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

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Sacrament.

There used to be a low-rent apartment building down the street from the library. It’s just a vacant foundation now, and I’m sure you’ve wondered why nothing’s ever been done with the land when you’ve walked by it, or why radios don’t hold a signal on the streets around it. I know, there’s been enough talk about, but you can never tell when someone listens to the gossip at the bar or if they leave people to talk.

Anyway, I’m drifting far afield of the story. Point is, that foundation used to be a five story apartment building. Now, you have to keep this under your hat, for reasons you’ll understand, because people in the area don’t like to talk about this, okay? It was built back in the twenties, and from the local papers, it wasn’t a bad place to live. It was mostly for the loggers and the mill workers and their families, back in those days. Really diverse set of people, and a lot of mixing which wasn’t warmly received by the locals.

I can tell you’re getting ready to object, and that’s something I can understand. No one ever wants to think that their community is anything other than a sterling example for all of humanity, but you go back far enough and there’s a common lineage of bastard deeds. Fact is, though the people were safe and happy inside the tower, they were not very welcome outside of it, which was a situation that, let’s say, vacillated as years went by.

Years passed, and the people in the tower gained a little bit of traction, at least with the town council. They were able to conduct street fairs outside their building, and even pitch a few tents to make some money on the side with arts and crafts. Out of towners would travel for miles just to come to these street fairs and to purchase these exotic and fascinating talismans and art pieces. There were even a few historians that visited, sampled their wares and brought their findings back to whatever university they worked at. Said the pieces were some of the most fascinating items found in years, with no clear predecessors or kin. This attracted attention and acclaim.

More people visited, and business for the tower dwellers got better and better. They were able to move out of tents and into brick and mortar storefronts. Though there wasn’t much patronage from locals, there were more than enough tourist dollars to justify their existence. They gained more seats on the council and their influence grew. There was a tentative peace for awhile, where the tower dwellers weren’t shunned or in fear, where the general population was grateful for what they brought in.

That was until they bought the church on Brandy and Faulkner. Now, I know that building has been vacant and falling into decrepitude for years, but there’s a reason why no one’s ever tried to recover or move into it. And that’s the Church of the Chasm.

People back in the fifties weren’t the most accepting of any era in American history. This was doubly true when it came to religion. Now, the practitioners were well within their rights, and they had enough influence in the town council to get the permits passed and filed away, but the locals were not going to pretend to be happy about a heretic church in the area.

If you’ll allow me to speak at liberty, the people were not wrong in the estimation of this church. Their masses met at three in the morning, and were lit by candles, hundreds of them, blazing all around the dark building. The practitioners wore black robes and spoke a strange language that no one was able to identify. This went for their holy books as well; untranslatable, in their entirety.

They didn’t discourage anyone from witnessing their rites, but anyone who did would have left feeling disquieted, but ambivalent. The services were strange in meaningful ways, and they were almost aggressively opaque, but they had done nothing wrong. Not that this helped as the locals steadily began to take control back from the dwellers.

Slowly, bit by bit, the town turned frostily hostile to the dwellers. They lost council seat after council seat, losing all of their influence on the government in less than five local elections. Statutes and bills were passed and enacted that squeezed the dwellers back into their tower. Their shops were shuttered and zoning conflict after zoning conflict arose within the Church of the Chasm, until that had to be abandoned too.

After that, the dwellers weren’t seen in the area as much. They drove in and out of the building to go to work, but they were never seen anywhere else. Not even at the local markets. Soon, even these sojourns stopped as rumor came into town that the dwellers had purchased the building from the original owner. Not long after this rumor circulated, the doors into the tower were boarded off from the inside, leaving no way to come in or out. And that’s when things became even weirder.

The people in the surrounding neighborhood reported a disturbing chanting coming from the tower, early in the mornings. No one was ever able to really make out what was being said, or produce a recording, but enough individual reports came in to make that a credible claim. The interior of the building was dark and motionless during the day, but lit by candles at night, casting an eerie, flickering glow around it, like an aura.

We all did our best to ignore this, because what else could we do? Without any evidence of criminal activity, the police couldn’t do anything, as much as they wanted to. Being creepy as hell isn’t a crime, after all. Needless to say, property values were plummeting around the tower, and people began to complain about blinding headaches. This wasn’t just local to the tower, it was all over the town. And then, the candles went out.

When the first body showed up, no one thought much of it. A gawker had come in from out of town, carried his bad health with him and died of a heart attack while behind the wheel. But then more started to be found all over town. What do you mean ‘what do you mean?’ Bodies were appearing where there previously weren’t any bodies. None of them had identification on them, and none of them appeared on missing persons reports. They were fully dressed and they were all fully dead of natural causes.

We all knew who was to blame for this, for the headaches and we all knew what we must do. We elected a representative, a big guy name of Benedict Francis, and went to the building en masse, one bleak December morning. Benny, he strode up to the door and knocked on it heavily. Silence. You could hear the world breathing as we all waited for a response. He knocked again, and one of the boards from inside was pulled away and we were able to look inside the lobby for the first time in months. At least, we would’ve if the inside wasn’t as black as the inside of a paint can.

Their representative strode out of this blackness, in a black robe, and carrying a black book with a black hood covering his face. Benny walked over to the dwellers’ representative, and puffed out his chest. He got ready to speak when the dweller looked up at him. Benny shrank back and staggered into the crowd as we all got a look at his, her…its face.

Its skin was the color of dirty chalk, and its mouth hanged open, allowing thick, black tar to seep out of its distended mouth. Its eyes were coals of flame in a black void where its cheek bones and eye sockets ought to be. It gazed mournfully at all of us, spoke a few words in its unintelligible language, and strode back into the building, erect and purposeful. The entrance was boarded back up, and we stared at it for what felt like hours, now fully at a loss for what to do.

We decided that action had to be taken, but what could we do? We needed to get to somewhere that we could talk, somewhere away from the tower. Where we could breathe safely. It was decided that the library would fulfill all of these needs, especially since it was the only public building that was currently accessible.

We made our way to the library straight from the tower, but it seemed like every step in that direction was harder than the last, like our own muscles were fighting against us. There was something going on that no one understood, and that no one was equipped to understand, and we had to get away from the cause of it as quickly as we could.

Benny was the first one to notice, and he pointed as he told us that the sun was setting at one in the afternoon. But the stars weren’t coming out, and there was no moon in the sky. At this, we all pushed harder and were eventually able to make it to the library. Inside, lights were flickering and sound was dampened such that we nearly had to yell at the person directly next to us in order to be heard. We were becoming frantic, but we knew that something final had to be done. The yells soon became murmurs, until the sinking realization crept in, that if it was as difficult as it was to get to the library from the tower, then what on Earth could any of them hope to achieve without the necessary implements with them?

As this went on, no one noticed that Benny had peeled off from the rest of us, and jingling his car keys as he went. Outside, in the deathly stillness and quiet, there resounded the growl and roar of Benny’s hulking monstrosity of a car and the dull purr of its idling engine. We all struggled our way outside as fast as we could, and saw Benny pointed directly at the tower. His high beams were on, and he was revving the engine with a purposeful look on his face.

I made it up to his window and asked him what he was doing, but he looked straight ahead and refused to acknowledge that I was even there. All at once, he let out the brakes and roared at the tower. He barreled down the empty road like a rocket, cutting through the thick darkness that was swallowing our town.

The sound he made when he struck the outer wall was louder than it had any right or reason to be, but Benny got the job done. Though he was a few hundred feet away, we all could see the gash that he put in the side of the tower. No one could see that Benny was bent over the wheel of his car with the steering column piercing his chest. Or that the hit had punctured the gas line, creating a small puddle that was growing and coming closer to a small patch of grass that caught fire in the initial collision.

We all swam through the molasses that was growing worse by the second, but froze when we saw the car light up, embedded in the tower as it was. The insides burned for a solid five minutes and the world was lit up by the fireball that was Benny’s car. We all shaded our eyes as the flames rose higher from the car and caught on the insides of the building. The whole thing burned for hours, and never did we see a single shape fleeing from inside, nor did we hear any screams or cries of pain or anguish. Just a steadily burning building that we thought we’d never get rid of.

By and by, the air became less thick, and the pitch black sky became the gloomy December clouds that they previously were. The tower had burnt down to the ground, and not a single one of us was sad to see it go. Benny was posthumously made a hero, though there were rumblings that he didn’t ram into the building of his own volition, but that he was enacting some deeper part of the dweller’s design.

So, what was in there, you may ask? I’m going to disappoint you here and admit that the multiple investigations didn’t turn anything up. No personal effects, no furniture. No clothes and no human remains. Nothing. As if the building were vacant when it burned down. That sealed it for the entire town. This incident was not to be talked about, or even acknowledged. As far as any of the old-timers are concerned, there was no Church of the Chasm, or low-rent housing or weirdos that had street fairs.

What about the historians and such from outside? A strange footnote and an inexplicable little story. There’s thousands of them all over the place, and nothing that the outsiders saw made them think that there was anything unnatural going on. Just a hitherto unknown language, writing system and religion. Nothing else.

What happened to the people inside? Now, that’s a good question, and not one that us old-timers like to think about. My own theory is that there wasn’t anything inside of the building to burn. The reason why it looked so black on the inside is because there wasn’t anything inside of there. Nothing. No thing. The stuff rocks dream about, if you catch my meaning.

Now, and if everything before this doesn’t sound crazy, this definitely will and I know it: I don’t think any of them burned because the blackness was a tunnel into another place. That’s why they were slowing us down; they were in the process of leaving and didn’t want us to interrupt them. They were successful, and none of their people died in transit.

So, remember that on especially dark nights, when you pull your collar up around your neck, or when you feel like an alley is a little darker than it ought to be. The world is a far darker, far more strange place than you can imagine.