Here’s a new story! Even though I’m calling it flash fiction, it’s really more of a very short short-story, since it’s over 1,000 words long.
As always, compliments and critiques are equally appreciated! 🙂
The Ardent Captain
Captain Nathaniel Bennett stood on the bridge of the Ardent and stared down at the lava oozing from the top of the volcano far below. Though the air inside the bridge compartment was cool as it always was at this altitude, Bennett imagined he could feel the heat of the molten rock on his cheeks—like a blush.
Volcanoes are the Earth’s way of blushing, he thought. Then he berated himself inwardly for having such a ridiculous, romantic notion.
He reached up and straightened the collar of his blue and white captain’s coat, a gesture he couldn’t help but repeat whenever he felt his attention had deviated too far from his duties. If only he hadn’t opened Caroline’s letter that morning. Her notes always seemed to put him in a foggy, sentimental mood—highly inappropriate for an airship captain.
Bennett turned away from the brass-plated window network that afforded them an almost one hundred and eighty degree view of sky and land. The deck officers standing behind him snapped to attention under his gaze.
“Well, gentlemen,” Bennett said, “it appears the eruption was not as spectacular as predicted.”
The lava was merely trickling—and it was doing so away from the local villages.
“There is still the matter of fires set by the lava, sir,” the first officer said.
“Yes, but the locals should be able to take care of that with the help of their balloons.” Bennett pointed out the windows to where several round white shapes were already rising above the foothills. “Since we are no longer needed for evacuation, we may now return to Fleet Port.”
“Aye, sir,” the first officer said. He turned to the helmsman. “Set course for Fleet Port, half steam.” Then he repeated the instructions to the navigator and chief engineer via the speaking tubes.
Bennett let out his breath as he listened to the chorus of voices bouncing in and out of the tubes, confirming heading, wind speeds, lift gas density, steam pressure. His crew knew their work and they did it well, carrying out his orders with alacrity and aplomb. In the standard maneuvers that made up the bulk of the ship’s day-to-day work, the crew needed very little direct supervision from him.
His thoughts, on the other hand, required tight control.
Should unexpected circumstances arise or difficult assignments arrive from Fleet via messenger balloon, he must be ready to lead with wisdom. He couldn’t let emotions or irrelevant thoughts cloud his judgement.
And yet, no matter how hard he tried, he could never quite put Caroline out of his head once she had entered it.
The forested hills began to rotate far below Bennett’s feet as the airship turned, angling toward the east where Fleet Port lay, a bit less than twelve hours away. He waited until the ship was well underway, then retired to his cabin, leaving the bridge under the first officer’s command.
Caroline’s letter was waiting for Bennett on his desk, the corners of the tri-folded paper waving gently in one of the errant drafts that always ghosted about an airship’s interior. Bennett leaned against his closed door and stared at the letter. He had only read it once, but already he knew it by heart—if not the exact words, then the sentiments it expressed.
Caroline missed him terribly. His months-long assignments seemed interminable to her. She had plenty to keep her busy, writing articles for the Gazette, looking after her aging parents, and fixing up their even more rapidly aging house on Center Island. But for all her bustling activity, she was lonely, aching for close companionship and thought-provoking conversation. Bennett always made sure to buy her a new book on philosophy or politics whenever he set foot in a city and send it back to her via Air Express.
But Bennett knew that wasn’t enough—and he knew it without reading Caroline’s letters. In the privacy of his own cabin, without the pressure of command forcing him to keep his personal thoughts and feelings corked up, he could admit it.
He wanted to hear her voice again.
He wanted to sit with her by the fireplace, talking late into the moonlit night. He wanted to hear her humming like an angry bee as she yanked weeds out of the front lawn, hear her singing across the aisle from him in the neighborhood chapel, hear her reading her latest article aloud to her rheumy-eyed parents.
He wanted to see her again.
He wanted to see her sitting on the crumbling brick wall that separated her family’s garden from the river path that ran behind it, notebook and pen in her hands, trowel and pail of mortar and fresh red bricks forgotten at her feet. He wanted to see her jump off the wall and run to him much faster than most middle-aged women could.
He wanted to take her in his arms and press one hand to the small of her back and use the other to smooth back her flyaway hair and pull her under the willows where no one would see and kiss her perfect lips and…
The flush on Bennett’s cheeks was real this time.
He grabbed his collar with both hands and gave it a sharp tug, but he didn’t let go. Instead, his hands crept up and covered his face.
Oh good skies. No. He couldn’t touch Caroline like that. Not without giving her a ring. Not without abandoning his crew, his ship, his duty to protect the people of the Central Empire. Not without throwing overboard the airborne life he had lived for the last thirty-odd years.
Bennett dropped his hands to his sides and exhaled the breath he had been holding inside his lungs, afraid to release lest his eyes choose to issue tears along with it.
He had to write back to Caroline—had to tell her what she was doing to his mind and body, why he couldn’t let himself see or listen to her anymore.
It only took two of Bennett’s long strides to cross the cabin to his desk beneath the porthole window. Even on a huge carrier-class airship like the Ardent, space was limited for crew and captain alike.
Bennett sat down, pushed Caroline’s letter aside, pulled a fresh piece of paper from the desk drawer. The inkwell was cold in his fingers as he flipped open the top and filled his pen. His hand slowly moved the pen to the top left corner of the paper.
Bennett paused. His hand hovered, a miniscule bead of ink quivering on the end of the nib.
How did one address such a letter? His usual greeting, “Dear Caroline,” was far too familiar, far too tender to properly set up the difficult words that would follow. Yet writing nothing but her name would be too harsh. He didn’t want to hurt her. He would let himself break down and weep in front of his whole crew before he would hurt her.
The bead of ink dripped noiselessly onto the paper.
Bennett stared at the spot for a long moment.
The Ardent’s steel-reinforced timbers creaked in the wind. The ship’s engines droned low and steady somewhere beneath his boots. Footsteps passed outside in the corridor, carrying familiar, muffled voices along with them.
But neither of them were the voice he really wanted to hear.
Bennett reached up, undid the brass button under his throat, loosened his collar.
Then he wrote,
My Dearest Caroline…
Thanks for visiting the Written Woods!