The only thing that sticks to Billy Bronner is sex. That’s what the guys say, anyway, and I’ve got to admit, I’ve never seen any counterevidence.
You’re gonna tell me everybody catches shit. Well, buddy, as a general rule, you’re right, of course. Everybody from the jocks to the calculus nerds gets screwed over somehow: you’re failing math, so they want to throw you off the football team; or you’ve aced every test you ever took but you suck on the field, which is just as bad. Some teacher hates you. That chick you’re crushing on laughed in your face. Everybody gets screwed over, one way or the other, because that’s just the way high school works.
Thing is, Billy isn’t everybody. He’s not even somebody. It’s like he’s in this little box all on his own, and maybe it’s got a nonstick coating or something, like one of those expensive frying pans, ’cause he doesn’t catch anything he doesn’t want to keep ahold of. In this neck of the woods, let me tell you: Billy Bronner? He’s a man apart.
Looking at his permanent record, you’d be damn lucky if you could find an empty space to put your stamp without obscuring some facet of his demigodhood. Captain of first-string football, obviously. Honor roll student. Ranked first in his class in Lit and French and half a dozen other things, and—although it doesn’t say this on his record—you can take it from me, he never lifted a finger to study. Record-wise, Billy Bronner is the goddamn American dream.
Off the record, there’s still not a speck on this cat’s shine. Good-looking, undoubtedly, with the kind of face guys respect and girls go crazy for. Great threads. Great car. It’s a ’49 Chevy, bright blood-red, and he got it for nothing ’cause he works in his uncle’s garage in the evenings, poking the undersides of cars until they run again. That Chevy was a wreck when he got her, and he fixed her up with the kind of care you’d show a little girl. She’s his pride and joy, and of course, all the chicks want a ride in her. Result is, Billy gets a ride on all the chicks. That’s just the kind of luck this guy has. And the worst of it is, apart from a general assumption that he can be pretty damn arrogant when he feels like it, people like him. Not only is he incredibly good-looking, talented, dexterous, clever, and charming, he is also—drum roll, please—pretty much a nice guy.
Bet you hate him, don’t you? That’s the thing—if you met him, you wouldn’t. I mean, he can be a little oblivious, sure, and that rubs some people the wrong way, but you just gotta realize he doesn’t mean anything by his bullshit; there’s no malice in him. You met him with an open mind, and he’d just grin his hundred-watt grin at you and call you “buddy,” and you’d be lost. Trust me. I know.
Nothing gets under Billy’s skin. Everybody knows that.
This is the story of what happened when something did.
There’s something about that dry-paper smell of new books in September that makes summer feel like a long-forgotten dream. Driving in on the first day of a new semester, and Billy’s beautiful ride feels like a hearse. He’s got all his attention on the road, eyes dark-smudged underneath from one last sleepless summer night, and my eyes are on him, ’cause something about the set of his shoulders just isn’t like Billy at all.
“Hey, Kit?” Caitlyn creeps her little hand into mine. “What you thinking about?”
Damn. I must look like my attention’s wandered. It’s all right, baby; I’m not thinking about that chick with the hair, or even Marianne “D-Cup” Barrett. That’s not me. I’ve only got eyes for Caitlyn, but right now I want to know why Billy looks like death warmed up. He’s chewing gum, jaw working casually, methodically, but there’s something in his face like everything broke in the night, and I want to know what everything is. Can’t fool me, Billy-boy. I remember you with braces on your teeth.
I put my arm around Caitlyn’s shoulders and give her a little squeeze. “Nothing, baby,” I tell her, ’cause I don’t feel like explaining, not right now. “Hoping it isn’t Calculus first period.”
“It will be,” Bill throws in dully, as he flicks on his turn signal and glances both ways for traffic, looking magnificently, devastatingly bored. I roll my eyes.
“Hey, who rained on your parade?” From here in the backseat, I can just see a packet of gum sticking out of the pocket of his jeans. One arm still around Caitlyn, I lean forward and snatch it. He slaps at my hand but I’m too quick, and I grin at him as I pop a stick into my mouth. He makes a face.
“The hell are you doing? You can’t just go taking things out of a man’s goddamn pockets—”
“Eyes on the road, Billy,” I tell him easily, and he flips me the finger and puts both hands back on the wheel. Caitlyn laughs. A muscle twitches in his face, but he doesn’t say anything else. He’s taking the high road this morning, Billy is. Problem is, I know him, and I know he’s quite capable of taking that road right off a goddamn cliff, if I let him.
I’ve got no intention of letting him.
“Where were you last night?” I ask, extracting a second stick of gum for Caitlyn. “I called you and your mom said you were out.”
“Went for a walk,” says Billy, without looking round.
Now, if there’s one thing Billy Bronner can’t do, it’s lie. He knows it, and he damn well knows I know it. So when he tries a blatant untruth like that one, what he means is he doesn’t want to talk about it, and whatever he’s actually said, what everybody hears is “none of your goddamn business.” I try to catch his eye in the rearview mirror, but he’s looking away, watching the curb as we pull into the parking lot. Here already, and he’s decided to play the international man of mystery, and it’s probably gonna be Calculus first period.
Yeah, there’s that new-semester feeling. It’s kind of like the feeling you get when you realize you just sat on someone’s gum.
Billy switches the engine off and leaps out of the car. There was a time when Billy was capable of exiting a car like a normal person, but those days are long gone. Now, he invariably stands up and vaults over the closed driver’s door, and he’s damn lucky he’s a limber little thing, ’cause most of the guys I’ve seen pull that trick have got four or five inches on him, heightwise. This morning, though, it gives me a little hope to see him do that, he’s been acting so unlike himself.
I mean, Billy’s a sunbeam, as a rule. No two ways about it; if he’s not laughing about something, it’s usually only because he’s got his sexface on, trying to charm his way up some chick’s skirt. And today—well, let’s just say the outlook is cloudy.
I get out of the car—yes, like a normal person—and hold the door open for Caitlyn. By the time I’ve got her hand in mine again and the door slammed behind us, he’s walking away, collar up and hips swinging. Billy wears his pants too goddamn tight, a denim second skin from waist to ankle. I tell him it makes him look like he’s selling something obscene, but the girls go stupid for it, so why would he listen to me?
“Billy!” I holler after him. He hesitates, and then looks round.
“Where you going?”
He’s patting his pockets. Like there’s even a chance he could have missed something in the negative space between his jeans and his skin. “Homeroom. You still got my gum?”
I toss it to him, and he snatches it deftly out of the air, easy as you might expect from a cat who plays every sport going like he was born to do it. “Wait up, and we’ll come with you.”
He waits, but he doesn’t look too happy about it. He’s got this look on his face like he doesn’t want to be here, and while that’s not surprising in itself—I guess nobody wants to be here, except a few select freaks—there’s an edge of cynicism under it that I haven’t seen in Billy’s face before, and would never have expected to see there. I’m just thinking about this, as Lyn and I cross the yard toward him, when the look… changes.
It’s shock, now, pure and simple. Shock, and then, in the aftermath of that first stunned, blank expression, a quick succession of other things flickering over his face. Recognition, definitely, from the first; then anxiety, a distinct oh shit expression; and maybe a little something else I can’t put my finger on. He’s just seen someone unexpected, clearly, and I swing around quick as blinking to find out who this apparition is.
The other side of the yard is pretty empty—kids always tend to gather close to the building on the first day of a new school year, it’s easier to find your buddies that way—so it doesn’t take much to work out who’s in his line of sight. Thing is, this cat’s so damn unlikely I almost think the relevant person must have dodged out of the way before I could turn my head. But Billy’s still staring, and his forty-yard stare’s still directly aligned with this guy’s face, so I put my doubts aside and give him the once-over.
Judging on his clothes alone, I’d have called him a nerd. He’s totally square from head to foot: sweater under a blazer; shirt under that; neat, pressed pants like my dad wears to work. I’m looking at his face, though, and something about it makes me quail from calling him anything at all. It’s a strong face, all planes and angles and high cheekbones, and eyes so black you can’t stop looking. Jewish face, I’d guess, good-looking in a severe sort of way. Dark hair, lots of it, parted on one side, and a twist to his mouth that says don’t fuck with me.
He’s staring at Billy, no doubt about it. And Billy’s staring back at him like he just saw a goddamn ghost, which, however threatening this cat’s expression is—and I admit, it’s pretty damn unnerving—seems like an overreaction. The only things I’m sure of in this situation are firstly, that I’ve never seen this guy before in my goddamn life, and secondly, that Billy most definitely has.
“Billy,” I begin warily. I’m about to ask him something, everything, like who the hell this kid is, and how Billy knows him, and why he’s got that look on his face, and whether this has anything to do with how weird he seems today in general. But before I can even draw breath to go on, Billy’s shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket and walked off at a pace that says pretty clearly that I’d better not follow if I like my nose the shape it is. Caitlyn looks at me with a question in her eyes, and all I can do is shrug, because I’m just as in the dark about all this as she is.
And when I glance back across the yard, wanting to know how the mystery guy has reacted to Billy’s abrupt departure, I find that he’s gone too.
New-semester feeling. I can tell you, it’s a drag.
The lunch bell rings, and Billy’s somehow managed to avoid me all day, unless you count the brief moment between second and third period when he hit me in the arm with his bag as we passed the drinking fountain in the atrium. As we were both moving at great speed, in opposite directions, I don’t think I really need to take it into account. Especially since he, whether by accident or design, didn’t even make eye contact. Talk about ships passing in the night. We haven’t had any classes together yet, so I’m looking forward to catching up with him to compare timetables, see whether he’s in any of my afternoon classes. And, hey, I want to know if he had Calculus first period, ’cause Lyn and I were in the chem lab, but I’m still damn sure there must have been someone doing calculus first thing after summer vacation. It just wouldn’t be high school, after all, without those subtle touches of administrative evil.
The period before lunch, I’m in a physics class with Mr. Rosenberg, who pissed me off all junior year with his illegible handwriting, so I’m not in the best possible mood when I get to the cafeteria. I look around for Billy, of course, but he isn’t here yet. Caitlyn is, though, sitting by the window with Angela and Marianne, and a couple of other chicks I know by sight but not by name. She waves at me when she sees me, and I throw her a wink to indicate that I’ll be over as soon as I’ve picked up lunch.
It’s not like Billy to be late for lunch. I said already that he wasn’t acting like himself, but this is something really serious. I can’t actually remember the last time he wasn’t in line ahead of me when I got down here for lunch period, even when I was setting record times for the journey down. I’m just starting to get worried—the weird-looking stuff they’re passing off as spaghetti is only adding to the creeping sense of unease—when I see him saunter in, hands in his pockets, hair fallen over his forehead in that perfect goddamn wave. He’s chewing gum, swinging his hips, not looking at anything he doesn’t have to. To everyone else, I guess he just looks like Billy Bronner, going about his daily business: cool, collected, just a little above it all. To me, though, his indifference is telling, that jocklike moody expression a world away from his usual cheery demeanor. He should have been grinning at me by now; he should have been calling out, “Hey, Kit, you save me a seat?” and slapping my pockets for smokes. Hell, Billy Bronner is late for lunch. That on its own is quite enough to tell me that something’s gone wrong with the works.
“Bill!” I wave a hand, gesturing for him to come join me. He nods acknowledgement, and sure, the corners of his mouth quirk up, but it’s not exactly a smile, you know. Not from a guy like Billy, who can throw out a stunner like it’s nothing. When he reaches me, plastic tray in hand, I nudge his shoulder, trying to jolt him back into some sense of normality.
“Hey. Lemme guess—you had Calculus first period?”
“I had Am Lit,” says Billy, picking up milk cartons and shaking them till he finds one that satisfies whatever test he’s carrying out here. How it’s different from any of the ones that came before it, I don’t have a damn clue, but there it is.
Goddamn. This is like pulling teeth. I feel like a dentist with a whole enormous mouth to denude, and I’m still struggling on the first molar. I sigh, and decide to go straight in for the kill.
“Billy,” I begin, going for casual, “is something wrong?”
He shrugs. “I hate spaghetti?”
I look at the spaghetti on his plate and shake my head. This is typical Bill evasion, and I’m not gonna fall for it. “Who doesn’t? Apart from that.”
“Why should anything be wrong?”
That’s when I see him. Billy’s glaring at me, on the defensive, anticipating my reply, but suddenly I’m looking past him. Bill’s face goes a weird color in my peripheral vision and he turns around to follow my gaze, all the way to the skinny guy on the other side of the cafeteria, with his square old-man clothes and his coal-black eyes. I look him over a minute, and then catch Bill’s eye again. “You tell me, Billy-boy. Who’s that cat?”
Billy gathers up his tray and immediately tries to move away. “Nobody.”
“Don’t give me that bullshit!” I stick out an arm to bar his way. For a second, he looks like he might actually hit me or something, just to get past. But then his shoulders kind of slump, and he looks up at me with this face that’s gone all weirdly slack, like all the fight’s gone out of him, and that’s worse.
He says, “He’s just some guy, Kit. We—we got in a… a fight, but I thought he was going back off to Massachusetts or someplace, so it wouldn’t matter. And instead, turns out he’s here, so I’m understandably pissed about it.” He shoots me a look with a little of the old fire in it. “Okay?”
I hold up my hands, like I surrender. “Okay, okay.” I point across the room to where the girls are sitting. “Let’s just go eat, all right?”
“Sure,” Billy says, tossing me a smile like he’s trying to console me or something, and he picks up his tray and does as he’s told, for once.
At the table, everyone’s talking at once, comparing their timetables and their vacation spots and their holiday flings. Billy smiles and nods and compliments the chicks, and everyone’s pleased to see him, just exactly as usual.
Seems like I’m the only one who’s noticed that he doesn’t say a single damn word about himself.
And that’s not usual at all.