But the truck payments were real and Harland was at work at The Everyhour Gas Station and Convenience Store, sitting behind the counter and looking at a magazine about trucks he’d pulled from the rack. All the trucks from the magazine were better than his truck, the very truck which required the regular payments which required him to be here at this job looking at a truck magazine full of superior trucks. The thought was depressing and so, as soon as it materialized, Harland skirted way out and around it. Better to just leave those kinds of thoughts alone, to let them sit alone and untouched until they dissipated.
Harland had just gotten up to return the truck magazine to the rack and then take a few bored laps around the snack aisles when the store telephone rang, which almost never happened. In fact, Harland didn’t recall the store phone ever ringing during one of his shifts. He hadn’t even known it was connected. He walked over to where the cream-colored phone rested in its cradle on the counter under the window that looked out on the empty parking spaces and unoccupied pumps. He lifted the phone from its cradle and held it to his ear. He wasn’t sure what the store protocol was for answering the phone so he just said, “Hello?” He sounded confused, like someone who wasn’t sure he was even speaking into the correct end of the phone.
“Hello, Harland? This is Rich Mazark. You probably don’t know me by name, although you might recognize my voice, but maybe not over the phone. Do you?”
“I don’t recognize your name or your voice,” said Harland. “How do you know who I am?”
“I see you a couple times a week,” said Rich. “I come in and get a coffee and a milk and I whistle jaunty tunes. My teeth are really bad, you might remember my teeth. Not rotten, but crooked! You know?”
“Oh, sure, I know who you are,” said Harland. “You usually don’t come in until later.”
“Yeah, that’s how I usually like to do it,” said Rich. “But I’m not gonna be in this week. Or ever again.”
“Is that why you called?”
“Well, sort of. Do you think you could close up the store for a little bit and come down to the corner of Avendurn and Biltchul?”
“No,” said Harland. “I’m the only one here.”
“Yeah, OK,” said Rich. “But are any cutsomers even there? It’d just be for…maybe an hour tops.”
“What’s going on?” asked Harland. “Why do you want me to come down there?”
“I need someone to say goodbye to,” said Rich. “Someone other than cops and paramedics or EMTs, whatever they are, and you’ve always struck me as a good guy, Harland.”
“You’re hurt?” asked Harland. “You…you sound fine, though, I-”
“I should explain,” said Rich. “I got hit by a car. And now I’m pinned between the front of the car and one of those concrete flower planter things they put downtown. I’m pinned at the waist. But I guess I’m basically cut in half. The car’s the only thing keeping me together, right? So when they move the car, I’m gonna die. ‘Cause I’m in half right now. But right now, I feel fine. Well, I can’t feel my lower half, but apparently it’s cause it’s severed, I guess. I can’t see anything below the hood of the car, obviously, but this is all just what they tell me. I can put one of the cops on if you want. He’ll tell you. It happens to other people sometimes. Like, with trains, sometimes, and farming equipment. I’ve read about it before.”
Harland was at a total loss. The situation this man he barely knew was describing was, if true, horrible beyond words. “So, wait, you…why do you want me to come down there?”
“Because the cops told me to call whoever I wanted to say goodbye to since I’ve got a little time, see? Right? And I don’t really have anyone else to say goodbye to. I’m pretty much alone. But I just thought, well, hey, that guy down at Everyhour, Harland, he’s always been nice. And I don’t wanna say goodbye to nobody. So, yeah, I’m calling you to see if you’ll come down here to say goodbye to me in person before they back this car up and I fall apart.”
“I can’t, though,” said Harland, feeling shaky and weak. “I can’t leave the store.”
“I’m in half down here,” said Rich. “I’m cut in half by a car and a flower planter. You can’t come down and say goodbye for that?”
“I have to hang up,” said Harland. “Good luck.” He hung up the phone. He looked out the window at the pumps, the parking spots. On the road, a car drove past. Harland prayed for it to pull into the gas station, for its driver to come inside and buy some snacks and make some pleasant small talk, but the car didn’t pull in, it continued on its way home.
The store phone rang again a few minutes later, but Harland didn’t pick it up. Then, a few minutes after that, it rang again, but Harland didn’t pick it up. Why was no one coming into the store? It wasn’t odd for the store to be slow at this time of night in this kind of weather, but no one? Really? Now that Harland was desperate for any kind of distraction from his own thoughts, no one at all was coming into the store?
After a few more minutes had passed, Harland’s cell phone rang. It was Mr. Gredt, the owner of Everyhour Gas Station and Convenience Store. Well, maybe he wasn’t the owner. Harland wasn’t quite sure, but he was Harland’s boss. “Harland,” said Mr. Gredt. “A man just called me at home at this late hour to tell me that he’s downtown cut in half and you won’t go down there to let him say goodbye to you because you think you can’t leave the store.”
“Yeah,” said Harland. “I’m the only employee here.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Mr. Gredt. “The man is in half down there. Go let him say goodbye to you! I called Martha, she’s coming in to watch the counter for you while you’re gone, I don’t even care if you stay on the clock. The story of this guy being cut in half downtown is going to be in the paper tomorrow and everyone’s gonna read about it and the fact that he wanted to say goodbye to you because you’re such a nice employee is gonna make Everyhour Gas Station and Convenience Store look great. It’ll be great publicity. But it’ll be terrible publicity if you don’t go down there to let an in-half man say goodbye to you because you had to work the counter at a gas station on a night when you’ve had, what, eight customers since you’ve been there? Five?”
“I hardly know him,” said Harland. “I didn’t even know his name before tonight! He has no reason to say goodbye to me!”
“Don’t be heartless,” said Mr. Gredt. “And don’t change out of your Everyhour uniform when you go. If they’re taking pictures, take your coat off so people can see the uniform. Or wear the uniform over your coat? There are some XXL uniforms in the back room if yours won’t fit over your coat. Anyway, Martha should be there any minute. And don’t look disgusted or horrified in the pictures either. Look nice and friendly ‘cause that’s what we’re trying to emphasize about our store here, this is a great opportunity.” He hung up without saying goodbye thereby thwarting any potential for an attempted rebuttal from Harland which would have been futile anyway, of course.
Harland sat in numb silence behind the counter, trying not to think about anything from the last 15 minutes of his life, which was impossible. Horrific images and ideas had a way of sticking in his head no matter what, which was exactly why he was not going to go let Rich say goodbye to him. He could not afford to see something like that, who knew what kind of permanent damage it might do? Who knew how much permanent damage the mere idea had already done?
Martha came into the store looking bleary-eyed and sour. Harland hadn’t noticed Martha pulling into the parking lot and he jolted on his stool when the electronic bell sounded as she entered. It was the first time Harland had seen Martha without her silver hair pulled back in a tight ponytail.
“Mr. Gredt called me on the way over and told me I can’t let you leave without making sure you’ve got one of the XXL uniform shirts on over your coat,” said Martha.
“I’m not going,” said Harland. “I’m not going down there. You can go home, Martha, it’s fine.”
“No, no, no,” said Martha. “I already got out of bed and drove all the way over here, I’m getting the hour’s wage.”
“I’ll pay you the hour’s wage,” said Harland.
“You have to go,” said Martha. “Mr. Gredt told me what’s going on. You can’t leave that man to die alone.”
“He’s surrounded by cops and paramedics!” said Harland, his voice cracking. “He’s not alone!”
“You know that’s not the same,” said Martha. “You know what the right thing to do is.”
“Yes,” said Harland. “I do. The right thing to do is to not expose myself to a horrific situation like that.”
“That’s so selfish,” said Martha. “If that in-half man had wanted to say goodbye to me, I would have already been down there.”
“Well, I’m different than you,” said Harland. “Stuff really affects me. If I see that, I won’t be able to sleep. I’ll close my eyes and that’s all I’ll be able to see, staring right back in my face.” He looked over at Martha to see her dialing her phone and holding it to her ear.
“Mr. Gredt? Harland’s refusing to go…I know, that’s what I said…right…well, and more importantly than publicity, how does that in-half man feel?...OK, I’ll put him on.” Martha extended the phone toward Harland, but he backed away, refusing to accept it. “Stop being a baby, Harland, just take the phone.”
Harland shook his head.
“He won’t take the phone, Mr. Gredt…OK, I’m putting you on speaker…”
Harland clamped his hands over his ears and closed his eyes, but he could still hear Mr. Gredt’s tinny voice calling, “Harland? Harland!” through the phone and Martha saying, “He’s covering his ears, Mr. Gredt…OK, I’m taking you back off speaker…OK…all right, well, we’ll be here. Bye.”
After Martha hung up, Harland opened his eyes and took his hands away from his ears.
“You’re being childish,” said Martha. “Seeing horrific things is a part of life. It’s part of growing up.”
“What’s Mr. Gredt doing?” asked Harland. “He can’t fire me for not going down there. I’m doing my job! Letting in-half guys say goodbye to me was not in my job description!”
“I don’t know what he’s doing,” said Martha. “He just said to keep you here.”
“I don’t care if he comes down here in person,” said Harland. “I’d rather get chewed out than see that any day. Any day.”
“All matters of right and wrong aside,” said Martha, “I’d be interested in seeing an in-half guy who can still talk anyway. Just for the novelty. How many times do you think you’re gonna be able to see that?”
Harland did not want to speculate about or otherwise discuss Rich’s predicament so he brooded in silence until the police car, lights flashing, pulled into the Everyhour Gas Station and Convenience Store parking lot.
“Well,” said Martha. “I guess we know what this is about.”
Harland’s stomach felt deflated and floppy inside of him. The cops couldn’t make him go to the scene of accident, could they? There was no way there could be any kind of law about that, could there? No. No way. The cop who came into the store was accompanied by an attractive woman in her mid-30s carrying an open notepad and a pen. The cop and the woman walked up to the counter and the cop leaned forward, resting his elbows on it. He looked at Harland. “Harland Manstel?”
“I’m not going down there,” said Harland. “There’s no law that says I have to let him say goodbye to me.”
“That’s true,” said the cop. “But this woman here is a reporter for the Multioak Interpreter-Tribune and she’s covering the dramatic story of the accident. If you choose not to go down there, she’s got a few questions for you concerning why you would deny a man who has been cut in half the opportunity to tell you goodbye.”
“You’re blackmailing me,” said Harland. “You’re threatening my reputation.”
“It’s part of the story,” said the woman. “Saying goodbye to you is all Rich is talking about down there at the scene of the accident. He refuses to let us move the car that’s got him pinned so we can get on with our lives until we get you down there.”
“He doesn’t know anyone else?” asked Harland. “I was the only nice person he ever encountered in this town?”
The woman shrugged. “I think it’s safe to say that if he’d known how you’d react when he most needed you, he never would have picked you. But, for his sake, we’ve been shielding him from any news of your selfishness and cowardice. If you really do refuse to let him tell you goodbye in person, then we’ll tell him you couldn’t make it, we’ll make up an excuse so his spirit won’t be crushed in his final moments on Earth. But he won’t be around to see the story in the paper, of course, so there will be no need for excuses for your behavior in that. Not to mention the bad publicity for this business here. People might not want to shop at a place that employs such selfish people. Mr. Gredt might have no choice but to fire you.”
Harland felt cornered. These people weren’t going to stop. They were just going to keep pressuring him until he collapsed. Mr. Gredt, Martha, the cop, the reporter, Rich himself, and who knew who else was waiting in the wings to try some different tactic to get him down to the scene of the accident? It was either go downtown and witness the horrific scene or else be reduced to some kind of unemployable pariah to which everyone in town could feel superior. Harland stood up, grabbed his coat off of the hook on the wall, and walked out from behind the counter to the front door.
“Where are you going?” asked Martha. “You forgot the shirt.”
Harland stopped and leaned his forehead against the cold glass of the door. His breath fogged the glass. A black car pulled up to a pump.
“The uniform shirt,” said Martha.
Harland rested his hands on the glass at chest level, palms out.
“From the back room,” said Martha.
Harland pushed the door open a crack, he felt the cold air seeping in.
“Size XXL,” said Martha.
“I knooooow!” shouted Harland, holding the word until it ceased to be a word. Even the man pumping gas turned to see who was screaming.
Harland rode in the back seat of the police car. The cop drove and the reporter was in the front passenger’s seat. The XXL Everyhour Gas Station and Convenience Store uniform t-shirt barely fit over Harland’s bulky winter coat. It looked ridiculous.
“It really isn’t that bad,” said the cop. “As long as you don’t look under the car, which, why would you? There’s no reason to. So if you don’t look under the car, then I’ve seen much worse. Many times. He’s not even in any pain. Of course, that means he’s totally lucid and aware of everything that’s happening, so that’s pretty bad. But I’ve seen much worse. Much worse.”
“Me too,” said the reporter. “I cover all kinds of accidents and disasters and tragedies. Sometimes I can’t sleep from the things I’ve seen. But I’ll probably sleep just fine tonight. It’s really not that bad. I don’t think it’s going to haunt me. I really don’t.”
“Nah, it’s not gonna haunt me either,” said the cop. “Although…well, sometimes it’s surprising what haunts you. Sometimes it’s stuff you wouldn’t expect.”
“That’s true,” said the reporter. “Sometimes you see the worst thing imaginable and you’re like, well, I’m not gonna sleep for weeks and then you’re fine, but then sometimes you see something and you’re like, eh, not so bad, but then you get home and you crawl into bed and the rest of your family is already asleep and the house is dark and quiet and you feel very alone and suddenly that thing you saw that didn’t seem like such a big deal comes creeping back to you and-”
“So,” said Harland. “Who’re you guys’ favorite stand-up comedians? Do you think it’s a thriving art form?”
The scene of the accident did not look like Harland had imagined it. There were two police cars, one ambulance, a few scattered cops and paramedics, and an exhausted-looking man in a long overcoat who the reporter told Harland was the driver of the car that struck Rich. The scene was illuminated by street lights and the headlights from the cop cars. The ambulance was turned off, dark and still, one paramedic in white sitting on the hood looking at his phone.
As Harland, flanked by the cop and the reporter who had fetched him, approached the concrete planter against which Rich was pinned, his heart began to race and he felt like he might vomit. His view of Rich was obscured by one of the paramedics who stood with his hands in his pockets, his posture relaxed, having what looked from the back to be a casual conversation with Rich’s miraculously functional top half. The car, although not very nice, was almost entirely undamaged, from what Harland could see.
“Hey, we got Harland here,” said the cop, and the paramedic turned, nodded, and stepped aside, giving Harland his first look at Rich, who, although a little pale, looked pretty much like the top half of the guy who came into the store every once in a while and bought coffee and milk while whistling a jaunty tune. Rich smiled when he saw Harland approaching and sure enough, there were those messed up, crooked teeth, undamaged in the accident like the rest of his top half, which was wearing a black leather jacket zipped up to the chin, eyeglasses, and one of those camouflage hunting caps with fur-lined ear-flaps.
“Hello, Harland,” said Rich. “Come a little closer.” He looked to the paramedic, cop, and reporter. “Guys? Miss? Could you step back and give Harland and me a little privacy please?”
Harland took two tentative steps toward Rich whose hands were folded on the modestly crumpled hood of the car as if he were sitting at a dinner table. His smile had become of the closed-lip variety which, considering the state of his teeth, was an improvement. He looked at ease. For the first time, Harland allowed himself to believe that this situation might not actually be entirely, monumentally horrific. “So,” said Harland. “How do you feel, uh, Rich?”
“Keep your voice down,” said Rich, still smiling. “Keep it way down. They’re standing over there, yeah, but they’re listening as hard as they can, I promise you that.”
“Uh,” said Harland, matching Rich’s low tone. “What?”
“The thing is,” said Rich, “is that I feel everything. This is the worst. The worst. The. Worst.”
“But wait,” said Harland. “They told me you didn’t feel anything, that you were just, like-”
“Wrong,” said Rich. “I’m in half here, Harland, and I’m feeling everything. I’m even feeling pain in my lower half and I’m not even connected to it. This is the worst.”
“But you’re still smiling,” said Harland, flailing for something uplifting to which he could cling.
“That’s the worst part,” said Rich. “I can’t let my guard down around cops, reporters, not even paramedics. You know what I’m talking about.” He didn’t wink, but Harland got the impression that he would have had he not been worried about someone else noticing.
“I know what you’re talking about?” asked Harland. “I…don’t think I do.”
“Sure you do,” said Harland. “We talked about it when I came in to buy coffee and milk one time.”
“Talked about what?” asked Harland. He remembered no specifics about any conversation with Rich. Customers often made small talk with Harland during which Harland’s attention was partially engaged at best.
“Keep your voice way down,” said Rich. “We talked about the cops. Remember? And how they’re in league with the newspaper and the local TV stations. And I didn’t mention the paramedics at the time, but it seems pretty obvious now that they’re in on it too. Which means the fire fighters probably are too. All local government and media. This is just now occurring to me, but that means the librarians too, right?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Harland. “Is this why you called me down here? I thought you wanted to say goodbye to me.”
“That was just an excuse to have them help me get you down here,” said Rich. “You’re the only one who I can trust to deliver a message to my family. You’re the only other person Multioak who knows you can’t trust any of the local authority or media, no local government. I’m always hinting about it to people, feeling them out, and you’re the only person who ever responded, who ever knew.”
Harland knew exactly what must have happened. Rich had probably casually introduced the topic of some kind of conspiracy in local government and media, Harland had probably just nodded and said “yeah” and “I know” a lot without really listening, and Rich had taken that as complete agreement and gone further and further into his paranoid theories while Harland spaced out and made non-verbal sounds of concurrence whenever he became dimly aware of gaps in Rich’s monologue. There were several Everyhour customers who believed that Harland liked hearing racist jokes for similar reasons. “Hold on,” said Harland. “Your family? Where’s your family?”
“Right here,” said Rich. “In Multioak. My wife, my daughter, they’re in hiding. No one here knows they exist, though. Get it? They’re out of sight. They can’t be reached.”
“They should be the ones you’re saying goodbye to,” said Harland. “Not me.”
“Look around you,” said Rich. “If they came down to let me say goodbye to them, the cops would see them, the reporter, the paramedic. They’d know who they are. They’d swoop down on them like hawks. And besides, I can’t let my family see me like this, as just the top half of a man, it’s too horrific. It’s about as horrific as you can imagine. I’m living it, Harland, I’d never make my precious family have to witness it. I’d have to be some kind of ghoul!”
“OK,” said Harland. “I have to go now. I…I have to go back to work.”
“Hold on,” said Rich. “I haven’t given you the message to deliver to my family yet. And I haven’t told you how to find them.”
Harland looked back over his shoulder. The cop and the reporter who had picked him up were watching him. The reporter was snapping pictures with a camera she’d produced from somewhere. Mr. Gredt was going to be disappointed if the reporter used one of these pictures for the story in the paper since there was no Everyhour logo on the back of Harland’s XXL uniform shirt. Beyond the cop and the reporter, Harland saw the driver of the car that had pinned Rich against the planter. He had one hand in the pocket of his overcoat and with the palm of his other hand he rubbed his own cheek, staring at the ground in front of his feet. He looked awful.
“That’s the guy who hit me,” said Rich, noticing where Harland’s attention had fallen. “He hasn’t said a word to me, not even right after it happened. He won’t come any closer than that. When he called 911, all he said was, ‘There’s been an accident!’ over and over and then eventually he gave them the cross streets and that’s the last thing I’ve heard him say. I think he’s just waiting around to get his car back, but he can’t say that, of course, ‘cause when the car moves, I’m gonna die. He might be local government, for all I know. Maybe this whole thing is a set-up. That’s why I had to get you down here.”
“Listen,” said Harland, turning back to Rich. “I was probably just being polite when I agreed with you about all that grand conspiracy stuff. I don’t really believe it. I mean, I don’t know anything about it. I don’t even remember the conversation, honestly.”
“It’s not a grand conspiracy!” said Rich. “It stops at the local level! State government, federal government, that stuff’s all fine! It’s just Multioak!” For all his vehemence, his voice was still low and his pleasant smile still looked shockingly genuine.
“All right, all right,” said Harland. “Tell me where your family is.”
“OK, right,” said Rich. “This message is extremely important to my work here in Multioak, they’ll know which operatives to contact so my efforts will not have been in vain. And it’s going to be in code. But you can’t write it down, you have to memorize it. And it’s pretty long.”
“Fine,” said Harland. “We’ll get to that. But where are they?”
Rich lowered his voice to a mere whisper. “They’re housed in the basement of a modest home found at 1104 Brushwalter Street. Now, you’re going to have to-”
But before Rich could continue, Harland turned and walked toward the cop and the reporter, who looked at him with quizzical expressions as Rich shouted, “Harland! What are you doing?”
“He has a family,” said Harland. “A wife and a daughter. I imagine that they’ll want to know what’s going on here. They’re at 1104 Brushwalter Street. You’ll probably want to at least give them the option to say goodbye to him.”
“Traitor!” screamed Rich. “I trusted you and you were in league with the local authorities the whole time!”
As the cop went to confer with the other cops and the reporter scribbled in her notebook, Harland walked over to the morose driver, who still hadn’t looked up even though Rich was now screaming paranoid accusations.
“Hey,” said Harland.
The driver didn’t respond.
“I don’t know if this helps,” said Harland, “but I think the guy you hit might be some kind of terrorist. Pretty low level, probably, but still.”
The driver still didn’t respond.
“Well, that’s all,” said Harland. “I just thought maybe that’d help you feel a little less haunted by all this.”
Harland wasn’t offended when the driver still didn’t respond. He got it. Hitting a guy with your car and pinning him against a planter so he’s cut in half and the top half is still alive and talking and making requests and accusations and stuff would be really bad no matter who the guy was.
Harland walked back over to the reporter. “Can you give me a ride back to the gas station?”
“Will you tell me what you and Rich talked about?” asked the reporter. “On the record?”
“Sure,” said Harland as he pulled the XXL Everyhour Gas Station and Convenience Store uniform shirt off and balled it up in his hands.
“Traitor!” screamed Rich, pounding the hood of the car with his hands.
“Do you think his family is really going to want to see him like this?” asked the reporter.
“They’re probably used to it,” said Harland. “Other than the fact that he’s cut in half.”
Back at the gas station, Martha was asleep with her head on the counter. Harland didn’t want to wake her. She had such a peaceful smile on her face. Her sleep, from Harland’s perspective, appeared untroubled and serene. Harland didn’t know if he’d ever be able to sleep like that again. But, now that he thought about it, he’d never slept like that in his life, not even once, not even as a kid. So maybe it was a little silly to start trying for it now. But even so, he closed his eyes and tried to think about something pleasant. Just to see what would happen.