Ding-in-ding! The tiny bell over the gas station door rang. Sammy strolled in, confident in his ability to immediately sniff out any bags of caliente corners in the place. Corners was, in his opinion, the finest mass-produced brand of jalapeno cheese chips in their arid region. He sighed at the sight of the place; he wouldn’t be needing his skills after all.
There were plenty of shelves, but there was a snack shortage. There was still candy, chips, jerky, gum, and plenty of miniature tubes of emergency toothpaste, but sometimes it was a single package of each brand. His eyes, trained to spot the right color of crinkly plastic, immediately singled out the one remaining bag of sour cream caliente corners. Its green edge poked through the bottom of the shelf and it hung there, like a person dangling from a tree branch.
Sammy’s shoes were untied, even at sixteen he’d never been very good with knots, and his light jacket was wrapped around his waist. Despite the cold morning, the desert heat outside had quickly become unbearable, especially trapped in the car with his older sister Maggie and her beer-for-brains boyfriend Ross. He was the sort who went on and on about microbreweries and hop variants rather than simply lauding the local swill. His talk of cool foam had gone on for ages, filling Sammy’s mind with images of a soda pool he wanted to dive into.
The chips would have to do for now, so he snagged them and went to the counter. Maggie wasn’t sure he could handle paying for his own snacks and Sammy was eager to disprove her theory, but he hit a snag. There was no one behind the counter. To aid in his thinking, he popped open the bag of chips.
“Hello,” a middle-aged voice said from behind him just as it popped open. Sammy whirled around, his back smacking into the counter. The man before him had a friendly wrinkled smile, like a discarded chocolate bar wrapper. His eyes were clear but empty of expression. He was completely bald, his head shining as if freshly waxed. There were a few water droplets around his left ear.
“Umm hi,” Sammy said, shoving a chip in his mouth to buy a few seconds to think and chew. “Do you know where the owner is?”
“Oh I’m the owner,” he said plainly.
“Okay…” Sammy dug a one dollar bill out of his pocket and some change. He knew, by the feel of the coins, exactly how much he needed for a bag of corners. Adjusting after the price raise of two years ago had been a living hell for the teenager. He tried to hand it to the man, but he didn’t respond. Closer. Nothing. He pressed it against the man’s purple shirt. Still nothing.
Ding-in-ding! Sammy jumped again, dropping the coins, as Maggie and Ross entered. He scrabbled around on the ground to reclaim them.
“What’s taking you so long?” his sister asked, wiping the sweat from her forehead.
“The guy won’t take his money!” Sammy exclaimed, putting it on the counter to settle the issue.
“I’m Donovan,” the man said, turning to look at his two new customers. “I own this place. Where are you three headed?” His smile did not falter.
“Concert,” Ross said, analyzing the three beers remaining in the fridge. He frowned and closed the door. “Got tickets to the Hot Melodies festival. We were going to go alone, but then Sammy… well he’s a delight. So he’s coming too.”
“Like you even know half the bands,” Sammy said through another chip.
“I would like to come with you,” Donovan said. Sammy stopped chewing. This guy was the first person in the world to make a sour cream corner taste curdled.
“We’re not in the habit of taking strangers,” Maggie said bluntly, “and we don’t have an extra ticket.” She stared right back into his blank eyes, expecting some sort of creepy continuation.
“I’ll give you six thousand dollars if you take me,” Donovan said. “And I already have a ticket.” He finally moved his hands, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a neat stack of hundred dollar bills. A tiny concert ticket was atop them.
“How do you… where did all that come from?” Maggie asked. She took a step back toward the door, but her eyes were drawn to the cash.
“I’m closing shop,” Donovan said. “Tired of the smell of gas. I miss the good old days. The ferns. This is all the money I had in the store. I’m leaving it behind, shedding my shell. If you want this money all you have to do is take me to the festival. I’ll start a new life there. I’ve always wanted to hear music.” The teens paused. There was a speaker in the corner, currently playing the sort of thing you hear in line at the supermarket.
“Babe, I could get some crazy good ingredients for that,” Ross whispered in his girlfriend’s ear. She threw up a hand to get him to back away. His dreams of his microbrewery would have to wait until Maggie was done vetting the man.
“You’re just going to leave this place? You don’t care about any of this?” she asked, her raised hand turning into an accusing finger. Sammy resumed his chip-eating. His siter’s grilling was her most admirable trait. He hopped up and sat on the counter, now that nobody cared about the ‘shell’ they stood in.
“I only cared about the raw materials. All the oil is gone now. You took the last of the gas. This place is dead. Why would anyone want to stay? No point in wasting life in a dead place. How about it?” Maggie eyed him up and down. His paunch and medium stature were not very threatening, especially given Ross’ full height of six foot three.
“Cash up front,” she said. Donovan handed it over without hesitation. “Turn out your pockets. You’re not bringing any knives or anything into my car.” Donovan did as he was told. The only things that fell out were a few small leaves with chew marks on them. “You sit in the back and you behave yourself.” Donovan nodded and tapped his feet giddily, like a hen peparing to nestle down for the night.
The four people exited the gas station, the bell ding-in-dinging its last. Donovan turned around and spat on one of the empty pumps before hopping into the car like a much younger man. They sped off, leaving a trail of dust behind them. Sammy kept his eyes on the man seated to his left, trying to figure him out. He didn’t care that much, so he waited to ask his questions until he’d sucked the last corner crumbs out of the bag.
“What ferns?” he asked. Donovan turned to look at him. “You said you missed the ferns of the goold old days. What ferns?”
“You know, the really big ones,” Donovan said. “They were everywhere before the fires took their place.”
“Fires?” Ross turned in his seat and listened in. Maggie glanced at him in the rearview mirror. He was strange, but so far the strangeness was worth six thousand.
“The fires that killed us all. Surely you remember. They came out of the sky and ate up all the plants, faster than we ever could. Greedy fire.”
“Where are you from?” Maggie asked, trying to draw something coherent out of him.
“I think we call it the mesozoic,” Donovan said. “Sorry if I said that wrong. These word things can get really big.”
“Aaaaare you saying you’re a dinosaur?” Sammy asked him. Perhaps he had eaten all the snacks in his store, and perhaps they were all hallucinogenic drugs.
“Not one people ever found,” he said with a snort, as if he’d won a game of hide-and-seek.
“What kind then?”
“The kind that can leave its skull. It was quite a trip; these car things are much easier. First the fires got me and I left. I watched them get everybody else too, but they didn’t follow me. They stayed in the ground, and turned into oil! Boy it sure took them a long time. I thought maybe they’d come out of it, like butterflies you know? But they never did. So I followed the oil. You made it into gas and put it here. That’s when I ran out of patience.”
“I found a new skull. This Donovan guy. I went in and here I am. What skulls did you start in?” They had no answers for him, just mouths agape. “You haven’t done it have you! Oh it’s so much fun! Think about how crazy things can get! This car is powered by the corpses of my family. Fun right? So where’s the festival? Who can we eat there?”
Sammy dropped his corner bag.
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by dark_lord3 during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!