Roger had just found a flat place on the Chattahoochee Trail to make camp for the night. This would be his third night alone, away from his dead-end job and his cheating wife. If only he could muster the courage to chuck it all and start over. He imagined himself driving out west and settling down wherever his car ran out of gas. But he knew he lacked the nerve. He’d probably return to his job and marriage, trying to convince himself he could make both work.
As he pounded the tent stakes into the ground, he heard something that sounded like a scream. But with evening approaching, the insects and birds had grown so loud he wasn’t sure. Then he heard it again. A woman screaming, “No!”
His first instinct was to ignore the sound. He had his own problems. But another scream demanded his attention and, without thinking, he followed the sound for less than a quarter of a mile. Ahead, he could see a man grabbing a woman, pulling at her clothes. She screamed and kicked. The man knocked her down, spun her onto her stomach and pulled down her jeans.
Roger jumped behind a bush, trying to convince himself they were two lovers playing rough. But when he saw the knife, he could no longer deny what was happening. He also couldn’t deny the reason he cowered behind a shrub, and lived his life as he did. He was afraid.
He wanted to shout and pull the bastard off the woman, but no sound escaped his lips. His legs felt anchored beneath him. He searched his pockets for his cellphone — he could at least call for help — but discovered he had left it with his gear.
Looking away, he tried not to vomit.
The rape lasted only a couple of minutes. The man stood up and ran. The woman lay on the ground, crying.
After a moment, Roger gathered his nerve to come out from behind his hiding place.
The woman scrambled to cover herself. Her top was torn and her face scratched. Roger removed his shirt and handed it to her. Between sobs, she repeated, “He raped me. He had a knife.”
In a reassuring voice, Roger asked, “Do you have a cell to call the park rangers?”
He waited with her until the rangers arrived. She told him her name was Julia. He encouraged her to drink some water. Every time she thanked him, he felt a stab in his chest. He wanted to tell her he might have saved her if he weren’t such a coward, but she needed a person she could trust more than he needed to confess.
When the rangers arrived, they called for an ambulance to meet them at the First Aid Station. Roger told them he had gotten there as the man ran off, and offered what little description he could. One of the rangers followed tracks in the direction that Roger told them the man had run.
He stayed with Julia at the hospital until her family arrived. He owed her that.
A week later, a police officer called Roger at work to tell him the rapist had been apprehended and he might be needed to testify at the trial. Roger agreed.
The officer thanked him and called him a hero.
His wife said he was brave and seemed to see him in a new light.
When Julia’s mother called him to say she had nominated him for a good citizen award, she thought him modest when he declined.
Wayne Scheer has been locked in a room with his computer and turtle since his retirement. (Wayne’s, not the turtle’s.) To keep from going back to work, he’s published hundreds of short stories, essays and poems, including Revealing Moments, a collection of twenty-four flash stories, available at http://www.pearnoir.com/thumbscrews.htm. He’s been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. Wayne can be contacted at email@example.com.