Aphelion Issue 294, Volume 28
May 2024
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by Matthew Nichols

An odd scent lingered in the air, so pungent it confused Saul's keen sense of smell. He knelt by the side of the road he traveled and touched the pieces of asphalt that crumbled off the edge, where its shoulder met the earth. Saul closed his eyes and read the terrain. He saw rocky, pale cliffs stretching upward into the same pearly, evening-tinged nothingness under which he walked. A bird coasted in the air high above those cliffs, circling in a series of horizontal pinwheels, and something else, faint yet perceptible, like unexpressed words hovering on the tip of one's tongue. The longer he held the scent, the more he honed in on its origin until it suddenly rose, acrid and greasy in his nostrils.

Gasoline. Yes, that was the place he was looking for.

Saul opened his eyes, rose to his feet, and looked to the west, taking a moment to watch the sky burn as the sun crawled under the desert horizon. It rippled with pink, purple and blue hues, an infinite spectrum at one time admired and taken for granted by mortals. Saul felt a tinge of sadness bloom in his throat and decided to press on so he wouldn't have to think about it.

He walked for several miles down the ruined highway before he finally reached his destination. The old gas station had belonged to a company called Marathon, one of several places where mortals refueled their vehicles in the World Before. The scent he'd picked up was naturally stronger here, and it made him wrinkle his nose in distaste. He scanned the station with his eyes until he spotted movement within the office. It came from someone sitting inside, hidden behind a newspaper, and the movement had been the turn of a page. The gas station's office looked strangely intact compared to the blackened, twisted metal surrounding it. The bricks were a vibrant red-brown, as if they'd just been molded from fresh clay, and the windows remained in place. The place bore clear signs of an imprint, yet it was one of the strongest imprints he'd ever seen. Yes, this had to be Phil.

Saul walked forward, heading for the door. Before entering, he saw the form he'd chosen to take reflected in the glass--long brown hair framing an elfin face, blue eyes, slight stubble, jeans, and a blue T-shirt and denim jacket. He was wearing sneakers, too, known as Keds in the World Before. He briefly wondered if perhaps he should've taken the form of a woman. Phil was a man, after all, and men tended to lower their guard more if they were met by women, no matter what age they were. He figured it wouldn't matter. Phil had been visited many times by his other colleagues, in male and female form, and all had failed to budge him.

Saul entered the office to the tune of jangling bells above the door. Phil lowered the newspaper to see who'd walked in. Yes, this was definitely the man he sought. He wore a green T-shirt with brown overalls and tightly-laced work boots clinging to his feet. A thick carpet of gray beard blanketed the lower half of his face, sloping up his cheeks into the Arizona Cardinals cap that stemmed a tide of unkempt gray hair. Phil began to fold up his newspaper and set it aside, and Saul opened his hands in a gesture of salutation.

"Hello," he greeted him.

"Hey," Phil replied.

An awkward silence descended and deepened as they faced one another. Phil looked slightly unsure of Saul. It seemed as though he had a sense of why Saul was there, although he didn't quite want to accept it. Saul had been told to expect that.

"I can, uh…I can fill your, um, tank for ya," Phil said hesitantly. "It'll only be a dollar fifty."

"A dollar fifty?" Saul echoed.

"A dollar fifty," Phil confirmed. "Cheapest gas around. Can't get a better deal than that."

Saul glanced outside then back at Phil. "I'd take you up on your offer," he said, "except I didn't come by car. I came on foot."

"On foot?" Phil blurted incredulously. "Well, that's impossible. The nearest town's miles away and no one survives a trip on foot out here with no water or nothin'."

"And yet here you are," Saul pointed out, "sitting among your soda pop, your candy bars, and your cigarettes."

Like the outside, everything in the office was intact, the effect of the imprint rendering it invulnerable to the passage of time. The chewing gum would still be fresh, a Sprite wouldn't be flat, and the cigarettes would smoke like they'd just been manufactured. Whatever the desktop computer and soda machine was running on, it wasn't electricity.

Phil became visibly nervous after Saul pointed this out. His lower lip quaked, and his eyes darted to the floor, as if he was afraid to look at Saul's face. Phil intertwined his fingers, one set remaining rock-still while the others waggled with an anxious force that vibrated through both of his arms.

"Oh, Phil," Saul breathed sadly.

At the mention of his name, Phil began to shake his head back and forth, as if he couldn't decide which way to go.

"Look," he said, "whoever you are... whatever you are... I'm... I'm not..."

"Not what?"

"I'm not ready to go."

Phil's eyes were moist, brimming with tears, yet somewhat defiant, as if he expected Saul to seize him and drag him kicking and screaming from the station. Because of this, Saul held up reassuring hands, making no movement towards him.

"That's okay," Saul said. "You can choose not to go and remain here. You love it here, don't you?"

"Yes, I do," Phil replied, nodding. "I've been here a long time."

"Yes," Saul agreed, nodding. "A long time for you. The flip of a quarter for me."

Saul reached into the pocket of his jeans and drew out a quarter. It shimmered in the palm of his hand with a silvery glow. "This is the state quarter from Kentucky," Saul explained ruefully. "It's the same state where I was born and earthbound for most of my life before I went Beyond."

"I really don't want to go," Phil moaned, not listening to him. "I've got a job to do. They're out there waiting for me."


"That family," Phil replied, gesturing to one of the wrecked vehicles next to what remained of the pumps. "Out there in the van. The one with the dog in the window."

Saul turned towards the vehicle that Phil indicated. Beyond the windows, the vehicle was a denuded piece of shrapnel devoid of tires and windows. Inside the office, however, Saul could see a van with four children and their mother. She was talking on a cell phone, and the father was unseen on the other side of the van, presumably pumping the gas. He dimly heard voices, metallic and echoing, as if they were speaking from inside a tin can. He heard the barking of a dog and the admonishments of one of the children in the van, telling the dog to stay in the car, Molly, stay in the car, stay in the car or no treats!

Never before had he seen an imprint this powerful. The only one that even came close was a barn in Wisconsin, powered by the rage of a former mortal who'd been pouring grain for his horses when Saul had arrived. This imprint, though... it drew its power from a deep, dark well of something in Phil that his colleagues had been unable to reach. But what was it?

Saul heard muted sobbing to his right. He turned to see Phil with his right hand cupped over his nose and mouth. Thin rivulets of tears wound over and within the seams of his face. He fell back into his chair, staring intently through the glass through red-rimmed eyes at the family that he desperately wanted to be there.

"Phil," Saul said gently, "I don't want to hurt you, not anymore than you've already been hurt."

"Then don't," Phil snapped, wiping his eyes with a handkerchief from his pocket. He snatched up his newspaper and folded it open, trying once again to maintain the pretense of reading it. "Just go away and leave me alone."

Saul sighed, then pulled up another chair in the corner, and sat down. "Phil, I can't. Neither can my colleagues, nor the ones that will come after me. Contrary to what you might think, this isn't about forcing you. Leaving is entirely your choice, and if you decide not to, then I will leave, and someone else will come. Not to force you."

"You sure about that?"

"Yes, I am. I have never forced anyone to leave this world if they didn't want to, and neither have my colleagues."

"And yet you keep coming back," Phil retorted with a scoff. "Every damned year, you and your kind, you return until we give in."

"That's only to see if you want to go or stay," Saul explained patiently. "There are still thousands of mortals that remain fastened here in spite of everything that's happened. We return to them every year to see if they want to come with us, and if they don't, they don't, but they suffer greatly, just as you do."

"Who says I'm suffering?"

A sad, knowing smile crept into Saul's wide mouth, his eyes warm with sympathy. "Phil," he said, "you do suffer. I can feel the disappointment, anger, and sadness you feel every time you open that door and step outside like you used to do. You always used to greet the people who came to your station with a friendly, welcoming smile, and now there's no one for you to do that for anymore. At least, in here, you can show yourself visions of what the world used to be like before--"

"Stop!" Phil cried, throwing his newspaper at Saul, who did nothing but fall silent. "Stop, just please, please, stop!" He balled his hands into fists, the joints of his fingers digging into the occipital curves above his eyes, as if they would stem the cracking reservoirs that could no longer hold back his tears. There was a feeling within Saul that told him a door had closed between him and Phil, and that he wasn't going to get anywhere else with him. He ignored the feeling, telling himself that this wasn't going a good way to end things. He decided to try one more thing to dislodge Phil from this imprint and, hopefully, from this world.

"Phil," Saul said, "all I want is for you to consider your situation here, and how it's affecting you. But before I go, I want to tell you that your family is waiting for you."

Phil's sobs subsided into raspy, trembling breaths. His scrunched fists sank beneath his nose and then parted slightly to admit his mouth, making him look like a frightened child.

"They miss you very much," Saul continued, "and they want you to come back to them. In fact, it was your daughter that I personally spoke with."

"My... you mean Annabelle?" Phil asked, his facial muscles twitching slightly.

"Yes, Annabelle. She knew you were my new assignment and asked me to please bring you back to her. I told her I couldn't make any promises, and that it would all depend on whether or not you wanted to come. I was being honest, but I have to tell you, Phil, it saddened her greatly."

"What did?"

"The thought that you didn't want to come back to her or the others."

"Oh, no, no, please," Phil pleaded, learning forward, his face contorting with horror. "Please don't let her or my family think I hate them."

"Oh, they know you don't hate them," Saul reassured him. "It's not hatred of them that's keeping you here."

"Then... then who do I hate?"

Saul paused for a moment, considering the best way to craft his answer. Once he did, he said, "Phil, I think you already know the answer to that."

How his colleagues had missed this was beyond him. It was what made the gas station's imprint so powerfully rendered, existing on an inexhaustible supply of grief and self-loathing, and the self-destructive need to punish. Rage directed outward, as it had been with the former mortal in Wisconsin, was one thing. but rage directed at the self...

"Did..." Phil started before a sob hitched in his chest and cut him off. Once he'd composed himself, he continued. "Did Annabelle tell you about the argument?"

"Yes, she told me about that," Saul confirmed with a nod. "Your wife, Lorena, told her about the argument you and she had when she met with Annabelle and her husband at the reunion in Scottsdale. You didn't want to see either one of them."

Phil inclined his head towards the floor, wincing as if he'd been slapped. "That's right," he said, almost whispering. "I was angry, so angry."

"Why?" Saul asked. Annabelle had already told him why, but he didn't let Phil see that he knew. Peering into old wounds and drawing them closed was an important part of letting go.

"Because... because Annabelle was an abortion doctor," Phil said. There. It was out, fresh and in the open. "She was an obstetrician and big into women's issues. Lorena didn't like it much either, but she was going to go anyway. Our grandchildren were going to be there and she wanted to see them.

"It was probably the worst argument we'd ever had. When she left the house, she was crying, and I just drove over here to the gas station all in a huff. I said some pretty terrible things to her, nothing that she would've said to Annabelle or Tom, her husband, especially at the reunion. Said some pretty nasty things to Annabelle, too, when she told me about the clinic she worked out of in addition to the hospital. Jesus."

The entire time Phil spoke, Saul had been glancing back and forth between him and the false view the imprint provided. The van with children and their parents began to phase back and forth between its true form and what Phil wanted to see, melting into charred metal and then back into the lie. The hum of the soda machine assumed a clicking intermittence, and some of the wrappers on the candy started to peel and blacken. The newspaper that Phil had thrown to the floor earlier began to jaundice.

Saul refocused his attention on Phil, saying, "I understand. I'm not here to judge you, only to act as your courier, if you so choose, but don't you feel it? The loosening of your bond to this place, the healing of the wound that keeps you here? It's finally begun, Phil--the closing of the wound you've held open for so long."

Phil's brow furrowed. "Why?"

"Oh, Phil, don't you see?" Saul asked. "On some level, you knew, and yet you kept yourself here. All of this? It's your punishment for yourself, because you felt that you deserved it. When you got here after the argument with Lorena, you didn't feel so good about yourself, and on some level after the solar flare, you elected to remain behind. Not out of hatred towards your loved ones, although that is, unfortunately, not an uncommon sentiment against those who remain. No, for you, it was guilt and anger and self-loathing, not just because of the things you said to Lorena and Annabelle, but because you weren't there to comfort them when the end came."

The ground underneath them trembled. The soda machine fell silent. The windows shattered outward in an explosion of glass that scattered across the ground and disappeared. The outside world as it truly was made itself visible, and during all of this, Phil fell to his knees and screamed, not wanting it to be true but at the same time acknowledging the truth of his self-imposed hell, which began to fall apart around him.

Saul knelt down next to the sobbing old man, placing one hand on his shoulder and the other between his shoulder blades. He leaned in close and said, "I tell you now, Phil, none of that matters. They want you to be with them. Let go of your fear and self-hatred. They don't care about any of that. They love you and want you to be with them, and that's all Beyond is. It's a place of love and peace unlike anything you've ever seen. But I have said all I have come here to say. The decision now rests with you. There's a better reality hanging just inches away from you. Let go of this one... and see."

Saul stood up and stepped backward. He could go no further than this. Whatever happened next had to come from Phil, who slowly stood up on knees that were shaking amidst an imprint that was trying to rebuild itself. The glass was slowly rematerializing in the windows and the soda machine was trying to kick back on, but what had once sustained the imprint was now almost gone. Phil looked at Saul with eyes that were now clear.

"This isn't real," he stated firmly. "This isn't real. I want to go with you."

The last vestiges of the imprint's false reality began to slip away, and Phil wept softly as he began to finally let it go. In those moments, Saul stepped forward and embraced Phil, comforting him as his prison began to unravel.

"What happens now?" Phil asked, his voice slightly muffled against Saul's chest.

"Now," Saul said, stepping back and planting his hands on Phil's shoulders, "we leave. That's it. We leave, we walk onto the road, and with a flip of my Kentucky quarter, we're gone. Are you ready?"

Phil nodded his head, wiping his eyes. "Yes," he affirmed. "I'm ready."

"Very well," Saul said, smiling broadly. "I am so happy and excited for you."

Phil nodded again, smiling too, taking one final look around the office's interior before allowing himself to be guided to the door. Saul opened it for him, and for the first time in ages, Phil stepped outside into the hot, dust-laced air. They both proceeded past the pumps and empty vehicles and out onto the road. Saul extracted the Kentucky quarter from his pocket once again and said, "Take my hand."

Phil slid his hand into Saul's, and he watched with rising anticipation as his courier tossed the quarter up into the air. It arced straight up, flipping end over end, until it finally landed in Saul's open palm.

Several things happened simultaneously. When the quarter landed, Phil found that he was standing on grass instead of asphalt. He looked up at Saul, who grinned back at him and said, "You're here. Welcome."

Without Phil to anchor it in the physical world, the gas station's imprint began fate completely. The soda machine died. The packages of gum and candy hardened within their decaying wrappers and packages and finally crumbled into dust. The newspaper yellowed until it wisped apart. The reek of gasoline and oil melded with the hot air and broke down until the scent that had drawn Saul to the station disappeared. The gas station assumed the appearance of its true form--old, rusted, and abandoned.

Beyond, Phil stepped away from Saul, looking at the panorama stretching around him in a quilt of birch, maple, oak, and just about every other form of plant life he could see. There was a sun, but its warmth rejuvenated him. Children romped down the side of the hill towards a riverfront, where vendors gave away peanuts, soft pretzels, and ice cream, among other things. Phil spotted Annabelle and Tom around the same time the pumps at the gas station in the mortal world rusted so badly, they cracked apart. The same thing happened to the support beam holding up the station's overhang, and the now-brittle metal tore itself asunder when it struck the remains of the pumps and vehicles.

When Annabelle saw her father walking towards her, dressed in his usual boots, overalls, and T-shirt, she didn't just smile. She exploded, her eyes expanding, her mouth falling open, and her locks of red hair fanning out behind her in a bright tornado as she ran to him, embracing him as she buried her face in his neck, taking in the scent of gasoline and motor oil that he'd always brought home with him. Her husband, Tom, marked his place in whatever book he'd been reading and walked to where his wife and father-in-law stood. As Phil shook his head and Annabelle called to his grandchildren, the gas station's foundations gave way. The roof collapsed, and the brick came loose from its mortar and split apart, hewing away the rest of the building.

Phil's grandchildren--a boy, Will, and a girl, Irene--came up the hill at their mother's request. They'd been teenagers when the flare hit, and they'd retained every bit of their youth. They came running, eager to see the grandfather they hadn't seen in a long time, even though time in Beyond was relative. When Lorena appeared a few paces behind them, the winds in the mortal world gusted with heightened intensity around what remained of the gas station. Its remnants scattered in several directions, and when Phil kissed his wife, the foundations eroded down until there was nothing left at all. A few nubs and brick and steel jutted up from the ground like children's teeth, all that remained of Phil's self-imposed exile throughout the ages since the sun's flare claimed Earth.

Throughout all of this, Saul was content. He watched Phil and his family for a little while longer, then slid the Kentucky quarter back into his pocket and walked down the hill to the riverfront. He got an ice cream cone with sprinkles and sat by the eddying waters, watching the salmon arc upwards before splashing back down. Saul sat there for the longest time, smiling, enjoying the fruits of Beyond while waiting for his next assignment.


2013 Matthew Nichols

Bio: Mr. Nichols is currently finishing his Master's degree in history at Southern Illinois University. He has had a short story published at Under the Bed Magazine along with three poems at Miller's Pond Poetry Magazine. He presently resides in Ohio.

E-mail: Matthew Nichols

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