At 3:10 p.m. I met up with Leah and Bobby at the western edge of the school grounds, where Shayton Road bisected Ohio Pike. The latter road would, if followed west, take the traveler into the posh old-money eastern suburbs of Cincinnati, and after that, into the city itself.
Shayton Road was a two-lane highway that cut through farmland, pockets of residential housing, and endless acres of woods. This was the route that the three of us followed home everyday.
And more recently, Shayton Road had become the road of the ghost boy, if that was indeed what he was.
On the way to our rendezvous point, I spied Matt Stefano smoking cigarettes in a distant copse of trees past St. Patrick’s all-purpose athletic field and baseball diamond. I didn’t believe that he had seen me. At any rate, he was otherwise occupied and I seemed to be off the hook for now.
When I arrived at the edge of Shayton Road, Bobby and Leah were already waiting for me. Before they saw me, I watched them interact: Bobby said something funny or sarcastic (which I could not hear), and Leah playfully punched him on the shoulder.
This sort of interaction between them would have passed unnoticed by me two years earlier. But things were different now, and I felt a little pang of jealousy, followed by stabbing feelings of guilt. Bobby was my friend, right? Right—of course he was. But I nevertheless wished that he had gone on by himself, and left me alone with Leah.
“Hey, Schaeffer!” Bobby called out, having seen me. I hoped that he wouldn’t mention my earlier humiliation at the hands of Matt Stefano. Not with Leah around.
“Yo,” I said perfunctorily.
“You look kind of down in the dumps,” Leah said, beaming. How had it gone unnoticed by me all those years when we were just kids, playing kickball and riding bikes around our neighborhood—how vivacious and lovely Leah would become?
“I’m okay,” I said.
“Jeff had a rough day,” Bobby began, until I cut him off with a sharp glance.
“What?” Leah inquired.
“Nothing,” Bobby said quickly, understanding dawning on his face.
“That’s right,” I said. “Nothing.”
“Hey,” Bobby added. “Every day at school is a rough day for Schaeffer here because he’s not exactly the smartest kid in the school, you know?”
Leah made a face at him. “Look who’s talking. Okay. Fine—whatever. I have the feeling that there’s something the two of you aren’t telling me; but if you want to have boy secrets, be my guest. Come on, let’s get going. I’ve got a lot of homework to do.”
“Only you, Leah Carter, would rush home to do your homework,” Bobby teased.
We walked for a while, leaving the school behind us and passing through a section of Shayton Road that was mostly wooded lots, and the occasional farmhouse. The subdivision where Leah and I lived was maybe a mile up ahead.
Yes—there was a school bus at our disposal, and we could have ridden home. This was 1980—not 1930 or 1950. But riding the school bus meant an extra hour of travel time, due to the way the route was configured. We therefore walked home whenever weather permitted.
We had walked not far at all when Leah broached the subject of trick-or-treat. The idea of going out for “one last Halloween” had arisen spontaneously among the three of us several weeks ago, and Leah had seemed enthusiastic about the prospect at the time. Her next words led me to wonder if she might not be on the verge of backing out.
“Are the other kids in our class going out trick-or-treating this year?” she asked.
“I’d say about half and half,” Bobby answered. Bobby’s assessment was probably accurate, more or less. “Why?”
Leah shrugged, hitching her backpack higher on her back. “No reason.”
Of course there had been a reason, though. And while I was willing to let the matter drop, Bobby wasn’t.
“Should we take a—what do they call it—a survey, Leah? Would you feel better about going out trick-or-treating if you found out that Brian Hailey and Sheila Hunt were going, too?”
This remark caused Leah’s face to turn red, ever so slightly. Brian Hailey was the likely captain of the basketball team, an all-around athlete since little league. Most of the girls in the seventh grade had a crush on him. Leah probably had a crush on him, too.
Sheila was his female double, more or less. Little Miss Popular. All the boys had noticed her, whispered shyly about her on the playground. The girls, meanwhile, were divided: between struggling to imitate her and hating her.
“Bobby, Bobby, Bobby,” Leah said, shaking her head. To my surprise, Leah was smiling. Bobby’s remark had sounded fairly nasty to me; but Leah had found it endearing, apparently. “Never mind: We’re going trick-or-treating. My mother has already made my costume. I’d never hear the end of it if I changed my mind now.”
“There he is,” I said. I was secretly glad to put an end to their all-too-cozy banter. But there was more to it than that: The ghost boy was here today—as he had been about two out of every three days over the past week or so. We were still a comfortable distance away from him. But we would have to pass by him in order to make it home.
He was sitting where he always sat: on a fallen log beside a stagnant pond that formed the pit of a little bowl of land alongside Shayton Road.
The pond was not a proper pond, really, but rather a low point where rainwater had collected. The depression in the land had been the site of an old industrial building, a structure that had once been a slaughterhouse (so the rumors went), or maybe just a warehouse. In any event, the building had been very old, and had been vacant for a long time when it was finally demolished two years earlier.
Now all that was left here was a barren crater filled with miscellaneous debris, and a shallow pool of water. The scene looked vaguely like something from a war zone. A bomb might have landed on the now nonexistent building, rather than a crew of demolition workers and a backhoe.
The crater was inaccessible for all practical purposes: It was hemmed in by two steep, slippery-looking hillsides behind it, and a sharp drop-off at the edge of Shayton Road on the near side. We had never played in the depression, never seriously thought about exploring the banks of the sludgy pond. This place was foul and muddy; and venturing down there would have meant a twisted ankle, if not a broken leg.
The crater had never attracted our notice much at all—until the ghost boy had begun appearing there.
He was wearing what he always wore: an old army fatigue jacket, jeans, and beat-up sneakers. The ghost boy might have been fourteen or fifteen years old—a few years older than us. He was smoking a cigarette and watching us approach. Doing, once again, what he always did.
I tried to look for his reflection in the pond and couldn’t see it, though a skeptic could have easily claimed this was a result of the position of the boy, the pond, and the angle at which we approached him.
What was more difficult to explain was the way the kid seemed to blend into the hillside behind him—a craggy, muddy incline of dirt boulders and scrub pines. We had all noticed this: it was as if he were alternately there and not there.
“Maybe we should just ignore him,” Leah said. We were drawing close now, though still just beyond earshot. “Maybe if we ignore him, then he’ll ignore us.”
Bobby snorted. “Fat chance. He doesn’t want to be ignored. We’ve tried ignoring him before, haven’t we? But he always calls out to us.”
Leah nodded. “That’s true. But you know—I was thinking: He could be a dropout from Youngman. Or—maybe he’s already graduated. We’ve been scaring ourselves—telling ourselves that he’s some kind of a vampire or a ghost or something. But maybe he’s nothing more than an ordinary smartass, and we’re psyching ourselves out.”
“No,” I said. “There’s something about him that—isn’t right. I don’t know exactly what it is; but there’s something strange.”
“Don’t look at me, Leah,” Bobby said. “I think I’m with Schaeffer on this one.”
There was something about this kid that wasn’t right. And it was more than his appearance. This kid knew things about each of us—knowledge that a stranger could not possibly possess in such an offhand manner. But the only secrets he mentioned were the ones that we were ashamed of.
One day the boy had asked Leah, “Hey, you—blondie! What happened to your sister’s favorite doll? Two summers ago. You know—that one she really liked.”
This had meant nothing to Bobby and me, of course. After we passed by the boy that day, though, we had noticed that Leah’s face had turned pale. “He knew,” she said. “I don’t know how; but he knew.”
When we asked her to elaborate, Leah recounted a quarrel with her sister, Katie, from two summers ago. Katie had an antique doll that she practically loved; it was not only rare and unique, it was also a family heirloom that had belonged to their grandmother.
“I was so mad at Katie that day,” Leah explained, “that I went into her room and stole the doll from her dresser drawer. I knew where she kept it. Then I threw the doll in the trashcan out by the curb. About an hour later I felt bad about what I’d done, and went to retrieve it. But by then the garbage truck had already collected the trash.” Leah hung her head. “Several days passed before Katie discovered that the doll was missing, and I played dumb. I’ve never told anyone about what I did. I still feel lousy about it.”
On another occasion, the ghost boy had asked Bobby, “Hey you, the tall one in the middle. Yeah, you: Why do you hate your dad so much?”
This had provoked an angry reaction in Bobby, and Leah and I had had to restrain him, to keep him from plunging down the dangerous embankment between the road and the pond.
“Don’t listen to that guy,” I’d said. “He’s just talking and making random guesses. He doesn’t know anything about us.”
But of course, the boy had known things about us—he’d known about Leah’s secret disposal of the heirloom doll, which would have been virtually impossible for a stranger to have conceived through random guesswork.
Today, I would discover, I was the ghost boy’s chosen target. We walked by the edge of the depression, trying our utmost to ignore him, and he said:
“One of you has a secret today!”
Bobby gave him the finger. “Shove off, dickhead. We’re not buying into your crap today.”
The ghost boy leaned back on his log and took a long, thoughtful drag on his cigarette. For a brief second, I could have sworn that I saw solid earth and trees through his body; and then that illusion was gone. He was all there again—unusually pale and odd in any number of ways, but there.
“Oh, a tough guy, huh?” the ghost boy challenged. “Well, I’ll let you go today. After all, you hate your father, even if you won’t admit it to yourself.”
“Don’t listen to him, Bobby,” I cautioned. “He’s only trying to get a rise out of you. Like before.”
“Oh, ho, ho. A peacemaker, are you?” he asked, addressing me. “Well, it just so happens that you’re the one who has a secret today. Imagine that.”
This made me immediately nervous, because I knew that I was harboring secrets. I was feeling differently about Leah than I ever had, and I didn’t yet know how to tell her so. Although Bobby was my friend, I was no longer content to have us hanging around as a threesome all the time. I wanted Leah to myself.
I didn’t know how the ghost boy could have known any of this, but I was almost certain that he grasped my innermost thoughts. He had done no less in the cases of Leah and Bobby, after all.
That wasn’t a conversation I was prepared to have. Almost without thinking, I knelt and picked up a rock. Then another.
The ghost boy smiled. In a voice that was a few octaves deeper than his normal adolescent boy’s voice, he said, “Go ahead, try it.”
So I threw both rocks. The results of that effort were almost as strange as the ghost boy’s impossible knowledge.
“Come on,” I said to Leah and Bobby. “Let’s get out of here.”
Simultaneously, we all resumed walking, quickening our pace to double time. Leah and Bobby had seen what I had seen, hadn’t they?
Our one lucky break was that there was a bend in the road directly beyond the pond. We didn’t stop our forward march until we were well on the other side of that bend, and beyond visual contact with the ghost boy.
Leah said, breathing heavily, “Tell me you guys didn’t see that, okay? I need to believe that was just my imagination playing tricks on me.” She stopped, unslung her backpack, and allowed it to drop at the side of the road. “So tell me that guys, okay?”
Bobby shook his head slowly. “If that was your imagination, then my imagination was doing the same thing. What about you, Schaeffer?”
I might have been visibly trembling now. Probably I was. “I saw it. I don’t know what to call it, but—”
“Just stop! Okay?” Leah shouted. “Can we just forget about it, already?”
Bobby looked at Leah, at me, and then back at Leah.
“Sure,” he said. “Let’s just forget about it. We don’t have to talk about it, do we, Schaeffer?”
“Nope. Nothing we need to talk about.”
“Okay then,” Leah bent down and hoisted her backpack again. We resumed walking.
In another ten minutes we reached the Shayton Estates subdivision, where Leah and I both lived, but on separate streets. Built on converted farmland back in ’77, Shayton Estates represented the march of suburbanization into Withamsville. Bobby lived farther down Shayton Road, in a little rundown farmhouse that he shared with his mother, and a dog named Bluebell.
“See you later,” Leah and I both called after him, as we made the turn onto the main road of our subdivision.
“Later,” Bobby said, not looking back, but casting up a single hand in salutation.
Alone with Leah now, I felt that I needed to somehow maximize this time alone with her. But what could I say?
I naturally said the wrong thing.
“Listen, Leah,” I said. “If—if that bothered you back there, we don’t have to go trick-or-treating Friday. It’s okay.”
She stopped in the middle of the road.
“I don’t mind going trick-or-treating. Didn’t I already say that I’m going to go? I simply don’t want to talk about—that—other thing again. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said. Jeez, I thought.
“Listen, Jeff: I’m sorry. But I don’t want to talk about that ghost boy anymore. Got it? And from now on I’m riding the bus home. At least tomorrow, anyway.”
“Okay, Leah,” I said. “You have a good night.”
“Have a good night, Jeff.”
We had reached Leah’s street, and she turned toward her house. After that exchange, I wasn’t about to offer to walk her home (although I would very much liked to have done that).
The ghost boy had clearly upset Leah. He had upset me too, for that matter—and not only with his embarrassing secrets.
The rocks that I threw at the ghost boy had both found their mark, almost by accident. (In truth, it had been my intention for them to merely land close by, perhaps splattering him with mud.)
The ghost boy did not attempt to evade the projectiles, nor did he raise a hand in reflex, as most people would.
Leah, Bobby, and I had all watched in silent amazement as the rocks passed through the body of the ghost boy.
And when each rock passed through him, the ghost boy changed. For a split second he was no longer a boy at all: he was a rotting corpse with exposed rib bones, a grinning skull trailing remnants of long hair.
It was as if the rocks had broken whatever energy field sustained the illusion of an actual boy. That was the explanation I would give myself in the years to come, as I reflected back on that day by the little pond, when I threw rocks to avoid the revelation of uncomfortable secrets.
Those thoughts would become the reflections of a much older man, who could look back on the actual events with a certain degree of detachment. At the time, I pushed the few seconds of the nightmarish vision to the back of my mind. Truth be told, I was at that juncture more concerned with Leah: What would it take for me to move past my fear and make us more than “just friends”?
In a more normal year, my crush on Leah might have remained the defining event of the season. But Halloween of 1980 was to be a time of strange sightings for the three of us. And we hadn’t seen the last of them yet. In the very near future, it would be impossible for me to avoid confronting them.