by High Pope of the Unpredictable
Gerard Bennett Reith
When I woke up the place was on fire. I didn’t know where the fuck I was. Smoke and flames everywhere.
I ran around screaming, trying to find a way out. The hallway was burning. My hair caught on fire. Somehow I made it to the cellar. I remember falling down some stairs.
An old drunk was lying in the corner.
“Help!” I shouted. “Help! Fire!” Even down here you could smell the smoke like when the wind blows around your campfire. Crackling sounds from upstairs nearly drowned out my voice.
“Huh? Wha?” the drunk mumbled.
“Look! I’m burned! Fire! We have to get out!” I yelled in his face, started shaking him.
“Let go!” He twisted around. “What fire? There isn’t any goddamn fire.” Orange firelight from the far wall lit up his face.
“Just listen! Look around! The ceiling! Gonna fall on us! Which way do we go?”
He just started at me. “Look sonny,” gruff, blearily.“There isn’t any fire. You’re acting like some kind of radical. Bug off. Lemme alone. We have a motto around here. ‘Radical is wrong.’” He looked at a bottle, made a face.
Drunk and stupid, I thought. The pain came back and I grabbed him. “Just tell me how to get out!”
His arm swung out and bashed me in the head. “Out! Talk sense if you’re going to talk! What do you mean, out? Just go away!”
He was bigger than me so I ran.
* * * *
I found another stairway and went up. Couldn’t breathe to run any more. Heat made me sweat. Too thirsty.
One of the doors opened. Another guy was standing there. “Hey!” he said. “Where are you going?”
“Don’t know! Help! On fire!”
“Clam down!” He was stern. “I know there’s a fire. You’re not burning. Just sit down.”
I sat. The floor was hot. “How do we get out?” I asked. At least somebody knew what was going on. Just then something crashed nearby.
“We don’t,” said the guy. “We wait here for the soldiers. They’re busy pouring gasoline. The worst thing we can do is panic. We have to stay put and stay calm. The authorities are taking care of everything.”
“But, but,” I was still breathless. “We’ll… get… burned up.”
“Maybe so. A risk we have to take. No reason to worry.”
More things crashing all around. It was like a movie. Then it hit me. “Gasoline? Why are they spreading gas!” I yelled.
“To out out the fire, you idiot! Why else would they do something like that! They ran out of propane!”
“But we’re trapped!” I stood up.
“Shut up!” He was feeling the stress. “You’re getting hysterical! I don’t know! Just keep quiet!”
I couldn’t stand it. I started to laugh, and cry. My hands hurt where they got burned. I hit him, then I ran off like crazy.
* * * *
I don’t know where I went. The fear got worse. I was alone. Once a door blew out right after I passed it. The blast knocked me over, burned my back. I was frantic.
Then I got to a hall with an indoor pool. I ran straight for it.
There were soldiers. “Stop,” they yelled. I kept going. They grabbed me. The lake was crystal clear, still as stone. I screamed and bit them and tried to get loose.
“No, no! AHHHH! Help! Help! Let me go!”
They wouldn’t. Everything popped. I gave up. Who cares? I started to cry. They dragged me to a small office.
Some kind of captain was there. He was on the phone. Papers all over.
“Well,” he said after a while. “How are things?” He didn’t look up from the paperwork.
“I hurt all over,” I said. “What about the fire?”
“Oh, that. You must have come from one of the primary infiltration areas. We’re safe here.” He chuckled.
“The water. Why aren’t you putting out the fire?”
He frowned. “They didn’t tell you much, did they. When the soldiers put water on the fire it burns hotter. Besides, we’re not supposed to put it out.”
I stared at him.
“We have to keep it going, don’t you see? That’s why we’re here. I coordinate the placement of the gunpowder and the hydrogen.”
I couldn’t resist. I was broken. “Did you start the fire?”
“Well, not exactly, no.” He paused to light a cigar. “The higher ups did. There was too much phlogiston.”
“The scientists over at the planning center found out about it. Sheer chance. It’s all too complex for a man like me. I’m just doing my job.” He started chuckling again. “Funny about the planning center. Computer printouts keep catching on fire. They’re having a devil of a time staying on top of the phlogiston calculations.”
“Why don’t they run then?”
“Why should they run? Fires aren’t dangerous. Studies show it. A million times we’ll see a fire that never even bothers us. The chances of one doing any actual harm are so low that it’s absurd. Everyone blows it out of proportion. Besides, they have to serve. We send them the money we find on the bodies. It’s not as if they worked for free or anything.” He frowned again.
I was tired of all this. “Could I go in the pool? Just for a while?”
“Oh, no. I couldn’t allow that. What good would it do?”
“But I’m burned!”
“But you’re just a single person, my boy. So what if you cooled off? That doesn’t matter. You might throw the phlogiston calculations way off if you splashed some of the water out. Individuals can’t be getting in the way of projects like this. Even if they wanted to they couldn’t.” This was deep for him.
“Can’t I go to the hospital or something?”
This made him laugh. “I’m sorry. Didn’t I tell you? We had to burn the hospital. During the airlift. All that phlogiston flowing around near the patients. It would have started something without warning. We’re burning the whole city. If we didn’t it might catch fire.”
I caught a gleam in his eye. “The whole city.”
“Yes, yes. I’m just one of the minor players in the grand scheme. Doing my part. Don’t you realize what a responsibility this is? It’s so hard to get everything burned up when the soldiers keep running off. We have so much trouble.”
Originally appeared in Inside Joke #7