I turn on my phone to check the time again. One hour to go, approximately. Still no reception. The headlights of the rusty jeep eat through the impenetrable night, illuminating a small stretch of the empty road ahead of me. I have been driving on this route for hours now, the same unchanging dark forest to the left and right. Since I have left the last gas station, closed and without gas as the other ones before, I have turned off the heating and the music player to safe fuel. I do not remember when the radio has worked last, it has probably been broken since I bought the jeep. Silence fills the car now, only the rumbling of the old engine audible.
Lucy on the seats behind me sighs deeply.
“Hey, girl, don’t worry. We will be there soon.”
My eyes wander to the gas display again. We can make it but it will be close. I go a little easier on the gas. If we do not make it this will mean another night in the tent in the hope to be able to catch a ride to the next not abandoned gas station in the morning. Hopefully the street will be busier during daylight because I do not remember when I have last seen a car. I really long for a hot shower, a warm meal and a feather bed. I have slept in a tent for the entire last week, freezing even in my winter sleeping bag. It should not be so cold anymore during this time of year. I blow in my frozen hands and draw the zipper of my jacket higher before placing them on the steering wheel again.
An hour later I imagine a small bright band on the horizon in front of me. The sun will rise soon. I start to feel tired, my inner clock has readjusted to being awake during night and going to sleep after sunrise. I check the small piece of paper sticking to the dashboard with a name, a telephone number and an address on it. Hopefully said Jim will already be awake. If not I am going to ring him out of bed, I do not intend to wait in my cold car for another one or two hours. But probably people in this lonely area in the middle of nowhere get up with the sun anyway.
My mind is occupied with wondering what kind of man Jim is and if he can indeed show me the best places for a shot on gray wolves as he has told my agency, and I nearly miss the even smaller, darker street forking from the main road. The jeep protests creaking when I break sharply and turn into it, past the small sign indicating I have finally reached my destination. The gas needle shows that I have practically run out of gas but I do not care at this point. All I can see in front of my eyes is a nice shower and a steaming cup of tea.
A car suddenly appears out of the dark in front of me and I yelp and ram my foot onto the break. Tires screech and the jeep swerves to the side as I turn the steering wheel to get control again. Somehow, miraculously, we do not hit the other vehicle. The jeep has stopped shortly in front of it, the headlights illuminating a battered Japanese brand parking in the middle of the narrow road, lights turned off.
I slowly detach my hands that have gripped the steering wheel tight. My heart is racing. When I take a closer look through the dirty windshield it dawns on me that the other car is definitely not parking. Its side and front are bashed in, some of the windows are broken and glass shards litter the street, glittering in the low light. I think I can see the black rubber trace further away where the car had braked and tires had scraped over the asphalt before it had hid one of the trees hidden in the dark to the side, bumping off of it and coming to a final halt in the middle of the road.
I reach for my gloves and open the door, my gaze never leaving the other car. It is even colder outside than inside the unheated jeep. I open the back door and the dog jumps out, bumping her brown nose into my knee.
“Come on Lucy,” I whisper. My breath is forming clouds in the air in front of my face. “Let’s see what is going on here.”
I get around and open the rear where the strong flashlight lies in a box together with the gas cooker, a few cans of food I have left and a lighter. I take the flashlight, check if it works. The damp tent is thrown across the gas containers that I always carry with me as a reserve. They are empty now. I make sure that the camera and all the other technical equipment is stored securely. My fingers brush a black box and on an impulse I open it to take out my hunting knife, the familiar handle soothing against my palm.
I order Lucy to stay outside the range of glass shards so she will not hurt herself. On first glance the other car is empty. The bright spot of the flashlight creeps over the badly damaged front as I step around it. This must have been quite a crash. I can imagine the car hurling over the street, hitting the tree up front and being flung back to the street. What has caused the accident?
It is like a bucket of icy water is dumped over my head when the jittering light falls on a figure hunched in the passenger’s seat, only held up by the seat belt. The balding man is half leaning against the side of the car, dried blood coating most of his face. His eyes are closed and no heaving of his chest indicates that he is breathing. I carefully step closer, glass shards splintering under my boots. My hand extends, moves through the shattered passenger window in the interior of the car, and trembling fingers feel for the pulse at the side of the man’s throat. I shrink back at first because his skin is cold and damp but then I force myself to check if he is still alive.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
He seems to be dead for quite a while, face gray and waxen. The windshield is black with dried blood, I realize. I swallow against sudden nausea and turn away. I have to get to the village at once. Why has no one realized that an accident happened on this road, practically on the doorstep to the village? That a man died, several hours ago as it seems.
I am already back at the jeep, hand on the door handle when it hits me. Where is the driver of the accident car? The car had been empty except for the dead man on the passenger’s seat. Cold dread runs down my back, making me shiver and I hurry to let Lucy inside and get inside the jeep myself, firmly closing the door behind me.
Upon entering the city the jeep sputters one last time and goes out, headlights with it, leaving me in complete darkness for a few horrifying seconds before I locate the flashlight. Somehow I have managed to steer the car to the side of the street before it had rolled to a total halt. I exit the car and call Lucy to me. The presence of her body pressed to my leg calms me. The village is dark, there seems to be no power. But even for that it is too dark, so dark it seems deserted. This cannot be right. When has the agency last spoken to Jim? It can barely be more than one week ago.
As we walk through the streets, Lucy close to my side, one of my hands swinging the flashlight, the other gripping the knife in its sheath on my belt, it turns out that indeed most of the houses seem deserted. Some are boarded up, thick wooden planks nailed over front doors and windows. Not a single car is parked in the street. Some huts seem to have been deserted for a long time already, glass windows splintered and doors hanging open to reveal only gaping darkness behind them. Others seem relatively well-kept, with green or red curtains behind clean windows reflecting the light from my flashlight and recently painted letterboxes.
The house at the address on the piece of paper from the jeep is small and shabby but looks recently inhabited. I walk up to the front door where paint is peeling from the wood and knock. Nothing stirs. I knock several times, the noise sounding unnaturally loud in the silence. I even get out my phone and turn it on despite the already low battery to see if I can get reception here but nothing. I try to get a look inside the house, walking around it and try to open some of the windows but no luck. All windows are closed and dirty yellow curtains drawn shut.
I follow the only street through the village. The bright band at the horizon has broadened and the world beyond the light spot of my flashlight gradually changes from black solid to gray shadows. My heart jumps at the sight of a gas station at the end of the village, the street ending abruptly with only dark forest beyond.
“Please let this be working,” I murmur, taking the handle off of one of the service points. Nothing, of course. The gas station is boarded up as some of the other houses are, all openings nailed shut.
Then I hear it.
The low, guttural growl makes me freeze on the spot.
Lucy is a quiet dog, one of the reasons I have her because she rarely draws attention to us in the wilderness. I can count the times I have heard her bark on one hand and I do not know if I have ever heard that sound coming from her. She is watching a point behind me, all four paws pressed into the earth as if getting ready to charge, the hair on her neck standing on end.
I slowly turn, dreading what I might see.
There is a figure approaching us from the street, a man in filthy clothes, clumps of hair falling into his face. He is walking slowly and strangely mechanical, his arms swinging at his side. Although I know I should be glad that I finally found another human being I feel the hairs on my neck standing on end.
“Sir? Can you help me? I ran out of gas. Do you have a car?”
The man does not answer but he breaks into a lurching run, getting closer fast. I frown and squint to see behind his curtain of dirty hair in the twilight. Lucy steps in front of me, the raw growl still rumbling in her throat.
The man has stopped in front of us, switching from one leg to the other, swinging his upper body as if unsure how to proceed. Then he raises his head and I cannot help but suck in my breath.
Half of his face is caved in, his right eye is missing and the bright white bone of his nose bridge is shining through a gap in the skin. He bares blood stained teeth and turns toward me, zooming in on the sound I let escape. I stumble back, frozen by shock, my hand gripping the knife does not feel like it belongs to me. The man reacts within split seconds, lurching forward, and I finally find my ground and raise my hand with the knife, too late as I know, much too late.
Lucy’s shadow flies past me, only the white of her bared fangs visible. I have opened my mouth for a useless cry and I can already see her crash into the man in front of my inner eyes when the sound of a gunshot tears through the village.
The man staggers, only shortly before he would have collided with Lucy. He takes one step away from us, sways and turns slightly on the spot before his legs give out. Then he crumbles to a heap on the asphalt, body convulsing.
I have not moved a muscle.
“If I were you, I would get the fuck inside! The noise has probably gotten more of those buggers out of hiding.”
I twirl around, frantically searching for the source of the voice. My eyes find the dark figure of a man in an open window on the second floor of the gas station. He extends one arm.
My legs move on autopilot as I see the object fall and I jump forward and snatch the rusty key from the air.
“Fire staircase to the right! Hurry up!” The man has gotten his gun back out, aiming at a point behind me.
I do not look back, I only notice Lucy is at my side as I sprint toward the green metal gate to the right of the building. I nearly let the key drop as I drive it into the hole with shaking hands, turning it roughly. The rusty gate is stuck for a heart lurching moment but then it springs open and we are through. It closes behind us with a loud snap and I run up the metal staircase as fast as I can, Lucy already several steps ahead. My heart is racing and the cold air burns in my lungs. When I have reached the top a rattle runs through the metal construction as something heavy collides with the gate. I flinch and turn, knife raised, ready to face another one of these… creatures, but nothing. The staircase behind me is empty and another bang rings through the construction, making the floor vibrate under my boots. Luckily it seems as if the gate keeps off whatever is desperately trying to follow me.
The door in my back creeks and I whirl around, a panicked yelp catching in my throat.
First I see no one, only a slow burning fire in the back of the room further behind and then my eyes jump down a notch to the face of the man I saw at the window before. Beard stubble of a few days’ worth, making it hard to guess his age. Dark brown eyes, nearly black, piercing me with an unfriendly scowl.
“I wouldn’t mind if you put your knife down.” His voice is gravely deep, raw.
I swallow and hesitate, staring at the gun in the man’s hands, pointed somewhere at my feet. Reluctantly I shove the knife back into its sheath.
The man places the gun in his lap and puts his hands instead on the handrims of his wheelchair. Slowly, he propels back to give me space to walk through the door.
“I would say welcome… but…”
I hesitate on the doorstep, debating if it is safe to enter the stranger’s house after I got attacked by… what the fuck had that been? The destroyed face appears in front of my inner eyes. There is no way anyone would survive an injury like this, least walk around with it…
The wheelchair guy’s frown deepens and his eyes flicker past me, scanning the outside, while his hands return to the gun. “What are you waiting for?” he growls. “Should we send invitations to the Crazies to join us up here?”