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It stung- the broad purple mark that ran under his ribs, on his back, and spread to his side. Daniel slowly pulled himself up out of the warmth of his bed sheets while new light peeked through his window, visions from the previous night flooding his mind; a heated argument, the sight of his sister shrieking and crouched in terror on the couch as their father reached for her, muscles rippling and temper pushed beyond the limits. His fists tightening and his father’s eyes darkening. He vaguely remembered walking nearer to him and next feeling the corner of the living room table pierce his back as he was thrown down against it and sent tumbling to the floor. Hot tears flooded the rims of his eyes, but he hid them, looking his father squarely in the eye, with more anger and hatred than he had ever known toward a human being. But it ended there, the heavy silence in the room being enough to hush a frightened herd of elephants.
Daniel lifted his heavy eyelids to the harsh morning light, as though in rebellion, clearing his head as he went about his cluttered bedroom preparing for school. He faced the mirror, hiding the long cut and bruise under the layers of clothing. Every morning it was like trading in Clark Kent for Superman; disguising what he could only see as a weak and helpless individual with dark surroundings transformed to the only thing he would allow the world to see of himself. He disguised himself into someone above the struggles he could not conquer, above the hurt and the anger hidden beneath the fragile surface, someone invincible.
Brooke Swallows rolled her eyes in English class that morning as Danny Thomas again interrupted the class with a crude joke towards the teacher, causing the entire right side of the classroom, mostly consisting of other football players, to erupt with laughter. She remained silent, as usual, but her brow wrinkled in annoyance. Brooke had known Danny since the 3rd grade, and he had always been the same. A loud, good for nothing, smart-alec, she thought to herself. As the teacher unsuccessfully tried to continue the review, Brooke’s patience grew thinner by the minute. Being relieved at the sound of the bell, she jumped up from her desk and headed for the doorway, hardly noting Danny’s aimed foot stuck in her path…
She lurched forward suddenly, a flurry of papers and folders scattering before her, as she caught herself by grabbing onto a nearby desk in the nick of time.
The football players laughed hysterically at her spectacle, as she hurriedly scooped up her papers, blushing brightly. For some reason she saw Danny ignoring their taunts and picking up a few of her notes, almost in apology, he even seemed embarrassed. But she didn’t care- her patience had finally broken. She snatched the notes from his hand angrily, not wasting a minute stomping out of the room.
But Danny only raced towards her- he clearly would not leave her alone now. “Brooke, slow down, I’m so sorry, I didn’t think you would actually fall for it…”
She sighed loudly, pivoting back to face him, so abruptly that he was nearly knocked off of his feet in effort not to collide with her. Brooke was quite small, holding a feisty attitude, and stared him straight in the eye, catching him by surprise. Her eyes had grown- they were large and brown, boldly stating their judgment deep beneath her black, glassy pupils. Despite her size, she grew suddenly very intimidating, and Daniel froze.
“Didn’t think I would fall for it?! Oh that’s great Danny, thanks a lot.”
Daniel realized he had been gaping, and quickly shut his mouth. He re-tried his apology, “Brooke I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done it…” but it was no use.
“You know I am so tired of you.” Brooke continued- she had just gotten started. “All you ever do is put on a great show for yourself. Danny Thomas, the great act, that’s what you are. …”
“Now hold on,” he interrupted, “you judge awfully quick, you don’t even know me…”
“Danny, I’ve known you since the 3rd grade, and you haven’t changed from that boy you were since” she retorted, a smirk spreading on her lips. “Other people like your jokes and your stories, but honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything more to you. What are you good for? Just…grow up.”
And with that she continued her brisk walk to her next period class, stepping around the spot where Daniel stood speechless and accidentally brushing his side with her elbow as she walked away. As she did, a light gasp escaped his breath and for a moment he froze. He grimaced, but he knew her hit was not intentional, though she had managed to get just the spot of impact. Less intentional, at least, than the words she had aimed to pull at his pride.
Holding his side in discomfort and letting out a deep breath, the girl’s voice echoed through his mind. The words she spoke had been said before, but somehow these caught him differently. Maybe she was right. He pulled an image from his mind of the previous night, looking up at his father from the ground. All he felt was helplessness and anger. It was all that he tried to hide. “What are you good for?” her words reverberated back at him, in her impending, almost black eyes. They were also filled with anger.
Daniel and Brooke had more in common than they realized.
“Just stay out of it, just this once, stay out.”
“No, just listen to me-“
“No, you listen. Just leave me alone, if you would only open your eyes, you would see I don’t need your help, your advice, whatever. Just go away. I don’t need people, and I especially don’t need you.”
The line on the other end disconnected, and a low steady hum rang in Brooke’s ears. She breathed deeply and counted the wet drops that fell from her flushed cheeks as she closed her eyes, shutting out the deafening silence that screamed from within her. Could she ever do anything right, every do anything to help the ones she cared about? Not him, not Brandon Lewis. He always pushed her away, no matter how many times she proved herself loyal to him, no matter what she said, it didn’t make a difference.
Her bedroom light was dimmed, and odd-shaped shadows cast themselves on her walls from the chair, the headboard on the bed, and the mirror next to her closet. One solitary light reflected from Brooke’s small lamp onto the mirror, the silhouette of her reflection mimicking her own dejected image. She ran one finger down her cheek, tracing the trail of one of her own tears on her warm and tired face as she looked at the image mirrored before her. It surprised Brooke, being very different from the apathetic surface she managed to display from day-to-day. This one had a frown, which tugged at the corners of her mouth and a wrinkled forehead, brows furrowed and dazed eyes fell beneath heavy eyelids. Everything about her image seemed pulled down, as though the weight of gravity had overtaken it. The shoulders were slumped downward, and the head hunched forward. Brandon’s words troubled her, “Just this once, stay out.”
Doors slammed that night, as Daniel remained out of harm’s way in his bedroom. Voices boomed as he cringed, listening to the voices in the next room. For several weeks, night after night, his sister, Allison, had managed to get in a strong, screaming fight with their dad. She was too fiery, too opinionated, and too strong-willed to go down very easily in a fight. Nights like these were the ones he wished he could run away and escape it all. His concentration was low. Daniel toyed with the pencil in his fingers, scratching the lead on his math worksheet in distraction from the noise. He tugged at the piece of dark hair that swung over his eyes, twisting it, finally settling his hands down at his sides as he realized his fidgeting. Daniel glanced down at his knuckles- they had turned white, in tense, clammy fists. The light in his room shone brightly enough to see a clear reflection in the mirror across from where he hunched at his desk.
He looked at it, for a few moments. It was rare to see this downcast countenance; it was so often placed underneath the layers of clothes, the fake smile, and the jokes that made Daniel what he appeared as to everyone else. Pulling up the hem of his t-shirt, he took a peek at the bruise from several nights before. The bruise had shrunk, but was still a clear greenish, blue, with a long, thin scab in the middle. Daniel ran his finger over it. It didn’t sting anymore like it did when he would pulled himself out of bed, or when Brooke would accidentally nudge him in her haste to stay out of his path. Again, her words repeated themselves in Daniel’s conscious.
“Danny Thomas, the great act, that’s what you are.”
He gulped, frowning. And he believed it. The disguise he pulled over himself would all he would ever be, the shouts from his sister confirmed that, reminding him of how much he pleaded for them to stop, how much he wanted to silence his father, to throw off his hits, to hush his sister. But he couldn’t, nothing he would do could help it.
“What are you good for?”
Light still shone brightly, barely past the middle of the day, as school was dismissed the next afternoon. Daniel lived close enough to the school to walk to and from it. The walk home had its fair share of adventures, on some occasions. He would pass up apartments as he walked down the blocks, often catching chaotic scenes of home life, usually feeling like an intruder when he heard an outburst of words from a frustrated mother, or the shouts of an angry father. Careless boys from the middle school rode up and down the sidewalks on their bikes, causing a ruckus as they tried the crossing guard’s patience at the crossing lanes.
Today the sky was clear, the sun casting orange hues on the surrounding rain of leaves falling from the canopies above. The streets were silent as Daniel passed them on his route home, but as he rounded one corner near the apartments, a threatening voice off the side of the buildings became clear. Peeking around, a boy screamed down at a small girl hiding her face…
Daniel gaped in shock, leaning against the side of the apartments, remaining in place. Brooke stood, anchored to the spot, her face wet from tears and eyes pinched shut, her arms folded tightly around herself. She looked even smaller. The un-identified boy was raging in front of her, leaning forward, close to her face. Between the muddle of words he bellowed at her, Daniel only caught a few short phrases from either of them. Then the boy swiftly he took her by the arm, roughly backing her against the brick wall as she let out a small cry and flinched at the pressure. His volume only increased as he continued to lecture her, the anger in his eyes continuing to grow. He squeezed her arm again, and Brooke shrank to the ground, screaming for Brandon to stop…
Something lifted the pressure off of her, and she opened her lids to see a shadow spread before her. Two voices shouted back and forth, but she was trembling too hard to understand what was happening. Then blinking, she saw Brandon shoving the second person toward the adjacent wall, and a sharp cry caused her to jump back to her feet in astonishment…
Acknowledging her cry, he looked up in pain from where he stood pinned on the wall. And regaining a sudden strength, he threw off Brandon and heaved him to the corner. Sending him a quick punch in the gut, Brandon folded inside of himself, wheezing from the impact. Finally in control of the situation, Daniel forced Brandon to look him in the eye. Dauntingly he spoke “Don’t ever come near her, or bother her, again. I hear one word from her about you, and you know what’ll happen, right?”
Brandon replied, coughing, and fuming about his turn of fortune, “Right” sending him a vengeful stare. But somewhere in it there was a silent submission and maybe even fear.
Daniel let go, and Brandon shrugged his arm off, slinking away.
As he walked out of sight, Brooke let out a breath she did not realize she had been holding, and looked at her defender. Danny? Danny Thomas?!
But she immediately sucked in her breath. Daniel clutched his side, head bent over himself, holding the wall behind him. “How’d you get mixed up with a guy like that?” he spoke softly.
“I…I don’t know.” She felt convicted and at loss for words, unable overcome her embarrassment and the sensation that she was suddenly exposed. But she was beyond confused “Do you, um, know him…”
“He pulled the same stuff with my sister once. I wasn’t about to walk by seeing him do the same thing to anyone else, no matter who it is, or what they think of me.” Daniel looked up through the hair that hung before his eyes, a teasing sparkle in his them that relieved Brooke. She laughed nervously and felt her face grow warm.
But Daniel bit his lip, and lifted a piece of his shirt to see the mark underneath, and winced. The bruise would heal more slowly now, and it was sorer than ever. He looked up when he heard Brooke’s horrified gasp, and concern show in her dark eyes and face. Forming his lips to a thin, straight line, he answered her unspoken question “I’ve had to defend my sis more than once, even at home. Let’s just say my dad isn’t too fond of her fiery tongue.”
He quickly looked away, afraid to again see the judgment affirmed in her expression. Instead, she seated herself Indian style on the ground in front of him and peered forward, not allowing him to ignore her presence. Her air held no judgment. Could it have been gratitude?
“Why else did you defend me, Danny?” she blatantly asked. She had misjudged him, misjudged him horribly, and the evidence was now spread before her. For all those times she determined in her mind what he was, she felt ashamed. Without Daniel showing up like he did, she may have been laying on the ground helpless now for all she knew. Her past convictions of what Danny were all faded, as she looked on at the boy breathless, resting on the cement. She had needed someone to hear her, and he had needed someone to help.
He hesitated a moment, but she held his gaze. And then he knew. “Because I didn’t want what you said of me to be true.”
She smiled reassuringly. “It wasn’t.”