At least no one was in an extreme hurry this work day as the gray soupy haze hung over the landscape in a neverending reminder that it was out to hamper the morning commute. Visibility was, at best, one hundred fifty feet as Matt Clark eased his ancient Beetle down Highway 27 toward the Lake Eloise Citrus Processing Facility. Most of the drivers on the road drove cautiously, but one had to stay on guard. The inky fog had come for the fourth time in the last few weeks, creeping in late at night and lingering to early dawn. Matt knew most of it was a result of the rash of cold snaps that had hit Florida in the past month. It had been an unusual winter for the Sunshine State. Temps had plummeted down into the teens as far south as Boca Raton.
“Climate change!” Matt muttered to himself, eyes focused hard on the road ahead. He had his own personal views about the folks who belabored the climate melodrama. The thick foggy mess he was staring at would certainly add to that melodrama.
“I wouldn’t be surprised that it already has,” he mumbled again.
Change was here, right now. A result of the historical drop in temperatures. And then there were the muck fires. Fires smoldering in the thick swamplands that surrounded most urban areas in the central Florida region. Added to the mix was this white shroud over the landscape. It made the place feel haunted.
This is almost like reliving Friday night, Matt thought as he stared out the windshield. He and Steffie McMurry had driven from Haines Lake to Havendale, and it had taken a little over an hour and a half. On a clear night it would have only taken twenty minutes at the most. The fog was so thick that night he had been forced to drive his little ancient Volkswagen in first and second gear. He’d been white knuckled the whole way. This morning was bad, but not as bad as Friday night.
“It’s as if the earth is trying to get back at humanity for what we’ve done to it,” Steffie had commented as she kept a watch for the white line on the edge of the highway. Steffie was an ecology fiend. She kept tabs on most of the ecological movements in the world, although she focused primarily on wildlife. From time to time, she helped out at the local Shawnee Wildlife Rescue. It was her passion to save those creatures impacted by humankind’s technological advances.
“Right,” Matt had replied without much thought. “Seems like the very air is trying to reach out and strangle people.”
“Those fires must be really bad!” Steffie kept watch.
Matt knew that certain parts of Interstate 4 were blocked off and Highway 27 had been closed in several locations for hours. He had learned, later on, that only one road was passable in the whole county that night. Smoke mixed with the ever thickening fog had played a key role in the road closures.
Now he was navigating through the gray soup again, and it had an eerie feel to it. It was almost like he was in some old horror movie on late night TV. If the Thing or Count Dracula jumped out of this pea soup he was certain he’d faint dead away. He chuckled as his mind pondered other horror scenes, but his eyes were still fixed on the road ahead.
The processing plant was barely visible in the early light of the dawn. Only the evaporator towers and the third story of the plant could be seen from the fog. As he got closer, the fog thinned out at certain points. When he was within a tenth of a mile, the whole facility rose up out of the ground like an awakening giant. Matt gave a glance at the digital clock stuck to the dashboard of his ancient Beetle: 8:37. He was thirty-seven minutes late for work. It couldn’t be helped. Forty-seven minutes when it should have taken ten.
“It’ll be clear by noon,” Matt said aloud as he found his parking place. After clocking in, he headed toward his office at the far end of the loading facility.
“I really wasn’t expecting you in at all, Matt,” Vince Morgan remarked as he stepped down from his forklift. “Old man Barker called and said he wouldn’t be in today because of the fog.”
Teddy Barker was senior manager of the processing facility and Matt’s direct boss. At least this morning he wouldn’t have to give account of why it took so long to get to work. Matt gave Vince a nod and kept walking toward his office.
“Night crew was dwindled down to only three workers last night,” Vince reported as he stepped into pace with Matt. “The other ten workers didn’t want to risk the drive to the plant. Can’t say that I blame them.” Vince laughed. “I only live a quarter mile from here and still took me a while. See you around.”
Vince ambled off toward the box section of the plant where he would get his shipping orders. For the better part of three and a half hours Matt was buried with reports from shipping and receiving.
There was a knock on his door.
Sandy Morgan, Vince’s wife, swept in like a summer breeze; her long auburn ponytail swaying to and fro as she tossed six shipping reports down on Matt’s desk.
“I found these on Taylor’s desk; thought you might need them.” She looked at him and smiled a toothy grin. “Truck traffic was cut down to just a handful last night. Ricardo and Tony are the only one’s willing to risk the pea soup. Morning crew is running with five less than normal, and we’ve got only three truckers in the lounge right now. I doubt any more will show up.”
Matt eased back into his chair, picking up the reports Sandy had tossed on his endless mountain of paperwork. Funny, he thought to himself, Mr. Barker isn’t willing to give up his old ways of doing things. He looked at Sandy. “Ricardo and Tony are willing to do anything.”
The smile on Sandy’s face got bigger. “Sure are. Understand they only got as far as Haines Lake last night. Got pulled over by the cops and were forced to pull in at Central Truck Stop to wait the fog out. Highway patrol shut down the whole county. No trucks were going anywhere.”
Matt wasn’t too surprised by this news. “Did they get out this morning?”
Sandy nodded and headed toward the door. “Tony called Vince to tell him he and his colorful sidekick, Ricardo, are New York bound, unless there’s fog and smoke up toward Jacksonville.”
“Let’s hope it’s clear up that way!”
“Amen to that!” Sandy whizzed out of the office.
As he pushed back in his chair, he noticed his cell phone at the edge of the rising mountain of paperwork. Suddenly Roxette’s She’s Got The Look shrilled to life as the phone vibrated. A picture of a long-haired blonde girl with gorgeous blue eyes appeared on the screen. If it was one thing about his girl, Steffie, she definitely had the look!
“Hi, Steff!” Matt was glad to get away from the glare of monitors for a while.
“Matt, I’m leaving my jeep at the studio and walking home.”
“Why?” The hint of alarm in Steffie’s voice put Matt on the edge of panic mode. Steffie wasn’t usually rattled by much, as she’d been a corpsman in the Navy. This didn’t sound like her.
“The fog’s too thick. It’ll be safer to walk.” Steffie tried to sound confident as she picked up on Matt’s concern. “It’s only a couple of miles and there’s wide sidewalks all the way.”
Matt glanced at the time on his cell. It was a quarter to one, and by all rights the fog should have been gone.
“I thought the fog would have lifted by now.”
“Can’t figure it out!” Steffie remarked. “I heard on the news there’s been new outbreaks of muck fires in the county. But you’re right, it should have lifted by now. Strange. I’ll see you at home. Love you!”
“Okay. Love you, too!” Matt ended the call and placed his cell back on the desk. “That’s really strange!” Pushing up from his chair, he eased out of the office and went to look out one of the warehouse windows. All he saw was the ugly defused light through a thicker shroud of fog.
“What in the world is going on?” Matt just stared out of the dingy pane at what should have been the parking lot. All he saw was deep gray images. Nothing was distinguishable.
Gary Anderson stepped up behind Matt and glanced over his shoulder. “Thought that soup would be gone by now.”
“Weird!” Matt continued to stare out the dingy window.
“Truckers have been complaining that this stuff has gotten worse in the last few hours. But no one’s going home right now.” Gary forced a weak smile.
“I thought Ricardo and Tony were heading north this morning.” He gave a thoughtful look at Gary.
“If you’re on the coast that’s a different story.” Gary nodded. “Vince told me a little bit ago that he got a call from Tony. Tony said Interstate Ninety-Five is pretty clear all the way up to Jacksonville. That’s what all the trucker’s are saying.”
“That’s good news!” Matt remarked.
“Yes, it is!” Gary nodded. “Tony and Ricardo will be pushing those rigs of theirs for sure. Hopefully they’ll be out of the state soon.”
“Let’s hope so.”
Gary took another look out the window. “Strangest thing I’ve seen in a long time, Matt. Strangest thing.”
Matt nodded in agreement. Yes, it was strange, very strange. He gave a shrug and went back to work.
At five Matt headed to the time clock to punch out and head for home. Steffie had texted him earlier saying she’d gotten home safely and was fixing dinner, and for him to drive carefully. Linda Costello, the night shift manager, was staring at the time badges as Matt approached the time clock area.
“Down to seven workers tonight!” Linda muttered as she continued to stare at the badges.
Matt glanced at the twenty-five badges in the off-the-clock bin. “This is going to be another nightmare tomorrow, Linda.”
She gave him a sideways glance. “Don’t I know it! Fog’s been bad before, but never like this.”
A weak smile crept across Matt’s face.
“They may shut down the interstate again tonight and that will back things up tomorrow for sure.” She gave him a half smile. “From what I hear, this fog is really hampering things all over the center of the state. According to the news, only the coastal areas are clear.”
Matt swiped his badge and placed it in the off-the-clock bin. “Let’s hope this fog is gone by the morning.”
“We can only hope!” Linda threw back. “Drive carefully, Matt.”
—excerpt from Mad Earth and Wild Space © SCM