We stop at the gas station in the desert, the last one for a hundred miles. Kaia grabs a Coke from the refrigerator case, twists the cap, drinks half of it right there with the door still open, the artificial chill rolling over her sweaty skin.
I stand in the snack aisle and watch her.
Kaia’s going to leave me. I’ve suspected it for weeks. Every morning that I wake up and she’s already out of bed, already painting in the other room, I lie there thinking, This is it.
Maybe she’ll dump me out here on the road, under the ominous sky.
We pay the attendant, a bored woman with a silver nose-ring. I drop a quarter on the floor and pick it up, hand it to her without thinking. She snorts and takes it. Afterwards, I realize it was my change, not hers.
“I can’t believe you didn’t buy anything,” Kaia says when we’re back in the car. She’s clearly frustrated. “We’re going to be driving for hours.”
Five minutes later we’re still mired in silence and the world ends.
We stop at the gas station in the desert, the last one for a hundred miles. Kaia buys a Vitamin Water and I stand by the snacks and watch her take her first sip.
It seems familiar, somehow.
Kaia presses the bottle to the back of her neck and the sudden cold makes her shiver. When was the last time I made her feel like that?
I pay for Kaia’s drink and make myself smile at the attendant. The woman seems puzzled. “Haven’t we done this before?” she asks.
I hand her a quarter, but I don’t know why. She takes it.
Back in the car, Kaia says, “You should have bought Doritos.”
She’s going to break up with me as soon as we get to Santa Fe.
Which never happens, because the world ends.
We stop at the gas station in the desert, and I watch the TV over the counter. The asteroid is almost here, the same footage playing in a relentless loop. The scientists have a plan involving “temporal wormholes.” It’s supposed to give them the time they need to find a solution, but who knows? It seems pointless to hope.
I’d wanted to cancel the road trip, but Kaia insisted. “Come on, Lauren. It either hits us or it doesn’t, and I want to see art.”
I keep watching footage of the asteroid while Kaia pays for her coffee and jokes with the attendant. When we get back to the car, she drops a quarter in our change bin for tolls we’ll never have to pay.
We stop at the gas station in the desert, and argue in the car. The air conditioning strains to cool us despite the sudden loss of motion.
“The world isn’t always ending.” Kaia grabs her sandal from the footwell and shoves it on her foot.
I point to the sky. “Wake up, Kaia. The asteroid is going to hit any minute.”
She looks me in the eye. “But not this minute, Lauren. And maybe not the next minute either. Hell, maybe not ever!”
I grab my wallet from the nook in the dash. She’s asking me to ignore the huge ball of death hurtling at our planet. She’s asking me for the impossible.
When I get back to the car with a coffee I don’t want and pretzels I won’t eat, I realize she wasn’t talking about the asteroid.
We stop at the gas station in the desert, and I pump our gas while Kaia goes inside. She comes back with two drinks and a handful of snacks. She tosses me some Lays. I study the list of ingredients.
“Just eat the damn things, Lauren.” But she laughs when she says it, and for once, I don’t look for signs of anything beyond that.
I pop open the bag and toss a chip into my mouth. It shatters when I bite down, the salt stinging my lips. Kaia offers me a sip of her iced tea. It’s overly sweet and absolutely delicious.
“How have I never tried this before?” I ask.
“You have,” she says. She takes my hand and presses my wrist to her mouth for a kiss. She says, “God, I love road trips.”
I wish the world wouldn’t end, but it does.
We stop at the gas station in the desert, turn off the car, and go inside. I already know the attendant’s name is Carmen. I already know everything. We have been to this gas station a thousand times. I grab two more chairs and the three of us drink beer and eat snacks. I hold Kaia’s hand and laugh and wait for the world to end.
Except this time, it doesn’t.
I wake up the next morning, and we’re still in the gas station. Carmen’s asleep behind the cash register and Kaia is snuggled up next to me by the sunglass rack, her arm across my chest.
After we clean up and say goodbye to Carmen, Kaia and I hit the road. The sky is a strange, asteroid-free blue. Kaia rolls down her window and lets the hot air blast her face.
It feels good to be on the road. It feels good not to be standing in the snack aisle. For once, I don’t think about endings.
(Editors’ Note: “The World Ends in Salty Fingers and Sugared Lips” is read by Joy Piedmont on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 35A.)
© 2020 Jenn Reese