Bill strayed from his parents. He told them he would be outside, that he wasn’t interested in the guided tour. If he knew what was going to happen to him perhaps he would have decided otherwise.
“Are you sure honey?” his mother had asked him when he said he wanted to leave the group. “Do you want me to come with you?”
“I want to go and watch the people digging,” he said. “I’ll be okay. I won’t go far. I promise.”
“Alright,” she said, adjusting the fanny pack that hung around her waist, “I’ll be with the rest of the tour and your brother and father if you decide to come back in. Maybe we’ll go to the gift shop when it’s all over.”
He waved to his mother and left the building. Usually, he’d pester her about the gift shop throughout their entire time in any museum. But he couldn’t think of anything that would be of interest to him in the gift shop in this particular museum. It was his older brother Tom’s idea to visit the place and their father encouraged it. They went to SeaWorld the other day. That was Bill’s choice. Now it was time for Tom to choose something, and this was what he chose.
It had been a boy’s reform school that opened around the turn of the century and had been shut down by the State of Florida for allegations of abuse by former residents in the early 1990’s. Then, sometime in the 2000’s, somebody discovered a body. A skeleton really. Then another. A cemetery actually. The discovery of the bodies verified what many had said for years: that some of the most difficult boys were often simply murdered by the staff and buried on the grounds.
Bill’s t-shirt soon became damp with sweat as he walked around the sprawling grounds of the school. He marveled at the Ficus trees with their hanging green branches and vines and the twisting roots that stuck up from the ground. There weren’t trees like that in his neighborhood on Long Island. He wished he stayed in Long Island, and he should have, of course, but he had no choice in the matter.
There were people in holes up to their waists. Some of them were banging away with pick axes or hammers and some of them were bent over and examining areas of dirt with magnifying glasses. Archeologists. Bill wanted to do something similar when he grew up. Except he didn’t want to look for dead boys. He wanted to look for dinosaurs. He wanted to be a paleontologist.
The idea of dead boys scared Bill. After all, he was only eight and while his teacher and parents did often yell at him for not listening or for not doing his chores, he never once feared they’d hurt him. Being murdered and buried in the ground and then not discovered for a hundred years was completely different. And it terrified him. Scary, bad thoughts of boys crying with bruises and cuts whirled in his head as he stared at the people digging.
A woman with jeans and a beige work shirt with the sleeves rolled up saw Bill and waved. Shy, Bill pretended he wasn’t watching them and instead looked down at his feet and moved his shoe through the thick moist grass. He wanted so badly to go over and ask the people questions, if they’d found anything. But he couldn’t find the nerve or the words. He was a little afraid they’d say yes and show him something he’d rather not see.
Little did he know that soon he’d be confronted with the brutal truth whether he asked or not.
Instead of talking to the woman, he wandered away from the archeologists, embarrassed now that he’d been spotted. There was a road nearby that his father drove in on and now Bill wandered towards it. There was a big tree there with hanging vines like many on the property, but this one dwarfed all the others. Bill got the sudden urge to run up to it and swing on its vines. So he did just that.
He yelled with glee as he hopped into the air and grabbed the vine, feeling the slick leaves in his hands. It was kind of like the rope in gym class, only there was no gym teacher nearby to tell him not to swing and no little Kelly Britcher threatening to tattle on him for every little thing he did.
Swinging back towards the tree, he stuck his feet out in front of him and caught the trunk with his sneakers. Then he pushed himself off again, flying through the air even faster this time while white-knuckling the vine. The air, even as humid as it was, felt cool going through his hair. The tree creaked a little. Bill noticed he was closer to the ground now so he stopped himself by dragging his feet across the dirt and repositioned himself higher. The tree creaked again but he paid it no mind.
Bill laughed out loud and the lady archeologist looked up and smiled at him. This time Bill did acknowledge her. The air time must have given him courage, so he waved and yelled ‘yahoo’ like he’d seen a cowboy do in some old movie he watched one time with his grandfather.
Then the vine snapped mid-swing. It happened so fast he barely noticed until he hit the ground. The lady archeologist was focusing back on her work and didn’t see. Bill looked up from the ground to make sure and was relieved when she didn’t come running over to make sure he was alright. That would have been too embarrassing. The lady would have certainly taken him inside to his parents and explained what happened. Tom would never have let him live it down, like the time he wet his pants while they were trick-or-treating.
Bill rubbed the back of his head. It hurt more than his butt did, which took the brunt of the fall. His head must have hit something harder than the dirt. He ran his fingers over the ground to see what it was and he came across something smooth and just a little hard. It had a crack in it. Bill wasn’t sure if it had been cracked before or if he had cracked it. Hopefully it was cracked before. He really didn’t want to be yelled at, certainly not in front of other people. The lady archeologist looked nice, but one thing he learned from his short time visiting the reform school-turned museum was that, apparently, some grown-ups could be ruthlessly mean.
The thing was white and smooth and mostly buried. With his palm, Bill began to push away some of the dirt and grass. It was exciting, like he was an archeologist himself. But then it was frightening, because though Bill really did want for the thing he was uncovering to be a dinosaur bone, he knew it wasn’t. Like his brother would say, he was just being a dummy. It was, of course, a boy.
It was the top half of a skull with a crack right in the middle of the forehead. Bill dug the whole thing up and held it is his hand. Standing up with it, he looked over for the lady archeologist, but she wasn’t there anymore. She must have gone inside or to another hole.
A sharp pain hit Bill’s head like a pickaxe. His vision tunneled with blackness, and his knees weakened to the point of near-collapse.
“Well, hey there, boy,” said a voice with a strong southern accent, not too different from the cowboys in the movie Bill had watched with his grandfather. Bill turned his head to see who it was that was talking.
No one was nearby.
There were some kids by the building, a brother and sister a few years younger than him, chasing each other with squirt guns. But they weren’t paying any attention to him and were too far away to hear.
“I’m right here, dummy,” the voice said again, a little harsher this time. Bill turned his head so fast, left and right, it almost spun around behind his back. “Jeezus,” said the voice again. “Now I’m right down here boy, in your hand.”
There in his hand, the eyeholes facing up at him, was the skull. He dropped it to the ground and fell back onto his butt.
The voice in his head laughed.
“Well I’ll be darned, I never seen anyone as scared as you right now. I’d say, you should see the look on your face.”
Bill rolled onto his knees. He thought about running back into the building, back to his mother. Maybe, he thought, he could run away and pretend this never happened. Maybe he was just hearing things. Maybe it was the heat. He should have listened to his mother and had more water. But if he ran inside, he’d look scared, for sure, and his mother would bend down and look at him and ask him what the matter was and why he was all dirty and his father would look displeased and then Tom would most certainly laugh and call him a sissy.
So, he did what he thought grown-ups did with their fear. He swallowed it with a big gulp and stared straight at it. He got off of his butt and crawled onto his knees. With a stick he found next to him, he poked the skull.
“I ain’t really in there boy,” said the voice, friendlier this time. “I kinda float around this thing that used to be my body.” The voice paused for a moment as if to allow Bill to consider what it was saying. “Now, I don’t know exactly how this whole death thing works, so don’t go axing me questions. All I know is I ain’t really in that skull there.”
With his eyes closed, Bill shook his head. Prayer was something he knew people were supposed to do, but he rarely did it. It was talked about on Easter Sunday when his family went to church, but that was it. But then Bill decided that there was no better time to start. He asked God, as nicely as knew how, like he was asking his mother for dessert after dinner, to please make the voice stop.
“Now there’s another thing I got no idea about,” said the voice, “God. You see, boy, when I was livin’ I thought that when I was dead I’d meet God. That’s all the people used to say. They’d say when you went and died you’d be carried up before God. But I wasn’t carried up nowhere. Like I said, I stayed right around here. And God never came down to meet me neither, no sir.”
Bill opened his eyes. Did the voice know he was praying, he wondered. That was a thought worse than hearing voices. That such voices could see inside his head and know what he was thinking and what he was asking God.
“Now, you listen up,” said the voice, “I ain’t gone hurt you, so you can stop askin’ God to make me go away. Alright? ‘Sides, God ain’t listenin’ anyways. That much I can be sure of. And if he was listenin’, heck, I ‘d want to know why he’s now listenin’ to you but never one time did he listen to me, even when I was getting the beating that put me in the shallow grave where you found me.”
That last sentence sent an odd sensation up Bill’s back and all of a sudden he grew cold, colder than the breeze made him when he was swinging on the vine. A bad kind of cold. Like when he ran around barefoot in the snow back home because Tom said he was a pussy if he didn’t.
“I’m sorry boy, I shouldn’t of scared you like that. But you see, I haven’t had anyone to talk to in something near a hundred years and I just got so excited I didn’t think too much. My words came tumbling out before I had time to think on them.”
Bill took a step back from where he’d found the skull and considered running inside, whether or not Tom made fun of him.
“Hold on a second,” said the voice, hurried. “Don’t run off, alright, I ain’t gonna hurt you, I promise.”
Bill stood still.
“My name is Willie Clayburn. Why don’t you tell me your name?”
Like when he saw the archeologist lady, it was hard for him to find the words, though he forced them out by sheer will. “Bill,” he said, softly, afraid that someone would hear him talking to himself.
“Well, Bill, it’s nice to meet you. I want to show you something. That alright?”
Still terrified and without thinking much about the question, Bill shook his head yes. Then the sky changed from light to dark. The lawn became mowed and a perfect shade of green. The trees were younger, some disappeared altogether. The building looked brighter on the outside. The bricks that were crumbled a moment before were now perfect. There were lights on poles that illuminated the property.
Bill came closer to the building, not because he was walking on his own free will and with his feet, but rather because he was floating. It was like a dream, one that he had no control over, one he couldn’t wake from no matter how much he wanted to.
But Willie was there, whispering in his ear to reassure him. “Nothin’ here’s gonna hurt you, Bill, my friend. I just want to show you how it was back when I was here is all. It might scare you. Well, heck, I’m sure it will, but you gotta trust me, alright. Nothing here’s gonna hurt you. Now can you trust me?”
Again, as he came close to the building’s front steps, Bill nodded.
“Hey,” said Willie, “You know what I just thought of? We got kind of the same name, don’t we? Ain’t that something?”
And Bill smiled.
Inside the building, there were no tour groups. Bill’s parents weren’t anywhere in sight, nor was Tom. There were boys though. They had identical uniforms on, old dingy-looking work uniforms, like they were all under-age mechanics. They all looked dirty too, with smudges of dirt on their faces and grimy, unwashed hair, and long finger nails with black dirt underneath.
There were some boys inside what looked to be a classroom and they sat at desks that looked too small for them, their knees pushing up against the wood. Across the hall from the classroom was a large open space with long tables. There was a large man with his arms folded in one corner. Throughout the rest of the room, boys swept and mopped without looking up or speaking to one another. It looked a little like a school cafeteria, but it smelled like sweat and ammonia and the windows were so dirty barely any light came in.
Bill was scared again when the man with the folded arms turned his head and looked right in his direction. But then the man did nothing.
“Don’t you trust me boy?” said Willie. “Nothing here is gone hurt you, alright? They can’t even see you.”
“Alright,” whispered Bill.
The floating stopped, right in the hallway. Bill looked around at the walls. While the outside of the building looked nicer in this vision, the inside did not. The walls were painted yellow, but the job must have been done so long ago that now it was more like an off-white. There was writing on the walls too. Nothing Bill could read. It was more like scribble. There were scratches on some parts and even a hole.
“This is where I spent most of my life,” said Willie. “I was what they called a ward of the state. Never knew what happened to my parents. I bounced a few other places before some lady brought me here in the back seat of a black car on a day so hot I thought I’d burn alive. That’s about all I remember about that day. Everything else I remember about my life is from between these walls.”
That wasn’t entirely true though. No, Willie had never met his father, but his mother was a whore from Tallahassee. Being the son of a whore, growing up wasn’t easy for Willie. He got harassed, abused, and watched every day as his mother got harassed and abused until one day he stabbed one of her johns with a corkscrew right in the eye. And that’s when his mother gave him up. He remembered holding tight to her ankles and crying as she slapped him in the face, telling him she didn’t want him anymore, but that wasn’t a memory he was about to tell Bill. He went to a foster home first before he went to the reformatory, but they didn’t want him either after he tried to drown a child of theirs in a bucket of water out near their well.
Bill floated out of the hallway and out of the building, back onto the property, which was still nicely kept and had no archeologist holes. There was a wooden shed a ways in front of him that had a tin roof. The boards on the side were bowing outwards and a fat black crow sat on the top and cawed. An old door on rusty hinges swung open and Bill floated inside.
“This happened to me all the time,” said Willie.
The inside of the shed was dark so it took a minute for Bill’s eyes to adjust and take in what was going on in front of him. At first all he heard was a cracking sound. Then he saw a large man with a belt in his hand, swinging it in front of him. In front of the man was a boy with his shirt off. The boy was tied by both of his hands to beams holding up the shed’s ceiling. He let out a yelp each time the man struck his back with the belt. There were a half dozen red stripes on his back with blood dripping down from them.
“See that boy there,” said Willie, into Bill’s ear as the leather came down once more. “That boy is me. Old man Raferty, he was the grounds keeper as well as the schools disciplinarian, he’d do this to me about once a week. And it wasn’t like he was breakin’ school rules. No sir, these were school rules. This is how they did things. Raferty just for some reason happened to like givin’ me the beatings more than he liked givin’ them to the others.”
Bill wanted to cry but he was too scared. He could hardly breathe. A sliver of sunlight came through a broken board on the side of the shed. There were dirt particles dancing in it. Bill heard a trickle and looked at the boy getting the beating. His pants were getting wet and urine was dripping onto the wooden slats that made up the floor.
“This time right here,” said Willie, “this time was a real bad one. I remember it. I got this one here because I stole some other boy’s roll at lunch time. That was the lunch room we passed back there, you know. Anyways, I was so hungry and he wasn’t eatin’ it. So I reached out my hand and took the roll. Raferty saw me do it so he took me out to this shed.”
Willie was lying. What Bill saw in front of him was in fact Willie getting a beating from old man Raferty, the grounds keeper. And Raferty would routinely give beatings. But Willie wasn’t getting this beating because he stole somebody’s roll at lunch. No, he was getting this beating because during lunch time somebody had taken his roll, so afterwards, outside, he went and picked up a shovel and beat the boy who did it until he was about an inch from death, knocked out most of his teeth and broke his jaw, made him lose sight in one of his eyes for the rest of his life.
But Bill didn’t know that, so he felt bad for Willie. He thought of the one time at his school during lunch when Kelly Britcher got up to go to the bathroom so he ate all her french fries. The teacher told him to apologize, and he did, but nobody took him out to a shed to beat him with a belt. The Willie getting the beating in front of him looked like he was around Tom’s age and while sometimes Bill got so angry with Tom he wanted to sock him right in the nose, he never ever wished for him to get a beating like that from an adult. Adults were strong.
A tear ran from Bill’s cheek and he wiped it away with the back of his hand.
“We can leave now,” said Willie. “I know it’s hard to watch. I just never been able to tell nobody my story.”
The door swung back open as the beating continued. Bill and the voice of Willie floated back outside.
“There’s just one more thing I want to show you,” Willie said.
A strong wind picked up. It was like Bill was swinging on the vine again. His hair brushed against his forehead. Air rustled through the trees. The crow from earlier cawed again but Bill could no longer see where it was. There was a mosquito buzzing in his ear so he swatted at it and hit the side of his head so hard he heard a ringing sound. Then the sun blacked out. It changed from day to night in less than a minute.
Bill floated again, towards the edge of the property. There was a large fence there now that wasn’t there when his father drove them in their family station wagon. A boy, the same boy that Bill had seen getting the beating just a moment ago, was running towards it. There was a large man chasing him with a flashlight in one hand and a shovel in the other.
There was a loud rattle Willie ran right into the chain-link fence. His face smashed against it and then he grabbed it and stuck a foot in it. Bill put his hands to the side of his head and said, “Go, faster” but the boy couldn’t hear him. The boy made it half way up when the man came and grabbed him by the top of his pants. At first the boy hung on. He kicked backwards and caught the man with his boot heel in the chest. But the man kept pulling. He yanked the boy right off of the fence and they both tumbled to the ground.
The man, who was the same man from before, rushed to his feet and picked up the shovel that he had thrown down before he grabbed Willie. He thrust the wooden handle into his stomach and then brought the metal down on the top of his head. Willie went face down into the dirt and the man stomped on his back. Bill could hear a cracking sound.
He cried hysterically as the man stood with his hands on his hips and stared at the body on the ground. At first there was steam rising from Willie’s mouth as he breathed his final breaths, but then that stopped. Then the man started to dig a hole in the ground.
Finally, Willie spoke again. “That’s how I died, you see. I knew for a long time that Raferty would be the death of me, so I tried to escape. One night I built up the guts and tried to make a run for it, but the old man heard me and chased me like you just seen.”
Again, Willie was lying. What Bill had just seen had happened, but before that, Willie hadn’t just been trying to escape. He snuck in to Raferty’s sleeping quarters and had planned on stabbing the man in his throat with a rusty screw driver he found in the school basement. He tripped on a throw rug when he entered the sleeping quarters though and woke up the old man, who hopped out of bed to find Willie standing there.
The wind returned and the sun came back out. The skull was back at Bill’s feet.
“That’s all I want to show you,” said Willie. “Now let me tell you, Bill, my friend, I really ‘preciate you listenin’ to my story and watchin’ the things I showed you. I know it wasn’t easy.”
Bill thought it was nice that an older boy like Willie would call him his friend. And he was relieved that nothing happened to him, just like Willie said.
“Now, I just got one favor to ask you,” continued Willie.
Bill wiped one finger across his eyes, which were still wet with tears. “Okay.”
“I was wondering if we could do a switch.”
“I know it sounds like it couldn’t really happen, but it can. I know it. Don’t ax me how I know, I just know it. But look, this is how it’ll go. You put both your hands back on that skull and close your eyes. I’ll do the work, alright? I’m going to go into your body and you’re going to come out. You’ll be like I am right now, kinda floating around with no body. But trust me, I’m your friend. I’ll come right back and give your body back to you the same way we switched in the first place. I’ll put your hands on the skull and then that will be that.”
Bill wasn’t always fond of his body. He wished he was stronger and taller and that he didn’t have freckles, but he was scared to give it up. He shook his head no.
“Now, boy,” said Willie “I ain’t askin’ that much. Alls I wanna do is trade just for a few minutes. I mean, heck, didn’t your parents teach you about sharin’ or about helpin’ out the needy. I’m about as needy as a boy can get. I don’t even have a body. I just want to see what it feels like again to be alive. I didn’t have much of a life.”
And Bill thought about it. His parents had made him share his squirt guns with the neighbor boy, even though he was a moron who stayed back in the first grade. But sharing his body wasn’t the same as sharing toys. It was his and it was his only one. But what happened to Willie was just plain awful and even though he’d only known him for an afternoon, he seemed like a nice boy, a nice boy that wouldn’t lie or trick him. So he changed his mind. “Alright,” he said. “Five minutes, that’s all. And don’t break anything or get into any trouble.”
“Now ain’t that a good friend,” said Willie.
And Bill went as Willie had told him and put both of his hands on the skull and closed his eyes. It felt for a minute like his brain was being forced out of his nose. But then he felt nothing and he saw himself from up above.
Bill’s body, now inhabited by something very different from Bill, jumped into the air and banged the bottom of its shoes together. It hooted into the air and then it ran.
Bill, watching from above, thought it was strange to watch himself like that but that it was also nice that he could make somebody feel that good, especially somebody that had had such a hard and short life. He watched as his body walked inside of the building and then he floated to one of the windows so that he could watch. He saw his family breaking away from the tour guide. The tour must have ended, thought Bill, and it occurred to him that they would be looking for him so they could go back to the hotel. He hoped Willie would come back soon so they could switch again.
But then he saw his mother through the window and she approached the boy that had his body. At first the boy stood there, but then he gave her a hug as she started talking to him. Tom and his father came over and also started talking to him. Bill tried to yell and he tried to bang on the window, but nothing would happen.
People started to leave the museum. His family came outside. Bill went as fast as he could, floating, but now like he was actually the air. He caught up with his body and tried to enter it, but there was something like a wall there.
He spoke. “Willie, it’s time to switch back now like you said.”
But Willie didn’t answer. Instead, he spoke to Bill’s mother as they all started to get in their car. “Momma, can we get some supper now?”
“Sure, Bill,” she said.
“Why are you talking like that Bill?” said his father. “I think you’ve spent too much time in the south.”
Then they laughed and drove away.
He is currently working on his first novel.