The longest nights in deepest east Texas were winter nights. East Texas frost, north winds, the deep sky painted black. Not a creature would dare howl or whimper in such unforgiving weather. To walk outside in Arnette on those nights was to know loneliness, the purest and deepest form, and Stu dreaded those nights. As a child they left him fearful to fall asleep, lest the wind tear through his dreams to haunt him.
It was on such a night that Stu's wife died. Days after losing their only child - if a child it could be called, so small and unfamiliar had it looked - she succumbed to a fever, calling out in the final moments for someone who wasn't there, someone Stu did not know. She grasped his arm once in a moment of seeming lucidity. "Hemingford Home, Stuart. She's waiting." Wherever that was, whoever was waiting, it was nonsense. She did not speak again, and she knew no more.
The whistling north wind tore at leafless branches, and tore her soul from the last earthly tether. Stu felt her go, and to be left in the dark on such a night! He sobbed on her lifeless chest, until the nurses came, and he had to sign paperwork in the harshly lit reception area.
It was three o'clock in the morning. He dreaded the drive home, but there was no place else to go; he did not want to wake anyone. The hospital staff in Kilgore was willing to make a call to a motel, and he might have done it, had his wallet not been thin. He was wide awake, and the last of his tears threatened to spill in front of the night shift nurses and on-call doctors.
Stu took Highway 259 up to FM 349, and headed out of town, back to Arnette. The cold had deepened, and fog had begun to form. Stu tried not to think of Joelle - he would have to come back, to arrange her transport for the funeral, and the thought distracted him from the road.
The road lengthened, and Stu was alone. He passed no other travelers, saw no civilization beyond the reach of the fog, which deepened as he went. His Chevy's lights were soon nearly useless.
Until they caught on something in the road. Stu hit his brakes, because he thought he saw - he could not have seen her! - a woman on the road.
There was nothing there when he came to a full stop, but he turned off the ignition anyway, left the battery on for the lights, and climbed out of the cab. He couldn't have seen her. It wasn't her.
There was no answer.
He shook his head, wished he'd thought to bring a can of Coke or something else to keep himself awake and clear, and began to climb back into the Chevy when he saw her again. Out of the corner of his eye, just to his right. Close enough to touch.
Her face was not clear, and Stu realized as he looked directly at the apparition (what else could it have been?) that it only appeared to be Joelle when he was not facing it. Her?
"Stuart." It spoke his name, a old woman's voice coming from lips he wanted to recognize. His heart pounded, and the wind began to howl.
"You come see me, Stuart. You come see me sometime."
He swallowed hard, his mouth as dry as middling cotton. "Hello?!" he called out, loudly, as though nothing could hear him if he did not shout.
The thing smiled, and now it was Joelle, in her nightgown and her hair around her shoulders. "Listen to her, Stuart. Not to the other one. When the time comes. Listen."
With a gust of wind, the fog engulfed her, as Stu reached out to hold her and keep her with him.
His eyes flew open, and the sound of the hospital waiting room came to him. He was being shaken awake. Hap stood above him, hat in hand.
"Sorry it took me s'long, Stu. Awful foggy, had to wait till it cleared some." Hap looked like he wanted to say more, or wanted Stu to say something. Grief was no stranger, but there was still unspoken protocol. Stu nodded, and Hap was satisfied. He walked away looking for coffee.
Stu shook his head, rubbed his hands over his face. This was a hospital, in Kilgore, and Joelle was dead. He had called Hap, not wanting to drive alone back to Arnette. He fell asleep in the green plastic chair he'd taken temporary refuge in. And he had a terrible, lonely, dark dream about....something.
In the fog.
The sun had begun to rise, and the cloudy east Texas sky was cut through with rays of promise. Winter will not hold sway forever, they sang, and we will return.
As Hap and Stu prepared to leave, Stu making the last arrangements necessary to get Joelle back to Arnette, a television crackling with bad reception broadcasting some overly cheerful, overly bright morning show meant for early risers.
"In Hemingford Home, Nebraska, the citizens know her as Mother Abagail. As she celebrates her 100th birthday, we learn that she is the oldest living descendant of a former slave living in not only Nebraska, but possibly the United States....."
Stu's neck prickled, but he said nothing, and even years later when he met Mother Abagail in person, he would not remember that night. Just the fog, and his name, spoken kindly on a lonely road.