Albert loved the smell of fresh snow in the morning. He sat on a folding chair by the campfire to soak in the sunrise, bask in the silence of the forest, and enjoy the quiet whispers of the lake and the trees.
Behind him, a semi-circle of tents with over 12 friends and a couple of cousins guarded the rest of the group from the biting morning chill. What a show his friends were missing, but he wasn’t sorry he had it all for himself.
So, when he heard fast, heavy steps approaching behind him, he wasn’t as excited as he thought he’d be. He couldn’t see where the steps came from. They were too heavy for a woman, he thought, and too fast for someone who stayed up all night drinking and telling stories around the fire. It could only be one person.
“Morning, mate,” a quiet, low voice greeted him.
“Morning, Miles. You’re up early.”
Miles sat on another folding chair next to Albert. “I didn’t come all the way here to sleep in and miss this sunrise.”
Albert nodded, took a sip of coffee off the warm thermos Miles offered him, and studied his friend’s face for a second. Something was off, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
“What?” Miles asked, bemused.
“Nothing. Everything’s… okay, right?”
“Of course!” He paused, thoughtful. “Let’s go for a walk, you and me.”
“But if the others wake up and don’t find us…” Albert turned to the tents — no signs of activity yet. Too cold, too early still.
“We won’t go far, come on.” Miles offered him a tight smile.
The lake and the forest around it looked seductive under the dawn’s soft light, drawing Albert into it. They were not kids anymore, he told himself.
They stood up and walked along the lake toward the edge of the forest, as they had done dozens of times. Every year — except that one year Miles fell off the radar –, they came back to the same spot at the lake for a camping weekend. It was their tradition since they were children, and he hoped to bring his own children to the same spot someday.
Despite Miles’s reassurance, Albert couldn’t help but feel a tinge of apprehension. They had never strayed from the group before, preferring to go out in groups of at least four, just in case. “You’re still city kids,” his father had warned him long ago, “don’t tempt fate.” Tales of bear maulings and fox attacks kept them cautious, even as teenagers.
“Remember when Lily twisted her ankle in the forest and we had to carry her all the way back to the campsite?,” Miles started.
“It wasn’t Lily, though — it was Jane.”
“No, you’re getting it wrong. It was Lily! To this day I still remember I could smell her apple and strawberry shampoo on her hair when I carried her on my back.”
How strange, Albert thought. He’d remember if Lily broke her ankle — she was his cousin. As the oldest of the group, Miles and Albert were, by default, in charge of organising the trip and watching over the rest.
“Also, she twisted her ankle the year you went away.” Albert stopped and looked around. The trees covered the view of the lake and the campsite. Alarmed, he turned to Miles.
“We shouldn’t go too far.”
“They’re adults, Albert. We can stop babying them for once.”
“I think I’ve walked enough,” Albert replied firmly and turned back to head back to the campsite.
“I wouldn’t go back just yet if I were you.” Miles’s ice-cold tone sent a shiver down his friends’ backs.
“You need to tell me what’s going on.”
“All you need to do is stay here until I tell you to go back.”
Without a word, Albert sprinted toward the lake and back to the campsite. His boots made it difficult to run on the muddy ground, but the pounding in his chest and the sound of furious steps behind him kept him going. The heady mix of adrenaline and terror made him more aware of his surroundings, vigilant of any unexpected danger hiding in the forest.
At last, he reached the edge of the forest and could see the campsite again. From a distance, all he could see was a thin haze around the tents and groups of strangers getting inside them, dragging his friends outside. Shock froze him on the spot.
“You didn’t need to see that,” Miles had caught up with him and stood behind him, panting, with wild eyes and red cheeks.
“What have you done?!”
“It was going to happen anyway, with or without me. I was trying to save you!”
Panicked, Albert tried to run again, but he didn’t go far before he slipped on the mud and fell chest-first on the ground. He could barely hear Miles’s steps behind him while he gasped for air and tried to get back up. A sharp pain on his right side kept him writhing on the ground. At the campsite, the figures took the last of his friends, limp and lifeless, and disappeared into the forest. The only sound was the wailing of the wind and the panicked fluttering of birds.
“Are they dead?”
“Oh no, we’d never do that. In fact, they’ll come back soon, as if nothing ever happened. Trust me.”
All Albert could do was get on his knees, shaking from the pain in his side. Miles sat next to him.
“You were supposed to go somewhere else — somewhere special. The same place I went to. I thought you belonged with us, with the chosen few who’d bring the world into our fold.”
“The year you went away…”
“It wasn’t bad. Well, it was at first. You have to die to be reborn. But after that, everything’s so much better. I wanted this for you. To feel as glorious, as invincible as I do. But it seems I was wrong about you.”
Miles stood up and looked around him until he found a thick, heavy branch.
“It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” he said, before he swung the branch with all his strength to strike Albert in the head.