Brian McKenna slowly counted a dozen roses in the crystal vase atop the now empty office desk. Their crimson color gave him a sense of comfort, like a red beacon marking a return to a sheltered harbor.
His thoughts wandered to late summer nights fishing with his father for striped bass off Montauk Point. He could almost feel the drift of the boat cradled in the waves as it was edged along by the north wind with just a hint of autumn on its back.
His father would always let him drive the boat home. When they turned west under the lighthouse, he would point to the red channel marker in the distance and tell Brian to steer for it. As they made for the harbor they’d talk about the Yankees, or preseason football, or some movie they wanted to see before the school year began. Brian had always held a special place in his memories for these nights spent fishing with his father, just a little boy and his dad, with the little boy feeling a bit older than he actually was because he was out later than all his sixth-grade friends, driving a boat at night, under a blanket of stars.
The water in the vase trembled, then settled, and a rose petal drifted to the floor.
Red had always been his favorite color, as far back as he could remember. And why not? His mom’s hair had been red, and he remembered she sometimes washed it in a shampoo that smelled like roses. He tried to remember the exact smell of his mother’s hair, the smell of her, but there was now a thin veil of smoke in the room with a burnt smell of aviation fuel mixed in it.
His first bicycle had been red. A candy apple red Stingray. He’d asked for it at Christmas, his mother’s last Christmas, when she still thought he believed in Santa Claus. He remembered coming downstairs and seeing it leaning against the tree, the chrome fenders reflecting the light, a bow tied neatly around the handlebars. He remembered his father winking at him from over his mother’s shoulder.
Earlier in the year he had told his father he didn’t think Santa Claus was real. His father had adeptly dodged that one, saying, “Well, I’m not gonna say yes, and I’m not gonna say no.” It was their shared secret.
He could now hear the sirens of fire trucks from other engine companies in the distance. He thought about the first time he’d seen a fire truck up close. It had headed up the Memorial Day parade on Main Street, its engine slowly rumbling, every inch of its polished frame glistening in the spring sunshine. At that moment his boyhood dream was to become a fireman. As he grew into his teens other dreams came and went, but he realized he’d never really let go of that first dream.
His mother had died that spring, and his father had taken him to the parade. He knew his father was trying to cheer him up. It was a clear sunny day, but even as a young boy he could see there were clouds in his father’s eyes that never seemed to float away.
As the fire truck slowly passed by them, he looked at the coiled fire hoses, the hooks, and the ladders. He knew they were used to save people, saving moms from leaving their sons, saving dads from losing their way. He looked at the firemen parading behind the truck in their uniforms. Brave and strong, willing to put their lives in jeopardy to save someone else. He wanted to be like them.
As the smoke slowly filled the room, he realized he had now become the man he’d wanted to be. He’d managed to chop through to the hallway and get her out. The woman with the roses. Her first wedding anniversary. He’d led her to the stairway and pried open the fire door with his axe. He’d given her his radio and told her to be careful, but to keep moving. Then he returned to look for other survivors. A section of the ceiling had collapsed, and his legs had been broken. He was bleeding as well, but he couldn’t tell from where.
He felt another tremble and watched the water in the vase ripple as another rose petal drifted to the floor. It came to rest on the monotone grey office carpet, just a small wash of color, warm and comforting. Like a beacon, only there was no safe harbor to return to today. He tried to lean forward to reach for it, but the pain was too much, and he flopped back against the desk. There was another tremble in the building, this one more severe. The vase toppled from the desk and shattered. He could see the card surrounded by broken glass, scattered like roughly cut diamonds. “Happy Anniversary — I Love You – September 11th 2001.” He could reach the rose closest to him now. He slowly grasped it, and held it to his heart thinking he would give it to his mother.
Peter Bar is a web developer who summers in Montauk. His fiction has been previously published in The Star.