This is what happened when I spent over an hour sitting in line, waiting to buy gas during the 2008 fuel shortages in the southeast US. It’s a lot darker than the stuff I usually write. A slightly different version appeared toward the end of FAR Future, and I’m eventually going to expand it to a short story.
The Last Drop
I threaded my way between lanes of long-abandoned vehicles choking a city street. All faced the same way, as if in a hurricane evacuation. They had been there a long time; what tires weren’t flat and dry-rotted were sagging and dry-rotted. Driver-side doors often stood open, and I sometimes had to push them shut (with a horrendous creak that the stillness swallowed) to get by. The glass was intact, but caked with grime and dust and streaked perhaps by a long-ago rain. The buildings on either side loomed over the street, their windows looking down on me like a maid watching a roach scurry across a clean tile floor. Clouds roiled overhead, bringing neither rain nor relief from the heat. Stifling gusts of wind puffed from behind me, then from ahead; all directions carried unpleasant smells.
I went through intersections where endless lines met and tried to merge in vain with the endless lines I walked through. Out of curiosity, I climbed onto a pickup truck — bumper, bed, toolbox, cab — for a longer view. Behind me, and to either side, the jam continued as far as I could see. Up ahead, the lines seemed to jumble together at the edge of my sight. I climbed down and continued on. After what seemed far too long, I climbed atop another truck. I was still a long way off, but could see a little more clearly. Something changed up ahead: perhaps this street would turn onto another, or perhaps it would be what everyone had tried to reach.
Eventually, the lines veered to the left and right and tangled together, then became a solid mass. I climbed up and over, picking my way carefully: trunk, roof, hood, hop to the next trunk, on and on. Climbing atop a van, I finally saw it: a great traffic circle with what looked like a gas station filling the island. The vehicles were packed around it and inside it in a chaotic tumble — anyone who had managed to get that far had no chance to get out. As I drew nearer, I realized that it had been a gas station — the signage was long faded or crumbled, and an overhang had fallen and crushed pumps and vehicles alike.
“Over here,” I heard someone say from behind the fallen overhang. I climbed toward it, and at last found a stretch of open pavement. It led me under the overhang and to a thin black woman, lounging in a car seat resting on the pavement. A pull-along cooler sat between her and a second car seat, and she waved me toward the seat. “Grab you a water, I bet’ch’er thirsty. Ice is long gone, but that don’t matter.”
I did what I was told, sat with a water. She waited for me to unscrew the cap and drain half the bottle at a gulp, then said, “Name’s Daisy. I wanted to shoot my mama for hanging that name on me sometimes, but it’s another thing that don’t matter now.”
“Yeah,” I said, introducing myself. “What the hell is this?”
“This? It’s a gas station. Or what’s left of one. But that’s not what you meant.” She gave me a grin. “This is what happened when the last tanker brought the last drop of gas to the last gas station. Everybody wanted to get some, and… well, I bet you can guess the rest.”
“Yeah,” I said, imagining the scene. “But it must have happened a long time ago. You’re the only one left, as far as I can tell. Why are you here?”
“Me? I’m… the Judge.” I heard the capital. “I was a nobody, livin’ on the streets, scroungin’ to get enough food, tryin’ not to get raped by some loony or high school jock. One mornin’ I was downtown here, thinkin’ maybe I could get someone to buy me a coffee and biscuit, and all these cars rushin’ to get a fill-up. One of ’em run right over me.”
She handed me another water while I gaped at her. “Yeah. So God comes for me and asks me what I want, and I said ‘payback.’ He says, ‘The fruit of the Spirit is forgiveness,’ and next thing I know—”
She climbs out from under the Expedition and stands glaring at the driver babbling “God lady, I’m so sorry…”
“You want gas?” she cries. “Come and get it! EVERYONE COME AND GET IT! AND I HOPE YOU CHOKE ON IT!”
Night, then day. People swarm over the trapped cars, gas cans in hand, only to be set upon by others behind them. Fistfights become gunfights. The pumps have long run dry, but they keep coming. The attendants abandon the station, and she replaces the oddments of life in her cooler with drinks and ice. Night again, and now the shades come. Some ask for forgiveness, and she grants it. Some see just another homeless nobody, and those she judges. One of the forgiven tells her of a toolbox in a nearby van, and how she can remove the seats, and now she has a comfortable place to sit. On a whim, long after the last shade goes to its reward and the overhang falls over, she pulls the other seat.
Sometimes she weeps for the departed. Sometimes she laughs at their folly. Most of the time she just sits… and waits.
“For what? Not me, I hope,” I said.
“For someone living. The Judge has to be judged — or forgiven.”
I looked around, thinking about how it must have been, then turned to Daisy. “If it’s in my power, then: I forgive you for this. I can understand why.”
Daisy leaped across the cooler and kissed me hard. “Too bad you didn’t know me when I was living,” she laughed, and… was gone.
“Wake up, honey!” my wife said, shaking me. “Lisa just called. The tanker’s on the way! If we hurry we can get there before the line gets too long!”