The girls moved back to Ohio, the Bensons moved back to Buckman, and life moved on. Wally got his best friend Bill back, and they were soon hanging out like old times again, starting fifth grade together.
“Hey, look,” Bill said to him one day, when they were sprawled on their stomachs in the Bensons’ loft, doing math homework and sharing a bag of potato chips.
Wally squinted at what Bill was pointing to. There was something carved on one of the wooden rafters above Bill’s head.
The Malloys were here. Eddie, Beth, and Caroline Lenore!
Bill laughed, shaking his head. “The Whomper, Weirdo, and Crazie, huh?”
Wally sighed and went back to his homework. “Yup.”
“How are they doing?”
“How should I know?” asked Wally, annoyed. For some reason, the Benson boys seemed to find the Malloy girls particularly fascinating. Probably because they never had to put up with the girls when the girls had been a real pain in the neck.
“What, you guys don’t keep in touch?”
Wally frowned at the numbers on the page before him, scratching his nose with his pencil. After a moment he realized Bill was staring at him. Staring and smiling in an all-knowing, creepy way.
“What?” Wally demanded.
Wally came home from school one day to find Peter in the kitchen, sucking on cherry Kool-Aid and chatting happily away to the phone in his hand, legs dangling from his chair.
“... and we went to the cove last week and Wally tore a hole in his pants climbing a tree. He got really red in the face. Oh, and I caught a frog.”
“Who are you talking to, Peter?” asked Wally suspiciously.
Peter looked up at him, beaming. “Caroline, of course!”
Wally choked mid-sip of his pop. Soda came out of his nose.
Peter blinked. “D’you wanna talk to her, too?” Into the phone he said in a loud, singsong voice, “Hey Caroline, Wally can tell you—”
“No,” said Wally quickly as possible, and ran away. Correction: he left calmly and reasonably because he had better things to do than talk to Caroline the Crazie.
The Benson boys got the new PlayStation for Christmas. Wally wished his family could’ve gotten one too, but he knew his parents couldn’t afford it and besides, Wally could play the video games whenever he went to the Bensons’ house, which was nearly all the time.
What Wally got for Christmas was instead a new watch. Not one of those kid-ones that had cartoon characters on it, but a black waterproof one with a thick band. He liked it; it made him feel grown-up. Josh got an oil paint set and paintbrushes; Jake got a pair of new baseball cleats; Peter got a toy helicopter you could fly with a controller.
But that wasn’t all. A few days after Christmas, Wally’s father returned from his mail routes with a box tucked under his arm.
“For you boys,” he said, dropping it on the table.
“What is it?” asked Wally, tearing his eyes away from the TV.
“I don’t know,” Dad said, shrugging. “It’s not from me.”
“Then who? Grandma?”
“Just open it,” said Dad, smiling sort of mysteriously, and he went upstairs with no further explanation.
By now Jake and Josh had gotten up from the couch and joined Wally at the table. Peter appeared at Wally’s elbow, and the four of them stared down at the box.
“It’s from Dayton, Ohio,” said Wally.
“I can read, genius,” said Jake.
“You think it’s from the girls?” asked Josh.
“Open it!” said Peter excitedly.
Josh and Jake both looked at Wally, who groaned. Of course he had to do it. He got the utility knife from the kitchen drawer and held it over the box. He wondered if he should open this inside the house. What if it was a bomb or something?
“Hurry up,” said Jake.
Wally cut the tape binding the box shut. Breathlessly, the boys opened it.
A bunch of foam peanuts greeted them. Pushing those aside, they found a…
“What is that?”
It was the most hideous doll to exist on Earth, a short stumpy mannish-thing wearing a grass skirt and sporting plastic, tacky hair. The doll was taped to a rectangular block of wood. On it, in marker, someone had written The Malloy & Hatford Cup.
“There’s a card,” said Josh, reaching to the bottom of the box. He unfolded it and read out loud, “‘Something to commemorate the War by. Love, Eddie, Beth, and Caroline Lenore.’”
“Love? Yuck,” said Jake.
“Hold on, there’s more,” said Josh, turning it over. “‘P.S. Don’t think you’ve won. We’re only lending this to you until our next battle. It’s never over.’”
“Those girls,” said Jake, but Wally thought he was definitely grinning.
They put the hideous trophy on top of the mantelpiece, front and center.
It was Valentine’s Day. Wally went to school, uneasy and on edge. He had to tell himself a million times that Caroline Malloy was long gone and would never try to force him to be her boyfriend again. When the person sitting behind Wally tapped him on his shoulder he jumped a mile, almost expecting to feel Caroline breathing down his collar, but it was just Ronald Bigby passing back extra worksheets.
Wally went home, made himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and decided to log onto the computer before heading over to the Bensons’. Bill and Wally had entered an online sweepstake for DC Comics and Wally was constantly checking his email these days.
He did have a new email… but it wasn’t from DC Comics.
He frowned. The sender was audreyhepburn129. Who was that? He didn’t know an Audrey.
The subject header read URGENT PLEASE READ in bold letters, though, so Wally, against his better judgment, opened it.
“Yeah?” asked Josh, sticking his head out from the bathroom, his hair still damp from his shower.
“Why did you give Caroline my email?” Wally asked through gritted teeth.
“Well … Beth said her sister missed you,” said Josh, not meeting his gaze.
Wally shut himself in his room, burying his head under his pillow. Caroline Malloy was never getting out of his life.
The emails kept coming. If Caroline in person had been annoying, just imagine her on cyberspace.
She sent him scripts of movies starring herself. Written by who else?They were always dramatic and involved at least one death or natural disaster and some parts of the script weren't even in English.
“It’s French! My neighbor Elise is from France, she’s très incroyable and guess what, she said I have what it takes to be on Broadway. She even said …”
Wally looked up at the ceiling and waited tortuously for the voice on the other end of the line to stop talking so he could hang up. At the same time, he wondered why he hadn’t done so already.
Jake made the Buckman Badgers again this year, and they celebrated with takeout pizza. Mom even let them have ice cream afterwards.
Eddie Malloy made the team of her middle school in Ohio, too. She was the first girl ever. They all knew this because Jake received a newspaper clipping in the mail.
“Edith Ann Malloy, a star on an all-boys baseball team,” went the headline.
Jake snorted. “That’ll inflate her ego, alright.”
But he took the clipping with him, Wally saw, and he didn’t even crumple it.
Dad got a promotion at work. He was the manager of the Buckman post office branch now.
“Does this mean we can get a PS?” asked Wally hopefully.
“Or a new car?” asked Jake, who was already counting down the days to his learner's permit.
“Or a pool?” asked Peter.
Mom and Dad laughed. “Sorry, not quite there yet … but,” said Dad, winking, “how about a road trip to Chicago?”
The boys looked at one another. The last time they’d taken a summer vacation was to Tennessee to visit Grandma, and Peter had been only a baby. And Chicago? Where Al Capone gunned down rival gangs and things?
“Awesome,” they said in unison.
A week before the trip, Mom came home from the hardware store, smiling. “I have news,” she announced.
“Good or bad?” asked Wally.
“Good … Well, maybe,” she said, her smile growing wider. “I just got off the phone with Mrs. Malloy. She said she would love for us to stay at their place for a few days on the way to Chicago, to thank us for housing them last time.”
Wally’s mouth fell open, while Peter, sitting across the table, clapped his hands, sticky from eating Fruit by the Foot. “We’re gonna see Caroline, Beth, and Eddie again?”
“That’s not good news, Mom,” said Wally, but not even his mother seemed to take him seriously because she just laughed.
So under the heat wave of late-August, Wally and his family waved bye to the Bensons and piled into the van Dad had rented for the occasion. Mom double-checked and triple-checked that they hadn’t forgotten anything, and they pulled out, on their way out of Buckman.
“Today’s the twenty-third,” Josh murmured. “It’s almost been a year since the Malloys left.”
“Don’t remind me,” complained Wally.
“What’s wrong, Wally? Aren’t you dying to see your girlfriend?” Jake said, snickering.
“Caroline is not my girlfriend!”
“Quiet down, boys,” Dad said from the driver’s seat.
They were quiet until Peter piped up with, “D’you think they’ll bake me cookies?”
Wally sighed. This was going to be a very long trip.