There are certain noises you can hear late at night when you’re camping in the middle of nowhere. To some they are a comfort, to others they are fear-inducing. When you’re camping all alone for weeks on end, however, they take on a whole new level of meaning.
I like to camp. I go often; sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks. I’ve been all around the country. I’ve been with friends, I’ve been with family, but my favourite way to camp is alone, in the places where technology can’t reach.
Two weeks had passed since I first got here. I enjoyed hiking, fishing and birdwatching. Regular camp activities. It wasn’t my first time in this particular park, but it was the first time I’d gone so far in, past the trail signs and past any hope of help if something went wrong. My third day in I was almost mauled by a bear, and during the second week another bear—or possibly the same one—took off with my food supplies. Fishing had sustained me to a point, but I was rapidly loosing strength, and all my vodka was gone. My original plan was for another five days. A quick trip to the store wouldn’t hurt.
It was a five-hour hike from my camping grounds to the parking lot. If I left as soon as the sun came up, I could be to the store and back before sunset. It was dangerous to roam the woods at night; not just for bears, but if I fell and twisted my ankle, it would be a long crawl to help.
The hike to the car was quiet. I didn’t pass a single soul. That in and of itself wasn’t so strange; it was early morning after all. But the drive to the general store was also quiet. The roads were mine, and mine alone. I pulled in and stepped into the store with the tinkle of a bell. The store was empty.
I set about collecting what I needed, grabbing an extra large bottle of vodka, and put it on the counter. I waited, but no-one came to serve me.
“Hello? Is anyone here? I’d like to buy a few things… if that’s okay…” My voice trailed off. It was just before lunchtime. I waited another minute, but the only sound was the wind outside. I moved behind the counter and stuck my head in through the staff room door.
“Hello? A little service, please.”
The room was empty. I sighed. I pulled out a few bills and left them on the counter, taking my food and booze with me. What the hell was going on? I circled the building, but there was no sign of life. I did discover one thing, however. A rather large bloodstain on the back wall, leading up to the roof. I stacked a few empty crates and climbed up, but there was nothing there. It just ended, right at the roof.
I got back in the car and drove off. Something wasn’t right, and I didn’t want to be muddying the place up with my DNA, or waiting for the killer to come back. Maybe it was just a bear or something. The store was close to the woods after all.
I arrived back at the park and it was starting to feel like I was the last woman on Earth. The store had been empty. The roads were silent. I dropped by the park ranger’s office and nobody was inside there, either. My heart pounded in my chest. Something definitely wasn’t right.
“Hello?” I called out, but like before there was no answer. I stepped inside and picked up the phone. I began dialing the number for home before I realised the phone was dead. There was no beep, no dial tone, nothing.
“Where the hell is everyone? What is going on?”
I stepped back outside and pulled out my cell phone. It didn’t work all the way out in the woods, but I kept it on me, regardless. There was no service.
“What the fuck?”
It was nearing 1 pm. The hike back to my camping grounds would take roughly five hours, leaving me another hour or two of daylight once I got back. I could risk an hour or so to try to find someone, anyone, to figure out what was going on, but any longer than that would leave me traversing the woods up through the mountains alone in the dark. I didn’t like those odds.
I made my way for the trail. It, like everything else I’d seen thus far, was empty. There wasn’t even any litter. There were volunteers that came around every few weeks to clean things up and ‘keep our national parks clean and green,’ but it was like humanity had just vanished. There was no longer anyone on the trails to leave any rubbish behind.
I made my way to the picnic area, the lake, the small series of caverns that people liked to get lost in, but no matter where I went, I couldn’t find any sign of life. Humanity had vanished, and they’d forgotten to leave me a memo.
Most of my things were back at the campsite. It wasn’t like I had to worry about anyone stumbling across it and stealing everything, certainly not now, but there was a good chance the bears would ransack it looking for food and destroy everything in the process. I could stay behind and keep looking for people, potentially losing all my stuff in the process, or I could head back now, no idea what was going on, and no idea what was coming.
I hoped the bears would enjoy the last of my bread and honey.
I wandered for what felt like hours. It was a large park, the type you could easily spend all day walking around and getting lost in, but no matter where I went, I was all alone. Even the animals were unnaturally quiet. There were bugs and birds, but none of the usual deer, rabbits or other wildlife.
“Where is everyone?” I muttered. I sat down against a tree and took out some bread and cheese I’d bought earlier. My stomach was grumbling, loudly, reminding me that I still had to eat. I popped the last bite in my mouth when I heard something rustling behind me. I jumped up and put one hand on the hunting knife hanging by my hip, just in case.
The rustling stopped.
“Hello? Is anyone there? Please!”
My nerves were on edge after a strange and off-putting few hours. But for the love of god, I never thought I’d want to see someone again so much in my life. It didn’t even matter who. Just anyone. Someone to let me know I wasn’t alone in the world. That aliens hadn’t come while I was asleep in the woods one night and whisked everyone away but me.
“Hello?” A male voice came back.
“What are you doing? Shut up!” A female voice, quieter, angrier, tried to keep the man quiet.
My heart started pounding in my chest. People. Real people. I hadn’t emerged to a barren Earth. I felt stupid for even thinking it.
“My name’s Jane!” I yelled. I looked in the direction of the previous sound, but neither the man nor the woman made any further attempt at movement. “I was camping, up in the woods. I came down this morning for supplies but it’s like everyone has disappeared. You’re the first people I’ve seen all day!”
I hoped my explanation would be enough to convince them that I wasn’t dangerous. I stood up to full height, both hands in the air near my head to show I wasn’t holding anything. I waited, and then finally a man stepped forth, a smaller woman trying to drag him back with a fearful expression on her face.
“I’m Tom. This is Aki. You said you were camping?” He shrugged the smaller woman off and made himself known. He was dirty, covered in mud, and looked how I felt after a long weekend with my sister and her kids.
“Yes,” I replied. “For the last two weeks now. There was an incident with a bear and I needed some more food, so I came back down this morning. But you’re the first person I’ve seen. What the hell is going on?”
“So you don’t know then.” It wasn’t a question. It was a statement. “Aki, for god’s sake, you can come out. She’s standing in the sunlight.”
I looked around. Sunlight filtered through the trees as it was making its way west. The tiny woman gave me the once over before grabbing Tom’s arm.
“So she’s not one of them. She might still try to rob us for all we have.” She looked up at him pointedly. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“For the fiftieth time, the woman had a baby. How was I supposed to know she had a gun in there too?”
I had no idea what they were talking about.
Tom turned back to me. “Sorry. Look, there’s no easy way to say this. There’s not many of us left now. You’re lucky you were up there when it happened… or unlucky, depending on your point of view, I suppose.”
My heart was thumping so loudly in my chest it felt like the world was closing in on me.
“I don’t… what are you saying?”
“They came in the night. Nobody knows for sure when exactly it began. It’s possibly been happening for years now. But about ten days ago it started to escalate. Night after night there were more attacks than there were people to deal with them. The first night the hospitals were overrun. People had nowhere to go. Then they took out all emergency and public services. No law enforcement. No electricity. No phones. It was so well coordinated that they must have been planning it for years. The government tried to get together for emergency talks but the next night they were gone too. Massacred. Every last one of them. There seems to be no end to them. They’re everywhere. There’s no way we can stop them.”
I swallowed. He was saying a lot of words that made no sense and I couldn’t tell if he was just joking with me or what.
“Uh, them? Who’s them?”
“The night walkers.”
His face was dead serious. Aki flinched at the words but said nothing.
“Night walkers? You mean like, zombies? Werewolves? Zombie werewolves?”
“Kyuuketsuki,” Aki whispered the word like it was dirty.
“Kyuu what now?” What the hell was she saying?
“Vampires… more or less,” Tom responded.
I was too dumbfounded to laugh at him. I stared at him for a few more moments, not sure if he was pulling my leg or not, but neither he nor Aki broke out into laughter. They just looked tired.
I looked up. The sunlight through the trees really was beautiful. There were areas of the forest where the trees grew so high and dense that no sunlight was able to break through, but here it spread out through the leaves like golden lace. The serenity of scenes like this was one of the reasons I loved camping so much.
“Okay,” I began, trying to gather my thoughts, “let’s say that I believe you. That these vampires-”
“Night walkers,” Tom interrupted. “They’re not your tradition ‘sleep in a coffin, stake them in the heart’ type vampires.”
“-okay, let’s say that these night walkers exist and they’ve gone and wiped out a huge chunk of humanity. Just for a moment, let’s say that I believe you. That such a thing exists and in the span of, what was it, ten days? They’ve gone and wiped out thousands of years of work. Okay, I mean, I’ve heard crazier shit from the unemployment line at 10 am on a Monday morning, I’ll give you that.”
Aki began looking around, fidgeting and pulling on Tom’s arm. She wanted out of there, and quickly.
“How did you survive? What are you doing out here? Where are all the people who did survive?”
“Tom, we need to go. It’ll be dark soon.” Aki tugged on his arm again. Tom patted her hand. The man had a lot of patience.
“Those in the cities seem to have been hit the worst. We were visiting Aki’s parents in the countryside, not too far from here. We heard reports on the radio about mass killings and then the next day, silence. There was nothing. No TV, no internet, no phone. Nothing. We tried to make out way back to the city, but it was chaos. With no law enforcement, no government, no authority, the people just went nuts. The streets were filled with blood. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
Aki closed her eyes as though the images continued to cause her pain.
“We turned the car around and went back to her parent’s house. About four, maybe five days back now we heard a tapping on the window. Aki’s father got up to see who it was, and…” He let the sentence linger in the air. Aki clenched her jaw even tighter.
“There is no escape. They will find you. They always find you. They smell us. Smell the blood. We must keep moving. Stay hidden. Stay in the light.” She wasn’t joking around.
“Okay,” I said, gathering my thoughts. Everything seemed so surreal, like I was in a poorly written schlock film but without the schlock. “So where are you heading now then?”
“Anywhere,” Aki answered before Tom could get a word in. “You don’t seem to understand yet, and we don’t have time to explain all this to you. I’m sorry you were camping and I’m sorry you missed the end of the world, but it is what it is, and we need to keep moving. We only have a few hours of light left, we need to find a safe place before then.”
Tom raised his eyebrows in apology as Aki began pulling him away.
“Well, my camp is still up the mountain if you wanna stay there for the night? I mean, it’s apparently safe enough to miss the end of the world, as you put it. Maybe then you could explain to me a little more about what’s going on?”
Part of me doubted their story. Another part of me was well-aware I hadn’t seen another person or car all day. All I had seen was strange blood stains and a world devoid of life. Perhaps they were telling the truth. Perhaps I was lucky, or unlucky, depending on your point of view, and the world as I knew it had ended while I was wrestling grizzly bears for honey. That would be just my luck.
Tom and Aki shared a look. Aki wanted to keep moving; that much was clear. Tom’s shoulders sagged, and it was taking all he had to keep his eyes open. They had an unspoken argument and then Aki threw her hands up in the air.
“Fine. But one night, and one night only. Then we’re moving again. If we stay in the one spot too long, they’ll find us. You know that. And so many of us together isn’t safe.”
I offered them a piece of bread and some cheese. They looked like they hadn’t eaten in days. Tom swallowed it before he finished saying “thank you” while Aki nodded and faintly smiled.
“It’s this way,” I pointed. We could get back before dark, but there would be no time for dawdling. I set off in front of them. The first half hour or so we followed the hiking trail in awkward silence. I could hear Aki occasionally mumble something to Tom, his curt reply, then more silence.
“We turn off here,” I said, turning back to the couple. Aki looked up at Tom, unsure, but he held his hand out.
“Lead the way.”
It was a long hike, but not a difficult one. There were several markers along the way that I had noted the first time I made this trip. You don’t find the good, quiet camping grounds by going where everyone else does. You find them by exploring off the beaten track. We passed a large tree with a broken branch and a large X carved into its trunk. That was the first marker. Twenty minutes later was a series of three streams, wide but shallow enough to walk through. That was followed by an hour uphill through woods that seemed to go on forever. It began to grow dark around us. Aki and Tom kept a good pace, but they said nothing, just exchanged glances more often than made me comfortable.
As we neared the campsite, it began to dawn on me that perhaps things weren’t as they seemed. Why were they so quiet? Why did they keep looking at each other? Was this all a long string of coincidences that was about to end with my murdered body abandoned in the middle of nowhere? Where nobody would ever find it?
“So, uh, what do you do, Tom?” I asked. We were close to camp, I needed to calm my nerves and sooth my raging thoughts.
“I’m a mechanic. Or was, I guess.” He glanced down at Aki. “You?”
“Programmer,” I replied with a smile I didn’t quite feel. “That’s why I like to come out here. Away from all the screens and code. Just me and nature. There’s nothing quite like it.”
“No, I suppose there isn’t.”
“What do you do, Aki?”
Her eyes flickered to Tom. “I… was a teacher. Elementary schools.”
“Oh, nice!” I stopped short of asking if they had any kids of their own. Probably not the best thing to ask in this situation. The temperature around us was dropping rapidly. The sun was setting, and the trees were getting more and more dense.
“So what do these night walkers look like then? Do they look like regular people? Like you or me?” I turned and smiled, but neither Tom nor Aki could find it in themselves to return the gesture.
“You could say that.” He cast another glance at Aki. “For the most part they look like us. What a man might look like if he no longer had to conform to the standards of society and morality, you might say.”
I had no idea what that meant.
“So they don’t have giant fangs or bat ears or anything?”
“No, in that regard they look just like us. Their eyes, though.” Aki grabbed his wrist and shook her head, but he ignored her. “When you look into their eyes, like, right up close, they’re not the eyes of a human being. Not anymore.”
“You looked at one up close?” I asked. Aki began shouting something in another language, hitting him over and over. Tom grabbed her wrist to stop another punch from landing. He continued to look pointedly at her while he answered me. “Just once. Yes.”
“How did you escape?”
He turned to look at me. Aki cast her gaze down at her feet. “It was busy eating Aki’s parents.”
“Oh. I’m so sorry, I didn’t…” I let the sentence trail off, feeling awful for bringing those memories back up. “Uh, it’s just up ahead!” I tried to sound cheerful, but even to my own ears failed miserably. The tent was still standing, my few supplies unransacked. A squirrel ran at our appearance, but everything was otherwise untouched.
“I’ll get a fire going,” I said, putting my bag with the supplies down. “There’s a stream just over there if you want something to drink and maybe freshen up. No showers or toilets out here, you know!” I smiled, but they just nodded and headed towards the stream without a sound.
I waited by the warmth of the fire for them to return. The bottle of vodka was in my bag, begging me to drown my sorrows in it. Twenty minutes passed without any sign of them.
“Um, guys? Are you okay?” I called out. I didn’t want to be too loud, because the last thing I needed was bears or other animals in the dark, but they were taking an awfully long time. The stream trickled nearby, the same sound I’d been listening to as I slept for the last two weeks. But that wasn’t all. A branch snapped. Voices—at least what sounded like voices—floated by on the summer breeze.
There was no reply. I grabbed a log from the fire and made my way towards the stream. Did they get second thoughts and decide to continue on their way? Had they passed out from exhaustion? Were they preparing a trap to lure me in… to…
Tom and Aki were on their knees before a man in a three-piece suit. He was smiling, his eyes flickering to the torch in my hand and back to me again.
“Hi,” I said, hoping I sounded braver than I felt. “I didn’t know there were other people out here.”
“Oh, there aren’t,” he replied, grinning. He stepped forward, between Tom and Aki sitting like statues on the ground, and approached me. His grin grew wider as I took a step back.
“I’d like to thank you for your kind hospitality to my pets there. I know they can be a little difficult. Watching your parents die in front of you can do that to a person, I suppose. I wouldn’t know. My name’s Lee. And you are?”
“Jane,” I replied. My slow escape skidded to a halt as I backed into a tree. The man before me was closing in with slow, methodical steps.
“Jane. Lovely name. The pets informed me that you’ve been camping out here for several weeks now, is that right?”
“Yes.” I swallowed. He stopped right before me. His eyes flickered to the torch once more, and my breath caught in my throat. So that was what they meant. His iris didn’t shrink… not exactly. It closed to a thin, vertical slit. It was off-putting, to say the least.
“How cute. So you’ve no idea what’s happened to the world around you, then?”
My lip quivered. My throat refused to form the sounds my brain wasn’t sure it wanted to say. He did not grab the fire from my hand, but he continued to cast glances at it. He didn’t like it. That much I could tell.
“Tom… and…” I couldn’t get Aki’s name out. I couldn’t get anything out. The man… the thing… smiled and nodded, as though encouraging a child to speak its first words, and then ran a finger down my cheek, lingering at my neck before releasing me from his gaze and turning back.
“I get it. I really do. This is all new to me as well. I’m still learning. These two-” he slapped Tom across the head and shoved Aki to the ground, “-are my first pets. It’s amazing, you know? There’s no guidebook for what we are. What we can do. We’re learning, all of us, together.” He yanked both Aki and Tom up off the ground and held them so their feet dangled below. “One big, happy family!”
He threw Aki at my feet. She looked up at me, fear and remorse in her eyes. I opened my mouth to say something when suddenly I noticed… her eyes… I almost dropped the torch. She hid her head in shame. Lee laughed.
“Don’t worry, they won’t eat you. They can’t! Or at least, I don’t think they can. Not sure how that works. After I killed that one’s parents, why, she positively begged me for her life.” He affected his best female tone. “‘Please, I’ll do anything. Anything.’”
Aki refused to look up. Her hands clenched in the dirt.
“So I gave her some of my blood. I heard that type of thing worked, and what do you know, it did! They’re mine now. Forever.” He caressed the top of Tom’s head. “I can see what they see. Feel what they feel. Hear what they hear. Do you know how intoxicating that is?”
He was looking at me. I shook my head.
“I could do the same to you, you know? All it takes is a willingness to give up a meal on my part, force you to drink a little of my blood, and bam. You’re mine for eternity. These two have come in especially handy, so far. I mean, I can rely on my nose, but people are getting smarter. Those who survived that first week, oh, that first, beautiful, blood-soaked week, well,” he let go of Tom and began walking towards me again, “they’re getting harder to find. There’s not so many of you left now, you know? This hunger, this blood lust inside of us, it’s like a crackhead getting their first hit after a long stint in jail. It’s like nothing you’ve ever felt before. And you just want more, and more, and before you know it,” he put a hand to my throat, “everyone’s dead.”
I hit him with the torch. It was the only thing I could think of. He shrieked, a sound I’d never heard escape a human’s lips before, and I ran. I ran back to the fire, but he was already there, standing on the other side.
“I don’t mind a game. Games are fun.” He was standing by my bag. By my vodka. I did my best to look at him, and only him. He didn’t like fire. I needed to keep that between us. Could he be killed? It had to be possible. Everything could die. If I could just get to the vodka before he got to me…
He made a move towards me and then stopped, laughing. “Ah, you silly little humans. I do not miss being one of you anymore. So fragile and mortal. So scared and weak.”
I swallowed. If I could get him talking, if I could edge him around the fire, I could grab the bottle and douse him with it. Kick up a few flames and hey presto, the not-so-human torch. I’d rather take my chances with the bears in the dark woods than this thing right now.
“So what happened to you, then? Why are you so special?”
He laughed. “Why am I so special? Sweet child, just look at me? The one who changed me couldn’t bare to harm such a beautiful face. I mean, could you?”
I bit my tongue as I edged around the fire. “Who turned you?”
“Who? I don’t know. Does it matter? She wasn’t an original. Probably not even second or third generation. Nobody really knows anymore. It’s not important.” He took a few steps around the campfire. “Now, stop stalling. I must admit, it was interesting for half a moment to meet someone who was entirely unaware of who we are,” he took a few more steps, “and what we do. But that moment has passed, and I haven’t eaten a fresh human in three days now.”
The bag was right by my feet. All I had to do was lean down, grab the bottle and get the lid off, all before he noticed. Easy.
“The pets have been struggling to find me food. There aren’t so many people around now, you know? They’re all dead or in hiding. But we’ll flush them out, don’t worry about that. But first-” He licked his lips. His eyes began to change again, and he revealed the rows of fangs that sat behind his lips. “First, I think it’s time for a snack.”
He leapt across the fire as my fingers wrapped about the neck of the bottle. There was no time. I pulled and threw. It connected with the creature’s face and shattered, sending liquid flames around him like fiery snakes squeezing the life out of him. The scream that pierced my ears was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. I wasn’t hanging around to see whether the fire would kill him or not; I grabbed my bag and ran. I ran through the darkness, no idea which direction I was heading, and I could hear the screams of Tom and Aki far behind me. I ran until my legs gave out, and once I was able to stand I ran some more. As my lungs gasped for air and I was unable to take any more I stopped, collapsing by a tree. Exhausted, I passed out.
It was morning when I woke. The sun was high in the sky, and I was still alive. I tried to sort through the events of the day before in my mind, but very little made sense. My stomach grumbled, but I couldn’t eat. I began walking once more and soon spotted a road past the trees. I’d exited the park through the back entrance.
A car engine roared in the distance.
I ran out to the middle of the road, jumping up and down as a small white car approached. The driver saw me—looked directly at me, even—but made no sign of stopping. I swallowed, preparing for it all to end when the car hit the brakes and swerved to a stop beside me. A young woman stuck her head out the window.
“Are you suicidal? Come on, get in.”
Her name was Lana. She was heading to a cabin her family owned two states over. It would be a long trip, she said. Dangerous, she said. No guarantee that we’d make it or that it would even be safe. But it was something. It was a start. Did I want to come along?
What other choice did I have?