Without warning, they all stopped chanting at once. Their perfectly synchronous words were replaced with a jumble of conversations and whispers.
Crouching by the bushes, Leo steeled himself to stand up and introduce himself. Now was his chance. He might not be doing exactly what his parents wanted, but hopefully they’d be proud nonetheless that he managed not to be an antisocial hermit.
He ran through a few opening dialogues in his head. None of them were all that great. Some too formal, some maybe too weird, even for the weirdos.
He settled on “hey.”
The syllable hung in his throat, ready to come out.
He realized a beat too late that things had gotten quiet.
He stood up, a smile he hoped was welcoming plastered across his face.
The pagoda was empty.
Leo’s smile dropped. He stumbled out of the bushes, peering left and right into the darkness.
There. Way off in the distance, bracketed by trees, was a bobbing flashlight, illuminating a brood of dark teens.
How had they moved so quickly?
Leo set off at a jog, pursuing them from a distance.
This was the end of the neighborhood, or at least, some far corner. The kids were setting off down a forest trail littered with benches, recycling bins, and woodchips.
They moved at a brisk pace, turning down paths seemingly at random, moving deeper and deeper into the woods. The trees closed in on all sides, shutting out the moonlight and the streetlights, swallowing the world in a blind, all-encompassing blackness.
Leo’s confidence was flagging, but he had no choice but to follow them. It was too dark to turn back, and he’d lost track of all the twists and turns they’d taken.
Finally, they stopped in a large opening. On the other side of it was a smooth, glassy pond, reflecting the dim starlight. Leo stopped at the edge of the opening, panting. He watched the kids drag sticks and branches into a dirt pit in the center of the glade.
Someone sprinkled a liquid over the sticks.
Someone else pulled out a lighter.
Then, they lit the whole thing on fire.
The fire swooshed up with a powerful, blinding brightness, hurting Leo’s eyes and warming his face. It was a huge bonfire, dancing like a 9 foot tall human being.
The kids encircled the flames, holding hands.
They said their classic chant but just one time.
“Do it for yourself, do it for your health. Self love, self peace.”
Then, they all took a single step back, unlinking their hands and raising them to the sky, fingers splayed out. They held this pose for a few beats before they all slowly lowered their hands to their sides.
One of the kids threw their hood back. It was the person with the rainbow hair.
“There is an intruder among us,” they called out in a powerful, echoing voice.
Leo’s heart stopped.