A Fog Without End
Natsuki Kruger was scared, far more scared than she thought she would be. The rifle in her hand didn't make her feel any more confident either as she marched in line with hundreds of other men on the way to the Virginia border. Her feet were hurting and her uniform was thick and uncomfortable, made for a larger man than her, and she was sweating in the thick summer heat. She tried to look around her, to see the gorgeous scenery of Virginia in summer, but all she could see around her were men going in the same direction she was. She wondered how many of them would be marching back. They had been marching for nearly five days now and, as much as she dreaded the coming battle, she wanted it to be over.
A loud trumpet blast echoed over the gathered stirring them to action. She had never heard the blast before, having joined the army just before leaving on this damned expedition, but she had been through enough drills to know what it meant. The scouts had spotted the enemy. Men moved all over the place, an organized chaos trying it's best to be a battle line. Natsuki joined the battle line and another blast signaled them to draw their weapons. She drew her rifle and loaded it, hating the process of filling the muzzle with gunpowder, then shouldered it.
Across the field another army was doing something similar, though their blue uniforms stood out more than the grey uniforms of the Confederacy. She didn't know what poor soul had worn the jacket that she now wore before her but she was sure of his fate. They formed one long line with the Union soldiers lined up across from them in the field. This was Natsuki's first battle and she reasoned that this was a foolish way to do battle and started wishing she had never left the farm.
She raised her gun in the air and pointed at the line across from them as did the hundreds of other men in line beside her. The minutes grew tense, Natsuki stood with her finger on the trigger, her arms starting to shake from the strain of holding the heavy weapon steady. Another trumpet blast sounded but was drowned out by the sound of guns firing across the field. Natsuki pulled the trigger and watched the bullet fly across the field and strike the man opposite her in the chest. He went down and Natsuki went to reload her rifle.
All she could hear was gunfire and the screams of the wounded and dying. Her hands were shaking as she pressed the plunger down, packing the gunpowder and the bullet down into muzzle of the rifle. She was scared, more scared than she had ever been before, and took a moment to catch her breath before returning the rifle to her shoulder. Her hands shook as she found a target and pulled the trigger, only this time she missed wide.
She went to reload her rifle when she felt a slug hit her in the stomach and she fell to the ground, pain arcing through her body. She dropped the rifle and both her hands fell to the site of the gunshot, on her stomach just above the waist. It was a terribly painful gutshot and Natsuki screamed and writhed on the ground. Then she made the smartest decision of the day, the only decision she had left to make. She drug herself to her feet and ran. She left the rifle, discarded her ammo bag and ran away from that accursed place, that battlefield.
She ran, blood dripping from her hands as she made her way across the grassy fields of Virginia. She didn't know to where she was running or even in what direction she was running, she was just running away. She ran until her legs burned, until her breath came hard and ragged. She took off her confederate coat and tossed it away leaving her in a plain white shirt and the drab grey pants that flapped loosely around her thighs, being a few sizes too big for her.
After she couldn't run anymore she walked, more stumbled, until she came onto a road an unknown number of miles away from the battlefield. The wound didn't hurt as much anymore but she was getting dizzy from loss of blood and she knew that soon she would pass out and probably die on this lonely stretch of road. She thought about her mother, worried sick about her on the plantation, and her father, who was lying in the ground due to the same war. She would miss one and see the other soon.
She continued down the road until she spotted a manor house in the distance. The house and it's surrounding lands were covered by a thick, eerie fog, an unnatural fog she thought. Any sane person would have turned and walked the other way but Natsuki was dying and this house may be her only chance at living. Eerie or not she had to try.
She stumbled through the fog trying to keep the house directly in front of her. As soon as she entered, however, the house seemed to vanish from her sight, all she could do was continue forward and hope not to pass it by. She tripped and cried out as she fell, twisting so that she fell on her uninjured side in the dirt. She had lived on a plantation most of her life and knew what soil felt like, this wasn't it. The ground felt more like sand and was as black as the night. Things were looking stranger but she continued to press on. She didn't know for how long she walked, it seemed that time had no meaning inside the fog, until finally, with a huge sigh of relief, she came upon the front porch of the manor house.
The house was large, two stories of old brick and mortar that looked like it had seen to many winters. Perhaps it was the shadows or the fog that obscured her vision but the outside of the house looked black to her, causing her to have even more apprehension. The high roof towered over her as she approached, making her feel as if she were steadily approaching an enemy castle and not a solitary manor house. She wondered if anyone was home and simultaneously prayed that there was and that there wasn't.
She walked onto the porch and the loud creaking of the old wood echoed across the silent fields and made her feel even more apprehensive about what she was doing. Absolutely nothing sat on the porch and made her wonder if anyone even lived here. She hoped she wouldn't have to die alone on some god forsaken porch. She was losing a lot of blood and felt like she would lose consciousness at any second. She approached an intimidating looking old door with a large brass knocker that looked like it had never been used and took hold of it. She knocked as hard as her waning strength would let her. No response.
She knocked again, her breath coming short and her vision starting to fade. "Help." She called out in a weak, croaking voice. She knocked as strongly as she could, a strength which was waning with every passing second. "Please, help me." She knocked until all her strength left her, then she slid down to the floor with her back against the heavy black door. "Please...help...me." Her voice was little more than a whisper as her consciousness faded. She wished her mother a good life after she was gone and prayed that she would see her father in the afterlife.
She lay unconscious for several minutes before the door slowly creaked open and the slim figure of a woman showed in the shadow of the doorway. She looked down at the prostrate figure of Natsuki on the porch and an unreadable look crossed her face. She hooked her by the arms and dragged her into the house, the door slammed behind them with finality.
When she awoke Natsuki was lying in a comfortable bed with a blankets draped over her. She was sweating and immediately kicked the blankets off of her and onto the floor. She looked around her and saw a lightly furnished room, the bed she lay on, a dresser with a vanity and a nightstand with an empty vase on it. As if to spite the exterior of the house everything in the house looked well cared for. In her mind that meant someone still lived here.
The voice came from the doorway where a beautiful woman stood looking at her with sympathetic, burgundy eyes. She was tall, slightly taller even than Natsuki, her long, brown hair flowed over her shoulders and luxuriously down her back. She wore a dress that seemed to be from a hundred years ago, meticulously cared for like the room she lay in. Natsuki also noticed an aura of sadness about the woman, her tone of voice and the way she carried herself spoke to her of deep loneliness and isolation.
Natsuki tried to sit up but a sharp pain came from her stomach. She grunted and the woman crossed the room quickly yet elegantly. From the bed Natsuki could have sworn she was floating. She pressed down on Natsuki's chest with a slender hand. "You shouldn't sit up yet. You'll open your wound."
Natsuki lay back and the woman walked out of the room. She returned a moment later with a chair and a glass of water. She handed the glass to Natsuki, an elegant glass with a floral pattern made from the finest china that Natsuki was worried she would break, then set the chair next to the bed and sat down. Natsuki downed the glass to ease her parched throat. "What's your name?"
Her voice was lyrical and flowed from her like the sounds of a harp with a tinge of an accent that declared her as being from the south. Natsuki rather enjoyed hearing it and was grateful for having her life saved so she answered. "Natsuki Kruger. Yours?"
A smile started to crease a line across her perfect skin, Natsuki reasoned that the woman hadn't had much reason to smile, but quickly faded. "That's a pretty name, Natsuki." The way she said it seemed to accentuate every syllable in her name, as if she were savoring the taste of her name on her tongue. "Where are you from?"
Natsuki was annoyed that the woman had skipped her question but decided that any conversation would be better than none. "Norfolk."
"That's a long way. What brings you out here?"
"War?" Is she serious? Has she never heard of the war? The woman's face showed that she was serious and that disturbed Natsuki. She must be the only person in America who hasn't. "What war is that?"
"You haven't heard about it?"
"Should I have?"
Yes, woman, you should have. The war had consumed all of America, it was the only thing that people could talk about. The losses on both sides had been great and neither showed signs of giving in. The Union pressed on with superior numbers giving them a fighting advantage but the Confederacy continued to plague them with combat skill and guerrilla tactics. Everyone, north and south, was talking about it and it was very odd that she hadn't heard about, though truthfully the entire situation seemed odd. "Everyone's talking about it."
"I don't get out much." Natsuki could tell it was true from the way she dressed and the way she talked. She seemed otherworldly, as if she didn't belong on this Earth. Her eyes, which Natsuki found oddly entrancing, seemed to look through and Natsuki instinctively hugged herself. It was then she noticed that she was naked. "It's been a while since I've seen anyone."
"Do you live alone here?"
The woman appeared to be in thought, as if she didn't know how to answer the question. "Yes, I am alone."
I am alone. That wasn't the answer Natsuki wanted and she wondered where exactly she was. Virginia? Earth? Reality? She looked out the window and saw that the fog obscured her vision, the fog that she had walked through just a day before with a bullet lodged deep in her stomach. Natsuki lifted the blanket and saw that she had been bandaged. "Did you do this?"
"Yes." She answered sheepishly. "I know the basics but I'm not very good at it, I'm afraid. Does it hurt?"
Natsuki tried to sit up but winced and fell back down to the bed. "It is uncomfortable when I move."
"Hopefully it will be healed in a few days." Shizuru stood up from the chair. "I will go make you something to eat."
"Wait." Shizuru stopped in the doorway but didn't turn her head. "You didn't tell me your name."
Shizuru walked away and Natsuki turned her name over in her head. Shizuru, an odd name for a strange woman in a creepy house. "Thank you, Shizuru."
"You thank me too soon, Ms. Kruger."
Shizuru walked away and left Natsuki alone in the room to contemplate her words. Terror started to creep into her mind. What did she mean by that? What have I gotten myself into? Her imagination turned to dark things, most of which Shizuru would do to her since she was unable to defend herself. Her mind was running so wild that when Shizuru walked back into the room an hour later with a plate of food she nearly fell off the bed.
Shizuru laughed to see Natsuki struggle and helped Natsuki lay back down. It was an airy, heartfelt laugh that helped to ease Natsuki's mind, she sensed no animosity from the woman. "I thought you might be hungry." The smell coming off the plate was fantastic and Natsuki took it with fervor. "It's roasted chicken with some cornbread."
Natsuki was devouring the food. She hadn't eaten since their last camp and even that had been stale bread and beans. The smell and flavor of the chicken made her mouth water and her stomach growl for more. Even after the plate was empty Natsuki wanted more. Looking at the woman Natsuki felt ashamed of her dark thoughts, though when she looked out the window and saw only fog she couldn't shake the feeling that something was out of place. "Thank you. It was delicious."
"You're very welcome, Ms. Kruger. There's more if you'd care for seconds."
"I wouldn't want to impose."
"Nonsense. I don't get to cook very often so it's always a pleasure when I do." Shizuru took the plate from Natsuki who watched her leave with curiousity. The elegance with which the woman walked almost made it seem as if she were floating. Or is she floating? No, she could see the woman's bare feet touching the floor beneath her long gown. I'm being ridiculous. Though it is odd that she isn't wearing shoes.
When Shizuru returned she handed another plate of chicken to Natsuki who ate more calmly this time. Something about the food or maybe the lightening atmosphere made her feel better, the bullet wound in her stomach was a distant memory to spite the ache whenever she would move. She noticed a sadness about the other woman and found that her curiosity outweighed her cautiousness. "So, do you live here alone?"
Shizuru appeared to mull the question over, giving it a lot of thought before she found the proper response. "There is no one else here but me."
Okay, that's an odd answer. "What about family? Surely you have some."
Again she mulled the question over in her mind. Natsuki would find that this was a habit of hers, she always took her time in answering but always seemed to know just what to say. "I guess the closest would be my father, but he died a long time ago."
"You shouldn't be."
Another odd answer. The feeling of something being off slowly crept back to her and she shivered, though if that was from her feeling or from her nudity she wasn't sure. "Did you hate your father?"
A pause while she thought. "Is that even possible? No, no, I didn't hate him." It sounded more like she was convincing herself than Natsuki. "But I can't forgive him." Her eyes hardened. "I won't."
"Oh." Natsuki regretted asking. She hadn't meant to bring up a painful memory for her hostess and felt bad. "I'm sorry, I didn't..."
Shizuru shook her head. "It's okay. That was a long time ago." Natsuki finished the food on her plate and Shizuru took it from her. "You should get some rest, Ms. Kruger."
Natsuki watched her walk away before realizing that she spoke wisdom and lay back to let herself rest. She took one last look out the window and could see only the thick, unsettling fog.
Over the next three days Natsuki's bullet wound healed thanks to Shizuru's regular, and somewhat awkward, changing of Natsuki's bandages. To spite her repeated warnings that she was inept with first aid she performed admirably and by the third day of her convalescence she was able to walk around with only minimal discomfort. She rummaged through the dresser in the room and found a few pairs of pants and a couple of nice frilly shirts. She put them on and looked closely at the things in her room. She had seen them from the bed but from up close she could tell just how clean they were. Shizuru is either great at cleaning or terribly bored. I don't think I could live in this place by myself.
After she examined her room thoroughly she turned her attention to the door. Will she be angry if I explore a bit? Maybe I should wait and ask her. She sat down on the bed and didn't have to wait long before Shizuru came to check on her. She seemed pleased with Natsuki's progress and smiled warmly to show it. "I see you're up and about, Ms. Kruger."
Natsuki returned the smile. Over the last few days the two of them had become closer, though Shizuru still didn't talk much. To spite that, Natsuki was grateful to her for having saved her life and was trying to get to know her a little better. From the looks of it she was all alone in this place and thought that she could use some companionship. "I feel a lot better now, thanks to you."
Shizuru's face turned somber. "I already told you, Ms. Kuga, you thank me too soon."
"You keep saying that. What do you mean?"
Shizuru merely looked away and set a tray with food and water for Natski on the bed next to her. It was starting to scare Natsuki that Shiziru kept dodging the question. What sinister thing is she hiding? "Now that I'm walking around I should be out of your hair in no time." Shizuru looked at her with something in her eyes. Natsuki couldn't place it but it looked to her like guilt.
Natsuki ate and drank while Shizuru sat in the chair and watched her. "How long have you been here alone?"
Shizuru continued to look somber, it was a look that Natsuki had gotten used to seeing on her face though she longed to see the woman smile. After an appropriate amount of time she answered. "A long time."
Shizuru's eyes turned glassy as she tried to remember. "I don't know. A long time now."
"How do you not know?"
Shizuru looked vacantly out of the window at the ever present fog that seemed to hang around the manor. "The fog makes it hard to tell the passage of time. Days roll into weeks and into years. I couldn't tell you how many, I don't keep track anymore."
The way she said it made it seem as if it were unimportant, as if time itself were not something that she was within but beside. The eerie feeling that had been sitting in Natsuki's gut took hold again and she merely nodded and continued to eat. This had become her default response during their conversations over the last few days and every time Natsuki would remind herself that soon she would leave and forget all about this strange house with it's one strange occupant. It would not turn out to be that easy for her, however.
On the morning of, what she she supposed was, her sixth day in the manor she was finally healed enough to leave. While she had enjoyed the company of Shizuru, and was thankful to her for saving her life, she felt it was time to head back home. The uniform that she had been wearing when she came to the manor had disappeared so she hoped Shizuru would let her keep a set of clothes to get her home.
She walked down the stairs and into the living room area, which was connected to the dining room area where she had been taking her meals, and found Shizuru sitting in an old lounge chair reading a book. She looked up when Natsuki walked in and looked right at her. "I'm feeling a lot better now, thanks to you, but I think it's time for me to find my way home now."
She walked towards the front door and stopped within arm's reach of it. Shizuru set the book down and looked at her with a deep sadness in her eyes. "I'm sorry, Ms Kruger, but you can't leave." Natsuki reached for the door handle and turned but it wouldn't budge. She tried again and again but the doorknob wouldn't turn and her eyes grew wide. "Like I said, you can't leave."
Natsuki turned and glared at Shizuru. "Let me out." She was starting to panic and she knew that was a bad thing but something about Shizuru unnerved her. She wanted to leave the manor but now it looked like Shizuru was standing in her way. "Let me go."
"I..." Shizuru looked away, guilty is what Natsuki thought of the look though it was deeper than she understood. "I can't."
Natsuki crossed the distance between them and took Shizuru by the collar of her dress. She was in full panic mode now and she shook Shizuru roughly. "You can't keep me here, let me out." Before she can respond Natsuki tosses her onto her back on the floor and runs to a nearby window. There has to be another way around.
She punched at the window with all her might but couldn't break it, the window seemed as solid as the wall. She struck at it again and again until her fist bled, until her arm couldn't move any more. She screamed at the window but that did nothing. Shizuru didn't pick herself up off the ground, she sat down and watched Natsuki run around the room.
Natsuki was beyond panicked now and she ran down the hallways, from door to door trying all of them. Each one opened to an empty room and she screamed at each one. "Got to get out, got to get out, get me out of here."
Natsuki opened a door that lead to a library of sorts and by now she was running out of steam. She fell to her knees, her breath coming ragged and the room spinning out of her control. "Please...let me...out." She collapsed to the floor exhausted. She felt arms around her and didn't have the strength to shove her away. "Let...me."
"Shhh." Shizuru rubbed her back and tried to calm her. "Calm yourself, Ms. Kruger. You don't want to make yourself sick." After long minutes Natsuki's breathing slowed and she fell into a restless sleep where panicked dreams of falling assaulted her.