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the off season

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When he's late, next Hallowe'en, it's less forgivable than it would have been in the years before.

"Sorry," Pip says, fingers twining around the copper-blond hair at the nape of his neck. "I, uh. I got lost."

Jenny glares. Tom gives a great, shuddering cough behind his hand, "Liar!" whispering on the autumn wind.


(It might have started when they were nine and learning to play baseball and fall in the dirt together.)


She likes eating sugar candy skulls.

She likes the contrast of turquoise bloodred yellow purple against blinding bright white. She likes the crack of it splitting open when she bites into it, searching inside the cleft halves with her tongue. She likes the sweet bone marrow crawling down her throat.


(She'd once scratched at a mark exposed by the fraying wool on the hem of her skirt, the flesh underneath the angry bruise a soft milk white, drawing his gaze and holding it until Mrs. Archer called on him and he was forced to quickly invent a reason as to why the Puritans were so afraid of witches.)


(Tom, dark. Pipkin, fair.)

The rest of them, all mixed up in-between.


He's just turned eighteen when the card arrives, neat and formal and somehow all the more cruel for it.


1. NAME (Print)
Joseph Alexander Pipkin

--is as far as she gets before she shoves it back at him, eyes blinking furiously.

He looks tempted, briefly, to make some stupid comment about girls and their crying, but then--

"I hate being a girl."

Her face contorts, wretched and angry. (She's not sure who with.)


They only stole him back for a little while, she knows.


Wally's card arrives not long after; Tom's is next. Ralph

(and Jenny)

is the only one of their group who manages to survive unscathed, college as welcome an excuse as any.

( "I'm going to be a doctor. I mean, Dad's getting old, he can't always--" )


The best boy in their town - he who could jump highest, climb farthest, sing loudest - is the first to be shot at.


Sleep doesn't come so easy, anymore.

( "Hey," he soothes, "hey," and his fingers settle slow and easy over her hips. "Betcha it's no different from climbing a tree for the first time, huh?" )

Her eyes snap open.


Ralph is still smart, interesting, funny - but two make a lonely number as opposed to five.

His gaze looks more defeated behind his round spectacles, these days, and the light that used to grow and spark and ignite whenever he would talk about his books and courses and degree now fades to a dull glow that all but disappears, a candle winking out in a storm.


She makes dinner (mainly overdone casseroles) for the two of them some nights, burning autumn leaves in the distance dusting a rich scent in her nostrils. They laugh, of course, and exchange letters the others have written them (recited aloud, in the proper voices), and sometimes, if the spirit burns her throat just right, she'll let him ghost his lips over her cheek, and sometimes, over more.

His hand is warm and reassuring over hers.

It isn't the same.


She tucks her hair under a scarlet bandana and flexes her bicep in front of the mirror.

It's less funny when no one else

(her ghostboy)

is there to share the joke.


War ends.

(To an extent.)


Milk-pale fingers are spindling (and spidering and splintering) over hers.

He still looks the same (crinkling eyes, chip between his front teeth) and yet somehow different (the gaunt circles are new, she's sure), and she wants to shout and punch his arm and cry all at once.

(All over the country, all over the world, people are reuniting, and years from now she'll look at the newspaper clippings taped carefully inside her mother's scrapbook and frown.)

Aren't you happy to see me?, she's sure he's wondering.

Jenny raises her eyebrows, unimpressed. ("There are plenty of other nice boys who haven't nearly given me heart attacks," she tells him plainly. His answering grin, soft and amused: Well, where's the fun in that?)


He tastes (feels) like springsummerfall, apple cider and sticky molasses and home runs and cool afternoon wind, a bit of the American dream trapped in a lanky, freckled body - bursting and ready to overflow, fizzing over like glass bottles of Orange Crush, (lean angles. sharp cut-glass eyes.) an amber fossil unearthed, cracked open and spilling sweet days and seasons and memories, and she thinks, as someone who's been nothing but impatient for all of her life, she thinks that some things truly are worth waiting for.

(He kisses her and it feels like homecoming.)