Just after dark on a summer evening, Josh and Ryan rode their bikes to the south end of Pawleys Island. Ryan had recently taken to putting worthless baseball cards in his spokes, and they made a sound like a dozen miniature machine guns that slowed to nothing as the boys reached the boardwalk. They stashed their bikes in the dunes before running out onto the beach. It was low tide, and the expanse of sand stretched a long way out to the sea.
Their pockets were bulging with heavy flashlights, and they lumbered awkwardly. When they reached the middle of the beach, Ryan pulled out his light. He flicked it on and made the sound of a lightsaber. Josh did the same.
They circled one another holding their lights up, two-handed and high on their chests. The lights shone upwards and danced off the low-hanging clouds. A few small bats made random, spastic arches across the sky.
Ryan cocked a hip and leaned into Josh. Poking out his bottom lip, Ryan blew upwards to get the quaff of hair out of his eyes. It was dark enough that his red hair looked nearly brown. Josh squared off, too, bouncing on the balls of his feet and trying to look mean.
“On guard,” Ryan said.
“Luke, you’re a disappointment, my son. Now you must die!” Ryan was always Darth Vader, devoid, as he was, of fidelity to good guys in films. Josh favored Luke because he, too, despised his father.
The boys stepped toward one another. “You’re going to die, Vader!” Josh said, low and stern.
Josh and Ryan bellowed, and their lights came together. They slung their sabers back and forth, and each time they met, both boys made clashing electric sounds.
After a few minutes of this, they moved in closer, holding their lights firmly against their chests, pretending that their sabers were locked. Gritting their teeth, they stared menacingly at one another.
“Ok,” Josh whispered, as if in an aside. “Vader has to go down now.”
“Why? You go down.”
“That’s not the story.”
“Is now,” Ryan said, as he took a step back and kicked Josh in the stomach. Josh dropped his flashlight in the sand and fell, struggling for breath. Ryan stood over him and looked to the sky where his light shot up to the heavens. “Now I will be my own son’s undoing.” Ryan brought his light down and cut it across Josh’s midsection. “Son, how does it feel to lose your very bowels?”
Josh held his stomach, pretending that his innards were bubbling out. Ryan turned off his light and bowed his head reverently.
Still struggling for breath, Josh hobbled to his feet and brushed the sand from his shirt. He was about to make Ryan promise that Luke could win the next round when he saw a figure walking along the beach. As it drew closer, Josh could see by the hazy light of the moon that it was a man. Ryan turned, and they both stared. The man was dressed all in gray, with a three-piece gabardine suit, shabby and worn at the pockets.
“Holy fuck, dude,” Ryan said. “That’s the Gray Man. He’s come to warn us that there’s a storm on the way.”
“Shut up, Ryan,” Josh said. “It’s not a ghost; it’s just some old man.” Josh eyed him, willing that he himself cut a less pathetic figure than he did.
“If that’s not the Gray Man, then I’m a fucking trombone.”
The man was walking slowly, but he had changed his course ever so slightly and was now coming straight toward the boys. Josh could see that his eyes were dark and that he had a wispy gray mustache the same color as his suit. His trilby hat had a hole in the front just above the brim through which thin white hair blossomed. He coughed and it rattled dryly.
Josh’s heart began to palpitate, and he sidled up to Ryan.
“Howdy, boys,” the man said, stopping just before them.
They said nothing.
“Looks like you were having quite a fierce battle there.”
The boys continued to stare.
“You look like smart boys? What’s your names?”
“Smith,” Josh said. “And this is Murphy.” Ryan looked at Josh incredulously and then shrugged.
“Well, Smith,” the man said, addressing Josh. “You from around here?”
“Good,” he said. “You should think about heading home soon. The rain’s coming. The old wet business. Promises to be a doozy.”
Josh looked off toward the horizon where indeed a storm was beginning to gather. The moon was rising higher over the ocean, but the dark clouds obscured it. When Josh looked back, Ryan was gone. He rollicked down the beach casting his light this way and that for ghost crabs.
“A lively fella,” the man said. “He seems the sort to go in for games. You, though—” the man paused. He looked Josh up and down, his fingers worrying his mustache. “You seem clever. You like to read?”
“Sure. I like books.”
“C.S. Lewis mostly. And Tolkien.”
The man’s eyebrows rose sharply and then fell back. “You can’t go wrong with them. Who else?”
All of a sudden, Josh wanted to sound sophisticated. He thought of the book stashed under the covers of his top bunk and said, “Whitman.”
The man laughed. “Whitman seems a bit racy for a boy your age.”
Ryan capered around the beach, following the small white crabs as they scurried in search of their holes. Josh wished that Ryan would come back. He shot him a pleading look, but Ryan was now trying to bury a crab alive.
“Yes,” the man said. “Best not to accelerate the loss of boyhood. There are some books that boys must be careful to avoid.”
“I’m grown enough,” Josh said.
“Oh, I bet you are. I was just thinking about myself at your age.”
The man looked out over the dark horizon, the lightning beginning to flash in the clouds. Josh took the moment to wave a hand in Ryan’s direction. He either didn’t see or didn’t care.
The man said, “I bet you have lots of girlfriends. Or perhaps just one main squeeze. Smart boy like you. Serious boy like you. And so good looking. Must have the pick of the litter.”
Josh shook his head and began to walk in the direction of Ryan, who was so far down the beach now that Josh could barely make out his light dancing along the edge of the dunes. The beach was too breezy for fireflies, but Josh could see them winking their lights in the dunes beyond Ryan. He had taken a few steps in that direction before he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. He turned, and the man was stooped down, his face level with Josh’s. He could see the man’s gray teeth, barely discernible in the dark below his mustache. Involuntarily, Josh’s arm whipsawed, knocking the man’s hand from his shoulder.
“Come, now, my boy,” the man said. “I want to hear all about your sweethearts. How many have you?”
“I’ve already told you.”
“You mustn’t be coy. How many?”
Josh was silent.
The man sucked in his breath and waved a hand dismissively. “No bother. They’ll come soon enough. You’ll give and take the old wet business soon enough.”
Josh thought briefly of the storm, of the rain. He remembered the book in his bed. Ryan was coming back to them now, walking slowly, still scanning for ghost crabs. Josh had never felt happier to see him. The man stood silent and still.
“Come on,” Ryan said. “I’m starving.”
Without saying a word to the man, the two boys walked away. As they reached the boardwalk, Ryan noted how strange it was to be wearing a suit on the beach on a warm summer night. Josh nodded and looked back. The man was gone, but the storm was moving closer, and the rain had nearly made it to the edge of the water.
“Want to stay at my house tonight?” Ryan asked as he bent over to pick up his bike.
“No,” Josh said quickly. “I need to go home.”
As they rode back to their neighborhood, the rain caught up with them, drenching first their clothes. Then the baseball cards in Ryan’s spokes softened. The sound of tiny machine guns dwindled until the cards fell away leaving behind a trail of tattered paper. Small, dismembered faces stared up from the pavement into the underbelly of the storm.
They followed the boys all the way home.
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