This story is by William Webster and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“The last time I saw her she was wearing a blue hoodie, jeans and had a pack slung across her shoulder.”
The two inquisitors stared long and hard at David with a glare that said they didn’t believe a word he was saying. The man with the pallid complexion pounded his fist, “So, let’s take it from the top, one more time.” The second man snapped, “What was she carrying?”
David’s hands were wet with sweat. He rubbed them on his jeans practically erasing the denim. “I told you before, I don’t remember her carrying anything. Jenny just walked past me heading down the corridor.” Sitting in the rigid chair that looked like an ergonomic computer desk chair, but felt more like a medieval torture seat used in the Spanish Inquisition, he bargained, “Look, I want to help, I really do. But, I don’t know anything.”
The two inquisitors whispered among themselves shielding their conversation with a faded folder. He spied his name, David Greene, printed on the top in black magic marker.
“You know,” David said trying to be helpful, “she seemed jumpy; I mean, she just walked past me heading down corridor ‘C’. Clearing his throat, “I think she . . .” pointing with a nod of his head, “went towards hatch number 4.” His words were slow and faltering and stuttering.
“You think? You don’t know? Did you see her leave or not?”
“I told you all I know. But I’m sure . . .”
“Now you’re sure!?!” The tall inquisitor towered over David. His words ricocheted off the cement walls hitting David like a bomb.
That’s when the door burst open. The footfalls echoing through the corridor got louder and louder until the door was flung open and the messenger came in. She was tall and brawny and commanding. With several files in her hand she leaned in toward the two inquisitors. She didn’t wear the traditional red uniform with a high collar. Her cap, dipped strategically below one eye, rested on the rim of her aviator sunglasses as she studied David with a touch of suspicion.
The room felt colder. It could have been because they were thirty feet below the surface. It could have been because the door opened suddenly creating a draft. But he knew it was because of the woman. Her icy stare actually brought the room’s temperature down ten degrees.
“So David.” Her voice was soft and close to caring. “Is it all right that I call you David?”
He shrugged, “Sure.”
Her motherly concern turned to a satanic smirk. “Jenny plus five others are missing,” she roared at him. “Where are they?!” Her voice was harsh and graveled from decades of smoking. Stepping in front of him, he could see his reflection in her sunglasses, and he didn’t like it. Veins popped out of her neck as she roared again. Her voice seemed to surpass the decibels of a jet liner taking off. “Six of your classmates are gone! Missing!” She stood in front of him resisting the urge to grab his throat and strangle him. Pointing her bony finger in his face, she shouted, “And you know nothing?!”
Her words, like acid burned right though him. She saw him either as a poor protector of his old classmates or as a total fool for not knowing what was going on. David clamped down on his jaw and stared at the closed door imagining himself on the other side heading back to his room. The vision was shattered when she slapped his face. “I demand an answer!”
Rubbing his cheek, he stammered , “I was just minding my own business,”
“No one goes outside!” she announced. With a smug smile that resembled a lion about to devour its prey she leaned into him and shrieked, “Not you and certainly not your friends. So where are they?” Her breath was as sour as her teeth were yellow.
David didn’t know how long he had been in the room. 30 feet below ground there were no windows to judge the passing of time. The interrogation room was bare except for the overhead light and the chair he sat in. Looking down at the floor, afraid to make eye contact with his inquisitors he said, “I don’t know where they are.” His voice was tired and drained and defeated.
The woods, thirty feet above, were a different world. Monstrous pine trees covered the landscape. Gray fog swirled around the trees and eventually drifted through them before descending down the ridges and into the valleys. Through the woods the fog moved like a snake winding itself around the trunks and limbs. Even without a breeze the tree limbs twitched and jerked as if being tortured by the fog.
One autumn day the fog had drifted ashore. The breeze was gentle. The ocean calm. Standing on the shoreline there wasn’t even a whitecap visible when the water began to shimmer with a green glow. Like an amphibian monster, the fog crept ashore smothering the beach, before hovering around the pine forest. The stench of death drifted in with the fog. The trees squirmed as the mist moved among them. In the woods the fog grew in intensity, and volume and density.
The woods became the breeding ground for the fog which began to suffocate the birds that hid among the trees for protection. By the dozens, birds began to drop from the branches like dead autumn leaves. Auks, black-and-white sea birds with small wings that propel them under water to catch fish, began to drift dead on the crest of the waves. Sandpipers and terns fell lifeless as the fog rolled ashore past the breakers overtaking them. Seagulls and pelicans, flying away trying to escape the fog, began to fall from the sky. Small animals were strangled and suffocated in the fog.
The fog took up residence in the woods on the edge of town. To escape the fog, the residents of the small town huddled behind locked doors in their homes. That first night was long and dark and desolate as the fog drifted around their community, covering it like a heavy woolen blanket. By morning the woods on the edge of town saw the gray fog snaking its way among the trees. It moved around the trunks then it worked its way to the top of the branches where it hovered before descending again to the ground. The residents who ventured out during the evening to investigate the fog were found dead on the sidewalks, or on their porches, or on the streets.
The fog kept the residents prisoners in their own homes. To venture out towards the woods meant death. The fog, strengthened by the woods, drifted to the town by night and seeped into the homes through the tiniest cracks. By the second night the people moved into their basements. From their basements, narrow tunnels began to connect one house to the next. Within a few weeks, most of the town was living in a self-imposed exile below ground away from the woods and the fog.
Released from his interrogators David was free to leave. It didn’t take him long to walk to his room. The metal corridors, resembling the large pipes used at power plants, were noisy and gray and dark. Florescent lights suspended from the ceiling cast a jaundiced glow on the people passing through. In his room he grabbed a book without paying attention to the title just to have the comfort of an old friend in his hand. Here in isolation, books had always been a source of comfort and even hope. Propped against the head board, he rubbed the cover and slipped open Katie Kitamura’s book, Gone to the Forest. “Gone to the forest,” he whispered afraid someone might be listening. Kitamura’s novel was set on a farm in some far off country on the brink of a revolution. Her book seemed to call for decisive action.
Reading in-between the white spaces and the black words, he wondered, “Is it better to live in this controlled world or slip away to a new world? Go to the woods? Stay in here?”
Looking around his room the realization hit him. Standing up he stretched his arms out from his side. From the center of the room he could touch each wall. His room was the same size as a prison cell above ground. “I have been living in a prison. Safe from death on the surface, maybe. But living?” He sank onto his bed, wondering, “Has fear trapped me in my cell keeping me prisoner only to exist but not to live?”
Staring at the ceiling he muttered as if in a trance, “I wish I had gone with her. I wish it had been seven instead of six. I wish I went into the woods.”