The cat brushes against my leg; she must have slipped out when I closed the door to the warmth of Mother’s home. It’s easy to comprehend why she never leaves. Out here, the world is smaller than it once was, and the fear of what lurks beyond the foreshortened horizon is enough to keep anyone inside. I lean down and give her a cursory scratch between the ears before slipping my hand under her soft belly and picking her up off the floor. Her legs extend as if trying to keep hold of the ground for as long as possible, maybe even hoping to bring it with her. I open the door once more, as quietly as possible so as not to startle Mother, and fling the cat back inside, letting her instincts do the work of ensuring she lands on her paws. I take one last breath in, filling my lungs with warmth and shut the door. I can’t hide with Mother forever.
The Fog attacks immediately. A layer of dirty dew covers my face and gathers in my eyelashes, but after several months it is a familiar, if still unwelcome, sensation and I no longer recoil at its touch. It gathers into droplets that dribble along the macerations on my cheeks, irritating the infected skin that punishes those of us who choose to venture out. I shuffle along the lane, staring deeply into the nothing in front of me, staring at what should be the horizon but hasn’t been since the Fog robbed it from us seven months ago. Before it descended, I would walk home with my eyes to the sky, letting my PhD in astronomy conjure achievable fantasies about finding something in that dark abyss I could attach my name – my maiden name – to. An occupational triumph.
I walk through the village, past houses I know are there but can’t see, past houses filled with life, warmth, locking out this insidious moisture that overwhelms our outside world. Being labelled ‘The Fog’ was a misnomer spread by viral mass media when it first descended. The sight-shortening cloud was actually a cloying mix of mist, fog, and trapped air pollution. The perfect mixture to slowly but surely cause each and every person unavoidable pain. The quiet of the streets lengthens my stride; no one in their homes wants to depress themselves by looking out at the Fog, and few are driven to subjecting their skin to the withering effects of it. I am vulnerable, always. Someone could be ten feet away, plotting my demise, and no one beyond the Fog would see them exact it.
At home, all the lights are off. Is he lurking in the darkness? His car – our car – sits in the driveway, so he must be home. I stand outside the door, pretending to fumble for my keys in my pocket, preparing myself to defend or apologise for whatever wrongdoing I’ve unknowingly committed. I walk into the dark silence and immediately yearn for Mother’s house. The heating is off, and from the cold seeping through my overcoat, I can tell it has been all day. Did I forget to put it on, or is this a new form of punishment for something else? My jingling keys sound so harsh, I wince at their announcement of my presence.
“Elspeth? That you?”
“Yes, I’ll be through in a minute.”
I place my keys on the hall table and gently pat the moisture from my skin. I pick up the small tube with the half-worn prescription label on it and squeeze out as small a blob as I can get away with. I’m not sure I’ll be able to find, let alone afford, more. Every pharmacy was looted within a week of the Fog descending. After letting my ointment seep into the crevasses of my face and ease the sting of the world, I find him sat at his desk, laptop shut, waiting for me. The conversation starts off pleasantly enough – how was your day? Was there traffic? How is your mother? But then, he starts with the jibes. Is she actually managing on her own, the old git? Have you bothered to look for a new job yet?
“Actually, Mother says she –”
“I’ve just noticed that, since you were sacked, the house has been a real mess, so maybe if you got off your ass and found a job, you might be more motivated to keep our house clean, and then it wouldn’t be left to me to be the breadwinner and the only maid.”
I suppose he isn’t wrong. With no sky visible, there has been no use for me at the Ministry. I’m not sure I’d describe my redundancy as being ‘sacked’, but I don’t dare say that out loud. Nothing good would come of it. He doesn’t look at me as he slowly and subtly gnaws at my self-confidence, and I stand there in stunned silence, unsure as to why he is being so brazen with his taunts. There’s a pause, and all I want is for us to be done conversing.
“I’ll start making dinner.”
My voice comes out sounding much meeker than I realised I could be, but his chance to answer is cut short by a buzzing coming from the back pocket of my jeans. An unknown number; my heartbeat jolts. A man on the other end of the line introduces himself, and from the look on Graham’s face, he can hear the deep guttural tones floating down the line. He cracks his knuckles and then saunters into the kitchen.
The last time I had received a phone call, the last time he had cracked his knuckles as if he was imagining punching me, was two days ago. Graham flung the door open, pelted his keys against the wall and slammed the door closed again so fast, the graffiti painting hung above the mantlepiece rattled against the walls. Then, a small silence – the eye of the hurricane – before he swiped everything off the hall table, yelling expletives until he was out of breath and the only sound remaining was the WiFi console swinging by its cord, bouncing between the table leg and the wall. He came into the room, and I tried to regulate the movements of my chest, despite the shaky breaths that fuelled them, and smiled.
“There are too many fucking animals. Shouldn’t the Fog have killed the bastards by now?”
I knew it was rhetorical, and yet the length of his pause led me to speak. Rookie error.
“I think they probably –“
“I wasn’t actually asking, Elspeth. There were sheep, up by the observation point. Stray damned sheep, right in the fucking road. I had to swerve to miss them, skidded on the gravel nearly went over the edge of the fucking cliff.”
I knew I had to be supportive, but couldn’t find the words, so I just walked up and tried to hug him. He veered away from my arms, sat down on the couch, and turned on the TV. Every channel he flicked passed showed close up images of bin fires, smashed windows, hooded figures angry at the Fog that was robbing them of everything. He turned off the violence, deciding to sulk in silence, just as my phone began to buzz in my pocket.
“Hello, Mother. Is everything alright? Yes, he’s home now, he had a bit of a scare on the way home, nearly skidded off the cliff. Me? Oh, um, I’m…”
I could see Graham watching me, I could hear his knuckles cracking, I could feel the voice inside me begging the woman who raised me to help me navigate the mood swings of this oppressive man. Instead, I told her I was fine, I let her keep the pedestal she had erected for the man he used to be to shine atop of, and, after I hung up, I let his questions about what I had actually done that day, despite the spotless house, eat away at the confidence inside me and fill the spaces with doubt.
Lottie Brooke is a York-based writer currently studying Creative Writing at York St. John University. Her flash fiction has been published twice through guerrilla publishing company Found Fiction, and she has had a poem published by Valley Press for inclusion in the Beyond the Walls anthology 2020. She has a one-year-old daughter, never drinks the last mouthful of her coffee and (if you forget about eight years trying to escape boarding school) has never lived anywhere longer than three years.