This short story contains elements of sexual assault and brief animal abuse. Please take care of yourself.
You don’t know where these things start or where they come from. How could ya? If I had to guess, the earliest memory I have of this sort of thing was sitting around a campfire when I was a Cub Scout…I think it was as a Cub Scout. I definitely wasn’t a full bloom Boy Scout yet cause I remember the leader took a shine to me when I was about 10 and…well, yeah. I’m sure you read all about that. Happened to a lot of kids I knew. I wasn’t special.
Anyways, I’m 8 or so, sitting around singing Kum By Ya or some shit, and this frog hops straight into the campfire. Stupid fuckin’ thing. Just hoping along, hop, hop, then right into the center of the fire. I look around to see if any of the other boys has seen it and, nope. Not a one. This is a show just for me. I keep my eyes fixed on the fire round about where the frog jumped and, like, two seconds later it jumps out. It’s one fire and it hops twice toward me before stopping behind the logs that we were sitting on.
I’m looking around like “who else is seeing this shit” and no one is. So I watch the frog. It’s on fire, it’s twitching, all sorts of things are going wrong. One of its legs had burned off so it wasn’t do much more hopping in a circle but I remember thinking, real clear like, that if this thing I was watching wasn’t so sad it would be beautiful. The frog was changing, right? Changing from something alive into something dead but in, like, the most beautiful way I can think of. The oranges, the reds, the yellows, all just flickering around and changing as the frog went from green to white to black. Couldn’t take my eyes off it. Watched it all the way until the fire went out and the frog was nothing but a smear on the ground. I swear to you, sir, I remember that frog as clear as I remember anything in my life.
That? Yeah, that’s the big one. That’s the cough that’s going to do it. That’s the cough that moved in and brought his wife and kids and uncles and cousins and is staying for the fucking duration. Docs just sort of laughed. Nothing they can do, at least nothing they can do for a man as wickedly incarcerated as I am. I’m never getting out and the sooner I kick it, the better as far all are concerned. Hell, I might even count myself among them. Not to sound like I don’t have any remorse but, um, I’ve had my time. Plenty of it.
So, yeah, after the frog. Well, you gotta understand, I did not grow up in a good spot. My mama was poor, my daddy wasn’t around and when he was it was worse. I got teachers beating on me and Boy Scout leaders sticking their hands down my trousers. Not an excuse, just a fact. I was unsupervised and pissed off which ain’t great for anyone. That’s the long and short of it. I also wasn’t a hit with anyone in particular. Didn’t have a group, didn’t have a pack I ran with. Was kind of alone so I spent time outside in the woods and in abandoned places by my lonesome. And, yeah, I started setting things on fire pretty early. Got real good with a lighter. I remember one time my mama found a lighter in my pants and was convinced I was smoking and beat me real good because of it. But I wasn’t, at least not at that point. I had the lighter for recreational purposes only.
What’d I set on fire? Shit, man, what didn’t I set on fire. Started with stuff that burned easy like cardboard and paper. Dried leaves in the fall, that was my favorite. They would crackle and do that beautiful dance I was talking to you about, then they’d just disappear into almost nothing. They smoked real good, too and the smoke sort of had this sweetness to it. Hard to describe but you know it if you smelled it. I also loved books because of the way they burned. Each page got a turn if you did it right. The spine would splay open and then each page would give it up and blacken. Then I started learning stuff about fire, like, both through experience and through research I guess? If you can call a 12 year old idiot combing through books, looking for anything he can find about fire, then you can call that research.
I learned about accelerants. I learned about how to build a proper fire and contain it. I learned about what fire does when it wasn’t contained. Then I’d try it out in the woods and, not to sound big about myself, but it kind of became something I was good at. Something I knew and no one else did. Made me feel good at a time when not a lot of things did. Figured at some point maybe I could become a firefighter because I knew all this shit. That didn’t work out. Obviously.
Sorry about that. The first scare I ever had…OK, there was this building out in the woods. Like, an old shack but most of it was gone so it was a lot of rotten wood and stone that had been worn down by years out in the woods. One day, when I’m about 16, I decided that particular building had been around long enough and I was going to burn it down. I get out there and I’ve brought some gasoline, which was my first love if I’m being honest with you. Goddamn, I love gasoline. The smell of it, the way it’s kind of it’s own special kind of liquid. I mean, when you look at gas, you know you’re looking at gas. No one is going to mistake that for water, that’s for dame sure. I bring this big can out with me, I set up what I want to set up and just when the sun sets, I light it up. Whoosh. Everything goes exactly to plan until the wind picks up.
I remember watching, all proud of myself, then seeing the top of the flames start to lick at the trees around me and thinking “oh shit. I just did something bad”. Because once you flick the lighter or light the match or whatever, you’ve let the fire loose and it’s going to do what it’s going to do. You have no more control over it than you do the wind or the rain or running across some piece of shit who sticks his hand down your pants when you’re too young to fight him off. Just one of those things, so when I see the fire going faster and further than I thought it was going to go, I remember getting that hole in your stomach that you get when you really fuck up. And then I remember something else. So, all this is a very long answer to the question “where did this start”. The thing inside me, that thing that made me do what I did, that part of me that went from a kid who likes fire to what I became. That was where it started. Because…
Shit. Sorry. That was gross.
Like I was saying, because on top of that empty feeling was something else and it was impossible to ignore, let me tell you. When I realized I had maybe just burned down the forest, maybe just lit up hundreds of trees and maybe burned down some people’s homes, maybe scared the people in my town shitless, it’s the first time I remember feeling powerful in my life. I mean, I’d felt power, but there’s a difference between feeling power and feeling powerful. It’s a big difference, don’t let anyone tell you different. The difference? Scale, I guess. I mean, you can beat up a kid in your math class and have power over him, but that don’t hold a candle, no pun intended, to what I felt that day in the forest. It was something bigger than me as a person. It felt…I don’t know, Biblical. Like I was on the cusp of doing something really, really big. I ran away that day and nothing else burned, but that was it.
That’s where it started. That’s where I think the demon got the AOK to take me.
Look, I ain’t got a lot of education but I’m not telling you an actual demon sits inside me. That’s not it. What I’m telling you is I started a dialogue with something. Something would whisper in my ear. Something would stay away for a while but other times it would get super fucking loud and just be screaming at me, “burn something! Burn something big!” To the point where I couldn’t ignore it. And I tried to ignore it, don’t think I’m the sort of asshole who went looking to cause as much pain and suffering as I could before I kick the bucket. That ain’t me, no matter what you think. I know who I am.
But this voice, I guess I always thought of it as a demon. Like, with a forked tail and horns and red skin and the whole get up, but not, like, in a cute way. Like, in a “run as fast as you can” way. A way that would make you shit your pants if you saw it. A way that…I guess, if I have to think about it, made me feel powerful. So I graduated high school, got me a job and kept lighting things up. No reason not to. One real big reason to keep doing it.
What’d I burn down? I’ve been thinking about what to tell ya. I mean, you hear me losing more and more of my lungs over here. I’m on the way out. I ain’t never leaving this damn place. Thing is…I don’t think, you’re gonna believe me and what I want to tell ya, I can’t prove. No way. I mean, you can go back and check but if I heard what I’m about to tell you, I’d call bullshit. So do I tell you? Do I keep it to myself? What do you think?
OK, then. Here it goes. When the demon in my head would come knocking, I figured I needed to burn something down and then he’d shut up for a month or so. Sometimes it was two weeks and sometimes it was two months but he always came back and, let me tell you, demons don’t knock. They kick the door down. So, when he came around I always made time. Planned it out. Looked around, picked my spot. By then I’d figured out more about accelerants but gas was still my first love. Plus, it was the easiest to make look like an accident. Everyone has gas in their shed, oily rags in their garage. If that’s where you start it, 8 times out of 10 no one is going to figure it out and 9 times out of 10 they ain’t gonna call it arson.
I’m 62-years-old. I started burning down stuff once a month or so since I was 18. Do the math.
Yeah, I had to move around a lot. Good news is folks always need a janitor, am I right? I don’t mind keeping to myself so it wasn’t that hard and if I ever lit up a place that wasn’t empty and I killed some folks, well, it was pretty easy to pack up and head to the next town. Get a job. Get an apartment. There are thousands of folks who live like that, moving from place to place, job to job. Nomads, sort of like. It ain’t the easiest life but it was what the demon needed.
How many people did I kill prior to the big one? Well, damned if I know. Damned either way, am I right…
Shit, man, I don’t know and I’d never really given it any thought. At least, I didn’t until the big one. I burned down houses, I burned down buildings that seemed empty or that I knew was empty, I burned down a few businesses. A church once. While it was happening I never saw anyone get hurt and afterward I didn’t want to know. I never stuck around to read the papers afterward because that wasn’t what stopped the demon from knocking. I would usually sit and watch and that usually took care of it. After that it was like it never happened, far as I was concerned.
So, the big one. Yeah. No good. That was what? Four years ago now? Five? I lose track in this fuckin’ place.
The demon knocked so I started looking around. This was in Omaha. Shit hole of a town if you ask me but no one does. I tend to like to stay away from businesses, especially ones connected to other buildings ‘cause if it jumps and burns down three or four buildings that’s the sort of attention I don’t need. But something about this building was calling to me. It was an old used book store, right? The owner had just abandoned it and no one had taken most of the books out so I figured the place was a tinder box, just waiting to go up. An empty book store was too big a temptation, man. Thinking about all those books burning. The demon was knocking hard. So, I scope it out.
I broke in a few nights before I did it, looked around. The building seemed like it was in good shape and I knew enough to look for firewalls and it seemed like this business had them. I mean, it was a little risky but the way I did it, I had a decent sized fuse. I could light it and be 8 blocks away having a beer on a rooftop when it went up. If the building next to it went up, I’d pull up stakes and move on to the next town. That was the plan. Any fire department worth their salt could save the buildings around them. Looks like we’re all lined up.
So, I go in, I set it up, I light the fuse and already things are going wrong because I clock a guy clocking me coming out of the back of the building. Just some preppy looking kid out having a smoke. I see him see me and he seems me see him see me. But what can I do at that point? The fuse is lit. I head to my rooftop and by the time I get up there, the building is already up. Ahead of schedule. Way ahead of schedule. And I start getting that pit in my stomach that I got the first time I lit up a building – I’d done something wrong, something bad. It overpowered the demon which was…new. And worrisome, right? I get my binoculars out to get a better look and could tell, right from the start, that something wasn’t right. Then the first explosion hit.
Books wasn’t the only thing that bookshop owner had abandoned. Apparently you can make meth out of all sorts of things and this asshole had flammable shit just lying around. Sure, I missed it but I wasn’t looking for it. Didn’t know to. And, while a good firewall stops fire from spreading a good explosion will blow a firewall apart real good. Then where you at?
About 46 dead people. That’s where you’re at. Before the cops came I saw a few of them run out of the buildings. Two of them were on fire.
It wasn’t like watching the frog. Not at all.
Of course that little preppy asshole outside the store followed me and called the cops. And, of course there wasn’t a prosector or a judge or anyone who didn’t want me to breathe free air again. Thing of it was the second the first explosion hit I knew. I could see the rest of my life laid out in front of me and there was fuck all I could do about it. I’m not asking for sympathy. I’ll put it like this. You ever drive on icy roads, you start to slide, you’re heading toward a mailbox and there’s a good two good, long, drawn out seconds where you know you’re gonna hit the mailbox. Like, it’s already happened but it hasn’t happened yet. That was me after the first explosion hit. I knew the preppy asshole had called the cops. I knew I’d end up here or some place like here. And I knew I’d never light another fire as long as I live.
This cancer, that’s new, though. Sucks worse than I figured it would.
Have I heard from the demon? Ha! Good question, sir. Good question. The second he saw what my future was I could almost feel him leave. He packed his bag, grabbed his hat and made out to the next sorry son of a bitch. He knew he was done.
I knew I was done. Like I said, I had my time. A lot of it.
Maybe too much.