The two sets of headlights intersected each other in the midnight’s blackness, shades of yellow and orange sliced through the inky gloom. The still of the mountain pass was shattered by the squeal of tires, the screech of metal, the sound of broken glass. There was a moment of silence, in which a preternatural hush fell across the ridge like a winter blanket, followed by the unmistakable — yet wholly alien — cacophony of two vehicles experiencing the profound effect of gravity.
Mary let go of the steering wheel the second her SUV tore through the metal traffic barrier; she’d already lost control. She crossed her arms across her chest — hands clasped over their opposite shoulder — and tucked her chin in like a turtle. She planted her feet flat in the footwell, had enough time to marvel at the several feet of barrier she’d taken out, and then closed her eyes.
Steve yanked the wheel and the beat-up Acura fishtailed. His tires spun as they slid sideways across the tarmac, black skid marks — which wouldn’t be visible until the harsh rays of dawn exposed them — left in his wake. He gritted his teeth, and for one desperate second, he believed that he would make it. And then the rear of his car swung out over the edge and old Isaac Newton was proved to be bang on the money once more.
After it was all over, the mountain pass once more returned to its silence. The only indicator that something was amiss was the sheared traffic barrier, which was twisted and torn either side of a hole that gaped like an absent tooth.
Something ticked in the silence. Mary opened her eyes, prepared to wince in shock. She was upside-down, that much had already been made clear by the strained sensation against her seatbelt. Still, she was caught off-guard all the same by the sight of the world flipped the wrong way around outside the spiderwebbed windshield.
The sound came from the SUV’s bonnet, which had been crumpled like a piece of scrap paper. Her hand darted forward and killed the ignition. The tick did not stop. Mary rested her hands upon the roof of the car to alleviate some of the pressure from the seatbelt. Her heart thudded at the base of her throat.
Blood dripped from her head, warm and wet. It pattered onto the velvety material of the SUV’s interior. With a groan, she armed some of her lifeblood out of her eyes and then braced herself against the ceiling with one hand. With the other, Mary undid her belt buckle. She dropped faster than she’d anticipated, and landed half on her neck and half on her shoulder. “Mother—” she swore, as she thudded into the steering column and folded into a puddle.
Mary groped in the darkness and found what she sought. She pulled the door handle, but there was resistance. She twisted herself around get a better position and kicked at it, jaw locked with determination, teeth gritted. “Not—” she grunted as she struck out with feet that flailed “—gonna—” she punctuated her words with thuds from her heel “—get—” thud “—cooked alive—” thud-thud “—in my own—” thud “—damn—” thud “—CAR!” In a scream of twisted metal, the door slammed open.
Mary wasted no time. She crawled on her hands and knees and dragged herself out of the overturned vehicle. It was sheer luck that there were no glass shards in her path, and she escaped without further injury.
The air outside was cold and damp, and there were pine needles clinging to her palms. She crept through the undergrowth until her hand slapped against something rough and woody. Mary used the tree trunk for support and staggered, with a grunt, to her feet. She leaned against the pine as she brushed off the dirt and caught her breath, tenderly prodding at bits of her body — just to check what was broken and what wasn’t. “Okay,” she said, a mad grin plastered to her face. The laceration on her head was the worst of it, perhaps a slight concussion. All in all, not bad for mountain-side car crash. With a hand pressed to her temple to stem the blood flow, Mary turned to survey the vehicular damage.
The SUV rested on its roof, which — by some miracle — had not crumpled and crushed her. “I owe that salesman a tip,” she said and barked a humourless laugh. The windscreen had cracked but not shattered, which was more than could be said for her headlights. The bonnet of the car had suffered the most and was now crumpled and folded to reveal some of the vehicle’s innards.
The engine continued to tick, only now Mary became aware of something else. Something dripped. And she could smell fuel. She groaned. “Oh God.” She turned and staggered away from the wreck; one arm extended in a poor facsimile of a zombie. All around her were endless trees, barely visible in the coal-black gloom. She plodded through the forest, as clueless as a visitor who seeks the bathroom in the dead of night, unaware of the constant whine that murmured unconsciously from deep down in her throat.
Behind her, the overturned SUV ticked and dripped and leaked.
Steve woke up to a tapping on the glass. He ignored it. He was soft and warm and tired. He wanted to stay where he was, wrapped in blankets, surrounded by fluff and clouds.
Rat-tat-tat-tat. “Hey, you! Wake up!”
“Mmhf,” he said, the effort to move his lips too great.
The tapping persisted. Rat-tat-tat. “Wake up!” The voice sounded distressed.
Steve groaned his displeasure at the sounds. “Go ‘way.” He smiled. The cosy embrace of sleep was not far off. “’Leep.”
“No!” The window vibrated from the aggressive slap. “No! No sleeping!”
Steve jerked awake and let his groggy eyes wander about. He felt like he’d been drinking all night long and had gotten up before the alcohol’s effect had worn off. “Wha’?” he asked the interior of the Acura.
“Get out of the car!” The window rattled in its frame. “Wake up! Get out!” The voice was female.
On a neck that seemed to bob and float, as if it were a dinghy on the ocean’s swells, Steve turned to face the invader who dared to disturb his slumber. He locked eyes with the woman and frowned. She looked like hell, covered in dirt with blood smeared down one side of her face. He decided to let her know. “’Ou loo’ li’ hell,” he said, and his head flopped to one side. He grinned.
“Open the door! Can you understand me?” The door handle rattled. “I can’t get it open! I need you to open it for me.”
“S’illegal t’ op’n when drivin’.”
The woman let out an exasperated gasp. “You’re not driving! You’ve crashed!”
“With me! Now open the door!”
“Why’djoo ‘rash in’o me?”
“I didn’t—” She groaned. “Look, you see that little thing?” She pointed at the car door lock, which was pushed down.
“Mm,” Steve said and nodded. God, he was tired.
“I need you to pull it up.”
Steve groaned. So much effort.
“Just do it!”
Like a man stuck in treacle, he leaned forward and reached for the lock. It took forever. His hand grasped the plastic in a clumsy toddler-like grip and pulled. Clunk.
One moment the door was there, the next it was yanked open and his seatbelt zipped past his head.
“Is your neck hurt at all?” The woman leaned in close. She smelled of perfume, sweat and oil.
He shook his head. “Nuh.”
“Good,” she said and then pulled him out. Steve had once accidentally consumed a spiked drink during a night out, back when he’d been an undergraduate and minesweeping had seemed like such a good idea. His senses now swam the same way they had done back then.
An arm around his shoulders, she half-carried half-dragged him away from his car. “Nee’ t’ lock th’ door,” he said. The words tumbled from his mouth in a drunkard’s slur.
“No one’s gonna steal it here, trust me, Bud.”
“Is my baby.” He tried to look over his shoulder at his car but found that he was unable to do so and tripped. He dropped towards the floor but didn’t hit the floor. Pressure against his ribs.
“Whoa, dude! I’m not strong enough to carry you, need your help here!”
Steve mumbled something in response, but not even he was sure of what he tried to say.
They’d taken two more steps when the explosion rocked the ground beneath them. The woman swore and they both hit the deck — her decision, not his. Steve let out a tiny scream as they fell. It was the sort of noise he’d have found hilarious under different circumstances. He hit the ground without much grace, the wind knocked out of him.
He gasped for breath, face-down in the dirt. “M’ baby?” asked Steve, fear gripping him. He couldn’t sit upright because she held him down. “Tha’ my car?”
The woman remained tensed for ten seconds, then groaned and cautiously sat upright. “Nope, not yours.” She prodded her ribcage. “Mine.”
“Baby go boom,” said Steve through a giggle.
“Yeah, right. Baby go boom.” She pulled him up. Steve had regained enough of his wits to understand that he needed to put effort into this action and worked with her in righting themselves.
“Where are we?”
She sighed, one of his arms draped over her shoulders to help carry him. “Good question, Bud.”
“I can walk,” Steve said.
“Y’sure?” She was panting, sweaty hair sticking to her head.
He nodded. “Yeah, I won’t be fast, mind you.”
She tentatively loosened her grip. When she saw that he wasn’t going to fall face-first into the ground, she let go entirely. He winced and walked with a slight limp, but other than that, Steve seemed okay.
“Thanks,” he said, a lopsided grin on his face. “For, well, everything.”
Mary smiled back. “Don’t mention it.”
They walked on, her eyes traced his every movement, ready to catch him should he stumble. He noticed her as she watched him. Steve cleared his throat. “So, uh, what’s your name? I’m Steve.” And then he added: “Pleased to meet ya.”
Mary laughed. “Mary. Wish it was under better circumstances, though.”
“Hm,” agreed Steve with a nod. “So…” His voice trailed off.
“So…?” Mary looked at him sideways.
“So, whose fault was it?” When she raised her eyebrows at him, he added, “Just for my own peace of mind.”
“Well, I’m tempted to say you, but I get the niggling suspicion that you’re going to say me.” She smiled as she said it, and tried to make it sound lighthearted, but inside she knew she really did mean it.
Steve chuckled and rubbed the back of his head. “Well, actually I was gonna say I thought it was my fault. I just, y’know, wanted to check.”
Mary smiled at him as they made their way through the trees. They walked downhill. She remembered a snippet of something — from somewhere or another — that told her this was the most logical route to civilisation. She knew there was a small town, somewhere down in the valley. She just didn’t know where exactly. Mary had hoped that they’d stumble upon it by accident but, so far, they’d had no such luck.
“Lose control of your car? Speeding?” Mary kept the anger out of her voice, even though he’d almost killed them both.
“Nah, nothing like that,” he said, and she believed him. “All of a sudden, my car…” Steve shook his head. “I’ve never felt anything like it. All of a sudden, it just—” he mimicked a fast movement to the side “—jerks to the side, onto the oncoming lane. The wheel didn’t even budge in my hands — I’ve skidded before, so I know what it feels like — the whole car just jerked sideways.”
“Weird.” Mary frowned. It wasn’t that she thought Steve was a liar, more that his story didn’t seem plausible. She’d gotten close enough to him since the crash, and she’d not smelled alcohol on his breath.
But before she could pursue this line of thought any further, they stumbled out of the foliage and onto an asphalt road. “Holy—” said Steve. “This road came outta nowhere.”
The road in question chicaned up the mountain, the rest of it obscured by bends both above and below. Mary shook her head. “I didn’t know there was another road down here that led up,” she said. “I thought that—” she gestured with a nod towards the path they’d fallen from “—was the only way through.”
Steve threw his hands up in the air. “Hey, I don’t actually live here. I don’t know any of the roads. I got a map in the…” His words faded.
“In the car?”
They stood there, glancing between the two corners. “So, up or down?” asked Steve. “Gotta pick one.”
Mary shook her head. “I don’t…” She sighed and pointed. “Down. It’s worked so far, right?”
Steve shrugged. “You’re the boss.”
No, I’m not, she didn’t say. She led the way, headed down the road. Steve hesitated. Mary looked over her shoulder at him. “You coming?”
“Yeah, I just—” Steve shook his head. “Yeah.” He followed.
They walked mostly in silence up until they saw the sign, as the air around them grew thick with moisture. The world became hazy with every footstep, the greyness rose from the ground like a wall. “Mary, you seein’ this?”
“Just mountain mist,” she said, not quite believing her own words. “It’s nothing.” Steve grunted, but Mary had the impression that he didn’t buy it either. They continued to follow the path and rounded the bend.
The sight caught both unaware and they jumped. They shouldn’t have, as it was a stationary object. And yet, they were startled. Mary gasped. “Jesus!” said Steve.
The sign loomed before them in the mist and the letters swam into focus as if adjusted via a camera lens. ‘MONTIS ABSENTIA’.
Steve was the first to speak. “Montis Absentia? Where the hell’s that?”
“I—” The words choked in her throat. “I have no idea.”
Steve turned to face her. His brow furrowed. “No idea? I thought you were from around these parts?”
Mary’s eyes widened and a defensive note crept into her voice. “I-I am. But—” she gestured at the sign, which was ancient and rusted “—Montis Absentia?” She shook her head. “No idea.”
Although they had descended, it felt to Mary that they had somehow ascended to a great height. The air had gotten thinner, lighter. She felt dizzy. Maybe she did have a concussion after all.
Steve huffed. “Well, I guess we better keep going, right?” He raised his hand and then dropped it. “There’s a town or whatever in this direction. We’ve gotta come across it, sooner or later.”
“You’re right,” said Mary, as she pretended the tightness in her chest wasn’t there. A sensation of utter wrongness had descended upon her, like the very mists that enshrouded them. Against all instincts, she said: “Let’s keep going.”
They pressed on, footsteps quiet and somehow hollow in the denseness of the fog. Whether by intent or by accident — perhaps the greyness obscured it, perhaps they both suffered from head injuries that diminished their vision — neither one of them mentioned the smaller text at the bottom of the sign: ‘Population: ?’