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Where Is Daniel?
Things changed when Daniel got taken away. Mom cried all the time and Daddy was always jogging. He said that it was just because he wanted to stay fit, but Matt thought it was just so he could run, so he could feel like he was running far, far away from his life all the time.
Nor were there any more arguments that sent the house shaking.
“Your turn to do the dishes, I already promised Joe and the guys I’d play ball with them!”
“Mom, don’t let him go, tell him he can’t get out of chores just’cuz he wants to go play.”
“Boys, stop fighting! I want to hear you use kind wordsâ€”Paul, help me out here, please!”
Fear lay like a snake in the shadows, waiting to strike. Who knew how many of them Daniel had infected before he'd been taken away? Maybe they'd have to come for Matt next. Or Daddy. Or Mom. It could happen any time, maybe at lunch, or school, or right before bed. It would start with a cough; a gentle, quiet hemming that was so easily mistaken for a cold or a sore throat. Then, after two weeks, the onset of fever, as the cough turned into a hack that purpled the face and bloodied the throat. By this time, there were no more mistakes. The paramedics would rush in, sirens blaring, and disinfect the house, and carry away the sick one. They had taken Daniel to HELP (Home for Ebronchus Liasimmitus Patients).
It wasn't a home, though. Matt knew, he had heard stories from the boys at school. It was quarantine, with hard metal beds and bars and doctors and monitors beeping and the only way you escaped was if you died or you got better. People didn't get better, though. Ebronchus Liasimmitus didn't let you go. Once you were in its grasp, you never got away. Sure, the doctors knew how to put it on hold, if you caught it early enough, but you died of it anyway, only later than you would have.
There was a sense of anger, a sense that something had been cheated out of them. A son, a brother, a friend. Never again, after all their work, all their love, would they see Daniel. Quarantine patients were allowed no visitors, no letters could be sent out, for fear that the disease would spread with the paper, through the air.
Matt sat down at his desk and flicked on the lamp. He pulled a sheet of lined paper into the circle of yellow light, and picked up a pen. He could write to Daniel, even if Daniel could not write to him.
How are you in HELP? Do they let you play video games there? The new Wiggio7780XX just came out, so I hope you get to try it. I’m still hoping to convince Mom and Dad to buy it, but in the meantime, I’m playing it at Joe’s house. You’d better keep up on your skills, or I’ll be able to beat you easy when you come home!
It was fake, all of it. Daniel would never come home, and Matt couldn’t play video games anymoreâ€”it made him miss Daniel too much. Every time he tried, he felt a deep wrenching pain in his gut, a longing for what could never return.
Matt held the bat tightly in his hands. The ball came whizzing towards him, and he swung halfheartedly. The ball flew by.
“Striiiike three! You’re out!” hollered the Umpire. Matt threw down the bat and walked slowly towards the bench. Coach Malie met him halfway.
“Matt? What’s the matter? Is something wrong? You’re usually the best hitter on the team, and this is the third time you’ve struck out! Is there anything I can help you with?” she asked.
Of course there isn’t, of course you can’t help, it’s Daniel, why isn’t he here, why isn’t he cheering for me, when will he be back, he has to come back, for me, his brother, for me, Matt, where is he? Where isâ€”
“Daniel,” he choked out.
“Oh.” Her face twisted from a look of concern to one of pity. He hated that look! Hated the way that people watched him in the school halls, hated their words of comfort, their gentle hands, the dishes that they brought over so mom and daddy wouldn’t have to cook. He hated the way they all acted like somebody had died, because Daniel hadn’t died, not yet, and as long as he was still alive there was still hope, still life, still promise.
“It’s nothing,” he said, “I’m fine. Just fine.” He pushed past her and walked out of the field.
Matt went home and walked straight up to Daniel’s room. Everything was gone. The bedside table, the mattress, the blue-gray rug, the pictures, the autographed photo of James Gurstint (a local baseball star), the desk, the brand-new computer that Daniel had been so proud of. Only hours after the paramedics had rushed in, the men had come with their sacks and boxes to cart all his stuff away. All of it had gone to the incineration plant, to stop the disease from spreading.
Matt walked slowly around the room, touching the walls, feeling the cracks in the paint, the writing here and there. “Daniel’s Room”, proclaimed one, while another stated that “Robby wuz here”. A third pointed out that, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” That was Daniel’s favorite quote, one by Abraham Lincoln.
That night, Matt lay awake in bed, staring at the ceiling. The luminescent clock read 1:07 AM. Matt heard a cricket chirp, a car roar by, a small thump. He heard a weak sob coming from the hall. He pushed himself slowly up and slid off the bed to the carpet, making barely any noise at all. So many times he had made this trip at night, sneaking to Daniel’s room for a late adventure, that his bare feet instinctively avoided the creaky boards. A light was on in Daniel’s room. He peered inside, edging around the doorway until he could see the black silhouette of his mother, gently touching Abraham Lincoln’s words, etched forever into the paint. They stood like that for a while, with Matt staring on silently, unnoticed by his mother. Finally, Matt took a long, slow breath and tiptoed back to bed.
A month later, Daniel came home. It wasn’t the way anyone expected; or maybe it was just how everyone knew it would happen, but nobody ever said. Everyone had to know, because Ebronchus Liasimmitus never let anyone out of its grasp. Daniel came home in a box.
The funeral was simple, just some friends and family. Daniel wasn’t the first in the community to die of EL, nor did anybody think he would be the last. The preacher droned on and on about life and death, but he didn’t say anything about God because they had asked him not to. When he was done, Mom and Daddy went up and tried to say their bit, except that they couldn’t. Mom kept on breaking down in tears, and Daddy held her as he cried too. Matt had never seen Daddy cry. After a while, the preacher gently led them off of the podium. Matt hadn’t prepared anything, but he felt like he needed to say something, anything, to break the dreadful silence, to show Daniel that he loved him and loved him and loved him, to remind everyone of the yawning cavern that Daniel had left. The silence stretched on until Matt felt a tickle in his throat. Quietly, so quietly that nobody but Matt even knew what was happening, he started to cough.
It was a gentle, quiet hemming, so easily mistaken for a cold or a sore throat. He didn’t tell anyone, though. He had already decided he wouldn’t, the minute he read the writing on the wall of Daniel’s room. He didn’t want to go into quarantine, to stop living his life with Mom, and Daddy, and Joe, and all his other friends. He wanted his last days to be a full reminder of Daniel’s legacy. After all, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”