“I’m only waiting ten minutes,” Carol said as she pulled off the dirt road. After a wide turn, she parked in the brush facing the road. Her raised 4×4 had no problems crushing the weeds. “It’s my only night off with Mike,” she shut the truck and its lights off then faced Tommy in the passenger seat. “You’re lucky you’re getting those ten minutes,” she said. Tommy nodded at his best friend.
“Hell, don’t even worry about it,” he said with a large grin. “I’ll win in less than ten minutes.” He glanced at his watch. “Any minute now,..” Tommy pushed his rounded glasses up his nose then peered out of the truck into the darkness. “Pay attention,” he said. Carol did as he asked, though she held strong suspicions this was a prank. She half expected her boyfriend, Mike, to hop from one of the nearby trees.”There!” Tommy said. He pointed at a dark spot on the road. Carol focused on where he pointed and she realized something dark floated in the air above the road. A man appeared on the dirt road. He walked forward with purpose down the road.
The stranger’s clothes were worn, ragged, and striped with horizontal black bars. Carol heard the clinking sound Tommy described with every step the man took, it sounded like the rustling of chains.
” Well, Hell. I believe you owe me $200,” Tommy said quietly. He did not want to attract the stranger’s attention. He walked slowly and was still close to the truck.
“Who is he?” Carol asked with the same quiet voice. Her eyes remained on the shambling figure. She heard, more than saw, Tommy’s shrug.
“All’s I know is he appears here every day at 10p.m. He walks down the road a couple of miles, then disappears again before he gets to town.
“Every day?” She asked.
“Every day since I noticed a month ago,” he said.
“And you haven’t asked him who he is?!” Carol asked. The curiosity was festering inside her. “I’m gonna find out,” she said and opened her door.
“No wait!” Tommy said. He realized that the best way to stop would be to get in front of her. He opened his door to get out in a hurry. It wasn’t until he was in pain, face down in the brush, that he remembered how high her truck was. His face itched from the dry grass and he bumped his nose on the ground. “Oww,” he sat up on his knees to rub his nose, and he saw Carol taking long strides toward the stranger. For his part, the mystery man had not made much progress. It seemed like every step cost him a monumental effort. The walker did not seem concerned with the sudden ruckus the pair of friends made. Tommy got his bearings and hopped to his feet. He managed to reach Carol at the same time she reached the stranger.
Tommy was not surprised by the stranger’s appearance. From a distance, in the dark, he looked like he might be an escaped prisoner. Up close, he looked like he was definitely an escaped prisoner. His black and white uniform had as many holes as stripes; the edges were frayed and ragged. Chains bound his hands together instead of handcuffs. Chains between his ankles explained his slow pace. The chains were so short he could not take more than a quarter step at a time.
The man in the threadbare uniform was just as worn out. He was about as tall as Tommy’s six-foot frame but was severely emaciated. Old, leathery skin clung to the man’s bones making them stand out. Despite his appearance, he smelled fresh. Once Tommy got a good look he expected the man to smell like overcooked death; instead, he smelled clean like fresh peppermint.
The two friends took a few steps at the man’s pace to see if he would notice them, but he kept moving forward. His eyes stayed focused at some unseen point in the distance.
“Hi!” Carol said. It was sudden enough that Tommy gave a small jump in surprise.
“Hi,” the man replied with a curt nod but he kept moving forward. His voice sounded hopeless and tired.
“I’m Carol,” she said.
“Hi, Carol,” the stranger said.
“What’s your name?” she asked. Tommy got tired of taking partial steps and took a full step forward to wait for them to catch up.
“Don’t have one,” he replied. Carol looked at Tommy for help, but all she got was a shrug.
“What uh… what are you doing out here?” Carol asked. The ex-prisoner made a sudden, sharp sound. If it weren’t for the unnerving smile growing on his face, Carol would have never guessed it was a laugh.
“Goin’ home,” he said.
“Where’s home?” Carol asked. The old man raised both hands and pointed at the darkness down the road.
“Almost home,” he said. “I did it. I escaped.” Carol decided to try learning about him from a different angle. If they knew where he came from, maybe they could find out more about him.
“Where did you escape from?” she asked. The man stopped shuffling forward. He repeated his eerie, choking laugh several times.
“I ESCAPED!” he shouted with unsettling glee. “Almost home,” he smiled at the darkened road and resumed moving forward.
“From where?” Carol asked.
“Almost home,” he repeated.
“Hell, Carol. I think that’s all the answers you’re gonna get,” Tommy said.
“No!” the man shouted and lurched forward, he scrambled his feet as fast as he could to shuffle quicker. “Almost home!”
“He’s got spunk, I’ll give ‘im that,” Tommy said with a chuckle.
“Where did you come from?” Carol tried again.
“Damnit Tommy,” Carol said. “What’d you do to get him worked up?” Tommy shrugged.
“Hell if I know,” he replied.
“NOO! I ESCAPED!” the man shouted hoarsely. “ALMOST HOME!” he was moving as fast as he could with bound ankles. Carol and the prisoner caught up to Tommy and he moved to take another step forward; but, Carol stopped him.
“What’s up?” he asked. Carol shook her head.
“We’re going home. This never happened, we never saw him,” she pointed at the prisoner. Now that he was fired up, he was covering a lot of ground.
“What? Why? Hell, you’re the one that wanted to find out more about him,” he said.
“Noo!” they heard the man shout.
“That’s why,” she said. Tommy shrugged.
“What’s why?” Carol rolled her eyes.
“Don’t you get it? You said he’s been showing up every day, or at least a month. Probably longer, right?” Tommy nodded, but he did not interrupt. “He escaped from somewhere and he’s trying to get home, but if he shows up here every night..he’s never going to get home, right?” Again, Tommy nodded. After a moment of Carol glaring at him, he broke the silence.
“And?” he asked.
“And…,” Carol sighed. “…I don’t think he actually escaped Hell like he thinks he did.”