Ayden sat at his desk, nearly paralyzed with grief. The last thing he truly remembered about their campout was the boys bickering, horribly. Next thing he knew, Jade, who was about to grill up breakfast for them all, was screaming. A horrible, heart-wrenching shriek. Trying to break up the boys, who were on the verge of a royal fist-a-cuffs, he glanced over and saw the huge, roaring, already out-of-control fire.
She must have used too much lighter fluid, was his first thought. The flames shot out from underneath the barbecue grill, licking at her arms, as if it were alive. A beast wanting only to be fed. Wanting to eat his beautiful wife. Jade busily swatted at them, to no avail. Next thing Ayden knew, her clothes caught fire, too. A veritable forest of fire surrounded her, she couldn’t move, nor could he get to her. She kept screaming. And he just stood there as if his feet were suddenly rooted to the ground. Powerless. Impotent. Useless. So much for all of his training.
Curiously, Braylon wasn’t anywhere to be seen.
At last, Ayden grabbed his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed for help. By the time the park rangers, firefighters, and paramedics got there, Jade was barely conscious. Ayden knelt down on the ground cradling her in his lap. Her lips kept moving. He bent over her to hear her last words. “Mobwives,” she whispered.
“Hm, what? Jade, what about the mobwives?”
“Bray…lon.” Her last word was more of a gasp. And then he felt the life force lift from her. She was gone. Her eyes staring at nothing. Ayden confronted the Grim Reaper, whom he’d seen many times before. He pleaded, he wept. His cries fell on deaf ears. Jade was gone. She wasn’t coming back.
Jade’s skin was as black as burnt toast. Crispy. Gone was the elasticity in it. It had to hurt her even to speak. But, what did she mean? Ayden looked around the wrecked campsite. The fire had been so hot, even the dirt was blackened. He fought a shudder, doing his best to answer the Fire Chief’s questions. Ayden well knew the routine. He was courteous, if not numb, fumbling, wanting comfort. A bit dazed. After a time the Fire chief and Rangers recognized Ayden was in shock and simply told him, “We’ll contact you, if we have any further questions. Sorry for your loss, Lt. Cantrell.” Ayden vaguely remembered nodding.
He then set out to break camp, getting his two little boys to help with the tents. The sooner they left this place, the better. Next he focused on the chairs, got them folded and packed up. Looking around for anything he may have forgotten, Ayden spied the canister of lighter fluid. Picking it up, he removed the lid and carefully took a tiny whiff of it. Not enough to give him chemical pneumonia, just enough to recognize this was not lighter fluid, but gasoline. Someone had switched out what Ayden had brought to their camp. This wasn’t even the same container. The bright red plastic bottle was none other than the 1-gallon gasoline tank he kept in the back of the car for emergencies. How did this get here?
About this time, Braylon strolled back into camp. Holding out his hands, he said, “Hey, what’s going on? Are we leaving already? I thought we had one more night. Things were just heating up, in fact.”
“Jade’s dead,” said Ayden. “We’re going home. Stay here if you like. The site is paid for already. Here, keep a chair.” He all but flung the folded camp chair in Braylon’s direction.
“What are you talking about? I was just chatting with her. Say,” he said looking around. “How did the ground turn black. Ow,” he quickly pulled back his hand able to feel the heat still rising from blackened dirt. “Something’s smoldering. Wow. Did you pitch our tents over a geyser or something, bro? That’s not too bright.”
“Neither is exchanging lighter fluid for gasoline. Jade poured the stuff from this,” he held up the red gasoline bucket “onto the coal under the grill and the minute she set a match to it —”
“Boom?” Braylon said, and began to chuckle. Ayden cast his younger brother a glance. The man seemed totally distant, untouched, by the tragedy he and his little sons just suffered. Curiously, disturbingly, amused by it all. He knew Braylon was mean, but he never figured him to be so detached. Evil. Shortly thereafter, he packed up the boys, hollered for his ghostly father and they went home, leaving Braylon on his own.