An Excerpt from Daniel’s Story: Lungs Prefer Air

As soon as we were allowed to work, I turned to Mu.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

She just shook her head. Her eyes were definitely red from crying. I knew Mu and she would never cry in front of other people. She must have stopped at the girl’s bathroom before coming to class.

“Why were you at the principal’s office? I could see if it were me, but you never do anything wrong.”

Mu looked out of the window.

“Come on,” I said. “You know you can tell me anything.”

Mu turned her head a little said, “You know how I have this thing about wearing shorts?”

My heart sank. Of all the things that were hard to talk about, this was at the top of the list. When Mu was seven years old, her mother started seeing this guy named Randy Shoemaker. He was out of work and Mu’s mom thought he could move in and help take care of the house.

Mu’s dad was killed in a car crash five years before this had happened. She was only two at the time and she didn’t even remember him. Other than a couple of pictures from birthdays and holidays, she had nothing to hold on to. Her mother felt bad that she hadn’t taken more pictures of Mu and James. She always figured there would be time.  But there wasn’t. A twist of fate had left Mu and her mom alone to deal with life and all of the chores that involved. Unfortunately her mom had all but given up on the things her father used to take care of like the lawn. I know that’s not a big deal in the scheme of things but every kid needs grass to run around on with a swing set and a sand box. It screams to the world that you have a place that’s your own. The back yard is like that for kids, but Mu didn’t have that. Instead she had weeds and dirt.

That was just the beginning of what her mom was forced to neglect while she struggled to raise a daughter, pay the bills, cook all of the meals since they never had enough money to go out to eat, and keep the house clean. There was a lot on her mom list without ever having the time to do all of the things on the dad list.

There was so much work that had to be done inside and outside her house and Mu’s mother had come to her and told her that Randy would be moving in to help them out. She said it would be a really good thing for them. He needed to keep busy while he was looking for a job and he seemed like he wanted to be part of the family.

Randy ended up moving in with them about a week after Mu’s mom had talked with her. She seemed to want Mu to have a chance to get used to the idea. And she had. Mu was excited about Randy moving in.  I remember that day because it was a Friday when he finally moved in and Mu hadn’t stopped talking all week about how she was going to have a new daddy by the weekend.

But she never got that happy weekend she was looking forward to. As soon as Randy moved in and unpacked his one shoebox of personal items and one suitcase of clothes, Mu and her mother knew it was a mistake. Things were bad from the beginning.

That was right at the time that we became friends. I didn’t know how much she was going to need a friend when we were paired up as line buddies. Somehow, getting dragged into an emu’s pen would be nothing compared to what she would go through at home.

Mu started telling me that Randy was hitting her mom. She said he would get mad when Mu’s mom would make noise getting her ready for school. He would come out of the bedroom screaming that he was tired and needed to sleep, followed by Mu’s mom explaining that she was just getting Mu off to school, and then ‘Bam!’ He would hit her and scream ‘Don’t you ever raise your voice to me.’ At dinner time, if he didn’t like what her mom had cooked, he would keep insulting her until she fought back and then ‘wham’ he would smack her in the face.

Mu didn’t want to be there. It was like her home has dissolved into this Tim Burton nightmare. I kept inviting her to my house and my mom would talk to her mom and get permission for her to stay for dinner. My mom made up stories about me not having friends and how kind her daughter was to me. Mu’s mom was either the most gullible woman in the world, or realized that my mom was trying to protect her daughter because she accepted the help.

After a while, her mom wasn’t the only one being hurt.  When she realized the rules of the game and stopped fighting back when Randy yelled, he took the game to little Mu.

Mu couldn’t control herself. She would yell back at him, “My mommy’s not stupid” or “My mommy is a good cook.” The fighting could be about anything. The guy just got off on anger. That allowed his release and the release was his fist into someone’s face or back or thigh muscle. Yeah, Mu said that hurt like heck too.

Mu and I were only seven years old. She would tell me stories sitting in my room after dinner. She would whisper things to me, almost afraid that Randy would come out of the closet and get her. I was so afraid and didn’t know what to do. She made me pinky swear I wouldn’t tell anyone and somehow I kept that promise. I wish I never did. I just wanted to be her friend and friends were supposed to keep secrets.

After the abuse went on for awhile, someone at school must have noticed because her mom got a call from the school nurse expressing concern for a bruise on Mu’s face. Randy realized he had to find another way to hurt her if he didn’t want to get DYFS involved. That’s when he started smoking cigars.

Mu lived in fear. Most of her friends talked about being afraid of the dark because either the boogeyman was going to get them or a scary clown would come to life when they opened their closets. Neither of these things had a chance to scare Mu. She didn’t wake up in the middle of the night from nightmares either. Nothing in her dreams could come close to what was happening in real life.

As hard as it was to believe, that phone call home from the nurse’s office made things worse for Mu. A punch hurt, especially when he hit her in the face. His fist was like a brick and when it made contact, the sound in her head was a loud crack that shook through every bone from her jaw to her cheeks to her skull. After the impact, she would have a dizzy, nauseous reaction that Randy seemed to enjoy. He would allow her to go back to her room and hide under the wishful safety of her blankets as she curled up in a ball and cried.

But when the hitting stopped, the rules of the game changed. When he got mad, his eyes would narrow as he took a long drag of his cigar. He would hold her in his stare and she was powerless to run, unable to move, frozen in terror. While she watched the evil eclipse over his face, she could do nothing as his hand took the burning cigar from his mouth and plunged it into her flesh. She heard the sound as it sizzled in unison with her skin. He heard it too. Only when it was fully extinguished did he remove the cigar and allow her to fall back out of his gaze. But there was no escaping to her bedroom for Mu now. Her blankets and her pillows and her door held no safety from the relentless burning of her skin. Anyone who has had a burn understands this. The initial pain doesn’t wear off. It just grows and builds and breaks you down. Hours would pass and she would remain unable to do anything because of the pain he inflicted.

Sitting in English class looking at Mu I saw the tortured face of a child that had lived through hell. The thought of what that man did to her still made my skin crawl. I will never understand how anybody could hurt a kid like that. Nobody should be able to.

When Randy started burning Mu, she stopped talking to me about the abuse. Somehow I thought things had gotten better. But they had spiraled so out of control that even she couldn’t speak about it. Mu just closed herself off to the pain she lived through. Much later on she told me that Randy had threatened to kill her mom if she told anyone about her burn marks and she believed him. To Mu he was a real life monster. He was strong and scary and no one was able to protect her from him. Not even her mother.

It was during the winter that this went on, a long cold winter that allowed her to bundle up a lot. Then the spring came and kids started wearing capris and shorts to school. Most kids, but not Mu.

I asked my mom to take her shopping. I figured she didn’t have any clothes to wear in the warm weather. The next time Mu was at my house, my mom invited her to go shopping with us for summer clothes. Mu refused to go and started crying. She ran out of our house and the next day she didn’t come to school. When I came home I told my mom and she went right over to their house. Thankfully Randy wasn’t home that day. It was just Mu, her mom and my mom. That’s when it all came out.

My mom knew there was only one reason for a kid to hide her body and that was abuse. She forced Mu’s mom into making her undress down to her underwear. I don’t think my mom ever got over what she saw. Mu’s poor little body was scarred all over her legs and across her back. There were old scars the size of quarters where the skin was marbled in texture and there were new burns that were fresh enough not to have fully scabbed yet.

It was tough for my mom to put Mu through that but it had to be done. She had to make Mu’s mom face what was happening so she would have no choice but to leave Randy and get her daughter to safety.

They came to live with us for a while, but there had been one condition. Her mom had to press charges. Otherwise my mom told her she would press charges against her for child endangerment and then the state could get custody of Mu. I wasn’t told about this at the time. I don’t think Mu knew the whole story either.

Well, either my mom was the greatest poker player ever or just the best mom, because it worked. Mu’s mom had tried to make excuses that she knew what was going on, but she didn’t know how bad it had gotten. Then she admitted that she was scared to go to the police because she thought she would be arrested and Mu would have no one to take care of her. And if Randy got off, she knew he would go after her to punish her for ruining his life.

Well, nothing like that happened. They moved in with us, the case went to court, and Randy was sentenced to twenty eight years for assault, endangering the welfare of a child, child neglect, child abuse, and a couple of weapons charges for having unregistered guns.

When it was all over, my mom helped them find a place to live in my neighborhood. There was a mother-daughter house, which I found out meant it was a regular house with an apartment attached that had everything a family needed, but smaller. Mu’s mom rented the apartment and they have lived there ever since.

Sitting in the classroom with our minds miles away, I slid my chair closer to Mu’s. “Tell me. What is going on? Did something happen to Randy in jail?”

Mu shook her head. “No, it’s nothing like that.

“What is it then?” Daniel asked.

“You know how we have health this marking period? Well, next marking period we have gym and Mr. Lambert spoke to me about it. I never had to worry about gym in elementary school. We could wear whatever we wanted to because nobody changed for gym. But when I came into middle school I was told I had to wear shorts. My mom got a doctor’s note that said I couldn’t participate in gym. I don’t remember what the reason was, but I was medically excused.”

“So what’s the big deal? You don’t take gym.”

“I got called into the principal’s office today because he wanted to tell me that I would not be excused from gym this year. He said that it is a state law that all kids must take gym and in order to be medically excused, I would have to see the school physician. Daniel, you know they won’t let me off the hook because of my scars. “

“Mu, your mom can fix this. Just call her and you know she’ll be here in a minute. Especially when it comes to this.”

“Daniel, my mom already met with Mr. Lambert and discussed my need to wear pants. She told him about the scars across my legs and how I couldn’t be expected to change in front of the other kids and wear shorts. He told her there was a school uniform for gym and I had to adhere to it. She asked what would happen if I didn’t, and he said I would fail gym and have to go to summer school.”

Mu’s shoulders began to shake and I heard the muffled sounds of her trying to hold back tears. She was a tough kid after all she went through, but this was ridiculous.

Mu caught her breath and asked, “How am I going to be able to wear shorts in front of everybody? They will all find out what happened to me. I can’t go through it again Daniel. I just can’t.”

As the words left her mouth, Mu really started to cry. I asked Miss Rimsky if I could take her for a walk to get a drink of water. She quickly nodded her head when she saw Mu’s face.

I led her into the hallway and shut the door behind us. As soon as I turned to take a step forward, Mu grabbed onto me. She rested her head on my bony chest and cried. I wasn’t sure what to do so I put my arms around her and held her close.  She seemed so frail in my arms and I felt powerless to help her. I just held on to her, feeling the weight of the world on her shoulders.

I heard her take a deep breath and I whispered, “Mu, I want you to know something. I think you are incredible.”

“No, I’m not Daniel. Anyone that looks at me is going to know what I went through and what are they going to think of me?”

“Mu, they are going to think so much more of you because of what you went through, not less. You survived a nightmare and walked away with the scars to prove it.”

“Daniel, you can’t be serious.”

“Don’t you see Mu? Most kids go around bragging about being tough with nothing to back it up. They practically cry when they stub their toes. Meanwhile, you really had to handle stuff in your life and you keep it together.”

“You call this keeping it together Daniel? Look at me. I can’t stop crying.”

“Mu, crying shows you have feelings, it doesn’t mean you’re weak. You work so hard keeping it all in and most of the time your silence masks just how tough you really are. When you cry, well it breaks my heart because I remember how much you had to go through.”

Trying to act bigger than I felt, I pulled her close again and gently rocked her back and forth. She felt like a weightless doll in my arms.

Several minutes passed and Mu’s sobs slowed until they became deep breaths. Eventually, she cleared her throat and made a move to stand on her own. We held hands standing a foot apart from each other. I was looking at Mu and she remained focused on the floor. I swear for all the staring at our feet we did, you would think there was something really special to look at.

“Come on,” I said. “I owe you a drink of water.”

Mu managed a smile and we walked down the hallway hand in hand.

“There has to be someway around this. I mean, just because Mr. Lambert is the principal doesn’t mean he can do whatever he wants. There has to be a way to beat him.”

Mu didn’t say anything so I just let it go for now. Sometimes friends just know when you need a break. Mu needed that break now. We got to the water fountain and I did the only thing I could think of – I took a sip of water and spit it in the air like a fountain at her. Not bad, but enough to get a rise out of her when she realized her shirt was wet.

“You’re dead Daniel.” She got a handful of water and dumped it on top of my head. Just as I went back for more, the hall monitor came around the corner. We took off laughing and made it back to class before we could be sent to the principal.

When we got back to our seats, Mu looked at me and smiled. “Thanks Daniel. You really are my best friend.”

I didn’t have a chance to say anything that could ruin the moment. The bell rang signaling that it was time to go to elective, my favorite part of the day. We got up and walked into the distracting chaos of the hallway. I think we both needed it.

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