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Kit, a year older than Billy, coddled him when he was little, acting like a little mother in training. They spent a lot of time with their grandmother, because after their father’s disappearing act Mrs. Kingston waitressed nearly every night to make ends meet. But then the grandmother died, and Kit started taking care of Billy at home alone, even though they were way too young to be unsupervised. This, Billy explained to me, was the reason that Kit was so protective. She always needed to know where he was going, what he was doing. She became jealous if he didn’t spend enough time with her. She didn’t know about me, Billy didn’t want to tell her. Some things, he said, should remain private.
School was difficult too, because Billy’s friends were rough boys who got into fist fights and served detentions every week. They would have teased him about mooning over a rich girl, and then he would have had to retaliate. He said they were jerks, but not really. It was all just an act, and since he knew what they were really like, he could forgive them for their doltishness. Still, he said, the less they know about us, the better. I agreed. My friends were equally as horrible but in a different way. They would have said I was slumming, they would have made fun of his worn-out, grass-stained jeans or his unkempt hair that always needed a cut. They would have told my older sister, who would have told my mother.
Even now, it all seems unreal, like a nightmare. My father’s friend Joe McAllister telling my mother something that made her cover her mouth with her hands, crowds of the party guests gathering around him while he recounted his story in a low voice. My Dad with his arm around my mother, shaking his head. I was seated alone at a small bistro table eating a piece of cake, wondering what could have happened to ruin the festive atmosphere. It was my sister Jan that told me, rushing towards me with a look of panic in her eyes. A kid got killed, she said, hit by a car on the Main Street bridge, a boy on a skateboard. I think a part of me knew then, even though Jan didn’t know the name of the boy. The way my body turned cold, the way my tongue felt suddenly swollen and obstructed my breathing. I knew it was Billy, and I knew he had been on his way to see me.
Maybe we would have got married, but probably not. He said he loved me, he said he was serious and that when we grew up we would pack up our stuff and get away from here. He already had 500 bucks saved from dish-washing at Mac’s Pizza. According to Billy, Mac had given him the job because Mac was trying to get on Mrs. Kingston's good side so he could sleep with her. Everything about Mac and his pizza place made Billy mad, but it was a means to an end. He wanted to leave as soon as he could, with me. We would make a ton of money and send for his mother. From the perspective of my adult self these were silly, juvenile dreams, obviously. I could never have gone off with him for real, my parents would have just come to get me and that would have been the end of it. Maybe we would have dated in secret all through high school. Maybe I would have lost my virginity to him, instead of to a drunken Robert Dunholme at a lame college party. Maybe Billy and I would have argued and broke up, maybe he would have got tired of me and found a new girl. Here is the thing about dead people, we can’t stop wondering what could have happened, had they lived.
Today is my parents’ fortieth anniversary, which marks twenty years since Billy died. They’re not having a big party this time, just a small family dinner at the country club where my father plays golf. My husband Jack and our son William are there now, helping my mother with last-minute arrangements. I made up an excuse about needing to buy some new pantyhose, claiming I had snagged mine on the heel of my shoe. First I drove to our spot, Billy’s and mine, unsure of what I would find there. The fire hall is now a museum but the woods behind it are intact. I couldn’t be sure of the exact place where Billy and I used to meet, but I fought my way through some tangled weeds and branches to the approximate location, which is where I found this stick. It looked like a good, solid fragment of a branch, and I imagined Billy would have used it to reinforce our spot somehow, he could have started building a fort with this stick, or used it as a weapon to ward off animals or anyone else who bothered us.
I lay the stick carefully on top of the headstone. It looks good there, the smooth, eroded wood a natural contrast to the shining black marble. I think Billy would like it. Soon I should be leaving. I would hate to run into Mrs. Kingston, or Kit. They wouldn’t understand why I came here. Actually, I have no idea where they ended up, they could be living somewhere else, or they might even be dead, for all I know. After the accident I never had the courage to speak to Kit at school, I just stared at her in the hallway. Once she told me off, demanding to know what I was staring at. My parents could see that I was upset about Billy’s death but they assumed it was just because he was a kid at my school, and that the thought of dying young worried me. I didn’t tell them anything, I didn’t tell my friends anything. Years later when I met Jack, I didn’t tell him about it either. Some things, as Billy said to me one clear, starry evening in the woods, should remain private.