The Cleaners Part 21: The little boy and the old woman

It must have been the calmest, most orderly abduction ever committed. Henry grunted and made inconsiderate comments about my weight as he lifted me from the wheelchair into his sedan. I welcomed him to leave me in the chair so I could call a Helper to take me home if I was too fat for him, but he didn’t appear to hear me, and that was not surprising since I could still barely hear myself.

After the initial shock passed, I faded in and out of consciousness during the car ride. I treasured the moments when I would forget why I was in the car and wonder if Walter was driving us to church, but these moments were fleeting. Henry wasn’t much help. He wasn’t forthcoming with an explanation of why I was in his sedan riding who-knows-where instead of taking a Helper car to my own home, and regardless of what I did, he seemed to have forgotten I was there at all.

No. I knew that look. He stared at the road with the deliberation of a man who could stand to see nothing else. He’d lost even more weight and had gone from skinny to gaunt. His hair was now graying enough that it was visible from a casual glance. What had happened to Henry? I thought about where he might be taking me. To his home, of course. That wasn’t so bad. I could see Mark again. He wouldn’t let Henry do anything bad to me. Henry is a family man I told myself. He’s not a killer. I considered that. He wouldn’t kill a human person. I breathed as deeply as I could in my state.

Henry pulled into the parking lot of a McDonald’s. He informed me I needed some food and hefted me into my wheelchair. There were Cleaners at the last McDonald’s I visited. Maybe I could plead my case to one of them. I made a mental note to keep a lookout.

The hard plastic bench was murder on my back, especially in the slumped position that was the only one I had energy for.  I couldn’t imagine that Henry, after going to so much trouble to ignore everything else about me would trouble himself to ask what I wanted to eat, so I’d mumbled “Big Mac, small fries, small diet Sprite,” as he had attempted to arrange me in my seat.

When Henry left to make my order, I scanned the room. There were some old men sitting together in a corner playing cards. No food, just coffee for them.  A few of them gave me pitying looks. Sitting at the table next to me, sharing my bench was a family with a little boy packing down french fries next to two parents half engaged in conversation, half struggling to get an even littler boy to eat his chicken nuggets .  No cleaners. I glanced back at the child next to me.  He looked back at me and tilted his head quizzically.

No time to wonder. Henry came back. He put my bag in front of me and sat down to his own meal.  Then in a moment of clarity, he stood up again and opened my bag to pull out a Big Mac, a small fries, and a drink. I leaned forward and sucked with all my might on the straw. Diet Sprite. He could hear me, at least. I nodded and smiled to thank the Henry I knew for this small kindness, but he had assigned the same intense attention to his meal as he had before to his driving. This man is kidnapping me and I’m wondering why he won’t speak to me. It doesn’t matter who I thought Henry was. I need to focus entirely on getting away from him now.

Moving very slowly, I reached out and tried to grab at a fry. No good. My manual dexterity was shot. I closed my fist around a group of fries and stuffed them all into my mouth at once. The salty shock of the flavor lit up my mouth for a split second, and I slowly, deliberately chewed. This is good. I can feed myself. That’s good.

“Do you need to use the restroom before we go? It’ll be a while,” Asked Henry.

I looked at him, realizing with horror that I was not going to be able to use it by myself. “No,” I shouted quietly, then, getting control of myself, “No, I’ll just hold it.” I struggled to suppress a rising nausea when Henry stood up and left, presumably to use the restroom himself. Ignoring my roiling stomach, I turned back to the child and beckoned him as best I could. He had finished his fries and fortunately appeared immensely interested in this strange old woman. With a quick glance at his occupied parents, he slid over to me. “Hey, what’s wrong with you? Can I have some of your fries”

I grit my teeth and carefully enunciated my mumble. “You may have all of my fries. Just listen to me for a moment. I have been kidnapped by the man sitting across from me. Please ask your parents to call 911 on my behalf, as I think he has taken my phone. Can you do that for me?”

“Sure, lady.” the boy grabbed the last of my small fries and slid back to the table. Before speaking to his parents he worked his way through each fry one by one as they tried to clean chicken nugget off of his brother’s shirt. Maybe he wasn’t going to speak to them at all? Henry came back to the table. Blast those men and their short bathroom breaks!

But finally the boy was speaking to his parents. I tried to look out of the corner of my eye to avoid attracting Henry’s attention. The boy was beginning to become upset, evidently he did not like his parents’ response. God bless him, he was pulling on their shirts and pointing at me. Now they were staring at me. Both of them. The messy younger brother, too, had pointed his grubby finger at me although he was looking at his elder sibling. Henry stood to throw away his food and I took the moment to look right at them and nod with as much intensity as I could muster. When Henry was at the trash can, I risked speaking, “please help me.” I said, “I don’t know this man.” It was a lie, but the truth was too complicated to get across in the half-second I had.

The family looked at Henry and back at me. As Henry turned from the trash can he froze, taking in the scene in front of him, a whole family of four staring at his captive. Oh God no. It was a prayer, not a blasphemy.

A sheepish, exasperated grin spread across Henry’s face, and I saw first the mother, then the father relax. My heart dropped into my stomach“Mom,” said Henry in gently chiding tones as if speaking to a child, “are you bothering these people?” Tears pricked my eyes as I watched the boy give a start and try to grab his mother by the shirt again, only to be grabbed in return and given what was no doubt a very stern lecture.

The boy watched me in dread and confusion as Henry lifted me, sobbing silently, from the bench and placed me in the wheelchair. Then he put my uneaten food in my lap, “We’ll finish the burger on the road, ok, Mom?”

“I am so sorry,” said Henry to the family as he began to wheel me toward the door, “She’s really been doing better lately.” The parents smiled empathetically at us. The doting son and his demented old mother. “He’s lying to you. It isn’t true.” I said, turning back to them in desperation, “please call the police. Please.”

Henry said nothing else. He didn’t need to say anything. As the doors opened to let us out of the building,  I saw the tinge of pain in the sympathy on the parents’ faces. Perhaps one of them knew the troubles of taking care of an elder relative, I thoughtI thought as the bile rose in my throat.

As Henry wheeled me to his sedan, I saw the little boy who had eaten my french fries pressed against the window of the McDonalds with horror in his eyes. He and I alone seemed to see what was really happening, but what could he do? He was just a little boy.

And I was just a crazy old woman.

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