Running in the Dark
After watching the daylight seep from the sky, my friends and I sluggishly swung our
legs up and over our picnic table’s dusty benches. We campers had just finished our game of
frantically slapping playing cards, and in darkness, we found ourselves faced with the question
that always presents itself after twilight—“What comes next?” None of us wanting to turn in for
the night, I heard someone suggest playing “chaos tag”, followed by multiple enthusiastic
remarks, and I wondered as we migrated away from the warm, smoky, campfire air if it wouldn’t
be dangerous to play without light. I followed the crowd deeper into the forest until we all circled
around a fat, slanted tree stump, the campfire now so distant it looked like a faintly orange
quarter. Then one of the campers, Kai, leaped onto the stump and instructed his audience to turn
on our flashlights, and I reached my hand into my flimsy, fleece pocket and pulled out a short,
metal cylinder that faintly sparkled gold.
My flashlight lit up, and I could see we stood in a clearing about the size of a large kitchen. Pine
tree trunks surrounding us arced towards the sky, their branches hanging over us like inky
clouds. There were about twenty of us in the clearing, who, for all our collective intelligence,
still couldn’t figure out how to correctly form a circle, and our kidney-shaped congregation one-
by-one trained its lights on Kyle, so that we all seemed to gravitate towards him like moths to a
candle. As Kyle squinted with all of his might under the burning spotlight, he began to explain
the game, calling out to us in his best projecting voice, “You tag other players by tapping them
somewhere on the body before they can tap you. Once they’re tagged, they’re considered ‘down’
and can’t continue tagging other people until you, their tagger, is down. Your objective will be to
chase and tag every other player except your teammate, whom I will randomly select. Once the
two of you have tagged everyone else in the forest, the game is over, because no one else can tag you, and you’ve won. We’ll use our flashlights to see as we navigate through the campground, and if you become tagged, you’re encouraged to sit where you are until you’re back up. Whether you sit or stand, though, you have to turn off your flashlight,” Kai then clicked a button on the back of his flashlight so that the beam shut off, “like so, to let others know that you’re down.”
I inadvertently rocked on the balls of my feet as I listened, growing anxious to begin. The
air around us hung cold and still, and I wasn’t sure whether my excitement had arisen from the
impending danger of tripping or from the absence of heat.
When Kyle had finished explaining what would happen in the event that two players
tagged each other simultaneously, he hopped off his podium and commenced arranging
“random” teammate selection, instructing three players at once to form a circle and point one
arm each towards the center. The three campers would pile their hands on top of one another and quickly jerk their palms out after three seconds. Depending on the direction each palm faced
afterward—upward or downward—the teams were generated, with those whose palms faced the same direction being paired together. Once we’d finished, I crept over the brambles towards my new teammate, Ethan, who, not realizing I was there, screamed in surprise and shone his
flashlight on me. He was short, athletic, and highly enthusiastic, and once he recognized me, he
called out to me as if I were an additional five feet away. “There you are,” he exclaimed.
“C’mon, we have to run.”
Then he dashed through the trees, the light of his flashlight dancing the Charleston across
the forest floor, and I heard someone call, “Now!” The game had begun, and I glanced back at
the familiar clearing one more time, brightened by the glow of fifteen flashlights. Then I bounded after Ethan and away from my friends, who would for the next couple of hours hunt me
down like enemies.
I frantically raced after Ethan, who was nothing but a thin beam of light thirty feet ahead
of me. My legs pumped beneath me, falling into a familiar rhythm, warming up against their
frigid surroundings. My shoes slapped against the dirt, their booming, steady echoes pounding
like a mallet striking a kick drum. Ethan veered left behind a burly pine, and I swerved around
the same tree moments later, the heel of my right shoe cutting into the ground as I pivoted. The
force of the impact clanged inside my lower leg, and I pushed off, my right foot tingling with
each new leap.
Moments later, Ethan reappeared in my field of vision, cornered by my sister, another
player. I slowed to a stop, catching my breath, and saw that they stood near a pale blue camping
tent, reaching towards each other until my sister lashed out her arm and tagged Ethan atop the
head. Ethan’s shriek of disappointment could have been heard throughout the entire campground, and, temporarily out of the game, he slowly shrunk to the ground with as much drama as any well-trained soap opera star. Before he could turn off his flashlight, though, I charged from behind and tapped my sister’s back, freeing Ethan, who sprang back up with renewed energy. One down, seventeen to go, I thought, as Ethan darted back into the brush.
I kept following him, focusing on his flashlight, which weaved in and out of nearby
trees—now it was hidden, now it was visible. I flew through the forest after it, and I began to
imagine that my kick drum feet were creating a song. My soles rapped on the earth with each
beat, and the pumping of my limbs was the clapping of tambourines. I felt my pulse thrumming
in my ears, my hair crashed against my elbows, my inhales and exhales were the melody tying
all of the percussion together. As I kept thundering ahead, I felt myself grinning as I plunged forward, blind except for the three feet ahead illuminated by my flashlight. I was forced to react
to my surroundings immediately after I saw them, skidding around trees and leaping over debris. Exhilaration filled my mind, seemingly heightening my awareness. I began sprinting faster.
Suddenly, I was catapulted forward, as if thrust from behind. I realized I was tearing
downhill now, and I began to bounce erratically over the slope. With every step, my sneakers
slipped over loose pine needles and lost control, but each time I leaped onto the next foot and
forged ahead. Ethan led me further downwards into a dense thicket, and I heard a gushing from
the left that I realized must have been a creek. It became more difficult to dodge logs and trees;
multiple low-hanging branches slapped me across the cheeks. The shouts of other players
seemed to die away in this area, as if we were stranded from the rest of the group, and the place
felt eerily like the dark side of the moon. Ethan and I decelerated until we stood beside each
other gazing up the slope. “I think we’re in Brendon territory,” Ethan whispered. “He and
Melissa have claimed this area and hunt down their prey here.” Ethan pointed his flashlight at a
slanting pine and I caught a glimpse of blue disappearing behind it that I recognized as
Brendon’s shirt. Standing still for the first time since the game had started, the racing percussion that was just in my ears had transformed into something more like crawling strings—mysterious. I turned back to Ethan, though, and he beamed. “Let’s get Brendon,” he said.
We charged up the slope after the blue smudge, and though Brendon was the quickest
player, he darted in and out of trees so that Ethan and I could keep him in sight. I nearly gashed
my leg against one large, warped log, and made a mental note to remember its position to avoid
future injury. Maddeningly, I stabbed my feet into the hillside as I pressed forward, determined
to catch our target, but as I climbed past one slingshot-shaped pine tree, I caught a black shape in my flashlight’s beam. Too late, I slowed, my heart pounding as I felt a hand strike against my upper back, like the bite of a viper. Melissa, her shirt blending in with the charcoal night, had
tagged me, and I was forced to sit alone on the brambles and dirt as she left following Ethan and
Brendon. I fingered the round, black button on the end of my flashlight.
I sat in the darkness, able to see only the tiny specks of flashlights above and my severely
dim surroundings. It occurred to me that Brendon and Melissa’s strategy was effective, with
them prowling around the hillside like wolves, choosing not to bolt through the darkness, but to
disappear in it. I wondered, though, if they were missing the point. I realized the elation of the
chase, especially with such limited vision, was what made the game worthwhile to me. The
pounding of my feet, the quickening of my pulse, the deafening roar in my ears had all filled me
with euphoria. Coming down from the high of adrenaline, my skin began to crawl. I felt antsy
unable to continue playing, and the pine needles I rested on dug uncomfortably into my thighs. I
leaned back against the bark of the slingshot tree and fingered its grooves, their edges like rough, miniscule trenches, until I heard my name called from above. Melissa had been tagged, and I was back up.
With my flashlight relit, I bounded to the top of the incline, eager to regroup. Searching
for my teammate, I arrived at the open clearing in which we had begun the game and swept my
flashlight’s beam over it. I looked for a four and a half feet tall shape and soon found Ethan
running on the opposite side, yelling in a garbled voice, “I’m looking at you, Brady!”
I dashed after him and soon caught up, startling him again in doing so. Then relief
crossed over his face as he recognized me, and I panted, “Now let’s play offense.”
We tore through the foliage again, making hairpin turns around countless obstacles. By
now the bones in my feet felt metallic pangs each time. I ran like a machine, breathing more
heavily now, but I flew over the ground as the music in my ears swelled up again, a symphony
surrounding my footfalls. Whenever I ran into other players, I slowed just enough to tap them. I
tapped them on the back, or the shoulder, or the forearm, and I kept going.
Then I heard someone race after me. I turned to see it was Octavian, one of the people I
had tagged seconds earlier. As he ran, he placed a fist atop his head to indicate that he was
“down,” but he chanted across the forest, yelling “Get Kelsey, get Kelsey!” to attract active
players into tagging me. His fluorescent yellow shirt glared even without light, and his lanky
frame allowed him to sail over terrain faster than almost any player. I poured on speed and soon
barreled past Ethan, desperate to escape Octavian’s mantra. Blood coursed through me, and I felt my forehead grow hot with effort as I plunged deeper into the forest, now having lost Ethan
entirely. Octavian kept on my tail, and within minutes, a few other players began pursuit. “Get
Kelsey, get Kelsey!” rang in my ears. The triumphantly animated music I had imagined in my
mind transformed again, now becoming more like a frantic tune of distress.
Wheezing now, I ploughed through some underbrush and recognized it as Brendon and
Melissa’s thicket. Darting, diving, dancing around obstacles, I kept running. Zig-zagging
forward, narrowly missing roots and rocks, I kept running. Slapped again by those irritable
branches, I kept running. My legs seemed to repel each other as they pulled me in opposite
directions, and the whole time I kept running. Then I noticed the familiar warped log under the
beam of my flashlight and I barreled toward it. Just before reaching it, I leaped three feet into the air and sailed over it, hoping to put some distance between Octavian and me, and I glanced
behind me to see if the log had slowed my pursuers. But it was the wolves who caught me in the end. Out of nowhere, it seemed, Brendon charged at me head-on, tapping my arm before I could
react. The forest erupted with jubilant cheers that I was down, and the campers all fled from the
scene as they began chasing each other. Exhausted and defeated, I allowed myself to collapse on the forest floor as I shut off my flashlight.
Where was Ethan? I supposed even if he’d been here, he wouldn’t have helped much. I
fell backwards against the dirt so that I lay on my back stretched over the ground, gasping for air. I decided I wouldn’t be ready to run a marathon any time soon. Then I thought about all the
people I’d tagged who were now back up and recognized that Ethan and I wouldn’t be winning
this game. There were too many other teams, and our team’s tactic of perpetually running in an
arbitrary direction exposed us on too many fronts. Still, I smiled to think that our strategy was
the best one, nevertheless. I’d had so much fun playing the game that I could probably even write an essay about it.
The sharp sound of a lone bird call pierced the night air, and a soft breeze rustled pine
needles above me. I stared at the sky and realized with a start that the stars were vibrantly visible, speckled as densely as pimples on an unlucky teenager’s face. Limited light pollution had
allowed the constellations to brilliantly sparkle over the rolling mountains where we camped. It’s
amazing, I decided, the beauty that can present itself when you turn off the lights for a while.
I lay there for a few more minutes, allowing my heart rate to return to normal, until I
heard “Kelsey, you’re up!” echo through the forest. Brendon was down, and now it was my turn.
I patted my palm against twigs and needles beside me until it at last closed around a cool, metal
Kendall Millett is a co-founder of The Oxford Comma and one of its acting head writers. She is a teen homeschooler and a Gold Key regional Scholastic Art & Writing Awards recipient. She is based in the Bay Area.