When I enter the kitchen, taken aback by the surprise phone call from an unknown number, he’s got the tin opener in his hand, prepping the vegetables ready for dinner. The Fog descended in September, and for a few months we were alright. But the last harvest hasn’t lasted as long as we hoped with everyone panic buying food they don’t eat before it rots, and with no sunlight, fresh food is now a luxury few can obtain. Just before I was made redundant, Graham’s department received a large investment to begin rolling out metal halide lamps to help boost crop growth, but the technology is so expensive that it has barely made a dent in the soaring food prices, and now, he wears his failure on his sleeve and the tip of his tongue.
“Who was that?”
His eyes remain fixed on the task of the knife in his hands. There is seldom any light to glint off the steel. The light switch is right next to my head, but were I to flick it on, he’d just growl something about migraines at me and turn them off again. It’s a battle I never choose to pick, letting the darkness help him overwhelm me. Jealousy, born from the voice of a stranger, radiates off his every slice, and I feel every muscle in my body tense. I’m not bruised, nor broken. He has never hit me. That is not to say the threat of it isn’t real.
“They want me back.”
“The Ministry. The riots, in the city. They want me to help them find something positive to try soothe the public.”
“They want you? What, do they really think you are going to find something to lift the Fog, something to help humanity, that has escaped the rest of us in the past seven months?”
He’s pointing the knife at me, and I don’t dare look at it, I don’t dare move. Diffuse, Elspeth, you must diffuse him.
“I’m sure it’s a mistake. I haven’t done anything of merit in so long. I haven’t thought of a way to solve it from home, I doubt a change of environment is going to inspire me.”
He goes back to chopping the vegetables.
“You have a PhD. You can’t be that bad,” he says.
If I take the compliment, he’ll go back to tearing me down. If I ignore it, he’ll pester me for a response. Catch-22. I walk up slowly behind him and place my hand over his on the knife. I summon the softest, least threatening voice I can muster, and say,
“Here. Let me do that. You’re a busy man. Go and relax for a bit.”
He hesitates, but hands me the knife. I hear the familiar whir of the game console coming to life and relax slightly. An opportunity to work again, how could I pass that up? A chance to be in the same room as the military satellite monitors and perhaps catch a glimpse of the sky, there is nothing I wouldn’t give for that.
I wince at the sound of his failure, his inability to master a flight simulator; but don’t let it distract me from cooking. I leave him alone to escape into a world with gin-clear skies and views of rolling hills that go on for miles, an escape from the world that for us rarely extends beyond our village and the
If only my last theory had panned out, I might not have been let go. The jet engineers claimed it was impossible, rejecting my thesis before even looking at my calculations. A woman making noise in a man’s world will inevitably be silenced. If only the negativity Graham projected onto me hadn’t chipped away at my confidence so successfully, maybe I would have had the guts to fight for myself. Now, I was being gifted a second chance. I would not throw this away.
I can hear his frustrations building as I finish plating our dinner, the chains of curse words getting longer and louder with each crash of the plane. As I walk into the living room, he jumps up from the sofa, screaming expletively, and hurls his controller directly at me. It hits the plate of food I had intended to be his, catching my knuckles and launching the plate into the air. The food rains down on me, but my lips instinctively let an apology slip out before I’ve even processed what’s happened. I place the unharmed plate of food on the coffee table in front of him and set about picking up the debris. My knuckles throb, and I long to find some ice to ease the pain, but work through it nonetheless. He wolfs down his dinner, seldom leaving enough time to chew, and doesn’t even glance in my direction as I clear away the evidence of the outburst that finally, if accidentally, made his threats real.
“Let’s go out,” I say, “Let’s get in the car, and just go for a drive. Clear our heads.”
He’s hesitating and I’m fumbling for something to say that might convince him to come, but then, completely out of character, he agrees. Next thing I know, he’s stood at the front door with his boots on and the car keys in hand, and I’m still stood amongst the carrots trying to work out how the hell I achieved that. He chucks the keys at me but my hand shuts around thin air, and he expels his exasperation with force.
“My God, Elspeth, you’re not a fucking magnet! You have to actually put some fucking effort into catching the goddamn keys!”
His words hit me like an icy wind and I physically flinch away from them. The keys sit slumped by my feet, the evidence of my failure to do one simple task. And then it clicks.
The dusty cogs in my brain, not used to this new idea, clunk into action, and start creating the connections I need. The suffering, the isolation, the physical toll, the end of it all is right in my reach.
“What? Mag- what are you mumbling about?”
“Magnets, Graham. You’ve seen my thesis. You know the maths works. But they weren’t sure. If we add magnets… We need to pitch this. This, this is the answer. Oh my God, you are a genius!”
His chest inflates slightly at the compliment, but his eyes flit side to side as he tries to work out how I’ve suddenly improved the thesis that lost me my job, by using magnets, to a point where I may have solved the Fog crisis. He doesn’t dwell too intensely on it before opening the front door, letting the Fog seep in and my skin stings immediately.
The satellite navigation lights up as soon as the keys turn in the ignition, but I quickly turn it off. I remind Graham I used to drive this road two times a day for seven years before the Fog, and he motions for me to just get on with it. The heating kicks in quickly, drying us out, but I feel my skin stiffen without my ointment to soothe it, and the pollution trapped in the cloud-like atmosphere clings to me. I try to ignore it, let muscle memory guide me along the roads. So few people dare drive anymore, the roads are quietly unthreatening, and Graham seems to be calming down despite the lack of scenery to keep him entertained.
I remark to him, “Do you want me to explain it to you? You could pitch it. This could be the brilliant breakthrough you were looking for?”
“It’s your breakthrough. You sit around, doing nothing for months, you don’t even fucking try! And now you have this great idea, while all the other scientists, the real scientists, we are just supposed to drop everything so our hands are free to applaud you.”
I shut up and let the noise of the engine fill the silence. As I change the gears, an awful clunking sound takes over, and we slow to a stop. I stare at the dashboard, trying not to show any emotion on my face, waiting for Graham’s undoubtably negative reaction to being stuck in the middle of the Fog. He opens his door and steps out, slamming it angrily behind him. A quick once round of the car and nothing is smoking or obviously damaged. He motions at me to try start it up, but several swift turns of the keys and it seems unwilling to fire up. I get out and walk over to him.
“Can I borrow your phone,” I ask, “I left mine at home. I’ll ring the service.”
He sighs, but hands it over.
“Sit in the car with it. I can’t afford a new phone and a new car if the Fog messes this one up.”
I get into the car and shut my door behind me. There’s something remarkably freeing about shutting the door and knowing that the thing that has been causing you so much pain, that has been slowly, subtly, tearing you apart is trapped on the outside, unable to get to you. With that thought in mind, I lock the doors. I turn the key and the engine fires up perfectly the first time. I look out my window to see a sense of relief flash across Graham’s face at the thought of a working car. Quickly, though, it’s replaced with fear. The new foliage that has sprouted and thrived in the dampness of the Fog means every landscape is new and unfamiliar, and as I set off in the car, I can see in my rear-view mirror that he has no idea where he is.
Ten feet. All I have to drive is ten feet, and I can no longer see him through the Fog. Ten feet more, and I turn the wheel to avoid the loose gravel lay-by that used to be a popular observation point giving an impressive, if slightly stomach-churning, cliff-edge view of the tormented waves so far below. Few drove here before the fog, when the horizon was some far-off place you could imagine was full of mystery. Now, no one would dare venture out here, in a car or on foot; not when the edge of the cliff is so well concealed.
He underestimated me. People keep underestimating me. Magnets are not the answer required to solve a climate crisis. Magnets, as it turns out, are the answer to getting a narcissist into a car. But, tomorrow morning, I will get back into my perfectly functional car, drive out of the village and into the city, and resume my post at the Ministry. This time, I will not be muscled out.
For now, I think I will go and visit Mother.
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.