The End Games - By T. Michael Martin


Michael awoke in the dark to the screams again.

He drew up the rifle in the tarp at his side. He kicked out of the sleeping bag and ripped his gun from its waterproof wrap and raised the sights up toward the perimeter blindly. A form appeared twenty feet ahead. He tugged the trigger; it would not give. He cursed himself, clicked off the safety, resighted the shape. But the form was nothing more than a tree, a yew, arthritic and leafless. So dark: God, so dark out here. By the gunmetal moonlight, the ring of trees around their camp was all but invisible. But that was impossible. Unless—

Their fire had died.

He gasped, “Ohcrapno.”

A crimson bed of cinders popped in the circle of stones. A spindle of smoke twisted.

He whispered, “Patrick!”

Out there in the night the scream went on. Human but not. Living but not.

Patrick didn’t stir.

Michael knelt unsteadily in the snow. He felt for the Pokémon sleeping bag, torn and patched and torn again. “Patrick, get up!” The lining swished. “Bub! Let’s go!”

Only when he tossed it open did he realize the bag was empty.

His heart rammed his throat.

But the lining was still warm. His brother hadn’t been gone long.

Michael risked everything and shouted, “Patrick!”

Several seconds of silence, then a call reported through the darkness. “Paaaatriiiick!” But the echo was not his own. It was a voice without depth or dimension, choking on earth. A dead, elongated roar. The Bellow, mimicking him.

Heavy feet changed direction and dragged through the brush, maybe one hundred yards away, nearing.


Don’t let Patrick be sleepwalking again. Jeezus, why did I say we could camp outside?

Concentrate. Think, like Mom.

I swear, please don’t let him be out there—

Hey a-hole: Feel. Your. Blood.

Michael closed his eyes against the dark cold, and there was that moment, that ever-repeating instant, when everything inside him hissed that it wouldn’t work, that he didn’t have time. Then he thought of his breath, and emptied his brain.

His focus aligned on the quick warm creek within his veins, the powerful flex against his ribs, the deliberate drumming inside his ears. It felt like every fiber and thought of himself fusing into one another, until his mind and his movement merged to a single thing, seamless and bright, like a glowing radar dot.

It felt like: yes-yes.

His eyes leapt open, and he moved, focused, fine.

He tore open the duffel bag next to him.

“Paaaatriiiick!” said the Bellow, closer now. “Paatriiiick!”

Michael grabbed a safety flare from the bag and stood and punched it on his thigh—a whoosh. Sparks fanned a molten dandelion.

The forest conjured orange before him, their camp and the rotten deer stand and their car ahead on the dirt road. He spun on his boot heels, wafting away flare smoke.

New-cast shadow lunged in the trees.

He saw no one.

An image jumped into his head: Patrick, hiding behind a tree as a joke. Patrick, laughing into his elbow, until he heard the Bellow coming . . . then froze, afraid.

“Patrick, good one! You—you got me!” Michael stepped over the sleeping bags, nearer the trees. His voice wavered as he shouted. He cleared his throat, calmed, continued, “Bub, come on out now; I’ll let you shoot this Bellow! A hundred points!”

“Youuuuuu got meeeee!”

Michael whirled.

Fifty feet away, he could just make out the creature: staggering, hitching wild legs through the woods. Its limbs hung at impossible angles, a dozen times shattered. Its clothes were stripes of rot. What skin still clung to the skeleton was in some spots the color of mushrooms and in others that of wax and mostly it was as pale as the bones that jutted through it.

But a moment ago it had been coming from the other direction.

There are two of them.

“Buuuuuuub,” it said, “pooooooin—”

“Cheating . . .”

The whisper was small: so small that it could have been the voice of the flare. But Michael knew the sound too well. It was the same excitement as when he and Patrick had beaten Halo 4 on Legendary Mode, their headphones plugged into the TV so they could stay up all night without anyone knowing; the same giddy, too-many-Sour-Patch-Kids, One more level, c’mon puh-lease excitement at a new part of The Game.

As the Bellow bayed once more, Michael flung himself into a nearby cluster of pines—and his knees went weak with relief.

Patrick sat on a snow-slick log, hunchbacked in a down coat and two hoodies, looking at something on a steep hill slope. His hands kneaded his hair—not in terror, in annoyance. He looked like precisely what he