Inferno

By Robert Serb

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Dave and I had fought about the dishes.  As patrol leader it was his job to make up the chore list, so he decided who prepared what meals and who cleaned up afterward.  Usually, he put himself and his buddy Mike down for “making breakfast”, which meant opening a box of cereal and a carton of milk.  He also favored himself for “lunch cleanup”, which meant throwing out some used napkins and closing up the bags of bread and lunchmeat, maybe putting the lid on a jar of peanut butter.  He had given me dinner cleanup, which involved washing a lot of dishes, including an extremely greasy frying pan.

So I’d griped, and Dave, sensing the justice in my complaint, had griped back.  As usual, things stopped just short of blows; everyone always griped, but a real fist-fight was rare.  Mr. H. gave us both his standard lecture about teamwork and scout spirit, after which I sullenly scrubbed the frying pan.  I was still sulking when we all gathered around the campfire as darkness fell. We were all tired from a long hike that day and stared at the flames as they devoured the logs.

“So who knows any good stories?” Mr. H. asked cheerfully.

“Hey, I know one!” Bill chirped and launched into a disjointed story about an old miser and his beautiful one-armed wife.  The miser bought his wife an arm of gold, and then she died, and he couldn’t bear to bury the arm, so took it from her coffin before the funeral.  For years afterwards she haunted him, and Bill offered appropriate sound effects, shrieking and moaning in what was supposed to be a terrifying fashion.  The scary story was greeted by guffaws and snide comments instead.

“Any of you heard the one about the lumberjack with the beaded moccasins?”  Mr. H. asked casually. No one had, so he began telling the tale, about an independent lumberjack who ended up drowning because he wouldn’t cooperate with the other loggers.  

While he talked I stared at our own burning logs.  There’s some magical mind-numbing power in a fire; it’s like highway hypnosis.  If you were mad, or tired, or excited, and sat before a campfire on a dark night for a while, you would calm down and become completely absorbed in nothing.  You’d just stare at the restless flames and watch the sticks slowly crumble into ash, listening to the faint hiss and occasional pop, noting the way the shadows flickered, not thinking of anything in particular, yet doing so with intensity.  I think it has something to do with the odd nature of the light; being children of a technical age we’re used to bright, unchanging electric lights. A campfire cast shadows that shook and danced even when the thing shadowed was sitting still and caught your attention the way waves and ripples on a lake sometimes do.  A lakes’ ripples were more spread out, though; a fire gave you something to center your attention on that moved, yet stayed in the same place. Fires in the daytime didn’t hold such a fascination, but at night you’d sit and stare at them as if there was nothing else in the world but you and the flames. 

Mr. H.’s story ended and we all sat looking at the fire for a few moments.  Then he began another one, about a fisherman and his son who fell overboard.  The fire worked its way through a log which fell inwards; one burning stick rolled out of the pit, and Dave hastily kicked it back before it could set the grass on fire.  He kicked too hard, and a shower of sparks fountained up, like the tail of a roman candle in reverse. Several of us had picked up sticks from the pile of downed wood gathered during the day and began to poke at the fire, rearranging the embers idly.  My gaze followed the sparks up, and I noticed the leaves on the trees surrounding our campsite. Sometimes the fire leaped up and the maple and oak leaves stood out clearly, then the fire died for a second and the leaves vanished into the dark sky. It was a peaceful scene, and my sullenness mellowed a bit.  

Eventually, Mr. H.’s story ended and Mike threw a couple more logs on.  This made the fire die a bit and took away some of the dancing shadows that captivated the mind.  

“Hey, throw some of that paper on,” Bill suggested.

“It’ll catch.” Mr. H. remonstrated gently.  But Bill was already rooting through the trash bag, pulling out soiled paper towels and some shopping bags that had been discarded.  He threw the entire stack on the fire, blanketing it.

“Nice going, dipwad!” Dave commented, voicing the general disapproval.

“You kiss your mother with that mouth?” Mr. H. scolded.  As scoutmaster, he never swore himself and was constantly trying to get us to clean up our language.  

Undaunted, Bill crouched down next to the firepit, puffing and blowing like the big bad wolf.  A moment later the edges of a shopping bag caught and threw brilliant light back over us. Several of the now-blazing papers began to float up, caught by the heat of their own combustion, and one scout jabbed his fire-poking stick into a paper towel that was burning and floating at head-height.  This brought the towel back to the ground, but also fragmented it, so several burning shreds of paper landed among, and on, the scouts sitting by the fire. A chorus of complaints rose.

“Easy!” Mr. H. said, and picking up two more logs he carefully placed them on the ground next to the fire, tilting them and dropping them gently onto the burning pile.  These kept the papers from wafting up and onto us. Several of us now used our sticks to hold down edges, further fragmenting the burning papers. Smaller sparks and embers rose into the air, illuminating the treetops again.  I watched as a few spiraled up, borne by their own destruction. In a few minutes, the fire died down again.  

“Almost time to hit the sack.” Mr. H. announced.  A few nondescript grunts greeted this; no one wanted to leave the fire yet.  

“I’m going to the john.” Brian, one of the youngest scouts, announced.  Then he waited, hoping that he wouldn’t have to walk through the dark alone.

“I’ll come, too,” Mike said, and the two rose and wandered towards the tents to get flashlights and toothbrushes.  I watched the fire lazily. A minute later I noticed a sudden increase in the light, one of the other logs must have caught.  But the fire didn’t look any different, the flames remained low. Still, it was suddenly much brighter in the camp, and I began to sleepily wonder why.  Perhaps someone had turned on a flashlight? Or the moon had come up? It was hard to think in that no-mind state induced by staring at the flames.

“JESUS CHRIST!” Mr. H. suddenly shouted.  He leaped from the circle around the fire, as I jerked around to see Brian standing in front of his tent, frozen in astonishment.  The blue and yellow nylon, a typical scout tent, was ablaze, flames leaping from the center of the roof. I rose in amazement and stood for a second, unsure what to do.  A chorus of excited cries came from the other scouts as they also rose and milled around indecisively.  

Brian had his hand on the tent’s zipper, fumbling to open it. “Get back!” Mr. H. yelled, charging through the camp.  The flames were rapidly moving across the roof of the tent and had reached the edge, right in front of Brian’s nose. Idiotically, he began to blow on them, perhaps thinking he could blow the fire out.  The flame flickered, then roared back, blazing several feet up and out from the tent. Brian stumbled away from the sudden heat just as Mr. H. reached him, grabbed him, and threw him bodily away from the inferno.

“MIKE!” Mr. H. shouted, beating at the front of the tent, which was now ablaze halfway up its sides.

“Right here!” Mike yelled from behind him.  Mr. H. swung around and tried to count noses.  The rest of us had now unfrozen and were running over to the tent.  Mr. H. saw that we were all safe and turned back towards the tent. Dave had been smart enough to snatch the bucket of water that was kept near the firepit to douse the flames when we went to bed and was lugging it towards Mr. H., who grabbed it and hurled its contents on the roof of the tent.  With a swoosh the water hit the roof and splattered everywhere; the flames died for an instant, then roared back.

“Get the other tents down!”  Mr. H. yelled at us and began trying to grab the poles that supported the blazing tent. The entire thing was engulfed now, and the heat forced him back. 

In approved scout fashion the tents had been set up at least 6 feet apart, and a bucket of water had been placed between every other tent.  Of course, the buckets had only been filled halfway, since that made them easier to carry from the pump, and they’d never really be needed anyway.  Dave, Mike and I ran around to the other four tents, hastily knocking down the poles that held them up, dropping them, occasionally running into other scouts who were clustering near the flames and yelling in excitement.  Dave then carried another bucket half filled with water over to Mr. H. About twenty seconds had passed, and the tent was now ablaze from top to bottom. The flames shot up at least five feet, illuminating the whole campsite, while a loud sizzling and bubbling noise could be plainly heard.

Mr. H. had torn off his windbreaker, wrapped it around his hands, and succeeded in grabbing one of the poles, jerking it down.  The tent now tilted crazily but remained standing, supported by two other poles. The flames were a typical orange-yellow, but an odd greenish color at the base, from some of the chemicals in the tent fabric.  Mr. H.’s windbreaker, itself made of nylon, stuck to the hot tent pole and he dropped it. Then he grabbed another pole I was still holding in my hands and hacked at the other side of the burning tent. A sheet of flame shot out and tried to burn him; he dropped to a crouch and swung repeatedly with his makeshift club.  The poles supporting the blazing tent suddenly collapsed, but the fabric remained upright, buoyed by the heat inside. The blazing tent was now a somewhat lopsided balloon of billowing fabric, held to the ground by the stakes at its corners.

Mr. H. grabbed the bucket from Dave, but paused, studying the fire and deciding how to proceed.  He carefully set the bucket down, grabbed the discarded aluminum pole and, using it as a spear, tried to poke holes into the balloon of fire.  The nylon resisted for a second, then abruptly caved in. A huge mouth appeared in the fire, showing the inside of the tent, and I could see the opposite side, covered with a swarm of tiny yellow-green flames.  The nylon edges of the hole flickered out, snapping and waving like tongues, and Mr. H. backpedaled to get away. The balloon of fire shivered as the fabric stirred this way and that. Mr. H. ran around to the rear of the tent and tossed the pole onto the top; weighed down, the balloon started to collapse.  Then the hot gases trapped in the tent roiled the top, and the pole rolled off the roof, which rebounded. More hisses and bubbling noises emerged, and as the burning fabric flapped hot droplets of wax and melted nylon were scattered around. Several of us got spattered and backed hastily away. Shouts were now echoing over the whole campground, and dozens of scouts and scoutmasters from other troops were running our way.  

“Grab some of the firewood!  And keep everyone back!” Mr. H. shouted.  Dave, frightened and exultant at the same time, bodily shoved several of the younger scouts away from the flames, drawing complaints for this rough treatment.  Mike grabbed several logs and carried them to Mr. H. at a run. He seized the first log and tossed it onto the tent roof; the heavier weight dropped the burning fabric to the ground, while flames and spitting wax shot out from the sides, and the tongues of flaming cloth licked out from the hole in the front.  Mr. H. tossed a second log onto the tent, then grabbed the water bucket. Mindful of the first bucket, which he’d used in one quick shot that hadn’t put out the fire, he cupped his hand, filled it with water, and dashed it at the flames. The result was a hiss and a puff of steam, and a small part of the fire disappeared.  He began to rapidly flick handfuls of water over the blaze. Whether from his efforts or because the nylon tent was largely burnt up, the fire quickly died, and sudden darkness fell as Mr. H. rapidly doused any remaining flames.

Less than a minute had passed, and the neighboring scouts now began to arrive, yelling and waving their flashlights.  Several of us approached the tent, but Mr. H. barked at us to keep back, stay together, and go keep an eye on the fire.  We retreated to the firepit but stood watching and chattering excitedly. Brian was now moaning that his flashlight and all his gear were lost in the fire.  Mr. H. and two scoutmasters from another troop examined the scene of the conflagration; the charred remains still hissing and steaming as the melted nylon ran together and hardened.  For the first time, I noticed the stench that hovered over everything, similar to burned plastic or styrofoam. Finally, Mr. H. came over to us, while the other scoutmasters began to shoo their scouts back to their own camps.

“Fill up the water buckets again.” Mr. H. instructed us tersely.  “And put that fire out.”

“My flashlight…my sleeping bag….” Brian complained.

“Don’t worry about it…and don’t go poking around that tent.  Leave it ‘til the morning. Who else was in that tent?”  

“Me,” Mike said.

“Well, you guys will have to crowd into another tent tonight, and we’ll dig up some spare blankets.  I want all the other tents moved to this side.” and Mr. H. indicated the opposite side of the firepit. “And go get the water, huh?  Am I talking to myself here?”  A bunch of us grabbed buckets and started for the well.  All of the buckets were filled to the top, this time.  

About Robert Serb

Robert Serb teaches English Composition and Writing at the Community College Level. He has previously published one short story, one academic paper, and a few poems. He lives outside Chicago with his wife, Diane, their three children, and a houseful of animals. You can visit him on the web at https://www.oakton.edu/user/2/rserb/

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