They were just kids then. And kids are cruel. But they never meant it to go so far.

The entire second grade of the private school consisted of eight kids. Out of those eight, four always had to stay after hours. The school did not have the funding for a bus system, so the kids either walked home, which was rare since the school was in the middle of the country, or were picked up by their parents. Some stayed after usually because their parents worked late. Of course, the younger kids didn’t mind; the after-school care was like another recess.

The four second-graders were Mark, Nathan, Thomas, and the only girl, Michelle. The boys did not like Michelle hanging out with them, but since all the kindergartners and first-graders were always picked up and Michelle was too shy to hang out with older kids, they begrudgingly let her play with them. Because of this, though, they could not have their secret club meetings like they did during recess. They tried a few times to push Michelle away.

“You can’t play with us, ‘cause you’re a girl,” they would huff, or would come up with other excuses.

But without a word, she would always end up tailing at their heels.

They had finally had enough after a while and searched for a way of getting rid of the little girl. The soccer field next to the playground was bordered by a forest. A little ways into the forest was a little cave made of a few rocks mounded around each other, with just enough room for a small child to creep in. During after-school care, some kids would sneak off to the soccer field and even into the woods.

When the four second-graders would play hide and seek, Michelle would always hide there. The boys could never find her, because only she knew of this perfect hiding place. They would eventually tire of looking for her and cry, “Olly olly oxen free,” and she would take different paths so as not to be detected, coming out sometimes very far from her hiding spot.

One day as they played hide and seek, rather than hiding, the boys all grouped together and inconspicuously watched where Michelle went to hide. They ducked behind trees and rocks, following her as she descended a dusty hill in her white dress with little blue flowers, lacy socks, and black dress shoes, her brown pigtails bouncing with each step. She looked around to make sure no one was watching, not seeing the boys spying on her, and ducked into the crevice among the rocks, disappearing into the inky blackness of the little cave.

Nathan, who always assumed the role of the leader in the little group, motioned to the other boys to follow him back up to the soccer field.

“Now that we know where she’s been hiding, we can trap her there,” he began. “Then we make her promise to leave us alone or we won’t let her out.”

Mark and Thomas nodded, wicked little grins spreading over their young faces. They ran across the field where some large plastic tunnels made for hollowing ditches had been left. They were initially going to be used to make a drainage system parallel to the road, but the project had been abandoned and the huge black tunnels had been left for the kids to play in. The kids always liked playing with the large tunnel, so the boys gathered beside the smaller tunnel and began to push it toward the forest. It took the effort of all three to get it to the edge, but it was easy once they reached the old dust path. The hill was at a slope where all they had to do was to push it one good time, and it went barreling down the hill directly at the cave. It struck hard into the entrance, lodging between some other rocks. The boys heard a shriek from within the little cave.

They ran down the hill and stood beside the tunnel.

“Now we have you!” Thomas exclaimed.

“Let me out!” Michelle sobbed, her voice severely muffled by the rock and plastic.

“Only if you’ll promise to leave us alone and go play somewhere else,” Nathan replied.

“I promi-hi-hise!” the girl wailed with hardly a hesitation.

Nathan glanced at the other boys. “Well, should we let her out, then?”

“Please!” Michelle cried.

“Oh, stop your crying, crybaby,” Mark snubbed.

He and Thomas joined Nathan on the other side of the pipe.

“Okay. We’ll just push it on this side and let her out,” the leader said.

The boys began to push, but the black pipe did not budge in the least.

“Why won’t it move?” Thomas asked, feeling a lump growing in his throat.

“Just push harder,” Nathan commanded.

The boys tried again, but the pipe was stuck tightly among the rocks.

“What do we do?” Mark asked, beginning to cry.

“Let me out of here!” Michelle called from within.

“Maybe we should go tell one of the teachers,” Thomas suggested.

“No! We’ll get in trouble,” Nathan replied “We’re not even supposed to be in here. We just need to push harder.”

They continued to push and pull at the pipe from every angle, but they were just too small. Mark was so upset that he was no longer of use to them after a little while. He ran from the forest in tears. Nathan and Thomas continued, even getting Michelle to push from her side. But as the sun began to set, they had not moved the pipe even an inch. Nathan could hear his mother calling him.

“Come on,” he said. “We’d better get out of here before we get in trouble.”

They ran back up the hill, trailed by the dimming sobs of the trapped girl.

Fifteen years later, the boys still had never told anyone about what happened. They assumed that a few days later her parents would send the police to look around the school, and they would find her, hungry and thirsty, but alive. Little did they know that Michelle’s father had left her and her mother when she was young, and her mother was a druggie who after a couple of days was so far gone that she forgot she even had a daughter. She would ride to the school every evening, but could not remember why.

So no one went looking or found Michelle in her hiding place. Her classmates never saw her again, and the teacher just assumed that her mother had pulled her out or, even better knowing her mother’s history, that the state had taken her to a better home.

Nathan, Thomas, and Mark continued to move up, living each school day just yards from where the girl lay trapped. They avoided the forest after that for fear that they would be able to hear her cry or call to them. She could probably hear when others were nearby, and they feared that she would hear them and call to them not knowing it was them. They made up stories about a wailing and crying monster that lived in the forest to keep others away.

The boys were men now, and the news of Mark’s suicide had reached Nathan and Thomas. Mark had led a relatively successful life. He had gone on to college and had a high-paying job and a beautiful wife. His suicide was a shock to all who knew him. He seemed relatively steady, except that he was a little sensitive and always seemed to hold some dark secret just behind his eyes. He shared this secret with Nathan and Thomas. They had gone through high school together, each wondering if the others had told anyone, but never telling themselves.

So only the other two knew why Mark had killed himself. It was the same reason that they too had many sleepless nights and even considered suicide themselves. The girlish wails that woke them in the night, the dreams and visions of the little girl who no doubt died in her hiding place, the sensations of claustrophobia in the most open areas. Even though they had forgotten her name, they were haunted by the little girl of their past. Nathan and Thomas did not know of each other’s whereabouts, but both learned of their old classmate’s death.

Thomas stood in the weed-covered parking lot of the old school. It had been closed for a few years for lack of funding. Now windows were broken out and graffiti painted the sides of the building. The playground equipment was rusted and bent, and the soccer field was grown over with saplings.

The man leaned against his car, reflecting back on his years in the school, how things had changed after that fateful day. He was not a burly man, but had a rugged, scraggly beard. His clothes were wrinkled and he looked altogether neglected because of his friend’s death. The dreams and feelings had worsened since then.

As he stood silently watching the sun lower and trying to gather confidence, another car drove into the lot. At first he thought it may be a police, so he quickly fabricated a story as to why he was there. But from the new-looking white car stepped a familiar figure, eyes sunken and face sallow.

“Nathan?” Thomas lifted from his car.

“Hey, Thomas,” Nathan replied, stepping forward as he closed his car door. “It’s good to see you. How have you been?”

He too was ragged-looking, his hair messy and stubble on his chin.

The friends were happy to see each other, but knew what had brought them together. Greetings were brief, and they turned back to the silence that Thomas had been in before. Seeing that they were running out of light, Thomas broke the silence again.

“So, do you remember her name?”

“Michelle Collins,” Nathan replied, still looking away. “I researched it before I came. I actually still had a yearbook from way back then.”

Nathan said nothing more. Thomas was surprised at his friend’s hesitancy. He still expected his leader to tell him what to do next. Nathan had always had a leader’s attitude, and anyone around him felt they should do as he did. So Thomas waited nervously, hoping that Nathan would still lead him.

When Nathan did nothing, he said, “We’d better go do this. I’m sure neither of us wants to endure another night under this weight.”

“You’re not angry?” Nathan asked suddenly.

“What do you mean? About what?” Thomas asked in surprise.

The two began to walk.

“I still feel as though it’s all my fault,” Nathan continued. “I’m the one who came up with the idea, and I’m the one who told you and Mark not to tell…”

“We were kids back then,” Thomas interrupted him. “There’s no use putting the blame on anyone.”

They walked down the hill onto the soccer field and continued to the edge of the forest. Both felt the hairs on their necks stand on end as they stood paralyzed in sight of the old pipe. The dust path was covered with weeds and vines, and a sapling grew in front of the tunnel.

“Let’s go,” Nathan whispered to Thomas’s relief.

Nathan grabbed the sapling first, yanking it from the ground down to its roots. Each took a side of the pipe.

“Michelle,” Nathan called out. “I know we’re late, but we came back to let you out.”

Seized with emotion, Thomas cried, “You can play with us if you want to.”

Now taller and stronger, the men were able to free the pipe from the rocks, letting it tumble to the side as they looked into the cave.

Inside was a small figure, perfectly preserved in her tomb. She looked even smaller with the little flesh that remained and still had long brown hair done up in pigtails. A white dress with blue flowers was draped over the caved-in body leaning against the corner of the cave. The shoes lay awkwardly nearby, and the socks were still attached to her feet, though they were soiled now with decayed material.

At some point her jaw had come detached and lay at her curved-in wrists and fingers, leaving an open gap below her upper jaw where the men could see the front of her spine. She lay in a partial fetal position, her arms and hands curved inward and her legs sprawled to the side. Her head rested against the wall, showing her despair in her last days of imprisonment.

Thomas reared back, heaving and retching, and leaned against a nearby rock. Nathan crashed on the opposite side of the hideaway against a tree. His face had grown deathly pale and was dotted with perspiration from the exertion of moving the pipe and from the sight of the girl’s skeleton.

“When we were little, I used to wish that she would just go away and never come back,” he said dreamily.

“You still shouldn’t blame yourself,” Thomas said, spitting a little stomach acid which had made its way up his throat.

“So then, why don’t I feel any better from this?” Nathan sighed.

“I don’t either,” Thomas said, still standing. “Maybe it’s just these years of guilt. It can’t all just go away with a single act.”

“I think it can,” Nathan added. “Michelle wants something. That’s why she keeps haunting us. The guilt just drove us further away from her. It’s what killed Mark.”

“What do you propose we do, then?” Thomas asked.

Nathan gave a deep sigh and stood up. He walked back up the darkening path, followed by Thomas. By the time they were halfway across the soccer field back toward the parking lot, it was nearly dark.

“That really was a good hiding place she found,” Thomas whispered.

“Wait! That’s it!” Nathan stopped.

He turned and ran back to the forest edge. Thomas joined him.

“She’s been waiting for someone to find her all this time,” Nathan began. “No one’s found her, so we need to let her know that we’ve released her and no one’s looking for her.”

They both looked at each other, knowing exactly what the other was thinking, and yelled in unison, “Olly olly oxen free!”

Their calls echoed through the thick evening air. A moment later they could see, as though superimposed on reality, the rebuilt figure of little Michelle bounding up the hill from her hiding spot. She glowed slightly in the darkness and did not appear quite solid. She reached the edge of the forest, just a few feet from the men and looked around. Her eyes rested on the men, who gasped in shock. She turned and smiled silently, and then before their disbelieving eyes, she disappeared.

The men walked back up to the parking lot without a word between them. They knew for sure that she was free. There was no need to tell anyone. All she wanted was to know that she could come out of hiding and move on. Now they too could move on. Thomas and Nathan stood awkwardly between their cars in the glow of an old hazy-blue streetlight.

“So, that’s it,” Thomas shrugged. “I guess I’ll be seeing you around.”

“Yeah. I’ll see ya,” Nathan nodded. They walked to their cars.

“Hey, Thomas,” Nathan turned back.

“Yeah?” Thomas looked up hopefully.

“What do you say we go get some coffee? We’ve got a lot of catching up to do,” Nathan suggested.

“I’d like that,” Thomas smiled. “I know a great place just down the road.”

“I’ll follow you, then,” Nathan replied.

They got into their cars and rode off into the night.