By Andy Wolverton
Billy Wayne stood beside the pale green truck, poised in the space between the open driver’s door and the rusted metal seats, smacking on a stick of gum I’d stolen from Carter’s Grocery the day before. I had no idea how long he’d been standing there. The morning air still carried a hazy, fog-like quality left over from the storm two days earlier, making Billy Wayne look like those washed-out pictures he’d once shown me of his grandfather posing beside the same old truck. Billy Wayne was shaped like him, too, tall and angular with the same black sprout of hair that swept down toward his brow, unwilling to stay with the rest of his hair. If not for the difference in clothes, it would have been difficult to tell which one of them was in the picture.
A quiet, gentle breeze stirred. Billy Wayne raised his head for just a moment, then knelt down and studied the ragged wires hanging from the steering column. His brow furrowed in concentration as if he could decipher the secrets of electricity and combustion engines by simply staring hard enough. But it was too late; he didn’t have those skills and never would.
The truck had belonged to Billy Wayne’s Grandfather Aaron, but along with the house and property, it was part of the inheritance he received last year, so now it was ours. At the time, I’d joked with Billy Wayne that it felt like we’d won the lottery, but he said not to talk about it that way, that lotteries ruined more folks than they helped.
Billy Wayne told me he’d never even seen his grandfather or anyone else driving the truck. It stood parked in the same place it always had, between the tool shed and the one dogwood tree still standing in the backyard. There was something sad and beautiful about that truck. I liked to imagine how it would look restored, retaining elements of both old and new at the same time. That was exciting to me, but not to Billy Wayne. If he couldn’t drive it, he’d just as soon have it taken away.
Yet there it stood, unharmed by the storm. Other than a few downed trees in the backyard, our property hadn’t been touched. It was like we’d been encased in a protective bubble that blanketed our immediate surroundings.
“Gas stove still works,” I said. “Want some eggs and bacon?” No response. I leaned against the dogwood tree and took the work gloves from my back pocket, making a big deal of putting them on. Billy Wayne was squatting down, too focused on the underside of the steering column to notice. He mindlessly flicked one of the wires.
“No thanks,” he said.
“Chain saw should work,” I said, trying to sound positive. “No computerized parts.”
“I suppose.” He pivoted, trying another viewing angle.
The breeze returned, blowing gently across my face. “It’s been two days. We really should start clearing the backyard,” I said. “Or maybe walk over to Carter’s and see what he’s got left.”
A long gap of silence followed before Billy Wayne spoke again. “I wish I understood these connections,” he muttered. When he could no longer make any sense of it, he stood, keeping his back to me, exposing every wrinkle in the khakis he’d slept in.
Billy Wayne circled the truck three or four times, examining it from all angles before stopping at the front and raising the hood. Long-neglected metal screeched until the hood locked into place. A look of exasperation crept across his face as he studied another maze of ancient circuitry he would never understand.
I reminded myself to be patient, to let situations play themselves out. This was all planned, all structured. Out of our control, yes, but still planned and structured. I really do believe that, so I might as well be at peace about it.
We certainly hadn’t had much peace the night before. We’d argued for hours, wrestling through every possibility and contingency, never agreeing on anything, watching as our last pillar candle burned down to a nub. Then we just argued in the dark.
I’d always sensed there was something about the inheritance that made Billy Wayne uncomfortable, even minutes after he’d signed the papers, but he never talked about it. I wondered if it had anything to do with his grandfather and the night after the storm I asked him. He said he hadn’t known Grandfather Aaron that well and didn’t really understand why he had willed the property to him; the will was drawn up when Billy Wayne was just a child and there were plenty of other living relatives at the time he could’ve willed the property to.
“Why do you think he did it?” I asked. Billy Wayne just grunted and began busying himself, trying to locate other candles in hiding places he might’ve overlooked. Little as it was, this was the most he’d ever talked about the inheritance and it was clear he wasn’t comfortable discussing it. I wanted to know more, but left it alone.
One thing we did agree on: this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill storm. It wasn’t just that the electricity had gone out two nights before and hadn’t come back; there was more to it than that. We both lay awake in bed as it happened, listening to the cracks of splitting dogwood trees, the wind shrieking, great rumblings in the distance. I can’t explain it, but the storm and its sounds didn’t really frighten me. It felt not quite cataclysmic, but more like a turning point, a transition between the end of one thing and the beginning of something else.
The morning after the storm, Billy Wayne was convinced we shouldn’t stay. There was no way of knowing, he said, how long the storm’s effects might last, but we couldn’t just wait around and do nothing. It was still early, I told him. This would all work out. We still had plenty of food stored; we could wait for weeks if we had to. But he thought different.
Billy Wayne said we had to find out if the surrounding towns had been affected and the only way to do what was to go see for ourselves. And besides, he said, there may be places beyond Perdido Valley that needed help. Emergency situations always presented opportunities for carpenters. There’d been very little construction work in Perdido Valley before the storm. It seemed no one had built anything in the past year.
“There’ll be plenty of work around here now,” I’d told him. “Lots of folks will need to rebuild from this.” But Billy Wayne just muttered that I didn’t understand. That was when he’d gone outside for the first time to examine that old truck. He stayed out there for hours.
It didn’t bother me that we disagreed. But in seven years of marriage, he’d never dismissed my opinions as ridiculous before. When I explained to him that this storm was more than likely a new beginning, a chance for renewal and transformation, he gave me a derisive laugh.
“What have you been reading?” he’d said after a long silence and I knew where this was going. I admit it, I do tend to lose myself in whatever I’m reading, but this was different and I told him so.
“It’s not just what I’ve been reading,” I’d said. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about,” which was true. I had been thinking about renewal, about the possibility of transformation. Of course, that could have been predetermined as well.
“But you have been reading something, haven’t you?”
He wasn’t going to let this go. It’s not his way.
“I’m always reading something, Billy Wayne,” I said.
“What is it? A book? Some magazine?”
The best thing to do was just tell him. He’d never read anything beyond high school, so the title wouldn’t mean anything to him. “Slaughterhouse-Five,” I’d said, “by Kurt Vonnegut.”
Billy Wayne had stiffened like he’d just been shoved. “What the hell is that about? Butchering pigs?”
“No,” I’d sighed. This wasn’t going well, but I’d already started. “It’s a novel. It’s sort of complicated—” And then I’d realized there was no way I could tell him about the novel without sounding crazy. Billy Wayne never read fiction, much less science fiction, so he wouldn’t understand the strangeness of the story, especially the part about the alien Tralfamadorians and their belief that everything exists simultaneously and repeats itself, that what happens has always happened and always will happen. Everything is structured and beyond our control, like this storm. And it’s all going to be transformed. That’s why we have to stay. If we leave, we’ll miss out on what we were intended to do, what we’re going to be next. It’s all connected.
But all that would just sound crazy. So I told him, “It’s about renewal. Waiting patiently for things to turn around,” which is sort of true.
Billy Wayne had stared at me like I was from Tralfamadore. “Sounds like New Age bullshit to me.”
I’d never stolen anything in my life and hadn’t planned to that first morning after the storm. We weren’t surprised to discover that our power had gone out, but we were puzzled to find that neither vehicle would start. Our landline and cell phones didn’t work either.
So we decided to walk the three miles of dirt road to Carter’s Grocery, more for news than for groceries. Neither of us spoke. I was wondering why that haze still lingered in the air until we saw a cloud of dust coming our way from the direction of the grocery. It was an older model car, one made before all the computerized systems came along. Another, this time an older truck, came up from behind us, headed toward Carter’s. The cloud of dust left in its wake caught up with us and slowly dissipated into a gossamer haze. I hadn’t realized that I’d sped up to escape the dust cloud until I noticed Billy Wayne was no longer by my side. For just a moment I panicked until I heard his lumbering footsteps behind me. “Interesting,” he said, breaking the quiet stillness. I slowed to let him catch up with me, never asking what he was referring to. We walked along, neither of us speaking another word.
When we got to the grocery, Mr. Carter had his hands full dealing with a couple dozen folks who’d come for bottled water, toilet paper and other emergency supplies. He had a backup generator, so nothing had spoiled, but that wouldn’t last for long. It wasn’t a madhouse, not yet, but Billy Wayne told me to get some canned goods and bottled water while he gathered information.
Billy Wayne ran into Layton Sommers, who ran a lumberyard out near the highway. Layton had heard mostly crazy talk about terrorists and such, but I knew that wasn’t what had done this. Nobody really knew anything, not without electricity or the Internet. And while it was true that some of the older vehicles still ran, it was only from the gas that was already in their tanks; all the gas pumps were out of commission.
Everyone was moving faster than usual, but not really what you’d call panicked. I’d watched enough movies and read enough end-of-the-world novels to know that things would eventually get ugly. But I also believed that if we could ride this out, we’d see the transformation. We just had to stay. I’d had that idea in the back of my mind since the storm started the night before, but now it took a firm hold in my mind. If we could just stay.
There was something else I felt, too, something I can’t explain. An urge came over me and that urge led to opportunity. Billy Wayne was still talking to Layton over by what was left of the stacks of bottled water when I glanced at a rack of chewing gum and candy. Like it was the most natural thing in the world, I reached out and took a pack of Juicy Fruit and stuck it in my pocket. Old Mr. Carter was maybe ten feet away, busy running the store’s lone register, but he could have easily seen me.
But no one had noticed. I’d gotten away with it. I took another packet of gum, then a Snickers bar, then a Twix, looking right at Mr. Carter the whole time. In an odd sort of way, time seemed to stand still, allowing this new part of myself to emerge and develop. But space, not time, was the factor. If I’d had more pockets, I’d have taken more, but I soon reached my limit.
When Billy Wayne and I stepped up to the register, I almost thought Mr. Carter was going to ask me to pay for the items in my pocket, but he didn’t say a word.
So we walked home with the stuff we’d paid for and the stuff we hadn’t. I didn’t say anything to Billy Wayne about it. Stealing was so foreign to me that I wondered if I was already going through a transformation myself. Yet a part of me wanted to get caught. I can’t explain that either.
Maybe we were always being studied, Billy Wayne and me. In the novel, the Tralfamadorians had captured Billy Pilgrim, a man who traveled back and forth through time through no effort or control of his own. The Tralfamadorians placed him in an enclosed, protective environment, like a zoo inside a dome. They had to; Tralfamadore’s atmosphere would’ve killed humans. The Tralfamadorians studied him while meeting all his needs, supplying him with all the comforts of home. They even gave him a woman to keep him company. He had everything he needed, except clothes, which he really didn’t need inside the enclosure. He had everything. It reminded me of the Garden of Eden.
Billy Pilgrim never really changed when he time-traveled; he was the same Billy Pilgrim he’d always been with the same qualities, abilities and skills. But he did change his mind, at least in one respect. Initially he was skeptical to the Tralfamadorian belief that everything that has ever happened will happen again and that as much as we’d like to think we have the ability to determine our own future, we really don’t. Eventually Billy Pilgrim came around and embraced the Tralfamadorian philosophy, going so far as to promote it on his travels back and forth through time.
I don’t know if Billy Wayne will ever come around.
I’d just gotten the chainsaw started after half a dozen tries and had only been cutting the fallen dogwoods a few minutes when Billy Wayne grabbed my arm. His lips were moving, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. With his other hand he reached over and hit the cutoff switch.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he said. I could practically see the fire in his eyes, burning through the still hazy sky.
I pulled the safety goggles down and stared at him. “What does it look like I’m doing? Clearing the backyard.”
He released my arm, flung it away, actually, and took a step back, disgust all over his face. “What’s the point? We won’t be here much longer.”
I held onto the chainsaw, afraid to set it down for fear he might take it from me. A tingling passed through my body, an after-vibration from the chainsaw, I thought, but it hadn’t been running that long. “Billy Wayne, we have to stay. This is our property, our home!”
“No it’s not!”
The tingling in my arm turned into creeping numbness so I eased the chainsaw to the ground. I massaged my arm, feeling the blood starting to circulate and stared at Billy Wayne.
“What do you mean?” My voice was a throaty whisper.
With a sweep of his hand, Billy Wayne turned in a broad circle, as if presenting our entire property to some lucky contestant on a game show. “It’s not right. None of this is ours. I didn’t do one thing to earn any of it!” Then, as if he’d just embarrassed himself on a grand scale, he placed his hands in his pockets, then hid them behind him like a guilty schoolboy.
“But it is yours! Your grandfather willed it to you, it’s all legal! It’s—” Predetermined was the word that wanted to come out of my mouth, but I knew that would set him off. So while I searched for words that would make sense, I said nothing.
“Then why have things been so bad? Why haven’t I been able to find any lasting work since we moved here? It was a curse to take this place!”
It wasn’t a curse, far from it! He had to know that and if he didn’t, then he had to learn it. “But we were meant for this!” I blurted out. I hadn’t meant to, but there it was.
The wind picked up and brushed the haze away from the air for a few seconds. I realized Billy Wayne’s hair had grown long, longer than I’d ever seen it, strands of brown waving in the breeze like wayward hanging moss, the one long lock dragging across his right eye. “What do you mean,” he said, each word carrying the weight of newly realized tension, “‘we were meant for this’?”
Now I had to say something, had to make some sort of effort at explaining myself. Carefully, though.
“Did you ever stop to think,” I said, thinking furiously as I spoke, “that your grandfather could have—could have had the foresight—to have known that you would need this property?” It wasn’t great, but it was a start.
“Foresight? I was just a kid! How would he have known what I’d need? Why didn’t he leave all this to my father? He was still alive, why didn’t he leave it to him?”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “Maybe,” I said, “maybe he had—I don’t know, a feeling that one day you’d need it more than your dad.”
“But he couldn’t have known that! No more than he could’ve known he’d survive his other sons and daughters. And of all the grandchildren, why me? It makes no sense!”
Because it was predetermined. Because everything that happens has already happened. Everything. And you can’t break the chain of events once its started.
“You agreed to it, Billy Wayne.” My voice came out as a whisper, but I knew from the look of sudden anger on his face that he’d heard me.
He started to respond, but instead stood ramrod straight, bringing his hands from behind his back, letting them drop to his side. I had no idea what he was going to do when he simply turned and walked back to the house like it was just another day. His work boots rang hollow against the wooden porch steps as he mounted them without touching the cast iron railings and stepped inside. The tingle in my arm was gone.
A few moments later, Billy Wayne returned from the house with his toolbox in one hand and what looked like a yellowed auto repair manual (I don’t know where he could’ve gotten it from; he doesn’t even have a library card) in the other. As soon as he set the toolbox down in front of the truck, I turned to the fallen tree I’d been working on, put on the safety goggles and picked up the chainsaw. I yanked the pull string with everything I had. It cranked on the very first try.
I went to bed early that night, exhausted from clearing the back yard by myself. It was just as well; the last rays of daylight were fading by the time I got upstairs. I found a couple of votive candles I’d forgotten about hidden deep in a bathroom drawer and lit one to shower by.
As the water washed over me, I was aware of how the tiny flame gave the room a soft yellowish hue, like I was in an earlier century, standing underneath something both pure and cleansing. I grabbed a towel and dried off in a steamy daze, suddenly too tired to even put on pajamas. Billy Wayne hadn’t come in, but I could hear him outside through the open bedroom window, banging around on the truck. I slipped into bed and drifted right to sleep.
I woke to the sound of thunder, only it sounded less like thunder and more like something enormous that had dropped from the sky with a ground-shaking thud. I opened my eyes and thought it odd that the sun burned so brightly during thunder. I was also startled to find myself naked, then remembered how tired I’d been after my shower the night before.
Billy Wayne was either already gone again or had never come to bed. I figured he’d stayed up until it was so dark he could no longer see the innards of the truck and then slept on the living room couch. I pulled on a robe and went downstairs.
Bright sunlight burned through the downstairs windows, casting urgent rays on the living room furniture as if some play were about to be performed there. Yet all was still. The only movement I saw was in the dust particles trapped in the beams of light. If Billy Wayne had spent the night down there, he’d left no evidence of it.
Thinking he’d gotten up early to continue work on the truck, I stepped outside in my bare feet. The truck hadn’t moved, but the repair manual lay open on the ground before the right front tire, its pages flipping in the wind with an eerie, unnatural speed.
I looked past the truck to the tool shed and noticed the door opened a crack. I breathed a sigh of relief and began walking in that direction. “Billy Wayne?” I called a few times before entering. He wasn’t there, but something was different. It took me several moments to realize that the shed’s overhead light was on.
I ran out of the shed and into the house, checking the living room lights, the refrigerator, the clocks, the coffee maker. They all worked. I turned on the TV, hoping for some news but found only regular morning programming. There was nothing about the storm on CNN, Fox or any of the other national news channels. I did find something on one of the local stations, which only made brief mention of a storm that caused “some damage in remote areas.”
Apparently the rest of the world hadn’t noticed what had happened in our little “remote” part of the world, but I was too excited to care. I dug my keys out of my purse and ran outside to my car, thinking of how far Billy Wayne might’ve gotten on foot, hoping I could find him quickly. I’m not quite sure how I knew, but something told me the car wasn’t going to start and it didn’t. I tried again and again, but nothing happened.
Expecting more disappointment, I went inside the house and got Billy Wayne’s keys and tried his car. Nothing.
What little energy I had left faded quickly and I took a slow, plodding walk around the property, looking with little hope for any sign of Billy Wayne, alone with my thoughts. After about an hour, I realized he had missed the transformation and was probably gone for good. He’d never understood, never believed. But maybe he’d come back. After all, hadn’t the prodigal come back after his transformation?
I stood at the edge of our property for some time, staring at the dirt road. No cars came, at least none that I saw, but each time I approached the road, a thin hazy trail of dust and dirt lingered in the air.
I suppose I could’ve gone inside and tried to find more information on the TV or Internet, but somehow what was past no longer seemed important. Something had happened, something transformative, and maybe there was more to come, something else I needed to witness. Everything is structured, beyond our control. We just have to let it happen.
The sun grew unseasonably hot and I felt as if I were trapped inside an electric blanket left on too long. I opened my robe, letting it drop to the dusty drive as if it were the most natural thing in the world. No one was watching, so what did it matter? I instantly felt better, but still a little warm.
Staring at the skies, looking into miles and miles of blue stretched out across the universe, I waited for the next point in the transformation. I couldn’t help thinking about Billy, where he might be, when he might be, what he might be doing. I wondered if we would meet again and whether he would recognize me after the transformation. It didn’t really matter. Everything was already planned, already structured.
I stood waiting. At one point I saw the leaves of a group of buckthorn trees waving in the distance, but the breeze causing their movement never reached me. I stood staring, waiting.
Andy Wolverton lives in Maryland, where he works as a library associate with the Anne Arundel County Public Library. He attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop in 2004 and is currently working on a Master of Science in Library and Information Science (MS) from Drexel University.