[Reprinted from TALES OF HORROR AND HEAVEN: WELCOME TO THE SHADOWS]
First Printing February 2012
Copyright © 2012 Anthony Servante
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents
are the product of the Author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to Actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales
is entirely coincidental No portion of this book may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means without the
express written consent of the author and publisher.
Summer had finally arrived and we were glad to be through with the fourth grade, headed for the fifth. With school out for three months, playtime was in again, and there was nothing we enjoyed more than a good old game of hide-and-seek.
Our small group of players included the Mojave twins, Beanie and Stevie, me and Catch-Up, who was being kept back in the third grade again. He said that someday he would catch up to us in grade and ever since he said it we have called him “Catch-Up.” He grew so fond of the name that whenever we couldn’t find him and had to yell “ALL YE ALL YE EXTRA ALL GO FREE!”, he would yell back, “CATCH-UP FREE!” instead of using his real name, which was Ernesto.
Catch-Up was a pro at hide-and-seek. We must have called him FREE! in every game he ever played with us since he first moved into the neighborhood two years ago. Whenever he was called home FREE!, he would always pop up out of nowhere. Now you don’t see him, now you do. It was spooky. He was either the best player in the neighborhood or he was tricking us. That day when school let out, I came to the conclusion that he had to be cheating. There was no other explanation. I refused to waste my whole summer playing hide-and-seek with someone who was cheating. We never found him or his hiding places, so he had to be using other ways to win every time. The time came to kick Catch-Up out of our group of players. We could still play with only three of us. We didn’t need four players, especially when one was a cheater.
The next day I met with the Mojave twins to discuss the matter of kicking Catch-Up out of the group. We held the meeting at my house since Dad was at work and Mom didn’t speak English and wouldn’t know what we were talking about. I really didn’t want her to hear that we were about to kick Catch-Up out of our group. She liked little Ernesto, as she referred to him in Spanish, and I doubt she would have approved of our move against him.
“He has to be cheating. How come we never find him?” I asked the twins.
“Maybe he’s just a good player,” Beanie suggested, trying to defend him. “Just ‘cause we can’t find him doesn’t mean he’s cheating. We almost found him once. Remember?”
“I remember that night,” Stevie beamed, as if it were a day of legend or something short of a miracle. “His mother called him in ‘cause it started to rain and he didn’t have his jacket on. We were getting ready to yell “ALL YE ALL YE EXTRA!” when he came out of nowhere. He just appeared right behind us. All we had to do was turn around and we would’ve caught him. We almost did catch him that night.”
“Yeah, almost,” Beanie sighed, and the memory brought a smile to his face.
“Well, ‘almost’ don’t count,” I whined. “You either find him or you don’t. And we didn’t. We didn’t see where he was hiding. For all we know, he might have been following us around. Maybe he didn’t even have a hiding place. That’s against the rules, isn’t it?”
“I never heard of that rule,” Stevie protested modestly.
“Maybe he was hiding inside that apartment behind us. The rules say no one can use the insides of houses to hide or go across the street to hide—only the outsides on this block can be used. You guys remember those rules, don’t you? We’re the ones who made them up way before Catch-Up even moved to our block. I say he’s cheating. And how long should we stand for it when we know we’re never going to find him? Why bother even looking?”
“Maybe we shouldn’t give up either,” Beanie said. “I don’t want to be a quitter.”
“It’s not quitting to stop looking for a cheater. It’s quitting to keep looking for him when we know we’re never going to find him. Understand?” I stared Beanie down until he nodded his head that he understood.
“Kind of, but what about Catch-Up? He never did anything to us. Don’t you think we’re going to hurt his feelings?” Beanie tried but couldn’t suppress another sigh.
“He should’ve thought of that before he cheated us,” I said.
Stevie avoided meeting eyes with me but managed to agree somewhat reluctantly. “Well, I guess I don’t want to end up looking for him forever. But I don’t want to be the one to tell him, that’s all.”
“Me neither,” Beanie added. “I like him too much.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll do it.” I rubbed my sweaty palms on my pants. “Tonight he’s out.”
Catch-Up’s jaw fell open when I told him. He looked to the twins for some sign that it was all some kind of joke, but they avoided his gaze. “You guys don’t want me to play with you anymore, really?” he asked them.
“You shouldn’t be asking us,” Stevie said, pointing to me. “Ask him.”
“You don’t want me?” His wide-eyed look fell clumsily on me.
“It’s just that we can’t find you,” I said. “You’re too good to be playing with us. The guys across the street play better than us. Maybe you should play with them.”
“My mother doesn’t want me going across the street. She wants me only to play with you guys.” He wiped his runny nose with his dirty sleeve as he fought to keep the tears from flowing. “I could let you find me, if you want. I just want to play with you guys, not anyone else. I’ll let you find me, I swear.”
“It’s not the same thing,” I insisted, ignoring the pleas in his voice. I had hoped after I told him he was out that he would simply leave without a word, that he would merely accept it and walk away unfazed. I didn’t think he’d get watery eyes. I had to counter his tears somehow. The twins looked like they were ready to change their minds and back Catch-Up. I had to act quick. “You go play with someone else. You’re too good for us. We can never find you.”
“How ‘bout I don’t play but just go along with you? My mother likes me to play with you. Come on,” he begged, and the tears broke free.
“No,” I said, interrupting Stevie who was about to say something. He was quiet now. And Beanie stared down at he ground, pretending he wasn’t there, never once looking up at us.
Catch-Up wiped the tears on his cheeks, and composing himself as best he could, he said, “That’s okay if you don’t want to play with me anymore, but I still want to be friends with you, okay? Okay? I don’t have to play. Really. I just want to hang around with you until my mother calls me in at night. Okay? Please?”
I said no again and in anger pushed him back. “Go away. You’re a cheater.”
“I’m not,” he sobbed. “I won’t get in your way. I swear I won’t.”
“I don’t care, you cheater. Come on, guys, let’s go and leave this cheater alone.” I walked off and the twins followed.
“I’ll see you guys maybe tomorrow!” Catch-Up shouted after us. “Okay? Okay?”
“Yeah, m-m-maybe,” Stevie stuttered.
“No,” I countered. “No way. You go play with someone else, Ernesto.”
“Okay then, if that’s what you want. My mother says that you know what’s right and wrong and that I should always listen to you. ‘Cause then maybe I’ll catch up to you in school.” His sobs calmed to gentle sniffles and a few whimpers. “You were the best friends ever. Bye.”
He waved at us, turned and walked away. And for the first time in over two years, we played hide-and-seek without having any fun.
The next morning the twins demanded that I let Catch-Up back into the group. I agreed. They were surprised but glad. I told them about my dream where Catch-Up was all alone in a forest at night. The trees were petrified, and there were no insects or birds or anything living anywhere around. Catch-Up was hiding somewhere in the forest, waiting for us to come and find him, but he didn’t realize that we weren’t going to search for him anymore and waited so long for us that he turned into one of the trees. I woke up shaking and crying, and felt alone and afraid. I suggested that we go find Catch-Up so we could apologize to him. No, not we. Me. The twins hadn’t caught my mistake: It was me who owed him an apology.
When we got about halfway to Catch-Up’s apartment complex, we saw his mother walking toward us. She looked like she hadn’t slept in days. She walked right up to us and stopped. Her eyes were red and glazed; they seemed to stare right through us.
“My son is dead,” she said emotionlessly. “Why wasn’t he with you? I told him to only play with you because you know better. You get skipped ahead in school, and my poor boy gets held back. He liked you so much. No brothers, no father—you were the men in his life. You were supposed to take care of him. Where were you? Why does everyone abandon him? I work, you know. I couldn’t watch him all the time. That’s why I told him to play with you till I got home. Where was he going? I told him never to cross the street. The truck driver said he didn’t even see him. My poor boy, where were you going? Where was he going? Tell me. Where?”
She reached over and grabbed a handful of my hair, but she immediately relaxed her grip and stroked the top of my head.
“You were supposed to take care of him. He liked you so much. Said that he wanted to read all the books you read, see all the movies you see, and have all the friends you have. Where was he going? Why? My poor boy.”
There was crying in her voice yet none in her eyes. She seemed drunk, though I knew she wasn’t. But she was drunk of a different kind that I didn’t understand. She walked away, glancing around as if she expected Catch-Up to appear out of nowhere. After she turned the corner, we remained quiet for a few minutes, waiting for someone to break the silence but not wanting to be the one to do it.
It was Beanie who finally spoke up. “What do you think happened?” The question was directed at me.
“I don’t know. Something about a truck, I think.” I tried to sound like I didn’t hear it right. I didn’t want to be the one to sum things up.
“I know where he was going,” Stevie said. “He was going to play with the kids across the street like you told him to.”
“Yeah,” Beanie agreed.
There, it was out in the open.
The twins glared at me with expressions of dishonor on their face. I could feel the resentment surging through them. But the hatred was short-lived. ”It’s our fault, also,” Stevie said to Beanie. “We should blame ourselves too for him being dead.”
“Wait a minute,” I cut in. “How do we know he’s dead?”
“His mother said,” Beanie answered.
“That doesn’t prove anything,” I argued. “His mother always acts weird like that. Maybe she just thinks he’s dead, but he’s really alive.”
“Maybe he ran away,” Beanie suggested.
“Maybe he’s lost,” Stevie added.
“Maybe he’s hiding,” I said with a wide grin on my face.
And after I said it, we all grew quiet for a moment and let it sink in.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” I asked sarcastically. “Let’s go find him. Only this time we don’t quit. This time we find him.”
“Yeah,” the twins chorused. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
It was early afternoon, and the brightness of the sun made hide-and-seeking too obvious, too easy. Hide-and-seek was a game for the night. Under daylight there didn’t seem to be too many places to hide, and soon we had explored all the possibilities. But Catch-Up was a pro and must have found the impossible places to hide in. We had to search where we wouldn’t even think of searching. It would be there where we would find him. And everything would be back to normal.
We searched the garbage cans, the trash bins, under cars, between the long bedspreads hanging out to dry, behind bushes, up in the trees, beneath porches, on roofs, almost every square inch of the block. And the same thought kept occurring to me: Maybe Catch-Up was cheating. But no. He was hiding somewhere. He was somewhere. We continued searching even as the sun went down, and the long shadows stretched like black carpets laid out for the night.
We were exhausted, but we kept going. We split up and renewed the search. I must’ve looked in the same places a dozen times each. I checked the locks on several garage doors to make sure Catch-Up wasn’t hiding inside. They were all securely locked. I saw Stevie by the clotheslines and went to join him. “Where’s Beanie?” I asked.
“Right here,” he said, stepping out of a shadow made by the telephone pole.
“You scared the hell out of me. I didn’t even see you there. With those dark clothes on, you looked like part of the shadow. Don’t ever…”— Then it struck me. “Beanie, step back into the shadow.”
He did, and vanished into thin air. I could make out his face a bit in the dark, but that’s because I was squinting and trying to see him. If I wasn’t looking for him, I wouldn’t even know he was there.
“That’s it. Don’t you see? Catch-Up was using the shadows to hide in. He wasn’t cheating. He was there right in front of us the whole time. Don’t you see?” I pulled Beanie out of the shadow and stood in it myself. “Can you see me?”
“Yeah, with that white T-shirt on I can,” Stevie replied.
I yanked off the T-shirt and stood still for a moment so my brown skin could blend in with the darkness.
“Hey, that’s pretty good. I can see you but not completely,” Beanie said. “Let’s hide. Stevie, you try to find us.”
And the game began. We found literally hundreds of shadowy hiding places all over the block. Anything that could cast a shadow was a potential hiding place: a parked bus, a tree, bushes, buildings, garages, almost anything. We ran around, screaming for joy when we found a new shadow to hide in, finding each other with ease as we became accustomed to the game at hand. Catch-Up was playing a different kind of hide-and-seek than the twins and I were used to. How could I think he was cheating? We were cheating ourselves out of a better version of the game. Yet he looked up to us.
Completely exhausted, we fell on the moist lawn of Mrs. Garcia’s front yard. We sat there, trying to catch our breath. Suddenly, four teenagers walked menacingly up to us. We stood, readying ourselves to run off if one of them pulled a knife on us. When they moved beneath the street light and I saw their faces, I recognized them as the high-school dropouts who lived across the street. I had seen them many times spray-painting their nicknames on the walls in our neighborhood.
“Did you know the retard kid that got killed last night?” the one referred to as Puppet wanted to know.
“We don’t know any retarded kids,” I answered.
“Yeah, sure you do. You know, the one that got run over by the truck last night. He lived around here somewhere,” Puppet said, glancing around.
“Why do you want to know?” Beanie asked.
“’Cause we’re going to rob the place when his mother’s at the funeral,” the one labeled Jughead divulged.
“Shut up, pendejo,” Puppet scolded him. “Don’t tell them everything.”
“I didn’t tell them nothing they can do anything about,” Jughead apologized half-heartedly.
The other two wannabe gangsters stood like sentries in the background.
“Well, where’s the retard’s house?” Puppet demanded.
“His mother doesn’t have any money,” Stevie tried to explain. “She lives real poor.”
“Not from what we heard,” sneered Jughead. “We heard she earns her money on the streets and on the sheets.”
“I told you to shut up, vato,” Puppet growled. “So keep it shut. Now, you kids, I’m going to ask you one more time: Where does she live?”
“Nowhere. And you leave her alone,” I warned them. “We know who you are and where you live, and we’ll tell the cops what you told us. So you better get out of our neighborhood and forget about robbing anyone.”
“We have a hero here, eses,” Puppet mocked. “What shall we do with the big hero?”
“Kill him,” Jughead threatened.
“He’s all yours, Jughead, my man.” Puppet stepped back.
Before I could run, Jughead swung a fist that caught me square on the shoulder. I punched him back, and he laughed at the feeble little hits. He grabbed me by the neck with his hairy gorilla hand and lifted me off the ground. Then Puppet snapped his fingers and the two sentries attacked the twins. I could hear their grunts as the bullies pummeled them. I felt dizzy; Jughead tightened his grip on my neck. Suddenly the porch light went on, and Old Mrs. Garcia, the widow with all the cats, ordered the seven of us to go play somewhere else.
I took advantage of the startled Jughead and kicked him below the belt. He dropped to his knees in agony, releasing me. I landed on my feet and charged the sentries, knocking them off balance, then yelled at the twins to run. We darted into the alleyway with the drop outs right behind us. Jughead seemed to have recovered quickly and led the pack. But we were younger and faster than them, and soon we outdistanced them enough to elude them in our new hiding places.
They searched all our old hiding spots. Puppet sent his soldiers to look for us on the opposite side of the alley, while he and Jughead checked the trash bins, closing up the exits from the alleyway. They kept walking right by us. We remained calm and quiet, still in the shadows, watching them as Catch-Up must have watched us while we searched for him. I fought back the giddy excitement that was welling up in my belly. But now was not the time to laugh.
Jughead took a knife from his back pocket and unfolded it.
“Good idea,” said Puppet and readied his own knife. “I’m going to cut them slow, the way heroes should die.”
Jughead cackled as if killing were not new to him. “They’re in here in this alley somewhere. They can’t get out. They’re trapped
ratones, vato.” como
Puppet dragged the blade of his knife along the cement wall by the telephone pole shadow where Stevie stood hidden. The sparks from the knife lit up Stevie’s frightened face for a split second. “What have we here? Looks like dead meat.”
Stevie didn’t move as the drop out leader raised the weapon above his head. The shiny blade whooshed downward. The shadow swirled around Puppet’s arm and crushed it. I heard a big crack and then a bunch of little ones. He opened his mouth but didn’t scream. The blade dropped with a clang to the ground. But the shadow was not finished; it slithered like a snake into Puppet’s mouth then broke off all his teeth and carried them down his throat into his guts. I could hear him choking on the little pieces of his own teeth. He moaned as Jughead tried to figure out what was happening.
“Get over here,” Jughead yelled to his homies, who came just in time to see the darkness burst out of Puppet’s stomach. Teeth and blood and vomit struck the cholos’ faces. Additional shadows in the alley joined in the attack. Some had claws, some had fangs, others had black blades. The sentries swatted the darkness with trash can lids, but the shadows cut through the metal and twirled like black chainsaws into the scared faces of the two bullies. Their cheeks and noses and lips and eyebrows flew all over the place. Blood and snot ran out of the holes where their noses used to be. Jughead swung the knife in front of him, but a shadow covered his hand and the sound of breaking sticks echoed in the alley. The black snake returned and tore into one of Jughead’s ears and came out of the other. Lumpy stuff poured from his ear, as his jaw kept moving up and down like one of those wind-up skulls. Suddenly his jaw stopped and he dropped to the ground. The shadows came together and made the shape of a little boy. He waved to us. And then the shadows went back where they belonged—on the walls, on the ground, under the trees. I didn’t even notice that the shadows had put all the pieces of the four drop outs into a pile in the middle of the pavement.
It all happened so fast. I stepped out of my hiding place and looked at the pile of flesh steaming in the alleyway. The twins each grabbed one of my arms and told me to move, that we had to get out of there. As we ran across Mrs. Garcia’s front yard, we heard her screams coming from her backyard by the alley. She must have found the bodies. We stayed quiet on Mrs. Garcia’s front lawn and wondered what had just happened to us.
“The shadows saved me,” Stevie said.
“They saved us,” I corrected him.
There was an awkward pause as it all sank in. Then Beanie suggested, “We should get back to looking for Catch-Up.”
The words caught me off guard. I sat on the grass and sobbed till my body was sore. Stevie dropped to his knees and wept. Beanie knelt on one knee and cried as well. In the background police lights spun and police car radios buzzed with static voices. It seemed that we would never run out of tears, but we did. The search was over. We were beat by the best in the game of hide-and-seek, and our friend protected us. He had appeared out of nowhere again and helped us.
Throughout the neighborhood we could hear parents calling their children home from this night of violence and death. I heard my dad calling. The twins heard their mom yelling their names. We stood, wiped the tears and cleared the sniffles from our runny noses. Then together we shouted “ALL YE ALL YE EXTRA ALL GO FREE!” and ran home without waiting for the reply that we knew we would never hear again: “CATCH-UP FREE!”