Billey probably wouldn't have noticed he was getting bigger except that he had to squeeze a little bit more to fit in the camper at night. Then again, Black Wolf seemed to be standing lower and lower to the ground, too.
Billey might be growing, but the rest of the world stayed the same. Everything else—eating beans beside the spool, hiding from Elwood's rages, pissing on the gravel, being shunned by his classmates, coaxing Black Wolf to dance on his hind legs—remained constant. These things were the air and water of Billey's life.
His muscles began to bunch up, hard as baseballs beneath the mottled skin when he crooked his arms. When he found himself alone, he crouched against the spool and strained to nudge it a few inches across the porch. Week by week, it became a little easier until finally he could push it like some enormous hockey puck from the side rail to the door and back.
Billey lifted Black Wolf onto the spool. He heaved the massive rim by eighth turns, faster and faster, until it spun like a merry-go-round. The dog raised his head and howled at the stars, his long, pink-and-black tongue trailing great arcs of saliva in the breeze.
The faster he spun the spool, the stronger Billey felt until he had to howl, too. The moment dug down deep in his gut and pulled out an awful string of vowels. Sounds Billey had never imagined gushed up from his belly. They left his lungs feeling cold and clean as the tiny stars on the moon-free night.
When the spool wobbled to a standstill, Black Wolf's eyes bulged from their sockets. The dog tumbled to the porch and rolled around just like Elwood did on the nights when Otis came over.
Except for the cops, Elwood never got many visitors. But now and again Otis would show up in his battered old half a car. The body of Otis' green Ford Fairlane had been cut away behind the driver's seat. It might have been a sedan converted to a pick-up at one time, but now the bed was gone, leaving the chassis, back wheels and gas tank exposed. It reminded Billey of some big, stupid bug with a skinny butt.
Otis had whiskers and tattoos just like Billey's daddy. His cheeks sunk in no matter how hard he pulled on a cigarette or the flat bottle that smelled like kerosene—or was that turpentine? He had the same droopy eye and cratered complexion as Billey's daddy. But Otis' oily, blond hair sprang from his head like a field of corkscrews. He looked bigger, puffier than Elwood, like a bean that had been cooked too long. Each movement and word came slowly, as if he wanted them to be unslurred, although that never made any difference.
"Hey, Billey boy," Otis cried, sweeping his arms for balance as he stumbled out of his bugmobile. "You gonna be old enough to start whackin' off pretty soon here."
"Did you bring that thing we talked about?" Elwood said, leaving his feet propped on the spool. "What the hell took you so long?"
"I's just tellin' Billey he's gonna have a big, old peter ‘fore too long. Course he ain't never seen one bigger ‘n mine."
"You couldn't keep a flea horse happy with no more peter than that, Otis."
"Shit, don't lie to the boy. You told me to get one o' them organ cards so's they could sew my peter on to you when I die."
"Otis, I guarantee I never knew me a man as dumb as you."
The big man smiled, as if proud to be best at something, and lumbered over to the porch. He sat in Billey's chair by the spool. The two men passed the flask back and forth and spoke in low voices.
Billey knew better than to stick around. Something about Otis always made Elwood walk crooked, whup Billey twice as bad as usual, then sleep on the porch until the sun stood still in the sky.
So Billey took Black Wolf down to the creek. He got hungry, but that seemed like a fair swap for what he'd get if Elwood and Otis found him. As the sky darkened, Black Wolf cocked his ear at the sound of the crickets and the distant roar of the trucks on the big road. Billey leaned against the willow tree's worn trunk and dozed off.
He woke to the chattering of his teeth in the middle of the night. Black Wolf, with all his hair, could sleep forever. Billey hugged himself and hopped around to get warm, but it didn't do much good.
He walked carefully back to the shack, shushing Black Wolf if the dog so much as took a deep breath. For a big, clumsy kid with shoddy hearing, Billey knew how to move lightly over the gravel. Fear cushioned every step.
Billey got close enough to score a touchdown even with all the Shirts in the world hanging from his limbs. But he knew he couldn't make a run for it. He squinted at the camper in the meager starlight and tested the air with his ears.
He lifted his leg high at the knee, wheeling his arms for balance. He eased his foot to the ground, then repeated the procedure with the next leg. The more slowly he moved, the more quickly his heart beat. It might have taken the rest of the night to cross the final forty yards to safety.
Billey heard the crack of the gun at the instant he felt the plug of dirt the bullet kicked up. Elwood and Otis roared at the way he jumped.
"Watch out, Billey boy," Otis laughed. "We thought you was a burglar out there in the dark."
"Man's gotta defend his land," Elwood said as he sighted along his wobbling arm. "Says so in the Declaration o'Dependence."
He pulled the trigger and staggered backwards with the recoil. Billey thought he felt the bullet graze his leg, but it was only a stone on the ricochet. He fell to the dirt, picked himself up and sprinted for the camper. Black Wolf made the door at the same time, so both their butts waggled in the breeze for a moment before they scrambled through.
Billey wanted to catch his breath, but he didn't want to breathe that deeply because the rasp of air in his lungs made it hard to hear what was going on outside. The men shouted and laughed. Now and again a gunshot rang out. Billey felt too scared to be awake, too excited to sleep. It seemed like the night would never end.
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