Refill

I spent a few years sending this story out to various magazines before I got tired of tweaking it.  Someday I’ll write something fresh to tackle the ideas I wanted to play with here. Meanwhile, I can’t decide whether this is too obvious or too subtle.


The van rolled slowly along the shoulder of the road. Crunching gravel and creaking suspension parts marked its passage, and their absence marked its stop. A police car stopped behind the parked van a few minutes later, engine breathing hard, headlights beaming, roof lights flashing a warning up and down the deserted highway. The man in the van cranked the window down, breathed the wet night air, and waited. He waited for the officer to approach, and waited for Stan to bring the gas so he could go home and wait for six a.m. when Susan’s bedside radio would spring to life with the latest news and a weather forecast. “Hot and humid again, and expect another thunderstorm tonight. Here’s the good news: It will pass.” The officer walked alongside the van to the driver’s door. “Problem?”

“Out of gas, I think,” replied the driver. “I phoned my dispatcher and they’re sending a guy out.”

“I can siphon you some. Get you into town.”

“Thanks, but this runs on propane. The guy from the garage will be here soon enough.

“Okay. You have a good morning.”

“Thanks for stopping.”

The police car pulled away.

The storm had passed over two hours earlier, rain banging on the van roof and wind shoving against the flat sides. The passengers had not noticed. If they had been awake, Andrew would have made some joke about turbulence, or sailing into the wind, but he preferred his passengers sleeping. Most of them did sleep. They were usually off long haul flights or from overseas, and the long highway drive, at night, ensured a quiet ride. Andrew never had trouble staying awake at the wheel, even on this last pre-dawn part of his trip. He had dropped off his disoriented passengers in Westleigh an hour ago, and was driving the empty van back to home base.

A transport passed.

Andrew stepped out of the van, and walked to the back door. Inside the rear door panel were three triangle reflectors, required by law to be carried and used in situations like this. Andrew placed one on the ground below the rear bumper, one at 50 feet, and one at 100 feet. He was not sure if those were the correct placements. He used to know, when he first got his small bus license, but that was five years ago. A lot can change, or be forgotten, in five years. One hundred feet behind the van, approximately, assuming that was the correct distance, Andrew could easily read “Airport Shuttle Service” and the telephone number. The red reflective letters glowed in the predawn light. Andrew walked back to the bus, climbed into the driver’s seat, and waited.

A similar shuttle bus approached on the other half of the freeway, slowed, flashed its lights, and sped up. Andrew knew the next service cross over was only five minutes away, so he expected Stan to drive to it, rather than drag the heavy propane tank across the median.

Susan would wonder why he was late, but not worry. Andrew thought of Susan being late coming back from work, or not coming back at all. Whether he worried or not, she would come back, or not. They made a good couple.

“Has it ever occurred to you that we could live together?”

“I assumed we’d get there eventually.” She was standing in front of the balcony window of her one room apartment, looking out at the city. Andrew, still in bed, could see the skin on her back shining in the reflected city light. A few minutes earlier he had felt her sweat under his hands, tasted it, and now he wondered how many minutes or days he would wait before tasting it again.

“Which apartment?” he asked.

“Mine, I think. Downtown, larger than yours.”

“Well, I rented mine without looking around much.”

“I know.” This was getting too close to edge of the road. If you drop a wheel off the pavement, and turn back too quickly, you can lose control. Wait, slow down, and turn back gently at a low speed.

The other van pulled up behind Andrew’s. Andrew watched in his side mirror as Stan jumped out, approached, and disappeared. Noises came from under the van. Stan reappeared, and walked to the driver’s door. “Tank’s empty.”

“How come? I checked the log before I left.”

“Who knows?” Stan walked away, pulled out the transfer tank out of the back of his van, and started dragging it. “Maybe the log was wrong,” he yelled. “Things happen for no reason, sometimes. Hey, it’s not like a major breakdown. It’ll take about 20 minutes for the propane to transfer over, and then you’ll be back on the road. Hope you don’t mind waiting.”

“I’d rather be driving, but sometimes you have to wait.” Andrew stayed in his seat, watching Stan hooked up the transfer tank. The tank started hissing and the hose turned white with frost.

Yesterday he came home and found her half-covered, one breast exposed, nipple erect from the cold. The other breast was a percale mystery. He slipped into bed and watched her sleeping. He waited for her radio to come on, and for her to wake up. Then she might cover herself up, or uncover herself. Either way, the bed was comfortable.

“I’m going to have a smoke.”

Andrew watched Stan get smaller in the diver’s side mirror, and cross over to the passenger side mirror. The dark figure wandered back to the middle reflector, bent over a red flare, and paced from mirror to mirror.

Andrew wondered about using the cell phone in the van to call Susan, once it was six, but the office frowned on personal calls, whatever the reason. Tomorrow, or rather the coming evening, would be their second anniversary. He had arranged to have the night off, and made dinner reservations. A surprise for her. She probably thought he had not remembered the date. Last year, he had not remembered the date.

***

“How was work,” he asked.

“Same old. You?”

“The usual. I may be going to night shift soon. Start at eight, into the airport by ten, out at midnight, return and on to Westleigh, and back in town by six. Long shift, but more pay. And I like driving at night.”

“Even on that road?”

“Shit, Susan, thanks for the reminder.” He got up from the little round kitchen table, crossed the room, sat down on the couch, and stared at the city.

“Like you need a reminder. You can’t go two hours without saying something.”

If you realize you are driving too fast for the conditions, stay calm. Do not hit the brake or steer, just ease up gently.

“I know…”

Susan sat down beside him.

“We’ve been together a year. As of today, did you know? We get along. I like being with you. Just you. There isn’t room for all our ghosts in this apartment. We have to leave them at the cemetery.

“You need that visit as much as I do.”

“Sure. But it’s just a visit. I live here.” She patted her knees. “So do you.”

Andrew saw Stan stand up, stretch, and start walking closer. Closer than he appeared, according to the mirror. The hissing slowed. Andrew stepped out of the van, and walked towards him. “Guess I can get the reflectors now.”

“Yeah. We’ll have you out of here in a minute.

Andrew picked up the three reflectors, brushed off the road dirt, folded them, and returned them to their pouch inside the rear door. Stan disconnected the transfer tank, carried it back to his van, and gathered the hose. Minutes later both vans started, large V8’s drowned out by a pair of transport trucks that roared past them. The second van pulled out in a shower of gravel and accelerated hard. Andrew started rolling, turned on to the pavement at a low speed, and accelerated gently. He had never had an at fault accident.

***

The sun was rising on the left as Andrew, Tyler, and Angela crested the last hill before the city limits. They had been driving all night, coming back from the coast and her parents. Angela and Tyler both slept in the back seat, she belted and holding his hand, he cocooned in blankets and his infant car seat. Andrew was alert, relaxed, happy to be driving. Motionless in his seat, yet getting closer to home by 100 kilometers every hour. While he waited the world changed around him, and as long as he was moving anything was possible.

The intersection ahead marked the end of the divided highway and the beginning of the city. The familiar plaza, mall, gas station, and fast food outlets around the intersection were the closest shopping for Andrew and Angela’s suburban home. Andrew coasted towards the green light, letting his speed drop as their compact hatchback rattled over warning strips. He saw a blue pickup approaching the intersection from the right, a transport in the oncoming lane, new red tulips at the gas station. The pickup caught his eye again, and he glanced up at the light. Yes, he had the green, but he lifted his foot to brake just in case and everything stopped.

The sun was rising on the left as Andrew crested the last hill before the city limits. He glanced back, where the big windows showed cornfields passing by. The three bench seats were empty. “I miss you guys.” He glanced back again. Sometimes they were there, trusting him to get them safely home. Sometimes they were not. Andrew looked again, saw nothing, and then concentrated on the road ahead. “Happy anniversary Susan.” He was alert, relaxed, happy to be driving. Motionless in his seat, yet getting closer to home by 100 kilometers every hour. While he waited the world changed around him, and as long as he was moving anything was possible.

Copyright © by Tim Covell, 1998, All Rights Reserved.

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