The needle of the fuel gauge exhaustively twitched above the empty line. Those things always lie, right? Adam wondered. He shuddered from the panic that pulsed through him as he realized the gauge was probably fairly accurate, but he brushed the notion off and kept his attention focused on the road. It had been hours since he’d seen a gas station, so he assumed there must be one not much further ahead. I knew I should have gone back to that one I passed, he bitterly thought, cursing his lack of foresight. There was even another exit you could have taken a mile later. Idiot.
To be fair, he had been rather distracted at the time. Minutes before, he had received a text from his fiancée, Lynn, saying that she wanted to “think things over” and “needed some space.” Because he’d been driving, the message had been relayed via his phone’s AI, and the robotic imitation of a sultry woman’s voice failed to match the tone of Lynn’s words. To make matters worse, Lynn’s phone had a nasty habit of “butt-dialing” the first number listed in its contacts, which just so happened to be Adam, and it resent the message for five consecutive minutes. All the while, the AI read each out loud with its robotic voice that seemed increasingly mocking, as Adam struggled between driving and turning off his phone. By the time he realized he’d driven past the station, he was too emotionally exhausted to interact with another human, and the thought of dealing with the station attendant genuinely repulsed him.
Yeah, but I looked at the gauge, he guiltily admitted now, I knew I was pushing it. Depression’s no excuse, I should have known better. He shook his head and refocused on the road, realizing he’d once again let himself get distracted. He could beat himself up later; right now he needed to concentrate on reaching his destination. Too much depended on him getting this job, and he only had a few hours to get there. “Be here at 8:00 AM Monday, and the job is yours,” he’d been told by his new boss. She’d sounded professionally sincere, yet there was an undeniable hint of joy in her voice, as if she was genuinely happy for him. This only helped to confirm his belief he’d landed his “dream job.” He hated the colloquialism, and vowed to never belittle his writing with such a sophomoric term, but he had to admit that he could think of no better way to describe the position. Years of hard work- and perhaps a year or six of apathy and laziness- were finally about to pay off, and he knew he was lucky he’d managed to accomplish everything he set out to do in life.
Minus getting married, he unpleasantly reminded himself, feeling a surge of heartache swell through his body. He racked his brain for what could have caused Lynn’s change of heart, desperately searching for a moment that might have foreshadowed her sudden betrayal. Oh, come on, he scolded himself, it’s not a ‘betrayal,’ don’t go that far. I’m sure she had her… reasons. But what were those reasons? Was it something he’d done, some unremembered action that crossed the line? Or was the cause on her end, and her severance of the relationship was an act of guilt and/or insanity? Or maybe-
A shudder rippled through the car as the lights flickered, then slowly dimmed as the vehicle finally lost all fuel. “Great,” he muttered, sullenly swearing under his breath while pulling over just before the car died. “Exactly what I wanted to happen. Fantastic.” He sat in the silence of the deceased sedan, unsure if he was angry, sad, scared, or perhaps just imbued with the confusing mix of hunger and the need to defecate. Ultimately, he settled with anger, and suddenly yelled at the car’s console with all the volume and animalistic hostility he could muster, then gave the steering wheel a swift jab, which set off the horn. It was a feeble and pathetic sound, flatulent and fading, and despite the seriousness of the matter, Adam couldn’t help but give an exasperated, bemused chuckle. “Don’t worry, buddy,” he told the car as he opened the driver’s door, “I’ll tell everybody your last words were better than that.”
A gust of cold wind greeted him as he exited, and he wondered if he should remain inside and wait until someone else came along. But it was impossible to foresee how long that could take, and he figured he could walk while he waited. It’s the same road, either way, he reasoned, and if it became too cold, then he’d just jog back to the car and wait there. I gotta try, at least. I’ll lose my mind if I just sit here and think about Lynn. He groaned as he realized he’d now be thinking about her anyway while he walked, but he decided that the inevitable internal monologue over his spousal shortcomings could wait until he’d chosen a direction to walk.
Probably just go the way I was already going, right? he reckoned, squinting as he peered at the horizon ahead. Almost as if to reaffirm his choice, a small but distinct shape of a wooden post was visible off in the distance. “An emergency phone!” he excitedly shouted to his dead car as he noticed the distinct rectangular shape attached to the wooden post. “Oh yes, I’m saved!” If his car had any capability left to show emotion, it chose not to do so as Adam left it behind and walked towards the phone. He was nearly skipping with excitement, grateful and relieved that he wouldn’t have to endure what could have been a potentially lengthy and grueling trek. Some people are just lucky, he smugly thought, and continued towards his target with a mighty pep in his step. Distracted with the comfort of arrogance, he managed to avoid any thoughts of Lynn.
It wasn’t until he was almost fifty yards away from the emergency phone that two things became instantly clear: 1) someone was sitting by the phone, and 2) it wasn’t a phone. BUS STOP was boldly and distinctly displayed on the rectangular sign Adam had mistaken for a phone box, and sat upon the small platform provided as a “chair” was a disheveled and unkempt old man. His beard, while not very long, was scraggly and stained with yellow amongst its grey and white hairs, a yellow mimicked by the broken and jagged teeth that crookedly formed an impish if not charming smile between red, veiny cheeks. He wore a suit of brown tweed, faded and torn in several places, with a cream-colored tie that matched a handkerchief peeking from the front pocket. A sky blue insignia of a water droplet was stitched onto the tie with what Adam assumed to be a very amateur hand, and he suspected the handkerchief bore a similar logo. He debated whether or not he should just head back to the car, as he still wasn’t in the mood to socialize, but that question was quickly rendered moot when the old man noticed him and enthusiastically waved him over.
“Great,” he muttered again, faking a smile as he waved back at the old man, and continued walking towards him. Maybe I’ll get lucky, and this guy’ll buy my soul for a couple gallon of gas, he half-heartedly wished, though given the alternative meant waiting with this elderly stranger for an unspecified amount of time, he didn’t put the idea of agreeing to such an offer out of his mind just yet. For all I know, this dude could literally bore me to death, he considered, thinking of all the excruciating conversations with his grandfather he’d been forced to endure during his youth, or maybe he’s a serial killer, and he‘ll kill me to death! He pushed aside such an absurd idea and kept walking. As he neared the old man, Adam gave him another friendly wave and said, “Hey there! How you doing?”
“Oh, just fine, thanks,” the old man kindly responded, his voice shockingly pleasant despite being very gravelly. “Rather nice day to be outside, don’t ya’ think?” Adam nodded in agreement, albeit a little reluctantly given his reasons for being outside, and when he was finally close enough, he extended a friendly hand towards the stranger. “Nice to meet you, name’s Adam,” he told the old man as they shook hands.
“Sharon,” the old man informed him.
“Ah,” Adam replied, a little taken aback for a moment. He’d always thought of Sharon as a woman’s name, but then he realized that was perhaps an antiquated viewpoint. Hey, I got no right to judge this guy, he reprimanded himself, suddenly feeling guilty for the serial killer thought, too. This guy- or whatever!- is a person, so just treat them like one and be as pleasant as they deserve. Fearing he might have taken too long to properly respond, he suddenly blurted out, “Nice, dude.”
“Uh huh,” Sharon hesitantly agreed, looking rather puzzled.
“Um... do you mind if I join you?” Adam unconfidently asked, anxiously hoping to skip over the sudden awkwardness of the situation.
“Oh, of course not!” Sharon exclaimed, unabashedly delighted by the prospect of having company. “No, not at all. I, uh, I can get up if ya’d like to sit down for a-”
“No, no, you don’t have to do that,” Adam quickly and politely dissuaded him, “that’s perfectly ok. I’m totally fine standing, honestly. If I want to sit, I’ll just sit on the ground.”
“Absolutely, hundred percent.”
“Alright,” Sharon shrugged, confused but clearly not bothered by the refusal. “Whatever you like.” Several moments of cringe-inducing silence went by as Adam stood next to the old man, unsure if he should speak first or wait for the geriatric stranger to say something. The longer he considered the quandary he was in instead of speaking, the longer he was forced to endure the nearly unbearable silence, and he was on the verge of blurting out whatever random thought came to mind, when Sharon suddenly chimed in with, “What brings ya’ here, Adam?”
“Oh man, well, my car broke down, and I had to walk quite a ways-”
“No, no, no,” Sharon interrupted, solemnly shaking his head, “that ain’t what I mean, man. Why ya’ here, why ya’ on this road?”
“Oh! Gotcha, I thought you meant- I guess, um, hmm.” Adam thought about the question for a moment, caught off guard by Sharon’s bluntness, then cleared his throat. “Well, I got a pretty important interview for a position writing for this magazine, and it’s basically my dream job, so I’m headed to their headquarters to meet up with their editor, and get interviewed and integrated into the system and all that.” He gulped, realizing he’d suddenly begun speaking much too fast. “And of course- wouldn’t you know it?- my car just has to run out of gas. My fault, though, I knew I should’ve filled up earlier when I had the chance.”
“Mmm, ‘bsolutely should have,” Sharon muttered, shaking his head.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. I was a bit distracted, though, so I guess I can't be completely blamed.”
“Hmph. That ain’t how life works.”
Adam looked at the old man with the skepticism befitting of a younger man speaking to his elders. “What do you mean?” he snorted.
“Guilt ain’t something ya’ can divvy out in different portions; ya’ either completely guilty of the action, or ya’ completely innocent of it. One or the other. Ya’ said it yaself, ya’ knew ya’ should have filled the tank, and then ya’ didn’t do it. The car would eventually run outta gas, ya’ knew that, too. And ya’ let it anyway. Sounds like ya’ know exactly who to blame.”
Adam stared at Sharon, studying the unknown man with a look of petulant curiosity, yet the intensity of the wisdom in the tired blue eyes that stared back bore into him and humbled him. Unable to find a retort, he settled for staring at the ground at his feet. Silence rang out once more, but several moments later a curious concern overcame him, and he asked the old man, “What time does the bus come?”
Sharon pondered the question with the utmost sincerity. “Hmm,” he finally uttered, several seconds later, still seemingly in deep thought, “I’m not really sure. Could be a while yet still. It’s coming, though. It’s coming.”
“Oh,” Adam sighed, his shoulders sinking at the prospect of waiting a long time. “Well, how long have you been waiting?” he asked undecidedly, nervous to hear the old man’s answer. Again, Sharon considered the query with full seriousness, before finally saying, “S’been a while. A long while. Not really sure of that either, to tell ya’. All I know is… it’s been a while.”
Adam wasn’t sure why, but there was something in Sharon’s tone that sent a chill down his spine. He studied the old man again, and looked at all the minor details he hadn’t noticed earlier. The right shoulder of Sharon’s suit had the crusted remains of bird feces. His fingernails were long, pointed and cracked, and also complemented the yellow of his teeth and beard. And a small patch of moss was growing on the toe of each of his worn boots. Adam shivered as another chill slid down his spine, suddenly quite unnerved by Sharon and the bus stop. Everything in his being told him that although he wasn’t in any immediate danger, this bus stop just wasn’t the place for him to be.
“I think,” Adam started as he slowly stood, not entirely sure how his sentence would end. Sharon slowly turned to him with indifferent anticipation. Adam gulped, and finished with, “I think I’m gonna keep walking. Try to get to a town or something, I don’t know. Hitch a ride if I can, I guess. Just… I think it’s just better if I keep going, you know?”
“Ya’ sure?” Sharon asked with apparent empathy. “That bus, it’ll be here. It might be a while, but it’ll be here. It’s coming.”
“Yeah,” Adam agreed reassuringly, “it absolutely is. It’s just- I don’t know, I feel like walking, I guess. I like walking, you know? Good time to think, feel nature. All that jazz.”
“Alright,” Sharon shrugged, eerily echoing his earlier behavior. “Whatever you like.” Without another word to Adam, Sharon stared ahead at the road, his expression one of a sentinel statue, and Adam continued his trek down the road. He looked back only once, hoping he might get a friendly wave from the old man, but he was unsurprised to see Sharon stoically maintaining his vigil. Hope that bus comes soon, buddy, he thought as he turned around and resumed walking.
As he walked, Adam thought of everything that had led to that moment. The times in his life when he’d been guilty, or when he’d been innocent. Lynn, and the endless list of possibilities hiding in that topic. And although he’d decided to dedicate the walk to contemplation rather than solving anything, he did manage to reach one solution: Lynn asked for space, so give her space. In fact, he chided himself, don’t even think of it as ‘giving’ her her space; it’s already her’s. Just don’t invade it, dude. If she takes you back, awesome. If not… I just hope she’s happy. Only moments later, he heard the unmistakable sound of an approaching car, thankfully heading in the same direction as him. He extended his thumb and hopefully attempted to flag the driver down.
Yes! he happily thought as the car slowed down and pulled over to the side of the road. Finally a lucky break. He eagerly jogged to the car and opened the front passenger seat with a grateful sigh. “Thank you so much,” he breathily told the driver as he entered, who only nodded in response without looking at Adam, and resumed driving the moment Adam had closed his door. “Wasn’t sure anyone was ever going to come,” he nervously finished, a little uncomfortable by the driver’s continuous staring at the road.
“Someone always comes along, eventually,” the driver flatly stated, still without looking at Adam.
“Uh, yeah, I guess,” Adam responded, still bewildered. After a few moments, he asked, “Do you know if the bus came for that old man yet?”
“Bus?” the driver asked, the confusion on his face quite clear despite still not looking at him.
For a moment, Adam considered clarifying he was speaking about Sharon. It was possible that this man could provide some sort of insight into the odd interaction, or would at the very least find the whole affair to be a rather amusing anecdote. But something inside Adam- some innate instinct or perhaps even a loosened pebble of an ascended wisdom- told him not to say anything about the matter, either to the driver or anyone else. That conversation had been for him and Sharon, and maybe even just for him alone. It was his to ponder, to digest and deconstruct, and his task to discover whatever elusive meaning or message that may or may not have been laid in the words said. Had he been in the car with him, he was sure Sharon would’ve agreed.
“Never mind,” Adam said to the driver, casually waving away his earlier question. “Doesn’t matter.” The driver shrugged and didn’t respond. As he continued to drive, the two of them stared ahead in complete silence, never once looking at each other, all the while thinking about what awaited them at the end of road.