The call came into the Coryell County sheriff’s department on the afternoon of June 4. A young man had been seen walking aimlessly up and down a stretch of U.S. 84, a couple miles east of the central Texas town of Gatesville. He had been there for at least two days, the caller said. He looked to be on the verge of collapse.

A deputy named Billy Holder headed that way. He soon spotted the young man, who was standing so close to the road that a tractor-trailer had to abruptly change lanes to avoid swiping him. Holder flipped on his squad car’s emergency lights and parked in the middle of the highway to stop traffic. The young man waved at him. He was about five-foot-seven and painfully thin, maybe 120 pounds. His sweat-stained, blue-striped polo shirt was tucked into his faded blue jeans. He wore a gimme baseball cap and weathered tennis shoes. In one hand he held a flashlight; in the other, an envelope. When Holder approached, the young man gently patted the officer’s shoulder and smiled. “Are you my buddy?” he asked in a gentle, sing-song voice.

The 37-year-old Holder, who has worked for the sheriff’s department for nearly a decade, could tell the young man was disoriented. He had no identification. He said his first name was Chris, but he couldn’t remember his last name. When Holder asked why he was pacing the highway, he replied, “My daddy’s sick. My daddy can’t walk.” But no matter how many times Holder prodded, Chris couldn’t remember where his home was.

He again patted Holder on the shoulder. Holder asked about his mother, and Chris just shook his head.

Holder helped Chris into the squad car, gave him a bottle of water, and drove him to the sheriff’s department. Chris sat in a chair in the lobby, murmuring to himself. At times, he put his head in his hands and rocked back and forth.

A dispatcher at the department gave Holder the name of a woman who worked as a special-needs aide at Gatesville High School. “We’ve picked up someone who says his name is Chris,” Holder explained to the aide. “He’s African American, with short dark hair. Looks like he’s in his mid to late twenties. I think he’s autistic. Do you have any idea who he is?”

The aide agreed to come to the department. “That’s Chris Barrington,” she said when she arrived. “He went to school here about a decade ago. No one has seen him in a long time.”

The aide called a special needs teacher at the high school, who in turn called Michell Girard, Chris’s middle school teacher. At 59, Girard was retired and lived alone in a small house on 28th Street. A bad hip made it difficult to walk or climb stairs, but when she got the call about Chris, she rose from her easy chair, reached for her crutches, and told her tiny dog Bella, a Yorkie terrier mix, that she’d be right back. Girard eased her way out of the house, settled into the driver’s seat of her compact Honda Fit, made her way to the sheriff’s department, and limped into the lobby.

Chris lifted his head. Nearly a decade had passed since he’d last seen his former teacher, but he recognized her immediately. “Miss Girard!” Chris exclaimed. “My daddy is sick, Miss Girard!”

U.S. 84, where Chris was found on June 4, 2019.

Photograph by Matt Rainwaters

She first met him in 1999 at a summer program for special needs kids at Gatesville’s elementary school. She was thirty-six at the time. He was seven.

By then, Girard had been teaching special needs children for six years. As a young woman, she had worked as a church secretary, in Houston, but after meeting some autistic children, “I felt called to do what I could for them.” She attended the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, in Belton, and majored in special education. She taught special needs classes in nearby Copperas Cove for two years before landing a job in Gatesville. She was known as a patient teacher, rarely raising her voice.

At the summer program, she was assigned to look after Chris, who had been diagnosed as severely autistic and developmentally delayed. Only a few weeks earlier, Chris’s mother had been killed in a car accident. He now lived alone with his father, Billy Barrington, a machinist who ran a lathe. People who knew Billy said he was a quiet man, a loner. In his spare time, he bought broken-down cars, pickup trucks, trailers, and motorcycles, fixing them up and reselling them.

Girard took to Chris right away. “He made little eye contact with others and he rarely interacted with other kids,” she told me. “What he most liked to do was bounce from one side of a room to another like an Energizer Bunny. We called him a little Sammy Davis Jr. And then sometimes he would climb up in my lap, hungry for affection, telling me, ‘Mommy in heaven.’ If you met him, you couldn’t help but love him immediately—and I mean immediately.”

During the school year, Girard taught special needs kids at Gatesville Junior High. And in the fall of 2000, eleven-year-old Chris entered her classroom. “He wanted to sit right next to me, trying to complete spelling words and simple addition and subtraction problems,” she said. “He had beautiful handwriting, and he loved to draw. For some reason, he especially loved drawing pictures of white doves. And he loved patting people on the shoulder. One day I slipped off a curb and tumbled to the ground, and he walked over and patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘Miss Girard, you fell down.’ At the time, it was the longest sentence I had ever heard him say.”

Girard paid extra attention to Chris. “I could tell his life at home was not easy,” she said. Although Chris’s father, Billy, took him to school each morning and picked him up every afternoon, he didn’t seem to show much interest in his son. He only spoke to Girard once a year when they met to discuss Chris’s progress, and he didn’t ask many questions.

One day, she asked Chris what he and his father did after school. He told her that he sat in his room while his father worked.

She asked if they celebrated Chris’s birthday. No, he said.

What about Thanksgiving or Christmas? Girard asked. Never, Chris said.

Did they ever go out to dinner at a restaurant? No, Chris said. They only ate canned food or frozen microwave dinners.

Chris spent four years with Girard at the middle school. When he was promoted to Gatesville High, in 2004, he was still unable to read or do simple math, and he rarely interacted with other kids. He had only one friend, a boy who suffered from severe muscular dystrophy. But that boy was withdrawn from school by his parents and later died from complications caused by the disease.

At Gatesville High, the special needs teachers focused on basic life skills—grocery shopping, counting money, mailing letters, or preparing simple meals like spaghetti. Chris did his best, but even so, he struggled. “He basically functioned on a six-year-old level, and in some areas he functioned as a three-year-old,” said Girard, who periodically visited Chris at the high school to check on him.

When he graduated in 2011 (in Texas, students with disabilities can stay in public school until they reach age 22), Girard and his other teachers worried that his father wouldn’t be able to properly care for Chris. Girard suspected that Billy himself had autism. “He was doing the best he could,” said Girard.

By then, Billy was in his late seventies, retired from his job as a machinist. He had sold his Gatesville home and bought a secluded piece of property outside of town at the end of a dirt road, just off U.S. 84. He filled the property with rusted-out vehicles, trailers, fishing boats, engine parts, motors, bumpers, and tires. In the middle of the property, he built a makeshift two-bedroom house, most of it constructed from plywood, sheetrock, particle board, and a metallic siding. There was no air-conditioning or central heating, just a couple of fans and space heaters. Electric wires dangled from the ceiling. The living room was crammed with broken computers, broken furniture, old tools, and stacks of paper, and the kitchen counter held cans of food, microwave dinners, and bug spray.

Chris lived in nearly complete isolation. He never saw a doctor or dentist. He was never issued a government ID. He never visited a social services agency to receive the disability assistance he was eligible for, and he never dropped by any of the Gatesville churches that hosted programs for adults with special needs.

A man who lived nearby later said that he had once seen Chris on the porch, watching his father repair motors. Not long after Chris’s high school graduation, Girard spotted him sitting inside his father’s pickup at the local Walmart parking lot. Chris rolled down his window, a big smile on his face. “Miss Girard!” he said. “I’m waiting for my daddy. He wants me to stay here while he goes inside.”

Minutes later, Billy returned and reassured Girard that he and his son were doing just fine. “Is there anything you need?” Girard asked Billy. “Anything I can do for you?”

“No ma’am,” said Billy. He got behind the wheel and drove away. It was the last time she’d see Chris for eight years.

Girard continued teaching, but gradually her hip problem became debilitating. She also suffered a minor stroke. And so, in 2016, after more than two decades at the school district, she decided to retire.

To supplement her meager pension, she occasionally worked as a substitute teacher. To stem her loneliness, she sat a couple of times a week with an elderly woman who could no longer care for herself.

When she was younger, Girard had been engaged twice to be married, but the relationships hadn’t worked out. She rarely saw her brother and sister, both of whom lived in other states. She had a handful of good friends, but she had made peace with the notion that, for the most part, she would spend the rest of her days alone.

Chris’s old home with his father, Billy.

Photograph by Matt Rainwaters

At the sheriff’s office that day in June, Holder examined his flashlight (the batteries were dead) and the envelope he’d been holding, an advertising mailer marked “To Occupant.” Holder and another deputy drove to the address printed on the envelope. Turning off U.S. 84 onto a dirt road, they pulled onto what they discovered was Billy Barrington’s property. Holder glanced around at the piles of scrap, then stepped onto the porch and knocked on the front door. When no one answered, he walked inside, dodging several holes in the floor. He made his way past a disconnected toilet in the hallway. Inside one bedroom was a twin bed without sheets—just a thin blanket atop it—and a rickety dresser. Taped to the walls were illustrations of skyscrapers and birds that seemed to have been drawn by a child.

When Holder entered the second bedroom, he found Billy curled in bed in the fetal position. Billy’s breath came in spurts and he was barely able to move. Holder called for an ambulance, and Billy was taken to a hospital, where doctors diagnosed him with late-stage leukemia. There was no telling how long he had been this sick, doctors said. Maybe weeks.

Holder returned to the sheriff’s department and told Girard about Billy’s condition. When she asked what they planned to do with Chris, a sheriff’s official said he most likely would be admitted to a state-run institution for adults with disabilities.

Girard turned to Chris. “Do you want to come home with me?”

“Yes, Miss Girard,” Chris told her.

On the way to her house on 28th Street, she stopped at Walmart and, for the first time, Chris got to go inside. He stared in wonder, awed at the size of the store. She helped him pick out clothes, pajamas, and toiletries. They then drove to a Chinese restaurant, where Chris went through the buffet line—twice. When they made it home, Girard guided Chris to the guest bedroom, which had clean sheets on the bed. It was late, so Chris pulled on his new pajamas and curled up in bed, but he couldn’t sleep. He wandered into Girard’s room, pulled a chair next to her bed and said, “It’s dark outside, Miss Girard.”

Chris began talking about his life with his father, explaining how he spent a lot of time in his room, drawing pictures and watching Disney movies on a portable DVD player (his favorite was Brother Bear). He suddenly switched subjects. “Do you have a Christmas tree?” he asked.

Girard was surprised. ­It was June, after all. “I have one in the closet,” she replied.

“Will you put it up?” asked Chris.

“Yes,” she said.

“Will you have presents?”

“Absolutely.”

Then Chris repeated what he had told her several years back, in junior high—that they had never celebrated Christmas at his home.

Billy was transferred to a nursing home, and when Chris and Girard would visit, Chris dutifully sat by the bed and held his father’s hand. Chris would ask Girard if his father was going to heaven to be with his Mommy. “I think he’ll be there very soon,” Girard said.

Chris also asked Girard if he could continue living with her. “I hope you will,” she said.

Chris last saw his father on July 31, nearly two months after Chris was picked up on U.S. 84. Billy was unconscious by then. Chris patted his shoulder and comforted him, as he often did. He walked out into the hallway, where Girard was sitting. He climbed into her lap and sobbed.

Billy died the following day. As word spread around Gatesville that Girard had taken in Chris, her friends worried that caring for him would overwhelm her. Chris was always going to be a challenge, they said. He would constantly need her, day and night. With her bad hip, how would she keep up? And on her limited income, how could she afford it? She’d gone through most of her savings a few years back on home repairs after her roof had caught fire. And instead of paying for Chris’s food and clothes and visits to the doctor, shouldn’t she be saving her money for sorely needed hip replacement surgery?

“I understood what they were saying,” Girard told me. “But I didn’t want someday for God to say to me, ‘I was thirsty, I was hungry, I was homeless, and you turned your back on me.’ And, you know, I had always prayed for a child. I had always prayed for a family of my own. I realized this was God’s way of answering my prayers.”

Chris cuts paper to wrap his Christmas gifts with.

Chris cuts paper to wrap Christmas gifts.

Photograph by Matt Rainwaters

Because Chris had lived such an isolated life, Girard was determined to make 2019 memorable for him—a year of firsts, she called it. For his thirtieth birthday, on August 9, she baked a cake and arranged a boat ride around Lake Waco. Chris, who had told Girard that he had never been on a boat, was euphoric, squealing as the boat glided across the water.

For Halloween, she bought him a top hat and a T-shirt decorated with pumpkins. They went trick-or-treating all across the neighborhood, and he walked slowly from door to door so that she could keep pace with him.

Each Sunday, Girard took him to Coryell Community Church, where he enthusiastically clapped along with the praise music. She entered him into the local Special Olympics program, and she escorted him to a dance in Waco sponsored by a special needs organization. At home, she taught Chris how to make a peanut butter sandwich, to scramble eggs, to put his dishes in the dishwasher, to do his own laundry, to sweep floors, and to make his bed—tasks he had struggled to pick up before. She bought him an inexpensive laptop and showed him YouTube and Google Maps. “You can do it, Chris,” she said over and over whenever she taught him a new skill. “You can do it.”

And then the day after Thanksgiving, which they celebrated at the home of one of Girard’s friends, Girard pulled her Christmas tree from the closet. She assembled it in the living room and asked Chris to hang the ornaments. Thrilled, he spent several hours decorating the tree, making sure each ornament was perfectly placed on its branches. “He even set up the Nativity scene,” she beamed when I visited the week before Christmas. “Somehow, he knew exactly where to put Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. He must have seen a Nativity scene when he was a little boy and never forgot it.”

Miss Girard's Christmas tree, which Chris helped decorate this year.

Miss Girard’s Christmas tree, which Chris helped decorate this year.

Photograph by Matt Rainwaters

Chris, who was listening intently to our conversation, strolled over, patted me on the shoulder, and said, “I like Christmas. Do you like Christmas?”

Girard admitted that she had gone “a little over budget” buying Christmas presents for Chris. He had become fascinated by the New York City skyline, often exploring Manhattan using Google Maps, so she’d bought a six-foot-tall cardboard cutout of the Statue of Liberty. She had also wrapped boxes of Paw Patrol characters, a basketball, Matchbox cars, a couple sweaters, a sterling silver necklace, and drawing paper. (Chris spends hours each day drawing pictures, everything from the Manhattan skyline to white doves.)

“Oh, well,” she said. “Think of what he’s been through all these years. He deserves something good.”

Girard is hoping to gain legal guardianship of Chris, which thus far has cost her close to $4,000 in attorney’s fees—disposable income she doesn’t have. She’s also planning for Chris’s future in case something happens to her. A couple of her friends have said they’d consider taking him in. If they don’t, Chris will most likely end up in a group home.

Despite the improvement he’s shown since moving in with Girard, he’ll never be able to live on his own. “Hopefully, I’ve got twenty years left in me,” she said. “And I plan to enjoy every one of those days with Chris.”

Chris, who was pacing across the room, stopped again to pat my shoulder. “I love Miss Girard,” he said, “and she loves me.”

He continued like that for a few more seconds, patting my arm, comforting me.

This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Michell Girard’s first name.