I’ve never liked small towns. Both the thought of them and their size always deterred me from ever considering moving into one. In such a small place, everybody would know each other; they would not have a sense of privacy.
I was on a road trip by myself, heading to my family’s house for the holiday season. I wouldn’t call it a road trip, however, considering I never stopped off at any landmarks for sight seeing or activities. I was driving home to see my family again. The rain was heavy, and the road was muddy as water droplets poured onto my front window. Trees flew beside me as I kept a steady speed on the winding road ahead, watching out for sudden twists and turns. As I took a quick look out the window, I saw that the drenched sun was touching the tip of the horizon. I checked the time displayed in my car. 5:30. I then drew my eyes to another light displayed right beside my clock. The gas light. I was almost out. Releasing a heavy sigh, I kept a lookout for the next gas station ahead. And to my surprise, the little town in Vermont revealed itself as I turned one last corner on the winding road.
Surrounded by trees and the crisp air, the little town in Vermont housed around only eight hundred people, according to the welcoming sign. The sun had set as the temperature dropped, plunging the town into darkness as few street lamps were lit. A heavy layer of fog consumed the streets of the town as I was driving, masking the road in front of me. I quickly pulled over to what I assumed was a street curb and sat in silence. Realizing it was too dangerous to drive in this condition, I opened the glove box and rummaged through the contents, looking for a flashlight. The moment I found one, I closed the compartment, turned off my car, and was just about to open the door when a figure’s fist came aggressively knocking on my door’s window in front of me. I could only see their fist on my window since the fog was so thick.
“Let me in! I can’t stay out here! Please!”
I jumped back. “Look, I don’t have any money.” (A lie) “Please go away.”
The pounding on my window intensified. “It’ll get me! Let me in!”
Knowing I’d regret it later, I unlocked the door, and the stranger hurled themselves into my back seat, panting and frantically looking around.
A pause. Besides the panting, the only sound that was heard was the humming of the street lamp above.
“My house is just up around the corner. You can stay there for the night if you’d like. We shouldn’t be out on the streets this late, you know. It would definitely get us. The tapes said so.”
So many questions, yet instead of asking them, I just turned on my car and drove to where the stranger pointed.
“You’re not from around here, are you? I can tell because I don’t recognize your face. Also because you’re out here in the fog so late at night.”
“It’s six,” I responded. And that was all I said to them for the rest of the drive. The stranger continued to give me directions to their home. Turn here, turn there. When we made it to their driveway, they shifted in the backseat uncomfortably.
The stranger spoke in a voice full of fear. “At least just walk me to my house so I can get there safely. The tapes said I’m safer in a group.”
I did so.
The fog continued to suppress my eyesight as we walked to his front door.
“Quick question,” I said, turning to the stranger. “You mentioned tapes multiple times. What do you mean by that?”
“The tapes they give us every week. We watch them every night to keep track of the fog and what’s in it.”
Curious. “Can I see one?”
Their eyes lit up. “Of course! Come on in.” They opened the front door to the house. Air from the outside filled the front room, almost as if the house were breathing in the fresh air.
Their house was dark. I immediately noticed no pictures or any decorations of that matter. Just classic furniture and a lamp, which appeared to be broken. The stranger immediately dug through an old cardboard box tucked beneath a dresser. The box was filled with VHS tapes.
“They give us a set of seven tapes every week,” the stranger said while rummaging through the box. “What day was it today?”
They pulled out a VHS tape that was labeled Friday in dark red ink.
“I’ll go and start it up. I’ll call you in when it’s ready.” The stranger opened a door into the room ahead of me, revealing a room with carpet and nothing more than one bubble TV with bunny ears on the floor. The stranger quickly closed the door in front of me, leaving me all alone in their dark living room.
I took out my flashlight I found in my car and looked around more. The one-story house had tan wallpaper on every wall, gray carpet on every floor, and fog blocking the view from every window. I tried a light switch and looked up at the ceiling lights. Nothing.
A white light shone from beneath the television room’s door as muffled classical music filled the house.
The tape must have started. No word from the stranger.
A deep, calm voice from behind me: “They’re not going to call you, you know.”
Heart sinking, I turned around as my flashlight landed on the face of a man in the corner of the dark living room.
He wasn’t there when we entered the house. Couldn’t have been.
He stepped forward. “Shall we take a walk?”
I didn’t respond. Of course I didn’t. How could I?
“Oh, come on,” he continued. My flashlight followed his dark outline as he walked towards the door. Raising his hand and making a check mark in the air, the front door suddenly opened, revealing the wall of fog. “I know you’re curious.” He disappeared into the dark cloud. The sound of the stranger’s laughter came from the television room behind me as the classical music continued. Or was it crying? I turned around, curious about what was on that VHS tape.
“There’s plenty of time to watch those,” the man said in the fog, almost reading my mind. “Coming?”
I walked toward the front door and was just about to leave the dark house, but hesitated. Not because of the strange man and the immediate red flags he gave off, but because of the fog. The thick, gray, dangerous fog. Was it really harmful?
“Interesting,” the man’s voice echoed from the fog, as if studying me. “Very inter- you know, they always said fear started from within, but they also said it can start from being around others, too. Well, come on now, the fog won’t hurt you. I promise.”
Without thinking, I took a step out into the cold, dark abyss. To my surprise, I could see something in front of me. I could see the sidewalk I was standing on, and the figure of the man at the end of the asphalt street. I looked to my left and saw another house. A white flickering light was reflecting off one window from a tv. It wasn’t just this stranger’s house. I looked to my right and saw the same thing. It’s everyone’s.
“Nothing like good ol’ nightly routines!” The man shouted from the end of the street. He walked closer, his voice lowering from a shout to a whisper by the time he towered over me. Only then did I realize how tall and skinny he was. “Growing up, I was never allowed to watch TV past six. But then again, my family wasn’t exactly known to be the nicest of people, now were they.”
I kept a straight face, hiding my fear. “What are they watching? What are you doing to them?”
His face, so close to mine now, turned from a hard grin to a hard frown. “Why, I’m not doing anything to them, am I? They’re doing it to themselves. Yes. I like to think that I merely provide them with the tools needed to… form their own opinion.”
My poker face was fading. My heart thumping at rates I didn’t know possible. “Doing what,” I whispered. It quickly became a loud shout, “What are they doing to themselves!”
“Watching the tapes, of course!” He replied in a loud shout, matching my energy in attempts to mock me. “Every single week I give them new tapes at our town meeting and every single night they watch these tapes so that every single one of these citizens knows what’s in the fog and how to deal with it.”
I looked around, slowly scanning the surrounding street. “But,” I started, then paused, taking in my surroundings. Waiting for something to come out of the fog and kill me. Eat me. Or worse… But there was nothing. “There’s nothing in the fog.”
The man’s face morphed into a wide grin, spreading from one eye to the other. He snapped his two fingers together and pointed at me. “Bingo.”
“So then, why do these people listen to the tapes?” I asked in frustration. “Why can’t they just move on with their lives… and why are you showing me all this? Why-”
The tall man interrupted me by putting both his hands up close to my face, then backed away slowly. “Enough with these questions. They really get on my nerves, you know. But I did like the last one, in my opinion.” He continued to walk down the street and closed in on the house closest to him. I followed, but at a safe distance. He peered into the window of the home, watching the flickering white light of the television screen and the person sitting in front of it. “I’m showing you all of this because… well, because I’m proud of it, really.” He continued to watch the person in front of the television. Watching them stare into it like a deer in headlights. “This didn’t happen overnight. No, it took time and work to get them like this.” He put one hand on the window. “They’re better when they’re scared. More controllable. More ripe. And alone. Always alone.” He put his other hand on the window now. I saw his eyes widen and his mouth open from a distance. He continued to stare directly at the person. “No one to hear them-” The tall man shot instantly into the window and pounced on his unknowing victim. The sound of shattering glass startled me as I fell on the wet grass. I laid there on the ground for a couple of moments, taking in what just happened and plotting what to do next. Run. Most likely run. That would be the best plan.
Run. Because there really was something in the fog.
I stood up and brushed myself off. Letting my curiosity get the best of me again, I peered into the broken window and saw what remained of the room. I saw nothing but the active box television sitting in the room painted with fresh blood. As I inched closer, classical music blared into my ears, pushing me back onto the grassy front yard.
I rubbed my eyes and got up, dizzily sprinting towards my car in the thick fog that surrounded me.
“Leaving so soon?”
I stopped and turned slowly behind me. Adrenaline continued to rush through my body. The tall man’s voice filled the fog as he spoke. “We were just getting acquainted.” His face suddenly emerged from the fog and eased closer to mine. “I’m sorry about my actions. They were completely uncalled for.” He wiped the last drop of blood on his face with the sleeve of his coat as he spoke. Heart beating, I turned and bolted towards my car once more, ignoring the tall man.
“Life’s better this way, you know! I’m doing them a favor!” He shouted from behind me. “No crime. No rotten apples in the batch. Everyone does what they’re told and there’s no trouble.”
I shouted from behind me as I finally ran into my car and blindly reached for the front door. “It’s not better!” I opened the front door. “They’re too scared to do anything at all, that’s not living!”
I quickly slid into the front seat and closed the door. Immediately after, my car window was under attack as the tall man’s fist aggressively slammed against it. I tried to ignore the thunderous slams as I aimed to start my car and drive away. Drive away and never come back. Never think of this town again and block it out of my mind all together. The slamming of my car window continued. Continued more. And more.
“Excuse me?” A pause. “Excuse me?”
I looked up, eyes flinching, as the sun shone into my car. Looking around, I saw I was parked on the side of the road. Everything was quiet except for the knocking on my car window.
“Excuse me? Are you okay?” A familiar voice called from outside my car.
“Yes, yes,” I replied in a drowsy voice. “Just give me some time, that’s all.”
“You’ve been here all night. Are you sure everything’s okay?”
“Must have dozed off. Look, really, I’m-” I looked up and saw the tall man standing outside my window. I must have gasped and jumped back in my seat because he looked alarmed and concerned.
“Well, I was just asking because you’re parked out front of the town hall. The town meeting is about to begin and I gotta set up and all,” he explained in a calm voice. “Perks of being a mayor and all,” he sarcastically joked.
“Right.” I made a fake laugh to ease the tension.
“You know, we haven’t had a new person in town for a while. Maybe come in for a bit and we’ll show you around. I’m very proud of it, really. This-”
“Didn’t happen overnight,” we both said in the same tone together. “Yeah, I get it. Look, with all due respect, I gotta get home to my family. It’s late already and I should get going.”
“Not an issue. Come back if you’re ever curious.”