In the third volume of Writer’s Corner, we present work by Jérémi Doucet. Jérémi is currently based in Ottawa whilst attending his first year at UBCO where he intends to pursue a major in Creative Writing. His short fiction will be published in the forthcoming literature journal Gone Lawn and has previously been published in the collection “A Father’s Love.” Through his writing, he explores unusual perceptions and the fickle nature of lived reality. He also writes “absurd poetry” and has performed at open-mic nights from Ottawa to Beirut. Here, we present his short story entitled “History of a House on Fire,” which attempts to explore how narratives shape and distort reality, often by reducing people through stereotypes or preconceptions. The story’s narration contributes to this effect, as it is filtered through Rory’s, often problematic, perspective. When asked about the inspiration behind the piece, Jérémi explained, “I was inspired by an encounter of a similar nature I had on a run. I struggled to understand a strange man who had stopped me in the dark. He didn’t match any of the moulds I tried to fit him in. For some reason this bothered me. Why? That question drove the story.”
History of A House on Fire
by Jérémi Doucet
Between the basketballs and hockey cards and rumours of the schoolyard, the children played tag until they wore their sneakers thin. He sprinted like Forrest Gump, only cooler. He imagined pretty girls with heart-shaped eyes following the blurred speed of his legs. Fitz right behind him, the rest closing in. He aimed for a narrow corridor beside a small girl—Jamie—who held a brick in her hands.
Fuck, the goose’s honk scared him. Rory ran down a cracked concrete path along the Spanish River. Get this: not a single lamppost. Next thing I know, some creep’ll leap out of the shrubs. You never know with these things. Rory wasn’t sure how he should feel; he hadn’t been out for a run in ages. His breath came out regular and even. So far.
He did know people—like that nut, Scotty—who’d been jumped. Why not? Out for a stroll, nice night, a goddamn poet besides. He’d probably been scribbling on his ripped notebook about the moonlight splashing off broken glass; what an asshole. He giggled at the thought of Francine, his lesbian friend who got punched in the nose in Nicaragua while buying cocaine behind that shitty bar. The bastard thought she was a guy. He even apologized.
With a lingering smile, Rory bounced on ahead. The arched trees filtered out the moonlight so that he hardly saw the couple coming right up: two silhouettes mixed with the dark. Not a shiver, but one of those spine-tickling uwghh sensations ripped through Rory as they appeared not two meters ahead.
“And then he said, ‘I’ve got the nuclear codes.’ Well good for you,” a man’s voice intoned. Rory caught the sarcasm, but nothing else after. He blinked a few extra times. When did the world stop being literal? He passed another couple arguing about their holidays. “I don’t feel safe going back there. Have you seen the news?” He checked his stopwatch. A portion of the trail, coming up, wound through a little park. Not one of the shiny ones designed by aliens and understood only by tripping teenagers. An old-fashioned wooden castle, yellow slide, teeter-totter, and rubber-seat swing set.
Rory flashed his crooked smile. The child on the swing stared at him. Children always did. And the eyes always followed him, and then turned into questions posed to the parents. And then the parents either said “Yeah, that’s a messed-up man, little fella.” Or else they shat their pants to explain why some men ran through parks in the night with a messy scar across their face—from cheekbone straight across the lips.
Yeah, that’s right: I’ll attack you, little boy! He’d made people cry just by looking at them. Yes; they cried sometimes out of fear, but sometimes, can you believe it, they cried on his behalf. So no, he had no tears left for that. Rory ran on ahead. His parents worried that he spent too much time at home and at school. Rory worried that his parents still cared about him after—oh never mind. He didn’t want to think about that now. As he re-entered the darkness, Rory thought again of the threat of night, of the usually bad brown people who mugged usually innocent white people. Scotty probably deserved it.
Ahead, as the path climbed up a hill towards a lamppost, Rory noticed a guy standing stiff in the way. Nor did the guy move as Rory approached. Nor did he stop staring at Rory, who might have thought he was going to get mugged, or knifed, if it weren’t for the glaring pool of yellow light surrounding him. Rory ripped out his earphones as he caught the strange man mouthing something: “—’re you?”
The man placed his hands in his black coat pocket and stood with his legs apart in a power stance. His baggy black jeans and black shoes matched his unnatural jet-black ruffle of hair. “How’s your run?”
Heroin. Shady. Poised. Rory welcomed the interaction and tried to hush his thoughts. “I’m, I mean it’s good.” He caught his breath. “Yeah, feels good, actually. I haven’t ran in a while so it’s nice to be out.”
The man wasted not even the space of a silent punctuation before shooting back, “What made you decide to go for a run?”
Rory noticed small holes in the man’s ears. He wasn’t tall and his face teetered between angular and gaunt. Yet the guy was as clean as a brand-new whistle—young, too. His eyes didn’t once glance at his scar; they met his own. His dark and smooth skin almost hinted at the Middle East, but Rory couldn’t be sure. He decided to reciprocate the stranger’s upfront dialogue.
“To tell you the truth, I just got a new roommate, and the guy runs every day. So, he kind of forces the rest of us to feel bad if we don’t, right? I decided to go for it—and here I am.”
His eyes communicated nothing. Not interest, nor energy. This is the kind of shit Scotty might write. But even Rory, who never noticed, never bothered with eyes, saw an icy disinterest—was that it? Rory had no time to think. The man shot back, “How’s your new roommate?”
Something isn’t right. Rory scanned the man, paused. He still hadn’t noticed Rory’s scar. “Listen,” Rory began. “I mean, this is strange. I’m out mid-run, you stop me in my tracks to ask how I’m doing.” He didn’t want to dismiss the guy—what if he did only want to talk, to connect with someone, “but, I think I ought to ask you, why do you care about any of this?”
Not a damn smile, not a raised eyebrow, not a jerk in the knee. The guy stood stiff as a board, hands hidden and eyes mute, “Why do you think?”
Rory looked around, caught shards of light on the river, the back of some crusty townhouses ahead, the trail heading under the bridge, “I think it’s one of two things. Either you want something from me,” he stared at the man, patiently awaiting a reaction. Nothing. “Or, you’re feeling inspired. You’re tired of the rat race, the 9-5, the bullshit, whatever. You want to shake people, connect, get them to notice you.”
Rory held his breath. What was his game plan? “Am I close, at all, to what’s happening here?”
That was it: the guy looked bored. “I can see that you understand that people generally assume negative things about others. I’m just trying to socialize. It’s part of my success attitude.” Nothing, not a glint of enthusiasm, not a shift in tone, not even an embodied cockiness. “Every day I meditate, go for a run, lift some weights, and socialize for at least an hour. It makes me feel good, makes me grow as a person. I feel less anxious and more comfortable. It’s the success attitude.”
Rory pointed down the path and asked, “You going this way?” There was something weird, really weird going on. He needed to get to the bottom of it.
The man walked fast. “Yeah, I’m just headed to Lees.” Then, without a prompt and without turning, he continued, “If you do what most people are doing, you end up like most people. So I try to do what others aren’t doing; get different results. That’s part of the success attitude.” Rory didn’t hear the rest. He might as well have been listening to an audiotape recorded by a lizard. The man hurried ahead.
Rory stopped as the guy entered a strange corridor of darkness. On one side a chain-link fence overlooked a highway, and on the other amateur graffiti tags embarrassed a crumbling wall. “You taking off?”
The man didn’t turn around. “Yeah.” He disappeared ahead. Rory blinked a few times. What?
He would’ve preferred to be jumped like Scott or cracked in the nose like Francine. At least then it’d be over, it’d make sense. But now what? Rory turned around and walked the whole way back home through patches of crinkling shadows along a river he no longer noticed or cared for. The same uwghh ran along his spine. His sweat dried and turned cool. This time, he shivered.
Rory hadn’t been back ten minutes before Dana knocked at his door. He’d been looking in the mirror trying to figure what the fuck. The main thing, the part that bothered him, was that the guy did not notice his scar. He told Dana to come in.
“I can’t stand the guy,” she said. She was talking about their roommate, Stan. Rory nodded at his carpet for too long. They didn’t know much about Stan. They knew he ran every day. They’d seen him put water on to boil a few times, heard him use his fancy electric toothbrush. A full-length mirror beside the door reflected Rory’s frown.
Rory combed his hair back with his fingers. “I guess he’s kinda weird.”
Dana glanced at his scar, then at his frown. “You ok?”
Rory nodded slowly. He heard himself telling her about the strange man. He didn’t know what to make of him. When Dana called the guy a “total psycho,” he didn’t believe it. His guts ached for want of an answer.
Dana shifted her weight from one hip to the other, “have you ever been mugged? I mean, for real?”
They all wanted to know how he got it. He had given up on the epic fights with wolves and the machetes in Nicaragua. He let them guess and fear the worst. He knew the story his parents told him. The schoolyard, the game of tag, his carelessness. They never let go of that last point, as if the scar reminded them that their son could never do something properly, never be careful. And then they were surprised when he proved them right, all those years later.
Tonight, as he caught his reflection when he came back from his run, the story changed. He saw Jamie with her brick and for the first time noticed neither panic nor surprise as he ran into her: instead, he found boredom. She hadn’t been holding the brick: she’d been thrusting it forward.
“Never,” he answered.