The Everchanging Gift
by Andy Hollis
©1999 Andy Hollis -- all rights reserved
He could be anything with a thought -- but was he ready for the power?
Billy Preston had no reason to notice the man in the blue suit. He did, however, notice the man's souped up, candy-apple red mustang parking next to his mother's blue station wagon, but the McDonald's parking lot was busy.
"Put your eyes back in your head," Mrs. Preston said tugging on the boy's shoulder. Billy ran ahead to open the door for her. "That's my angel," she said as Billy held the door for the man in the blue suit as well.
"Thanks," the man said with a gruff voice.
Billy shrugged, and trotted over to join his mother in line as the smell of frying hamburgers made his stomach gurgle. With only one teenaged girl tending the counter, no warning bells went off in Billy's head as the man took a place directly behind him. No icy chills ran down his spine, and if anyone had told him that the man behind him had the power to drastically change his life he would have laughed.
Who would bother with Mr. Average? Here he was, a month past his twelfth birthday; someone who could never stand out in a crowd. He hated school and athletics equally and most of his teachers wouldn't notice him to call on him if he was in the room by himself. He liked it that way.
Just as he decided that he wanted a Big Mac®, his mother stepped up to the counter and ordered for both of them. "But that's not what I wanted." Billy hated the whiney sound of his own voice just then, but he couldn't help being upset.
"It will have to do," Mrs. Preston said and reached into her purse for her wallet. The girl gathered the food, and a chocolate shake. Billy reached for the tray as his mother paid the bill. "Be careful with that," she said quickly. "We don't need any more accidents today."
"I will," Billy said with the same whine. He turned to look for a table only to bump squarely into the man in the blue suit. A second later he watched, paralyzed, as his shake oozed down the suit coat onto the man's pants and shoes.
"Billy!" Mrs. Preston shrieked. "I told you to be careful. Oh, I am so sorry. He's just so clumsy."
"It's my fault entirely," the man said. "I was the one that crowded him. Think nothing of it." Billy tried his best to wipe up the mess with some napkins. "Oh, miss, get the boy another milkshake, on me."
"Thanks," Billy said as his mother took over clean up operations.
"Get some wet towels from the boy's room."
In due course the worst of the mess was removed from the man's suit. "I really am sorry," Billy said.
"Don't worry about it," the man said watching Mrs. Preston take her tray to a table. "But there is something..." Before Billy had the chance to flinch away, the man pressed his right thumb on Billy's forehead. "What are you doing?" Billy demanded as the skin under the thumb tingled then burned at the man's touch.
"Think of this as an early Christmas present, and I am Santa Claus," the man said with a laugh. "Just don't listen too hard to what people say about you."
Of all the luck, Billy thought hurrying to join his mother at the table, he had to get the weird one. He almost cried when he saw that his mother had already cut his cheeseburgers in half and had put the straw in his milkshake. "Mom, you don't have to treat me like a little kid, you know. I don't like my cheeseburgers cut."
"Well, sorry about that. Hurry up, now, we don't have all day."
Billy sighed as he took a sip of his milkshake. He picked up a cheeseburger half and turned it looking for the best angle for his first bite.
"And don't wolf your food either," Mrs. Preston demanded watching Billy eat.
"Mom, first you tell me to hurry and now I have to slow down?" He took another sip from his shake and frowned as his hands tingled. He wriggled his fingers, took another bite of burger and almost gagged at the sight of dark gray fur growing on his hands... Make that paws, he thought watching his fingers shrink. "Mom? Something weird's going on."
"Just finish your meal," she said without looking up.
With the fur spreading in waves up his arms, Billy mumbled something about the boy's room and bolted from the table. He bent over feeling his arms stretch toward the floor and pushed his way through the side door to the parking lot. Someone screamed as his forepaws touched the ground and his body shifted completely to that of a wolf cub. Billy bolted unaware that the man in the blue suit had followed him outside to watch his flight.
Panicked out of his mind, Billy ran for all he was worth, dodging people and cars until he skidded to a stop in a small park. He trotted along the outskirts of the green trying to keep some trees between himself and the people playing ball on the grass.
Five miles, he thought. He had just run five whole miles and he wasn't winded. He sat down on his haunches overwhelmed by the millions of scents picked up by his new nose. This is crazy, Billy thought as he looked around trying to adjust to the lack of colors. This couldn't be happening... He sniffed then pounced on a field mouse. Although the wolf enjoyed the snack, somewhere inside the boy wanted to throw up as his body gulped down the rodent.
He sniffed around again, picked out his own scent and headed back to the restaurant at a fast trot. Whatever had happened to him, whatever had made him turn into a wolf was at McDonald's and now that he could relax and think he intended to find out what that was.
Mom? He wondered. She had told him not to wolf his food, and a second later he started changing, but that was crazier still. Why would she want him to be a wolf? None of this made any sense.
He approached the back of the restaurant carefully through a fenced in alleyway. He poked his nose through the slats. Everything looked normal out front. The station wagon was still parked next to the Mustang, and people were coming and going...
"I take it you were wolfing your food?"
Billy spun around and growled at the man in the blue suit. He recognized the man more from the traces of chocolate he could smell on the suit than anything else. "What did you do to me?" Although all he heard was a series of growls and yips the man seemed to understand him.
"Do? I did nothing to you, young man. You are the shape changer." He scratched the top of Billy's head. "Not many people have the talent for magic these days."
"Magic?" Billy barked with a snort.
"Are you really going to stand there in your new fur coat, wagging your tail and tell me you do not believe in magic?"
"Uh... No," Billy said and turned to lick his shoulder. "What did happen to me?"
"We don't have time for a lengthy explanation right now. Let's just say that you were metamorphed by a metaphor." The man waited for a moment but the wolf's expression, while attentive, didn't change. "Well, I thought it was funny. You have the talent but not the control. Look at it like this, some people are musically gifted but they certainly couldn't play a note without years of lessons and practice. Just as you will not be able to control your changes without those same lessons and practice."
"That's not fair," Billy bristled at the thought.
"Relax. Here, you will need these," the man said and held out a collar and leash.
Billy growled low in his throat. "Not a chance, mister. I'm not a dog."
"No, but if someone saw you carrying on like that without some sort of control they may call you a dangerous wolf." He fastened the collar around the wolf's neck and snapped on the leash. "On the way I can tell you more about your talent."
"On the way where?" Billy demanded.
"A school for training talents such as yours. You have a very valuable gift."
Billy growled again and wrinkled his nose at the change in the man's scent. "You're lying to me. I'm not going anywhere with you, and I don't want to change into things. I just want to be me again." Without a tingle of warning, he found himself on his hands and knees. He straightened up at the waist and laughed as he held out his hands.
"It will be much easier with you in wolf's shape, or a dog's if you prefer."
"No," Billy said with a firm shake of his head. "I'm going to find my mom and go home." He stood up and tried to walk away until something pulled at his throat. The collar, he could feel the collar choking him although he could find nothing on his neck with his fingers.
"It's the same thing that happens to your clothes when you change to wolf. Now do you really want to be seen as a human boy walking on a leash?"
"No," Billy said and folded his arms across his chest. "I don't care about your collar or leash. You aren't my dad, and you can't tell me what to do. What would happen if I started screaming as loud as I could?"
"That would be a problem, but..."
From the other side of the fence, Billy heard his mother's voice calling him. For a second the thought he felt his ears prick, he turned to the fence. "Over here, Mom. I'll be right there," he said with the sensation that his tail had wagged too.
The man pointed his right hand at the back of Billy's head. He said a word that made the boy stiffen up as if he had turned Billy to wood. "Shape changing is only one aspect of Magic. I didn't want to use the others, but you didn't give me a choice. Relax, turn around and stand at my side."
Billy found his body moving without him. He followed the man's instructions exactly.
"There. As far as you are concerned, Billy, I am your best friend. You will go meet your mother and you will agree completely with everything that I tell her. Understood?"
Billy nodded, and tried to change into anything that would get him far away from there as well as the man's arm around his shoulder. But, he smiled, and walked back to the parking lot as if he really had found a new best friend.
Mrs. Preston's mouth opened slightly, then snapped shut as she recognized the man walking behind her son. She met the pair a few paces away from her station wagon. "I hope he hasn't been bothering you again, uh?"
"Phineas Jones," said the man in the blue suit. He bowed slightly, then pulled a white business card from his coat pocket. "As a matter of fact, Billy came over to apologize again, and from there we've had a marvelous conversation."
In spite of all his efforts, Billy found himself nodding to the man's words.
"That's my angel," Mrs. Preston said.
"I do hope that we haven't kept you waiting long," the man said and pulled Billy closer to his side. "But if you could spare another few minutes, there is something I would like to discuss with you. Could I buy you a cup of coffee inside? The parking lot is way too noisy."
"I suppose..." Mrs. Preston hesitated, but followed Jones back into the restaurant.
For the second time, Billy felt a tingle from his scalp down. He was changing again, but into what? He couldn't see anything obvious, but the fact that something was happening made him feel better. In fact, it made him feel completely at peace with himself and the rest of the world. It -took a minute, but Billy had to grin as he realized why he had changed.
As the man ordered and paid for the drinks, Billy quietly rubbed his neck. He unhooked the leash, took the collar off and stuffed it in his pants pocket. With a thought he made the leash stiffen as if his weight were still attached. After all, he narrowly missed one major scene in the McDonald's. He didn't want a second one. But then again he had nothing to worry about. Nothing at all since no earthly power could hold an angel.
Jones led the way to a table in the back of the restaurant. Mrs. Preston settled in across the table as Billy sat down next to the man. "As you can see from my card," Jones said and stirred his coffee, "I represent 'Talent Unlimited'. It's a new but very successful agency, and I must say that in all my years as a talent scout I have never run into anyone that has the same raw potential as Billy."
Mrs. Preston choked back a laugh. "Billy? My son? Talented?"
"He's a natural. I will admit he isn't as good looking as a lot of child stars, but he does have a fresh, open look that everyone will find appealing."
"I suppose so," Mrs. Preston said and gave her son a critical inspection. She laughed out loud this time. "It must be a trick of the light but I'd swear he has a halo."
"Yes," Jones said with a shrug. He went on to describe in great detail the kind of life he had in mind for the future star.
Billy listened, intrigued, at first, by the prospects, but underneath the man's statements he caught glimpses of images and snatches of the man's true thoughts. He would be a star all right, of dog food commercials. With his talent, Jones could supply an endless variety of highly trained, super intelligent animals for almost any price. Billy saw himself living in a string of cages and pens as the man grew rich.
As a human, Billy could be anything from a baby to a chorus girl, and if anyone stood in the way he could always turn into a deadly snake or scorpion and end the matter.
"I won't do it," Billy said in a calm, firm voice although the part of him that stayed human trembled with anger.
"Billy, don't interrupt," Mrs. Preston said with a loud sigh for the man's benefit.
"But Mom, he's a fake. He doesn't mean anything he says."
"That's enough of that, young man. I'm terribly sorry. Mr. Jones. Usually he isn't this rude."
"Don't worry about it," the man said. "He can't help being a kid." Jones spoke the word of control again, then resumed his conversation with Mrs. Preston.
"Your magic won't..." At the word "magic," Billy could see the spell Jones had used on his mother. He saw three lines white light wound around her head like snakes twining. He raised his right hand to break the spell.
"No, you cannot," said a voice in his thoughts.
"But he cast a spell at my Mom," Billy thought back, furiously.
"Yes, but as an angel you are not permitted to interfere in human actions."
"I've got to do something or my Mom will let this guy take me with him."
"You may," the voice said in gentle tones, "defend yourself."
Billy wanted to scream, but did manage to keep his mouth closed. He took in a deep breath and relaxed. "What's the use of having this power if I can't use it? I can't just let him..." He stopped in mid sentence wondering, with a bad taste in his mouth, just whom he might be arguing with. Who had the authority to control an angel? "Are you..."
"No, but the Almighty is always watching. My child, even angels need guidance from time to time and that is my function. I am fully aware of your position and that you did not become an angel by choice, but as long as you retain that form you must abide by the rules as do we all. Your 'talent scout' is in desperate need of guidance."
"I understand," Billy replied although guidance was the last thing he wanted to give the man. If he stayed an angel, he would be safe from the man's control but what price would he have to pay for that safety? Yet if he turned back to human what good would he be to anyone?
"Mr. Jones," Billy said tugging at the man's sleeve. "I've got to go to the boy's room."
"It can wait."
"No, it can't," Billy insisted. He really did need a chance to think without watching what was happening to his mother.
"Billy," Mrs. Preston said in a voice that left no room for argument. "Stop interrupting."
In due course, the man reached into his coat pocket and produced, as if by magic, a contract. As Jones explained it, the contract would make him Billy's legal guardian, and in return Jones and the agency would provide for Billy's welfare and education. Over Billy's protests, Mrs. Preston signed at the bottom.
Although Billy told himself over and over again that his mother was acting under a spell, the fact that she really had signed him away hurt.
"We do have a long trip ahead of us tonight," the man said and motioned Billy to stand up. He tore a copy of the contract from the original and passed it over the table to Mrs. Preston. "We will keep in constant touch."
"I can't believe all this is happening. Such a wonderful opportunity. I can't wait to tell Billy's father. Mark will be thrilled."
A dull ache settled in the bottom of Billy's stomach and stayed there. His mother walked them out into the parking lot and drove off without so much as a "good bye." He stood outside the Mustang wondering if angels were allowed to curse.
"As soon as we leave the parking lot, go back to wolf form, or better yet, be a German Shepherd." Billy nodded as he climbed inside the car. Deep inside the wolf did want to be free again. He held his breath. Now, at least he could use magic, in self-defense of course. With a thought, he cast his first spell. "Where are you taking me?" Billy asked as he fastened his seat belt.
"I haven't decided yet."
Billy settled into the car seat as the Mustang's engine roared to life. As the man in the blue suit drove the car, he resisted the temptation to up and leave. He needed to give the man guidance, but how could he when he had no idea who Jones really was, or why the man was picking on him.
"You are learning, my boy," the voice whispered in his thoughts again. "Keep up the good work."
With a slight smile, Billy closed his eyes and read the man next to him. He almost choked when he found out that Phineas Jones was actually the man's name. Jones went by Finn, but had been known in his time as "Skinny Finny" and "Mickey Finn." Billy concentrated on a picture of Finn, at maybe eight years old, standing on a school yard with a bigger boy."
"But, Pete, I'm telling you that you could be a great ball player. I know it. All you have to do is try and we're going to be rich."
"Beat it, punk," Pete said threatening with a fist. "I don't want to hear this anymore."
"But all I have to do is this," Finn insisted and reached up to press his thumb on Pete's forehead. "Now we're set. You're going to be one of the best ball players ever, and I'm going to be your manager."
Pete grabbed the younger boy's arm. "Touch me again like that, Finny, and you're dead. You got that?"
"But that's what brings your talent out."
"Talent -- shit. Get lost and don't bother me with that again."
For the next few years, Billy watched through Finn's eyes as Peter really did become a great ball player. So much so that when Pete signed a multi-million contract with a pro team, Finn was there."
"What do you want here?" Pete demanded as Finn met him outside in the parking lot.
"My fair share, Pete. You've got it made now and I'm your manager."
"Like hell you are, punk. Oh, I know you've been bragging about me becoming a ball player since we were kids, but this is for real. I have a manager and he isn't you."
"But you owe me, Pete. I'm the one that brought your talent out."
"Bullshit. You said I had the talent to be a ball player, and you were right. I listened to you and I'm glad I did, but where were you when I spent all those years practicing and learning the game? My dad is the one that worked like a dog so that I could get somewhere in baseball, not you.
"Let's get this straight right now, Finny," Pete said tapping the smaller man's chest with his finger. "I don't owe you squat. But, for old time's sake, I'll talk to the manager about taking you on as a talent scout. You would be one of the best."
Broken and deflated, Jones turned down the offer and left the area. Yet, Billy saw the same thing happening over and over through Finn's life. There was Pete; a girl named Laura who had a talent for the violin, and others, but not one felt any gratitude to Finn. Then again he didn't make it easy either.
At that point, Billy saw the old man for the first time. This one, Hugh Atkins, he took the name from Finn's memory, had the kindest, wisest face he had ever seen. Yes, he thought, the man was still alive and living in -- Nebraska or something.
"I don't understand it, sir. I've brought so many people joy of their talents and not one of them is paying me back."
The old man smiled, and shook his head. "Finn, has it ever occurred to you that you can't use people like this? No one is ever placed on this earth, or given those talents for your use. No one is here to make you rich, and the more that you imply that they are -- that they owe you something -- the more you will drive them away."
"But they do owe me. It's my talent that makes theirs possible."
"No, it isn't. You do have a marvelous gift, but you will never get any joy of it as long as you see people as your own personal gold mine. Sit down, Finn. There is no need to run off if I tell you things you do not wish to hear. Your problem is simple. You're a greedy son of a bitch, and it shows all over your face whenever you talk about those kids you've helped. They can see it too."
"No, it isn't fair."
"You're wrong, Finn, so very wrong. You will never be able to use your gifts until you figure that out. I can teach you the fundamentals of magic, but you would be much better taking a job in a talent agency when you finish school."
"No. That's not for me."
Then, much later in Finn's life, Billy saw him as a grown up again, run into Hugh's office.
"This is it, Hugh. I need help. All you can give me. Money, power, anything."
"Slow down. Finn. Tell me what happened."
"There's a boy -- I don't know where he is yet, but I've sensed him for a while now. He has a talent for magic so much greater than mine or even yours. He's a shape changer."
"Are you certain of this?"
"As of anything, Hugh. At last, with this boy I will show them all. I will finally show every one of those bastards who screwed me over. This boy is going to..."
"Finn, will you listen to yourself? This boy is going to do nothing of the sort. If he is truly a shifter..."
"You taught me the words of power. I can control him, Hugh, I know it -- and then I will finally be on top of the world. There is nothing I couldn't do with that boy."
"Go, leave me and never come back. You still haven't learned after all these years, Finn. This boy is not something you can use like that. Even with the word of control... if you lose him even for a second that will be it, and you will be dead."
"I don't need you, old man. I will find this boy even if takes everything I have, and then we will see... Yes, we will see about that word of control."
So, Billy thought, this man has been looking for me and dreaming about me for years, and I have to disappoint him like all of the others. But...
Billy leaned back in his seat and took in several deep breaths. With a thought, he projected himself across the country until a part of himself stood in Hugh Atkins' office, while the rest of him slept the Finn's car.
"Hello?" Billy said as the old man entered the room. "I..."
Atkins focused his gazed on Billy, and turned pale at the sight of the apparition. "You have come, at last. I certainly didn't expect you to look like that. So young, for what you have to do."
"What do I have to do?"
Atkins sighed. "You are the angel, not me. I have lived a good life, and I have no wish to end it, but I suppose we have no choice?
Billy shook his head. "I'm not sure what you're getting at, sir. Hi, my name is Billy Preston. I'm twelve years old, and I live in Virginia. I'm only a part time angel, and I came to ask your help about something."
"You aren't the angel of death?"
"No!" Billy half shouted trying not to laugh. "I'm not -- really. I'm the shape shifter that Phineas Jones was looking for. Remember? I wouldn't be here now, but my Mom's always called me her angel, and I really hated that, until now that is, and I had no idea I would really turn into one -- an angel, you know? But I did, and I broke that word of control that Finn used on me, but I..."
"Excuse me, Billy is it? I can't tell you how glad I am to meet you at last, but would you slow down a little and maybe run that by me again?"
"Okay," Billy told his story again. "So you see now that I know his story I don't want to hurt him, it's just that he's really wrong about this. I'm not going be some animal act to make him rich."
"Of course not, but that apparently has been his dream for many years. He has been searching for you five years, if not longer, but he will not listen to me."
"I understand that, sir. It's just that I will. I mean, I wanted to ask you if you would help me with this talent of mine. I never wanted to turn into things, well, okay, sometimes, but not like this. The problem is I can't control it."
"Okay, son, if you are going to learn from me we need to get started soon. I will come and find you. Can you get rid of Finn for a while, gently?"
"I need to give him guidance, and then I was going to send him to Disney World."
"Good idea. He needs a vacation."
"Got it. Thanks again, Mr. Atkins. I really appreciate this."
Billy returned to the car and shook himself out of his trance. He turned and could still see the McDonald's so all of that had only taken a minute. He smiled, and promptly took control of the car.
"What's going on?" the man said unable to move the steering wheel or operate the pedals.
"Don't worry. It's not the car's fault. Just settle back and let it do the driving. We have to talk, Mr. Jones, or can I call you Finn? When my dad's driving he always..."
"I don't care what your dad does or doesn't do when he's driving. What did you do to my car?"
Billy shrugged. "Since you used magic on me and then my mom, I didn't think that you would mind if I used a little on your car."
"But you don't have the talent for that," the man insisted as the car pulled away from the restaurant and into traffic.
"Not when you first met me, but things change. Wouldn't you agree?"
"But this is impossible," the man said.
"Suppose I turned into something like a king cobra. Wouldn't my bite kill you as if I had hatched that way?"
"What does that have to do with anything?" The man turned in his seat as Billy's form wavered. He saw the fangs sprout from Billy's mouth. "Yes, it would. You've made your point."
Billy uncoiled from the snake. "I thought that might do it. So you see by that same talent if I turn into something that can work powerful magic, like I did, that magic works for me too."
"But the control?" Jones spoke the word of power again only to have Billy laugh at him.
"I broke that long ago. I couldn't do anything about the spell you put on my mom, but your magic will never work on me again."
The car left the outskirts of town and took the exit for I-95 Southbound.
"Where are you taking me?"
"Disney World. I had a great time there last year when my folks took me, and I thought you might need a little vacation. Don't worry, the car won't stop or even run out of gas until you get there. It has its orders. I'd expect to spend a lot of time in this car over the next couple of weeks. Now, would you like a little advice?"
"From you? Just stop the car now and we will forget this ever happened."
"I don't think so. It's my job, right now, to give you guidance whether you want it or not. You've got a great talent if you would just use it properly. You don't need to use me to make your fortune or anyone else for that matter. If you would become a real talent scout for a real agency, you could have it made."
"You really think it's that easy?"
"I didn't say it would be easy," Billy answered with a slight smile. But it beats using people the way you are now. Just think about it, and you will have a long time in this car to do just that. But while you're at it, think about this. Right now I'm an angel and all I want to do is give you this lesson on why you shouldn't use people. I won't be an angel much longer and if I ever see you again, Mr. Jones, you will regret it. Have a great time at Disney World."
Before the man could say anything, Billy stretched his arms into wings. The car braked and swerved over to the shoulder. As it reached a safe speed, Billy rose from the car as a hawk. He screeched, the best he could do for laughter just then, as the man struggled to get out of his seat belt. The car accelerated and merged back onto the highway. Billy hovered watching the car until it drove out of sight. He circled back and headed for town.
That, Billy thought, with a warm feeling deep inside, was just perfect. He had really carried out a plan to the end and made it work. Mr. Jones would never bother him again, and he could fly home. I'm flying, Billy thought and looked down. The ground had to be miles and miles away. His stomach clenched at the thought that the only thing holding him up was the wind beneath his wings. Although he held himself still the ground still slid away from him, and he stared at the miles of empty air in front of him. Now was not the time to remember he was afraid of heights.
He told himself, over and over, that he wouldn't fall, but nothing he could say helped ease the fear. What did he know about flying? And how could he get back down without crashing? For that matter how had he gotten up?
Billy closed his eyes and let his body soar. At least up here he wouldn't run into things. For the first time, he noticed that his wings weren't holding still. He could feel them making constant adjustments and tilting to catch the most of the wind currents. His tail feathers opened and closed on their own as well. It was, he thought, like running on four legs. He didn't know how to fly, but his body did. When he was a wolf, he felt that part of him really was a wolf. Now that he was a hawk that same part of him that was a hawk was taking charge. Now he just had to trust enough to let the hawk fly.
He opened his eyes and watched his own shadow speeding along the ground almost as fast as a car. Now that he knew the inner hawk was in control he began to enjoy the flight. He loved the feel of the breeze in his feathers, and at this speed he would be back over town in minutes. Flying wasn't so bad after all, and wouldn't his mom be surprised with how fast he could run errands now, especially since she always asked as a show or movie was about to start.
Banking, he thought to come into town over Miller's Field. The sooner he could get home the better, but without warning he half folded his wings and fell into a power dive. The ground rushed up to meet him at over a hundred miles an hour, but he felt perfectly calm as he stretched his talons and plucked a sparrow from the air. He swerved back up to end the stoop, then circled the field to find a safe spot to eat his kill.
The sparrow went down fast. Still hungry, Billy stretched his wings a few times before taking off. Shape changing did have its advantages, but the meals left a lot to be desired.
Billy circled the field to find something more substantial than the sparrow. A part of him still thought of the pressing need to get home, but now all he could think of was a nest placed high in the branches of a tree. He felt much too hungry to perch for the night.
Perch for the night? The human part of him objected but found it almost impossible to focus on anything but food. Billy forced control back from the hawk and flew toward town in spite of the hawk's terror at seeing the houses and traffic on the road. He didn't have this problem as a wolf. In fact, the more he thought about it he would prefer to run home as a canine than continue to battle the hawk.
He dropped from the sky to land at the edge of a vacant lot not far from his house. Hidden by the overgrown shrubbery and bushes he stretched into wolf shape, but dropped to his belly as his nose picked up the scent of humans -- and close by.
Two boys, somewhat smaller than Billy's human form, ran side by side across the lot. "Over here. I think he's hurt." Billy sniffed and sniffed again surprised that he could recognize the boys' scents more than their voices. He had counted the Davis twins as his closest friends as long as he could remember, but now he dropped lower trying not to attract any attention.
"Are you sure you saw something?" Bryan the elder of the brothers asked as Colin poked around in the bushes a few feet from Billy's position.
"Yep. I saw a hawk and a big one land right about here. From the way he was flying I think his wing was hurt." Colin pulled off his baseball cap to wipe his forehead.
"A hawk?" Bryan demanded. "What are you gonna do if you do find him?"
"See if I can help," Colin said without hesitation.
"And let that bird tear you to pieces if you do get near him?"
Colin sighed, "If I do find him, and I can't help I'll call the Animal Rescue League, or Dad. He'd know what to do.
"Billy scrunched down further into the shrubs. Something hard pressed against his belly, but he didn't dare move. He thought about changing into a regular dog, but the wolf would not permit that.
"It's getting late," Bryan said tugging on Colin's shoulder. "Mom would kill me if you did get torn up by a hawk."
"But I saw him come down here."
"Do you see this?" Bryan held a fist under Colin's nose. "We're going home, and you can let dad decide what to do about the hawk."
"Just another minute," Colin said peering into the thickest clump of bushes. He pushed the brush aside, and poked his head inside to find himself nose to nose with a half grown wolf.
Billy thumped his tail on the ground, and tried to smile, but the acid smell of Colin's fear just grew stronger as he moved his lips away from his fangs.
As slowly as he could, Colin pulled out of the bushes. "Bryan?"
"What's the matter now? Did you find the bird?"
"Look in there and tell me if that's a wolf or not."
"A what?" Bryan demanded. "Colin, what would a wolf be doing here? First it's hawks and now it's wolves? Get real."
As the twins argued, Billy shifted his position to find the problem was an acorn. With a sudden thought, he shrank down to be a squirrel and ran after the nut. Startled as Bryan pushed into the bushes, Billy dropped his acorn, ran up the nearest tree and ran back down, head first, to scold the boys.
Bryan giggled. "That's the first time I've seen one of those. A nut-eating, tree-climbing, squirrel wolf."
"But there was a wolf, I swear it."
"Do you think that squirrel would be there if there was a wolf within miles of here?" He broke into louder laughter.
"What's so funny now?" Colin asked.
"See the way that squirrel is looking at us? I swear it looks just like Billy Preston."
"That's not funny. Billy's my best friend in the whole world, and he doesn't look like some stupid old squirrel."
"He's your only friend in the whole world, and I didn't say he looked like anything. Never mind. The next time we see Billy I'll give him a peanut to see if he eats it or buries it for the winter."
Colin punched his brother's arm. "You're just mad because Billy's more my friend than yours."
"So who cares?" Bryan shook his head. "Let's get home."
Billy waited until the boys' backs were turned before he launched himself from the tree. He changed to hawk in mid-jump then soared up over the field. Focusing on Bryan's cap, he stooped and snatched the hat off the boy's head before Bryan saw him coming. With a loud screech, Billy zoomed to the other side of the lot.
"Did you see that?" Bryan started running. "Come back here you stupid bird. Give me back my hat."
"Told you there was a hawk. I bet he's mad at you because you wouldn't let me help him."
Bryan screamed again at the hawk, then froze as the bird turned and headed back. He ducked and held his arms over his head but the bird only dropped the cap at his feet. With a back flip, Billy flew up and over the houses across the street.
"What's mom gonna say?" Bryan said dusting off his cap and inspecting the holes left by the hawk's talons. "You're the expert on hawks and things, why'd he do that?"
"Beats me. Maybe he's a friend of Billy's."
Billy acted while he could still think clearly. He landed in his own back yard, shifted back to human form, and ran up the back steps determined that there would be no more changes -- at least for the day. All the shifting around left him dizzy.
He heard his parents' voices before he opened the door. His folks did argue, but then whose didn't? But, for the first time in his life, he might be able to stop this one. He longed to tell his parents everything, but what would they think? They could be funny about things like this. He didn't want to lie either, but... He would have to play this as it came. He opened the door and walked inside the kitchen.
"How could you possibly do this?" Mark Preston shouted.
"But I have the contract right here."
"Lilly, have you looked at this thing? There isn't an address or phone number or anything for these people. They have our son, with your blessing, and we have no idea who they are or how to contact them?"
"Hey, Dad," Billy said. "It's not her fault. That guy from the agency was a real jerk, a fake all the way, but man he was a smooth talker. Can I go over to Colin's after dinner?"
Mr. Preston stared at his son for a second, before lifting the boy into a long bear hug. "Billy. I thought you were gone for good. What happened?"
"I told him I didn't believe that contract was legal and I started to wave down a cop. He let me go."
"But Billy," Mrs. Preston said. "This was your big chance."
"It's me, Mom. You know, Mr. Average? Even if the guy was for real, I couldn't do all that TV stuff."
"Thank God that's over with," Mr. Preston said. "And yes, go over to Colin's but call if you're going to be late."
Billy woke to the scent of frying bacon. He opened his eyes slowly, savoring the aroma, then blinked. What was he doing laying on the floor? He looked up at his rumpled bed, and wagged his tail. Oh, this is just great, he thought and rose to all fours.
Only then did he smell his mother, and close by. He turned, slowly, and wagged his tail harder as he saw his mom standing in the doorway. He tried to grin.
Lilly Preston stared at the wolf for a minute, stunned. She opened her mouth and screamed. Billy winced as the sound hurt his ears. He heard his dad's footsteps pounding down the corridor. Mrs. Preston screamed again.
"For the love of Mike, Lilly... Oh my God. Where did Billy get that, and where is he? I've heard some nasty things about wolf dogs."
"I haven't seen Billy at all, just this monster."
"Billy!" Mr. Preston called out. "You had better show yourself, young man."
Billy made his decision, and changed back to himself. "What do you mean a monster? I'm not that big a wolf -- yet."
Mr. Preston let out a long groan. He buried his face in his hands. "This didn't happen. It's impossible. I'm still in bed sound asleep. I had better still be in bed sound asleep."
"William Preston, I want to know what you did, and how and where is that wolf?"
"The wolf is in here," Billy said patting his chest. "Look, could we talk about this over breakfast? I'm starved. And when I say -- now -- that I'm hungry enough to eat a horse, I could do it, too."
"That was bad, son, really bad," Mr. Preston said with a grimace.
After eating, Billy told his story again and again until his folks seemed to understand. "So right now I can't help turning into things."
"So," Mr. Preston said quietly. "You can change into anything or anyone that you like including a real angel, but you can't control the changes?"
"Yeah, that about sums it up."
"Do you know, son, you have effectively trashed every single law of science I have ever learned including conservation of matter? What happens to the rest of you when you turn into a squirrel?"
Billy grinned, "Beats me, dad. I just do it. I don't know how it works, but it does, like flipping a light switch."
"Ok, since this is real, there has to be some sort of natural law to cover it, but..."
"It's magic, dad. Anything else will just drive you nuts."
"You may be right, and I'm getting late for work as it is."
"Mark. You can't be serious about leaving now."
Mr. Preston shrugged his shoulders. "Billy will still be here tonight, Baby, and this isn't news I would want made public anyway. But, unless he can change himself into a genie that grants wishes and zaps up millions of dollars and a mansion in Beverly Hills for us, we still need my paycheck. You can't do that, can you son? For me?" Billy felt his scalp tingle. For an instant he had the sense of unlimited power that was his for the asking. He felt the magic sing through his veins and nerves until he thought he might explode. But then, he forced himself back into strictly human as he touched the genie's mind. Shuddering, as if he had touched something slimy, he shook his head. "Sorry, dad. There is real and there is real."
"Then I will see you both when I get home," Mr. Preston said with a sigh.
"I'm going over to Colin's before school, mom."
"Is all of your homework done?"
"Yes, mom. It is. See you later," he called out then headed for the front door. The phone rang and he picked it up as his mother left the dining room. "Hello?"
"Billy. I'm glad I caught you."
"Mr. Jones? I don't believe this. Do you like Disney World?"
"That was some stunt you pulled. I will forget it this time, but we still have business together."
Billy laughed. "You know, there have been teachers that have called me a slow learner. Do I have to hit you over the head with a hammer before you catch on? You come near me or my family again and I will rip your eyes out at the very least. Get the picture?"
"You will regret saying that, young man."
"Look, Finn -- Finny," Billy said with a grin. "I know you now, and I know how frustrated you've felt because Peter and all of those other people you helped haven't even given you 'thank you' for waking their talents. And I know how important it was for you to find me. You've been dreaming about this for years, and planning what you would do with my power, but -- I'm a person, too. I've got my own life to live and I'm not about to help you show up the rest of the world, or to help you get rich."
"But... How could you possibly know that?"
"I told you. Yesterday in the car I was an angel. I read your life because that's what angels do. You know what they say on TV? 'Every life is a story?' I know your story, or parts of it. I talked to Mr. Atkins about you."
"You did what? You went to that old fool?"
Billy nodded. "He's very nice and I really like him. He was right about you. You can't use people like this. I mean, when you see someone all you see is that person's talent. You don't see the person, but whether or not that talent will make you rich. It doesn't work like that."
"Grow up, kid," Jones screamed into the phone. "You have no idea how things work. You're mine, do you understand that?"
The back of Billy's scalp tingled this time as his body stretched up in a growth spurt to beat them all. In a rich, bass voice, Billy spoke back into the phone. "Nope, sorry, Finn old pal, but I'm all grown up now and the answer is still the same. Just remember, Finny, I may know your story and I feel for what you've been through, but that won't stop me from fighting you with all of my powers if you do come back. You know, if you weren't so thick headed..."
"What? We could be friends?" Jones demanded.
"No way," Billy said quietly. "I might almost like you then, but I wouldn't want to hang out with you or anything. It's just that I wouldn't think you're such a major creepazoid like I do now."
Billy hung up the phone and hurried into the bathroom to check himself out in the mirror. He still had dirty blond hair, a broader face, and stubble. Still Mr. Average, he thought. This was crazy, he thought as he shrank back down into kid size. That was almost as silly as dressing up in his father's good clothes.
"Hey Billy, wait up." Colin Davis shouted from the school's entrance. Billy turned and waited for the twins to catch up.
"Hey, Billy," Bryan said. "Want a peanut?" He winced as Colin punched him on the arm.
"Sure," he said with a frown, "It's just that I'm not sure if I should eat it or bury it for the winter."
"You told," Bryan said and returned the punch.
"Not me. I swear it."
"What's with you two? Come on, Bryan, I was just teasing, but I have been feeling a little squirrely lately. What happened to your hat?" Billy snatched the cap off Bryan's head and poked his fingers through the holes.
"You'll never believe this in a million years, but..." Bryan started.
"A hawk did this? It's been happening a lot lately," Billy said and placed the cap on his head.
"Hey, you guys want to play ball?"
Billy didn't recognize the boy running up to them. "Sure, what do you say?"
"Yeah," Colin said but glanced at his brother who shook his head.
"We have to get home early, Colin, or dad will kill us. Remember?"
"Oh, right. Sorry. Maybe next week." With that the twins left running. Billy started to take off the cap to return it Bryan, but that could wait. He followed a growing group of kids around to the ball field.
In spite of the fall weather, Billy took off his jacket as two boys picked the teams. Billy tried to remember names as his team introduced themselves, but soon enough they took the field as the game began.
As an outfielder, Billy was -- average. He managed to snag a few balls that were hit his way, but he found himself paying more attention to the scents around him than the game. Someone was burning leaves nearby, and the air felt crisp for September. His team did not permit a run, and went to bat.
The first boy struck out, and Billy walked up to the plate. Actually, as a hitter he was worse than average, but he took the first pitch and smacked it to right field. He ran for all he was worth down the baseline.
"Come on, Billy. Can't you run faster than that?" someone from his team yelled.
"Yeah, Billy, stop running like a girl."
Although his scalp tingled, he made it to second before he realized how much he had changed. "Good hit," someone else called, and Billy only smiled as the second base man kept giving him funny looks.
"No wonder you run like a girl," the boy said and tugged the cap from Billy's head.
Golden blonde hair cascaded around Billy's shoulders. "So?" she said trying her best not to blush.
"What's going on here?" Both of the team captains ran over to second base. "I thought your name was Billy."
"It is. B-i-l-l-i-e," she spelled out. "What's the matter with you guys?"
"No girls allowed," several of the boys said in unison.
"You've got to be kidding. Get real, it's the nineties, remember? What? Afraid I can play better than you big strong men?"
The other team's catcher joined the group. "What's the problem? We've got a game to play."
"But not with a girl."
"She's done better than all the rest of you. Hi," he said with a wide smile for Billie. "I'm Carlos."
"Oh, Carlos wants a girl friend. Take her out some other time, Rodriguez, but right now I'm taking her out of the game. No girls."
Billie shrugged as she tucked her hair back into the baseball cap. "That's it, isn't it? You're afraid you're going to get beaten by a girl and you can't handle it. Ok, be that way."
"Wait," Carlos said. "Jake, if she goes so do I. It isn't fair."
"No, don't spoil your game for me," Billie said shaking her head. "It's not worth it. Later, guys."
"Bunch of losers," Carlos said as he deliberately walked Billie off the field. "Not much of a game anyway."
"But you don't understand. You really don't."
"I know how you must feel, Billie. You're a good player and just because you're a girl shouldn't matter."
Billy looked around, and took off the cap to show his usual short, haircut. "I'm not a girl. That was just a trick I learned. Those guys were ragging on me for the way I run, and I wanted to show them up. I didn't think they'd throw me off the team, and I didn't want you to leave the game on my account." He gave the boy a wide grin. "And you're really not my type either."
"But..." Carlos protested. "This is crazy, What happened to all of your hair, and your face?" he said trying to peek in Billy's cap.
"Yeah, neat trick, isn't it?"
"Impossible," Carlos said. "Do it again."
Placing the cap back on his head, Billy sighed and made the change. "There."
"But you are so pretty as a girl. I mean, as a boy you are..."
"Average?" Billy cut in. "Tell me about it. You really think I'm pretty? No," Billy said and turned away from the taller boy. "I'm not a girl."
"Yes, I do, and the least you could do, since I gave up the game for you, is to have a soda with me, Miss Billie."
"I'd love to... No way am I going out with you. Look, I'm a boy. You want to go play some video games? I'll hang out with you, but don't get any other ideas." He forced himself back into his male self.
Carlos smiled, "Of course. Ah, but you're so pretty as a girl. Come on, let's go... and how do you do that?"
"It's a gift," Billie said. She took off her cap and shook out her hair as a red mustang drove by. She couldn't see the driver, but the last thing she wanted was a confrontation right then. "Maybe a soda would be nice?"
Before Billie saw what was coming, Carlos bent down slightly and kissed her right on the mouth. "That sounds wonderful to me."
"Eeewww," Billie said and wiped her mouth on her arm. "What did you do that for?"
"You are lovely, and there is a dance coming up at school..."
"Don't push it, kid."
After the soda, Billie found herself walking hand in hand with the boy, and didn't mind the idea. Sure enough, she spotted the mustang parked a few houses down from her own. "This is it, and I'd better say good bye here. My folks would never understand this and neither do I, but don't look for me to be a girl ever again. Okay?"
"Of course, whatever you say. But, while you're still a girl," he kissed Billy again, and longer. For just a second, Billy leaned into the kiss and started to put her arms around Carlos' neck before she broke off. "Very funny."
She walked down the street, past her house, and past the mustang, glancing in to verify the driver. Jones, concentrating on watching the Preston home, did not glance at the girl walking by.
Billie touched the man's thoughts just enough to see what Jones intended. Old Finn must have a really low opinion of her intelligence or powers if he thought she wouldn't recognize the car. So, he had a dart gun, did he. Billie nudged the man's hand.
In the car, Jones, looked at his watch and shook his head. The boy should be getting home from school by now. He reached into his coat pocket, and felt the dart gun. Still there, he thought. He hardly noticed as he pulled the gun out, turned it and fired at his own leg. He kept firing until all the charges were spent and the drugs started taking effect.
"When you wake up," Billy said through the window. "You will probably be in California. Since the trip to Disney Land didn't convince you, I thought Australia might. G'day mate! Have a wonderful trip and kiss a kangaroo for me." Jones slumped forward in his seat. "Some people are just too obsessive for their own good," Billy commented as the car pulled away on its trip west.
"Billy," Mrs. Preston called out. "Carlos is on the phone for you -- again. You two are really seeing a lot of each other lately."
"I guess," Billy called back as he picked up the phone. "Hi."
"Hey, babe, still on for the dance next week?"
"I told you no. I mean I don't have anything to wear."
"I've got that covered too, Billie. I'd really like it if you went with me."
"I'll think about it," Billy said and hung up the phone.
"What was that about?" Mrs. Preston asked as she walked into the kitchen.
"Nothing, mom. Carlos wants to go to the dance at school next week -- you know, sort of a -- double date. But I'm not sure I want to go."
"Because you have nothing to wear? Babe?"
Billy blushed from his forehead to his toes. "Oh, well..." He sighed and changed to Billie. "It's a long story."
"Oh my. Billy, you're gorgeous! We both have time for that long story, young lady, and this I have to hear."
"Ok, but mom, I'm not a girl or anything. And I'm not a sissy either. It's just that... well, this sort of happened, and when I'm with Carlos, well... it's nothing, really."
"If it's nothing, Billy, why the change?"
"Ok, maybe it's something, but he's a boy, and I don't like boys, but when he kisses me... I mean..." She blushed again.
"There is something. You know, I was a girl once myself, sweetie. There's nothing wrong with being confused about yourself, Billy. Most boys go through this at your age, and it's perfectly natural. It's just that most boys never have the opportunity to see the other side as it were."
"I like Carlos, a lot, and it's weird because when I'm with him I love being a girl, but I can't wait to turn back to me when he leaves. I'm not going to start wearing skirts or makeup or anything, mom."
"Why not? You would look great in them, and I can help there, too. You know how much I've always wanted to have a girl."
"Yes, but not me. I mean, Carlos wants to go to the dance with me all dressed up, but..."
"And part of you really wants to go -- all dressed up?"
Billie nodded. "I am getting used to being a girl -- from time to time, and -- yes, part of me does want to dress up."
"This is going be too great, sweetie. But first we really have to do something with your hair. This talent of yours can really be interesting. Can you change the cut and style of your hair?"
"More than you can guess."
Two weeks later, early on a Saturday morning, Billy woke to the sound of his mother's sewing machine. Not again, he thought. Ever since he let her buy him a dress for the dance she wouldn't stop with the girl's wardrobe -- just in case. Mrs. Preston had taken her to a beauty salon twice now, and was starting to talk about lessons in makeup too. But would she listen to him?
He opened his bedroom window, changed to a falcon, this time, and flew for all he was worth across town to Miller's Field. Here, at least, he could ride the thermals, and think about things, like running away to join a circus. With his act he'd be a smash in no time and he'd never have to be a girl again. Then again, it's not that he hated being a girl, and he had loved every second of the dance, but -- he was a boy.
He spent the next couple of hours catching his own breakfast. If only he had someone to talk to about this. Carlos wanted him to be a girl full time now, the twins wouldn't understand at all, and his Mom was beginning to agree with Carlos. He didn't like to think about his father's reaction to this change, but maybe... Something was wrong...
Billy started to turn for home, when he spotted a man with a rifle walk out of the woods and wave to him. No, that was impossible, but his eyes were not deceiving him. Phineas Jones stood there, waving one arm to the hawk. Curious, Billy landed and changed to human male.
"Before you send me off to the other side of the world again, young man, I'd suggest you hear me out. Spells can be broken but not bombs."
"The one I planted in your house this morning, kid. That bomb. It's set to go off in six hours and take your parents with it. Now, I have a device, on me now, that can either stop the bomb or detonate it at will. It has two buttons, and only I know which is which in case you try to take the remote from me. You would have a fifty-fifty chance of killing your parents rather than saving them."
"Okay, so now what?"
"You are coming with me. A talent like yours is too vital to waste, and with your talent under my direction my fortune will be made. I know magic will not work on you, but as an angel, or so you said, you were not permitted to interfere in human affairs so all of your power will be useless to prevent your parents' death. Do you understand me? You have six hours to agree to cooperate, or good bye mommy and daddy."
"And if I kill you before you can use your remote?"
The man laughed. "You, my little angel? You couldn't hurt a fly, could you? Oh no, you can give me all the guidance you want, but it's not going to change this."
"What do I have to do?"
"Give me an oath, as an angel on your halo, that you will cooperate with me no matter what. Only then will I let your parents go."
"I can't do that." Billy said shaking his head.
"Six hours can be a long time to change your mind, kid. Let's go."
Billy walked beside Mr. Jones. With his thoughts he touched his house and found that everything the man said was true. His power was blocked from disarming the bomb, or freeing his parents from their bonds.
Mr. Jones drove the boy to a warehouse not far from home. Inside he made Billy walk into a room made of Plexiglas that had to be several inches thick. As Billy watched, a fourth wall lowered behind him leaving Jones to speak through an intercom.
"Not even a microbe could leave that room, Billy. There is a clock, as you can see on the wall behind me. Just buzz that button right there when you are ready to make your oath."
Billy pounded on the walls as the man left the area. This could not be happening. He slumped down to the floor and glanced at the clock. So, he would have to make the deal after all unless he could think of something. He could change to angel again, and leave the room, of course, but then what? Even by the time he could zap himself back home and change to something that could free his parents, chances were that Jones would press the button.
He needed to do something different. He needed to be something really powerful that wasn't an angel. He wouldn't let his father deal with a genie, but Jones would. Genies lived for the chance to cause as much human suffering with their wishes as possible. But... Suppose Jones could control the genie?
No, he needed to be something that could fight. He thought and thought and finally came up with a plan. After all there was real and then there was real. He started to change, and liked what he felt. Sheer energy fed his muscles as he felt his legs and stretch, and a mind that was playful. He grinned as his neck stretched and a tail burst through his pants.
Wait a second, his clothes changed with him, but as his body grew longer his pants and shirt ripped and fell in shreds to the floor. He kicked his sneakers off before his new claws could rip them, too.
As his mouth filled with fangs, Billy felt something else, no someone else. Someone who felt dark, and savage. He fought the change trying to regain control of his body, but it was like fighting a freight train. The new personality took complete control and Billy realized that he had made the worse mistake of his life.
Seconds later a young dragon, complete with fiery red scales and red leather wings blew flame at the Plexiglas wall, and watched it melt. The dragon grew larger still as he walked into the hallway twisting his head to follow Jones' scent. With a thought, the dragon turned invisible and silently made his way through the warehouse.
Jones sat in a large office with papers and maps scattered on the desk in front of him. He shook his head as he pressed the buzzer on an intercom. "Billy, you are running out of time."
The boy didn't answer. Jones took the remote from his pants pocket. "You had better speak to me, kid, or I set the bomb off now."
"Very well, Mr. Jones, how's this?" the dragon said in deep voice. A blast of flame melted the remote and charred Jones' arm up to the shoulder. The dragon showed himself as the man screamed in pain. The scent of barbecued meat made his mouth water. "I'm not an angel now."
"You can't do this. I need a doctor -- a burn unit!"
"What for?" the dragon said softly. "You humans have yet to really understand what power is all about. You thought to use it, and the boy thought to control it, but neither of you understood it. I do. The boy could control animal shapes but not his all too human emotions and certainly not a dragon. He gave birth to me and for that I will show him my gratitude. I will save his human parents before I start my own life, but you... You, Mr. Jones, are not going to live long enough to tell anyone about me."
Jones screamed. "You can't do this."
"Why not? As a wolf, I ate like a wolf. As a hawk, I ate like a hawk. As a dragon, I intend to eat like a dragon and dragons tend to like their food well-done." Another blast of flame charred the man's legs.
"No. I swear, I will leave you alone. I will never come back and I will never think about you, Billy. I swear it."
"So? Mr. Jones, you yourself admitted that you have obsessed over me for the last five years, and I don't believe that you can forget about me. Someday you will be back, I know it and on that day you really might hurt someone that is close to me. Do you think I could ever forgive myself if I permitted that to happen when I could have ended it right here and now? No? I didn't think so."
A third blast of fire ended the matter forever. The dragon enjoyed his meal and left nothing behind to clean up. He would have been content to take a long nap to digest, but he did have to do something about the bomb.
Invisible once more, the dragon made the flight home in seconds. He shrank enough to fit through the doorway, and grew again as he found the Preston's still tied up in the living room.
"Billy?" Mr. Preston asked as the dragon appeared in the room.
"In a way. Wait," the dragon said and released the bonds on the humans with his talons. "Billy is with me," the dragon said and picked up the bomb. "Do not look for us to return." With that he headed for the door.
"Billy, what are you doing? Put that thing down. We will get out of here and leave that to the experts."
The dragon pushed outside and made it to the front lawn before the bomb exploded. All of his magic was not enough to keep the blast from shredding his wings and knocking him unconscious. The dragon's form wavered and shrank back into a twelve-year old boy, injured but intact.
Billy woke screaming. He found himself on a stretcher about to be loaded onto an ambulance. In spite of the IV in his wrist, and the wire from the monitor, Billy tried to sit up.
Mrs. Preston pushed him back down. "Don't try to move. You really are a hero."
"No," Billy screamed again. "I'm not. Mom, I ate him. I ate Mr. Jones."
The medic frowned and shook his head. "Don't try to talk, son, it was just a dream. You were knocked for a loop and must be really out of it."
"Billy, it wasn't your fault." Mr. Preston said for the fifth time.
"But it was, dad." Billy paced the kitchen floor. "I was the one that let that dragon out, and I was the one that let him kill and eat that man. I liked it, dad. Mr. Jones tasted good, and if that bomb hadn't stopped me I would have killed others. Lots of others. That's what dragons do."
"But it's over, son. Jones is gone for good and the police are listing him as missing only. No one is charging you with anything. No one would believe that story anyway. Can't you as an angel forgive yourself? I'm sure the higher powers understand what happened."
"I can't dad. All I can see when I go to sleep is that man burning and me ripping him in half. I can't..."
"But Billy, you can't hide yourself in a shell for the rest of your life. You've been like this since you left for the hospital and I'm not sure how long we can keep you home from school."
"I didn't understand the power, dad. No one should have that much power to... Shell! That's it. Thanks, dad! You've just saved my life."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm going to hide in a shell. I'm going to turn into something that doesn't have this awful power. I'll be something really different... something good, and something that isn't me."
"Billy, wait. You can learn to handle the power, son. It's going to take time, but you are still just a child. You can't expect to be perfect. Not even angels are perfect. I think that is reserved for God, but there is no reason for you to... Billy, stop it."
"Billy, stop that," Hugh Atkins said from the kitchen doorway. "I didn't travel all this way to help you only to have you run away from your problems like this."
"Uh, hi," Billy said, blushing. He looked down at the egg shell forming on his chest. "I -- I was just... When did you get here?"
"Just now," Atkins said before introducing himself to Mr. Preston. "I know what happened, and I understand why you feel like this, son."
For a moment, Billy stared at the old man's warm smile, and the wrinkles around his eyes. He shook himself, and wiped his eyes. "But the problem is still the same. He didn't deserve to die."
"No one does, Billy. But it happens." Atkins dropped to one knee and gave the boy a long hug. "I don't have any magic words or powers that is ever going to make this better. This hurt will be with you for the rest of your life."
"And so is the dragon," Billy whispered. "He's there, waiting for me to slip up so he can take control again. That's why I wanted to change into something else."
"And what better opportunity would you give the dragon than to be hatched from an egg? You may wish to punish yourself, and run away to sulk but this problem will have to be faced sooner or later. The question will be how much more damage you do before you face it."
"Son," Mr. Preston cut in. "All of us have our own angels and dragons to deal with, but you have to power to make them real. Your mother and I are here to help you learn how to handle them."
"And you did beg my help as well."
Billy nodded, and looked back and forth between the two men. "I know, it's just that... I think what I really wanted was time to think and get this sorted out without worrying about the dragon... And I really did want to turn into something really cool."
Atkins laughed. "I think we can work this out, son. I have a large ranch back home... Oh, would you come in please?"
Colin Davis walked into the room, hesitant at first, but when he saw Billy he rushed over to grab his friend into another bear hug. "I was so worried about you. Your mom told me you were hurt by that bomb, but they wouldn't let me go to the hospital or anything."
"It's okay," Billy said. "Not Carlos?"
Atkins shook his head. "You have enough confusion and upset in your life to deal with that issue as well. Someday."
"What's going on?" Mrs. Preston asked as she joined the group.
"Lilly, this is Hugh Atkins. He's a teacher that Billy found who may be able to get him through this."
"Yes, and this will be difficult, but I wanted to invite the four of you back to my ranch. Billy, you will have more than enough space to roam and start healing. Do you know what you would like to be?"
"Yes," Billy said with a wide grin.
"Okay, and I wanted to have Colin go with you as a friend and to make sure you had someone your own age to talk to."
"That's great!" Colin said catching on. "A real ranch -- with cowboys and horses?"
"That's about it. I will make the necessary arrangements with your school so this will not interfere with that, but I do feel that all of you could use a vacation right now."
"When do we leave?" Billy asked. "I can't wait to try out the new me."
"What are you talking about?" Colin asked.
"Remember that squirrel you guys found when you thought you saw a wolf? It was me -- really. I was the wolf too, and the hawk that took Bryan's cap."
"You can shape change and you didn't tell me?" Colin said with the easy belief of his eleven years. "You rat! You stupid geek. When do I get to be a bird?"
"Not a bird... Watch this." Billy bent over as his arms and legs stretched. His clothes melted into a coal black coat and mane, and a colt shook himself on unsteady legs until his wings, as black as his coat settled across his shoulders.
"Oh wow. I get to ride you like that? Can you teach me that?"
The colt nodded his head and snorted.
"This is going to be the best vacation ever," Colin said watching Billy change back into himself.
"It is," Billy agreed as he wrapped an arm around Colin's shoulders and walked the boy from the room. "Changing shapes is really easy. You'll pick it up in no time. But first..." He pressed his right thumb on Colin's forehead. "There."
"What'd you do that for?"
"It's a trick I learned from a late friend of mine. Did you know you have a real talent for drawing?"
"Me? I like to draw I guess, but I'm not any good."
"You will be," Billy answered with a wider grin. "And I'm going to help. You know, maybe there is something to it when they say 'you are what you eat'... Nope, there isn't but it was a thought. Let's go to my room and I'll teach you how to fly before I pack for the trip."
Now, with the thought of sharing his talent with his best friend in the whole world, Billy felt the dragon recede back into the shadows that had created it. He would have to be careful, always alert, but maybe he could handle it. If only he hadn't had to kill Finn like that...
"Are you okay?" Colin asked. "You look weirded out again."
"It's okay. I'm working on it," Billy said with a quick prayer for the man in the blue suit. "I'm working on it."