Daniel hurried past identical brick houses in a quiet neighborhood. Home was just down the block and around the corner, but he had stayed a little too long at Brentano’s today. If he wasn’t inside before his foster mother came home then she would know that he hadn’t been at the tutor’s. As he walked, he enjoyed the early Spring weather. The last of the snow had melted, leaving wet pavement and muddy yards in its wake. It was so nice not to be cold all the time. The bright sunshine felt good on his blonde hair but at times the wind blew cold enough that he still needed his winter jacket. Hurrying made him too warm, though, and he knew that Humphrey was getting stuffy tucked inside his jacket. When he unzipped his jacket, the toy camel smiled at him in thanks.
Daniel hoped that someday he could go back to Egypt. Humphrey would love it there as much as he did. He would take Humphrey with him and show him all of his favorite places. The Great Pyramids were good of course, but Daniel liked Abu Simbel better. Best of all was whichever site his parents were excavating. He had his own set of tools so that he could help them properly. His favorite memories were of working beside them, learning from them, spending his days with them. For the next few minutes he daydreamed about the adventures he and Humphrey would have there together.
“Well, if it ain’t the retard.”
The grating voice startled Daniel out of his reverie. Jimmy Padgett, the bane of his existence, was coming toward him down the sidewalk. As always, Larry and Dennis were right behind him. Three years older and at least a foot taller than Daniel, they quickly surrounded him.
Daniel was very aware of being alone on the street. There were no passers-by and most of the houses were empty until people got home after work.
“Who said you could walk on this street, punk?” Jimmy loomed close to Daniel, staring hard.
Nervously, Daniel licked his lips, but didn’t say anything. Maybe the boys would only taunt him and then leave.
From behind him to the right, Dennis said, “Maybe he’s just cruising the neighborhood.”
“He’s cruising all right. Cruising for a bruising,” replied Jimmy, his eyes never leaving Daniel’s.
From behind him to the left, Larry said, “What’s in the back pack, shrimp?”
Daniel felt tugging. He wanted to turn around so that Larry couldn’t get into his pack, but that would mean putting his back to Jimmy. Instinctively, Daniel knew that Jimmy was the greater threat. Afraid to let Jimmy out of his sight, he stayed put.
“We’re going to do you a favor, runt,” Jimmy said as Larry pulled out the text books and dropped them on the ground one by one. “We’re going to lighten the load for you.”
Daniel heard shuffling behind him, then felt more tugging as Dennis joined Larry.
“Well? Aren’t you going to thank us?” Jimmy stared at Daniel.
Daniel pushed his glasses back up his nose, but stayed quiet. He didn’t want to say the wrong thing and set Jimmy off. He could hear the familiar snap of pencils being broken in two. Maybe once they trashed his stuff they would leave.
“Oooh, look at all the papers!” said Dennis.
From the corner of his eye, Daniel saw a chunk of papers go flying into a wet spot on the sidewalk. He knew it was the science report he had worked on all week – a report that was 10 pages long had charts and graphs AND was due tomorrow morning. The water would ruin it and he wouldn’t be able to redo it in time. Without thinking, Daniel lunged for it. His jacket swung open, showing the older boys the camel stuffed into the inner pocket. Jimmy snatched up the toy before Daniel could stop him. He held it over Daniel’s head, just out of his grasp.
“Oh, look! Baby toys for the baby.” He pretended to give the toy back to Daniel then jerked it away, laughing, when the younger boy reached for it.
“What is it?”
“I think it’s a horse.”
“It’s a stupid looking horse.”
“That’s because it’s retarded like the freak.”
The camel was Daniel’s only friend. Without him, he would be alone again. He grabbed for Humphrey and missed. “Give him back!”
“Oh, NOW he talks. What’s that, baby?” Jimmy cupped one ear with his free hand. “You want your horsey?”
“That’s mine. Give it back.” Daniel tried to sound tough, but even he could hear the quiver in his voice. His stomach roiled in fear. What was Jimmy going to do to Humphrey?
“Or what? What’re you going to do about it, peewee? I can do whatever I want and you can’t stop me.” Jimmy held Humphrey’s body in one hand and grabbed a front leg with the other.
“Don’t hurt him!” Daniel felt sick to his stomach. Please, please, don’t let anything happen to Humphrey.
Jimmy pulled hard, twisting a little, until the fabric tore. Humphrey’s leg came off.
Something snapped inside Daniel. He launched himself at Jimmy, screaming and flailing his arms. Jimmy look surprised for a second until Daniel got in one good hit to his throat. Jimmy dropped Humphrey and rammed both hands into Daniel, shoving him backwards into Larry, who shoved him again, into Dennis who shoved him hard into Jimmy. Daniel was flung from one boy to the next, each time they hit with more force. His glasses went flying off and he only had a second to worry about getting in trouble if they broke before he was shoved again.
Daniel dimly heard shouting in the background and suddenly Jimmy and his friends disappeared. Dropping to his knees on the filthy sidewalk, the wreckage of his backpack scattered around him, Daniel picked up the pieces of Humphrey. Clutching them under his chin, he started to cry big heaving sobs that wouldn’t stop. He was vaguely aware of a deep rumbling voice then a hand touched his head. Seconds later, he was picked up and cradled against a flannel-covered chest. Sobbing hysterically, he clung to his rescuer with both knees, Humphrey still gripped in his hands. He could feel movement then he was inside somewhere and set down on a couch. The biggest piece of Humphrey was taken from his hand which made him sob harder. He felt his jacket being removed and Humphrey was returned to him. He clenched his fingers in Humphrey’s stuffing so that no one could take it away again. Gentle hands pushed him down until he was laying on his side Something warm was pulled over him. A hand rubbed soothing circles on his back while the rumbling voice droned quietly. Eventually, the sobbing reduced to sniffles then stopped altogether when Daniel fell asleep.
Daniel slowly opened his eyes. He felt exhausted and couldn’t think why. Then he remembered what happened. He closed his fists, reassured to feel a part of Humphrey in each one. Without moving, Daniel looked around. He was lying on a couch in a strange living room, covered by an afghan. He could hear voices murmuring nearby. He tipped his head a bit and could see a big man standing by the door.
“Them boys was way bigger than him and they was giving him an awful time of it. Wish I could’a got there sooner, but they was way down the block.”
That was the rumbling voice Daniel had heard earlier, but Daniel didn’t know who it was. The man was really tall, with silver hair so he must be really old. He wore a long sleeved flannel shirt in a red and black check. Brown suspenders held up his faded blue work pants. He stood with his back to Daniel, blocking the view of the other person.
“I really appreciate your help, Al. I hate to think what they would have done to him if you hadn’t chased them off.”
Uh-oh. That was his foster mother, Sally Anderson. The knot in Daniel’s stomach got bigger as he wondered how much trouble he was in.
“He’s game enough. Got plenty of spunk, just didn’t have the right odds, though he didn’t fight back until they tore up that little toy of his.” Al grinned, “Then all hell broke loose.”
“Well, you’ve got my work number now, so if anything ever happens again you won’t have to wait for me to get home. Just call and I’ll come right away.”
As she spoke, they both moved into the living room and saw that Daniel was awake.
“Hey, young feller,” said Al kindly, “your mama’s here.”
“Foster mother,” corrected Daniel.
Sally looked away and Al frowned at him. Daniel had the feeling that Al didn’t approve of the distinction. Daniel started to say he was sorry, but his upper lip felt stiff and itchy when it moved. He was embarrassed to realize that he had dried snot on his face. He raised a hand to rub it off, but Al stopped him.
“Hang on a second. Lemme get a cloth. We’ll get you cleaned up right proper.” Al stepped out of the room.
Sally cleared her throat, then lifted one hand to show him what she carried. “I’ve got your backpack. Mr. Rumson went back out and picked everything up while you were sleeping. He got these, too.” She held up her other hand to show him his unbroken glasses.
Al returned with a warm wet cloth. His big hand nearly covered Daniel’s face as he wiped it clean. “There,” he said, “All better. You look right handsome now.” Taking the glasses from Sally, he carefully put them on Daniel’s face. After helping Daniel into his coat so that he didn’t have to let go of the bits of camel, the old man walked them to the door.
“Thanks again, Al.”
“Think nothing of it, Miz Anderson. He kinda reminds me of my grandsons, and I’d like to think that if they were in need somebody’d look out for them, too.”
Sally looked expectantly at Daniel. It took him a second to realize what she wanted. “Oh, um, thank you, Mr. Rumson.”
“Like I said, son, it weren’t nothing. You ever need anything, you just come on over.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you.”
Sally didn’t say anything as they walked around the block to their house. Once inside, they went straight to Daniel’s room. She put his pack down by his desk, then stripped her coat off and put it on his bed. Daniel took his jacket off, too, although he had to release the torn halves of Humphrey to do it. She gestured at him to sit on the bed then brought his desk chair over to sit in front of him. She took off his shirt, checking him for injuries. Luckily, his jacket seemed to have cushioned the blows. There was a slight bruise coming up on one cheek, but that was all. After she helped him put his shirt back on, she sat back in the chair and sighed.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” She waited a moment, but he didn’t reply. “Daniel?”
Daniel stared at his empty hands resting in his lap. He wished he had picked Humphrey back up. Having Humphrey close would make him feel better as well as giving his hands something to do.
“Have those boys been giving you trouble?”
The knees of his jeans were filthy from kneeling on the wet sidewalk. That was probably how the top of his sneakers got scuffed, too. The heel of one hand was scraped but he didn’t remember getting that. Sally’s hand came into his field of vision as she touched his wrist.
“Daniel, I’m not going to go away until I get some answers. Have those boys been picking on you?”
Daniel nodded slowly.
“Mr. Rumson said you stood there at first and let them go through your stuff.”
Still staring downward, Daniel nodded again. In a very small voice he said, “If I fight back, they just hit me harder.” He watched a drop of water splash on his hand and realized he was crying again. The hand on his wrist tightened and he felt Sally cup his cheek with her other hand.
“Oh, sweetie,” her voice broke as she talked. “I’m so sorry. You need to tell us when something like that happens, okay? You don’t have to put up with it. I’m going to talk to the school tomorrow and see if we can put a stop to it.” She sniffed a little then changed subjects. “What were you doing on Mr. Rumson’s street?”
Daniel stayed silent.
“You’re supposed to be at the after school tutoring program on Thursdays. If you were coming home from the school, you would have been approaching the house from the other side of the block. Where were you? Why did you skip the tutor? You’re just going to have to make up the work that you missed.”
“I didn’t miss anything. I already did it.” He had to raise his head to keep his nose from dripping, but he kept his eyes downcast so he wouldn’t have to see the disappointment on her face.
“When did you do it?”
“Over Christmas break.”
“You did this one assignment three months ago?” she said skeptically.
“I did all of them.”
“All of them?” She sounded surprised. “You did ALL the assignments?”
“Uh-huh. I completed every assignment for this semester and turned them in when school started after the break. So, I wasn’t really skipping. I was finished.”
“That doesn’t mean you get to do as you please on Thursdays,” she said firmly. “You should have gone right to Mrs. Sheard’s house like you do the rest of the week. You know what you were doing was wrong or you would have told us about it.” She paused a moment. “What was so compelling that you had to sneak off for it? Where have you been every Thursday?”
“Brentano’s”, he murmured.
There was a long minute of total silence. Daniel peeked up at her through his lashes to see how mad she was. She didn’t look mad though. Instead she had a funny look on her face and her eyes were wet.
“You played hooky…to go to a bookstore?”
Her voice raised in tone at the end, as though it was a question. Unsure what her reaction meant, Daniel didn’t know if he should stay quiet or not. Since she didn’t seem angry he continued hesitantly, “They have the best non-fiction and reference section. Plus you can order any book you want.”
She gave an odd laugh and repeated, “You played hooky to go to a bookstore.” There were tears on her face as she brushed his bangs back from his forehead. “You are a very special boy. Come here.”
She folded him into a big hug, rocking a little. He felt her press a kiss on the top of his head then she patted his back and let go. Wiping her eyes with one hand, she asked, “Is that where you got the camel?”
“Does it have a name?”
“Humphrey,” he whispered, “because he has a hump.”
“That’s a good name.” She paused then continued softly. “Does Humphrey remind you of your parents?”
Daniel kept his eyes down, saying nothing. His stomach hurt again and the backs of his eyes stung. He felt her hand stroking his hair. It made him feel better and worse at the same time. Her touch was comforting but it also made it harder to stop the tears.
“It’s okay to miss them, honey,” she whispered. “They were wonderful people who loved you very much.”
Daniel breathed through his mouth, blinking back tears. Part of him wanted nothing more than to lean into her, let her hug him, soothe him, and tell him everything would be okay, but he was afraid it would make him cry so he stayed where he was. They sat there for a minute, unmoving except for her fingers slipping through his hair.
Sally sniffed a couple of times, then cleared her throat. “You know, I can probably fix him for you.”
Daniel looked up hopefully. When Jimmy ripped Humphrey apart it was like he had ripped Daniel apart, too. If she could fix him…
She smiled at Daniel. “I think all he needs is a little thread from me, and some TLC from you.” She put a hand under his chin, tilting his face up. “Think you can handle that?”
Relieved, Daniel’s stomach ache eased enough for him to grin at her. “Yes, ma’am.”
Her face got serious again. Daniel braced himself for whatever he had coming.
“When you finished all the work the tutor gave you, you should have let us know. Doing the wrong thing for the right reason is still wrong. It would have been okay to go to the bookstore – IF you had gotten permission first. Doing it behind our backs made it wrong. There are consequences to every action and you need to face the consequences of your actions. As much as I hate to do it, we will have to punish you for this.” She pushed his bangs away from his forehead. “You’re confined to your room tonight. I need to talk to your fa – to Cliff when he comes home from work. We’ll decide what your punishment will be then.”
Daniel couldn’t concentrate on his geography assignment. He sat at his desk, staring at the open book, the words swimming out of focus. All he could think of was how much trouble he was in and how much worse it might get when his foster father got home. Eventually, he heard the front door bang shut. He tiptoed over to his bedroom door, cracking it open. He was supposed to stay in his room as part of his punishment and technically, he still was in his room. But he needed to know what Sally was going to tell Cliff. What were they going to do to him? He listened through the crack.
“What’s with the Franken-camel?” Cliff sounded puzzled.
“Shhh! Don’t let Daniel hear you,” whispered Sally.
She filled her husband in on the day’s events. Daniel couldn’t hear most of it, just murmurs and the occasional word. They talked for quite a while. At one point, their voices raised a bit.
“I swear,” she said sharply, “I’d love to have just five minutes alone with that grandfather of his.”
“I know, honey,” said Cliff, “and I’d hold him down for you.” The voices murmured again, then Cliff said “I’ll take it to him.”
Daniel heard footsteps coming down the hallway. He closed the door noiselessly and tiptoed back to sit on the bed. There was a soft knock then Cliff opened the door. His foster father was tall and lanky with thinning blonde hair and brown eyes. Still in his grime-streaked uniform, he carried Humphrey carefully in one work-roughened hand.
Crouching in front of Daniel, he held out the toy and said quietly, “Hey, Sport. I think this is yours.”
Daniel gathered Humphrey in his hands. The leg was back where it should be. The ragged edges of the tear had been expertly sewn back together with a thread that almost matched his fur. The horrible wound had left a scar, but Humphrey was whole again. Daniel hugged the toy tightly to his chest.
“Your mom,” Cliff stumbled over the word then corrected himself, “um, Sally told me what happened. I just want to make it clear that you’re being punished for lying about where you’ve been every Thursday for the last couple of months, okay? Lying is wrong. There’s no trust without truth and not letting us know where you are could be dangerous. As for those boys, you’re not in trouble for getting in a fight. If they pick on you, you have every right to stand up for yourself.” Cliff put his hand on Daniel’s knee. “But, Sport, even us big guys need help sometimes. I know that, for whatever reason, you’re trying to grow up as fast as you can. Part of growing up is knowing when to ask for help, and accepting help when it’s offered. If someone’s bothering you, tell us. Together, we’ll figure out a way to handle it. Okay?”
Daniel nodded, then dipped his head so that his chin was touching the top of Humphrey’s head.
Cliff patted his knee. “Sally will bring you a plate when dinner’s ready, but tonight you’re in here. No television, no radio. Homework first then straight to bed. Tomorrow night we’re going to have a family meeting about this.”
Daniel nodded again, feeling his eyes well up once more. Cliff sighed as he stood up. He ruffled Daniel’s hair before leaving him alone with his thoughts.
The next morning, Daniel vacillated before leaving Humphrey at home to recuperate. Sally called the bank to tell her boss she’d be late for work. She drove Daniel to school, sending him straight to class while she had a talk with the principal. Daniel thought the principal might want to speak with him, too, once Sally had left. As the morning passed, he waited tensely for the intercom to crackle to life calling his name, but nothing happened except the usual change of classroom from one subject to another. By the time his lunch period rolled around he realized he wouldn’t be called and relaxed.
As he walked through the crowded hall then into the cafeteria someone grabbed his shoulder and roughly spun him around.
“Hey! You little creep! I got called to the principal’s office today because of you.”
Jimmy Padgett, pissed off and looking to spread it around, had hold of Daniel. Thinking of how Humphrey had suffered, Daniel got mad. It was one thing for those bullies to push him around, but they should never have hurt Humphrey.
“No, you got called to the office because of what you did.” Jerking his shoulder out of Jimmy’s grip, he raised his chin defiantly.
“You shut your face, freak”
“Or what?” demanded Daniel loudly. “You’ll rough me up? You already did that. Real tough guy you are, beating up a little kid like me.” He put his fists on his hips. “AND it takes three of you to do it. Oh yeah, THAT’S impressive,” he snarked.
Several of the kids nearby stopped to watch the confrontation, making a quiet spot in the noise and confusion of the busy entryway. Daniel could feel people standing just behind him, on each side. He really hoped it wasn’t Jimmy’s cohorts, but at this point he was so mad he didn’t care if it was. In fact, he was in the mood to tell them off as well.
“I could snap you in half if I wanted to,” Jimmy boasted.
“Oh yeah?” snorted Daniel. “So could half the GIRLS in this school. You’re three years older than me and at least a foot taller. How hard could it be to bully me? I’d be surprised if you COULDN’T. Doesn’t prove much, now does it?”
“You might think you’re safe here but you still have to walk home.”
“In that case,” jeered Daniel, “you better make sure your friends are available because apparently you can’t handle a little kid like me all by yourself.”
Jimmy scowled at Daniel, “Why you little-“
The two people behind Daniel stepped forward. He recognized one as Chrissy LaHane from his French class. The other girl was her friend, but he wasn’t sure of her name. Like everyone else at school, they were taller than Daniel, but neither was as big as Jimmy.
“Leave him alone,” ordered Chrissy.
“You stay out of this, airhead.”
“I’ll stay out of it as long you stay out of Daniel’s way.”
“You better back off.”
“Or what?” sneered the other girl. “You’ll beat us up like you do a nine year old?”
“Nine and a half,” murmured Daniel.
“If I hear that you or your psycho friends have been hassling Daniel,” continued Chrissy, waving her hand, “then me and MY friends are going to stomp you down. You got that?” She did a funny sideways head-bob for emphasis.
Red faced, Jimmy glared at her. He looked around the crowd for support, but didn’t find any. He jabbed a finger toward Daniel, but didn’t dare touch him. “This isn’t over, freak,” he growled then walked away down the hall.
Daniel felt a wave of relief wash over him as Jimmy left. Once the show was over, the crowd dispersed except for the girls.
“Thanks for helping me, Chrissy.”
“No sweat,” she smiled. “If you hadn’t helped me in French class last semester, I would never have gotten an A, so really I’m just returning a favor. If those guys bug you again, you let me or Rachel know, okay?”
“We gotta get to class – the second bell already rang. See you later, Daniel!”
As they left he heard Rachel exclaim, “Oh my god, he’s so adorable!”
“I told you!” replied Chrissy. “He’s just the cutest thing! All the girls love him. And he’s, like, some super genius or something. You should hear him speak French!”
Daniel was miffed. It was nice to hear good things about himself, but he was boy, dang it. He didn’t want to be cute or adorable. Why couldn’t they say he was handsome, or rugged? Those were good man-words. He sighed and went into the cafeteria taking his usual seat in the corner. He pulled his lunch bag out of his pack, ate the cookies, then unwrapped the cheese sandwich. His milk money stayed in his pocket. He’d add it to the rest of his money when he got home.
As he ate, he thought about what Cliff had said, that part of being a grown up was accepting help when it was offered. As much as he wanted to do everything by himself, he had to admit it was easier with someone else lending a hand. The standoff in the hallway today proved that. Daniel started it by sticking up for himself, but having Chrissy and Rachel there to back him up made a difference. He had a feeling that despite that last threat, he wouldn’t have to worry about Jimmy Padgett anymore.
And look at Humphrey. The camel could never have gotten his leg back on by himself, but thanks to Sally he was in one piece again. He hadn’t thought that Humphrey would be able to survive what Jimmy had done. Daniel pictured the stitches holding the shredded fabric together. It was good to know that even the most ragged of edges could still be made whole. As he nibbled his sandwich, he wondered if someday that would happen for him, too.
|Series:||Small Boy, Big City|
|Summary:||"Part of growing up is knowing when to ask for help, and accepting help when itís offered."|
Author's Chapter Notes:
Rated PG for bullying and mild violence. Third story in the series Small Boy, Big City. Follows "Commencement". This is the story of Young Daniel during his foster years in New York. Thanks to my betas AnnO, Barb, and Mare.