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.”