MIKE WEITZ - WHAT COMES AROUND
WHAT COMES AROUND
Danny wasn’t the first choice. Or the second.
The context was interchangeable.
He was the fourth or fifth slowest boy to run the bases at baseball practice. He could throw alright, but he couldn’t catch anything.
After Danny tried out for pitcher, Coach Ramsey announced to the team that Danny couldn’t hit a brick wall with an egg. The kids laughed. Danny frowned. Then he laughed. Then he frowned again. Everyone knew he wasn’t that bad of a thrower, and he couldn’t figure out why coach decided to single him out and label him with the humiliation.
None of that matters though, because Danny quit the baseball team on the last day of the second week of practice. He left his mitt in the grass. It was his father’s mitt. His mother told him that the day he found it, and from the first day he used it he always assumed that was what made him suck so bad.
Needless to say, Danny hated baseball. He hated sports altogether. He didn’t hate a lot of things, and the number only diminished in time, but for what he did the emotion was responsibly nurtured.
There was always more love than hate in Danny, his mother used to claim—but everyone knew she kept a bottle of vodka under the kitchen sink that swished around all day and hardly ever settled.
Danny wasn’t the first choice. Or the second. They had to name him something though, and finally they came to an agreement for the first time in five years. Then he took off.
But at least he left his baseball mitt.
Danny wasn’t a big oaf or a little tyke. He wasn’t long or stout, skinny or thick. He wasn’t much.
But he was quick in small doses. Even though his reflexes always failed him— except on one occasion—at least he had them. That was more to say than some kids. A lot of kids, actually. Or at least, that’s what Danny liked to think.
One time in the second grade, Danny’s reflexes served and failed him when he was running for his life from Ronnie Rathborn.
“That Ronnie has a crippled soul.”
That’s what Danny’s mother always said about him, but you know what they said about her.
Danny was a curious boy. He liked to do different things at recess because it sucked trying to fit in with the masses in football or soccer. Out there on the athletic fields, everyone was always trying to do something amazing, and because of that hardly anyone ever could. Certainly not Danny. For one thing, the ball never came to him—and when it did, it was always a clumsy encounter. Touching the ball made Danny feel like he was meeting a stranger.
So one day Danny decided to see what Ronnie Rathborn was doing, squatting over the gravel by the big tractor tires. Upon inquiry, Ronnie apprehensively explained that he was looking for arrowheads.
To kids in the second grade, when looking for rare stones or artifacts on the playground, every triangular rock is an arrowhead left behind by the Indians.
Once this presupposition was revealed to him, Danny’s mind dilated with inspiration. Before he knew it, he was looking for arrowheads too and it turned out he had quite the eye for it. In minutes he had scavenged a considerable collection. Even more than Ronnie. That rubbed up a sore in Ronnie’s mind, and the sore burned white when Danny found a really big arrowhead, the biggest yet. As soon as Danny declared his find and picked it up, Ronnie decided he had seen it first.
Twenty seconds later, Danny was running for his life.
He had never run for his life before then, and he didn’t for a long time afterwards. He should have known better than to play with Ronnie. There were a lot of stories about him that made Danny’s heart feel pink and clammy and raked his brain with nervousness. To Danny, Ronny’s last name was all too appropriate. It made him think everyone’s names must mean something about them.
Danny was quick in small doses, but he was also the fourth or fifth slowest kid to run the bases. Ronnie would have caught him if he hadn’t ducked.
There were pull-up bars on the playground; three different sizes positioned in zigzagging angles as an abstract expression of a trestle. Pull-ups suck. They’re no fun at all, and they’re way too hard. Every kid knows that, so nobody ever used them the right way. Only now and then could a kid be found swinging lackadaisically, and only for a moment. On even rarer occasions, kids (girls mostly) would show off the brave and envious talent of hanging upside down from their knees with no hands.
Most of the time though, nobody ever used those pull up bars. They were one of the things left out. Things barely noticed and forgotten, like the pine tree in the photograph that’s missing in the painting.
Anyway, it just so happens that Danny ran right for those zigzagging bars the day he was chased by Ronnie Rathborn. He didn’t mean to. He was just trying to get away. His vision was swollen. Red ellipticals blipped and spread like waves in a sonar. His hairline was crowned with tingles and it felt like his brain was on a Bunsen burner. He glanced back and saw Ronnie gaining, heard the cheers of unaware children rising and resounding, and then he looked ahead and his reflexes kicked in. Danny ducked and sprained his ankle because even though in this instance his reflexes served him, they also simultaneously failed him. Once activated, they functioned this way every single time, up until that one time.
Ronnie was too enraged for reflexes. He ran nose-first into the lowest bar.
Danny ended up giving Ronnie the arrowhead in the nurse’s office. Seeing someone get hurt like that, seeing all their hatred get replaced with agony and vulnerability in a split-second makes you realize certain insignificances. It wasn’t that big of a deal to give one arrowhead away. He’d amassed over a dozen others, and besides, what good were they even for? What could you even do with them?
Danny wasn’t much, but he had a few things. The first thing he had was his life. The last thing he had was a heart attack. But there were a few other things in the line of time between, things much more impactful than an arrowhead or an old baseball mitt.
One of those things saved his life, for a while. It was a .357 magnum, acquired when Danny was eighteen.
Danny might not have been much, but for all his limitations and shortcomings, he was an enigma. At times, he was even a living paradox.
And a killer.
“But Danny isn’t a bad kid though.” his mother used to say. But again, you know what they said about her.
Danny loved his mother. But unfortunately for him, he was never her first choice. Or her second.
Danny dropped out of high school his senior year. He didn’t do drugs, but he wasn’t a prep. He didn’t play sports, but he wasn’t obscenely skinny or overweight. He never kissed a girl, but he didn’t come off to girls as distant or estranged. In many respects, he was parallel to that trestle of pull-up bars.
Danny studied now and then, but he didn’t get good grades. That was one of the primary reasons he decided to drop out. It was the same thing over and over again with no rewarding outcome no matter what he did. He could throw alright, but even so, Coach Ramsey told the whole team he couldn’t hit a brick wall with an egg.
Well for the record, Coach Ramsey had a fat ass. That’s what Danny told the team about him. That got them laughing too. Not as loud, though. Not nearly as loud.
But that didn’t really matter. They weren’t his genuine friends. Danny didn’t have genuine friends because he wasn’t the first choice. Or the second. On and on and on.
For that very reason, the girls at school never expressed romantic interest in him. On the dark side, Danny never knew passionate love. On the bright side, he was never forced to trade his dreams for heartwarming photographs.
But then, he never really had any dreams.
When he was eighteen, before he acquired the gun, Danny’s mother developed chronic liver cirrhosis. Danny loved his mother, even though she wasn’t his first or second choice either. Still, it was sad. It really squeezed him up, made him cry a little. The only person he dimly hoped to see at the funeral didn’t even attend. There were plenty of roses left by the headstone, but those die too. In fact, all they do is die.
After the funeral he didn’t know what to do. His fatalistic view of his own actions only increased in his sorrow, and so he didn’t do much of anything.
A few weeks later he was homeless, destined to eventually seek refuge in a group of potential friends claiming to offer fellowship and security.
Around that time, Danny was primarily living off disposed sustenance salvaged from Arby’s trashcans. Danny wasn’t much, but he was quite observant. He accurately recognized Arby’s as one of the slightly more distinguished fast food chains. While McDonalds and Taco Bell rested at the ground level, the way Danny perceived, Arby’s ranked above them, both in terms of food presentation and quality. Because of this it seemed Arby’s appealed to a slightly higher class. Because of that, its restaurants experienced a noticeably higher percentage of wasted food. Not really wasted though, thanks to Danny.
Danny wasn’t forced to eat out of the dumpster. His mother left him a little over $30,000 dollars in savings. On top of that, her life insurance paid a flat 100 grand. The way Danny interpreted it, they just transformed her into money. His mother was now $130,000, sitting in some vault. Meanwhile in the cemetery, all the roses died.
He couldn’t spend it. To spend a dime would be to spend a dime of her. Who could amputate and trade any portion of their own mother? Aside from one single withdrawal, the major bulk of her currency sat in the account and accrued interest forever.
And so, it doesn’t matter either. Because money that cannot be spent isn’t worth a penny.
Danny didn’t think of himself as a loser or a homeless man or a beggar. Without having the precise words in mind, he considered himself a self-sufficient treasure hunter. After engaging in conversation with him, one could quickly realize that Danny didn’t have to eat Arby’s garbage, and he certainly didn’t have to sleep on the benches situated on the walkway of the McArthur Family Insurance building’s park and recreation area.
One of those who obtained this realization was a young man named Deandre Watkins. Deandre worked in Arby’s kitchen. He’d been to jail a number of times, but never prison, which he took great pride in boasting about now and then. Deandre suffered and benefitted from a habit of hollowing out grape swisher cigars, filling them with marijuana and smoking at least one before every Arby’s shift. Doing so brought on a strange and stimulating alleviation to him. It altered his perceptions on various things to various degrees. Deandre believed that it made him kinder and more accepting of things—especially the poor unfortunate soul who hung out around the dumpster every night, waiting for the trash.
One evening, when the moon was brighter than the surrounding spectrum of stars, and the bewitched ally cats crept out from hiding and mewled songs of apathy that rose to the urban rooftops and hung as a sonic fog, Danny was attacked.
The men were fiends.
The reason was evil fun.
Those last two words coalesce all too often following an excessive consumption of alcohol. They swirl in with the liquid that drowns the conscience and premeditation, resulting in a series of blind, vilified actions.
In the ally, Danny slouched against the dumpster, spellbound by the tune of the felines yet unaware of its ominous abode. As time turned, it was a Friday night. Plenty of pedestrians strolled the streets that ran adjacent to the head and tail of the ally. In that district of the city, violence was not typically heard until the 2 am curfew when bartenders soured the mood by forcing the inebriated out into the streets.
In other words, the event was out of the ordinary as it was only 10 till 11. Danny didn’t even hear them coming.
How could he? The music was so splendid, so magically enrapturing. Never before had he heard such a spectacle.
Enlightenment occurred. Danny realized that music is truly an expressive outlet of emotion. It is created, fueled and driven through emotion, by emotion—and the universal effect upon hearing it is always one of emotion. As he listened, Danny concluded all of this through an absence of words.
Meanwhile, dark shapes approached.
As the bottle fell, air whooshed into the neck. Upon contact, the body of glass shattered and the neck bit into the palm of the oppressor.
Danny flew down several flights of stairs. He plummeted towards a ground that continuously retreated away, until his shoulder and cheekbone broke the loop, thunking against the pavement.
He didn’t hear the gahooling or the profanity after the bottle bit back. He didn’t hear the approach or the escape at all.
Up until the blackout, all Danny heard was the whoosh of the bottle and the mewling of the cats.
What comes around often comes as an unforeseen subtlety. Whether it is catastrophic or anticlimactic, the consequence always activates a change. Even when it results in a persistent lack of change, the persistence itself is the point.
All for good reason. If what comes around could be foreseen, we would have nothing to learn. There would be no cause and effect. Freewill would either cease to exist or bear arms against action in an infinite stalemate.
Even so, when what comes around comes, expected or not, it rarely bothers to notify. Oftentimes it doesn’t even knock. It barges into the present and does what it must to the mind.
Danny wasn’t the first choice. Or the second. But unfortunately for him, two prior targets had seen the men advancing and managed to escape.
Pain may be the most trusted scout to verify an incoming demise, but Danny did not die the night he was struck by the bottle. He did not feel any pain at all until he was shaken awake several minutes later.
It was Deandre Watkins that woke him, reeking of a pungent cologne pulled over the face of the illegal stench beneath.
As Danny came to, Deandre swore something wicked and informed him that his head was bleeding. Danny said nothing and tried to recollect. The effort was like catching fireflies on a summer night. Back within the days of his youth, he had spent evenings stockpiling the insects in glass jars with holes nailed into the lid. He had to hammer holes in so that the fireflies could breathe. But if he tapped them in too far with too big of a nail, some of the smarter ones would creep out and escape.
That didn’t matter too much though, because Danny only kept them for the night. Throughout it, he’d sleep restlessly and watch them from his bed in mesmerized increments with his comforter tucked under his chin. With the jar sitting on the windowsill, he’d watch the little life forms scour every centimeter of the glass, their antennae waving, their behinds blinking, their wings extending and closing. On several occasions, he noticed some of them kept their lights on much longer than the others. He always thought those were the happy ones.
No matter how many remained in the morning, Danny always opened the day by unscrewing the lid and letting them go. He loved that. It made him feel more like an innkeeper than a kidnapper. Afterwards he would get giddy. He would find himself smiling and laughing all throughout the rest of the day no matter what happened, because hardly anything feels better than setting something free.
Torn pages of these memories billowed through Danny’s mind as Deandre Watkins helped him to his feet, heaving him by the armpits.
Danny struggled to find balance. He was never an expert at it. The concept lived very far away from him. With a mother who always kept a bottle of vodka swishing under the kitchen sink, the true meaning and value of the term was never properly ingrained.
Deandre swore again as Danny stumbled under his hands. He swore so often his managers made sure he hardly ever saw a cash register. But he made up for it with other skills. He had fast hands. Good memory too, as hard as it was to believe. Waiting times decreased when he was in the kitchen. More importantly though, the real underlying reason his managers never once considered firing him was because they were all a little afraid of Deandre Watkins. He was rumored to be deeply affiliated with a certain group.
The cats stopped mewling after the shattering of the bottle. They fled the scene and did not return until long after Deandre and Danny departed.
After shouldering him across the parking lot, Deandre flicked a few pieces of glass out of Danny’s hair while he posted up against the side of the building.
At that moment, Deandre’s manager bumbled around a corner. She was quite obese. Her skin was flushed in all the wrong areas. She was smoking a cigarette. Her presence made Danny feel sick.
She asked what happened using a very apprehensive and primitive selection of words. She knew who Danny was. She had made a number of idle threats against him in days past.
Deandre informed her, and the two of them leaned in for a closer look at the cut on Danny’s head.
The manager decided Danny would need to get stitches and referred him to a hospital. She took a final vacuous inhale of that cigarette, smudged it out on the side of the building, flicked it and offered to call an ambulance. Danny declined. He’d never ridden in an ambulance before. The thought of so many lights and noises was unnerving. Besides, aside from the fog within and the feeling of a cactus prickle on top of his head, he felt ok. Blood slid down the back of his scalp, but even though he felt the warmth, he couldn’t see any of it, so he wasn’t very worried.
After a more scrutinized observation, Deandre concurred with his supervisor that Danny was indeed going to need stitches, as well as a concussion analysis. Danny knew about stitches. He’d gotten them on his head once before. They weren’t so bad, as long as you didn’t watch. You had to wall your eyes off from the utensils on the metal tray. If you just watched the TV you were fine.
Reluctantly, Danny agreed to visit the hospital, but he did not want to ride in an ambulance. He would get there the same way he got everywhere. He looked around and asked them which direction to start walking.
The manager shrugged and waddled back inside to finish closing shop. She could diagnose, but for someone of her magnitude, it was far too much effort to assume any form of responsibility. She was a pitiful sight to Danny. It was very alleviating to have her gone.
Deandre sighed heavily. He shook his head, looked up at the stars, looked down, swore under his breath and finally offered to drive Danny.
They laughed at him when Danny said he could pay for the operation in full, but the law required they tend to him anyway and he certainly did need the stitches. Seven of them, to be exact. They told Danny they would send him a bill. He gave them his mother’s address and failed to mention it was no longer his place of residency—to no immediate consequence. The nurses at the front desk didn’t ask too many questions. They assured him confidently and succinctly that they would be in touch.
The next morning, Danny ran an errand.
The next night, Danny returned to Arby’s and waited behind the dumpster. The cats crept out again to keep him company, but he no longer trusted them, and their voices echoed his skepticism. This time, their song was feral and off-pitch. The sounds spiked and plummeted and didn’t carry any cadence. It wasn’t music. It was noise, the polar opposite of what it had been the night before. Those cats never sang like that again.
Sure enough, around 11 o’clock, Deandre Watkins appeared, exiting through the back door, dragging a large black trash bag in each hand. Danny raised one arm to flag him down and met him in the middle of the parking lot, thanking him with a few short words and the presentation of a brown paper bag containing $5,000.
Looking in, Deandre’s heart skipped a beat. He threw his head around furiously, expecting a trick or a trap. This was not real. Surely it had to be a sting of some kind. Surely the police were on to him and the group he was affiliated with and all of their illegal activities. His high, paranoid mind was certain of it. Beyond certain!
He shoved the bag back into Danny’s arms and spit out a black threat, centering his thoughts on the gun in his Cadillac’s glove box.
Danny wasn’t much, and that included stupid. He had assumed Deandre’s reaction would be volatile.
He also realized in that moment that he would never ever consider taking another cent of his mother out of the bank again. The lurching guilt was just too great.
Deandre threatened Danny a second time. He demanded an immediate explanation in a choice of words that suggested his intelligence quotient was far lower than it actually was. He closed the threat by mentioning the secret weapon in his car, fifty meters behind them. His eyes glared with sinister intent.
Danny frowned. He offered the bag again and said he stole it.
After nothing happened for a grueling duration, Deandre finally calmed down and decided to believe Danny. He gave him a playful punch in the shoulder and snatched the bag. He thumbed the bills inside the bag and told Danny that he was one stupid white boy.
Danny wasn’t sure how to think about this. Based on the context though, Danny understood that Deandre was both insulting and thanking him at the same time. Danny smiled. Then he nodded and turned around to take his leave with Deandre’s trash bags in hand, when a small revelation occurred.
“Hold up.” Deandre said.
Danny stopped and turned back to him.
“Man, I ain’t about to letchu eat the fuckin’ trash!” Deandre exclaimed. “Pitch that shit in the dump and come on.”
Deandre drove Danny deep into the inner city, deeper than he had ever been before. On the drive, Deandre Watkins looked ahead and turned up his music and snarled a little, muttering snippets of the lyrics here and there. He had a gold tooth. Each time he snarled it glinted like a yellow pearl at the bottom of a black abyss.
Danny felt relief when Deandre pulled into a KFC drive-thru. He drove too fast, and his music was depraved. But now that they were no longer in motion, the succession of events slowed down enough for him to strengthen his nerves and reflect on whether or not it was a helpful or harmful decision to get inside Deandre Watkins’ Cadillac for the second time. Danny wondered if there really was a gun in the glove box. He decided there probably was, but he didn’t think that Deandre would ever use it against him. Danny thought himself a decent person. He believed that the more time Deandre spent with him, the more he would come to trust him, because Danny would never do anything to hurt the man who helped him.
They ordered a bucket of chicken and two pints of mashed potatoes. At the window, Deandre laughed, remarked and clapped hands with the grisly man behind the register, who did not ask him to pay for their meal.
Later, Deandre and Danny ate together in the car under the red glow of an electric billboard looming overhead. While their lips smacked on the chicken, Deandre told Danny about his group. He told Danny they were looking for recruits, and expressed his opinion that while Danny was certainly a very unintelligent white boy, he clearly wasn’t worthless. He obviously possessed a talent in one form or another. The money could attest to that. Although Danny wasn’t his first choice or his second for an ideal recruit, he had to be useful in some sense of the term.
In the beginning of Deandre’s pitch, Danny expressed little interest. The chicken was crispy, warm and delicious. Since Deandre hadn’t used Danny’s mother to pay for it, it didn’t make him feel sick to eat it. Danny hadn’t eaten all day, and at that moment he cared a lot more about eating than some group.
Deandre continued his proposition patiently and Danny stopped listening altogether.
He looked around. They were in a large vacant parking lot, surrounded by industrial giants. Time and earth and weather had all worked together to crack the lot apart like an eggshell under a boot. Weeds and grass reached out from the cracks with scrawny, desperate green arms, giving Danny a haunting vision of the damned reaching out from a thin crevice to hell.
He looked up and away from them, at the billboard.
The advertisement on it was for a brand of condoms. Next to the logo was a white caption that stated:
When The Time Comes, We’ve Got You Covered!
It was a crude, bold statement. The innuendo was as naked as the act in daylight The red background behind it beamed and Danny even found the very light itself to be obscene and aggressive—intrusive in a way. Now he wondered, why had they come around to this place? Why couldn’t they just eat in the KFC parking lot?
Deandre Watkins continued talking and licking his lips. Danny realized he had stopped eating. He looked down at the piece of chicken in his hands. It was greasy. It evoked the impulse to wash them. He looked back at the billboard and the color reminded him of hell, just like those weeds had. It made Danny very uneasy to think about hell.
He looked back at Deandre and tuned in.
Deandre was just wrapping up a long-winded backstory on how he came to be a part of the group. This given, he looked at Danny and told him flatly that he could get him initiated if he desired.
Danny remained skeptical about this, until Deandre followed up by claiming that his group could provide Danny with protection.
Stars aligned in Danny’s mind. He thought about the whoosh of the bottle and the mewling of the cats. He thought about flying down flights of stairs, as if someone had kicked him from behind. He thought about the stitches on the back of his head. He raised a hand and ran two fingers over the threaded grooves.
Danny finished his piece of chicken and told Deandre he might be interested.
Suddenly Deandre Watkins turned serious. His face darkened, and seemed to bend like a shadow split by the wall and ceiling. He told Danny in a different set of words that there was no room for “might” in joining this group. One had to be completely certain and instantaneously devoted. Deandre compared the group to a family. He lifted his forearm and showed Danny a tattoo he had that apparently proved his prestigious stature. Then he delivered a sincere, extensive elaboration on why and how the group was like a family—but the more he spoke of it as such, the more Danny thought of it as a cult.
But it would be nice to have protection.
Deandre concluded his speech with a final focus on the subjects of betrayal, desertion and sin. He explained to Danny that within the family, if done for the good of the family all sins are justified. But betraying or deserting the family is not only a sin, but the most unforgivable one can ever commit. Deandre assured him that doing so would cause the effect of fatal consequences.
Danny considered the offer, initially uncertain of what or how much to believe. He decided Deandre was probably a lot more intelligent and cunning than he smelled and sounded, swearing every sentence and stinking of that sour, skunk-like odor.
And the KFC was good. Danny hadn’t eaten it in years. He had forgotten how savory it was, how delectable. Danny asked if he could receive more free KFC if he joined his group.
Deandre Watkins threw his head back and howled. Then he shook his head and closed his eyes voicing a very demeaning opinion of Danny.
But his response that followed sealed the deal.
Far off, something moaned in the distance. It came around without explanation, infiltrating all the perforated steel components of the surrounding industrial structures as a crazed and foreign phenomenon.
Farther off, smokestacks billowed the gas of business that will never be finished. Above them, the atmosphere embraced the man-made chemicals. The clouds shifted to make room, and the smog settled in.
Danny wasn’t the first choice. Or the second. They came around to him though, because what comes around comes in accordance with eventuality, especially when provoked by a persistence form of cause. In this case, the cause was Deandre Watkins. After receiving $5,000 cash, he was determined to indoctrinate Danny into his group out of a nagging belief that there was more where that came from, even though Danny never gave any notion to the idea.
After much deliberation, the group’s leadership trifecta agreed to accept Danny as one of their own, if he performed a necessary act of initiation.
Shortly after the meeting with them, in which these terms were established, Deandre bestowed upon Danny a proud, fatherly smile and the .357 magnum. The purpose of immediate possession was to create camaraderie between the owner and the object. Danny was encouraged—passively mandated to maintain perpetual custody and keep the weapon concealed on his person at all times. What began with a similar sense of discomfort as in the days following an arranged marriage, soon developed into a functioning union between man and mechanism.
Two weeks later, Danny was sitting in the backseat of a Chevrolet Tahoe. Danny knew what he had to do. The instructions and the concept were clear, but the moral implications were a viscous mud that seeped into and clung in the grooves of his brain.
Two men sat in the front seats ahead of him and neither of them was Deandre Watkins. It three o’clock in the afternoon and he had just started his shift at Arby’s.
The back seats of the Tahoe rank of the sour-skunk smell Danny had now grown accustomed to. These men were not the appointed leaders, but they clearly held high positions within the inner circle. Danny identified them as the influencers, the recruiters, the role models of the same or similar rank and class to Deandre Watkins. They were the ones raising up the streets, the ones children look up to and mimic and want to be like. Their words, actions and appearance attracted the younger generations and channeled the course of their future.
The Tahoe approached a red light and the tires rotated to a stop. One of the men, the one in the passenger seat, turned around and faced Danny. He was the more intimidating of the two. He spoke as if he was bent on something. His tone rose and fell in a similar octave to the eerie noise of the cats. Danny looked at him and saw his ideology snaked across his arms in cursive phrases and violent designs. Dreadlocks of hair hung to his shoulders in vines, and Danny thought the hairstyle’s name was very appropriate.
The passenger told Danny they were getting close and asked if he was ready.
Danny said nothing. He met the eyes of the driver in the rearview mirror and swallowed.
They did not approve. He could feel it as a dense oppressive weight on his shoulders and inside the back of his head. They did not believe he was capable. Deandre may have put in a good word for him, but words alone do not verify competence.
Finally Danny looked back at the passenger and nodded, but his face was tight and superficial.
The light turned green and the tires resumed their course.
“But Danny isn’t a bad kid though,” his mother used to say. But the bookending words of that statement had a cruel way of diluting its significance.
The Tahoe turned a corner. Dusty light filtered in through the tinted window.
They were not going to let him go through with it, Danny suddenly realized. That turn was not a part of the procedure. They were not even taking him to the target. That last exchange was a test of competence and he had failed it miserably. In all likelihood they were now taking him back to the hideout where they would strip him of his mechanism and the clothes on his back, both of whom they had provided. Perhaps they would even take away his life. All because of his failure to demonstrate an unwavering allegiance and alacrity mere moments ago.
The Tahoe turned again. The destination came into view.
Danny’s paranoia subsided. He thought about the dense lump, the powerful tool he had been keeping with him day and night that was now supposed to be an extension of himself. His mind focused in on that weight. It still felt a little foreign to him, especially when he thought about what he was supposed to do with it.
Suddenly, a storm surge of moral liability surfed into his mind, crashing against his levees of conscience, spouting the same revolution of philosophic questions that had plagued him since the very briefing of this mission.
Was he a bad person?
Was the act he was about to do bad?
The family’s implanted precept appeared:
The act was for the good of the family and for the good of him, and if the family was right, and no one else truly cared about him, how could it be?
But now he set himself apart from this and thought a little more critically. Did other people still matter, even if they didn’t care about you? The Bible said they did. The law said they did. The family said they did not. As a child, Danny used to believe in the Bible. Now he wasn’t sure what he believed in. Sitting in the back of the Tahoe, approaching the area of action, Danny supposed he hadn’t known what he believed in for a very long time. And so, he concluded, for a very long time he supposed he hadn’t believed in anything.
Was all of that about to change?
The Tahoe closed in. The front passenger tongue-lashed Danny to prepare himself. Danny wrapped one hand around what was supposed to be an extension of him, tucked inside his waistband, pulled it out and examined it.
It was a very warm day. Scattershot clusters of cloud hovered in the sky. Danny glanced up at them and found irony. The clouds had a very clear purpose: to grace the creatures of the world with temporary alleviation from the sun. If only his purpose was so simple. So clean.
Danny tightened his grip, clenched his jaw and wondered about purpose altogether. Did he even have one? Did destiny exist at all?
The setting of the hit was very unusual. It was the front entrance of a large, cubic department store. The target was allegedly expecting to enter the Tahoe and receive a large, yet concealable quantity of product.
That given, the plan was intentionally crafted to lend itself to adaptability. If no witnesses were around, Danny was to eliminate the target outright as he approached the vehicle. If witnesses were present, the target would be allowed to enter the vehicle and the two men would then drive them to a more remote location where Danny would then dispose of him.
Danny didn’t know much about the target. All the family had told him was that the target had been leeching product and profits from them, little by little, over the course of a very long time. The target had been scolded for and warned against doing this many times in the past, but continued his misbehavior defiantly. Because of that, it was time for his relationships with the family and reality to end.
The Tahoe pulled into the parking lot of the department store and coasted toward the entrance.
Danny identified his target. Even from a distance, he singled him out and designated him as someone who deserved to die. The whole of his face was unsightly, but not by any explicit markings or disfigurements. His eyes were close together. The eyebrows, cliffed and shifty. The nose was a downturned beak. His mouth curved up in a lazy sneer. It was impossible to tell if he was purposely scowling, or if his resting face set itself into the expression naturally. He looked like a loan shark; like someone who had taken full advantage of every opportunity and person he had ever known.
Danny had met enough men like him. Men like him could never be satisfied, because they would never stop wanting more. They would never stop wanting the things they could not have.
He was standing next to a trashcan smoking a cigarette and wearing a light jacket, mildly suspicious considering the summer atmosphere.
The final approach was insanely gradual. The dislikable target turned his slant face over to it, brought the cigarette to his lips and watched. The man in the passenger’s seat pointed him out and confirmed his identity.
Just before the action occurred, Danny had time cycle through one final succession of thoughts.
His mother had once told him that any act of murder was the Devil’s work, and anyone who committed murder was an instrument of the Devil. Danny turned within and reached around blindly in his mind for the strings that attached him to the evil one, but he couldn’t find anything. Perhaps because the act had yet to occur.
The Tahoe pulled up in the drop-off lane of the front entrance, directly in front of the target. Danny whipped his head around wildly, looking for potential witnesses. The two men up front did the same, more casually.
There was no one around that they could see.
Danny was about to push the button to roll down his window, when one of the men instructed him to wait and only shoot the man right as he opened the door to get in. That way, he would eliminate any possibility of missing.
Danny’s posture straightened. His eyes sharpened and his finger licked the trigger. Adrenaline processed smoothly within him like the inner workings of a well-oiled machine. He experienced the contradiction that he could wait forever, and that he simply could not take it anymore at the same time. He braced himself for necessity, yet he remained conflicted on what he might do.
But for the moment that remained irrelevant because the target did not move. He stared at the vehicle, and within the vehicle Danny stared back at him. Something was put off. The target sensed it. He had to. Surely he could feel the rising current, the shift of the wind, the sudden increase of pressure in the air, the tow of gravity, tension, the imminence. To Danny, it was all a great convection of a mad storm. Surely, there was no possible way the target in question could overlook the trap that lay before him.
Finally, the target smudged out his cigarette and nodded at the van. Then he turned around and went inside the department store.
The role model in the passenger’s seat swore. The driver followed suit, then asked his cohort, who apparently had much more experience in dealing with this target, what could’ve provoked this unforeseen deviation.
The passenger swore again, and continued swearing throughout his explanation. He retrieved a cigarette from a pack in his front pocket, flicked a lighter and brought black light to the situation. He said that every now and then exchanges in the past had occurred in the bathrooms of establishments. Although this was not the predetermined deal in this particular case, it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary for the target to spontaneously change plans. That was just another reason he needed to die.
Danny tucked the gun back into his waistband, feeling like a guppy off the hook.
Then the man in the front passenger seat turned around and faced him with newfound aggression. One might say he looked like a different person, but Danny’s impression was that he no longer resembled a person at all. His eyes were piercing. There was red in them. The redness of the Devil. It was just as his mother had said.
Danny stifled a gasp. Those eyes continued glaring. Danny compared them to the eyes of a Chinese dragon. Before the Devil in the man even issued the command, his true nature was revealed. He was a murderer of an untold number. He delighted in it. It hung over and around him like a black cape and cowl.
Danny felt fear. He felt a great mistake had been made. He wanted to run, but the men would not allow it. Danny was chained to the situation, chained to the will of the family. His fate, if it ever had been, was now certainly out of his hands.
Danny wasn’t much.
But he was pretty perceptive. He saw the sum of the man before him—the sum that was greater than the whole of its parts—and obtained a very accurate premonition of what the man was going to say before he even said it.
The man reached behind him and retrieved a military combat knife, nine inches in length. Danny accepted it tentatively and stared at it, grateful for the excuse to shy his away from those devilish eyes. He unsheathed the blade halfway, sheathed it, and wondered nervously about its history. Now he was the keeper of both the gun and the knife, and he feared the added power bestowed upon him.
The role model in the passenger’s seat spoke to Danny with unblinking eyes that Danny from there on avoided. He told Danny that silence is golden. Danny thought about the whoosh of the bottle that struck him. The knife wouldn’t whoosh like that. It would cut a woodwind sound through the air, higher than the top note of a flute.
The front passenger, who was increasingly anxious to be rid of Danny, instructed him to twist the knife when it was inside and jerk it out at an upward or downward angle to disembowel as much as possible.
Danny understood, but now the game had changed. Change was the law of life his mother used to say, but from the studious way she recited them, Danny always knew those were not her words. In any event though, Danny thought of those words now and addressed their doppelganger. For as it now appeared, change was also the law of death.
The front passenger lambasted Danny again, and he exited the vehicle graciously and gracelessly. He felt clunky and absurd equipped with two weapons. He concealed them next to each other as two blatant bulges in the forefront of his waistband. If anyone gave him a good and proper lookover they would doubtlessly discern the shapes.
Luckily for Danny, people often fail to see what they are not searching for.
Danny entered the outlet store.
Inside, he observed a fancifully organized labyrinth of greed. Gold and white were the primary colors. They were strewn about out the interior in painted ribbons riding the walls. They embellished the tables amid the rows of folded garments and they were showcased in style on the manikins.
All throughout these temptation grounds, consumers scurried to and fro, clicking hangers and peeking at articles in timid birdlike gestures. Now and again they would pick something out, raise it to their eyes and debate amongst themselves if the object in question was one they desired badly enough to purchase.
It was a relatively busy environment, which was odd considering how the parking lot had seemed so desolate. At the center of the hexagonal layout were two crisscrossed legs of escalators. On the tiled floor at the base of them, a woman was devotedly playing the piano. She rolled her shoulders over the keys and drug out a somber tune with a dramatic level of duress. In fact, to Danny, the pianist’s obnoxious body expressions were much more interesting than the sounds she produced.
Danny stood in the entryway for a while observing that pianist, charmed by her fervency. She was quite the spectacle, in her own unorthodox way. And he thought it strange that none of the other patrons seemed to be effected by her at all.
Then as if plummeting out of a daydream, he recalled his mission and searched around for the target with the dislikable face. When he didn’t see him, he scanned the walls for the bathrooms.
A family of five passed by. Every single one of them was hideously overweight. They took up so much aisle space that the supposed mother brushed into Danny, standing on one side. Her enormous paper bag slid across the pistol bulge in his waistband.
“Whoop, sorry!” she hollered out, before immediately discrediting the apology, complaining to the rest of her family about what in the hell that man was doing standing there like a bump on a log.
Danny listened to her until the doors shut behind them, and consequently decided it was probably best to refrain from calling attention to himself. He set off through the store, cautious and capricious, taking impulsive care to refrain from straying off the road of white tiles to the thin green carpet of distraction.
On either side of him, white and gold gilded mannequins perched in fashionable frozen poses. To Danny, they appeared all too similar.
He straightened his gaze and raised his eyes up and ahead of him, still on the lookout for the bathroom signs, but after traversing halfway around the store and seeing nothing of the sort, he paused.
None of this had been foreseen. None of it was supposed to happen. And now every single one of those mannequins looming up on either side of him seemed to be staring down. It was as if a secret reproach carved into their slitted lips and apathetic eyes was glaring down upon him. It seemed this dispersed infantry of inanimate white judges disapproved of him just as much as the black sentient ones had back inside the Tahoe. Danny hardly had to ask himself to know that if they had to pick a hitman, he wouldn’t have been their first choice. Or their second.
And yet, here he was.
An employee approached him. She was a pretty little thing, rolling a stunted-looking shopping cart of either returned or discarded goods. Her blond hair was pulled back into a short tight ponytail that flicked around like a tassel behind her freckled moon face. Her chipmunk cheeks lifted to a smile, while her eyes observed Danny with slight suspicion, but not enough to notice a bulge. She asked him if he was finding everything ok.
Danny looked at her and wondered what she was thinking about him. He said no. He said he needed to find the bathroom.
It was closer than he’d thought. A little corner cove backed up in the section of men’s formal apparel. In fact, it was remarkable he hadn’t found it on his own. For a moment, Danny was taken aback by this failure, but there was no time to stand around. He had a mission to accomplish. Or a mission to abort. Either way, there was only one way to find out.
The bathroom was quaint. It smelled nice, like flowers mixed with mint. The floor tiles were neatly aligned. The wallpaper was gold with a darker gold spaghetti design ribboned loosely throughout. The sinks were stainless steel and sent back obtuse reflections. There wasn’t a smudge or a stain in there, unless you looked really close.
There were two urinals and one stall, and Danny saw feet beneath the stall. They were the heavy honeycomb-colored construction worker’s boots, steel-toed probably. They shifted. The roll of toilet paper rattled. Danny couldn’t tell if those boots were familiar or not. He closed his eyes and tried to visualize the target again, and saw nothing but his defining features, that deplorable face and that jacket.
Danny opened his eyes and thought about saying something, then stopped himself realizing how ridiculous it would be.
The toilet flushed. It was a deafening industrial sound, loud as a bomb.
Danny stood in the middle of the bathroom and couldn’t shake the crazy thought that it wasn’t the target but someone else.
Then the door unlatched and the slant figure emerged, and Danny wished dreadfully that his paranoia had been correct.
The target looked at him with a repelling kind of suspicion. Danny turtled up inside his mind, and peered out softly through the tunnel. He thought about the two bulges in his waistband and wished he didn’t have them. He didn’t know what to say.
This was the part where he was supposed to commit murder. In a one-dimensional analogy, this was the point where two life-lines, each moving in one linear direction, collided, and one line stopped while the other continued on. It was as simple as that.
Danny wasn’t much.
But he was quick in small doses.
Danny drew the gun. He was supposed to use the knife, but he knew good and well that such savagery was well beyond his capabilities. The target looked down at the muzzle and blinked. His eyes were brown. They blinked again and Danny watched them thinking mathematically about the number of times they’d blinked in the past and how few they would in the future.
Then suddenly his thoughts broadened exponentially, and he thought about the man’s entire lifespan as nothing but a blink in the entire scope of existence. In the grand scheme of things, this event was just as insignificant as squashing a bug on the sidewalk. One life ends. Everything else continues. Wildly. Blindly. So on, and so forth.
Danny raised the gun, aiming at the target’s chest cavity.
The target raised his hands.
Danny decided he’d figured it out. He’d uncovered a loophole. Even if there was a God, and even if it was a sin to kill, all sins can be forgiven.
And the man had such a despicable face. So repulsively deserving.
That was Danny’s final thought before the great and terrible commencement.
Gunshots rang out.
There were many, sporadic yet consecutive. Each one was a heavy, powerful sound that hauled itself into his ears bearing the weight of an ultimatum.
What came around that day came without prophecy and with minimal ambiguity. No one saw it coming, but everyone recognized it when it came.
What came around that day came barging in with the same blank absurdity as the term without context. And in accordance with almost every case, the thing that came around lent itself to no traditional reaction.
Similar to the day on the playground, his survival reflexes kicked in.
The target ducked as well, and for a moment the two of them crouched together listening and trying to process the hastening development of events.
The firing ceased momentarily. Women sounded the alarm. Their vocals broke out, overlapping and piercing shrilly through the air until it resumed and bullets tore many of them apart. To this, the remaining voices responded with a sharp increase in pitch and volume.
Danny’s heart flexed like an oversized muscle tearing through the skin, too massive to be contained. He felt an ooze of vomit creeping up in his chest and pins sinking into his hands and feet. He still clutched the magnum, but his hand was shaking so bad he feared he might lose control of his body completely and succumb to some kind of seizure.
He didn’t though. In a trembling voice, he advised the target behind him that he should probably stay put. Then without waiting for a response, Danny snuck towards the entrance of the bathroom, flinching at every sound. Still crouching, he creaked open the door and snuck out into the inlet.
Now it seemed that the primary color was red. But there wasn’t as much as you would think. Some of the clothing trestles were tipped over, as were promotional signs and a random assortment of décor. There were tiny holes and messes here and there, but because the interior was so expansive, you really had to look for them to see the signs of immediate danger.
Danny’s eyes surveyed the scene and singled out a few of these signs. One of them was a mannequin that had been blown into several chunks. It was lying at the base of its pedestal in a scattered clump of debris. Beside it, Danny saw two people lying on the floor. One was a male employee, and the other was a very fat woman. Once Danny saw the red, he abruptly looked away so as not to discern specifics. Similar to why one refrains from looking at the sun, he didn’t want their features to burn into him. He didn’t want to be haunted.
Meanwhile, the evil symphony of shooting and screaming continued behind the escalators on the other side of the store. Danny risked extending his head up a little and peered into the direction of the pandemonium. At the base of the escalators, he found the pianist splayed out on the floor. For some reason, his eyes couldn’t look away from her like they could the other two. She tractor beamed them in. Even from so far away, they discerned the fingers of one hand that would never dance on the keys again, spread open and clench in erratic intervals as the red swelled around them.
A massive change occurred. Chapters upon chapters of Danny’s inner manifesto were torn out and cast away in a wild flurry, while others were swiftly rewritten and bound in their place. Hate presented itself as an attractive and accessible form of motivation. Danny embraced it, taking an ardent new stance against this faceless maestro of doom, strong as cast iron.
There was no more confusion within Danny. That all sank into the abyss beneath a white gulf of courageous fury.
Danny widened his scope of observation, searching for a vantage point. Instead, he discovered the pretty moon-faced girl, crouching and hyperventilating behind the jewelry counter. She was trembling vigorously, but she appeared to be unharmed.
The sight of her distress evoked the urge to move within him, but he knew it would be safest to only move in the prolonged absence of gunshots, signifying that the shooter was reloading.
Crouching on the balls of his feet, Danny kept his head low and listened keenly.
Moments later the music changed. The sporadic percussion beat came to an abrupt halt and the chorus filled the gaps, re-ascending in pitch and decibel. Danny envisioned a projectionist changing slides to a film.
Danny wasn’t much.
But he was quick in small doses.
He moved in. Still crouching, he made for the woman behind the jewelry counter, his squatted legs pinwheeling with surprising speed and coordination.
But it only lasted until he came into contact with another of the victims he had overlooked. This one was thin and elderly, dying on her back on the road of white tiles like an old horse that had out-lived its usefulness and was subsequently shot and left for dead. Blood fanned out beneath her in the shape of an inflated four-fingered glove. Attempting to pass over, Danny saw it as a hand reaching desperately for a grip in the cliffs of life. But it didn’t latch on to those cliffs. Instead, it took hold on Danny’s foot, causing it to slip out from underneath him.
In the fall, Danny’s reflexes served him by kicking in once again, causing him to sprawl out on the tile and rebound for a quick recovery. At the same time, they failed him. As one hand planted itself down, the other loosened its grip on the gun and accidentally flung it, clattering across the tiles.
Even though it didn’t misfire, the noise was rocky and disruptive. Danny felt the eyes of evil befall him. He didn’t have to see. He could feel it beating into him in waves of black heat.
Danny raced towards the weapon, scrambling on all fours for a few intervals before getting his legs beneath him, straightening his back and breaking out into a sprint.
Once again, he was running for his life. And even though he was the fourth or fifth slowest kid to run the bases, he was going to make it. That was a given, unless the conductor of death resumed his symphony. To that thought’s effect, Danny threw his attention across the shopping floor.
On the other side of the escalators, amidst the brightly colored children’s section, he saw a mess of tipped-over clothing trestles, mannequins, display tables, discount signs and about half a dozen bodies.
Beyond them all stood a stout, slender figure that moved like a machine. His hair was brown and curly. His eyes, pockets of shadow. He was dressed in the desert camouflage apparel of the U.S. Army and pulling back on the hammer of an assault rifle. Then he was raising it towards Danny and taking aim.
The children’s department was different than the others. Here, the elegant white and gold tones were replaced with the spectrum of a disorganized rainbow.
Up above the figure, a raised portion of the wall displayed a series of blown-up children modeling various apparel. Each was frozen in a delighted, unorthodox pose, accompanied by a happy caption scrawled out in a whimsical Crayola format. Together, each child and message was backed by a vibrant solid color.
As Danny looked, his eyes caught on the one positioned directly above the figure. It was a brown girl with frizzy black hair dressed in denim overalls, joyfully leaping into the air with her arms above her head. Her background color was neon green. The yellow caption next to her read:
Dance! Dance! Dance!
The figure opened fire.
It was a poor dive, laughable at best. While both arms outstretched for the magnum, which inevitably fell short, there was nothing to stop the corner of Danny’s chin from smacking on the tile and splitting open.
The impact was jarring. But what’s worse was that its occurrence was accompanied by a hail of incoming fire. Those black heat waves intensified. As sonic booms exploded, Danny’s ears also caught the whizzes and thuds of projectiles striking all around.
Miraculously though, none of them pierced into him. The department store was quite expansive, and distance aside, the figure clearly overestimated Danny’s inept physical abilities. While Danny had fallen a foot short of the magnum, most of the bullets stabbed into an area of ground four or five feet in front of it. Again Danny’s reflexes had helped him, and again they’d failed him—twice now, in a scope of seconds.
Concealed by tables and trestles, Danny army crawled towards the weapon, grimacing from the pain in his chin. The firing continued on as if there was no bottom to the magazine.
His cover wouldn’t last. Even now the figure was circling around, closing in for the kill. At last, Danny gripped the magnum and rolled underneath of a table, banging his head on a leg.
Hyper-disoriented, he raised the gun and waved it around drunkenly, expecting his enemy to emerge from anywhere. He also expected to die right then, but instead another scream broke the rhythm.
Danny crept out from under the table to see the pretty moon-faced woman scrambling away from the jewelry counter, her little ponytail whickering from side-to-side.
Danny sensed the figure redirecting his attention to her. He sensed a great change occurring in the music and in himself, and again he remembered that change is the law of life and death.
Danny wasn’t much.
But he was quick in small doses. Even though his reflexes almost always failed him, this time they proved true.
Hardly aware of what he was doing, and completely oblivious as to how he was doing it, Danny stood up, aimed at the figure who in turn was now pointing his own weapon at the girl, and opened fire.
The magnum kicked with magnificent recoil, but Danny set his throbbing jaw, steeled his arms and shoulders and kept pulling the trigger.
The first of Danny’s bullets struck the figure in the bicep and continued on into his body armor fracturing a rib. As he contorted in reaction to this, a second bullet blew out his knee. As the figure crumpled, the third bullet went low. The fourth and fifth went high, and the sixth bullet hit the figure square in the chest of his body armor, knocking out what was left of his wind.
Danny forgot how to breathe. He also forgot how many bullets are contained within a revolver. He tried to fire three more shots at the crippled figure, before turning the gun sideways in one hand and examining it bewilderedly.
With the instruments no longer in play, the music of death became bland and melancholy, now reduced to nothing more than that chorus of poor unlucky souls. Throughout the shooting grounds of the desecrated store, many mouths sputtered their last words of agony and assistance. Some of them wanted to wake up. Some of them wanted God to undo the situation. None of them wanted to die, and all of them wanted help.
A new scream intervened. This one was quite belated and disassociated from the others. It came without rhythm or grace, but it was different. This voice was vengeful and triumphant.
Danny tracked it to the source and found that it was coming from the pretty moon-faced girl.
“Yes!” she shrieked barbarically. “Oh yes! You got him! Oh my God! Oh my God!”
The sound of her caused a defibrillating effect in Danny’s lungs. He inhaled and sighed deeply. As he did so, he felt the weight of the damned rising off him, and a little urine escaped. He looked back at the girl with renewed curiosity, and watched as she clapped a hand to her breast and crumpled to her knees, sobbing and screaming praises.
Danny looked back at the figure again. As the woman continued to worship, he wondered about validity of her celebration. He had heard the statement all too often on television programs that it wasn’t over until it was over.
Danny dropped the gun, drew the knife and moved toward the figure, ready to hit the floor at any time at the sound of another report.
But it didn’t come. Remarkably enough it didn’t come, and as Danny stepped out of concealment towards the unexpected target, lying in the white-tiled path, writhing like so many of his own victims, another change occurred.
Danny’s mind performed a type of random association. In seeing this crippled young man, he thought about Ronnie Rathborn for the first time in over ten years.
“That Ronnie has a crippled soul,” Danny’s mother used to say, but his mother said too much, and all too often it was true, and all too often her truths were too hard to bear. Danny always thought that was why so many neighbors and alleged family friends and acquaintances never failed to mention amongst themselves and (Danny’s little eavesdropping ears) that she kept that bottle of vodka under the sink, swishing and diminishing, day by day.
With his good arm and leg, the target was pitifully attempting to wade towards his weapon, but his armor anchored him down.
Danny circled around the figure, which he now acknowledged was not a man, but a boy. With one foot, Danny scooted the rifle far away from the space that was within inches of the boy’s fingers. Then he knelt down across from him.
Danny looked for the Devil in the boy’s eyes. He looked in the cornea, and the iris and in the surrounding white space. He looked and he looked, but all he could see was fear and confusion, the very same expressions that had doubtlessly beset the eyes of everyone around this boy, including Danny himself, only moments ago. Danny was initially confused by this observation, but then he thought a little about it and decided that the Devil had most certainly resided in those eyes before and during the act of terror. But now that it was over, now that his instrument was broken the Devil disappeared.
Tears welled in the corners of his eyes and the boy contracted his face with hate, but even as he did so, he failed to appear malicious. Danny squinted and inspected deeper. There certainly was evil in there, but even more abundant was defiance and immaturity in the form of reckless abandon.
This boy had clearly forgotten who he was. He had chosen to forget this, just as he had chosen to forget the inherent value of humanity. This boy had allowed himself to be guided by the tender hand of darkness into a deep, black mire. He had allowed some evil to lead him astray, and in that sense Danny, to his own abhorrence, couldn’t help but identify with him. For in that sense they were undeniably the same.
The boy coughed, and Danny shuddered. The boy shivered, and Danny gulped. The boy was bleeding profusely from the arm and leg that were mostly blown off, and quickly turning pale. The boy opened his mouth as if to say something, but he second guessed himself and looked away and coughed again. Then the boy looked at the large knife in Danny’s hand, and Danny tracked his gaze.
Danny thought about using the knife. He thought about cutting this menace, this pestilence, this despicable little wart right off the face of existence.
Then the boy spoke. He opened his mouth and calmly requested this of Danny.
It was then that Danny knew that he couldn’t.
He resisted in a confliction of mercy and spite, because that was exactly what the boy needed. Someone needed to parent him. Someone needed to tell him no.
It was perhaps the most accurate insinuation Danny ever made in his entire life. He knew it from the softness of the boy’s face, from the way the boy clearly couldn’t help but recognize his mistake. He knew it from the resolve in the boy’s voice, as if he deserved the entitlement to choose his own death. As if he was doing Danny a favor by asking him.
He wasn’t though, and Danny did not oblige.
Danny tightened his grip on the knife and thrust it into his sheath, staring at the boy all the while. The boy looked back at him understandably, and that made Danny look away. His eyes slipped down to the boy’s hands. The boy was wearing gloves with the finger holes in them. Danny looked at the hands and compared them to the hands of that pianist, which had probably finished their final number of clenching and opening.
He let out a sigh of finality and stood up, wiping the blood off his chin with a scowl. He’d had enough for one day.
From outside, policemen shouted over a new chorus of sirens. Their voices were noisy and oppressive. Every one was a firecracker of authority. The girl with the pretty moon face sprung up and fled to them. Danny set the knife and sheath on the ground away from the boy. Then he turned around and followed her, thankful to be putting distance between himself and the boy. For the first time since leaving him, Danny thought about the original target. He wondered where the target was, how he had fared since the end of their encounter. Danny wondered if he was even still in the bathroom, and from there his thoughts segued to a great many subjects both related and unrelated to the situation as he drifted out into the lot of flashing lights.
The Tahoe was long gone. That was just as well. Even if the two men had stayed, he wouldn’t have gotten back in with them.
As he emerged, a squadron of police officers pointed their guns at Danny and shouted at him, then promptly stood down after being screamed at by the moon-faced girl. The afternoon sunlight swelled over Danny’s face. He smiled. He always loved summertime.
Danny wasn’t the first choice. Or the second. And for the first time, that was a good thing, because he managed to save himself and another—what would have been the sixteenth and seventeenth choices of the department store massacre.
Danny wasn’t much.
But in a strange turn of events, he ended up being regarded as a hero.
What came around that day was a conflict of conundrums. An extraordinary clash of two extremities, and the great mystery of it all lies in the question of whether the two were truly authentic representatives of the forces of good and evil. Was the occurrence truly a destiny-driven conflict of positive verses negative, or a cancellation of double negatives?
After all, one of these two was a being of sheer entitlement raised by love and hope and praise and endless adoration, who either naturally or unnaturally rebelled into a prolonged bewitchment of evil influences, initially disguised as harmless curiosity.
The other one was Danny.
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