Bill, the assistant scoutmaster, opened the flap of his old-fashioned canvas tent and stared out at the five young boys who were toasting marshmallows, talking, and laughing. He sighed. They had to be told what to do even when it was obvious. He shook his head, trying to think back to when he had been in the fifth grade. Had he been this irresponsible — so lacking in common sense? He supposed he had, but it hadn’t seemed that way at the time.
The boys joked among themselves, and that he could relate to. He recalled getting together around dusk each summer evening between fifth and sixth grade and exchanging the most ridiculous “dirty jokes” with a few of the neighbor boys. These boys from his troop told the jokes quietly so that Bill could not overhear. He didn’t really need to hear. He assumed they were the same sort that he had listened to — and told — so long ago.
Bill walked around behind the tent and off into the woods a few yards to take a ‘whiz’. Where had that word come from, he wondered. Once beyond the glow of the firelight, he could see the myriad stars sparkling above. Even though he had planned on going to the big game this weekend, he had volunteered, at Mary’s urging, to fill in when the scoutmaster had fallen ill at the last minute. At least, that’s what the scoutmaster had said. Privately, Bill had his doubts. Maybe the scoutmaster himself had scored tickets to the Ohio State game. The Rose Bowl berth was on the line. Damn. Yet, much as he had been looking forward to the game, being out in the woods was awesome too. It had been so long, he had forgotten how magical it was out here. The smell of pines. The burning wood. The licking flames. The warm summer evening wind.
He came back around the tent and said aloud, “What the f*** !?”
He generally managed to keep from uttering foul language in front of the boys. When a word did slip out, he apologized under his breath. This time he hadn’t even noticed. The grass near the campfire was burning.
He shouted, “HEY! Can’t you see the grass is burning! You want to start a forest fire?! Put that out! Now!”
The boys fell silent and began to look around. Ron stared at Bill. “Don says it’s no big deal. It’ll burn itself out.”
“What?! What are you talking about? The fire — put it OUT!”
Tate laughed. “What’s the big deal? We’re having fun toasting marshmallows. Don says it’ll burn out.”
Don himself laughed. “Geez, old man, take it easy. It’s just a campfire.”
Bill shouted, “Get your canteens! Stomp on the flames!”
Ron laughed. “We’re not getting our shoes burned, fool.”
Don said, “Hey, canteens? I’m not thirsty, are you guys?”
Just then, a gust of wind blew the flames in a new direction and all the grass around the tents began to burn. Suddenly, one of the tents caught fire as did a small scrub oak.
Bill glanced around wildly. He realized the fire had already strengthened beyond what the five of them could deal with. He raced back to his tent and found his cell phone. 9-1-1 he punched. Nothing. He fumbled for his glasses and found them in his jacket; pulled them on; glanced down at his phone. No reception.
“Come on, kids. We have to get to the car.”
Tate drawled, “I don’t feel like it.”
Ron nodded vigorously, “No, me either. How about you Don?”
Don laughed. “It’ll burn itself out. Geez. Grown ups are so stupid.”
Bill ground his teeth. He put on his leather jacket for protection and strode over to the campfire which was still burning nicely within the circle of rocks. He grabbed the two boys who had been silent, tightly grabbing onto their upper arm. He hauled them up as one and began dragging them toward the station wagon. He had become so angry and so terrified that he could barely speak coherently. He turned back one more time to the remaining three boys who stared at him defiantly. “GET. IN. THE CAR. NOW!!”
“You go, old man. Coward. It’s just a few flames,” laughed Don.
He pulled on the door handle. Locked?! WTF did I lock it for, he screamed inside his head. Habit. He fumbled for the keys and clicked the doors open. He practically threw the two small boys into the back seat. “Stay here!”
He strode back to the other three who were now sauntering toward the car, laughing and pointing to the flames. Bill only caught a word here and there:
Between gritted teeth he hissed, “GET IN!”
The boys jostled for position, shouting, “Shotgun! Shotgun!”
Bill moved back around to the driver’s side, barely able to control his rage. He took one last look back toward the campfire. He tried to think whether there was anything crucial left in the tent.
Perhaps that’s why he didn’t see the tree toppling toward him.
None of the boys had ever actually driven a car. But Don had at least was quite familiar with a golf cart. He slide across into the driver’s seat. As the flames began to engulf the car, he managed to open the door by shoving hard with both legs; hard enough to dislodge the limp scoutmaster. He closed the door again and turned the key. The engine sputtered. It didn’t sound right. He tried again. At last, the engine caught and roared to life. The car lurched backwards and the engine died.
“Did you click the clutch? There must be a button! LOOK!” Ron was becoming panicked.
Tate said, “No, no. It’s a pedal not a button. Push in the clutch pedal.”
The last words were drowned out by the crash of another tree onto the top of the car. The roof partially collapsed onto Don’s skull. It cut him but did not knock him out. He saw a pedal on the floor. It was too much of a reach for him.
As chance would have it, Bill’s cell phone landed smack into the middle of the campfire which still burned amidst the chaos of the forest fire. When the car had exploded, the pieces had flown in every direction…as had the boy parts and the scoutmaster parts.
Somewhere, far overhead, a satellite streaked among the stars. Just as the phone began to melt, Mary’s voice, groggy from her nightcap drawled, “Bill is that you? Hello? Did you butt dial me again? Hello?”
There was no-one left to answer the now melted cell phone.
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