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Come Out And Play

The fog settled in on Monday, just as the children of Hollow Pines were coming back to school from the weekend. It blanketed the streets in gray, making it difficult to see any more than ten feet. The grey mist came during the night, creeping out of nowhere to fill the town, turning people into blurry, dark shapes as they moved throughout the city that morning, the dim glow of the street lamps providing guidance through the fog.

Hollow Pines Elementary School was located immediately across the street from the town's only cemetery. As Tom walked to school, he peered through the graveyard's iron fence, glancing cautiously at the black lumps that the fog had obscured the headstones into. Every few seconds, he looked over his shoulder to make sure no one saw him. His parents didn't like him being near the cemetery, and they certainly wouldn't have approved of him trying to read the tombstones. Tom crossed the street and walked onto the playground. Dry leaves rustled in the graveyard behind him. The fog wasn't the only thing that had crept through the streets Sunday night.

Joey sat on the swings, gently creaking back and forth through the autumn air. He was in the grade above Tom, but still a good friend. Tom set down his book bag on the gravel and took the swing beside him.

"Morning." Tom said.

"Morning. Did you hear about the fog?"

"Yeah. My dad says it's so dense he can hardly drive to work."

"It's thick enough I bet you could cut it with a knife. Like cheese." Tom thought for a moment

"What d'you suppose fog would taste like."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, if you could slice it, like you said, couldn't you eat it, then?"

"Of course not. I was only joking when I said that." He swung higher.

"Oh." Tom had stopped swinging altogether. "What do you think happens when we die?" Joey stared at him.

"Where'd you get a question like that from?"

"Well, I was walking by the boneyard on the way to school, trying to read the tombstones and whatnot, and I just started thinking." Joey had stopped swinging, too.

"I suppose," he said "that we rot. We rot, and all the worms eat us up, 'til there isn't anything left but a skeleton." He turned toward Tom, and a smile spread across his face. "And then," he whispered "when the full moon rises, we claw ourselves outta the grave, and snatch up the living children and eat them alive!" He pushed Tom, sending him swinging sideways, and cackled. The bell rang, and they picked up their bags and ran toward the entrance.

Tom often found class dull. This was not because he did not enjoy learning, as much as it was because he did not enjoy school. At home, he loved to read, and spent hours using the microscope his parents had bought him last Christmas, but in school, he simply became bored. That Monday was no exception. He sat in the small classroom staring at the floor as his teacher discussed the nine planets and their moons. Tom was on the verge of sleep when he heard something. There was a soft tapping at the door behind him. He looked up at the teacher, to see if she would ask him to open it, since his desk was closest, but she didn't notice. Tap tap tap. He turned in his desk and looked through the window at the top of the door. Outside was a man, wearing a paper bag over his head with two holes for his eyes. The bottom of the bag was held by a length of coarse twine wrapped tightly around his neck to keep it from falling off, which gave him the appearance of a scarecrow. Or at least it would have, if not for the bright blue eyes peering through the holes in his paper bag mask.

Tap tap tap. His long, pale finger rapped against the door as he peered in at Tom, eyes bulging.

"Tom." He whispered. His voice was like sandpaper. "Come out and play with me."

"Who are you?" Tom whispered

"Come play with me, Tom." The voice that came from behind the brown sack was high and whining, like that of an adult trying to imitate a child.

"Leave me alone."

"We can play hide and seek. Why won't you come and play?"

"Go away!" Tom hadn't realized he was shouting. The teacher made her way through the rows of desks toward him.

"Tom," she said, "who are you talking to?"

"There's a man out there." Tom blurted. "He's got a bag over his head like a scarecrow."

"There's not a man outside my classroom, Tom. Are you lying to me?" Tom looked out the door. The scarecrow man was gone.

"No, I'm not lying! There was a man!"

"No, there was not. I would like you to see me after school is finished for the day, Tom."

"He was there! He told me to come play with him!" Some of the children had begun giggling.

"That will be enough, Tom." Tom was silent.

"Yes, m'am." He sighed. The teacher turned back toward her textbook. When class was done, she had him stay behind and straighten up. When Tom was let go, all the other children were already safe inside their homes. The fog had grown thicker. Across the street, by the cemetery gates, the man with the paper bag mask was waiting. He stood beneath the fluid orange glow of a street lamp, singing in his high, scratchy voice, loud and off key, muffled by the fog.

"Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb."

"What do you want?" Tom asked, stepping toward the curb.

"Come closer."

"No. Leave me alone."

"Come closer, Tom. I want to show you something." Tom's foot moved off the curb and into the street, stepping toward the masked man. He began singing again. Tom kept walking, slowly and methodically making his way into the road. "Mary had a little lamb." The man sang, raspy and whining, "Little lamb, little lamb, little lamb." Tom shuffled closer. Headlights moved through the fog, gliding toward him as he stood in the center of the street. "Mary had a little lamb. The butcher cut its throat." Brakes squealed as the car hurtled toward Tom, slipping on the damp pavement. The car horn blasted. Tom leapt backward as the car shrieked to a stop just beyond the place where he had been standing. He stood up. The paper bag man was gone.

As the sky darkened with the approach of night, Tom walked back to his house. He could almost make out the sound of footsteps behind him for the entire way.

Tom's father greeted him at the door, and after a brief discussion of why Tom was late, they sat down to dinner. Tom was sent to bed early, as a sort of punishment. His parents decided they would talk with the teacher and make sure things were sorted out properly, and Tom was told not to disrupt class again. After an hour or so, they went to sleep as well. Tom did not sleep. His room was on the first floor, and had a large window on the wall across from his bed, one which looked out on the front yard and the street. The streetlight frequently shone through this window, and tonight was no different. Only this time there was a shadow. Tom's parents had set up a pair of curtains on the window to block the light, but they were little help. Rather than blotting it out, they dimmed the light to a faint orange glow. In this whisper of light, Tom could make out the blurred, black shape of a man. He glanced at the floor, looking for his flashlight. Unable to find it, he looked back to the window. The silhouette was larger now. Closer. He turned to his nightstand and fumbled for the lamp. It wouldn't turn on. Cautiously, Tom turned his gaze to the window again. The black shape was looming now, filling up almost the entire glass frame, its shadow blocking out most of the orange light from outside. There was a tapping noise, as it reached up and drummed its fingers against the pane, followed by a voice.

"Come out and play." It was the same mocking, high, nasal voice he had heard from outside the classroom door. "Come play Hide and Seek, Tom."

Shaking, Tom moved across the carpet, toward the window. The paper bag man started tapping on the glass again. Tom grasped the edge of the curtain.

"Mary had a little lamb..." The man outside began to sing. Tom yanked the curtain back. There was nothing there.

"Little lamb, little lamb..." The voice was coming from somewhere else now. It was coming from inside the house. The floorboards in the hallway creaked. Tom let go of the curtain. Slowly, he turned toward his bedroom door.

"Tom... Come out and play..." Tom whirled around. Something cold and dark and smelling of rotten leaves clamped over his mouth. "Sleep now." The voice rasped into his ear. His eyes slipped shut.

Tom woke in the graveyard. A light spatter of rain on his face and the sound of distant thunder stirred him from sleep, as he opened his eyes and see nothing but the inky night sky. He lifted himself to his knees and looked around, breathing in the thickening mist. The shadow-wrapped forms of tombstones surrounded him on all sides. The man with the bag over his head was standing at the base of a withered willow tree, hands held over his eyeholes.

(No peeking.)

He was counting. Tom stood up. The man was counting backwards.

"Thirteen...twelve...eleven..." The game had begun. It was time to hide. Tom ran through the fog, trying to avoid stumbling over the dark, soft shapes of roots and stones.

(Ten. Nine. Eight.)

There were things moving in the mist. Grey wisps of things. Not solid, but with form and substance. And faces. They slipped among the trees, gliding like the fog itself. Whispering. Creeping on spiders' legs as they grasped at Tom's face, trying to hold him back. He kept running. He needed somewhere to hide.

(Seven. Six. Five.)

The things were chasing him. They moved much faster now, no longer wisps but something else, as they slowly faded from grey to pitch black, glistening exoskeletons forming over their limbs, encasing them. They made faint noises as they scurried over the cold ground and papery leaves. Scurrying toward him. Tom didn't look behind him.

(Four. Three. Two.)

He leapt behind a tombstone, trying his best to quiet his heaving lungs and pounding heart. They things in the fog had morphed and darkened into a fluid black swarm, scuttling beneath the mist, climbing over one another. Claws clicked. He could feel them crawling over his legs. Tom shut his eyes.

(One.) "Ready or not, here I come!" The scarecrow man screeched through the still air. The things were climbing up Tom's chest, up toward his face. He didn't move. He could hear the footsteps, the leaves crunching, the man whistling under his breath. One of the black, beetle-like things found its way up his neck and wriggled down into the collar of his shirt. He felt its needle legs digging into his chest. The footsteps were closer. More of the swarm crept onto his throat and face, trying to push their shining, dark forms between his lips. The whistling seemed to be right beside his ear. They were covering him, his eyes, his face, the black bugs were everywhere. He wanted to scream, but if he opened his mouth, they would fill it.

"Found you." The bugs slithered away. Tom turned his head in the direction of the voice. Behind him, two cold blue eyes bulged from inside the brown paper. He stared into them. Giggling, the man slowly reached up and pulled off the mask.

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