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Big Sky Country

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William van de Kamp is special. His mom tells him that every day, in the quiet of the morning when she's getting him dressed, her voice soft like her fingers teasing hooks and zippers. He remembers her telling him, even before he knew what the words meant, loved and chosen and needed and wanted; before he remembers anything else, he remembers this. She told him when he was in his crib, she says. She told him every day. Now he's five and not a baby any more, but she's never stopped.

In kindergarten, there's another kid who's like him, but only William can spell "adoption"; he asked specially, and it's the longest word he can spell. One time they both got up together and did a show-and-tell; William didn't have anything to show, but his teacher helped him tell all about how other mommies and daddies had to take what they were given, but his got to choose him, and that's why he was special. Big fat Billy, sitting in the front with his big fat hands clasped, said that meant that his real parents didn't want him, and the teacher got cross and told him off.

William doesn't believe that, anyway. His mom has told him that the woman who had him first, his birth-mom, loved him very much but couldn't look after him, and that's why he came to live with a new family in a new state, where there were people to look after him and love him the way his birth-mom couldn't. William thinks about other places sometimes – one time at school they talked about how America has lots of states, and some of them are hot and wet, like Florida, and some of them are very cold and by the sea, like Maine, and there's also the place where the President lives, the White House, which is in Washington DC and isn't a state at all.

He looks at the pictures, but he can't really imagine any state other than Wyoming. It has rolling fields and bright blue sky, and he likes to sit in the backyard and make pictures out of the clouds.

*

The other boy who's adopted told William that his birth-mom couldn't look after him because she was too young. William thinks that it must be scary, being a mom when you're a kid yourself. He looks at teenagers in the street for a while before he remembers that he's not so little any more and his birth-mom must be older too. But he still looks at people who go past on the street or in the park, sisters dressed in candy-pink, women in jeans walking dogs, joggers with iPods and girls on skateboards, and thinks about whether any of them have a secret, a baby they couldn't look after and sent to another family. He hopes the girl who gave birth to him is happy now she's a grown-up.

He asks his mom about it one night when she's washing the dishes. At first she doesn't say anything, and he starts to say it again in case she didn't hear him, but he stops when she picks him up, in the way she says he's too old and heavy for now, and sets him down on the kitchen counter.

"William," she says, and he thinks she might be angry. But she isn't; she's just very serious, and the corners of her mouth have dipped down. She puts the sponge into the sink and leans on the counter. "It's okay to ask about her," she says very quietly. "What do you want to know?"

He doesn't know where to start. So his mom tells him that his birth-mom wasn't a teenager at all, she was a grown-up lady like his actual mom, and that she had to give him up but they don't know exactly why. And that he was born a long way from Wyoming, way to the east, and he came to live here in this house when he was a year old. "Where you've been ever since," his mom says, and smiles a little bit.

William wants to tell her that he didn't mean to make her look so sad, standing by the window with the sunset gleaming in her hair, but he looks out across the world stretching out behind her and there are things that he needs to know.

He thinks hard, lying in bed at night, trying to picture another life, but it doesn't work. In his head he makes up cities and tall buildings, like in the pictures he's seen of New York, but they fade away and disappear like smoke rising up, into the huge arching sky.

*

It's his birthday soon after that. He's nine, and the year is 2010. He likes how he's always a year younger than the century, that it grows old with him. His parents have told him what happened, how the whole world celebrated the new era, and he wants to make sure that he lives to be ninety-nine so he gets to see for himself.

One of his presents is a set of Harry Potter books, and he stays up reading them, under the covers with a flashlight. He likes Harry, who has special powers and doesn't live with his real mom and dad, either. When Harry's a little kid, before he goes to Hogwarts, (William likes the idea of going away to school in a castle, and reckons he'd be a Gryffindor) strangers shake his hand, and people who don't know him bow to him in shops. They know he's special and he doesn't.

William knows he's special, because his mom still tells him that he is. He says he's too old for it now, he knows how and why he was adopted, but he wouldn't like it if she stopped. And sometimes he thinks people in the street are watching him, or that people turn to look at him in shops, but later he thinks he's just imagining it.

The next day is a Saturday, so he finishes the book sitting up in his tree house. He keeps his stick insects in a jar up there, and he puts some extra leaves in their jar while he reads. He likes the ending, and hidden among the leaves, he starts wondering what it would be like to do magic, to go off having adventures and saving the world. Suddenly dropping the book, he peers through the shifting green patterns of light and shade, just right for camouflaging a dragon creeping across the grass. He squints in the sunlight, turns his head this way and that, and moves carefully, skilfully. In his mind's eye he can see its large, cruel eyes, the rising smoke of its breath. Leaning out, he throws a large stick down from the tree.

"William!" yells his dad from the kitchen window. "Don't do that, you could hit someone!"

I did, William thinks in satisfaction. The dragon writhes and disappears into nothingness, in the sunlight slain.

*

One night in the middle of winter, William wakes up from a sound sleep. He can't think what's awoken him; the room is silent and comfortable, as always, but suddenly he feels wide awake, restless like he wants to run and jump or hit something. It's not dark, he realises; the sky is greyish, blue near the horizon, and he guesses it must be nearly dawn. He can't check; he left his watch on his desk before going to bed.

He gets out of bed and walks downstairs, not turning on any of the lights. The dim glow from the windows is enough. In the den, he looks for a book, but he can't find anything he hasn't read already. He was hoping for new books for Christmas, but that's still five days away. He picks up his father's Time magazine up off the floor, but he tried reading it already this week and didn't have much luck. He always tries, and his dad always says he should keep trying, and one day it'll be easy enough for him to understand.

He doesn't want to turn on the electric lights in case he wakes anyone up, but he doesn't need to; in the greyness, he can just about make out the cover. It has three people on it, one of whom is in a wheelchair with a hole in his throat. A tracheotomy, his dad said it was called, and explained that there were diseases people could get so they couldn't breathe any other way. The man in the picture is very ill.

The other two people in it are younger, a tall man and a much shorter woman with hair that's red like William's, and they look tired and ill, too. He looks at it for another second, then drops it on the floor. Without thinking about it, he goes to find his boots, his sweater, his jacket, pulling them on over his pyjamas. He thinks about leaving a note for his parents, but he'll be back before they wake up. He opens the front door.

Outside, the air is icy-cold and he immediately sees his breath becoming a cloud of steam. Everything looks strange, he thinks as he starts to walk; everything seems to be lit from the wrong direction. All at once he realises the greyness of dawn is not in the east, but from a point right above him, and as he looks up, he sees something flashing white, so bright it hurts his eyes and makes him see stars, so bright he'll do anything to chase it, catch it like a firefly between his fingers, so when he lets it go it will take something of him up into the sky.

"William!"

He turns round sharply. Behind him, his mother is standing framed by the doorway. She doesn't say anything, but the flashes reflect in her eyes and she is pale, scared. William looks at her for a long moment, but she doesn't move and he can't go back.

There are silver saucers in the atmosphere and dragons in the long grass as William walks towards the light. He hears her voice, you're special, you're special, you were chosen, you're going to make magic for us all, ringing in his head with the rhythm of his footsteps, thump, thump, thump, and he feels the vibration of the ground, of his own footsteps echoing into the heart of the earth.

He remembers flying, although it wasn't him who flew, and he can remember the city smog and the cherry-blossom that came before the cloud-pictures in the blue. He looks back for one minute at the house, framed by a rising halo, before he feels inside him the daylight and the dawn, each step taking him to the new era, forging a whole new world.

He's only eleven, but this is the second time he's left home.