Daniel's Home
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Daniel's Home

A man's fight for his life, love, and family.

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Daniel's Home
Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Coming Home

1940, England.

Daniel didn’t even notice the tear slip from his glossy eyes as he looked out the rearview mirror of the stationary double-decker bus. His eyes were fixed on a young schoolgirl sitting only two rows back from his separated driver’s cabin. He watched her sift through a small cardboard box on her lap that was teeming with tattered, paperback books, ignoring the loud ring from the conductor’s bell whose chime was to notify her the bus had stopped. It was the last stop on the route and the sun’s dark orange was barely trickling over the London rooftops. Daniel observed the girl admire the small collection of books that hardly fit inside the worn-out box. Everything about her was too familiar for him and he couldn’t help but see Theresa, his daughter, who sat in that same seat just over a year ago. She, too, held a small cardboard box in her lap as Daniel navigated the bright red bus. Her faded black pinafore contrasted her porcelain skin and commanded attention to her natural beauty, just as Theresa’s did. He smiled, remembering her sitting in the seat with a calming charm. She was quiet, reading her new favorite paperback, T.H. White’s The Sword and the Stone, as her nearby peers joined in singing “Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye” with the rest of schoolchildren that filled the bus. Daniel’s lips tasted the salt from a rolling tear and his smirk was replaced with a grimace. The fond memory of her patiently reading was replaced with the memory that was made shortly after, the memory of her choking back a sob as she tried to hand him her cardboard box.

“Daddy, take it. Please. None of this I need. I can take care of us just fine, you know that.” Theresa said, showing a little of her mum’s scouse accent as she shoved the box against her father’s side. Maria, her mum, had died when she was only eight, but she had absorbed almost all of her qualities. Her confidence, her poise, all of what Daniel loved in his wife, was what she grew to be more and more each day. Theresa could detail each hour spent with her mum, the candlelit nights where Maria read the The Times headlines in her exaggerated Tallulah Bankhead impression, the midday tea times where she snuck a little extra milk into Theresa’s tea and they would giggle behind Daniel’s back. Theresa took in as much of her mum as she could and Daniel took pride in knowing she was becoming the wonderful woman her mum was.

Gazing down into the box Theresa was thrusting towards him, he studied what was inside: a gasmask, a whistle, and a note he wrote for her to give to his wife’s cousin, Alison, who was going to foster her. Each item tightened the knot in his stomach and made him question leaving his daughter with war so close. Theresa’s crying surprised Daniel and he had to look away for a second to stop himself from doing the same. In his diverted glance, he read the banner that hung under the school’s entrance, “Please Bring All Children to the Auditorium for Adoption.” He saw the congregation of girls and boys waiting by the doors to be ushered into the empty building. Knowing his time was limited, he returned his attention to his daughter, who was sitting on the steps of the bus’s open entrance, weeping and waiting for him to say something.

“Quit your laughing!” he said in his thick East End accent, trading glances with each daughter in a serious, but softer tone. Her wailing simmered to just some intermittent sniffles and Daniel’s expression melted into one of tender love. He locked eyes with Theresa and said, “I know you’ll be just fine, love. But you have to keep it for now, just to be safe.” Slowly pushing the box back closer to Theresa, he knelt to get eye level to his only child. He wiped a tear from under her swollen eyes as she took in a deep gulp of air to calm herself and get serious. She was only 11, but she had a maturity that age could not match. She fixed her hair and nodded.

The sea of child evacuees was slowly trickling into the school and the faculty started signaling that he needed to lead Theresa inside. “I’ve got to go now, love. Behave and do what you’re told, I shouldn’t be gone too long.” He kissed her forehead one more time and then sent her off.

Looking through the rearview a year later, the memory of that day haunted him through the girl on the bus. The clippie eventually got the young girl’s attention and Daniel watched her walk out of view. The short drive back to the depot helped Daniel clear his mind. He loved seeing the sunset’s final light shimmering off St. Paul’s Cathedral with triumphant vigor, knowing both the sun and the building had given London all the beauty it could before the normal, grey blanket falls over the city again. The world moved fast, constantly racing its people through its streets and forever being pushed forward by Big Ben’s rigorous hands. He appreciated the cathedral’s firm stand amongst the constantly churning world around it. As he rounded the final corner before the depot, driving out of eye shot of the monument, he almost stopped the bus. He just wanted to be centered like it was, balance himself for a moment, before he had to move again. But he didn’t stop, he just tipped his hat and pulled into his normal spot closest to the inspector’s office.

Danny trudged over to the timeclock station. He slid his timecard into the machine, listened for the stamping ink, and then quickly withdrew the card. He gave it a glance and, with shock, recognized the date.

“Bollocks!” he said, scrambling over to his conductor who was talking to the inspector. He slid between the two, interrupting their conversation, and said, “Is today really the 7th?”

“What you got a date or something?” The clippie said, chuckling with the inspector.

“Shut up, ass. Tell me it’s not the 7th of September, like it says here.” Daniel said, worry in his eyes as the two men around him nonchalantly examined the date on the card he was holding up.

Taking a deep puff of his cigarette, the inspector leaned back and started nodding his head. “Oh yeah, you’re right, Danny. I don’t think it is. I think I remember the Queen talking of setting all the clocks in the Kingdom back a day. Just for you.” He playfully poked Daniel’s chest and his counterpart erupted with laughter.

“Fuck off!” Daniel said, swatting his boss’s arm and storming towards his locker as their laughter gradually lessened. He threw his coat over his shoulder and mumbled some insults under his breath.

“Oh, don’t lose your head, Danny.” The clippie said, a little sympathy in his voice. “What’s it to you anyways?”

“My daughter’s birthday.” Daniel ran his fingers through his curly, brown hair in frustration and approached his locker. He pounded his palm against the side of his head, furious that he had let this happen. As he imagined the disappointment in her face when there’s no package or letter in the mail, Daniel gritted his teeth and tried to subdue some of the rage. He even began wondering if Alison would remember, or if she would just treat it like another day. When he came to his locker, there was an envelope taped under his name with a heart written on it. Excitement and curiosity danced across his heart as his shaky fingers stabbed and opened as fast as they could. He instantly recognized the handwriting. It was his wife’s.

His head shot up, searching for an explanation. His mouth hung open as his neck swung around rapidly, his eyes searched for a ghost while his heart searched for an answer. The garage was near empty though only his clippie, the inspector, and a few other drivers wandered the area. He refocused on the letter, adrenaline and shock dizzying his vision. His name headed the paper, centered and in cursive, just like his wife would. His hands were tremoring as he ran his thumb over the familiar squiggles and lines, caressing his wife’s gorgeous handwriting. The sun had completely retreated behind the horizon and the dark of night began to thicken with clouds above.

“What you got there?” the inspector said, peaking his head over Daniel’s shoulder.

Daniel pressed the letter against his chest. “It’s nothing, just a letter from an old friend.” He placed the letter back in its envelope and turned to the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow, sir.”

“What are you going to get your daughter?” The clippie said, nearly yelling so Daniel could hear it before he walked outside. The question stopped him in his tracks and he faced the clippie with a lost expression. He tried to form a response, remembering it was Theresa’s birthday, but his mouth opened and closed silently like a fish taken from sea. The letter in his hand was starting to crumple under the distress of his grip and the rush of emotions rammed against his composure. “Well get her whatever, bloke, don’t tie yourself in knots. She’s a kid, she’ll be happy if all she gets is a smile and a hug.” The conductor then gave Daniel a thin smile and a nod goodbye.

Daniel fumbled with the letter as soon as the door closed behind him. The streetlights seemed to only put shadows on the paper and Daniel felt his sanity being tested as he trekked the few blocks home, trying to read his late wife’s letter. He was able to make out the first line, “I can barely hold in my excitement…” but the inconsistency of the staggered lights stopped him from reading further. The narrow streets fell victim to the normal four o’clock bustle, but Daniel couldn’t help but feel trapped by the scuttling crowds around him. There were patches of rust in his throat, tar on his tongue, and his eyes were leaking. The buildings towered over him, every window critiquing how unstable and weak he was. He slipped into a side alley and struggled to catch his breath, clinching his chest as the muscles twisted and tightened.

In the distance, the faint sound of a swarm of bees echoed from every corner of London. Taking slow, deep breaths, he straightened, closed his eyes, and lifted his head toward the sky. The pain in his chest gradually subsided, the strength in his legs came back, and the dizziness settled into a calm control. The world went silent and he heard only his heartbeat. Then the sound of bees in the distance turned into a roar. He took another extended inhale and exhale, hoping the drum of his calming heart would overtake the buzzing sound, but it only got louder. It reverberated from everywhere, shaking the ground, and it soon became louder than his heart had ever been. He opened his eyes, stared straight into the sky, and witnessed a swarm of German planes fly overhead.

He braced himself as he watched a chunk of metal fall from one of the planes above him and glide down only a few blocks away. When it hit the ground, the Earth exploded and Hell sprang from the ground to engulf the world around it in fire. The impact threw him against the brick wall of a bicycle shop that lined the alley. He tried to get up, but another bomb went off that was closer than the last and sent flaming debris spiraling in his direction. The explosions continued while the ringing in his ears competed with the shrill screams coming from the street. His legs were useless as fear paralyzed any will to move and he could only observe as buildings became heaps of crumbled brick and ash. His heartbeat became apparent again through the silence of shock, giving two deep thuds every second. Then the bakery that faced him on the other side of the alley imploded and he watched the wall lean into him, swallowing him with darkness.

Daniel opened his eyes in disbelief, seeing the bakery wall only a foot over his head. The chunk of wall that was supposed to crush him had been caught and held up by the wall his back was pressed against. Light flickered from a burning piece of broken wood and illuminated the small space the collapsed wall and rubble trapped him in. Smoke and soot filled his lungs, causing him to gag and cough uncontrollably. Shielding his mouth from the polluted air, he noticed the letter was still tightly clinched in his hand. The nearby flame gave just enough light for him to try and finally read it.

“Daniel, I can barely hold in my excitement. Theresa is almost here and I can already tell she’s going to be beautiful. You still tell me all the time it’s going to be a boy, but I know it’s a baby girl. I get excited thinking about being a mother and I wonder if you get the same way with being a dad. With money being tight and you working a lot, I know we haven’t been able to really talk about this but I think you’re going to be an exceptional father. You’re kind, caring, and most of all you have a strong heart. Theresa and I are lucky to have a man like you in our lives. I can’t wait 'till she’s here and you can see how beautiful she is. Alison came by today and visited for a couple hours. She told me she’s worried about you working too much and always being distant, but I told her you only work as much as you have to and that her worries are far from the truth. I’m sure she just wants to make sure you can be there for Theresa when she comes. I told her you will be and that you work so much so that the family will be well off. You are the heart of this family, Daniel, and I know you’ll always be there for us. I love you and I can’t wait to see you shine as a father.”

The tears streamed down Daniel’s cheeks and he let out a long, pained howl. The flame started dying as the enclosed space was losing air and Daniel felt his lungs press against his chest, searching for more air. Thoughts of Maria, seeing her again, being able to hold her and kiss her made him sit idle in the thinning air. He felt so incomplete, so scattered and broken. He brought the letter to his chest and remembered the way she centered the family, even when the cancer made her skin and bones. She had a resilience that made her glow in the face of death. She was golden and resplendent, her strength gave him hope that he’d find a way to raise the family on his own. Then he remembered how it was Theresa’s birthday and how he got the letter in the first place. He scanned over it one more time, barely being able to reread what was penned on the paper in the drained light.

“Alison came by today…” he said, letting the words stumble out of his mouth without knowing. Flipping the letter over, he saw a note scribed on the bottom corner of the back.

“Danny. Theresa really wanted to see you today so I thought I’d drive them here and celebrate her birthday with you. I found this note in a journal Maria must’ve forgotten here and I know it would mean a lot for you to have. I didn’t tell Theresa about it because I figured you’d want to read it to her, if you wanted to share it at all. We’ll be at your house waiting for you to get off.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Daniel shoved the letter in his pocket and pushed against the fallen wall overhead. It didn’t budge. He panicked but thought of Maria, thought of the strength she had, the strength he needed. He looked around and saw a gap that was blocked by a small pile of bricks. Contorting his body, he crawled over to it and began moving the bricks. The more he took away, the more smoke rolled in. He felt fear slowly overtaking hope. When he cleared enough to see outside, horror washed over him. The world had become grey and red. He used the little remnants of adrenaline he had to shove his way through the narrow hole. Once back upright, he could see the destruction clearer and concern for his kid sent chills through every inch of his body.

The fear blinded him to the atrocities that laid at his feet. The bodies he hurdled, the fires he dodged, all were insignificant until he reached his house. The buzz of the planes rained down from the sky again and the wave of explosions stalked right behind him. Floating ash stung his eyes while he tried to find his way through the aftermath. The second round of bombings incited a choir of screams from behind him, and every fiber of his being pushed forward as fast as it could to get him home. Rounding the last corner, Daniel caught sight of his unharmed home and felt a jolt of hope. The planes were at his heels as he broke through the doorway and into his living room. Huddled under the stairs, Theresa and Alison were hugging each other with eyes closed. His worry eased for a second, but he was slapped with reality as the burst of the bombs outside blew the glass from the windows. The girls screamed in terror and he ran to them, embracing them with the hardest hug he could give. They bunched closer and waited for the bombs to stop.

When it had been hours since the last echo of an explosion, Daniel went up to the roof and assessed the world that remained. Pink strands of sun spooled over the horizon but failed to cut through the clouds of smoke that rested on London’s streets. People shuffled by, some coughing, some cleaning. Everyone wandered aimlessly, coated in soot and seeking any pieces they could find to put their home back together. The city was fractioned by endless rows of toppled buildings, enormous rings of charred asphalt, and countless fires, each painting the sheets of unsettled dust a bloody hue. Theresa snuck behind Daniel and nestled her way under his arm.

“Look.” She said, as she pointed at a clearing in the smoke with a small excitement bubbling in her voice. St. Paul’s Cathedral, unaffected by the bombings, stood with a defiant pride in the heart of the city. Dawn’s soft yellow rays sparkled off the cathedral’s dome and a warmth radiated from its unmoved brilliance. They stared at it for a moment then Theresa said, “The bombs couldn’t get to it, just like they couldn’t get to us.” Daniel felt the letter in his pocket and tussled his daughter’s hair.

He kissed her head, holding her close for an extra moment, then said, “Happy Birthday, love. I’m glad you’re home.”

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