An excerpt from

The Changing Season

There was no other way to describe it; they were driving home in the middle of a torrential downpour.

"I can't believe we're actually graduating from high school in a couple days," Billy said, trying to alleviate the anxiety he felt behind the wheel.

"Well, I can believe I'm graduating," Charlie said, "but I'm a little surprised you made it." Besides being his childhood best friend, Billy knew Charlie Philips to be a quick-witted, happy-go-lucky clown who'd had a girlfriend by the seventh grade and three more by the time he and Billy had reached high school. Charlie was also the first to sample beer and the musky taste of cigarette smoke. He was a pioneer of sorts, a frontiersman amongst his peers.

 

Billy looked at him and grinned. You're such an idiot, he thought, before leaning in toward the windshield to identify the disappearing road. He really liked the rain this time of year because it helped ease his allergy symptoms. But this is ridiculous, he thought. I'd rather sneeze my brains out than hydroplane home in this monsoon. The driver's side windshield wiper worked well enough, but the passenger side's wiper jumped an inch or so each time before surrendering and falling back to its starting point. There was so much rain it wouldn't have mattered anyway. The single wiper blade was as effective as someone pushing a hand across their body in a swimming pool to get a better look at the bottom.

 

"So you're thinking about switching your major for next year, huh?" Charlie said.

 

Billy nodded. I have no idea, he thought. "I've actually been kicking around the idea of becoming a video game designer," he said, trying not to shrug. "I can start in Liberal Arts and easily switch over later on, if I want."

 

Charlie laughed. "Just because you've spent your life playing video games, that doesn't mean you're smart enough to design them, you know."

"Gee, thanks," Billy said, still staring out the windshield. "Not all of us have had our future planned since the third grade."

"That's right," Charlie said, smugly. "Starting the Criminal Justice program in the fall is my first step toward finally joining the FBI."

 

Without ever seeing it, Billy hit a massive puddle-gallons of water collected in a crater shaped by the winter plows-that immediately halted their speed and yanked them half out of their lane. Billy's heart plummeted in his chest. For one brief moment, Mother Nature had taken control out of his hands and he knew it.

 

"Showers for the remainder of the night," the deep radio voice announced. Billy shook his head and turned to Charlie.

 

"Showers?" he said. "If it gets any worse, we'll be doing the backstroke home."

 

Billy turned the radio off to concentrate on the vanishing road, while the heavy rains pounded off the side of the car.

 

"Relax, buddy," Charlie said, obviously amused by Billy's elevated stress level. "You need to stop worrying so much."

 

Billy looked sideways again and snickered. "Yeah right," he said.

 

Until having to pick a college major, he couldn't remember the last time he'd worried about anything. Passing another blurry green exit sign, Billy did all he could to keep the nose of the beat-up Honda straight and proceed carefully down the slippery highway. He turned the windshield wipers to high and listened as the lone wiper kept perfect beat with his heart. The white reflective lines painted on the road sparkled like beacons in the night. Hypnotized, he hugged each one and couldn't wait to see the next green sign.

 

"Three more to go and we're home free," he told Charlie. Slouched down in the passenger seat, Charlie shrugged.

 

"Hey, did I tell you that I got Mark good the other day?" Billy shook his head. Charlie sat up straight in his seat and laughed, excited to share his latest prank. "I told that girl he likes that I caught him using bathroom air freshener as cologne and she…"

 

Suddenly, the Honda's back end skidded, kicking the car onto the slightest angle. The skid lasted no more than a second or two, but it was enough time for Billy to watch his entire life pass before the rain-smudged windshield. It was a brief film.

 

"This is bad," he said aloud and swallowed hard. Charlie went silent-as if he'd just realized they might be in danger-and never bothered to finish his story. In the silence, the rain only picked up, while the angry winds continued to play ping-pong with their lives. His white knuckles wrapped around the steering wheel, Billy slid to the edge of the driver's seat and slowly continued on.

 

"Relax," he teased Charlie. "You worry too much." The EXIT 8-WESTPORT sign glistened in the storm, indicating there were only two more exits to go. Billy felt more relieved with each mile passed and gradually slid back into the bucket seat.

 

"Hey, take me home, okay?" Charlie told Billy. Billy was surprised.

 

"You're not sleeping over?"

 

Charlie shook his head. "I can't tonight. I told my mother I'd sleep home." As Billy started to question it, Charlie added, "Hey, I'm going to need help valeting cars."

 

"What night?" Billy asked. "…because I can't lose my job at the Pearl."

 

"Yeah, what a tragedy that would be…getting canned from that Chinese slave labor." Billy laughed.

 

"It's a job," he said, "and I need every penny I can make for college."

 

"That's right…to become a video game designer," Charlie teased.

 

"Whatever," Billy said, annoyed.

 

Charlie smirked. "So your dad's not footing the bill, huh?"

 

"Yeah right," Billy said, returning the smirk, "right after I get the Porsche and my sister finishes grad school."

 

"I need you to cover for Ryan on Thursday night," Charlie said, referring back to the valet job. "He has some wedding or something." Charlie nodded. "We'll probably each make a hundred cash. Just be there at six o'clock."

 

Billy returned his friend's nod. "For a hundred cash, I'll be there," he said. Five tense minutes later, they pulled into Charlie's driveway. "I'll see you in the morning," Billy said.

 

"Last day of school," Charlie said, smiling. "I wouldn't miss it," he joked before jumping out of the car and sprinting toward his front door. Before his best friend had even reached the door, Billy lost sight of his silhouette in the rain. "

 

Me either," Billy said and laughed, backing out of the driveway and beginning the final leg of the journey home. At the blurry red light, he looked sideways and caught a glimpse of himself in the driver's side window. And I am smart enough to design video games, he told himself…if that's what I actually wanted.

 

***

 

Dripping wet but relieved to be in one piece, Billy returned home to find Jimmy, his other best friend, waiting for him. Jimmy was so excited to see Billy that-as if his canine frame were made of rubber bones-his body bent in half from his tail wagging so hard. The dog barked and spun in circles a few times, unafraid to hang his heart out on his furry sleeve and show his love for Billy. Billy quickly went to his knees.

 

"Shhhh. We don't want to wake up Mom and Dad," he whispered to the dog, raking his fingers through Jimmy's heavy coat. "I'm okay, buddy," Billy added. "You missed me, didn't you?"

 

Jimmy barked again, answering the question. He smelled musty, like he'd just come in from the rain himself.

 

"Shhhh," Billy repeated and laughed. Like most Americans, Jimmy-named after Billy's late uncle-was a mixed breed, a mutt-Labrador retriever blended with one or two unknown breeds. His shiny, raven-black coat was broken up by two white socks on his front legs and paws-and a discolored patch of fur on his hind quarter; it was an old battle scar, proof of his love and devotion to his family. A perfect white stripe ran down the length of his snout, and there was lots of snow on his muzzle and around his eyes, thick swaths of silvery fur that betrayed his advanced years and experience. His milk-chocolate eyes were soft and kind and his left ear stood up straight while the right one normally flopped onto his forehead. He had a thick barrel chest which didn't lose any girth all the way to his back hips. And his black bushy tail, dipped in white, was always on the move-as if controlled by some over-caffeinated puppeteer. As Jimmy convulsed for attention, Billy rubbed his chest up and down-fast and hard-exactly the way the dog liked it.

 

"Let's get a drink before we turn in," Billy told him and started for the kitchen, with Jimmy hobbling closely behind. The two of them stepped into the dark kitchen. In the refrigerator's soft light, Billy placed the gallon of milk to his lips, tilted it toward the ceiling and took a few long gulps. In the shadows on the floor, Jimmy lapped at his water bowl, spraying back wash all over the worn linoleum. After placing the milk back into the fridge, Billy wiped his sleeve across his mouth and looked down at the sitting dog.

 

"Do you have to go out, boy?" he asked, while the refrigerator door slowly closed and the kitchen went dark again. As he limped past Billy, Jimmy's nails scratched across the floor.

 

"Jimmy, your toenails need to be cut," Billy told the dog. "You sound like a ferret on tile." Billy took a few steps toward the back door and laughed, realizing his own nails needed to be trimmed. Jimmy waited at the back door to be let out. Years ago, the mutt had been trained to go out to the wood line to do his business. There was no need for an electric fence, just a little discipline and a whole lot of love. Jimmy always went out alone, did his thing and came back in without having to be yelled at or even summoned.

 

Billy opened the door. "Make it quick," he said. "It's bad out there." The rain was still coming down hard. Two minutes later, the mildewed-smelling dog hurried back in, shaking the rain from his coat and tracking mud through the kitchen like a small monster truck.

 

"Oh Jimmy…" Billy complained, grabbing the paper towels and haphazardly wiping up the linoleum behind them. After Billy relieved himself-and Jimmy waited by the bathroom door, being just as patient-the two of them stepped into Billy's bedroom. The room smelled like a mix of high school locker room and the moment a forgotten lunch box-that's been sitting in the sun for a full August afternoon-is opened. Billy huffed at the stench and looked down at Jimmy. Like a canary heading into a coal mine, the mutt didn't seem to notice; with his head down, he marched straight in.

 

A half dozen hip-hop posters covered the cracks in the plaster walls. The only window in the room was covered by an old throw blanket, which was intended to block out every ray of the sun, whether it was morning or noon. It was a tight space containing a single bed, a small desk supporting a television and video game console, a bureau and a closet that might have comfortably stored two-dozen outfits. Instead, it was used for storage. The spring-loaded door was rarely opened, though, as everything would have spilled out. It was also the door that Billy feared throughout his childhood: the monster's front door. A bag of cheese puffs had spilled out from the bureau onto the floor and a box of pizza crusts sat on the desk chair. "Home, sweet home," Billy told Jimmy and snickered. With all that covered it, Billy couldn't remember the last time he'd seen his bedroom carpet. A year before, his mother had abandoned any hope for the room and refused to enter it again.

 

"You want to live like a pig, then go ahead," she'd told him. "Whatever's not in the laundry room doesn't get washed." Besides Charlie and Mark, Jimmy was the only soul brave enough to enter the landfill. Before swiping a mountain of dirty clothes onto the floor and jumping into bed, Billy shut off the light. The night light, however, stayed on for Jimmy-the timid soul. Even though there wasn't nearly enough room for the two of them, Jimmy jumped up onto the bed beside Billy and immediately flipped onto his back. Billy laughed. Even now-at twelve years old-Jimmy wouldn't go to sleep until he got his belly rubbed.

 

"Aren't you tired?" he asked the squinty-eyed dog. Jimmy never answered. He just lay on his back, his chest heaving and tongue hanging to the side. After pampering the spoiled elder for a few minutes, Billy asked, "What do you think about me going to school for video game design, Jimmy? I could pull that off, right?" The mutt's eyes had already turned to narrow slits. "…or maybe I should look into the culinary arts program?" Billy suggested, letting the random idea flop around in his head for a moment or two.

 

"I could open up my own restaurant someday. It's not like we don't love to eat." Billy tried pushing the big oaf over. It was no use. He laughed, remembering when his mom-all those years ago-had tried to stop the dog from sleeping in his bed. "He's only going to get bigger," she'd warned, "and you'll never be able to move him."

 

"I don't care, Ma. Just let him stay," Billy had said. "I don't care if there's no room. I want him with me." She'd smiled. "Okay, but one of these days you're going to regret it." As the rain and wind battered the window, Billy looked sideways at old Jimmy and tried one last time to shove him over. But the dog was already snoring and wouldn't budge an inch.