She watched the man awkwardly rise up. He started walking again, not even realizing that a car was presently following close behind him. He maintained an unsteady amble while his steps toiled in determination.
She beeped the horn.
He didn’t turn around.
She pulled alongside him and beeped again. Finally, his head twisted toward the car. His arms tightened around his chest. His eyes were callous and deadened as if he didn’t see her. She noticed the dull shimmer of his eyes and the pupils largely dilated while the flesh around them was swollen and bruised. His shirt was bloodied, worse than originally believed.
She rolled her window down about an inch or so and shouted out to him.
“Are you okay?” she asked before having to repeat it once more. A man appearing lost and almost nearing incoherency was definitely the most bizarre thing she’d ever encountered out here, or anywhere else for that matter.
He didn’t reply, only continued walking.
Clearly, he was in some kind of shock.
“Stop, please!” she cried out, accelerating the car to keep up with him.
He hesitated, but in caution took a step away, trying to register the car beside him. He hunched over a little and searched inside the car. His eyes eventually connected with hers, but he didn’t move any closer. His head cocked slightly, with eyes that flitted down the road ahead of them and back to her. As if unshaken, he stepped away as he straightened back up.
“Are you okay?” she asked firmly so he could hear her. She leaned over towards the passenger seat to see him.
Once more, his eyes peered down in both directions of the road as if searching for something. Unmoving, but his arms hitched further up at his chest, he muttered, “I don’t believe so.”
He looked at her incoherently and back to the road behind the car. Autumn didn’t know what to think. His tone was feeble, and she had barely been able to hear him.
“What happened to you?”
Unsure whether to say anything or not, he simply stood outside the car as if unfazed. Finally, he answered in, “Not sure.”
She leaned over further to get a good look at him. Autumn noticed his entire body was trembling. His shirt was ripped in places and bloodstained in others. Her eyes examined his shirt and the flesh beneath, evidently still bleeding in some areas.
“You’re not sure?” she repeated.
He viewed her, as if in some kind of daze.
“Listen, can I drive you somewhere?” Autumn knew she was taking a big risk, but she couldn’t leave him out here like this. It was freezing. “I can take you to a hospital?”
“Hospital?” he stated questioning.
“Yes, to see to your injuries.”
He stared at her perplexed.
“Your shirt. You look like you’re bleeding.”
His arms remained firmly fixed up against him until he fully understood what she said and observed his front; oddly his arms remained stationary around him. Clearly, he had no idea what he was doing or what had happened to him.
For several seconds more, he seemed to deliberate on the offer, and then simply nodded. He flinched, hearing the click of the door as it was unlocked. Momentarily, he just stared at it as if he still wasn’t quite sure. Slowly, Autumn reached over to the passenger door and pushed it open. With an evident distrust, he stood back for several seconds more.
“Please. It is okay; you can trust me.”
Warily, his eyes met hers. He searched for a moment longer, and cautiously proceeded to get in.
Once he was inside, Autumn turned up the heater and gazed over to his numb expression. His face fixed forward while his arms clung around his chest. She started to reach into the back seat for her jacket. He recoiled, pushing towards the passenger door.
“It’s okay. I was just getting my jacket. I thought you might need it,” she reassured as she laid the hand already extended backwards and placed it along his bicep. My god, he was freezing.
Even though his expression remained leery, he nodded seemingly unshaken.
Autumn reached for the jacket and draped it over his left shoulder.
Although she knew that the center of the town was well over 30 miles away, she would drive the distance just to get him help. They had driven a mile or so in complete silence when she saw a small bridge coming into view. She knew of the older bridge, not far from her father’s cabin, only a quarter-mile or so if hiked along the stream bank. A bit longer if they took the main road around it. From the main creek branched a smaller stream that ran through the property and fed into a large lake behind the cabin. She had walked the stream many times in her youth. It was peaceful and the clean smell of the woodlands so….
Suddenly, a hand swiftly grabbed the steering wheel, and it jerked as the man veered the car off the road. It skidded along the icy road and ended up on the shoulder where she braked the car hard before it nearly ran into a ditch. Her head bounced against the door frame. She was momentarily dazed but managed to look over at him.
She pressed back in her seat. “Are you crazy!?” she snapped, gawking in disbelief. Her fingertip dabbed lightly where her head had hit. A goose-egg had already formed.
His sight remained glued on the bridge that had evidently been partially washed away. She swallowed back the terror, finally realizing how close they came to not making the other side. They would have crashed if he hadn’t grabbed the wheel. There was a huge gap of road which was washed away and water completely submerging what was left.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize…”
He didn’t look at her.
“Water, do you have any water?” He felt sick. He leaned forward and lowered his head into his hands.
Geez, she hadn’t realized he might be thirsty. “No, I’m sorry. But I do have green tea, bottled?”
“Anything,” he mumbled. The exertion from the hastened adrenaline had taken what was left of him. He leaned back and eased his head back on the headrest where his arms crossed at his chest. His eyes lulled and gradually shut.
She searched for the bottles within the bags in the back seat, finally pulling one out. She studied his trembling body and his hands that were pale, almost white. She could now hear his teeth lightly chattering. She touched his upper arm and realized how cold and clammy he was. He may just be suffering from hypothermia. Putting the car into reverse, she pressed her foot to the gas pedal but the car tires merely spun groundless beneath the slick ground. My god, she needed to get him warm. She sat for a moment deliberating about leaving the car and hiking that short distance to the cabin, but she didn’t know if he would actually make it.
She nudged the bottle at one of his arms. He didn’t readily respond, but finally his eyes opened and glared down in front of him. He sat for a moment, comprehending the offer. He slowly reached up, but his hand lazily dropped by his side, too weak to reach for the bottle.
Seeing he barely had any strength, she said, “Let me open it.”
She twisted off the lid and brought it up to his lips. She tilted it up, and he opened his mouth, parting his lips just slightly. He swallowed, taking too much in, and began to choke and wheeze. She wanted to pat him on his back, to help him; however, she felt anxious and simply waited and gazed in worry. He was worse off than she first believed. After his coughs ceased, she gave him another drink. He shook his head no more.
“Are you able to walk?”
He mumbled, “Maybe.”
“We don’t have far to go. I’ll help you.”
Blindly, he reached for the handle of the door before his head even came off the headrest.
Autumn grabbed her purse and hastily, but lightly, stepped to make her way around to the other side of the car to help him out. He had risen up from the seat and was already taking a step before she quickly redirected him. She went to the trunk and pulled out several old blankets as he continued his shaky walk onward.
She tossed one end of one of the blankets around her shoulder. “Lean on me,” she said, reaching up to wrap the other blanket around him. She pulled a limp arm around her shoulder. She wasn’t much help since he was so much taller than her. Abruptly, his forearm fell onto her shoulder cutting at her neckline. Obviously, he had needed the support.
They hiked for what seemed like grueling miles, with the tedious time spent moving forward, but Autumn knew differently; it wasn’t too much further before they would reach the cabin. Finally the cabin came into view, and she thought she had never seen anything so glorious. As they drudged up the steep hill that led up to the front of the cabin, he suddenly stopped his tracks and fell to his knees. His hands braced before the ground as he muttered, “Can’t.”
“You have to. Only fifty feet or more, and we’re home free.”
His sight focused on the snow below. All his ears could detect was the swirling wind around him; his head began to pound. His forearms dropped into the snow, and his head followed as it was engulfed with pain.
“When did I tell you to be home?” she asked slurring her words as she ran a flimsy wrist along her sneering mouth. The disdainful expression was intended solely for him.
He didn’t reply. He knew if he did, whatever he said would be the wrong thing.
“I’m not going to ask you again.”
Before he could speak, she smacked him. He cowered down, ready for another blow that would swiftly follow. He crouched lower as a violent, unrestrained hand struck him through her scotch-induced stupor. He held back the cries that never helped and only brought more pain. He wouldn’t do anything to instigate more blows, but somehow he fell apart.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he whimpered just so she would stop. But the truth was he wasn’t sorry for being ten minutes late. He hated it here. He hated her for the mother she was.
“Please, Mother, I won’t be late again. I promise.” He sensed her hand drop and he cautiously peered up, not trusting her temper or her sudden mood-swings. When she needed her fix, there was no telling what could happen. His eyes managed to meet hers. He always tried to give her the utmost respect that she demanded and felt she deserved. He felt the coolness along the edge of one ear. He knew he was bleeding, but he wouldn’t touch it.
He wouldn’t let her see that it hurt.
Terrified, he stared at her; waiting and hoping for the violent storm to pass.
She snarled and raised her hand again as though she was going to backhand him. He ducked his head, but she gave only a haughty laugh.
“You are nothing but trouble, boy,” she remarked as she grabbed her purse and walked toward the front door. She slammed it without a glance back, leaving him alone in the apartment. He plopped on the floor beneath him. He sat there, knowing tonight he would be safe; at least for a little while until his mother came back.
“Come on, or you’ll freeze out here,” Autumn said, guiding the bottle of tea to his lips. She noticed his hesitancy and the pain in his eyes… maybe humiliation. It was an odd expression that she couldn’t quite read.
He pushed her hand away as he struggled to stand back up on his own and started moving toward the cabin without her help. For a moment, she stood perplexed, then picked up the blanket and trailed close behind him. She noticed that his eyes flashed back at her before starting, determined, up the slope. She wrapped the blanket tightly around her shoulders, feeling an unusual chill inside that wasn’t from the fierce outside temperature. She watched him in confusion as he dredged up the hill with his hands shoved up beneath his arms for some solace and warmth.
* * * *
Where did those thoughts come from? Strangely, they felt all too familiar, too real.
When he looked back over his shoulder at the woman behind him, he wondered. What was her actual motivation for helping him? Somehow, trust felt foreign to him. His mind had to focus on that single, cruel recollection that he knew was from his past, and for some reason, that harsh memory wouldn’t kill his spirit. His steps were unsteady and shaky, but he would make it to the cabin where, if just for a short while, warmth and rest awaited his beaten body. He would be safe until he was again discovered.