The morning fog lingers outside, a hovering shadow that enshrouds and cloaks the faceless lives of a nameless town. A man sits and eats. Sad Wednesdays and the taste of burnt coffee.
He stares outside. The fog is formless and thick, shifting, morphing, convulsing. It is solid, yet fluid. Opaque, yet translucent. Stone and water. He feels he should be able to touch it, feel it, but it always escapes from his grasp. How can something so transient be so real? How can this life be more than just a dream?
If he cannot look through it, he looks into it. He searches its mercurial depths, studying the unknowable movements of its many shapeless tendrils. Within it he sees many forms and faces and within it he sees lives unlived, the paths never taken and the fates that used to await him there. His future is found somewhere amidst these visions of other selves and other lives, indistinguishable from the phantasms of the past and present and beyond and so he is offered no certainty, no solace. He is tortured in this way, but he searches still for what he cannot find.
A subtle trick of the light and it is gone – he is returned to the existence he inhabits. An existence of burnt coffees on sad Wednesdays. An existence of empty parking lots at diners in forests where no diner should ever sensibly be. An existence where exits are hard to find.
He pays for the meal. He does not know the name of the woman who takes his money, and he can never remember her face. But she is always there to collect her pay and cook his food, and for this he is grateful. It is a form of constancy he has come to appreciate. He touches her hand, very briefly, as he passes a bill to her. It is calloused, hot and gentle, and for a moment, a split-second, he wonders what life she must lead, what people she meets and feeds, what path she has taken and what fate awaits her. What would she see within the layered signals of the morning mist?
She moves her hand away and it is gone.
He leaves but he does not leave. The cold comes to greet him as he steps outside. It covers him, cloaks him like a blanket. He finds the cold pleasant because he knows the cold is always there, and he knows the cold is his friend. He enters his car and he is alone again.
He knows the roads, but the forests here are dense and unnavigable. The fog follows him, too. It is protected from the sun by the trees, which stand stoic and still, unmoving. He thinks they imprison him but they do not.
He keeps driving until he knows he must stop, and enters a building until the sun sets and drives to the place he calls home. He sleeps. The cycle repeats. It is a ritual he feels he must complete in order to mourn the many paths he has forsaken.
In the ephemeral moments that precede restless slumber, the man thinks of all the people he has met and all the people he has lost. He thinks of where they have gone now, and what paths they forge. Do they sleep beneath the same starless sky?
In his sleep, he dreams of all the people he has ever loved. His dreams are never remembered.
People come and go, but they never stay. His life is predictable and uncertain in this strange way. He knows everyone must leave, but who and when and how, he does not know and never can. He wonders why they always must leave, why he cannot leave with them, and why he cannot leave at all.
In this meaningless isolation, he realises with renewed desperation each night that somewhere on the twisting, circling, labyrinthine path he has taken, he has lost himself. He barely exists now as a hollow being, like the fog, devoid of shape or form or any tangible truth that lies beneath pale and opaque skin. Was this life more than just a dream if it was unseen and unknown to all but himself?
He wonders where it all fell apart.
Soon, it is dawn again on another sad Wednesday. Silence and solitude. It is familiar and calm, but not comforting.
He sits and eats. The strange fog parts. A set of headlights forebodes a car. An intruder. On this morning? At this place? Whose path leads here? Whose path leads to a place where no path leads and no path leaves? The parking lot looks strange when it is only half as empty. It is so rare a sight that the man feels lost, almost in an alien place.
A stranger exits this car, but this is only half a stranger. He rouses from the slumber of his existence with a pounding of the heart. Do his eyes see true? Can it really be him? Can this life be more than just a dream?
He is filled with a hope that had long been forgotten but now, resurrected yet unwilling, is aching, rending, desperate. He cries:
It is him. Max turns and looks. He is astonished at the sight of the man, who half-leaps from his seat, excitement in his wide eyes and hesitation in his tense body. His face is older than Max remembers, and more tired. But there is a whisper of something childlike in him, an underlying helplessness that Max cannot fully identify nor remember ever residing within his old friend.
The man notices changes in Max, too. A hairline that has retreated further up the forehead, specks of bone-grey behind the ears, wry wrinkles around the eyes from a decade of smiles.
They stare at each other for a while, neither knowing what to say- or what can be said after so long.
Max breaks the silence. “Long time no see.”
The man smiles softly, shy after so many years.
“How have you been?”
“I’ve been … -fine.” The last word is forced clumsily out of the man’s lips. “How- how are you?”
“I’m doing great.” More silence. “I’m back in town to see my parents. It’s been a while since I’ve been back, they’re usually the ones who come to see me.” He chuckles like he used to. It’s a comforting and familiar sound. For just a moment, it transports the man back to happier times.
Max orders some food and sits down next to the man. They stare out at the shifting fog together.
“What are you doing back here?” It is more accusatory than Max intends, and the man is caught off-guard by the unexpected force behind the words.
“I- I live here.”
“Oh.” Max’s surprise does not escape the man. He doesn’t quite understand how he never left here, either.
“Where do you live now?”
“Not that far away. A few hours’ drive. It’s a bit strange, really, that I haven’t come back sooner!” He laughs again, in that slightly unnatural way. “But work’s been keeping me busy, and I’ve got a family, now, so…”
They are both trying to determine the extent to which things have decayed, exploring, analysing, considering whether it is possible for things to be as they once were.
“I have a job, too.” The man feels compelled to announce this, perhaps to fill the uncomfortable, silent void.
Max seems uncertain of how to respond. “That’s… great. What do you- what do you do, then?”
“I work in, um, HR.” It is a response that requires a surprising and unnecessary amount of thought.
“Cool. Yeah. I know a few people from work who are in HR, too…”
Despite the awkwardness, there is an undeniably pleasant, comforting air to Max. He has the face of a contented man, and the man finds this contentment heartening. He loses himself, almost, in this strange and fated reunion between old friends, in the mundane details of the mundane life of this man he had almost forgotten had ever truly existed. Even this is enough to relieve the man of his solitude. He feels himself again.
Max sighs and speaks up.
“Y’know, I was driving past our old high school when I drove in yesterday, and I thought about you and all of our old friends, and I wondered where you’d be, and what you’d be doing. It seems like a… a… nice coincidence that I met you here today.”
“Yeah…” The man is surprised that anyone had ever thought of him.
“Those were… good times, huh?”
“Yeah. Yeah, they really were.”
Max’s food has arrived. They sit and they eat. They talk, too, about their shared memories of when they were younger, when their futures still branched in infinite directions and their fates had yet to be determined.
They talk about the times when the forest was their sanctuary, where they played games of make-believe amongst the trees, which became their castles and their pirate ships, from which they constructed their own, private folklore of adventures and kings and journeys that led to piles of gold and of friendships that never died- even when the friends had. A time when the fog was just fog, and this town was more than just a place to him, and this life was more than just a dream.
In the glitter of Max’s eyes, the man sees the stars that had for so long been concealed by clouds, that had for so long he had forgotten ever existed. The man finds himself smiling and laughing for the first time in his eternity-long exile.
Their hands touch for an instant: Max’s warmth against the man’s frigid skin. It is a hopeful touch, an innocent one between two children. A point of human connection that, brief though it be, reminds the man that Max is real; that he has found someone else in his haze-like existence.
He is reminded of warm blankets and warmer fires shared during cold winters, and he is reminded bitterly that these winters can never and will never be shared again.
It is a strange feeling; as if this happiness has come to torment him, not offer him solace. He feels still that aching void of calm disquiet, the loneliness that is his only steadfast companion. It gnaws at his mind, waiting to return.
He opens his mouth, but it is better to not ruin the moment.
So they sit and they eat and he laughs uneasily at Max’s old jokes, wondering why they don’t sound the same.
Soon, the time comes for Max to leave. They say goodbye as they did when they were friends, as if their following meeting would come with the arrival of the next blazing dawn. But the valediction is different now, neither know when the fog will part next to bring them together for another fateful and transitory encounter that begins and ends in painful solitude.
He watches Max leave through the door and walk into the morning fog. The fog rolls back into place behind him like steel gates.
A twist of fate and it is gone.
The man is returned to the existence he inhabits. His existence of sad Wednesdays and burnt coffee and paths that lead nowhere from which he can never truly leave.