(from Chapter 5)
Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Jeff Schaeffer is having a rough day: He’s quarreling with his sort-of-friend, sort-of-romantic interest, Leah Carter. The school bully is pursuing him. Yesterday he and his two friends saw the “ghost boy” transform into something horrible—but neither of his friends is willing to talk about it.
And now Jeff is confronted by a mysterious old man in the parking lot of the Village Market. The man with the maroon Oldsmobile.
And Halloween of 1980 hasn't even arrived yet…
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?