Urban Sprawl

“…Happy Deathday, dear Charlie. Happy Deathday to you!” Charlie blew out the candles of his chocolate-fudge-raspberry-coconut-ectoplasm cake. It was the time of year he waited for in unwavering anticipation. It was the time of year when Charlie returned to Earth for a good ol’ fashion haunting.

Charlie’s haunting was a bit special. In life, he had been an arsonist, a contract worker for agencies and companies that did work under the table. They would often call upon him when they needed buildings to become piles of rubble. Occasionally these buildings were abandoned. Other times there were squatters, people living in them, residences of families hit upon hard economic times. Charlie found flames to be a very persuasive eviction notice—if the squatters didn’t vacate. It was life at their own risk. The people had ample opportunity before meeting a fiery end and becoming part of the rubble.

Then on one unlucky day, Charlie was hoisted by his own petard. A new accelerant he was using went off sooner than he anticipated. The accelerant’s supplier had literally burned him. In the end, he went in a spectacular blaze of a manufacturing warehouse. As the fire rolled over him, he wished he was watching his hand work from afar. But the flames soon consumed him and he was sent to Hell for eternal damnation.

Upon reaching fiery depths, the Devil—splendid chap he was—became fascinated by Charlie’s record.

“I have never seen such determination, Charles. You’re quite the infernal artist, if I do say so myself,” the Devil said, pleased. “You have given me many, many tormented souls. Pre-cooked and ready for slower burn. I haven’t had this much fun since the Inquisition. I am going to assign you to the haunting division of my fiendish organization. By decree of stroke form 3C, you will be allowed to utilize pyro-kinetic powers annually, showing the living that not even Hell can stop an arsonist.”

What the dark lord neglected to mention: When one year passes in Hell, five years go by on Earth. Charlie was disappointed when he found this out. Even more depressing was when it was made aware to him that he was restricted to haunting and burning the area of the warehouse where he died.

Each Hell-year and Earth-five, a new structure was in place. The sight of the new kindling raised his spirits. Once, the new location was a school. Another year had been a 24-hour gym. Later it was a restaurant, and after that, a supermarket. But none gave him more joy than that of a strip mall. Particularly when the area was connected to a shop called Starbucks. Ten quid for a latte? You mad?

Now he couldn’t wait to go back to Earth to resume the mayhem. Fifteen years in Hell, seventy-five years Earth-time. This was going to be a special haunting.  He couldn’t wait to find out what glorious waste of space had been constructed in the aftermath of the coffee consortium. Perhaps it was going to be a set of overpriced condos. Maybe a multi-story homeless shelter. It might be an organic food mart. Or it could be an office for the Labour Party Headquarters.

And there was always the possibility it would be another strip mall. He certainly enjoyed burning those baristas.

“Like, oh my gawd, how could you be doing this? Don’t you understand the training we had to endure? Starbucks University is a living hell.” Charlie remembered that cocky tone.

That lot had been sent down as far south of the border as they could have gone. All the baristas sentenced to eternity inside a replica of their corporate coffeehouse. Yet somehow, they remained snippy at patrons that didn’t use affluent language. In Hell, no less. And even in eternal damnation, their pricing still managed to be inflated. Twenty quid for a small and croissant? You bastards!

The stroke of 7:15 PM, the time Charlie died, couldn’t come any faster. Upon well wishes from demons and colleagues alike, the clock chimed and in a plume of flame, Charlie was off.

Fire coiled and stretched, until folding in upon itself. From out of the embers, the arsonist’s frame took shape, then it was whole, or at least as whole as a ghost could be. Charlie found himself on the spot he died. It was a unisex lavatory. In the past ten visits, it always seemed to be a public lavatory. The worst version had to be when it was a bar. A damp, despicable place for a fire ghost to arrive. Proof that the cosmos had a wicked sense of humor.

Charlie worked his way out of the lavatory only to find, to his horror, he was in a firehouse. Firehouses were considered sacred ground on account of the many souls over the centuries that had given their lives for others. This made firefighters immune to hellfire, and thus, Charlie’s powers were null. And it didn’t help that the space was already haunted by others. Though relatively new, the building was invested with the fallen, due in no small part to the harsh reality that firefighters have much shorter life expectancies than most. This group was no exception. Some had even passed in Charlie’s previous blazes.

The stares from the firefighting specters, watching over their brothers and sisters, grew unbearable. Charlie exited the firehouse and attempted to use his powers on anything in the surrounding areas, but he was stopped at every turn, either by the sanctity of the land, or by the ghosts of the fallen: the firefighting spirits would tackle Charlie whenever he attempted to ignite something. Be it trash or leaves, nothing worked. Flames shrouded over him as he grew with anger. “Would you wankers let me do my—” He was cut off by a volley of celestial water and foam, as well as a few well-placed axes here and there.

Sunrise fast approached and at the stroke of 7:15 AM, Charlie would return to Hell and have a great deal to pay for his lack of mayhem. The dark lord is going to scour me where the sun doesn’t shine. And that’s if I’m lucky. He may force me to work in one of those Hellbucks. “Will that be a grande skinny non-fat vegan latte, no whip?”Charlie shuttered at the thought.

Then the hour rose. At 7:15 AM, on the dot, a maculate form took shape. Instead of a raging hellfire, a choir’s hum brought about a pair of golden-pearly gates, flooding the interior of the firehouse with warm, opulent light. The gates opened, calling the spirits of the firehouse, the ghosts of the fallen. Their haunting protection was at an end. All the firefighters were freed to the heavens.

Once the last firefighter had crossed the golden threshold, the singing quieted, the glow retracted, and the gates closed, disappearing in a fog. A flame burned in front of Charlie, folding into a Deathday card from the Devil himself.

Charlie, my favorite hellspawn,

After some rigid discussions with management, it was decided that the mates in the firehouse had to pass on. To do so, however, they needed a Fire Demon to take their place, and it just so happened you were on your way. Wasn’t that a stroke of good luck on their part?

Welcome to your new home for all eternity, Charlie.

Hugs and Kisses,


As Charlie stood amongst the living firefighters running off to save souls from fires he could no longer create, a burning nausea washed over him. All he could do was scream.