The day Archibald Regan V spontaneously combusted began with a one-liner recklessly spouted from the lips of Danny Germaine: “Yo, Spence, dare you to steal that fuckin’ car.” Danny, the oldest of the five Germaine boys, who all lived in a double-wide down at Rita May’s twelve-acre park, had been asked by his overworked mother to take them rascals to the annual autumn fair that had rolled into town last Friday afternoon. He’d done so—not out of kindness or respect but because a few of the new girls he’d been eying at school this semester were sure to be there. And what better place could a fifteen-year-old boy have as a stage to impress some chicks than a grass field full of shoddily constructed fair rides and not-so-funhouses?
Not a minute past arrival, he dished out a few spare dollars of lunch-money change to his siblings and shooed them off to wherever they pleased to wreak havoc. Spence, his partner in crime, was waiting for him at the cotton candy stand, and once he was sure those dweebs Lane and Percy weren’t spying on him again (to get themselves an extra cookie after dinner for snitching), he led Spence down to the petting zoo, where (as a little birdie had told him), the school cheerleading squad was going to host an unscheduled performance.
But, unfortunately, they found no pretty cheerleaders waiting for them. As it happened, one of the fair workers had caught wind of the little girlie show and escorted the cheerleaders off the premises before they could even dare to accidentally feed a pompom to the mini-horse. Or worse, the lama. So instead of being surrounded by pretty chicks with blond hair and great boobs, Danny and Spence found themselves in the company of bleating sheep and a few escaped goats who tried to eat Spence’s favorite hat. Pissed to hell and back again, Danny grabbed his friend and stormed off to the nearest spot of ground not covered in animal droppings.
The clown tent.
Or, more precisely, the too-small tent erected to host an array of hourly clown performances, including such spectacular feats of amazement as pie throwing, getting bonked on the head with giant rubber hammers, and stuffing eight clowns into an itty-bitty car painted with a gaudy pink-purple flower pattern. Danny dragged Spence to the dimmest, dirtiest corner of the tent and sat down to brood. His entire night’s plans had been ruined by this stupid fucking fair—and he’d been working on his guns for two months to show off to that girl with the freckles…what was her name, Celia? Cecilia? Catherine? Whatever. Didn’t matter now. Damn fair had soured his chances of ever scoring a date, period.
Revenge, baby. That was what he needed.
Danny was jolted out of his thoughts by the repetitive sound a high-pitched car horn, and when he finally focused on the stage in front of him, he realized he’d been wallowing in his self-pity so long that he’d missed an entire rotation of clown shows. They were back to the dumb car trick. Car. That tiny, insignificant car. That useless piece of shit on wheels that probably cost a fortune. A fortune to the stupid fucking fair. The fair that had cost him a date with that cute cheerleader with cute freckles whose cute name started with a C. (Maybe it was Caitlin?)
“Yo, Spence, dare you to steal that fuckin’ car.”
And so began the day that Archibald Regan V spontaneously combusted.
Spencer Jenkins had stolen sixteen cars in his life. The first? His little sister’s pink Barbie car that he’d snatched from the messy floor of her room while she’d been engrossed in an episode of Sailor Moon. The second? His uncle’s vintage impala—the man had imprudently left his keys in it at a family barbeque. No one knew he’d stolen that one, though. Mostly because it’d ended up in the neighbor’s rose bushes. He’d been seven at the time and unable to reach the pedals. So the moment he’d released the parking break, the damn car had rolled down the slightly inclined driveway, crossed the street, crushed a mailbox, and settled in the bushes, right on top of the bright blue ribbon that read Best in Roses, “signed” in gold thread by The Garden Club’s president. After that, he’d run like hell and hidden in the shed for three hours; no one had even guessed he’d done it. His uncle’s reputation had never included “mental acuity,” so everyone figured the man had just made another “oops” and left his parking break off.
Spencer liked all sorts of cars. He’d taken convertibles, gas-guzzling SUVs, granny-mobiles (also known as station wagons), and even a limo once that some dingbat had parked out in front of a church. What kind of asshole takes a limo to church? He’d wondered as he re-parked it in the middle of the nearby graveyard—after taking it for a sixty-mile per hour spin on a few…moist dirt roads.
Amazingly, Spencer had never been caught stealing a car. He’d been “linked” to thefts but never convicted or sent to jail or juvie or wherever the hell they sent beatniks with high IQs and too-large helpings of mischief. The cops could never pin anything on him, in part because his father was a cop and had the tendency to brush off anything his beloved son did as boys will be boys behavior. So he’d gotten away with fifteen thefts—he’d been grounded for the Barbie car incident; Mom’s orders—and now he was gunning for lucky number sixteen. (Of course, every number was a lucky number to Spencer Jenkins.)
When Danny elbowed him and said, “Yo, Spence, dare you to steal that fuckin’ car,” he thought his best bud had finally busted that loose screw in his head. Then, the more he analyzed the situation, the more he realized that stealing that flowery fucking car could, in fact, be his last crowning moment of win before he was summarily shipped off to MIT next fall. It would be the joke of the century—he was going to steal that bitch, drive it down the highway at eighty plus, and park it right in the middle of the busiest intersection in town.
The hardest part of stealing cars, in Spencer’s opinion, was Phase 1: the distraction. He never attempted Phase 2 (the break-in) until he was positive that no one was around to interrupt him. Because once you reached Phrase 3 (the joyride), no one could stop you. You were free. You were flying. You were in the wind and loving it. No matter how many people you had behind you, screaming at the top of their lungs for you to get back here with my fucking car, you little shit, all you had to do was press the pedal a little bit harder and their complaints would be lost in the beautiful roar of a revving engine.
Naturally, Danny volunteered to be that instrumental distraction this time around. It was his dare, after all. So while the clowns were setting up for the next pie-throwing show, Spencer and Danny snuck around the backside of the tent, which boarded one of those rigged basketball games the jock-types always played to impress their sort-of-girlfriends (but kind-of-not). The pair ducked behind a crate that, from the pervasive smell of cherries, was full of fresh pies. And for a second, Spencer wondered whether or not he’d be better off stealing those pies instead of the flowery fucking car. Because pies you could eat. Pies you could sell. Pies you could heave at unsuspecting jocks desperately throwing all their hard-earned cash (from their hard-won McDonald’s cashier jobs) at that stupid rigged basketball game—if only so their not-really-girlfriends would stop giggling at their failures.
Or…Danny could throw pies at them.
Spencer tugged on his friends’ sleeve and directed his attention from the pie crate to the basketball game and back again. Danny frowned, apparently upset that Spencer would even suggest wasting pies on such loathsome douche-nozzles.
“You throw the pies. I steal the car.” Spencer moved his turned-out palms up and down—weigh your choices, Danny.
“Alright. Alright. Have it your way, hot-rod.” He punched Spencer’s shoulder (a little too roughly) and started working to pop the crate’s top off.
Meanwhile, Spencer rolled, commando-style, across the gap between the crate and a stack of rubber hammers, which brought him a few feet closer to where the clowns had parked their beloved car. Two clowns, one tall and one short, were smoking a few feet off from the car. The taller, who was lathered in blue and white face paint, was ranting on about the stagnated wages of workers in the clown-centered comedic sideshow attraction industry. Spencer was almost sure that wasn’t actually an industry, but if clowns wanted to bitch about the economy the same way normal people did, well, who was Spencer to judge? He’d grown up stealing cars (and leaving them in hilarious parking situations) for a living.
As he was about to do one last time before society sucked him into the void of adulthood.
He peered across the gap between the hammers and the crate to find that Danny had forced the top open just enough to access the first layer of delicious cherry weaponry. He already had pies one and two in hand, and he was squinting vaguely in the direction of the nearest basketball-game-playing jock. Danny always squinted whenever he went on the attack. He claimed it helped him look “menacing.” Spencer, however, was pretty sure that Danny had a debilitating case of nearsightedness but was too embarrassed to admit his physical shortcomings.
Either way, he was locked and loaded. Time for Phase 1.
Spencer gave Danny the signal—the one signal the pair used for everything: two thumbs up and a cool, bro head nod. Danny got it and returned the nod with an extra dash of cool.
Then all hell broke loose.
Delicious, cherry-flavored hell.
By the time the two complaining clowns realized what Armageddon had befallen them, Danny had shot off eight pies. Three hit the nearest few jocks dead in their faces. One smacked the back of the head of the guy running the basketball game. Two hit innocent bystanders—a toddler and his coffee-buzzed business mom. And the last two had the honor of being slam-dunked into the net of the nearest game lane, causing Danny to shout Woot, bitches in response. It was on the ninth and tenth pies that the clowns caught up to him. The tall one tackled him to the ground, and both pies splattered as they hit the grass. The short clown, panicked and choking on cigarette smoke, waddled back inside, shouting for help from his humorous brethren.
And that was Spencer’s cue.
Before tall and skinny could even catch a glimpse of him, he barreled out from his hiding place behind the stack of hammers, hauled open the left-unlocked passenger door, and stuffed his too-wide body into the cramped driver’s seat. The keys were still in the ignition. As the tall clown began to realize he’d been duped, and as Danny managed to jerk himself free of the clown’s white-gloved grip and punch the painted fucker dead between the eyes, Spencer started the car and put it in gear.
The next thing he knew, he was soaring across the grass, past the petting zoo and the always-broken-down kiddie coaster and a crowd that had gathered to watch a two-hundred-fifty pound body-builder try his hand at face painting. Thirty miles per hour. Forty. Fifty. He jumped a ditch and hit the highway going sixty-seven, all the while pounding at the hilariously high-pitched horn as panicked drivers swerved to avoid the tiny purple and pink car covered in pretty flower patterns.
If he didn’t make the front page tomorrow, Spencer was going to be pissed.
Unfortunately, had Spencer known that tomorrow’s front-page story was going to have a title containing the word Deadly, he may have reconsidered wishing to be included in it. Because, as Spencer sped down the street, as he neared the intersection of Main and Forty-First (the aforementioned busiest intersection in town), he failed to notice the tractor-trailer with the failing breaks skidding right toward him. And little did he know as he was crushed to a pulp inside the tiny clown car, as his ribcage imploded, shredding his internal organs, as his skull caved in, taking all one-hundred forty-eight of his IQ points with it…
Little did Spencer Jenkins know that he had set off the series of events that would lead to Archibald Regan V spontaneously combusting.
Thirty minutes before he spontaneously combusted, Archibald Regan V stood in front of the bathroom mirror studying his reflection. Meh, he thought—the same thought that came to his mind for just about everything else. Archibald wasn’t exactly known for being…proactive. He’d risen at his usual time for his usual night shift at work, dressed in his usual bland gray suit, eaten his usual bland microwave dinner, mumbled his usual Hello, dear when his wife arrived home from work at 4:30, and shuffled in his usual manner to the bathroom when said wife informed him he’d forgotten to shave. If you look like a slob, Arch, she’d said, people will treat you like one.
Archibald had never particularly cared how other people treated him. In fact, he’d never really cared about anything at all. So everyone else cared for him. His mother had chosen his everything up until he’d left for the college she’d also chosen. His boss had picked him from a lineup of eligible workers because he was short enough to not challenge his superiors’ superiority but tall enough to make a good model for the company’s webpage pictures. His wife, a high-strung businesswoman, had selected him not long after he’d begun working from a pool of eligible bachelors because she wanted a nuclear family that would never go nuclear, and the best way to achieve such a thing, in her opinion, was to have a husband and father figure who didn’t have the juice to power a flashlight, much less a nuclear reactor.
Nowadays, Archibald followed a routine that never required him to decide between more than two choices—at work, it was yes or no to Is this rubber hammer defective?, at home, it was yes, dear or no, dear to whatever his wife asked of him, and on the road, it was to work or back home, depending on whether the sun was going down or coming up. The rest of the time, Archibald sat on the couch watching reruns of old Japanese anime, like Sailor Moon. And while any other person in the world would have been driven mad by the hellish monotony of it all, Archibald Regan V was content and indifferent. His life philosophy was simple:
“Arch, get your ass in the car! You’re going to be late.”
Archibald shuffled to his car, and a moment later he was backing out of his driveway, preparing himself for the difficult sixteen-minute drive to the factory. As he pulled out of the cul-de-sac and onto Main, he thought he saw a puff of smoke somewhere in his periphery, but he refused to look up at it and kept on driving. Ever since his wife had ordered him to keep your eyes on the road before you get someone killed, he’d made a conscious effort to look nowhere but the yellow lines and ignore everything else. Thus, he had no clue what horror show he was heading straight toward until a booming loudspeaker voice boxed his ears and nearly sent him tail-spinning out of fright into a roadside sign for the county fair.
Once he brought his vehicle to a complete stop at an awkward angle in the middle of the street, he dared to break his yellow-line gaze and take in what was in front of him. At the intersection of Main and Forty-First, a few hundred meters away, a tractor-trailer appeared to have hit…something pink and purple. A motley crew of assembled emergency personnel was attempting to extract the truck driver from his smoke-filled cab, and a few wide-eyed firemen were grimacing at whatever was inside what was left of the pink and purple thing.
Archibald glanced at the clock on his radio (you’ll be late) and then to the crash site and then to the clock and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. And he would have kept doing so had a cop not knocked on his window. The man, in his forties and twice as the stern-looking as the usual policeman, motioned for Archibald to roll down his window. In one hand was the loudspeaker that nearly caused Archibald to soil his favorite (only) suit. On the man’s chest was a nametag: Jenkins.
Archibald hit the window button and let it go once the pane was lowered hallway. “Yes, Officer?”
“Can’t go this way, sir. Intersection’s closed.” He nodded toward the crash site. “Won’t be cleaned up until tomorrow. You’re going to have to take the long way around.”
Archibald opened his mouth but found he had nothing intelligent to say. So all that emerged was: “But…why?”
Officer Jenkins shook his head and mumbled a few choice words under his breath. “There was a crash, sir, as you can see. Breaks went out on a big rig. Got some tiny-ass car stuck up underneath it. There’s a ton of debris and a tractor-trailer now incapable of both accelerating and breaking stuck in the middle of the intersection. So it’s closed.”
The gears in Archibald’s headed tried their best to keep turning (really they did), but the poor guy just couldn’t hack it. “So, where do I go?”
Jenkins’ lips twitched in the way that lips do when a man wants to roast someone alive and feed him to a horde of beluga whales. “Wherever. There are eighteen different ways to go to get around the mess. Pick one. It’s not hard t—” Jenkins’ head snapped around at such a sharp angle that Archibald was sure it would fly off and land in the street with a magnificent comet-tail of blood trailing behind it. It didn’t. Instead, Jenkins yelled, “Will you shut the fuck up, Germaine?”
In a cop car parked on the side of the road was a teenage boy covered in cherry pie filling and sporting two black eyes. Archibald would have noticed him had he leaned back a few more inches in his seat, but of course, Archibald had a usual way of sitting that prevented him from doing so. Not that Archibald would have cared at this point. While Danny Germaine continued to beat on the cop car window, cussing out Officer Jenkins in between a butchered attempt to tell the poor father that his son had been in the pink and purple thing (formerly a clown car), Archibald…stopped.
Stopped moving. Stopping thinking. Stopped being. Because eighteen choices might as well have been infinity to Archibald. And everyone knew what happened when infinity erupted in the middle of a human brain. Those languid little gears in Archibald’s head melted from the heat of confusion. His jaw came unhinged. His heart raced. His eyes bugged out like the guts of a frog being squished by a steamroller. And, of course, his life flashed before his eyes, each obscenely boring memory being considered and reconsidered with all the possibilities of existence, all the choices infinity had to offer. For the first and only time in his life, Archibald saw more than yes and no. Archibald saw everything.
Unfortunately, his body couldn’t quite take it.
As the threads of his very being startled to unravel from the sheer force of who, what, when, where, why, and how, Archibald desperately struggled to locate some definitive answer.
Meanwhile, Officer Jenkins, annoyed by the combined antics of the Germaine brat and this punk who wouldn’t move his car, pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lit up. His wife had always told him that a cig made him more intimidating. (She always lied.) He leaned in close to the window and blew a lungful of smoke at Archibald. “So, what’s it going to be, punk? You got eighteen different ways to go. You going to leave, or you going to make me make you leave?”
Archibald’s brain blew a fuse, and his entire existence collapsed inward until the only thought he had left to cling to, drudged up by the acrid smell of cigarette smoke, was the one impression his now late mother (rest her soul) had left on him as a child. He screamed, at the top of his lungs, “It’s rude to smoke on Sundays!”
Then he spontaneously combusted.