Maddie watched with a pained frown as Danny silently shut the front door, his expression sullen, defeated. She stretched out a hand to him.
"How was school?" she asked, helplessness seizing her; she retracted her hand and let it fall to her side.
"Fine," Danny muttered shortly, moving past her to the stairwell. Maddie hated this, hated these days when her son was so distant nothing could touch him.
"Is there anything you need to talk about?" Maddie clasped her hands together, watching; Danny paused, one hand on the banister.
"No," he said; she winced at the wretched gloom embedded into her son's voice. A moment passed; above, Maddie heard the quiet click of his bedroom door shutting.
Danny dropped his backpack onto the floor carelessly and flopped face first onto his bed.
He could not understand, try as he might. And of course he tried; it was for Sam, after all. But he just couldn't do it; it was beyond him. He and Sam were constantly at odds with each other these days, ever since Ember had surfaced with that love song … Sam was prone to being highly sensitive. Especially when it came to Paulina. Sam became very irritable and maddeningly sarcastic whenever Paulina was brought into the subject, even if it was just the mention of her name .
Danny hit his pillow in frustration.
A few days before, it occurred to him that the reason for Sam's adversity to Paulina might be stem from jealousy; strangely, a faint tingle of hope prickled at him. Slightly alarmed by that hope, Danny had quickly banished the idea.
A knock came at his door, cutting into his thoughts; Danny sighed, knowing who it would be.
"I don't want to talk!" he called miserably into his pillow. Maddie paused with one fist poised to knock again, biting her lip.
"Honey, it might help to talk a little," she said to the closed door.
Danny considered for a moment; at least his mother was trying. A situation without ghosts had to be a completely new experience for her, even if the situation was something as domestic as consoling her son.
Maddie took Danny's prolonged silence as an okay and cautiously opened the door. Peering inside, she could not help an inward smile at the sight of the boy lying on his stomach, his hands at his sides, his head buried in his pillow. She wished desperately she could remember what it had been like to be fourteen; as a girl, Maddie had promised herself to remember every detail of her girlhood, so as to be a fair parent in understanding just where her children were coming from. That was the problem with aging; you forgot what was most important.
Wordlessly, she crossed the cluttered room and sat beside her son on his bed.
"Danny?" she asked tentatively. She did not know where to begin; she had never raised a teenage son before. As a fellow female, Jazz had been easier, given that she was naturally a good daughter, an easy daughter, even if Maddie failed to understand her oldest child a great deal of the time.
"Don't wanna talk about it," Danny repeated, his sullen tone muffled by the pillow.
Maddie sighed again; reaching out, she stroked his back soothingly, as she had done when he had been a little boy.
"I know you don't want to, sweetheart."
Something in Danny's heart cried out at his mother's touch, wanting to sit up, hug her and sob away all his hurts into her shoulder. But he wasn't a baby anymore; he couldn't do it. He shut away the crier and curled his hands into tight fists.
"Please don't forget that I love you, Danny." Maddie leaned forward to kiss him; the crier won and the next thing Danny knew, he was sitting beside his mother, holding her tightly. Maddie blinked, surprised by this sudden turn. Danny hadn't hugged her in years. Still, she held him close to her, rocking back and forth with him.
"Sam's mad at me," Danny whispered, as though afraid saying it aloud would make it all the more real. "And I don't know why, I never know why. She gets so angry whenever Paulina's nearby, or if I talk about her."
A smile touched Maddie's lips.
"Sam doesn't like this Paulina girl?"
"But you do?"
" … yeah …"
"And what do you like about Paulina?"
Surprised, Danny pulled back.
"Mo-om," he said, looking at her with slightly scandalized eyes. Maddie raised an eyebrow.
"What? Isn't there anything you like about her?"
"It's not that. It's just that Sam says ..." Danny laced his fingers together and rested his hands in his lap. Maddie noted a faint blush that rose in Danny's cheeks.
"Well, she's really pretty," Danny began.
Interestingly, Danny blushed harder.
"Of course." Maddie suddenly looked very satisfied with something, as though she had solved a very important puzzle. Danny wondered at his mother's expression.
"And, um, she's really popular and makes up cool words like 'crunk'—''
"Crunk?" Maddie wrinkled her nose.
"What else?" Maddie asked.
A frown flicked across Danny's face, surprised incomprehension crossing through his narrowed eyes.
"I … I don't know what else," he answered after a moment. Unsurprised, Maddie watched Danny swing his legs idly.
"Do you know why Sam doesn't like Paulina?"
Danny rolled his eyes and made a sort of snorting sound.
"Oh, that's an easy one. Sam says Paulina's shallow and a snob who just likes people who'll make her even more popular and she uses people to benefit herself …" Danny trailed off, frown flickering again.
Maddie brushed a lock of hair out of Danny's eyes.
"You know what this sounds like to me?" Maddie said thoughtfully.
"What?" Danny looked up from his hands, blue eyes anxious.
"Sam is your best friend, Danny. She doesn't want to see you hurt – and she knows Paulina will hurt you. Sam cares deeply for you, honey; she's only looking out for you. But she doesn't know how to say it to you. After all, you are both only fourteen."
"Only?" Danny protested, looking indignant.
"It also," Maddie added, her expression wise, "sounds like you're paying too much attention to the wrong girl."
Confusion filled her son's face; Maddie got to her feet.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Danny asked, watching her stand.
"It means that just because Sam isn't part of that 'in-crowd' doesn't make it 'uncool' or anything to like her as more than a friend. You're not even friends with those kids. Why does it matter what they say?"
Danny opened his mouth and then closed it again as his eyes widened in understanding.
"Oh," he mused. Maddie smiled tenderly, kissing Danny's forehead before leaving him to his thoughts.
Before she could leave the room, Danny called out to her.
Danny smiled, a little shyly.