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There is nothing to fear, but the mist in the night.

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.

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.

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He left his briefcase in the cab

The man slammed the door of the yellow cab, wincing slightly at the accidental force of it. He walked quickly to the front window and handed the driver a crisp $100 bill from his new leather wallet. The cabby smiled and revealed his slightly yellowed teeth.

“Let me get you your change,” he said in lilting accent.

“Oh, uh,” the main looked around nervously, “just keep it, okay?”

“Very good, sir,” the cabby replied. “Have a good day, sir”

The cabby rolled up his window and pulled into the hectic late afternoon traffic. The man stood on the empty sidewalk in the middle of the business park. He loosened his shiny silk tie and pulled at his collar. He checked his watch and knelt to pick up his briefcase.

But there was nothing there.

“Oh, shit,” the man said aloud. He must have left in the cab. He was sure that he’d grabbed it. He’d opened the door, pulled on the collar of his shirt because it itched and grabbed it. Right?

But the briefcase refused to appear.

The cabby didn’t even know that he had it and was long gone, anyway. It had fallen to the floor and, because this was the suburbs and most everyone had their own car, the cabby looked forward to a long, quiet ride back to the garage.

But the man in the new and uncomfortable suit was panicking. Everything was in that briefcase. His cell phone, his documents, his presentation and worst of all—-

The man rushed into the office building he had stopped in front of. Its exterior gleamed with white and brushed steel in a design that exuded downplayed but undeniable wealth. The man pulled open the glass door by the handle and rushed to the receptionist’s desk. But the desk immediately in front of the door was empty. The man turned wildly and saw another, identical desk, staffed by a woman.

The receptionist’s hair was impossibly shiny and her makeup was applied in a way that made her seem airbrushed. She typed on an ergonomic keyboard which was invisibly hooked up to a very expensive monitor. The desk was immaculately clean and devoid of anything resembling a personal touch. The receptionist addressed the man without taking her eyes from the screen.

“Welcome to Scalable Solutions LLC. How may I help you?” Her voice was pleasant and bland like distilled water.

“I need to use your phone,” the man responded, pulling at his collar in agitation.

The cab driver navigated the streets in silence as he made his way back to the garage. He didn’t like listening to the radio, preferring instead to focus his whole attention on the road and its may dangers. He had seen too may other cab drivers cutting people off and swerving like maniacs. He preferred to play it safe. The street hummed under his tires and cars passed going both directions. He listened to his squeaky breaks and the white noise of the road. And because of this, he completely failed to notice the low humming sound coming from his back seat.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the receptionist responded, “but we don’t have a phone for public use.”

“This is an emergency,” the man pressed. “I’m supposed to have a big meeting with Mr. B—– in twenty minutes and I left my briefcase in the cab.”

The receptionist typed rapidly at her keyboard.

“Are you the representative from Paralogis Industries for the three o’ clock appointment?”

“Yes,” the  man sighed in relief.

“Have a seat, sir,” she gestured to a metal bench that managed to look both very expensive and wholly uncomfortable. “Mr. B—– will be with you shortly.”

“No!” the man burst out, his voice echoing through the cavernously modern reception area. “I can’t see him without my briefcase. Could you please let me use your phone or something so I can track down the cab I left it in?”

The receptionist stared at him blankly for several seconds, almost as though she were listening to orders only she could hear. She then reached under the desk and pulled out a sleek phone that was obviously designed to be looked at more than used.

“Here you are, sir.”

The cab driver had veered off course. He wasn’t entirely sure why he had done so. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew he should be going to the garage before heading home to his wife and little girl. But somehow, this didn’t matter to him just then. He felt it was more important to keep driving. He drove onto the freeway and out of town. His dispatch radio blared annoyingly so he turned it off. He was enjoying the sound of the world around him and he rapped his fingers on the steering wheel in time to some unheard tune.

The cab driver listened to the sound of other cars fading into the distance as he drove down a little-used interstate that passed through an empty expanse of land. His world was filled with the sound of his engine, his wheels on the road, the wind whipping past his cracked-open window, and the increasingly loud hum that emanated from the briefcase in the back seat.

The man in the uncomfortable suit had called eleven different cab companies and none of them had been the one he had used. They just lined up at the airport, he had thought to himself, how hard could it be?

The simple answer was very.

On the twelfth call, however, the man found the correct company.

“Yes, one of our cars went to that address earlier,” the man on the phone said. “He was supposed to come back here, but he has taken off.”

“What do you mean?” the man in the uncomfortable suit rasped desperately.

“He’s driven out…” the man on the phone paused as if reading something, “onto Highway 257?”

“Good! You know where he is?”

“Yes, yes, we have GPS on all of our cars.”

“Can you send another cab here to take me to him?”

“Of course, sir,” the man on the phone said, “it will be there in 15 to 20 minutes.”

The man in the uncomfortable suit hung up the phone and pulled his tie loose before sitting on the very fashionable metal bench.

Exactly 24 minutes later, a cab pulled to a halt in front of the building. The man leapt up from the exceedingly uncomfortable metal bench and ran do it, climbing inside without hesitation. The cab driver adjusted his mirror to better view his passenger.

“You the man looking for Amir?” he said in heavily accented English.

“Yes, and it’s an emergency, could you please hurry?”

“Yes, boss,” the man responded and pulled away at a brisk pace.

Amir, the cab driver, was pulled over to the side of the road. He had stopped several miles outside of town, he removed the briefcase from the back seat — even as he was surprised to find it there — and began walking. He crawled through a barbed wire fence and walked several dozen yards into a cow field. He had always found cows to be beautiful in their way. He smiled and waved absently to a small group of them as he walked past. The hum of the briefcase was loud in his ears. The cows sauntered lazily away.

Amir stopped, still in sight of his cab. He dropped to his knees and placed the briefcase on the ground. He was unsurprised to find a pair of complicated locks holding it closed. But, with a surety he did not fully understand, he input the right code and the locks clicked open.

The humming stopped.

A gust of wind brought the smell of cow dung and freshly cut grass to Amir’s nose as his ears rang. He took a deep breath and calmly, even reverently, opened the briefcase.

The man in the uncomfortable suit was swearing under his breath. He had missed his meeting, lost the briefcase, and he would probably lose his job. And that, he knew, was just the beginning. The cab pulled up behind Amir’s taxi. The man exited before the cab had fully stopped and ran to the other taxi, hoping to see Amir, or his briefcase, inside. But it was empty.

“Shit!” he shouted as he banged his fists painfully on the roof of the car. He turned and ran his fingers through his hair. He scanned the distance for any sign of Amir and noticed a large brown spot in the middle of the field. The man pulled at his shirt collar and walked down to the fence. He climbed, clumsily, over it and jogged toward the dark spot. Several times he stumbled and stepped in cow patties. When he came to a halt he was sweating and breathing heavily.

The man stopped at the edge of a small clearing. The grass looked dried and dead. In the middle was a pile of what had once been brightly colored clothes. They were now colored gray and brown and looked a little dirty. Other than the clothes, there was nothing. The man gingerly stepped into the clearing and brushed the clothes aside with the toe of his right shoe. They moved stiffly to one side and revealed the briefcase. It was closed and latched, but unlocked. The man carefully knelt and opened the latches of his briefcase without lifting it.

It sprang open.

Inside was a cell phone, several stacks of what had been very important documents, several pens, and a stack of folders containing informational material. The case made no noise and nothing moved. The cell phone began to vibrate. The screen displayed a familiar logo and a familiar phone number. The man in the uncomfortable suit picked up the cell phone and answered.

“Hello, sir,” the main said shakily into the phone. He listened to the voice on the other end and blood began to trickle slowly out of his left nostril. “Yes, about that. There’s been a bit of a problem.”

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The day she found out was the day the first star exploded

Christine closed the apartment door behind her, dropped her keys into the nearby bowl, slipped off her shoes and  set down her purse and lunch bag. She hung her coat in the closet and breathed deeply. The silence was a blessing after the hectic commute and stressful day at the office.

She went into the kitchen to pour herself some Diet Coke over ice in a pint glass from where her sister had gone to college. It had been a gift from her mother. However, the glass was in the sink and had dried milk in the bottom. It sat atop a haphazard pile of dishes, unfinished food, and dirty cooking utensils.

Jerry hadn’t cleaned the dishes. Again.

She struggled to suppress her annoyance and began to rinse and wash the dishes which her boyfriend had left behind.

Several minutes later, while Christine was scrubbing the last of the dried oatmeal from one of the large bowls, the door opened and shut and Jerry unceremoniously dropped his things on the floor before silently walking back to the bedroom.

He hadn’t even said hello.

“Welcome home,” Christine called back to him, failing to keep the annoyance from her voice.

No response came for several seconds. She was about to call out again when she heard Jerry’s voice, muffled by the distance between the kitchen and the bedroom.

“You say something, babe?” Christine felt her jaw clench.

“I said,” she called more loudly, “welcome home.”

“Oh,” he responded. And after a moment continued, “Thanks, babe.”

“How was work?” Christine called back while continuing to scrub and rinse the dishes before carefully setting them on the drying rack.

“Uh,” Jerry said distractedly, “it was okay. We had the usual rush around 3 and the new guy messed up a ton of orders which made my life hell.”

Christine finished the dishes and began preparing some food for dinner.

“I’m sorry, hon,” she called back, though she wasn’t really.

Silence once again engulfed the small apartment as Christine cut vegetables, cubed beef, and boiled rice. It was a bit much for two people, but that just made sure there would be enough for lunch the next day. As the meat seared, Jerry, now in a faded T-shirt with the logo of a college he had attended for a year, basketball shorts even though he didn’t play, and a pair of sneakers she had bought him a few months ago just because, emerged from the bedroom and unceremoniously grabbed her butt while nuzzling her neck. His evening stubble grated against her skin.

“Mmmm…” he cooed, “What smells good?”

“Stir fry,” she responded coolly and shrugged him off so she could focus on finishing dinner. Jerry snorted quietly enough that he didn’t think she’d hear and backed off. “Are you hungry?” she continued forcing a cheer she didn’t feel into her voice.

“Nah,” he said as he pulled out his phone. “I had a big lunch with the guys out at Quarter Pounder.”

Christine sighed and set the spoon down harder than she had intended.

“What?” Jerry exclaimed defensively, looking up from checking Facebook.

“Nothing,” she sighed and turned back to her dinner preparations.

“No, tell me,” he pressed forcefully.

“You could have told me,” Christine said in irritation.

“You still would’ve had to make something.”

“Yes, but I was making this for us.”

“Oh, that reminds me,” he said offhandedly, “I have plans tonight.”

“What?”

“I told you I had plans earlier.”

“When?” She crossed her arms and turned to face him, having grown tired of that trick.

“When we were talking… this morning…” he trailed off, looking caught off guard. Christine pursed her lips. “But either way, I’m a grown man,” he recovered. “I don’t need your permission to go out.”

“Warning,” she said exaggeratedly, as though explaining something to a child. “I just need warning so I can plan things. Things like dinner.” She gestured to the half-finished dinner around her.

“Why does there always have to be a plan?” Jerry threw up his arms and stomped away. “You don’t have to plan every. Little. Thing.” His face contorted into a scowl.

“I just like to plan things, Jerry,” she spoke loudly. “I have plans. Do you have plans? Are you gonna stay at the coffee shop forever? Do you have a plan?” She paused for a moment.

Jerry opened his mouth to respond but Christine continued. “No, I didn’t think so.”

“Why do you have to make a big deal out of all this?” Jerry yelled. “I’m just between things right now.” He brooded silently for a heartbeat before adding, “You’re such a drama queen.”

“Excuse me?” Christine’s voice rose with anger.

“There, see?” Jerry turned toward her. “You just get all hysterical over the littlest shit. I’m not the one worried about missing out, am I? You’ve been at your job for, what? Three years now? And what exactly have you accomplished?”

Christine felt a tightening in her chest. Jerry pushed his advantage.

“You’ve never gotten the recognition you think you deserve. You say it’s because other people take the credit,” he stalked closer to her as she turned away from him. “You complain that people play favorites or whine that you’ve just not been recognized yet. But admit it, it’s a dead-end job that you’re shit at. Everyone knows it. Even your mom.”

Christine felt like she had been punched in the stomach. It fact, he was wrong. Christine’s mother thought the world of her, even if she didn’t show it as well as she could, but it was a fear that had always been there. A fear that had lurked in her heart since her sister was accepted to Cal and got a great job right out of undergrad where she made a ludicrous sum of money. Christine knew she was a failure, even though nobody else did. She could have done more. Should have done. But she’d drifted instead. Tried to date, with mixed success, and wound up here. With a guy who worked in a coffee shop for  living telling her that she was a failure in a dead-end job.

But instead of getting angry or indignant, Christine bought it. Because Jerry had just told her exactly what she’d told herself every night when she couldn’t sleep and the light from the clock seemed too bright and her brain just wouldn’t stop dwelling on everything she’d done wrong.

So she shut down and began to cry.

The smug smile faded from Jerry’s face, slowly, while the rice in the pot began to cook itself to the bottom. He stomped off, disgusted with Christine in a way he’d felt with other girls before.

After several minutes, Christine moved to the sliding glass door of her balcony and looked through her tears into the night. She stared out at the world outside her window and into the orange-white haze that passed for darkness in the sky. A hazy void met her gaze.  In that moment, she hated herself.

But her attention was caught by an explosion of vibrant light. She opened the door and walked entranced to the railing, never taking her eyes away from the halo of color that pierced the light-polluted darkness. Christine knew, in that very instant, exactly what the light was. She knew that somewhere out there, in the void of space, a star had just exploded and died. Its death was brilliant and almost burned away the insulating haze of city night and, for an instant, Christine knew — really knew, with more certainty than the fact that she lived and breathed — just how insignificant she was.

She was a single creature on a single planet in a cosmic void of infinite scale whose entire lifetime was not even worth calling insignificant. Her life didn’t matter. Her problems didn’t matter. Her job, her status, her useless boyfriend who she didn’t even really like that much — none of it mattered.

But instead of feeling terrified or nihilistic, Christine smiled. She felt lighter, as though she had never taken off the lead vest the dentist had put on her during her last visit and it had suddenly disappeared. She breathed deeply the autumn air, with all of its car exhaust and cigarette smoke from her neighbors across way, and planted her feet firmly as though bracing for an incoming wave.

When the door slid open behind her, Christine didn’t flinch, but neither did she turn to face it. She heard Jerry shuffle his feet to stand behind her.

“Hey, I’m sorry about what I said,” he managed with some difficulty. “Can we, maybe, forget it happened and just go back inside? I mean, it’s not the end of the universe, right?”

Christine turned to him, smiling with the streaks of foundation still on her cheeks. At the sight, Jerry looked confused but relieved. She felt sorry for him, really, and she let it show.

“You’re right,” she said finally, “it’s not.”

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