The two paths split, and the righthand branch — which led down to the cemetery — descended further into the nebulous fog, whilst the one they followed rose up an incline. A steep bank of mud separated the two, and before long, Steve felt waves of vertigo wash over him.
Although neither one said it, both Mary and Steve were puzzled that they’d not cleared the greyness that encroached upon them. It pooled around them, thick as soup, swirls left in their wake as they waded through the haze.
“It’s not as simple as all that,” said Mary.
“How is it not? You’re either legit or you’re not.”
“No, it’s not that simple, like I said. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Steve looked at her through a squint. “Like a dodgy radio signal?” He grinned at her, but Mary didn’t return the smile. Steve felt the smirk fade from his face.
“You jest, but yes.”
Steve pushed air out of his nose. “Well, all right.”
They continued along the path, as the moisture in the fog soaked into their hair and skin, as the woody scent of the pines infiltrated their nostrils.
“You not going to explain any further?”
Mary shook her head. “There’s no point. I’ve encountered sceptics before. No offense, but it’s not worth the effort. Let’s just keep walking.”
Steve flushed. “Hey, I’m not a sceptic! I’m just… curious, that’s all.”
They carried on in an awkward silence for a minute. Steve cleared his throat. “Hey, I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to be rude. Really. I’m genuinely interested. You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t wanna, but…”
Their footsteps were quiet in the denseness of the void, the sound dampened by the layer of cloud. It seemed to Steve that the very sky itself had fallen, and now lay in a mess upon the earth. Mary didn’t say a word, and Steve cursed himself for the offense he’d caused. “I’m sor—”
“It’s fine,” said Mary, as she cut him off, “but no jokes, please.” Steve nodded for her to continue. Mary hesitated and chewed her lip, she appeared to be in deep thought. “It is like a bad radio signal, in a way. Sometimes we can sense something, sometimes we can’t.”
“Myself and other mediums. True mediums that is. There are of course fakes, as you so crudely put it.”
Steve winced, but he said nothing.
“As I was saying,” Mary said, in a lecturelike tone that seemed to reprimand, “it’s not always a guaranteed thing. We can always try, but there’s no promise that anything will work.”
“But,” said Steve, cautious, “you still charge people for it?”
Mary looked at him as if he’d just said the most idiotic thing in the world. It was a look he’d encountered on many occasions — particularly from his mother and from Jen. “If a plumber comes to look at your blocked toilet, will he charge you a callout fee even if he can’t fix it?”
Steve mulled that over, eyebrows raised. “Huh.” His words seemed inadequate for what was — for all intents and purposes — a complete 180 shift in perspective. “I never thought of it like that.”
“Nobody ever does. When it comes to the—” Mary did mock air-quotes “—‘real world’, nobody bats an eyelid at that sorta thing. The experts are the experts, and that’s that. People don’t argue.” She raised a hand before Steve could interrupt. “Well, sometimes they argue.” Her eyes said, Probably the likes of you. “But once all the grumbling and complaining is done, people pay the fee, nod sagely as the experts do their expert stuff, and then leave ‘em to it.”
“But not when it comes to psychics,” said Steve, who now held the elbow of his injured arm in the palm of his hand.
“But not when it comes to psychics,” said Mary in agreement. “When it comes to the world — or worlds — beyond the physical world, suddenly everyone’s a charlatan.”
“But there are some charlatans, right?”
“Sure. Just as there are plumbers who’ll charge a ridiculous fee and rip you off, or who’ll do a half-arsed job of it. Aren’t there charlatans in every profession?”
Steve scrunched his face up. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“But we still agree, as a society, that we need plumbers?”
Steve nodded. “Yeah.”
“So, how are psychics any different to that? A few bad eggs shouldn’t mean we throw away the entire chicken coup.” That made Steve snort laughter.
“Well put! I guess it’s just harder to detect who’s a fake and who’s legit, right? ‘Cos, how would you ever really know, one way or the other?”
Mary picked at the crusted blood that had dried on her forehead. “You can’t. Not if you’re external to the situation, looking from the outside in.”
“But you know if you’re legit?”
“Well, obviously. But even the fakers are gonna say, ‘Hey, you can trust me, I’m legit!’ aren’t they? They’re not gonna be all, ‘Yeah, I’m a faker. But — hey — gimme your money.’”
Steve laughed again. “True, true. But isn’t it, like, your responsibility as a psychic to weed out the bad ones?”
Mary looked at him with a frown. “Why?”
Steve seemed taken aback by this. “Well, I dunno. Greater good of society or something?”
Mary shook her head slightly. Her neck was feeling increasingly stiff. “Society’s never done anything for me. Isn’t it your responsibility as a man to weed out every sexist, chauvinistic pig? Every single one?”
“No, but I don’t see what that’s got to do with—”
“Exactly! If I come across a charlatan — I mean, someone who really, really is not a psychic, someone who is clearly just milking it for the cash — then I’ll expose ‘em for the frauds they are. But I’m not gonna go out of my way to do it. Do you see builders going around other building companies, checking to make sure they’re not overcharging or doing a bum job of the work?”
“No! So why is it that we psychics are treated any differently?”
Steve’s head shook from side to side. “I don’t know. I’m sorry, I guess.”
Mary exhaled audibly. “It’s all right. I just…” Her voice trailed off. “I just get annoyed, you know?”
“Yeah,” said Steve, voice soft. “Yeah, I know. I didn’t mean to upset you—”
“—even so,” continued Steve, “I didn’t mean to upset you. But — hey — at least I learned something about psychics, right?”
Mary wobbled her head — gently — in a way that seemed to say, Sure, I guess. “You’ll have to be sure to pass along the message whenever the topic comes up again.”
“If I ever see another soul again, that is! Just where in the hell are we, Mary?” Steve glanced backwards over his shoulder. “Just fog on all sides, going nowhere.”
Mary’s heart sank. She’d hoped that the pessimism that had plagued her heart was unique to her. Steve had just laid waste to that idea by echoing the sentiments she’d been thinking. Her shoulders slumped. “I know, I have no idea either. It seems we’ve been walking this road forever. I’m getting real worried that—”
“Don’t say it,” Steve said. “Don’t say it.”
She didn’t. Instead, Mary glanced down the mud slope, in the direction the supposed cemetery was. Through the layers of fog, she could see nothing. Mary thought that if she had a knife, she could cut through the very air and get herself a slice of the grey swirls. She squinted and strained her eyes. Behind the dreariness, which shifted and pulsed as if alive and breathing, Mary could imagine that she saw grey stones and dead patches of brown grass. And then the fog broke for a second — perhaps it was only a breeze that cleared it but, more than anything, Mary got the distinct impression the smog sensed her gaze and pulled its curtain of obscuration aside with a theatrical flourish, a sly grin upon its crooked countenance — and Mary was treated to the briefest of glimpses, before the mists rushed back in to fill the gap.
Mary was left with a confused image in her mind. Had what she’d seen been real? Or was it merely suggestion from her brain, as her eyes failed to provide the necessary visual input? She toyed with these thoughts — picked at them in the same way an adolescent scratches at acne scabs that will scar — as she and Steve rounded the top of the hill, the snapshot glimpse burned into her mind’s eye.
A sad wind sloughed through the trees, it rustled a layer of pine needles across the road and brushed their hair with a delicate touch. Mary shivered, and a ripple of cold terror washed over her.
Before them, down the gentle slope of the hill, the fog opened once more to reveal the town of Montis Absentia.
As her eyes took in the stillness of the place, of its monochromaticity, her heart thudded a warning patter, like the flutter of a hummingbird’s wings. As her brain registered the desolate community, as she consciously thought about how the dissipating fog seemed to yawn like an open mouth — an invitation that was more of a threat than anything — the back of Mary’s mind replayed her peek of the burial grounds, over and over.
The sight of wrought iron fences, sad concrete slabs, and a terrible shadow that had looked up at her.