It wasn’t so much that William hated his siblings. He had simply come to the conclusion that there was no way they were related. He was the only brunette in the family and the only one of the nine children to have his father’s green eyes. He preferred hotels to tents, flip-flops to sneakers, and required that the bedroom window be open at all times. He found insects intriguing, animals brutal, and aquatic life absolutely fascinating. So much so, that he spent the better part of one summer underwater. He and his best friend, Flip, had found an old scuba helmet. They attached a hose to the top, an air pump to the hose, and took turns exploring the mucky lurches of Lake Huron.
His five brothers and three sisters held no animosity towards William’s adamant stance that he held no blood ties to them. They simply wrote it off as another of “William’s weird things.” They viewed him as odd and told his so regularly. Sally-May, the oldest of the girls, had a delightfully cruel song she would entertain the others with. “William, William, the odd little fool, with hair stood up and legs like a mule. He swims and shakes and cries all day. No wonder his pants get wet when he plays. William, William oh brother of mine. Even when you’re ahead, you’re still behind.” William secretly loved it. He was impressed the first time Sally-May rifled it off, making it up as she went. He knew right then, there was no way she could be his sister. He had no musical ability at all. And for her to be so adept to it, well, she must be of different stock.
His brother, Ethan, would constantly press the issue. “Will, explain to me, if we aren’t related, who did mom carry for nine months and deliver on your birthday?”
William twice attempted to explain, but both times was overheard by his mother and punished for “even thinking such vile thoughts.” You see, to him, it seemed perfectly possible that the hospital simply made a mistake.
He was actually born to either Martha and Henry Levitski or Gerald and Marjorie Dunn. There was also the slight possibility he was the bastard child of Mayor Thomas Wilkonson, but that was a long shot. Just after William’s twelfth birthday, on which he received a football and a baseball bat that he returned in exchange for a microscope, he visited Our Blessed Mother Hospital, where he had been born, and checked the records. Nineteen babies were delivered that day, but only four were boys.
The likelihood of his being the Mayor’s son was remote. The mayor stood at five foot one, two hundred ninety seven pounds. He had bright, blonde hair, blue eyes, and dimples that shined red when he smiled. A lot of people say that those dimples got him elected. “Something trustworthy in them,” people would say. Of course, the illustrious Mayor would never admit the baby born that day to Alice B. Woodruff, was his.
Their affair, which he regularly denied being a part of, was common knowledge amongst the families of Huron Ridge. He picked her up from the diner near every day in his brother’s car. Alice, the best waitress and bartender Huron Ridge had ever seen, was cute as a peach, with her golden blonde hair, perfect teeth, bright, blue eyes, and soft, pale skin. There was no way William; the dark skinned, dark haired, green-eyed accidental orphan had come from them.
The Dunns were most likely his real parents. William knew the boy who had grown up as their son, Derek. “That should be my name,” he riled, as he pictured what his life would’ve been like if he had been given to his natural birth parents instead of being mistakenly handed off to the baby factory. He would’ve gotten a bike for his fifth birthday. He would’ve spent the summer between first and second grade at Cape Canaveral, looking at space ships and airplanes. He would’ve had a dog named Scout, but he would’ve named him Gregory. He would’ve had new shoes every year on the first day of school and a backpack with his name stitched into it. He wouldn’t have to share his lunch with his two younger brothers and wear clothes that were made nearly a decade before. He wouldn’t have to sleep on the top bunk, so close to the ceiling that when he woke up from bad dreams, he hit his head on the rough stucco. He wouldn’t have to return his birthday gifts for the things he really wanted. And he wouldn’t have to listen to Sally-May sing.
He wondered if Derek fit in with his family. He wondered if Derek was sitting at home right then, dreaming about finding a family that wanted a brother to play ball and squash bugs with. He wondered if Derek could sing and if he would stand up to Sally-May. And he wondered if Derek knew he was living a lie. “It’s gotta be them.”
For weeks, he moped around the house, contemplating a covert mission to infiltrate the Dunn home. He could sneak in at night, check their records, memorize the contours of their faces, and perhaps even take a mold that he could bring to a scientist, who could analyze the similarities between himself and the Dunns.
But to what resolve? What would it fix? Were they going to just swap kids at that point? William was thirteen years old. A man, in his eyes. Better to just grit his teeth, do his time, and on his eighteenth birthday, move as far away from the baby factory as possible.
But, still, he didn’t hate them. He just had nothing in common with them. For years, his mom and dad tried. They signed him up for sports teams and weekend trips to camp sights and wilderness retreats, just as they had done with Tommy, Jackson, and Lee. As much as William wanted out, they wanted him in. They just didn’t understand how to make it happen. So, they kept doing what they were good at. They got pregnant again.
His mom was laid up for months with some disorder that can be caused by repeat pregnancies. His dad was picking up extra shifts at the mill to cover the cost of another mouth to feed. Sally-May was readying the other children for the arrival, as she had been through the routine eight times already. And June, the youngest of them, was dancing and singing, jubilant over the thought of no longer being the baby.
William went through the motions. He cleaned when asked to clean. He played outside when asked to play. And he brought his mom dinner when Sally-May was busy. He swam with Flip on the weekends. They discovered a sunken dingy at the bottom of the lake. It was pointing straight up. William found peace sitting in it. It was his quiet, happy place. At home, things had gotten pretty loud with no parents around to monitor and punish.
The baby was born in May. They named her Lily. William actually picked the name. There was something about her. He couldn’t figure it out at first. She was too small and baby-like. But, on her first birthday, he figured it out. He was sixteen. And, for the first time, realized someone looked like him. Lily had long, dark brown hair, bright green eyes, and only one dimple on her left side.
William had been there, at the hospital. He watched them take her right out of the room and into the nursery. There was no time for swaps or mistakes. She was the right baby. And yet, the dark hair and green eyes. “William, come closer.” His mom said. “Hold her. She likes you.”
And it was mutual. In fact, he didn’t just like her. He loved her. He suddenly saw himself teaching her to swim and showing her the difference between the water beetle and the stink-bug. He wanted to protect her and make sure no one ever made her feel bad. He wanted to be the best brother he could be.
He looked around the room at the sea of blond hair. He didn’t hate them. And maybe it was silly to think that he had been swapped out at the hospital. Really silly. And maybe even mean. He looked down at his perfect younger sister, whose tiny fingers were grabbing his chin. He didn’t even feel himself crying. His siblings noticed far sooner than he did. It wasn’t until a tear dropped onto Lily’s forehead that he realized they’d all gotten quiet because, for the first time, William was there with them. Not just going through the motions or just there physically, but was really there. And it was wonderful.
Sally-May started to hum a soft, gentle melody. June joined in and before long, the entire baby factory was in perfect harmony. “My little sister, Lily, happy birthday.”