Laughter echoed off the hundred-year-old trunks a thousand skinny trees, dampened by the pounding of feet on a crisp forest floor. There was a chill in the air, a cruel reminder of the tough winter ahead. Fog tumbled silently past gnarled tree roots that had not tripped anyone in months. Wind slithered between branches and yanked the red-brown leaves up into the air through which they had once fallen; the few remaining in the trees trembled with resistance. Through it all the children zigzagged through the brush, in their heavy jackets and mittens and hats, squealing and shrinking away from each other at all costs.
“I got you, Michael! I got you!”
“You didn’t! That was my scarf!”
“Scarves count, don’t they?”
“No, they don’t!”
“You’re ‘it’! You’re ‘it’!”
Two children skidded to a stop, collecting damp leaves under their sneakers. Wesley, the oldest, stood proudly upright, with clouds of breath billowing from his face. In front of him, Michael scowled furiously, the violently red hue of his scarf disrupting the gray forest like a spot of blood. Somewhere, a stick snapped. The other children gathered around them in a circle.
“You’re ‘it’ now, Michael,” Wesley panted. “I tagged you, fair and square.”
“You did not!” Michael protested. He hated being “it,” and would do everything in his power to avoid the assignment. “It’s still your turn.” He turned to the others. “Wesley is ‘it,’ everyone!”
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. He shuffled his feet through the leaves. “He wasn’t close enough for you 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 whole group. “Michael is it!”
Before Sam could utter another word, he was knocked to the ground by the frenzy of children as they exploded in every direction away from Michael. He swiftly scrambled to his feet and shrank away just in time to avoid the touch of Michael’s frustrated hand.
And so the game resumed, along with the echoing laughter and shrieks of surprise. The children tore up the layer of fog at their ankles, and their hearts pounded from running faster than they wanted to. None of them were safe from each other. Each child jumped at the sight of another, out of fear that anyone could be “it,” and that “it” could be anywhere. But, of course, it was only a game. The fright was all for fun.
Then one child, as he turned around a particularly thick tree, gasped aloud to find a man standing just inches in front of him.
But the man was not standing. His feet were not connected to the ground; he seemed to be floating. His bare feet looked so cold that they had begun to acquire a blue tint. His pants were baggy and weathered, perhaps unfit for such a forest. 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, as if he were a robot that had run out of batteries. The child shortly realized that the man wasn’t hovering at all; he was hanging by a 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. Their own bodies were tense, as if expecting him to lunge forward at any moment. However, the children were not afraid, except for Sam, who stood behind the group, staring at his own shuffling feet.
“What should we do with him?” Michael asked the crowd.
The children whispered among themselves, 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!”
As with most things Wesley suggested, the children were in agreement almost immediately. 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.
Wesley placed the first blow. His branch collided heavily with the man’s chest, sending him rocking slowly backwards, away from the group. Upon the man’s return, Michael lunged forward and swung his stick, landing on the left leg. Then the whole group advanced, wielding the rotting limbs like clubs, battering the piñata with no end in sight. They pounded away, and the figure began to look less and less human.
Amid all 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 looking 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 it only seemed to fade.
A pair of sneakers planted 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. There's no point in destroying 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 crumbling in a pile on 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 by the shoulders and spun him around to face the swarm. “Sam is the smallest,” he claimed. “Let’s use him!”
Before Sam could object, he was lifted into the air and held directly above the mangled piñata. Despite his shouts and cries, they refused to put him down as they cheered mindlessly, raising their weapons triumphantly in the air. They brought him toward the loop of rope.
The roar of voices underneath him was deafening and terrifying, and, in a panic, Sam smacked the rope away, but it only swung right back to him. After finding resistance futile, he grabbed hold of the rope upon its return and pulled himself away from the frenzy of children. A few strong hands were still fastened to his shoes, so he shook the shoes from his feet and continued into the tree without them.
The attitude of the crowd turned to anger as he scurried up the rope. The mob launched rocks and sticks after him, and, unable to dodge them, Sam let them glance off his skin and ignored the pain. The weapons continued to rain up from below, and the palms of his hands burned, and his eyes grew blurry with terror, until he finally arrived at the end of the rope. Out of range of the children’s artillery, he grabbed the nearest branch and pulled himself onto it. He took an unsteady breath and sat safely upon the branch to witness 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. Sam watched Wesley switch from boy to boy, giving up on one and pursuing another. The fog rolled in from every corner, but from above Sam could see everybody clearly. 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 was too afraid to look down. He couldn’t bear to see who was tagged, knowing that Wesley could never lose. To them, of course, it was only a game. Sam knew better now.