HE IS always leaving.
It would be so easy to just keep walking. Put one foot in front of the other. Never look back.
The sun is bright and warm, the day is breezy, and this neighborhood is so wonderfully quiet. Everything here is neat—the brick houses with their nicely painted shutters, each of them positioned just so on a manicured square of green lawn. Trees grow along the street, not a lot but enough to create a soothing rush as lofty breezes sweep through their leafy tops.
There are people about also, but again not a lot. Thank God. Jason Barrett isn’t good with people. He’s strange, an indisputable bit of self-knowledge, and strangeness draws the wrong kind of attention. Strangeness draws suspicion, so he tries to stay hidden as much as possible. The people out in this neighborhood are too engaged to really notice him. They’re in their driveways washing cars or clipping their hedges or digging up flowerbeds. Jason doesn’t even have to work up a smile or throw an awkward wave. He’s free to stroll along and soak in the serenity of the ordinary.
He doesn’t want to stop. He wants to keep walking until he’s in another city, another world, where maybe he can just disappear and never be noticed again, where perhaps he can finally breathe. It seems he’s been holding his breath all his life. He knows there is something wrong with him, something that has been broken and can never be fixed. It feels as if he was broken a long time ago.
He doesn’t understand his own emotions or his own mind. The oddest urges strike him at the oddest moments. He doesn’t know why he is afraid all the time, even now, in the bright, open light of day, in an ordinary neighborhood of law-abiding people watering their lawns. He doesn’t know why the urge to weep dogs him, rising out of nowhere, forcing him to bite his lip to keep from screaming. He doesn’t know why he always wants to run away.
Running away is complicated. For one thing, he always gives up something when he leaves. Here, in New Hanover, a town of some thirty thousand souls in middle Tennessee, he has a job and a place to stay and regular meals. It took a while to arrange those things for himself, things he never got in some of the places he’s been. In addition to his strangeness, he’s tall and African American. He’s seen how nervous his appearance makes some adults when he walks into a store or restaurant asking for work. If he leaves New Hanover, he’ll have to start the arduous process of finding shelter and a job all over again.
And there are dangers everywhere, especially on the road. He knows that all too well. Months ago, in June, he was walking down Highway 41, heading for Murfreesboro, when he came upon a gas station and convenience store in a wide clearing that had been carved out of the woods. He stopped there to use the bathroom and drink water from the faucet. When he opened the bathroom door, two men in their early twenties were waiting. One was white, the other Latino. They were good-looking, smiling, and friendly.
The Latino guy offered him a cold bottle of water. Jason forced a smile and declined. He moved past the men and resumed his trek along the highway. Some minutes later, after the gas station had vanished behind a curve in the road, he heard a vehicle approaching from behind him. He instinctively stuck out his thumb as he walked without looking back.
The pickup truck was black with emblems of yellow flames on the fenders over the tires. It cut sharply in front of him and stopped. The white guy was behind the wheel, and the Latino was in the passenger seat. Jason remembers those details vividly. They sprang out of the truck and came at him. He put up a good fight against the two of them, holding them at bay for about a minute. Then the white guy maneuvered behind him and hit him in the back of the head with something. His brain seemed to explode. He went down on his knees, stunned. The Latino man hit him in the jaw, a blow that knocked him sideways to the ground.
They dragged him into the woods and went through his pockets. Only half-conscious, he couldn’t put up any resistance. He had thirty-five dollars on him, the cash he’d earned for the day of work he’d done on a small farm outside the town of Beechgrove. The Latino guy seemed disgusted that he didn’t have more. He cursed nastily in Spanish and kicked Jason in the gut. The pain knifed through Jason’s insides, making him curl into a ball and sucking out what little fight he had left in him. They took his money, ran back to their truck, and drove off, leaving him penniless, groaning, and bleeding among the trees.
He had even worse luck in July, when he left Murfreesboro after four fruitless weeks. In that time, he was never able to get more than an odd job here or there. Unable to afford a room at either of the boarding houses he’d found, he slept on a mat of flattened cardboard boxes hidden behind a row of hedges in a city park. It was frustration as much as fear that drove him toward New Hanover.
In six hours, Murfreesboro was eighteen miles behind him, and there was nothing but forested hills on either side of the highway. Night had fallen, and he knew he would have to get off the road soon. He was tired and needed to sleep. After walking another three miles, he came to a truck stop. He made his way among fuming, idling semis to the brightly lit café/convenience store where he bought a cup of vegetable soup for his dinner. After he ate, he planned to search out a spot to sleep in the woods behind the truck stop.
He dozed off at the table while eating and woke to the sound of a voice asking if he needed a ride. He opened his eyes to a truck driver standing over him, a middle-aged man who was tall and burly, whose smile was friendly and whose once-blond hair had faded to the color of pale straw, who said he was heading for New Hanover. Jason was glad to finally catch a break. It had been months since he’d had any luck hitching a ride, and sitting in the cab of a truck beat sleeping on the ground any day. He gulped down the last of his soup, followed the man outside, and climbed his way up to the passenger seat of the man’s semi.
The man gave his name and made small talk as they rolled onto the highway. Jason remembers none of it; he drifted off to sleep within minutes. When he woke again, he knew some hours had passed. The moon had risen, hanging high in the sky. Something felt wrong. The truck was stopped on the side of the highway, in the middle of nowhere. There was little traffic moving in either direction. The engine was off, and the driver’s seat was vacant. There was movement in back of Jason, the sound of it coming through the curtain that hung behind the seats.
Then the driver’s voice came through the curtain, quietly saying that he was tired and needed to sleep, followed by an invitation for Jason to come on back where it would be more comfortable than dozing in that seat. Fear shot through Jason’s body and instantly sharpened his senses. He said no, thanks, he had to go, and he grabbed the door handle.
The man reached through the curtain so fast Jason couldn’t even get the door open. His grip was powerful and hungry, fingers wrapped sharply around Jason’s forearm, the force of the grasp seeming to press right down to the bone. With frightening ease, he pulled Jason back between the seats, past the curtain, and into a small compartment. Jason fought wildly, fiercely, but the man was bigger and far stronger. He wrestled Jason down and straddled him, pinning his legs in the process. The man punched him twice in the mouth and choked him to stop his shouts. The pain of those strong, squeezing fingers burned deep into Jason’s throat, and his fear flared even brighter as he struggled desperately to breathe. He kept wrenching at the fist around his neck with one hand while punching with all his might at the man’s face.
The man let go of Jason’s neck, grabbed his wrists, and pinned them together with one big hand. Jason coughed and gagged, his throat raw, unable to shout for help as he gasped for air. Then the man got Jason’s jeans open and began tugging them down, off his hips, exposing him. Jason’s anger and fear blazed into pure panic. Even immobilized by the thick body over him, he continued struggling. The man turned him, flipped him, and he found himself lying facedown on a bare, dusty mattress, still unable to move. His jeans and underwear were down, tangled around his ankles. The man forced Jason’s knees apart with his own, pinned Jason’s head to the mattress with a thick forearm across the back of his neck.
Jason couldn’t fight anymore. He couldn’t move. He could barely breathe. He felt the anxious fumbling of the man’s hand against his bare butt as the man worked his own pants open. Jason still refused to surrender. He protested what was about to happen in the only way left to him; he broke into angry, bitter sobs.
He cried, his chest heaving. The tears burned his eyes and his throat as if made into acid by his helpless rage. He cried, and the man suddenly stopped moving. Time seemed to alter, flowing on without them, leaving them behind and trapped in that awful, awkward tableau.
Then, slowly, gradually, the man climbed off without raping him. Immediately, Jason rolled off the mattress and pushed himself up against the wall of the compartment, still sobbing. As he struggled to get his pants and underwear up, he glared at the man through his tears. The man backed away, eyes down, mumbling that he was sorry.
The man said they were only ten miles outside of New Hanover. He said he would finish driving Jason there. Jason said he just wanted to get out of the truck. Looking guilty and ashamed, the man climbed back into the cab of the truck and opened the door for him. When Jason was outside, standing on the dusty berm of the highway in the cool night air, the man tried to give him some money. Men had offered him money for sex before. As badly as he needed cash, Jason had always refused. He was afraid of the men and what they wanted. He was afraid to be touched and disgusted at the idea of selling himself. He refused the truck driver’s money, which the man probably offered in hopes of keeping him from going to the police. There was no chance of that; Jason feared the police too.
He retreated into the woods as the truck driver drove off. He stayed hidden in the forest for nearly two days, shaken, afraid, sitting sleepless among the fallen, brittle brown leaves until thirst and hunger forced him to move on to New Hanover, where he finally found a semblance of stability and sanctuary.
Now here he is three months later, in October, walking toward the highway that will take him out of the town and away from his job and the home he has made for himself. Here he is, driven by impulses he doesn’t understand, walking into uncertainty, forever trying to escape the unknown.
Leaving feels good. It feels right because it stops the unrelenting impulses, which settle down only when he is on the move. On the road, everyone is on the move, and it’s the one place he seems to fit in, where he finds comfort in being just another traveler with a long way to go.
With the comfort comes danger. There will be others who want to use him, hurt him. Fear of the road slows his steps. Does he really want to give up steady pay, regular meals, and a warm room to sleep in, when it could get him hit on the head and robbed again? And maybe the next truck driver who grabs him, pins him down, and strips off his pants won’t be stopped by defiant tears. Should he open himself to the potential dangers out there to further distance himself from the nameless fear that follows him?
His decision doesn’t matter. Leave or stay, the only certainty is that he will never be safe.
He picks up his pace again and keeps walking toward the highway.
HE IS two blocks away from where this quiet, residential street intersects with the swift, bustling traffic of the highway. Ahead, he can see the vehicles sweeping by, the sizzle of tires on asphalt calling to him like a choir. Follow us.
Other sounds come out of the air suddenly, an unwelcome distraction. The view of the highway is an enticement that twists knots of fear and excitement into his stomach. The grunts and gasps snatch at his attention, forcing him to turn away. There’s a park on his left, a sprawl of low-cut green grass, gently swaying trees, and walking trails surrounding a small lake. On a little grassy mound in the open sun, a guy is standing.
No, not standing. He is moving. His motions are sharp yet graceful, balletic in a way, powerful. Jason slows his steps. The guy, dressed in spotless white sweats, has a lean, athletic body that flows through a series of sudden jabs and kicks. In between the moves, he freezes momentarily in different stances: feet apart, fists up and close to his chest; one foot forward, knee bent, the other foot back, leg straight, left fist at his waist, right arm extended with palm up. Jason has seen moves like this before, although he can’t remember when or where—this is karate or kung fu or something. The fighting style is intriguing, but it’s the guy himself who captures his attention. The look on his face, the intensity of it….
Jason stops and watches.