You know that moment when you first wake up? That moment when everything feels okay, right before reality crashes in on you and your brain finally catches up?
I wish I could live in that moment forever.
I’m up before dawn, but I lie still for a few more moments, watching as the darkness outside gradually brightens. We made it through another night. That’s reason enough to celebrate.
After grabbing my bow, I slip outside and squint my eyes toward the rising sun. Five other bodies emerge from their makeshift homes ready to join the hunt.
Taking off into the woods, we split off into twos after a hundred yards. Darby is on my heels when he surges ahead of me.
“I need to show you something,” he says over his shoulder before racing ahead. I glance at his back. He seems bigger, bulkier since yesterday. How did that happen?
I soon match his pace. My head moves on a swivel searching for threats. It may be dawn, but the woods are still dark.
“What is it?” I ask him, fighting for breath. Darby pulls up short and I bend over, breathing in and out as I wait on him to answer. He stands still nearby as if they hadn’t just run two miles at a near sprint.
“Darby,” I whisper between gasps. He turns his eyes on me as a smile parts his lips. I glance around, noticing the quiet of the forest. We usually don’t come this way; not even the birds sing their early morning song.
“Where are we?” I ask. I turn in a circle, looking for anything I recognize from our past hunts, but the trail is barely visible, and all that surrounds us is green.
“Do you trust me?” he asks.
I turn back to him, not hesitating a second. “Of course.”
He nods. “Remember that.”
My face contorts with confusion when he turns and bolts off the trail, disappearing down the steep hill running alongside it.
“You have got to be kidding me,” I mutter but follow nonetheless. It takes a few minutes to reach the bottom where Darby waits for me. As the leaves settle into their new resting place, the silence creeps in once again, and a chill runs up my spine.
“So what is it?” I ask, turning my eyes on him.
He spins me around, and my mouth drops. A massive cave opens up before us. I start to ask how Darby found it when the silence is broken by footsteps emerging from the opening. I back up into Darby who holds me steady. My eyes narrow, searching the dark until they find the figure emerging from the cave.
It’s a boy, no more than 17 years old if I had to guess.
“What the…” I have so many questions but have no clue where to begin. We haven’t stumbled upon other humans in almost a year. We were beginning to fear we were the only ones left. I feel a smile cross my face as the boy cocks his head at the sight of me.
It’s an almost animal response. That’s when I know something isn’t right. I take a small step forward as a beam of sunlight cuts across the boy’s body. He flinches just barely, but it’s enough.
“Darby,” I whisper. “What’s going on?”
Before he can answer, the boy’s eyes come alive, burning brighter than the sun. I stumble backward, but Darby holds me still.
“Stop it,” he says. “It’s not what you think.”
“What is he?” I ask. “How is he out in the sun?”
Darby’s hands stay strong on my shoulders when the world around me sways violently. I glance at the boy whose gaze narrows on mine.
“What’s he doing to me?” I fall to my knees, vertigo ripping through my body. Lying down on the ground, I push myself into it as my vision goes black. I feel hands on me, pulling me away. Darby’s voice enters my mind, but he sounds a million miles away.
Don’t be afraid. It happened to me too. It’s all part of the change.
I try to object, to fight back, but it’s hopeless. I feel my mind closing in on itself, and I think back to that moment; that moment when everything feels okay. As my consciousness fades, my last thought is that I hope I never wake again.