Halloween Horror: ‘Tag’

“It’s all fun and games until…”

That might have been my mother’s favourite saying around the house when I was young. Every time a knee got skinned, an eye got blackened or a fingernail got split, that little dose of cautionary hindsight was administered. Children don’t seem to go outside anymore, hell I’m only in my late 30s and I already feel like I’m looking at the youth of today behind Perspex glass, but who’s the exhibit and who’s the observer? That’s a stupid question. Ignore that.

What I was working up to was the fact that when I was young, you had to go outside and make your own fun. If we’d lived in a city that might have involved going to the cinema or a swimming pool and if we were way out in the sticks there might have been a host of woodlands and moors to chase each other around. As it stood, we lived in an Ikea Town. You know what I mean, one of those flat-pack British towns erected in a matter of months to fill some void of landmass between place A and place B. The same shops, the same pubs, the same sounds, shades and smells. It was like living on the set of The Truman Show. So just what do you do in a place like that? If we weren’t loitering outside the corner shop or throwing rocks at cows in some hilariously redundant bid to cause a stampede, we went to see the Old Crow.

His real name was Mr. Crosby, but almost everyone called him the Old Crow, it was a fitting moniker. In any other part of the world he’d have lived in some ornate, cavernous Xanadu, but here he lived in a dingy, uninspiring council flat, apparently his grandson had moved him there to keep him nearby. So why did we spend our time bothering some old man? Well firstly, he wasn’t just old, he was ancient, estimates ranged from 95 to 115, his skin was rough and grey as slate, whatever thin wisps of white hair he had left coiled around his liver-spots like spider webs and his entire skeleton might as well have been on display. He looked like a mummy. The other thing though? The best thing? He never moved. I mean never. So long as there was another person in the room with him, he would sit perfectly motionless, elbows on his kitchen table, fingers clasped, hooked nose pointing straight forward. His eyes though, they wouldn’t ever lose you, he would trace you all over the room.

Obviously he moved when nobody was around, various people said they saw him at the window from time to time and all the food his grandson brought had to be going somewhere, but nobody had actually seen him move or speak, his grandson didn’t like to talk about it. The other thing his grandson didn’t like to do was keep him secure, once one of the kids saw him hide the key under the doormat, and the games began. We would dare each other, see how long we could stay alone in the room with him without getting scared. I’d heard that some kids had even tried to balance things on his head; one of my friends carried around a Polaroid of Old Crow wearing star-shaped sunnies like it was a Nobel Peace Prize. Some adults knew this went on but nobody did anything. They preferred not to associate with him, too many strings they would say.

I’d already grown out of that kind of thing by then, I was about 16 when this all started, I’d been with Beth for 4 years already and I was starting to think about my future, but I still had a reputation to maintain. Every school has that one kid who stood above the rest, the witty one, the daring one, that was me. ‘King George’ they used to call me, I pretended not to like it. Kids would always try and convince me to go up to Tyler Street and mess with the Old Crow, I went a few times but I never really got involved, it was beneath me.

One lazy summer afternoon my cousin came over to the house saying that something amazing had happened. I was with Beth at the time (the kid didn’t realize what he’d interrupted) so she tagged along. It turned out that the Old Crow was sat somewhere different. This was kind of a big deal, he always sat in the kitchen during the day, but we found him in his living room. Between them the kids had figured out that, unlike the kitchen, it would be possible to stand alone in the room with him, in total darkness. The living room didn’t have any windows, you see. None of them would do it, they were too scared. It was easy to understand, the old trilobite was sat in his favorite stance, surrounded by tacky old furniture, his sharp, sunken eyes staring straight into a dust-coated TV that had never been switched on. His grandson must have been over earlier in the day because a teapot was sat on the table just beneath his hands. The whole room smelled like a disused shed. The moment you stepped inside his eyes would lock, provided you were within his field of vision. All the kids had to do was switch off the ceiling light and shut the door and they’d be alone in the dark with him.

“You have to do it, George!” One of them pleaded.

“Set an example for the rest of us!” Said another.

“I’m a little old for this kind of thing.” I said, laughing.

“You’re a wuss is what you are.” Beth responded.

She had a thing about doing that, getting on my case. I took it in stride; I loved her after all, more than anything. Having said that, I tried to give as good as I got. I shrugged and walked into Crow’s living room, jokingly imitating Elmer Fudd’s sneaky, rabbit-hunting walk as I went. Even without looking I could feel Crow’s eyes scorching a hole in the side of my head. I looked over in time to see him face-on; he really was a hideous creature. His lips had long since vanished behind his teeth; he had uneven sags beneath his eye-sockets and a thin line of drool hanging just beneath his chin. I switched the light off and suddenly he was framed in whatever washed-out light was being guided in from the kitchen. I snuck back over to the door, the kids were all holding their breath but Beth was rolling her eyes, until I grabbed her and pulled her in. Once she was inside I whipped around, shut the door behind me and grabbed the doorknob.


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