Late in the evening, Ryan had his friends over to relax but instead each vented about their stressful day. Their day’s hardships had been accumulating at different volumes for some time. For Alex Olson, he had been living with his parents through their divorce as his father begrudgingly began moving over the past month. But for Jake Roberts, all his applications into the police force had been rejected one by one. This strained what little resources and self esteem he had left after college. Unfortunately for Ryan Nelson, he had the worst of the three. His partner Stacy grew more aloof after each late night work meeting. Accounting seemed easy enough for him, but he was salaried which forced him to take overtime. This left him groggy, irritated, and wishing that he could see Stacy; however, he knew another excuse awaited him tomorrow night.
The three of them had tried to get back into their weekly ritual of loud music and video games, but they felt too exhausted after each asserted vehemently their claim of having the worst day. Receiving a text from his mom, Alex paused their game of Halo during an intense firefight. He needed to move a few couches to the garage before the movers arrive tomorrow. With the game paused, Jake laid with his head over the back of the couch feeling the night drag on.
Looking over to Ryan, Alex asked, “Hey, can I get some help moving the rest of the furniture tonight?”
“Why don’t you ask… “ Ryan trailed off as they both turned to Jake, who hadn’t moved since they paused the game. “...Fine” he affirmed reluctantly.
Yawning, Alex said, “Maybe we should get going before the fog gets worse. We’ll only get more tired.” Alex reached towards Jake’s shoulder.
“Wait… “ Ryan asked as Alex reached towards Jake’s Shoulder to wake him up, “What do you think about the whole Stacy thing?”
After taking a deep breath, Alex explained, “Look, why would she care for you later if she doesn’t care about you now?”
Holding up his forehead with his palm, Ryan scratched his scalp with his finger nails. A few moments passed as they sat there, waiting for Ryan to make up his mind. “I… I just don’t know what changed,” he began to whimper while trying to raise his head, “I can’t just be.. expected to live with this. It's like she wants this but-”
Jake snapped forward with a lazy expression. “Come on man, She treated you like trash, and now you realizing it. It’s been months,” he said, chuckling.
“We don’t know her that well. What if she has something going on? Have you tried asking her?” Alex calmly suggested.
Jake stood up from the couch and challenged Ryan, “So are you going to do it this time, or are you just going to let her walk all over you?”
“Yeah… ” Ryan said while sniffling. Jake walked towards Alex and Ryan.
Gesturing aggressively, “Yeah what? For all you know she is sleeping around right now. What do you think she has been doing all this time?” Jake yelled at Ryan.
“Why would you say something like that?” Ryan asked while clenching his fists.
“Oh! Are you mad at me,” Jake said while taking a step closer, “for informing you of basic information?”
Quickly inserting himself between the two, Alex asked softly, “Hey guys, why don’t we stop this before this goes any further, alright?”
“I’m not an idiot,” Ryan took a step forward and shouted, “I’m going to talk to her!”
Alex held Ryan back from getting any closer, “We should get going before this fog gets any worse.”
Halfway out the door, Jake mocked Alex, “Yeah Alex! Everyone knows of people never makin’ it back from one of these dangerous fogs before. Tons of people just go missing every year - no, every day.”
“Don’t let that asshole get to you, just talk to her tomorrow,” Alex said patting Ryan on the shoulder. Alex festered with rage as he silently watched Jake get into his Junker.
Ryan and Alex stood on the porch and watched Jake drive away. His headlights barely cut through the thick fog in front of his car, but they only worried about themselves since Jake lived within a few blocks. Ryan double checked where they were heading to because Alex needed to stop by the store on the way. Following closely, Ryan could only see the fog glow red when Alex braked as they crawled down main street. Ryan wondered how Alex knew where he was going. Finally Alex turned off towards the store leaving him alone in the fog. At each intersection Ryan established his bearings, looking for something familiar. He knew that he only needed to make a few turns but at each stop sign he felt lost.
After about seven intersections he thought he would never see another person. Turning onto the back road, the only street lights were those at intersections. The constant gray wall drove his mind to wander. Almost immediately his problems with Stacy flooded his mind. Why was she constantly busy late at night? Did his time in the office really upset her? What did that asshole know? Was there always Amish in this town? He snapped back to reality as a horse drawn buggy passed in front of him at the last turn.
After a few more blocks he arrived at Alex’s house and found the front door locked. He let out a sigh and sat down on the porch, waiting for Alex to arrive. It was well past midnight; waking up Alex’s mom was not a good option so he just waited on the porch. As the still and gloomy night dragged on, Ryan began thinking about how he hasn’t seen a carriage around here before. The last time he saw one was during the holidays when they had rentals, circling the town, but that still wasn’t a full carriage like tonight. He always wanted to rent one for a date, then, like the weather, Stacy surrounded his thoughts. Why had she been avoiding him? What was she hiding? Did he really need to end it now? Then he could see the lights of Alex’s car pull up to the garage. As the garage door opened, unanswered questions continued to pull on his tired mind.
Walking up to Ryan, Alex asked, “Are you okay?”
Ryan was taken aback. He thought he was hiding his stress well enough. Either way he wanted to keep up the façade, responding “Yeah. I’m not that tired yet.”
“You didn’t get lost, did you?” Alex questioned.
“Now you’re sounding like the tired one. I know how to get to your house,” Ryan reaffirmed confidently “This fog isn’t that bad.”
They both shrugged off their concerns and began moving the couches out to the garage. After the first one, Ryan noticed Alex looking him over, almost like there was something on his clothes. By the time the second couch was moved, it had become uncomfortable, so Ryan grabbed a drink from the fridge.
This seemed to concern Alex, so he asked, “Hey, where’s your car?”
“It's right around the corner,” He said pointing towards it, “You told me not to wake your mom, so I parked on the side road.”
Alex got up and walked to the driveway to see for himself. “I just didn’t want you to knock on the door,” he said. Gesturing towards Ryan, Alex suggested, “Maybe you shouldn’t be drinking. You still gotta get back home tonight.”
“Dude! It's just one drink,” raising it angrily, Ryan rebutted, “What are you trying to say?” He set down his drink while Alex remained silent. Ryan asked, “Is this fog really that dangerous?”
“You seemed really distressed when we left… “ Alex said hesitating. “You can see things in weather like this sometimes… like… I thought I saw you, or at least your car pass me on the way here,” Alex stammered.
After taking a sip of his drink, Ryan paused confused by his response then asked, “You saw my car, pass you?”
“Ok… well a few stop signs after that car passed me, I saw a car pulled over on the other side of the road with its lights on, but it was empty. A few yards past that were skid marks looking like they almost swerved into the parked car,” Alex explained.
“Alright,” Ryan said gesturing for Alex to continue.
“Well I pulled over to find the driver of the car. When I approached the car everything looked fine. The driver was gone but then I saw the skid marks leading into tread marks going into the woods,” Alex said, then took a pause to look at Ryan. “A few feet past the ditch was that car that passed me earlier with the trunk wide open. I walked a few more feet and saw that the driver had smashed it into a tree like he wasn’t planning on stopping,” Alex explained taking another silent pause while looking out towards the street.
“Was the driver there?” Ryan asked with a transfixed look. Alex seemed to struggle recalling such a recent event.
“Well the driver side door was open and the keys where still in the ignition, but I could hear sirens coming down the road so I snuck back to my car before I could find them,” He admitted almost ashamed that he couldn’t find the driver.
Ryan went to the fridge to grab another drink. “I think you’re the one that needs a drink,” Ryan said while handing it to Alex. “We should finish moving the furniture,” He insisted.
Alex agreed, concerned by how much time they wasted already. They moved the last few chairs and the final couch into the garage. Alex was picking up the their empty cans when Ryan was getting ready to leave. “You’re heading home, right?” Alex asked.
“Dude, I’m going to be fine!” Ryan Stated almost angry over his friends genuine concern.
“You seem worn out, and I’m afraid you’ll do something stupid.” Alex answered.
“Like what! What do you think I’m going to do?” Ryan yelled but he knew what Alex was trying to insinuate. Ryan grew more anxious. How could Alex question his motives like that?
“You can stay here for the night if you want, but otherwise I think you made up your mind,” Alex said in a dismissive tone as he walked back inside.
Ryan stood by himself in the garage for a few moments, still taking in his swirling resentment as it shifted from person to person. As he closed the garage door, his temper settled on Jake, the one who had forced his hand. Walking to his car, he felt lost in his rage with the fog surrounding him. His car’s vibration resonated with his frustration. He knew his only outlet right now was to go home and wait to confront Stacy tomorrow. After a few miles he settled into this mindset and focused solely on getting home.
His focus was easily broken as he approached another car only a few yards ahead that the fog hid so well. Slowing down to their speed, Ryan realized that he sped well over the limit for the past few miles, but he also realized that this new car was also traveling far below. After a few stop signs he began revving his engine and then flashing his brights. All Ryan wanted was to be home and for this night to be over. The fog glowed red for a second, surrounding him in his rage, as the sound of their wheels squealed. His head rocked forward from the collision of the two cars as the red glow intensified, attempting to escape its housing.
His aggression had caught up to him. The sound of their bumpers crunching brought about a wave of guilt. Was this really that bad? Would he let this one go and just keep driving? He saw the fog blink yellow, and his guilt grew unbearable as they both pulled off to the side of the road. How could he have been so dumb? He grabbed his insurance card from the glove box and stepped out of the car, still only be able to see the mangled bumper and cracked tail lights.
As he stepped towards the other driver he could see the rest of his most likely very expensive car and could only imagine how mad the other person would be. Finally he saw the other driver; he was an older man probably in his late thirties. He seemed somewhat familiar, like one of his friends parents, but something was off. He reached out his hand and Ryan nervously handed over his insurance card.
“I hope you know what you’ve done,” the driver said sternly as if this was his own child.
Scratching his head, “Um… ya. I stayed out a little too late and I just wanted to get home… and I was being a little aggressive and… I’m sorry,” Ryan confessed to this stranger.
“Excuses won’t get you… “ He paused transfixed on the insurance card. “Your name is Ryan Nelson?” he asked.
“Um… Yes,” Ryan responded.
The stranger was caught up on something that left Ryan more confused. “You have the same name as a person I knew a while ago and,” he turned the insurance card around again and said, “I think you have the same name.”
“If it was that long ago, I was probably too-” Ryan tried to explain.
“No, he was your age when he disappeared,” he stated with a cold expression.
“Um… “ Ryan said quietly. This put him on edge as the silence crept back in. Trying to change the subject for any amount of time, Ryan asked, “So what are you doing out this late?”
“Oh I’m sorry, I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Jacob Roberts. I’m a sheriff’s deputy,” he explained in a demeaning tone. As Ryan seemed to be in shock, he tried to ease off by explaining, “I’m off duty. So I can’t hold this against you.” Ryan Stood still looking just off to the left of him like there was something lingering over him. Jacob tried to lighten the mood as Ryan seemed unresponsive by continuing, “Look, I know it’s mostly because of the weather that this happened. I just want you to learn your lesson.”
Ryan’s expression brightened as his mind tried to ignore what was presented to it. “Again, I’m sorry for this, “ Ryan said gesturing towards Jacob’s car. A thought came across and Ryan asked, “Do you have any kids? You seem like you’ve dealt with this type of thing before.”
Jacob reached into his back pocket, “Oh well, none your age, but someday we will. You see my daughter was born a few months ago,“ he explained as he brought his open wallet over to Ryan. Ryan lightly grasped it to pull it closer to his face. “So that is my daughter Rachael, and that is my wife of 10 years, Stacy, “ Jacob continued.
For a moment Ryan stared at the picture and all he could do was clench his fist as all of his rage from earlier came flooding back. He now knew why Jake was so insistent, why he was so pressing, and why he brought up cheating. This person had to be him and Ryan was sure. The fog blinded his reasoning and he continued to infer that Jake or at least this Jake made him disappear. Why else but to have Stacy all to himself. For all Ryan knew it could be later tonight. Was it this Jake that was going to do it? Did he just admit to killing him? At last Ryan panicked, punching Jacob in the jaw and onto the ground. The sight of that face drove his anger as he bent over him and continued to smash his knuckles into his face. He looked at his shaking hands to see his scraped knuckles and then at Jacob’s to see the wallet still tightly gripped. Looking back at the blood dripping from Jacob’s face, his rage drained out of him like bath water, but his repugnant action left a sickening residue to coat his frail mental state.
Ryan pried the wallet from his hands but was at the point of nausea as Jacob laid motionless on the ground in front of him. As he stood up, the thoughts of possibly killing his friend, drove him to the edge and he looked away puking into the ditch. Ryan leaned against the hood of his car trying to regain control of the situation. Looking back at the wallet, he couldn’t believe what he had done. How could this be Jake? To Ryan this had to be some type of elaborate joke. Why would he have been so insistent earlier if not for this? He checked Jacob’s pulse and was relieved to find one. After what felt like an hour, he decided he needed more proof than just the wallet to know if this was truly Jake. This question clouded his mind as if killing a stranger was somehow less important. Ryan raced back to his car and took a few attempts to insert his keys into the started while his hands were still sore and guilt.
Starting his car, he was again reminded of the damage he had done to Jacob’s, but left fleeing from his past aggression. He took his time driving back to town since the fog still hung in the night air. Did Jake really do that to him? Did Ryan really do that to him? Did the city finally put up more street lights? He wondered as the distance between stop signs decreased. He drove down main street again but instead of turning off towards his house to get some sleep, he turned off towards Jake’s. He wanted the slightest bit of closure. Anything to put his mind at ease. He believed seeing his friend would make this night finally end. Pulling in front of his house, he saw unfamiliar cars. Pulling a few more feet forwards he could tell that one was a cop car. It could be Jacob’s. He didn’t think Jake would take a joke this far, but he didn’t want to chance it so he parked around the corner.
Ryan snuck around back because he made it clear to never knock since his family were light sleepers as well. Not seeing any lights on, he reached for his phone to only find Jacob’s wallet. He needed his phone to text Jake to meet him out back. Without it he have to peer into the living room window but the fog was too dense. He walked further into the bushes and he nearly tripped on a shovel. He caught himself before colliding into the house. Through the window all he could see were the silhouettes of furniture. Finally after waiting some time, he saw some figures appear over the furniture. He looked down at the wallet again and saw that picture of Stacy. It was of her smiling while holding her daughter. The living room light came on and there was Stacy holding her baby but that lovely smile had been replaced with a somber one covered in tears. An on duty officer with a notepad in one hand and a framed picture in another was the other figure.
“I’m sorry Mrs. Roberts. The fog is too thick to keep looking tonight,“ the officer said, giving her a pained pat on the back. Stacy began to tear up again as the thought of losing him closed further in. The officer sat down the framed photo and consoled her, “Look I heard what happened with your old friend and we’re not going to let that happen again. Now we don’t think it’s a homicide at this time but we can’t rule that out.” Tears flowed down her face as she sobbed uncontrollably. “Once this fog clears, we’ll put everyone on this and we’ll look for his car,” He said holding his arms out and embracing her. Ryan put his open hand on the shovel to support him as those sickening thoughts crept back into his mind.
Stacy whimpered into the officer’s shoulder, “All they found… Last t...time… were those skid marks.”
“It’s okay,” He tried his best to comfort her.
“They just had to be his,” she sobbed into his shoulder.
The officer let go and told her, “I have to go now. I’ll be back in the morning with the search party.” The officer left through the front door while Stacy rocked back and forth with her baby in her arms. She looked across the living room searching in sorrow as she wiped away the tears on her cheek. Ryan couldn’t look away. It haunted him more than the picture ever could. In his trance he didn’t notice, but now Stacy was staring back at him. His sight haunted her just as much as hers. She couldn’t forget that face because he looked the same as the day he disappeared, tired and exhausted. She could only imagine but was choosing to ignore his presence, and instead dreamed about how things would have been different in the past. Her fantasies didn’t last long however, as Ryan finally noticed her attention. As fast as he ran for his car, she ran to alert the officer.