A fire engine red Mustang turned into the station entrance on Hwy 97, roared passed the cars waiting at the pumps, and screeched to a halt in front of the lone building that housed the office and restrooms.
“Dammit Don!” snapped Carly, as she began to gather her things now strewn across the floor board. “You’re gonna get me fired.”
“Hot roddin’ brought us together,” said Don.
“Twenty years ago in high school.”
“What’s your point?”
“Maybe it’s time to slow down,” she said, while gathering her pile and opening the door.
“Can’t, I gotta’ lead foot.”
“Yea,” Carly said, as she alighted the vehicle. “It matches your brain.”
“Damn… girl,” he called after her departing form. “Not even a smooch or two?”
Carly looked over her shoulder as she opened the office door. “Parenting books say ‘don’t reward bad behavior,’” she said before disappearing inside.
“Ooh… that’s cold, Bitch,” he mumbled, then stomped on the gas pedal and laid a strip of burnt rubber on his way out the side exit.
The unanimous consensus of the weekend patrons was that he was “an asshole.”
Carly put her things away and began to fill out the paperwork to begin her shift. She knew the only reason Steve, the assistant manager, was not yelling at her over her husband’s constant disregard for company rules was because he was too busy at the moment.
Located on a corner lot on the main drag, along with boasting the cheapest gas in town, the Towne Pump was always busy. But on holiday weekends it was a madhouse, and this was Easter weekend.
Madras is a small town, home to just over eight-thousand, but it lies along Hwy 97, the main north-south thoroughfare in Central Oregon. And Central Oregon is the destination for nine and a half million adventure seeking tourists yearly.
Carly, who is a week away from seeing if life really begins at 40, took a glance at her reflection in the window. It was a grubby job, but she still wanted to look her best. That’s why she never pinned up her waist length golden hair. The body, bounce, and flow of her tresses are the only thing she ever receives compliments on.
She considered re-tucking her work shirt into her jeans, but noticed Steve closing off his island. He only does that during a shift change when he is pissed and wants off the island as quick as possible.
Of course, that doesn’t sit too well with Lyle, the other attendant, who now has to handle all the traffic alone.
It’s moments like this when Lyle regrets turning down the promotion to management: especially since he has over three year’s seniority on Steve.
“Thanks for nothing,” Lyle said, as Steve headed to his cash tell to grab the drawer.
“Fuck you,” Steve countered. “I handled the crowd two hours by myself this morning.”
Lyle wanted to reply, but the four customers waiting for service changed his mind.
Carly punched a sequence of buttons on the computer, and cleared Steve’s pumps. It was S.O.P., so that each attendant would begin their shift with the right numbers for their paperwork.
While the machine worked its magic, Carly rechecked her cash drawer. As she picked it up she glanced out the side window and noticed an unfamiliar vehicle parked in the employee parking area. A shiny black mid-size coupe, with lightly tinted windows, that allowed her to view someone inside, but not enough to tell who it was.
The office door flew open and slammed the outside wall, as Steve came charging in carrying his tell.
“Get out there before Lyle starts crying,” he said, as he disappeared into the manager’s office.
Carly immediately started out the door, but when Steve slammed the inner office door unexpectedly, it startled her, causing her to bump the cash tell into the doorjamb. The tell fell, crashed on the sidewalk, and sent coins and bills in every direction.
Carly didn’t know about Lyle, but she definitely wanted to cry.
Fuck me! Lyle mouthed inaudibly, while continuing to handle the perpetual string of patrons, as he and about 13 waiting customers viewed the mishap. Though, not one came over to help Carly retrieve the wind-blown currency.
Carly couldn’t help but notice it was a north wind. Towne Pump employees could always tell the direction of the wind, even with their eyes closed. North winds always brought the pungent odor from the stockyards about a mile out of town on HWY 97.
She hated north winds.
Calm days and south winds were not much better. They kept the gas fumes prevalent: the Towne Pump’s as well as Tiger Mart’s next door.
Carly preferred the winds from east or west. West winds carried the tempting odors of Abbey’s Pizza from across the street, and east winds often countered with the mouth watering aroma of popcorn and cotton candy from the fairgrounds behind them.
It was 18 minutes passed the hour before Carly reopened the outside island. And she intends to remain on her side, not even looking at Lyle, until the traffic eases up.
She is fond of Lyle, but he is the epitome of the high school hero who has been stuck in one dead-end job after another.
When most the mills closed, and Seaswirl chose to build their boats elsewhere, the job market in Madras took a dump and never recovered.
Lyle, a six-foot, barrel-chested, ex-lineman with a 40-year-old paunch, is a nice enough guy, she believes, but he gets frustrated easily, then inadvertently takes it out on others. That’s what happens when your life consists of minimum wage jobs, barhopping with the local testosterone ne’er-do-wells, and no worthwhile female companionship. But he reminded Carly of an old flame, so she always cut him some slack.
Steve exited the office, walked around to the side window by the pop machine, grabbed a small plastic container that he leaves on the sill, and pulled out a self-rolled cigarette.
None of his coworkers believe he’s quit smoking eight times; probably because he smokes more now than ever before.
As he took the first long satisfying drag, he looked at the vehicle a couple of spaces away from Lyle’s Toyota four-by-four. The man behind the wheel wore dark military style aviator sunglasses: the old wire framed mirrored kind, not the modern-day plastic.
Just as Steve was beginning to wonder whether the stranger was asleep or dead, he saw his head turn slightly in his direction. And even though he could not see his eyes or any expression change on the stoic face, he suddenly felt compelled to return to the office. So he dropped the cigarette, barely smoked, snuffed it with his boot heel, and headed in: hating himself for doing so.
Steve is pushing 60, with more hair on his face than his head, and all of it gray. He has always been a fitness nut, with bodybuilding his specialty. The extra muscle made his small stature less enticing to bullies. In fact, his monster forearms have earned him “Popeye” as a nickname. He’s a wiry cuss, unafraid to mix it up with anyone… so why now?
Lyle looked in the direction Carly was pointing. About a half-mile down the road he could see flashing lights.
“Is it a funeral?”
“Maybe,” said Lyle, while handing back change to the last customer on his island.
Carly still had three cars filling, but Lyle was so far behind on cash drops, he chose to grab a bundle of bills from his tell and head inside.
In order to pacify the corporate office, he divided the wad of money into six envelopes before depositing them into the thin slot to the floor safe. The big wigs want attendants at every station making drops every time they get an extra hundred or two in the cash drawer; which is impossible when the station is busy and undermanned most of the time. Corporate does not want to pay for an extra attendant to be a floater. They blame it on the recession, which somehow never stops them from taking hefty pay hikes for themselves.
“Do you know the guy parked on the other side of you?”
Lyle turned to face Steve, who was standing in the doorway to his office.
“The black job?”
“Not a clue,” said Lyle. “But I’d like to see what he’s got under the hood.”
“Looks plain enough.”
“I heard him drive up,” said Lyle. “That puppy’s beggin’ to clear its throat.”
They both stepped to the window and gazed at the black coupe.
“We use to call them baggers in high school,” said Lyle. “Shit, this one kid took it to the extreme. His rig looked like a patchwork clunker, but he won more pinks than anyone I ever knew.”
Steve recalled how he felt when the stranger glanced in his direction, and he took a couple steps back from the window.
“You figure he’s lookin’ for a race?”
Lyle chuckled. “Here? Not likely.”
“Think we need to worry about him?”
“Don’t tell me you’re getting jumpy in your old age.”
Carly entered before Steve could reply. She was fanning herself with a wad of money, equal to what Lyle just dropped.
“My first drop,” she said. “The cops are giving me time to drop it.”
Lyle and Steve instantly lost interest in their conversation, and stepped outside to see what Carly was talking about.
Both driveways were blocked off by motorcycle cops, and the six vehicle motorcade they were blocking for was exiting the road and entering the station. Two stretch limousines were conspicuously in the center, two sedans just in front and behind, and two SUVs at each end.
Small flags waved feverishly from the hood of each limo. The attendants knew they were VIPs, but they were not familiar with either the crest or seal.
“We best get out there,” Steve said, forgetting he had already clocked off the islands.
They hustled out and noticed a crowd of onlookers beginning to form in the parking lots on both sides of the street. A few cars were even beginning to pull to the side of the road out of curiosity. Non-funeral related motorcades are extremely rare in these parts.
When each SUV and sedan reached their positions on the outside pumps, every occupant exited the vehicles and took up defensive positions. They established a 360-degree perimeter, with the limos side-by-side in the center aisles.
Carly completed her drops. Just as she was making her way to the door a deep throaty rumble caught her attention, and she looked out the side window.
The black coupe was slowly backing out, then turned and eased forward, heading behind the office.
Even at the slow speed Carly could feel the vibrations: pure unadulterated power.
Damn, she thought. Don would let that guy bang me for a week just to sit in that pile driver. She then reprimanded herself for thinking so poorly of her husband. He may be childish at times, but she had no doubts that he loved her.
By the time she made it to the pumps her male cohorts already had all six vehicles filling. She went to grab a squeegee, but was waved off.
“They don’t want them done,” said Steve.
As she walked back to await the nozzle clicking off she noticed the black coupe had pulled into the long driveway that runs along the side of the drive-thru car wash belonging to Tiger Mart.
Tiger Mart was the most expensive station in town. Along with the car wash, they had a convenience store, hot food deli, an espresso shack, and twice as many pumps as Towne Pump. Plus the lot was about three times bigger, though it sat 20 feet lower, with an open field between them. And when it rained hard the Tiger Mart lot flooded.
The corporation that owned Towne Pump, and the field next to it, had dug a trench so the mud would no longer flow next door, but the water was at the mercy of gravity.
Within minutes the nozzles began to automatically shut off, and the attendants began to return them to their resting hooks on the pumps, and cap off the tanks.
A loud rumbling, almost a roar, was suddenly heard. The onlookers, and everyone at the station, were shocked to see the black coupe tearing out from the backside of Tiger Mart.
It sped across the lot toward the field. People on the sidewalk between the lot and the field scurried out of the way. A few slow reactors barely made it.
The agents around the pumps no longer worried about appearances. They began to extract a variety of weapons from beneath their jackets.
The limo drivers were jumping back behind the steering wheels, fully intending to rabbit out of there, even if it meant tearing the nozzles off the pumps, since they were the last to finish filling and had yet to be recapped.
However, everyone underestimated the coupe’s power. It sprang over the curb within seconds of emerging, hit the field, found traction, and rocketed toward the trench.
Civilians scattered in all directions. A few foolishly darted into the oncoming traffic of the busy highway — with the obvious results.
Carly and her coworkers finally realized what the agents already knew, dropped everything, and willed their feet to move. As they began their forward momentum the first automatic fire began to sting their ears.
By the time the black coupe hit the side of the trench, topping 100-miles per hour, it launched itself skyward. Thus, the bullets riddled the undercarriage as it soared above the agents, and then impacted the canopy over the pumps.
The limo drivers cranked the engines, slammed them into gear, and stomped on the accelerators.
The impact of the coupe sheared the welds and bolts holding the canopy to the four large pillars, and the entire structure lurched forward and began to collapse.
The attendants and agents were straining to coax every bit of speed from their legs in order to escape the inevitable.
Carly jumped over her island just as the limos bolted forward, yanking the nozzles from the pumps, and she slammed into the front quarter-panel of the vehicle on her side. She was thrown back by the limo’s momentum, and tripped over the five gallon bucket and squeegee
When the coupe made contact with the canopy at a 45-degree angle it catapulted head over heels and crashed heavily on the opposite side of the roofing structure.
Carly frantically attempted to regain her footing, a task made harder by several gallons of soapy Windex.
The second impact ruptured the tank.
Carly began to cry, realizing she couldn’t get up, so she began to crawl, and then roll across the slippery pavement.
The explosion sped up the structure’s collapse, and just as the limo drivers were convinced their training and quick reaction saved them again, the twisted metal slammed down upon them. All forward momentum ceased, and the roofs of the vehicles caved in.
Carly, in mid-roll, viewed the structure caving in above her, and she screamed a final prayer, and strained with all her strength for every additional inch.
The sparks and fire raining down ignited the gas pockets caught beneath the fallen structure, and started a chain reaction. Every vehicle, and every pump, burst into flames.
Carly’s beautiful hair began to burn, and she realized she would never see Don again.
The one prevailing thought on the minds of the scattering horde is how to get far enough away before the underground tanks blow.
Like most people, who have never worked at a gas station, their fear was based on ignorance regarding the safety precautions set in place to prevent that very occurrence from happening.
However, even without further explosions, it took the fire department over an hour to extinguish the primary and secondary fires caused by the various blasts.
Out of the security detail only four agents survived, and two of them are severely burned. And, as Don discovered when he came to bring lunch to his wife, Steve and Lyle were killed instantly, and Carly had been extracted from the burning rubble and rushed to Emergency. Nobody wanted to tell him what to expect. And this time, no one considered him “an asshole” for putting the pedal to the metal, and speeding toward the hospital.
News reports never released the names of the VIP’s in the limos. They only confirmed that they were visiting dignitaries from a Middle-East country, along with two U.S. representatives accompanying them on their visit.
A few commentators suggested it had to do with the fact that the particular country in question is under a cloud of controversy for allowing the indiscriminant killing of American GIs.
The authorities are convinced no one will ever know the whole truth. The heat was so intense half the bodies under the canopy were cremated. They doubt they will ever discover who the stranger was driving the coupe or what made him do it. And the lone witness statement out of 364 reports, that claimed he didn’t see anyone driving the car as it nearly ran him down, was quickly dismissed as unreliable.
“Don’t forget your aviator glasses,” the detective said, as he sent the witness on his way.
Three days and nights Don remained at the hospital. The incident weighed heavy on his mind, and he could not stand the thought of being separated from his wife. For twenty years she had been the reason for his existence. He knew he would forever be lost without her.
Don opened the door to the Mustang while he vowed to be a better husband, and then smiled as the nurse rolled Carly down the walkway. Carly could walk, but it was hospital policy to bring out patients in a wheelchair.
The fact that she had been soaked from head to foot prevented her from serious injury. Smoke inhalation, minor burns and a patch of hair was the extent of her damage.
Don eased out onto the highway and he noticed Carly give him a curious look.
“The most important person in my life once told me, ‘it’s time to slow down’.”
© JW Thomas