Fire and Ice


"On three now. 1—2—3!"

The bundled branches flew skyward, framing themselves briefly against the ocean blue sky before gravity slam-dunked them into the raging bonfire. Searching tendrils of flame embraced the sacrifice immediately, clutching greedily at the dry leaf and twig wrappings until their grip was strong enough to start work on the meatier bits.

The old man wiped one of the larger streams of sweat flowing out of his brow and sat down on the next bundle of wood destined for the flame.

"Eighty pounds down, fifty tons to go," he said.

Toni sighed heavily and picked up what looked to be a good poking branch and stabbed the fire. The tendrils hissed when they discovered water still inside her makeshift shiv and refused to grab on.

"This blows," she said. "When's Richie going to get his ass back here with the bobcat?"

"Soon as he gets done with his street race, I suppose."

"That's what he's doing with it? Is that even possible?"

"Young lady, you can street race anything at least once if you pump enough nitrous oxide into it." The old man returned to his feet and looked sourly at the daunting pile of tree debris that still needed burning. "Might as well wait for the boy; we'd kill ourselves doing this by hand. Do me a favor, though, and take care of this last bundle before you go on break. I'm going to go sit in the truck for awhile."

"Why don't we just take care of it when Richie gets here?"

"Because a man has to believe in something, and I believe there are still a few cold beers left in the cooler that I need to get to before you. Chop-chop now."

Toni withdrew her still unlit shiv out of the fire and waved its steaming tip at the old man in mock hostility as he left. She angled the pointed end down and jabbed it into the dirt. The end failed to dig in, and the shiv fell over immediately. Slightly annoyed, Toni tried again, and only succeeded in an instant replay. The shiv immediately found its way into the bonfire.

Suddenly, the flame flared as the tendrils felt their way into previously hidden fuel somewhere deep inside. Heat wrapped itself around Toni like a damp ash blanket, forcing her to turn away to keep her eyes from boiling out. She happened to look down, noticing the spot where she had been attempting to shiv Mother Earth. A glint of silver winked at her from beneath the tan dirt. Toni stooped over and grabbed at the glint, getting hold of something real and unearthing it.

It was a set of dogtags, dirty and corroded for the most part, and recently dented thanks to her. Despite that, the lettering was still legible.

"Warrant Officer Stanley Q. Puttfark," she read. A sharp pain in her backside kept her from reading anymore. She swatted behind her, expecting to feel the squish of bug guts. When she found feathers, she jumped forward and spun around.

Staring at her, looking very innocent if not entirely out of place, was a penguin. Though it wasn't that tall, the bon-fire backdrop made it look quite imposing. The red glint of its eyes reflecting the firelight made it look that the bird was powering up eye lasers.

"One of us is in the wrong place, I think," Toni said. "Since this is definitely Florida, I bet it's you."

The penguin seemed to take little notice of her, instead focusing on the dogtags.

"Oh, are these yours?" Toni held the chain open. The penguin edged forward, one apprehensive waddle following the other, until its head was in the chain. Toni set the dogtags down and stepped back. The penguin jiggled from side to side, listening intently to the cling-a-ling-ing of the tags. Apparently satisfied that they were in order, it went back to staring at Toni.

"I guess we've should get you to an animal shelter or something later. But where to keep you…" Toni smiled. "Ah, I know just the place."

The old man yawned and smacked his lips. That'd been a pretty damn good nap. A couple more of those and he'd be rested up enough for an excellent sleep. He yawned deeper and examined the empty longneck bottle in the drink holder. Boy was napping thirsty work.

He opened the door and went around to the tailgate. The cooler was already open, which meant Toni had been rifling through it. With the way she drank, he'd be lucky to find anything in there at all. The old man reached into the cooler and was surprised to grab onto a longneck. It felt like it was stuck in something though. Looking in, he saw the bottle in question was open and in the firm grasp of what appeared to be a very complacent penguin.

The old man let go of the bottle and blinked hard. He looked away, shook his head, then looked back. The penguin was still there, peeking at him over the top of the cooler. Its head disappeared and an empty bottle came flying out, landing at the old man's feet.

"Forget this. I'm going back to sleep."