This isn’t a story about me. It’s about a boy, Sam, I knew at school. He was pretty quiet which is why I never really got to know him sooner. I do remember the stuffed dinosaur key-ring attached to his bag though.
The first time I noticed something was amiss was during class. Out of the blue the teacher asked him a maths question. He laughed, held his dinosaur to his ear, nodded as if listening to something, then gave an answer. We all laughed at this farce, but soon fell silent as we realised there was a problem. The teacher, a chubby chap by the name of Mr. Carter had turned to the board, frantically writing. Uncertain, the class whispered and fidgeted. A minute later he finished, paused a moment, then turned to Sam saying “Yes, that’s right.” He started to ask something else, but Sam was saved by the bell and ensuing diaspora. Most likely the others forgot this curious event. I didn’t.
The next time Sam stepped out of line was during a history exam. In a brief hiatus of scribbling I cast a furtive look about the room, and my gaze locked onto Sam: He was holding a little troll keyring mascot to his ear, nodding and writing in turn. I smirked at the oddness of it before returning to my own paper. Much later, when the results were handed out, there was a scene. The class nerd was indignant that Sam had scored higher than her, especially as Sam hadn’t displayed any previous aptitude. Sam had shrugged it off, but I was increasingly suspicious.
The final straw came shortly after when I was outside and spotted Sam sneaking into a group of trees at the edge of the playing-field. I motioned to my mates Richie and Doug, and we silently followed. Sam was sitting in a patch of sunshine, rucksack open, playing with a bunch of, well, little clothes-peg dolls. He was speaking for them in a near incomprehensible squeaky voice, walking them about and occasionally giggling. Doug was practically wetting himself trying not to laugh out loud, then he indicated that he was going to gatecrash Sam’s tea party.
Right then, Sam lifted up two peg-dolls saying, “Look, Douglas and Richard have come to play.” Doug froze, still in hiding, as Sam went on. “Shame Doug can’t stay, he’s too busy pissing himself that we’ll tell about his daddy raping him.”
To this day, the agony of fear, shock and despair that contorted Doug’s face as he turned to run, still horrifies me. Stunned, I turned to Richie as Sam carried on with his bizarre monologue.
“Richie will kiss it all better. Did you know he dreams about fucking Douglas in bed at night?”
With a sudden sob, Richie fled. I sat in a stunned daze for a while, unable to take in what had just happened. I barely registered Sam packing away his dolls and leaving. I stumbled through the rest of the day, reprimanded for my stupor, unable to meet my friends’ eyes. The one time I tried to discuss that day with them, the look I received stopped me dead.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the way Sam had said just the right things to upset Doug and Richie. It was as if he had known just the right words to unlock them, reach inside and break them. Are we all so fragile?
I followed Sam home. I kept a clear gap between us, all the way past the disused water tower, over the railway bridge, through the gap in the fence by the warehouses and down to the river walk.
Eventually Sam stopped, but didn’t turn around. He just stood there, waiting. I paused, fingers playing with the handle of the craft-knife in my coat pocket. Eventually, I called out to him. When he turned to face me, I hadn’t expected the smile on his face. It wasn’t even the slightest bit uncertain or sinister, just… friendly.
“Shall we talk about it?” he asked, polite as a peach and motioning to a convenient bench. Taken aback by this open-armed welcome, I followed his lead but not releasing the knife.
“Why did you do it? How did…” – he motioned me to silence.
“You’re understandably upset. If it’s any consolation, I only said those things to keep them quiet. I didn’t want anyone to find out.”
I pulled the knife out and flashed it to his face. It trembled, mere inches from his eyes. Still, no signs of fear. “Tell me what you are.” I whispered. I had no idea what I was doing, or even if I dared to carry out my threat, but I held the knife there anyway. Sam’s face went solemn.
“Ok. I guess you’ve earned that much.” His face turned thoughtful, then he continued. “It started when I began to play with puppets and dolls. I would make personalities for them, hold conversations and so on. Over time, I got better and better at this until I realized that the things I was making were actually growing pretty complex and almost – real. It was like I was creating minds, and then speaking for them. Then I started doing this for people I already knew and I found that the dolls and puppets would begin to tell me secrets that seemed to hold true with the real world counterparts.”
I was incredulous. “How is that even possible? It’s… Are you taking the piss?”
“No – seriously. I didn’t even believe it to start with, but I think it works like this. You see, as I get to know people, I notice little things about their behaviour and attitudes. My brain is somehow putting them together like a puzzle which eventually works a lot like the original person. An almost perfect model. So with Richard and Douglas I already knew what they were up to, and how to keep them quiet.”
“And you can do that to anyone? Me?”
“Well, I think so, given enough time and familiarity. People tend towards certain stable kinds of personality anyway, and can be read like an open book if you know what signs to look for.”
“But what about me?”
“You? What about you?”
The situation was so fucked up, the shock of actually pulling the knife on him was setting me to trembling, and I was having trouble thinking straight. Someone could happen along at any moment, even though I knew this route to be quiet at dusk.
“Can you do me like you did them? Are you doing it right now?”
Sam looked almost sad. He sighed and closed his eyes.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for this to happen. It was an experiment.”
“What kind of experiment?”
“I wondered what would happen if I tried making a new mind. From scratch.”
He opened his eyes again, and looked into mine – No. He looked through mine.
Sam picked up his little peg doll, and returned it to his bag. He sat looking at the river, watching a woman walking her dogs on the other bank. He laughed to himself, shook his head, then walked home.