What happens when a game of Tag becomes more than just a game?
Genre: Contemporary, YA, Satire, Boys & Men
Release Date: 5 July 16
Blog Tour Date: 4 - 12 July 16
When Tommy knocks Franklin over and cries “You’s it!” he starts a game of Tag to end all games of Tag. Before long, boys gathering to play on Arabella Hill are consumed with the game, picking sides, forging allegiances, and waging all-out war. In the process of the game, rules evolve, constitutions form, and lives are lost. From the mind of John Collings comes a satirical allegory about the clash of ideologies and what happens if this confrontation is never resolved. In the battle of the playground, there is only one question that matters—which team, will emerge victorious?
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Excerpt: Opening The old man shuffled his way to the foot of the great hill where sat a smooth boulder, protruding from the ground. He arrived every day, at precisely at 7:01, with the precision of a German engineer, as if he’d just disembarked from a bus or a train somewhere around the hill, and taken only the time needed to waddle over to the rock, and sit in the indentation worn into it by his butt over the years. He’d become a slave to this routine over the years, sitting there, on rock at the foot of a burnt out hill, undisturbed by the people who passed him as they moved about their day. They probably didn’t even notice him, seeing as they had other priorities to possess their time.
The man remembered a time, long ago, when the hill possessed the highest peak in the town. If a person climbed to the top of it, he could look down and take it in at a glance. But progress had seized the town, and large buildings soon grew to obscure the view, until the hill served as no more than the outline for the roundabout, designed to take busy people to their busy places. If any of them ever took the time away from their busy pace, how many of them would wonder how this old man found his way across that busy street to sit on his rock?
The current aesthetic labeled the hill an eyesore, an abomination, best residing on the other side of the tracks. If any of the fools ever put forth the effort, they'd march up to their representatives in the city hall and demand that the representatives move it to the place where it actually belonged. No doubt those representatives would get right on the task, filing injunctions, posting notices, and writing bills about the town’s eyesore. And still the hill would remain as the busy people rushed their way through the roundabout towards their destination, never considering the state of the hill’s dilapidation. The representatives did, however, get around to putting a chain-linked fence around the hill with imposing ropes of razor sharp barbed wire on top, to keep out all the busy people who never wanted to go in in the first place. The fence marked, to all who cared to notice, the speed of “progress”.
After all these years, the hill remained. Nothing would grow on it. No one would walk on it. Not even the birds would feign to fly over the flimsy, metal barrier to land upon the hill's desecrated domain. No one else seemed to even care about it but the old man, and he cared enough to visit it on a daily basis. So often had he visited the hill that he'd almost became a permanent addition to it. Except for the fact his clothes would change from day to day, people might have mistaken him for a statue.
He sat on the rock leaning heavily on the cane he carried with him, craning to get a better look at the nothingness the hill had to offer. What had begun as a mild interest in the hill had grown to such an obsession, that he would often squint his eyes at it, as if hoping to read the words somehow typed into the typography. His bald head protruded from his shirt collar so much that an onlooker might mistake him for a turtle, taking its first trembling steps onto the sands of some foreign beach, if, that is, they stopped long enough to notice. He thought he might need to find a place to rest his weary head, or it would fall from his body. Instead it came to lie on the gnarled and knobby hands he’d wrapped around the handle of his sturdy oak cane.
Day in and day out he sat, fearing any change in his routine, until Little Lizzy showed up to change that routine for him, having found her way across the traffic to the burnt-out oasis of the hill. Her blonde curls bounced giddily as she skipped her way over to where the old man sat on his rock. She wore a pink dress barely long enough to cover her chubby knees. She carried a box in her hands, about the size of a Bible, which she brandished with extreme importance.
The old man watched as Little Lizzy made her way around the fence line to approach him.
When she noticed him, she stopped and stared at the sight, as if she found it hard to believe another soul had found his way over to this parcel of land. She dropped the box in her hands and it disappeared in the shadow of the rock. Because items not in the immediate view of children are seldom remembered, the box remained there as she slowly walked towards the ancient anomaly.
The old man sat there, unmoving. Little Lizzy approached with caution, as if she feared chasing him away by her approach.
First, she waved at him from a safe distance; the old man did not move.
Then, she skipped into the old man’s peripheral view and tilted her head; still, the old man did not move.
Finally, she took a spot in-between the old man and the object of his attention. She grabbed the sides of her fluffy skirt and twisted it right and then left, wearing a pouty expression on her face. At last she said, “Hi.”
The old man responded, “Go away.”
She took a step closer and said, “My name's Lizzy.”
“Go away, Lizzy.”
Little Lizzy looked at the old man closely, then turned her head to follow his gaze. “Whatchya looking at?”
“Right now? A little girl who won’t go away.”
Still Lizzy was not deterred. She ignored the slight and went on with her questioning. “What were you looking at before that?”
The old man lifted his head from his crooked hands, and looked at Little Lizzy with renewed interest. “You’re not going to leave me alone, are you?”
Lizzy also ignored the man's attempt to change the subject. “Are you looking at that hill?” she asked.
The old man finally gave into the girl’s interrogation. “Yes, I’m looking at the hill. Now, go away.”
“Why would you want to spend all day looking at that hill? It’s sure an ugly hill. Not even weeds grow on it. It is probably the most worthless plot of land in the whole town.”
The words of the young child enraged the old man. He stood up from his seat and used his cane to point at the hill. “How dare you call Arbella Hill a worthless plot of land? If it wasn’t for that hill, this town would never have existed. It's thanks to that hill that you see all this around you.”
“Why? Why? WHY?”
Little Lizzy looked at the exasperated old man as if wondering why her question would illicit such a response. “Yes," she said, undeterred. "Why?”
The old man considered Little Lizzy’s question with a new respect. He placed his sturdy oak cane back on the ground, and snuggled back into his groove in the rock. “Well, that requires a complicated answer, little girl.”
Lizzy’s eyes brightened up. “Does it involve a story?”
“Yes, and what a story it is!”
Lizzy took this as an invitation. She sat down Indian style on a soft patch of grass in front of the rock, smoothed her skirt out, and rested her chin in the crag of her fists.
The old man’s eyes grew foggy, as if looking at a faraway place. He cleared his throat and began.
“This place once looked quite different than it does today…”
Chapter One Back then, roads didn’t exist. Big buildings didn’t block out the blue sky. Even the cars didn’t hurry off to the places where cars hurry off to. Tall trees circled the expanse of the field, a few stray trees here and there offereing their shade to those in need on sunny days, and shelter to those in need on rainy days. Arbella Hill stood over there, the steep sides of it also covered with trees. On the top of it stood the mightiest of all trees, a proud oak. And, of course, this rock I'm sitting on sat right here. Back in the day, we didn’t call the hill Arbella; that name came later. We only called the hill, “The Hill”, just as we called the rock, “The Rock” and each individual tree, a tree. We didn’t spend a lot of time naming things back in those days. We had more important things to do. We had a big field. I couldn’t tell you where everybody came from, but we came, none the less. We all wandered out of the woods and across the horizon, drawn by this majestic mound. It stood above everything else on the plain, rivaled by no other formation in its beauty. On it, assorted fruit trees and tall pines pointed their peaks towards the heavens, wondrous wildflowers blossomed, rearing their heads to the world, animals scurried under the protection of the hill, peeking their happy heads out whenever they saw fit. If they ever noticed us looking at them, they would dart back into the shadows. They didn't know they had nothing to worry about because we cared about them as much as they cared about us. We had many more exciting things to do, besides. We ran. Not to or from a specific place—doing something like that didn't interest us much.
We ran more for the why, rather than the where.
What was the why, you ask? Well, why not?
But just imagine a huge field stretched out before you, soft and supple grass growing just tall enough to tickle your toes as the drops of dew dance upon your bare feet, the subtle sun warming you as you wind your way through the maze of dandelions. And if ever its heat gets too hot, the shade of a nearby tree is there to comfort you. If you'd rather continue on your run, the wind is there to blow a refreshing breeze your way. As far as we were concerned, the field had been created for our pleasure, and we took every opportunity to partake in that gift.
As was the case with the hill, the rock, and the trees, we didn’t bother with each other’s names. We didn’t even bother to acknowledge each other’s presence. We weren’t very social at that time—running occupied most of our time.
We didn’t care about speed or direction—some of us sprinted from one end of the field to the other; some of us twirled in circles, arms outstretched; some of us darted this way and that; and some just meandered from place to place, spending more time taking in our surroundings than those who surrounded us. It probably helped to get it all started, I guess.
The first uproar was caused by two kids of opposite natures. I later learned that their names were Tommy and Franklin, but I just knew them as the Fat Kid and the Focused Kid.
Tommy ran with purpose. He focused directly on where he wanted to run and when he got there, he turned right around to focus on getting back.
Franklin didn’t run so much as meander all about the place, his head constantly turning to observe the world around him, darting from place to place, to stoop down to look at a wildflower, or up to the sky to watch an eagle fly. Rarely was his head in what he was supposed to be doing down on the field.
As in all other aspects of life, when you have two opposites such as Tommy and Franklin, they are destined to clash, and clash, they did.
Franklin backed into Tommy one hot Thursday afternoon, too busy watching a wild turkey dart across the field while trying to get out of its way, running backwards, not really looking where he was going. Tommy, on the other hand, was so focused on where his run was taking him that he didn’t see Franklin coming. Franklin weighed more than Tommy, and it was he who took the tumble and landed flat on his butt.
Tommy wasn’t much of an orator at that early age, but of course none of us were. Later, Tommy would become the great speaker you may have heard about, but on that fateful day, he looked at where he'd landed in that big field of grass, and said the only thing he could in that situation: “I’s It.”
Rather, that's what Franklin thought he'd said, for even though Tommy talked as if he'd marbles in his mouth, he wasn't one to practice such bad grammar. He also didn’t back away from a confrontation, particularly one spurring from an intrusion concerning his right to run.
Tommy stood up, and walked over to where Franklin was standing. Franklin tried to stammer out an apology, but was unable to articulate the thought before Tommy pushed him, and Franklin landed on his butt.
Franklin could not believe Tommy capable of performing such an act of anger. He looked up at his antagonist, hoping for an apology he knew wouldn’t come. Instead, Tommy responded with a retort that would endure in the cannon of our consciousness for all eternity.
“You’s It!” he said.
John, where are you from and how old are you?
I’m over 40 years old and I grew up in Denver, CO. I spend a lot of time away from it, but it is the place I will always consider home, and when I’m away I miss the mountains.
Interesting, do you travel a lot?
I travel all over the world any time I get an opportunity. I have been in over twenty-five countries on five different continents. It is really nice to get a different perspective on life and to look at it the way other cultures do. It also offers me a lot of humbling experiences as I get to feel what it is like to experience different cultures and have to learn how to act appropriately. It also fuels my fascination with language as I pick up little bits of it wherever I go. I always write about my travels on my blog anytime I go on one of these trips. I hope it allows other people gain a new perspective on the world even though they might not have the same advantages or opportunities that I have.
Does any of this cultural perspective seep into your writing?
Of course, it is the one time that I can get away from my busy life and connect once again with myself. It allows me to see crazy things all the time that is a treasure trove I pull from when I need a new character or a new plot point. It also gives me inspiration for problems I might be having with the stories I am writing. This happened with Tag: A Cautionary Tale. One of my favorite characters in the story is Little Lizzy, to whom the whole history of the game of Tag is told. I wouldn’t ever have been able to write the story if I hadn’t met her first. She came into my imagination one night while I was camping in the Red Wood Forest in Northern California. Tag was a story I had thought about many times and I wasn’t even thinking about it at the time, but there she was, just popping into my head. It solved all the problems I was having with telling the story in the first place. And as soon as I met her, I was able to bang out the first rough draft in only four months.
It is always nice when those epiphanies come to you. It still doesn’t sound like it has a world perspective to it, if your inspiration came from the Red Wood Forest.
That is true. It was just an example of how my travels eventually inspire me. Is there something you are working on right now? I am always working on something. I dedicate an hour every day to writing, and it is amazing how much you can produce if you do that. I am finishing the rough draft of a piece of horror that I have been working on for the last seven months, and I have an idea about a story that takes place in Seoul, South Korea and compares and contrasts the educational system in Korea with that in America. It will allow me to get back to the style of writing I enjoy the most, satire. Why is that your favorite style of writing? Well, first of all, if I can make myself laugh by writing it, then I have brought joy into my life. If I can make other people laugh for reading it, then I have brought joy to others. If I can start the conversation that might get rid of some of the ills in society, then I have brought joy to the world. The way I look at it is, if I can bring about a change, then all the effort I have put into my writing is worth it. It is also the style of writing I gravitate to, whether I mean to or not. This piece of horror that I am working on right now has a couple of scenes that have a satirical aspect to it. My first novel, Hell, and God, and Nuns with Rulers had moments of satire, even though it was mainly a coming of age story. Tag: A Cautionary Tale is definitely satirical. If satire is supposed to bring about social change, what is the message behind Tag: A Cautionary Tale? If I told you, then it would defeat the purpose of art. It should be pretty obvious, though, especially with what is going on in America right now. It is really crazy that I wrote this novel as a warning, but then the thing I was warning about came into play a year after I had written about it.
I see it might discourage people from reading the book in the first place if you tell them the overall idea right from the start. Is there any advice that you could give to aspiring writers out there?
Don’t be discouraged by rejection. It is a business after all, and even though you might have this idealistic idea that all a writer needs to do is write his story and the world will come to you and praise you for how brilliant you are, it doesn’t work that way. It might take a while before someone starts to notice what you have created, and until then you can’t let yourself get down by not having that audience that you always dreamed of. Keep plugging away at it, and eventually something will click. And until it does, keep on writing. That is some sound advice.
Well, John, thank you for stopping by, and I wish you the best of luck with your newest release, Tag: A Cautionary Tale.
Thank you for having me.
Guest Post: My Inspiration Guest Post: My Inspiration In my class at the alternative high school I used to teach at, I taught the novel, There are no Children Here, by Alex Kotlowitz. I had a lesson that involved a simple scene, early in book, where children from the projects played a game of Tag on the concrete, outside their homes. They put their health in jeopardy because the ground was littered with a lot of obstacles that could tangle up their legs and cause them to fall. It made me sad to think that the opportunity to play a simple game of Tag was taken away from these kids. The experience forced them to grow up fast, and understand the complicated aspects of life. The lesson in my class played with this idea. We played a simple game of Tag, and as we went along, I made the game more complicated, creating new rules to fix problems as they would arise. Students couldn’t hide, because I needed to keep an eye on them. Smokers needed a break every once in a while, due to their poor life choices. We banned touch backs. Each rule I added only served to suck more fun out of the game. The more I looked at it, I saw it as a metaphor for life, and also the inception of this story. I loved the idea, and bounced it around in my head for many years. My excitement even got me to sit down at my computer and try to bang out the story a couple of times. I tried to write it as a play, a movie script, and a novel, numerous times, but it never felt right. The pieces of the narrative flew around in my head, but the voice telling the story never seemed right. This vital part drove me crazy, and I couldn’t ever find my narrator. The idea floated around the ether, right in front of me, but I couldn’t reach out and grab it. I put the story on hold numerous times, and wrote something else figuring that, someday, the inspiration I looked for would eventually come to me. It didn’t happen until the summer I decided to take a road trip across America to visit some of the greatest National Parks, and enjoy the beauty that the United States has to offer. I traveled to Mesa Verde, and enjoyed the Grand Canyon. I walked the piers of San Francisco, and partook in the rolling hills of Napa Valley. One night, in the Redwood Forest, as I watched the slow, burning fire created from a huge, log of oak, I met her, a sassy little girl who knew more about the world than the curmudgeon that imagined her in the first place. I couldn’t let this girl tell me about the ways of society, because I obviously knew more than her. The voice I'd been looking for revealed itself to me. It would work perfectly as a framed story where the little girl could comment on the ignorance of the old man as he told it. I even had a name for her: Little Suzie. The story seemed to pour out of me when I got back home after my trip. A couple of months after I started writing it, I had my first rough draft. I workshopped the opening scene with my creative writing class, and with some good insight about the old man’s cane, and the name of the little girl, I could start to polish the next draft. I tackled this problem by first looking at the name of Little Suzie. My students in the class were right: it was a little too cliché. Since all of my characters were named after important political figures, I looked there for my next inspiration. She took on a couple of obvious names, but I always considered the names they referenced as contributors to the problem, rather than ones out there trying to solve it. My brother, Tom, helped me find the name I was looking for, and I settled on Little Lizzie. The alliterative aspects of this name complemented the prose I had already written, and finally put to rest the problem I had with the character. For the most part, this experience has taught me that it takes more than a lonely man sitting at a computer and typing away at whatever comes to his imagination. It takes others to inspire him, a few to guide him, and many more to help make the dream become a reality. In the end, I just hope the whole process has given something back to the people involved, as well. Most importantly, I hope you have enjoyed this little story, and I hope it gets the conversation started. Who knows? Maybe the impact I have always imagined would happen might actually become a reality.
John Collings has traveled the world and has taken the wisdom he has collected from various cultures and placed it in his novels. He has found that satire is the best way to impart this knowledge due to its lasting effect with the reader. It is his goal to open up discussion about what he perceives is wrong with the world in the hopes that we can come together to fix it. Tag: A Cautionary Tale is the followup to his debut novel, Hell, and God, and Nuns with Rulers. Learn more about John and his writing at: