IV: THE SHOP
As sunlight dissipated over the barren desert highway, the dim silhouette of the empanada shop, growing larger with each turn of the wheel, brought a small sense of relief to Creek and Jake. A light was still on inside of the shop. Still worried that someone was after them, Creek hardly slowed the pickup as he left the highway and entered the large dirt parking area in front of the shop. He continued around to the back side of the store, hiding the truck so it wouldn’t be visible from the road.
When the truck came to a stop, neither of the men moved. They sat in the cab for a moment, as the dust trail they had made in their hasty exit from the road was pulled back by the evening air and washed over them while they quietly processed the day’s events. Eventually, Creek got out of the truck, and Jake followed. Still feeling waves of pain and dizziness from taking a rifle butt to the skull, Jake leaned against the back wall of the store while Creek peered out from behind the corner, double-checking the road to make sure they were clear of any unwanted followers.
“Think they got anything for my aching head in there, boss?” Jake said, halfway joking.
“Who knows, but I bet anything in there is better than what we could find out here,” Creek replied.
Creek crossed to the other side of Jake and tried his luck on the handle of the shop’s back door. It was unlocked. The door opened to a tiny back storeroom with a single, dim light bulb revealing boxes of packaged food, cigarettes, cases of soda, and beer. On the opposite side of the room was a small oven with a stovetop. It looked old and well-used. The smell of something freshly prepared hung heavy in the room, quickly reminding both men that they were, indeed, hungry.
“Hola…hello?” Creek said loudly, so his voice would carry into the front part of the shop. No answer. Creek repeated himself a little louder. Again, there was silence. The two made their way through the store room and into the front of the small shop. It was better lit, revealing a well-kept market of fruits, packaged foods, fresh cheeses, empanadas, and other implements. Jake sighed with thankfulness as he spotted a blister pack of Tylenol hanging on a small shelving unit.
The two helped themselves to cold bottled water from the fridge and empanadas from the self-serve case, gulping and chewing as if their lives depended on it. Jake took the pain relievers he picked up with a big gulp of water. Creek had taken notice of the television mounted in a top corner of the store. The reception was poor, but he could tell, from the limited Spanish he knew, that it was a breaking news broadcast. He was having trouble making out the images due to the distorted lines scrawling to and fro across the screen.
Jake looked toward the television as well. Creek had his back toward him. He studied the whole scene of Creek watching the T.Vp., trying to piece together what had happened and what was happening. Jake thought back to earlier in the day, when they were being hunted in the desert. He had clearly heard the men say the words “bomb,” “power,” and “kill.” It was overwhelming for Jake—the whole thought process of trying to connect the dots while dealing with the pain in his head and thinking of the fact that he probably killed the people who were after them on the highway by causing them to crash. It was in that moment that Jake realized he had yet another thing to deal with.
Jake felt the pressure of cold metal against the back of his head. Then, there was a distinctive click. He froze and instinctively put his hands out to show whoever was behind him that he didn’t have any intention to fight. Creek turned to face Jake and make a comment about the newscast, but his words failed when he saw Jake standing with his arms outstretched. Behind Jake was a woman with a gun pointed at his head. Creek’s eyes grew wide and his mind raced, but he quickly realized he didn’t have a hand to play in this situation. Jake let out a sigh and then a nervous, ill-timed grin spread slightly across his lips as he thought, I somehow made it to 30 years old without ever getting into so much as scuffle with a school bully, and now I’ve had a gun pulled on me twice in one day.
Thinking the issue might be because the woman was the shopkeeper, perceiving that the men were planning to steal the water and food they had already eagerly consumed, Creek held out his hand toward the woman as if to say “wait”, then pointed to his pocket with the other hand and said, “dinero.” He slowly reached into his pocket. Jake could feel the person behind him growing more tense, as they put a firm hand on his shoulder, to ensure he wouldn’t run or make any sudden moves, drawing him closer to them.
Creek revealed a wad of pesos from his pocket and laid them on the counter next to him. When the shopkeeper saw that the amount he laid on the counter was far more than the cost of the water and empanadas, she relaxed. “Stupid gringos,” she said with a heavy breath, relieved that there may not be a threat. She took her hand off Jake’s shoulder, but kept the gun pointed at his head. “What are you doing, here?” She asked with a very thick Mexican accent.
“You speak English?” Creek asked in a blend of surprise and relief.
“Yes,” said the shopkeeper.
“We were looking for food and water,” said Creek, “We were camping and got lost in the desert for a few days and ran out of food and water. We got lucky and finally found the highway. We were just looking for something to eat and drink, and this shop is the first place we found. We called out but no one answered. We helped ourselves to food and water, but we had every intention of paying.”
Jake kept his eyes on Creek. He knew what he was doing—playing his cards close to the vest, giving a believable lie to spare him from explaining what happened that day, because he didn’t understand it for himself yet. It was a gamble. Which was more dangerous at this moment—the truth or a lie? It was smart move, Jake thought.
The woman took a moment to process Creek’s story. Her silence was an eternity for both men. Creek could see her eyes working back and forth as she, deep in thought, considered his words. She sighed, looked over Jake’s shoulder into Creek’s eyes and said, “Only thieves come in through the back door.”
Jake’s heart sank. He could feel all the air being sucked out of the room. He closed his eyes. He heard Creek shout, “NO!!!” from the top of his lungs. Then, there was the unmistakable, thunderous crack of the woman’s gun. And Jake’s body fell to the floor.