But of course he was going away, there was nothing else to do, the time was up, the clock had run out, and he was going very far away indeed. His suitcase was packed, his shoes were shined, his hair was brushed, he had expressly washed behind his ears, and it remained only for him to go down the stairs, out the front door, and up the street to the small-town station where the train would make a stop for him alone. Then Fox Hill, Illinois, would be left far off in his past. And he would go on, perhaps to Iowa, perhaps to Kansas, perhaps even to California; a small boy twelve years old with a birth certificate in his valise to show he had been born forty-three years ago.
‘Willie!’ called a voice downstairs.
‘Yes!’ He hoisted his suitcase. In his bureau mirror he saw a face made of June dandelions and July apples and warm summer-morning milk. There, as always, was his look of the angel and the innocent, which might never, in the years of his life, change.
‘Almost time,’ called the woman’s voice.
‘All right!’ And he went down the stairs, grunting and smiling. In the living-room sat Anna and Steve, their clothes painfully neat.
‘Here I am!’ cried Willie in the parlor door.
Anna looked like she was going to cry. ‘Oh, good Lord, you can’t really be leaving us, can you, Willie?’
‘People are beginning to talk,’ said Willie quietly. I’ve been here three years now. But when people begin to talk, I know it’s time to put on my shoes and buy a railway ticket.’
‘It’s all so strange. I don’t understand. It’s so sudden,’ Anna said. ‘Willie, we’ll miss you.
‘I’ll write you every Christmas, so help me. Don’t you write me.’
‘It’s been a great pleasure and satisfaction,’ said Steve, sitting there, his words the wrong size in his mouth. ‘It’s a shame’ it had to stop. It’s a shame you had to tell us about yourself. It’s an awful shame you can’t stay on.’
‘You’re the nicest folks I ever had,’ said Willie, four feet high, in no need of a shave, the sunlight on his face.
And then Anna did cry. ‘Willie, Willie.’ And she sat down and looked as if she wanted to hold him but was afraid to hold him now; she looked at him with shock and amazement and her hands empty, not knowing what to do with him now.
‘It’s not easy to go,’ said Willie. ‘You get used to things. You want to stay. But it doesn’t work. I tried to stay on once after people began to suspect. “Flow horrible!” people said. “All these years, playing with our innocent children,” they said, “and us not guessing! Awful!” they said. And finally I had to just leave town one night. It’s not easy. You know darned well how much I love both of you. Thanks for three swell years.’
They all went to the front door. ‘Willie, where’re you going?’
‘I don’t know. I just start traveling. When I see a town that looks green and nice, I settle in.’
‘Will you ever come back?’
‘Yes,’ he said earnestly with his high voice. ‘In about twenty years it should begin to show in my face. When it does, I’m going to make a grand tour of all the mothers and fathers I’ve ever had.’
They stood on the cool summer porch, reluctant to say the last words.
Steve was looking steadily at an elm tree. ‘How many other folks’ve you stayed with, Willie? How many adoptions?’
Willie figured it, pleasantly enough. ‘I guess it’s about five towns and five couples and over twenty years gone by since I started my tour.’
‘Well, we can’t holler,’ said Steve. ‘Better to’ve had a son thirty-six months than none whatever.’