Sitting in a broken down car sat a broken down man. The engine was off, the lights were off, slight fog from his breath was the only clue that something was alive about this car. The brown paint job had faded years ago to a dull and numbing grey. The muffler hung by chicken wire to the frame and the side view mirrors had recently been left in the parking lot of a hotel not too far from where it sat right then.
The man looked at his watch, 12:03, just after midnight. He remembered a saying from his childhood, still sweet and caring from his mother's lips, "Nothing good ever happens after midnight Danny, just you remember that." He could still taste her cigarette stench as it clung to the air. "Dear old ma," he thought "you could not have been more right."
The lights in the house across the street came on. Finally. Three hours he had sat watching, waiting, listening for anything to confirm his anguish. Finally, the lights came on. One small figure, and one rather large figure, hurried out the door of the house and to a small truck down the street. He let the figures go, he had come for the occupant. The truck passed him without turning on its lights, rounded a corner, illuminated, and left.
The man in the car waited. These sorts of neighborhoods were filled with old women peeking out windows, and late night stock brokers walking their pathetic little animals. He waited.
At fifteen minutes after one the man in the car became the man standing outside of the car. Staring up the street to where the truck had disappeared. Then back the opposite way, to the dark end of the cul-de-sac beyond. No movement, nothing except the cool mist as he exhaled. The man outside the car became the man standing at the door of the house with the lights on, and he knocked.
Not long after his second knock a disheveled and tired man with a friendly face answered the door. The friendly man's face beamed at the sight of the man and extended an arm in welcome.
In one fluid movement, the man standing at the door of the house raised his pistol and fired into the face of the friendly man. And the friendly man was no more.
His breakfast was never waiting for him when he awoke. It did not simmer in the pan, nor did it clink in a bowl upon his early wakening. The coffee was not made and the juice was not poured. However he took comfort that all things were as they were supposed to be. The coffee sat in the freezer waiting for him, the juice clung to the insides of the carton aching to be poured.
Slowly he eased out of bed, nudging his wife's arm off him and silencing the alarm. "She sleeps like the dead" he muttered, for at least the 147th time. Back scratch, big yawn, he ambled towards the bathroom to drain the main vein as they say. He still giggles when he remembers that line from his army days. Drain the main vein. The thought rattled in his head without catching purchase and he pissed it away. Half-hearted attempt to brush his teeth, shuffled to the kitchen to command the coffee to brew, back to the bathroom for his shower. The routine had not varied in 6 years. Until that time he had his normalcy, his time, his coffee, his vein, his shower. The time would come where that would all be taken away, he couldn't know that then, in hindsight he would tell you he was glad he didn't.
After his shower he had his coffee, drank his juice, Vitamin C is good for the immune system an army doctor once told him, a sentiment he always remembered, toasted a Pop-Tart and dressed himself.
Reflected in the mirror of the closet was his wife Alice. Soundly sleeping, embraced by whatever gentle dreams her mind could summon, oblivious to his comings and goings. He liked it this way. All day he belonged to bosses and clients at work, then wife and kids at home. This time was his time, alone. The only time he had. He watched Alice sigh and take a deep breath; a slow smile came to her lips. He wondered what she was dreaming. A thought he quickly put out of his mind.
Brown slacks, brown shoes, white shirt, no tie. Through the windows he saw the first rays of sun begin to creep over the horizon. His time of day was over, now he belonged to the world. Without a word or a kiss goodbye, he walked out of his townhouse and locked the door. Mirrors check, blinker check, parking brake off, slowly back out, shift into drive, hands at 10 and 2, press the gas and off to work.
Alice waited until she heard the deadbolt slide home in the door before she got out of bed. She liked listening to him get ready in the morning. Once, about 5 years ago, she had gotten out of bed with him and he had become angry. He had stomped around the house throwing cups and toothpaste at the walls. That wasn't the first, or last time, he had scared her, but she had learned to give him his space. And if he wanted his mornings, she would give him that. She had dozed off a little after his alarm had wakened her, and she had had the most beautiful dream. She dreamed that he was like he was before the war, smiling and handsome in his sharp green uniform and shiny shoes. They walked through a park hand in hand and laughed about what they would name their children. The dream had broken as he had sighed when the sun came over the neighbor's house. He always sighed when the sun came up.
Alice stopped a tear and walked to the bathroom and made herself ready for the day. She took a quick shower, brushed her hair, and her teeth, then walked across the hall to wake the children.
The fat man that sat in the Honda next to him loudly sang a Bob Dylan song as the jelly from his donut slowly oozed down his several chins to his work shirt. Danny kept his eyes front, and told himself he did not see the man. He did not notice that it was strawberry jelly, he did not notice that the man had at least three days of stubble, he did not notice that one whisker on the man's cheek was grey while all the others were black. Like a mantra he repeated "I do not notice, I do not notice." He also didn't think about the Sog Fielder engraved knife he had in the glove compartment (Hang 'Em High Danny!), and he did not think about how easily it would slip through the neck fat of Honda Man, through the carotid artery, causing hemorrhaging and quick satisfying death. He didn't need to think about these things, he knew them. He knew the man would scream, the fat ones usually do. At the sight of the knife Honda Man would scream and most likely piss himself with his small pathetic dick. He'd have to stab the man's stomach a few times to get his hands away from his face, then his neck would be wide open. Danny knew these things like other people know the sun sets in the west.
Honking from behind him interrupted Danny's mantra. He looked over and Honda Man had gone, the light was green and Danny sat there. Easing off the brake Danny moved forward towards work and beyond.
The other end of the line rang once and she hung up, again. For the past three hours she had tried to call him. But something in her held back, she didn't need to involve him; he had his own life to live. She stood from kitchen stool and walked to the back windows. Looking over the back yard she wondered why she hesitated so. Everything had gone well the last time they'd spoken. Victor had been…..
… a good friend to him when he first arrived at Ft. Stewart; and then his brother in Iraq. Clearing houses down the streets of Baghdad, they saved each other's lives countless times. An unseen grenade here, a boy with a gun there, their bond was tighter than the one Danny shared with Alice. She could never understand what he and Victor had. She could never understand what he and Victor had done. How many corpses lay at his feet? Danny wondered. How many sins would he have to answer to on Judgment Day?
"Victor," Danny whispered. He sat in the parking lot of the building he worked. The cool blue glass reflected the morning light through his windshield and into his eyes. With a sweaty hand he shielded his eyes from the sun, restarted his car, and shifted into drive.
On days like this in the desert; the 8am sun already causing rivers of sweat to creep down their backs and legs, Danny would holler up to Victor in the gun turret "What are we gonna do if we catch us some ragheads Victor?" And Victor would holler the response "Hang 'em, and hang 'em high Danny!" Then off they'd go, thinking themselves cowboys in a hostile land; one eye on each other, and the other searching for injuns. Victor….
… had seemed relieved when Alice finally called. They caught up on old times. Alice had said, yes the children are growing fast, and Victor had said, no I still can't find a woman to settle down with. Alice had asked him over for tea the next day, and Victor had accepted, anxious to see his old friend again. Alice had told him that it would just be her, and Victor had suggested they meet at Starbucks, for coffee. The relief in Alice's voice was tangible as she said her goodbyes to Victor. The foul mood that Danny had come home with could not dampen her spirits. Finally she was going to get this out, finally she had some help. Finally Victor….
… and him had lost touch over the years. Weekends at the bar turned into holidays gathered around the grill, which turned into phone calls around Christmas. Both of them were out of the army and trying to nail down normal lives as a civilian; Danny with Alice, and Victor with, well, Victor.
The times Victor came over he always carried with him a pleasant word and a smile for Alice. It took Danny some time but he figured out what was going on. The soft words, the shy giggles they'd share as he watched from the kitchen on the ruse that he was getting another beer. Danny's kids, Jacob and Eve, would grab Victor's leg and haul him off to go play. How long had it been since the kids had asked him to play? Danny wondered. When did they stop looking at me like that? When had Alice stopped rubbing her arms, lingering in the places I touched her?
"Victor," Danny whispered. At the end of a long alley Danny parked his car and got out. Glancing around he reached under the dumpster and retrieved the gun he had placed the night before. The heft felt good in his hand, all was safe and right with the world again. Except, Victor….
… was late arriving to the coffee shop. Alice had thought he had changed his mind, and wouldn't meet her. Her heart leapt in her chest when she saw his familiar little truck pull into the parking lot. Fear and hope coursed through her veins as he entered the small shop, spotted her in the back, smiled and moved towards her.
The hard hands of a laborer engulfed her frail ones, as Victor sat and asked "Ali what's wrong? What did Danny do this time?"
The tears burst from Alice in a chaotic mix of mumbled words and sincere apology. Victor had stood and gathered napkins to dry her eyes. With hard hands, made gentle by his task, he calmed her and asked her to begin again.
"Victor, Danny hit me," she sobbed. Fresh tears streamed down her face. Years of self-imposed exile had left her emotions ripe and just under her skin. All the walls and fortresses she had built around her heart tumbled under Victor's caring gaze.
"Ali we have to do something. Danny has been getting worse, and now he's hitting you. We can't let him do this to you. Today he's hitting you, what about the kids? You have got to get the kids, and all of you get out of there."
Victor's steady gaze held her. So much compassion in those eyes, she thought; so much love.
With a wave of her hand Alice said, "Danny would never hit the kids Victor."
"Did you ever think he'd hit you?" was Victor's response.
"No," she said. "I didn't. Not until after…"
"The war?" Victor finished.
"Yes, not until after the war. He's so different now Victor. He gets angry so fast and he throws things. He was never like that." The tears, unstoppable, but lessening; started to thunder. Like a warm summer rain her tears washed over Victor's hands, down his elbows and pooled onto the table.
Victor cupped her face, whispered an "It's going to be alright," then moved his chair around next to her and held her tight. Victor's….
… dirty hands were all over her. He couldn't forget it, the image burned into his brain with all the bodies he had lain to rest. Seeing her there, bawling about some imagined slight, cuddling into the arms of the very man he called brother. Danny watched from the back of the parking lot as Victor held her closer and even kissed the top of her head.
The anger, the rage, came swiftly. For what could have been hours, but was most likely mere seconds, Danny stared at the floor board. "I do not notice, I do not notice," he chanted. He did not notice how she easily allowed him to hold her, he did not notice how friendly they looked as they parted, and he did not notice how their lips grazed each other's cheek with a goodbye kiss.
What he did notice, was that the parking lot was now empty; where once it was day, now it was night. He looked at his watch, 7:33.
An eerie calm washed over him as put his car in drive. He had a mission, and like all missions, he had to be focused. In all his life, Danny had never been so focused.
…and her had said their goodbyes, Alice replayed the conversation in her head.
"Ali," Victor had whispered "Look what Danny is doing to you. You and the kids have to get out of there."
After a thoughtful moment she stammered "O...OK, Victor. I'll leave." His firm arms and hard yet gentle hands were a beacon of warmth she yearned for. The hands of a man that loves her, that needs her, a man that holds her in the night and shares her dreams. A man like Danny used to be. Where did her Danny go?
Victor could never be Danny. He was a good man, but not her man, her man was a twisted wreck of himself, a shadow of what he had been.
Victor then said, "Good, Ali, that's good. You've made the right decision. You and the kids can stay at my aunt's house in Atlanta; far from all of this, and far from Danny." Victor had kissed the top of her head then. It felt good to be this close to another human being, to feel love, compassion, hope. At the same time she felt guilty sharing this moment with him. This was not her Danny.
They had stood and parted after Alice had promised to come by the next morning. They were going to use Victor's truck to move her things into storage until she found a permanent place to live. Victor had agreed to talk to Danny.
"Ali," he had said "When Danny finds out you're gone; he's going to be very pissed. But I promise you, I am going to do everything I can to get him some help. OK?"
"OK," she had said. If anyone could get through to Danny it was Victor.
But that chance never came. Victor….
… had met Alice the next morning while Danny watched from down the street. He had traded in his car and bought this raggedy piece of shit for $1500 from an ad on Craigslist. The car smelled horrible, but it served its purpose. Unknown to anyone, Danny could observe the comings and goings of his little harlot and his brother and none would be the wiser. Victor had…
…convinced her that she was doing the right thing but she still didn't know. Part of her still believed that Danny could change.
She told Victor this when they had met the next day.
"He's not going to change Ali. He's just going to get worse. He is going to end up killing you or one of the kids."
"But its Danny, Victor," she whined. She needed Victor to agree with her, she needed someone to tell her she wasn't crazy. She needed someone, anyone, to tell her that she had not wasted the past 8 years of her life on a man she doesn't know.
"Ali, come on," the frustration crept into Victor's voice. "That is not Danny, at least not the Danny you knew. He needs help, you and the kids need help, and you need to get out of there."
Victor rested his hands on his hips, staring at this woman before him. He loved her, the way a brother loves a sister. He could not stand seeing her this way; a ball of confusion, terror, and sickly hope. Part of him ached to throw her over his shoulder and drive her down to Atlanta himself.
"Listen Victor, I'm going to talk to Danny. I'm going to tell him that he has to get help, or me and the kids are leaving. Now I'm asking you, as his friend, as my friend, to respect my decision." Alice's jaw tried to set, the quivering kept it from sinking in. She wanted her man back, and believed she could talk sense into him.
"I can't…" Victor began.
"Victor" Alice said with fierceness she did not feel, "Respect my decision. If he does not agree to get help, then yes, I will leave him. Just give me this last chance." The desperation in her eyes held Victor in a way he had never felt before.
With all of his strength Victor restrained himself as he muttered, "Fine," turned around, and walked back into his house.
Alice stood for a time on Victor's lawn, not trusting herself to move. When finally the spell was broken the tears came freely and she walked back to her car. From the window Victor…
…had looked like a sniveling mess of a man. So, they had a lover's quarrel did they? The sheets on the bed that he and Alice shared weren't even cool yet, and here she was already crying over a spat with her new lover.
Danny snickered, put the car in gear; mirrors check, blinker check, parking brake off, shift into drive, hands at 10 and 2, and off he went. An hour later Victor…
…called his aunt in Atlanta and told her that Alice may not be coming. He had told her the situation and she was as shocked as he was at Alice's decision. But what could you do? It's her life.
Victor's aunt scolded him and told him to "Get your ass over to that house and talk some sense into that woman. Drag her out by the hair if you have to, I'm on my way, I'll be there in two hours." The phone went dead in Victor's hand. He never questioned his aunt, one didn't in the Richards family. So he grabbed his keys, his wallet, ran to his truck and sped towards Alice.
Like every evening Danny spent that one firmly implanted in his chair watching the news. Except this evening, it was all for show. The calm remained, like the soothing warmth of the first spring sun, it caressed his mind and soul, focusing his will, keeping him to his task.
He saw the slut walk into the living room out of the corner of his eye. He wouldn't acknowledge her, she could wait. He wouldn't even ask her where she had been. They all could wait, he was glowing, and while it lasted he would enjoy it.
At the next commercial Alice stepped forward and stuttered "Danny, can I talk to you sweetie?" She looked a wreck. Her and Victor's fight must have been worse than he thought, he mused. Let's see what the tramp has to say.
"Go ahead honey," he said with a smile that contained no warmth.
"Can I get you another beer?" she asked.
"Um, no I think I'm good here."
"Well Danny I've been meaning to talk to you." She started wringing her hands in her floral skirt. The nervousness and fear were easily recognizable on her face, Danny loved it.
"I've been meaning to talk to you about the way you treat me. You get mad all the time, you throw things, you even hit me Danny! You hit me! I'm your wife!" With each word her confidence had built, until she was yelling and spitting them at him.
He had expected accusations. Although this was an angle he didn't foresee, he thought she would try to make him out to be the bad guy.
With a small nod, Danny reached under his chair and pulled the large pistol from underneath the cushions. Pointing it at her he said "Say that again."
The blood drained from her face. The gun was large and angry looking. Worse than that was the man who sat in the chair holding it. She did not know that face. That was not her Danny. This man was ugly and cold. His hair looked greasy and reflected the light from the lamps too brightly. Who was this man? And what had he done with Danny?
One moment she was staring over the barrel of a loaded gun at a man that might have once been Danny, the next she was running through the front lawn into the arms of a man that may have been Victor. She didn't know, the tears blinded her; the pain from what Danny had done ripped through her in a screeching wail, rivaled by the death throes of Danny's love for her.
Danny calmly stood and placed the gun through the belt in his trousers. No rush, no need to get excited. He knew where she would go. Leaving his beer half-finished he peeked out the window and caught a glimpse of Victor's truck careening down the street.
By the time Victor and Alice returned to Victor's house, his aunt was there. When they pulled up, she greeted them outside and herded them into the living room.
Victor explained to his aunt what Danny had done, or the best he could gather from Alice's wails. Victor's aunt's first question was, "Where's the children?"
"I s-sent them to their grandparents for the weekend," whispered Alice. "They'll be safe there."
Victor's aunt gave a satisfactory nod and sat down next to Alice. Victor, already on Alice's other side, huddled in closer. The three sat there on the couch, talking, crying, holding each other; as lives spun out of control and destinies were changed.
After a time Alice agreed to go with Victor's aunt to the police station and file a report. Victor gave his aunt his truck keys because her rental was low on gas.
"Victor," his aunt said. "Now you stay right here, and don't get any crazy ideas about going over there. This is police business, and you need to stay out of it." Her stern tone had been a staple of family reunions for decades, and now, as Victor heard it in the shrill of the night, he felt calm, knowing she was here.
"Yes ma'am," Victor agreed. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Good. You better not." Turning to Alice she said "Come on child, let's get going."
Victor watched from the window as the two women rushed to his truck, then disappeared into the night.
When Victor answered the door Danny thought he saw relief in his brother's eyes. Then a flash of recognition, then what looked like acceptance, then nothing. All that remained of Victor lay at Danny's feet; with a mild look of surprise now permanently etched on Victor's face. Danny chuckled.
"What are we going to do if we catch us some ragheads Victor?" Danny screamed into the night air. "I'll tell you what we're going to do Victor, oh buddy, oh pal, Hang 'em and hang 'em high!"
Danny's vacant laugh filled the early morning silence as he put the gun to his mouth and pulled the trigger.