In case you’re wondering, yes—I was feeling like a heel. I didn’t have to ask what my father would have done at the same age, because I already knew: He would have put his own interests aside and taken care of others.
I knew that I wasn’t martyr material, and I also knew that I was self-absorbed. But this realization didn’t give me any magical power over my self-absorption. All I could think about was Leah and Bobby going out Friday night, possibly holding hands, possibly (and this thought really needled me) sharing a goodnight kiss at the end of the evening. Bobby, I recalled, had already claimed to have gone to “second base” with Molly Evans, a seventh grader who attended Youngman. I didn’t like to think about him going to second base with Leah—or even first base, for that matter.
I went to St. Patrick’s the next day with a lot on my mind: my conflicted feelings about Leah and Bobby, my mortal terror of Matt Stefano, and my guilt over what amounted to my refusal to do as my father asked. I was a duplicitous, disloyal friend. I was an undutiful son and brother. And I was clueless when it came to girls.
I was also beginning to examine what I had seen at the pond the previous day. There could be no doubt about what the ghost boy had turned into. Although we had not yet discussed it among ourselves, Leah and Bobby had seen the flash of the withered corpse, too. The real ghost boy.
Someday, I knew, I would have to think about what that meant. It surely had implications for my larger view of the world. I decided, however, that such an analysis could wait.
It was Wednesday. I had no idea what was coming my way in about forty-eight hours, on Halloween night.
When I arrived in my homeroom, the first thing I noticed was that Bobby’s seat was empty. When he didn’t show up for first period, I finally broke down and asked our homeroom teacher, Mrs. Durr, who also happened to teach first period science. She informed me that Bobby’s mother had called him in sick.
Bobby was by no means the sickly type, though the occasional out-of-school sick day wasn’t beyond him. I wondered: Had he been disturbed by what we had seen at the pond? More disturbed than he had let on, perhaps?
During the morning break and the lunch hour I did my best to avoid Matt Stefano. To my pleasant surprise, the rogue eighth grader didn’t seek me out. Maybe he had found another target. Maybe he had forgotten me.
During the post-lunch break I participated in a H-O-R-S-E game with some of the other seventh grade boys at the basketball hoop at the front of the primary school building. When I could, I snuck glances at Leah: Seventh grade was the year that the girls in our class stopped playing jump rope and hopscotch during recess and started actively gossiping. I saw Leah in the middle of a group of the other girls. I didn’t dare walk up to her—not with all those other girls around, and not after yesterday.
I did make it my business, though, to coincidentally reenter the school building at the same time as Leah at the end of the lunch break.
“Did you know that Bobby is out sick today?” I asked her. There were two seventh grade homerooms at St. Patrick’s. Leah was in the other one, so she might not have been aware of Bobby’s absence.
Leah rolled her eyes. That could have been a good sign, and it could have been a bad one. “Bobby is probably playing hooky. That’s Bobby for you.”
“Well, the two of us can still walk home tonight, right?” I asked. I wondered if I sounded as desperate as I felt. Hadn’t Leah said yesterday that she would take the bus home today?
“I told you, Jeff: I’m riding the bus. No way I’m walking by that freaky kid again.”
“What do think that really was?” I asked her. “What he really was—or is?”
“Jeff, I don’t want to talk about it. I thought I’d made that clear.”
With that she separated herself from me, and headed for her homeroom. I had been doing a lot better with Leah before I decided that I liked her, I now realized.
At the end of the day, I toyed with the idea of riding the bus home with Leah. She certainly hadn’t invited me—not that I needed her invitation; I had as much right to ride the bus home as she did. But my presence on the school bus would not go unnoticed by her, and it might send the wrong signals.
Did Leah realize that I “liked” her? I had by now concluded that she must have at least a vague idea, some inkling. Leah was a sharp girl, after all, and I’d been acting differently around her of late. Heck, I’d been acting differently when I was by myself, inside my own head, for that matter.
The previous summer I’d heard, for the first time, that old Four Seasons song, “Walk Like a Man.” The moral of the song seemed to be that if you tried too hard to show a girl that you liked her, then you came off as desperate, and actually ended up driving her away. The full how and why of this were as yet too foreign and complicated for me to grasp, but I did grasp the general concept.
I therefore decided to walk home that day by myself; and would later wonder (I still wonder) if I could have prevented everything that followed by simply riding the bus home. I’ve been contemplating this question for well over thirty years, and I’m no closer to the answer than I was in October of 1980.
When the 3 p.m. bell sounded I walked outside, past the rumbling school buses that were all lined up at the parking lot exit that emptied into the four-lane highway, Ohio Pike. That road, also known as State Route 125, is a very old road. Its eastern half is built atop the path of a nineteenth-century horse and wagon route; and sections of it are said to be haunted. But those are other stories that will have to wait until another time.
Directly across from the school was a little pony keg and convenience market called The Village Market. It wasn’t one of those slick franchise places, but an independently owned establishment that had been there since the early 1960s, at least.
It was a warm day, and I felt more than a little thirsty. I decided, half on a whim, to cross the highway to the Village Market and treat myself to a cold Coke or a Pepsi. This wasn’t a normal indulgence for me, but I was feeling self-indulgent at the moment. Or so I told myself. I knew that this would also give me a chance to walk by bus number 55, the one that Leah would have already boarded. Maybe she would see me and change her mind. Maybe.
I waited at the crosswalk. I was disappointed to see bus 55 roll past me when the light changed, presumably with Leah still aboard. I couldn’t see her, and I didn’t dare try to spot her face behind one of the bus’s sun-reflecting windows. If she had changed her mind and decided to walk home with me, she would have presented herself by now.
The crosswalk flashed WALK, and I started across the highway with a group of two or three other students. The Village Market received a lot of business from the St. Patrick’s afterschool crowd, and it was probably the grade school’s only real off-campus “hangout”. The St. Patrick’s administration tolerated the Village Market’s status uneasily; there was something vaguely unseemly about an establishment that sold beer, cigarettes, and soft-core skin magazines like Playboy. (The latter were stored discreetly behind the counter.) But there wasn’t much the school administration could do about the place.
Having reached the other side of the highway, I once again made a wrong turn. I should have followed the other students into the Village Market without looking at the old man with no legs who sat in the wheelchair beside the ancient maroon Oldsmobile. I should have averted my eyes and kept walking.
Or maybe I should have gone over to him, and did what he asked. Maybe that would have changed the outcome, broken the chain of events that I would later come to regard as the “curse”.
I was already trailing behind the others when he caught my attention, my thoughts bouncing among their recent mélange of topics. He was a very old man, dressed in old green work pants, a stained button-down dress shirt faded to an indistinguishable color, and the sort of round-rimmed dress hat that men had stopped wearing several decades ago.
And he was beckoning to me.
He extended his hands in a gesture that was simultaneously a supplication and a command.
“Come here, boy!” he croaked. “I need your help.”
That was when I also noticed the pile of groceries at the base of his wheelchair. The man had apparently made a purchase in the Village Market. Then while wheeling out to his car, he had lost control of the bag. The split brown paper sack had disgorged its contents onto the gravel: a plastic bottle of milk, a few canned goods, and several other packages that I could not distinguish.
I started to do as he asked. Turning decisively away from the market’s entrance now, I walked toward him.
It might have been only my imagination—though subsequent events would convince me that there had been more than my imagination at work. As I drew closer to the shriveled, legless man, his face seemed to contort into something sinister and lupine. His nose seemed to grow sharper and more angular with each step of mine. His face elongated into something not quite human.
And inside that mouth that I had believed to be toothless, I saw—or could have sworn I saw—a row of canine incisors.
I flinched, my heart in my throat. I took a step backward.
Then he was just a harmless old man again.
“Help me,” he pleaded. He pointed to the mess in the gravel, pleadingly. “I’ve dropped my things.”
I continued to walk backward, without turning my back on the old man. I was afraid to help him. I was afraid to do what I would have previously believed to be the right thing. I was afraid of the risk it would have entailed.
In a different frame of mind, I might have chosen differently. I might have been able to write off the old man’s momentary shift in appearance as an illusion. But this was coming on the heels of the ghost boy’s hideous transformation yesterday. I was still confused about the reality of the situation; but I knew that I was not going to step within lunging distance of the old man in the wheelchair.
And anyway, I thought. How could the old man have driven here with no legs? The scene strongly suggested that he had arrived at the store in the maroon Oldsmobile—a Cutlass sedan that had probably rolled off the assembly line when JFK, or maybe even Ike, was in the White House. But how could the old man have driven it?
After a few more paces I turned my back on the man, and headed through the door of the Village Market.
I was immediately greeted by Gene, the proprietor of the Village Market. Gene was in his normal place behind the cash register. Gene was an older man who had jet-black curly hair (probably dyed) and the bulbous, blood-vessel cracked nose of a lifelong drinker. He was a tall, shuffling man who wore bifocals and “grandpa” sweaters. Gene spoke in slow, phlegmy syllables, punctuated by frequent coughs.
I don’t think that I even returned Gene’s greeting. I immediately said: “There’s a man out in the parking lot who needs help. He has no legs.”
“What?” Gene asked. He might have thought that I was talking about a recent accident victim.
I shook my head. “No. Not that. His legs have been—amputated. He’s by his car in a wheelchair. He dropped his groceries.”
If the man had indeed purchased goods in the Village Market, I would have expected recognition to dawn on Gene’s face at this point. But Gene still seemed perplexed and maybe even a bit dubious of my story. He stepped from behind the counter and said: “Okay. I’ll go check it out. Don’t you kids steal anything.”
This is the right thing to do, I thought, as Gene pushed open the sighing door of his store, and its little bell jingled. Helping that old man wasn’t my responsibility, after all.
It seemed proper to wait for Gene to return, so I simply stood there. The St. Patrick’s students who had crossed Route 125 with me were now beginning to queue at the counter with their purchases. The inside of the small, cramped store was cool from the electric beverage coolers that lined the walls. Some of the coolers contained beer, but the St. Patrick’s students didn’t bother with these, tempted though they might have been. Gene had been known to sell the occasional pack of cigarettes to a St. Patrick’s eighth grader when no one was looking, but not beer. The Playboy magazines behind the counter were also strictly off-limits.
Gene walked back inside less than a minute after he had stepped out, shaking his head in mild frustration.
“There’s no old man out there,” Gene said. He took his accustomed place behind the counter and began typing the first of the student’s orders into the cash register. He typed in each item manually, after looking at the code on the price tag. Barcodes existed in 1980; but Gene’s was a small store and he had not yet adopted them.
“But,” I protested. “He’s driving an old car—an Oldsmobile. And he’s in a wheelchair.”
“Nope,” Gene said, without looking at me. He announced the first student’s total charges. “Take a look for yourself.”
I did as Gene suggested. I leaned out the front door, and looked across the expanse of the Village Market’s parking lot. I could see the adjacent business establishment (a seasonal fruit and vegetable market) and the row of trees behind the store. But there was no old man, and no maroon Oldsmobile.
Had he left? Had someone else helped him?
And then the thought that I didn’t want to consider but had to: Had he even been there at all?
“I think you’re a little crazy from the heat,” Gene suggested, not unkindly. “Why don’t you cool off with a Pepsi or something? I’ve got a sale running: thirty-five cents.”
Not knowing what else to do, I did as Gene advised. I walked down the aisle along the far wall, across the green floor that always seemed to bear a light coating of dust and sticky residue. I opened the soft drink cooler and withdrew a can of Pepsi.
To my relief, the other St. Patrick’s students were gone by the time I returned to the front of the store with my purchase. I wondered how much they had overheard of my exchange with Gene. If they were paying attention, I must have looked pretty silly.
Without further discussion of the old man, I paid for my Pepsi and stepped back outside into the golden yet slightly shadowy glare of the late October sun. It was that time of year, as Mr. Snyder had said, when the world was different.
I drained half of my Pepsi while waiting for the crosswalk. In order to walk home, I would have to cross the highway again and walk to the far end of the St. Patrick’s parking lot, to the edge of Shayton Road.
I crossed Ohio Pike when the light changed and returned to the grounds of the St. Patrick’s campus. That was when I made my second wrong turn of the afternoon—or my third, if you believe that I should have swallowed my pride and ridden the bus home with Leah.
It would be a twenty- to thirty-minute walk home—even without the distraction of banter with Bobby and Leah. Despite the heat, I was aware of the liquid I was ingesting as I gulped the last few swallows of Pepsi, and permitted myself an indiscreet burp in the mostly empty school parking lot.
I felt the beginnings of a call of nature. It was not too urgent yet; but carbonated beverages have always gone right through me. They still do.
I had better make a pit stop in the school’s restroom before beginning the walk home, I decided.
There was nothing particularly spooky about the St. Patrick’s school facilities. After seven years as a student, the entire campus had become routine to me. To the best of my knowledge, there were no urban legends surrounding the school itself—no murky rumors of the suicide of a troubled student on the school grounds, no classrooms that were reputed to contain odd drafts or disembodied voices.
Nevertheless, there was something vaguely discomforting and uneasy about the empty building on this particular afternoon. It wasn’t even three-thirty yet. There were probably still a few teachers and students lurking about. But as I walked down the short flight of stairs that took me to the lower level of the junior high building, I could not help thinking about the ghost boy, and the mysterious old man. Were they down here waiting for me?
The boys’ bathroom was deserted. I stood there at the urinal, doing my business, my imagination running wild. There was a row of three toilet stalls behind me. I should have checked each one, I thought, emptying my bladder. I should have opened all three doors and looked inside.
Finally done, I avoided looking in the mirror as I washed my hands. Weren’t mirrors one of the favorite haunts of spiritual beings? I thought I had heard that in a movie once, or maybe read it somewhere.
I was drying my hands when someone came at me from the side nearest the door. I must have shouted OOF!, because the impact was abrupt and solid enough to practically knock the wind out of me.
A second later I found myself pinned up against a nearby wall. It wasn’t the ghost boy or the man in the wheelchair.
It was Matt Stefano.
He gave me a quick, sharp punch in the stomach. For a second I thought that the Pepsi I’d purchased at the Village Market was going to come up and all over both of us. But it didn’t.
“You caused me three demerits!” Matt said, in a low, deliberate growl. “I’m going to kill you.”
As if to demonstrate his seriousness, Matt reached into his back pocket and withdrew a short, rectangular brown object. He flicked a black button on the face of the object and whoosh!—a silver, wicked-looking blade flipped out of its interior.
I now realized the stakes: I was alone in an enclosed space with a very pissed-off juvenile delinquent, and he had just pulled a switchblade on me. While arguably more mundane, this situation carried an immediate threat that eclipsed the more unexplainable happenings of recent days.
If I had not just urinated, I am sure—even now—that I would have done so in my pants.
There was a sound of clattering just outside the restroom. Matt saw something in his peripheral vision. As suddenly as he had pinned me to the wall, Matt shoved me aside and closed the knife with one quick, practiced movement.
Barely a few seconds later, Mr. Larbus, the school janitor, wheeled a mop and bucket into the boys’ bathroom. He pushed it in front of him, holding on to the handle of the mop.
Mr. Larbus had been whistling; but he stopped whistling once he took in both Matt and me. Matt had by now pocketed his weapon, and there was a physical distance between us that afforded the older boy a measure of plausible deniability. But Mr. Larbus must have read something in our body language—and surely he read something in my expression.
“Any trouble here?” Mr. Larbus asked. The janitor was in his early sixties, only a few years from retirement. During the Second World War, he had been taken prisoner by the Germans; and a Nazi interrogator had pulled out three of his fingernails, which had not grown back. He was an older man, yes; but a large man and not one to be trifled with.
“No trouble,” Matt said. Stefano looked at me as if to say, Say anything at all, and I’ll kill you for sure.
Mr. Larbus raised one eyebrow dubiously. “You sure about that?”
“He’s sure,” Stefano answered. “I mean: We’re sure.”
I took a moment to contemplate my options. Mr. Larbus was an adult. If I told him what had happened, he would take my side. On the other hand, though, as the school janitor he had no real authority over any of the students; and a half-hearted attempt at intervention on his part might only make things worse.
“I’m sure,” I said at length. “Everything is fine.”
“All right, then,” Mr. Larbus said, clearly not believing either one of us. “Well, if the two of you are done in here, I need to mop the floor.”
I waited as Matt stalked out of the restroom. I wanted to put as much distance between us as possible.
Mr. Larbus shook his head after Matt left—whether at the lie or the apparent bullying, I wasn’t sure.
“Well?” he finally asked.
Taking my cue, I walked out. But instead of turning left, and walking up the stairs and out the main entrance of the school (which Matt would be expecting) I turned right instead. I passed through the double doors that led to the classroom area.
I walked down to my homeroom classroom. Mrs. Durr had gone for the day, so I had the whole room to myself. I sat in my usual homeroom seat, feeling ashamed and ridiculous. What was I doing here, but hiding from Matt Stefano?
When I stepped out of the front entrance of St. Patrick’s about twenty minutes later, the shadows were already lengthening. By the last week of October in Ohio, the days are growing short.
The hour was probably heading for four o’clock; and I still had to make the walk home. I would have arrived a lot faster had I taken the bus with Leah.
There was no sign of Matt Stefano in the parking lot. I suppose that he felt no need to wait for me. After all, where was I going? He could exact his revenge tomorrow, or the next day.
When I reached Shayton Road I quickened my pace, in an effort to make up for lost time. My mother would be wondering where I was.
Then I approached the crater of the demolished warehouse, and the pond where the ghost boy habitually awaited us. Please God, I prayed silently, let him not be there today. Whatever he is or isn’t, let him not be there.
But of course the ghost boy was there.
“Just you today, huh?” he called out. He was smoking that same cigarette, wearing the same faded army fatigue jacket, ratty pair of jeans, and sneakers.
I tried to ignore him, and walked faster. I would not look at him. It wasn’t far to the bend, I told myself.
“Come here, boy!” the ghost boy called out. “I need your help! I’ve dropped my things!”
I froze. I realized that the ghost boy had repeated the words that the old man in the wheelchair had uttered, more or less verbatim.
I turned to look at him. The ghost boy smiled vindictively. For an instant, he gave me another glimpse of his other self—his true self.
“For twelve hours you will know no peace,” he croaked, in the voice of the old man. “For twelve hours you will be tested. And you’re weak. You won’t survive.”
“Go away!” I shouted, earnestly afraid now. And then I ran. The ghost boy laughed in my wake, his voice and demeanor that of an ordinary teenage hoodlum again. He might have been one of Matt Stefano’s friends.