The Christmas Dennis Exploded
By Chris Gates
A bone-rumbling boom snapped Dennis back into consciousness. Everything was upside down. His seatbelt cut into the skin of his neck as it held him in place, his arms dangled and his fingertips brushed the roof of his truck; blood thumped through his brain and frozen night air whistled in through the shattered windscreen. He was miles from anywhere, wild deer country; the cottage he’d found online was high on a hill, overlooking a glimmering loch with mountains in the distance that seemed to fade up in the morning, and then away again as the sun set. Dennis was alone, for now. Carefully, he unbuckled himself and dropped ungracefully onto his head.
He’d gotten here a week early to get everything ready; it had cost him a month’s salary to rent the place that long, but Dennis considered it to be an investment. This was his first year hosting Christmas for the family; it had taken him most of the year to convince his father that he wouldn’t ‘fuck it up like you always do’, and he was determined everything should be perfect. Determined he would get all the credit. Determined he would provide Christmas in its entirety, without any help from anyone.
Dennis climbed out of his truck, it didn’t take him long to get his bearings. The cottage was a ball of flames, it lit the valley he had crashed into more brightly than the weak winter sun would have. Blood dripped down his face from a cut on his scalp.
It had had to be a cottage; his father had insisted. The cottage had to have an open fireplace as his father’s wife wouldn’t spend Christmas anywhere without one. It also had to be decorated for her kids; seven -foot tree, fairy lights, ribbons, wreaths, poinsettias in her bedroom and red and green candles all through the house. His step-brother had just said ‘make sure there’s plenty of booze and somewhere for me to get high’ which, of course, was a given. Dennis had found the perfect place, all it lacked was a bedroom for himself, but he would sleep on a camp bed in the cellar and be the most gracious martyr the world had ever seen.
Dennis heard a sound like running water and thought for a moment that he had landed next to a stream, but quickly realised it was in fact the petrol leaking out of the engine. He had the sense to walk away from the truck, before it too burst into flames. The explosion staggered him when it came, but he kept his feet. Dennis decided that he would head down to the loch. An odd choice, he figured, because surely he should either head up towards the cottage, or at least back to the road where he might find some help. He should perhaps even be calling the fire brigade, but he felt that he needed some time first. He needed some time to think.
Everything had been going to plan; he’d arrived a few days back in his rented flatbed truck, he’d found the keys in the lockbox as the owner had directed, he’d let himself in, and lugged all of the things inside; which had taken most of the morning. There had been a folder on the coffee table with details about the cottage, Dennis had sat down to go through it, making notes on his phone as he went. The cottage, apparently, was heated by a furnace in the cellar, which the owner had got going before Dennis had arrived. Dennis went down to see it, carrying his camp-bed with him.
The furnace was an imposing, black hunk of iron with a mysterious array of dials and switches. It regularly made an unsettling clunking noise; Dennis realised that he might not be getting much sleep this Christmas. One of the gauges, he’d noted, had a needle pointing in the red, but the instruction from the owner was clear: ‘Just leave it alone,’. Dennis had been only too happy to take that advice; he had just about all the stress that he could handle. Blood was now trickling onto his collar. Dennis found a quiet spot down by the loch, he sat on the stump of a cut down tree. He thought. Thinking was hard. He wondered whether he might have a concussion. Mainly, he was trying to figure out two things; how he had managed to come off the road, and, more importantly, why the cabin had exploded.
He had gone down to the little town on the loch to get a Christmas tree. He remembered doing that and arguing with a grumpy old man in the shop about the price.
That’s all that came back to him, and it hurt his head to bring the memory forward. A deer, perhaps. Maybe it had been a deer on the road. The bigger worry, the much bigger worry, was why the cabin had exploded in the first place. As he sat by the loch, Dennis prayed. He hoped to God it was because of the furnace, and not the oven.
Dennis had never really tried to cook before. Living for most of the year on Deliveroo and anything he could microwave or, if he were feeling fancy, he’d make a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup on the side. He’d wanted to take cooking lessons before driving out to the cottage, but fitting them in around work proved impossible, so Dennis had just bought two of everything; two turkeys, two hams, two pounds of sausage meat, two bags of sprouts, potatoes etc., so that he could make a practice Christmas dinner before the Big Day. More expense, but surely increasing the likelihood of praise for a job well done. And, once he’d settled into the cottage, Dennis set to work, and he found that it was easy. He found some videos on YouTube, which took him through it all step by step. It took him a few hours to get everything prepped, but once everything was cooking, he felt pretty confident that, come Christmas day, he’d make a better meal than even Dad ever could. Feeling light-hearted and heroic, he had checked his watch and looked at the light in the sky; he had planned on getting the tree the next day, but thought ‘fuck it, town’s only twenty minutes away, I’ll be there and back before this bird needs to be turned.’
Now, sitting by the loch, watching the firelight dance in the water, he tried to figure out how long he’d been passed out. Could the bird have caught fire in the oven? Was that possible? Had he done something wrong? The only other possibility was the furnace, he was sure of it. It wouldn’t make a difference, not to his family, this would always be the Christmas that Dennis Exploded.
Perhaps Dennis knew that as he watched the moon rising over the water. But also, he figured, if it HAD been his fault somehow, if he’d made a Dennis-mistake, then maybe if the cottage burned for long enough then all the evidence would all be burned away, and no one could ever say what had really happened. No matter what his family said about him, at least he could always tell himself his own story. In that moment, by the loch, as the blood stopped flowing and the cut on his head began to seal, the beginnings of a new scar, that almost felt like a win to Dennis. There was a flash in the sky. He looked up to see a fresh pillar of flame stab upwards, before a white rush of noise, like a breaking wave, rolled over him.
Dennis took out his phone, holding it gently as he watched Christmas burn, wondering how long he should wait before calling 999.