Vanessa had her arms crossed over her stomach, fighting the nausea. “I just don’t think he will ever get better without extensive care,” the child psychiatrist advised. “Even without the brain damage, he has been through so much. I know you tried your best, but nine emotionally disturbed boys are hard enough. Danny is never going to have a normal life if you don’t let him learn how to adjust for his unique disabilities.”
“He is getting better,” Vanessa said quietly. “He isn’t talking, but I hear him humming to music.”
“The humming is just that, Mrs. Killburn. Not unusual with his autistic tendencies, like his dislike of physical contact, and his self-harm.”
Vanessa wiped the tear that slid down her cheek. If she could only get him not to hurt himself. This time it had been half-dozen neat cuts on his thigh with a piece of glass, and various cuts on his hands from handling the small shard. “We’ll just have to be more careful,” she choked on her sobs.
“Even if you could stop him from hurting himself, we need to start being realistic about his condition. If we start now he may have a chance at a relatively normal life. Perhaps one day even being able to live in an independent living facility.”
“Nessie,” she closed her eyes as she heard her husband’s voice, the tone he used with patients to give them bad news. “I have been investigating the local facilities. There is really great one only about two hours away. We can visit on weekends.”
“Weekends? How is Danny going to cope without seeing his brothers every day?”
The doctor cleared her throat. “I don’t think he really sees people as a priority in his life. I know your boys are very close to Danny, but I don’t think he is capable of a similar emotional attachment.”
“Danny is very close to his brothers!”
“No offence intended, Mrs. Killburn, but I think you are seeing what you want to see rather than what he is. At best he is a boy with brain damage, and he won’t be normal just because you want him to be.”
On the way back Vanessa sat beside Danny and tried not to flinch when he pulled his hand out of hers as she tried to grasp it and looked out the window quietly. “Danny, baby, can you look at Ma?” but his head was held at a slight tilt as his eyes seemed focused on a stream of light that had escaped the clouded sky. When the clouds shifted again he moved his eyes from outside the window to the papers in Vanessa’s hands. “Doesn’t it look like a nice place? And there are lots of people there Danny. Really nice people who just can’t wait to meet you. They understand how special you are.” She looked away when he looked at her tear streamed face and she thought she could see sadness in those deep blue eyes. “He knows we are sending him away,” she whispered to her husband, crying in bed that night.
“Honey, I know it is breaking your heart. And I know you want him to feel something, but the doctor told you, people are not a priority to him.”
Vanessa shook her head. “The doctor is wrong, Jake.”
“Darling, I am sorry, I know you would do anything for him, but honey, you can’t just hope he gets better by ignoring what is wrong. I’m more worried about the other boys right now. I know how this is going to look to them.”
“We’ll have to tell them tomorrow,” she said softly. “Let them say their goodbyes to him.” She knew acceptance was slipping over her, and it hurt, but so did denying what was happening. She was losing her baby, and it tore at her heart as much as it did when she miscarried her and Jake’s only child to be told she could never conceive again.
“Special school my fucking ass. You are sending him to a nut house!” Johnny K had interrupted Jake’s practiced speech about how they found a special school for Danny, but it was too far for him to drive back and forth every day, so Danny would have to board there. A special school that would help Danny.
“It is not a sanatorium, Johnny K. It is a special facility designed for people who are special like Danny. It is a very lovely place. I did a lot of research to find just the perfect spot for him. It has a lot of children his age.”
“You’re sending him away. You promised,” he pointed an accusing finger at Vanessa. “You said we could be together.”
“I promised I would do everything I could to keep you together,” she said quietly, understanding his anger. “But he is hurting himself, Johnny K. He could have killed himself if he cut somewhere else. I can’t let that happen.” That quieted Johnny K as he looked at his tiny brother who didn’t seem to be aware that he was being discussed as he rested his cheek against his knee and rocked slightly. He seemed to withdraw more and more every day. He didn’t even let Johnny K touch him anymore. He would listen sometimes when Johnny K told him to do what he was told, but he was quite capable of completely ignoring everyone around him.
“But why can’t we just watch him better?” This from little Rylie, his brown eyes earnest with unshed tears.
“Oh, honey, I know you are going to miss Danny, but we can’t watch him every second of every day.” She held out her arms and Rylie hopped up on her lap into her waiting arms. “I’m going to miss him, too,” and her voice broke a little, and she felt Johnny K’s understanding eyes on her.
“When does he have to go?”
“Tomorrow morning we are going to drive up there.”
Danny laid in bed listening to the noises of his brothers sleeping. The Killburns were good people, he knew that. No one ever got punished for being too noisy. Maybe he could ask them if he could stay. He ran his hand over the stitched cuts on his thigh. He would be better now. He could feel the pain of the glass biting through his leg every time the music tried to take him. Every time the music made him forget that his sounds made people angry. He knew it was his humming that made them want to send him back. He couldn’t go back there. Not without his brothers. No one would ever be able to stop the bad things that happened there. He touched the scars on his shoulders. Those should have been enough to remind him. But now he had another set, and he would never, ever forget again.
Talking had never done him any good. Generally it just let everyone who thought he was an idiot know he was. His voice infuriated people and induced them to violence; didn’t he have plenty of proof of that? His fingers gently rubbed against the upraised scars on his shoulder. But what choice did he have? Maybe he could find the right words to talk them into keeping him. Into letting him stay with his brothers. The big house still scared him, and he was careful to not make any noise as he crept on quiet feet down the long corridors. He heard the television in the den, a cozy room he liked to sit in the sun shine and he could hear the buzz of the TV and the rough play of his brothers and look out into the field. Sometimes he got so caught up he faded into that world that made him feel all safe and untouchable.
She had her head on his shoulder. Danny wondered if they would get angry if he disturbed them. Would they yell at him? Hit him? His whole body started to shake and indecision clouded his eyes with tears. He had never been brave. Not like his older brothers. He stood there in confusion, rocking back and forth between his two feet.
Vanessa and Jake curled up together in front of the television, completely mentally exhausted. It had been hard on Vanessa to pack up those little clothes that she had lovingly handpicked for his little frame. Both started when they saw him. He had on his pajamas and was looking down, standing in the doorway, rocking from one foot to the other. She ached to touch his soft black curls, but knew he wouldn’t welcome her touch. Would in fact, recoil in panic. He had never sought them out before, and both were shocked at his appearance. “Danny, baby? Is something wrong?” She knew it was pointless to ask, but when he looked up she was shocked to see twin tear paths on his face.
“Danny, baby, you’re crying,” she gasped. Did he understand what was happening?
“Please, don’t thend me back,” he lisped softly. “I pwomith, I’ll be quiet. I won’t hum to the wadio no more. You won’t even know I’m heah. I won’t make a thound, if you let me thtay. I won’t eat ath much either. I’ll do anything you athk.” His voice was husky and quiet with disuse.I’m dreaming, thought Vanessa. A cruel dream, because it couldn’t be real. Her Danny just didn’t talk, and not one word, but an eloquent plea that made her understand why he didn’t talk before. “Danny, baby, you don’t have to be quiet. You can be as loud as you like. I love the sound of your voice.”
“Then why are you thending me back?” “Back where?”
“Back where you got me. I don’t want to go back. I like it heah. Nobody hit-th.” His hope was rising. Maybe they would let him stay here. Maybe they would let him stay with his brothers if he could just say the right words.
“Oh, Danny, baby, I would never send you back there. We were going to send you to a special school to help you, not to punish you. I would never let anyone hit you.” She looked at him as though her heart would burst. “Danny, why do you think you have to be quiet all the time?”
“Because I make people mad when I am noithy. I twied weally hawd to be quiet. And I will thtop making noith. I made sure I would never fowget again.” He fingered the stitches through the thin material of his pajama bottoms.
Vanessa cried out when she realized what he was saying. “Did you cut yourself because you made noise, Danny? To punish yourself?” Danny had self-harmed before, but never to that degree.
Deep blue eyes looked into hers. “Jutht tho I wemembered not to do it again,” he whispered softly, his voice fading from weak throat muscles. “I fowget thtuff.”
Jake shook his head in disbelief. “We all do, son. You cannot hurt yourself to make you remember things. And we want to hear your voice. You can hum, talk, or bay at the moon. No one is going to get mad at you for making noise. Your brothers sure make enough noise. And no one is going back. Not ever. No matter what.” Jake needed to make something very clear to the confused little boy. “If you promise not to hurt yourself anymore then maybe we can hold off the special school. Now that we know you can talk we can hopefully find other ways to help you.”
A smile lit up Danny’s face. “Thank you, thir. I’ll go back to bed now. I’m thowwy for dithtuwbing you.” And just that quick he was gone.
“Did that really just happen, or was I dreaming?” Vanessa asked softly, staring at where the little boy had made his appearance.
“Nessie, it isn’t all better yet.” Jake gave her his optimistic but cautious doctor’s voice. “But it does seem that he is not as bad off as the shrink thought.” Vanessa giggled, feeling a giddy sense of elation. Danny knew what he was doing. He knew what was going on around him. He cared; he wanted to be here, with his brothers. She knew Danny would be fine. She would make sure he was going to be just perfect.
Johnny K rubbed sleep from his eyes as he felt eyes boring into him. “Hey, Danny boy,” he greeted him sadly, and then tried to sound upbeat. “You all ready for your trip?” He got a head shake, no. “You need some help getting ready?” Another shake, no. “Ma said I can visit you next Saturday,” another shake, no. Was he just doing that, or didn’t he want Johnny K to visit him. Man that thought hurt. “Come on, let’s go get some breakfast.” Danny never ventured out of their bedroom alone.
“Morning,” Vanessa greeted, pouring a cup of coffee. “I was wondering if you wanted to learn how to ride a horse today.”
Johnny K narrowed his eyes. Did she think she could make him forget this day with something as silly as riding a stupid horse? “After you get back from dropping off Danny?” Yes, he knew she was hurting, but damn it, so was he.
“Oh, yeah, well, after our little talk with Danny last night we decided we could decide later if he really needed the special school.”
Johnny K shook his head. “What talk?” But he wasn’t going to argue if she and Jake thought of a way Danny could stay.
Danny looked at the box of cereal on the table and quickly looked away, trying to disguise his longing. He had thrown in the not eating as much as a last ditch effort last night. An added enticement to keep him. But maybe that was what swayed them. He did eat an awful lot for a little boy, he knew. “Danny, baby, what did you want to eat?” He looked up at her blankly, and she forced herself not to tear up. Was she expecting him to be miraculously cured because of last night? Damn, she hoped, but she knew it simply wasn’t going to be that simple. She bit back a sigh and opened the cupboards like she did every morning, letting him make a selection. He shook his head, his curls tumbling. “You want eggs?” Another shake. “Pancakes?” another shake of his dark hair. “Sweet heart, what do you want?” He looked down at the floor and shifted his weight back and forth in a gentle rocking motion. It was like last night had never happened.
“Danny, pick something,” Johnny K was issuing an order.
“No, thank you,” he whispered softly and ran back up the stairs.
Johnny K felt all the blood drain from his face as his jaw sagged open. “He spoke.” Vanessa nodded. “I told you we had a talk last night.”
“I thought you meant you and Jake. Danny spoke last night? What did he say?”
Vanessa smiled softly. “He asked if he could stay. He made us a bunch of promises. He thought we were sending him back to Marsdon because he hummed the other day to the radio.”
Johnny K screwed up his face, wondering at what was going on in that little head. “What do you mean?”
“He kept promising us he’d be quiet. He cut his leg to remember not to make noise,” she nodded at the confusion on Johnny K’s face. “I know. I don’t understand it either, but I will. We just need to be patient. He will get better.”
Johnny K nodded, pleased that she seemed to care about Danny. “I’ll go see if I can get him to come down for breakfast again,” he said, but he was smiling as he climbed the steps. Danny talked. He couldn’t remember the last time Danny had spoken in his heavily lisped, husky voice. Then he heard the sobs. “Danny.”
“Fuck, Johnny K, get help!” It was Steve’s voice; Johnny K just yelled “MA!” and ran for the room once he heard the footfalls behind him. Danny was screaming as Steve’s hands held his, trying to pry the math compass from his little hands. There was at least a dozen puncture marks on his leg, where he was bleeding quite profusely.
Finally Steve managed to get the instrument away, releasing Danny who scuttled over beneath the window, drawing his knees up to his chest and rocking himself with his cheek against his knee. “Get Jake,” she told Steve who was white faced in shock and nodded before descending the stairs.
Oh, shit. Danny knew what was coming now. He broke his promise. But he couldn’t keep them both. And now he would know what it was like to be punished in the Killburn house. He could take anything if they just didn’t send him away. Johnny K pulled Danny up, despite Danny pulling the other way silently, and pushed him onto his bed, holding a cloth hard against his leg where the blood was dripping. “Fucking hell, Danny,” he grumbled and Danny felt a tear trickle down his face.
His eyes met Vanessa’s. “Thowwy,” he whispered quietly before he passed out.
Danny came to with a start. The room he was in was all white, and little outside light filtered through dark brown curtains. The bed he was in had metal sides and restraining cuffs that lay open, but his wrists had marks that matched. A woman was in the room with him, she was writing in a book until she noticed he was awake. “Hi, Danny. I’m Laura Metzler. Do you know where you are?” He shook his head. “This is the psychiatric wing of the hospital you father works at. He is a friend of mine. He hoped I could have a little talk to you to find out how you are feeling. How do you feel?” Danny pulled his knees up to his chest and rested his head on them starting to rock. “Do you know what that is called? A coping mechanism. You rock because it sooths you, don’t you?” He shook his head. “Then why do you do that?”
For a long time he didn’t answer. “Thometimeth I pwetend my mothah kept me, and when I get upthet she wocks me.”
It was hard getting the little boy to talk, and not at all easy to understand his speech impediment when he did talk. But if she misunderstood him he froze up and it took long minutes to get him to start talking again. Finally she decided Danny had enough for one day. Now the big question, would staying in the hospital do more damage than he could do himself at home?
“Laura?” Jake stood with his wife when she came out of his room.
Laura smiled at him in her soothing way. “Well, let me tell you, that little boy doesn’t like to talk does he? I got him to talk a little. He is very confused. I think I would like to do a full physical evaluation before getting into everything else. I would like to see the extent of how much damage has been done to his brain. In the meantime, what do you think about taking him home?”
“He can come home?” Vanessa asked.
Laura chewed on her bottom lip. “I think so. It seems he made two promises and he couldn’t keep them both, which is why he self-harmed. It isn’t a compulsion. In his mind he has logical reasons for hurting himself. I think if you ask him to promise not to do it again, and if he feels like he has to for some reason to talk to you instead, I think he will follow through. I also don’t want him to feel that he is being abandoned because he was bad.” Jake ran his fingers through his hair. “In the meantime I would like to talk to Steve and Johnny, right?”
“Johnny K,” Vanessa corrected. “When can you see them?”
“Tomorrow,” she said. “Take Danny with you. I want him to see that his brothers are getting some help too. It won’t make him feel so different.”
There was apprehension in Danny’s eyes when they entered the room. Vanessa had some clothes they picked up at the hospital gift shop. “Are you ready to go home?” she asked him softly, and he nodded. “First we need to talk about something. I want to know why you hurt yourself, baby.”
“I couldn’t keep both promithes.” “What promises?”
“I promithed not to eat tho much. But I wath hungry. I thought if I jutht hurt a little bit I could hold on until lunch. I’m thowwy.”
“I don’t understand, son. Where did you ever get the idea we wanted you to eat less?” Jake shook his head. Little Danny was smaller than most of the younger boys already. Why did he think they wanted him to eat less?
He cast his eyes down. “You thaid you liked my voith, and I didn’t have to be tho quiet, tho I figured it was my promith not to eat tho much that made you change your mind about keeping me.”
Jake sighed. Maybe he wasn’t cut out for this fatherhood thing. “Danny, we already told you, we weren’t sending you away to punish you. It was to help you. And we weren’t kicking you out of the family. We just wanted you to get some help. You understand? I was wrong to ask for your promise before understanding about you hurting yourself. Can you make a brand new promise to me? Can you promise me that if you think you need to hurt yourself you will talk to me or your Ma before you do anything?”
Danny looked thoughtful for a moment. Jake had given up on an answer when he suddenly got a nod. “Pewhapth you could help me think of mowe effective thtrategieth. That ith a good idea, thir.”
“I have them occasionally,” he remarked dryly, amused despite the circumstances. He just discovered how intelligent this little boy was.
They were driving home from the hospital when Danny finally had to know. He promised himself he could handle any punishment so long as they kept him. “What ith to be my punishment for breaking my promith to you, thir?” The car suddenly pulled over to the curb, and Danny swallowed down his panic. Shit, he hadn’t meant to move up his punishment, he just wanted time to prepare himself mentally if he was going to get a whipping. He should have kept his mouth shut. Talking always got him in trouble.
He watched as his adoptive father scrubbed his hand over his face. “Danny, didn’t I already tell you I was wrong to ask you to give me that promise?” Danny nodded, with confusion in his eyes. “So it isn’t your fault you broke your promise. It’s my fault.”
“That ith very underthtanding of you, thir. Tho no whipping?” His intense blue eyes held such hope and Jake felt his eyes fill.
“We don’t whip anyone in my house, Danny. Not ever,” he promised, but he could tell Danny wasn’t concerned beyond he wasn’t getting a whipping today. Vanessa wiped a tear out of her eyes and he patted her hand.
“Am I cwathy?” Danny asked three months later as he drove to the hospital with his father.
“Of course not. Why would you think that?”
He drew he knees up to his chest and watched the scenery fly by with his cheek against his knees, rocking. Jake sighed. After extensive tests Laura had called to see Jake immediately with Danny. It worried him a little, but what more could they find out about the little boy? Danny hummed to the music. “Why do I go to a thychiatwist if I am not cwathy?”
“Johnny K and Steve go to her, too. Are they crazy?”
Danny frowned. “I don’t know. I’m not a thychiatwist.” Jake laughed as he saw the teasing light in Danny’s eyes. As first jokes go, this one was funny. He still didn’t talk a lot. Only usually one on one. But he was starting to come out of his shell. “I don’t want to have any mowe blood taken. It huwts.” The irony of the same boy who stabbed himself in the leg fifteen times could then complain about a needle had Jake shaking his head. “When is she gonna be here.” He still wouldn’t call them by name or Ma and Dad; the choice was his. He was always “Sir” and “Ma’am”.
“As soon as she drops off your brothers at baseball practice.” Danny wished with all his heart he could play baseball. But he didn’t want to talk to people and have them know there was something wrong with him. “You want a drink?”
Danny had his hands stuffed into his pocket and stared at an old lady in a wheelchair. Oxygen tubes ran under her nose and an IV bag hung from a bar above her. She was offering comfort to a little boy with a sling around his neck. Danny suddenly stopped and his head tilted slightly to the side when the lady took a caramel out of her purse. “Danny? Danny?” Jake sighed when he saw the trance like state.
“Excuse me,” a rather large lady tried to get past and before Jake could stop her she pushed Danny aside. Danny’s reaction to being touched was immediate and violent. He let out an ear piercing scream and flattened himself against the wall. “What is wrong with this child?” the woman looked at him with disgust as before her eyes Danny wet himself.
Jake wanted to cry as he heard the chuckles around the waiting room, or worse, the pitying glances that were directed at Danny. Danny felt the tears of humiliation starting as he ran to the restroom and slammed a stall door. “Danny?” He could hear the sobs coming from the stall, but could see nothing. He pictured Danny on the toilet seat curled into a tight damp ball and rocking himself. “Come on, Danny. Let’s go to my office and I can get you into some clean pyjamas from the paediatric department.”
“I peed my pant-th,” he sobbed.
“Did I ever tell you about The Shining?” Of course he hadn’t. “Movie scared me so bad I spent half the night at the candy counter to avoid it. Well, your Ma and I were out with some of her friends. They didn’t like me much.”
“Why not?” A quiet question, but it had Jake smiling. He was listening.
“Well, your Ma was kind of slumming when she was dating me. Her family is all rich and all, and I come from plain old folk. Her friends thought I wasn’t good enough for your Ma.” He continued back to his story. “Anyway, they all teased me something awful about being scared of a silly movie. Well, I went into the restroom at this burger joint we went to following the movie. I was coming out of the washroom and one of the assholes,” he heard a chuckle at the use of the swear word, “jumps out and yells ‘here’s Johnny’. Now I had just come from the rest room, you know I still peed myself.”
“But you were a grown up,” Danny said in disbelief. “Yep, and I still managed to get the girl.”
“Oh, yuck.” But he unlocked the stall and stepped out. He was soaked to the skin from clutching his knees to his chest. He didn’t just half wet himself. He kept his eyes downcast the entire way to Jake’s office. Jake buzzed his secretary to send up some pediatric pajamas in a medium. Danny washed himself in the small washroom and put on the yellow striped pajamas that were enormous on him. Jake would have requested smalls but they were designed more for kids in diapers and were nightgowns rather than actual pajamas, and he knew that would make Danny more humiliated than he already felt. “What do I do with my wet clothe-th?”
“Just leave them on the floor. I’ll take care of them.”
“Am I gonna be punished for peeing my pant-th?” Blue eyes blazed up at him full of shame and doubt. Still waiting on a whipping he was sure was inevitable.
“I will never punish you for something you did by accident.” He saw the tension leave Danny’s tiny frame.
“Knock, knock,” Vanessa popped her head in. “Hey, shall we go to lunch?” She ignored Danny’s attire. “We have time, right?”
Danny didn’t eat kid’s meals. He ate full sized servings, and often had seconds. Jake figured that this was a good sign that his body was eventually going to catch up to his age. “Now Danny, you will have to wait in the waiting room for a few minutes before you go in with us to see Laura. Okay?”
He suddenly dropped his fork. “Why? Did I do something bad? Ith it becauthe…” he looked down at the pyjama clad leg, and tears threatened to fall.
“Of course not, Danny baby. It is just…we have to discuss your brothers, and it is private, so you can’t hear about them, just like they can’t hear about you. You wouldn’t want them to hear about your stuff would you?”
Danny thought about some of the things he confessed to the doctor, like wishing that he had a mother. No, he didn’t want to be the only big baby who needed a mother. “I gueth that ith faiw,” he conceded. Then he picked up his fork and continued to eat his fish and chips. “Can I watth the boyth play batheball tomowwow?”
“We’ll have to see, Danny,” Jake evaded, not wanting to promise anything until after he found out why they were having an emergency meeting. Danny nodded, and dropped his fork again. He looked down at his slim hands knotted in his lap. He couldn’t be angry at them. He knew he deserved a punishment for wetting himself like a baby. He supposed not being allowed to watch the boys play was very mild considering what he did. Jake knew what the young boy was feeling, his shame emanated out from his tiny body, but could not find the words to belie that he did something that warranted a punishment. With Danny it was like walking a tightrope. His steps forward seemed tiny, while his steps back seemed infinitely more drastic. But he had moved forward, Jake reminded himself. Laura had been very positive about his progress so far.
Danny was settled in the waiting room with a coloring book and crayons and instructions that the secretary was to interrupt with any problems and was, under no circumstances, to touch Danny. “Sit down, Jake, Vanessa.” Laura’s voice was professional and cold, this wasn’t good news. “His physical results have come back,” she said, looking at them with a steady doctor’s locked eyes. “We found foreign objects lodged in his skull, pressing on portions of his brain.” She showed the x-rays at the stunned silence of the adoptive parents. “It was done before the hardening of the skull, within the first few hours of his life, I would guess. It was probably not caught by the hospital when he was brought in because he had already been so bruised and cut up.” Vanessa felt tears down her cheeks. How anyone who had been blessed with a child could then be so cruel to it she would never understand. Danny had been found, in a trash bag, by the garbage man after having been dumped into the truck, moments before being compacted, his barely alive mewls catching the man’s attention and making him a hero, while the baby had been a two day news wonder and then yet again abandoned, this time into the system. “There is scar tissue around these objects, but I have consulted two neurosurgeons, both think that removing them will have positive results.”
“That is good, isn’t it?” Vanessa asked, because Jake’s face had become ashen. “What’s wrong?”
“The risks,” Jake said. “It could kill him, or make him worse.”
Laura nodded. “But around these foreign objects are thick tissue, some of it may be pockets of infection. And there is no way of knowing what may happen as his brain shifts as it grows. The risks are greater if we leave them. Neither is one hundred percent. If we are going to do this I would suggest sooner rather than later.” She took a deep breath. “I have a friend, and excellent Neurosurgeon. I’ve gotten him to consult and is willing to take a couple of weeks to do the surgery and any follow up that needs to be done. He can do it as early as tomorrow, but is going away in less than a month. I don’t want to press you for time, but he is one of the best in his field and I can’t imagine getting anyone better than him. He was fascinated by the c… Danny,” she corrected herself at Vanessa’s look. “He doesn’t know him like we do,” she whispered, squeezing the hand of her friend’s wife. “To him it is a fascinating case, but he is not a jerk, and will treat Danny with respect, not like a test subject. Okay?”
Vanessa nodded. “Tomorrow then? But can he go after the boys’ baseball?” She knew he looked at not going as a punishment for peeing in his pants.
Laura shook her head. “He needs to spend the night before here; he won’t be able to eat that day before the surgery, so I think it best to schedule it first thing. Day after tomorrow?” All adults nodded.
Danny took news of impending surgery without batting an eyelash, much more concerned about them having to shave his head. “Do you have to?” his blue eyes filled with tears.
“Afraid so. They can’t risk the infection.”
“But I wath it weal good,” his earnest eyes promised. “I’ll wath it twithe.”
“No, Danny, it isn’t about just cleaning. It has to be shaved.” Danny was trembling. Memories of getting his head shaved come back to him. The thought of some stranger touching him a lot more intimidating than some unknown person cutting into his head while he was asleep. Jake smiled at him. “Let’s not worry about that right now, okay? That isn’t until tomorrow night.” If there was one thing Jake knew is that Danny would hold onto pleasant hopes of today and not worry about the future. “We put off your surgery so you can watch the boys play their first game tomorrow. Won’t that be fun?”
Danny’s eyes lit up. “Yeth, thir, thank you.” He hummed happily to the music coming through the radio. It was tuned to a country music station, the only ones around besides news stations that focused on farming and agricultural news. Vanessa had gone down to the gift shop and had gotten a jogging suit for Danny. The woman behind the counter had offered sympathy to Vanessa. “He is such a pretty little boy,” she had said. “It’s a shame about his condition.”
“He doesn’t have a condition,” Vanessa held herself from snapping. “He is just shy.” The woman looked down at the clothes being bought because the little boy had urinated at a touch of someone’s hand. “Maybe if you had such a violent background you wouldn’t want to be manhandled by strangers either.” The woman shook her head as Dr. Killburn’s wife walked away with smart clips of her heeled shoes. She had such a tender heart; it would take her a long time to realize what the rest of the town already did.
Those boys would never be normal; least of all Danny.
Danny squirmed with excitement. Johnny K was up to bat. He gave it a practice swing and Danny bounced with anticipation. Vanessa had to smile as the warm breeze ruffled his loose black curls that had come to nearly touch his shoulders in the two years he had come to live with them, never allowing anyone to touch his hair. He sat beside his younger brothers. A row of five, four too young yet to be in teams, and Danny, too unable to handle the social interaction. Jake had taken the younger boys to the t-ball practice and Rylie, the only brother still smaller than Danny, crawled up on her lap and jammed two fingers in his mouth, which she promptly removed with a gentle hug. “You’re too big to do that sweetie. After all, you’ll be starting kindergarten soon.” Rylie puffed up in self-importance. Danny turned his eyes away before anyone could see the envy on his face. Rylie had a mother. Rylie was going to go to school like everyone else. Like a normal person. Rylie was almost bigger than him and he was three years his junior. Then he felt bad, because he loved his brothers. It’s not their fault they were normal. Okay, Corey couldn’t hear or talk and Ryder couldn’t use his legs, but more normal than him. And they all had this blond angel as their mother. Danny was tiny and it didn’t seem he ever grew. He took up so much of their time with his frequent psychiatrist appointments and he was always so bad. Still, Vanessa and Jake had never seemed to get angry with him, and no one ever got whipped. Not ever, just like Jake had promised. Not even when one of the hands had startled Danny so badly he had dropped the glass juice pitcher he was supposed to ask for help with, but hadn’t. It had broken and almost a full jug of sticky juice had splashed the kitchen. Danny had frozen in fear; he had been there when Vanessa and Jake had rushed in at the sound. Despite his yowls Jake had plucked him out from amongst the glass, the only time he had ever touched Danny, and Danny had fought like ten demons, scratching bloody marks down Jake’s arms, sure he was going to get it for real that time. But once he had been out of the danger of the glass he had been plunked in the chair and ordered to stay. After telling the rest of the boys to stay out of the kitchen reaction had set in as Jake came towards him, and Danny wanted to apologize. For breaking the rules. For breaking the jug. For wasting food. For the bleeding scratches on Jake’s arms. For all the noise. Oh, his crimes this time were many. “Are you hurt?” He looked in Danny’s eyes, knowing what was going through that confused head, but knowing the only thing that would alleviate Danny’s fears were trust over time. Danny was pale with fright, and was swallowing tears that were heaving in his thin chest, but he wasn’t letting them spill down his cheeks. “Danny, are you hurt?” He spoke abruptly, learning from Johnny K that sometimes it was the only thing that would break through to him sometimes. Danny shook his head. Jake sighed his relief even as he still looked for blood. Finally he nodded, satisfied. “Go take a shower and get some clean clothes on.” When Danny had finally come down the stairs with clean clothes and smelling of soap the kitchen had been clean and Vanessa had been serving a snack to everyone. There in his spot had been his favorite, an oat cake and a glass of orange juice.
In the Killburn house the boys were never hit. And the younger boys had a mother and father. And damn, Danny was so jealous yet grateful for what he had at the same time. He focussed back on the game when Johnny K hit a foul ball high into the air and groaned when it was caught by the back catch. Vanessa was surprised that Danny knew the rules. The younger brothers were all impressed that Johnny K had hit the ball and were cheering madly as other spectators glared. “Lost us the fucking inning,” she ignored the father of another player, calling encouragement to her boys. Steve was the youngest on the team, but he was very athletic, while Johnny K, one of the oldest, didn’t seem to have the co-ordination to walk and chew bubble gum. Steve was short stop and Johnny K sat on the bench. The boys went mad when Steve caught a fly ball and threw it for the final out of the inning. When Johnny K was back up to bat he was almost hit by the ball. The other team taunted him with an “easy out”. “Hit it down his fuckin’ throat,” Ryan urged with a yell as other parents looked at her in horror at the language coming out of his four year old mouth.
Johnny K had frowned over at his younger brother. “Watch your fuckin’ language.” Three strikes in quick succession. “Shit.” His younger brother Steve grinned with the half of his mouth that would still move at the command of his brain, as he took the bat. “Quasimodo is up,” the team laughed at the pitcher right before the fist of Johnny K connected. Vanessa was half way there at the first punch that was followed up by several more by the time the coaches managed to pull the twelve year old off. Vanessa brushed the men’s hands off of her son. Johnny K settled at the touch of her hand on his arm. “You are scaring your brothers,” she told him softly. “Please, stop.”
“He called Steve…”
“I heard,” she nodded. “Its fine, Johnny K. I will take care of it. Please, take your brothers to the cars.” Johnny K gave one last glare at the pitcher who the coaches were fussing over.
“Fucking panty-waist. Go cry to your mama, ya big fuckin’ baby.” And he spat at the boy’s feet.
“Johnny K! Now!” It was the harshest Vanessa had ever spoken to any of the boys.
“Come on, juniors,” he growled at his younger brothers as they all trailed behind him. They were whooping it up about the fight, except for Danny, who radiated disapproval and anger directed at Johnny K. Danny? Disapprove of him? No, he was reading him wrong. It was the other kid he must have been angry at, for calling Steve names. It was hard enough that Steve knew how he looked. He tried to brush his hair to hide his face when he looked down. His face was a mass of scars from burns and cuts from being blown free of the car when his parents had lost their lives following the accident that had changed the happy life of Steven Boyd, aged eighteen months. Johnny K had been fighting to protect Steve from being called names since he was five years old, and the healing toddler had come to live at Marsdon. “Don’t worry, Danny boy. He won’t be calling Steve names no more,” Johnny K reassured him, but the tiny dark head shook furiously at him. “What?”
“You awn’t suppoth to hit.” He scowled at his much bigger brother. Ever since he had finished chemo therapy the eldest of the Killburn boys had grown in leaps and bounds. “You huwt him.”
“He called Steve a bad name,” Johnny K defended, his feeling hurt by his younger brother’s disapproval.
“Tho?” Danny scowled. “I don’t like it when you huwt people. No one should be beaten, no mattah what.” But then he held his head with a quiet dignity and walked ahead of Johnny K to the cars and leaned against the blue of the car his mother drove when they all went out together.
Johnny K followed him, feeling slightly ashamed of himself. He knew Danny was right; he never should have punched that boy in front of his brothers. It was sending the wrong messages. That violence was okay, that you could solve your problems by throwing a punch. That sometimes people deserved to get beaten. Johnny K came up beside his younger brother. “I’m sorry,” he said softly, but he knew his brother wasn’t listening, his head was cocked to the side and he was staring at a spider as it weaved its web in the dry bush in front of him. He sighed, he knew the risks involved in Danny’s surgery. What if they lost him? What if this was his last day with this little brother, or the next time he saw him Danny was little more than a vegetable. “Please, don’t stay mad at me,” he knew part of losing it today had been about Danny. Vanessa and Jake had tried to downplay the risks, but Johnny K was too smart for his own good, already almost finished high school even though he was only twelve. He knew operating on the brain was huge, no matter what. “Danny?” But he had retreated and sank down, pulling his legs to his chest. “You’re gonna get your clothes all dirty.” Johnny K tried to remind him gently, but was ignored. Johnny K put his arms around his brother, expecting Danny to pull away but was pleasantly surprised when Danny accepted his hug. “I love you, brother mine.”
“You have to take care of the juniors in cathe I’m not heah anymowe,” Danny said softly and Johnny K closed his eyes at the sheer bravery in his tiny brother. He did know the risks, and was meeting them with the bravery that far surpassed his years.
“You will be,” he hugged him tighter, plopping down on his butt, no longer caring about his baseball uniform he had been so proud of earlier today. Suddenly baseball seemed like the stupidest thing in the world.
Jake almost winced at the sight of Danny with his eyes and lips screwed tight, his gleaming head shorn of those thick curls. Even with the tranquilizer Danny had fought and screamed until they had been forced to knock him out completely. Although he was awake now, he was still caught in the nightmare of memories as tears flowed and his breath came in hiccuped gasps for air. “Come on, son. Let’s go down to the cafeteria for dinner.” He shook his head. “Please, Danny. Your Ma is worried, and if you waken in the night they can’t feed you. Come down and have a nice dinner with me and your Ma.” He shook his head. “Johnny K sent you something,” he pulled out a bandanna. “It was from when he lost his hair from chemotherapy, remember? This one is his favorites, and he already has it tied for you.” His eyes opened, suddenly feeling close to his big brother. He had forgotten that Johnny K lost his hair, and under the bandanna it had been okay.
He put it on his head, but it was a bit too big, gaping at the sides. Danny squirmed uncomfortably. “Thir? Could you tighten it fow me?” He held his body stiff; he would have to touch him to do it. Jake swallowed a lump in his throat. Danny was so tense it would like he would shatter into a million pieces if Jake made the wrong move. He slowly got behind Danny and tightened the knot for him, careful not to touch him more than he had to. Danny looked down and started trembling again, but forced himself to stay still. “Thank you, thir.”
Jake smiled at him when he pulled away. “So will you come down and have dinner with your Ma and me. Believe me, the hospital food they are gonna put you on later will make you wish you took me up on this.”
“Can I get dwessed?” They put him in the pajama’s that were designed like night gowns, laced up the back.
Jake nodded his head. “I’ll wait outside for you.”
Vanessa managed to not tear up when he arrived with the absence of the curls she loved so much. She smiled at Johnny Ks bandanna. “That looks good on you,” she smiled. Johnny K had deliberately picked a blue one. Danny always tried to wear some blue. He always seemed happier if he had something on that was blue. He ate the lasagna with garlic bread, a salad, some milk to drink. Vanessa brought oatcakes from home, knowing how Danny disliked sweets. After dinner they took him back to his room where he got redressed in the pajamas and Vanessa arranged some flowers from her husband’s secretary and balloons from the boys, she allowed them each to pick one, and had laughed at Rylie insisting on an “over the hill” balloon.
When Danny drifted off she stopped herself from touching him, worried if he woke up it would be in a panic. The hardest thing was to walk out of the room.
Dr. Peter Winters was young for such a respected surgeon in his field. He had pushed the bar, and this was by far the most interesting case he had ever heard of. Of course it would be perfect if the child didn’t already have so many other issues, which made his medical issues miniscule in comparison. He smiled at the little boy, the smile not quite reaching his eyes, and Danny’s eyes saw the truth in the professional coldness that the doctor used as a necessary shield between himself and his patients. “How are you today Danny?”
“I am hoping that this will help your speech amongst other things.” He knew he said the wrong thing when they boy’s eyes filled with tears and he pulled himself into a fetal position. “Danny, there is no reason to hide. You know you have a speech impediment, and ignoring an elephant in a room won’t make it go away, will it?”
Danny’s head creased. He did know he didn’t speak like everyone else. He spoke like a gibbering idiot. But no one else seemed to comment on it. “Can you weally make me talk bettah?”
“Possibly,” the doctor said. “You will still have to work at it after the surgery, but I think this will help. Are you willing to work at it?” “Will I be nowmal?”
“Normal is the setting on a washing machine, Danny. We are all different.” Danny frowned. “You will still have some issues, like the rest of the world, but this could help a lot of what makes you feel so different.”
“Will it make me biggah?”
The doctor smiled. “Nope, ’fraid not. You are going to be as big as you are going to be.”
“Fuck,” the doctor almost smiled at the inappropriate word that Laura had warned him could pepper his speech.
The doctor was ready to leave. For three weeks he had been thrilled with the progress Danny was making. His speech was improving in leaps and bounds, and he was talking more often as his confidence was building. He took his photo album into the room with him this time. He knew this had nothing to do with his healing brain injury, but he hoped it would make him feel better about whom he was. He was sitting in the big leather chair, swinging his legs, but his face was frozen and his head tilted to the side as he watched something outside the window.
The doctor sat and waited. They had lessened over time, but he still had his trance like moments. “Danny?” The doctor wondered briefly if this was his way of hiding from their last meeting for the next three months. He pulled into himself, a defence mechanism, or some unknown force that sheltered him? “Danny!” Still no response. When a cloud drifted over the sun Danny’s head righted itself, and he smiled wryly, turning back into the room and saw the doctor there. His face flamed at the realization that he had spaced out again. “Back again then?” the doctor never made it a bad thing for him to space out. “I wanted to share a hobby with you. I figured I ask the same questions every day, maybe you would like the chance to turn the tables this last day.” Danny shrugged. “Use your words,” the doctor prodded gently.
“Excellent,” the doctor smiled, motioning him over to the desk. He opened the photo album with pictures of dogs. Beneath each dog were dates and stats. “These are my test subjects. They are all runts of the litter. Every one of them barely survived much past birth, and weren’t expected to. All their mothers rejected them because they were so small and they were adopted by different mothers, sometimes a mother who lost her own would be more inclined to adopt another, help her forget her loss.”
Danny was seven, but he wasn’t slow, he saw the connection to his own situation. “What happened to the dogs?”
The doctor shrugged. “That is why I find this quite fascinating. Some of them finished nursing, and then separated, and the adoptive mother was just a spare teat. Other times they formed a tight bond, helping each other kind of cementing the relationship.”
Danny nodded thoughtfully. “Did they stay small?”
The doctor smiled. “Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It is funny though, every one reacted differently. Some dogs get bigger, but get so used to being beaten down they never have the full confidence of a big dog, and they tend to be very docile. Others are able to leave that behind. It is the smaller dogs that are more interesting to watch. Because some of them take their experience and never let it hold them back. It isn’t that they don’t know they are smaller; they just never let it hold them back, because they know they are just as strong and smart as those bigger dogs. Others become very submissive, and always spend their time with their tail between their legs. Danny nodded. He had seen both of such types of dogs on the ranch.
“So even those that seem nowmal aren’t? And those that are still small can act more nowmal?”
“No one is really ‘normal’, Danny. But certainly these dogs show that there is a lot more than the circumstances of their births that define them.” He told Danny stories about the dogs, each of their stories. Danny was especially interested in the dogs that never caught up in size, but who had big dog personalities. “Actually most of these developed a very close relationship with its adoptive family. Mother and litter-mates. Those close relationship seemed to give them the confidence to become strong, alpha- dogs sometimes.” The timer went off on his desk to indicate their last ten minutes. “I’m very happy I got a chance to meet you Danny. I look forward to seeing you again in another three months.”
Slowly Danny pulled out of his shell over the next month, and he practiced his speech until no one would ever be able to tell he had a speech impediment. As he spoke more, his swearing became more prolific. Unlike the other boys no one corrected his language. He had overcome so much already no one wanted criticism to drive him back into his shell. He still didn’t play with the other boys, but followed them and usually sat to watch them, or simply listened to them while he went to his own world, content to press his cheek to his knees. His humming made way for singing. He sang to the music that Vanessa kept on constantly in the kitchen, which was always the hive of activity in the house, and most often where Danny was.
The boys had a championship t-ball match, and Danny was so happy that he was allowed to go for the first time since his surgery that for the second time in all the time he lived in the house did he venture anywhere on his own. He wanted to ask Vanessa if she knew where his ball cap was, planning on putting it over his bandanna that still covered the scars from his surgery.
She was making the bed with fresh sheets, and had her back to Jake. Jake gave a sigh of frustration as he pulled the belt from around his waist. Danny felt his eyes get huge in fear, wanting to call out a warning. But he was so much bigger than his wife. Danny remembered Bren buffering his body between Danny and the whip that had cut into his skin. Bren had been brave. The man brandishing the whip had his anger quickly deflated by Bren, who could not be intimidated. Not as much fun as against a terrified four year old. But he wasn’t a terrified four year old any more. He was seven, and Bren had protected him at that age.
“No,” he charged against Vanessa. “I won’t let you hurt, Ma.” Jake looked in shock at the tiny seven year old with his back pressed against his mother, his arms out to the side to protect her body. He looked down at his hands and realized why Danny was acting like this. He dropped the belt and he saw Danny’s body relax. His body turned and he threw his arms around his mother. They both looked up with shock.
Vanessa put her arms around his fierce little body, going on her knees to comfort him. “Honey, your Dad would never hurt me.”
Danny shook his head. “You didn’t see. He was angry, and he had a belt.”
“Danny?” he turned to face the man who promised him no one got whipped in his house, not ever, with a look of betrayal and fear. “I was annoyed, yes.” He showed the frayed end of the belt to him. “It broke. I knew it was breaking and I kept meaning to buy a replacement and it skipped my mind. I would never hit your Ma. Do you understand?” He put his arms around his mother, burrowing his head in her neck, but looking at the face of the man who had been nothing but kind and understanding to him and his brothers. It didn’t make sense, him hitting her, and certainly not for no reason at all.
“I’m sorry,” he said weakly. “I just was scared for Ma.” He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry Dad.”
He smiled a beaming grin. “It’s okay, son. I know how confusing it can all still be for you. I’m very proud at how you protected your Ma, even if it was for no reason.”
Vanessa stroked his back, inhaling the little boy smell, hardly believing that in four very long months they travelled so far. That her little boy was finally in her arms. He started to squirm and she smiled. Typical boy was taking offence to her over-mothering.
“I just wanted my ball cap,” he looked into her soft brown eyes with his intense blue eyes, and she smiled.
“Coming right up, Danny baby.”