This is for Chuck Wendig’s present tense flash fiction challenge, itself a response to io9’s 10 Writing “Rules” We Wish More Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors Would Break. This is about breaking rule 9: no Present Tense. Go read up on the other 9 to decide which ones you may want to break. Since I know I have a certain number of female readers, may I especially suggest #7. And I think I just also broke #1, since this is a prologue to the short story.
I’m worried. Still no word from Dwayne. We sent him out with our lunch order half an hour ago. The restaurant is right across the street. Or, it was right across the street. Now, I’m not so sure. The fog has rolled in even further, a thick curtain across the world. Three hours ago it was clear. Two hours ago we couldn’t see the airport. Now, we can’t see the restaurant. Or even the street. The world out the window is our building, the smoking deck, then just a light gray nothing. I wouldn’t normally be worried, I’ve seen fog before. But not like this fog. It’s different somehow. Something about the total opacity. The world doesn’t fade into it, it comes to an abrupt stop.
And I’m worried.
“When did you last get an email?” Nancy asks over the cubicle wall. She can see the fog, too.
“Ten minutes ago.”
“Not from inside the building.”
I pull out my Blackberry and scroll. Typically email would flow in from customers. Today? There’s an email outlining the company’s “shelter in place” policy, another reminding us that performance reviews are due, three emails spaced fifteen minutes apart about my mailbox being over size limit. Ah, there. “8:14 this morning.” That’s nearly four hours ago. I look out the window again. Is it closer now? There’s a railing along the edge of the smoking deck. I count the posts. Five. Ten. Fifteen. Eighteen. I can see eighteen of them. I’ve tried calling my wife. Did she just have her phone off? I don’t have reception now, or I’d try again.
“Where the hell is he, I’m starving?” asks Paul. He’s from deeper in the cubicle farm. He can’t see the window from there. I hear him now whistle, “there goes my ten dollars.”
Five. Ten. Fourteen. The edge of the fog now touches the building near accounts receivable. There’s a scream from down the hall. I leave my cube. I get away from the window. My mind dances. My legs pump. I don’t know what the fog is, but I don’t want to find out. Heads pop out of cubicles as I run past. They ask where I’m going. I don’t stop. Now is not the time to stop. Someone runs from the other direction. Fool. He’s going the wrong way. The path through the cubicles is a maze, but I’m the rat. I know where the cheese is. When taupe carpeted walls block my path, I turn left. When cream cinder blocks rear up, I turn right. Ahead is the glass front door.
Beyond is the fog. I stop. My heart continues. It pounds and aches in my chest. My wife’s office building is in that direction. Vaguely, somewhere. Still no reception. There’s an emergency exit to the right. I run. Screams come from all directions now. Panic. More runners in the cubicle halls. One runs into me, knocks me over. He’s coming from the direction I’m heading. I pull myself up. I have to see for myself. The door is wide open, and a smell rolls in. It’s not the fresh sting of ozone after a rain. This smells like striking a match.
“No way out,” someone says. “No way out.”
The fog is darker now. It pours in through the emergency door. It slips through the walls like they aren’t there. I can see it over the cubicles to my right and left. I know it’s behind me. The smell is everywhere. Prayers. Crying. Screaming. People react differently in a moment of crisis. My mind blanks entirely. A calm clarity. Hands tug at me, try to pull me back. I shake them off. Whatever the fog is, it is not going to stop now. It’s at my toes. It licks my nose.
I step forward.
I am no longer worried.