The lights went out and Amy held her breath, waiting for the emergency generator to work. It started, with a shudder and a horrific crunching noise, but at least it continued to function.
Amy closed her eyes, feeling the fear in her chest ease when she heard the comforting sound of the humming engine. She couldn’t bear the thought of being left cold and alone in the dark.
She pulled her ragged wool cardigan tightly across her body and walked over to the window to take a peek outside, waiting for the sun to come up. She continued to stare out of the window, long after it rose into the sky, although she didn’t know why she bothered. There was nothing to see outside except the same white expanse she’d seen every day for the last five lonely months.
Amy opened the door to grab some wood from the pile for her fire, her body flinching from the chill of the icy wind. She had enough wood to last a few more weeks, and then she’d have to make the dangerous trip into the forest to chop some more. She dreaded it, but not as much as she dreaded living without the generator. If she rationed carefully, she’d have enough fuel for another month, but she wasn’t sure what she’d do after that. She hadn’t planned on being stranded for such a long time. Spring should have arrived almost two months ago.
She blinked in surprise when she saw a figure moving towards her house, struggling in the waist deep snow. Amy squinted against the harsh sunlight reflecting off of the white landscape, trying to make out if the approaching form were human or animal, friend or foe, but she could see very little at this distance. She stumbled back into her warm little house and reached for her heavy coat. She quickly slipped on her snowshoes before grabbing her gun, a nervous sense of excitement building inside of her. If it were a person, it would be the first human being she’d seen in months. If it were an animal, she’d shoot it and have food for a week. And if it were one of the strange ones, the creatures that were no longer human, but yet not completely animal, she’d kill it without remorse and leave it’s carcass for the hungry bears to find.
She waited on her front porch, her gun ready, as it came closer. It looked human, bundled under layers of heavy clothing, but she wasn’t taking any chances.
“Who are you?” she shouted, and her voice echoed oddly in the quiet wilderness.
The figure stopped moving, and looked directly at Amy. She could see a dark beard covering the skin exposed beneath protective ski goggles. It was a man. “My name is Ben,” he said, he voice sounding scratchy and weak. “I saw the smoke from your fire. Can I come in and warm up?” he asked.
Amy paused for a moment. He seemed human enough, but she knew she was taking a great risk. He could steal her food, hurt her, or take her fuel. She weighed her options quickly. Loneliness won out over caution, but she wasn’t stupid. She kept her gun clenched tightly in her hands as she waved him into her house.
Ben was so tall he had to bend over to enter the cabin. Amy walked in behind him, shutting the door. Ben looked around as he removed layer after layer of clothing, starting with the heavy tinted ski goggles. When he was down to a warm sweater and jeans, he turned to face Amy.
“Are you all alone up here?” he asked incredulously. Amy didn’t say anything. She just tightened her grip on her gun and stared coldly into his bright blue eyes. He shook his head. “I’m sorry. You don’t have to answer that. I was just surprised. I haven’t seen another person in months, not even in Richmond.”
Amy blinked in shock. “There aren’t any people in Richmond?” she asked. Richmond was nearly fifty miles away, the closest town. She’d thought about going there to look for help and supplies.
Ben held out his reddened hands to the fire, a sad expression on his face. “Richmond was a ghost town,” he said. “Unless you count the crazy ones.” He let out a dry chuckle that was more like a sob. “I always thought that having cabin fever just meant you were bored. I never knew it could be an actual sickness; that being trapped in the ice and snow could make a person crazy.” He gave Amy a long assessing look, his eyes lingering on the gun she still held in her hands. “What is your name?” he asked softly.
“Amy,” she said.
“I’m not going to hurt you, Amy,” he said, his voice gentle. She slowly lowered the gun, putting the safety on before she set it aside. “How long have you been here?” he asked, turning back to the fire and sitting down.
Amy took off her coat and brushed the hair out of her eyes. It had grown, and the light brown strands nearly reached the middle of her back.
“I’ve been here since before Christmas,” she said. “I was on break from university and my parents and brother were going to meet me here. They didn’t make it.”
Ben nodded in understanding. “The storm of the century,” he murmured. “Well, that is what they called it until they figured out we’d just entered into another ice age.”
Amy sat down in her rocking chair, only a few feet away from him, and leaned forward. “Can you tell me what is going on?” she asked, hearing the desperation in her own voice. “I don’t have a television here.”
Ben ran a hand through his hair and Amy was surprised to realize he wasn’t much older than she was. She hadn’t noticed it because of the shaggy beard and the haggard look on his face. As she waited for him to speak, she poured some hot water into a cup and made him some of her precious tea. The coffee had run out long ago. He reached for the cup gratefully and took a long sip.
“There is no television anymore,” he said. “It’s a mess out there. Roads are impassable. People are starving. The government is in ruins. Half the people are crazy from cabin fever. Scientists say it’s an actual illness, a bacterial infection of the brain, but I don’t know. Have you seen any people like that around here?” he asked.
“Once,” she said. “A man came here. He acted like an animal. He couldn’t speak. He was filthy and sick. He died right outside my door.” She didn’t bother explaining that a bullet from her gun had been what had killed him.
Ben glanced at Amy. “How on earth did you manage to make it on your own this long?” he asked.
“My dad taught survival training to soldiers,” she said. “He made sure my brother and I could take care of ourselves.”
Ben nodded and took another sip of tea. “He taught you well. I grew up in Alaska, so this is nothing new for me,” he said, with a small smile. “Snow, snow and more snow. I moved south thinking I was getting away from it. No such luck.”
“What will you do now?” asked Amy, almost afraid to hear the answer.
Ben sighed. “I don’t know. I think the best option is to keep heading south. I’ve heard there are some settlements along the Mexican border. Do you want to come with me?” he asked. “I’m so tired of being alone,” he said, his voice nearly a whisper.
The air in the cabin felt still as he waited for her response. Amy looked up at him in surprise, but his eyes were on the fire. “But I’m safe here,” she said.
“For how long?” he asked. “You are going to need more supplies eventually. How are you going to get them on your own?”
Amy winced at the thought of facing the wilderness and the beasts alone. She was tired of facing everything alone, but she didn’t know if she could trust this stranger. “The first rule of survival is to find shelter and stay in one place until someone can rescue you,” she said, repeating the words her father had taught her long ago.
“But what if there is no one left to rescue you?” he asked. He touched her arm and Amy jumped. She had completely forgotten how good human contact felt. “Surviving isn’t living,” he said.
Amy knew then what she had to do. “I’m tired of surviving. I ready to start living again,” she said, and Ben gave her a slow smile that made her feel warm for the first time in months.