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Authors: James Preller

Bystander

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BY
STAND
ER

FEIWEL
AND
FRIENDS
NEW YORK, NY

 

 

 

 

 

 

A F
EIWEL AND
F
RIENDS
B
OOK
An Imprint of Macmillan

 

BYSTANDER
. Copyright © 2009 by James Preller.
All rights reserved. Printed in August 2009 in the United States of America by R.R. Donnelley & Sons, Harrisonburg, Virginia. For information, address Feiwel and Friends, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

 

Preller, James.
Bystander / James Preller.—1st ed.
p. cm.
Summary: Thirteen-year-old Eric discovers there are consequences to not standing by and watching as the bully at his new school hurts people, but although school officials are aware of the problem, Eric may be the one with a solution.
ISBN: 978-0-312-37906-3
[1. Bullies—Fiction.  2. Conduct of life—Fiction.  3. Middle schools—Fiction.  4. Schools—Fiction.  5. Moving, Household—Fiction.  6. Divorce—Fiction.  7. Family life—New York (State)—New York—Fiction.
8. Long Island (N.Y.)—Fiction.]
I. Title. PZ7.P915Bys 2009 [Fic]—dc22 2008028554

 

Feiwel and Friends logo designed by Filomena Tuosto

 

First Edition: 2009

 

10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  1

 

www.feiwelandfriends.com

 

 

Dedicated in memory of my brother John,
loving father to David and Ryan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where you been is good and gone
All you keep is the gettin' there.
—Townes Van Zandt,
“To Live Is to Fly”

 

 

BY
STAND
ER

1
[ketchup]

THE FIRST TIME ERIC HAYES EVER SAW HIM
,
DAVID HALLEN
back 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
.

Scared witless.

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.

2
[pretty]

THEY CAME SOON AFTER
,
AS ERIC HAD GUESSED THEY
might. Four of them on bicycles. Three boys and a girl.

Eric was alone on the court, standing at the foul line. He dribbled twice, caught the ball in both hands, feeling for the lines of the ball with his fingertips. Foul shooting was a ritual, a practiced set of precise patterns. He took a deep breath, blew the air out, bent his knees, eyes fixed on the rim. Elbow up and out, wrist flicked. The ball shivered through the mesh. Perfect.

The hunters came from around the far side of the big brick building. They weren't pedaling hard, didn't
seem in any big hurry. They were talking and laughing as they rode, glancing around, the trail gone cold. Eric retrieved the ball and stepped back to the foul line. He glanced behind him, in the direction where the ketchup boy had fled. There was no sign of the boy; he had vanished like a ghost among the tombstones. That left just Eric. And now the bike riders were headed his way, four sailboats fixed on a distant shore, tacking this way and that in zigs and zags, but surely aimed toward the boy on the court in red basketball shorts, white new kicks, and a sleeveless tee.

The shaggy-haired boy in the lead pulled up right in the middle of the court, halfway between the foul line and the basket. He stayed on his bicycle seat, balanced on one leg, cool as a breeze. The boy looked at Eric. And Eric watched him look.

His hair fell around his eyes and below his ears, wavy and uncombed. He had soft features with thick lips and long eyelashes. The boy appeared to be around Eric's age, maybe a year older, and looked, well,
pretty.
It was the word that leaped into Eric's mind, and for no other reason than because it was true.

The other three stayed on their bicycles and slowly
circled the perimeter of the court, riding behind Eric and then back around and around, the noose of their circle drawing tighter each time. They, too, said nothing, as if content to wait for instructions.

Eric wondered if something bad was about to happen. And he wondered, too, if there might be anything he could do to avoid it. A part of him watched the scene unfold as if he wasn't in the middle of it, as if it was in a movie or something, as if he watched from an overhead camera, the cyclists circling like vultures around a carcass.

“You didn't see anybody come by here, did you?” the boy asked.

“Looks like a french fry,” a skinny, hatchet-faced boy added. He laughed, and the third boy joined in. Eric glanced at them, avoiding eye contact, then turned to look directly back at the leader, the one who had asked the question.

“I've been shooting around,” Eric explained with a shrug. “I didn't really—”

“Nobody, huh,” the brown-haired boy said, sliding off his bike and dropping it carelessly to the ground.
He didn't look that big or that strong, but he moved with an easy confidence. There was toughness there, a hardness beneath the long lashes and full lips. The boy held out his hands, clapped once. Said, “Let's see that ball, huh.”

Eric didn't hesitate. He made a sharp bounce pass to the boy. “Sure, here,” he said, as if there was nothing he wanted more than to hand over his ball to this stranger.

The other two boys deposited their bikes on the grass. The girl—with a high, round forehead and straight blond hair parted in the middle—remained seated on her bike, wrists dangling over the handlebars, silently watching.

“You new around here?” the boy asked. He dribbled the ball a little awkwardly, his skills unrefined.

Eric nodded. Yes, he was new. Eric sensed that he'd have to be careful; this encounter could go either way. It could turn out okay, or go very bad. Threat hung in the air, though no one had said or done anything wrong. It was just a feeling Eric got. A knot in his stomach.

The boy turned to the hoop and took a shot that
clanged off the metal backboard and bounced away. He grinned and shrugged, eyes smiling. “I'm not really one of those basketball guys,” he explained. “My name's Griffin. Most everybody calls me Griff.”

“I'm Eric.”

Griffin gestured toward the school building. “You gonna go to school here? What grade you in?”

“Yeah,” Eric answered. “Seventh.”

“Lucky you.”

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