Esmée is unhappy with her marriage and her life until one night when a strange mist appears and changes everything.
‘Sit down and eat your dinner,’ Esmée ordered her younger son.
‘But what about Dad?’ Ricky said, pouting as he sat back down on his chair.
Esmée wrinkled her nose as she watched Mathew pace outside, deep in quiet conversation on his phone. Another late call from work. He was getting those a lot lately, sometimes well into the night, increasingly on weekends, beyond reason. When she asked what exactly they were about, he dismissed it as some big project. Esmée snorted to herself. Did he think her a fool? She seethed as he gave a great, booming laugh. He hadn’t laughed that way with her for years.
There was a creak and a scrape as Ricky stood up on the chair again, the chair wobbling beneath him. ‘Dad!’ he called.
‘I said get down!’ Esmée snarled, yanking down on his arm.
His arse hit the seat hard, and he jerked his arm away with a start, knocking his glass with his elbow and sending milk flying across the room. There was a crash as the glass shattered on the tiles.
‘Goddamnit, Ricky!’ Esmée cried. ‘What is the matter with you? Why don’t you ever listen!’ The boy’s blue eyes shone as he clutched at his arm. Esmée had pulled it too hard, she knew, and regretted it. ‘Go to your room, I don’t want to look at you.’
He slid off his seat, bursting into tears as he fled. The door slammed shut behind him. Her ten-year-old, Joshua, watched it all mutely and without expression, his face pale against his black hair as he poked his potato with his fork. Esmée dropped her head into her hands. Joshua was getting used to all the fighting now, and he shouldn’t be.
‘What the hell’s going on?’ Mathew demanded, closing the door behind him. He was finally off the phone, roused by all the noise.
Esmée looked up, and rage like she’d never felt before coursed through her body. How dare he demand anything. She rose slowly from her seat.
It was the worst fight they had ever had. They shouted and cursed and screamed like they didn’t have children or neighbours who might be listening. Accusations flew like the dishes and glasses and cutlery she threw across the room. By the end, bits of glass and ceramic littered the floor, Joshua had disappeared, white as a ghost, into his room, and there was the crash of the door slamming shut as Mathew left, no doubt to join his mistress.
Esmée’s anger drained away, leaving a chasm of emptiness. Her ears rang in a silence too deep. Her angry tears dried into a crust on her cheeks. Was this it? Thirty-two and it was already over? They were supposed to grow old together.
Numbly, she took up her broom and began to sweep up the mess, then remembered her children. She put the broom aside and quietly opened Ricky’s door. Her boy was a quivering ball under his blankets. When she approached, he rolled away with a sob and tucked himself against the wall. As for Joshua, he was apparently asleep, though he was far too still and breathing too quietly.
Esmée’s shoulders sagged as she closed the door. She looked around her house, a home no longer, and fresh tears poured down her cheeks.
The next morning, Esmée dropped her sons off to school. Nobody spoke, nobody looked at each other and when she tried to say goodbye, they hurried away before she could make a sound, looking unbearably vulnerable in their uniforms.
Upon her return home, she stripped off and stood naked in front of the bathroom mirror, gazing at herself. She touched the bags under her eyes, the lines around her mouth, the stretchmarks over her drooping breasts. Her mousy brown hair sat tangled and limp on her shoulders. Her brown eyes were dim. Not unattractive, but still far from beautiful. A disgrace, a shell of a woman; that’s what I am. She spat at her reflection.
Deep into the night, Mathew still hadn’t rung, and she wondered if he would even bother. She rolled over in bed but sleep evaded her, her mind tangled with thousands of stray thoughts and emotions and memories she couldn’t make sense of.
She sat up with a sigh. She checked on her sons, found them sleeping, then stepped outside.
Their house might have been small, but they had a large backyard that backed onto bushland. Her neighbours’ homes were dark. She was alone in her pain, and she’d better get used to it.
There was a swing-set, sandpit, toys and bikes and scooters lying all over the ground—evidence they were happy once. The tyre swing Mathew had hung from the eucalypt only six months ago beckoned to her.
It was a misty night. Strange for summer. She had never seen anything like it. The mist was thick and swirled around her as she swung, the ropes creaking in the quiet. Smoky tendrils tugged at her nightie, brushed through her hair, filled her lungs. It grew hot, to the point of sweating. Soon the moon vanished, then the trees, the house, and then she was truly alone. She stopped swinging.
She looked around fearfully. Except for a frog croaking somewhere nearby, she might have been the only living thing in the world. She stood up, about to rush back to the house, but stopped herself. Don’t be silly. It’s just mist.
She sat back down.
‘Esmée,’ rose a deep, creeping whisper, as creeping as the mist itself.
Esmée gasped and leapt back to her feet, spinning around. ‘Who’s there?’
No response. Her hair blew back as a strong wind whipped around her. She struggled to pull down her nightie as it flung up over her waist. Esmée stared ahead as a form took shape—a man. Of sorts, at least. He walked towards her, slowly, purposefully, almost gliding across the ground. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up, her heart began to pound, she clutched at her chest, but it wasn’t all from fear.
‘Who—who are you?’ she said.
The strange wind stilled as he stopped, head cocked, a smile on his face. At least she thought it was a smile. It was hard to tell. He was so insubstantial, so wispy, as though he were a ghost or made of the mist itself.
‘Esmée,’ he said again, and it seemed to echo all around her, throughout the smoky air. He held out his hand.
She stared at it. ‘I can’t.’
He didn’t say a word but simply gazed at her, and there was something in his swirling eyes she hadn’t seen in a long time—desire, need. He wanted her, and she hadn’t been wanted in so long.
Her eyes drifted to his groin. He was naked, but she couldn’t see much more than an outline of his manhood. His smile broadened. She swallowed and smoothed her nightie down her thighs. What does it matter? I’m clearly dreaming anyway. Who would it hurt? I need to be loved just like every other woman, even if it is only in my mind.
She stepped towards him and slipped her hand into his.
She gasped as he suddenly dissolved and rushed up her arm in a blast of wind that made her stumble backwards. He blew down the neck of her nightie, out through the bottom before coiling around her in a tight embrace. She was enveloped in warmth, in softness, like she was smothered in a cloud of feathers. The mist’s embrace tightened. She almost sobbed at the feel of lips on her neck, a nose against her cheek, hands against her waist. She desperately wanted to kiss him, to know what he felt like in her mouth, but she couldn’t see him properly, his features little more than blurry outlines, his flowing hair merging with the mist. Only his eyes could she catch glimpses of. He held her, smoothed his hands down her sides, following her curves, or what was left of them. There was a moist brush of air against her lips, and Esmée’s heart thundered as she opened her mouth.
His tongue was smooth as silk, and he was so gentle, unlike Mathew who always liked to take control. She cried out and tried to grasp onto something, a lurch in her guts, as she was lowered to the ground. She spread open her thighs, her vagina throbbing so hard tears swelled. He had no need to remove her knickers, but simply entered her in a gust of air that rushed beneath the elastic.
‘Oh, God!’ she cried out. He was so hard! How could air be so hard?
Esmée clutched onto the grass, neck arched, as he rammed her arse into the ground. Briefly she wondered how she must look until a surge of ecstasy wiped everything but the pleasure from her mind. He pushed into her deeper than she had ever experienced before, then held. He hovered above her, within her, around her, a swirling smoky mist, as she came. She moaned as she clenched hard around a hardness that couldn’t be there.
She lay sprawled on the ground, panting, breast heaving, throbbing all over. It had been far too long. The mist eased its coiling but remained as thick as ever. He was watching her, waiting for something.
‘Esmée,’ he said and began to drift away.
‘Wait!’ she cried as he blew into the bushland.
She started to rush after him, then stopped, something tugging at the back of her mind. She looked behind her. There was a house. A surge of emotions flooded her heart: happiness, love, pain, sadness. It looked strangely familiar, but she didn’t know why. All she knew was that it hurt to look at in so many ways. She grabbed at her head, dizzy and light-headed, as she tried to think.
She shook her head. No. It was nothing. She was mixed up. There had only ever been the mist.
‘Wait!’ she cried again, charging after him.
Mathew opened his eyes to pitch black, the curtains drawn against the moonlight. His mobile rang again, and he sat up and stumbled out of bed. He groped at the clothes strewn all over the floor, searching for his pants.
‘What’s going on?’ Elizabeth murmured, stirring beneath the sheet.
He found them and slipped the mobile out of his pocket. ‘Hello?’ he croaked, sitting on the edge of the bed and running his fingers through his hair.
He pulled the mobile away from his ear with a start as a high, panicked voice screeched, ‘Dad! You have to come home.’
‘Josh? What are you—?’
‘Mum’s missing. Ricky went to ask for some water, but she wasn’t in bed.’
Mathew stood. ‘What? Have you checked the house?’
‘Everywhere. She’s gone. The backdoor was open, but she’s not outside either.’
Mathew winced as Ricky wailed somewhere in the background.
Joshua burst into tears. ‘Hurry!’
‘All right. Calm down. I’ll be there fifteen minutes. Comfort your brother. Fifteen minutes and I’ll be there.’
He hung up and switched on the lamp.
‘Hey,’ Elizabeth slurred, throwing an arm over her face.
He quickly dialled Esmée’s number. ‘Come on, answer.’ But the phone rang out. He hung up and began pulling on his pants.
‘What are you doing?’
She sat up with a start, eyes narrowed, blinking rapidly against the light. Her breasts sat full and round over the sheet. ‘Why?’
‘Esmée’s disappeared and the kids are alone.’
She fell back into bed with a groan. ‘That fucking woman.’
‘That fucking womanis the mother of my children.’ He tried to button up his shirt, but his fingers were trembling.
Elizabeth lifted an eyebrow, lips pursed, annoyed. Mathew surprised himself. He knew he wasn’t in love with Esmée anymore, but he hadn’t realised how much he still cared about her.
Giving up on the buttons, he picked up his car keys and shut the door behind him.
He was there within twelve minutes. Joshua was waiting at the door, his face red and wet with sobbing. Ricky rushed over with a squeal, as red-faced as his brother. Mathew picked him up and kissed him on the cheek.
‘I checked everywhere,’ Josh said guiltily, following Mathew as he switched on all the lights and checked the rooms. Ricky tightened his arms around Mathew’s neck.
‘It’s all right, Josh. We’ll find her,’ Mathew said, patting him on the shoulder. ‘You’ve done a good job.’
Everything seemed in order. There was no sign of a break-in, no sign of violence.
‘Did you hear anything?’ Mathew asked as he checked the garage. Her car was still there.
Joshua shook his head.
Mathew pulled out his mobile and rang her number again. They all looked up at the sound of her ringtone. Her phone was on the kitchen bench alongside her purse.
‘You said the backdoor was open?’ Mathew said.
They went outside. All was quiet and still. The moon was full. A frog croaked. Nothing untoward. He studied the yard: the toys on the ground, the tyre swing, the fence, the bush beyond. He stared into the trees, suddenly feeling sick. She had done this once before just after she gave birth to Joshua when she was suffering from postnatal depression. He swallowed, wiped the sweat from his forehead.
‘I’m going to take you both to Jackie and Bob next door,’ he said, hoisting Ricky higher in his arm and guiding Josh back through the house. ‘You can stay with them until I find out what’s going on.’
‘No!’ Joshua cried. ‘I’m coming too.’
‘Don’t argue with me, Josh. I know you want to help, but you’re only going to slow me down, and I don’t want to have to worry about you and your mother.’
‘Joshua,’ he warned with a hard gaze.
Joshua folded his arms and dropped his head.
Once Mathew had left them with the neighbours, he rushed back home, picking up a torch as he hurried through the house and into the backyard. He vaulted over the fence.
His shoes crunched loudly through the thick groundcover. He had no need of his torch yet, guided by the moonlight.
‘Esmée!’ he called.
No answer. He ran faster, hoping to God he wasn’t too late.
Esmée looked back at the distant sound of her name. The voice sounded familiar, but she couldn’t place it. She squinted but could see nothing, the mist so thick she could barely see her hand in front of her face.
‘Esmée. Come to me.’
He held out his arms, a smile on his face, ribbons of grey cloud swirling all around him. He was only steps away, waiting for her, hungry for her. The darkness of his eyes had deepened, taking on more solid form, and they penetrated the mist like arrows, beckoning her.
She took a step towards him, smiling, her heart beating madly, her body throbbing at the thought of being in his arms again.
‘Esmée!’ She stopped. That voice again. She looked over her shoulder. A flash of light illuminated the mist. It swung around in circles, up and down, left and right. ‘What the hell is this?’ said the voice. Then the light locked onto her. ‘Esmée?’
She lifted her hand against the glare as a figure stepped towards her, torch in hand, and he was as solid as the ground beneath her feet.
‘Esmée,’ the figure said in relief.
‘Do I know you?’ she said, squinting.
He paused. ‘What do you mean, “do I know you?”? I’m your husband.’
She shook her head. ‘I don’t know you and I don’t like your voice. It makes me feel bad.’
She turned away.
‘Esmée, stop! What about your children?’
She hesitated. ‘Children?’
‘Yes! Your children. Joshua and Ricky.’
Something fluttered in her heart. She shook her head, confused and dizzy.
‘Esmée. Come to me.’
She looked at her misty lover again, and his eyes were blacker and deeper than ever. The wind picked up, churning the smoky air. Her hair blew about, her nightie flapped. She took another step.
‘Esmée!’ the man cried.
She spun around. A small figure came racing towards her, the mist coiling around him. Her heart lurched.
‘Josh, no!’ The man caught the figure and hoisted him into his arms.
‘Joshua,’ she whispered, reaching out a hand, puzzled.
‘Mummy,’ came his little sob.
Something twisted in her heart. ‘Joshua.’ She repeated his name quietly to herself, trying to hear it, to taste it, to remember. Warmth filled her heart, flooded her body. And she knew. Joshua. Joshua! Ricky! My babies.
Ice chilled her veins. What had happened? She spun back around. The misty being glared at her, eyes now the blackest black she had ever known, and filled with cruelty.
There was a whoosh, a blast of wind, and the mist crashed to the ground like a wave. Thigh-deep, it tugged at the hem of her nightie as it flowed like water over a cliffside she hadn’t known was there.
Esmée gasped and stumbled back. She had been standing right by the edge. One more step, and she would have plummeted to her death.
‘Mum!’ Josh cried, squirming in his father’s arms.
Esmée burst into tears and rushed over to them, snatching her son from Mathew’s arms and crushing him against her.
‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ she said as she kissed him all over the face. ‘I love you, I love you, I love you.’
She looked up at Mathew, who was standing to the side, watching her warily. Then she looked around her, recognising the place. She had been here before, once before, a long time ago, during a time of darkness and pain she never wanted to know again. She turned back to Mathew, understanding how he’d found her and what he must be thinking.
She didn’t care to explain herself. She could see in his eyes he hadn’t seen the misty creature, and she wasn’t foolish enough to try to convince him of the truth. He had saved her life and that was all that mattered. She took his hand and squeezed it. ‘Thank you.’
He managed a thin smile, pulled his hand out of her grasp and wrapped his arms around her.
‘So, did you have fun at school today?’ Mathew asked Ricky.
‘Yes. I drew pictures.’ He swivelled in his seat and jumped down.
‘Wait till after din—’ Esmée began, but he had already disappeared into his room.
Esmée and Mathew smiled at each other. Three weeks had passed since the incident at the cliff and things were beginning to mend. Mathew had broken off the affair and moved back in, and Esmée was seeing a counsellor for what Mathew thought was her ‘depressive disorder’. Esmée didn’t mind. After all that happened, she needed it.
They were kind to each other, gentle, but they weren’t in love—not yet. That was going to take time, a rebuilding of trust and affection. But Esmée had hope things would work out, even if it meant they couldn’t be together.
She glanced outside. It was another cloudless night, the moon’s silvery light shining into the backyard. She still could not explain what had happened that night, what that thing was, no matter how hard she searched for answers. But at least it hadn’t returned, and she knew it never would. She would not be fooled again.
Esmée grinned and ruffled Joshua’s hair as he gazed at them across the table, pink-faced and smiling, munching on peas. He had no understanding of what happened at the cliff, not the truth, nor the truth as Mathew saw it, and Esmée was glad. They were issues no ten-year-old should have to deal with.
Ricky rushed back into the room, waving a slip of paper. ‘Here’s my favourite,’ he said, scrambling back onto his chair and handing it over to his father.
They gazed down at it. It was a classic stick figure drawing: the family prominent, all smiling and holding hands, house at the back, sun in the sky. She shook her head. Some things never changed, even between generations.
She felt Mathew brush his fingers against her hand beneath the table. She gripped his hand and squeezed. He squeezed back.
Yes, she had hope for the future.
© Morgan Tonkin 2018