When we were children we crawled out of our homes to play ghost in the graveyard as soon as the sun replaced itself with the moon. Men with gold badges and guns kept watch over actual tombstones at night, so we met to play at our only park, little more than a wide-opened field with a rusty swing-set. We never learned about one another. Who showed up each night depended on their sneakiness, and whose parents were able to go to the eye-doctor that month and had glasses to see. It was not worth learning a fact that might never be useful again. We only had a name when it was our turn to be the ghost, and our name was It. Devoid of classification. Person-shaped and lonely. All that was known of It was its touch was poison. It seeped in. Made you It, too.
It would count all the way up to ten-one-hundred. We hid from It behind trees and poorly cared-for brambles. When it snowed, as it did for months, there was no way to hide, not really, as all our clothes had smears of dirt near our collar and cuffs. No matter how fast we ran to the swing-set, the home base, safety-marked ground, It would manage to slap Its hand over one of us, or tackle us to the ground. When you were touched, everything stopped. You became It, It became you. The power to make another like you was a heady replication, but the one who made you It abandoned you to became us. They would fade back into us, person-shaped and in good company, while the new It was not welcome in our herd. It couldn’t be allowed in unless someone else was banished. These were the rules. Violence was the only way inside.
Sometimes, the last It from the night before never showed up again, and another It was chosen through an intricate ritual of hand gestures and yelling. We wondered aloud what happened to last night’s It, whether they made their way home or were wasted along the way. We did not say, but we might have thought, if we gave them a moment in our minds, how It might have become consumed within their own festering. How being marked makes you stand out, alone, bared raw against the wind, easily lost when there is no place among us to call safe.
A.A. Balaskovits is the author of Strange Folk You’ll Never Meet and Magic for Unlucky Girls. She is the winner of the SFWP literary awards grand prize, and has been published in Kenyon Review Online, Best Small Fictions, Indiana Review and many others. On Twitter @aabalaskovits
image: MM Kaufman