October 09, 2000 12:00 PM

Plotwise, it’s right up Stephen King’s nightmare alley: A horror writer is hit by a distracted driver as he walks along a desolate country road. The author winds up nearly crippled, the driver gets off with no jail time. Months later, the driver dies—and an autopsy finds no apparent cause of death. Guaranteed goose bumps.

Sadly, this is reality, not the twists and turns of King’s latest thriller. On Sept. 22, Bryan Smith, the man who 15 months ago plowed into King along Route 5 in North Lovell, Maine, almost killing him, was found dead in his East Fryeburg, Maine, trailer at age 43. A disabled former construction worker who suffered from arthritis and other maladies that allowed him to walk only with crutches and required him to take seven medications daily, Smith “was locked in the house with the lights off, like he had just gone to bed,” says Capt. James Miclon of the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department, who found the body after Smith’s mother, Dorothy, couldn’t reach him. An autopsy failed to reveal a cause of death, though toxicology test results won’t be known for several weeks. (Smith’s older brother Everett, a Fryeburg police officer, said Bryan’s medications had recently been changed.)

A twice-divorced father of three, Smith had his driver’s license suspended after the accident (he had five previous suspensions) and in recent months was often seen hobbling in town, arms laden with grocery bags, as he tried to hitch a ride the six miles to his home. News of his death left King, 53, “feeling badly,” says Warren Silver, the writer’s attorney. “Smith is a sad figure for him, and it was just a tragic twist of fate that brought them together.”

Though Smith lived near North Lovell, the small western Maine community where King and his wife, Tabitha, 51, spend their summers, the two had never met before June 19, 1999. That afternoon, King was out for his usual stroll when Smith climbed into his 1985 Dodge Caravan and drove to buy snacks with Bullet, one of his two dogs. When Bullet began digging in a cooler, Smith took his eyes off the road. “I was driving 40 to 45 mph, and I just went a little off the road,” he told PEOPLE last year. “I turned around, and I hit Stephen King, just bang-o!”

King was hurled 14 feet and had his right leg severely fractured, his right hip torn from its socket and his scalp gashed open. Smith pleaded guilty to a charge of driving to endanger and received a six-month suspended jail sentence, a deal King felt was too lenient. Last fall, King bought Smith’s van from him for $1,500 and in June had it crushed in a Bangor, Maine, junkyard. The author, who had no legal action pending against Smith, soon resumed writing and is distributing his latest thriller, The Plant, for $1 a chapter online.

Healthwise, King is “coming along,” says his lawyer, “but he has pain every day.” So too, perhaps, did Smith, whose last few years were marked by increasing struggle. A onetime woodworker slowed by a construction injury several years ago, Smith had been on Prozac for depression and survived on a $636 monthly disability check. “He had a rough life,” says his cousin Ernest Smith, 71. “He loved his dogs, and he was trying to get one of them to mind in the van. But because this happened to Stephen King, they made a commotion about it.”

Police found Smith’s beloved dogs, Bullet and Pistol, in the trailer guarding his body. They are now in a local shelter, while Smith’s friends and family try to make sense of the final sad chapter of his life. “It was just an accident,” Smith told PEOPLE of his chilling encounter with King along Route 5. “It wasn’t called for. It was never meant to be.”

Alex Tresniowski

Eric Francis in Bangor

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