Peter wanted to escape the heat, but he didn't want to escape everything!
Peter gazed at the temperature displayed on his dashboard. One hundred and twelve degrees outside. That had been the coolest temperature in Phoenix all week, and he was tired of it. Every day had been far beyond sweltering. It was time to head up north where the temperature hovered in the low nineties, and it looked like many others had the same idea. Traffic was unusually heavy for a Sunday as he headed toward Interstate 17, which would lead him directly into Flagstaff. At the last moment, he exited the highway. Dealing with traffic during the week while traversing to and from work is one thing, but he didn't have to do it on the weekend. He'd take the road less traveled and head up toward Winslow.
Peter loved to drive. Soon after getting his license, he'd take his father's car and drive away from the urban clutter around San Diego eastward on Interstate 8 toward Arizona. He craved to view the soft hills and greenery, a landscape absent in the city. As he escaped, his music also changed, switching from songs with a hard beat to those of mellow tunes mimicking the soft rock sounds of the 70s. He caught himself singing to the tunes, even if he didn't know all the words. He'd entered his own world of blissful nothingness.
Now, fifteen years later, he did the same thing, but this time, the dramatic changes in scenery slapped him silly. It didn't take long before the Phoenix's concrete jungle gave way to the surrounding desert and stretches of road that met the horizon at some distant point. Those roads cut through small towns that could be excellent fodder for postcards. Stopping to get his fill of snacks, energy drinks, and top off his gas had become a staple for his road trips, but today, he wanted to change it up. Tomorrow, he'd be back at work, and he wanted a recent memory or a story to tell his coworkers.
He cruised through the picturesque town of Payson and continued along the divided highway which contained steep switchbacks through the Mogollon Rim. The sudden change in altitude caused the low brush of the deserts to morph into the spiny bushes and Ponderosa pines of the northern plateau. Brief glimpses in his rearview mirror made him feel as though he was soaring high above the desert.
The road straightened, which meant he didn't have to concentrate on the two-lane road as much. The temperature had dropped to one hundred and two degrees, thankfully, but his gas gauge was lower than he'd expect it to be. Climbing the rim had taken its toll. As he entered the ultra-small hamlet of Pine, he spotted a gas station up ahead.
He slowed and pulled in next to a pump. A small shop sat behind the four pumps with a neon 'OPEN' sign illuminated. He stepped from his car and retrieved his credit card. While refueling, he noticed someone staring at him through the plate-glass window in the shop. He waved, but the gesture wasn't returned. It was odd, but oh well. A blast from a horn made him jump and release the gas handle. He turned to see the rear end of an 18-wheeler roaring past. Why did he have to do that? Peter shook his head and continued refueling. Two more horn blasts startled him. This time it came from two different SUVs. Why are they blowing their horns? His eyes gazed at the ground on the other side of the pump. A loose group of rhinoceros beetles had congregated. The hideous two-inch creatures with their distinctive horns were a first for Peter. He'd never seen one in the wild, but now with so many around, his flesh crawled. He scanned the area around his feet to make sure the nightmarish crustaceans hadn't made their way over toward him.
He returned his attention to the pump. This had to be the slowest pump in Arizona! During the entire time, only $3 of gas entered his tank. Another car beeped at him as it passed along the side of the gas station. This is not normal. What were they blowing at? Once the car passed, he spotted two javelinas watching him. Again, he'd never seen any in the wild before. The ugly, hairy-faced thugs stared without moving. This was becoming too much. Too many horn blasts, too many beetles, now too many javelinas. He stopped fueling and slipped the nozzle back into its cradle, then his eyes widened at the sight of the gasoline total. It was all zeros! Unsure, he skirted around the cluster of beetles to speak with whoever was inside the shop. Maybe they could uncover the strange events which plagued him today.
He stepped inside. A malodorous smell attacked his nostrils and made him nauseous. The lights were off and nothing was on display. No magazines or snacks. No beverages or tourist-type t-shirts. Only empty stands and bins covered in dust and cobwebs. The shop was open, but open to what?
He ventured in a few more steps with his hand cupped over his mouth and nose. He'd smelled nothing like that before and thought it may have been a mistake to come inside. He turned toward the plate-glass window. The person who stared back at him had disappeared.
"Great! Now what?"
He had lost nothing. He spun around and headed back to the door. He pushed, but it didn't open. He shook and shook and shook. The door didn't budge.
"The hell with this! I'm breaking the damn window."
Right before he turned around, a car pulled up next to his followed by a jeep.
"Hey! Hey out there! Open this door! Get me outta here!"
The drivers left their vehicle and began circling his. They were speaking to one another, but he couldn't hear what they were saying. Then he recognized one vehicle. It was one that had honked its horn at him earlier. Its driver began looking around like he was searching for the owner of the car.
Peter stepped back and retrieved one of the heavier empty bins. He slammed it into the glass in the door. It bounced off. He tried again and again. The glass wouldn't break. Frantic, he hustled around the empty shop searching for something to get him out of there. A loud, low rumble caught his attention. He returned to the door and his eyebrows raised. He could have sworn it was the same truck that had blasted its horn while he was taking on fuel. What was he doing back there? The driver jumped out and everyone began conversing with one another.
"What the hell is going on out there?"
He made his way behind the main counter and peered out the plate-glass window. He leaned closer and his hand pressed down on a lever that opened a slot. He could feel air coming in from the outside.
"Hey! Hey out there! Get me outta here! Do you hear me? Get me outta here!' he yelled.
No one turned around, but he could hear them speaking among themselves. He listened.
"Ya know, I sounded my horn when I drove past here a while ago. I mean, it was weird. He was just standing there by the back of his car. You know, like he was getting gas or something. I've seen nothing like it before," the truck driver said.
"Same here!" the driver of the car said. "I honked at him too. I didn't understand why he stood in the middle of an empty field. There were two javelinas over there, and I thought they might charge at him. You know how ornery they are."
The driver of the jeep gazed at both of them, then gazed down. "What's the deal with all the bugs? Man, those are some ugly ones."
The truck driver answered, "About three years ago, a gas station stood here, but one night it exploded because the old codger that ran it was drunk and became clumsy. He'd forgotten to put out his cigar when he approached the fuel pumps. The half empty fuel tanks remain buried under there, and the beetles migrated around it. You'll see many creepy-crawly bugs around here. Yep, I used to visit the old man regularly on my route. He'd be staring through that plate-glass window right over there." The truck driver pointed directly at Peter.
Peter yelled, "Hey, I'm in here. Do you hear me! Get me outta here!"
The jeep driver said, "Man, that's a messed up story. I hope they find that guy. It's a nice car."
The truck driver answered, "I don't know. If he headed back into those bushes where the shop used to be, he may get lost, and be trapped there forever. It's happened before."
Tears rolled down Peter's cheeks as the three men returned to their vehicles and drove away.