Today’s Friday Flash Fics picture seemed straightforward enough until I noticed the little dark line that could have been a burned edge to the paper, and then the lighting on the whole thing struck me, and today’s story happened.
I can’t live like this. He can’t ask me to live like this. I won’t live like this.
It was a familiar refrain, and sounded convincing in Logan’s head, except he’d said some variation on that theme to himself so often it had lost all power.
Love was like that, he supposed, though he had the vaguest idea that maybe it shouldn’t have to be. Why couldn’t they live somewhere better? Somewhere like Vancouver, where they wouldn’t have to worry about parents.
Of course, in Vancouver they’d be living in cardboard box and paying twice the rent. But they wouldn’t have to pretend to be “roommates.” And it was way less likely Carter’s parents would show up with news about girls Carter should meet. Not to mention the clouds of smoke Carter’s parents brought with them. He swore they smoked all the more knowing it set off his asthma. And Carter’s request for them to smoke outside never worked. They’d crack a window instead, his mother saying “I can’t move around like I used to,” and giving Logan a sort of half-shrug before lighting the first of an endless stream of cigarettes.
Half the time she didn’t even remember to exhale in the direction of the window.
“They’re my parents,” Carter would say, and look at Logan with such misery and hopelessness that Logan would do what he always did: give in, and go take a walk on the beach.
Which was what he was doing now. Before the sun had even cleared the horizon. Because Carter’s father had had heartburn, gotten up early, and—of course—lit up a smoke before Logan had even considered getting breakfast started. Given Logan was sleeping on the couch, the smell had woken him up and driven him out.
Of his own damn apartment.
Logan was so lost in his own misery he nearly stepped on the bottle before he noticed it. Even after the sun reflecting in the glass caught his attention, he was annoyed: the town worked hard to keep the beach clean, and there were garbage and recycling cans by the parking lot, so finding litter was always frustrating. It took him another few seconds to notice the cork and the paper inside, tied up in a string.
He picked it up and looked closer. There was no liquid inside, but the corner of the paper seemed stained, or…
It took some effort to get the cork out.
Logan pulled the paper out, wincing at the smell of smoke—story of his life, that damn smell—and unrolled it.
He read the note three times, his heart hammering in his chest.
Then he started to run.
The flames were already licking the curtains by the window when he burst out of tall grass across from the back door to the apartment building, eyes up and on the edge of panic. He yanked the fire alarm closest to the door, and hooked left for the stairs. They were in the corner apartment on the top floor, but it was only three floors.
By the time he made it to their apartment door, people were stumbling out of their apartments, the shrieking alarm waking them up. But he barely noticed, his eyes locked on the door at the end of the hallway as he ran. Their door.
It hadn’t opened.
He shoved his way in, and a cloud of foul smoke blew past his face. He dropped down to his knees, some vague instinct for clean air reminding him that he was one of the least suited people to the task at hand.
Carter’s father was sat at the kitchen table, still in a robe, pale and sweating, but his eyes were still open and he was wheezing, and holding his arm with his free hand even as flames crept closer along the wood floor beneath him.
A heart attack and a dropped cigarette—at least it hadn’t landed at his feet.
Behind him, the bedroom door opened, and Logan met Carter’s gaze, his eyes widening when he saw the fire and smoke. Then he coughed, winced, and crouched.
“Get your dad!” Logan yelled. “He needs an ambulance! I’ll get your mom!”
Carter nodded, and darted to the small kitchenette, looping his father’s arm over his shoulder—the man barely made any sound.
Logan crawled to what they pretended was usually his room, where Carter’s parents were staying. The fire had hit the curtains over the window and spread to the back of the couch and the wall with the cream “accent wallpaper” that Carter loved so much.
He managed to reach up and open the door.
Carter’s mother was sitting up in the bed, and she frowned at him.
“Is it a test?” she said.
It took him a second to realize she meant the alarm.
“No, it’s not, Susan,” he said, somewhat rudely, but given the smoke in the air behind him and the heat and his rough breathing, he so wasn’t in the mood for her wilful ignorance of reality. He crossed into the room. His throat was already tickling and he fought off the urge to cough. “Come on.”
Outside, Logan watched the firefighters do their work, and it was surprisingly quick work at that. Soon the neighbours were all milling about and staring daggers at Logan, who had patiently explained what he could to one of the uniformed men, all the while trying not to eye the bottle that lay off to the side of the path to the beach.
Carter’s father had been sent in an ambulance with his mother, and Carter had followed them in their car. Logan had said he’d catch up. It hadn’t looked good for Carter’s father. Logan had watched the EMTs trade dark looks and the man hadn’t responded at all. By the time Logan and Carter’s mother had made it out of the building, he’d been barely breathing.
He took a hit of his inhaler. The firefighters had checked him out, but he’d done miraculously well.
“You were lucky,” the woman who’d looked him over had said.
Logan nodded mutely.
Finally, when all attention wasn’t on him, he walked back to the path and picked up the bottle where he’d dropped it.
The scrap of cream wallpaper, corner burned, was still there, but it was blank now. The words that had been there—the warning, written in his own handwriting—was gone.
Go home, now. Saturday morning. There’s a fire.
He thought about Carter, at the hospital, and how he should head there, but he stayed still for a long moment, considering.
Finding a pen wasn’t too hard. Deciding what to write on the scrap of paper was more of a challenge.
Carter’s father is going to have a heart attack, Saturday morning. Even though he lights up, don’t go to the beach.
There wasn’t much room on the paper, so the words were tiny.
He walked back to the ocean, then tied the paper up with the string once he found it on the beach. He sealed the bottle and just held it for a few moments.
It wasn’t possible. But…
Logan took a quick breath, then threw it as hard as he could out over the water.
He never heard it splash.