THE FOG by Jason M. Vaughn
“I LIVE HERE,” he tells her.
She’s a dark-haired woman with fear in her eyes and fire in her cheeks, but no matter what pity he feels for her, she’s got no business in his house. “This is my place,” he says. “A man don’t just forget something like that.”
“There’s a stranger in my kitchen,” the woman pleads into a cordless. “He’s got blood all over his face, and he thinks he lives here. I’m really scared of—no, I’m not joking. This is forty-two-twenty Garrison Street. Four two two zero Garrison. Please hurry. What? I don’t know, just send someone.”
The man feels dizzy, and for a moment he leans on the back of a kitchen chair and shuts his eyes.
“No,” the woman says, “he just walked in through the front door.”
Opening his eyes again, which only makes him feel worse, the man realizes that the table is all wrong. It shouldn’t be this little round thing that belongs on a French patio somewhere. That heavy oak number Nadine inherited after her mother passed, the one she always complained about because it took up too much space; that is what’s right for this kitchen.
“I thought it was locked, but—God, does that really matter now? He’s in here!”
This ugly, fussy tablecloth doesn’t belong either, he sees, nor the lavender polka-dot curtains on the window over the sink. And there should be a cast iron skillet on the stove, and ornamental plates behind that rail above the cabinets. “This some kinda trick?”
The woman says into her phone, “He’s just staring at the floor. How about you come see for yourself!”
“You’re too young,” the man tells her. “There was a woman. A woman that...” He stares into this too-young woman’s eyes. “Did she let you in? How do you know her? Nadine,” he calls, expecting his wife to appear.
With a singing of steel, the woman draws a chef’s knife out of the holder beside the breadbox. “Yes,” she says, listening into the phone and seeming to calm a little, but gripping the knife shakily in front of her. “Okay. Okay, I’ll see.” She looks into the man’s eyes and asks him, “What’s…your…name?”
“What’s your name?” he wants to know as he feels his face and then gazes, confused, at the smear of blood on his fingertips.
“Carol,” she says, breathing slowly.
But he’s already clumping away into that bathroom just off the kitchen, where he sees in the mirror a ghastly white-haired old man in a gray T-shirt and overalls who looks back frantically at him. It’s clear that his nose is broken, by the bruising and a dark red cut high across the bridge, and his right eye, mostly swollen shut, looks much too much like a crabapple. He leans closer to the mirror, peers at that eye as best he can and actually questions for a second or two if there could be an apple shoved in there. How’d this happen to you? he wonders, pain beginning to register for him now that he sees the damage in that reflection. And since when are these walls pink as peony blossoms?
“He’s gone into the bathroom,” he hears the woman say, as if she’s talking about some raccoon or something.
The man suddenly shouts to her in a language he doesn’t understand. He listens, hoping her answer will make whatever he said make sense. But no answer comes.
The color of the walls aside, he’s also noticed that under his booted feet is a pink, oval rug with a long nap, like the hide of some creature out of a picture-book. A few feet away, its mate is lying in front of the tub. And on the vanity, directly across the sink from a neat grouping of lotion bottles with pictures of fruit on them, is a dish of what must be potpourri. He can’t get his mind around any of this, can’t even utter the word “ridiculous,” though he hears it just fine in his head. He glances up at the reflection as if hoping it might explain things. That man can’t say the word either.
The woman is gradually retreating to a different part of the house, talking low enough into the phone so that he can’t make out any of her words. Maybe she’s talking in a language that she can’t understand, he thinks. Maybe she’s waiting for his answer to make her words make sense to her.
“Fat chance,” he says, then blinks his eyes repeatedly, half-expecting to just fling all this nonsense away. He becomes aware of a dull pain in his nose again and, not looking into the mirror, reaches a shaky hand up to it. Jerking that hand away from his nose like he’s touched fire, he wonders aloud, “How’d you get broke?”
A thudding moves through his head, especially the front regions of his head, as if he’s being struck over and over by a dense wall of air. He questions if this is a kind of aftershock from whatever’s hurt him, then pulls his head away from the steering wheel of his pickup truck, or at least sees what it would look like (what it did look like) to pull away from that steering wheel, and feels—through the weight in his head and the tug of what must’ve been the seat belt—that he is (he was) upside down. Now he’s back in this odd bathroom, the whole world spinning. His truck... Didn’t his wife, after too much rum with their friends one Christmas Eve, propose that he was his truck? That there was literally no difference between him and that rusty blue pickup? Yes. Yes, she did. But where was his truck now?
He leans on the vanity and shuts his eyes to better think back, and finally recalls driving through thick fog and seeing a lean, mangy coyote—a sudden flash that, in this instant, seems too detailed to be true. The animal had loped without warning into his path and then stopped still, looking right at him with its golden eyes just before a rolling, crashing blur spun the man into nowhere.
This disjointed memory, even if he thinks it must be true, feels like a scene replayed from some movie or TV show, or maybe a moment of shame from somebody else’s life that had been told to him in confidence. And it doesn’t explain the woman who just has to be—but may not be—mistaken.
He hears a sound like a siren approaching, and his legs guide him away before he fully understands, down the hall and through the mudroom he remembers (but not like this), then out the back door into a neatly-trimmed lawn that isn’t right at all and should lead him toward a chicken house and a faded barn but only spills him headlong over a chain-link fence onto the lush side lawn of the next house, its grass cool and abrasive against his cheek.
Soon he finds himself limping like an outcast animal through some district of sameness made up of pale, plain houses, perfect sidewalks and a stern maze of streets.
At one point he sees, through a far-off window, the colors and movement of what he reckons to be a football game on someone’s enormous television. Then a dog barks viciously from a different house, close-by, but maybe not at him. Maybe not “at” anything.
The man cries out even before he knows what he’s tumbling over, and his falling takes a long time. He hits the ground first with his left shoulder, then his hip and the flopping, jangling bones of his legs. The iron chair topples right after him, the rough edge of its back missing his face by a centimeter and cutting a firm hold into the ground.
The man is on his feet quick enough to assure himself that either nothing’s broken or adrenaline’s taking care of him for the moment. One heavy, stupid-looking chair out in the middle of an otherwise empty goddamn yard.
Now a deep, fast-coming pain just under his knee alerts him to a fresh wound. And some blood, he thinks, though it’s hard to tell through the strange half-light coming off these houses. He kneels and presses his hand to the place, breathes deeply a clean smell in the air that he can’t identify and catches himself gritting his teeth. Every exhale causes the dizziness to disperse a little. Without even shutting his eyes he sees Nadine sewing a patch over the rip in his pant leg, hears her hum a made-up tune. But no...No.
He stands, and does not look around to see if anyone’s witnessed his fall. Just rights the chair so it can be like he was never here.
A few moments later, as he continues through the development, not knowing where he’s going but knowing that he’s going somewhere, and wondering if this is what it’s like to be driven by instinct, a young boy calls out “Look, Daddy!” from one of the houses’ back decks, and the man picks up his pace, feeling hunted.
After crouching near a forsythia to catch his breath, his memory working as hard for him now as his lungs and heart, one of the streets leads him up a little rise to meet Spurling Road. He follows this road for less than a hundred yards, knowing it better and better with every step, then comes upon the watery ditch and his overturned pickup truck, the fog having thinned away so abruptly that he questions whether it ever was.
The siren arrives just after him, attached to a police cruiser. And a boy he knows from way back, now almost middle-aged, steps out and says, “Is that you, Mr. Donovan? You all right?”
“Oh, sure, Billy. Billy,” the man says again, because he can. He sits on a near guardrail, indicating his pickup in the ditch. “Can’t say the same for my girl down there, though.”
The officer approaches with too much caution.
“Do I look frightening to you, Billy?”
“You really gave Carol Tramer a scare.”
“I hope to apologize to her one day,” the man says. He remembers the trim, brown, gap-toothed kid who bucked bales for him in those long-ago summers, and guesses that Billy Munny has put on at least forty pounds. “Whacked my head pretty good,” he admits. “All because of an old coyote. But everything’s come back to me now, just about. I’ll be fine once I get into my bed.” He grins, adding: “May need a ride home, however.”
More at ease as he stops to stand in front of Mr. Donovan, Billy says, “You’ve probably got a concussion.”
“Never had one of those in my life.”
“Well, an ambulance’ll be here soon. They’ll get you straightened out.”
“Tell them to head on down the road,” the man says. “I don’t want any ambulance.”
“They’ll just give you a little once-over, that’s all.”
“And the bill’s on you?”
Billy tilts his head to the side. “Can you tell me what happened tonight, Mr. Donovan?”
“Already told you it was a coyote. Or my trying to avoid the coyote, anyhow.”
Billy studies the road, peers off into the near field.
“You expect him to hang around and give a statement?”
“Just getting a lay of the land,” Billy says. “Trying to see it happen.”
“This ain’t exactly 48 Hours Mystery,” the man tells him, forcing a smile. That house was his house. That land was his land. He hadn’t been a stranger there until Nadine died and he had to abandon it all or else carry on with a ghost. And could anyone blame him? Could anyone say he’d done wrong in leaving? “How’s your momma doing?” he asks Billy now.
“She’s doing real good. Living in that Stonecrest retirement community over on Ninety-Fifth. They do just about everything for you there. But you still have your independence.” Billy looks down at Mr. Donovan’s pickup. “She seems happy. She’s not even opposed to visitors.”
“Glad to hear it,” the man says, another siren drawing near. “She was always a good old gal. Tell her I said hello.”
“Hey,” Billy thinks to ask, “you still running cattle at all?”
“Nothing more’n a handful. Twenty-some-odd acres at my new place down in Derby.”
“So what are you doing up this way, tonight?”
“I was coming back from a birthday party. Lucy, my grandchild, she turned five today.”
“She’s out in Newsom, though, right? Jeff and Celia’s girl?”
Nodding vaguely, the man says, “Yessir. She is.” He sees again the trim, gap-toothed kid who clearly adored his daughter, and who clearly wasn’t good enough for her.
“So how’d you end up here?” Billy asks. “Newsom to Derby doesn’t exactly include us.”
The man looks at him. “Have I been banned from these parts without my knowing it?”
“Not at all.”
“Am I a wanted man, Billy?”
Billy laughs, not looking away. “Call me curious.”
The man sighs and, running a hand searchingly over his hair, wonders if his hat’s down in the ditch. Or maybe, could Carol Tramer have it in her hands right this minute because he’d tried to hang it up in that house? He pictures her throwing it on the floor and stomping on it, then tossing it into the fireplace and setting it ablaze. “Sometimes,” he confesses, as if it’s at least a small offense, “I just...I like to swing by the old place. I was on my way there, of course, when this happened.”
“Seems you made it there anyway, didn’t you.”
“I suppose. Sometimes I do.”
Billy looks at Mr. Donovan with a quiet sympathy. And maybe that’s all right. Maybe that’s not the worst way to look at a man. “Well,” he says, “it’s a good thing Carol’s husband wasn’t home. He might not’ve been as hospitable.”
“Would you apologize to her for me?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
The ambulance gusts in beside them, the siren cutting off, the lights continuing to flash. The fog is nowhere to be seen, nor the coyote with the golden eyes.
“I didn’t call this ambulance,” the man says. “I’m not paying for this ambulance.”
“Just...take care of yourself, Mr. Donovan.”
“You won’t give me a ride home?”
Shaking his head, Billy backs away to his cruiser. “Let them look you over for a minute. You might be worse off than you think. And say hello to Celia for me?”
Two emergency people, a young man and woman looking like models, have come out of the ambulance and begun to check Mr. Donovan’s vitals, to ask him questions. He feels foolish and says, “I’m all right. Just whacked my head is all.”
Billy is in his car now and seems to be typing something.
On the gurney, being rolled up to the ambulance, the man almost shouts at him to stop that, but instead leans his head over and vomits a pungent spray onto the road. “Said I’m all right,” he assures the two shimmering emergency people, raking his wet mouth with the back of his hand and then spitting out some more bitterness. “Dammit, can’t you see I’m all right? And I need to locate my hat.”
“They’ll get your hat,” the young man says.
“Just lie back now, please,” the young woman tells him.
“You’re too young,” the man says.
“Compared to who?” she asks.
“Oh, I’ve been around,” she says, making a laugh burst out of him.
And just like that, he’s being lifted inside the ambulance. Weightless as a leaf in late October. “Wow,” he whispers. Then he doesn’t even have to say that he’s going to vomit again, because the young woman’s already handing over a bag that the man thinks couldn’t contain even the smallest fart. But it accommodates his throwing-up just fine, and he feels a good deal better afterward. So much better, in fact, that he thinks he’ll step right out of this ambulance and walk home.
“No, no, no,” the young woman stops him.
“I’m fine,” he tells her. “Whatever it was, I got it outta my system.”
The ambulance glides away down the road, and the young woman straps one of those clear masks over his nose and mouth.
“You’re not running the siren?” he mumbles into the mask, finally resting back because it’s easier, and because he feels that he’ll be less likely to get sick again that way. “Just whacked my head,” he tells her. “It’s not the end of the goddamn world.”
“Focus on your breathing, sir.”
“My name’s Charles, goddammit.”
“Focus on your breathing, Charles.”
A calm abruptly settles over him before he can speak again. Something to do with the hazy light inside the ambulance, maybe. Or the way the young woman’s not going to give him an inch and so why fight her.
Another thing he notices is that confidence seems to radiate off of her like the just-right warmth from a woodstove in the first cold nights of November. And he thinks he could almost drift away into a dream about far-off places, or places too close to physically go to anymore. He wonders if that makes any kind of sense.
Then the young woman rests a hand on his forearm, not saying a word, and her hand is cool but not cold.
“What’ll become of my truck?” he says.
She lifts her hand away from his arm. Or maybe he's just suddenly relaxed enough so he can't feel it. He is thinking of Nadine, his gentle Nadine, as he lets his eyes close.
JASON M. VAUGHN lives and writes in Burbank, CA. His poems and stories have been circulated by various print and online journals, including Contrary, Monkeybicycle, and The Missouri Review. His first screenplay, now titled “The Green Sea,” was a grand-prize winner in the 2012 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Competition.