Michael and I nearly jumped out of our skin as the voice announced the remaining player count.
“Six left.” I muttered. Who had been caught? I prayed it was Yvonne, but I doubted we’d be that lucky.
“Hey Theodore!” Michael hissed at me, not taking his eyes off the approaching figure. “If somebody just got caught, whoever that is out there can’t be “It”, right?”
I wasn’t sure what to believe anymore, and I told him so.
“I’m going to go check them out.” He declared, picking himself off the car floor and exiting it.
Well, his funeral, I thought to myself as I watched him from my hiding spot.
The sudden appearance of Michael didn’t seem to faze the stranger. They carried on approaching at the same, unhurried pace. Now that they were closer I could see it was a little boy, probably a middle-schooler by the looks of it. He was dressed in blue jeans and a loose-fitting hoodie, but what really caught my eye was his mask.
Carved of a smooth, soft-grained wood similar to Yvonne’s, this one seemed to depict some kind of long-noes goblin, painted a crimson red.
“Hey there!” Michael called out cheerfully, walking towards the kid, his arms at his sides unthreateningly.
“Oh, hello.” The boy responded meekly, his voice muffled by the mask.
“My name’s Michael, what’s yours?””
Damnit Michael, is the really the time to be getting chummy?
“Lionel.” The boy responded.
“Nice to meet you, Lionel.” Michael smiled. “Cool mask, did you get it from Yvonne?”
Nice one, Michael.
“No, we’re looking for her too.” Lionel replied, shifting from one foot to the other.
“Oh, did you get stuck here too?” Michael nodded understandingly. “I didn’t see you earlier, how long have you been here?”
No comment on the fact that he said “we”, Michael?
“Um…” Lionel touched a finger to his chin. “We’ve been here about two years.”
There’s that “we” again! And how many years?
Michael blinked. “C’mon, you shouldn’t lie. I’m looking for a way out too, want to help?”
“There is no way out.” Lionel stated matter-of-factly. “Not unless you win the game.”
“Er, right.” Michael began to look a little uncomfortable.
“Although if we catch a player, we get time off our sentence.” Lionel explained, shifting on his feet again.
“Well, ah, good luck with that.” Michael began to back up. “I’m going to go…somewhere that’s not here.”
“Don’t you want to play a game with us first, Michael?” Lionel looked up at him.
“I think I’m already in the middle of one.” Michael replied. “And frankly, I don’t even want to play this one.”
“Don’t worry, Yumekuzu-sama won’t mind.” Lionel took a step towards Michael.
And then, Lionel was not alone.
Swarming out from behind trash piles and broken signs, Michael was suddenly surrounded by kids of all ages, each one wearing a different mask of that same carved wood.
It was impossible to miss the panic in Michael’s eyes now.
“Hey, don’t joke around with me, guys.” He warned. “I know Yvonne’s put you up to this. How much did she pay you? I can offer you triple anything she could pay.”
“We don’t want your money.” Lionel replied flatly. “We just want you play a game.”
Michael took a deep breath. “Ohhhh-kay. Well sure, why not. What game?”
“Kagome Kagome of course.” Lionel replied, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“I…er…don’t know your names.” Michael admitted.
“I’m Lionel.” He explained.
“Yeah, I got that.”
“Gregory.” The kid to the left of Lionel introduced himself.
“Mitchel.” Said the next.
I paused at the last name. One of the missing kids was a Geoffrey Lanternier, if I wasn’t mistaken. I tried to envision the “Missing” poster in my eyes. A gangly, redhead with a surly expression. Last seen wearing…a blue down vest, and…no, that was all I remembered.
Opening my eyes, I scanned the kids. To Lionel’s right was a taller kid wearing a tan mask with comically puckered lips. Ignoring the mask, I tried to glimpse the kid’s outfit.
Khakis and…a blue down vest.
No, no, seriously, it couldn’t be.
I looked again.
There, fringing his mask, I could see tufts of unruly red hair poking out.
What the hell was going on?
“Okay, all introduced.” Lionel declared flatly.
“H-hold up, I didn’t catch all that.” Michael protested. “Which one of you was George?”
“Now we need to blindfold you.” The hulking teenager who introduced himself as Hubert explained, pinning Michael into a full-nelson.
“Hey, stop damnit!” Michael protested, trying to kick Hubert in the shins. “I said I’m not ready yet!”
I looked up. Lionel was approaching the struggling Michael, getting ready to blindfold him.
But…why was he holding an icepick?
Michael screamed, and I threw my hands over my eyes, trying too late to block out the sight.
“Now you can’t peek.” Lionel explained.
“I’ll kill you! I’ll tell my dad, and he’ll kill you all!” Michael sobbed, growling at his persecutors like a caged animal. Without warning, Hubert let him drop, leaving him to scramble in the dirt with his hands, trying to find them.
“You’ll have to win first.” Lionel replied, joining hands with the kids on either side of him as they formed a ring around the blinded Michael.
And then, the chant began.
“Circle you, circle you
The solitary bird in the cage
When, oh when will you come out?
At the twilight of dawn
Both the crane and the turtle stumbled
Who is it behind you now?”
As the final sing-song note faded, Michael scrambled to face the kid behind him.
It was Lionel!
This was a bit of luck, I thought. I mean, nobody could remember ten new names and place them to their voices first try, but this was the kid that’d been speaking to him. Of all the names and voices, surely this would be the one Michael would remember.
“George?” Michael asked in a broken voice.
“There is no one here by that name.”
I tried to shut my ears to the sound of Michael’s screams, but there was one voice I couldn’t shut out;
“Five players left.”
I was running.
The breath exploded in my lungs as I scrambled over heaps of trash, forgoing the paths in case I met any more of the masked kids. By the time I had summoned the courage to look up, the kids had vanished without a trace, and so had Michael.
As my mind raced at triple speed, it occurred to me that it might’ve been safer to stay hidden, but the adrenaline in me said otherwise. I had to run, I had to get out of this damn junkyard.
Vaulting a segment of picket fence, it suddenly gave way beneath me, sending me tumbling down the side of a trash heap into a pile of old mattress box-springs.
Forcing myself up, I looked at the scrapes and cuts all over my arms. If Jacob hadn’t convinced us all to get our tetanus shots, I idly wondered what kind of state I’d be in.
Collapsing back onto the pile of box-springs, I took a deep breath. The panic had run its course, and I was starting to feel myself regaining control. My best bet was to dig myself a hole here and pull some trash in over myself. That way, I could outwait the rest, and win by attrition.
And then, Martin raced past.
I blinked. What the hell could make Martin turn tail and run? If it was the mask kids again, I figured he would’ve taken them on, outnumbered or not.
Before I could come up with an answer, Baxter ran by, hot on Martin’s heels, gasping for breath as he doggedly chased after him.
My survival instincts kicking in, I dropped down as low as I could, ignoring the errant springs digging into my flesh.
And then, something else ran by.
Time seemed to slow as the…thing entered my field of vision, 12-foot legs loping with ease after the pair, it’s long, segmented neck bobbling wildly behind it.
And then, it looked at me.
Not slowing in the slightest, it continued after the pair, but in that moment, I knew. There was no hiding out until the end.
It would find me, unless it found the others first.
Shivering from head to toe as icy sweat pooled across my body, I rose and began to run again.
I had to find Yvonne.
Martin’s breath came in ragged gasps as he stubbornly pushed onwards. Easily the more fit of the two, Martin couldn’t figure out why even after ten minutes straight of jogging, Baxter was still hot on his heels.
He turned back to look at his partner, trying to ignore the nightmarish apparition keeping pace with them.
Sweat pouring from his body and dampening his shirt, Baxter’s stride had changed into a bizarre lope, taking full advantage of his light frame and lanky legs.
And it was then that Martin understood. Baxter was built for long-distance running, he was not.
His own powerful legs and stamina had given him a strong lead at first, but now his stocky legs and build were a liability. In another five minutes, he’d be eating Baxter’s dust.
Bile welled up in Martin’s throat. How could this happen? How could he lose to someone weaker than him? And why…why did this feeling of hopelessness feel so damn familiar?
Along with the bile, a repressed memory clawed its way up, choking Martin as he ran.
His three older sisters.
Thin, wispy things with freckles and red-orange hair, not one over 90 lbs soaking wet.
He never could fight back against them.
Even one on one, age was a cruel handicap. His tooth-fairy money, gone. His box-top collection, burned. His late grandpa’s silver watch, pawned.
Young Martin never took it lying down, and so young Martin always ended up eating dirt, bruised and bloody, eyes blacked. Young boys were so reckless, so silly, always injuring themselves playing. He ought to be more careful, his parents said.
He remembered the day he finally found an opening, the day he knocked the legs out from one of his sisters and managed to get on top of her. The next thing he remembered was being dragged, hands bloodied, off his sobbing sister.
“A man doesn’t beat a woman.” His father had explained, locking the bathroom door.
That was the year Martin nearly had to go back a grade, having missed too many school days in the hospital. Had anyone come to visit him? Only one kid.
“You need to become strong.” Jacob had told him. “Strength attracts other with it. No matter what’s going on in your life, you can weather it with a strong attitude and strong friends.”
That’s right, Jacob. I became strong. Stronger than anyone else. I won’t lose anymore.
A voice snapped him back to reality.
“You gotta run faster, dude!” Baxter was tugging on him, trying to pull him along. “C’mon, it’s catching up!”
Shut your mouth, you damn wimp.
“I don’t…have to run…faster than it.” Martin gasped. “Just…faster than…you.”
Summoning the last of his strength, Martin lashed out with a right hook, catching Baxter full in the chin. Baxter spun once, flying like a rag doll into a nearby refrigerator, falling hard on the ground, immobile.
Not slowing, Martin doggedly carried on. Approaching a fork in the path, he randomly picked a direction, throwing himself under an old brown station wagon to hide.
“Four players left.” Announced the voice, but Martin barely heard it. The blood pounding in his head deadened his senses, as his exhaustion ebbed away to the drumming of his heart.
He was no longer a weak boy, stuck trying to defend what was his. He was strong now. It was his turn to go on the offensive.
His turn to hunt.ns22.214.171.124da2