The fog wasn’t unusual for the time of year. A damp but clear Friday night was perfect for a foggy Saturday. Letting Diva out for a piddle, I could see the neighbouring houses behind a frosted drapery of mist; doll houses under lace. I brought my coffee to the living room and shifted the blinds to barely see further than the driveway. If I had a car, I’d imagine I would only be able to make out the steering wheel in the driver’s seat. Drinking my already cooling cup, I reminded myself to close the backdoor, when I heard Diva call me.
Like a beaten down husband, I shuffled off to find Diva in the kitchen, a stern look of impatience on her as though expecting an explanation as to why her bowl had yet to be replenished. I was struck with realisation; I was meant to buy dog food yesterday. Though Diva would have been happy with the chicken in the fridge, she was ageing, despite her spry personality, and I wanted to make sure she was getting the right nutrients. I resigned myself to get fully dressed and brave the mist to get a sack of nuggets. I at least allowed myself the luxury of enjoying my coffee, to Diva’s impatience.
Getting to the shop wasn’t a problem, not until I would get to the traffic lights, where I’d have to be extra careful; I don’t doubt some eejits would be trying to find their way in this fog. As I made my way from the house, taking the path between patches of grass, approaching the “granny flats”, the fog became thicker, transitioning from a wispy sea of vapour to a swallowing grey void so dense I had to wipe the droplets from my face to convince myself I wasn’t drowning. I carefully planted myself with each step, a rigid half stumble, afraid to bump in a wall or lamp post, with my searching hands outstretched in front of me.
Continuing, my squinting eyes soon became strained, to the point where I depended heavily on my neglected hearing. Aside from the scraping of rubber soles against the coarse pavement and my anxious breath, I couldn’t hear anything. The usual, distant tinnitus of cars skirting down the motorway a few miles to what I guessed was my left, and the atonal caw of birds waiting to descend upon abandoned scraps in back gardens were suspiciously absent.
Even my own footsteps were deaf to me, though I could make out dampen squelches of wet grass on waterlogged soil. I must have been at the patch of grass after the granny flats and before the road, I thought incorrectly. There was no way to tell at the time. I couldn’t see beneath my chest. My arms, still held out, might as well be submerged in the murky depths of a bog; they were just as wet and cold as that would have been.
I continued on, stumbling on uneven divots every couple of minutes. That was the strange part. Well, stranger. I should have met the road I needed to cross within seconds of crossing the patch, or at least the hedges that frame the narrow opening leading to it. But minutes, not seconds, had passed. I didn’t want to stop, reasoning I’d find something I recognised to get my bearings. Eventually, I did. The trees. The paddock. Those damn trees!
I stood there, open mouthed, looking up at them, frozen in place by the immeasurable surreality of it all. It hadn’t dawned on me at the time, but the fog had cleared enough to see the trees and the wall, yet was as dense as ever anywhere else around me, like a dark room penetrated by a shaft of light from a beckoning doorway. I wasn’t really shocked, nor terror-struck, but rather caught, like I had stumbled upon something I wasn’t meant to see. Not only was the park in the complete opposite direction as the road and the shop, there were at least four or five estates I would have had to pass to get here; I should have come across a house or a ditch somewhere, even if I had lost my sense of direction.
Unnerved, I turned around and began to walk away, aiming for the path to make my way out of the park. But I never found the path. The wet squelches beneath me never left, like I was being tracked by a squirming tangle of slapping tentacles. At one point, to my right, I could hear the surging shush of a car, turning in time to just make out the cone of lighter shades of misty grey, its stretching reach fading into the innards of the fog. I started to make my way towards it, believing I would eventually find a road to follow. I could see, in between the shooting glances I directed to my feetless legs every time I nearly lost my balances, something forming ahead of me, first as a welcoming strip on the horizon, maybe the wise of a housing estate I thought, then as a horrific, sinking revelation I childishly wished I could deny, to preserve what little faith I had in a rational world. I had returned to the trees.
I searched around me, forgetting for a second about the obscuring fog, thinking, wishing I might find someone laughing, so I may be relieved to find this had all been an amazingly pulled joke at my expense. I would have happily allowed myself to be paraded as a fool, a simpering masochist, if it meant I wasn’t losing my mind. My desperate glances were cut short as I was thrown to the ground, pressed into the mud by a weight I kicked off me in fright, shooting up from my muddy impression I left, finding I was now standing over a man.
He wasn’t much younger than me, though clearly not in his thirties yet. The thick mist parted enough for us to see each other, though it was still like we were divided by a curtain of sheer silk. He was tall, slim, with a tuft on his crown with the sides shaven; not bad looking. The shock on his long face told me long before his rambling outburst that he, too, was lost.
It must have been comical to see someone my height trying to calm down someone so tall as he got to his feet and began speaking without pause or inhalation. Once I succeeded, he managed to make way more sense. He said he was just walking to his mother’s, who was a few doors down on his street, when he lost his way in the fog, coming to the trees. He’s been trying to make his way home for the last two hours. He tried phoning for help, but had no signal nor connection. It only dawned on me there I hadn’t even thought of doing that. Every time he tried leaving, he kept coming back to the trees.
He was reluctant when I suggested we try leaving together, almost fearful of me, as though I had something to do with all of this. When I told him, in agitation, I was leaving with or without him, he finally came around. From how he told it, I must have been the first person he’s seen in two hours. From how he clung to my arm as we started walking, he was determined not to go another two hours without a reassuring stranger.
We went right, following the wall, walking parallel to it. The fog was thinnest here, so at least we could see a few feet around us. We should have reached the end of the pitched, meeting a fence encircling the dog park, within five minutes. We should have, but never did. The wall just continued to stretch, racing ahead of us into the void. The trees just watched, ghostly black alien figures made of starved, twisting fingers, contrasting against the distorted, desaturated fog.
Had more than the fog closed around us? Did the world morph around us to bend straight stretches into tormenting loops; a new circle of Hell just for us? We walked onwards. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Half an hour. An hour. I stubbornly hoped I could find something before my estranged friend’s weeping sobs and whimpering calls for his mother got to me more than they already had. It didn’t help that, no matter for far we went, no matter how much it felt like we were walking around in circles, neither the wall nor the trees appeared to be repeating themselves. Every couple of hundred steps there would be some unique feature that caught my eye, something ensuring us we were threading a new patch of the path.
A white teddy bear ensnared between branches. The springing, beckoning finger of a tree dangling a necklace, threatening to drop it. The fractal patterns in the wall gave way to feelings of pareidolia, as cracks, dents, and shadows contorted into faces of helpless anguish. I tried ignoring the sickening lurch in my stomach, willing me to glance again to confirm I did indeed recognise the faces. Even the grass took unfamiliar shapes, inclining and declining, bulging in swelling bumps and dipping into ruptured abscesses, growing shaggy like matted fur, and then becoming patchy and shorn. No features repeated. No face was the same. No trinket alike. The thought occurred to me that an easy escape was to just hop over the wall.
At last, a sign of progress, though strange it was, took shape ahead of us. A person, a stocky woman, was trudging ahead of us, making her way through the thick fog. I called out to her, but it was no use; she simply marched on. From the plume, more figures emerged, also heading in the same direction as us. They were to our right, our left, and even some further ahead of the stocky woman. My attempts to get anyone’s attention were stifled when, from my peripheral, another person, an elderly man, came into view, dragging his legs unnaturally fast, passing us from behind. I looked back, awe struck to find more people, birthed from the mist in our wake. I only then became aware of the surrounding storm of footsteps, panting, and low moans that travelled with us. My right hand suddenly felt light and exposed. The man I had been guiding had let go of my hand, running off ahead, his face alight with renewed zest, like he was on the cusp of an oasis. And though I was uncomfortable, I couldn’t stop myself, willed by shameful curiosity and overwhelming anxiety that if I stop I may be lost again in the fog. I wish I had stopped.
We came to him, arriving in the middle of another rambling sermon. Many had already arrived before us. He stood on the edge of the dipping ditch, his back facing the trees, his arms held up, cupping the air overhead with his fingers spread wide. One by one, they all fell to their knees, looking up to him, longingly, maddeningly, for his guidance, his protection. And like before, Shepard talked incoherently.
Kneel and be raised! Come and be never left! This is the omnipotence! Great horrors come for greater works, so we may learn mercy we assume! It is said “bruised hands raise men from children”! Fear not, for we are to learn! We shall grow, from the dirt to the sky! Watch now, as the trees end our lesson, reward our endurance, and ask for nothing we cannot give! Watch now, as those struck down are those who stand!
Shepard was looking directly at me when he said that final sentence. The air drowned in silence. It took me a minute to notice that I was the only one standing. I spun on the spot, surveying the bowed heads; a veritable forest of devotees. I glossed over the man I was guiding, now with his back to me, as I returned to Shepard, who bore his piercing eyes into my corneas, carving his stern visage into my skull.
Watch our lesson end. Watch the standing fall.
The words left his mouth and struck me with enough force to startle me into a manic sprint in the opposite direction. I didn’t care where I was going. I didn’t care I was still lost. I didn’t care if I was never found. If anything, being lost was enticing. I just wanted out. I wanted all this to stop. I wanted to not be surrounded by the most terrifying creatures on this planet; followers. I wanted to never hear the most agonisingly unnerving words that could be uttered; belief. I wanted to run as far away as I could from the most soul chilling feeling one must endure; fear. I just wanted to kill myself and live the rest of my days in peace. Suicide, contrary to the gullible, is sexy.
I collided into my front door with enough force to empty my lungs, ricocheting me onto my back, curling into on myself, holding my chest, struggling to inhale enough to stop the sharp pain flowing inside my body. My surroundings cleared, despite my blurred vision. The sun, breaking through at last, seared my eyes. The world was reborn. I wasted no time to savour the surrounding beauty. I got up, search wildly for my keys, and shot inside, holding the door shut with my back. I began to shake, riding the last of the adrenaline racing through me. Diva must have been barking for some time before I finally noticed her. After all that, I hadn’t even returned with the dog food.
I cooked her the chicken.