by Wayne Summers
Clint spat another bug from his mouth. It was dusk and the midges were swarming. A gentle breeze sent the thinner branches of the towering gums surrounding him swooping and swaying, and at times the rustle of leaves was so loud that it drowned out the sound of his footsteps on the gravel road. An animal noise pierced the semi-light and Clint felt his heart skip a beat. It was time to look for shelter.
Behind him he could hear the sound of a car coming closer and closer until the way ahead of him was flooded with the light from its headlights. Clint stepped back from the road and waited in the tall grass for the vehicle to pass.
“Where ya headed?” asked the middle aged man as he leaned out through the window of his beaten and battered Range Rover.
“Nearest town,” Clint replied.
The man’s face was partly hidden by the shadow of his hat and partly by the shadows of the approaching night. Clint couldn’t make out any features on the man except for his bulk, stocky rather than fat.
“I ain’t going that far,” the man explained. “But I can give ya a lift up the road a bit.”
Clint smiled weakly and nodded. “That’s okay mate. I’ll walk it.”
He’d heard too many horror stories about what could happen to unwitting backpackers.
“Nearest town isn’t for a few miles,” said the man sending a spit ball hurtling into the dirt. “Sure ya don’t wanna lift? Cut ya journey in half.”
“No mate. I’m happy walking.”
Silence. Clint’s heartbeat was pounding in his ears. What was this guy waiting for? He felt the first flush of adrenalin flood through his body.
“Alright then,” said the man finally before driving off. “But I wouldn’t hang around here for too long.”
Clint exhaled audibly and only then realised that he had been holding his breath.
“Fucker!” he cursed.
The last light of a mid-autumn evening lingered over the canopy of the bush. Clint slid his backpack off and opened the flap. He dug around inside until his hand connected with the plastic of his torch. He removed it, did the backpack up again and switched the torch on. Ahead he could just make out what looked like an old bridge.
Lonely Man Bridge
The painted letters were cracked and peeling and Clint couldn’t help running his fingertips across them so that tiny flakes of dark paint wafted to the ground. Then he heard it. The snap of a twig. Just to his right.
He froze. More adrenalin.
Five more seconds passed and he began to doubt whether he’d heard anything at all, although the hair on the back of his neck was standing on end.
“Hello,” he called into the growing darkness, shining his torch across the thick vegetation.
The breeze picked up suddenly, tousled his hair and then swept further west. Somewhere in the canopy a night bird called and tiny winged things, perhaps bats, ducked and wove through the air above, feasting on the midges.
A small part of him wished he’d risked a ride with the stranger.
Someone tapped him on the shoulder. He spun around almost blinding the woman standing in front of him.
“Hello. I’m Ivana.”
The woman was young, maybe in her mid-twenties. Her skin was pale, washed out, and her eyes were dull and grey. There were dark rings around them and just the slightest signs of bags. She smiled wearily for a second or two and then the smile slipped from her face.
“W-w-where did you come from?” Clint asked, scanning the area behind her with his torch.
“I can’t find my daughter,” she replied in the kind of voice that one uses when they have given up on everything.
Ivana nodded then turned and disappeared into the shrubbery on the opposite side of the road.
“Hey wait. Maybe I can help you. Have you called the police?”
Clint kept the light from his torch squarely on Ivana as she navigated her way through the dense foliage. Soon Clint could hear the sound of water rushing over rocks. It reminded him he was thirsty. At about the same time the bushes and trees started thinning out and the ground became rocky. Above, the canopy gave way to a splendid, starry sky.
“Can you see her?” Ivana asked, her face a mask of worry.
Clint joined her at the water’s edge. He shone his torch out over the river, sweeping the beam of light up and down.
“No, I can’t,” he replied. “Are you sure this is where you lost her? That current looks awfully strong. Perhaps she’s been washed further down stream.”
Ivana looked at him blankly. “She’s here somewhere.”
Clint began walking along the edge of the river, carefully scanning as much of the river as his torchlight would allow. Ivana followed slowly behind. They were getting closer and closer to the bridge, beneath which splashes could be heard. Clint shivered and tucked one arm across his chest.
“There she is!” he said, his torchlight illuminating the little girl clinging desperately onto the wreck of an old car. “Here, hold this.”
He thrust the torch at Ivana, who simply looked away from him and towards her daughter. Clint clicked his teeth, removed his backpack and then positioned the torch on a flat rock by the water’s edge. The beam was quite strong but only just reached the old car wreck. It would be enough.
Clint could feel how cold the water was the minute he stepped into it. By the time he was waist-deep he was shivering. His teeth chattered and it was getting difficult to move he was shaking so much. He looked back at Ivana but she hadn’t moved. He was now beginning to regret having passed up the chance of a ride. Another splash.
The current was incredibly strong and Clint had to fight against it, taking small steps until the water became too deep to walk. He tried swimming out and up, against the current and in the opposite direction but it was a real battle. The exertion was at least warming him up. A little.
Suddenly his foot became caught on something. He jiggled his leg frantically but whatever it was that had become tangled around his foot had it securely within its grasp. Clint began to panic. “Help!” he called as the icy water rushed over him but the cry was muffled by the water. His eyes bulged as he realised he was being pulled beneath the surface. He used his strong arms to swim back to the surface, just a metre or so above, however his body was growing numb and he was taking in more and more water. The world went dark for a moment. “No,” he told himself, “this is not going to happen.” He forced his eyes open, willing them open with every fibre of his being. Mustering up the last ounce of his strength he jerked his leg and miraculously it was freed. He swam for the surface, bursting through with a loud gasp.
Surprisingly he didn’t feel weakened by his ordeal. If anything he felt refreshed. He could see the pale stream of powdery light filtering across the river and he knew that at the end of that small beam of light there was a little girl waiting for him.
“Don’t worry, darling,” he called out as he neared the old car wreck. “I’m coming.”
The girl watched him in silence. No tears. No whimpers. And Clint heard yet another splash.
“Hello,” he said as he reached her. “Grab hold of my neck and hang on tight.”
At first she didn’t move. She stared at him, her brown eyes wide and unblinking.
“Come on, I won’t hurt you. Mummy is right over there waiting for you. See?”
The little girl turned her attention to the figure waiting on the river bank and then back again. Slowly she let go of the door and wrapped herself around Clint. Together they headed back to dry land, but as they got closer Clint noticed that there were other people waiting with Ivana. He couldn’t see exactly how many there were but there were at least half a dozen. All of them men. For a moment he stopped swimming. He exhaled deeply and then continued, the little girl’s eager kicks spurring him forward. Finally Clint’s foot touched the rocky floor of the river bed. It felt good to find firm land.
“My baby!” Ivana ran to meet them, her footsteps clumsy on the rocks.
Clint let the little girl slide off his back. He was happy that he had been able to reunite mother and daughter but the presence of the men was making nervous.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
Ivana scooped her daughter up in her arms and kissed her on the cheek.
“They’ve never seen anyone rescue Tatjana before.”
“What do you mean?” Clint furrowed his brow and took a step back from the approaching group.
“We’re all so caught up in our own situations that no-one has ever considered rescuing her. I seem to have caught you at the right time.”
A nervous giggle escaped Clint’s lips. “This is getting freaky. What the Hell are you on about?”
“Although I suppose after a few more days I suppose it won’t seem so special.”
“Hey, I don’t know what you’re on about but I’m outta here. I gotta go.”
Ivana smiled for the first time since they had met and her grim-faced friends melted back into the night.
“Where can you go? You’re trapped here just as we are. My daughter will be back in the river tomorrow and you’ll rescue her again, only you won’t have an audience because the pattern is only broken when someone new comes along.”
“What pattern?” Clint had a sick feeling in his stomach.
“The moment of our death. Those sad and lonely men will plunge to their deaths from the bridge up there. I’ll go over the edge in that old car and you’ll drown again.”
“I am so outta here,” said Clint. He turned and ran into the bush, scrambling his way up the side of the small hill and not stopping until he came out on the road. Puffing, he rested his hands on his knees and sucked the night air deep into his lungs. If he was dead surely he wouldn’t need to catch his breath.
On the horizon the first orange, yellow glow of a new dawn kissed the tree tops. Clint was feeling weary and sat down against one of the bridge’s crumbling brick pylons where he soon fell into a dreamless sleep.
He was awoken by someone tapping him on the shoulder. It was night again.
‘Hello. I’m Ivana.”
Clint looked at the woman, at her pale face and at the dark rings around her eyes. She looked familiar but he couldn’t think why.
“I can’t find my daughter,” she explained before turning and disappearing into the bushes by the side of the road.
Clint followed her. “Maybe I can help you. Have you called the police?”
And in the distance another splash.
Wayne Summers was born in Narrogin, Western Australia. He grew up in Kojonup before attending university in Perth. He teaches English to overseas students and is currently studying to be a counsellor. He writes horror, science fiction and fantasy short stories and has appeared many times in print and online in both the UK and the US.
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