Billy Joe Danforth didn’t catch many of the details of his parents’ accident until later. Janice the social worker continued to talk, but he didn’t hear a word. There was a roaring sound in his ears, like he was sitting under a waterfall. He looked down at her hand covering his. On her middle finger was a sapphire ring. The back of her hand had two lumpy blue veins that crisscrossed over her knuckles, making a shape like an X. Her hands look old but her face doesn’t, he thought to himself. He noticed the clock on the wall. Fifteen minutes past four. Seven and a half degrees ago, everything was still the way it used to be.
Janice stopped speaking mid-sentence and watched the boy’s face. He didn’t notice the silence. He simply continued to stare at the wall, fat, greedy tears silently coursing down his cheeks. She made a decision.
“OK, honey. Let’s get some hot food in that belly of yours.”
Janice drove Billy Joe to his house. It looked just like it had that morning, except for the empty driveway. She told him to shower and change and then come down for supper.
Then she set about organizing a meal. In Mrs. Danforth’s fridge she found a platter of fried chicken and a freshly made bowl of German potato salad. She put the chicken in the oven, made some iced tea and set the table.
Billy Joe ate in silence. Janice knew it didn’t change anything, but it felt right to let him come home tonight. Eat his mother’s food.
This sort of thing was not in any job description. But hers was a small town and she did what she wanted. That night she slept sitting up in Mr. Danforth’s favorite chair, her hands folded simply in her lap.
“The boy,” she said to herself, “should have one last night in his own bed.”
Upstairs, he stared at the ceiling for a very long time.
The weather was beautiful the day Billy Joe buried his parents. Warm and just the perfect amount of breeze. The sun beat down on his shoulders and his skin felt alive for the first time since that awful moment in the library.
Billy Joe barely noticed, because he was too busy staring at his shiny new black shoes, but nearly everyone he’d ever known in his entire life showed up at his parents’ funeral. Ladies from church, kids from both baseball teams, nurses from the hospital where Momma volunteered, teachers from school and the sheriff and all his deputies. Even Sally Jessup and Paula Lansing were there, quiet for once and looking solemn.
Suzy was there too, of course. Afterwards, when the minister was finished and people started to stand, she tried to get through the crowd to the front row, but her feet got stepped on and she didn’t really know what to say anyway, so she blushed and left. Miss Henton and Coach Willingham did manage to speak to him, separately. All he could hear was that sound like rushing water.
The funeral was on a Saturday. On Sunday morning, he woke up in his new bed at Mr. and Mrs. Garrison’s place in town. Mr. Garrison drove him out to his parents’ house one last time. He had already cleaned out his own room. Today they were collecting his bike. They tied it to the roof of the car. Then Mr. Garrison told Billy to go ahead and go inside by himself for a minute if he wanted.
So he did. It was awful quiet in there. He found himself standing in the middle of the kitchen, entranced by the column of sunlight pouring in through the window over the sink. On the glass there was a little plastic suction cup with a hook, and from the hook hung a stained glass hummingbird. He picked it up, wrapped it handkerchief and slid it carefully into his pocket.
Then he left the house, closing the front door carefully behind him.
That night, before he got down to the business of trying to sleep, he let his mind wander. He thought about Mr. and Mrs. Garrison and how he liked them well enough, even if they were a bit old. He thought about school tomorrow and hoped people didn’t ask any questions. He remembered Janice smiling at him from the other side of his mother’s kitchen table. Most of all he went over that last morning at home. He wanted to remember every detail, but he couldn’t quite recall the last words he had said to his mother.
He was sure, though, that he had not kissed her goodbye.
Billy’s eyes were still pink and puffy and his throat was a little raw. He felt like he’d been crying for years. He couldn’t cry anymore right now, not because he was any less sad, but because he was a lot more tired. Exhaustion finally overtook the whirlwind in his head and he slept. He slept hard, and he dreamed of Momma. She played with his hair and kissed his freckly cheeks. She stood at the kitchen sink, her face bathed in sunlight. She stood up in the bleachers, watching him pitch. She sat next to him on his narrow bed, put the palm of her cool hand on his feverish forehead, and handed him two Tylenol and a glass of water. Then she tucked him in and read to him, never mind that he was too old for that.
The Garrisons were not related to the Danforths by blood. Mrs. Garrison had been a friend of Billy Joe’s grandmother. They’d been high school classmates, and three times they had made a quilt together and then entered it in a contest at the State Fair. If you asked Mrs. Garrison why she’d taken Billy Joe to live with her, she’d tell you two things. First, she’d insist you call her Nancy. Then she’d explain that she had simply known it was what she was supposed to do. No way would she sit back and leave the fate of that poor child to strangers. It was only three and half more years until he was finished with high school, and then he should go to college. Once they sold his parents’ house, there would be money for him to go, even if he didn’t get a baseball scholarship. Nancy was a retired schoolteacher who had never had her own children. While Billy Joe slept in the guest room that was no longer a guest room, her husband listened to her talk about the boy’s future and knew there was no sense arguing. Her mind was made up. Besides, Billy Joe was well-mannered and polite and obviously used to doing a fair share of chores. It will be nice to have him in the house, thought George. Lord knows my wife needs a project.