Samantha Shepherd checked over her shoulder. She suspected that she had escaped without being spotted, but she couldn’t be sure. She leaned forward and increased her pace. As she climbed higher up the mountain, her legs grew heavier and her breath shorter. Her calves burned like they had been set on fire. Still, she pressed on. Grabbing a low-hanging branch, she propped herself against a tree for a few seconds, sucking in deep lungfuls of cold, damp air, while her heart thudded inside her chest. With the heavy snowfall, it would be difficult to navigate in this weather, but Sam knew exactly where she was going. Away. It didn’t matter where, yet.
No time for rest, she thought. This was a matter of life and death where every second counted. Her boot fell through a soft patch and she sank down into the snow to her knee. She knew that anyone chasing her could simply follow her footprints, but it looked like conditions could escalate to a total whiteout. Any tracks would be wiped out immediately and she would be impossible to find.
Sam made a sudden turn and hid behind a large tree. Breathing heavily, she peeked around the trunk. Despite the strong winds howling around her, she stood motionless and scanned the hill below for any movement. Was that something over there to the left? She watched closely. Her peripheral vision caught something to the right instead and her heart jumped. A large branch rocked on the ground where it had fallen from above. The trees could get extremely dangerous in this weather, she noted.
Satisfied that she was alone, Sam pulled out her GPS and oriented herself. A muffled ring came from her backpack. She rushed to silence it, plucking a phone from her bag. It was Lorne from Glacier Rescue where, because of her parents’ long commitment to the group, Sam had volunteered since she could crawl. She double-checked that the tracking capabilities were disabled, turned off the phone without answering the call and dropped it into her backpack. Better hurry now.
Sam hiked north, returning to the location of the last sighting. Their campsite. Her gut twisted. How could she have let a member of her group go missing? She had been their leader and they had trusted her. She bit the side of her lip as she felt an intense burst of guilt, of self-loathing. It was all her fault. Again.
Sam braced herself against the trunk of a giant fir tree as the winds suddenly picked up. Gusts of snow flurried through the beam of light from her headlamp, which was surrounded by endless darkness. Undeterred, she veered west and approached the spot where everything had started less than forty-eight hours earlier. An avalanche hazard area. How had her plans to hang out with her dad morphed into this nightmare? She walked faster. She couldn’t bear to be responsible for another death.
Two Days Earlier
Sam’s eyes welled up as she peered out from her viewpoint on Black Mountain. Glacier Village with all its charm and bustle lay below her to the left, the ski slopes of Mount Blue loomed above the valley on the other side, and an endless view of white-capped peaks spread out before her. She struggled with her choice. Every location her eyes rested on was full of rich, wonderful memories, making her decision almost impossible. A lump formed in her throat as warm tears rolled down her wind-chilled cheeks.
She had been avoiding the task for months. As a consequence, her mom’s urn sat neglected, collecting dust next to the battered lounge chair by the fireplace — Elaine Shepherd’s favorite spot. Sam insisted that the place where her mom’s ashes were to be spread would be her decision alone, that she would have to bear the responsibility of ensuring that her mom’s final resting place was perfect. But spreading her ashes would be an acknowledgement that her mom was gone. Forever. And that she was still alive, even though Sam knew deep in her heart that on that day, that bullet had been meant for her.
A loud ring from her satellite phone echoed down the mountain and around the valley, snapping her out of her thoughts. She brushed her cheeks with the back of her glove and cleared her throat. “Hello?”
“Sam? Lorne, here. You still working on installing that new barrier out by Fool’s Bluff? Need any help?”
“No, no. I’m good,” Sam said too quickly. Because of a shortage of volunteers, she had been sent out to block off the avalanche hazard area on her own, but even if the flu hadn’t struck the town, she’d have asked to carry out the task alone. Ever since her mom’s death, Sam preferred solitude, preferred being away from people, their looks, their questions. She had found an escape from villagers in the surrounding wilderness. The mountains always offered her everything she wanted: serenity, nature, happiness, adventure. Most of her happy memories involved the outdoors and almost all were from family backpacking trips. Her mom and dad had taken her out mountaineering even before she could walk, when her dad would strap her to his already bulging backpack and haul her up remote peaks. Every trip had a different destination, but regardless of where they went, the sound of their laughter always echoed through the crisp, clean air.
“Yeah, figured. Sorry to call you on this phone. It’s a bit of an emergency. So, uh, what I’m really calling about — and I hate to ask — I wouldn’t do this if we weren’t in a bit of a fix, Sam. Ryder’s just gone home and Dominique and Rahim called in. They’ve got that nasty flu that’s going around.”
Sam knew what Lorne wanted, but she remained silent. A feeling of dread grew with every word he spoke.
“And you know how much we need the funds this year. The chopper alone! Folks just don’t care about Search and Rescue until it’s their butts on the line. They don’t realize that we’re all volunteers, that our gear isn’t paid for with their tax money. Some people think we work for them!”
“Y’know, the Alpine Survival Challenge is one of our best fundraising events. And orientation is tonight. So with folks out sick and that big storm that might be coming next week, we just can’t postpone it this year,” Lorne continued. “So I’m just going to ask, and of course I totally understand if you can’t, and I’m going to be right up front in telling you that this year’s Challenge is going to be a lot tougher than past years. Ryder’s idea to justify the bigger fundraising goals this year, eh. Anyway, say ‘no’ if you can’t, but would you consider subbing for Ryder? We really need you, Sam, otherwise I wouldn’t ask. We need to know now, though. Like, right now. We’ve got to get the supplies and we won’t be able to get our deposits back if we cancel too late.”
“Of course I’ll do it, Lorne.”
The annual Alpine Survival Challenge was one of the most popular community events in Glacier Village. People of all ages and fitness abilities participated in teams, competing against one another to test their endurance and outdoor survival skills. There were no prizes other than bragging rights, which was one of the reasons it was always a fun event for everyone.
Sam had participated every year since she was born. Although, until she could walk on her own, the extent of her participation had been limited to being carried around by her dad. This was the only year she had declined.
It wasn’t her first choice of plans for the night, but she couldn’t let Lorne and the group down. No way out of it now, she thought after ending the call with Lorne. She quickly resolved to make a new plan for the night, to try to make the most of the situation. Who knows, she wondered, maybe it could even be fun.
A sudden bone-chilling scream pierced the peaceful silence. Sam’s back jerked straight and she dropped the satellite phone in her hand. It slid into the out-of-bounds area and down, down, down the steep cliff and out of sight. She stared into the white expanse. This wasn’t a good start to the plan.
The whites of Wesley Black’s dark eyes were fully exposed as he bolted downhill with blood spilling down his left arm. Despite the pain, he held back tears. But his mouth was wide open, corners turned down, and from it came a high-pitched, barely audible whimper that only stopped when he took a breath. He could barely register what had just happened. One minute he was live-streaming himself feeding birds for his YouTube channel and the next, he was frantically running for his life.
Wesley had been a YouTuber for over three months and had attracted hundreds of loyal subscribers in that time. He made videos sporadically but checked his subscriber count frequently. He had only made pennies from his channel, but he didn’t care. Money wasn’t his motivation.
Wesley’s fascination with online videos was born on a sleepy Tuesday morning in photo class when Mr. Quan had commented on how clever Penelope Farmer’s YouTube video was. He had talked about how smart and funny Penelope was, and what had grabbed Wesley’s attention was that Mr. Quan hadn’t even followed his comments with a “but.” Usually, when Wesley’s father said something nice about someone who wasn’t there, the compliment was followed with a “but.” As in, “Your friend looks like a nice girl, but she’s not really…” and “Those Blooms seem like they are trying to help, but what they’re really doing…” and “Uncle John is rich and famous now, but there was that one time…” and on and on. There was no “but” in Mr. Quan’s commendation and that was how Wesley wanted others to speak about him. “But” free.
Wesley often imagined himself rambling along the Ice Bridge, nodding and waving at the crowds of beautiful girls screaming his name and asking for autographs. To keep his fans from mobbing him, he had to have bodyguards, of course, but they were instructed to allow some of the lowly village merchants through to offer him gifts. Only some though. Not all deserved that honor. The other day, Wesley was sure he saw a girl wave at him through the crowd. And another very cute one with long, glossy brown hair, had looked right at him, held her gaze and smiled at him. He was sure of it. And it didn’t surprise him at all. He was used to getting what he wanted. It was usually only a matter of time before the things he imagined became a reality.
Wesley was confident that his latest video would boost his celebrity status. He had brought with him a nice variety of nuts and seeds to get footage of a cool-looking bird or a cute, fluffy animal eating from the palm of his hand. But the birds didn’t respond the way they had when he had fed them before. This time, they went absolutely crazy.
Wesley cowered as he felt little pricks all over his body. The sky suddenly seemed to be swarming with hungry winged needles, diving in from all directions, pecking at him with their pointy beaks, fighting with each other, and, to his disgust, crapping everywhere, including right into the hand he held out to feed them with. Well, that was it, he thought. He was trying to be kind, but they had attacked. He had no choice but to retaliate.
Wesley scooped up some snow mixed with the harder ice below, cocked his arm back, closed one eye to aim, and threw as hard as he could. Pop! He just missed one. Pop! Pop! They were getting the message now. Even though he hadn’t yet made contact, they were leaving. Pop, pop, pop, pop!
A strange sound came from behind the giant Western Red cedar where the last bird he had targeted had been perched. Did he get one? He unscrewed his face and relaxed his jaw as he jogged over to check. Expecting a bird on the ground, he found something else entirely.
It was large and foul, smelling like rancid flesh and sewage. The stench stung his nostrils. Holding one arm to his round face, he grabbed a long thin stick and began poking at the thing. When he didn’t get any response, he whacked at it a few times. It was dead. Wesley tossed the stick away and spotted goopy splotches of white, green and brown on his crisp, yellow coat sleeve. Bird poo. Stupid animals, Wesley thought as he swung his leg back and gave the dead thing a good, solid kick. He regretted his decision instantly.
As Sam spun away from the barrier towards the shriek, she spotted a pudgy figure with short legs waddling downhill.
“Hey! Are you okay?” Sam called out, running towards him.
“Do I look okay?” Wesley retorted, hunching over and gasping for breath. “There’s a giant rabid zombie thing up there. Look at my hand!” Wesley’s voice squeaked higher and a tear slipped down his face as he took a closer look at his left hand now drenched in blood. A bone was protruding from the middle of his ring finger and the end hung limply at an awkward angle.
“Here, I can help.” Sam grabbed sterile bandages from her backpack.
Wesley, already running down the mountain, yelled back at her, “Forget it. I need a doctor, not a band-aid. As soon as I get my hand fixed, I’m gonna come back and kill that thing.” Behind him, a dotted trail of bright red spots stained a thin layer of fresh white snow that had blanketed the slopes the night before.
Sam followed the bloody trail uphill. What was he talking about? She recognized Wesley from school, the little brother of one of the boys in her grade. He must be around thirteen, she thought. There’s no way he could still believe in zombies, could he? And there had not been a single report of rabies in the region for years. Still, anything was possible. She gripped her trekking poles a little tighter.
Sam spotted the splatter of blood where the incident must have taken place and studied the ground. The tracking course she had taken two years ago would be helpful here. The way the snow had been disturbed had its own story to tell.
A large imprint where the blood was pooled indicated that Wesley was on the ground at some point when his finger was broken. His impact had disturbed the fresh snow, revealing the harder surface below — an icy crust formed from snow that had fallen days earlier, then melted with the sun and then froze into ice from sub-zero temperatures. The crunchy surface was slightly concave where the majority of Wesley’s blood was located.
Sam saw a single set of footprints leading to the large patch of disturbed snow. She looked closely around the entire perimeter. Unable to find any additional prints, she retraced Wesley’s footprints. And that’s when she spotted it.
She stood motionless for a beat, trying to make sense of what she was seeing. Pink and grey with scales and scabs all over its body, it lay flat on the ground, its lifeless eyes staring off into the distance. It looked as though a sick wolf had picked this spot, curled up and decided it was time to die.
Sam approached the big animal carefully. It didn’t move. She watched its chest cavity for the slightest sign of movement. Nothing. It wasn’t alive, she concluded. It sure smelled like it was dead.
Sam bent over it and gently touched its chest, checking for a pulse, just in case. Her skin tingled like spiders were crawling all over her. She glanced around her, wondering why she suddenly felt uneasy. Then she saw it. The animal’s eyes had moved and it was now staring directly at her.
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