The snow was beautiful that night, the way the moonlight reflected, allowing one to see fairly well in the dark of the woods. For that, Dustin was grateful. He and two friends were on the third day of their five day hike up Pike's Peak when the snow took them by surprise. That was four days ago, but they were no closer to the base of the mountain now than they were then.
They had checked the weather warnings before they lef, and all reports had been clear, but they always knew there was a chance of snow regardless. Mountain snow storms arrived suddenly that time of year, but they decided it was worth the risk and went anyway. One last hike before the heavy snows for the season.
It grew difficult to see the path as the snow fell heavier and heavier, and now they were lost as well as running out of food. There had been no sign of rescue searches, but there was the assumption someone noticed they hadn't come back yet. Surely someone was looking for them. But the longer they were out there, the hope ran thinner that they might reach the Jeep or find signal while they had battery on their phones.
The snow kept falling and filling in the holes their feet made, which made it difficult to track them. They resorted to making snow shoes for themselves when they realized the snow was drifting rather high in some places, but it hadn't been before Tina's leg poked through to the hip and she twisted her ankle horribly.
The mock snow shoes were really just fir branches they tied to their feet with a ripped up flannel shirt, and they worked well enough until it came time to go downhill with Tina's twisted ankle. Dustin and Eric braced her between them, but she simply couldn't manage the sideways stepping that was required to go downhill, and they couldn't support her weight between them while walking downward either. So the three of them were stuck on the mountain, watching the skies for search and rescue helicopters, and wandering, looking for a warm place to wait it out.
So there they were, alone and lost, no sign of rescue, and the two guys were trying to keep their friend in good spirits, which grew progressively harder as the days passed. Her ankle was badly sprained, and hurt terribly, so they tried to distract her from the pain. They played a woodland version of the alphabet game, spotting items that began with letters of the alphabet rather than finding written letters, but they got stuck on q and Tina wouldn't allow them to use the word “quick” to move the game along, so it died there. The three of them talked about movies they watched together, played games telling stories where they took turns making up sentences to add to the narrative, but after so long out there in the cold, they were running out of ideas for things to do to pass the time.
“It sure is pretty out here, at least,” Tina said as they walked and she hobbled, looking for a place to rest for the night. “We could set up the tent and build a fire in that clearing over there. We'd be visible from the air, if they're out looking for us at night,” she suggested, pointing with a nod to a flat area just ahead of them.
“Works for me,” Eric said and shared a glance with Dustin. She needed to rest, and would want more Ibuprophen, but they gave her the last of it already. They took enough pain meds along just in case something happened, of course, but not so much to weigh down their packs.
After backpacking for the past ten years together, the three of them knew not to take chances, but also knew every ounce was weight they had to carry with them, and they were careful not to pack too heavily. But at times like this, it was hard to know there was nothing you could do for your hurting friend. Dustin had studied medicinal herbs just in case, but they couldn't very well see any wild plants through the snow, so they were simply out of luck.
The three of them struggled up the hill, Tina putting no weight on her hurt foot, which worried the other two, but they said nothing. They rounded the wall of trees that blocked their view, stopped and stared. There, before them, stood a good sized cabin, lights on, chimney roaring.
“Is it a mirage?” Eric asked breathlessly.
“Are there even mirages in the snow?” Tina laughed. “I think not!”
“I sure hope not,” Dustin grinned widely, and the three of them set off toward the cabin with renewed strength.
They knocked on the door and were permitted entry by the young woman who lived there. Her name was Alice and she turned out to be one of the rangers who worked the mountain and it was her month to stay in the cabin full time. She seemed surprised to see the three of them, but she didn't seem to immediately recognize their faces, which made them a little confused.
Everyone knew they were gone, they explained. How was it nobody had sent someone to look for them? Alice inspected Tina's ankle by the fire and she avoided answering. Eric was in the kitchen, by Alice's suggestion, and was warming a kettle on the stove and he saw her walkie-talkie charging station. Not one of them was on. He turned toward the woman who was helping them and demanded to know what was going on.
As it turned out, two days into their trip, an outbreak of some hemorrhagic fever, not sure which virus started it, had begun in a major hospital down in Colorado Springs. The reports had started off telling people to simply stay inside, but whatever caused it was a long-incubating virus that was transmittable well before people realized they had been exposed, and the entire city was affected before anyone knew what it was or what to do about it. Everyone seemed to know someone who was sick within two days of the outbreak being announced on the news.
The CDC had arrived and was working on bringing in a cure, but they had to figure out which virus was responsible first, and patient zero had been cremated by a scared doctor to prevent the further spread of the disease. The head virologist on the project had not been amused, and it delayed progress severely.
It also seemed that the aggression increased in those affected, and there were reports of reanimation, but nobody seemed to know what that meant exactly. The reports came shortly before the news stations were abandoned, and Alice only turned on the radios every few hours since then, waiting to see if there had been a change. There hadn't been.
The three of them sat shocked and Dustin just shook his head, “Reanimation? Dead things coming to life? Zombies are real? Is that what that means?”
“It could be,” Tina nodded slowly. She enjoyed reading medical thrillers and seemed to know exactly what Alice was talking about. “Hemorrhagic fevers attack the body and the blood stream, it could be this virus attacks the brain too. Reanimation is a new one, of course, but if zombies do exist, I suppose them coming back and eating brains or flesh or whatever could be an attempt to fix the balance in their own bodies.
“I bet they think they're feeling better and are just hungry with weird cravings. If they quarantined the city, food would run short and people might resort to cannibalism,” she trailed off. “They never explain the brain eating part in movies,” she added when Eric gave her an odd look.
Alice nodded, “I was told not to come back down until they gave the all-clear. I'm just glad I have plenty of food and firewood and can ride it out a little. You're safe now, though. Why don't you try and get some rest? I'll keep watch. You must be tired.”
The three hikers agreed and passed out from exhaustion quickly, despite the bad news. In the morning when a truck drove up to the cabin, they were all surprised. A ranger had arrived to take them home.
As it turned out, Alice had a strange sense of humor. She saw them walking up with their strange tree branch snowshoes, recognized their faces, called the base camp that she'd found the missing backpackers, and arranged a ride for them. But she decided to mess with them before they went home, turned off her radios, and spun an apocalypse story. She apologized sheepishly, they all had a good hearty laugh, and the three hikers returned home to their families, who happily, were not zombies at all.