Race to the Bottom
by Mark Averill

Part One:  Fire Buckets

“Would you text Derek and tell him the GPS says we’ll get there at 8:41 ...?” Jessica took Wayne’s phone out of the cup holder and tapped the text message as they took the exit ramp for Shoreland Parkway.

After two minutes, Wayne’s phone chimed. “He says Sounds good. Hope ur dressed warm, NYE fire buckets ... What are fire buckets?” Jessica wondered.

“No idea,” muttered Wayne as they turned down the road to Prescott Lake. About a dozen cars were lined up in the low snow banks along both sides of the road in front of the lake house where the party was supposed to be. Wayne parked as close as he could, and then lifted a large, high-end quality picnic cooler out of the trunk. Jessica carried a tote bag with two bottles of wine as they walked through crunchy snow to the front door, where a note said “Come on in, we’re in back.”

There was no one inside the house except a woman in the kitchen opening and closing all the drawers and cabinets.

“Do you know where they keep the flashlight?” she asked.

Wayne put the cooler down on the kitchen island and Jessica said, “Sorry, we’re guests, we’ve never been here before ...” There was no sign of a party.

Wayne glanced around the kitchen and dining room and asked, “Where should I put out my appetizer?”

“That’s all set up outside,” the woman said, “go right out through those patio doors.”

There were two pop-up canopies strung with twinkle lights in the back yard overlooking the lake. Beneath each one were folding tables with an array of slow cookers and electric roasters, bags of rolls and chips, cracker boxes, plates of cheese and sausage, disposable plates and cups and dozens of bottles of liquor. At least twenty people were gathered around a fire in an outdoor hearth surrounded by a patio. Derek walked over to the food tables when he saw his friends arrive.

“Glad you could make it,” he grinned, and pointed at Wayne’s cooler. “Is that beer?”

“No, there’s a hot appetizer in a chafing dish inside here, trying to stay warm,” he snickered. “I had no idea the whole party would be outside.”

“We didn’t either,” Derek said quietly. “Did you happen to bring chairs?”

“No, afraid not.” Wayne put the cooler down in the snow beneath one of the tables. “I need something to warm me up.” He poured himself a bourbon in a red plastic tumbler and Jessica filled a clear cup with Malbec. A woman waved to them from the patio and they waved back.

“Dude, what are fire buckets? You didn’t say anything about that when you invited us to this.”

“Right, so ... Brett, the guy who lives here, owns a parking lot sealing and striping business, and they use a lot of paint and sealcoat that comes in five gallon metal drums. He saves the empties all year for these fire bucket nights. Come here, I’ll show you.”

The three of them walked around the side of the house to a small cargo van with its rear doors open. By the light of two large oil lanterns hanging from tree branches, they could see inside the van: there were stacks of the empty metal drums, all painted with unique colors and patterns, and a pile of bricks.

“So basically you pay twenty dollars and get a bucket with a brick inside. Then everybody goes out on the lake and builds a fire inside their bucket. The first bucket that melts all the way through the ice wins all the money.”

“Seriously? You’ve done this before?” Wayne taunted. “I didn’t think anything could be boring and dangerous at the same time, but this might be it.”

They heard footsteps in the snow behind them. “Perfect night for fire buckets! It’s thirty degrees and the ice is right at five inches.”

“Brett, this is my buddy Wayne Chen and his girlfriend Jessica,” Derek announced. “Guys, this is Brett.”

“Hey nice to meet you, thanks for coming!” Brett gushed, and shook Wayne’s hand. “Can you guys give me a hand for a sec?”

Brett took a large electric drill from the front seat of the van, plugged it in, and had Derek and Wayne hold the drums one at time while he drilled two holes in opposite sides, five inches up from the bottom.

“What are the holes for?” Wayne asked.

“Two things,” Brett said. “They let air in so the fire can breathe and get hot, and when the bucket melts through the ice, the water can flood in and put the fire out.”

“Okay,” Jessica sneered, “I’ll meet you boys by the patio. I’m getting another glass of wine.”

“Um ... Jessica?” Brett interrupted, “Can you tell Clem to bring everybody back here that wants a bucket?”

She agreed. After refilling her glass, she took a large gulp, went to the patio and said loudly “Clem! Brett wants everybody to get their buckets!”

“Everybody ... follow me!” announced a large, drunk man in a long wool Army surplus coat. He marched back to the truck and sat on the bumper, where he collected twenty dollars from almost all of the guests as they came by twos and threes to get a spray-painted bucket with a brick inside, then head out onto the frozen lake.

Wayne and Derek each gave Clem their money, and carried their buckets and the two lanterns out onto the ice. Clem followed with a wheelbarrow full of lumber scraps and grocery sacks stuffed with newspapers.

“They’ve never done this many buckets before,” Derek observed. “It’s usually like six or eight at the most.”

“How deep is this lake?” Wayne asked as they reached a twenty-foot circle of rough, bare ice where the snow had been cleared away.

Between rowdy outbursts and horseplay, people started placing buckets on the ice a few feet apart, and filled them with crumpled newspaper and small boards. Clem dribbled a little lantern fuel and dropped a lit wooden match into each one.

Within a few minutes the entire scene was aglow with the flames from the fire buckets. Several guests brought chairs out onto the ice with plates of food and full cups of booze. Wayne carried his cooler out to the ice and Jessica brought plates and utensils. They opened the lid and put some of their own warm appetizer on their plates, then closed the lid and sat on it.

Slouching in a folding camp chair, Clem took notice. He took a swig from a hip flask and slurred, “Hey, what are you doing here? Chinese New Year isn’t until February...”

He guffawed as someone yelled “Clem, shut up!” Wayne and Jessica did not react.

“Who are you ... what’s your name ...” Clem mumbled.

“Wayne. And this is Jessica,” Wayne replied.

“Wayne? Like John Wayne? That’s not a Chinese name ...”

“My Chinese name is Huang Lei.” Wayne took a bite.

“Wang Lay. Wow. What’s in the cooler Wang Lay?”

Wayne finished chewing, swallowed and dabbed his mouth with a napkin. “Spicy fish balls,” he said flatly. Jessica sighed and rolled her eyes, knowing what would come next.

Clem started giggling, causing himself to cough a little, then said in a loud, affected voice, “Everybody meet Wang Lay with the spicy fish balls!”

 “Shut up, Clem, don’t start with that!” a woman yelled. “Pay no attention to him, he’s a jerk even when he’s sober.”

“Wang Lay ... spicy fish balls ...” Clem smirked. “I feel sorry for you buddy...”

“Well I feel sorry for you, “ Wayne spoke up, “for being so damned ignorant.”

Clem sat upright in his chair. “Hey f*ck you ... go back to China!” Clem bellowed. “You can go to hell for all I care!”

“Naw you go to hell dude!” Wayne shot back, “I’m from Seattle.” He got up from the cooler and went back to the yard with his plate and cup. Jessica followed. They left the cooler where it was.

They spent the next two hours with Derek and his wife on the patio, drinking and nibbling, talking and watching the fire buckets from shore. As the bricks and drums began to radiate heat, the ice underneath them melted, but so did the entire surface of ice between and around all the buckets. Water pooled, and mists of condensation started to rise. Showers of embers rose in puffs of smoke as Clem and several others stayed out there kicking buckets and poking at the fires. Sometimes a dark silhouette could be seen gulping Everclear from a bottle and spitting it into the air where it lit up the night sky with blue and orange flames.

“How long you wanna stay?” Jessica asked Wayne. “I’m freezing.”

“We’ll leave after midnight, which is in, like ... ten minutes.”

Still feeling chipper in the dark and the cold, a bunch of guests walked back out onto the lake and stood in the puddles around the smoldering fire buckets. “Three minutes!” one shouted. Derek coaxed the foursome out onto the ice, but they stayed in the back of the crowd.

“Ten! ... Nine! ... Eight! ... Seven! ...” Clem stepped up and stood on top of Wayne’s cooler which was still where he had left it. “Six! ... Five! ... Four! ... Three! ...” Clem pulled a pistol out of his coat and held it up in the air over his head. “Two! ... One! ...”

Part Two: Cooler Heads

“Happy New Year!”

BANG! People near the fire buckets ducked their heads when Clem fired the first shot into the air.

BANG! A few started to scramble toward the house. They slipped and fell in the icy puddles and soaked their pants with the frigid water.

BANG! Anyone with a free hand reached up to cover an ear.

“New Year’s fireworks ...” Clem bellowed, “... Prescott Lake.”

All but a few unaccompanied male guests shuffled off the slippery ice with their chairs, muttering expletives. Clem carefully stepped down from his perch atop Wayne’s cooler without losing his balance.

Watching from the edge of the lake, Wayne jested to Derek, “Was I supposed to bring a gun, too?”

“Okay that’s it, time to go,” Jessica sneered. “I’m going inside to the ladies’ room. You’re okay to drive, right hon?”

“I could use a cup of coffee,” Wayne said. “And I’m not leaving without my cooler. Do you know how much those things cost?” They looked out toward the fire buckets where Clem was stuffing his pistol back in his coat. “But I’m not sure I want to deal with that moron again.”

“I’ll grab it for you,” Derek assured him. “He knows me, don’t worry about it.” Jessica started walking toward the house and Wayne turned to follow her. “There’s a K-cup machine on the kitchen counter,” Derek added. “The mugs and coffee are in the cabinet above it.”

Clem had clumsily refilled an empty plastic cup with lantern fuel and started pouring it into each bucket to accelerate the fires. A lot spilled on the cuffs of his coat sleeves, and onto the melting ice, where it created a surface film that reflected swirls of iridescent light as each cupful of fuel raised a pillar of flame into the air over the fire buckets. At one point, he lost his grip on the oily plastic and spilled more fuel on the ice as the cup fell.

“Good night, I’ll let you know if you win the money!” Derek said to a few guests as they left the party. Then he strode out onto the lake to retrieve Wayne’s gear. Clem took the pistol out of his coat again. Standing in the icy, oily, blazing center of the scene, he fired a shot into a bucket. BANG!

The ice collapsed. Clem flailed his arms as he slid forward and downward into the cold water. Two fire buckets toppled in with him and spilled their contents, igniting the pools of lantern fuel on the surface of the surrounding puddles. Sinking chest-deep, he managed to grasp an edge of the unbroken part of the ice sheet, gun still in his hand. “Clem!” someone shouted. “Idiot,” another one huffed.

Derek hurried toward him while the other men on the ice backpedaled toward the house. He grabbed the cooler by one handle and dragged it toward shore. A few of the guests on the patio came to the edge of the lake. “Somebody find a rope!” one yelled toward the house. “Get a rope from Brett!”

Clem was grunting loudly as he clambered up a few inches onto the ice, then slid back into the water. Bare-handed, holding on with his elbows, he pushed and swung at the fire buckets still burning on the ice all around him, and managed to knock one over. Ashes and embers spilled out and flowed toward him as the large oil-covered puddles drained into the lake. Seen from shore, a rising cloud of smoke and steam marked the dark spot where Clem was stuck between the fire, the water and the ice.

“Should I call 911?” a woman yelled. After a few seconds, Derek said “Hold up, we can probably get him out.”

“Brett says he doesn’t have a rope,” someone shouted. “How about a twenty-five foot extension cord?”

“Isn’t there something from his boat?” another man retorted sharply. “Doesn’t he have a ring buoy?”

Brett rushed out of the garage and onto the lake carrying a long, orange, heavy-duty extension cord. He unwound a few feet of slack and handed the plug end to Derek. “Clem, grab this cord!” From about fifteen away, Brett hurled the entire coil of cord out toward the section of collapsed ice. It landed in a tangle, partly on top of an upright fire bucket, just out of Clem’s reach. Brett cussed and starting hauling in the cord, which tipped over the bucket and spun it so its firy contents emptied onto the thin ice.

“His sleeves are burning!” the same woman yelled. “Look, his coat is on fire!”

Brett rewound the cord on his forearm between his thumb and elbow, then flung it out toward Clem another time. It landed closer, and Clem lunged toward it with his gun hand. His waterlogged coat was wet up to the armpits; his sleeves were soaked on the bottom and one had caught fire at the cuff. He couldn’t reach the cord.

“Let go of the gun,” Derek barked, “Toss it up here ...” Clem raised his hand and chucked the pistol toward shore. It landed in the snow beneath some tall grass.

Brett coiled the cord and threw it again. The socket end landed near Clem’s head, and he fumbled in the cold water to get a grip on it. Derek and Brett pulled the cord taut. “Hold on now, we’re gonna pull!” Brett roared.

As soon as they crouched and leaned backward in tug-o-war fashion, Clem’s cold, oily hands lost their grip on the cord. Derek and Brett fell back on their bottoms, and Clem eased back into the water, quickly losing his energy.

“We need to throw him something that floats,” Brett surmised. “Something he can hold onto, or climb onto.”

They got up and shot glances toward the food tables, the house, the patio. “How about this cooler?”

Brett quickly knotted one end of the cord to a handle on Wayne’s cooler, and tugged on it. “Here ... gimme a hand,” he panted to Derek, and they lifted the cooler from opposite sides. Brett put his boot on the free end of the cord. Wayne emerged from the house with a mug and trotted toward the lake. “On three,” Brett said as they swayed it backwards, then forwards.

“One ...” Wayne stopped at the edge of the ice and began to stutter. “Two ...”

“That’s not empty!” he interjected.


Part Three: A Hot Mess

Brett and Derek hurled the cooler in a shallow arc toward the fire buckets. It slammed onto the ice a few feet from Clem, bounced, skidded and tipped over. The lid flew open. Clem’s face looked flushed in the firelight as he looked up to see Wayne’s stainless steel chafing dish tumble out and slide into the dark water beside him, where it disappeared: pan, lid, stand, spoon, fish balls, canned heat and all.

Still surrounded by floating embers and small pockets of flame, Clem strained to raise himself onto the ice with his elbows and reach for the handle or rim of the cooler, but he was weakened and his wool coat was saturated and heavy. “I can’t,” he gasped.

“Take the coat off!” Derek exclaimed, “It’s weighing you down!” Brett picked up the loose end of the extension cord.

Clem groaned, and took the cuff of one sleeve between his teeth and worked that arm loose, then did the same with the other sleeve. His coat sunk slowly behind him as he caught hold again on the edge of the ice with the friction of his flannel shirt.

“Come on, Clem!” a woman shouted from the yard. “Grab the cooler!”

Wayne turned his head and scowled at the woman, then taunted Derek, “Really? Was this really necessary?” He glared at Brett. “Did anybody call fire and rescue?” Jessica stepped out of the patio doors and stood just outside the house, watching the drama from a distance. “And did you forget? About five hundred bucks of fire bucket money is in that coat ...”

“If you can just reach the cooler, we’ll hold it for you,” Brett urged. “Just use it to climb out. We won’t pull this time.”

Grunting with effort, Clem tensed and raised his chest out of the water, tilting to one side. He thrust out the opposite arm and scrabbled for a grip on the edge of the cooler’s lid. With his fingertips, he nudged it little by little until he could get his hand on the inside surface. He dragged it toward himself, then exhaled and went slack.

“Good job, Clem!” the woman hailed.

“Now close the lid, lock it down,” Brett commanded, “get it into the water so you can climb on it.” Clem grunted erratically as he maneuvered the cooler into the water, then frog-kicked and hoisted himself up on top of it. Derek and Brett pulled their end of the cord taut so the cooler pressed up against the broken edge of the ice. Clem heaved several deep breaths before making another move.

Near the house, Jessica heard someone say, “He’s gonna need to warm up when he gets out. Can you get a bath started? Warm, but not hot.”

All the guests stood watching as Clem lethargically inched himself over the top of the cooler and onto the solid part of the ice. He belly crawled slowly past a few fire buckets toward an area with the least melt, and then rolled over onto his back in the bootprinted snow.

“You did it, buddy!” Brett cheered.“Come on Clem, get up, you gotta get warm,” a man implored.

“Who is this guy?” Wayne whispered, “What is he even doing here?”

“He works for Brett,” Derek murmured, “Been with him for a long time.”

Two women ran from the house with blankets as Clem slowly rose to his feet and staggered toward shore. As they wrapped him up, a few guests gathered around to slap his back or pat his head and offer encouragement. They shuffled toward the house with their arms around him as Jessica scurried away from the patio entrance to give them plenty of room.

The cooler remained floating in the lake where Clem went in. Wayne grabbed the electrical cord and pulled gently, then tugged, then jerked to get it up onto the ice. He easily reeled it in and untied it from the cord. Jessica walked up and looked him intently in the face. “Let’s go,” he sighed.

The air had become thick with moisture since they arrived, and a few drops of freezing drizzle could be felt on their faces. Without saying any goodbyes, they half-tiptoed through the tall grass along the frozen waterline, looking down in order to avoid anyone else as they quietly left the party. Wayne spotted Clem’s gun in the snow when he almost stepped on it. He halted, put down the cooler, and picked up the pistol.

He brushed off the snow, blew on it and wiped it on his coat. “Wayne,” Jessica said. He removed the magazine and ejected a live round from the chamber with fluid, instinctive movements. “What are you doing?” she urged. Wayne looked into the breech.

“That stupid — ... he easily could have hurt somebody.”

“Wayne, put that thing down.”

Wayne stuffed the ammunition in his pocket. “Yeah, this is a piece of junk,” he scoffed. “It looks like it came from the gutter. I’m surprised it didn’t jam after one shot.”

Jessica looked at him quizzically. “How you do you know anything about guns?”

Wayne exhaled. “My mom was raised on a ranch in eastern Washington,” he said as he examined the pistol. “She taught us everything about shooting, about every kind of gun.” He rubbed the side of the barrel with his thumb. “I’ve fired pistols that are like works of art, but his thing doesn’t even have a make.”

“Whatever, just leave it.”

“It’s probably stolen.” Wayne paused. “I hate to think what that guy was into. This is the kind of crap that causes problems.” He abruptly flicked the pistol toward the fire buckets where it clattered and slid into the opening in the ice and disappeared into the water. “I wonder how much garbage is at the bottom of this poor lake,” he snickered. “Clem should really be down there, too.”

“Hey wait a second,” Jessica countered, “Your fancy cooler saved his life.”

“Really? What did it save? He’s a creep, a drunk, an ass,” Wayne snorted. “He did that to himself.”

“Then you saved him from himself.”

“Maybe,” Wayne thought for a second. “But I lost twenty bucks and a really nice chafer.”

They took the long way around the outside of the house, back to the road where their car was parked. Wayne loaded the cooler in the trunk and slammed the lid, which had accumulated a thin glaze of ice.

Once inside, he tapped his home address into the car’s navigation system. “Are you sure you can drive?” Jessica asked. “How many drinks did you have? Ten, nine? Eight?”

Wayne looked at her blankly. “Seven.”

BRAVO serial fiction presents an original short story by a local writer in a series of short sections of approximately 1000 words each. "Race to the Bottom" was published from December 2018 through February 2019.

Mark Averill is a computer analyst and amateur writer whose articles can be read on The Elgin Review (theelginreview.blogspot.com).