When I was ten, I played a late night game of flashlight tag with a bunch of neighborhood kids. If you don't know what flashlight tag is, it's the same as tag, but you play it in the dark, the person who's "it" gets a flashlight, and they have to yell the name of the person they see with it in order to "tag" them. It was really cloudy that night, and most people had their curtains drawn, so it was the perfect level of darkness for hiding in.
The side of the street my house was on was skirted by a broad length of woods. That was basically the boundary for our side of the game. You could run through any yard, even go across the street and run through their yards, but you weren't allowed to hide in the woods, because it was too difficult to find anyone in there, and it was very easy to trip over tree limbs or end up with poison oak. Of course, this rule was frequently and flagrantly ignored when people got too close to being caught. They'd duck off into the bushes for a few seconds, or run behind a group of trees to evade capture.
I don't remember who was it at the time, but I was hiding in a backyard two houses down from my house. The family that lived there had a little playhouse for their daughter, a swing set and a doghouse but no dog. I would periodically duck into the doghouse whenever I saw the flashlight's searching beam approaching. Those of us trying to hide from the "it" person liked to spook each other in the dark by jumping out of nowhere and making each other scream, giving away our positions.
I thought I knew where the "it" guy was, but I got comfortable hanging out on the swing set. Suddenly, a person with a flashlight came around the corner of the house and angled it almost directly at me. I jumped and ran for the edge of the woods. When I got there, I hovered in case they saw me and were going to yell at me for cheating. The beam of light seemed to explore the swing set where I was, then came in my direction, but there was no sense of hurry at all to it, and I wondered for a second if maybe I'd attracted the attention of the homeowner. Most people on the block knew we were out playing flashlight tag, but you never can be sure that someone won't get nervous if you stay in their yard too long. So I crouched down in the grass and waited to see who it was.
They shined the light right in my face and I tried to cover it with my hand to avoid identification. The creepy thing was, they never said anything, just shined that light on me.
"You got me!" I exclaimed, hoping that if it was a homeowner, they'd realize I thought they were the flashlight tagger. Then I realized that two houses down, people were yelling and there was the "it" guy's flashlight beam chasing them around.
I stood up and tried to see who was shining the light on me. They just stood there, not moving, not saying anything. I felt a little freaked out.
"If you don't want us playin' in your yard, I'll go tell them it's off limits, okay?"
The person started walking toward me. I didn't feel right, so I started walking toward the edge of the yard. The person just kept shining the light on me and coming toward me.
So I ran.
When I looked back, the person with the flashlight was running too, and they were an adult, much bigger and much faster than me. I felt scared now, not sure why this person was chasing me. I was running toward where the other kids had been, but they were gone now. It just seemed to be me and the person with the flashlight. So I turned right and ducked into the woods. I dropped to the ground, shaking bushes and stuff to try to confuse the person, then shimmied under a ring of thick bushes and curled up. I could see the flashlight in the woods with me, looking around. I could hear the person's footsteps breaking sticks and crunching on pine needles. I didn't know what the fuck was going on, and I just wanted to get back to all the other kids. Eventually, the flashlight wandered deeper into the woods and I crawled quiet as a mouse back to the edge of the trees and then got up and ran toward the street.
I was immediately caught by the person who was "it", but I didn't care. He yelled loud that I was now "it" and I tried to tell him that there was someone else with a flashlight wandering around in the woods, but he took off into the dark yelling about "no tag backs".
"Don't go in the woods!" I yelled, but nobody responded. Of course, any who heard me would just assume I was talking about not cheating at the game, but I was sincerely worried about that person wandering around in them. Of course, now I had a flashlight of my own, so I thought, I should go and see if I can find out who that was, just to make myself feel better.
I went back behind the house I'd come from and a bunch of laughing shadows scampered out of sight into neighboring yards. I ignored them and headed straight for the trees. I couldn't see any other light in there, so I thought, maybe he went home. I didn't know if it was a man or a woman, but I didn't imagine any women trudging through the woods at night.
So I went about playing the game again, albeit anxious because of the lingering thought that there was someone wandering in the woods who didn't seem to be playing the game with us. I ran across the street and chased people through the backyards there, but after a while I found the lots empty and realized that they must have gone back across the street. I ran back over and was exploring the Beeches' backyard. Mrs. Beeche had a clothesline with a bunch of drying sheets on it, and her daughter Charlotte liked to hide among the linens and stay close to home in case she got too scared of the dark. She was only a year younger than me.
I thought I heard something at the tree line, so I went over and was waving the flashlight around into the woods.
"Stay outta the woods!" I remember yelling. I waved the flashlight back and forth a couple more passes, then saw someone off in the distance. I held the light on whoever it was. They were about half a job into the woods, hard to make out, but it looked to me like Charlotte. Charlotte had brown hair that her mother insisted on keeping shoulder length. We always dressed dark for flashlight tag, and Charlotte liked to wear this deep purple sweatshirt, so it was usually easy to tell when you had found her.
"Charlotte I see you!" I yelled. She just stood there. I continued to hold the light on her and call her name, but she didn't seem to move. She stood there partially obscured by a tree and looked at me. The distance between us was enough that I couldn't see if she was blinking or not, but she had her head propped at an angle like she was looking around the trunk at me with her mouth hanging slightly open. Every now and then she sorta twitched or squirmed. It was a real freaky kinda movement.
"Charlotte! Come out of there!" I yelled. "Everybody! Charlotte's it, but she won't come out of the woods!" Some kids including my friend Dustin appeared behind me and started joining in my yell for Charlotte to come out.
"Do you see her?" I asked.
"Yeah, she's over behind that tree. Charlotte, get over here!" Dustin said. But she wouldn't come. "Charlotte, are you okay? Get over here, dummy!"
Charlotte seemed to stand up straighter and then disappear behind the tree. We could hear movement, but it seemed to be going away rather than toward us. Dustin started shouting Charlotte's name again and trudging into the woods after her, but I grabbed him and gave him the flashlight to take with him. I was scared again, because this all seemed surreal. I went to Charlotte's house and knocked until her father answered.
"Mr. Beeche, Charlotte won't come out of the woods, and I'm worried about her," I told him. I wasn't sure if he'd take me seriously, but he rolled up his newspaper and disappeared into the closet behind the door for a moment before returning with a huge flashlight strapped to a car battery.
"Show me where she is," he told me, so I lead him to the woods and pointed to where I'd seen her.
"She was right there," I said, "by a tree, but she wouldn't come out and she was acting like she was sick or something." A bunch of the other kids kept calling "Charlotte, Charlotte" and I could see Dustin's flashlight beam moving around through the trees. Mr. Beeche went in after him.
They explored the woods for a good fifteen to twenty minutes, and Mr. Beeche started getting real angry. We could hear him yelling very loudly for Charlotte, threatening her with all sorts of punishments if she didn't get her ass back in the backyard that instant. The game was over by now, and we kids just stood there in the Beeches' back yard among the linens and watched. Dustin came running back out of the bushes with a dead flashlight. Eventually, Mr. Beeche came back out of the woods.
"Game over, kids," he said, "Get inside. Ask your folks if they can help me and to bring flashlights."
We all ran back home. My dad went out with three different flashlights. My mother went and turned on all the lights in the back rooms and opened the curtains and shades to help illuminate the back yard. I sat on the couch all upset and she eventually came back and hugged me and sat with me while I told her about the person with the flashlight chasing me and how I thought maybe Charlotte had run into him.
Mr. Beeche had gone inside and called them to report a missing child. They brought huge lights and did a march through the woods checking very thoroughly, but didn't find her. My mother told my dad what I'd told her, he told an officer and I ended up giving a statement. They went to the house three doors down and knocked, but the folks that lived there had been asleep and didn't know who would have been in their backyard. The police asked all up and down the neighborhood, but nobody claimed to know anything.
The other end of the woods came to a back road mainly used by logging trucks. They found Charlotte two days later, on the other side of the logging road, down an embankment that ended at a stream, stuffed into a drain pipe. Her neck had been broken and she was apparently stabbed multiple times afterward. My parents wouldn't tell me about it, they thought it would upset me, but Dustin told me all the details at school the next day.
It was the most awful thing our town had ever had happen. The police blocked off the logging road and spent months tracking down loggers and truckers who frequently used it. There was a curfew for months and we were told not to play flashlight tag anymore. We didn't argue.
What leaves me shaking to this day is the memory of Charlotte's face, hanging out from behind the tree, looking at me. Sometimes I wonder if at that moment, I had been witnessing her death. And I wonder if that had almost been me.