This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
by Jay Levin
Book 1 of 3
Chapter 1 It was as if Hamlin Smallfrye was invisible. But he wasn’t invisible. Two boys made it a point to see Hamlin nearly every day. Hamlin, sitting in the back row of class, nearest the door, clutched a crumpled piece of paper in his ink-stained left-hand. He couldn’t stop reading the words on the sheet: Run! Y R N for a slam at 3 It wasn’t a very poetic threat. It was, however, a very effective threat. Hamlin felt sweat begin to drip down his sides. Nobody thought much about Hamlin. They had been cautioned not to by the two most ruthless boys to ever walk the hallways of Crowley Middle and High School, which started in the sixth grade. Hamlin fearfully watched the clock tick toward the end of school, the end of his time of safety. Hamlin, who knew he had no choice, would have to run. He was always running. Clear of the school grounds, Hamlin began to sprint as fast as his skinny, boney, scabby, uncoordinated-legs could possibly take him. Passing houses the color of muddy- blue and cloudy-green, spooky churches with sharp steeples, belfries and gargoyles, he soon entered the rundown crumbling outskirts of Crowley. Everything in downtown Crowley smelled of decay… as bad as a gymnasium-locker filled with never washed gym shorts. Abandoned buildings with broken windows lined the streets intersected by dark alleys pungent with the odor of wet trash and cat urine. There was no place to hide. Hamlin was afraid to look back. He had been programed by fear to look back.
Over his shoulder he saw the Rigley Brothers gaining ground, their feet moving so quickly they were a blur-of-motion. Both boys, the largest in their class, weighed an impressive two-hundred-and-five pounds combined. They ate up the pavement in confident, hungry, angry gobs. Even though Hamlin, who weighed in at a mere fifty-seven pounds, knew he was about to be beaten black-and-blue, he ran with all his might optimistic that one day he would evade the evil Rigley Boys. Hamlin vowed that someday--if he survived--he would become important. “You’re a nobody, Hamlin Smallfrye!” Buck Rigley, shouted inches away from Hamlin’s ear. Hamlin had known from an early age that bullies liked to tell their victims of their weakness. Hamlin was weak because the Rigley Boys ruled the school and he felt powerless to change that. Anyway, who would listen? Hamlin thought. He had not made one friend since moving to Crowley nearly a year before. Buck’s reptilian hands reached out to grab Hamlin. Hamlin battered them away. Buck was mean, thick-shouldered, with skin that looked like raw, rancid meat. He might have been handsome, and under more favorable circumstances, popular. Unfortunately he was the first preteen in his class to have been hit by the scourge of acne. No girl would look at him. Boys feared that by being near him the acne would jump like a flea to their faces and gnaw them away. Everybody stopped talking to him. He turned meaner and more vengeful as the acne scarred his face into a thousand craters topped by a hundred volcanoes spewing molten puss. Hamlin slapped at his hands weaving to the left and then to his right to try to gain some distance, but Max Rigley was there with his jagged nails no nail-clipper had ever gone near. Max
was an evil, loathsome, vindictive child. More agile than his brother he was fond of inflicting visible signs of violence like a feral cat. He pulled up along Hamlin and swiped at Hamlin’s face getting him square in the cheek. “Ahh!” Hamlin shouted in pain. Three scratches opened immediately, blood welling red to the surface. He could feel the wetness of blood, the throb and the heat of the injury. It made him run even faster. “I got the bastard,” Max Rigley laughed his vile, high-pitched laugh. Many times before while being pursued Hamlin had given up. Stopped. Let the boys beat him. Wouldn’t they grow tired of thrashing a person who didn’t defend himself? They didn’t. Hamlin often thought about going to Principal Small. What good would that do? The boys’ last name was Rigley. They literally owned Crowley. Rigley Groceries. Rigley Memorial Stadium. Rigley Sanitation. Rigley Mortuary. As in Mayor Rigley, the richest, most powerful man in town. Principal Small wanted to be the mayor’s friend more than anybody else, so even though it was well known the Rigley Boys were bullies, he let them rule Crowley Middle and High School. Hamlin, somewhere deep inside, was tired of living in fear. He reached within himself and ran even faster gaining a few vital steps on the boys. Hamlin saw Chewing Gum Alley ahead--and cut right. He ran all the way to the end. Behind him, the horrible thunder-of-feet clopped loudly as they turned down the alley. Hamlin knew he only needed a few yards on the boys. He had to be quick. At the end there was a wrought iron fence, the bars narrow, perfect for a slim boy to slip through. Perfect for evading capture. Hamlin made a grave mistake. The owner of the building had recently latched a layer of
chicken-wire directly over the fence. Hamlin was pinned. Hamlin was tired of giving in. Both Rigley Boys, when they saw that their prey could not escape, stopped to crack their knuckles. Bullies knew that raising bruises and causing cut-lips was only half-the-fun. Hamlin wasn’t going anywhere, and the Rigley Boys were going to take their time. They were cats and Hamlin was their toy mouse. It was time to play. “Well, look-ie here,” Max said gleefully. “We got the little…..” “When I tell my father--” Hamlin’s voice cracked. “Your father! Hamlin?” Buck questioned, his voice thick and blunt as a two-by-four. “Would a little bastard boy like you know where his father was?” Hamlin didn’t know. His mother had told him that it was unlikely he would ever see his father again. It was also highly unlikely his father would magically appear on the scene like Superman to defend Hamlin. “That’s what we thought, you little bastard,” Max took a step forward. Hamlin looked around for some kind of escape…but, as usual, there was none.
As Hamlin was beaten black-and-blue he had time to dream. Life wouldn’t always be so bad. He would grow, he would get smarter…hopefully he would learn how to run faster. But there is a limit to how fast I can run, Hamlin worried. “Let’s go, Buck,” Max spat on Hamlin and started to walk out of the alley. “It’s time for dinner at the Mayor’s Mansion. Come on Buck. Don‘t want to be late.” Max, smug and nasty, walked away from Hamlin without looking back. Buck peered down at Hamlin. For an instant their eyes connected. Hamlin saw remorse.
Buck’s eyes seemed confused. “What are you looking at!” Buck, drawing back his hand, made like he was going to backhand Hamlin across the face. He wanted Hamlin to flinch…but Hamlin was tired of flinching. “It was Max’s idea. Wasn’t it?” Buck’s drew back his foot to kick Hamlin. Hamlin closed his eyes…tightened his stomach muscles…waited for the blow. Footsteps. When Hamlin opened his eyes he was, as usual, alone.
Hamlin took stock of his wounds, tucked in his shirt, found an old tissue in his pocket to staunch his bleeding lip, and limped slowly through the dimly lit streets until he stood in front of the only bright spot in town. The Crowley Café. He peered in cautiously. He didn’t want to be seen. Not quite yet. His mother, Jemma, a waitress at the Crowley Café, poured a cup of coffee for a man with a baseball cap that read John Deere. She had a large warm smile on her face, her eyes active, clear and as blue as pool water. Hamlin felt a cold wind travel up his spine that caused his shoulders to scrunch up, and raised the fine hairs on his arm. He was having a hard time catching his breath. He knew he had to go into the café as quiet as a mouse. That’s the way it had to be. So he peeked into the warm interior happy to see his mother working with her back to the entrance. She was talking to the nice man in the John Deere hat. It seemed liked they were friends. When his mother Jemma worked Hamlin noticed she had a lot of energy, time to talk, and a ready smile. If a person dropped a fork she produced one as magically as a magician pulling a dove from a hat. Hamlin loved to watch her when she didn’t know he was observing her. Before he entered the café he always made the same wish. “Hi, momma,” Hamlin smiled at his mother. His mother didn’t acknowledge him at all. It was as if Hamlin was invisible even to her. Hamlin saw the boss, Mr. Sumner, poke his face out of his office and look crossly at Hamlin. Jemma had told her son never to disturb Mr. Sumner who barely tolerated Hamlin’s presence in the café. He had taken pity on Jemma, who without any support and little tip money
generated from the sleepy café, needed a safe refuge for her child to go after school. As long as Hamlin didn’t interfere with his mother’s work he could sit in a booth in the back and do his homework quietly. Once his mother left work, as soon as Hamlin and his mother had turned the corner away from the café, her mood, her demeanor, her posture slumped toward old age. Jemma was only thirty-six but she carried herself as if she was ninety-six. Her shoulders drooped. Her feet dragged. Her smile faded. Her eyes turned from warm amber to cloudy gray. She was no longer young and pretty. Away from her place of employment, with the full weight of her hard life bearing down on her, she appeared old, frail, empty. “Momma, put your arm around my shoulder.” Jemma’s eyes filled with tears and she began to limp. Slowly, Hamlin and his mother labored home in the sad, sad, cold, of a dark and moonless night. Hamlin wanted to tell his mother what had happened in the alley, but this wasn’t--if there ever was--the right time.
Chapter 3 231 Poe Street was lined with Elm trees with branches that went off in odd, skewed directions. At night Hamlin Smallfrye and his mother Jemma’s house was the only one on their street without a working porch light. Hamlin helped his mother up the creaky, uneven stairs, and with difficulty, fought to open the squeaky lock. Once inside his dark house Hamlin led his mother to the couch. She seemed to melt into it, her eyes slowly finding the vacant television screen. Hamlin arranged a thick blanket over her knees. “Channel four,” Hamlin’s mother said in a flat, lifeless voice. His mother was afraid of silence. Obediently Hamlin turned on the small black-and-white television, adjusted its rabbit ears to make the picture stop wavering, and then automatically went to the kitchen to cook dinner. More often than not it was Hamlin who cooked food for he and his mother. Hamlin was in no way a gifted chef. Nearly all of the meals he crafted came out of dented cans. Dented canned fruit. Dented canned peas. Dented canned meats. That’s what was cheap. That’s what they could afford. That’s what they ate. One time he complained to his mother about eating all his meals out of dented cans. She told him, “There’s no shame in being poor. There is shame, however, in acting poorly.” Jemma eyed him crossly and he never complained about dented anything ever again. Hamlin set up a small metal television tray in front of his mother and placed the bowl of soup before her. She did not say thank you to Hamlin. She did not smell the rich tomato soup and sigh with relief like the mothers do on the commercials. She watched an old rerun of Seinfeld. A
comedy. They even provided a laugh track so people knew when to laugh. His mother did not laugh. Her eyes barely blinked. The old television blinked for her. “If you don’t eat your soup soon, it won’t taste good,” Hamlin instructed. His mother did not respond. Due to the hardships they faced, a piece of her personality that allowed her to enjoy life, and more importantly to transfer that joy to Hamlin, had died within her. Hamlin ate his soup as the people in the television visited with he and his mother. At least it seemed like they were visiting. It was a one-way conversation but Hamlin felt it was better than no conversation at all. Kramer, the wacky, wild-haired neighbor of Jerry fought for a seat on a subway in New York City. Every time he tried to sit down another person took his seat. Kramer ended up sitting on three peoples' laps. Hamlin felt an immense feeling well within him and then laughed so hard he nearly spit his soup out. “Why do you have to laugh?” His mother stabbed with a mean, icy voice. “Can’t you see how horrible everything is?” Hamlin, now twelve years of age, was becoming aware of how horrible everything was, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t laugh. Even though bad things continuously occurred to Hamlin he felt the need to be happy. Even though his mother didn’t want him to smile, he had decided long ago he would smile no matter what. There was no point in answering the question. Defending himself would make things worse. It had previous times. Hamlin tried to make his mother happy in many different ways. At one point he tried to sing to her thinking that she might sing along as they had done when he was a child. Jemma began to cry. Another time Hamlin spent all afternoon making a Mother’s Day card complete with his best attempt at calligraphy. He left the card on the front table. She never opened it.
Hamlin opened it for her, and as she sat eating her dinner made from the contents of dented cans, Hamlin read it to her in his best voice. For a moment he thought his mother was going to hug Hamlin, but instead she pushed past Hamlin quickly, made her way up the stairs, cried herself to sleep, and slept fiercely until five minutes before her work began the next morning. Hamlin, who felt more invisible now than he did at school, left his mother to go upstairs in the usual way…all the way to his room in the dark. When the tips were not good at the café he and his mother had to cut back on electricity. Once inside his room he turned on a small light revealing a stack of books by his bedside. Hamlin loved books having started reading at the age of four, and since then, never knowing a night without words and stories. It was truly the only way Hamlin knew to escape, and for a person who had never journeyed to foreign countries, he felt like a well-seasoned traveler. Hamlin had an epic imagination. Tonight he traveled far away to the Galapagos Islands, or was it the African country of Mali…and as he slept the characters in the stories he read visited with him. In his dreams, for it was only in his dreams that this could possibly happen, he became a character in the tales that magically unwound themselves. As it always was in his dreams, he was the hero called upon to save the world.
Chapter 4 Beep! Beep! Beep! Hamlin’s alarm clock signaled the arrival of another day of reality. Hamlin’s feet dutifully hit the floor. He woke his mother, and made sure she took her shower. He then rummaged through the bare cabinets and the nearly empty refrigerator for lunch items. He found only the hardened bottom of peanut butter and a small quivering mass of grape jelly. “Hamlin, get me two aspirin,” His mother bellowed. His mother’s head, for some reason, often ached in the morning. Hamlin ran to the medicine cabinet to fetch the aspirin. He almost didn’t recognize himself. He saw his face in the mirror. Apparently the beating had been much worse than he had thought. His left eye was ringed in purple, his lip fat where it had smashed against his front teeth. Maybe if he quickly gave his mother the aspirin she would be so blurry-eyed she wouldn’t notice Hamlin’s face. Hamlin dashed to his mother’s side, handed her the aspirin, the water, turned on a heel to go and….she didn’t notice. “I have to go to school. Don’t be late.” “Don’t tell me not to be late. Go. Go!” Jemma slammed the door in Hamlin’s face. Hamlin walked to school numb in the cold, cold morning. Even though there were many bad days, every so often, there were good days that fortified Hamlin.
Chapter 5 There are times in life that go by with the speed of an out-of-control train. Sometimes these blinks are caused by traumatic circumstances. Hamlin Smallfrye’s life was a checkerboard of extreme highs and extreme lows. At times he felt as if he was an alpine climber standing on the peak of a magnificent mountain. At those times he had a three-hundred-and-sixty degree view of his life, and knew where his path began and ended. Other times, he felt as if he was lost in a forest so dense, that while everyone else was standing in the sunlight, he was immersed in darkness. Hamlin’s mother seemed to never leave the shadowy depths of the forest. He knew his mother loved him, but there was a distance between them that he could not understand. An unfathomable distance. One night he felt the need to ask his mother a question. Hamlin was in his room, and like usual, he thought his mother was downstairs. Suddenly she appeared at his door…a warm smile across her face. Her smile brightened the dim interior of his room. “What’s wrong, son?” A tear formed suddenly. Hamlin needed the emotional release. His mother sat on the edge of his bed a small distance from Hamlin. She began to slowly turn a gold ring, a constant companion of hers, a memento of better times with Hamlin’s father. It was the only physical object that Hamlin was sure his father had touched. Hamlin had no personal memories of him. “Talk to me,” Jemma’s voice sounded soothing to Hamlin. Hamlin hesitated, then laid down in his mother’s lap. She began to slowly stroke
Hamlin’s hair, pulling at the strands, untangling them as Hamlin remembered she used to do when he was a small child. “Will you always be here for me?” Hamlin peered deep into the gray eyes of his mother. He searched them for the answers he desperately needed to know. “I may not always be with you in body, but always in spirit. You may not know it, Hamlin, but you are stronger than any boy I know.” “But…I’m weak compared to some boys,” Hamlin thought about the powerful Rigley Boys and their menacing knuckles. “Physical strength is nothing compared to mental strength…and that’s what you possess in great abundance. Your mind, Hamlin. It has unmatched powers.” Her words lapped over the consciousness of Hamlin like warm water. He felt a tingle in his body, an awakening of his spirit, and he realized the lesson so many had learned before him. Physical beauty was no match for the beauty of an elegant mind. Then she said, “There will be many times in life when you think you are alone, but that’s not necessarily true. For the moment it only seems true.” Then, with a slight look back, she turned off the light on his desk and left Hamlin alone in his room in the warm, still darkness. Hamlin fell asleep that night without fear, and that was extremely fortunate. In the nights to come there would be few nights he would sleep as restfully or feel as loved.
Chapter 6 After getting repeatedly pushed, hit, and put on display by bullies…some of them teachers, Hamlin had had enough of the torture, of feeling inhuman. He often dreamed about taking action into his own hands. He was twelve, and dreaming about hurting his attackers was a way for him to at least imagine what feeling powerful felt like. Sometimes after a beating, if he was particularly angry, he spent his nights designing medieval torture devices reminiscent of the Inquisition, and writing about his thoughts in his private journal. Late into the night Hamlin designed devices to cause pain, and most importantly, humiliation. Hamlin envisioned himself with the power to even excommunicate these bullies from school. Since his teachers rarely called on Hamlin, he sometimes wrote all day long in his journal. During the time he was writing Hamlin felt in control, like he was a pilot able to steer his ship away from dangerous icebergs. Hamlin liked the idea represented by this simile. He had learned that only ten percent of the mass of an iceberg was above the surface of the water. Ninety percent of the iceberg was unseen. As in life people were ninety percent unseen, unknown, and what lay hidden away from public view was often what caused them to feel the most anxiety and anger. It was here Hamlin could tell the truth about his life being pursued by ruthless attackers.
I am tired of being picked on. My butt hurts from being kicked. I throw-up before I go to school. I wish for illness so I don’t have to go to school. I rarely smile. Only at night when I read—when I’m alone. When nobody can see me. That’s when I feel optimistic about the world. I smile on the inside…rarely on the outside.
On the contrary, it’s hard not to feel fatalistic when every day is a struggle. At home I don’t want to be in charge--I’m only twelve. Maybe that’s selfish, but that’s how I feel. My mother is depressed and I don’t know what to do. I’m her strength even though I don‘t feel very strong. I often wonder why the Rigley boys bully me? I feel sorry that they need to thrash on a weaker boy. Let me amend that. My body may be weak, but my character is strong, and so is my mind. It’s not okay just to live a life…there has to be a purpose for living. The problem is I’m only twelve! I need a lot more experiences before I find out why I’m here, and what I can do to help mankind. First, as I’ve often learned, I have to help myself before I can help others.
Hamlin began to obsess over the Rigley Boys who tortured him. He wanted to know everything about them, so he studied the Rigley boys like an entomologist would study dung beetles. He observed them and wrote down everything they ate, said, and did. Hamlin believed what he was writing relieved his own tension, gave him a vehicle to step outside of his body when he was in the middle of getting slapped, kicked, shoved into lockers, dumped in dumpsters. Facing daily assaults of anger had begun to take its toll on Hamlin Smallfrye who often dreamt, like many of the bullied do, of solutions. Hamlin made a decision not to be a violent person after reading about Ghandi’s peaceful protests in India. Instead Hamlin began to put his solutions down on paper. Words were what made the most sense to Hamlin. Shouldn’t they make as much sense to other children as well? There has to be a way to sign a treaty with the Rigley boys that will end the hostilities between us.
Maybe he could find a way to talk and convince them that torturing him was not in their best interest. He went as far as to write up a very elaborate peace treaty.
I, Bruno Rigley and I Max Rigley (A.K.A. Buck Rigley, A.K.A. Your Worst Nightmare, A.K.A. The Bull) will immediately stop spreading rumors that Hamlin Smallfrye is a nerd, that he eats his buggers for lunch, and that he is not secretly a dwarfspy working for the CIA posing as a sixth grader. The Rigley Brothers will cease any and all violent actions against Mr. Hamlin Smallfrye such as: hair pulling, locker stuffing, breaking his glasses, or pummeling Mr. Smallfrye until bruising or bleeding occurs. (All past damages to clothing including: sewing repairs, personal first aid, and mental anguish will be waived if said treaty is agreed and maintained for all-times.)
Over the next two months Hamlin wrote seventeen such treaties optimistically delivering them to the Rigleys’ lockers every Friday…the day the Rigleys’ routinely chased Hamlin all the way home. They came back torn, X’d out in red marker, and one time returned with a sticky liquid Hamlin at first thought was blood, but upon further scientific analysis determined was the nonNewtonian substance known as ketchup. Over the weeks and months the torture only increased, becoming steadily more violent. The next day Mr. Allen, the sixth grade homeroom and Language Arts teacher, had the bright idea of rearranging the seating chart. Unfortunately that placed Hamlin in front of the
Rigley Boys. Now they sat behind Hamlin in his right and his left blind-spots. All day long the Rigley Boys kicked paper footballs at the back of Hamlin’s head. Hamlin never knew when the offense would occur. When it did a roar of laughter erupted prompting Mr. Allen to explode with anger and to slap his hand on his desk. Mr. Allen was usually calm, but the class that day was unusually bad, and Mr. Allen was heading toward meltdown. All the class knew it and, always seeking entertainment, wanted him to explode violently like a volcano they had recently studied named Mount St. Helens. Mr. Allen was an inspiring teacher, but horrible at discipline. He attempted to inspire, but more often than not was ceaselessly interrupted by rude kids. Suddenly, inexplicably, it wasn’t cool to be intelligent anymore. Maybe in fifth grade, but by sixth grade not one student wanted to stand out more than any other. That was unfortunate because many of the students’ had wonderful minds, and beautiful and fertile imaginations. Held back by the bullies of intelligence, the class often went nowhere. For example, Max always made it a point to act like he was throwing up when any student in class dared to speak up with the right answer. Kids tapped complicated rhythmical patterns on their desk, but the Crowley band had been dismantled years before due to budget cuts. The orchestra, jazz ensemble, and marching band were seen as unnecessary--a relic of the past. As for theatre, that was the deepest, darkest, secret, Crowley kept deep, dark, and secret. Crowley didn’t have a theatre. This intrigued Hamlin who, while living in Chicago, loved to go to the theatre. It was one of the few luxuries his mother indulged in. They often sat spellbound in the nose-bleed-seats, in the third balcony, in the last row. Sometimes they stood just so they could see a show. To Hamlin and his mother theatre was as tasty as chocolate covered popcorn.
Revenge is best served cold, some famous author wrote years before. Of course he was talking about the necessity of having ice water in ones veins in order to plan and execute a dastardly deed. Hamlin decided he was definitely a pacifist. Occasionally, he needed the freedom that his journal afforded him to write about his thoughts and dreams. His secret school journal was kept in the farthest recesses of his desk, hidden behind a false back he designed out of cardboard and built on the sly. Today, during a particularly boring lecture in Mr. Allen’s class, he took out his journal and amended his thoughts writing:
Death would be too easy on the Rigley Boys. Public shaming and its lasting social effect is more appropriate for bullies.
Hamlin thought of using itching powder in their gym shirts, or sneaking habenero chili peppers—one of the hottest in the world-- in the boys’ hamburgers. All of these ideas were wonderfully devious, and the imagined outcomes delightfully damaging to their egos, but they lacked originality having been done many times before. What Hamlin Smallfrye decided on, what plans he chronicled in his private and secret journal, were as ingenious as they were harmful to the public image of the Rigley boys. “What’s that Smallfrye,” Buck placed a thick, stubby finger down pinning Hamlin’s secret journal to his desk. “It’s private.” “Like a girls diary,” Max slunk over, his arms crossed, his wiry muscles flexed on
purpose. He looked mean. Menacing. Dangerous. Nearly. Hamlin tried to make eye contact with Mr. Allen. Unfortunately Mr. Allen was, as usual, with his back-to-the-class writing a long quote on the board. “Can I look at your private journal?” Max asked with authority. “No…then it wouldn’t be private.” Hamlin laughed nervously. Hamlin tried to summon the courage of a lion…unfortunately he giggled like a baying lamb. Buck suddenly grabbed at the journal. Reflexively, Hamlin latched onto the opposite end--and held it in a death grip. Back-and-forth they tugged at the journal. Hamlin was raised out of his seat by the strength of Buck. Suddenly both Buck and Hamlin lost control of the book flinging it into the air--and worst of all in the direction of Mr. Allen still writing his quote on the board. Hamlin’s journal, singing through the air like a missile, hit the chalkboard narrowly missing Mr. Allen’s head. Upon hitting the ground Hamlin’s private journal exploded sending pages fanning out over the floor. Mr. Allen’s stinky-eye peered piercingly at the three horrified boys. Hamlin ran to the journal on the ground and began to pick up the pages. He knew what horrendous and mean-spirited words he had written about the Rigley boys. Worst of all Hamlin’s revenge plans were everywhere within the journal, but Hamlin had always torn out the treaties. He didn’t have any copies to prove he was at least trying to make peace instead of war. “I’m sorry, Mr. Allen. It slipped.” “Then it’s your journal?” Mr. Allen’s piercing eyes focused on Hamlin. Worst of all, his eye was twitching. That was not a good sign. “It’s my private journal. Not to be read by anyone.” Hamlin stood his ground. Mr. Allen’s
large brown eyes softened. He seemed to be considering Hamlin’s claim of personal privacy. “If you wanted it to remain private then you should not have flung it at my very public blackboard.” “But I didn’t!” Hamlin shouted loudly…too loudly…and right at Mr. Allen. Every member of the class became silent. They looked. Listened. A vein in Mr. Allen’s temple began to visibly throb. That was a horrible sign! Mr. Allen, more curious than before about the contents of Hamlin’s journal, glanced down. Whatever passage he read caused his eyes to nearly double in size. Hamlin took a step backwards and turned toward the classroom door. Hamlin was just about to run when Mr. Allen’s large hand clamped down on his shoulder stopping Hamlin before he could put his lead foot down. Mr. Allen swiveled Hamlin around. Hamlin tried to avoid looking in Mr. Allen’s eyes. He didn’t want to see the rage in them. He didn’t want to see the disappointment in them. He didn’t want to see the anger in them…but he did look. Instead of anger Mr. Allen’s large brown eyes were filled with such sadness, with such tenderness that it made Hamlin’s eyes fill with tears. The bell rang. Not one kid in class moved a millimeter. Instinctively they knew human drama was better than any on television. “Class dismissed,” Mr. Allen said. Not one kid bolted, not one ran to the equipment closet for a basketball. All eyes honed in on Hamlin Smallfrye and Mr. Allen. Thoughts raced toward conclusions. What would happen? What had Hamlin written in his journal?”
“I said CLASS DISMISSED!” Mr. Allen shrieked. The kids shuddered to consciousness-jolted awake by the anger of Mr. Allen’s shrill voice. Quickly the class departed to the play-yard leaving the dramatic tableau of Hamlin held in the concerned gaze of Mr. Allen. Last to leave were the Rigley Boys who walked proudly with an intense sense of satisfaction for getting Hamlin in trouble. Having fulfilled their quota for torturing Hamlin, they left with vile smiles on their smug faces. Now, Hamlin and Mr. Allen were alone in class. The clock ticked. Mr. Allen seemed to be ignoring Hamlin. Waiting. Waiting. Hamlin thought he could hear his blood pumping through his body. His ears began to ring. “I can explain…” “Sit down,” Mr. Allen interrupted as his eyes returned to Hamlin’s private journal. Opening it, he sat down, crossed his legs, and rested the volume on the top of his knee. Now, Hamlin began to study Mr. Allen. His eyes betrayed many of his internal thoughts. His eyes opened wide with fright sometimes, while other times the slightest of smiles raised the sides of his mouth. A couple of times he nodded, as if to agree with what Hamlin had written, and a couple of times he pounded the text with his pointer finger...but Hamlin couldn’t tell if he agreed or disagreed with what he had read. Hamlin’s fear caused his throat to go dry and his bladder to fill. He had written for years, but had never showed his writing to anyone--not his mother, the librarian and especially not his teacher Mr. Allen. If Hamlin had wished to share his writing, he would have shown Mr. Allen his
short stories instead of his journal. They were well thought out. His journals were first thoughts. “You’ve written some pretty mean spirited things in these pages. You’ve talked at length of doing horrible things to the Rigley Boys.” “I know.” “If I went to Principal Small with this journal he would have no choice but to expel you from Crowley Middle and High School.” “But I didn’t mean what I wrote.” Mr. Allen locked his eyes with Hamlin’s. He was searching for the truth. “I wrote it to blow-off steam,” Hamlin looked up with tears in his eyes. “They’ve made my life torture. I can’t walk anywhere without them following me. At school they throw me into lockers.” “Still?” Mr. Allen seemed to be remembering a time when he was thrown into lockers many years before. “No, up to the fifth grade. I grew too big for lockers. Now they throw me in trash-bins. In trash dumpsters.” “Why didn’t you tell a teacher?” Mr. Allen hunched over, bending his knees up sharply to his chest. He looked like a little boy, much different than his imposing and impeccable teacher look. His posture slumped, and it was finally conceivable to picture Mr. Allen as an awkward and possibly tortured youth plagued by many of the humiliations Hamlin had endured anonymously for so long. “I didn’t think adults would understand. I thought I had to figure out a way to get through it by myself.” Hamlin’s eyes sunk and he began to shiver even though it was warm in class.
Mr. Allen’s eyes warmed. “When I was your age that’s what I thought too.” He leveled his eyes with Hamlin’s. He looked as if he was trying to x-ray him with his eyes. What horrors had led Hamlin to write such violent passages? Did Hamlin actually plan to follow through with the plans he concocted? Had his anger become so much apart of his daily routine that he had to schedule his homework around it? Mr. Allen loved to root for the underdog and cheer for the person nobody expected much from. He could see that Hamlin was a winner. We’re not talking winning as a prized athlete wins a race, but in a more important way. Mr. Allen believed that Hamlin could win with his wits and avoid danger with the use of his intelligence. “A healthy imagination,” he explained, “will help you heal from whatever physical wounds you may encounter.” Then he continued, “It is important, Hamlin, to use your imagination to solve problems.” But could Mr. Allen excuse what Hamlin had written? Mr. Allen had been asked by Principal Small to report any and all threats of violence. Due to an unprecedented increase in school violence it was seen as a sure preventative of the horrors of another Columbine type assault. Recently Principal Small had expelled two students for wearing clothing that looked too black and menacing, and one artistic student was expelled for drawing scenes from the Harry Potter Series. The book had, after-all, been banned from the Crowley Library, and publicly condemned by Mayor Rigley in his one of his weekly radio chats. “Burn that book. It promotes witchcraft, and demagoguery.” Hamlin’s journal would act as evidence that Hamlin was planning a violent attack against the Rigley Boys. Mr. Allen believed that all Hamlin was doing was writing about his feelings. Mr. Allen found it a chronicle of youth, a worthy summary of the daily occupation of pre-teens. It was not representative of a boy plotting violence.
If Mr. Allen went to Principal Small with the journals Hamlin would be expelled immediately. Instantly Hamlin would become known as a dangerous child, and Jemma the mother of a child plotting violence. Most families who faced a child being expelled were forced to move away from Crowley. Parents were fired from their jobs, and there were no other schools for their children, and since the family was now marked as a bad family, they had no choice but to leave the insular Crowley community. Mr. Allen feared the same fait awaited Hamlin and his mother Jemma. “I’m not going to let anybody know about what you wrote in your journal,” Mr. Allen Peered into Hamlin’s eyes. “You’re not?” Hamlin’s heart began beating again. “You are going to have to stop writing the journal.” A piece of Hamlin died, but he understood that writing mean-spirited messages about the Rigley boys could not continue--thinking negative thoughts all the time consumed much too much energy. Hamlin felt a weight lift off of his heart. “If the Rigley boys do anything bad toward you then you have to tell me.” “But--” Hamlin interrupted. “I said, you have to come to me even if they tell you that things will get worse if you go to an adult.” Mr. Allen studied Hamlin’s reaction. Hamlin agreed with Mr. Allen’s decision with a sullen nod of his head. Even if he feared the ramifications of telling Mr. Allen about his life, he knew he had no choice. If Hamlin was found to be snitching to a teacher he would be in violation of the sacred code of conduct that existed between the children of Crowley. Whatever problems they had with each other were
never discussed with parents. Facing the beatings and getting thrown into the dumpsters almost seemed a less torturous existence than having to share every incident with an adult. Teachers were, even more than parents, off-limit. Mr. Allen took off his large, heavy, silver rimmed glasses. A red indentation was left on the bridge of his nose. He looked old and tired. It was as if all of the youth had been drained out of him. “When I was your age, a very long time ago, I was not the most popular student in class. I, if you can believe it, was picked on.” Hamlin had a hard time picturing Mr. Allen as a child, or for that matter a teenager. “I had a full mouth of metal, and let me tell you, the braces they used to have were medieval in comparison to what they have now.” Hamlin laughed and smiled for the first time in a long time as he pictured Mr. Allen with braces. It made him examine his teeth. They were quite perfect and unnaturally white. “Kids called me metal mouth. One time a group of mean kids held me down and experimented with magnets. It was humiliating. People crowded around. I was so disappointed because not one kid came to help me. All they wanted to do was stare.” Hamlin wanted to know if the magnets stuck to his teeth, but thought better of asking him. “They didn’t stick,” Mr. Allen continued with a smile, now fully involved in the telling of his story. “I was over six feet tall at the age of twelve, but a stiff wind could easily knock me over. Kids seemed to take turns knocking me down. Kids jumped on my back and I’d crumble to my knees. My knees were filled with bruises. I didn’t tell anybody. I was scared.” Mr. Allen’s
breathing increased. “So I started to work out. I lifted weights. I was good too. By the time I was 14 I could bench-press 180 pounds. I thought nobody would mess with a strong guy. That’s what I thought,” Mr. Allen said with a nervous laugh, his eyes twitching. “One day Jimmy Firebrand came over to me in the lunchroom and took my tray, held it up and dumped it on my head. Unfortunately it was spaghetti day. I must have looked like I was wearing a meat sauce wig. All the kids in the lunchroom began to laugh and point fingers. I felt this white hot burning rage inside me.” Hamlin noticed Mr. Allen’s hand began to ball up into a tight fist, his knuckles turning white. “I had taken it for so long from Jimmy Firebrand,” Mr. Allen brought his closed fist down hard—crack—on the desk. Hamlin nearly jumped out of his skin. He could feel the hair standing up on the back of his neck. “Jimmy was laughing—pointing his scabby finger at me, and that’s when I saw a splotch of meat sauce on his index finger. So I hit him—I hit him so hard. A big round-house right between the eyes,” Mr. Allen punched the air inches above Hamlin’s head causing Hamlin to duck his head. “I heard this sickening sound—same sound as a wishbone breaking. Jimmy Firebrand’s nose was crooked—pushed far off to the left—broken. Blood everywhere. He was screaming in agony. He called out, ‘Momma…Momma…’ He was in shock. Medical shock. He started to shiver, his face turned ashen white. “A few teachers came out and began asking kids questions. All fingers pointed at me. Next thing I remember was feeling the principal’s hand clamped onto my shoulder. When I
finally looked into his face I expected him to be burning mad. His expression was quite different. He looked at me as if I was a victim. We walked back to his office and he sat me down in a leather chair on the opposite side of his desk. He left and returned with two towels: one wet, one dry. Very gently he toweled off the spaghetti sauce and removed the spaghetti with the dry towel —it appeared he was looking for clues to the origins of the incident.” “You’ll have to be much stronger, Mr. Allen.” I didn’t know what he meant. I could already bench one-hundred-and-eighty pounds…how much stronger did I have to be? “If you wish to punch every boy in our school every time they tease or torment you it is advisable for you to be stronger than you are. And you ain’t never gonna have the strength of an army.” “I didn’t quite understand. I was taller than anybody in class and was stronger as well. If they were going to dump spaghetti on my head they were going to get a fist sandwich in return.” “Hamlin could see the rage within Mr. Allen’s gaze. His face became youthfully passionate, filled with the fire of that far distant moment that shaped the rest of his life. “My principal could see that this first taste of victory would propel me toward another conflict…Who knows? I might become the aggressor instead of the defender. It was definitely possible that I could be on my way to becoming every much the bully as Jimmy Firebrand.” “What did he do?” Hamlin Smallfrye stared up at Mr. Allen with a new sense of awe. He had a hard time thinking about Mr. Allen as his age. Something about him dismissed thoughts of youth. As he told his story the possibility of Mr. Allen’s awkward youth became more than apparent. Mr. Allen, the tortured student with spaghetti on his head, departed as the insightful teacher returned.
“He told me. ‘The power of your intellect, your ability to solve problems with your mind is exponentially stronger than your ability to solve problems with brute strength. Plus thinking deep thinking is less likely to get you expelled from Crowley Middle and High School.” Mr. Allen peered at Hamlin Smallfrye with extreme intensity. The world ‘expelled’ bounced around Smallfrye’s brain like a handball in an iron-box as well as the fact that he had graduated from the same school. Could Hamlin be expelled for what he had written about the Rigley boys? Hamlin knew that if he was expelled he and his mother would have to move away from Crowley and start over in a new town. He didn’t think his mother was mentally strong enough to move, find a house, and to start over. Plus she couldn’t afford the move financially. Hamlin matured ten years in the flash of time that were the ten seconds Mr. Allen stared at him. Thoughts of rage banged about hot in his brain, slowly, slowly, and then finally with a puff of white smoke, were snuffed out with the logic of Mr. Allen the catalyst for the change. Mr. Allen raised from his chair, and went to his bookshelf. He took from his shelf a book with rough edges. It looked as if the thin paper in the ancient book had been cut open with a knife, and what was inside--the words and thoughts--were heavy, old, and ancient. “My principal gave me this book that very day, and told me, ‘if you don’t read it from cover to cover I’ll do one better than revisit the idea of expelling you.’” Hamlin gulped hard as he—using his newfound superior intellect—knew he was in for the homework assignment of his life. “Mr. Smallfrye, you are in for the homework assignment of your life. You are to read this and report to me any and everything you find of interest…that includes any and all things you don’t find interesting as well.”
Hamlin looked at the leather binding. He began to sweat in fear. The inside-cover read, Collected works of William Shakespeare. Mr. Allen’s eyes twinkled like a lake struck by the moon at midnight. Hamlin knew the plays of Shakespeare by name and by reputation. He knew that his books had been banned in Crowley because they had been suspected of providing motivation for the death of two young lovers. When Hamlin read the word Shakespeare he was fearful, curious, and enthralled. Mr. Allen knew Shakespeare had been banned from Crowley’s society on every level. “I’m giving this to you because you need a challenge, Hamlin.” A challenge? Smallfrye’s life had been challenging enough. “Over the next year you will report to me once a week about your studies.” “Hamlin opened his backpack to put the book inside. The tome practically filled the interior. Hamlin was about to get an education that would change his life--positively and negatively--forever.
Hamlin began reading from the large book as soon as he left school grounds. He liked how thin the pages of the book were yet how heavy the volume was. He found the language ornate. The first title of Shakespeare’s first work was called Titus Andronicus. Hamlin began to read when… Behind him, gaining ground, the Rigley boys. Hamlin thought about running back to school to tell Mr. Allen, but his feet were already slapping the pavement. Hamlin didn’t want to make the same mistake he had made before in Chewing Gum Alley. He took a left instead into Mattress Lot, a place filled with stacked and decaying mattresses leaving only thin alleyways and dead-ends. Hamlin thought, if they took the bait, that he could trap them in one of the many dead-ends. Unfortunately Hamlin found himself in a col-de-sac, the mattress’ stacked twenty feet high. Blocking the entrance were Buck and Max. “Help me!” Hamlin screamed. “Somebody please help me!!” “He’s screaming, Buck,” Max sang out gleefully. “Not very smart are we,” Buck spat on his hands before rubbing them together. Hamlin, who had been gripping his tome of Shakespeare, let it slip from his hands in fear. Buck and Max rushed in and pounded, pounded, pounded Hamlin. Hamlin’s face became as hot as metal pounded on an iron anvil. “Hit him with this,” Max clucked. Hamlin opened his eyes just in time to see the thick binding—
-- rushing toward his face...
The blow knocked Hamlin unconscious. Hamlin slowly came out of his stupor. His eyebrow felt deeply cut. He couldn’t see out of his right eye. It was closed and puffy. Somehow he made it to his feet, grabbed his backpack. Looking around with his one remaining good eye he spotted the book. “You’re an extremely versatile book,” Hamlin laughed to himself. It was, afterall, better than crying. Hamlin dragged himself home, took a shower, put his book on his nightstand, and fell asleep.
Seven a.m. his alarm blared again. When he examined himself in the mirror he found out his face was a mess, and his eye ringed in purple where he had been struck by the book. He decided not to cover it up. Hamlin made his way downstairs and stood directly in front of his mom. He stood there for thirty seconds or more. Nothing. “Good morning, momma,” Hamlin announced sarcastically. “Good morning, Hamlin,” Hamlin’s mom rummaged through her purse for a tube of lipstick. Something caught her eye and she looked up blinking. “What happened to you?” Jemma shrieked. “Oh, this black eye? Or is this the black eye I had from last week you didn’t see? It’s nothing mom. Take your aspirin…you don’t want to be late for work. Remember how bad it was last time?” Hamlin said in a cold, sarcastic, stinging voice. “Are those boys bullying you again?” “No Momma. We were just messing around. Fake fighting,” Hamlin jigged a little bit demonstrating by shadow boxing how they were playing. “Pow…Pow…Upper cut…You know playing,” tears welled in Hamlin’s eyes. Jemma put her hands gently yet firmly on Hamlin’s shoulders and held him before her. “I’m your mother. Tell me the truth.” As Hamlin told the whole violent truth about how often he had been bullied he felt fully aware of how much his mother loved him. He could see it in her eyes and it made him feel soft and warm on the inside for the first time in months. “That’s it…I’m going to talk personally to Principal Small,” who was anything but small. He was as round as an apple, and ripe and ready to be plucked from his lowly position as
principal of Crowley Middle and High School. Mrs. Smallfrye sat pensively on the edge of a hard wooden chair adjacent to the principals office. In her hand she held a manila folder that contained a crumpled note that she had demanded Hamlin write. It was a statement. A confession of fact. It was the truth about the two bullies that tormented Hamlin from the first day he attended middle-school. Principal Small came out of his office to greet Jemma. He took her hand softly in his in the same manner a father would take the hand of his daughter, and shook it gently. “Please come into my office so we can converse, Mrs. Smallfrye,” Principal Small cooed in a quiet, soothing voice. He could plainly see that Jemmma was boiling mad. Jemma walked into the office, sat down, and said sharply, “My son, Hamlin can’t protect himself against bullies.” His mother Jemma held up a hand to the approximate height of Hamlin. “He isn’t much taller than a grasshopper, and is an elfish 58 pounds, was under five feet tall. “How are you going to protect my boy?” Jemma spoke forcefully. Principal Small studied Jemma. He made a conscious decision to demonstrate how concerned he was as a serious expression tightened over his face. He was an actor even though he had never portrayed anybody other than himself. He appeared to be carefully weighing the situation, his face knitted in thought. It was known, only to Principal Small, that he was merely acting concerned. An ambitious man, Principal Small had an ego in direct proportion to the size of his waist which his tailor would attest to being ever expanding. In a town as small as Crowley, the principal was a position of respect, and most importantly power. He was obsessed with the feeling that power gave him. As principal he had seemingly as much authority as a judge, and often gloated to the loquacious gossipmonger of a secretary named Miss Betty, “I control the
destinies of all my students. I decide who will work in the Crowley factories, and who will go to college…which grains will grow into mighty stalks and which will be cut down and eaten by crows and swine.” Principal Small considered himself destinies little helper. “Tell me who is bothering Hamlin,” Principal Small said assertively as he unscrewed the cap of his fountain pen hovering it over a pad that had as its heading DISCIPLINARY ACTION bolded in red. Jemma opened the cover of her manila folder to reveal the crumpled, sweat-stained note written by Max and Buck Rigley. She read, “URN in for a slam at three p.m. Run! Hamlin said that Max and Buck Rigley wrote this note…and I want you to take care of those two boys,” Jemma said sharply, her eyes flashing, and sparking with the fire of revenge only a mother could summon. “Mrs. Smallfrye,” Principal Small crossed his heart with his two hands, “I will take it as my personal responsibility to make sure Max and Buck never hurt your boy again,” Principal Small’s eyes warmed. To Jemma, who trusted people even when it wasn’t advisable to do so, Principal Small seemed sincere and concerned…a champion of students’ best interests. Indeed, Principal Small was an excellent actor. Mrs. Smallfrye went away from their meeting feeling confident that Hamlin would never face harm in a school under the management of such a caring and moral individual. Hamlin, who knew better than to trust Principal Small, knew what horrors were about to be unleashed by his mother’s visit. As soon as Jemma left Principal Small’s office, his nervous, twitchy pointer finger was
already searching for the next button. He was on the phone to the father of Max and Buck Rigley. Their father didn’t go by his first name. He was simply known as Mayor Rigley.
Mayor Rigley, sitting in the shadows of his unlit office, let the phone ring precisely five times before answering. He was an important man and did not feel it necessary to answer the phone immediately. “Yes?” Mayor Rigley’s voice full and rough boomed with angry authority. “This is Principal Small,” he mustered up all his strength, yet quivered anyway. Principal Small waited for a ‘Hello’ or a ‘What can I help you with?’ or a ‘Hi Bob’. No. Only silence. Principal Small had been anticipating this moment for a long time. He was finally in a position to exert pressure upon the most powerful man that ever strutted through the streets of Crowley. “Yes?” the commanding voice cracked like ice thrown into a pot of boiling water. Immaculate in his attire, Mayor Rigley, no matter what the time of year, always wore a threepiece wool suit complete with monogrammed, golden cufflinks. He was never seen in public without a tightly wrapped, blood red rose bud pinned to the lapel of his jacket. A secretive man...a treacherous man...a feared man as well. “I have some bad news about your boys,” There was a long silence. So long that Principal Small felt his brain begin to itch. “What about my sons?” Mayor Rigley voice scratched harshly. “I had a concerned parent come in. She said your boys have been beating her son up everyday after school.” “What is the parent’s name?” Mayor Rigley turned on his desk lamp by pulling a string of progressively larger metal beads, and plucked a Faber brand pencil--from a baker’s dozen--
sharpened to a razor’s point. “Her name is confidential,” Principal Small growled. “What is her name, Small?” Mayor Rigley spoke more forcefully. “That’s PRINCIPAL SMALL,” he shouted in anger…unfortunately too much anger. “Principal Small. Janitor Small. Trash Collector Small. Baker Small.” “Now wait a minute,” Principal Small’s voice began to treble in fear. “They are just names...and that’s what I want. What is her name Principal Small,” Mayor Rigley growled in a low rumble. The Principal felt himself begin to tremble. Once he committed himself there would be no backing out. “I can’t give you her name.” Principal Small stated authoritatively, his confidence growing once again. “It’s confidential.” Principal Small knew very well what he was risking. Any person who disagreed with Mayor Rigley regretted being outspoken. More than one person making public statements against the Mayor awoke to rocks thrown through their windows--threats painted in black letters upon them. One storeowner returned the next morning to find his business engulfed in flames. Public charges were made against the Mayor, but since he controlled every aspect of Crowley life, including the police, the judges in the court, and the town newspaper, nobody believed the store owner’s charges. It was reported in the Crowley Gazette, “Bankrupt, businessman Durgess Smith, suspected of making erroneous charges against Mayor Rigley, known as the most moral man in Crowley, fled Crowley’s city limits.” He was never heard from again. “What do you want Principal Small?” The Mayor said, his pencil hovering restlessly creating an imaginary infinity sign over his notepad. Mayor Rigley had no more time for game
playing. “I want a position.” “A position if…” “Yes. A position if you become more than just the Mayor of Crowley.” Mayor Rigley felt that he was someday destined for governor of their great state. During his twelve-year-reign in the Mayor’s mansion, he set out to create a perfect city filled with perfect citizens, who thought perfect thoughts...thoughts that the Mayor himself had thought. Even though Mayor Rigley was alone in the near darkness, he smiled broadly, his ultra-whiteteeth gleaming like a strand of wet pearls. His smile, a result of porcelain veneers, was unnaturally perfect. Too perfect, many secretly thought, to be trusted. He was also too dangerous, many knew, to oppose. They all knew he could end them in a snap. “My children’s spotless school record will remain spotless.” “It never happened.” Principal Small tore of the sheet, unlocked his file drawer with a small ornate key he wore as a necklace, and put the sheet in a file marked BLACKMAIL. “Oh, and it will never happen again,” Mayor Rigley brought his pencil down with such force on the pad he snapped the shaft in half. He threw the pencil in the trash basket and automatically retrieved another. “Now, again--the name?” “Hamlin Smallfrye. His mother Jemma complained,” Principal Small gave up the information with a defeated huff. “Our deal, Mayor Rigley?” he said with fraction less confidence. “We’ll be in touch...and have my boys ready to be picked up in ten minutes. Their father will be giving them strong advice.” Mayor Rigley slammed the receiver down without waiting
for a reply or committing to any deal. Waiting for a reply from Principal Small wasn’t necessary. He was that powerful. What was absolutely necessary was making sure the allegation against his boys never surfaced. If it became known to the state media that his sons had gotten in trouble it would stain the unblemished record he painstakingly polished, coveted, and at all costs maintained. Mayor Rigley picked up the phone. “Yes?” A voice as bland as white toast replied. “Find out everything you can about Jemma Smallfrye. She, or her boy, might prove useful to our endeavor.” “Of course,” The voice said, and then a click. The cold voiced man didn’t need to wait for a goodbye from the Mayor. Mayor Rigley didn’t know his name. He didn’t want to know his name. Privately he nick-named him his Right-Hand Man. They were a team. The Mayor worked above ground in the bright spotlight, and his Right-Hand Man, always undetected and in the safety of shadows.
It happened during math class just as Max Rigley was about to kick another paper football at the back of Hamlin’s head. Principal Small came to the door and summoned the Rigley Boys. When they rose without collecting their belongings, he said, “No, take everything. Mayor Rigley is sending a car for you.” Hamlin noticed that every ounce of cockiness and bravado drained from them. They shrunk. They seemed frightened. Hamlin wondered why?
Principal Small, a thin smile upon his face, led the Rigley Boys down the hallway. Even though he wanted to lecture them, he knew that was not the best way to proceed. There are other ways. Both boys dragged their feet slowly down the corridor, their heads bent in front of them. Max and Buck knew two things about their father. First, he loved his two sons, and second he demanded that they fear him. So, that caused them to shiver, shake, and feel queasy. The long dark car pulled up to the front of the school. They did not exchange a word with the driver, and within minutes they entered the Mayor’s Mansion. The Rigley Boys saw their father, Mayor Rigley standing in front of the massive family portrait gazing into the calm eyes of their dead mother. This made them extremely nervous.
“What would your mother think of you now?” he began somberly. “She would be horrified...that’s what she would think.” “Yes, father,” they spoke in tandem, as their father had long ago instructed them to
answer when being lectured. “Max, what was your objective? Why did you decide that beating up Hamlin Smallfrye was the way to proceed?” Max thought for a moment. “I wanted him to fear me.” “Fear you!” Mayor Rigley roared. “Why?” he said with a much calmer curiosity. “When he first came into class he answered a question correctly. My English teacher, Mr. Allen, liked that he answered the question...but I didn’t like that.” “Why?” “Because I know Mr. Allen doesn’t like me. So, Buck and I decided to teach Hamlin a lesson...” “....For being smart?” “No...No reason at all. It just made us feel better.” “Yeah...feel better,” Buck joined in. Mayor Rigley raised his hand threateningly. “No,” Buck flinched, shut his eyes, and waited for the blow that never came. When he looked up, he saw his father’s smile. “If I had hit you it would have hurt for a while...but the thought of me hitting you is much worse. Isn’t it?” Max and Buck agreed. “If you want to have power over Hamlin, then all you need is the threat of violence to keep him in check. The fear of violence never goes away. That is why I wanted to talk to you now. The situation was about to spin out of control, so I had to squash it. Jemma Smallfrye’s,
Hamlin’s mother just recently moved to Crowley. She doesn’t understand who to fear...who to respect. She went to Principal Small and complained about you beating up her son. I will not let your actions keep me from my goals!” Mayor Rigley drew back his hand...far back. Both boys shuttered their eyes, clinched their teeth, and awaited the blow. It didn’t come. When they dared open their eyes, their father, the most feared man in Crowley, stood smiling, his hands calmly laced. “Always use fear first,” he patted both boys warmly on the shoulders, and then without a backwards glance, made his way to his office, and shut the door with a thump.
Hiding behind a tree just outside the grounds of the mansion, Principal Small crouched. He had sat spellbound, pointing an antenna in the direction of the Mayor’s Mansion, listening through large headphones to every word rapt in concentration, recording them on a small digital recorder for his secret files. Moments before he summoned the Rigley Boys from class, Principal Small nervously peered right and left making sure nobody was there to witness his actions. He opened up Max’s locker, took out his backpack, unzipped the front compartment, and placed a small object that looked like a coin inside. It was a listening device...a bug...a way to spy on Mayor Rigley...This is my ticket to being more powerful, he thought. Now I know what drives Mayor Rigley. Fear. If I want to be respected by him, he must fear me. Principal Small went back to his Crowley Middle and High School to ponder what he had learned, and to add to the secret file he kept on Mayor Rigley. Patience Small. Be patient. Your time will come, he mused.
Hamlin paced back-and forth, and then without turning around forth-and back. With a deep breath he opened up the cover of Shakespeare’s Collected Works, and began to read. Shakespeare used a lot of tricky words. That meant that Hamlin felt he had to look up more words in the dictionary than he sometimes read. Plus most of what he read was written like poetry, and in a language that Hamlin had very little patience to decipher. He wanted action, not words, words, and more words. Hamlin wanted blood, gore, and swordplay, not strangely worded and complicated passages. More than once Hamlin shouted at Shakespeare, “What do you mean you big windbag made of dust?” Maybe Hamlin had gone about his assignment in the wrong way. He picked Hamlet as his first play to study. After reading the first sentence twenty or thirty times, and not understanding it at all, he thought that the assignment Mr. Allen had given him was impossible. The language, after more than four-hundred years, sat dead on the page. There seemed to be no way to read Shakespeare silently. After all Shakespeare had written it as a play. What’s in a word? Play. Platypus. Prosperous. Play. Platoon. Pontoon. Perplexed. Play! Play, Hamlin had assumed, was what children did. He heard people playing with language. Porous-Boris. Hamlin was always amazed at how many different ways kids could they say the word fart. Farter. Eat beans and you will become smarter. But first you will become a farter. So Hamlin, sitting on the edge of his bed, began to speak the lines out loud a different way each time. He said them loudly, then softly. At times he growled when he spoke his lines, and other times let the words leave his mouth deliberately…delicately.
It happened by accident, as all leaps of knowledge occur. Hamlin was so angry at a specifically difficult passage, he leapt to his feet and yelled at Hamlet, “What do you mean when you say, ‘…to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune!’” Hamlin caught himself breathing heavily. His voice sounded much rougher than usual. He felt powerful. Bold. Angry. He felt, if only for a moment, as Hamlet must of felt when he learned that his father had been killed and his world shattered. He had a choice. Hamlet could revenge his father’s murder…or run away and hide. But I have no choice. No options. I’m twelve and I’m stuck. But my imagination isn’t stuck. Imagination is a blank canvas, Hamlin thought to himself. As Hamlin continued to play with the language of Shakespeare his imagination became saturated with color: reds, greens, and purples. Words became colors, colors became emotions, and emotions became actions. Forming all around him were enemies with bows and arrows pointed directly at him. No matter what direction he ran the archers arrows found their mark. His arms became filled with arrows, and tragically, he fell to the ground pleading for the archers to stop their vicious attack. They didn’t. Hamlin understood this line very well from the months of the Rigley Boys’ savage attacks. No matter where he ran, they followed. No matter how much Hamlin tried to avoid them, he was found. Hamlin continued to consider the phrase, …outrageous fortune. Having never known a day when he was wealthy, Hamlin really had to imagine with both lobes of his brain what it was like to have wads of cash? He wondered what it was like to have great sums of money that people envied? He imagined himself the richest man in town, Mayor Rigley. Recently, charges had been leveled against Mayor Rigley that he was stealing large sums
of money from the hard working people of Crowley. People in Crowley began to talk, to chatter, to gossip the meanest things about him. A waitress commented on his finely coifed appearance. “That haircut must have cost him a pretty penny.” while another complained, “He doesn’t tip me as much as he should.” Another reasoned, “If he stole five-million dollars, he could at least tip me twenty percent of the price of the bill.” For months Mr. Rigley walked nowhere in Crowley without disapproving eyes following his every move. One day Hamlin passed by the mayor’s office on a day it was surrounded by a crowd of reporters licking the tips of their pencils like jackals at the kill of an antelope. Hamlin took up position with the other townspeople. It was quite a spectacle. Parked along Main Street twenty satellite trucks transmitted images directly to the entire state, maybe even the country. Vendors rolled hotdog carts through the crowds. Pretzel vendors followed, and the clunk-clang of cow-bells signaled ice cream had arrived. It felt like a carnival. People speculated about why the press had swarmed Crowley? Was Mayor Rigley about to be arrested? It was possible. A rumor spread throughout the crowd that Mayor Rigley may have had a heart attack, since among the many vehicles was an ambulance, its lights slowly rotating casting odd streaks of red, white, and blue lights over the crowd. All the speculation was silenced when the doors to the Crowley City Hall swung wide open. The Chief of Police and Mayor Rigley emerged with smiles the size of Texas across their faces. Standing at the top step of the grand entry, they surveyed the crowd. Soon, taking solid strides toward a collection of microphones, Mayor Rigley seemed to smile and make eye contact with each and every person in the crowd. “Good afternoon,” Mayor Rigley said to the throng. Tension. So much tension. The entire
group fell silent. “Good afternoon,” Mr. Rigley, a stickler for decorum, repeated. Reluctantly, in a grumbling, embarrassed utterance, the crowd in chorus spoke, “Good evening, Mayor Rigley.” “Over the last month I have been thoroughly investigated for charges of embezzling money from the city treasury. I am here tonight with the Chief of Police by my side to set the record straight. I have taken not one penny of the hard earned money from the citizens of our fair city. The last few month I have been hurt by the distrustful glances from people I used to call friends. Yesterday, as my family sat eating breakfast, a brick was thrown through our window. Luckily, nobody was hurt. My youngest boys have been picked on at school due to these charges. Where are the people who leveled these charges against me? I’ll tell you. Nowhere to be seen. Too scared to show their faces in public… to make these charges in person. So, for the sake of my family, for the respect of our little hamlet, please listen to the Chief of Police,” Mayor Rigley said in a somber tone. The once carnival like atmosphere ceased immediately. “He will set the record straight.” The Chief of Police stepped up to the microphone. Upon his first steely glance at the crowd it sang out in unison, “Good afternoon, Chief.” “Our office, along with the state, have completed a full investigation into the alleged illegal activities of the mayor. It is our conclusion that no wrong doings were committed. In fact the missing money was caused by a simple accounting mistake. All money is in its rightful place…the public coffers.” Dejected, the reporters that had been waiting to report on the wrong doings of the mayor, called their editors. “There ain’t no story,” Hamlin heard one reporter say in disgust. He tore a
page from his reporters notebook, crumpled it up, and threw it in the garbage. Curious as to what he had written, Hamlin retrieved the note. It read: Mayor R., dirty politician? You bet! Can prove? No way! Slick as oil on ice. The hotdog vendors rolled away, followed by the pretzel vendors and the ice cream cart. Soon, Hamlin sat alone among the discarded hot dog wrappers, waxy paper cups, and melted ice cream drippings. Hamlin watched as the reporters packed up their gear, secured large satellite dishes to the top of their news vans, and vanished into the endless wheat fields that surrounded Crowley in all directions. They returned to the outside world that to Hamlin seemed unreachable. Hamlin thought about how imposing it had been to see the Chief of Police standing shoulder-toshoulder with Mayor Rigley. Power, Hamlin learned, is often locked in place by more power, and power is locked in place by money.
Many people speculated about how Mayor Rigley managed to grow wealthy in such an economically depressed town. Crowley had once been filled with industry, but more recently good paying jobs were hard to come by. All were deeply jealous of any one in town with money. There was no room for rich people who flaunted their wealth. Jealous people, Hamlin figured, were the ones who shot arrows of discontent at those who were known to have outrageous fortunes. The ‘suffering’ came when people began to tell lies about other people. That’s called
slander. Lies. Hamlin, sitting in his room alone, smiled. He had discovered that Shakespeare was not an outdated writer. He was wickedly relevant. Mayor Rigley had defended himself against a sea of slings and arrows and survived. Hamlin decided to apply this lesson to his own life. He decided that no matter whatever the hardship he had enough wit, wisdom, and perseverance to succeed. He began to like Shakespeare.
Buck and Max stopped physically beating up Hamlin. Technically. On a Friday afternoon, moments after school let out, Hamlin found himself surrounded by more than twenty kids from the seventh grade. “Throw him in,” they taunted. Buck and Max instinctively knew that if they did not do as they were asked, they would be thrown into the trash container by the mean spirited seventh graders. It was the classic case of do or be done to. If they did what they were asked, the seventh graders would leave them alone once they became eighth graders. “One. Two,” Buck held onto Hamlin’s shoe. “Three…” over the dumpster side Hamlin flew. Dirty dumpster. Deep and dark. Rotting garbage down below. “Four,” Max let go and Hamlin hit the metal floor. Raucous laughter erupted from the world outside. All the seventh graders seemed impressed by Max and Buck. “That was cool!” There was the sound of high fives, secret handshakes, and derisive laughter. Dazed, Hamlin shook his head, groaned and raised himself to his feet. He was about two feet below the top of the dumpster. Soon the voices of his torturers trailed away. Hamlin was left alone to ponder how to get out. Maybe I can pull myself over the side and escape. No. The lip is too high above me. Friday morning was trash day and ten years of the residue of rotten lunch food wasn’t enough to make Hamlin’s landing any less painful or an escape by himself that much more possible.
Embarrassed as he was he began to call out for help. “Help. Somebody help. I’m in the dumpster. I can’t get out.” Hamlin heard the sound of feet coming near, but the gregarious gaggle of giggling girls only squealed and kept going. A group of boys came by. All they did was antagonize Hamlin by banging on the sides of the dumpster, then laugh, then bang on the sides of the dumpster a little more. Hamlin’s situation seemed ominous. He slumped down to the bottom and began to cry. He began to doubt the kindness and generosity associated with human beings. He began to think it was wrong to think of humans as noble. Hamlin feared his heart was turning into stone. Hamlin Smallfrye began to wish the worst dream any young boy could…he wished he had never been born. He sobbed loudly as uncontrollable thoughts and feelings bubbled hot and painful to the surface. “Hello,” A sweet voice filled with concern echoed from the outside world. “What do you want?” A humiliated and thoroughly defeated Hamlin choked out. “To help you get out of the dumpster. You sound familiar. Is that you, Hamlin?” Hamlin was shocked. Shyest of his class, and seen as an oddball, kids never called him by his first name preferring to call him Smallfrye. He didn’t think anybody even knew his first name. “It’s me,” he sighed. “What’s your name?” Her voice seemed familiar as well. “Julia. Julia Shimmerlake.” Hamlin was mortified. Julia Shimmerlake was the prettiest girl in the sixth grade. It had been rumored that she was dating an eighth grader. She was rare: beautiful, nerdy, and popular. “Are you still there, Hamlin?” Julia’s voice seemed filled with concern. Could Julia
Shimmerlake, prettiest of all girls in the sixth grade, actually be nice as well? It seemed possible, if a long shot. “Unfortunately yes.” From over the side of the container a face appeared, her bangs shining like black satin, her eyes as blue and electric as a cloudless sky in July. “Will you let me help you out?” Hamlin’s level of embarrassment rose. To him this was the most troubling incident of his young life. Who knows? Maybe tomorrow Julia would tell everybody that she had helped Hamlin out of the dumpster and the students would call Hamlin a sissy-boy. Another thought began to bang around Hamlin’s head like a tin can in a tornado. If I’m found in the dumpster by a school administrator, or worse yet Mr. Allen, I’ll have to tell him who threw me in. Nobody respects a school snitch...what will happen to me will be worse than death. Julia helped pull Hamlin out of the trash-bin. Hamlin jumped up, grabbed the top of the container. A sharp pain greeted him, but he had no choice. He held on, let Julia hold him in place as he threw his leg over the railing before spilling out of the container and falling to the pavement in a heap. “Are you okay?” Julia’s asked. Hamlin examined his disheveled pants stained with a thick syrupy liquid of decaying bananas. His shirt was torn where his pocket had caught on the rough side of the trash container. “I’m fine,” Hamlin said as he saw a growing pool of blood in the palm of his hand. He looked down at the gash…over an inch long. It began to throb in pain. Smudges of a black tarry substance surrounded the cut. Hamlin began to think about the cause and effect of what would
could happen next. I’m going to have to go to the hospital emergency room. They will call my mother. She will have to take off work. We don’t have insurance. Mom can’t afford it. My mother will have to pay with money we don’t have. She will lose her job! Hamlin couldn’t believe his misfortune. “I’m fine.” Hamlin quickly closed his palm. Searing pain. Like he had burned himself on a hot stove. “Open your hand, Hamlin.” Julia not only knew his name, but was now holding his hand. Really, his balled fist. Hamlin relented, his fingers trembled as he loosened his clenched hand one finger at a time revealing a deep, bleeding gash. “That’s a nasty cut. You should go to a doctor.” Julia’s studied the cut with concern. For the first time in a long time another person seemed concerned about Hamlin. “No…It’s good. Bactine and a Band-Aid and it’ll be fine.” Going to the hospital is not an option. He convinced Julia to go with him to the drug store. Hamlin and Julia had nine-dollarsand-fifty-four cents between them. Julia bought Bactine, gauze, and tape, and on a park bench behind Crowley Library helped fix Hamlin’s hand.
Hamlin went to school the next day with a smile on his face and a clean dressing as well. Every color in the world, for some inexplicable reason, seemed brighter. When he glanced at the sky the blue was bluer. Even the pavement seemed to have less cracks. Optimism was a panacea. Hamlin didn’t fear entering Crowley Middle and High School because now he had a friend. Most incredible of all when Hamlin crossed the path of Max and Buck he wasn’t scared at all, and most importantly didn’t show fear.
Max and Buck flexed their muscles, gnashed their terrible teeth, but Hamlin did not pay them any attention. For the first time he was happy, and not even the sight of the evil Rigley Boys, could change that. Not much of Hamlin’s school day had changed. As usual the teachers neglected to call on him, but Hamlin was not at all displeased. He had much more important work to keep him occupied. Or so he thought.
Less than a week after the incident a nasty smell began to leak from his wounded hand. Hamlin tried unsuccessfully with a needle doused in alcohol to puncture the wound and draw out the infection but the wound continued to fester and ooze. In the morning, as Hamlin was preparing to go to school, sweat beads formed on his brow. Opening up the medicine cabinet, Hamlin found the thermometer. His temperature was one-hundred-and-three degrees but Hamlin was cold and shivered and shook like an aspen tree in a wind storm. Hamlin made ready to go to school on that warm, spring day by putting on a thermal under-shirt, a button down over-shirt, a flannel jacket, as well as a thick scarf. “I’m off to school,” Hamlin blurted out as he raced past his mom putting on an earring. “What’s wrong with this picture,” His mother’s authoritative voice rang out. “I’m cold,” Hamlin said as a shiver quaked and quivered up-and-down his spine. His teeth chattered. Jemma reached out to Hamlin’s forehead. “You’re burning up. Take off your coat.” “Mom.” “Now!” His mother commanded. Hamlin complied. When he went to take off the sleeve of his right hand he winced in pain. His mother quickly investigated his hand. “Why didn’t you tell me you had a nasty cut?” “It’s fine. I put some Bactine on it…” “It’s infected. We’re going to the hospital.” “I’m fine,” Hamlin began to walk out the front door, but tripped and fell on the porch in a
discombobulated heap. His eyes became blurry, the blue sky turned to black. He passed out.
A swirl of lights over-head. Hamlin was on his back being rolled into the Rigley Hospital’s Emergency Room. Jemma stood by his side. “Momma,” Hamlin’s eyes found her face. “You’re late for work.” Jemma looked at Hamlin for a hard moment. Something was extremely wrong. Soon, a doctor in a white lab coat came to Hamlin’s bedside. The doctor took from his coat pocket a penlight and flashed a beam into his eyes. Temporarily blinded, Hamlin couldn’t see his mother. A thermometer gun was shot in his ear. A nurse with a large watch turned inwards upon her wrist stood next to the doctor. “One-hundred-and-five…” The nurse and the doctor exchanged knowing glances. Hamlin was in extreme danger. Now that he could see, Hamlin looked over and found his mother deep in conversation with an admissions nurse. They seemed to be in an argument. Jemma continued to rummage through her purse, but all she ever seemed to pull out were crumpled tissues and packs of crumbled crackers. “Lay back, Mr. Smallfrye,” the doctor asked. Hamlin noticed the emergency room was packed, people milling around obscuring Hamlin’s view of his mother. “Where’s my mom?” “She must have gone to the cafeteria for a bite with your father.” “I don’t know my father.” Hamlin’s head swirled? Who could she be talking to? About that time Hamlin began to worry he was extremely ill. He felt as if he was hallucinating because
he thought he saw Mayor Rigley, a massive cigar clutched in his teeth, striding through the halls. I must be worse than I thought. As the doctor worked, the busy hospital spun around him. Doctors hunched over patients. Old men coughing. Maybe it will be better if I close my eyes. Soon the sounds of the hospital muted, and soon ceased all together.
“Hamlin?” A doctor called out to Hamlin. Slowly, he struggled to open his leaden eyes. He was surprised to find himself surrounded by three policemen and a woman dressed all in pink. “Where’s my mom?” “Hi dear,” the woman in pink spoke in a soothing voice that did not comfort Hamlin at all. “My name is Marsha Songbird. I’m with social services,” She produced a business card and brought it toward Hamlin. When Hamlin tried to take the card, just to be polite, he noticed that his hands were tied to boards covered in white towels. Attached to his arms were clear tubes that were in turn attached to plastic bags. Every second or two unknown liquids dripped into his body. “Where’s my mother?” Hamlin began to shake violently. “Where’s my mother?” Hamlin raised suddenly out of his bed. “Where’s my mother,” Hamlin tried unsuccessfully to pull out the tubes. “Calm down Hamlin,” Hamlin was now pinned down by the doctors and nurses pushing with great force on his shoulders and legs as he thrashed about. “Yes, Hamlin. Calm down.” An icy voice came from behind the doctors and nurses. Standing there, chewing on the tip of an unlit cigar, was Mayor Rigley. Even though this was no
place for a person to have a cigar, what savvy person in the town of Crowley would tell Mayor Rigley, no? He smiled, his teeth large and white...too white and pure. “You are a strong boy, Hamlin. This too shall pass. Pass. Let it pass.” Mayor Rigley strode toward the open door and then into the misty cool of the foggy night. Once outside he lit his cigar before glancing back. Hamlin could see the red cherry of the flame illuminating the sharp contours of his face as he drew in a long, nearly restful breath. “Hamlin, let it pass,” Mayor Rigley said one last time. Hamlin felt a pinch in his shoulder. The doctor had injected him with something that made Mayor Rigley begin to wobble, expand, and finally fade into darkness. Darkness forever. “Jem-ma,” Hamlin spoke the name of his mother out-loud, but when he tried to say it again, the darkness closed in upon him and he couldn’t utter a sound.
Hamlin had been in the hospital for a number of days. The door to his room was locked. Anytime a doctor left he heard the lock click shut. Besides the kind and efficient nurses, he only had one visitor. Marsha Songbird had been in a number of times. She felt it was her obligation to counsel the poor boy and provide him with her sage advice. “Just because your mother left you doesn’t mean that you’re a worthless human being.” She was friendly even though her words were a touch harsh and without much consideration. Hamlin tolerated Ms. Songbird. “Thank you Ms. Songbird. I’m glad you think I’m not a worthless human being.” Hamlin sang out sarcastically. Fortunately Ms. Songbird, whom did not understand sarcasm, smiled brightly. “Pretty soon we’re going to find you a good family.” “You mean I’m not going to end up aging out of an orphanage?” Hamlin remarked overdramatically. “Not if I can do anything about it,” She poked out her finger and caressed Hamlin on the tip of his nose like you do with a two year old or a puppy dog. “You know, I haven’t been out of this room in quite some time,” Hamlin wondered aloud. “I know,” Ms. Songbird chose her words cautiously. Hamlin heard a suspicious tone in her voice. Maybe she knew more than she’s let on. Maybe Hamlin, who was overly sensitive, heard a tone that wasn’t there as well. Hamlin wondered to himself, Am I a patient or a
During Hamlin’s long hours of isolation he took stock of all his possessions. He had a backpack hanging on a hook in the room’s small closet. His crumpled clothes had been placed in a blue plastic bag. He counted three-dollars-and-eighty-eight-cents. Why did he catalogue all of his possessions? He didn’t know why, he just did it instinctively. A few days into his hospitalization, as his infected hand began to heal, and his temperature normalized, Hamlin had a second visitor. The Chief of Police. He took from his leather brief case an official looking document in a manila envelope. It was a missing persons report. “I can assure you that we will find your mother.” Hamlin believed the Chief of Police simply because he had no choice.
As the Chief of Police left Hamlin’s hospital room he tore the official envelope in two and, to be safe, deposited the two halves in separate trashcans.
Hamlin remembered his mother saying about her boss: “Why can’t he cut me some slack?” Sometimes his mother talked about how life had stitched strings onto her fingers, head, and legs. Like a marionette, life required her to go in this direction, and then do an about face, and go in that direction. “I just wanted the tension on the strings to be loosened enough so that I can move freely.” Now that Hamlin was isolated, he wondered if he was another string that kept his mother moving in ways she didn’t want to move. Maybe she decided to cut the strings so she could be freed from the burden of Hamlin. If Hamlin thought it was bad being fatherless, now Hamlin was motherless. While becoming an orphan seemed bad, in the books he had read there was at least a nobleness associated with losing a parent to a tragedy such as being buried in a coal mine collapse, killed by the bubonic plague in Europe, or a being killed in a car accident. Being abandoned, in Hamlin’s mind, was much worse. If his mother had suddenly died leaving him an orphan people would take pity on him. They would make a collection of money at the local union, or have a telethon for him. Being left reaffirmed what Hamlin had been feeling for so many years. I am a nobody that nobody wants to care for. If it was possible, Hamlin felt far worse than he had previously. Alone in the hospital room. Alone in his thoughts. Where is my mother? Had she left town? Maybe she’s hurriedly packing her possessions at the house. Maybe I can intercept her. Stop her from leaving. A near manic energy began to grip Hamlin. I have to escape from the hospital. He feared that if he didn’t, he would be in jeopardy of losing his mother forever.
Buzzz! Buzzzz! The door to Hamlin’s hospital room opened quickly as a nurse followed by the everpresent guard entered. The lights were off, and they didn’t bother to turn them on. “What do you want?” Nurse Ratchet, the meanest nurse on the floor, roared. “I must have pushed the emergency button by accident,” Hamlin apologized for the mishap. “Don’t let it happen again,” she unsympathetically bellowed. “I won’t.” “Good,” Nurse Ratchet pivoted on a blunt heel, and left the room. Usually the doors would have sealed shut. Hamlin--standing behind the door the entire time--caught the door handle before it locked. One of the best parts of being an only child is play. Hamlin had learned early on how to throw his voice across a room making people believe he was on the other side of the room. Hamlin quickly threw his backpack over his shoulder, and carefully peered through the small glass window in the door. Luckily no nurses were at the kiosk positioned directly across from Hamlin’s room. What about the security guard? Just then a nurse walked dangerously close to the window. Hamlin drew back. “Hi Harold.” “What do you got there?” “Made a fresh pot of coffee,” the nurse began to pour him a cup.
“Anything to keep these peepers open will help,” Harold gladly accepted the coffee with a Grin. Harold strode off to the break room whistling as he went. Slowly, Hamlin opened the door enough to poke his head through. Empty. Hamlin skulked out into the hall. Ahead of him the bright red EXIT sign. Without incident Hamlin made it to the stairs. As quickly as he possibly could, Hamlin ran down the stairs. A week of inactivity had made his legs turn to jelly. Adrenaline made Hamlin’s heart race. His head ached. He kept going. Time began to race as he exited the hospital. Crowley hospital was more than three miles from Poe Street, but Hamlin ran even though his legs had not one bit of spring in them. Hamlin found himself in an area of town he seldom visited. The streetlights were out, smashed by vandals, and trash collection seemed a rarity. Refuse billowed out of dented, rusty trashcans. Hamlin felt, in many ways, the same way as the trash. Nobody cared enough to put it in its rightful place. No. He couldn’t think negative thoughts. Pessimism is for defeatists. Hamlin began to imagine his mother at home. Out of necessity he lied to himself. Maybe she is preparing soup for me. Homemade soup. Made from scratch. Not from dinted cans. Once a police car passed him with his sirens blaring. Hamlin felt an icy chill freeze him. He stood frozen. Guilty. They sped on. Hamlin paused when he reached Poe Street and hid behind a broad oak tree. His house was dark, not a light on inside. Empty. Who knows—maybe his mother was conserving energy like before—saving money to feed him juicy steaks, steaming baked potatoes, about to fill a frosty mug of his favorite bottled root beer. Hamlin approached his house as if he were a stranger instead of the occupant. He had
never before been afraid to walk down his block and into his home. He was also looking out for police. Maybe Hamlin’s house was under surveillance. Maybe there were men in camouflage waiting to leap out of the bushes when he walked up to the overgrown hedge-lined entryway. Hamlin felt paranoid thinking all of these thoughts, but he had no choice. He was not in control of his thoughts. Despite the clamor of fears thrashing about in his head like marbles in a tin cup, Hamlin continued on. His street was unusually quiet, the light gray and bleak on Poe Street. The residence at 321 Poe seemed as if it always did…too big for he and his mom alone. Many years before the Smallfrye’s took residence in the house it had fallen into disrepair, and had enough room for a large happy family of five or even more. By the time the Smallfrye’s moved in, as the large house fell into disrepair, many of the doors had been nailed shut with large pieces of plywood. Now, only three rooms were inhabitable. Hamlin always wondered what lay behind the doors that had been nailed-shut? Were there rooms filled with children’s toys perfectly arranged? Was there a dead cat? When Hamlin reached his front door he found it ajar. He didn’t remember if they had shut it when they left for the hospital. If my mother had returned wouldn’t she have shut the door? “Mom,” Hamlin yelled. There was no reply, only a vacant echo. Hamlin peered in the kitchen first. The refrigerator whirled and rattled mechanically as if the refrigerator was about to break. That was normal. He opened it and found a half filled carton of milk. Thirsty, he put the container to his lips to drink, tipped it slowly, and gulped. A second later he spit the milk out. It was spoiled! The milk had been in the refrigerator the entire time Hamlin had been in the hospital. Hamlin’s heart began to thrash like an angry tiger against the sides of his rib cage.
He sprinted up the stairs to his mother’s room. Her bed was made and a glass of water sat as it always had on his mother’s bed-stand, red lipstick on the rim. Her reading glasses were not where they usually were. That could be explained. Maybe they were downstairs where she read the newspaper. The dresser-drawers were open. That was Hamlin’s first evidence that his mother had truly left. What before had been an aching suspicion soon turned into a shocking truth. His mother’s meager collection of clothes, usually neatly arranged in the drawers and in the closet and folded with utmost care, were all gone. All her shirts and underwear, her pants and skirts, her work shoes and socks were not where they were supposed to be. Even the only picture of Hamlin and his mother, had disappeared. Poof! Nobody was there to comfort Hamlin. There were no witnesses that heard him scream. The barren walls of his house now sucked up his mournful cries. Hamlin wrapped himself up in his mother’s bed sheets, and smelled and smelled them searching for the scent of his mother. He identified each scent: her shampoo, her perfume, her hand cream. He collected all of these scents for his memory, as evidence of her existence. He felt an overwhelming sense of fear in all the scents he collected. But he couldn’t tell if it was his mother’s fear or his own. Tears streamed down the sides of his face, collecting salty in the sides of his mouth. Hamlin realized that he could smell his own fear. He would never forget that smell.
Rattling at the front door. Keys fumbled about. Hamlin bounded to his feet. His mother! She was opening the door. Hamlin ran quickly from the room into the upstairs hallway. His mom would be standing in the entryway. Instead of the rusty door sounds of the lock Hamlin heard what sounded like…it sounded like the door was being kicked in! Hamlin quickly concealed himself by squatting down and hiding behind the banister. From between the slats he could see the frail old door finally give way. Flinging open it banged loud against the wall. Flashlights searched the interior picking up slowly rising dust-motes. Two men wearing dark clothing and black leather gloves entered. “Here kitty. Here kitty. Come out kitty,” The larger one clucked like an old woman looking for her cat under her couch. “Stop!” The smaller, wiry one’s voice struck out with anger. “Stealth…” he hissed with an icy breath that nearly stopped Hamlin’s heart from beating. The smaller one moved away from the stairs becoming indistinguishable from the shadows. Hamlin began to move toward his bedroom matching the smaller one step-for-feather-light-step. Hamlin quickly entered his room, and without a sound, closed and locked the door. He paced back-and-forth. What do I do? Fight or flight, Hamlin. Fight or flight? Thinking had been eclipsed by fear. He had to act. Hamlin noticed his window curtain fluttering in the breeze, and beyond, the curved, broad branches of an oak tree. Hamlin had theorized many times of jumping from the window onto the first branch, and like a trapeze artist, swing his body up to sit on the broad, stable branch. From there, after a few Tarzan leaps and flips, he would shimmy down the
trunk of the tree, dust off his hands and say, “No problemo.” Hamlin made his first mistake. He looked down. At least twenty feet of distance lay between the branch and the hedges. If he fell, he would break both his legs--maybe even his neck. Hamlin heard the first step of the staircase creak loudly. They would be in his room within the minute. Now or never. Hamlin eased the window up. Taking a large step, he balanced both feet on the windowsill. Hamlin saw the long branch right outside his window. It looked strong enough to hold his weight. Another creak. They were now on the landing right outside his room. Hamlin gauged the distance, leapt for the branch. Rough abrasive bark. Swinging. Swinging. Swinging. Hamlin opened his eyes. He was staring in the bedroom across from his window. Amy Radamacher, the queen of Crowley, sat brushing out the imaginary tangles from her perfectly tamed hair in a mirror. Hamlin had a crush on her. She had beautiful blonde hair. Why do I care about her hair? Hamlin thought to himself. The branch Hamlin was on swaying and suddenly cracked loudly! Amy looked right into Hamlin’s frightened eyes. “Don’t scream,” Hamlin implored. Amy let out a scream one octave higher than is needed to shatter crystal. Hamlin had to get off the tree. Trouble was coming fast. He heard the men banging on Hamlin’s door. Hamlin tried to swing his leg over the branch but he couldn’t--his leg kept slipping off. “Don’t scream,” Hamlin yelled at Amy. Amy let out another scream, somehow louder. The pounding on the floorboards stopped in front of Hamlin’s room. The handle of the door rattled, then heaved as the big one rammed his shoulder against it.
Hamlin swung his leg over the top of the branch and now sat astride the branch. It bucked back-and-forth and up-and-down wildly. The creaking in the branch alarmed Hamlin. He was about three feet from the trunk of the tree. Amy had run off to alert her parents that a weird boy was hanging from the branch outside her window. Hamlin tried to sidle his way toward the trunk. One inch. Two inches. A foot. Two feet. A gigantic crack sent Hamlin’s door rattling open. Two men entered his room. The larger one seemed not to know where Hamlin was, but the small wiry one strode as confident as a lioness to her kill, to the opened window. Leaning his arms on the windowsill, he smirked at Hamlin. Hamlin focused upon his small teeth that appeared to have been filed into razor sharp points. “Hello Hamlin.” He said with confidence. “We’ve been looking for you. Apparently you’ve been doing what we tell all boys lost in the forest to do. Hug a tree.” “Good one,” the larger one laughed. “Can you leave us for a moment.” The wiry one announced coldly. Obediently, the larger one left. “What do you want with me?” Hamlin studied The Man. He was calm. Sly. Psychological. Manipulative. “It may sound odd, but I wish to help. Not to harm you. I work for a powerful man. He will, if you come off that tree, make sure your life goes in a much different direction than the way it’s soon to plummet. If you come with me, we have a family waiting to take you in, Hamlin. To provide you with a home,” The wiry man’s voice softened. “Isn’t that, Hamlin, what
you really want? A home?” Of course, Hamlin thought to himself. How petty were the problems he had with his mother. Complaining about not having the right clothes or the proper tennis shoes seemed so stupid! All the complaints were nothing, and yet they had been everything at the time. He wanted to take back every one of his petty complaints. He wanted his mother back. The branch he was on creaked loudly again. Hamlin dropped a foot as the branch bent sharply. “Down will come baby, cradle and all,” The man sang with ironic sweetness, “I can help you, Hamlin.” The man reached out his hand to Hamlin. Hamlin had to decide whether to trust the man or not.
Crack! The choice was made for him. Falling… Falling… Falling… Hamlin fell through the air. Thud! He landed on the somewhat soft grass. Looking up he didn't see the two men. The little voice inside his head, as always, screamed, run! Even though Hamlin's body didn't want to cooperate, he ran. Far behind him he heard the screech of tires over the damp pavement. Night sounds all around him. Two bad men chasing him. Hamlin, a hunted animal. Not knowing where to go made Hamlin question his decision. Should I give up? He had always been giving up. Not anymore. His head throbbed and his throat became sore as he pushed himself to run faster. Hamlin had, without knowing it, run to his school. He decided that was the last place the bad men would look.
Hamlin had never seen his school at night. A few gargoyles loomed in the rafters adding to the scariness of the night. Crowley Middle and High School was lit by only a few lonely lights. A large chain with an equally large lock bolted the front doors of the school shut. Hamlin knew he had to find some way inside the building. Hamlin began to test every door and window of the main building. Some windows had been painted shut, others locked. Some windows were open, but the hinges were so rusty they couldn't be opened further. Slinking toward the gym, scarcely breathing, Hamlin saw a door that he had never noticed ajar. The Crowley Gym was an architectural oddity, its design futuristic, a-typical compared the to Crowley's neoclassical design reminiscent of the magnificent buildings of Washington D.C.. While every public building in Crowley had Greek architecture complimented with columns toped by iambic, doric and corinthian tops, the gymnasium had an upwards quality to it. It rose from the ground like a giant rocket ship. At the top was the strangest feature of all. A long quote, with the initials of W.S.. Being up so high the quote escaped the attention of everybody...nearly everybody. The quote went as such:
How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in't!
By a small miracle the inquisition that swept Shakespeare out of the schools, the libraries and the private homes of Crowley, had missed one of its most visited civic spots. The gymnasium. Hamlin took pride in his secret discovery. He had seen pictures of Mayor Rigley with the gymnasium and the quote behind him. William Shakespeare and his insightful words seemed to cheer Hamlin on. Little did Hamlin know how much of a radical he was about to become. If he could have seen into the future that night, he might have turned the opposite direction and ran for his life. On that lonely night, with his mother having disappeared, with the bad men pursuing him, with his few measly possessions, frightened, alone and with no food, Hamlin opened up the door with a sign atop it that read No Exit and entered.
Hamlin had never been inside the corridor, and had once seen a boy get in trouble for attempting to pry the door open with a stick and a bobby-pin. The corridor had at one time been lit with bare light bulbs. Now, they were all broken leaving only the jagged base. Every step Hamlin took crackled underfoot with broken glass. Hamlin turned around to go the other way, but he had tried all the other doors. Even though he was scared, he realized how tired he had become. It was a deep in the bones tired. Even though his bed sagged badly in the middle, and his home was as chilly as an Arctic winter, he wished to be at home in his own bed reading a book under the covers with a flashlight. That was impossible. A secluded place unknown to everybody was the next best place. Hamlin continued down the corridor shining his flashlight ahead. Cobwebs, thick with dust, lined the corridor. Hamlin couldn't find any spiders that were alive. The dead spiders, Hamlin thought, were not a good sign. The corridor was oddly angled. Hamlin was dropping. Why weren't there stairs? Why was there a ramp going down? Where was this ramp heading? Many questions. No answers. Walk. Walk all the way to the end no matter what. After twenty steps of broken glass, avoiding old spider-webs filled with dead spiders, Hamlin shone his light on a brick wall. “A brick wall! A brick wall? Who in the world would erect a brick wall here?” Hamlin exploded. “What's the use of wondering. It’s a brick wall, stupid.” Hamlin in his hopelessly sad situation thought, A brick wall...How absolutely perfect a metaphor for how I feel. His mother had blocked him from feeling secure and loved. The Rigley
Brothers had been jailing his ability to move freely and roam where he wished in Crowley for more than the past year. His classmates, and their limited imaginations, had blocked Hamlin's development as a critical thinker about the greater world beyond Crowley. A brick wall made Hamlin sadly ponder, What will become of me if I live in Crowley for the rest of my life? “Stop it!” Hamlin shouted out as loud as he could. His voice reverberated off the redbricked walls of the passage and then silence--absolute and unbroken. Hamlin felt as if he was in a tomb filled with nothingness…filled with death. Hamlin leaned his back against the brick wall, and as he sank to the floor, began to sob. How did I get to this dreadful place? Hamlin felt angry energy course through his body. It was a tremendous amount of energy. He felt his heart beat rise, a throbbing in his temples that felt like the concussion of a drumbeat. Leaning his back against the brick wall Hamlin pushed with all his might until all the excess energy drained from his body. The brick wall, a worthy adversary, seemed to be pushing back with as much force as he exerted. Hamlin stood up and, placing his hands in the middle of the wall, pushed as hard as he humanly could. The exertion making him groan loudly. It seemed useless. His flashlight, shining on the stone face, made the irregularly laid-bricks shadowed and dense. That’s when Hamlin noticed what looked like a loose brick. “Last one in, first one out.” Quickly, Hamlin grabbed his flashlight and examined the mortar around the brick. The mortar was cracked, and when he pushed directly on that brick, he could wiggle it slightly. Slowly, he alternated between jiggling the brick and pushing on it. He removed small pieces of crumbling mortar with a pen. Now, holding his flashlight in his teeth, for the first time Hamlin felt excited.
Hamlin clamped two hands on the exposed brick and pulled with all his strength…then it began to move as he pulled it out one millimeter at a time…so Hamlin pulled more. It came loose sending Hamlin to the ground with a crash! The brick flung out of his hand and skidded and rattled down the corridor. Hamlin hit the ground hard. He took the flashlight and quickly checked himself for cuts. Miraculously nothing. He raised himself to his feet and examined the light where he had been. Glass everywhere with the exception of where he landed. Hamlin’s attention turned back to the wall. The area from which he had removed the rock was dark. The space was just enough for his eyes and his flashlight. Intrigued as to what lay behind the wall, he pushed his face into the space. Emanating from within decay and stale, musky air, oozed out. Thick old air from another time filled Hamlin’s lungs. Shining his flashlight inside Hamlin saw jumbles of old school desks, broken blackboards, and yellowing paper. Piles and piles of trash. Who in their right mind would fill up a room of trash and then build a wall to keep it in? Maybe it was top secret junk. It didn’t make any sense to Hamlin at all. For the next few hours Hamlin tried to loosen more bricks with whatever he had available. He used the metal tip of his pen to remove bits of mortar. When it finally broke it sent ink splattering all over Hamlin’s face. After the shock of the pen exploding wore off, Hamlin laughed hard and long. It felt like a ton of weight lifted off of Hamlin’s chest, and he could breath again. Optimism grew within him. Even though he was hungry and abandoned, he recognized that he now had the singular goal of breaking down this brick wall if it took him the rest of his life. What was inside had to be of such great value…why else erect a wall to keep it a
secret? Tired now, his pen busted, his flashlight illumination dimming, Hamlin settled down to the ground and used his backpack as a lumpy pillow. He curled into a tight ball and fell asleep not thinking of emotions, his mother, or the men who sought to help or hurt him…he didn’t know which.
Hamlin awoke to the sound of thundering feet and the shrill whistle of Coach Ken. That was his P.E. class. He could hear Max and Buck taunting Jake Jacobs, the second smallest, weakest kid in class. He guessed, in Hamlin’s absence, that the Rigley Boys moved onto a new victim. For the faintest moment Hamlin felt a pang of nostalgia for P.E.. Hamlin thought about the smell of the mildewed gymnasium, the crisp military lines Coach Ken demanded, getting tripped and falling headfirst into a mud puddle. What stupid thoughts you think when you’re alone. Not having to go to P.E. and get embarrassed is a holiday. Standing up Hamlin felt dizzy and had to rest on one knee to keep from falling down face first. His last meal at the hospital consisted of only a concoction of string cut potatoes and a few dehydrated sticks of carrots. No matter what the risk I have to eat tonight. His stomach growled like a hungry tiger and threatened to turn on him at any moment. He knew that his school had been notified of his disappearance. If he showed himself there he would be turned over to Mayor Rigley. Hamlin didn’t want to think about what would happen to him if that happened. Maybe he would be sent to an orphanage. Little orphan Hamlin, he joked to himself. Hamlin tried to envision himself trying to act cute so he would be adopted. At thirteen, his cute and vulnerable years were far behind him. At least his cute years were behind him. What family would want to take in a thirteen year old? Stop! Hamlin hated thinking about what the future held in store for him. I have to focus on the present, and what’s behind this wall. Curiosity had always been Hamlin’s best asset and so he turned his attention to the mysterious
brick wall. It was at least a diversion from the growling in his stomach. Where the one brick had been removed Hamlin could see small cracks in the surrounding bricks, and decided to pull with all of his might. Suddenly the brick came loose. Hamlin threw it far back. It echoed off the walls. Hamlin froze. Listened for a reaction. Luckily, from the gym above, he could hear his classmates dribbling like mad men. Still he was fearful of them hearing his work and suspended his demolition of the wall. From now on he would work only at night and on weekends. The larger opening allowed Hamlin to see more. It was a large room with a tremendously high ceiling. There looked to be rows of chairs. Hundreds of chairs. An old auditorium nearly the same size as the gym above. Hamlin saw what looked like red velvet draperies along the walls. He was even more curious than before. I need two things, Hamlin thought. Patience and tools. Hamlin settled down with his back against the wall. It would be almost twelve hours before night, before he could leave the tunnel and until he could move freely in the dark. He took from his satchel his volume of William Shakespeare, and with nothing to do, began to read involving himself in the story, not as a scholar, but as an actor. When he read a line he liked he committed them to memory, and when he thought about the characters, he thought as people he knew or had known. But it was during his reading of Hamlet that he began to recognize his own unique story. Hamlet, the main protagonist of the self-named play, much like Hamlin, felt that the life he had been living had become a drama in which he was an actor. Maybe Shakespeare wrote about people in his own life who had impacted his life. Caused his reputation harm, who had made him feel as weak and vulnerable as I feel now. Hamlin at times felt like Hamlet. Both had felt a great sense of loss in their lives. Hamlet’s father had been murdered by his ruthless uncle
Claudius sending Hamlet into a dark place in his life and Hamlin’s Mother had disappeared. Hamlin spent hours reading the text dramatically, enjoying the poetics of the writing. Hamlin thought that the characters were navigating the same murky waters of doubts and frustrations he was feeling, discovering the larger world as he was discovering the small world behind the brick wall. Nearly the entire day passed by for Hamlin without him feeling the pangs of hunger. He was so involved in the reading of the plays that he barely noticed the din above. Peering out the window through a small bullet hole sized opening Hamlin viewed the janitor slowly sweeping the walkway that crossed by the corridor. Weakening, the light turned amber, then pink and soon the corridor was as dark as when Hamlin had first entered it the night before. Hamlin, knowing he had to conserve the batteries of his flashlight, sat for a long time in the dark. His stomach sent signs of distress in the form of baritone gurgles, and his small bottle of water had been empty for a few hours. He put on his backpack and opened the door ever so slowly. Scanning both ways he left his hiding place in search of food, water and most importantly tools to knock down the wall.
It was still relatively early in the evening, the November air crisp and filled with the sharp scents of maple leaves that scattered and shattered at Hamlin’s every step. In many spots the leaves were as high as the tops of Hamlin’s high topped tennis shoes. Sensing the cold of approaching Winter, families strolled the streets together, many on their way to the houses of friends to share hot chocolate by roaring fires. Gift tins filled with delectable cookies were in many people’s hands. Crowley, which could be called a conservative community, was at times the warmest, most wonderful of places for children. This was the 21st annual Cookie Day. Of all days for a hungry Hamlin to be walking the streets alone and hungry Cookie Day had to be the most painful of all. Hamlin tightened his belt. It was really a symbolic gesture for Hamlin was in no way starving to death. He was, however, imagining eating every variety of cookie ever invented: chocolate chip, macadamia, snicker doodles, shortbread with cinnamon on top, gingerbread and a thousand others. All of these wonderful confections, and worst of all their intoxicating scents, surrounded him suddenly. He had become a cookie animal able to discern from a passing families cookie tin the slightest scent of nutmeg. Worst of all many of the fathers in these families held large casseroles with oven mitts filled with apple, cherry, pecan and doubly worst of all lemon meringue pie…Hamlin’s favorite of all times. Thinking of lemon meringue pie was bitter sweet for Hamlin. It was the pie his mother made. Little did Hamlin realize that his feet and the memory of his mother had taken him to the opposite side of the street from his house. He began to examine his house. He felt as if he was
looking at his past life—or a life that was not his but belonged to somebody else. Most things were the same, and at the same time, everything was different. Yellow tape now crisscrossed the front door. Police Do Not Cross. Hamlin didn’t know if somebody might be watching his house thinking that Hamlin might return, so he kept on going. He had to think about another way to enter his house. Hamlin skulked slowly from one house to the next peering into the picture windows that looked like illuminated show cases depicting all the best parts of family life. Fireplaces lit the rooms in dancing amber and golden tones. People, mostly in Christmas inspired sweaters filled with knitted reindeer and Santa Claus, held fine crystal goblets, while others eagerly took massive bites from their cakes, their faces smudged with fudge frosting. Laughter erupted at regular intervals. Adults grinned at each other warmly as their kids chased each other in wild delight. In one of the houses a portly woman brought out a 5 gallon bucket of ice cream and announced, “Come one, come all for hot apple pie a la mode.” Soon a line formed and she scooped out heaps and heaps of ice cream. Hamlin sadly watched the children eat as his kettledrum of a stomach growled and fluttered in empty agony. In the next house sat an entire family seated cozy on their couch. all with their arms warmly draped over each other’s shoulders. The father smiled as contentedly as a lion studying his pride. Hamlin wondered, why does my family have to be so different? Why did his mother abandon him? Why am I on the outside looking in? Hamlin wanted to knock on a door and invite himself into one of these parlors complete with fire, cookies, pies and ice cream. He wanted to be apart of a home composed of a mother, father and a few brothers and sisters to play with. Hamlin wished for a mug of hot chocolate with
a thin sprinkle of nutmeg on top. He wanted what he could not have...a family that cared about him above all other concerns. Hamlin didn’t really like lemon meringue pie, he liked the amount of time his mother spent making the pie. It took her hours to squeeze lemons, kneed the dough, roll out the crust, and season and bake the pie. Her smile let Hamlin relax. His mother was, for the brief time she was baking the pie, radiantly happy. Hamlin believed it was the only time she was not worrying about bills, or their life of deprivation. Many times Hamlin had passed his mothers room and heard her crying. For all his learning about the frailty of human beings, when his mother was frail he didn’t have the ability to help her. Simply, as he had seen the family in the parlor do, he wished he could wrap his arms around his mother and hold her tenderly. Hamlin’s growling stomach began to roar. It had been over twenty-four hours since he had eaten. Hamlin, with his cap pulled tightly down and his hands anchored at the bottom of his pants pocket, now dragging his feet, made his way back to his old house and stared at it long and hard. Only a few days before, he could enter his house with no fear, with a sense of ownership. After all it was his house. He had a key and could go in and out—if he asked his mother—as he pleased. Hamlin held his house key out in front of him. He could go inside for a few minutes, fix himself a snack of peanut butter and celery. If he remembered correctly there was a large container of orange juice in the refrigerator. There were other items he wanted as well. So many items he could use a house to store them in. Another thought. Are there people hiding in the house waiting to capture me? Hamlin studied each and every car on his block. Buick’s. Chrysler’s. Ford’s. He searched for cars that
were unfamiliar. Unfortunately since it was the twenty-first Annual Cookie Day, most of the cars were unfamiliar. Hamlin examined both ways and crossed the street. Squeaky porch steps didn’t help to calm his nerves either. Hamlin put the one key on his clip-on key chain in the lock. It wouldn’t go in. He shook the key. No luck. After trying another time he threw the key down on the porch and stomped on it as hard as he could before he kicked it off the porch. Rumple Stilskin couldn’t have stomped it harder. Without being stealthy or quiet Hamlin sprinted around to the back of his house. As he had done in the school he checked every window for an open one. Not one. Hamlin went to the kitchen door in the rear of the house and knelt down. He saw a thick plastic dog door curled outward. Behind it was a heavy metal plate meant to keep unwanted animals or people out. Hamlin applied pressure to the plate and gently slid it upward until he could fit his fingers underneath. He pushed it until it fell on the kitchen floor. Even at thirteen years of age Hamlin’s skinny body easily fit through the dog door. He found himself in his kitchen. Everything seemed as it was before he had left. His refrigerator hummed softly. Opening it he quickly surveyed the contents. He found a paper bag filled with sandwich meats and mustard, and from the vegetables he took tomatoes and a cucumber. Opening the freezer he took a block of frozen bread—his mother always had frozen bread. Unable to wait Hamlin quickly opened the milk container, tipped it back as far as it would go. Nothing. Undeterred he tipped it back and shook. A tremendous gelatinous glob of milk splashed against his lips sending disgusting new-formed cheese into his mouth and down his cheeks. He raced to the sink, spit out what landed in his mouth and washed the offensive matter from his face. Hamlin had no time to
feel sorry. Again he made his way back to the refrigerator and found a large jar of raspberry jam. Using a large spoon he ate great globs of the jelly, and when he reached the sides, scooped them out with his finger until nothing remained. His stomach heaved and rumbled, but after a minute settled down. Now that his growling stomach was taken care of Hamlin’s attention again returned to supplies he needed to break down the brick wall. He went down into the basement. Over the years many families had rented the house, and over decades they left a fair amount of odd junk in the basement. In order to pass the time, Hamlin spent many hours studying the contents. One family left an ancient archive of family pictures from the nineteenth century. Another tenant of the house left behind an entire toolbox complete with an assortment of hammers and chisels. Hamlin hefted the toolbox in one hand and the bag of groceries in the other and headed back to school. He had work to do, and now, tools to do the work.
His flashlight clutched by his teeth, Hamlin found demolition of the wall both back breaking and thumb splitting work. Hamlin’s hands quickly grew weak from wielding the heavy hammer and if he didn’t hit his mark the hammer struck his thumb. Luckily the pain in his thumb made him remember to concentrate because he knew he could not afford an injury. Slowly, Hamlin found his rhythm. Brick by brick, swing by swing, chunk by chunk he willed and whittled the wall that had been erected to keep him out. As the dark night lightened Hamlin had made a hole big enough to fit through. So, with a high step, Hamlin entered the walled room.
If anybody had been with Hamlin as he entered the room they would have seen his mouth agape and his eyes as large as two full moons. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. A theatre. Not a movie theatre with a tiny stage and a white screen, but a massive one with a stage complete with three layers of tattered curtains. Painted scenery from another era lay haphazardly against the back wall. Hamlin spent hours searching through the contents of the theatre, wondering about its history. Who in his right mind would wall away this magical place? What purpose would it serve to block peoples’ access to a theatre? From his research into Shakespeare he had learned how many different types of people used to attend plays. Every walk of life from kings down to scullery maids saw his plays. As popular entertainment as television is today people viewed plays regularly. What had gone so tragically wrong in Crowley to make the central theatre go dark, to turn this beautiful theatre into a trash depository? Before Hamlin lay heaps of trash piled ten feet high in spots, old furniture, much of it broken, and boxes of moldy books that came apart like moths wings. All around him lay decay and worst of all abuse. Like a person who had been injured, so was this once magnificent theatre. Chunks of the stage were missing like teeth lost to gum disease. Many of the tattered draperies were moth eaten. In order to look up at the painted ceilings Hamlin sat in an old chair and nearly brained himself when the back of the chair collapsed sending him with a crash to the dusty floor. Hamlin laughed. He laughed hard. Pure joy filled him for a moment, and like a swimmer in a river full of
currents, he went with the flow and laughed. He kept laughing and the ghosts of the theatre laughed back.
Hamlin moved his meager possessions into the theatre and immediately opened his book of Shakespeare to Hamlet. Giddy, he couldn’t help himself. He stood on the cluttered stage— dead center—and holding a plastic skull he had found in a box, read Hamlet’s famous Soliloquy. “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Hamlin’s voice surprised him greatly. Even though he spoke softly, his voice inside the voluminous space of the theatre seemed as vast as an ocean, his voice clear as if each note were magically amplified. Inside the theatre Hamlet’s words had an unmatched power. Even though Hamlin spoke to rows and rows of trash, illuminated only by his flashlight, he felt more powerful than ever reading these immortal lines. ‘To live or die’, that seemed as much the fact of the theatre as Hamlin’s life itself. If Hamlin wished to evade capture he knew he would have to work to evade capture. If this theatre were to survive, that meant it would have to avoid detection as well. This theatre is mine. It was odd to be alone in such a place that could hold approximately two hundred and fifty people. Just Hamlin. Just one voice upon the once magnificent stage. It seemed odd to Hamlin, but it was thrilling as well. He didn’t want to admit it…he loved being alone on the stage. It was pure vanity to be in the space all by himself. Hamlin, who had felt so much sadness in his life, began to heal. Whenever he began to feel sad he told himself not to worry about the future, or attempt to always live within his memories of the past. An entire week went by as he read and performed Shakespeare. What he did in the present became his way to deal with the pains of his past. Each time he thought about being abandoned by his mother he cleaned another piece of trash from the stage. If I can’t make
my own life perfect I can at least make the stage perfect. When Hamlin’s batteries began to wear out, he found a large stash of candles, and worked by candlelight. Moving all of the trash from the worn red velvet chairs to the back of the auditorium, Hamlin found that by stacking it carefully, what once covered everything could now be neatly contained leaving many of the seats empty. As a person living in the moment, clearing all of seats of debris didn’t make much sense until one time he looked out from center stage and truly studied the chairs standing at attention. It was as if the empty chairs expected him to speak. It was as if they were waiting for a performance. Hamlin began to imagine the empty seats filled with the people of Crowley. Rich people and poor, women with hats and without, farmers in over-alls and bankers in three piece suits--all gathered to hear the same play. Community meant all its varied members. Hamlin stood center stage dreaming about the past glory of the place. The theatre filled with people would be the only way to really appreciate the grandeur of the theatre. Before movies, before television, before the age of personal entertainment devices, this place must have been a palace of entertainment the likes no longer existed in Crowley. Hamlin realized that his theatre both existed and didn’t exist. It was a place in limbo. A lost, and now, found world. Hamlin felt powerful standing center stage. Anything could happen here. People could die as quickly as rise from the darkness of death. Imagination could blossom into creation, and ideas voiced by one, had the power to impart meaning to all. Hamlin, who felt weak, and who had for his entire life felt powerless to control his fait, felt that here, in this creative space, a person could become as powerful as Hercules, as polished and glittery as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, and as witty as the author Mark Twain. It went off in his mind like a lighthouse
beacon. I was born to be in a theatre, and this theatre had been waiting for me to rediscover it. Hamlin’s fingers tingled, his toes began to dance, his face twisted into a tortured and pained expression. His hands gnarled into an old man’s hands. Hamlin wanted to transform himself into a bird and knew that here, on this theatre’s stage, by unfurling his hands he could soar. So he did. Why had this theatre been closed off, allowed to slip from the conscious minds of Crowley’s citizens so easily? Hamlin knew the only way to find out was to risk a day light trip to the Crowley Library.
Before daybreak, before the janitors arrived to clean away the beer bottles from the school grounds, Hamlin snuck out of his hiding place, and walked free and tall in the early morning darkness. Fresh air rushed into him replacing the stale air of the theatre. As much as he valued his alone time in the theatre, the hours of seclusion had begun to take their toll on Hamlin. Hamlin’s senses eagerly soaked in the song of birds, a robin flying and landing on a thin branch, a squirrel scampering across a high-powered wire like the finest trapeze artist. A red fox, puzzled by the sudden approach of Hamlin, cocked his head at an angle smartly before sauntering on. The Red Fox. That’s what I’ll call myself from now on. I am the illusive Red Fox avoiding detection and evading capture. The Red Fox went to the Rigley Library to wait until it opened. He knew that he could not risk being seen by anybody for fear of getting caught. On the other hand he craved being with people, or at least observing them. As the sun rose he settled into the high branches of an oak tree off of Main Street. From his vantage point he could see all of the morning business that made Crowley bustle. A bread truck from Girabaldi Breads made many stops. Mr. Girabaldi hopped out and took from the back a whicker basket of baguettes. Each one looked crispy and inviting. Hamlin imagined the interior moist. Mr. Girabaldi hand delivered the baskets of bread arriving back at the truck with an empty basket. From a Main Street house he heard the faint notes of piano scales. The young pianist stumbled, stopped, and tentatively began again. Maybe, if I return in a few weeks, I will hear the first melodies played with enthusiasm defying nervous mistakes. While Hamlin missed school
having a few days to dream about the theatre, and now observe the society around him, invigorated Hamlin’s soul. He, for the first time in his life, had time to view goodness instead of always being in the middle of bad happenings and the bad mood of his mother. Hamlin felt the first impulses of what it felt like to be superman. If a purse-snatcher were to so much as hint at taking Mrs. Elderberry’s purse, the Red Fox would bound down from the limbs and wrestle the thief to the ground. Newspaper reporters would take pictures of Hamlin and they’d be broadcast to every state in the union and every country in the world. Wherever his mother and father were, they would see the bravery of their son, and return home within the week. Hamlin would have his family back. He’d be more than happy to get his nervous mother back. As the morning wore on he saw the Rigley Boys causing havoc on their way to school. When they reached a stop sign the two boys kicked at its metal post with such force it began to bend. Both boys then hung from the top of it, and with all their might, bent it to the ground. Hamlin wanted to jump down and stop them but that would mean blowing his cover. He couldn’t risk it. He would remember the event if he needed a favor from the boys later.
At 11‘o’clock, with her arms filled with books she had read during the night, the librarian Ms. Salinger took from her neck a large bone skeleton key, finagled the lock open, and disappeared into the dark confines of the library. Clear of traffic, with all of Crowley at work, Hamlin climbed down from his perch and calmly strode into the library entering through the large oak doors that only the year before he strained to open. Now, it was much easier. Other than that not one detail of the library had changed. No new furniture had been added nor any new displays in the glass cases. No posters for upcoming literary events populated the walls. Talks given by famous authors never occurred in Crowley. In the hotel registrar not one famous person had ever slept in Crowley. One thing had changed in the library, but it was before Hamlin’s time. There used to be many more books on the shelves. Most had been burned, some had gone missing, spirited away by a few who could hardly stand seeing their favorite books destroyed, the blight condemning the few who sought out the safety of the library to a limited and controlled point of view. Banning books always seemed to Hamlin a way of over-simplifying the world. With so many people in the world--over 6 billion—that meant more than six billion points of view. There must be a lot of disagreement in so many people and a lot of stories. For Crowley that must mean more banned books in the future. Whatever changed in Crowley, what ever was newly in vogue, one thing never changed: the librarian in her cascading black velvet dress; her gold rimmed glasses complete with a clashing silver chain, the pervasive odor of sawdust and mildew of the old town library, and the
feeling that one was entering into a tomb of a lost civilization. “Hello,” Hamlin sung out. The old librarian did not answer back. Hamlin’s eyes took a few moments to adjust to the dim interior. Dust motes, the seemingly only living thing in the library, rose and danced in a small stream of sunlight around the books that went mostly unread. The grandeur of the library was definitely of another time when people read for entertainment, a day that was not complete without a trip to the library. All the books on the shelves represented stories. Hamlin picked a book at random. The last time it had been read was April 18th, 1975. All those years this book sat on the shelf waiting to be opened, waiting for an active imagination to once again awaken the characters residing within its pages. So much knowledge waiting to be learned. Instead Crowley Library felt so dreary that it felt more like an ancient tomb of an ages old king who liked books. Crowley’s library felt antiquated and dead. The purge of the library’s most intriguing work decimated the finest and most interesting literature. The mayor had stripped away the flesh of the library leaving only the skeleton, the dried brittle remains of the literary collection. Books that were not as interesting or well-crafted as they could have been, that left readers unchanged, were the only books that remained on the shelves. “Hamlin!” A voice nearby shouted. Hamlin dropped his book he was so shocked. The librarian stood directly behind him. How she got there he couldn’t fathom. “Don’t do that!” Hamlin put his hands on his knees and caught his breath. The librarian gently patted him on the back like she would a small child in the middle of a coughing fit. Hamlin felt calmer and even, if it was possible, a little emotional. She was the first person he had made personal contact with in ten days.
“Why are you here?” Hamlin felt crushed by her comment. Where should Hamlin be? He had no place to go. “Where were you Hamlin? Everybody’s looking for you.” “You mean the police and the mayor are looking for me,” Hamlin’s eye began to twitch nervously. “Your picture’s in the news.” “Have they found my mother?” “No,” Ms. Salinger’s voice trebled with sadness. Hamlin reached deep within himself to ask the question he already knew the answer to, “Tell me the truth.” “They think she abandoned you,” Ms. Salinger said with a low, regretful tone. All of the answers to his mother’s disappearance were in the note she had left. “Did the police give the note my mother wrote to the press?” Hamlin glanced up hopefully. “What note?” she didn’t know. “Never mind,” a sullen Hamlin let his face fall into his hands. “They want to help you, Hamlin,” The librarian put her hand lightly on Hamlin’s shoulder. “They want to make sure you’re protected. By the way, where have you been hiding?” The librarian’s gaze penetrated deeply into Hamlin’s eyes, it seemed all the way down into the basement of his brain. Hamlin knew that he couldn’t continue to live in the subterranean darkness forever. Deep down he knew he had to trust somebody. Deeper down he felt the conflicting feeling that he could trust anybody. Do I want to tell the librarian about where I’ve been hiding? Can she be
trusted? I don’t want to give-up my secret theatre. I know one thing for sure. If I want answers I need to be as close to the keeper of secrets as I can be. “Hamlin, where have you been hiding?” The librarian questioned again. “I want you to call Mayor Rigley. I’m ready,” Hamlin stated solidly, his mind made up. As the librarian called Mayor Rigley, Hamlin repeated in his mind a line spoken by Macbeth in a time when he was about to face his demon face to face. “Blow wind blow, at least we will die with harness on our back.” Hamlin was ready to face the full fury of the wind however hard they were about to blow, and with a harness hitched to the ugly truth, drag it into full view for everybody to see. Deep down he knew the library held the key to unlocking the secrets Hamlin so desperately needed to find the answers to, but it wasn’t the right time...but that time was coming.
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