When Sam got to school the next morning, it didn't take long for her to hear the buzz about Daniel, how Mister Greer had stood in front of the whole class and told them how smart Daniel was and that he was being given fourth and fifth grade work.
While Sam was putting her stuff in her locker, she saw Louise. Closing the door of her locker, Sam walked by the girl.
"So, he's not as dumb as you thought he was, is he," she said with a smirk on her face. She didn't stay to see the girl's reaction.
When Sam saw Daniel, he looked very much like he wanted to hide. Even more kids were staring at him than before. She came up to him.
"Come on. I know someplace we can go."
She took his hand and led him to the cafeteria, which was virtually empty in the mornings.
"I heard all about what Mister Greer did," Sam said. "I bet that was really embarrassing."
Daniel nodded his head pretty emphatically.
"Well, at least nobody can think that you're dumb now. That's good."
The ringing of the bell prevented any more discussion.
"It's raining again today, but I know a place where we can have our lunch and be all by ourselves," Sam said. "Are you interested?"
Very curious, Daniel nodded.
"Okay, meet me at the lockers at lunchtime."
Among the special work Daniel was given that morning was a fifth grade book on the history of America. Daniel wasn't as interested in American history as he was in ancient cultures, but then he saw that the book began in pre-Columbian times, and his interest heightened. He had been instructed to read the first two chapters, which focused on the major pre-Columbian cultures, from the cliff dwellers and pueblo people of the Southwest deserts to the American Indians of the Pacific Northwest. It had interesting information on their customs, folklore, traditions, economies, systems of government and other things that he hadn't known. He consumed the chapters voraciously and would have happily continued reading, if given the time.
The morning passed quickly, so quickly in fact, that Daniel was quite startled by the ringing of the bell for the lunch break. He was tempted to ask if he could stay in class and read more of the history book, but then he remembered that Sam was going to take him to a secret place to eat lunch.
Daniel went to his locker and got his lunch box. Then he looked around for Sam. He saw her after a moment and joined her.
"Hi," she greeted with a smile. "You ready?"
Daniel gave her a nod.
"You'll need your coat."
After getting his coat, Sam took him outside. They ran through the rain to the covered bench for the baseball teams.
"This is called a dugout," Sam explained, "although this one isn't really dug out of anything. It's where the players who are waiting for their turn sit. They haven't been making you play any sports at P.E. yet, have they?"
Daniel shook his head.
"They'll probably start doing that soon. I don't much like P.E. I'm not really interested in sports very much. I usually play volleyball or handball. I hope they don't make you play on the baseball team."
Daniel had no interest in sports at all and would really rather skip P.E. all together.
As they ate, Daniel kept glancing at Sam. He liked this, just the two of them eating together with no other kids around. Even though they were under cover, it was still damp and chilly, and he knew that it would be more comfortable inside, but Sam had known that he'd prefer the privacy and had done this just for him.
At that moment, Daniel realized that Sam was his best friend, the best friend he'd ever had. He'd had other friends, the children of diggers on archeological sites, kids in the private schools he had briefly attended here and there, but none of them had done the things for him that Sam had. None of them made him feel as good as she did. He was still afraid to care about anyone, but he didn't want to stop feeling this way. He wanted to be Sam's friend.
Sam was chewing on a bite of her apple when she realized that Daniel was staring at her very intently. She swallowed the piece.
"Why are you staring at me?" she asked.
For the longest time, Daniel just kept looking at her, then, in a very quiet voice, he said, "You're my best friend."
Sam gasped, gaping at him. "You spoke." Then she was grinning. "You spoke!" In the next moment, she was hugging him and bouncing up and down on the bench at the same time, the apple forgotten and now on the ground.
At last, Sam let him go. That's when she realized what the words were that Daniel had spoken.
"You're my best friend, too," she said. She got a shy smile from the boy, and she hugged him again. This time, he returned it.
Daniel was not immediately transformed into a chatterbox. He spoke softly, shyly, using few words, but just the fact that he was talking, that they were having a real conversation, made Sam so happy she was just about bursting.
Lunch ended far too soon, both of them hating to part. Sam invited Daniel to come over to her house on Saturday, and he said he'd ask the Underwoods if it would be okay.
The bus ride home seemed to take all eternity for Sam. She was so eager to tell her parents the news. At last, it reached the base. Sam ran almost all the way to her house. She came bursting through the door.
Laura came out of the kitchen and saw the state of her daughter, who was bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet, her eyes bright and shining.
"What's got you so excited?"
"He's in the garage, I think."
Sam went to the garage through the door in the house.
"Hey, Sammie. How was s—" His question was interrupted by Sam, who grabbed his hand and started pulling him toward the door. "Whoa! What's going on?"
"Come on! I've got to tell you and Mom something."
Jacob stared at his daughter, seeing the excitement. "Okay. Just hold your horses."
The man put down the wrench he'd been using. Sam led him into the house and to the living room, where Laura was waiting.
"Okay, what's this about?" he asked.
"He spoke!" Sam exclaimed. "Daniel spoke!"
Twin smiles adorned the faces of her parents.
"He did?" Jacob said. "That's wonderful, Sam."
Sam nodded vigorously. "He told me that I'm his best friend."
Jacob and Laura shared a long look, realizing that it had been the friendship he felt for their daughter that broke Daniel from his self-imposed silence.
Sam was still talking a mile a minute. "We talked at lunch, a real conversation. Daniel didn't say a lot, but he was talking, and it was so great."
Her parents chuckled over her excitement and glee.
"Can Daniel come over Saturday? I invited him, and he said he'd ask the Underwoods."
"I don't see why not," Laura replied. "It will be nice to have him over. In fact, if the Underwoods don't object, perhaps Daniel can spend the night."
"A sleepover?! Oh, that would be so great! Mom, could we bake a cake? Daniel likes chocolate."
"Certainly. I think a nice chocolate cake would be just the thing for celebrating this."
"It's too bad Daniel's birthday is already over. Then we could have a party for him."
Jacob laughed. "So, how did a simple invitation to spend the day develop into talk of a party?"
"It's just really great that Daniel's talking again, and we should celebrate," Sam replied.
"Well, how about if we limit the celebration to the cake, okay?"
Mrs. Underwood was busy with the other kids when Daniel got home, so she didn't talk to him. He went straight to his room to work on his story. During dinner, he didn't say a word, afraid and nervous to speak for the first time to these people who'd been taking care of him.
As he had for the last several days, Daniel helped Mrs. Underwood clear the table.
"Thank you, Daniel," she said afterwards as she lifted her cup of tea to her lips.
Daniel hesitated for a long moment, then said, "You're welcome."
The woman was so startled by the reply that she dropped her tea, which fell with a loud clatter into the sink, the cup breaking. The woman paid little attention to it.
"Oh my word!" she exclaimed. "Daniel, you spoke! When did you start speaking again?"
"Today," he replied shyly.
"Oh, honey, that's wonderful!" She gave him a little hug. She took him out to the living room, where Mister Underwood was reading the paper. "Paul, Daniel's talking again."
The man looked up from his paper. "That's good to hear. I'm glad you finally snapped out of it, boy. You see, Diane? I told you that he'd be fine in time." He then went back to his reading.
Diane took the child back into the kitchen and gave him one of the brownies she'd baked.
"May I go over to Sam's on Saturday?" he asked. "She invited me."
"As long as it's okay with her parents, that would be fine. Where do they live?"
"On the Air Force base."
"Ah. Yes, of course." She smiled and ran a hand through his hair. "It's so nice to hear you talking, Daniel. I'm so very pleased."
Daniel went back to his room a few minutes later, looking forward to the rest of the week.
The next morning, Daniel maintained his usual silence in class, feeling far too shy and nervous to speak. He had not said anything in class the previous afternoon for the same reason. Talking in the presence of one person was okay, but doing so in front of a whole bunch of people was a different story. Daniel knew that, sooner or later, he'd have to start talking in school, too. Maybe he'd wait until he could talk to Mister Greer in private, then the teacher could kind of ease him into talking during class, like have him read a paragraph. It wouldn't be so bad talking that way.
About half an hour before lunch, something happened to change Daniel's plan. Mister Greer asked a question to which, apparently, nobody else in the class knew the answer. Daniel knew the answer. He also knew that, because he was the only one who did, he should raise his hand. But if he raised his hand, he'd have to talk in front of everyone, and it would be way worse than just reading a paragraph.
Mister Greer was just about to tell the answer when a lone hand was very slowly and shyly raised. The man blinked in surprise when he realized who the owner of that hand was.
"Daniel? Did you want to answer the question?"
In a little voice that the teacher could barely hear, the formerly silent child gave the answer to the question. Every other kid in the room was now staring at him in shock, but Quentin Greer paid no attention to that. He was too busy grinning on the outside and cheering on the inside. It was moments like this, seeing a child overcome a tremendous hurdle, that made being a teacher worthwhile.
"You are exactly right, Daniel," he said. "Good job."
The boy ducked his head, not looking at any of the other kids, who were still staring at him.
It was no surprise to Daniel that, after the bell rang, the teacher asked him to stay behind. After the last student was gone, Mister Greer came up and sat on the corner of a nearby desk.
"Daniel, I can't tell you how happy I am that you're talking again. When did this happen?"
"Yesterday," Daniel replied. He wasn't going to say that it happened at the lunch break. He didn't want Mister Greer to be disappointed that he didn't speak in class yesterday.
The man smiled warmly. "I am very proud of you. I know that it couldn't have been easy, and I'm certain that volunteering to answer that question must have been very hard indeed. That took courage. I won't expect you to answer a lot of questions in class, not right away. We'll take it easy in the beginning. All right?"
Daniel felt a wave of relief wash through him. He knew that Mister Greer would understand.
"Okay," he said.
The teacher smiled and patted his shoulder. "Now, go on and eat your lunch."
Sam had heard the news about Daniel answering a question in class long before she saw him enter the cafeteria. She waved to him, and he came over.
"You answered a question," she said. "That's neat."
"Nobody else knew the answer."
"Everybody's talking about it. They act like it was a miracle or something. You just decided it was time to talk, that's all."
Daniel was grateful that Sam wasn't going to keep making a big deal out of it. It made things easier. Now, if the other kids would only do the same thing and no longer treat him differently, it would be great.
Apparently, he wasn't going to get his wish anytime soon. Three boys came over with their food trays and sat down at Sam and Daniel's table.
"So, we hear that you can talk now," a ten-year-old boy with red hair said.
"Why didn't you talk before?" asked a blond boy of the same age.
"That's none of your business," Sam replied.
"Ah, come on," said the third boy, who had brown hair. "He can tell us. We'll keep the secret. Right, guys?"
The other two boys nodded.
Though Sam was also curious about why Daniel hadn't talked, she didn't like these boys and the way they were pushing her friend. She was about to tell them to go away, when Daniel spoke.
"No," he said, clearly and distinctly.
The other kids looked at him. Though he was obviously nervous and shy, his head was up, his gaze not cast downward.
"No?" the redhead repeated.
"No. I don't want to tell you."
"Why not?" asked the brown-haired boy.
"I just don't want to."
Acting like he didn't care, the redheaded kid said, "Ah, let him keep his secrets." He turned back to Daniel. "So, Mister Greer told everyone that you can speak six languages. I bet that's not true. I told my dad, and he said that there's no way an eight-year-old could speak that many languages."
"It is true," Daniel stated. "My mom taught me a lot of them. She was a linguist."
"What's that?" the blond boy asked.
"Someone who studies languages. She knew nine languages. My dad knew three."
"I still think you're lying," said the redhead.
"What if he could prove it?" Sam asked. "What if he said 'I'm telling the truth' in all six languages?" She turned to Daniel. "Could you do that?"
Daniel would really rather not, but if it would make the boys leave him alone, then he would. He nodded.
The redheaded boy frowned. "Okay, then do it."
Daniel proceeded to say, "I am telling the truth," in all six of the languages in which he was fluent, including English. To top it off, he said it in Italian as well, a language he'd been learning when his parents died.
The three boys stared at him.
"Were those all real languages?" the light-haired boy asked.
"Yes," Daniel replied.
"That was seven, not six," the child with brown hair pointed out.
"I included Italian, which I've been learning."
"So, is that proof enough?" Sam asked, her chin raised.
"He could have been saying anything," said the redhead. "I bet some of those weren't even real, just made up."
Sam glared at him. "If you don't want to believe him, then just go away. Daniel gave all the proof he needs to, and we don't care if you don't believe."
After a moment, the redhead left, taking his tray with him. He was followed by the boy with brown hair. The blond boy hung back.
"I believe you," he said before walking away.
"Some kids can be real jerks," Sam said. "Ignore them. They just don't want to believe that you're a genius."
Daniel's head ducked. "I'm not a genius. I'm just good with languages. My mom said it was a gift."
"You're doing fourth and fifth grade work. I think you're a genius."
Daniel bit into his sandwich. He really didn't think he was a genius, but he didn't mind Sam believing he was.
Daniel managed not to get into any other conversations with kids at school that day, though it wasn't easy. Couldn't they just leave him alone? It wouldn't be so bad if he thought that some of them really wanted to be his friend, but it was just curiosity. Hopefully, they'd soon lose interest in him.
That evening, Daniel put the finishing touches on his story. He wrote a nice clean copy of it with no erased words and put it in one of the sheet protectors Mrs. Underwood bought for him. He was both nervous and excited to give it to Mister Greer, nervous because he wasn't sure it was good enough, excited because he hoped it pleased the teacher. He'd managed to use every one of the words on his personal word list and all but two of the ones on the word list given to the rest of the class. It hadn't been easy, but Daniel had enjoyed the challenge. He really did hope that Mister Greer liked it.
It was a little after nine when Jacob answered the ringing of the phone.
"Hello, Captain Carter? This is Mrs. Underwood."
"Yes, Mrs. Underwood. What can I do for you?"
"I got a call from Child Welfare today. Daniel's been assigned a new caseworker."
That surprised Jacob. "He has?"
"Yes. Her name is Lucy Merrick. She wants to come see Daniel and talk to us next week. She knows about your involvement in the case and that you're the one who found out all those things about him. I was wondering if it would be possible for you to be here. She might have questions for you."
"That all depends on what time. My leave ends on Monday, so I'll be working."
"She said that we could schedule it for the evening since Paul doesn't get home till six most days. I was thinking eight o'clock. The other kids will be in bed, but Daniel will still be up. I let him stay up till nine."
"Eight would be fine. What day?"
"That works. We'll see you then."
The other kids didn't seem to be quite as interested in Daniel when he got to school the next morning as they had been yesterday, which was a relief to him. What surprised him was that some of the students actually said hello to him. Nothing more, just a simple hello spoken in passing. A couple even smiled.
Daniel was putting away his things in his locker when the boy who had the locker next to his arrived and opened his own locker. He was in Daniel's class.
"Did you get your story done?" he asked shyly. "You probably did because you're so smart and are good with words."
Daniel looked at the boy, whose mop of black hair was partially obscuring his face. He was small for his age and quite thin.
"Yes, it's done. Is yours done?"
The boy sighed. "Yeah, but it's not very good. I don't read or spell very well. I know Mister Greer won't like it. I'll probably get a D."
Daniel felt a twinge of sympathy for the boy. "Did you try your best?"
The boy nodded.
"Then that's what matters."
The boy looked up at him with big brown eyes. "Really?"
"Uh huh. Even if you're not good at something, if you try your very best to do it, then that's what counts."
"But my dad always says that winning counts, that losers don't get anywhere."
"You're not a loser if you always try your best. Losers are people who quit. That's what my dad always said. He said that, as long as you keep trying and never give up, it's okay if you don't always win."
The boy smiled. "Thanks. That makes me feel a lot better." He met Daniel's eyes. "You're nice. I'm glad you can talk now."
The comment surprised Daniel and made him feel good. The boy had walked away, so he didn't get the chance to say thank you.
Throughout the morning, Daniel could barely contain himself. He was both dreading and looking forward to what would come after the lunch break, when Mister Greer would give back the graded stories and read aloud the ones he thought were the best. Would Daniel's story be among the ones the teacher would read? He wasn't sure if he'd want that. It would be kind of embarrassing. But it would be nice if his was among the stories Mister Greer thought were good enough to read to the class.
At last the break for lunch came, and the kids all headed out into the halls. Quentin Greer watched them go. Once the classroom was clear, he got his lunch out of his desk drawer. Today, he'd be eating while working, something he did often.
He got started on the pile of stories written by his students. Some made him shake his head and sigh, others made him laugh at the imagination of the author. Several were surprisingly good. On average, the kids managed to use around two-thirds of the words from the word list, which was better than he'd expected. It was obvious that some of the kids really didn't even try. He graded them accordingly. Others clearly did try to do a good job, but were lacking in skill. He gave them better grades to reward them for their effort. He noticed that, yet again, Kenny Robinson had misspelled quite a few words. The pattern of the errors made Quentin suspect that the boy was dyslexic.
The one story that Quentin was most interested in he forced himself to leave till last. He had a feeling that it would be something special, and he didn't want it unfairly influencing his view of the other stories.
Finally, he was down to that last story, Daniel's. As he read it, he forgot all about his lunch, caught up in the tale spun by the mind of the brilliant little boy whose life had been shattered by tragedy. It was beautiful. It told the story of a boy in Egypt who was separated from his parents by bandits. Lost and alone in a strange and frightening desert, the child wandered, trying to find his way home. Along the way, the gods of ancient Egypt came to him. Some were evil and sought to do him harm. Others helped him. Most didn't care either way.
Quentin realized that, in this story, Daniel was painting a picture of himself, a child without parents, lost and alone in a land frightening to him, looking for someplace he could call home. The gods represented the people who'd come into his life since that tragic day, those who'd helped him in some way, the ones who had been indifferent, the few who'd been perceived as a nemesis. The teacher wondered which evil god represented Bud Whitman. He also wondered which of the gods was representative of him, if any at all. He hoped it was one of the few who'd befriended the child in the story.
At the end, the boy was finally reunited with his parents, a happy ending that the author would never have.
Laying the pages down, Quentin just sat there for a while, far more affected by the story than he should be. It saddened him because he knew that it was more than just a fictional story. It had come from the depths of Daniel's soul.
Shaking himself out of his thoughts, the teacher read back through the story with an objective eye. He smiled upon realizing that Daniel had used the words from both lists, his and the class's. He'd forgotten to tell Daniel to use his list.
Checking the words off as he came to them, he found that all of the ones from Daniel's list were in the story and all but two from the other list. That was quite impressive. There were some grammatical and punctuation errors, as expected, but, for an eight-year-old, the level of writing skill was extraordinary, equally as good as anything the average fifth-grader could write, perhaps even better.
The child was amazing. What would he be like in another three or four years? He'd be a candidate for early enrollment in college. That was certain. His skills in math and science weren't on the same level as those to do with history and the written word, but, even so, he'd go far, if he could overcome the hurdle of being in foster care. What the boy needed was for someone to adopt him, give him a stable, secure foundation. Unfortunately, most people thinking of adoption wanted babies, and many of the couples who'd be happy to take a child of any age didn't meet the requirements. It was a sad state of affairs.
The teacher's thoughts were interrupted by the bell. Throwing away the trash and putting what remained of his lunch back in the drawer, Quentin cleaned up his desk. He had set aside the stories that he thought were the best. He placed Daniel's on that pile.
"Well, I've read all of your stories," he said after everyone was seated. "I have to say that, all in all, I was pleased by how well most of you did. You gave it a good effort, and I am proud of you for that. Those of you whom I could tell really did try your best, I rewarded with a better grade. I appreciate the effort you put into it."
Quentin picked up the very small pile of stories he'd set aside. "Now, as promised, I'm going to read the stories that I think are the best."
He began reading them one by one, naming the author before beginning each story. Again, he saved Daniel's for last.
"This last story was written by Daniel," he said. He saw the boy's head lift, eyes brightening. "Before I begin reading it, I'll mention that he was given a different word list to learn. He succeeded in using all of those words. Plus, he used most of the words from the list the rest of you got, something I didn't expect him to do."
As he read the story, Quentin occasionally glanced up at the class, seeing that he had a captive audience. He put extra effort into bringing the story to life, even changing his voice a little while reading the dialogue of the different characters. From what Quentin could tell, the story was a hit with most of Daniel's classmates, and several of them looked at the boy admiringly after the end was reached.
The teacher went to each of the students and gave them back their stories with the grade written at the top. He knew that some of the kids were mad about the poor grade they received, those whom Quentin had known hadn't done their best. On the opposite end of the scale was the bright smile on Daniel's face upon seeing the A+ and the word "Excellent!" written underneath.
As usual, Daniel was the last one to leave at the end of the day. The teacher stopped him as he passed by.
"Daniel, I want to say that your story was wonderful. I enjoyed it very much. I liked how you brought the Egyptian gods into it. It was quite imaginative."
Daniel's head dipped shyly. "Thank you."
"If it's all right with you, I'd like to make a copy of it to keep."
"Okay." Daniel handed the pages to him.
"I'll get it back to you on Monday, all right?" He got a nod from the boy. "Okay, go on and get to your bus."
"I'm not taking the bus today. Mrs. Underwood told me to wait for her. She said that I have a special test to take today."
"Oh, that's right. I forgot about that."
"Do you know what the test is, Mister Greer? She said it was a test that schools sometimes give to kids. She said it was nothing to worry about and that I'd do fine, that I didn't have to study for it."
"Yes, I know what the test is. It's to see how smart you are."
"Oh. Does it have a lot of math in it?"
"Some. I'm sure you'll do just fine, Daniel. Don't worry. Would you like me to stay with you while you wait?"
"You don't have to if you don't want to."
Quentin smiled. "I wouldn't have offered if I didn't want to."
They went to the bench outside the principal's office, which was where Daniel was supposed to wait. As they waited, the teacher slowly managed to coax Daniel into talking about himself, specifically about his life in Egypt. Quentin learned that the boy had been very much a part of his parents' life as archeologists, participating in digs from an early age. The child's knowledge of the country's ancient history, geography and mythology was amazing. He was spouting off with ease the names of historical figures and deities that Quentin knew would leave him tongue-tied. He had to wonder if Daniel had a photographic memory.
Mrs. Underwood arrived just a couple of minutes before the test was due to begin. She hurried up to them.
"I'm so sorry I'm late. The babysitter didn't arrive when she was supposed to."
Quentin held out his hand. "Quentin Greer. I'm Daniel's new teacher."
"Oh! Yes." She shook his hand. "I'm pleased to meet you. Daniel seems to be so much happier now that he's in your class."
"I'm glad to hear that."
The door to the principal's office opened, and Mister Parker's assistant stuck her head out.
"Daniel, Mrs. Underwood, please come in."
"Good luck, Daniel," Quentin said, giving the boy an encouraging smile.
Daniel and his foster mother entered the office.
"Hello, Daniel," Mister Parker greeted. "Has Mrs. Underwood told you anything about this test we're going to give you?"
"Some. Mister Greer told me a little, too."
"Well, it's nothing for you to worry about. You won't be graded on it, and it won't affect your report card."
"It's to see how smart I am."
"That's right. Come on. I'll take you to the room where you'll do the test."
Daniel was led to a small room with a table and a couple of chairs. On the table was a folder.
"The test is in the folder. Don't open it until we leave. Then you can get started."
"How long do I have to finish it?" Daniel asked.
The principal told him. It was a great deal more time than it was for other tests, which made Daniel wonder how hard it was.
"If you need to go to the bathroom, come out and tell us. We'll pause the test so you won't lose any time."
The adults left the room. Daniel opened the folder and looked at the first sheet of paper. Picking up the pencil, he got to work.