Matthew opens his eyes. The smell of dust, while still ever-present, seems less oppressive. He’s on his side, curled into a ball, arms wrapped protectively around his head. He listens without moving, trying to catch a hint of anything moving around him. He hears nothing but the hint of a sullen breeze barely moving through dead grass.
He opens his eyes, straightens, and sits up. He’s in the same spot where he fell, on the ramshackle manor’s front lawn. There is no sign of his assailants. He waits a minute to be sure, then struggles to his feet.
He’s still weak, but he feel stronger than he had. His head throbs less. He puts his hand against his forehead and thinks his fever may have broken. His leather jacket lies in a heap on the ground beside him; he picks it up and starts going through his pockets. Wallet, keys, checkbook—for a moment he panics when he can’t find his phone, then remembers dropping it among the trees.
Right. So he wasn’t robbed… but he had been attacked.
He pushes the image of the rag-covered creature out of his mind and looks up at the sky. The sun is lower now. In a few hours it will be dark. He wonders what to do: he’s tempted to make his way back to the car, but his vision blurs, he sways in place, and decides he probably shouldn’t drive. Either he’s been attacked, or he’s been hallucinating… either way, he probably needs to see a doctor, and he’s not sure he wants to make the long trek across that field and through those trees first. Especially not the trees.
He turns southeast and squints, trying to get his eyes to focus. Last night, as he stood on the hill looking over the Manor he saw a town off in that direction. It hadn’t seemed too far off—just out of sight—he figures he can walk there without too much trouble. A tiny voice in the back of his head says it’d be easier to go back to the car, but just before he focuses on the thought his stomach rumbles.
Food. He hasn’t eaten all day. If he goes to the town, he can get some dinner, find a room for the night, then get a cab or something to take him to his car. Food.
“That’s settled,” he mutters.
He heads south, planning to reach the river then follow it east to the town. Dead vegetation gradually gives way to living vegetation, a meadow similar to the field he stumbled into right after he got free of the trees the night before. The presence of life cheers him, and for a time he dispels the memories of dust and gray creatures. The land slopes gently down, and finally in the distance he sees the river. On his side, the shore is a stony beach; the other side is a thick forest of old growth wood. He turns east; the ground rises again. Soon he’s walking along the edge of a smallish ravine, the sound of rapids rushing below.
Dusk falls, and the sky grows overcast. It will not, Matthew thinks, be a bright evening, and wandering around in the dark at the edge of a ravine, no matter how smallish, does not appeal to him. He quickens his pace, glancing at the sky nervously. A few tentative drops of rain fall on his face. A few minutes later he’s slogging through a light but steady drizzle. He pulls on his jacket and soldiers on.
He’s just about convinced himself he’d hallucinated the town when he sees the faint outline of a bridge, and the reflection of lights in the night sky. They aren’t the flicker of gas lamps, but the steady illumination of modern street lights. He breaks into a jog as the rain grows stronger. When he hears thunder rumble overhead, he breaks into an unsteady run. By the time he reaches the bridge, the sky has opened up and rain pours down in buckets. A flicker of lightning arcs across the sky.
The bridge is an old pony-plate girder design, concrete slabs set in steel girders, with a steel truss extending from one side to the other. From his side of the bridge he can see the lights of the town much more clearly—it would be a short walk once he crossed it. The bridge, however, is closed. A large chain-link gate blocks the entire width of the bridge, and the gate is secured by a heavy rusted chain fastened with a large lock. On the gate is a rusted sign that reads BRIDGE CLOSED, and a second sign beneath that reads NO TRESPASSING. The other side of the bridge appears similarly closed off.
Matthew shakes the gate. It holds firm. He sighs, reaches up as high as he can, and starts to climb the chain links. It’s harder than he remembers it being in college: his boots are a little large to get a toe in, and the rain makes everything slippery. It takes him a few minutes to reach the top, and just as he straddles the top of the gate, another streak of lightning lights up the sky.
Matthew sneezes, tries to wipe his nose with his sleeve and nearly falls off the gate. He’s drenched from the rain, starting to shiver. He feels pressure in his head, either a headache, or another fever coming on. Or both, maybe. He tries to ease himself down the other side of the gate and his toe slips out of a link, causing him to slip down and dangle from the top as he scrabbles for a toe hold.
He hangs helplessly, facing the way he’d come. Another streak of lightning flashes, and as the sky lights up he thinks he sees a tower—an old, short tower that leans over to one side as if half of it were sinking into the ground. He hadn’t noticed it on the way there, but he’d been focused on the bridge and little else.
Lightning flashes again, and Matthew shouts in alarm: in the distance he sees silhouettes of human-like shapes, hunched over and walking in his direction. The next flash of lightning convinces him the shapes are wrapped in gray rags.
Matthew looks down, trying to gauge the distance. He looks up, and sees the figures coming closer. Many of them—far more than he’d seen on the Manor grounds earlier that day. Gritting his teeth, anticipating pain, he lets go of the fence and falls.
His ankle twists as he lands, buckling under his weight. He shouts, cursing loudly, then shouts again as he tries to put his weight on it. He limps away from the gate as fast as he can, practically hopping on his left leg as he tries to put as little weight as possible on his right. When he reaches the other side, he stops. Another chain link gate, secured with lock and chain.
He looks over his shoulder. A large group of figures stand at the other side of the gate. Their faces are hidden. They are covered in gray rags.
He has no choice. He jumps, desperation and fear fueling his strength as his hands close on the chain links and he claws his way up to the top of the gate, using only his arms and his left leg to climb. At the top he forces his good leg over, and as he turns to descend he sees the gray-clad figures are still at the far gate, standing silently, doing nothing. They make no move to climb the gate or force it open, they simply stand silently in the rain, watching him.
“What do you want?” Matthew tries to make his voice strong, but it sounds thin and shrill in the storm. “What the hell do you want with me?”
They don’t respond. They don’t even move.
Carefully—very carefully—he lowers himself down the fence, an inch at a time, trying not to fall or cause himself any further pain. The entire time the gray-clad figures stand quietly at the other side of the bridge, watching his descent, making no movement and uttering no sound. When he finally reaches the ground they stir, and one by one they shuffle off into the night.
Rain streaming down his face, Matthew stands outside the bridge gate, panting and shivering, watching them leave. When he’s sure they’re gone he turns, sneezes twice, and limps his way toward town.