A short story written for the Haunted Houses competition, November 2019.
Paul looked at the gauge on the dashboard, then, being the conscientious driver that he is, indicated that he was pulling over. Why he bothered, I haven't a clue for we'd seen no other traffic for hours.
"Might as well top her up now as later," he said over his shoulder, as he climbed out of the car, walked around to the trunk.
He was gone a good while. I thought it was kind of strange, for the trunk, although roomy, was hardly going to take him this long to search through. He slammed it shut... hard, then walked around to the rear doors, opening them one after the other. I could hear him getting more and more frantic, cursing under his breath.
"Where'd you put it, Fran?"
I guess I must have given him a blank look, because with gritted teeth he continued. "The gas? Where did you put it?"
I began to feel the first prickles of alarm. "Me? I didn't put it anywhere. You told me it was all taken care of."
"It was. I did. But I never said that I'd put it in the car."
I think we were on the verge of a full-scale row; it was only the enormity of our predicament that stopped us. We we're in the middle of a desert and the gas tank is almost empty of anything other than fumes.
"Take another look at the map, Fran." Paul sounded a bit calmer, which was kind of odd as I could feel my panic beginning to turn into a full-blown anxiety attack. "Perhaps you missed somewhere." There was no hiding the desperate hope in his voice.
I stared at the map, just to keep him happy, for I knew without a doubt that I had not over-looked anywhere. We'd poured over this so many times together while planning the trip, if there had been anything to find we would have been sure to have marked it. The fact is that we are in the middle of miles and miles of sand, with no human inhabitants at all.
"Could we start her up and coast for a while. That would save on the gas, wouldn't it?"
"Great idea, Fran, but coasting and sand don't work too well together. Not only that but even if conditions were ideal, that would never get us far enough."
"How about taking turns to push?" I suggested.
His laugh hurt. "Get real! We're talking miles here, Fran, not just a couple of yards to the door."
He got back into the car and started the engine. There were two choices; crawl along and make the gas go further, or floor it and get further through what I could now see as nothing other than an infernal desert. Paul clearly couldn't decide between the two, for he drove along at average speed.
"Keep your eyes open. We might be in luck and come across someone a bit more organized."
My eyes were getting sore from looking. The chances were that, even if we came across another driver, they'd have just enough gas for themselves. Still, I looked. And, not quite believing my eyes, I saw something.
It was nothing more than a speck in the distance at first, but as we got nearer I began to believe what my eyes were trying to tell me. There, where there should be nothing more than sand, stood a town.
"Can you believe it, Fran! There's bound to be a gas station here." Paul's relief was so great that he sounded almost drunk with it.
A ramshackle place it turned out to be. Most of the buildings looked old, and many were in poor repair. A door banged shut somewhere, making me jump in my seat. There didn't seem to be many people around, and what townsfolk there were on the street quite blatantly stared at us, as we drove along the sandy street.
Our relief began to waver as we had yet to find a gas station. "You'll have to ask," Paul said.
The thought of trying to communicate with the people here filled me with dread. It was not so much that they looked hostile, but somehow vacant. I began to wind down the window reluctantly when Paul spotted the pump.
"Look, there ahead! We're saved!"
Paul steered the car to the pump and filled it right up to the brim. There was what looked like a large shed that we presumed was where the cashier would be. I got out of the car as well. It would be good to stretch my legs, and maybe they'd have some snacks on sale. Worry had gnawed a hole in my stomach that was begging to be filled.
We both walked into the dim building, stirring up dust with every step we took. The guy at the till looked like a figure straight out of a 1940's movie. Come to that, so did the till. No snacks that I could see, so I hung close to Paul as he held out his card.
The guy behind the till looked at it as though he had never seen such a thing before in his life. So, this was going to have to be a cash transaction. We both searched our pockets and came up with enough to pay. The gas here sure was cheap!
By the time we got back into the car we seemed to have attracted quite a gathering of assorted folk. Young and old and in-between, the entire lot of them seemed to look at us like we'd landed from space or something.
"Come on, Paul. Let's get going," I said, as quietly as I could. "This place is really beginning to creep me out."
"Me, too," he whispered and started up the engine.
We both waved to the townsfolk; it seemed rude to just ignore them, especially as they might well have saved our lives. We didn't get so much as a wave or a smile in return. The entire group just turned and began to walk away.
As we were heading out of town, I looked back, trying to find a sign with a name on it. What I saw made no sense, for what I saw was nothing. No town, no building, no people, just nothing but sand.
"Paul, look!" I said.
He looked in the mirror. Then he pulled over, got out of the car and began walking back. There was nothing to show that the gas station, the buildings had ever been there at all.
Once back in the car, neither of us spoke. Had it been an illusion? A mirage? Whatever it had been, we'd both seen it. Could it have been a shared hallucination?
The only thing is, the gas tank is full now when it had been almost empty. How were we ever going to explain that?