On Thursday, March 18th, 1999, at 7:54 AM, I was born Harthacanute James Kevin Augustus Taylor. I like to think my mother wasn’t being wantonly cruel or clinically insane, but it’s hard to tell. She would always tell me that I should be proud to be so unique, and beamed like the sun when the local news station did a sixty-second bit on me before I even left the hospital, filling out a slow day with some snarky quips about the kind of parents who would name their children Ima Stone or Armin Hammer. They showed my picture, all seven and a half squirming, screaming pounds of me, and a blurry, pixelated camera shot of the video recording on the TV has been framed on the wall of the living room ever since.
I don’t think she did it for the glory. I think she meant well. Her name was Janine, and she worked as a receptionist in a dentist’s office. Women named Janine always ended up as receptionists, she would tell me. Names make their own destinies, and she didn’t want me to be roped into any one of them without a choice. A Harthacanute could be anything he wanted to be. A Harthacanute didn’t have a choice except to make his own way.
I was trying to do just that at my high school orientation. There’s nothing like spending a late August afternoon packed into the bleachers of a sweltering gymnasium, cheek by jowl with four hundred and eleven other nervous, sweating new freshmen to really welcome you into the cruel world of miserable disappointment that will fill the next four years for a shy, scrawny boy with a really weird name.
I had, of course, endured more than my share of bullying in the public school system so far. Every year I tried to get my teachers to call me James. At my insistence, my mother met with each one of them before school began, asking them to use my middle name. Either she wasn’t putting much effort into being persuasive or my teachers were more absent minded than even they appeared, because invariably every year during that first badly-pronounced roll call on the first day, “Harthacanute” made its mangled appearance and the room erupted in laughter. It was too late by the fourth grade. I would be Harthacanute forever more.
Suffice to say I didn’t have my hopes up for high school. Three different middle schools fed into Walton High, which for me merely meant there were two schools’ worth of people for whom I could be an entirely novel source of ridicule and distain. There would be new football players, who would learn that their kind called me Martha, and new pretty girls to ignore the fact that I might have a name at all. There was a new pack of nerdy nobodies who would think it mattered to me that I was named for the last Danish king of England, and a new group of thuggish bullies who bore no allegiance to anyone, and who would shove me into the lockers just because I was small.
It was while I was brooding on these and other topics, trying to tune out the principal’s pointless speech, that I heard him for the first time. Well, “heard him” is a bit of an understatement. It was while I was brooding on these and other topics that a thunderous roar of rage, battle lust, and compounded, wine-fueled fury coursed through me, shaking the very bones in my skull and making me jump two feet in the air with a comparatively tame little yelp.
“What the hell was that?” I shouted, standing up and looking around wildly, trying to figure out if somehow a rabid lion had gotten loose in the room. The entire freshman class, the faculty of the school, the student council, and special guest Molly McIntyre, School Board President, turned as one to stare in my direction.
“I…uhh…” was all I could say, the skin melting off my cheeks with the heat of embarrassment. “Um, sorry. There was…umm…a bug. Sorry.” I sat down. Normally, I might have been pleased with myself for covering my ass so successfully. Lies always come back to bite you when you put in too much detail, after all. But I was still unsettled by the tremendous noise that had absolutely no business interrupting my day.
The rest of the assembly passed in a blur of politically acceptable and blandly welcoming speeches by various members of the district administration I would never even see again. Shame still burned and bubbled within me, but I was beginning to convince myself that maybe it really was a bug that had briefly buzzed into my ear canal, and that there was nothing to worry about. It wasn’t until we were allowed to leave the auditorium and practice walking the halls according to our new schedules that I heard it again.
“YOU!” the voice screamed at me outside Room 262. I spun around, nearly flattening a teacher.
“Whoa, there, sport, take it easy,” he said, steadying me as I wobbled on my heel. “You don’t have to rush until the school year actually begins.”
“Sorry, I thought…nothing. Sorry.”
“Hey, you’re that kid from the assembly. Are you okay? Need any help? You seem a bit jumpy.”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Well, maybe not, but if I’m not, it’s probably outside your field of expertise.”
The teacher laughed. “Try me,” he said. “I’m Mr. Wozicky, European History.” He stuck out his hand.
I always hated this part. “Harthacanute Taylor. Nice to meet you.”
“Ah, the famous Harthacanute. A pleasure to meet you at last. I hope you won’t take it amiss if I refrain from making any observation about your name whatsoever.”
“No, I could probably live with that,” I said. “I’m taking European History third period.”
“And I’m teaching European History third period. What a coincidence. I suppose that means I’ll see you in class on Monday.”
“Yeah, see you. Sorry for bumping into you like that.”
“No problem. Take it easy.”
I snuck into an empty classroom and sat at a desk in the back, clutching my head. It didn’t hurt. It was supposed to hurt if you were having a stroke, wasn’t it? What is going on? What’s happening to me? Am I going crazy? Perfect timing for it, I guess. Maybe if I get committed, I won’t have to go to school anymore.
“Who are you?” I whispered, feeling silly.
“WHO ARE YOU?” the voice replied, incredulity thick in its earth-shaking tone.
“I’m Harthacanute,” I said, looking around.
“YOU ARE NOT HARTHACANUTE,” the voice said, “I AM HARTHACANUTE!”
The air around me shimmered and thickened. A gust of unearthly wind rattled the drawn blinds and rustled the posters tacked to the bulletin boards. The ghostly image of the ancient Danish king appeared before me, wrapped in wool and furs, sword in hand. He was not wearing a helmet with horns on it. I had had enough research on the Danes nudged my way to know the horns weren’t real. This very small point of pedantic accuracy, however, didn’t make up for the fact that a six-foot tall apparition was standing inches in front of me, looking testy and heavily armed.
“Oh,” I said, for lack of anything better. “Yes, you appear to be Harthacanute.”
“And don’t you forget it, boy,” the ghost said in an angry growl that at least approximated the decibel levels of normal human speech.
“So. Uh. How can I help you?”
“Help me? Help me? You have stolen my name, and have condemned me to an eternity of restless torment and despair! It is my fate to haunt you until I find my rest.”
“Wait a sec. Hang on. First of all, I didn’t steal anything from you. It’s my mom you want to go after for that one. I’d gladly give it up if I could, but I’m stuck with it. Second of all, why are you telling me this now? You’ve had fifteen years to haunt me and I haven’t heard a peep. Third of all, I’m pretty sure you’re just a product of heatstroke or a brain tumor or something because you’re speaking frickin’ English! So just go away! I have enough to worry about without being haunted. Shoo!”
“HOW DARE YOU SPEAK TO ME THUS, WRETCHED CHILD!” He moved to hit me, quick as a snake. I ducked, then shivered as his hand passed chillingly right through me. I looked up to see him staring at his fist, a look of mingled horror and anger on his face.
“Ha!” I said, and he glowered at me. “Now you need to go away. Go away right now. I’m leaving the classroom, so you need to go away.”
“You can’t get rid of me that easily, boy,” he replied.
“Okay, so how can I get rid of you? Change my name? My mom won’t let me until I’m eighteen, and I can’t have you bothering me until then. Is there a quest of some sort? A chalice or amulet or secret gateway to discover? Mad monks and code breaking? I could do that, right? Sounds like fun. Of course, you’ll have to fit it in to my Christmas break. I only get a week and a half this year.”
“Shut up,” he hissed. “If I knew what to do, I would tell you to do it.”
“Oh, yeah? Well if we’re going to be stuck together like some bad buddy cop movie, I’m the one who’s going to be in charge. I’m the one who’s real, after all.”
“Real? I am as real as you are. Maybe more. What is this place?”
“Don’t the dead recognize hell when they see it?” Harthacanute tightened his grip on his sword, and I smiled. “It’s a high school. For kids. Everyone has to go to school these days, you know. It’s the law.”
Harthacanute looked puzzled. “What the devil for?”
“Is there anything to drink?”
“I think there’s a water fountain on the first floor.”
“Don’t toy with me, boy,” he growled again. “Something real to drink.”
“Um. No. I’m under aged. I can’t buy you alcohol. I don’t think ghosts can drink, anyway.”
“By all that is holy,” the warrior muttered. “This really is hell.”
“Yeah. Come on,” I said. “It’s almost time to go home. I don’t think either of us want to stay here any longer than we have to.”
I turned towards the door, and instantly froze. Mr. Wozicky was standing there, watching me, the concern on his face masked by his surprise – and more than a little delight – as he stared right through me. Right through me, but not right through Harthacanute. He looked like he had seen a ghost, and apparently he had.
“Oh, my God,” he whispered.
“Wait, you can see him?” I asked, turning to see what the ancient king would do. If Mr. Wozicky could see him, then maybe he was in danger from the warrior’s wrath. “Don’t you do anything,” I warned my namesake. “He’s my history teacher.”
“He is history,” Mr. Wozicky said quietly, stepping a little closer with a shaking hand outstretched, nearly touching the fox fur trim on the king’s woolen cloak. “He’s the real Harthacanute.”
“I’m the real Harthacanute,” I said, but no one was listening.
“Don’t you lay your hands on me,” the king snapped, trying to slap away the teacher’s fingers. He could do no more harm to Mr. Wozicky than he had done to me, but Mr. Wozicky was no idiot, and immediately dropped his arm and took a step back.
“I’m the real Harthacanute,” I told him again when he looked at me with a glassy grin on his face, rubbing the cold out of his fingers. “He’s just a figment of my imagination. And you probably are, too.”
“That’s quite an imagination,” Mr. Wozicky said.
“I’m quite a guy,” I replied, keeping one eye on Harthacanute and his sword. He didn’t look very pleased at the interloper. I wondered how he would feel about the football players and the bullies. I didn’t want to know what he would think about the pretty girls. “Look, you can’t do this, you know. I have to go to school here. I can’t have a giant smelly killer ghost following me to chemistry class. I’m sorry we have the same name, but you don’t see every stupid idiot named Richard being followed around by the guy from Star Trek, right?”
“He means Richard the Lionheart,” Mr. Wozicky explained, but it didn’t help. “A little after your time,” he added. “But let’s just say that ruling England doesn’t really work out for you guys.”
“Lies,” Harthacanute said, spitting on the ground.
“Ew,” I said, looking at the transparent little puddle. “But you know what I mean. You can’t do this to me.”
“Then maybe you should wake up,” my mother said.
I blinked. “Where did you come from?”
“Wake up,” she said, shaking my shoulder. “You’re going to be late for orientation.”
“But I’m already here,” I said, blinking again, and then I wasn’t. I was in bed. Of course I’m in bed, I thought, groaning as my mom poked me with her sharp finger. Of course it was a dream.
“I don’t know where you think you are, mister, but you’re going to miss the assembly if you don’t get up right this instant.” She pulled the blanket off me and I rolled over as I tried to grab it back. “Right now. I even made you some breakfast. Come downstairs before it gets cold.”
She left me alone and I took the blanket back, staring up at the crackled paint on the ceiling as the fading voices of the dream flowed through me. The Danish king with fire in his eyes and thunder in his voice stood tall before my memory, the naked blade of his sword echoing the newfound gleam in my eyes. Maybe he was real. Maybe just a little bit of him was. Maybe a little bit had survived in me.
“I am Harthacanute,” I whispered, my hand tightening around a fistful of blanket, a breath of cold Danish wind tracing the echo of my words. “And I really am quite a guy.”