Black highway snaking through an empty desert, star-studded midnight sky overhead, reflecting on the polished blacktop. Constellations dot to dot across the shiny old road, here and there disturbed by the central glint of refracting cat’s eyes, forming new and curious imaginary beasts on the black surface, the earth’s alteration of the heavens’ map.
All around blocky sandstone buttes loom from the darkness, like giant gardeners tending to the strip of alien stone set through their territory. Somewhere, perhaps on the peaks of the gloomed out outcroppings, a wolf howls into the night.
Image from artbypavel.
Alongside the road squats an old petrol station, with signs and pumps all tipped over and enmeshed in some curious spiders web of 20th century found object art, blending with golden arches and petrol slick and plastic chip bags rustling their Lays song throughout the night. An old man in frayed denim dungarees kneels at the side of the road, spray can of WD40 from the old store in his left hand, a ragged clump of wire wool spun through with blood and lacerated skin in his right hand. He looks up as the wolf’s howl reaches him.
Standing, he sets the spray can down, and shakes as much wool from his hand as will come. Walks alongside the highway for a few yards, until he reaches a poorly constructed wooden watchtower stacked up around a sign with an enormous yellow shell on top. He climbs up the creaking aluminum step ladder, peers out over the desert, back along the swaying umbilicus of road, towards the red haze of city.
There’s a figure on the horizon.
“Dammit!” whispers the old man, and shakes his left foot vigorously in the air. Then settles down in the watchtower and waits for the figure to arrive, shotgun crooked across his lap. Every now and then he glances down protectively at the polished section of the road, a stretch some 20 yards long and shining like a beacon with the starlight.
It’s a young man. He’s hunched over, head bowed to the ground. Tired, thinks the old man. He wonders at how far he’s walked. 20 miles to the city, maybe, he thinks. 20 miles, on tarmac, at night. Wearing those fleabitten black clothes, rags really, the cloth bundled up around him like a mummy, alone for hours on this windy plain. Poor kid, he thinks. Raises the shotgun to his shoulder, sights down it’s length as the young man approaches.
“You better stop walking there, son!” he yells out to the young man when he’s within range. The figure’s head looks up slowly, fixes immediately on the old man in the makeshift watch tower.
“Leave me alone,” he says in a dead monotone and walks on, head lowered.
“I’ve got a shotgun pointing right at your head. Time to stop and talk.”
The young man walks on, says nothing. The old man is confused, this is not what happens. This never happened before. He’s never had to actually fire the gun before. He’s not sure it works anymore. He takes careful aim near the boys feet, nervous, not sure he’s doing the right thing, then pulls the trigger.
There’s a huge boom, and the old man’s body is kicked back and he crashes against the rail around his shaky crows-nest, feels it crack and give behind him, then topples from the platform. His body lands in a cloud of dry dust, a thump, a groan.
“Dammit,” he gasps, struggles to lift himself, but fails and slumps back to the ground.
A face appears across the sky, blocking out the stars. The young man, his hair long and curling round his cheeks as he peers down, white like falling snow.
“Why did you shoot at me?” he asks slowly, voice rusty.
The old man coughs as he tries to speak, clear his throat.
“I warned you,” he says.
“Yes, you did.”
Then the young man sits down by his side, takes off the cowl wrapped around his head, revealing a scalp of long bone white hair.
“I see you have a section of road to guard,” he adds.
“Swore to sponsor it, I did,” says the old man.
“I don’t see your name on the signs.”
“It’s there, it is. See the big shell? That’s my coat of arms, this is my ancestral land.”
“Yes, been in the family for generations. Always has been. Always just been like that.”
“Oh,” says the young man again, reaching out for the fallen shotgun, resting it across his knees.
The old man tries to struggle up, but his back fails him. His head is buzzing insistently, and he wonders if he’s broken his spine. Eyes flicker to the shotgun resting in the young man’s lap.
“Promise me you won’t harm my children,” he says.
“You have children?” asks the white haired young man. “I doubt it, father. Not here, in the desert. How would you keep them?”
“I farm!” exclaims the older man.
“Oh? You farm the desert?” asks the young man.
“No, of course not. Only a fool would attempt that!”
“Everyone knows that nothing will grow in the sand.”
“Everyone knows that.”
The old man coughs.
“I farm the road,” he says.
“Yes. The stars.”
“The night can be generous, if you know how to seed her. If you know how to protect her. You’ll see. If it wasn’t for me, all this wouldn’t be here,” he says, and swings his arms around his head wildly.
The young man sighs.
“I have no desire to hurt you, farmer. Perhaps I should fetch your children, so they can be with you.”
“Yes, yes,” says the old man eagerly. “Please, do that. But don’t hurt them.”
“Of course,” says the young man, and rises, shotgun still in hand. He wanders from the fallen man by the shell sign, beside the polished black of the road, over to the building tucked away under the station’s spreading canopy, swaddled by the web of signs and pump hoses and detritus.
The store front lies before him, the door a buckled metal frame with only a few shards of glass left. He attempts to push it open, but the metal only bends a little and doesn’t budge. He kicks at it, but it only seems to wedge harder against the ground. So he kneels, and peers through the lower portion, into the deep gloom inside.
“Hello,” he calls out, his voice resonant. A faint echo bounces back to him.
“Is there anyone in here?”
No answer. He pushes the few spikes of glass in the door to the ground, and crawls through, into the darkness. Somewhere far behind he can hear the old man yelling about his children, not to hurt his children.
There’s a smell of must, and the floor is sandy beneath him. He gets to his feet, reaches out and grips the shadow of a shelving unit, runs his hands along its length, walks alongside it into the store.
Smell of age, decay, the acid of stale urine.
Turning at the end of the aisle he spots the flicker of a candle in a corner, behind what he presumes to be the counter. He pads over to it, stepping over piles of stacked metal tins, the fallen register, still chained to the desk, and comes to a tiny nub of candle wick, burning down into a shallow pool of white wax in a rusted metal dish.
To his right, in the wavering half-light, he sees two small skeletons lying side by side, on a half-inflated air mattress cramped in the shallow floor space behind the counter. One has a blonde wig of long hair dumped across it’s face, the other a portion of fuzzy black carpet leaning against the skull-top, approximating a hair-line. Both have thick black smudge marks around the jaws, oily dust caking over the teeth and cheek-bones.
The young man nods, as if in recognition, then turns to the candle and extinguishes it with a pinch of his fingers. Then he stands, takes a long final look around the darkened room, brushes a hand along the counter, feels the rough texture of mottled plastic, and leaves the store.
“Help!” the old man is calling weakly. The youth walks over to him, notes the bloodied hand, the threads of metal woven into the palm. Notes the black smudges at his mouth, the worn patches at his knees, the pale skin. Notes the red patch beneath his head, spreading into the golden sand, carrying motes of dust with it like mushrooms in a lava flow.
“Help,” he says weakly as the youth’s shadow falls across him.
“My children, you didn’t hurt them?”
“No, I didn’t”
“They’re afraid for me. They don’t know where I am, why didn’t you bring them to me.”
The young man looks down on his face, the knowledge of such things heavy upon him. He flips open the shotgun barrel, looks into the chambers. One shot left.
“They were sleeping,” he says. “I didn’t want to wake them.”
“Oh. Well, that’s good. Just be sure to sew on the hardest places of the road only at midnight.”
“The seeds. That is when they are at their brightest, but they will only appear for you if the road is well tilled. Then they must be plowed in, polished into the smoothness. Only then will there be enough food for the three of us.”
“You’ll only see them at night, if you smooth out the road to perfection.”
The young man pauses, thinking. Sights down the shotgun, finger reaching to the trigger.
“You mean the stars?” he asks, but the old man is no longer listening, his eyes begin to focus wildly, on the sky, the youth’s face, his clothing, the shotgun.
“You must be the father now,” he says.
“You wear such strange clothes,” he says.
“Your hair is so white,” he says.
“You must feed the children now,” he says.
“I will,” says the young man, “I promise.”
“I trust you. You’re a good man,” says the old man, his blackened bloody hand sewn through with strands of wire patting out at the youth’s knee.
“You will be the farmer.”
The young man stands, and points the end of the shotgun at the old man’s face.
“Thank-you,” says the old farmer.
He pulls the trigger.
The spent shell ejects and drops to the ground by his feet. He kneels, retrieves a few shotgun shells from the dead man’s pockets, drops them into his own, and walks away.
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