Percy Fickleweather

Percy Fickleweather stopped for gas at the Road Oasis because the service station’s fluorescent glow had cut through the surrounding forest and drawn him in like a bug-zapper. He sat in his car while the attendant pumped his gas; surprised that full service was still available.

The attendant, an old man in saggy coveralls, leaned on Percy’s door while the gas pumped. The man’s skin had an unhealthy green pallor in the bluish lights. “Where’re you going at this time of night?”

“My family’s got a lake house at Wanaka. I’m meeting them there,” Percy thought the man should have been washing his windows.

“Wanaka’s hours from here. You know these forest roads?”

“My family always takes 71, but I was coming from a different direction. I’ve got a map. This way is quicker.”

“The tarmac goes out in about fifty miles. Then there’s no guarantee of road condition. And with the rain we’ve been having, there could be a washout.”

“But the road goes through, right?” Percy thought the old man asked too many questions, that he should just stick to his job and mind his own business.

“And there’re no more service stations until Chesapeake, but by then you’re past Wanaka.”

“The map shows that the road goes through to Wanaka.”

The fuel pump clicked and the nozzle jerked in the attendant’s hand. “I’ll put a little extra in your tank for you.” He smiled weakly at Percy, “Call it twenty five even.”

Percy leaned back and glanced at the pump. The dial read 24.67. “I’ll call it what I actually owe you,” he lifted a hip and slipped out his wallet. He thumbed through the bills in his wallet and extracted two tens and four ones. Then he dug in his coin tray for the exact change. He frowned and shook his head as he counted the money. Some people think they can take advantage of you, just because you’re not local. Some people don’t know what’s coming. “Here’s your money. It’s all there. You watched me count it.”

“I sure did.” The old man held out a withered hand, cracked and dulled with oil and gasoline.

“Thanks,” Percy started the car and put it in drive.

“Be careful. Look son, you can always head west on 34 out of Wheeler. That will put you back on 71.”

“I have a map,” Percy shook his head and drove off into the dark woods.

That was at least four hours ago. The attendant had been right about the tarmac disappearing. The hum of tires on asphalt ended abruptly and had been replaced by a rough churning sound, accompanied by the occasional plink of rocks off the undercarriage. Percy had slowed his speed considerably, from 90 to 65, but he was not worried about losing too much time. A shortcut was a shortcut.

The gravel road was soft and full of ruts and puddles. Percy’s car bounced and bolted through every mile. Percy had turned his music louder to drown out the gravel’s noise, but the bumps had caused the discs to skip and he was forced to turn on the radio. The radio played country music and static. Percy couldn’t believe that people allowed themselves to live like this. It was one thing to have a lake house where you lived for a week or two every year, where you brought in your amenities from the civilized world, but to think that people willingly subjected themselves to this sort of bucolic hell made Percy worry about the fate of humanity.

There were no lights along the road, which made reading the map very hard to do. He passed a house with a large light attached to their windmill and he pulled over to the side of the road. The windmill’s light was strong enough to illuminate the map, but Percy wasn’t exactly sure where he was on the map. There were no signposts or landmarks on the road. Who builds a road with no signs on it? Did the locals divine their way by reading bark patterns on the pine trees? Percy refolded the map and tossed it into the backseat. It was worthless. But he knew he was going the right way. He could feel it.

The car’s fuel light had come on, the red-orange glow caught Percy’s attention immediately. He had never driven the car until it was empty before, but he was sure that the car could get another ten miles. Probably more like twenty. At this point, Wanaka was probably less than twenty miles away. He would be fine. The scenic route had saved him so much time that he’d probably beat his family to the lake house. Finally, his brothers would see that he’s not always the screw-up they think he is.

Despite the less than favorable road conditions, he accelerated. He didn’t want to run out of gas because he was driving to slowly. The road was softer here than it had been and he could feel the tires swerving slightly. He accelerated further, returning to 90 miles per hour, and it felt like his car slid, rather than drove, over the gravel road.

Then his car was sliding, spinning counterclockwise, as it hit a glassy puddle of water that covered the width of the road. Percy stepped hard on the brakes and jerked the wheel to the right, and the whole car came up on its two right tires. He let go of the steering wheel as the car dropped back to all four wheels. His foot remained on the break until the car had stopped spinning. Percy opened his eyes.

His car was still on the road. He was in the middle of the puddle and the car’s headlights on the water made it look like quicksilver. How many revolutions had the car spun? The trees looked the same on either side of the road and Percy had no idea which way was the way he was coming or the way he was going.

He glanced over his shoulder at the discarded map on the seat and tightened his grip on the steering wheel.

He accelerated.

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