He lay on his left side on one of the park benches that lined the sidewalks along this street of quasi-upscale restaurants and shoppes. A wizened old guy with a shock of wiry snow-white hair that overwhelmed his shrunken head. In fact, his whole body looked like someone had thrown him in a washer of hot water and suds. The knobs and sticks of his bones poked through shriveled skin colored the unbiased mocha of years spent living in the Florida sun.
My autonomic nervous system zoomed into hyperdrive the second I spotted him.
I was rounding the corner from the driveway of the funeral home where it met Upham Avenue when I saw him. Usually, a host of lost souls attached to the unpretentious stucco building vied for my attention with their imploring whines as I passed by on my daily walk. Such is the life of a psychic. This morning was different. The souls were quiet yet their vibrations danced like radar homing in on a target. Fluttered half-beats inundated my heart on the way through the parking lot. Cold sweat seeped from my clammy skin. Adhered to the sidewalk, my feet felt stuck in a wad of gum meant for a giant.
The instigator of these reflexive reactions lay thirty feet ahead, on a bench in front of Dally, one of the more chic establishments on the two blocks that constituted our uptown. I was sure the owner wouldn’t be happy. Dally had a five-star reputation and she made sure there was never a blemish. I doubted a sleepy bum would be on her list of welcome guests.
When my body released its lock-down, I paced forward, never taking my eyes off the old man. His chest didn’t move beneath the periwinkle blue shirt two sizes too big for his skinny frame. No flickering of his eyelids. No sound of a breath exhaled. I stopped a few feet from the bench and waited.
My heart skipped a beat and prickles of energy rode a roller coaster up my spine. I took deep breaths and forced my heart back into normal rhythm, closed my eyes and tried to connect with the man’s spirit. No response. Just a void with no message one way or another. My intuitive psychic sense rarely failed to pick up a signal from a being, living or otherwise. I couldn’t decide, alive or dead.
The energy spikes crested the big hill and were clattering down my vertebrae at break-neck speed. I wanted no part of this. I crossed to the opposite sidewalk, but kept my eyes on the figure on the bench as I walked to the corner. He didn’t move a muscle. I shook my head and turned toward home.
* * *
The next morning, I started out as soon as the sun was up. The forecast called for steamy heat, unusual for a late October day on the Gulf Coast. The air smelled of hot sand and baked seaweed. As I started across the funeral home parking lot, my ever-vigilant intuition kicked in. The spirits were in abeyance, yet I could sense them all around me, holding their ethereal breaths. None of the physical signals from the previous day activated. My steps slowed as I turned the corner onto Upham.
There he was, on the same bench. Today, he sat and smoked a cigarette, or what was left of one. A three-quarter inch stub of filter was pinched between his thumb and index finger, a two-inch-long head of ash glowed, hanging from the end. His head swiveled toward me as my foot hit the first brick of the sidewalk. The twinkle of his bright blue eyes reached out for my attention and drew me toward him.
A broad toothless grin unfurled across his face, highlighting deep lines etched at the corners of his eyes and mouth. His right leg, crossed over his left knee, swung an unhurried rhythm. He wore the same blue shirt but now I noticed the sharp creases, straight from a cellophane package. The shirttails hung over crisp, brand new khakis. Both were much too large, but the new-clothes stiffness kept them from draping over his bony frame. His nails were neatly clipped and clean, despite the yellow nicotine stain.
His blue eyes measured my approach, but the elven features didn’t change. I kept my eyes on him, too. We were duelers circling for advantage. I decided I was brave enough to make the first foray.
“Morning,” I said, not relinquishing eye contact with my slight nod.
“Thekt,” he wheezed with a nod back at me.
That was all. I kept walking, not taking my eyes from his until I had to twist my neck to see him. At that very last moment, I saw the axe.
“Hunh.” I sucked in a big breath as I spotted it lying on the ground next to the bench. My foot halted in mid-stride. A lumberjack’s axe topped with a heavy double-bladed head, keenly honed on both ends. The handle was maybe thirty inches long. Dark polished wood gleamed except for dull patches where hands had held it to swing. A residue of rusty spots spattered the head and haft. I looked back at the man. His grin widened. He pantomimed chop-chop and raised hand to forehead in salute.
My psychic senses exploded. Foreboding blasted through the air and hung in layers on the ether. The taste of hot copper filled my nasal passages as viscous saliva slid down my throat. I turned and ran.
* * *
When I got home, I told Will about him.
“What did he look like?” He questioned me with his usual skeptic’s encouragement. “What did he do?” He challenged me to make a choice. “Was he real or spirit?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Let’s go to dinner at Dally tonight then,” he offered. “If he’s still there, I’ll let you know what I think.”
By six-fifteen, the heat and humidity dissipated, perfect weather for a hand-in-hand stroll. A slight breeze caressed our hair. We walked the four blocks from our house, down Pinewood Pass, and onto Upham Avenue. From the opposite side of the street, I peered around palm trees and bright orange blooms of tropical hibiscus planted along the sidewalk.
“There he is.” I turned and whispered to Will while pointing to the figure on the bench in front of Dally.
“Where? I don’t see anybody.”
I clicked my tongue and turned back. “Right th…” The bench was empty.
“Well, he’s gone now,” Will said. “Come on.”
He grabbed my hand and tugged me across the street to the bench where the old man had been. He and the axe had vanished. I scanned up and down the sidewalk. Nobody but Will and me. Will walked as far as the driveway to the funeral home parking lot. He shook his head.
“Come on, honey. Let’s go eat.”
“Okay.” I sighed. “I give up.”
We sat on the outside patio, decorated with cornstalks and pumpkins festooned with strands of cottony cobwebs. We were the only ones out there, though a few other patrons were inside. We ordered cocktails, looked at the menu and chatted about anything but the old man on the bench. The waiter took our order and Will excused himself to the men’s room.
Thoughts of the old guy swirled through my brain as I twirled the golden liquid in my martini glass and stared unfocused at the sidewalk. The vision had been a mirage, of course, a play of sunlight low in the sky reflected from the restaurant’s sun-filtered windows. I wanted Will to see him too, to validate that the old man existed.
A shadow flicked at the corner of my eye. Jolts of energy raced up my spine. The toe of a well-worn work boot poked into my field of vision. A purposeful stride propelled the figure into full view and the scene clicked into slow motion as he ambled across the stage of sidewalk in front of me.
The rolled up sleeves of a sweat-stained blue chambray work shirt showed off the thick corded muscles of his forearms. Grimy brown work pants fell over the tops of the clunky tan boots. The axe rested on his shoulder, balanced by his right forearm, the sharp edges of the double blades glinting in the fading light. He looked directly at me. There was no doubt it was the old man despite the younger physique and change of clothes. That wide gummy grin crossed his face and squeezed his eyes to a squint.
“Thekt,” he rasped with a nod, a wink and a chop-chop of his free hand that turned me to stone. He sauntered by until he reached the intersection. I sat and watched, welded to the chair. He twirled the axe and saluted again, then disappeared from sight around the corner.
Will came through the door as I scraped my chair back across the concrete floor, knocked over my glass and spilled the rest of my martini over me and the table.
“Honey, what’s the matter?” he called after me.
I scampered past the obstacles on the patio and sprinted the few feet of sidewalk to the corner.
“Where’d you go?” I whispered to empty air.
The street was clear. The sidewalks on both sides deserted. There was no place to hide among the closed shopfronts that lined the road.
The man was not there. Or anywhere.
* * *
Wednesday was my morning to work at the library. I didn’t get paid much but I enjoyed the opportunity to lead the genealogy workshop every week. For three hours, a small but faithful group of older ladies picked my brain on research techniques to track down elusive ancestors. The five of them had lived in town most, or all, of their lives. Sometimes a tourist or snowbird would join the group and be regaled with stories of life before this tiny Florida town became a popular resort. The ladies knew the local history, especially the gossip, and the people who had lived here.
“Did you hear?” I overheard Jeanne say to Mimi, but I didn’t catch the answer.
I was glad there were only the regulars today. I was a newcomer, moved to town only three years ago. I needed their collective memory to identify the old man. I got them set up at the computers along the wall of the small conference room and logged them into Ancestry and MyHeritage.
“Before we start, I have some questions about the history of the town.” Eager faces executed a synchronized turn toward where I leaned back against the conference table. “I’ve got a genealogy research puzzle for us to all work on.”
“Cool!” Nancy cooed.
“Ask away,” Mimi chirped. “We have more stories than you can think up questions for.”
The others chattered agreement. I had never discussed my psychic abilities with them before and I had no intention of offering that topic up now. These five ladies could spread a rumor faster than a virus. I had fabricated a story, predicated on a little white lie.
“So, I got an email from an acquaintance of mine from college,” I began.