The Trouble with Billy

cover of the novel The UnwantedThis story originally appeared in the anthology Speaking Out. Jamie, Billy, and Sarah in my mythical YA fantasy, The Unwanted. If you like the story, check out their book.

The Trouble with Billy

This, Jamie thinks, is the day when I’m just going to walk in front of the bus instead of getting on it.

He doesn’t, though he’s not sure why. Of course, Sarah’s on the bus, and he doesn’t want her to have to see him splattered all over the road. Even so, turning himself into roadkill would be better than dealing with his oral presentation in English class third period (not to mention having to stare at Mrs. Rickhoff’s hairy mole, which she apparently refuses to pluck).

He wouldn’t have to deal with Billy Stratton, either.

“Did you hear Kate Bush is coming out with a new album this year?” Sarah asks, almost before Jamie lands in the seat next to her. Sarah is obsessed with the singer.

“Please,” he says. “It’s only been six years since Aerial. I bet the next one won’t drop until 2014 at the earliest.”

Sarah gets a triumphant look on her face, and out comes her smartphone. If there’s ever a question about something or an argument that needs settling, she consults Google on her phone, which Jamie calls the Oracle. She shows him a page in the browser.

He squints at the screen and says, “Whatever. Remember when Kate Bush News was saying every two months, ‘Announcement Imminent’?”

“Well, they were right, weren’t they?”

“Eventually, but that’s like saying ‘it’s gonna rain’ every day. Sooner or later you’ll be right.”

“Well, this site was right about Beth Ditto,” she says. “And Lady Gaga’s new album release date.”

“Beth who?” Jamie’s never heard of Beth Ditto, and he’s kind of over Gaga, at least for now. Kate Bush, though, is the glue cementing his friendship with Sarah. That, and the fact that he and Sarah are both the only children of single fathers, all of them “only” in their own way.

It started in middle school, an eighth grade dance, when Sarah requested “The Big Sky” off Hounds of Love and the DJ actually played it. Jamie was there only because his father had made him go—“You spend too much time in this house by yourself reading,” he’d said. Jamie spent most of the evening propping up a table in the corner until that song came on. Her voice was unlike any he’d heard before that: high but not airy, as if she weren’t breathing air but something even more elemental than that. The next thing he noticed was the girl twirling by herself across the mostly empty floor, her eyes closed but even so, she moved with a sense that kept her from colliding with anyone else. A few other people danced, and Sarah started bouncing up and down with more sheer joy than Jamie had ever seen in a single person. How could he not get up and join her?

The next day she brought him a mix CD of her favorite Kate Bush songs, which she slipped into his locker along with a note—“I think you need her as much as I do.” Jamie still has the CD and the note. He and Sarah have been inseparable ever since.

“Well,” he says, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” He waves his hand dismissively, only realizing at the end that the gesture is, well, a little fey. Someone in the seat behind him giggles, and he knows she’s laughing at him, at his hand, at the only pathetic gay in the village. He whips his head around and fixes the guilty party—a freshman, the nerve—with a look of such pure venom that the girl’s gaze immediately drops to the floor. Don’t mess with me today, missy, he thinks.

As he turns around he catches Sarah’s eye. She raises an eyebrow and purses her lips to show she’s impressed. Jamie would like to high-five her, but the nervousness is already taking hold again. They’re on the straightaway leading up to school, and there are no turns from here except the one that takes them into the parking lot. And eventually, at some point during the day, he’ll run into Billy.

Jamie tells himself he just has to make it through the day, which is the same thing he tells himself every Monday through Friday, until two-thirty arrives and he’s free for another day, or another weekend. He tries not to think about Monday. Instead he thinks about turning 17 next month, about being a senior next year, and about going to college and getting out of Athens as soon as possible after that. He’s looking at colleges in New York, Chicago, Boston—anywhere but Missouri.

“Penny,” Sarah says as the bus pulls into the parking lot. Penny for his thoughts, she means.

“Nothing,” he says. There isn’t enough time to convey to her the sense of dread that overcomes him every time the bus climbs the hill to the front of the school. Running up that hill with no problem, he thinks. Yeah, right.

Once they get off the bus, they go to their respective homerooms and won’t see each other again until third period AP English, then lunch. Second period is chemistry, the one class he has that’s not honors level—and the one class Billy Stratton shares with him. Jamie can’t really explain to Sarah, in the short amount of time they have between the bus and the front door, how getting flattened by the bus still seems like a viable option to him. Life already seems to be doing a pretty good job of it, so why not go for it literally?

He’ll never do it, though. He’ll keep getting on the bus every day, walking into school, and hoping that today he’ll escape Billy Stratton’s notice.


He makes it look so easy, Billy thinks, being yourself.

From behind the wheel of his Mustang, Billy watches Jamie get off the bus and walk into school, his friend Sarah beside him. He wishes he liked Sarah. She’s beautiful in a careless kind of way, as if she doesn’t realize it or put any effort into it. But it’s not Sarah he looks at, except when she’s beside Jamie.

Jamie. He’s not much taller than his friend Sarah, and if she’s wearing heels, he’s even a bit shorter than her. He has nondescript brown hair, though he does this swoop thing with it in the front that makes it look like he’s always walking into a breeze. His fair skin looks like it shelters from the sun, that it would burn easily. He flushes red so easily, which contrasts with the green of his eyes.

Sarah says something to him and Jamie laughs, his head tilted back, and for an instant Billy is so consumed with jealousy that he grips the steering wheel so tight he imagines it breaks between his fingers.

Billy’s been at school for over half an hour already and needs to hurry up and get inside before the bell, but he’s in no rush to get out of the car. For one thing, he hasn’t finished his reading homework for English, and knowing his luck that means Mrs. Hathaway will call on him before anyone else. For another, the song on the CD isn’t over yet, and it’s one of his favorites. He only listens to it in the car or on his iPod, where no one else will hear it, where he won’t have to be embarrassed that he’s listening to it. He started listening to her when he heard Jamie talking to Sarah about some woman named Kate Bush.

He pulls his textbook out of his backpack, but the reading assignment is almost fifteen pages. It’s this Irish guy James Joyce, and even though he’s writing in English, it might as well be in Japanese, for all the sense it makes to Billy.

Oh, what’s the point? He’s falling behind in his classes, and if his grades keep slipping, he’s going to flunk something. That would mean summer school, which would also mean less time for his job at the garage and, maybe, less time for football practice. It’s the last part that worries him most; if he doesn’t play starting lineup, there’s almost no chance he’ll get a football scholarship, and no scholarship means no college.

He returns the book to his backpack and switches off the stereo once “The Sensual World” is over. The next song on the CD is okay, but that one is his favorite. He read somewhere that she was inspired by James Joyce when she wrote it, but if anyone asked him, Kate Bush makes a lot more sense than Joyce could ever hope to.

Not that they would ask. He doesn’t speak up in English class. Not because he isn’t smart—he knows he is, he really does believe that—but he’s stretched so thin that he doesn’t have time to give any one thing too much attention. Between work, football, wrestling in the off-season, and chores at home, there’s not much time left for school. His parents have noticed his A-and-B grades have slipped into B-and-C territory. His father worries that he’s not going to get into college. Even if he does get in on a football scholarship, he won’t be able to stay in if he can’t do the work. His stepmother worries that he’s overextending himself and she wants him to cut back on something, maybe work—or what about sitting out wrestling this year?

He doesn’t want to do that, though.

They haven’t noticed what’s on the layer beneath those changes, and he hopes he never has to explain. He doesn’t know if he can find the words for it, the thing that sits in his gut like some creature. That’s why he wants to go away for college, so he doesn’t have to try to explain it. But he’s not going to get out of Athens if he doesn’t bring his grades back up.

Why is it that everywhere he looks, it seems, he sees Jamie? He stands out like a flare, a beacon. Billy needs to stop thinking about Jamie.


Billy somehow makes it through English first period without Mrs. Hathaway calling on him. He tries to follow the discussion for a while, but soon it’s pretty clear he won’t make sense of it since he didn’t finish the reading. Still, sitting in silence with no one taking notice is better than the alternative. Billy hopes his luck will hold out for the rest of the day.

When he gets to chemistry class, his luck goes down in flames with a pop quiz. Of the ten answers he turns in, four are total guesses. He can feel himself circling the drain, as if he’s going to descend into a dark place and drown in shit.

Jamie’s in the seat in front of him. Billy doesn’t realize he’s kicking the leg of Jamie’s chair until Jamie looks back at him, annoyed. His eyes go briefly wide when he realizes who’s sitting behind him, and he looks away quickly, but Billy knows he’s gotten to Jamie. On a scoreboard that’s only in his head, he makes a little check mark.

When Billy was little, about five or six, there was a girl he liked in his kindergarten class. One day at recess he pushed her off the swings, and the teacher spanked him for it. (This was back when it was acceptable for teachers to spank their students.) When his parents asked him why he pushed her, what she’d done to him, he didn’t know, as if any kid knows why they do anything at that point.

Now, though, Billy knows he did it because he liked the girl. He just didn’t know how to tell her that.

Finally, Jamie turns around again and whispers, “Knock it off, will you?”

Which of them is more surprised: Jamie, who actually spoke up for himself, or Billy, that Jamie actually said something to him? Briefly, their eyes lock, deer caught in each other’s headlights. Billy’s the one who blinks first, glances away, and stops kicking the chair. It was getting boring, anyway.

What should he do next? Billy’s never sure, though he knows it won’t be anything that gets him anywhere. How else is he supposed to relate to Jamie? He can’t just talk to him, not with Marc two rows ahead of them. Marc may be a linebacker, but he gossips like a cheerleader. Billy smiles at that. He’ll have to remember that one so later he can tell it to—someone. He’s not sure who. It’s not the sort of thing he can say to most people he knows. They’d think it’s too clever, and why is he comparing Marc to a cheerleader, anyway? Does he like the idea of seeing Marc in a miniskirt and shaking his pompoms?

It’s not fair, he thinks, though he’s not sure what “it” is exactly. Everything. Nothing is fair. His life isn’t fair. Specifics don’t really matter at this point so much as the blue fire of his sudden and irrational anger, and he kicks the leg of Jamie’s chair again, harder and more savagely this time. Suddenly, Jamie’s up on his feet and screaming, red-faced, at Billy.

“Stop kicking my chair, you dumbass monkey!” Jamie yells. He also throws his pencil at Billy, which nicks him in the cheek. Billy lifts his hand to his face; he’s not bleeding, but he’s somewhat dazed.

Mister McGrath has turned around from the whiteboard, now he’s yelling at Jamie. “Mister Thomas! Up front, now!”

He makes Jamie move to a chair at the front of the class. As Jamie sits down, the teacher adds, “One more outburst and you’re going to Ms. Wood’s office.”

Billy keeps touching his cheek. He’s amazed Jamie actually had the gumption to throw something at him. It doesn’t hurt, and he’s not sure there’s even a mark, but it feels warm, like someone is touching him there. For the rest of the class, Billy can’t leave it alone. He wants to forget that Jamie did it out of anger. Would a kiss burn as much?


Sarah can tell Jamie’s rattled as soon as he walks into English class. He drops his backpack by the desk next to hers and slumps in the chair. He’s never in a great mood after chemistry. She already knows why.

“So, what did he do this time?” she asks.

Jamie shakes his head. “Nothing, really. He just kept kicking the back of my chair. I don’t think he even realized it was me sitting in front of him until I looked back to tell him to knock it off.”

She takes note of his phrasing. “And did you actually tell him to knock it off?”

“Actually, I called him a dumbass monkey and threw my pencil at him. And almost got sent to the principal’s office.”

Sarah starts to laugh, but the look of irritation from Jamie silences her. He shuffles through his notebook—he has to give a report this period—and it looks to her like the sheets of paper aren’t the only things he’s barely holding onto.

“Maybe Mrs. Hathaway will let you do your report tomorrow,” she says, but Jamie just shakes his head.

“And if Billy gets it in his mind to do something else tomorrow, do I just keep asking her if I can put it off until the day he decides not to be an asshole?” He laughs, but there’s no humor in it. “I keep telling myself I just need to get through another year and a half, but how can I even think that far ahead when I don’t even know if I have it in me to get through the next period?”

Sarah reaches across and squeezes his hand. “You do. I know you can do it.”

Jamie stops shuffling papers and stares at her hand around his. “Maybe I don’t want to do it anymore.” His voice is small, like it’s hiding under the desk. The day isn’t even halfway over yet, and already he sounds exhausted.

Sarah wants to tell him not to say things like that, but Mrs. Hathaway closes the door, and that’s the signal they’re about to start. Jamie makes his presentation; it’s good, maybe not the best he could do, but once he gets into his topic, he seems able to put aside his anxiety. If only Sarah could put aside her anger half as easily, even for a moment, but she can’t, never has been able to. It’s been a steady beat of the hammer, this anger, ever since she was old enough to realize life isn’t fair, life doesn’t care about fairness or whether you don’t have a mom. Injustice is ingrained into this life, and there are only three things you can do in the face of it: you can try to work it out, beat flat the imperfections from its surface through brute force; you can discover some way to turn that injustice into power; or you can simply let it bulldoze you.

Jamie hasn’t learned the alchemy that might let him transform the raw materials of pain into something more tempered, worth keeping. That takes time, a continuous forging against an anvil of hurt. By the time it’s done with you, either you’re broken or you’re indestructible.

Sarah has always felt indestructible. Jamie has it in him to be as well. But what about Billy?


Now that he’s gotten halfway through the day, Jamie feels like he can breathe a little easier. He goes to his locker to put away his English books and get his lunch. His locker is on the hallway off the science wing, an older part of the school where the lockers stand in rows perpendicular to the walls. The teachers don’t like the arrangement, since it gives students places to stand out of easy sight, but the district doesn’t have the money to replace them yet.

When he shuts his locker, Billy is standing on the other side of it. Jamie lets out a little yelp before he regains control of himself.

“What do you want?” Jamie asks. He notices how eerily quiet the hall is, now that most everyone is either in the cafeteria or in class. No one would notice if Billy decides to beat him up right here.

“That’s, ‘What do you want, Mr. Dumbass Monkey?’” Billy says, smiling. To Jamie, it’s more like he’s baring his teeth.

“Leave me alone.” Jamie tries to get out of the corner he’s in, but Billy dodges to the right and leans against the locker, his outstretched arm barring Jamie’s way.

“Say please.”

Billy lifts his hand and Jamie thinks he’s going to punch him or, at the least, slap him, but much to his surprise—and, judging by the expression on his own face, to Billy’s surprise also—he places his palm flat against Jamie’s cheek. It’s almost a caress.

Jamie bats it aside, and he knows he’s going to completely lose it if he doesn’t get away from Billy soon. “What the hell is the matter with you?” Jamie shouts, then makes a break for it. He doesn’t stop running until he’s out of the hallway and by the cafeteria door, and then he looks back. But Billy hasn’t followed him.

Jamie has always thought standing up to Billy would make him feel better. It doesn’t. He expected one of two possible outcomes: an apology (unlikely) or a physical assault (virtually inevitable). But the way Billy touched his face…. It reminds Jamie of a story his history teacher told about Captain Cook’s ship arriving in Australia, how the sight of it was so massive and unfamiliar to the natives, they could not comprehend it, so they acted as if it weren’t there until they saw the canoes approaching shore and realized the threat.

Maybe that’s how Jamie should treat what Billy just did. Ignoring it, though, isn’t the same as unknowing it. He can’t make it or Billy disappear. The only thing that’s vanished, as far as he can tell, is his appetite for lunch.


Sarah can tell something’s happened. Jamie’s out of breath when he sits down, and the curling wave of his bangs has crashed over the sweat shine on his forehead.

“What happened?” she asks.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Jamie says.


“No. I mean it.”

His hands are trembling a little as he opens his lunch bag, so Sarah relents. Glancing toward the cafeteria doors, she sees Billy looking in. They lock eyes briefly, and Billy looks away and walks off.

Eventually, Jamie catches his breath, and he and Sarah spend the rest of lunch hour in troubled silence. Sarah may not know the specifics, but she doesn’t need details to know that Billy has rattled Jamie again.

Jamie’s next class is AP history; Sarah has study hall. She doesn’t go to class though. Instead, she waits for Billy.

Sarah’s never actually spoken to him. They don’t travel in the same circles, so far as high school can be said to have circles. Tiny circumferences. Archery and AP English don’t often tangent with varsity football and wrestling. She only sees him in passing, and she’s never seen him get aggressive toward Jamie. If she had, maybe that would make it easier to justify, this urge to put an arrow through Billy’s heart.

She won’t do anything as violent as that, of course. What she will do is hide in the bathroom after lunch until the bell for fifth period rings, then she’ll slip out and go back to the cafeteria, where Billy has the second lunch period.

She watches him. Sitting at a table on the other side of the cafeteria, an apple and a glass of milk in front of her, she tries to stare at him without looking like she’s staring. Occasionally, she glances away, catches someone else’s eye—they look at her as if to say, What are you doing here? Their gazes don’t linger too long though. She prefers it that way. Sarah likes to think she’s realistic about her looks: pretty enough for the first glance, but not so compelling as to warrant a second. It’s also why none of the teachers stop her in the halls between classes. (A reputation for studiousness helps, too.)

Billy sits just off center at the table crowded with boys in letterman’s jackets and girls in cheerleaders’ skirts. He’s not the focus of attention—that’s the quarterback and his girlfriend, who isn’t a cheerleader but is rich enough that she’s popular without making that effort. More than watching Billy, though, Sarah watches what and whom he watches. After a while, she notices a pattern, unexpected at first, but the more she thinks about it, the more she starts to get it, why Billy is so bent on making Jamie’s life a misery from the time he walks in the front doors of the school until he makes his escape to the bus—and probably even beyond that.

When lunch is over, she goes to sixth period, wondering what to do with this new knowledge. Wondering if there is anything to do with it. It makes her even angrier than before, makes her actually want to go to her locker and get out her archery quiver, notch an arrow, and zero in on the back of Billy’s head.

That thought stays with her the rest of the afternoon, so she’s not surprised when, like a target she’s been aiming for, she finds herself behind Billy at the end of the day when she walks out of school. He’s standing on the curb, kind of apart from everyone, and he’s staring at Jamie, who’s walking across the parking lot to the school bus.

There’s a rock in Billy’s left hand, she notices. Huh, I never knew he was left-handed. He’s turning the rock over in his palm, like a worry bead or a stress ball. He wipes his face with his right hand, and Sarah thinks it’s odd, that gesture. He looks troubled or exhausted more than angry. First he glances left and right, making sure no one’s watching, but he doesn’t look behind. He doesn’t see her.

She plucks the rock from his grip as he’s winding back for the throw, and she’s dropped it into her coat pocket before he’s even finished turning around to stare at her, dumbfounded.

“Hi, Billy,” she says, trying to keep her voice from rising, even though it feels like there’s a fist-sized lump of screaming lodged in her throat just begging to be let loose.

“What do you want, freak?” His voice rises to a squeal, and she can see he’s embarrassed by the tone of his voice. He’s at least six inches taller than her and he’s trying to look intimidating, but it’s not working.

“I don’t think I’m the only freak around here,” she says.

Sarah looks past him at Jamie, who’s gotten on the bus safely and the doors have shut. Soon he’ll start to wonder where she is, why she’s not riding home with him. Later, she’ll have to call her dad and ask him to pick her up on his way home, but she’ll just tell him she had extra archery practice. He’s usually distracted enough to believe whatever she tells him.

Billy also watches Jamie get on the bus, then turns back to Sarah and sneers. “Looks like we both missed your boyfriend.” He flings the last word at her like an insult. She just sighs.

“He’s not my boyfriend, dumbass. He’s gay. Besides, he’s not the freak I was talking about.” She pats the rock in her coat pocket. “Jamie’s left-handed too. I wonder what else you two have in common.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says, but in a brief moment of hesitation, a trembling in his eyes, he verifies her suspicion.

“Wouldn’t it be easier,” she asks, “if you’d just be yourself?”

Sarah walks away without waiting to hear his answer. That wasn’t the point of asking the question in the first place.

The bus hasn’t pulled away yet and she breaks into a jog, hoping to catch it before it takes off. She’s almost too late, but she bangs her fist against the side of the bus as she comes alongside. The driver opens the door, giving Sarah a sour glance when she boards. Jamie shifts on the bench to let her have the window seat—she likes looking out the window, he likes being on the aisle—and she can tell from his reaction that the smile on her face is too forced.

“What’s up with you?” he asks her.

“Nothing,” she says, and looks out the window. By this time, Billy has gotten into his car and is pulling out of the parking lot ahead of the bus. Jamie probably knows his car on sight. Given how much Billy has tormented him all year—longer than that, even—Sarah’s sure he recognizes everything that could be a harbinger of Billy’s approach.

No doubt Billy does the same thing.

Impulsively, Sarah takes Jamie’s hand and clutches it against the side of her leg. She puts her other hand on top of his and rubs it, as if she’s trying to keep him warm.

“Okay, seriously,” he says, “what’s the matter?”

“I said nothing,” she replies. “What, you don’t believe me?”

He glances down at their hands. “At the moment? Not really.”

She laughs, more genuine now than her earlier smile. “I’m just really glad it’s Friday. What do you want to do this weekend? Want to go see a movie?” She gets out her Oracle and starts to look up showtimes.

Jamie shrugs. “I have a mountain of homework.”

“So do I. It’ll keep.”

Jamie considers for a moment, then smiles. “As long as you’re buying the popcorn.”



In his rearview mirror, Billy watches the bus pull out of the parking lot and head in the opposite direction. He’s so wound up, he has to pull over. He wishes Sarah had been angrier, had yelled and screamed or maybe even thrown the rock right at him after she took it from his hand. Her cool accusation is more unsettling than rage might have been. Rage, at least, he could understand.

It wasn’t a big rock, and it’s not like he was aiming for Jamie’s head, but now the idea of throwing it brings a wave of embarrassment and shame crashing down on Billy. He leans his head against the steering wheel. What on earth was he thinking when he picked up that rock? What did he even expect to accomplish by throwing it? The envy that filled him earlier that morning is now a hollow ache unlike any hunger he’s felt before. He’s envious not of just one of them, but both: of Sarah because it’s so easy for her to talk to Jamie, and of Jamie because he has someone like Sarah to confide in. Where’s Billy’s Sarah? What does he have to do to find someone like that? And once found, would they forgive him for what he’d almost done?

The answer’s in him, but he doesn’t want, he’s afraid, to look that deep.

So he lifts his head from the steering wheel. The Kate Bush CD’s still in the stereo, “Love and Anger” blaring at him. He reaches over to switch it off, but instead he sits there and listens to the song until he thinks he’s finally ready to go home.