PG, gen, The X-Files. William van de Kamp is special.
William van de Kamp is special. His mom tells him that every day, in the
quiet of the morning when she’s getting him dressed, her voice soft like her
fingers teasing hooks and zippers. He remembers her telling him, even before he
knew what the words meant, loved and chosen and needed and
wanted; before he remembers anything else, he remembers this. She told
him when he was in his crib, she says. She told him every day. Now he’s five and
not a baby any more, but she’s never stopped.
In kindergarten, there’s another kid who’s like him, but only William can spell
“adoption”; he asked specially, and it’s the longest word he can spell. One time
they both got up together and did a show-and-tell; William didn’t have anything
to show, but his teacher helped him tell all about how other mommies and daddies
had to take what they were given, but his got to choose him, and that’s why he
was special. Big fat Billy, sitting in the front with his big fat hands clasped,
said that meant that his real parents didn’t want him, and the teacher got cross
and told him off.
William doesn’t believe that, anyway. His mom has told him that the woman who
had him first, his birth-mom, loved him very much but couldn’t look after him,
and that’s why he came to live with a new family in a new state, where there
were people to look after him and love him the way his birth-mom couldn’t.
William thinks about other places sometimes – one time at school they talked
about how America has lots of states, and some of them are hot and wet, like
Florida, and some of them are very cold and by the sea, like Maine, and there’s
also the place where the President lives, the White House, which is in
Washington DC and isn’t a state at all.
He looks at the pictures, but he can’t really imagine any state other than
Wyoming. It has rolling fields and bright blue sky, and he likes to sit in the
backyard and make pictures out of the clouds.
The other boy who’s adopted told William that his birth-mom couldn’t look
after him because she was too young. William thinks that it must be scary, being
a mom when you’re a kid yourself. He looks at teenagers in the street for a
while before he remembers that he’s not so little any more and his birth-mom
must be older too. But he still looks at people who go past on the street or in
the park, sisters dressed in candy-pink, women in jeans walking dogs, joggers
with iPods and girls on skateboards, and thinks about whether any of them have a
secret, a baby they couldn’t look after and sent to another family. He hopes the
girl who gave birth to him is happy now she’s a grown-up.
He asks his mom about it one night when she’s washing the dishes. At first she
doesn’t say anything, and he starts to say it again in case she didn’t hear him,
but he stops when she picks him up, in the way she says he’s too old and heavy
for now, and sets him down on the kitchen counter.
“William,” she says, and he thinks she might be angry. But she isn’t; she’s just
very serious, and the corners of her mouth have dipped down. She puts the sponge
into the sink and leans on the counter. “It’s okay to ask about her,” she says
very quietly. “What do you want to know?”
He doesn’t know where to start. So his mom tells him that his birth-mom wasn’t a
teenager at all, she was a grown-up lady like his actual mom, and that she had
to give him up but they don’t know exactly why. And that he was born a long way
from Wyoming, way to the east, and he came to live here in this house when he
was a year old. “Where you’ve been ever since,” his mom says, and smiles a
William wants to tell her that he didn’t mean to make her look so sad, standing
by the window with the sunset gleaming in her hair, but he looks out across the
world stretching out behind her and there are things that he needs to know.
He thinks hard, lying in bed at night, trying to picture another life, but it
doesn’t work. In his head he makes up cities and tall buildings, like in the
pictures he’s seen of New York, but they fade away and disappear like smoke
rising up, into the huge arching sky.
It’s his birthday soon after that. He’s nine, and the year is 2010. He likes how
he’s always a year younger than the century, that it grows old with him. His
parents have told him what happened, how the whole world celebrated the new era,
and he wants to make sure that he lives to be ninety-nine so he gets to see for
One of his presents is a set of Harry Potter books, and he stays up
reading them, under the covers with a flashlight. He likes Harry, who has
special powers and doesn’t live with his real mom and dad, either. When Harry’s
a little kid, before he goes to Hogwarts, (William likes the idea of going away
to school in a castle, and reckons he’d be a Gryffindor) strangers shake his
hand, and people who don’t know him bow to him in shops. They know he’s special
and he doesn’t.
William knows he’s special, because his mom still tells him that he is. He says
he’s too old for it now, he knows how and why he was adopted, but he wouldn’t
like it if she stopped. And sometimes he thinks people in the street are
watching him, or that people turn to look at him in shops, but later he thinks
he’s just imagining it.
The next day is a Saturday, so he finishes the book sitting up in his tree
house. He keeps his stick insects in a jar up there, and he puts some extra
leaves in their jar while he reads. He likes the ending, and hidden among the
leaves, he starts wondering what it would be like to do magic, to go off having
adventures and saving the world. Suddenly dropping the book, he peers through
the shifting green patterns of light and shade, just right for camouflaging a
dragon creeping across the grass. He squints in the sunlight, turns his head
this way and that, and moves carefully, skilfully. In his mind’s eye he can see
its large, cruel eyes, the rising smoke of its breath. Leaning out, he throws a
large stick down from the tree.
“William!” yells his dad from the kitchen window. “Don’t do that, you could hit
I did, William thinks in satisfaction. The dragon writhes and disappears into
nothingness, in the sunlight slain.
One night in the middle of winter, William wakes up from a sound sleep. He can’t
think what’s awoken him; the room is silent and comfortable, as always, but
suddenly he feels wide awake, restless like he wants to run and jump or hit
something. It’s not dark, he realises; the sky is greyish, blue near the
horizon, and he guesses it must be nearly dawn. He can’t check; he left his
watch on his desk before going to bed.
He gets out of bed and walks downstairs, not turning on any of the lights. The
dim glow from the windows is enough. In the den, he looks for a book, but he
can’t find anything he hasn’t read already. He was hoping for new books for
Christmas, but that’s still five days away. He picks up his father’s Time
magazine up off the floor, but he tried reading it already this week and didn’t
have much luck. He always tries, and his dad always says he should keep trying,
and one day it’ll be easy enough for him to understand.
He doesn’t want to turn on the electric lights in case he wakes anyone up, but
he doesn’t need to; in the greyness, he can just about make out the cover. It
has three people on it, one of whom is in a wheelchair with a hole in his
throat. A tracheotomy, his dad said it was called, and explained that there were
diseases people could get so they couldn’t breathe any other way. The man in the
picture is very ill.
The other two people in it are younger, a tall man and a much shorter woman with
hair that’s red like William’s, and they look tired and ill, too. He looks at it
for another second, then drops it on the floor. Without thinking about it, he
goes to find his boots, his sweater, his jacket, pulling them on over his
pyjamas. He thinks about leaving a note for his parents, but he’ll be back
before they wake up. He opens the front door.
Outside, the air is icy-cold and he immediately sees his breath becoming a cloud
of steam. Everything looks strange, he thinks as he starts to walk; everything
seems to be lit from the wrong direction. All at once he realises the greyness
of dawn is not in the east, but from a point right above him, and as he looks
up, he sees something flashing white, so bright it hurts his eyes and makes him
see stars, so bright he’ll do anything to chase it, catch it like a firefly
between his fingers, so when he lets it go it will take something of him up into
He turns round sharply. Behind him, his mother is standing framed by the
doorway. She doesn’t say anything, but the flashes reflect in her eyes and she
is pale, scared. William looks at her for a long moment, but she doesn’t move
and he can’t go back.
There are silver saucers in the atmosphere and dragons in the long grass as
William walks towards the light. He hears her voice, you’re special, you’re
special, you were chosen, you’re going to make magic for us all, ringing in
his head with the rhythm of his footsteps, thump, thump, thump, and he feels the
vibration of the ground, of his own footsteps echoing into the heart of the
He remembers flying, although it wasn’t him who flew, and he can remember the
city smog and the cherry-blossom that came before the cloud-pictures in the
blue. He looks back for one minute at the house, framed by a rising halo, before
he feels inside him the daylight and the dawn, each step taking him to the new
era, forging a whole new world.
He’s only eleven, but this is the second time he’s left home.