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The Halloween Project 2019 Story 12: Walking Home

The old man, very old man, was rail thin, wore a droopy, floppy hat like an Australian cast-off, and staggered along the edge of the roadway. He surged into our headlights in a flash and my wife, Becky, gasped, "Lookout!" I swerved gently away from his gaunt figure and braked at the same time coming to a stop 100 feet beyond. In my rear view mirror the man appeared as if he was rocking on the deck of a wave-tossed schooner. "Oh my God, did you see him?" she exclaimed. "Of course I saw him," I said. Well past one A.M. and very cold on this bitter January night we looked at each other beyond puzzlement. A dinner party with friends, late night brandy and good conversation in front of a fireplace had proven to be a perfect Friday evening. This abrupt ending was not what we expected on the drive to our house in a remote wooded section of upstate Connecticut. Not a single car passed us, in either direction, in the last 15 minutes. "Turn around. Quick! We have to check on him. He didn't even have a jacket or coat on. Just a shirt," she was ramping up. With a simple nod I began to negotiate the three point turn between foot high snow banks that lined the country road like an icy gauntlet. When complete, the headlights illuminated the figure up ahead. Khaki pants, light tan shirt, and the beige floppy hat. I drove up slowly, trying not to frighten him. When we pulled alongside he was now across the lane on my side of the car. Rolling the window down, I called out across the biting wind, "Sir! Sir!" louder still, "Are you alright?" Betsy gave me a quick light punch on the arm. "Of course he's not alright," she offered in a whispery hiss, "just look at him!" I peered harder, a light fluttery snow beginning to filter down, and as I did, he stopped and turned toward us. His face, grey against the tan of his clothes, was lined and ill looking. A white beard, as white as the snow at his feet, straggled and wired like frozen hay. His shirt and pants clung to his frailty. He was bones and sinew, little more. "Look at his feet!" Becky was now clenching my elbow, a vice grip of concern. I did and saw that he wore no shoes or socks. His feet were more grey than his face, stumps of frozen flesh and bone, with toes and gnarled nails extended. Glancing back to his face I noticed his eyes beneath the downturned brim of the hat. Piercing and intense, he studied rather than watched us. Neither blue nor grey I can only now describe his eyes as crystal. Crystalline, a beam of light passing through a snowflake. The refracted lenses peering from the darkness across the ten foot roadway to our car. I tried once more. "Sir, you look like you're in some trouble and could use a little help. Can we give you a ride?" Becky's grip tightened. His eyes sharpened, whittled down to arrowhead pupils. Then he spoke for the first, and only, time. "Waitin' for a ride," came to us clearly. Headlights flashed up ahead on the road. They approached and the vehicle slowed. It was an old model Ford pick-up truck that had most likely seen its better days 30 or even 40 years ago. The entire scene slowed between dueling headlights and free flowing snowfall. The driver's window rolled down, "Thank God you found him!" An extremely old woman, white-haired and animated face cheered out to us, "We've been scared to death since we didn't find him in his room around 11 o'clock. I've got him now. And thank you!" She clambered from the truck, grabbed him with both hands around his waist, and escorted him to the passenger's side, all the while murmuring in his ear. Once settled, she backed the truck, made a quick turn and drove away up Route 188 the way she had come. "That was weird," I said. "That was bat shit crazy," Becky added. "Becky! Becky! Come here quick! You gotta see this!" I called to our bedroom, holding the local newspaper aloft, "Look! It's him! In the obituaries! See the photo? It's him. He's even wearing the floppy hat!" "No way!" she exclaimed, "No way! Are you telling me he died last night?!" She snatched the paper from my hand. "Holy God!" she continued reading, "This is so terrible. And sad..." Her voice trailed off, and then murmuring, "Simon Cather, 87, lived on Bower's Lane with his daughter, grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Well known local character. Do you believe it actually says that? Dairy farmer for over 60 years in the valley..., pre-deceased..., memorial contributions may be sent to the Alzheimer's Foundation. That explains last night. Wow." She read for awhile then tossed the paper to the kitchen table. I picked it up. "That's just so sad," Becky said. "Hold on, Beck, this just doesn't make any sense. It says he lived with his daughter, not a spouse. That lady who picked him up, in that truck, she was old. Like really old." I read aloud further. "Pre-deceased by his wife of 57 years, Lydia Cather," I announced. "A friend, a neighbor. It makes sense," Becky countered. "No. No. This doesn't make any sense at all. None." "Why? What?" Becky asked. "When did we see him on the road?" I asked, voice growing shaky. "Last night, hell, nine hours ago. What is up?" "He died on Wednesday," I said. "Not possible. We saw him last night. He died last night. That old lady picked him up, but he died. Poor man. It's just a typo. Happens all the time. Sad. A typo in an obituary," her matter of fact explanation failed the truth test. I replied, unsure of myself, the newspaper, and the world around me, "His funeral is today. You call the funeral home to check." #