Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
As a child, I lived in a small town with an even smaller circle of friends. A circle of friends that needed something to do, in a town with nothing. We were the type of kids that would run through abandoned buildings or start rumors of the creepy house on the block. Unfortunately, none of those opportunities were presented to us. So when we were told to ‘go play outside’, we had to be creative with it. Which wasn’t too challenging, we were kids after all.
We’d make up any number of fantasies to reenacted in the nearby woods, the stories would come and go but one game seemed to stick. It was a silly affair with incredibly simplistic rules, the same rules we’d hear echoed on the nights before Christmas. “No peeking.” The idea was brought up by Thomas, usually the quieter of the bunch and ironically the only one I’m still friends with to this day. Although “friends” might be pushing it a bit.
“If a sound to your sides or behind you, makes you look; you lose the game,” Thomas explained to us. Looking back it really is such a nonsensical game, we never even considered how someone would know if another of us looked. As we’d all be to busy trying not to lose ourselves but nonetheless it infected everything we did. We’d play hide-n-seek with “The no peeking game”. Even school was a playground for it, the teachers thought we were so attentive.
As a child, the noises I heard off to the side during the game didn’t bother me much. I just knew if I was hearing them, I was playing. Looking back I should have- no I was just a child and didn’t know any better. The sounds were real you see and they weren’t normal. One session of the game occurred while we were playing in the woods. The noises started and it was a little too much being in the woods with the low murmuring. So the group made a break for it, heading back to the closest clearing, making sure not to swivel our heads. There was a sudden boom of noise to the right of me, louder than the game had ever been. It startled me and practically threw me to the ground, I scratched my knee on the foliage. I remember my parents being none-to-pleased, I got such a talking to that night. One of those scoldings that seem monumental as a kid but really amount to nothing.
I feel like the days of us all playing the game together would have gone on forever, it might of even keep our group of friends together throughout the years. It didn’t though, one evening the lot of us were just sitting in Thomas’ backyard, I think we were waiting for the game to start. Just as we heard the noises Thomas seized up and laid on his side. We thought maybe he had lost the game but no one saw him turn his head and like I said the game had just started. It wasn’t until the convulsions accompanied by a viscous white foam dripping from between his lips began, that we ran and got help.
Thomas, poor Thomas had fallen into a comatose-like state. He didn’t react when we went to visit. It was like Thomas wasn’t even in there. That’s when we stopped playing the game as a group and likely when we all drifted from each other. His coma lasted for just about two weeks but when he was conscious again, it didn’t seem like him. Or rather, he had been replaced with a version of himself that had seen a lifetime of exhaustion. His eyes were always half closed, his movements were slow and the way he looked at me. I couldn’t understand the expression as a kid but I sure understand now. A mixture of exhaustion and dread glazed his iris.
Can’t speak for the other kids but even though we stopped playing the game, it still followed me through the years. Even up till now in my adult life, the sounds would make their occasional appearances. I’d never betray the rules but as I got older I recognized the noises more and more, it was like a cacophony of whispers and just, things happening. Cars screeching, pots clanging and any mundane noise you could imagine. All filtered like the sound was coming from just under the water’s surface. If an ‘everyday’ noise was pronounced enough I’d nearly turn my head, like if I was crossing the road and heard a car’s honk; but the choir of voices just under the surface would keep me in the game.
I’ve gone over all this for context, I hope It wasn’t all to spastic that you couldn’t follow along, sometimes I don’t completely have a grasp on it. Because, well- tonight marks the date of the first time I lost “The no peeking game”. Like I said the game followed me through the years but I was still able to function as an adult, sure the noises would get on my nerves at times but they’d been there since I was a kid so I was more or less used to them. I held a respectable job. I even managed to go on dates, admittedly I’d have to have the date repeat what they’d said more often than others. Still, I’m quite the charmer. This led to falling in love with one Bethany Walmore, as beautiful and understanding as she was I never told her about the game, I doubt she’d want to play.
We ended up moving in together and while we didn’t exactly plan to have a child, one came along anyway. Another distant noise I had to worry about huh? That baby sure kept us up, crying every night. I was playing a new much more exhausting game. I’d lose both. One night, this night I should say. The game had woken me up, that usually didn’t happen but it wasn’t unheard of for me, I was thirsty anyway. There were constant secrets being whispered in my ears as I headed downstairs to chug a gallon of milk.
The dark kitchen illuminated by the fridge’s light, my fingers wrapping around the ice cold plastic jug. Unscrewing the top I took a few swigs, but not enough that Beth would notice; I know I know, gross. Putting the milk back and thudding the fridge closed I stared at my faint reflection, I was waiting for the noises to stop. Whenever I had to completely turn around I would wait for the game to be over, just in case, it counted as looking. Sometimes the games only lasted minutes, other times; well my feet would get pretty sore. Then… I heard a cry, an all to familiar cry. The same one that has kept me up for weeks now. The shrill whine of my child, it caught me off guard and I- turned towards it.
My kitchen was illuminated once more, but this time by a- I’m not even sure how to describe this. Like an ethereal TV screen. A large glowing rectangle whose edges seemed to flare out into specks of light that would then diminish. Like a television it was playing something, cautious and confused I approached it. I didn’t recognize what it was displaying at first but in my amazed trance, I slowly remembered the faces of my friends the TV was playing. I remembered some of the games we played together. It was all being shown to me, through the perspective of some outside observer, as such I could see myself in the third person.
How would I ever be able to pull my attention away, I was living my life again vicariously through, well, myself! Everything presented on the screen was filtered through a glittering lens, colors saturated and popped more vibrantly. Memories would jump from one to the next without much warning or even in the correct order. The screen shifted and I watched myself running through the woods with my friends, these memories weren’t chosen at random. They were moments when I was playing the game. This memory was always vivid in my mind, I knew what was about to happen and I couldn’t explain the intrusive thought, but maybe I could alter it.
Words slipped from between my lips before I had the chance to rationalize with myself, just how silly the act was. I screamed a half-hearted warning and the screen rippled like I had thrown a stone into it. The child version of myself was- startled and lost his footing; watching myself crashing to the floor I rubbed my knee in unison with the child. I was insurmountably bewildered and in this confusion became a little more aware of the situation. Where my mind was once a flurry with amazement there were whirls of caution.
Just using my peripherals I could see nothing familiar, so I looked around. Stepping back from the display of my memories I observed my surroundings or lack thereof. I was engulfed in monotonous darkness littered with small beads of light hovering, just like my memories did. A low mechanical like hum was ever present but could only be heard when I was searching for noise. If there was any structures or landmarks it was too dark to see them. The lights from the TVs were self-contained, never touching the floor or illuminating the dark as my memories had done for my kitchen. The kitchen that was nowhere to be seen.
The nearest light was just close enough to make out what it was but still far enough away to be unable to make out details. It was another pocket of memories, playing out without an observer, but the landscape, or rather the rough shapes playing on the screen weren’t familiar to me. Did I feel compelled to walk to the other, memories? I, however, had the sense to stay where I was and only take small steps to look past my screen. Beyond my memories there where more lights but far less of them. The lights eventually stopped and gave way to the solitary darkness, it was hard to discern distance without any real reference point.
Memories hanging in the dark to either side of me and behind me looked as though they went on forever in tandem with the darkness. Creating this intriguing white line on the horizon of my eyesight that split the darkness in half. In front, the lights just stopped and the darkness went on without them. In the corner of my eye, on my TV I saw Thomas come into view he was just looking off into the distance. How long had he been hearing the noises as a child, did he know what they meant and even more so, how would he have known the rules? Then it flickered to the day the ‘game’ died, all of us sitting in a circle on the grass and Thomas’ body just goes limp.
I reached out to my shaking friend, extending my hand through the darkness and… into the screen before me. When my fingers hit the light they where met with resistance or rather the sensation of it. Like a layer of plastic wrap, I was still able to push through as unnatural as it felt. The screen shook as my wrist slipped into it, almost like it was speaking to me. I saw myself as a child momentarily clutch his right arm as Thomas was writhing around. Both version of me likely had the same curious expression. Quickly I pulled my arm back and the screen went still again, like when I had yelled before I could interact with this version of myself. My ability to alter or at least make suggestions throughout my life, as long as I was playing the game. Tempted me as I watched memories of myself growing older and dealing with whatever life threw at me.
Felt like watching a really poorly edited home movie, through a more attractive lens. Despite the gnawing urge I managed to keep to myself. I’m pretty into philosophical pools of thought and considered that messing with the memories I had made would possibly result in a more negative light. I was happy where I was. The longer I stayed in that void, watching; the more I could remember my life. Not just by the select memories physically on display before me but in my own head things became clearer. It was almost nauseating. Everything was flooding into me, every sorrow and joy I had experienced I could recall with crystal clarity. So well in fact that my nerves became convinced I was cold when remembering a cold night and my joints sore when reflecting on injuries.
Heartbreak was the hardest, we all experience it no matter how substantial or minor it is we all have to live with it. When it’s every heartache flooding in at once, however, it’s completely unbearable and no pleasant thought could quell it, each moment building upon the last. I became a well of emotion about to overfill, spilling out the spectrum of my emotions and then, that’s exactly what I did. I let out a howl much louder and much more raw than the last had been. It was like my experiences had turned to bile and were now being rejected by my body. My mind wasn’t meant to hold this much at once but instead of the sticky substance nights out, drinking had conditioned me to expect. There they were, my memories trickled between my teeth in forms of tiny blue lights, similar to the edges of the TV.
As they left, dark vacant gaps appeared in my head. I tried to think of the memories I could see drifting away but my mind went blank. Like, memory dyslexia, I could see the memories pouring from my mouth but I couldn’t comprehend them. Once enough of them were out and I could gather myself I watched the memories floating up like paper lanterns. They drifted past my TV towards the great expansive of darkness where like the other TVs, they flickered off. What followed the disappearance of my memories was a noise or a wave of pressure that swept the empty landscaped. It was like a mixing of every voice I’d ever heard all screeching at once. If it went on for long enough I felt I could pick each voice out and put a name to it. I discovered I was wrong about the view before me, the lights from other memories hadn’t stopped they-they were being obstructed.
It took straining my eyes almost until I gave myself a headache but I could make out a shade of black that was separate from the ground and sky. A massive beyond words ‘thing’ that was so large I was damn near looking straight up to see the top of it. The more I looked at it, the more defined and visible it became, like the more it got into my memories the more it presented itself to me. It never got further than just being a constantly shifting dark blob though, but I had become aware of it and it became aware of me. I don’t know how I could but I knew it was turning towards me, it’s movement shook the ground and made the lights of various TVs wain.
On the TVs I could see, memories of people hiding under blankets or running to their parent’s room and crawling into their bed began playing. Briefly, I remembered hearing noises that scared me as a child, whether it was voices or just bumps in the night. Even on my own TV, I could see myself at night clutching my “safety bear”. That’s when I saw the flares coming from the edge of my memories were also floating towards the thing. Furthermore, the blob’s shifting revealed some of the Memories being played behind it. It was impossible to make any detail out from the distance but I was far enough away to see the TVs close to it where being funneled into its shapeless form… A form that was getting ever so slightly larger as it lumbered in my direction.
When it’s inky mass had gotten closer to the few lights beyond my TV that I could see when I first arrived, the edge’s flaring became more aggressive. The details of these memories were fairly clear now that they were becoming more active. I could see a woman driving, she looked nervous and as she was pulling into the intersection; the TV displaying her started to funnel and out of the driver’s side window a truck breezed through the red light. The moment of impact was cut off when the TV tore apart and drifted upwards.
On another closer screen, I could see a woman making dinner in the kitchen, running water over a bowl of lettuce. Her body movements were so cheerful, candles and a set of dishes adorned a table in the background. Turning the water off she braced herself on the sink letting out a heavy exhale. Reaching up she clutched her chest and began to shake. Legs gave out and she dropped to the floor, a cellphone in her pocket tumbled out and she reached for it. The attempt to use it was rendered useless, she was shaking too much. The angle of my perspective, she was almost looking at me. Then her memories too ripped apart and drifted upwards. It was getting too damn close.
The edges of my TV started a harsher flare, the memories had looped around and were playing bits of my childhood again. I was physically feeling weaker, the memories on the screen were flickering. They’d shift between fun childhood games and where I was standing In that very moment, in the void. I knew what it meant and needed a way out, running wouldn’t help as I’d been done the moment it hit my memories. Then I saw it, me and my friends sitting in a circle, Thomas dropping to the floor. I considered his coma came from losing the game but never had I imagined it was this severe.
I didn’t have time to hesitate or ponder and worry about what would happen. I put my hand through, again the child version of me clutched his arm. Only this time I didn’t stop walking forward. Hearing that thing get ever closer I threw myself into the rift of my memories and then nothing. For a good while, I felt nothing, like I was floating in some sensory deprivation tank. I could hear faint whispers and beeping. When I finally opened my eyes again I was in a room that was way too bright, staring at the ceiling. A boring pattern sprinkled with buzzing, dim hospital lighting. He was there, Thomas I mean. He had woken up from his coma just a few days before me and waited for me to wake up, or so the nurses say.
We talked mostly about the game he had made up and when I asked him how much he remembered he simply replied “Everything”. He didn’t really have answers for much of it and was only able to confirm my experience. It didn’t even hit me that we were kids again, that I had jumped into my younger self until he informed me this was his “Third go-around.” as he put it. Then repeated what I was already thinking, I’d have to live my entire life again from this point. The daunting thought of having to do everything exactly the same way I had before to get a chance to see my daughter again, that was the deepest sorrow.
“You lost, and cheated to get out. It’s going to try harder to get you back. It’s going to bend some rules too. Noises are going to become more and more real.” Thomas had said making his way to the door. “That’s why I’m here for the third time. If I go back, I feel there won’t be a fourth try.” I think that was his way of saying good luck. He was right, I guessed Thomas would know better than me but now that I’m on my second go around. What’s real and what noises are lures- it’s becoming one and the same. Very intimate voices will suddenly call out to me and it takes every bit of self-control to halt my gaze.
Just last night, Bethany whispered my name in bed. I shifted to turn and face her but the bathroom light flicking off stopped me. The noise replicated her so perfectly I had forgotten that she wasn’t in bed. I had managed to make it through life again as exhausting as it was and I’m almost where I can have some new experiences again. About a year ago, I was beside myself when Bethany told me she was pregnant and we fantasized about baby names. I guess it wasn’t fair that I already knew what we’d end up agreeing on. Getting to watch my daughter come into this world, for the second time in person, that almost made everything worth it.
I know deep down though, that with these new parts of my life. I’ll be at a disadvantage when I play the game. At least up until this point, I’ve had memories of watching my, sorry, memories of when I was playing so I’d have an idea of what was real. Even then I was barely winning and now that I’m back to the anniversary of my first loss… I’m worried one day, I’ll once again stumble through the dark of night and hear my baby cry out for me.
And as they say. “Fool me once…”
I’m going to try my best, for my family. I want to stay with my wife and baby girl, I want to make sure they never become part of the game. At least, if my daughter- if she hears the voices I have a way to save her. As painful as it’d be for me. If the game could stay between me and that circle of friends, I’d bear that burden. I don’t know all the rules though but sometimes things exist outside our immediate perception for a reason. If you are experiencing a particularly quite night and hear a gentle murmur when you could swear you’re all alone. I implore you to remember…
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