When Gene returns to his room, Brinker Hadley pays him a visit. Brinker, a gregarious and likable young man, admires Gene’s room and congratulates him on having such nice accommodations all to himself. When he jokes that Gene purposefully injured Finny so he could live alone in their room, Gene is seized with fear and discomfort, telling Brinker to stop speaking so absurdly. Still, though, Brinker presses on with his joke, suggesting that the truth hurts. Left with no choice, Gene laughs and acts like Brinker is on to something. Hoping to change the topic, though, he suggests that they go down to the Butt Room, a filthy room in the basement where the students are allowed to smoke.
Brinker’s joke unnerves Gene because it touches on the truth. Of course, Gene didn’t injure Finny to have the dorm room to himself, but he does suspect himself of having hurt his friend on purpose. As a result, Brinker’s words cause him to worry that everyone in the school must suspect him of wrongdoing. This, in turn, might destabilize his relationship with Finny, which has apparently survived the incident, though this is mostly due to Finny’s willingness to deny what really happened. Unlike Finny, though, people like Brinker have no emotional attachment to Gene and thus have no reason to overlook his actions.
Once in the Butt Room, Brinker continues to joke about Gene’s cunning plan. In front of the other smoking students, Gene is once more forced to play along, this time confessing to the crime and describing what happened, exaggerating his maliciousness so that everyone understands he’s joking. Just when he’s about to explain how he caused Finny to fall, though, he stops, unable to go on.
Although he doesn’t necessarily want to, it’s easy enough for Gene to go along with Brinker’s joke, especially since this is apparently the only way to ensure that the others won’t actually suspect him of causing Finny’s fall. Because he did cause the fall, though, he can’t bring himself to fully commit to this joke. After all, it’s not a joke, and this fact pains him greatly, forcing him to face the truth in a way that makes him deeply uncomfortable.
Suddenly, Gene turns to the youngest boy in the room, who has been boisterously playing along as part of Brinker’s mock courtroom. “What did I do then?” he asks, inviting the boy to fill in the blanks. When the boy uncomfortably suggests that he pushed Finny, Gene makes fun of him for ruining the joke, and the others laugh while the boy fumes, knowing that Gene has made him look stupid. On Gene’s way out, he hears one of the students remark that he came all the way to the Butt Room but didn’t even smoke.
Gene manages to wriggle his way out of this uncomfortable situation by turning on a younger boy, using the naïve student’s relative insecurity and over-eagerness to frame the entire joke as stupid and immature. In doing so, he acts like the conversation is beneath him, as if he’s too adult to continue paying attention to such a shallow joke. This, however, is nothing more than a cunning calculation that helps him preserve an illusion of innocence, ultimately demonstrating just how manipulative Gene can be. And yet, despite his slyness, it’s worth noting that his fellow students still seem suspicious of him, as evidenced by one boy’s comment that Gene didn’t even smoke a cigarette before leaving the Butt Room. Simply distracting people from the truth, it seems, will not save Gene from scrutiny, regardless of whether or not Finny himself chooses to believe him.
As Autumn progresses, Gene is relieved that none of his fellow students say anything more about him causing Finny’s fall. Meanwhile, snow comes early, and news of the war continues to encroach upon the campus. Because so many men in the area have gone off to the war, Gene and his classmates help with nearby jobs like apple picking and snow shoveling. During one particularly heavy snowfall, the regional railroad lines are blocked because there aren’t enough workers to clear the tracks. Accordingly, the Devon administration asks for student volunteers to shovel away the snow, and nearly everyone signs up—everyone, that is, except for Leper, who Gene suspects didn’t listen during the announcement. After all, Gene thinks, Leper is always in his own little world, blissfully unaware of what’s happening around him.
Once again, the presence of World War II is undeniable in Gene’s life, even if he himself isn’t in the military. Whereas he felt somewhat insulated from the war during the summer session, he now senses its influence in a very real way and even contributes to it by doing jobs that have been vacated by men who joined the military. In this regard, he has more or less lost his adolescent innocence once and for all. Leper, on the other hand, remains firmly rooted in the blissful ignorance that used to protect Gene from truly engaging with the harsh realities of the outside world. Instead of joining Leper in this mindset, though, Gene sees his friend as out of touch, even if he doesn’t hold this against him.
On his way to shovel the tracks, Gene takes a shortcut through the woods and finds Leper, who is “touring” the area on cross-country skis and looking for a beaver dam. Preoccupied by this task, he doesn’t even think to ask Gene what he’s doing until after they’ve talked about the beaver dam, and he seems unperturbed when Gene reminds him that everyone except him has volunteered to shovel the railways. At this point, Gene says farewell to Leper and meets up with the others, spending a miserable and gray day shoveling dirty snow until finally the tracks are clear. When they finish, a train car rolls by, and the students are surprised to see that it’s full of soldiers who don’t look all that different than them.
The contrast between Leper’s blissful ignorance and Gene’s engagement with the outside world is stark in this section, as Gene recognizes just how unbothered Leper is by the fact that there’s a war going on. He, on the other hand, has become involved in the war effort, and though this involvement is still removed from the actual fighting, the war seems closer than ever when Gene realizes that he has just helped a train of soldiers get to their destination—a fact that underscores the overwhelming reality of the war, which is no longer just a remote and abstract concept in his life.
On the train ride back to campus, Gene and the others talk about joining the military. While everyone speaks eagerly about wanting to enlist, Quackenbush says that he’s going to finish his studies before entering the military. Hearing this, Brinker and the others make fun of him, calling him a spy for the enemy. Then, when they reach campus, they spot Leper as he slides slowly by on his skis. Brinker makes a sarcastic remark about him, but Gene jumps in and asks if Leper found the beaver dam, not wanting his friend to get made fun of by the others. With a smile, Leper says that he did indeed find the dam and offers to show Gene the pictures he took of it.
Gene is no longer steeped in the same blissful ignorance as Leper, but he doesn’t fault his friend for ignoring the influence of the war. Rather, he respects Leper’s ability to focus on things that have nothing to do with the outside world, as if he himself yearns to do the same. However, he lost his own innocent purity when the summer ended and Finny fell from the tree, so all he can do is admire Leper’s mindset from afar, unable to embody it himself.
After listening to Leper, Brinker laments the fact that he’s forced to go to a “school for photographers of beaver dams” when there’s a world war happening. Walking away with Gene, he declares that he’s going to enlist the following day. This sends a shock through Gene, who realizes that he wants to do the exact same thing because this will help him forget about the past. Why continue his education while watching the tranquility of the summer session fade when he could actively join the war effort and move on with his life, he wonders. Filled with a new sense of resolve, he bounds upstairs, swings open his door, and finds Phineas sitting at his desk. Suddenly, all his resolutions evaporate at the sight of his best friend.
If Gene can’t return to the kind of innocence that Leper exemplifies, he thinks, he will fully embrace the harsh realities of the outside world. To do so, he will join the military, no longer delaying his inevitable involvement in World War II. As soon as he makes this decision, though, he regains a part of his adolescent innocence: Finny. Seeing his best friend back in the dorm room gives him hope that he’ll be able to recapture the unbothered happiness of the previous summer, even if Finny’s fall has forced him to acknowledge the ugliness not only of the world at large, but of his own identity, too.