|AT THE EDGE OF THE UNIVERSE: A FILLING STATION by Mason Yates
Art wandered the candy section of the filling station, trying to keep his head low so that other customers did not have to catch a glimpse of the inky black eye on his face. Though, the real reason for hanging his head was so that he did not have to face the embarrassment of being caught with a black eye. If someone asked about it, he wondered what he would say. He got into a bar fight last night? He tripped and fell down a flight of stairs? No, he didn’t want to come off as being a washed up drunk or a clumsy fool. However, he knew he could not tell anyone the real reason for the dark, swollen eye. He wondered how people would react to hearing that his wife punched him after finding him in bed with another woman. He winced at the thought.
He gave his head a little shake and came out of his thoughts, returning his attention to the sugary substances on the shelves in front of him. On his way to his sister’s house, a place where he could stay until everything in his life calmed down, he decided to pull over at a filling station to buy his nephew a candy bar and a pack of cigarettes for himself. He needed the nicotine, and he guessed buying his sister’s son a candy bar would qualify as an act of appreciation for letting him stay a few nights. He grabbed a Hershey’s bar and looked at it. Who didn’t like Hershey’s?
For a quick moment, he looked around, seeing a few other people wandering the aisles, then stepped away from the candy section and made for the front counter. He hoped he could grab a pack of Pall Malls, pay, and get back to his red pickup truck outside before anyone could question him on his eye. One thing he knew about small town people was that they could be nosy, very nosy. The last thing he wanted was to run into a curious bastard who had to know everything in the universe. With his head low, he approached the counter and started to fish in his pocket for his wallet, telling the cashier he wanted a pack of Pall Malls while he did so.
He hated the thought of returning to a bad habit, but he needed something to calm his nerves. Within the last twenty-four hours, everything had gone to hell in a handbasket.
Before he could bring the wallet out of his pocket, a loud screeching sound caused him to turn his head to the front of the building. He caught a faint glimpse of a large cloud of orange and an assortment of vehicles in the sunlit parking lot, then the windows at the front of the station imploded. Small pieces of glass, as small as individual grains of sugar, flew in every direction, showering everyone inside. For a few milliseconds, he felt the shards cut into his skin and engrain themselves inside him, then a blast of heat pushed him to the ground. A sudden blackness engulfed his vision.
He wiped the dust off his face, then slowly opened his eyes. From his position on the ground, he discovered that the filling station appeared to be normal, as if no explosion had taken place. The windows at the front of store were intact, and the items on the shelves were fully stocked and positioned precisely, almost as if he had walked into a perfectly placed movie set. He glanced at the front counter and noticed nobody on the other side. He swung his head to look down the aisles, expecting to see a person or two, but nobody stood there either. He sighed and returned his focus to the front windows. Looking again, he noticed something different about the outside world. Instead of daylight, he noticed it was dark. But that wasn’t the only thing different. The whole world—the cars, the trees in the distance, the roads leading to the station—had vanished.
He quickly stood up to get a better view. On his feet, he realized nothing existed outside the boundary lines of the filling station. The parking lot and the gas pumps were still there, everything held together by a large slab of concrete. He estimated the concrete island he inhabited was about a hundred yards wide and maybe a hundred and fifty long. Past the concrete, nothing existed but an infinite blackness, a void.
He walked to the front of the station and put his hands on the window, gazing at his surroundings with his jaw hung loose. From the inside of the station, he examined the edge of the concrete island. If he fell off the edge of the island, would he continue to fall forever? He imagined himself descending into an infinite abyss.
He backed away from the window. He couldn’t continue to think about that. The thought ate at his mind.
“Hello?” he said in a raspy voice. “Hello? Anyone here?”
His words bounced off the filling station’s walls. Nobody returned his shouts.
“Dammit,” he cursed and gazed around the inside of the station. Shelves full of food sat motionless in the middle of the store, and refrigerators full of refreshments were positioned by the walls. On one end of the building, he saw a few shelves with small bottles of basic medicine, and on the other end, he saw a few items for vehicles, including a couple jugs of oil and an assortment of tools. By glancing around at what he saw available, he realized he would never go hungry or thirsty on the concrete island, and if for some reason, he couldn’t take the loneliness, he could either swallow a handful of pills or drink a few jugs of oil to end his suffering. He hated to think that way, but given the bizarre situation he found himself in, he could not exclude those options.
He sighed again and returned his ponderings to where exactly he was. He remembered being in a filling station when something—an explosion, he guessed—had ripped through the station and landed him on his ass. He remembered the heat, and he remembered shards of glass sprinkling his skin. Remembering that faint detail, he looked down at his arms and legs. There were no cuts, and he didn’t feel burned by the searing heat he once felt.
Then, a thought: maybe he had been flung into a dream?
He pinched himself. Nothing happened. He shook his head. “Nope,” he said to himself.
He returned to his inner thoughts, searching the labyrinth of his mind for any ideas that could explain the situation he found himself in, but nothing came to the surface. As he mused, he glanced around the interior of the building. Vivid memories of being tossed to the floor accompanied looking around, but no explanation occurred.
But something else did. Outside the filling station, beyond the concrete island, headlights approached.
Art opened the filling station’s glass door and stumbled onto the walkway in front of the store. He did not go any farther. He only wanted to go outside and wait to see what the approaching car had to offer. He watched for a moment as the lights grew closer and closer. The vehicle acted as if it were travelling on a highway in a straight line, but as far as Art could tell, there was no highway, only a deep blackness. Perhaps, he thought, somewhere out there a road could be found, but nothing was within sight of the filling station and the concrete island.
As the lights came onto the island, Art could finally tell what sort of vehicle approached, a small blue BMW with an Indiana license plate. The windows were tinted, blocking his view of the driver, but Art already knew who the car belonged to—his wife. Upon seeing the blue body and the emblem on the hood of the car, he almost collapsed to the ground. A chill raced through his veins, and sweat beaded his forehead. He took a step back, leaning his body against the front windows of the filling station. He eagerly watched as the car parked next to a gas pump. He hoped someone else would step out of the car. He desperately wanted to see his wife again someday, but he didn’t want to see her on the concrete island. He also felt like it was too soon to see her. However, he rethought, maybe she had answers to where they were.
With this new idea on the forefront of his mind, he took a step forward, eager to see if his wife actually stepped out of the car. He gazed at the vehicle, his heart thumping madly in his chest. For the first time since landing on the concrete island, his eye started to throb again. Sweat trickled down his face, and his body produced a strange heat within him. He hated to be held waiting.
“Honey?” he asked in a shout. “Honey, is that you?”
A strange moment of silence passed before the car door opened and his wife stepped out. Her blonde hair fell to her shoulders, and a smile stretched across her face. Another oddity of seeing her was the clothes she wore: sparkling high heels, a tight and short blue dress, and a pair of aviators shielding her eyes, though Art had no idea what she would need to cover her eyes from in the dark expanse.
“What are you doing here, babe?”
“Searching for you,” she responded in that voice he knew and loved. He almost expected his wife to have an alien voice.
“Where am I?” he asked, stepping off the walkway at the front of the building and walking across the concrete island to his wife. She neared him, too.
“You’re in a special place,” she told him, taking off her aviators. Blue-green eyes stared at Art as he neared. “You’re in a place where reality meets the afterlife. A middle point.”
“What happened to me?” he asked. “How did I end up here? I… I was in a… filling station. I… I’m still at a filling station.”
“This,” his wife said, indicating the filling station on the concrete island, “is where you were knocked unconscious and put into a coma. A woman tried to commit suicide by running into the gas pumps. The whole place went up in an explosion. You’re in a hospital now.”
“In a coma?” Art asked in disbelief. “Hospital?”
“You’re lying on a bed, and I’m standing over you, trying to forgive and forget what you did to me.”
“You’re not actually my wife, are you? You’re somebody else. I’m sorry for what I did to her.”
His wife—or a version of his wife—smiled. Her eyes analysed him, searched him up and down for a lie. She gazed into his eyes, piercing him and searching for the truth. Her smile grew wider.
“You’re correct,” she said. “I’m not really her, but I’m a piece of her. A spiritual piece of her that is here with you. Here with the man that cheated on her.”
“It won’t happen again,” he said. He edged closer to her. “I swear it won’t happen again. I regret everything. I regret it. I wish I could take it back. Is this place some sort of purgatory? Am I being detained for my wrongdoings?”
“In a way.” She shrugged and took a step closer to Art. She grabbed his hands. “You need to do the right thing from now on. Your wife loves you.”
“Who are you?” he asked. “I don’t understand. What did you mean when you said, ‘a spiritual piece of her’?”
She stood in front of him in silence for a moment, her smile growing wider and wider with the passing of every second.
“Want to take a ride?” she asked, cocking her head to indicate the BMW. “I’ll take you back to her. You can tell her you’re sorry yourself.”
“Am I leaving this place?” he asked, looking around at the dark void.
“If you want to,” she said. “Unless you need to wait here a little more and think about things. Maybe that’s what you need. Should I come back?”
“No,” Art said immediately. Shaking his head, he repeated, “No.”
“Then get in, Art. We’re going back to the real world. We’re leaving this filling station at the edge of the universe.”
Art did not question anymore. All he wanted was to leave the lonesome concrete island and get back to his wife. He needed to get back to reality and apologize, but he needed to do more than apologize. He needed to make things right. Getting into the blue car, he tried to think of all the ways he would change things, all the ways he would show his wife she was the only one in the universe, the only one for him, the only one he loved.
The spiritual body of his wife started the car. Together, they left the concrete island.
The light blinded him. Thoughts of being in Heaven surged through his mind, then he saw the figures standing over him. His eyes blinked open. The throbbing in his face no longer felt confined to his eye, but instead, his whole face hurt. He felt like a truck had collided with him. For a desperate moment, he wanted to return to the concrete island where pain felt almost non-existent, then the figures over him became visible. On one side of him, a doctor wearing blue clothing. On the other side, his wife. Her blue-green eyes gazed down at him. Her mouth hung open as if in disbelief that he had woken up from his coma. Tears emerged from her eyes and streamed down her cheeks. She laughed, a celebratory laugh it seemed
He felt himself smile.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. He was unable to say anything louder. “I’m so, so sorry.”