Friendly.

It was an ordinary day in June when Danny Nuell watched his ceiling fan spin fruitlessly. The heat of the month seemed inescapable and oppressive, even making the air feel capable of burning. All Danny could do in response was lay on top of his sheets, listening to Minor Threat in his underwear, wondering if a cold bath was in his future when his phone rang.

“Danny, give me one good reason why you shouldn’t come and see the Upper Class Brats tonight.” Came the voice on the other end. Joseph was on the other line, cutting straight to the good part as always.

“You know how my mom feels about going to punk shows, man.” Not only did she dislike how he came home covered in sweat and smelling like the cigarettes everyone smoked, but she also fretted that it made him an even bigger target of the police even though he looked like any other teenager on the street before or after.

“Your mom probably just wants some peace and quiet. Look, doors open at seven and if you aren’t there, then you aren’t there.” The line went dead and Danny was left looking for his pants.

Dressed in what he hoped was a respectable outfit of a black t-shirt, black jeans and work boots, Danny went out into the living to find his mother. She was asleep with a box fan next to her, a wet washcloth on her forehead and her shoes off, reclined completely in her arm chair. He felt bad about waking her, but knew that she really would be happy to have a quiet apartment for the night.

He cleared his throat, and gently asked for her. But when that didn’t work, he tapped her shoulder. “I heard you the first time, I was just hoping you’d give up and go back to your room.” She wearily sat up, still recovering from an early morning nursing shift. “Where are you going, and how much do you need?”

Danny fidgeted awkwardly, “Going to see the Lower Class Brats with Joe, and the door will be ten dollars.”

She sighed heavily and went to get her purse, “Danny, I mean it. You need to at least be trying to find a job if you aren’t going to go to school in the fall.” Danny opened his mouth to say something, feeling his heart lurch in sympathy, “Don’t say anything, just promise me that you’ll be hitting the streets tomorrow.” She held a twenty just out of reach from him.

“I promise, mom.” He said, and he meant it. His mom deserved more than she had, and he knew he had to start contributing in some way.

She handed him the bill and smiled kindly at her son. “Please be careful out there. I don’t want you getting snatched up on the way there or back, and don’t get hurt while you’re at the show.” She looked as if she might be seeing him for the last time, as she almost always did before going out.

He hugged her tight and kissed her cheek. “I’ll be careful, mom. I promise I will.” She ruffled his close-cropped hair and sent him on his way.

One of the only advantages afforded by living in a building without air conditioning, Danny thought to himself, is that you don’t have to adjust when stepping out into a hot day. It’s just a different kind of heat, such as the oppressive heat that pressed down on him as he began the walk towards the Factory. He felt that he could make the walk there with his eyes closed from all the shows that he’d attended in the last few months, and his mind wandered.

High school was rapidly becoming a distant memory and there were no experiences in it that really gave Danny what was referred to as a ‘direction’ in life. Tradition would demand that he consider the military, and he honestly did, but the recent invasion into Iraq made him rethink it every time the subject came up. Did he really want to die in the desert? Did he really want to kill people who hadn’t done him any personal wrong?

What other options were there? Who was he, at the end of the day? How could he say? He was just a young punk, and even that part of his identity was new. Fast food was a fast track to nowhere; his uncle Brandon had been working at McDonalds for five years before he even got promoted to team lead and didn’t know when he’d become assistant manager, let alone general manager. He’d never get into a college with his grades, and community college? He’d never be able to tell you what subject he found most worthy of his attention.

He stopped for a moment and looked around. The sun had been higher in the sky, or least that’s what he thought, only a moment ago. He didn’t recognize any of the streets around him, which didn’t seem to be even remotely possible since he’d lived in the area for all of his life. He began to walk down the, surprisingly empty, streets faster and noticed in an abstract way that the shadows seemed to be much colder than the area that surrounded him.

Danny felt his chest get tighter as he passed by a Denny’s that seemed to serve as a line of demarcation between the city and a suburb that he didn’t know even existed the day before. He scratched his head and looked around at the charming neighborhood that somehow existed in the middle of the city. There were picket fences and trees that jutted out from perfectly maintained lawns with the sun setting behind the towering surrounding buildings casting the small valley into deep shadows.

The mystery suburb was one thing, the strange shadows were another, but it was the quiet that really disturbed him the most, and caused him to run down the streets in a near panic. It was only when he took a sharp turn and nearly ran straight into a young woman that he began to get a grasp of his senses again. “Oh, Jesus. Finally another person.”

Danny was struck by the woman that stood in front of him. She had light skin and thick dreads that tumbled down her shoulders with multicolored thread strung through it. She had a warm smile and a Dead Kennedys shirt on, “Another person?” She asked with a quirked, and pierced, eyebrow.

Danny looked around and noticed that the streets were teeming with people once again, with plenty of traffic running through the roads as thousands were still struggling to make it back from work. He wiped a thin sheet of sweat from his forehead and looked back at the eerie neighborhood then back at her, “Uh…nevermind. Just took a wrong turn somewhere.” He said sheepishly, feeling a blush rise on his cheeks.

“You gotta be careful. Who knows what could come along and swipe you off the streets!” She said with a faux-sinister overtone that put Danny at ease. She fished a pack of Kool’s out of her tight jeans, lit it and offered Danny one, who refused it. “Where you off to?”

“Uh…the Factory? It’s on Lincoln and ninth?” He thought about offering up the band name, but he had a good feeling she’d have no idea who he was referring to.

“Going to see the Lower Class Brats?” She said with a smirk on her lips and a glint in her eye that Danny didn’t quite trust.

“Yeah! You know them?” When she held up two tickets, Danny felt like he could be knocked over by a feather.

They walked together to the Factory, making small talk and getting acquainted. Her name was Myra, she was nineteen and visiting from ‘out of town,’ the location of where that constituted, Danny didn’t press on her. She wasn’t really doing anything to speak of, just ‘laying low’ as she put it and keeping her mind clear, letting herself be ready for whatever came next. Danny felt himself admiring her point of view as they gravitated closer and closer to the show.

When the Factory came into view, Danny spoke up. “Who are you meeting here?”

“No one, apparently. My friend pulled out at the last moment. I was going to just scalp his ticket and go by myself.” She looked over at him conspiratorially, “You want it? Free of charge.”

Relieved that he wouldn’t have to spend his mom’s money, he smiled broadly and nodded before he dialed it back a little. “Sure! I mean…if that’s okay by you, of course.”

She laughed, which somehow disquieted Danny just a little bit, and handed him her spare ticket as they crossed the road onto the street that the Factory was on. Joe was waiting outside by with his arms crossed over his chest.

“Hey man, where have you been? It’s almost eight!”

Danny cast his eyes at the sky, distantly wondering how it was even possible for him to have not noticed how long it was taking them to arrive at the venue. “That’s…weird? I thought I left at half past five.” He chewed on the inside of his cheek as he continued to look up at the sky as if the solution to his question floated in the clouds somewhere.

“Dude, just…it’s okay. The warm up bands weren’t all that good anyway.”

“They never are.” Myra spoke up in her clear, strong voice. “You must be a friend of Danny’s.” She said as she strode up to Joe and confidently wrapped him up in a tight hug.”

Joe’s eyes went wide over her shoulder. “Well, aren’t you friendly.” He stated as she took a step back.

“Very friendly.” She said with a wink, and they all walked in together.

To the uninitiated, a punk show is little more than chaos. Hundreds of brightly colored youths struggling against each other, raised voices and barely skirted fights. The postured violence would be seen to be real and the ironic sneers and screams of condescension makes this enemy territory for many. The music, largely consisting of three chords and shouted, barely intelligible lyrics, would do the rest of the job, sending outsiders running for safety and solitude.

What the three most recent entries saw was something totally different. Hands reaching out to catch people that are knocked down, kind words to people who need them, who are struggling with their lives. They would see togetherness and brotherhood, a home for people who aren’t welcome anywhere else, often not welcome in their own houses. A place where they could be whoever they want to be, even for a little bit.

Danny was able to pretend that his problems didn’t exist as he moved urgently to the beat of the music, crowding and shoving the rest of the people in the pit. One moment he had seized another punk in a vice-like hug, another he was shouting lyrics along with someone else, their faces bare inches from the other. Nothing else existed as he joined hands with one person, then was helped to his feet by another. The invasion into Iraq was miles away, his impending job was just a rumor and his lack of options was the least important thing in the world.

All too soon, like every other escape from reality, the music was over and the band was clearing the way for the next opener. With two other bands to go before the Lower Class Brats took the stage, there was a near-stampede to the exit as some went to get water and others went to feed vices that weren’t available inside of the Factory. One such vice-seeker was Myra, who was shadowed by a very sweaty Danny, as she pulled a crushed pack of cigarettes from her pocket. Danny wondered where she was able to hide them in her pants, and nearly missed it when she held her pack out to him.

“No thanks, I don’t smoke.” He said in a friendly, but firm, tone of voice. “How are you able to dance when you’re breathing in that stuff?”

She lit her smoke and exhaled before facing Danny with a smirk. “You’d be surprised with what you can get used to.”

Danny shrugged and leaned against a wall to look out at the parking lot. As he took in the night scene around him, he noticed that every street light that he could see, as well as the lights inside of the surrounding buildings, was starting to flicker. “I guess the power grid is overloaded.”

Myra continued with her cigarette, as if she hadn’t heard him speak. “Nice weather for this time of year.”

Danny arched an eyebrow as he wiped off his forehead with the back of his hand, “Relative to what, the ninth circle of hell?”

Her lips curled into a wry smile as she stepped up to him, where he was only then able to notice that her eyes wouldn’t meet his, “Well, you know what they say. If you can’t stand the heat…”

“Whoa!” Came Joe’s voice as he casually walked up to them. He held his hands up as if to ward away offense. “Don’t mean to break up the Kodak moment, but the next band is coming on.”

“Go on without us, we’ll be right behind you.” Said Myra, as she looked two inches to the left side of Joe’s face.

Joe hesitated for a moment, “Okay, Danny?”

Danny, whose only thoughts were that a pretty girl wanted to hang out with him, merely smiled and nodded his head towards the door. “We’ll be cool out here, man.”

Joe shrugged and went back into the Factory, as Myra slumped against the wall that Danny was leaning against. A beat passed, and then another, as the music from inside picked up intensity.

“So…you go to school around here?” He asked helplessly.

“Closer than you think.” She said, turning to face him. “Say, you want to meet a friend of mine? Ian’s really cool, and I’m sure he’d love to meet you.”

Danny blinked a little, “But, the Lower Class Brats will be on in an hour.” He wouldn’t give voice to the concern that the electric grid may not be operating right.

“We’ll bring him with us. Don’t worry; I’m sure Ian would love to meet Joe as well!” Without waiting for Danny’s ascent, she began to walk in the direction she needed to go.

He struggled with indecision for a moment, unsure as to whether to rejoin Joe in the show, or to go with Myra. He could hear the second to last warm up act playing, and, assuring himself that he would be back soon, followed after her. “Where’s this Ian guy, anyway?”

“Denny’s. He’s about ten minutes away, I promise.” She was walking much faster than she appeared to be, like her feet didn’t completely touch the ground.

There was an awkward silence as Danny struggled to keep up with her, that was broken when one of the street lamps off in the distance burst with a shower of sparks and broken glass. Danny jumped backwards and put his hand over his heart. “Jesus!”

Myra turned to look at him, “If you’re afraid of the electric grid fucking up, you can go back.” She said dismissively, unimpressed by Danny’s yelp of fear.

“No no, I’m good. I just wasn’t expecting that is all.” He said quietly, rubbing the gooseflesh that erupted across his skin for reasons that he couldn’t name. “Where are you from?”

They crossed the street as Danny’s question was asked. They continued on before Danny tried again, only for her to cut him off at the beginning of his sentence. “It isn’t far now.”

He looked around helplessly, now no longer convinced that he was making the right decision as they began to walk into the disquieting neighborhood that he had accidentally walked through earlier in the evening. He looked for street name as they passed the sign, but when he didn’t see one, he glanced backwards and saw the world falling into darkness. His eyes went wide and he tapped Myra on the shoulder.

She looked back, nonplussed, and then turned to Danny, “Look. You wanna go back to the show, go back to the show. It isn’t a big deal.” He didn’t like the way she looked at him, as if he was small, less than she was.

He squared his shoulders though, bringing himself up a little more. “Is that the Denny’s over there?”

She nodded, simply turned around and began to walk in the direction of the building. “Yeah, Ian’s going to be so excited to meet you!”

As Danny got closer to the front door, the more he was aware of lights going off behind himself. But, if he just kept walking forward, just keeping his eyes on the diner, he wouldn’t have to pay attention to that. All he had to watch was Myra hold the door open to an inexplicably empty and quiet sales floor. A sales floor that was occupied by only one customer, in the furthest back booth.

Danny couldn’t keep his brave front up any longer. “I need to go. Now.” He said to Myra, turning back to face her. He felt his bravado disappear, though, as he saw a thick and fathomless darkness outside.

“You have all the time in the world to go back, Danny. Come now. Ian is very friendly.” She corralled him and walked him towards Ian.

Danny looked around frantically, trying to step away, trying not to look at the void where Ian’s face should be, trying not to acknowledge that lights inside of the restaurant were going off, trying to ignore the increasingly sharp nails pressing into his shoulders as Myra’s true form was revealed…

-End

Class.

To whom it may regard
You’re probably wondering what it is that you’re holding in your hands. I gave my confession when I was arrested, and I made it clear that I don’t want a priest in my cell or attending my execution, so what is this if not a confession or a ‘come to god’ sort of thing? Well, the answer is pretty simple. I’m not letting anyone write the ending to my story except for me, and I’m certainly not going to allow the media’s narrative against me to go unanswered.

To set the record straight: I never said that I was anything other than one hundred percent guilty of all the charges against me. Murder in the first? Obviously true. Breaking and entering? Also true. Why go through the list? You all watched the court proceedings. So, what is there to clear up? Let’s start at the beginning.

 

I was born in a union household in St. Francis. Like most everyone else in the town, my parents were employed by Mr. Frederik’s company, Rodion Solutions. Times were good and St. Francis thrived. Property values were high, but not too high so as to keep middle class families from purchasing homes, and there were always enough jobs. We even saw the owner, Mr. Rodion, in town on a frequent basis. He insisted on being called by his first name, Richard, by everyone, even his employees, and patronized local businesses on a frequent basis. That isn’t to say that the man is a saint, but it isn’t my place to tell stories out of school. This is about me and Richard’s son, not me and John’s father.

We’d hear rumors now and then, about automation coming to Rodion Solutions, but Mr. Rodion swore that his factory would automate when it’s owned by someone else, and not a moment before. It wasn’t just talk, either, it was a stance that he stood resolute on. As a result, we had a beautiful and bustling main street, local scholarships, and a thriving arts community, proof that college towns don’t have a monopoly on culture. We’d hear rumblings about how unhappy John was with the state of his inheritance, or how deeply he disagreed with his father about his stance on automation, but Richard was resolute and firm. Due to Rodion Solutions being a privately owned company, with all shares owned by Richard, he had absolute control over how things were run. There was talk about making the company completely employee-owned, but…no one’s perfect.

Time went on. People moved, people came in, stores opened and stores closed, but Rodion’s gates were unlocked on weekdays and unemployment within St. Francis was all but completely unheard of. That is until Mr. Rodion ‘s health started to fail. It wasn’t as if we weren’t expecting it; he was a five pack a day smoker during downtime, and would be even worse during busy periods. Rather than spend the last few months of his life on chemo, only to get a trache and a lung removed, he chose to check into hospice to die as comfortably as possible in the town that he had built.

The change happened faster than any of us could believe. John was smart enough to know not to make any major changes while his father was still alive, so he waited until the day of Richard’s funeral for him to make Rodion Solutions into a publicly traded corporation. Within a month, the lay-offs started. The people of St. Francis did what they were able to, but the damage was done and could not be rolled back. All that needed to be done was for the right people to think the wrong thing about what happened to the jobs (immigration and outsourcing, not automation) and any effort to rally St. Francis against John Rodion was utterly undercut.

Unemployment exploded throughout the country and only got worse over the next two decades. With less middle class jobs, there was less money to spend in the area, which led to even more job losses. Soon enough, there were more boards across windows on Main Street than not, which resulted in an exodus out of the county. With less tax payers and lowering property values, our schools got worse and the Richard Rodion Excellence Award was dissolved, along with the rest of the philanthropic efforts headed by the fallen patriarch. St. Francis was a miniature of Detroit over an accelerated period of time. Quiet nights became filled with police sirens, and then when the local police station had to cut their budget, the sirens stopped by the need for police just grew.

I was luckier than most of my friends. We lost our house, of course, but we were able to sell to a manager that was coming into Rodion to watch over the new robots and to supervise the maintenance crew. As they were moving in and we were moving out, my parents (who were so maligned by the press, and who didn’t deserve any of their blame) drew me aside and told me not to resent them. I still remember my dad’s words as if they were seared into my mind, “Don’t blame them, kiddo. It’s not their fault, they need a job as much as anyone else, and they’re qualified to do it. It’s John Rodion and his stockholders who are to blame for this, not the people who were hired on after we were all laid off.”

That money helped us to stay afloat for awhile, but with store after store closing down in the area and major chains hesitating from opening up due to declining population numbers and household incomes there was a lot of hesitation. The press chose to paint my dad as a drunk, which was literally true, but such a term is only ever used as a character judgment which was completely unearned. It wasn’t his fault that he was totally unqualified for any other job after he worked at that factory since the day he graduated from high school. The darkest day of his life was when he took a position as a greeter for Wal-Mart. My father, the kindest, warmest and most intelligent man I’ve ever known, fell into a despair that he couldn’t climb out of after his first day in that uniform. My mom was a housekeeper for hire, and between their combined income, we were able to pay for everything but household necessities. My father cried when we had to apply for government assistance, like all of his friends eventually had to.

My parents kindly, but firmly, instilled into me a very strong work ethic as well as a large amount of respect for education and, as my dad called them, “The people who make the gears of the world turn” by which he meant public employees, retail workers, manufacturers, etc. The people who don’t wear a suit to work, unless it was bought at Goodwill. However, they never allowed me to take a job, telling me that my biggest responsibility was getting grades good enough to leave St. Francis and never come back. So, even after my dad finished off a six pack of Milwaukee’s Best, he still sat with me in the kitchen, both of our eyes straining because we only dared to turn on one light in the kitchen to keep the electric bill low, until I finished my homework. When he would have to work overnight, it was my mom that stayed up with me.

My friends were not so fortunate, though. Not everybody can stand up and stare down darkness like my parents can, and not everyone who needs chemical assistance to get through the day was able to stay themselves with their favorite substance flowing through their veins. There were adult suicides, teenage suicides, domestic abuse of every stripe and a surge of opiates methamphetamines into the area. Plenty of people did really well after our town disintegrated, just not any of the original citizens of St. Francis.

On the day of the eighth anniversary of the factory’s closure, I sent off an application to Chicago state for law, thinking that I would be able to fight for people like those hurt by the death of manufacturing, people like my parents. It wasn’t easy, between my father’s worsening alcoholism and my mom’s failing health due to the stress of cleaning every day, I wanted more than anything to return to help. To send them money. But my dad made it clear that he’d throw me out if I tried to come back. “You earned that scholarship, now do something with it.”

And so I did. Years of hard work, years of study. Years more of criminal defense so that I could set up my own practice eventually and all that I ever saw was more people like my parents, my friends and my parents’ friends all crushed by forces out of their control and merely trying to live, trying to get through their day. I put all of this out of my mind and put my nose to the grindstone until John Rodion stood in front of me, which set me on the course that I’m on now. The conversation that followed was a test of my mettle more than anything else as every class-shaming comment and remark he made served to make me angrier and angrier. That is until he made the job offer. He said I had a keen intellect, that I had risen out of squalor, that I beat all the odds and that I defied expectations when he made the squalor, when he set the odds on the table and when he decided that St. Francis’ expectations were only worth diminishing. What could I do but accept the offer?

With the money I made as a corporate lawyer, I was able to buy my parents a home and get my dad the help that he needed after AA failed him for the fourth time; he couldn’t bring himself to believe in a higher power after his best friend and my godfather died of a heroin overdose. Soon, that proved to not be enough. Even after donating most of my income to St. Francis’ public schools and doing everything else that I could for the community that created me, I still felt a hollowness that I couldn’t fill. I carried this hollow feeling with me for months, into the court, into meetings, into doc review and business lunches until I needed John’s signature on some contract or another, it isn’t important, and his secretary was away from her desk. I knew he was in his office, so I just let myself in and continued the chain of dominos falling when I saw his secretary on her knees, tears streaming down her cheeks as John Rodion, the son of a man who created a fabrication and manufacturing conglomerate out of nothing, pulled his pants back up.

I froze. What else could I do? I was reminded of when dad told us that he lost his job; my mind was unable to fully grasp what was going on in front of me. John told his secretary to go back to her desk and she passed me with my mouth wide open while he told her to close the door behind her. The ‘conversation’ that followed, he was the one that spoke while all I could do was nod or shake my head, was full of ‘it isn’t how it looks,’ as he assured me that ‘this can stay between us’ and ‘there’s no reason why any of this needs to leave my office.’ This impromptu ‘meeting’ ended with him, unbidden, doubling my salary and telling me to take the day off. To say that work never went back to normal was an understatement.

I deserve an award for not letting my façade slip over the next few years. John considered me ‘made’ after covering for whatever the hell was going on with his secretary. I felt like I was betraying yet another person for just ‘allowing’ her to think that I was complicit with whatever was going on, but it was necessary as I was allowed into John Rodion’s circle. I met his closest friends, I met his family and his children. I even met two of his mistresses. All for him to totally drop his guard around me, and to allow me to gather what I needed from him, slowly, bit by bit, to bypass the security at his house, and to know when his family will be out of his mansion. From there, it was a matter of time until my parents passed on. If that sounds morbid, it wasn’t meant to; I just didn’t want them to think of their only son, the person who they were more proud of than anyone else, as a murderer.

Finally, the time came. The guard allowed me into his neighborhood to ‘drop off some contracts that couldn’t wait until the office opened.’ Then I used the keys that I copied to get through his front door and the security code to keep the alarm from going off. Everything now depended on me taking my time, and making sure that he knew full well what was going on when I sent him to hell.

He was a heavy sleeper, which was highly conducive for when I slipped the first knife into his soft body. He screamed, because who wouldn’t, but with a totally empty manor that could fit three separate low-cost living apartment buildings in its environs there was no one anywhere near that would care in the least bit. The first knife was just a rude wake up call, as well as sending a ‘I’m not kidding’ message.

I’ll say this much for the dearly departed; he got the situation and was on the wagon right away. With a bottle of smelling salts in my pocket to keep him awake, and a hand on the first knife to twist, I let him know why I was there.
“St. Francis.” I said clearly, my eyes boring into his face.

His eyes searched all over me, unable to find anything to say.

“When your father was alive, the population was ten thousand higher than it is now, the schools were performing better and there was no crime, drugs or suicide to speak of. Have you been there lately?”

He didn’t reply, and I twisted the knife, which produced a cry of “NO!” He struggled to get his breath back, “You know as well as I do what a dump that place is.”

“Thanks to you!” I shouted, spittle flying in his face. “Thanks to you. Killing all those jobs has consequences, John, and I am those consequences.” The second knife slipped into him as easily as you would expect, as much as I paid for them. After he calmed down, I smirked down at him, “Funny thing about knives and stabbing, so long as the attacks avoids all major arteries and organs, it’s very hard to die from a knife attack. Not that you will, of course.”

“Killing me won’t bring those jobs back!” He yelled. “Nothing will! They’ll never come back!”

I couldn’t help but laugh at that, “You think that’s what I think will happen?” I leaned in close, as if there were other people in the bedroom. “This is revenge.”

“Revenge?” He coughed and blood drooled out of his mouth. “You hold yourself up as some avenger while leaving my wife and children without me! Just over a business deal?”

I couldn’t help it at that point. I just cut his throat open, “I’ll make sure to leave the phone numbers of your secretary and mistresses. Maybe they’ll help.”

 

You all know what happened after. The arrest, my confession, everything else. And here I am, waiting for my execution date. I know that this won’t fix anything, and I know no one’s shedding any tears when I go in the ground, but at least he didn’t get away with it. Now the hollow feeling is gone. Now I can sleep at night. That’s enough.