On Friday at school, we were all vibrating, so nervous for what came next. We barely listened in class because what did it matter? We wouldn’t be around to turn in the homework that would be due on Monday. During lunch, we couldn’t really speak in any detail about our plans, lest we break the rules of the game. We just talked about what it might be like when we returned to the regular world. We imagined something like in Tom Sawyer, returning in the flesh to our own funeral. We imagined our families cautiously asking about those lost days, how we survived. We imagined the boys and girls with whom we were in love might actually notice us, might see us as someone worthy of their time, now that we were tinged with some kind of wildness. Because the actual hiding was mysterious, too hard to accurately imagine, we thought about our return, because we all knew we would return. We all knew it was temporary, this feeling in our hearts.
How long would it last? We couldn’t imagine. Some of us thought not more than a day, maybe two. We cautiously allowed for a week, long enough for news to spread, for real concern to accumulate, a search party. We wondered, though we never said it aloud, if maybe it would be forever, because no one would notice or care. And then what? Come back, forfeit the game? We knew we would not do that, could not. We were going to hide. And, somehow, we were going to be found.
We knew that it might be a bad idea. It’s hard to explain, even now, with so much time to have thought about it. The best explanation was that we were teenagers, and it felt like life was taking so long to just happen, that we were forever stuck in this unhappiness, and so we thought that even if it was a stupid thing, it would fade away with time. It would disappear, and we’d forget about it. And we’d just keep living. And the hope was that, somehow, for just a brief moment, it might make us a little less unhappy.
Of course, now, twenty years later, we understand how common our sadness was, and how, in fact, that sadness belied a kind of charmed existence.
The game, or whatever it was, had a few rules. We couldn’t leave the county, could not simply jump on a bus and head to Atlanta and hide out in a hotel. We could not call our family at any time to tell them that we were okay. We couldn’t team up and hide in the same place. Once we found our spot, we couldn’t leave it (with allowances for scavenging or runs for supplies) unless it had become compromised. And if we were found, brought back to our families, we could not explain why we’d done it. This last rule seemed the easiest to follow, because even now, too late to turn back, we could not satisfactorily explain why we were doing this.
We knew that our families loved us. They were as kind to us as they could possibly be. Our siblings, even if they didn’t understand us, were not cruel; they didn’t keep us locked out of their lives. Sometimes, on a Thursday night, after a supper of vegetable soup, Eddie’s family gathered in the living room while his mother played the guitar, and they all sang folk songs. Bryant’s father kissed him and his brothers on the lips, and he appreciated this intimacy, or the lack of weirdness it produced. And so why disappear? Why do this to our families? Perhaps we simply thought, because we were seventeen and so fucking stupid and so fucking self-obsessed, that no one could be hurt but us. Or, perhaps more likely, we thought no one else could be hurt in quite the same way that we could be hurt. Or, maybe, it’s so hard to remember now, we thought that it wouldn’t hurt anyone at all, because it was such a small thing.
We picked a Saturday, because that would give us the longest lead time to get lost. We’d each spent the past two weeks figuring out where we’d go, how we’d prepare. Allen said it was imperative that we not tell each other where we were going to hide, because if one of us were found, or chickened out and went home, that person wouldn’t know where the rest of us were, which would extend the game. “We have to make it last,” Allen told us. “We have to make it last as long as we possibly can.”
Bryant spent eighty dollars on snacks, so there was almost no room for clothes in his duffel bag. Jeff packed his Game Boy and sixteen extra Double-A batteries, gleeful at the chance to play without the imposition of parental time limits. Carmichael bought four packs of fresh underwear and sixteen pairs of socks from Walmart. Eddie packed Swann’s Way, which added a noticeable weight to his backpack, and a little booklamp. Allen bought a disguise kit with a fake beard and an angry plastic scar.
And then we were gone.
* * *
Jeff chose a park at the edge of town, abandoned, the playground equipment rusted, only the wind to animate it. He admitted that it was unorthodox, an open space, but it provided a lot of options. There was a bathroom, this squat, brick building, with running water, a toilet, which he worried about constantly in the devising of a plan, the need to have a private and hygienic place to do his business. His plan was to lie low during the day, to hide in the plastic yellow tube slide, hidden from view, until evening, when he would walk around, stay fit, and then sit in the bathroom and read in the dim light of the single bulb.
He left his car in the parking lot of an industrial park, knowing it wouldn’t be until Monday that it would be discovered, and then walked the three and a half miles to the park. He climbed into the plastic slide, and then he realized that the slant of the slide meant that he’d have to expend some effort to keep himself from sliding out of it. He kept his sneakers lightly pressed against the plastic, and though it wasn’t comfortable, it was good enough. He played Tetris on his Game Boy. He sipped from a canteen of water and ate some granola. Because he knew he had running water in the restroom, he had not needed to carry plastic bottles of water. He didn’t know if he’d win the game, but he didn’t think he’d be the first one discovered.
That evening, he went into the bathroom, turned on the light, and read a gaming magazine he’d brought. He did his business, washed his hands, the water rusty and red until it ran for a few seconds. Everything felt so cilized, so proper. This was how you disappeared, he decided. He sat on the toilet, kept the door of the stall wide open, and wondered if, by now, his parents were worried. They would probably call his friends’ parents, and then the game would truly start. He tried not to think about it too much, was already feeling guilty. He was bored out of his mind, not even twenty-four hours into the game.
And then the door to the restroom opened, the hinges squeaking, which nearly made Jeff scream in terror. Someone stepped into the restroom, walked past the sink and urinal and then stood in front of the open stall, staring right at Jeff.
“What are you doing here?” the man asked. He was wearing a green polo shirt, a pair of khakis. He had on loafers.
“O-o-occupied,” Jeff stuttered, nearly paralyzed.
“Come on,” the man said, “What are you doing here?”
“Nothing,” Jeff said.
The man looked at him, grinning a little. “How old are you?” he asked Jeff.
“Seventeen,” Jeff replied.
“Get the fuck out of here,” the man said, now looking so exasperated. “Jesus, get out of here. You’re going to fuck it up for the rest of us.”
“Yes, sir,” Jeff squeaked. He ran out of the stall, pushed past the man, leaving his magazine on the floor of the stall. He ran outside, stuffing himself back inside the plastic slide, his heart hammering inside of his chest. He closed his eyes, prayed for something, protection maybe. Ten minutes later, he heard a car pull up. He listened to the sound of someone’s feet crunching on the gravel. He heard the door of the restroom squeak open. Fifteen minutes later, both men came back outside, talking softly, their conversation inaudible to Jeff. He heard their car doors open and close, and then the two cars drove away.
He sat in the slide all night, not sleeping, listening to the sound of crickets. Later that night, way past midnight, he heard another car pull up, the same series of events, and then it was quiet until daylight.
The next evening, Jeff having pissed himself because he wouldn’t leave the safety of the slide, a police officer shone his flashlight into the slide, blinding Jeff.
“Come on out of there,” the officer said. “Jesus, kid, your parents. What are you doing here?”
“I don’t know,” Jeff answered because he didn’t, not really. He slid down the slide, came out the opening, his backpack coming down behind him. He could barely stand, his body still frozen in the twisted pose from inside the slide. Everything ached.
“Where are your friends?” the officer asked, leading him by the arm to his cruiser.
“I don’t know,” Jeff replied. He wondered where they were at this very moment, if they were scared, how long it would take to find them.
* * *
Carmichael hiked into the woods, a regular thing for him, following a trail he’d always preferred, which led to a waterfall and a pool of water that, no matter the weather, was ice cold. After he’d passed the waterfall, had soaked his feet in the water, he walked another six miles until he reached Millionaire’s Cave, which had received its name because there was an old story that a hermit had left a million dollars worth of gold hidden in one of the many passages of the limestone cave. He turned on his headlamp and began to slip deeper and deeper into the darkness. He knew this cave was popular with hikers, but he thought that if he went deep enough, he’d avoid their cursory examinations of it.
Once he found a nice spot, he ate some GORP and drank some water. He’d brought enough water for about a week and figured that, once it was gone, he could collect water and boil it over a campfire. He imagined living here for the rest of his life, long after his friends had returned to their parents’ homes. He imagined a series of tales about a hermit who inhabited the cave, some saying it was the ghost of the original hermit. Though even at seventeen he did not need to shave, he imagined growing a crazy beard, making moonshine. And then he realized that this would be a shitty life, would deprive him of the things he truly wanted. He vowed to stay for two months at the most, which he hoped would be enough to outlast his friends, and then, even if it meant humiliation, he would break the rules and return home, ready for his senior year, then college. Maybe, he thought, this might make a good essay for college applications.
He liked the darkness, how total it was, not like the darkness in his house. Even at night, with the lights off, the shades drawn, the darkness in his bedroom wasn’t enough for him. He could always see some emanation of light, coming from somewhere. Here, it swallowed him up.
He’d turn off his headlamp and sit there for hours, breathing deeply, not a living soul knowing where he was. After a while, it would terrify him, and he’d feel his heartbeat becoming irregular, but he held onto that feeling, of being so alone, and it felt like falling. And it made him feel like there was a place for him in the world. He resolved that, every year for the rest of his life, he would come to this cave for a week, sit in this very same darkness, untouched by the sun, and he would do it again.
And then, three days later by his watch, no real way to understand the passage of time without the aid of a machine, he was coming back from taking a dump and slipped, felt his knee buckle, something very precise and necessary pop inside of him, and then this quick, radiating pain traveled up his leg. He screamed, fell to the floor of the cave in a heap. He could barely bend his knee, and already he could feel it swelling up. For about fifteen minutes, he shouted into the darkness for help, but of course no one came. The pain was dulled slightly with time, but it was persistent, made itself known to him anew each time he shifted his weight. He imagined his skeleton being found by archeologists hundreds of years from now, and they would show his bones to their students, formulating theories on who he was, what he’d been doing there. Unable to think of anything else, he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, knowing of course that he’d wake up in this same spot, nothing having changed.
It took him nearly an hour to finally drag himself to the entrance of the cave, muttering obscenities the entire way, hating his friends, hating everyone in the entire world. When he made it to the open air, the sun had gone down, the only light coming from his headlamp. He shouted for help, checking his watch carefully to scream out every five minutes. By this point, his knee had stiffened up so badly that he could not bend it, had no idea how he’d get back to the beginning of the trail. All night, unable to sleep, he screamed for help, wanting so badly to be found, to be discovered.
The next morning, an old woman found him, drawn by his screams. “You poor dear,” she said. She had to leave him in order to get help, even though he’d begged her not to, was crying so hard. Carmichael was shocked by the eventual response, police and EMTs and even a park ranger. While the paramedics worked to stabilize his leg, to check his vitals, he realized that his own parents were standing beside him, hugging him, crying so hard.
“I’m so sorry,” he told them. “I’m so, so sorry.” He thought about what would have happened if something worse had happened in that cave, if he’d died in there. When would he have been found, and what would his parents have wondered about his last days? How could he have done something like that to them, these people who only ever loved him, though he’d never deserved that love. He vowed to make it up to them.
A police officer asked him where the other boys were.
“I don’t know,” Carmichael replied. He wondered where they were at this very moment, if they were scared, how long it would take to find them.
* * *
Bryant had been in his spot for four days, and he could not believe how easy it was. He could live this way forever, he thought. During the day, he sat in an office inside the insurance company where his father worked. It was at the end of the hallway and had never been used by an agent, so his father, the agency manager, used it as storage for any number of things. There was a huge entertainment center that had once been in his family’s house. There were old chairs, including a really comfortable easy chair where Bryant slept at night. The room was completely packed with junk, as the two other agents who worked with his father started shoving random things in there rather than buying a storage unit. Even the two secretaries had put some boxes of baby clothes and dinnerware in the office, waiting for when someone might need them.
He’d had a duplicate of his father’s key to the office building made as soon as he thought of the space. It had been so easy. It was air-conditioned, and, once the office closed for the day, he could use the restroom, walk freely around the building. He brought so many snacks, but there was also a soda machine and snack machine in the break room if he needed anything. He thought of his friends, probably stuck in some tent in a field somewhere, pooping in a hole they had to dig, covered in bug bites. He had wanted to tell them about the office, the brilliance of it, but knew that he couldn’t. When he was the last one found, he imagined the look on their faces when they learned of his comfy hiding spot. They’d want to kill him. It made him so happy.
On the third day, when he’d wandered around the lobby, he found that day’s newspaper left on the coffee table. There was a picture of him on the front page, his yearbook photo from the year before, when his mom had made him wear that fucking awful red turtleneck. And there was Allen’s picture, and Carmichael’s and Eddie’s. But not Jeff. He read the article, which spoke of the strange disappearance of the boys, the police’s belief that there was no foul play involved, though of course they couldn’t rule it out entirely. They believed that the boys had simply run away from home. He learned that Jeff had been found at the old playground. Jesus, Jeff, that fucking idiot, such an easy spot.
And then he saw a quote from his own mom, where she spoke of how adventurous Bryant was, and how she admired that, but how, with each day that passed without his return, she couldn’t help believe that something bad had happened. “He would have come home by now,” she said, “because he’d know how worried we were.” And Bryant wanted to kill himself. He looked over at the secretary’s desk. There was a phone right there. All he had to do was call his mother. They would come get him. The game would be over. Or, rather, it would be over for him. Somebody else would win. And then he thought about the rule, that they could not contact their families. He hadn’t thought about how cruel it had been; at the time, it made perfect sense. Their parents’ worry was necessary for the game, because it would create guilt for him and his friends. And that would make it harder to stay hidden. He picked up the phone and started to dial the number, but he just couldn’t do it. He thought about his friends, how angry they’d be at him, how he would have ruined it all. And so he hung up the phone, walked to the breakroom, used some of his change to buy a candy bar, and ate it in two bites, hoping it made him sick.
Four more days passed. He saw in the new edition of the paper that Carmichael had also been found, had fucked up his knee apparently. He knew that his friend would go to that cave, had known the minute the game had been discussed. So it was just three of them now. He tried to imagine where Allen and Eddie were, but nothing came to him. He hadn’t brought a toothbrush with him, and even though he rinsed with water in the restroom sink, his mouth felt awful, foul. He checked his watch. It was seven o’clock, safe to go out. He was wearing only a pair of underwear, scratching his junk, when he looked down the hallway and saw Mr. Cuddyer, one of the agents, holding a stack of files, staring at him.
“Bryant?” the man asked, like maybe Bryant was a ghost or, more likely, a mirage conjured by the man’s own brain.
“Yes?” Bryant said. He knew he’d lost. He didn’t bother trying to run.
Mr. Cuddyer let the files fall to the ground, and he ran down the hallway until he reached Bryant. And then he grabbed Bryant so hard, squeezing his arms. Mr. Cuddyer started to shake him. “You fucking—” the man said, almost screaming. “We thought you were fucking dead. Your mother. Your father.”
“I’m sorry,” Bryant said, his voice so meek that it didn’t even sound like him.
“Where have you been?” the man said, and Bryant pointed toward the empty office. Mr. Cuddyer let out a barking laugh, like he couldn’t even believe this shit.
“Put some fucking clothes on,” the man said. “I’m taking you to your parents.”
“Okay,” Bryant said.
“The police will want to talk to you, too,” Mr. Cuddyer said.
In the car on the way to his house, his parents and the police having been alerted, Bryant sat silently. “Is anybody still missing?” he finally asked Mr. Cuddyer.
“Two boys,” Mr. Cuddyer replied. “You kids. Jesus.”
After a few minutes of silence, getting closer to the house, Mr. Cuddyer said, “I don’t suppose you know where they are?”
“I don’t know,” Bryant replied. He wondered where they were at this very moment, if they were scared, how long it would take to find them.
* * *
Eddie examined the cut once again, which was still draining pus, no matter how much water he poured over it. He was shaking, shivering, even though it was warm in the house, sweltering actually. He sat on the floor and tried to breathe deeply. He could barely eat anything, felt so nauseated. He knew he was fucked, knew that he needed help, but there was this weird thing inside of him, this refusal. He had dug himself so deep into this hole, but all he could do was keep digging. That, in fact, the only thing that interested him was to keep digging, just to see what the fuck he’d find at the very bottom.
Eddie had slashed his hand open prying the board off of a window at the abandoned house at the end of a gravel road. The board had splintered in his grip, and a nail had made a deep, jagged cut along the edge of his palm. He’d instantly screamed an obscenity, though it didn’t matter since this house was out in the middle of nowhere, not another house for at least a mile. He hadn’t thought to bring a first-aid kid, not even a band-aid. All he could do, once he pulled himself inside the house, was to wash it with water and wrap it up in one of his t-shirts. Once the bleeding had finally stopped, he figured that it would be okay, even though, because he was a such a nervous kid, he knew something bad was probably going to happen. And yet, he did not leave the house. In fact, it was impossible to leave the house just a few hours into the game. Holy shit, his friends, when they finally were discovered, would never let him hear the end of it. So, he sat on the floor, holding his injured hand against his chest, and awkwardly opened Swann’s Way to the first page. “For a long time I used to go to bed early.” Hmm. He hoped that it would pick up as he went on, that something would hold his interest. His father, who taught literature at the college, said that one didn’t become a full human being until they read Proust. And Eddie, who read nothing but Dragonlance novels, had this idea in his head of coming back home, his parents so furious with him and yet so happy to have him back. And his dad would hold onto him, squeezing him so hard, and then Eddie would get the Proust out of his backpack. And what? They would drink tea and talk about it? No, not that exactly, but his dad would understand that now, finally, Eddie was a full human being.
Now, almost a week and a half since he got lost, he found himself reading the same page over and over again for twenty minutes at a time. His teeth were chattering. His whole body hurt. Was it tetanus? But he’d had a tetanus booster when he was fourteen. Was he dying? Was he already dead? Was this the afterlife? Would he forever haunt this abandoned house? Sometimes he saw a raccoon walk across the living room, but he thought this was all in his head. He had to ration his water at this point, having used so much of his careful supply to wash out the wound over and over. And now, once again, nothing else to do, Eddie seriously considered the possibility that he was going to die. And, honestly, this was what he wanted. It was preferable to the alternative. It was far better to die, and possibly never be discovered, than to be found, returned to health, and live the rest of your life knowing that you’d almost died because one of your friends had thought up some stupid fucking game.
But he didn’t really want to die. He just wanted to go back in time. But to when exactly? When he cut his hand? When he had picked this house, having driven for the entire week all over the county, looking for the perfect spot, finding this house and seeing how easily he could hide his car in the garage? When he’d agreed to play the game? When he’d met Allen and become his friend? When he had started junior high and realized how different it was from elementary school, how fractured the groups became, how quickly he found himself outside so many of those groups? When he had been born? He was so tired. So sick.
He took a pencil from his backpack and opened the front cover of the book. He wrote, “My name is Eddie Brickard. I want to tell my parents and my sister Rosemary that I am so sorry for what I’ve done. You have been the best family that a boy could ever hope for. I would like all of my earthly possessions to go to my friends: Allen, Bryant, Carmichael, and Jeff. I want them to know that I do not blame them for what has happened to me. I want them to know how much I have valued their friendship. To them I say, in the words of Marcel Proust, that “death in their company is somehow less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps even less probable.”
In his fevered state, what Eddie actually wrote was:
Eddie awoke in a hospital, a tube in his arm with liquid either coming into or out of it. There was a nurse, frowning, not looking happy to see him. “You awake?” she asked, and she grabbed his arm and checked his pulse or something or other.
“Hmmmm,” Eddie said.
“Your parents are on their way,” she said. “They’re worried out of their minds, you know.”
“What’s going on?” Eddie was finally able to ask.
“Well, you have an infection from that cut. You could have died, okay?” the nurse told him. “Some meth head busted into that house, who knows why, and found you and ended up calling the cops, which is the part of it that I can’t quite believe. Your parents had offered a $5,000 reward, so I guess he gets it.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“There will be time to apologize to everyone later,” the nurse said. “All of you boys. What in the world you were thinking, I have no idea. You know, my daughter goes to school with you, and I asked her about y’all when all this had started, and she said that she had never seen or heard of any of you boys in her entire life. Can you imagine that?”
“Where is everybody else?” Eddie asked.
“All of them are home except one boy. He’s still gone,” she said.
“Which one?” he asked.
“Allen something,” she said. “You know where he is?”
“I don’t know,” Carmichael replied. He wondered where Allen was at this very moment, if he was scared, how much longer long it would take to find him.
* * *
And we never saw Allen again. They never found him, and he never returned. His picture, all alone, was in the paper for weeks, months, a year. We all waited, shut up in our rooms, grounded for our own protection, for him to finally make himself known. And the longer it took, the more we wondered if we’d understood the game at all.
There were all kinds of theories, one of them being that we had killed Allen and disposed of his body, then hidden in order to create a distraction. The police even asked us about this, had each of us in a separate room, each of us with a lawyer that our parents had hired. But what could they do? We had no idea where Allen was; those were the rules of the game. We told them that he was confined to this county, we knew that much, but they didn’t listen to us. Once they were sure that we weren’t suspects, they didn’t want to think about us ever again.
We stopped hanging out. We stopped talking to each other. We stopped looking at each other when we passed in the hallways. Every day, we prayed that Allen would be found or would return. He had to know by now that he’d won the game. What point was there to remain hidden? And we all thought that if he came back, things would be normal again. We could be friends again, like it used to be. But Allen never came back.
And what else is there to say? That Allen’s parents said that his passport, which they kept in a safe in the study, was missing? That Allen had been seeing a therapist since he was nine years old, and that he frequently said that he wasn’t sure that this world was the real world? That even though Allen was our friend, we were also slightly scared of him? What does it matter? What else is there to say?
Except this, to follow the story to the end. We grew up. We went to college in random states, just to get away from our hometown, our weird notoriety. And that even though our parents forgave us, still loved us, we knew that they could not fully know us, did not entirely trust us. And so we tried to stay away from them as long as we could, seeing them only when necessary. And when we fell in love and married, we waited to tell our wives and husbands the story of our disappearance. And they would ask us how we could have withheld that from them. And we didn’t know. We couldn’t say for sure. And we thought about Allen every single day, expecting that maybe, even years later, this would be the day that he’d return, would explain himself, and the game would finally end. Because this was the thing we couldn’t explain. The game was not over. It was still going.