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The children were playing tag—it was as simple as that. Deep in the forest, they ducked around the bare trunks of a thousand skinny trees, kicking up curtains of red-brown leaves behind them. A bitter cold wind washed into the air, a sign of the summer’s surrender, but it bothered them little; their thick coats and warm scarves kept them safe from its bite. As they tore up the fog at their ankles, laughter ricocheted off of every surface, free from the confinement of authority. The longer they played, the denser the woods appeared, the thicker the fog grew, and the darker the clouds in the sky became. But the children hardly seemed to notice as the game consumed them.
“I got you, Michael! I got you!”
“You didn’t! That was my scarf!”
“Doesn’t matter! Scarves count!”
“No, they don’t!”
“You’re ‘it!’ You’re ‘it!’”
Two children skidded to a stop, collecting moldy leaves beneath their sneakers. Wesley, the oldest, stood proudly upright, with clouds of his breath billowing from his lips. In front of him, Michael scowled furiously, the violent red hue of his scarf disrupting the gray forest like a spot of blood. Somewhere, a stick snapped. The other children formed a circle around them.
“You’re ‘it’ now, Michael,” Wesley panted. “I tagged you, fair and square.”
“You did not!” Michael protested adamantly. “It’s still your turn.” He turned to the others. “Wesley is ‘it,’ everyone!”
The children stayed put. Wesley crossed his arms, unmoved. Then the smallest boy, Sam, stepped forward, rubbing his arms in the cold.
“Scarves really don’t count,” he said, in his delicate voice. The words went to Wesley, but his eyes wandered elsewhere. “You weren’t close enough to tag him, so he shouldn’t be ‘it.’”
Wesley heard the murmurs of agreement spreading across the cluster of children and quickly turned on Sam.
“That’s not the rule!” he spat, causing Sam to flinch. “I was close enough to reach his scarf, and that counts.” Wesley looked wildly out on the group. “Michael is ‘it!’”
Before Sam could utter another word, he was knocked to the ground by the onslaught of children as they exploded in every direction away from Michael. He scrambled to his feet and shrank away just in time to avoid the reach of Michael’s infuriated hand.
And so the game resumed, along with the echoing laughter and shrieks of surprise. The children tore up the fog at their ankles, running faster than they wanted to, knowing that none of them were safe from each other. Anyone could be “it,” and “it” could be anywhere. Each child jumped at the sight of another, or at the twisting and moaning of branches in the wind. But, of course, it was only a game. The fright was all for fun.
Then one child, turning around a particularly thick tree, gasped aloud to find a man standing just inches in front of him.
But the man was not really standing. His feet were not connected to the ground; he seemed to be floating. His bare feet had grown so cold that they had acquired a blueish tint. His pants, baggy and weathered, were perhaps unfit for these cold, dark woods. He wore a white shirt with plain buttons and the sleeves rolled up a few inches. Most strikingly, his face held no emotion; his eyes drooped, his mouth hung, his cheeks sagged, like a flower past its peak. The child shortly realized that the man wasn’t hovering at all—he was hanging by a loop of rope around his neck.
The game was called off, and the children formed a half circle around the man in the tree. None of them blinked; they couldn’t take their eyes away as his body slowly turned in the wind. Expecting him to lunge forward at any moment, their own bodies were tense. Tense, but not afraid—except for Sam, who stood behind the group, staring at his own restless feet.
“What will we do with him?” Michael asked the crowd.
The children whispered, unsure whether they wanted to do anything at all with the man in the tree. Wesley stepped forward to speak for them.
“Everybody, grab a stick,” he announced. “The biggest you can find. We’ll turn him into a piñata!”
Almost immediately, the children were in agreement. With a cheer, they all broke off to find the biggest, toughest sticks in the forest. In a matter of minutes they returned, armed and ready, to the man in the tree. Except for the sound of their breathing, the forest was silent.
It was Wesley, of course, who placed the first blow. His branch collided bluntly with the man’s chest, sending him rocking backwards, away from the group. Upon his return, Michael lunged forward and swung his stick, landing on the left leg. With that, the prelude concluded and the whole group advanced, wielding rotting limbs like clubs, battering the piñata with no end in sight. They pounded away; the figure looked less human with every blow.
Amid the snaps and thuds, Sam stood back, empty-handed, with his eyes on the forest floor. He felt his stomach stirring, and knew he couldn’t bare to look up from the ground. Only he recognized how terrible a game this was. He wished the fog would grow thick enough to hide the sight, but the swinging of weapons only seemed to dispel it.
A pair of sneakers planted themselves in front of him. Beyond them, the frenzy continued.
“Where’s your stick, Sam?” Wesley asked. His crossed arms rested smugly below the devilish smile on his face. “Don’t you want to join in?”
“No,” Sam said. “That man is scary, and already dead. You have no reason to destroy him more.”
Wesley’s eyebrow twitched. “You’re too scared?” he spat. “No one else is afraid. We’re all having fun!”
At that moment, with a devastating blow to the head from Michael, the piñata split open at the neck, slipping from its loop of rope and crumpling in a pile to the ground. Sam could hardly recognize the man from the tree.
“We need a new piñata,” Michael concluded, already scanning the forest.
The request pricked Wesley’s ears. He grabbed Sam firmly by the shoulders and spun him around to face the swarm. “Sam is the smallest,” he announced. “We’ll use him!”
Before Sam could object, the mob lifted him into the air directly above the mangled piñata. Despite his shouts and cries, they refused to put him down, cheering mindlessly, raising their weapons triumphantly in the air. They brought him toward the loop of rope, now empty.
The roar of voices beneath Sam was deafening and terrifying. Another child was lifted into the air, reaching for the rope to seal Sam’s fate. In a panic, he smacked the rope away, but it only swung back to him. Finally, as the other child grew nearer, Sam snatched the rope into his hands and pulled, lifting himself away from the frenzy of children. He shook the shoes from his feet to release them from the grip of a few remaining hands and continued into the tree without them.
As he scurried up the rope, the crowd grew rowdy with anger. They launched rocks and sticks after him, and, unable to dodge them, Sam let them glance off his skin and ignored the pain. The weapons rained up from below him, and the palms of his hands burned, and his eyes grew blurry with terror, until he finally reached the end of the rope. He grabbed the branch and pulled himself onto it. Safely out of range of the artillery, scratched and bruised, he looked down at the chaos surrounding the ruined piñata.
“Leave him be!” Wesley shouted to his army. “I have a better idea. We’ll have a game of tag; whoever I tag becomes the new piñata!”
And just like that, the game began again. Fog continued to roll in from every corner, but from above Sam saw all their heads clearly. He watched Wesley switch from boy to boy, giving up on one, pursuing another. The wind howled, the leaves scattered, and the man at the base of the tree laid still and silent. The surrounding shrieks of laughter suddenly seemed chillingly unnatural against the rest of the decaying forest.
Sam shut his eyes, too afraid to look down. Wesley was ‘it’ now; perhaps he always would be. That way, he could never lose. Sam couldn’t bear to see who was tagged. To them, of course, it was only a game. Only Sam knew that it was not.