaper.
By the time Casper had drunk half of his second bottle of soda, he found his voice again, and he rasped out a hoarse, ‘thank you.”
“My car broke down a ways down the road,” Casper pointed in the direction where he came. “The radiator overheated, I think.”
The man didn’t answer, just spit a long, trail of dark liquid between his feet.
“Sorry, my name is Casper,” he held out his hand to shake. “I’m jinxed when it comes to road trips, seems my car breaks down if I get more than 50 miles out-of-town. It runs just fine around town, it’s fickle like that. You’d think I’d learn by now to stay at home or get another car.”
Casper cleared his throat after his monologue and took another drink of soda. The other man still hadn’t spoken.
“Can I use this to carry some water back to my car?” Casper tapped the side of the pail he was sitting on. “I’ll bring it back once I get my car going again.”
The man spit another stream of tobacco juice.
“Mmm… kay,” Casper grabbed the bucket and filled it half way from a water spigot beside the ice chest. He fished a $20 out of his pocket and laid it on top of the cooler. “This should cover the sodas and use of your bucket.”
The walking back to his car didn’t seem nearly as far as the slog to the store. Filling his radiator with water, Casper was able to crank the engine on the first try, the temperature gauge pinging in the normal range.
Clearing the small hill again, looking for the store, Casper blinked several times wondering if he was seeing a heat mirage again.
The man sitting outside was gone and the store was shuttered and appeared abandoned. The awning was only shreds and the metal chair a pile of crumbly, rusted shards. Windows were soaped over or broken, shelves bare and the lights dark. The only thing left was the cooler, its familiar drone sounded like a hive of angry wasps.
Casper put down the bucket and slowly inched toward the cooler. Placing a trembling hand on the lid, he opened the chest. He staggered back, a scream caught in his throat. Expecting to see the frozen body of the old man, he never thought he would see his own rime-crusted, milky-eyed face staring back at him.
He spun around, primed to run for his car, only to see it had aged into a mound of corroded metal and rotten tires. The earth seemed to rise up as he fell in heap to the ground.
When he came to, he was sitting outside the store in a metal chair, shirtless in overalls. From the distance, through the shimmering heat, he could see someone walking up the road. He tried to yell, to warn him, but he couldn’t speak around the wad of rancid tobacco stuffed in his mouth.