Bubbles on Fire
Having locked himself into the utility closet of the research and development area, the man in the blue coveralls would not come out, nor explain why he went in.
“Maybe,” the lead engineer turned and said to the man to his right, Frank Patterson, who was the company’s plant manager, “he’s just in there to take a breather.”
A woman in a lab coat nodded. “He did look kind of jumpy when he was handing over those few sheets of calculations he drew up for us. Maybe he’s got anxiety, being in a high-tech environment like this and all. I mean, he’s only a carpet cleaner.”
“Like hell he’s a carpet cleaner,” Patterson snarled, “and like hell he’s trying to help us out with that crap he keeps writing.” Patterson narrowed his eyes in the direction of the closet. “Probably in there texting his bosses over at Cyteck asking how he can further mess with our biz. For pete’s sake, how do we know this guy is not a terrorist! I don’t trust this racket here for a second!” Patterson nudged the tall man standing at the fore of the crowd of dress shirts and lab coats who was in the middle of wiping the smudges of perspiration off of his glasses. “Hold the fort for us, Timmy,” Patterson said. “We’ll talk when I get back. Got a conference call that I’m already five minutes late for because of this bullwhack.”
Tim Sutton nodded. He watched as the plant manager trotted off in the direction of the executive wing. Taking steps away from his colleagues, Tim muttered under his breath so that no one could hear, “Too frumpy looking and wide-eyed to be an imposter. Unless, he’s an imposter of a different sort. Maybe that guy in there is one of us.”
Tim squinted at the clock on the wall.
“In a closet. For five minutes. All the time that one of us might ever need, really.” But then Tim shook himself of the consideration. He knew nothing about the man in the blue coveralls other than the suspicious fact that this man, who had been hired by the company to clean their carpets, was wholly uneducated in the sciences all the while he was about to, maybe, discover for them a cure to the disease known as AIDS.
“I mean, who’s to say this cleaner guy didn’t just lie to us about his ‘I don’t know nothin’ about any of this stuff, guys.’ Or if he is one of us, if he really is a Fire Watcher, that he even knows that he is.” Tim wiped his palms on his pantleg to get some of the sweat off. “Those fifth graders back at Fairlawn Elementary were a whole lot easier on my nerves,” he crooked a smile, disregarding the sideward glances by two or three of the for-hire geneticists.
No fifth graders anymore, because Tim Sutton was now an internationally-renowned scientist, who, by twists of fate unparalleled in the annals of modern synchronistic experience, was now also project manager of the operation at hand. Though, for all his good luck, good looks, worldwide reputation, feature interview in Scientific American magazine, still he and his team of geniuses were not above the occasional brick wall. The worktable in front of them—‘the Motherboard’ he and his associates called it—boasted data sheets that didn’t compute, flow charts that didn’t line up, graphs that were colorful but inconclusive. This was a puzzle that had yet to be solved. Until now.
Tim wiped his palms on his pants again.
Or maybe not.
Rejoining his colleagues, many of them ranking amongst the nation’s brightest in their respective fields, Tim set his sights on the utility closet.
“Lori’s twin brother,” one of the chemical engineers said, interrupting the silence with a nod at the closet. “Can’t you tell, with that round face and finely-combed helmet of blond hair?”
The engineer continued, “Heard he quit his cushy job as an insurance agent to start a carpet-cleaning business. Rumor has it that’s why Lori, well, disowned him, I guess you could call it. Says that she never wants to see or talk to him again!”
“Disowned?” a biotechnologist exclaimed. “Can a person disown their own sibling? Is that even possible?”
“And not just any sibling…” The engineer redirected his gaze from the closet door. “A twin sibling. And twins…are closer than close, right? Maybe that’s why Lori went overboard, as whatever twin brother does affects her at some deeper level.” Quieter, the engineer said, “Anyway, I hear there’s more to it than just the career change. Other stuff been going on, too. Besides, you know how Lori can get.”
Tim smiled. So, Lori’s twin brother. Yes, Tim had heard a thing or two about him.
“Oh my god, what’s that!” one of lab techs exclaimed.
Fingers pointed in the direction of the janitor’s closet—at the soft, hazy, orange patch of luminescence from underneath the closet door.
“Fire,” one of the associate lab heads exclaimed. “It’s fire! See, it’s flickering?”
“Someone go get an extinguisher!” a chemist hollered. “Oh my god, break the door down, he might be in trouble!”
Tim stepped forward, raised his voice, “It’s fire under there, all right. But not to worry, everyone. No need to panic. Our little friend will be out momentarily and as right as rain, and with a solution all ready for us.”
The Research and Development area quieted. Wide eyes stared at Tim.
Tim spoke into the silence, “AIDS is a major world problem.” The words echoed all the way to the telephone and clean rooms, there to be heard by the lab techs and business reps who were poking their heads out in curiosity. “Individuals, like this one we got here, arrive on the scene to help solve world problems, both large and small. Oh, like the problems of, say, cancer, climate change, nationalism, globalism, materialism, lack of teleportation modules, civil rights abuses, bad-to-mediocre pop music, no Joe DiMaggio, the list goes on and on. Problems a plenty, fires a few, as the saying goes.” Tim sniggered. “But, first things first. AIDS. We need a cure. And so here comes help in the form of a man with a fire. Helping out’s his MO. And help out, he will. So, no need to worry.”
The door to the janitor’s closet whooshed open.
“I got it! I got it!” the man in the blue coveralls burst out of the closet waving a handful of papers. Rushing headlong toward the converging masses, he exclaimed, “It’s cesium chloride!”
“Cesium chloride?” voices rebutted, surprised.
“That’s what I said—quick, write it down before I forget!”
The handful of papers were sprawled out on the Motherboard, ravenous eyes there to behold the magnum opus of five minutes spent in a utility closet, to behold what would have otherwise taken Tim Sutton and his world-renowned crew upwards of years, decades, even, to figure out on their collective own.
“Get ethyl-pentane into that flow chart! And keep the pressure constant—no, no, that won’t work—right after the condenser sequence, mark it up to 70.3 PSI!”
They marked it up all right. With the man in the blue coveralls orchestrating, scientist and engineer scurried, converged, alighted, compared notes. “Sure enough, the dots connect,” a biochemist took the liberty of announcing, his widening eyes glued to the handwritten pages.
“Rearrange the evaporator with the distiller, and make it steady flow!” the man in the blue coveralls barked at the engineers. They dispersed, some to make calculations at the Motherboard, others to rush off to their computers. And to the chemists: “Use cesium chloride as the reagent. Cesium chloride!”
“Cesium chloride!” the chemists echoed excitedly, flipping through manuals and scanning over graphs and running back and forth.
The voice of Tim Sutton sounded out through the mayhem: “Copies… let’s make some copies of those computations, shall we, people? Before they’re torn to shreds and our little helper here has to venture back into his closet to write them all over again?” Tim let out a deep breath. “If cesium chloride is indeed the missing link,” he said to some blond-haired, lab-coated someone to his left, who was so occupied with the frenetic punching of keys on her laptop to even notice, “then I’ll be damned if we’re not changing the very course of history right now!”
The orders were obeyed. The papers, like the crown jewels, were ushered reverently down to the copier. All the while Lori’s twin brother, the man in the blue coveralls, the man who had been hired to clean their carpets, exhaled long and hard. He wiped his brow.
Tim approached him. “Rob, is it?”
Rob pointed to the name-patch sewn onto the front of his coveralls. “That’s me.”
“Name’s Tim Sutton. I’m in charge here. Won’t you join me for a moment, Rob, in my office? While my associates rummage through your, er, findings?”
* * *
Tim Sutton’s office was not very far, just down the hall.
They entered, whereupon the first thing that Tim did was to direct his visitor’s attention to his computer monitor. “That, Rob, if you’re wondering, and which I’m sure you are, is where my fire is at…” But Rob had his sights instead on all of the anomalies: a portrait of Einstein framed up on the far wall; beakers and flasks of every configuration and size set atop endless rows of shelves; an immense bookcase packed with scientific volumes; and, reposing on a windowsill with legs dangling over the ledge—a stuffed doll, Spongebob, which in this hotbed of science and technology looked almost as anomalous as it was well worn.
“And over here…” Tim repeated for what was now the third time, “we have my computer monitor.” Finally, Rob looked over at it. “And displayed on that computer monitor we have…” Tim swiveled the monitor around for his visitor to see “…a screensaver.” A gleam which bespoke anticipation shone in Tim’s eye. “A Colorado Rocky Mountains screensaver that flares up, bursts into flame, at those very special moments when…”
Confused by this reference to the project manager’s screensaver, Rob wondered if all of the excitement had maybe gotten to the project manager’s head, as sure enough it had gotten to his own! Rob glanced over at the leather chair opposite Tim’s desk.
Tim followed Rob’s gaze. “Have a seat,” Tim offered.
His visitor sat down.
“So—” Tim said.
“Uh-um.” Rob wiggled around in his chair.
“You were saying, this…effect, this visionary intelligence you’ve got going on right now, is short-lived, will wear off? And that’s why you’re having us rush around like…supercharged electrons?”
Rob peeked at his wristwatch. “Correct,” he said. “Kinda hard to explain, but, yes, two or three more minutes, tops. So, you’d better ask whatever questions you have now, as after that I can’t promise anything as my carriage will have since turned back into a pumpkin.”
“A pumpkin.” Tim pondered. “I see.” He leaned forward in his chair. “Rob…may I call you Rob?”
“Call me anything you want, okay? I’m here to help and then I split. No speeches, no awards, no follow-up phone calls, got it?”
Tim eased a smile. He answered, coolly, “Fair enough. Upon the same token though, you’d be a rather difficult fish to just toss back into the sea. Not only have you assisted the chemists and biologists with your postulatory findings, but you’ve put us light-years ahead of the game by then calling over those engineer and biotechnologist contractors we have and actually designing the production process. And yet, you say you’ve no formal education in the sciences?” The project manager looked over. “Tell me, Rob, how long have you been a…”
“A carpet professional, yes.”
“About three months. Not counting the training. You know, learning how to add the cleaning solution, wheel about the Steam-o-Matic Super II Series, types of rugs to avoid and all.” Rob darted his eyes around in search of a cigarette, a cup of water, a stick of gum, anything to displace the words that he feared might come out. “’Course I used to be an insurance agent for one of those big downtown insurance companies. But, well, you see, I’ve since found bubbles.” Rob cleared his throat. “Actually, it’s the bubbles that found me!”
Rob sighed, assured now that this Sutton guy, a scientist, no less, would, just like his sister and so many others, view him as crazy and discount his “postulatory findings”—or whatever it was that he had called them—entirely.
“Bubbles…” Tim murmured, “…found him. Interesting, perhaps.” Tim raised his voice, “An insurance agent? For one of those big downtown firms? And now, as fate would have it, a carpet cleaner guy? Pardon my asking, Rob, and listen, I’m sure as heck not your guidance counselor, but mightn’t you have found it a bit more fulfilling if you were to…what, what’s wrong?”
“It’s gone. The carriage is gone. It’s left me. I-I don’t think I can be of help anymore.” Rob arose. “Welp, best be getting back to those online-dating site girls that never respond to my messages, to watching Game of Throne reruns, while I wait for my next call for work. Excuse me.” Rob walked--
To the door.
And reaching for the doorknob, watched as it turned all by itself.
A bald man with thick, hairy arms, squarish chin, reddened eyes, baldish head, and a not-so-happy look upon a face that appeared to Rob to have been specially molded as to feature such a look—bulldogged his way into Tim’s office. Rob sat back down.
The man looked from Tim to Rob then back at Tim. “All right, Timmy,” he said. “I’ve heard. And listen here, so long as my name is Frank Patterson this cesium chloride nonsense just ain’t gonna fly.” Patterson eyed Rob. “Who the hell is this!”
“Ah, Plant Manager Patterson. Always a pleasure.” The project manager indeed seemed pleased. “Frank, allow me to introduce a special someone to you. This gentleman here to my left is Rob. Our new little helper. The man in the closet who you maybe didn’t get a chance to see in person because you were over at research for only like a minute.”
Patterson bypassed the usual courtesy of a handshake, a nod, even a look over. “Bottom line, Timmy, the research area’s a mad house right now, everyone’s going berserk! Will someone please explain what in the high hell has been going on out there?”
“I’ll explain, sir.” Rob attempted a smile. Patterson frowned. “See, sir, it all began when…”
Rob was about to give his usual spiel about lucky guesses, and how terribly sorry he was for having intruded upon their affairs, when he noticed the plant manager’s face began to take on a crimson color, suggesting that maybe this was one of those times when carpet-cleaning guys and the like should just bypass explanation and zip it. Rob stopped talking.
Patterson broke the ominous silence. “Rumor has it, Timmy, that Lori, accountant Lori, was this cleaner guy’s cousin, or ex, or something. She’ll be joining us momentarily.”
The office door opened behind them.
But it wasn’t Lori. Rather, it was a chemist and an engineer, who, rushing in headlong, began to reel off questions so rapid-fire that even Tim appeared unable to distinguish between the tetrafluorides and the hydroxyl-oxylides.
“Oh, Mr. Patterson!” the engineer exclaimed, noticing the plant manager for the first time.
Patterson motioned for the engineer to continue. “Pretend as if I’m not even here.” The chemist and engineer looked at one another. “Go on, ask the stoolie your question!”
The chemist, technically a biotechnologist, stepped forward. “Tell us,” he muttered, “the catalyst for the fourth stage reaction…you left it blank. Surely there is a catalyst for that reaction…”
Rob bit his lip. “Yes, er, surely,” he said. Rob all of a sudden had no idea what a “catalyst” was, nor how to respond to the question posed. He stole a glance over at the periodicals and volumes stacked in piles atop Tim’s desk, there to spot a word that appeared chemistry-sounding enough. “Lawrencium?” he heard the word escape his lips. His eyes widened. “That—might not be right though.”
“It may be wrong, is what he’s saying,” Patterson clarified.
The chemist batted his eyes. “L-L-Lawrencium?” the word fumbled out of his mouth.
“Lawrencium,” the engineer noted from his spot over by the door, “is radioactive.”
“And very expensive, and very hard to come by,” Patterson said with piercing black eyes framed into an expressionless face.
Everyone could hear the steps out in the hallway. A young woman entered Tim’s office, announcing, “Okay, I’m here.”
Everyone noticed the young woman’s eyes spring open the moment they lighted upon the man in the blue coveralls, whom, with the exception of gender, was the very carbon copy of herself. They saw the young woman’s eyes narrow. They heard her curse under her breath.
Patterson addressed chemist and engineer, “All right, you two—scram! Upper management’s got a bone to pick with certain at-risk individuals. Also…” the plant manager added, freezing the chemist’s hand onto the doorknob, “tell ‘em to hold the works out there until I find out what in blazes is goin’ on in here!”
Tim offered the remark that Frank’s “blazes” mention, was, under the circumstances, rather appropriate. Patterson replied that Tim “was acting weird today too.” Everyone waited as engineer and chemist cleared out of Tim’s office. Patterson called out after them, “And don’t you even think about throwing any Lawrencium into that mix!”
Tim Sutton swiveled in his chair. Amusedly, he said, “Pretty sure we don’t have any of that in stock, Frank. It being radioactive and all.”
“Damned right we don’t!” Patterson exclaimed, eyeing Rob.
Patterson’s face went from cougar to kitten in an instant, his features softening. Looking over at the newcomer, he purred in a patronizing tenor, “Well, Lori, and how is finance treating you these days?”
Locking gazes with the man in the blue coveralls, Lori answered after a moment’s pause, “Well, Frank, there are good days, and then there are not so good days…” Lori took a deep breath. “Then, there are those days when one can’t rightly tell good or not-so-good because of how incredibly complicated certain individuals make life out to be.”
It was like he was looking into a mirror when she turned to him. “Well,” Lori said, folding her arms, “and so here we have it: Mr. Clean pays a visit to Lori’s workplace. What’s the deal, now, Rob? Is it maybe that the magic mystery bubbles are none too pleased ‘bout how Lori had landed some hard truth on the chin of their Bubble Master Rob, and now they’re here to float Lori away, or something, as retribution? Or has the Steam-o-Matic maybe come to relay the message to our dear plant manager here that if he converts to Bubbles Believin’, the bubbles will pull some celestial strings and see to it that his Broncos win the Super Bowl next season?”
Patterson stirred. “What’s this about my Broncos?”
Speaking as if to a child, Lori said, “How is it, Rob, you even got in here? No joke, this is a highly restricted area. They call it the re-search and devel-op-ment department. No cleaning guys allowed in, ‘kay?” Lori licked her lips. “Was it to speak to me that you snuck in here? Havin’ some second thoughts, maybe, ‘bout some of those common sense suggestions I offered you?” She stiffened. “Well, you got my phone number. Call, next time, instead of coming over here and creating all of this fuss.”
Deep in thought, Patterson eyed the twins. His gaze appeared to hone in on the identical shape of their noses. “Very interesting,” he said, folding his hands. “So, the dissociation approach, then. That’s your little scheme, eh? Distance yourself from him. Make me think that you despise him. Yes, you’re a very clever girl!”
With a pinched look, Lori responded, “This here’s…Rob Denkins … my much-to-be-pitied twin brother with whom I’ve had some disagreements of late. Little scheme? I don’t know what you’re talking about, Frank.”
Patterson smirked. “Rob Denkins,” he said, his eyes theatrical, borderline hysterical. “The carpet cleaner guy who came out of nowhere and out of the kindness of his heart offered to help us solve the biggest project that this company has ever taken on. No relevant work history. Evidently no education. A total stranger, and yet who insisted that we follow his every directive, which included throwing Lawrencium, a radioactive metal, into the chemical equations that drive the processes to the biggest project this company has ever taken on!” Patterson shuddered with rage. “No wait, phooey to that total stranger bit. This Rob guy, come to find out, is Lori from Accounting’s twin brother. And so why not trust him implicitly!”
Tim cleared his throat. “With all due respect, Frank, shouldn’t you be thankful that he’s come up with a solution to—”
“Solution!” the plant manager roared. “Who the hell comes up with a solution to the AIDS epidemic in five minutes!”
“Only special someones can do things like that,” Lori muttered, cutting a glance over at Tim.
Patterson turned to Rob, smirking. “You’d like to blow us all up, wouldn’t you, twin brother?”
Tim removed his glasses. “Mr. Patterson … Frank … now, you don’t honestly believe—”
“Now, now, Timmy. Let’s not be naïve. We have those competitors over in Salt Lake, yes? White-coat witch doctors over at Cyteck Industries who’d like nothing better than to throw a wrench, a stink-bomb, an undercover chemist posing as janitor—or twin brother, or carpet cleaner dude—into our racket the first chance they can get!”
Tim rolled his eyes. “Sir, have you been drinking again?” he said.
Patterson flinched. “What! ‘Course I ain’t been drinkin’. What the hell kind of question is that!” He took a step forward. “Just you watch yourself, Mr. Timmy. For asking questions like that don’t you know that I could have your ass fired?”
Tim said, musing, “Fired. On Fire. All fired up. We didn’t start the fire.” He turned to Rob. “What do you think the etymology of that word might be, Rob? Fired.”
“Rob is unexpected,” Lori said, “and something different. No question about that. But he’s just a silly goose sometimes, not a chemist or undercover anything. And there’s no secret plot between him, me, and whomever else, Mr. Patterson.”
Rob wanted to thank Lori for words well spoken. Instead he decided to come clean. “The only secret that I have, sir, involves, well, bubbles, and helping people solve problems with the help of, you know…the bubbles!”
Slapping palm up against forehead, Lori shook her head.
Rob stammered, “And … and Lori here—” he cut a glance her way “—works in finance. What does she know about chemistry stuff or about this project?”
“For the record, I’d like to second that emotion,” Tim chimed in, siding a glance over at the plant manager. “About Lori, I mean. There’s really no way she could be an informant for Cyteck, or whomever else. Our offerings out there on the Motherboard have been, up until today, on the level of just brainstorming. Also, the security clearance we’ve got in place for Project SP1000 is highest level. She wouldn’t know much about what we’ve got going on in there.”
“There are ways to find things out,” Patterson said flatly.
Tim continued, “Keep in mind, too, Frank, that it was I who had requested the backup cleaner. And so, that this young man here should turn out to be Lori’s twin brother is, um, well—” Tim exchanged glances with Lori “—on the level of pure coincidence, I guess you could say.” Tim smiled. “You’d be surprised, Frank, at the sheer number of coincidences one may run into when they’re operating along a certain line.”
Patterson narrowed his eyes. “What the hell’s that s’pposed to mean?” he growled.
“Please, everyone,” Rob interjected, “allow me to explain.”
“Oh won’t you!” Patterson erupted. “Explain how a janitor, friggin’ Einstein even, could off the top of his head vomit out information the equivalent to five, seven, ten-plus years of research and development?”
Tim leaned forward in his chair. “Rob, explain for us, please.”
Rob took a deep breath. He would try.“Okay, so, I get a call this morning from your human resources department, saying, ‘Hey, Bubbles Incorporated, we need a carpet cleaned over here, and on the double.’”
“The Motherboard area has been awfully hectic these past few weeks,” Tim interjected softly. “Lab and cleans rooms have needed mopping, carpets in the conference rooms are imbedded all over with shoeprints and coffee stains. Our regular janitor’s been out sick. Got that flu that’s been going around. Like I said, I’d requested that call myself.”
“Anyway, so,” Rob continued, “got in my van and drove over here, like, right away. And needless to say, I knew the way, because, well, this is where Lori works! So, there I was, steam-cleaning away around the—Motherboard, I guess you guys call it. I had one eye on the Steam-o-Matic Super II Series cleaner and the other on the equations and the diagrams on top of the Motherboard, when all of a sudden I realized that, well, I understood the stuff!” Rob shot a glance over at the plant manager, who was looking on with an expression that was deadpan but not altogether menacing. Rob decided it safe to continue: “No sooner, then, did I look down and see that bubbles—just like I had expected, hoped, feared—were floating in torrents out of the cleaning solution tank. Right then and there I knew that it was going to be a long day. So, I locked myself up in the nearby mop closet to be alone with, of course, the bubbles—the source of my inspiration, and to absorb whatever it was that the bubbles at that moment wanted to share with me. Information, it would turn out, that had to do with this fancy project of yours and cutting-edge chemistry-type stuff—all of which I’ve since somehow forgotten.”
The plant manager, Rob noticed, was starting to grow tomato in color all over again. Steadying himself, Rob continued, “Anyway, comin’ out a few minutes later, I felt it my duty to pass along some of that information to a nearby someone. Next thing I know, everyone is wantin’ to know what the stage two reagent is which drives the entire ten-stage reaction that would reverse the HIV-mutation-scheme thingy, and give you your cure. So, I’m back in the closet again. Then, I’m back out of the closet with the equations in hand yelling ‘cesium chloride, cesium chloride!’ Wheh. So, that’s what happened.” Rob swallowed, hard. He exhaled. He looked longingly in the direction of the door.
“Hmmph,” Lori said, but it was a thoughtful hmmph.
Patterson just shook his head.
Tim’s eyes lit up. He nodded. “Rob…” He leaned over his desktop. “I realize this may sound crazy but…I believe you.” And then, almost inaudibly, “Those bubbles were on fire, weren’t they?”
“Well, yeah, those cleaning solution bubbles? Yeah. Fire. How could you possibly have known that?”
Lori looked long and hard at her brother.
Patterson crossed his arms. “Your company is called Bubbles Incorporated? Business card. I’d like to see it, please.”
“See, I got trained and certified online—”
Rob fumbled a hand into his pocket; out flopped his business card. Rob scooped it up off the floor, handed it over.
Patterson pronounced the words aloud, “Rob-ert Den-kins. Own-er. Op-er-ator.”
Rob coughed. “It’s a one-man operation. I’m just starting out. It’s rough startin’ out, what with all those customers and only one me. Maybe one day, though, I’ll hire an assistant who’ll be able to help me out with things like—”
“Put a sock in it, spy!” Patterson pocketed the business card.
Tim guffawed. He shook his head. “Frank, if you don’t mind my saying, I think maybe you need to calm down a little.”
Patterson scrunched his face up, pursed his lips. Reddening, “I am calmed down!” he bellowed.
Lori smiled over. “He’s right. You should’ve seen him earlier.”
Patterson breathed. He checked his wristwatch. “Ah, cripe. All of this mayhem made me almost forget. C’mon…” He tapped Lori on the shoulder. “The quarterly meeting starts in three minutes. Roundtable for next year’s budget. I hope you’re ready to give those federal sponsors hell!”
“Leaving so soon?” Tim said, rising. He walked over to escort Lori and Patterson out the door of his office, but not before Lori, as she slipped past Rob, mouthed the words, “I’ll be back. We’ll talk.”
The door snapped shut.
As Rob sat eyeing it, pondering it, and many other things besides.
Tim’s exasperation as he fell back into his seat, sighing deeply and repeatedly, was not lost on Rob.
Finally, Tim stopped sighing and looked over. “Look, I’d really like to apologize,” he said, shedding wrapper and popping into his mouth a Fireball candy that he had extracted from his desk drawer. “Patterson’s usually not this edgy. Last few months though…divorce proceedings. Messy. Tense. He’s started drinking again. Wife left him, see.” Tim folded his hands. “Six months of whiskey-drinking, hair loss, high blood pressure, visits to the company psychiatrist…” Tim rocked forward in his chair. “You see, word is that yours-truly may be promoted as the new plant manager, and Frank Patterson booted. I think that’s why Patterson wants this project to fail, as its success would reflect positively on me.”
Tim crinkled up, then flicked the cellophane candy wrapper, landing it on the desktop. Rob’s eyes were greeted with the words on the wrapper in front of him: Atomic Fireball. “Ah, but, shucks, you, of all people, Rob, if you don’t mind my saying, must know as well as anyone just how messy things can get between family members…” His eyes met Rob’s “…am I right?”
Rob saw the bait for what it was, and went for it anyway.
“Sure, I guess I know a thing or two about family feuds,” Rob conceded, fighting but failing to prevent the upwards curve of a knowing smile.
Tim said, “Lori is your, uh, your sister?”
“Twin sister…in case you didn’t notice.”
Tim nodded. “And I noticed something else, too. And now, it’s not because I mean to pry…”
“She’s mad at me. Not talking to me. At all, anymore.” Rob straightened in his chair. “She’s upset over certain, er, decisions I’ve made which she’s described as ‘sucking balls’—” Tim froze in mid-suck; Rob’s pun was however unintentional. He went right on: “Anyway, so, I guess the reason why I’m still here, instead of packin’ up all my cleaning supplies and heading on home is because—”
“Of Lori,” Tim said, his fingers tapping on the desktop. “Hmm. Yes, your sister did mention to me about having a twin, and that she was having a bit of a dilemma, even, in regards to him.” Tim stopped tapping. “Didn’t offer much in the way of details, though. Never even told me your name. Must’ve wanted to handle the situation on her own.” A troubled look darkened Tim’s face. “Should’ve sought me out for further advice,” he mumbled. “And she wonders why she’s only an Intermediary.”
Rob raised an eyebrow. “Intermediary?”
Tim coughed. “Rob…yes, that name does ring a bell, come to think of it. Anyway, my recommendation to her was that she test her twin brother.”
“Test me? For what? What are you talking—?”
“I’m talking about you. And Lori. And how she had whispered in your ear about coming back over here. And so that’s why you are still here.” Tim leveled his gaze. “Right?”
Rob eased back into his chair. “You heard, then.” He pondered. Leaning forward, he said, “See, with Lori bein’ my twin sister and all, I’d really like to get things patched up with her. After Mom and Dad died those few years back in that car accident, she’s now the only family I got.” Rob grew melancholy. “And I hate to say this about my own sister but...” Rob swallowed. “She’s been acting like a regular b-i-t-c-h, lately. I mean, cutting ties completely with her own twin brother because of a career change? It’s not like I’ve been drinking, homeless, taken up a life of crime.”
Yet Rob knew of another reason why he had for staying put. Namely, how had this Tim person known about those “fires” that would flare up whenever Rob experienced his bubble revelations? Also, why testing? For what?
Rob wanted so desperately to know; and yet, something inside him seemed to prevent him from asking the question directly. Afterwards, would Rob consider that it was a full-on Solstine Proliferation that had done the preventing, to draw out the conversation in order to allow Rob to make a fully informed decision about joining the club.
“Yeah, Lori…” Rob said, deciding to speak on about this subject that was really no business of the project manager’s yet which might prove to be the small talk necessary to fill in the time until Lori’s return. “She was pretty peeved after I told her that I’d be ditching my job as insurance agent to clean carpets.”
Rob entertained a sideward glance out of Tim’s window; however, his sights were soon snatched away by the SpongeBob doll reposing in the window’s foreground, legs dangling over the sill, and which seemed to beckon him.
“I guess,” Rob said at SpongeBob, “it’s ‘cause we’re twins, and all our lives have been pretty much, well, inseparable, that Lori’s taking the whole thing personally. She said that I wasn’t living up to my potential, that I was a shame to the family, blah, blah, blah.” Rob shrugged. “You know, that sort of thing.”
The irresistible thought surged into the fore of Rob’s consciousness: SpongeBob means something: he’s important. Tearing his sights away, and continuing in his purpose to bide time with chatter, Rob went on, “In a rare moment, I got, then, all philosophical with Lori. Told her that there were bigger things out there, forever-type things, and it was these things that I wanted to focus on and hopefully partake in by becoming, of course, a carpet cleaner.”
Tim placed his chin in his hand. “Hmm.”
As Rob blabbered on, “Oh, and also, and to try to bring the point home that I was trying to make, I shared then with Lori some of the experiences I’d had on the job with, you know—” Rob fastened his gaze “—the bubbles.” Rob shifted in his seat. “Anyway, so, that’s when Lori went totally off the deep end and stopped talking to me.”
Tim asked, “And she hasn’t talked to you since?”
“Not until today.”
With his cinnamon candy continuing to brand the hollow of his mouth, Tim, furrowing his brow, remarked, “These many things that you’re saying are, gosh, certainly interesting. And for sure there’s something to be said about wanting to be a part of something bigger, as they say.” Tim sat up in his chair. He smiled, broadly.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Rob said.
“The scientist in me, Rob, has calculated that it is time.”
Rob blinked. “What?”
“And I’m sure Lori wouldn’t mind, either. In fact, she’d probably want it this way, all things considered. Besides, I’ve got seniority.” Swiveling his chair around, Tim directed, by way of neck spasm, his visitor’s attention to the office wall behind them—which showcased a window, and beside it, a solitary diploma set in a frame.
Rob noticed that it was a bachelor’s degree, which surprised him. His every expectation was that this individual would have been a PhD of some sort.
Tim said, “You’ll notice, and might think it strange, that this degree you see here is in elementary education.” Rob did think it strange, though not as strange as he might have was not the greater part of his brain still trying to wrap itself around Tim’s lingo about Lori, seniority and such, and had not his sights since shifted sideways to the windowsill, there to hone in on SpongeBob--
Which means something…
That doll, Rob mused. Plush, yellow, goofy smile, dangling skinny legs, a stuffed animal item plunked down into all of this highfalutin academia of books, beakers, quadratic formulas, Einstein posters…
“That’s me,” Tim said, weakly. He looked downright frumpy with his crooked smile on.
Rob blinked. “What?”
Tim stayed his eyes on the diploma. “Me. A teacher. Is who I am, by trade.” Tim raised an eyebrow. “Had not fate intervened, I would right now be working as an elementary school teacher. Teaching is what I love. It’s my passion.” Tim paused. “But then…” He lowered his voice “…a certain screensaver with photo on it of Rocky Mountain National Park entered my life.”
In an even voice that belied his growing aggravation with the project manager’s incessant small talk and inability to at times make any sense at all, Rob asked, “So, what’s all this you’ve been saying about your screensaver…?”
Shaking his head, Tim smiled. “I thought you’d never ask.” He swiveled back around to face his visitor. “You see, Rob … and indulge me here for a moment, if you would. Even though I was certified to work with kids, and did end up working as a fifth-grade teacher, growing up I’d been what you might call a science wiz, even though I didn’t care much for science. My senior year in high school, MIT offered me a scholarship and I had to purposely flunk a physics exam to get the recruits off my back. Ended up majoring in education instead. Got this diploma.”
Tim’s face shone with genuine pride as he craned his neck to behold his framed certificate of accomplishment. “Years passed, and even as I reveled in my dream job as a fifth-grade teacher, the thought kept coming at me that the world would be better served if Tim Sutton served as scientist, instead of schoolteacher. That inner voice, that unction, kept at me. It wouldn’t go away.”
Rob scratched his head. “So, um, you’re telling me all of this because…it’s supposed to have something to do with a screensaver with a picture of some mountains on it?”
“Yes, Rob, yes. For, see, not knowing how else to at all address that inner voice, as a token gesture one day I decided to replace the cartoon screensaver that I’d had on my laptop at the time and which as well as anything captured the essence of my life identity back then—as schoolteacher, with this more grown up—I guess you could say it was more grown up, that was my own thought anyway--natural landscape themed screensaver.” Tim divided glances between his computer monitor, and visitor, until finally they settled on Rob.
“This token act was my message to that inner voice that I was ready to grow up, that I was ready to stop doing what I wanted to do and start doing what needed to be done; that, if the world needed me to trade in my teacher’s ruler for an electron microscope—then I’d do it. Soon afterwards, Rob—well, let’s just say things began to happen.” Tim tapped his fingers on his desktop. “Let’s just say, that a certain screensaver featuring some peaks and precipices topped with fire took it from there.”
In the moment’s silence that ensued, Rob’s ears picked up the back-and-forth rustle of footsteps out in the hallway, the feverish exchange of voices: I created that whole, wild, wondrous mess out there, Rob thought.
No, Tim’s eyes seemed to answer, it was your fire bubbles that did it. Just then Tim’s mouth said:
“And ever since they took it from there—the mountains, that is,” Tim folded his hands. “I rest content to develop ingenious solutions to the world’s antibiotic and antiserum needs. Otherwise boring stuff in my opinion—that’s right, boring!—and yet, because of something unexplainable, magical even, that same boring stuff’s been transformed into a kind of wonderland for me.” Tim leaned back in his chair. “Then, this position was offered to me, right here in Denver, the Mile High City, located at the very base of those Rocky Mountains. It was like the stars were all lining up.”
“We’re in Brighton, actually,” Rob corrected. “Not Denver.”
“Yes, but it’s the Denver area.” Taking a deep breath, “Before,” Tim said, “I educated children by way of words. Now, I educate the world by way of discovery.”
Rob had an inkling. “That…” he said, “…cartoon screensaver, one you’d had on your computer originally, one you’d exchanged for the more, er, grown-up Rocky Mountain deal, it was—?”
“A SpongeBob screensaver, sure enough,” Tim said. “Perhaps you’ve noticed this little guy that I keep parked over here on my windowsill?” Tim swiveled his chair around, pointed. “I keep him there as a reminder to myself of who I am, in contrast with what I am, which is an oftentimes overappreciated and certainly overpaid laureate scientist.”
All very curious, no doubt, but was any of this supposed to be making any kind of sense, Rob wondered? All of a sudden he had more questions than answers. Also, he wondered if Lori was ever going to return.
“But enough about me,” Tim said, raising an eyebrow. Are you ready now, maybe, to clue me in on a little more of the hows, whys, and whats of your exploits out there on our shop floor this morning? Don’t you realize that your findings today have not only saved our butts but the butts of suffering AIDS patients from here to Indonesia? I’d say that’s worthy of a word of explanation.”
Rob was fairly sure that he had shared a word of explanation already. Still, he could see the project manager’s point. Good, Rob thought to himself. He wants me to talk finally about the bubbles. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Last spring, late March.
Flashback video-reels in Rob’s mind spun into motion, which set his knees to shaking, his heart to trembling. With the tenor of his speech alternating between blithe and blustery, Rob recounted how over the course of that previous spring he had “rented one of those new industrial-strength Steam-o-Matic steam cleaners,” and how “Steam-cleanin’ had been just a part-time gig” for him at the time, to supplement his income at the insurance company.
Rob took a deep breath. “Then, one day, the Steam-o-Matic began to bubble, and I’d become aware of stuff.”
“Aware of stuff?” Tim removed his glasses. “Like what?”
“Like, well, for example there was this time that I was steam-cleanin’ this lady’s living room over in Golden when, all of a sudden, the thought struck me that some really important something was hiding out in the shed in her back yard. The vision was so strong that finally I decided to share this premonition I had with Cheryl—”
Rob swallowed. “That was the woman’s name. Anyway, sure enough, we sighted Cheryl’s long-lost wedding ring nestled inside a pair of gardening gloves way at the back of the shed. She was so happy that I even got a kiss on the cheek out of it!”
Rob told of how the bubbles had compelled him to, on a whim, flip the off switch on his Steam-o-Matic, sit down at a nearby piano, and how the bubbles then “used” him and his “total lack of musical ear” to perform a passable rendition of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata specially for ninety-one year-old Boulder resident Henry Fleming. “Only,” Rob put in, “I didn’t know it was for him. The old man had been upstairs at the time, with his lawyer, about to sign the will that would bequeath his estate to his children instead of to the bureaucrats, when all of a sudden the old-timer’s heart began to buck, spasm, fibrillate. I was told afterwards that the honeyed melody of my piano playing that he could hear coming up the stairwell from downstairs soothed his failing heart just long enough for him to put his signature on that will.”
Tim nodded, slowly.
Rob spoke of how on another occasions he was “cleaning this guy’s living room and saw a framed picture of his son on the mantel, and just seeing that picture I knew that the son, who was, like, five-hundred miles away at the time, was all alone in an auto-body shop and pinned underneath a Mazda Miata—”
“Got it, Rob. I think I got it. Thank you.” Tim folded his leg overtop the knee of his other leg. “Now, as for these bubbles themselves…”
“Okay, so…” Rob wet his lips, “just prior to those revelations, I would notice that my Steam-o-Matic would emit these mysterious, well, bubbles…that are encircled by what looks to be fire…darty, reddish-orange flames. There’s no logical explanation for the bubbles, and certainly not for the flames that I keep seeing on those bubbles. I’ve read the user’s manual and butted heads with the help-desk people at Steam-o-Matic, all who insist that the Super II Series is not designed to, nor could it ever possibly, effervesce.”
Rob noticed that his fingernails were like cat’s claws gouging into the leather of his armrest. Giving the chair a reprieve, Rob said, “Anyway, noticing the pattern of one, steam cleanin’, two, bubbles, three, fire on bubbles, and four, revelations, finally I just decided to purchase the Steam-o-Matic outright, quit my day job, and so this is what I do now. I clean carpets and wait for the bubbles, fire and revelations which I know will follow.”
Rob observed that Tim’s expression was neither mocking nor incredulous. “And then, today, this very afternoon, the bubbles showed up again. So … there you have it.”
Tim’s smile grew, and grew, until out came laughter. Not mocking laughter, Rob observed, but of the mirthful sort, as if the project manager might actually not think that Rob was completely out of his gourd.
“That’s a very interesting story!” Finally, Tim stopped laughing. He raised an eyebrow. “Have you come across anyone who actually believes it?”
“No,” Rob answered. He hesitated. “Except for the people whom I help, and only because they can’t think of any other explanation for the solutions that I give them. Also, the bubbles, and the fire, always seem to appear when no one is around. No one has seen them but me.”
Rob sighed. He felt suddenly nauseous. Spilling all the intimate details of the good acts that he had done which in reality he had not done at all—it was the bubbles had done it—made the whole thing feel like stolen valor. He was nothing special.
“Neither was Peter Parker. Nor Clark Kent,” Tim said, a gleam in his eye. “It was what they came into contact with that made them special.”
Rob froze in his chair. “What?” he said.
Tim smiled. “They were nothing special in and of themselves, is what I’m saying.”
Rob relaxed, reminding himself not to allow his thoughts to so easily reveal themselves by way of overwrought facial expression. But then, Rob furrowed his brow, attempting to remember what in fact his face had been doing that moment ago, if anything, in the way of expression.
Straightening his glasses, Tim said, “As a scientist, Rob, and pragmatist, and optimist, I have come to conclude that there are a great many things in this world that we label impossible but in reality ARE possible only we haven’t progressed far enough to properly understand them.”
It wasn’t that Rob didn’t hear, but that he wasn’t listening. The greater part of him just wanted to go home.
“You did what you did to help people, is that it? Or rather, to help the bubbles help you to help people? That’s why you quit your job to become a carpet cleanin’ guy—to facilitate the bubbles, right?” Tim leaned back in his chair. “I understand.”
Rob grumbled something in the affirmative. He stood. “Well, like I said, the revelations I had earlier about your medical research project … have since faded. I can’t, now, be of any help to you any more than any other carpet professional. Oh, and forget what I said earlier about the Lawrencium. That was said post-revelation. I don’t know why I said it.”
“You said it because you’re just a rug-scrubbin’ feller who didn’t know what to say because his fire bubble revelations had since run their course.” Tim fell prey to another bout of laughter. Then Tim stopped laughing. Then Tim winked.
Which intrigued Rob, but not enough to prevent him from rising to say, “Well, maybe I should be going. If Lori still wants to get in touch with me, tell her that she has my number, she can call.” Rob began to put one foot in front of the other in the direction of the door.
Tim jumped up, scampered over, seized Rob by the sleeve of his shirt. “Please, don’t leave just yet. Something else that I want to tell you.”
Rob thought about it. He sighed. He sat back down. “What?” he said.
Gobbling up another Fireball, Tim said, “Perhaps you’ll find what I’m about to say, Rob, a bit difficult to believe—”
“I’m listening.” Rob wiggled around in his seat, wiped a layer of cold sweat off his brow. “I guess.”
“You see…” Tim leaned back in his chair. “There was this time, not so long ago, that I learned to speak Russian—fluent Russian—over the course of a lunch break.”
Rob stretched a slow, sarcastic smile. “Go on.”
“I will. See, in between sips of the Dr. Pepper that I’d had with me that day, I sat here, at this very desk, chatting it up on this very phone with the director of the Russian Bureau for Infectious Diseases, who, after ten minutes of listening to what I had to tell him, quickly connected me with the Kremlin. That’s right, the Kremlin! Connected me with its most esteemed occupant. Imagine, if you would, Mr. Putin’s response when I began expounding for him, not in the language of chemistry, mind you, but in the languages of microbiology and environmental engineering—subjects of which I am, granted, competent, but hardly adept. I explained to him the, er, Volga River Dilemma—my name for it—about how that great Russian river had, at specified locales—as specified by me—become a cesspool of cholera bacterium. Then I advised Putin—in fluent Russian, mind you, and with all the correct scientific terminologies—as to how his country might go about getting rid of the cholera bacterium—an otherwise unorthodox methodology, one that incorporated the use of nineteen dredges, at least one truckload of mesh netting, 231 shovels, 231 sets of hands and arms to man the shovels, five metric tons of electrolyzed CVS-brand shaving cream—the Mountains prescribe generic, go figure!——” Tim shrugged “—7.44 kiloliters of a mystery catalyst that I am however not at liberty to divulge here, Rob—if you don’t mind, as a subcommittee from the United Nations has since swore me to secrecy—and some carbolic acid tinctured with charcoal thrown in as solvent.”
Tim folded his hands together. “Putin, I couldn’t believe it, listened. Fast-forward, then, to a few months afterward when The New York Times published an article headlined Volga River Victory: Putin Creams Cholera. The Russian government had followed my lead. I was right.”
Rob scratched his head. “I do find that kinda hard to believe,” he said, the lines of his face all scrunched up in thought. Tim looked at that face as if hoping it might offer a constructive criticism or two in reply. It didn’t. It wouldn’t. It wasn’t ready. Instead, Rob lamented, “Look, all of this sounds really intriguing, but I still don’t know what it is that you’re trying to tell me.” And yet Rob wondered if maybe he did know.
“I’d no idea,” Tim swiped his hand. “None whatsoever. No prior knowledge of a cholera epidemic, nor of the curative properties of that crazy fix I had reciped up for the Russians, in Russian, that day on my lunch break. The ideas just came to me. They were ideas birthed by fire. And as for my sudden ability to speak fluent Russian? Comrade, it left me the moment I hung up that telephone.” Musing, Tim swiveled his chair around to allow for easier viewing of his bookcase with its miscellany of biochemistry, organic chemistry, particle physics, medical, pharmaceutical, and even a few astronomy titles thrown in for good measure. Tim pointed. “See—that orange paperback at the end there, Complete Idiot’s Guide to Russian? Well, I bought that after the fact just to see if I could recall any of the words and phrases that I’d used in my conversation with Mr. Putin.” Tim shook his head. “The Russian language—” he guffawed “—it’s all Greek to me! I remember nothing.” Tim swiveled his chair back. “And that was just one of the many instances.”
His wits all a scramble, and not knowing quite what to say in response to this long-winded unbosoming, Rob, instead, deferred attention back to the bookcase. “That’s quite a library you got there,” he said. “Amazing how some people can understand all that stuff.”
“Can you?” Tim raised an eyebrow. “Because I sure can’t.” Tim eased a smile. “I mean, yeah, I took a few science courses in college, and have since self-educated myself…” He nodded over at the bookcase. “Still, it’s so often that I will get overwhelmed by the more advanced sciences. Ah, but then there are those times when I’ll open the books and understand it so well it was like I wrote the book myself, formulated the science, even. Of course, it is generally also at those times that my Rocky Mountain National Park mountaintops will be on fire…”
The two men looked at one another.
“That’s right, Rob,” Tim said. His eyes grew large. “I’m like you. I’m one of us. A Fire Watcher.”
“Fire…Watcher?” Rob echoed the words, softly, tonelessly.
“And now you do realize…” Tim stretched his neck, veered it around, as if scanning the premises for eavesdroppers. Satisfied, he continued, “It isn’t just who you are that matters, but whether you’re where the fire’s at. You think that if I’d elected to stay on as elementary school teacher that I would right now be a Fire Watcher? The answer is no.” Tim’s face shed itself of any sign of joking, remolded itself into a mask of solemnity.
“What we’ve come to consider, Rob, is that upon the directives set forth by some…mandate, law of the universe, divine rule, and issued by what could classify as divine, cosmic, even trans-dimensional in origin, examples of which might include: God—the proverbial Great Flame Thrower in the sky—gods, ancient aliens, a trans-dimensional meddler, some super-advanced technology we’re not yet aware of, some cosmic anomaly, or quantum glitch—who can say for sure who, or what, the Great Fire Starter is, or isn’t, or was. I mean, take me for example—” Tim gummed an obsequious smile “—I’m neither philosopher, nor theologian, nor cosmologist, nor for that matter, scientist, when you get right down to it, just a former elementary school teacher who’s experienced fantastic, unexplainable things and who has mind enough to reason and heart enough to believe. Anyway, what we’ve come to conclude, Rob, is that these fire revelations which reveal to us, in us, through us, these secrets such as you have shared with me just now, grant us participation with the great and inestimable Solstine Powers--Solstine, that’s a word you’ll in time become very familiar with, Rob. And now let me be very clear—these fire demonstrations, well, they seem to materialize only when a person does a very specific something, which is, very often, it would seem, to perform an act of personal sacrifice; and yet—” Tim reached for his desk drawer “—not for its own sake, but sacrifice only in so much as it gets us to fall in line with the thoughts, wishes, and contrivances of the Solstine.”
Tim fumbled his hand around inside the drawer, eyes on Rob the whole while, even as he went on: “Such as in your own instance, a sacrifice that was against your every inclination and stood contrary to the approval of friends and family—to assume a carpet-cleaning career. Or, as in the instance of myself, to assume a science and technology career in lieu of teaching.”
Tim interrupted himself to ask if Rob would perhaps like an Atomic Fireball. Rob accepted the candy. Tim pushed the drawer closed. “So, that’s what we’ve come to conclude is the secret to, and methodology of, the fire demonstrations, as in their relation to we, the Fire Watchers.”
“We?” Rob asked, his voice trembling.
“There are more of us, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
Rob cleared his throat in an effort to remove the baseball-sized lump in it. “More of us,” he said, all dazzle-eyed. With heart and mind set ablaze by Tim’s off-the-wall ramblings, Rob all of a sudden had so many things that he wanted to ask about, and yet some shyness suggested that his confession had been overlong already. However, one question in particular begged asking: “I, um…” he said, “couldn’t get my Steam-o-Matic to bubble up for me after those, like, first few times. A sixth sense told me, though, that if I left my job as insurance agent and became a full-time carpet professional, the machine would bubble for me again. So I did. And so it did.”
“You followed the fire to the one place in your own instance where it would meet with you: a carpet-cleaning career. For whatever reason, that’s where it wanted you to be. And what do you get in return? Revelations, by which you are allowed to influence the course of world events, of history itself!” Tim’s eyes lit up. “Rob. Carpet guy. Fellow Fire Watcher. You should see the view from this side of the desk right now. The flames. Oh, the flames!”
Rob started. “Flames?”
“The flames on this computer screen of mine that I keep telling you about. Come, see for yourself.”
Fighting back his excitement, Rob stood, walked around to the business side of Tim’s desk and indulged a look over Tim’s shoulder. That was when he saw them. He exclaimed, “Your snowcapped mountains are on fire!”
“For the last minute or so.”
“Fancy new screensaver?”
Tim looked over. “When was the last time you saw a screensaver with actual—”
A jet of fire shot out, like a party favor, catching Tim in the forehead. But Tim was fine. “They don’t hurt,” he said.
Together, silent, spellbound, like kids in front of a campfire, the two men sat watching the mountains and fire on Tim’s computer. “It’s really…” Tim said after a long pause “…wonderful, your being here like this and all. Besides yourself, nobody’s had the chance to see these flames. Except for…oh yeah, Lori.”
Rob stiffened. He knit his brow.
Tim smiled. “You think I’m kidding. I’m not.” Tim leaned back in his chair. His smile fell off, and yet still his eyes were smiling as he raised his voice in the manner of announcement, “And so, seeing, then, Rob, how she’s not arrived just yet, please allow me to speak on behalf of the both of us in saying that…we’re sorry, we had to do this to you.”
Tim shook his head. He said, in his usual tone of voice, “Lori’s acting job though, wasn’t it just off the charts? I mean, didn’t you get the real sense that she was mad at you, at your bubbles-inspired career choice?” Tim chortled. “Brilliant. Just…brilliant!”
Rob walked back to his chair. “What are you talking about?”
“Hold on.” Tim pulled out his phone, punched at some keys. He waited. “Yeah,” Tim said into his phone. “It’s me. Yeah, he’s still here. We’re ready. Are you coming over or what?” A pause. “Yeah, he knows. I just told him.” A pause. Longer this time. “No, he doesn’t appear to be overly upset, or otherwise bowled over. I don’t think. Here, let me ask him…” Tim set his phone down.
“Would you say, Rob, that you are at present experiencing any signs or symptoms of severe emotional distress, seeing as how the project manager whom you thought was a scientist turns out to be a Level XV Liege, and the twin sister whom you thought despised you in fact admires you very much, and gazes at fires in her free time—and is a Level IX Intermediary no less, and who, together, project manager and twin sister, have been pulling your leg for months on end—or at least Lori’s been pulling it—” Tim took a deep breath “—and as a means to, first off, Rob, test the verity of your claimed experiences with the bubbles, because there are so many fakes and wannabes out there, and so we must be careful; and assuming also that you were the real thing, to test your resolve under pressure and opposition and to test also your belief in the unseen, in the impossible.”
Tim picked up his phone, drew it closer to himself so that it, too, could hear as he again raised his voice to proclaim “…and who, together, we, project manager and twin sister, have unofficially officially recognized you, Robert Denkins, as an honest-to-goodness entrant into the Solstine Ring of Fire Gathering, and by which entrance you may, along with us, and those friends of ours scattered across the globe, help change the world.”
Rob sat blinking. “Holy Halloween,” he said under his breath. “Is this for real?”
Tim smiled. “It’s not Halloween. It’s Christmas. Christmas on fire. Now come.” Tim beckoned. “Come join me in watching this marvelous celestial spectacle over here whilst we wait for the third member of our little triad.”
Rob got up, padded over to watch, alongside Tim, the fire on Tim’s computer screen as it danced, alighted, and projected outward in literal 3D flames!
Tim shifted about in his chair. “I like…how they cantilever outward at perfect ninety-degree angles.”
“I like…” Rob offered, “the colors, how bright and vivid they are, and how very real the flames themselves look.”
“There are any number of us.” Tim’s gaze wandered off to the bookcase, to the wall, to fathomless points beyond. “The fire, and more specifically, the revelations, are to us a sacred thing. What we do is on the level of charity work only on a much grander scale, and achieved only at a great personal cost to ourselves.”
Rob sat mesmerized, staring at the flames.
“To some, the fire comes in one way. To others, in another. Possibly it’s dependent upon the individual’s personality, their history, their level of sacrifice … who knows? Within the life and times of the Fire Watcher, everything means something. Still, there’s so much we don’t know. In fact, whoa—” Tim exclaimed, abandoning his thought as he wheeled back his chair.
“Can’t even see the mountains anymore, flames are everywhere!” Rob exclaimed, his curiosity moving him to reach out and touch the tip of one of these flames now spitting rapid-fire out of Tim’s computer screen, the shortest of which extended nearly a yard in length. A literal inferno, it was.
“It’s happening,” Tim breathed. “It’s here.”
Rob retracted his fingertips, the skin bearing no sign of burn. “What’s happening?”
“She’s here.” Tim slanted his eyeballs, which Rob noticed were brimming with wetness. “Your sister, you, me, is what’s happening. The power potential generated when two Fire Watchers get together, Rob, is one thing, but three…?”
They heard the office door swish open. Lori stepped in.
After what could have been seconds, or even whole minutes of lockdown eye-contact, inside of which whole conversations might have been passed between Lori’s shrewd glance and Rob’s inquiring one, Lori, daring to disrupt the electric silence, said, “Rob, listen—” she swiped a swath of hair off of her forehead “—there’s something that I’ve been wanting to talk to you about since that time you came to tell me about your fire-bubble revelations. And then, not five minutes ago this same thought came to mind right after the big boss threatened to fire me as follow-up to this outlandish idea he has that you, Tim, and I, are in some kind of conspiracy with Cyteck. Then Patterson took it back, but not before I told him, ‘Hey, looks like I’ve been fired already, dude, and if not, well, then, I quit!’ And so now I’m out of a job.” With steady stride, Lori glided her business-casual pumps across the carpeted expanse of Tim’s office. Halting in front of her brother’s chair, she nudged him, “Got a question for you, Bubble Master Rob.”
Rob raised his chin up at his sister. “So, you’re out of a job now? That’s not good news. You should be upset. You don’t look upset.”
“Fortunate for me I’m out of a job,” Lori answered. “And fortunate for you. And for the whole world.” Lori slumped her shoulders. “You’re thinking so low-level, Rob. Your expectations need to be, well, bigger.” She looked at Tim. “Maybe he’s just a Level Two, after all.”
“I’d set him at level four, or five, after hearing some of his story.” Tim shrugged. “But who knows. That’s for the council to decide, invariably.”
“Yeah, well, this isn’t just story time. It’s real life.” Lori cleared her throat, petted the carpet with her toe of her shoe. With uncharacteristic shyness, she said, “It’s just that I was wondering, Rob, if you might have room for another employee, an extra hand to help out with this Bubbles Incorporated deal you got going on right now? All those customers, if you know what I mean.”
Rob squirmed in his seat. “Wait a minute. But I thought you said—”
“Desk jobs, don’t get me wrong, are fine and good for what they’re worth.” Lori smiled at her brother. “But it’s just that there are bigger things out there.”
“Mountain-sized big,” Tim put in.
“Though fulfilling in their own way, and necessary in their place, budget reports aren’t much compared to the reports received by us, and because of us, from these benefactors of the Solstine Proliferations. We have the opportunity, and the challenge granted us, Rob, to change the world!” Lori seemed to think about it. “Or at least Denver.”
“Actually,” Tim interjected, slanting a glance and a smile over at Rob, “we’re in Brighton.”
Lori smiled, too. “So, you get your bright on, little brother, and get big sis a job so that she can get her bright on, and together we can get down to the business of starting some fires! Besides,” Lori said, shifting from one foot to the other and folding her arms, “the arrangement could be mutually beneficial in other ways. While you train me on some of the finer points of carpet stuff, I could train you on some of the finer points of…”
Standing beside the seated Tim and Rob, her arms crossed, Lori was to Rob, at that moment, the spitting image of her nine-year-old ponytailed self again, Rob’s childhood best friend.
“I’ve seen them, too, Rob. The fires. The Flames of the Solstine that inspire and direct us, the Watchers. Oh, and there are powers, Rob, opportunities, and contrivances, the likes of which you cannot begin to imagine. Sure, snuffing out lost wedding rings and such is pretty terrific, but just you wait!” Lori stilled herself. A shadow flitted across her face. “But know, too, Rob, that there are forces in this world, other forces, dark forces, some even in the form of inhibitions and doubts that will arise within your own self, which would seek to counteract, to prevent, to so much as destroy, those plans and purposes as revealed to you by your fire-bubbles. You must keep vigilant, then, if ever you are to become, and remain, a Fire Watcher. And so that’s why too…” Lori dropped her eyes, “I was assigned the task of testing you, per protocol—” She looked over at the project manager “—and per Tim’s suggestion. I’m sorry about that.”
Rob scoffed. “You should be.” He curved a smile. “You don’t have to be sorry, Lori.”
Tim removed his glasses, wiped the sweat off of his brow, replaced his glasses. “Solstine Flames, Lori, look, some of them over a yard in length.”
“Yeah, I noticed that. Oh, wow, I’ve never seen them that big before!” Lori shuffled over to get a better look at the flames that were jettisoning, inferno-style, out of Tim’s computer screen. And while they sat, and watched Colorado on fire, Lori offered the passing remark that one day she might even get around to showing Rob a certain bracelet, one that she wore at times advantageous.
Rob furrowed his brow. “What, is it fourteen-karat? Did someone give it to you? Is it really nice or something? I don’t get it.”
“It’s fire,” Lori smiled.
“Coolest thing ever.” Tim’s smile was to the moon. “You’ve just gotta see it.”
Under the spell of some kind of ecstasy, with fire in his eyes, his countenance like lightning, Rob reached for his sister’s hand. “All right,” he said. “I’m in. I have no idea what happens next, or how, or why. All I can say for sure is that, well, I’m in, no turning back.”
“It’ll be historic.” Lori squeezed her brother’s hand gently. “It’ll be fun! We’ll set the world’s pants on fire. It’ll be like…like…”
“Fireworks,” Tim said, leaning back in his chair.