By Stan Werlin
The older campers are already talking about him even before the train lurches out of North Station and begins its interminable crawl from Boston up to Bangor. The crowded railcar somehow feels humid and overheated even though the day is raw and cold, unseasonable for late June. Rain lashes and streaks the ancient windows as we gather speed and screech along the tracks, jerking spasmodically from side to side just like the subway trains we ride into the city.
The Boston & Aroostook is an old railroad, decrepit and struggling. Water seeps in at the edges of windows. The benches are hard and uncomfortable. Joey, Stevie, Randall and I squeeze onto a bench, our shoulders and legs pressed together as we strain to hear the conversation around us. It will be our first summer away from home and we are excited and nervous.
“Remember last year when Z poured Tabasco sauce down Sully’s throat for swearing?” It’s one of the older campers, and he and a few of the others exchange solemn nods.
“He did it twice in ten minutes!” another laughs.
“That’s because one of the counselors heard Sully call Z an asshole as soon as he could talk again!” The older kids glance our way. “You guys don’t look familiar. New this year?” Joey nods a quick yes.
“OK, I’ll sum it up for you. No swearing – never – not even a crap or a piss or a damn. Don’t go down to the lake without something on your feet or Z will whack you with that piece of dry-kye he always carries. Write home every other day and bring the letter to the dining hall or you won’t get dinner. You can seal up a blank piece of paper like I do sometimes but your parents will figure that out. When you learn the secret password of your lodge, don’t say it out loud to anyone unless you’re positive he belongs to the same lodge as you. If the other lodge gets it, Z will give them bonus points in Color War. You with me so far?” We’re already completely mesmerized. He holds up his hand to stop the questions that are about to fly out of our mouths like machine gun fire. “You guys like ghost stories? The first night it gets really windy prepare to be s-c-a-r-e-d out of your little butts. Let’s see…what else? Oh yeah. Monster Caps. Greatest game in the history of the universe. Dead Men Tell No Tales. When you’re killed – and you will be – just remember: Dead Men Tell No Tales!”
For the rest of the trip, the older kids studiously ignore our pathetic pleading questions. Dry-kye? Lodges? Monster Caps? Color War? We spend most of the train ride trying to puzzle these things out, futilely begging for a hint or two. Only once do we hear from them again, just before we reach Bangor for the bus trip east to camp. When Randall whines for the third time “I don’t like ghost stories”, they stop their conversation momentarily. The oldest camper - he must be thirteen or fourteen since his voice has changed and he’s got his hair in an Elvis-style cut – steps over to Randall and cries out in an eerie low-pitched voice a word that somehow fills us with dread, even though we have no idea what it means: “Day…fah…go! Day…fah…go!” And then we arrive.
Looming on the station platform is a scowling bearded giant of a man with a gnarled white walking stick in one hand and a fistful of paper in the other. Ezekiel Graham, camp director, storyteller extraordinaire, deep sea fisherman, military-style disciplinarian, lover of classical music, Army veteran and all-around eccentric is there himself to take us on the Camp Acadia bus for the final leg east to the lake and the summer of adventure that lies ahead.
The instant the train stops he vaults up the two steps to the door and flings it open. He stands in the doorway – he fills the doorway! – brandishing that walking stick at us. In a gravelly resonant bass that shakes the very air and instantly quiets the fear that has taken hold now that we are several hundred miles from home and on our own, he shouts out to us. “Acadia campers! Pack yourselves up and get off this train and assemble out there on the platform. Our counselors will find your foot lockers and get them loaded up! Move it! Move it now!” His face reddens deeply from the forcefulness of his directives, delivered with a powerful Boston accent: campahs, out they-ah on the platform, lockahs. His grey and blue-checkered flannel shirt strains against its buttons as if it is about to burst from his massive chest, unleashing a wild spree of lightning bolts and thunder. Stevie looks at me and whispers “This guy is Zeus! He’s Poseidon! He’s Hades himself!” I widen my eyes and shake my head quickly in silent agreement. We grab our duffel bags and scramble off the train.
Ezekiel immediately commands our attention. “OK everyone, listen up. You call me Z. Not Ezekiel. Not Mr. Graham. Just Z. Now we’ll do a quick roll call. Answer to your name and raise your hand so I can see who you are. There’s supposed to be thirty-one of you on this train. Another thirty or so are already at camp settling in. That’s it for this summer, so believe me I’ll know everything important about each one of you before the first week is done.” There’s a snicker behind me, a low-key snort, skeptical and challenging. Z cranes his neck and does a little hop to see who the source is. “Someone doubts me, eh? Well, we’ll see about that. I’m proud of how well I know my campers.” He looks around at all of us as he absorbs this taunt and for now sets it aside.
“You’re divided into three groups” he continues. “Youngest cabin – the Browns. Juniors – the Blues. Seniors - Reds. Later today we’ll assign everyone a number, and when we count off, you answer with your last name, your color, and your number, like this: Graham Red Eleven. Easy, right? Don’t screw it up, crack wise, or cover for a buddy who’s trying to skip out on something and we’ll be fine.” There’s a wave of nervous laughter. Z smiles easily at us. “OK, back to the roll call.” He runs through the Browns first. The Blues are next, the ten and eleven year olds - that’s us.
“Malinsky, Daniel.” I say “here” and raise my hand.
“Welcome back, Spahn and Sain and Pray for Rain. Think you can do it again?” Rosnov smiles and shrugs. “Thanks, Z.”
“He struck out eighteen guys in six innings in our Color War championship game last year”, Z tells us. “Best pitcher we’ve ever had. OK. Next – Santangelo, Joel”.
Joey answers “Yup”. Z takes a moment to look him over. Joey’s a little heavy – “husky” is the word our mothers use – and he shies away from sports.
“You like spaghetti, Joel,” Z asks, “homemade tomato sauce, a nice meatball or two on top, maybe some grated cheese?”
“Love it, Mr. Graham, I mean Mr. Z” – a few hoots ring out from the older kids – “I mean Z. And I like Joey, not Joel. Please.”
“How about ziti? We serve our special ziti dinner every Monday night, as much as you want.”
“Yup, love ziti too. Me and my whole family.”
Now there’s a twinkle in Z’s eye. “Then that’s my name for you, Joey. Ziti. Ziti, I like that one.” There’s another loud laugh from one of the older kids, and Z walks over in his direction. He cradles his arm around the shoulders of a tall, thin, athletic-looking kid and musses his hair. “You the one who laughed, Speedro Demeedro Nicholas Sponavania from the Southern Part of Peloponnesus?”
“Yeah, that was me Z” he says. Later that day we’ll learn his real name – Mike Valley - but for now he’s the kid with the impossible nickname Z gave him for being the fastest runner in camp.
“Yours is the name to laugh at”, Z says, and he says Mike’s nickname again, faster this time, running all the words together as if he’s practiced it for years“Speedrodemeedronicholas-sponavaniafromthesouthernpartofpeloponnesus.” He can say it in about three seconds flat.
The roll continues, two other kids new to the camp, then Stevie, and then Z calls out “Last name in the Blues. Wyzanski, Billy.” No one answers. “Wyzanski, Billy? Billy Wyzanski, you here?” Everyone’s looking around. Z shares a concerned glance with the counselors. They quickly spread out down the platform and head toward the station’s convenience store and the bathrooms, shouting out the name Billy Wyzanski as loudly as they can.
Suddenly the door to the convenience store whips open and a pale dark-haired kid comes flying down the platform in our direction. He looks unhappy about something. “Sorry, sorry, sorry” he’s shouting. “Just heard someone call my name.” When he reaches us he’s sweating and out of breath and his sneaker laces have come untied. A second after he sits down to tie them, Z is hovering directly above him. “Sorry,” Billy says again, “I’m looking for a book I really want and I couldn’t find it. I’m Billy Wyzanski.” He stands up and extends his hand to Z for a handshake that doesn’t materialize.
“A book?” Z says. “You’re looking for a book on the train platform in Bangor? We’ve got books in our library you can read if we don’t keep you busy enough at camp. Never had a boy take one, though.”
“You won’t have this one,” Billy Wyzanski says as he straightens up. “The newest Tom Swift adventure. Tom Swift and His –“
Z waves his hand through the air a few inches from Billy’s face and cuts him off with a friendly phantom slap. “You had us worried there, Billy. All for a book you’ll never have time for. Simple enough thing, get off the train, get with the other campers, stay put, answer the roll call. You a mischief maker, son? It won’t be good for either of us if you are. Had a kid like that a few years ago. Strolch, I called him. Guess you’re the strolch this year.”
“Strolch?” Billy Wyzanski says. “What’s that mean? Is that a swear in some other language? My dad’s a whiz at foreign languages. All I have to do is ask him.”
“No, Billy, it’s not a swear word. There’s no swearing at my camp. It’s just a little nickname for you, son. Strolch.”
For some reason, Billy seems irritated. “Well, I don’t like it. Give it to someone else.” A dark frown crosses his face, not a sneer exactly, just a vaguely hostile look.
Z’s eyes narrow a fraction. “Consider yourself lucky, strolch,” he says as we climb onto the bus. “Only a few of you ever get a nickname from me. Consider yourself special.”
On the ride into camp, some of the Red cabin kids sit near us. That’s how we learn that Z’s nicknames are like prized possessions, affectionate trophies reserved for campers he seems to really like. In addition to the ones we’ve already heard, there’s Humphrey Effin Bogart, a senior camper who Z says looks the way the movie star might have looked when he was fifteen, and Ludwig Wolfgang Rachmaninoff The Fourth, a nine year old in the Brown cabin who brings his violin to camp and practices at least an hour every day. Z loves classical music; to call the camp to meals, he plays short symphonic passages over the loudspeaker system.
Still, Billy Wyzanski does not feel special. He will become my best friend at camp; we’ll do everything together, inseparable summer friends. But on this first day, even though we sit together on the bus and get to know each other quickly the way ten-year-olds do, there’s a brooding quality in his words, a simmering discontent. “I’m not a strolch,” he tells me several times. “I am not a strolch.”
Where the woods back up to the lake there’s a large tangle of oversized dry-kye, the bleached white driftwood that washes up on the shoreline all summer long. Every piece is etched with irregular worm-like curlicues that remind us of ancient hieroglyphics. The name dry-kye is a puzzle; even Z isn’t sure if it derives from French-Canadian slang, or German, or Gaelic, or the lumberjack lingo unique to northern Maine. But the dry-kye makes for a good hiding place for our weird camp game Monster Caps, camouflaging us so it’s hard for the other team to see our faces and helmet numbers. After fifteen minutes we’re all in there, the entire black team, when suddenly we hear “Wyzanski Black 33!”
“Damn,” Billy mutters, “I’m killed.” Glumly, he takes off his helmet, but as he passes us he leans over and whispers to Joey and me, “Teddy Borelli, 27, Alan Sneddon 8”. One of the red team guys leaps out from behind a large boulder a few yards away. “Dead men tell no tales,” he’s yelling. “Wyzanski’s talking. Reds win, reds win, dead men tell no tales!” And just like that, both teams step out from their hiding places and make their way back to home base. Z opens his palms as if to ask what’s going on. Borelli just nods in Billy’s direction. “Dead men tell no tales.”
“Strolch, get over here. First time you play the favorite game at my camp and you wreck it for everyone? What got into you boy? I told your parents…” He looks away from Billy to the rest of us and sees we’re fidgeting, kicking stones, uncomfortable for our friend. His voice softens. Now he’s speaking to all of us. “I told all your parents before they signed you up that my goal is for you to come back to them when camp ends with a stronger sense of honor. Respect for others. Respect for rules. While you’re here at camp they’re just rules of games. When you grow up, there’ll be more important rules.”
Z pauses, rubs his temples hard two or three times. “OK. Get another game started. Not you, strolch. You’re grounded the rest of the night. You get to spend the next thirty minutes with me listening to some of my Army stories about teamwork and discipline. You got anything to say for yourself?”
“Yeah. When did you talk to my parents?”
“I know a few things about you, strolch,” Z says. “I know a few things about everyone.”
Z probably knows a lot more about Billy than we do, which isn’t much yet. Billy lives in Boston, in Charlestown; he’s the first city kid we’ve ever known. It’s not like he’s a tough guy or anything, though maybe there’s a little chip on his shoulder. On the train he told us about his older brother Dennis and his troubles with the police. “My father went apeshit on him. The only time he ever hit either one of us. ‘Don’t you get on the wrong side of the law again’ was all he ever said to Dennis. How about you guys?”
“Get into trouble, you mean?” Joey laughs. “Danny lifted a 45 once from Woolworth’s. Never got caught. Dion and the Belmonts. Right, Danny?”
“Only me?” Danny laughs. “All four of us did it, Billy. Just our secret. Yours too now, I guess.”
“Yep,” Billy says, realizing that the first uncertain seeds of friendship are already taking hold. “Mine too.”
Baseball is on tap for the Blues the next morning but as we leave the dining hall Joey and I see Billy and Z in an animated discussion on the steps of Z’s cabin. Curiosity swings us toward them.
Billy is pitching a fit at Z, his arms flying around while he’s twisting and turning himself in little circles. “C’mon Z please, I gotta get those books. C’mon, C’mon, please!” He’s nearly hysterical and Z is trying to settle him down. We haven’t seen Billy like this before.
“Listen, strolch, we’re not going into town until later in the week, and that’s only for the movies. You need to read, take a book from me. Huck Finn. Tom Sawyer. Educate yourself with Thoreau.”
“No Z”, Billy wails. “It’s gotta be my series books. I always get them as soon as they come out. You’re ruining my streak.” He’s wheedling hard now. “My dad’ll pay you back when they come up for parents weekend, I know he will. I’m sure they’re in that bookstore we saw on the bus ride here. Please take me. Please!” He’s in tears, his left hand over his mouth trying to mute himself so he doesn’t make a bigger scene. Z sees us approach and signals us away.
We’re walking over to the ball field a few minutes later when Z’s Nash Rambler sedan passes us, tailfins polished, American flag waving from the antenna, Billy in the passenger seat. He grins at us and gives a short wave.
They return just after lunch, and as soon as Z parks the car Billy jumps out and races to find us. “Look what I got!” He pulls two books from the brown paper bag he’s clutching. “Tom Swift and His Electronic Retroscope. The Pirates of Shan from the Rick Brant series. I knew I’d find them! I knew it!”
Billy’s joy is palpable. We’re not big readers, just the comic books we worship, but we’re genuinely happy to see him so excited. “You and Z were gone an awful long time just to get those books,” I remark.
Billy’s face closes for a brief second and he glances away. “Z stopped to pick up some stuff at the hardware store. I read two chapters while I was waiting for him.”
“Well, happy reading, Billy”, I offer, and then we all scurry off to the afternoon’s events.
It’s ten minutes past lights out, the last remnants of whispers among us fading away. Listening to the wind howl through the pine trees and shake the screen windows and flap the shutters back and forth, most of us miss the faint creaking of the cabin door when it opens. We aren’t even aware that Z is standing in the open area at the far end of the bunk until he strikes a match and lights the single thick candle in his hand. “It’s a good night for story-telling, boys”, he says. There’s a smile in his voice, overlaid by a tone at once foreboding and compelling. “A good night for a ghost story. Listen to the wind. Oh, yes, it carries things, that wind. It pulses with things you never want to meet. Forms of life.... forms of other life. Well now...everyone come on over and get settled around this candle. No stayin’ in the top bunks. Everyone down here, grab a friend, you’re gonna want one close by. Ziti, get down from there, Danny and strolch, you too.”
“Silence,” Z says, and soon there is no sound but his voice and our hushed breathing. “No talking, no whispering, no interrupting. No one goes back to his bunk.” He pauses a moment to let us settle down. “They say this happened long ago, deep in the Canadian woods north of here when five men went out canoeing and hunting caribou. It’s the story of their guide Joseph Défago and his encounter with a creature that inhabits the tops of a certain kind of pine tree, the kind we have right here surrounding camp. Just the thought of the creature’s name strikes fear deep into every woodsman’s soul. It’s called the wendigo.” He pronounces it win-dee-go, win-dee-go, and even before Z begins the tale, all we can hear is the wind rising through the trees, racing across the very tops of the trees, carrying something unimaginable and evil.
The story is spellbinding. When we first hear the wendigo call Defago’s name – “Dé-fah-go! Dé-fah-go!” – in a soft, almost feminine voice, and when Défago jumps up and screams out “Take me, you demon! Take me!”, we find that we are no longer scattered around Z but are pressed hard against each other in a tight semi-circle around Z’s candle.
Z’s face is trance-like, his voice a razored harbinger of dread. When the wind rises like a tornado and the formless, unknowable moss-eating wendigo swoops down to carry Défago away, his feet burning and the skin beneath his eyes on fire, we know that he is doomed and we fear for our own lives as the wind outside our cabin seems to gather its own monstrous speed. And finally, finally, when from a terrible height Défago plummets to the ground through the trees in a cascade of cracking limbs, when his friends find him with his legs splayed out against a huge boulder, his feet swollen and toeless and his hands – what is left of them – cramming thick clumps of moss into the ruined flesh of his charred, disfigured face, all reason leaves us and raw terror triumphs as we realize – Oh God! Oh God! – Défago has been changed into an inhuman creature of the night, an unthinkable wendigo-mutant.
On exactly the last word of the last horrifying sentence, Z stands up, his shadow against the cabin wall growing huge and formless like the wendigo itself. Without another word, he blows out the candle and plunges us into darkness as he opens the cabin door to the wind, the powerful scent of pine trees, the deepening cold of a night we will never forget. Do we detect another scent out there, something raw and nameless? We zip our sleeping bags tightly and pray that the wind will quiet and that dawn will somehow magically leap through the night and erase the hours of darkness that lie ahead.
It’s the Blues’ turn on the shooting range. We’re all there waiting for the counselors and it’s obvious Billy can’t keep still. He’s the undisputed riflery champion of our cabin, already earning “sharpshooter” status while the rest of us struggle for “junior rifleman”. But it’s not his eagerness to be shooting down targets that’s making him agitated and jumpy. He’s waving around the letter he just received from his father like it’s the worst news he’s ever heard. “I wrote my dad and told him Z keeps calling me strolch,” he says. “So listen to this! He says it’s a German word and it means like a hoodlum, a gangster. And now he wants to know why Z’s calling me that and if I’m getting into trouble up here. Damn him! He’s calling me a thief in front of the whole camp!”
“Hey, Billy, no one else knows what it means,” I say. “Nobody cares about Z’s dumb names anyway. C’mon, forget about it.”
Billy will not be mollified. “In front of everybody! A gangster!” He pounds a fist into his palm over and over again. “Just call me Billy, OK?” He shouts it out as the counselors arrive carrying our rifles, several boxes of ammunition, and the paper targets we review so carefully after every round. “Just Billy!”
Counselor Lenny puts the rifles and ammunition down and arranges us in groups of four. “You all know how it works,” he says. “Get your targets set up and step back to the platform. Lie down in shooting position and wait for me to give you your ammo. Load up the first shell and when everyone’s ready, I’ll give the signal to begin. When all five rounds are done and every rifle is laid down, you can collect your targets. Everyone got it?”
In the midst of our chorus of yeses, Billy grabs his rifle, loads a shell, and fires at his target. Bull’s-eye. Instantly the counselors are shouting. “Billy, what are you doing? Drop that rifle right now!”
Billy loads another shell and walks out toward the targets, crunching across the thousands and thousands of spent casings that litter the ground. He stops, kneels down, and fires into the grassy hillside off to our left. “Ha”, he yells. “Ha! So there!” He throws the rifle down and starts to walk away. “Hoodlum? You tell him I can shoot like one, Lenny. You tell him.”
“What are you talking about, Billy? Get back here before I have to go to Z about this and ground you from the shooting range.” Lenny looks to the rest of us, hoping for some kind of explanation. “Anybody know what’s going on?” We all know enough to keep our mouths shut for Billy’s sake. “Z’s not going to like this, Billy,” Lenny warns.
“Tell him or don’t tell him, I don’t care,” Billy says. “I won’t do it again.”
It’s a rainy Thursday just before the halfway point at camp and we’re heading into town on the camp bus to see a movie. Somehow nearly four weeks have gone by and everyone’s parents are coming to visit Saturday for Parents Weekend. None of us will admit it, but we’re all going to be happy to see our families.
Ellsworth Center looks like so many other New England towns: red brick buildings, stores for shoes, clothing, hardware and furniture, pharmacies, a variety store, a pizza parlor, a mediocre hotel where parents often stay. The theatre shows films that have had their first run months earlier, rather than the new releases. We’re hoping for a war movie, maybe Pork Chop Hill – Z is always talking about World War Two - but when we get there the blocky red letters on the white rectangular marquee tell us otherwise. We’re going to see The Fly. Most of us saw it last year but we’re glad to get away from camp for a few hours and we’re already mimicking the fly’s pathetic “Help me! Help me!” to each other as we walk in and get seated.
Before the movie starts, Billy gets up to go to the bathroom. He doesn’t return to sit with me – maybe he sat somewhere else? As soon as the movie ends I grab the nearest counselor. “Where’s Billy?” I ask. He looks around quickly, but we don’t see Billy and he can’t find Z either.
“OK, out on the sidewalk, everyone,” he yells, “Blues count off now!”
“O’Hara Blue 1!”
“Borelli Blue 2!”
“ Sneddon Blue 3!’
“Malinsky Blue 4!”
We get all the way to Billy’s number, 14, but there’s only silence. We’re looking everywhere – the theatre lobby, the alleys between the buildings, down the street in both directions - when finally one of us sees him. “There he is, look past Woolworth’s, I think that’s him and Z!” They’re a couple of hundred yards away, walking toward us quickly from the sidewalk in front of the hotel where they seem to have suddenly appeared.
Z darts the counselors a quick look. “Load ‘em up,” he says. “Let’s get out of the rain.” Billy’s holding a large brown paper bag and the minute we sit down he pulls three books from it to show us. “The newest Hardy Boys mystery and a couple of others I missed before,” he says. “Z got ‘em for me.”
“That where you were Billy, getting Z to buy you more books?” I ask. “You missed the whole movie.”
He shakes his head. “Dead men tell no tales,” he says, “dead men tell no tales.”
All the way back to camp Billy stares out the window, looking at his reflection in the smudged glass. He keeps examining himself, inspecting his fingers, occasionally wiping his mouth. His eyes are red around the edges. When Z stands up at the front of the bus and leads the singing of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” he won’t bring his eyes forward. He won’t look at Z.
At breakfast this morning Z tells us our parents will start arriving around noon. “Contain yourselves,” he says, “they’ll all get here. And when they do”, he continues, a twinkle in his eye and his arms spread wide like he’s trying to embrace the entire camp at once, “your mothers will greet you with huge bear hugs and a tearful “Let me look at you oh my goodness you’ve grown so much”, and your fathers will offer up a quick handshake, then they’ll take you away to Bar Harbor to eat and shop or drive around the National Park for the day.”
Most of us are back by the late afternoon. Campers and parents are milling around, some just standing and talking in the day’s lingering warmth, others walking the gentle slopes of the ball field and archery range. There’s a haphazard array of cars parked near the cabins, so when Billy and his parents return, followed closely by two police cruisers, their progress into camp is slow. There are no sirens, no flashing lights, but conversations fade into silence as everyone’s eyes are riveted to the scene unfolding before them.
Joey, Stevie, Randall and I are clustered with our parents when the first cruiser and the Wyzanski’s car pull off the road together. The second cruiser continues down the hill toward the dining hall and Z’s cabin. A police officer stands with Billy’s father. They exchange a few words, then fall quiet. Billy and his mother are sitting together in the back seat of the car.
I cover the two hundred yards down the hill in a flash and get there just as the driver’s door of the second cruiser opens and an officer about my father’s age, tall and slim and very official-looking in his crisp brown shirt and smartly creased pants, steps out of the car and heads toward Z. Campers, parents, and counselors go silent. “Ezekiel Graham?” he says to Z.
“You know who I am, Jimmy” Z says. “What’s going on?”
“I’m sorry, Zeke, you’ve got to come with me. There’ve been some charges made. We need to talk with you.” He points to the other cruiser and the Wyzanski’s car. Then he leans over close to Z and whispers something in a very low voice. He glances quietly at the handcuffs dangling from his belt. “Rather don’t want to use these if I can help it.”
Z’s eyes widen, then his shoulders slowly sag and his chest craters inward. His body just seems to deflate as he climbs into the cruiser and it begins to move. He rolls up his window and is looking straight ahead when Billy suddenly bolts from his car and starts running alongside Z, banging his fists on the door and the window. The cruiser slows down but doesn’t stop. “You’re the strolch!” Billy’s screaming. His face turns red at first and then a deep purple as if it’s about to burst, tears flying everywhere. He keeps running after the cruiser, flailing his arms even as it gathers speed and starts to leave him behind. “You’re the strolch! It’s you! You’re the goddamn strolch!”
Billy’s father catches up and grabs him as the cruiser reaches the end of the camp road and accelerates away. “Billy!”
None of us – Joey, Randall, Stevie, myself – know what to do. Billy’s sobbing, he’s climbing back into his parent’s car. I get to him before his father can close the door. “Billy?” I’m the one shouting now. “What is it? What is it?” His chest is heaving but somehow he’s able to look at me. He’s trying hard to conceal the anguish in his eyes but he can’t do it. He can’t. The scene is like a rifle shot ricocheting through all our hearts. “Make sure my books are in my trunk,” he finally chokes out. “They’re sending it.” His father steps between us, even though Billy’s still trying to talk to me. “He…” And then he just stops, his lips trembling, his mother turning him toward her chest, shushing him, cradling his wretched, tear-stained face.
Gently, his father pries my fingers from Billy’s window. My mother appears by my side. She’s trying to hold me but I wrestle myself away as Billy’s father starts their car and the engine purrs and he turns it onto the camp road, turns the wheels into the road’s two dusty grooves and just like that they’re driving away. And suddenly it’s me who’s running, it’s me who’s crying, it’s me running beside Billy when the window opens and he reaches out and our hands touch, our fingers touch, and he says, I think he says “Dead men, dead men” and I can’t keep up, I’m stumbling, I’m falling in the dirt, I stretch my arm out for him but the sound of the car wheels kicking up gravel is fading, it’s gone, his last few words still ringing in my ears, a plaintive haunting cipher of triumph and regret.