The fireworks got marked down drastically every year after the Fourth of July, and even more precipitously after New Year’s Eve, which is when Doug stocked up, carting an empty cardboard beer case full of enough pyrotechnics to burst a dam, to rip a solid block of concrete asunder.
But it was still winter, and the windswept cold was so merciless his fingers burned like broiling meat in that chill air. He had to wait until winter’s onslaught abated, until the ice melted and the lake opened up.
Then one day, long after the snow receded, a freak miracle made it feel like a relatively balmy spring day. It was time.
Doug hopped on his uncle’s purloined dirt bike double-fisted with handfuls of Beast Mode mortars he picked up from Sky King Fireworks on Route 6 and that were sure to scintillate and amaze. The scraggly, paunchy guy in the faded T-shirt behind the counter claimed these bad boys were reserved for the most grandiloquent of grand finales, that they were military grade and still illegal in most states, and that they would have been impossible to obtain without the owner’s connections. He knew people, man.
The bike roared with anticipation. Doug revved the rumbling engine over and over, clutching between his teeth a plastic candle lighter he scored from an altar boy in a trade for a gram of pot.
“History,” he mumbled, barely comprehensibly. “About to make history.”
“Whatever dear,” Gillian said, staring down at her phone.
“Make sure you’re getting this,” he called out muffledly over the engine.
Doug took a deep breath. A glorious destiny awaited. He accelerated toward the lake.
Todd trained his phone shakily on Doug as the motorcycle ripped toward the ramp they jacked from the derelict skate park on the rundown side of town. Gillian glanced up, for just a second.
Execution was key. It would, of course, be tricky. Doug had to light the buy-one-get-six-free explosives so they’d detonate just as he arced over the ramp into the lake, so immersion in the cold water would save him if he got burned while airborne. Failure could cost him fingers, dispatch him to the emergency room with third-degree burns, or reduce the whole stunt to a lame wormhole-like timesuck. Plus, his uncle might figure out who jacked his bike, so this had to work. It absolutely had to. The stakes were too high.
He aced the jump.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
Coruscating blasts spread bright streaks of light across the sky as Doug flew toward the expectant lake. The sky was aflame. He was soaring, as though on a zip line, between columns of incandescent fire. Sunburst after fiery sunburst splashed across the bright blue azure.
“Damn. I mean, goddamn,” Todd marveled, though Doug had told him to keep absolutely quiet while filming.
As hoped, the uploaded video went viral, garnering millions of views and spreading across social media networks like kudzu. Doug’s phone chirped ceaselessly with non-stop notifications. Likes, favs and hearts flooded in. He amassed a million new followers overnight.
Screenshots of his aerial exploits got the meme treatment, making him even more ubiquitous online. He was featured on Twitter Moments, spotlighted on Snapchat Discover and trended on Facebook for days.
Soon he was on Good Morning America, The Late Late Show, and some show on Viceland that was canceled the next week, recounting the self-aggrandizing anecdotes he rehearsed in his head whenever he was terminally bored, like when he was waiting to clock out at the cell phone accessories store or in the drive-through waiting on a No. 2 combo. He got invited to visit Facebook corporate headquarters, where they gave him a tour and had him address a lobby full of bored-looking programmers. They even started screen printing him on T-shirts. Those didn’t sell particularly well, but still.
It wasn’t long before he was in a glistening skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles, wondering how he even got there. As the suits presented a check, Doug happened to remember Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” a story he hadn’t given any thought to since middle school. Stale lake water suddenly filled his lungs. More and more water glugged down his throat. It was a rush, a rampage, a shock of ice water in his scalded esophagus. His head felt light as blood streamed out of his temple. His entire body burned.
The pain was agonizing. The fireworks had flayed him, and now he was drowning. Charred flesh started to slough off. He looked up and around, but could only see murky water everywhere. Even if he made it to the top, he might not be able to escape the shelf of ice, which was likely impenetrable and unavoidable if you came up at the wrong angle. He was too weakened and too agonized to even try. His whole body tingled with shock.
His lips parted.
“Legends never die. Legends… ”
Todd posted the video online as a tribute to his friend, even though he swore he had heard as a kid snuff films were illegal and the “Faces of Death” filmmakers got locked up for a very, very long time. But it was what Doug would have wanted and it was all just so tragic, especially when they never found the body after three days of dredging the lake. He had to do it, for his friend.
The video got seven views and one comment about how it was an epic fail and another about how much vertical video sucks.
If only the snow hadn’t receded.
Joseph S. Pete (@nwi_jsp) is an Iraq War veteran, an award-winning journalist, an Indiana University graduate, a book reviewer, and a frequent guest on Lakeshore Public Radio in Merrillville. He was named the poet laureate of Chicago BaconFest 2016, a feat that Geoffrey Chaucer chump never accomplished. His work has appeared in The Five-Two, Chicago Literati, Dogzplot, shufPoetry, The Roaring Muse, Blue Collar Review, Lumpen, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Pulp Modern, Zero Dark Thirty and elsewhere. He once Googled the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. True story, believe it or not.