Fingers of cold crawled up his arms and legs, trying to reach his chest. It got harder and harder to move. He hadn’t been able to feel his fingers and toes since getting out of the river, and now the lack of feeling was spreading to his hands and feet. Rhoda kept dashing ahead and turning back. She couldn’t understand why he was so slow.
Behind, the hungry moans of the undead gained on him. Moving out into a clearing, he used the branch as a crutch. As he crossed the empty space, his feet dragging in the snow, his legs seized up. He didn’t even feel cold anymore. Gentle warmth was spreading out through his body.
Collapsing to the ground, he managed to roll himself over to look back. Rhoda was barking at him, but the sound was muted and far away. At the far end of the clearing, the zombies were just entering. They seemed to have slowed down as well, which was why they hadn’t caught him sooner.
Their ice covered bodies had been cold before they even fell in the river. As he watched, their movements stretched to a crawl. They staggered in slow motion, their frozen jaws barely working as they chomped in anticipation. One by one, they fell over, sending up plumes of snow. Their limbs made cracking noises as they tried to pull their way towards him. He didn’t know how long he watched them, clutching the stick in his blue hands. As they closed in, Rhoda’s barks of alarm increased in tempo and volume. Her voice was begging him to move.
“Go. Get out of here.”
She stayed for a few more minutes, torn in indecision, and then bolted off into the night. It wasn’t the first time they’d had to separate, but this time he wouldn’t be there to find her. He turned back to the corpses. They were barely moving now. The ice caking them was only half the story. He knew their dead bodies were freezing solid. So he was right about that. As the snow fell on his face, he dreamed with his eyes open. He dreamed of fires, of camping, of promises, and miles to go.
After ten minutes, a dog came back into the clearing. Wet snow dotted her black and brown flanks. She watched the four still bodies, like statues or discarded mannequins. She came up to one sitting against a tree. She whined and when that didn’t get a response, she barked. The noise seemed to scare her and she looked around. Then she turned and ran into the trees.
Snow covered the four bodies. The cold kept the white blanket thick until all the clearing’s features disappeared into shapeless white. It wasn’t until later, much later, that the snow began to melt. Birds flew in from the south and squirrels came out of their hiding places. Four still bodies were the first things to emerge from the snow, followed quickly by the grass and soggy remains of autumn’s leaves.
One of the bodies was sitting up against a tree at the edge of the glen, a branch still clenched in his hands. The other three dotted the open space. As the birds kept singing and the sun kept shining, those three started to twitch, and then they started to move.