The lights of his Civic were blinking. Steam rose from where the hood had impacted a tree. The windshield was covered in a spider web of cracks. He was in the middle of nowhere, without car, without help, and all he could think about was the book. He had never cared much for reading. It wasn’t even his book. He was returning it, actually, and it wasn’t even very good or borrowed from someone he cared about. He’d just seen it fly up, at impact, and bounce out of his vision. He had no idea where it went. He looked to his right at the window that he had opened to let some heat out — his heater was broken in the on position — and assumed the worst.
He unbuckled his seatbelt, with some difficulty as the airbag had yet to fully deflate, opened the driver’s side door with a horrible metallic groan, and scrambled for the other side of the car. He checked the ground by the window (nothing), in the passenger seat (also nothing), on the floor in the front (nothing except garbage), and in the back seat.
There it sat, pristine and unbent like it had been set there on purpose.
“Good,” he said to himself and felt worlds better as he picked it up and moved it to the front passenger seat where it would be safe.
He looked around for the first time and saw that he was in an orchard. Or at least it had been one at some point. The trees were regularly spaced and looked like they might have been taken care of at some point, but it must have been long long ago. The trees were gnarled and overgrown with branches sagging with unharvested nuts or broken and dragging on the ground. The ground was littered with the rotting husks of old nuts. The shells covered the ground in a dark uneven mass that stretched out to the edge of visibility in every direction.
Not that that was very far. The fog in which he had crashed, and in which he found himself now, only let him see a few dozen feet in any direction. And in all of those directions were more trees. He looked at his car and the direction from which he had come. A wide car-sized path between trees stretched from where he had come and ended in another field which was identical except that the trees in that field ran perpendicular to those in the other.
“I don’t remember driving this far before stopping,” he said to his car, which continued to blink its lights.
He reached for his phone, which he kept in the rear right pocket of his skinny jeans. It wasn’t there. He checked the car and, after several minutes of frantic searching, discovered it crushed under his seat. He clenched his jaw.
“Of course,” he said and sighed, running his hands through his hair as he stood. “I guess I’ll go find some help.”
He walked in the direction from which he had come, because where there’s a road there’s people. The fog became increasingly thick as he walked. The trees on either side of him continued to look gnarled and sinister. The only sound he could hear was the crunch of unharvested walnut shells under his loafers.
He walked for what could have been minutes or hours. It was impossible to tell. The light never changed. The trees never varied. And the sea of rotting walnut shells extended endlessly in every direction under the dark, overgrown canopy of trees. He whistled an unpopular song to himself and walked until his legs grew tired. At which point he stopped and looked around.
There was no way I could have gone that far through this, he thought to himself. Especially without stopping or hitting anything. But, he reasoned, swerving to miss a girl in the middle of the road could have shaken me up more than I thought.
“Though,” he said aloud to himself and the trees, “I don’t remember going very far at all before stopping.” Several of the trees creaked in the distance, though he could feel no wind. He shivered and looked down the uniform rows of trees stretching endlessly into the fog. The cold had begun to settle through his thin designer sweatshirt now that he had stopped walking. And for a second, he imagined cold spectral fingers reaching through his sweatshirt and sucking the heat from his body.
He shuddered and walked through a row of trees while looking behind him, where he imagined these fingers to be growing from. However, he failed to notice the large cobweb which was strung between two knotted, ugly trunks. As the filaments stretched over his face and got caught in his beard, he flailed about, screaming in the same way that his young cousins did when he jumped out from behind a corner at them during the holidays. He spun around several times and whipped his arms around, certain that a gigantic spider was lurking somewhere in his hair.
After several minutes of cursing and waving and screaming, he settled down and tried to calm his breathing. He looked around and realized that he had no idea which direction he had been heading. The ocean of rotting shells barely showed signs of his frantic struggle, let alone his long walk through the orchard.
“Fuck!” he screamed. How’d I let myself get lost? he berated himself. He kicked the trunk of a tree in frustration. A few branches swayed, more from an unseen wind than his foot, and a single stubborn, blackened walnut fell from a high branch and struck him on the head.
He blinked several times and gritted his teeth as he took a steadying breath.
“I guess one direction is as good as any,” he sighed, defeated. “I’m bound to run into something.”
He picked a diagonal out of spite and walked.
The sky grew dark and cold. But a full moon shone brightly through the branches of the tree, offering enough light to see by. It got colder and the fog got thicker. His teeth started to chatter with chill and wished that he had brought a warmer jacket. Perhaps the pea coat would have been a better choice for this time of year. But he knew that he had never intended to be out at this hour. He had never thought he would have run off the side of the road. He never though that he would have had to avoid hitting a girl standing in the middle of a foggy road.
“Stupid bitch,” he said to himself, loud enough for trees even several rows over to hear. “What was she even doing in the road anyway?”
He had just looked at his phone for a second. When he looked back, she had been standing in the middle of the road, just staring off to her left. He swerved, slammed on the breaks, and drove off the road.
She hadn’t even flinched.
But he remembered, as he walked through the endless abandoned orchard, hat she had looked at him. Her eyes were dark, almost black. Her fine white-blonde hair was tied back flat against her head. She looked at him with interest, not alarm. Like he was some stray cat which had inexplicably come up and rub against her leg. And there was another emotion there, which he had not yet recognized.
With the sun fully set and walking only by the light of the full moon, he grew colder. Even walking couldn’t fight away the chill. And after another interminable time of walking diagonally through the rows of trees, he arrived in a clearing. Four wide dirt paths met in an area completely devoid of fog. The air inside was startling in its clarity after so many hours lost in the mist. The path dipped almost imperceptibly toward the middle, and he followed the grade until he stood in the center, surrounded on all sides by a wall of fog.
And as he watched, it thickened into a solid mass and he lost sight of the orchard completely. He heard what could have been a gust of wind, and the wall of fog began to roil and undulate. He stood dumbly and stared at the motions, hypnotized. It coalesced and dispersed in ways that almost nauseated him. He saw images made of shadow and mist. Images of figures that blew apart and came together in forms of animals and monsters that brought to his mind nightmares of his childhood.
As he watched, he sank to his knees in the gray dirt. He could barely bring himself to blink as the images in the fog stirred into a torment of gruesome shapes that devoured each other one after the other in an endless cycle of violent consumption. He began to notice grunts and moans of pain on the edge of his hearing. And as he listened to them, they grew louder while the shadowy curtain of fog formed a maw of darkness.
And from that darkness stepped the girl. Her skin was congealed mist and her frost hair billowed around her. Her eyes were the black of frozen asphalt. She slid closer to him and pulled back her lips in a hungry grin, revealing icicle teeth as white and cold as moonlight. He could feel the air grow chill around her; his warmth being drained away. She slid close to him and breathed frostbitten words into his ear which left him motionless and without understanding. He watched the mist crash in toward them and screamed into the moonlit darkness, though only the trees could hear it.