Tommy Lagocki called Billey his good buddy. Billey wasn't sure what that meant, but he liked it. He liked the way Tommy's green eyes lit up beneath his straight, blond hair when he talked to Billey. The other kids' eyes flashed with a different light when they looked at him.
Billey liked the way Tommy walked, straight up, but bouncy on his feet, like any second he might break loose and race Billey to the next tree. When they played Shirts and Skins at recess, Tommy's skin looked smooth, all one shade of cream. His shoulder blades stood out in neat, efficient little triangles; his belly button formed a pocket just big enough for the end of his pinky.
Billey hated his own body. Deep purple patches mottled his skin. His raw bones met at awkward angles. The kids teased him for having an "outie." If he hadn't been such a good blocker, they never would have let him in the game.
"'Attaway, good buddy," Tommy said. "Brewster can't get by you, Billey."
The kids caught their breath as they linked arms in the huddle. Tommy squatted and traced lines in the dirt. "Sanger and Barton, go long. Billey, you do a buttonhook," Tommy said, dipping his head for gulps of air. "On seventeen."
Billey went to the line and heard Tommy calling out random numbers before he realized he didn't know what a buttonhook was. He wasn't even wearing any buttons because they were the Skins this time. Dankowski snapped the ball and players on either side charged against each other. Caught up in the game's momentum, Billey lunged forward three steps. He stopped, spun around and waved his arms at Tommy, hoping to get a sign. The football hit him like a bullet.
The Shirts never covered Billey because they figured if he caught the ball, he wouldn't know what to do with it anyway. They were right, but somehow Billey picked Tommy's instructions out of the shouting that engulfed him.
"Turn and run," Tommy yelled. "Go, Billey!"
What Billey lacked in speed and finesse, he made up in size and determination. Four of the Shirts hung off his arms and legs by the time he staggered into the end zone.
The Skins danced wildly. They slapped each other's hands. Some of them even called Billey by a grown-up name.
"Way to go, Elwood," they cried. "You shithead."
"One thing about Elwood," Billey heard Dankowski tell Barton, "his mother must have been a big old horse."
Billey tried to bask in these strange, new feelings of friendship while they lasted.
"You want to come over to my folks' house after school?" Tommy asked when the bell interrupted the Skins' celebrations.
"I dunno," said Billey, who had never been invited anywhere before.
"Come on. We'll have fun."
The anticipation helped Billey make it through the last hour of school without falling asleep or getting in trouble.
Tommy got good grades, but he was the first one through the door when the bell sounded. "Go, Skins!" he shouted, clicking his heels and throwing a fist high in the air.
Billey lumbered outside in time to see Tommy surrounded by his classmates. Some of them had been Skins today, but some he wasn't sure about. The teams changed every day and Billey couldn't tell who had been a Shirt and who a Skin because they all wore shirts now. He lingered by the stark brick school building as the crowd hoisted Tommy overhead. They chanted, "Who's gonna win? Skins! Who's gonna win? Skins!" But the sound grew fainter as they left him behind on their march to the street.
None of that mattered to Black Wolf, who worshipped Billey as much as any dog could.
Black Wolf had grown into a dog's dog. His snout had lengthened to accommodate perfect teeth in a powerful jaw. He had the sharp bark of crude joy. His keen nose could catch Billey's scent from clear over the scooped-out hill. Whether Billey had bean juice or dirt or even boogers all over his face never made any difference to Black Wolf when he licked it.
One thing Billey learned in school was that only Black Wolf would never betray him.
Elwood let Billey in the house only under three conditions. If the cops came, the boy had to hide in the bedroom. If rain fell at dinner time, or it was too cold to eat on the porch, he could have his beans by the greasy Coleman. And if Billey had to take a crap, he could use the bathroom.
"Go pee outside," Elwood always said. "Pee's gonna wash away, but I sure as shit don't wanna be steppin' on your turds in the driveway."
Black Wolf always tagged along with Billey, but Elwood only let him in the house when the cops showed up.
"Don't need that stinkin' bastard barkin' at me when I'm doin' business," he muttered.
So Black Wolf didn't have any better concept of indoors and outdoors than Billey. The dog would have followed him right into the school house if the teacher had allowed it.
The kids snickered that Billey should be a patrol boy because traffic always stopped when he and Black Wolf walked along the road. Tommy Lagocki poked his head out the window of one of the cars.
"Billey! Where were you yesterday?" he said. "I thought you were coming over."
Billey tried to see how many shapes his shoe could make in the dirt.
"Is that your dog? Where'd you get it?"
"I dunno," Billey said. It seemed now like he'd had Black Wolf forever. "He was the only one there."
Tommy convinced Billey to come home with him that afternoon. Black Wolf waited in the schoolyard all day long with nothing to do but chase a couple of birds or see what kind of holes he could dig by the fence.
Tommy lived in a real house with windows you could see through, chairs, carpets, the works. He had his own room with a bed and a chest of drawers.
"Tommy, why don't you show Billey some of your toys?" said Mrs. Lagocki. She held out a bulldozer, its yellow paint striking a bright contrast to the deep red of her long, smooth nails.
Toys were nothing new to Tommy, but Black Wolf was. He rolled the dog onto its back and tickled its tummy as its stubby legs paddled the air and its tongue drooped down to the carpet.
"Fetch, Black Wolf!" Tommy lobbed a tennis ball across the room and the fur ball bounced after it. "Bring it here."
Black Wolf stood in the middle of the living room, shaking his head back and forth with the ball between his jaws. He peered up from the tops of his eyes as Mrs. Lagocki brought in a tray of milk and cookies for the boys.
Mrs. Lagocki cocked her ear at some noise she couldn't identify. She looked at Black Wolf, so low to the carpet it was hard to tell what he was doing down there. Suddenly, she skidded the tray across the coffee table and lunged for the dog. "Billey, he has to potty!"
She grunted as she lifted the animal—he was heavier than he looked. Some of the dog's thick, black hair pasted itself onto her white dress before she stumbled out the door under his weight.
Black Wolf found himself barred from the Lagocki household after that, but Billey still got to come in sometimes.
In her charitable way, Mrs. Lagocki understood that Billey lacked some things beyond his obvious shortcomings. And Tommy was too young to pick out the things that made his good buddy different. After a few visits, Billey even quit jerking his head around to see what lurked behind him.
One morning when Billey didn't have to go to school, he put his ear under Elwood's window and heard the steady snoring that signaled safety. He'd dreamt about Tommy, so he walked over to Tommy's house, thinking it only natural that his friend would be thinking about the same things.
Before he got to the door, he heard voices around back. Billey poked his head around the corner and saw a clutch of women wearing gloves and pastel dresses. The gloves looked like lights that waved through the air, pulling his eyes out of their sockets and his tongue out of his mouth.
Billey had been in such a hurry to see Tommy that he hadn't taken the time to complete his morning routine. He unzipped his pants and watered a rose bush, unable to see past the gloves to the women's shocked faces.
Billey never got to go over to Tommy's house again. He was nine years old and he wouldn't have another friend in his life, until he met Uly Bondarbon.
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