Bogleech.com's 2014 Horror Write-off:
" Haze "
By Joseph Hartman
A wage-slave forgot to set her alarm one morning. Instead of being shocked awake by the abrasive shouting of her phone, she drifted from consciousness to the dim red light of morning. Her tired brain stung with the thought of the hours she left the gas station unattended. "I was sick," She would say. "Literally vomiting everywhere." They would believe her. Or fire her. Either way, it hardly mattered.
She pulled the covers closer. Sleeping in was an option, but not one her body would let her take. She was too anxious to sleep, and a growing headache wracked her brain. Her restless legs led her to the front room of the apartment. Her mother stared out the window. She didn't even turn her head when her daughter entered the room.
"If you're wondering why I'm still here..."
Her mother didn't care. "Anna, have you ever seen fog like this?"
She looked out the window. She could hardly see the buildings in front of her. In every direction, the world was engulfed by crimson mist. Only a cloudy outline of the sun could be seen, leaving the intersection in an odd sort of half-light.
Anna rolled her eyes, and hooked her hands under the window, but her mother grabbed her arm. "Wait!" She said, suddenly tense. "What if it's toxic? There might have been some sort of nuclear spill, I don't know..."
"You're paranoid," Anna said, and shook her mother's grip off. In one quick motion, she pulled the window open. Immediately the room became heavy and humid, though no colder. There was a mildewy smell in the air, like the streets after a long rain. "See? We're not dead, so there's no problem." Her mother gave her a dirty look. Anna turned away and grabbed her keys.
"I'm going out." She said.
Anna opened the front door. "Does it matter?"
Her mom sighed. "...Stay safe."
She walked out the door and closed it, not bothering to lock it. "Like you care..." She mumbled under her breath.
The complex was quiet, but that was no surprise. Anna walked past her neighbors' doors on her way to the staircase, and descended to her car. She could hardly see two feet in front of her, so she kept her head down, focusing on her path along the unwashed concrete.
At the park across the street, the kids from the complex were playing, spinning on the carousel and rocking back and forth on the swing. Behind her, a neighbor's car's alarm had gone off, making her headache worse with each beep. Every sound, every laugh was like a bullet through her head. BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP.
The fog wasn't bothering anyone in the slightest. But Anna felt increasingly paranoid as she walked down the sidewalk. Her breathing became heavy and her body shuddered. The air was closing in on her, like a box, enclosing around and strangling her.
Footsteps. Right behind her. She whipped her taser out of her purse and pivoted, coming face to face with Terry, that stoner kid from a few doors down. They used to be friends. Used to.
He threw up his hands, putting on a nervous smile. His eyes focused on the taser's sparking tip. "Heyyy, there's no need for violence. I'm unarmed." She put it away and glared at him, sticking her key in the lock. His arms fell slack to his sides.
"So, uh..." Terry hung around the car, trying to catch Anna's eye. His own eyes were not bloodshot, to Anna's surprise.
"What do you want? I'm not lending you any money if that's what you're after." She snapped at him.
He shook his head. "I just wanted a ride. Is that too much to ask?"
She grumbled and unlocked the door. He climbed in. "Where to?"
"Comic store. I'm meeting up with some friends there." He was unusually terse, looking straight forward as he spoke.
The car rumbled to life, and she rolled it out of its space. "I'm heading to the university. You can walk from there."
They drove out of the intersection, and almost immediately the redness thickened as to make the road ahead of her invisible. She switched on her headlights, but that didn't make it much better.
"Actually..." Terry said timidly after a long silence. "Could you... drop me off there directly? I'd... rather not walk."
"Scared of a little haze?" She chuckled. "I would think you would enjoy this."
He looked offended. "Are you kidding?! Look at this stuff!" And sounded much the same.
"Sure, it's red. What's your point?" She shook her head, smiling.
"It's not right. It's..." He groaned and held a hand to his head.
Anna frowned. "Headache?" He nodded, an anguished expression on his face, groaning.
She suddenly realized that she could not see either side of the street. Only the road directly in front of her. The same yellow stripes, blurring past. No lights. No sounds. No other cars on the road with her.
Anna accelerated. The engine growled. Then finally, a building came into view: the apartment complex they had left from. She stomped on the brakes, and the car shuddered to a stop. They both fell silent.
"...Did... did I just drive in a circle?" She said, her gaping mouth suddenly dry and clammy.
Terry slowly shook his head. "You never turned. Not once."
They had left from one side of the intersection, and arrived at the other. The same building, the same park, the same dirty sidewalks. Anna closed her mouth, grit her teeth, and floored the gas. The car roared past the red light, and back into the fog.
"Whoa, whoa! Stop, you'll crash!" Terry gripped the sides of his chair.
"Wanna bet?" She whispered angrily.
Sure enough, after driving for a few minutes, there were no cars to crash into. And not much of anything else either. Anna squinted into the mist on either side of her. Nondescript houses. Silhouettes. And in front of them, the apartment building. Again. The children laughing again. The car alarm again.
Anna stopped in the middle of the intersection. She fished her phone from her pocket, dialing her mother's number. Terry sat quietly, eyes pointed forward.
"Mom?!" She said, voice cracking as the phone was picked up.
There was a slight delay. "...Yes, Anna? What is it?" Her voice seemed distorted, as if there was something wrong with the phone.
"Are... are you still home?"
"Why would I leave?"
"Doesn't matter, listen! I want you to look out the window..."
"Oh, but there's so much fog!"
Anna held her breath and rolled down her car window. The heavy mildew air rushed in, making even the interior of the car seem hazy. She stuck her hand out and waved into the air, squinting at the window of their apartment.
"Can you see me? Please tell me you can see me..."
There was a pause. An indistinct figure appeared in the window, then vanished.
"Yes, I can see you. Is... is something wrong, honey? Are you okay?"
Anna inhaled. Exhaled. "...Yeah, I'm fine. I'm just... heading to the university. I need to talk with dad."
Her mom drew in a sharp breath. "You're going to see that horrible scientist? Why on earth-"
Anna shut the phone, and stuffed it in her purse. Her hands returned to the wheel, and she drove forward once again. Into the haze. Terry's expression hadn't changed.
"Do you think... this is the end of the world?" Terry whispered.
"It's not the end of the world." Anna replied flatly. "I thought you were sober."
"Maybe we're both dead, and this is the afterlife."
"We're not dead."
"Every day goes by the same. When we die, we don't even notice. And then we end up here-"
Anna slammed on the brakes. They were in the thick of the fog.
"Get out of my car." She said. He gasped, eyes wide. "I gave you a ride. That's it."
"N-no! You can't leave me out here!" He pleaded. He was desperate. But why was he so scared of a little fog? Maybe he had a reason now, but Anna didn't care. She wasn't about to deal with him right now. So she pulled out her taser.
Terry began hyperventilating, as Anna edged her weapon closer. With a whimper, he threw open the door and climbed out. He turned and gave her a pleading look, but her subsequent acceleration slammed the door shut. In the rear view mirror, she could see him running after her, waving his arms. Before long, he disappeared into the fog.
Anna continued driving. And when she saw the apartment again, she didn't stop. And as she passed it, back into the fog, she didn't see Terry. She smiled cynically to herself. Her theory was correct: she was definitely moving. She wasn't just looping back on the same intersection. But it didn't make her feel better. Not at all.
That was the third time she passed the apartment. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. At eleven, she tried turning on the intersection, going perpendicular to her previous path. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen.
Every time Anna passed, she heard that same alarm again. BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP. And on her fifteenth pass, she saw a moving figure inside, and realized that it was no alarm at all. She parked in her usual place, and got out of her car, walking quickly to the other car. She grimaced, ready to give the prankster a piece of her mind.
She arrived at the window, hand raised to knock. But she lowered it. Inside was a figure. And that was the most she could call it. It was flesh colored, and it didn't have eyes, ears, or hair. Over and over, it slammed its face into the steering wheel, with mechanical precision and timing. Its mouth opened and closed, taking in ragged breaths that sounded like howling through the half-closed window.
She backed away silently, hoping it didn't notice her. More than ever before, the red haze pressed in on her, making her feel trapped and claustrophobic, like she was trapped in a dark box with no way out.
Her head whirled around, eyes darting to take in any detail. She hadn't given it much mind when she was driving, but every time she passed the apartment, it became less distinct. Not just harder to see, but less detailed. More simple. Like manufactured versions of the original, thrown together at the last minute by something that didn't entirely understand what they were meant for.
Windows were missing, or painted on, or plastered on like posters, peeling off the perfectly flat walls. At the park, there were no longer children. But the laughing remained, emanating from wayward limbs that clung to the playground. Swinging on a perpetual swing. Spinning and spinning on the carousel. Then, footsteps. Uneven footsteps. Behind her. She turned.
It was Terry. Or some instance of him. His neck was grotesquely elongated, thick red smoke billowing out of holes in his neck. His face was twisted, as if it was simply blurred and swirled on the surface of his head, and his long arms were raised in the air in a gesture of surrender.
"Give me a ride," He repeated in a flat, distorted voice. "Give me a ride. Give me a ride."
"Oh... oh my god." Anna said, feeling a sudden need to vomit. He smelled like mildew, and dark corners of cellars. She pulled out her taser, and jabbed it at him. "Get away from me!"
"Give me a ride." He spasmed as she shocked him, but continued to advance. Red smoke swirled into Anna's face, and she coughed and ran back to the car, eyes watering.
"Mom! Mom!" She screamed into her phone. The Terry-thing walked against the car with his arms up, making no attempt to break in. "Come on, pick up!" No answer.
She climbed through the other door, and ran around, dashing up the stairs to the apartment complex. There were too many doors, unnumbered doors, stairs that led to walls, or twisted until they were upside-down. It was overwhelming. But she couldn't stop.
Uneven footsteps behind her. She ran and ran, continued to climb the mazelike structure, until things started to look familiar. Doors started to have numbers again. A temporary beacon of sanity.
She rattled her apartment's knob. It was locked. She quickly wrenched the key into the lock and tossed the door open. The apartment looked the same. Almost. Portraits on the walls were framed pieces of blank paper. The former carpet was simply a concrete floor with the colors it used to have painted on. And it all smelled of mildew. Mildew. Mildew.
Anna's mother sat by the window. Head pointed outward, mop of hair drooping down.
"Mom... mom..." She called out to her, short of breath. She could only breathe in the haze.
She ignored her.
"Why... why won't you answer me...?" Anna cried. "Why won't you listen... when it matters?"
She stumbled over, and grabbed her mother's shoulder. She turned her around to look at her face, and was greeted by the back of her head. Another mop of hair, where her face should've been. Where that wrinkled face should be staring.
"ANNA," The hair-thing screamed. Louder than anything Anna had ever heard. She screamed back. "hAVE YOU evERR SEEN FOG like THIS."
Anna ran out of the room. "have you EVER"
Out of the apartment. "SEen foOg Ever"
Terry on the steps. "STAY SAFE. stay SAFE. STAY safe. stay"
She jumped over the railing. "might BE TOOOooxic"
Hit the ground. Hard. "there's so much FOG"
Limped to her car. The voice started to fade. Anna clutched the handle, and pulled at it with one hand, nursing her headache with the other. If it got any worse, her head would split open. BEEP BEEP BEEP-
She got into her car. The noise was muffled. She drove away from the apartment, away from the alarm, away from the Terry and Mom things. But every direction would simply lead her back into the fog.
But she kept driving. She drove until she thought she couldn't drive. And drove some more. Until she saw another car in her rear-view mirror. A car that looked like hers.
She suddenly felt very claustrophobic, and opened her windows. Though the mildew smell was overpowering now, it was good to feel the wind on her face. Wind that was growing stronger by the second, until it grew into a howling gale, and for the first time since it appeared, the blood-red haze thinned. And she could finally see.
There was no horizon. The world was flat, and in front of her were endless rows of intersections. Apartment complexes and parks and parked cars, all the way. Illuminated by a perpetual sunrise. And in her rear-view mirror, she saw the driver of the car behind her. It was her. She recognized the hair. But there was no face. And behind that car, another. And another. On and on into infinity.
Anna focused on the road ahead, a silent screaming in her head consuming her emotions, consuming her reason, consuming everything but the body that kept the car moving. After hours of driving, the gas meter still read F.
She wanted to stop. But she would never stop. If she wanted to live, she would never stop. She would never let those things catch her. Touch her. Become her.
Never. Never. She slammed her fist against the steering wheel in frustration. BEEP. Over and over. BEEP BEEP. Her headache was getting worse. BEEP BEEP BEEP. Maybe her face would do better.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP.
She could never stop.