16 Jun Children’s Games
“Children's Games”Written by Kitty “The Odd Cat Lady” Olsen Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 11 minutes
“How much longer till we reach the campsite?”
Archer pursed his lips as he thought. “I dunno, maybe another hour, maybe two…” He immediately stopped the joke when he saw how all three of his companions, including me, were giving him the evil eye. “I’m kidding! Oh my god, guys, it’s like ten more minutes and we’ll be there.”
Charlotte made a few quick steps to catch up with our leader and punched him on the shoulder. “Sun’s going down soon, idiot. If you’re underestimating the amount of time it’ll take to get there, we’ll be setting up our tent in the dark, and Sage is probably going to step on a possum again.”
“I didn’t step on the possum, I almost stepped on the possum. There’s a difference,” I said, kicking a rock and watching it bounce off the back of Archer’s boot.
The final member of our party, Joey, snickered at the memory. “I dunno, you might’ve stepped on its tail. Like, not put your full weight on it, but I definitely heard that oversized rodent squeak. Seriously though, Archer, what’s the big deal about camping in this particular spot? I have seen more than three spots that were good enough.”
“Good enough, Joey, but not perfect,” Archer said, flashing his grin back at us. “You’ll understand when we wake up in the morning. And possums aren’t rodents, they’re marsupials.”
I just rolled my eyes, adjusted my backpack, and tried to keep up with my taller friends.
To Archer’s credit, it was just under ten minutes that we reached the spot. He crowed with delight and put on an extra burst of speed, skidding to a stop in the middle of the small clearing. “Here we are! Girls, set up the tents. Joey, help me get the fire going. Who wants hobo pies for dinner?”
“Did we remember pizza sauce?” I asked as I plopped my pack onto the ground, groaning with relief when I cracked my shoulders. I knew I was going to feel that in the morning. “And cheese?”
“In the cooler,” Joey said as he set it down. “Did we bring the irons?”
Charlotte nodded. “Just two though, since last time someone left one in the fire for too long and it melted,” she said, giving me a knowing look. I didn’t even bother to protest; that one really was on me. I still needed to replace it, but I barely had enough money to pitch in for gas this trip, so replacing the pie iron was out of the question.
Like we always did, we fell into our roles of setting up camp, and before long camp was all set up. Everyone was sitting around the fire laughing. Charlotte was behind me, rubbing my sore shoulders as Joey was ripping open the bag of marshmallows. “Who wants me to make them a s’more?” he asked.
I put up both hands in the air. Joey could make the best marshmallows… nice golden brown crunch on the outside, warm and gooey in the middle. Archer busted out the pie makers and filled the inside of his with blueberry pie filling.
It was so peaceful out here, but I was still confused. “Why this exact spot, Archer?” I asked as he stuck his pie maker in the coals.
“Like I said, you’ll see in the morning. The sunrise is beautiful from up here. Besides, no one else hikes out this far in the woods, so we won’t have a repeat of the drunks like the last time we did this.” Archer winced as the memory returned to the forefront of his mind. “No one blasting music, no one hitting on either of you, and just generally no one bothering us while we blow off steam.”
Joey grinned and snaked a flashlight out from his bag. “And best of all, no one to hear your screams!” He cackled, flicking the flashlight on under his chin at an attempt to appear ghastly in the dark. Not one of us was impressed, and Charlotte even rolled her eyes.
“Cut it out, Joey. We aren’t in high school anymore. Your scary stories aren’t gonna work on us anymore,” she said.
Joey pouted and the flashlight clicked off. “Come on, just one more? For old time’s sake? Before Sage leaves us to go to college?” he asked.
Low blow, but it definitely worked on me. I swallowed before saying, “Come on. Let him tell his scary stories, guys.”
Joey grinned and speared two marshmallows onto the metal stick. “All right, let us begin. With a story that happened in these… very… woods.”
“I think you’ve already told us this one,” Archer interrupted.
Joey ignored him and continued telling his story in that dramatized tone I’d grown to love and hate over the years, all while turning his pair of marshmallows over the flickering flames.
“In these woods, there is a demon. A demon as old as time, evil and who gets off on torturing innocent humans. He waits until there are some innocent victims, unaware of the history of these woods, to come in so he can play with them. He’ll appear in the shadows, out of the corner of your eye, amping your paranoia until he finally appears. It’s said he’s so awful to look at, you’ll lose your mind the moment you look at him. His claws are a foot long, and he’ll use them to rip your stomach open and send your guts everywhere. But his favorite way to kill humans is to impale them on sharp branches, letting you slowly bleed out onto the ground. It’s said he likes it so much because that’s the only way you’ll ever be rid of him… You must impale him through the heart.”
As if he timed it, I heard a branch snap behind me and I screamed, spinning around just in time to see a deer bound off into the trees. I turned back around, face bright red as my friends howled in hysterics at me.
“Very funny, guys. Can I have my damn s’more now?” I asked.
Joey pulled the stick out of the fire and nodded. “They look just about right, give me a second and I’ll get you your s’more.” In just a minute he had it all whipped up, marshmallow and chocolate bar sandwiched between graham crackers. I ate my s’more and all was forgiven and forgotten… for the most part.
The moon inched up the sky and we were already caught up in our typical shenanigans, playing Uno, drinking a few light beers, and finishing off over half the bag of marshmallows by way of s’mores. It was after beer four or five that I got up and went off to take a leak. Stumbling through the brush, I got far enough away from camp to do my business… far enough that my friend’s chatter was nothing but white noise.
I had just zipped my pants up when the sound stopped.
A forest is never quiet. Not really. Crickets chirp, frogs croak, the wind rustles the leaves, but it’s never quiet. It was like someone hit the mute button on the woods. I couldn’t even hear my friends talking to one another.
“Guys?” I stumbled through the dark, heading right for the campfire I could see through the brush. “You good? Hello?”
I entered the campsite… and I was the only one there.
I kicked the lone hobo pie maker out of the flames, turning my head all around to see where they’d gone. “You’re hilarious. Come on, I got spooked enough by Joey’s shit story, come out or I’m walking back to the car.” A lie; it’d taken hours to get out here and I wasn’t stupid enough to walk in the woods alone at night. “Guys?”
I unzipped my tent and poked my head inside, expecting to see Charlotte ready to jump out and shout ‘Boo!’ But the sleeping bags weren’t even unrolled. Frowning, I backed out and glanced around. “Guys? Did something happen? Charlotte? Archer? Okay, Joey, this stopped being funny, come out!”
Archer’s scream of terror made me jump nearly half a foot in the air. I nearly stumbled back into the fire. I whipped around to see dozens of sparks fly out from the logs, and then, through the smoke, I saw it. A black shape, hunched over by the treeline. It cocked its head to the side before waving a hand in the air. A hand with foot-long claws.
I couldn’t move. I was frozen as the creature ambled up to me on all fours, its claws raking through the ground as it approached. I finally took a step back and that’s when it pounced. Like a jungle cat, it flew through the air and I barely sidestepped in time to avoid getting stabbed in the chest. One of its claws raked down my arm and I screamed in pain. The monster laughed, showing off a mouthful of needle-pointed teeth.
I ran. I bolted straight for the woods and ran as fast as I could. In the dark I couldn’t see a foot in front of me, I stumbled through bushes and thorns scraped against my legs. I tripped and fell on the ground, and when I got up there was Joey.
“Oh my god, Sage! You’re okay!” Joey helped me up off the ground. “Jesus Christ, you nearly ran off a cliff.” I took a look behind Joey and sure enough, just a few more steps and I would’ve tumbled down a steep incline.
“I thought,” I gasped, “I thought your story was just another stupid thing you made up.”
“It was!” Joey ran his hands through his hair, making it stand straight up. “It’s just one of those stories I used to tell you guys when we were kids, after it got dark. But then after you left, I blinked and everyone was gone, except… except there was that thing. The monster.”
I spun around to look for it. “I think I outran it, so we’re good,” I turned back around and realized I was talking to nothing. The only sign Joey had ever been there was the dropped flashlight on the ground.
“… Joey?” I scooped the flashlight up and shone it around. “Joey, where did you go?”
Another turn and there it was again. The monster. It waved its now bloody claws at me, its mouthful of needle teeth grinning like a macabre Jack O’ Lantern.
I couldn’t breathe. I stepped back once and it bolted me again. I screamed, raised the flashlight in the air, and brought it down right on the top of the monster’s head. It made the most hideous crack as the beam of light flickered before going dark. The monster stumbled back one too many steps and fell right off the cliff.
I didn’t stick around for it to get back up. I bolted back into the woods. Where the monster had slashed me earlier ached like nothing else but I needed to find someone else. I needed to find the others, get bandaged up, and then get the hell out of here.
“Joey! Charlotte! Archer!? Where are you!? If you hear me, scream as loud as you can!”
Deathly silence. The desire to break down and just cry was getting stronger but I needed someone, anyone… and not the monster, whose breathing alerted me to its return.
I whipped around and there it was, snarling and growling.
“Please! Why can’t you just leave me and my friends alone?” I asked.
I swore the thing laughed as it took a step towards me. And then it spoke, in this hideous, raspy voice.
“I already got them. Come here, Sage… I’m going to eat you next.”
I screamed again before I pitched the flashlight right at that thing’s shadowy head. It grunted as it made contact, backing away as one of its clawed hands reached up to touch the injury. Something fell from its other hand and I managed to scoop it up. My stomach twisted as I recognized it as Archer’s hunting knife. Then I saw red.
Then with a scream, I charged the monster. It wasn’t going to get me; I wasn’t going to die tonight. I buried the knife right in the monster’s shoulder, its scream of agony and the spray of blackish-gray fluid splattering across my face just fueling me further. I pulled the knife out and stabbed it again. I brought that knife down again and again, screaming at the top of my lungs and not stopping until it lay limply on the ground.
I dropped the knife when the monster was finally dead, took a step back, and then blacked out.
I woke up the next morning next to the campsite, having no idea how I got there. My arm was killing me. My throat felt all sorts of fucked up from all the screaming. And I was still covered in that thing’s blood.
I just wanted to go home.
I stumbled woozily to my feet, nearly stumbling into the fire pit as I made my way to the tent. It took three tries for my shaky fingers to undo the zipper. I stepped inside and there was Charlotte, crouched in the corner, eyes wide with fear and clutching onto her bloody pocketknife.
“Get back! Get away from me!” she screeched, swiping the knife at me. I fell back on my ass, barely dodging the desperate swipes.
“Christ! Charlotte, it’s me! I’m okay!” I held up both my hands. “I’m okay! The monster’s dead! I killed it!”
Charlotte blinked a few times to clear her eyes before the knife slipped from her fingers. “You’re not… you’re not one of them… Oh my god, Sage, what happened to you? Why are you covered in blood?”
“It’s not mine.” I offered my hand to her. “Come on, let’s get out of here. We’ll go get some help, and they’ll find the guys, okay?”
Charlotte sniffled before picking her knife back up and taking my offered hand with her free one. Together we stumbled out of the tent while I was doing my best not to grimace about my arm. “Did you get the monster too?” I asked, gesturing to her knife.
“I think so… managed to make it go away at least–” Charlotte came to a stop. “Wait! Listen!”
I did stop and I did listen. And I heard the quietest cry for help.
We both bounded off into the woods, in our rush I nearly ended up tumbling down that cliff again, but Charlotte managed to grab the back of my shirt and yank me back from the edge just in time. I glanced over and saw Joey. Charlotte gasped and I heard her start to cry.
Joey was slumped up against a stump, clinging onto his awkwardly bent leg. I nearly threw up when I realized there was no way a leg could normally bend that way. “Guys!” he waved up at us. “You found me! Help me out of here!”
As carefully as possible I managed to slide down to his level. “What happened?” I asked.
“Monster pushed me over,” he hissed in pain as I managed to help him up. I tried not to stare at his fucked up leg, but it was hard not to. “Just… just be my crutch and we can get out of here. Where did you go last night? We were talking and you were just gone.”
“I was gone?” I held Joey up as he hopped on his good leg. “What about you? I turned around, and instead of you, there was the monster.”
We limped up the less steep side of the cliff, where Charlotte was standing. She went to Joey’s other side and helped support him from there. “We just need to get out of here,” she said. “We just need to go get back to the parking lot and call for help.”
The three of us hobbled through the woods. Joey’s face was all sorts of screwed up with pain, but he just gritted his teeth and let us help him back to the campsite.
I helped Joey to a comfortable position on the ground and got back up. “Okay, just to the parking lot. I’ll go. Charlotte, you can wait here with Joey–”
I didn’t get to finish that sentence before a body dropped down right on the fire pit.
I screamed as it crashed down next to me. I jumped away and Charlotte almost darted off back into the woods before Joey shouted, “Archer!”
It was Archer. His dead eyes stared back up at me, his chest filled with stab wounds.
The knife came down next, clattering off of a stone before coming to rest next to my feet. Then the laughter came.
We all looked up to see a trio of… children. Children, no older than nine or ten, sitting up in the tree and laughing their heads off like they’d just pulled off the greatest of pranks. “It worked! You should’ve seen your faces!” the oldest boy called down to us.
“What the fuck?!” Joey made a move to get up but just plopped back down, tears sprouting from the corners of his eyes. “What did you do to Archer!?”
The only girl had the most malicious stare as she grinned and said, “What did we do? We didn’t do a thing, ‘cept had some fun. You were the ones that took it too far, even if it was really, really funny.”
“The monster did this to him,” I said, crawling over to Archer’s side. “The monster killed him.”
The final one, the littlest boy, shook his head solemnly. “Nope. You’re the monsters, and you always were,” he said.
I glanced down at my hands and realized that the blood was no longer black. It was red. Red and dry. It was never black.
My chest went tight as I looked over at my friends, Charlotte staring at her pocketknife while Joey looked at me in horror.
“It’s… it’s not true,” I laughed nervously. “I killed the monster. I killed it with Archer’s…” I trailed off as I looked down at the knife at my feet. “I killed it with Archer’s knife.”
The children’s laughter was now bordering on hysteria as I sunk to the ground, my chest growing too tight to breathe. I looked up to watch the children vanish, one by one, until only the smallest was left. He grinned, and for a second all I saw was the shadowy monster that had chased me through the night. Then he was just a little boy… and then he was gone.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available