By Nicholas L. Sweeney
Danny lit the fire so he could see the helicopter, one like the ones Dad kept on the mantelpiece, the ones Danny wasn’t allowed to touch. They looked like orange sharks swimming through the sky, their flat rudders motionless, puppets dangling from invisible strings.
He’d been 6 when he first saw one. Mr. Bifford had been trying to scorch his fields for next harvest. The wind had kicked up right after he’d lit the dry grounds, and the embers had carried away from their farm toward the hills. That was when they’d come.
Danny’d sat on the edge of the road, his ice cream—bubblegum flavored—streaming a blue line of sticky cream down his thumb. The fire latched onto the roof of Mr. Bifford’s house. Overhead, Danny heard a sound like a hundred horses galloping in unison. The craft had looked like a stray gout of orange flame rising into the sky. The white blades of its propeller carved a halo over its head. The ice cream slipped, forgotten, from Danny’s hand. The cone crunched beneath his sneaker.
A red bucket dangled beneath the Ka-32A11BC. Absurdly, he’d thought it might be one of those feathered box animals you beat until candy bled out, but as the bucket overturned, a spray of water descended on the flames, catching the light in a fleeting rainbow as it fell.
Danny had known then as he knew now that he had to see one again, and so he stood on the crest of a hill, downwind from the farm, watching his fire race across the fields. It reminded him of the times when he put his toys in the bath and turned on the water. The boulder and cannon and plastic boat would quiver as the water drifted underneath, almost invisible against the white porcelain tub. Then the toys would rise.
So now did the flames sneak across the fields, dashing beneath the golden grass, ghostly in the orange afternoon light. The wave of spectral hands made the grass wither and sent furls of smoke up to blacken the air.
It wouldn’t be long now. Black clouds stained the sky. Danny hoped it wouldn’t obscure the view. He clutched his father’s old camera to his chest, the kind that spat out square photos after you took the shot.
From the street, a car had stopped. A balding head poked out. Danny fingered his mother’s cell phone and wondered if he should call the firefighters again.
Briefly, Danny pulled his gaze from the horizon. The conflagration lashed across the fields and spread to the orchard. The barnyard fence crumpled beneath the flame. It took the pig pen first. Even over the distance, Danny could hear their squeals as the dry straw caught. Chickens fluttered out of the coop and dashed against the wire fence. Red and orange tongues lapped at the sides of the stables. Inside, Gracie whinnied. The doors strained.
Fire leaped up the side of the barn, and the roof groaned. Red planks of wood sagged and snapped. Gracie’s neigh came as a scream. The roof collapsed with a crash, and the barn doors snapped open.
Eyes lolling, Gracie burst from the stables, mane and tail wreathed in embers. She thundered from the barn and across the yard, a creature from Danny’s Big Book of Monsters and Myths made living: the nightmare.
Danny’s gaze turned to the sky. The blue smeared to grey, but no white halos beat back the smoke. His heart thrashed and clenched in his chest.
Father was working in the basement, so he must not have heard as the blaze clambered up the side of the house. Sparks flitted like orange butterflies. The inferno spread down to the road, and the balding head ducked back inside the car and slammed the gas.
The white paint of the house cracked and splintered.
The Ka-32A11BC should have come, but it hadn’t.
The curtains blazed inside, writhing in the heat as if in agony.
Any time now.
The mailbox stood like a torch at the end of the dirt road to their house. Danny clutched the camera in sweaty hands. Any second.
The whine of sirens cut through the crackling snaps of fire and wood. Men and women in thick yellow coats stepped down from red trucks. A long hose snaked out and sprayed.
“Wait!” Danny wanted to cry, but they didn’t.
Jets of water fanned out over the fields. The flames hissed and twisted, bending beneath the cascade of water.
The camera dangled loosely from its strap. The flames died to smoke and the helicopter never came.