Ever since I could remember I’d followed Billy. I sat behind him in class, at the table next to his in the cafeteria, high up in the bleachers after school at the ball field.
He was usually smiling and carefree. A typical boy in a typical small town. But sometimes he got this look in his eyes. A strange mixture of terror and sorrow that seemed so grown up and inexplicable to me. Like he was going somewhere I wasn't. Somewhere in his mind where I couldn't follow.
But I always followed Billy. Everywhere he went. From the first day of kindergarten when I saw him piling blocks on top of each other in the corner of Mrs. Turner’s room to the last time I saw him, senior year, in Shannon Wood behind the school.
Over the years he grew tall and strong and beautiful. Boys don’t like it when you call them beautiful, but that’s the best word for what he was.
Just after spring break our senior year, he started going out with Kendra Channing. She wasn't the prettiest girl in our class, but she had something about her that set the boys buzzing around her. She chose Billy because he was so beautiful. I heard her talking about him in the girls’ room one day between classes.
“He is the best looking boy in this entire school,” she said. “And those dreamy eyes of his? Drives me crazy wondering what he’s thinking. I’m going to find out.”
The other girls sighed in envy. My heart was a lump of sick fire choking me, but I managed to keep smiling. Not that anyone even noticed I was there. Nobody ever did really.
I’m good at keeping to the fringes, standing in the shadows. Half the kids in school have gone to class with me since kindergarten and at least a third of them couldn't tell you my last name if it meant they’d win a million dollars. Maybe not even my first name.
To most people I just don’t exist.
Like Billy. After that first day of kindergarten when we built block towers together and shared our peanut butter sandwiches, he never even looked at me. His gaze sort of slid past me to somebody else. I didn't know what I did wrong. Maybe it was because he was a boy and I was a girl.
He started playing with Karl Jones. They built block fortresses, had food fights, and chased each other around the playground.
I watched them, my heart burning with jealousy, but they never asked me to play too.
Almost every day after school, it was the same routine: Out the side door of the school, through the west parking lot, into the dark maze of Shannon Wood he used as a short cut to get to his house on
We weren't supposed to go into Shannon Wood. Some little kid got killed there years ago using the short cut. Broad daylight and everything, but it’s dark in those woods. I always got goosebumps when I followed Billy along the pine needle path and across Thacker’s Brook to
Oak Street. Billy’s end of Peach Lane was only half a block off Oak Street if he
took the Shannon Wood short cut.
I wanted to tell him not to do it because the bad man who killed that little kid might still be lurking behind a tree trunk or in the little hollow in the bank by the falling apart footbridge, but I didn't because then he’d know I was there.
So I shivered and followed him as closely as I dared without giving myself away.
Fridays after school he always hurried home because he and his family had pizza night together. They hung out and played board games and watched movies all squished together on the sectional sofa in the living room. Billy never went out to parties with the other kids from school on Fridays. You’d think he would get teased about it by his friends, but I think they were as envious of Billy’s tight knit family as I was.
Lots of times I watched through the window while they sat around the dining room table and played Life and Scrabble and Clue. Laughing. Trying to distract each other so they could cheat until his mom came in with a big bowl of popcorn and said it was movie time.
My family never had pizza nights. My dad barely acknowledged my mom. He came home from work, changed his clothes and shut himself up in the den to watch sports. Mom sat at the kitchen table pretending to read, but really just sneaking gulps of wine. She was usually drunk and passed out in bed by 9:30 but my dad never went to bed until after midnight so he never knew. Or he pretended not to. I could never decide.
But Billy’s family wasn't like mine. His brothers were almost as beautiful as he was and his sister, the baby of the family, was like a blond angel come down to live on earth. Sometimes I hated her, but most times I just wished I was her.
The last time I saw Billy was a Friday afternoon in Shannon Wood. All day he’d had that look in his eyes – the one that was part terror, part sadness.
“I know you’re there,” he said just before he stepped onto the footbridge across Thacker’s Brook.
I froze, my heart thumping so hard it hurt. How? I’d been so careful. Had I stepped on a twig or some dead leaves?
“ You've got to stop following me. Haven’t you done it long enough, Gina?”
I stepped out of the shadows of a pine tree and his face in the dappled afternoon sunlight slanting through the tree tops was so sad I wanted to comfort him. But I didn't know how.
“It was thirteen years ago. I was a little kid, just like you. I couldn't save you. I know you blame me, but I ran for help. I didn't just run away. I’m sorry I didn't stay and defend you but I was scared. I was five.” His chest heaved as he spoke and his eyes got very blue with tears.
I stared at him, unable to speak. Numb. I was so numb I felt paralyzed.
“Stop haunting me,” he shouted and a bird in the tree across the brook shrieked and took wing in startled surprise. “I was a little kid and I ran. I couldn't help it that you got killed and I didn't! Please. Please leave me alone.”
Dead. Was that what I was? Is that why no one ever talked to me or acknowledged me or included me in anything?
I told him we shouldn't go through Shannon Wood. My mommy said to walk home on
and not go into the woods. But Billy
said he was a big boy and he could cut through the scary old woods if he
When he slid down the hill behind the big kids’ school and walked fearlessly into the trees, I only hesitated a moment before I followed.
The man was hiding behind a big rock near the brook. He smelled gross and his clothes were all dirty.
“Little girl,” he kept saying as he held me down in the dead leaves and did bad things to me.
But I don’t remember dying.
Did I blame Billy? Was the envy that burned in my chest because he was alive and I wasn't and not because he didn't want to play with me anymore? Was that it?
“Please go away,” Billy said again and tears streaked down his cheeks. When he turned around and splashed through the brook and out onto
Oak Street, for the first time since
kindergarten I didn't follow.