In honor of May’s National Short Story Month, Flavorwire held its second short story contest and, after much deliberation, emerged with a first-place story, along with three honorable mentions. Over the course of the week, Flavorwire will be publishing each of the four winners. For today’s story, we present “King William” by Leonard Vance.
It’s remarkable to think that I was there to witness his development from day one. I remember being jolted awake by the wind roaring through the screen door as my little sister Gloria barged in with a barely perceptible whimper slipping from between her lips and thin lines of mascara etching black tributaries over the soft surface of her cheeks. There was a strange moment when I turned on the kitchen light to see the dissonance created by her dejected posture and boisterous laughter whirring from the late night program I had blaring on the TV as I fell asleep. She slumped down on the couch and quickly explained to me that she’d made a mistake; one she could never take back no matter how much she wanted to.
Her and a boy she liked from school had a few cocktails in his parent’s basement, and they ended up sleeping together. It was consensual, but they didn’t use any protection. Somehow, she’d knew at that moment that she was going to be pregnant, and that she wouldn’t be going off to college in the fall like she’d planned. And through a drawn out, tearful, and slurring confession, I learned that she was vehemently opposed to getting an abortion. I did my best to calm her down, despite my own shock, then gave her two Advils, kissed her on the forehead, and tucked her into bed. It wasn’t until the orange glow of the sunrise began painting the walls in the living room that I was able to get a second of sleep myself.
A few weeks later, we sat in a pale office while a lanky and spectacled doctor showed us a chart that detailed the approximate sizes of a fetus throughout its development.
“But at this early a stage,” he added, “your egg is no larger than caterpillar’s.”
When we went back home, Gloria was silent, and went straight to her room and locked the door. To distract myself, I tried cleaning up the house a little bit. I found a smooth green leaf tucked under the couch. I figured it must have blown in through the door with my sister the same night she conceived the baby.
In the early years after my nephew, William, was born, my most vivid recollections of him are of how restless he was, how much he ate, and how quickly he grew. It seemed like he ate anything and everything, as if it were for the sake of science, and he grew, to me, what seemed like quadruple a child’s normal rate. Once his motor skills developed that first summer, he was inching through the blades of grass in our backyard, making his way towards whatever intriguing facet of nature caught his attention at the moment. My mother lugged around blazing cinders of anger in the pit of her stomach from the “shame” my sister had apparently caused the family, but even she couldn’t help but smile at my nephew’s joy of the world. On more than one occasion, I caught a flicker of a smile creep on my mothers face as she watched William eating Milkweed leaves like popcorn.
Once, when he was about three and my mom was supposed to be watching him, William found a small hole that was dug into the dirt right under the metal fence that enclosed our backyard. I can only guess that some neighborhood dog must have dug it out. My nephew, always his curious self, stuck his head underneath the fence for a look on the other side, and when he pulled his head back out, he’d sliced four deep cuts across his cheeks, pouring blood down his face. I heard him scream out in agony, and I rushed through the back door as my mom slowly emerged from the wooden rocking chair on the porch, already in denial of any responsibility. I brushed past her and ran across the yard to pick him up, and the instant I saw the depth of the cuts the fence had carved into him, I knew the scars would be permanent. Luckily, he seemed to bore no emotional scars, and the next morning he was back out in the yard again with a bandage on his face, eating up all of the Milkweed leaves he could get his hands on. I figured that if the leaves were bad for him, my mom would stop him. But it’s possible that she was just oblivious with her face buried into the morning paper. I still wonder if it was something he ate back then that give him such bad skin problems as he grew up.
When he was about five, he began suffering from terrible outbreaks of eczema and psoriasis all over his body, which irritated his delicate skin for months on end. To witness him on some days was to witness true suffering. He cried and cried when the itching wouldn’t stop and the pain was overwhelming from all of the scratching he couldn’t help but do. I once caught him out in the yard rubbing his back against the bark of a tree like a bear. It was cute for a moment, but then I realized why he did it, and it became so forceful that it began to look like he was trying shed his skin. I called out to him and, embarrassedly, he stopped and went back to playing in the grass.
I first noticed the change in my nephew when he was on the tail end of seventh grade, so about 12 years old. He began keeping to himself much more often than usual. I could have been projecting, or perhaps it was because I harbored a guilty conscience, but part of me thought that he was growing to realize how bad his life was from the outside. Particularly, how sad his mother always was, and how much of a lowlife his father was. Maybe he’d finally realized that he could never expect her to be happy or his dad to show his face. Twelve years and not a single call or birthday card. But it could’ve all just been in my head. Between him being in school and me working the night shift for most of his life, I didn’t get as much time with him as I wanted, and I felt like I was failing him as an uncle. I hated the thought of stunting his growth, or my neglect redirecting him to a bad branch in life. But as far as I know, his father and mother couldn’t have been further from his mind. I just knew something was off.
Throughout his childhood and early adolescence, the one constant about my nephew was that he was constantly on the move, so if I stopped for a few moments, he was almost guaranteed to cross my path sooner than later. He had endless energy. But around this time I sensed a shift in the atmosphere around the house, but I couldn’t quite grasp what it was or where it came from. It was an eerie feeling that danced and floated just beyond my grasp, like a butterfly flittering between my fingertips. I came to realize that it was nothing more than an unusual silence and calm. For the first time since he could move on his own, my nephew wasn’t hustling around the house, making noise and filling our world with life, enlivening the palates of our lives with color. He slowed down a bit, moved around less, inch-by-inch, and took on a more focused demeanor. Something had or was changing inside him, like he was entering a new phase in his life. I began resenting the silent void his presence left, but I became truly concerned because the phase seemed to be turning him inward. I brought up his attitude once, but he brushed me off hastily. He was “just thinking more,” he said.
Throughout the rest of the summer, I’d catch him out in the yard alone, “thinking” in the grass, but then he began doing something I found incredibly odd. The first time I saw it, I looked out of the kitchen window while I was washing dishes, and there he was hanging by his knees, upside down from a limb on the Oak tree that shaded our entire backyard. He just hung there, like a monk meditating. I panicked a bit when I began to see his face turning purple from the blood that rushed to his head, but it was all too weird for me to know how to react. And when I saw that he seemed to be well aware of what he was doing, I just let him do it. And he kept it up, like a Zen ritual, every single day. I cringe now thinking of how badly the bark must’ve torn into the back of his knees.
One afternoon I walked out to the tree and found him in his now standard position, dangling like a bat, entranced in thought. Before, I beat around the bush asking him what was wrong, and it got me nowhere. I asked Gloria if she’d spoken to him, but she seemed not to notice anyone or anything but the sound of her own breathing. My mother was of the old generation and simply refused to deal with matters of emotion publically, so I took the wheel into my own hands once more, this time choosing to take a direct route to the answer.
“Look, I know something is bothering you,” I started, calling up to him from the grass below, “and I can tell you from experience that you might feel better if you just talk to me about it. You’ll get it off your chest, and I might even be able to help you.”
He looked at me and didn’t say a word. The muggy July breeze slithered around my body, and I stood there with my eyebrows up and sweat slowly beading down my forehead for what felt like minutes, but couldn’t have been more than a few seconds.
“At least tell me what you’re doing upside down in this tree every day,” I pleaded.
He blinked twice as he calculated his next move, then surprised me by divulging an honest and speedy confession, as if I’d pressed play on a paused movie. He informed me that there was a girl from school that he had a crush on since third grade, but he just found out that she thought he was ugly because of the scars on his face. He didn’t know what to do about it but to figure out a way to make the scars fade away. He’d read somewhere that blood flow and good circulation helped cuts heal quicker, so he figured that if he hung upside down, he’d increase the blood flow to his face and make his scars heal up. He was sure that after a while a new him would emerge and sweep his girl off her feet. I wanted to tell him then and there that his tactic was destined to fail, and that his scars were with him for life, but I just didn’t have the heart. I was finally able to bust the dam of his emotions, and I wasn’t going to throw any logs of logic into the water until the river was calm again.
More than a week passed before I summoned the courage to tell him the truth. I was too hesitant to break his spirit. When the last words of truth finally did disintegrate in the breeze between my mouth and his ears, his face turned pale white, despite him being upside down. He didn’t say a word in reply, but kept blinking furiously. I didn’t know what else to say, so I turned back and walked inside the house. From the kitchen window inside, I saw his entire body clenching and tensing as he hung there, like a man trying to fidget his way out of a tied potato sack. He ended up not speaking to me for three weeks. He barely spoke to anyone for that matter, as if he’d built a mental force field around himself as a shield from the elements.
I don’t know if it was out of defiance against me, or if he was just in too deep to give up, but from the day I snatched away his hope and onwards, he began sitting in the tree for hours on end, frightening me that he was giving himself permanent brain damage. I figured that this was the beginning of what could be a lengthy adolescent depression. I’d had my heartbroken at that age, like most of us, but I still find it hard to believe that everything he was doing was solely because of this girl. One look at his family life and it was obvious that he had many reasons to cocoon himself off from the world on the limb of a tree. But nothing I tried helped.
One afternoon I came home and saw an empty plastic bag crinkled atop the kitchen table. I looked inside and saw two boxes of hair dye—one black, and the other some ruddy shade of orange. My sister, Gloria, was a brunette, so the orange would have no effect, taking her out of contention. And I knew that it couldn’t be for my mother, who thought the idea of changing one’s natural hair color was a form of dishonesty. The only person left was William, who was a natural blond–from his estranged father’s side of the family, I always assume. Rather than disturb him from his routine and cause more drama, I simply turned on the TV and waited for him to come inside.
As the top of the sun descended beneath the horizon, I couldn’t take the mystery any longer, so I went outside to the tree where he still hung, resolute on knowing why he bought the dyes and bringing him down from the tree for his own good. But I had no idea what I would say to him. When I got outside, I saw his shirt and pants crumpled on the grass like molted skin, and he was wearing nothing but his socks and underwear. But he hung there with an enigmatic smile on his face—a sight I hadn’t seen in months—and his hair was dyed a wild yet somehow uniform pattern of blended of colors. There were streaks of black and orange with pockets of blond all over his head. I was about to speak, but as if we were just coming to the end of a long conversation, he simply and evenly blurted out, “It’s perfect,” as if I’d just asked him what he thought of his new look. I was dumbfounded, but seeing him smile was like a muddy boot that was pinning me down being lifted from my chest.
“It is perfect,” I replied.
“My face already had stripes, but now my hair is orange and black too, like a tiger’s coat,” he added, grinning. “I’m the king of the jungle!”
“The monarch reigns!” I joked, not feeling the necessity to tell him that lions are the kings of the jungle.
He swung his arms up to the tree limb and pulled himself upright, then carefully stood up on his feet. To keep his balance, he slowly spread out his arms like he was unfurling a pair of wings for the first time. I waited there below him on high alert, peering up, fearful that he’d slip off and tumble to the ground. He looked so fragile, delicate, and small in contrast with the countless branches of the mighty Oak, but sublimely graceful and serene at the same time. He wobbled slightly as the wind picked up a bit, but he adjusted and blinked calmly. Then, he smiled at me, and with his arms still spread, leapt off the limb. The novelty of the moment made it occur in slow motion in my mind’s eye, and I was too enraptured to even think of attempting to catch him. I was nothing more than a spectator watching as he took his first flight and his newly ginger locks shined like a golden crown in the last wisps of the late summer sun. The moment seemed to transcend the limits of time, gravity, and reality, both physically and emotionally, and happiness poured over me like fresh amber-colored honey dripping from the comb. My only thoughts were that I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have been there from the very beginning, when he was no bigger than a caterpillar’s egg, and how grateful I was for the privilege to view another being transform over time. When he did land, it was on his feet, softly on the grass and without sound, like a trained ballerina. I almost clapped. And I realized that no one can ever really prepare themselves to witness a life transform before their naked eyes, and it’s even harder to appreciate it. But some of us are lucky enough to experience it. I got to witness William’s development from the time he was nothing but a possibility until the moment he took flight, and it was beautiful.
Leonard Vance is a writer and editor from Chicago, IL. He loves life.