The blacktop ribbon fed out of civilisation. The Driver steamed his motor down the highway. The Phase III was meant for speed. The thick black tires consume the road. The 351 Cleveland engine is brutish and unreasonable. In the back seat sits a full leather briefcase covered with a folded map and a copy of the day’s Business Review. In the distance a lone building begins to grow. And the gas gauge is sliding towards empty.
The Driver slows the hungry beast and pulls into the the gas station. The chalk-written sign reads ‘Last Gas… before you run out of luck.’ The place has seen better days but not in the last fifty years. He swaggers around the vehicle, stamping out a cigarette before opening the gas tank. The melodic ting-ing of the old Gilbarco gas pump speaks of a time when fuel was for going places, not fleeing from them. As the petrol floods into the tank the Driver checks his jacket pocket but doesn’t find what he is looking for. He taps the pockets in the front of his jeans and finds them empty as well. His search becomes more fervent as he rubs his palms along the back of his jeans. With an air towards frantic he reaches for the trunk of the car and pops it open. The lid sits ajar, light barely piercing its darkness. The Driver hurriedly checks the pockets of his jacket once more. Relief settles over him. He removes the packet of playing cards tenderly. He opens the neat cardboard box and sheds it from the deck. He shuffles the cards with a quiet joy, extolling in the familiarity of them in his hands, like a smoker removing a cigarette from a fresh packet and rolling it between his index finger and thumb before taking a match to it. They dance in his hand for several moments until he finally draws a card from the middle. He smiles at it, slides it lovingly back into the deck and makes for the store.
The interior is decorated to find things and not for fashion. The small frame behind the counter keeps it tidy just to pass the time. Her hair, like her clothes, is homespun, lacking in grace but it has never bothered her much. The doorbell lets her know she has a customer. The Driver moves through the aisles, arbitrarily selecting provisions for the road, but it is obvious he is looking for something in particular. The small frame notices his search.
“Anythin’ I can help you with?”
The Driver doesn’t answer. He continues scanning until he finds the Miscellaneous Goods section. Beneath fan belts and air fresheners he finds them, an old packet of cards that look as though they have been there since the store opened. His eyes grow wide. He reaches out with care.
“Um, Sir… Is there…”
“No. Now be quiet.” He commands as he precisely turns the treasure over in his hands.
The clerk is taken back. His tone is inappropriate in this space. Her mouth opens out of shock and it takes her a moment before she uses it again for speech.
“I meant no harm, Sir. I only…”
The Driver rolls his eyes and turns on her.
“You only meant to pry into a business that isn’t your own.”
“You what?” He aims at her as he begins to approach the counter.
The Clerk softly falls backwards from the bench to keep the distance between them more than the reach of an arm. But when he casually places the items in front of her, her fear shifts into discomfort.
“How much for these?” He enquires.
The Clerk swallows the comment.
“Oh, now you have problems talking.”
“That’s… that’s… seven fifty.”
“So, you’re giving me the gas for free then?”
The Clerk tentatively turns from the waist and stares out the window at the car as though the scene is completely foreign to her.
“I want fifty in gas and it is seven-fifty for these. That would be fifty-seven-fifty, right?” He presents her with the statement.
The Clerk drifts back from the window and faces him as he reaches into his back pocket. He retrieves the deck of cards and as he is lifting them out, the Mateba Model 6 Unica sees daylight. He places the cards on the counter.
“But you aren’t getting that today.”
The Clerk looks at him and then down at the cards, the discomfort on her face evolving into utter bewilderment as though she is a child that is unable to process a universal truth given to her by an adult.
“It’s a simple game. We each draw a card and, depending on that card, you will either buy yourself a new dress or I will be leaving with my goods and gas with the compliments of your fine establishment.”
One eyebrow on the Clerk’s face signals her return to the forefront of her consciousness. She has found something tangible as though gravity had settled back into her world after the free fall that she had found herself in on the arrival of this man.
“You want to draw cards to see if you pay for your stuff or not?”
“Glad to see you have returned. That is precisely the game I’m inviting you to play.”
“You can’t do that.”
The Driver reaches behind him and this time retrieves the gun.
The Clerk’s eyes go wide. She stutters her way into silence.
“Shh. You have heard the terms and understand the consequences.”
“You what? Wasted your life sitting behind a counter in a convenience store?”
“I… didn’t… you.”
The Driver slides the deck across the counter.
The Clerk looks down at them and then back up at the Driver.
“Shuffle them and draw a card.”
The Clerk again looks down at the deck.
“You can either pick one, or forfeit. Forfeit means you lose. Now draw.”
The Clerk reaches for the packet of cards slowly, as if to savour what could be her last few moments above the ground. She feels every muscle it requires to extend her arm out. She takes the deepest breath she has taken in more years than she can remember. She holds the cards firmly but delicately, scared that if she pressed too tightly, she might cause some uncontrollable cosmic shift.
The bell above the entrance rang out.
The Driver abruptly turns, scanning the store for the intruder. But the aisles are empty. Satisfied he turns back to the Clerk, whose arm is now extended underneath the register. She is clutching a Colt New Service revolver.
“I’m surprised you’re not ill with the draft in this place.”
The Driver sees her outstretched arm. He smiles.
“Ever used it before?”
“Look, why don’t you just leave?”
“So you haven’t. Well, here’s your chance.”
The clock behind the Clerk’s head strikes heavily, counting the moments between their stares.
“Go on. Bring it up.”
The Clerk’s arm is frozen.
She slowly raises the gun.
“Now one of us is going to lose more than gas money.”
“I don’t want to play your game.”
“Sometimes you don’t get a choice with the hand you’re dealt, the only freedom you have is what you do with what has been done to you.”
Nothing moves in the store.
“And if I choose not to draw?”
“You are free to choose that, but every choice comes with a cost. Prepared to pay it?”
“I’m not playing your game. Why don’t you just leave?!”
The Driver carves the gun into the Clerk’s chest.
“Because this is what’s happening right now in your life. You can’t run from it.”
“What if… I win… and I don’t want to shoot you?”
“Then you dishonour the game, and thus have forfeited. You introduced your gun and changed the rules, now you have to live with your choice. Or die by it.”
The Clerk replied out of exasperation.
“You have an answer for everything, don’t you?”
“I’ve played this game before.”
The Driver reached for the deck. With one hand he deftly removed the cards from the box and cut them as the Clerk held her breath. He drew a card and turned it over. It was the Jack of Clubs.
“He is a tricky one, and a face card. You have less than a one in three chance of closing your store today. Now draw.”
The gun in the Clerk’s hand begins to shake. Her dilemma weighs upon her. She tries one last avenue and edges her gun forward into the Driver’s chest.
“And what if I don’t draw and just shoot you instead?”
The smile on the Driver’s face is genuine.
“And what would that make you?”
The Clerk breathes in the justification deeply. She knows she has no choice. As she reaches for the deck and draws her card back to her body, a loud crash blasts through the store. Startled, she fires her gun into the stomach of the Driver. He is caught off guard, as he has turned towards the noise, and his body is thrown backwards. He fires a round as he is falling. It hits the Clerk between her heart and her shoulder. She screams and collapses.
The Driver places his palm over the bleeding wound. He knows that if he doesn’t get it seen to quickly, he will most likely bleed out and die, so he begins to pick himself up.
“I guess we were both at the mercy of your drafty store.” The Driver remarks as he removes his jacket and tears off part of his shirt to cover his wound. “Keep the deck. It was half lucky for you, whatever half luck means. I have to know though, what did you draw?”
“Leave!” Her scream is that of a frightened animal. It pierces him to his core and he turns, trying to remain composed.
The Clerk makes no sound as the Driver exits the store.
The car screams down the black ribbon. One hand rests upon the steering wheel whilst the other has been forced down upon a wound on the lower right side of the Driver’s abdomen. He needs to find someone to see to it or else he might as well pull over and wait for the man in black to have his dance. He stares out, his eyes searching for the edges of the horizon, trying to find anything that looks like something. A large green governmental sign appears in the distance. It grows larger until it flies past the passenger side window. Their white lettering usually details points of interest, tourist sites, and public necessities, but this one merely derisively shouts at anyone who drives past, ‘Drive. Safe. Live.’ And as if to drive home the point, perched above the word ‘Live’ is a pitch-black crow sitting so still it could be mistaken for a gargoyle presiding over a cathedral. Only as the vehicle passes does the Gargoyle’s head cock to an unnatural angle. Welcome, it says.
His outlook changes little as the Driver replays the scene at the gas station over in his mind. Only the odd broken-down car signals any distance at all, and at this speed, they all look much the same. Most have been resting there long enough to have lost what made them recognisable as vehicles. Tires having been removed, shells baked in a sun not suitable for any living thing, and varied stages of rust conquering all. The Driver pays them little mind and reaches across the console for his bottle of water. He glances at the clock; it reads eleven past eleven. Another sign appears off in the distance. As it grows the Driver’s brain shifts from the accelerator to the brake. His face recedes slowly into his neck with a question. The sign above him reads, ‘Drive. Safe. Live’, and the question he asks is ‘… huh?’ The Gargoyle, still perched, twitches its head to the other side. Make yourself at home, it beckons.
The Driver’s eyes widen as his foot furiously tries to push the gas pedal through the floor. The needle on the speedometer begins to tremble as it nears its maximum. He is no longer driving to save his life but to escape whatever has just happened. Because whatever just happened, he can not explain. And he doesn’t even want to begin to try. He just wants to run. His mind searches for distractions and he starts to pay attention to the geriatric autos that periodically appear alongside him. Many are little more than frames but one stands out. He slows his car, and his vitals, down as he approaches it.
The car is the same make, model and colour as the one beneath him. He slams his foot down on the gas and speeds away from it.
The third time the Driver passes the sign and its gargoyle, he swears at his windscreen and slams the soul of his foot onto the brake. The car slides into the dusty sand on the shoulder of the highway. The Driver gets out of his vehicle without turning it off. He looks up at the back of the sign, appealing to it for answers. The Gargoyle is already facing him. No answers, only questions, it replies.
Trying to regain control, the Driver digs his heels into the sand and says no to both the Gargoyle and the sign.
The Gargoyle’s head flinches inquisitively. No what, little man? It mocked.
He approaches the sign slowly, unsure of what he might find. He extends his hand, reaching for the steel poles that hold it aloft, and stops. He abruptly turns back to his car, unwilling to engage in this insanity.
Inside the vehicle his mind switches from being unnerved back to arrogant pragmatism and he reaches for the map in the back seat. He studies his journey up until the gas station. The tip of his index finger taps the area around it. It then travels along the route he took out, a long thin vein across the map, ending in what appeared to be some kind of industrial site or military base. The Driver shook his head and stared back out to the horizon.
“I haven’t gone that far. I couldn’t have.” He mutters to himself.
He exited the vehicle again and began to pace, trying to make sense of the situation. Robotically, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the deck of cards. He spun the cardboard box, end-to-end, between his thumb and forefinger. It gained pace as his thoughts weaved through possibilities. He turned and looked down the highway, searching along the way he came. He turned again and stared in the opposite direction, gazing along the way he could go. And then turned for the last time, looking back toward the way he had come.
“Card.” Squawked the Gargoyle.
The Driver’s concentration was broken momentarily. He looked up at the blackbird and grinned. I enjoy problems, his smile said. He opened the packet of cards and shuffled them.
“Odds and blacks, and we see how far this road goes. Evens and reds, I go back the way I came.”
He pulled a card from the deck. The Four of Clubs stared back at him. He put the card back in and shuffled again. He removed another card from the deck. He looked at it, then back up at the sign. He placed the card back in the deck and confidently walked back to his car. He revved the engine a few times, released the handbrake and swung it to the other side of the road, a trail of smoke billowing behind the thick tires.
He raced the car back down the black tar whilst waiting for a sign that his experiment had had an impact. He saw an outline in the distance and, as it grew, it took the figure of a rusted car. But it wasn’t on the same side and wasn’t the shape as any he passed earlier and, for a moment, the Driver allowed a small measure of hope to drift across his face. As if on queue the wound in his abdomen reminded him that his victory was small. He grimaced. He pressed the wound harder for a moment and pain streaked through his body. As he slowly released the pressure he exhaled fully. And his heart sank.
On the horizon a familiar shape begun to form. White letters on a green background read, “Drive. Safe. Live.”