(Note to readers: The following is pure fiction.)
We stopped for gas and coffee near the Oregon border and then pulled back onto the road, continuing North. It seemed like George hadn’t felt like talking these last hundred miles or so, not as much as he had earlier on in the time since I’d joined him on his journey. But now that he had a fresh jolt of java starting to flow into his veins, he started to open up again as he drove.
“I’m thinking of changing my name,” he blurted out.
“To what, Bob Dylan?” I wisecracked, trying to get him to chuckle. It didn’t work.
“You’re thinking of my brother,” he muttered.
“What do you mean, your brother? You mean Robert?” I asked.
“Uh, I didn’t mean your brother, but…oh, I get it now. So you’re saying Bob Dylan’s real name was originally Robert Zimmerman.”
“Okay, I mean–I knew his real last name was Zimmerman, that’s why I said that, of course, but…wow, weird coincidence about your brother. Anyway, I can totally see why you’d think about changing it.”
George sipped from his coffee as he drove. I decided to shut up and wait for whatever he might say next, while trying to open the internet browser on my phone in the meantime. Time ticked by as my phone searched for service in the backcountry through which we had chosen to travel.
Suddenly the Ridgeline veered towards the shoulder as George gently applied the brakes.
“What are they doing?” George exclaimed, craning his neck all around and gripping the steering wheel as we rolled onto the gravelly shoulder.
“What–where?” I asked, peering hard into the afternoon haze at the highway, trying to find whatever it was that caused George to begin to pull off the road.
Then I saw them.
They were actually behind us, now. We had just passed them. I had missed the two vehicles completely while I was gazing down at my phone, but for some reason they had obviously caught George’s eye, and made him concerned enough to pull over. We came to a stop.
George was now turned in his seat, looking back through the rear window at the two cars. I squinted and tried to get an idea of what was going on by alternately tilting my head forward to check the passenger-side mirror, then looking back through the passenger window as I waited for it to roll down, impatiently pressing the button hard.
“What the…!?” George uttered under his breath.
My window was down and I could stick my head out and see more. Partially in the grass, but still partially on the highway shoulder, about 50 yards behind us were two stopped cars, one immediately behind the other. There were no other cars coming from either direction on this remote stretch of road.
The car parked in front had both its passenger side doors all the way open. In the grass next to the open doors I could make out something or someone, maybe just clothing and packages strewn around, or maybe an actual person laying there, but whatever it was, it was partly obscured by the car and the car doors, so I couldn’t tell for sure. On the trunk of the same car (an older sedan), same thing–what appeared to be either a person laying across the deck of the trunk area, or some kind of bundle of cloth materials, clothing, whatever–again, it was impossible to make out for sure.
There were two black men sitting in the front seats of the second car, that much I could tell. Just sitting.
“What did you see when we passed them? I was looking at my phone, I didn’t even see ’em until you said something,” I asked urgently.
George’s answer was hurried, loudly sort of whispered: “I couldn’t tell–something’s not right–maybe–maybe they’re just broken down in the first car, and moving all their stuff to the second car? But something seems wrong…I couldn’t tell if there’s anybody in the first car, or if those piles of clothing and what looks like stuff tied up with cords are really actually people, or kids, or…” his voice trailed off.
“Right, I’m thinking the same thing, I can’t tell if that’s just bundled up stuff, or maybe what you said,” I replied, not wanting to say what he said.
We were both armed. The full implications of what we were contemplating–that is, getting involved, trying to find out if someone needed help, or whatever, sank in as we craned our necks toward the two cars.
“So what do you see in the second car, George? You see the same thing I see? Looks like two black guys in the front, I can’t see anyone else in the back, or around that car,” I said.
“It’s hard to say for sure, but yeah, same thing I see,” answered George.