Friday 6 July 2012

#FridayFlash - Population, One

Bobby Giles sat in his rocking chair behind the counter at the Axford Drive ‘n’ Dine. He glanced over his newspaper at the clock – only twenty minutes until closing time.

The bell over the door jangled and a gust of cold wind ruffled the newspapers in the rack. Bobby wrapped his gnarled hands around the arms of the chair and heaved himself upright. A stranger stood on the door mat, brushing stray snowflakes from a battered trilby hat. Bobby’s practiced eye took in the three-piece pinstripe suit and pocket watch beneath the black overcoat, and raised an eyebrow.

“Good evening, sir. Don’t trouble yourself, I shan’t be long.” The stranger smiled at Bobby.

“No problem. You take as long as you need.”

Bobby leaned against the counter. The stranger ignored the almost-empty sandwich fridge and headed towards the drinks section. He chose a bottle of lemon-flavoured sparkling water and strode towards Bobby.

“I think this shall be all. How much do I owe you?”

“That’ll be two bucks fifty.”

The stranger handed over the money, the leather of his gloves creaking in the quiet room. He nodded towards the ancient television set behind the counter.

“I suppose you mustn’t get the best signal out here,” he said.

“Naw, it ain’t great. But it’s somethin’ to look at,” replied Bobby.

“It must get awfully quiet.”

The young man looked out of the window at the desolate plains beyond the parking lot. Bobby frowned slightly. It wasn’t just the clipped English accent, or the old-fashioned clothes. There was something sad about him, too. Bobby hobbled back to his rocking chair and lowered himself into his small nest of cushions.

“Well I get a couple of hundred visitors a day come summer. Everybody wants to see Axford, population of one. The photo of the damn sign is all over the Internet. Plus there ain’t a lot of decent gas stations around here, certainly not those that sell food too, so they swing by and I chat to ‘em where I can. It’s quieter come winter but I like the peace.”

“You don’t ever think you might like to move? Closer to family, perhaps?” The stranger fiddled with the cap on the bottle of water.

“I ain’t got none. My wife was the last, and she passed four years back. Naw, don’t you worry about me, young fella, I got all the company I need.” Bobby smiled. I don’t want him feelin’ sorry for me.

“I’m glad you’re so content. Tell me, when did this place cease to be a diner?”

“Aw, that must’ve been ten years back, when we had population forty. When folk started driftin’ away, I turned the diner into a convenience store. The name just kinda stuck though.”

“I think names may be the stickiest of all things in the world,” said the stranger.

He smirked, as if remembering the punchline to some obscure joke. Bobby smiled too, although he couldn’t help noticing that the parking lot was empty – and the nearest town was an hour’s walk away.

“Say, son –”

“I apologise in advance, and this may be a morbid question, but who will change the sign when you’re not around any longer?”

Bobby looked at the stranger and laughed, reminded of a joke about the last man on earth and a ringing telephone. The stranger stared back, that same mild, impassive expression on his face. An oddly comforting winter swirled in his grey eyes. The laughter died in Bobby’s throat.

"What did you say your name was?"

"I didn't."

The stranger raised his bottle of water in a silent toast, and turned away from the counter. Behind it, Bobby sat in his rocking chair, eyes closed and a slight smile on his face.

You would swear he was sleeping, thought the stranger.

He opened the door, silencing the jangling bell with a single look. He put his trilby back on, adjusting it to the slight angle he preferred, and crossed the parking lot. The town sign stood beyond the fence beside the deserted highway. The stranger stretched out his hand to cross out the ‘1’, before drawing a zero with his finger.

The man in the pinstripe suit looked back to the Drive ‘n’ Dine. An old man stood at the window and raised his hand in a wave. The stranger nodded, and the old man dissolved into thin air. Satisfied at a job well done, the stranger fetched the scythe from its hiding place among the long grass. He drew a line in the air, parted the fabric of the universe, and walked into infinity.


Colin said...

Ooh, that was chilly. Great work, Supervillian :)

Anonymous said...

Death is such a snappy dresser. Love it. Beautiful melancholy in this but such a strong poignancy, too. Wonderful.
Adam B @revhappiness

Helen A. Howell said...

Oh that was as Adam said above beautiful melancholy and yet so haunting at the same time. Nice flash Icy.

Tony Noland said...

I'm glad he paid for his water. Death isn't anyone's favorite customer.

Larry Kollar said...

May the Reaper be as pleasant a chap for us all. Loved the stark beauty in this.

Peter Newman said...

Kind of fresh and familiar at the same time. I liked the line about the "comforting winter" in his eyes.

Anonymous said...

Had an air of Supernatural about it, for me. Which is a good thing. Much like this flash!

Steve Green said...

Although Bobby died, the story still had a feelgood factor for me, the characters had depth and reality, and both seemed genuinely nice people, even though one of them was the grim reaper.

Icy Sedgwick said...

Colin - I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Adam - I think my Lady Death got a bit bored of the cloaks and fancied a change.

Helen - Thanks!

Tony - I like to think Death would always be polite.

Larry - Well I always think Death WOULD be fairly reasonable. He/she has a horrible job, but it's so necessary.

Peter - I don't even know where that line came from!

Jack - Glad you liked it!

Steve - You know me, I'm always keen to invest my 'villains' with some kind of empathy.

Anonymous said...

Icy, I love the atmosphere in this, chilly and haunting, wonderfully rendered. Another excellent story - your paranormals are my favorite.

Carrie Clevenger said...

Lovely work, surprise ending, love your work. xx

Anonymous said...

I kind of sussed out who the visitor was, but it didn't stop me from enjoying this story very much. May we all pass so easily when it's our time. Lovely story, Icy.

Tim VanSant Writes said...

This has a nice bittersweet feel to it. What kept it from being sad to me was the humanity you gave to the stranger and the realization that the really sad story would have been if he had had to change the sign from 2 to 1 four years back.

John Wiswell said...

Firstly, "Axford" is a totally sweet name for a scary little town.

Secondly, was surprised to run into multiple characters after the title and lead-in photo. But you owned it, particularly by having him discuss the tourism and attraction of "population one."

Sulci Collective said...

reminds me of the conundrum of how you collect on a winning bet that the world will end... This had a taut inevitability about that yet still cranked up the tension delightfully. I enjoyed being played with like the cat with the mouse she has caught

marc nash

Natalie Bowers said...

“I think names may be the stickiest of all things in the world,” said the stranger.


This was written so gently, so poignantly. I think I shivered a bit at the end. Suddenly, Death doesn't seem so scary.

Icy Sedgwick said...

Deanna - I really enjoy reading them so I glad you liked it.

Carrie - Love yours too!

Janet - I'm glad you liked it.

Tim - I always like to think Death will be more human than the people he takes.

John - Yeah, it is a bit Lizzie Borden, isn't it? But that's high praise coming from you :)

Marc - Glad you liked it.

Natalie - I don't think Death is scary. It's his three brothers I don't fancy meeting!

Anonymous said...

very nice, a peaceful way for the old fellow, and his town to pass away. Nicely done!

Anonymous said...

Clever, so clever. I love the small talk tone leading to gradually more intense conversation. This was a lovely thought for both the man and the town to pass. He'd kept the light on long enough. Thanks, Icy.

Take care,

Katherine Hajer said...

What a lovely version of Death. I liked that he gave Giles the time to figure it out for himself -- and yeah, that he paid for his drink! The piece put me in mind of a couple of Terry Gilliam films -- Time Bandits (for the travel between worlds) and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (I could imagine Tom Waits's Devil having a coffee with this Death).

John Pender said...

Nice ending! I wasn't expecting that at all, but the stranger being some long, lost relative that ended up inheriting the town (or something along those lines).

liminalfiction said...

I suppose it's safe to say there were no witnesses? Nice work with that photo prompt, I liked Bobby's character.

Icy Sedgwick said...

Angie - Yeah, no guts and gore from me this week :)

Jessica - I just pity the next person who stops for gas.

Katherine - Yeah, I think my Death and TW's Devil would probably play cards or something!

John - Ah, when do I ever fulfil expectations? ;-)

Richard - Well I edited the photo myself based on a story I heard, but I'm doing a post next week about where the story came from.

Mallory Maloney said...

Oh, my, I liked the beginning of this so much, that I ended up reading the rest of it aloud to my oldest-younger brother! We both thought it was fantastic.

Death is very dapper and debonair indeed!

tom gillespie said...

Eastwood meets the Coen brothers.. Lovely blend of genres as this developed.. I've said this before Icy.. you have a wonderful cinematic eye for scene setting and plot development.
A visual and atmospheric delight.... and I love the fact that death hid his scythe in the long grass... make that one coffin!

Sonya said...

Fantastic as always, Icy! I love this kind of portrayal of Death/The Grim Reaper, as a dapper gentleman rather than something to be afraid of.

Chuck Allen said...

I love this, Icy. It kept my mind guessing at who the stranger was all the way up until he changed the population count to zero.

Unknown said...

I like this death with a fancy hat. Bobby seems to accept his fate a little, not getting scared when he notices the young fellow arrived without a car.

Icy Sedgwick said...

Mallory - I'm glad you both enjoyed it!

Tom - I tend to 'see' the stories play out in my head and I just describe what's happening. All those years spend doing Film Studies must have paid off!

Sonya - I don't really see Death as something to fear, it's just one of those inevitable things! (or is it...)

Chuck - Yeah, he was a bit sneaky, leaving his scythe hidden like that...

Aidan - I think he was probably fairly at peace with things by that point.

Anonymous said...

Good ending! Wasn't expecting that.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic! I loved the characters, the dialogue, and this one line: “I think names may be the stickiest of all things in the world,” really spoke to me. Melancholy little tale but satisfying.

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