You know the game. You’ve played it many times. At sleepovers, on Halloween, that one time at your first boy girl party—you remember, it was the one where you had your first proper kiss in the coat closet below the stairs. You know the rules to the game. Everybody in your hometown knows the rules.
A friend of a friend of your older brother told you the story when you were just a kid. Or maybe it was your cousin who told you? You can’t remember because by the time you reach a certain age, every kid in your town has heard the story, and every kid knows the game. How they heard it doesn’t matter. Everyone knows it and everyone plays it, and more importantly, everyone knows someone who’s played the game and lost.
Rumors spread. One day a girl doesn’t show up for school. Did she move? Nobody heard anything about a move. Not even her best friend. Then your cousin’s friend’s older sister chimes in. She tells you she heard the missing girl played Backyard Jack at a sleepover and forgot to touch the basement windows. They always forget the basement windows.
You think back to playing it for the first time. You were ten years old, at your best friend’s house before they moved away—Oregon, you think. You wanted to prove how brave you were, but when you saw him, when you saw Backyard Jack for the first time, standing there, unmoving at the edge of the lawn…you’d never known real fear before, but you knew it then.
It’s the kind of fear that doesn’t go away. The kind of fear that you have to convince yourself wasn’t real, because if it was real, you’d might never go to sleep again.
You haven’t played it in years.
You know the rules, of course, but standing at the window overlooking your backyard, you remind yourself again, as if knowing that the moment you see him standing there on the edge of the lawn, you’ll forget everything. You can’t allow yourself to panic. People lose when they panic.
Here’s how you play Backyard Jack, you tell yourself…
Sometime after midnight, with all the lights off in the house, you find a window overlooking your backyard. You stare out into your backyard and say his name three times.
“Backyard Jack, Backyard Jack, Backyard Jack.”
Then, like magic, the moment you stop looking, a figure appears at the edge of the lawn. He’s often hard to spot at first but keep your eyes trained on the shadowy areas. That’s where he likes to hide.
At first he just stands there, but if you wait long enough, if you look away for just one second, that’s when he inches closer towards the house. And you know that the game has started.
The rules are simple. You have until he reaches the house to touch every window. If Jack reaches the house before you complete your task, well…you lose.
Simple as that.
You’ve said his name three times and you’re off and running before you can even focus on the blurry shape you may or may not have seen at the edge of your lawn.
You can’t wait. You have a plan and there’s no time to waste.
You’re playing it smart. Before you started, you counted every window in your house. You made a mental map and planned the optimal route to take. Everybody forgets the basement windows, but you know better. You start in the basement. Make your way up.
When you get back to the main floor, your heart is pounding in your chest and you have a decision to make. Do you sneak a peek into the backyard to see how close he is, or not? You run by the window where you started the game and touch it, feeling the cold glass against the palm of your hand, but you decide against looking. It’s not worth it. It doesn’t matter how close he is, the only thing that matters now is touching every window. That’s what you tell yourself at least. But your brain betrays you.
You sneak a quick glance.
There’s a dark shape about halfway across your lawn.
You finish all the bedrooms on the first floor and then head upstairs, there’s still time.
Your feet pound up the old wooden stairs. You haven’t run up the stairs like this since you were a kid, when you used to imagine that there was a monster chasing you. You’d run up the stairs so fast, convinced that the echoes of your own footsteps was something chasing close behind you, closing in with every step. You’d get to the top of the stairs and turn around, always expecting something to be there, but there never was. Yet, every single time…you’d look.
You finish touching the upstairs windows, the last one leaving you standing, breathless, chest heaving, in your brother’s room. He’s away at college now. But his room is still the same. Still the same foreboding aura of delinquency; the smell of thrift store t-shirts with stale cigarette smoke baked into them, mingling with his “sport” scent body wash and other strange odors you can’t quite place.
You touch the last window and allow yourself to look outside.
You feel a wave of relief as you see nothing but your familiar empty backyard. At this angle from upstairs you can’t see directly below you of course, but you planned well. You touched every window. Nothing could…
A sound like metal scraping glass makes your heart sink.
It’s followed by something heavy and wet. Like someone dropped a bag of wet cement in your living room. It reverberates through the walls of your house. If your parents were home, it would’ve woken them up. But they’re gone for the night.
It’s just you.
And you decided to play this stupid game. Why? To prove to yourself that you’re not afraid? You are afraid. You’ve always been afraid.
You hide under your brother’s bed. Shoving aside stacks of old magazines, discarded notebooks and who knows what else. There’s an action figure staring at you from beneath your elbow, digging into your skin. You hold your breath.
Something is walking up the stairs.
Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.
You go through the house again in your mind. You replay every window you touched. You got them all. Every one of them. Even the basement ones. At least you think so.
And then you remember. It feels like getting kicked in the gut, like having the wind knocked out of you in a game of backyard football that got out of hand. Except the feeling doesn’t go away.
The bathroom shower.
There’s a small glass block window.
You didn’t remember it because it didn’t seem to count.
It’s not really a window, right? Sure, it lets light in and it’s made of glass, but you can’t see through it! The heavy footsteps coming up the old wooden stairs let you know that it’s too late to argue about what does or doesn’t count.
Backyard Jack is coming down the hall.
You can hear him laughing.
This isn’t your imagination. This isn’t some shadowy thing you may or may not see standing on the edge of your lawn as you giggle and laugh with your friends from the safety of your kitchen. This thing is real. This thing is headed your way.
This thing stops at the door to your brother’s room.
On Monday, your seat is empty.
The rumors make their way around school. Nobody gets the story quite right but one of the details was true. Under the bed where they found you, there was a note, scribbled on the cover of one of your brother’s old discarded notebooks.
“BATHROOM WINDOW,” it said, in bright red pen. A pen you were still clutching in your hand when they found you.