Gone for Good Page 32

I scrambled to my feet. Asselta rose straight up, like a spirit from the grave. He spread his arms. “No hug for an old friend, Willie boy?”

He approached, and before I could react, he embraced me. He was pretty short, what with that strange long-torso, short-arms build. His cheek pressed my chest. “Been a long time,” he said.

I was not sure what to say, where to start. “How did you get in?”

“What?” He released me. “Oh, the door was open. I’m sorry about sneaking up on you like that but . . .” He smiled, shrugged it away. “You haven’t changed a bit, Willie boy. You look good.”

“You shouldn’t have just . . .”

He tilted his head, and I remembered the way he would simply lash out. John Asselta had been a classmate of Ken’s, two years ahead of me at Livingston High School. He captained the wrestling team and was the Essex County lightweight champ two years running. He probably would have won the states, but he got disqualified for purposely dislocating a rival’s shoulder. His third violation. I still remember the way his opponent screamed in pain. I remembered how some of the spectators got violently ill at the sight of the dangling appendage. I remembered Asselta’s small smile as they carted his opponent away.

My father claimed that the Ghost had a Napoleon complex. That explanation seemed too simplistic to me. I don’t know what it was, if the Ghost needed to prove himself or if he had an extra Y chromosome or if he was just the meanest son of a bitch in existence.

Whatever, he was definitely a psycho.

No way around it. He enjoyed hurting people. An aura of destruction surrounded his every step. Even the big jocks steered clear of him. You never met his eye, never got in his path, because you never knew what could provoke him. He would strike with no hesitation. He’d break your nose. He’d knee you in the balls. He’d gouge your eyes. He would hit you when your back was turned.

He gave Milt Saperstein a concussion during my sophomore year. Saperstein, a nerdy freshman complete with pocket protector against polyester print, had made the mistake of leaning up against the Ghost’s locker. The Ghost smiled and let him go with a pat on the back. Later that day, Saperstein was walking between classes when, bam, the Ghost ran up behind him and smashed his forearm into Milt’s head. Saperstein never saw him coming. He crumbled to the ground, and with a laugh, the Ghost stomped on his skull. Milt had to be taken to the emergency room at St. Barnabas.

No one saw a thing.

When he was fourteen—if legend was true—the Ghost killed a neighbor’s dog by sticking firecrackers up his rectum. But worse than that, worse than pretty much anything, were the rumors that the Ghost, at the tender age of ten, stabbed a kid named Daniel Skinner with a kitchen knife. Supposedly Skinner, who was a couple of years older, picked on the Ghost, and the Ghost had responded with a knife strike straight to the heart. Rumor also had it that he spent some time in both juvie and therapy and that neither one had stuck. Ken claimed ignorance on the subject. I asked my father about it once, but he would neither confirm nor deny.

I tried to push the past away. “What do you want, John?”

I never understood my brother’s friendship with him. My parents had not been happy about it either, though the Ghost could be charming with adults. His almost albino complexion—ergo the nickname—belied gentle features. He was almost pretty, with long lashes and a Dudley Do-Right cleft in the chin. I had heard that after graduation he had gone into the military. Supposedly he’d been enlisted in something clandestine involving Special Ops or Green Berets, something like that, but nobody could confirm that with any certainty.

The Ghost did the head-tilt again. “Where’s Ken?” he asked in that silky, pre-strike voice.

I did not respond.

“I’ve been gone a long time, Willie boy. Overseas.”

“Doing what?” I asked.

He flashed me the teeth again. “Now that I’m back, I thought I’d look up my old best bud.”

I did not know what to say to that. But I suddenly flashed to when I stood on the veranda last night. The man staring at me from the end of the street. It had been the Ghost.

“So, Willie boy, where can I find him?”

“I don’t know.”

He put his hand up to his ear. “Excuse me?”

“I don’t know where he is.”

“But how can that be? You’re his brother. He loved you so.”

“What do you want here, John?”

“Say,” he said, and he showed the teeth yet again, “whatever happened to your high school hottie Julie Miller? You two get hitched?”

I stared at him. He held the smile. He was putting me on, I knew that. He and Julie had, strangely enough, been close. I never understood that. Julie had claimed to see something there, something under the lashing-out psychosis. I once joked that she must have pulled a thorn from his paw. I wondered now how to play it. I actually considered running, but I knew that I would never make it. I also knew that I was no match for him.

This was creeping me out big-time.

“You’ve been gone a long time?” I asked.

“Years, Willie boy.”

“So when was the last time you saw Ken?”

He feigned deep thought. “Oh, must have been, what, twelve years ago? I’ve been overseas since. Haven’t kept up.”


He narrowed his eyes. “You sound like you’re doubting me, Willie boy.” He moved closer to me. I tried not to flinch. “You afraid of me?”


“Big bro’s not here to protect you anymore, Willie boy.”

“And we’re not in high school either, John.”

He looked up into my eyes. “You think the world’s so different now?”

I tried to hold my ground.

“You look scared, Willie boy.”

“Get out,” I said.

His reply was sudden. He dropped to the floor and whipped out my legs from under me. I fell hard on my back. Before I could move, he had me wrapped up in an elbow lock. There was already tremendous pressure on the joint, but then he lifted up against my triceps. The elbow started bending the wrong way. A deep pain knifed down my arm.

I tried to move with it. Give way. Anything to relieve the pressure.

The Ghost spoke in the calmest voice I’ve ever heard. “You tell him no more hiding, Willie boy. You tell him other people could get hurt. Like you. Or your dad. Or your sister. Or maybe even that little Miller vixen you met with today. You tell him that.”

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