Only a Man
Slowly, he walked along the empty street, footsteps echoing between abandoned buildings. A dirty rag of a newspaper blew gently along the ground. The city was empty. Dead.
He looked up, his eyes scanning each floor of the nearest apartment. The lights were all out. Some windows were open; some shutters were half-closed; one pane of glass was spattered with a dark liquid. He blinked and looked away, swallowed his guilty nausea.
Always higher, his eyes looked higher. The tops of the buildings were as empty as the streets. Beyond them, the blank sky, grey as slate. No birds. No planes. It was as though everyone had vanished.
Despite the lack of a population being uncanny and strange, it wasn't the absence of people that unnerved him most: it was the silence. The only noise was his footsteps; his red boots clicked against the asphalt over and over. He was the city's heartbeat; he was its alien metronome, counting the seconds. Keeping time in a city where all time had run out.
Once again, he looked over his shoulder, hoping against hope to see someone standing there that hadn't been only moments ago. He knew there was no one there, and if there was, he would have heard them. His ears were sharper than most. Still, he couldn't help himself. All he wanted was to see one person, one piece of evidence that he wasn't the last person left in this skeleton of a metropolis.
Water spilled from between his lids. Hit by a sudden spike of pain in his chest, the man sobbed once, twice. He blinked back tears valiantly, but couldn't dam the flow forever. Saltwater trickled down his cheeks as he struggled and failed to push back the realization that he had failed.
Sinking to his knees, his cape crumpling to the ground, scarlet as blood, he wept.
Leaves rustled about me, crunching underfoot, swirling overhead. A dusky orange saturated the sky, streaked by strata of black clouds. The light of the sun was fading, plunging the world into ever-lengthening shadows. A howl hooted in the distance, nearby a bush rustled. I quickened my pace. Was that wolf howling? It sounded almost human . . . A twig snapped behind me.
My heart beat rapidly, protesting my presence here. But what choice did I have?
Footsteps. Were they footsteps? No, that was just a leaf skittering across the path . . .
The precious light of day was fading quickly. Instinctively I wanted to run toward the light and follow it, but reason told me that was impossible. But reason seemed to slip with every sound around me.
That wasn’t a wolf—and it was close. But what was it? My breathing was coming in quick gasps. I put a hand over my mouth to conceal the sound.
There was something moving nearby. Something big. The darkening hues of the twilight played tricks with my eyes, blinding me to the depths of the shadows. Were those eyes gleaming behind that tree? They couldn’t be. They were—reflectors for bikers—or—shiny rocks—
The hair rose along the nape of my neck. I had felt warm air as if something were breathing on me. I knew I hadn’t imagined it. I couldn’t have.
I broke into a run. Half-blind, half-crazed, I blundered away from the path. Any sense would have told me to run in the opposite direction, as far away from the umbrageous forest as possible. But something pulled me into the trees . . . I would be safely hidden there.
An owl screeched. There was a flap of wings and a rustling of leaves and—was that the howl again? Was that breathing? No—just the wind . . . must have been . . .
I tripped over a root. I felt rocks and branches and bark scratch at my hands and knees and face but I stumbled to my feet and hurried on. I collided with something in the darkness.
What was it? It was a tree—it must have been. It was too soft—but it was mossy, that’s all. The claws that ran lightly across my body were just branches—
My heart beat against my ribs, trying to escape, trying to run away from the danger I had put myself in. But it could not escape, no more than I could. I struggled in vain.
Then someone—or something—laughed from the shadows.
“Afraid of the dark?”