Forty Miles Outside of Phoenix

By Eleanor Rudnitsky-Brown

     Morning was Hanson Crawford’s favorite time of day. The air never smelled as fresh and clean as it did when the first few rays of sun peaked out from the darkness, illuminating the shiny pumps lined up perfectly side by side. Each time he inched slowly into the cramped parking spot behind the whitewashed convenience store, he felt a trickle of anticipation between his toes. Occasionally, he even took a running start before launching himself at the well-oiled door. It flew open with a slight whistle, the loud chime of the bell announcing his presence, and for a moment he surveyed his little kingdom: one snack aisle, two refrigerators filled with milk and Fresca, a row of ready-to-eat meals, an alcohol shelf, and a small table balancing a large cash register. Currently, he was doing just that, searching all four corners of the store with his wide-set hazel eyes, the left one twitching minutely after every third blink.

     That morning the bell had clanged with particular force and it was still reverberating as he lumbered toward the cash register, shoving the keys back into the pocket of his crisp jeans. He knew someone was coming. Ten minutes ago as he was speeding along the desert highway, he had seen a black Toyota appear behind him. In three minutes it would pull up at a pump and the driver, most likely a heavyset man in his early forties, would get out. That meant that Hanson had another two minutes before a case of beer and two bags of potato chips would plop down in front of him. Sometimes they’d buy a can of soda or a pack of cigarettes, but usually it was beer and chips, enough to last until the next rest stop. He’d stopped eating chips two years ago because he was sick of touching the slick plastic and hearing the crinkling sound that slithered through his eardrums. He had never liked beer.

     Now he was behind the register, punching in the key code that unlocked the drawer and groaning as he always did at how uncomfortably modern the device was compared to the surroundings in which it lived. He often wished that he could smash it to pieces with one of the pool queues he kept under the table in case of robbery, and replace it with something that matched the severely slanted shelf in the far corner.

     Just as he heard the tiny click that signaled the drawer opening and the beginning of the work day, a screech of tires informed him that the unknown customer was over the speed limit, and headed towards the pump closest to the store. Sure enough, two and a quarter minutes later a case of beer, a bag of chips, and a pack of cigarettes landed on the table, narrowly missing his knuckles.

     Coughing at the wave of exhaust fumes that floated off the stranger and swept over him, he quickly muttered the price without looking up, his eyeball rolling in its socket from the smoke. As soon as he felt the comforting roughness of the folded green paper in his palm, his elbow bent sharply, and the bills were deposited inside the steel drawer before the greasy-haired giant had retreated two steps.  

     He waited until the tank was full, the pump replaced, and the car occupied; until three cigarette butts flew out the window, a loud squeal pierced the air, and his visitor became a mere dot on the horizon. Then, he pulled out a large bottle from its hiding place under the desk and began to move through the aisles, spraying the contents of it in a hazy cloud. As soon as the familiar “lemony-fresh” scent pervaded his nostrils, the tension in his shoulders receded, and he resumed his place behind the table, back straight and hands clasped, the perfect model of a store cashier.

     He had often been complimented on his poise. Customers, delivery guys, even assailants were impressed with his calm and deliberate quality of movement. This had proved useful during the several robberies he’d suffered through in the past. Once, a masked attacker even left a few bucks behind as thanks for his steady obedience.

     He recalled the coldness of the weapon that had caressed the rough hairs on the back of his neck; the way it hummed, matching the vibration of his own adrenaline, how his eyes watered in their sockets, forcing him to see everything with more than usual clarity.

     He was pulled from his thoughts by the tinkling of the bell. Clearing his throat, he lowered his hand from where it had been raised towards his neck. He was still thinking of the inflexible metal when he first caught sight of the flames.

     The woman was fire. She wasn’t on fire, or carrying fire in some way, she was literally fire. Flames danced across her skin emitting waves of sparks that evaporated as quickly as they came. She seemed to be wearing clothing, but he could not be sure due to the dancing flares that enveloped her. He could do nothing but stare as she passed over the threshold, her gait reminding him of a red-feathered swan, gliding across a silvery ocean. All that he could make out about her face was that it belonged to a serene looking woman. Her features could not be defined. One moment she looked positively elderly, and the next she had acquired the fresh face of a young girl. He was unable to move, and could only watch as her orange-tinged mouth opened.

     “My car broke down a couple miles back,” she moved forward gracefully, “Alright if I wait here for the tow truck?”

     He nodded dazedly. She smiled, and then lifted her eyebrows slightly. Mechanically, he reached for the wooden stool beside him and brought it around the counter to where she was waiting, arms crossed, body rippling. Thanking him brightly, she perched herself on the edge of the smooth surface.

     Biting back don’t, he lowered his arm from where it had raised in the direction of the fire extinguisher, and watched in amazement as the flames neither caught the stool on fire or so much as left her skin. For a few minutes he stood stock still, staring at her as she quietly smouldered. Then, after working through several scenarios, all of which involved grabbing the cash register and running like hell out the back door, he decided that the best course of action was a cigarette. She watched, the hint of a smile in her eyes, as he pulled one out of his emergency pack that lay in his right jacket pocket. The smile grew as he searched frantically through the rest of his pockets.

     “Here,” she held out her hand. He instinctively backed away. She beckoned to him self-assuredly. Curiosity overtaking him, he slowly held it out to her. She plucked it impatiently from between his fingers, and he felt a wave of heat brush over his knuckles. For a moment it rested between her index finger and thumb, as cool as a winter morning in Minneapolis. Then, it disappeared into two gently waving flames that extended from the middle of her other palm, intertwined together like veins.

     At that moment and for the second time that day, a loud screech of tires sounded out and he jerked his head up in time to see a large white truck pull up out front. Unconsciously sighing with relief at this crumb of normality, he took a long drag from the now lit cigarette that had slid between his fingers, and moved behind the counter muttering repeatedly “thirty seconds.” Sure enough, thirty seconds later, the bell pealed, and a disheveled looking trucker stomped through the door, his eyes dull and unfocused. Without so much as a second glance towards the burning woman, he grabbed a case of beer and a bag of chips from their respective shelves, and plopped them down on the counter. Habit kicking in, Hanson began to check them out, all the while watching the flickering of the flames closest to the customer, a spare inch of air between them and him.

     The items having been bagged, the man inclined his head once towards Hanson, gave a noncommittal grunt in the woman’s direction, and then plodded out the way he came. Once the car had spluttered safely away, Hanson collapsed into his chair. Marveling at his own listlessness, he wondered if he had finally cracked.

     “You said thirty seconds.” Her voice rang out, and he noticed for the first time that it was raspy but musical.

     “So?” he asked without thinking.

     “So it was thirty seconds, exactly. How’d you know?”

     “Can you set that thing on fire?” He pointed to the cash register. She appeared taken aback. He began to blink again. “It doesn’t fit here. If I smash it to tiny slanted pieces they’ll know it was me, but if you set it on fire...well then I can just blame it on whatever the hell kind of phenomenon you are.” She looked analytically at him. “Unless I’m just insane, in which case I’ll lose my job anyway.” He gave a brittle chuckle.

     “Why does everything have to fit?” she asked curiously. He took another long puff.

     “It’s my job.”

     “You sell beer to truckers.”

     “They need it.”

     “To cause more accidents?”

     “Says the woman who invented the twenty car pile up,” he said, uncomprehending his own smoothness.

     “I did not.”

     “Oh yeah? What happens when someone checks their rearview mirror?”

     “Most people are blind,” she said softly.

     He sat up abruptly, flicking the cigarette into the trash bin beside the door with his now shaking fingers. He was beginning to sense the adrenaline that before had been masked by shock, but now could be felt coursing through him. He focused on the cash register, the glimmering colors reflected on the steely white surface becoming hypnotic.

     The crimson lines traced each shiny black key, the letters as clear as those summer mornings back when he had a bike and a ponytail and delivered the daily paper. He recalled the crisscrossing roads he had peddled along, each customer’s half-open robe and wide smile, how every throw was needed, and every landing made its mark.

     A surge of electricity hurtled to his head, and he sprung up. Lunging forward, he latched onto the repulsive device and held it firmly in both hands. He gazed at it for a moment, and then chucked it clear across the room, reveling in the sudden flash of sureness. There was a long pause, and then—

    “How was it?” The woman hadn’t so much as blinked.

     Hanson stared at the shambled carcass to the left of the cookie aisle, his left eyelid fluttering more rapidly than ever. He glanced towards the slanted shelf, and then back towards the pile of metal. They still didn’t match. Now, nothing remained between him and the creature that still sat as calmly as he had felt a mere three hours ago. His eyes moved back to her.

    “What are you?” he asked.

     She looked older and more tired than she had a second ago. “I asked my question first.”

     He reached under the table for a broom. “Unfulfilling.”

    “Why do you think that was?”

     “What is this, a goddamn therapy session? Besides, it’s your turn.”

     She crackled loudly. “I’m a fucking tree. What does it look like I am?”

     He paused for a moment. “Fire.” The word tasted funny in his mouth, as if it didn’t want to be said.

     “Sometimes I am.”

     “And sometimes you’re not?”

     This time she looked a thousand years old. “Only to the blind.”

     “Lady, I’m not blind.” He tramped over to the shattered register and began to sweep the pieces up. “Insane? I’d have to go with a maybe.” He picked up one of the sides of the machine, and froze. “Shit. Shit, shit, shit.” He looked down horrified at the pile of torn green paper that lay forgotten underneath.

     His mind went into overdrive. “Here’s the deal, I’m telling them it was you who threw it because you were crazy and very drunk and I tried to stop you but you were stronger than me, also you were a dude.”

     She chuckled. “How does that explain the charring?”

     “What charr—” he stopped, as with a mere flick of her fingers, a flame whizzed past him, and landed on the stack of paper. The fire spread rapidly, and soon he was forced to back away from the burning money. He swiveled his head towards the now middle-aged looking woman.

     “What the hell is your problem?” He was flushed with anger.

      She stood up. “I was just finishing what you started.”

     “I didn’t start anything.”

     “You threw a cash register.”

     “Only so it would fit in.” For some reason he wasn’t moving towards the fire extinguisher.

    “Well now it does,” she stood up.

    “No, it doesn’t because now it’s on fire,” he screamed, his head jutting forward comically.  

    “That doesn’t mean you can’t still make it match,” she said persuasively.

     His breath coming in gasps, he gazed at the crackling flames. They reminded him of the ones under the cheap burner his Mom used to fry his eggs on. She scorched them every time. He recalled how she’d hum to Mozart disastrously off-key while salting his breakfast potatoes and lecturing him on his future. The heat began to rise, and as it seeped through his skin he felt just like one of her eggs; charred on the outside, hard in the middle, done. It was then that he reached beside him, lifted a bottle of vodka from the shelf, and threw it into the fire.

    The next few minutes were a blur. Somehow, he managed to crawl out the door and away from the leaping flames that threatened to keep him in their grasp. A force seemed to be pulling him along, even when he felt as if he would collapse from the heat and lack of air, he kept moving. It was only when he had made it across the road, and his head had begun to stop swimming so wretchedly, that he remembered the woman. He could tell she was standing behind him by the warmth at his back. It was a different kind of heat than what had caused him to heave so uncontrollably—familiar, and almost comforting. She waited until the loud hacking had become something more akin to a normal cough, before sitting down beside him. He looked at her. Still flaming, and her face practically childlike, she gazed back at him. The fire before them grew in height, illuminating the desert for miles around. He frowned.

     “Where’s your car?”

     She shrugged in reply. They both watched the sparks leave the blackening carcass of the former gas station and ascend to the heavens. He noticed how tame hers seemed in comparison. He also noticed how soft the sand was beneath his fingertips.

     He did not think about the slanted shelf, or the crinkling of chip bags. He did not wish that the smell of smoke was the scent of lemon, or that the driver of the car that sped hurriedly past had stopped in for a beer. He did not even think about the cash register. What he thought about was how large the world seemed under the light of the blaze, and how bright and inviting it suddenly looked.

     He turned to face the burning angel beside him, to tell her that he was free, to ask where she was going and if he could come with her, to ask for her name; but she was no longer there, had disappeared into the dust-filled smoke, leaving behind only the warmth of her presence. The sun was just beginning to rise.