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Meet Me Under the Apple Tree
Tater Tot was dead meat. Or, if you want to be exact, he was dead potato, fried and coated with bread crumbs. But all metaphors aside, Tater Tot was in trouble, and he knew it. It was when he arrived in Mrs. Shirley's third grade homeroom class and plopped down in his seat that he became aware of the ill-fated future of his posterior region; a note scrawled in a lousy hand that read "meet me under the apple tree" had been left on Tater Tot's desk. In the third grade, that apple tree was synonymous with Hell. It sat in solitude on the very extremities of the playground, far from the protection of the teachers' watchful eyes. Some said it was so secluded that not even God himself could see it. Maybe there was some truth to that rumor- that was the tree where punishments occurred for crimes never committed, where revenge was taken for pranks never pulled. In short, it was like the Tree of Knowledge- you were not to go near it.
Tater Tot fearfully recalled the last person who ventured towards that odious tree: Last week, little Calvin Kelly arrived to science class with a shiner the size of a hockey puck and a little present for the tooth fairy. The memory of poor Calvin's battered face sent a shiver up Tater Tot's spine.
"What's wrong with you?" His best friend Bennie asked as he swung his backpack over his chair. Bennie smirked as he said it; he figured Tater Tot was only bummed out because they had run out of his favorite cereal at home or some trivial thing like that. But Bennie found his hypothesis incorrect when Tater Tot handed Bennie the note with a trembling hand.
His eyes grew wide with terror as the sentence on the paper registered in his brain. He sat there for a while, mouth agate, and just when Tater Tot began to wonder if Bennie had gone into shock, Bennie finally murmured, "Wormy's gonna kill you."
Perhaps truer word had never been spoken. Wormy could nearly kill someone just by looking at him. He was a chubby creature whose real name was unknown, for he had achieved the venerable title of Wormy from his peers at a young age. He was an eccentricity, but not in a good way: While most kids dream of becoming some reverent lawyer or doctor, Wormy seemed perfectly content with the occupation of Third Grade Bully, a position he had held down for a good three years. The dark shade of the apple tree was Wormy’s preferred spot for meeting his victims; Tater Tot, all three feet and four inches of him, wouldn't stand a chance.
Presently, Paisley Pinstripe ambled into the room and took her seat beside Tater Tot. She was nearly a foot taller than he, but then again, so was everyone else. Her nose was dotted with a constellation of orange freckles, and her brown hair was always tied up in pig tails. For an eight year old, she had a profound maternal sense; she knew something was wrong with Tater Tot no sooner than she had walked in the door.
"Well gosh, what's the matter with you Tater Tot? You look 'bout as pale as a ghost!" She said, her wide blue eyes sparkling with concern. Tater Tot's ashen cheeks suddenly flashed crimson.
"Well, you see-"
But the bell cut him short.
"Good morning, class," Mrs. Shirley said as her high heels clicked to the front of the classroom. A collective "good morning, Mrs. Shirley" greeted her in return. She adjusted her glasses and smiled at her students. "Well, don't you all look lovely this morning? It's so nice to see all your bright and smiling faces!"
Tater Tot slumped in his seat. Obviously Mrs. Shirley needed to update her glasses prescription.
It was a prime example that gossip spreads just as fast in elementary school as it does in high school: by math class, the whole third grade was aware of Tater Tot's impending doom. He looked for recourse in his peers, helplessly asking them all the same question: "What the devil should I do?" The answers were myriad and inevitably disappointing.
"Why, you oughta punch him back, son. Right in the kisser."
"My uncle Joey has a sailboat. He's leaving for Argentina this afternoon. You should probably look into that."
"As Jenny might say, 'run, Forest! Run!'"
"See how Haley is asleep over there? Tape her to the desk so you'll get detention and miss recess. Oh, what? You don't wanna? Well heck, don't mind if I do..."
But amidst all the Oscar-winning film quotes and Argentina-bound sailors, Tater Tot managed to discover a diamond in the rough.
"Two words, my short friend- fifth graders."
Tater Tot's only hope of survival was finding a fifth grader that was willing to be his bodyguard for the day. But this would be no easy task- Tater Tot would have to cross the lunchroom in order to reach the fifth graders. Though such a task sounds simple, it was a nearly impossible feat. Let's put it this way- if George Washington were asked to choose between crossing the Delaware or crossing the lunchroom, he would gladly choose the former. That lunchroom was redolent of a zoo, and by zoo, I mean a zoo housing a rabies epidemic: Wormy was always stationed beside the milk cooler, furtively awaiting the chance to steal lunch money from some unsuspecting kindergartener. A sad child of seven years named Rodney Riddle occupied the corner next to the boy's bathroom, where he rolled up his math worksheets into makeshift cigarettes. Half-Pint Panini, a fifth-grader with a pugnacious personality that outsized her tiny body, paraded around the cafeteria each afternoon, spitting in the soup of the students she passed. Though the rest of the students weren't nearly as atrocious as Wormy, Rodney, and Panini, their usage of slang words picked up from the high school crowd across the street was just as vile.
"If I don't come back," Tater Tot told Bennie, tears welling up in his eyes, "tell my mother that, that-"
Tater Tot heaved a large sigh. "Tell her that Jimmy still isn't allowed to play my video games." Bennie gave his friend a consoling pat on the shoulder.
"You have my word," he said solemnly. "Now you go get 'em, champ. If you don't come back, I'm gonna kill you."
And with Bennie's violent farewell ringing in his ears, Tater Tot set off on his journey. You won't need to kill me, Tater Tot thought bitterly. Not if Wormy gets to me first. What had Tater Tot done to deserve such a threatening note on his desk, anyways? He hadn’t ever talked to Wormy, let alone wronged him- had he? If he had, his misdemeanor had slipped from his memory. Maybe Wormy was angered when Tater Tot bumped into him in the hallway two years ago. Or maybe Wormy couldn’t stand the fact that Tater Tot was line leader that one day in pre-k. Or maybe…maybe it was because Tater Tot struck Wormy out at baseball practice last week. Hadn’t he struck Wormy out? Wormy was on the team this year, wasn't he? Tater Tot’s memory was a bit obscure, but he thought that was it.
"Yes, that has to be it!" Tater Tot suddenly thought aloud. A pair of perplexed first graders gazed at him and giggled. "Umm, sorry," he muttered, his cheeks growing pink with chagrin. It then dawned on Tater Tot that he had been standing in front of the milk cooler for quite some time, mumbling to himself about baseball practice. Before he could steal a glance at Wormy's formidable, sneering visage (why provoke the beast further?), Tater Tot snatched up a milk carton and flew past the still giggling first graders.
After wheezing his way past Rodney Riddle and his nasty habit, narrowly avoiding Half-Pint Panini's "special ingredient" being added to his tomato soup, and escaping a hoard of whiny kindergarteners, Tater Tot realized with a gush of pride that he had done the unthinkable- he had made it across the lunchroom alive. He made no haste in confronting the first fifth grader he laid eyes on- Walter Whitman was a towering boy who had a flair for football and a mother with an obvious love for poetry.
"Okay, okay, lemme get this straight. You want me to be your bodyguard?" Walter asked incredulously in response to Tater Tot's request. Tater Tot nodded fervently. "Well buddy, I'll tell you what." He slung his arm around Tater Tot's shoulder. "I can't be your bodyguard. I don't bodyguard for nobody, that's for sure." Tater Tot's shoulders drooped morosely.
"Okay," he said in a tiny, melancholy voice. "I understand. I do." He started to get up. "You'll be receiving an invitation to my memorial service in a few days. Now, if you're bringing flowers, my mother prefers-"
"Wait a minute! Sit down kid. You're really scared, aren't you?" Tater Tot didn’t need to answer that question- his pallid visage was answer enough. "Listen, who are we dealing with anyways, huh? What, is somebody gonna beat you up, a little guy like you, or what?"
Tater Tot squeaked out a one-word response: "Wormy!"
Walter laughed at this. "Wormy? Here- I'll tell you how to take care of him. Just give him the old one-two. Like this, see?" Walter swung vehemently at an invisible punching bag. "Just like that. The old one-two. You know."
Tater Tot was unsure. "Yeah, I guess so."
"Yeah, you don't worry kid. You just remember what your pal Walter taught you. The old one-two. Say it with me now. Ready?"
Tater Tot nodded slowly. "One, two," they said in unison.
"Now eat your lunch, pal," Walter advised. "Gotta get that potassium, you know. K on the period table and everything." And then the bell chimed the end of lunch. Tater Tot didn't mind though; he was too nervous to eat. "Good luck," Walter said as he rose from the table. Now, what did I tell you?"
"The old," Tater Tot faltered, "one-two."
"You better believe it! See ya 'round," Walter called as he left. Tater Tot was sure he heard Walter muttering "one-two" under his breath as he walked out the door...
Every swing was occupied that afternoon; children sailed through the crisp air, kicking their legs as high as they would go. Kindergarteners flew down the spiral slide one after the other while the more ambitious first graders attempted to cross the monkey bars. The weather was impeccable; laughter floated insouciantly towards the bright May sky.
It was the unlikely scene of a murder.
Well, at least to the third grade, which was gathered behind a quivering Tater Tot.
“You can do it, Tater! Show Wormy who’s boss!” A boy named Tyson cried; a hearty cheer rose up from the third grade in agreement.
“Yeah, that’ll work,” Tater Tot said dryly. “I’ll just hand him a picture of Bruce Springsteen.” Nobody seemed to understand his feeble attempt at humor; Tater Tot laughed uneasily.
“Aww, just look at him, talking nonsense,” Tyson said. “He’s so scared he don’t even know what he’s saying.” He gave Tater Tot an assuaging pat on the back. “Now get outta here, you overpriced fast food item. You show ‘em who’s boss!” And suddenly Tater Tot was shoved forward as cries erupted from the crowd behind him. Slowly, carefully he inched forward, an unconvincing mask of aplomb on his face. He could see a figure lurking under the apple tree in the distance. Only thirty more steps and that figure would pound Tater Tot into oblivion. He counted his life’s last steps in a whisper.
Thirty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight, twenty-seven, twenty-six, twenty-five…
“Please don’t go!” Something grabbed at Tater Tot’s ankle and yanked him to the ground. It was Bennie.
“Listen, you can’t die! Who am I gonna practice batting with, huh? I mean, who’s math homework am I gonna cheat off of? You just can’t go, okay?”
“Bennie, I’m not gonna die,” Tater Tot said. He shook his ankle loose from Bennie’s grip. Bennie stood up and dusted off his jeans.
Tater Tot had to think about that for a moment. “No.” And then he was off.
Twenty-four, twenty-three, twenty-two, twenty-one, twenty…
Just remember the old one-two, Tater Tot thought. But what exactly was the “old one-two” anyways? Unfortunately, Walter had been somewhat vague.
Nineteen, eighteen, seventeen, sixteen, fifteen…
Tater Tot recalled receiving his first baseball bat for his third birthday. It was bright yellow and made of plastic. That sure was a beautiful baseball bat, Tater Tot reflected with a sad smile. What else had he gotten that year? His first video game- how could he forget? And that video game would belong to his little brother Jimmy if he didn’t come back alive; Tater Tot cringed at the mere thought.
Fourteen, thirteen, twelve, eleven, ten…
Tater Tot didn’t stop to think about anything else. He had just miscalculated his steps.
“Have you ever,” he started, more towards the ground than to the figure under the tree, “heard of Bruce Springsteen?”
“Umm, excuse me?” Tater Tot’s steps weren’t the only thing he had miscalculated- Paisley Pinstripe was standing under the apple tree, a perplexed look on her face.
“Oh no,” Tater Tot groaned, bringing a hand to his weary face. “He’s holding you captive, isn’t he, isn’t he? And if I die God knows what-“
“Tater Tot, what are you talking about?”
“Wormy’s scheme! He’s going to kill me! And he’s holding you hostage!”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Quit flailing your arms around like that and listen to me.” Tater Tot had been flailing his arms around. He stopped. “Now, what makes you think that Wormy is going to beat you up?”
“It said, the note said.”
“The note said what?”
“It said, ‘meet me under the apple tree.’”
Paisley smacked her forehead in exasperation. “I don’t know why I even…Tater Tot, you wanna know something funny? I wrote that note. Me. Paisley Pinstripe.” Tater Tot looked at her warily.
“You’re going to beat me up?”
“Gosh no! I wanted to tell you that I, well,” she stammered, rubbing her pink tennis shoes into the grass, “kind of maybe like you, or something. You know.”
Paisley then leaned down to award a blushing Tater Tot a peck on the forehead; however, her aim was unsteady and she missed.
It was no wonder she missed- Paisley was nearly a foot taller than Tater Tot, but then again, so was everyone else.