Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Horror  ➡  General  ➡  Black comedy

Tag

 

 

TAG

 

by Troy Kelly

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

 

Copyright © 2015 Troy Kelly. Published by Troy Kelly at Shakespir. All rights reserved.

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

 

Chapter 1

 

They called me the Crisco Kid.  I’m not sure which deadhead came up with that humiliating nugget first.  It might have been April Connegan, or Doug Fee, or even that cancer with a whistle, Coach Schroeder.  Or it might have been one of those spontaneous crowd-thinks. Like how the wheel was invented in both China and Europe at the same time?  Some ideas just become ripe and then you see them everywhere. But yeah… Crisco Kid, the Zit Slinger.  That was me, and everyone[_ _]knew it.

It wasn’t just that I was short and fat.  A little blubber around the middle wasn’t so unusual in the age of mp3 players that let you carry five thousand songs in your pocket, carry them all the way to the living room sofa where you can sit all day with your headphones on, blissed out on some bubblegum pop singer, drinking sodas and trying to ignore the feeling of your ass slowly expanding over the border between the left and center cushions.  A triple chin wasn’t so strange when even fingers the size of Jimmy Dean breakfast sausages can type angst-ridden internet blog confessionals at the speed of light.  And if you’re as wide as you are tall, so what, because in a video game even the fattest slob in the city can save the universe from Reptiloids from Dimension Fugly.  And it wasn’t just my stunning lack of taste in clothes that scuttled my chances at social acceptance—my Freddy Kreuger-esque red-and-black striped shirt, the pattern shorts with the white drawstring that looked like it was sewn from a whole shrinkwrapped pack of tacky birthday party napkins, the cheap Unabomber glasses that ate just about half my face.  Oh yeah, really setting myself up for success in the shark pool that is Middle School, wasn’t I?

No, like I said, it wasn’t just those things.  Plenty of kids go through the ugly duckling thing, and even the King of the U.D.s can sometimes make it out okay. 

It was my face. 

My oily, pimply, four-candy-bars-five-sodas-a-day face.  By midmorning I looked from the chin up like I’d been bobbing for fried chicken in a vat of peanut oil.

So, Crisco Kid, now and forever.  And thank you, whichever deadhead came up with it: I hope you live a long, happy, crab-infested life.  And I hope your kids are cross-eyed and have crabs too.

You should know my real name is Terry Braddock.  I’m not fat anymore, and I don’t wear clothes that look like they’ve been sewn from an old lady’s designer umbrella.  My face isn’t lubed up like I’m going to use it for a cavity search anymore either—I laid off the sodas and candy a long time ago.  I look pretty normal, actually.  I guess that’s important to me, that you know that.  Because after you’ve seen what it is I’m about to do I think you’ll need the reminder. 

So here it is again: I’m just a normal guy.  I’m not a monster.  I am a killer but only because I have to be, and only this once. And no matter what you might see with your eyes, I never killed a human being.  Never.  I’m a monster slayer, simple as that.  But what else would you expect from the guy who saved the universe from Reptiloids when he was only thirteen?

Elizabeth Martin isn’t human.  I guess that’s the second thing I want you to know.  That probably sounds crazy, sure. 

But here’s the thing.  I was there the day she died. 

Chapter 2

 

Elizabeth transferred in from Shining Springs Middle School in Arkansas not long after the start of the school year.  She was in fifth grade, same as me.  Her dad was some bigwig computer exec and I guess a Dallas company offered him a bigger office with a better view and Free Handjob Tuesdays or something.  Whatever the reason, Ellie joined the ranks of the Carver Damned in the Fall of 2001.  I sometimes marvel about how unfair that was; a little later, just one year later, and she never would have even attended Carver Middle School.

The universe is a mondo messed-up place.

She walked into Mrs. Taft’s homeroom halfway through third period.  The Carver principle Mr. Putnam opened the door for her and waved her in with a sheaf of papers and a Come Hither Lolita look that he probably thought would go unnoticed.  It was obvious to me from the start that she could have had Carver on a platter if she wanted it and I could tell that everyone else was thinking the same thing.  Some were less subtle than others.  I heard Eddy Smith lean over to Doug Fee and say that he was going to “tap that” and then they burst into choked laughter.  I doubt either of them knew what they were really talking about, just that they’d heard it in some movie or on MTV. Ellie was tall for her age and thin, with a clear complexion and straight blonde hair tending toward brown.  She was very pretty and a fool could have seen that in a few years she’d be gorgeous, a super model shrink-wrapped in a fifth grader’s body.

There just happened to be a ring of free desks around mine, a little moat of unpopularity.  A radioactive Dork Zone.  After all, who wants to waste their precious time or risk their place in the school hierarchy by sitting next to Crisco?  There were free desks elsewhere in the class but for whatever reason Ellie sat down in the desk to my right.  She didn’t have her school supplies yet and so she leaned over to me and asked to borrow a pencil.  I remember she smelled like coconut.  She could have asked Jenny Harper who was sitting to her right but instead she asked me.  I was so stunned I handed her my entire pencil pouch.  If she’d said “Excuse me, could you cluck like a chicken?” I would have gone to town right then and there—it was like I’d been hypnotized.  Ellie pulled out a single pencil and then handed the pouch back to me with a smile that very nearly left me breathless.  She sat down with me at lunch between third and fourth period (again, there was plenty of space to go around) and that’s when she told me to call her Ellie. 

Ellie.  The name was like cool water in my ear and it sat upon my tongue like some exotic candy.  “Elizabeth is my grandma’s name” she’d said and laughed.  And for a wonder, we became friends.  Me, the Crisco Kid, the Zit Slinger, lowest of the low, target of the targeted, friends with Elizabeth Martin, the prettiest girl ever to shine her light into the stinking cave that was Carver Middle School. 

Maybe things would have gone differently if she’d sat somewhere else.  Maybe she would have had time to become inoculated against friendships with losers, like some kind of Upper Crust vaccine that all the rest of the kids had received along with the standard Polio and Bordatella and whatever the hell else they stick kids with these days.  I don’t know.  I like to think there’s a parallel universe out there where it happened that way.

Anyway, she kept her seat next to me in Mrs. Taft’s room even when Josh Lederman moved away to Houston the next week and his spot opened up by the cool kids.  Passing up that seat was like slapping away the hand of the queen and telling her to shove her land and knightship straight up where the king never saw her and it was always a moonless midnight.  That should have doomed her right there, and if April Connegan or any of her troop had had anything to say about it, it would have.  They tried, of course.  Once it became clear to them that Ellie wasn’t a flag waving, card carrying, glossy lipstick and Limited Too wearing ball crusher—that is, wasn’t one of them, the cool girls on their way to becoming the cool teenaged moms—they made tearing Ellie down into a sort of holy crusade.  “If you ain’t with us, we’ll crush your soul” was their mentality.  April started the rumor that she found Ellie in the bathroom doing something nasty in one of the stalls.  She’d say this with her head cocked down and her eyebrows raised in a prim [_Oh, you know _]look, but she’d never elaborate just what it was Ellie had been doing.  Kristi Perez began telling the boys that she saw in the girl’s locker room that Ellie had a hairy butt and April expanded that all that hair was braided into cornrows.  Kristi had some seriously hairy arms herself for a girl—you know those boar’s hair hairbrushes you can buy, the ones with the really stiff bristles?  Like that, only thinner… a little—so I think there was a little projecting going on with that one.  And for a while the whole of the fifth grade class was abuzz with the rumor that Elizabeth Martin was pregnant with Coach Shroeder’s sexchild.

It was pathetic, malicious smearmongering writ small in careful children’s handwriting and in the end none of the rumors tarnished Ellie’s glow.  She was too pretty, and too smart, and too nice.

And she was my friend, when no one else would be.

Let me get this straight: people have this crazy idea that the misfits of any school will always band together.  That’s movie-of-the-week bull.  Doesn’t happen.  Losers don’t band together like Cheerios at the bottom of a bowl.  Losers [_despise _]each other, because every time you see another loser, you see everything about yourself you hate, everything that’s led you to your miserable, aching existence. Every blackhead, every gaping pore, every noseberry dangling from a nostril, every fold of fat, every knobby knee, every seat-rattling fart blasted off during an exam, a loser sees it all in another loser, just spun on its head and given a new face, as if we’re all carnival mirrors that highlight each other’s faults and failures.  And everyone needs someone to piss on.  At Carver, that someone was me; fat, greasy Terry Braddock.  Even Mousefart—I forget his real name, and isn’t that sad, that you might be remembered by an old acquaintance solely by the nasty things you were called?—got into the act, and at Carver he was practically my protégé.  My rancid little understudy. To get picked on by a kid called Mousefart… Christ, it gives me the willies even now.  They called him Mousefart because he was about six inches shorter and twenty pounds lighter than the smallest girl in our class and he had a wicked bad case of asthma.  He had to use this huge aspirator all the friggin time—it was almost as big as his face, like a miniature water cooler, and he had to hold it with both hands to use it—and the sound it made was… well, it sounded like a mouse fart.  So there you go.  Nobody said that the kids at Carver were satirical geniuses.  But yeah, the kid who was one rung above me and twenty rungs below everyone else tried to curry respect by letting me have it publicly every now and again, as if to say I’d have to pry his second-place loser status from his cold, dead, aspirator-wielding hands.

But all this stuff was just on the surface.  We’d do our homework, play kickball in gym, learn how to touch type and make spreadsheets in Computer Science every Thursday, eat rectangular slices of pizza that perfectly fit the rectangular slot of our lunch trays—I always bought two, are you surprised?—snipe at each other, hurt each other’s feelings and get them hurt in turn.  We’d be kids, in other words.  But that’s not where our minds were.  That was autopilot stuff. 

Even when the twin thumbscrews of writin’ and ‘rithmatic were removed and we were freed for another day, when some of us climbed onto orange buses, when others rode their bikes, when still more walked or waited for their parent’s SUV to pull into the parking lot… even then, none of us truly left the grounds of Carver Middle School.

None of us ever truly left the playground.

Because there was a game going on that would never end.  It would come back the next day and the next and the one after that, and woe unto the child who walked upon those hallowed grounds unprepared.

Woe unto the child who heard the words ‘Tag, you’re IT!”

Sound stupid?  Crazy, even?

Then listen.

Chapter 3

 

The Carver Middle School playground is a remnant of Lewisville’s infancy.  A long, long time ago Lewisville was an ag community. Farmers, you know?  To give you an idea, the Lewisville High School mascot is still a farmer riding a donkey and brandishing a pitchfork. Home of the Fighting Farmers.  I’m not even messing with you. 

Anyway, way back when, the Lewisville population was so small there was just no need for separate elementary and middle schools.  So kindergarten through seventh grade were rolled up into one jumbled mess of kids.  Back then the whole thing was simply dubbed The Carver School, though most people just called it Carver.  Like Cher, or Madonna, or Coke; just one word.

The school board, in its infinite wisdom, managed to wrangle enough cash to put together a really banging playground.  I don’t know how they convinced the money guys to go along with it.  “Say, fellas, our textbooks have more obscene drawings and crusty boogers in them than a truckstop bathroom.  Our teachers haven’t seen a raise since the Great Coal Crisis of 1812.  And the fourth grade wing is crawling with more crickets than a snake tank, but I think it’d be swell if we bought a playground slide in every color.”  Maybe they just thought if they slapped enough glitter in the kids’ eyes they wouldn’t notice that they were getting a sloppier education than NASA spacemonkeys. But Carver got its playground and it was incredible.

Back then recess at Carver was for the youngest kids; once you hit fifth grade you simply had Gym for an hour each day—say goodbye to the seesaws and hello to humiliating public showers.  The only problem was, two years after the playground was completed so was the Englewood Elementary School, about three miles away.  Out went all the kids from kindergarten through fourth grade and The Carver School became Carver Middle School and was left with a ridiculously expensive playground for nobody. 

Whoops, right?  For a while it was the biggest scandal in Lewisville, if you can believe it.  Taxpayers were having kittens over it.  Ever see a really pissed off ranch hand who thinks you’ve wasted his tax dollars?  Not pretty.  The school board could smell their tails beginning to char on the fire, so they decided that rather than admit a mistake they’d just change the rules.  Suddenly, in addition to Gym, the big kids had a thirty minute recess, smack dab between fourth and fifth periods.

All this took place before my time at Carver but I’ve spent a long time trolling the Public Library microfiche, piecing things together.

Would it shock you to know that more serial killers have come from Lewisville than any other U.S. city?  That was something else I learned during my research—not that any sources ever come right out and say it explicitly.  Too big a liability.  The City Council would pass a brick and start chucking lawyers at any paper that printed such a thing. 

Let me give you a partial: 

Marv Edwards, born in 1943.  Marv murdered seventeen women over the period of thirty years.  All of the women were customers at the dry cleaner where he worked.  He had their addresses.  And every now and again he found something useful in the pocket of an article of clothing they’d brought in to be pressed.  Little missus comes in and drops off her husband’s work clothes but the idiot forgets his appointment book in his pocket along with a roll of Tums and some change… must happen a lot at a dry cleaner.  Big deal, right?  It’s just a book.  But if Marv liked the look of the gal who’d brought in the clothes he would copy the husband’s schedule on a scrap of paper before putting the book in one of those wax paper envelopes labeled ‘Your Forgot Something!’ and shelving it next to the register.  Of course the wives were so grateful when he handed them the appointment book the next time they came to pick up their dry cleaning.  And then one night when the hubby is working late at the office, Marv breaks into the lady’s house, grinning like a voodoo Jack-In-The-Box and holding a plastic dry cleaner bag in his hands.  For seventeen women the last glimpse they had of this world was of Marv’s terrible grin, seen through the thick membrane of the dry cleaning bag as they asphyxiated to death.

Shawna Pinker, 1948.  Crowned Miss Oklahoma in ’68, arrested and found guilty in ’83 of fatally mutilating several pageant participants.  One of her victims survived her brutal attack and testified in court; she needed a mask and a wig because Pinker had peeled every scrap of skin off the unfortunate woman’s head, starting at the chin and working up the face and across the top of the scalp all the way down to the base of her skull.  A raid on Pinker’s home found the faces and scalps of dozens of victims arranged on mannequin heads and stored in six separate refrigerators.  From time to time Pinker would rehydrate one of those masks in a bucket of ice water, then drape it over her own face like a cucumber wrap.  In court Pinker testified that her skin was never smoother than it was just following one of those “rejuvenation” sessions.

Mary Smith, born in 1951.  This one you’ve heard about.  She was dubbed Bloody Mary by the press for her nasty habit of killing the infants under her care at the Mercy Hospital in downtown Lewisville, always the ones who had health issues of some sort.  Cleft palate, club foot, premature—on and on.  She was very clever and very careful, and it went on for years before she was caught.  At the end another nurse walked in on Mary while she was standing in the middle of the pediatrics room holding an empty syringe in one hand and a vial in the other.  A baby had just been born with Down Syndrome.  Mary had injected the infant in the gums at the back of his mouth with enough potassium chloride to make the heart of a blue whale dance the cha-cha.  That way there wouldn’t be any incriminating wounds or bruises, you know?  It’d just look like crib death.  According to the nurse the baby was thrashing like a beached fish when she walked in.  Mary cornered the nurse in the room and began filling the syringe again but somehow the nurse got away and ran down the hall, screaming blue blazes.  Because of the circumstances, there was a postmortem autopsy on this poor baby.  His heart had exploded like a grenade and the inside of his chest looked like it had been filled with clotted raspberry jelly.  That’s when the press started calling her Blood Mary. The strange thing is Mary only went after the babies who had illnesses that were outwardly visible in some way, never the ones who were sick but [_looked _]essentially okay.  Maybe that drew her, the way a limp will draw a coyote.  I don’t know.

Ben Koenig, born in 1964.  He liked to eat parts off his victims, mostly hitchhikers he’d pick up along I-35.  They were all young boys—many of them black kids traveling between farms for work.  All showed signs of sexual abuse that investigators determined had occurred both before and after the time of death.  A Dallas jury gave Koenig the chair.  His last meal was a turkey dinner.  He only ate the dark meat.

Albert Glover, born in 1965.  This guy was the basis for that character in the Silence of the Lambs movie.  You know, the one who liked to make clothes out of chubby girls’ skin and then dance around the house with his hoohaa tucked between his legs listening to Abba proclaim him the Dancing Queen.

Tricia Potter, 1978.  People called her the Domino Killer because she liked to take out whole families, going in order from oldest to youngest.  In an interview with 20/20, she told Barbara Walters that she was doing God’s work, sending entire families to meet Jesus so that none would have to be left behind to mourn the deaths of their loved ones.  At one point she gave Barbara a speculative look at asked her if she had any kids.  Barbara ended the interview.

James Hadley, 1986.  The Patchwork Man.  His body was a roadmap of scar tissue.  While his victims were still warm, he would carve long strips of flesh off of them and then graft them onto himself with clumsy stitches, living souvenirs.  Hadley had put himself on a strict regiment of immunosuppressant drugs he bought from Mexico; Cyclosporine, Prednisone, and Azathioprine to minimize the chance of transplant rejection.  He died before trial when one of the guards withheld his pills for two days and his body underwent massive shock as dozens of grafts were simultaneously rejected and he quite literally fell apart.

It’s a long list.  And I think there are more.  It was Ben Koenig and Albert Glover that really frightened me.  Not because of the vicious nature of their crimes but because they were born a year apart.  Koenig and Glover both attended Carver—back then it was The Carver School—as did James Hadley.  That’s when I started coming up with my theory, but I’ll get to that later.  I believe most—if not all—of the Lewisville killers attended Carver at some point in their adolescence.

I believe that Carver has produced at least one serial killer every year since it was founded in 1902, only most haven’t been caught yet.  Most probably never will be. 

You think I’m delusional?  Still don’t believe me?  Go to the Carver playground at recess.  Stand back and watch.  Really [_watch.  _]You see anyone on the swings?  You see any kids just sitting around, chatting?  Or listening to headphones, or reading?

You won’t.  They’ll all be playing tag.  Every.  Last.  One.

Tell me that isn’t strange.

Chapter 4

 

The Carver Middle School playground is huge, and the whole of it is contained within a poured cement boarder about a foot deep and filled with gravel.  By the time recess is over there isn’t a kid left who still has white socks; you end up with this chalky orange dust all over everything.  It doesn’t hurt too badly if you trip and fall but man do those pebbles get hot in the summer.

Remember I said I had a theory?  Well here it is:

There’s… well, there’s like an egg, right?  Buried somewhere among all that gravel there is an egg of some kind.  It gets laid on the last day of the school year and then it lies dormant all through the summer.  Incubating or whatever.  Maybe the summer sun and all those hot rocks keep it at the right temperature to finish its development.  And by the time the new school year starts up in August, it’s ready.  And hungry.

Babies need to eat, right?

Then the first round of kids comes pouring out—the fourth graders who have themselves incubated over the summer and emerged as fifth graders.  They’re fresh from Englewood Elementary and they couldn’t know what’s coming.

     So the kids break up into groups, like kids always do.  Off by the swings some girls are having a screaming contest to see who can give who the biggest headache.  Other kids climb up the curly slide while more try to go down and in the end it turns into a pushing match where everybody walks away grumbling over the bright red Indian burns on their knees.  A few kids lounge in the shade and trade storieswith friends they haven’t seen all summer.

But sooner or later, someone gets the bright idea to play tag.

A kid crosses his arms over his face and stands under the slide counting, while a group of his friends scatters like birds, laughing with excitement.  And it’s like the counting chips away at that egg.  Some force or spirit or demon is summoned by that counting, each spoken number a contraction that pries at the door that bars this world from a world where dark things swim.  [One _]and it’s awake; [_Two _]and it’s aware; [_Three _]and it flexes inside its shell, a mass of muscle yearning to be free; [_Four _]and it feels its hunger, like a nest of teeth in its stomach;[ Five ]and the egg splits apart; [_Six… Seven… Eight…]

It squirms through the gravel like a worm burrowing through loose dirt, working its way toward the kid who is counting.  And then it eats into[_ _]the poor kid somehow, the one who is It.

[_I saw this part happen. _]

I was watching the kid who was counting on that first day, and I saw it.  I was fat, remember?  I didn’t have friends and Ellie was still a few months away, so I was alone, sitting in the shade under one of the rubber coated wire-mesh platforms at the foot of the jungle gym.

     Bobby Hillcrest was the one who was counting.  He had his head tucked into the crook of an elbow and I could see that he was peeking. His eyes were darting around and they’d fixated on someone at the top of one of the slides.  He got to number nineteen and then…

Ready or not, here I come.

It happened so fast.  The gravel kind of bulged up in a long runner, like those cartoons where Bugs Bunny is burrowing to California, right before he pops up and says he must have taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque.  Something shot through the gravel from off to my right, arcing under the swings and jetting straight at Bobby.  The gravel made a riffling sort of sound like a deck of cards being shuffled.  My mouth dropped open in surprise but I didn’t say anything.  I still feel guilty about that.  Bobby had always been a bastard toward me—he was fond of telling me, in a very loud voice, that I was the only kid he knew who was fat enough to have breasts on his back.  It got to where I made a conscious effort not to turn my back to him—but I still should have said something.

The bulge raced up to within a few feet of Bobby and then something that looked like a shadow erupted from the gravel.  When I say it looked like a shadow, I mean that.  It was completely flat and black like tire rubber.  It skittered across the gravel and disappeared under Bobby’s feet.  I think it crawled up his pant leg.  His eyes went wide, like he’d just tried to push out a squeaker and accidentally crapped his pants.  He shivered and dropped his arms, and his face flushed red and then drained pale.  There was a sound like a string of firecrackers exploding underwater as Bobby fisted his hands hard enough to make the knuckles pop.

He looked down at me through the holes in the wire mesh platform, and smiled the most awful smile.  “I’ll give you a five second head start, Crisco, and don’t tell me you’re not playing or you’re gonna be the only kid at Carver in dentures.”  Word for word.  I’ve never forgotten.  This crazy swamplight was in his eyes and I could see he meant it.

You bet your ass I ran.  I ran so much that day that when I stepped into the shower that night I saw friction burns on the inside of my thighs.  It looked like I’d tried to hump a belt sander.

The game spread like a brushfire.  Before the end of that short recess we were all playing.  Maybe to the adults it looked like fun and games but it wasn’t.  The kids were screaming, sure, and racing their little butts off, but a careful observer would have noted that there was no longer any laughter and the kids who were being chased wore not expressions of excitement or happiness, but of stark terror.

A bunch of us kids got bottlenecked up on a narrow, rigid footbridge that terminated in two slides and two staircases.  I should have known better than to be on that bridge, but like a fool I thought I could find safety in numbers.  Joyceline Saunders came rushing up one of the slides, an evil grin on her face.  When Joyceline stepped off of the slide and onto the footbridge, we all knew that something terrible was staring out of her cool blue eyes.  Her smile grew and for a second I caught the yellow flash of impossibly old teeth between her cherry lip-gloss.  Her face looked ancient, a mummy child.  Reptilian.  A girl behind me screamed and I caught an elbow in the ribs out of nowhere as everyone tried to run for the opposite staircase at the same time, plugging the exit with a mess of thrashing legs and wild, rolling eyes.  Joyceline tagged Bobby again.  I remember the sound of his breathing, ragged panting like a cornered rabbit, as she swooped down on him.  I had one hand pressed to my bruised ribs and my back shoved up against the wall of thrashing kids all fighting for the same stairs when he spun around and tagged me.

You might wonder why we didn’t tell anyone what was happening or just run away, back into the school or straight home.  You wouldn’t understand unless you’d been tagged yourself.

It felt as I imagine dying will feel.  This sinking sort of cold numbness floods up around you, and you see yourself doing things—running, chasing, climbing—without ever actually doing any of it yourself, like you’re a ghost in your own head.  Your hands get yanked off your own controls is what I guess I’m trying to say.  And in the dark spaces between your thoughts, something squirms.  Two bright orange dots appear in the black, like the eyeshine of some forest animal just outside the reach of your campfire.  And then a serpent voice whispers tell and I’ll hurt you.  Hurt you, hurt you, hurt you.  You think if those eyes look at you for long, you’ll just shatter.  Break apart into bits and spend the rest of your life weeping inside your own head.  But then the eyes turn away from you and you see your body running after other children who look over their shoulders at you as if you’re the Devil himself.

Maybe you are.

Like I said, a bunch of us kids were tangled up on the bridge, so in two or three seconds—though it felt like years, decades—I had whipped around and tagged Lisa McGee with a brutal slap between the shoulder blades, sending her off like a crazy guided missile with red hair, orange socks, and a shark smile.  She tagged Mousefart and from there I’m not sure.  All I know is that within moments the screaming and shushing sound of feet pounding through gravel was coming from other parts of the playground, leaving a few of us up on footbridge to stare at each other with vacant, stunned eyes.

Tell and I’ll hurt you.  Before the half hour was done, we’d all been tagged and we all knew it.

Of course, that didn’t stop Allison Foreman from telling anyway.  She was scared, is all.  We all were.  But she broke cover first and paid the price for it.  Just before recess the next day she told Mrs. Baker, the math teacher.  Allison was frantic, gibbering.  Mrs. Baker must have thought she was having some kind of breakdown—[_There’s a monster in the playground _]flies about as fast and far as a tin turd—and sent her to the nurse.  Allison was out of school for the rest of the day.  But she forgot that eventually she would have to come back. And when she did, guess who was the first to be tagged that day?

Got it in one.  Justin Nolan, who’d had the gruesome honor of carrying that horror around in his head all day and night because he was the last to get tagged the day before, caught her by the swings.  She was crying with her hands raised defensively around her head. 

Justin poked her in the shoulder with one rigid finger.  Then he was running away from her with the loosey-goosey floppiness of someone who’s awoken from a deep sleep to find he is jogging.  At the time I didn’t understand the dazed expression on his face.  Years later, hanging with a few friends in a smoky bedroom, thinking I’d sell my soul for a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, I would see an expression on my roommate’s face that would finally give Justin’s expression context: Justin looked like a kid who’d taken a hit of bad weed—high as a kite and sick as a dog. 

All at once that horrible, somehow lewd smile popped on Allison’s face, but she didn’t run after anyone, not right away.  She walked serenely over to the wire steps that led up to the jungle gym.  The kids who were over there backed away in a widening circle.  It was like watching one of those weather maps on the news, the way an oncoming storm pushes into a low pressure belt.  Allison climbed the steps, going higher and higher, until I could see the pink rubber soles of her sneakers (I was hiding under one of the tube slides, by the tire swing).  She was smirking the whole way.  At the top step she looked around, a princess surveying her kingdom from the tallest tower.  She turned around as if she’d decided to walk back down again.

And then she simply fell forward.

She never even tried to break her fall.  Her face smashed against the steps with this grotesque squelching sound and she tumbled loosely all the way down to the gravel.  She was a real girly-girl and she was fond of cute little dresses and socks with lace around the cuff, and for a second I caught a flash of purple underwear that was the exact shade of Berry Fun bubble gum as she barrel-rolled down the steps.  None of the teachers noticed.  When Allison stood back up, she was still smiling.  Half of her front teeth were missing and blood dripped from her chin like a vampire from a cheap horror movie.  There was a mad, merry, cantering humor in her eyes.  She turned in a slow circle so that all the kids could see, and when she turned to face me I could see the pink nub of her tongue behind her bloody gums like some hairless, wet panda fetus.

We were all so stunned that at first nobody reacted when she broke into a run.  She tagged Brian White by the see-saws, leaving a bloody handprint on his shirt.  It wasn’t until Brian had taken off for other prey that Allison began to scream.

Those were the rules.  You don’t tell.  You don’t skip.  Because if you do, it will make you sorry.

And it had a sort of genius for doing so.

Not long before Ellie transferred to our school, Bobby was out sick for a couple days (and man, was he having a bad year or what?) When he came back he looked a little peakish.  Kinda pale and wobbly.  That day he was the only one to be tagged.  After Bobby was caught while trying to use the height and branching paths of the jungle gym to keep away from Mark Alvarez, he climbed down and walked over to the swings.  He sat on one of them and just sort of drifted back and forth, not really swinging, dragging his feet in the gravel ruts under the swing.  All of the kids watched him, silent with the exception of Mousefart’s aspirator blasts every few minutes, and nobody moved until Mrs. Baker blew her whistle to call us in.  It must have looked strange to her, all of us watching Bobby sit on the swing from the mouths of slides, on steps, under bridges, by the jungle gym and see-saws, but she didn’t say anything: kids [_are _]strange, after all.  She probably thought this was some weird new game that you couldn’t understand once you reached the age when you could legally drive.

We all gave Bobby a wide berth as we left the playground but he never tried to tag any of us.  That insane intensity was in his eyes all day, bottled lightning, but he was quiet in class and barely spoke at all.  Right before school let out he whispered to a few of us “Here’s what happens.”

That night his dog died.  I heard that a bottle of antifreeze accidentally spilled in his garage and his little weenie dog Chuckles lapped it all up, but I very much doubt that it was an accident at all.  No, I don’t think so.  Bobby should have been glad that he was an only child or things might have been much worse than one dead dog with a swollen tongue and blue-green foam around its lips.  It wasn’t until after Bobby tagged Greg Jones the next day that he started weeping—quietly though, so the teachers wouldn’t notice and perhaps ask him what was wrong.

Hurt you, hurt you, hurt you.

We learned.  Eventually, we all learned.

I don’t know why but I was only ever tagged that once, stuck up on the footbridge.  Maybe whatever that thing was had gotten a taste of me and found me less than appetizing.  Yeah, you and everybody else, you twisted jerk.  Not that I’m complaining, it’s just strange, is all.  You don’t think of monsters as being picky eaters.

And then along came Elizabeth Martin.  Ellie, to me.  And though things didn’t get better, they became a little more bearable.  It was like spending months holding up a fifty pound sack of sand and then someone comes along and takes a corner from you; your back still aches and your hands are still numbed into claws, but it’s a little better.

There was no doubt that she would be tagged that first day, and of course that’s exactly what happened.  And so she learned about the game too.

Welcome to hell, Ellie.  I’m so sorry.

Chapter 5

 

We were friends, and I think over the next few months I fell in love with her a little.  She was kind and she was funny and she was pretty in the way that some little girls can be pretty, the way that says [_buddy, you ain’t seen nothin yet.  _]She never called me Crisco Kid, and even when some of the girls started calling us Beauty and the Breasts, she was unflagging in her friendship. 

On the playground her height came to her advantage; her long legs made her fast as sin and she was rarely tagged, and for that I was profoundly grateful. Watching that hateful lunacy bloom in her sparkling eyes was like having an icicle driven into my gut and I lived in fear of the day that entity or demon or whatever might decide to do to Ellie what it had done to poor Allison, who’d had to get a partial to replace her splintered front teeth.

The year wore on.  Christmas vacation came and this time it was April Connegan who was left to carry the monkey on her brain for two weeks.  Over that two weeks her house burned down, supposedly because of a fault in the Christmas tree lights, but we know better, now don’t we? 

The first day back from vacation April tagged three people before that thing was able to jump from her to the person she tagged.  Like it had sunk in or something, the way hydrofluoric acid will eat into glass if you give it enough time.  That was when a terrible idea came to me.  What would happen when school let out for the summer?  What would happen when that thing had not just two weeks but a whole three months to spread its roots across someone’s brain?  When sixth grade started next August, would it even be able to jump any longer? 

And the greater implication of it all was that someone would be stuck with it.

Forever.

I was fat, not stupid, and I knew that just not showing up the last day of school wasn’t a real option.  This thing didn’t care much for no-shows.  I could all too easily imagine looking out my bedroom window late one stormy night to see Bobby Hillcrest standing on the sidewalk in the rain wearing a yellow plastic slicker and gumrubber galoshes, smiling back at me with eyes full of fire and clutching a big, fat kitchen knife.  Or pulling back the shower curtain one evening and reaching for a towel and having my fingers chopped off with a bushcutter, and before I can scream Doug Fee says “Here’s what happens” just as he carves a line along my pendulous belly and spills my guts into the tub like a bloody piñata.

No, the only thing you could do is show up and then run your ass off, because that last one’s for keeps.  And I felt like a snake for not telling anyone else, but come on, like I needed them to give extra effort?  Please.  Fat, not stupid, remember? 

I didn’t tell Ellie, either.  God forgive me. 

Ellie, forgive me.

The last week of school the theme was Nothing Gold Can Stay, based on that poem, you know, ‘Nothing gold can stay, eventually everything turns to rot, yadda yadda yadda.’  The teachers really thought it was something else, though.  In the halls they put up gold foil streamers and sprays of fake autumn leaves and everything.  I guess they thought it was poignant or something but on the whole the kids didn’t give a crap.

When we were all filing out of Ms. Tafts’s classroom for recess that last day, the overriding sense of relief was palpable.  Like they were thinking it was almost over, right?  Like because there was no school tomorrow or the next day or the one after that, it meant everything was finally going to be okay again.  It made me want to scream ‘Wake up, nimrods, one of us is about to be stuck with this damned thing for life!  You get that?  Comprende?’  Friggin kids don’t know how to think past the next five minutes, a bunch of Gap-wearing, cell-phone-carrying squirrels.

But I held my tongue.  I could see worry on Ellie’s face.  I think it was coming to her too, that heavy realization.  She was just a little slower on the uptake because she wasn’t used to constantly taking one in the face like I was.  She wasn’t used to waiting for the other shoe to dropkick you in the nuts.  I almost told her right there but then we were on the playground, the gravel crunching under our feet, and there was no time.

Kristi Perez, she of the boar’s-hair arms, was first.  She was smirking and her eyes were heavy lidded as she bent her head against one of the support beams of the swing set and began counting.  Several kids bunched up on the footbridge again, as if they hadn’t been trapped there a hundred times before, a fire marshall’s worst nightmare with too many people and not enough exits.  A few were on the jungle gyms, hanging by foot and hand like four legged spiders.  The see-saws were deserted; those things were tag-traps of the first order.  Ellie was at the top of one of the curly slides and I was tucked between the tunnel slide and the tire swing.  That spot had developed an almost superstitious magnetism for me; it had been a safe haven for most of the school year, and so, like a basketball player who will only wear the same pair of socks, I went to it every day and huddled there like a ground pigeon.

All at once the playground exploded into motion, with more of that shushing sound of running feet stirring gravel and the hollow, reverberant [_bong-bong-bong _]of kids running along the platforms and bridges.  I stayed right where I was, tucked into the little nook under the tunnel slide, peering out with owlish eyes.  There were screams and always the harsh panting breaths but there was only one smile on the playground that day and it moved from person to person, a parasite transmitted through the fingertips.

I still remember watching as Ellie ran from Joe Brinkley.  Her blue eyes were wide and her blonde hair streamed behind her like sails of gold and she [_flew _]across the playground, her long legs quickly outdistancing Joe’s shorter ones.  On the ground she was untouchable, mercurial.  But then in her panic she darted left and ran up the slick incline of a slide.  Right into the snarl of kids that tangled the footbridge.

My breath caught in my throat.  There was nowhere for her to go and despair clutched her face as she saw the same thing.  I think at that point she’d worked out the same thing I had: this last day was different from the ones before.  To lose today was to lose forever. Joe was right behind her, up the slide in a flash, and Ellie acted immediately.  She grabbed the chest-high railing with both hands and flung herself over the side of the footbridge and Joe missed her by inches.  His momentum carried him into the thicket of kids and the thing inside him began arcing through the crowd like black lightning. 

From where I crouched under the tunnel slide I saw Ellie fall in slow motion, end over end.  Her hair was a gold rainbow terminating in a small white oval pulled tight in fear.  It was pure luck that she didn’t break her neck or her back; she landed turned to one side as if lounging and I saw her ankle fold underneath her.  An orange cloud of gravel dust shot up around her.  The gravel cushioned some of the impact and other than a badly twisted ankle she only had the breath knocked out of her.  I scrambled out of my hiding place and helped her crawl under the tunnel slide, where I hoped we would be safe, that whatever mystical protection I’d found under there would hold for just another few minutes and would blanket us both.

We listened to running feet and Ellie slowly got her breath back.  Our hands were woven together.  Ages passed, and I felt the first sad trickle of hope.

Through the blue plastic of the slide a long shadow moved: the shape of a child slowly cruising down.  Every face on the playground seemed focused upon us.  Underneath the lip of the slide, two Adidas sneakers suddenly dug into the gravel.  Ellie and I clutched each other and watched as the feet slowly walked around the edge of the slide.  They stopped less than a foot away from our interlaced hands, splayed so that the dusted tips of one shoe pointed at each of us.  The face of Mousefart appeared.  A blotchy network of red streaks etched his face into something tribal and he was wheezing, but he was [_smiling _]too, and the omnipresent aspirator was nowhere to be seen.

‘Ain’t you two just the prettiest picture?’ he’d said, only it wasn’t him.  All the proof I needed of that was in his eyes.  He had his hands propped against his knees but now he raised them and rested one on each of our shoulders.  Ticking his eyes between us—eenie, meenie, miney, mo—he giggled.  It burbled out of him like sewage bubbling out of a kitchen sink.  He sighed.

‘Tag.  You’re It.’ he said, and then that light bled out of him and he stumbled back a few steps, looking shocked, his breath abruptly squeezing up in pitch like a strangling teakettle.  Then he turned and ran, one hand fumbling in a pocket for his aspirator.

At almost the same instant the shrill catcall of Mrs. Baker’s whistle signaled the end of recess.  Ellie promptly dropped my hand, crawled out from under the slide, and limped off the playground.  She didn’t look back at me even once.  I was shaking, too weak to stand, and by the time I got into the classroom she’d already left for the nurse’s office to get her ankle looked at.

I knew I’d never see her again.  But amazingly, I did.  School let out early and the stampede of kids rushing into summer began.  I hung back.  I was afraid she’d be waiting for me, like some part of her would want to settle the score, hurt me for letting her be hurt. Eventually Ms. Taft shooed me out of the room.  I guess she wanted to get the hell out of Carver, too. 

I walked out of the heavy double doors and saw Ellie out in the middle of the playground, digging fiercely.  Her back was to me.  Her gold hair billowed about her in frantic streamers and she was slinging gravel in long roostertails as she dug.  Orange dust coated her up to the elbows. 

I was scared.  Hell, I was friggin terrified.  If someone had said “boo” to me right then I would have unloaded a stinking mess of green apple quickstep into my New Balance sneakers right then and there.  Ellie paused in her digging.  Her shoulders hitched a few times. Maybe she was crying.  I couldn’t see what she was doing.  And with a start, I heard my own feet crunch onto the gravel of the playground. To this day I don’t remember crossing the distance between the school and the playground.  Ellie spun around and looked at me, her eyes wide.  Then she simply ran away, a strange hitching with every other step to mark her hurt ankle.

I watched her until she disappeared around the corner of the Lewisville Baptist Glory Hill church.  The last I saw of her was a fan of blonde hair and the heel of one shoe.  I walked over to the hole.  There was a new feeling inside me, one that was hot and felt good. 

Rage. 

She’d come back to lay an egg or store some slimy monster baby or something for the next school year.  Start the cycle again.  I just knew it.  I determined to kill it first, while it was weak.  I would end this nightmare once and for all, swallow my fear as an act of contrition, penance for failing my one and only friend, the girl I’d begun to love.

For hours I dug into and all around the hole Ellie had left behind her.  In the end I found not a trace of what I knew must be down there somewhere.  Maybe it sensed me and crawled away through the gravel.  I could have spent a lifetime digging if that was the case and still never found it.  At some point the heat and strain of digging got to me and I threw up.  Coming up it felt like knives edged in rubbing alcohol.  Foamy liquid sifted through the gravel and disappeared and I pushed more gravel over the chunks that were left behind. After that I didn’t have enough steam to get started again so I walked home.

That heel disappearing around the corner of the church was the last I saw of Ellie.  She transferred out that summer.  Her dad must have been offered an even fatter salary with an even bigger office, better view, and Free Handjob Tuesdays [_and _]Thursdays.  Ellie had only attended Carver for a bit over half a year but that was long enough for her to lose her soul.

Chapter 6

 

So there you go.  Believe me or don’t, it’s up to you.  But before you dismiss me as some cuckoo escaped from his clock, go to Carver.  Watch.  Listen.  You’ll see.

It [_was _]Ellie who’d been tagged.  I mean, I know Mousefart’s hand was on each of us, but I would have felt it if it had been me.  I’d been tagged once before, remember, so I know what it felt like. 

Like dying.

I’ve tracked her down to Southwest University.  She’s studying to be a social worker, isn’t that a mindtrip?  But think about it. What better place for a predator than in the midst of the weakest and most vulnerable?  Makes sense, huh?

I’m going to stop her.  I’m going to set her free the only way I can, and hopefully I can do it without getting caught.  I’ve been following her for weeks and know her schedule.  Fridays she always goes to aerobics at Lady Fitness on 14th and Main.  I’m going to wait for her in my van next to her parking space back at her apartment.  She’ll be tired when she gets home and won’t be expecting anything.  I wonder how the thing inside her has grown over the years.  How strong it may have become.  I’ve got a taser and some chloroform if I need it.  And a big knife.  I’ve already found the spot I’ll use to get rid of her body.

I hate this—hate this!—but I owe her at least this much.

Who knows.  If this works, maybe I could eventually find them all and bring this thing to an end.  One for every school year, that’s not so many.  I could handle that.  Buy a yearbook from each year and go through the pictures.  Check the eyes.  That’s where you can see it best.

And that’s why I’m writing this letter.  If I disappear… if she kills me, that is, why not say it… my family is going to find this. Or a cop after I don’t show up for work for a couple days and haven’t returned any phone calls.  Someone has to know. 

Elizabeth Martin isn’t human, and I’m almost certain she’s already started killing.  I’m Terry Braddock, formerly the Crisco Kid, and I’m off to slay a monster. 

Wish me luck.

 

 

Thank you for reading my book. If you enjoyed it, won’t you please take a moment to leave me a review at your favorite retailer? Thanks!

Troy Kelly

 

 


Tag

Carver Middle School isn't normal. There is a dark force at work that comes out when the children play. The games are never fun. They're serious. And they're for keeps. The kids at Carver know the rules: You don't tell. You don't skip out. Everybody plays and the game never ends. Those are the rules and you'd better learn fast, because if you don't then it will hurt you, hurt you, hurt you. Scary, darkly funny and at times achingly vulnerable, TAG follows the experiences of a young outcast who is the lowest of the low at a school where the most important lesson is to run fast and never get caught.

  • ISBN: 9781310819834
  • Author: Troy Kelly
  • Published: 2016-02-04 22:40:07
  • Words: 8760
Tag Tag