HEY, BILLY, DO THE RAILING!" CRIES A FRIEND AS BILLY Best, America's best-known runaway teenager, sits with half a dozen young skateboarders outside a vacant drugstore. The boys have spent the afternoon nose-sliding and kick-flipping across the deserted parking lot, and now 16-year-old Billy is refusing to try a dangerous stunt—riding down the railing of a nearby staircase. "He's scared," someone taunts. "I'm not," replies Billy. "Hey, I already broke my arm. Then I hurt my ankle." "And," yells another, affectionately yanking off Best's wool cap and running a hand across his scalp, "all his hair is falling out."

Best does, in fact, look as if he has visited a GI barber, but no matter. The boy whose disappearance troubled an entire nation has finally returned home. He arrived back in the Boston suburb of Norwell on Nov. 19, almost four weeks after running away from the painful chemotherapy treatments he had been undergoing since August to combat stage-two Hodgkin's lymphoma. "I didn't like the chemo," Best says. "I didn't want it to be inside me." And so on Oct. 26, taking a black duffel bag, $300 in cash from the sale of skateboards and other personal possessions and "a very old, fat skateboard," the high school junior boarded a Greyhound bus for New York City and points south. He left a note for his adoptive parents, William and Susan Best. "Please forgive me," it read. "I feel like the medicine is killing me.... I'm so sorry. Love always, Billy."

Finding the note after returning home from a Bible-study class, the Bests wept. "He felt he had no control at all," says William, 47. "We had basically told him, 'You're going to get chemo,' and that was that." Frantic to get their ailing son back, they began appearing on news and tabloid TV shows, beseeching Billy to return. Best would phone them periodically, much to their relief—and sometimes their fury. "A couple of times we just felt like throwing handcuffs on the kid and dragging him home," says the elder Best, an air-conditioning sales representative. "We were angry at times, but it never lasted."

While his parents agonized, Best was chilling out—and having an excellent and surprising adventure. It began in Boston, where he paid $159 for a Greyhound ticket to the oil-refinery town of Lake Charles, La., via New York City, which, he later told his father, sounded like a nice place to go. When he found that "nothing was happening" there, he paid $19 more and rode on to Houston.

Arriving on Oct. 28, Best quickly headed for Jones Plaza, a skateboarding mecca he'd learned about from a video. Within hours he had made a few friends and confided why he'd left home. Soon he became the well-guarded guest of a gang of skateboard enthusiasts who, in days to follow, would provide him with food and shelter. "I couldn't let him stay out there," says Patrick Rogers, 16, who learned that Best planned to live on the streets. "He could have met up with really bad dudes, not good guys like us."

The digs that Rogers and another friend, Kush Grewal, 16, found for Best were less than palatial—a windowless, roach-infested storage room behind a shopping center in north Houston that was partly owned by Grewal's father. A few nights, Best stayed with Rogers and his family. "I told my parents he was someone's cousin, and they thought it was cool," he says, smiling.

By day, when his new friends were at school, Best read books and did jigsaw puzzles. By night, they skated together until well after dark. Though the skaters kept Best's identity a secret, Fox TV's A Current Affair blew his cover nationwide on Nov. 4 with a story on his flight. Then Deedee Hagar, 17, a friend of one of Best's new buddies, learned he was in town. She too had health problems, including medication-induced hepatitis, and at the time was about to undergo a biopsy—which would prove to be negative—on swollen lymph nodes in her neck. "Deedee really became obsessed with finding Billy and asking him to stay with us," says her mother, Linda, 49. Deedee finally did find him, arriving at his storeroom with her friend Heather Sims, 17, and a sack of McDonald's hamburgers. By the evening of his eighth day in Texas, Best was ensconced in the Hagars' comfortable two-bedroom suburban apartment in Klein, Texas, Lyle Lovett's hometown. For a week, the six-foot teen slept on a carpet at the foot Deedee's bed with his head protruding out the doorway into the living room, After Linda Hagar persuaded him to phone the Bests back in Massachusetts, Bill she says, "asked them to give him space to think about things."

One thing Best may have been thinking about was his budding romance with Heather. A single mother with a silver nose ring and an 18-month-old daughter Heather will only say of their relationship, "We were more than just friend; Her boyfriend—and the father of her daughter—reportedly thought so too began making threats against Best.

After five days, Best packed up his skateboard and moved again, spending night with each of two friends before arriving at the home of Josh Fisher, 16, Nov. 13. "Billy and I talked three or four times a day while he was here," says Fisher's mother, Jane, 49, an employee relations specialist who was intent or getting him to discuss his situation with her. On Nov. 15, says Jane Fisher, Best finally began to share his feelings. "He told me how powerless he felt. I asked him if things had been made perfectly clear about [his illness] and what was going to happen to him, and he said he understood. I finally asked him what he wanted, and Billy told me, 'I want to be happy.' " Then he broke down and cried, agreeing that it would probably make him happy to return to his family.

Still, Best was reluctant to leave his Houston friends. "I felt he wanted an adult to intervene," says Fisher, "but he wanted it done in such a way that he didn't feel he was being pushed." She phoned the Bests and told them what had happened. "Later they called Billy. His father told him, 'Billy, I think it's time,' in such a way that it wasn't an order, and that's what seemed to do it. Billy said he would go home."

On Nov. 19, Best flew back to Massachusetts on a flight paid for by tennis star Andrea Jaeger's Kids' Stuff Foundation for children with life-threatening illnesses, after Jaeger had read about his case in a newspaper. Three days later Best was back at Norwell High School—-just in time for the last day and a half of school before Thanksgiving break. He also played trumpet with Norwell's pep band at the Thanksgiving Day football game against neighboring Hanover, and—along with his sister Jenny, 18, a freshman at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.—helped throw his parents a belated 25th-anniversary party on Nov. 25.

At this point it is too early to tell whether Best's time away from chemotherapy has done any damage. "There's no way of knowing without extensive tests," his mother says. "The cancer probably was gone or almost gone when he left." For their part, both parents admit to having learned a lesson from their son's odyssey—to listen. "You need to really understand what [your children are] going through," says William.

Although Best's full recovery is considered almost certain with four more months of aggressive chemotherapy, he has yet to decide whether he will return to Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to continue that course of treatment. He and his parents are now exploring less painful alternatives, such as radiation or a combination of chemo and radiation. Even Best's friends are concerned. "We've talked to him a little," says Craig Ansell, 17, "but he brushes it off."

Unfortunately, Best is not alone. The phenomenon of teenagers refusing life-saving medication "has been there as long as there have been teenagers and medicine," says Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's hard to tell whether you're looking at a refusal of treatment or just a teenager trying to assert his independence. Billy Best is probably mature enough to make such a decision. Yet his treatment works. I would be unwilling to accept his refusal."

In the end, though, Billy Best will walk his own path. "I'm not afraid to die," he says, "although I'd like to live." His father has resigned himself to respecting his son's wishes. "He knew from day one that if he doesn't take chemo, he could die," says William Best. "But he's old enough. He's been through it. He's the one that has to decide."

MARJORIE ROSEN
STEPHEN SAWICKI in Norwell and STEPHEN JOHNSON in Houston

  • Contributors:
  • Stephen Sawicki,
  • Stephen Johnson.