1986, 185 pages
Threats are scary. So are ellipses. Exhibit A:
"Do not ignore this letter... or you will suffer..."
They all shared the same secret... now they would share the same terror.
Book Description (Exhibit 3):
When Alison first read the letter signed "Your Caretaker", she thought it was some terrible sick joke. Someone, somewhere knew about that awful night when she and six other friends committed an unthinkable crime in the desolate California desert. And now that person was determined to make them pay for it.
One by one, the chain letter was coming to each of them... demanding dangerous, impossible deeds... threatening violence if the demands were not met. No one out of the seven wanted to believe that this nightmare was really happening to them. Until the accidents started happening - and the dying...
Alison Parker - aspiring actress, has a crush on Tony
Fran Darey - kinda high strung, shy, has a crush on Neil
Brenda Paxon - Kipp's girlfriend
Kipp Coughlan - the brain
Tony Hunt - a total fox, and a football star, sort of dating Joan
Joan Zuchlensky - they call her The Jerk
Neil Hurly - quiet, gimpy, from Arkansas, has a crush on Alison
The seven are returning from a Beach Boys concert at the Swing Auditorium in the Valley. Apparently there was no shortage of dope smoke and there are still unopened six-packs in the backseat. Tony, although driving, is feeling an awesome buzz, with 40+ ounces of booze clogging his brain. Sorry, stupid Canadian question: What’s that in millilitres? Oh, like 3 ½ cans. Remember, everyone, don’t drink and do this on your local dark, desolate stretch of desert highway.
It gets a little rowdy in the car when Kipp pulls out an audiocassette allegedly obtained from Coach Sager’s house after breaking in to play a prank, then being trapped hiding under the bed when Coach brings home some jailbait. Conveniently, there’s a tape recorder beside the bed, which Kipp switches on to record the moment for posterity. The tape isn’t controversial until, after the requisite rustling clothes; bedsprings; moans and sighs, Coach says, “I love you, Joan”. Wait a tick – there’s a Joan in the car! Everyone's cracking up, but Joan wants that tape out of the player NOW. She makes a grab for it from the backseat, but can't get it. Fran suggests that Joan turn off the lights. So, instead of removing the audiocassette, she removes Tony's visibility.
Of course they’re gonna hit something. Eh, it’s probably a cactus. I recommend getting the hell out of here. Tony’s an athlete, Tony’s got a scholarship, Tony don’t wanna blow his ride. Everyone’s cool with my plan, then Neil is like: “Tony…” and Tony has no choice but to go back and check.
Neil wields some kind of weird power over Tony that I'm not sure I understand. It manifests itself at strange times that are not to Tony's advantage. I.e.: right now. They walk back to where the car went off the road and there's a man on the ground.
The guy’s clearly a lowlife: no wallet, and laying in the middle of the road in the desert at 3 o’clock in the morning. He’s probably dead, or else just unconscious from having a ’77 Maverick run over his head. Either way, they decide the best thing to do it bury him and never speak of it again.
A hole is dug and the guy is – I’m gonna guess – carefully placed in it. Neil is a sensitive individual; he drops his personal crucifix into the grave as Kipp prays.
One year later, Fran gets a mysterious letter. It says that she has been watched since she breathed in this world and that “The Caretaker” has observed and recorded all her sins. And now intends to punish her... unless she completes the task that will follow in the newspaper classifieds and then passes the letter on to the next person on the list. Sounds like this Caretaker has appointed him/herself judge, jury, and executioner. But s/he's not Judge Judy and executioner!
Fran’s task seems easy enough and suits her skills and attributes. She’s been assigned to repaint the school mascot on the gym wall with a goat head. Fran is very artistic, and, in addition to painting a nude David Bowie, painted the original Grant High Koala. She completes the task within the prescribed five days. This is kind of a goofy punishment because the principal is all saying how bad it is that her work was destroyed and would she like $200 to fix it? How do you like that, The Caretaker? Fran escapes trouble AND makes two bills in the process. Boo, you fail.
In the meantime, Alison contacted Tony, Kipp, and Neil about the letter. Kipp isn’t concerned and thinks it’s a joke, probably perpetrated by one of the girls. Cuz girls are all blabby and couldn’t keep a secret, or be trusted. Neil is sure that the letter and the threats therein are serious.
Other than mascots and Bowie nudes, Fran also puts her talents to use designing the sets for the school production of You Can’t Take it With You. Alison is starring as Alice, and Brenda has a smaller role as her sister, Essie. Sandra Thompson, who is fat and looks like a mother, plays the mother. To be fair, even though she's a lard ass, she does have some talent. I love the “looks like a mother” thing. Like one of those girls who are round, with short hair, and maybe glasses, who look more like middle-aged bank tellers than high school students. Maybe you’re familiar with Nancy Kramer from Degrassi Junior High? That’s kinda what I’m picturing.
This isn’t really plot-wise, and I apologize for that. Let’s move on.
The Caretaker wants Kipp to fail his next Calculus exam. Kipp always gets A’s on his tests. He’s already been accepted to MIT to take aeronautical engineering or some shiz. He defies The Caretaker and gets an A. Nothing happens immediately.
Tony and Alison have been getting closer. Tony feels guilty about it because his buddy Neil really likes Alison. Alison has a huge crush on Tony. Her self-worth only exists when Tony talks to her. She seriously, like, worships him. Like reciting play by play of his football heroics… to him! She’s coming off as kind of a tool, but once she realizes Tony’s not an actual celebrity, she learns how to behave. Joan and Tony have been furthering each other’s sexual education for a while now, but nothing exclusive. Joan warns Alison to step offa her man, which our Ali has no intention of doing. I would probably listen to Joan. She’s the only girl in school who takes Metal Shop. She makes chains and armbands, and for all we know, brass knuckles.
One day after school, Tony is heading to track practice, and Kipp is taking off in his car. Tony teases Kipp for actually wearing his seatbelt for a change. Neil usually walks home, but his limp has been getting worse, so he gets a lift with Kipp. An unfortunate P.E. accident injured Neil’s knee. He’s been saving up for surgery, but so far, no dice. He was also recently diagnosed with Type I Diabetes. Or, as his mom says: “The sugar! My baby’s got the sugar!” Shit doesn’t get much worse for a guy. Kipp and Neil drive off. A moment later, from the practice field, Tony hears a CRASH! He runs to the school driveway and sees that Kipp’s Maverick is accordioned against a wall. He had no brakes – someone had punctured the fluid lines!! Tony runs to the scene, where Neil tells him that he’s not hurt, but he did pee in his pants. Tony helps him to leave the scene without embarrassment.
Brenda gets her task from The Caretaker. She is to tell the director of the school play, Mr. Hoglan, that he is the worst director in the world in front of every. She does so, and actually takes it way further than was necessary, dissing his casting and calling him pompous and burned out, among other insults. He responds by dismissing her from the play.
Later, Tony asks Alison out. They go to a restaurant and eat for free because Tony’s such a superstar. Then they fly a kite in the park, while Alison debates how valuable her virginity is. She doesn’t want to give it up on their first date, but she’s tired of being a good girl. She decides she’ll put up a “fair fight”. Tony drives her back to her place, which happens to be the sole inhabited home in a new housing tract outside of town. They stop the car and make out some, but Tony gets weird and Alison questions if he’s maybe a little queer. He says not.
The next day, Neil gets his task in the newspaper. He’s been instructed to get sick in class. He feigns a fainting spell in Algebra II with Coach Sager. His mom gets really upset about it, and it really tears Neil up to put her through the stress.
Joan’s task is to show up at school dressed as Bozo the Clown. She contacts the group to arrange a meeting before her deadline. The gang meets at Fran’s place, where Fran has prepared a batch of cookies. Neil moves to take one off the plate, when Tony admonishes him: “But all that sugar…” These guys have a weird relationship. Alison admires an emerald ring that Neil is wearing. It matches his eyes. He’s lost weight and it doesn’t fit him too well. Alison asks to try it on. Joan’s got no time for the jibber-jabber. She tells everyone that last night her bedroom window was broken. She got up to turn the light on and found her room full of cockroaches. Joan hates bugs. She’s super scared of them and she totally freaked out. Which is funny; because she’s such a badass that she’s currently having BEER with her homemade cookies, not milk like the rest of the pansies. They try to think of suspects, but have no luck. Kipp wants to find The Caretaker. Neil just wants to make sure he’s not going to get killed or anything.
The next challenge from The Caretaker is for Tony to come in last at the track meet. He runs the ¼ mile and ½ mile races. Neil helps out with the coolers, and water, and whatnot. Tony’s a superstar, so he gets special lemonade from the local drive-thru dairy. Neil gets a bottle for Tony. Tony feels so guilty that he’s starting to have feelings for Alison, even though Neil digs her. He says he should have SOB tattooed on his forehead. Heehee, you got that right, Tone.
Tony runs that ¼ mile race, and wins, but not easily. He feels ill. The ½ mile race starts and he feels really sick. He can’t keep his speed up and notices that some of his teammates who he usually flies past are passing him (!). A snail with AIDS moving in slow motion could beat Tony at this point. He’s way in last place, and then he collapses 100 yards from the finish line.
Alison’s task is to flub her lines on opening night. She has no intention of doing that. Backstage, waiting for her cue, she thinks about Tony being taken off the racetrack. His juice had been spiked with codeine and he needed his stomach pumped at the hospital. Alison takes the stage and gets in the acting zone. This is her dream and nothing will ruin it. She leans on part of Fran’s living room wall set… and collapses straight through! She crashes to the floor and sees that the chain isn’t attached from the set to the ceiling rigging. Part of the light fixture and glass come crashing down on her, giving her an electric shock!
Alison is ok. Now all seven have done tasks for The Caretaker and Alison destroys the letter. A new letter arrives telling them it’s not over. Tasks will continue to appear in the classifieds, but will be in code. The key is included with the letter. Fran’s first mission is to streak naked during school lunch. Fran bursts out crying. I guess she doesn’t see that this too is a moneymaking opportunity. Remember on Degrassi when all the broomheads bet Joey Jeremiah that he wouldn’t streak in the caf at lunch, then he did, and he made enough cash to buy a used Firebird? God, the girls were pervy in that episode.
Anyways, Fran’s not doing it and decides to escape in secret to hide at her grandparent’s place in Bakersfield.
The situation is getting so bad that Alison has switched back to regular Pepsi from Diet. She doesn’t care about sugar intake, weight gain, or tooth decay anymore because The Caretaker is gonna kill her anyway.
Tony and Alison have a hot make out date after school in Tony’s car in the City Park parking lot. A guy approaches the vehicle and asks the time. His “middle-aged beer gut” is hanging all over the place. The guy recognizes Tony and wants an autograph. Um, inappropriate much? Tony’s an automatic bastard and yells at the guy to get the hell away. Tony and Alison are supposed to meet the rest of the gang at the rocket ship in the playground. On the way there, they talk privately. The Caretaker’s most recent letter says he/she/it isn’t one of them. But could it be TWO of them?? It needs to be someone who knows when someone isn’t going to do their task, because those people have been punished in advance. Joan and the bugs, Tony being drugged at the races, and Alison’s set being rigged to fail. Tony checked with the newspaper to see who placed the class ads, but hit a wall. He couldn’t press it without becoming suspicious. Tony takes this opportunity to ask Neil how the protein powder that he left with Neil’s mom is working, because he seems thinner than ever. What did I tell you about weird relationship? Alison uses a payphone in the park to try to call Fran at her grandparent’s. She’s not there! Grammy woke up and Fran was gone and hasn’t been seen since!
Kipp’s newest task has been decoded. He has to tell MIT that he cheated on his SAT. He decides there’s no way he can complete the task, and goes on with life.
Alison’s phone rings at 3 AM. Tony tells her that Kipp has gone missing and his room is full of blood. Alison goes straight to Kipp’s house to find Tony and Neil already there. Alison and Neil have a sweet moment talking about their dreams. Tony finds a letter from The Caretaker in his car. It says:
If you are not certain they are dead, do what you know you shouldn’t, and be certain.
Brenda gets her task from the paper. She is to tell every teacher in school to go to hell. You know Brenda. She’s going to do it… and she’s going to LIKE it. The first teacher victim isn’t havin’ no disrespect in his classroom and he pretty much tells her to go to hell herself and get the hell outta his classroom. The students loved it. The next teacher victim is Miss Fogleson. She’s another lardass to add to the Chain Letter tally. We’re talking crass voice, elephant legs, “gyrating like a rippling bowl of Jell-o” fat. Brenda goes right to town on her. There was no stopping after a polite “Go to hell”. Fogleson asks a student to get security, and the student says something like maybe the class should listen to Brenda’s opinion and accept it without getting upset. The class goes fuckin’ nuts. Brenda slips away, and I’m starting to worry about the toll this is taking on her. She wants to make the teachers pay for what happened to Kipp. You can’t get much more psychologically shit than that, but Brenda doesn’t care. All is well until she gets to Coach Sager’s math class. He’s not one to put up with any shit offa the little bastards and pins her arms behind her back to walk her to the office. Necessary??
Neil is told to burn down the school. He’s totes looking like a manorexic skeleton these days. He gets Tony to hork a gun from his dad’s cabinet so he can protect himself. Tony tells Neil that he will burn down Grant High for Neil. Tony’s kind of a bastard here again. He tells Neil that if he had said one word the night of the accident, Tony would have turned himself in. I dunno about these guys…
The next chapter is… Neil’s funeral. Tony is a robot. He has no spark left. Neil's house burnt to the ground while he was sleeping. His remains were found in his bed. His mother was out of town at the time. Fran and Kipp are still missing, and it’s not looking good for them. Neil’s mom and Tony have a conversation and we are in for a shock! Neil didn’t have the sugar and cartilage damage! He had cancer of the leg that had spread to his brain and he had very little time left. Tony shouts out: “Neil!” in the cemetery. His grief and frustration are beyond belief right now. Tony gives Alison Neil’s emerald ring that she had admired. Neil had asked Tony to do two things for him if anything happened to him; that was one. The other will remain Tony’s secret.
Joan’s next task to carry out is to spread a rumour that she’s gay. No way, nuh uh! And Joan would do anything for The Caretaker, she’d run right into the mall naked. She would do anything for The Caretaker; slap Principal Hall in the face right now. She would do anything for The Caretaker, but she won’t do that. Oh, no, no, she won’t do that.
Alison’s ’rents are going on a special 20th anniversary trip, leaving our Alison alone for the weekend. She invites Joan and Brenda over for the night, and in preparation she rents two tapes: The Wizard of Oz, and Emmanuelle. It’s a rainy night and the power keeps going on and off. That’s a pain in the ass. Man, I hate that. You gotta reset all your clocks. The lights stay on for a while, and Alison tries calling Tony and then Brenda. There’s no answer anywhere. She gets the rainy night creeps and goes to the garage to get her pa’s gun. While she’s out there, she hears a knocking at the back door. Only creeps and hobgoblins use the back door after dark. The phone rings. It’s a hang up. Alison tries to call the police, but the phone dies as soon as she gives her name and addy. She thinks The Caretaker is in the housing tract busting up the phone box. She hears a guy axing the door and loads her gun. Some crazy shit ensues and Alison fails to pump his guts full of lead. She ends up bloody and smashed up. She runs to her room, suddenly sure it’s Joan in the house trying to kill her. The guy/person follows her and stays in the hall quietly. She shoots buckshot through the door to the hallway. She opens to find the hallway empty, no blood, and no sign of The CT.
The phone rings and Ali hears a faint voice. It’s it! The Caretaker! She begs for her life and CT tells her “You are dead”. She tries to escape in her car, but it won’t start. She notices a house lit up down the street and runs there. She throws open the door and finds an empty room. She is grabbed from behind in a headlock and tossed down a flight of stairs. She hits her head and goes unconscious.
Meanwhile, Tony has driven back to the desert grave of the unknown man they buried one year ago. The grave is empty – only Neil’s crucifix remains! We are told that this body now lies in Rose Memorial Lawn. OMG – that’s where they just had Neil’s funeral! What?!?
Tony’s all smart and stuff, so he’d noticed that by reversing the key to decode the newspaper ads, there’s a message saying “Go to police please tony or I will die yours neil hurly”.
Alison awoke to find herself trapped in the basement, bound and in pain, and facing her friends, Joan, Kipp, Brenda, and Fran. They’re all alive, btw. Neil is The Caretaker! The Caretaker is Neil! Einhorn is Finkle! Finkle is Einhorn! Einhorn is a man!
The lot trapped in the basement share how they ended up there. Neil comes down, looking like shit. Fran thinks he’s gonna die real soon. Neil says Tony’s dead, and then starts calmly cleaning syringes or something equally psychotic. Neil’s gone nutty to avenge the man. The man would have been his friend. He doesn’t want to bring back the man. He wants all of them to join the man. He stabs Alison with a needle of something.
Undead (like, undead-never-was-dead, not zombie, even though that would be funny) Tony is driving to Alison’s place. He gets there, finds the house empty, sees the buckshot holes in the wall, realizes the phone is Out Of Order, and then runs to the house down the street with the lights on. Neil has a bed made up in the living room and his meds all laid out. Tony takes a minute to reflect on the fact that of all the people he’s ever known, Neil is the one he loved the most. He hears voices coming from behind another door, and stands there quietly, watching and listening. Neil is kindly administering painkillers to Alison. Well, not really. But he is drugging her. His pain and illness, his own impending death causing him to relate to the dead man, Tony's betrayal, Alison not caring about him, other stuff, lead him to do this. Neil, somewhere in his mind, saw his cancer as a punishment for a sin. He needed them all, especially Tony, to confess to the police what they had done in order to save him. Tony thinks, but doesn't say, that maybe the accident DID cause Neil's disease. "Who knew how much deep guilt could contribute to an illness?" That's deep. Tony busts into the room and has a throwdown with Neil. Neil slams them all for their selfishness, saying that their plays, races, MIT acceptances, etc. were more important to them than he was. Alison shows Neil a bit of kindness, asking him to live a little longer for her and he collapses into Tony’s arms.
We fast forward a bit to the ending. Tony and Alison are helping a new neighbour move in next to Alison and getting caught up. Kipp was named valedictorian and made Neil the topic of his speech. Tony had taken Neil to a cabin he rented in the woods, where Neil lived out his last days in peace with his best, most beloved friend. Then Tony fulfilled Neil’s other request: bury him in the desert next to the man’s original grave.