“So what are you going to do?” Johnny asked inquisitively.
“Jesus Christ, how many times are you going to ask me that?” Axl snapped anxiously. The strange man he had spoken to on the phone had given him twenty-four hours to come up with some kind of answer, and already he was creeping into the twenty-third and still wasn’t entirely sure what the question was. The entire situation seemed far too incredible to be legitimate. Being someone’s hired killer? Murdering people for pay? The most criminal thing he’d ever done was hold up a few people at gunpoint, at least before yesterday morning, and even then it wasn’t like he killed them...Benjamin Frick’s guttural, maniacal laughter erupted in the fatigued little addict’s head. Axl wanted to believe that yesterday morning hadn’t even happened, that it was all part of a bad trip or he had a terrible nightmare or he was losing his mind. But the laughter wouldn’t die, and the memories wouldn’t fade. He checked his watch, ridden with anxiety, and the plastic thing slid around his bony wrist to the other side of it as if to protect him from further worry. He readjusted the watch so he could see its face, and flinched when he saw that he had only thirty-eight minutes before he was to receive a very important phone call.
Axl drove the beat-up, barely functional foreign car down an empty Santa Destroy street before pulling into the drive-thru lane of the Burger Suplex fast-food restaurant. Burger Suplex was a popular burger place in the shambled city, only because it was the only burger place there. It was new and exciting looking, with a giant cartoony burger complete with lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese resting on the roof behind the eccentric lettering of the chain’s name. For all its glorious outward appearance, inside it held likeness to a wrestling-themed lavatory, with a pungent smell and ambiguous stains turned black from the staff’s refusal to acknowledge them. The employees were notorious throughout the town for their horrible service, but they always got the order right somehow. Axl always told Johnny there must have been a good fifteen mental disorders between the six of them. There was a rumor that a young woman actually wrote in a letter to the company and complained, but the CEO gave her the ultimatum to sit down, shut up, and enjoy the meal, or lose the only fast food burger place in Santa Destroy. No one says anything about the service anymore.
“Welcome to Burger Suplex,” the voice droned, emanating from the blue speaker in front of the menu (he must have been around seventeen), “home of the Knuckle Sandwich. What do you want?” Axl could hear him sigh from the driver’s side of the car, which would be the passenger’s side if Europeans weren’t so fucking wonky.
Johnny stuck his head out of the window for a better look at the menu, his ornate red tie dangling from his spotless collared shirt on the side of the car. His head bounced from side to side, up and down as he scanned the different meal possibilities Burger Suplex had to offer. Finally, he responded, “Yeah, I’ll take a Chokehold Chicken Sandwich, extra sauce, hold the roaches.” He snickered jovially as he reentered the car.
“Funny,” the box spat sarcastically. “Anything else?”
Johnny turned toward Axl, raising his eyebrows and pointing a thumb out of the window toward the menu. “What d’you want?” he asked.
“Just get me the usual,” Axl replied, nervously fumbling with his phone in one hand and the steering wheel in the other. Johnny nodded and ordered him his usual breakfast sandwich, the Flying Fish of Fury, extra tartar sauce. It was the best Santa Destroy had to offer, in his opinion. Now that he thought about it, there wasn’t much the California city had to offer. Sure, the weather consisted mainly of sunny skies and a delightful temperature, but it wasn’t like anyone cared enough to actually go out and enjoy it. The beach was always empty; the only time people stepped outside of their homes was to go buy something at one of the poor quality stores. There was even a baseball team, and their own stadium to boot, but they sucked more shit than scat porn so no one went to see them play. But at least Santa Destroy had palm trees. What the fuck would Santa Destroy be without palm trees?
After Johnny retrieved their bags from the disgruntled and grumpy grunt at the second window, Axl began driving them the short trip back home. But his mind was anywhere but home. There was so much riding on his decisions in the next twenty-seven minutes. There were so many questions that needed answering. Time ticked away. Why did he get that phone call in the first place? Axl was hardly a successful drug addict, what made that guy think he would be a good assassin? An assassin—hard to believe he was even considering killing people for money. But, he sure could use the money, and he was sure that he’d only be killing people who—
“Brakes!” Johnny screamed, spilling his drink all over the shredded upholstery. Axl’s foot pounded the brake as fast and hard as he could, not even knowing what was happening. In the road stood the same kid from before: stoic face, dark hair with blonde bangs, wearing gym shorts and that unique jacket with the run-over dog and the slogan ‘ROAD KILL MANIA’. It was as if the kid really did have a death wish.
“You know, you little shit,” Axl spat, marching out of the car, brandishing a menacing finger, “the next time you jump in fucking front of me l might just fucking hit you, and it’ll be you on that jacket!”
The kid stood his ground, unfazed. His pouty lips opened slightly as if to say something, and then said, “Can I have a ride?”
“A ride?” Axl yelled. “You want a fucking ride?” His bony finger prodded deeper into the kid’s chest. “If you want a ride, you can call a fucking taxi or stick out your thumb or take the bus, but you aren’t going to pull this psycho shit to bum one off of me.” Axl made it a point to accentuate every consonant; as close as he was to the kid, he was sure that he’d spit on the kids face, even just a little. Johnny watched silently from inside the car, like the entire ordeal was an episode on a soap opera.
The kid’s under bite shifted a bit, then back to its normal position. He lifted a sleeve up to his face, wiping away the leftovers of Axl’s speech. His lips parted again, and then more words came out. Thick, southern words. “I just need a ride. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”
“Look, dude,” Axl started, “what’s your name?”
“Hiki,” the kid replied.
“Hiki,” Axl started again, placing a hand on Hiki’s shoulder, “I can understand your troubles. There was a time when I didn’t have a car and needed rides. And I appreciate you choosing me, out of all the people in the city, as your driver. But I’m not sure I’m ready to be your personal taxi service just yet, so until I am, why don’t you just go find a pay phone and call a real taxi and I promise you they’ll be a lot more willing to take you places than I am. Hmm?” He smiled, bearing all of his yellowing teeth at him.
But in a flash of flesh, knuckles, and momentum, Hiki’s fist collided with the side of Axl’s face, right into a bruise left from his fight with Benjamin Frick. He fell to the ground, watching the punk dash around him and into the driver’s side of the car. The wheels screeched, and before he could get back up the jalopy was off, with Johnny asking excitedly, “Oh, where are we going?” Axl watched helplessly as the car roared off down the street, and around a corner.
“Johnny!” he screamed, bolting down the road at full speed, but he knew no matter how fast he ran he would never catch up to that car. Though it made him feel pathetic, he resorted to actually calling for help. “Hey! Someone! That dude just stole my car!” he shouted, his head darting from side looking for someone who had actually acknowledged him. Out of the four people on the sidewalks nearby, only one looked his way, and just as quickly went back to his business. This meant it was time to get specific.
“Hey! You!” Axl shouted, pointing his finger at an overweight man wearing a baseball cap across the street. “Call the cops! Some fucker just stole my car!”
“Fuck off,” the man snarled, and continued down the way.
“Yeah, well, fuck you, too! You prick!” Axl spat. It seemed hopeless. He had heard somewhere that if a person didn’t get their car back within the first forty-eight seconds of it being stolen that the chances of it being demolished in an accident went up by five-hundred percent. That meant that poor Johnny would be in much more danger than he realized. Any second now, Axl would hear tires screeching and then the sound of metal colliding with metal, followed by the agonized screams of his best friend. Johnny was practically dead. No more playing video games together, no more snack runs, no more shaping Johnny’s mohawk, no more fun. It was tragic. There was nothing left to do other than begin the long, lonely, and miserable trek back to the house to plan his funeral.
“Oh, Johnny, you were so young,” Axl moped as he began his sorrowful march. That was when his cell phone began to ring in his pockets. Johnny was alive! He was calling to say he was okay! Axl whipped the phone out as fast as he could and held it to his ear.
“Johnny?” Axl asked anxiously.
“Ah, Buttercup, how are you, my friend?” It was the man from yesterday. Axl’s heart sank.
“You,” he groaned. “I thought I had at least twenty-something minutes left.”
“Yes, well, er, I was getting rather excited to hear your decision,” the voice said bashfully. “So what about it, eh? Will you be my personal assassin?” There was such a genuine enthusiasm in his voice that rubbed Axl the wrong way.
“Look, now’s not a good time,” Axl said woefully, “my friend was just kidnapped and he could be dead, so I’d appreciate it if you’d stop calling. I’m not taking the offer.”
The man’s disappointment could clearly be heard in his stereotypically English voice. “Oh, blast, Buttercup, I was really hoping—“
There it was again. Buttercup. Why does everyone keep calling him that? “Wait, stop right there. Buttercup? Where the hell is this coming from, dude? Why does everyone keep calling me that!” He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, and some little kids ran by and snickered.
“Is that not what you wish to be called?” the voice inquired. “The story refers to you as Buttercup. Well, maybe I’m just getting it wrong. Lily, is it? Or is it, Pansy, or Petunia—“
“I’m none of those!” Axl roared. Then something struck him. “Hold up, a story? There’s a story about me?”
“Well, of course there is, my good sir!” The voice rang like a choir of bells. “I’ve never been too good with telling stories, but I do have a mighty good ear, and I picked up your story from a few of the local criminals in your area.” It must have been the only other survivor of the massacre at Big Boss’s hideout. He must not have seen any of the actually killing happen. Lucky bastard.
“It goes that there was a man, you, who was so deranged and mentally troubled that the littlest things would send him into fits of unbridled rage. This man worked for a man who was the head of all crime in the city, aptly named Big Boss. Big Boss would regularly antagonize the deranged man, and the deranged man’s rage would build up inside of him. Am I heading in the right direction?”
“Uh, continue,” Axl replied.
“Then one day, Big Boss pushed the deranged man’s, your, limits. Instead of politely asking him to move, Big Boss scowls at the man, and barks, ‘Outta my way, Buttercup! Or maybe it was Pansy after all—“
“Please,” huffed Axl, “just keep going.”
The man cleared his throat on the other end of the line, and continued. “Yes, er, ‘Outta my way, Buttercup!’ It was the last straw for the deranged man. He took Big Boss’ gun and blew him and his entire entourage to tiny bits in a bloody explosion of hatred and rage. They say that at that moment, his hatred became a force so thick in the air that it forced people out of consciousness. No one was spared except for a single man, and even then the bastard was only allowed to live to spread the story of the carnage. Legend goes that from that day forward, the deranged man, you, assumed the moniker Buttercup, as a challenge for anyone to dare address him as Big Boss did and an invitation to share his fate. Those who call his name die. In fact, if you stand in the toilet in complete darkness while staring at the mirror and say ‘Buttercup’ three times, he’ll jump out of the mirror and—“
“Yeah, yeah, that’s enough,” Axl snapped. That story was quite different from the actual event that took place that night. The story must have made its way around a few times before reaching the ears of the man on the phone…It was shocking that there was even a story at all, a story involving him and one that glorified him, no less. It was a serious rumor going around, one that could land him in a lot of trouble if it reached the wrong ears. But what was he supposed to do? He can’t just simply tell people to stop telling the story, because honestly, it was a really compelling story and he might have told it himself if he were not the center point. And the truth? No, the truth wasn’t an option, at this point. He had already earned a name for himself, albeit a name he didn’t choose, and he was so close to being at the top of the food chain. No—no, that’s just stupid. There shouldn’t even be a debate about what he should do. Just tell the truth to the man, he’ll hang up and go away. Forever. The end. But everything made sense now, why the Lion and Tinman were so intimidated by him, why Benjamin Frick attacked him, why he kept getting strange phone calls from an Englishman…It was all because he killed Big Boss—no, because everyone thought he killed Big Boss. All because of that pisspants grunt and his storytelling, Axl had been made the king. And without even knowing it.
“Yeah,” Axl said proudly, “that’s me alright. I’m the one that story is about.” Walking down the sidewalk, it seemed as if everyone now viewed him in a different light. He wasn’t just some punk junkie cruising the streets in their eyes anymore. He was a respected, feared, revered killer who would stop at nothing to get his way. They all saw this long ago, and just now had Axl been awakened to it.
“Oh, good,” the man chimed, “I was hoping I’d tell it faithfully. Anyhow, I’m awfully sorry about your dear friend, and I hope peace comes to your house soon. I regret that you were unable to help, but I thank you for considering it—“
“No!” He couldn’t hang up now! Not when everyone was expecting him to stand up to a challenge and show the world what he was worth! “I’ll do it! I’ll do the job, I’ll kill those people.”
“You will? Oh, excellent! Thank you so much, Mr. Buttercup, I really do appreciate your help,” the man on the other end cheered. He must have been really excited to have a killer like Buttercup on his side.
“Y-yeah, uh, no prob,” Axl replied. “But, uh, how much money are we talking about here?” No, no assassin would ask his client how much he wanted to pay. He would demand the amount. “’Cause i-it better be a lot! I-I’m talking, like, like, millions!”
“Of course!” It seemed the man was prepared. “Five million per target. Sound like a deal?”
“Five million per kill?!” That was more money than he’d know what to do with! “Holy fuck on ice, th-that’s perfect! That’s more than perfect!”
“Glad to hear it! You’ll be hearing from me shortly about your first target. I’ll call you. Take care, Buttercup.”
“What’s your name?”
“Well, certainly you can’t expect me to reveal my name—“
Axl coughed. “Pfft. Fuck no, I’m B-Buttercup, I know that sh-sh-shit. I meant like, uh, codenames, and stuff.”
“Yes. Well considering that I am working as a spokesman for a third party, I suppose you can call me the Associate. Fitting, yes?”
“Y-Yeah. Yeah, cool.”
“I’ll be in touch with you soon, Buttercup. Take care.”
And that was it. The voice was gone. Axl stood in front of the door to his house. No, his old house—his new house was waiting for him in the future, in his future as a millionaire assassin. He twirled and pirouetted across the threshold in a dance of joy and excitement, crashing onto the couch in relief. He was an assassin now. That was his job. No more drug runs, no more bullshit from lunatics living in the desert; he was living the high life now. Someone else would take care of his problems for him. Sure it might be a bit dangerous, there might be a few risks involved, but what’s the worst that could happen? Axl stopped. What was the worst that could happen? He could die some painful horrible death after being tortured slowly over a period of days for information. He could be set on fire and push into a room full of bees and tear gas, and there would be thumb tacks and mouse traps on every inch of the floor…but none of that mattered. He was almost rich now. Filthy fucking rich. Now to rest.
A familiar sound approached the outside of the house. A helicopter, maybe? Bright lights shot through the blinds, striping the walls (they must have been really bright if they were that strong, it was still broad daylight). They were already out to get him! They didn’t want to risk him thwarting their plans! Axl dove behind their new couch with B.B. ready to fire. He wasn’t going down without a fight.
The door opened slowly. A shadowy figure approached. Now was his chance. Axl dove from the side of the sofa shouting, “Die, you motherfuckers!”
“Whoa! Whoa, Ax! Chill out!” the figured screamed in fright. A familiar voice.
“Johnny?” Axl cried. Johnny waved back at him.
“Oh, God, where the fuck have you been?” Axl whined, dashing up to the tall lad and embracing him in a hug.
“With Hiki!” Johnny replied.
Outside, Hiki was leaning against some sort of muscle car, painted lime green and its engine raised out of the hood. He scratched his square jaw, and said, “Sorry, ‘bout that dude.” He walked toward the two of them and added with a slight grin, “Hope you weren’t too worried, were ya?”
This guy was fucking asking for it. No more bullshit. Axl ran up to the punk, picked him up by the front of his ugly jacket, and swung at him as hard as he could. But the only thing his fist made contact with was the space where Hiki’s head should have been. Hiki was actually a lot faster than Axl anticipated, and unfortunately Axl was just as slow as Hiki had anticipated. He had ducked that punched long before Axl knew he was going to throw it, and now his fist was planted firmly in Axl’s gut. Axl doubled over onto his hands and knees, but he had something that Hiki could never dodge—a bullet. He aimed B.B. at Hiki, his trigger finger itching.
“Stop!” Johnny yelled. The two of them immediately focused their attention on him. “It’s okay,” he said to Axl, “we only went for a quick race, and we won this car. It’s cool. It’s fine. Hiki can be pretty cool, man. Plus we never got to eat, dude. So let’s not fight, kay, Ax?”
That name…“Shh,” Axl said to the floor, “don’t call me that anymore.”
“Don’t call you what, Ax?” Johnny asked.
“That! That name! Don’t call me that. I’m a new person now.” He was a completely new person now. He was a completely new and completely rich person. “Call me Buttercup.”
It was silent.
“Hope you don’t mind me staying here,” Hiki added.