The winter of 1959 was a cold one. The ground was frozen and I remember my breath clouding the air of my room each morning. It didn't snow though, that came later, but as Christmas approached the skies remained frustratingly clear.
It had been a strange year, my parents were still mourning for Denny as they had done all year but I head changed. That summer had changed all of us and the adults around us were yet to notice.
At the start of the school year we thought everything would go on much as it always had done but it became clear that we had changed too much. Teddy came back jumpy and bitter as always with black shadows under his eyes and his temper quicker than ever. In contrast Vern was always joking, he's always known how to deflect others by making them laugh but now he used it to draw himself away from us, from Chris and me.
Chris came back with bruises I could see, and I was sure there were others I couldn't, but that new term he seemed to disappear before my eyes. He couldn't go some place nobody knew him but he could make himself as invisible here as possible.
And me? I knew something was different, my skin didn't seem to fit any more and as Christmas approached my parents' forced festive cheer, as if I was a small child who could be distracted by a new toy, made me want to scream.
Gordie ran out of his house and down the street, heading straight for the spot his friends had inhabited that summer. His hands were balled into fists and there were tears pricking behind his eyelids.
It wasn't fair, how could he ever compete with a ghost. Not that he wanted to compete with Denny at all but if his father could have just once looked at Gordie and seen him and not the invisible imprint of his dead son.
Gordie swore under his breath as he watched Ace pull out of a drive ahead of him.
Gordie put his head down and kept walking.
“What's the matter? Cat got your tongue?”
Ace drove slowly along side Gordie, sneering, and flicked the ash from his cigarette out of the window at Gordie's feet.
“Not so brave without your little gang are you? Fucking pussy...”
Ace paused and his eyes narrowed at Gordie who still walked on with his head down.
“Just like your pussy brother.”
Gordie stopped dead and looked at Ace's car as it came to a stop a few paces ahead. He looked to his left and realised he had got far enough and could cut up between the houses and away into the woods.
He wanted to say something clever but with a sudden rush he remembered the feel of the gun in his hand and the moment he'd finally stood up to Ace and he knew he couldn't repeat that.
“Merry fucking Christmas to you too.”
Gordie muttered under his breath and took off at a run between the houses and away.
He could hear Ace swearing behind him and he knew he'd pay for ignoring him later but right now all he knew was the familiar ground disappearing beneath his feet and the painful feeling breathing in large lungfuls of the cold air as he ran.
The woods were quiet away from the town, especially at this time of year, and all Gordie could hear was his own breath and the thud of his footsteps. He stopped, panting for breath, and was overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness.
Gordie screamed with all the breath left in his lungs and hit at the tree next to him until he ran out of breath and collapsed to his knees sobbing.
He missed Denny like a constant ache in his heart but he missed his Dad listening to him too and he felt like if he just found the right words maybe he could MAKE him listen.
But there weren't any words.
Gordie's world narrowed down to sound of his own heaving sobs and the feeling of bark against his forehead when suddenly he realised he could also hear quiet footsteps approaching and then stopping just behind him.
“Go on Ace, if you're going to do something just DO it.”
Gordie closed his eyes tightly and tensed his shoulders.
“What the hell Lachance? If you can't tell the difference between me and Ace I'm fucking offended.”
Gordie gasped and turned his head to see Chris Chambers standing behind him. He scrubbed at his red eyes with a fist and then hissed in pain.
“Did Ace do that to you?”
Chris dropped to his knees next to Gordie and grabbed for one of his hands.
“No, I left him struggling in his car. Didn't think he'd follow me but you never know after...”
Gordie trailed off. Ace and his gang had become nastier since the summer's events. All four of the boys had found themselves explaining away cuts and bruises, it was one of the ways Gordie knew his parents still couldn't see him.
“Cheap dime-store hood...”
Chris smiled as he repeated Gordie's words but then his eyes narrowed as he looked properly at the torn skin on Gordie's hands.
“Couldn't pick a fight with Ace so you went for a tree instead? If you wanted a fight you could have come and had a go at Eyeball, his skull is thick as concrete but at least it won't give you splinters.”
Chris brushed dirt and fragments of wood off Gordie's knuckled, ignoring the wince and hiss from Gordie.
“How are you going to be a world class writer if you fuck up your hands like this?”
Gordie pulled his hand away with a wrench.
“I'm not going to be a writer, those stories were just babyish things I made up, we're not kids any more Chris.”
Chris looked at him, a frown forming, and then grabbed Gordie by his other wrist and inspected his other hand.
“You're going to be the best writer this town's ever seen, not that that's a challenge I guess, but one day I'm going to see your book on the shelves in a shop and I'll pick iy up and tell the guy at the counter we were friends.”
“Planning on spending a lot of time in bargain basement bookshops?”
“Joke all you want Lachance but you've got to stop messing around with all this 'stories are babyish' stuff. You're going to be a famous author and get out of this dead end town.”
“Maybe I don't want to...”
Chris squeezed Gordie's wrist hard enough to leave marks.
“This town is killing us, you've got to get out and...”
Chris trailed off and took a shaky breath. Gordie almost argued with him again but then he caught sight of the quiet determination on Chris' face and he waited, wanting to know what Chris was thinking.
“And I'm going to get out too.”
Chris gentled his grip on Gordie's wrist.
“I know nobody believes me but I'm going to get out of this town before it drags me to my death like it's trying. I'm not Eyeball and I don't love it here enough to put up with this crap like Vern & Teddy and I've been thinking about what you said...”
Chris paused and looked met Gordie's eyes briefly before looking down again.
“You said I could take college classes with you and I knew Old Lady Simmons and the rest of them would never let me if I said that's what I'm doing but I looked, I went to the library, not here, I got the bus so nobody would know me, and they said if I get the grades I don't need any teacher to approve my application so...”
Chris seemed to run out of words, it was more than he usually said in one go but Gordie felt wordless again.
Gordie stopped and looked down at where Chris was still holding his wrist, his thumb pressed against Gordie's racing pulse.
“We're going to blow them all away.”
Chris finally looked up again, doubt in his eyes.
“You can get into any college course you want, just let them try and stop us. We'll get into college, the best college, and then they'll all have to see us. Actually see us.”
Gordie could feel tears pricking behind his eyes again and he swallowed hard to try and stop them before Chris saw but Chris just leaned closer and rested his forehead against Gordie's, his eyelids fluttering closed as he spoke.
“Then they'll see us and they'll have to believe.”
And they did. Not at first, when Chris and I left for college they still thought I was going to be a hotshot lawyer or a doctor and that Chris would fail before the term finished but they soon learned.
After we left we hardly ever went back to Castle Rock and we never went back to the woods. It was a haven for us as children and then as teenagers but after that night I always felt a heaviness in the air, like a promise I knew I had to keep.
If I close my eyes I can still hear the sound of our breathing, Chris' steady and slow and mine catching in my throat, and feel the warmth of his skin against mine.
But that was many years ago and now there are more ghosts standing beside me.