Authors: Keith Robinson
The woman handed one of the group a curious object. It was surprisingly light, and looked like a tusk or horn of some kind, about a foot long with spiral indentations along its length.
“If you need me,” she said, “just come to this cliff and blow into the horn. You won’t hear a sound, but I’ll answer immediately.”
A strong gust of wind caused the long grass to whip around the legs of the group gathered on the cliff. For a moment the fog was so thick that the woman was engulfed in it, almost completely swallowed up even though she stood a mere few feet away. When the fog moved on, she remained there with her shimmering green silk billowing.
“You’ll get used to the fog,” she said. “Just be strong.”
“Easy for you to say,” one of the group grumbled. “I’m not sure I can stand to live like this.”
“It’s better than the alternative,” another argued.
The woman sighed. “You’ll manage. Just remember all I’ve told you. And not a word to the children—just keep your eye on them as they grow.”
Still, some of the group were unsettled. “What happens if things don’t go according to plan? What if they don’t change?”
“We’ve been over this a thousand times,” the woman said. “Let’s just keep our fingers crossed.” She looked around one last time with her startling blue eyes. “Be strong. I’ll stop by from time to time to see how you’re doing. Hopefully you’ll only have to put up with this fog for eight years or so.”
With that, the woman bade them farewell and jumped off the cliff.
Halfway into the silent woods, Hal Franklin paused before a clump of blackberry bushes and scratched at his left forearm.
was it itching so much today? He unbuttoned his cuff and was about to roll up his sleeve when Robbie called from up ahead, his voice sharp and clear.
“Keep up, Hal! What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” Hal called back. He pushed up his sleeve and studied his arm, expecting to see the welt of a mosquito bite or the redness of poison ivy. To his surprise everything seemed normal, and yet it itched like crazy. Irritated, he re-buttoned his sleeve and plunged through the bushes to catch up with his friend.
Robbie Strickland was pacing back and forth at the foot of a steep rise, a tall, skinny boy with dark brown tousled hair and a pointed nose. He was twelve, the same age as Hal but a head higher. Robbie’s thick plaid shirt hung off his shoulders as though wrapped around a wire coat hanger, and his jeans ended above his skeletal ankles.
“You got fleas or something?” Robbie asked as Hal approached.
Hal realized he was busy scratching his arm again. “It’s nothing. Let’s keep moving before it gets dark on us. I don’t want to be riding home across the fields at night.”
They’d left their bikes and school backpacks in the meadow outside Black Woods, under the sprawling oak.
Together they started up the slippery slope, using thick protruding tree roots for footholds. Hal broke into a sweat despite the chill in the air.
“So where’s this amazing thing you were talking about?” Hal asked, panting.
“Almost there,” Robbie said, reaching the crest of the hill. He brushed his hands off, then disappeared from sight down the other side.
When Hal reached the top, he too paused to brush the cold wet soil from his hands. The knees of his jeans were plastered with the stuff.
This had better be worth it
, he thought.
He followed Robbie down the other side of the hill, sliding on pine needles and cones. Already at the bottom, Robbie was foraging for something in the bushes. He grinned and held up a long stick, then set off once more, thrashing at poison ivy as he went. No path existed this deep in the woods, but he darted between the trees without hesitation, following some uncanny sense of direction.
Hal followed close behind, stealing glances left and right, sometimes over his shoulder. Daylight across the island was feeble at the best of times, but here in the woods it was dismal. Patches of fog drifted between the pines as if lost and alone.
He scratched his arm again. It had been itching an awful lot lately, now that he thought about it.
Robbie stopped, and Hal almost bumped into him.
“Shh,” Robbie said, holding up a hand.
The sound of trickling water permeated through the trees, and Robbie grinned. “We’re close,” he said, and set off once more, stomping on a bunch of toadstools before picking his way over a rocky formation that poked out of the soil.
Ducking under low-hanging branches, Robbie pushed through a clump of bright green ferns and disappeared. Hal struggled after him, and emerged behind his friend in a clearing thick with fog, where a foot-wide stream gurgled along a shallow rut. The water foamed on smooth rock and poured under thirsty overhanging root systems before meandering off down a gentle slope out of sight. Robbie stood at its edge, looking back at Hal.
“See it?” he whispered.
Hal stopped and scanned the clearing.
See what? Something in the stream? In the trees?
All Hal could see was fog; nothing unusual there, since it was always foggy on the island. On the other hand, it wasn’t usually quite this thick in the middle of the woods . . .
Then he saw it. He blinked in amazement. Across the other side of the clearing, almost buried under tall ferns, lay a cave-like opening ten feet across. From this cave billowed a thick column of pure white smoke, rising up through the trees.
“What is it?” Hal gasped. “Is there a fire under the ground?”
He stepped across the stream for a closer look, imagining a raging inferno deep below the surface in some cavern or tunnel. He pulled aside the ferns and saw that the opening was like a giant rabbit warren, set in the side of a shallow slope. The gaping entrance funneled down to a dark, narrow tunnel, and from this tunnel belched the strange thick smoky substance, twisting and turning as it escaped into the air.
Hal suddenly got a face full of the stuff as it whorled over him. He lurched backward, expecting his eyes to sting and his lungs to fillwith acrid fumes. But instead the smoke smelled musty and damp, somehow familiar.
Perplexed, he followed the column of smoke upwards, noting how it mushroomed out and filtered through the leaves, yet left no sign of blackening as smoke from a fire might. If Robbie had been here before and seen this, it must have been burning a while . . . and yet there was no heat emanating from the hole, and no stinging, choking fumes.
Robbie came up beside him and planted a foot on the rim of the cave, causing soil to shake loose underfoot and trickle down inside. He was engulfed in thick gloom from the knees up, and when he spoke his voice sounded muffled. “It’s not smoke. It’s fog.”
With a jolt, Hal realized his friend was right. “This is where it all comes from?” He shook his head in wonder. It explained a lot. It had been foggy across the island every day of his life, and now he knew why. “Do you think if we plug up the hole, the fog will clear?”
“That’s what I wondered,” Robbie said, backing away from the hole and beaming. His eyes shone with excitement. “Can you imagine it? A day without fog? A blue sky? Come on, let’s find something to block it up with—branches, leaves, anything will do.”
“Wait,” Hal said, pointing at the muddy ground nearby. “What are these?”
Around the mouth of the cave were several strange footprints—large, hand-sized prints of some kind of animal.
Robbie circled the prints with a puzzled expression. “That’s weird. They weren’t here yesterday.”
you here yesterday?” Hal asked. “You mentioned a new bug?”
“Yeah. Found a beauty, a blood-sucking butterfly. Look.” He showed Hal a red welt on the pale, tender skin of his inner arm. “Isn’t it cool?”
Hal didn’t think so. He would never understand why his friend spent so much time lurking in dark, creepy woods, studying bugs and plants. “Yeah, great. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a blood-sucking butterfly.”
“There isn’t,” Robbie said, looking smug. “So I bottled it to take home. Then I came across this hole.” His brow knitted into a frown. “But like I said, these prints weren’t here then.”
The prints were cat-like, Hal decided; large rounded pads, each with four smaller indentations at the front end.
“Lauren’s got a cat,” Robbie murmured.
Hal grinned at him. “Trust you to think of her.”
“She’s the only one of us with a cat,” Robbie protested, his cheeks reddening.
“Not for much longer,” Hal murmured. “Biscuit is as old as we are, and in cat years, that’s pretty old.” He studied the prints thoughtfully. “These are far too big for a cat though. It might be Emily’s dog, I suppose.”
They both stared in silence.
“Well,” Robbie said, looking around, “I guess it
to be Emily’s dog. It must have run away or something, got lost in the woods. There are no other big animals on the island, unless it swam across from Out There.”
Out There was the world beyond the island. Hal pictured it as a vast expanse of land, but Robbie argued it was a series of small islands just like theirs. Since the adults refused to talk about their old home, imagination was all the kids had to go on.
“I wonder why it was sniffing around the cave,” Hal said. He thought the tunnel probably went deep, maybe as deep as the earth’s core. Maybe all this escaping fog was steam from underground rivers that were boiling away under the intense heat of volcanic activity. Hal had once read a book about volcanoes, and could imagine bright red hot magma coursing through the rock far below, waiting to erupt as a river of lava, eating everything in its path . . .
A rustling in the bushes nearby caused both boys to spin around.
Hal scanned the woods, seeing nothing but dense vegetation and gloomy darkness. “Did you hear that?” he whispered.
They stood in silence, watching and listening. The woods were too thick to reveal much. For all they knew there were a hundred pairs of eyes staring at them from the cover of darkness. Over the constant bubbling of the nearby stream came the faint, faraway sound of a woodpecker hard at work.
A frog croaked and hopped into the stream with a tiny plop. Robbie sighed. “Well, whatever it was, it’s gone. Must have been Emily’s dog. Come on, let’s find some branches and cover this hole. After we get a framework going, we can stuff the gaps with leaves and mud.”
They searched the clearing for something suitable to start the framework, but the pines in this patch of the woods were high and the lowest branches far out of reach. “We need a dead tree,” Hal said after a while. “One that’s dropped a few branches. Or maybe we could come back another day with a saw.”
Robbie frowned. “We could follow the stream to the cliff. The trees aren’t so high there. They have room to spread out.”
They followed the meandering stream, trying to keep close to its edge. But the overhanging vegetation caused them to veer off, and Hal was just starting to wonder if they’d lost track of the stream altogether when Robbie called out, “It’s through here. I just stepped in it.”
At last the woods brightened and they reached the cliff edge, along which ran a narrow man-made path. The fog was thick here, nudging up against the bordering trees and blurring the fifty-foot sheer drop into the sea. The stream bubbled out of the woods and off the cliff, and suddenly Hal recognized where he was. “Isn’t this where Thomas was killed?”
“Yeah,” Robbie said. “He fell off that little slope right there.”
They edged closer. Patches of grass swayed in a gentle sea breeze, and trees leaned out over the cliff as if on a dare. Far below, visible only when the fog thinned for the briefest of moments, the deep green sea swirled and foamed over jagged rocks. The island was surrounded by them, but sometimes the fog was so thick around the coast it was impossible to see them even from a beach right down by the water’s edge.
Hal had a vision of Thomas Patten, a small red-haired boy with a happy face, straying off the cliff path and slipping down the slope, then plunging to his death on the rocks below. It had happened six years ago, but Thomas’s desk remained in the classroom, empty, as a constant reminder to stay away from the cliffs. Nine desks, eight students.
Hal shuddered and backed off, glad he hadn’t been there at the time. “What was he doing?”
Robbie gave him a puzzled look. “He was six. He wandered off into the woods, got lost—”
“Yeah, I know all that, but what was he
Playing in the stream? Maybe trying to see the waterfall?”
Hal doubted it was a spectacular waterfall. The stream bubbled down the slope and, from what he could see, fell away over the edge in a fine spray. But he couldn’t be sure without crawling down the slope and peering over the edge.
“And where did his parents go afterwards?” Robbie added. “You reckon they jumped off the cliff and killed themselves?”
They’d had this discussion many times before. But before Hal could answer, they heard a crack somewhere in the woods, followed by a rustling sound.
Every muscle in Hal’s body tensed. He squinted, searching for a sign of movement in the bushes. But he saw and heard nothing.
that?” Robbie whispered. “Do you think it’s Emily’s dog?”
Hal cupped his hands to his mouth. “Wrangler! Wraaaan-gler! Here boy!”
Robbie put his hands on his hips and scowled. “Do you think it’s Abigail, messing with us? She’s been following us around a lot the last couple of weeks.”
Hal felt relief wash over him, mixed with annoyance. Of course! It would be just like that annoying brat, Abigail Porter, to follow them into the woods and spook them. Hal glared into the darkness. “Abi, get lost.”
But there was no answer, so they got back to the business of finding decent branches to drag across the fog-hole. “You’d think it would be easy to find a few branches in the middle of the woods,” Robbie complained. “Oh, hold on. There’s one.”
It was long and brittle, but if they were careful it might survive the trip back to the clearing without breaking up. They put it aside and foraged for more. After a while they found another two, each long enough to span the ten-foot fog-hole but not so heavy as to be impossible to drag through the woods. They decided they needed one more, so Hal climbed a tree and edged out along a low branch to the end. It bent under his weight so that Robbie could reach up and grab it. Then Hal swung down and, together, they yanked on the branch until it snapped and tumbled down in a flurry of brown and red leaves.
“That should do,” Hal gasped, wiping sweat from his brow.
Robbie picked up one of the heavier branches by the thick, splintered end and set off, dragging it through the dirt. It caught on bushes as he went, but he put his back into it and soon disappeared into the woods. Hal tucked the ends of two thinner branches under his armpits and hauled his load after Robbie. One of them would have to come back for the fourth limb.
They were gasping by the time they arrived back at the clearing. They dragged the branches over the stream to the fog-hole, and then collapsed for a rest.
After a while, Robbie climbed to his feet. “Give me a hand,” he said.
Together they struggled with the heaviest branch and laid it across the fog-hole, kicking ferns aside as they did so. It spanned the gap with ease, but on its own did little to stop the fog from billowing out.
“I’ll get these other two branches across the hole,” Robbie said, “if you’ll go back and get the other one.”
“Yeah, you do the easy bit,” Hal said, rolling his eyes.