Matthew wakes to the smell of dust.
Dust, everywhere: dust on the floor, dust on the walls, dust piled on in layers over a small, broken table lying in pieces to his right. He’s covered in it. It’s in his jacket, his hair, all over his jeans… he can even taste it in his mouth. He groans, struggles to sit, and gags on dust.
His head throbs. His eyes are dry. He feels warm.
He looks around, trying to get his bearings. He’s in a small, dirty room. A shack, maybe, or an old shed. The walls are rotted, plywood boards so warped they look like they’re peeling off the frame. Sunlight streams in through the boards, reflecting off motes of dust hanging in the air. A half-open door is set in the center of one wall, silhouetted by a halo of swirling golden dust.
Matthew rubs his face, trying to clear his thoughts. He blinks rapidly as dirty hands rub dust into quickly tearing eyes. Wiping his face with his sleeve doesn’t help, it just rubs in more dust. Eyes tearing, he climbs to his feet, coughing and retching from the dust. He leans on the wall to steady himself, and nearly falls as one of the planks crumbles at his touch.
This isn’t right. This isn’t where he supposed to be. Where was he supposed to be? He can’t remember. Richmond? No. He feels a surge of anger at the name.
The half-open door is set crooked on its frame, whether from bad design or the passage of time, bottom corner wedged solidly into the ground. The door is ancient, but the furrow in the dirt is fresh. Maybe he forced the door open when he crawled in to sleep—maybe—but he doesn’t remember doing it. He sneezes, then shakes his head, as if to knock loose a memory from the night before.
Driving. He remembers driving. And trees…
He staggers to the door, leaning against it as he sneezes a second time, more violently this time, then steps through the doorway into the world outside. He sneezes again, then doubles over in a fit of coughing that sends him to his knees. But the air is cleaner out here, and he can breathe more freely, and the fit passes. He spends a minute on his hands and knees, staring at nothing but dead, matted grass as he feels the burning in his eyes and lungs fade. Then he climbs back to his feet.
The world is very bright, very hot, very humid. He sways beneath the hot sun, momentarily dizzy, and realizes he’s wearing his leather jacket. He slips it off, throws it over his shoulder, and steadies himself.
He stands in a field of dead, matted grass. Dotted across the field are tiny wooden buildings like the one he just staggered out of. They make no sense as sheds. He can’t imagine anyone needing so many in one place. Shacks or shanties, then, though why he was standing in the midst of a forest of abandoned shanties baffles him.
Then he turns, sees the Manor, and his memory comes flooding back.
The Manor. The pond. The gazebo. Dancing.
This isn’t the Manor he remembers. It’s the same shape and design, but this shell has been abandoned, left to ruin. The pointed roof is missing tiles, parts of it has collapsed. Large portion of the walls are covered in kudzu, the growth so thick that most of the windows are covered. The few windows he can see are broken. There are no curtains.
Matthew looks around in bewilderment.
“Alice?” His voice, cracked and hoarse from his coughing, sounds thin in the silence hanging over the manor grounds. “Alexander? Gregory?”
There is no answer. Warm, stale wind blows across his face. The shanties rattle and creak and the wind passes over and through the rotting wood. He turns back to look at the building he’d staggered out of. That wasn’t where he’d gone to sleep. Alexander and Gregory had lived in a cottage. It had been a tiny village of cottages, all clean, all… more than that.
“Alice!” He tries to raise his voice and slips back into a fit of coughing. He staggers over to another building and tries to pry open its door.
The door rips off its hinges with little effort, crashing to the ground and raising a cloud of dust as it hits, making him gag. The interior is much like where he woke up: bare, a dirt floor, with some bits of broken furniture strewn about.
Bewildered, he turns to the manor’s east wing. It looks even more run-down than the rest of the house. The roof and upper floors are entirely gone, perhaps having collapsed into the first, and the kudzu is so thick that it’s hard to tell there’s a structure behind it. As he walks past the ruined wing he thinks he can hear wood groaning. Perhaps the house is still in the process of collapsing.
As he turns the corner he sees the pond. It’s an ungainly, misshapen thing filled with still, brackish water, and smells faintly of swamp. At its center is the remains of what might have been a gazebo: much smaller than he remembers, little more than a platform and perhaps the hint of a rail around the edge. A single bridge—the west bridge—connects it to the rest of the manor grounds.
He isn’t sure the bridge will hold his weight, but he trudges over to it and begins to cross. The wood is soft, rotted, and it sags under every step, but it holds. He makes his way across, stepping carefully over planks that look completely rotted through, until at last he reaches the other side.
The gazebo is too small for dancing. Too small for the musicians, the dancers, and definitely not strong enough to support their weight. From where he stands, he sees no stone walkway encircling the pond, no benches, no gas lampposts.
Everything is dead.
A wave of nausea sweeps over him. Nothing looks the way it had: the grass is dead and dry, the buildings collapsing, and there is no evidence that anyone had lived there for a very long time. Where was everyone? Had he imagined it? He puts the back of his hand against his forehead. He feels warm.
“Sick,” he mumbles. As if to underscore the point, he coughs so hard he sees stars. “Very sick.” He starts to shiver, and despite the heat and humidity of the day he puts his jacket back on.
He considers going back to his car, but he thinks of the walk—having to climb the hill, having to cross that field, having to force his way back through those damned trees—and he can’t bring himself to try. He sits in the middle of the gazebo, trying not to gag as a breeze carries the stench of stagnant pond water, and wonders what to do next.
“Sleep through the day.” That’s what Alice had told him. “Sleep through the day. Don’t leave the cottage until it’s dark.” Is this what she was warning him about? Or had she even been real? He shivers, his forehead burns, and he wonders if he’d been hallucinating.
He sits in the center of the gazebo and slips into a feverish trance, completely losing track of time. It’s not until the sun climbs to its highest point and begins its slow decline that he stirs, still shivering, and realizes he has to do something. He climbs to his feet, moaning in protest, then staggers across the bridge. He walks around to the south, where the night before there had been expansive lawns, and a flower garden, and people picnicking under starlight. The vaguely wondered what desolation would replace that memory. More dead grass. A few gnarled bushes. Would there be a hedge maze, or perhaps an impassable thicket? When he finally turns the corner and sees the south lawn, he stops in amazement.
The grounds are indeed a mockery of last night’s memory. The grass, as he imagined, dead, mingled with sickly weeds and patches of barren dirt. The cobblestone lane is little more than a thin strip of cracked, dried mud, and at the very far end he sees what might be the remnants of fountains. The antebellum porch is collapsed. There are no pavilion tents and no oil lamps.
But there are people.
In the middle of the muddy lane, a few hundred yards from Matthew, five people huddle together, apparently deep in conversation. They are as dusty and disheveled as the Manor itself, covered head to toe in filthy gray rags. He can’t tell if they are men or women, and there’s something in their stance that makes them look feral.
He regards them silently. They stand in a small half circle, bunched together, turned away from him. He takes a few uncertain steps toward them, stops, strains to hear. There might be muttering, of a sort, but he can’t hear anything specific. He takes another step closer. And another. And one more.
“Hello?” Matthew’s voice trembles in the silence.
In a single motion they turn, and he steps back in alarm. Their faces are hidden, shrouded in the same rags that cover the rest of their bodies. One cries out, a high, inhuman sound, and the others join in. From far behind him, Matthew hears other voices crying out as if in reply. The first to cry out takes a step toward him. The others close ranks behind.
Matthew panics and runs. The ragged figures are before him, there are answering cries behind him, and to his left is the Manor itself, so down the browned and dying manor lawn he runs, trying to ignore the weakness in his arms and legs, and the desire to double over and cough. But even as his panic rises, his arms and legs grow heavier with each step. The cries behind him grow louder, and soon he can hear quick steps behind him.
One of the voices, the one closest to him, goes quiet. A moment later something crashes into him, knocking him forward. Thin arms wrap around him as he tumbles across the earth, a ragged figure gripping him with surprising strength. They roll a few times, then tumble to a halt as they grapple in place.
Even if he weren’t sick, Matthew isn’t sure he’d be a match for the figure on top of him. It is fast and strong—much stronger than it should be, given its apparently slight frame beneath the rags. It pins Matthew’s arms to his sides, clamping them to his sides with its legs, then brings its full weight down his chest, knocking the wind out of him.
A single, too-thin hand reaches out from beneath a ragged sleeve and grabs Matthew’s face, forcing him to look up with unresistable strength. At it leans over him, the rags fall away from its face, and Matthew can see it for the first time.
It isn’t human. It is, perhaps, a mockery of humanity: its wizened face is weathered and stiff, dusky gray skin looking like dry, cracked parchment. Its skin is drawn so tightly over its skull that Matthew sees the bony ridges around its eyes and the contours of its lower jaw. Rough, wiry white hair springs out of its head like thistles. Its teeth are sharp and jagged. The only trace of humanity is in its eyes: dark, searching eyes radiating pain and desperation.
It shrieks again, its lips drawing back to give Matthew a better look at this impossibly sharp teeth. He panics and begins to thrash, trying to push up with his legs to give his arms enough room to work free. But then other hands grab his legs, and more push down on his shoulders—the things companions have arrived, and for all his struggling Matthew is unable to move.
The first creature leans closer, placing its face next to his own. Matthew tries to turn away, but its hand is still clamped firmly around his chin, forcing his face up. It screeches in triumph, making his ears ring, and Matthew closes his eyes, preparing for the worst.
It kisses him.
Matthew gags as the creature’s lips meet his own. He screams as something reaches into his body and tears pieces of it away. He feels himself hollowing out, pieces of him collapsing just like the Manor’s roof. His chest crumbles away, his arms and legs burn as they dissolve into nothing. The thing over him grows stronger as he weakens, its kiss grows more urgent, and finally he is overcome. The world spins, the fire shooting through his veins becomes a sudden wave of cold, and everything goes dark.