It was early on a Friday morning when my boss, Firebug, called my desk at Retirement Acres Utility District.
“You promised you were going to be out all day,” I said wearily.
“I am,” he promised. “Except that I picked up the paper on the way out of town this morning.”
He was going to a nearby city to explain, again, why we wouldn’t be paying them to take over a good bit of their work. And when I say a good bit, I mean more than 50%. And they wanted us to pay for the privilege. A bold move, to be certain, and it had plowed through three levels of management before our group pointed out the inherent irony and the fact that if we had to pay for it, we would really rather win less work.
“Go on,” I said cautiously.
“You spend all of your time on eBay. Did you by any chance by a plant in Kentucky last night? Think hard.”
“I’m certain I didn’t,” I answered. “It goes against my policy of winning less work. Why.”
“Can you ask Mrs. Campaign Against Senseless Gun Violence* if she did?”
“Only if you promise you’re not coming in.”
“JUST ASK HER!” His boss shouted from the driver’s seat.
“Vi, did you buy a Gas plant last night?”
“Sure didn’t!” She said brightly, knowing that asking any follow up questions would lead to follow up answers, and we had a good to excellent chance of leaving at lunch today if we could get Firebug off the phone.
“Ask Surfer Dude,” he instructed.
“I’m going to claim ignorance,” Surfer Dude said. “And I’m going to get breakfast. Buy-in is $4, unless you want tea, then it’s $8.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I pointed out. “You were a math major.”
“Yeah, and twelve people divided by two cup holders means that the price doubles.”
“He didn’t,” I said, because Firebug was now roaring into the phone.
But this is not that story.
“Where’s Firebug?” I asked Vi. She was sipping her coffee while reading the industry news of the day. Really, she was just making sure nothing we’d done had resulted in a story. Again.
“Out sick,” she said. “So we’re leaving at lunch again.”
“How sick? He was here yesterday.” While he was a good bit older than the rest of the group, he was also a fairly annoying picture of good health. He went to the gym during lunch every day, for Pete’s sake.
“How much do you want to know the answer to this? Versus how much do you want to leave after the first deadline?”
He arrived the next day, a bit slower and a lot less chipper than usual.
Surfer Dude looked up from his graph to ask, “Where and how many? We have a pool.”
“Eighty, and none of your business.”
He’d had a run-in with a tree on his property. In turn, he had gone after the tree with a chainsaw. And almost immediately sawed through his thigh. He was lucky not to be dead, and also at work against advice. Worse yet, his doctor said no trips to the gym. Which meant he knew exactly when we left for lunch. Bother.
Three months later, he appeared at work late and obviously the loser in an ugly fight.
“Was it a bear?” Surfer Dude asked. “Because if you get in a fight with a bear, I get an extra $100.”
“How? Never mind. It wasn’t a bear.”
“Did you run face-first into a deer?”
“Do you two sit around every afternoon running the odds on this?” he asked, glaring puffily between me and Surfer Dude. “Because I can have you both reassigned.”
“I just do the math,” Surfer Dude said. “Robin and Thriller find the scenarios.”
We had, all three of us, been forbidden to bring cell phones to meetings once it came to light that we were texting corrections on whatever presentation we’d been press-ganged into sitting for on the fly. That worked out great up until the first time I was on call.
But that’s not the story today either.
“Bees,” Firebug sighed.
He had taken another run at the tree and the surrounding area, which was unfortunately inhabited by a colony of very angry bees who valued their privacy over everything else. He had tried to level some tall weeds with a weed eater. Four hours later, when Mrs. Firebug found someone to go down there, the weed eater was still running, but was also covered in bees who had clearly recruited the weed eater into their cabal. She declared the area officially off limits, then had a priest in to say a few words for the lost weed eater.
Firebug came to work covered in Neosporin and wrath, promising that the first person to make buzzing noises at him would be transferred to the furtherest Retirement Acres Gas plant, which was unfortunately the one of still unknown origin.
A month later, a massive wildfire engulfed part of the mountain. We stood at the windows, knowing it would never cross the river. Also: Communications had already sent out an extremely specific memo saying they didn’t care who had a smoke allergy, we better find a way to get to work.
“Do you think it was lightning?” I mused.
“I think it was bears,” Thriller offered.
“You always think it’s bears,” Surfer Dude said. “It’s never bears. I think it was hikers.”
“Nobody hikes there,” Thriller scoffed. “It’s a neighborhood. And remember, they sued that one guy for not building his house fast enough. How do you think they’re gonna react to people with tents.”
“I think by the first morning they’d have an envelope and and invoice for HOA dues,” I said. “They don’t play.”
“Doesn’t Firebug live up there?” Surfer Dude asked. “He’ll know. He knows all the gossip.”
It’s true: he did. He had the ability to apparate into the middle of conversations, learn all the juiciest bits, then disappear like smoke. It turned out there was a reason for this.
He appeared 45 minutes later, reeking of smoke. It’s important that you know this, because generally he beat us all into the office by who even knew how long every morning. So if he showed up after us, mischief was afoot.
“Seriously,” he growled, “if I ever caught the three of you working, the shock would kill me.”
“We’re watching the fire,” I said. “Plus all those reports you wanted are on your desk.”
“How…never mind,” he snapped. “There’s nothing to see. Get away from those windows.”
“Why are your shoes burned?” Thriller asked. We scattered at his answering shout.
Thriller had known Firebug’s son for years. They went back even further than he and I did, and he thought he’d known me since he was five. (He had not.). But having been a friend and contemporary of Firebug the Second, he was also acquainted with Lady Bug, who graciously answered most of our questions between heaving gasps of laugher. We waited until he departed, smokily, for the gym.
“Mrs Bug!” Thriller said
“Stop,” she commanded. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“So there’s something to talk about,” Surfer Dude jumped in.
“Am I on speaker phone?” She demanded. “Robin’s there too, isn’t she? Don’t you three have work you should be doing?”
“We’re in lunch,” I said.
“Is this the same lunch you posted on Instagram ninety minutes ago? Or are you starting on tomorrow’s lunch?”
She had recently retired from teaching kindergarten. Instinctively, we all felt guilty when she fussed at us. Which was a lot.
“I’ll be making up lunch time after I retire,” I said. “And since when are you on Instagram?”
“Since my mother got on there.” Firebug was closer to 70 than 60. Mrs Bug’s mother was easily more than 200 years old. We loved her as dearly as we loved Mrs Bug, and not just because, after forty years of marriage, she still called her son in law by the wrong name.
I’m kidding; that’s exactly why we loved her.
“Why are Firebugs shoes all fiery?” Thriller asked, cutting to the heart of the matter. “I think it was bears.”
“It’s never bears,” she said, coughing violently. “Remember the weed eater?”
Against direct orders, Firebug had once again made a run at the troublesome tree. The bees had long since gone, apparently dragging the weed eater with them. Fire, he decided, would fix this problem once and for all.
In all, he burned about 500 acres of Retirement Acres, and also the deck right off their house. The Fire Marshall was not as amused as we were. Nor was he as rich, since Surfer Dude actually had “tree based revenge resulting in a wild fire” in the pool.
Three months later, when the smoke had cleared (so to speak), Mrs Bug called Thriller at his desk.
“Make sure Thing 1 and Thing 2 can hear me,” she ordered.
“I can’t even see them, Mrs B,” he answered truthfully. We were hiding under Surfer Dude’s desk in anticipation of this very call.
“When you do see them, tell them they’re not as funny as they think they are.”
“People tell them that literally every day,” he promised solemnly. “Is there a problem?”
“It’s this package,” she clarified. “A shirt that says “Non Flammable? Challenge Accepted!” to our house is exactly the kind of thing they would do. And I know they did it, even if their names aren’t on it.”
“Did you two do that?” He hissed. “And didn’t tell me?!”
“Tell them it looks like the perfect size,” she continued, “and I’ll give it to him for his birthday.”
Always practice fire safety, readers. Because you want to, not because the smart ass in your life will think it’s hilarious.
*Vi has since retired and devotes a fair amount of her time to an organization protesting Senseless Gun Violence. She is doing a lot of good yet thankless work in the Retirement Acres community. We love her even more than we already did.