Billy Bub knew how to run. He wasn’t fast enough to make it big, but he could run from everything. He ran when he was born, and flew before he died.
He transformed into a big iron pot when he felt uneasy. He always remembered the day his parents had left him with Aunt Sally and had told him they would pick him up in the evening. He had transformed into a pot for the first time. He had known there was something not right about the whole thing. Something was quite not right in Billy Bub’s life. He saw the world through his transformations and was unmistakably disappointed in the lot.
Look there, Buster said. He pointed at the big bellied and balding man. Thirty shaved heads turned around to look at the Major. He ran things around the complex. He was a decent man. All he cared for was discipline. Stay under the radar and you will do just fine, they were told. He inspected the ranks. Keaton had a smudge on his shirt. He got it at the hangar working with grease. He should have known better. He should have changed his shirt. Working at the hangar was not an easy job. It was easy for someone who could digest metal and grease.
Billy was seventeen when he decided to run from Aunt Sally. She wanted Billy to get a job. Billy wanted to run. He counted days and looked for an excuse. He ran when he turned eighteen and found one. Aunt Sally had talked with her boss at the biscuit factory. He had agreed to start Billy. Little Susie saw him sneak out. He gave his horse shoe ring to her. It hadn’t worked for him anyway. On his way out he promised himself that he would stop running. He also promised himself that he would not die a lonely man. He defaulted on both.
Judy sat on her couch watching the news. Did you hear this? She asked her husband as he opened his third beer. He grunted a no. Mayor Stanton just announced that the Missile complex is finally moving out, she began. That darned fence killed so many of our pets. I could not even get to see my poor Dino. His body was never found. I like to think he is still alive somewhere. Don’t be silly, the husband replied. I never liked that colie anyway. Judy gave him a look of disgust. He wanted to confront her. But then he decided it was too much trouble. So he just let out an angry grunt and looked away.
The nation needed it, folks were told when the complex moved in. People were happy when they were told how important their location was strategically. But it was not long before the complex started pumping its poison in their water. They had gone nose blind to the stench it emitted. It was still a sentimental farewell anyway. The teens of today did not know of a life without it. And all it took was one stray missile.
Dillon was the only friend that Billy had. All the boys picked on Billy. They made fun of how he looked. But there was something pleasant about the way Dillon did it. He would always follow up his meanest remarks with a c’mon, Billy boy! Let me get you a smoke. Billy saw him coming his way. A plastic bag flapped against his leg as he walked. Do you want a piece of it, Billy? He shouted. What’s in it? Billy shouted back. Dillon ran up to him. Buster’s got some real good alcohol man. He snuck it outta officer’s canteen, Dillon said as he opened the bag in front of him. I know I can count on you. It’s a secret between friends. Now take it and hide it under your bed. The snitches won’t bother to look under your bed. They know you’re a good boy, Dillon said. Billy knew he had to do it. That’s what friends do, he thought.
Billy and the others sat on their chairs watching the article unload. Grease monkeys, the Major called them. Billy was transferred to the paint shop along with Keaton. Dillon was already there. Paint shop worked on the lungs. People were posted there on rotation, as a form of punishment. Billy had been out late, digging behind the barracks. Keaton had a smudge on his shirt during inspections. Nobody remembered what Dillon had done. He had been there for quite some time. People got out when their lungs turned into sieves. But Major always found enough delinquents to replace them. The huge slider doors screeched and roared open. The semi-truck rolled in. Dillon jumped from his seat and grabbed the controls for the crane. He loved it. It’s not our job. It’s not easy, Billy told him. I know it’s not easy, Dillon snapped. But I’ll tell you what’s easy, your mom. Keaton laughed as Dillon lowered the hook.
Billy was not attractive. His shoulders were narrower than his waist and he wasn’t even fat. He was quite tall with remarkably big teeth for a tiny mouth. His red hair did not go well with his sickly sallow skin. The red beard grew in islands and the islands were visible even when he shaved. But all of it was temporary. He transformed when he wanted to get away. His mom had showed him how to do it. He was told that he wasn’t born in a hospital. And that he had transformed into a toy robot, like the one that was kept in the room, to run towards his dad almost as soon as he was born.
Aunt Sally had told him not to tell anyone about his transformations. It is a family secret she had said. The word secret was drilled in his head. He never told anyone except once. It did not go very well. He could not turn back now. You are not welcome in my house, Billy. You severed all ties when you turned your back on the family. Billy imagined Aunt Sally giving him a piece of her mind when he returned. He knew he could go back, he could turn around and run. But it was a choice he had made. It was a nice warm thought, that he had a home to go to, when he went to sleep on a cold bench. He transformed into a blanket. Another homeless guy was warm for that night. Billy was uncomfortably warm squished between his legs. He dreamt of women and Billy felt it.
C’mon we’re buds, Dillon told Billy. He remembered when Dillon had put a dead colie on his bed. That’s what friends do, he thought. The fence had roasted its skin. Billy had buried it behind the barracks. He had put a stone over it. He had a piece of chalk in his hand but nothing to write. You could tell me, Dillon said. You like the Major’s daughter, don’t you? We all do, he said. Hurry up, you don’t wanna miss the party. He started walking towards the hangar. You are not wearing your anti-static, Billy told him following. I don’t look good in it, Dillon replied. It was a test article, they were told. Test articles need to be painted like a chess board, black and white. It’s to capture the flight on camera regardless how the sky looks. The scientists don’t care for it. They are fine with watching the trajectory of the blip on a screen, drinking coffee and eating biscuits. It’s for people like the Major.
Billy extracted himself from his weakened morning grip. He realized that he could roll faster than he could run. So he transformed into a car and rolled downtown. He transformed back outside an Indian restaurant. The smell was painfully good. Billy stuck his face on the window. The owner saw him peep. He was a good natured Mexican. He called him in and asked him if he would bus for seven an hour. Billy agreed and started with working on the leftovers. It was the single most delicious meal of his life. Sightings of a phantom car were reported the next day. Busted, Billy thought.
Move, asshole, Dillon yelled at Keaton. Ten tons of aluminum and titanium was suspended in the air. The crane had a capacity of twenty. Three men from the loading party held the edges of the article. Billy feared the crane, especially the screeching sound when it moved on the rails. It needed lubrication, they were told. It needed to be scrapped, Billy thought. You’ve jinxed it, Billy boy, Dillon chaffed. How? Billy asked. By asking me not to do it even before I got started, asshole, Dillon said. He is right, Billy thought. He imagined the beam splitting in two and falling to the earth with its load. He was right. He just did not know it then.
Keaton moved, ducking and avoiding, towards Dillon. He was not the brightest. The new guy in the loading did not straighten one of the adapter hooks going in one of the eye bolts holding the load. Keaton kept his hand over that hook as he started his buffoonery. Billy saw it. He told him to take his hand away. But the buffoon mocked him. Dillon told Billy to hold his jinxed mouth. A ton of tension was pulling the flipped hook. Keaton started punching it in mockery. Simple minds and screwed up equipment is a recipe for disaster. The hook snapped straight with a loud boom. People were stunned. Keaton was stunned. He stared wide-eyed at his severed pinky finger which was still twitching on the ground. There was blood all over. God Damn it Billy. You son of a bitch. I knew it. Nothing good can come out of you, you piece of shit. Dillon went crazy. I’m gonna kill you one of these days. Mark my words, you maggot. Everyone was running. Keaton was crying. No one was helping.
Billy turned into a modern day centaur, bust of a man and rest of a car. He grew like a mushroom from the driver’s seat. Folks were beginning to forget about the phantom car. No one noticed the absent feet when he gave free rides to unfortunate drunks at night. He would just roll around downtown, usually without stopping, taking in the lights and the sounds as they came to him. He was a Volkswagen Jetta that night. Foksvaagun Yetta, he had told himself. The lights glided over him as he rolled. He saw someone shuffling along the road. He had seen her at the restaurant. He wanted to help her. He pulled over and waved at her. She recognized him.
He knew her name. She lazily smiled at him. The feeling was like what he always felt going down the elevator, but his ears did not pop. Aunt Sally had told him to guard the secret with his life. He wasn’t going to die a lonely man. Her face invited confidence. One could tell that she had seen better days. Billy sensed the camaraderie. He opened the front door for her. He had never done this before. She freaked out as soon as she leaned and stuck her head inside. She maced him even before he could say her name. He cried for a while after she was gone. He transformed back and washed his face. He washed for a good half hour before he felt any relief.
He ran away that night.
What’s your name son? The Major asked. Billy, sir, he said. How old are you? The Major asked. Eighteen going on nineteen, sir, he said. You have done well on your test. But you are not going too far with that face. See me in the office at fourteen hundred hours, sharp. The Major left. So air force it is, Billy thought.
Hey Billy, Dillon called from behind. He was driving a golf cart. The complex was so big that they needed golf carts to go from one hangar to another. The connectors in silo number thirteen need some cleaning, buddy. You and I gotta do it. We’ve got two days and sixteen hours before the babe is lowered. He scooched over to the side and motioned Billy to sit. The silos were a couple of miles away. The cart was slow. And Dillon talked about life.
Thick overgrowth around the silos maintained the camouflage. They got off the cart and walked towards silo number thirteen. A blockhouse squatted amongst the monstrous iron domes covering the silos. The CRT screen, the panels and the switches made it look like an extended arcade game machine. Dillon pressed a few buttons, keyed in the code and the earth started shaking. Rumbling and roaring silo number thirteen opened its mouth. Your turn buddy, Dillon handed the gas mask to Billy. He prepared to go as Dillon sat down, dangling his feet inside. Take it easy down there, boy. At times you can hear the hellhounds from below. He handed the checklist to Billy.
The lights inside the hole were the depressing kind. No sound escaped, just echoed back and forth, escalated to frightening proportions, and then died without ever coming out. Billy started cleaning the connectors with a spray as they showed up on his list moving down. The hiss went around and came back dissociated and amplified. Billy could hear his pounding heart. Keaton is out, you know, Dillon spoke into his mouthpiece. Billy heard it in his earpiece. You had told me that before, Billy said. Well yes. I’ve told you. He’ll be back in a few days anyway. You know what scares me? Dillon asked. I don’t know, Billy said.
I am afraid of you, Billy. You bring bad luck. I’m afraid that one of these days it’s gonna be me in place of Keaton, and it’s gonna be my head in place of his finger. I didn’t sign up for this kinda shit I’ll tell you. I’m afraid to even walk when you’re around. Lord knows, what rogue cable might swing and slice me up. Dillon scratched his arm as he spoke.
I am sorry you feel the way you do, Billy said, still cleaning the connectors.
Don’t be sorry for me, be sorry for yourself. It’s not you, it’s your cursed luck. You’re right every time you tell the boys to put the tools back in the cabinet. They go ass over head on them because they don’t. I’d be lying if I say that putting the signs up don’t make no sense. You’re right. Every single time. I’d be damned if I don’t speak the truth. But once in a while, I don’t like to be told, you know. I don’t like to be told that the shit’s gonna mess me up. If I am to die let it be quick and without me waiting for it. Dillon had stopped making sense to Billy.
Take it easy, Dillon, Billy said. Do you believe in God, Billy? Dillon asked.
Back when Billy hadn’t enlisted, when he still worked for seven an hour, he marvelled whenever he saw a plane fly over him. But he wasn’t cut out for the air force. He was too soft. He had always preferred paper planes over the real ones. He never transformed into a plane, but he transformed into a paper plane when he wasn’t a car. He launched himself and let the wind take him wherever it went. It was nice to look at the city lights from above. Once in a while he landed on an old roof and sat on the chimney. He looked at the stars and wondered how few of them were left. The sky was more star-studded when he was growing up. He thought about his parents. He thought about Aunt Sally and little Susie. Gliding down the roof was the best part. He felt it, like going down an elevator.
I don’t know what you are talking about, Billy said.
I’ll tell you a story, Dillon continued. Listen carefully. When I was a kid, we had a pool in our backyard. My mom didn’t let me go to the pool after dark. She was afraid I would drown myself. But I just wanted to be in the pool all the time. So I snuck out one evening. The sky was beginning to get dark, and it was awfully windy outside. A thunderstorm was approaching from the horizon. I had a one legged Spiderman toy back then. I don’t know how it got there, but it was in the pool. I went to get it but instead slipped and hit my head. I felt myself going down. I was aware that I was sinking but couldn’t do anything about it. I sunk to the bottom, next to my Spiderman. I could still see the thunderstorm on the horizon. I was sure that was the end of me. But then a bright white light shot from those clouds. And bam, I was sitting next to the pool, my head in good shape, Spiderman in hand and still wet. How do you explain that? God’s kind, Billy. He has his ways that we don’t understand. He loves me, and he loves you. I’m sure he has something planned for you, in this life or after. Dillon got up, dusted himself, took off the headphones and went inside the blockhouse. See you later, Billy, he said softly. I am sorry, but I love me more than you man. He pressed the close button and left.
DILLON! Billy yelled. No one heard him. He transformed and connected himself to one of the connectors he was cleaning. He sucked energy to stay alive. Two days and thirteen hours later silo number thirteen was opened again. Billy came out, but nobody suspected anything because he was in proper gear. The loading party thought he was part of the team. He looked at the serial number of the article. They were firing the reserve. There had been an accident in the paint shop, Billy heard someone speak. He borrowed one of the carts and went to the shop. Dillon lay crushed beneath the crane. The beam had split in two and fallen to the earth with the load.
At first, Billy’s sight got blurred. Then he realized he was crying. Dillon, his friend, was almost gone. He could only move his head. A mobile crane was working to remove the debris before his soon to be dead body could be moved. Billy walked up to him. There was no white light, this time, Buddy, Dillon said.
He drove back to the silos. The article was being lowered into silo number thirteen. So he went to silo number fourteen. He was feeling tired and worn out. He wanted to go out in a flash. He wanted to go like a missile. All these years of transformation and it never occurred to him. It occurred to him then. He never needed to know the internal workings of something to transform into it. All he needed to know was the function. He knew the firing drill. Cold start, move out of the silo, roll correction, pitch correction, wings unfolding, booster motor ignition, go supersonic, booster jettison, engine ignition, begin climbing, seeker activation, lock on target, home on target and Boom. He thought about Aunt Sally and little Susie. He thought about his parents. He thought about the girl who had maced him. He thought about Dillon. A giant nine-tonne missile rose from the bottom of silo number fourteen.
Gas generators fired in silo number fourteen as unsuspecting people worked at number thirteen. Suddenly the earth started shaking, and a cone slowly came roaring out of the silo. Confusion and fear spread like a plague. The test article was left hanging like a whale on a whaler. It swung from side to side as Billy rose up to be airborne.
He was fast, very fast. First, he went faster than a handgun bullet. Then he went faster than a cannonball. Finally, he was faster than a machinegun bullet. Initially, he saw people freak out below him. But within a second it was all a blur. He felt it ten times stronger, like going down an elevator. He couldn’t hear anything at all. But he saw sound once the seeker started. There was absolute silence during the flight. But there was stuff he had never seen before in his life. Unknown colors and unknown shapes were smashed and sundered before him as he flew over the town. He wanted to see more sound. It was beautiful. The booster, a part of him, was jettisoned. The rest of him too would be gone soon, he thought.
He was high up circling the beautiful town. The body of water below sparkled in its brilliance. The woods were poetic. And the complex was outrageous. What now? He thought. Time to go down, he contemplated. Where to? He asked himself. He had a soft heart. To the lake, he decided.
He had been out of fuel for some time. There was hardly any speed left in him. Several parts began to fly out in all directions. He prepared for the warhead in his belly to explode. But this fantastical flight wasn’t going to be his swan song. He transformed back and belly flopped on the concrete floor of water. It hurt, a lot. He remembered the time when he had transformed into a vase, when little Susie had accidentally knocked him down, and he had shattered into pieces. But then, from one single shard he had come back as Billy in one piece. What were those shards who were not him? What is that booster motor? What are these pieces of metal that are not him? He wondered. He floated to the shore as a boat and hobbled into the woods.
The complex violated safety regulations within and without. It violated environmental laws within and without. It violated Human rights within and without. In short, the complex violated everything that was violable. Only when some people got out, got some education and came back that they saw through the machinations of higher-ups. A full-scale campaign against the complex was launched. The full force of media was somehow not behind the cause. The media needed something sensational. And sensational was what they got.
The entire country is talking about the rogue missile that flew over the civilian population. No one imagined this could ever happen. I am here with people from the neighbourhood who seem to be in a state of shock. What’s your name? The pretty reporter asked. Judy, a middle-aged lady in glasses, replied. Tell us about what happened here, Judy, she said. I dropped my kids at the school, she began rattling. I am a stay at home mom. I think it’s best for the kids. It’s tough, you know. When I came back, I put water in the kettle for some tea for me. Then I came out on the porch. The day was sunny with very few clouds. I like it when it’s sunny outside. Suddenly I heard something like a thunderstorm approaching. That was crazy. My windows started shaking. My floor was shaking too. Then I saw a fireball swoosh over me. It was like a giant fireball…Thank you very much, Judy. The pretty reporter was running out of time. As you can see people don’t feel safe in their own homes. This is absolutely frightening, and some difficult questions need to be answered. The entire country is waiting with bated breath to see how things will unfold from here. One thing we can say with certainty is that some heads will roll. This is Jessica Keeble with cameraman Zack DeMonaco from Ready News.
Billy was missing from the complex. The military police looked for him for a few days. But then there were more pressing issues at hand. Billy lived as a child of earth in the woods. He came out when the complex wrapped up its operations.
Billy sat beside the fire. He was alone. He put his mind to the cracking sound of wood in the fire. Aunt Sally had been dead for ten years. Little Susie lived out of state. She wasn’t little anymore. She had a little Billy of her own. Little Billy wasn’t little anymore. Older Billy was nearly seventy. He had not transformed in nearly twenty years. He felt like it that day. The beautiful night called him out. He transformed into a paper plane and launched himself out of the window. The lights below were beautiful but not as beautiful as the sound he had once experienced. The sky was bright and star-studded. It reminded him of his childhood days. The paper plane glided smoothly. It moved towards an old roof. Suddenly it dwindled. But then it caught a draft of warm wind, straightened and turned away from the roof. Billy was gone.