9 year old William ‘Billby’ Knowles was perhaps the most laughed at child in his third grade class. There were several reasons. He was a small kid, lanky and awkward with a birdlike face that left him looking bewildered all the time. The mop of tattered hair on top of his head was cut by his own scissors, which were admittedly the same as the other children and designed to be unable to cut almost anything but construction paper. After his mother died he didn’t have anyone take care of it. His father, Arthur Knowles, cut his own ponytail when it started to get too long. He merely took his own scissors and snipped at roughly the same place once a month. His hair aside Billby was still a pathetic stick of a thing, wrapped in clothes a bit too baggy for him and with an awkward demeanor. The girls found him funny looking, the boys found him weird, and his teachers were put off by his stare. But he had one glaring thing that no one could get passed – Billby had no ghosts.
His father had his mother, Theresa, but she kept her distance from him and never so much as said “Hiya,” to him as she used to every morning before kindergarten. His mother cooed over Arthur though, always laughing as he had a morning lager and joked about pinching her misty ass.
Arthur Knowles was a brute of a man. He had a similar appearance to that of his son if Billby had been put through Willy Wonka’s taffy stretcher. Although it was not a word normally used to describe a man Billby knew that fat, old Mrs. Hatcherson next door had always referred to him as ‘long’ when chatting with Theresa Knowles over the fence. His arched nose and balding head lent him the appearance of a rodent, his bulging eyes suggesting constant surprise.
Arthur defended the other children in Billby’s class. He had laughed till he cried when he was told about how they had wrapped him in duct tape and hung him from the tetherball pole to be discovered after an hour’s time by the janitor who had stepped outside to have a cigarette. He remembered Jerry’s kindness as he had pulled him from the hot metal pole and taken a pocket knife to the bindings and freed the tiny child beneath. He had loved the scruffy man in that moment, felt closer to him than he ever had his own father. Jerry had taken him to Principal Pitta’s office to tell his story. The hard chair in front of the large desk had left Billby feeling out of place and small, like a toy made from a defective mold.
“William I need to hear what happened. What boys did this to you?” Pitta asked.
“If I tell you they’ll be meaner than today,” Billby replied quietly.
“If you don’t tell me you are just letting them get away with hurting you.”
“If I tell you they’ll hurt me more.”
Pitta sighed. This was the fourth of these conversations just this week and young Billby had absolutely no stones. He had no desire to make a push for reprisal or even the childish need to get even that sometimes bred itself in the downtrodden, the weak, the picked on. The little stick wouldn’t stick up for himself and Pitta desperately wanted to avoid a gun or a knife showing up at school someday in a fit of angry vengeance. The kid would get angry, and that had to be avoided. Principal Jesse Pitta wondered (and not for the first time) if the bruises were all from the bullies, but quickly dismissed the idea. Arthur Knowles had been in a few times during Billby’s school career and never saw more than a distantly broken but caring father who was still trying to get over the death of his wife.
Billby was eventually released from the dungeon, as he called Pitta’s office, and walked down the ugly taupe hallways. School trophies and pictures of 8th grade classes long gone lined the walls, the faces looking down on him with smiles that he could no longer truly understand. When he had been 8 years old he had asked his father why the school, hospital, and library were all painted the same color inside. “Its called ‘taupe’ kid, its supposed to be soothing or some shit like that,” Arthur had replied absentmindedly. Billby had promptly gone home and hit his father’s desktop computer, a slow and clunky old Dell, to see if he had learned the truth. Opening the browser he typed ‘tope’ into the search engine and hit enter. What he found was that not only had he misspelled the color but that the way he had typed it had another usage. The word ‘tope’, from what Billby could gather, described the way daddy got for months after Theresa had died. Daddy had begun to drink what he called ‘the bad stuff’ and had always had just enough to fall into an uneasy sleep, claiming that without it he would simply die from lack of sleep. ‘Tope’ was the way to describe someone who had gone and drank a bit too much like Arthur was always ready to do, and Billby had begun to see the color and the description as the same thing. ‘Taupe’ was the color of the school where he tried to escape his unhappy father and avoid his horrid classmates, ‘taupe’ was the color of the hospital waiting room where he had sat as his father had his stomach pumped for alcohol poisoning, and ‘taupe’ was the color of the library where he went to dodge winos and look for books about ghosts and monsters out of folklore.
If anyone ever asked Billby why he studied all those things at his age he would simply reply that he was trying to see where his own ghosts were, why he had none. It was far from true but it conveniently sent people skittering away with mumbled apologies and looks of pity. He liked pity, it was a favorite emotion of his. He felt it for everyone around him, stuck with their lost family members at all hours of the day or night. He felt it might have been weird to have his mother constantly around when he was awake. What would she think if she caught him looking at pretty Ellie Masterson when he was too shy to say anything to her, or taking a beating from ‘The Boys’? She would find him pathetic and shitty, just like his father.
Billby stopped to get a drink from the drinking fountain before heading back to class. He stooped over the thing and leaned his head in for a drink but never made it. He was yanked off his feet and drug back. He was thrown into the broom closet by four sets of hands, chucked so hard that he flew into the other wall and crumpled to the floor. Snickers and the laughter of the hulking children who were known simply as ‘The Boys’ among students and teachers alike followed him in, and he knew he was in deep shit.
Hank Boyd looked like a gorilla. This was not an exaggeration, he was apelike in all ways. Hairy for a seventh grader, Hank had long arms and a jutting brow that made him look devolved. The teachers referred to him as ‘The Neanderthal’ in the privacy of the teacher’s lounge where no one could touch them and they were free to talk as they pleased. He was backed by his cohorts – Terry Meyers, Alan ‘Gasser’ Pratchett, and Stevie Franssen. The three supporters were smaller boys than Hank, but had most of his mean streak and kept close to him for safety’s sake more than anything else. If they were helping him wail on other kids Hank had no reason to wail on them.
“Hey Dildo,” Hank sneered.
“Its ‘Billby’ you fat fuck!”
“Its whatever I say it is you greasy little shit,” Hank barked, thrusting a hand down to grab Billby by the throat. “Its ‘Dildo’ and you’ll like it!” Billby struggled to shout back through the vicegrip of Hank’s fist, the other boys moving forward to grab his arms and legs and hold him down. “You. Don’t even. Know. What that. Is,” he gasped out, clenching what little muscle he had in his neck to keep air coming and going. Hank laughed, a deep and animalistic sound. “Sure I do,” he said, “I got your mom’s old one at home. It smells like fish, like dirty puss, and I’ll always treasure the gift she gave me right before she bought it.” Billby began to turn red, not all of the color from the lack of oxygen, and began snapping at Hank with his teeth, determined to gash him open before he passed out.
“Quit squirming, asshole!” Gasser demanded, tightening his hold on Billby’s right arm. The scrawny kid had some fight in him, that was for sure. Terry gripped his other side tighter, then hauled back and threw a fist into the little rat’s stomach. This blew the wind all the way out and the struggle ceased. All the while Hank just smiled, his hand still gripping Billby’s throat. A small snick sounded in the dim closet and there was a small, needlelike feeling at the thin neck of Billby Knowles. “Stay still and talk to us like a good boy and maybe I won’t stick you like something from Mr. Noble’s biology class. Now what the fuck did you tell Pitta?”
Billby was wheezing now, the air slowly forcing its way back into his lungs as he pushed his diaphragm to its limits. “Nothing,” he gasped, “I didn’t say nothing.” The grip on his throat tightened again and he felt the tip of the knife slide down. Hank pulled up his shirt and stuck the blade against it with enough pressure to stick in a bit. A tiny bead of blood appeared around it, leaking out of Billby’s stomach. The pain was not a problem, but if he stained his shirt he’d get smacked when he got home and that worried him. Billby hated when his mother saw him take a beating, but there was no other way to go about anything.
“You better have said jack shit to her,” Hank whispered. Another snick and the tip of his knife pulled itself out of Billby’s stomach. The pain was worse, the old blade pulling at the seam of the wound as it retracted. Hank chuckled at the hiss Billby let out. He and the lackeys left without another word, the closet of cleaning supplies in shambles around the barely conscious boy gasping on the floor rolled to his side. His eyes swam with dark spots as he drew in as much air as he could.
Pushing himself up against the back wall he hung his head and began to clench handfuls of hair in his hands, pulling and hitting himself in frustration. The room seemed to shake.
He looked up above him. The ghosts of the boys still hung in the air above him, their blank faces staring down at him. No pity or sadness, no joy and hungry eyes, just blankness. He nodded in acknowledgement and they returned the gesture before filing out of the room to rejoin their living compatriots. Billby smiled at this.
The room visibly shook now. With a slight shudder everything was thrown back against the walls. The buckets, rolls of paper towels, brooms, everything that had fallen around him in the struggle was thrown out of his way and against the wall. His body was shaking from the extra effort he was taking, but he enjoyed the spectacle he caused. Everyone liked to see themselves do something cool, and his trick was definitely the coolest. The smile firmly affixed to his face he walked out of the closet and made sure he was a decent way down the hall before letting the supplies fall to the floor with an audible crash.
He was getting better at it all the time.
* * *
John Kaepernick sat in his dank parlour with Alan. They were attempting another rousing game of Monopoly sans Alan’s wife, Victoria, and their kid Benjamin. Alan was being a prick about it, and he was kicking John’s ass. He could never beat his old man at a game of one-on-one and he hadn’t been able to throw a football for shit but he could clean up when a board game popped up on the table.
They had figured out that they could play board games together as long as John moved the pieces and rolled for everyone else. They had occasionally brought over Jenna Conner and her family of ‘shimmers’ (as John liked to call them). They had a lot of fun together. “Christ, I miss Jenna,” John thought to himself.
Even in the afterlife Alan always seemed sweaty and gross, and John’s memory conjured up the old aroma of stale corn chips that seemed to seep out of him. The money they changed back and forth for properties kept reminding Alan of old stories about work he’d done that took him to countries in Latin America. He had flown them all down for trips after John’s retirement and shown off, almost begging for the old man’s approval. After all these years the damn kid still hadn’t quite outgrown the desperate desire to please his father, who never really approved of what a high rise shit Alan had become.
“Gimme two hundred,” John grumbled as he passed Go. “Mine anyway,” replied Alan with a smirk as John hit Oriental Avenue and was forced to pony up the rent money. “Fuck yeah dad, take it!” John winced as his son leapt to his feet and did an awkward victory dance, his fist pumping in the air as though he’d just won the lottery. John supposed that he had, at least on the board, and with a defeated air passed over the last of the money he had along with the money he had snagged. He sank into his chair, covering his face and wailing in mock despair that dissolved into laughter. However much he had been disappointed in his son he had loved him and always had fun screwing around with him on lazy afternoons.
“Fuck you and your money,” he roared at him, flipping the board.
“Deal with it old horse, time to put your ass out to pasture!” Alan laughed in triumph.
John laughed and began picking up game pieces off of the floor. “Where’s the wife and the rugrat?” Alan looked out the front window. “They’re out on a walk I think,” he said, wandering over to take a better look out.” John saw nothing outside but assumed that the ghosts were there somewhere. “Hope your wife is back in time for supper, without her standing over my shoulder I’ll wind up fucking off and ruining it and end up with a PB&J.”
Alan smiled at him radiantly. John could tell how much it meant to his son that the effort to get to know his daughter-in-law and grandson had been put in since he had come to accept that they were real.
He walked over to the window and looked outside. The ‘For Sale’ signs were in most of the other yards on the block now, a small string of suicides sweeping through everyone. John assumed that it had been just depression with Jenna, the others remained a mystery to him. Old lady Maclarson had hung herself from the upstairs landing. The smell had been what alerted the rest of the neighborhood. He had seen the police outside her house, cleaning up the mess. The old bitch had been an obnoxious busybody, unhappy with everything. John had dealt with her complaining about his lawn, his garden, his car, everything. It never occurred to him until after she was dead that she might have just wanted some company, her ghosts had been there just like everyone else’s so he had never considered that she was just lonely as hell.
“Hell of a past couple of months,” he muttered to himself.
He turned to Alan, expecting to see him relaxing on the couch, his fingers laced over his considerable belly, his eyes staring up at the ceiling. He expected a sweaty-looking, non-descript Buddah. He wasn’t expecting the terrified trio he got.
Alan and his wife and child were frozen, rigid, almost like mannequins. Their eyes were bulging in terror, their mouths open as if they had just walked in on a particularly horrible scene. The child was between them, gripping their hands out of what seemed like sheer terror. They were vibrating, somewhere between reality and non-existence. It was startling. The screaming was worse.
All together they began to scream, a brutal and animalistic cry that shook him to his old bones. “Stop it!” cried Alan. “Fuck off!” cried his son. “God it hurts it hurts it hurts, the knife!” cried his wife. Over and over, like a child in pain, they repeated their wails and mantras till his skull nearly exploded. His head was thundering and he collapsed to his knees under the weight of it. His eyes felt close to falling to the floor, his mouth full of cotton. It felt like going to the dentist with a damned migraine headache. Then he was screaming with them.
He began to crawl towards them, swiping at their feet, and fell. Prone on the floor he writhed, clutching the sides of his head, his fingers running through the thin, grey bush on the top of his head. “This is it,” he thought. “This is how it finishes.”
And then it was over. The pain, the noise, all gone. The air had gone still. John Kaepernick lay on the hardwood floor, warm in the evening light shining through the window. “Christ, please don’t let me be dead,” he thought. he wiggled his fingers, touched the floor, and slowly pushed himself to his knees.
Alan was sitting on the couch with his family, talking about something and smiling. They were laughing. Then they noticed him on the floor. “Dad!” Alan cried and rushed to his side. “Dad?”
What was happening.
“Dad, holy shit!”
What was happening.
“Dad, are you ok?”
* * *
Billby lay still, staring at his ceiling. He had little glow-in-the-dark stars up there and liked to lay and look at them. He liked to pretend he was the powerful Galactic Will, saving the universe from the Arthurian Legion as they attempted to dominate the universe. With his trusty laser pistol strapped to his hip and his utility belt full of tricks there was little to nothing that could stop him from tearing down the sky castle and ending the right of Arturus Dominus, the evil king of darkness and pain.
Tonight was different. Tonight he was concentrating. Levitating six inches off of his bed, planked like a gymnast, he focused on one star in particular. It wiggled slightly, and he fell to his bed with a grin on his face. “Shut the fuck up! I’m trying to sleep!” came the cry from his father across the hall. “Sorry dad!” he called, hoping it would be enough to avoid another whipping like the one he had gotten after school. “Ruining good clothes, wasting my hard earned money!” his father had yelled as he hit Billby over and over. “Waste of fucking life, I’ll teach you to waste, take your medicine you little shit!”
But in his room Billby was king, and his father was respectful of that. He wanted his son to be a man and allowed him his private space. His father wasn’t the prying type. Thank goodness, or else he might have found the cigarettes stashed in his drawer or the old porno mag he had under his mattress. He wasn’t quite sure what to do with the latter, but it was fun to look at and the cigarettes had been ok after he had gotten used to them. He had worried that the smell would bring his father’s wrath, but it had never come up.
He raised a finger and pointed it at the ceiling. Instantly a young woman appeared, then an older woman. They were followed by a pair of twins and a man in his late twenties. He extended his thumb and made the gun like so many other young boys playing cowboys and indians or spacemen in the field. Boys with friends.
One by one he fired his finger at them. “Gotcha,” he whispered each time. With every mental bullet fired the ghost he pointed at disappeared. “Gotcha.” Each one in turn. He ended with the young woman, lingering on her. Her hair fell over her face, a jagged piece of something or other protruding from her neck. He smiled.