HANS (by John Armstrong)

This is a short story by my son John, which I like very much.


The morning’s black coffee had lifted the sleepy haze from her vision just in time to greet the first of her students as they trickled into the classroom. Each little boy in turn bid farewell to his parent/guardian, removed his winter coat and took his assigned seat around one of the four rectangular tables. 

They knew her as Ms. Bellamy, and nothing more. Their teacher, who was quick with a warm smile and a glistening gold-star sticker, but who could also become quite frustrated if they did not score highly on their spelling tests. Ms. Bellamy, the sole academic influence currently present in their young lives. Her word was fact and law in their pint-sized society. She was forced to relent from time to time that maybe she had developed just a little bit of a god complex during her time as a primary school educator. But she also reasoned that anyone who could exert so much influence over a group of minds would inevitably begin to feel just a tad omnipotent. It was only natural.

Each and every one of her twenty-two students was seated by the time the morning bell chimed electronically over the intercom. The usual buzz of excited chatter filled the room. It seemed the students had not grown to loath Monday morning just yet. Ms. Bellamy cleared her throat once, then twice, in an attempt to gain the attention of the class. The volume of the discussion fell to a bare minimum, and she began to speak. 

“Good morning class!” she announced with a false brightness in her tone. She still felt much too groggy. 

“Good morning Ms. Bellamy!” the twenty-two boys replied in unison. So much energy and enthusiasm, she thought to herself. Just wait ‘til you’re my age, kiddies.

And so began the Monday morning routine. First came news. Each boy had to tell the class about something that they may have seen or heard or done over the weekend. Usually this involved entertaining the wild fantasies that their young minds offered up. As a teacher, she was simply not allowed to question a student’s tall tales. Maddeningly, she had no other option but to play along and ‘encourage their imaginations’. Bullshit. All this did, in Ms. Bellamy’s experience, was reinforce the idea that lying about one’s accomplishments would garner respect in the real world. Whoever tells the tallest tale wins. So students would give detailed reports on how they had found a king’s ransom at the bottom of their garden, or how they had taken on 20 highly disciplined ninja assassins at once and lived to tell the tale. Usually this lie-to-win attitude would be grown out of in time, but a handful of students inevitably carried the symptoms for years and years to come. Ms. Bellamy was powerless to stop it. 

That’s why, when timid little James started telling the class excitedly about his amazing new friend Hans, she simply nodded along.

“…and we’ve already been on loads of adventures together!” James was saying, the words flowing excitedly out of his mouth, along with a great deal of saliva. “We climbed the big tree in the park and met the monkeys that live in it and we went to the swimming pool and fought a giant squid and there were pirates and ninjas and cyborgs and and and…” he trailed off, evidently exhausting his supply of imaginary scenarios. He took a few shallow breaths, and inhaled a blast from his inhaler. 

“Well, that sounds like a super fun weekend!” Ms. Bellamy beamed falsely. “Tell me, did you bring Hans to school with you today?” Her superiors demanded that she engage with the children’s fantasies from time to time. Encourage them to explore the tremendous depths of their youth-enriched imaginations. More bullshit. But while she may have been the overlord of her own little classroom, the board of education had her on a firm leash.

“Yes teacher. Hans doesn’t like to be left alone, and Mummy and Daddy don’t like him very much, so he followed me to school. This is Hans.” James said in his small, breathless voice, before holding up his left hand for the entire class to see. His fingers seemed to be forming the shape of a crude mouth, his thumb forming the lower jaw and his four fingers forming the upper, as if he were trying to make a shadow puppet. On closer inspection, Ms Bellamy could see that he had glued a googly-eye, the sort that might be used for arts and crafts, onto the outsides of his first and last knuckle. It was a strange and crude design, giving the impression of a frog made of fingers or a fleshy bird, but it served its purpose. The entire class said hello to Hans without being prompted. She hadn’t anticipated that. She had also not anticipated that Hans would reply.

“Greetings, friends.” Hans said, in a much deeper voice than she thought James should be able to produce. His tone had more in common with a child kidnapper than an imaginary friend. James opened and closed his tiny fingers in an exaggerated imitation of speech. He must have been practising his ventriloquism, Ms Bellamy mused to herself. Though she was almost sure she could see the corner of James’ mouth move along with Hans’. “I’m truly honoured to be welcomed with such open arms into your charming little classroom. Thank you all.” 

She was slightly taken aback by this. Hans spoke with a humble yet refined tone and a sophisticated use of language that was completely different from James’ wheezing squeaks and monosyllabic vocabulary. It was almost eerie to think that such a young boy could adopt such a drastically different persona so easily. 

“Don’t mention it, Hans,” she said, giving a token smile. “We’re happy to have you. Aren’t we class?” The entire room shouted their approval.

Sentences followed news. The children were only just gaining a foothold when it came to mastering the written word, so their task was to copy out a prewritten sentence several times, first by tracing the outlines of each letter, and then freehand. A mind-numbingly simple task for anyone over the age of seven. But for these boys, it was like pencil gymnastics, and very few could properly stick the landing. James had requested two worksheets; one for himself and one for Hans. She had hoped that he would have abandoned this little game after news had finished, and that it was just another primitive attempt at one-upmanship aimed at his fellow classmates. But this began to seem less and less likely to be the case. His commitment to the fantasy was commendable.

Ms. Bellamy hovered over the class as they worked, perched high atop the pedestal of her adult shoulders. She inspected each student’s work briefly, saying “Good…good…good…” as she went. This mantra of vague approval caught in her throat when she scanned the work of James. Or rather, James and Hans. Normally, he would not have been considered a particularly skilled calligrapher. But his level of skill now seemed altogether different. He held a pencil in each hand, working on two identical worksheets at once. His right hand was its familiar, sloppy self, taking an age to negotiate the intricacies of the letter K. His ‘Hans’ hand, on the other hand, was speeding along the dotted lines like a pro. Hans appeared to be holding the chubby, child friendly pencil in his mouth, as a dog would a bone. This unusual grip did not seem to slow his progress. 

Without warning, James’ right hand dropped its pencil and rose into the air. At least Ms. Bellamy was a righteous god. She always answered her disciples when they beckoned. “Teacher, how do you make a K?” James asked, obviously frustrated with his lack of success in constructing the letter. Though he was now gazing up at her expectantly, Hans kept writing. She bent down, meaning to demonstrate how the letter was formed, feeling like an angel descending from on high to deliver mana, but still quite perplexed by the left hand. She knew for a fact that James was not ambidextrous.

On closer inspection, she could see that Hans had abandoned the exercise. Instead, he was etching the words “I am Hans,” onto the sheet of paper over and over with such ferocity that it seemed he was surely inscribing it into the table too. “I am Hans I am Hans I am Hans…” Ms Bellamy looked on in shock. He was filling up every minuscule white space on the worksheet with those three words. Then, just as it seemed that he would run out of space, the pencil broke. Not the graphite tip of it. No, the entire pencil simply snapped in two. Hans let it drop from his mouth with a deep, pleased chuckle, as if he had just been told an amusing anecdote. 

“Teacher…” another small voice came from across the room. She was forced to put her disbelief on hold for the time being. Little Darren had just been sick.

Lessons continued as normal, but she made sure to keep an eye on Hans. She decided that she would send a note home with James as the end of the day, requesting to speak with his mother tomorrow morning. This game was going on for far too long. Hans had overstayed his welcome in her domain.

Lunchtime arrived, and each boy produced his sandwiches, no doubt lovingly prepared by his respective parent/guardian. Ms Bellamy had another coffee, blacker than pitch, and continued to observe Hans and James from behind her desk. Both of them had separate packed lunches. What sane, functioning person would possibly make ham sandwiches for both their little boy and their little boy’s left hand? Hans ripped his sandwich viciously into chunks, having no hands of his own to hold it with and no throat to swallow it with. The pupils in his googly-eyes bounced around maniacally. James nibbled at his sandwich and chatted with Hans, who replied between savage bites. It seemed another student had taken notice of this peculiar sight.

“Why does Hans have to eat?” little Conor, one of the brighter members of the class, asked James. 

Hans decided to answer. “Why, the same reason that you must eat, friend,” he said in his unsettlingly refined tone. As he said this, bits of his sandwich fell from his jaws. 

“But…Hans isn’t really real. He isn’t a person. He’s just your hand. So he doesn’t need to eat,” Conor replied, taking a smug swig from his carton of apple juice. 

Ten points for observation, Ms Bellamy thought, as she leaned forward at her desk expectantly. Maybe this would put James’ imaginary friend to rest. Maybe there was no need for her to intervene on the matter. After all, any attempt at one-upmanship is ultimately one-upped by another party. It was only natural. Or so she thought.

“How dare you?!” Hans exploded, his voice suddenly filling the room, his finger-jaws moving even more exaggeratedly. “You would dare question my existence? The sheer insolence of it!” 

The other twenty students turned to watch, leaving their half-eaten lunches alone. “Hans is real!” James screeched, evidently also enraged. “He’s my friend and he’s real!”

“No he isn’t.” Conor protested stoically. “You just stuck eyes on your hand and pretended it could talk. You just made him up.” To punctuate this statement of defiance, he stuck out his tongue and blew a modest raspberry.

“Have you not eyes?! Can you not see that I am as real and human as anyone else in this room?” Hans bellowed. Even James was beginning to look frightened. There was no sign of his mouth moving at this point either. It seemed it was all Hans now. “I am more human than you could ever hope to be. Allow me to demonstrate.” 

Suddenly, James stood, knocking over his tiny chair. “What are you doing, Hans?” James asked, his mousy voice trembling. Hans shot out like a serpent towards Conor. The left hand found his neck and clutched it tightly. Hans was like a wolf, trying to rip the throat out of its prey with its fearsome jaws. He lifted Conor out of his chair with unnatural strength, and held him aloft. 

Tears were trickling down James’ cheeks, but it seemed he was powerless to resist. “Please Hans…stop…” he sobbed. The class looked on in muted horror, entranced. Conor was struggling and retching and choking, but the grip held. If Hans had been an imaginary friend once, he was neither of those things now. 

Though his mouth was wrapped around the little boy’s neck, Han’s voice was still clearly audible, chanting rhythmically, becoming thunder. “I am Hans! I am human! I am Hans! I am human! I AM HANS! I AM HUMAN!”

Up until now, Ms Bellamy was paralysed with shock and fear. A demon had encroached on her heavenly domain. She could hardly process what was happening. Hans was no fantasy. He was terrifyingly real. No note home could fix this. She sprang up out of her swivel chair and moved around her desk. She ran across the room towards the two boys and the force that possessed one and was murdering the other. 

She acted on instinct, abandoning all of her training as a teacher, the regulations of the board of education and her morals. She did what had to be done. She struck James. Hard, with the flat of the palm of her right hand, across his helpless, weeping face. Hans released Conor, letting him drop. Both boys fell to the floor. Hans released one final roar, and was silent.

* * *

Ms. Bellamy was soon released from her duties. While her offence was not made public, it was made clear to her that she would never teach again. It seemed that each and every one of her twenty two pupils had forgotten just how wonderful a teacher she was, and instead focused on her one slip, her one wrong move. The wrong move that had saved a boy’s life. 

It seemed they had also forgotten Hans. Not even Conor or James made a mention of the hand-shaped evil. So each and every one of her former disciples testified against her. Twenty-two witnesses are a difficult thing to overcome. And though she was labelled a monster, she never forgot what she had seen. She never dismissed what could have happened, had she not acted. Those six words still haunted her dreams. Words born from an imagined being, desperate to be something more.

“I am Hans. I am human.”


Jim Murdoch said...

John, had your father posted this without comment I would’ve assumed he was the author. It’s as good as any piece of fiction I’ve read by him. But don’t let that go to your head. If you can consistently produce material of this standard—and the one thing writers are not (I’m talking of them as a group here) is consistent—then you might have reason to crow; the pop charts—am I showing my age by using that term?—are full of one hit wonders. That said many one hit wonders are memorable and I do think I will remember this wee story for some time; there’s something original about this and originality is hard to come across these days. There’s not much that hasn’t been done before, everything feels derivative and if you doubt me in this regard just have a look at the site TV Tropes. Open-ended stories can be a lot of fun—science fiction short story writers have a fondness for them—but too many can tire the reader. I have a friend who writes flash fiction and virtually everything he produces ends on a cliff-hanger. He’s got the form licked but he also feels a bit like a one trick pony. I’d be interested to see what else you can do. Can you, for example, tie things up neatly without the need to end in a moral? Probably the hardest thing in writing is knowing when to stop. Have I said too much? Have I said not enough? I think I’ve said enough for now. Well done.

seoirse mac enri said...

Nice work John, it's hard to write a story, set a scene, and colour characters, and then make it interesting, in such a short space.On every count you succeeded Sir. It seems you have your Dad's love of horror stories, your stoy reminded me of something I read about Alfred Hitchcock, he believed the way to frighten an audience was to find fear in the most ordinary seemingly safe,surroundings, something like you've done here.I read your story twice, I usually read your Dad's once...lol... only joking Ken
take care

Ken Armstrong said...

Hi Jim, interesting that it could be mistaken for me. I hadn't any hand in rewriting/editing or anything. John and I have read some of the same books, I think that might play a part. BTW he *does* consistently produce work of this standard, so that's good, right? :)

Hiya G, always great to see you there and thanks for the kind words. K

hope said...

I was thinking the same as Jim.

Nice genes you dealt your son...he's very talented!

Karen Redman said...

How old is John?
Well, actually, it doesn't really matter how old John is ... his writing is a pure joy to read and I very much hope that he will take after his Pa and continue writing.
Excellent stuff!

Ulrich said...

Great story but I tell you, I am afraid to go asleep tonight.

Carolinesweetie said...

Jeepers Ken, that is a fantastic piece if writing and please pass this on to John. I started reading and then my pace of reading picked up as the story unfolded and I was totally engrossed in his story. Brilliant writing.