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12:59

A Foggy Night

Stepping out of the club into the street, Clara was cloaked by a thick mist. She suppressed a shudder. Fog. Of course this night would just keep getting better. With her ear-drums numbed by the assault of guitars and Rob-the-ass-munch’s atrocious howling, it felt like she’d lost two entire senses.

But if she stayed here and waited for an Uber, she’d probably have to deal with Rob again. Her irritation with him propelled her down the sidewalk, allowing her a good start before the sensation intruded. Just like it always did.

It never made any sense. If anything, fog should lessen the feeling, not amplify it. There was no way someone could be watching her now — not when she could hardly see two steps in front of her own face.

Right?

At the corner, without the Bay Bridge visible in the distance, a wave of disorientation hit. The nearest streetlight gave only a suggestion of pink overhead. Clara put her hand out to touch the building on her right, but two steps were needed to bring the bricks within reach. She thought she had been much closer.

Was it thicker now? It must be. Traffic on the overpass had been silenced. Never in the six years she lived here, had she heard the City so quiet. Droplets settled on the back of her neck. Cold trepidation trickled down her spine.

What if someone had followed her from the venue? What if it was Rob? She’d only known him for a couple of weeks, and he was probably pissed she’d just left like that. She wrapped her fingers tightly around her trusty taser, nestled in her jacket pocket. The comfort of the small pink rectangle in her palm gave her the confidence to continue down the street.

On the next block, there’d be a nice coffee shop where she could call an Uber and wait for it in safety. That meant crossing Folsom Street, but so what? If she died as roadkill, at least there’d be an end to the feeling that thirty pairs of eyes were hovering just a few steps behind her. Watching.

Thirty pairs of eyes?! What the hell? Is that worse than the murder-rapist that could be following you? Really.

Definitely, if those eyes belong to thirty murder-rapists.

You’re ridiculous. Why didn’t you just let Rob take you home? Total asshole, yes. But psychopath? Unlikely. And he’s proved capable of returning you in one piece. At least keep your finger on the tase-button. Only idiots walk alone at night.

Fine. But what if the murder-rapist behind us has thirty pairs of eyes?! I worry a taser is useless against supernatural beings. This is why I said we needed a proton pack.

“Ohmygod, shut up.” She spoke aloud to break up the conversation in her head, but that probably made it worse. Didn’t people always say talking to yourself was fine, but answering was not? Yet it gave her an idea. Taser ready in one hand, she used the other to dig in her bag and pull out her phone. She would just call —

No service.

Are you kidding me right now?

Am I laughing right now?

She never had trouble getting calls to connect in this neighborhood before. Maybe she’d gone too far and wandered off her route. She stopped.

Shouldn’t she have crossed Folsom Street by now? She’d been distracted, but there was no way she wouldn’t notice stepping from the curb and back up again.

Behind her there was only swirling gray vapor illuminated by her cell phone. Gathering the shards of her bravery, she squeezed the power button to darken the screen.

Pitch black.

A trill of fear whirled her around, spinning her back to her original direction. Only a hint of light filtered through the cloud, making the water-laden air visible, but nothing else. Where was the glow of the streetlamps? Had she ended up in a square? The park? But no — she was nowhere near — was she? She looked down at her feet. Cement sidewalk reassured her, even as her spine shivered.

If anyone was watching her, they’d know she was lost. They’d see.

You shouldn’t have done this. You should have let him take you home. What were you thinking? Are you stupid? You’re so stupid. You make me furious. If anyone is watching you, you’re totally going to be murdered. And when they find your body, they’re gonna say that you did everything wrong. They’ll see you then, oh yeah. They’re gonna see how stupid you were. You’ll be stupid even in death. You must want attention. Yeah, it’s like you want somebody to watch you. But you know what the truth is? The truth is there’s no one watching you. Ever.

Clara breathed deeply, letting air fill her lungs and push the terror down. She could taste the ocean salt and oppression of the cloud. The muteness of her hearing swelled to a roar of sound. Of thoughts. Her chest squeezed her lungs small and refused to open again. She held the taser out in desperation and jammed her thumb into the button.

Electricity snapped between the prongs. The surrounding fog hissed, and the static made her skin prickle. She had forgotten how loud the little thing could be. Even under this blanket of haze trying to snuff her out.

It chased the fear back, and she could breathe again. That light up ahead seemed a little brighter, and she stepped toward it.

The faint glow became focused, and then revealed itself. A wrought-iron lantern, real flame quivering within, illuminated the quaint Dutch door below it. The top half of the old, wooden door stood ajar, revealing a cozy little shop. Here and there more lanterns hung above the center aisle, golden tongues of flame casting fluid shadows around the room. Against the far wall, an antique, mahogany counter wrapped around a human form.

Clara pressed against the bottom half of the door — just to see a little better — but the hinge fell open, and she stumbled inside.

The figure behind the counter looked up. “Welcome, dear.” The speaker had a small voice. Quavering, but warm, like the tiny fires lighting the shop. A colorful scarf wrapped the shopkeeper where the counter did not; over shoulders, throat and head, so it was as if a bundle of knitting spoke.

“Thank you.” Clara spotted a battered suit of armor in one corner, one foot lifted, one knee bent, as preparing to step from its pedestal. “Are you open this late?”

“Of course, love. Tell me, is there something you’re looking for?”

“Oh, no.” Clara shook her head, eyes lingering on a host of fluffy white feathers suspended midair. She couldn’t see the wire that must have held them. “I was just passing by. It’s so foggy, and I got a little turned around. Could you possibly tell me, which direction is Folsom?”

“Folsom?” The scarf made a miniscule jolt. A laugh? “Back the way you came from, lamb.”

“Really?” Clara frowned over her shoulder at the door. “Strange. I wonder how that happened.” She checked her phone again. No service. She wandered closer to the pile of scarf. “I don’t suppose I could use your wi-fi, or phone to call a ride?”

Within a gap, the scarf had a tiny, wrinkled face, with a patient smile, and a pair of watery blue eyes. “We’ve none of that here, dearest. I’m afraid we’re terribly old-fashioned.”

Clara thought she saw an uncanny glint in those eyes. She remembered the lanterns; a trick of the candlelight, surely. She nodded at the nearest wrought iron fixture. “That makes sense. With your theme. Well, I’ll look around a minute and then…” She trailed off as her gaze fell on the contents of the nearest glass case.

Filled to the edges as they were, it wasn’t easy to make sense out of the jumble of shapes within each shelf. Now she saw a geode with a heart of technicolor crystals; an hourglass so dainty it’d be perilous to turn; a book with yellowed pages covered in unintelligible script; a miniature house made of twigs and moss; and off to its side, a taxidermy mouse, posed upright and dressed in an exquisite, red hooded cloak.

Disturbed, yet fascinated by the assortment, she turned back to the counter — and found the scarf-form standing next to her.

“Holy — whoa, okay!”

Now Clara saw a swath of dusty pink fabric, a floor-length skirt, an elderly woman beneath the scarf, chuckling. “Apologies for the spook, my sweet. I’ll give you something for your journey.” Two wrinkled hands extending from the tumult of cloth, held a thick, scarlet scarf out. “This one is new, I’ve just finished it.”

“Oh, I couldn’t — ” Clara’s eyes fell over the intricate pattern wound in the scarf. So beautiful.

Why would she give this to you? There must be a catch. Did you see that glint in her eye — did you?!

Don’t be a freak. That was just the candlelight, of course!

“Please, I’ve no need of it.” The shopkeeper insisted, nudging the scarf toward Clara. “Until little ducks like you come in to see me, my hands must stay busy. Take it, poppet, do.”

And with a tentative smile, Clara accepted it, reaching into her bag for her wallet.

“Now, now, dear one, none of that.” The old woman waved her hand in dismissal. “A simple trade, only your words. Wrap it round you, warm and snug.”

The yarn that had been used was thicker than Clara expected. More like rope. The texture of each stitch was deep and luxurious. Familiar, maybe. “Thank you, ma’am. Are you sure?” She looped the scarf over her shoulders without waiting for an answer, it was just so lovely. Made for her. She wanted it.

“What will you trade for it, my pet? Something easy, something you don’t want. Tell me about it, and I will take your words.”

Clara pulled the scarf up above her nose and closed her eyes to think.

This shop is weird, and this old woman is even weirder. Something is wrong. Yes, very wrong and here you are — wearing the scarf?! Just cuddling up in it! She could have fleas or lice or bedbugs. As if a stuffed mouse wasn’t enough! Ugh, disgusting!

There’s nothing wrong! This shop is… it’s interesting! The little mouse is cute, all dressed up —

You are insane. Absolutely insane.

I like the stitching of this scarf. And it’s so warm and soft. How could it hurt to tell her something I don’t want? They’re just words.

You are exactly the type that goes to fairyland and eats the food. The one that runs up the stairs with the killer chasing her instead of out the front door. You walk alone at night just to spite some ass-munch and you’ve wandered into Hansel and Gretel, except instead of shoving the witch in the oven, you’re getting hypnotized by knitting.

Why are you like this? Really — why? It’s just a scarf.

The words fell from her lips. “I don’t want to think about things.”

Snapping her hand shut in the air between them, the old woman moved so quickly, a loop of the scarf dripped off her shoulder. Her pale eyes focused intently on the outstretched fist. Slowly, she returned her hand to the folds of the scarf. “Sometimes it hurt to think, didn’t it, kitten? But, see? An easy trade — painless now.” Chuckling again, the old woman pulled the bottom half of the door open and stood back. “It’s clearing up outside, Clara, my pet. You’ll be home before dawn.”

The other side of the street visible at last, Clara stumbled back over the threshold in consternation. “Is that my building? How could — ” She turned back to the door and nearly collided with the glass window of a restaurant. The one that had been a fixture across the street from her home for the past six years.

Her thoughts scrabbled for footing as the fog continued to dissipate.

Curling her hands into the fringed ends of the scarf, she held each finger captive by bright red ropes like woolen rings. For a moment the pressure was unbearable. Then, she let go.

Huh. Weird night.

The trees bowed in agreement.

And she stepped off the curb, toward home.