13 St. Petersburg Times: Interactive Special Report
Love. Identity. Secrets. Loyalty. Sex. Betrayal. Power. Grades. Rivalry.  Glory. Parents. Subterfuge. Divorce. God. Guitars. Life at the edge of everything.
 
 GLADIATORS
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 HAPPYTRAILS
 
 PERSPECTIVE: A COLUMN BY TOM FRENCH
 

Dong-Phuong Nguyen on Danielle Heffern.
Krystal Kinnunen on Danielle & Nelson.

Gladiators
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HOUSE RULES Danielle Heffern sets the dinner table at her Brandon home while her mother, Joanne, looks on. Danielle and her mom are constantly redefining the boundaries, negotiating what choices are to be left in her hands.

The bus pulls up. She steps off into the amber light of a Wednesday afternoon. Through her subdivision she walks, past houses of brick and faded stucco, lawns of untameable green. Arriving at her driveway, she heads inside through the garage and makes straight for her bedroom.

It is the room of a girl declaring herself. The door is adorned with a large D. The top of her mirrored dresser is crowded with hairbrushes and lip gloss, a bottle of Raspberry Sorbet invigorating body spray, a collection of dusty cheerleading trophies. The inscription on one reads:

2000 Brandon Cowboys

Danielle Heffern

Junior Varsity Cheerleader

On the walls hang posters of Sisqo and Usher, a Hottie sticker, a photo of her receiving first communion, pictures of her in the cheerleading uniform, jumping and waving pompoms. There's also a photo of her and her mom when they still were in England. And one that shows her dad posing with her when she was a baby. Sometimes she stares at his face, trying to summon some memory, a detail that will make him real.

Danielle's just finishing putting on a shirt that says glamour girl when the phone rings. Before she can pick up, one of her two little brothers - the demonic 7-year-old - intercepts the call somewhere else in the house. Rhys knows it's for his sister; at this time of day, whenever the phone rings, it is always for his sister.

"Hi, baybeeeeee!" he yells, then hangs up.

"Rhhyyyssss!" she screams.

A second later, the phone rings again. This time, Danielle gets to it first on her purple cordless.

"Hello?"

Danielle's favorite boy in the world wants to talk to her. His name is Nelson; he calls from time to time. They're just friends, but she's had a monster crush on him for months. Last semester she and her girlfriends took a vote and named him Boy of the Year.

Technically, Danielle isn't supposed to talk to boys, no matter how dreamy they may be. So she heads out into the back yard, to her brothers' swing set, under the giant oak. She sits on the swing with her knees pushed up toward her chest.

"So what's up?" she says, rocking back and forth, trying not to sound too excited.

"Nothin'," says Nelson.

Then another male voice comes on.

Joe. Her stepdad. Obviously he has spied her out on the swing. Now he's on the speaker phone in the kitchen.

"Who is this?" he asks. "Is this a boy?"

Danielle blushes.

"Uh, this is Nelson," Nelson stammers.

"Nelson," says Joe, "my daughter is too young to be talking to boys."

Danielle lets her stepfather deliver his speech. Finally, he hangs up.

"He's sooooo embarrassing," Danielle tells Nelson.

They talk a little more, but the mood is broken.

"I better go," she says, and walks back into the house to face the inevitable. Her mom and stepdad are standing in the kitchen, smiling. They actually think it's funny, Joe catching her on the line with a boy. She has made their day.

Danielle gives them the requisite eye roll. But she's smiling, too. Okay, it was funny. Kind of.

These days, she's happy just to be allowed on the phone at all. Things have been a little tough at home ever since she took the loose change from the family room. When she came home from school that afternoon, ready to confess, her parents were waiting. They'd already discovered that the coins were missing, and even though she hadn't spent the money, they were angry. It was only $1.55, but there was a principle at stake. So they told her she couldn't use the phone or instant message her friends for a week.

Life in Danielle's house is a little complicated sometimes, especially when it comes to her stepdad. Around here she calls him Joe. But with her friends, she refers to him as her dad, because that's easier than having to explain that he's her stepdad and that he and her mom have been married since she was 6 and that the last time she saw her real dad she was 3, and that he lives in England and all the other boring details.

For years, she has wondered about her biological father. Does she look like him? Act like him? Does he think about her? She keeps a photo of him and her mom in a plastic frame on her dresser. The two of them are at a Christmas dinner, and her mother is wearing a green paper crown, beaming. Her eyes are crescent moons, just like Danielle's when she smiles. Her father looks amused.

Danielle and her mother and stepdad left England and moved to Florida when Danielle was 8. Entering the third grade, she immediately began transforming herself into a red-blooded American kid.

First she became a cheerleader, signing up in a league where girls were given pompoms and boys were put in football uniforms. Then she set about losing the Cockney accent she'd inherited from her mother. Danielle worked at flattening out her vowels, at replacing English words with their American counterparts. She didn't say "rubbish" anymore; now it was "garbage." She didn't want to use the "loo"; she preferred to say "bathroom." Danielle knew her mom felt some twinges seeing her daughter systematically erase all traces of London from her speech. But she was already at an age when fitting in was everything.

"I just wanted to be like everybody else," she says.

 
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