Ted had been driving for hours. His legs hurt. His back hurt. He needed to stand and walk a bit. He normally didn’t allow himself breaks unless he was getting gas, but there hadn’t been an exit or a gas station in the past half hour. Ted clinched the steering wheel as if it had committed some crime against him and looked for the next exit off the highway. Anyone would do, he thought. After a few more miles, he finally saw a sign for a rest stop. 2 miles it read. Mercifully, Ted eased his death grip on the steering wheel and moved to the right lane.
As he pulled off the highway and down the narrow access road, the trees on both sides loomed overhead. By the time he got into the actual parking lot, he could barely see the interstate through all the summer vegetation. Ted saw two parked cars, one ugly concrete building and not much else. As was his habit, he parked several spaces away from both vehicles and got out. The muscles in his back, followed quickly by his legs, screamed their satisfaction upon release from the confines of the car. He turned his attention to the restrooms a short distance away and went to take a leak.
Why stop again in another ten minutes.
While walking, Ted couldn’t help but notice the many, many picnic tables scattered around the open woods. The tables were heavy concrete slabs, and next to them were the matching benches. The number of tables gave the impression that this particular rest stop was used to its fair share of crowds. But Ted didn’t think so. What he did know was that he didn’t see the owners of the other cars in the lot.
Just as Ted was stepping up on the curb of the sidewalk, a man slowly emerged from the women’s side of the restroom. The scruffy man noticed the look of concern on Ted’s face, but just continued towards the sidewalk.
“Whoops,” he said as he brushed passed Ted’s shoulder.
For a second, Ted thought to ask him if the men’s side was closed or something, but as he approached the opening, the bathroom appeared to be fine. Ted walked up to the cleanest looking urinal and instinctively checked the doorway he had just walked through. Ted finished, and as he exited, he was startled to see the scruffy looking man still standing there at the edge of the sidewalk.
“Excuse me Sir,” the man said. “Could I ask you for a favor?”
Ted cringed at the words. He hated these awkward moments when complete strangers asked for help. He never did that, and always hoped that society would return the favor. He especially wasn’t keen on the idea of having to slow his travel for some guy who just walked out of the women’s bathroom. The man was dirty. He looked homeless. He was wearing a tattered denim jacket and a pair of green kakis with holes on both knees. The man looked like he was in his fifties or sixties. Ted began to speak, but was interrupted.
“My car died,” the man said, as he pointed to the little blue truck that Ted had parked some distance from just a minute ago. “Could you give me a ride to a gas station?””Uh…sure, I guess,” Ted said, “but I have no idea where the closet one is. I’m traveling and I wouldn’t be able to drive you back here, you know?”
Of all the places to stop.
“Oh man, just getting there would be good.”
And with that, they started walking toward Ted’s car.
What the hell! This guy stinks. I can’t give him a ride. Think man, think fast!
While desperately trying to come up with excuses not to give him a ride, Ted was well aware the man was speaking, but paid no attention.
I’ll just tell him I’m can’t stop at the next exit. I’m in a rush. He’s a bum. What do I care if he understands or not.
” …and that’s why I think it’s the battery,” the man said.
“Well, those things happen. Can you call someone?”
“Don’t really have anyone. Thank God you showed up. No one’s been here since I broke down.”
At the car, both men moved to opposite sides. Ted snuck a glance at him again, but this time the man looked old and helpless. He reminded Ted of the type of people in old brown and white pictures from the thirties. They had hard lives, he thought.
Oh, I’ll just give him the damn ride. Maybe the old man won’t try to murder me.
Ted resolved himself to giving the man a lift. He would just drive to the next exit and that would be it.
Good deed for the year I guess.
Ted opened the door and got in. When he leaned over to unlock his new passenger’s door, he noticed something. The man’s waist was visible from the side window, and Ted could see that he was using a piece of rope to hold his pants up. It was about a quarter inch thick, dirty white and something else. It was stained, Ted thought. It looked a little like motor oil, but more reddish brown. Kind of like dried…
Maybe not blood, he thought, but some sort of body fluid.
He could have used it to kill the owner of the other car.
Of course Ted knew this to be a ridiculous. But that did little to dull the nauseating shudder that ran through his gut.
Of course it’s not blood. But it’s a rope. And he’s using it to hold up his pants. And he was in the women’s bathroom. That’s just too much.
Ted quickly decided that prudence was more important than charity and cracked the passenger door window just a bit.
“Hey man, I’m sorry but I gotta go,” he said, as he started the engine and slammed it into gear. For the second time in as many minutes, Ted heard the man saying something, but didn’t know what. And Ted didn’t really care. All he cared about was his car moving in reverse and he was getting the hell out of there.
Later down the road, after turning over all the different scenarios of his possible death, Ted thought about what the look on the old man’s face might have been as he sped off. A sense of shame managed to creep in. But as usual, Ted pushed that notion down real deep.