The flash of the camera nearly blinded him in the dark, but it was worth it to see her face show up on his screen. Her eyes shone with the light of the moon as she gazed among the stars, and her smile shone even brighter when she smiled at them, foggy breath visible in the cool winter air. The two didn't think much when they decided to come to the top of the highest hill in the area, but here they were anyways, staring at the golden dots littering the night sky. He was in his coat and boots, with hands in his pockets and a camera around his neck. She wore her coat as well, and a silver-coloured hat with white fur trimmings nestled on her head. Matching mittens hugged her hands. He watched as she spun around in the snow, searching for constellations. Having nearly memorized the whole northern hemisphere, her search went by smoothly. The two never told anyone where they went. She insisted it be their little secret.
"Alex!" she called. "Take a picture of me!" She posed for the camera in the snowfall, standing with her head up high and arms in the air, an ever-present smile plastered on her face.
With a flash and a snap of her parents' old camera, the one that she adored so much, he captured the moment. And it was beautiful. She was beautiful.
It goes without saying, but he was in love. In love with the way that her smile was always so genuine. In love with the way she looked at the stars. In love with the way her eyes glimmered when she was happy. In love with the way that she liked him, too. She looked back at him and smiled wider than before, her grin stretching across her face. She seemed so happy.
He walked over to where she stood and handed her back her camera, then grasped her free hand in his.
"This place is magical," he stated as they started on the path to the very top of the tree-covered hill.
"Isn't it?" her voice sang. "My parents used to take me here before they—you know."
"Do you miss them, Maria?" Alex asked after a moment's silence.
"Sometimes," Maria replied.
He frowned, but her smiling expression didn't waver at all. He knew what had happened to her parents; everyone did. They went missing six years ago, presumed dead. The bodies were never found. The case stumped police all over the city, including Alex’s dad. No one could figure it out no matter how hard they tried. Maria's curious optimism never ceased to surprise Alex. She seemed so carefree about the subject of her parents' death.
Alex heard a rustle to his right and turned to look, catching a quick glimpse of a retreating deer in the trees.
"Let's go this way," he said, turning to follow where the woodland creature went. He took a few steps before he was met with a resistant tug on his arm. He turned to find Maria standing still in the snow.
"I think this way would be better," she said, turning on her heel and starting off in the opposite direction. As much as he wanted to follow after the deer, Alex went along with Maria.
They walked for a few minutes in comfortable silence before Maria spoke up.
"Come with me," she said suddenly, rushing off quickly down the snow-covered trail. He stumbled a bit as he was pulled along by her strong grip on his hand, but he managed to catch up to her pace. He had no idea where they were going, but he trusted her, so he didn't think to question it.
They sped along for what felt like forever, not that Alex would ever complain about spending forever with Maria. They reached a dense wall of trees and stopped. Alex stared at the dense forest in front of them before looking at Maria with questioning eyes. She only smiled and walked forward, letting go of his hand and grabbing onto a tree branch. He watched as she drew the branch back, revealing a small, narrow pathway leading further into the woods.
"Well, come on then," Maria smiled, gesturing into the pathway. He hesitated, only for a second, before walking forwards and into the trees. She followed after a second, and he swore he saw a flash of light come from behind him, but when he turned around all he saw was Maria’s smiling face. She gestured for him to continue.
The path led them to a small opening in the trees, just about the size of a soccer field, but round. Like a perfect circle. Alex looked around. It seemed like something out of a fairy tale, this little hidden treasure.
"Wow," Alex breathed, "this place is amazing."
Maria giggled, "I know, right."
He noticed that on one end of the circle there was a large gap in the trees, and he could see the sky. Curious, he walked towards it. Looking back at Maria he asked, "How did you ever find this place? It's so hidden."
Maria's smile faltered briefly before replying. "I came here with my parents,” she said, with a distant look in her eyes.
The gap in the trees turned out to be a cliff. At least 40 feet in height, Alex guessed. He wondered why the cliff wasn't blocked off—someone could fall and hurt themself. He couldn't even see the bottom.
"Can I take some pictures of you?" Maria asked, her face looking serious for the first time today. "I like to document my trips to this place with whoever I'm here with. I have a collection."
Alex smiled a clueless smile.
"Of course!" he said happily.
Maria backed up a few feet as Alex stood by the cliff, being careful not to stand too close to the edge.
"How many people are in your collection?" he asked while Maria adjusted her position.
"Six, I think," she replied.
"How often did your parents bring you here?" Alex asked, a bit jealous that others had been brought here before him. Maria smiled.
She raised up the camera and snapped a photo, the flash blinding Alex for a moment in the dark.
"But they love it when I visit nowadays."
Alex changed positions, this time holding his arms out to the side and spreading his legs to create a sort of star shape with his body. His face, however, conveyed a large amount of confusion. How would Maria's parents know she comes here?
"It was the last place they ever explored before they passed." Snap.
Alex tilted his head and raised his arms as she took another photo. Snap.
"How do you know that?" he put his hands on his hips.
"I was with them." was the reply. Snap. He dropped his hands. There was a minute of silence before Alex spoke.
"I thought you were out of town when they disappeared. Isn't that what the police report said?" He asked with a growing concern.
"Yes, it did." she affirmed. Snap. Alex stopped posing, narrowing his eyes at her.
"So, you—lied to the police?" Maria looked up from her camera. Her happy expression had been replaced with one that Alex couldn’t read.
"Well, yes." She took another photo while maintaining eye contact with Alex. Snap.
"Why?" Alex stammered, an uneasy feeling forming in his gut. Maria sighed.
"Some people just can't handle the truth," she responded with sorrow in her voice. She took one last photo. "It’s not my fault the cliff was there, but I was just a kid. I didn’t want to get into trouble."
She started walking towards Alex with an expressionless face and dull eyes. He could feel his heart pounding as she approached him. She looked at the camera as she walked, staring at all the photos she took of Alex during the day.
She held the camera in one hand and reached the other one up to cup Alex's cheek gently. Alex would have been swooning over this small gesture if he wasn't so worried. He had a horrible feeling about the vicious expression that Maria's face now held. Her eyes had no shine, and her smile looked vile and corrupt. She giggled, but instead of finding it cute and adorable Alex found it terrifying. What was happening?
"What," Alex breathed, not completely sure he actually wanted to know, "what happened?"
"Take a guess." Maria said as she grabbed him by the front of his winter coat. She pulled him towards her, quickly planting her lips onto his in a kiss. Alex froze as she pulled away.
“Say hi to them for me,” she said, pushing him backwards as hard as she could. He fell. She had pushed him off and down the cliff without a thought and he fell.
The last thing Alex ever saw was the flash of her camera from the top of the cliff, capturing his fear.
The last thing he heard was the crack of his bones hitting against someone else's.