Danny Cunningham divided up his vegetable medley into different sections on his plate, designating certain areas around his main entree for each vegetable. His salmon was cold and untouched with the exception of one corner. His mother made him try it, and in doing so scolded him so sternly a few patrons sitting at nearby tables risked a glance their way. Danny just wanted a hamburger like all the other dignitaries’ children, but his mother shot that down.
“Because Cunningham children are held to a higher standard than the rest of those savages. That’s why,” Monica Cunningham said to him on the ride over to Riviera Country Club in the Pacific Palisades, a premier coastal city on the Westside of Los Angeles.
Of course, Danny’s younger brother Troy could order a hamburger.
When Danny was nearly done situating his carrots on the right side of his salmon, he peered up towards his mother, who was glaring at him with wide eyes, a locked jaw, and a convulsing throat. He got the message and set his silverware aside. Monica inhaled and exhaled deeply, shaking her head in disappointment.
Since he was too afraid to take out his phone and play games on it, all that was left for Danny to do was pay attention to his father’s speech.
“I look around and see some of the most talented and accomplished people in the history of mankind in one room, but not for the reasons one would expect. Sure, some of you who I’m looking at have either one of the most recognizable faces in the world or have played an instrumental role in creating one of the best motion pictures of all time. Then of course, we know one who has done both.”
Christian paused to flash his iconic smile and allow the crowd to chuckle at referring to himself.
When it died down, he continued, “But on a serious note, all of you have sacrificed so much to give back to those in need, those who were not born under the lucky star most of us were, and that, my friends, is what makes me genuinely proud to be able to call you my peers. On behalf of my entire organization, thank you so much for being here, and for all you do to ensure everybody has an opportunity to be successful in this lifetime.”
As he wrapped up his speech the entire audience, including Danny, Monica, and Troy, gave him a standing ovation. Christian Cunningham was one of the most respected and successful movie producers Hollywood had ever seen; exceeding the expectations of the entertainment industry when he burst onto the scene as his father’s career as a legendary director was coming to a close.
Chrisitian was the movie industry’s number one tycoon. His success continually inflated his ego, and constantly motivated him to accomplish greater feats. No matter what it cost his family.
For the cameras and crowd, Christian planted a kiss on Monica’s lips and hugged his two sons. Danny noticed his father’s embrace of Troy was much stronger than what he received.
After Christian’s speech councluded, the auction took place. Goldendoodle puppies, limited-edition sports cars, and even real estate were some of the available items. The organization claimed all of the proceeds went to poorer communities’ middle school and high school drama programs, but it had salaries and appearance fees that took precedence.
Danny once envied how dedicated Christian was to his organization, but Danny had since determined he was wasting energy by seeking his father’s approval. Four more years and he could distance himself from his family permanently, and if that sacrificed his shot at the trust fund his parents incessantly threw in his face, then so be it.
His priorities significantly differed from those of Christian and Monica Cunningham.
After the auction wrapped up, Monica, Danny, and Troy loaded themselves into the Escalade that was taking them home, while Christian exchanged farewell pleasantries with Tom Caplan. Tom was the lead role in four of Christian’s movies, and even Danny, who now couldn’t care less about his father’s professional dealings, knew one of Christian’s main goals when making a movie was to have Tom be the star.
With a grin stapled on his face, Christian strutted over to the SUV. His smile vanished as soon as the passenger door shut. Finally safe in the confines of the car’s tinted windows.
“Jesus Christ, I swear he gets gayer every time I talk to him,” Christian said.
Monica exhaled an abhorrent sound from her throat. “I know. When he walked in tonight you could just feel it, especially with the pink and white poke-a-dot tie, and all of that work he’s had done on his face isn’t helping. You better get him to do another movie before he looks like Mickey Rourke.”
Christian was already going down a rabbit hole on the Internet to see how the public perceived his event.
This was the dynamic of the Cunninghams. On the outside, the family appeared to be a gracious, ultra successful family the public could root for, but behind closed doors, Danny’s parents never failed to revert back to who they really were.
Troy was sound asleep by the time the Escalade pulled up to main guard gate of their neighborhood in Hidden Hills; Monica was silently judging all of her “friends” on Instagram; Christian was on the phone with his team to review how the event went; Danny pressed his forehead against the SUV’s cold window and stared aimlessly into the night.
With neighbors like the Kardashians, Miley Cyrus, and other celebrities, the Cunninghams resided in one of the most exclusive parts of Los Angeles. On top of their neighborhood employing around-the-clock security, Christian ensured the family home had its own security team that worked twenty-four seven, three hundred sixty-five days a year.
A team of twelve bodyguards surrounded the Cunninghams’ ten-acre property. Six of them patrolled the premises with a female Cane Corso weighing over one hundred pounds at their hip. When Christian learned female dogs were the preferred gender in dog fights because they were instinctively more aggressive than males, he demanded “bitches only.”
Two of the guards with canines stood pat on both sides at the bottom of the driveway, and did not so much as flinch when the Escalade drove up after the gate opened.
Before the driver brought the car to a stop under the driveway overhang, a group of maids and butlers were already standing by waiting to open the car doors. They didn’t receive one word or gesture of acknowledgement as the Cunninghams exited the vehicle.
Troy was asleep, so one of the maids gently picked him up and began carrying him to his room.
Christian raised his voice at whoever was on the other end of the phone.
Monica was still scrolling through her Instagram feed as she ambled towards their home.
Danny sauntered his way in. He loathed being home because his anxiety heightened, as he was constantly fearful of what his family was capable of behind closed doors.
Danny was particularly excited about school because Nathan Timpin would be there after being absent for a few days. Nathan was his best friend, confidant, and the only person on the planet who Danny felt he could be himself around.
Originally from Encinitas, a suburb about twenty-five miles north of San Diego, the Timpins moved to Calabasas a month before Westview’s–one of the most exclusive private schools in the country costing $35K per semester–academic year commenced. Their friendship began when Nathan offered to help Danny in math after noticing Danny didn’t comprehend anything their teacher was saying. Danny was grateful not only for Nathan’s assistance, but for how he went about it, too. Danny had become accustomed to being made out to be an idiot when he failed to understand something, so Nathan’s benevolent approach was a pleasant surprise.
From that point on, the two boys gravitated towards each other and forged a special bond.
They were inseparable at school. Danny wished Nathan could come over so they could hang out more often. From what Nathan described, his father, who founded and ran his own SaaS company, and his mother, a part-time tutor for special ed. students, were two loving, accepting, and approachable people. Danny enjoyed learning about them because he liked to envision himself with parents like Nathan’s. Danny often cried alone when he thought about them, because he knew that would never be his reality.
The same driver who drove the Cunninghams back home from the Pacific Palisades the night before took Danny to school every day. Danny’s personal escort, not a common thing even for Westview students, surveyed the campus before hopping out to open the rear door for Danny. Once he deemed the campus safe, he exited the car and proceeded to let Danny out.
“Have a good day, bud.”
“Thank you, Rod.”
Rod nodded and tapped his earpiece to confirm with his boss he had dropped Danny off in one piece.
One hundred feet away stood Nathan, eagerly awaiting to see his best friend. Danny smiled and began power walking over to him.
“Hey dude,” Nathan said.
They attempted an awkward handshake only two fourteen year-olds could screw up before Nathan let out a nervous laugh and gave him a hug.
“Was your trip fun?” Danny asked.
“Yeah, we had a lot of fun, actually.”
Nathan and his family escaped to Lake Tahoe for a normal family vacation Christian and Monica would consider repulsing, but one Danny envied.
Nathan continued describing their getaway, “We stayed in a super cool cabin that was like, a few feet from the water, dude. My parents rented a boat and we got to ride around in that, and we went wakeboarding. So yeah dude, it was fun.”
“Oh man, that is awesome. I have never been wakeboarding,” Danny said.
“You should come with us next time we go.”
Danny lit up. “Really? Can I?”
“I mean, I’ll have to ask my parents, but yeah, it should be fine. We go every few months since it is our tradition. We will have a lot of fun.”
“Okay, yeah. I would love to go.”
A comfortable moment of silence ensued before Danny asked, “Hey, do you want to come over to my house after school?”
Nathan now lit up. “Um, yeah dude, but are you sure? I thought you hated your house.”
Danny’s face masked the immediate regret he felt after blurting that out, “Yeah, I’m sure. I mean, I do hate it, but we can still hang out there. It isn’t like we have to be with my family and stuff.”
“Okay, cool. Yeah, that sounds fun. Your house sounds awesome.”
Danny and Nathan continued their small-talk until they had to part ways to get to their seats in class.
Danny hardly noticed all the other kids in the classroom flirting, laughing, and making fun of each other. He was too consumed with the fact he impulsively invited Nathan over to this house after school.
What if my mom slaps me across the face again?
What if my dad tells me to stop acting like a queer again?
What if my parents tell one of our maids she’s “too Mexican?”
These sorts of thoughts raced through Danny’s head as he envisioned the worst-possible scenarios playing out the one time he was brave enough to invite Nathan over.
Danny then felt his stomach turn upside down.
His heart began thumping in his chest.
From the top down, his body felt like an inferno, reaching unimaginable temperatures.
Sweat poured down from his forehead and dripped onto his desk, and his hands were so clammy he couldn’t have gripped his pencil even if he tried.
Breathing became nearly impossible, like someone twice his size plopped down on him and compressed his lungs.
His heels were off the floor incessantly bouncing up and down, which he didn’t realize because he was too focused on trying to normalize his breath.
His neck was now a deep purple, uncontrollably quivering.
Danny began audibly puffing, but was only able to inhale the slightest amount of air.
His anxiety attack was so severe he didn’t notice the girl next to him crying; the two boys to his right each looking like they saw a ghost; the girl a couple rows in front filming him for her Instagram story; a group of students huddled together to protect themselves in case Danny morphed into a monster; the teacher on the phone begging the administration office to send medical help immediately; Nathan at his side pleading for him to catch his breath and remain calm.
But it was all for not, as Danny lost consciousness and went limp in his seat.