By John M. Floyd
“You’re a lucky lady,” a man’s voice said.
Helen Graham looked up at him from her hospital bed. The doctor had already informed her, when she had finally opened her eyes, that she’d broken both legs and her left arm and suffered a concussion. That didn’t make her sound lucky—but she knew she was.
Both the doc and someone she’d not seen before stood over her now, looking like characters right out of network TV. White coat, solemn face, and stethoscope on one side of the bed; cowboy hat, beer gut, and sheriff’s badge on the other.
“You’re also an exception to the rule,” the sheriff continued. “Not wearing your seat belt saved your life.”
Helen blinked and managed to focus on him. His name-tag said DRAPER.
“I was wearing my seat belt,” she said. “I always do.”
The only law she’d broken, she thought, was driving too fast. She did remember doing that, for what had seemed a good reason at the time: she was on the way to buy a last-minute birthday gift for her mother, a lamp she’d seen at a website for an antique shop out in the middle of nowhere. The problem was, her car’s GPS had led her twenty miles off course. The last thing she remembered, before the crash, was a curvy dirt road with a tiny country church on one side and a deep ravine on the other, and a brown cow standing in the middle of the road just ahead of her. She would always wonder why she’d swerved left instead of right.
Afterward, only one thing stood out in her mind. The face of the man who had saved her. She suddenly realized Sheriff Draper was talking to her. “What did you say?” she asked.
“I said ‘not this time.’ Today, for some reason, you weren’t buckled in. We found you lying on your back, twenty feet from your car. The vehicle itself was burned to a crisp—we figure it burst into flames when it hit the bottom, or shortly after.” He raised his eyebrows. “You understand what I’m telling you, Ms. Graham? You were thrown clear, before impact. If you had been strapped in … ”
Helen shook her head. “You’re the one who doesn’t understand. I wasn’t thrown from the car.”
The sheriff and doc exchanged a look. “You must’ve been,” Draper said. “Even if the car didn’t catch fire until afterward, your injuries would’ve kept you from—”
“Didn’t anybody talk to the man who was there?” she asked. “An older man. Friendly face. Scar over his left eye.” She started to raise her hand to touch her forehead to show them but found she couldn’t. “He wore a floppy hat and overalls, like a farmer.”
Draper frowned. “There was no one else there, Ms. Graham.”
“This man was. He unbuckled me, picked me up. He carried me in his arms from the car.”
Another glance passed between the two men. “I think it’s time for you to rest a bit now,” the doc said.
“Sheriff, listen to me. He must’ve left before you arrived—”
“No one carried you to where we found you, Ms. Graham. And you didn’t walk there by yourself, either.”
The room was beginning to spin. Helen tried to concentrate on what he had said. “How do you know that?”
“Because that gully was muddy. Everything was muddy—it rained yesterday.”
“What does that—”
“That’s enough for now,” the doctor said. He gave the sheriff a hard look.
“No, wait,” Helen said. “Answer me. What does it matter that it rained the day before?”
Sheriff Draper didn’t move. His eyes stayed locked with Helen’s.
“There were no footprints,” he said quietly. “Not anywhere around you.”
She stayed in the hospital for two more days, and at home for two months. Her boss at the bank’s computer center allowed her to work remotely via her laptop and her mother visited her often and did the grocery shopping. Not much else happened. Two broken legs can put a damper on one’s social life.
No more was said about the accident. It was obvious that nobody except her crazy great-aunt Winifred, who regularly embarrassed the family with things like palm readings and even seances, believed Helen’s story about her phantom savior. At times Helen almost doubted it herself. Such hallucinations were apparently not uncommon following situations like this, particularly those involving head injuries. And how could there have been no footprints?
But what Helen continued to see in her mind was too real, too clear to have merely been a dream. Footprints or not, someone had appeared from nowhere to rescue her that day beside the dirt road, in front of that little church. She remembered feeling strong arms underneath her legs and back, lifting her right out of the driver’s seat, and feeling the rough fabric of overalls against her cheek. Most of all she remembered the way he looked. Grayish stubble, green eyes, jutting chin. A pale scar ran through and above his left eyebrow. A rugged but kind face. The owner of that face had saved her life.
And she planned to find him.
She did the preliminary snooping right there at home, between work and meals and network TV. She and Google Maps became close friends: from the comfort of her bed and her desk chair she toured the crash site and the surrounding countryside. She wasn’t too surprised to find that it was indeed the back side of beyond. The tiny church building and the gravestones in its cemetery seemed to be the only man-made structures for miles around. This was, after all, rural Mississippi. She saw that the road she’d been traveling dead-ended two miles south of the church, in what looked like a gravel driveway between a small barn and a farmhouse.
That would be as good a starting point as any.
One day in late September, exactly eleven weeks after the accident, Helen Graham was sitting in a rental car with a bottle of water and a state map—no more GPS for her, at least until she replaced her Honda, and maybe not even then, she thought—and heading west out of the city. She felt sore but functional, and ready to find some answers.
An hour later she was on the dirt road she’d been driving the day of the accident. When she approached the spot, she saw the churned earth on the left shoulder where she had tried to brake after swerving to miss the cow, and the tiny church and cemetery off to the right, and lush woods and pastures all around. Nothing else in sight.
She continued down the winding road toward the farmhouse she’d seen in the satellite image, the only one in the area. If the folks who lived there couldn’t identify her guardian angel, maybe they’d know who could.
She located the house, parked, got out, and knocked at the screen door.
A woman in her fifties appeared in the doorway. At first she just looked tired. Then she saw Helen, and froze. Her eyes were wide, her bony hand clapped over her mouth.
“Annabelle?” she whispered, through her fingers.
Helen just stood there. Before she could reply, the lady was grasped by the shoulders and gently pulled aside. Someone else took her place in the doorway, and as soon as Helen saw him she forgot all about the woman.
This was the man who had saved her.
No, not quite, she thought. The face was a little different: wider, maybe, and more wrinkled. And there was no scar. It wasn’t him—but the resemblance was unmistakable. The eyes were exactly the same. The knowledge thrilled her and chilled her at the same time.
He was studying her face as intently as she was studying his. “Who are you?” he asked.
Helen swallowed. Pulling herself together, she glanced past him into the house. “I’m sorry if I frightened—”
“My sister-in-law,” he said. “She’s not well. What do you want?”
Helen took a long breath. “My name is Helen Graham. I’m the one who had the car wreck just down the road, a few months ago. I wanted to … ” She cursed herself silently. She hadn’t given enough thought to what she intended to say. “I think—I think someone helped me that day. I want to find him.” She swallowed again. “To find him and thank him.”
The man seemed to think that over. Finally he said, “I’m the only ‘him’ here, Missy, the only ‘him’ for miles around. And I wasn’t there. All of us was here at home that day.”
“All of you?”
“Me, my sister-in-law Martha, and her daughter Jessie. I’m sorry about what happened to you, and I’m glad to see you’re okay and all, but we ain’t the ones you’re looking for.”
Helen felt herself nod. But she couldn’t leave, not without finding out something. This man looked so much like the person she had seen in her mind, over and over …
“You don’t have any brothers in the area, then? Cousins, maybe?”
“He has a niece,” a voice said. Helen looked behind her on the porch and saw a young woman about her own age. The new arrival smiled and thrust out her hand, her arm as straight as a ruler. “I’m Jessie Barlow. Sorry to sneak up on you. The grumpy man you’re talking to is my uncle Lester.” As they shook hands she added, “I heard what you said just now, and I’m glad you’re all right.”
“Here, have a seat.” Jessie backed up a step and pointed to a weathered porch swing. “It’s cooler out here than in the house. Mama and Uncle Les don’t believe in air conditioning.”
Helen joined the young woman in the swing. Lester Barlow came out the screen door, stood there awkwardly a second with his thumbs hooked in his overalls straps, then ducked his head and muttered, “Sorry if I was short with you, Missy.” He stomped down the steps and around the corner.
Jessie turned to Helen. “We don’t get many visitors,” she said.
Helen gave her a weak smile. “Do most of them run off the road before they get here?”
Jessie grinned. “No, you’re the first to do that.” After a moment she said, “What is it you want to know?”
Helen hesitated. She really wished she had rehearsed some of this. “Like I told your uncle, I think somebody helped me that day. Saved me.”
“Saved you how?”
“Saved my life. Pulled me out of a burning car. Carried me to safety.”
“And then ran off?”
“I guess. The cops say nobody was there but me, when they arrived.”
“And this mystery man … you want to find him.”
“Just to thank him. And—I don’t know. To see if he’s real, I suppose.”
Jessie Barlow studied her a moment. “You thought, at first at least, that he was my uncle?”
“Your uncle looks like the man I remembered. Too much so”—Helen hesitated again, thinking—“too much for it to be a coincidence.”
Jessie thought that over. “They all looked alike,” she said. “The only person left who looks like Lester is his brother Nathan.”
“They’re the last of the Barlows. My daddy was the youngest, Nathan’s the oldest—he’s in a hospital up north. We haven’t heard from him in years.”
“You said ‘was.’ Your dad’s passed away?”
“And your uncle Nathan,” Helen said. “Is there any chance—”
“That he was here? No.” Jessie paused. “It’s not just a hospital. It’s a mental institution. We were told not to visit, and we were assured he’d never be released.”
“But it’s a possibility, right? It could have happened.”
Jessie finally shrugged. “I guess it’s not impossible. But how could we not have known?”
Helen shook her head. “I don’t know. But something strange is happening here, Jessie. Something’s … not right.”
Jessie just stared at her. “I don’t know what to tell you, Ms. Graham—”
“I don’t know what to say. Lester was here the whole time, the day of your accident. He was working on that gate over there, and Mama and I were shelling peas here on the porch. We only heard about it later that day, when the sheriff called us.”
“Why’d he call you at all?”
“Looking for possible witnesses, he told us. Also, he’d found a cow wandering in the road, and wondered if she might’ve caused the wreck. Whether there might be a lawsuit.”
“It was our cow,” Jessie said. “A fence broke.”
“Well, don’t worry, I’m not suing anybody. I’m just trying to … ” Helen paused. What was she trying to do? “I’m trying to figure this out.”
“Closure?” Jessie said. “Popular word, these days. You want closure?”
“I just want some sleep. I stay awake half the night, every night, thinking about this.”
Before Jessie could reply, Helen had a thought.
“What happened just now, with your mother? Who’s ‘Annabelle’?”
Jessie’s face changed. This time she was the one who swallowed.
“That’s a long story,” she said.
“Did your mother—did she think I was … ”
“You look like her,” Jessie said. “Like Annabelle. Not a lot, but you’re tall and thin, and blondheaded. Close enough that it must’ve scared her.”
“Scared her why?”
Jessie shifted in her seat. “Because Annabelle died eight years ago. She was my sister.”
Helen blinked. “Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
Jessie started to respond, stopped, and then forged ahead. “The thing is … Mama’s been a little on edge ever since we heard about your accident.”
“Because it brought back memories, I think. Bad memories.”
“What do you mean?”
A long pause. Jessie stared out past the driveway, into the green distance. “That gully you ran off into, where you wrecked your car? It’s the place where Annabelle was killed.”
Silence. In a hushed voice Helen asked, “What happened?”
For a moment she didn’t think Jessie would answer. When she did, it wasn’t at all what Helen expected to hear.
Jessie said her mother, Martha, always entered jars of her plum jelly in the competition at the county fair in September. And she almost always won the blue ribbon—just a thirty-dollar prize, but to the Barlow family every little bit helped. The problem was, on that particular day eight years ago, Jessie’s father Edgar wasn’t around, and Lester was off at an auction upstate. None of the females in the family could drive—Annabelle and Jessie weren’t quite old enough for a license and their mother had never learned how—so after an hour of searching for Edgar, Martha decided to forget the contest this year. She tried to act as if it didn’t matter, but her girls knew it did. So Annabelle had an idea.
The two teenagers waited until Martha was hoeing weeds in the back garden, then sneaked the jelly jars out to the buckboard Edgar sometimes used to haul brush and lumber, hitched their old mule to it, and headed for the fair. The fairgrounds were five miles north of the church—a long trip for a mule and wagon—but almost no one traveled that road except on Sundays.
That day, though, someone did. A pickup full of kids blew through just as the girls were passing the church. The truck and the wild shouting spooked the mule, one of the wagon wheels slipped off the road into the ravine, and that was all it took. The buckboard went over the edge. Jessie was pitched aside and knocked cold, but Annabelle stayed aboard and was pinned underneath when the wagon overturned. The joyriders in the pickup kept driving and never saw what happened. The mule broke a leg, Jessie was unconscious for four hours, and Annabelle’s chest was crushed. It was later believed that she died a slow and painful death.
Helen felt tears stinging her eyes by the time Jessie finished the story. Afterward the two young women just sat there, saying nothing.
At last Helen asked, “Where was your father? Why wasn’t he here that day?”
“He was. He was passed out in the woods behind the house. Dead drunk.”
The porch went completely quiet. Even the breeze seemed to stop.
“When he sobered up,” Jessie said, “and found out what had happened … ”
“He blamed himself?”
“Yes. For everything. I heard him tell Mama the next day, when I got out of the hospital, that if he’d been there he could’ve saved Annabelle, could’ve lifted that wagon right off of her.” A shadow of a smile crossed her face. “He could’ve, too. He was that strong.”
It occurred to Helen that that didn’t make sense. If Edgar Barlow had been around, the girls wouldn’t have had to take the buckboard in the first place.
Jessie seemed to read her mind. “He wasn’t thinking straight. He kept saying, ‘If I just hadn’t been so far away.’” She stopped and shook her head. “Daddy never recovered. He died the following month. Most thought it was the booze that killed him, but the doc just said it was a broken heart.”
Another silence. Then, suddenly, Helen had a thought.
“Where is he buried?”
Jessie looked up at her. “What?”
“Your father,” Helen said. Somehow she kept her voice calm. “Where’s your father buried?”
“In our church cemetery.”
“The one beside the road where you and your sister had the accident? Where I had my accident?”
Helen felt sweaty; her stomach churned. She couldn’t quite believe she was thinking what she was thinking.
“They told me my driver’s-side door was gone, ripped off its hinges,” she said, as if to herself. “How could that have happened?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean the car was going downhill, Jessie. There were no trees near, or in, that gully. No rocks. The car didn’t turn over. How’d my door get torn clean off?”
Jessie let out a sigh. “Who knows? Look, Ms. Gra—Helen—you’ve been through a traumatic—”
“I have to ask you something. Okay?”
Jessie sat there, waiting. She looked drained.
“Do you have any photos of your father?”
“Photos? No. My family never was much on taking pictures.” She smiled a little, as if remembering. “But he had a kind face, my daddy. A friendly face.”
Helen took a long, shaky breath. She leaned closer and asked, carefully, “Did he have a scar?” She raised a finger to a point just above her left eyebrow. “Did he have a scar, right here?”
Jessie’s mouth dropped open. Her body had gone rigid, her eyes wide.
“How could you know that?” she murmured.
Helen stayed another ten minutes or so, there on the porch in the afternoon sun, the city girl and the country girl, lost in their own thoughts. Jessie, looking confused and upset but trying hard not to show it, did insist that since they hadn’t seen her uncle Nathan in so many years, he could of course have a scar too by now. And now that she’d given it some thought, sure, he could have been released without their knowing it, could’ve come down here and maybe even left again without their knowing it. Who would’ve figured Nathan for something like that, she said, but thank God he must’ve been there, at the right place at the right time. Helen thought that explanation fell into the I-need-to-convince-myself category, but she had nodded politely and agreed. That could indeed have happened.
When she rose to leave and held out her hand, Jessie Barlow hugged her instead, hugged her hard and long. There wasn’t much left to say.
Helen drove back down the dirt road to the accident site and parked in front of the church. It took less than two minutes to find the tombstone. A small, simple marker bearing the words EDGAR BARLOW, 1959-2007. As she had suspected, the grave was at the front edge of the cemetery, only about thirty feet from where Helen’s Honda had plunged off the road.
You weren’t too far away this time, Edgar, she thought.
Hugging her elbows and strangely at peace, Helen Graham sat down in the fallen leaves between Barlow’s headstone and a similar marker for Annabelle. Helen stayed there until the shadows grew long and the crickets starting chirping in the woods across the road. Then she wiped her eyes and climbed into the rental and drove back to town.
Tomorrow, she decided, she would call Aunt Winifred. Maybe she wasn’t so crazy after all.
John M. Floyd’s work has appeared in more than 250 different publications, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, Mississippi Noir, The Saturday Evening Post and The Best American Mystery Stories. A former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer, John is also an Edgar Award nominee, a three-time Derringer Award winner, a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the recent recipient of the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for lifetime achievement. His seventh book, The Barrens, is scheduled for release in fall 2018. John and his wife Carolyn live in Brandon, Mississippi.