The rain fell softly, the wind blew gently on the quiet, lonely interstate connecting Illinois and Iowa. Robert Mitchell’s 2005 Honda Accord lurched and creaked, going fifty-five on a road with a speed limit of seventy-five. His car was too old and defeated to meet the freeway’s required speed. He was in no danger to, or from anyone. The road was abandoned. The moon could barely be seen through the mask of clouds, and the hazy rain fell silently on the road ahead. The night was darkest at this hour—12:13 a.m. Robert’s journey began at six o’clock that night. He was not a wealthy man, not in any sort of way. When he heard the news of his mother’s passing, he was forced to get in his worn out car with 100,000 miles on it, and drive to the site of his mother’s passing: Perry, Iowa. Perry was Robert’s childhood home, and coincidentally the site of his tragic childhood, the childhood he would like to forget.
His mother wasn’t a young woman, dying at the age of sixty-one, and was not a healthy one either, sporting a smoking habit and limping around with a bum knee from a bad fall on ice on her thirtieth birthday. Eventually lung cancer took her life. Not a surprise to Robert, or his two older brothers, Patrick and Chris. His brothers also made the trip back to Perry, to pay their respects to their lost parent; however, these men were far better off than Robert, with six-figure incomes, enough to buy plane tickets to Des Moines International airport. His brothers had arrived in the afternoon; Robert was to meet them the next morning.
The air became mistier, and fog began to creep further onto the road ahead. Robert’s view of the road had become obstructed, the moonlight barely showed through the clouds, making the only clear part of the road the ground dimly lit by the weak high beam headlights of his ten-year-old broken down station wagon. The wind began to pick up. Driving had now become dangerous and difficult, prompting Robert to pull off onto the shoulder of the road, to wait for the weather conditions to become more favorable. He pulled out the novel he’d been reading for some time now: The Tortured Soul. Robert found this story to be quite relatable. The story follows a young man Gregory Getties, through his childhood of parental abuse and schoolyard bullying from boys much bigger and stronger than he was. Abuse that both Gregory and Robert had endured during their childhoods. Gregory persevered through all of the adversity he faced at such a young age, and worked his way up through various newspapers and magazines, finally becoming an author, fulfilling his childhood dream. Robert always believed he had a knack for writing. He was good with words; his father always told him that.
The rain began to subside, the fog began to clear just far enough to see the surrounding cornfields, and the moonlight shone dimly through the clouds. Robert restarted the engine and continued on through the interstate highways of western Illinois. As he drove along, Robert’s thoughts drifted away from the road. He wasn’t sure yet if he was sad about his mother’s passing. She was never particularly kind to him; she viewed him as the “problem child,” at least that’s what she told him. She always cared for Chris the most; he was the three-sport athlete, he made honor roll, he had the beautiful children, and he made the most money of all her sons. Robert was the youngest brother, and was treated as such. His brothers didn’t care for him much either. They excluded him from games when they played as children, and didn’t share toys. When his brothers would eat out with his mother, Robert was left at home. He continued to think of his past mile after mile, with every passing farm and cornfield. Rural Illinois highways made it easy for one’s mind to drift.
The ride grew longer. It was approaching 1:00 a.m. and the moon continued to hide behind the clouds. The rain fell harder, and the wind started alternating, first blowing east, then west, then east again. Robert’s stomach growled, and his car began to sway because of the harsh winds and the under-inflated tires on the left side of his old station wagon. A break seemed ideal to him. He scanned the highway ahead, looking for signs identifying rest stops, or exits leading to fast food restaurants. He was truly in the middle of nowhere. There were very few trees and he’d seen only about one farm every ten miles. Finally, he reached the first sign of civilization he’d seen all night. He got off at an exit with a sign for a rest stop just a half mile off the highway. As he neared the ramp he heard sporadic, muffled thunder claps.
He reached the rest stop town, which had only a few businesses—a convenience store, a hardware store, a gas station, and a garage—all separated from each other by abandoned lots. It was an ominous location, empty, unknown. Off in the distance, a car turned off a side street, onto the road Robert rolled through. The vehicles passed, each driver exchanging a look through each windshield. Robert pulled into the “Grab N’ Go Mini Mart” and parked in the lot occupied only by a 2009 Ford Mustang, presumably belonging to the owner of the store. The interior of the store was like the interior of any convenience store; they all looked the same. Aisles that go only up to a grown man’s chest, rows and rows of candy, chips, and store brand donuts and pastries on poorly made wire racks. White floor, white walls, white ceiling, and buzzing white fluorescent lights. The counter was in the center of the small store. A man of about thirty, white, backwards red St. Louis Cardinals flat brim hat with a shaved head underneath, leaned against the case of rolling hot dogs, yawning.
“What’s up, bro?” he said as Robert walked in.
Robert nodded to acknowledge him. He moved towards the back of the store where the drinks were in a transparent refrigerator. He grabbed a Pepsi—he preferred that over Coke, unlike most—then moved back to the front and scanned the rows of candy bars.
“Twix or Reese's. . .” Robert mumbled to himself. “Twix or Reese's . . . ?” He shook his head back and forth, weighing his options.
“You gonna pick something homie or are you just gonna keep talking to yourself?” asked the cashier.
“Sorry. . .I’m sorry, I just can’t decide. Which one’s cheaper?” Robert asked.
“They’re both $2.50 bro, just pick something. . .you’re freaking me out.”
“They’re both $2.50? That’s so expensive, how can you price something like this so high?”
“Just the way it is bro. You wanna go buy candy somewhere else, be my guest, this is the only store for twenty-one miles. I price my shit accordingly.”
“That’s like stealing," Robert said. "I only have $4.00 to spend. How much is this Pepsi?”
“$4.99. If you can’t afford it, I don’t care, that ain’t my problem. I make plenty of money, so I can’t say I know how you feel.”
“This isn’t fair,.” Robert replied softly, but sternly.
“I ain’t in this business to bargain, bro. If you don’t got money to pay, then leave me in peace, and stop talking to yourself, too. That shit’s weird.”
“Can’t you make any exceptions?" Robert was feeling desperate, eying the candy. “I’ve been driving all night, I need to eat something.”
“Not my issue, man. Just leave the store if you can’t pay.”
Robert didn’t object any longer. He made his way back towards the refrigerator and put the drink back. He walked back towards the front approaching the door. As he walked, a car pulled up. It was a broken down Chevy Impala, very old, wheels deflated, paint scratched, and the left side headlight didn’t shine. A white man dressed in all black, black coat, black hat, black pants, black worn out boots, hopped out and darted towards the door. He crashed through the glass door and pulled out a small handgun. He looked straight at Robert, who stopped dead in his tracks when the man burst in.
“Back up!” he yelled, shoving Robert back, and into the front counter. “You ain’t goin' nowhere.”
Robert let out a whimper of pain as his back slammed against the wooden frame. The pain made him drop to his knees and grasp his lower back.
“We ain’t lookin' for trouble, man” the clerk said, a tone of panic in his voice.
“Empty your pockets, both of you, right now,” the man in black said sharply, yet calmly, as he waved his gun around, first pointing at Robert, then at the clerk.
“It’s all good man, just relax. . .we ain’t lookin' for trouble. . .” the clerk replied.
“Hey, scrawny boy on the floor, empty your pockets now! I ain’t playin',” the man screamed at Robert, getting impatient.
“I. . .I. . .okay” Robert said, trying to sound calm. He slowly reached for his left side pocket, pulled out his wallet, grabbed the $4.00 he had in the cash slot, and handed it towards the armed robber.
“What the hell! Is this all you got? This is nothing! Are you serious?”
“I don’t carry a lot of money around with me.” Robert replied meekly.
“Whatever, whatever. Credit cards, gift cards, pool pass, AARP card, everything you got.” He paused. Robert didn’t move.
"Now!” the robber fired back.
“They won’t do you much good; they’re all maxed out,” Robert explained.
“Give me your wallet, kid, you’re starting to piss me off. I don’t got time for this.”
Robert tossed the wallet to the man in all black and attempted to sit up. The pain in his back was tough to handle, so he eased back up and tried to stretch it out.
“Who said you could stand up?” the robber belted. “Sit down!” He darted towards Robert, and angrily shoved him back down. “Don’t you ever move again. . .you try anything I’ll pop your ass,” he barked at Robert.
“Now you.” Hhe looked at the clerk. “Give me what you got, credit cards, debit cards, cash, anything else, give it up. Then I want the register, all of it. Every quarter, nickel, and dime you got.”
“I got you man, I got you," the clerk said quietly, slowly. "Just put that gun down. . .we all good. . .I ain’t lookin for trouble. . .neither is the kid down there. We cool.” The clerk handed over his wallet. The man in all black took everything out, driver's license, credit cards, even his GameStop PowerUp Rewards card. Then he threw the wallet at Robert, hitting him in the cheek. The robber raised his Glock 9 in line with the clerk’s head.
“Register, now,” he said calmly.
“Whoa. . .whoa. . .Yo. . ." the clerk said, still talking softly, taking short breaths. “Put that down, bro. . .we all good. . .I got you. ” He moved his hands slowly to the cash register. “I’m opening it. . .see? Just calm down.” The clerk pressed some keys and the cash drawer popped open. The man in black took out an old yellow pillow case from his black bag, and held it open while the clerk scooped out all the cash and coins, and dropped it in the sack.
“Are we good now?" the clerk asked, catching his breath. "I gave all I have to give.”
“We’re good,” the man said, with his guard still up, eying the door. “You both made this harder than it had to be.”
“Hold on, man,” the clerk said, looking down. “I dropped some cash on the ground. Let me get it.” The clerk paused, reached under the counter for a few seconds, then completely dropped down behind the counter.
“Whoa! Get back up here now!” the armed robber shouted, as he peered over the edge of the counter.
Suddenly the clerk shot up from behind the counter and punched the robber square in the face, causing him to stumble back, disoriented. As a reflex, he blindly fired his gun in the clerk’s direction.
“Ah!” the clerk screamed. The bullet hit in his left shoulder, just under the collarbone.
“Oh shit. . .” the armed robber gasped. “Shit.”
“Ah! Ah!” The clerk was screaming and wailing in pain, gasping with every breath.
Stepping backwards, the burglar reached his hands to his head, momentarily thrown off by the gunshot, and still reeling from the punch. Then, gathering himself he quickly holstered the gun in his waistband. He looked around frantically with panic on his face. His eyes met Robert’s, whose mouth was wide open in horror of what he’d just seen. The gunman rushed towards Robert, grabbed him, and stood him up.
“Listen to me, boy. You ain’t seen nothin'. This never happened,” the robber said as he pressed Robert up against the counter.
“What? You just shot someone!” Robert stuttered.
“Shut up!” the gunman smacked Robert across the face and pressed him even harder up against the counter, digging into his already bruised lower back. “You ain’t seen nothin'! This never happened! Say it with me, ‘I ain’t seen nothin’.’”
“But. . .” Robert closed his eyes in fear.
“But nothing!” The robber smacked him harder and continued to press him up against the counter. “Say it! ‘I ain’t seen nothin'.’”
“Alright, alright. . .I didn’t see anything!" Robert blurted out. “Just please, let me go. . .I didn’t do anything.”
The gunman grunted, dropped Robert, darted out the door, hopped in his car and sped away. Robert was so panicked by the crook’s assault on him, that he hadn’t noticed the clerk had stopped screaming. He was passed out with his head on the checkout counter. Robert, coming out of his shock, grabbed his phone and dialed 911.
When the ambulance arrived, with a cop car following, the clerk remained passed out, and Robert sat against the desk, with his hands covering his face, horrified at what he’d just seen. The paramedics rushed in and strapped the clerk to a gurney.
“We’ll take it from here, sir,” the one in charge said to Robert.
The state trooper walked in a few minutes after the paramedics had left, with the clerk in the back of the ambulance. Robert told him how the incident went down.
“Are you gonna be okay, kid?” the trooper asked when Robert was finished.
“I don’t know. . .” he replied shakily.
“Go home and get some rest; it’s late and you’ve been through quite the ordeal. I’ll call some units in and we’ll review the security tape. It’s going to be fine.”
Robert thanked him, then walked out the door, and back to his car. The rain fell harder than it had all night, and the wind continued to rock his Honda back and forth. As Robert drove away he reflected on what he’d just seen. The images were haunting him, and making him lose concentration on the road. He wondered about the clerk, and he wondered how he was ever going to get over watching a man be shot. He approached the exit ramp leading back onto the interstate, but when he got close he just couldn’t bring himself to get back on the road. He was too shaken up to drive right now, and he understood this. He drove past the exit and continued moving through the quiet rest stop town, with very few homes, very few businesses; pure emptiness. The wind blew the trees back and forth, side to side, east to west, never deciding on a true direction. Robert’s mind continued to drift uncontrollably, the night’s events on his mind.
As Robert drove deeper and deeper into nowhere, the rain fell harder, and thunder claps alternated with large flashes of lightning both up close and off in the distance. It seemed to get darker and darker the further he went.
“You ain’t seen nothin’! You ain't seen nothin’!” the voice of the armed robber still rang in Robert’s ears.
Off in the distance, there was a red light, dim, barely visible. Robert increased his speed, curious to see the source of the mysterious light. As he got closer, it became clear that this red light was a brake light, on the rear of what appeared to be a white car, but the make and model were too tough to make out because of the heavy rain. Robert drove closer, and saw that this white vehicle was smashed dead center into a large tree, hood crumpled, car totaled. He slowed as he drove up alongside it and tried to look through the side window, but the weather was too bad and he was too far away to see through it. He was still shaken up, but felt obligated to get out and see what happened. He grabbed a coat he’d kept in the back seat, pulled it over his head, and dashed out of his car door. The wind blew hard in his face, then hard on his back. The rain made it hard to see, and he struggled to walk through the uneven grass to get to the crash site.
When he finally reached the door, he knocked on the window. The door opened, and inside sat the armed robber, a look of pain on his face.
“Ah! Help,” he said. "Please. . .my gun went off when I hit this tree, I can’t reach my phone, I need help!”
There was an obvious bullet wound in his leg. He was grabbing it, putting pressure on it, but it continued to bleed. He looked pale, but seemed coherent as he begged Robert for help.
“Please. . .call an ambulance, I need one now! I’m bleeding out!”
Robert stood in the rain, with a dead stare fixed on the man’s bloodied leg. He didn’t know what to do, again. His arms holding the jacket above his head went limp, as his mind raced with flashbacks of his previous encounter with this man.
“Please! Please call help. . .please!”
Suddenly, a rush of confidence fell over Robert. Now he was in control for the first time all night. He continued to stand, deep in thought, soaked by the buckets of rain being dumped on top of him. He broke the stare, and looked up at the man in all black.
“I don’t see nothin',” Robert said.
“What? C’mon kid. . .Help me, please!”
“I don’t see nothin'.”
“Ple—” Robert shut the door before the man could speak what would most likely be his last words to another person.
“No more,” Robert said to himself, as he walked away from the broken down Chevy Impala, breathing its last breaths on the side of the road to nowhere.
Robert got back to his car, soaked, cold, but too confident to shiver. He opened the door, sat down, started the engine, and drove away.
Stephen Hunt is sixteen years old and a junior at Oak Park-River Forest High School in Oak Park, Illinois. Stephen only recently discovered his passion for writing fiction, and “Bystander” is the first piece he has submitted for publication consideration. Stephen’s other interests include playing baseball and writing about sports on his blog.