It was after dark when we gave up the search for Danny. Mom said we had to, which was kind of okay with me, but kind of not. I had a math quiz tomorrow. Except math made me think of Danny, which made me want to look for the jerk-face even harder. Danny was a math genius, so I’d learned to put up with him sitting behind me in homeroom and making disgusting sounds every day. He helped me with algebra if I helped him with essays, so in a weird way we counted on each other.
Danny disappeared after school on Friday. I didn’t hear about it until the gym assembly this morning, when the police asked for volunteers to help find him. His friends claimed they didn’t know where he was, but they could have lied. Danny liked lots of attention, which was why we also called him Danny Payne In The Butt.
When I told Mom about his disappearance, she wanted to help with the search. I was hoping she would. Even though Danny could be a real moron, I didn’t want anything bad to happen to him. Although Mom had never met Danny’s parents, I knew she was curious about them because of what we saw two weeks ago.
It happened on a Thursday. Mr. Payne had pulled into the parking lot, next to Mrs. Payne’s SUV. Mom and I were waiting for my brother when Danny’s dad approached his mom. They started arguing, and then she raised her hand and he raised his arm. They backed down when Danny and his friend Mark showed up.
As Mom and I left Mundy Park I said, “Last week, I overheard Danny’s friend Mark say that Danny’s parents split up a month ago.”
“Really? Had Danny seemed upset?”
“No. That’s why I forgot about it till tonight. I mean, both of Danny’s parents were at the assembly this morning. Thing is, I also heard Mark mention something about jail, so maybe Danny ran away.”
Mom opened the VW Beetle’s door. “I think you should talk to Mark.”
I was sorry I’d opened my mouth. I was still sorry when I came home from school the next day. Talking to the world’s smelliest loser had cost me a lunch, plus five bucks. Though I did learn something.
“Mark double swore that he didn’t know where Danny was. He also said no one should look for him, which explains why his dumb friends aren’t helping with the search.”
“Why shouldn’t we look for him?”
“Danny was definitely scared about jail, but Mark didn’t know why. He thinks Danny stole something, which wouldn’t surprise me because he’s always got candy, and he wears more earrings than I do.”
“A thirteen year old wouldn’t go to jail for stealing candy and earrings,” Mom said. “What do his parents do for a living?”
“His dad works in a furniture store and his mom’s a waitress. Mark said they used to have horrible fights. Whenever they started breaking stuff, Danny went to stay with Mark.”
I watched Mom get that strange “this is bad” look.
“Did Mark say whether he’d ever seen Danny’s father hit his mother?”
“Nothing. Tell me more about Danny.”
“Oh Mom, it’s not like we’re friends.”
“Humor me, Camille.”
“Well, he’s allergic to practically everything, and he doesn’t do much except hang out with his friends. He’s immature and he hates school, even though he’s smart.”
“Has he been caught drinking since that last episode?”
It still grossed me out to remember the time Danny showed up for school drooling and staggering all over the classroom. When the teacher asked if he was okay, he puked on his desk then passed out. The smell was awful. After the ambulance took him away, the cops warned us about the dangers of alcohol, like we needed a lecture after that nightmare.
“He hasn’t been drinking at school, but who knows what he and his friends do in the park.”
“If Danny has allergy problems he probably wouldn’t hide outdoors with all the pollen and grass around right now.”
“Then where would he go?”
During supper, our whole family tried to figure out where Danny might be. I wanted to keep looking, but Mom reminded me that I hadn’t started the essay which was due tomorrow.
Truth was, I’d been putting it off all week. We were supposed to write five pages about our favorite author. Danny had planned to write about Edgar Allan Poe because he thought the guy was cool. He even lent me a collection of Poe’s stories which I still had. Personally, I didn’t know what was so cool about going through drinking binges and dying at age forty, but I could see where Danny would relate.
At my desk, I picked up the Poe book, then thumbed through the pages until “The Purloined Letter” caught my eye. Danny talked about this story just last week. He said it was about a stolen letter which had been hidden in plain view where anyone could see it, yet no one did. I tried to read the story, but I didn’t get half of what Poe was saying. Danny thought the story was funny, but Danny had a weird sense of humor.
And then it came to me. I knew where Danny was. Last December, he told me he’d once hidden under the stage to avoid singing with the choir. If Danny wanted to be inside the school so he’d know what was going on, and yet invisible, that’s where he would go. I ran downstairs and told Mom my theory.
“We can’t go to the school right now,” she said. “It’s closed.”
“It’s only seven-thirty. The custodian’s probably still there.”
“Maybe we should call his parents.”
“No. If I’m wrong, they might get mad.”
We knocked on three different doors before the custodian came. She didn’t want to let us in until I showed her my I.D. card and Mom mentioned Danny’s name. The lady escorted us to the gym. When she turned on the lights, I thought I heard a noise.
The enclosed area under the stage stored chairs and folding tables, but the lock on one of the door panels was broken. Danny pointed it out while we were setting up chairs for the Christmas concert four months ago.
I opened the panel and switched on the flashlight I’d brought from home.
Stacks of chairs kept me from seeing much. I took a deep breath, then wriggled down the long narrow space that stretched toward the back of the stage. At the back, the space widened. When I shone the flashlight, I spotted Danny ducking behind more chairs on the other side of the stage.
“I saw you, Danny Payne. You’re busted!”
“Go home, Camille. Nobody asked ya here.”
His voice sounded raspy.
“Mark said you were worried about jail.”
“Danny, you can’t stay here. Doesn’t the dust make your allergies worse?”
“Anyway, your parents are worried about you.”
“Too bad. This is all their fault.”
“Okay, like, I don’t get it. You’re worried about the jail thing, right?”
No answer. If I was wrong, Danny would have said so. He never missed a chance to point out my mistakes.
“Why is hiding from everyone your parents’ fault, and what does it have to do with jail?”
Again, no answer.
“Is this about their split up?”
More silence, and then I recalled the strange look on Mom’s face when she asked me if Danny’s father had ever hit his mother. I wished Mom was beside me now. She had a way of asking the right questions, but she was too big to squeeze through the panel opening.
“Danny, I heard your parents had some bad fights. Are you afraid your dad will get into trouble for hitting your mom?”
“Wrong, Camille. Geez you’re stupid.” His voice sounded more shaky than mean.
“Then tell me what’s going on.”
“As if.” He snorted in disgust.
“Danny, I’m kneeling on a dirty floor while some bug’s probably making a nest in my hair.” I shone the light in his eyes so he’d know I was serious. “I’m trying to help you, you dumb jerk.”
“Then tell my dad I want to live at both houses, not just his. And he has to drop the charges, or I’m gone for good.”
“Drop the . . .” A horrible feeling crept up my spine. I lowered the light. “Are you saying that your mom hits you?”
“No way.” Danny coughed again, then mumbled. “He’s such a friggin’ wimp.”
Staring into the darkness, the horrible feeling climbed up around my throat. My mouth became so dry it was hard to swallow.
“Danny, does your mom hit your dad?”
Danny was right, I was stupid. I should have figured out what that scene between his parents in the parking lot that Thursday really meant. His mom had raised her hand first, like she wanted to strike his dad. Mr. Payne had raised his arm only after she did. I remembered how he’d bent it at the elbow, like he wanted to protect his face.
“She hurt him and he wants her thrown in jail, right?”
Near Danny, loud banging sounds made me flinch. Using the flashlight, I saw Danny sitting with his back against the wall and kicking a stack of chairs.
“Danny, quit it. You’ll bring them all down. ”
A coughing spasm made him stop. My heart thumped.
“Your dad wants you to tell the cops what’s been going on, right? Like a witness.”
“It ain’t gonna happen. I’ll stay here forever, if I have to.”
“Camille?” Mom called. “I’ve contacted the Paynes. Can you guys help me? I’m stuck in the opening.”
Oh no. She had tried to follow me down. How embarrassing.
“Danny, will you help me get her out, please?”
“Geez, Camille.” He paused. “I don’t have to touch her, do I?”
As it turned out, he didn’t. Once the custodian and I pulled and pushed a bit, Mom was free. I think she could have squeezed her way back out if she’d really tried but, knowing Mom, this was her way of meeting Danny. She had probably hoped he’d want to breathe fresh air again, but Danny wouldn’t come all the way out.
I stayed with him a while longer, talking about Edgar Allan Poe and stuff, while Mom talked with his parents when they arrived. I couldn’t hear what she said, but it didn’t matter. She knew how to help people.
In the end, Danny said he’d come out if he could live with his mom on Fridays plus weekends, and if his dad promised not to have her arrested. Mr. Payne said okay provided Mrs. Payne got counselling for her anger. Mrs. Payne didn’t look happy about it, but she agreed.
“You can’t blame Danny for wanting to protect his mother,” Mom said on our way home. “It’s a natural thing for a child to do.”
“Think he’ll be okay?”
“I hope so. It won’t be easy for Danny emotionally or physically, for that matter. His dad lives ten miles from here.”
“Does this mean he’ll be changing schools?”
“No, my darling. You haven’t seen the last of Danny Payne.”
Since I had another math quiz next week, I figured I could live with it.