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He's Right Behind You

by Kevin B

We’d go out around one.


Climbing through bedroom windows, we’d try to land softly on bushes and backyard lawns. Some of us went barefoot. Some hid a spare pair of sneakers under porches or tucked under tarps used for covering patio furniture. Some of us just liked being barefoot. It made us feel as though we’d have the strength that comes from mimicking the uncivilized. Some of us would play the whole game with no shoes. No shoes, no shirts. One of us liked to play the game in only his boxer shorts. He would dare anyone to mention his near nakedness. I’m not gay for running around the woods in my underwear. You’re all gay for looking at me in my underwear.


This is teenage logic. Everything is a chess match where both players have only recently discovered how to play Monopoly. Board games were daytime affairs. We would play them by the above ground pools and in basements while our parents were at work. We were old enough to be home alone provided we memorized the phone numbers of all the retired neighbors, who could, theoretically, get to us quickly in the event of an emergency.


Practically speaking, seventy-year-old Mrs. Hasher would not have been able to help any of us had a deranged murderer targeted us the way they did in the cable movies we weren’t supposed to watch, but our parents told themselves stories the same way we did. Stories about safety. Stories about good neighborhoods. Stories about how much a locked door could accomplish. Years ago, a girl had been abducted from her home on our street, but, the rumor was, she opened the door when a stranger knocked. Our parents didn’t say it, but they secretly believed that meant she deserved to be kidnapped. I mean, if your kid is dumb enough to open up the door for just anybody… They told themselves that we, their children, were smarter than that. Smarter than that girl.


We were not smarter.

We were, in fact, a lot dumber than her.


Of course, we didn’t know that. We thought we were geniuses. Genius, warrior, punks with wisdom and ferocity and all before our fifteenth birthday. We believed people were jealous of us, but we didn’t know who these people might be. We believed that everyone at school had gone to at least second base, and we were ashamed to have never seen a naked girl in real life. We laughed at the word “condom,” but we believed, given the opportunity, that we would be intrinsically fantastic at lovemaking. At school, we had posters in our locker of Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jennifer Love Hewitt and those of us who had gone to first base had that one poster of Cameron Diaz that would have gotten us suspended if a teacher saw it.


We’d gather at each other’s lockers and discuss the arrangements for the game that night. We’d agree on a spot in the woods. Some of us liked meeting at the tree that had been split in half by lighting. Some liked the rock formation that resembled an old man kneeling with his head down. Once the location was agreed upon, we’d argue about the time. Some of us wanted to meet at midnight on the dot. We didn’t realize that we were in love with the poetry of it, because we swore we hated poetry based on what our teachers had us read. Some wanted to do it later. Much later. Some wanted to meet at three or four so that the game would last until dawn.


Tomorrow’s Saturday. We don’t have school. What’s the problem?


The problem was that some of our parents got up around dawn. Some of our mothers would have a heart attack if they woke up and found our beds empty. Some of us didn’t want to worry our parents. Some of our fathers used a belt if we misbehaved. Some of us cared about our parents too much to let them know what their children were up to at night. Some of us feared our parents more than we feared anything in the woods. Some of us feared nothing. Some of us loved the idea of being gone when our parents woke up. Making them think that we’d escaped. That we were on a runway train somewhere moving further and further away from them. Some of us liked the feeling of the belt on our skin, because it solidified the hate we felt for the people we were meant to love the hardest.


We’d usually meet a little after one. If it was warm out, we’d meet by the lake where the summer camp used to be until it went out of business. The cabins were still there and the picnic tables and the signs that said “Mess Hall” and “Nurse’s Office.” The paint on the signs was fading. Vines were growing over the cabin windows. We didn’t explore the camp at night. Even the bravest among us weren’t that fearless. We’d seen at least one horror movie that took place at a camp, and we didn’t want to be chased by a man with a mask.


We only wanted to play a game. In our game, if you followed the rules, you didn’t get hurt. Nothing bad happened. If you broke the rules, the game was over for you, but that was it. No injuries. No harm. It was all about stamina. Sustaining yourself throughout the night. There wasn’t really any loss. There wasn’t even a real way to win.  Bragging rights were all we had to play for, and yet, they seemed more valuable than the hundred dollar bills our fathers would leave out on the kitchen counter as though tempting us to steal. Some of us did steal. Some of us felt the belt. Some of us liked it, but we’d never say who.


We started by the lake, and we faced off against each other. Eye-to-eye with another boy standing a foot away from you. That was how it began. We would face each other, take a deep breath, and say--


“He’s right behind you.”


One of us would say it. The other would listen. Then, the other person would say it--


“He’s right behind you.”


--And we would escalate the intensity. The rule was that you could not say anything other than those four words, but you could say them however you liked. We could shout them at each other. We could whisper them. Those of us who were more strategic knew that volume wasn’t enough. It was about having an action. An objective. It was important to keep a verb in mind.











“He’s right behind you.”


It didn’t matter that we played this game several times a week for two years. It didn’t matter that we knew--we knew--that nobody was behind us. Inevitably, someone would get spooked. One of us would run home. That first hint of terror was contagious. Soon, more of us would be retreating back to our homes. It was rare that more than three or four of us would be left by the end of the night. If your partner ran away, you would find someone else who had also lost their partner, and you would face off against them speaking the four words. If you were the only one without a partner, you stood silently and waited for someone to leave. Like most boys our age, we had no respect for anything we were meant to respect, and the utmost respect for imaginary things and made-up scenarios. School and church and authority and death were all laughable to us, but this game--this game that we had created out of nothing--this was something to be taken seriously.


None of us could remember who started it. Maybe an older boy who had since graduated from childishly sneaking out of his room at night. Maybe we all put it together like a story composed of hormones and dirty sweat. Maybe it didn’t matter. All that mattered was keeping it alive for as long as we could. We never spoke of the game outside of planning it between classes at our lockers. We never talked about who was good at it or bad at it. We never talked about who stayed the longest or who left first. We just played. We played and we never planned to stop playing.


One night, one of us was staring at his partner when he saw the other boy’s eyes look slightly to the left. This was against the rules. You only looked at your partner. You used the four words to scare them, if you could. You didn’t involve physicality. Not even a slight shift in focus. The other boy began to shake his head. This was wrong. This was against the rules. None of us knew what to do if someone broke the rules, because nobody had ever broken the rules. There were no referees, and, even if there were, it wouldn’t have mattered now, because there were only two boys left on that night. The other boy appeared to almost choke. He coughed out the words.


“He’s right behind you.”


The other boy looked as though he was going to raise an arm. Raise a hand. Point to something. Instead, he ran off. The other boy wasn’t supposed to run off. You were supposed to wait until the other person said the four words. You were supposed to give them a chance to scare you back. One of us stood there that night, all alone, and felt an immense pride extending down his shoulders and off into the ground below his feet. He was the only one left. A laugh barked past his lips. It was a nervous laugh, but he didn’t know where the nerves were coming from, and he wondered if he could get home before his father banged on his door to wake him up for school. If not, it would be the belt, but did that mean anything? He was the last one of us still standing there in the woods.


“He’s right behind me.”


He didn’t know why he said it. It wasn’t true. There was nobody behind him. Every sound was natural. Every presence an imagined one. Every instinct to flee was his paranoia trying to torment him now that all his fellow competitors were gone. He would stand in the woods for as long as he liked. He would enjoy this moment. Despite winning nothing, he would tell himself he was a winner. He was no longer one of us. He was someone else.


“He’s right behind me.”


But the game was over.


There was nobody left to scare.

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Kevin B is a writer and poet from New England. They have been published in Esoterica, Molecule, New Plains Review, and Havik. They are the George Lila Award winner for Short Fiction, and the Barely Seen Featured Poet of 2023. Instagram

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