The next day it was as if the incident had not occurred at all. Miles came down for breakfast, apologized for having lost his temper, and the Youngs smiled knowingly at him. Nothing a little sleep can’t take care of, they thought separately and yet together. He had just had a hard day, they knew. Everyone was prone to occasional fits of temper when circumstances were trying, so they were able to easily excuse his behavior. They instructed him to tell someone if Billy started to bully him again, to which he calmly replied that telling someone usually only makes it worse. As long as Billy was merely insulting him, he said, he would be able to take it. They smiled at this, at the resurgence of the old Miles, the patient, dedicated, virtuous Miles, and asked him to report it if the abuse turned physical, which he agreed to do. Miles and his mother gathered their things and headed off to school, leaving Mr. Young to finish his coffee and morning reading in peace. Once the steam of cooking and bodies had vacated, Mr. Young noticed a slight chill in the house. The noise of cars rushing by and school busses squealing to a stop was unusually acute that morning, seeming to rain down from above him rather than seep in from around the walls as it usually did. For some reason he could hardly wait to get out of the house. As he pulled out of the driveway, he still felt minutely disturbed about the previous evening, and as he drove away had the vaguest sensation of relief, as if he were leaving the scene of a crime.
At recess that day, Mrs. Young noticed that Billy was not present at the basketball court. She wondered if there had been some disciplinary action against him, either from his parents or from the school, but soon dismissed the idea. Had he been suspended she surely would have heard of it, and certainly the Millers were not silly enough to think that keeping a boy out of school was in any way punitive. Perhaps he is just sick, and his absence is merely a coincidence, she thought.
She started to question her assessment when he wasn’t there the following day either. His cohorts still played basketball, but on the opposite side of the court from where they typically played. Perhaps Mrs. Young had put a scare into them and they were just keeping their distance from Miles, not wishing to stir up any trouble. Miles, for his part, was as peaceable as a sleeping puppy, reading each day in his usual spot, undisturbed, smiling secretly to himself about whatever his imagination conjured up.
That weekend Mrs. Young ran into Mrs. Miller again at the grocery store. She was greeted curtly, detachedly, absently.
“Hello, Mrs. Young.”
“Well, hello, Laura. How are you?”
“I am fine, thank you.” Obviously Mrs. Miller was upset with her, and she suspected it had to do with how Billy had been treated. Mrs. Young felt compelled to make sure the air was clear, so rather than make small talk, which Mrs. Young was clearly not in the mood to do, she plunged right in.
“Laura, I don’t mean to pry, but it seems that you are upset with me, and I can only think it has do with what happened the other day.”
Hardly had she gotten the words out than they were trampled upon. “It has nothing to do with that.” She paused briefly. “Is this really the place where you want to have this conversation?”
Mrs. Young was taken aback at the other woman’s aggression. “I suppose that depends. What conversation are we having?”
Mrs. Miller’s eyes narrowed like sword blades. “The one about Billy’s dog.”
Mrs. Young was stupefied. “I’m sorry?”
Mrs. Miller was sizing her up, gauging her sincerity. “You have no idea what I am talking about? I assumed you had heard.”
“I’m sorry, Laura, I truly don’t. Did something happen?”
Mrs. Miller looked down, then furtively around to see if anyone was nearby. When she spoke, her throat sounded suddenly raw and swollen, her voice quavered like a rickety porch, and her complexion was like ghosts.
“Someone killed Billy’s dog.”
Mrs. Young could only gasp in horror and raise her hand to her mouth. “How horrible! How do you, I mean, are you sure?” was all she could manage, a stupid question.
“I’m pretty sure, yes.” It was spoken sardonically, almost spittingly. “We found him…” The words stuck in her throat, and she had to swallow before continuing. She glanced about again, then, “Someone…stabbed him with a pitchfork…twice. We found him Wednesday morning.”
Mrs. Young could hardly move. Miles and Billy had had their run-in on Tuesday. “Surely you don’t think…”
“I don’t know what to think. I can’t imagine who would do that. I mean I know Billy has always been…” And suddenly she was weeping. She buried her head in the curve of her arm. A mother and her young toddler came by. The mother whispered something to the child, and they turned promptly down the nearest aisle. The boy was looking back at them intently. His mother scooped him up and placed him in the cart and spoke softly to him as they moved on silently and quickly.
Mrs. Miller looked up, her eyes desperate and pleading. “Who would do such a thing?”
Mrs. Young had no response except for the shaking of her head, a touch to the arm of Mrs. Miller, and horrified, chilling silence.
She could not shake the image from her mind on the drive home: some fearsome teenager, grinning fiercely and despotically, pitchfork in hard, poised ready to strike an innocent, sleeping animal. It wasn’t until she entered the quiet of her home that she was finally able to think of something else.
She found her son lying on the sofa, reading his favorite book, chuckling softly to himself, his face as round and ruddy as a cherub’s, his laughter bouncing off the yellow plaster walls, sounding as clear and free as it had when they had first heard it.
Billy never returned to school, and a few weeks later there was a sign in the Millers’ yard. The house was for sale. Mrs. Young noticed it as she and Miles drove past the house on their way to school. Winter had come upon the neighborhood as subtly as age, slow and unseen like senility. It was a frigid morning, and frost was conquering the corners of every pane of glass.
“I can’t believe they are moving! That’s so sudden!” she expressed. It wasn’t directed at Miles, nor intended to start a conversation, but said absently into the air, like snowflakes flung from a cloud of thought. For a long time, Miles said nothing in response, instead simply staring out of the window at the passing scenery, and for a few moments his mother thought that he might have actually sensed that no response was required.
But then he spoke, softly, coyly, as if he were coaxing a baby to sleep.
“They won’t be troubling us any more.”
No. It couldn’t be. Her head wheeled around to look at him, trying to catch a glance of his face, but he hadn’t moved at all.
“I told you,” he said, “I can take care of myself.”
When he finally looked at her, she thought he must have been freezing; his face was monochrome gray, the gray of ashes, the gray of ancient statues. Then he smiled, and she knew. She had seen that very smile before, but never, oh never, did she think she would see it on him.