I stopped by the frame rental house to invite him to an event planned for kids in his inner city neighborhood, children of Southeast Asian refugee families. I knew the boy, a seventh grader. He’d come to several programs run out of a nearby Methodist church. But I had never been to his house. When he came to the door, he said nothing, just stared at the tall white woman offering him something he didn’t seem to want. Was it sadness I saw in his eyes? Perhaps he’d been awakened from sleep. Or was angry about something. I’ll never know. But realizing he didn’t want to talk with me, I left.
He never showed up at any of our events again, although other neighborhood kids did, and our programs for them grew. It wasn’t because the boy never came back that my visit that day stuck in my mind. He wasn’t the only kid who came and went. It was what happened several years later, things that I heard about, the gang he ran with, the jail time, and what he told a man I knew how he had killed someone just to see what it felt like.
Most of the teenagers who participated in those programs have done well. Some were Eagle Scouts, others inducted into National Honor Society at their high schools. Nearly all received high school diplomas and some have college degrees. Several have served honorably in America’s military. They became American citizens, married and are raising families, fine young men and women contributing to their communities and country.
So when I began writing Absolution, it wasn’t those teenagers I had in mind, the ones who have made us all proud and with whom I have kept up ever since through visits, e-mails, phone calls and now social media. What I recalled was a single haunting image, the sad eyes of the boy in the doorway who wouldn’t talk with me. From that image, Billy Nguyen was born.
Here’s my description of Billy in Absolution when protagonist Maggie first sees him. He’s been brought into a Boston courtroom to be arraigned from the confines of a dock shielded by Plexiglas, a box-office type opening in the shield through which to answer the judge’s questions:
From behind the Plexiglas, Billy, in black T-shirt and jeans, looked like a kid rudely rousted from sleep. His face was solemn, thin like the rest of him, eyes shut against the clicking cameras, so that all Maggie saw were deep wrinkles above his cheeks. His black hair sprouted from his scalp like weeds. When he opened his eyes, he stared at the hole in the Plexiglas, as if to gauge the last circle of freedom left him.
I don’t describe Billy like the boy I remember. Fictional characters take on their own identities. I have also never thought of my character Billy Nguyen as a bad kid. Rather I think of him as a boy whose life turned one way when it might have turned another. I think that about the other boy too, the one who wasn’t a character in a novel.