“So, let me get this straight.” Steve’s nostrils flared. “You listened to that lunatic and decided you want to explore this place further?”
Mary blinked and looked down at her hands. “I don’t see where else we can go, Steve.”
“We can—” he jerked and then winced. Steve cradled his damaged arm to his chest, like broken porcelain. “We can head back to the road.” His forehead was shiny with sweat. “Go back in the opposite direction.”
“Steve, look at us. We’re barely in any state to be standing, let alone hiking.” She looked down at the mists pooled around their feet. “In the fog,” she added. “We don’t know how far the next place is. Even if we had a car—”
“We could find one. Hotwire it. Get the hell out of here.”
Mary said nothing. “Steve,” she said, “do you even know how to hotwire a car? ‘Cause I don’t.”
Steve shrugged. “I could figure it out.”
Sure you could, she didn’t say. “And then what? I doubt either one of us could drive very far in this condition. And we don’t even know where we’re going.”
“I won’t— I won’t stay here.”
“But why not? We don’t even know what’s happening here.”
Their eyes locked. Steve wrinkled his nose, eyes wide open. “Because I don’t need to be haunted by another ghost.” His voice was low and rough, but Mary heard every word. Felt it in her soul.
Seconds ticked away between them. Mary absorbed this. She breathed in. She breathed out. She ran her fingers over her sweat-slaked palms. “We don’t know if these are ghosts,” she said at last.
Steve laughed, but there was no humour in it. “You saw what I saw. Hell, you heard what I heard — from Rasputin down there. Shothi. Just who the hell are they? Some Manson Family cult? Uh-huh, not me.” He shook his head. “This is one guy those ghosts, cultists, zombies, nutjobs or whatever won’t get.”
“Steve, you’ll die if you try to leave.” She stepped forward and put a hand on his shoulder. “Stick with me.” She smiled. “I got your back.” And then she added the kicker: “Please. This place is creepy — you’re right about that — and I don’t wanna wander through this fog alone.”
Steve hesitated, his gaze bored into her. For a second, he said nothing, and Mary wasn’t sure what was going to come out of his mouth. “Oh goddamnit,” he said under his breath and closed his eyes. He opened them again and the old Steve was back. “Fine. But if I get sacrificed to Cthulhu, I’m coming back to haunt you.”
Mary smiled. “Got it.” And then she added: “Thanks, Steve.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Bit unfair that you guilted me into this,” he looked around at the fog. “I’d say you owe me a beer. If we can find a bar in this hellhole.”
“Fair enough. What’s your poison?”
“Always been rather partial to a pint of Guinness, actually.”
Mary pulled a face but said nothing.
They stood there in the fog. Their smiles faded.
“So, what now?”
Mary turned to look at the hospital. “I think we left that place prematurely. We need to put your arm in a sling, it’s no good to leave it as it is.”
“No use. The place is deserted, Mare.”
“I could try. If you’ll let me.”
Steve mulled this over. “Better you than Rasputin down there.” Steve shuddered. “Nutjob.”
Mary didn’t argue.
“But we don’t stay in there any longer than we need to.”
“And if Rasputin is lurking there, we hightail it outta there.”
Once more, they ascended the ruins of the hospital’s steps. Before they reached the top, Mary paused, ear cocked. Steve turned to look at her. “What is it?” The colour drained from his face.
“The siren,” she whispered. “It’s stopped.”
They encountered neither a ghost army platoon nor a mystic Russian lookalike.
The building around them creaked and groaned, but other than that, it felt normal. Well, as normal as an abandoned hospital could feel, at any rate.
Mary found some bandages at a nurses station. It wasn’t a cast, but it was better than nothing. She managed to put Steve’s arm in a sling with minimal screams from Steve. He looked pale for a few minutes after, but he didn’t pass out. Mary considered that to be a win. He wanted to take some painkillers, but Mary refused.
“They’ll be at least eighty years out of date, judging by the state of this place.”
“Sold. I could do with a good trip. Maybe it’ll cancel out whatever the hell’s going on in my brain to hallucinate this rubbish.”
Mary chuckled. “Or it’ll spin you so far out you’ll never come back.”
“Like astral projection.”
“So, you do know a bit about the world of psychics.”
He held up a thumb and forefinger. “Teensy bit. Ever done it yourself?”
Mary shook her head as she wiped at the blood on her face. Black moss covered the mirror, so she couldn’t get a decent look at herself. There was also no running water — not that she’d trust it — or any rubbing alcohol. So, she rubbed at the encrusted blood with an old towel. “No. It’s crazily dangerous.”
Steve nodded. “I heard that whilst you’re out there, dead things can mosey on in.”
Mary paused. “Who told you that?”
Mary considered this. “Yeah, I guess. It’s certainly possible.” She shook her head and puffed air out of her nose. “Anyway, c’mon soldier, don’t you wanna get outta here?”
“God yes.” The relief in Steve’s voice was tangible.
She helped him up. “That’s what I thought. Let’s go find someone in this town who isn’t babbling nonsense.”
“Aye aye, Cap’n.”
They decided that to head further into town was the best bet. Mary reasoned that if disaster struck, the village people might have gathered somewhere. A town hall. Steve seemed less-than-convinced, but he nodded and followed.
A few times he started to say something and then stopped himself.
“What is it?” Mary asked.
Steve looked up. “Hm?”
“Whatever’s on your mind. Come on, spill it.”
Steve rocked his head back and forth. “What if you got lost voluntarily?”
“Astral projection. We were talking about it earlier.”
“…and you want to lose your mind out in the place beyond?”
“No, I mean—” Steve stopped walking, Mary stopped with him “—what if you wanted to swap? To give your life to someone who’d died? Could they swoop in and live again in your body?”
Mary eyed him for a moment, enveloped in ice. Steve’s face was in shadow, his eyes obscured. “What the hell are you talking about Steve?”
Steve grunted. “Never mind.” He started to walk on but Mary placed a hand on his arm — the uninjured one — and stopped him.
“No, really, what are you trying to say? You want to trade? To trade your life for another’s?”
Steve tried to pull away, Mary held firm.
“Steve. Who do you want to bring back?”
He turned looked her in the eye, tears on his cheeks. “My baby girl.”
They sat on a bench in the fog. It felt odd to sit down in the middle of the nebula, but nice to be off their feet. Even if for a moment.
“What happened? Talk to me, Steve.”
His shoulders slumped. “There— there was a fire.” Steve swallowed hard. “I woke up Jen, dragged her outta the house. Smoke was everywhere, everything was on fire. I didn’t know what I was doing — I was panicking, I just wanted to get her out. She was mostly out of it, she came willingly.”
Mary put a hand on Steve’s back. “Go on, Steve.”
Steve looked up, nodded, then pressed forward.
“Once I got her out on the front lawn, I went to go back in to get Char—” Steve choked back a sob “—to get Charlie. I was halfway through the door when the ceiling collapsed. I was knocked backwards by the explosion.”
“Oh God,” whispered Mary.
“When I came to, Jen was screaming. Fire engines everywhere. House an inferno.”
“I-I’m so sorry, Steve.”
He sighed. “She never forgave me. Blamed me for her death. Said I shoulda gotten her first.”
“I…” Mary trailed off. “That’s not fair.”
“Isn’t it?” Steve’s eyes burned into her. Looked into her, through her. “I had a choice. I could have saved my baby.”
“You were panicked. You said yourself, you wanted to get her out first, then go back in for her.”
“I could have woken Jen up, then gone and got Charlie. She was four. I coulda carried her, gotten them both out, I could—”
“Steve.” Mary’s tone was insistent. “You can’t assign meaning and blame retroactively. You… you just can’t. You'll drive yourself mad.”
Steve’s head sunk to his chest. “I guess. Bit late for the mad thing, though.”
They sat there in silence, as the fog coiled around them.
“So, it was your daughter you wanted to trade for?”
“Yeah. I’m haunted.”
“By your daughter?”
“By my ex-wife.”
“I thought you saved her?”
Steve exhaled. “Initially.”