At a gas station on the outskirts of an unimportant town, every night the night attendant sitting behind the counter inside the Mart stares at a neon sign in the window. It’s a simple neon sign, not very large, reading “FOOD” in slender blue-glo letters. Except the first “O” flickers, and it reads “F OD” instead. The attendant doesn’t know when it started. Before his time, and the turnover is high enough he’s already been here the longest. The station doesn’t get enough traffic to support more than a skeleton crew. He’s only ever talked to his boss on the phone.
The Mart is small, filled with a low electric hum. It sells food, like the sign says, but just barely. Some chips, candy, an approximation of sushi. A coffee machine that spits out sludge. Refrigerated racks along the wall opposite the counter, well-stocked with soda, beer, energy drinks. For people that need to stay awake or stay drunk on the road. They almost never come in on his shift. Cars swipe their cards at the pump, fill up, drive off. He watches the flicker. He plays a little game sometimes, trying to predict when it will go off and on, but mostly he just stares. He isn’t sure when the flicker first caught his attention. He doesn’t really think about it. All night he just watches it, for every night as far back as he cares to remember. His few customers usually have to catch his attention to ring them up. Half the time he undercharges them without realizing it. The local kids have an informal competition going to see who can lift the most during his shift without getting caught. The current record is a thirty rack. On clear nights the stars blink off and on in time with the O. Tonight the sky is flat clouds, with a low wind flowing around the building.
The flicker never settles into a regular pattern. He thinks it must be reacting to cosmic residue. Everything else in the Mart is totally static or locked in a loop. The few customers he gets move like they’re frozen in place. Every step is a glacier. At his old job he would eat to pass the time, but he doesn’t feel the need now. He’s lost 20 or 30 pounds since he started at the Mart. He hasn’t been keeping track. The O flickers off. Five seconds. He’s in a desert. The sand sweeps up into dunes on every horizon. He bends down and picks up a handful. It’s fine, pure, glittering black. It sifts through his fingers like a whirlpool. The O flickers back on. There are two suns in the sky, moving inexorably towards each other. He watches them collide and shatter like glass. There are holes where his retinas used to be. The O flickers off again. A customer gives him twenty for a six-pack and he gives a five and a ten as change. The O flickers back on. He’s sitting in an amphitheater, watching a swarm of locusts descend towards the stage. They’re going to perform Odysseus Acanthoplex. The beams illuminating them come from nowhere. The O flickers off. Eventually it never flickers back on.