No one in the small town of Diamond Valley knew the name of the old man that continuously walked the streets every day. They couldn’t even guess how old he truly was or how long he had lived in the town for.
Occasionally, some folks in the town square would say good morning to him with a sunny expression. If their dogs were with them, they would bark and snap their teeth as he passed by. But he just kept on walking, never saying a word, never looking them in the eyes and not even jumping when the canines would turn on him.
Daisy Boskins was the local baker who could whip up anything from a rainbow cupcake to a wedding cake. One morning she left some date squares on a small wooden table outside her cozy little bakery in the middle of the main street. She also left a note with them that read: ‘Please take one sir, you need all the energy you can get’. When she came back out a few hours later, three out of the four squares were gone.
“Well we know he’s human anyway,” Daisy said to her assistant Gina, as she pounded a giant pile of dough on the counter. “He eats after all.”
Eventually folks gave up trying to get any information out of the old timer and simply started calling him: The Walking Man.
In appearance, The Walking Man was nothing out of the ordinary. He stood only 5’5” walked with a slight limp in his step and had a pair of beady, grey eyes with deep seated wrinkles all around them. When it came to his age, folks would guess he was somewhere in his late sixties to mid eighties.
His go-to attire usually consisted of a long sleeved shirt that looked like it had been white at one time but was now stained with so much sweat that it took on a slightly yellowish tone. He also wore black, denim shorts that were high enough to show off his extremely bony knees and skinny chicken legs. His shoes, which had clearly expired long ago, were brown runners that were splitting along the seams on the sides while his untied black laces appeared extremely frayed.
When the day poured gallons upon gallons of rain, The Walking Man simply marched on without so much as a cocktail umbrella to shield him.
On the coldest, snowiest days, when the schools were cancelled and there were more plows on the streets than cars, The Walking Man ditched his shorts for black snow pants and a bright orange parka.
The Walking Man walked so often, and always on the same path, that the other residents of the community quickly took notice of where he would likely be during the day.
He always came into town from the east side. He would walk up one side of the main street, past all the shops, before he walked along the other side. He’d then cut through a small woodsy park that led to the various residential neighbourhoods nearby. He’d walk up one side and then down the other. He would go through all 6 of the areas before he exited out through the west side of town.
Some said he’d never walk along the highway towards the much larger town nearby. While some residents of said town reported seeing a skinny, older looking man walking past the large shopping complex on the outskirts.
Considering his bizarre nature, and generally unfriendly demeanour, many citizens paid him no attention as they watched him making his rounds from their kitchen windows.
“If he wants to walk let him walk,” The mayor, a stocky man with a messy grey moustache, would say to his wife over coffee. “It’s not bothering anybody and he’s not causing a disturbance. He’s probably just lonely and doesn’t want to spend time at home.”
The mayor’s wife would nod with unease in her eyes as she watched his form disappear behind some houses. “Just doesn’t seem natural is all.”
The health center on the main street, however, often sang his praises at his dedication for keeping healthy. They would hang up hand-painted signs in their windows, saying such things as: ‘Go Walking Man! Go!” or “Follow the man! Walk today!” Eventually, the head of the center, Todd Glanders, would leave out Styrofoam cups of water on a metal table just outside the door.
The Walking Man would often grab a couple cups at a time before he guzzled them down and threw the cups on the street. Sometimes a crowd of people would stand around the entrance to cheer him on. Other times it would just be a lone jogger taking a quick cigarette break.
But either way no one tried to follow the man or figure out where he came from.
That was until Jimmy Pavons, the all star quarterback and health nut supreme, couldn’t help but follow the man one morning as he strolled into town. He had been watching the old codger for the past couple of years now and his curiosity was itching more than the worst case of jock itch.
When he was a good two feet in front of him, Jimmy followed. He didn’t know if the old man knew he was following him, or even cared in the slightest. But he kept his eyes laser focussed on the old man’s back, which grew a bigger and bigger sweat stain as they went.
All through the day the two men made their way through the town square and up and down the residential streets. Jimmy had eaten a hearty breakfast before he carried out this quest, but his stomach was already growling something fierce.
“Man does this guy ever sleep or did the aliens reprogram him to just run on air?” Jimmy thought as the sun moved across the sky and began to sink into the western horizon.
The Walking Man himself never turned to acknowledge Jimmy’s presence. He just kept staring at the road in front of him as if it were made out of solid gold. But, after they had gone a few miles west of the town, Jimmy noticed an old, dilapidated shack coming up on the horizon.
It was about one storey and had no glass in any of the windows. The dried out paint on the brittle boards indicated that the house had once been white. Now it was more of a depressing, drowned out greyish color. There looked to be a small pen in the backyard, yet no farm animals could be seen.
At first Jimmy thought that they were simply going to walk past the shack and wander over into the next town. But The Walking Man abruptly turned to his right, walked up the creaky, wooden steps and slammed the screen door which had enough holes to make a block of Swiss cheese insecure. Jimmy was about to take off and leave but his pesky curiosity got the better of him and he decided to peek in through the windows.
“Not like I have to tell anyone that I did it or anything.”
Jimmy crept along the house, wincing as his fingertips caught several stray splinters. He slowly lifted his head towards the front window that probably showcased the living room. There were no curtains or blinds so Jimmy could see everything clear as day.
And what he saw completely shocked him. The Walking Man’s eyes were closed and his mouth was wide open but he still kept wandering around the decrepit living room in a small circle. The old man was mumbling something, a gurgled, hoarse mix of sounds that may have sounded like words if Jimmy decided to get closer. But the whole scene just made every nerve in his body scream ‘Run Jimmy! Run now! It’s not worth it!”
Deciding to listen to his thoughts for once, Jimmy quickly ran back to his basement apartment on the other edge of town.
Jimmy wished he could just forget about the whole thing. He could go back to his daily exercise routines, while studying up to become a lawyer in the city, and The Walking Man would just walk. But whenever the wandering soul passed him on the street, the elderly man’s eyes would now stare into Jimmy’s own wide, brown ones.
It wasn’t a long piercing gaze that stalkers would use when they had their obsession in sight. It was simply a quick, wayward glance, just enough time for Jimmy to catch the weariness in his sunken grey eyes.
At first Jimmy just chalked it up to simple recognition on the old man’s part. Certainly he must have noticed that someone had been following him for most of a day. But the more that Jimmy looked into those fleeting, haunting eyes; he began to notice how they looked more and more desperate. Jimmy didn’t know if the old man wanted him to talk to him or put him out of his misery.
It creeped him out so much that he tried never to look at him again. From that day on, Jimmy would only go out for a run when he saw The Walking Man move far past his house.
As for the rest of the residents, they simply placed the strange old fellow in the attics of their minds.
“We have far more important things going on in our lives,” Many of them would think as they went about their lives. “Why should one kooky old man with a walking addiction matter to us?”
But for the man himself, his purpose was clear. He didn’t know how it happened or why God, or whatever deity that controlled the world, picked him to do it. But he knew that it was his sworn duty to continue walking for the rest of his days or THEY would come.
He couldn’t remember the last time he changed his shoes. His runners had lost their cushiony support a good couple hundred miles back. Initially he used to cringe at how sore his feet were but now he was dull to the pain. Hell, he was practically dull to everything at this point, except for fear.
When his mind fell asleep at home, he would dream of all the destruction that THEY would inflict on the planet if he stopped walking.
He always took note of the day when he decided to rest on the couch for just a minute. It felt like heaven. He prayed in vain that he could simply have more days like this. But when he resumed his walk later that day, he overheard the radio in the local cafe mention an earthquake (with a Richter scale of 7.5) had mysteriously happened off the coast of Japan.
If he stopped walking entirely, who knows what would happen to the rest of society.
So he kept walking the same path everyday for as long as he could. He knew he would die someday; his guess would be from a massive heart attack, a stroke or some gang from a far off city shooting him after they tried to mug him. But at his age he simply couldn’t care. It would be humanity’s problem at that point, not his.
For when he died he would finally be able to get some rest.
A sudden sharp pain ricocheted throughout his arm as he felt his heart being crushed like it was in a carpenter’s vice. The world became a nightmarish mosaic of blurred images and muffled sounds as he felt his frail body smack against the pavement.
As the pain shot up through his arm and into his shoulder blades, his vision cleared up just enough to see the sky begin to change from a pleasant light blue to a bloody red. And amongst the cries of the people around him, a hellish screeching came from the sky.
And it was getting louder.
Carson Fredriksen lives in Calgary, Alberta and enjoys writing speculative fiction. Fredriksen’s drabble (So Close, Yet So Far) was recently accepted for publication under Horror Tree’s very own Trembling With Fear series.