The adrenaline from his scare was draining from his body, and Jim was embarrassed to find himself shaking and cold. He must have been tense, because now his body felt like a wet noodle and it was all he could do to make himself stand up. The ditch he had been forced into by the car was deep and by the time he scrambled out, he was covered in dirt.
Ouch! Must have scraped my knees ...
He looked at the torn denim, and then felt a twinge of pain from the palm of his right hand.
And my hand. Great. Jim the Great Woodsman run down by a car into a ditch. Awesome survival skills, Frayne.
Taking a walk alone in the dark on Glen Road had seemed like a harmless enough activity to help him clear his head. After all, he prided himself on his independence and fearlessness in the outdoors. He just had a lot to think about lately, and had needed some time to himself to think. Juliana and Hans had written to him from Amsterdam, expressing their regret at not having time to get to know him better during their time in Sleepyside. They wanted him to consider coming to Amsterdam to stay with them and attend university there. Part of him wanted to go, wanted to bask in the prospect of getting to know his only living relative, but the vast majority of him felt safe, happy, and rooted in Sleepyside and had no desire to leave. The problem was that he couldn't think of a way to tell Juliana that he didn't want to move to Amsterdam without seeming ungrateful or dismissive of what had to be an enormous lifestyle alteration for her and for Hans.
And now on top of his dilemma, he had managed to get himself half run over by a car.
The idea of walking home was a bit daunting. His head hurt from the impact, and he suddenly felt a bit nauseous.
Probably a mild concussion. Too bad Brian isn't here. He'd probably get a kick out of watching the symptoms unfold. And, he'd probably run for help and call 911.
As he emerged from the ditch, he sighed heavily and began walking toward home. This, as Dan would say, "sucks."
The headlights of an oncoming car were blinding, and Jim shaded his eyes as he squinted into the foggy halo of light. A screech of brakes sent a butterfly flapping wildly in his stomach, as he hoped fervently that it wasn't the driver who had run him off of the road coming back to finish him off.
The voice was familiar, but the lights were still flooding his dilated pupils with blinding brightness. A dark shape was hurrying toward him.
"Jim, what are you doing out here? Are you all right?"
It was Peter Belden, he realized with relief. Probably on his way home from the bankers' meeting he'd been to all day in Albany.
Mr. Belden placed a hand on Jim's shoulder, his dark eyes full of concern as he took in the boy's torn jeans and bloodied hand.
Wow, Brian looks a lot like his dad, Jim thought dizzily.
"What in the world happened to you? You're hurt!"
"Went out for - for a walk, and a car ran me into a ditch. I - I think I'm okay. Could use a ride home, though."
Peter Belden shook his head. "You got hit by a car, son. I'm not sure you didn't hit your head, and you look pretty scratched up. Let's get you to the car, and I'm going to take you to the ER to get checked out. We'll call your parents from there."
Too tired and dazed to protest, Jim let himself be led to the passenger side of the car.
Inside the car, Peter glanced worriedly at the young man in his passenger seat. Jim was usually such a vibrant, independent young man, and his spacey, somber demeanor was worrisome.
"Hey, I know you're probably hurting, but just in case you've got a concussion, you should probably try to stay alert. Talk to me, kiddo. Did you see the car that hit you? Do you think it was accidental or someone intoxicated?"
Jim thought hard, trying to picture the car. Nothing.
He sighed heavily. "I'm not Trixie - I don't remember anything except headlights and landing in a ditch. She probably would have memorized the license plate in midair before she even landed."
Peter saw the young man's eyes starting to close, and reached over to pat his shoulder reassuringly. "Don't you get too relaxed over there! Concussion, Jim. You've got one."
Jim opened his eyes again. "I'm okay, just trying to remember something. I think the car was weaving around a little bit - I guess that could mean the driver was drinking or distracted ..."
"Good, good! Once we get to the hospital, I'm going to call your parents, and then the police. This is Sleepyside! You can't just go around running teenagers off of the road around here!"
Something about Mr. Belden's outraged-citizen tone of voice reminded Jim of Trixie when she was on a soapbox about helping someone in need or doing some kind of fundraiser for UNICEF. He smiled. Brian may look like his dad, but Trixie sure sounds like him! Aloud, he said, "I'm glad you were driving past, Mr. Belden. I wasn't looking forward to walking home!"
Peter shook his head. "I'm just so mad that someone in this town would hit a kid with their car and drive away! I can't even imagine who the hell would -" He cut off, giving Jim an apologetic smile. "I shouldn't have sworn. Sorry about that."
"I've heard worse. Dad can swear at his business partners in three languages. He says it doesn't count if it isn't in English," Jim said with a laugh. "Mother says otherwise."
Peter laughed at that, then grew serious. "What were you doing out on the road alone at this hour? It's after nine o'clock and it's cold outside. Is everything all right at home?"
At that moment, as tired and sore as he was, Jim wished he could melt into the seat and disappear. He knew that it probably looked to Mr. Belden as though he was running away or having some kind of disagreement with the Wheelers, and the thought of Trixie's dad thinking that he was up to no good was enough to make him spill out the truth.
"It wasn't anything bad, I just got a - a letter from Juliana and she and Hans want me to come to Amsterdam and stay with them and to go university there. I want to see her and get to know her better, but - but ..." He trailed off, his throat closing up on him as he feared he was about to burst into tears or something embarrassing.
"But what?" Mr. Belden's tone was gentle, reassuring. It reminded him of his father before he had died, and that was enough in combination with his shocked and concussed state to cause the tears to overflow and run down his face.
Alarmed, Peter fumbled in the cup holder area of the car and found some napkins left over after some Wimpy's carryout, which he passed to Jim, who blew his nose and wiped furiously at his eyes.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Belden. I didn't mean to - to get so upset."
If it had been Trixie, Mart, or even Brian hurting like this, Peter would have pulled the car over and hugged them and listened to them. He didn't want to overstep his bounds with someone else's son and he knew Jim well enough to know that the young man would be beating himself up about this loss of control for days anyway. It made him angry to think about the abuse this young man had endured and how it had made him feel ashamed of his own emotions. He settled for speaking the truth in a low, gentle tone of voice.
"You're sixteen years old and you've been through a lot, son. A lot. Losing your parents, suffering with your stepfather, running away, finding a family again - heck, you've dealt with all of the crazy situations my daughter has dragged you into! And, you did just get hit by a moving vehicle. I think you're entitled to some emotional release. Don't be embarrassed. I have teenagers of my own. Even Brian needs to vent every now and then."
He saw some of the rigid tension in Jim's shoulders relax, just a little bit. "You were telling me about Juliana wanting you to come to Amsterdam?"
Jim nodded. "She wants to get to know me better, and I want that too, but I'm happy here, in Sleepyside, with the Wheelers, with your family living down the hill ... I have everything I ever wanted right here and she wants me to leave that behind? I can't, but I don't know how to tell her that!"
Sleepyside General Hospital loomed in the not-so-far distance as they pulled into town, and Peter felt a wave of relief. He was worried about the concussion and about Jim's scraped hand - it looked like it might have road dirt in it.
"I've wanted to go to college since I was a kid. I've got a scholarship, and education is really important to me, but I can't even imagine moving to a different town in New York State, let alone moving to Amsterdam!" Jim shrugged miserably, "I don't speak Dutch!"
Peter pulled into the ER parking lot and parked. He walked around to the passenger side to help Jim, who protested the supporting arm for a moment before acquiescing when his knees wobbled dangerously.
"Let's get you taken care of. They probably won't keep you overnight, just long enough to make sure your head is all right."
Jim gave him a rueful smile as he steadied himself. "Fortunately, I've always been told that I'm hard-headed. I hope it finally works in my favor."