An Empty Highway | Josh Walker

            “Three weeks and people are already at each other’s throats. I mean, Stanley, can you believe it?”

            “Shocking, Mrs. Martha.”

            The middle aged convenience store owner smiled out the corner of her mouth. “We can thank Deliverance for keeping the city folk too scared to wander up this way.”

            Her husband, Jeffrey Sullivan, yelled from the back of the store, “Just gotta keep the young uns well-schooled in banjo-picking!”

            “Right, right,” Martha agreed. She leaned forward onto the counter. “That’ll be sixteen fifty-two.”

            Stan pulled a twenty from out of his wallet and handed it to Martha. “Wonder how long this will last.”

            “What?” Martha said while flipping through the change in her register.

            “How long we can count on using the dollar.”

            She handed over his change nervously. “Jesus Christ, I hadn’t thought about that.”

            “Martha!”

            “Dammit, Jeffrey, I know I shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain, but I hadn’t considered the thought before. So, could you just not chastise me now, husband!” She paused and glared into Stan’s eyes with old gray marbles. “How’re we gonna get around that?”
            Stanley often thought out loud, but he sometimes forgot that about the impact on other folks around him. In this instance, he felt that his concern need not be shared by Martha. Nobody really knew what was going to happen. So, he formulated a remark meant to qualify his concern. “Barter system, at least until we figure out another currency. But for the time being, we’ve got lots of American dollars in circulation, right?”

            She nodded.

            “Don’t worry about it, Mrs. Martha.”

            “Oh, don’t mention it, sonny. It’s just changing times are more jarring to the elderly.”

            Stan chuckled. “Now, I know you’re just fishin’ for a compliment, but I’ll bite anyway. You’re still pretty as a picture, Mrs. Martha. Oozing in youthful vigor, which I’m sure Mr. Jeffrey will attest to.”

            “Mr. Jeffrey!”

            “Oh, yes, of course, darling,” he remarked as he walked back from the beer cooler.

            “What I’m really worried about, though, I haven’t yet mentioned…” Stan began.

            “Now, don’t you start going down that road again, Stanley.”

            “It’s just that I’m worried about the gas supply. I can’t work my farm without my tractor. It’s too much.” This worry was something that he felt Martha and Jeffrey should have on their mind. And yet, by their reaction, Stanley felt as if it was the silliest worry he could have had.

            She gave a sigh of relief. “Don’t you worry about that, sonny. Lily Anne makes weekly runs in the old tanker.”

            Stan was taken aback. “What tanker? And how does she go about these roads nowadays? I saw cities on fire and highways barricaded by bands of outlaws before the TV went black. You can’t tell me that a tanker isn’t a target, and when did y’all start carryin’ your own loads?”

            “Well, we stopped getting offers from corporate. If we wanna keep selling gas, we gotta get it here ourselves. So, we bought a four-thousand-gallon tanker truck and Lily Anne’s been driving it now for six weeks or so.”

            “But you gotta get a license or something to drive one of those things!”

            Jeffrey laughed heartily along with his wife. “Son, who the hell’s doing the licensing anymore. There ain’t no government. There ain’t nothing but a bunch of businesses trying to hold onto what they got for dear life in this anarchic hellfire we call America.”

            “And you let Lily Anne make the runs?”

            “Well, if you’re so worried, why don’t you go along with her. She might like the company,” Jeffery remarked with a sarcastic grin.

            Martha chuckled. “Our Lily Anne?”

            “She keeps a gun I assume?” Stan continued on the inquiry.

            Jeffrey nodded. “Wouldn’t let’er go without one.”

            Stanley breathed in deeply and let it out. There wasn’t any particular reason why Stan should feel any obligation towards Lily Anne. She was always an ornery girl. Hell, they never really got along in school. She was much more inclined to bear her claws than give a friendly ear, but Martha and Jeffrey were awfully nonchalant about sending their only daughter out to a terminal to bring a tank full of gas back to the station with chaos breaking out all around them.

Why Stan suddenly felt protective of Lily Anne was a mystery, but he felt compelled to see his conviction through. “Lordy Lord, I don’t think I’ll rest easy knowing that she’ll be taking the trip on her own.”

            “Well, we ain’t got money to pay you for anything. Like we said, she can handle herself.”

            Stan shook his head. “I know what you said, but there’s not many of us here in Myer’s Creek. I gotta go. If we ain’t got each other, what have we got?”

            “That’s a good chivalrous lad, but it still wouldn’t feel right putting you out of a day’s work on the farm.”

            “Aw,” Stan shrugged away the thought. “My worthless brother’s always leaving me for a weekend in Johnson City. He’ll either step up, or I’ll knock him around silly.”

            “Such loving siblings, you two are,” Martha remarked drolly.

            “We are, Martha, don’t you worry about that.”

            “Well, we’ll let Lily Anne know that she’ll have some company, I suppose. Meet her at the house at eight in the morning. She ain’t a morning person, so don’t expect a warm welcome.”

            “Never have, Mr. Jeffrey.”

            “That’s a good lad,” he said with an easy smile.

            Stan rapped his knuckles against the counter and headed out the glass door with a twice dinging bell and a smile on his face. “Bye Mrs. Martha, Mr. Jeffrey!”

***

            The next morning after dragging his brother out of bed, he made his way down the mountain across dirt and asphalt until he pulled around the back of the Sullivan Ranch to the barn and the tanker in question. He jumped out of his pickup and looked around for Lily Anne, but didn’t catch any sight of her. Where could she be? It was an open field surrounding the homestead aside from the barn and the few vehicles. The thick mountain woods were hundreds of yards away and the tanker was still there, so she hadn’t gone off without him. So, Stan decided that she must still be inside and took the opportunity to inspect the vehicle.

            The tanker was an old model they probably got on discount from West Virginia. Stan didn’t know that for sure, but he’d heard about independent truckers headed to West Virginia to get discounted rigs and this was probably from the twenty-thirties or so. Still, it was in good shape. The white paint was shining. The chrome-work had a happy glint. Lily Anne had always been a shop girl, tinkering around with her father’s early two thousands Mustang when she was a teenager. That was her baby, and she kept it in good condition.

Speaking of the devil. Stanley wondered. Where could she be?

            And like an answer to a prayer, she appeared. “Hello Stan,” Lily Anne greeted while stepping out from behind the barn. Her voice was just about like he remembered, bitter and sarcastic, but a decent enough tone otherwise. “Don’t know why you’re looking at me all surprised. You were waiting for me.”

            Stan did an about face, summoning a picture of Lily Anne from the past. It was a picture of her in tight blue jeans tucked into cowboy boots with a white tank top and a condescending smirk across her face while she stood outside the sheet metal gymnasium. His picture fit easily into that which awaited his gaze, except she wore a flannel shirt beneath a thick brown coat and had a shotgun against her hip, but otherwise, she was very much the same.

            “Well, it’s been a long time Lily Anne.” He kept his eyes well regulated, but he couldn’t stave away his initial reaction to seeing her again. She wasn’t unattractive. In fact, a little spit and polish might have her shining like a movie star. She was certifiably shapely with cold blue eyes, and curly dark hair that she kept short and boyish. Her face was round, but not fat, actually giving her a gentle look. That is, if it weren’t for her near constant grimace.

            Whatever Stan’s reluctant excitement over their reunion, she did not reciprocate. Instead, she stood statuesque in irritation.

Oh, then you’re glad it’s been a long time. Stan felt confident in his assumption. “So, you’d rather not have me tagging along?”

            Silence.

            “I can go if you don’t want me here.”

            “Why do you wanna come along? I mean, whatcha expect to happen?” Lily’s tone was first distant, then accusatory.

            Stan shook his head, a bit frustrated. “I don’t know what you’re trying to insinuate, Lily Anne.”

            “I’ve made this run for six weeks straight now. I don’t need you, and yet you insist on coming along because you’re worried about me? I don’t buy it.”

            “I am worried about you, Lily Anne. I don’t wanna go to your folks’ station and hear about their daughter being abducted by bandits along the highway.”

            “I’m just headed to Knoxville, Stan. It’s hardly a two-hour drive.”

            “And you’re riding with a shotgun in the passenger seat.”

            “Because my daddy won’t let me go without it!”

            “Nah ma’am. I think you do what you wanna do.”

            She rolled her eyes and threw her hip in the other direction.

            “What’s the problem, Lily Anne? I just wanna tag along and make sure that everything’s all right. If there ain’t no problem, then this’ll be the last time.”

            “And what if you think it is too dangerous for a helpless damsel like me? You’ll start cozying up to me every Friday that I make my gas run.”

            “Jesus woman,” Stanley scoffed. “There are a dozen girls in this town that would jump at the chance to spend time with me.”

            “There ain’t but six girls around here even worth spending time with.”

            “Sure, but the point remains. There are other fish in the sea, and I sure as hell could find two or three fish prettier, kinder, and far more hospitable that I’d prefer to spend my days with.” He huffed and mirrored her stance by sticking his hand against his hip. “Why the hell try to assume my motives? And you wanna know something… It ain’t even about you. It’s about this town. I don’t wanna see it gone, none of it, and you’re part of it.”

            She didn’t say anything in response. She just stomped off back around the barn and towards the tanker.

            “Where the hell’re you going, Lily Anne?” Stanley yelled as he chased after her.

            “I don’t got time for this. Are you coming or aren’t ya?”

            “Hell yes I’m coming!” He affirmed, tempted only a little to slap her behind as he got beside her. He was a well-regulated sort of fellow. So, it wasn’t a surprise that he was able to keep himself from pestering her. The shotgun was also a fine deterrent.

            Stan reached up to the handle on the passenger door and then pulled himself inside.

            Lily Anne tossed the shotgun his way.

            “Jesus, Lily Anne!”

            “What?” she remarked with a grin. “The safety’s on.”

            “How about we set a rule from now on? No throwing guns at each other. You could have caused a misfire, and I don’t think Martha would approve of you blowing a hole in the roof of the cabin.”

            “You done whining?”

            “You know you make it rather difficult for a man to admire you.”

            “It’s a gift.”

            Stan checked the gun. It was a pump shotgun with an internal magazine with a capacity of… eight rounds. There was another eight carried in the stock for quick reloading and a box of shells in the floorboard. “I guess I’m riding shotgun.”

            Lily Anne had just started up the engine, which well accompanied her look of utter disgust that she threw Stan’s way.

            “We’re like uh… you know, those carriage drivers out in the Old West. You’re the driver and I’m…”

            She turned back and began to maneuver the truck around to head out the driveway, her face drawn up in that soft annoyance that defines determined disregard.

            “Only they probably didn’t let women drive carriages back in those days, them being the weaker sex and all.”

            She just kept on paying Stan little attention.

            “Back then, I suppose you’d have been either married off or working in some brothel where miners would’ve paid you a dime for a night of passion.” He bit his lip and considered the life of a cowboy prostitute. He didn’t do much of hypothesizing about that particular topic in normal circumstances, but these weren’t normal circumstances. “You’d have had to find some happiness somewhere to keep going. It was either find comfort in the arms of a fat, drunk, forgotten son of Pennsylvania or live life miserable.”

            She put the truck into park at the end of the drive and pulled a pistol from her thigh.

            “This is gonna be an exceedingly difficult journey if you keep pulling guns on me. Besides,” he said flipping the barrel of his shotgun her way. “Mine’s bigger.”

            The corners of her mouth twitched and Stan knew the meaning.

            “You liked that one. You wanna laugh, but you can’t because we’re in a standoff. Wouldn’t it be better if we weren’t in a standoff?”

            She holstered her pistol along her thigh and turned away to hide her face.

            “I’m just trying to get you to talk.”

            “Well you sound like a pig.”

            “I wanted you to respond. I didn’t expect you to draw a pistol on me.”

            “That shotgun still pointed at me?”

            “Oh, my bad, but the safety’s still on, so…”

            She pulled out onto Highway 107, the big gas tank towing behind, tall Appalachian forests crowding around the vehicle. “So, you’re really coming along because you’re worried about me making the trip by myself?”

            Stan was really having trouble keeping up. “Yep.”

            “You don’t even know me, so you’ll have to forgive me for assuming your motive and for pulling my pistol on you.”

            “I was being a bit of a pig.”

            She cut her eyes at him.

            He held up a pointed finger. “But a pig with a purpose. We can’t be on the road for two hours in silence.”

            “I just don’t know why you care.”

            “Because I do. I know your parents, and it just struck me that the world’s become a dangerous place all of a sudden. It didn’t seem right for you to be hauling gas to your family’s station alone.”

            “Yeah, they’ve always liked you, God knows why.”

            “Right, why would anybody like me?” Stan responded sarcastically.

            “My point exactly,” Lily Anne riposted. “But, they’ve always had crazy plans, you probably don’t know about. So, when they said you wanted to go along, I thought you’d gotten into an arrangement together.”

            “What the hell are you talking about?” Stan asked while the tanker buzzed through the east Tennessee mountainside.

            She glanced his way curiously. “Oh, well good, then they didn’t sell me off as a bride.”

            “Lord, Lily Anne! What?”

            “And you know that would have been preposterous until recently when…” she chuckled at the thought of something.

            “What? Come on now, what?”

            “I don’t want to be rude,” Lily Anne said with a mischievous smile creeping onto her face.

            “I’m sure.”

            “Well, until Savannah left for Boulder with Travis instead of you.” She burst into laughter as a bewildered Stan stopped to ponder why it was that Lily Anne found his misfortune so amusing.

            “Do you hate me, Lily Anne?”

            “God, Stanley, don’t be so dramatic. I just…”

            “You just can’t stop laughing. Try not to veer off the road.”

            “I don’t mean to be mean. It’s just funny. Savannah, the little queen of Myer’s Creek High, flees from her perfect boyfriend to run off with the joint smoking, guitar playing Travis to presumably smoke weed and have drunken West Coast orgies in Colorado.”

            Now, it was Stan’s turn to sit in silence.

            “Oh come on now, don’t be like that. I was only joking. I’m sure she misses you. I’m sure of it.”

            “I’m not.”

            “And nobody would fault you a second for hating her.”

            “I don’t.”

            “You don’t?” Lily Anne glanced away from the road and showed a look of actual concern towards Stanley. “Well, nobody would blame you if you did.”

            “I don’t think she ever really knew who she was, and she went off to find herself somewhere else. Some folks can play their parts really well, until they can’t anymore.”

            Lily Anne kept her eyes on the road, but didn’t lose her suddenly gentle demeanor. “For what it’s worth, I never liked her.”

            “You never liked anyone.”

            “But her especially. You know, she was the queen for a reason. Every piece of gossip went her way, and if it got her stamp of approval, it became part of the class’ collective conscience.” She frowned. “I assume you heard about me and Johnny and Ben Anderson.”

            “No.”

            “Bullshit.”

            “No, I really didn’t hear about it.”

            “No, no. I mean me and the Anderson brothers were just friends, and little miss perfect… Well, she made it out that… Why did you ever even date her?”

            Stan pursed his lips. “She was always sweet to me, and she was beautiful.”

            “Stunning,” Lily Anne added spitefully.

            “It’s easy to ignore the things you don’t want to believe about someone.”

            “Yeah.”

            The conversation stilled, and the beauty of the rolling mountains of puffy tree-covered woods filled the void. A few minutes passed before Lily Anne put on a country record Stan had never heard. The miles blurred and eventually the county roads turned to state roads and they were on what other folk would recognize as a proper highway.

            “So, what’s actually out here these days?” Stan broke the silence.

            “Cars, trucks, the usual.”

            “I mean have you run into any trouble?”

            “Once or twice, I was followed by a couple of trucks, but they scattered once I got close to the terminal.

            “Hm. They got hired guns out at the terminal?”

            Lily Anne nodded. “Yep. Probably two dozen or so walking the property. We’ll pull in and some guy with a clipboard will approach and ask us how much gas we want and how we’re gonna pay. I’ll hand them over an envelope of cash, and they’ll pull out the tanker to gas up.”

            “So, most of the time, the trips go without a hitch?”

            She nodded. “Yeah. It’s not easy to steal gas from a tanker on the move, and the streets aren’t as crowded as they once were. So, a lot of the bandits that were out here when everything was shutting down have gone back home to terrorize their own people.”

            Stan caught sight of a pickup truck pulling up fast to their side. “What about them?” he asked softly.

            “Just make sure they catch sight of the shotgun. They won’t mess with us.”

            Stan nodded back and lifted the gun up. He shot a cold stare to the pair of hooligans beside them, shaggy blond heads glinting in the morning sun. They sped past and left Lily Anne and Stanley in a cloud of their exhaust.

            “Usually it’s like that. Most folk aren’t willing to tango with people that can defend themselves, and the truth is that they aren’t after the gas. They’re after money, which we’ve got. I don’t get bothered on my way back. They’re not looking to steal gas, but they know that everybody’s traveling with lots of money since the banks stopped running and nobody can use credit cards anymore.”

            “You said the terminal accepts different kinds of payment. What else are people paying with?”

            “Gold, silver, platinum, basically any kind of precious metal. They’ve got a scale that translates the international metal market price per pound into dollars. So, a lot of folks have started going that route. I don’t know what else they’ll accept.” She glanced over Stan’s way. “Why are you so interested?”

            “Hm…” Stan was preoccupied looking ahead. The roads rolled on and on and they were alone. It was odd to think that they were the only ones on the highway. Surely, this happened for a reason. Surely, something was forcing all the cars from the highway.

            “Stan! You were pretty damn adamant you wanted to talk, but then you go all quiet on me.”

            “No, sorry. Um… Ah yes, the currency thing. I was just talking to your mom about what we’ll have to do when dollars aren’t circulating no more. I mean what are they even backed by now? I honestly don’t know what’s still functioning ever since that bomb was set off in Washington. It is certainly an important consequence of… the fall of civil society.”

            She nodded. “Yes, it was such a civil society, a great public arena of gossip and reputational warfare we took to calling politics.”

            “God, Lily Anne, that was quite eloquent!”

            “Thanks Stan. I read it in the Knoxville Sentinel, thought it was a clever description.” She lifted up her head as if trying to look over something. “What’s that up there in the road?”

            Stan pushed himself up with his legs trying to glance over the crest of the hill, but whatever was laid out across the highway was a long way away. Little by little, however, it became clear. “I think it’s a line of cars.”

            “But, there’s a lane open, isn’t there?”

            Stan nodded squinting to confirm her observation. “Yeah, looks like.”

            And so it was a line of cars uninhabited and strewn out across the street blocking all but one lane. When they were five hundred yards or so away, Lily Anne moved into the center unblocked lane, but just then, a truck drove out to block the center lane, the truck that had previously passed them.

            Lily Anne chuckled. “I’ll just plow through em,’ They’ll move or they’ll get squashed.”

            “And we could wreck too, Lily!” Stan yelped as he took the safety off the shotgun and chambered a shell. He opened the window and leaned out of the car. He felt the wind and the pressure. He did his best to memorize it as they got closer and closer. Eventually, he pulled the shotgun against his shoulder and aimed forward at the truck blocking the way.

            The man driving the truck suddenly pulled out a pistol and began firing at their tires, Lily swerved, but in doing so, she threw off Stan’s aim and nearly threw him out of the cabin.

            “Jesus, Lily! I need a stable platform!”

            She eased up on the wheel giving Stan a few seconds to shoulder the shotgun and line up his shot.

            One hundred yards wasn’t effective. Seventy-five still too far. Stanley slowly eased his finger against the trigger. Thirty yards out, the tanker slowed, the truck still immobile, he pulled the trigger and sent a hail of buckshot into the driver’s window. The truck immediately cleared from the center lane and the highway opened up before them in an instant. Stan was clueless whether or not he hit anybody or just scared them. These days, it didn’t really matter. Police weren’t coming to investigate.

***

            Once they were away from the barricade of cars, both Lily Anne and Stan gave two great sighs of relief. The anxiety turned to triumph and the triumph to elation.

            “My God, Stanley, we made it! We made it through!”

            Stan smiled at his tanker companion bewildered. “You were worried?”

            “God bless you! God thank you! God be praised! Yes, I was worried. I can’t believe it worked. I can’t believe they just… drove away.”

            “You were just going to plow through them.”

            “Yeah, but then when we got closer, I realized how stupid that was. And then, I looked over at you thinking, ‘What if he misses? What if they don’t move? What if we’re captured and killed, or worse?’” She sighed again and then turned towards Stan. “Good shot… thanks.”

            “Don’t mention it.” He looked up the road. “Honestly, I wasn’t expecting that. I was hoping to just be a deterrent. Didn’t know I’d actually have to shoot at anyone. I’d never done that before.”

            “What?”

            “Shoot at someone.”

            “Really, Stan? I mean it is one of life’s biggest thrills.”

            “I know you’re just trying to ease the tension with one of your little jokes, but that is a very true statement. I feel like my heart is about to explode right now.” His mind drifted, his heart sunk in a moment. “I hope I didn’t hurt anyone.”

            Lily Anne glanced over at him with a surprised look on her face. “They’re bandits, Stan. If you got one, who cares?”

            He swallowed. “I just don’t like to think about it. You’re right of course, but I still don’t like thinking about it.”

            “Then don’t think about it. Think about… well me. You did… well you sort of… Dammit, I suppose you saved me in a way. So… there’s that.” She twisted her face around, as if getting a bad taste off her mouth. It wasn’t theatrical; it was just a particularly difficult bit of pride to swallow. “Thank you.” She cut her eyes over to him and back to the road.

            “You’re welcome.”

            For a time, Stan just stared out the window. The green rolling peaks were dotted with billboards and farms. The highway cut right through God’s country, but it might be the only place where Stan realized just how glorious creation truly was. When you saw the black asphalt, the monument to man’s pragmatic need for swift transportation at the cost of nature and delight, the lush, cool mountain woods became all the more lovely.

            “We’re about twenty minutes away now,” Lily Anne remarked.

            Stan sat up and looked on as the woods gave away to the suburbs of Knoxville and the explosion of southern city excitement, except of course, everything was quiet. Only a handful of cars zipped about the streets manically avoiding confrontation with other cars. Along the highway, though, Stan and Lily Anne were still alone. Occasionally, you’d run into a group of youths or a handful of older, capable men. It was so odd to see Knoxville this way.

            “Do you think the emptiness is because of fear?”

            Lily Anne nodded. “That and the lack of cars is due to most gas stations around the city being ransacked not long after the fall.”

            Stanley whispered a quick prayer. Lord, save us. Jesus, please deliver us.

            “I don’t know where people will start to rebuild, but they have to. They’ve got to figure out something.”

            “Why do you think Myer’s Creek’s managed to stay together?”

            She looked over at Stanley with a puzzled look on her face. “Because we’ve been getting on by ourselves for a long time now. We don’t even like each other, and we’re out together for the sake of my family’s gas station.”

            “And my tractor.” Stan smiled at her.

            “Oh,” she nodded. “Then, there was something you got out of the arrangement.”

            He shrugged. “I suppose, but mostly I just went along for you and your family.”

            “Sure… sure.”

            “And I don’t really dislike you.”

            “No, of course not,” she replied, deflecting.

            “No. In fact, I rather like you. You were never particularly pleasant, but… well, there’s a lot to appreciate about you despite all the sarcasm and flippancy.”

            “And bitchiness.”

            Stanley chuckled. “You said it.”

            “All right now, Stan. I’m going to say something in response, but you need to know beforehand that you shouldn’t be getting the wrong idea. I’m not at all interested in…”

            “Good God, Lily Anne, I’m not going to hurl myself at you in a romantic fever. I’m just giving you a general complement.”

            “Well…” She cleared her throat. “Good, because I’m going to give you a general compliment.” She prepared herself as they turned to head into the Knoxville industrial district. “You are a good guy. You can be unselfish and compassionate, and I appreciate you coming along.”

            “Aw, Lily Anne, that’s so sweet!” Stan replied theatrically. “And I might add that, ‘me thinks the lady doth protest too much.’”

            She scoffed. “And you call me flippant.”

            For a few minutes, they continued down a sparsely developed section of the city until they were driving down a two-lane road flanked by dirt patches and grass, but a ways ahead there was a large fenced-in facility containing wide white silos and a number of metal pipes reaching all about, low and high. Atop a tower, Stanley could see a gunman with an AR-15 fixed on their tanker and two more guards on the ground marching towards the corner where they were just about to be.

            Lily Anne eased into a stop and rolled down her window. “Hello there! We’re here to buy standard gasoline.”

            One of the guards motioned towards the gate and said loudly, “Pull up to the gate and prepare your money for the attendant. Once you pay, he’ll take your keys and gas up your tank. He’ll show you where you can wait.”

            “You mean I can’t pull into the facility myself?”

            “No ma’am. Just last week a handful of men attempted to seize control of the terminal and nearly caused an explosion. We can’t take any chances.”

            Lily Anne looked over at Stanley. “I guess we don’t have a choice.”

            Stanley shrugged. “If they short us, we can come back and rob them ourselves.”

            She punched him. “Be quiet.”

            “All right. We’ll do that,” Lily Anne answered the guard.

            “Great, we’ll escort you in.”

            And so, they pulled up slowly to the front entrance, the guard pacing beside the vehicle until the gate attendant rushed out to greet them.

            “Hello!” The attendant shouted at them. “If you’d please step out of your vehicle, we can get you filled up.”

            “Yeah, yeah…” Lily Anne grumbled as she climbed out of the cabin. Stanley followed suit, leaving the shotgun in his seat, and running around the truck to Lily Anne’s side.

            “And how much does the tank hold?” the attendant asked.

            “Four thousand gallons.”

            “And would you like her filled up completely?”

            “Yessir.”

            He nodded and began clicking numbers into his calculator. “That’ll cost you Seven thousand, four hundred and ninety-seven dollars.”

            She pulled out an envelope of cash and began counting. Fortunately it was mostly in large bills, but it took her a few minutes to get to the number agreed upon. “Here you go.”

            “I’ll have Macgregor here count out the amount. If he’s short he’ll come back to settle the debt.”

            “And if he’s overpaid, you’ll send him back here too,” Lily Anne added.

            “Of course. Now, if you would please hand me the keys, I’ll show you where you can wait.”

            She handed them over and walked with Stanley to a little pavilion inside the terminal where the attendant had pointed. They sat down on a wooden bench amidst the sounds of engines and equipment that had become all but alien to Stan at this point. The ground was concrete and all there was to entertain them was an old water fountain stuck oddly in the middle of the pavilion and the army-like machinations of the terminal guards who now seemed to number more like fifty, rather than the two dozen Lily Anne had estimated.

            It wasn’t difficult to guess where Stanley’s attention turned to when the boredom of the moment overcame him. There was only one thing really worth paying attention to, the young woman beside him leaning on her knees stewing about having her truck taken temporarily away from her.

            “I’ll tell you this now, I don’t like this. I know you were just joking about coming back if they short us gasoline, but I don’t like that attendant. I don’t like him at all. He’s the sort that would…”

            “Don’t be silly. I saw that second gage on the truck. That wasn’t for the truck’s tank, but the storage tank. We’ll be able to tell if they shorted us as soon as we get back behind the wheel. They couldn’t pull one over on us.”

            “But, what would we do if they did short us?”

            “Point to the gage and get the attendant to gas up until the gage is full.”

            She nodded. “You’re right, but I’m not used to letting other folks just take an expensive piece of equipment away from me.”

            “I know it’s hard these days, Lily Anne, but you’ve got to trust folks. If you don’t, well, you don’t get anywhere.”

            “I suppose.”

            “Well, I wasn’t so bad.”

            She glanced over. “Not yet, at least.”

            Stan laughed. “You know, I might take you out if you didn’t have such an acid tongue.”

            Her smiled faded. “Now, listen Stan, really? I know you’re joking, but…”

            “I’m not really joking.”

            She looked at him bewildered. She waited for Stan to retract the statement. “Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

Lily Anne sighed, glanced down and back up at Stan. “Good heavens…” She turned away from him. “You know we’ve got a two hour ride together, right?” She shook her head. “Of course you do, you probably planned it out that way.”

            “Didn’t plan anything, I’m just trying to figure things out.”

            “Well don’t.”

            “Why not? You’re an attractive girl, and I’m not exactly repulsive, am I?”

            “No, but I don’t look at you that way.”

            “And what way do you look at me?”

            “Like a nice guy who I wouldn’t trust to hold up his side of the relationship.”

            Stan smiled and chuckled at the confounding statement, which clearly took Lily Anne by surprise.

            “I’m sorry, that was…”

            “No, that’s wonderfully blunt.”

            “But you’ve got to understand that…”

            “I’m still the fool that fell in love with Savannah.”

            Lily Anne frowned and looked away. “I’m sorry, Stan, but you’ve just got to understand that I can’t pretend… I do value you for… well, for the things I’ve already said I like about you. You’ve been good to me and my family, but I just don’t think I can see you that way.”

            “And you don’t think you ever could?”

            “That’s a stupid question.”

            “Why?”

            “Because you won’t hear the answer I’d give you the way I intend.”

            “Try me.”

            “I don’t know.” She replied abruptly cutting Stan off. “I don’t know if I could ever see you that way, but I do know that I don’t see you that way now. And I don’t want you to start acting like you would in high school. I’m not going to string you along, and if you keep hounding me, it won’t do either of us any favors.”

            “Hm. All right.” Stan hung his head slightly very much wanting to summon some form of sympathy from Lily Anne.

            “I’m not trying to be mean. I just want to make sure you don’t get the wrong idea.”

            “No, I get it.”

            “And I do want you keep coming along with me, but you can’t keep bringing up this… romance thing.”

            Stan chuckled. “All right. But, that won’t stop me from exerting my natural charm over you.”

            “Stanley,” she called him sternly.

            “Friends, friends,” he said with a sigh. “I get it. Yeah, yeah, I get it. But, you get it too.”

            Lily Anne sighed right back at him. “Why can’t men just be satisfied by what they’ve got? I was starting to like you, but then you had to bring up romance.”

            “Just like any other topic. We’d already pulled a gun on each other. I didn’t think the mere suggestion of us going out would spark such a reaction. I might have killed a man. That you just shrugged off, but heaven forbid I bring up a relationship.”

            “But, that’s just it. We had a relationship going, and now it’s awkward. Now, you flipped a damn switch that can’t be un-flipped.”

            “Yeah, but now you know.”

            “Great, Stanley, just great.”

            “And just so you know, I didn’t know until just then.”

            “When?”

            “When I said it out loud.”

            “So, you might not even mean it.”

            “Naw, it felt pretty much like it’s supposed to feel coming out.”

            Lily Anne spat. “This is why menfolk exhaust me. I can’t stomach being friends with my own kind and then I try to enter into your world, and all you can think about is courtship.”

            “No, not all. But, I have to say that it’d be a lot easier if you were a little less comely.”

            She glared back at Stanley bewildered. “I get it, Stan, you find me fetching. I understand.”

            “And I’m explaining your predicament. I think I even understand you just in general a bit more. You might have been a bit cold to keep the menfolk at bay.”

            She nodded.

            “What a woman!” he cheered, but not above the sounds of the surrounding machinery.

            “All right.” She glared at Stan. “I’m serious. We’ve got to move on. I know what you’re feeling, not towards you of course. But, you need to think about something else. We’re not going to debate this topic all the way home.”

            “We very well might.”

            She sighed. “I’ll just stop talking.”

            “I highly doubt it,” Stan said while watching Lily Anne shake her head in frustration. It seemed the silence had begun, but it wouldn’t last. That much Stan was sure of, and he had time. They both did. That was the beauty of small towns; it’s damn hard to escape your destiny.

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