The Weird-Looking Kid Sitting on the Sidewalk
Billy Smith stepped off the city bus and prepared to meet his doom.
The sandstone walls of Francis Drake College Preparatory loomed ahead, obscured by a light fog. Fall had come early. Billy zipped up his hooded sweatshirt and adjusted his brand new, first-day-of-high-school backpack as other students streamed past him, headed for Drake’s impressive front doors. But no matter how hard he tried, Billy couldn’t make himself follow them inside. Drake Prep was the most prestigious private school in the city, and deep in his heart, Billy knew he didn’t belong.
That was Billy’s problem. He didn’t belong anywhere.
He hadn’t belonged in Vermont, where he was born. People were nice enough there. But even when Billy was little, he could tell they didn’t know what to make of him. With his mixed features, he was a bit of a mystery to people. It was okay when he was with his father. At least when people saw William Tyler Smith Junior with William Tyler Smith Senior, they seemed to get it. Black kid, they’d think after the initial confusion. “Oh, what a handsome boy,” they’d lie. But one thing was clear. He wasn’t one of them.
When he was with his mother, it was worse. Despite their matching reddish hair and freckles, Billy and his mother didn’t look much alike. Her skin was pale, her eyes the same blue green as her surgical scrubs. Billy was several shades darker. When he was with his mother, people didn’t stare at him in confusion. They stared at her. How’d she end up with him? they’d wonder to themselves. “What a handsome boy,” they’d lie. “You taking care of him for a friend?”
Billy’s mother was an ER nurse; his father built hospitals. His mother could work anywhere, but once William Senior was done with a project, their family had to move on. In his fourteen years, Billy had lived in Vermont, Virginia, Kansas, Georgia, and now California. Not once had Billy felt like people accepted him for who he was. In Virginia, they hadn’t liked his strong New England accent. In rural Kansas, his skin had been too dark. In urban Atlanta, he wasn’t dark enough.
Billy’s parents had said California would be different. And maybe it should’ve been. There were all kinds of people in San Francisco. But by now, Billy was so used to being an outsider, it had become a reflex. He didn’t even try to make friends anymore.
Plus . . . there was his father. When they’d gotten to the city, it had seemed like just another stop. But a few days later, William Senior had another of his “upset stomachs.” A few days after that, he’d finally gone to see a doctor. Now William Senior wasn’t just building hospitals. Between the surgeries, the chemo, and the radiation treatments, he was practically living in one.
So fitting in at Drake Prep was the last thing on Billy’s mind. It was just one more place he had to get through on the way to . . .
To where? That was Billy’s other problem. He wasn’t very good at goals. He’d spent his whole life avoiding undue attention, trying not to embarrass his parents, and trying not to get hurt. He’d been so busy dodging and disappearing that he’d never had time for much else. He’d never had a girlfriend, never thought about what he wanted to do with his life, never done much of anything except play video games.
Billy stared at the walls of Drake Prep, emblazoned with an elaborate crest and the school’s motto: “Educating Exceptional Young Men and Women.” He didn’t feel exceptional. Freakish, awkward, disappointing, but definitely not exceptional. Billy wished he were someplace else. Anywhere but here, standing in the fog, certain his high school career was going to disappoint his ailing father, waste his parents’ tuition money, and leave his family miserable and poor. In that instant, as Billy yearned fervently for an entirely new life, for a split second . . .
The world changed.
The fog grew denser, like walls closing in around him. The smooth sidewalk felt cracked and uneven beneath his feet. The morning breeze died away, and Billy smelled dirt and rotten vegetation and a whiff of sulfur. The light dimmed, and everything went cold and still.
Claustrophobia seized Billy. He sensed a looming, oppressive weight just above his head. Blinded by the encroaching darkness and overwhelmed by a panicky, desperate fear, Billy wanted to shout, to scream, to run in terror. But his instincts told him he couldn’t. He had to be quiet.
Or something might hear him.
Check out the rest of The Goblin Crown here.