William Dean Hawkins loved the first day of the new school year. As he trudged along deep in thought, he listened to birds in nearby trees chirping the arrival of another day. He had plenty of time, choosing to take a leisurely stroll down the sidewalk, but something inside continued to tell him to hurry along.
Trembling with excitement, he hurried across the hard-packed dirt and gravel of the schoolyard heading in the direction of the gym behind the school.
Following a well-worn path in ankle-high Bermuda grass, he reached a small wooden shed housing the gym’s gas meters.
This will be the perfect place, he told himself.
William squatted in the shadows and leaned against the wall. As he waited for the faint haze of early morning, he felt his pulse pounding in his throat.
He really loved the first day of a new school year, but not for the reasons many of his classmates did. His few close friends called him Bill, but to his enemies — and he had quite a few- he was known as Billy ‘D’, the schoolyard bully.
He heard voices.
First victims of the day and they’re coming my way, he muttered to himself proud of his poetic accomplishment.
“Why are we coming so early?”
“Cause we are dopey, that’s why.”
William thought the second voice sounded deep, more grownup.
Ten, nine, eight, he counted to himself, got to be brothers, seven, six, five.
“Man, you’re the stupidest little brother a guy ever had. Didn’t I tell you this way was shorter?”
“Yeah, but Mom said…”
“Forget what Mom said. I’m biggern’ you, and until we get home, I’m the boss got it?”
From his hiding place, William heard the swishing sounds of footsteps through the grass and then the scuffling of shoes on the path.
Four, three, two, he counted silently.
“You may be biggern’ me, but you ain’t biggern’ Dad, and when I tell, he’s gonna ground you for a whole year.”
“One,” William exclaimed with a loud squeal. He sprang from his hiding place, planting his feet on either side of the path, his hands on his hips.
When he saw who it was, he offered both boys a cruel leer.
“Well, if it ain’t the Tompson brothers. Big Chuck and little Danny. Strange, we all decided to come early today, huh?”
William stared at the two boys as Chuck Thompson pulled his younger brother behind him. William knew Chuck was scared. He could feel it, sense the older boy’s fear. Although he and Chuck were about the same size, something inside told him that he could easily pound them both into the ground.
“What do you want, Billy?”
William calmly inspected his fingernails then gazed at Chuck.
“Nothing much, Chucky. I just wanted to know where you two was eatin’ lunch today.”
“None of your business Billy ‘D’, Danny squeaked.
William took a step forward and then laughed as both of the boys stepped away.
“What’s a matter, guys? I’m just trying to be friendly, that’s all.”
Chuck Thompson grabbed his brother by the arm and pulled him forward. Carefully eyeing William, he and Danny stepped off the path and began to circle around.
William never moved. He kept his place, watching as Chuck and Danny passed by. Then, without warning, and as quick as a striking snake, William pushed Danny to the ground and grabbed Chuck around the throat with his arm.
“Leave him alone,” Danny shouted. The small boy jumped up and rushed toward Chuck and William. Twisting Chuck’s arm behind his back, William waited. Just as Danny reached him, he lashed out with his foot, catching Danny square in the stomach.
Danny let out a gasp, then fell to the ground and began to cry.
“I swear, I’ll…”
William tightened his hold on Chuck’s arm, cutting off the older boy’s reply.
“Didn’t see any lunch boxes on you two, so I’m guessing you’re carrying money today, right?”
William yanked Chuck’s arm even higher.
“So let’s see what you got Chucky boy, or I’ll pound you and your brother bloody.”
Chuck reached into his pocket with his free hand and held up two one-dollar bills. William snatched them away then leaned in close.
“What about Danny, boy? He got any?
William tugged Chuck’s arm higher until the boy winced in pain.
“Danny, give him your money.”
Sitting in the grass beside the trail, Danny reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out another two dollars. Tears continued to trail down the young boy’s cheeks.
“How we going’ to eat?
“Just give it to him, dopey.”
Danny struggled to his feet and straightened, warily eying William’s as he stumbled in the boy’s direction with his hand out. William grabbed the money out of Danny’s hand then shoved Chuck away so hard the older boy fell to his knees. As Chuck started to stand up, William balled both fists and threatened both boys.
“If either of you guys says anything about this, I’ll finish what I started here. I’ll bust you up so bad your own mom and dad won’t recognize you. You two spazzes got that?”
Silently rubbing his shoulder, Chuck nodded. He put his arm around his brother and turned away, but then he stopped, and together, both boys turned around to face William.
“Billy ‘D’, one of these days you’re going to regret being so mean to all of us,” Chuck said, his voice trembling.
William took a step toward the boys and raised a fist again.
“You want to try somethin’ Chucky?”
Both boys turned with a jerk, and William watched them run down the path, smiling with a cruel grin as they rounded the gym and disappeared from sight.
Four dollars more prosperous, and whistling a happy tune under his breath, William walked into his first class of the morning. Late, as usual, he’d been expecting to see Ms. Barker sitting behind her desk, taking attendance. He knew him being late would disrupt the entire class, and that was precisely what he wanted.
The woman sitting behind the desk wasn’t Ms. Barker.
For a moment, he just stood and stared at her, thinking she was the most beautiful teacher he’d ever seen. When she smiled at him, her entire face seemed to light up. He realized for some reason, he was smiling back.
“Better late, than never young man.”
The students in the classroom began to laugh. Scowling, William whirled around and glared until the room was quiet again. Satisfied, he turned back around.
“Where’s Ms. Barker?”
The teacher glanced at her attendance report then back at him.
Upon hearing his name, the class exploded with laughter. This time he turned around and raised his fists until the laughter died. William stepped to the woman’s desk and said in a voice so low it was almost a whisper, “my friends call me Bill. You can call me Billy ‘D’.”
The woman nodded her head and smiled again. As William stared into her hunter green eyes, he felt his insides turn warm and mushy. Quickly, he chased the feeling aside and scowled at her.
“Nobody calls me William.”
“Okay…Billy ‘D’. Why don’t you take a seat over there and we’ll get started.”
William ignored her. Instead, he walked to the back of the class and motioned at a young man to get out of a seat.
As the boy slid out and moved to the front, William took his place.
“I already have a seat,” he said, a crooked grin plastered on his face.
“Okay, have it your way. Children, my name is Ms. Horsely and…”
“Did you say horsefly?” William shot back.
Ms. Horsely and the class erupted into a chorus of laughter.
“No,” she said over the noise, “It’s Horsely. Horse and then Lee, I’ll be your substitute for the next three or four days as Ms. Barker had a death in the family. I’ll be helping you with your studies.”
“We ain’t supposed to have studies on the first day of school.”
“Oh I think you’ll like the surprise I’ve brought today Will, uh Billy ‘D’”
Instantly, the classroom began to buzz with excitement as the students began to speculate what Ms. Horsley had brought to show them.
William decided he wanted no part of Ms. Horsely’s tricks. While the rest of the class paid rapt attention to everything she said and worked through the study courses, William slouched in his chair pretending to sleep.
Of course, he wasn’t sleeping. He was waiting for Ms. Horsley to make him sign the consequence chart, or worse, take him to the principle’s office.
But she never did. Each time he raised his head and stared at her; she smiled at him, then turned her attention to the other students.
It was driving him crazy.
Late in the afternoon, only minutes from the bell that would set William free, Ms. Horsely made her special announcement.
“Okay, everybody, put away your books and come up to the desk. I have a special friend to introduce to you.”
William held back, watching as his classmates scurried to the front and surrounded her desk. When he heard them begin to laugh and giggle, he frowned, and when curiosity got the better of him, he elbowed his way through the press of children and stopped in front of her desk.
Sitting behind a cage, furiously nibbling on a carrot stick, a dark-eyed, pudgy hamster with brown and white fur and long whiskers studied him.
“A rat? You brought us a rat to look at?”
“It’s not a rat Billy ‘D’. Meet Impostor, the hamster.”
Ms. Horsely leaned in close to the cage and whispered, “Impostor. This is the boy I told you about.”
She straightened and pointed at William.
“Imposter, this is William Dean Hawkins.”
I told you, my name’s Billy ‘D’. You know you’re talking to that rat, like he can understand what you’re saying, right?”
“He understands a lot more than you think Billy ‘D’.”
“Sure, he does.”
The school bell rang, and the room was alive with activity as each student rushed to gather their things and head for the door. Ms. Horsely stopped William at the door.
She held up Impostor’s cage.
“Usually, I wait until the second or third time I visit a class before I send Impostor home with a special child, but I think your time has come as well, William.”
“I ain’t taking that rat home with me. I ain’t got time to mess with it.”
Ms. Horsely continued to hold the cage up, this time brushing the edge of the cage against William’s chest.
“Again Billy ‘D’, it’s a hamster. You’ll be amazed at just how easy it is to take care of Impostor.”
When she smiled at him, there was a sudden coldness in her eyes that made William uneasy.
“Impostor will go home with you today, William.”
Although her voice was soft, it filled the room, sounding hollow and ancient. Thoughts of pyramids, the Spinx and long-dead mummies in their tombs sprang into his head. Then he could have sworn Ms. Horsely said something else, but he never saw her lips move.
Take me, William. I belong to you and you to me. We are one and the same.
William had no idea what prompted him to do it, but he reached out and grabbed the handle of the cage and without a word, turned and left the classroom.
He didn’t remember the walk home from school. Usually, he enjoyed stopping by the playground in search of smaller children to pick on, but a tiny voice he kept hearing in his head told him to walk straight home.
William hurried upstairs to his room and placed Impostor on a desk in the corner of his bedroom. For the longest time, he simply stared at the hamster in silence, watching as it nibbled on a carrot stick and stared back at him.
You’re nothing but a stupid overgrown rat, he thought to himself.
“No. I am the real you, William Dean Hawkins. Without your help, I will never be free.”
This is nuts, William thought. If I didn’t know better, I’d say this rat is talking to me.
“You are not crazy William. It is your fear that keeps you from the truth.”
William stared in shock at the hamster. Impostor was no longer nibbling on a carrot. He was facing William, unblinking, his nose and whiskers steady, his eyes fixed on William.
William shook his head, desperate to clear away the crazy thoughts in his head.
“What did you just say to me?”
From somewhere, he heard the words as clear as if he’d spoken them himself.
“I said it is your fear that keeps you from the truth.”
“This can’t be happening,” he mewled, covering his ears. Try as he may, he could not keep Impostor’s voice from burrowing inside his head.
“Yes, it can happen William. Just as it has happened for thousands of years. Now come. It is time for you. You must release me from the cage and in doing so, release the truth inside of you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” William shouted. “I can take you out of that cage and squeeze your neck ‘till I break it.”
“Yes you could. You could kill me and at the same time forever doom yourself to life without the secret.”
“A secret I will share but only if you release me.”
“Tell me the secret, and I’ll let you out.”
“I’m afraid that is not possible.”
William opened the door of the cage. Cautiously, he reached in, his hand trembling, wondering why all of a sudden, he was so frightened of a tiny hamster. Slowly he closed his hand around Impostor and pulled him out.
He smiled and tightened his grip around the hamster’s middle. Impostor began to squirm, and he tightened his grip even more.
But this time, the hamster turned his head, and before William could stop it, bit William on the tip of his finger.
William howled in pain, dropped Impostor and began inspecting his finger. In the dim light of his room, he saw a tiny pearl of blood and flew into a rage searching for the hamster.
He began pulling his furniture away from the walls, throwing his toys and shoes and clothing everywhere. After almost an hour of searching, William gave up and collapsed on the floor.
Suddenly, he felt sleepy, more sleepy than he’d ever felt in his life. William rested his head on a pile of clothing and fell into a deep slumber.
When William woke up, he heard the sound of his mother calling him downstairs for supper. He opened his eyes, blinked several times then stared about his room.
Everything looked like it had been made for a giant. His bed looked almost three stories high. His baseball bat leaning against the wall in the corner seemed as big as a California redwood tree.
Everything seemed huge.
To make matters worse, he could only see things in black and white. No blues or greens or reds or purples, only black and whites and shades of gray.
What’s happened to me, he wondered. Somehow, and he didn’t know how, things seemed horribly, horribly wrong.
He tried to stand, then realized his body was hunched over, and he couldn’t do any better than crawl around on all fours. He felt his nose begin to twitch and realized he could suddenly smell everything.
He sensed the odor of the plaster on the walls, the smell of paper from his book sack, the stench of sweat on his clothes. William reached up to stop his nose from twitching then tried to scream as a tiny claw loomed in front of his face. In shock, he realized the claw had at one time been his hand.
He stared at his furry arm to which the claw-hand was attached.
It had at one time been his arm.
What has happened to me?
He screamed. At least he tried to scream, but all he heard was a high-pitched squeal.
A voice boomed above him, “I see you’ve finally awakened eh Impostor?”
William looked up and saw someone who looked exactly like him, like he used to look like, standing over him.
Before he could scamper away, the giant boy that looked like him reached down and picked William up.
Inside his head, William was screaming. What his ears heard was a continuous chain of squeals and squeaks.
Some feral instinct spurred William to bite the boy. Bite him on the hand, but then William heard the boy say something which paralyzed him with fear.
“Now you know the secret, William. It was only a matter of time before the mistress found another who would need a lifetime of lessons. There will always be children such as you, for I too was once like you. Over centuries of being poked and prodded, jostled and squeezed and made to fear for my life, I have learned. You shall also learn William. But for now, it is your turn to be the teacher’s pet.”
William squealed as the new William Dean Hawkins put him back in the cage and closed and locked the door. He was still screaming when his mother opened the door to his room and stuck her head in.
“My Lord, look at this mess, William, uh, I mean Billy ‘D’. And what are you doing to that poor creature to make it squeak like that?”
“Mom, I think I prefer William. As a matter of fact, Bill even sounds good to me. Don’t worry about Impostor Mom. Ms. Horsely said he’d be a little excited for a while but should calm down once he gets used to his surroundings. Sorry about the room. I’ll clean it right after supper, okay?”
With a gasp, the new William’s mother rushed into the room and took her son into her arms. She gave him a squeeze then stepped back, wiping traces of tears from both eyes.
“I love you, Bill.”
“Love you too, Mom.”
William’s mother tousled his hair and smiled, “go get washed up for supper.”
As the new William sped out of his room his mother stepped over and leaned down for a closer inspection of Impostor.
“You must be hungry little one. Maybe that’s why you’re crying. Tell you what. I’ll have Bill bring you some lettuce or something after supper, okay?”
With that, she turned and flipped the lights off and closed William’s bedroom door.
Alone in the dark, the new Impostor clutched the bars of his cage and squeaked and squealed and cried, almost sounding human at times.
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© P.G. Barnett, 2019. All Rights Reserved.