Fiction Horror Suspense

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

I pick up the open, half-empty bottle of vodka, turn it upside down, and shake; nothing comes out. It’s frozen.

             Vodka only freezes at -40 degrees or below. At least now I know the temperature.

             The large, hazy sun hangs low in the sky; it’s mid-afternoon. The sky is a pale clear blue. I almost wish there were clouds. The Kazakhs believe a clear sky is a sign of good fortune, yet right now I don’t feel lucky.

             The naked bodies lie in front of me, sprawled out, pale, lifeless. A few thin, useless blankets drape haphazardly over two of the bodies. All around them, beyond them, everywhere, is deep, icy, pure-white snow. We are too far from anywhere for the snow to be sullied. Everything is the most pristine shade of white imaginable.

             Everything except the bodies.

             I blink my eyes rapidly to keep them warm; I hold back my tears, knowing if one escapes, it will freeze instantly and burn my cheek. I know this because that happened earlier today, when the last person died – Tulpan, fierce and tough, supposedly a direct descendent of Genghis Khan. She’d survived thirty Siberian winters, but this last had claimed her.

             Her long, black hair is strewn across the snow, crystalline specks of rock-hard ice sparkling like gemstones. Her smooth, pale face glows with a purplish-blue tint. Her arms outstretched, her fingers clutching a ball of ice. In her last moments, she had envisioned herself burning hot, and she had clung to ice in an attempt to cool down, all the while I covered her with useless blankets, begging her to keep them on.

             Tulpan, her deep brown eyes staring lifelessly at the sky. I hadn’t bothered to close them. The other bodies, I’d closed their eyes. But with Tulpan, I’d given up.

             I am the last one alive. But I know it won’t be long.

             I stand up and shake, willing every muscle to move, to create energy and heat, to keep me alive. But we are low on food. How long can I keep up my body heat when I don’t have enough food to eat.

             We had brought enough for five people for the journey to Uralsk, a two-day drive if all went well. We were smart enough to bring extra food. But not smart enough to not go.

             We’d left Astana six days ago. A blizzard had impeded our journey, and we had camped in the car just a few hundred kilometers from Kostanay, unable to reach the city which undoubtedly had hotels, grocery stores, and heat.

             We’d slept in the car that night, the abominable Skoda Yeti, a tough, rugged compact SUV seemingly built for the Kazakh steppe. The next day, we’d made it to Kostanay, but, in a hurry, we did not spend the night. We warmed ourselves up by eating in a café, bought a few snacks, including ice cream – what a joke! – and then we’d continued our journey. We’d stopped in the village of Denisovka for the night.

             Several hundred kilometers beyond Denisovka, in the middle of the steppe, mere kilometers from the Russian border, the a blizzard trapped our car. My Yeti, which could drive through anything, could no longer go forward…


             We left the village of Denisovka well before sunrise on Monday morning, filling up on eggs and sausage before we went. The rooms had been bare and smelled of smoke, but they had been warm, the last true warmth we would feel.

             The owner had warned us about the weather and the roads. Tulpan had spoken to her in Kazakh, reassuring her that she had made this drive before.

             As I followed the GPS on my phone, exiting the village and back to the pot-hole-infested and ice-covered highway, Tulpan said, “She lectured me for not being married. I think she was more worried about my marital status than us driving in this weather.”

             We drove for several hours on A-22; the sun rose and the world beyond became an impenetrable white. The wind roared and shook the car; it blasted snow across the road. I drove painstakingly slow.

             “This will take us a lot longer than Google Maps said it will,” I said. But we had all expected that. We planned on making good time by being good sports – getting up early, driving ten or more hours straight. But we knew the weather would make it difficult; we knew the roads would be rough. Tulpan and her cousin Lana had driven this route before; it was possible.

             Lana, who had planned the trip with me, who was eager to see her family and friends in Uralsk, who had backed out last minute. Lana, the love of my life who had changed her mind…


             A week ago, Friday evening, a day before we departed for Uralsk, I went to her apartment.

             Her crystal-clear blue eyes stared at me, piercing my soul. Those eyes had first drawn me in, and now they mesmerized me. I couldn’t look away.

             “I can’t go,” she said, her voice breaking as she said the words. She looked down, her thick, curved eyelashes hiding her eyes.

             “I don’t understand,” I said. The Uralsk trip had been her idea – hers and mine. Lana and Tulpan were from Uralsk. Lana and I had been dating for nearly a year; I had a tough, sturdy car. Matthew and Julie wanted to explore northern Kazakhstan, see the steppe, experience winter. We would pile into my Yeti, put our luggage on top, and drive, stopping in Kostanay and Aktobe along the way.

             I would get to see the people I hoped to one day call my in-laws. Lana would get to see Ilya, her childhood friend who’d moved to Russia when they were little but recently had returned, fleeing the war.

             It was a perfect idea. But now she was starting to cry, and I was confused.

             “You can tell me anything,” I said, as calmly and gently as I could, although my heart was pounding and my thoughts were racing.

             “I just don’t think it’s the right time,” she said.

             “We’ve been dating a year now,” I said, “but if you want to introduce me as just a friend, a co-worker, I understand.” I didn’t really understand, but I could chalk this up to different cultures. Maybe her parents would worry that I planned to take her away to America, and they didn’t want her to leave. Maybe they were worried that I’d get her pregnant and then abandon her in Kazakhstan. I would never do that. I took her chin in my hand, lifted her head and stared into those beautiful eyes. Her dark golden hair cascaded down her shoulders, thick and luxurious. “I love you, Lana,” I said, “and I would do anything for you. I will never leave you.”

             But this caused her to burst into tears….


             My nose stings, the well-below-freezing air has pierced through my scarf and balaclava. The scarf is a dewy white; the moisture from my breath has frozen and crystallized.

             Julie lies next to Matthew, his arms still embracing her. In his last moments, he had clung to her, believing her to still be alive. He’d forgotten everyone else, just her. This was true love. This was what I was supposed to have with Lana…


             As Monday wore on, our progress became more and more minimal. The sun, hidden behind swirls of white, made its way across the sky, hanging low and shining dimly, until it began its slow descent towards the horizon. I squinted; if there were highway signs, I could not read them.

             I stopped for a bathroom break while it was still light. The girls went first, while we guys promised to close our eyes. “It’s not like I can see anything out there anyways,” Matthew said to the girls before turning to me. “I’ve no idea how you can drive in this. Props to you.”

             “I’ve got a good car,” I said, “and there’s no one else on the road.” Looking in front of me, a strange worry gnawed at me. The road in front looked just like the steppe to both sides. How could I be certain I was on a road?

             “I’m so glad to be inside,” Julie said, scrambling back in. “Turn up the heat.”

             Matthew wrapped his arm around Julie and pulled her close. She snuggled close to him. I turned the heat as high as I could.

             I checked my phone – no signal. “Tulpan, check your phone before we go on,” I said. “We might need to stop when it gets dark. Another night in the car.”

             I glanced in the back, at Matthew and Julie, his arm still around her, whispering, smiling. One seat was empty. There were supposed to be five of us….


             I’m starting to feel hot; this is one of the final steps in death by hypothermia. I’ve watched the others as they got hot, as they fought me when I tried to put blankets on them, as I tried to keep their clothes on. One by one, they argued and struggled, they tore off their clothes, they died from cold as they screamed that they were hot.

             My clothes feel like they’re burning into my skin. No, I tell myself, you’re not hot. I wrap the tinfoil blanket more tightly around me. This is the one from the emergency kit, the kind that retains light and warmth. It didn’t work on the others. But maybe it will work on me.

             The sun shines down on the snow which reflects it back into the sky, causing the crystalline snowdrops in the air to sparkle. The bodies lying stretched on the snow are pale white and purple and blue, glimmering with frozen snowdrops.

             I see her deep golden hair, once beautiful and now frost-covered. I see her lips open and her clear blue eyes stare out at me. I’m starting to hallucinate, another sign of hypothermia.

             I yank open the car door and go inside. I take off my gloves and rub my fingers together, attempting to get warm. How they burn....


             We spent Monday night in the car. I turned it off to save gas, and we layered ourselves as best we could. Julie and Matthew cuddled, of course, and Tulpan and I cuddled. She apologized and promised it wasn’t anything sexual. “I know Lana is your one and only,” she said.

             She didn’t know why Lana had changed her mind about the trip.

             Tulpan and Lana look so different, yet so alike. Their hair is thick and shiny, so soft on the hands. But Tulpan’s is a silky black, and Lana’s shines with a Slavic gold. They both have large, bright eyes which twinkle with laughter; Lana’s are a doe-like brown, whereas Lana’s are as pale as the winter sky.

             But their skin. They both have soft, smooth skin, so gentle to touch. They both have delicate, curved bodies that are lean and muscular. Tough girls who look like damsels in distress.

             Holding Tulpan, I closed my eyes and imagined that she were Lana….


             “But your parents,” I said, my arms wrapped around her, noticing how stiff she felt; she didn’t melt into my arms the way she usually did. “And Ilya. You want to see them.”

             “Ilya’s in Almaty,” Lana sniffled. “I’m taking a train tomorrow to join him.” I took a step back so I could look into her eyes. Her big, shining, wet eyes. “I’m so sorry,” she said, “I don’t know what to say.”

             “We’ve been planning this trip…” I stumbled over my words, my thoughts racing. “You said your father would like me… Ilya’s just… You’re leaving me for someone you haven’t seen since you were a child?”

             That look. She bit her lower lip and looked down and to the left, her eyelashes once again covering her gorgeous eyes. She even blushed.

             “He got a ride to Astana last week,” she said. “It wasn’t planned. Some guy offered to drive him to Astana, and he caught another ride from here to Almaty. He’s been wanting to get south. It wasn’t planned. Jeremy, I promise, it wasn’t planned!”

             I pulled her more closely to me, wrapped my arms tightly around her, smelled her hair, her shampoo, her perfume. I wanted to tell her that everything would be okay. I still loved her, no matter what.

             Instead she spoke, her muffled voice sounding tiny and afraid. “Jeremy, you’re hurting me.”


             And now I am alone. And warm. I tear off my gloves to check my fingers – pale and pink, not white or blue or purple. Not frostbitten. Not yet.

             I stare at the vast nothingness that surrounds me on all sides. We haven’t seen a car in days. The weather has been too unforgiving. And we’re not even certain we’re on the main highway. I’d been driving for at least an hour on what I assumed was the A-22 highway before anyone noticed that the GPS wasn’t working…


             We woke up Tuesday morning to find the car covered in snow and frost. The world was white.

             We’d barely slept, we’d been so cold. It took three tries to turn on the car. Smoke came out of the hood. But at least it started, I could turn on the heat. It took ages for the car to heat up.

             “We’re going to die,” Julie choked on her words.

             We spent Tuesday debating, planning, rationing. Turning the car on just enough to warm us up, then turning it off to save gas. Digging the snow out from the front of the car, then giving up because our hands were frozen and the road was covered – we couldn’t drive. Pairing up and sending out a scouting party to figure out if we were really on the main road, if walking to a town would be feasible. But the storm was so brutal, we knew we would just get more lost.

             “Dying lost while searching for help is just as bad as dying lost in a dying car,” Julie said.

             Tuesday night, we slept again in the car, listening to the howling winds, imagining it was wolves. “If wolves can survive out here, so can we,” Julie whispered.

             “Yes, we’ll survive,” Matthew lied, his arms wrapped tightly around her, as if he wanted to smother her…


             I smothered her. I held her tight and close and I didn’t let go. She struggled, but I held her. She was mine and always would be mine.

             “I love you,” I whispered into her hair. “I would do anything for you. I will never let you go.” I didn’t dare let go, let her tilt her head back so I could look into her eyes. She was still crying; I could hear her sobs. But they were getting fainter.

             And then they stopped.


             After Julie died, Matthew lost it. He ran into the blanket of whiteness, and we could hear his raging screams over the howling wind. I held Tulpan tightly; she’d given up feeling awkward about it; she knew the only way to survive was by sticking close.

             “Should we go after him?” she asked me.

             “We should,” I said, “because he’s our friend. We shouldn’t because it puts us at risk.”

             Matthew finally came back. His eyes were blank. On his face were tiny frozen ice drops. He entered the car and sank into the back seat. I turned the key, the engine chugged and stuttered but would not start. I panicked and tried to pop the hood, but it was frozen.

             As Tulpan helped me try to pry open the hood, Matthew exited the car, moaning. He tore off all his clothes while screaming for Julie. Tulpan and I held him down, covered him with blankets, but it was futile.

             That was yesterday, Thursday. Two deaths on Thursday. Two more to go.


             Before she went delirious, Tulpan asked me about Lana. “I’m so glad,” she said, “that she stayed home.” Then she started to cry. “She’s not going to know what happened to us… Will they find our bodies?”

             I tore through the luggage – bags thrown roughly on the ground, already searched through in a desperate attempt to find some way to stay warm.

             “Tell Lana I’m sorry,” Tulpan said. I held her hand, my thick, gloved hand clutching her thick sheepskin mitten. “I’m so hot,” she said, shaking off the clothes and the blanket, and starting to tear off her mittens.

             I fought her. Struggling against a dying woman who’s hallucinating is a good workout, good for keeping warm, but ultimately she won…


             And now the sky is clear. The storm has passed. I still can’t tell if we’re anywhere near a main road.

             I know it’s my time.

             I lie down next to Lana. She’s naked, like the rest. She didn’t have to be. She didn’t take off her clothes while she was dying. Hers was a much gentler death than the others.

             I wrap my arms around her head. It’s funny what -40 does to a dead body. She hasn’t decomposed. But her skin is thick and tough, her hair icy and crispy.

             I’ve taken her out of the trash bag which had been shoved into the duffel bag along with clothes and blankets and then put into the luggage container on top of the car. I had planned to take her all the way to Uralsk, find her family’s cemetery, and bury her. I hadn’t thought about how to do that when the ground is frozen.

             I kiss her forehead, her nose, her cheeks. I’ve laid her body next to the others, her head, arms, legs, and torso, just like any other dead person.

             “I love you, Jeremy,” she whispers as I take off my coat. I’m so hot and all I want is to lie next to Lana, my lover, forever.

December 08, 2023 17:49

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Jeremy Stevens
13:32 Dec 15, 2023

You have a great voice, Elizabeth, and the mood you set was perfect. Per a previous comment, it does not appear in this that you struggle with imagery: your description was fresh, not cliched. I also learned some geography, so thanks for that!


19:47 Dec 15, 2023

Thank you!! Perhaps having lived 9 years in northern Kazakhstan helped! I was worried the geography would make it too confusing, but also didn't want to slow down the story with too much geography. Glad you learned something!


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Michelle Konde
23:38 Dec 12, 2023

Wonderful imagery right from the start! What a cool concept, lol no pun intended.


00:30 Dec 14, 2023

Thank you! I often struggle with imagery, so I'm glad I got it right this time!


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