Danny doesn't know when it starts. Maybe it was always there and he just didn't realize it. How could he? He only has his own perception as a reference and how should a toddler or even a baby know that there's something different about the people he sometimes sees or hears?
The first time he realizes something is different though, is when he's three.
At least, he thinks that was it. Maybe it's just the first time he remembers.
He knows his parents are worried. He thinks he might be doing something wrong, but he doesn't know what it is. He knows that they talk about taking him to a doctor.
He likes Dr Bell. She's nice and has yummy treats in her office.
He doesn't like this new doctor though. He looks all stiff and stares a lot and asks strange questions and he makes mommy and pops nervous.
Danny wants to go home.
He doesn't understand what the man wants from him.
He starts crying and mommy hugs him tight and says that maybe this was a mistake. The doctor says it's normal that he cries, but they can't go soft because of a few tears, if they want Danny to grow up normal and healthy.
The nurse outside with the dark hair and nice smile looks at him with pity.
The pale boy next to the door that all the grownups ignore whispers, his voice coming from far away.
"Don't come back to him or you might be next."
Danny stops telling adults and most other kids about the people that seem a little bit off. He doesn't know why they are off, just that whenever he talks to the off-people the grownups look at him like he's crazy.
He doesn't want to go to the doctor or be the next, whatever that is, so he doesn't tell them about them or talk to them while other people are around.
Danny is five when he understands for the first time, who the off-people are.
Mrs Cooper is watering her plants on her balcony like she's done every morning for as long as Danny can remember.
"The bus hit you."
She hums. "That's right, my dear."
"Papa says you're in heaven now. Why're you here? Is heaven not nice?"
Mrs Cooper hums again.
"Some things shouldn't be known before your time."
"I'm not going to spoil the surprise for you, my dear."
"But you're dead?"
Danny bites his lip.
"Are you a mummy?"
"You don't know?"
"Whatever does one know anyway."
Danny scrunches up his nose. Mrs Cooper is weird.
"Are all the off-people maybe-ghosts?"
She finally stops watering her plants and looks at him. "I don't know if we are ghosts, or spirits, or wandering souls. But we are no longer among the living."
"Why can I see you? Why can't mommy see you?"
Mrs Cooper smiles. "Because you, my dear Danny, have a gift."
Danny is sixteen, when it hits close to home.
He's numb at first. He goes through his days, does his chores, learns for school, plays basketball in the yard. He goes through all the motions he always did. But it is different.
He doesn't understand why.
His parents treat him with kid gloves, look at him as if they're just waiting for him to break.
Sometimes Matt opens his mouth and starts to say or ask something, but Stella hits his shoulder and he stops. He also doesn't ask Danny to go with him to play. Stella stopped getting all up in his face for every time he misplaces her brush. He knows. He did it on purpose the last two times, but she still didn't react.
He doesn't understand why.
And then, suddenly, he does.
He cleans out his school bag, because he needs a permission slip they got before summer break started. He doesn't know where it is, but he guesses it's among the debris that's formed at the bottom of his bag.
He doesn't find the slip. What he finds is the sketch that Billy did when Mr Lawrence was droning on and on about mitochondria and eukaryotes and Danny was bored out of his mind.
He finds the stupid little sketch and his thoughts and the world just grind to a hold.
He stares and stares and stares at the sketch and he doesn't realize he's screaming until his throat starts to hurt. He doesn't stop, just starts crying as well and kicks his school bag, before gripping the strap and throwing the whole thing across the room. It crashes into something, but he doesn't care to look what it is, just keeps gripping whatever he gets into his fingers, throws everything around, ranting and screaming.
He wants Billy back and he doesn't understand why he can see the old man from up the street, can see the pale boy that sometimes haunts his dreams, can see old Mrs Cooper watering her plants and the smelly man, can see all those people just crossing his way, but Billy, Billy is not here, is gone, because he is a bastard, who just went and left and he's not coming back, he's not coming, he's gone and Danny just doesn't understand why.
Danny is five and three months. His parents think he's doing better, but just to be on the safe side and on the advise of the doctor he's still doing regular appointments.
But he's not talking to people anymore who aren't there.
At least not when someone else is around.
Sometimes he can't stop his eyes from following the off-people, but he's getting better at pretending like they're not there. Mom thinks they might be able to stop the appointments soon.
Pops is a bit weary.
Danny hopes he can stop soon. The pale boy keeps telling him to stop seeing the doctor. But when he tells them about it, at the beginning of the appointments they don't listen. They talk with the doctor about it, and afterward he still has to visit him.
Danny really doesn't like him.
And he hates seeing the pale boy, with the blue eyes and the dark marks around his wrists and his ankles.
But he can't stop going there, as long as the grown-ups think he's talking to people who're not there. So he stops talking to the off-people and maybe he's going to stop seeing the doctor soon.
Danny is five years and eight months. His parents stopped taking him to the doctor a while ago. He's happy, but he's careful not to let them see him talking to anyone again.
Matt saw him, but he promised not to tell anyone, as long as Danny always told him if there was an off-person.
Danny doesn't. Sometimes he does, but not always. Because Matt always ask how they look.
And Danny can tell him about the woman with the pretty dress and the old man with the long white beard.
But he doesn't want to tell him about the sad man with the open arms. Or about the girl with the dark neck.
Doesn't want to tell him about the pale boy.
Danny is five years and nine months. He's playing outside and Stella just ran inside. She wants to fetch a shovel, so they can dig the treasure up. Matt is sleeping.
A car drives by and stops on the sidewalk. Danny looks up and smiles. It's the nice nurse that works with the not so nice doctor.
She lowers the window.
"Hey, Danny! Haven't seen you in a while!"
Danny runs over and looks through the window. "Hello Mrs Eddison!"
"Good thing I saw you, you left your book at the clinic the last time you were there."
"Oh there it was! I thought I'd lost it!"
"Yeah, I have it in the back of the car. Just pop the door and you can fetch it."
Danny nods and pulls open the door. And there it is. It's fallen into the foot space and he has to crawl in a bit to reach it.
But when his knee hits the inside of the car he is yanked all the way inside and Mrs Eddison drives off with squealing tires.
Danny screams and hits his head. The door falls shut and he tries to get up, get out, but she shoves a gun into his face, a real gun and he starts crying.
"Shut up and stay down. You move or say a word, scream for help, anything, I blow your head off, you understand me?"
Danny cries and nods and cowers down in the small space.
He doesn't know where they're driving. All he can see are the tops of trees and houses and street lanterns passing by.
He wants to go home. Stella will be back with the shovel and his mom and pops are going to be worried and he promised to play football with Matt. He really didn't want to play with him, but he had to promise, and now he really, really wants to be back home and play with Matt.
The inside of the car goes dark. Danny looks up and he thinks they're in a garage.
Mrs Eddison leaves the car and Danny turns and wants to open the door, but it's ripped open already and she grips his arm, pulls him out and after her.
He can't keep up, his feet keep dragging over the ground and he stumbles and can't catch himself and she pulls him up, dragging him over through a door, into a kitchen and through another door. There are stairs and she shoves him and he has to grip the banister.
It's dark and it stinks and his arms and legs hurt. The rope is tight around his feet and ankles.
The pale boy sits next to him on the thin mattress.
"I told you to leave."
"Not soon enough. She already liked you."
"She doesn't like me, she hurts me."
The boy shrugs, rubbing his wrists.
Danny sniffles. "What's she gonna do to me?"
The boy stares into at him.
"She'll kill you."
He's hungry. He's cold. He peed himself, twice. He doesn't cry anymore, but only because he's too tired.
The door opens and Mrs Eddison comes down.
"I wanna go home."
"Shut up, you are home."
"No, this isn't home, I want my mommy."
Danny cries again. He didn't know there were any more tears to come.
"I am your mommy."
Danny stares at her. Then he starts screaming.
"NO! Go away, go away, you are not my mommy, I want home, I wanna go home!"
His cheek stings, it hurts bad and he blinks. Why does it sting?
He touches his face and it feels kind of numb.
When he looks up at her, she has her hand raised.
"You are a bad boy and bad boys need to be punished. But mommy loves you and she wants you to be normal. You need to be punished and when you've learned your lesson, you will be nice and normal and we can go out for ice cream."
She turns and stomps up the stairs.
Danny touches his numb face and stares and stares and stares.
He is hungry. So hungry. And he wants some water. And his mommy.
The pale boy is sitting next to him again.
"There's a nail."
Danny's tired. So tired. He just wants to fall asleep and feel how his father lifts him from the car and puts him into bed, tucking him in. And then he wants to wake up and be back home again, and everything will just have been a bad dream.
"A nail. Behind the dryer."
"Go get it."
"Don't want to. I wanna sleep."
The boy sighs.
"Go get it, you doofus and use it to open the rope!"
Danny blinks. Then he jumps up, or tries to, but falls flat on his face and arms again, because his legs are still bound, and he's pretty weak. But he doesn't stop, crawls forwards, closer and closer to the dryer. He peers behind it and he can see the nail. It's big and rusty and bend and he shoves his arms into the small space. He can't keep looking at the nail or he won't be able to move his arms right, so he fumbles blindly. His hands close around it and he pulls it out, starting on the ropes with it.
"Stop. Hey. Hey, Danny, I said STOP!"
The pale boy makes a grab for his hands, but he passes right through him and a rippling sensation like icy fire shoots through his arms.
Danny's head snaps up and he looks at the boy.
"Get back and hide the nail behind the mattress. She's coming back."
He scurries back and his arms and legs hurt. He jams the nail between the mattress and the wall and curls in on himself.
The door opens and the sound of her footsteps comes closer.
"You ready to behave?"
Danny scrunches his eyes close. He wants to go home, but he can't say that or she'll get angry again.
"Still a brat, huh?"
She doesn't move, so Danny doesn't move.
"I'm talking to you, you little shit." She grabs him by his upper arm and shakes him.
Danny just closes his eyes.
It's dark when he wakes up. There's no sound from upstairs. The pale boy is sitting on the dryer.
Danny sits up and cries.
"Stop crying and cut the stupid ropes."
He gropes for the nail and starts scratching his bindings with it, again and again, but he doesn't stop crying either. He doesn't know how long it takes, but it starts to get brighter. His legs are free, his hands almost.
Upstairs a door falls shut.
"Get behind the door."
"Get behind the door, Danny!"
Danny hurries up the stairs, standing right behind the door. He hears footsteps coming closer and he wants to turn and hide somewhere, not stand here where she'll see him the moment she opens the door, any moment now, she'll see him and-
The door is pulled open and Danny sees the kitchen, sees the hallway behind that and he just runs.
He ducks the arms grabbing for him and runs, fast, so fast and he hears her behind him and he's through the hall and sees the front door. He slams against it, too fast to stop, fumbles with the door handle, can't get it open, he can't get it open, and he cries and she'll catch him.
He looks over his shoulder and sees the pale boy.
He's standing there. Face calm but his eyes pitch black. His face doesn't betray any emotion, but Danny can feel pure hatred inside. It's not his, he doesn't know how he knows how hatred feels like.
The sideboard along the hall gives a jolt and suddenly it's askew, blocking the hall and she runs into it. Danny turns and the door finally opens and he runs and he's outside.
Inside the hate rages war with grief.
Danny ignores the ghosts, the spirits, whatever they want to be called. He's angry, all the time.
If he can't see Billy, he doesn't want to see anyone else. It doesn't matter how awful or alone they look. How desperate.
He learns to look right past them, how to tune them out. Like he's the same as everyone else.
He doesn't care. Not anymore.
Danny's birthday is in three days. Almost eighteen. He used to make big plans with Billy, about what it would be like to come of age, how to celebrate, what the first thing they'd do would be.
He does none of those.
He's not angry anymore. Not about Billy. He misses him, like a part of him has gone and drowned, but it's no longer a sharp pain, just a hollow ache that he forgets most of the time.
It's been over a year and he's moved on.
But he hasn't found a friend like him again. Not that he's looked all that hard.
It's not like anyone really cares about the loudmouth, the guy who gets all in your face about every little thing, who's called to the principal's office more often than not.
Well, some do care, but those are not the ones that Danny particular cares about.
So he has people he occasionally talks to, people he occasionally does something with.
But it's been a while since he's had someone he'd call a friend.
It's not unusual to find him on a Saturday, sitting in the park on his own, watching people pass by, talk to each other, laugh or fight. He's got a beer and a pack of cigarettes in his back pack, but right now he doesn't feel like finding a hideout to drink or smoke.
Right now he's almost content.
His gaze moves over a few men in suits sitting on park benches. One throws his head back, laughing loudly, his whole body moving with it. One of the others grins at him.
An off-person, a ghost, stands a few feet away, but he barely even registers anymore.
Something moves at the edge of Danny's vision. Someone stepped up next to him and he turns around. He bites back a curse, when he realizes it's another off-person, but before he can turn away again he realizes something else.
It's a little girl.
He occasionally sees children. Not as many, but still too large a number.
He's not able to ignore them.
And this one, she reminds him of someone else. A young, pale boy, with chafed wrists and ankles and rage and grief warring inside his heart. A young, pale boy who once saved Danny's life.
He's never even learned his name.
The girl glances over, but turns away again.
"Yes, you. The girl with the pretty bow. What's your name?"
"Mandy. I'm Mandy."
Danny is still angry sometimes.
Okay, he's angry a lot.
But he decides that it's enough. He's not going to follow his anger around. He's going to use it to do better.
Danny's not a good person, but he knows that he isn't bad either. And he can use his anger and help put those really bad ones away.
It might take a while, but one day he'll be able to take revenge for all those sad and grief-stricken young eyes he's seen.
One day he'll stop people like Mandy's uncle or Mrs Eddison.
Danny is seventeen and ten months and he sits on one of the walls surrounding the park. There's a pale boy standing in front of him, with blue eyes and blond hair, with rage and grief inside his heart.
"Make her stop."