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Fiction

Flashlight Man

Don’t play this game. I’ll tell you about it as a warning, but you must not play it. Please. It’s not worth the risk.

• • • •

The legend of Flashlight Man began in the upper Midwestern United States, grounded in rural areas. A variation on mirror summoning, it went like this: you lie on your back in bed, your face turned toward the nearest wall, then shut your eyes and whisper, “Flashlight Man, Flashlight Man, comes with a click, see me if you can.”

Repeat three times.

Then you fall asleep. The tricky part in verifying who encounters Flashlight Man is that it happens during dream cycles, so you’re on your honor to accurately report how long you last.

If you followed the steps correctly—keep facing the wall, say the words aloud, don’t open your eyes until after you’ve fallen asleep—at some point, Flashlight Man will appear.

You’re obviously asleep at this point. You’ll hear a click, and you’ll have the vivid impression of a tall, shadowy man holding a heavy silver flashlight in his left hand. He’s standing by the wall. The dread begins immediately. In ¬your peripheral vision you’ll see the bright circular light of the flashlight beam bouncing off the wall near your feet. Shut your eyes.

Count the seconds. Use the method “one Mississippi, two Mississippi,” etc.

He’ll get closer, moving the light slowly up your body toward your head. The goal is to jerk yourself awake when you can’t handle it anymore, but before the light reaches your face.

The record is eight seconds, by Bethany McNeil, who died in a car accident three months later.

When you wake up, you’ll be facing away from the wall. If you lasted more than three seconds, you’ll have the after image of a light in your eyes, like if you stare into a bright bulb directly.

Your heartbeat should be rapid, you should be wide awake and full of adrenaline, and you should remember how many seconds you lasted.

Going back to sleep is a challenge, but it’s doable. Just be absolutely sure you don’t repeat the game that same night, because if you do, you don’t get to start at one second: your current count continues at double the speed. Or so people say.

There’s a story that a kid tried it twice; got to four the first time, and then on the second time she barely had a chance to jerk awake at the count of seven. Her hair started falling out afterward and never re-grew.

According to legend, if Flashlight Man’s beam reaches your face, you’ll see what he looks like.

And then you’ll die in your sleep.

• • • •

Again, I’m telling you this as a warning.

We were kids at the time, Billy and Elliot and Todd and me. Ten years old, having a summer sleepover at Elliot’s house. Playing the Flashlight Man game was his idea.

“This is stupid,” I said, because I was the new kid in the group, and had just moved last year from Minneapolis to this hick town of Deerborn, MN, even farther north than Aikin. I didn’t believe in dumb legends. But I really wanted to stay friends because Elliot and Todd were the first guys to let me hang out with them and I didn’t want to be a loner again, and school didn’t start for another month and everyone knew everyone else, so I stuck out even more and it sucked.

“You chicken?” Todd said.

“No,” I snapped, “but what’s the point of this game? What do you win?”

Billy rolled his eyes. “Fame, dumbass. Everyone respects you if you make it to seven seconds. Girls will think you’re hot.”

“Eww,” Todd said, and Elliot made a fake gagging sound.

“How can you prove it, though?” I demanded.

All three of them stared at me like I was an idiot.

“You can’t lie about Flashlight Man, dude,” Billy said. Todd and Elliot nodded.

“If you do, the game never works for you again,” Todd added.

“So what?” I didn’t want to admit I was spooked.

“That’s like, total social suicide,” Elliot said, shaking his head. “No one respects a guy who loses the Flashlight Man game.”

“Seriously?”

They all stared at me like I had just transformed into some rat-headed mutant. Or a tick, since for some disgusting reason, this town was obsessed with wood ticks. It was so gross.

“Dude,” Billy said, “you don’t wanna lie about Flashlight Man.” He was dead serious now, and Billy was the joker of the group.

“Fine, whatever,” I grumbled. I didn’t really get it, but I didn’t want them to ditch me, either. Who else could I talk to? Our internet sucked, and mom wouldn’t let me have my own cell phone.

“Okay, you guys ready?” Elliot asked.

We all nodded.

We were in the half-finished basement, the partially underground kind, and the patio doors looked like a black hole leading to the back yard. We chose one of the unpainted sheetrock walls as our camp. We each had a sleeping bag and pillow, and our chip bags and empty soda cans were scattered on the floor.

Elliot got up and flipped off the ceiling light, leaving the fan on. “Here we go.”

We all lay down, Elliot closest to the stairwell and me at the end, by the doors. Billy and Todd were snickering, their heads closest together and their sleeping bags in the middle of the wall. Billy’s feet were lined up with mine and Todd’s with Elliot’s so none of us had anyone’s stinky feet in our faces.

The others shut their eyes and started whispering the chant: “Flashlight Man, Flashlight Man, comes with a click, see me if you can.”

I muttered the words too, but I kept my eyes open.

The only sound beside the fan blades humming was our collective breathing. I wasn’t tired, due to a mix of caffeine and sugar and nerves. I’d refused to tell my friends I’d never been to a sleepover before. I missed my bed.

Pretty soon I heard soft snores from Billy, and Todd’s nasal breathing, and nothing from Elliot.

And here’s where it got fucked.

When I was sure they were all asleep, I sat up, pulled my sleeping bag away from the wall into the middle of the basement, and watched. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want to sleep, and I could always say I’d only gotten to like, the count of two, and would just fake it. Who cared about social standing in this backwoods town anyway?

Billy woke first, jolting upright with a gasp. He pawed at his hair with both hands like he was afraid it was going to fall out. He squinted. The moon had come out by now, and lit up the basement pretty bright.

“Dude, shit,” he whispered, his eyes wide. He looked at me and I shrugged.

“Two,” I said, and tried to look embarrassed.

Billy nodded. “Four,” he said, and then grinned. “Personal best, oh yeah.”

He scooted his sleeping bag over to mine and we sat there watching Todd and Elliot. Todd woke up next, sweating like crazy, his eyes bloodshot.

“Fuck me . . .” Todd stared at us for a long moment. “Five,” he said. He looked shaken, pale, and didn’t seem to like admitting that.

“Dude, awesome!” Billy whispered. He reached over and high-fived Todd, who weakly slapped his hand.

We all stared at Elliot.

“He’s gotta be at six,” Billy said.

“How would you know?” I asked. Time is different in dreams; I knew that much, because I’d had enough freaking nightmares to wish otherwise.

Todd shivered. “I’m not playing this again.”

“Why not?” I asked.

Todd shot me a glare so vicious I leaned back, scared he was going to lose his shit and punch me. “Five. Fucking. Seconds.”

I held up my hands in defense. “Okay, man. Jesus, sorry.”

Billy patted my shoulder. “Give him a break, Todd, he’s still new.”

I shook Billy’s hand off. We were all silent again.

Elliot’s chest moved up and down in a steady rhythm, and his hair wasn’t falling out in clumps or anything wild like that.

Todd was still sweating, rocking back and forth. I looked at Billy. Something was really wrong. Elliot was still asleep.

“Do we wake him up?” I asked Billy.

He shook his head. “That’s against the rules.”

We kept waiting.

I don’t know what time it was, because I didn’t have a watch and there were no clocks, and besides, I wasn’t paying attention.

But we all heard the “click” loud and clear. Just a simple click, the kind those old-fashioned aluminum flashlights with heavy on/off switches made. My dad used to hoard those things for our camping trips that inevitably never happened. He had a whole plastic tote full of them.

We all held our breath. Billy’s eyes were huge. Todd clapped his hands over his mouth.

I swear on my life, none of us had any kind of light or cellphone or anything like that with us. But we saw it: a round beam of light moved up Elliot’s body, from his feet to his head, and settled on his face.

And then his face just . . . disappeared. Where his features should have been was a stretch of bland white skin, flattened out like a halved grapefruit. No nose, no mouth, no eyes.

The flashlight beam clicked off.

• • • •

My mom and I moved back to the city a month later. I’ve never played the game and I’m telling you: don’t.

I know the trend is starting to gain traction—I see occasional posts about it on forums or social media. Like any urban legend, it has its detractors and hardcore fans, but I’m telling you, this shit is bad. Don’t play the Flashlight Man game.

I can’t sleep facing a wall anymore. I’m afraid I might unconsciously say the words, acid-etched in my brain. I can’t not think them every night, even if I don’t speak aloud.

The police didn’t believe us, of course, but they couldn’t accuse us of murder since they had no way to prove how we’d done it. I never spoke to Billy or Todd again. I’m pretty sure the sheriff pulled some strings to make sure the unexplained death of ten-year-old Elliot Mason never made it to the mainstream. If you google it, you’ll find that the official cause of death was cardiorespiratory failure. It was a closed-casket funeral.

• • • •

There are no longer any pictures of Elliot in which you can see his face.

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor is a queer non-binary writer who lives in Minnesota and is a Nebula Awards finalist. Their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Nightmare and several Year’s Best anthologies. You can find Merc on Twitter @Merc_Rustad or their website: mercfennwolfmoor.com. Their debut short story collection, So You Want To Be A Robot, was published by Lethe Press (May 2017).