I found the evidence in the digital camera. Blood pressure rising, I consciously noted what it really feels like to have your jaw hang open in disbelief.
Yes, that was my teenage son using a lighter to ignite a stream of clear liquid being shot out of a plastic water pistol. I could see trees in the background. At least he was conducting his mad science outdoors.
Was it lighter fluid? Or gasoline?
My stomach churned as I texted him at his friend's house. Seven minutes passed before he called me. During those minutes, my mind had spun in circles. I questioned the decision years ago to work outside the home. I wondered if allowing him to blow up aliens in video games led to this behavior.
Mama guilt in full burn.
As it turned out, Jesse, 16, and two friends were trying to use rubbing alcohol as a flamethrower, with limited success. The fire was quickly extinguished in the cold air.
While I was livid and threatening to call other parents, my husband's reaction was remarkably mild. I detected a fleeting smirk. Was that pride? Or a bit of nostalgia, perhaps?
When I retold the story at work, I was astounded all over again by the men's reaction. They snickered and began regaling each other with their own tales of adolescent fire play. Later, one of my colleagues shared a more detailed version of his 1970s experience: While he was at his cousins' house, a match was used to ignite his aunt's hairspray.
"It produced a flamethrower, memories of which still make my eyes widen with awe," he wrote, adding that he and his cousins repeated the trick. "No wonder my aunt's hair was a mess. Poor woman was always out of hairspray."
What is it with boys? When I was a kid, I don't recall my girlfriends and I ever pausing during our slumber party games and deciding, hey, let's blow something up.
I could choose to believe that my son was merely exercising his academic curiosity.
But I worry about goofy risk-taking behavior. I am the Queen of Paranoia regarding freak accidents, most of which I believe can be prevented with a helmet.
As a reporter, I have dutifully brought home and recounted every once-in-a-lifetime accident, every freakish mishap that I have encountered, in an effort to educate my boys. Some of my warnings have been useful, especially when they were young. They learned that it's not smart to walk across ice-covered ponds when the weather warms, and to leave a friend's house if anyone finds a parent's gun.
When Jesse was in 4th grade, his teacher pulled me aside and gently asked me to be careful about what I told him. Apparently, he was entertaining his friends with my stories about freak accidents.
But I bet none of those boys ever jumped on a bed with a sharp pencil in hand after that.
Alas, flamethrowing never crossed my mind. Until now.