The Red Gas Can

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The Red Gas Can

Short Story

by Genevieve Santos-Miller

All the lawns on Mentone Avenue are mowed on Wednesdays. But this Wednesday, after unloading the lawnmower from the shed in the back corner of the yard, Grace walked into the garage to find her gasoline can empty. She lifted it and noticed the pool of liquid left behind. A small stream branched off and meandered down in gentle curves along the cement floor that slanted to the center of the room. Upon further inspection, she found a hole in the bottom of the red plastic, approximately the size of a ballpoint pen’s sharp end. She wondered how she could have missed this. Did she not notice a leak when she last filled the can? 

Grace shook the container with the hopes she could will it full again and when she had done this long enough to feel like an idiot, she walked around the back of the house and tossed it in the garbage. At the back door she crouched to untie her grass-stained tennis shoes. One end of the lace on her left shoe was beginning to fray, so she made an extra knot at the end to stop it from worsening. Maybe she would try burning the end when she got back from the gas station–a trick her mother taught her when Grace was young. “Don’t pull them,” her mother would caution. “You could unravel the whole thing.” Grace would pick at the fibers of her school shirts to free one and keep it safe all throughout the school day so she could bring it home to her mother and watch as she lit the strand. In an instant, the flash of light became a small glow, snaking up the thread and making it curl. Her mother asked once why her shirts had so many ratty hems and Grace told her they got caught in the chains on the swingset.

She eased open the back door and padded through the kitchen, checking the clock as she went. It was only 8am, she had plenty of time. Her socked feet lightly brushed against the carpeted stairs as she made her way to the bedroom. She stood in the middle of the room with the doors and windows open and changed out of her mowing clothes. Grace was used to peeling this outfit off her sweat-soaked skin and the ease of today’s undressing made her uncomfortable. She folded her sports bra, tank top, bike shorts, and white crew socks into small squares and placed them one next to the other in a neat line on the foot of her bed. The clothes looked exactly how she’d laid them out this morning. She had been brushing her teeth when she first plucked the items from their drawers. Looking at them now, Grace thought she could feel the tingle of spearmint in the backs of her gums. 

Back downstairs, in cuffed denim shorts and a fitted black t-shirt, Grace slipped her purse over her shoulder and grabbed her car keys from the cream ceramic dish on the foyer table. It took two tries for the engine to turn over and once it was on Grace secured her seatbelt and backed out of her driveway, heading west on Mentone Avenue. At the stop sign she made a right. The twelve minute drive to the gas station passed slowly in the quiet car. Grace did not drive with the radio on anymore. It was rare to find a station playing anything at all, and the stations she could find played the same song and made the same evacuation announcement. She preferred the silence. 

The line into the parking lot stretched out into the road and almost reached the corner. Grace had to jump the curb and drive over a few shrubs to get in. Abandoned cars sat angled and jammed at the pumps, nearly all with both the driver and passenger doors left open. One lime green bike was propped against the wall to the right of the entrance that sat with its lock hanging open. Grace pulled into a space tucked behind the corner of the building and shut off the car. She had to squeeze herself between the deserted cars as she made her way towards the convenience store. Through the front doors, just past the entrance, was a display of new gasoline cans and she grabbed one from the top. Grace checked it quickly for any defects. Then, as was her ritual, she walked along the aisles picking up one chocolate bar with almonds and one bottled water which claimed to have added electrolytes. The checkout counter was unattended. But just in case, she added money to the top of the growing pile of bills and change that sat in the center. 

Back in the parking lot, Grace tossed the chocolate bar in the center console and shoved the bottled water in her back pocket. Underneath her passenger seat she found the wound rubber hose on the floorboard. Originally she had thought to start with the cars at the pumps, but on her second trip it occurred to her she would want to use the oldest gas first. Gas, like everything else, had an expiration date as well. Since then, she had been working her way through the line of cars and today she would start with the truck perched at the entrance of the parking lot. It was an old blue pickup with rusted out wheel wells and ultraconservative stickers covering the bumper and the back window. Grace wondered where the driver was now. Surely they had been preparing for something like this. They must have had a stockpiled basement and a post-apocalyptic backpack, one bought at a sporting goods store then stuffed with supplies that the forums and podcasts assured would save them. Grace didn’t have a backpack. She would say she was lucky, but that didn’t feel like the right word. 

The red can sat on the ground at her feet and she flipped open the door to the gas tank. The rubber hose slid in smoothly. She fed it in until she felt the resistance of the tank’s bottom. Then she knelt on the hot asphalt and brought her face down close to the can. The first time she siphoned gas was years before all this happened. During a weekend at a secluded cabin, they needed gas to run a small fishing boat left neglected by her parents. She ended up spraying herself and her girlfriend, wasting nearly half a gallon on the ground before she was able to get the tube through the small opening on the top of the can. Now, though, she couldn’t afford to spill. There would be no laughter at spent gas on the ground. No one was here to kiss down her neck while she unbuttoned their shirt. They would not be able to undress each other, leave a trail of gasoline-scented clothing from the back door to the bathroom, and forget about the boat altogether as they become intertwined beneath a stream of hot water.

Grace crouched so that her cheek touched the top of the gas can before she sucked on the end of the tube. This is how she had learned to avoid spills and get the most out of every tank. What she had yet to master was not getting a mouthful of gas. Her timing was almost perfect but she pulled away a half second too late. Shoving the tube in, she spat on the ground then checked that gas flow was even. She took the water bottle from her back pocket and rinsed her mouth twice but lingering vapors still stung the back of her throat and she couldn’t get rid of the harsh chemical taste coating her mouth. The truck held only enough gas to fill a quarter of the can. After pulling out the hose, she picked up her can and moved up to the next car and repeated the process. The car in front was a silver minivan. On the back windshield was a sticker of a basketball with the number 9 and “Maddie,” and Grace did not let herself think about where the family was now.

Once the fuel reached the top of the can, Grace made a note of which car she was at. The flow was still strong when she stopped, so it seemed to her there was still enough left to make a second pass worthwhile on her next visit. She screwed the lid tight on the container and poured water on and through the hose in an attempt to keep the gas smell in her car at a minimum, although it had not been working so far. She loaded the can in the trunk then rewound the hose and placed it back on the floorboard. Grace climbed into the driver’s seat and found the chocolate bar in the center console. It was warm from the sun. The soft chocolate stained her fingertips as she peeled back the foil wrapper and broke off a corner piece. She let it melt on her tongue, savoring the creamy sweetness. Once she had sucked all the chocolate off, she slowly chewed the tender meat of the almond. While she ate she stared. Her gaze was fixed on the bike sitting against the painted brick wall in front of her. It had been weeks since it appeared at the gas station yet no one had come back to claim it. Grace took another piece of candy in her mouth and watched the bike stand motionless. 

When the bike first arrived, Grace had been flooded with hope and fear in equal amounts. It had been over a month since she’d seen another person and she wasn’t sure where they had come from or what they had come for. But she also knew now that she wasn’t alone. She’d grabbed a tire iron from her trunk before timidly walking towards the convenience store. The bell jangled slightly as she eased the door open. “Hello?” Grace held her breath and listened. After a moment she took another step inward and called again. “Hello? Is someone in here?” There was a light breeze coming through the blown out windows that rustled packaging around the store, but she didn’t hear breathing or footsteps. Grace made her way through the aisles but did not encounter the owner of the bike. For more than an hour that day she carefully inspected the perimeter of the store, searching for signs that anyone had been nearby. There were none. Grace walked back to her car and cried. 

No one was coming back for the bike. Grace finished the last piece of chocolate and licked her fingers clean. She folded the wrapper into a shiny silver square and stuck it in her pocket then opened her door and stepped out. The bike was lighter than she thought, presumably some advancement in frame material for better speed. She lifted it easily and the lock fell to the ground with a clatter as she hoisted the lime green bike up onto her shoulder. The gas can had to be removed before she could stuff the bike into her trunk. It laid with its front wheel twisted and wedged between the trunk’s floor and ceiling. There was a flat spot between the back wheel and the pedals so she packed the gas can back up and tried to shut the trunk, but the bike pushed back. She jumped a little and put all her weight on the lid but the trunk remained open. Grace took the gas can and instead placed it safely in the backseat. Then she climbed back in and started the engine on the first try. She watched the lid bounce as she drove back over the shrubs and the curb and out onto the road.

As far as she could tell the bike was still in her trunk as she made a left onto her street. Grace slowed and surveyed the yards on either side of Mentone Avenue. It had been raining lately and the lawns were growing quickly this week. It was unlikely they would all get mowed today. Every Wednesday for the past six years Grace joined the rest of the neighborhood in weekly lawn maintenance. She put on her sports bra and bike shorts and tank top, laced up her grass-stained sneakers and unloaded the mower from the shed in the corner of the yard. The first Wednesday after the explosions, the skies had been clear and the sun was shining so even though there were no more neighbors to mirror, Grace didn’t know what else she was supposed to do. It had been months since then and while she hadn’t hit every yard every week, it still got her out of bed. 

When she pulled into her driveway Grace instinctively hit the garage door opener, which had stopped working long ago, then put the car in park and walked up the drive. She bent down in a squat, grasped the base of the door, and threw it open. The bike felt heavier coming out of the trunk so after carrying it halfway, she chose to wheel it up the drive and into the corner of her garage. In the open shelving on the right wall, she found a small bungee cord and wrapped it through the handle of the gas can. She secured the container to the front of the bike frame then mounted it and rode small circles around her garage and down her driveway. It seemed that the can would not affect the steering. Down the driveway, she turned onto the sidewalks and rode over old gaping cracks in the cement then through the grass and off the curb, but she did not spill any gas. Grace turned to head back to her garage, storing the bike until her next trip to the gas station, but she found herself making a full circle and continuing out of the neighborhood. 

She began pedaling harder. As she gained speed, the wind blew her hair back and the air rushed into her lungs making it hard to catch her breath. Flying past the stop sign, her thighs burned as she worked the gears as fast as she could. Houses and unmowed lawns rushed past her and became a blur of siding and green. The avenue opened up. If she could just pedal hard enough, maybe she could make it to another place and find more bikes parked on mowed lawns. Grace pushed forward and let a blissful howl rip through the quiet. 

gas can illustration
About the Author

Genevieve Santos-Miller holds a BA in creative writing from Millsaps College. She is passionate about her local writing community and growing the reaches of literature. Genevieve is a founding member of Story Wars, a monthly impromptu writing competition hosted live in Cleveland, OH. She is also a regular on the Radio FreeWrite podcast as ‘Spud.’