July Fourth was always a busy time for the little town of Coveton, and the source of most of the fiscal year's revenue. Between the boat races, the sand castle contest, and the Annual Boogie on the Beach music festival, every family, couple, or loner could find something to enjoy.
But the real secret to the town's success lay in the its spectacular fireworks show. No one within a 50-mile radius watched television on that night. Former denizens who wouldn't come home for Christmas still made the yearly pilgrimage. It was such an event that the one time a Coveton homeboy actually made it to higher office, the state senator skipped the festivities at the capital to drive back.
Famous as the fireworks were in the area, they hadn't attracted media attention beyond the yearly announcement and writeup in the Cove's Treasure. As written by the paper's reporter, editor, and publisher, a simple paragraph would appear the next morning detailing what member of the town council opened the event, how many attended, and at least one reaction quote from a local. The brevity of this coverage was the one critique Linda Preston hadn't managed to shake since founding the paper thirty years ago.
"Not even a photograph! Mind you, I'm not saying it'd be the same," Rita Harper explained over coffee that July Fifth morning at Linda's home. "I mean, nothing will ever be able to capture it, but still."
Linda smiled but shook her head. "Every year someone suggests it, and every year people send me photos, but I've not seen one yet worth printing. Besides, there's real news to share with people besides what they already know about."
"Oh, of course, of course," Rita agreed with amiable insincerity. She shared the majority of the local population's disinterest in outside affairs, but she was too polite to argue with her friend over it. In a burst of uncommon thoughtfulness, she added, "I must say that article you wrote up about those machines was very interesting. I had no idea they were getting so small nowadays."
"I'm glad you liked it," Linda thanked her, taking the compliment at face value but changing the topic to something more interesting to her guest. "I saw your grandchildren out and about last night."
"Oh yes, yes, they came for a visit, just had to come and see it you know," the woman gushed, and then recounted every detritus of news she'd gathered the night before: scrapped knees and blue ribbons, science fairs and baseball games, recitals and birthdays. Linda sat back and soaked it in, with an occasional question whenever a lull developed.
After an hour Rita suddenly sang out, "My, my, look at the time, I can't believe you've let me go on this long."
"It's no problem," her friend assured her, but Rita stood anyway.
"No, no, you're a busy lady, I know it. You've got tomorrow's paper to work on." She began gathering up the pictures and school crafts that'd sprung from her purse during their chat, the genie not quite fitting back in the bottle as easily as it'd escaped.
Linda knew from past experience that offering to help would only make things worse, so instead she offered, "Won't you take another cup of coffee?"
Rita paused a moment in her attempts to sandwich a Polaroid into her wallet. "Well, one cup," she agreed, "but then I really have to go. We're taking the kids out for lunch before they leave."
By the time Linda poured a fresh mug Rita had managed to pack everything away. "To tell you the truth," the grandmother admitted, "I think I first started coming by just to drink your coffee. It's better than the diner's."
"Oh, I don't know." Linda quirked a smile, amused in spite of herself. "I think they make a mean cup of joe."
"Sure, sure, but I don't care what time of day it is, yours is always hot." Rita punctuated her compliment with a final slurp. "Well, I'll leave you to it then."
A half hour after her friend's departure Linda was deep into the next day's centerpiece when her husband's footfalls sounded in the kitchen. She creaked up from her chair, her back reminding her she wasn't a twenty-something bride anymore, and went into the other room.
He looked up from his plate of hot eggs and toast, whistling. "Between the food and the women, it's too darn hot in this place."
She giggled, the years falling away as she she she took a seat opposite him at the table. "I think you need your prescription renewed, Gary."
"Mmmhmm," he grinned lazily, old laughlines wrinkling with pleasure. "I can see just fine, and it is mighty fine. Aw come on, what's a guy got to say to get a kiss?"
"Just ask for it."
"Guess you're not too tired from last night," she commented after they'd thoroughly exhausted that conversation.
"It was a little harder this year," he admitted, stretching. "The last Roman candle wasn't going to light, so I had to help it along. Haven't had that much excitement since the last time on the firetruck. Now, where's my morning paper?"
Linda already had his copy out and ready. He took it up, munching on his toast, while she got up to refill her coffee mug. She turned and savored the moment, drinking it in.
Gary was on the third page, frowning like he always did when he reached the national news. His hair had lost its reddish luster years ago, his hands were no longer the mighty fists they'd been in days gone by, and his broad shoulders didn't hold quite the muscle he'd kept up most of his life. Most people would see a faded old man.
He twitched and looked up, eyes meeting hers. "Penny for those thoughts?"
"I think they're worth more than that," she didn't answer, coming to sit across from him again. "You still smell like smoke, you know."
"Oh that, it'll wash off soon." Gary shrugged. "I figured out this year what's leaving the smell: it's the sulfur. Never have that problem with regular fire. And I think next year—"
"So, there's going to be a next year?" she interrupted, pointedly.
He kept going. "Yes. I think I've got one more year in me. And it'll be the best one yet."
She blew her breath out slowly, counting to ten. "Gary, I'm not the one to make that call, you've got to. But that's the same thing you said last year, and the year before that."
"And I'm going to keep saying it until I've got it perfect. Then I'll call it quits, you've got my word."
She hadn't started this conversation looking for trouble, but then she'd never really done that: trouble just seemed to find her. "I'd like you in one piece, thank you, and you can't give me your word on that. I just want to know you've thought things through."
Abruptly he stood from the table. "I have thought it through, Linda, I promise. I did a test just last night after the show: took a trip through a beach bonfire, and even if I got a little singed—"
"—that's no reason to throw in the towel yet. It'll be at least another two years before I start to burn, and even then, if I'm careful, I could still—"
She stood as well, facing him, mug forgotten. "Gary, do you hear yourself? Singed, burned? Doesn't that sound familiar to you?"
"No." He said it like he could make it true.
"Look, if you want to do it again next year, you could let me help you—"
"NO." This time he barked his refusal, harsh, eyes flashing like they hadn't in over a decade, the last time this argument rose from the dead.
It was time for a more serious weapon in this fight. "Well it's not like it'd change things now anyway."
The fire left him as fast as it'd sprung up, and for the first time that day he truly looked old: a man of regrets, one who'd given her so much but at such a high cost, an aging hero who'd come against the one villain he couldn't defeat despite his power.
Rita's chatter came back to her in the hush, and for a full minute she let herself envy the woman with all her children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews. Neither Linda nor Gary had known their parents, never had a family beyond each other, and the Prestons still only held a roster of two fervent souls.
One day that number would shrink to a lone ember.
He looked ready to say something, anything, and Linda shook off her moroseness. "I don't regret it, Gary, don't apologize."
"Still." His eyes smoldered. "I should have known."
"Give me credit for brains, chum, I should have too," she repeated the old line, but the years added weight to the words. "When it's a choice between fighting evil with the power of fire or letting the world burn, what's a girl to do?"
It was overconfidence, she wanted to tell him again. They'd spent years ducking explosions and darting through flames, putting the bad guys away, even made it through the War in one piece together. Saving some islanders from the aftereffects of a military testing program had sounded like a cakewalk. The Flame and his wife jumped through that bomb without a second thought.
Years later they were still chasing those seconds, heartbeats in a fiery holocaust they were lucky to have survived at all.
She didn't say any of those things, though. Instead, Linda leaned into her husband and let his arms wrap around her. "I'll say it again, Gary, I don't regret it. Any of it. But afterwards, when you said we should retire and move away, you made the right call."
His heartbeat thumped against her chest in the steady, calm rhythm it'd always had, save that one short wild ride. She followed through with her next point. "And ten years ago, you knew when to quit the firehouse. You knew how much you could take, when you were ready to let go."
She pulled back, enough to look up into his still bright eyes, loving him because of his receding hairline and puffy jowls and pocked skin, all the reminders of life. "Maybe, though, it's different this time. Maybe you need some help again."
"The last goodbye," he whispered, eyes wavering a bit. He'd never cried in his life; she didn't think he actually could. But sometimes, like now, when the last glowing coal of their past looked ready to dim, their erstwhile child grown up, she thought he tried.
Linda broke out of their embrace and took their dishes to the sink, giving him a moment before adding, "You know, Rita came by this morning."
"Mmmhmm?" Gary picked up a dish towel, having learned in their golden years at least how to dry when she washed things.
She kept her tone light. "She showed me a picture of that grandson of hers, you remember Jake? He's going to graduate next year."
She turned off the faucet and handed over the last utensil. "The class of 85's going to be a bright lot, between him and the local kids. I hear tell some of those hotrods at the station are as pyrocrazy as you are. Probably just itching to get their hands on a few crackers come next summer."
A few soap bubbles hung in the air between them, drifting lazily down until they plopped onto the drying rack.
"Well, it's a good thing too," he said. "I think I'll be too busy by the time July Fourth rolls around again."
"I might be hard headed, but like I'm always trying to tell you, I'm not blind." He flashed her his trademark grin. "You've run an article about those new computers at least once a month since January. When we get that sort of power behind the paper I think it's going to take both of us to keep things running. What say we drive up to the city and look them over?"
It was time for another adventure: new, exciting, and best of all, shared.
This story utilizes two characters in the public domain, both of which were originally developed by Will Eisner & Lou Fine. The Flame appeared in Fox Features comics from 1939 through 1942. Gary and Linda's future lives, home, and neighbors are my own invention. You can read more about their heroic past over at the Public Domain Super Heroes wiki.