UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI

Fossil Fuel

by Duncan Rivers

Someday, they’ll use our remains to fuel whatever machines are moving tomorrow and we’ll all be nothing but gasoline. And these prices, if they keep rising like they are, we’ll be worth a fortune. Hell, I’ll be worth more than what I am now, a relic of the past, bound either for a Museum of Natural History or for the second pump at a Shell station.

I’m thinking of dinosaurs, not just because I’m filling up my car, but because their bones have been scattered all over my road trip through the Badlands. I’m seeing them on every poster, restaurant and cheap attraction. Phony plastic statues line the desolate side roads and the one that I assume is meant to be a triceratops across the street has eyes that feel like they’re following me. I’m so caught up in his gaze that I don’t hear the man approach me from behind.

“Excuse me,” he whispers over my shoulder. “Do you have any gas money?”

Some people are cold with folks like him, shooing them away with a grunt and a wave. It’s just getting dark, the sun setting behind the triceratops, but I don’t get a threatening impression from him.

“Gas money?” I reply, looking around the otherwise empty station. “You have a car?”

He’s flustered by my inquisition and I can tell that I’m the first one who’s engaged with him today. I watch the cogs turning in his brain, the visual manifestation of his debate over whether to tell me the truth or not, his eyes darting back and forth like that stupid triceratops across the street.

“I’ll be honest with you.” He says.

I knew it.

“I don’t have a car, but I need some cash to get somewhere. Quick.”

“I have nowhere to be.” I say. “I can give you a ride.”

Instead of grinning triumphantly after calling his bluff, I’m taken aback when he tells me that a ride would be perfect and seats himself on the passenger side of my car. I finish filling my tank, then tell the man to wait inside while I go pay. He’s still sitting there casually when I come out, so I take him on the road with me, turning right at the triceratops to get back on the empty streets.

“Where are you going?” I ask.

“Harby Motel.” He answers promptly, like speaking quicker will make the ride shorter. I notice that his legs are shaking, which at first seemed like a symptom of withdrawal, but now I can sense another source of tension. “It’s on Highway 3.”

We pass at least a dozen more statues of unintentionally disfigured Dinos, some from the Jurassic period, others from the Cretaceous, as if those who installed them had no care for historical accuracy. I laugh at the tableau of the T-Rex standing off against the Stegosaurus, telling my passenger they lived about eighty million years apart from one another, but I notice he’s gone cold on me and his eyes are glued on something ahead.

Just before our turn onto Highway 3, we see event staff putting the finishing touches on the outdoor stage off the side of the road. A big banner hangs over the stage, reading BANNON INC., and the dozens of seats are just starting to fill with shirts and ties. The balding, pale heads of aging congressmen and their unsatisfied wives will soon fill the seats. I read about this yesterday, wishing I’d postponed my trip here to avoid it, but it was too late. It’s the grand opening of the new Bannon pipeline.

“What do you think of this?” I ask my passenger.

I notice his legs stop shaking, but it’s not because he’s been put at ease. His eyes, almost desperate-looking now, scan over the crowd as we pass.

“I’ll tell you what,” I continue. “Regardless of one’s thoughts on the pipeline, it’s almost impressive what they’ve done. How one company can be so universally hated, by effectively every cultural subgroup on the planet, and yet still be the sixth richest company in the world is beyond-“

“Fourth.” He interrupts me.

I take a second to register that he’s broken his silence. “What’s that?”

“Fourth richest.” He corrects me. “Bannon is fourth richest.”

I stare at him for a moment, but his eyes still won’t meet mine. There’s a heaviness to his look and his mind looks busy, so I do my best to keep quiet for the rest of the ride.

My passenger starts crying when we get to the motel parking lot, not sobbing, but the silent kind that I don’t notice until I look over at him. I tell the part of me that wants to ask him what’s wrong to shut up and let him take his time. It’s an uncomfortable energy, but I feel responsible to give him space. I have my suspicions as to what he’s doing and who he’s meeting here, but I’m patient with my words.

“I’ve never been able to give them anything.” He finally says.

“Who?” I ask.

“My kids. I just wanna leave something behind for them. He told me he’ll make sure I do.”

“Who told you?” I try to ask, but finally he opens the door and leaves me. I watch him amble past the other cars in the lot and knock on the door of Room 11. After only a few seconds, a young man opens it and practically yanks him inside. My passenger doesn’t look back at me, he doesn’t even get the chance.

I feel my breathing growing heavier, my chest getting warmer, like no matter how high I crank the air conditioning I’ll still feel like I’m melting. I stare at the closed blinds in the window of his room, then I shut my car off and get out. I march across the lot, looking around to make sure no one is watching, and instead of going to the door, I crouch down and peer through the slats in the blinds.

It’s hard to get a good angle at first, but finally I can make out what’s what in the room. There are more folks inside than I expected, and not the clientele I had assumed. These people are young and dressed fashionably, more like the members of a Poli Sci seminar than a late night motel meetup. My passenger is standing at the edge of the bed, the same sullen look on his face as a woman with the left half of her head shaved puts her hand on his shoulder to calm him. I struggle to make any sense of the scene, knowing I must look perverse in this state, but my heart sinks into my stomach as my curiosity wins out and I see what’s on the bed.

Two young men stand over it, touching it only delicately when they have to, and my passenger’s eyes are locked on it. It’s a black vest, wires and thick white canisters lining the outside. I want to pull away and vomit on the ground, but I keep watching as the shaved-head girl puts a set of car keys in my passenger’s pocket and pats his shoulder again. Then, from the other side of the room, holding a coffee cup in hand and looking calmer than all the other patrons, comes a long-haired man to put his arm around my passenger. It’s the same man who pulled him into the room, and although I can’t hear what he asks, I see my passenger answer him and his face turn white. The long-haired man spins his head around to the window, looking me right in the eye before I have the chance to duck out of sight.

I scurry off the ground and begin to make for my car, but I only get a few paces away before the motel door opens and he calls after me.

“Hey!”

I stop in my tracks, turning slowly to face him in the doorway, looking him up and down with my heart in my throat. His tight tan dress pants are cut off just above his ankles, with his white T-Shirt tucked into them, the words This Is Stolen Land printed in bold across the front. His calm demeanor from inside has all but dissipated and he’s clutching his coffee cup so tightly that it starts to crumple. We stare at one another for a few too many weighty breaths, then, realizing he doesn’t know what to do with me, I turn and keep marching to my car, praying he won’t follow.

I get in and don’t look back, pulling out of the lot while my heart races, barely looking both ways on the highway to see that no cars are coming. I just drive for a while, back towards the dinosaur statues, passing a few but barely paying them any mind for the first time. Suddenly, I don’t find them so funny.

I’m pulled off on the side of Highway 3, about a mile before the turnoff to the Bannon pipeline opening, the sun fully out of view and the sea of stars above on full display. I find no tranquility in this place’s beauty tonight, opting instead to blast my radio and listen to the ball game. It’s all statistics, though. They tell me every player’s batting average as he steps into the box, then his slugging percentage at home, his on-base percentage against each pitcher and how many RBIs he has on his current twelve-game hitting streak. I thought the numbers might numb me, but maybe statistics aren’t the best choice at the moment.

Before my mind gets any clarity as to what action I should be taking, I see a beat-up green sedan approaching me from behind and I recognize it from the motel lot. My chest swells and I wish that I had more time, because even as it gets right up behind me, I don’t know what I should do about it. Just before it passes, I swing my door open and step out onto the highway. The tires screech and the car comes to halt only a few inches in front of me on the otherwise empty roads. My passenger is alone in the car, his eyes lit up like prey as he stares at me, his vest blinking red.

He’s clutching the wheel so carefully you’d think he was taking his driver’s test, and although I get him to stop, I can’t think of what to do next. He stares at me for a while, like the long-haired man at the motel, but like me, he realizes that I’m not going to do anything else, so he turns his wheels and drives right around me. I watch his tail lights disappear down the way, then I get back into my car and scream.

There’s a giant, red brontosaurus across the street, watching me fall apart in my car. I do nothing but yell and struggle to pull my cell phone from my pocket for the next twenty minutes, then I hear the number two batter step up to the plate for the home team and slam a no-doubter out of the park. As the crowd erupts on my radio, I hear the faintest suggestion of a blast about a mile ahead of me on the road. After a minute, they stop commenting on the replay of the home run and I can see the smoke starting to rise in the moonlight way off in the distance. Another five minutes later and the game is tied up on a double from the clean-up hitter and the first fire truck passes me, shaking my car as it goes by. At least another ten emergency vehicles follow it in the next few minutes, and finally, just as I get the sense that the home team is going to end this game on a walk-off RBI, the broadcast cuts away.

We apologize for this interruption, but we have breaking news out of-

I switch stations before they can get any statistics out, but then the mundane arts and culture show that plays gets cut off too. I change the station over and over, hearing each one cut off one after another, only hearing snippets of the story as I flick through.

‚Ķdevastating attack at the opening of Bannon’s new-

At least two state Senators were in attendance, including-

…unclear at this time what the motive is, but it seems clear that-

I finally find peace on the classical station. Chopin swells up like the smoke in the distance, and although I don’t want to keep looking, I can’t make myself stop. Soon, the moon is all but blacked out by the smoke, and I can barely see the brontosaurus across the street looking down at me, but I know he’s still there.

Exhaustion gets the better of me once I shut my car off, and not even the rush of sirens passing can keep me awake. Eventually, I figure one will pull over and ask me some questions since I’m in the vicinity. I don’t want to think about how I’ll answer just now. I just want to sleep.

I dream that I’m millions of years in the future, but not in a way that gives me any foresight as to where we’re headed. Instead, I’m buried under billions of pounds of dirt and rubble, packing me down like the rest of the human race and turning us into oil. Then, when the pressure mushes us all together, a great big rusted drill comes down and sucks us all out, pumping us into a pipeline and sending us on our way. It’s not quite hell, but it’s as far from heaven as you could imagine. And those of us they don’t use to fuel their machines get turned into plastic, molded into haunting figures of what we once were. We line their highways, watching the passers-by, praying that maybe one of them will stop and take a picture with us.

They never do. They just laugh and keep driving.

Duncan Rivers is a carpenter by day and writer by night, whose fiction is published/forthcoming in Wilderness House Literary Review. He lives in Toronto, Ontario, where he can usually be found struggling to walk his lazy dog and working on his debut novel.