The further into Central Georgia I got the less populated the towns became. The dirt path I was on ran beside route two-eighty all the way from a town with a grocery store, McDonalds, and Subway, to a town with a grocery store and a single light. Between the moderately-sized town and the small country town there were houses that resembled shacks from a second-world country; rusted tin roofs, cinderblock foundations, overgrown weeds. The dirt path rolled steadily, I staggered my cart up and down hills. The ground was packed and only occasionally I encountered sand. Pickup trucks, Jeeps, and 4x4s passed going ten miles per hour. There were at least twenty minutes between the passing of each car.
Seated on the side of the dirt path I looked at the map on my phone and saw that there was another hour of walking until I reached Madrid, the next town.
Just outside Madrid was a church, The Church of God, which was my destination for the day. From the satellite the church looked big and new, there was a playground and a border of forest. I’d be able to set my tent behind the church and go totally unseen.
I put away my phone, strapped on my backpack, and walked. Three more miles until The Church of God.
Twenty minutes later I came to a Baptist church on a slight hill. It was a great church to set up at. It looked new enough that it probably had an outdoor faucet, there were no houses around, and the hill the church was perched on would hide me from the road.
I slowed down as I walked by, eyeing the church as I went, weighing whether or not I should call it a night. It was six-thirty and I’d already walked twenty-four miles. Twenty-four miles was a full day, my record for miles in a single day was twenty-five.
I passed the first driveway leading to the church, still turning over my options. How was I feeling? Tired but not fall over and pass out tired, I could keep walking. But what if I skipped this church and for some reason ended up not being able to sleep at the Church of God? Then I’d go from twenty-seven miles in a day to who knew how many.
The dirt beneath my feet crunched as I walked. The noise ceased as I stopped at the second driveway to stare at the church.
It was a good spot. I imagined setting up there; relaxing, making dinner, maybe even being able to shower and sit on the front stoop and look out at the moon over the cornfield across the path.
I glanced down the dirt path towards Madrid, then down at my legs. No-see-ems, vampiric little gnats, swarmed my legs.
No, I wouldn’t sleep there, the no-see-ems would be terrible. As soon as I set up my tent I’d have to get inside it. There’d be no relaxing outside with all the bugs that would be attacking me.
I continued, pushing the cart, the movement of my legs keeping the no-see-ems from settling on my exposed calves.
About five minutes goes by when a red Dodge Caliber crests the hill ahead of me. As the car came towards me I moved my cart to the side, then waved once the car was near. The man in the car waved back – as everyone does on a country road in Georgia.
The car continued in one direction and I continued in the other.
Five minutes later the car pulled up on my left with the passenger window down.
I stopped and bent down to look into the car. A man had his elbow resting on the center console and was leaning towards me. He had crisp blue eyes with the white surrounding the iris being exceptionally white.
It seemed as though his eyes were glass or fine china.
“How are you?” I said.
“Whatcha doing pushing that thing?”
“Just passing through. Walked from Jersey.”
His eyes bulged. “You pushed that thing all the way from Jersey?”
“Why the three wheels?”
“Well I had four, but the front two were too small to push on anything but pavement.”
“You headed into town?”
“Once you hit the light I’m the first house on the left. You should come by, I have some people that you should meet.”
The man adjusted his seatbelt and moved forward a hair.
I tried to read him, he’d invited me over so quickly, after talking for only a minute. I got a strange vibe from him but it was unclear, I didn’t connect with him, couldn’t read him like I could most people. It was as though a fog separated us. Also, from all the tin-roofed shanties I’d been seeing I couldn’t imagine his place being much nicer. And on top of that, I already had it in my mind that I’d be setting up at the House of God in an hour, and be relaxing in my tent soon after that.
The man, near fifty, a bulging nose and a smallish chin, leaned further. “You seem like good people. And I’m good people, won’t do you no harm. You should come by, meet the youngins’.”
“Maybe,” I said slightly more enthusiastic for his sake.
I nod. “Well, gotta get back to it.”
He drove off, kicking up a wake of dust as he went. I followed, walking into the dust.
I put my headphones in, listened to This American Life, giving no more thought to meeting this man at his house. I was too tired and didn’t feel like putting on a face and being entertaining for someone.
There were clouds overhead, they’d been there all day. It was maybe eighty-five degrees and shady, it was easy, relaxing walking. Because there wasn’t any traffic I could keep my headphones volume low. I concentrated on the words of the podcast. Time slipped gradually past me and each step I took got me closer to setting up my tent.
Then the red Dodge Caliber crested the hill ahead of me once again. He rolled towards me and seeing that his window was down I removed my earphones. When he passed the man stuck out his head and said something incomprehensible.
I laughed then resume the podcast.
Only a minute later the car pulled up on my right. The glassy-eyed man leaned out the driver window, his arm over the side, his eyes blue like a Caribbean sea and his pupils shrunk like blackholes.
“Hey man, just wanted to let you know you really should come by. Meet my youngins and my sister. I’ll cook you something up.”
I stayed somewhat bent over my cart, as though about to start walking. A hot meal sounded great but I didn’t want to give my full attention to this man, I could make a hot meal of my own.
“I don’t know. I gotta find a place to sleep, probably don’t have time,” I said.
“Where do you sleep?”
“Either churches or in the woods.”
“Well I’m sure I could figure something out for you. I want you to come by though. I’m good people, won’t hurt you none. Never hurt anything.”
Since he was offering a place to sleep the possibility of taking him up on his offer existed. But if I merely went over for food then by the time I finished eating it would be night so I’d have to walk and set up camp in the dark, something I preferred not to do.
My mind automatically switched tracks, from simply being friendly to assessing the man to see if he was someone I felt comfortable putting me up for the night.
First I noticed his arm; it was bloody. Initially I wondered if he killed something, maybe a small animal. Then I noticed his arm was pot-marked with bloody bumps, one bump was open and there was a smear of blood from his elbow up his arm. Then I looked into his car. It was clean and relatively new. Then I noticed the lighter in his hand.
The arm was a mark against, the lighter was a mark against, the car was a mark for.
My inspection of him was broken by his voice.
“I’m sure we could throw that thing in here and I could take you to town.”
“No. No. I’m walking. Have to walk. One continuous path.” I gestured with my hands.
I still didn’t feel comfortable. Something was off with the man, I couldn’t tell what it was though. It wasn’t anything physical about him that gave me the uneasy feeling, it wasn’t his eyes or bloody arm. There was something beneath all that, something I couldn’t place. It was in my gut, buried deep beneath my conscious mind which was tallying the marks for and against him. I tried to assess the gut. What was it?
“You really are walking.”
“Yes sir.” I returned from my thoughts. “I’ve come this far.”
“You’re in the middle of nowhere.”
The way he said nowhere was as though a test to see if I fidget.
I didn’t. I didn’t say anything.
“Name’s Rob,” he said.
“Tom,” I said shortly.
“I had a blue pit that I used to run down this road. Had him until he was two. Then I’m standing outside my house and a car runs over him.”
“Christ,” I said, trying to be nice and pay attention.
“The car runs right over him and doesn’t even hit his brake light. Right in front of my youngin’. Doesn’t even stop. So I’m raging, pissed. This dog really had me, we connected. I have other dogs, but once I got this blue pit it was something different.”
Rob’s eyes grew somehow glassier, manic; as though clay being hardened by fire.
I stood a little straighter to show I was listening.
“So I get in my truck and follow this guy all the way to his house. I get out of my car and charge up to this fucking ni-”
Immediately my mind cleared.
This man is not a good man.
Where did his rage come from? I only just met him and already he was spitting out racism and a story of his dead dog.
He pointed at me, showing how he talked to the man who’d run over his dog. Rob was angry, the veins in his neck bulging, reliving the story. I could hear what he was saying but was listening to my thoughts. What sort of person starts with this kind of story? I didn’t ask him about his dog. I’d known the man for maybe three minutes.
“That’s terrible…” I said blankly.
“Anyway,” Rob said quickly as if to brush off his dead dog story. “You should come by. You really should.” His voice lightened and the rage vanished. “I’m good people. I don’t mean anything about that talk about black men, just grown up down here and that’s how it is. I’m good people and you seem like good people too. You seem real interesting. Really you should come by. Left at the light and I’m the first house on the left. Look for a white Toyota pickup and this car.” He slapped the the outside of his car door.
“You should. Kick your feet up for a little.”
For some reason I half warmed to him. Maybe he was racist, but he was friendly to me. And I did want to kick my feet up.
“You gonna come by?”
“Alright well I’ll be waiting for you in town. Nice meeting you Tom.”
Again he drove off.
I pushed my cart, thinking about whether or not I should take up Rob on his offer. I fell deep in my thoughts, not feeling my steps, not noticing the hills. I looked down. My mind raced, speeding down possibilities like turns for an F-1 driver.
What was there to be gained from going over Rob’s? A meal, a shower, maybe a bed? But I had meals, I didn’t really need a shower, and I was already looking forward to setting up my tent.
I’d have to entertain and once reaching town it would be my longest day yet and I knew I wouldn’t be in the mood to do that.
But my father’s voice whispered, “It’s all about the people,” he’d say.
And last time I listened to that voice I had one of my best nights on the road.
So maybe I should listen to my father. That’s what the walk was all about wasn’t it? Meeting people?
But then there were Rob’s arms. The blood, the marks. What could that be from? Some skin disorder? An allergy to no-see-ems? Drugs? He was holding a lighter. Could it be meth? But his face was fatty, he didn’t have that gaunt, malnourished look that I imagined meth-heads to have. Still, the bloody marks weren’t good. I couldn’t imagine anyone I knew walking around with blood on their arm. They’d wipe it off. Then again the marks could have been any number of medical disorders. If only I were a doctor, I’d at least be able to make decent guess at what those marks might be caused by.
I chided myself, I probably just didn’t know people in rural Georgia. They’re a different breed. They’re outdoorsmen, fisherman, hunters. For them blood on the arm was probably nothing.
And then there was his car. It was clean and newish. Only someone with their life together would have a clean car, right?
No. That logic wasn’t right. A clean car couldn’t count for anything. People of all walks of life have clean cars, I couldn’t hold onto a made-up correlation like that. I couldn’t hold onto made-up correlations about anything; not about his lighter, his bloody arm, his accent, his clean car. They were all meaningless. I couldn’t judge a man on a few points.
Yet I didn’t have a good feeling about him.
The dirt path ended, turned into a paved road. Soon I was in town and the houses were much nicer than I expected. They were brick with garages and manicured yards. They weren’t the shanties with tin roofs and six discolored cars parked out front that I’d seen so often since turning into rural Georgia.
Still, I didn’t have a good feeling about him.
I walked upright. My head peering ahead in search of a white Toyota pickup, praying that I wouldn’t see it. Praying I wouldn’t see Rob seated out front waiting for me. I wanted to get to The House of God, set up my tent, pour hot water into a dehydrated meal, and go to bed.
For a while I found no sign of his house, I thought I passed it, that somehow I missed the stoplight and in turn missed his house.
But once I followed the road left I saw a stoplight a few blocks ahead. Over the black street the stoplight pulsed red. I hadn’t passed his house quite yet.
I walked into a grocery store, the only store in town. I needed bread and pop-tarts.
Standing in front of the bread aisle and boy of about nine, with blonde hair and a yellow shirt, starting talking to me.
“Look at everything in our cart!” he exclaimed.
“Wow! That’s a lot of food,” I said.
“All we have at the house is a jar of pickles! My friend Jane loves pickles! They have a really big jar of pickles at her house!” He threw his arms out to show just how big the jar of pickles was.
A huge man lumbered out from one of the aisles, he resembled one of those naturally massive men that used to be shown off in traveling circuses.
“Ask the man where he’s from,” the man said to the energetic boy.
“Where are you from?” the boy said to the ground.
“Our town is only this big.” The boy put his hands about a foot apart. “It’s a small town.”
“My town is a medium-sized town. It’s about this big.” I put my hands outside his hands.
“You hiking the railroad tracks?” the boy’s father asked.
“Not the railroad tracks, but hiking through.”
The big man had a calming feeling about him. He resembled an old oak, rooted yet swaying in the wind, going with the breeze, not fighting against it.
“Well I’m the mayor of the town over. I have a guest house that you’re more than welcome to shower and stay at.”
“Thanks,” I said genuinely. His offer reassured me slightly about Rob’s offer earlier, maybe everyone down here was just friendly that way.
“It’s a big house with a white wall around it. Just ask anyone for the mayor and they’ll point you my way.”
“How far is the next town?”
His wife had appeared and he consulted with her for an answer. “About seven or eight miles,” they agreed.
“Ah. That’s too far for me tonight.”
“Well if you need anything or if you make it that far, just knock on our door.”
The mayor turned.
“Do you know a man named Rob?”
He turned back around. “Rob?”
“I’m just asking cause he offered to cook me a meal tonight and was wondering if he’s alright. Said he lives at the first house left of the stoplight.”
Again the mayor consulted with his wife.
This time she answered. “I don’t know him but that’s a nice house. And the woman in the house next to him is very good.”
“Thanks,” I said.
They nodded, paid, and left. Then I did the same. I grabbed my cart and was walking again. As I edged nearer the light I looked for Rob’s house. I didn’t want to see it, I didn’t want to pass it.
But maybe he was alright. The mayor and his wife offered for me to stay at their place just as quickly as Rob had.
Still, I didn’t have a good feeling about him.
A heard a car pull up beside me.
It was a red Dodge Caliber. Rob was in it and so was a little boy, chubby faced, two years old, smiling and bobbing.
“I thought you might have moved on. You gonna come by?”
I felt the pressure of his insistence.
“Maybe,” I said. “It’s just that the sun is setting and I need a place to sleep.” I said this hoping it would get me out of his offer without being rude. As if saying it wasn’t me or him, it was that damn sun…
“Well I know I only just met you but I can tell you’re good people. Sure we could figure something out.”
I hesitated, looked into his car. His youngin’ was laughing to himself and talking nonsense. The blood on Rob’s arm had been wiped clean.
“Alright,” I said reluctantly, thinking of what my dad always said; “It’s all about the people, Tom.”
“Great. Well I’m gonna run back to the store and pick some things to cook up. You just drop my tailgate and wait for me. I’ll only be a few minutes.”
He turned around.
I approached the light, turned left at it.
Please be a nice house, please be a nice house.
Once the woods ended there was a nice house. It was brick and well kept. There was a bunch of things strewn about the left side of the house, but nothing more than was normal for rural Georgian house. I dropped the tailgate of his Toyota and sat.
I heard his sister saying something inside.
Then I texted Catherine. I told her if anything happened to me I was at this address in Madrid. Then I unzipped my backpack and dropped my knife and mace into my right pocket.
I knew as I sat there that I shouldn’t be at any house where even the thought of needing a knife and mace was present. And yet there I was, somehow having ignored the bad gut feeling I had and choosing instead to believe that it was probably nothing.
Rob and the boy pulled in.
“I’m real glad you stopped by.”
“Yea,” I said, feeling the odd way the mace and knife rested against my thigh.
The boy came around with a bag of gummy worms. For some reason that assured me. See? Who could be evil when they bought a kid gummy worms, only good people did that.
I followed Rob inside.
Please be nice inside. Please be nice inside.
I slipped in. Three dogs surrounded me, barking. A massive television was on the wall. There was a single light on that had a red lampshade over it which cast a dim red glow over the room. Rob’s sister sat blanketed in a chair, smoking a cigarette.
Why was there a single red light? It was like a horror movie. Who lit their house like that?
I petted the dogs and smiled. I moved forward and shook Rob’s sister’s hand. “Tom, nice to meet you.”
She barely stirred in her chair. “Lauren.”
That was it, then she was watching t.v. again.
“Sit down, sit down,” Rob said, moving pillows from a chair.
I sat and my eyes adjusted slightly. The room came into better focus. There were toys all around. The furniture was fairly nice. Portraits of family members covered the wall. The living room doors were closed so that the room seemed to be the entire house. But it was nice. Strangely lit, but nice.
I was reassured.
Then Rob began talking. He sat beside me, in a chair opposite the lamp table that separated us. He leaned towards me and yapped about his time in the Navy.
Good, I thought. The Navy was good.
But I still didn’t have a good feeling. I noticed he was wearing a Steven King shirt, that turned my mind down all sorts of dark pathways. I found myself slipping in hints that people knew where I was. “Yea, I take photos throughout the day so people can track me.”
I even flat out told Rob that Catherine and the mayor from the town over knew I was with him.
Rob brushed those comments aside.
Why was I here? I shouldn’t be here. And yet I was sitting, listening to this strange man with eyes too big and too glassy, leaning towards me with great interest.
“Yea, sure we can figure out a place for you to stay,” he said.
As he spoke I found myself imagining waking in the middle of the night with him over me.
But that didn’t mean I wouldn’t stay, that was only a possibility, I doubted anything like that would actually happen. I’d just have to sleep with my knife in my hand, stab him if he tried anything.
His kid bounced around, spun in circles, wheeled toy cars on the carpet.
That was reassuring.
“So how many kids do you have?”
“Where are they?”
“One is at his mother’s, the other is at her grandmother’s, and the other is at a friend’s house. I’ll have to pick up the last one later.”
He continued talking. I wasn’t paying attention, I was too much in my own head. Where was the food? I thought this guy was going to cook. If he’d just cook then I could leave and still set up camp while there was daylight.
His sister left to the back of the house, shut the door behind her.
Then Rob left and did the same.
His son hopped on my lap and gave me a Reader’s Digest. I tried to read it to him.
Rob returned. “Yea,” he said over his shoulder to his sister. “We’re going to go get him. Tom will come with me, we can get to know each other.”
But then we didn’t leave. He sat back down and rambled. I tried to make conversation but nothing I said made a connection. Usually I’m good at empathizing, I can strike to the heart of a what a person is trying to say. With Rob though whatever I said seemed to be an aside, Rob just kept talking.
“Yea I’ll tell you, I saw you on that dirt road and thought what’s this good-looking guy doing out in the middle of nowhere?”
Good-looking sprung up in my mind. What guy uses that to describe another guy he just met? Probably it was nothing, but I couldn’t tell. My compass was spinning. There were so many conflicting points. He had four kids but only one was around. He said he was going to cook but hadn’t cooked. He had a nice house but it was lit only by a dim red lamp. He kept saying he was good-people but wouldn’t someone who was good-people just be good-people?
“You have an extra Xanax?” Rob asked.
She slipped to the back of the house for a minute then returned with a pill. She gave it to Rob who promptly swallowed it.
“I have PTSD,” he said.
“Let’s go,” he said.
And somehow I found myself following him out to the car. His car is nice, I reminded myself. That’s a good sign.
I opened the passenger door and saw that his car wasn’t nice though. There was grime lining everything. Dirty cups in the center console. Layers of dust on the dash and mucky fingerprints on the windows.
And yet I sat down. The car smelled stale and of cigarettes.
Rob sat too then got back up and went to the house.
He came back a minute later holding nothing new. Did he get a gun? I tried to tell by the way he walked, the way he sat.
I could discern nothing but put my hand in my right pocket and held my knife.
“Gonna take you to meet some good old country boys. They’re good people, my brother-in-law. Just live way out there.”
I didn’t say anything. We were already driving.
The road was long and unlit. Rob talked and talked, his great blue eyes bulging, him leaning towards me and barely paying attention to the road. The car moved side to side as though he were drunk. When cars appeared in the distance they blinded everything. Then when the car passed the road reappeared and Rob wasn’t in the lane.
He talked and talked. Still leaning towards me.
I swallowed heavily. My vision tunneled. I didn’t, couldn’t say anything. I tried to remain a passive observer, tried to remind myself that I could care less whether a person was gay or not. But I did care, in this situation, on the dark road, driving God knows where, I did care.
“I saw you on that dirt path and thought now what’s this good-looking guy doing out in the middle of nowhere?”
Suddenly it dawned on me what the strange feeling I had when I first met him was. He wasn’t just being friendly. He was interested in me.
“Not to say that I didn’t stop because I wanted to make sure you were alright. That’s the main reason I stopped. But then when I was driving away I thought, did God send him to me? And so I turned around.”
“Sorry bud,” I said tightly, “don’t swing that way.”
“Oh I know, I know. And like I said, I’m good-people, wouldn’t ever hurt no one. But boy, when I saw you I thought what’s that good-looking fella doing all the way out here?”
He was still leaning towards me, one hand rested on the steering wheel.
Visions of the future passed through my head. He’d pull up to a moonlit trailer and a few of his good old country boys would get out. Then I’d be helpless. They’d have guns. My mace and knife would be good for just Rob, but not against two or three of them.
If Rob wanted me I’d cut his throat. No hesitation about it. I’d cut his throat.
I tightened. Didn’t speak.
Rob spoke endlessly.
The road stretched on forever. Farmlands rolled by. The stars stayed the same. We were going nowhere and yet moving somewhere.
I wanted to ask where we were going, when were we getting his son, but I couldn’t speak. I just thought about Rob making a move and me jabbing my knife into him. I wouldn’t go down without a fight. I’d kill him.
“When I met you I knew right away that you were a cool guy.”
I realized this is how girls must feel. How do you know I’m cool? You don’t know a thing about me. You just keep saying I’m good-looking.
“The people in town know I’m a bit crazy. Used to be crazy that is. I changed my ways a while back.”
“Crazy in what way?” I managed.
“Lots of drugs. Used to sell. Now the people probably think I’m cooking meth or smoking meth but I’m not.”
I thought of the sores on his arm, of his brown half-teeth, of his glassy eyes.
He drifted between lanes.
If he didn’t murder me then he was going to murder us both with his driving. Cars zipped by us, missing us by inches as Rob glided the car back and forth.
Then suddenly there were stores I recognized. We were out of the farmland. A small part of me relaxed. I was in the town earlier.
He turned left, stores flicked by and we were driving out of town. The streetlights ended. The road was dark again.
He drifted to the left lane. I glanced over to see a car beside us.
“Yo!” I shouted.
As I yelled the car behind us slammed on its brakes, disappearing behind us.
Rob slowed, turned into a parking lot. “Oh man, thanks. If you hadn’t said something I would have hit that car. Must have been in my blind spot.”
He looked at me with his glassy blue eyes, smiling.
He didn’t do a thing to stop us from hitting that car. If the person in the other car hadn’t slammed on their brakes we would have spun out and crashed into something else.
Rob turned back on the road but going the opposite direction.
Why were we going back to town now? Why had we gone this far in the first place? Had he changed his mind about something? Were we going to the good old boys in the country then he decided I was too alert for that? Or that he was too high for that?
We pulled into a grocery store.
“Have to get wine for my sister,” Rob said.
I got out, followed him into the store.
The florescent lights of the grocery store blared down. There was an eerie older man, a sort of haggard William H. Macy, standing at the only open register .
“Hey there,” he said to Rob.
I caught eyes with the man as I passed him. They were entirely lecherous.
Rob turned his head and looked back at me. “Boy, you are damn good-looking though.”
I didn’t say anything. Couldn’t say anything.
I moved to the front of the store and let Rob shop. I looked at my phone and could think of no one to text.
Nothing had actually happened. I hadn’t been assaulted and I didn’t want to text anyone and worry them while they were powerless.
I knew I could manage myself. I wasn’t scared. I was freaked, certainly. But I was ready.
Rob paid and we got back in the car. We drove and drove.
The air conditioning was blasting and the windows were fogging up. Rob didn’t seem to notice.
I messed with the dials to rid the fog. Rob talked and talked.
When cars were ahead of us I could see nothing of the road. There were periods of thirty seconds where Rob drove with lights in his eyes and condensation on the window.
I was certain we were going to crash. Already he was slipping from lane to lane, and now he couldn’t see.
The road went on. After a longtime the condensation on the windshield dissipated.
Then we were back in town and he was pulling back into his house.
We hadn’t gotten his son like he said we were going to. We hadn’t seen the good old boys in the country like he said we were going to. He bought wine and milk and he hadn’t mentioned that.
But we were back. I was reunited with my cart.
We went inside and for some reason I was rationalizing that everything was fine again. Maybe he was going to cook dinner. I was starving. If only he’d cook dinner so I could eat and leave.
“Could I use the bathroom?” I asked. I needed to splash some water on my face. That hour in the car was too tense, my brain had been working at 100%.
“One second!” his sister burst. She leapt from her stupor and shot to the back of the house. Rob followed her and shut the door.
After five minutes he came back. “She was getting a bath earlier so just wanted to clean up. Come on.” He waved me back.
There was a tiny kitchen and Lauren was standing by the stove cooking something.
“Straight back!” they both yelped as though trying to keep me from stumbling into any other part of the house.
I went into the bathroom. It was decrepit, falling apart – mold between the tiles and filth in the pink bathmat.
I washed my face then looked myself in the mirror.
I have to get out of here.
I returned to the kitchen then to the living room. The door to the rest of the house was once again closed behind me and the red lamp lit the room.
“We’re going to get John now,” Rob said. “Come on Tom.”
I check the time on my phone. “It’s too late, man. I gotta set camp. I’m tired. I’m used to going to bed at 9:30. Usually I’m asleep already.”
“No. No. Come on.”
Somehow I followed him to the car. I opened the door and sat down. But I left the door open and kept one leg out. All the thoughts and feelings I had while in the car with him earlier came back. This time we were going to the good old boys in the country. I was sure of it. There was nothing to be gained by staying. I had to finally break this inertia and leave.
“How long is it going to be to your son’s?”
I could see Rob fumbling with a lie. “Fifteen minutes.”
“Fifteen minutes total?”
“That’s too long. I’m tired. I gotta go.”
“No. No. Stick around. Or just wait on the porch for me and I’ll be back in an hour. I haven’t been falling asleep till four and could use the conversation.”
“I’m falling asleep as it is.”
“I understand. I just wish I could have helped you out. I saw you on that dirt road and thought I had to help you. Why don’t you just wait in my backyard and I’ll be back in an hour?”
I noticed sweat beading on Rob’s forehead. It hadn’t been there before, it only just appeared.
“I have to go.”
I got out of the car then hustled to the house and grabbed my backpack from the floor.
“Nice meeting you,” I said to Lauren who was coming out from the back of the house.
I saw her gliding toward me like a specter. I slid outside and she pushed the door closed after me. The locked slammed to the locked position.
“Nice meeting you,” I heard from inside and realized she thought I’d just gotten a quickie from her brother and now didn’t need to stay over.
“Let me get your website and phone number,” Rob said as I grabbed my cart.
I gave both to him. I thought about giving him a fake number but for some reason didn’t.
“Where are you going to sleep?”
“I’ll find a spot in the woods.”
“No. I feel terrible, you can’t sleep in the woods.”
“It’s what I’ve done all the way here.”
“Stay here, I’ll be back in an hour.”
“I have to go.”
“But the woods? There are two churches up on the left. Stay at one of those. A Baptist church and The House of God. I go to The House of God.”
I tightened again. Though I was telling Rob I was going to camp in the woods I was still planning on camping at The House of God. Now I couldn’t do that. I told Rob earlier that I slept at churches sometimes.
“I’ll be fine,” I said, then rolled my cart to the road.
I pulled out my phone and flicked through the map. It was all farmland. There was another church three and half miles up the road. That was so far though. It was ten at night and I was tired. By the time I got to the other church it would be near eleven.
Rob passed me and honked.
I started walking and saw him stopped at the stoplight.
I stopped too. I pulled out my phone and pretended to look at it but actually watched Rob and waited for him to turn.
Eventually he did.
Then I got moving.
I walked the quarter mile to The House of God. It was perfect. Dark in the back, surrounded by woods, a hose to shower with.
But I imagined Rob, staying up until four in the morning, high or drunk, thinking lustful thoughts then appearing in the middle of the night behind The House of God. “Tom? I don’t want you sleeping out here, come back to my place.”
I knew how men could be when they’re drinking, they could be obsessive, go to ridiculous means to satisfy their most primal want.
I couldn’t stay at The House of God. I had to get as far away as fast as I could.
I thought of the mayor’s house. Maybe I’d make it there. I thought of the church three miles up the road too.
That’s where I’d head.
I swung my backpack around, removed my headlamp and strapped it to my head.
Then I ran. I sprinted down the empty and dark state road.
Twenty-seven miles, my longest day, and now I was sprinting.
I powered over one hill, then another, I only thought of Rob pulling up beside me. I had to get further away. I focused on the beam of light from my headlamp. It was the only thing I could see. My legs burned and tightened then I slowed to a walk, sucking in air, feeling like I was going to vomit. I hadn’t eaten since noon.
I checked the map. Still a mile and a half to the church.
I ran again.
When cars passed my heart beat faster and I prayed a red Dodge Caliber didn’t drive by.
I came to the church.
It was less than ideal. Wherever I set up I’d be exposed, there were lights surrounding the place, but I was exhausted and felt far enough away. I set my tent, boiled water and poured the water into a dehydrated meal.
I was drenched in sweat from running so I took off my shirt and hung it off my cart. I took off my shoes then dropped onto the grass.
Gradually I relaxed. I was away. I was behind a church and there was no way Rob would come out this far. And it was probably nothing the whole time anyway. Probably Rob was just a creepy man that wouldn’t go so far as to chase me down. After all, he hadn’t even tried anything. Everything had been in my head.
It had all been in my head.
I leaned back and looked at the moon and stars. My heart slowed. My muscles loosened. I closed my eyes.
Once I ate I would pass out.
Car lights appeared on the side of the church and I could hear a car crunching gravel.
I jumped up and waited, my brain rocketing, working at 100% again. Tunnel vision.
A pickup pulled into view. It wasn’t white and it wasn’t a Toyota.
Two men got out. One shirtless and looking thoroughly backcountry.
Had Rob called his friends? Were they here to get me?
“Hey buddy,” the shirtless man said.
I glanced to my mace and knife laying at the back of my tent.
The man passed in front of the headlights.
“What are you doing back here?”
“Just passing through,” I said, taking a step towards my tent. “I came here from Jersey. Figured a church would be a safe place. I’ll be out in the morning.”
I could barely make out the men’s faces, though the church was well lit they were standing in the shadow of a tall bush.
“Alright. Some of the neighbors saw a light and thought we’d better check it out.”
My body sagged with relief. I wanted to drop to the ground.
“Be careful, have a good night.”
The pickup backed up and drove off.
After eating I fell asleep immediately.
In the morning I woke late, around seven-thirty. Rob hadn’t come.
I was still reeling from all the stress of the night before so I took my time getting up. I ate slowly and laid down and looked out at the sky.
Then I heard a truck pull in and doors open.
I threw on shorts and got out of the tent. There was a big blue Ram. Both the Ram’s doors were open. On driver’s side stood the prototypical countryman, he wore a cowboy hat and sunglasses and smiled effortlessly.
Standing on the passenger’s side, looking at me from behind a rolled-down window was a short older man who I figured was the driver’s father.
“What you doing out here?” the countryman asked.
“Just camping out. Came from Jersey. I’ll be gone in a few minutes.”
“No problem. Just got a call and figured we’d check things out.”
“You aren’t the first.”
They both laughed. “Well everyone knows everyone around here and when someone sees something out of the ordinary we like to see what it is.”
“Glad you’re alright.” The countryman nodded and started to get back in his truck.
I moved forward. “You know a guy named Rob from the town back?”
The countryman and his father stepped back out and looked at each other. “Rob?”
“Yeah, turn at the light and he lives at the first house on the left. He invited me over last night but once I was with him I realized something wasn’t right. I ran to this church at night.”
“I don’t know him,” the countryman said, then laughed. “But glad you’re alright.”
They drove off. I packed and got on the road.
I walked fast, still trying to put distance between me and the last town. I called Catherine and explained everything that happened the night before. “Tom!” she said. “You should have trusted your gut! No good person says they’re a good person, they just are!”
She was right. And I thought the same things in the moment but ignored them.
I walked and talked with Catherine, going over every detail of the night before. After about forty minutes a Ram pickup pulled over on the road just in front of me.
I recognized the men inside, it was the countryman and his father.
“I’ll call you back,” I said to Catherine.
The two men stepped out of their truck.
“Hey,” the countryman said. “It’s a good thing you didn’t stay with that Rob guy.”
“You found out about him?”
“Yeah. He’s a known drug-addict and pedophile. Heard he’s messed with some youngins before.”
The countryman smiled and laughed but I just stood there.