July 30

The Game of the Invisible Friend


“Today, we recognize International Friendship Day.”

Carlos watched as his teacher waved a collection of paper slips in the air, then dropped them into a shoebox lid.

“This is the game of the invisible friend, Amigo Invisible, as practiced in Paraguay and other South American countries.”  The teacher shook the cardboard lid, mixing the folded slips of paper.  “I’ve written down each of your names.  Choose a name from the box, and you will be that person’s invisible friend.”

Carlos had already encountered this game in another form, during winter holidays.  His family and extended family had grown so large, that it was impossible to buy individual Christmas gifts for all the children and grandchildren, cousins and step-cousins, neighbors and ex-neighbors and co-workers.  There wasn’t enough time in the world to shop and wrap gifts for that many people; people would go bankrupt, besides.

So, his family and their circle adopted the Secret Santa game.  Everyone drew names from a hat, and you were supposed to buy a single gift — ranging in price from thirty to forty dollars — for that person alone.   The idea took most of the stress out of Xmas shopping, saving a lot of time and money.

Last year, Carlos got his cousin Andreya a really nice set of soaps and bath beads from the Beauty and Beyond store in the mall.  He wished he’d bought gift for everyone, though.  It would have been his last chance.

The shoebox lid went around the room.  As students selected their random slips of paper, they read the name quickly, then crumpled the paper or placed it folded into their pockets.

Across the room, one of the older kids raised her hand.  “What if we don’t know the person well enough?”

And that was part of the problem, as Carlos understood the game.  With Secret Santa, everybody had some kind of family connection.  If you didn’t know what somebody would want as a gift, you could discreetly ask somebody else:  his Mom told him about Andreya’s favorite store, and what floral or fruit scents she liked best.

In this single classroom of survivors, the kids clustered together were from different schools in the region.  The twenty-six students ranged from second graders to high school juniors, with very little in common.  They barely knew each other.

They weren’t friends yet, and certainly weren’t on gift-giving terms.

“We’ll play a get-acquainted game later this afternoon,” the teacher responded.  “Everything will work out.”

The offered solution was typical.  Force kids to make friends, so they can play some stupid friendship game.

Carlos thought they were in school to learn something, not play games.  Then again, he wondered if learning wasn’t a waste of time, too, considering how the world had pretty much ended.

The shoebox lid made its way into his row.  He hoped, at least, that the name he picked would be a sixth or seventh grader, closer to his own age.  He had no idea what gift he could give to one of the little kids, or to those older teens who practically seemed from another world.

The girl in front of him pivoted sideways to pass the lid to Carlos.  There were still a dozen slips of paper in the lid.  He selected one, then passed the lid to the student behind him.

Such a stupid game.  But he felt like he had no choice but to play along.

He unfolded the slip of paper.

Above a random student’s name, the teacher’s careful handwriting outlined additional instructions:

“Please do not share this information with your classmates.  Unfortunately, we don’t have enough food and supplies for everyone.  You need to kill the student listed below:”

Carlos folded the paper and put it in his pocket.  He scanned the room, looking for his target, wondering which other classmates received similar instructions.