“What’s that all about?” asked Winky.
“I don’t know. Just … you know. Ceremonial. This is like a cremation,” he explained.
By the time he’d gotten around to the other side of the boxed space, the acetone container was empty. “That’s all she wrote. If you guys want more firepower we’re going to have to use another one of those containers.” He tossed it towards a garbage can across the room making the shot. “Three points, all net. Swish.”
“I don’t think mixing chemicals is such a great idea,” said Derek.
“You read my mind,” I said, glad I wasn’t the only one scared of crap I knew nothing about. I really wished I had paid better attention in chemistry class back when there was such a thing.
“Okay, everyone out,” said Flick. “I’ve got matches and I’m not afraid to use ‘em.”
“Dude, you’re scaring me with the pyromania stuff,” said Gretchen.
Flick turned halfway to face her. “Never fear. Flick is here.” He winked at her and sparked the match under his face. It lit up his masked features, giving him a sinister air. He tossed the little flame into the space over his shoulder, I think planning on making a super-cool exit. But the fire had other ideas.
A big whoof of flames came out behind him, along with a rush of air. Flick came flying out towards us, smoke coming off the back of his suit.
All of us screamed or yelled, but none of us moved at first. I was so freaked out and confused I didn’t know what to do.
Bodo jumped into action, slamming the door shut.
“No!” yelled Derek. “Open it back up!”
“Why?!” I screamed, thinking he’d lost his mind and for some reason wanted to burn us all down.
“The fire needs oxygen! Open it!”
He was right, but I couldn’t agree. It seemed wrong. I just stood there, jerking my head around, trying to get feedback from everyone else.
“Get back!” Bodo yelled.
Once everyone was clear, he cracked the door open, staying well behind it.
Flames boomed out, throwing the door open all the way.
“Aahhhh!” Bodo flew through the air after getting whacked by the door, landing several feet away on his side.
The percussion and heat wave blew me back too, along with everyone standing next to me. We went down in a tangle of arms and legs, all of us screaming in muffled gasps in our masks.
“Backdraft!” yelled Derek. “It’s only temporary! Get up! Get your extinguishers!”
I looked up towards the entrance to the kitchen and saw Peter standing there, his face as white as a sheet.
“No, Peter!” I yelled, waving my arms like crazy. “Get out!”
He turned around and fled in the opposite direction.
I was so relieved he was out of danger I just laid back, waiting for everyone else to get off me before bothering to get up. I could see the flames licking out of the doorway but mostly staying inside, so I was no longer worried we were about to get roasted alive.
Once we were all on our feet again and sure we weren’t singed anywhere, we started laughing. It must have been some weird reaction to not dying or something. My rational mind told me I should be standing guard with my extinguisher, but all I could do was cross my legs and hope I didn’t have an accident in my hazmat suit.
“Whoa. I think I might have wet myself a little on that one,” said Jamal.
“There’s no think about it, brother,” said Ronald, reaching down to squeeze his man parts.
“That was awesome,” said Winky, her eyes alight with excitement. “Did you see that? Wall of flames. Busted our asses, totally.”
Flick was back on his feet, limping a little.
“You okay, Flick?”
“Yeah. Just landed funny on my knee. Wasn’t expecting that blow back at all.”
“It’s a backdraft, dope. Didn’t you see the movie?” asked Derek.
“I sure didn’t,” I said. “Next time if you’ve seen a relevant movie, tell us the important parts before we light the match, okay?”
Derek smiled. “Yeah, sure. No problem.”
“Did you hear dat?” asked Bodo, coming over to put his arm over my shoulders. I could hear the smile in his voice. “It’s not a problem.”
We waited for the fire to burn out. It took over an hour and ended up requiring several more containers of various chemicals to finish the job. Bones didn’t like to burn or stay burning, apparently. We finally decided that the only thing that really needed to burn was the goo and left a lot of the bones intact. Everything else could just get bagged up and buried.
Our brilliant idea to finish the job today went down the tube when we attempted to shovel the burned out remains into the plastic bags; the first batch we tried melted completely through. The ashes hadn’t yet cooled down enough to be handled or transported, even by cart.
“Well, that sucks,” I said, looking at the smoking mess. I nudged the melting bag away with my boot, shaking my leg a little when it acted like it wanted to stick to me.
“Yeah. I thought we were going to be completely done with this today,” said Gretchen. “How depressing is that? Two days of being undertakers instead of just one. I always thought that was such a weird profession, and today has done nothing to change my mind about it, I can tell you that.”
“We can go dig the disposal site,” said Ronald. “We’re not going to just lay these bodies out on top of the ground, right?”
“He’s right,” said Derek. “It’s not even lunch time yet. We need to get that done before we run out of energy. Maybe some of the others can help, too.”
All I wanted to do was throw my suit into the fire and never come back to this place again. Gretchen was right; this was depressing. Somebody would have to be the funeral director of our new world, but it sure wasn’t going to be me. At least, I hoped it wouldn’t be. I didn’t think I’d have the stomach for it. I’d come close to losing my guts about five times so far, and that was with the smell removed from the equation.
“Let’s go eat some lunch and then do the digging. I’m too tired to do it right now. I need calories big time.” I was light-headed, and even though my appetite wasn’t much right now, I knew I needed to do something to keep my energy up.
“Goodt idea,” said Bodo, rubbing his stomach. “I’m starvingk.” He pushed his mask up over his face. After taking a couple of experimental sniffs, he grimaced.
“What?” I asked, my hand hesitating at the edge of my mask. I’d been about to lift it up and give myself some much needed relief from my personal sauna. I was pretty sure at this point my armpit stink was bad enough to curl nose hairs.
“Chemicalss. Not goodt.” He pulled his mask back over his face.
I smiled at his hair. It was standing out all over the place, wherever it had escaped the elastic bands holding the mask on.
“Take it off in da hallway, not here.” He motioned for me to walk in front of him.
“Should someone stay and watch this?” asked Flick, motioning to the fridge. He was mesmerized or something, his gaze never leaving the interior.
“Just shut the door,” I said. “Fires need oxygen, right?”
“Ha, ha. Yeah, right.” Flick shut the door almost reluctantly and followed behind the others already on their way down the hallway. He looked back just as he was about the leave the room, staring at the fridge. “I really feel like we should watch this thing.”
“Just go,” I said, pushing on him gently. “If it catches on fire again, we’ll smell it and come with extinguishers.”
Flick finally gave up and left, jogging to catch up to Derek as he pulled his mask and gloves off.
I was the last to leave the room. Looking back at the space with its stainless steel tables, sinks, and equipment, I wondered if it could ever be used as a place to prepare meals again – or if I’d ever want to eat anything that came out of here.
I’d probably never lose the vision of all those bodies stacked up in there so carelessly. Life had to mean more than that to us in the future. I swore then that no matter what, I’d never let one of my family members die and be left to rot in a pile with strangers.
I walked down the hallway, pushing my hood back and pulling off my mask. I breathed in the smell of smoke and the last vestiges of death that still hung in the air.
PETER HAD READ OUR MINDS. A pretty decent lunch, all things considered, was waiting for us when we arrived.
Bodo was first in line for the food that was spread out on the table that used to be the reception desk. Winky went for the table with water on it, downing a small bottle in about three seconds.
I paused at the entrance to the main lobby, waiting for everyone else to come out of the hallway.
“Wow, Peter doesn’t waste any time, does he?” asked Derek, hanging back to walk with me out into the room.
“Boy’s got it goin’ on,” said Jamal, leaving with Gretchen to walk across the room towards Bianca. Ronald followed behind them.
“No, Peter doesn’t waste any time at all. Organization is his special talent.”
“We all have one of those, don’t we?” he asked, winking. “A special talent. I hear yours is kicking ass.”
I laughed. “I guess. What’s yours?”
He reached up and scratched at his sweat-matted hair. “Honestly, I have no idea. I can shoot a mean set of hoops, but that’s not going to help anyone anymore.”
“I’m sure we’ll figure it out. Maybe you’ll be a good cowboy.”
He frowned. “Cowboy? What’s that all about? We going to do a rodeo?”
“I hope to get some cattle over here somehow. We’ll see.”
“Huh. Interesting. I’ve never ridden a horse before, but I’m willing to try.” He moved away from me to join Bodo and the others from our cleanup team who’d stepped up to the buffet.
I walked over to be with Peter. He was standing in the corner of the room that had been set up as the clinic.
“Hello and … phew!” Peter waved his hand frantically in front of his face. “Wowzers. Pungent be thy name. First and last. Nice to meet you, Stinky McSmellypits.”
I lifted up an arm and took a whiff of my armpit. “Whoa, you’re right. Bad news … for you, I guess.” I quickly grabbed him in a hug, getting his face as close to my stench as possible.
“Gah! Gross! Get off!” He slapped at me like a little girl.
I released him and looked around. “Where’s Fohi?” I saw all kinds of guys and girls lying nearby but no Little Bee.
“He’s around the corner. We’re giving him some privacy right now.”
“Privacy? What for?” I didn’t like the sound of that at all. My heart sank.
“Come on.” Peter took me by the elbow to guide me, but immediately removed his hand when he realized the stink from above had dripped down. “Geez, you really, really need a shower.” He scrubbed his fingers off on his pants the entire way across the room.
“Hook me up, city manager guy. I’m all over it.” He wasn’t exaggerating; I was pretty ripe. Even I was bothered by it now that it had been fully released from the suit and I wasn’t wearing a gas mask anymore. Too much more of this and I’d have to hand lung protection out to anyone standing near me.
“Trust me, I will.”
We got past a divider wall to a small alcove that had a couple of dead potted plants in it. Fohi and Rob were lying on the ground on top of a couple Miccosukee blankets. Yokci was sitting up against the far wall, arms resting on bent knees. Fohi’s complexion did not look good.
Rob sat up as soon as he saw us. “Hey, guys. What’s up? How’d the cleanup go?”