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Tales from the Road


(Note: The following blog entry contains minor spoilers for "Tales from the Gas Station: Volume Four")


 


A hot, arid breeze swept across the barren landscape, kicking up a storm of dust that stung my face like fresh razor burn from a rusty pocket knife. To the east and west, bone-dry desert plains stretched to the horizon–where rigid mountains abruptly intersected the earth to reach heaven-bound, kissing the starry sky. A smattering of celestial bodies along with the nebulous glow of the Milky Way decorated the night over our heads.


Behind us, (southward) the modified minivan cooled its engine after yet another six-hundred mile stretch. It had earned its rest. As for me, I wasn’t so sure. Things had been quiet. And I could feel that something was about to happen again. I felt it in my fingertips, in the deepest recesses of my mind, and even in my soul. We were due for another horrible something.


In front of me, maybe twenty feet or so, a cheap-ass diner broke the natural cadence of the desert. Neon light bulbs bordered the sign over the entrance, buzzing audibly as they illuminated the restaurant’s name: “Gilligan’s Place!” As I got closer, I saw that there was more to it. Under those two principal words, a message. The font looked to be handwritten, but it was clearly printed in place: 


It’s frickin’ Delicious!


“That’s a pretty bold proclamation,” Rosa snarked. “Let’s see if they can actually deliver.”


“Y’all go ahead,” Jerry said. “I’ll be right in. Order me some bacon.”


He’d been doing the lion’s share of the driving for the past few weeks and liked to seize the opportunity to stretch his legs whenever the opportunity presented itself. And by “stretch his legs,” I of course mean “sneak a cigarette or two.” Rosa would never allow him to smoke in front of us, but there was an unspoken truce in place. As long as she didn’t have to see it, she would limit her criticisms to the form of passive aggressive comments and judgmental looks.


Gaston growled from between her and me as we neared the entrance. He must have sensed something from inside that made him uneasy. That, in turn, made me uneasy. The dog had a keen sense for danger. 


The door swung open and expelled a young couple. The man–a lanky but tall individual in a cowboy hat and boots–arched forward to lean drunkenly against his partner for support. The woman–a short, early-twenties gal with dangling crucifix earrings–braced him as best she could as they made their way towards us. That’s when I heard the familiar voice, crooning joyfully from within:


‘Cause I got frieeends

In looow places

Where the whiskey drowns

And the beer chases-


Whelp, I thought. That explains it. I reached down and pet Gaston, running my fingertips from his muzzle to hind end, attempting to no avail to push his hackles back into the fur. Despite my effort, the growling became louder. Thunderous. And then, the door shut, and he relaxed and popped a seat on the cold dirt path between us. Rosa looked over at me. I shrugged and said, “I’ll stay here until it’s over. Order me the usual.”


“Coffee and fries.” she said.


I nodded, even though it wasn’t a question. She knew me well enough by now to know that this was a coffee and fries kind of night.


I stood by the dog’s side and watched Rosa until she’d made it through the door.


Well I guess I was wrong.


Gaston growled.


I just don’t belong-


She closed the door behind her as quickly as possible, but not before Gaston let out a muffled warning woof


For some strange reason, our dog simply couldn’t abide the swoony tones of one Troyal Garth Brooks. This had been the case since the first time he heard “The Thunder Rolls” on a local FM radio station somewhere in South Texas. That was near the start of our journey, back when Gaston was still a doughy little puppy that we all thought was destined to stay the size of a purse dog and the shape of a deflated football. He yapped and bayed like he was being tortured and even tried attacking the van’s speakers before we turned the music off. We chocked it up to a one-off fit. But a couple months later, after Gaston’s growth spurt had started, we parked too close to a truck covered in Confederate flag stickers. We both had our windows rolled down, and they had “Papa Loved Mama” on their CD player. Gaston actually managed to jump into their cabin and draw blood before we could pull the animal out and tear rubber away from that place.


Since then, he’d octupled in size. Now, he was somewhere north of sixty pounds, and tall enough to lick a grown man directly in the mouth when he stood on his hind legs (ask me how I know!). In most instances, he was a perfectly normal fur friend companion. But that deep-seeded disdain for Mr. Brooks always brought out his dark side, and we could never figure out why. But some things, we told ourselves, just don’t have an explanation. No reason to make it any more complicated than it was. It just meant that, every now and then, one of us had to wait behind with the mutt to keep him (and us) out of trouble.


“Heyyy, cute dog!”


I turned to face the couple. They’d stopped quite a bit short of the parking lot. In fact, they were only a couple steps behind me. The man hiccuped and gave me a glassy-eyed smile. The woman, the one who had complimented Gaston, continued, “Does he do any tricks?”


I laughed to myself. “Yeah, but none you’d want to see.”


“Ohhh, go on!” she said with a giggle. The man hiccuped and tipped his hat at me. “Make him do something!”


I looked all around once more. There was nobody else out there. Even Jerry was gone, probably behind the building taking a leak or making friends with the fry cook or something. Just the three of us humans, and little old Gaston.


Why not? I thought.


“Gaston,” I said. The dog snapped his attention up at me. The woman brimmed with excitement.


The man hiccuped once again. “Speak!” I commanded.


The dog stared at me silently. After a few seconds had passed, I heard the woman giggle. That’s when I whispered, “Expiravitus!”


The animal blinked and shook his head. When he looked back up at me, it wasn’t with those same moist and unfocused eyes our dog had been born with. Now, they were bright and golden, with two pairs of uncoupled pupils. One pair wandered listlessly about while the other focused directly on me. Then, a deep, gutteral baritone escaped the hound’s throat: 


Hello, Papa. Did you know that I was there, in the garden, to witness the first murder? I watched a brother kill his brother before language even had a word for the action.


The man stood upright.


The girl’s smile disappeared. 


“Jesus Christ!” she said.


We had several words for when you kill for food. But this was something else. Why, Papa? Why do humans kill, if not only to survive? If not for food or defense? Gaston’s head tilted to the side in confusion. What does it mean to murder? Is it fun to do? Do humans enjoy this?


The animal’s attention snapped away from me, aiming instead towards the edge of the diner.


“Oh shit!” came the voice from where the dog was looking. “Gaston is talking again?”


The animal smiled wide, allowing his tongue to extend down almost to his red collar. Uncle Jerry!” he exclaimed loudly as his tail began pitter-patting, like this was a reunion with a long lost friend and not someone he’d just seen only a minute ago.


“You guys are fuckin’ weird,” the cowboy said without a shred of irony. Then, he leaned against his girlfriend and let her walk him to the parking lot, where he proceeded to projectile vomit against the side of our van.


Jerry walked over to us and said, “Hey, Sergeant Pupper,” before giving the dog a friendly scratch behind the ears. “How was the void?”


Uncle Jerry, did you know that time doesn’t exist in the void? All matter in space is only an echo, derived from the-”


“-derived from the collapse of multidimensionality,” Jerry interrupted, completing the animal’s sentence. “Yes, yes, we know. We know.”


“How can you always tell which one is talking?” I asked.


“This is obviously Sergeant Pupper. Look at the way he holds himself–with dignity and panache.”


Sergeant Pupper–the being that currently controlled Gaston–smiled wide and panted loudly. I gave him a pat on the head and said, “Time to go back to the void.”


Did I do good? he asked.


“Yes,” I said. “Very good. Inanisomnum.”


Gaston shook his head again. When he looked back up at us, he only had the one pair of pupils. His attention quickly diverted towards a beetle flying nearby. He lunged and snapped at it, eating it right out of the air with a wet crunch.


“Gross,” said Jerry.


“Dogs gotta eat. Which reminds me-” I nodded towards the door.


We told anyone who gave us a second glance that Gaston was a service dog, which was so close to the truth that it may as well not even be a lie. Rosa flagged us over to where she’d found a booth table by the window. I didn’t love how far it was from the exit, but Rosa put my fears to rest as soon as we sat down.


“I loaded the jukebox with twenty dollars worth of quarters. It’s going to be playing a mix of acid pop and Queen for the foreseeable future.”


“Ooohhh,” Jerry sang with a grin. “I bet we’re about to be real popular up in here.”


“Twenty bucks, huh?” I repeated. I didn’t mean to sound judgmental, although I’m sure it came across that way. The truth wasn’t much better. I was just anxious. I knew our liquid funds were drying up fast.


“It’ll be okay,” Rosa assured me.


At least she sounded confident.


“Alright, you guys,” Jerry announced. “I’m totally here for the fellowship, but if y’all don’t mind, I’m just gonna take a quick micro nap. Wake me when the coffee arrives.”


He put on the pair of oversized sunglasses he keeps in his front pocket, then leaned back against the glass window in the seat next to me. In a matter of seconds, he’d already dozed off. I took out our well-worn map of the United States and uncrumpled it onto the table. Across from me, Rosa fished a pen and highlighter from her purse and set them onto the map.


Our last encounter was in a small town outside Santa Fe. What we found there, living under the Salt Flats, was big, hungry, and ancient. But, it was definitely still asleep which–according to local legend–had been the case for at least a thousand years. Jerry spray-painted his cell phone number on the side of the beast’s torso, along with a short message to call us if it ever woke up. In the meantime, we left it be. No point borrowing trouble. Before we left town, we helped out some of the locals with their totally unrelated mothman issue.


I marked the city on the map with an X. It was one of dozens just like it scattered across the paper. We’d been on the road for nearly two years now. Started at our friend Lucy’s place, where Gaston tried to eat her and her roommate Tara’s pet hedgehog. Lucy was the one to suggest we put our “talents” to good use. And Tara gave us our first gig–expelling a poltergeist from her 1990 Mitsubishi Eclipse. It seemed easy enough… but a week later we were covered in ectoplasm and crawling out of a fallout bunker wondering how the heck we lost control of the situation so quickly.


Things never really got any easier. We just got better at removing those pesky ectoplasm stains.


We stumbled from city to city after that. Something about our weird group dynamic seemed to nudge us along, always towards trouble. Maybe there was a divine entity influencing the trajectory, pushing us to where we could do some good. But considering how much damage and despair we always left in our wake, I’m just as likely to believe that whatever force was guiding us had more sinister intentions.


I uncapped the highlighter and started connecting the marks in chronological order, reliving our experiences as each city name jogged another ridiculous memory.


Couch-surfing around the corn belt led us to a race of parasitic squirrel-like creatures that burrowed into human hosts–sometimes as many as five to one person. A couple weeks in the Appalachian Mountains were enough for us to find not one, not two, but three different breeds of troll. And the great lakes are absolutely lousy with merfolk, if you know where to look.


At one point, we ended up looking into a string of disappearances for my old acquaintance Claire (and her sister). That led us to the discovery of an international network of doomsday cultists, only identifiable through their face tattoos and lust for violence. I wish we could say we put a pin in that one, but pretty much everywhere we go, we encounter another tat-cultist seeking revenge for what we did to them.


We also spent some time up north where Rosa’s cousin Bernie had gotten mixed up in a “situation” with a cursed cassette tape that never reached the end no matter how long you fast-forwarded. Evidently, it told people how and when they would die. (But after a little research and experimenting, we discovered it wasn’t prophetic. Just really good at guessing. So, not really our thing.)


I could see the pattern emerging before Rosa ever noticed. It felt strange being one step ahead of her. She’d always been the smart one. Or, at the very least, the most aware. 


Her own struggles nearly derailed our road trip early on. It wasn’t her fault, of course. But the way she absorbed so many non corporeal entities was like an old person with an internet connection, clicking every link they saw and downloading everything they could until their bloatware was duking it out among themselves. At times, when she slept in the back of the van, Jerry and I would hear dozens of voices coming out of her mouth, arguing about whose turn it was to possess the body. So, naturally, we took some time to seek out expert help.


A voodoo priest in New Orleans gave us our first tip. We ran with it all the way to Washington, where a mystic had built a school for gifted youngsters at a peaceful apple orchard. When that place exploded, we followed the breadcrumbs to Minnesota and found an octogenarian who, according to hospital records, had died no less than ten times. Being well-traveled on the other side, he knew a lot more about life than most. He pointed us towards our last best hope before dying one final time.


And that’s how we found Bob. Or, to use his full title, Swami Bob. Swami Bob lived in the Canadian Wilderness just past the border. When we found his hermit shack, initially, he was annoyed. But Rosa’s relentless optimism and Jerry’s ample supply of recreational drugs eventually won him over. He agreed to help us, but warned there would be irreversible consequences. Long story short, the entities we cast out from Rosa needed somewhere to go. And, as luck would have it, they all seemed perfectly content to share the void realm inside of Gaston. Our own little quadrupedal Poke Ball.


“Whatcha doodlin’?” Jerry asked.


I looked up from the paper to see that not only was Jerry awake, but he was drinking coffee. Rosa was eating an omelet. Our food had already shown up and gotten cold while I was entranced by the map.


Rosa explained, “You’ve been at it for almost thirty minutes.”


I looked at the spirals one last time, wondering if there was any other way to interpret my findings. Finally, I said it. “There’s a pattern.”


“Looks like boobs,” Jerry said with a mouth full of bacon.


Rosa gave him an incredulous look. “What? No it doesn’t. Whose boobs have you been looking at?”


“Everyone’s!” Jerry exclaimed.


Our waitress cleared her throat to announce her presence, then said with annoyance, “Your card was declined.”


I sensed a little bit of attitude, but maybe it was just the way she tossed Jerry’s black Amex onto his plate of pancakes.


“Oh,” he said without much of a bother. He fanned out another six credit cards and added, “Here, try these. Just keep going until one works.”


She rolled her eyes, collected his cards, and stormed off just as the music in the jukebox came to an abrupt stop.


But then she froze mid step.


It was uncanny the way she stood there, balanced on one leg. 


I looked back at my table and saw that Rosa and Jerry were also frozen in place. Just like everybody else in the building. Motionless. Unblinking. Unmoving. I looked under the table, and sure enough, even the dog had been afflicted by whatever was making everybody else stay stuck in place.


Expiravitus!” I said.


Nothing.


Trostratus!”


Still nothing.


Manus Capere!”


No dice.


Well, I thought. This might be an excellent time to get some actual work done. I haven't written a blog update in ages. Plus, I still have to write that season finale of Starship Mudskipper for the podcast… Too bad my laptop is all the way out in the van.


In the silence, I could have heard a pin drop. The sound of a wooden chair being pushed out of place on the other side of the room was like a cannon going off. I looked over and saw movement. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one spared. 


There’s an old saying that pops up on the shower thoughts subreddit every month or so. It goes something like this: When you’re afraid of the dark, it isn’t because you’re afraid to be alone in the dark. It’s because you’re afraid to be not alone in the dark.


I don’t care if time freezes for everyone else but me. But hell is other people. And right then, hell was on the other side of the restaurant. He had his back to me. Red and black flannel shirt. Dark brown, curly hair hanging past his broad shoulders. He slowly rose, then turned around and locked eyes with me, like he knew exactly who he was looking for. Then, he smiled.


He was a big guy, but nothing extraordinary. Maybe six two. He was muscular, but not like the warriors we’d encountered before. Just the kind of guy who earned his muscles working hard, day in and out. He had a beard that hadn’t been cleaned up in a while, reaching almost to his shirt collar. Really, there wasn’t anything too special about the guy. He blended in–just like a pit viper. Or a brown recluse.


It felt like it took ages for him to walk around the other tables and finally plop down in the seat opposite me, next to the frozen Rosa.


It felt like it took even longer before I grew annoyed enough with the silence to speak the first word of our conversation.


“What?”


He cocked his head at me. Then, with a smirk, he said, “It’s good to see you again, Jack.”


“You’ll forgive me for not remembering.” I tapped my temple and added, “I got that brain thing. Comes with a dodgy memory.”


“Oh, you don’t know me. Not yet. I just wanted to come by and let you know something else you probably don’t already know.”


“You’ll have to be more specific. There’s a lot I don’t know. Really. You’d be shocked by how much I don’t know.”


He looked down at the map. At the yellow highlighted spirals drawn all over it.


“I think you think something,” he said. “And if you think what I think you think, I’m here to tell you you’re wrong. I think you think you’re supposed to go somewhere. But if you do go there, I’m here to let you know that you’ll never make it. You’ll die a long time before you even get close. Do you understand?”


I looked around the table. No great weapons here. Heck, not even any good or descent weapons, but I usually take what I can get and it’s worked out okay so far.


“I understand two things Mister Time-Freezy man. First, that sounded a lot like a threat. And second, if you only think I’m thinking something, it means you don’t know what I’m thinking. And if you don’t know what I’m thinking then you won’t see this coming.”


I grabbed the salt shaker and flung it at his head as hard as I possibly could.


TONK.


It landed in the palm of his hand.


I couldn’t believe it. For the first time ever, someone caught the thing I threw at their head!


He chuckled, “You were forecasting that pretty hard.”


“Forecast this!” I yelled before jamming my prosthetic metal leg into his crotch. He yowled, then popped out of existence at the same instant sound returned to the restaurant. I felt the buzz of movement all around me. People were alive again. Moving again. As if nothing had ever happened. Just as I suspected, I was the only one with any memory of that blip in time.


“Well?” Jerry prodded.


“Well what?” I asked.


“What’s the pattern?”


I put my highlighter down and gestured for Rosa to answer for me. It would sound less insane coming from her. “The last year or so, our stops have been getting closer together. Forming a circle. A shrinking circle. Narrowing in on a certain place.”


I added, “Like a toilet bowl, flushing us down the drain.”


“Cool,” Jerry said. “Flushing us to where?”


I pointed on the map. At our old town. At where this all began.


Back home.


“I think,” I said hesitantly, “that whatever is guiding us is slowly pulling us closer and closer. I think, soon enough, we’re going back to the gas station.”


This is where a dramatic pause would have fit in nicely, but instead, Rosa quickly added, “That’s our last song on the jukebox. If we’re sticking around much longer, I’ll need to add a few more quarters.”


“Do we have any more quarters?” I asked. “I mean, this is as good a time as any to discuss finances. How’s our bank?”


She dug through her purse, counting coins, then looked up and said, “Well, we’ve only got ten cents left.”


“Oh,” I said.


Jerry leaned forward and asked, “How about the money from the Snake’s Paw podcast? We’ve gotta be making something from that, right?”


After we all finished laughing, Rosa told him to “Get real, would ya?”


“No, but seriously,” Jerry added, “We might be in a tighter pickle than normal. Hey, has anyone seen the salt shaker?”


Rosa asked, “Why do you need salt?”


“I don’t need salt. I wanted to steal the shaker before we left. You know what? Never mind. There’s no time.”


“No time for what?” I asked as Jerry literally pushed me out of my seat.


“None of those debit cards are going to work. They’re all attached to dead or empty accounts. If we don’t want things to get awkward, we need to run. Now.”


“What?!” exclaimed Rosa. “I’m not going to dine and dash. That’s wrong and you know it!”


“OH MY GOD!” Jerry screamed at the top of his lungs. Everybody in the building turned to face us. Despite everything I’d seen, everything I’d gone up against, everything I’d survived… Being put on the spot like that really made me feel vulnerable. “THERE’S A BOMB IN THE PANCAKES!”


A voice from somewhere in the back of the restaurant responded, “Did he say ‘Bomb’?”


Another voice added, “Bomb?!”


Then another, “BOMB!”


Before I knew it, everyone was rushing towards the exit. A chair went through a window. And Jerry threw Rosa–kicking and screaming “Put me down!”–over his shoulder while Gaston bayed in excitement. Jerry looked at me and asked, “What about you?”


“Me? No, I don’t have any hangups about stealing food. Let’s go.”


When we finally got back on the road, Rosa made Jerry pinky-swear he’d mail the restaurant a check for the price of our meal, plus the window, plus at least a twenty-five percent tip just as soon as we came across that kind of money.


The sun was rising by the time we reached the interstate.


Jerry leaned back and asked me the question I’d been dreading. 


“Where to, bud?”









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30 Comments


Guest
17 hours ago

About time, Jack.😇

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Guest
2 days ago

oh shitttt, spencer is back maybe?? hallucination spence???

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Leah Hegen
Leah Hegen
2 days ago

As always, looking forward to reading what's next

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KC286
KC286
4 days ago

"I think, soon enough, we’re going back to the gas station.” It can't be soon enough!!

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mamcculloughphd
mamcculloughphd
6 days ago

As a podcaster the reference to “has the podcast made any money?” Completely slayed me. Welcome back. I still believe Dinky is the poster child for Gaston. Excitedly waiting to see where Scooby & the gang goes from here.

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