So, I’ve been sick with the flu for the past week or so, which pretty much killed my momentum on the novel I was working on. To get back in the swing of things, I decided to do some prompt writing. The story turned out a little longer (and a bit bleaker) than I anticipated, but I’m still gonna post it here for anybody who wants to read it:
Camping in the Windy Mountains was always bitterly cold, even in the summer, and this night was certainly no exception. Even the crickets were too cold to chirp their nighttime songs, drenching the mountain woods in a chilly silence. The wind rippled through the evergreen trees with a faint whisper, rustling the fringes of the old tent nestled in the clearing, and pushing the nylon walls against the sleeping bag laid out inside. The sleeping bag’s occupant groaned and pulled closer to the center of the tent, where the walls couldn’t reach so easily.
The door zipped open, and the cheerful face of a young man poked into the tent.
“Hey, Jeremy, you awake?” he asked.
Jeremy groaned again and smashed his face into his pillow.
“Sun’s gonna be up soon. You wanna watch the sunrise with me?”
Jeremy responded by grabbing his pillow and holding it over his head to drown out the noise.
“Oh, come on. I made coffee. Not like you’re getting anymore sleep with all this wind.”
Jeremy opened his eyes, the act stinging his eyeballs as they adjusted to the darkness of the tent.
“Fuck. Fine,” he said, sitting up. “Coffee. Now.”
“It’s right outside.”
The face disappeared, and the tent zipped up, leaving Jeremy sitting there in his flannel underwear, wondering why he always let his friend talk him into these things.
He threw on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt and crawled out of the tent into the campsite. The campfire burned merrily between his and his friend’s individual tents, abandoned, though a metal coffee pot was set up over the fire, steam escaping through its spout. Jeremy found a tin cup waiting for him. He filled it up with warm, brown liquid, letting the aroma seep into his nostrils while the warmth of the mug soaked into his fingertips. Just what he needed on a chilly morning.
“Niles? You there?” he called, stepping over to the second tent. The opening flapped in the breeze, but there was nothing inside but a rumpled sleeping bag and some discarded clothing.
He found his friend nearby, waiting on the crest of a tall cliff that overlooked the nearby valley. Trees and mountains spread as far as the eye could see, all the way to the black horizon decorated by a trail of stars. Niles had found himself a flat rock to sit on, and clutched his own cup of coffee in his hands.
“I was thinking we should go fishing after breakfast,” he said. “Then we can fry the fish up for dinner.”
Jeremy blew on his coffee to cool it down. “Fish? Eh, I dunno.”
“You’d rather have canned beans again?”
“I was hoping we could go back to town, maybe eat at that steak place we drove past.”
“What? Come on man, we came all the way out here to camp! You wanna go back to town?”
“Well, we need more toilet paper anyways. So we gotta go back to town sometime.”
“I’m not using goddamn leaves!”
Niles snorted. “I don’t even know why you came.”
“Look, camping’s fine and all; I’m just saying this isn’t some survival thing. We can include a few creature comforts.”
“I know. But we just got here, and you wanna go back to town already. We’re supposed to be enjoying nature, not driving back and forth between nature and town.”
“All right, all right—tell you what; we’ll do the fishing thing for dinner, but only if one of us drives into town this afternoon for the stuff we need.”
That got a grin out of Niles. “Deal.”
The two of them watched the dark horizon, waiting for the sun to rise. There were a few lights in the valley, likely private cabins, or maybe a ranger’s lodge. They were too far away to see any lights from the nearest town, but Jeremy had to admit, the lack of light made the heavens all the more spectacular to observe. It was nice to get away from it all, no work obligations, no family drama, just him and his best friend drinking coffee and chatting about nothing in particular.
“So I was thinking about replacing my jeep,” Niles was saying.
“No way! You’re gonna replace ‘The Fortress?!’ You love that thing!”
“Damn right I do. But she’s getting on in years. I’ve already replaced the brakes, the battery, fan belt, the entire cooling system. Now the carburetor’s going, and it won’t be long before I have to replace the engine at this rate. That car’s almost as old as I am—at this rate, maybe I should cut my losses. I mean, it’s a miracle it even got us here.”
“You tell me that now? If I’d known it was that bad I would’ve insisted we drive my truck.”
“That’s why I didn’t tell you. That piddly little truck of yours doesn’t do off-roading like my Fortress.”
“Maybe not, but at least there’s no chance of my piddly little truck failing and send us careening off a cliff.”
“Don’t be such a baby; it’s fine. I just wanted to give her one last adventure before I trade her in, you know?”
Jeremy could understand that. Niles had owned that cherry-red Jeep since he’d first learned to drive. Longer than any of their relationships, really.
“Well, if you need some help shopping for new cars, let me know,” he said.
Jeremy stared off into the valley. The sky was still dark, and the stars were still bright. There wasn’t even the faintest hint of pink behind the mountains yet; almost like it was closer to midnight than dawn.
“Sun sure is taking its time,” he joked.
“Yeah, that’s kinda odd—” Niles looked at his watch, and his eyes widened for a moment. “Whoa, it’s nearly six-thirty.”
“Uh, Niles? We’re facing east, right?”
“Good question.” Niles fumbled in his down vest.
“Goddammit Niles, you mean we’ve been facing the wrong way the whole time?” Jeremy stood up and scanned the forest behind them, trying to figure out where east was by the faint hints of morning sun. But there were so many trees, he could only see darkness.
Niles fished out a compass and flipped the lid off. He pointed it around him, getting his bearings.
“No. No we’re definitely facing east. Sun should be rising right now.”
Jeremy scratched his head. “I mean, right? Six-thirty’s pretty late.”
“In the summer? Yeah, it’s really late. The sunrise is earliest right around the summer solstice.”
“Maybe your watch is wrong.” Jeremy checked his own watch, turning the light on to read it better. The numbers 6:30 blinked back at him. “Weird.”
“Did we—did we mess something up? Sleep all day, and now it’s six at night?”
“Then we’d be seeing the sunset about now.”
Niles started pacing. “Maybe something fucked up both our watches. Some kind of magnetic—I dunno. Thingy.”
“Do we have another clock somewhere?”
“There’s the radio clock in the Fortress.”
“The radio? Hrmm. Gimme your keys.” Jeremy stood up and caught the car keys Niles tossed him. “I’ll just double-check the time.”
“Or, you know, maybe I was wrong about what time the sun rises.” Niles shrugged.
“I dunno. Seems weird there’s nothing on the horizon. Unless your compass is broken.”
His face lit up. “Oh yeah. You go check the clock, I’ll go to the other side of the woods, see if I can see anything.”
Jeremy clutched the keys in his hand as he crossed the campsite once more. The fire was dimming now, and a damp cold hung heavy the air. Jeremy paused to stir the flames a bit with a stick, and tossed a few extra pieces of wood into the pit to keep the flames burning. The fire roared back to life, bringing welcome warmth with them.
The jeep was parked nearby, now covered in pine needles thanks to the wind. Jeremy unlocked the door and stuck the key into the ignition, turning it halfway to activate the battery. The dashboard lit up, and the clock blinked to life, flashing 6:35 at him.
“Okay, so, the time’s probably accurate,” Jeremy noted. Out of curiosity, he turned on the radio. Static filled the car, although Jeremy could have sworn there’d been a music station there the day before. He fiddled with the dial, searching for a stronger signal, but every frequency was static. Either they were out of range of every station, or something was interfering.
“Niles?” he called out as he returned to the campsite. “This is getting really weird.”
No answer. Jeremy heard distant cracking sounds, like feet stepping over branches. He followed the sounds, but the air was otherwise so silent he could hear his own pounding heartbeat. There was small light atop a hill of rocks, and he found a figure standing there, clutching a flashlight.
“Niles, there you are,” Jeremy said.
His friend turned, his face shadowed by the flashlight. “It’s so hard to see. I tried looking everywhere, but there’s no sunrise.”
Jeremy tossed Niles’ keys back to him. “Well, our watches aren’t wrong. It’s really weird, but I can’t get any radio signals.”
“Really? You tried tuning the dial?”
“Yep. Every frequency, FM and AM. Nada.”
Niles looked a little pale. “This is kind of freaky.”
“Maybe there’s some kind of interference? Something fucking up radio signals?”
“Maybe.” Niles climbed tentatively down off the rocks. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone. “No bars.”
“Of course there’s no bars, we’re in the middle of goddamn nowhere.”
“Where’s your phone?”
“In my tent, probably. I haven’t gotten a signal since we left the town.”
Niles fiddled with the phone in his hands, the bright screen driving away the darkness around him. “The clock also says it’s half-past six. Almost seven now.”
“I’m freezing. Let’s just go back to the fire. Maybe the sun’s just—I dunno. Late?”
Niles didn’t meet Jeremy’s eyes.
The two of them sat down around the crackling campfire and its welcome light. Jeremy helped himself to a second cup of coffee. The caffeine was making him jittery, but he needed to be alert right now. Every sound seemed enhanced around him, every distant creaking branch and animal noise sending chills up his spine.
“I was gonna wait until it was lighter, but I guess we should have breakfast,” Niles remarked, breaking the uncomfortable silence.
Together they heated up the leftover can of beans from the night before, and Niles fried up a couple eggs over the fire. They ate their food in uneasy quiet, both of them staring blankly at the flickering flames. The unease was only growing the longer the darkness lingered.
“Maybe it’s a phenomenon of these mountains?” Jeremy asked as they cleaned up. “Something about the way they’re placed, it makes it so you can’t see the sunrise.”
“I’ve been camping here dozens of times,” Niles countered. “There’s no phenomenon like that.”
The two of them passed the morning hours as they packed up their cooking gear, and put on warmer clothes to deal with what should have been a morning chill. Niles brought out a second heavy-duty flashlight for Jeremy to use, so they could leave the campsite without tripping over themselves in the dark woods. They were fairly well-supplied for camping, but neither had anticipated something as strange as this.
By 9:00AM, it was quite clear something was wrong. As time marched on, the sky only darkened as clouds covered up the otherwise bright stars. Jeremy felt panic stirring inside him, but he refused to accept that things were as bad as they seemed. He left the fire to relieve himself nearby, and returned to where Niles sat, still trying to get a signal on his phone.
“There’s no moon,” Jeremy realized, staring at the sky through the trees.
“What’s that now?”
“The moon. I just assumed it wasn’t visible tonight but—the moon reflects sunlight, right?”
Niles looked up, searching the sky for the familiar silver disk. “Oh my god, you’re right. I mean, sometimes the moon isn’t visible, but—yeah, this is weird. Do you remember seeing the moon at all last night?”
“I thought I saw it around sunset. I mean it was faded, but it was there.”
Niles hefted his flashlight and headed back to the cliff. He looked out over the valley, waving his light around like a beacon.
“Where’s the other lights?” he asked.
Jeremy didn’t have to ask. As he looked into the valley, he only saw trees. All the small lights of distant cabins had vanished.
“They wouldn’t turn their lights out while it was still dark, right?” he asked. “Did something happen?”
Before Niles could answer, something small and white drifted down in front of his face. Another joined it, and then another. Niles reached out and caught one on his fingertip, but it melted into a droplet of water.
“Snow,” he breathed.
“But it’s July.”
“I know it’s fucking July! But this is definitely snow!”
Jeremy reached out, and a few errant flakes landed on his palm. They melted against the warmth of his body, but more flakes continued to fall, landing softly on the ground and tree branches, and melting where they fell.
“We can’t stay here,” Jeremy said.
“Yeah. This isn’t good. Let’s drive into town and see if we can find somebody. Maybe they know what’s going on.”
“I’ll start packing up.”
Niles waved his hand. “That’ll take too long. Just douse the fire while I get the car started. We’ll leave everything we don’t need.”
“Yeah, all right.”
It was a shame to extinguish their only source of warmth. Jeremy poured out the rest of the coffee into the fire pit as the snow fell around him. Niles carried the cooler to the jeep. Moments later, Jeremy heard the engine rev, only to sputter, and then go silent. It started a couple more times, but each time, it never got past its desperate wheezing.
“Bad news,” Niles said.
“Car won’t start?”
“How’d you know?”
“I have ears. So now what?”
Niles threw a heavier jacket on over his vest. “Well, we can either stay here, and wait for somebody to find us. Or we could pack up some food and hike.”
“All the way to town? That’s like twenty miles!”
“I know, I know. But maybe we’ll see somebody on the road who can give us a lift. You’ve walked twenty miles before.”
“Not in the snow.”
Niles kicked at the dirt. “It’s not building up yet. Do you want to just sit here hoping somebody rescues us?”
That prospect did seem worse. Jeremy’s shoulders slumped. “All right.”
In half an hour, they were ready. Jeremy had pulled on his hiking boots and bundled up in as many warm clothes as he could find, although there wasn’t much, as he’d packed for a summer mountain camping trip, not falling snow and eternal darkness. They divided food between themselves, stored extra batteries for their flashlights, and once properly prepared, they set off into the woods, heading for the road.
The snow continued falling around them. Most of it melted, but as the cold grew, white dust began to build up along the ground, and their boots crunched over powder. The snowfall went from a few errant flakes to a heavy downfall that turned the air a pale white, and made it harder to see. Eventually, the two reached the dirt road, and began to walk along it as they headed for the town.
It was nearly noon now. They’d been walking for several hours, and it still felt like midnight. Jeremy’s exhaustion was starting to catch up to him. He wished he was back in his apartment, in his warm bed with the heater blasting. Niles stumbled a bit too. He’d probably been up all night playing games on his cell phone or something.
Eventually, Jeremy saw something through the falling snow that clearly wasn’t a tree. It was square and solid, like a wooden wall.
“Is that a building?” he asked, pointing.
Niles saw it too. “It might be a ranger’s cabin. I remember seeing one on the drive up.”
“You could’ve mentioned that sooner.”
“I forgot! And you should have remembered it too!”
“Fine, whatever. Maybe there’s a park ranger inside. They probably have a radio too.”
Jeremy didn’t see any immediate signs of life. There was no car parked in front, no lights on in the window. Niles walked up to the front door and knocked, but there was no answer.
“Try the handle,” Jeremy suggested.
Niles turned the doorknob, and the cabin door creaked open. He gave Jeremy a thumbs up, but his friend was too cold to respond to that, and instead shoved Niles through the door, following him inside the cabin.
It was cold and drafty, not to mention dark inside, but at least there wasn’t anymore wet snow falling on them. With their flashlights out, they could see an otherwise undisturbed room with a desk covered in radio equipment, some scattered paperwork, an empty fireplace, and a portable fridge in the corner. A map on the wall had the national park logo stamped on it, adding further evidence this really was a ranger cabin.
“Nobody’s home,” Niles said, placing his flashlight down on the desk.
“See if the radio works.” Jeremy bent down to examine the fireplace. It was full of ashes, but they were quite cold. Whoever was stationed here obviously hadn’t been back in some time. “Do you remember if you saw any cars parked out front when we first passed this place?”
“Um—I think there was a truck? Maybe? I don’t really remember.”
“They must’ve left this morning, before it started snowing.”
Jeremy looked around and found a small woodpile set up near the fireplace. He cleared out the ashes and started placing logs. A stack of old newspapers nearby served as kindling, and he dug his lighter out of his pocket to start a small flame. With some coaxing, he soon had a roaring fire that filled the room with light and warmth.
“I don’t think the radio’s working,” Niles said. “I don’t know if it needs power, or if there’s just no signal, or what.”
Jeremy had figured as much, though deep down he’d still hoped that maybe it was just their car radio that was broken.
“This is really bad,” he said. “I don’t think the snow’s going to stop. And there’s still no sun.”
“That’s probably why it’s snowing,” Niles said. “No sun, no warmth.”
“So what happens if the sun never comes back?”
Niles just shuddered. Neither of them wanted to think about the far reaching consequences, but they both knew.
“What do we do?” Jeremy asked. “Do we head into town? Stay here? We’ve got plenty of firewood. Should last the day. And food.”
“I don’t know.” Niles sank down into a chair. “If we leave, we might not be able to come back. We’ll be stuck out there in the snow.”
Jeremy stared at the floor. There was no easy answer here. No matter what they chose, they’d be depending blindly on providence. It was possible that no matter what choice they made, they were doomed.
He looked up at Niles, whose face had turned stony.
“I’m sorry,” he continued.
“For dragging you out here. I mean—I just wanted us to have a fun time together, you know? You’ve been so busy with work, and I’ve been cooped up in my place ever since Sam left me. We haven’t spent much time just hanging out—you know, like we used to.”
“Jesus, Niles, you can’t possibly blame yourself for this. I mean, yeah, I wish you’d just asked me out for a drink or something. If I’d known something like this could happen, I would’ve just told you to fuck off.”
“No, it’s my fault. All of this. I dragged you out here. I should’ve just stayed home. I should’ve—”
“Stop it!” Jeremy slammed a fist into the wall. “Nobody’s blaming you. Look, man, I’m sorry I’ve been so busy. I knew you were hurting after Sam, and I should’ve checked in on you sooner. Honestly, I was glad when you called about this camping trip. It meant you were finally getting out of your funk, you know? We’ll survive this. We’re two tough guys. We’re equipped to handle this kinda thing. We got a nice cabin here, warm fire, food. We’ll be all right.”
“Yeah. Sure.” Niles didn’t look convinced, but Jeremy saw a faint smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
Jeremy returned to warming his hands by the fire. Niles went over to the fridge and opened it up.
“Hey, Jeremy—check this out.”
Jeremy looked, but all he saw was a dark fridge with some frozen dinners inside.
“What about it?” he asked.
“The fridge is electric. That means this cabin’s supposed to have electricity. Like, there’s probably a generator outside.”
“Think we might be able to get it running?”
“Maybe. There must be fuel nearby.” Niles reached up to the wall, where a light fixture was firmly attached. He flicked a finger against the light bulb, but it remained dark.
Jeremy searched around, and noticed a cannister stowed near the desk with the radio. “This might be it. Or it’s gas for their truck.”
“The generator’s probably gas powered, so it’ll work either way. It’s probably around back.” Niles zipped his coat around him. “I’ll go look.”
“Nah, I’ll go; I’ve been hogging the fire, so I’m warmer than you. Sit down and warm yourself up; I’ll be back in a moment.”
The snow was starting to pile up outside, as they were now in the depths of a furious blizzard. Frigid winds blasted the falling snow around in a thick wall of white. And yet, that wall would be blackness were it not for the flashlight in Jeremy’s hand, as the sun still hadn’t risen. It was already mid-afternoon, a time when there should be daylight.
He braced himself for the cold and trudged through the falling snow to the back of the cabin. Sure enough, there was a gasoline generator propped up against the wall of the cabin. Jeremy circled around it, trying to figure out where the fuel went. Then he stopped. There was something else there in the falling snow. A dark shape that moved as he did.
“Hey, is someone there?!” he called into the winds.
The blurry shape vanished. Moments later, Jeremy heard a loud crunching sound, like something heavy was trudging through the snow. It grew louder, and Jeremy saw the shape again. It was too big to be human. His breathing halted, and he quietly took a step back, until his back pressed against the wall of the cabin. Whatever it was moved about in the snow just beyond the fringes of the light in his hand. It must have been at least eight feet tall, standing on two legs, hunched over, with large limbs. It stopped moving briefly, and a large, guttural snort, like that of a bull, echoed. Then the figure withdrew beyond the flashlight’s fringes, and the heavy trudging sound faded.
Jeremy hardly dared to breathe. His fingers gripped the gas canister so tightly his knuckles turned white. His heart pounded, and in his mind, he sensed extreme danger.
It’s not safe! It’s not safe!
As he backed away from the generator, he saw something else in the snow. Something distinctly not alive, and yet the site didn’t fill him with any less dread. A truck, as white as snow, parked in the midst of the forest clearing. There was someone inside. Most of him, at least. Whoever they were, most of their blood lay splattered along the sides of the truck and along the ground, although the piling snow was quickly covering it up.
Niles looked up as Jeremy slammed the cabin door shut, struggling to catch his breath.
“Don’t tell me; the generator’s broken,” he said.
Jeremy shook his head wildly.
“We have to leave. Now.”
“What? But I thought that was too risky.”
“It’s worse if we stay.” Jeremy hesitated to tell Niles about what he’d seen, but there was little choice. “I found the ranger. And his truck. The truck might work, if we get the body out.”
Niles jumped up from his chair. “Body?”
“Something killed him. I don’t know what. I don’t want to stay to find out. The cannister—” Jeremy realized he’d forgotten it outside. “The town’s not far, right? We should make it. We have to make it.”
Niles seemed to understand the gravity of the situation, even if he didn’t know the details.
“I’m going to bring some of the frozen dinners. I was trying to heat them up in the fire—here’s yours.”
He tossed Jeremy a tray with a half-warmed Salisbury steak. The meat was still cold in the middle, but after hiking all morning Jeremy was starving, and he wolfed the food down.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Niles followed him around to the back of the cabin, shining his flashlight along the ground. His light pointed towards the truck, and he gasped audibly as he took a step back.
“Yeah. I know,” Jeremy whispered. “Keep it down.”
“Did a bear do that?” Niles asked.
“Don’t know. Come on, help me get the body out.”
Niles looked as if he wanted to be a million miles from here, but he kept his mouth shut as Jeremy pried open the door. The stench of blood and fecal matter assaulted his nostrils. The mess inside the cab of the truck was a thousand times more grisly than the one outside. Niles covered his mouth, then promptly turned and retched into the snow.
“Come on, Niles, I need your help,” Jeremy said. “I’ll pull him free, you get his legs.”
Niles gagged, but he stood ready as Jeremy yanked the corpse out from behind the steering wheel. There was no doubt from his uniform, this was definitely a park ranger. The cause of death seemed to be having his entire torso torn open, causing most of his organs to spill out. Jeremy wondered if he’d been attacked nearby, and somehow crawled behind the wheel while bleeding out. It would explain the large splatters of blood along the ground.
They laid the ranger’s body in the snow, and Jeremy did his best to wipe the blood off the seat and windshield before he climbed into the truck. Niles hesitated, his eyes fixed on the dead man’s corpse.
“Should we—I dunno, bury him? Say a few words?”
“No time! Get in!” Jeremy hissed.
The keys were in the ignition. Glancing at the dashboard, Jeremy saw they fuel gauge was closer to E than he would have liked. But it looked like enough for them to reach town. Niles climbed into the passenger’s side, one hand over his nose to avoid the smell. Jeremy turned the key, and the car purred to life.
“Oh thank god,” he breathed, pulling it out of park.
Something slammed into the side of the vehicle, and the entire truck rocked back and forth. Niles screamed and covered his head. Jeremy frantically searched around him, but he could barely see anything outside the windows. He fumbled for the headlights, and turned the hi-beams on, illuminating the nearby cabin wall. His heart froze when he saw the massive claw marks torn into the wood.
“Just go!” Nile shouted.
Jeremy slammed his foot down on the gas, and the car struggled in the snowbank, before finally forcing its way forward. He pulled out from behind the cabin and drove onto the road, off into the darkness.
“What the hell was that?” Niles asked, straining to look out the back window.
“Who knows. Nothing’s been normal today,” Jeremy said, keeping his eyes on the road.
“What are you saying? You really think there’s monsters out there in the snow?”
“I don’t fucking know! I mean, the sun disappeared! There’s a blizzard in July! Something’s gone horribly wrong, so yes, maybe there’s monsters too!”
“What the hell?” Niles slumped down in his seat. “Everything was so normal last night. There was sunlight, it was warm. The sun set like it was supposed to. Why didn’t it come back?”
Jeremy wished he knew. He turned up the windshield wipers to clear away the snow, and drove silently.
“It’ll be night soon,” he mused. “At least that’s when the sun’s supposed to be gone. Maybe it’ll come back tomorrow.”
“Stranger things have happened,” Niles said.
With the truck at their command, it didn’t take long for them to leave the park behind, and eventually reach a paved road leading into civilization. They passed a few houses along the way, but the windows were dark, and there were no signs of life. Of course, no sane person would be out wandering around in this snow. But Jeremy still held onto some hope, as it was starting to feel like he and Niles were the last two people in the entire world.
Niles remained slumped in his seat, but his eyes were closed now, and he was breathing steadily. Lucky bastard must have fallen asleep. Jeremy struggled to keep his eyes open, but it was a herculean task with the monotonous wall of white in front of the truck. His eyelids drooped shut, as the temptation of sleep grew too strong to resist. Just a moment, he told himself. He’d rest his eyes and let the car drift forward, just as long as he didn’t doze off long enough to get in trouble.
The truck tires screeched as the car jerked out of control, and the steering wheel spun beneath his hands. Jeremy’s eyes shot open, just in time to see an errant street lamp right in front of him. He slammed his foot on the brakes, and the car spun wildly on the frictionless road. With a sickening crunch, the vehicle slammed sideways into the street lamp, and went still.
“Shit, shit, shit!” Jeremy smashed his hands against the steering wheel.
The impact also jerked Niles out of his slumber, and he gazed around him in terror.
“What—Where am I?”
“I must have hit a patch of ice,” Jeremy said.
“Did you fall asleep?”
“What? No! It was ice! Honest!”
“You know this never would have happened if we’d still had my Fortress.” Nigel sighed as he picked up the flashlight that had fallen on the floor, and turned it on.
Jeremy attempted to put the car into drive again, but it seemed stuck. With a sigh, he put it into park.
“The engine works—there must be too much snow,” he muttered.
“I’ll take a look,” Niles said, hefting the flashlight. “Be right back.”
He quickly disappeared into the darkness. Jeremy flopped back in the seat, wishing he’d been the one to volunteer to go outside. Anything to get away from the decayed stench of blood. After a moment, a hand slammed against the driver’s side window. Jeremy jumped in his seat as the door pulled open, and Niles’ face appeared.
“It’s all right,” he said. “Come on, we should take a look around.”
Curious, Jeremy turned off the engine and hopped out of the driver’s seat. A blast of cold air hit him, and he pulled his jacket closely around his body. He held up his flashlight, and through the falling snow, he saw buildings.
“We’re in the town,” he realized.
“Looks like it. Come on, let’s see if anybody’s around.”
The snow was up to their ankles now, and were it not for their tall hiking boots, Jeremy’s socks would be soaked by now. He glanced back at the truck as the snow swiftly buried it. It was firmly wedged against a darkened street lamp, and didn’t look as if it’d be easy to free. They’d have to find another vehicle if they wanted to leave.
Come to think of it, the entire town was dark. The street lamps should have been lit, or perhaps some of the building windows should have been lit up. Jeremy checked his watch; it was only 4:30. If there were people in this town, surely they’d have their lights on, or some indication of fires as they struggled to keep warm.
“I think that’s the police station,” Niles said, pointing. “I mean, there’s gotta be someone in there.”
Jeremy had to agree. Together, they approached the glass doors of the old stone building. Jeremy could even see a few errant police vehicles parked in the nearby lot. The door creaked as he pulled it open, and he and Niles entered the front lobby.
There was nobody there.
“This is madness,” Niles breathed.
“Maybe they’re all out dealing with the public. You know, preventing panic and stopping riots from happening,” Jeremy said.
“But you’d think there’d be someone manning the desk. Answering phones or something.”
“Maybe the phones don’t work.”
“That doesn’t even—” Jeremy was too tired to argue. He walked behind the front desk, and found a phone sitting there. He picked up the receiver and held it to his ear, but there was no dial tone. “Yeah, phones seem to be dead. Hey—what about your cell? Got a signal?”
“No bars. And my battery’s dying.”
Jeremy pulled out his own phone, but it was the same.
“Damn. I guess we should search more buildings. At least find a place to hole up for the night. Someplace with food and heat—”
A low moan shook the door. Jeremy and Niles both whirled towards the building entrance. There was something out there, stomping around. Footsteps shook the walls around them.
“That’s not a person,” Niles whispered.
Jeremy looked around, and grabbed the chair behind the desk. He wedged it under the front door handles. Not a moment later, the door rattled, as if something was trying to get inside. Through the murky glass, they could only see a tall shadow, hunched over, swinging its heavy limbs at the door. Jeremy grabbed Niles by the shoulder and pulled him away from the door.
Niles pointed to the door leading deeper inside the building. “Those have security locks, right?”
“There’s no power,” Jeremy whispered. “Unless the locks are part of some separate system.
Niles pulled the door handle, and the door swung open, not locked. Behind them, the door heaved as the chair started to splinter.
“Whatever! Just go!” Jeremy pushed Niles inside the door, and rushed in after him. The heavy door swung shut with a decisive click.
“That desk—grab that end and help me move it,” Niles said.
Together they slid the heavy metal desk in front of the security door. Hopefully it would hold better than the chair did.
Moments later, the front door shattered, and heavy footsteps echoed through the lobby. Jeremy and Niles ducked down, turning their flashlights off as they hid in the darkness. The footsteps drew closer, and through the glass window of the door, Jeremy could just make out a single red eye staring into the room. He felt Nile’s terrified grip on his forearm, digging fingers into his skin so deep it hurt, but he clenched his teeth and fought back the pain. The eye disappeared into the darkness, and moments later, the security door shook as something heavy pounded against it. Jeremy tensed up, but the door seemed to be holding.
“What do we do?” Niles whispered.
Jeremy could barely see in the darkness, but he saw potential escape in another nearby door. He motioned, and Niles followed him in crawling across the floor beneath the maze of desks. They slipped inside the door, and found themselves inside an office. There they waited, listening as the creature continued to pound the security door outside.
“Go away, just go away,” Jeremy breathed.
“Is that thing the reason the cops are all missing?” Niles asked.
“I don’t know. There’s no bodies or blood. It’s not like that ranger—”
“Please don’t talk about that again.”
“Sorry. If I had to guess, the police all ran out to deal with panic after the sun didn’t rise.” Jeremy played over the scenario in his head. “That can’t be the same one I saw at the cabin. Unless they can move as fast as trucks. There might be more than one stalking around.”
“What the hell are we supposed to do? We’re trapped here!”
“The security door is holding. We’ll just have to wait for now. Maybe it’ll give up, and we can escape.”
Niles nodded. The two of them huddled together for warmth as they sat there in the darkness, listening to the incessant pounding of an unseen beast seeking them out.
The next thing Jeremy knew, someone was shaking his shoulder, whispering his name. He jerked upright, and saw Niles standing over him, his face lit up by the light of his flashlight.
“Huh? Niles, what—?” Jeremy’s mouth felt like it’d been stuffed full of cotton. “Did I fall asleep?”
“Only for a little bit. An hour, maybe? The thing’s gone.”
Jeremy listened. Sure enough, the pounding had ceased.
“How long ago?”
“Maybe a half hour?”
“Why didn’t you wake me up?”
“You looked exhausted. Besides—I’m not even sure if it’s gone. It stopped hitting the door, but maybe it’s just waiting out there.”
Jeremy grabbed the flashlight and quickly jumped to his feet. He peered through the office windows into the maze of desks and cubicles, searching for movement, but everything was silent and still.
“We can’t stay here,” he said. “If it comes back we’ll be trapped here with no food and no heat. We’ll have to steal another car and get the hell out of here.”
“And go where?”
“I don’t know. Maybe if we drive long enough we’ll reach a city. Maybe the military’s moved in to deal with these things; a small town like this wouldn’t have a chance, but a city?”
“How are we going to find another car?”
“There’s probably dozens parked around town. We just need to find keys.”
A cursory search of the office turned up nothing useful, although they did find the break room, with an easily broken vending machine for food. They loaded their backpacks with candy bars, and headed towards the security door.
“Coast looks clear,” Jeremy said.
They moved the desk away and pried the door open. It shook on its hinges, and Jeremy noticed heavy claw marks embedded in the thick metal. Niles winced.
“We can’t just run out there without a plan.”
Jeremy looked behind the front desk. “I found keys—don’t know what car they go to, though.”
“I guess we’ll just test all of them.”
Flashlights ready, they crept outside. The first thing Jeremy noticed was the clear air. There was no longer a white wall of falling snow, just nighttime darkness, though heavy clouds still blocked out the stars. The snow lay in thick drifts along the ground, and it was freezing, but their light carried a little farther now, and they could both see the streets were empty. No people, no creatures.
“Let’s see what car these keys go to,” Niles said.
There were five police cars parked outside. Jeremy tested the key in the lock of the first door, but no luck. He moved on to the next one, and then the third. All five cars, and the keys didn’t work for any of them.
“There must be more cars around back,” he said.
They walked down the block together, although Niles lagged slightly behind, clearly too tired at this point to walk anywhere. As his feet crunched in the snow, Jeremy heard a shout from behind him.
He turned, and a blur of shadow rushed past him. Niles screamed, and his body went flying past Jeremy, and smashed into the wall of the adjacent building.
Whatever was in the darkness was nearly invisible now, with no snow to give away its shape. Jeremy only saw the red eyes stalking towards him, accompanied by the repeated thud of heavy footsteps on the pavement. He rushed over to Niles’ side.
“Get out of here!” Niles gasped, struggling to breathe. He was bleeding badly where the creature struck him.
“Come on, get up. Don’t get us both killed by being fucking noble.” Jeremy forced his friend to his feet. “Come on.”
The building had a door nearby. Just a few feet away. Jeremy struggled to carry Niles’ extra weight. He could hear the creature drawing closer. He made the mistake of glancing behind him, and saw those red eyes staring him down, as clawed feet pressed down in the snow. The creature crouched over in a predatory stance, as if preparing to pounce. Jeremy’s muscles strained as he fumbled for the doorknob. The creature started to charge. Jeremy yanked the door open and shoved Niles through, before diving in after him and slamming the door shut behind them. The creature smashed into the door, and he could hear a furious roar as claws scraped against the wall outside. Jeremy locked the door, and in time, the roaring stopped. Niles, meanwhile, slumped down on the carpet, his breathing shallow.
“Niles, hang on,” Jeremy gasped. “Stay with me.”
Niles groaned. “This hurts like hell.”
Jeremy held up his flashlight, illuminating the blood on Nile’s shirt. When he peeled it back, he could see the claw marks in his side. They weren’t too deep, but he was bleeding pretty bad.
The two of them were in a narrow corridor of some kind. Jeremy propped Niles up on his shoulder and carried him further inside. There were doors everywhere, and Niles’ blood dripped onto fancy carpeting.
“I think this is a hotel,” Jeremy noted.
“I smell blood,” Niles replied.
“That’s because you’re bleeding.” Jeremy wrinkled his nose. He smelled blood too, and it didn’t seem to be entirely Niles’.
The corridor emptied out into the lobby, where the two immediately saw the front desk attendant lying dead on the ground, a pistol in his hand. Jeremy helped Niles into a nearby chair, and picked the gun up from the dead man’s hand.
“There’s a few bullets,” he said. “I don’t know if they’ll work against those things.”
“We can use them on us,” Niles laughed. “If things look too bleak. We won’t have to starve.”
“Don’t talk like that. Stay put, I’ll get you some bandages. Then we’ll find a room, and bunker down until we’re rested enough to move on.”
“Yeah. That sounds like a plan.”
Jeremy searched around the lobby, and found a first-aid kit behind the desk with bandages and antiseptic. He sat down next to Niles and helped him pull his shirt off, then set to work wiping off the blood.
“I fucked up,” Niles muttered. “If I’d kept up—”
“It would have just killed us both,” Jeremy said. “We got lucky.”
“You don’t have to stay. Find a car and get out of town. You’ll move faster on your own.”
“Would you stop with the martyr complex? You’re my friend, Niles. What kind of shitty friend would I be if I left you here to get eaten by monsters? I’m not gonna do it.”
“We wouldn’t even be in this mess if—”
“For the last time, it’s not your fault. You didn’t make the sun go away. You didn’t call those creatures. You didn’t know.”
“Stop talking.” Jeremy covered the wound in cotton and wrapped the gauze bandage around Niles’ torso. “Come on. Let’s find a place to hole up.”
He grabbed a room key from behind the front desk and helped Niles down the hall to the stairs. They climbed up to the third floor, where Jeremy opened the door into a dark, but fairly cozy room. It was cold, of course, but better than the chill outside. Jeremy helped Niles onto the bed, and locked the door behind them. He placed the flashlight on the nearby dresser, filling the room with light.
“That’s not bad,” he said. “Room like this would normally cost a couple hundred a night, and we get it for free.”
It was nearly six now. Normally, it would still be light out, but of course, there couldn’t be a sunset without a sunrise before it. Jeremy walked over to the window and looked outside at the white streets covered in darkness.
“Jeremy. I’m scared,” Niles stammered.
Jeremy sat down on the bed beside him. “I know. Me too, man.”
“You don’t look scared.”
“You kidding? I’m terrified. But I don’t want to die here. And neither do you. We’re gonna figure this out, got it?”
“Yeah.” Niles’ eyes fluttered. “God, I’m tired.”
“Get some rest. I’ll stand watch.”
Niles sighed as he laid there on the bed. “Jeremy—You’re a good friend. I love you, man.”
“Yeah. I know.”
Jeremy pulled the blankets over his friend to give him some warmth, and laid down next to him on the queen-sized bed. The moment his head touched the pillow, exhaustion overwhelmed him, and his eyes drifted closed again.
He awoke to freezing cold as the wind howled outside the hotel room, and a heavy knocking against the hotel room door. He sat up with a start, hardly daring to move as the knocking continued. Something was out there. Shivering, he pulled himself out of bed and looked around. Niles lay still in the bed. When Jeremy reached out, his skin was icy to the touch.
“Niles?” he whispered.
The knocking grew more insistent, pushing the door in on its hinges. Jeremy stepped away from the bed, backing towards the building window. He found the gun lying on the table, and picked it up, his hands shaking so hard he could barely hold it. As he struggled to understand what to do, his eye wandered towards the window, and he sucked in his breath.
The faintest light trickled in between the curtains.