The bells of St. Christopher’s were tolling the hour as Moe leaned his bulky form against the pole at the intersection of Washington Street and Atreus Court. No matter how many times he checked before leaving on his nightly walk, one of his shoes always seemed to come untied. Straining to keep his balance, he cursed his shoes and the bulge around his waist that made them so hard to reach. He heard the church bells cease after the eighth ring. At least he was on schedule. He would finish this up and be back in front of the television by nine.

Pre-diabetic and 30 pounds overweight, Moe had been ordered by his doctor to exercise, so every night he would set out from his home on Ithaca Drive, turn left down Freedom Lane, and make the loop of Washington Street, a two mile trek if he went around Washington twice. This course had the advantage of keeping him close to home while enabling him to add to his distance by making extra laps if he felt ambitious. Thus far, he had not felt ambitious.

Walking wasn’t that bad, really. It was a nice change of scenery from the kitchen at Ephyra’s where he had washed dishes for the past 15 years. He had been offered the chance to advance to management several times, but had always passed on the opportunity. He saw no reason to assume the responsibility. As he plodded on, breathing in air redolent with the scent of summer barbecues, he imagined himself attending such a feast, forgetting for a moment the drab living room with the empty chairs and the ceaseless drone of voices from the television he could never bring himself to turn off. Sometimes he would shout at it just to hear the sound of his own voice.

Usually, if he timed it right, he would run into the pretty woman walking her dog as he made his second lap around Washington Street. Of course, he never spoke to her, never even gave her a nod as he passed, but he would often imagine what would happen if he did. He would have someone to talk to, but what would he talk about? He would have someone to go out with, but where would he take her? What would it be like having to help care for a dog? There were too many obstacles to overcome. Nevertheless, he liked to see her in passing, and was disappointed she wasn’t out on this particular night.

Moe spent the rest of his trek around the block imagining what the woman was doing. He felt slightly indignant she had stood him up. Was her dog ill? Was she ill? Maybe she was with someone else. Moe recognized this last possibility displeased him more than it should have. It had been the same with Julie, the waitress from work who always smiled at him. He would politely return her smile, but always stopped himself from engaging her further. When she called in sick, he would spend the rest of the night worrying, but he limited his involvement in her life to his imagination.

Moe suddenly became aware of the bells, and, looking about, saw he was again on the corner of Washington and Atreus Court. Had it really taken him an hour to make it around the loop? He’d left his cell phone at home, and he hadn’t worn a watch since getting the job as dishwasher, so he would have to rely on the bells for confirmation. For as long as he had lived in the neighborhood, the Bells of St. Christopher’s had always rung exactly on the hour. Like Moe himself, they were dependable, and immutable. Moe decided to pick up the pace on his second time around.

The houses all seemed darker tonight than usual. The porch lights were on, but tonight, the windows gave up only darkness. While he didn’t linger, Moe would often get glimpses of the lives of the people inhabiting the homes as he passed. Usually, his encounters with them would be brief and uninspiring: a man would walk past the window, or he would see someone staring at a screen, much as he would have been doing had he been home. Occasionally, he would glimpse something more: a couple embracing, parents playing happily with their children, and he would spend the rest of his walk inventing backstories for them. He often thought of these people as friends, though he had no desire to actually meet any of them. Real friends would only complicate his life. They would show up or call when he wanted to be alone, and they would expect him to be witty or compassionate when he was unable to muster the energy for either. In the end, they would all drift off, unsatisfied with him. It had been hard enough keeping his mother entertained. For the most part they had kept their distance, as much as that was possible in their small house, living their lives separately and quietly. After she died, leaving him everything, he hardly noticed a difference.

Moe noticed his shoe had again come untied. Looking about for something to lean against so he could tie it, he realized he was again on the corner of Atreus. He must have been lost in thought and walked right past his turn on Freedom Lane. Then he heard the bells. Another hour had passed? How was that possible? He resolved to walk back to Freedom and the comfort of his home. Taking a few steps in that direction, he paused. The street was enveloped in a thick mist, obscuring everything before him. For some reason, the mist filled him with dread, and he could not bring himself to venture into it. There was something abnormal and, he thought, sinister about the wall of white blocking his view. Anything could be lurking behind it. Relieved to see the night was clear in the direction he had been heading previously, he continued on his former course. He would just have to catch Freedom the next time around.

As he walked, the mist followed him. At first, he would glance back every few steps, but eventually he stopped looking and quickened his pace. What was it, and why was he so afraid of it?  He knew there was something unpleasant lurking in that fog. What if he ventured into it and couldn’t see? He could hardly make it back to his house blind. He walked even faster. His only hope was that it was moving rather than spreading out, growing larger. He had to hope that by the time he reached Freedom, it would not be blocking his way from that direction.

As he rounded the last corner, he saw the path ahead was clear. It was only a short distance to Freedom Lane and then to Ithaca. He chided himself for being afraid. Perhaps it had all been in his head. He paused and looked back. Behind him, there was only white dense fog. It blotted out the street and the houses and even extended up to snuff out the stars. Continuing on, he stepped out into the street to circumnavigate a van which extended out over the sidewalk, conscious of every second spent not moving forward. There was his turn up ahead. He could see the signpost in the glare of the street light.

A few moments later, he stood dumbfounded, staring up at the corner of Atreus Court. For the first time, he could feel the mist on his skin as it lapped at him with gray tendrils. Suddenly, on this warm summer night, he felt chilled. He shuddered and, clasping his arms around his chest, stumbled down the road away from the white void pursuing him.

It wasn’t long before he again found himself at Atreus. He had tried to stay alert, noting each step he took as he approached where Freedom Lane should have been, but still he had walked past it. As the bells tolled, he counted. Why did they stop after nine? Had they been tolling nine this whole time? Was something resetting time each time he passed that point? Was he dreaming? If only he could find someone to explain it to him, someone to reassure him that he had not gone mad. Maybe he would eventually encounter the woman and her dog. Maybe he could catch someone leaving their house and get them to help him. He considered knocking on doors, begging for help, but the mist was always at his heels. There was no time. He couldn’t let it overtake him.

It seemed he had been walking for days. He had lost track of how many times he had passed those same houses and how many times he had heard the bells toll the same hour. Over and over he had walked the same route, seeing no one. There had been no cars to flag down, no open doors to rush to, and not even a stray cat presented itself to alleviate his isolation. He was alone with only the ever encroaching mist and his own footfalls to remind him there was still some motion left in the world.

He tried to think of what he had done to deserve such a fate. He’d never been kind, or gone out of his way to help anyone, but he hadn’t been cruel, either. He’d never taken advantage of anyone, or really tried to gain the advantage at all. He had been content with what life had given him. If anything, he had been mostly oblivious to the temptations that enticed other men. Seeing most of what others coveted as not worth the effort it would take to obtain, he had never been lustful or greedy. He had never been lazy and had always given his employer exactly what he had paid for, if not anything more. When his mother became ill, he did what was required of him, tending to her needs as best he could. He had always paid his taxes, and had never cheated anyone out of anything.

Eventually his fear subsided, replaced by a weariness that was more spiritual than physical. He was actually surprised his legs didn’t ache, and he felt no hunger. To occupy his mind, he had taken to counting the cracks in the pavement, and making note of the cars parked on the street and in the driveways of the seemingly empty houses. He had never paid much attention to cars before. Living less than a mile from the diner, he had always walked to work and had never seen the need to incur the expense of an automobile. After his mother died, he had sold her ancient sedan without ever having sat behind the wheel. There was no place he ever needed to go.

The thought stirred a memory. The toad! One night, not long after he had taken up walking his route, he had noticed a large toad sitting immobile in the grass by the driveway of a house of Atreus Court. The next night, he had found it in the exact same spot, and he had made a point to look for it each time he had bothered to explore the cul-de-sac. It had always been there. If it was still there now, he would have proof he wasn’t alone in the world. He quickened his pace, almost running, not even bothering to note the spot when he passed where Freedom should have been.

Taking the time to search for the toad would mean giving ground to the ever pursuing mist, but he had to chance it. The bells had just begun to toll as he raced down Atreus. Reaching the house, he strained his eyes against the darkness. Yes! It was there! He fell to his knees and reached for it, but before he could grab it, the previously immobile toad hopped away. Surprised because he had never before seen it move, and had not imagined such a lethargic animal could move so fast, he lunged for it again, falling on his face as it again avoided his grasp.

Lying there on the grass, Moe felt a chill. It was here. The mist had caught him! He rolled away from it, scrapping his elbow on the pavement of the driveway, and scrambled to get on his feet. The houses on the far side of the court were already gone, consumed by the void. As he turned to run, he again thought of the toad, and how it had acted so quickly to avoid him even though he wouldn’t have harmed it. Like the toad, he had been content to sit in one spot, moving only when propelled by fear, and then he had always run away from life, not towards it. Perhaps, it was time to face the mist. Taking a deep breath, he stepped forward, letting the mist embrace him. Off in the distance, the bells in the tower of St. Christopher’s tolled ten.