Out off the old county road, there’s a path that runs through the woods. It cuts across to what passes for a downtown around here. The trail itself isn’t much to write home about, just some wooden planks laid down to mark its edges and the occasional sign nailed to trees warning people not to wander. There’s swamps out there, and all the critters that call them home, and one wrong step might turn you into something’s supper.
But it’s not the gators or snakes that keep folks from walking through the woods.
Stalker’s Road is well known around here. Everyone who’s ever been on it says the same: they feel watched when they use it. Followed. A few have said they’ve heard footsteps creeping through the trees over their shoulders, but that’s mostly just embellishment.
Everyone knows the Broken Man is silent.
You’re never supposed to acknowledge him. Don’t even look at him. You’ll know he’s there even without peeking. All the hairs on your arms will stand on end, your neck will prickle, your heart will beat harder, faster. You’ll feel like running. But the Broken Man doesn’t like it when you run.
Few have actually been brave enough to look at him, so reports are scattered and sparse. Some say he’s got skin black as coal, others that it’s striped crimson and glistening. He’s huge, bigger than a man has a right to be, and his arms are long and crooked. Broken. Still, he drags a tree branch like a club behind him. Worst is his head, hanging to one side on a stretched neck.
Those who’ve taken the chance have said if he catches you looking, he raises one gnarled finger and presses it to his lips.
The tale of the ghostly Broken Man is one that’s passed around as more than legend; it’s fact. Everyone knows someone who’s seen him. Over the years, people have added to the story, trying to give him some kind of history or a list of victims, but no one knows for sure who he is or what his body count might be. Whenever someone goes missing, though, he’s always a suspect, lurking in the back of the locals’ minds.
I always hated Stalker’s Road, ever since I was a kid and started hearing about the Broken Man. I’d have nightmares about him chasing me, his gait uneven from hobbled legs, his tree branch thumping against the ground. I could see his face so clearly, all gnashing teeth and rolling, blood-red eyes. I always woke up before he caught me.
Still, I avoided his road, opting instead for the paved street that circled around the woods. It was longer, but felt safer.
It earned me some teasing in my younger years, but when pressed, none of my friends were willing to set foot on the haunted path either. As I got older, the superstition had set so deep that I just kept on keeping away.
When I was nineteen, Darla Shirley vanished. She’d last been seen walking toward Stalker’s Road. The police launched an investigation the next day, including a search that ran from the creek up north down to the Lancashire farm. While everyone joined in, hopeful that they’d find the high school sophomore, doubt ran cold and hard through the community.
It was a small town miles from anything. Not many places for a girl to get off to.
In grim situations like that one, people tried to stay realistic. It was possible she’d run away, despite those who knew her insisting that she had a happy home life. The darker option was that she’d been kidnapped by someone passing through, or, worse still, one of our own. But there was a third option, one no one wanted to consider too loudly in case it was taken as them making light of the situation.
It was suggested in whispers, behind hands, never within earshot of her distraught family.
The Broken Man.
Might sound silly to people who didn’t grow up in these parts, but to us, it was as serious as the others.
Parents were on high alert following the Shirley girl’s disappearance. They gave the usual warnings, to avoid strangers and tell an adult where they were going to be, but even the skeptics added one more, specific to our area: don’t go down Stalker’s Road. Most listened. I meant to, too.
But things don’t always work out the way they ought to.
I was working full time at the convenience store on Main that year. I’d graduated high school, but hadn’t figured out my next step yet, so I was making a little money and sorting myself out. I worked the closing shift mostly, so I’d head on down at one in the afternoon and lock up a little after nine at night. It was a pleasant little walk, only about twenty minutes on a good day, and I’d have my Walkman playing from door to door. I’d see the occasional neighbor on my way, but mostly it was quiet and I was unbothered.
It was a Sunday, that day when a car pulled up next to me. I ignored it at first, but it trailed along slowly beside me, so I looked over. A man in big aviator sunglasses was leaning over the passenger seat, one hand draped across his wheel all casual like. I didn’t recognize him and kept my expression neutral, bordering on irritated at his interruption. He smiled and pointed at his ear, so I guessed he wanted to ask me something and I pushed my headphone back just enough to hear him.
“You sure you should be walking out here by yourself?” he asked.
I shrugged. It was an overcast day, but nothing that looked like rain.
“Everyone’s pretty upset over that missing girl. Doesn’t seem safe for you to be on the road alone.”
“I’m fine,” I said. No smiling, no wiggle room to make it seem like there was more conversation to be had, no stopping.
He didn’t take the hint. “You going into town? Could give you a lift.”
“You sure? It’s no trouble; I’m heading that way myself.”
“Suit yourself, girly.”
I was more relieved than I expected when he passed and continued around the bend. I slid my headphones back in place with a sigh and picked up the pace a little, for once a tiny bit eager to get to work.
His car was idling on the side of the road ahead when I rounded the curve. He was standing behind it, leaning against its trunk with his arms crossed over his chest. That hurry in my step sputtered.
“You know, I just don’t feel right leaving you out here like this. Come on, hop in.”
I stopped, the gears in my head kicking into life with a nervous jolt. All that was between us was open road. Off to one side, an empty field. And to the other, the opening to Stalker’s Road.
“What’s wrong, girly? You look nervous.”
He took a step toward me. I was off before I had time to realize my legs were moving, down the small slope off the road and into the woods. I heard him skid down the gravel after me and cried out, trying to form words, trying to scream for help.
Stalker’s Road was narrow dirt that snaked through old trees draped with Spanish moss. My purse strap slipped down my shoulder, dragging the headphones still connected to the Walkman inside of it down with it. I yelped as they caught in my hair and tore at them, letting both the headphones and purse fall to the ground. I ran on, unsure what was louder: my frantic heartbeat or his footsteps, quickly gaining on me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a dark shape moving between the trees.
And then all I saw was the ground rushing up to meet me. The man had pounced, sending us both tumbling. I raked at the dirt, trying to pull myself away, but he grabbed my hair and yanked my head back so far and so hard that I couldn’t breathe. His knee dug into my lower back.
“Be a good girl,” he panted into my ear. His belt buckle clinked. “Little Darla wasn’t good. You don’t want that to be you, do you?”
Another movement to our right, missed by the man. My eyes swiveled desperately toward it, hoping it was someone passing through from town, someone who might help.
A huge figure, bigger than a man has a right to be, was standing motionless, half hidden behind a tree. Black skin split with deep, wet red, thick arms twisted outward at impossible angles, a hairless head, snapped crookedly to its left. Its swollen face split into a grin, revealing a mouth of broken teeth.
A strangled sound bubbled from my extended throat.
The Broken Man lifted a knotted finger and put it against his lips.
My attacker flipped me over and I choked on the air that flooded my lungs. He was straddling my legs, struggling to get my skirt up around my hips. But my wide gaze wasn’t on him.
It was on the Broken Man, standing behind him with a tree branch raised.
The crack of wood against skull was meaty and dull. The man on top of me blinked, dazed, and slumped slightly, like his brain hadn’t quite realized what had happened to his body. The branch went up again. This time, the man fell sideways and lay face down against the dirt. The back of his head looked soft and squishy, like a soft boiled egg that had been dropped.
I scrambled backwards on my elbows and tore my eyes away from him toward the Broken Man, terrified that its club would find me next.
The Broken Man stayed where he was, staring first down at my attacker, and then lifting his gaze to me. The face I’d always imagined, so monstrous and frightening, was disfigured to be sure, covered in bruises and bloody welts. But those eyes that met mine, warm, deep brown, were all too human.
I struggled to stand on watery legs.
But when I looked toward the Broken Man again, the trail was empty, and I was alone.
I staggered into town minutes later and collapsed into my boss’ arms at the convenience store.
The man, Edgar Wright, was pronounced dead at the scene from blunt force trauma to the skull. He’d lived a few towns over on a few acres and, when his property was searched, Darla Shirley’s remains were discovered in a shallow grave on the edge of his land.
If you go by the police report, I pushed him off and he hit his head on a rock.
If you’re local, you know the truth.
And I had to know the truth of the Broken Man.
I found it many years later, after the internet had become a thing and I had access to research and records that had never been available before. Even then, it took many more months of digging before I uncovered what I was looking for.
It came first from a short news article from the 1830s. A blurb celebrating the capture, torture, and hanging of a runaway slave, Elijah Matheson, in my home town after a long hunt. He was lynched in the woods, where it was said he aided and abetted other fugitives in escaping the law.
Searching that name led me to a very different version of that same story.
Not much was known about his early life except that Elijah had been enslaved on a plantation about thirty miles south of town. In the summer of 1829, the plantation mysteriously caught fire and in the chaos that followed, many of the slaves fled, including Elijah. He led the group through the wilderness, until they discovered a farm marked as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The homeowners gave them shelter and made arrangements to have them moved on to the next station, but Elijah chose to stay.
Despite the proximity to his former plantation and the constant danger of being discovered, Elijah started to work as a member of the Railroad. He would meet groups in the woods and guide them to safety. He would maintain a small distance from them, walking beside them, but always keeping trees between them. Should anyone come across them, they’d be so focused on the crowd that they’d miss the single man sneaking up from the side with a tree branch held like a club.
If anyone attempted to speak to him during the journey between stations, his only response was a finger pressed to his lips.
He took more than fifty men, women, and children through his portion of the Railroad, a swath of woods that would later become my town, and a little path known as Stalker’s Road.
In February of 1830, the station Elijah worked with was betrayed, leading to a raid of the farmhouse by the plantation owner and his men. The elderly husband and wife who owned it were shot and their lands burned. Elijah’s fate, however, was much worse.
After using hammers to break his limbs, he was bound and dragged behind two horses through the same woods he’d previously protected so many others in. Not satisfied that he’d suffered enough, the mob took turns beating and whipping him until he was barely recognizable.
And then they tightened a noose around his neck.
Elijah Matheson was left to hang on the trail as a warning to others. It’s unclear what happened to his body after that. By some accounts, he was cut down and buried by other escaped slaves so that he might finally know rest. According to others, he remained there until he rotted away and there was little left for the rope to hold up.
While I might never know what happened to his physical remains, I know where his spirit is.
Despite the horrors inflicted upon him in life, he remains vigilant, continuing to protect those who seek safe passage through his woods.
Everyone has always known him as the Broken Man, but that’s not true.
He was beaten. He was scarred. He was murdered.
But he was never broken.
And now I’m going to make sure he gets his name back.