The moonlight hungrily devoured every inch of the tall grass and weeds behind the picket fences of near-identical suburban homes but failed to reach through the canopy of the clustered trees lining the unkempt field.
The last standing wooded remains between civilization and farmland, the woods had long been the subject of whispers and warnings; but to the cluster of adolescents in the cusp of night, the danger was only an alluring story.
“Mom’s just being paranoid,” Alanna had said, and that had made sense to Mina and the others. Her mother was well known to be over-protective. “We won’t be long.”
Mina watched the treeline with trepidation, the crickets sounding near-deafening so close. She warily checked her feet in fear of the small insects crawling along them. “Are you sure this is worth it? This game sounds dumb, and there are mosquitoes everywhere.”
“All this grass is making me itchy,” Joseph chimed in, and scratched at his arms as if to prove his point. “I think I’m allergic to something.”
“Are we sure it’s okay we’re out here? It’s kind of scary. I don’t want to get caught by a serial killer or something. I saw something about it on Netflix. Or, my sister did, and she told me about it.” Nick pulled his little brother, Luke, closer to him, though Luke seemed more interested in staring up at the bright night sky that sprawled over them like a blanket of stars.
“Grandma said they played this game when they were kids, so why can’t we? Come on, let’s pick the ghost!”
After a round of ‘eeny meeny miny moe’, Alanna declared Joseph was the ghost, to his annoyance.
“Why do I have to be first?” he asked, but Alanna only shrugged. Mina crinkled her nose, not putting it past Alanna to have found a way to cheat somehow. She never did like Joseph.
“Alright!,” Alanna started, voice echoing in the empty field. She pointed to the ground at her feet. “This is home base. We all close our eyes, and Joseph hides. When we count to thirty, we all open our eyes and yell, ‘Ghostie, ghost, are you out tonight?’ Then we start looking for Joseph. He’s going to try to scare us and tag us. If he tags you, you’re the ghost next! If he comes out and no one gets tag, last one to home base is it. Got it?”
“Wait, where am I supposed to hide? It’s all just grass,” Joseph asked, biting his lip as if he already knew the answer.
Alanna pointed to the treeline, covered in a thick layer of darkness. “In the trees of course! Like you said, there’s nowhere to hide out here.”
“No way!” Joseph crossed his arms, jutting out his lip. “I am not going into those woods. Dad said not to go in there, no way no how. Not even during the day. Who knows what could be in there?”
Alanna’s face split into a challenging smile. “Are you afraid, you big baby?”
“I’m not afraid!” Joseph said, and stomped his foot.
Mina rolled her eyes and moved between them; she sensed a fight brewing. “Will you two stop it? I’ll be the ghost. We’ll play one round, then we’ll go home. It’s getting late.”
That seemed to do it. Not wanting to be shown up, Joseph muttered under his breath, then said more loudly, “Fine, I’ll be the ghost. Just close your eyes, okay?
The group huddled together at home base, eyes closed and hands covering them, and they all began to count. Mina shut her eyes tight but internally wondered if this was such a good idea. She heard the swishing of grass being moved, then some crackling of wood and the distant moving of tree branches, the crunch of leaves. But there was no cry for help, which set her somewhat at ease.
“… twenty-nine, thirty! Ghostie ghost, are you out tonight?” They all opened their eyes to an empty field, no Joseph in sight. Mina’s heart stuttered in terror at first. She knew the point was for Joseph to hide, but she couldn’t help the fear that something had happened.
“Joseph?” Luke called out, but Alanna leaned down to shush him, finger on her lips.
“Don’t tip him off! We gotta go find him, remember? It’s part of the game.” The child seemed unsure, but he took his brother’s hand and the two walked towards the treeline.
As the others dispersed to start looking, Mina hung back, a prickling feeling on the back of her neck giving her pause. Something felt wrong, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. She looked along the treeline. She hoped to see some sort of movement in the trees that would give Joseph away, but there was nothing.
For a moment she thought she saw a light in the trees, about ten feet from where Nick and Luke tentatively poked through some branches, but when she blinked the light was gone. She dismissed it as a trick of the night.
Mina decided to move to the opposite side of Alanna than Nick and Luke, figuring they’d cover more ground that way. She just reached the treeline when she covered a smile with her hand, not wanting to give herself away. Beneath some shrubbery she saw the telltale orange of Joseph’s sneakers that peeked out a few feet into the woods. Gotcha she thought, and consideredhow to warn the others without tipping Joseph off.
When she heard the sound of someone lightly sniffling, she thought of nothing of it. She assumed Luke had become frustrated with the game and the younger child wanted to leave. But when Alanna yelled “Gotcha, you big baby!” and ran away from where Joseph huddled, towards where Mina had seen that mysterious light, alarm bells rang in Mina’s head.
“Alanna, wait,” Mina cried out and ran towards her, but stopped short when Alanna screamed and fell backward onto her bottom.
When Mina reached Alanna, her eyes were wild and dilated, mouth open in a gasp of fear, and she crawled backward the best she could while still on the ground to get away from the treeline. Mina spotted Nick in the distance coming towards them, but she held up her hand in a ‘stop’ motion. Nick pushed Luke behind him and waited.
That left Mina to figure out what was going on. Be brave, she thought to herself. It’s probably nothing but a dead raccoon.
When Mina turned to the woods, she didn’t see anything at first. Alanna must have pulled the shrubbery back to catch who she thought was Joseph, which meant that Mina would have to do the same. Be brave, she repeated to herself.
When she peeled back the branches and leaves, she couldn’t stop the surprised gasp from leaving her lips.
Huddled in a ball, hand curled over his knees, was a little boy, completely transparent from head to toe, glowing with a light aura.
A ghost? Mina thought, though the idea was ridiculous. There’s not really such a thing as ghosts, is there?
She was about to close the branches on the sight again when the child looked up at her, eyes a pale brown, and Mina could see tears streaming down his cheeks. His face was scrunched in complete misery, and he wiped at the tears as he watched her without words.
She moved through the shrubbery before she’d even made the decision to help.
“Why are you crying?” Mina asked as she kneeled onto the ground in front of him. While the treeline hid it, they were in a small cleared area that must have at some point been someone’s hideout. There were rocks that could serve as seats, and a few planks of wood, all weathered and worn down now, but clearly left there on purpose.
The child seemed to wrestle with the answer. He opened his mouth to reply, but the movement behind Mina turned his gaze.
Looking up, Mina saw Joseph and Nick, mouths agape in horror as they took in the scene through the bushes.
“Mina, get out of there, run!” Joseph grabbed for Mina’s arm, but she pulled it back. Joseph, not expecting the movement, let go and looked at her incredulously.
“He’s not going to hurt us,” she said, though she wasn’t really certain how she knew this. “He’s hurt. I want to help.” She inched forward on her knees, out of the range of Joseph and towards the boy, ignoring Joseph as he hissed out a breath in frustration.
Alanna peeked over Nicks’s shoulder, eyes still wide in terror, and stared straight at the boy, silent for once. Nick frowned at the stoic form of the child as if sizing him up.
It was Luke that broke the ice, as he snuck into the natural alcove while Nick was distracted and plopped down right next to Mina. He sat cross-legged and leaned against her side, then stuck his thumb right into his mouth to chew on.
Nick sighed and followed suit, tousling Luke’s hair before he sat down next to him on his other side. Joseph hesitated a moment longer before he stood behind Mina. She smiled up at him gratefully, though his face was still pale, freckles stark against the ivory.
“I’m not coming in there,” Alanna said, and paced furiously along the treeline, “You all are crazy if you think I’m going to go in there so some demon can eat our souls or something.”
“Come on, Alanna, we need you,” Mina tried, not wanting her to alert the adults of their situation.
“Pft,” she replied unhelpfully, and Mina started to panic when she heard the receding sound of footsteps through the grass.”
“You called him here, Alanna,” Joseph shouted back. “Don’t you think you owe it to him to hear him out?”
There was a pause. The sound of footsteps. Closer, this time.
“You said I’m a baby. But you’re the one who won’t face what you called. Don’t you owe it to him, to us?”
Mina could just see her head as she paced along the treeline, then her face, then body as she slid through the trees into the clearing.
“Fine,” she said, “but if we get eaten, I’m blaming you, Joseph.”
For his part, the ghost had stopped sniffling and was looking at the group with curiosity. The silence lingered, and Mina wondered if he could talk at all. If he can’t, that’s going to make this difficult, she thought.
“What’s your name?” she asked, figured she’d start small.
The ghost looked down at his hands, clenched in his pant legs. “Victor,” he said near silently so Mina had to strain to hear.
“I’m Mina,” she started, then pointed to her friends each in turn. “This is Nick, Luke, Joseph, and Alanna. I think we called you somehow. Is that what happened?”
He didn’t move his gaze from his hands but shrugged his shoulders. Alanna snorted, and Joseph elbowed her in the ribs.
Let’s try something else then, Mina thought. “Why were you crying, Victor?”
Victor brought his knees closer to his chest, enveloped them in his arms, and rested his head on his knees. He mumbled into them something that Mina couldn’t hear. She leaned closer.
“I’m sorry, Victor, I didn’t hear that. What did you say?”
“I’m afraid,” he said more loudly. “To cross over.” The words had barely left Victor’s lips when he began to sob, shoulders shaking and breath gasped in broken hiccups.
A shiver went down the back of Mina’s neck at the words. The concept of crossing over was something she’d heard of before, and she couldn’t blame him. It sounded terrifying. No wonder he’s so scared.
The sobs were the only thing that broke the melody of crickets as Mina wracked her brain on what to say. An adult would probably know better than a bunch of kids, but then again, adults didn’t always see what was in front of them. They may not be able to see Victor at all.
She was saved from her thoughts when Luke let his thumb fall from his mouth with a pop and spoke. “When I’m scared, Nick holds my hand and I feel better. Maybe he can hold your hand when you cross over.”
Victor emerged from the cocoon of his arms just enough to peek his eyes over them, still sniffling but he locked eyes with Nick. “You would do that?”
Nick for his part seemed to turn green at the thought, but he put his arm around Luke’s shoulder in a sideways hug and nodded at Victor.
“I will too,” Mina chimed in. “You’re always braver when you have friends with you.”
Victor straightened a little at her proclamation and wiped his nose with his arm. “But then I’ll be alone.”
“You won’t be alone,” Joseph said suddenly. “My baby brother is there. You’ll watch over him, won’t you?”
Something in Mina’s heart ached. Joseph hadn’t talked about the loss and was surprised he’d be willing to do so here. But in his eyes, she saw a sort of determination and awe she’d never seen in the easily frightened boy.
“My grandmother too.” Mina was shocked to find it was Alanna who had spoken up, though her voice shook slightly and was hushed even in the quiet of the alcove. “She told me about the game, so you can tell her all about us. And she makes the best pancakes,” and then, with a sniffle, “I miss her. You better be nice to her.”
Victor crossed his legs and bit his lip. He looked at each one of the group in turn. “And I’ll see you all again someday, right?”
Mina’s breath caught, and she clenched her hand into her shorts in fear. Be brave.
“Someday,” she said finally. “Someday we will see you again, yes.”
Victor nodded, and Mina could feel a tension she hadn’t been aware of until that moment fall from her shoulders. Luke jumped up and grabbed Nick by the arm, pulling him to sit next to Victor. Mina followed suit on his other side, and when Nick tentatively held out his hand towards Victor, she did the same.
His hand was cold and seemed as much to glide through her skin as much as hold onto it. This close the aura of light surrounding Victor was blinding when she turned towards him.
They locked eyes, his the brown of decaying leaves on the forest floor. If she stared into them long enough she thought she might get caught in them, so she looked down to his lips that mouthed words she hadn’t quite caught.
“What?” she asked him, and he replied with a soft smile.
She had expected a flash of light, sparks, something like the picture of the northern lights in Alaska her mother had shown her, but instead, Victor simply seemed to dull. As she watched the light surrounding him and his body seemed to fade like a light being dimmed, and then she and Nick we left holding out their hands towards nothing.
There was a sniffling, and at first, Mina thought it had to be Victor, but it was Luke, sniffling next to where he sat next to his brother. Nick let down his hand and hugged his brother tight, pulling Luke’s head to his chest.
Joseph sat down on the forest floor, then flopped back into the leaves, staring up at the canopy. “I can’t believe that just happened.” He shook his head and watched the sky without further comment.
Alanna was silent, digging her toes into the dead leaves and dirt. She seemed despondent.
“Is something wrong, Alanna?’ Mina asked, curious, and not wanting to dissect her own feelings just yet.
She stopped digging her toes in the ground and curled her arms around her waist. “Do you think he’s okay where he is?”
Mina considered her question. There was no way for her to know for sure, but in the end, Victor seemed at peace. But that hadn’t been the real question, had it?
“I think they all will be,” she said finally.
Alanna nodded, then left without a word.
Joseph let out an exaggerated sigh then pulled himself to his feet, dusting leaves off his clothes. “We better get home. Our parents are going to kill us, no matter what Alanna said.”
“Same,” Nick said and dragged Luke up into his arms. “And I’m going to have a hell of a time explaining what happened with Luke to mom. She’s not going to believe a word, but grown-ups never do.”
Mina stood and followed them towards the bushes where they pushed through to the clearing. Before she let the branches shut behind her, closing the alcove from view to the world outside, she took one last look back at what must have been Victor’s hideout when he was alive. Mina wondered if they came back tomorrow if the clearing would still be there at all.
“Be brave, Victor,” she whispered, and let the brush close.