The Agony of Choice

 The gas station was a compact hovel of white timber and at its side stood a cage. The confinement for a tortured black bear in his childhood. The beast would be smacked with a stick until it did some foul movements the owner had called a dance and when it was not harried it would sit shuddering and jibbering and shaking like a shell shocked private from an ancient war. The cage empty now, its door ajar, a padlock hanging idly from the rusted bolt. 

“This place used to be owned by someone I knew,” the man murmured quietly from the driver’s seat, leaning his head down to look out the windshield and window. “Think it’s changed hands now.”

 The children in the back who were so vocal a few minutes ago were now as quiet as beggars in the presence of police. His wife to his side squeezed his forearm with concern as he tapped at the needle just a few ticks above empty.  

 “It’s not like we can just go to the next place.” He opened the car door. An unmistakable, cloying scent of gasoline flooded him. There was a single pump and it still bore the evidence of the previous purchase in analogue numbering. 

 “About half a tank,” he said with hands on the figures. His fingers grazed the hose when a voice came from the dark portion of a service window in the low station kiosk.

 “Won’t work if you don’t pay first,” a woman whistled from an incomplete set of teeth. Her gray hair like a cat-scratched woolen shirt. “Where you goin’ with that beautiful family?” His pistol jutted uncomfortably into his tailbone beneath his jacket. 

 He looked back at his car, at its rust, and listened to the clacking the radiator as it cooled, and did not answer. “How much?”

 The woman struck a chalkboard to her side with a cane he didn’t see she held. He squinted to focus on the crude shapes befitting of a toddler’s hand scraped onto the foraged frame. She turned up the light of an oil lamp to better illuminate the drawings. An image of what could be called a person next to the shape of a fuel gauge at half fill and above them a smaller figure of a child scratched next to one full.

 He made a slow reach behind himself. “Don’t do something dumb now, I ain’t gonna make you trade,” she interrupted. “Ain’t no need.” Somewhere in the dim blackness of the shop interior he saw the glint of loaded barrels aimed by some stunted creature in a narrow-eyed doze and he backed towards the car. 

 “Y’all free to go,” she said calmly. “But without a fill you’re gonna get picked up by the folk who buy from me anyways,” she smirked in her broken way. “Might as well make something of it.”

 “What if I give you the car?” 

 She smirked again. “Figure that’ll be mine eventually, if you don’t fill up.”

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