OF ALL the things I thought I would see on my drive home from the fire station, a naked old man stumbling down the middle of the road was the absolute last.
Normally my response would have been immediate: I would have been out of my truck and over to him without even turning off my ancient Dodge Ram pickup. But I was tired—I had just come off double shifts—and so was not thinking as clearly as usual. I veered slowly around him, and he was framed in my rearview mirror before I realized what I was doing.
I slammed on the brakes, jolting awake, having been half-asleep behind the wheel. What the hell was I doing? I couldn’t drive around a staggering grandfather and leave him all alone on the two-lane road. Firemen didn’t do that. We helped people, even ran into burning buildings to get them out. We didn’t leave people behind.
It was so late, or early depending on how you looked at it, but either way the old man should have been home in bed. Putting on the hazard lights, I grabbed one of the two thick wool blankets I kept stashed behind my seat for not-quite-this-sort of occasion and got out of my truck. Firemen carried all sorts of emergency items in their vehicles just to be on the safe side, and I was no exception. As I jogged back toward the old man, I grew more and more worried the closer I got. He looked really confused.
He was looking around like he was trying to get his bearings, and when my voice reached him, he turned fast and snarled, eyes wide, hands curled into claws, baring his teeth. It was strange, and I took a step back but raised my hands to try and soothe him. When he lunged forward, I took several more steps back as he growled, swiping toward my face, trying to reach me.
“Please, sir,” I said, lowering my voice, making it soothing. “Let me help you. I wanna help you.”
His eyes were huge, the pupils completely dilated, and he was panting with his mouth open. He looked feverish and he was trembling, even though in the warm, sticky summer air, he should not have been cold.
I held up the blanket. “Sir, please, lemme help you… I really wanna help you.”
He closed his eyes tight for a moment, and when he opened them, I was struck by the milky-blue eyes studying my face. I smiled at him with my brown ones, hoping that they conveyed the warmth everyone always said they did. After several long moments, he bowed his head as though accepting his fate. It was almost as if he thought I was going to hurt him instead of help him.
Slowly, gently, I put the blanket around his shoulders, stepped closer, and wrapped it around him so he was underneath it, covered up. I smiled wide and noticed his answering shiver. I gently rubbed his upper arms and stared into his face.
He opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out.
“How ’bout some water?” I suggested, leaning close to him, easing my arm around his back, prodding him forward, back toward my truck.
As we walked slowly together back the way I had come, he withdrew his left arm from the blanket and curled it around my shoulders. Only then did I notice that he was bigger than me, taller, and when he leaned a little more heavily, I struggled for a moment before I found my stride again. I was used to carrying people, so I just had to find my balance.
After I got him tucked in on his side of the truck and ran around the front to the driver’s side, I explained that I was going to take him to the hospital.
He shook his head no.
“Sir,” I began, pulling a bottle of water from the small cooler I kept beside the blankets stashed behind the seat of my truck. “You need to be seen by a doctor to make sure—”
“No.” He shook his head. “Home.” He pointed down the road.
But I didn’t think he was in any shape to be making decisions. He looked so out of it. I made my voice soft, soothing, coaxing. “I think you—”
“No,” he cut me off the second time, again gesturing ahead of us at the pavement.
I pointed down the road and only then realized that I was nowhere near where I was supposed to be. I must have taken a wrong turn.
“Shit,” I groaned. I had to be on the other side of the mountain. Not that Wyndam, Kentucky, was a big place. I just had to double back and go down the road, and I would be close to Winchester, which was just half an hour or so out of Lexington, but still… it was late, I was exhausted, and now I was playing taxi for a clearly impaired old man. It was possible that he had dementia or Alzheimer’s and had no idea where in the world home was.
“Home.” He pointed again down the dark two-lane road.
“Okay,” I sighed heavily as I put the Ram into drive.
After a while, the old man started speaking softly in French, which I recognized from high school but couldn’t remember enough to answer him back. The words I did get were “friend” and “good.” When he reached out to pat my thigh, I smiled over at him.
I glanced back at him before turning again to the road. I didn’t want to hit any furry creatures skittering across the pavement. “Pardon me?”
“You… fear me?”
“Uh, no,” I said, grinning, “not so much.”
He banged the dashboard hard with his fist, and when I looked back at him, his pupils were dilated again, and he was growling.
“Calm down,” I soothed him, reaching out to pat his shoulder, wanting him relaxed, not flinging himself at me while I was driving. I did not need to end up in a ditch because I swerved off the side of the road. “Please, sir.”
After a moment, his shoulders slumped, and he closed his eyes.
“That’s it, just breathe,” I coaxed, rubbing circles on his shoulder.
When he opened his eyes, they were pale and milky once more.
“There you are.” I smiled, and he nodded slowly, reaching out for my hand.
Old people, dogs, kids, they all loved me. It would have been nice if hot men did, too, but you couldn’t have everything.
“Romanus,” he said softly.
“Is that your name?”
He shook his head, put a hand over his heart. “Fabron Chaloner.”
“I’m Mason James.” I smiled wider. “Mace, okay?”
He nodded, squeezed my hand. “Romanus.”
I must have reminded him of someone else, but that was okay. “How far down this road, Monsieur Chaloner?” I asked, my eyes on the road.
When he didn’t answer, I turned back to look at him.
“Sorry, Fabron,” I repeated his name.
He pointed at a turn in the road, and I saw what looked like runes carved into a sign before I took the left down a dirt road. It snaked deep through a heavily wooded area, the brush so deep that it scraped along the sides and roof of the truck. After a second I realized how stupid I was being and slowed down to a crawl. I was afraid that if someone was coming down the same road to the street while I was coming up that I would be in a head-on collision. I put the truck’s high-beams on, and I stopped every few minutes just to listen. When there was nothing but the buzz of insects, I went forward again. After what seemed like forever, I came to a clearing, and the first thing I saw under the moonlight was a huge bonfire. There were several cars parked in front of the huge Tidewater-style home, the kind with the porch that basically wrapped around the house both on the first and second floors. Seeing all the people milling about, it looked as though Fabron had wandered off from some kind of gathering.
After parking, I darted around to the passenger side of my truck and started to help him out. I immediately noticed that he was snarling again, his eyes jet black from the pupils being huge and his teeth were bared.
“Should I growl back?” I chuckled as I reached in to help him out.
He didn’t calm, but neither did he lunge at me as he’d done before. Instead he continued to softly snarl, almost like purring, as I moved his legs, easing him to a standing position before leaning him against the truck. As soon as I slammed the door behind me to guide the old man to the house, I noticed that we had drawn a few spectators.
“Hi,” I greeted the gathered crowd. “Can someone tell me if this gentleman belongs here?”
No one said a word; everyone was just staring at me with wide eyes. What the hell?