Burning to Leave [Flash Fiction]
Burning to Leave is the second round of the NYC Flash Fiction Challenge 2017. My challenge was to write a drama set on a houseboat and featuring a birthday candle. Burning to Leave is a two meaning title, see if you can work out what they are when you’ve read it!
Burning to Leave
The breeze blew the curtain, chilling the houseboat pleasantly after the daytime heat. It was cloudless with a bright full moon. Green candy-striped birthday candles fell from the packet onto the sill, one bounced into the water. Cory bowed his head to pray.
After a moment he lit a birthday candle and let wax drip onto the metal sill before setting the candle down.
Cory crossed the houseboat in three strides, knelt to pray again and lit another candle. These would do for running lights.
His watch showed almost three, everyone should be asleep. Everyone that could sleep. Cory knew that if he slept, tonight would be his last. He had promises to keep, promises to dead brothers that he couldn’t break.
The tide was starting to ebb. Cory could have left hours ago when the tide came in, but people would have seen him go.
He was prepped for a silent departure. The batteries were charged, water topped up, and the waste purged. He’d gotten some groceries and ammo in. A full replen complete. He was on five minutes notice to move.
Cory brought the access way onto the boat and secured it. He slipped the forward mooring rope. Cory scanned the harbor. He’d heard something, or someone.
Several other houseboats lay at anchor nearby. The only movement was water splashing. Cory moved silently towards the wheelhouse.
A shadow flitted in Cory’s peripheral vision. When he turned Cory saw nothing. The shadow flitted again. Someone was out there. Cory was halfway to the stern. He took a boat hook from the rack, with a practised air he rotated the pole to push on the dock. The boat slowly started to swing away.
The moonlight revealed a marine in bloused BDUs, boots and a soft cover in the nearest alley.
‘That’s far enough!’ Cory said.
The marine stopped, half across the roadway. Cory stepped towards the stern, keeping his eyes on the marine.
‘You need help.’ the marine stepped towards the boat.
‘Not from the dead.’
‘We promised to look after each other when we got back.’ another step.
‘I’m the only one came back.’ Cory pulled the stern mooring rope, held taught by the current.
‘Not just you. O’Malley, Cruz, Costa and I came back.’
‘I pulled you out of the burning hummer, and put you on the helo.’
‘I wouldn’t be here now if you hadn’t’
‘I didn’t save you bro, the helo went down. The crew…’ tears soaked Cory’s beard. ‘Gunny told me.’ Cory’s shoulders heaved and he sank to his knees, releasing the mooring rope.
The marine launched himself over the widening gap. The boat rocked as he thudded into the side of the cabin.
‘Gunny said… ‘ Cory sobbed and rocked.
‘Got ya, bro.’ The marine pulled Cory into the wheelhouse and steered into the ebbing tide. The engine roared when he pressed the green button near the wheel.
‘I’m safe so long as the candles burn.’ Cory said. His face shone with tears for his fallen brothers. ‘You aren’t allowed to touch me while the candles burn. I said the prayer.’
‘You can’t take me while the candles burn. I’m safe tonight.’
‘Yes. You’re safe. I’m here to save you. Like you saved me.’
Cory looked closely at the marine. His uniform was immaculate, with sharp ironed creases. His cover was starched into shape. Once Cory had looked like that. Now Cory made a stark contrast. Long hair and a thick beard. None of his clothes had seen an iron. Except the dress shirt he wore to funerals.
‘My mom called me. You scared her.’ the marine said.
‘I didn’t mean to scare her.’
‘She was worried for you. You need help, Cory.’
‘You can’t touch me while the candles are burning. I’m safe.’
An orange lights started flashing in the wheelhouse. The cabin floor muffled the alarm.
‘Candles aren’t safe, Cory.’ the marine span the wheel pointing the houseboat to shore.
Cory dashed for the cabin entrance. Smoke poured out of the opened port window. Cory dove through the smoke to the rear deck, he opened a compartment to find a fire extinguisher. Cory reached for the cabin door, the handle was hot. Smoke billowed out when the door opened, but Cory was low on the deck shooting CO2 into the cabin at floor-level as smoke roiled over his head.
Cory could see the fire on the port side. Wooden fixtures round the window blazed, the curtains were gone and paint blistered black on the metal cabin wall.
Smoke caught his throat, and burned his eyes. Heat seared his forehead. Cory pointed the fire extinguisher at the fire and blasted CO2 from top to bottom.
Air, he needed air. Cory ducked back out to breathe. The smoke lessened, but the cabin still glowed. Cory went back in, he could smell his beard singeing, and the heat hurt his face. He closed his eyes and shot CO2 where he could feel heat until the extinguisher ran out. Cory dropped it and backed out onto deck, all he could smell was burning hair. Cory was lifted bodily out of the doorway.
‘Cory. I’m Joan, a paramedic. You’ve been burnt, but you’ll recover.’
‘I can’t see.’
‘Don’t worry, Cory. your eyes are fine, but I needed to cover your face.’
‘Did Ferguson make it?’
‘He was driving the boat when we noticed the fire.’
‘It was just you on the boat, maybe he’s the one that called 911?’
‘Cory, are you a vet?’ a man asked.
‘Third Battalion, Fifth Marines.’
‘Semper Fi, bud. We’ll take you to the VA hospital, you OK with that?’ the main said ‘You got any meds we should know about?’
‘Ran out, haven’t been able to get to the pharmacy.’
‘OK Cory, let’s get you loaded into the ambulance.’