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Alone, He Learns

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"Really?"

It's become Daniel's over-used response.

He wants it not to be, but it's a long-established habit.


. . .


Daniel has a pet, but it's not a real one. His stuffed animal wears glasses, just like he does, and his mom gives it to him on his sixth birthday with a well-intentioned but strangely made rhyme.

"Owls wear glasses, neon and molasses.
Owls are wise, tomatoes and surprise.
Owls own laughter, kisses and some after.
Owls love you, with daddy and mommie too."

He always remembers the poem long after the animal is gone. It's the only thing he still remembers from his mom.

When a woman in a navy blue suit tells him that his parents are dead, it's not a shock because Daniel's been standing in the museum for several hours, squeezing that owl to death, drowning it in tears.

He turns to the woman he doesn't know, doesn't want to know, and says with all the sarcastic color an eight-year-old orphan can muster, "Really?"

He hides the feelings she expects to see, and resents her for seeing him cry. It's pivotal, the moment he begins to hide. All the emotional 'stuff' he owns, he carefully packs away, placing it deep inside his stuffed owl.

Daniel believes this with all his heart, and he has to. He keeps his emotions there for safe-keeping and plans to use them only when he thinks mom and dad will approve. The owl becomes his anchor.

He nears his ninth birthday and it's tolerable for him when he realizes that it's his first without mom and dad. He thinks he will be okay as long as Molasses, after the poem, keeps his feelings safe.

His first foster mom, Greta, takes away his owl and tells him it's for the owl's safety and that he must learn to do without. While he has already learned to do without, something he does not bother to tell her, he decides that patience is something he should have because his mom loved it so much. So he quietly waits day after day for Greta to give back Molasses.

The day comes when she tells him that it's been stolen and that she is very, very sorry. She asks, "Are you okay, Danny?"

"I'm fine," he tells her.

Daniel is only nine and a half.


. . .


No matter how much he wants to, Daniel's never learned to share his passions. He wants to be funny but he can't be because he simply isn't one of those guys. He wants to be witty but that's pretty much Steven's forte. He even tries to be charming, but it only ever works with Sarah, and then not when he needs it to work the most. Daniel goes for it nonetheless, and meets an empty apartment. All the smiles and attention he hastily made for her are too late, and are as cold and dead and misunderstood as an ancient Mayan sacrifice.


. . .


Daniel's apartment has become a long-abandoned battlefield of the lonely heart. Sarah's left, but bits of her remain. Steven's visits, welcome but brief, leave the faint odor of regret. He shows up when need and want fuse together like some unnamed mating ritual that only instinct can take care of.

"You're not serious about leaving, are you, Daniel?"

He asks this when the come has dried. He never asks when it's wet, in case there should be more.

"You know I am," Daniel tells him, and rinses the washcloth. It's always set over the sink.

"You won't like it there," Steven tells him, and has been telling him for two weeks. Just like he's been asking for two weeks.

"Really, Steven? Why's that?"

The washcloth is taken down and used again, but on the day Daniel leaves for New York, it's gone, just like Steven.


. . .


Really. A word of enthusiasm becomes a word for sarcasm. It rarely conveys what it means. Or rather, he doesn't care. Daniel's sufficiently satisfied that people hear the sarcasm.

Daniel's also amazed at how little time alters peoples' behaviors, how his own is still frustratingly limited.

"Really?"

Really.

There's a carousel downtown that he wants to visit but doesn't. He and Catherine went there once, a long time ago, between coffee breaks and headaches over glyph patterns.

These days, Daniel's headaches resemble glyph patterns.


. . .


Daniel looks through the window of his newest home and thinks, perhaps inappropriately, of death.

They are memories he visits time and again, sometimes adding to them. He thinks of his parents and he thinks of Shau're. He thinks of his own, the real one. He's never thought his life would be as important as it has become; he's only ever thought of making a difference.

He thinks of his death, and of the changes it brought and didn't bring. He thinks that the differences he might have made were there for him while he was alive, and alive again, he wonders if he can still make those differences, somewhere, somehow.

He thinks how it has been thirty-one years and he still misses his owl, the one with the silly name and the silly poem that he wishes he could share but never will. It's his.

Daniel catches a shadow from the corner of his eye and doesn't turn to meet it. Arms wrap around him from behind and thoughts of death turn to life. He's surprised every time this happens. Every time. Warm lips greet his ear and he's comforted, soothed by the presence. A peace tries to settle within him, but desire pushes it aside to make room for shallow, rapid breathing.

There's the call of love which he always refers to later as lust. Instinct and experience carry him through to the end, but Daniel is always caught off guard by the happiness he feels when he comes.

Later, in that peaceful state, Daniel tries to say the words but he can't.

"It's love, I think," Jack tells him. He's a mirror image, a set of feelings that Daniel thinks have their own owl.

"Really?" he asks, and there's curiosity, like there was with Shau're.

"I think so," Jack replies.

Daniel considers the words, all of them, and hears an owl outside the cabin.

"Okay," he mumbles as he drifts off, thinking that maybe it's time to put death away. Or at least, to stop inviting him in.

~

end