On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.

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In retrospect, this was inevitable, John thought as the first punch landed on his left temple.

The day had started like most of his days up until this point: with a sense of tiredness despite having slept relatively well, and an unpleasant fuzziness of thought. Having two or three nightmares per night, every single night, would do that to you.

He was trying to stay hopeful; he really was. And there was every reason to. He was happily married, with a family who loved him. He was gainfully employed and doing a job he truly cared about. He was in good health, and that was the normal state of affairs.

There was the sadness, though. He was working on it, and not just in the passive sense of periodically trying to puzzle it all out. For a few months now he’d even been talking to a therapist. An hour each week, like clockwork, and the sessions had gone through what he assumed was a predictable set of phases. First, discomfort with the exposure and vulnerability of talking to a stranger about your feelings. Then, the opening of the floodgates in a great and anguished release of pent-up emotion. And then the reflection, piece by piece and little by little, as long-avoided realisations bubbled up to the surface.

It was a rollercoaster, but it was progress. He didn’t feel better, exactly, but he did feel different, and different was probably good. He believed that. He really did. Or at least he wanted to.

The second blow — a kick this time, instead of a punch — struck him in the right thigh, and John felt his leg buckle underneath him. His brain blared a critical alert, knowing instinctively that losing mobility during a threat situation could readily be lethal. John agreed, at least academically, but having never been in a fight in his life, he had little in the way of constructive suggestions to address his limbic system’s concerns.

His mistake had been to take his usual shortcut home from therapy, despite the change of seasons. He had always cut through the alley during summer, but then autumn had been particularly wet and so he’d driven to his appointments for the last seven weeks or so. This was the first time he’d gone on foot again, and it was already fully dark.

Things come out in the dark, he thought, but he wasn’t entirely sure what that meant.

He hadn’t been willing to hand over his mobile phone, and he was telling the truth when he said he didn’t even have his wallet with him. The three younger men weren’t satisfied with his answer, and really that was no surprise. There was a certain script and choreography to these situations, and John was aware that he was deviating from it. The question, of course, was why.

Distantly, he registered another impact, this time on his left cheekbone, and somehow he knew that it was of the type to cause a black eye. He had an image in his mind of his own face with a dark purple mass of bruising on the left side, and then the mental image zoomed out a little, and John saw that he was lying on the cold steel surface of an autopsy table.

Morbid, he thought.

So, yes, this was really all inevitable. His life had provided blessings, certainly, and chief amongst them was his wife. But it had also bestowed more than his fair share of curses, and he was still so early in the process of trying to sort them all out. He had hoped there would come a time — sometime in the future, maybe years down the line — when he could say that he truly felt happy inside. He had hoped that the therapy was a big step towards that goal. He still hoped those things. But what he hadn’t considered was what the correct healing analogy was.

Not so much a bandage. More like a deliberate re-breaking of a bone, so it can be set properly the second time around. That’s what therapy was like, at least at the start. It had stirred up so many things, the way a sudden strong wind does, whirling them around and scattering them, abruptly visible and unignorable. Waiting to be dealt with. Old scars ripped open again, and fresh blood as red as the first time around.

And the anger.

The anger was new. But if he was being honest with himself, it was also very old.

John rolled to one side, again more from instinct than anything else, and he had the peculiar certainty that he’d just narrowly avoided a brutal blow to the back of the neck. The animal part of his brain was clearly looking out for itself, but his conscious mind was fixated on an image he’d been thinking about more and more often lately.

He’d read about it online somewhere. Some country in central Asia — one of the -stans, maybe — where geologists had set light to a collapsed natural gas field, hoping to prevent a harmful escape of highly flammable vapour. They’d thought the fire would burn out within weeks, but it had been going strong for fifty years with no sign of stopping. They called it the Gates of Hell or some such thing, as you would. John had seen a photo, and while it was really just a glowing crater, it was the implications of it that really struck him. A vast reserve of gas deep down below, with just the very topmost portion slowly escaping and burning as it went up. Controlled chaos.

The anger was like that, in his opinion, and his therapist found the idea very interesting and vivid. She found a lot of his observations very interesting. But of course, that was her job.

John’s limbic system had somehow managed to get him onto his feet in a crouch, and then he was standing up straight in a further half a second. The three younger men surrounded him now, and he could see the casual, mindless aggression and entitlement and cruelty written so clearly on their faces. He could see that they had no regard at all for the implicit social contract of decency he’d tried to live by all his life, no matter what abuses he’d suffered himself.

He could see it so clearly. And then his therapist’s gentle voice, in what had become a refrain.

It’s important to find a constructive outlet for this anger, John.

John agreed. He knew she was right, and he also felt that she was right.

He looked at each of the three men in turn, and for the first time, everything seemed so clear.

John reached down, deep down to the petrochemical gas, far below the surface and waiting for millions of years without sight of the sky. He found it easily.

Then he let it ignite.

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