FIRE SAFETY • by Matt Cowens

David Carmichael was on fire. All things considered, this was probably the low point of his day.

He froze for a moment as the flames danced above his arm, his brain rendered incapable of anything but the twin realisations of ‘this looks like something from an 80s action film’ and ‘holy shit I’m on fire’. The circle of colleagues from Barkers Stationery, seated on rickety community-centre chairs around him, was equally stunned.

The young, grotesquely handsome safety instructor performed an acrobatic leap backwards over his empty chair and stumbled into the wall.

A whole day of compulsory safety classes was bad enough. Having a kid running the courses who looked about twelve in his sneakers and tight-fitting t-shirt made David feel like a middle-aged, overweight gorilla. That the instructor had cajoled ‘good old Dave, mate’ into lighting a test fire with gasoline only to run off when it all went wrong was enough to make David’s blood boil. Or maybe it was the fire.

Fire. On fire. The sleeve of David’s jacket was well ablaze now, and it was either doing an admirable job of protecting him from the flames or it had provided so much fuel that every nerve in his arm had been instantly fried. The latter wasn’t a pleasant thought, but it did at least mean his brain was starting to process the situation.

Since nobody was rushing forward to help him, David decided to do his best to put himself out. He held his burning arm away from his body and tried unsuccessfully to undo the zipper of his jacket. As he staggered sideways, zipper slipping through his fingers, his colleagues backed away in horror. Clearly the first two hours of the fire-safety training session had been of little use to them.

Curtains. Heavy curtains to wrap around the arm and starve the flames.

David lurched towards the windows, silently cursing the clouds outside that had threatened rain all day but were now refusing to shed a drop. The curtains were musty and not as heavy as he’d thought. He grabbed a handful and slammed his burning arm into them, pulling down and trying to wrap the bottom of the curtain up over his arm as best he could. He heard the strangely distant sound of breaking glass and turned away from the window.

David threw himself to the ground. The curtain tore off its runner and flopped down over his arm. As he rolled and struggled to wrap the material around his burning arm, he saw the practice fire that he’d been asked to start burning serenely in its steel bin in the centre of the chairs. Apparently he’d succeeded in his assigned task, albeit with unforeseen side-effects. Still, at least it wouldn’t be recorded as a total failure on his performance review, would it? His colleagues had finally sprung into action, flapping about and knocking chairs and each other over in a valiant attempt to put as much distance as possible between themselves and David.

A moment of panic shot through him as he felt heat lashing the side of his face, before he realised that it was carpet burn rather than fire. He coughed and twisted, lifting his head. The curtain material whipped up into the air and around his arm, one corner hitting him in the eye. He fell back, breath whistling through his teeth at the sting.

Pressing his hand to his face, he smiled in spite of the pain. His right hand was warm, and was wrapped in a singed and filthy curtain, but it was no longer on fire. It had worked. With no help from the fire safety instructor or anyone else he had successfully put himself out, and a sore eye and some carpet burn were the only injuries he seemed to have sustained.

He sighed and looked up into the hysterical eyes of the fire safety instructor whose knuckles were white on the handle of a fire axe.

“It’s okay,” David said, waving his cocooned arm in the air. “It’s out.”

The instructor’s eyes narrowed and he hefted the axe up onto his shoulder. “You sure?” he asked, twisting one foot slightly like a batter at the pitch. He stared down at the small curls of smoke rising from David’s arm.

“Positive. I am not on fire.”

The instructor let go of the axe with one hand and wiped his nose. He looked a little dejected, and David wondered if he should offer to light himself up again.

“You gonna pick up the broken glass from the fire axe box?” the instructor asked sulkily.

David hauled himself to his feet, tugging the curtain off his arm. He looked around the smoky room at his colleagues, at the fire extinguisher that was untouched beside the instructor’s chair, then back at the axe-wielding upstart.

“I couldn’t possibly do that, son,” he replied, adjusting the leather belt beneath his ample belly. He walked stiffly back to his seat. “Glass and sharps safety class isn’t until this afternoon.”

Matt Cowens is a writer and high school English and Media Studies teacher living on the Kapiti Coast of New Zealand. He has taught English in Japan, designed and produced card games, written and illustrated comics and is an enthusiastic amateur video maker.

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