I looked out from my back porch to the misty wood, a short walk away from my house. I'd needed a break from the crowd brought in by the holidays—ten people, and counting—so I had grabbed my coat, scarf, and hat, and slipped out the back door to avoid anyone noticing my exit. I walked down the stairs leading down to the dirt path; it was spongy, my boots sinking down a couple millimeters, then coming away with a small film of grime covering their bottom. I breathed in the cool, damp air, relishing in the chill that slid through me like a mouthful of sweet ice cream. To my right was the lakeside, so clear I could see fish darting around twenty feet away on a clear day. But today, with the fog rolling off of the water's surface, there were no fish to be seen; only the occasional splash that came from the depths of the obscuring haze.
Up ahead, the tree line loomed, leaves rusted and golden, ready to fall at the slightest hint of a breeze. Cloudy tendrils reached out to wrap around the trunks of the great maple trees, the thin birch trees, the unruly underbrush, covering the entire woodland in a heavy blanket of silence and stillness. Walking up to the small washed-out gate that served no purpose but to block the foot-wide path, I glanced back over my shoulder: my house, the only one for a mile, stood a lonely vigil overhanging the lake, stilts holding it up from the chilled water of the lake. From the windows came a soft yellow glow, piercing through the heavy cover of water vapor hanging in the air. I couldn't hear or see what was happening inside, but I knew it was about time to start preparing dinner. Sophie—only four years old—would probably start complaining about whatever dish was being prepared, and my aunts, uncles, and parents would all try to appease the young girl, because the meal would probably already be half done. My other cousins would look on from the couches in the living room, barely stifling their giggles as they watched all of the grown-ups pander to a sobbing, whining five-year old. A small smile touched my lips, and I was tempted to turn around and go back up the path, slip in through the back and pretend I had never left.
The peace and quiet of the woods, though, stopped me. The trees beckoned with welcoming arms, the fog promising to enshroud me in my own little blanket of peace for as long as it was able. With one last look at the distant house, I unlatched the rusty gate and made my way into the darkening gathering of trees.
Walking through the maze of vegetation, I could feel the fog slowly folding around me, limiting my world to only a couple feet in either direction. Every once in a while, I would see eddies in the white walls. My eldest cousin, Travis, used to try to scare me, saying that they were fog wraiths come to take me away to the 'Other Realm', and that the howls of wind we sometimes heard were their cries, calling the other wraiths of the woods to come forth and nab the child they had found.
He had loved making up fantastical stories for me, and I would listen intently to each and every one of them. That was before he moved three states away, bride in tow, and a child already on the way. I hardly saw him anymore, not even during holidays. Once in a while, he would send me some of his paintings: beautifully imagined works of art depicting anything from portraits to landscapes that never failed to find a place on the walls of my room. The latest one was of a spot not too far from my current place on the path: a clearing where we had often stopped to rest together after a day of running about in the woods. There was a waist-level rock in the middle of the clearing, flat and smooth, and we would sometimes take food out for picnics on it when one of us started to feel stifled by the fullness of the house—he and I had always tired of a plethora of people rather quickly. In the painting, the clearing had been enshrouded in an ethereal fog, wispy and tinted with a glowing blue. As I came up to the glade, I had to marvel at how well he remembered this place. Travis had gotten every detail right, down to the moss on the rock. The only thing not exactly like the painting was the fog, which was instead highlighted with a deep golden-orange in the dying afternoon rays of light. I looked at the clock on my phone, making sure I still had time before dark (with or without Travis' stories, walking around in the woods after dark was a risk I wasn't about to take). The family probably wouldn't notice I was gone for another half an hour, and I had yet another thirty minutes before night fell on the forest.
Confident that I had time to spare, I walked over to the rock and sat on it, lowering myself onto the giant slab so that I was lying down. The fog had made the boulder moist, and I shivered as the condensation soaked into my clothes. Once I got used to it, however, the coolness of the granite was calming, and I soon found myself closing my eyes contentedly, losing myself in memories of previous visits to the clearing: humming along to my music while picking sticks off of the ground for kindling; Travis showing me evidence of faeries—not, under any circumstances, to be spelled 'fairies', he had said—in the fungus growing on the surrounding trees; playing hide and seek, where Travis would always pretend he couldn't find me, no matter how badly I was hidden...
I opened my eyes, snapped out of my reverie by a cold jolt. It was darker than when my eyes had first shut. A quick check on my phone told me I had fallen asleep at some point. I now only had ten minutes until sundown, and already I was having trouble even seeing the small bit of the world that the fog allowed me. I hopped down from the chilled boulder, shivering as I realized just how cold it had gotten in the past fifty minutes. The grass squelched when my boots hit the ground, and a bit of water got into my left sock, making every step out of the clearing a miserable affair, full of squishing and splashing. My coat and jeans were damp from being out on a cold, wet rock for almost an hour, and I pulled my scarf tighter around me, hoping it would have some effect.
I was half way to the ashen wood of the gate when I heard noises from up ahead. I stopped, trying to slow my breath and calm my shivers so I could zero in on whatever I had heard.
There was almost nothing that I could pick up on: the fog and growing darkness had worked hand in hand to make sure of that. Leaves and twigs didn't snap or crunch, and I wouldn't have been able to see a silhouette even if the trail had been straight. The only thing I could hear was squishing, the same sound that my own feet had been making. All of the stories Travis had ever told me came rushing back, about the headless farmer who had lost his hand and replaced it with an axe so he could behead trespassers; or the slime monsters that hid under the fallen leaves and grabbed your ankles, pulling you under the ground to be food for the trees. The list went on and on, cycling endlessly through my mind. The wet noises were coming closer now, and I could make out the shadow of a humanoid shape. I'm doomed, I concluded, quietly moving off the trail a bit in hopes that whatever it was wouldn't notice me.
The noise was almost on top of me now, and I held my breath, watching as it strolled by. Its ponderous pace made it easier for me to watch it from behind my tree: the figure was maybe a head taller than me—it actually had a head, thank goodness—and obviously male. He was slim, and walked with an easy, comfortable roll. A low, quiet tune was being hummed steadily as he walked along the path. The sound was familiar, and I found myself slipping back onto the path and going after him once the fog had swallowed his figure. The humming was soft, but I was able to follow it through the encroaching darkness. With each turn he made, we got closer to the clearing I had just come from.
A few feet from the opening, the humming stopped. I stood there in silence, listening to his squelching shoes slowly become quieter and quieter. After a minute or so of silence, I heard his voice call my name into the forest: "Sam! You here?" The voice, like the tune, was familiar, and the first sparks of recognition in my mind ignited into a flame.
"Travis?" I whispered, creeping slowly forward, carefully feeling my way through the darkness.
There was some more wet mud-squishing as he turned to face the sound of my voice and the click of a flashlight echoed into the night, though the glow didn't quite reach me. "I knew I'd find you here." I could hear the smile in his voice, and it forced a small smile to touch my own lips. "Where exactly are you, by the way? I can't really see anything…" The flashlight beam was barely visible from where I was, but I could just make out the soft yellow patch through the blanket of fog.
"Over here!" I called back, making sure I kept talking so that he could find me. "Just follow my voice. I'm over by the entrance, still on the path, I think. If you just keep walking this way, then…"
A ray of light flicked in and out of my face. "Found you." He grinned, eyes curving up in just the way I remembered, thick brows slanting down in the way that always made him look like there was a prank about to be pulled.
"Why're you here?" I got out through shivers and chattering teeth, clinging close to Travis as we picked our way back out of the clearing, trying not to lose him in the soupy miasma.
"Your mom asked me to come get you," he replied, producing a blanket from underneath his jacket. "She thought you might be out here, so she sent me to make sure the wraiths hadn't gotten to you."
I took the warm blanket from his outstretched hand and wrapped it around me. "That's not what I meant, Travis," I insisted, ignoring his joke, "I haven't seen you for almost three years! Where were you?"
He sighed and put his arm over my shoulders, pulling me closer. I didn't fight it; instead, I moved closer to his side, which was putting out heat like a furnace. "I didn't have enough money to fly over until now," he answered, "Turns out, painting doesn't earn quite as much money as I would have hoped…"
"You could've called." Even to myself, I sounded like I was sulking, but I didn't really feel like caring.
A small chuckle came from him, though it sounded more apologetic than amused. "I guess I could have. I'm sorry, Sam."
I smacked him lightly in the side. "It's okay. Just don't do it again, alright?"