“Two players left.”
The announcement came, but I didn’t pay any heed. It was taking all I had to keep running like this. My head felt both clear and blank at the same time, my panic and exhaustion dueling each other for control. I knew Martin wasn’t far behind me. If I didn’t find some place to hide quick, I was dead meat for sure.
Rounding a corner, I immediately saw my answer; it was the brown station wagon Michael and I had hidden under at the start of the game!
This was my only chance. Ignoring the sharp bits poking into me, I threw myself onto the ground and wormed my way under the vehicle, as I waited for Martin.
It was a short wait. I heard him before I saw him, gasping for breath and cussing up a storm as he rounded the corner after me. Hardly daring to breath, I shrunk against the ground as Martin slowed to a stop next to my hiding spot, panting.
“Damn him…where’d that…bastard go?” He wheezed, resting his hand against the car. “Nowhere in sight…Damnit!” He smashed his hand against the car loudly, causing me to shiver in fear as the car rocked against my back. “Which way did he go, anyway?”
As I sat tight, I heard the sound of his feet receding. I had escaped!
Of course, I wasn’t in the clear yet. Martin was one hell of a final boss! Still, I was ready for this. All I needed was to prepare a couple traps…I grinned in spite of myself. Just you wait, Martin. I’m coming for you!
“Found you, nerd!” My blood froze in my veins. Hardly daring to look, I turned to see Martin crouched next to the station wagon, grinning manically at me.
Barely dodging his grasping hands, I rolled out from under the other side. This was the worst possible scenario! I was dead!
Scrambling to my feet, I made a break for the trash heap in front of me. Maybe if I could make it over to the other side…
I felt a large hand close over my leg, shortly before I was dragged back down, kicking and screaming bloody murder. Flipping over, I found myself face to face with Martin O’Conner, his eyes wild with bloodlust.
“Game over, nerd.” He grinned, as he pressed his hands to my throat. I swatted and clawed at him in vain, as he tightened his grip, edging my vision with darkness. Damn, this was it. What a joke. My hands flailing in panic, they brushed something in my pocket.
Oh right. I still had my precious treasure with me.
My world going dark, dark before me, I flicked my treasure open and…plunged Jacob’s jackknife into Martin’s neck. He screamed, releasing his grip. But I didn’t let up.
Once, twice, thrice, I stabbed him, blood splattering us both. Martin frothed crimson as he spasmed weakly against me, but I kept stabbing.
Four times, five times, six times. Blood everywhere. Martin lying still.
Finally, seven stabs in his neck, I let Martin drop to the ground. The knife slipped from my still hands, its handle greasy with blood. Somewhere, in the distance, I heard a familiar voice.
“One player left. Game over.”
I don’t know how long I lay there, my back against the mountain of trash, the endless twilight-dawn sky above me. Somehow, I survived to the end of this ridiculous game of hide and seek. I took a deep, ragged breath, letting it out jerkily. Then I took another.
And then, Yumekuzu was there, peering down at me through his singular eye.
“Well?” I grumbled. “What now? You gonna eat me or something?”
“I? Pffft, eat you? You’re joking, I wouldn’t dream of doing something like that!” The thing replied, its eye-mouths moving separately from each other. It had a bizarre manner of speech, its right eye-mouth doing most of the talking, in its smooth salesman demeanor, but every now and again, its left eye-mouth would cut in, spitting out syllables in guttural tones.
“Well, okay then.” I shrugged, collapsing back against the trash heap.
“Allow me to introduce myself, if you don’t already know me.” It bowed crookedly. “I am Yumekuzu-sama, or Mr. Dreamdust to you folks east of Minami Torishima.”
“Oh…okay.” I nodded to him. “I’m Theodore.”
“Of course.” He squinted. Or was that a smile? “But you prefer Ted, don’t you?”
I blinked. “Yeah I guess so.”
“Perfect, listening to Yvonne already brought me up to date on you.” He nodded deeply. “Now that the pleasantries are out of the way, lets get down to the brass tacks; I really need you to return your little offering before I can grant your wish. Perish the thought of you not getting your hard-earned prize!”
I should’ve guessed. Sliding down the trash hill, I picked up the bloody tool and presented it to him. “Sorry about the blood. I hope that doesn’t mess it up for you.”
“Oh no, no, far from it.” Mr. Dreamdust assured me, gently taking the blade between two claws. “Now if you’ll follow me, we’ll get to that wish.”
Now that the rush had left me, I found myself practically sleepwalking after Mr. Dreamdust. By rights, I should’ve been positively quaking in my sneakers next to him, but somehow, I couldn’t summon the energy to be afraid anymore. Stumbling after the white-suited apparition, I finally made my way to the central part of the junkyard.
While Mr. Dreamdust meticulously returned my knife to its bowl, I became aware that sometime during out walk, the entire population of mask kids had decided to follow me. This time however, they didn’t seem to show me any interest, standing to attention like tin soldiers as they awaited their dark master.
He wasn’t long in coming. My knife returned, he strode purposefully in front of them, stretching out his neck to observe them.
“Children!” He addressed the mask kids. “I have six new playmates for you all. Treat them well, now!”
“’Kay!” Echoed the children, as Mr. Dreamdust stepped aside, revealing Baxter, Alex, and the rest, all newly masked. Without a word, they vanished into the ranks of the others, and were gone from my sight.
“What do you do with them all?” I asked, vaguely curious.
“I need followers to maintain my power, of course.” He replied. “I need to make sure I don’t get sealed again, after all. Plus,” He turned to look over my shoulder. “They’re part of his dream. I’m nothing if not observant of my promises.”
I turned to follow his gaze. There, standing well apart from the mask kids stood the masked man. Making eye contact, he nodded a greeting and began walking towards me.
“So, it ended up being you, huh Ted?” He said softly.
“Do I…know you?” I asked, squinting as if that would let me see beyond the mask.
“Once.” He sighed. “Do you know the main difference between hide-and-seek in the West and kakurenbo in the East?” He asked cryptically.
“Er…language?” I asked.
“In hide-and-seek, the first person to get caught becomes “it”, as they lost.” He explained. “But kakurenbo is different. It’s played the same, but it’s supposedly re-enacting kids hiding from a demon that chases them, known as the “oni”, what we would call “it”.”
“Okay…” I nodded politely.
“Only, in kakurenbo, it’s the player that is the last to be found that becomes “it” and the next Oni.” He continued. “That’s because the one who survives to the end by letting all their friends die…” He took off his mask. “…They would be the real demon, wouldn’t they?”
I gasped in spite of myself.
“That’s me.” He gave a half-hearted smile.
“Oh, now isn’t this lovely and swell!” Mr. Dreamdust lumbered over to us. “A chance meeting of friends who’ve broken bread together. However, I do have his dream to grant, so make it quick, hmmm?”
“This won’t take long.” Jacob promised. “Besides, what’s time to you in this world?”
“Got me there!” The creature leered, making a shrugging motion with his claws.
Jacob turned back to me. “Coming?” He asked.
I nodded, following him.
We didn’t go far, just out of earshot of Mr. Dreamdust and the rest.
“So?” Jacob addressed me, throwing himself down on a stack of tires. “I’m sure you’ve got all kinds of questions for me, right?”
“A few, I guess.” I nodded, still trying to come to terms with this. “How did you end up here, anyway?” I asked, finally.
Jacob looked up at the false sky wistfully, before launching into his tale. “It started the summer I moved away. The decision was made earlier that year, and I struggled with the idea of telling everyone up front. Although I eventually decided against it, not telling didn’t do anything to stop the move, of course. That much was out of my hands. Instead, I focused on trying to make that last summer the best one yet for all of us. I used every game idea I had stored away, and in my free time, I explored every inch of the town to come up with new ones.”
“That was when I found the mask.”
“Deep, deep in the junkyard, sealed in a wooden crate covered in talismans, I found the body of Mr. Dreamdust. That mask…it’s his physical body. He can’t manifest his true form in the real world. Anyways, I took it back home with me, thinking I might be able to use it in one of our games, but…”
“He had other ideas.”
“He talked to me, every night as I slept; He told me of the life I would have once I moved, of how lonely I would be, and of how he could fix it; he could make my summers last forever.”
“Of course, I ignored him. I tried to take the mask back too, but somehow I never could find the sealed wooden crate again. I couldn’t lose the mask, either. No matter where I left it, by nightfall it’d be under my pillow again. I couldn’t destroy it, either. Not with an axe, not with fire.”
“But still, I resisted his offers.”
“Eventually, moving day came. I buried the mask in our back yard before we left as my final attempt to rid myself of it, but we both know how well that worked. Suffice to say, my nightmares continued. And then, they started coming true.”
“Just as he told me would happen, I found myself ostracized at school. In a small town, hanging out with younger kids is called leadership. In the big city, it’s called immaturity. Play with those your own age, do what they do, or be cut off. By my second year of this, I was beyond desperate. Mr. Dreamdust knew it too, and he didn’t let up. Between waking nightmares at school and real nightmares at home, somewhere along the way I stopped fighting back.”
“During our school camping trip, I told a really good story about a mask that granted wishes, and a game that would summon a genie for us. More out of boredom and curiosity than any belief in me or my story, a group of us snuck deep into the forest that night, me with the mask, they with the first offerings that came to hand.”
“But somehow, by the time we reached the center of the forest, there were only seven of us.”
“The rest, well, that’s history.”
“I guess from there, Mr. Dreamdust made his way back here. He must’ve taken note of Yvonne when she came to visit me as a potential wisher. I don’t know how he made it back, but maybe that accounts for the delay between my incident and Daniel Buckingham’s. Although, judging by the number of mask kids, he definitely kept busy.”
He lay back, his tale over.
“What…what did you wish for?” I asked breathlessly. I had a feeling, but I needed to hear it from his own mouth. I wouldn’t believe it otherwise.
“I wished for…” He choked on a sob. “All I ever wanted was…to play with everyone forever, like we did those long summers before.”
And there it was.
Well, he did get his wish.
Jacob grabbed my arm. “You’ll have to make a wish too. Mr. Dreamdust is obsessive when it comes to deals and their fine print. Whatever you do, say it in no uncertain terms.” He released me finally, staring at me with hollow eyes. “He’ll stick to the exact words you use, in the worst possible way.”
I smiled in spite of myself. “Don’t worry Jacob, I know exactly what I’m wishing for. I thought I knew what I wanted when I first came here, but I was way off. This is what I wanted all along, I just never realized it.”
“And you’re sure you won’t regret it?” He asked.
He smiled back, then turned to walk away.
“Hey Jacob!” I called at his receding back. “All these years, I was jealous of you. You were everything I wanted to be. I thought if I could just copy you, own everything you own, do everything you do, that’d be enough.”
He turned around.
“I was wrong.” I continued. “The way I was going, I was just a cheap imitation of you, with none of the charisma or ingenuity that really defined you.”
“I think you could’ve picked a better role model to strive for.” He called back. “Look where I ended up.”
“If I believe that for real, this decade of jealousy would really be for nothing.” I smirked. “No, I may be done copying you, but instead I’m going to surpass you, Jacob.”
He just waved back, smiling an honest-to-goodness Jacob smile before turning back and walking away.
“So, you’ve decided on your wish already, then?” Came the oily voice from behind me.
“Damn straight.” I grinned.
The evening sun had nearly set. Long shadows merged into pools of ink, slipping out from under trash heaps and billboards like hot tar. Somewhere in the distance, a car honked.
Jacob rose to his feet. How did he get here? What was he doing before this? He looked around. Wasn’t this…the old junkyard on Southwest Street? Hadn’t he just been tucking himself in to his sleeping bag at the school camping trip? Where was everyone?
Looking around, he found no answers.
Staggering forward, he made his way to the junkyard exit. He was almost there when his foot bumped something on the ground. A plain, black backpack.
Opening it, he found a well-used Walkman, and a handful of cassettes.
“Oh good, I was worried I’d lost these.” I sighed with relief.
Slipping the headphones on, I plugged in Wham!’s latest album and hit play.
The evening sounds of the town drowned out, I continued walking, a smile on my face.93Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ2FQ5ne9VjU
My wish had come true. I was Jacob.