Cherry knew should have stopped at that hotel in Fairfield, but the pull of her own home and her own bed had been too strong. Pushing on seemed like a good idea at the time. She’d forgotten how lonely and dark the roads were to Houston.
The gas light flickered on and off. She crested the hill and exhaled. There were lights ahead.
The gas station sat at the intersection of Interstate-45 and a two-lane blacktop that disappeared both ways into the trees. It looked deserted except for a small neon sign that flashed OPEN in the window. Cherry pulled up to a pump and swiped her debit card. Network busy. She turned to signal the attendant but didn’t see anyone at the counter. Were they closed?
She poked her head in the door and called out, “Hello? Is anyone here?”
She crossed her arms and waited at the counter. It was late, but the lights were on and the doors were open. Someone must be here. She tried again, “HELLO!”
Motion on the security monitor caught her eye. A man ran a circle around her car, peering in windows, checking doors. He was barefoot, wearing sweat pants and a plain white t-shirt. Cherry hit the panic button on her keychain. The lights flashed and the alarm blared but no one was around to see or hear. No one… except the stranger.
Cherry snapped the lock shut on the glass doors and prayed they were shatter proof.
The man roared as his fists rained down on the glass. It flexed beneath his blows but held. Cherry covered her ears with both hands to blot out of the sound. She repeated “Oh shit,” as if those two words had just become her new personal mantra.
The whites of the man’s eyes were blood red and tacky tears streaked his cheeks. A brown crust plugged his nostrils. His white shirt was tinged pale pink beneath the armpits and in a streak down his chest.
She felt her away around behind the counter, never taking her eyes off of the man at the door. Her trembling hands picked up the phone and dialed 9-1-1. The line was dead.
“No!” Cherry screamed. She slammed the phone down onto the receiver over and over again. When she stopped the phone was in pieces. It would never work again. She slid down to the floor and cried. She could only hope the doors would hold until someone else came.
* * *
Hours passed but no one came. The fist-falls on the doors continued and bled into the background noise with the electric buzz of the fluorescent lights and the hum of the coolers. Cherry tried to pretend the noise was something else. She was trapped in a storm. It was thunder that rattled the windows and doors of the tiny gas station. Road crews were working outside at repairing the pot holes in the parking lot.
Then it was quiet again.
Cherry thought she heard the sound of another car speeding down the road.
She scrambled to her feet and looked outside. The man was still at the door but his back was turned to her. Headlights cut shadows through the trees and the car blew past the gas station a moment later. The man began running after it. If she timed it right, she might be able to make it to her car. If not… she swallowed and tried not to think about what might happen to her if her timing wasn’t right. She waited until the man disappeared into the trees.
Cherry unlocked the door and ran for her car. She hopped inside, fired up the ignition and peeled out of the parking lot. When she was safely on the highway again she pulled her cell phone off the car charger. No signal. The gas light flickered on and off again.
There would be another gas station up the road. There had to be. She’d call for help there.
She turned on the radio and began scanning channels. She was midway between Dallas and Houston on one of the darkest stretches of roads in the state. There wasn’t much for reception out here and what she did find cut in and out.
… is not a drill. Repeat this is not – krshhhhh – eestone County is under quarantine. Symptoms of hemorrhagic fever inclu – krshhhhhh – highly contagious. Stay away from infected…
She flipped the radio off again. Her head throbbed and the static wasn’t helping.
So was that what was wrong with that guy? Some sort of illness? He had looked sick but he hadn’t acted it.
Cherry glanced into the rearview mirror and back at the road. Thirty seconds passed before she slammed on the brakes and pulled the car to the shoulder. She adjusted the mirror and looked closely at her face. Her nose was bleeding.
The engine sputtered and died.