Billy was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan but it had never been home. His father, LTC Stephen Weathers, was a military analyst and his family moved regularly, whenever he had an extended non-combat post. They lived in Germany, the Philippines, China, and throughout the United States. Each location had its challenges: a new language, a new school, a new collection of bullies who loved to hate him because he was small, artistic and an only child.
In every school there was an established hierarchies of bullies and victims but whomever had been at the bottom of the pecking order received a promotion when Billy’s family arrived. It amazed Billy how quickly the former victim made the transition to bully. Eventually the Weathers family would move and that kid would be back where he started but for a short time he would enjoy his tenure as part of the pack. He was usually the first one to crack a joke or throw a kick at Billy when he was down.
Billy’s father was second generation Army officer and he saw his son’s harassment as something to solidify his character and push him towards more sensible interests than art. Even musicians had a place in the military, but artists? The closest a man should come to an artist was to get a tattoo. Billy’s desire to draw and paint was a defect, a rough edge, to be filed down so his son could function normally. The Army had given Stephen the focus he needed when his life was at a pivotal point and he believed exposure to the military should similarly inspire his son.
Billy’s mother, Linda, did what she could to ease his pain, but his father was clear that some issues Billy would need to solve for himself. So Linda iced her son’s bruises, hugged him when he cried and did her best to be a mother while giving him room to become a man. For his part Billy did what he could. He stopped running away. He started moving towards trouble as it brewed. He began surprising his bullies, moving faster than they expected, stepping into their faces and swinging first. He cheated. He pulled hair, he elbowed, he headbutted, and he kicked nuts like a punter. He discovered most bullies has a threshold for pain that, when reached, made them reconsider their actions so Billy caused pain quickly. He tested their commitment. In playgrounds, alleys, parking lots and school hallways he learned how to take care of himself. That first encounter he only had to knock one person down but sometimes they came back with friends. Even when he was overwhelmed he went down swinging.
He would a develop a reputation, on and around the base where they were staying, and the other kids would leave him alone. Then the family would move and it would begin again. By the time he was fifteen he wasn’t the skinny kid anymore. He was still an artist but he had a weary confidence that bullies correctly read as trouble and they learned to give him space.
The family was living in Jacksonville, North Carolina, when his mother died.
Billy was sixteen and he had gone to a wholesale shopping club with her to stock up for the month. Humidity hung in the air, thick and prickly, fouling moods and repressing activity. Lawns went unmowed. Dogs lay panting under porches. Desultory flags hung limp on peeling, white poles.
It had rained in the afternoon and the shopping center parking lot was wet, shiny and black. When they left the store the sun was emerging from the clouds and reflected brightly on the pavement. The driver of the SUV that killed her would claim in the police report that the sun’s glare had blinded him.
Linda was pushing a cart packed with groceries and Billy’s arms were loaded with bags when they stepped onto the pedestrian crosswalk. He never saw the SUV but witnesses reported she only had a moment to react and in that second she let go of the cart and pushed Billy out of the way. The SUV hit her then veered and crushed her against a parked car. She died instantly.
Billy was sure he must have seen her there, twisted and lying across the hood of the SUV but the memory was blank, a redacted moment too painful to recall. Years later, hiking in the desert of western Texas the image would finally come to him. Until then his only was memento was a small scar on his chin where he had hit the pavement.
As a child and teen his life spanned the globe. As an adult his life happened within a two-mile radius of the apartment in Kalamazoo.
There were excursions to friends apartment, restaurants, bars or south on Westnedge to the big box malls but his daily routine was within easy walking distance down the wide neighborhood streets and across the train tracks into downtown. Beth needed the car and he could easily walk to work at the glass studio or his part time job giving tours at the art museum. His routine took him on a loop from home to the museum if a tour was scheduled, then to the studio, the hot shop, for the afternoon where he’d work with glass until Beth came home.
In the two years he and Beth lived together he walked all of the side streets lined with blue plastic trash bins, past all the homes separated by dirt driveways, and poked his head down every alley and dead end street between work and back. He enjoyed the steady rhythm of his life and small deviations from the pattern gave him joy - unexpected conversations with neighbors, the remains from parties the previous night, accidents and gray-green leaves turning gold as the weather cooled. He taught at the hot shop three days a week and gave ad hoc tours at the art museum. Sometimes he offered workshops at the museum or consulted when they added a glass piece to their collection. It wasn’t lucrative but money didn’t bring him peace of mind.
Geoff left the apartment a few minutes earlier and Billy was lost in thought, walking to the glass studio. His brain was buzzing with questions, doubt and paranoia. He took the left onto Kalamazoo Avenue when he realized he’d walk right past the purple Victorian on the opposite side of the street.
The home was unchanged but today the two great pines in the front lawn threw darker shadows than it was possible on a sunny mid-afternoon. He felt a sense of vertigo like the shadows were a void and he was leaning forward, tipping into a hole. The stone in his chest tingled, like a foot waking from sleep, and he imagined a physical connection to the home, a gravitational pull tugging at his chest. No, he thought, he felt a connection to the space. Not the wood, plaster and walls of the house but the space within the building and from the second floor he could feeling something pulling him across the street.
He took several steps, veering off the sidewalk to cross the road, when a warmth washed over him from head to toe. Fever sweat chilled on his skin the in Autumn air. An internal heat wave that he felt emanate from his chest, flowed through his limbs and out his fingertips. The home was still exerting its pull but he was aware of something else. There was still a low-level buzz in the back of his mind, the presence of the stone but he felt like someone was watching him. He paused and slowly spun to examine the neighborhood. Nothing seemed out of place, traffic was normal and there was no one sitting in any parked cars and the windows of the surrounding homes were empty. The only other person on the sidewalk was a neighbor walking his dog. Still, the feeling persisted and, from the events of the past day, he learned there were some things he would never see coming.
So he ran.