Billy and the Beast Chapter 1 and 2A stolen rose leads Billy to the Beast of his dreams...
“Mom, please get up.”
She was a gray lump on the bed. I crossed to the window and pulled open the heavy drapes to get some light into the room. The May day was sunny and breezy, the sky a deep turquoise blue dotted with fluffy cotton clouds. A perfect day.
She rolled over onto her back and looked at me. I could tell she hadn’t been asleep—she had none of the bleariness of her half-asleep self. She’d just been lying there in the dark. The aura of despondency around her was almost visible.
“I’ll get up later, Billy. Just let me rest.”
“It’s eleven o’clock. Can I make you some coffee?”
“Already had some.”
“What about breakfast?”
“Not hungry. Just let me rest for another hour, honey, okay?” She turned back onto her side, away from me.
My heart ached. On days like today it was always a balancing act—trying to find a way to encourage her without being a total pain in the ass or nursemaid wannabe. I never seemed to find the right mix because, whatever I did, it rarely worked.
“I was gonna go on my training ride, but I don’t want to leave with you still in bed. I worry about you.”
She rolled over again and studied me for a moment. “You don’t need to worry. I don’t want you to worry.”
“Well, I do. If you just lie in here in this dark room, you’ll feel worse and worse. Get up, Mom. Please?”
She blinked. Her mouth pressed into a tight line, and I braced myself for being yelled at for pushing too hard. But then she sighed. “All right. Go for your ride, honey. I’ll be up when you get back, and I’ll make us lunch.”
I almost asked Did you take your meds today? But every time I asked that, the answer was always an irritated yes. And if I pushed her to go back to her doctor, since the meds didn’t seem to be helping anymore, that would start an argument. Going around and around about that right now would only upset her and squash any chance of her getting out of bed today.
So I went over to her and kissed her forehead. She squeezed my arm for a moment before turning back onto her side.
I left her, closing the door behind me, and went into my room.
My room is a lot like me, I guess. A part of my brain recognizes that it is dorky. Like, if I were to ever bring a hot guy to my room—wishful thinking—I would be embarrassed. And the other part of my brain just doesn’t care, and maybe even likes being dorky? Maybe someday, the part of me that wants to be cool will outgrow the dorky part, but I’m twenty-one, and it hasn’t happened yet.
Since the age of about twelve, I’ve been decorating my room with monsters—on posters, mugs, laptop stickers, and figurines. There’s Frankenstein, Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Godzilla. Werewolves are a special favorite—from the original Wolfman, to the shifters from The Howling, to a fantasy poster of Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf that I adored. The red-hooded figure was turned in such a way that it might have been a boy, and the wolfman was dead sexy. There were Lovecraftian beasts and horror icons like Freddy and Jason and Candyman. When your friends and relatives know you collect that kind of thing, you get it every birthday and Christmas. And that’s okay by me.
I threw open a dresser drawer, now in a hurry. I wanted to get my ride in before it got too hot.
I put on black bike shorts and a baggy, oversized T-shirt, bright red for visibility. Ankle socks, bike shoes with toe clips, a helmet, and bike gloves topped off my oh-so-attractive sporty look. And I was out the door.
I’d signed up for a century ride at the end of July. It was a hundred-kilometer ride through the Hudson Valley, complete with rolling hills. I’d done it to motivate myself to exercise more. I loved to bike, and from about the age of eight to seventeen, I rode everywhere. But I’d gotten lazy since getting my old clunker of a car. Signing up for the century gave me the motivation I needed to get my ass on my bicycle seat.
Also? There was a cool medal and a T-shirt! I was gonna do that damn ride if it killed me.
The moment I wheeled out of my driveway, the pleasure of being on my bike zipped through my veins. There was no feeling like it—standing up on the pedals to pump up the speed, the glory of coasting, wind in my face, leaning into a sharp curve. It was pure freedom.
On my bike, none of my problems existed—not my mom’s bipolar disorder, not our stacks of bills, not my frustrations about being stuck in my hometown. It was just me, my bike, and the streets of Ever After.
My town, Ever After, is in New York. But it’s not the New York most people think about when they hear the words New York. We’re in the middle of the state, a few hours north of Manhattan by train. It’s a small town, quaint in spots but mostly ordinary. It’s Americana with a capital A.
Ever After is not a “haves versus have-nots” kind of place. Like, I wouldn’t say it’s an ideal location for a Purge movie or anything. Most families are just average, and most of town consists of ordinary, three-bedroom houses. Sure, some are a little newer and nicer, and some are a little older and in need of TLC, like ours.
The house where my mom and I live with Mr. Barks, our dog, was built around 1920. It has peeling white paint and leans a teensy bit to the right, like it has ambitions to be that tower in Pisa. But it’s comfortable, with a wide porch, a little picket fence out front, and a long, narrow yard in the back.
Still, there is a “bad” part of town, an area with dive bars where I wouldn’t want to ride my bike after dark. And then there’s the hill, where the rich people live. The further up the hill you go, the bigger the houses. Maybe there’s some symbolism about heaven or the corporate ladder in there, I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s the only significant elevation gain in town, and thus my bike-training mecca.
Funnily enough, the idea that I should train on the hill had been suggested to me by Mrs. Delphi, a strange old lady who’s a neighbor of mine.
I see you’ve been riding your bike again. Good for you, Billy. If you want to improve your fitness, you go on and ride up to the top of the hill. You ride up there every day, all the way up to the end of Hillcrest. That’s just what you should do.
Um, sure, Mrs. Delphi. Because you’re just the person I’d go to for fitness advice. But she was right.
The day grew hot as I worked my way up Hillcrest. The road snaked around, getting narrower and quieter as it ascended, the houses fancier. Besides being the most punishing terrain in town, it was also the most scenic. The landscaping was elaborate, with flower beds, big oak trees, and wide lawns. Between houses were glimpses of a killer view. I passed the bend that overlooked the quarry, with its limestone walls and turquoise water, then the large empty lot between two properties that looks down on the high school’s white-lined football field in emerald green. In another spot, the river twisted far below like a gray snake and Evergreen Park looked like a leafy salad. My mom had always warned me away from the park. She said its woods were so dense you could get lost for a week.
My speed slowed as my thighs started to burn. I gave in and shifted into the highest gear on my bike, my legs spinning and the bike crawling uphill. Sweat trickled down the back of my neck as the sun beat on my black helmet and shoulders. It wasn’t necessarily fun to ride up this hill, but the views were hard to beat, riding down was a blast, and I did take some satisfaction in the fact that I was getting better at it. For the first few weeks I’d done this, it had just about killed me. Now it only made me mildly nauseous.
By the time I reached the end of Hillcrest, I was completely alone. The road dead-ended, so there was no through traffic. The very top of the hill was dense woods and the road simply stopped, as if giving up on the idea of going any farther through all those trees. The last stretch of Hillcrest had a single residence—just one. It was behind a tall stone wall that seemed to stretch forever. The wall was made up of large rocks in beige and brown and gray, and it had a cracked cement top, like it was built a long time ago.
There was a gate wide enough for two cars. It looked as old as the stone wall, and it had an arched top and heavy iron bars, the whole thing decorated with iron vines and roses. Through the bars, you could see the driveway for a bit, but not what was at the other end of it. And there was a veritable jungle of overgrown greenery in there. The inside of the property didn’t look any better maintained than the wall.
Riding my bike gave me plenty of time to let my imagination churn, and I’d made up stories about who lived behind that wall. Was it a mansion? A castle? Or maybe it had once been some sort of secret institution like in X-Men or The Umbrella Academy. That would be cool.
The place felt abandoned now, but maybe not. Maybe an ancient and reclusive billionaire lived there, an old miser with a bug phobia. Sounded like the perfect setup for a Tales from the Crypt episode.
I stopped where the road did, at the far end of that wall. I got off my bike and toed down the kick stand. When I first started training, I used to collapse on the grass here, unable to even stand up, but now I merely bent at the waist, hands on my knees, to catch my breath.
I stared down at my legs. They were long and skinny, flecked with mud from a puddle or two, and, as I stood there panting, I noticed how tan they were getting. My arms too. Only I was getting a farmer’s tan since I always wore short-sleeved T-shirts. I needed to wear a tank top now and then to get some sun on my shoulders. Ugh. I much preferred big, baggy shirts.
I took off my helmet and shook my head, fluffing my sweaty, dark brown hair. I gulped from my water bottle. And, as a treat for my hard work, I strolled over to the drop-off to admire the best view in town and snap a few photos for my mom.
Here at the summit of Hillcrest Avenue, the walled property loomed on one side while on the other there was a sheer cliff with an old guardrail. The top rail was a convenient place to park my ass and look over the town.
It was so quiet, as if the noise of everyday life could not make it this far up the hill. Somewhere nearby a bird trilled and warbled. Otherwise, the silence was as soft and thick as cotton.
I gave a contented sigh and enjoyed the peace for as long as I could force myself to sit still, which was never very long. Then I got up to be on my way, glancing at the iron gate. That’s when I noticed it—a flash of bright pink just inside the gunmetal gray bars.
It was such a vibrant color, unexpected in that wall of earth-toned stones and dark metal. Curious, I inched closer.
I’d never stood this close to the gate before. And, man, despite its age it looked like it could stop a tank. It must have been black way back when, but now the paint was a dull, weathered gray, and there was a little rust on the wrought iron roses and leaves. I stood still and listened. For some reason my heart was pounding. I had a creepy sensation of being watched, even though no one was around. I stepped close enough to peek inside.
Along the inside of the wall were rose bushes. But to say they were rose bushes was like calling a wild Siberian tiger a cat. They were huge, nearly as tall as the seven-foot wall, thick, and thorny. And they were dotted with the most beautiful roses I’d ever seen.
They were nothing like the tight-budded roses you got at the florist. I’d bought my mom a few over the years, usually only a single stem because they weren’t cheap. These roses were as large as my palm, wide open, and had dozens or even hundreds of inner petals packed tight. They were old-fashioned, the kind of roses I’d only seen in fairy tale books. The color was an iridescent pink, pure and bright, like the sun was shining through the petals.
Their scent drifted to me, strong and heady as perfume straight from the bottle.
Wow. They were amazing.
I got a brilliant idea. What if I were to cut one of those blooms and take it home to my mom? She’d love it so much. Maybe it would cheer her up. Who could feel bad around a pink that pink? Around a rose that smelled that rosy?
I took a step back and checked out the gate. If it had been opened recently, there was no sign of it. There was an older security camera, but the light on it was out, so it probably was no longer in use. The stainless-steel intercom was silent and dusty.
I went back to my bike and opened the pouch that was fixed below the seat. It held a spare inner tube, tire-changing tools, my wallet—and a pocketknife.
I took the pocketknife back to the gate. And, after looking around one more time, I reached through the bars at the far end.
It was a struggle. I had to pull one of the thorny branches closer so I could reach the bloom on the end. But I managed to get my blade on the stem. I cut it.
I pulled my hands back—knife, rose, and bloody thumb included. One of the thorns had gotten me good. I sucked on the tiny wound. Stupid how such a small prick could really sting.
I started to turn away. That’s when a hand shot out from between the bars of the gate and grabbed my arm.
“How dare you steal from me! You little twerp!”
I jolted in shock and turned back to the gate, looking first at the large brown leather glove that was wrapped around my forearm, then slowly up long sleeves to the man’s face.
He was pressed up against the gate on the other side so he could reach out far enough to grab me. He glowered at me from between the bars. And that face! I had to blink a few times to figure out what I was seeing.
At first it seemed like an optical illusion, like one of those drawings where, if you stare long enough, the image shifts from one picture to another, a young woman at a dressing table becoming a skull. Then I realized there were, in fact, two distinct halves of his face.
The right side was that of an ordinary man. Well, ordinary if a large, handsome, square-jawed guy with a few days’ worth of dark stubble and piercing blue eyes could be considered ordinary. Unfortunately, in my life men like that were rare. But the left side of his face . . . it was a mask as blank and smooth as a mannequin. It was black, made out of some kind of soft silicone. The mask completely covered that side of his face, from under his floppy brown hair to his jaw, from the middle of his nose to his ear. The only break in the mask was a cutout around his mouth and an opening for his eye.
At first, I thought it was a costume, or . . . or, I don’t know . . . protection or something, like a welding shield. But in another blink I realized that there was something wrong with his face. He wore a high-collared gray shirt, but red scars were visible on his neck between the top of the collar and the bottom of the mask. And the eye that looked out from the hole had reddened skin around it and a milky film over the iris.
I took in a big, shuddering breath. He looked so mysterious and . . . dangerous. Like he’d stepped out of my darkest fantasies. I might have gawked forever, except he didn’t let me. He shook me, his fingers tight on my arm.
“I asked you a question. What do you think you’re doing, stealing from me?”
Finally, the situation penetrated my brain. Oh. Right. I was in trouble.
“I’m sorry,” I blurted. “I didn’t know anyone lived here. It looks so . . .”
“That makes it okay to take things off the property? Do you think the gate and wall were put here for a shoot with Architectural Digest? No. They mean one thing: keep out!”
I frowned. “Okay. But I didn’t come inside.”
“Your arm came inside. You came far enough inside to steal from me.”
“Sorry,” I repeated lamely.
A little thrill of fear thrummed in my belly. Here we were, at the dead end of Hillcrest Avenue where no one could hear me scream, and some maniac had me by the arm. He could be violent. He could be a serial killer for all I knew. I’d watched too many horror movies not to have those thoughts flood my mind.
But bigger than the fear was something else: excitement. There was something about him—handsome, masked, menacing. Snarky. Nothing this cool ever happened to me.
I felt a smile hijack my mouth. “I’m Billy,” I said, apropos of nothing. “What’s your name? Do you live here?”
“Sorry,” he snapped. “I must have missed the invitation to tea. I thought we were discussing your thievery.”
“It was just a rose. My mom’s sick, and I thought it would cheer her up. I shouldn’t have taken it. I was wrong, okay? Here.” The rose was in my left hand, and I held it through the bars. Once again, it struck me how beautiful the blossom was. Perfect, in fact, as if that justified the temptation that had made me steal it, and the anger he had at losing it.
The masked man didn’t touch it. “Can you reattach it to the bush? Can you make it live again?”
Live again? This guy is nuts.
“No, I can’t reattach it to the bush,” I said patiently. “Not being blessed with divinity.”
That bright blue eye stared at me for a long moment. I felt a little warm, being looked at like that, though the disdainful curl on the right side of his mouth made it clear he wasn’t impressed. Then again, why would he be? I was skinny, sweaty, and not exactly dressed for success in my skintight biking shorts and a red T-shirt big enough to double as a circus tent.
“An apology is useless,” he finally said.
I huffed. “Okay. So you don’t want the rose and you don’t want an apology. I’m kinda out of options since my firstborn is already spoken for. Go ahead and call the cops. See if you can get them to care about someone stealing a rose. My mom’s credit card was hacked once, and they told her unless the damages went over five grand, not to bother them.”
The man growled, literally growled. It was a soft rumbling in his throat that sent a shiver down my spine. “This is between you and I,” he said in a low, deadly voice, as if he didn’t need the stupid police—as if, if he wanted to exact revenge, he could do whatever he wanted to me at any time. And I believed him.
“You’ll pay me with labor,” he announced. “It’s the garden you damaged, so you can make up for it there.”
“You want me to work in your garden? Doing what?”
That one bright blue eye was more than capable of a killer duh look. He glanced over his shoulder, still gripping my arm.
Yeah, okay. The place was a wreck. I suppose he wanted me hauling stones or mulch or pulling weeds or some other chain-gang task.
He glanced at the rose in my hand. “One day for every petal. At five days a week, that ought to take you through the summer.” His one-sided grin was vicious.
I rolled my eyes. “Look, I’d be willing to help you out for few hours maybe, but that’s it. I have to get a paying job this summer. I need the money.” He had no idea how much I needed the money.
His mouth pressed into a line. “You’ll find some menial job in Ever After, I suppose. What’s the hourly rate for something like that?”
“Uh . . .” Were we negotiating? “Well . . .” I cleared my throat. “I was hoping to get twenty-five an hour, maybe at the grocery store.” That was higher than I was likely to get but, hey, I wasn’t stupid.
“I’ll pay you twenty-five,” he growled. “But you’ll work for it.”
He still glared at me as if this was some kind of a threat. But honestly? It sounded pretty sweet to me.
I summarized, speaking slowly. “So you want me to come here five days a week and work in the garden, for twenty-five dollars an hour.”
“Glad to know you have the use of your ears, even if you don’t know the meaning of the words private property. But yes, that’s what I said. At least until I get sick of your bumbling and tell you to go away.”
I smiled, ignoring the insult. “Okay. Want me to start tomorrow?”
There was one slow blink of that blue eye. “Fine. Be here at nine. Don’t make me hunt you down. And you might as well keep that rose since you’ll be paying for it.” With that, he released my arm and turned away.
It felt like mere seconds before he vanished into the green.
The only evidence that this had even been real were the red pressure marks on my forearm. And even those slowly faded away.