A wind blew through the trees behind them and pine needles skittered across the asphalt. The sound was familiar. It was the noise of the year’s demise, of autumn, of Halloween. It was the sound of orange and brown, the warmth of a thick jumper, hands wrapped around a mug. It was teeth as they fell from gums. It was the shatter of glass. It was a million spiders as they scuttled on the ground. It was death.
“Do you think there’s anyone down there?” Steve asked the thought that had crept up into her mind.
Mary swallowed, throat dry. She shook her head. “I don’t know.”
They’d stood atop the hill, which overlooked the forlorn town, for what felt like hours. The cloud of fog continued to drift and roll. The gap through which they observed remained. A rubbed-clean circle on a dirt-covered window. There were no lights. There was no movement. There was no sound. No cars trundled down roads. No people sauntered down high streets. No children laughed. No birds sang. Montis Absenstia lay in the crook of the valley like the blank screen of a turned-off television.
She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. Mary took in a slow breath, held it, then let it go. “Shall we go find out?” She looked at Steve. His face looked troubled; his eyes glazed over. “Steve?”
Steve shook his head to straighten his thoughts. “Hm? Yeah. Yeah, I suppose we ought to, huh?” He cleared his throat. “Looks like a bit of a ghost town, though, doesn’t it?”
Mary didn’t answer. To her, it did look like a ghost town. A real one. And she didn’t like it one bit. Somehow, it felt safer to keep her anxieties under lock and key. As if this place had the power to bring words to life. She nodded and made a noise in her throat.
She took a step down the hill towards Montis Absentia, Steve in tow. The fog banks began to converge, the window to the town smudged over once more. The walls of grey either side rushed in to meet them. The clouds sensed Mary and Steve had made their decision. They no longer needed the advertisement. Their destination, although closer than it had ever been, once more became enshrouded. No going back, the mists seemed to whisper. No going back. In their hearts, they both knew it to be true.
The midnight fog swallowed them whole.
As they descended, they each became aware of changes.
One thing they both noticed was in the air itself. The temperature dropped and the mist thickened. The moisture in the atmosphere intensified. It was as if they walked through the sea spray and foamed flecks of an ocean wave. A wave that forever crested. White horses rolled over into oblivion.
The duo also latched onto different alterations in the environment. They noticed the same things — neither was ignorant of what the other fixated on. But their perspectives were different. They each peered in through filth-covered windows on separate sides of the dereliction.
Mary became aware of a sound. To call it a sound was polite. It was a low cacophony. She first felt it as a vibration, deep beneath the cracked asphalt. Churning, grinding, mechanical. It had a rhythmic, hypnotic quality. It thudded like the boots of a million soldiers. A monolithic army as they stomped their way towards war, towards agony and death. It crushed and screeched, like a rusted, robotic heart. The noise was a sea vessel’s corroded metal. It was the spread of rot through a building’s foundations. It was a weed’s invasive overgrowth. It was a malign disease. As they stumbled closer towards the hidden town, the sound seemed to grow out of the air. It was if the pores of the atmosphere would swell until visible and the sickness would ooze out, brown and fetid.
The light preoccupied Steve. It had been ink-black when Mary rescued him from his crashed car. They’d walked along the road for what seemed like days. Yet, daylight had not washed over them, nor had the sun begun to peak over the mountaintops. The fog was bright as it swirled and shifted around them. It almost offered a faint grey-white glow. Almost. Not enough to illuminate, but enough so he could see the road beneath his feet. Cracks spread like veins and arteries, yellow dashes faded like old tattoos. He looked to the sky, but there was only fog. It was as if, he thought with a horror that dawned, they were between day and night. Caught in a watery, faded between.
Mary and Steve each drifted, like balloons that have escaped the ham-fisted grip of a toddler. They did not speak, they only walked. Mary, face half-covered with crusted blood. The dried maroon was also caked into her hair and scalp. Now and then she seemed to wobble and lose her balance, only to catch herself — a hand raised to her temple. Steve, broken arm cradled in its functional brother. He too had a nasty gash above one eyebrow, but he’d bled less than his newfound friend. He also had a slight limp.
The pines, which had lurked at the periphery like ancient beings, began to recede. It seemed to Mary that fields and arable land lay beyond the curtain, still and quiet. The small patches she’d glimpsed had been grey and overgrown. Somehow like an old, faded photograph, choked to death by unchecked growth.
“What happened to this place?”
Steve’s voice startled her from her reverie. Mary jumped and let out a squeal.
“Oh, hey, didn’t mean to scare you.” He reached for her, but she shook her head and inched away.
“It’s fine,” she said. “I was just in my own little world.”
“And where’s that?” he asked, as the town sign came into view. It leaned forward, from out of the haze, like the grinning face of a madman. 'WELCOME TO MONTIS ABSENTIA', read the sign, 'The Secret of the Mountains'. Behind, several large black shadows of buildings skulked. Their edges were fuzzy, their nature unknown.
“Not here,” she said. “Not here, Steve.”
Steve made a noise of agreement.
They stopped and stood beneath the sign. It looked to have been made sometime at the turn of the century. The font choice was old — almost archaic — and the surface had rusted as if exposed to coastal air. “Secret of the mountains?” said Mary. “Hm, no kidding.”
They lingered there, at the base of the sign. Neither one wanted to make a move into this question mark of a community. They each knew there was no choice. Where else would they go? Where else could they go? Injured, unrested, without a vehicle, and — lost.
“Well, let’s go see where the locals are at,” said Steve. He then offered a laugh. It sounded, to Mary’s ears, like a man who tries too hard to remain upbeat. It sounded like a madman.
“Yes. Let’s.” Mary hesitated, glanced at Steve. He too looked uncertain. He sensed her gaze, flicked his eyes to meet hers and then dropped them.
“No time like the present.” He mumbled his words, spoke down into his chest. Then he took a purposeful stride. And another. And another.
Mary followed him. She tried and failed to shake the feeling that they had stepped into a mausoleum. A mausoleum with a big stone door, apt to slam shut behind them at any moment.
The corroded mechanisation pounded on. The fog continued to swirl in the milky twilight.
“I don’t know about this,” she said at last.
“What’s not to know?”
“I—” Mary swallowed her words and sighed. She eyed the dark building. “I don’t like it one bit.”
“I never said anything about liking this,” said Steve. “We just have to.”
“Why do we have to?”
“Well..." Steve gestured at his broken arm. He then nodded at her face. “You’re not looking too sharp either, you know.”
“Thanks, Steve. You’re a real charmer.”
“You’d get along with my ex-wife.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
They’d passed several buildings, which first sprouted up on their left and then on their right. The buildings looked sad; their windows swathed in shadows. The fronts seemed to watch them as the pair made their way into town. Mary felt, of all things, like a cowboy who rides into town, ready to duel. All eyes on him, conversations paused as he goes past. She didn’t tell Steve this, for fear he’d either laugh or think her insane.
Neither one suggested they go up and ring the bell or knock on a door. They were both overwhelmed by the urge that they shouldn’t. They saw no movement behind the windows, no twitch of a curtain. Yet, the tremendous sense that they were watched pervaded. They walked on.
They knew what the building was before they even saw the faded red letters out front. It looked to be somewhere between a century and half-a-century old. It was recognisable straight away. Something about the shape of the thing — the right angles were so clinical. It was also something in its inoffensiveness, its blandness. Or, rather, in its original plainness. It now seemed that darkness had moved in where before there was vanilla sterility. Like an ink splotch on a blank page.
There was no activity at the hospital.
It was a three-storey building, made of red brick. Moss, lichen, and vines had scaled its sides and then died. They now peeled away from the structure and dangled, drained of colour and life. Its windows were dark and sullen, like the downturned eyes of the downtrodden. Here and there, they could see a section of dirty curtain or an oxidised hospital bed, but not much else. Three chimneys protruded from the roof, although two had collapsed into rubble.
“There’s clearly nobody there, Steve.” She looked to the road ahead and didn’t find much there that ignited any hope. “Let’s just keep going.”
“We won’t know that until we check, will we? Besides,” Steve put a foot on the lowest step, “where else will we go? If we find anyone and tell ‘em about the crash, they’ll just bring us back here.”
Mary swallowed. “If we find anyone.”
Steve closed his eyes. Mary guessed he rolled them behind his closed eyelids. “Well, I’m sure we’ll find someone—”
“Are you?” Mary’s question cut through Steve’s words, like barbed wire through the skin.
Steve dropped his eyes. He was not a good liar. “Look, let’s—” His words died as he glanced back at the hospital, which loomed over his shoulder. “Come on.” His words were flat, devoid of emotion. With that, he turned and made his way up the crumbled steps to Montis Absentia Hospital. He did not wait for her to follow.
Steve pushed at the great wooden door which squeaked on its hinges in protest. He disappeared into the blackness within. Mary was left to stand on the street outside as the fog coiled around her ankles. Her mind pondered how old a hospital without automated doors was.
Although she wasn’t aware of it, she’d begun to whine, somewhere deep down in her chest. She looked left, looked right. The cluster of houses they’d passed on their way — no chance in hell would she go and disturb those residents. Further along the road, more giants loomed in the fog. She squinted but couldn’t tell where the path led. Mary pondered whether she should shout for help — Is anyone there? — into the mist, and then thought better of it. The place was asleep, and she didn’t want to wake it.
Mary glanced back at the hospital, but there was no sign of Steve. “The building ate him up,” she said. She startled herself by how childlike she sounded — both in choice of word and voice. Mary hesitated, groaned, and then made her way up the steps. She took care to avoid the spots where the stone had disintegrated.
She placed her hands against the door and repressed a shudder. The wood was moist and slimy, in several spots it had warped. Splinters poked away from it, in the places where it had cracked. Mary pushed. It surprised her with its weight. Once more, it squalled its anger.
She held the door open, appalled by the smell of rot and decay that seeped out. The breath of the hospital was wrong. The final death gasp from a cancer patient. Mary wrinkled her nose. She nuzzled the crook of her shoulder to get a mouthful of air. The smell of sweat and dirt stunned her. She needed a shower. “Steve?” she asked the shadows. Her voice was low, uncertain.
There was no response. Nothing inside stirred. Mary squinted. Although she’d spent the last however long in the fog, her eyes struggled to adjust to the gloom.
“Steve?” she called again, louder this time.
Somewhere up ahead, something rustled.
Mary took a step backwards, breath caught in her throat. The building creaked. Metal groaned. Then, silence.
Mary stood in the held-open doorway. As she gazed in, she had the unmistakable sensation that something looked out. She wanted to call out to Steve again, but her mouth was dry, and her voice wouldn’t come.
She glanced over her shoulder, certain there’d be a person, a monster, a ghost — anything — stood there.
Nothing but fog. It rolled down the street in an almost lazy manner. Relaxed.
Takin’ my time, kiddo. Takin’ my time.
The shout scared her, and she leapt backwards and screamed. She came inches away from falling down the steps, and wouldn’t that be a lark? Survive a car crash to break your neck the steps to a hospital. The door thudded shut. The sound was final.
The shout did not echo through the mists, but it echoed through Mary’s mind. Mary? Mary? Mary?
Was that Steve’s voice? She didn’t know. She couldn’t tell. Mary had only spoken with him in light conversation — she’d not heard him shout. She tried to think if it could be him and came up short.
If it was Steve and he called for her, he’d soon come and look for her when she didn’t respond. At least, that was the lie she told herself.
So, Mary waited atop the steps to the hospital. She waited. Waited for Steve to call her again. Waited for him to come to the door, exasperated, face a rictus of frustration. What are you doing? she imagined he’d say. Didn’t you hear me calling? There’s a doctor here, wants to give us a look over to make sure we’re okay. Mary smiled at the thought.
She was still smiling when the mechanical beating began to swell in volume. It rose from the depths, from beneath the ground. Had it always been there, and she forgot about it? Or had it dropped down a register, to lull her into a false sense of security? It surged and grew until she could deny its presence no longer.
This time, a second sound joined it.
An air raid siren.