6. The First Tag

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6. The First Tag
Eighth Grade

“Where were you guys?” Kent asked from the back of the bus. Everyone else shared a seat, but he was too large and sweaty to sit with.

“Where were you?” David asked in return. “We waited for you for like an hour, man.”

“I was way the hell at the water tower, where you said to go.”

I nodded at David. “That’s where he said to go first, you must not have gotten the second note…”

Kent stared down, expression bitter—still angry—but seemingly satisfied with the answer. “Well, what did I miss?”

We exchanged glances; Steven placed a finger over his lips, requesting silence, eyes begging each of us not to include the landlord's son. Only one of us wanted to let Kent in on the game.

Cameron gripped Kent's arm. “We’ve got a new game,” she explained, sealing our communal fates. “David thought it up. He’s It. If he tags you any time during the day, you have to change your life somehow in the next fifteen minutes. Then, after you do, you can tag one of us.”

Kent grunted. The bus rolled to a stop outside the school.

Deep breaths helped me build the mental armor necessary to survive each day. The thick skin of the bullied.

We faced off in the space where the two schools split, with David preparing to go to the high school.

“All right, this is it,” David said.

We watched him hopefully. Who would he tag first? He took a step forward, and placed a hand on Kent’s arm.

“Oh, come on. Really?” Steven asked.

“Remember. Fifteen minutes,” David said, smiling.

Kent glanced about nervously as Steven rolled his eyes. Kent took the opportunity to slam a meaty fist down on the backpack of his smaller, glasses-clad nemesis. Steven gawked at his bag, which hit the ground with a vicious whomp.

“Tag,” Kent said loudly. “You’re It.”

Classmates around us froze and watched as Steven stared first at his bag, then at his rival, and finally back down to the ground. As the students began to creak into motion, satisfied the action had resolved, the smaller boy leapt into Kent’s midsection, wrapping arms around the oaf, trying to knock him down.

Teachers on duty had already gone inside to prepare for the first class, so none intervened. I reached for Steven’s wiry little arm, hoping to break them up, but Cameron was faster, tugging at Kent’s waist, trying to keep him from slaughtering Steven.

In seconds, the struggle ended. Both boys stepped away. Steven stalked into the school, flustered. The first bell rang; I dreaded the next forty-five minutes of being chair-bound.

My heart throbbed through the entire class, sore from nervous exertion. I barely heard a word said and couldn’t wait for the next bell—like the start of a boxing match, when we’d all be thrust together again, and Steven would have an opportunity to tag someone.

The blessed ringing came; I grabbed my backpack and raced out the door, then looked up and down the hallway for Steven, at last spotting him exiting a room a few hundred feet from me. I stood a safe distance away, hoping to witness another collision.

Cameron strode toward him with purpose. I couldn’t hear her, but it seemed like she commanded Steven to tag her—because he only nodded meekly and put a hand on her shoulder, mouth opening and closing for an instant in response.

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