Billy is seven years old the first time he touches a cello. His mum left a week ago, his dad punched him while shouting at him that it was his fault, and Billy got into his first fight during recess.
Miss Adams sees the fight, and hands the other kid over to another teacher, while she takes Billy with her into her classroom. Miss Adams is young, having just finished her education, although to seven year old Billy she’s just like any other adult. He can see she’s not one hundred though, not like Mrs. Wilson who teaches them maths.
She’s not Billy’s teacher, either, so Billy hasn’t ever been in her classroom. He barely listens as she goes on about how it’s bad to start a fight, how he should use his words and not his fists to resolve an argument, how he should come to them if somebody says something that hurts him, and wonders if he should ask them why his dad obviously doesn’t agree. Billy’s smart though, and Billy’s scared, and he doesn’t dare say anything in case his dad finds out. Doesn’t think he’d like hearing Billy’s talking back to his teachers. He hates it when Billy talks back to him.
So Billy lets his eyes wander, but there’s not much of interest in the classroom. It looks just like any other classroom Billy’s been in. Miss Adams has the alphabet along one wall, each letter a fun colour with a drawing next to it taking up one paper. She’s drawn a sun in the upper left corner of the blackboard. Billy doesn’t get why they’re called ‘blackboards’ when they’re green. His eyes land on the corner of the room, behind Miss Adams’ desk, where she has some big... thing leaning against the wall. It’s a case of some sort, and shaped vaguely like a guitar, but bigger. Much bigger.
It takes a couple seconds for it to register that Miss Adams has stopped talking. She’s looking at Billy with this sort of amused expression. Her eyes are kind.
Perhaps that is why Billy dares to open his mouth and speak. “What is that?” he asks, and points towards the corner.
Miss Adams’ smile widens, and she stands up from her chair, and goes over to lift the thing. She brings it back to Billy, lays it down on the floor and unfastens the clasp on the side, pulls the zipper back. She opens it, and Billy’s mouth falls open.
He’s seen a violin before, on TV, and this looks like one, dark brown-ish red that shines in the California sunlight streaming in through the window when Miss Adams lifts it up. It’s much, much bigger though.
There’s a little rod sticking out from the bottom of it that Miss Adams pulls on so it becomes longer. She looks up at Billy and smiles.
“This is my cello,” she says, and in his head Billy repeats the word. “Have you ever seen a cello before?”
Billy shakes his head.
“Okay. This,” she says, and lifts up a long wooden stick. She holds it out so Billy can see, and it looks like it has a thousand thin little hairs running along the wooden part. “Is my bow. You have to tighten it. See?” She screws something at the bottom of the wood, and the hairs tighten. Billy watches wide eyed. “And then, you put a little rosin on.” She grabs a small dark thing in a white handkerchief, and drags it over the hairs, back and forth a few times. “It helps the friction and the sound,” she explains.
Miss Adams sits back on her chair in front of Billy, and reaches down, grabbing the cello and putting it in front of her, strings towards Billy. She smiles at him, like she’s about to tell him a secret, and puts the bow against the strings.
She drags it against them, and Billy gasps at the first sound of music. There’s so much happening, he doesn’t know what to focus on. The bow goes back and forth, sometimes hitting one string, sometimes hitting two, and her fingers move so quickly it’s almost a blur. Sometimes, her hand shakes, and it makes the notes sound like the waves Billy loves to swim in and is learning to surf on. He feels all giddy when she does it, like he’s a jack-in-the-box about to jump out of his seat.
Miss Adams laughs a little when she’s finished. It’s a nice laugh, sounds happy the way his mum’s used to.
“Here,” she says, and hands Billy the cello. “Hold it by its neck.”
Billy’s eyes widen, but he does as he’s told. The wood feels smooth beneath his hand. Miss Adams stands up, and crouches down beside Billy’s chair. She holds up the bow.
“This is how you hold it,” she says, and Billy sees she’s got her thumb underneath the wood, between it and the hairs. The rest of her fingers are on top of it, leaning over the side. She hands the bow to Billy, and he tries to copy her grip. He beams when Miss Adams claps her hands together and says: “Yes! You’re learning so quickly! I didn’t even get it on my first try.”
She moves his hand higher up on the neck of the cello, but doesn’t tell him to press on any strings the way he saw her do.
“My cello is too big for you, but try to draw the bow against the strings.”
Billy does so, and feels a full body shiver go through him at the sound it makes when the hairs are drawn across the strings. He does it again, and has to force himself to sit still. He doesn’t know if he’s ever been so careful in his life. He doesn’t want to risk damaging the cello. It feels heavy, but also so, so fragile.
“What do you think?” Miss Adams asks.
“Cool,” Billy says. It’s more than cool, but Billy doesn’t yet know the words to explain how he feels.
“Yeah?” Miss Adams laughs. “Well, in that case. My parents kept all my old cellos, that I had before I outgrew them. I could bring one I think would fit you next week, if you want? And I can teach you a little more?”
Billy bites his lip, and nods quickly.
Miss Adams smiles at him, and ruffles his hair. Billy only ever let his mum do that. He thinks he might let Miss Adams do it, too. “Great. I think you have class in a few minutes. See you next week, Billy.”
“What’s got you looking like that, then?” Neil asks him at dinner later that day. ‘Like that’ just means ‘smiling, grinning down at your pizza like Christmas came early’. Billy can barely contain his excitement.
“My teacher at school told me she’d teach me how to play cello.”
For all that Billy’s gotten better at it, he wasn’t expecting his dad’s hit. He slaps Billy against the cheek and Billy can’t quite stop his eyes from welling up, although he does try, he really does.
“No son of mine is going to play the fucking cello,” Neil spits. Billy flinches at the venom in his voice. “I’m not going to pay for you to take music lessons. You’ll join a sport. And you’ll thank your teacher for the offer but tell her you’re a man and not some little fag.” Billy doesn’t even know what that word means. His dad stands up, and goes to take his plate out to the living room. “And stop crying, you’re not a pussy,” he tells him on the way out.
Billy swallows a sob, and bites into his knuckle. He forces down the rest of his pizza.
Billy starts playing soccer, and when he tires of that, he joins the basketball team. But that happens later. First, Billy avoids going near Miss Adams classroom for the whole of next week.
But then on his last lesson on Friday, she’s waiting outside Billy’s classroom.
“Can I speak to you, Billy?” she asks, and Billy’s tempted to make up an excuse, to tell her he has to get home or his dad will wonder where he is.
But Billy’s barely been able to stop himself from thinking of her cello when awake, and two nights ago he dreamt that he was stuck in a dark empty space with his dad running after him, Billy’s face already aching, when suddenly the ceiling opened up and a bow, enormous, came down. The hair on it was golden, and Billy threw himself on it and climbed upwards. He came to his mum’s shoulder. She was big and tall like a giant, and her hair matched the one of the bow he’d used to get to her. He sat down in her shoulder, like a parrot on a pirate, and turned around to see Miss Adams, as big as his mum, playing the cello. As she played, his dad was thrown out of the hollow inside of the cello, and disappeared.
So instead he nods, and holds the strap of his backpack tighter, and follows after her into her empty classroom. His eyes immediately seek out the corner, and he sees a smaller case propped up beside it. Billy doesn’t know if he wants to scream or cry.
Miss Adams leans back against her desk. She follows Billy’s gaze and frowns. “You want to tell me why you never came by this week? I waited for you.” She says it kindly, in that soft voice of hers, but Billy still feels like he’s being reprimanded.
He bows his head. “I’m sorry.” He thinks back to what his dad said, tries to figure out which excuse she will be most likely to accept. “My dad said we can’t afford music lessons.”
“Oh!” Miss Adams says, laughs a little. She sounds relieved. “I wasn’t planning on asking you to pay, Billy. It just seemed like you enjoyed it, so I thought it would be fun.”
Billy stares down at the ground, rubs one shoe over the toes of the other. “He also said it wasn’t manly and that I should join a sport instead. He doesn’t like me playing music, Miss Adams.” He glances up at her through his hair, and sees her brows furrow again.
“I see. Well... He doesn’t need to know, does he? What he doesn’t know can’t bother him.”
Billy gapes at her. Can’t believe he’s hearing an adult, a teacher, telling him to lie.
Miss Adams smiles. “Tell you what. Let’s make a deal. If you stop getting into fights,” Billy had pushed another kid earlier this week, had pulled at a third ones hair. “Then you can come here after your last lesson, every day if you want. And I’ll teach you how to play, and help you with homework if you need it, and in return you won’t have to go to any detentions. Alright?”
It’s the best deal Billy’s ever heard of.
Six months after Billy’s mum left, Neil brings home his first new girlfriend.
She’s nice, pretty but not beautiful like his mum, and has a sweet laugh. She’s a redhead, and pinches Billy’s cheeks the way he’s heard the other kids say their grandma’s do.
Billy sits through a dinner with her and his dad on his best behaviour, and tries to not think about his mum. But he acts like the epitome of a well-mannered boy, and his dad gives him ice cream for desert.
It’s nice up until the point where Billy has to go to bed, and she doesn’t leave. Instead, Billy hears her and his dad speak in soft voices in the living room, followed by a giggle and two bodies fumbling into his parents’ bedroom. Billy’d been close to falling asleep, but a muffled crash against the wall right outside his room has him wide awake.
He wonders if Neil is hurting her, the way he’d hurt Billy’s mum and now Billy. His hands tremble where they clutch at his covers.
But then he hears a giggle, and the closing of a door. Billy’s bedroom is next to Neil’s, and the walls are thin.
He hears everything. He wishes he didn’t, and pulls his pillow over his ears.
“You’re teacher tells me you’re sleeping during class. She thought about giving you detention, but I convinced her not to. You want to tell me what’s going on?”
“I can’t sleep,” Billy mumbles.
“And why can’t you sleep?”
Billy grimaces. “Dad has new girlfriends. They’re... loud, at night.” He purses his lips, twists them a little. Feels nauseous just thinking about the sounds he’s heard.
Miss Adams seems to understand. Her eyes go a little wider, and she sighs. “I see. Every night?”
“No. But... a lot. Enough. I’m just... I’m tired.” He can’t help yawning.
Miss Adams nods, and smiles at him. Asks him to get out the cello, and starts his lesson.
The next day, she cuts the lesson short after half an hour, and leads Billy back to her office. She’s got a small couch there, green and ugly but with thick cushions and a pillow and blanket. She lets him go to sleep while she grades tests from the day before and prepares the upcoming lessons for her students.
The last day of elementary school, at the cusp of the summer before Billy starts middle school, Miss Adams come up to him.
“Guess what I’m going to do?” she says, and Billy frowns, bites his lip the way his mum said he does when he tries to really think hard on something. He doesn’t know, Miss Adams could do anything, she’s an adult with money and a car and her own place to live and parents who let her play music and kept her old cellos. But Billy had wanted to talk to her, because he’s been worrying for the past week, every day since he realised he wouldn’t go to school here anymore, and so wouldn’t be able to play any more cello.
“I don’t know,” he eventually says.
Miss Adams beams, and she tells him she’s not going to keep working at the elementary school, that she’s moving with Billy, coming to be a teacher at his new school. But she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to be his teacher, not that it matters, because she’ll be there, she’s coming with him, she’ll keep teaching him and helping him with homework and letting him sleep when he’s tired, and Billy hugs her.
The newest girl is called Mary.
She’s young, with big blonde waves of hair, bigger and shorter than his mum’s. Billy clutches his Saint Christopher pendant, the one that belonged to his mum, the one he woke up with around his neck the morning he found out she’d left. His mum would take him to church sometimes, although she never really said she believed in everything they told them there. She’d always tell Billy the most important thing was to be kind, and to think before he does something, to think about how it could hurt someone. If she’d seen him now, Billy doesn’t think she’d be very proud, but Billy also doesn’t understand how she could decide to leave him when she left, if the most important thing is to be kind and think about what you do and who you might hurt. Billy doesn’t really like to think about that.
His dad likes to talk about God, but where his mum would mention him as kind, as forgiving and understanding, his dad never takes him to church, and only ever talks about God when he wants to warn Billy that he’ll end up burning in Hell forever if he continues on the path he’s on. Billy doesn’t like to think about Forever.
His mum told him she’d love him Forever, the people in church said marriages are supposed to last Forever, and his dad says he’ll keep hurting, his existence will only be pain, Forever.
The point, anyway, is that Billy knows who the Virgin Mary is. And he knows what being a virgin is, he knows about sex , has heard it whispered from the lips of the older kids, and Billy knows adults are supposed to have sex with those they date, but he also knows that his dad’s Mary is as far from the real Mary as you can get. Her parents gave her the wrong name.
Billy thinks she’s a Bitch. It’s a new word he’s learned, and he’s not really entirely certain what it means, but he knows it’s a bad word, and he thinks it probably fits Mary well.
She ignores Billy, she gets prissy when his dad doesn’t do what she wants, when he doesn’t take her for long drives into the sunset or always gets her flowers when they see each other, she doesn’t like that Billy sits at the table in the kitchen doing his homework because his bedroom doesn’t have a desk after his dad broke it. She doesn’t like Billy, and that’s fair.
Billy doesn’t like her.
Billy doesn’t like them. All the girls who come over. They’re just a string of women in Neil’s pussy parade, although he doesn’t think of it that way until he’s halfway through with middle school.
He doesn’t like them, because none of them stay. They step into his life for a snapshot, and then they leave when his father’s real character starts to shine through.
And then Susan comes. And with her, she brings a flaming spitfire of a little girl. Maxine, who tells him the second she meets him that her name isn’t that, it’s Max, thank you very much. Max is nine, and Billy’s twelve, and he doesn’t hate her.
”I think you’re ready.”
“ Vibrato.” Miss Adams says the word as though it’s a spell, a portal to a magic world. Once Billy learns how to do it, he will find out that it basically is. “When you practice here with me, I want you to imagine that you’ve got gum on your fingers, that they’re sticking to the fingerboard, okay? But then, when you practice at home, you can take a pencil, and I want you to practice shaking your hand. You can do it as a big move, shaking your whole arm from the elbow up to your fingers, or you can try to just move your hand. Have your palm fluttering like it’s in the wind, but remember! The tips of your fingers are stuck, sucked into the strings. Or the pencil.”
Max isn’t that bad, she just stares at him when he practices vibrato, and asks him if there’s something wrong with him because his hand won’t stop shaking. Billy flicks her head and tells her to shut up, and she sticks her tongue out at him.
In the privacy of his own bedroom, Billy stares up at the ceiling and grins, thinking that it might be fun to have a sister. At least Max doesn’t seem like one of the stupid girls in Billy’s class who only care about what their hair or clothes look like, Max seems like someone who’d be able to keep up with him.
Susan’s the first girlfriend Neil’s brought home that has a kid, that has been married before. And Billy thinks that maybe that means this will be more permanent, because they’ve introduced him to Max, and that means they’ll probably move in together, and Billy thinks it’ll be nice to not be alone with the secret anymore.
Neil and Susan get married. A good and proper one, in a church, nothing like “The hippie shit Billy’s mum made me do”, and Billy sits next to Max, him feeling like a fish on dry land, dressed in a black suit in the sweltering California heat, her with a sullen face and crossed arms over the quite frankly enormous dresses she’d been forced into.
But just because Billy likes Max, because he feels like they might come to an understanding, doesn’t mean that he has to like Susan.
The day after the wedding, Billy helps his dad move in their stuff because Susan’s house is bigger, and it’s closer to the beach so Billy’s not complaining, except for one small part of him that thinks that his mum wouldn’t know where to find him if she ever came looking, and that Friday the newlyweds fuck off, leaving Billy in charge until Sunday evening, and he orders pizza for himself and Max and they watch movies for hours every night, Billy taking her to the beach during the day. He asks her if she wants to learn how to surf, but she says no, looking longingly at the boys who skate by on the boulevard, but she’s a good swimmer still, and she sits on the edge of Billy’s board as he surfs. He’s going to look back on their time in California, and he’s going to realise that first weekend was the best days they had there.
While packing his childhood room up into boxes, he’d found a little envelope in the back of the only photo album Billy owned, not even half filled with pictures of the first three years of Billy’s life. His mum had put it in the bottom of his closet, where his dad never looked, but going through it now, five years after she left, the yellowing envelope falls out and lands in his lap.
Billy picks it up, finds a couple dollar bills, and laughs at the thought that his mum had thought that would make up for leaving in the night, leaving him to the same fate she’d had. But there’s not only money, there. There’s a new photograph, one Billy can’t even remember when she’d taken, but he’s six or seven years old in it, and then, the last thing to fall out, is a ring. Billy recognises it immediately. It’s silver, plain, and it’s one of a pair of twins. His mum had worn them both, every day, on the same finger, and Billy imagines she’s still wearing one of them. She’d left the other for him.
He doesn’t know what it means, but he puts it on for the first time after his dad has left with his new wife, and sitting in the sand on the beach, shirt off and sunglasses on, Max leans over and stares at the Saint Christopher, glittering in the sunlight.
“I’ve never seen a boy wear a necklace before,” she tells him.
“It’s not a necklace,” Billy says, because he’s learned not to call it that, after he wore it on the outside of his clothes at school another kid tried to bully him about it. That kid got a taste of Billy’s knuckles in his face, and when he went to Miss Adams after school she took one look at the blood on his knuckles and had a talk with him. She didn’t let him play that day, instead spending the whole hour they had discussing why he couldn’t go punching every time people were mean to him. “It’s a pendant. And it’s a Saint. My mum gave it to me.” He holds up his left hand, and shows her the ring on the middle finger. “This one, too.”
“Oh,” Max says, her red hair wet and clinging to her forehead in large chunks and weird shapes that Billy wants to laugh at. “What happened to her?”
“Oh,” she says again. “My dad divorced my mum, but I still see him every other weekend.”
Lucky you , Billy thinks.
Susan listens to classical music while she cooks. Perhaps it ought to make Billy like her more, but it has the opposite effect. Especially when his dad doesn’t say anything, doesn’t tell her to change stations if he happens to walk in while she’s at the stove.
Billy doesn’t realise he’s started humming along until he feels someone staring at him.
He looks up from his homework to find Susan looking curiously at him. Billy scrambles for an explanation. “My teacher plays that shit for us. It... It got stuck in my head.”
“Okay,” Susan answers simply.
Billy avoids the kitchen when Susan’s cooking, after that.
Max does stay with her dad every other weekend, but then one Friday when Billy gets home after his lesson with Miss Adams, she’s not there. Billy’s been walking home since he was seven, but Susan always picks up Max, so she’s home when Billy gets there.
She’s on the couch in the living room, and it looks like she’s been crying, a box of tissues beside her, a couple used ones on the coffee table. Billy hopes she cleans it up before his dad gets home.
But his immediate thought is that something happened, something his dad will find a way to blame on him, and then Billy won’t be able to go surfing for a couple days until the bruises fade.
But his dad’s not home, and neither is Max. What with Susan’s current state, Billy doesn’t know if that is good or not.
He stops in the doorway to the living room. “Where’s Max?”
“She ran away to the beach. She didn’t want to talk to me.” She looks up at him, and her eyes are big and teary. “Can you go and see if you can get her to come home?” It’s the first time Susan’s asked him to do anything.
Billy just nods, slowly, a little fearful. “Yeah. Yeah, okay.”
He finds her sitting in the sand with her knees pulled up to her chest, her hair like a beacon. Billy sits down beside her. She’s staring out at the waves, but he turns to look at her.
“Hey, shitbird, what’s got you so upset you ran away from your mum?”
She doesn’t answer, just sniffles and pulls her sleeve down over her hand, trying to dry her eyes without getting sand in them.
“Max? Hey, what’s wrong?”
“He’s leaving,” she whispers.
“Who’s leaving? Max?”
“My dad,” she sobs. “He called my mum to tell her he’s moving away, that he’ll be too far away for me to visit during the weekend. He’s leaving me behind.”
Just like my mum left me , Billy thinks. “You could still call him?” he tries.
Max shakes her head. “It won’t be the same. He gives... He gives the best hugs.”
“I know it won’t be the same. But it’ll be something, at least. You know what I’d give, to have had my mum leave a phone number behind?” He doesn’t mean for it to come out as irritated as it does, because he understands what Max is feeling, but she’s still better of than him. She’s got a mum who loves her, and a dad who’s moving, yes, and it hurts, but he’s not abandoning her.
Max begins crying in earnest, now, and she throws her arms around his neck. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I forgot.”
Billy’s not hugged anyone since Miss Adams in elementary school, so he’s caught of guard for a whole five seconds before he brings his arms to hug her back. He’s not going to tell her about his own dad, Billy thinks, not when he’s the only dad Max is going to have at hand, not when he hasn’t done anything to hurt her yet.
Max starts to skateboard, and the first time she falls of and breaks the skin on her knee, Billy’s gets pushed into his new desk and slapped across the face for letting her get hurt.
And then, Billy considers telling Max, making her understand that there are new rules in place, and he’s her big brother and they’re family now and all they have is each other, and what she does and what happens to her has consequences for what happens to Billy, but then he remembers that Max only has him because her dad left her and Susan’s too in love to care. And he realises that he doesn’t want to break her heart, he doesn’t want her to realise what kind of person her stepdad is, not when she seems to like him, not when Billy saw her whole face light up as she opened the skateboard Billy’s dad bought her.
And so Billy makes himself a promise. He’s going to protect Max, but he’s also going to protect himself. And if that means sometimes being an ass to her, than so be it.
Billy’s always had long hair, partly because he liked it and his mum liked it, and partly because Neil couldn’t be bothered taking him to cut it for months on time.
But it isn’t until the last month of middle school, that Billy goes to the hairdresser alone for the first time, Susan having handed him money before he left, and waiting for his turn he looks through the magazines there because he’s bored. That’s when he sees it, that’s when he goes to sit in the chair, and asks for a mullet.
Max laughs when she sees him, and Neil pulls at his hair when they’re alone in the room, but before going to bed that night Billy looks at himself in the mirror and thinks ‘Yes, yes, this is me’.
He starts high school in the autumn of ‘82. With high school comes parties, and relationships, and the talking that began in middle school becomes more explicit as the boys start to openly stare at girls, no longer hiding their crushes from their friends and pretending they don’t blush.
And Billy realises that while the other boys will try to ask the girls out on dates, Billy’s too preoccupied staring at the guys on the beach, at their muscular bodies and tan skin.
But he’s not alone, and whispered from older boys who’ve seen his looks, he learns a secret language.
He’s sitting in someone’s basement, drunk on his first beer, the room filled with cigarette smoke and the floor above his head thumping to the sound of dancing bodies, when he leans his head to the side and lets someone’s brother, who works at a tattoo parlour, pierce his left ear.
He discovers, when he gets home, hung over and nauseous, that whoever did it was responsible enough to write down instructions for how to care for it until it heals on a piece of paper, sticking it down into Billy’s front pocket.
Max is the first to notice it, trying to touch the little stud whenever he’s lying tanning in the sand, but he shoves her away every time.
“Fuck off, you’ll get it infected.”
“Where did you do it? I want one, too.”
“You’re too young,” Billy says, and Max wrinkles her nose at him and looks like she wants to argue, but Susan calls for her, and she leaves him alone.
Susan notices next, but she doesn’t say anything, Billy just sees her eyes widen for a fraction of a second.
Neil makes his awareness well known, however, but it isn’t until after its healed, and Billy’s managed to buy himself a new earring, long and dangling, reflecting the sun when he’s outside. He calls Billy a fag, and Billy wants to laugh, because if only his dad new, wants to shout at him ‘Yes! So what?!’ but he does neither. He doesn’t say anything, because if there’s one thing Billy’s learned, it’s that talking back will always get you wounded.
Billy gets his ears pierced, and is rewarded with a punch that makes him double over. Miss Adams laughs when she sees him, though, telling him he looks nice and is growing up quicker than she can understand. And Max thinks he’s cool. Billy decides to count it as a winner.
Miss Adams can’t follow him to high school, though, but they decide that he’ll keep coming to the middle school to play. Billy’s days are slightly longer than Max’, so there’s not much risk in running into her at her own school, as she’s usually halfway home by the time Billy gets there.
So he goes to Max’ school for his lessons, which are less lessons nowadays and more a safe place for him to practice.
“You’re a wonder, Billy,” Miss Adams tells him one day during Billy’s freshman year. “You really are. I’ve never met anyone who learned so quickly, who could play so well. It’s like the instruments a part of you, like it’s an extension of your soul. It’s... magnificent. Truly.”
Billy blushes, looking down at Miss Adams’ cello. It’s her own, her current cello, the first cello he’d ever seen that first time he stepped foot into her classroom when he was seven years old. He’d had a growth spurt over the summer, and when he’d come back Miss Adams had taken one look at him and told him he was ready for the full sized cello, the 4/4 one, and had handed over her own. It had felt like a ceremony, like he’d passed from child to teenager, to almost adult. When she gets him a new piece, she usually plays it for him once, before handing the cello to him, and sometimes Billy doesn’t even have to look at the sheet music to replicate what he hears. Sometimes he gets it completely right on the first try.
“I know we’ve talked about your dad,” she continues, “That he wouldn’t like knowing you played, but please Billy, I know a couple people at the academy and they’re having auditions, entrance exams, for possible new students. Please, for your own sake, let me take you there? I’m afraid you don’t understand exactly how good you are.”
“What if I get in?”
“You won’t have to go. We can do it unofficially, it’s a little unorthodox but they owe me a favour, so your dad wouldn’t ever have to find out. Or... If you end up wanting to go, then we’ll talk about that then, okay? I could have a meeting with your dad about it.”
It doesn’t matter what Billy wants, and if Billy can do anything about it, then Miss Adams won’t ever have to meet his dad. But Billy does want to go, the more she talks about it the more interested he gets, and he has to admit it would be nice to hear what someone else thinks about his playing.
Because Billy doesn’t know what a normal progression in music is like, he doesn’t know if he’s better than others his age, or others who have played the amount of years Billy has. All he has to listen to and compare is Miss Adams and the recordings she plays for him.
So Billy says yes, and agrees.
Billy skips school after lunch, instead going over to the middle school’s teachers’ car park and waiting there for Miss Adams. He’d thought about faking being sick but had been too worried they’d call home, so he decided to just skip the rest of the day instead. If his dad finds out, he’ll deal with whatever his punishment is then.
The car ride is half an hour long, Billy spending the time staring at his sheet music and trying to make sure he has it memorised. This may be his only chance, and Billy wants to impress them.
The music academy is big, and beautiful, and the inside is the poshest and fanciest Billy’s ever seen, the floor is so shiny Billy can see his reflection in it, a giant chandelier hanging in the entrance hallway. In the distance, from an open door somewhere, Billy hears the sound of a sole opera singer practicing.
He feels out of place, so he sticks close to Miss Adams, trailing behind her as she leads him down a hallway to stand outside a pair of double doors. She seems to k ow her way around, and not for the first time, Billy wonders about her background and how she came to be an elementary and middle school teacher. He leans against the wall, the case with her cello prohibiting his back from hitting it, as they wait for his turn.
Eventually, the door opens, and a girl Billy’s age trails out, neither looking particularly relieved or sad, her eyebrows furrowed and sheet music clutch tightly in one hand. He follows movement down to her hand, tapping against her hips, and figures her lack of instrument must mean she’s a pianist. He’d left his sheet music in the car. He hopes he won’t fumble and forget, thinks that maybe he should have brought it in with him anyway.
“William Hargrove?” a stern voice calls, but when Billy looks up it’s a young woman smiling kindly at him from the open doorway.
“Yes,” Billy says, right as Miss Adams takes his arm and pushes him forward.
“Go on,” she says.
Billy turns back to look at her, the case obscuring part of his vision. “You’re not coming with?”
She smiles at him. “I’ll wait for you out here. You’ll be fine. You’re going to do great, you don’t need me in there with you.” She ruffles his hair, and Billy tries to summon bravery.
He nods, once, quickly, and follows the other woman inside.
There are big windows on one side, afternoon sunlight streaming in and gleaming of the grand piano in the middle of the room. Beside it, there’s a chair, and in front of the chair sits a small group of men and women behind a long table, papers and pens and mugs of coffee in front of each of them. Billy can smell it in the air, coffee and old wood.
“This the boy Donna recommend?” an older woman asks, and Billy swallows. Donna, he thinks, must be Miss Adams’ first name.
“It is,” the woman who’d led him in says, gesturing for Billy to sit down in the chair in front of them. She leans against the wall, crossing her arms, and Billy feels shaky as he crouches down by the chair, gently swinging the case of his back and placing it on the floor. He does his best to calm the tremble in his fingertips as he opens it, tightening the hairs of the bow.
He sits down on the chair, lifting the cello and placing it between his legs, the neck leaning back against his chest and shoulder.
“When you’re ready,” the older woman says, nodding at him to begin.
This is the first time Billy’s performed in front of an audience bigger than Miss Adams. He breathes deeply for a couple seconds, and closes his eyes so he won’t have to look at them. For all his worries about sheet music earlier, Billy is confident in his ability. He knows this song, he’s played it countless of times. Gum, he thinks, Your fingertips are sticky like gum.
And the first note of Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp Minor rings out across the room.
Billy doesn’t open his eyes until the song’s finished, and when he does, he can tell they’re impressed. There’s a small smile pulling on the older woman’s lips.
Billy can’t help a grin himself, but he hurries to put the cello and bow back in the case, the younger woman following him to the door.
“How’d it go?” Miss Adams asks as the door closes behind him. “Come on, tell me everything!”
They come to a stop down the corridor, walking a couple steps from the door so they’re not in the way for anyone else coming through.
Billy’s about to answer, about to share his excitement, when his eyes land on two boys standing by the landing of the staircase. One’s black haired, the other brown haired, both in matching white dress shirts and pressed pants and violin cases. And they’re laughing, whispering to each other.
They’re making fun of him, Billy realises, laughing and leering and pointing, critiquing his hair, his clothes, his goddamn earring.
Billy doesn’t fit, he doesn’t fit the look of a musician, especially not a classical one, not with his body that he’s been working on since he was eleven, trying to build and build and build until all the baby fat is replaced by muscle and adult women start to send flirty looks his way on the beach. Billy doesn’t belong, even though he’s been playing since he was seven and his fingers are long and slim and the tips of the left ones have turned hard from pressing on strings almost every day for the last seven years.
And Billy’s gets angry, he gets really fucking angry, because Billy knows he’s good. He’s good, he’s really good, he’d like to bet money on the fact that he’s probably better than these little shits, but it doesn’t help, because they look like they belong here, and Billy doesn’t.
Miss Adams must have caught on by now, must have followed his gaze and realised what’s about to happen, because she says “No, Billy-“ and tries to take his arm, tries to hold him back, but it’s too late, Billy’s already storming forward and punching one of them, the louder one, the meaner one, in the face.
And because he’s thin, and lanky, and Billy’s on his way towards being built like a brick, he goes down after one punch to the face, blood starting to trickle in between his fingers as he whines from between them, holding his nose as though he expects it to fall off, his friend screaming and falling to his knees beside him.
Miss Adams grabs Billy by the shoulders and pulls him back, even though Billy’s not about to go after the kid again. He’s satisfied with just the one punch.
But it’s too late. One of the teachers has already come rushing towards them, the young woman in tow, and the kid and his friend are shouting about how Billy pushed him, how Billy attacked him, how his nose is probably broken (it isn’t - Billy knows what a broken nose feels like and he knows how hard to hit to achieve it). But the teacher looks a little horrified, turns a glare from Billy to Miss Adams, and says “We don’t condone violence” and with that, Billy’s chance is gone.
Later, Miss Adams will tell him that she talked to the teachers, that she made it clear to them that the other kid was bullying him, and that they shouldn’t accept him into their school either, and later, Billy will think about the kids perfectly combed hair and dress shirt and strict black pants and wonder if the fact that he hurt Billy matters at all when he has all that.
He’s ashamed of it, but if he’s honest, Billy expects Miss Adams to hurt him too. Like this will be the final straw before she snaps. He doesn’t think she’d hit him, but he waits for her to shout at him, to scream about how fucking stupid he is or what a horrible person he is, but she doesn’t. She just acts disappointed. Billy thinks that might be worse.
The summer between freshman and sophomore year, Billy discovers Metallica.
Miss Adams has made sure to not only teach him how to read the sheet music, but how to understand it. And Billy knows it so well, has practiced listening until he can hear the notes, that he spends hours at a time listening to Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All, until he’s pretty certain he’s managed to get the songs down as notes for him to play.
He presents the little compendium he’s made for Miss Adams the first day he sees her after summer break, and her eyes widen. When he finally, after months of waiting, gets his hands the cello again, and plays everything correctly, she breaks out into a wide smile.
She asks him to practice writing his own songs, after that, and Billy mostly sticks to classical, although sometimes, he dreams about being part of a metal or rock band, but playing the cello instead of the guitar.
At the start of Christmas break, Billy happens to walk past the doorway when his dad’s on the phone in the kitchen. He’s got his back to Billy, and Billy’s curious, so he figures he’ll stay and listen. “No, Sam. It’s been two years! You abandoned her, and her stepbrother had to go out and get her to come home because she wouldn’t talk to her mother. You have no more rights to her, and that’s final!” He slams the receiver down, and Billy hurries to get past him.
On the beach during evenings in California, Billy learns more valuable life lessons than anything his dad has ever taught him.
- He learns how to touch women. He learns how to touch men. He learns how to speak, how to make his voice deeper, make it a sultry drawl, make it eager. He doesn’t need any help to make it yearning.
- He learns that a flirty remark can lead to a kiss, and a kiss can lead to a few moments of happiness, and sex can lead to a safe (safer) place to hide out when his dad hasn’t yet found something he’s done wrong but is in the state where he’s eager to lash out.
- Whispered with a giggle over a bonfire Billy learns that kindness is supposed to be payed back. That when someone does something for you, they want to be rewarded.
- Billy learns that sex is a currency, an act, a way of exchanging services, and Billy learns that the body his dad has made sure he’s got is worth a million.
And with a start, Billy realises that he hasn’t ever payed Miss Adams back for anything she’s done. She’s been a better stand-in for his mother than Susan ever could be, but she isn’t, she isn’t his mum, and she’s not even that much older than him, she’s not even forty yet, and Billy remembers the deal they’d struck. But it’s not like he’s been holding up his end of it, he’d even embarrassed her in front of her friends in the academy, so perhaps now, now that Billy’s older, hotter, not a little kid anymore, perhaps now she wants the reward she’s been due. And he can’t pay her with money; Billy’s saving as much as he can so he’ll be able to get out, and then he’s saving for his own cello, because he can’t keep playing on Miss Adams’ as an adult. She’s talked to him about how every cello sounds different, how she hopes he’ll get his own when he moves out from his parents, how he will have to go around and try each one out until he finds the right one for him, the perfect fit. She talks about it as though soulmates exist.
So on their next session, Billy prepares himself. He’s packed condoms in his backpack, in case she wants it to go that far, because Billy will do whatever she wants. It’s what he owes her, what she deserves.
And so, at the end, when she’s reaching out to take the cello from him as Billy holds it out to her, he goes to stand with her. She’s tall, but not a giant of a woman like Susan, so Billy still ends up an inch or so taller. He puts his own hand over hers on the neck of the cello, and leans in.
Miss Adams steps back as though he’s struck her. Her eyes are wide, horrified, as she looks at him, the hand not on the cello trembling in front of her lips, where Billy’d almost kissed her.
He realises he’s gravelly miscalculated.
Billy backs away, his knees hitting the chair he’d been sitting on so he falls back down, before pushing himself up again and reaching for his backpack, running out of the classroom and leaving Miss Adams staring after him.
He avoids her for the rest of the week, and then spends another week ignoring going to play with her, a week that begins with Max staring suspiciously at him as they walk back from school and asking “Why is a teacher in my school asking about you?”, a question Billy refuses to answer. The week ends with them getting home on Friday, to the sight of both Susan and his dad’s cars in the driveway, and an unfamiliar one parked next to the sidewalk.
Billy’s apprehensive, and he can tell Max is confused. He keeps one hand on Max’ shoulder as they step inside.
Susan’s crying on the couch, Neil next to her with his arm around her waist, a man and woman sitting in the armchairs across from them.
“Kids,” Neil says as they come inside the room. “These two fine people would like to talk to you two about what goes on at home.”
Billy feels like he’s swallowed a stone, and it’s slowly sinking down through his throat to land heavy at the bottom of his stomach.
The woman follows Billy to his room, the man going with Max.
Billy sits down at the edge of his bed, and she closes the door behind them, taking his desk chair to place it in front of him, where she sits down at holds out her hand for him to shake. “Billy, is it? I’m Patricia.”
Billy shakes it, and leans back. He knows who these people are, what they’re here to do, and suddenly Billy’s glad he never told Max about his dad. Because Billy’s heard people at school talk, has heard about the system, and the horrors that can happen there, and Billy’s not interested. Better the Devil you know, than the Devil you don’t.
He’s a good liar, he’s had to be, he’s lied since he was seven, but it helps that Patricia takes one look at the size of Billy’s arms, at the weights in the corner of his bedroom, and Billy sees it as she decides in her head that ‘No, no way. Not this kid.’
Afterwards, when Neil and Susan are out saying goodbye and thanking them for what they do to help vulnerable children, Max comes out of her room and stands next to him in the corridor, far away that the people at the door can’t hear them.
“Who were they?”
“What’s that?” Max asks, because she’s twelve and she’s never had to deal with shit like this before.
“Child protection services,” Billy says, a knot forming in the back of his throat that’s hard to swallow past.
“Who needs protecting?”
I will. “No one, shitbird. They were wrong.”
But then on Saturday, Susan takes Max out for some Girl Time, going to the mall and the beach and buying ice cream, and for the first time ever Neil takes off his belt and uses it to strike Billy.
Billy goes back to Miss Adams on Wednesday.
“We have to talk about it.”
“Billy.” She sighs. “You tried to kiss-“
“Did you send CPS to my house?”
At first she doesn’t answer. She just sits there, across from him, tight lipped and searching. “I thought about what you told me about your dad. Back when we first meet. That he didn’t think it would be manly for you to play. And then, that him and his girlfriends wouldn’t let you sleep in peace, and I thought-“
“You thought they’d make me join them?” Billy feels ready to vomit just at the thought. “You thought that Susan would force me to have sex with her? My dad’s not fucking perverted!” He’d probably like to argue that I am, though.
“I don’t know! I was worried, because someone must have taught you that, must have made you think it was okay, must have made you do something.”
“No... No. No one’s ever... done anything.”
“Why are you lying to me?” She looks heartbroken.
“I just thought you’d want it!”
“Why?” Her eyes are growing wet, and Billy’s so scared she’s going to start crying. He’s got two welts on his lower back, and they sting.
“Because- Because the others, my friends, they- they said you do that, you have to pay back, and I’ve never payed you back for anything, and you’ve done so much-“ you don’t even know how much. He stops himself before he can say anymore. He’s crying. Billy hasn’t cried in front of someone else since he was seven. “I’m sorry.”
Miss Adams stands up, going over to him and putting her arms around Billy. He throws his arms around her waits and presses his face into her belly, not caring that he’s fifteen and not ten anymore.
Living with Neil is always bad, but it isn’t always physically painful. Sometimes, it’s just confusing. Sometimes, it just makes Billy feel bad.
Billy almost hates that more, because at least when Neil hits him, he’ll know what to expect, what to do to make himself feel better. He’s learned how to catalogue his injuries and what to steal from the pharmacy and the way he has to change the way he sleeps for a couple nights in order to not press on a bruise or another.
But when Neil does that other stuff, like when he’ll make Billy be in charge of Max to the extent that Billy thinks she’s starting to hate him. When he’ll berate him for not having bought groceries after school, even though no one told him to, or they gave him too little money to match the list with everything he was to come back with.
Then there are times when Neil surprises him. When he takes him to practice driving, and even has Susan do it sometimes, and then, when Billy turns sixteen, Neil gets him a car.
A blue Camaro. It’s old, and slightly beat up, but Billy spends the summer getting it fixed up.
And then the new rules come. Because now he has a car, and that means that he’s going to be picking Max up every day after school, he’s going to drive the two of them, and he’s going to be a good big brother and drive her wherever she wants. And Max, of course, loves it.
She loves getting to boss Billy around, but if he’s honest, Billy’s starting to detest her for it, even though he knows it isn’t really her fault. Isn’t her fault the same way it isn’t Billy’s when Max gets angry because Neil tells him to do something, like pick her up early, or not driver her somewhere she wants to go. Neil’s clever, and he’s made sure Billy acts as a shield between him and Max’ wrath. If Max thinks Billy’s an asshole, then she won’t have a reason to hate Neil, won’t have a reason to turn on him and choose Billy if the time ever comes.
Billy’s not certain when it went from ‘dad’ to ‘Neil’.
“Listen, I know it didn’t... go that well, at the end there, when I took you to audition at the academy,” Miss Adams says. Billy’s just turned sixteen a couple weeks ago, and he’s a junior now. Max is on her last year of middle school. “But you liked it, didn’t you? Performing?”
“Yeah,” Billy says, curious what her knew crazy idea will be.
“Well, I’ve got an old friend, from back when I played in an orchestra. He’s in charge of it now, and they have a concert in a couple weeks. You think you’d want to participate?”
“I-“ Yes. “I don’t know the songs.”
Miss Adams laughs. “Like you’ll need more than a week to learn them. But no, they’ve been practising all summer and don’t really need another cellist, so they’re only going to spend the coming weeks practicing, but I was thinking we could ask if they would like to learn one more piece. And you could just take part in that one. What do you say?”
“I don’t-“ What if Neil finds out?
“Please, Billy. I want you to experience it, the euphoria of performing on stage. Of being in synch with an orchestra, with spotlights shining down on you.”
It sounds magical, and Billy’s learned to trust Miss Adams when she speaks like that. “Yeah, okay. Yeah, I’d like that.”
“Great!” She leans back on her chair, crossing her legs at the ankles. “Because I might have already talked to him and we’ve got a piece in mind. But, I’m warning you. It’s a long one, three parts. And Jeremy will want to hear you play first. We’ve got a week before he comes to listen!”
She hands him the sheet music, and puts the recording on, and Billy plays. It turns out she’s found him a piece where he’ll be the center, the orchestra playing around him while he has solos, and Billy is amazed at her belief in him.
“Miss Adams?” Billy asks, at the end of the lesson as they’re putting the cello away and he’s unscrewing the bow. “Where is the concert?”
And she tells him it’s in the same city as his upcoming basketball game, the one they’re going away for the weekend to attend, and Billy grins. He won’t have to make up a new excuse for Neil, because Neil’s happy Billy’s playing basketball and is doing well in it, too.
Miss Adams’ friend, Jeremy, comes over during Billy’s next Monday lesson.
Billy’s nervous, of course he is, it feels like the audition all over again, but he closes his eyes and listens to Miss Adams recording and plays along. Perfectly.
“Well, I’ll be damned. I know you told me he could handle it, that I should just have the orchestra practicing, but the conductor was doubtful. He told me I should tell you that William here should be practicing with the orchestra, that they need to make sure they can stay in tune and work well together, but I’m glad to say I think this might just work. We’ll have them run it through once before the concert starts, but if you continue like this I can’t see it going any other way than without a hitch.” He taps Billy on the shoulder on his way out. “You’re a great cellist, kid. Pity your old man won’t let you do this for real.”
Finally, the day of the concert comes. Miss Adams had lenses him a suit, and Billy had been careful packing it in the small suitcase he’s taking with him on the buss. He sits next to his teammates and fools around and laughs throughout the hour and a half it takes them to arrive, but he’d be lying if he said he’s not agonising slightly over the amount of wrinkles there’ll be on the suit. He won’t look as pristine as everyone else there. He’s never told Miss Adams about that, though, about those worries, because she’s never seemed to share them, her only focus being on Billy’s ability to play.
They spend the day practicing for the game, before they’re told to hit the showers and let loose in the city to find someplace to eat.
Billy’d packed a few sandwiches, knowing he wouldn’t have time to find anything better and too nervous to keep much down anyway. He eats them on the way to the Concert Hall, where Miss Adams’ cello is supposed to be waiting for him, Jeremy having picked it up the day before. Miss Adams’ going to be there, had shown Billy her front row ticket, but she’s not getting there until later, and Billy probably won’t see her until after the concert when he’s giving her back the cello.
He’s stopped at the stage entrance. He’d felt glances in him from the receptionist the second he stepped inside, but now there’s a hand on his shoulder and a security guard telling him that he can’t get in there, because it’s only for the performers.
“I am performing,” Billy says, hating how small his voice sounds. He shouldn’t sound like that, he’s taller, older, broader than when he tried out at the academy, a baby moustache growing above his top lip. And he’s made an attempt to smooth down his hair, had made it fluffy but controlled, had tied it back into a tiny ponytail, had even taken off his earring. But he’s still got his mum’s ring, his mum’s necklace, and he hadn’t been able to change back at the motel, not among his teammates, the suit folded in the bag Billy clutches.
The guard looks like he’s only going to entertain the idea of Billy performing with a classical orchestra for his own amusement. “Where’s your instrument, then?”
“It’s already inside.”
The man scoffs. “Spare me the lies, kid. How old are you, anyway? The people performing here are at least five years older than you. I don’t know what kind of trouble you were planning on wrecking, but the rock shows not happening here, so you can take those filthy shoes off from the carpet that Jenny just vacuumed, and get your ass back down to the doors.”
Billy’s about to protest, when the stage door behind him opens, and Jeremy steps out.
“William! There you are, god, I was about to go looking for you, we thought you got lost.”
Billy takes a second to relish in the guard’s shocked stare, before he’s being ushered in through the door by Jeremy.
He’s lead down to a changing room, filled with cello and violin cases. “You can change later, but now we need to get up there so you can run through it with the orchestra.” There’s only one case left closed, and Billy rushes to it, recognising it as Miss Adams’.
He hurries opening the case, putting his bag behind it, and takes the cello out in less than a minute. He’s then lead through cramped pathways, the walls so close together Billy has to manoeuvre to get the cello through without losing his grip, and then, they emerge behind the stage. There’s old props there, and layers of curtain hanging from the ceiling. It’s dark there, and Billy has to continuously watch where he’s going not to trip over something.
Jeremy takes him with it past them, going on the side of the stage, and when the spotlights first hit him, Billy has to blink to adjust to the bright light.
“Finally!” the conductor says, a tall bespectacled man with silver hair. The orchestra’s spread out in a half circle in front of him, one empty chair left for Billy. At least the guard had been correct about everyone’s ages. Billy’s the youngest one here.
“He got held up by the guard at the door,” Jeremy explains as Billy goes to sit down.
“Yes, I imagine he would’ve been.” He sends a critical eye Billy’s way, although somehow filled with less contempt than the guard had. “I suppose you haven’t had time to tune it yet?”
“No, sir,” Billy says.
“Well, hurry up and do it, then. I need to see if you’re good enough for this to work.”
Billy’s quick and efficient as he tunes it, the members of the orchestra taking the moment to check their sheet music, to small talk between each other.
Miss Adams has had him practise understanding a conductor’s moves, so Billy knows exactly what to do. All three pieces end up being a combined time of over twenty minutes, and by the end of it, the concert hall is so quiet he think he’d be able to hear a pin drop.
“You didn’t use any sheet music?” The conductor asks.
“No, sir. I don’t need it.”
For the first time, Billy sees the hint of a smile on the old man’s lips. Approval. “Jeremy, get this music stand out of the way. The boy doesn’t need it.”
They end up having a break after that, until the concert starts. Billy takes the time to curl up and do some homework, going through the coach’s play for the game tomorrow, until it’s half an hour left until the concert starts and Billy steps into a bathroom to change. He’s shown to a chair behind the stage, where he’s told to sit until it’s time for Haydn‘s Cello Concerto No. 1. He’s not allowed to move around, so Billy spends the time leaning back and listening to the music, eyes closed as lets the smooth notes carry him away as though in a dream, and then he obsesses over smoothing his suit down. At least he looks the part, or as much as Billy Hargrove ever will. He’s got a borrowed suit, and a borrowed cello, but his talent and refined ability is all his.
The lights dim, right before Billy’s about to enter the stage, Miss Adams’ cello having been left next to his chair for easy access. Billy loves attention when he’s doing something he’s good at, but there’s over a thousand people in the audience and that‘s much, much more than have ever attended Billy’s basketball games. Billy’s pretty glad he can’t really make out the audience as anything other than a sea of vaguely defined people when the spotlights turn on, particularly since the strongest one lands on him, the guest principal player.
As he plays, Billy finds that what Miss Adams said is true. He’s filled with exhilaration, butterflies flying around his belly instead of the stone Billy carries most days. It’s the same feeling as when he’s on the court, but better, because whereas Billy’s aggressive on the court, here, on stage, he’s emotional in a way he can never really let himself be.
And when the concert’s over, and Billy stands with the others to the sound of the audience’s applause, he thinks that this must be the best feeling in the whole world.
He never wants it to stop.
As he goes to pack the cello away, he’s met with smiles and compliments and congratulations from the members of the orchestra, and they don’t stop when Billy gets out, when he gets out from the stage door to see the guard from before gaping at him, he’s immediately bombarded with compliments from those who recognise him, and for the first time, Billy’s glad he stands out among people like these. They’re amazed at his age, and Billy has to basically wade through compliments until he gets to Miss Adams.
She’s standing close to the entrance, smiling the widest smile Billy’s ever seen, and she’s holding a bouquet out to him.
“It’s common to buy flowers for the performers,” she explains. “I know you can’t take them with you, but we could keep them in the classroom. And you deserved to get them. You were amazing.”
“Thank you,” Billy says and hugs her.
“You hungry? Want to go and eat something. My treat, you deserve that too,” she says with a laugh once Billy’s stepped back.
“Sounds great,” Billy says, and it is, it’s the best weekend he’s had, and when he comes home and Neil asks him why he’s smiling, Billy can say they won the game, and it won’t be a lie.
Of course, shit hits the fan. Of course it does.
Billy hadn’t ever thought to think that Max might have classmates whose parents would drag them to two hour long concerts.
But well, she has, and Max shows up after school on Monday, while Billy’s helping Susan put away the groceries, Serenade For Strings a low hum on the radio, and places a cutout of a newspaper on the kitchen table.
“Is this you?” she asks, eyes wide and incredulous. “One of my classmates parents like classical music, and she thought she recognised you. Since when do you play the cello? Since when are you good at it?”
“Max-“ Billy starts, horror dawning at what’s about to happen, what’s about to come to light.
Susan steps up to the table, lifting up the torn piece of newspaper, her mouth falling open in shock. She puts a hand on his shoulder. It feels like he’s Atlas and she’s pressing down the weight of the world on him. “Oh Billy! How wonderful! Why didn’t you tell us, we would have loved to-“
“Why didn’t Billy tell you what?” Neil asks, stepping into the kitchen.
“Neil! Billy plays-“
“No!” Billy shouts, attempting to rush forward and grab the paper. He’s ready to eat it, if so be.
But Neil’s already taken it from Susan, and Billy can see it on his face as he realises what he’s looking at.
He braces himself for it, wishes he was anywhere but here, wishes Max would just disappear.
And Neil’s there in a second, backhanding him so hard Billy stumbles to the side and has to catch himself on the kitchen chair.
Distantly, he hears Max scream, but his ears are ringing.
“You lying little fag!” Neil shouts, and Billy has the air fly out of him as Neil punches his stomach.
He thinks Max is crying.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, dad, I’m sorry-“
“Stop your blubbering,” Neil’s says, slapping him across the cheek again. He pulls Billy up the the neck of his shirt, lowering his voice so that only Billy will hear. “You can count yourself lucky Susan and Max are here, or you’d be getting much worse than this.”
Later, that evening, Billy and Max will hear Susan and Neil talk about moving away, as Max wraps a piece of frozen peas in a towel so Billy can press it against his swollen cheek. Susan will sound unsure, but then Neil will remind her that Sam’s calls are getting more frequent, and she will agree.
“I’m sorry,” Max will sob, and Billy won’t say anything.
They’re told to pack their things immediately, starting on Tuesday, Neil confiscating the keys to the Camaro and having Susan pick both him and Max up every day after school. Billy knows it’s only so that Billy doesn’t have anywhere to run off to, doesn’t have the ability to go to his lessons. Neil still doesn’t know who’s been teaching him, and Billy’s glad for that at least.
But on Thursday, on the way home, he asks Susan if they can perhaps be allowed to walk home after school, because they’re moving on Monday, and Billy at least owes telling his teacher he won’t be coming back. Susan is reluctant, wary, but she does agree.
“For the record, I would have loved to hear you play, Billy,” she says, and Billy still doesn’t know if he hates her or not.
He makes up some bullshit about how Neil and Susan had been planing a move for a while, and had just told him and Max it was happening this Monday, because they’d just found a house to buy.
Billy can’t stop himself from crying as he says it, as he admits he doesn’t know how he’ll be bake to continue playing. Miss Adams hugs him, and she reassured him his new school will also have a music room of some sort. She even writes him a letter, to give to whoever’s in charge, explaining his situation and the arrangement they’ve had going for the past nine years.
When he gets home that night, exhausted for no real reason, he expects Max to be there. What he doesn’t expect is to find a note she’s written, taped to his door, telling him she’s getting on a bus to her dad’s, and asking him to get in the Camaro and follow after her, to come and stay with her and Sam Mayfield.
For a second, Billy can’t breathe, feels ready to pass out. He wants to scream, wants to hit something, wants to cry. Wants to let his emotions out by playing cello.
Instead, he grabs the note and turns on his heel and runs into the kitchen, digging through the drawer Neil stuffed his keys in, and having found them, he’s out the door in less than a minute, throwing himself into his car and speeding down the road to catch up with Max.
He knows which bus station she’s likely to end up at, and it sounded like she might wait for him, a little while at least.
His hands tremble on the wheel the whole way there, and he slams the Camaro’s door shut as he finally parks and exits. It’s a big station, one of those with an actual house for people to sit in while they wait, one with busses going all the way across California from.
And Billy finds Max, sitting in a plastic chair with a big gym bag at her feet, her her backpack slung over one shoulder.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?!” He almost shouts the words at her, Max’ eyes immediately widening. Her mouth sets into a thin line.
“I’m staying with my dad. I’m not moving away to Hawkins, Indiana.”
“Yes, yes you are. Max, he’s going to kill me unless you do,” he hisses the words at her.
“You can stay with us, Billy. With me and my dad.”
“I don’t know your dad, Max. And he doesn’t know me. He doesn’t care about me, why would he? It won’t work; I’m nothing to your dad.”
Max pushes herself up to standing. “Well, you’re something to me! You’re my stupid, asshole of a big brother, and-“
“Maxie?” They both turn around to see find a dark haired man running up to them. Max rushes up to him and throws her arms around him, burying her face in his chest with a chocked “Dad!”
Her father strokes her hair, eyes landing on Billy and frowning. He seems to have heard the last bit of what Max said, though, because Billy can see it click in his head when he comes to the conclusion of who Billy must be.
“Oh, Max, what are you doing here? I called your mum after you called me, and she’s beside herself with worry. I was going to drive you home, but since- Billy? Yeah? - is already here...”
Billy sees her arms tighten around him. “I want to stay with you. You’re my dad, not- not Neil, and-“
“Sweetheart,” he sounds so sad as he says it, as though he misses her, too. Billy turns the ring his mum left him around on his finger. “My little Mad Max. You can’t. You’ll get to visit me during the summer, okay? You’ll probably get friends in Indiana, but you could come over for a week or so? I’d take you to see the Hollywood sign.”
“Okay,” Max’ words are muffled against his shirt.
“Good. Go, then. So your brother can take you home.”
She doesn’t want to, Billy can see she doesn’t, so it probably shouldn’t surprise him that the only way she manages to let go off her dad is by unwrapping her arms and going a different extreme, running to Billy and almost knocking the air out him from how hard she hits him. She clutches at his waist now, not looking up as her dad leaves.
Sam smiles sadly at them. “Take care of my daughter, alright, kid? Don’t let her get into any trouble, as we both know she’s obviously capable off.” He laughs as he says it, but his words hit Billy with almost as much force as Max’ hug. The cling to him, making it hard to breathe. “I want her whole by the time she gets back to me this summer.”
They stay there standing, him and Max, until Billy’s seen Sam get lost in the crowd around them, and only then, does he start to walk, signalling to Max she can let go. Billy takes her gym bag and leads her back to the Camaro.
They don’t speak, the whole ride home, and by the time Billy pulls up to the house, the sun’s just starting to set, painting the sky red and pink and yellow. Through some sort of a miracle, Neil’s not home yet.
But Susan is, and she opens the front door before Billy’s even out of the Camaro. She rushes down the steps to Max, pulling her to her and holding her tightly.
“Sam called,” she says, staring up at Billy. “I thought he’d- Oh, Billy, thank you.” And for the first time, Billy finds himself being dragged into a group hug, a hug Susan’s initiating. It’s awkward, Billy stiff as a board. Neil’s making him leave his surfboard behind, no use for it in Indiana, after all.
“Where’s my dad?” Billy asks once he’s allowed to step back. “His car isn’t here yet.”
“He needed to see to some things about the house, the last little details before the move. He’s bringing home pizza,” she says the last bit to Max, as though the promise of pizza will make her unlearn what horrible person her stepdad is.
Billy glances in the direction of the beach. “He won’t be back for a while? Not until tonight?”
“No,” Susan agrees.
“Can I go with Max to the beach? Just an hour, at most, before it gets dark. Just one last time.”
Max looks up at her mother. “Please, mum?”
“Yeah,” Susan nods, and Billy wonders if his life perhaps wouldn’t have been so bad with one of Max’ parents, if Neil was out of the picture. “I can’t see why not.”
So quickly, they go into the house and change into their swimwear. They run down to the beach, Billy having put the keys to the Camaro back in the drawer in the kitchen, and into the water, swimming until the last rays of the sun disappear behind the water.
“You’re a good driver, aren’t you, Billy?” Neil asks around noon on Monday. Since he woke up, Billy’s spent the day carrying boxes over to his or Neil’s or Susan’s car, and they’re finally finished. He thinks Susan’s at the bathroom, Max probably busy saying goodbye to her childhood home, and Billy’s leaning back against the side of the Camaro. Awaiting instructions.
He looks over at Neil with raised eyebrows. “Yes, sir.”
“Mm. I’ve seen the way you drive one handed, cigarette held lazily out the window. Well.” Neil breathes in, and comes closer to Billy, stopping next to the open door to driver’s seat of the Camaro. “Put your hand there, Billy. Let me see those musician’s hands of yours.” He nods at the space where the door would meet the rest of the car, if it was closed, and Billy feels the bottom of his stomach go out and disappear.
He has to swallow before speaking. “Dad?”
“Do it, Billy.”
He feels like he might pass out, but Billy lifts his hand, the right one. It’s shaking, and Billy can’t bring himself to move it more than a couple inches from his body.
Neil does it for him. He reaches out, grasps Billy’s hand at the wrist, hard enough to bruise, and forces it down to the car, holding it there as he slams the car door closed on it. There’s a crack, and Billy feels something break, letting out a scream and falling to his knees on the gravel as soon as Neil lets go off him.
“There’s not a chance in hell you’re playing any more music,” Neil spits, and leaves him there. “Get in the car, Maxine!” And Billy realises Max is there, that she’s probably seen the whole thing.
Tears of shame burn behind his eyes, blurring his vision, and with his whole body trembling Billy gently moves his hand away from the spaces between the car. He can’t see what it looks like, can’t make out more than a red line spreading from his palm, but he’s certain something’s broken. He brings it to his chest, holding it there, and doesn’t move until he’s breathed past the nausea and is sure he won’t throw up.
When he does stand, his legs are shaking, and he more or less falls into the driver’s seat of the Camaro.
Max is looking at him with eyes as wide as saucers. “Billy-“ she starts, her voice trembling.
Billy sets his jaw, holds up his left hand to stop her. “Not a fucking word, Max.”
Susan gets out of the house a minute later, and with that, Billy pulls off, his left hand trembling in his lap, Neil in his car in front of him and Susan in hers behind the Camaro. Off to Hawkins, then. Off to Hell.