A Storm Comes when the Gray Man Walks

The sands of Pawley's Island where The Gray Man walks before a storm.
The sands of Pawley’s Island where The Gray Man walks before a storm.

IT WAS that kind of day.

Gray sand.

Gray sea.

Gray sky.

Gray time of day.

Nothing but gray, and the wind came riding across the waves, churning up a spray of angry whitecaps, which was the only color on the Strand other than gray.

Thelma Allen had trouble breathing. Plenty of air. None in the lungs. Her chest felt as though someone was standing on her sternum and tightening its fist around her heart. It was hot and stifling on this September afternoon in 1954. The last of the sun had been swallowed up by a blanket of gray clouds, and a searing wind dried the sweat that creased her face. She shuddered. There was a chill in the air, and it had nothing to do with the weather.

Thelma Allen and her husband were pioneering a building development on the southern tip of Pawleys Island, and it seemed to her that the last hinges of a desperate summer were hanging on to the Strand, refusing to let go, keeping the suffocating heat locked up on sands that had grown crusty and bare. The season had ended. Summer had forgotten to leave. Summer had trapped them all.

She walked out on her porch and lay down on a cot. The breeze should be cooler by now, she thought.

The gray day turned to night, grayer still. The moon must be shining somewhere, but not on Pawleys Island. Sleep came and went as noiselessly as cat’s feet on a hot tin roof. Just before dawn, Thelma Allen opened her eyes. She did not know why. Nothing had startled her. Even the winds in the trees were traveling with hushed tones.

She saw someone standing in the inside doorway of her home.

A gray man.

On a gray morning.

Outlined against a gray sky.

With a gray sea feverishly raking the gray sands.

He was looking directly at her, but she could not see his eyes. There were black holes where his eyes should have been. She waited for him to speak.

Silence.

No words.

No smile.

The gray man stepped back into the shadows and was gone.

She ran to awaken my husband, and they turned on every light in the house. They moved together from one room to another. No one was there. Nothing was out of place. The windows were closed, the shutters buttoned up and battened down, and the doors were all locked, even the inside door, the place where the gray man stood.

The gray sky was calm. A gray sky could lie to you. If a storm were brewing, it was hiding beyond the gray clouds. No one could read anything into the wind. The winds were always howling.

At a party the next afternoon, Thelma Allen mentioned that she had seen a figure among the shadows, and the sight of him gave her chills and a dark sense of foreboding. She did not believe in ghosts, but neither did she doubt the possibility of their existence. It could have been a dream, but nightmares never came with her eyes wide open. She knew what she had seen, and what Thelma Allen had seen left her unsettled and afraid.

“Don’t worry,” said a friend.

“Why not?”

“It must have been the Gray Man.”

Thelma Allen frowned and narrowed her eyes. She and her husband were among the newcomers to Pawleys Island. She had seen the gray days, the gray skies, the gray seas, the gray sands, but had never heard of a gray man.

She raised an eyebrow. It was a question.

“You are a fortunate woman if the Gray Man comes,” the friend said. “He always walks the sands before a storm.”

“But he was in my house.”

“The message must have been urgent.”

“What message?”

“He wants you to leave.”

“He didn’t say anything.’

The friend smiled. “He doesn’t have to,” the friend said. “When he looks at you, you know what to do.”

Leave.

A storm was on its way, a big one.

Only the fortunate see the Gray Man.

He doesn’t come often, Thelma Allen was told. But when he does, it’s for a reason.

Only the Gray Man knows why, and nobody knows the Gray Man. He is simply part of the sand, the sea, the sky, and the mist from which he comes and goes. Storms follow. Storms never reach where he has touched.

Thelma Allen did not tempt fate or take any chances. The Gray Man had come to her doorway, and, two weeks later, so did Hurricane Hazel. It blistered the Grand Strand with raw power and fury. Homes were like matchsticks broken by the snap of the winds, and the isle was left with nothing to do but grieve, bury its dead, pick up the pieces, and build again. Not all who left would return. Not all who left had anything waiting for them on the Strand. The storm took it all.

Well, not all, perhaps.

Thelma Allen said, “After the storm, we came back. It looked as though someone had taken a giant knife and sliced the beach in half There had been thirty-one homes on the island. It spared two. One was mine.”

The Allens immediately saw that their steps and chimney had been washed away. But as they climbed back into the home, it dawned on them slowly that nothing had been disturbed. A vase of sea oats was still sitting untouched on the corner table.

A friend’s house sat eighteen feet away, and Thelma Allen recalled, “They never found enough of it to put into a bushel basket.”

The friend knew about the Gray Man. The friend had never seen the Gray Man. Thelma Allen had. He walked to her home and made no footprints on the sand when he left. Above her the sky had turned a pale shade of blue. The sands were as white as the whitecaps on the waves. Even the Atlantic had become a ragged and ruffled concoction of indigo and green. A slender ray of sun topped the beach, and the golden tops of sea oats struggled to rise again from the dunes.

Thelma Allen looked for the gray. She saw none. The lone sentry of the Carolina coast had faded back into the mist, and the mist was lost at sea. She knew he would come again. He always did. She thought about all of those around her who had suffered greatly and wondered why the Gray Man had stood in her doorway and no other. And would he remember her when the deadly storms rose again? Or would he leave her at the mercy of the winds.

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