Tim swore quietly in the gloom of the house, following behind the silently marching border collie, excitedly tail-wagging its way towards the back door. It was that strange short period of morning, when the night sky first begins to give way to deep blue while the sun itself is still too far beyond the curve of the planet to be seen. But here Tim was, inexplicably conscious, taking the dog out for her regularly scheduled crack-of-dawn-pee. It was Javier’s fault that she was like this. He was the one that instituted the early morning potty routine. It was fine with Tim when he could simply turn and grunt whenever Javi got up at four in the morning for his shift, but now…
“Keep this shit up Innie and you’ll be an outside dog soon enough.” Tim said, same as he said every morning while the dog pawed pathetically at the door. Ingrid was the stupid name Javi gave her but Tim could never bring himself to call her that. If there was anything Tim hated more than dogs it was dogs with human names. It ‘suits her’ Javi would say when anybody asked about it and he left it at that, grinning like a jackass.
Tim opened the back door and the dog shot out, a blur of black and white fur. Already, the summer morning had brightened considerably, enough so that Tim could see the thick blanket of morning fog that covered the far end of his property and the woods beyond. Watching Innie snout around for that perfect spot of grass made Tim smile despite himself. He didn’t actually hate dogs, not all of them anyway. And though he was far from pleased when Javier first brought her home, Innie had grown on him over the years. From a barky little pisser of a puppy, she eventually evolved into a nearly obedient, mature adult. That helped a lot. Tim now mostly enjoyed the dog’s presence even if it did mean being awake at such an inhuman hour.
“C’mon, hurry up dog!”
Not having wanted to burden himself with putting on clothes, Tim stood still mostly undressed in the yard, only a pair of boxer briefs covering him. The house stood at the end of the block and the whole neighborhood was still in development. This left most of the surrounding homes stood empty but still… Tim had never been one for public exhibition. Innie was usually one to take her time to expel her bladder and, this morning, she was taking especially long. At last, the dog’s spinning ceased and she lowered herself into a squat.
Beneath his feet, the grass was wet. A year ago, when they had first moved in, there had been hardly any vegetation, the yard composed mostly of overturned dirt and a few haphazardly slapped down strips of sod. Javi loved it. He loved a project, loved a clean slate – the newly built house at the edge of town gave him both.
Tim had lost sight of the dog. It wasn’t unusual for her to disappear behind a tree from time to time in her quest for the perfect spot. Javi always had her leashed of course but Tim found he never really needed to. All it took to reel Innie back inside was the promise of a little meat-flavored treat. For months Javi had been nagging for a fence but Tim resisted. He liked the view they had of the marsh outside of their dining room window, still did.
“Come on girl, gotta a lil’ meaty with your name on it!” Tim called, punctuating with a whistle. He strained to see movement, to hear the gentle jangle of her tags, but there was only the fog through the trees.
Tim took a few steps toward the treeline, calling and whistling. Even as the morning continued to fill with light, he couldn’t see anything through the thick white fog. “Goddamnit.” He muttered, pausing as he considered whether or not he needed pants for his foray into the marsh. The distant echoing yelp of a dog beyond the fog quickly put the matter to rest. Tim ran barefoot past the treeline. There was an instant change in atmosphere once Tim passed through into the fog, the morning becoming quiet around his head.
“Innie! Ingrid!” Tim’s calls echoed briefly around his head, he felt as though he were yelling into a void.
The initial speed at which he sprinted into the marsh did not last long. The heaviness of the fog made watching the ground ahead nearly impossible, it did not take long for Tim’s bare-soled foot to run up against something sharp protruding from the brush below. Aside from that, Tim had quickly lost sense of which direction the yelp had come from – less than fifty yards in and he felt completely disoriented, he was not even exactly sure which way he had come from.
How far could the stupid dog have gone? Tim was half tempted to turn around and let the dog figure out how to get home herself. As soon as he figured it out himself of course. Hoisting his left foot up into his right hand, Tim could feel right away that it was bleeding. He stepped on what felt like a stick, something sharp and protruding from the ground somewhere hidden beneath the dense white.
“Alight Innie, time to come inside, time to get your treat.” Even he didn’t believe it, doubtful the dog would. If Javier was here, all he’d have to do was whistle. If Javi was here, he’d have probably been able to taste the wind or track the dog’s prints. To say Javi was an outdoorsman was an understatement. Tim was fine with pitching a tent in the wilderness for a night or two, but Javi, well, he would always take it several steps further.
The man was all about that hunting lifestyle, it was a part of his life that Tim could never get into no matter how hard he tried to convert him. He understood the hypocrisy of being against deer hunting whilst also consuming farm-slaughtered meat. Tim had nothing against the act of hunting in theory. There was just something about that savage glee that Javier got about him when he took down a buck… the bloodlust overtook him for just a few moments too long.
Tim spun around attempting to see a semblance of civilization, the straight lines of a structure. As he did he heard the low growling of a scared animal. Turning back, Tim spied the hunched form of a canine, its bristled-fur back to him as it stared down something unseen within the fog.
“Hey girl…” Tim approached the low-to-the-ground dog, taking care to keep weight off the tender foot. It was Innie alright, scared as hell. The black hair of her back raised while her tail hung low against her haunches. As he grew closer, he called her name softly, her folded ears twitching at the sound of his voice. Still, she did not turn, did not relax her tensed position. When Tim was nearly upon Ingrid, almost close enough to gently place a hand on her back, his gaze caught what that which had most certainly riled her up. Rising from the mist, Tim saw the head and extensive antlers of a massive buck. As he locked eyes with it, the creature bolted, disappearing in a instance. And with it, so went Innie, barking her head off as she vanished into the fog.
Fuck this. Seeing as he was half-naked and bleeding, Tim decided to call it a morning. The dog could handle herself, buck or no buck. When she was tired of playing wolf, she’d come back around, pawing pathetically at the back door. He could already hear Javi’s screaming in his head: “You left the fucking dog out in the fucking marsh, what the hell is wrong you!” Except he won’t be screaming, won’t be there to scream.
His foot was starting to hurt to the point that he was limping, keeping all weight off it as he pushed through the brush. Tim knew he didn’t have far to go, he hadn’t run more than a minute or two. Even if he got turned around, he reasoned that if he just kept moving in one direction he’d eventually make it to the edge of town. But after a few minutes of slogging through the marsh, his bare feet slowly being encased in mud, Tim thought perhaps his reasoning might be flawed. I really wish I had put some joggers on or something, shit. By now his thighs and legs had received their fair share of scratches and bug bites.
The quick onset of sweaty despair overtook Tim for a moment as he looked every which way around his head to try and see a way that was different from the rest but, as he turned, all could see was fog-laden forest. To his right, a branch snapped violently, the crack loud enough to make his shudder. As he looked toward the sound, Tim caught the fleeting image of antlers disolving into the mist.
He ran. At this point though, he wasn’t running so much as he was hobbling, his left foot growing numb and sticky. In the distance, he could hear the dog barking, frantic and scared. Tim wanted to get out, wanted to see anything but fog through the endless trees. Resting for a moment against a wide oak, he made the mistake of looking down at his injured foot, toes slathered in dark blood. Picking the foot up in hand, he inspected the deep, oozing puncture, dirt and debris surrounding and filling the wound.
Putting any sort of pressure on his left foot had become completely out of the question, the pain excruciating at the slightest bit of contact. Tim was forced to hop his way on one leg through the trees, using the mossy trunks as support when he could. After several minutes of struggling and seemingly no forward progress, fatigue began to set in, a warm sheen of sweat forming across Tim’s forehead. Inevitably, he lost balance, his good foot slipping on soft earth, sending his body smashing down into the brush.
In the tumble, a ringing developed in Tim’s ear, turning the entire world both loud and unhearable for a few moments. But as the ringing subsided, as he struggled to regain his orientation, Tim thought he heard the pained scream of a man falling away through the trees. What the actual fuck? As he regained his footing, standing with the help of a young, nearby tree, Tim strained to hear anything further through the thick silent fog. When his head finally cleared and his vision steadied, Tim only felt the heaviness of the air. He strained to hear anything resembling human on the wind but there was only the soft lapping of atmospheric humming resonating throughout the marsh. The fog was now all-encompassing. Anything further than a couple of yards from Tim’s face was practically invisible.
“Hello?” He cringed as he yelled, stupid horror movie trope shit. But at the same time, he expected an answer. From within the fog, Tim could sense movement, he could feel the subtle disruptions in the stagnant swamp air.
Something, someone, wailed beyond the fog. It was a masculine voice, quiet, almost undetectable, but it was there. Without thinking, Tim moved toward the sound as best he could. Again, the voice wailed, a little bit louder, a little less indistinct. But it wasn’t enough for Tim. He wanted to hear more of it, needed to, because there was something to it, something so painfully familiar. It almost sounded like…
How long had it been, how long since he had last seen Javi? Two months? At least, maybe longer. One morning Tim wakes up and he’s gone, disappeared into oblivion without a note, no voicemail no text. His running shoes were gone, he had gone for an early jog as was his usual custom. They’d had a fight the night before, not a real fight, not a screaming match like some of the truly bad ones, more of a disagreement, a heated one. By the time noon rolled around, Tim had begun to get worried. There was little he could do though to get in contact with Javi, his phone was still plugged in by the side of the bed. Javi’s keys and wallet were still lying on the kitchen counter. If he’d gone anywhere, he could not have gone far. Not on his own anyway. It wouldn’t have been the first time Javi vanished for the day to “clear his head”.
Another moan and Tim was certain. “Javier!” he yelled into the mist. Quickly, he hobbled toward the cries, wincing through the pain in his foot until he could not feel it any longer. He focused on the trees, on pulling through them, past them. He strained his eyes to search for a human form in the fog, the forest blurring, becoming a parading array of dark lines in his vision.
By the time Tim had filed a missing person’s report with the police, he was angry more than anything else. He just wanted to know where Javi had gone, why he had gone, who he had gone with. Initial panic and despair aside, it didn’t seem likely to Tim that Javi was ever in any danger. Not mister survivalist, mister roughing it in Montana every October, mister could take a bear down with a bow if he had to. Though it was strange that he still hadn’t heard a word from him. No matter how mad, how petty, how mean Javier got, he always eventually came back around with an apology, some more sincere than others. It wasn’t in his nature to ghost someone, not like this, not after almost three years together. The Javi Tim knew could never let that kind of guilt weigh on his heart for this long.
The marsh grew dense as Tim moved deeper inward. His forward path was blocked first by thick poisonous brush – just a touch was enough for him to feel the beginning itch of irritation. As he made his way around the brush, nearly blind in the fog, he was then halted by the enormous fallen truck of an ancient oak. Tim failed to see it until his right leg banged against the bark, the force of the collision sending him toppling again to the muddy ground. Staring up at the tree cover, vision swaying, Tim heard a voice – Javi’s voice – muffled yet close.
“Please… help…. I need… help…”
Behind his head, Tim heard something shuffle through vegetation, soft footsteps on the moist ground. He rolled his eyes as far back into his head as they would roll, but he could see nothing but the misty marsh. Still, he could feel the presence of another, could hear heavy breathing puncturing through the fog.
“Javi! I’m here, I’m here! I’m… I’m sorry,” warm liquid was forming beneath his eyes. “I’m sorry that I didn’t come looking for you sooner.” With a great deal of effort and pain, Tim pulled himself up, grimacing as he attempted to stand on his injured and most likely infected foot. “I don’t care how it happened, I’m just glad I found you.” Tim continued as he struggled, using the dead oak trunk that tripped him to steady himself. He looked up.
Tim wasn’t sure what he expected to see, if he had been asked thirty minutes ago if he had ever expected to see Javier’s face again he would have laughed. In his disoriented, pain-riddled, near-delirious mind, Tim imagined finding a naked and afraid Javi, mud-covered with a face streaked with snot and tears.
What he saw, however, was the narrow snout and the high-antlered head of a white-tailed buck staring him straight in the face. It struck Tim at once that no deer stood so tall, as tall as a moose. He watched with a numb face as the buck head, its torso hidden behind dense brush, opened its mouth to utter a sound so much like a man wailing. Tim watched unmoving as the head moved toward him, black eyes staring into his.
“Help… Please… “ spoke the buck.