The Rules Are Simple

 “Tag,” Susie yelled. “You’re it.” And she ran off as fast as she could. Joel was surprised. One moment he had been drinking a small carton of chocolate milk at the lunch-benches with his friend Jason, the next he was “it.” To make it stick, all the kids sitting with him jumped up and ran away, laughing. Even Jason.

“Wait,” Joel yelled after her. “I wasn’t even playing. I’m not it.” 

But they were all running away and did not care, too busy screaming their lungs out – “Jo-el’s it! Jo-el’s it!”

When recess was over, no one sat near him in class. If he stood up everyone would stand and move away as he moved near. The teacher demanded that everyone stop acting foolish, but the kids just giggled and still no one came near him.

“I wasn’t even playing,” Joel kept repeating.

By the end of the day the whole school had joined the game. His friends, Chris and Pat, were not waiting for him at Mar Vista gate as they usually did, so Joel walked home alone. An older couple, seeing Joel walking, seemed to run to their car. They pulled out of the driveway so fast the screeching sound of rubber tires slipping on pavement caught the attention of a stray dog, who, noticing Joel, also ran away. 

At home, his little sister Kara was keeping the dining table between them at all times. She kept this up until Joel grabbed his baseball glove and left the house. 

Greg Po lived four houses down. His parents had come from Korea and placed their only son in a private Korean language school. Joel and Greg would often play together after school. But this day Greg refused to come out. His mother seemed confused by this too but did not invite Joel in and kept the screen door shut against him.

“Wait here,” she told Joel, as she went inside to check on her son.

From the front porch, Joel could hear Greg telling his mother not to let Joel in the house.

“I wasn’t even playing,” Joel told his friend Jason on the phone that evening. 

“The rules are simple,” Jason told him. “You’re ‘it.”

That night Joel could not sleep. He had never been very popular at school – not like Jason, who seemed to slip easily into every social group. 

Joel was a good guy, he thought, staring at the ceiling. He never fought in the yard. He didn’t pick on the little kids. He was always polite to the teachers. But now it seemed the only way to relieve his condition was to inflict it on someone else. He was going to have to hurt someone. This scared him.

Breakfast was again a game of “stay away from Joel” as Kara quietly taunted him. Mom and Dad hardly noticed as they went about preparing food and getting ready for work. 

“Will you stop,” Joel whispered, but Kara just giggled.

Joel pushed himself back from the table and in a flash was around so fast that Kara could not escape. He grabbed her. 

“Now you’re it,” He stated.

“That’s not fair,” Kara said. “Anyway, no one saw. It’s not even legal.”

She was right. Something was going on. Something big.

“Kara,” He pleaded with her. “You’re my sister. Tell me what it is.”

Whether it was love or pity he’d never really know, but she finally cracked. It had all been set up by his friend, Jason. It was he who had spread the game to everyone on the playground. He told everyone that this would be the biggest prank ever, and Joel was the perfect mark. As for Susie, the girl who had tagged him… she never really liked Joel much anyhow.  

Joel became very quiet. He left for school without another word.  

At 7:32, Joel walked through the Mar Vista gate. Somewhere on the playground his old friend Jason was about to get tagged.

Written by: Sean Karlin

Born in California, raised in Israel, served in the military, educated in film and television, documented environmental and social justice work, produced and directed commercials, Sean Karlin is a filmmaker and creative director who lives in San Francisco with his wife Orli. 

Photo title: The Young Pilot

Photo by: Josh Carter

Joshua Carter is a veteran, writer and activist. He lives in the Richmond district with his obese cat and tries really hard to be punk.

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