Every Fourth of July the local orchestra put on this fantastic rendition of the “1812 Overture.” My friends and I watched, sprawled on tattered blankets and aging plastic lawn chairs at the back of the green, agreeably wasted on cheap sangria and Smuttynose. An ancient dude in the percussion section glared furiously at his bass drum, mallets trembling. Each time the score called for cannon fire to punctuate the boastful fragments of La Marseillaise, he summoned his entire body to swing the mallet, jowls shaking as he delivered a single, tremendous blow to the head of the drum. In each resonating boom, he was the entire Russian Army reveling at France’s imminent retreat.
I spent a long minute trying to explain the history of the piece, how we’d co-opted someone else’s victory celebration to commemorate our own, but Dan produced a suspicious pair of bottle rockets he’d proudly constructed pre-boozefest, mercifully cutting short my inevitably boring diversion.
Bottle rockets, Dan explained, were an ancient incendiary art. You needed a measured handful of black powder (sulfur, charcoal, potassium nitrate), a paper tube, a guide stick, a few “secret ingredients,” and a fast-burning fuel to kick it off the ground. His fuel of choice was what professional pyros call a “whistle mix,” named for its obnoxious high-pitched whine. Combine seventy-percent potassium perchlorate and thirty-percent sodium benzoate and carefully ram it into the tube with a hydraulic press. When ignited, the fuel strobes, producing a gas that burns in a rapid on-off cycle and screams. As for that secret ingredient? Despite Dan’s insisted mystery, it wasn’t exactly hard to figure out. Only so many metals burned off bright-yellow scintilla, and sodium sulfate, the crack version of sulfuric acid, was a relatively common item in any chemist’s closet.
Dan happened to be said chemist. We tittered as he jammed the rocket into the soft grass beside the blanket and waited for the next gleeful chorus of La Marseillaise.
“Check this shit out,” he said, flipping an orange Bic from his pocket and holding it to the fuse. It lit instantly. The rocket fizz-walloped into the air just as the bass drum thundered, shrieking merrily over the heads of children and blanket-bedecked grandparents. Everyone (save Dan, who shot to his feet, straining to follow the rocket’s trajectory toward the concert shell) dove to the grass. Kate dumped the last Solo cup of sangria onto a smoldering corner of our blanket.
I gasped as the homemade firework hit its apex and crash-landed Challenger style into the brass section in a lopsided burst of yellow stars. “BOOM,” cried the bass drum. The Fourth of July picnickers exploded into shouts. Families tripped over coolers and fell out of chairs, frantically dialed 911, and searched the skies for hijacked planes. The rocket ricocheted off a music stand, igniting a half-inch pile of sheet music, and nailed the nearest trumpet player. Dan hastily stuffed the second rocket into his pants, and the rest of us lab junkies climbed wide-eyed to our feet. This was it.
The orchestra flailed wildly, a cacophony of tipped stands and reedy squeals. I watched in amazement as the players scrambled off stage in an indeterminable wash of white and black—a stampede of instrument-laden penguins. One of the trombone players looked like he’d gotten the flaming music under control, or had at least stomped it into submission. In the distance, a Doppler peal of sirens clamored into existence. I silently reminded myself never to disturb any of Dan’s research projects.
“Fiona,” Kate hissed, hazarding another squinting glance at the stage. “I think someone’s hurt up there.”
“Maybe we should be going?” I asked, chewing the corner of my lip, but found myself motivating toward the concert shell after nestling my Smuttynose IPA between the now-damp blanket and the Coleman. Dammit.
“Should’ve used mortars,” Dan remonstrated at my retreating back, as though clucking his tongue at some other explosives amateur. “Can’t accidentally redirect after ignition.”
Before any of us could think better of it, I stumbled through the melee of panicked revelers who waited for the reassurances of emergency response. They parted naturally. That’s the thing about crowds—they either behave patiently for anyone who looks like they might have a fucking clue, or they tear you to pieces. I was too drunk to project anything beyond mild excitement, a veneer of calm in blue jeans and a black t-shirt. Onstage the conductor knelt next to the trumpet player. A worried brass section surrounded them.
I swung a leg up, hauling myself over the edge of the platform. “Hey,” I offered over the immediate protests of the conductor, and promptly tripped over a trombone. It took a minute to rearrange my limbs and get back on my feet. “Listen, I’m a doctor.”
The conductor’s face screwed into the facial equivalence of a fart, but he pointed at the guy with the horn. “Simon,” he added. I bent, peering at the man at the end of the conductor’s finger.
The trumpet player lay on the stage, braced uncomfortably on his elbows. His face had a certain wry lopsidedness to it, one eye just slightly lower than the other. I couldn’t help wondering how a pair of sunglasses would sit on his nose. Even his haircut seemed a little crooked. I reluctantly dropped my gaze, cheeks heating.
Trace blood speckled a singed hole in the otherwise pristine tuxedo shirt, and I hooked the fabric aside with one finger. Just a little burn, probably. No big deal. When I opened my mouth to offer some advice about a tetanus shot, I hiccupped loudly enough to startle the conductor leaning over my shoulder. The trumpet player managed an embarrassed half grin that I found myself mirroring.
“You’re fine,” I offered instead.
“So are you.”