But when they reached the truck, the valise full of chemicals was missing. He hadn’t noticed earlier, thanks to the strewn water bottles and other damage the thief had caused.
“What’s wrong now?” Corey asked.
“I feel pretty stupid. She really duped me good.”
“Marlys? I told you she’d do anything for water.”
“That’s not all she got. Come on; we’d better hurry.”
“Just come on.”
They hurried down Main Street, and as they passed the Miscellany Market, he noticed a stray feather lying in the street under a lamp. The wooden Indian was gone, and so was Earl Taws. A CLOSED sign hung on the front door, though it was not yet dawn and seemed too early to shut down.
At Town Hall they went straight to the sheriff’s office. This time it was completely deserted. Walter looked through the glass panel into the holding-cell area, but Skelton was nowhere to be seen, and all the cells were empty now.
Out in the hall, they passed Lawrence Wing hurrying down the stairs. “I got word to Lorna,” he said. “She’ll meet us out at your uncle’s burial mound. We can take my buggy.”
Two minutes later they drove up from a parking garage into the predawn light. The sky was licorice-colored in the west, but to the east the stars were fading before a rosy front. Wing sped out of town, driving indiscriminately over sage and cactus patches, ignoring the roads. Walter held on for his life, trying to spot familiar landmarks in the paling world.
“Where’s the lake?” he asked Corey.
“Over there,” Corey said, pointing off to the right. “But in the buggy you don’t have to worry about thistles and sand, so it’s faster to cut around through the hills.”
Walter leaned over to shout in Wing’s ear: “Cut over to the lake!”
“But Lorna’s at the tomb.”
“We’ll take the long way round to meet her. Just go past the lake.”
Wing cut sharply to the right. Minutes later Walter saw the flush of shimmering liquid ahead of them. The sky was a watercolor dream, and Gasoline Lake looked like the bowl in which some heavenly painter had rinsed those brushes. He remembered how he had nearly thrown himself in at first sight. Now looking at it, the thought was about as appealing as a swim in paint thinner.
Still, this was a thirsty, thirsty world, and the lake was the most likely lure for a thirsty man who didn’t know better.
Or rather, the most likely place for such a man to be found.
Walter didn’t believe that Galvin Orlick had been traveling under his own power.
He was remembering, from some past existence, that wooden Indians didn’t wear real feathers.
“Stop here,” he shouted just before they got down to the beach. “Let it coast—we need silence.”
The lawyer cut the motor, and they glided out onto the strand, plaques of parched mud snapping under the tires. By the pale orange light, he scanned the beach from shore to shore. Suddenly Corey’s arm swung up. “There.”
A cluster of dark specks were massed on the far shore, below the brink of a dune that glowed like a mound of orange sherbet. Walter’s mouth watered at the memory. “Go!”
The motor kicked on, and they swung around the lake. He kept his eyes fixed on the specks as they drew closer, resolving into figures, some vaguely recognizable. Suddenly the people started to scatter. There were more than he’d thought at first, more than he would have believed. As the buggy took the curve of the shore, he saw another coming around Gasoline Lake from the direction of the burial mound with its tall, lonely plastic oak.
“That’s the sheriff!” Corey said. “See, she’s cutting them off. Who are they?”
“The question is,” said Lawrence Wing, “who aren’t they?”
People scattered, trapped between the cars, but there really wasn’t anywhere for them to go. A few scrambled up the side of the dune, but that was fruitless, for as much progress as one made, another would set off an avalanche and bring them all back to the bottom again and again. Most of the others ran into the lake and stopped before they’d gotten very far, as if their skin was already burning; they looked dizzied by the fumes.
The buggies hemmed them in. Lawrence stopped and hopped out carrying a long, sleek weapon, something like a shotgun loaded with darts. “Don’t strike any sparks around here,” he cautioned Walter.
On the other side of the group, Lorna picked up a megaphone and ordered everyone to stay where they were, including those in the lake. Walter recognized Deputy Skelton, Norris Culp, Earl Taws, Edgar Runyon, and Corey’s boss, all out in the shining tide, all looking mortified at having been caught.
Walter and Corey walked to the water’s edge.
A man lay sprawled facedown on the baked mud, his fingers splayed, the collar and shoulders of his suit rumpled and torn by clutching fingers. His hair and shirt were soaking wet, shimmering with the vapors of Gasoline Lake. For a moment, Walter thought they were too late, that he was already dead—again or for the first time. Then his body spasmed weakly, and he started to cough.
They turned the man over. Walter pulled off his Mylar hat to shade the man’s red face. He’d seen him earlier that night, shouting for his lawyer in the holding cell. Apparently he’d gotten his wish. Medford Bannister stood just offshore, wearing a defiant expression, up to his ankles in Gasoline Lake.
“It’s him, isn’t it?” Lorna said, walking up to them.
“I don’t know,” Walter admitted.
But Corey was nodding. “Same as his pictures, it’s him. Uncle Galvin?”
The old man sputtered and opened his eyes. “That—that’s my name! I’ve been trying to remember! What the hell’s going on here? You here to help me, or you in with the rest of them?”
“I’m your nephew. I wouldn’t dream of hurting you. You’ve been asleep for twenty years.”
Galvin sat up. He didn’t look quite so old anymore, though he was obviously worn-out by what he’d been through in the past few hours.
“Twenty years? And the drought’s over? It sure doesn’t look like it’s over. Twenty years, and you woke me up for this? To be dragged around in the night and have my head stuck in turpentine? Jesus, my eyes burn like hell.”
Corey opened the spigot of his pisspores and let recycled water drain into his palms. He splashed it into Galvin’s eyes, without much apparent effect.
“Let’s get him back to town,” Lorna said. “Mr. Orlick, I’m the sheriff of Gas Lake. I’ve got some questions for you.”
“Sheriff? Where’s my damn lawyer?—that’s what I’d like to know.”
She lifted her gun to point at Medford Bannister, who smiled sheepishly and shrugged.
“Him? But he was the main one trying to drown me! All I remember is, I came awake in what I think was a jail cell, some woman pouring chemicals all over me, and the next thing, I’m hustled off here with everybody trying to kill me.”
Marlys, the Rehydrator thought. Marlys had stolen his chemicals and revived Galvin. He suddenly remembered what the sheriff had said once—that Marlys knew how to dehydrate things. She must have dried out Fritzy, in order to learn how to rehydrate him. The process didn’t reverse itself naturally after all. A sense of relief nearly flattened him.
Corey said, “They wanted to make it look like you woke up on your own and staggered over here for a drink and died in the lake. That way they could solve the problem of whether you were alive or not once and for all, and make it look like an accident—your own fault.”
“Galvin,” Lawrence Wing said, coming down to the water’s edge, “I think you’ll need another lawyer now.”
“Jesus Christ, Larry, is that you?” Galvin said. “You look like shit! How old are you?”
“Almost your age now, Galvin. You shouldn’t speak till you’ve looked in a mirror. Come on; we’ll give you a hand.”
Walter bent over to help them lift the old man, and as he did, he felt something brush his calf under his robes. He realized too late what it was.
“Drop the old buzzard,” said Medford Bannister. “Drop him, and then nobody move.”
They let Galvin down gently. Walter turned around and saw Bannister standing in the shallows with his old gun. It was pointed right at Lorna.
“Skelton,” he said, “get over there and take the sheriff’s gun.”
“I don’t know,” the deputy started to protest in a shamed, whining voice.
“Come on; they can’t outnumber us. We’ll take care of them and no one’ll ever know better. We all know how to keep a secret, don’t we?”
He grinned. The mass of townspeople out in the lake began moving slowly toward shore, confident now. Walter started to back off, but the gun in Medford’s hand swung toward him, the hammer cocked back to strike. He stopped where he was and put up his hands.
“I built this town,” Galvin Orlick growled.
“It belongs to me now,” Medford said.
Out of the corner of Walter’s eye, he saw Corey moving, hidden behind Lawrence Wing. The boy slowly took the lawyer’s gun and raised it with the barrel between Wing’s body and arm, nestled in his armpit. His finger trembled on the trigger, ready to fire, when someone on the lake spied him, and a shout of warning went out to Bannister.
Medford Bannister whirled and fired, and that was the last they saw of him.
As the hammer fell, it struck a spark. Not only the gunpowder charge, but the whole lake, exploded.
A roiling ball of flame licked up from the shores, boiling back into the heart of the lake, exploding inward and outward at the same time. The sound was beyond deafening; it was a solid impact to which every bone in Walter’s body responded like a tympanum. The force of the blast hurled him over the mud and into the dune, where he lay covered in sand until the heat of the burning lake subsided, and the heat of the sun took its place.
He wiped sand from his eyes and looked over the shore, marveling at the blackened bowl where the lake had lain.
Wisps of fire still clung to a sunken plain of what looked like charred and tarry melted rubber. The foul smoke was visibly clearing, but he felt as if the reek of burning might never leave his nostrils.
He saw a few more survivors likewise coming to their senses on the bank of sand. Lorna and Corey and Lawrence Wing lay tumbled about. A few other townsfolk lay staring in horror at the lake where their conspirators had perished.
Galvin Orlick stood up, stretched, and began cursing methodically. “My kind of town,” he said, and shook his head.
“There I lay,” Corey’s uncle said, with a wistfulness turned instantly bitter. “And not long enough by far.” He aimed a toe at one of the meters on his headstone. Liquid crystal spurted over his shoe. Galvin crouched and fondly patted Fritzy’s head. The dachshund seemed to remember him.
“Well, son, let’s get going. I’m not crazy about this place, and there’s a wind coming up.”
“A big one,” Corey agreed. “Gonna be shoveling sand tomorrow.”
Corey had use of a police buggy, now that the force consisted of Sheriff Lorna alone. She had offered to make him a deputy.
“I wish I could help that friend of yours,” Uncle Galvin confided as they drove back. The road wavered under waves of sand. “My own memories are as spotty as his, I’m afraid. Still, I’m glad to see I’ve got some money to help him out with his search. What about you, Corey? What are your plans? You going to stay around and help me rebuild Gas Lake?”
“I don’t know, Uncle Galvin. Are you sure you wouldn’t just like to junk the place and start over?”
Galvin shook his head. “I don’t know, son. I don’t know what to do. I don’t feel fully awake yet, and damn if these pisspores aren’t the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever worn. I’m having trouble concentrating on anything except how to keep them from chafing.”
“You’ll get calluses, Uncle; don’t worry. You’re not . . . not thinking of going back to sleep, are you?”
“Sleep? Are you nuts? The way I woke up, I’m afraid to so much as take a nap.”
Walter sat in Lorna’s office and watched the sunset through the double-paned windows. She came in after a few minutes, holding a folded-up piece of plastic computer printout. Her expression was pretty mixed.
“You’ve got something, don’t you?” he asked.
She nodded, biting her lip. “It’s an address in California. A place you used to get mail. I suppose you’ll be going there right away.”
He nodded, taking the plastic, but not yet looking at it. “Lorna, why stay on here? Gas Lake’s a ghost town now. Does it really need a sheriff?”
She smiled sadly, walked to the window, and stood there for a minute staring down at the empty streets filling with sand, at lights that wouldn’t come on tonight. Power was off everywhere, and it would stay off; none of the public utilities were operational because there was no one to operate them. The streets were filling with sand, buildings erased in the grainy wind, like a vision of what Gas Lake was soon to become.
He saw her fingers fumbling at her breast; they came away with her badge. She looked at it for a moment, then set it down on the windowsill. “When were you thinking of leaving?” she said.
When Marlys woke, the house was dark. She scrambled out of Medford’s bed and moved through the house, touching switches, shouting commands to the voice controls, but all to no effect. The power was out, and where was Medford? She had waited all day for news, figuring he was busy with the culmination of their plans. He hadn’t wanted her involved in the final action—everyone else must contribute, since they all expected a share of Galvin’s water, but Marlys had done enough. He was a cautious man, Medford. He left nothing to chance. She had to trust that he’d get back soon—before dawn, at least. What time was it, anyway?
She glanced at her watch, then stared at it.
The time was twelve noon.
She went to a window and opened the blinds, and saw nothing outside but darkness.
Leaning very close, she realized exactly how solid it was. Trillions of tiny grains pressed right up against the glass.
Marlys backed away with a scream barely held in her throat. Why hadn’t the blowers gone on? Because the power was out, she told herself. But why was the power out?
She hurried to the back door, punched for it to open, but none of the controls were working. She opened the panel for manual operation, and quickly spun the knobs.
The door opened inward, letting a sliding river of sand stream into the porch room. She tried to force it shut, but the sand kept pouring in, unstoppable. She backed out of there, closed the inner door, and went into the kitchen to try the phonescreen. It didn’t respond. Nothing responded.
She gnawed her baccorish three times faster than usual, as if it would help her to think. She had to stay calm. Panic was dangerous in a situation like this.
All right. She was buried. But Medford kept plenty of water and plenty of food in the cellar; she could survive a long time if she had to. With the case of revival chemicals, she could rehydrate Medford’s entire collection of horny toads and eat them fresh. Yes, if something had gone wrong and Medford didn’t come looking for her and the power never came on again, she could live under the dunes—possibly for years. And one day the wind would clear the sand away for just a moment. She would wake to find a thin light trickling through the windows, a hint of sunlight visible through the sand; ever vigilant for this opportunity, she would shatter the glass and climb to the surface and escape.
Someday all that might happen, yes. It was the best scenario she could imagine at the moment. There were plenty of worse ones.
She spat a mouthful of tobacco juice right on Medford’s polished real-wood floor. Let him come and wipe it up. She sucked up another few inches of tobacco, chewing furiously, and tried not to think about what might happen when she ran out of rope.
* * *
“Gasoline Lake” copyright 1991 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Oct./Nov. 1991.
This is one of my favorites of my own stories, and I’ve always been sad about it being so hard to find. I think it’s got a pretty entertaining cast of characters. Does it owe a debt to Twin Peaks? Probably. I see that it came out in late 1991, which means I probably wrote it in early 1990. Twin Peaks was happening around then. But it has its roots in drafts I started writing in the ’70s, after spending memorable summers at Mercer Lake on the Oregon Coast. A serene wooded lake where I set a handful of stories that never quite worked, until I finally drained it and filled it up with gasoline. I was also working in a law firm at the time I wrote it, enjoying the company of these bright argumentative folks, and also being driven crazy by them; which might explain why one of the heroes of this story is a lawyer–and so is one of the villains.