ALL THE NEWS THAT FITS
For the first time, putting up my short stories for everyone.
North of Fog
By Gretchen Rix
When the stranger introduced himself as the confidence man from North of Fog, we all blinked. My mouth dropped open.
He—or she, or it—didn’t look like any of us. His arms resembled the kind of bolsters you find on the beds at expensive hotels, as did his legs, only longer. He had a head, I guess, and a trunk, but his trunk was simply two of the arm bolster things clumsily stitched together. I say he probably had a head because there was definitely something on top of that cushiony, pillow-like body that talked. We couldn’t look away.
After his introduction, he just stood there. I was beginning to wonder if he understood the meaning of confidence man, when he made it very clear that he didn’t. “Where do I deposit it?” he asked our group.
I couldn’t help myself. “Deposit what?”
The stranger’s head turned full circle, then rotated back until he was staring straight at me. I guess. The others with me took several steps back, and then crowded behind me, for shelter. I was notorious for my ability to keep an even keel in emergencies, even when being out over water wasn’t involved. Or boats. So I didn’t blame them.
“Deposit the confidence,” the stranger said. Then he smiled. The sight of those three rows of razor-sharp teeth remain engraved in my memory. Even now. Especially now. Was this what North of Fog did to those who ventured through it?
“Uh.” I couldn’t think. Deposit the confidence? What did he really want?
“Where do I put it?”
I looked around us. We had met this stranger in an outside auditorium. In a west Texas state park surrounded by mountains. In some ways, this was pretty isolated. Especially at high noon with the temperatures edging close to 100 degrees. But there were a few cars parked within sight, which meant other people than us were around here. Somewhere.
A flash of light from the scenic road route up the side of the mountain at our side distracted me. I couldn’t see a car. It must be some idiot on a bike.
The stranger got tired of waiting for my answer. In progressively irritated motions, he walked the perimeter of the amphitheater until finally—and disastrously—choosing a trash can for the depository. The whole thing—trash can and what he called the confidence—vanished with a whoosh!
We could tell it hadn’t been what the stranger expected. Rage exploded from his posture in every way possible. His extremities trembled. What I took for his face turned almost purple in color. And he screamed. My compatriots fell to the ground in unison, with their hands to their ears. It was my job to stand and take it.
I valiantly kept my eyes trained on the stranger’s face. I pretended my eardrums hadn’t burst. But more than anything else, I wanted to know where the trash went. What was left of it could fit in a tea cup. It was all I could do to keep from laughing.
Confidence was explosive! Who knew?
As I watched, and my companions cowered, the stranger calmed himself with a wave of his right bolster-like arm. From his face down to his so-called feet, he went through the motions of almost patting himself down. Almost, for he never touched himself.
Then he fell right over, forward, onto his so-called face.
My laughter rang out clear as a bell in the torpid mountain air.
I know why falling down—I mean someone else falling down—is funny to those who witness it, but it didn’t matter. I wouldn’t have been able to control my all-too-human response in any circumstance.
It was no longer funny when the stranger deflated in front of my eyes.
The bolsters flattened down to the nub in about the same amount of time it would take a child’s water toy to deflate. Even the head. That’s when the danger that North of Fog represented was finally—and chillingly—made clear to me and my compatriots. This wasn’t ever going to stop.
We faced south where we stood, the now-uninhabited suit of the stranger at our feet. The disappeared barrel of confidence would have loomed in front of us if it had still been there. When we turned to the north—
There was nothing in front of us at all. Nothing.
Not mountain, not grass nor trees nor sky. Nothing. Pretty much the same as last time.
All of us pretended this was real. As if we balanced on the lip of a precipice, we carefully turned ourselves around to again face the south. When I’d gathered enough confidence—Ha!—to take a few steps farther, I recognized the feel of solid ground under my feet.
Everyone else followed my example. We did not turn to look back at North of Fog.
The stranger remained inert. And flaccid.
Finally, one of my companions spoke. “Should we gather the remains for the collection?” And when no one answered, “I mean, I know they’re not clamoring for more of their junk, but this one was different,” she said. “This time they tried to give us something. Got to be important enough to save.”
Me, I wondered what the next stranger would call himself.
Confidence man? Was it meant as some sort of joke?
So far we’d had seven of these aliens or mutants or time travelers or whatever they were, approach us from North of Fog. Each time they skewed closer to human form.
My fear was that someday soon, they’d get it right.
Copyright 2018 by Gretchen Rix
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