They’d been driving all night and even though Jim was tired, he promised himself that he was going to see this thing through to the end and if he stopped he knew he’d lose his nerve. After all, he loved the big fella. Always had. It didn’t matter that everyone else told him things like “Goddammit, Jim, the boy’s flat out retarded.” He saw something in him, something that made him want to love the big man. Jim had been around long enough, done enough, seen enough, that he knew how rare that truly was in the world. But things had . . . gone bad. Just like everyone said they would and so here they were, screaming down a Highway to Hell, speeding through the night, oblivion and regret their only destinations. Jim always knew it would come to this – he wasn’t a fool – but still, that didn’t make it any easier. He tried to avoid looking at the big man and turned the radio dial up all the way. Motorhead. That would keep him going until at least morning.
Jim thumped his head, forward, relentless, thundering away in rhythm to the beat, eyes on the road, always on the road, dry, cracked, all out of tears. He heard a soft groan beside him and felt his breath catch in his chest. He was awake. Not now, Jim thought. Not now.
“Jimmy, what’s . . . what’s going on? Where are we?”
Jim swallowed. He tasted bile and had to fight the urge to vomit. He couldn’t believe that the big man had forgotten. Again. He sighed. “Jeffery, I told you we were going to my daddy’s farm.” His father didn’t have a farm.
Jeffery’s face lit up as recognition trickled from the back of his peanut brain to the surface. “We gonna pet the rabbits, Jimmy?”
Jim gritted his teeth. God, why did this have to be so hard? He forced a smile on his face. It hurt. “Sure thing, Jeff. Sure thing.”
The big man clapped. His joy was infectious. But that only twisted the dagger all the more into Jim’s already wounded heart. They still had a couple of hours driving ahead of them, and things like this threatened to derail the whole damn thing. He couldn’t do it. No. Not after all the big man had been through. The man had been through hell, had seen things no man should ever have to see and through it all he had somehow maintained at least a semblance of his humanity. By the time Jim met him, the man had already been beaten and left for dead and from day one people had whispered in his ear that it would a mercy to put the big man out of his misery, but Jim was stubborn. Always had been. After all, you don’t rise to the heights he had risen without doing things your way, without tuning out the incessant chatter of the geeks and pimps who, more than anything, wanted what he had. No. This was his show to run and he was going to do things his way.
It was hard. There was no doubt about that. But Jim liked a challenge. He knew that the hours upon hours of struggle, the desperate days of despair, the weeks and months and, hell, years of backbreaking work would make the reward at the end of the line taste that much sweeter. And they’d almost made it. Almost. Damn it. Jim punched the steering wheel and instantly regretted it.
“What’s goin’ on, Jimmy?” the big man wailed. He then began to moan, panicked, terrified by the outburst.
Jim sighed, and immediately pulled the car off to the side of the road. This was going to be a Herculean task. He knew that going in, but he had hoped that he’d at least be able to keep the big man calm, to keep him from freaking out before they reached the end of the line. Shit. The thought frightened Jim. They were all alone, the two of them trapped together in this little car, and if things went wrong . . . well, Jim didn’t want to think about what the big man could do with that freakish strength he didn’t even know he had.
It was ironic, Jim knew, that his inability to properly channel that strength was one of the reasons why they were in the car right now. But Jim also knew that he didn’t have time to muse on such things. He had a potentially berserk monster on his hands and if he didn’t do something to calm the big man soon, chances were that Old Man Ford would be giving a tearful press conference the next day and that all the plans of a whole city, all of its dreams, would be lost. That was what was at stake here and so Jim stuffed everything else down, into a place black and foul, a place he knew he’d have to pay for someday, a place he knew would eventually kill him, or at least what was human inside of him, and he reached over and slapped the big man, flush across the face.
“Goddammit, Jeffery,” Jim hissed, “calm yourself.” The big man just stared at him, mouth hanging open, catching flies, eyes wide and terrified and Jim had to bite his own lip until he felt the blood flow to keep from screaming with the sorrow inside of his own heart.
“Jimmy,” the big man drawled, his voice quivering along with an oversized lip. “Jimmy, you . . . you hit me, boss.”
The sheer simplicity of the pain in the big man’s voice broke Jim’s heart but he swallowed it and pressed on. “You’re goddamn right I did, Jeffery, and I’ll do it again if you don’t control yourself.”
Controlling his emotions had never been the big man’s forte. Of course, he wasn’t as bad in that regard as his comrades, the ever volatile Dom and the infantile and infuriating Gosder, but they didn’t have the world howling for their blood. At least not like Jeffery did. And that brought Jim’s mind back to the harsh reality facing them both: Jeffery had to pay. It wasn’t what he wanted. Lord only knows how much he had tried to avoid this day, but the big man had always been hanging on a precipice, dangling by a malformed string, and Jim just didn’t have the strength anymore to hold back those greedy pigs with their scissors made of hate, just waiting to cut that string and send the big man to his doom. Goddamn them, Jim thought. Goddamn you, Jeff, he thought only a second later. Why couldn’t he have just held on? Why couldn’t he have just . . . just . . . succeeded? Instead, he made Jim look like a fool.
The big man held Jim’s gaze for a half second longer than was comfortable and Jim’s eyes flicked away. It was a mistake. The big man immediately began to growl, enraged and Jim had no choice but to scramble away before things got too out of control. He pushed at the big man’s chest even as he kicked at the door. He felt it open behind him and then relaxed his body, waiting for the giant eruption he knew was about to come. He closed his eyes and he thought of home, of his wife, of Matthew and Calvin and Gunther and then his life flashed before his eyes, just like it always did when the big man lost his cool. The big man’s growl grew louder, louder, louder and then Jim felt his massive bear paws on his chest and then he was flying backwards, through the open door and onto the grass and dirt below. He hit the ground with a savage thud, felt something crack inside of him and then allowed one terrible groan before the world went black and consciousness left him.
The dreams were savage, terrible, raw – ugly things that pulled Jim’s mind through a labyrinth of despair and terror. In one dream, he was chased through a cornfield by a naked old man wielding a hatchet who called himself Mr. Dick. The old man was furious and was accompanied by a lumbering manservant he called Lynch. Jim thought he recognized the duo but he was too terrified to think straight and so he did the only thing he could do and he ran and he ran and he ran until he found himself alone in a house of mirrors, mirrors of all shapes and sizes, mirrors which distorted reality, distorted the very truths Jim had spent an entire life accumulating, and in these mirrors Jim saw terrible things. He saw a fat man eating spaghetti, he saw an old balding fool with a wild, feral look in his eyes and this old balding fool was clad in only a diaper, gibbering about pad level. Jim turned away only to be met by the reflection of a middle aged fool with a terrible mustache and failure in his eyes. It was the worst one of all the reflections, those terrible apparitions haunting his nightmares, and it almost broke Jim’s mind completely. The reflection was rank with failure, brutalized and beaten by its own utter incompetence. It looked like the ghost of a man stuck in another time, a tired old substitute teacher or a broken down used car salesman. Jesus . . . please, make it stop, Jim thought, and then the world rushed back to greet him, the early haze of a newborn day tumbling down to him from over the horizon, and with it came the pain and the memory of what had gone down before he slipped into his savage nightmares.
“Jeffery,” he groaned and turned his head. There, sitting next to the car, weeping into his ham sized hands, was the big man. Jim tried to move but was racked with pain, both physically and emotionally. “Jeffery,” he said again.
“Aw, Jimmy,” the big man blubbered. “I . . . I didn’t mean to hurt no one.”
Jim just closed his eyes, searching for a peace that he knew he’d never find again. “It’s . . . it’s alright, Jeffery,” he said. “I know.” He exhaled, a ragged breath fraught with pain. “I know.”
“Jimmy, you think people gon’ be mad at me for what I done?”
Jim managed to prop himself up on an elbow. The effort was overwhelming. “It will be . . .” Jim paused. He couldn’t do this anymore. He couldn’t lie to the big man. “It’s bad, Jeffery,” he said. “It’s bad.”
The big man began to weep. “We ain’t goin’ to pet no rabbits, is we, Jimmy?”
Jim’s whole sense of self collapsed at that moment and he just lay in the grass and stared at the gray sky above. “Jeffery, the world is . . .” His voice trailed off. There were no words.
“Tell Matty I’m sorry,” the big man blubbered.
“He knows, Jeffery. He knows.”
“When you all is standin’ there, talkin’ to Sheriff Goodell and cheerin’ on that stage, remember me for a minute. That’s all I want. I just want ya’ll to remember me.”
Jim propped himself up on his elbows again, and the effort almost made him pass out again. But there was something inside of him that overpowered that pain, that fought back against the weary despair and the ragged sense of loss he realized he’d already let take over his heart. “Goddammit, Jeffery,” he said between clenched teeth. “I’m not gonna let it happen like this. You get your fat ass in that car. We’re going back home.” Goddammit. He knew that everyone would be upset, that they’d scream at him, call him names, beat him with their vicious slander, not understanding that each assault only made his resolve grow stronger. “How hard is it to just leave the fool in a cornfield in Indiana?” they’d ask him, but fuck them, they weren’t the ones who would have to look into the big man’s eyes. They weren’t the ones who would have to avoid looking in the rear view mirror while the big man blubbered and tried in vain to chase down the car as it sped away. Fuck them, Jim thought. Fuck them all.
“Jeffery,” Jim moaned.
“Help me get back into the car, would ya?”
The big man clambered over and lifted Jim off the ground, cradling him in his massive arms. The big man could be surprisingly gentle, which perhaps, Jim mused, was part of the problem. He knew that when they got back they’d have to spend countless hours trying to get the big man to learn when and how to use that frightening power. Already the big man was squeezing, harder and harder, as if he had forgotten that he was carrying Jim. Goddammit, Jim thought, trying to ignore the sharp pain in his ribs, this is going to be a pain in the ass.
Once they were safely back in the car, Jim took a deep breath and tried to ignore the pain which accompanied it. He probably had a broken rib or two. But that just made him think of Romo and that made him smile and he decided to hang onto that thought and use it to get through the ride home. Yes, Jim thought, things were already looking up again. And hey, at least Jared Allen wouldn’t be around this week so maybe things would go better for the big man too. Maybe some of those howling voices would calm down a bit once things got back to normal. After all, it wasn’t like the big man was fucking up every week. Shit. Jimmy realized that the big man would have to deal with that freak DeMarcus this week and instantly he began to feel the pain again. Goddammit, why did there have to be so many of them? If it wasn’t Jared Allen, it was DeMarcus. If it wasn’t DeMarcus it was Matthews or Peppers or . . . did it ever end?
Get a grip on yourself, Jim told himself. He looked at Jeffery and the big man looked back at him with a beatific smile. No, it wasn’t all bad. After all, they’d made it through worse before. He just thought they were done with all that. That was it. He thought they’d finally triumphed over all the bullshit they’d had to go through back when the big man was abused by Peppers. He could still remember that day like it was yesterday. By the time they all got back to the locker room, Jeffrey’s pants were smeared with his own shit and he was blubbering like Rainman, repeating the name Peppers over and over and over again. But they had gotten through that and after that Jeffery had held up against all comers. He had managed to keep the Grit Merchants clean and so far this season, he hadn’t let Matthew even get touched. God damn that Jared Allen, Jim thought. The asshole had terrified Jeffery, had rattled him with bizarre hoots and grunts near the point of attack, had caused the big man’s peanut brain to turn to peanut butter. Fuck him, Jim thought. Fuck him.
Jim sighed and chanced a look at the big man. It almost broke his heart. “I love you, Jimmy.”
Jim looked away, stared out the window at the empty fields hurtling by and sniffed back a tear. “I know, buddy,” he said. “I know.”