I never wanted to go on that stupid hike in the first place.
Yet there I was, hiking “cabin to cabin” in the Norwegian mountains, with my class.
Wohoo, right? For a misanthropic misfit like myself, it was a nightmare. Let’s just say I do best behind my computer, talking to people over a microphone, not actually having to make eye contact. I tried getting out of it, but my parents weren’t having it. They thought the fresh air would do me good. Let me assure you, it did not.
The first two days went mostly as expected, me at the very back of the group, one of the chaperones occasionally trying to make awkward small talk and half-hearted encouragements, and my classmates largely ignoring me. Surprisingly, the hiking was actually almost enjoyable. The scenery was breathtaking. Misshapen, warped birch trees were scattered over the yellowing grass, and the browning heather. Mountains rose on both sides, looming ominously. I thought I could even have liked it, if only my classmates weren’t.
Like this I somehow made it to day three. By the end of it I was lagging pretty far behind. The amount of physical activity was far higher than what I was used to, and it started getting to me. When I finally spotted the last cabin, the sun had set, and we were hiking by that gloomy, blue half-light that lingers after the northern sun sets. It looked huge, imposing in the distance. The cabin, actually, was a set of cabins, a campground, and a rather large main house. I’d bet it could house a hundred people if it had to. It looked out of place, there, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the mountains.
By the time we finally got there, the rest of the group had eaten dinner, and were hanging out in common area. I got to eat with the teacher who had to hang back to make sure the rear – i.e. me – made it all the way, which is how I learned that the place was closed for the season, so only our group of 30 or so teenagers were sleeping there. Our teacher knew the people who ran it; he had organized it so that they’d just drive in with food for us, and leave us to it. So there we were, about thirty kids, two teachers, and the vast, empty space of the mountains and valleys.
I didn’t want to interact with the others, and I wanted to be asleep – or believably pretending to be asleep – when the rest of the guys I’d share my room with went to bed. I was exhausted, a little embarrassed by how slow I had been, and, as it turned out, completely without a cell signal, so staying up had nothing for me. I headed straight to my room and promptly fell asleep.
In the middle of the night I woke up in a panic. The room was pitch black. Usually our rooms weren’t that dark, these places never managed to keep the light out completely. Light would seep through from the hallway, the moon would shine through a gap in the curtains, some red light would be blinking on some appliance. Something would pierce the darkness. But this one was pitch black.
I was sure someone was in the room. Standing above my bed. Looking at me. You know, one of those silly things you think of. My breath caught in my throat, my heart beat like crazy. I laid there for what felt like hours. Nothing happened. Of course nothing happened, I tried to talk myself down in my head. I was being silly, I was safe, there was just miles and miles of empty woods and hills around here where anything could be hiding, could have followed us, could have seen us, defenseless, alone, NO! You’re safe, don’t be silly. I wanted to turn on the light, but I didn’t want to piss the others off. But I really wanted to turn on a light. As a sort of compromise I decided to go to the bathroom. It meant I could turn on the light in the hallway, and sneak a peek back into the room. I sat up, swung my legs off the side of the bed, and felt around for my shoes. I put them on, and snuck out the door, and flicked the switch in the hallway. I glanced back into the room. Nothing there, of course. I just had to make sure.
I walked down the hallway, until I found the bathroom. The air was freezing. Someone had left a window open. Hah, I thought, someone took a shit. Nice of them to air out, I guess. But when you leave a window open in Norway, in the mountains, in the middle of October, at night, it gets really, really cold. I did my business, and walked over to the window to close it. Not that I cared about those other idiots, they could freeze in the morning for all I cared, but still. You just don’t leave windows open when it’s cold out.
As I went to close it, I looked out the window and caught a glimpse of the night sky. It was covered in stars, and there, right above the nearest mountain, a vague, green blob was materializing. Northern lights? This far south? My heart almost stopped. I had never seen northern lights in my life. We hardly ever get them as far south as where I live. So I tiptoed back into my room, grabbed my phone and my coat, and headed out into the fall night. For a second I debated whether I should wake the guys. They’d probably love seeing the northern lights just as much as I would. Screw them, I decided. Not like they’d wake me up if the tables were turned.
Frost covered the ground, glittering in the strange green light from the sky. It was the northern lights. Not particularly strong, not very defined, but undeniable still. Nothing else turns the night sky green like that. I stood there, staring at the sky, freezing, for hours. The fear from earlier had completely gone. I stood there, so small, so insignificant, under the stars and the strange green light that flickered across the skies. Completely mesmerized.
Finally, my whole body started shaking, and I realized I was freezing. I had to go back inside, no matter how beautiful all this was.
My eyes had adjusted to the dim light from the outside, so I snuck down the corridor without turning the lights on. I knew the bright light would blind me, and I didn’t want to burn out the beautiful memories of the aurora to replace it with the grim, fluorescent light that lined the hallway. I used the light on my phone to identify my room, and, turning it off, snuck back into my warm bed and promptly fell asleep.
I woke up with a start, and groped around on the floor for my phone. 10.30, it read. Shit. I overslept. Breakfast was at 7.30, we were supposed to be hiking by 9. Shit shit shit. I jumped out of bed, almost hitting my head on the bunk above me. Why hadn’t anybody woken me up? The blinds were still down, the room was dark. I opened the door. The corridor outside was dark. The whole place was quiet. I flicked the light switch. The power was out. A chill ran down my spine. Was something wrong? The room was dead quiet. No snoring from the boys. I was clearly the only one there.
Questions trudged through my sludgy morning brain.
Was it some sort of prank? Leave the weirdo behind? But the teachers wouldn’t have gone along with it, would they? Did they forget about me? The slow burn of worry started in my gut. I was all alone in the wilderness. All that empty space. Wait, no, there was a road, I had my phone, someone could come get me. I wasn’t lost, I was just forgotten. Actually, they probably hadn’t even left me behind, maybe there was a storm or something. Maybe the hike was cancelled. I yawned. Even if they had left me, it just meant that someone would have to come get me and I didn’t have to hike the last leg of the trip. Fine.
I grabbed my jacket, put my feet into my shoes, and set off to find some people or some food. Preferably both.
I was still half asleep as I shuffled into the dining room. I registered that it was also empty. Breakfast was clearly over, as the teachers had promised it would be. I was hungry, though. I crossed my fingers that I’d find some leftovers in the kitchen. I pushed open the door with the “staff only” sign, shuffled across the linoleum floor, opened the fridge, and, to my delight, found it still full. The pantry as well. I made myself a sandwich and my mood improved considerably. I might be left behind, but I was left behind with food. It wasn’t all bad.
I munched on my sandwich while considering what to do next. I went to make a second one when it occurred to me that there was a lot of food there. Like, too much. This was all the food we would have needed for the breakfast. The others hadn’t eaten? The uneasy feeling came back. Why would they have left without eating? It made no sense. Unless something had happened. Again I thought of the vast wilderness, of the lonely road, of everything that could be hiding in the mountains. In the house. In the rooms. God, no. There were so many rooms, empty cabins, empty spaces, closed doors. Closed doors with god knows what behind them.
I should have checked the rooms. Why hadn’t that been my first move?
Because I didn’t want to. I thought of opening all those doors, finding them all empty. Or worse yet, not finding them empty. The fear started growing within me. I knew I had to do something, and do it before I was totally paralyzed by panic.
So I gathered all my courage, got to my feet, and left the kitchen. The sound of my steps rang out through the cavernous dining room. They seemed so much louder now. My heart was pounding by the time I tiptoed down the dark hallway. The only window was at the far end, and the sky was covered in clouds. It didn’t do very much to light up the corridor, and it did nothing for my fear. I found myself stopping outside my room. I already knew it was empty, but I still wanted to check there first. Maybe because I was so sure it was empty. It felt like a safe place to start. Or maybe because, deep down, I knew something was very, very wrong.
The blinds still kept the room completely dark, so I couldn’t see anything there. I crossed the room in two long strides. What little daylight seeped through the gray sky would still be a welcome friend in the quiet gloom.
I tugged at the string, and jumped a little as the sound of the curtain rolling up rang sharply throughout the empty room.
I turned around. To my great surprise, Peter, one of the guys, was lying in his bed opposite mine, clearly fast asleep. Relief flooded through me. I wasn’t alone!
“Peter!” I croaked. I cleared my throat. “Peter!” I repeated a little louder.
It occurred to me that it made no sense that he was still here. There were so many reasons why he should not be asleep in his bed right now. And he looked oddly … still.
I took a step toward him.
“Peter…” I whispered, heart beating in my throat.
I reached out, grabbed his arm under the covers, and shook.
No response. He seemed totally dead.
The thought hit me like a ton of bricks. Dead? No. No way. Absolutely not. He couldn’t be. No. I forced my shaking hand towards his neck to feel for a pulse. My fingertips made contact with his icy skin, and I knew instantly. Dead. Nobody alive can be that cold. He had been dead for hours. My knees gave out under me, and I crashed to the floor. Peter was dead. Just lying there. Next to me. He had been dead this whole time. I had walked in and out of the room, I had eaten breakfast, I had … he had been dead the whole time. Oh god.
I vomited on the floor.
Somehow I made it to my feet. I had to check the other bunk. I had to find help. I couldn’t be here all alone with a corpse.
The other bunks weren’t empty either. The two other boys in the room were as cold and as dead as Peter.
I only remember bits and pieces from the next few hours. I recall running wildly down the hallway, tearing open doors. Not all of them were unlocked, but the ones that were revealed more dead bodies. Everyone. All the rooms. They were all stone cold dead. And I was all alone.
I think I screamed a lot, because my throat hurt like hell when I finally entered a sort of catatonic trance that could be construed as calming down. It could have just been the vomiting, though. I’m fairly sure it happened multiple times.
I was lying in a fetal position at the end of the hallway, outside my dead teachers’ room. I was shaking convulsively. I had no thought for my own safety, I had given no consideration to why they were dead. All I knew was that I was alone in a house full of dead people.
I don’t know what part of me kicked into gear, but finally it occurred to me that I should call the police. That’s what you’re supposed to do when people are dead. You call the police, and they take care of it. Except I didn’t have reception. The part of my brain that was still running some sort of script figured I should go for a high point. There was a hill behind the hostel. I grabbed my phone, and started hiking.
It took me exactly two hours and 37 minutes to get a single bar on my phone. At this point my battery was down to 4%, and my panic was back to about 97%. I typed 1-1-2 with shaking fingers, and prayed as the phone rang.
“No battery – send people to the – fuck, the ******** hut. They’re dead, they’re all dead, please please please-” I managed to yell to the operator before the phone died.
I shook the phone helplessly. I turned it back on. Light flickered across the screen, that stupid opening graphic. I frantically typed in my pin, pressed the phone icon, typed in 1-1-2, and watched the phone turn itself off.
I stared disbelievingly at the useless piece of technology in my hand. My only hope was that they’d gotten the message. Had I said the name clearly? Would they believe me? Did it sound like a prank call? I stood there until the sweat on my back chilled me to the bone, and I realized I needed to get moving. I wasn’t going back into that tomb, no way. I decided I would go back down, and follow the road.
And only then did it occur to me to wonder why they were dead. You’d think that’d be the first thing on my mind, but it wasn’t. Only at that moment, when I was freezing cold, my last piece of technology, my last avenue of communication gone, it occurred to me. What the hell had happened? Had someone – something – done this? Should I be dead too?
Should I hide?
I went over the morning in my head. If someone wanted me dead, I would have been. If someone had done this they were long gone. Unless… unless they left me alive on purpose. Unless they left me alone to watch me panic. To watch me run around in a panic. Someone who killed 30 people would enjoy that, wouldn’t they? The chase? The game?
No. I told myself firmly. That’s not it. I ran through a list of plausible explanations in my head. There was no blood, no signs of trauma. They looked like they had been poisoned, really. We all ate the same thing, though. But maybe it was something in the air. Wait, carbon monoxide poisoning? Yes. That could be it. No really, that made total sense. You hear these horror stories, right? Busted heater, whole family dead. Why not whole school class? Made much more sense than some crazed serial killer. Contrary to what all the Scandinavian noir crime novels will have you believe, Scandinavia does not have a lot of serial killers. And carbon monoxide poisoning happens. And I had spent hours outside last night. While the others were suffocating. Enjoying the beautiful lights. The lights that I didn’t tell them about…
Somewhat calmed by the rational explanation I turned to head back down. I made a deal with myself to go back past the hut, but that I didn’t have to head back inside. Just to follow the road until I hit the police or some sort of civilization. I turned back around, taking in the view from up on the hill for the first time.
And I got a good look at the hostel and the surrounding fields. And my perfectly rational explanation shattered along with my fragile sliver of calmness. Down there, in the fields surrounding the huts, I could clearly see a perfect circle of dead, brown grass. The main building, where we had slept, was at the very edge of it.
Which meant that where I had been standing last night was just outside of the circle. And inside the circle, everything was dead. I don’t think carbon monoxide can do that.
The police were there when I came back. I honestly don’t remember the details of what happened next. I doubt they would be interesting anyway.
Two things you should know though.
One: They said it was carbon monoxide poisoning. That I had somehow escaped because I was outside. Nobody said anything about the circle, not ever. When I asked I was told to drop it. That grass sometimes dies.
Two: The northern lights had not been visible that far south that night. In fact, they hadn’t been visible anywhere on mainland Norway for weeks.
So what the hell happened that night?
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