There are stretches of highway across America with relatively few rest stops. Places where you can drive for miles upon miles and, if you missed your opportunity to stop, you’d have to wait for quite some time before your next chance arrived.
Grant, Texas, had been home to one such stop. A gas station at the side of the road, one with pumps so old they didn’t even have credit card machines. You had to go in and pre-pay, or you could pump before you paid. A large, red and white sign warned that failing to pay would be met with prosecution.
That sign was now hanging drunkenly off one of the pumps. It hadn’t been fixed, not since it was torn off by one of the Mummies of Ys rampaging through the town. The pumps were dead, and wouldn’t be fixed for months most likely, the hoses torn to shreds by the same mummies and then the wires fried by the Eschaton throwing around balls of lightning that should have, by all rights, burnt the town to the ground.
The military had been through here, some fancy pants Admiral promising to pay to make sure things got rebuilt. Billy remembered that promise well, and had remembered at the time thinking that it was a bunch bullshit. The military didn’t pay for small towns like Grant, and the Government sure as hell didn’t. The town was going to be fine – there’d been enough tourists playing lookee-loo and reporters chasing that Gail woman’s coattails for a scoop on the gods to bring in hundreds of times the tourism money the town had ever seen – but it was going to be a long time before anyone did any rebuilding here.
At least they’ve gone away, Billy thought. News about these ‘gods’ was the biggest thing to hit the country in his eighteen years of life, and everyone wanted a piece of the action, but most people weren’t willing to drive way out to the Texas sticks to look at the aftermath of the destruction they could wreak when they went all out.
It suited Billy just fine. Damn tourists had trashed the town almost as bad as the damn ‘gods’ and mummies had. And while the gas station wasn’t making any money these days, Billy was still working there, and still making honest money helping get the place cleaned up. “Evenin’ Carl,” he said as he came in. “Any business today?”
Carl shook his head, his face fixed in his perpetually mournful frown. It did seem a bit longer these days. When the tourists had started showing up, Carl had done a brisk business with getting the generator hooked up to keep the fridges running, and selling a bunch of random scraps of cloth as being “genuine” fabrics worn by the Mummies of Ys. Billy hadn’t told anyone that any actual artifacts of the mummies had turned to dust alongside the creatures they’d been attached to, and Carl had given him a dollar an hour raise for his silence. “Looks like the boom’s done, Billy,” Carl said with a sigh.
“Yeah, but between that and the insurance, it wasn’t all bad, right?” Billy’s heart began to skip with sudden fear. “You’re…you’re still gonna be rebuilding, right?”
“Don’t worry, Billy, we’ll be back up and running soon. In fact-” Carl cut out as the bell over the door – an actual brass bell – rang. Sally walked in, and suddenly to Billy, it wouldn’t have mattered if Carl was telling him that the gas station was literally on fire at that exact instant.
Sally Newman, the prettiest thing to happen to Grant Texas – at least as far as Billy was concerned, but he believed it with a fervent passion fueled by teenage hormones. “Hey Sally,” he said, swallowing a lump in his throat. The door swung open behind her on a gust of wind, and Billy stepped in and caught it before it could catch Sally in the back of the head.
“Thank you, Billy,” she said, giving him a smile that was pure friendship. Some dust blew into the gas station, and a small part of Billy noticed it and knew he’d have to sweep it up later, but for the most part he was fixated on that smile. It was so…dispassionate. Sally, as always, thought of him as nothing other than another nice boy in town. “Daddy, did we get in any of the new magazines?”
That was the other reason things with Sally were difficult, besides Billy being the redundancy that is a socially inept teenage boy around teenage girl. Her dad was Carl, and Carl did not like the idea of any boy from town sniffing around his baby girl. As far as Carl was concerned, Sally was going to be the first Newman to leave Grant and never come back.
Billy might only be eighteen, but he didn’t think that was likely. No one left Grant. Oh, sure, there were exceptions, but they were few and far between.
“Not yet, sweetheart,” Carl said, his face lighting up in warm grin. He only ever seemed to light up around his daughter.
Sally gave an over dramatic sigh. “The cell’s down again. I need something to read.”
Somehow, to Billy, she managed to complain prettily. He pulled out his phone to see what she was talking about, and fought back a swear. The attack on Grant had left only one cell tower fully functional, and it wasn’t supporting the load of even a small town particularly well. It went down at least twice a day, sometimes for hours. NetWall was still providing internet to individual homes, although their fiber lines had been badly fried by the electrical storm summoned during the fight, so it was spotty all around.
“Have you tried the bookstore?” Carl asked.
Sally rolled her eyes, and Billy agreed in his soul. Grant’s only bookstore had fallen on hard times with the rise of online books, and Kathy, its owner, was a bitter old woman who did not much care for people who came to browse and not buy. “I’d rather not,” Sally said.
“My truck’s working,” Billy interjected with unexpected boldness. “The Walmart is still open, we could go there.”
“Oh really?” Sally asked with sudden excitement. Billy tried to ignore the daggers Carl was glaring his way as Sally stepped forward. “That’d be amazing.”
“Hang on now,” Carl said in a firm voice. “I think I might have something in the back.”
Billy fought back a sigh as Carl went into the back of the store. He wouldn’t have anything, Billy was sure of that, at least not for Sally to read. He would absolutely have something to keep Billy busy late into the night.
“Well, maybe another time?” Billy said hopefully.
Sally smiled. “Oh, that’s sweet of you. I’d still like to – it’d be nice to get out there anyway.”
Billy felt his heart start to pound with excitement. Was it his imagination, or was her smile a bit less ‘just friendly’ than before? “You think so?”
Sally laughed. “I mean, what else is there to do around here?”
Billy couldn’t argue with that logic. Grant was a boring town. It had gotten pretty exciting for a little bit, but now it was back to normal. At least, as normal as it could after an invasion of mummies swarmed the town.
The silence stretched between them, and in that silence wormed something dark. It happened quite a bit these days. Sally had lost her mother when the mummies had swarmed across the town. Billy had lost his brother and his best friend. No one in town was really processing it, really grieving. In a town of twelve hundred people, a hundred of them dying was too much to process. “So, uh…” Billy started to saying, trying to push back that yawning blackness.
Carl came to the rescue. “Hey, Billy, I…”
His voice trailed off. Billy turned around to look over his shoulder at Carl, and Sally gave her father a curious look.
Carl was standing in the doorway to the back of the station, holding a box. He’d stopped mid speaking, and his mouth hung slightly open, his skin looking ashen and pale. The box was trembling in his hands. “Daddy?” Sally asked, a note of fear in her voice.
Carl’s mouth was moving, like he was trying to form words. A tear formed in his eye, and began to make its way down his cheek, where it joined a thin droplet of blood that was flowing from the corner of his mouth.
The box went tumbling out of his grasp. In the center of his chest, previously hidden by the box, was Carl’s heart, held in the grasp of a blood soaked hand. Billy stared helplessly as the owner of the hand stepped forward, pushing Carl’s body with her, and brought the hand up to her lips. In growing horror, Billy watched as the woman behind Carl took a huge bite out of his heart, her arm still shoved through Carl’s chest cavity. “Oh my,” she whispered as she swallowed the fight bite. “So sweet.”
Sally started to scream.