They say when I was first laid in my mother's arms, she gave me back to the nurse and said, "No. This is not a child of mine."
My father is the "they" I mean, the only one I heard tell that story. I guess he figured she meant it, because right away he took me as far from the Zuni reservation and my mother as we could get.
I don't remember being a little baby. I mean, who does? But I know my father drove his old car, with him and me and supplies, for miles and miles and miles. I hated that car. And he talked a lot, my Dad. He'd say, "Hey, freak. We're gonna cross a state line again. Mark it on the map." Or, "Hey, ghost boy. I gotta stop here for a few days. I'll set you up in a motel."
When my father said "set you up in a motel," he meant he'd get some half-drunk Indian to watch me, or more likely, to watch TV. He always went somewhere else. Some of those Indians fed me and some didn't, just like my father. I mean, it's like when I'd ask him what my mother's name was, and sometimes he'd say "Storm" and sometimes "Dawn." I wondered if I ever had a mother. Anyway, that's why I'm small for my age. Ah, heck. Truth is, I'm not even sure what my age is. I have a hard time with a lot of things.
That's because I'm an albino, the kind with red eyes and everything. It wasn't just my parents who didn't want me around, it was everyone. Well, some people were half-way nice, but few like to be around a person who looks like Casper the Friendly Ghost, and I wasn't even friendly.
I had no reason to be nice. My father was a terrible example, and he's the one I was around the most. Yeah, he called me names and slugged me a couple times when he was drunk, but I almost didn't blame him. He was a real dark Zuni and I was the direct opposite. I mean, it must've been hard for him, too. But he still didn't do me right, not by half.
When I could talk in sentences, learned from my Dad and motel TVs, I told my father that sunlight hurt my eyes and that's why I cried a lot. I didn't know it then, but because the color of my eyes were wrong, strong sunlight - any bright light - hurt them a lot. So my father got me big, ugly sunglasses. I was glad of them and kept them with me all the time, but I knew they were ugly. My Dad told me so often enough, and I could see in motel mirrors exactly what I looked like. A freak. A ghost. Unwanted and ugly. Red eyes, white-on-white skin, paper-white straw hair. And I still couldn't see real well with the glasses. I did half the stuff I did by touch and sound.
I guess we both hid for years before he left me here, under a gate and in this forest.
He was pissed off. He was more pissed off than I'd ever seen him.
He said, "I took good care of you and what does that damn fool Gary do? Tosses us out 'cause he thought you had cooties!"
I was just old enough to ask what cooties were. That's a dumb question, I know.
Dad said cooties are germs.
Then I felt like a walking germ for a couple weeks and hated myself even more.
He yelled, "All we own is crap I find at sidewalk sales or thrift shops. This is how your damn mother treated us! All that damn tribe did was mess with you and me. I hate em! I ain't gotta lotta love for you either, but at least I act like a man."
I'd be glad when he'd mutter whatever else he had to say. Then I didn't have to hear it.
We'd passed a town called Santa Rosa in New Mexico one time a while back.
Dad laughed at the bird on the sign that said Santa Rosa.
"That's a goddamn roadrunner, kid. That's what we are. We keep runnin down roads, runnin down highways, tryin to get away from everydamnbody and everydamnthing."
"We runnin from Wiley Coyote?"
Dad looked at me and spit out the window. He didn't even care about his car anymore.
We'd been on the road a long time. We'd leave motels in the middle of the night. Dad just drove in circles until he lost any patience with me. He knew I'd learned to read and write 'cause I'd told him about Sesame Street and books I found.
And I'd write on anything. I'd write with anything. Anyway, yeah, he lost any bits of patience he had left for me.
I was maybe fourteen then. Maybe. But I also knew he never said "son" unless something bad was gonna happen. It gave me goosebumps. It meant he saw something bad when he looked at me, and that happened a lot.
He said it again.
"Son. I sent a card to your mother. She wants me home. She's real sick. She don't want you, though. I gotta leave you somewhere you might live. You'll live if you try. I like your Mom and I gotta go back. So I'm gonna give you a choice. Tell me where you wanna go now. Where d'you think your white, white self might live?"
I didn't know what to say.
I thought of that roadrunner for some reason.
"Um. Take me to Santa Rosa. Um. Yeah."
I had to turn away 'cause I cried a little, and big guys don't cry.
I knew we were somewhere in California. It would take a really blind guy not to notice that. There were signs all over about amusement parks, movies, zoos and stuff I'd never see in real life. What I didn't know was that we were close to a California town called Santa Rosa. I never thought then there are lots of towns with identical names in different states. I'd prob'ly been through them with Dad and didn't notice.
Dad pulled to the side of a road in a little town somewhere.
He kept a map of every state we drove around in.
I never knew why. I mean, he drove in circles. Why'd he need a map?
"Here's a Santa Rosa. It's not far. There's a state park near it. We'll go there."
"You're gonna leave me in a park?"
"Shut up! It's a state park and there's always a lotta folks at those."
I shut up and waited 'til he found the park he wanted.
But I thought stuff.
Like, To hell with him! To hell with him! To hell with both of 'em! They're monsters! I'm not the freak. They are!
It was early morning, like I mean, real-real early.
The kinda early I'd gotten used to, always runnin with a man who dared to say he was my father.
Fog rolled around us, but he found the entrance to the state park where he was gonna dump me like he sometimes dumped trash out of the car. He was gonna dump me just like the trash!
A gate blocked a road next to some kind of booth. I see better in fog, but I was too angry to see where I was.
Dad turned the motor off.
He opened my door and said, "This is it. Get outta here, boy."
He took my clothes from his suitcase, a box of crackers and tins of sardines and a big jug of water. He put all those on the other side of the gate across the road, so if I really wanted to live, I'd have to climb inside there to get my stuff.
He kinda tried to hug me, but I was mad and pushed him away.
Then he got mad too.
"You'll regret that, you damn fool," he said and drove away.
I admit I broke down then and cried like a baby. I can keep that secret.
I mean, here I am now, living inside a tree and writing in a stolen notebook. I can write anything, right? Who would care? Nobody's around to read this. I won't lose the notebook. I'm maybe a year older and now I know I really want to live.
This place is called Armstrong Woods. I think I've been everywhere here.
At first, after I cried so much my nose and eyes hurt bad, I picked up my stuff and walked until I found a picnic area, a lotta tables and benches. I was tired and hugged my clothes and the stuff that man left me and scooted under a table. I slept until I heard people. I got my stuff and ran, real awkward. I knew they would look at me and point and get all freaked out.
The trees here are huge, the biggest trees I've ever seen in my life. They're called coastal redwoods. I've heard park rangers lead tourists around often enough to know a lot about this place. The biggest tree is taller than three hundred feet, and it's wider than you'd think a tree could be. The big trees hide me whenever I run from people, and the trees are my best friends. I inch from one side to another and listen to ordinary people and little kids and stuff and, well, ordinary things.
I know some might think it's silly, but I'm glad to listen to parents love their children and talk to 'em. I'm glad to listen to a park ranger who loves this woods as much as I do. I like to hear them talk about it with love. I need to hear love. I can't feel love, except for the woods, but I need to hear it. Somehow it makes a lot of the heaviness I feel go away. It may be silly, but that's how it is. It's like a take-it-or-leave-it thing. I take eavesdropped love and make it mine. It kinda helps.
And about this tree I sit inside. It got burnt by some fire a long time ago. It was a fire that couldn't knock a redwood down, but left the base of it an empty shell. I've heard the park rangers say settlers used to keep their geese in some of these burnt trees. Does that make me a goose? Ha! I been here long enough to see everything and live about a year. A goose can't do that. Anybody who sees me will leave me 'cause they'd freak out, I know it. Everyone I know has left me.
I use the redwood's inner section, this burnt part, like my house. I hang my clothes on little bits that stick out after I wash them in the creek. All my clothes are too small, but I don't care. I'm whiter-than-white and so dirty I can smell me, but nobody seems to see me. I move in the night and when it's misty or foggy. I like the woods best then. I think about everything I heard in the day. I climb and explore and I like it here. I just can't ever get caught and be thrown away again.
This morning I'm thinking about a girl I saw once at the amphitheater somebody built here ages ago. She was pretty. She had red hair. She was pale. And she was alone. She got on that little stage and danced all by herself. I watched a long time. She heard different music than I ever have. It must have been beautiful, 'cause she smiled a lot and danced so nice. She did all that alone. I bet she's maybe my age or so. Young, anyway. I keep thinking about her. I hope she comes back.
I haven't written anything for a few days. I got busy 'cause I had to move to another burnt tree. I think maybe some ranger saw my stuff when I was away or something. I saw some stuff was gone and my clothes were in a black plastic bag, a big one. I grabbed that bag and ran, hoping the notebook was in it, too. It was. Now I was in a booth in the middle of the night. I figured out how to open them months ago. I never needed anything and never took a thing from a ranger's booth, but it was raining real hard and I wanted to write again. Needed a flashlight to do it.
That girl showed up at the amphitheater again. And she was alone again. I even thought about talkin to her. But I thought she'd take one look at me and scream or something. I know I'm a freak after all. I've never seen anyone who looks like me and a lot of people come to Armstrong Woods. I watched her dance again. What's the music she hears? What does she think about? Then two grown-ups arrived. She bowed to them and laughed, like she was special. She is, too. Anyway, those people were her parents. She loves them and they love her. They applauded and everything. I couldn't handle it.
I thought these things, like, I'm gonna have to leave this place. I need new clothes. I haven't eaten much. I'm starving.
I'm tired of stealing food at picnics. I don't wanna be a thief. And I'm tired of stealing other people's love. No one gives love to me. I'm stealing it. I'm tired of everything. I'm real alone and real tired. I might even be tired of living.
"Ah! There you are!"
A park ranger said that when he grabbed my arm. I was asleep in that ranger's booth.
Now I'm sitting in some kinda jail or something. They almost took everything away, but I begged and begged for my notebook and pencil. They put me in these kinda overall clothes. I hate the color, but at least it fits and it's warm. I hate the lights too, but but they gave me my regular ugly glasses.
The park ranger was nice, I guess, if kidnapping's nice.
At least he didn't yell at me.
He hardly said anything except "get in here" or "go out there."
A man behind a desk said, "Is this the runaway?"
The park ranger said, "I guess so. I don't know anything about this kid. But I know he made himself at home in our woods. You should've seen what he had in one of our trees. It was like a house!"
"It's my woods and my tree," I said, but nobody heard me.
Then another man said, "Put this on and follow me."
I sit here and wait.
I wonder if maybe I did die and this is hell.
Voices get close. I can't hear any words and I won't listen to anyone.
I won't cry.
The voices stop, and I look up to see my crummy father and an old man and the jailkeeper standing in the hall.
My father says, "Listen, son."
He called me "son" again. That makes me real mad.
I think Go away! I hate you! but I don't say it.
"Let him be," the old man says. "He looks like his mother. Don't you see her cheekbones? Her jaw?"
The man who abandoned me says, "He don't look like nothin I wanna see."
"I hate you!" I yell it so loud there's an echo. Little 'I-hate-you'-s rattle down the hall.
"Leave us alone."
That's the old man. He means my father.
Then my so-called father's gone. Finally!
That so-called 'man' isn't here to watch me and treat me like trash.
But who's this old guy?
"Hello, William," he says. "I'm your grandfather. Your mother was my daughter."
I look up a moment. Was?
He sees me.
That old man sees me and he doesn't look freaked out.
"Yes, William," he says. "Your mother died a few months ago. It took too long to find you. That's my fault."
The old man sighs.
"At the end, your mother said she was wrong, what she did to you. Your father was even more wrong. I won't let your mother's fear or your father's actions lead me off the right path. I'm sorry I didn't know or try harder to find you. Your father will be arrested soon. And you look wonderful to me. You look like your mother and I miss my daughter very much. I want to take you to your grandmother, to your relatives, to many who'll love you like you are. Yes, you look different. You look a little strange, maybe. But the elders remember others like you in our tribe, and you are blessed. Remember that - you are blessed. Will you come home, William?"
I don't believe this old man, but at the same time I want very much to believe him.
I want a family. I want a good home. I want many relatives. I want to learn more.
I'm so hungry.
I'll ask him a question and try to decide.
"What was my mother's name?"
"Dawn Storm. In English," he says and smiles a little for the first time. "An odd name, but a true one."
I look at him, but he can't see my eyes behind the glasses.
It's good he can't. For some reason, they have weird kinda-tears in them.
I say, "Right now all I know is I'm hungry, Mr. Storm. Can you... Will they let you bring me a hamburger, maybe? And a Coke or something, maybe? Do you think they'll let you bring me something to eat? I don't think I've eaten enough."
He says, "Of course they'll let me. I'll tell them to. I'll bring three for you and one for me."
Now he's gone.
I'm confused as soon as he leaves. I want to live in Armstrong Woods, but I want a family too, like that red-haired girl has. Armstrong Woods is prob'ly a long way from a Zuni pueblo. I want to like and trust an old man who says such nice things to me, but can I? Will the cops and rangers even let me out of here?
What does a freak like me have to do to be normal and loved?
Dance in the Armstrong amphitheater? That makes me hiccup between crying and laughing.
What does a ghost-boy do?