The wind was blowing hard enough for the powdery snow on the ground to liftup. It gave the illusionthat it was snowing sideways. Pete had an uncomfortable chill in his back, but it was not because of the coldness or even the biting wind.
“They must be growing desperate for coming this far up,” said the girl standing next to him, knee deep in the snow. “What are we going to do now?”
“I don’t know,” Pete sighedand shook his head. “Not much we can do anyway. There’s nowhere else to go, not in this weather at least.”
“Can’t say it for sure, but I don’t think these tracks are very fresh,”Pete said honestly,and kneeled down to the ground and to give a better lookto the footprints in front of them.
“How do you know?” The girl took a careful step closer and leaned her backto also look at the small holes in the snow.
“Well, do you see the outlines of the footprint?” Pete asked, talking to himself more than to the girl. “They’re not sharp anymore. The snow has melted a bit all around the area where the foot touched the ground.”He looked over his shoulder and saw the girlstill listening. She did not answer with a single word and instead just kept watching the snow. Pete had the feeling she expected him to continue.
“Two days ago it was sunny…and warm… remember?”
“Warm?” The girl looked at Pete with a slight smirk on her face. “I don’t know aboutthe warmth, but yeah, I can remember the sun.” Pete smiled back at her. He was glad that she had not lost her sense of humor just yet.
“Anyway, the tracks are going that way,” Pete pointed his finger to somewhere beyond. “At least they’re leading away from the cabin.”
“Can we go? I’m getting cold,” the girl saidwhile straightening her back. She was shivering and Pete saw her trying to lift her shoulders so her neck would gain better cover from the wind. He thought of a turtle that pulls its head back toits shell when feeling threatened.
“Yeah, let’s go,” Pete answered and stood up. He looked at the horizon where the sun, that could barely be seen at all, wasquickly fading away completely. “It’s getting dark soon, we’d better hurry.”
The nights were the worst. It was an early February in northern Finland and the polar night fell upon the unwary quicker than manycouldeven expect. The days had started growing longer and brighter, but it was still quite rare to have more than few hours of direct sunlight each day.Pete was not scared of the dark, but he was terrified what could be hidden within. On a clear day he could see miles away from such altitude where their cabin was located, easily spotting any black spots moving against the white snow.But already at late afternoon it was impossible to see even few meters away, and using a torch would have been next to that of a death wish.
The two were slowly crawling through the snow towards the cabin. It was one of the many small wooden houses, meant for foreign tourists who came to Lapland for winter holidays, built on the slope of the mountain Levi. Pete had picked that specific house because it was the most remote one, standing alone on the other side of the mountain where the actual ski resort was at. It was a good place to hide. The valley beneath was nothing else than wilderness and woods, and at this time of the year there would be enough snow on the ground to cover a full grown man from head to toe. There was only one real road leading to the cabin from the ski resort area, but as there was no one left to plow the snow away, it made it very difficult for anyone to get there. The only other option was to climb on top of the mountain from the other side and follow a small path, meant more for snowmobiles than cars, which eventually lead to the cabin. At times Pete himself would take his binoculars and climb to the top to see if anything new had happened in the resort village at the bottom of the mountain. Without an exception the girl had always come with him. They had been staying at the cabin for quite some time and to this day they had not seen any signs of life, but now the only thing both of them could think were the footprints on the snow, not that very far from the cabin.
The girl was walking in front of Pete. She was carrying branches of trees with her. The electricity had gone out a long time ago, but as it was the case for most cabins, this one also had a fireplace. They had more than enough firewood to burn, but Pete thought that it was not too early to start bringing supplies. Pete had no idea how long they would have to stay at the cabin. For all he knew, it could be the last place he would ever call home.
He looked at the girl and felt sad for her. She was only in her late teens and it was not even two months since the day her whole family, her mother and father, even her younger sister, had gotten sick. They had come to Lapland all the way from the States to see the Northern Lights and Santa Claus. Pete had figured out that she came from an above average family in terms of wealth, but she was reluctant of speaking about her past life. Pete could not blame her, for it was only the girl and her dog left of that family anymore.
Pete was staring at the ground, watching his steps and trying to fit his feet to the holes in the snow that were left behind by the girl’s steps. He came to think of his own family for a moment. He had not heard a thing from them after the outbreak and by now he had lost all hopes of hearing from them ever again. As they started closing in on the cabin he woke up from his day dream to an odd feeling.
“Laura, stop!” Pete whispered as loudly as he dared. The tone of his voice worked better than he actually hoped and he saw the girl instantly crouching down to the snow. She did not say a word but turned her head to see Pete. He saw fear in her eyes. His heart was also pumping like there was no tomorrow while he crawled next to the girl.
“Something’s wrong,” Pete said silently while fixing his eyes at the cabin. “Why isn’t the dog making any sounds?” He wasn’t expecting an answer. They both knew what it could mean. Pete heard the girl breathing heavily. “Stay here, I’ll go check it out,” he continued. “You know what to do if shit breaks loose.” She simply nodded as she knew that now was not time for arguing against him.
Pete left the girl in the snow and sneaked behind to a storage house meant for the firewood. Everything was looking normal to him, at least everything he could actually see in the twilight. Just that the dog was not making any noises that it usually did when it sensed them coming back from their trips. He was carrying a hunting rifle with him and now took it from his shoulder. Pete had never been into hunting and had never fired a shot before or after he went to the army. Today he was glad that the military service was mandatory in the country. Without acquiring basic shooting skills there, he would now be clueless how to handle a weapon like that properly. He took off his mittens to have a better grip of the rifle. His hands started shaking but he was not sure if it was because of the cold steel under his fingers,or just plain fear that made him shiver. He closed his eyes for a second, took a final breath, stood up and started walking towards the cabin door.