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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer

Rules Variants

           The pontoon boat, laden with camping supplies and the second-tier youth group kids, chugged across Glasseye Lake toward the big island at its center. It was almost 4 in the afternoon and the cloudy part of the partly-cloudy sky had moved between the swollen October sun and the part of the Earth on which Glasseye Lake lapped at its banks. The youth group at Jesus’s Cross’s Church was not officially divided into tiers, but the hierarchy was obvious. It was obvious to Russ, anyway. Brett and his friends were first-tier youth group kids. They were juniors at Multioak High School, relatively popular, relatively athletic. None of Brett’s friends even attended Jesus’s Cross’s Church. They only came to the fun youth group events, such as this annual campout. Their status as first-tier youth group kids had been confirmed for the hundredth or thousandth time when they had been the first bunch of campers delivered to the island. By the time Russ and the other second-tier kids boarded the pontoon boat, Brett and his friends had been on the island for almost an hour along with Clark, the older and more passive or the youth leaders.

As a sixth-grader, this was Russ’s first youth group campout. He had invited two friends from school to come with him, but one hadn’t wanted to and one had been disallowed by his mom. So Russ was the youngest person on the campout. In fact, he was the only middle-schooler. He sat in the back of the pontoon and watched the island expand in his field of vision as it drew closer. The trees on the island were beautiful. They were huge and colorful, their leaves running the entire range of the traditional fall palette. It looked as if autumn had been distilled to its essence and that essence had been shaped into one, small island.

At the front of the boat, Vera and Abby chatted with Bobby. The girls were freshmen at Multioak High School. Bobby was a junior just like Brett and his friends, but Bobby belonged with the second-tier youth group kids for reasons other than his age. He was annoying. Almost everyone agreed on this point, including Bobby, although that may have been a face-saving tactic more than sincere agreement. The one person who apparently didn’t agree that Bobby was annoying was Vera, who had somehow become Bobby’s girlfriend in the last hour. She was currently nodding at Bobby as he pontificated on the superiority of classic rock to all modern forms of music. Abby looked on with naked skepticism. Russ could only hear bits and pieces of what Bobby was saying over the gurgling chug of the boat’s engine, and for that he was grateful.

                Keith, one of the youth leaders in charge of the campout, drove the pontoon. His wife, Tessa, sat sideways on a seat across from him. She did not consider herself a youth leader, but she had been enlisted as a temporary youth leader for the campout because it was an overnight event and girls were attending, which Russ gathered was a rarity for youth group campouts. For a period of a few years before Abby’s family had started going to church at Jesus’s Cross’s, the youth group had been comprised of only Brett and his friends, plus Bobby. Keith gave his wife a rueful look and said, “We’re gonna have to watch them.”

                “Who?” asked Tessa. Neither of them noticed that Russ could hear their conversation, or else they didn’t care.

                “Those two,” said Keith, nodding at the front of the boat. “Bobby and Vera.”

                “I know,” said Tessa. “Vera’s mom will lecture me if she finds out they even held hands tonight.” Keith and Tessa were in their late 20s, which meant that some of the parents – mostly Vera’s – viewed them more as members of the youth group than leaders. Tessa’s insistence that she wasn’t actually a leader and that she only came to events like these because no one else would do it did not save her from Vera’s parents’ scolding. Tessa was not good at pretending to have fun on youth group events. It was always clear that she would rather be somewhere, perhaps anywhere, else. The island campout seemed especially trying for her. Russ understood why it would be. No bed, no shower, the stress of keeping other people’s kids safe, the stress of keeping other people’s kids from misbehaving, and without any interest in participating in the one planned activity that could offset all of these negatives: capture the flag.

                Russ didn’t know any of these people very well. There was no one else on the campout who he would even consider calling his friend. He, like Tessa, would prefer to sleep in a bed, to take a shower, to eat food better than was likely to be made by teenagers over a campfire. Russ’s parents had told him he didn’t have to go. In fact, they had encouraged him not to. They didn’t have much faith in the youth leaders either, although they were less demonstrative about it than Vera’s parents. But Russ had insisted that he wanted to go on the youth group island campout, and that was for one reason only: capture the flag. And not just capture the flag, but what to him sounded like the ultimate capture the flag experience. The capture the flag experience of his dreams.


                On the island, the first arrivals had begun to set up their tents. The western third of the island was more like a park than a forest. The large, thick-trunked trees were spread farther apart and the ground was open and grassy. There had been a house on the island at some point, although all that remained of it was some of its foundation and a few steps leading down to the little strip of beach most conducive to boat-landing. The park-like portion of the island had probably been that house’s front yard. The majority of the campout occurred on this part of the island. The thickly-wooded eastern two thirds of the island was perfect for capture the flag and not much else.

                As Russ helped to carry supplies up from the boat, he saw that Clark, the older youth leader, had already built a campfire 20 yards from where the trail that looped through the wooded end of the island began. Clark’s tent was erected near the fire and Keith and Tessa worked on setting their tent up just as near the fire as Clark’s, but on the opposite side. Russ, without a friend or tent of his own, was going to bunk with Clark. He was not excited about it, although he had nothing against Clark. There certainly wasn’t anyone on the trip he would rather bunk with. He had feared the leaders would stick him with Bobby, but Bobby had insisted that he would not be sleeping in any tent at all because he relished any opportunity to “sleep under the stars.” Brett and his friends had already set their tents up far from the fire where they could converse in the night without worrying about the youth leaders overhearing them and scolding them for inappropriate topics or bad language.

Russ stood facing the fire with his back to the woods and watched Bobby attempt some gallantry with Vera by helping her and Abby set up their tent. After some light bickering, the tent was up but not staked. They couldn’t find the stakes. As they looked for them in the grass, near the campfire, on the path between the boat and fire, on the boat itself, Brett’s friend Wade kept turning their tent upside down as Brett and the rest of his friends laughed, then assured Bobby and the girls, when they returned still stakeless, that the wind had done it. This despite the wind being, though chilly, far too mild to overturn a tent. When this exact pattern had played out for the third time, Vera snapped and shouted, “Bobby! Get four large stones!” Bobby had whinily collected three of the four demanded stones when Abby caught Wade balancing the tent on the edge of the small cliff over the water at the far western edge of the island, thereby revealing himself to be the true culprit. Shortly after, the stakes were found. Russ didn’t see where they were found or who found them. He had considered telling Abby or Vera what was really going on with their tent, but was afraid this would cause Brett and his friends to view him as a spoilsport or, worse, a tattletale. Not that he harbored any illusions about being accepted into their clique. He just didn’t want to become a target for their disdain. They were never outright cruel, but he did not want them to interact with him in the same way they interacted with Bobby. He preferred to only be noticed in passing.

After the tents were set up, Brett led an expedition to the wooded end of the island so that everyone could scout it out and get a sense of how it looked before the light was gone. There would be a waning gibbous moon later, but with the trees maintaining their holds on most of their leaves, not much of its light would filter down to the forest floor. Russ enjoyed the hike. He brought up the rear of the line of youth group kids crunching through the fallen leaves on the trail and listened with mounting excitement as those who had been on previous campouts recounted tales of past capture the flag glories and mishaps, pointing out the exact locations where they had occurred.

“I laid right there for 20 minutes,” said Owen, another of Brett’s friends, as he pointed to a spot in the brown tangle of underbrush. “It had to be at least 20 minutes. Perfectly still. Abby was over there with a flashlight pointed right where I was so I couldn’t move at all. I could barely breathe. She could have walked right over and tagged me, but she didn’t.”

“It wasn’t 20 minutes,” said Abby. “I wouldn’t have stood there for 20 minutes.”

“Why didn’t you tag him?” asked Russ from the back of the group.

“It’s psychological warfare,” explained Owen. “If you lie still long enough, people start to second guess themselves. They start wondering if that’s really the spot where they saw you disappear. They start to wonder if you managed to sneak away right under their noses in complete silence.”

“That wasn’t what I was thinking,” said Abby. “I just didn’t want you to jump up and yell when I got close. I was all by myself. I hate jump scares.”

                Back at the fire, the kids and leaders ate hot dogs skewered and cooked over the open flames while the sun set. They drank cans of generic cola and bottled water extracted from an enormous orange cooler filled with ice. The evening grew colder and everyone added layers. Then Keith led an evening devotional that was at least doubled in length by Brett’s constant joking asides, which no one except his friends laughed at, and not even all of them.

                Then, at last, when Russ felt as if he could not wait any longer to play capture the flag, it was time to play capture the flag.  


                The island was divided in half by a line of four lanterns hung from low branches a short distance into the woods. There was some debate among Brett and his friends about whether it was strategically better to be on the team defending the wooded side of the island or the team defending the park-like side. Was it better to be able to find the flag with more ease or to have more cover while attempting to capture it? They did not reach a consensus.

At the campfire, Keith explained the rules of the game. Those who wanted to play would be divided into two teams. Each team would hide an orange flag on their side of the island. The object was to cross into enemy territory, retrieve the opposition’s flag, and bring it to one’s own territory without being tagged. If one was tagged by someone on the opposing team while in their territory, then the tagged person had to go to “jail,” which meant sitting out of the game for five minutes at the fire with Clark, who had refused to play ever since severely spraining his ankle while galloping through the woods in pursuit of a flag-bearing opponent three campouts ago. There was a lot of discussion about the finer points of the rules regarding how close a defender could stand to the flag they were guarding, what would happen if someone was tagged but did not go to jail, and so on, but Russ didn’t pay much attention. He knew the rules inside and out. He was inexperienced, yes, but well-prepared. He knew, in his brain and in his heart, how to play capture the flag the island campout way.

Russ had first become aware of capture the flag when it had been featured in an episode of a cartoon he had enjoyed watching when he was younger, and which he would probably still enjoy watching if he were to allow himself to do so, which he would not do because it was targeted at little kids and he had vowed to stop watching cartoons for little kids when he entered middle school. Intrigued by the show’s depiction of capture the flag, Russ had asked his dad if it was a “real game.” His dad had given Russ a brief rundown of the game that intensified Russ’s interest in it. Doubting some of the details in his father’s explanation, Russ had dived into the internet for a full examination of capture the flag. There he had found an entire forum dedicated to capture the flag, a community of people from all over the world celebrating it, relaying richly-described accounts of their personal experiences with it, and arguing about it, sometimes quite bitterly. There was a lot of heated disagreement over rules variants. The moderators of the forum gave the posters a pretty long leash, but most of the permanently banned accounts resulted from fights over rules variants that went too far. Russ was too much of a beginner to have strong opinions about the best way to play capture the flag, but he found the discussions interesting. They gave him a lot to think about, which he appreciated because his hobby could be only theoretical until he had an opportunity to play.

Russ had tried to round up a group of kids from his neighborhood to play, but it hadn’t gone very well. The neighborhood was a bad location for the game and he couldn’t get the other kids to take it as seriously as he wanted them to.

Once, at a summer day camp that Russ’s parents had forced him to attend because they wanted to go antiquing without him, the games director had announced that they were going to play capture the flag and Russ had gotten very excited. But the game was played in broad daylight in an open field where the flags were clearly visible and there was no cover. It was all about running, a game of pure speed with no advanced tactics, no sneaking. It had been sort of fun in its own right once Russ got over his disappointment, but he certainly didn’t post on the CTF forums about it. He knew that would be a mistake. It was the kind of capture the flag that the other posters on the forum hated the most. Russ had not admitted to the other posters that he’d never played a real game of capture the flag before, but he had often joined in the ridicule of those who tried to post game reports about the kind of capture the flag he’d played at the day camp. He did not want a similar fate to befall him.

And then, shortly after his family started attending Jesus’s Cross’s Church, Russ began to hear talk of the island campout and its legendary games of capture the flag. Brett, Bobby, Vera, and Abby were more willing to talk to him at church than they were at youth group events when their other friends were around. Brett was especially happy to expound upon the awesomeness of the capture the flag games that took place on the campout. He made them sound as good as the games described on the forums. Better, even. They sounded as good as the games Russ had only dreamt of. Maybe even better than those. But Russ had just started 5th grade when he’d first heard about the campout, so he’d had to wait more than a year for his chance to participate. The wait had been excruciating.

He had helped to assuage the pain of the long wait by posting on the CTF forums about the upcoming campout. Russ began posting about it months in advance. He passed along every detail that he could wring out of the older kids and the leaders to the experts on the forum, picking their brains for tactical advice. He got a complete rundown of the rules from Brett and he relayed those to the forum as well, secretly pleased about the controversy they caused. It made him feel like a real contributor. He even found the exact coordinates of the island so the other posters on the forum could look at satellite images of the terrain. The one thing he was not entirely honest about was his age. And his size. And, of course, his amount of prior capture the flag experience, which was “none” by the standards of the forum.

But now he was here, he was on the campout, on the island, and Keith, with plenty of input from Brett, was dividing up the teams as fairly as possible. Russ’s first real game of real capture the flag was really about to begin for real.


Russ huddled near a shrub along the small cliff at the western tip of the island. In his dark clothing, each item chosen for its capacity to contribute to the concealment of his form in deep shadows, Russ knew he was nearly invisible. From this vantage point, Russ had a clear view of his team’s flag where it leaned against the west-facing side of a large tree. Before the game had begun, Clark, functioning as an impartial authority, had checked the placements of both teams’ flags to make sure they were fairly hidden. Since Clark had signed off on both flags’ locations and returned to his role as the jailer at the campfire, Russ had seen no one: neither opponents in search of the flag nor teammates making sure it was still in place. Russ had been left all by himself as the flag’s last line of defense. This was a crucial job, Owen assured him, and one that required awareness and quickness, because on the park-like side of the island, opponents couldn’t sneak up on the flag, they had to make their attempts in desperate charges, fleet silhouettes in the fragmented moonlight. Russ was to thwart these runs, preferably before the opponents were able to spot the flag and report its location to their teammates once they’d served their 5-minute sentences at the campfire jail.  

The last Russ had heard, Bobby and Brett’s friend Jeff were also playing defense, but were roaming much closer to the line of lanterns that separated the territories, attempting to catch opponents as soon as they crossed over. Russ occasionally heard shouts from the direction of the line, cries of victory and frustration, cries of “Where did he go?” but he couldn’t discern a broader picture of how the game was progressing from these cries. All he knew was that no one had yet come for his team’s flag, which was good, but also unexciting. This was not how he had envisioned the ultimate capture the flag experience feeling. This was not the role he had spent years of his young life anticipating.

Sitting still for this long reminded Russ of how cold the air had become. He allowed himself one, good shiver. He breathed quietly, his calves beginning to protest the strain of this extended crouch. He hadn’t heard a shout from the island’s interior for some time. Perhaps the other team had fallen back deep in their own territory to strategize, or perhaps their runners had finally made it across the line successfully, were even now creeping closer to their goal. Russ hoped for the latter. If he could successfully chase down and tag an opponent, then maybe he could prove himself worthy of going on the offensive. On the other hand, if he did too good of a job on defense, maybe his teammates would want to keep him there. Keith was on his team and had some authority. Should Russ approach him about getting a chance to play offense? Wasn’t it Keith’s job as youth group leader to make sure every kid had as much fun as possible on the campout?

Russ turned his eyes from the flag to the water. The lake was almost still, making only the slightest of lapping noises at the muddy bank at the base of the cliff’s slope. The moon cast a silvery sheen over the surface of the lake, and that was how Russ was able to see the black shape approaching the island through the water, a shape that looked very much like the top half of a human head. Russ tensed, flexed his toes inside of his sneakers. What was this? A crafty assault by someone from the opposing team? Or was this an interloper, a weirdo who was not of the youth group, had not been invited on the campout? Whoever it was, he came closer in silence, barely making a ripple. As he neared the bank and his feet found the lakebottom muck, he rose from the water bit by dripping bit, shuffling through the shallows in a cautious hunch to press himself against the cliff just beneath Russ’s hiding spot. Russ could no longer see him, but he could hear his measured breathing, he could hear the squelching of his shoes as he shifted his weight. Then, with a wet scrabbling of feet, the swimmer’s hands and head appeared above the rim of the cliff, perhaps one yard from Russ, perhaps two. From such close proximity, Russ was able to recognize that head. It belonged to Landon, one of Brett’s friends and, for this game, one of Brett’s teammates, which meant he was not one of Russ’s teammates, which meant that, as much as Russ admired Landon’s dedication to victory, he had to be stopped.

Russ rose from his position near the shrub, took one step, and tagged Landon on the top of the head.

                Landon shouted in surprise and lost his grip, stumbling backward down the cliff and splashing into the water again.

                “I got you,” said Russ. “You have to go to jail.”

                “I know, I know,” said Landon. “How long were you watching me?”

                “I saw you coming in when you were a ways out,” said Russ. “All I could see was the top of your head.”

                Landon sighed and took a run at the cliff, managing to scramble up and over, rolling onto the grass at Russ’s feet before rising and pulling his soaked sweatshirt out from his chest with both hands. “At least I get to sit by the fire,” he said, but as he did, his eyes scanned back and forth.

                “Hey,” said Russ. “You’re supposed to go to jail. Stop looking for the flag.”

                “If I see it on the way to jail, then how is that my fault?” asked Landon.

                “You’re not going to jail yet,” said Russ. “You’re just hanging around.” He paused. “Come on, let’s go. I’m taking you to jail.” Landon was much older and bigger than Russ, but within the rules of the game, Russ was in the position of authority at the moment and he intended to use that authority. He took Landon by the sodden elbow of his sweatshirt and led him briskly toward the campfire. He wasn’t sure if Landon had seen the flag or not. He thought maybe he should warn his team that the position of their flag might be compromised, but he wasn’t sure if he should abandon his post long enough to find them. It was already a risk to abandon his post long enough to ensure Landon got to jail.

                Clark sat facing the fire in his camp chair and sipped seltzer water from a gold-colored can. The reflected flames writhed in both lenses of his eyeglasses. He looked up when Russ and Landon entered his radius of firelight, the jail. “Caught one, huh?”

                “Yep,” said Russ.

                “You’re all wet,” said Clark. “Did you fall in?”

                “No,” said Landon. “I swam around the back side to try and sneak up from behind.” He stood next to the fire and spread his arms and legs wide, exposing as much of his surface area to the heat as possible.

                Clark laughed and shook his head. “And Russ caught you right away?”

                “I saw him swimming in,” said Russ. “He came out right next to me.”

                “Bad luck,” said Landon. “Who else has been here recently?”

                “No one,” said Clark. “I haven’t seen anyone for probably 20 minutes.”

                “No one’s been in jail for that long?” asked Russ.

                “I haven’t seen anyone at all for that long,” said Clark. “No one running by, no one coming to me trying to get information. It’s just been very quiet. Everyone’s being stealthy, I guess. Even Tessa went to her tent a while ago and hasn’t come back. She was sitting with me for a while, but I think she had a headache, so she’s probably lying down.”

                Landon turned away from the fire to give his back side a chance to dry. He sighed, then narrowed his eyes and asked, “Who are you?”

                As Russ turned to see who Landon was talking to, a lanky woman in a dark blue sweat suit strode into the firelight. She had wavy brown hair and wore fuzzy earmuffs. With a smile playing at the corners of her mouth, she walked up to Landon, touched him on the shoulder, and he disappeared. Then she turned and headed for Clark, who was frozen in his camp chair, his can of seltzer water half way to his lips. A second before the woman reached him, he tried to leap up, but his feet got tangled in the legs of his chair, and he staggered forward. It looked for a moment like he might collide with the woman and send both of them sprawling into the fire, but as soon as he made contact with the woman’s outstretched hand, Clark disappeared too.

                Russ knew he was next. He turned and bolted down the narrow path that led to the bank where the boat was docked. He hadn’t necessarily been planning to use the boat – he hadn’t had any plan at all – but it still came as a shock when he arrived at the bank and saw that the boat had been unmoored and had drifted 50 yards from shore. With no better idea presenting itself, Russ splashed into the shallow water, high-stepping out into the lake until he tripped and fell forward, cold lake water filling his mouth and nose. When he regained the surface, he turned to look back toward the island. There, standing on the bank and watching him, was the woman.

                “I was so close to getting you!” she called with a laugh. “I missed you by, like, an inch!”

                “What are you doing?” Russ called back, plucking a length of seaweed off of his shoulder.

                “Playing capture the flag,” said the woman. “What else?”

                “But where did they go?” asked Russ.


                “The people you tagged,” said Russ. “Landon and Clark.”

                “They’re in jail,” said the woman. “With the others. Don’t you know how to play capture the flag?”

                “What others?” asked Russ.

                “The other people,” said the woman. “I’ve gotten most of you now.”

                “Where did they go?” asked Russ. “Where is the jail?”

                “In neutral territory,” said the woman. She paced back and forth on the short strip of bank. “Are you just going to stay out there in the water all night? You’ll die of hypothermia.”

                Russ shuddered. The water was so cold. Tired of treading water, he put his feet down and discovered that he could stand with his head and shoulders above the surface. “What will happen if I come back?” he asked.

                “I’ll tag you and you’ll go to jail,” said the woman. “Unless you can find my team’s flag and bring it back to your territory. But I’m not gonna let that happen.”

                “Where’s my territory?” asked Russ.

                “Off the island,” said the woman.

                “So your territory is the whole island?” asked Russ.

                The woman spread her arms apart and said, “Yes.”

                “So where’s our flag?” asked Russ. “How come you’re not trying to get it?”

                “Oh, you don’t have a flag,” said the woman. “It’s called ‘capture the flag.’ Singular. One flag. If you had a flag too, then there would be two flags. You win if you capture the flag, my flag, which is the only flag. I win when your whole team is in jail and there’s no one left to try to capture the flag.”

                “When will the people you tagged get out of jail?” asked Russ.

                “When you win,” said the woman. “If you win.”

                “And what happens if you win?” asked Russ with rising terror.

                “Then they stay in jail until someone else beats me,” said the woman. “If that ever happens. It hasn’t happened so far. If the jail were limited by spatial constraints, it would be pretty crowded. Fortunately, it isn’t.”

                “But that could take forever,” said Russ. “That’s not how it’s supposed to work. They’re supposed to get out of jail after a fixed amount of time. Like, five minutes, for example.”

                “That’s not how I play,” said the woman. “I have my own rules variants that I play by.”

                Russ walked back toward the shore until the water was only knee-deep. He was still a safe 20 yards from the woman. “Do you post on the CTF forums?” he asked.

                “I used to,” said the woman. “But I got banned.” She laughed. “Too difficult for me to be nice to all those wimps who like playing the boring way. I started another account, but I just use it to lurk now.”

                “I’ll swim to shore,” said Russ. “I’ll get the police.”

                “Don’t be a spoilsport,” said the woman. “That’s not fair at all. That’s cheating. It’s pathetic. And it won’t even work. Your teammates will never get out of jail if you do that.”

                Russ didn’t want to believe her, but he believed her. He’d seen Landon and Clark vanish in front of his face the moment the woman tagged them. She was playing by her own rules beyond her flagrant disregard for the conventions of capture the flag.

                “Hello?” The voice came from up the path behind the woman. It was a girl’s voice, either Vera’s or Abby’s. “Who’s down there? Where is everyone?” The voice was definitely Vera’s.

                “Run, Vera!” yelled Russ. “Run and hide!”

                The woman spun and scampered up the path in the direction of the voice, disappearing into the trees.

                “Vera, run away!” Russ shouted one more time, then he splashed toward the shore as quickly as he could, angling east toward the thickly-wooded end of the island. If he was to have any hope of finding the woman’s flag and saving the entire Jesus’s Cross’s Church’s youth group, he needed to make sure that she lost track of him completely while she was occupied with Vera. Russ reached the shore, crashed up the steep bank through dead, prickly undergrowth, and fought his way to the trail. Then he turned and ran as fast as he could toward the eastern end of the island, his feet thumping on the hard-packed dirt, crackling through the dry leaves rendered monochrome by the night.


                Where to go? Where to look? What did this woman’s flag even look like? Russ had been lying on his stomach behind a fallen log for ten minutes pondering these questions while watching and listening for the woman’s approach. If the woman’s territory ended at the perimeter of the island, then it made sense that she would hide her flag somewhere near the center, or at least not along the edge. That didn’t do much to narrow Russ’s search, but it was something. It occurred to him, then, that he was on the offensive, that he was sneaking through the woods in the dark, deep in enemy territory, strategizing, every sense on alert, the stakes as high as they could be. This was exactly what he had wanted, but now that he had it, he wished he could go back to being the designated last-resort defender he had been less than 30 minutes ago.

But actually, no, this was not exactly what Russ had wanted. Only the most superficial reading of his circumstances would result in the conclusion that Russ had received exactly what he had wanted. This was completely different than what he had wanted. The woman was playing by rules variants that Russ did not like and that had ruined the capture the flag game he’d been looking forward to for more than a year. Now he understood why all those posters on the forums got so worked up about rules variants. The wrong rules variant could twist one of civilization’s best ideas – capture the flag – into something hideous, sinister, and un-fun for every participant save one. And no one else had even agreed to these rules variants. The woman had just imposed her preferred rules variants on a game that was already in progress. No wonder this woman had been perma-banned from the CTF forums.

Russ had worked himself into his first true rules-variants-related fury when he saw the beam of a flashlight cutting back and forth across the trail, approaching at a walking pace. The log Russ had chosen to hide behind was ten yards down an overgrown hill from the trail and outside the loop. He ducked down and waited for the woman to pass. She was still a good ways distant in the woods when she began to call out to him.

“Are you looking for my flag back here?” she called. “Just let me know where you are and I’ll tell you if you’re hot or cold.” She laughed. There was nothing overtly menacing about the laugh. It just sounded like a young woman having a great time playing a game she loved.

Russ breathed as quietly as he could. He lay flat on his back with the top of his head against the log and looked up at the canopy above him, watching the flashes of color whenever the sweep of the woman’s light caught it.

Her footsteps came closer and then they stopped. She trained her flashlight on the log. Russ looked down at his feet, worried that his toes might be visible, but the angle of the beam kept them in the dark.

“You’re behind that log,” said the woman. She paused. “I know you’re behind that log, kid.”

Russ said nothing. He didn’t move.

“You might as well stand up,” said the woman. “I know you’re there. I know you’re there.”

Did she know he was there? She sounded sure, but maybe she was just trying to sound sure to mask the fact that she wasn’t sure. What would happen if Russ ran? Was the woman fast? She’d caught everyone else on the island as far as Russ knew, including some people who were definitely faster than Russ, but none of them had known to run from her. They’d probably been confused as to who she was, letting her walk right up and tag them like Landon had. They hadn’t known about the awful rules variants she brought with her. Russ heard her take a tentative step toward the log, her foot crunching in the deeper off-trail layer of leaves. She took another step. As she edged closer, the angle of her flashlight’s beam sagged closer to the tips of Russ’s sneakers. In a few more steps, she would see them.

                “I know you’re there,” the woman said again, but this was the least sure of herself that she had yet sounded. There was a definite quaver to her voice.

                Still Russ did not move.

                The woman shuffled forward and the light found Russ’s feet. “I see your shoes,” said the woman. “I see them. They’re right there. I know you’re back there. I see your feet! Just stand up! I know you’re behind the log!” She stopped talking.

Russ could hear how shallow and rapid her breathing was. He didn’t move a muscle except for the small smile he could feel playing at the corners of his mouth, not dissimilar to the one he’d seen on the woman’s face right before she sent Landon to jail with a brush of her fingers.

“I’m going to tag you,” said the woman. “I’m going to take a few more steps and then I’m going to reach down and tag you. Don’t try to scare me. It won’t work. I know you’re there, I can see your feet, so there’s no point.” She didn’t move. “Please,” she said. “Please just stand up.”

Russ stifled laughter. He heard another step, but the way the light on his feet shifted told him that the woman had stepped back, not forward.

“This isn’t how you play,” said the woman. “What you’re doing is not a rules variant. This is an attack on the fundamentals of capture the flag. OK? When you’re found in opposing territory, you either flee or give yourself up. That’s not a rule, that’s just the logical thing to do. That’s the sane thing to do. That’s the human thing to do. What you’re doing makes no sense. No sense! This isn’t a matter of defying convention. What you’re doing undermines all games, it undermines the concept of games. This isn’t a preference! This isn’t a tactic! I can see you! I know you’re there! You’re in my territory, it isn’t possible for me to be frightened of you!”

In one fluid motion, Russ rolled onto his stomach, sprang to his feet, threw his arms over his head, and roared in the woman’s face. The look on her face in the split second before she shrieked was not funny. It was sickening. The shriek seemed to come out of not only her mouth, but every orifice of her body, every pore. She spun and fled back toward the trail, but after only three or four clumsy steps, Russ heard a crack that could only be bone and the woman collapsed, sending the flashlight tumbling into the underbrush. She lay, then, clutching her ankle and shivering, a crying lump on the leaf-covered ground of her own territory.

Russ didn’t know what to say.

“Just leave me alone,” said the woman. Her whisper was venomous.

“Where’s your flag?” asked Russ, keeping well away from her in case she still had it in her to try to tag him.

“I’ll never tell you,” said the woman. “Never.”

It didn’t take Russ long to find it, though. Without having to worry about the woman chasing him, he was able to retrieve one of the lanterns and use it to search at his leisure. He found the woman’s flag tucked into the crotch of a tree fifteen feet off of the ground, which would have been a violation of the regular campout capture the flag rules, but that was evidently another of the woman’s rules variants. Russ threw a stick at the flag and knocked it out of the tree on the first try. Then he picked it up, carried it down to the bank where he’d first fled from the woman, and waded a few feet out into the water. His shoes had just started to dry, but oh well.

From the island behind him, up by the campfire, Russ heard voices. Dozens of them. He wondered how many of them he knew from the forums, how many of them had drawn the woman to their games the same way he had. He wondered how many capture the flag rules variants were represented among all of them. He wondered, given what they had all been through – the youth group kids, the youth leaders, the woman’s previous victims – if enough of them would be willing to set their personal preferences aside for one good, conventional game of capture the flag before bed. Mostly conventional. Russ had one or two rules variants in mind that he wanted to try, and as the kid who had saved them all from jail – whatever and wherever that jail had been – he figured they could indulge him.

Discussion Questions

  • (you see this question just lying there behind a log, refusing to acknowledge you, refusing to act like a question no matter what you say or do, no matter how much the tension rises and thickens and intensifies)

  • List a fifth of life’s many rules variants.

  • List a fourth of life’s many rules variants.

  • List a third of life’s many rules variants.

  • List another of life’s many rules variants.

  • List one of life’s many rules variants.