Glancing at the clock on the dashboard, Bob gave himself a satisfied grin. He was actually going to be on time for his daughter’s birthday party. She wouldn’t believe it. He glanced in the rear view mirror at the bunch of roses on the back seat, 14 of them, one for each year, and the gift he’d specially asked to have wrapped in the department store.
Another glance showed him that petrol was running low but with three hours still until the party, he could afford to stop and fill up. He was glad he’d left early. Nothing was going to spoil this birthday; not even his ex-wife could complain now.
A few miles later Bob spotted the black and red branding of a petrol station, pleasing to his eye on such a long and quiet road, and pulled in. Filling up the tank with budget unleaded, he whistled a marching tune to himself. Hooked the nozzle neatly back in its cradle, headed for the pay station with a jaunt in his step.
Inside, he took a moment to choose a packet of chocolate biscuits for the journey. A treat, he thought, for father of the year. He chuckled quietly at his own little indulgence.
Behind the till sat a wild-haired woman who could not be described as young, but emanated a sort of youthful fizz that covered her early wrinkles better than her hasty makeup. She was making notes on a list entitled ‘Pet supplies’, scribbling out items here and there with a chewed biro, and looked up with huge eyes as Bob approached. He was somewhat impressed at the sheer amount of mascara she had loaded onto her lashes; tar spiking out from her face, smudged over the lids like the footprints of a weary tarantula. Above, the nest of fiery hair had a neon quality that screeched beneath the flickering yellow strip lights.
“Afternoon love, can I help?” she asked huskily.
“Yes, er, pump two and these,” he replied, gesturing forward with the biscuits.
“Need a little something to keep you going out here, eh?”
He gave a knowing laugh in return. They were bonding.
“Indeed, indeed! Only another hour or so ahead of me now. Been driving all day, feels like!” Bob rocked up onto the balls on his feet and clutched his hands behind his back proudly.
The woman swiped at the pack of biscuits with an arm that seemed to behave of its own volition, efficiently sweeping past the barcode reader. A tone-deaf beep. The arm paused.
“Travelling alone are ya, love?” the woman asked, turning fully towards Bob and rapping her nails on the countertop. “Was just about to put some coffee on if you fancy it. No charge. Go with the biscuits.”
“Well, I…” spluttered Bob. Such hospitality was most unexpected, and only added to his sense that this day was, truly, going very well indeed. “I wouldn’t want to put you out, I mean it’s awfully to kind to offer, but…”
“TERRY!” squealed the woman, and she stood up with an alarming speed, leaning towards the double white doors at the side of the small shop. Almost immediately, they swooshed open and an extraordinarily tall man with large, old-fashioned glasses swept through them. He removed a pair of blue latex gloves as he walked, from a fuel spill no doubt.
“This fine gent ‘ere, er…”
“Bob will be joining us for coffee, love – got the pot on yet?” She handed Bob his biscuits and a tiny receipt which he stuffed into his pocket.
Terry patted the sides of his head with his palms, apparently to smooth back the greasy beige-coloured hair that had fully receded but been swept meticulously around the scalp like some sort of willow sculpture. His artwork adjusted, he cleared his throat and gave a slow grin.
“Why, that’s just wonderful.” he said quietly, and reached out to take Bob’s hand in a slow, too-long shake. “Milk and sugar?”
“Just black, please,” replied Bob, retracting his hand quickly and watching the woman get up from behind the counter. She moved like a marionette who had been reluctantly released from its strings; free but freewheeling, limbs giddy with fear or excitement at every motion.
“I’ll call you when it’s ready,” she said, glancing back sideways as the doors creaked shut around her. He heard her cackle delightedly. Bob had the vague impression that the room beyond was shinier than it ought to be. Bigger. Must really need that coffee actually, he thought, rubbing his temples in sudden tiredness. Seeing things.
Bob glanced out at his solitary car on the forecourt and wondered briefly if this was a mistake. But no, take opportunities as they come. Especially on occasions. Lucky days, good omens. He turned back to see Terry staring intently at him.
“So this is er… your own business? Franchise, is it?” opened Bob.
Terry slowly removed his glasses and began rubbing the lenses with the hem of his sweater.
“There are good people round these parts,” he said, and paused to breathe a great ‘Hhhaaaaaaa’ onto one lens. “Some need fuel, others supplies, some just…company. A sense of belonging, purpose. What we do here is for the good of everyone, the community. Wouldn’t want anyone being left alone, would we? Not good for us.”
“No, no,” replied Bob, perplexed, “I mean you’re clearly kind people, you know, hospitable…”
“My wife,” continued Terry, “is especially so. Can always tell when someone’s in need. Has a sort of way about her. Takes in the waifs and strays. So to speak.”
He paused, looking up again at Bob.
“You, sir, are one of the lucky ones.”
There was a loaded pause while Bob considered the gravity of accepting coffee from a stranger in a petrol station, whether it made him a fortunate human being generally, and whether it might just make him late after all. This wasn’t part of the plan.
“Look,” he began, rolling his pack of biscuits between his palms, “I really don’t want to be a burden, she just offered, it’s no big…”
“Nonsense,” interrupted Terry, “It’s her pleasure. Join us. Dina!”
Dina’s voice screeched from somewhere echoey, “Coffee’s ready! Coming!”
She vibrated back through the doors carrying a wooden tray with three mismatched mugs gently steaming. Setting it down on the counter, between the scratchcards and travel mints, she handed the largest mug to Bob and Terry’s to him without taking her eyes off Bob.
“To togetherness,” said Terry, raising his in a solemn toast.
Bit much really, thought Bob. Only wanted a quick pick-me-up, now I’m being dragged in by the locals. Still, down it goes and on to the party…He sighed and lifted his mug too, forcing a grateful smile and gulping the hot liquid as fast as he could. The heat made his eyes water but the prickling feeling in his spine was persuading him to leave, quickly and quietly, like he would in a fire drill.
Still Dina was staring at him from within her spider’s-lair eyes, Terry caressing his mug while staring calmly at the floor, as though waiting.
“Thank you indeed, I’ll be off now – wouldn’t want to keep you from your day and I don’t want to be late, I…” Bob stopped. The room had begun to tilt slightly. He tipped his head to correct it but it sort of, kept going…he wasn’t sure where his knees were.
Terry took one great stride towards Bob and put one arm parallel to his back, the other gesturing towards the double doors, in an L-shape perfectly suited to directing traffic.
“After you,” he murmured, and stood frozen there, watching with intent eyes as Bob found himself shuffling towards those doors, so large they were, so flat, and shiny, and open.
He felt hands on his lower back and arms as his feet drifted forwards, eyes starting to flicker shut as he moved. Bob felt no fear as he drifted between layers of consciousness, finding himself slumped on a narrow raised bed, feet dangling off the side as Terry held him up by his shoulders.
“You’ll be better here, love,” said Dina’s face coming close to his. “It’s OK. We’re here. Shhhh….”
She stroked his forehead with a cold, dry hand, lovingly.
“We found you in time.”
Bob was surprised to feel a heavy, profound sense of calm in his stomach, as he gave a great puff of exhalation, lower lip hanging open, drooling slightly. He lifted his head briefly to glimpse tall bars all around him, and behind, more bars, a chrome forest, where other rescued creatures sat or lay on their beds, drifting. A few cages were empty, one simply had a brown leather coat hung beside the door. A low hum buzzed around the overhead lighting. A murmur from a dreaming creature. A hiccup.
“You rest now, we’ll check on you in a bit,” said Terry, lowering Bob onto the thin mattress, starched and bleached sheets rustling under him.
Terry and Dina moved quietly away as though leaving a baby to nap, on tiptoes, shutting the barred door with a sharp click.
“At least 72 hours, remember, love,” whispered Dina as they left the room, “At least give them a chance to claim him.”
“Alright my dear,” replied Terry, “But after that, it would be kinder…”
The double doors back into the petrol station closed with a thwump. Motionless, Bob lay in the quiet. There was something about a birthday, something he once remembered, but it was long ago.
Written by Emma611.