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Willie was born on a rickety swing at 11:30 in the morning. It was old and brown, suspended on either side, and it swung jerkily if pushed too hard. It was already a steaming hot day, too hot inside for his momma, so they carried her outside onto her porch in the middle of everything. All the little kids stopped playing and stood around her, hushed and expectant, and the midwives had no time or energy to shoo them off. When Willie was born it was like all the world was watching him, those bright little eyes welcoming him with their own curiosity. “Only in Gottonsville,” the old people sang later, cackling.
As Willie grew older, he never realized he was different from anybody else. He did get sad and scared a lot, but he was understood. Nobody “worked around it,” like they worked around the hobos on highway 65, going down to Cuevitas. They flowed around Willie like one all-encompassing hug. Gottonsville called him the Blue Boy, like the cloud of over-analytical melancholy that always seemed to hover over his head.
His momma would sing to him on their porch swing whenever he was scared or sad. She loved that swing. It was covered in dust, with wind chimes hanging on every corner, and it shaded them from the sunlight. The rays peeked through the bushes and flowers she somehow coaxed to grow around their house.
On his birthday every year, Willie’s momma would tell him the story of his birth. On his ninth birthday, when she wasn't around anymore, Willie wished he had listened more carefully, wished he had savored each word she said like it was dessert. Heather didn't care about his story. She didn't even call him Willie. She said the name was too black.
Willie was basically a genius, which surprised everyone, mostly himself. His momma knew of course, but she didn't make a whole big deal out of it. She probably knew he would get told it a lot when he was older. She was right. When she died and Willie went to live with his aunt and uncle Heather and Logan and their three daughters, they were angry. Nobody had told them about his intelligence. Willie’s teachers all knew well, but they hated Willie’s father’s side of the family enough not to mention it to them. Besides, Willie had never moved up a grade before, and he had been happy, since he found the older children terrifying. Once when his momma was walking him home, a bunch of the older boys had asked him to play basketball. Willie started to tremble, and didn’t let go of his momma’s hand until she persuaded him to give the boys a chance. He had followed them to the dirt park they played in, and had promptly hid in a tree, waiting until they left so he could run away. Although he could figure out anything more quickly than the boys and knew words their own mommas didn’t, they scared him. Their size, the way they talked, and how they treated each other made him feel small and vulnerable.
Logan didn’t see Willie’s life the way Willie did. He told him the sooner he got to college, the sooner he could get him out of his house.
Willie was the only black kid to skip a grade in his new school, Stanley Academy. What took most kids four years from Freshman to Senior took him two. Logan was gleeful, like Willie had just won best b**** at a dog show.
Willie, on the other hand, was completely miserable. He had to take the bus to school, a big yellow thing unknown to him until then, that smelled like rotten fish and sweat. The bus not only stank but the kids did, kids pressing in on each other on all sides, screaming and shrieking, with an obese bus driver who occasionally swore at them all halfheartedly. Even with all this commotion and close bodies, no one ever spoke once to Willie on any of the hundreds of days he rode on it.
He wished his only problem at school was the bus, but it was just the ribbon on the present of his overall loneliness. Willie felt the oppression settle around him like water covering a beach upon which he was a tiny shell. He hated it. Thousands of cookie cutter houses lined the streets. Thousands of cookie cutter classrooms lined the halls, filled with thousands of cookie cutter kids. Even those outliers who didn’t seem to fit into Stanley Academy’s mold wouldn’t talk to him. Only one boy, Peter Barkley, ever seemed to take an interest in Willie. He was in his English honors class, and said he “appreciated the ironic spiritualism” in Willie’s poetry. Willie gained a huge adoration for Peter, his senior by three years, and took to clinging to him almost at all times. Peter occasionally pretended to get mad at his constant company and admiration, but honestly seemed to love him. Peter was the island to which Willie clung.
"He seems so simple minded," Willie heard Logan telling Heather one day when he was thirteen. "Who woulda guessed he could ace it all the freaking time?”
"He keeps it inside," said Molly, Willie’s fourteen year old cousin, not bothering to look up from the floor. “Duh.” Molly didn't like Willie when they were little, partly because he was smarter than her and she knew it. But she was fair, and that was something Willie desperately needed. They were each others’ closest friends- which admittedly was not saying much.
"What do you mean?" said Heather, annoyed. Molly was Willie’s cousin and Heather’s least favorite daughter.
"Why would he try and be smart for you?" Molly asked, one eyebrow curled mischievously, finally looking up from her crayons. Logan spanked her and brought her upstairs, but Molly knew Willie was listening from the other room. She knew it made him think.
It was Molly who told him he had to be good because he was black. Willie asked why, but she could never answer him in a way that made sense to him. It wasn’t until he was older that he started to get it. People would always be scared of him, no matter how good he was. He just needed to keep that emotion from turning into hate.
By their teens, Molly saw him as more of an ally, and in her shameful desperation, even as someone her parents could be more cruel to than her. She told him secrets, things about herself her parents would kill her for. He was more happy with those secrets than anything else he’d ever owned. He’d never give it away. He might still be just a moody, alienated teenager, but he was certainly smart enough to realize he needed Molly.
Most of the kids didn’t know his name the entire time he was at Stanley Academy. They called him Black Boy. Willie could feel the name cut into his skin, ripping it off of him and throwing it around him like a cloak that hid his face and eyes. He bought a hoodie.
Peter’s parents called Willie Black Boy too, and eventually ripped Peter away from him, forbidding them to spend time together, transferring their classes, blocking their communication. It felt to Willie like the ground was being ripped out from below his feet, like the whole world was spinning and he had nowhere to fall.
Willie met Sarah at Burger King. He started working there when he was saving up cash for a car, at the end of senior year when he was sixteen. She worked at the counter, he flipped burgers. Her blonde hair was beautiful, more yellow than fries, and ran down her back like a river bound together with her ponytail. Willie began to live for the brief moments their hands brushed as he handed her a tray. He loved how she moved, each motion seamlessly flowing into the next. Her laugh wasn’t small or fake, it cascaded, causing her warm smile to spread up to her eyes, creasing like the only thing she cared about in the world was what he had just said. He loved listening to her voice, and wished he could hear her say much more than the prices of food and “yes ma’am” and “no, sir”. Willie began to associate the smell of sh*tty fast food with Sarah. He didn’t like the connection. He thought she belonged somewhere more beautiful. He wondered exactly why he was so attracted to her- his fondest memories from the past were of dirty streets, dirty children, and blood thick with ethnicity. The wealthiest thing in his old neighborhood was the air, which was rich with the scents of lives and cooking and people. Sarah wasn’t like his old home at all, but he was still happy just being in her presence.
Molly was the one who told him about MIT’s acceptance letter. Her father had gotten it in the spring, but had hid it. She had overheard him telling Heather he was afraid Willie would run away, that he wouldn’t want to go. Logan was right. The sixteen year old Willie sunk to his knees, sobbing, with Molly uncharacteristically comforting him, an arm around his shoulder. Soon after, he started living in his car full time, avoiding the destructive, psychological claustrophobia inside the house. Molly understood, but she was sad to see him go. She wasn’t looking forward to the long year ahead. She was alone in the house, the now most hated member of their so-called family.
Willie got in his car and drove.
“I hate this,” he thought. He circled the suburbs, for the first time not caring if he looked like he was some criminal. Willie never got angry, yet a burning coil was extending itself in his chest, pushing itself into the chinks in his spine, up his throat, into his brain. Made of embers, Willie drove faster. He looked at the houses, all the people that hated him. He felt like he was drowning in the whiteness, something that never used to matter, until they had made an alien out of him. He was the only one, abandoned in a Caucasian sea.
Willie drove on as the sky turned the color of dark denim jeans. He stumbled out of his car, grabbing the side so he wouldn’t slip on the slick, dew-covered grass. It was dark in the circle of trees, but the hill overlooked the town’s lights on one side. Sometimes he forgot how tall he was- tall and skinny, like a pine tree. Sarah had told him once he was handsome, flirting in a way he would’ve been able to enjoy more if college wasn’t so fast approaching. He squinted in his dark car window, and acknowledged this. It was the first time he’d thought of himself as handsome since his momma died. Skin like rich coffee with a teaspoon of cream. Eyes light green, an unusual attribute gained from his father. Large eyes, giving him a slightly always-in-awe look. He was pretty muscular too, Willie noticed, smiling cheekily. He didn’t know someone could get ripped without noticing it. Maybe Sarah had noticed. The stress and lack of control that had condensed on Willie’s soul like tiny steel beads evaporated. He lay in the grass, his hoodie soaked with dew and rain. His car still smelled faintly of gasoline, and the smell wafted over and surrounded him.
‘When did I get a chance to be a normal person?” Willie griped, but then wanted to slap himself in the face for it. However much other people didn’t see it, he liked being who he was. He just disliked all that came with it.
Willie sunk to the ground, lying flat in the wet grass, shivering slightly as the water seeped through his clothes. He looked up at the sky, stars shining stronger out here than closer to town. Each one glimmered, a ray of light straight from the star to here, a ray of light he felt was only meant for his eyes. The light traveled all the way from the star to earth, taking possibly hundreds or thousands of years. His momma had told him that. Contrary to what Heather said, his momma was not a dumb black woman living with a million other black women just like her, ignorant and stubborn as goats. Willie winced every time Heather talked about his momma. Molly could tell Heather and Logan off, but Willie never did. Partly because he could tell they were scared of him, scared of his intelligence, scared of his race, scared of his alienness.
Willie looked around him. He wasn’t the only blackness around here. Everything was dark, and he wasn’t scared of it. He wouldn’t be scared of the dark, he refused to be. It was a symbol to him.
Heather might call his momma a goat, Willie thought, looking up at the sky, but she would never understand how his momma thought of things.
Willie’s momma was holding her Blue Boy in her lap, rocking on the swing. She didn’t need to believe in God, she said. “Look at everything around you,” she told Willie, stroking his hair, teasing it between her fingers. “If you spend your life wondering about all of this, you’ll have so much to think about you’ll never even need God. God’s like a brain game, Willie. You give a name to love and beauty and the Universe, and it’s all so much easier to handle. I never want you to do that, please don’t, for me, Willie. I want you to be completely overwhelmed by it, and come out the other side still in wonder and even more alive.”
Willie never gave the universe a name. He thought Sarah was the name of beauty, but for some reason, he didn’t think his momma would mind that.
Willie held his breath for as long as he could, then let go. He did it again. And again. Each time he kept his breath a little longer, each time gasping a little more from relief as he allowed oxygen to flow back into his lungs. What if he didn’t breathe in again? What would happen to him?
Sarah. Momma. Blackness. MIT. Logan. Molly. Alone. Breathe. Genius.
Willie wanted to be the Blue Boy again, the stoic little person with a family and a childhood.
He suddenly felt a rush of anger, that unwelcome, unnatural feeling to him, slicing through his reminiscing peacefulness. Did his uncle really think he was the reason Willie could ace anything, or find the solution to any problem faster than anyone, or say weird things other people didn’t always understand? In all of Willie’s logical brain, he could find no reason why Logan should be in charge of his entire world.
“What do you want, Willie?” Willie asked himself. No one ever asked him that.
He wanted to go home.
The boy ran through the streets. Scents of spice and dirt pervaded his nose and body, filling him with energy, loud music from a nearby building giving his strides a rhythm. His feet pounded through the streets- new shoes, they felt beautiful, like he was running with brand new feet. Kristopher loved to run, it freed him, it was his release. He was running home from a long one, he’d been gone since four that afternoon and it was almost seven. He hadn’t even had to leave Gottonville- he’d jogged past the social workers setting up a new communal building, and sprinted across the fields up the new hill he’d helped clean up the week before. He loved that hill now, he’d spent hours picking up glass with gloves, working next to his mother who fussed too much over the blood when he scratched himself. ‘Worth it,’ he had thought, revelling in the crisp breeze, a chill never found down in town late July.
Kristopher, breathing hard, prepared himself for one last burst, and flung the doors into his kitchen open. His mother and father swung around, and Kristopher let out a giggle at their surprised faces, both of them in the middle of cooking. Before they could berate him for running in the house he was kicking off his shoes and pattering up to his room. Within minutes, loud music was blasting.
“Willie, what are we going to do with that boy?” Kristopher’s mother said, playing with her hair that gleamed gold as the now fading sunset. Willie just grinned, wiping his hands off with a towel and kissing his wife on the cheek. In three long strides he made his way to his porch, plopping himself down on the swing outside that swung gently underneath him, creaking softly as he rocked. Eventually his son came outside, obviously curious as to why his parents hadn’t given him their usual tirade about running in the house or leaving his filthy shoes in the kitchen hallway. Willie’s eyes were closed and his face was peaceful, so Kristopher sat down next to him, sharing the sun’s light with his father.
“Do you like it here?” asked Willie. Kristopher turned to look at him, but the older man’s eyes were still closed, his brow slightly furrowed.
“Of course,” Kristopher said, “No offense, Dad, but that’s kind of a weird question.”
“Sometimes I think it was a bad idea to bring you here,” Willie said, looking over at Kristopher, the worry clearly showing in his eyes. “Your mother and try so hard here, but I feel selfish sometimes. You know we’d be rich as hell anywhere else...nobody knows why we still live in this recovering place.”
“Because if you weren’t, it wouldn’t be recovering,” said Kristopher, in a moment of rare seriousness. Then he leaned over to his father, resting his head on Willie’s shoulder, something he hadn’t done since he’d surpassed Willie’s height. The two sat in silence, as the sky darkened from fiery orange and sleepy maroons to a deep sapphire. Stars began to poke through the darkness, starting in the East and spreading across the sky, like someone had thrown a quilt over the heavens. At one point Willie’s wife came outside to check on them, but concluded she might want to leave them alone for just a little while longer.
“Kristopher Akintunde,” Willie said abruptly. He rarely called his son his full name. “Your name means the return of bravery, you remember?” Kristopher rolled his eyes, hating his old fashioned and, to him, stereotypical name. Still, he listened quietly. “You have to remember your name, Kris. It’ll help you when you need it.” They stared up at the sky.
“Why give the universe a name?” continued Willie, hugging his boy close. His voice was raspy, almost close to tears. He played with Kristopher’s caramel hair, teasing it between his fingers. “For me, Kris, if you remember, just let it wash over you. If you don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by the universe every once in a while, you might never be able to stand up tall. And if you can’t ever straighten your own spine, how on earth would you see where you’re supposed to be standing?”