The small car snaked along the country road, its headlights the only relief from the inky dark of the cloudy autumn night. Molly squinted through the side window. “Where are we? There’s nothing out there.”
“That’s the point,” Denise answered from behind the wheel. “Back roads. Green therapy.”
“Green? All I see is black,” Molly grumbled, balling up a sweatshirt.
Denise poked her drowsy friend. “Hey! Keep an eye out for a gas station, will ya? We’re gonna have to fill up soon.”
Molly muttered something about the ease of finding a gas station along the interstate, an argument Denise won before the trip ever started, and snuggled into her sweatshirt-pillow.
They continued over the rise and fall of hills, Molly sleeping against the window, Denise worrying over the gas gauge, the rural landscape hidden by the night. When the gas gauge slid to E, Denise checked her phone. No bars. She shook the phone, cursing under her breath. Still no reception. “Please, God,” she prayed. “All I need is one bar.”
The car rounded a bend, its headlights illuminating a sign that read “Dunce Hill, Pop. 320.” Moments later, with the fuel light glowing an angry red and the engine sputtering, Denise spotted something bright on the horizon.
“Oh, thank God,” Denise whispered when that brightness proved to be a gas station. She guided her chugging car into the station and gave her companion a shove. “Molly, break time.”
The girls didn’t have the car doors open before a young man popped up next to the station’s single pump. He greeted them with a tip of his baseball cap.
Denise did a double-take. The attendant’s button-down shirt and brown slacks seemed overly dressy for a gas station but underdressed for the bite in the autumn air.
“Evenin’, ladies,” he said. “I’m Frank. Can I fill ‘er up?”
“Um, yes, please.” Denise popped open the door to the gas cap.
Molly rounded the front of the car and studied the attendant. “You gotta bathroom I can use?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am. Through that porch door, all the way in the back..” Frank pointed toward the only building on the lot, with a single service bay and small porch. Next to it sat a boxy black Buick in seemingly pristine condition. “It’s on the right side of the cigarette machine. Just look for Joe Camel.”
“Do I need a key?” she asked.
“No, ma’am. No point in having a public bathroom if you’re gonna lock out the public.”
“Hmmm. Wish city gas stations felt the same way.” With that, Molly jogged off.
Denise, meanwhile, watched Frank fiddle with the gas nozzle. When the nozzle was finally secure and gas flowing into the car’s tank, Frank wiped his forehead with his sleeve. Turning to Denise, he asked, “Can I check your oil?”
Denise blinked, as much from the fumes as surprise. “Um, no, thanks.” She paused. “Why? Is something wrong?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” he said quickly. “We’re full service here at the Dunce Hill Service Station, so I have to ask.”
“Full service? Don’t see that around much anymore.”
Frank shrugged and began washing the front windshield. “So where you gals headed?”
“A friend’s wedding. We decided to take the scenic route.”
Molly returned as Denise finished her answer. She leaned over and whispered, “Should you be telling him that? We don’t even know him.”
“I didn’t tell him where the wedding is.,” Denise whispered back. “Besides, not everyone is a serial killer. You watch too many crime shows.” Feeling a chill, she pulled her hands into her sleeves and folded her arms under her chest.
Still seemingly unaffected by the cold, Frank finished the windshields and moved on to checking tire pressure. When the gas nozzle clicked, he replaced it on the pump and closed the gas cap. He turned to Denise. “That’ll be thirteen fifty six.”
Denise’s voice sharpened. “I thought you said you were going to fill the tank?”
“Yes, ma’am. I did. Twelve gallons at a dollar thirteen a gallon comes to thirteen dollars and fifty-six cents.”
Denise stared. A dollar thirteen a gallon? In the city, three dollars was considered a bargain. “Are you sure?”
Molly knocked her shoulder against Denise’s. “Don’t ask. Just pay. Then run like hell.”
Denise slid into the car. She grabbed fifteen dollars from her wallet and shoved them at Frank. “Here, keep the change.”
Molly dove into the passenger seat and slammed the door.
Starting the engine, Denise turned to Frank one more time. “Say, do you know a place around here where we can get some breakfast?”
“Yes, ma’am. No place better than Tony’s. It’s just down the road, right in the middle of town.”
“Thanks!” Denise waved to Frank as she drove away. When she looked in the rearview mirror, though, she couldn’t find any sign of him.
“Are you nuts?” Molly hissed.
“Think about it. If gas in this town is a dollar a gallon, what’s a cup of coffee gonna be?”
The horizon glowed yellow and orange when the girls reached the scattering of buildings that made up the town of Dunce Hill. Finding Tony’s Diner was a no-brainer. It was the only building with its interior lights on.
The girls settled into one of Tony’s red vinyl-upholstered booths. A waitress sidled over and set two mugs and a pair of place settings on the table. “Don’t think I’ve seen you girls before. What brings you to Tony’s?”
“Just passing through,” Denise answered. “Frank recommended it.”
The waitress turned toward the counter. “Hey, Joe! We know anyone named Frank?”
“Nah,” a voice answered from behind the cut-out kitchen window. “Don’t think so.”
“At the service station,” Molly explained. “Young guy, wears a Dunce cap—”
The waitress raised an eyebrow.
“A baseball cap. It has the word Dunce across it.”
“And which service station did you say that was?”
Denise pointed her thumb at the window. “The Dunce Hill Service Station up the road. Saved our butts, too, ‘cause we were riding on fumes.”
The waitress put her hand on her hip. “Honey, I hate to say this, but that station’s been closed for decades. Ain’t nobody up there now but the wildlife.”
Denise turned to her friend, feeling as pale as Molly looked. She turned back to the waitress. “How do we get to the interstate from here?”
Click here to read the story behind "Running on Empty."