Bobby and I walked home together that afternoon. Leah still insisted on riding the bus. Bobby had tried to coax her into walking with us, saying, “Come on, Leah,” with that crooked smile of his. Leah refused, but I was dismayed to see that she smiled back at him, whereas she had reacted to me with such anger the other day.
While we were walking home, Bobby said, “I checked with Leah today. She’s still on for tomorrow night. For trick-or-treat, I mean.”
“Good,” I replied in a neutral tone. For the past several days I had been avoiding Leah, whether out of damaged pride or fear of rejection I could not have said. Last year, Leah and I were much closer than she was to Bobby. However, Bobby seemed to have slipped into the vacuum that had recently been created by my temporary estrangement from her.
And it appeared that Bobby wasn’t ready to let the matter drop.
“Man,” he said, “you should have seen yourself blush today, when I asked you if you were sweet on Leah.”
My response was immediate and emphatic. “I did not.”
“Oh, yes you did, Schaeffer. You turned red as an apple. Red as a tomato. Red as—”
“Okay, okay. I get it.” Since Bobby had brought the matter up, I decided that I had might as well pose the question that had been needling me.
“What about you? Do you have a thing for Leah?”
“Naw,” Bobby said. “I’m going to go for Sheila Hunt.”
This sounded to me like a deliberate, implausible evasion. Everyone in the seventh grade knew that Sheila Hunt and Brian Hailey were more or less an item, to the extent that is possible for junior high kids. Bobby would have had no chance with her.
We were coming up on the crater. I wondered what the ghost boy was going to say today—and what he was going to turn into. Would today be the day that he finally revealed all the secret resentments I’d been feeling toward Bobby?
The ghost boy, however, was nowhere to be seen. When we reached the pond, the ghost boy’s log was unoccupied.
Bobby paused in the road, and cupped his hands to his mouth. “Come out! Here we are! Come and get us!” He punctuated this challenge with an obscenity or two. Then he started walking again.
“See?” Bobby said. “If the ‘ghost boy’ were a real ghost, then he wouldn’t miss a day, would he?”
I shrugged, not wanting to open up that argument again. If Bobby wanted to believe that nothing had happened here, then let him believe that. Moreover, Bobby was right about one thing: Matt Stefano was a much more imminent threat to me than the ghost boy—or the unexplainable old man, for that matter—had ever been.
Looking back on it through the prism of middle age, I now realize that I would have been willing to do as Bobby urged me to do, and more or less write off the whole affair as an illusion. When we are young, we perceive and feel a lot of things that seem implausible and almost fantastical in later life. The older a man gets, the easier it becomes for him to doubt the perceptions of the twelve-year-old boy he once was.
And I would have been willing to second-guess myself, even then. But then the occurrences of the following night erased all room for second-guessing and doubts.