Part One: Starters
The first part is the trickiest.
The sun is high up in the sky, on a simmer, slowly boiling the sinners down here on their way to hell. Me, I am an obedient one. No rebellion, no getting out of line. No being Joan-of-Arc on afternoon television commercials between the games. If you want to take them off so bad, go do something about it outside your living room popcorn bowl. Hell, go to the stadium for chrissake.
I am not watching the game on television. I am watching a man in the shop watching the television. He owns the place. This time of the afternoon, most of the places are empty. You can walk around the shop, pick things up and put them back, like you own the place. The owner is too busy watching the television to notice if you want to shoplift. Anything that you might want to pick up here would probably be worth dirt.
There are knick knacks on the shelves, stuff that was dictated by consumerism and customized for no one. Fruit smelling detergents. Flower flavored disinfectants. City flavored eating things. Someone had a wild roll at match-the-following and came up with zilch on the report card and a shelf full of things.
I hang around for about half an hour and finally leave the shop with a bunch of mints. I feel tempted to filch something from right under the guy’s nose and I know that part doesn’t come under the close circuit camera. Figuring out a thief from a total of one person shouldn’t be too difficult. I let the matter rest. During this time, no one else comes into the shop. It’s been a thirty minute waste of time in the back alleys of a degenerate departmental. I get out and decide to move into another.
If you have ever decided to wander around a nondescript locality in a sunny afternoon, especially if there was a game on, you would know two things for sure.
One, you don’t have anything much to do, or you have possibly exhausted all other means of passing time.
Two, anyone else who might be doing the same also doesn’t have much to do. He is possibly not even doing a job. Or having a family. Or decided to solar fry himself while the rest of the world was on its way to televised nirvana.
One of those afternoons, I struck upon a plan and put it into action, but more on that later. For starters, I need to find inspiration; and the kind I look for lies in one of these shops. The question is which one?
I find it in a shop selling utensils. My inspiration for the moment. My afternoon muse. I wish I knew the French word for it. My muse is looking at Teflon coated cooking pans and trying to figure out the size which would help him sort out his frying woes. Should he deep fry his way into hell or soft serve his guts so that they can find their way into a reality show based heaven, where every health conscious freak that ever lived cooks his balanced calories diet on a low flame at a fairy made oven? You get a shallow pan free if you buy that deep dish you have been looking for. Leave it to the manufacturing guys to help you find into the dirtiest, fattiest hell.
Always a short cut, never a highway.
I go and stand by him, passing a smile wide enough to let a truck pass through. Winning them over is important, and with the kind of timeline I am on, you got to be fast. If you dally your way around, your afternoon is wasted. Never let one pass you over, he might come around and bite you on your way back. Make a Christmas present out of every single one, nice and wrapped up.
When I am walking out with him from the shop, it’s already half time at the game on television. I find out that the guy is a bachelor, has moved into the neighborhood recently. Are there some good watering holes around here? Could he sight see maybe? The place he is working is really boring; hardly people to talk to. Maybe I could come along with him. He is pretty good at fried stuff, especially making it. Haha.
Sometimes it’s easier than you think. We head to his place. Even better. I make it a point to stay away from the close circuit cameras. Playing safe is a part of the game. My face would be pretty different if anyone comes looking for it. I would make sure that it is. On our way out, I spot a bunch of those fresh stainless steel carvers that are flooding the market. Steel, the favourite way a metal ever came to you. No gold or silver. Steel. Pure, shiny, raw and naked.
My prince in shining armor.
There are no cameras focused here so I quickly slip one as the guy goes about chattering, a little distance ahead of me. The shopkeeper is still head on into the game. He would not know if a nuke hit his shop and everything turned post-Jurassic in the blink of an eye. Television whores.
The starters fixed, I realize. It’s time to order the main course.
Part 2: Main Course
Leave it to a headache to crash a party when you are just getting started. It starts like that irritating drip of water running in your bathroom in the middle of the night, grows into a motorcycle which lost its muffler somewhere and finally cavalcades into a mad elephant stomping through dense foliage. All of this is so cool when you are thinking about them inside your head, images falling face down, like a pack of cards in slow motion. But, in the real world, it’s crazy. Like a pin pricking the back of your neck, five times per second. A bundle of chalks dragging across an endless blackboard, right into eternity.
The sun is still simmering, as we weave into deeper parts of the locality, passing useless information, one stranger to another. It’s mostly him that does the talking, the variety that I like. I am not too good at making stuff up and it’s not a good idea giving away what I have. Call it instinct.
He is from about three hundred miles west of here. Loves rock n’ roll, none of that country shit. Says it makes him want to puke his guts all over the guitar of the guy fingering the instrument. When you have a guitar, you treat it like a bitch; spank it a little, make it scream. Make the people around take notice. Make it feel like a real thing. Don’t stroke it and treat it like your pet dog. It won’t lick your face.
He likes farming. I like checkers. He thinks the politicians in the country should go eat shit. I think the buffaloes around here are thinner than the ones up country. He thinks marijuana should be declared the National plant of the country and then sinks into thinking if there is such a thing at all. I hate water colours. He thinks heaven sucks. I think my headache is growing worse.
Yada yada yada.
We make it to his house as he breaks into a monologue about how vegetable oil is less fattening in summers than in winters. For a moment he makes me think that he is the kind of guy who sell scuba gear to fishes. The guy who makes the flower smelling detergents and fucks up match-the-following. God help us all.
The house is a log cabin on the low hills that start on the end of the city limits, where the ground starts climbing a little. A friend of a friend was leaving town so he sold it to him. A bargain. The hills and the trees and the birds and the animals keep his spirits high. After all, what is man but an animal? An animal without a jungle?
I suddenly start believing in fairies and wish for a chainsaw.
The house inside is pretty unremarkable, except for the paintings. The whole cabin seems to be full of frames with strange twisted roses painted on them, all in red. At least that’s what I hope they are, because I am a little conservative to pass it off as modern art or something. A valley of flowers in hell.
You have found out my secret hobby, he says, as he catches me staring at the paintings. That’s the only style I do, the red blotches. They are a part of my creative fulfillment. Red, now that’s a real colour, he says. Not like sky blue, fleeting, always beyond reach. Not like black, making you wait till everything disappears or the whole bright day slowly slinks into the gutter holes, one painful hour at a time. Not like any of the other colors. Red. Raw and true. Like blood. I don’t like the way this man talks.
I crease my brow to show my disagreement, but he doesn’t notice. He is busy getting his new pan on the fire. He opens up a beer for me and another for himself; says it helps him focus while cooking. What’s on the menu? I ask, walking around the house checking out knick knacks here and there. I hear him laugh, but I never quite make out what he says.
I go and check the windows out, one at a time. There are a total of three; none of them look over the town. It would be weeks before someone came knocking at all. Even then, they might pass it off as some wild buffalo or other animal which bit the dust. I smile to myself. This is going to be easier than offering candy to a kid.
Back here, where the limit of habitation ends and the ground starts to rise, it gets dark quickly. I could always finish my work in the dying light of the sun, but I never tempt fate. I maybe itching to go, but patience never killed anyone. I don’t want to do something stupid and get the force running after me, trying to take me down, hook, line and sinker. I hate the Titanic anyways.
The headache is still there, except, it’s like someone hammering on an anvil inside my head. That’s how it all started in the first place. No pills would work, no amount of massage or balms or any of those fancy medical things that they now have, for everything from mucous to mutation. Some doctor called it migraine while another called it something else. Whatever they did, they never found a cure. So I decided to find one myself.
The first one was mostly by accident. We had gone up the trail back where the view from up there is probably the best in the neighborhood, and carried my headache with me. The person accompanying me was a postman, someone who had gone on the job recently, about two months back. We went through the trail, hacking at forest growth on the way, sharing things of little or no consequence between us, climbing all the time. My headache kept getting worse, as the sun kept getting low on the horizon. By dusk, we were at the top, overlooking a cliff face, thoroughly spent. I was almost blind with pain. We got up from the face of the cliff and decided to get back. The details of what happened next are mostly a blur. I think it had something to do with lose rocks and me pushing him away from me, because I couldn’t stand him next to me anymore, thanks to the raging pain. That pain makes me a little unsocial that ways. What I do remember though is, me coming downhill from there, whistling to myself, the pain totally gone. It was almost dark by then, and I should have been afraid of the wild animals which would be out by now, but no! I traipsed along rocks and grass, my tiny flashlight guiding me along the broken path, almost making me believe it was the sun on a bright spring morning.
I had the best sleep that night, better than I had in months.
Give them a chance and they would make you believe anything. They would tell you that there is no cure for cancer or you couldn’t possibly lick your elbow. There was no El Dorado and the dinosaurs were all but dead. Mona Lisa was an alien from outer space. I say, don’t trust their word. I cured my own headache. I have learnt it a little hard that way, but I have learnt it nonetheless. A lesson in life is a lesson. Is a lesson, is a lesson.
Needless to say, I left that town in a week or so, after the search for that postman started heating up. No one had seen us getting out of town, and he was a bachelor. I don’t need to spoon feed you the rest of details. It’s something you would get by without knowing.
The outside is almost dark. I have my trusted pen light to show me the way. I wouldn’t be expecting much of lighting on this side of the town. I can hear that guy calling. Whatever he seems to be cooking, is probably done. If you have ulterior motives about someone, do you share a bite with him? Do hidden agendas count as a deterrent towards ill practices in gastronomy? Whatever is on the fire smells like heaven. I could do with a bite. No sense in going back with a happy mood, no headache and empty stomach. But, first things first. Got to get the job done. I could always help myself to generous servings later.
He is standing with his back to me, sautéing the final bits of whatever he is cooking in the pan. He is still gibbering on. No wonder the guy doesn’t have company. The amount he talks could make your ears bleed. I guess I would be doing his acquaintances a big favor. I grip the handle of the knife tucked in my pocket tightly and go stand right behind him.
He is still cooking, making that huge blob (meat?) go round and round in boiling hot oil. And talking. The headache has turned into a steam engine, spilling molten coal and steam inside my head and rumbling on. A quick recap of the scenes from the past is running in front of my eyes in quick succession. The guy on the bus, heavily sedated, his wrist going drip, drip on the floor. The woman standing with her head inside the sink at the publish washroom, not knowing what hit her. Another, sitting quietly on the bed, his television running on full volume, never to be seen again with his living eyes. Relief in various packages, signed and delivered. Relief standing right in front of my eyes, frying food. The knife is in my hands now. Raw. Quiet. Waiting.
My eyes wander towards the paintings. Remember what I told you about me hating water colors? That tiny detail makes me linger just a little longer, drawing my attention towards them. The paintings stand, shoulder to shoulder, glowing softly in the light of bulb planted in the middle of the room. There is dullness in the paintings that attract me. I don’t find the red in them repulsive; there is almost a growing fondness towards it. There is a strange uniformity in the shapes of those objects, something that I am familiar with. Each of those paintings, varying in size, has features, features you wouldn’t associate with a rose or a tulip or any flower at all. And suddenly, the roses in the painting aren’t roses anymore.
I never find out when the guy stopped talking. I stood too long. I did not care about getting the work done first, and chilling out later. I cannot afford mistakes. I could not afford mistakes. I fucked up. I probably looked like an idiot standing behind him, knife in hand. I lost my chance. I did not wrap up the Christmas present and now it’s back to bite me.
The last thing I see is a big black sun, rushing to meet my face. And then,
Part Three: Dessert
There is a jazz band playing somewhere. I can hear the steady tinkle of the cymbals and the soft brush strokes over the snare, smartly doing a ball dance with the kick coming in at predefined intervals. I can feel a smoky room, waiters shuffling around picking up a glass here and laying down a gossip there. I could wager my life that I can hear a jazz band playing somewhere close by.
You must have seen those big putty maps that lay out in the middle of the town centers or city centers or whatever you call them. They have little ridges, bumps and crevices, showing the forests, houses, roads, hills and just about everything else around the town. You avoid everyone’s eyes, make sure no one is looking and quickly run your hand over the surface. It always leaves you with a funny, tingly feeling at the tips of your fingers as you imagine yourself to be God, waving his hand over all creation, over river, hill, road, building and all else.
That just about sums up how my face feels. Except, I don’t feel God.
My eyes are mostly swollen shut; it feels like someone has put in one big pebble each on the inside of my eyelids. The rivers on my face all seem to be going down under. I don’t try to touch my nose; it makes me shudder just to think of what it might have become. There is a strong smell of vegetable fat, coming from my face. A few teeth roll around freely inside my mouth. Such a beautiful mess, this. A perfect facial barbecue.
Let me help you, he says and I feel something cover my face, whole. Pain, white hot, sets a thousand alarm bells ringing in my head. I feel faint. Through my half closed eyes, I can see him holding something big and square in his hands and grinning at it. It has dark brown edges and the center of it is a big patch of crimson. He has another of his twisted flowers in place now. His creative fulfillment.
That talkin’ bastard.
I am still struggling to stay conscious as he turns to me, the same grin pasted on his face. Thank you, he says. It’s been lovely knowing you, he says. I am really sorry, but there is food for only one. From the looks of it, you won’t need much food anytime soon. But yeah, thanks to you, I don’t think I would need to go and get fresh food supplies. So, thank you, he says. End of monologue. I catch him getting ready to swing the frying pan for one last time.
And I duck.
The pan resonates with a dull thud where my head had been half a second ago. The vibration of the pan is hard against his hands; he lets go. I see my chance and push him blindly. It’s my only chance. The idiot loves cooking over the fire.
It’s a shame he forgot to turn the gas off.
Like a sixteen wheeler out of control, I blunder across the room, tripping over things, clutching at whatever I can to prevent me falling over. He is screaming somewhere in the background; his voice is rather muffled. The pan managed to not only fry my face, but most of my hearing as well. I see a runny, shaky picture of a room in front of my eyes and try to maintain my consciousness. God-damn. This isn’t what I had asked for.
I have fallen down; managed to take about a total of thirty steps away from him. It’s strange he is not catching up on me. The screaming continues in the background. The house feels a little hot. Fuckin’ moron is bringing the house down.
His screams tell me the house is on fire. I see a blurry moving lump of yellow shaking flames try to douse itself with water from the tap. There are tongues of flame slowly starting to lick around me. From the place on the floor, all the things are playing out in front of me at over-the-head-level. Almost makes me feel like being in a planetarium, watching the Armageddon fold right out in front of my eyes.
He just can’t stop screaming. I think he is burnt up pretty bad. The smell of burning flesh starts to gel in comfortably with the crackling wood around the house. If you are me, you know the smell of burning flesh among a million other smells. Don’t ask me how I know this. Like I said once before, there are certain things you wouldn’t want to know.
The house is going to go up in smoke, that’s for sure. If I want to get out alive from this place, this is probably the only chance I would get. Either out looking like an ‘alive and kickin’ human version of a mashed potato with ketchup for a face or a dead roasted duck like him. I choose the former.
My vision is swimming. The entire room is being enacted out like a short psychedelic sequence from some drug movie. The fire is spreading in a yellow warm glow around me. In my mind’s eye, I can visualize the roses catching fire and wilting, curling into paper rose ashes. There is a speeded up video reel which is unfolding in some other corner of my head. This reel is showing faces being smashed against various places; walls, frying pans, the floor, the sink next to the stove, a chair and places that I can’t identify. A mélange of voices are echoing all around me; groans, thuds, sickening crunches and breaking glass. Elsewhere, I can imagine shelves full of strange objects; strange and twisted dolls, half eaten sandwiches, broken down Rubik’s cubes, mostly shred to pieces with disgust, catching fire. These are not imaginary. I remember seeing them to the room on the right. All of it must be having a bust time turning into a part of the burnt pile that the house is slowly but surely turning into. That place is a dead end. I have enough time to figure out the exit before the house comes down; but the challenge is I must find the door. With the kind of condition my face is in, looking through my own eyes feels like solving the most difficult quadratic equation at the moment. I continue my efforts at finding a way out, figuring that the fire and pain are my only enemies at the moment.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The wood splinters as something goes through it, inches above my head. He is getting better and closer. The chase is still on.
I pick up a little speed. The pain has turned into a dull throb by now but the room is much hotter. The headache, as expected is gone. Without it, I feel sharper, wittier, and almost ready to crack a funny line like a stand-up comedian. I turn only for a second to catch a glimpse of the guy who is after me.
For this, I really wish I was a writer. A good novelist could spend an entire chapter just on his face. It isn’t much different from mine I am sure; but when you don’t have a mirror to hold to yourself in a burning house, every other burnt up face you come across seems unique and pretty gruesome to you. The last bit, I made up, because from the looks of it, I am not going to become a writer. And talking about looks, I am sure neither of us is looking too hot at the moment.
All of his limbs seem to be in perfect order; except he is a little sluggish, just like me. Both of us are starting to feel a little exhausted with the game of ‘tag’ and want to give in. Giving in at this point means only one of us going out of the house. So that is surely not an option.
I duck and turn towards the other direction. I am still blundering through the house, as lost as a ship in sea storm with a broken compass. My knees hit against some upturned chair and then knock painfully against the edge of a table. It’s strange how things that you thought were buying for a bargain end up hurting you in the long run in more ways than one. But there is no way to know about it. Same goes for life too I guess.
I want to smirk at my own wisdom but I think my lower lip is in pretty bad shape. It’s mostly swollen to a small balloon and should have ideally been touching the tip of my nose; but it isn’t. I am pretty much scared to wonder about my facial topography; I would rather get out of the house alive at this point. My right foot clangs against something on the floor and my instinct immediately tells me what it is. It’s my trust worthy knife, the one I dropped when that pan came and hit my face like a jet.
Talk about sweet timing.
I bend and try to feel it like a blind man. My back creaks like a detuned violin in my inner ear. It’s a surprise that my inner ear works perfectly. In case you don’t know what the difference between an inner ear and the outer is, I could give you a simple example. The inner ear is the one where you hear your own voice and a ‘swoosh swoosh’ sound when your nose gets blocked. It also pops open from time to time and suddenly opens you up to a brand new audio factory that you never knew existed. The outer ear is the one which gets screwed when someone hits you flat with a frying pan.
Clutching the knife with my left hand, I have found a doorknob; now only if it was connected to a door. I feel the round wooden surface, still cool among the burning wreckage around it. Slivers of wood on the other side of it cut into my hand but I don’t notice. I clutch it tighter, hoping it to connect to some invisible door and get me out of this burning inferno of things-gone-wrong.
My logic is still up for my rescue. Where there is a will, there is a way. Where there is a door knob, there is a door. I am beating across hot burning wood, hoping for a way out. The entire house is on fire. I hear beams and rafters crashing in the distance. Time is running out, burning, turning into ashes aiding the sweltering inferno gathering around me.
And then it happens; right out of the blue. My hand gets singed on burning wood and I claw at it. The skin on my palm is probably cheap CGI from some B-grade Hollywood flick, but this is real. There are bits of the door which are coming off. The stupid thing is stuck on hinges.
It rattles for a while before the bolt finally gives in with all the frenzied tugging. I quickly make an exit, choking, wheezing like an asthamatic, quickly shutting the door behind me.
Commercial Break. Just what I needed.
My lungs clutch greedily at the freely available oxygen. The house-that-was has almost become the-house-that-never-will-be. The drama is over. I cooked the bastard with his own recipe. It is done. Maybe a little overdone, but I am sure it tastes as good as the others did.
Am I the animal you are thinking that I am? Possibly. In a larger scheme of things, I would have to disagree with you. I admit the fact that when I set out to do what I did, I had no clue this was the guy would end up facing. I don’t know what he did with their bodies though. I still don’t. I just hope it’s not something as vile and disgusting as you are thinking. Or I am.
He was a killer right? So am I, but that is beside the point. Contrary to my original intention, I actually ended up doing a philanthropic bit for humanity. Now there is one killer instead of two. Natural selection, as Darwin would say. Survival of the fittest.
There is no sound coming from behind me. The fire is dying down. The occasional crackling escapes the inferno-that-was, as a piece of wood gives way inside. There was a muffled explosion sometime back. His small cooking cylinder is no more. I pray to the Almighty, hoping that the bloke is done in.
I never find out when I slip into unconsciousness due to exhaustion.
I don’t identify the creature sitting in front of me as I come back to my senses. At some point in its life, it might have been human. It now looks like a badly made human model, made out of cheap clay which never set after being completed. I can see places where it possibly got chipped; a bad imitation. He is not moving.
It’s not over. Why won’t it just get over!
The house behind me is a blackened pile of burnt wood. The sun is out again. It’s not as hot as it was yesterday. I can feel new places in my body, starting to protest the pain growing by the minute. My life is not going to go back to normal; not this moment on. There wouldn’t be afternoons searching for victims, trying to make my headache go away. Not after what happened. And with the creature sitting in front of me, this episode, is yet to come to an end.
He probably waited all night, sitting in front of me, waiting for me to come to senses. Kill only when you know he would feel it. Providing pain only when it could be experienced. Wait it out, like a patient hunt in the jungle. This guy played by the book. I almost feel a new respect for him, though I know that the end is near. Then he does something I never expect.
He gives me his right hand and pulls me up to my feet.
There are hundreds upon thousands of stories and tomes written on the lesson of humanity in humans. The word itself takes birth from ‘human’. It is a quality that is supposed to come like a shopping tag, attached to something new that you are buying at the supermarket; but to expect it from a serial killer? It would obviously be over expecting a bit, but after what I went through last night, I am not surprised. People have a change of heart all the time. Someone becomes a believer after coming out of a coma. Someone ends up going to the church when he becomes bankrupt. I start believing in miracles.
His face is dreadful to look at. I look away. Both of us slowly start walking down the hill, towards a new fate. He has had a change of heart. However hard it is for me to believe, I take refuge in the unbelievable. Hasn’t it been helpful so far?
The fingers of my left hand are aching. They have been gripping something very tightly inside my pocket; something that I failed to notice. I take it out only a bit. You do not need telling what it is.
I smile to myself and look at him. He doesn’t look and keeps walking.