Note: “Wanderers” can also be found in my book “My Best Christmas and other stories of the season” at Amazon.com.
And what a story that mural told about that night a lifetime ago; a week before Christmas. The night was bitterly cold. The north wind howled through the canyons of downtown Ripley. The snow rode the brisk wind like a plague of thousands of tiny frozen stinging insects looking for any bare skin, intent on biting whomever they met. No one was out on a night like this. No one, unless you were confused, homeless, in despair, or abandoned. Our wanderers, Harry, Betty, Thomas and the one other were in place. Unknown to them they had been readied to play their roles in this unfolding plan, this necessary convergence that would make all the difference.
Harry Spaulding. His workday was completed. The last pan washed. Everything was set out and ready for the next morning’s Saturday regulars. His end-of-the-day routine planted firmly in his brain left no doubt that all would be as it should be at the diner, his diner. The diner he owned and had run for many years.
He grabbed his coat, adjusted his baseball cap, stepped out of the door and clicked the lock. With the click, Harry’s brain wandered off into another unknown world. Unknown, yet becoming more and more familiar as the disease in his brain gradually, stealthily advanced.
He knew where he needed to go. Home. However, tired from the day’s work, confusion set in. He was unsure of exactly which way to go and by what means to get there. Then he saw the rusty, snow covered old bike leaning up against the dumpster. That must be it. He recalled riding his bike from his home to, well, everywhere. So just like years ago, when he was 8, he walked past his parked Chevy Impala and hopped on the bike and headed home, ignoring the bite of the December night.
The winter wind pushed him along, down the alley towards the street. Fortunately, Hays Park was empty of traffic at that late hour, because he shot across its lanes and continued down the alley on the other side. At the next street he turned right and a block later made a left. Several blocks later he was pedaling into the teeth of the biting gale. The wind tore at him. Harry reached up to save his precious Red Sox hat which caused him to lean left, then to the right. The wobble caused the fat bike tires to lose their purchase on the icy street. Harry jerked and turned the handlebars in the direction of the skid, then hit the curb and flew biscuits over gravy landing facedown in a pile of snow shoveled next to the nativity scene in front of the First Presbyterian Church of Ripley.
Panicked, Harry imagined icy daggers sent by some malevolent being to do him harm. Harry desperately looked around for a safe place to ride out the storm. He pawed through the snow pile, lifted his head and saw it. Filtered by the driving snow, the street light hanging from the pole bathed the structure. The structure that would be his salvation. The light led the way. Harry followed.
Breathlessly, Harry scrambled to the shed. He scrunched himself into a straw-filled corner of the small building. Shaking with fear he wrapped his arms around himself and waited for his pursuers … waited… waited… He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, hoping that it would make them all disappear; for Harry was not alone. Oh, no, he was not alone.