Thursday, October 16, 2014

When Ryan Came Back Release Day + Excerpt

Now Available At...

"...the passion and the ability to make you want to turn the pages in Devon McCormack’s writing, whether adult or YA/YA, is very much evident here. What I really love about When Ryan Came Back, and I do love it, was the characters, how they are teenagers, not some caricatures of what teenagers are supposed to be." - Kazza at On Top Down Under Book Reviews

"I loved this book. It had the ghost, the mystery, and a nice love story. It kept me guessing (as I state above) until the resolution and it ended better than I could have anticipated. An outstanding book and highly recommended." - Cindi at Greedy Bug Book Reviews
"Mr. McCormack develops, once again, characters that are real and honest. Steven’s reaction to Ryan’s appearance is not one we find everywhere, he is terrified and also curious; but mostly scared out of his mind. What I want to say with this, is that the feelings the main character express are genuine and believable in a way that makes him real." - Joha at Littles Books


Steven's life changes forever the day he discovers his childhood friend and lifelong crush, Ryan Walters, standing in his bedroom. The problem? Ryan Walters committed suicide just days earlier.

Ryan tells Steven that he didn't kill himself. He believes he was murdered and that his death is linked to an article he was working on for the school paper. Steven sets out to solve the mystery, but as the story unfolds, so does Ryan's secret life of sex with guys and depression. Steven realizes suicide is more plausible than Ryan's conspiracy theory, but he struggles to convince Ryan of the real cause of his death. And despite revelations of his friend's closeted life, he must face the truth that Ryan doesn't—and never will—love him.


Chapter 1

I stood in a line of blazers and skirts.
There wasn’t as much black as I’d expected. Bland, disgusting colors, but not morbid.
Dark blue. Peach. Salmon.
This was the first viewing I’d ever been to. There hadn’t been many deaths in my family, and Mom did her best to avoid dead people. She hadn’t even gone to my grandmother’s or uncle’s funerals. Too depressing, she’d said.
“Lynda’s such a survivor,” said a brunette with hips that stretched the waist of the beige skirt she wore.
She stood in front of me, beside Miss Greer, a trig teacher at my school.
“She’s doing better than she was yesterday.” Miss Greer didn’t know me, but I knew her. She was my bestie Lindsey’s teacher. Lindsey constantly complained that Miss Greer’s lessons were just overhead presentations that she’d copied from the textbook. Lindsey, who was used to getting by with her natural ability to pick up the material without having to take notes or study, had gotten Ds on Miss Greer’s past two tests. Having a teacher who cared little about explaining information to her students was new to Lindsey, and she was going to have to do some work to overcome it.
“I just can’t believe he was that unhappy,” Miss Greer continued. “And sleeping pills?”
“If I did something like that,” the brunette said, “I would at least do it somewhere my mother wouldn’t have to find me. I can’t even imagine.”
How can they be talking about it like this?
Although I wasn’t sure how they should have been talking about it.
“And you know her sister isn’t going to be here,” Miss Greer added, her arms folded. She shook her head.
“Why not?”
“She said she had to work. She wasn’t able to make it to Lynda’s husband’s funeral, either. Very convenient.”
“Oh, I just can’t stand people like that.”
I wonder what they’d think about Mom?
A fit of giggles came from behind me. It was some girls from school. I didn’t turn around. I didn’t want to know why they thought it was okay to giggle at this.
Didn’t they know why we were there? Ryan Walters was dead.
I knew that fact, but it wasn’t real. It couldn’t have been. I’d seen him just three days earlier.
We’d stopped by Starbucks and ordered the usual. I had a regular coffee with a dozen packs of cream and enough sugar to give the coffee a syrupy consistency. Ryan had a cinnamon latte—no whip, skim milk—and a blueberry muffin. He’d started eating blueberry muffins every time we went to Starbucks. Sometimes he’d get a brownie too. He’d been working on losing weight and talked on and on about diet and exercise, but I rarely saw him working out and more often than not saw him eating.
But he was smiling.
After Starbucks, we’d slipped into the adjoining bookstore.
Ryan had trailed his finger across a page in a Harlequin romance and chased me through the aisles, forcing me to endure an endless stream of euphemisms and descriptions of longing gazes. A big grin stretched across his face. His blue eyes sparkled. Was that what a person who’d killed himself looked like just days before he decided to do it?
That was all I could ask. He had such a great life. He had a hot girlfriend—Ellie, who got all the lead roles in the school plays. She was Anastasia, Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina. He had tons of friends. Well, he had tons of Facebook friends. I didn’t know how 3,400 Facebook friends translated into real friends, but I knew a few of the real ones, and they always seemed to have a good time. Or from what Ryan had said, I gathered they had a pretty good time. He had great grades. AP track. On the honor roll. He’d been on the football team, placing him in the stereotypical top of the social hierarchy. And he’d just received a full scholarship to Emory University. What did he have to be sad about?
It wasn’t that his life was perfect. I remembered when his dad had passed. That was terrible, and I remembered how much it affected him, but surely not enough to make him take his own life so many years later.
It couldn’t have been that. Something had to have happened recently—something that had thrown him into a rapid downward spiral. Or was I wrong? Was he always unhappy? Had he done things—said things—that I should have noticed? Surely, he’d said something. I just needed to keep replaying our conversations over and over again in my mind. I needed to keep reliving those moments until I remembered a cry for help.
One moment kept spiraling through my thoughts. After the bookstore we’d gone back to my house.
He’d sat in the swivel chair at my desk, fidgeting with a pencil beside my laptop. I figured he was having problems with Ellie or something in school. He wouldn’t look at me. Just stared at the pencil. I wondered if he noticed the bite marks along the side. He stuttered over some of his words, but he ended up laughing it off and asking about the stack of incomplete job applications beside my laptop.
It’d been such an insignificant thing at the time. The stutter. The agitated look. Now, it consumed my thoughts.
Had he been about to reach out for help? Was that the only sign I got? One moment that hadn’t seemed all that significant? I figured that someone who was going to kill themselves would have more red flags. There had to be other moments. I just had to keep reflecting on the past few weeks.
I’d thought it would be hard to think about him, but it wasn’t. He didn’t feel dead. I hadn’t seen a body. I’d only seen the news on Facebook. For all intents and purposes, this was just like all those years between elementary school and high school where we hadn’t spoken.
He was just gone for a little while. He’d be back. Just like before. Right?
The line wound back through the double doors that led out into the orange glow from a streetlamp outside. The place was packed with my peers and teachers—some I’d known most of my life, some I didn’t know at all.
She’s so late.
The universe seemed to conspire against Lindsey, making her chronically late to anything and everything—constantly sending her to detention for making it to first period thirty minutes after the bell had rung. I’d been present when the universe seemed to pit stop lights and emergency errands against her. However, it was hard for me to believe she was physically incapable of being somewhere on time. God knew how she managed to keep her job. Maybe it was a good thing she was only part time.
A few people behind me, Ryan’s group clustered together.
Chelsea Morgan, homecoming queen of our sophomore and junior year, stood by white blinds. She folded her arms. She normally waved them around in the hall as she relayed some hilarious story from the big party the weekend before. Chelsea was Ellie’s best friend. They’d been friends since we’d been in Mrs. Arnette’s fifth-grade class together. Beside her stood her boyfriend, Jason Quigley. He was Reverend Quigley’s son, and his popularity was tied to the success of the First Baptist Church of Wylow. I’d occasionally see him in the hall, sitting between a few homely-looking half-moon faces, serenading them with a Christian hymn or revamped Christ-centered pop song. He and Chelsea had been together for two years—since his breakup with Sandy Rogers, one of the Wylow Baptist Church’s most devout followers and head of their teen outreach programs.
Beside Chelsea and Jason, Aaron Spurr and Jesse Hunter had their hands behind their backs. Aaron’s lips neared Jesse’s ear. He whispered something to him. They were frowning—a distant expression from their usual laughs and smiles. They were always goofing off, the entertainers and the audience of their two-man show. They were on the football team with Ryan and had hung out with him since freshmen year.
The line crept forward, shifting more than moving.
This line’s so slow.
I’d hoped the viewing would stir the realization that Ryan was gone, but it didn’t seem to be working. If anything, this moment was for someone else. Someone older. Someone sicker. Someone different.
Not my Ryan.
Ellie’s Ryan, I corrected myself.
He wasn’t mine. He was Ellie’s.
I made it to a doorway that revealed a room of tabletops covered with vases of white and burgundy flower arrangements and framed three-by-fives of Ryan and his friends.
In the doorway Lynda stood, her cheeks unevenly rouged, black bags under her eyes as noticeable as her sagging double chin. She clutched a pearl-colored handkerchief against her chest.
“Good evening,” she said in a high-pitched voice, her free hand greeting Miss Greer’s as she approached. “Thank you so much for coming.”
“Lynda,” the brunette said as Miss Greer wrapped her arms around the grieving mother. “You’re doing so well.”
Lynda’s lowest chin quivered. Her eyes glistened. She took a deep breath. As Miss Greer released her, Lynda started like she was going to say something but stopped herself. She nodded, urging them into the room with a wave.
I felt weird about approaching her. I’d seen her a lot over the course of my life. Ryan and I used to have sleepovers when we were little, and she was always around. She was a nice woman. Always had been friendly. Something in her manner, in the way she talked, in the gleam in her eyes, naturally set me at ease. Whenever I came over, she’d always ask if I wanted something to eat or drink, always offered to make cookies or brownies. It was no wonder everyone had given Ryan a hard time about his ever-tightening shirts.
Did that have something to do with it? Was he responding to the “How’s Little Debbie?” comments and the latest Chunky Monkey nickname he’d acquired at school? Surely, it couldn’t have been that simple. It was school. We all were the perpetrators and victims of cruel teasing. From kindergarten to sixth grade, kids made fun of my thick, frizzy brown hair and the oversized tees I always wore to school. After the sixth grade, I’d wised up and made regular visits to Great Clips and H&M. Now, people just called me Charlie Brown on account of my fat snout and round featureless face. Didn’t do wonders for my self-esteem, but I’d never considered offing myself because of it. If I hadn’t thought about it, I couldn’t imagine why someone who had as much adoration and praise as Ryan would have. So he’d gained some weight. With a girlfriend who looked like Ellie, who cared what anyone else thought? I didn’t want her, but every other guy in school did.
Lynda wrapped her arms around me and pulled me close. She held me for a few uncomfortably long moments. She’d hugged me before, but never that close. Never for that amount of time.
She sniffled next to my ear. I could hear the suction of wet mucus pulling back into her nostril.
My muscles tensed. I wanted to pull away, to run away. Here she was, feeling terrible, wrapped in grief, and I couldn’t even bring myself to accept what was happening.
It isn’t happening. It can’t be.

“He caressed his nose against her willing, eager nipple,” Ryan had read, “his breath making its way down her breast.”
He’d snickered.
“Shut up,” I’d whispered, turning the corner into the horror section, hoping to find someone whose presence would shame him into silence. But the store was surprisingly empty. I’d figured we’d have to get closer to the cafe, where others were usually studying and socializing.
It hadn’t been the book I’d been afraid of. He’d kept moving so close. And the closer he got, the more concerned I was about blushing—about doing something that would reveal too much.

“Steven, you don’t know how good of a friend you were to him,” Lynda said, her words colliding with my memory.
Shouldn’t this force me to face what’s happening?
No such luck.
If anything I felt eerily excited. Like I wanted to do laps around the church. Like I had when Ryan and I were kids and bounced across the fold-out couch at Lynda’s. Not that I wanted him to be dead. I just had all this adrenaline, none of it allowing me to mourn Lynda’s loss… our loss.
Lynda pulled away, her eyes gazing into mine. They were sincere eyes. They were loving eyes. They were soothing eyes. “Thank you so much.”
I couldn’t imagine what she was thanking me for. I’d never done anything. I hadn’t even been one of his best friends. That thanks should have been reserved for Ellie, Chelsea, Jason, Jesse, and Aaron. Not me. I supposed Lynda had linked our childhood friendship and our present one without placing the appropriate space between them. Not that we weren’t good friends. But I wasn’t one of his really good friends. The truth was, just a few days earlier, I was someone he hung out with occasionally. We always had fun. We always laughed and joked around and caught up about what each other was doing, but he never invited me to go to the movies with his other friends. Or to a concert. Or to hang at someone’s house. If we hung out, it was just the two of us. We didn’t talk about serious shit. We goofed around. Like at the bookstore.
Since sophomore year, he’d hung out with a fairly popular crowd—one that probably would have judged him for bringing me to any house parties. Even if he had, I probably would’ve felt out of place. This lopsided position on the social ladder wasn’t the cause of the gap in our friendship. When we were kids, after his dad passed away, his mom had moved across town, placing him in another school district from elementary through middle school. It wasn’t until high school that he had found himself back in my school district and inadvertently back in my life.
Our interactions had been limited to a few “heys” on the rare occasion when we’d run into each other in the halls. But one afternoon, that changed.
Sixth period I had English with Mrs. Corsburry. She’d called on Clark Morgan to answer a question about Fahrenheit 451. Clark hardly did his homework, let alone read books. When he didn’t know the answer, Mrs. Corsburry humiliated him about it and called on me. I gave her the correct answer and didn’t think much of it.
After the last bell, I headed into the nearby restroom—a regular part of my routine. As I was heading in, I saw Clark enter behind me. It wasn’t something he normally did, so I was worried something might be up.
Clark and I had been in elementary and middle school together. By seventh grade, he’d had an enormous growth spurt that left him tall enough to push around other guys, myself included. When we were younger, a lot of kids made fun of his stutter, and I assumed his bullying was revenge for their mistreatment. However, it wasn’t geared exclusively at those who’d harassed him.
A few of the shorter guys in our classes had been his primary targets. I’d only experienced a few shoves when he’d pass me in the hall, which was nothing compared to when he was pried off Mark Harker in the school cafeteria after they’d gotten into a fight over Dana Kricher.
When Clark entered behind me, I felt like he was looking for some sort of revenge, but I assumed if I just got into a stall I’d be fine.
“Hey, f-fat-face,” he’d said.
I ignored the comment, stepped into a stall, and turned to shut the door.
Clark pressed his hand on the door and pushed it open. He arched his eyebrow, as if he was impressed with himself for foiling my attempt to get away.
But what was he going to do? Surely, he wasn’t going to strangle me over that stupid incident in class.
Ryan walked behind him, approaching a urinal along the wall. It made me feel even more at ease. With someone there, especially someone I’d known as well as Ryan, I felt safe. We hadn’t talked to each other in a long time, but I figured he wouldn’t let Clark beat the crap out of me.
I pushed past Clark and headed out of the restroom.
“Hey, I’m t-talking to you, f-faggot!
I glanced to Ryan, who stared straight ahead. I knew he’d heard the comment, so he must’ve been ignoring the situation.
Of course. They’re on the football team together.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel so safe. Perhaps Ryan would just let Clark get away with whatever so that he didn’t get ostracized by the other guys on the team.
I continued toward the walkway out of the bathroom.
“Faggot!” Clark exclaimed behind me. “I’m talking to you!” He pushed me so that my head hit the wall.
“Dammit,” I muttered, dropping to my knees and raising my hand to the fresh sting in my forehead.
Clark towered over me, his face tense. “If I talk to you, you—”
He fell to the side, as if he’d been standing on a skateboard and it had slid out from under him. Ryan had an arm around his waist. He threw him against the adjoining wall and laid punches into his abdomen.
“What… the… fuck!” Clark wailed.
Ryan gripped onto his throat and pushed him against the wall, staring him down. His face was bright red, redder than I’d ever seen it. He clenched his jaw.
“You ever fucking touch him again,” he hissed through ground teeth, “and I’ll rip your fucking throat out.”
His words were soft, frightening. Yet they brought me ease. I wasn’t just glad that he’d stepped in to save me from Clark. I was glad it had confirmed that our friendship actually mattered to him.
Clark trembled under his grip, nodding subtly, his eyes wide.
Ryan continued staring him down before finally pulling his gaze away, as if out of a trance. He released Clark and hurried out of the restroom, not so much as glancing my way.
Clark stood against the wall, frozen in terror. I supposed he was just as familiar with this side of Ryan as I’d been.
I dashed out behind Ryan. I wanted to thank him for saving my ass, but he must’ve run down the hall, because he was gone by the time I got out.
At first I thought Ryan’s action had been provoked by our past friendship. I hoped it had. But after that incident, whenever I ran into him, he paid even less attention to me. He wouldn’t even give me so much as a “hey” when we passed each other in the hall. He wouldn’t even glance at me. It was like he was trying to avoid me. The more I thought on the situation, the more I realized Ryan did what he would have done for anyone who was being bullied. I wasn’t anything special to him, and I never would be.
For the next year and a half, Ryan acted ignorant of my existence. It hadn’t been until we’d found ourselves in the same math class junior year that we’d started talking again.
Ryan was in all AP and gifted classes, which—at a school of four thousand students—operated in its own elitist world. I only took college preparatory and honors courses, meaning we never really saw each other. But after Ryan got a B in geometry sophomore year, he dropped down to Honors Algebra 2 in his junior year. That’s when we’d officially started talking again. Gradually, that grew into us hanging out, but neither of us ever brought up the Clark Morgan incident. We just acted like it’d never happened.
I moved into the viewing room.
Ellie stood in the corner, straightened blonde hair draping from dark roots, curling at her shoulders.
This is where the black is.
Ellie and her parents, on either side of her, were dressed in what must’ve been their darkest attire.
They whispered to each other. Ellie looked everywhere but the bulky, closed coffin at the far end of the room. A flower arrangement set on top. Beside it, a large framed picture rested on an easel, displaying those blue eyes, that freckle between the corner of his eye and his temple, and those gnarly teeth that should have been set in braces when he was little.
It wasn’t even a good picture of him. In the black tux he wore, he looked confident, charming—surely as good as he’d wanted to look. But it wasn’t him. It was frozen and lifeless—opposite of the fun and lively guy I’d known. Just a picture. A crappy imitation of the real thing.
It didn’t help me come to terms with what was happening… with what had happened.
I’d seen plenty of pictures of him. His Facebook page, now stacked with condolences—a phenomenon I still didn’t understand—was flooded with pictures. Pictures of him with his buddies. With Ellie. With everyone but me.
That bothered me. I had wanted to be a bigger part of his life. I’d wanted to be so important to him ever since I’d started seeing him again in the halls freshmen year. Even though I knew we weren’t kids anymore, even though we’d both changed so much, I’d wanted to be with him.
That chance was gone. Although it’d never really existed to begin with.
“Oh my God, this is depressing.”
I turned to see Lindsey standing beside me. Her jet black hair curled into her flat chest. Green eyes scanned the room, like she was a spy fearing that someone might blow her cover.
I wanted to say, “About time.”
It didn’t seem appropriate.
Lindsey tucked her pole of a body close, as if to suggest, “I’m only here because he is.”
She’d never hung out with Ryan. She’d made up her mind that he was an asshole who only took up my time when he hadn’t made other plans with his girlfriend or buddies. I assumed she’d made sure to communicate that to some of our peers, which was probably why she was making the physical statement, “I’m here for Steven.” She wouldn’t want anyone erroneously assuming she’d actually given a shit about Ryan.
But she hadn’t known the Ryan I’d known. She hadn’t seen his playful, silly, sincere side. She hadn’t played Mighty Morphin Power Rangers action figures with him. She hadn’t raided newly constructed homes for scraps of wood with him. She hadn’t stayed up, desperately fighting the pull of sleep until dawn with him.
She knew the popular kid—the guy who’d enjoyed people praising his latest article in the school newspaper… or on his blog. The guy who would say hey to anybody he’d had a class with, regardless of whether or not he’d actually ever spoken to them. The guy who wore Diesel jeans and Gap button-ups, as if to say, “I have the money to afford this… even though we live in a shack.” Lindsey didn’t like people who pretended to be better than they were. And that seemed to be Ryan’s mission in life. He didn’t like being stuck in little Wylow, Georgia. He didn’t like suburban life. He wanted to be in the city. He wanted to go to a university. He wanted to work at a big newspaper, covering exotic stories. He was ambitious. Better than me. I was just trying to improve my SAT score, and I’d already missed my deadline for early applications for college.
I didn’t know where I wanted to go. I was only seventeen. How was I supposed to figure out what I wanted to do for the next four years and inevitably for the rest of my life? I wasn’t good at anything. I was average at school. I’d attempted most school activities and hadn’t found anything I actually wanted to pursue. I couldn’t remember lines. Couldn’t catch a ball. Couldn’t stand chess. As for a future career, I couldn’t even bring myself to fill out an application for H&M, let alone decide what I wanted to do one day. Dad’s attitude went something like, “You better figure it out and take every step in the right direction, because you are already so far behind everyone else.” Mom thought more along the lines of, “I don’t care, but your dad is annoying me about this so much that you better go out and get to work.” It was overwhelming, and to appease any concern they had about my future, I’d lied about submitting applications to school and part-time work. I just couldn’t. Every time I’d started to fill out one of those applications, my thoughts scrambled. My chest felt heavy, constricted. In those moments, such a simple thing seemed like the most difficult challenge I’d ever faced.
Lindsey’s eyes fixed on Ryan’s picture. She didn’t have the scowl she normally wore. Her tiny face relaxed, like she was thinking about him, thinking about the kind of person he really was. I was sure this would be a fleeting moment and her usual, constant look of judgment would quickly return.
Her gaze shifted to me, still holding that sincere gleam. The way she glanced over my face, it seemed she was trying to assess where I was at—if I was about to lose my shit. She was always good at reading where I was at mentally. I wondered if she could tell that my biggest concern was people noticing I was in denial about his passing.
“Well, at least they chose one from when he was thin,” she said.
I couldn’t help but giggle. It was a comment that treated the scenario just as I felt it should have been treated. As a lie. A play. A hoax.
“Not everyone can have a zero-inch waist,” I said.
I stifled my amusement, feeling the sort of shame I’d hoped those giggling girls had felt after their outburst.
Lindsey started to smile at my comment but relaxed her face—I assumed to match my emotion.
“How’s Ms. Walters doing?” she whispered, looking over her shoulder.
“Didn’t you have to pass her?”
“No. I snuck in when Ellie’s dad went out back to make a call. Did you really think I was going to wait in that line? Are you kidding? We’re not that good of friends.”
The playful gleam in her eyes suggested otherwise.
“Your mom not coming?” she asked.
“She thinks viewings are depressing.”
“Big fucking surprise.”
I glanced between Ellie and Lynda, surely looking as paranoid as Lindsey had looked before. Neither seemed to have caught the remark. “Will you watch your mouth?”
She sighed… like respecting everyone else’s grief was a great inconvenience.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her tone serious. I understood she was struggling with the sarcastic girl I normally loved hanging out with, but we didn’t need everyone hating us because she couldn’t keep her attitude under control.
“Your mom needs to get a soul,” she muttered.
I shifted my attention back to Ryan’s picture. The freckle. Those eyes.
He’s dead. He’s dead. Feel it. Just feel it.
My mind wouldn’t accept it. It was like inputting a wrong password. No matter how many times I tried, it wouldn’t take. Judging by the smiles and giggles that swept across the room, it seemed others were having the same problem.
But they didn’t really know him. Not the way I had.
They were there because that was where everyone was going that night. It was a night where anyone who was within his proximity had to come—to pretend they’d had meaningful experiences with him. Just like all those Facebook pictures of people who’d posted what was probably the only picture they’d ever had with him.
I didn’t have any pictures with him, but I’d still known him better than they had.
Even students and faculty who may or may not have known him at all packed the place… if only because they’d heard about his death on the news. Like Mr. Kruger, the school counselor, who stood along the wall with some of Ryan’s teachers. He must’ve been making an appearance to lead those most traumatized by the event to his office.
It wasn’t the most nefarious of motives, but it still bothered me.
I looked to those blue eyes once again.
I loved you, Ryan. And now you’ll never know.

Chapter 2

Words. Just words.
Mr. Ivy scribbled blue ink across the whiteboard, his forehead glistening in the white ceiling lights.
If I’d read the sentences, they probably would have made sense. They probably would have been about the Articles of Confederation and everything we’d been talking about that week. At that moment, they just looked like rows of nonsense.
I hadn’t done the reading. I hadn’t done most of my schoolwork.
Something that felt so important had just happened, and here I was, expected to go on as if nothing had changed.
It’ll click at some point, I kept telling myself.
Ryan’s death would become real. Eventually, I’d be able to cry and let go. I’d be able to acknowledge that I was never going to see him again. Not that I hadn’t thought it. It was just going to feel like that was the case.
“Tomorrow,” Mr. Ivy said, “I want you guys to have partners picked for your projects. Either you have someone picked, or I’ll pick for you.”
Mr. Ivy hadn’t had Ryan as a student, but for some reason, I expected him to show some reverence and give us time to recover. However, none of the teachers acknowledged Ryan’s death. We were just moving on. Moving on like he hadn’t even been meaningful to us… to me.
After the bell excused us from Mr. Ivy’s class, I tucked my binder and textbook in my backpack and tossed it over my shoulder.
I was never in any particular hurry. I didn’t race to classes. I usually just got up and moved along, drifting with the flow of the hall traffic.
That day, I was particularly slow.
“Steven.” A voice came from behind me as I walked along the white-bricked wall outside Mr. Ivy’s class.
I turned, my gaze sweeping across the mass of students that streamed before the lockers on the opposite wall.
Tyler stood behind me, his dark hair waving over his forehead, his polo clinging against his muscular pecs.
He was in Mr. Ivy’s class too. He was also one of the more attractive guys in our graduating class, and I found it hard not to toss glances his way whenever Mr. Ivy’s lectures would get particularly boring, which was often.
Tyler and I had been in classes since his parents had moved to Wylow in the sixth grade. We sat next to each other in Ms. Garret’s seventh grade English class and got into trouble for talking, usually about video games. He was always whipping out his Game Boy to evolve his Pok√©mon to the next level, and I pretended to care because I liked talking to him.
I figured I should have said “Yeah?” or “What’s up?” or done something to act like a normal person. All I could do was stand there, staring into his light brown eyes. Usually, I acted like that because I was so smitten with him. Today, I could hardly enjoy those half-moon dimples. They just reminded me of Ryan. Tyler worked at the Starbucks in the bookstore and had actually served us our lattes that last night I’d hung with him.
“Hey, man,” he said. “You okay?”
I wasn’t, but I couldn’t say that to him. Tyler had been on the football team with Ryan. I hadn’t known him nearly as well.
I nodded. “You?”
“Just really surprised to hear it was… you know.”
That it was a suicide?
That’s what most everyone meant when they said “you know” when referencing Ryan’s death.
What was I supposed to say? That I agreed? Was it wrong to talk about this? Was it wrong to call it what it was? Or was I just uncomfortable because I still felt guilty about not having picked up on Ryan’s distress? Had Tyler? Did he know things about it that I couldn’t have? Had he heard some of the other guys in our class talking about how Ryan really felt, about what had led him to taking his life?
“I was gonna see if maybe you wanted to work on this project together,” Tyler said.
What are you talking about?
“Project?” I asked.
“Mr. Ivy’s class… the one he asked us to have partners for like five seconds ago.”
“Oh yeah. Totally.”
I wasn’t really thinking about the project… or if Tyler was going to be all that great of a partner. I guessed it would be nice to have a partner and avoid that awkward moment when everyone partnered off, leaving me by myself. On a normal day, I would’ve been thrilled to get to spend more time in the presence of his gorgeous, gym-acquired body. Right now, I just didn’t want to have to deal with the real world. I wanted to exclusively live in my thoughts, in my memories.

“Steven,” Mom said.
A bowl cut of black hair framed her square forehead. She wrapped her arms—covered in light blue sleeves—around her legs. She curled up in the corner of the couch, the heels of her pink socks denting into the cushions. She reached her hand out and set it on mine. “I’m here for you. It’s not easy when you lose someone close to you.”
When I’d returned home, she’d grabbed me and pulled me onto the couch, where she was prone to take me whenever she felt we needed to talk about something. Considering her feelings about dead people, I was surprised she’d mustered the courage to talk to me about it.
“It’s not like you lost a parent or a sibling,” she continued. “That’s impossible to recover from. I don’t want to say impossible, but those things are traumatizing… cruel. They remind you of your mortality… your vulnerability. They bring up all those unmended wounds you’ve buried deep inside you.”
This was going to be a long chat. I could tell. But with Mom, when weren’t they?
“I don’t want you to develop any thought pattern that’s going to end up hurting you in the future. I know ever since Mandy called me to tell me about it, I’ve just been dealing with all the negative energy. Thoughts about the fact that I’m going to die. You know that’s why I don’t go to funerals. I can’t imagine what kind of negative energy you surrounded yourself with at the viewing and the funeral. I understand that we all have to deal with these things in our own way, but you don’t realize the kind of energy trap you’re putting yourself in when you go to something like that. I know you can’t really feel it now. It’s not going to really hit you until later in life. And the older you get, the more dramatic it’s going to be. The more you’re going to be consumed by it. It wears on you. I can’t even imagine the sort of clogs that are blocking my chakras right now. I have to see Roul next week.”
Roul was Mom’s Reiki healer. He had several odd jobs—Reiki healer, personal fitness trainer, real estate agent.
“Steven, I can make you an appointment if you need me to.”
She lowered her hands to the crotch of her jeans.
“A death really hits your root chakra. That’s where it hit me after my mom and brother passed, and that root chakra affects all the others, so it’s really important that we clear those blockages. I had all these horrible migraines after Mom passed. I mean, she was really awful, but I loved her, and it really affected me. When I started clearing my chakras, it just opened me back up to the world. Made me feel free and new and in love with the world.”
She wrapped her arms around me and hugged me close. “I am always here for you. Just let me know what’s stressing you. How this is affecting you, because I know it is. You know what I’m going to do….”
She pulled away, reached into her pocket, and slipped out her cell.
“I’m going to make an appointment for you with Roul.”
I set my hand over her phone. “No, no,” I insisted. “I’ll be fine. Thank you, though.”
I was fine with Mom buying into whatever woo she wanted to… and even with her trying to push it on me. I just didn’t want to get dragged into it.
She pouted, clearly upset that we couldn’t bond over our chakras.
“Okay. Well, you just let me know if you change your mind.”
She leaned forward and kissed my forehead.
She pulled away and gazed into my eyes. “If there’s anything you want to talk about, I’m all ears.”
I knew she loved me and wanted what was best, but right now, I just wanted to be left alone.
“I will.”

I fell face-first onto my blue and white checkerboard-patterned duvet.
After Mom’s not-at-all helpful discussion about Ryan’s death, I needed a nap. I needed to get him out of my head. Forget about him. If only for a moment. Just long enough that I would be able to see that, somehow, I’d be able to move past all this.
“Psst. Steven.” The words were so soft I thought I might have imagined them. Shifting my head on the mattress, my gaze wandered in the direction I thought I’d heard the sound come from. A part of me seemed not to believe my ears. Another part was too curious not to look.
At my desk, before a screensaver that flashed red and blue on my laptop’s black background, Ryan rose from my swivel chair.
It couldn’t have been.
But it was!
“Holy Jesus!” I flipped on my back and crawled across the bed, to the corner of the room. I pressed my arms against either wall. They tensed, as if instinctively preparing to bounce off and scramble for the door. But another part of me was paralyzed, keeping me locked in place.
Ryan held his hands before him, like he was showing an officer he was unarmed.
“Whoa, whoa! It’s just me!”
Just you?” I shouted. “Y-y-you’re dead!”
At least, he was supposed to be.
He wore his form-fitting red Gap T-shirt—one that had once shown off his muscles. Now, the hem of the sleeves pinched at thick, flabby flesh. His dirty-blond hair spiked in the front, as he usually fixed it for school.
“Da-ga-da—” I stuttered, trying to force a coherent sentence out of my mouth.
“Steven?” Mom’s voice came from the hall.
The door opened.
My eyes widened as she stepped in.
Oh God. She’s gonna flip.
“You okay?” she asked.
My gaze flashed to Ryan. She followed it, looked back to me, and tilted her head. “Steven, are you getting sick? You look pale.”
She couldn’t see him?
I’m hallucinating. I’m going crazy!
That was the only explanation.
“Dude, act cool,” Ryan said.
I panted.
What the hell? What the hell!
My chest trembled as I hyperventilated.
Mom approached my bed.
“Steven?” she asked. “Do you need a Xanax?”
I wanted to point at Ryan and clarify—to make sure Mom couldn’t see him, but clearly she couldn’t. Was I supposed to tell her that I was losing my mind? Oh, she’d be so excited to take me to a therapist! She would love for me to have something clinical. She’d have to go to a new group counseling session just to recover from my psychosis.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” I said in a way I knew she probably interpreted as, “I’m not fine at all.”
“Oh, Steven, you know you can talk to me about anything.”
She sat on the edge of the bed.
“Just breathe, Steven.” Ryan stepped behind her.
I could see my X-Men comics poster through him. Storm and Jean Grey were covered in the red hue of his translucent shirt.
“Just breathe,” he continued.
Rapid, quick breaths rushed through my lips.
He stepped around Mom and continued toward me.
“Stop, stop, stop!” I begged.
That was too much. He needed to get away. Moving closer wasn’t helping. It was just freaking me out.
Mom stroked her hand across my shoulder, down my arm. “Sweetie, do you want me to make you an appointment with Dr. Gerral? Would you like that? That’s what I’ll do?”
Dr. Gerral was Mom’s therapist. Normally I would have fought her on this, as I had with Roul, but I clearly needed help… and medication.
“I know this is weird,” Ryan said. “I just need you to chill out.”
“Please stop talking.”
“Okay,” Mom said. “You know what, I’ll just let you have a moment. I know what it’s like to need space.”
Oh my God. Can she not see how terrified I am?
She rose from the bed and headed for the door. As she stepped into the doorway, she turned back to me.
“If you need something to help you relax, just let me know.”
She shut the door, leaving me with my hallucination.
I didn’t look at him. I tried to keep my gaze fixed on the blue and white pattern of my comforter, though I had to keep him in my periphery to make sure he didn’t try to attack. Not that Ryan had any reason to attack me. But could I even be sure this thing was really him?
“Inhale… exhale…,” he coached.
“Inhale, exhale? What is wrong with you? What’s going on?” I hissed, trying to be quiet so Mom wouldn’t hear me and come in again.
“We can get through this if we just calm down.”
“Calm down? I’m losing my mind, and you want me to calm down?”
“You’re not necessarily losing your mind.”
“That’s the only explanation.”
“Maybe not.”
“Yes. It is.”
“Steven, you know what I’m getting at.”
I know you want me to say ghost, but I’m not going to. That’s impossible.
“And that’s why I’m saying there isn’t,” I said.
“There’s no other explanation.”
“Yes, there is. That I’m losing my mind.”
“Dude, you’re not losing your mind.”
“Then prove it.”
“Prove it?”
“Yeah. Do something. Lift something up. I don’t know. Do something that will show me that you’re not just in my head.”
He glanced around. “As far as I can tell, I can’t move anything.”
“What do you mean? You’re walking on the floor. You were sitting in my chair.”
“I have to concentrate just to do that. When I was first getting around, I was falling through all sorts of shit. Only thing I don’t seem to have to think about is the ground.”
“What do you mean why? How the hell would I know? Do you really think I’ve figured this out?”
“Well, concentrate on moving something.”
“You don’t think I’ve tried that already? I watch the same movies you do, okay?”
“There has to be something.” I tried to think of a reasonable test—something I could use as a way of being sure I wasn’t just going crazy.
“Can’t you just trust me?”
“Shut up and let me think…. Tell me something… something only you would know.”
“We used to play Power Rangers—”
“No, no. If I’m hallucinating, then of course I would know that.”
“If you don’t know it, then how will you know that I’m right?”
“Okay, okay,” Ryan said. “What if you think of a number, and I try and guess it.”
I jumped off the end of my bed and hurried to my desk, walking sideways so I could watch him.
I slid an old math test out from under my job applications, grabbed a pen, and scribbled—with a trembling hand—a number on it. I raced to the bed, set it down on the edge, and stepped away.
“Go ahead.”
He moved toward it and glanced down. “You got an eighty-six on this?”
“The number, please.”
“What? Oh damn! That’s useless.”
“What? Why?”
“If I’m hallucinating, then I would totally know the number already, because I wrote it. That’s the stupidest test ever.”
“Then what do we do?”
“Something I can check. I can’t know it, but I have to be able to verify it.”
“Dude, I’m clearly right here.”
“If you really are, then you won’t have a problem letting me check… if only so I know that I don’t need to see a psychiatrist, which I probably have to anyway since my mom saw me spazzing because you decided to creep up on me like this.”
“I wasn’t trying to creep up on you. I didn’t even think you’d be able to see me.”
I hardly heard him. I was too busy trying to think of a test that would prove that I wasn’t out of my mind.
“I’ve got an idea.”

“Hey, Mom.”
She sat on the couch in the living room, gazing through her reading glasses at the pages of what I assumed was some new age self-help book about happiness and spiritual development.
Her gaze shifted to me.
“What is it, Steven? Did you want a pill?”
“Um… no.”
Ryan stepped beside me.
I wanted to tell him to back off, like I’d kept whispering all the way down the stairs, but I knew that would really rouse Mom’s concern.
“Take it,” he said. “You might want it later.”
I held three pieces of scrap paper I’d created in my room and the pen I’d grabbed when I was trying to test Ryan’s authenticity.
I held out two of the pieces of paper and the pen.
“I’m doing an assignment on randomness for math. Will you write down a number on both sheets? The same number.”
“How is this going to help with randomness?”
Good point.
“It’s… there’s more to it. Just… do it.”
I sighed, that same sigh I’d made so many times when Mom had questioned schoolwork and projects.
She took the sheets and the pen.
I eyed Ryan suspiciously. How weird would the number have to be to convince me this was real?
“On second thought, could you make it three letters and three numbers?”
“This sounds like an odd assignment.”
“Okay, okay.” She closed the book on her fingers, set the pieces of paper on the cover, and jotted down her numbers on both.
“The same number,” I emphasized. “And don’t let me see.”
She smirked, seemingly amused by how serious I was taking all this. If only she had known how important that was to potentially confirming my sanity and transforming my concept of reality.
She finished and handed me the papers.
I headed into the kitchen.
Placing her sheet on the edge of the marble island, I walked around it and leaned on the edge of the counter, before the sink.
“Okay,” I whispered. “Read it to me.”
Ryan stood at the edge of the island. He tilted his head and smirked. “One, two, three, A, B, C.”
Really, Mom?
Despite Mom making this test as ridiculously simple as possible, I scribbled them down on my sheet and headed back into the living room.
“Can I see your sheet, Mom?”
She handed it to me.
All three sheets matched.
“See?” Ryan said.
“One, two, three, A, B, C? Seriously, Mom?”
“What?” she asked. “Do I need to do it again?”
I eyed Ryan. If we didn’t do it again, I wasn’t going to believe it.
He sighed.
“If it’s four, five, six, D, E, F, that’s not gonna be okay.”
We did the test again. Just like before, Ryan was correct about her numbers.
Was I really going to have to acknowledge this was happening?

“Are there more of you?”
We’d returned to my bedroom. After an hour of freaking out, I’d finally calmed down enough to start talking to Ryan again.
I sat on the corner of the bed. He lay beside me, his elbow resting on the mattress, his chin pressed into his palm.
He shook his head. “Not that I know of.”
“Any white light? Did you, like, miss it or something?”
“No, I didn’t miss it. This is it. This is all there’s been.”
“Why did you come to me?”
Despite how crazy this all was, I secretly hoped it meant he considered me a really good friend.
“It’s not like I came here first,” he said.
“You’re just the first person who’s been able to see me. I tried to talk to my mom and Ellie, but they didn’t even know I was there.”
“How do you get around? Like, teleport or something?”
He looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. “Teleport? What is this, Star Trek? I walked. I have to get around just like I did when I was alive.”
“How am I supposed to know that? That’s just as believable as you being here right now.”
“Fair enough.”
“So why can’t Ellie or your mom or mine see you but I can?”
“I don’t know.”
“If you didn’t know I could see you, why did you even come here?”
“It was one of the last places I was before it happened. I was just retracing my steps… trying to make sense out of everything.”
“Even if this is really happening… oh, if this is really happening, you are in so much trouble. Why did you kill yourself?”
In an instant, my confusion had transformed to rage.
“I didn’t!”
“Yes, you did. You took sleeping pills. What the hell is that about?”
He sat up and scooted closer to me. I slid across the bed so fast, I nearly fell off.
“Listen to me, Steven. I promise, I did not kill myself.”
“What?” I asked, repositioning myself on the mattress. “You’re sure?”
I knew that question was weird when I said it, but I had to ask. If anyone would have known, I guessed it was him, but why else would his death have been declared a suicide?
“I think I would know if I was suicidal.”
“Then… what happened?”
“I don’t know.”
“How do you not know? That doesn’t make sense.”
That doesn’t make sense? I’m sitting here talking to you and that doesn’t make sense?”
Good point.
“What was the last thing you remember?”
“I came home from school, was getting ready to do my homework and respond to some comments on the blog.”
“But what about… like… the very end.”
“Nothing after that. I remember waking up in bed and there were all these cops in the house, and Mom was a wreck. Crying her eyes out. I tried to talk to her, and the cops, but no one responded. I got so frustrated that I started slamming my fists against the wall. But my hands went right through it. I went back to my room, and they were moving a body, setting it on a gurney. I thought, ‘Who are they moving out of my room?’ And then I saw the face, and I knew it was a nightmare. It had to be, because it was me. But it couldn’t have been.
“Have you ever had a dream where you figured out you were dreaming and try to wake yourself up, but you just can’t? That’s what it felt like. And I kept trying to wake up… screaming… jumping up and down… opening and closing my eyes like I thought it would make my sleeping body do the same thing. Nothing worked. After a while, I realized it wasn’t going to work. I started listening in on my mom’s conversations with the cops. They kept talking about suicide. Even when I went to Ellie’s, she and her parents were going on about how they figured that’s what it must’ve been. I tailed them to the viewing the other night—”
“You followed them there? Why didn’t I see you then?”
“I didn’t go in. I was about to, but after hearing everyone whispering… talking about why they thought I killed myself, I just couldn’t. Oh, the things people said…. You should’ve heard them. Talking about how I abandoned my mother. Saying how selfish I was for doing it where she’d find me and have to see that. And their guesses about what was wrong with me. They acted like I had some sort of mental defect… or was a selfish asshole. It’s ridiculous.”
Even in death, he was concerned about his public persona. But considering the situation, his concern was justified.
“But wait. If you didn’t kill yourself, was it an accident…?”
Ryan glanced me up and down, as if he was sizing me up, like he didn’t think I was ready to hear what he had to say. His expression was serious, stoic, so distant from the playful, laid-back Ryan that I’d known. “I don’t think so.”
The serious look in his eyes led me to suspect where he was going with this. “So what? You think someone—” I couldn’t even say it. It sounded ridiculous, even in my head. But at this point, what didn’t sound ridiculous?
“Killed me,” he said. “Maybe.”
I was definitely crazy.
“Yeah. That makes perfect sense. Not! Who would have wanted to kill you?”
“I know. It sounds absurd. But just hear me out. I was working on this story before I died. For a blog post. Thought it might help me get a gig with the AJC.”
He was talking about the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a major Atlanta publication.
“The AJC? Really? You thought you were gonna get a job at the AJC?”
“Yeah. After my last post on texting and driving, I got an e-mail from one of the editors there. Said he liked my writing. Also said if I could come up with a really juicy story, he’d help me pitch my next story to the paper.”
“Why didn’t you ever mention this?”
“Because what if nothing happened? I didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up. Just figured if it worked out, that would be totally awesome.”
It was strange that we’d hung out before he passed and he hadn’t mentioned this before. I guessed it just showed that we weren’t as good of friends as I’d believed.
“And this story got you killed? What, were you profiling modern serial killers?” I snarked, a defensive reaction to the whole situation.
“You know Reverend Quigley?” he asked, not acknowledging my remark.
I didn’t know him personally, but I knew of him. He was Jason’s dad and the minister who headed a massive congregation that met at our high school.
I nodded.
“He just bought some property to build a new church on. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for protecting endangered species.”
Now I was really missing something. Why was he bringing endangered species up in conjunction with Reverend Quigley? We were in the middle of Georgia, not Africa.
“The Endangered Species Act allows the FWS to prevent people from building on land where endangered or nearly endangered and threatened species live. The red-cockaded woodpecker—”
I smirked at the name.
“I’m explaining to you how I might have died—can you be a little more considerate?”
I didn’t know why I’d responded like that to the name… or made the serial killer comment previously. Perhaps this lighthearted humor was just my brain’s survival mechanism to take in all the nonsense that was before me—like whatever had led me to being incapable of internalizing Ryan’s death.
“So there are these woodpeckers that are protected by the Endangered Species Act, and evidently, someone filed a complaint with the FWS, claiming there were sightings of these woodpeckers on the property.”
“What do you mean ‘claiming’? There probably are.”
Ryan shook his head. “I’ve been there. I don’t think so. You remember a few years ago, when Reverend Quigley’s church split off from the Baptist church Reverend Doddard was running?”
“Well, Reverend Doddard’s church hasn’t been doing so well, so he had to sell some of the old property to Quigley. I think maybe Doddard is holding a grudge and filed the complaint to prevent them from being able to build on the land.”
“Maybe. But it doesn’t sound a little far-fetched that this is related to your death?”
“Not necessarily. Corruption. Politics. It was the only thing going on at the time that I think could lead back to my death.”
I eyed him suspiciously. “So you think someone went into your mom’s house, drugged you, and made it look like a suicide? That’s what you’re telling me?”
I hoped as I replayed his logic back to him, he’d realize how convoluted it sounded.
“I don’t know. But I’m telling you, I didn’t kill myself, and that’s the only thing that makes any sense.” He sighed. “And now my mom thinks I up and abandoned her.”
I could tell by the agitated look in his eyes, he was truly worried about that. And I understood why. With his dad gone, I knew he felt like he had to be there for her, as he had been when his dad had passed. If I’d been in the same situation, I wouldn’t have wanted my mom to think I’d abandoned her either.
“Did you hear her say that?”
“No. But that’s what everyone else is thinking. Saying she had it hard enough losing my father without me doing this. Can’t help but wonder if she thinks that too.”
His eyes lit up, like he’d gotten an idea. “But what if you found out what really happened?”
“Help me find out how I died. If we can get to the bottom of this, then you can convince everyone that I didn’t kill myself.”
“How am I supposed to get to the bottom of this?”
“I have an online file where I kept all my research. If you go through it… maybe you can figure out if there’s something there… something I was onto…. I don’t know. I just want to know the truth. And I want other people to know the truth.”
As if finding out I could see my dead friend wasn’t enough, now he wanted my help to find out how it had happened. Of course, I wanted to help him. If he’d been murdered, he didn’t deserve to have his mother thinking he’d abandoned her. And yet I had a hard time believing he was really in front of me, let alone all this church property nonsense.
Despite my reservations, I went along with his theory. He gave me his log-in and password for the file he’d been working on for the story. I sifted through the info and occasionally snuck over to a Wikipedia article on ghosts, which informed me of endless interpretations for what ghosts were and why they were here. There were Judeo-Christian ghosts, Islamic ghosts, Buddhist ghosts. There were African, European, and Asian ghosts. Unfortunately, other than their presentation of ghosts as a person’s spiritual presence in the physical world, they did little to help me understand why Ryan was here.
As it got late and I realized I should get some sleep for school the next day, I kept the light on.
I lay across my bed, facing Ryan, who lay on the floor, his arms folded under his chin. He stared forward blankly.
I wasn’t going to be able to sleep. Not with him right there. For some reason, I felt like he was going to try to scare me. That would have freaked me out.
He gazed at me and smiled. “Can’t sleep?” he asked.
I shook my head against the pillow.
“Neither can I. Haven’t even felt tired since all this happened.”
“Are you just going to lie there all night?” I asked.
“Probably not. I might walk around in a bit. I haven’t really thought about it.”
I sat up. “You’re not going to try to scare me, are you?”
His forehead creased. He didn’t seem to understand why I’d even suggested that. “What? No.”
“’Cause that would really freak me out.”
He smirked. “Why would I scare you?”
“You’re smirking. You’re totally going to scare me. Please don’t. Please, please, please. I mean it.”
He chuckled. “Where is this coming from? I’m not going to try to scare you. Dude, are you being serious?”
He stood up and approached the bed.
I crawled to the corner, pulling my covers close, as if they were going to shield me from him.
He sat on the edge of the bed. “Steven, seriously? It really is just me.”
“A part of me gets that, but you have to understand. This is really weird. Is there, like, somewhere else you could go or something?”
He glanced around. “I guess.”
“That’s not gonna help. You could just come through the wall and scare me.”
“Why do you think I want to scare you so much?”
“I don’t know.”
It was a strange, irrational fear. It wasn’t like he’d ever done that. But the eeriness of what he was freaked me out and made me imagine the strangest scenarios.
He stretched out across the mattress, placing his elbow on the pillow and resting his head in his palm. He patted the mattress beside him with his free hand. “Just lie down,” he said.
I pressed my back against the wall behind me.
“Come on,” he continued. “You clearly think there’s, like, something wrong with me. Like I’m a monster. Just come here.”
I still didn’t want to.
He sighed. “I’m not moving until you lie down.”
I could tell by his serious look he wasn’t kidding. I took a breath and lay down, keeping my eyes on him and my back pressed against the wall.
“Doesn’t this remind you of when we were little?” he asked.
He was talking about our sleepovers.
“Remember how we would try to see if we could stay up all night?” he continued.
“Oh my God. That was the stupidest idea ever.”
“Yeah, but you remember what would happen? If you went to sleep, I tried to brave it on my own, and I’d end up passing out at, like, four in the morning.”
“And if you went to sleep, I think I made it to, like, two.”
He giggled. “But that one night. We did it.”
“Yeah, ’cause we just kept poking each other, keeping each other up.”
“Whatever. We still did it.”
I reflected on that night. “Super Mario Bros. all night long.”
“Um… as I recall, I whipped out a little bit of Zelda.”
“Oh, that’s right! But that sucked because it was one player, you asshole.”
“Whatever. You got a turn.”
I smiled. We really did have a lot of fun back then. “Your mom and dad were so confused when we wouldn’t get up the next morning.”
He grinned.
I realized what he was doing. He knew I was scared of his new form and was trying to set me at ease by reminding me of our past together, our history, reminding me that this wasn’t any different than all those sleepovers we had.
He wasn’t this weird ghost thing. Well, he was. But he was just Ryan.
He lay there, smiling.
Here he was, in my bed, looking so cute. This was the only way I would ever have him like this.
The thought saddened me.
It stirred a question I’d had for a long time. Ever since we’d started talking again. I hadn’t asked, because I hadn’t wanted to spoil anything. But now I had to.
“Ryan, when you guys moved, I called a few times, asked your mom to get you to call me back. But you never did. Why not?”
His gaze sank to the comforter.
“We were good friends, right?” I asked.
He nodded. “Guess things got busy. I kind of just forgot.”
His response made me even sadder. I thought we’d been better friends than that, but it was ridiculous to expect an eight-year-old to think that we needed to be best friends forever. Besides, I clearly had wanted to be more than his friend, and since he hadn’t, it was reasonable that he hadn’t felt the same. Maybe that was why he never brought up Clark. Maybe it hadn’t been as big of a deal to him.
“Oh yeah. Of course.”
He frowned. He must’ve seen how upset I was by his response.
I shook it off. “Well, I guess I’m gonna try to get some sleep.”
I turned away from him so I faced the wall.
I wasn’t worried anymore. He really was just Ryan.
I felt safe next to him. Sad, but safe.