***Welcome Center, Glenrio, TX***
Jo sat on the toilet. She had been finished with her business minutes ago. But finding the energy to get up, wash her hands, and walk back to that damned motorhome seemed to be beyond her. She knew it was more than just the swollen and virtually unrecognizable face she would see in the mirror. Her life was over. She might still be alive. But why? What did it matter?
Forty-two, almost forty-three years of fighting everything and everyone to get to the top. Overcoming so damned much. And for what? The career that she had invested a quarter of a century building, her childhood dream, was over. Her boss had not fired her. No, he had sent thugs to kill her.
She did not dare try to access her bank accounts. Without money or her career, she could not start over somewhere new. Hell, she wouldn’t even know what to do or where. LA and the law were her only dreams. Or the only ones she allowed herself to focus on since…. But that was ancient history, and she had a hell of a lot more to worry about right now than that.
Jo heard humming and realized that she was no longer alone in the utilitarian facilities. She should have listened to Donovan and their new friend Vic. She should have stayed in the RV. It had a bathroom. But if that crappy timeshare and all those non-descript hotels had been bad, then four people crammed into a twenty-six-foot tin box on wheels was….
She knew she should be grateful. Vic had put his neck on the line for them. Though most of the last twenty-something hours, day, was lost to her, she remembered snippets as they forced water and mole on her. They had stopped at the Welcome Center so that Vic could get a few hours of sleep. He had been driving off and on this whole time.
Evidently, they had not made very good time. The girl – Selena – Jo realized that she never used her name, or only rarely. It was easier or safer that way. She had been doing it for years. The plaintiff, the accuser, former employee. She had used so many different terms to dehumanize the women. The victims. Perhaps that was the only way she could do what she did?
And she had done it so well. No one expected a woman attorney to represent the abusers. The misogynistic bastards who harassed, manipulated, and raped their employees, primarily women. Many of them young women. Like Selena. Like she had been….
That humming was getting on her last nerve. She doubted it was the girl. Selena. She was not in a humming mood either.
Jo placed her hands on either side of the stall and used them to slowly raise up. Those blows had been to her face. So why did her whole fucking body ache? She had slept for almost twenty-four hours. Why did she still feel like crap? Death warmed over as her mama said.
She paused before opening the stall door. Her head was spinning. She thought about sitting back down, but where would that get her? She would just have to go through the whole damned thing all over again in a few minutes. She sighed heavily and fumbled with the lock.
Jo stood in the doorway of the stall. Her head was spinning. She knew she was going to fall. Hopefully, Donovan would hear the thud or just get worried and come looking for her. How long had she been in here anyway? She stumbled and realized too late what a stupid idea this was.
Jo had been making lots of stupid decisions lately. Hell, maybe for a long time. Falling flat on her face on the dirty floor of a toilet did not even make the top ten list. Trusting the Tysons, speeding after dark on Farm to Market Road 149, having an….
An arm wrapped around her, but it was not one of Donovan’s strong ones. Her body pressed against another as this new savior lowered her to the floor. She was softer, more ample than Jo or Selena. But with the bright lights and her head spinning, that was all she could tell about the other woman, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. What happened to you? Are you okay? Well, obviously, you’re not okay. You’re sitting on the floor in the rest stop. Who did this to you? Are you hiding from someone?”
Her head was spinning even more with the woman’s rapid-fire questions. Jo could not focus enough to remember a single one, let alone answer them. “There’s a man. Outside. A young black man….”
“You stay here. I’ll get Jack. My husband. He can help you. He’ll make the man leave you alone. We’ll call the cops, the state troopers, something….”
Jo shook her head, but that was the wrong thing to do. The room spun even faster. She feared she was going to pass out. Again. “No, no cops.”
“If someone is bothering you. Whoever did this to you….”
“Please, just get him. He won’t hurt me, I promise.” Time stretched; she knew the other woman hesitated. But Jo did not have the energy to try and convince her any further.
She closed her eyes. She didn’t believe in prayer. She had not been inside a church since she was seven or eight. Her mama was not the church-going type. Her father had dragged her on his weekends, but once he stopped even those perfunctory attempts at parenthood, she had never gone back. Jo never could understand why those people would worship a god that punished you. She begged no one for what she wanted or needed. Especially not some male god who had it in for everyone.
“Will you be alright? I won’t be but a moment.”
“Yes, please just get him. His name is Donovan.” She felt the girl release her arm and sagged against the doorframe so hard that it actually seemed to give under her weight.
“Fuck,” she held onto the sound of his voice as she reached her hand out for him.
He scooped her into his arms and buried his face in her shoulder. Thankfully, he did not say, ‘I told you so,’ though he had. “What do you need, sweetheart?”
“Just help me back to the RV, okay?”
“Is she going to be okay? I could call an ambulance or the cops.”
“No, she’ll be fine.”
“Who did this to her?” Jo could hear the accusation in the girl’s voice. Was it because domestic violence was so common? Or was it….
She was slowly facing all the subtle ways that racism raised its nasty head. And it made her angry. How dare this woman who knew nothing about them? About this man, just assume because he was black….
“A couple of white men in Vegas, if you must know, Miss Goody-Two-Shoes,” Jo found the strength in her anger to answer on his behalf.
“Wait, I know you….”
Were not the words that she wanted to hear from anyone at that moment. “Please, just take me back to….”
“You’re the woman at the bar. Last night, before my wedding. What happened?”
That was a better answer than Jo had hoped for, but she was too tired, confused, and angry with a heaping helping of self-loathing tossed in for flavor, to deal with some second or third cousin twice removed, who didn’t even recognize who she was. “Congratulations. But like I said, I’m not at my best right now. So, if you’ll excuse me.”
“Are you sure you’re going to be okay?”
The cool breeze on her throbbing face told her that they had left the bathroom, but obviously, the girl was so stupid she had followed them. “I would be loads better if you’d leave me the fuck alone and let him take me back to the RV so I can rest.”
Her patience was wearing thin. Jo had never had much, to begin with, for those narrow-minded bigots. That’s why she got the fuck out of that town, well, one of the reasons. And why she never went back….
“Hey, sweetheart, what’s taking so long? Is everything alright?” A new voice entered the fray. It must be her ‘cousin’s’ mysterious husband. She felt Donovan stiffen a bit and wondered which red-neck plow boy Abby Jean Monroe had fallen in with. Hell, how had the girl managed to find any man she wasn’t related to in that hell hole?
“Everything’s fine, man. Your wife was kind enough to help my girlfriend out when she started to feel….”
“Hell, what the fuck happened to her face?”
This seemed to be getting worse by the moment. Another of her stellar decisions. “Please, just let him take me back to the vehicle.”
“You need to go back. Home. It’s time,” another feminine voice. It sounded a bit like her ‘cousin,’ but there was something different. Something deeper. More confident.
“Please, get me out of here, Donovan,” she whispered as she turned her face into his chest and shoulder. The contact hurt like hell. But she was not allowing them to see the tears gathering in her eyes.
Jolene Monroe might not have many options open to her. Her career and life might lie in tatters at her feet. But one thing she did know was, “I’ll never go back there.” Sebida, Texas, was the last place on earth she would go. No matter what happened.