Chapter 18 – Michael Hamman
The trip to the gas station hadn’t been very eventful. A few people had lost their breath before making it because the gas station was a little further from the office building than everything else, but they weren’t breathing the rustic air for more than a few seconds.
Four old-style pumps stood in front of a mini store. Two lamp posts illuminated the lot. Attached to the mini store was a small auto repair garage, about twenty feet between it and the tree-line. In front of the garage and along the tree-line were three rows of four or five cars parked bumper to bumper. The cars varied from classic to run-of-the-mill 90’s mass-produced, all of them looking like they hadn’t been driven in years.
Michael spotted a good-condition 1967 Camaro SS among them—the very car he’d been wanting to buy since he was a teenager. He’d almost been able to. Until five years ago when everything went to hell.
He stared at the car tucked between two other P.O.S.-s. Five years. It still seemed like yesterday when his life went from perfect to nightmare in a matter of weeks. Not a day had gone by since that he hadn’t thought about how it all came crashing down. Could he have tried harder? Or was he just a dumb loser who should have seen it coming from the beginning?
Frank flipped the switch behind the cash register, lighting up the mini store and stealing Michael away from his thoughts. The store was nothing special: dirt-stained tile floor, concrete walls, and boarded-up windows. Three rows of shelves held snacks and various supplies you’d expect to find in a forgotten gas station/auto repair shop. A cooler sat against the back wall next to the door that led to the garage, and in the front stood a simple counter with an old-time cash register. Behind the counter, an open door revealed a small office with nothing more than a desk, a chair, and a bookcase.
“As you can see,” Frank said, “there’s snacks, batteries, and other knick-knacks. There’s some soda in the cooler over there. The office doesn’t really have anything important, and the garage only has auto repair stuff. Nothing we could really use. All of the tools are in the cellar at the diner now. Also, there’s a shotgun under the front counter in case you get stuck here for some reason when the Empty People attack. There’s one under the counter in the diner and the main office building as well.”
“I don’t hear a generator,” Carter said.
The look on Frank’s face let Michael know he was as confused as he was.
“You just turned on the lights,” Carter said, “and this entire complex has electricity. But, I don’t hear a generator. So, where does the power come from? And, for that matter, where does the running water come from?”
“Right.” Frank sighed and leaned on the counter. “The electricity and the water are continuous. In the three decades my wife and I’ve been here, there’s never been a power outage or a dry faucet. Where they come from… well, that’s complicated.”
“Complicated how,” Carter asked.
“In order to understand where the power and water come from,” Frank started, “you’d have to understand what the Midhaven Motel is first.”
“Okay, Frank,” Michael said before Carter could continue. Carter dominating the conversation was getting on his nerves. “Tell us what the Midhaven Motel is.”
“It would be best if everyone was sitting down,” Frank said as he stood upright. “I suggest we all go back to the diner. There’s not much else to see. Besides, I’m sure everyone is getting hungry.”
Michael’s stomach growled, the sound echoed by the people around him. Everyone must have forgotten how hungry they were with everything going on. It had to have been at least eighteen hours since most of them had eaten.
“What about the cars, Frank,” Bryan asked from across the store. Everyone looked at him, a little surprised at someone other than Carter, Michael, or Rachel asking a question. “We aren’t the first people to come here.” He paused. “And, something tells me you aren’t, either.”
Frank let his head fall. Bryan was right: there had to have been others.
“So,” Bryan continued, “can you at least tell us what happened to the others?”
Frank didn’t answer at first. He let his head hang for some time before he finally raised it and ran his hands down his nose and mouth.
“You’re right,” he said, his voice devoid of the mirth it had only moments before. “There have been others. But, they’re gone now.”
“‘Gone’ as in they escaped,” Carter said, “or ‘gone’ as in they were taken by the Empty People.”
Frank’s eyes fell again. “No one escapes.”
The next question was obvious. But, no one wanted to ask it. Alexandra and Tara were still visibly upset about losing Nathan. There was also Rachel. Michael turned his eyes to her and saw her head down, probably thinking about Eduardo. He couldn’t ask it.
Luckily, he didn’t have to. Rachel did.
“What happens when someone is taken by the Empty People?” She didn’t look up.
Frank sighed and glanced at Tara and Alexandra before turning away. “They become one of them.”
They were only soft whimpers, and the two women tried to mask it, but Michael could see their insides shatter. Their hands shook as they wrapped their arms around each other and sobbed. They were going through so much pain, and the cause of it—Michael—was unable to say anything. What could he say?
“I’m sorry,” Frank said with as much sincerity as a man could give. “Look, why don’t we all start making our way back to the diner? I’ll answer more questions there.” He waited, and once he saw that no one was going to protest, he continued. “When we get to the office building, I suggest that anyone who has luggage on the bus go and get it. Take a break on the bus to catch your breath, and then meet the rest of us at the diner.”
The group lined up at the door, and Frank and Eliza led the way. As he was waiting his turn to leave, Michael felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned around and saw Rachel staring up at him. Her eyes were wet and her expression was a mixture of determination and discomfort.
“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for saving me.” Her voice cracked, and she removed her hand.
“No problem.” It was a stupid thing to say, but it was all Michael had to give at the moment. Was it enough? He didn’t know. He got a “thank you,” but he owed an apology.
The corners of Rachel’s lips curved upward, and a little of his own pain left.
He was right: she was pretty when she smiled.