The store had been slow all day.
Not since before the toll road bypass had customers filled the aisles of the small convenience store on Highway 277 just north of Sonora. In those days, Nelson had worked for his father, manning the cash register as the old man sat in the back office and leafed through porno mags that always ended up back on the shelf. After the toll road, the old man’s health declined right along with business. Eventually, both he and the customers stopped coming to the store, and soon it was just Nelson sitting behind the counter on a stool with cracked leather padding.
Mornings in the store were quiet, with only one or two locals dropping by to fill up deisel drums for their ancient combines and tractors. Mid-day, Nelson rotated the stock in the coolers, tossing out the milk that had gone more than three weeks past its expiration date. He spent time cleaning the spotless floor, wiping down the untouched glass doors, and rearranging the undisturbed bags of chips. In the afternoon, when the sun was low enough to bounce off the 277’s blacktop, Nelson retreated to the back office to dial-up to the handful of Bulletin Board Systems he frequented. He read news stories, played a few games, and downloaded the latest celebrity nudes, all while keeping a watchful eye on the security cameras.
Evenings were the worst. The front windows turned into an oil painting of a West Texas sunset that filled Nelson with dread. The sizzle on the horizon, the pink hues streaking through the clouds, and smooth, flat desert thrown into sudden relief hinted at a deeper meaning for his life, that its true purpose lay somewhere beyond the gas station and his trailer behind it. But in his heart, he knew there was nothing out there for him and that the sum of his life would play out right there on Highway 277. He’d die in the store or in his trailer. He secretly hoped it would be in the aisles, so his body would at least be discovered before it began to rot.
Nelson stood at the front door and placed his hand on the back of the neon OPEN sign. It was well past nine o’clock, and the odds of anyone else dropping in for a newspaper or bottle of water were too low to keep him in the store. The locals knew to honk if they needed him, and he’d come running out of his trailer. Just as he was pulling the string to turn off the sign, headlights appeared on the highway. A moment of unchecked hope fluttered in Nelson’s chest. Maybe they would turn in. Maybe they’d want to buy a few sixpacks and all the FunYuns they could carry.
“Sedan,” said Nelson, to himself.
Picking out cars at a distance was one of the many games he played to pass the time away. He could only see the headlights and a single fog-light on the left side. The headlights were rectangular and not bordered by LEDs or HID enhancements. The fog light was yellow, having dimmed from its original white. It would soon join its brother.
“Late-model Acura or Toyota. Don’t get many of those around here.”
His fluttering hope took flight as the headlights slowed a hundred yards out from the station. A fast-blinking indicator turned on, and the car took a wide right turn into the parking lot. It made an immediate left and started down the row of charge stations. Bypassing them all, it pulled up alongside the lone gas/diesel pump and stopped. The door opened slightly and a boot hit the evercrete.
Over the glare of the headlights, Nelson couldn’t make out the man sitting behind the steering wheel. It wasn’t until they timed out that he could finally see the profiled shadow speaking to someone in the back seat. The man gestured to the store, shook his head, and climbed out of the car.
Nelson retreated as the man approached the doors, pretended to busy himself at the coffee maker even though he’d already emptied and cleaned it hours ago. A soft, melodic chime announced the door opening, and in stepped a rough-looking man in his mid-thirties, with a week’s worth of beard and hair that looked like it spent most of its time under a hat. His eyes were dark and bloodshot, as if he hadn’t seen sleep in a day or two. When he noticed Nelson, he gave a weak smile and motioned to the coffee pot.
“Got any fresh?”
“Let me fix you a pot special,” said Nelson. “I’ve got Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts blends.”
“Dunkin’, if you please.”
“Size?” asked Nelson, holding up a small and large cup.
“You got a pail?” The man chuckled to himself and held up two fingers. “Two large, please.”
Nelson tore open the packet of Dunkin’ Donuts-brand grounds and set the coffee maker in motion.
“Anything else I can do for you, Raymond?”
“Ray, and yes, I need twenty on pump…” He turned to look for a pump number.
“On the pump,” said Nelson. He walked around to the cash register and started keying in the order. “Don’t get many folks filling up with gasoline these days. Most gassers I know are either junked or retrofitted with electric engines.”
Ray eyed the display of novelty pens on the counter. He picked one up, turned it over, and watched the clothes drain from a pinup’s body.
“It was my Pop’s. He gave it to me when the gas shortage hit.”
“This store was my father’s. He gave it to me when he couldn’t stand the sight of it anymore.” Nelson looked around at the ceiling. “I’m starting to understand how it happened.”
The cash register beeped.
“Two cups of coffee and twenty gallons of Emarat Misr’s finest,” said Nelson. “Is there anything else I can do you for?”
“How are you on meds? Some Aspirin or Aleve?”
“Sleep’s the best remedy for headaches, son. But come on, I’ll show you what I have.”
“Thanks,” said Ray, following Nelson down the aisle by the windows. “It’s not for me though. My wife’s had them pretty constant since she came down with the Bleed.”
Nelson stopped in front of the medical display and looked at Ray’s car. In the backseat, a continuous lump moved–a person writhing under a blanket. He felt around in the MESH for her, but there was nobody there except Ray.
Ray must have seen him concentrating. He nodded to the car. “We were able to buy some blockers across the border before we left. Toronto has a lot of people willing to treat the disease, but none with a cure.”
“Is that what you’ve come all the way down here for? A cure?”
“Something like that,” said Ray, picking up a small tube of Aspirin. “We kept hearing stories about a place in the MZ called Lakon. They said they’re curing the Bleed there.”
Nelson shook his head and shuffled back to the coffee pot. He’d heard the stories too. Lakon. A fountain of youth for those who had lived too long in the MESH. A veil of silence to blot out the incessent chatter.
A honeypot for the desperate.
“You’re not the first people to come looking for Lakon,” said Nelson, pouring out two large cups. He affixed the white, plastic lids, dropped a stirrer into the opening, and took them to the cash register.
Ray joined him and put the tube of Aspirin on the counter.
“That’s not going to do much.” Nelson pushed the medicine aside. He pulled a bottle from the shelf behind him. “Here’s how we treat the Bleed down in Texas.”
“My wife doesn’t drink,” said Ray, examining the bottle of Tequila.
“It’s not for her, son.”
Ray laughed. “I can’t afford–”
“It’s on me,” said Nelson. “I had a nephew who got the Bleed a few years back. My brother never would have made it without Tito.”
“And your nephew?”
Nelson shrugged. “Blew his brains out on his twenty-third birthday. Left a note saying he couldn’t take the voices anymore. Now my brother drinks for a different reason.” He pushed a photo of Trace into the MESH, felt Ray pull it in. “That’s me and him working in this very store when we were younger than you.”
The MESH pulsed, dissolving the photo into another. In his mind’s eye, Nelson saw a dark-haired woman sitting on a dock, her bare legs hanging over the side, her arm wrapped around a blond labrador. The dog was licking her face while she smiled at the camera.
“Melissa, and Gatsby. He’s no longer with us.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Nelson. “He looks like a fine animal.”
Static tore across the MESH, shattering the photo and replacing it with an out-of-focus map of West Texas.
Ray touched his head and looked to the windows. “Sorry about that. Mel can be pretty pushy sometimes. It’s not really her fault.”
“No harm,” said Nelson. “Trace’s boy used to spew profanity night and day. The MESH was downright unusable when he was around. The Bleed doesn’t just infect people, it replaces them with something else. But you want to know the God’s honest truth about it? Those people are still in there.”
“You’ve seen it cured?”
“No. But I’ve heard the same stories you have about Lakon. And maybe they are curing people down there. Maybe they’ve found a way to disinfect the MESH, but I doubt it. What I do know for sure is that people who go looking for it never come back. Once they go in, they don’t come out.”
Ray sighed, let his head fall forward. The MESH took on a bitter, mournful smell.
“We don’t have a choice. It’s killing her, and it’s killing us.”
When his eyes came back up, they glistened in the flourescent light.
“By all means, you have to take care of your own. Like you said, Canada’s only going to treat the symptoms, and Uncle Sam has both thumbs firmly planted up his ass, so it’s really up to you. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I tell people there’s no good reason on Earth to go into the Machine Zone. But if that’s the only place an operation like Lakon can exist, and if you’re willing to give up everything for it, then by all means. Just keep following 277 south. Once it meets up with 377, you don’t stop for nothing. Drive that beater right up to the gates of Lakon and wait for them to open. I don’t want my MESH dream interrupted tonight by a report of a decent couple being torn to shreds by some renegade soldados. Those MX synthetics have no regard for human life.”
“Thank you for the advice,” said Ray. “And for the medicine.” He slipped the flat bottle into his jacket.
“Anytime,” said Nelson. He tapped the cash register’s screen to wake it. “That’s twenty-three even.”
Ray glanced at the cash register momentarily. A green check mark popped up on the screen.
“Thank you for your business, Raymond. I wish you and yours the best of luck.”
The MESH crackled, flashed red. Graphical data flooded the network, overloading Nelson’s vision. Voices with accents he’d never heard in person bubbled up through the white noise, coming from every direction at once. He took an involuntarily step backwards. Amongst the many speakers, a feminine voice whispered across a chasm.
Nelson felt his heart collapse in his chest.
“Dear God, please. HELP ME.”
Ray nodded as if unaware of the disturbance in the MESH.
Nelson watched him trot back to his car and hurriedly get inside. The beater growled unhappily as the engine came to life; its headlights seemed to wink lazily as if waking from a long nap. Ray put the car into gear and spun it around back onto the highway. The taillights flared and disappeared into the Texas night.
The noise lingered. Nelson fought the urge to put his hands to his head. He knew it would do no good.
Gradually, as Ray and his wife got further away, their MESH connection to Nelson disappated into nothing.
The voices quieted, but the echo remained in Nelson’s head.
“God dammit,” said Nelson, striking the counter with his fist. He stared at the pumps outside the store.
The damn fool hadn’t even gassed up.