Pretty much every 4 am on a Tuesday found Ed loafing at the Quik Pick #2. He would slow sip coffee and flirt with Elma as much as she’d allow, all the while mindlessly shuffling through layers of tossed scratch tickets that accumulated all night in the garbage bin.
The only money he’d spend on the Lotto was from the occasional winning ticket someone tossed by mistake. It was easy to miss a winner. He resented a little not being able to afford buying his own, like some that sat around all day like it was a neighborhood casino, spending disability money on handfuls of dollar scratch tickets. He hardly fished out a winner, but he had found a fifty-dollar ticket once and was able to gorge on a big lunch at the Waffle Stop with enough left for three gallon jugs of gasoline. Mostly they’d accumulate in his wallet.
Ed wasn’t the only one that scoured these assumed losing tickets, but he was one of the few with the patience for it. Some were awfully territorial. Sammy tore into the bin about seven in the morning. John would get there about ten. You could see it in their eyes when they spotted a bunch in the garbage, swiveling their heads around like a paranoid animal. Ed was more laid back. It was a game. It just helped pass the time before the sun was up and the grass dried.
He was sipping his second cup of coffee, half-awake one particular morning, watching Elma sweep up around the Coffee Oasis, when the huge flashy neon sign over the counter flipped from 499 to 500 million dollars on the Super Lucky Ball Cash Jackpot Sweepstakes. That wadded stash of winners in his wallet sprung to life. They vibrated they wanted out so bad.
He hurried over to the scratch counter, swept the little mounds of grey shavings away and emptied his wallet of those tickets and made his way to the checkout.
“Elma, I reckon it’s time to spend these winners,” he whispered, handing over a handful of ragged tickets.
She winked. “Feeling lucky, Ed?”
He cracked a grin. “You make me feel lucky, Elma. I wouldn’t bother if you weren’t working right now. That sign just flipped over to five-hundred million.”
She looked up, blinked and gave a sigh. “It sure did, didn’t it? God, what I’d do for that kind of money.”
“That sounded like a prayer,” Ed offered as the little speaker set to yelling Yahoo! every time she scanned a ticket. “You won twenty-three dollars, honey. Not bad.”
He was looking over the thick bound rolls of scratch offs behind the counter and studied his cash.
“How many you want?”
“Let’s do ten dollars of Lucky Ball tickets. And I need seven dollars in gas.” That left him three dollars. He eyed his favorite scratch off – the “All Fired Up” one hundred thousand dollar golden ticket.
“And give me a number eight. I’m feeling all fired up, Elma.”
She smiled, attuned to his subtle joke.
The sun inched up, raising the temperature and new light slow-chased the shadows across the pot-holed lot. It reminded him of sunrise on the moon. Or Mars, maybe. Cratered and grey, a blanket of light seeping over the miniaturized landscape. He clinked open his silver lighter with one practiced snap of his fingers and lit a smoke. He was patient. He’d move when the light reached his back bicycle tire.
With what was left of a second cigarette smoldering from is clamped lips, he filled two gas cans he’d rigged over the back of his bicycle. He never worried about the fumes. He figured if he was bound to die in a fire that would have happened long ago.
A woman at another pump stared at his dangling cigarette as he pumped. He squinted back through the smoke’s heat.
Her eyes rounded, surprised.
“Well, anybody who can’t wait to smoke until they’ve pumped their gas is an addict.” She huffed and bolted toward the store, to tattle obviously.
“Baby, I’m addicted to more than smoking,” he muttered with a grin. Then he peddled off to mow some yards, totting his mower alongside and whistling loud enough so Elma might could hear him heading down the road.
Ed accomplished more than mowing yards when he was working. It was more like scouting. People quietly knew the deal. You didn’t acquire a reputation as the county’s “go to” arsonist without good reason. Who couldn’t put two and two together? Why would he be taking care of the mowing at some seemingly abandoned property before it soon went up in smoke? Or the caretaker of a slumlord dump that was so run down not even the most desperate tenant would live there – that just happened to burn?
People knew. They just didn’t care.
Ed felt like he was offering a service of sorts. Homeowners liked it, especially if it helped put them renovate. Insurance companies were indifferent. They were charging people higher rates anyway because of the frequency of fires. They’d pay out and drop them from coverage. Landlords liked it for the insurance payout. The slumlords loved it when a place burned they were getting pressured to tear down.
State investigators were so backlogged with arsons across southeast of Kentucky they’d mostly given up on all but the fires that hurt or killed someone.
And that was a rule Ed wouldn’t break. Never hurt someone with a fire.
As for the fire departments, as long as no one was hurt, they were fine with having steady work and training. Wasn’t it the purpose of fire fighters to fight fire?
What little guilt Ed felt about his occupation wasn’t long lived. With so few caring and so many benefiting, there were days when being a fire bug felt like a regular job.
But most regular jobs don’t run the risk of killing you.
Gasoline is a volatile, unpredictable propellant. But it’s cheap and it works. Fumes build up and that’s what burns. Pour a thin line through a structure and wait long enough and when it ignites every window in the house will blow out. He liked old carpeted places. Wood floors took too long to catch. Old curtains were good. Linoleum. And you couldn’t just start a fire in one room, the whole structure had to catch. For a thousand dollars he guaranteed a fire so involved by the time the fire department arrived that they’d just throw some water on it to keep it from spreading. A neat pile of charred splinters was what he wanted.
Truth be told, though, he’d have done most of his jobs for free. Some ventured he had a fetish. Ed reckoned he did. Very little excited him more than fire. There was such mystic about it. The violence. The risk. The pleasantly lit decay. The artful power of it. The heat. It was a dance with a force of annihilation. Something physical morphing to no more than what a light wind might sweep away. An utter elemental disappearance. Dangerously beautiful. Addictive.
By late that night, Ed was rethinking this love affair with fire, though, dazed and on his back as the fingers of flames licked up the ceiling of the stairway he’d just exited through the air. He’d done everything right, he thought. Scoped out the property, estimated the inside before breaking in the back window. A gallon of gas would do the job.
He wasn’t counting on the several plastic milk jugs of old gas in the cellar. He’d set the fire down there first and was on his way out when the jugs instantly melted, spreading pools of fuel across the floor and blowing him out of the cellar stairway up into the kitchen. Now the fire was on top of him, stalking, upside down crawling across the blackening kitchen ceiling and catching the curtains of both the back door and window he’d crawled through.
He tried shaking the concussion off, close to blacking out, smoke broiling the air above his head, singeing down on the tips of his ears and nose.
This is it. You’re gonna black out.
He struggled up on his knees.
He was always amazed how loud fire could be.
Then the voice was there.
You think you know me?
A figure, a man of sorts, immerged above him, the black above parting in a swirl to make way for his stature. His raiment was smoke, peeling from his body, twirled with the living orange of heat, eyes in dark glowing knowledge.
Ed folded his hands, forcing his gaze up into the black, lit at the fringes with orange, alive fire. He knew as surely as the pain jolting through him he was staring into a hell he’d seldom considered.
You think you know me?
It was the devil himself, wasn’t it?
You don’t know me. Not yet.
Tears from the smoke streamed down his cheeks.
“Don’t wanna know you one bit, you devil.”
You’re about to meet me.
Pain like numberless red-hot pincers clamped into every inch of his skin, bending him double. He was screaming for the Lord then, his voice only a squeak under the crackling consumption of everything around him. Had he ever done such a thing? Desperately called out to God?
Then another voice was there in the room. The smoke peeled back in swirls. A cabinet fell from the wall and exploded smoking fragments across the room.
You don’t know me, do you?
“No Lord…I don’t…”
Do you want to die here? So horribly?
“No,” he coughed and gagged.
Swallowed up in a Hell worse than this?
What do you want to happen?
“I want to live, Lord! Live!”
Another explosion fired off in the cellar, pushing more black over his back, darkening the room.
“Let me live…I’ll do anything…don’t let me burn, Lord! Anything.”
You might wish you hadn’t made this deal.
There was a groan and crash and his back was showered in hot glass. His sleeves were smoking. His mind snapped back clearer. The curtains had burnt up and the old window glass had buckled and fallen in, a rush of night air slicing into his smoke packed lungs like ice. There were sirens. He hobbled out, the shirt on his back smoking, the stink of his own cooked hair all over him. He heard laughter as he stumbled up the back hill into the safety of the forest, half blind and barely breathing.
He hacked black up out of his lungs all night, shivered with fever from the pockmarks of burns on his arms, neck and back. He drank so much water his belly felt like it would pop. He’d toss and turn, get up, pace. Getting caught wasn’t his worry. But the voices. The voices relayed in his mind, tearing him away from the idea of sleep when he finally would close his eyes. Was that God? Was that the Devil? What craziness was this?
He went to the kitchen to force some food into his nauseous belly. His wallet stuck half out of his smudged jeans pooled in the kitchen floor along with his shirt. The orange-peach color of his Lucky Ball tickets stood out from the blackened mound of sodden clothes.
Ed grinned, a surge of fantasized relief flooding his imagination. He found a penny in the floor and started scraping.
Golden Ticket Numbers: 13. 43. 24.
- 17. 34
- Free Ticket. 35.
A free ticket. Better than nothing.
- 32. 26.
Ed chuckled and scratched under the number, hoping for maybe a dollar. Then his fingers stopped moving and he batted his dry eyes in the kitchen’s puny light.
Under the number thirteen was $100,000 in fat golden letters.
“…and when you smash the red-hot glowing Gates of Hell open, soul first, and feel the condemnation both in spirit and body, you will greatly grieve the days you turned from God’s gift of grace! You’ll know in your heart, as you rot in a devil’s hell for all eternity, you turned away, brothers and sisters!”
The congregation responded.
“I was there once…turning my greedy, deaf ears from God’s voice. Knowing God’s message was in my ear daily, around every corner, in every bad choice I made. But I heard him, finally, in my time of need and almost too late. I heard God and now I stand here today preaching my promise to him!”
“I was broke – like many of you.”
“I was sad and lonely…just plain tired of living. Like some of you, maybe, here this morning.”
Amen. Bless him, Lord!
“I was burdened with evil. Not living for God!”
“Now here we are, blessed with hope, free from Hell and Satan’s mighty and stubborn grip on this here Earth.”
Ed paused for a deep breath, dabbing sweat on his brow with his shirt sleeve. They were listening.
Three months had passed since Ed won the Golden Ticket Jackpot, his world instantly turned inside out. God had obviously intervened, hearing his desperation, setting his path anew. Then the hard part kicked in, to not make a fool of God for letting him escape that pit into Hell house that was burning down around him.
“Broke in my pocket and broken of spirit in the morning. Money in my pocket from the hand of God by sun down!” he’d witness to anyone that listened. “The ways of God are not mysterious to those who believe in miracles.”
He’d opted for the one time pay out. Seventy-thousand dollars. The morning the state transferred the funds there was $13.56 in his checking account. Like magic, by noon there was $70,013.56. At the bank to make a withdrawal, everyone stared, a mix of grins and frowns, all judging in some way or another.
“What do you plan on doing with all that money, Ed?” a cashier who’d never paid him any attention flirted as she flipped down a thousand dollars in hundreds. He liked the way she licked her thumb every three bills. Funny how he was more attractive suddenly.
“The Lord’s work,” he mumbled without thinking. Not a great way to flirt back, he guessed. But it was the truth, wasn’t it? He was contracted now by the spirit.
“You all know I’ve been on the wrong side of the law a little. That ain’t no big secret. Who of you haven’t?”
Bless him, Lord.
“We’ve all fallen short of God’s grace. But to be blessed with epiphany! You all know what an epiphany is? It’s a sudden realization. I won’t bother y’all with the details, but let’s just say I was into things I ought not to have been. And it about killed me.”
“Then the voice of God All Mighty came down and wrung me up by the shirt collar and showed me Hell…”
Ed’s stinging sweat filled eyes scanned the crowd. It had doubled in the last month, filling the pews he’d bought from that failed Mount Vernon Holiness church. Now the pews were near full and the store front rental he’d leased was feeling cramped.
The morning’s preaching felt good. That is, until Dillon Hamby magically appeared on the back row. He’d snuck in. If Dillon was there it wasn’t for the preaching. He’d be bringing work. Work Ed couldn’t do anymore. Work he wouldn’t do, by God.
A noticeable stumble worked its way into Ed’s train of thought as he avoided Dillon’s eyes.
“Let us pray,” he abruptly offered the flock.
Talk made it to his ears as everyone milled about, hugging and handshaking and sipping coffee after the service.
“Nobody can preach hell fire and brimstone like Ed.”
“I start sweatin when he talks burnin in hell like that. It scares me.”
“Well, he ought to know fire, now shouldn’t he?” another whispered.
Ed avoided Dillon and started cleaning up the donut crumbs and coffee spills. Dillon waited.
Ed could feel him in the room, sensed the shallow wheeze from the man’s six-foot, 300-pound frame.
“Got a job for ya, Ed,” Dillon finally offered, sure he already knew Ed’s answer.
“It’s good to see you, too, Dillon,” Ed lied.
“I said I got a job for you.”
Ed huffed and glanced up from wiping down the coffee maker. This conversation was bound to happen eventually.
“Dillon, you know I’m preaching now. I’m done with that work. Told you that on the phone. I gotta be done with it.”
Dillon smirked with a grunt. “Yea, but I wanted to see myself. I tell ya, though, the Lord couldn’t have picked a better man to preach Hell, huh?” he laughed. “You almost convinced me. It’s a good scam though. How much you rakin in when you pass the plate?”
“I mean every word of it.”
“Maybe. But I got a job for you anyhow. The old Reynold’s place up on Flat Ridge. There ain’t no chance of being caught. Even by God if that’s worryin you. It’s all by itself up there, just beggin for a visit by the expert. Nobody’s lived there forever and the owners stand to make a pretty payday off the insurance. You do this job and we both make money, plus them.”
Ed drew a long steadying breath. The tug of the fire was still there, like the old coal mines burning hundreds of feet underground. Always there in a slow, hot burn, quiet and dangerous.
“You healed up from that last job, are ya?”
“Barely. But like I said, I’m not interested.” The just healing blisters down his back tightened with chills.
Dillon stepped closer, studying down on Ed. The floor gave with Dillon’s weight.
“Eddy, you and me go back. A lot of history tangled up between us. So much so, the way I see it, if I say you have a job to do, you’ll just do it.”
The voice raised in Ed’s ear.
Save this man and we’re even.
“I’m not droppin this, Ed.”
“I know you ain’t.”
Ed locked the front doors, swiping his shirt sleeve over the glass. The large panes across the whole storefront wanted another cleaning. He’d just detailed them last week, but the coal trucks kicked up so much dust it was impossible. He looked up satisfied. Church of the Holy Fire of God was emblazoned dark red on black cloth stretching down the awning.
He had such big plans. It was large, an old Dollar Time store. Plenty of room for a “Tour Through Hell” festival as a Halloween alternative. A sizeable food pantry. Counseling offices. They’d have a bus. Revivals in the parking lot. A newsletter. A website. There was money for it all.
Wednesday morning Dillon slid into the booth seat across from Ed’s steak and eggs breakfast at the Waffle Stop. Ed’s appetite disappeared.
“I seen you praying a minute ago,” Dillon jabbed, sipping his coffee.
“Yep.” Ed crammed his mouth with a chunk of steak he hoped would keep him busy chewing rather than talking.
“You didn’t used to.”
Ed forced a swallow.
“Pray before every meal now.” He bit a roll in half.
“Yea. You didn’t use to do a lot of things. But some things you did do.”
Ed sipped a loud gulp of coffee.
“Why keep this act up?”
Ed thought on that a moment.
“Dillon, let me ask you what you might find an odd question. You think a person can tip the scales back in favor of their salvation?”
Dillon huffed. Ed’s sudden and strange religion was testing his patience.
“That’s what I’m doing. And this ain’t no act. I’m making up for what I’ve done, for what I’ve done for you.”
“You never hurt no one. Anyway, why do you think you was so good at fire buggin?”
Ed put himself back into his old way of thinking. It was a good question.
“I liked to stay in it til I can’t stand it no more. Something about it felt natural to me.”
“I was thinking more along the fact that you just like it. Still like it. ”
Dillon leaned closer.
“You’re a sick, fire lovin low-life. No better than any of us. You remember that, Preacher. And don’t get any bright ideas of being better than me with that ready cash you’ve got.”
Ed managed a turn-the-cheek smile.
“In the end, there’s something else I’d rather do for you, Dillon.”
“Oh, what’s that?”
“Savin your soul. From Hell.”
Dillon about sprayed coffee across the table.
“I’ve been there. You don’t want none of it.”
“You’ll do the job, son. Or else.”
Ed was in no good mood when he prayed that night.
Lord, if I can save, or help save, Dillon Hamby, that low-life, slum-pimp of an excuse of your handiwork, surely you’d forgive my innumerable sins in the end, right? Lord, you sure scraped the barrel with him, didn’t you?
Ed was up on the Flat Ridge by Friday night, staring the Reynold’s place down in the blackness, reminded of Jesus and Satan fighting it out in the wilderness. The structure loomed, lightly framed along its roof line and corners by the half-hearted moon. His arms hung heavy with two cans of gasoline. No good road remained and he’d sloshed the sweet stink of fuel on his shoe’s tripping up the hill to the property.
Why was he here? He couldn’t sleep and was pacing, obsessed with temptation dressed in Dillon’s voice. Finally a drive in the dark was all he could think to do and he found himself at the Quik Pick for some gas. Elma was inside and he hesitated. He’d barely been back in since he’d won, too distracted by his new work, but mostly trying to break his habits. She was one of them. They’d never gone out, never spoken anywhere other than here. Collateral damage, he guessed. He turned on his heels and paid for the gas at the pump with his new debit card.
He’d driven, knowing he was bound for just where Dillon said he ought to be. Like a good errand boy, thoroughly cowed. It wasn’t what a man like Dillon did that made him feared, it was what such a man might do. Imaginations grandly inflated his reputation, but not by much. Ed knew where all the bodies were, so to speak. Tempting Dillon over this house would surely run the risk of something bad eventually.
Now it was just him and his smoking ghosts, a hair from backsliding into the fire, to burn with the likes of Dillon.
But he wasn’t alone.
You want to burn something?
The constant chatter was confusing him.
Burn your own place. This place is no business of yours.
Was that God or the Devil whispering so close up on his ear?
“Why would you declare such a thing, God?”
Then silence set in and followed him off the hill.
Ed was rolling the next Sunday morning. The pews were crowded and he had a belly full of frustration and praise to cast on the heads of his congregation. He felt like he’d binged on two pots of coffee, his skin crawling with goose bumps, heart thumping in his ears, throat strained, sweaty chills running his spine up to the back of his head, brain twisted up like a spring, sharp and ready. Was this what the Holy Spirit felt like?
The paint was only just dry on the baptistery he’d fashioned together all night. He patted the railing, proud of how it turned out, over four feet high and ten feet across. A small pool, trimmed in stained, full up with cool tap water he’d hosed from the kitchenette all night.
“God uses fire! All through the Bible. ‘For the Lord thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God,’ Deuteronomy, Chapter 4 and verse 24. God speaks through the fire, punishes and destroys through the fire, warms us and heals us through fire! He doesn’t speak much through the cold or ice, or through water. It’s fire! I looked up the number of times fire and flame is mentioned in the King James Bible. Care to guess? Anybody?”
“A hundred,” someone shouted.
“Three hundred?” another asked.
“Nope. Five hundred and fifty one times! And this here baptistery – what getting baptized does for you – is replace that very real threat of hell fire with the fire of the Holy Spirit!”
Dillon made his way in. He hadn’t slept all night and was in a mood, the curiosity about Ed drove him to task. If he had to beat Ed to death in his own church he’d do it, but he would wait for the service to end before showing Ed the consequences of his stubbornness.
But what greeted Ed when he finally sat took his breath. The back wall was stacked thick with white candles, over a hundred of them, lit and bouncing light along the walls. Ed was hopping in the corner screaming chapter and verse from the lectern, shadowed and flickering with the jumpy candle light. Something in Dillon’s stomach dropped. He’d never seen such a sight.
“The Burning Bush! Fire pillars in the desert! Fire raining down on cities! The Day of Pentecost! Burnt offerings! Over and over! Now I don’t want you all,” Ed continued, staring through the dimness at who he made out to be Dillon, “bustin Hell wide open. I want you all in Heaven with me. Ever, single, one of you.”
Ed slipped a hand down as he shouted and snatched up a small glassless lamp. He fingered into his pocket and brought out his silver lighter and snapped it open and lit with three fingers, set the wick aflame and turned the knob full on. His face and chest glowed bright. He sat the lamp down and rolled up his sleeves and raised his hands to the ceiling and closed his eyes in a quiet prayer. His arms were wrinkled in scars, shiny in the light, rippled past the elbows, evidence of his close waltz with the devil those months back.
He stalked the middle aisle, eye-to-eye with his people, now passing the lamp flame under his hand and wrist, a wisp of blackened smoke twisting from his fingertips. The instant smell of smoked hair and flesh wafted and someone gagged.
Ed’s lit teeth gritted back the dam of pain, words hissing through a clenched jaw. He skipped back and leaned down face-to-face with Dillon. “By God’s grace,” he grimaced, “I know fire, brother.” He winced and shook, lifting and dividing the flame in half up his along his forearm, a severe red blotch starting to char. “Believe me.”
Dillon’s eyes stretched wide and he recoiled. A stench filled his nose, tightening his throat. The congregation was quiet but for their gasps of disbelief.
“This here is nothing compared to the soul consuming destiny waiting on the unsaved!”
Someone whispered their wonder how Ed was standing the pain.
Ed jerked the flame away finally, teetering on the precipice of blacking out. The people sighed relief in unison. Dillon was frozen in amazement.
“You don’t think I felt every second of that?” he winced. “Yes! Yes, I did. But that’s nothing compared to where I might have gone!”
He hadn’t broken eye contact with Dillon, who was squirming and nauseous.
Ed spoke low, “And you don’t think I’m willing to do anything necessary on behalf of God’s Kingdom? Be it pain or suffering? God’s will be done.”
The pain numbed and the energy surged back and Ed sprinted down the aisle and did a one handed hop into the baptistery, splashing feet first, dipping his arm into the coolness of the water and sucked in a long breath and smiled with obvious joy.
“Who among you will be baptized this day?!”
“I will,” someone shouted, bolting into the aisle. Then another came.
Eight baptisms in, Ed turned to help another step down into the water and a met a face he did not expect. It was Dillon, his hand in Ed’s, the candles illuminating a kind of smile he’d never seen on Dillon’s face, the evidence of tears filling the corners of his eyes.
Lord, Almighty, Ed spouted in his thoughts, what have you blessed or cursed me with here?
He helped Dillon down into the waist deep waters and raised his right hand, supporting Dillon’s back with left.
“As Jesus taught, those who confess me before men and are baptized will live forever.”
He pulled up close to Dillon, staring into his eyes and talking too low for anyone to hear.
“You for real?”
Don’t believe him.
The organ played over their conversation.
“We don’t believe you,” Ed whispered, leaning Dillon back. “We baptize thee in the name of the Father…”
“We who?” Dillon questioned as his full body fell back into the water.
He came here to hurt you.
Ed popped him back up.
“…the Son…” Down again, back up and down.
Dillon’s nose and mouth filled with the sweet sting of gasoline as he rose for the third time.
“…and the Holy Ghost…”
Dillon’s eyes stung closed. He tried to right himself, confused, coughing and crying out, flailing with a sting on his skin and face, squinting to see. Ed was pouring gasoline from a milk jug over his head, soaking his clothes.
Violent fingers tightened on Dillon’s large arm, tugging at him with authority, a heavy menace in Ed’s breathing. Dillon froze. Whatever was on him was on Ed, too, soaking them, rainbowing into the water, fumes saturating the air around them.
“Shall we finally test our faith together, brother Dillon?” Ed whispered, his suddenly calm voice punctuated with the distinct snap and clink of Ed’s silver lighter.
Larry D. Thacker is an Appalachian writer and artist. His poetry can be found in past issues of The Still Journal, The Emancipator, Motif 2, Full of Crow, Kudzu Literary Magazine, Pikeville Review, Country Grind, The Southern Poetry Anthology, O’ Words Anthology, Volume VI: Tennessee, Unbroken Journal, Mojave River Review, Fried Chicken and Coffee, Broad River Review, The Moon Magazine, Vox Poetica, Harpoon Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Warren Anthology on Memory, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and Appalachian Heritage. He is the author of Mountain Mysteries: The Mystic Traditions of Appalachia and the poetry chapbooks, Voice Hunting and Memory Train. A student services higher education professional of 15 years, he is now engaged full-time in his poetry MFA from West Virginia Wesleyan College.