a service station. night. difew.

There are shelves of candy and snack foods, and racks of sodas. There’s a public bathroom with a hand dryer that never seems to work. The counter is crowded with racks of impulse-buy tchotchkes. It’s the usual assortment – lighters, mini cameras, gaudy cheap jewelry, cards for media downloads. There are racks above the counter – cigarettes and science, all uppers, the ones that are legal to use while driving. Above the racks the security feeds, six of them in constant flickering screening. The police are supposed to be watching them too, but in practice if something goes wrong you want to call and tell them anyway.

The whole lot is floodlit. The scanner on the car-reader is broken and calls for a hand scan even if the car’s registered for autopay, and there’s no way to automatically bypass the alert that pops up for it, so the clerk has to stand at the counter all shift, hitting “okay” before going out to run the driver’s papers, going back in to hit “okay” again before the charger will power up. Most of the customers don’t have autopay on anyway. Most of them are from the next zone over, which is not one of the nicest. The cars are mostly group-registered – a whole housing unit might share usage rights between them. They use this station because they can’t afford personal chargers, and because the station’s on the first block across the zone border – they’ve had to pull over at the roadblock to get their commute scanned anyway, so they might as well charge now.

There are kids who hang out here, for lack of anywhere else to hang out. They show up in a line of responsible-looking little ducklings and filter into the restroom to emerge without jackets, with matching t-shirts on display, with their housing-dad-approved hairstyles messily spiked with hand soap, with washcloths tucked through belt loops or hanging out of pockets like some kind of sign. They never cause any trouble. The worst thing to have happened to any of them has been a primary warning for loitering near the fence. They’ll wander away, and then come back at a run to rinse the soap back from their hair in the station restroom again, hurrying home with their washcloths on their heads to beat their curfews.

The LEP check in once in a while. Here on the zone line it’s a foot patrol, but the main patrol charge their tank at the station sometimes. The check-in usually consists of little more than a wave and a nod. If the housing kids are hanging around, it’s usually a cue for them to all make a big show of buying candy and soda to prove they’re paying customers.

The clerk’s name is Mikel and he’s been clerking there for six years. The kids in the housing “gang” are mostly from the one he grew up in; they no longer include anyone he remembers. He was never a member himself.

His girlfriend back then wasn’t either, but she hung out with them a lot. She got it in her head that she needed to dust, a lot of fiery opinions about politics; he’d listen to her uncomfortably, feeling like she was right but she was wrong anyway, and she’d argue and plead and then yell at him and then cry a little, and then they’d fool around. It went like that for about a year, and then one day she actually left.

He assumes she got away, just because he wasn’t woken up by sirens the last night he saw her.

He hadn’t thought she’d really do it. He never thought about doing it himself, either – at the time or afterward. He has a steady job and a bachelor room, a decent reader and some games subscriptions. The most trouble he has is some kids loitering or a guy getting mad that his autopay didn’t scan, his ride running late in the morning or he and his buddies running out of science right after the travelpass expires at night. His life is fine. He never understood why his girlfriend thought it was so awful she had to run.

When the LEP scream by through the block and across the zones, two patrol cars and a containment truck and the jeep bringing up the rear, he wonders who’s running now.

He hopes they make it, every time.

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