The first time Eric Hayes ever saw him, David Hallenback was running, if you could call it that, running in a halting, choppy-stepped, stumpy-legged shamble, slowing down to look back over his shoulder, stumbling forward, pausing to catch his breath, then lurching forward again.
He was running from, not to, and not running, but fleeing.
Eric had never seen the boy before. But in this town, a place called Bellport, Long Island, it was true of most kids. Eric didn’t know anybody. He bounced the basketball, flicking it with his fingertips, not looking at the ball, or the rim, or anything else on the vast, empty grounds behind the middle school except for that curly-haired kid who couldn’t run to save his life. Which was too bad, really, because it looked to Eric like he might be doing exactly that—running for his life.
Eric took a halfhearted jumper, missed. No lift in his legs. The ball bounced to the left wing, off the asphalt court and onto the grass, where it rolled and settled, unchased. Eric had been shooting for almost an hour. Working on his game or just killing time, Eric wasn’t sure. He was tired and hot and a little bored or else he would have bounded after the ball like a pup, pounced on it after the first bounce, spun on spindly legs, and fired up a follow-up shot. Instead he let the ball roll to the grass and, hands on his hips, dripping sweat, watched the running boy as he continued across the great lawn in his direction.
He doesn’t see me, Eric thought.
Behind him there was the sprawling Final Rest Pet Cemetery. According to Eric’s mother, it was supposedly the third-largest pet cemetery in the United States. And it’s not like Eric’s mom was making that up just to make Eric feel better about “the big move” from Ohio to Long Island. Because, duh, nobody is going to get all pumped up just because there’s a big cemetery in your new hometown, stuffed with dead cats and dogs and whatever else people want to bury. Were there pet lizards, tucked into little felt-lined coffins? Vietnamese potbellied pigs? Parakeets? People were funny about pets. But burying them in a real cemetery, complete with engraved tombstones? That was a new one on Eric. A little excessive, he thought.
As the boy drew closer, Eric could see that his shirt was torn. Ripped along the side seam, so that it flapped as he ran. And . . . was that blood? There were dark red splotches on the boy’s shirt and jeans (crazy to wear those on a hot August afternoon). Maybe it was just paint. The whole scene didn’t look right, that much was sure. No one seemed to be chasing after the boy. He had come from the far side of the school and now traveled across the back of it. The boy’s eyes kept returning to the corner of the building, now one hundred yards away. Nothing there. No monsters, no goblins, no ghosts, no thing at all.
Eric walked to his basketball, picked it up, tucked it under his arm, and stood watching the boy. He still hadn’t spotted Eric, even though he was headed in Eric’s direction.
At last, Eric spoke up. “You okay?” he asked. Eric’s voice was soft, even gentle, but his words stopped the boy like a cannon shot to the chest. He came to a halt and stared at Eric. The boy’s face was pale, freckled, mushy, with small, deep-set eyes and a fat lower lip that hung like a tire tube. He looked distrustful, a dog that had been hit by too many rolled-up newspapers.
Eric stepped forward, gestured to the boy’s shirt. “Is that blood?”
The boy’s face was blank, unresponsive. He didn’t seem to understand.
“On your shirt,” Eric pointed out.
The boy looked down, and when his eyes again lifted to meet Eric’s, they seemed distant and cheerless. There was a flash of something else there, just a fleeting something in the boy’s eyes: hatred.
Hot, dark hatred.
“No, no. Not . . . bl-blood,” the boy said. There might have been a trace of a stutter in his voice, something in the way he paused over the “bl” consonant blend.
Whatever it was, the red glop was splattered all over the boy’s pants and shirt. Eric could see traces of it in the boy’s hair. Then Eric smelled it, a familiar whiff, and he knew. Ketchup. The boy was covered with ketchup.
Eric took another step. A look of panic filled the boy’s eyes. He tensed, stepped back, swiveled his head to again check the far corner of the building. Then he took off without a word. He moved past Eric, beyond the court, through a gap in the fence, and into the cemetery.
“Hey!” Eric called after him. “I’m not—”
But the ketchup boy was long gone.
Excerpted from Bystander by James Preller.
Copyright © 2009 by James Preller.
Published in 2009 by Feiwel and Friends.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.