Camping can be really fun, especially with friends! Being out there, among the wild animals and quiet, untamed forests, there are tons of things to discover together away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. But camping does come with its share of dangers, in all sorts of manifestations.
It's been so long…
"Hey, you guys made it!" Riley called from the old fence marking the trail's head. The setting sun cast a blinding sheen off his big, round glasses.
"You kidding? Wouldn't miss it for anything!" Ben shouted back through the window of his ancient Toyota Camry as it pulled into the empty parking lot. Once the car came to a stop, I stepped swiftly from the passenger seat, heaving my backpack up onto one shoulder. The air held the chill of autumn's breath and smelled of crisp orange leaves. I hardly felt the cold, courtesy of baggy sweater and sweatpants.
It's been so, so long…
Alex bounced from the backseat in a flourish, a bright, goofy grin on his face. "Whew, it feels great out here! Not too cold out, no other cars here; we'll have the park basically to ourselves tonight!"
I offered my warmest laugh in response, something a normal teen would do. Ben stepped out last and ruffled Alex's perfect dark hair with his huge football hands. Alex ducked away with a horrified scream. "Hey, man, hands off! Takes me forever to—"
Riley strode over with an impatient sigh. "Honestly, you take any longer and it'll be too dark to set up camp properly," he huffed, just as Ben chuckled and wiped the grease off on his jeans.
Alex waved Riley away dismissively. "So, you going to properly introduce us to your new friend, Ben? His name's Matt, right? You said you met him in Calculus?"
"Yeah, I'm Matt," I answered. I walked over to stand beside Ben. For now, I would need to pretend I hadn't actually met any of these people before. "I just helped him with homework over lunch a few times."
God, so long…
"A few times?" Ben echoed. He gave me a friendly slug—ouch!—on the shoulder. It was easy to forget his raw strength; his varsity jacket seemed to swallow his whole body, made him seem smaller. "If not for Matt here, I'd have totally fluked! This camping trip is my way of saying thanks."
"Matt, huh?" said Alex, having fixed his oily hair. He preferred dark clothing, and leather, and all manner of edgy things. He outstretched a hand, and I accepted it. "Name's Alex Hansen. I bet it was painful trying to teach this guy Calc, right?" Riley stifled a laugh while Ben threatened Alex with his fist.
"Anyway, I'm Riley Daniels, and you're Matt. Great. Can we get going?" Riley was tall and spindly, and impatient, the teen who favored sweaters and old sneakers and novels thicker than tree trunks. I was starting to believe this was all going to be very, very easy.
"The old man's right," Ben conceded, ignoring Riley's exasperated look. He popped open the trunk. It was stuffed to the brim with camping equipment, to everyone's dismay. "Alright, grab stuff and let's get moving!"
…It's been so long since I last killed someone.
We didn't need to go far down the trail since Ben knew a good spot from previous visits. It was a wide clearing ringed with pine trees, nestled near a huge lake. Thankfully, the sunlight held out long enough for the tents to be set up, but it took some effort to get the campfire going.
"Think there are any bears out here?" Alex asked, once everything was finally settled. Ben and I sat together, lying stretched out on our mats. Riley, engrossed in a book, was seated across the way, his back facing us. Meanwhile, Alex poked absently at the fire with a stick, watching the sparks flicker and flash. "Last thing I need is to get eaten on a Friday."
"Well, I've never seen any…" Ben said, yawning, "…but if they smell that funky oil you got in your hair, I can't promise anything." I laughed, though it wasn't funny.
Alex snickered and comically placed a hand over his heart. "You've wounded me, sir."
"You know what would be worse than bears?" Riley chimed in, moving so that he could see us.
Ben elbowed my arm and cocked a thumb toward the lanky teen. "Dude, can you even read anything? Fire's not all that bright." Alex abandoned his activity to see for himself, snatching Riley's book up. He squinted at the words then shook his head.
"Nope, definitely impossible!"
"You couldn't read it even in broad daylight," snorted Riley. "Anyway, not the point. You know what's worse than bears?"
Alex tossed the book onto Riley's gear. "Your face, probably."
"Sick burn, man," Ben said.
"That serial killer, right?" I spoke up. It was interesting to watch the uneasiness fall across their faces. "The one killing the high school students. It was a big deal at my other school."
Riley cleared his throat and nodded vigorously. "See, Matt gets it! The diabolical Slicer, responsible for the murder of several high school teenagers."
"I've heard a little about him," Alex confessed. "Didn't the police catch him, though?"
Ben shook his head and took a long sip from a nearby water bottle. "They didn't catch him, but he kind of went underground or something. There hasn't been a murder in months, nearly a year," he said.
"I guess he got his fix?" Riley plopped down onto his back, staring up toward the inky black sky above.
A flicker of excitement flashed through me like a bolt of lightning. "You don't get a fix after killing twenty people," I said, fighting a smile. I made a show of wiping my mouth to give myself time to relax my face. "Maybe he's just laying low till the police forgets about him."
"I think they're going to have a hard time forgetting those mutilated bodies," said Alex. He hugged himself. "It makes me never want to use a knife ever again. It was a knife, wasn't it?"
"Think so." Ben leaned forward so the fire cast strange shadows across his features. "The Slicer's probably stalking us right now," he whispered, "trying to figure out when to sneak in and kill us in our sleep."
"Cut it out, man!" Alex growled.
Riley grinned slyly. "The news sent out this warning about being careful with what you share with people, since it's likely the killer's a fellow high school student. He supposedly stalks his victims for weeks, though, getting close to them, lowering their guard."
Another thrill went through me. It was becoming harder and harder to quench my enthusiasm. I really shouldn't go dark for so long. I only get sloppier and sloppier. But it made things so, so satisfying when the time came, like sating a deep, ancient hunger, scratching some unreachable itch.
"You guys are seriously freaking me out! I'm going to bed, jerks." Alex scooped up his duffel bag and retreated into his tent.
"Aw, c'mon, Alex!" called Ben, trembling with laughter. Riley joined in, and I did as well. This time, my laugh was genuine. "We were just jokin' around! Ah, whatever, he's such a baby. Guess we should all call it a night then. I want to try fishing tomorrow at the lake, and I heard it's better first thing in the morning."
One's heading to bed. Everyone's tired. Time to get to work. I stood up and enjoyed a nice, long stretch. "I was thinking of checking out the lake tonight. Maybe we'll see deer or something." I allowed myself a cheeky grin. "Anyone wanna go with me? Riley? Ben?"
I need to separate them, and then neutralize the strongest—Ben. He'll have to be the first for this to be successful.
"Leave me out of it," mumbled Riley, who was already leafing through his book again. "Too much hassle, moving through the dark. I think I'd rather stick by the warm fire and finish this chapter, thank you very much."
"Nerd." Ben sprang up and clapped a hand on my shoulder—ow. "Sure, I'll go, but don't expect any help from me if the Slicer shows up." He loped off through the clearing, heading in the direction of the lake. I let him take a bit of a lead before following.
"Sure, sure," I said, swallowing back the ravenous edge in my voice. My hands slipped instinctively into my pockets; my right grasped the supple leather grip of the knife's handle. I shivered at the feel of it. It had been a while since I'd last wielded one, but I believed it would be worth it to wait.
It was worth it to steal all the ID's, worth it to constantly dye my hair and change my clothing, worth it to jump from town to town every few months. The beauty of the kill made it all worth it. I can only hope this night will be enough for me for a while. I'll need to disappear for even longer.
A line of light arced around in front of me before its blinding beam fell across my face. My left hand reached up to cover my eyes. "Um, that's pretty bright."
"I know, right?" Ben swept the flashlight back around to survey the ground at his feet. "We should see the lake pretty soon now, it's just past this pine tree ring around us. It's a new moon tonight, y'know, and there are barely any stars, either. Kinda spooky…"
We walked from then on in silence, until reaching the lake's shadowy shoreline. I could hear the gentle lapping of the water, though it was faint against the commotion of our shoes on brittle leaves and twigs. Ben shone the frosty ray of the flashlight over the lake's thick black surface; the white blaze played strangely on the waves.
"Yup, pretty spooky," he said. The shore's quietness was loud enough to be deafening. Even my very heartbeat seemed to echo on the cold air. "Not seeing any animals, though. Ugh, bummer."
I slowly drew the knife from my pocket, releasing the smooth, pale blade from its sheath. It seemed to gleam even within the darkness, so I could again admire its curved edge. I suppose it was the only friend I had in the world, someone who understood me, never judged me, loved me, worshipped me. I gripped the handle hard enough to make my hand ache. We have a job to do, old friend. Let's have fun again. Ben was tall, but not so much taller than me; it wouldn't take much to reach up and draw the blade along his throat. Once he was down, I could more freely with the other two.
"Better luck next time," I offered. I took a step forward, reached forward, raised the knife on high—
"Hey, you want to know something?" Ben asked abruptly. He didn't wait for my reply. "I've been wondering—for a while now—why you randomly decided to help me out in Calc. An act of kindness? Perhaps. Do you want to know why I knew it wasn't random?"
What's happening? What's he—
"What are you talking about, Ben?" He hadn't turned around yet. My knife was still in the air, aimed for his neck.
"People like you are very, very predictable," Ben said. His voice sounded different, deeper somehow, more ominous.
"People like me?" I echoed.
"Of course, I could turn around right now and be wrong, but I really do not believe I am. Slicer, I am going to hurt you now."
I thrust the knife downward in a savage slash, but suddenly there was light in my eyes. I felt the blade swipe on empty air. A fist slammed into my face, sending me sprawling, and my mouth soon tasted of gritty water and blood. The knife was gone.
I rolled over and stared down the barrel of a pistol. "How did you know?" I asked, as calmly as though confirming a quiz answer.
I sensed more than saw Ben's smile. He'd cast the flashlight aside to free up his hands. "Let's just say that it's our business to know."
"So this little punk really was the Slicer." I glanced over and saw a lean silhouette step into the pool of white light, where the flashlight had fallen. A metal bat gleamed with a polished sheen, flawless in design. Alex gave it a few lazy swings. "I have to say, I'm a little disappointed. I didn't think you'd look so…young and…plain."
"Can we just get this job over with and head back? I've another book to read," Riley called, sauntering up. He had his pistol aimed toward my face as well, though the barrel seemed much longer. I could have laughed at how comical they all appeared.
"So what now, ace detectives?" I sneered. "Off to the police station with me? Do you even have any evidence of my being the Slicer? I'd never get indicted!"
And suddenly, they were all laughing, practically guffawing. I only stared at them, speechless, the first cold fingers of dread snaking through my limbs. Just who in the world are these guys?!
"We are going to have a bit of a 'fix' of our own," Ben said, calming. "It's been a long, long time since we met someone as wretched as you." He casually toyed with my knife in his free hand, flipping it fluidly end over end with his fingers. His gun disappeared into the spacious bulk of his varsity jacket. "My weapon is far too abrasive on the ears, I believe, but Riley's suppressor is quite gentle, and will keep you from sprinting off while we play." I still couldn't see his smile, but I knew it had stretched wider. I was fairly certain that I was afraid by then.
"This is going to be fun."