The sun rose but no one knew it. The wind still howled and the rivers and streams still rolled, but the blue sky and the sunlight that touched the earth was nothing but a phenomenon of the past. A past that lingered fresh in the minds of humanity, for better or worse.
He marked the empty page of the calendar in the oil lantern's wavering light. It was the beginning of a new month, which meant nothing in particular other than the beginning of a new page that gave the false idea of a fresh start. In reality, nothing had changed from before, and for Leonid, the world continued to be static, as if the time that expired away on his watch meant nothing to everything around him.
Outside, the darkness was thick and heavy, as if it were a physical thing that weighed down upon the earth. It felt as though, when it engulfed him, it pressed upon his shoulders and ribcage and lungs and squeezed relentlessly, leaving him breathless and gasping for the freezing air. He knew that it was a matter of psyche; he could reason that the darkness was nothing, nothing tangible anyway, and still he felt it smother him. And so, he stayed near his lantern, which was his lifeblood even more so than what food and water he had; it was a physical aura that was bound to him, and from it, the darkness withdrew like snakes from fire.
He had a passing thought of making an entry in his journal but knew he had nothing more to write. This day had been the same as the last, and the day before that, and before that. He'd been alone here for what felt like forever (although, thanks to the calendar, he knew it had been less than six weeks) and he was beginning to find himself lost in the nothingness of his thoughts. For days, he'd been in this cabin, his fear of what he could meet far outweighing the thoughtless boredom and loneliness.
He opened his unpowered compact refrigerator to find it still full. It largely contained cereal and grain that had long passed their expirations and a decent amount of canned goods, although none of it fruits or vegetables. He often wondered about scurvy, but his knowledge of it was so rudimentary that it never truly caused anything other than a mild, fleeting concern. A few times he'd undressed in the cold and held the lantern to his skin checking for rashes or signs of scurvy or disease, for he faintly recalled that that was one of the symptoms, but found nothing, and that was all he could do for the matter.
His breath was visible as it left his mouth like smoke from an active chimney. It floated into the air momentarily and then dissipated before it reached the ceiling. He was wholly sick of the cold. He'd lived through winters before, but never had he experienced a temperature so chronic. The ground outside had been covered with snow and ice that refused to melt. When he sat to write or read or think, he shivered fiercely and uncontrollably like he was having an epileptic fit. His skin was raw and his bones were as fragile and cold as ice, and he would never get used to it.
While he ate from the cereal box with his numb and vibrating fingers, he thought. He thought of the futility of this kind of life, a life with no goal, no future besides the present, a life with no one. It was a complete mystery as to how he'd lasted this long.
He tried to push those thoughts out of his mind as he'd done so many times before, but now they came, unstoppable. This cabin was his prison, where the fear of what was outside it was the unbreakable iron walls that confined him. He would not die if he stayed, not for a long time thanks to his food and water supply, but perhaps, he wondered, he would descend into a solitary madness that drove him until his inevitable final day. No, it was not a life worth living, and because he was too afraid to die his only option was to change. And change would never come if he did not initiate it.
In a burst of determination, he replaced his cereal box and grabbed the rifle that was leaned against the wall. He slung a black school backpack over his shoulders, which contained a wealth of .308 cartridges. He picked up the lantern by the handle, and with what felt like a terrible weight inside him, he left his small cabin with no real aim other than to blindly search for something better.
The two of them rode along in painful silence. They were on the empty highway with little gas left in the tank. He drove quickly, as the headlights were their most intense form of light that they'd ever had, but not too quickly. He drove no faster than forty miles per hour in fear of hitting something concealed by the darkness, like a dead animal in the road or worse. In towns, he slowed even further. The headlights on their modest sedan couldn't penetrate the darkness as it could before when the darkness was nothing more than the sun setting for the night. The soot and dust floating in the air suffocated most light before it could reach too far. It was like shining a dull flashlight through dense fog. The occasional shining green paint of directional signs kept them on the right path.
The radio had gone static hours ago, so he'd turned it off. Since then, they didn't bother to search through stations or even put in a CD. Sightless, soundless. In the passenger seat, she looked at him.
"We're going to be okay," she said matter-of-factly, as if she really believed it herself. He didn't respond. She pursued. "Do you know where you're going?"
"Home," he said. "Where else?"
She leaned over, giving the fuel gauge a glance. "Are we going to make it?"
"We're going to be okay," he lied.
They drove for a while longer. The highway seemed to never end. He looked over at her to find she was asleep. Her phone was plugged in with a car charger, laying on one of her thighs. He saw the digital clock that said it was well past evening, and he realized they hadn't eaten that day. He decided to stop at the next place that offered shelter. Tonight, they deserved a better place to sleep than the uncomfortable seats of a twentieth-century mid-sized sedan.
The next place he saw happened to be an old farmhouse surrounded by acres of dead field. They made sure that it was abandoned by searching and shouting throughout the house, using the phone's flashlight to guide them, and it was, for what they could tell, and that night they slept in a real bed in a real bedroom. The light switches did not work and neither did the sinks or showers, as they expected. He found an old lantern and a sizable amount of kerosene in the shed outside, but it seemed like the phone was serving them their light just fine.
The persistent cold did not leave, but the surprisingly clean blankets from the bed gave them the most comfortability that they'd had in a long time.
"We have each other," she said through the darkness, hopeful.
"I know," he responded.
It took him hours to fall asleep.
He navigated back to the highway as best as he could with just the lantern to guide him. The cold broke through his thin gloves and pierced and burned his skin, and his face felt like ice. All of the trees and bushes around him were long dead. The ground was hard black dirt that felt more like stone under his boots.
He'd left his cabin before to collect water, but never had he been this far since he arrived. Already the familiarity he had with his surroundings vanished. Had the sun been out and shining, he may have had a better grasp on how far away he was from the highway, but now everything seemed so foreign from when he'd last seen these woods in sunlight. He had to rely on simply moving in a straight direction until, hopefully, he found the clearing he was looking for.
He tried to listen for any movement around him and to ignore his booming heart and the feeling that his every move was being watched. His brain told him that something was behind him, chasing him, but he heard nothing, and so half in reason and half in fear, he didn't dare turn around, but he did move faster.
He wanted to run, but the darkness almost guaranteed he would trip over a dead root or dip in the ground. So long as he had his lantern and his sense, he told himself, he would be okay, although he didn't know if he believed that.
By what he believed to be a miracle he reached the highway with very few physical obstacles. It was as if nature had left a path for him devoid of too many thorn bushes or thick brush. Emerging from the treeline, he finally had somewhat of a grasp on where he was. Across the two roads was a field filled with brown rows of dead corn stalks. The closest green sign told him that he was ten miles away from the nearest town to the north. As he looked down the road he could make out the horizon, although only faintly, as the sky was nearly as black as the ground that it met in the distance.
Had Leonid been able to see he would have taken in the long highway extending in both directions, and to his right, the road was laid over a gentle rolling hill. Past the hill, on the horizon, a gas station occupied the roadside, abandoned. The highway was flanked by forest on each side, except in the opening of the dead cornfield, which was also surrounded by trees. It was remarkably remote, and although Leonid could not see, he was still somewhat familiar with where he was.
He vaguely wondered where the owners of that ghost of a cornfield once lived, as it couldn't be too far away, yet he'd never seen any houses near it. He made a mental note to come back and look within the surrounding forest for a farmhouse. But for now, he had another destination on his mind, one that he'd passed up weeks ago.
Although he could only see it in his memory, he turned towards the gas station and walked with a new confidence that the openness gave him. Somehow he felt safer with the open, free air, and with a plan and destination, he was much more composed.
It had been a long time since he'd traveled this far away, but due to the intense traveling he'd done before he arrived at the cabin and the constant circular pacing that he'd done out of pure boredom while he was in the cabin, his legs held with no soreness. By the time he reached the concrete lot of the gas station, he had been walking for over half an hour, yet the pain was not in his legs, but his arms. Holding the lantern in one hand and heavy rifle in the other was remarkably tiring. He felt it mostly in his shoulders, both arms equally, and although it was a pain he was more than used to, he thought he would never get used to it. Once during the roadside trek, he'd taken a short break where he took off his backpack and set down his things and simply laid on the freezing ground. He was not down for more than a minute, though, as he promised himself he would do no more resting until he reached the gas station.
As the road that turned into the lot of the gas station came into the lantern's sphere of light, Leonid felt another surge of confidence, despite the fact that he had no real reason for it. He was still alone, trapped in the dark, with no real idea of what laid ahead. Nonetheless, it was an improvement from the situation just hours prior.
The first thing he saw was the tall white sign that held the green logo for the gas station and what the prices once were per gallon. Continuing past that, he found the pumps (of which there were five) under an encompassing roof on four legs. Here, he laid down his things and rested his back against the outermost dispenser and closed his eyes.
He had plenty of time to think about the events over the last month and a half but mostly he shut them out of his mind. It simply hurt too greatly to commit his mind to the thoughts, and his more practical side told him that he needed to focus on just staying alive; to keep on his feet. Only now did he allow the thoughts to come to him freely, ironically when risk to survival was at its highest since he arrived at the cabin.
For the first time in weeks, Leonid cried. He cried loudly, yet no one heard, because Leonid was alone.