Danny Munchak Jr., a popular high schooler, disappears after hanging out in an old mill building. In the morning, Danny’s father finds Danny’s truck near the mill and a body in the mill. The setting is a small city/town in rural New England, an old mill town where things are starting to look up, but there are still many old blue-collar families that feel pressed out.
Danny’s disappearance and the murder have nothing to do with each other. Danny decides he needed to get out of the town – too stifling. Leaves his truck at the mill and takes an old beat-up car from Jake, whose dad works at the used car lot. Danny heads west. Will write to his parents six months later and let them know what has happened. Jake swears to him he won’t tell what happened. The dead man is a migrant worker who was last working on an orchard. The orchard owner is a progressive on the city council, a wealthy man who, with his wife, came to the town after making a fortune in tech. He finds out she is sleeping with the now dead man and murders him. The local detective eventually finds this out from one of the other workers, an undocumented immigrant who was too afraid to say anything. The detective confronts the wife, but she denies everything and won’t stand as a witness. Later ICE comes and does a raid – the person who informed gets taken up.
The Disappearance of Danny Munchak Jr.
In late September, Danny Munchak Jr. disappeared from the town of Lamb’s Cross, an old town in the western part of Massachusetts where redbrick mills stand like ancient landmarks, testaments to a glorified past of material production. Even at the time of the disappearance, which occurred on the edge of the millennium, the mills hadn’t produced much besides tetanus and unwanted pregnancies for over twenty years. There were two mills in town. Northside was the larger of the two and had once been the largest textile factory in the region. In its current position, it stood as an imposing ruin in the blue-collar section of town with its old row houses and multi-families, crisscrossed by pockmarked streets desperate for attention. In the south end of town, the Button factory (which true to its name and been a world-renowned producer of fine buttons) had begun a slow transformation into a holding spot for artist studios and boutique shops, while the neighborhood had already begun its Renaissance or gentrification, depending on how you looked at things.
The town sat wedged between Dobbs Mountain and Standish Hill in what was locally known as The Valley, cut by the meandering Randle River. There were many old families in Lamb’s Cross who traced their ancestry back to the founding, almost three-hundred years before. Newer families were harder to come by, but they did exist.
The houses in a Lamb’s Cross were a mix between hundred-year-old Victorians, a smattering of two-hundred-year-old colonials and farmhouses, and a healthy number of Cape’s and ranches from the sixties and seventies that existed as far away from the downtown as possible while still remaining in the town’s limits. At the time of the first disappearance, the town was, after two decades of decline, slowly, methodically beginning a comeback, as they say. Even outside the Button District, things were beginning to look up, although the improvements generally ended at the imaginary North Side line. In the downtown there were a few new restaurants, a handful of bars, only one of which could be described as a dive, and a hardware store that had made it through the worst of the big box domination and remained intent on making it through the e-commerce “craze.”
While there certainly were signs of life in town, the buzz and excitement that once had been a staple at the height of its manufacturing prowess was now largely gone. That is, until the disappearance of Danny Munchak Jr.
Danny was seventeen, captain of the basketball team, and resident North-Sider. His dad, Danny Senior, had worked the mills until they were shut down and then took a job at Stan’s Supermarket. In all likelihood, if one of the Carter kids (there were five of them after all) who were newer to the city had gone missing, or even the Ramsey’s who also lived on the North Side but whose dad disappeared years before of his own volition, had vanished, then maybe the whole thing would have passed without incident. You can say what you want about the equity in that, but that’s how things were in Lamb’s Cross. So when Danny didn’t come home one night and in the morning Danny Sr. took it on himself to look for his son, that’s when things started to really turn in a strange direction for the town.
It would be easy to blame other things for everything that happened next, the bigger events, like jobs packing their bags and heading overseas, or maybe the crumbling unions, or you might want to even throw technology under the bus. And maybe all those things played a part. But the trouble in Lamb’s Cross’s (that’s what people eventually started calling it, “the trouble,” like it was some type of miniature Ireland) really began with a phone call between Danny Sr. and Chief Mitch Peters later that same morning.
Nobody witnessed that call. Even Betsy Munchak didn’t actually hear what was said between the two men on account Danny Sr. told her to go start the coffee and he’d be in the kitchen in a minute. But how much imagination does it take to know how the conversation went? Danny Sr. got the Chief at his house and let him know his son hadn’t come home that night or if he did, he left pretty early in the morning. Then he told him what he found at the mill. Then things really began to spin.
What Danny Sr. didn’t say and what came out later was that about an hour before that phone call, he had gotten himself out of bed after lying awake for at least half an hour unable to fall back to sleep, walked into the kitchen, careful not to step on any of the loose boards in the floor, and noticed his son’s door was wide open. Danny Sr. let his son have his privacy, but leaving his bedroom door open was not like Danny Jr. So he went over, peered into the unlit room, saw the football pads, an old basketball, what was possibly a pair of cleats in the corner, a single textbook open and face down, and an empty bed. Of course he thought it was strange, but there was no panic in his mind yet. Instead, Danny Sr. went back to the kitchen, and then to the living room, which was also empty. The door to the only bathroom in the house was open and the room was also unoccupied. Besides these rooms, there was only the basement to check, so Danny Sr. diligently went there next, fully aware now that he was just wasting his time. He opened the door, which squealed, begging for WD-40. The wooden steps creaked under his weight as he descended. Danny Sr. barely hit five feet six inches, but he had a broad chest, thick arms, and a growing gut.
At the bottom his feet touched cold concrete, and he peered into the shadowy light. It’s possible he called out for Danny Jr., but it’s more than likely he didn’t actually believe his son was in the basement. There was nothing down there except moldy boxes, unused weights and too many spiders. No reason for his son to be there.
When Danny Sr. reached the top of the stairs, switching off the light as he climbed, Betsy was standing there waiting for him.
“Where’s Danny?” she asked, apparently having seen his empty bedroom.
“Don’t know,” Danny Sr. said, then added, “Probably with one of his girlfriends.” He grinned.
Betsy remained stoic, ignoring his comment. Once Betsy Munchak had been beautiful, and although she had done well in high school, believing there was nothing more for her after the age of eighteen except to become a wife and mother, she had relied heavily on her beauty. It lasted long enough to capture Danny Munchak before beginning to fade. By the time their only son was conceived, it was all but gone, a rapid decline after saying “I do.” The birth finalized its disintegration.
“Should we call the police?” she asked.
Danny Sr. shook his head.
“Not their problem,” he said, “I’ll go find him.” He pushed past her, found his old sweatshirt and boots. The keys were still in the sweatshirt pocket.
Outside, the sun was just coming up and it felt like it might be one of those last days of summer, even though Labor Day had already come and gone. Danny Sr. had a mid-morning shift at Stan’s. Once he found the boy and gave him a whooping, he’d head in, maybe stop to see Mack Malone at the diner, grab a coffee. Truth was, he didn’t hate working at Stan’s. In fact he kind of enjoyed it, as much as you can like a job. He figured any job you could yak it up with the locals, all the guys he’d grown up with, well, that was something. And Stan himself was a pretty good guy. But the problem, as Danny Sr. saw it, was there was no dignity in it, and he didn’t know why that was the case, only that was how it was with a job at a grocery store, especially after his position (not to mention his father’s and grandfather's) at the mill. All of it made him feel like he had missed out on something. Part of it was internal, sure, but it was also the looks from those around Lamb’s Cross. What’s a grown-ass man, and Danny Munchak no less, doing working at Stan’s? Those looks of pity. And shame. Shame. That was the right word. Danny Munchak worked at a grocery. Danny Munchak! And that was from the ones who had lived in town forever, like him. It was worse from the new families in Button. Assholes from the Boston suburbs who thought anyone could move into a town and immediately make it their own.
He shook these thoughts out of his head as he climbed into his pickup. It didn’t help dwelling on these things. The world was what it was, and there wasn’t much an old factory boy like him could do about it. The engine took three turns of the key before roaring to life. Danny knew he had to take it in but where was the money coming from? Besides, getting this money-sucker to work properly was something Danny Munchak should be able to do with ease. He had got it working the last time it died on him, but there would come a point, he knew, that his admittedly limited expertise in the mechanical sciences would force him to take the pile of metal over to Joe’s Tire and get someone who really knew what they were doing on this.
Danny drove to the end of Laurel Avenue and turned right out onto Prospect. He drove slower than usual, keeping his eye out for his son’s Dodge pickup. Another thing they shouldn’t have spent money on. But the seventeen year-old football and basketball star needed a car, needed a truck, so Danny had made sure his only son had one.
There were only a handful of cars on the road this early; anyone who worked the morning shifts at the Dunkin’s or headed north to the highway, which would bring you right to the hospital, the main job engine around now that the mills were closed. He drove until he got to Chestnut and turning down it saw the sign for the high school. It was a new building; somehow the board had convinced the residents to fund it a few years back. Danny Sr. had fought it, arguing what they had was good enough for him and it sure as hell was good enough for his son. Sure, he didn’t want his property taxes to go up, but the resulting building that now appeared before him seemed vindication enough it had been a bad idea. Danny Sr. was no architect and didn’t have an artistic bone about him, but he knew crap when he saw it, and the modern school building was crap. It made him shake his head every time he saw it. A waste of money, he thought. But he didn’t dwell too long on that. More important things occupied his mind.
No one was at the school yet, although the teachers and administrators would be arriving soon, and the kids not long after. He wondered if Danny Jr. would be among them. He drove through the main parking lot, but it was obvious no one was there. He figured as much but had to make sure. Then he took the cut through and went around back to the teacher’s parking lot. His heart rate picked up for a second when he saw a pickup parked alongside a Chevy. But it fell again when he saw it was a newer model. Definitely not Danny Jr’s.
Danny Sr. slowed his truck to a stop. He left his foot on the brake. He took off his baseball hat, rubbed his recently shaved head, and replaced the hat. There were a handful of spots he knew the kids went. Although some had changed in popularity, most were the same as when he was their age.
Except one. Northside. When he was a kid, it was still a working mill. Not a great spot for a young man and his girl to go. Now that the mill was completely abandoned, it was one of the more popular spots. Danny Sr. took his foot off the brake, applied too much pressure to the gas so the truck lurched forward, and sped out of the parking lot.
The new school was in the Button Neighborhood, so it took Danny Sr. a full ten minutes, even without traffic, to get over to Northside. As he approached on Mill Street, Danny Sr. realized even though this was over in his neck of the woods, it had been sometime since he had even driven past the old mill. Didn’t have a reason to now. Or maybe he avoided it purposefully. He passed by Abe’s, the convenience store on the corner and the only shop besides The Watering Hole on this side of the city. He noticed someone meandering down the sidewalk and briefly Danny Sr. thought his search might be over. But it was Jake Markham who lived over on Alexander Way. Danny Sr. was pretty sure Jake and Danny Jr. were friends although it had been a while since he had seen Jake over at their house.
Danny Sr. slowed the car to a stop, leaned across, and rolled down the window.
“Hey, Jake,” he called out.
Jake stopped, glanced around with a guilty look on his face, until he saw Danny Sr.
“Hi Mr. Munchak,” he said.
“Hey, Jake,” Danny Sr. said again and then paused, suddenly unsure whether he should let anyone else know he was out looking for his son.
Jake stared at him.
“You out with Danny last night?”
Jake squinted at him. He didn’t respond. Danny waited.
Finally, Jake said, “We hung out after school.”
“Where did you go?” Danny realized this was the longest he had ever spoken with Jake. Probably the longest he had ever talked with any of Danny Jr.’s friends. He watched Jake’s face twist and contort. Not for the first time, Danny Sr. wondered how he looked to others. He might not be tall, but he knew he was big, most of which was still muscle although that was starting to change. And he didn’t ever say too much, which must have been intimidating. It was like that his whole life though, even when he was a kid.
“It’s fine, no one’s in trouble.” He tried out his gentlest voice. It only seemed to make Jake cringe more.
“We went to Sarno’s,” Jake offered. Sarno’s, the after-school hangout. The variety store had been around since Danny Sr. was a kid and not much about it had changed. Even the owner, Bob McCullers, was still there. Ancient as anything, but still running the place and turning a blind eye to whatever the kids were up to in the back-parking lot. Sarno’s was a good hangout but there would be no reason for Danny to be there this morning.
“You must have gone somewhere else. Anyone else you boys hanging out with yesterday? Any girls with you?”
Jake looked visibly uncomfortable. Danny Sr. wasn’t sure he had ever seen anyone actually squirm before, but Jake definitely was squirming. Danny Sr. put the truck in park and waited.
“Abby was there too, and Lilly and Marcus,” Jake said, staring down at the pavement. He said this as if it was the answer Danny Sr. was looking for. Danny Sr. remained motionless, waiting. Finally Jake said, “We went somewhere else.” The voice was so soft, Danny Sr. barely heard it above.
Jake shuffled his feet.
“Where did you go?” Danny Sr. asked.
“There, that wasn’t too hard. You guys stay out all night?”
Jake shook his head and finally looked up.
“No. I went home. We all went home. We left before Danny.”
“What do you mean? All of you?” Danny Sr. said.
Jake nodded then shrugged.
“Look,” Jake said, “I’ll be honest. He was acting a little weird. He wanted to stay out. It was getting late. Everyone was tired. He was trying to get us to go deeper into the mill. It’s too dark there to stay late.” He paused. “Is Danny okay, Mr. Munchak?”
Danny Sr. stared at the boy and for the first time that morning wondered the same.
“He’s okay now,” Danny Sr. growled, “but not when I get through with him. Get to school. You’re going to be late.”
“Yes sir,” Jake said, and turned from the car and hurried in the opposite direction.
Danny Sr. pulled away from the curb, and continued down Mill Street until he saw the Northside mill looming up in front of him. The sun was still low enough and the building tall enough that for a moment a deep shadow hung over him. Mill Street headed downhill a bit. Beyond him a thin line of scraggly trees stood, acting as the edge of the Mill River, a tributary to the Randle. Danny Sr. thought the trees looked skeletal, with long thin arms, beckoning for someone to join them along the riverbank.
He pulled his eyes away as the road turned sharply to the left and came abruptly into a long, narrow parking lot that cut in between Northside, so that one side of the mill blocked the view of the river and the other blocked the view of the road above. Here the morning sun was almost completely blocked out. The shadows grew as Danny Sr. slowed the car to a crawl.
There were countless passageways and doors down here, each leading into a different section of the mill. Danny Sr. had worked here almost fifteen years and had maybe been in half of them. How unfamiliar it all seemed now. A relic. Once there had been so much life here. Now there was nothing but a dying building, a thing that had once been magnificent now stood desolate and alone.
Then he saw the old Dodge pickup. He slammed on the breaks, put the truck in park, and pushed himself out the door. He realized his heart was racing. He had been anticipating something like this. Of course he had.
Danny Sr. stumbled as he hit the ground but caught himself before he fell. Alright, he told himself, take it easy. His chest was already tight.
“Danny,” he called. No answer. “Danny, if you’re in there, I’m going to beat you to an inch of your life.” He didn’t really mean that but for some reason felt like he had to say it. There was no answer.
He approached the front of the truck cautiously. Might be a girl in there, he told himself, but that wasn’t the real reason for his hesitation.
Danny Sr. peered into the window of the driver side door. It was dark and cavernous. And empty. He took a step back, heart thudding.
A noise made him spin around.
The alley was empty besides the two trucks.
“Danny,” he called again.
The noise again, clearer now. Scratching on a hard surface. It was difficult to tell, but it seemed to be coming a bit farther on in the shadows.
Danny Sr. left his son’s truck, and stepping over a thin puddle that had formed in the crack of the broken pavement, half-walked, half-ran towards the noise. It didn’t occur to him until later that it hadn’t rained in at least a week. The scratching stopped and Danny Sr. stopped, waiting, trying not to breathe. He realized how quiet it was. So strange, he thought, a place like this, a place that had been alive twenty-four hours every day. Now it was dead and silent.
He heard the scratching again. It was louder now and clear it was coming from one of the few open doorways to Danny Sr.’s left.
“Danny,” he called out, realizing his voice was barely above a hoarse whisper. As if in response to his voice, the noise seemed to get louder and more deliberate, and Danny Sr. thought he heard another noise, something softer.
The doorway was open. Inside was darker than a moonless night. Not a drop of sunlight penetrated it. It smelled damp and old and forgotten. Danny Sr. felt something rising up inside him and only after a moment he realized what it was. Fear. It was not something that came naturally to him. He called his son's name for the fourth time and could hear the wavering in his own voice. As if in answer, the scratching noise increased. Now he was also certain there was a second noise, a low hum.
“Fuck,” Danny Sr. said and turned his head left and right as if looking for something that might get him out of whatever predicament he now found himself in. “Shit,” he said.
He peered into the well of darkness and saw something move. It was all he needed. With his heart threatening to rip out of his chest, his stomach clenched tight, he burst into a run, and battered through the darkness like it was a brick wall.
Sometime later, when the sun, which had started out so promising earlier, had strangely disappeared, Betsy Munchak came into the kitchen and found her husband hunched over the kitchen table. She had taken a longer than usual shower, and her mind had gone to a dark place about where her son might be. But when she saw her husband at the table, her immediate thought was that he had had a massive heart attack. She caught her breath at the thought, afraid of how naturally it came to her. But then his head rose slightly up from his hands. He stared at his wife through dull eyes that seemed to look through her. His face was pale and streaked with dirt. There was something on his hands. Something dark and staining. Betsy opened her mouth and then closed it again.
“I need to call the Chief,” Danny Sr. whispered.