Shelter From the Fog
Dedicated to Carl Evans Blalock 1935-2021
Walter Evans called out from the den, raising his voice to send it travelling down the long hallway to the bedroom. “Geraldine!” He took care not to sound frustrated. He didn’t want his wife thinking him irritable, even if he’d waited almost fifteen minutes for her.
A slight rustling in one of the rooms made him think that she’d distracted herself with some other project. He scratched his chin thoughtfully. When Walter suggested she join him for an early walk, she had been indecisive; after all, they usually went for their daily trek in the late evening, when the sun was starting to set. But Walt finished his work in the garden earlier than usual, and he felt uncharacteristically restless.
“Hey, darlin’?” he called. “I’ll just take Crockett on a quick circuit around number seven, then I’ll come back for ya.”
Hearing her name, the white Labrador on the other side of the room enthusiastically raised her head. She lay contentedly on a thick, plaid blanket Geraldine made out of Walter’s old work shirts. The makeshift bed sat between the couple’s leather armchairs near the fireplace, where a small fire crackled, the scent of the burning wood blending with the pecan and cinnamon that filled the house every fall. Instead of facing the small television in the corner, the chairs looked out the large front window. In fact, they’d oriented all the furniture and décor around the window.
Walter enjoyed little more than sitting with his wife and Crockett while they all took in the beautiful scene outside: a sprawling, picturesque view of the rolling green hills that fronted the western side of their property. He’d had a soft spot for that particular piece of land since he was a boy, when he and his brothers played rough games in the tall grass, using curved sticks as imaginary pistols and bows. When his father divided a large portion of the family property between him, Melvin, Merrill, Aubrey, Lee, and Bert, he’d been quick to pick out this particular acreage for his own homestead.
Walt’s grandfather settled the land many years ago—he was one of the founders of their small, rural town in southwestern Mississippi. John Evans started off with a small trading post, and over three generations, it expanded into a fairly successful local grocery and convenience store. But as Walt always insisted, in a small town, a grocery store wasn’t just a grocery store. Old timers gathered there in the afternoon to tell tall tales and play dominos. The women’s auxiliary organizations sold baked goods there for local causes. In many ways, the grocery store was the heart of the town. Walt’s first job as a little boy had been sweeping up the place, and by the time he retired, he was running the whole operation with his brothers’ help.
The family’s roots spread all through town, and most of his extensive relations held positions or memberships in various community and civic organizations. Walt himself sat both on the town council and the school board—but he preferred giving back in quieter, more personal ways.
He was not a sentimental man, but he would be lying if he claimed the land was just dirt. It was a part of him. When he still worked, the peaceful act of strolling and chatting with Geraldine was like a soothing soak in a warm bathtub for his brain, which often felt stretched after a day full of tending to the store and mulling over the problems of his friends and neighbors. Not that he complained—he valued hard work and felt legitimately fulfilled, taking care of the business. But work days that started before five in the morning and ran into the evening took a toll over forty years. After some close calls that frightened Geraldine, whose own health wasn’t quite what it used to be, he retired. He didn’t want to lose out on his golden years with her.
“Come on, girl,” Walt called out to Crockett, who vibrated with anticipation as she leapt to her feet. “Let’s take a quick once-around while mama gets ready.”
Crockett’s nails clicked on the lacquered brick floors as she hurried to his side. She nuzzled his leg appreciatively, her dense fur brushing against the worn denim of his jeans. He patted her on the head and scratched behind her ears, then pushed open the screen door with his free hand. The heavy oak door stayed open most of the time, the block of painted wood standing to the side more like a decoration than a thing they ever used.
Walt let Crockett lead the way, and the screen snapped shut behind him as he stepped out under the carport. The slight, pleasant chill of the air wafted against his cheeks, and he inhaled deeply, appreciating the scent of dry leaves and pecans that always seemed to permeate the property in the fall.
Crockett made her way to the back of the house but took care to not get too far ahead. She looked back at him encouragingly, and he let himself smile at her enthusiasm.
“Alright, alright. Let’s go.”
The Labrador barreled ahead through the large grass field immediately behind the house, but she took care to avoid the rows of tilled dirt that served as Walt’s rather extensive garden—the major focus of his time in post-retirement.
He still got out regularly, between community functions and volunteering with the church, but on most days he toiled away with the potatoes, corn, and anything else that grew in southwestern Mississippi soil. Geraldine thought he worked too hard, but Walt was always quick to tell her, “That’s how you know you’re still alive.”
To his dismay, his wheelbarrow and tools still sat beside the plot of worked dirt rather than inside the nearby shed where they belonged. He could have sworn he returned everything to its proper place. When he was a boy, his father taught him to avoid damaging their tools with neglect, and Walter placed a high value on taking care of things ever since.
He thought about going ahead and putting everything away, but he already told Geraldine he would be quick. Besides, Crockett stared at him impatiently, wagging her tail with that undistilled enthusiasm unique to dogs. He considered it nearly sinful, making Crockett wait when she was this excited. So, he kept his course and made his way past the garden, through the meticulously cut grass field.
Crockett kept mostly to his side but occasionally darted forward to menace a field mouse or grasshopper. Walter watched her with mild interest and tried to let his mind go blank. He focused on the gentle chill in the autumn breeze, the scent from the pecan trees throughout the property. He allowed the cares of the day to slip from his shoulders and fully enjoyed the present moment.
The pair continued until they reached the far edge of the field. The tree line was dense, but several hollowed-out sections delineated the starting points of various trails. Walt and Melvin cleared most of them when they were boys. The paths formed a complex network through the wooded acreage that separated the brothers’ homes. To date, those paths brought joy to three generations of Walt’s family, and he hoped many more would walk them in the future.
About twenty yards ahead, Crockett stopped and sniffed at something on the side of the trail. Walt peered through the woods to the right and just made out the shape of the fort he and Geraldine helped the grandkids build on their recent visit. He happily remembered the pinecone war they waged immediately following the successful construction, and their tired laughter as they all walked back to the house afterward for post-battle snacks.
Crockett’s sudden barking pulled Walt from his reminiscence. He looked over at the Labrador and saw that she, too, stared in the direction of the grandkids’ fort; however, she seemed unnerved. Her shoulders tensed and her hair stood up, like it did when she sensed anything that made her uneasy. Though he surveyed the woods for a squirrel or a rabbit, Walt saw no signs of movement.
He did notice something unusual, though.
A fog crept through the forest.
Slowly expanding, oddly dense, the curtain of mist barely reached the edge of Walter’s vision, a couple yards past the fort. It reminded Walt less of the occasional patches that appeared on Mississippi roads and more of the fogs he and Geraldine saw in England, when they visited for their fiftieth. Walt also thought it odd to see that kind of fog so early in the day. He only ever noticed mist in town in the mornings or the late evenings.
As he pondered the peculiar timing, Crockett started to edge off the trail to investigate.
Walt hurried to her side and put a hand on her shoulders. “Hey, none of that. There’s nothing there. Let’s go.” He patted her head soothingly and led her farther up the trail. On their way, he cast one last look back at the mist.
As he watched, it slowly engulfed his grandchildren’s fort.
Walt murmured thoughtfully to himself and kept walking.
He and his dog fell back into their familiar rhythm, with Walt trying to clear his mind and enjoy the soft medley of forest sounds encircling them. Gradually, they approached the end of the cleared path, arriving at the slight incline before the trail led to the overlook above Falk’s Pond. Walt and his companion leisurely ascended the small hill as the final rays of sunlight peeked out over the horizon.
As they stepped onto the overlook, Walt expected the beautiful-if-familiar sight of the pond, nestled at the bottom of a verdant field covered in tall Fescue grass. Two elm trees flanked the pond, one sporting a rope swing he helped tie up over thirty years ago. It was a favorite recreation spot not only for his children and grandchildren but for his brother’s posterity as well. Walter particularly loved the pond and its trees and its rope swing, and the sight always pleased him—but he saw none of it when he looked out.
Fog covered the pond, the trees, and the surrounding field, obscuring everything, all the familiar landmarks, as far as the eye might see.
As he stared into the center of the all-encompassing, impenetrable mist, an unsettling wave of unease passed over Walter. The fog looked like organic television static, as if reality itself were losing its signal.
It took Walt a moment to hear Crockett growling.
He’d only ever seen the dog express any true aggression once, when his young grandson Jake uncovered a copperhead in the woodpile. The normally even-tempered dog became a blur of teeth and fury, leaping to the boy’s rescue. She tore the snake to pieces, while Walt rushed Jake out of harm’s way. It was a miracle that no one, including Crockett, had been hurt.
On the overlook above Falk’s Pond, Walter saw that same dog reappear. Her hair stood on end, and her lips curled back, revealing a surprisingly imposing set of teeth bared in a threatening grimace. But Walter saw nothing around to prompt that reaction.
Crockett appeared to be staring down the fog itself.
Walt tried to peer through the dense mist, searching for a hidden predator. But seeing none, he reached for Crockett. “Easy, girl, it’s—”
Before he could reach her, Crockett bolted, hurtling down the hill in a flash.
Walt lurched forward in a vain attempt to grasp her collar, calling, “Crockett, wait!”
But she dashed headlong into the fog.
No sooner had she stepped into the mist, than she disappeared from view entirely. Walt could hear her growls and the sound of her fur rustling against the tall grass, but the fog obscured any sign of the white Labrador. Her vibrant, thick fur was completely lost in the damp void.
“Crockett, no!” Walt yelled. “Come here!”
The growls and the skittering through grass came to a sudden stop.
Before Walt could call again, a shrill yelp rang out from within the mist—and then everything went deathly silent.
He didn’t waste any more time crying out for her; he ran forward into the fog.
The visibility did not improve within. As he walked deeper, the way became even more obscured, to the point where Walt struggled to see his own feet on the ground below. Finally, he paused a few yards in and shouted, “Crockett!”
No answer came back, not even a whimper. Walt opened his mouth to call once more, but suddenly, he coughed. He cleared his throat to try again, and a sudden fit of coughing overtook him. Bending over, he took several small and even breaths, trying to orient himself. But the fog worked its way into his airways, and he gagged.
“Ugh,” he gasped, grunting as he stumbled to his knees. He forced his head up and tried desperately to peer through the vast, moist gray, searching for any sign of his companion.
When he saw nothing, he cursed himself, and on his hands and knees, he turned to crawl back in the direction of the trailhead. Feeling for an incline, he followed the hill back toward the woods, his hacking cough worsening with each additional moment in the fog.
Walt collapsed breathlessly on the path leading into the forest. His vision started to go dark. But to his surprise, after a few seconds out of the strange mist, his throat cleared, and he was able to suck in a mouthful of air. Within minutes, he was able to sit up and lean against the trunk of a nearby oak.
Once stable, he peered back in the direction of the obscured pond in confusion. He glanced up at the sky, and it, too, was hidden from view. Though Walter lived all his life in those woods, he could not imagine what might cause that kind of noxious fog to encroach on everything in its path.
Then, he remembered that on Thursdays, Jim Stewart from the county used a crop duster to spray pesticides, warding against the mosquitos and their last hurrah for the season. Maybe something went wrong with the chemicals. Though he found it peculiar that a crop duster would remain so thick once sprayed, no other conclusion halfway made sense.
Regardless, he knew he couldn’t go in after Crockett. He wouldn’t make it more than a few yards before the toxins that laced the air brought him low.
The fog spread into the field.
The hazy blanket of mist completely shielded the grass, hiding both the garden and the tool shed from view. Vaporous tendrils spread and slowly encircled the house.
A slim and winding lane led from where he stood to the carport, the only path that remained clear and untouched by the fog. It narrowed with each passing moment.
Walt didn’t hesitate. Age slowed him down in recent years, but only slightly. He was always quick and strong, and he could muster the energy for most tasks when necessary. With surprising speed, Walt bolted forward into the winding passage leading back to the house. His feet churned through the grass, and he ignored the burn in his muscles as he hurried home.
The path grew narrower as the fog continued to expand, but Walt gritted his teeth and forced his legs to run faster. He didn’t really understand what was happening. A pesticide spray gone wrong seemed increasingly unlikely. But only one thought echoed through his mind: he had to make sure Geraldine was okay. If he just knew she was alright, they could figure everything out together.
Walt rounded the corners of the house until his boots skidded across the concrete driveway. He ran forward, yanking open the screen door and letting it slam behind him as he rushed inside his home. In his peripheral vision, he saw the mist cover the entire driveway. He couldn’t even make out the shape of Bert’s home on the other side of the Western field. An endless sea of fog choked his home, where his house stood like an island in the center.
“Geraldine!” Walt called, raising his voice, trying to hide the panic building in his chest.
No one called back. Walt hurried past the kitchen and down the long hallway leading to the bedrooms. His boots echoed on the wooden floors as he charged past the empty kids’ rooms and the dining room. He slowed down as he came to the last door on the left, briefly puzzled to find it shut. They never kept their bedroom door shut when it was just them in the house.
However, as he turned the knob and stepped inside, his confusion succumbed to a fresh wave of horror.
The room was empty.
Walt turned around and ran back down the hallway, throwing open every door to every room or closet as he went, but he found no sign of his wife. With his heart pounding in his chest, he hurried back to the front door and tried to step out into the carport. To his horror, he saw the fog right at his doorstep.
But he ignored the mist and stepped outside.
“Geraldine! Can you hear me?” He called as loud as he could until he began to choke, gasping from the poisonous vapor, and it forced him to step back inside. As he cleared his throat, he shut the heavy main door behind the screen. He had to keep the mist out.
With the door shut, he slumped on the couch and held his head in his hands. Where was she? Had she tried to follow him and gotten caught in the fog? Was she out there somewhere, gasping for air?
Then, he remembered. Years ago, his older brother Melvin gave him and Geraldine several pieces of army surplus gear to use in the event of an emergency. All the Evans maintained a healthy sense of self-reliance, but Melvin took things to another level. During the Red Scare, he converted his storm cellar into a large bomb shelter and kept it stocked with canned food, medicine, and all manner of other supplies. He strongly encouraged his brothers to think along these lines as well.
Walt recalled two gas masks among the supplies Melvin gave him, which he kept stored in the gun cabinet in his room. Maybe he could use these to go out and look for Geraldine.
He leapt to his feet and hurried back to the main hallway, but he stopped abruptly when he reached the kitchen. His jaw dropped in horror.
The fog was in his house.
The grayish white mist came out of every bedroom and poured into the hallway. It covered the floor and ceiling, making the entire house appear like an abstract void. Walt closed his mouth, took a breath through his nose and turned purposefully back to the den. He grabbed one of the many throw blankets and wound it around his face protectively. With this accomplished, he returned to the kitchen, now engulfed by fog. Walt ignored it, took one last breath, then moved purposely into the hallway.
He knew his home well enough to find his way to the back bedroom without sight—or, so he thought. However, when he arrived where his room should have been and reached out to feel the doorframe, his hands extended and brushed against nothing.
He stopped and stretched his arms out to feel for the wall or part of the door, but his fingers only passed through empty air.
He took several more steps and tried again, but still felt nothing.
Walt tried moving side to side in wide steps, wider than the walls of his hallway, but ran into nothing, no familiar structures, like he was suddenly wandering in a vast empty plain.
Not knowing what else to do, Walt turned and sprinted in what he hoped was the direction of the den. He felt a flash of relief when he felt his boots click on the lacquered brick floor.
He unwrapped his face and let the blanket fall to the ground then looked back in the direction of the kitchen. Fog filled the open doorway.
Walt stumbled to the center of the room, feeling nauseous, not from the unearthly fumes that were overtaking his house but from the confusion and terror that gripped his mind like a vice. So, he sat down on the floor and tried to normalize his breathing.
Then, he noticed a strange view out the front window.
Walt rose to his feet and stared at endless, impenetrable nothingness. His land and his home were slowly swallowed up by something he could not understand. He had no idea where Geraldine and Crockett were, if they were safe. For Walt, there was only one thing to do.
He knelt down and bowed his head.
“Father in Heaven. I don’t understand what’s happening,” he said. “I don’t know what this fog is or why it’s overtaking everything. Maybe it’s going to take me next. Whatever the case, please help Geraldine. I’ve done all I can think to do, and I can’t find her. I can’t take the thought of her being hurt and alone out there. Please be with her throughout this trial, and, if this is my time, please still my soul. Help me to be sober and clearheaded, so that I can face this with dignity and with the knowledge that I’ve lived well and known love. Amen.”
When he opened his eyes, he saw that the fog had entered the den. It circled the walls around him, obscuring the framed photos of his children and grandchildren and the other tokens adorning the shelves, all celebrating the life he and Geraldine had built. He watched the mist creep across the ceiling and knew it would engulf him in mere moments.
He decided to look out the window one last time, even though he knew the view would not be the same. But the glass surface was surprisingly clear, and as he stared at the world outside, his eyes widened in confusion.
The window showed him not the familiar view of his property, nor the gray abstract world that encroached on his own. At first, he couldn’t make sense of it, the sudden feeling that he stared through the eyes of someone else.
That someone wore a gown and lay in a hospital bed. Walt couldn’t make out the person’s face, but their arms rested limply at their sides, attached to several tubes and medical machines. The surrounding room made Walt think of all the hospital rooms he visited over the years. The furniture was utilitarian, and a small, muted television played a talk show on a shelf near the ceiling.
Walt rubbed his eyes and wondered if the fog had driven him mad. As he watched the strange scene, a door in the bland medical room opened. To Walt’s further surprise, a familiar-looking man entered through it.
He greatly resembled Walt’s grandson, Jake, but older—too old. The last time he saw Jake, just a few weeks ago, the boy had been a young teenager. The man who stood before him now was fully grown, and a pretty young woman accompanied him. Walt didn’t recognize her, but she kept a comforting arm around Jake’s shoulders. Both Jake and the woman stared back at the patient. The woman spoke first.
“Is he awake?”
“I’m not sure,” Jake said solemnly. “It can be hard to tell the difference. He hasn’t really been responsive.”
“Can he hear us?” the woman asked.
“I’ve always thought so. I’m not sure if he gets everything we say, but I think it helps.” Jake’s voice cracked slightly.
“Are you alright?” the woman asked.
“Yeah. I just wish you could have met him when he was well. I wish you could have known him like I knew him.”
“What was he like?”
“He was a good, honest man. He did a lot of good for a lot of people, and he did it quietly. You would never know it, ‘cause he made people promise not to say anything, but he paid for more kids’ college tuition in this town than you could imagine. He helped people with their debts, paid funeral expenses, you name it.”
An unnerving realization began to dawn on Walt, but he just listened.
“He and his brothers were hard workers who turned a small grocery store into the heart of a struggling town. He lived so simply, but he made a fortune in his lifetime. He just spent almost all of it on other people. He never treated himself. He was happy just working at the store, or in the garden behind his house.”
When Jake mentioned the house, Walt felt something change in the den. He tore his gaze away from the window and glanced around the room. To his surprise, the fog in the room disappeared. The wood in the fireplace crackled again, and the familiar family photos, books, and eclectic knick-knacks all adorned the walls. The fog even cleared in the kitchen and the hallway.
Walt rubbed his brow and looked back out the window. He could still see the strange hospital room. The older version of Jake still spoke. Walt stepped closer and placed a hand on the glass as he listened.
“He and his brothers all lived next to each other on some serious acreage. He took great care of the land and kept up this network of trails and paths through the woods. I spent most of my summers as a kid playing there with all my cousins, and a lot of the kids from town.”
As Jake spoke, the strange image of the hospital room vanished. In an instant, the familiar visage of the western field returned, as clearly as Walt remembered. There was no sign of the fog. Instead, he saw the brilliant green of the sweet grass, the towering pecan trees, and the familiar silhouette of Bert’s home across the way, all framed by the setting sun.
Walt let his head rest against the cool glass and exhaled softly.
Despite the familiar setting outside the window, Walt could still hear Jake’s voice all around him. He listened to his grandson talk about his life and the kind of man he was. He heard about his brothers, his relationship to the town, his favorites books and films—his life story told through a series of anecdotes and his grandson’s recollections. The experience was surreal, but strangely comforting. Then, Jake mentioned Geraldine.
“He was always so sweet with my grandmother. They’d go on these walks every evening. They’d spend those miles talking about their days, their thoughts, everything. It was mostly Grandma talking, to be honest, but he was always so happy to listen. There was this one time…”
But Jake’s voice began to fade, leaving Walt in the relative silence of his den. For a moment, the only sound was the slight crackle of the fire. He stepped back from the window and let his eyes travel around the room, soaking in every detail. He ran his fingers along the wooden shelving he personally built. He breathed in the familiar scent of pecans and cinnamon.
A sudden noise from outside made him flinch. He listened as the sound became more coherent, evolving into footsteps, then the sound of the screen being opened, then the main door’s knob turning. Before Walter could reach for the door, it opened.
“Hey, how did you get back here?”
His wife stood on the threshold. She wore jeans, an oversized flannel shirt, walking shoes, and her long gray hair held up with a red bandana. She smiled at him warmly, with just a hint of confusion. She raised an eyebrow at him.
“Did we miss each other out there?” She started to ask something else, but Crockett distracted her, forcing her own way around Geraldine’s legs and into the den. The Labrador ran to Walt’s side and licked his hand enthusiastically.
Walt stared down at her for a moment then looked back up at Geraldine. She met his eyes with concern.
“Hon? Are you alright?”
In an instant, Walter crossed the room and wrapped his arms around her. He breathed in the scent of her hair and softly sighed. He felt her rub his back reassuringly, and he returned the gesture. After a moment, he pulled back and looked into her eyes.
She smiled back at him and said, “Walter Evans, what has gotten into you?”
Walt looked around at the warm den, his dog, and back to his beautiful wife. With a soft, but sincere smile he replied, “I’m just grateful for the memories we’ve made. Now, let’s go on that walk.”
Do You Want to Trade?
“Trick or Treat?” the trio of monsters chimed as the screen door opened.
A zombie, a werewolf, and a vampire stared up into the face of a middle-aged woman with curly hair wearing a purple “Frankie Goes to Hollywood” sweatshirt. They only registered her appearance momentarily. Their ten-year-old attentions immediately prioritized the large ceramic bowl in her hand, or more accurately the contents of the dish. The monsters’ eyes greedily scoured the vast assortment of Three Musketeers, Ring Pops, and Skittles like treasure hunters with only moments to choose what to take from a trove of riches.
“Happy Halloween!” the woman replied. “Wow, that make-up is spooky!”
“Thanks,” Drew said.
Drew Haribou had lost count of the compliments he’d received on his face paint. The rest of his ensemble was rather unexceptional. He’d chosen to wear a natty long-sleeved t-shirt, jeans that had completely worn through in the knees, and his usual sneakers. His mother had made a comment about being worried at how easily his clothes could pass for those of the undead, but she was always saying things like that. Drew knew that what really sold the costume was what his older sister had done to his face.
Shannon was really into makeup, but not like his other friends’ sisters. For as long as he could remember, Drew’s sister had been obsessed with horror films. She particularly enjoyed old monster movies with practical effects and spent a considerable amount of time learning to transform herself, her brother, and anyone else who’d let her into horrifying apparitions using makeup and face paint. She hoped to go to Hollywood after she graduated and work on a Wes Craven movie.
She’d modeled the design of Drew’s zombie after one of her and her brother’s favorite movies, George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. It had taken over an hour, but she’d given the exposed skin on his face and hands the distinctive gray/green tone as the undead corpses from the film. Shannon also made his eyes and cheeks appear gaunt and sunken using darker shades underneath his eyes and cheekbone. For good measure, she’d created a vibrant red gash across his forehead. He’d been delighted when she finally held up a mirror for him to see the results, and his friends Brent and Ryan had been noticeably jealous when he joined them to start an evening of accumulating candy.
They’d spent the first two hours in the Bent Creek Subdivision. Bent Creek was a large, upper middle-class neighborhood within walking distance of where each of the boys lived. Their efforts had yielded positive results so far, and the pillow cases they used to hold their loot were well over halfway full. Nonetheless, each boy knew there was still more to obtain before All Hallows Eve came to a close.
“Well, y’all grab a handful,” the woman said encouragingly.
The boys didn’t need further invitation. Drew, Brent, and Ryan got as much candy as they could fit their fingers around, and deposited the sweets in their pillow cases. The woman smiled, and stepped back inside her home as the boys hurried down the porch steps towards the next house. The street was bustling with other children dressed as movie characters, superheroes, and monsters. The trio had to dart around other trick-or-treaters to get to the next house which was unoccupied, but had a bowl of jawbreakers sitting on a small table by the door. The boys descended on the treats like hungry jackals.
The friends hadn’t spoken much as they’d ventured door-to-door. The work of gathering candy was to be taken seriously after all. They moved from house-to-house quickly and efficiently with little conversation in between. However, the house with the jawbreakers was the last one on the street, and they’d already combed the rest of the neighborhood. The boys huddled beneath a street lamp to formulate their next steps. Drew removed a green apple taffy from his pocket and popped it into his mouth. It was his favorite candy, and he was normally well stocked even outside of Halloween.
“What about Bellegrass?” Ryan asked.
“Naw, it’ll be picked clean by now,” Brent countered.
“What about King’s Mill?” Drew suggested, chewing on the fruit flavored sweet.
“I think they start turning off their lights at six. By the time we get there, we’ll only have a few minutes.”
“I know,” Ryan said, his face lighting up, “What about Mars Hill?”
Mars Hill was a more rural neighborhood about ten minutes from Bent Creek. The houses were further apart, but the residents celebrated Halloween with gusto. Every home featured extensive decorations and many offered free haunted forests or hayrides. Because the houses were harder to hit in bulk, the boys hadn’t wanted to start there, but it was well-known amongst the local children that they continued to encourage trick-or-treaters late into the evening. Moreover, Mars Hill had a reputation for its delicious homemade treats, and, now that they had accumulated an abundance of candy, it would be nice to branch out into cookies, cupcakes, and other baked goods.
“Remember those pumpkin cupcakes from last year?” Ryan asked.
“And the triple chocolate brownies Mrs. Adams made?” Drew said, almost salivating at the memory.
“It’d be fastest if we cut through The Forest,” Brent said matter-of-factly.
“Yeah, that’ll save us going to get the bikes,” Ryan agreed.
Drew nodded, but he had some reservations. He wasn’t scared necessarily. The Forest, as it was locally called, referred to less than twenty acres of overgrown pine situated between several adjacent neighborhoods. The wooded area would likely one day be another middle-class subdivision, but for the time being, was the closest thing the local children had to wild terrain. Drew and his friends spent a lot of their summer running around beneath the trees. There was even a ramshackle clubhouse that was constantly changing hands between the various tribes of kids.
The forest had never been scary. It wasn’t particularly large, and there weren’t any dangerous animals. Drew was more concerned with the practicality of finding their way through the dark. Even though the moon was full, the trees would shroud much of its glow, and none of the boys had flashlights.
“You think we’ll be able to see?” he asked skeptically.
“It’s not that dark, and we pretty much just need to cut across,” Brent reasoned.
“Yeah, come on, let’s get going,” Ryan said, swinging his bag of candy over his shoulder like an old-fashioned burglar getting ready to run away with his loot. Drew shrugged and followed his friends. They worked against the flow of costumed children still traversing Bent Creek, until they passed the brick sign marking the entrance of the neighborhood. They crossed the road and stood before a dense tree line. Without any prompting, Ryan bolted ahead into The Forest.
“Come on!” he shouted back.
Drew and Brent hurried after their friend. Ryan was still running far ahead, and was hard to see besides the occasional red flash of the inside of his vampire cape. As the other’s hurried to catch up, he seemed to go faster, but shouted over his shoulder,
“First one out wins!”
Drew and Brent shared a quick look then both sped up. Ryan kept a healthy lead, but the others held their pace, sharply darting around pines and thorny bramble. Seeing that he likely wouldn’t catch Ryan through pure speed, Drew suddenly veered to the right, away from Brent. He’d remembered a bike trail that Anson and Beau Chenault had cleared nearby that would be faster than running through the dense woods.
He heard Brent yell something over his shoulder, but he ignored his friend and ran faster. As he hurried deeper and deeper into The Forest, he was relieved to see that it was better lit than he’d expected. The moon blanketed the overgrown woods with a pale glow that didn’t fully illuminate the trees, but created enough light to see his immediate surroundings. He passed the small dogwood where his friend Evan had buried his dog the year before. There was a small cross carved into the base, and when he saw the marker, Drew knew he was close.
However, as he ran farther into the woods, he was surprised to see unfamiliar terrain. Instead of weeds and bramble covered pine straw he noticed dense green moss coating the forest floor. He also realized that there were less pines than he remembered and more towering, ancient trees that seemed very out of place in the small patch of undeveloped acreage. Drew came to a stop and looked more closely at his surroundings.
He had no idea where he was.
Drew would have said that he and his friends knew every inch of The Forest, but where he currently stood was completely alien to him. He felt like he was standing in woods lifted from a primeval fairy tale.
“Ryan! Brent!” he called.
There was no answer. Drew felt as if his stomach suddenly fell to his feet, and a cold sweat broke on the back of his neck. He turned around and quickly tried to retrace his steps. After two minutes of running though, he still couldn’t even manage to find the dogwood tree.
“Guys! Are you there?” Drew called again.
“Are you lost?”
Drew whirled around towards the sudden, unfamiliar voice. He didn’t see anyone, especially not his friends. The voice had come from behind him, but the only thing he saw was an immense, and unusual Oak. The ancient tree was taller than any Drew had seen in The Forest, but what made it all the stranger was the vast network of anaconda-sized branches that trailed upwards, but then dipped down to the ground where they wove together like a complex living spiderweb.
As he stared at the tree, a shape crawled from one of the dark crevices between the interlaced boughs draped with Spanish moss. Drew’s breath caught in his throat as the dark figure scrambled from branch to branch like some massive insect. However, as the form came into view, he felt himself relax. When his eyes adjusted, he saw that what he’d initially taken for some wild animal or worse, was actually another boy about his age.
The boy was clutching a sack almost as full as Drew’s, but his costume was hard to determine. He was wearing brown pants and a red t-shirt, but his makeup rivaled Drew’s. His arms and face were a chalky white, and the unearthly color had even been applied to his eyelids. He had unusually long and pointed ears, and it was impossible to tell were the prosthetics began. Drew was also unable to tell if the boy’s features were naturally pointed or if there were other subtle practical effects at work.
The boy came to a stop a couple of feet away, on a wide flat branch, big enough to sit comfortably. He placed his sack in front of him and the top folded over revealing a hoard of sweets that rivaled Drew’s. He tilted his head and smiled.
“I’m happy to see you. I’ve been out here a long time.”
“Are you lost too?” Drew asked.
“No, but I was one time.”
“What is this place? I’ve never seen this part of The Forest before,” Drew said thoughtfully.
“I found it a couple Halloweens ago. I was playing with my friend and got turned around. It’s kind of cool though. I come here after trick or treating now,” the boy said reminiscing.
“Are you from around here?”
“My name’s Aden,” the boy offered a slight wave, “what’s yours?”
“Drew Haribou. So, you’ve found your way back to the neighborhoods before?”
“Oh yeah,” he nodded over Drew’s shoulder, “you just go straight back that way for five minutes then veer left.”
“Phew,” Drew sighed, pulling another green apple taffy from his pocket and inserting it into his mouth, “I’m glad you know the way. I was getting scared for a minute there. Hey, that’s good make-up,” he said pointing at the boy’s arms.
“I like yours.”
“Thanks. Well, I’m going to head out. My friends have probably already started again without me.”
“Before you go, do you want to trade?” Aden reached for his bag of candy. He opened the sack wider, and Drew saw that in addition to the typical Kit-Kats, Crunch Bars, and Hershey’s Kisses there were a variety of intricate treats that clearly didn’t come from a nearby store. He saw a small bag of cookies that consisted of seven layers of wafers, frosting, and caramel. He noticed a box resembling a circus cage that held a detailed chocolate gorilla with vanilla teeth. Drew’s eyes widened at the assortment of homemade wonders.
“Wow, did you already go to Mars Hill?” he asked.
“I’ve been all over,” Aden said, “but I’ll trade if you want.”
“Really?” Drew asked, surprised the kid was even interested in his candy when he had such a good stash.
“Yeah, it’ll be fun,” the boy leaned a little closer, “I’ll let you pick three then you can give me three.”
Drew considered this for a moment. Most of the candy bars and other treats he’d accumulated were hardly original items, and the bulk of his haul ensured that he had multiples of most. He could afford to let some go for some of the wonders Aden had gathered.
Aden grinned and gestured for him to help himself to the bag. Drew didn’t need further permission. He stepped onto one of the lower branches, so that he could reach the sack, and began rifling through the contents. For his first choice, he picked the chocolate gorilla, which he quickly deposited into his sack. As he returned to make his second and third choice, Drew noticed Aden slowly recede so that he was now sitting comfortably in a dark recess of the tree’s conflux of branches.
Drew ignored the other boy, and continued to rifle through the sack of treats. The next item he decided on was a small glass jar holding what looked like several handmade malt chocolate balls. He briefly unfastened the lid and breathed in the rich cocoa scent. Drew refastened the jar, and transferred the sweet morsels to his own bag. He returned to Aden’s sack and thought carefully on his final choice. He eventually settled on a hollowed-out chocolate pumpkin the size of an orange, the interior of which seemed to contain green jelly beans.
When he put this last item in his bag, Aden’s voice from the dark crevice made him jump slightly. He’d been so consumed with picking the best treats he’d almost forgotten about the other kid. He looked up and saw only the boy’s feet sticking out from the shadowy web of limbs.
“Good choices,” Aden said appraisingly.
“You can go through mine now,” Drew put his own sack on the branch beside Aden’s.
A pale hand reached out of the shadows and began rummaging through the contents, but not with the same intensity as Drew’s search.
“Where do you live?” Aden asked from his place in the tree.
“Over on Orchid Row. We’re at the end of cul-de-sac. With the green door.”
Aden’s hand pulled a green apple taffy from the bag which surprised Drew. It was just like the one he was currently chewing, but seemed a rather common choice compared to what was in the strange boy’s own bag. Nonetheless, he watched as it quickly receded into the dark. The white hand swiftly reappeared, and continued to search through the pillow case full of candy.
“Find something good?” he asked.
“I think so. What’s your family like?” Aden asked.
“Well it’s just Mom, Dad, and Shannon. She’s my older sister,” Drew replied, wishing the boy would hurry up so he could still try to make Mars Hill. As he thought this, he saw Aden pull another green apple taffy from the bag and secret it away into his perch amongst the branches.
“What does your sister like to do?”
“She’s into movie effects. Like scary movie prosthetics. She wants to be a makeup artist. She’s the one that did my costume.” Drew held out his arms to showcase the zombie paint, “It’s from “Dawn of the Dead. We’re going to watch it later.”
To Drew’s surprise, Aden took one last green apple taffy from the sack, and this time his hand didn’t reemerge from the darkness. Drew was glad he’d finished. He was ready to get out The Forest, and away from this kid who was honestly starting to creep him out. He reached up and collected his bag. Even though he’d come off well from the trade, he was feeling strangely uneasy.
“So just five minutes back that way, then veer left?” Drew turned and looked in the direction of his supposed exit.
“Well, I’ll see you later then.”
There was no reply. Drew turned around and saw that Aden’s legs were no longer resting on the dark crevice, and there was no sign of his bag of treats. He craned his head and looked around. He hadn’t heard the boy move or get down. Drew shrugged and turned to leave. He walked for about five minutes and was surprised to find that he began to once again recognize the setting. There were fewer sprawling oaks and more young pines. He was further relieved when, as he finally began to veer left, he recognized the dogwood tree with the small cross carved in the base.
Drew checked his watch by the light of the moon, and saw to his dismay that it was almost nine. He was well past his curfew. Drew groaned and, instead of taking the trail to Mars Hill, turned back towards the subdivisions. He hurried along and within ten minutes found himself standing at the end of his own neighborhood. The street lamps were still on, but the sidewalks were completely empty. His sneakers echoed on the pavement as he tried to think of an excuse for his mother.
Drew finally made it to the end of his cul-de-sac and walked up towards the familiar green door of his home. He shifted his bag of candy to his left hand and reached for the knob. To his surprise, the door was locked. He hadn’t brought his key with him, and sighed as he was forced to knock. He wasn’t going to hear the end of it.
His mother came to the door. When she saw him, her eyebrows knitted together in dismay. She didn’t open the door all of the way and, instead, leaned out almost cautiously.
“Young man, it’s far too late to be out trick-or-treating.”
“Sorry, Mom. I got lost in the woods.”
“What?” she asked.
“I got turned around in The Forest with the guys, and I came back as soon as I got out,” Drew explained.
“Are you confused, young man? Do you need me to call someone?” Drew was surprised to hear the note of wariness and concern in her voice.
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
“Is there someone there?” Before she appeared, Drew recognized Shannon’s voice. The door opened slightly wider, and he saw his sister wearing her pajama pants and a Blink 182 t-Shirt. But his heart almost stopped when he saw who was standing beside her.
Drew Haribou was staring at himself. It was like looking in the mirror. His doppelganger was wearing his zombie costume still, but the paint had been removed from his arms, face, and neck. Drew stared into his own eyes, scanned his own face, noticing the slight scar on the stranger’s cheek from where he’d fallen off a horse at his grandparents when he was seven. The other version of himself stared back with an eerie smile.
“I think you need to go home now,” his mother said.
“But…it’s me. I’m your son,” Drew said, feeling sick suddenly.
“You shouldn’t play tricks on people like this. Now, go home before I have to call the police.”
“Come on, Shannon. Let’s go watch Dawn of the Dead,” the other Drew said to his sister.
Drew could only stare, in stunned horror as his mother started to shut the door. As it closed, the strange doppelganger turned back and looked right at him. Without breaking eye contact, he reached into his pocket and produced a piece of green apple taffy. He winked at Drew, and popped it into his mouth.
“Wait!” he started, but the door slammed shut and the porch light turned off.
Drew backed away from his home in confused panic. It was a joke of some sort. It had to be. He tried to return his breathing to normal, then started towards the house again. Whatever trick his family was playing wasn’t funny. He stopped though when something caught his eye. There was a window near the front door, and his reflection elicited a sudden and involuntary moan.
He looked down at his arms and saw that they were no longer coated in the zombie makeup his sister had prepared; they were now a chalky white. He reached up gingerly and felt the pointy tip of his ears. He searched for an edge or some end of the prosthetic, but found none. Drew let his hand fall and stared in shock at the reflection that perfectly mirrored the boy from the tree. He looked back at the door one more time, then turned, and started running.
He ran out of his neighborhood and back towards The Forest. His sack of candy still bounced over his shoulder, but the uncomfortable weight was an afterthought. If he could only get back to the tree, maybe he could reverse whatever had happened. To his surprise, as he ran deeper and deeper into the woods, he found that he could easily retrace the way to the before unknown region of The Forest. It felt like no time at all before he was standing at the base of the immense oak tree with the curling web of branches and limbs. He stared up at the ancient growth in confusion. He let his sack of treats fall to the ground.
The bag rolled over and the topmost contents spilled onto the moss-covered ground. The chocolate pumpkin filled with jelly beans rolled out against his sneaker. He reached down and retrieved it. The treat felt warm in his hand, and the chocolate immediately began to soften at his touch. He looked back up at the tree. He felt inexplicably tired all of the sudden, as if there were small weights on his eyelids. The tree seemed strangely inviting.
Drew stepped onto one of the lower branches, and worked his way up to a natural nest formed by several larger limbs woven together. He crawled into the strangely comforting darkness and curled into a ball. He bit into the chocolate pumpkin and found the sticky sweetness deeply nourishing. Drew closed his eyes and reasoned that he would just rest awhile. When he felt better, he would figure this out. There had to be a way back.
If not, perhaps someone would come along who would want to trade.
Welcome to Hallow Treats! As my readers may have guessed, I'm a big fan of all things spooky, eerie, and spine chilling. As such Halloween is a special time in the Nickens household. In the spirit of the holiday I wanted to start a tradition here on Jackalope Stories that I think will pass on some of what makes Halloween so extraordinary.
On the week of October 19th, I'll be releasing a free spooky short story that can be accessed right here on the Hallow Treats page of Jackalope Stories. There's no cost, but feel free to say thanks by sharing fan art, leaving a comment, or if you haven't yet checking out my book The Thin House.
2020's Hallow Treat is called, "Do You Want to Trade?" and will be posted here the week of Halloween. I hope the story sends a slight chill down your spine, and perhaps makes your holiday just a little more special. Until then, be careful taking strange new paths through the woods, and think twice before trading your candy, particularly if the other party seems unusually hungry. See you soon!