Saturday, October 3, 2009

Daily Story 171: Roadside Assistance

There's a sun-bleached sign in front of me that says "Last Gas for 57 Miles". Past it, maybe a quarter-mile down the road, is the little gas station it's referring to. Beyond that is just dust, shimmering with liquid silver mirages as it reaches up to the horizon. The other direction is about the same but with one less gas station, so my options seem limited.

The cracked asphalt radiates heat right up through the soles of my shoes, forcing me to stick to the dirt and try to keep my head down as the wind attempts to blow dust up my nose and into my eyes. The gas station has a poorly-fenced yard behind it with some palos verdes leaning over a miniature junkyard, ten or so old rusted heaps covered by crumbling tarps. Even the meager shade afforded by those trees and clunkers is so inviting.

By the time I reach the front door I'm all out of sweat and ready to collapse - I've become spoiled by climate control. It's dark inside and while it's still hot the sun is at least off of my back and a squealing fan is keeping the air moving. It's wonderful.
"Didn't see a car pull up, and you look like you're ready to fall over," a voice says, "You run out of gas somewhere up the road?" My eyes haven't adjusted yet but I can just make him out now, an old man sitting on a stool behind the counter.
"Yeah," I say lamely, "I guess so. Might be something else though, I could have sworn I had a full tank and then I looked down and it was gone."

The man nods, and I can tell he's heard this before. He doesn't offer assistance or advice and I don't ask - I wouldn't know what to ask for. I have nobody to call, no idea what is wrong, and no way to fix it even if I did. My only goal was to reach the gas station - for all the good it can do me - and now that I'm there I don't have a step two. "Do you mind if I just hide from the sun in here while I think about what to do next?"

The man smiles. "Not at all. Don't get a lot of traffic through here these days, but it's always nice to learn about the ones I do get. Where you headed?"
Already I'm stumped. I mumble something about relatives, which is somewhat close to the truth. He seems satisfied with it, nods and then points at the wall behind him - it's covered top to bottom in photographs, license plates, and other decorations.
"I get all sorts through here, with all kinds of destinations." I scan over them just to be polite. "Yeah, that's great. Some of... those..." It can't be. Just a few inches from his hand is something impossible. Well, a little impossible.

"Is that... is that a..." He's already smiling. He knew I would recognize that California license plate - orange with a silver barcode. He knew.
"Was that relatives you said you were out to visit," he asks, "or ancestors?"
I try to reply, but all I can do is nod my head 'yes'. He laughs and slaps his knee, hopping down from the stool. "I knew it! Soon as you walked in here - you just had that look to you. Been seven years since the last one, she was some scientist from 2081. You?"
"I'm... no, that's after my time. I'm from 2057."
"Heck, that pretty young thing could be your daughter! Well if she is don't warn her about this, I'd hate to not meet her."
"That's not really how it... wait. How... what's going on here?"

He's already coming around the counter and heading for the door. "Heck, I've got no idea. That first one tried to explain it but I didn't really listen, I'm not the sciencey-type. I'm going to go tow your time-travel thing out around the back of the building with all the others, and you can take your time rooting around for spare parts. I reckon most of them are pretty well stripped down by now, but every so often someone sends me a fresh box of tools and futuristic power cells and whatnot out of gratitude so as long as you return the favor you can feel free to look in the supply room too. Heck, you might have sent some of those things yourself after you made good use of 'em."

I start to once again explain that that's not quite how it works, but he's already through the door so instead I just pull out my student ID and wedge it between two license plates on the wall as if to say, Joe will have been here.