I’m not any kind of detective, if that’s what you’re thinking. If someone were to label me, I’m sure it would be unflattering, something along the lines of a paranoid enthusiast. I’d take it as a reversed compliment; Woody Allen said paranoia is simply possession of all the facts.
How familiar are you with the game? It’s not quite as disturbing as the sex bracelets phenomenon couple years back, but it’s in that same realm. If you’ve ever heard of autoerotic asphyxiation, guys who choke themselves to heighten their orgasm, it’s sort of the kiddie version of that. The oxygen depravation brings on a sense of euphoria as blood rushes back into the brain; sometimes it’s sexual, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s done in groups, which is actually safer. It’s the kids hanging from a belt on their doorknob that die.
There’s actually been some research into it, which is of course incomplete, because it’s hard to tell the difference between a fainter and a suicide, and there’s really just way less paperwork for the latter. But for over a decade the CDC’s been trying to keep up on it, and their statistics say that almost 90% of those who die playing the game are boys. But it’s the age where it gets really, truly weird. For 11 to 16 year olds the numbers basically flatline, but at 13 there’s an inexplicable spike, like 50% more deaths than at any other age.
And the numbers have increased dramatically in the last few years; I guess that’s what being a fad’s all about. But last year it started happening here- of course by here I mean this side of the state. And it happened again. The third time it actually made it into the local papers, and not just into AP stories republished in the national sections; that’s how you know it was spooking parents.
I noticed a pattern. Nothing like a star on a map, or a distinguishable modus operandi, just a sameness. And it wasn’t just that my local paper ran the exact same article with the names changed for two victims- which I wrote a very detailed letter to the editor about, which of course was never printed. There was a familiarity to it, like that moment of déjà vu when you realize you’ve already read a book and you’ve just bought it again with a different cover.
I started following the deaths closer. I spoke to family members or friends. Talked to MEs. When I could, I looked at the scene, and the body. There are literally like thousands of asphyxiation deaths, but I looked into every one in driving distance. Most of them, it was just a couple phone calls, and there was a note, or tendencies or a long history of depression, maybe previous attempts. A handful of them were people who played the game with friends, and then tried it on their own. But some of them just didn’t make sense.
I found myself driving home at four in the morning, and I passed a truck, and I don’t know what it was about the driver, but something in his eyes just set off a chain of dominos in my mind I didn’t even know I’d been placing. I turned around and chased him for four miles before I forced him off the road. In his headlights, whatever ominous menace I thought I’d seen in him was gone; he was just a young trucker from Virginia, who’d only had his CDL for a week. He’d never been in the state before, and was actually lost and unaware he was in the state at all. I apologized to him profusely and gave him some directions; I still wrote down his plate number, but I know he wasn’t what I’d seen in the shadows of his cab for the briefest moment, but it also made me realize that what I’d seen was out there.
Even still, I mostly wrote it off at first. I mean, road-hypnosis induced delusions aren’t something to rule your life by, so I let it lie. And then there was a death in the neighboring county, and through a string of serendipitys I was there within an hour of the body’s discovery. I spoke with his mother very briefly before a detective with apparently nothing better to do with his time took me in for questioning. I told him about my theories, but he laughed at me. I’d been practicing it on my coworkers, my mom on the phone, and pretty much everybody had that same response, but no matter how many times it happens, you’re never fully inoculated to people laughing at you.
The deaths continued, and I continued to follow them. There was never an “Aha” moment, no smoking gun or even a lingering bit of evidence. The sameness just became stronger, like the tingling of spider-legs on your neck half-imagined in the night. As I acclimated to the sameness, I felt closer to it. I wasn’t tracking him, because that implies some conscious process- I was navigating entirely by feel.
And that’s why I was standing over the body, because I was getting closer, but just not quickly enough. There’ve been twelve victims before tonight, and this boy was thirteen. I don’t think there will ever be another one, not even if you keep me here for a thousand years. Oh… Officer, now can I have my phone call?