R. Daniel Lester’s writing has appeared in print and online in multiple publications, including Adbusters, Geist, Broken Pencil, Pulp Literature, Switchblade and, most recently, Retreats from Oblivion: The Journal of NoirCon. His novella, Dead Clown Blues, from Shotgun Honey and Down & Out Books, was shortlisted for a 2018 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Novella by the Crime Writers of Canada. The follow up, 40 Nickels, will be released in 2019. Some Say the World Will End in Fire was originally published in Pulp Literature Issue 5, Winter 2015, print edition.
Ahead of me in the grocery store line it’s this guy’s turn to place his purchases on the belt, but instead of doing so one-by-one, like a rational human being, like a mensch, he dumps his basket out all over and then briefly wears the empty basket as a hat. When he’s done, he hands it to me and I put it on the pile of other baskets.
“You’re a big bright shining star,” he tells me.
And you know how you can take a guess at someone’s life by what they have in their basket? Well, this guy, I don’t even want to know. His purchases: three packs of magnum condoms and 12 bottles of lighter fluid. Even weirder is how he’s looking at me. Like he knows me. And maybe he does because there’s something familiar about him too. I feel like I’ve seen him before.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hey,” I say.
“That’s what I said.”
Silence, say hello to awkward.
I ask if we’ve met before and he gives me mock pain.
“Dude, what, you don’t remember me?”
“Uh…” I say, searching. Then I figure it out. “Lauren, right?”
“No, bro, my name is not ‘Lauren Wright.’”
“No, that’s my sister. You dated her.”
“Sorry, hoss, wrong cowpoke. Though maybe I should be the sorry one. ‘Lauren,’ huh? She sounds hot. Is she hot?”
“You’ll introduce me, I’m sure.”
“Sure. After you”–and he covers his mouth, mumbling quickly–“pay for my groceries.”
“Pay for your groceries?”
He grins a sly, curved grin, like a cat burping canary feathers. “Did you want to? That’s neighbourly of you.” He removes the plastic divider between our items and says, “On his tab,” to the cashier, hoisting a thumb at me. When I don’t present my own reusable bag, he shakes his head with beaucoup distain and plucks a canvas bag off the nearby hook. “And this,” he says. “You know the environment’s not going to save itself, Danny-boy.”
I blush for a reason that isn’t readily apparent to me. Maybe it’s being eco-shamed in public, or maybe it’s because he knows my name and I don’t remember his. And it’s not that I make a habit out of paying for near-strangers’ groceries, but something tells me I owe him. He knows it. I know it. This is simply the collection of a debt I’ve forgotten the details of.
“High school?” I say, as we exit the store.
“You could say that.”
“Want a hint?”
“Please,” I say, needing this to be over with. Whatever it takes. Whatever mindfuck memory I have to contend with.
He leans in like he’s divulging missile launch codes. “From a writing workshop…”
“I’m Gage Parker,” he says.
I dig but come up empty. “Sorry, I used to drink a lot back then. Was it a bar bill? It was probably a bar bill.”
“It wasn’t a bar bill, dude. I’m Gage,” he says, his enthusiasm deflating slightly from my lack of nostalgia for those “good old days” when I sat around in writing workshops, or, should I say, “self-help seminars,” because oh how we all just wanted to be loved and validated and told our words were beautiful creatures.
“Oh, right, Gage. You’re a hell of a writer, man.”
He smiles. “You don’t remember me at all, do you?”
I shift from foot to foot.
“Gage Parker. From your novel.”
“Oh, okay. Wait, what? From my novel?”
Seconds tick by as I gaze at the bombshell he just dropped in my lap. “My novel?”
“Dickheads say ‘what.’”
“Dude, you got to get a little quicker on the uptake. I am Gage Parker.”
“Come on,” I say, looking around the parking lot for the cameras, for the crew, for any indication of the reality TV prank show I must be on. Problem is, I don’t see any cameras or crew. The parking lot is empty. Just me and this lunatic with the creepy stare and the BOY NAMED SUE t-shirt. “So you’re really serious about this?”
“Totally serious, bro,” he says, glancing around. “Like a heart attack. Or like a punch in the gut.”
And then he punches me in the gut.
The air whooshes out of my lungs as I double up, making a noise that I can only liken to mating rhinos on The Discovery Channel. My legs buckle. I fall to my knees. I turn my head to the side and look up at him, placing the afternoon sun behind his head so I don’t have to squint. He’s glowing like an angel, a mean, pissed-off angel with a whole bag of chips on his shoulder.
“Easy on the spleen,” I cough out. Then I tell him that whatever it is, I’m sure we can work it out. I say, “I’ll just get my wallet…”
But this is absolutely the wrong thing for me to say. Without hesitation, he winds up and drives his knuckles down across my right cheek. My lip bursts like a ripe tomato, spraying blood across his dusty work boots. He kicks me in the stomach and the pain is a seed is a sapling is a tree growing roots that snake through my body and call it a garden. This time, when I moan, I sound like a wounded dog, so I give him the big eyes, the sad eyes, the “please don’t hit me again” eyes and he backs off slightly. Sensing an opportunity, I simultaneously vomit on his boots and lift up his jeans cuff. His leg is hairless and vaguely white and my teeth sink into his flesh with satisfying ease. Unfortunately he doesn’t scream. I would have liked a scream. Through the blood and the bile I taste wax, yes, something like candle wax, and then he punches me repeatedly on the spine until I stop biting.
After the episode in the grocery store parking lot, the nutball calling himself “Gage Parker” led me down a street I’d never been before, the whole time ranting nonsense about hero journeys and Iron John and how it’s every abandoned kid’s dream to kick the shit out of their absentee father. I limped along, only half-listening to his rant, more concerned with my busted lip, numb face and aching back. He cut across an overgrown lawn and up the steps to a house that appeared to be held together with chewing gum, toothpicks and prayers, lots of prayers. It was a structure in decay. An ode to erosion and neglect.
I knew the house. It was the same one I described in the novel that wanted so badly to be Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club but just ended up sucking itself back into the black hole whence it came. And Gage was my Tyler Durden.
And it’s watching a lanky rage-aholic asshole with quick fists and hairless ankles rinse my vomit off his boots with a hose attached to the side of a rotting, ramshackle house that makes me realize this is what the day has become. This is real. This is happening.
“So you really think you’re Gage Parker?” I ask, as he drops the water hose and heads up the front stairs. Because of my fat lip it sounds more like “Tho do weewie fink oor Ade Arder?”
He shakes his head, seeming to understand me fine. “Don’t think it. Am.”
“From my novel.”
“The one I never finished, like, six years ago.”
He winks. “Give the man a cigar.”
“It’s a stroke, isn’t it?”
“Dude, it’s not a stroke.”
“Of course it is.”
“Nope, not that either,” he says, swinging the screen door open and stepping inside. Not knowing what else to do, I follow him. And then, I’m praying for a stroke or brain tumour.
Seriously, my kingdom for an aneurism.
Because let me say this: the things they don’t tell you in those writing workshops/circle jerks could fill the book you won’t ever finish because you’re a talentless hack stupid enough to believe what they do tell you. And what they definitely don’t mention is that every main character from every story you ever tried to write will one day live in a house together, except they won’t look like real people but more like wax statues, though not the ones from that museum in London where they look all slick and professional. No, these ones will look like they came from a sweatshop in Bangladesh that makes really crappy wax statues, and each one will be staring at you expectantly like you’re clearly late to the party but at least you finally arrived.
“Daddy’s here,” says Gage and then makes introductions. First up are the half-human dwarves, Stump and Bump, the rhyming twins partly made out of magical wood from a magical forest. They were my protagonists in the children’s book I didn’t finish. And here they are now, about three feet tall and made out of the same waxy substance as Gage, both skimming porn mags while punching each other repeatedly on the shoulder. They each raise a hand in unison and say, “Doody poody,” which makes no sense, but they’re really not very bright. My bad.
Then, up slinks Pearl, the hottest dame in a tight dress to ever grace the pages of a scrambled attempt at hardboiled fiction. Bedroom eyes and legs to her neck. Every stereotype personified. The big problem with the real version is she’s paper-thin so when she turns sideways she practically disappears.
“Everything he ever told me was a pack of lies, that filthy beast,” she says, fake exhaling the fake smoke from the unlit cigarette between her fingers. “And you’re worse than him.”
“Oh,” I say. “Sorry?”
Gage rolls his eyes, points down and says, “And this is Mike.”
“Jesus!” I shout and almost trample on the disgusting rodent that’s pawing at my feet and looks like my old boss, the one I wrote into a short story because he was such a perfect-hair-ladder-climbing-asshole. This Mike has only a head, a torso and one arm, and he’s tonguing my right sneaker while making a wet gurgling sound.
“His brain is literally the size of walnut,” says Gage, “so the poor bastard doesn’t have a lot going for him. Except that hair.”
He’s right: the hair is wavy and chestnut brown. Movie star locks. I nudge Mike away. Thankfully, he stops licking my shoe. “How long have you all been…here?”
Gage answers from the kitchen. “Forever.”
“Well, ours anyway.”
And I can’t even begin to consider the ramifications of an existential discussion with wax figures, so I don’t, and instead let the twins each grab a hand and sit me down on the couch. When in Rome. Pearl sits down beside me, crosses one leg over the other, calls me “a dog, a dirty, good-for-nothin’ mongrel” and then seductively grabs my knee. Gage comes out of the kitchen holding four shot glasses. He takes a bottle of lighter fluid out of the canvas bag and pours everyone a shot. Then, he toasts to “meeting your maker” and they all clink glasses and down the lighter fluid. All except for the toastmaster, who’s not drinking the Kool-Aid and sets his glass down on the floor. Bump, or maybe Stump, seeing this, grabs the glass before Mike can crawl to it, shoots the clear liquid back, and burps loudly.
“Lighter fluid?” I say.
“Yeah, they love the stuff,” says Gage, as he sits down beside me on the couch. Between him and Pearl, I’m the meat in a wax sandwich.
Pearl slams her glass down on the coffee table. “Love, what would he know about love? He’s a heartless swine.”
Gage elbows me. “She wants you bad, my friend. Classic film-noir-femme-fatale-with-an-Oedipal-complex. Way to be original.”
Pearl’s waxy, paper-thin fingers are cupping my balls. I lift them away.
“But if you ever wanted to fuck a cartoon, now’s your chance,” says Gage. He tears open one of the magnum condoms and stretches it out. The condom hangs there like the greasy casing of a kielbasa sausage. “A little daunting, isn’t it?”
“I thought they were for you.”
“What, me and Pearl? She’s like my sister, perv.”
“Just messin’ with ya. Listen, you stay here and entertain the troops, and I’ll be right back.” Gage snags the canvas shopping bag off the floor and heads upstairs.
And so begins the longest five minutes of my life, as I fend off Pearl’s advances and watch the twins use the coffee table as a surfboard. Of course, I’m pouring shots of lighter fluid the whole time, so this only adds to the mayhem.
But by the time Gage returns, I have it all figured out. “I’m having a schizophrenic break,” I tell him. “You’re all a delusion. Gage, you really are my Tyler Durden.”
Gage gives me an “oh, really?” glare and grabs my phone out of my pocket. He finds my sister’s number and calls her up, telling her that, although I can’t talk right now because I’m too busy playing Dance Dance Revolution, I suggested he call because I thought they would really hit it off. I can hear the tone in my sister’s voice and she’s eating it up like candy. To seal the deal, Gage lifts up his shirt and snaps a picture of his waxy 8-pack abs, which, thanks to the dim lighting and my shitty phone camera, doesn’t look half bad. I actually hear my little sister go “oohh” when she sees it. What a slut.
Gage makes a date for the following Saturday and hangs up the phone. “Now, if I was you, if I was essentially the better, faster, stronger version you wish you could be, would I make a date to bang your sister? Because wouldn’t that mean you want to bang your sister?”
“I know you’re a sick puppy, but I don’t think you swing that way. Frankly, Danny, I’m a little upset at your refusal to accept personal responsibility for this situation.”
“So this is about me being a better writer?”
“Christ, no. Please don’t string a sentence together ever again. Promise?”
He pats me on the back. “You were shit anyway, let’s face it. But no, this isn’t about you, Mr. Selfish, this is about them. Doing right by them.”
I stare around the room at my cast of characters. My drunk and deformed children. My half-breeds and half-bodied. I wonder what they could want from me. Cable? Wireless internet? I’m about to ask Gage what he means, when the smell from upstairs reaches me. Thick and heavy, the fumes waft down the stairs and float into the room like a poisonous cloud of spontaneous combustion.
Gage places a bottle of lighter fluid and a pack of matches on the coffee table. “There’s a bit left, if you want to help. I soaked everything upstairs, but for some reason I can’t light the match myself. It has to be you.”
“They say no parent should have to outlive their kids but what if those kids are ugly, pathetic creatures that never should have existed in the first place and have no way of fending for themselves? Isn’t it better to be the one that switches off the lights and calls it mercy?”
“I don’t think so,” I say.
I’m on my feet and almost out the door when Gage puts his hand on my shoulder. I turn, expecting a right cross to the chin and a boot to the nuts, but instead Gage says, “Please” and hands me the matches and half-empty bottle. I look down as Mike arm-crawls up to me and nuzzles his head into my leg, mewing like a lost kitten. Then he wraps his hand around my calf and starts humping my shinbone. I try to shake him off, but he’s got me in a lover’s grasp and won’t let go. Gage laughs as Mike’s thrusts get faster and faster, the gurgling sound more strained, urgent. I consider at least letting him finish since I gave him such a crappy life, but when lighter fluid rains down on him, Mike stops humping. He looks up and his eyes say, It’s about goddamn time, you chickenshit. I squirt the rest of the bottle on the floor and he laps up the puddle like spilt milk.
“Attaboy,” Gage says to me. “Now just one more thing…”
I flick a match and hold it up in the air. The others, except for Mike and Gage, are passed out, their wax bellies full of drink. They don’t see me sign their death warrant.
“They wouldn’t understand,” says Gage. “They thought this was fun.”
When I feel the heat on my fingertips, I drop the match into Mike’s mouth. He ignites, glows orange and melts onto the floor.
Gage nudges the glistening pool of wax. “Some say the world will end in fire.”
“Bono?” I ask.
“Robert Frost, idiot.” Gage doesn’t follow me out the door. I turn to face him. He grins his grin. “What, did you think we were going to be best friends, Danny? Be each other’s wingman? I’m made of fucking wax, dude.”
He shuts the door as the flames lick at his boot heels.
A couple days later I have myself believing it was all a dream. That I don’t really smell smoke on the clothes I was wearing that day. That is, until my sister calls and seriously messes with my blissful denial. I pause my game of Dance Dance Revolution and answer the phone. She’s pissed. Gage didn’t show up for their date and she wants to know what kind of scumbag I set her up with.
“He died in a fire,” I say.
And leave it at that.