Billy's Friends

Billy Parker met the ghouls one Saturday just before third grade began. He had slipped out early to avoid his stepfather, Vernon Edwards.

He wandered along a trail he'd found, amazed that there could still be woods in Atlanta. Cities didn't have woods, he thought. The news called this neighborhood part of 'metro Atlanta' (whatever that was). All he knew was that it wasn't home.

Mom should not have married Vernon. Vernon was doing bad things to him, but Vernon was the head of the household. The head of the household was always in the right. That was what they said in church. But the shows on TV said that Vernon's naked games were wrong.

Sounds nearby. Voices, and peculiar sounds like glibbers and meeps. The trees and the hilly landscape prevented him seeing anyone.

Other kids? Animals? He followed the sounds.

He caught a glimpse of some boys just as a ball hit a bush and dropped to the ground. A loud screech cut the air, and several boys dove out of sight so quickly that he wasn't certain that he'd seen them. They'd been rather odd-looking, if they were real.

One of the remaining boys watched him.

"Here," Billy said, picking up the ball. It felt hard and heavy. Not a ball, but a skull. "Whoa, cool. Where'd you get it?" he asked.

The neighbor boy grinned. "Found it."

"How the heck do you play with it?" This looked a lot more interesting than the games back in Smyrna. "Could you show me?" He remembered his manners. "I'm Billy."


***** ***** *****

"Where've you been?" Vernon asked when Billy came home. He finished a late breakfast.


"Yeah? Who with?"

"Some kids I met."

His mother set cereal before him. "That's nice. Vernon, what you got planned for today?"

"Thought I'd show Billy around town."

Oh, no. Vernon would take him around, showing him places he wasn't sure he should know about. In one of those places, he'd have to play with Vernon's pee-pee.

"Isn't that nice?"

***** ***** *****

On the tour, Vernon emphasized Atlanta's size to Billy. He turned out of the neighborhood and took Peachtree Street into downtown. As he drove, he told the boy that they had to stick together as a family. "Can't count on the city to do much more than take away the garbage and provide our water and electricity," he said. Such a large city, so impersonal. The police were either too busy or too corrupt to be effective. The only safety was family.

Family. Vernon smiled. He had a family: a boy who satisfied his needs, a woman who would obey him, and the prospect of more children who would keep him happy for years. No more risky seductions of boys, no more fear of discovery.

Martha was a good, church-going Christian woman. She knew her place in the world. 'Love, honor, and obey.' Obey the head of the household, her husband.

Her parents had done everything short of push her into his arms. A woman should be married. Billy needed a father. They wanted him cared for. It wasn't that they disliked the Parkers, but a boy needs a live father to guide him. Moreover, who better to guide a boy than an upstanding member of the church, who attended every Sunday, directed the choir, and donated to every cause?

Had they known his desires, they'd never have let him darken their doorway. However, they were like the other hypocritical cowards in the world, who refused to acknowledge reality and hid behind silly platitudes. He knew what he wanted and what he was, and he had found that the Bible confirmed his knowledge.

The boy had resisted at first. His biological father had not had the courage to act on his desires, so the boy had no experience. Every once in a while, Vernon had to remind him of his place in the family.

***** ***** *****

Billy spent as much time out of the house as possible. He played games with his new friends. During the games with the skull, he imagined that it was Vernon's head.

A month after he met Zhando, he asked the boy about the funny-looking kids he thought he'd seen that first day. It didn't seem fair that Zhando's other friends had to hide from him. So what if they were funny-looking? He wasn't a dummy like the people on TV, who screamed and ran if they saw an extra nostril or a big wart.

After thinking it over, Zhando introduced him to the others. Billy didn't scream and run, even though some had heads that looked rather like those of apes or dogs. He learned that they were ghouls, with their own language and culture. He asked to learn their language.

(Much later, he learned that the other ghouls had watched him closely after that first day. When they were certain that he was not a spy, or that he would betray them, they had decided to trust him if he asked about them.)

At the library, he looked through books, eventually sneaking into the adult section, looking for the ghouls. He even looked in books about art, hoping to find pictures. The librarians watched him when he got too close to certain books. They did not want to face angry parents over a picture of the Venus de Milo.

***** ***** *****

On the first day of school, his teacher assigned 'What I Did on My Summer Vacation'.

What could he say? That after two years of marriage, Vernon Edwards moved them from Smyrna to Atlanta so that he didn't have such a long commute? After many false starts, he wrote that. He kept the ghouls and Vernon's games a secret.

After school, he encountered Delmar McFarland.

McFarland was in fifth grade and huge for his age, nearly six feet tall. Like all bullies, he could spot a victim right away. "Hey, shrimp," he said casually, planting himself before Billy. "You new here?"

The guy was big as Vernon. "Y-yes." Billy looked for a teacher, or the bus. "M-my name's Billy."

"Uh-huh. See you tomorrow, Billy. Have something for me for lunch. It better be good."

***** ***** *****

Martha didn't understand why he wanted the extra sandwich, but Billy took two to school.

Delmar claimed the entire lunch. When Billy protested, the older boy hit him.

After that, Billy had hard work to avoid Delmar. The McFarlands lived in the neighborhood, so Delmar could start while waiting for the bus, continue while on the bus and for a short while when they were dropped off.

The ghouls noticed immediately. They offered to teach Billy how to hide so that Delmar couldn't see him. When he hesitated, they gave him a practical demonstration.

Next day, as he ran from Delmar, Zhando and Digho pulled him into hiding. Kudzu and bushes were their only cover. As Delmar thrashed and stumbled about, Billy expected imminent discovery.

"He can't see you," Digho breathed in his ear. His friend was as relaxed as a sock on the floor.

No, he can't. He can't see me. As Delmar stomped around, going farther and farther away, Billy relaxed.

When they were certain that Delmar had decided to go home, the two ghouls said, "We can show you how to do what we do. No-one ever sees us, but we see them."

How to do what they did? They could hide like ninjas. "Okay."

He did not know that Delmar's persecution had become a test. If he failed it, he would die.

***** ***** *****

It went on for several weeks: Delmar stole Billy's lunch daily and beat him up every few days; Vernon showed very little concern over the bullying, and Martha deferred to her husband on the matter. As long as Delmar only beat Billy, Vernon did not much care. The added humiliation kept Billy under control.

He thought.

Billy learned how to move through the thin suburban woods. He discovered that the secret to stealth was not complete silence, but in matching his inevitable noise to the sounds around him. Immobility in a tangle of kudzu could disguise him without camouflage clothes. If he could not be out of sight, he should act as if he had every right to be where he was. Even in this pedophile-obsessed time, kids still played in the woods.

The ghouls also taught him how to hunt and kill small animals. They tracked a toddler who had wandered into the woods until the child's parents appeared. Billy shuddered when he learned the ghouls ate humans. At first. Then he became used to the idea.

***** ***** *****

"You should bring your friends over some day," Martha suggested one evening. "I'd like to meet them."

Vernon smiled at Billy. "So would I." He ran a finger over a manila envelope in the mail-stack.

A new magazine, Billy thought. Darn. That always gave Vernon ideas.

***** ***** *****

Like human children, the ghoul children had a clubhouse. It's presence helped justify their presence in the woods. Any adult who saw it, Digho explained, would not question them hanging about. This was an old shed, close to a concealed entrance to their tunnels. They had it fitted out with the sorts of things that children would put in a clubhouse, and made certain never to leave anything that would change minds.

Billy discovered that he liked to read, once he learned from the ghoul boys. The books at school bored him. The ghouls had copies of really old books, McGuffey readers among them, intended for first-graders, that were more challenging than the ones he read in class. Zhando explained that they kept in touch with current events, so that they would know if they had to call on their many human friends. He liked the ghoul children better than his classmates. They might play rough, but they never deliberately hurt him, either with words or acts. And they taught him more and more of their ways.

One Saturday, Zhando's mother showed up at their clubhouse. She had a dog-like face, and a shock of flaming red hair and startling blue eyes. Like all the ghouls in public, she wore human clothing. "Hren," she introduced herself. "I have heard much about you," she said in ghoul.

"Thanks." Were the ghoul parents worried about him playing with their children?

"Come. Play," Digho invited.

Games with a new skull, and baseball, followed by lessons.

While they ate lunch (the ghouls wrinkled their noses at Billy's insistence on cooked meat), Hren sniffed Billy. She glibbered to Digho, who said, "She says that you do not smell like most boys."

Some of the ghoul-children had said that. With those snouts, they could smell anything. "How do I smell?" It came out 'How do I sniff?'

Digho corrected him, and he repeated the question. He couldn't follow everything Hren said in reply. "What'd she say?"

"That you smell like a boy, but that you also smell of a man's semen."

"What's see-men?"

The ghouls looked startled, then patiently explained how children are made.

Billy was stunned. That was one of the things pee-pees were for? The white stuff that Vernon made him swallow was for making babies? His mother had a special place where his father, and then Vernon, stuck their pee-pees and the baby grew there?

"Why do you have that odor?" Hren asked.

Now he told. He told about the naked games and how Vernon would sometimes take him to special places for them.

"Men do not play that way with boys," Hren said. "Not among us. They do not play that way with girls." After some thought, she added, "Humans do not allow such play."

Not allowed? Then it was bad, just as he'd thought. Vernon was bad. But he was the man of the house!

***** ***** *****

In the children's section of the library, he found some books that did a poor job of explaining why Vernon's games were wrong. They never used the right words, which garbled the message. He slipped into the adult section. On many of those books, the titles and dust-jacket copy alone explained much better.

Vernon had books and magazines that said these things were right. But the library didn't have them. He asked the librarian how to find out about books. After she explained, he looked up Vernon's books. The censor on the library computers wouldn't let him look where he wanted.

He returned to the ghouls. They taught him what he needed to know, including the proper words for body parts, and brought him the books he needed.

He planned his revenge on Vernon.

Delmar continued to beat him. Billy had figured out that letting the older boy catch him every once in a while lessened the severity of the beatings at school. He also followed his tormenter around, unseen, and plotted revenge. Most of these plots were abandoned. He'd seen enough television to know that police could find evidence just about anywhere.

Billy learned many more things over the next weeks. The weak were the legitimate prey of the strong. Ghouls refined this basic principle. They hunted and scavenged in cooperative groups. Younger ghouls were not prey. Human allies, or adoptees, were not prey, but all other humans were.

Vernon and Delmar differed in their practice of the doctrine. Vernon largely stood alone, isolating his wife and stepson from the world and each other (yet Billy saw a few times when Vernon had to back down from others). Delmar dominated his group, yet depended on their support. His gang denied his victims aid.

One afternoon, Billy and the ghouls tracked and caught a child. This time, he wasn't squeamish.

***** ***** *****

In a way, Vernon was responsible for Delmar McFarland's death. Not the death itself, but the timing.

Billy's mysterious playmates worried him. He'd suggested, implied, and finally stated that the boy should not trust his new friends, but Billy kept on seeing them. Unfortunately, he had no acceptable reason to order Billy to come straight home after school. Martha was obedient, but not stupid. If he suddenly clamped down, she would wonder what was wrong. Then she might pay attention to things she would otherwise ignore.

He had wanted Billy's friends over so that he could scare them off. If he remembered his childhood correctly, all he had to do was make one boy uncomfortable. That boy would tell the others, and soon Billy would be alone again.

Since Billy didn't bring his friends over, Vernon thought of another tack. He knew that Delmar beat Billy, and had a good idea that the bully searched through Billy's pack for things to take. If Delmar were to find pornographic pictures, word would get around, and Billy's classmates would abandon him. Martha would not listen to a boy who looked at dirty pictures.

He downloaded and printed a number of pictures, put them in an envelope, and slipped it into Billy's backpack.

Delmar found the envelope during his daily search. "What the --?" He stared, uncomprehending, at the photographs of boys fellating well-endowed men.

Billy couldn't believe what had happened.

"Fag," one of Delmar's pack said.

Now Delmar understood. "You're a little fag. I'll kill you, you little freak!" Fists clenched, he advanced on Billy as his gang surrounded them.

A teacher interrupted the beating.

The school sent Billy home, with a note for Vernon and Martha to meet with the principal. He had to walk. Martha didn't drive, and Vernon wouldn't leave work.

As soon as he could, he went to the ghouls, who were outraged at what had happened. "We will help you," Zhando said, in ghoul.

"How?" And on which one? Vernon or Delmar?

Hren and the other ghoul adults spoke quietly to each other. The younger ghouls wanted to go out and drag Delmar and Vernon to the tunnels.

"We have an idea," Hren said. "This Delmar is the immediate threat. He almost killed you. You are not yet strong enough to match him in a fight."

I know. He's big as a grown-up. "I wish I could fight him. I'd eat him alive."

"We must work out the details, but I want you to do this, at least for a time: go right home from school. Let your parents see you. That way, no-one can blame you for anything that happens."

Billy thought it over carefully. He had seen plenty of people on TV be accused of a crime because they weren't at home or at work when the crime happened. The advice made sense.

***** ***** *****

The ghouls waited a few days, so that nothing would go wrong.

Vernon and Martha met with teachers and principal. After expressing suitable shock and chagrin about the pictures, Vernon complained about the internet and how easy it was for kids to get hold of pornography. He suggested that if Billy hadn't gotten the pictures himself, then another student had to have given them to him. Perhaps the newspapers should hear about this. What were they teaching at this school? The implied threat worked, and the principal and teachers decided not to suspend or expel Billy. One even speculated that Delmar had only pretended to find the envelope.

Daily, Delmar bellowed insults to Billy, who did his best to hide. He kept up the pretext of fear even after the ghouls picked their day to act. That day, he went home. A young ghoul, dressed like Billy and wearing a backpack similar to his, went out.

Later that evening, Delmar's parents knocked, looking for their son and Billy. They screamed at Vernon and Martha. Vernon yelled back. Billy watched and listened from the stairs.

After the McFarlands left, Vernon said, "Maybe those dirty pictures did belong to Billy. Maybe those two aren't such enemies.

"He's such a good boy," Martha fretted.

"He's a sneak. I've always thought so."

Billy ran to his room. Vernon was lying about him. Vernon lied about everything.

***** ***** *****

There was a search. News vans and reporters crawled all over the neighborhood for a week, even though Delmar was a thuggish white boy with a disciplinary record, and his victim was white. This wasn't the sort of neighborhood where such things happened. When the week ended without any new developments, the news teams chased after the latest local headline.

Delmar's picture was sent to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

***** ***** *****

The Saturday after the media blitz ended, Billy went to the clubhouse. Zhando led him into the ghoul tunnels.

In a large chamber, lined with cinder blocks and red bricks, were gathered a dozen or so ghouls. A few battery-powered lanterns lit the space. Delmar, naked and bruised, was tied up on the floor. "B-billy? Billy, you fag! Let me go!" His voice rose as he shouted, ending in a scream.

Zhando gave Billy a knife. "He is your enemy. What do you want to do with him?"

"I don't know. Yet."

Delmar didn't look so big, now. Not this way, naked and bound. There wasn't a speck of hair on him except for his head. Not like Vernon, who had hair almost everywhere. Unlike Vernon between the legs, too. "Such a big man at school," Billy said. "Tough guy. You hurt me bad." He traced the healing bruises on his face. "I'm going to hurt you back."

"H-how?" Delmar whined.

Billy wished for a video camera. Then he had an idea.

"Let's chase him." Billy grinned at Zhando. "Chase him through the tunnels. Can we?"

"Yes," Zhando said. "We've done it many times."

They untied Delmar. "If you reach an exit and get out, you go free," Digho said. To Billy, he whispered, "No-one ever finds an exit."

Delmar struggled to his feet, wobbling and fumbling.

"Well? Run away," Billy advised.

All the ghouls grinned, showing their teeth.

Yelping, Delmar ran. They gave him a full minute's head start.

Zhando grabbed Billy's arm and everyone gave chase.

As terrifying as he was at school, Delmar was poor prey. He slammed into three walls in five minutes. But he screamed quite well when they caught him.

Billy had passed the test.

***** ***** *****

"Hi, honey," Martha said when he came home. "Hungry?"

Still tasting blood and raw liver, Billy said, "No, Mom. We ate when I was out."

She made a sound and fiddled with something on the kitchen counter. "Billy – "



What was that all about? Billy went to his room.

***** ***** *****

The murder of Delmar McFarland, and the revelation that Vernon actively lied to everyone stimulated Billy's imagination. It was obvious that, before too long, either he or Vernon had to go.

He considered joining the ghouls for good. They were better than people.

"We need allies, Billy," Zhando told him when he suggested that. "Once, there were miles of forests. We could live anywhere near our prey, see and not be seen. But there are too many people now, much building going on. That is why we continue to hide, and learn how to trick human eyes. Their weapons are more powerful than before. We need new places to live, new sources of food. You can better help us in the human world."

TV shows had all sorts of stories about things that went on in buildings in cities. Some of these buildings were owned by rich people. Other people had jobs that allowed them to do things that most people could not. Yeah, he could make money and own a building.

But Vernon was in the way. He kept as close an eye as he could on Billy. Although the boy didn't know it, the failure of the picture trick really worried his stepfather.

Delmar's gang, meanwhile, faded away without him. The former members shied away from Billy, who no longer seemed to be such an easy target.

The school year entered winter.

Martha turned up pregnant.

One Sunday, the minister gave a rousing sermon about the duties of children towards God and family. Although Billy dared not say it aloud, the minister gave an impression that children were to submit and obey, no matter what the parent(s) wanted, good or bad.

Next day, Billy's mother found one of her bracelets in his room. Wednesday morning, Vernon missed his cuff-links; she found them in Billy's underwear drawer. She sided with Vernon because she couldn't even imagine that he might frame his stepson.

Billy wasn't stupid. He knew Vernon was up to something. What Vernon planned was beyond him. Time to act.

While watching television, Billy learned about grown-ups who ran away from home. Could he make it seem that Vernon had run away?

According to the TV shows, runaway grownups often took things with them. Clothes, money, or things called 'stocks' and 'bonds.'

The library and Internet again informed him. He found out a little about investing, what stocks and bonds were for, and about savings and checking accounts.

He didn't know if Vernon had stocks, and he didn't dare come right out and ask. His stepfather would want to know the reason for the question.

He did know that Vernon had an ATM card. All he needed was the code.

Television taught him something else: sex was a man's weak point. Women on TV were able to get men to do, say, or promise almost anything through sex.

What Vernon made him do was a type of sex.

Nerving himself, Billy went to work on Vernon. Ironically, now that he had a goal, he was more willing to fellate his stepfather. He paid attention to what Vernon wanted.

When Billy had been passive or resistant, Vernon had been able to retain his authority and self-control. With Billy's now-active participation, that vanished.

After a session (during which Vernon had been certain he would either scream or explode), Billy asked about inconsequential things. Vernon answered willingly.

Billy refined his technique, learning how to reduce Vernon to begging by stopping at certain times. Had Vernon not insisted on at least one sodomy per session, this control might have derailed Billy's plans.

He learned that Vernon had a few stocks and bonds, but the amounts (compared to the figures on television shows) did not seem large enough to worry about. He learned the ATM code. And other things which made him more determined to be rid of Vernon.

***** ***** *****

The plan was simple. Vernon, it seemed, could never drive him anywhere without wanting to stop for a quick fondle. He asked Vernon to pick him up at the library Thursday evening. "Gotta study for a test." (Which was true.) A human-looking ghoul was fitted out with an Atlanta Braves stadium jacket and ball-cap identical to Vernon's, ready to go.

Thursday evening, the ghouls waited at each of Vernon's 'sex sites.' A ghoul-child, muffled in a coat, hat, and scarf similar to Billy's waited just far enough from the library not to be noticed by the staff.

Vernon arrived on time. True to form, he drove to one of his favorite spots. "Come on up front and give me some that good stuff."

'Billy' got out and left the back door unlocked. He opened the front door, sat beside Vernon.

"You're quiet. Worried about the new baby?"

The young ghoul nodded.

"Baby won't be old enough for a couple of years. Then we can share. Close the door tight and give me some."

The ghoul-child jumped out of the car. Vernon shouted and lunged after him.

A ghoul dragged him into the bushes.

***** ***** *****

At the library, Billy checked the time, as he had since a few minutes before the scheduled pick-up time. He waited by the front door. A ghoul waved to him. He 'checked' the back door. Fifteen minutes later, he asked the librarian for money to call home, and she let him use the desk phone. A half-hour after pick-up time, she offered to drive him home.

***** ***** *****

At midnight, the ghoul disguised as Vernon went to an automated teller and withdrew almost all the money from checking and savings.

***** ***** *****

A few days later, Billy went to the tunnels.

Vernon looked as pathetic as Delmar had. Bound hand and foot, he wasn't frightening at all. That terrible penis was limp. And there was fear in Vernon.

"Hi, Vernon," Billy said.

"Huh? Billy? What's going on?" No command, now. A breathy screech, instead.

"You wanted to meet my friends, remember?" Billy grinned. "Here they are." He politely introduced Zhando, Digho, Hren, and the other ghouls. "Guys, this is Vernon Edwards, my stepfather."

"Wh-what are you going to do to me? I'll do anything you ask."

Billy's grin turned nasty. "I know why you wanted to meet my friends, Vernon. Now I know why you put those pictures in my pack, and lied about me to everyone. They know, too."

***** ***** *****

Police searched for Vernon after Martha filed a report. His car was found at the Greyhound station in downtown Atlanta. That, and the empty accounts, suggested he had left town. Billy had worried about the stocks, but found out that not all runaway grown-ups took those.

Martha prepared to return to her parents' house, as she thought she should. Then the minister in her Atlanta church blamed her for Vernon's flight. When she called her parents for comfort, they implied the same thing. She changed her mind about returning to them. She didn't know that they had bungled their efforts to soothe her.

Believing that she should be either married or living with relatives, she wondered what to do. Her parents' families would surely side with them against her. She called her former in-laws and asked them for advice.

The Parkers were more than willing to give her and Billy a place to stay until she got on her feet. She accepted the offer, determined to compensate them with housekeeping and cooking.

During the sorting and packing of her possessions, she found Vernon's collection of child pornography. Among the magazines and pictures, she found instant photographs of Billy. Naked.

Instantly ashamed, she decided against living with the Parkers. She couldn't look at them, knowing how she'd failed Billy.

She looked for a job, instead. Without a car, or even a driver's license, with no work experience, she went looking.

Billy's friends came through again. One of their human allies could justify hiring Martha. Praising God, she threw herself into her work. Her employer could even recommend a day-care center for the baby (friends of ghouls cared for at reduced rates).

She found an affordable apartment on the bus route to work and day-care, close to the old neighborhood so that Billy didn't have to transfer to a new school.

***** ***** *****

Construction workers found the remains of Vernon Edwards a year later. Animals had chewed and scattered the bones, leaving no trace of ghoul feasting. No money on him, but his skull had been crushed. His empty wallet, containing only a library card, was nearby. Police drew the obvious conclusion of robbery and murder.

Dental records confirmed his identity. When told, Martha couldn't cry. Not after what she had found andwhat Billy had told her about Vernon.