Have you ever heard a thunder growl so low, so deep that at its most dominant clatter, it jostled the marrow of your bones? Have you ever looked off to the distance and witnessed a grey cloud baptizing the horizon, causing a drifting scent of imminent rain to touch the tip of your nose? I have. And on the night of this unnerving storm, it was considered perfect. The perfect backdrop for… Halloween!
It was relatively early into my shift, but late into the evening when the call came in. Ryan and I were already in the truck when the tones went off. I looked at the screen to see what it was that we were being dispatched to: sick person, no priority symptoms – low acuity response – no lights, no sirens.
I felt the heft of our truck as it pulled forward and caught gear. It was not long after rolling off the ramp of the ambulance bay that the first droplets of rain came in. A sudden “plop” or two against our windshield quickly followed by near biblical downfall. A deluge from an angry sky. The sound of a million tap dancers careened against the metal plating of our ambulance. Ryan drove skillfully through the night befallen streets and avenues.
The sidewalks and doorsteps were all festooned with orange glow and flickering flame, jack-o-lanterns ablaze. Spooky effigies of skeletons and ghouls hanged from arthritic branches and swayed unsteadily in the gale and rain. Had one not known better, this would have been the opening scene of a B-rated horror movie from the 70’s.
I wasn’t shaken though. I love Halloween. Something about the hyperbole of demonic caricature is appealing to me. Perhaps it comes from my proximity to death during my working hours as a medic on every other day…? Halloween becomes a way to make light of it… I dunno… whatever the reason, I simply love Halloween—the day of the dead. Slutty pumpkin costumes don’t hurt either…
“Yeah… what’s up, brother?”
“What’s that street sign say…? Is this our turn?” I squeezed my eyes and pressed nearer to the glass of my window, struggling to make out the lettering of the time-worn sign.
“Yeah… I think so. GPS says this is it, too…” Ryan began spinning the wheel and slowly bled further into the residential street. Creeping along, both he and I scanned our respective sides of the roadway, looking for the address matching our dispatch notes.
“There!” Ryan said confidently. “That’s the one… gotta be. Les’go!” The moment we hopped out of the truck, we fell victim to the chill of an All Hallows rain. In a futile attempt at shielding ourselves from the falling sky, we sunk our heads into our shoulders as turtles would do. We bound from sidewalk to doorstep. Ryan thundered against the door with a closed fist and announced our presence. I stood beside a carved pumpkin, complete with menacing grin. I could feel flitting puffs of heat waft out from the cut-outs of its face. We could hear rustling come from inside the home, the kind of sound that informed you of a nearing person about to open a door.
The bucolic wooden structure lamented rusted yelps as it was peeled back. Revealed to us was a decrepit man with terribly hunched posture. His skin, pale and detailed with the etchings of time. He spoke with strenuous pace and tone. As he did, he ushered for us to enter his home. Wishing respite from the rain, we did so willingly.
“Hello, sir. Name’s Ryan… this is Matt. What can we do for you?” There was a brief moment where the man searched for a response.
“Well… boys… it’s Maggie… she’s ran off.”
“Maggie…?” I said inquisitively.
“Yes… Maggie… my wife. She’s up and disappeared.” The old man said coughing into a handkerchief.
“Okay… could she be out at the store? Or with a friend? What has you concerned, sir?” Ryan pried.
“No… no… she’s not too mobile anymore. Not since the stroke some time ago.”
“Okay… when was the last time and place that you saw her?” Before the old man could answer, I chimed in; “Does she have a cell phone? Could we call her?” He looked me in the eye… “We don’t have those bloody things… no.”
“Okay… where do you think she could have gone?” Ryan asked softly.
“That’s just it… nowhere! Her walker is still in the house… there!” The old man pointed to a walker that was adorned by aging newspapers and a tattered tissue box.
“This walker?!” I asked incredulously.
“Yes!” It appeared as though the walker had not been used for some time… a long time. I looked at Ryan. He mouthed the words “Look for meds…” This was a good idea. It may give us an idea as to what kind of medical conditions that either the old man or his wife may have.
I began scanning the countertops in the kitchen and the surface of the dining room table. Upon taking inventory of this place, it became apparent that there was some failure to thrive issues taking place… the house was a disaster. Thick layers of dust coated almost everything in this place. There was even some noticeable dust on the old man’s cardigan.
Rested on one of the kitchen chairs was an old grocery bag that appeared lumpy and overstuffed. This is a sight that many medics are familiar with: plastic bags filled to the hilt with orange medication bottles; empty ones, full ones and some in-between. This bag was no different. I lifted the bag and began sifting through the plethoric capsules and bottles. Many of the labels had been removed by the passage of time and neglect, but on the occasional bottle I could see the name: Maggie… the old man’s wife.
“Sir… a lot of these are really old… is there another place where you keep the meds?” I asked.
“She does all that… we need to find her! I’m afraid that she may have wandered off… she gets confused sometimes. Please… won’t you go look for her, please!” He was pleading with us. I felt bad for him.
“I’ll go take a walk around, see what I can find” I said to Ryan and the old man. As I was leaving, I heard Ryan request police assistance over the radio to dispatch. If this was indeed a missing person, this would require more than two well-intended, sopping wet paramedics.
I walked from one block to the next, keeping a keen eye for anything that could resemble old Maggie. All I came across were children running down the sidewalk with their sugary bounty jingling within their bags and pillow-cases, a stray black cat (how fitting) and a few trundling teenagers pretending that the rain was not at all bothersome.
I stopped one of them… “Hey, have you guys seen an old lady walking around out here?” Their faces revealed to me that they thought I was crazy, but they answered anyway.
“An old lady… no. Walking around out here? In this??”
“Yeah… from that house up the street over there… her husband seems to think she has run off…”
“Up there?” One of the kids pointed to the house.
“You sure? Why you looking for her?”
“Never-mind… have a nice night. Happy Halloween,” I called back as I walked past them.
When I had rounded the corner to the street parallel to the old man’s, my radio choked to life. Ryan’s voice was calling through the slits of the handheld.
“Matt… come in, over.”
“Hey… yeah, go ahead, over.”
“Come on back, police are here.”
“Roger that, on my way.”
I walked with quickened pace back towards the old man’s place. Once I got inside, I was met with the sight of Ryan and two sturdy police officers.
“Gentlemen… how are ya?” I squawked.
“Drier than you… apparently. What, are you the rookie? He made you go out there…”
“Heh… yeah… seniority… it’s a real bitch—any luck with the old lady?” I asked while flapping my arms away from me.
There was now a shared look of unease between Ryan and the two cops. A look they then cast towards me. The officer closest to me leaned in and spoke quietly into my ear… “The old lady is dead. Has been for 20-plus years… we looked her up on the computer before we arrived”
The look was now held firmly within each of our faces.
“Where’s the old guy?” I shot to Ryan.
“He’s in the bathroom.”
“Should we…” I began with elevating tone.
“Yeah… let’s go get him.”
A parade of clunking work boots stampeded down the hallway towards the restroom. A small sliver of light was seeping out from beneath the door. Ryan knocked and called out to the old man. No answer. He called again, louder this time. No answer… Another shared look between we four, this one of concern. Ryan orated one more time while trying the knob of the door. To our surprise, the door opened with ease. Ryan entered first, I was close behind him. Empty. The bathroom was completely empty. Only the dance of a flickering flame from a lit candle was present.
“What the shit?” Ryan whispered to himself. “He was in here, I swear to…”
“We’ll go look around; you stay here.” The baritone of one of the officers commanded.
I have only seen this level of perplexity coat the features of Ryan’s face once before, and it was for a much less concerning matter… the lady at the drive-thru had given him a veggie burger wrapped in lettuce… he had ordered a Baconator.
“I’m sure he’s around. Probably slipped out the back door… looking for his wife” I reassured.
“Yeah… maybe. Wait… look at this…” Ryan gestured towards the candle rested atop of the counter. It was held by a decorative holder with a picture affixed to the back of it. A picture of a couple in black and white. The similarities between the old man and the man in the photo were uncanny, albeit much less aged.
“I’m assuming that’s Maggie… and that’s our old guy” I said.
“Yeah… seems to be.”
Ryan and I left the bathroom and as we reached the kitchen area of the home, the police officers had returned, now equally as wet as I was. Now who’s a rookie? I thought happily to myself.
The two men paused and stood in place for a second before speaking, even stopping mid-sentence at one point before continuing on. “Ah… okay… so… you for sure spoke to an old guy?” One of the cops asked.
“Like… how old? Fifty?”
“Fuck no! More like… a stone’s throw away from 90.”
“Huh…” The officers looked at one another before finishing. “Okay… so, here’s the thing… the two names attached to this house; Maggie and Thomas (won’t use the last name for privacy reasons) have been dead for like… twenty years.”
Both Ryan and my face melted into confusion.
“Yeah… we checked with our control centre… both deceased… no one’s lived here in a long time.”
Upon hearing the officer’s revelation, I began to take further note of my surroundings. Not only was everything sitting beneath blankets of dust, but all ornaments, newspapers and addressed mail were at least 20 years out of date…
“Well, who the fuck put the pumpkin out front then?”
“Pumpkin?” The cop recited.
“Yeah… the pumpkin on the railing out front of the house.” I said while walking with steam towards the front door. I walked outside and pointed arrogantly with my hand towards where I had seen the pumpkin sitting upon our arrival, “this one… this pump…” I stopped. There was no pumpkin. Only a decaying railing being pounded mercilessly by a sideways rain.
There was truly no one at this address. No one, except us: the drenched and the confused.
Ryan and I went back into service but could never quite shake the unease and obfuscation that lingered from that call. Who was the old man we had been speaking to? How had he disappeared?
When we got back to station, we began conversing with another crew about the oddity of our night. As we were divulging details of what had happened, a voice sailed out from the supervisor’s office. “d’you say you were at Old-town Road and Middle street?”
“No way… did a call there bunch-a-years back… some old guys wife ran off. Found her wandering the neighbourhood a few houses down. What happened tonight? Thought they’d have died long ago!”
Ryan and I were unable to answer. Our faces simply carved into the shape of two, horribly confused jack-o-lanterns.
From that night on, Ryan and I always made a point of driving by that old house on Middle street every Halloween. And every Halloween without fail… a pumpkin sat out front… menacing grin and all.
Fact or fiction? You decide. Either way, happy Halloween, everyone.