In the dark we made out road signs promising gas, leading us off a random exit at three in the morning for a quiet nowhere town just off the highway. We were somewhere on the edge of Georgia, almost to Florida. It was spring break, and we were on our way to palm trees and bright yellow suns and beaches, beaches, beaches. All we needed was one more tank of gas. The town we pulled into was nameless and unmapped. The kind of highway town you pass in five seconds without even looking. Desolate at any hour. At night it was dead and still as a photograph. Silent. No cars and not many lights. A dull streetlight glow from the gas station made a gray island surrounded by miles of emptiness, like something you might find at the edge of the world.
Last time Nathan, Ben and I were at a gas station at this hour we were lost and looking for directions. As Nathan started to pull into the station, and were pierced through the window by a the gazes from gang of big, sinister-looking men unloading a van. Whatever they were doing at that ungodly hour, they didn't want anyone else around. "Nathan," I said, "let's find another gas station. Nathan? Nathan!" And suddenly he turned around and sped away. We were happy they didn't bulrush our car and harvest our kidneys for sale on the black market. Nothing good can come of meeting people at gas stations at three in the morning.
Only one thing stirred in the darkness. Something on the grass. A person. A girl. A hooded sweater and a cardboard sign vaguely illuminated by fluorescent gas station lights. Words scrawled on the sign in black magic marker: family trouble. Need to get to Panama City. " As we pulled up and got out to pump gas, the girl looked at us but didn't venture too close.
Another form emerged from the abyss--from the door of the dark, empty gas station. A guy maybe in his late teens, like the girl. How did he get in there, and what was he doing? It had been closed for hours. He could have been robbing it, but he strolled out with the utmost confidence like it was his own house. His pockets weren't bulging with candy and one-dollar bills.
The guy had on a black hoodie and striped purple socks. I tried to decide if he looked shady and couldn't. I only knew I didn't want to be bothered. The girl with her cardboard sign inspired a bit of sympathy and made a little blip on my damsel in distress radar. But now... this joker and his purple socks made everything different. He approached Nathan and I. My impulse was to back away but every direction was darkness and when you're pumping gas you can't do anything but stand there squeezing the handle. "Hey," he said, "the name's Jack." He shook my hand like we were best friends, and I played along both because I was sort of curious and because I was trapped. "This is Claire." He introduced us to the girl, who stood behind him looking friendly but timid. Jack seemed charismatic and weird. Claire seemed quiet and innocent. They seemed to be a couple. I didn't know what to expect from the combination.
Jack asked where we were headed. Lakeland, we said. Looking for beaches.
At the word “beaches” I felt silly about it. Suddenly my head throbbed from the smell of gasoline and the insect-buzz of the lone street light and Jack and his purple striped socks.
Jack took a look at our back seat, seeing it packed with our things. “Too bad you guys don't have more room in there.” He said longingly. “I could ride in the trunk,” he said with a laugh. We chose to assume he was joking. Besides, the trunk was as full as the back seat.
“Hey, you guys got any extra food?” We glanced back at our car. “Just some trail mix.” “Trail mix is good shit.” “It's kinda melty.” “That's alright.” So we gave him a handful of packs. Thrilled, he went to the girl and stuffed them into her backpack. It was a faded pink back-to-school sort of backpack with a lot of zippers, bulging with items untold. It made me wonder how far they'd come already. "thanks," Claire said. "you guys are like money in the bank." It was the first time she spoke up on her own.
Our tank was full. Time to go. Old jack shook our hands goodbye and then started sifting through his pockets like he forgot something. "Hey, you guys low on rollerballs?" he said. Nathan and I didn't know what rollerballs were, but we were pretty sure we weren't running low on them. Nathan started the engine, the loudest sound in a while. As we parted ways, Jack put his arm around Claire as if to tell her everything was going to be alright. Through our back window I watched the girl hold up the cardboard sign once more under the dull light as we pulled away. When we left I knew that no one else was going to stop there tonight.
Ben took off his headphones. "don't give things to druggies," he said, and gave us a what's-wrong-with-you look. “You shouldn't have made eye contact. Never make eye contact.” He frowned. Nathan drove quietly. In the passenger seat, I used the dim reading light to track down the two tiny words “Panama City” in our giant road atlas, and then just looked at them stupidly while the gas station lights were slowly eaten by the night in the rear view mirror.