The whooshing sound of the tires on pavement answered Jimmy as he waited for Cindy to say something. Nothing. His eyes drifted from the road to her picture lighting up his cell phone and then back to the two-lane highway.
“You still there.” He tried to swallow, but two hours of driving, no liquids, and a mini fight with his girlfriend had left his mouth dry.
“I’m here.” She sounded hurt. “I just wish you’d told me it would be an imposition for you to come and help me move. I could have found someone else to help me.”
“You said there wasn’t anyone, and I’m not saying it’s an imposition. I’ll just need to leave early in the morning. I have a final tomorrow afternoon.”
More silence, though he thought he could hear things moving around and some music coming from the phone. A bright green highway sign pointed the way—Washington DC 105 miles.
“I’ve still got an hour and a half or so.” The needle on his gas gauge told him it might be more if he didn’t stop soon.
His phone buzzed and picture of his mom’s face eclipsed Cindy’s. “Oh, hey, my mom’s calling. I better take this.”
“Fine. Talk to you later.” The music stopped as he swiped to take his mom’s call.
Her voice filled the car. “James Weilcher, did you just answer the phone while you’re driving?”
“Did you just call me while I’m driving?” Jimmy slowed the car as sirens came up behind him, and a state trooper zoomed by.
“What was that? Are you getting pulled over?”
“No, Mom. Looks like something’s going on up ahead.” Two more police cars flew by, and about ten vehicles crawled along in front of him, but he couldn’t see what the slow down was.
“Is it an accident? I told you not to take those twisty back roads. Stick to the highway.”
“This is quicker, Mom, and did you actually just suggest that Interstate 95 is safer?”
She huffed. “Do you see what’s going on?”
A field spread out on the right of the little road, and on the left a very long barbed wire fence guarded what looked like a prison or something. “I think the po po were all rushing to some jail. They’re stopping each car. I’ll call you back, mom.” He tapped his phone and put it to sleep.
An officer motioned for him to stop and roll down his window. Another officer came along the passenger side of the car.
“Hi, son. We’ve had a prisoner escape. We’re just checking vehicles. Pop your trunk, please.”
Jimmy obeyed and waited until the police gave him the go ahead to keep moving. His low gas light came on as he accelerated to leave. “Great.”
Five more miles passed before Jimmy found a gas station—a long white building with four pumps and the restrooms on the outside. He pumped the gas first, then pulled the car into a parking space. His phone came to life with Coldplay and his mom’s face.
“Hey, Mom. Sorry I didn’t call you back.”
“I just wanted to make sure you were okay. It’s been over twenty minutes. What was going on?”
“Some inmate had escaped. All’s fine. I just stopped to fill-up, and then I’m hitting the road again. I’ll call you tomorrow when I leave Cindy’s.”
Silence. She was holding back the lecture on sleeping over at his girlfriend’s. He could feel it about to burst out. “I love you, Jims. Talk to you tomorrow.” Her words sounded like an exhale of hope.
“Love you too, Moms.”
He grabbed his keys, locked the door, and braved the men’s restroom. “No Key Requred” probably wasn’t a good sign. The pungent odor of dank bathroom, old urine, and stuff he didn’t even want to know about made him hesitate in the doorway.
A grunt sounded behind him, and then a sharp jab to his back pushed him into the half-lit outhouse. “Move.”
Jimmy’s body fell into the first stall door swinging it open and making him lose his balance. His knee slammed into the toilet, and he fell against the stall.
A man followed him in and threw a punch to his gut. Then another upside his face. A blur of orange filled the fuzzy edges in Jimmy’s sight. Then, the guy pulled him out and banged him into the broken radiator.
“Give me your keys and take off your clothes.” The guy sounded like an animal, part growl, part evil.
Jimmy pulled his keys from his pocket. The guy grabbed them, throwing another punch to Jimmy’s stomach.
“Your clothes, or I’ll take them off your dead body.”
Sharp pain shot through Jimmy’s side as he pulled his hoodie over his head.
“The pants too. Now. And your shoes.”
Dressed in just his t-shirt and Tommy John’s, Jimmy backed into the corner between the radiator and the stall as the man took off his orange jumpsuit and put on the jeans and hoodie. Thirty something with tattooed flames licking up his neck, the guy checked himself in the mirror, before turning back to Jimmy.
Hate filled the man’s eyes. Jimmy looked away. His karate lessons were useless.
“You ain’t gonna say a word.” The growl was back under the man’s words again. He yanked Jimmy from his safety corner and slammed him into the toilet. Sliding to the floor, Jimmy wanted to throw up, but the guy came at him with another punch, and another, and then he kicked, and kicked, and finally everything went black.
“Oh, Daddy. It stinks in here. I think I can hold it.”
“We’ve got a ways to before we get to Aunt Beth’s. Just hold your breath.” The door to the stall next to Jimmy creaked open, and he could see two tiny feet shuffle in.
He should call for help, but he couldn’t. His head slumped against the tank of the toilet, blood covered his arm and left leg. He couldn’t say anything. That poor kid. He couldn’t let that kid see him.
The toilet flushed, and the little feet ran out.
“Wash your hands.” Water running and then they left. A cool breeze blew in as the door shut.
Jimmy pushed himself up. Pain tore through his ribcage, and he vomited. More pain, and his head got woozy. Deep breath. Easing himself down, he sat on the toilet.
Two guys came in next. They sounded like high schoolers, talking about sports and the stank of the bathroom. Jimmy stayed quiet. What was he going to do? It hurt to move, and he didn’t have any pants or shoes.
Three more men came in, did their business, and left. One tried Jimmy’s stall, but he’d locked it. It had to be dark by now. The guy had his car, his clothes, his phone. Jimmy sat on the toilet alone, hurting, and shying away from every snap and creak.
An even cooler breeze swept under the stall, and a man entered, clopping on the tile in what sounded like work boots. Jimmy waited until the man washed his hands, and then he tried to speak.
“Can you help me?” His voice shook as he spoke.
The water turned off “What?”
Jimmy buried his face in his hands and cried. Never in his life had he felt so utterly alone.
“Who’s there?’ The man tried the stall door, but the lock held. “You okay?”
“No. Somebody robbed me.”
“Open the door. You okay?”
It hurt to reach for the lock. As he pushed it open, the door swung in, and the man caught him as Jimmy fell to the side.
“What in the world? Come on, son. I got you.” Every step radiated with agony. Once Jimmy was out of the stall, the man lifted him up, cradling him and carried him to the back of his truck. He grabbed a blanket and draped it over Jimmy’s shoulders.
“I’m going to call the police.” The man pulled his phone out and turned away, speaking in hushed tones.
A woman came out of the store with two little girls. “Is everything okay?”
The man told her and a few others who had gathered what he knew. Some scattered back to their cars, but the woman scurried into the store, pulling her kids behind her. Five minutes later she came out, tucked her kids into a red Camry parked in front, and then hurried to Jimmy’s side with cleanser, ointment, bandages, and water.
“I’m a PA. I’ll help you.” She smelled like cotton candy, and tears rolled down Jimmy’s cheeks.
He didn’t want her to help him. He didn’t want anyone to do anything for him. He’d always been the helper. Always the one who had it together and do whatever his buddies or Cindy needed him to do—be a mover, a study buddy, a taxi. Helping people was what he did, not what others did for him.
But he didn’t stop her. He let her dab at his scrapes and unscrew the top from the bottle of water and bring it to his lips. He let other strangers buy a pair of flip flops for his feet and Hawaiian shorts to cover his underwear. And he barely said thank you. They didn’t seem to notice that, though. And he thought, he’d never helped anyone like that. He gave and did stuff and always showed up when his friends called, but he’d never helped anyone like they’d helped him.
The man who’d found him, Clem, sat with him while the cops came and questioned him. And Jimmy used Clem’s phone to call his mom. Clem drove him the hour and a half to meet her at a restaurant.
“You were in that bathroom for three hours?” Clem switched the high beams back to low.
Jimmy grunted. Getting robbed and beat up had been awful but sitting in that stall alone listening to people come and go had been its own kind of misery.
“It’s hard to believe no one else came in there. I almost didn’t even stop.” The wind whistled from the crack in the window, and country music played softly from the radio. “I’m sure glad I did.”
Jimmy cleared his throat. “You weren’t the only person to come in.”
“There were others. I just didn’t say anything.”
Clem gave him a side look of concern. “You still in school?”
“Yeah, I go to OCU. A junior.”
“Live at home?”
“No, got an apartment with two other guys.”
Jimmy didn’t answer. Why didn’t he answer? Cindy was his girlfriend. They’d been together since freshman year, his not hers. She graduated last year, and he’d spent every spare moment going to visit her, even dropped off the soccer team. He grunted an ambiguous reply. “What about you?”
Clem held up his left hand. “Married. Well, widowed, but that’s still married to me. I run a small gym in Charlottesville. I’d been up visiting my sister when I stopped at that gas station.”
The rest of the ride was quiet. Jimmy wished it wasn’t, but he didn’t have anything to say, and Clem seemed to be thinking. As they pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot, though, Clem cleared his throat and spoke up.
“Jimmy, will you do me a favor?” He gave Jimmy that concerned look again. “Will you promise me you’ll take care of someone for me?”
Jimmy stared at the strong sixty-year-old.
“I hope and pray you’ll never have a next time of anything like what you went through today, but one thing I do know. I know you’ll have another time when you’re hurting and in pain and feeling too awful to speak up, and when that time comes, will you remember this little talk and will you promise me to never again sit in filth, hurting like that, and being too whatever to call out for help.”
Tears glazed the old man’s eyes. “You matter.” He pulled into a space and put the truck in park. “And if the first person don’t do the right thing, don’t you give up until someone does. Keep calling out. You matter.”
Jimmy nodded, his throat too tight to speak.
Just then a knock on the window, and his mom’s face was inches from the glass. She’d never looked better.
Clem and his mom exchanged numbers, and Clem told her everything the cops and paramedics had said. Jimmy said good bye, slipped into his mom’s car, closed his eyes, and saw something he hadn’t seen ever. A sense of their being more to him. A cracked shell with the promise of something even better inside.
Thank you for reading! Let me know what you think in the comments below! Peace!