Sanctum was a word Danny liked to use, but he didn't use it around his friends, and certainly didn't use it around his mother. It was a harmless word that surely wasn't vulgar or demeaning in any way, although its meaning was particularly special to him, especially now as he walked home alone from school.
The afternoon sun glared down across the country fields, and the winter leaves of crooked trees raked past him like dead fingernails scraping along the pavement. He watched the dried leaves dance in the wind as he held his book bag by the ropy, plastic handle, thinking about his recent classes. Nobody made fun of him, nobody talked to him and nobody had upset him in anyway. All in all, it had been a very good day.
Danny's house was his sanctum. His bedroom was his sanctum. Even the shortcut he used to walk home from school was his sanctum, but anything else was just the opposite. Danny felt safe when he was alone in his "sanctums", however, he felt lost and scared when he was around a large number of people, mainly his classmates at Mindertin Elementary.
Today had been no exception. He was so scared that somebody was going to do something to him... or at least say something about him or his mother, but it seemed as is he was spared from all the hell he had to put up with for the past two years since he and his mother had moved out here.
Danny had just turned twelve and was far smaller than the other kids in his class; he felt intimidated being around them. He was in the sixth grade and for some reason it seemed as if he had already grown up while everyone else remained adolescent. His classmates were into sports, but he was into art and found himself fascinated by weird and dark things. Though,he still wanted to be like the other kids, and so he tried working out with the pull-up bars on the school playground. Danny could only do one.
Most of the other boys would tease him and when they realized that Danny was too afraid to fight, they continued to unleash their rage upon him. A few of the girls saw this and often pushed him around during class. He didn't feel safe at all at school, even with the teachers present.
Two months ago in October, he had watched three of the school bullies tackle and beat up on a small kid like himself. His name was Lester Povich, a quiet kid who always seemed to have messy hair. Well, it was in the classroom where the three bullies caught Lester as he walked up to the teacher's desk to grab a tissue for his runny nose. The students in the class, including Danny, had always found it irritating and rather gross to listen to Lester's snot pour into his hand in the middle of class. But, this time, Lester had paid a price for that one single tissue and the teacher just stood up from her desk and watched everything as if she found it amusing. Danny watched in awe as the three kids continuously laid punches, with some kicks thrown in for good measure. The teacher smiled and shook her head. It was obvious to Danny that she could care less. Did she? The rest of the kids in the classroom laughed and pointed. Danny laughed, too. He had to, or he would undoubtedly be next.
Everyone laughed and Danny felt sorry for Lester. He felt something else, too... shame. Danny's mother was dying from brain cancer. When she was first diagnosed a year ago, his grandmother and his uncle sat him down and had a long talk with him. They didn't tell him his mother was dying. Instead, they told him she had cancer and that she was going to fight through it and beat it. She wasn't. She was losing.
Danny cried a lot during his walks home. He also cried a lot when he was at school during recess. The other kids would be out there playing three-flies-up and kickball and tag, but Danny would find a hiding place behind the school and think about his mother and his life and cry. Sanctum was his favorite word. He would pretend his bedroom was some secret chamber that held dark secrets to some forbidden truth.
Forbidden perhaps because it was the truth, whatever that truth may be. It was a world he crept into from time to time. It was in his mind as well. That sanctum followed him as he walked home from school. He hated the bus. It was loud and always made him feel unwelcome. It made him depressed, as he sat there for an hour, watching kid after kid going home before he did.
The bus drove through River Rose; a small town he did not like at all. It reminded him of an old WWII factory that had rotted over the decades. Its appearance seemed useless and abandoned to him. He could always taste the dirt and rust in the air. He could see it in the sky and taste it when he drank the water from the fountains at school.
He didn't like his school. He didn't like the kids or the teachers. Sometimes, he would get in trouble with his teacher because he didn't talk enough and socialize with the other kids. For an entire week, he didn't talk to anyone at all, and nobody had bothered to greet him. Nobody had bothered to try to get to know him. It was as if he was invisible. Even dead.
Danny built his sanctum when his father died. He was four at the time and always had wonderful memories of his dad, no matter how short those memories had been. When Danny had started to ask questions, he was told that his father was driving home from work one night and was killed in a head on collision by a drunk driver. He died instantly. For months, Danny waited for his father to come home. Even five years later, he expected his father to walk through the front door and declare to everyone, "I'm home! That sure was a long trip!"
Now this. Some nights he could hear his mother cry. Danny would come in through the front door and smell the sickness from her room. It was the smell that dying people had. It was the smell of medicine, suffering and affliction. Danny would always run past that smell as fast as he could and flee upstairs to his bedroom and hide. To hide away in his sanctum.
He slept underneath his bed at night with a single blanket wrapped around him and a pillow. The voices in his head would talk to him. Always during that time when he was not quite asleep just yet, but getting there, the voices would start out as a whisper and slowly grow louder and louder. Sometimes they would wake him up and it would take him another ten or fifteen minutes to fall back asleep.
Some voices would call out his name- "Danny... Danny." Others would just talk to him, mumbling or gabbing about something he couldn't quite understand. Danny often referred to them as ghosts, but never out loud. He was both quite comfortable and disturbed with these "ghosts", but he kept them inside. They were only for his world.
However, one night the ghosts did speak clearly to him. They spoke of a spider. A plump, white spider on a black wall. All of the walls in his house were black, but the spider was white and it sat there on his bedroom wall like a beacon in a darkened night. He was dreaming and a man in a dark robe stood next to him. Danny had never met the man before and he felt strange around him, as if he truly wasn't real.
The man pointed to the spider and the spider gave a slight twitch then stood still, poised in awareness. The man then took Danny's hand in his and led him out of his bedroom, into the hallway and down the stairs. As they reached his mother's bedroom, the man opened the two master bedroom doors and there, Danny found himself inside a vast cathedral. The man was gone. Before him was a pew to kneel upon. Out of instinct, he did so but he didn't lower his head. Instead, he looked straight ahead at the coffin in front of him. It was closed. Around him candles, thirteen of them flickered in the faint breeze. Each stood tall on candelabras, encircling him and the casket.
Danny lowered his head and there he saw the spider. It was white and hairy, and it was crawling on the pew. It spoke to him with a growling voice- a voice that he could practically touch with his fingertips. "They told me I was dead, but they lied."
Danny woke up instantly and sunk deeper under the bed, into the corner of the wall. It was still night and the walls were black. All he could see was black, but he was in his sanctum. There were times when he felt as if he were dead and was alive again. Alive and still dead, and still alive. When was the last time he smiled? When was the last time he laughed? He laughed at Lester when he was beaten up during class. But that wasn't the same, was it? He couldn't laugh. He couldn't laugh. Even as he walked home from school, he couldn't laugh because he knew that there would be a time when he would never see his mother again, just like he wouldn't ever see his father again. Would his mother visit him? Would she talk to him? He didn't know if he wanted to know. Would she stand with him when he hid in his room from the fear he possessed of everything and everybody?
Perhaps. Then perhaps not. She would be dead and hopefully at final rest, but he would still speak to her though, knowing that she was listening. The very thought of doing so made his heart sink into his stomach. Here he was, thinking of his mother as dead before she had even died. He cried... and in his sanctum, the thirteen candles cried with him.
Copyright © 2003 by Brian Grisham