Short story: The Midnight Game

She’s home alone – parents away for the weekend, brother sleeping over with one of the boys up the street, only the dog and the cat left for company.

She invited friends to stay but everyone’s busy, no one’s texting her back. She’s watched a movie, then another, and now she’s bored, restless. She paces back and forth, silhouetted against the bright windows, the cat trying to squirm out of her grasp. Behind her, film credits scroll up the television screen.

The cat leaps away and curls up in the middle of the dog’s sleeping cushion. She pulls a face, picks her mobile phone, throws it back down on the couch. She trudges into the study, slouches into the chair at her father’s computer. No messages, no emails. The screen’s soft glow outlines her hair.

The dog yelps and scratches at the kitchen door. She lets it out. She stands in the open doorway, beautifully backlit by white light emanating from the house, and an idea comes to her. It spreads across her face, hidden in shadow. She’s remembering: a sleepover with her friends, several months ago. Laughing and shrieking through hackneyed horror stories, pretending the decades-old slasher movies they’re watching are scary, whispering names at bathroom mirrors and waiting for poltergeists that never appeared.

A girl at the party – a friend of a friend of the host, someone nobody else had met before nor seen again – suggested a game. The Midnight Game, she called it, gleefully explaining it was an old punishment ritual the pagans invented.

Or something. The other girls greedily lapped up the half-formed details. And they’d played it, of course, and nothing had happened, of course. They’d lit candles, chanted in doorways, giggled till they got tired of the game and fell asleep.

It hadn’t worked because they hadn’t obeyed the rules. They hadn’t known you only play the Midnight Game alone.

Now, she leans against the jamb of the back door, two pinpricks of light shining in her eyes as she gazes into the yard. Come Monday morning she doesn’t want to tell everyone at school about her boring Saturday night home alone. She wants to tell an exciting story. She wants to tell them she played a game…

Back to the computer. She doesn’t even bother switching the light on this time. The light from the screen illuminates her fingers as they dance on the letters. She can’t remember the rules of the Midnight Game, but humans have all their knowledge buried on their internet. It isn’t long before she’s unearthed what she’s looking for. A page that spells out every step.

The page warns not to play the game – it’s dangerous. But she dismisses this. She’s seen enough horror movies to know the warnings are part of the fun.

On the page is a drawing of a tall, slender man dressed all in black, his face hidden by a wide hat.

Step one: write your full name on a piece of paper. Under the white fluorescent light of the kitchen she tears a strip from the bottom of a notepad, clears a space in the mess left from when she prepared her dinner hours before. Standing with her back to the kitchen window, she takes a pen and writes her name. Her handwriting is careful, loopy.

She hesitates before the next step: players must let a drop of their blood onto the paper.

This was not something she and her friends did when they tried to play at the sleepover. She wonders if something so drastic is really necessary. For a moment it looks like she’ll pull out of the game altogether.

But no. Once they decide to play, really commit themselves to the idea, they’re locked into it. Players can no more give up than iron fillings can resist a lodestone.

She disappears into the bowels of the house, re-emerges in the kitchen holding a needle and a plastic bandage. She takes a breath – then pricks the pad of her left index finger, gasping at the sudden burst of pain.

A fat drop of scarlet blood wells, splashes onto the paper’s ink letters.

She sucks on the finger. The blood spreads thick and blotchy into the paper’s fibres. She wraps the plastic bandage around the tiny wound, so tight the tip of her finger throbs pink.

Next: she must find a candle. She forages in the cupboard above the refrigerator and pulls out a white candle with an unblemished white wick. The rules she’s found tell her the candle must be exotically scented, but instinct tells her a simple white candle will suffice – and her instincts are correct. All one needs is a flame.

She glances at the clock. It’s close to midnight. Time for the final step.

She must turn off every light. Outside, the dog whines as the house drops into darkness. She is visible only as a dark shape moving through rooms. Several times she vanishes for whole minutes, only to reappear at an unexpected window. When she passes in front of them the streetlights throw silver flashes over her face, like schools of fish turning together.

She’s ready. She kneels before the front door. Set into the door are large squares of coloured glass, and through them she appears wavy, distorted. She places the paper on the floor, then balances the candle on the paper. She lights the wick with a match. The glow of the tiny flame flickers along the underside of her jaw.

Nothing in the house moves. The cat has retreated into a dark corner. The dog has retreated into its kennel. She remains at her post just inside the front door, jumps when a clock somewhere in the house strikes. It’s time to play.

She knocks on the front door once as the clock continues to strike midnight. Its chimes reverberate in the still air. She knocks once more, then once again. The clock strikes for a fifth time, a sixth. Without fully rising she reaches up and turns the doorknob -

The door flies inward, bangs on its hinges, pushes her back down to a kneeling position. Cold night air prickles on her skin. She swallows.

The clock strikes for a twelfth time and she says: “I invite you inside.”

Nothing happens. The echoes of the chiming clock fade and die. The edges of her mouth quiver, like she’ll burst with relief, laugh at the stupid game, clean up and paper and the blood and go to bed -

She’s knocked back by a sharp icy breeze that rushes into the house, streaming through her hair and snuffing the flame. A giddy shock runs through her as she recalls the rules: if the candle blows out you must relight it immediately. It must never be allowed to go out once you have invited the Midnight Man into your house.

The first match doesn’t take, just scrapes against the box. Her hands tremble as she tries the next one. It finally lights in a sulphurous burst. She holds it to the candle wick and it takes – at the exact moment the front door slams shut.

Silence. Her eyes are wide, skin tight across her face.

Hands shaking, she picks the candle up from the floor. The scrap of paper is gone and she spins for a moment, searching for it – till she realises it can’t have blown away. Not with the candle weighing it down. She stares at the empty spot where it ought to be.

On the paper is her name: Rebecca Heather Anderson.

A yowl behind her makes her jump to her feet. It’s the cat, poised in the arch between the living room and the entry halls of the house, its back arched and faint silver streetlight glinting on its hackles. She has never seen the cat’s face like this before – twisted, bared, hissing at something behind her. She doesn’t dare turn.

The cat shrieks, darts under the couch, its peering green eyes all that betrays its hiding place. Then comes another sound: the dog whining and barking and scratching at the back door.

Rebecca does not want to play the Midnight Game any more. She gropes for the light switch just inside the front door, and flicks it.

Players always attempt to quit. But once you have started playing you cannot simply give up. She flicks the switch again and again but the room remains dark. She dashes to the living room and tries the light switch there. Nothing. She tries the lamp. Still nothing.

She has only the soft gold glow of the candle and the faint white streetlights – but even they seem to be fading as darkness encroaches on the house. Shadows pool in the corners, the chill in the room thickens. Outside, the dog’s frantic cries drop to a whimper.

The candle is extinguished by a gust of breath so cold she nearly drops it. Her trembling hands can barely relight it, and when she finally does – only seconds later, but to her it must seem like hours – her face is a mask, eye-sockets bulging with shadows.

This is the part of the Midnight Game where the players realise what they have done. What they’ve invited into their homes. When they realise the only light they have is their candle, and their only choice is to keep playing. I’ve seen the same look on the face of every countless player: gulping, panting, as they struggle to remember the rules while their hearts and minds buzz with fear.

You must keep moving. You must not let the candle go out. You must not leave the house.

She ventures, stiff-legged, through to the kitchen. The green lines of the microwave clock say it’s just after 12. From the kitchen she moves through to the dining room, back around to the entry hall, back into the living room, around and around in circles. She doesn’t dare go upstairs.

A dark shape follows her. She is not alone in the house. She never looks directly at the intruder – no, at the guest, at what she invited in – though perhaps in the corners of her vision she catches the long legs and slender arms, the broad-brimmed hat, the blacker-than-black eyes that never cease watching her.

She stops, huddles in the kitchen, shivers, wrapping her arms around herself to ward off the rising chill. She can’t risk putting more clothes on in case the candle blows out. Scores of tiny bumps rise on her forearm, as if she is being caressed by a cold finger. She squeezes her eyes shut. Her skin is soft and full, but cool to the touch.

Some players cheat, when the fear grows too much. They try to light more than one candle, or flee their home. But they always lose the Midnight Game. They scream as they’re snuffed out. Will Rebecca succumb to the temptation to break the rules? The back door is right there. She must be thinking: I could just slip out. I could give up. Her fear has hardened, her heartbeat firm and loud. The darkness stirs, quietly urging her to lie down, to let the candle flame go out.

The cold finger touches her lip – she gasps, recoils, steps back. The candle flame flickers and hisses. She buries her chin in her chest and presses onward, away from the tall dark shape.

Round and round she goes through the house. Instinct tells her to loop clockwise – the game might have ended so differently if she’d moved in the other direction. The flame hardly illuminates anything at all; her eyes are not adjusting to the gloom. She is being buried alive by thick darkness. Her free hand brushes a light switch. They always think light will shield them – long ago it was their fires they tried to hide behind, now their crackling electricity, the soft glow of their televisions and mobile phones. But she must know, deep down, that pressing the switch will do nothing. The hand drops. She continues onwards.

On her tenth circuit, or perhaps her hundredth, her thousandth, she stops in front of the mirror in the entry hall. A breath catches in her throat at the sight of the reflection. Behind her, somehow silhouetted against the darkness, is a tall, slender man, standing perfectly still. Eyes like black holes.

The candle flame wavers. The shape behind her moves closer – or grows bigger, or both. She can’t tell, can barely think. Her reflection blinks, blinks, blinks, as if her eyelids want to make up for the freeze that’s consuming the rest of her body. The dark man is right behind her now, towering over her…

None of the players ever wonder, when they commence playing, how they win the Midnight Game. But there is only ever one winner, and it’s never them. I reach out and grip her shoulder, her bones and ligaments tightening under my touch.

The clock chimes again, and the candle sputters out for the last time.

*

Click here to read more of my short stories.

Author’s note: This is pretty much the first time I have attempted a horror story. Spoiler alert: it’s harder than it seems. The story was inspired by this post on reddit, which gave me the heebies, and the image is Slender Man by Gaara Monster.

Creative Commons Licence
The Midnight Game by Sam Downing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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