The Soul Game
First, I need to apologize to you. I am so sorry. I’m coming to you in my time of need.
Please help me.
Please read this to the end.
That’s it. That’s all I ask. I don’t know what to do or where to turn. Please just help me. That’s all I ask.
My name is Andrea, and I’m a single mother.
I don’t tell you this like it’s some badge of honor and I’m expecting cookies, milk, and chocolate-covered snowflakes like most of the others in my social circle would. They want your pats on the back and recognition; I just want some of your time.
I see motherhood as a burden. Necessary, yes, but still a burden. My son’s name is Jesse. He’s eleven. That’s fifth grade for the math haters.
Jesse started the fifth grade this year like any other kid would. There was a little bit of trepidation and lots of excitement. He was a happy-go-lucky sort of kid. Full of life and energy.
All that changed after he met Stan on Tuesday.
Stan was a late addition to Jesse’s class; a transfer student from another district. Jesse’s teacher sat Stan next to Jesse.
When I picked Jesse up after school on Tuesday, he told me that Stan was his new best friend. He wasn’t acting like himself though. He was pale and sweaty. I took his temperature, but he wasn’t running a fever. I asked about his day and all he would tell me was that Stan was his new best friend.
“Stan’s my new best friend,” Jesse would say.
“I know. I can’t wait to meet him,” I’d say back.
“Mom, Stan is great. You should meet him. He’s my new best friend. The best in the world.”
We must’ve had this same conversation a thousand times that night. When I tucked Jesse in bed, he looked up at me with tears in his eyes. He put his little hand in front of his face and wiggled his index finger, telling me to come closer.
I bent over him and he put his hands to either side of his mouth. You know, the little kid way of telling a secret? Well I turned my head and he whispered something into my ear that chilled me. At the time, I didn’t know why it chilled me, but it did.
He whispered, “You believe me. Right, Mom?”
I sat back up and looked down at him. “Believe you about what, honey?”
“Stan,” he said. “Stan’s my best friend.”
I nodded and took his temperature once more.
Again, he wasn’t running a fever.
I went to bed, but couldn’t really sleep that night.
On Wednesday, when I pulled up to the school to drop Jesse off, he got this really weird look on his face and told me that he didn’t want to go in.
“Are you feeling sick?” I asked.
“No,” he said. He was chewing on his bottom lip like crazy. This was something else I’d never seen him do. “No. I need to go to school.”
He opened the car door and got out.
No I love you.
He trudged up the front steps of the school with his head down. I let off the brake and turned away to drive to work.
A little boy was standing right in front of my car. Two more seconds and I would’ve run him over. The boy was pale, with a mop of blonde hair that was almost white and bright blue eyes. He knocked on the hood of my car twice, waved once, and walked up the stairs to school.
When I picked Jesse up after school on Wednesday, he looked a lot better. He was a tiny bit paler than normal, but he seemed happy. He told me all about his day. He told me about dinosaurs, and music, and math, and then he told me about recess.
“And then after math period, we had recess. Mom, you’ll never guess what I did today at recess.”
“Tell me,” I said, smiling to myself as I’m driving. I’m thinking tag, football, keep away. All the things I remember the boys doing at recess when I was that age. Something benign, something normal.
“I joined a church!”
I frowned at this. “A church? At… recess?”
Jesse nodded. “The church of Stan.”
I thought that it must be some sort of new make believe game that the kids were playing.
“What’s the church of Stan?” I asked.
“It’s Stan’s church, Mom.” Jesse laughed like I was the silliest person in the world for asking that question.
“What do you guys do though? You know, as members?” I asked.
“Lots of stuff. Today though, we just listened to Stan talk. He was saying some funny words and I got sleepy and dozed off. A bunch of us did.”
I pulled into the driveway at home and we got out.
“Was that it?” I asked. Things sounded weird for sure, but the kids didn’t seem to be doing anything wrong.
“Stan gave us flyers, too.”
Jesse pulled out a crinkled up piece of paper and handed it to me.
It was a piece of manilla paper with three words written in black marker.
Church of Stan.
Again, weird, but nothing wrong. I just thought the boys were playing make believe.
I was wrong.
When I picked Jesse up after school yesterday, I could tell that something was very wrong with my little boy. He looked panicked and scared.
“What’s going on, honey?” I asked, reaching out to feel his forehead.
“We played The Soul Game today,” he said. Jesse’s head was on a swivel. He couldn’t sit still. He kept looking all around as we headed home.
“The Soul Game?” I asked.
Jesse just nodded and kept trying to look everywhere at once. Beads of sweat dotted his upper lip.
“What’s The Soul Game?” I asked.
Jesse shook his head no and said nothing.
“Jesse, what’s The Soul Game?” I asked.
“I told him I didn’t want to, but he said he wouldn’t be my friend anymore if I didn’t play.”
“Who wouldn’t be your friend? Where were the teachers?”
Jesse started breathing harder, but still answered.
“It happened in the church,” he said. Then he whispered, “Teachers aren’t allowed in the church.”
“The Church of Stan?” I asked.
Jesse nodded, and a tear slipped down his cheek.
“What’s The Soul Game, Jesse? I’m your mother. You tell me right now and I’ll take care of everything,” I said.
“I can’t tell you, Mom. I can’t. The rules are bad. They’re so bad.”
“What about Stan?” I asked. “Will Stan tell me the rules?”
“NO!” Jesse screamed this and scared me half to death. “DON’T ASK HIM THE RULES. PLEASE DON’T, MOM. PLEASE.”
I pulled into the driveway, scared and confused.
“Promise me, Mom. Promisemepromisemepromisemeplease.”
Jesse was bawling now, terrified. I took him into my arms and rocked him. I hadn’t rocked him like that since he’d been in Kindergarten. He fell asleep in my arms and I carried him inside. I took him straight to his room and got him ready for bed.
He just needs sleep, I kept telling myself. All he needs is sleep.
I put him to bed and ate dinner alone. I checked up on him around nine when I went to bed. He seemed to be sleeping well so I decided to go to sleep.
I woke up to him screaming at the top of his lungs eighteen minutes after midnight last night. I ran to his room, but he wasn’t in his bed. I turned on the light and Jesse came flying out of the closet like something was chasing him. He latched onto my leg and kept screaming.
I tried to calm him down and ask what was wrong at the same time.
He wasn’t making any sense. He kept screaming about The Soul Game.
He was impossible. I kept asking what that was, but he wouldn’t tell me.
I tried to put him back to bed, but he would have none of it.
Finally, I just took him to my room and he slept in my bed. Jesse fell right to sleep. I was lying on my side watching him, stroking his hair, when his eyes popped open and he stared right into mine.
“I’ll tell you the rules after school tomorrow, lady,” he said. Then he closed his eyes.
What was going on with my kid?
In the darkness, I stared at the ceiling for a long time before rolling over to my side and staring into the bathroom.
You know how when you’re edge of sleep, sometimes your leg will kick and jerk you awake? Or you’ll imagine you’re falling or that you’ve just tripped over something and get jerked awake?
That happened to me all last night, only I kept being ripped from sleep by seeing something in the doorway to the bathroom.
Every time my eyes would start to slip shut, I’d see the dark outline of something large in the doorway and jerk awake. Of course nothing would be there, and I would start falling asleep again. The outline would appear in the doorway once more, but it would be closer to me, like it had taken a baby step.
Over and over this happened until morning.
This morning on the way to school, Jesse seemed out of it. Lethargic. I felt the same way. I was even more exhausted. I thought of asking Jesse about what he’d said right before he fell asleep, but couldn’t. I was afraid it would send him into hysterics again so I left it alone.
I drove him to school, and he didn’t say a word the whole time. He was acting like a robot; listless, unemotional.
I got a call, shortly after dropping him off, to come pick him back up. He’d vomited in class.
When I picked him up, he was the same. I asked him several questions, but he only gave me grunts in response. The plan at home was to get him changed out of his dirty clothes and then take him to the doctor.
He didn’t say anything until we pulled into the driveway.
“Can Stan come over today?” He asked. He stared out windshield at the garage door.
“You’re not feeling well, honey, and do you really want him to come over?” I asked. I wanted to meet this kid, but it didn’t sound like Jesse wanted him over. I, however, wanted to get to the bottom of things.
“Yes,” Jesse said.
“Okay,” I said. “Do you have his parent’s number?”
“He already asked his parents, and they said it was okay.”
“We have to wait until he’s out of class, and I’d still like to talk to his parents.”
“Okay.” Jesse got out of the car and we walked into the house.
“You have their number?” I asked as I shut the door.
“No,” he said.
I started to ask him how I was supposed to call them if I didn’t have their number, but someone knocked on the door.
I was still standing right next to it.
I opened the door, and standing on my front step was the pale little boy with the blue eyes and mop of white-blonde hair that I’d almost run over on Wednesday. A little girl stood next to him with the same complexion.
“Yes?” I asked.
“Hi, Driz,” the little boy said. “Is Jesse home?”
The little boy standing on my front porch shouldn’t have known that name. It was my nickname from college. Created on a drunken night amongst my girlfriends, shortened from Drizzy.
“No,” I said.
“That’s fine,” the little girl said. “My name is Devin, and you already know my brother’s name.”
“Stan,” I said.
The little girl covered her mouth and giggled.
Stan smiled and shrugged. “It’s really quite simple. Rule one: don’t walk past mirrors in the dark. Rule two: don’t leave any doors open when you go to bed tonight. Ask your son what rule three is and remember, a creak means you’re falling behind, a rustle means you’ve almost lost. When the lights go down, hopefully you won’t see the dark shadow standing in the corner of the room. Hopefully you won’t hear it breathing as your eyes shut and you begin to drift off. And if you hear a bang? Well, hopefully you never hear a bang.”
Stan turned and walked away with his sister.
I stared after them both and shook my head. I wouldn’t play their stupid game.
I walked into the house and found Jesse sitting at the kitchen table, crying.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I heard a bang,” he whispered.
My mouth went dry. “When does the game end?” I asked.
“It doesn’t,” he whispered. “It never ends.”
My heart started beating faster. “What’s the third rule, Jesse?”
His face fell and he sucked in a deep breath. “Rule three. Knowing all three rules makes you a player.”
My stomach dropped. “What happens if you lose?”
“When it’s dark, you’ll hear them coming. They like to let you know when they’re getting close.”
“Stan and Devin,” Jesse said. “They’ll reach out through the mirrors or open doorways and drag you through.”
“How do you win?” I asked.
“You win if you tell more people the rules to The Soul Game than the person that told you does.”
Like I said, I am so sorry.
But thanks for helping. Really.
I’m going to enjoy my newfound freedom, and I hope that you enjoy your night.
Give Stan and Devin my best.