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FICTION: AWFULLY DISAPPOINTING EITHER WAY By Becky Regalado  

Posted by Scott Wilson

Maggie looked around, wide-eyed and afraid at the bright yellow fog that surrounded her. Fog didn’t just appear like that, so sudden and so opaque, in the middle of…of…whatever month it was. Well, regardless of the time of year, fog certainly didn’t do that at this time of day…or night…whatever.

Maggie licked her lips and took a deep breath. The air was cold and smelled of stagnant water and mold. Where was she? Was she supposed to be here? She didn’t know. She couldn’t remember anything but her name.

Unable to see past her own fingertips, she stretched her arms out in front of her and took a few steps into the unknown.

“Hello?” She called, her voice muffled by the fog. “Is anyone there?”

No one answered. Panic seized her chest. Her hands started to shake.

The fog thinned as she walked. Maggie’s racing heart slowed when she saw four people sitting around a beaten up wooden table, a thick cloud of gray smoke curling lazily over their heads.

“Oh, thank goodness,” she said, approaching them almost at a run. “I-I think I’m lost…can you tell me where I am? I don’t remember how I got here.”

“Where do you think you are?” One man asked.

“I—I don’t know,” Maggie looked around helplessly. “Don’t you know?”

The old man giggled. “Maybe. Maybe you know, too.”

Their slightly hysterical laughter set Maggie’s hair on end. She suppressed her agitation. “Can you help me or not?”

“What was your name again?” The woman slurred, prying a lipstick-coated cigarette from her thickly decorated lips.

“Again?” Maggie asked. “Do I know you?”

“You did, you do, you will,” The old man said, a limp cigar clenched in his tar-stained teeth. “Hail Caesar!” He cackled and slapped the table with one bony hand. Someone else tittered.

Maggie decided that she didn’t need help from crazy people. She turned to leave, but stopped after only a few steps. Where would she go? She looked around, squinting through the gloom, but she couldn’t see past the wall of bright yellow fog stretching out in all directions.

There was no recognizable light source, yet everything was bright. For all she knew they were inside a building or on top of a roof. There might be a concrete wall just out of arm’s reach, or a thousand-foot drop into a bottomless pit.

“What is this place?” Maggie asked, momentarily forgetting her unease with the four unhelpful people. She turned back to face them, and shivered a little at the way their black, glassy eyes stared at her.

“Too many questions!” The man in the business suit said. “‘Where am I? Who am I?’ Who are you? Why are you here? There; how do you like it, hmm?”

“I’m Maggie,” she took another hesitant step away from the odd group.

“I’m Steven,” the man in the suit said. “That’s Carl and Jordan, and the smokestack with more cosmetics than a French circus troupe is Dinah.”

Dinah glared at Steven and lit another cigarette.

Jordan tittered and pulled out a tarnished brass pocketwatch. He opened it and closed it, then opened it again and licked it. He closed his eyes as he ran his gray tongue over the glass, a look of rapture on his face. Abruptly he stopped and snapped the watch shut. “Tastes like Wednesday,” he announced to the group, who all nodded their heads sagely in agreement. Jordan sighed. “Might be Wednesday tomorrow, too.”

“So…do any of you know where we are?” Maggie asked.

“Everywhere,” whispered Dinah, blowing smoke through her lips.

“Nowhere,” mumbled Steven.

“Tomorrow,” Carl growled around his cigar.

“Yesterdaaaay,” Jordan sang in falsetto as he opened and closed his pocketwatch.

Maggie forced a smile and took another step away. The fog swirled up around her, drawing a sallow curtain between Maggie and the four strangers.

“Why don’t I just go see for myself?” She turned and almost ran away, no longer caring if she walked off a precipice or into a wall. Anything was better than remaining in their odd company.

Her heels clopped loudly on the pavement as she hurried away from the mysterious people and their wooden table. Every step away from their madness made her feel better.

After a few minutes, shadowy silhouettes of buildings emerged from the sickly yellow fog. Maggie approached them hesitantly. The haze cleared as she neared the structures, and she gasped as she saw the debris of a ruined city sprawled out in all directions. The tattered remnants of an apartment building loomed to her right, looking as though it might crumble away under even the slightest pressure.

“Hello?” She called, her voice echoing off the debris. “Is anyone there? I need help.”

Maggie yelped in surprise as a head popped out from behind a crumbling wall.

“Who are you?” The old woman demanded as she shook her fist at Maggie. “Get out of my house!”

“Oh, thank goodness, I thought no one else was here,” Maggie put a hand on her chest and tried to smile. “Can you help me?”

“Go away!” The woman shrieked. She lurched out from behind the wall, a length of rusty rebar clutched in her shrunken fists. Maggie backed away from the rag-clad old woman, her palms up to ward her off until she half-stumbled over an errant piece of broken concrete.

“Please, I just want to know how to get home,” she whimpered.

“Hooooome?” The old woman drawled, cocking her head at Maggie. “No hoooooome. Scurry off now, silly sparkle.”

The old woman dropped the rebar. It fell to the ground with a clang and the woman retreated back behind the wall, muttering to herself. Maggie gave the wall a wide berth and hurried on her way.

She wandered another few minutes. Her shoes crunched and scraped along the pocked road, the sound echoing strangely through the yellow mist that thickened and thinned with every step. Maggie turned a corner and passed a mound of debris, then stopped short as she saw three men and a woman sitting around a beaten-up wooden table, a thick haze of gray smoke curling lazily over their heads.

“Look who’s back!” Carl threw out his arms in welcome, his cigar bouncing off his bottom lip as he spoke. “Madeline!”

All the blood drained from Maggie’s face. Her heart pounded in her chest until it drowned out the group’s maniacal tittering. She backed away in confusion, then turned and ran. Her heel broke off in a crack in the pavement, and she fell to the uneven ground with a cry. They laughed even harder at that.

Maggie ignored them as she regained her feet, her broken shoe in one hand, and hobbled over to lean against the mound of debris. When her heart settled, she craned her neck and peeked around the corner back the way she’d come. A little whimper escaped her lips. She couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think.

There in the distance, a young woman leaned against a small mound of debris, a broken shoe in one hand. Four people sat around a wooden table nearby, laughing and pointing at the other young woman. Maggie whirled and looked behind her, where the four people laughed and pointed at her. She looked back and forth between the two identical groups until her head swam.

She straightened up and took a few steps away, then stopped. Where would she go? Perhaps a thousand more wooden tables and Jordans and Dinahs lurked beyond the fog. She glanced over her shoulder. The foursome watched her with identical expressions of hunger and amusement. In identical positions, with their chins resting on one fist. Like it was choreographed.

Maybe it was.

Maggie fought down the urge to flee. Where would she go? She sniffled a little and took a few halting steps back toward the table.

“Sit down, doll,” Dinah said. “You’ll be here awhile.”

Maggie brandished her broken shoe at the woman like a cross. “I will not sit down until you answer my questions. What happened? Why is everything in ruins?”

The quartet stared at her, their eyes wide and their mouths pulled into moues of disapproval.

“It’s always been like this,” Steven said in a tone that suggested Maggie was mad to think otherwise. He pulled a stained silk handkerchief from his breast pocket and draped it over his face.

“So…who are you, again?” Dinah puffed a smoky cloud at Maggie.

“I’m Maggie,” she waved her shoe through the cigarette smoke. “I just want to know where I am and how I can get home.”

“Why does it matter where you are?” Jordan opened his brass pocketwatch and tapped the broken face. He closed it with a snap, then opened it and tapped it again. He tsked and banged it on the table before looking back at Maggie. “If I said we’re on Marmalande Street in the Land of a Thousand Pixies, would it do you any good?”

Steven and Carl slapped the table and guffawed. Dinah rolled her eyes, snuffed out her barely-used cigarette on the tabletop, and lit another one.

“At least direct me to a police station, then,” Maggie said.

“They can’t help you,” Carl tapped the nonexistent ashes from his spit-soaked cigar. “They couldn’t help us. Especially since there are no police.” The others laughed until tears left wet trails through the dust on their cheeks.

“So you’ll just let me wander around these God-forsaken ruins forever?” Maggie asked angrily.

“Interesting choice of words,” Dinah smirked behind her cigarette.

“If you want to go stumbling around in one shoe, we won’t stop you,” Jordan closed his eyes and knocked his watch against his teeth, harder and harder, until two of them fell out. He spat a bloody glob onto the tabletop and wiped the watch clean on his shirt.

Steven plucked the silk kerchief from his head and twirled it through the air like a ribbon dancer, humming to himself. Carl watched his cigar bounce up and down off his bottom lip.

Dinah pushed a chair over to Maggie with one foot. Maggie eyed it suspiciously for a long moment; she could have sworn there were only four chairs there before. Reluctantly, she sighed and sat down, offering up a swift prayer to whatever god watched over this place that these people only seemed mad.

Steven peered at Maggie from beneath the edge of his silken hanky. “So what do you remember?”

“I was crossing the street,” Maggie mumbled. “A horn blared, and then I was here.”

She looked up when nobody replied, and frowned. Nobody was paying any attention. Steven had his head tilted back with his hanky spread over his face, waving his fingers through the air as though playing a nonexistent piano as he hummed some martial theme. Carl was still bouncing his cigar off his lip to the beat of Steven’s humming. Jordan seemed to be having a heated argument with his pocketwatch, ignoring the bloody foam that flew from his lips. Dinah simply stared off into her own cloud of smoke.

“Are you listening?” Maggie slammed her fists against the table. It elicited no reaction. “Where am I? How do I get home?”

“Turn around,” all four of them said at the same time.

Maggie’s hair stood on end. “What? Why?”

“Or don’t,” they said in unison again. “It’s all the same to us.”

Maggie swallowed and turned around in her seat. She cried out and threw up her arm as the bright afternoon sunlight dazzled her eyes.

She froze as she took in the scene before her. A dark blue car was slanted across both lanes of traffic, long black skid marks fanning out behind it. A swarm of people crowded around something off to one side.

Unable to resist, Maggie rose and approached the crowd, elbowing her way through to see what they were all looking at. She choked back the bile that rose in her throat. Maggie towered over the unresponsive form of her own broken, bleeding body. She stifled a cry of fear and horror and took a step backwards.

An EMT kneeled down next to the open-eyed visage of Maggie-on-the-ground and put felt for a pulse along her neck. For several minutes he tried CPR, but eventually he rose and shook his head at his partner.

“Such a shame, losing them so young,” he said. “Let’s take her to the morgue.”

Maggie watched with confused detachment as they placed her body into a black bag and hauled it away. She stared, immobile, as the ambulance faded to a flashing speck on the horizon and disappeared.

Maggie turned back to face the foursome at the table. She plopped back into her seat without a word.

“Welcome to the afterlife!” Dinah threw her hands into the air. The men applauded, their half-mad cackling no longer setting Maggie’s hair on end.

“So I’m dead?” Maggie struggled to believe it. She had little choice after seeing her own dead body hauled away into the sunset. “I thought that it would feel…different. So much for streets of gold and pearly gates.”

“Oh…she thinks she’s in Heaven,” Dinah said in a singsong baby voice, sticking out her lower lip like a child. She flicked her cigarette butt at Maggie, who didn’t flinch as it bounced off her blouse.

“No, no, you silly child,” Carl slapped the table with his yellowed fingers. “You’re in the other place.”

“Awfully disappointing either way,” Jordan said, opening and closing his pocketwatch several times. A trickle of blood ran down his finger when he pinched the watch closed over his skin, but he didn’t seem to notice it any more than he noticed the blood trickling down his chin from his broken teeth.

“You can run until your lungs burst,” Steven said through the filthy handkerchief spread over his face.

“But you’ll always end up right back where you started,” Carl said. “Hell is a tiny, meaningless void of unanswered questions, where we’re going and going and going…nowhere.”

“How did we come to deserve Hell?” Maggie stared down at the table.

“That’s a part of what makes this Hell, isn’t it?” Dinah took a long pull from a new cigarette. “You can spend an eternity dissecting your life—and you will—but you’ll simply never know which sin was the one that sent you here.”

They all sat there quietly for a few moments.

“So this is what it’s like to be dead,” Maggie said, breaking the silence. “Not at all what I expected.”

“No crystal sea, no fiery pitch or brimstone,” agreed Steven, blowing the handkerchief up with his lips.

“This is what we were waiting for,” Dinah put out the butt of her cigarette on the table with a hiss, then pulled out her carton and lit another one.

“Awfully disappointing either way,” Jordan said again.

“If you say that one more time,” Dinah shook her cigarette at him. “I’m going to put this out in your damned pocketwatch.”

Jordan gasped and clutched his watch to his chest, petting it like a kitten. He cooed at it, then sang it a soft lullaby and rocked it gently in his arm. Carl reached over and snatched it away. Jordan shrieked like a woman, waving his hands in the air. The other three laughed hysterically, slapping their knees and imitating Jordan’s panicked screams. Maggie sat there in horror, unmoving, while the bizarre scene played out.

Jordan leapt across the table and bit Carl on the wrist. Carl howled and dropped the watch. Jordan snapped it up and hugged his knees to his chest, clutching the watch so tightly his knuckles turned white. He fussed over it for several moments, then calmly tucked it inside his jacket. He sat up straight in his chair and smiled. The blood was gone from his chin.

They all sat in silence again, as if the altercation never happened.

Maggie got up and walked around the table idly for a few minutes, rubbing her arms against the chill. She fiddled with her broken shoe for a minute, until the heel snapped back into place. Maggie raised an eyebrow at that, but the heel seemed secure again. She shrugged and put her shoe back on.

She walked away until the yellow fog swallowed her up again, leaving the group behind for just a little while. After a minute, Maggie stopped short and took a shuddering breath.

Maggie looked around, wide-eyed and afraid at the bright yellow fog that surrounded her. Fog didn’t just appear like that, so sudden and so opaque, in the middle of…of…whatever month it was. Well, regardless of the time of year, fog certainly didn’t do that at this time of day…or night…whatever.

Maggie licked her lips and took a deep breath. The air was cold and smelled of stagnant water and mold. Where was she? Was she supposed to be here? She didn’t know. She couldn’t remember anything but her name.

Unable to see past her own fingertips, she stretched her arms out in front of her and took a few steps into the unknown.

“Hello?” She called, her voice muffled by the fog. “Is anyone there?”

No one answered. Panic seized her chest. Her hands started to shake.

The fog thinned as she walked. Maggie’s racing heart slowed when she saw four people sitting around a beaten up wooden table, a thick cloud of gray smoke curling lazily over their heads.

“Oh, thank goodness,” she said, approaching them almost at a run. “I-I think I’m lost…can you tell me where I am? I don’t remember how I got here.”

“Where do you think you are?” One man asked.

“I—I don’t know,” Maggie looked around helplessly. “Don’t you know?”

The old man giggled. “Maybe. Maybe you know, too.”

Their slightly hysterical laughter set Maggie’s hair on end. She suppressed her agitation. “Can you help me or not?”

“What was your name again?” The woman slurred, prying a lipstick-coated cigarette from her thickly decorated lips.

“Again?” Maggie asked. “Do I know you?”

“You did, you do, you will,” The old man said, a limp cigar clenched in his tar-stained teeth. “Hail Caesar!”





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This entry was posted on Thursday, June 2, 2011 at 3:44 AM . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

1 comments

Oh hell. You know, I have neighbors like that. You don't think...? Maybe I'm ...? Nah. Right?

Well done, in that classic Twilight Zone meets Waiting for Godot kind of way!

June 4, 2011 at 4:57 AM

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