Danny was watching some news report from the states when I woke up. He seemed captivated, but when I sat up, he turned and apologized for waking me. I insisted that he hadn’t, and he insisted that it was inconsiderate either way.
“Also, I’ve been meaning to ask,” he mentioned, “just how did someone as reclusive as yourself manage to get a black eye?”
“Leonard Briggs, he’s how. But what pisses me off to no end isn’t him or anyone like him, vile as his type are. He stabbed a man, over a fistful of cash by the sound of it, and hardly anyone acted like that was a crucial problem. They treated it as though that much were normal. The fact that nobody gives a damn; that’s what pisses me off more than a black eye ever could.”
“But you were one who did give a damn?”
“Then what’s it matter? I’ve spent the last hours watching news from all over the world, and there’s been a theme. It’s undeniable that there are bad people, but there are good people to balance them out. Like these fellas here, look,” Danny said as he gestured back at the television. On the screen was a photograph of four teens in a parking lot, packed to go camping. “They’re making that black kid out to be the most rotten soul on the face of this earth. But the one standing beside him, the one bent as the River Shannon—he’s good. The bad people exist, but the good people keep them balanced.
“Of course, sometimes, well,” Danny nodded at my injury and concluded, “sometimes that balance isn’t kept seamlessly. But there is a balance. Take pride in knowing that you’re one of those who keep it.”
I sat on the edge of the bed for a moment, listening to the news. When the story was finished I turned to Danny. “Three men are dead, maybe more, and you’re concerned over a black eye. Which group does that put you in? Is Daniel Kennedy a good man or a bad one?”
Danny glanced away, and admitted, “I don’t know that I’m a strong contender for either.”
“Let’s just forget about it then,” I said as I stood up.
He sat in silence for a moment while I got breakfast together. We’d barely stopped talking since his return, and in that silent moment, it occurred to me why that was. When he talked, I could hear his soft voice, and remember that he used to be my dearest mate. There was a time when I was closer to him than he was to his own brother. By the sound of his voice alone, it was easy to mistake him for the same person he was before. His voice made him alive, and based on the way he looked, perhaps his voice was the only thing tasked with the responsibility. He was pale. He was gaunt. Many words could describe him, but I always went back to the same one: ghostly. As I offered him a plate, I was all too eager to hear his voice and banish the spirit from my residence.
I prompted him, “I shouldn’t be hard on you for caring about the black eye. If anything, I should be harder on myself for the fact that I’ve yet to mention your scars. I’d ask where you got them, but I already have the strangest feeling that you won’t say.”
“Finally caught on, eh?” he chuckled. “At least I don’t ever have to go back to where I got them. You don’t have to go back to that bar either, if you don’t want to.”
“Some people still have to work for a living.”
“Aye, but we don’t have to be among them now, do we?” Danny mentioned, pulling the bundle of euros from his pocket and tossing it to me.
“Even if there is as much as you say, it can’t possibly last a lifetime,” I said, leafing through the notes.
“Almost thirty million? I don’t see many ways it couldn’t.”
I handed the bundle back. “This is too much. You didn’t ask to spend the night, and I’m not asking you for money.”
“But then, I did spend the night regardless, didn’t I?” Danny said. He set the bundle on the couch between us and continued, “You’re the only friend I’ve got left Aidan. I don’t want your life to be any more difficult than it has to be.”
“Before you came back around I thought I had it pretty good.”
“Your eye seems to disagree.”
“Alright, I quit,” I declared, feeling a smirk work its way onto my face. “If you showing up with a minor fortune of misfortune wasn’t enough, Leonard Briggs is the bastard who stamped the deal. Just wish you’d make me work for it is all. You know I’m not comfortable accepting gifts.”
“Good, consider this the last gift you ever have to accept,” Danny said, picking up the bundle and throwing it my way yet again.
I caught it, and I held it for a moment. Thirty million. Far more than enough to never work another day in my life. Fortune such as that wasn’t supposed to come knocking on the door out of nowhere. I held the bundle, but it was heavier than its physical qualities let on.
“You have to explain where this came from,” I insisted. “I live a modest life, and I’ve worked hard to make an honest living. I can’t imagine that you’ve spent the last quarter of a century working ten thousand times harder.”
“I know,” I interrupted, and I tossed the money back to him. “You won’t say.”
“I certainly wouldn’t like to, but,” Danny paused and closed his eyes. Reaching behind his neck, he unfastened the clasp of his pendant, and collected it into his cupped hand. With his head turned down at the ring, Danny spoke.
“I thought about it all night. This much needs to be said.”
I can’t say how much of Danny’s story is the truth. I like to think he was sincere, but in all honesty, I have no way of knowing. To further complicate things, there are some details I filled in myself: things which he never said, but which I pictured nonetheless. In short, this is his story as I remember it.
It began on a random day in October. While strolling through an alley, a teenager’s eyes darted every which way, scanning over the area. A tattered winter coat was wrapped around his torso. It was a few sizes too big with a few too many rips to be the embodiment of warmth, but if nothing else, it was more comforting than the crisp air. His shoes were in the same condition, held together by duct tape and will. Stopping beside a rubbish bin, he took one final look around before removing the lid and peering inside.
“Got’cha,” came a voice from behind the teen. “I seem to recall you saying that you were done eating out of these for good.”
The teen turned to face the young man. “Life can be rough. You should know that.”
“Been out here as long as you have, that’s the truth,” the older of the two said. Animating his words with nonsensical gestures, he asked, “So just what is the almighty Danny Boy doing eating out of the trash? Didn’t he have the world in the palm of his hands not two days ago?”
Danny tossed the lid back in the general direction of the bin, and while walking away, said, “Bugger off Hick.”
“Seeing as we’re equals your majesty, I think I’ll go wherever I damn well please. So, playing your songs not working how you’d hoped? The people aren’t clamoring to see the bard?”
“No, they aren’t. But they’re paying me more for that than you’re getting for sitting around pissing in your pants.”
“Hey now, no need for that. We’re in this together, you and me.”
“No, no we’re not. With your pick of people to pester in Sagemont, why you chose me is a damn good mystery,” Danny remarked as they stepped out of the alley. The North Sea came into sight. Walking towards it, Danny asked, “Is there something you wanted?”
“Nothing more than some companionship.”
“Couldn’t a’ picked a worse person for that I’m afraid. Stick around if it suits ya Hick, but at the end of the day, you’ll always be as unpleasant as you’ve been on this fine morning.”
“You’re a bit of a prick, you know that? I told you that music is a fickle business. You will never make it alone, that much I can promise.”
Without response, Danny continued on his way and left the man behind. The scent of the sea reached Danny soon enough. He proceeded to the pier, because he knew the pier’s end was a peaceful sort of place. It was rare to find anyone else on it, and those who did venture out were never too bothersome.
Sitting at the edge, Danny took a scrap of paper out of one pocket and a worn down pencil out of the other. He stared out at the water for a moment, then began scrawling words on the paper, adding to what had already been written. He sat there for hours, even after the sheet had been filled from top to bottom, crossing bits out and making amendments.
Upon returning to the town, Danny sifted through a bin yet again, this time taking more care to make sure he was alone. The smell was repulsive and the very concept was enough to keep him away as often as he could help it, but the alternatives were few and far between. Grimacing, Danny retrieved his meal for the evening; an orange that had long since gone bad, and some meat that was in no way identifiable. He took care not to smell either item as he ate. It was a few minutes later that he gagged, falling to his knees in the alley.
Standing behind him once more, a voice could be heard saying, “My my, what have we here?”
“Go,” Danny began, and after taking in a sickly breath, “to Hell.”
The man went on, as though the doubled over lad hadn’t spoken. “You’ve been here for what, a year and a half now? And still, you can’t keep down your food. Pitiful really.”
“Easy for you to say, ya dirty, disease ridden bastard.”
“Right,” the man affirmed. He took a knee beside Danny. Giving the teen a hearty pat on the back, the man said, “Take care now,” as Danny emptied the contents of his stomach onto the frosty pavement.
Vomit stung his throat and tears blurred his vision as Danny stumbled his way to a brick wall and collapsed there, gripping and pulling at his vibrant blonde hair while he suppressed the urge to scream. The man leisurely walked out of the alley, laughing all the while.
“Son of a fuckin’ cunt!” Danny called after the man when he was out of sight. He sighed and closed his heavy eyes, only to have them grow wide when the man returned to the alley, headed for the mess of a teenager.
Half a dozen strides remaining between the two of them, the man stopped. From a respectable distance he uttered, “What did you call me?”
“What did you fucking call me‽”
Exhaling, Danny repeated, “I called ya the son of a fuckin’ cunt.”
The man crossed his arms. “The world doesn’t take kindly to our type Danny Boy. As far as they’re concerned we are not people, we are not human, and we are hardly even animals. We’re homeless. We’re garbage. But what will piss both them and me off to no end, is some goddamn punk with an attitude, thinking he’s at the center of it all. Wake up, before it’s too late.”
With that the man turned and left, hanging his head.
Danny’s body sat limp. With a moan, he pulled out his pencil and paper. Squinting at the sheet in the day’s diminishing light, Danny once again began to edit, writing as quickly as his trembling fingers would allow. When he was finished, he stumbled out of the alley and onto the streets.
“Roger!” Danny called as he opened the door to a pub. “I need my guitar.”
“You sure you need it now?” the bartender asked. “There’s hardly anyone here.”
“Aye, just hand it over, there’s something I need to figure out,” Danny said. Reaching behind the bar, Roger produced a beat up guitar and handed it to the teen. Danny took the instrument and a stool, and proceeded to a corner. “Thanks for holding onto this for me by the way. You’ve no idea how helpful it’s been.”
Roger nodded as Danny sat down to play. Mismatched fragments of sound christened Danny’s session, though they eventually became more whole as the night carried on. The night brought with it more pub goers. Many had been there on previous nights when Danny had played, but there were also plenty who hadn’t. Danny took a deep breath, and moved to a more central spot against a wall, checking once more that his guitar was in tune.
By the time that night’s performance was nearing its end, it had been like any others. A few people had tossed their loose change his way, but most acted as though they hadn’t noticed his presence at all. After another group had left and fewer than half a dozen people remained, Danny stopped playing. With a grin, he announced, “I wrote this next song myself, so I apologize for that. This one’s called Wake Up Twice.”
And so, Danny sang. He sang about a pair of friends named Kenny and Maurice, and how they were considered inseparable. He sang of when, at the age of fifteen, Maurice and his family had moved away, and how a combination of distance and time had withered their friendship. He sang about time when Kenny, after years of self-inflicted struggle, left his hometown and travelled far far away. And finally, he sang of Kenny being told he needed to get his life together, and how some morning the boy would have to wake up twice: once from his sleep, and once from his delusion.
Danny stood and walked to the bar. As he reached over and handed Roger the guitar, a woman sitting nearby commented, “That was a beautiful song you played there.”
Danny glanced at her. “Yeah?”
The woman chuckled, and introduced herself. “I’m Sarah, it’s nice to meet you. But I must say, it was nicer from a distance. You smell something horrendous.”
Danny felt his face run warmer. “Aye, not something I even notice much these days. I, well, you heard the story.”
“I wouldn’t mind hearing another.”
“Well I’m sorry to disappoint, but to find something pleasant I’d have to go back further than I can recall clearly, and I’d rather not bring you down.”
“Oh, is that why you go around singing that Wake Up Twice tragedy? To cheer folks up?”
“But that was a song; I can say whatever nasty shite I want to in a song and more than likely it’ll go unnoticed, provided the melody is nice. I didn’t expect anyone to notice at all really, especially not at this hour.”
Sarah stared down into what remained in her glass. “When one’s looking for something to be happy about, sadness has a way of jumping out at them.”
Danny looked closer at the woman before him. The two spoke until the pub was closed, mostly of what pains the world had caused them over the years. Despite the overlying subject, there was no sense of gloom. Danny grinned more that night than he had in total since he’d set foot in Sagemont, and Sarah’s expression was a close match. When told to leave they were reluctant, but nonetheless, they exited the pub and went their separate ways.
The next night Danny returned, and upon arriving, he locked eyes with Sarah once again. Again Danny performed, and again they spoke. Danny asked if there was any reason she’d come alone to the same pub two nights in a row, and Sarah responded by saying that he’d done the same. Within half an hour of closing time, Sarah asked, “So just how does an Irishman find himself so far from home?”
Danny set down the drink that Roger had gifted him, and asserted, “Well it damn sure wasn’t an accident. Maybe a mistake, who’s to say? But not an accident.”
“Why would it be a mistake?” Sarah asked, putting a hand over his.
“Is it that unclear? I’m homeless Sarah; things aren’t exactly going as well as I had planned.”
Sarah’s grip on Danny’s hand tightened. Pulling on his arm, she stood and said, “Come along then.”
“Come with me to my house. I can’t believe I was so naive, not realizing your predicament sooner. For God’s sake, you must have outright told me a dozen times or more.”
Danny stood and followed her outside. “Hold on, I got myself here, and it’s my fault if I’m stuck.”
While she hurried along, Sarah insisted, “You’re not stuck. If there’s one thing I can do with the time I have left, it’s helping someone who’s more than deserving.”
“Hey!” Danny called, tripping over himself to keep up. “What do you mean, ‘time I have left’?”
Sarah dismissed the question and tried to walk faster. Grabbing her by the arm, Danny held her in place and insisted on an answer. In explanation, Sarah wept. She wrapped her arms around her newfound companion, and between forced breaths, she whispered the answer he had insisted on. The two continued to walk, a silence hovering around them.
“This is your house?” Danny asked as they approached a wrought-iron gate. Gazing past it, he mused, “It’s a bleedin’ mansion.”
“Not quite,” Sarah dismissed as she opened the gate. Once inside, she showed Danny around, reminiscing of events that had happened in each room when her family had been more complete. Despite her recent confession, she struck Danny as quite happy while recanting her memories, as though those thoughts existed in their own sacred world. Eventually she showed him to a guest room located across the hall from her own room, and wished him a good night.
Danny laid on a bed for the first time in over a year, yet found little rest.
Ten years passed. On a random day in October, Danny found himself walking once again to a pier that he used to visit so often. He had avoided it since meeting Sarah. On that morning however, some shapeless notion had caused him to return, and what’s more, to return alone. It was foggy that day, and as Danny took his first solitary step onto the pale wood, the bench at the pier’s end was beyond his sight’s grasp.
“What are you afraid of Sarah? If there’s something I’m missing, please, tell me. You don’t know how much you mean to me.”
Danny looked to his left, seeing nearby waves break against the shore.
“It’s nothing either of us can help Danny, okay? These last years have been hell and I’m grateful for what you’ve done to improve them, but this has to come to an end sooner or later.”
To Danny’s right was a trio of children, playing in the sand.
“Sarah, there are people who can help.”
Overhead was a vast expanse of grey. It was uniform, and quite possibly infinite.
“Stop saying my name like that!”
Danny’s new coat shielded him from the cold air, but still he shivered. The bench at the pier’s end came into view, accompanied by the blurred silhouette of the person sitting on it. Danny shook his head when it became clear who the man was. Turning around at the sound of footsteps, the man inquired, “Danny Boy?”
“Aye Johnny Hick, it’s me.”
Danny sat beside the homeless man, who said, “I can see why you came out here so often. It’s lovely.”
“It is, but to me it was always more than the view.”
Johnny Hick looked in every direction. He listened for a sound. He tried to use any number of other senses to understand what Danny meant. After coming up with nothing, Johnny Hick said, “Tell me then, what else is here?”
“This spot, right here, is the farthest away from Glendive one can possibly be without leaving Sagemont, and without getting their arse soaked.”
“You are interesting Danny Boy, and I have no problem saying that.”
Danny asked, “So what’s your story?” as he looked out over the waters.
“What, I only get one?”
Danny considered the question. “You can have as many stories as you see fit, I was just asking.”
Scratching at his short beard, Hick responded, “No, forget about it. It’s important to me. To you, it’s just a curious whim.”
“I didn’t m—”
“Danny Boy; some people learn to take the hint. Just let it be.”
Danny apologized, and Hick continued, “We’re complex beings, people. When we met, you didn’t care about a thing I had to say. And after living the good life, now you can find the time. Why is that? Why are you out here today?”
“It’s Sarah. She’s unwell. She can’t seem to leave her bed but she can’t sleep in it either, she’s trying medicines but hating every last one of them, and it’s getting to the point where she’ll hardly speak to anyone at all. I came here to clear my head.”
“Does she know what’s ailing her?”
Danny lowered his head and folded his hands.
© Ray Underscore Thompson, July 2015