Corn Tag, or I Am a Person Who Kissed a Murderer
Six of us scattered in the field, running. Pretending we weren’t too old to play. Darkness didn’t matter. By then, we knew when to hop over a hole, when to duck to avoid being decapitated by barbed wire. We knew the land as we knew our bodies. Ripe, firm. Yielding in places. In those days, running was nothing, just an extension of self. Like breathing. There was no labor in it, only direction and the feeling of blood rushing. A silver moon hung sideways from black sky. Soon, the world would swing sideways with it, unhinged, split wide along a central longitude, dripping. It was nearly time for the combine to plow through the dried stalks and eat up our playground, flattening what took six months to grow into nothing over the course of a few days. After the combines, winter would come. After that, spring. Another machine would turn the soil over, make it into something new. Heal its wounds. Heal us.
What you need:
- Three or more players
- A field of corn that has grown to at least six feet high
How to play:
Wait until dark. Ensure every player has a working flashlight. Choose a home base, or safety zone in which players can’t be tagged. This is a useful area for retying shoelaces, removing and storing one’s jacket, general regrouping, or smoking cigarettes if that’s your thing. Choose one player to be “it.” The person who is “it” should turn on his or her flashlight, while all other players’ flashlights remain off. When the “go” command is given by “it,” players should scatter into the field. Players run amuck among the rows of corn, in whatever fashion is most conducive to avoid being tagged. A player is considered “tagged” when any part of his or her body is illuminated by “it’s” flashlight. Tagged players should immediately retreat to the home base and remain there until all but one player has been tagged. The player who isn’t tagged wins and assumes the role of “it” during the next round of play.
From somewhere in the corn, Corey tagged my face, blinding me. “Gotcha.”
“Where are you?” I squinted against white light. His voice came from all directions, his body near. The absence and presence of him at once disoriented me.
“Guess,” he said. I saw him in my mind as an amalgamation—the boy I’d whispered to at night, whose bedroom window faced mine for fourteen years, the man who was so by law and by stature and by un-boyish drives. I reached out hesitantly with both arms, ready to grab either version, boy or man, grasping nothing.
Corn rustled around us. Feet darted from the light in staccato beats. Corey’s light went out. “Now can you see me?” I could hear him smiling.
“No, I can’t see anything.” I stepped forward, but he stopped me with an arm around my waist. Wrapped around me from behind, his height made me feel small. Crushable. Why did this feel good? I asked myself later. Should I have been afraid? But it was never me he’d meant to hurt. I was safe.
We stood, conscious of our breathing.
“There you are,” I said.
This was a feeling like love, if love pinned you from behind in the dark. If it was a chase, a kill in sight. A pull. Then, this was a feeling like love.
“Here I am,” he said. I would hear his voice in my head, after. It would change with time. It would become a voice in a letter sent from a prison cell, screaming at nineteen-year-old me about white power and about prison gang violence. About what’s required of a person serving life in prison and how survival sacrifices humanity and reason. I’d keep his voice in a folder, shamefully, not knowing how to respond.
“Hey!” My brother appeared in front of us and we stepped away from each other, caught. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Game on.” I lurched toward him, hoping he’d run off.
Corey flicked his light back on and tagged him. “You’re out, little bro. It’s home base for you. That’s what you get for spying.”
The most mundane of all that happened that week stuck with me—the sting of the corn leaf fibers that stippled my forearms the morning after they arrested him, right after I’d said, “He’d never do this. Not possible.” Not someone I’d kissed with my own mouth. I remember the itch, how it hung around for days.
I don’t remember the two heads, wedded with a kiss forty years prior, nearly severed from their necks and hanging by a fraction of their normal viscous tissues. I didn’t see the blood that pooled on their linoleum floor, where I’d stood on a dozen Halloween nights and held out my pail in hopes of full-size candy bars. I saw, instead, only two purple lines that had been fashioned by a mortician in an attempt to blur the evidence of their deaths.
But they had always given out such good candy, I thought. And he had always been so gentle. I couldn’t recreate the violence in my mind or reconcile the facts.
Sixteen-year-old me looked upon the lifeless faces of our neighbors at the funeral even as I mourned the loss of their murderer, who had been a central component to what I’d known of life at the time. I tried to feel something pure, find something in my bones that I could trust. But instead, there was only the sense that everyone still living knew I had loved him, and loved him still even though he had done what he’d done. Had he known it? I’d never said so. Maybe not even to myself. But there it was—the feeling that had been like love. Or what I thought love might feel like.
Something whispered, “Think straight, girl. He killed these people.” Corn rash prickled on my arms, still fresh from the game we’d played just weeks earlier.
I had no legs, no heart, no eyes. The horizon tore, something cerebral pulsed, directing me. When I stopped running, I was in the field. No flashlights, dark covering me. No one would look for me and no one would find me, I thought. I’d stay there until he was home, cleared of all accusations.
But Corey was in another cornfield, four towns away, throwing gasoline on the sedan owned by the couple he’d murdered. People discussed motives and the possibility of drugs playing a role in his actions. I had no answers. Only the internalization of a new reality culminating in a new label for myself: girl who had kissed a murderer. Or, girl who had possibly loved a murderer.
When I smelled smoke, still sitting in the field, I knew they’d found him. They’d sent dogs after him. The dogs were better runners.
Generally, the town newspaper was a thing you decidedly want your name in or out of, depending on your status. For example, if you were Bridget Trotsma with the brownest eyes and leanest thighs and most eager stage mother, you wanted to be in. You said, “Look at that. I can’t believe I made front page. Again.” You smiled to yourself knowing full well you’d be on the front page but not knowing that your life would never be better than in it was in that moment. If you were Corey, on the other hand, and you had killed two elderly, innocent persons and torched their car in a cornfield, you wanted to be out. You said nothing, if you were smart. But Corey wasn’t that smart. He talked to someone who talked to someone else who talked to the police.
He was smart once, but only had constellated remarks to guide him:
- Get out
- Shut up
- Go away
- Your sister is dead
- You father is a lie
- You aren’t sick, you’re crazy
- When murder happens, sometimes people forget to blame themselves even if they didn’t wield the knife.
I walked the aisles of the grocery story—a mistake in retrospect. In the bread aisle at the IGA, I heard a man say, “I hope he fries.”
“Firin’ squad’s what he deserves,” another said.
In the frozen section: “Those people living in the old riverbed oughta be self-incorporated, if you ask me. Those people ain’t never been fit for this town. Draw a line between the southern farms and the river and be done with ’em.”
And then, “Some folks are just born evil. Ain’t nothin’ you can do ’bout it.”
I held out hope in Corey’s civility, his soft lips, his previously benign presence in my own bedroom on so many occasions, until the verdict hit headlines. The newspaper showed the judge, a middle-aged man, grimly doling out his sentence. I smeared the parts of the newsprint where my tears had landed with my thumb, then with two fingers, then my whole palm until I’d botched up every adjective they had. Misguided, horrific, merciless, senseless. There were too many.
Still, there was a feeling like love. And how could I reconcile that?
He was sentenced in winter, at the end of February. A leap year. I drove to the field, four towns away, where he’d spent the last free moments of his life. The soil in the field was frozen, charred. A crime scene. I wondered if corn would ever grow there again and yearned for a plow to turn the black soil brown.
Angela Palm Angela Palm earned a BA in English Literature at Saint Joseph’s College. Angela has worked as a freelance editor, writer, and ghostwriter. She co-founded the Renegade Writers’ Collective, a writing center based in Burlington, Vermont, in 2013. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Midwestern Gothic, ARDOR Literary Magazine, Little Fiction, Sundog Lit’s Photogene, Prick of the Spindle, and elsewhere. She is an associate nonfiction editor at The Fiddleback, a literary journal. Palm is currently working on her first novel as well as a book project featuring work by Vermont writers, called Please Do Not Remove. She attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2013.