By Lauren Manna
He was William. Always William. Not Will or Willy or heavens, not Bill—that was his father—but William. Gloria and Bill had insisted on the full from relatives and strangers alike since his infancy, and he had been taught to correct others at an early age as well. William was the name on his birth certificate, they said, and there would be no playing about with silly nicknames if they could help it. “It’s not ‘Willy’,” he recalled saying to his teacher, a young thing named Miss Hill in the first grade. “That sounds absurd. My name is William.”
He’d had glasses since he was four years old, and if the size changed as he grew the look certainly never did: horn-rimmed black, from Laser Eyes, because they still made their lenses with real glass instead of plastic and he was certainly in no danger of breaking them in some asinine activity anyway. His mother said real glass was for gentleman, and so real glass it was.
His hair came just to the middle of his forehead, so he never had to trouble with pushing it out of his eyes. He had the family cowlick; his grandfather’s, his mother always said, which required a massive amount of taming, so he always set his watch alarm ten minutes earlier in the morning. His mother said real gentlemen wore watches, and so he did: a thin silver one with a true clock face, because any stupid teenager at his school could read a digital one and William was certainly not a stupid teenager.
He had thin lips that became thinner when he pursed them in disapproval, and small eyes that became smaller when he squinted in concentration. His mother called him her littler scholar, and that the squinting was probably where his frequent headaches came from. The headaches were worth a little extra squinting, though, on the days when he needed to be told he was a scholar. They mostly happened when he came home from school and realized he hadn’t needed to say a word to a single classmate all day. His mother said it was lonely at the top, and he was.
Always William sat in the second row of every class. He would have sat in the front --his mother said all good students sat in the front row--only Gina sat in the front row, and it was difficult to be discreet in staring if he had to turn his head to look instead of across the aisle at her back. Her back--the pale, narrow shoulders covered with mostly straight, mostly blonde hair and sometimes a blue scarf--was poetry. He hated thinking that way, because backs couldn’t be poetry or even look like it, but one very gray Wednesday he’d found himself quite out of sorts, totally unaware of what Mrs. Paige had been saying about gerunds, and when he looked down, blinking, saw that he had been scrawling over his notes in Precise V5 pen, the only kind he used, blue initials and a blue scarf and there, at the bottom of the page, a poem he didn’t realize he had started, a poem beginning with the line: she has a back like poetry... Always William generally did not approve of poetry, but there it was. And in spite of himself and despite the way it made no sense- lack of sense also being something he did not approve of--he had liked the way it sounded.
When Gina turned her head to look at the other side of the board he could see her profile: unremarkable, maybe, to any other teenage boy--but Always William was certainly not like any other teenage boy. Her face was long and thin, with sharp little upturns at the top of the nose and the bottom of the chin. When she concentrated she squinted, and when the boys in the back row laughed or threw paper she pressed her lips together but never turned around. Her spectacles were oval wire, purple wire, which Always William thought was a rather silly color for spectacles, but they were lovely on her. And they were made of real glass. Even Always William’s mother did not know about Gina.
They had entered a unit on epics, and even though the classroom smell of dirty linoleum tile and the overly white fluorescent lighting did not make for the best place to learn of an era of mystery and candlelight Always William enjoyed it. He approved of mythology because it seemed to him like reasonable storytelling --there was history behind these, and culture. Reading the epics could hardly count as absurd because they were classics, which his mother approved of, only they read like fiction, of which his mother didn’t. Gina approved of them too. She always twirled her hair around her pencil when she really concentrated, and by the end of class on the first week of the unit the lock directly behind her ear held a permanent curl.
In the most indulgent part of his fantasies, which he did not indulge very often, Always William imagined he would make a good epic hero because of his name. There was Odysseus and Jason and the name William would fit right there with them, too, because it was smart and sensible; not like hero Billy or hero Willy or any such nonsense like that. William, he thought, was a good name for an epic hero. He hardly allowed that thought purchase, though; because he was not an epic hero or even a hero nor even remotely remarkable--well, aside from being a little scholar. He was William.
Always, unchangingly, frustratingly William.
On the first day of November they were given the month to write and enact their own epic: Times New Roman, half-spaced, ten pages long. Mrs. Paige assigned partners. Always William was with Gina.
A class that was usually prone to muggy, buzzing silences during lecture was filled with the sounds of scraping chairs and desks vibrating along the floors as they were pushed into twos and threes. It jerked Always William out of his disbelieving numbness, he letting out a shuddering breath that was mercifully hidden in the din of chatter. He was not quite sure how best to move the desk- he hadn’t worked in partners if he could help it since primary school. He stayed in his seat because his legs felt unsure with Gina watching him, and scooted both desk and chair over to Gina, who had neatly turned hers in a half circle to face him. She watched him scoot over, crablike, to meet her, and to her credit made a concerted effort to suppress her amused smile.
Red, sweating, Always William looked at her, and found that the trope held true; he had forgotten how to talk. Against his will another line entered his head, and poor as it was and although he despised himself for it he knew it would find its way into his notebook later: eyes like crystals; cut like glass.
“So.” It startled Always William, though he had heard it before: it was crisp, businesslike; this was her Classroom Voice, not her Hallway Voice. That one was much sweeter, and it had never been directed at him.“I was thinking they could be us.”
Eyes like crystals, blue framed in purple. “I…sorry?”
“The characters. Lady Gina, Sir Will. People of the Danes. I did the report on the Danish last year, if you remember. I know a lot about them, so that will be easy. I’ll lend you the books, if you like.”
“William,” Always William said. He hardly noticed it, nervous as he was; it was a habit well ingrained by now.
“My name is William.” He may have been his mother’s little scholar, but no one but his teachers here knew his grade point average. Here his name was all he had that set him apart from any other teenager. He had been reminded over and over that he was certainly not like any other teenager--but here, now, struggling to breathe while he talked to her, Always William at last conceded to himself that he would have given almost anything to be just another teenager.
“Yes, but for the epic, though,” she was saying, her brows arching as though she didn’t understand his point.“Sir Will. It’s a warrior’s name, don’t you think? Two monosyllables. Sir. Will. Quick, and strong. Like a fighter. Just Will.” And without waiting for an answer, she wrote it down.
Always William stared at her agape, unraveling it in his head. Sir Will. Just Will. The warrior. If William-not-Bill-not-Will-not-Willy was a little scholar, then that stood to reason that Just Will could be something different, too. Could make him different. Finally, relievingly, finally different. For Gina he would be Sir Will. From now on, here in school, he could be Will as well. Just Will. Just Will, the warrior.
Only, Just Will thought, he might not tell his mother.