The bright light game was simple. All you had to do was draw a salt circle around a little homemade doll, usually nothing more than some cheap fabric stitched together in a vaguely human shape and filled with dry rice and a few strands of your hair, and recite the words of invitation.
Nearby spirits, play with me
Nearby spirits, come be free
Through this doll, escape the dark night
Through this doll, step into bright light
The doll would then vanish and, in its place, a spirit would appear. It would be bound to well lit areas, weakened by its inability to hide in shadows or darkness and the salt, and would be forced to answer questions for those who summoned it until they released it.
Nearby spirits, go away
Nearby spirits, enough today
From this doll, back into dark night
From this doll, leave the bright light
Poof, the spirit would be gone and the doll would be back.
To ensure no lingering spirits could possess it afterwards, the doll would be ripped apart and the hair would be thrown into a separate garbage bin than the fabric.
As a kid, I played the bright light game at almost every sleepover I ever attended. While it was good for a few shivers and nervous giggles, there was never any sign that we’d successfully summoned a ghost to answer our questions about the afterlife. Like most other games of that sort, it grew into a distant memory as we got older and we moved on to other interests.
I hadn’t played or even thought of the game in years when Sandy mentioned it again.
We had just graduated from high school and, to celebrate, we’d agreed to have one last sleep over before our little group disbanded to head out to various colleges. Sandy, Kamila, Lillia, and I had been friends for a long time and it was going to be hard not to have them around all the time any more. We tried not to think too much about our impending separation and instead focused on how much fun we were going to have.
We’d gathered at my house, our usual hang out since my parents took frequent weekend trips, and it wasn’t long before we’d opened a few wine coolers and were reminiscing about our past and all the slumber parties of our childhoods.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Sandy said. She was already starting to act a bit tipsy despite only having a single cooler. “You guys remember that one game we used to play? The ghost one?”
“Bloody Mary?” Kamila asked.
“No, the one with the doll.”
“Oh, yeah! The bright light game,” Lillia said.
“Yeah! I read an article or something on Facebook about it, did I tell you?” We all shook our heads and Sandy leaned forward, always happy to be the center of attention. “It said that if you use blood instead of hair in the doll, it’ll actually work.”
“Gross,” I wrinkled my nose.
“We should try it!” Sandy said, ignoring me.
“Seriously?” Kamila had that smile of her’s on, the one that said she was already game for whatever was being suggested.
“No, ew, no one is cutting themselves for a silly game,” I said.
“Oh, come on, Tori, it’ll be fun! Like when we were kids!”
The three of them piled on top of me and whined and begged until I finally relented with the stipulation it be no more than a tiny pinprick from someone who wasn’t me. They agreed quickly and, since it had been her idea, Sandy offered up her own thumb to the needle.
We dug into my mom’s sewing supplies, where we found a few scraps of cloth that had been kept because Mom was sure she’d find a use for them eventually, and then we went to the pantry for the rice. Lillia, the most capable seamstress among us, managed to cut up and stitch together a little person shaped figure, which we filled with rice.
Sandy jabbed her thumb with a needle and squeezed a few drops into the doll.
“Who remembers the chant?” She asked while I got her a bandaid.
“I do!” Kamila said.
Once Sandy had been taken care of, we brought the doll into the kitchen, turned on all the lights, and surrounded it in a circle of salt.
“Nearby spirits, play with me,” Kamila started with a nervous smile.
Hearing those first words helped trigger the rest of our memories and we joined in. “Nearby spirits, come be free. Through this doll, escape the dark night. Through this doll, step into bright light.”
We held our breath and waited.
Lillia was the first to start giggling, and then I joined in and the other two as well. Of course nothing had happened! Even with a bit of blood, it was still only an urban legend. With our arms linked, we scurried back to the living room, where our wine coolers were waiting.
The hours slipped by, stolen by bad movies and worse reality TV, and completely unnoticed by the four of us. We were consumed by gossip and memories and loud laughter, which would have gone on even longer if we hadn’t started yawning.
I sent the girls upstairs to start changing for bed and gathered the empty bottles to put them in the kitchen until I could be bothered taking them out to recycling. As I rinsed out the last one, I remembered we’d left the salt on the floor and I groaned. I didn’t want to clean it up, but leaving it could mean bugs.
“I should make Sandy vacuum it up,” I muttered as I rounded the kitchen island.
The salt circle was exactly where we’d left it.
The doll, however, was not.
I hesitated, but only for a moment. Obviously my friends were messing with me and I wasn’t about to give them the satisfaction of scaring me. With a snort, I crouched to clean up the circle.
Out of the corner of my eye, a dark figure moved from the kitchen to the living room.
“I saw you, dumbass,” I called tauntingly, but I got no response.
It occurred to me, then, that I could hear my friends’ voices coming from upstairs. All three of them.
Something moved in the doorway again.
I half turned, trying to convince myself it was just going to be my own reflection in a window or something equally dumb, but in my icy gut, I already knew I was wrong. A woman was in the archway between the rooms, her bloodied bare feet floating inches above the ground. She stared at me through milky, flat eyes set far back in a half-rotted face.
My mouth was open, but there was no sound coming out. It wasn’t until she started to glide towards me, her hair wringing like snakes around her, that I could even force myself to move. I threw down the hand vac I’d been holding and skid around the island again, trying to put it between me and the woman. She continued to follow me, unhurried, a shriveled hand outstretched towards me and a toothy, vile grin on her blackened lips.
She wasn’t like the game said she’d be. There was nothing weak about her, nothing that made me believe she would have to do anything I said or answer any questions I asked. The air surrounding her was heavy, thick and malevolent, and I felt like I was choking.
“Play with me,” I heard a whisper, although her mouth never moved.
Curse words flew from my mouth as I tripped over myself to get out of the kitchen and to the stairs.
“Tori?” Lillia said from the top of the steps. “You o-”
Her words drowned in the scream that followed. The other two popped out of my room at the sound and, when they saw the woman drifting after me, they started to shriek as well.
I made it halfway up to them before I stumbled and cracked my knee sharply against the edge of the stair. I didn’t turn, but the woman was so close I could smell her. Decay and cold and mildew.
‘The light! Hit the light!” I cried, clawing my way up another step.
Kamila managed to shake herself out of her panic enough to launch herself at the wall. The light overhead went out, casting the stairwell in shadow, and the woman howled in pain and fury and I could feel her presence fast retreating back down stairs. I scrambled wildly to get up to the top, where my friends hauled me to my feet.
“Where is she?” I choked the words out.
“I-I dunno,” Sandy was almost in tears. The color had drained from all of our faces and we clung to one another, staring down the dark steps.
The light overhead flickered.
Once. Twice. And then it came on.
The woman was at the bottom of the stairs and she was looking up at us.
We screamed again and ran to my room, where we slammed and locked the door and shut off all the lights. It was quiet, the only sound our tagged breathing in the pitch black. Someone was latched on to my arm, their long nails digging into my flesh, and when the shadow appeared at the bottom of my door, they tightened painfully.
“Come play with me,” the whisper again, except this time we all heard it.
Lillia bit back a hoarse sob and Kamila, the one with the death grip on my arm, whimpered.
The lamp on my night stand started to flicker. Sandy swept it up and launched it at the wall, shattering it and sending glass and ceramic across my floor. The room was again plunged into a thick, tense darkness.
On the other side of the door, we could see the woman’s shadow crossing back and forth, growing faster, more agitated. The sound of her long nails scraping against the wall filled my room.
“Play, play, play,” she whispered, and it had become low and harsh and threatening.
“The words,” Sandy said from somewhere behind me, “wh-who remembers the words to make her go away? Kamila?”
My fan light flashed on briefly, long enough for me to see the terrified faces of my friends around me.
“Come on, Kamila!” Lillia urged her.
The light flashed again and the lock on my door clicked. The handle started to turn. Panic was making us slow and stupid and the words of a childhood rhyme I hadn’t said in almost a decade seemed impossibly lost.
Light from the hallway started to spill in through the opening door.
“Nearby spirits, go away,” Sandy shouted suddenly. “Nearby spirits, enough today. From this doll, back into dark night. From this doll, leave the bright light!”
The door continued to creak open.
But there was now no one on the other side.
We held each other upright while we cried with relief. I had never been as scared as I was in that moment and I knew the same was true for my friends. We stayed in my room, still afraid of the now sinister light and what it might reveal, and huddled in the darkness. We didn’t say anything else for the rest of the night and the girls were only too happy to run from my house the minute the sun was up.
I was terrified of being alone, especially now that it was day time and there were so few dark corners for me to hide in should that thing come back. I sat on my bed with my back against the wall, staring out into the hallway and expecting to see her pale eyes peering back at me.
She never showed, though, and eventually my exhaustion got the best of me. I fell asleep sitting up, my head dipped towards my chest.
My phone rang loudly from my pocket, startling me awake. The sun was high overhead now; I’d made it to at least noon with no sign of the woman.
“It worked,” I said softly, my heartbeat slowing to normal.
I tugged my phone out and saw it was Sandy, probably calling to make sure I was ok.
“Tori,” her voice was strangled and panicked and I straightened, immediately wide awake. “Tori, she’s here! She’s at my house!”
“What? No, we said the words, we got rid of her!” I was gripping the phone in both hands.
“We didn’t destroy the doll! She had my blood, Tori, and now she wants more! She’s so hungry, she keeps saying it!”
“They must have only sent her away for a little while! Without getting rid of the doll, we didn’t finish it!”
“Where are you? I’ll come get you!”
“She’s here, I can hear her,” Sandy was whispering, high pitched and hysterical. “Tori, she’s here, she’s here, she’s he-”
And then there was only silence.