Under an Empty Sky by JT Strand

It’s not like I-80 through Nebraska. There, it’s just cornfields and those blue road signs that advertise food and gas options at the next exit, with lots of construction this time of year. It’s not like US50 through Nevada, referred to by truckers and roadsters alike as the most “desolate” stretch of highway in the country, with literally nothing for hundreds of miles. No cornfields. No prairie. Just sand and rock with some occasional brush. Yet, isn’t that just another kind of beauty?  It is still something, just not everyone’s cup of tea.

But here, on I-36… this is vacant. There are some low-rising hills. There’s even the occasional curve to jolt you out of a hot day’s waking coma. On either side of the road, there’s prairie for grazing land–good grazing land.  When heading west you even have the Rockies to look forward to–not quite on the horizon from where I’m idling, but another couple dozen miles or so and you’ll see ‘em.  Keep driving west on 36 and you’ll run into my alma mater, the University of Colorado (Go Buffs) nestled in one of the most picturesque spots in the country. The towering dusty red flatirons perpetually observe the campus with stony silence and on days like today you can make out rock climbers on ‘em.  And that sky… People back east don’t understand why we call it ‘big sky country’ until they see it… The deep dark blue, almost black, hues with little threads of cloud passing overhead…. The sky.  The maddeningly beautiful sky.  The same one over Boulder, hovers over this stretch of the highway… But here it is nothing but a hideous complement to the emptiness–to the empty farm houses, the deserted towns, the broken fence lines that used to keep Black Angus cattle on the range. Here it laughs and cackles. Here I look up from the nothingness just to see more of it and the promise of more.  

I’ve been stopped on the crest of one of the low-rising hills for scarcely five minutes, right by the side of the road.  A remarkable view of … tragedy.  No one has come by and no one will come by.  A once bustling gas station is behind me. It had old pumps–the kind that drivers had to occasionally siphon because they can be unreliable. Windows are broken and part of the east wall had collapsed, leaving small piles of faded red bricks on the ground. Nothing grows on them. Even the prairie grass has steered clear of those vestiges of death.  There is no graffiti on the remaining walls.  Who would bother out here?  But there is still a picnic bench.  I backed to within a half dozen feet or so and have been staring at it through the rearview.  It’s old, but… I sat on it last week and it could do good for others. It could still support a family–one interested in a small meal while the gas station attendant checks under the hood, refills the oil, puts air in the tires and maybe comes over to ask if Dad “would be interested in new wiper blades or a spare canister of antifreeze. The mountains get pretty cold.” It could…  

I take them out of the trunk. I set up Dad first–propping his chin on a faded-orange cooler.  I balance his head with two old soda bottles filled with Indian head nickels, carefully sticking the nozzles into his ears, until he looks like he is bowing in prayer.  Mom is easier.  She just leans against Dad’s shoulders.  Across the table, each of the kids just requires a single can of soda for their tiny heads.  Mom holds Dad’s hand.  Little Paula is opposite Dad. Both have their arms outstretched towards each other, with Paula’s tiny fingers wrapped around Dad’s middle three.   Billy is opposite Mom.  He has his arms crossed.  He’s not interested in praying before the meal–not today.  He’s upset because there’s no one in the gas station to sell him candy.  The clerk seems to be out for a while… but… I have a hunch he’ll be around soon.  Billy may have to wait a few days though. 

I leave them.  They don’t need someone gawking around during meal time.  They are dead–in a place that’s dead–but at least… now… it’s no longer perverted by emptiness.  (Soon the church and school won’t be either.)     

JT suffers from chronic insomnia and has lived in a dozen states, plus several countries. He has worked for Apple Computer, the U.S. Navy (Intelligence) and has a Master’s degree in Political Science. He has published hundreds of articles for pay at Horror Freak News. In addition to numerous short stories, he has also completed three novel-length manuscripts that tend towards the darker, speculative side of our psyches. Twitter: @DarkJTStrand

Published 5/12/19