Hazardous Driving Conditions

Justin is the main character in the novel I’m working on. This story comes from me trying to follow him around and figure out the kinds of things he’s experienced that will make him into who he is at the time of the novel. So basically, I’ve been stalking an imaginary person and now I’m inviting you to come with me. …Writing is a strange activity. 

Sally Masters saw the boy standing in the line for the DMV front desk and froze. She did an about face and speed-walked back to her cubicle, wide eyed. Her desk mate Anna looked up over the computer and smirked.

“What, were you hoping he’d chicken out and not come back? He may be a weatherman but he’s also a teenage boy. He’s not going to back out of his driving test just because you wish he would.”

Sally glared at her and tried to think of a calming mantra. Last week he’d accidentally blown all the papers off all the desks and she’d rescheduled him—ostensibly so he could calm down. And of all days to wear her new pantsuit—couldn’t she send him away again until she thought to wear more suitable attire to work…something like waders and a rain jacket?

She checked over her shoulder again. He was still standing in line, having the nerve to look normal: tall, brown haired, and lanky. A little nervous, like most of the teens who were hoping to get their license.

And then. Enid Walters, at desk three called out in bored tones: “Ticket number 63.”

Justin jumped forward and put his papers down on the counter. “Uh, I’m Justin Shoalter.” He said, “I was here before, but I had to come back to take my driving—”

A breeze gusted through the waiting room, picking up papers and rattling the pen holder on the desk. Justin put out a hand to catch it but instead he bumped it over, spilling pens everywhere.

“Oh, sorry about that.” And he was on the floor, collecting pens. When he stood up again Sally saw he’d gone red to the ears and there was a fine fog surrounding him. He hastily stuffed the pens back into their holder and wiped his hands on his jeans, doing nothing to dispel the fog. “Um, sorry…”

Enid, who had seen enough in her twenty-eight years as a DMV clerk to be impervious to surprise, just handed him a pen. “Sign here.”

Justin scribbled his name and Enid continued: “Your instructor is Ms. Masters. She’ll meet you out front in a moment.”

Sally felt doom fall upon her like a swiftly descending baby grand.

“Great!” Justin said, and hurried out in a bluster of wind. The door slammed shut behind him and the other occupants of the waiting room visibly relaxed. Sally gulped and clutched at her necklace. Behind her, Anna said: “That boy is so nervous he’s going to blow you halfway to Memphis.”

She didn’t sound particularly upset.

Sally straightened her jacket, patted her hair, straightened her jacket again, picked up her pen and clipboard, and blurted, “I don’t know why they even let those people get licenses in the first place.”

“Well.” Anna gave her a bored look over the top of her computer. “Don’t let him have one, then.”

“I-I, well…” Sally wobbled between indignation at the idea that she might not do her job and a thrill of possibility. “I just don’t know!” And she hurried out the door before she could lose her nerve.

“Turn right out of the parking lot.” Sally crossed her arms protectively, not looking at the boy in the seat beside her. She reviewed their interactions so far.

When she’d introduced herself he’d tried to shake her hand and there was a cloud around his hand! A CLOUD. And possibly it meant he was very nervous, but still. It was unnatural. He was unnatural. She’d clutched her clipboard to her chest and pretended not to see it.

The fog seemed to increase after she’d refused his handshake, to the point that when he lifted his feet to get in the car, a bank of fog had rolled in with him and was now swirling in slow motion around the floorboards. Her socks felt damp and the crease was coming out of her trouser leg.

He was talking as he drove. “So I did a lot of driving with my sister, and she’s a leadfoot, so I’m hoping she didn’t wear off on me! I told her if I don’t pass, I get to blame her. How long have you been with the DMV?”

Sally wasn’t really listening.  I can’t believe nobody stepped up and took over for me on this. I do half the work at the office and I can’t even get a break from a weatherman student driver! And they know how nervous I get. I just wish for once somebody would look out for me for a change!

“Ms. Masters?”

“What?” She squawked, and then was doubly irritated because she’d sounded ridiculous in front of this genetic freak. “Mind your manners, young man! Where are we?”

Justin shut his eyes, sighed (the clouds on the floor sank from her knees to her ankles) and said, “I pulled into a parking lot because you weren’t telling me where to go. Look, I know you’re weirded out by me, but I’m just a regular teenager, okay? If we just get this over with, you grade me like you would anybody else—then you’ll never have to see me again.”

He grinned hesitantly and stuck out his hand. “Deal?”

Sally thought absently to herself that if he wasn’t a weatherman, he’d be a charming young man. Then she tapped her pen on the clipboard and pursed her lips. Surely he’d make some fail-worthy mistake. He was a weatherman, after all. “We’ll see. Turn left.”

Justin’s grin faltered but he nodded, put his hands on the steering wheel, and drove out.

He had the cheek to drive perfectly. He knew he was doing well, too. The clouds around her feet nearly vanished. The sunlight seemed to shine through the car windows brighter. And she found herself furious. Weathermen were supposed to be stupid. Everybody knew they were unstable. Yet here he was, pretending to be all nice and controlled. It was all an act, a low down act.

They were coming up on the entrance to the DMV parking lot again. Justin had reigned in his chattiness, but he radiated delighted confidence from every particle of him. Sally ground her teeth.

“Turn left here?” He asked, speaking out loud for the first time since he’d offered her his deal.

Sally looked at the DMV. She looked at the clipboard in front of her. She clenched her pen in white knuckles and made up her mind.

“No. Keep driving. Go out to the interstate. Get on at Greene Street.”

“Oh. Okay…” Justin said. He glanced at her once, nervously, did as she asked. “All the way up at Greene Street? This is going to be a long test.”

Sally harrumphed. “This test will be exactly as long as it needs to be.”

He looked at her skeptically, one eyebrow raised. The clouds around their feet darkened. “Needs to be to get me to make a mistake so you can fail me?”

Flustered at his perception, Sally pretended to jot down a note on the clipboard. “Eyes on the road! And disrespect is not going to help you today, Mister.”

They drove in silence to the interstate, and Sally began to bark commands.

“Change lanes!” Much to her disappointment, she watched him check the mirror, turn on his blinker, and slide into the left lane.

“Change lanes again!”

Mirror, blinker, lane change.

“Get off at Galveston!”

Apparently unruffled, he checked his mirror and managed—barely—to slide across four lanes of traffic in time to get off the exit for Galveston. But she noticed the dark cloud around their feet was growing, lapping cold misty tendrils onto her knees. It muttered, darkly. He only looked unruffled. He wasn’t. Fine. She inhaled deeply, lifting her chin. If her coworkers were so selfish as to send her out with this monster, she’d show them; she’d fail him, and fail him good. Sally Masters could take care of herself.

She flapped her clipboard in the air as they nearly passed a road. “Turn right!”

“Turning right.”

“Second exit on the roundabout!”

“Roundabounding. Notice my perfect yielding skills and expert blinker use.”

“Go left!”

“Turning into Crowder Meadow Homes.”

“Parallel park there, between those cars.”

He stopped the car in the empty street, gave her a challenging stare, put his arm over the back of the seat and flawlessly wedged the Taurus between two cars. Grudgingly, she was impressed. That wasn’t on the regular test. “Fine. Go back out to the main road.”

Five minutes later she barked, “Left!”

“Can’t, that’s a one-way street.”

“Go right!”

“…And that’s a cornfield.”

She was getting dry in the mouth. What if she couldn’t trick him? He hadn’t even exceeded the speed limit by more than a mile. No child should be able to drive this well, she thought sourly.

Even more embarrassing, a couple smug little puffy clouds were hovering over Justin’s shoulders. She didn’t know how she knew they were smug; she’d never seen a smug cloud before, but these were undoubtedly smug clouds.

“Look,” Justin said, “It’s been forty-five minutes. I had a Coke before getting to the DMV and I’m going to need a bathroom break if we’re going to do a cross country road trip.”

She sighed and waved at a roadside gas station. “Pull over there.”

By that point they had left even the suburbs and were driving beside cornfields and cow pastures. The only other vehicle in sight was a battered black Ford truck with an old man sitting in the bed.

As Justin parked, he grinned at her. “Can I get snacks?”

She ignored him. He left the car and she got out too, pulling out her phone to text…someone. But who could she text? Everyone would laugh at her for being unable to fail a dumb weatherman, especially Anna, and it was really Anna’s fault, after all, giving her the stupid idea of failing him.

A voice spoke just behind her. “Hey, turn ‘round.” And a massive, hard hand yanked her around so that she nearly spun off balance. She stared up into a leathery red face, eyes bloodshot, chin prickled with grey stubble. He breathed rancid, beery breath in her face and she winced away, putting her hands up.

“Eugh, you’re drunk!” She wrenched her arm away from him and dusted herself off, scowling at him. “It’s not even eleven in the morning! Shame on you!”

He leered and grabbed at her.

Sally squeaked, her throat constricted, unable to do much but flail uselessly.

The door to the convenience store jingled and Justin appeared, a bag of Combos in one hand, a Dr. Pepper in the other. He, stopped, eyes wide, when he saw what was happening. “Hey, get your hands off her!” He shouted, but his voice cracked, and he sounded young and innocent.

The drunk man just giggled and kept pawing at her, ignoring Justin. He yanked, she lost her balance and fell onto the asphalt, the gravel cutting into her knees—and then a raindrop smacked, wet and heavy on her nose. The drunk man let go of her.

She opened her eyes to find the cloudless sunny day gone. The cornfields were gone. The convenience store was gone. The world was swathed in a dark, wet, cloud. It rumbled and she felt it all the way through her bones. This is what the end of the world will feel like, she thought.

Justin was advancing on the drunk man, tiny electric bolts snapping at his fingers, his face grim, his hair standing on end. He pointed one of the crackling, fire-laced fingers at the drunk man. “You let her go.” He said. This time his voice didn’t crack.

The drunk dropped Sally and bolted. There was a dull thump as he collided with his truck out of sight. As the cloud lifted and the sunlight began to break through, Sally saw him lying stretched out on the ground, staring at the sky.

Justin came over, his hand outstretched to help her up—but Sally stared at it like he was trying to give her an earthworm. Her fingers were still wrapped around her phone, her link to all the people that would laugh at her if she couldn’t fail this monstrosity at his driver’s test. She wriggled away from him on the pavement, getting gravel and dirt all along the back of her nice blue pantsuit. Her eyes were wild and her neat hair was a mess.  “Get away from me!” She said, her voice quivering.

Justin pulled back, hurt and surprise in his eyes. “I’m just trying to help you up. Look, no more lightning!” He held up his hands with an apologetic grin, but she scrambled to her feet and glared at him, still shaking, trying to dust herself off.

“You don’t deserve to be on the road!” She pointed a finger at him. “I thought so from the beginning, and you just proved it.”

Justin’s mouth fell open. “What? I just—I just saved you! I drove perfectly, and I saved you!”

“You’re a danger!” She said, her voice wobbling with tears, “And a monster! Get your own ride home!”

She lunged for the driver’s side door, fell into the seat, locked the door, and gunned the vehicle, tires squealing as she roared out of the parking lot. She glanced behind her in the mirror and saw Justin, standing alone in front of the convenience store. If she’d looked at him she would have seen his eyes wide with hurt and shock and anger, but instead she only saw the massive black cloud building around his feet. Serves him right, she told herself. Nobody like that should be on the roads anyway…

Back at the convenience store, Justin sat in the grass by the side of the road with his phone, swathed in rainclouds up to his shoulders. A car whooshed past. The grass ruffled, and the clouds billowed and swirled around him, spraying raindrops out onto the asphalt. He took a deep breath and dialed his sister.

“Hey Tab!” He’d plastered on a large fake smile but it faded as he said, “….yeah, the test is over…Uh, well I’ve decided I’m not going to get a license after all.” He cleared his throat and rubbed at his eyes before he continued. “Didn’t really want one, anyway, so it’s fine. I mean, who wants to drive, right? …Can you come pick me up? I’m not at the DMV…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If The Dark Glass Breaks

The silence was the silence after everything has been said, and nothing has changed. They leaned on the fence together, a cold foot of empty space between them, not touching. Her hands worked, the sunlight catching the flash of a wedding band as it tumbled around in her palms, constantly moving. The strip of skin where her ring used to sit was pale against her sun browned hands.

“When I first met you—” the man said, his voice as rough as the hands that gripped the fence.

“Don’t.” She said. “Don’t say any more. It won’t do any good.”

He hurried past her objection in a rush of words: “It was the same day that I saw something else. Something—” he heaved a sigh, “something beyond beautiful, wonderful— I can’t begin to explain to you what it meant to me. It was like when you open a window in a stuffy office after a long day of work and a gust of the most refreshing air blows in on your face and you remember that—there’s more to the world than what’s right in front of us…All the good in the world isn’t  just the pathetic niceness we shrink it down to. It’s bigger and better and realer than all the grief and pain and drudgery.”

The ring stilled in her busy fingers.

“And then,” he continued, “then I met you.”

“And what, ruined your wonderful vision?” She cut in over top of him. “Or did you decide that I didn’t deserve to have any of that good that you saw, that you’d just keep it for yourself?”

“I expected you to act like you’d seen what I saw and that was wrong of me. I didn’t try to explain it to you and now it’s too late. I think—I know it would have changed something between us.”

His wife straightened, her lips tight. “So now you’re apologizing because you should have expected less of me—poor me without any celestial visions. You’re not getting the point. You should have expected more of yourself! How you expect any woman to cook and clean day in and—”

He dragged his hands over his face and let them drop, limp.

She stopped, ashamed of restarting the subject she’d asked him to stop talking about. “I guess I said that already.”

She looked down at the plain ring in her hands and took a shaky breath. Then she held it out to him, dropping it in his open palm. “I’m done.”

But a movement caught the corner of her gaze and she paused to look across the fence. There, lying in the field, was a large, blindingly white feather. It shimmered in the sunlight.

Her husband inhaled sharply and straightened, staring at the feather. A breeze made it shiver, as if it might take flight without its wing.

And then they forgot the feather as a shadow descended on it. Gusts of warm wind, smelling of honeysuckle and clover, flattened the pasture grass and made the watching couple’s hair flutter. The woman blinked and inhaled the gusts of sweet air, feeling the knots in her throat and heart loosen.

A horse descended from the sky, creating the breeze with massive wings.  Softly it planted its hooves onto the ground.

For a moment, they stood there and looked at it, and then, in unison, they stepped forward, the man pushing open the gate, his wife following him.

What are we doing? She thought as she stepped towards the silver glow emanating from the winged horse. For a moment, her eyes drifted to her husband—and she stopped.

A king stood beside her, the lines of his face carved with majesty and humility. There were deep cares reflected in his eyes, his hands were strong with experience and work. For a moment, she didn’t recognize him, and then memory flooded her mind. This was the truth of the man she had glimpsed years ago, before the marriage, before the failing farm, before the clamoring chaos of children. Even then his real nature had been hidden by the trivialities of the world, but she had been able to see this truth at the core of him anyway.

She stopped, suddenly shy. What did she look like to these two—the winged horse that revealed truth with its wings and the king who still held her parting betrayal in his hand?

She clutched her hands to her chest. They felt bony and dusty to her, as if through all her pining for something more she had become merely a skeleton, abandoned by feeling or passion, all chance of life and living crumbling around her.

Her husband took a few steps without her and then turned back when he realized she had stopped. “Come on, Em.” He said, extending a hand to her, and she saw in his eyes not disgust, but the same look she had seen on his face every day of their lives: love. She hadn’t paid attention for years, but it had been there. She ducked her head in shame and saw her ring, glinting on his outstretched palm.

Surprised, certain he’d forgotten it was there, she inhaled sharply. “You can’t…”

“Come with me.”

For a moment, she stood frozen, hands clutched to her chest, and then with something between a sob and a gasp of joy she reached out and took the ring back from him, slipping it on her hand.

Then together, the two of them approached the waiting winged horse. And when he helped her up onto the horse’s back, and she was smiling down at him, she was not the plain farmer’s wife any more; she shone with the grace and loveliness that her bitterness had muted. She was a queen, an equal and match for her king in every way.

He helped her up onto the horse’s back, followed behind her, and with a gust of clover and honeysuckle wind, the horse leapt into the sky and dwindled, a bright white speck vanishing against the blue.

“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” -I Corinthians 13:12

 

 

The Sphinx Changes Her Mind

I just wanted to use fiction to record some of my son’s antics. And then one thing led to another and suddenly I’m referencing a Greek tragedy I haven’t read since high school …. I should probably go read Oedipus Rex after this, just to see how horribly I’ve mangled the connection…

I woke to the sound of crashing pottery, followed by the pat-pat-pat of tiny feet beating a hasty retreat. If I wasn’t careful that would become the crunch-crunch of tiny feet on broken pottery and then there’d be wailing and blood and an angry god beating down my door wanting to know why I’d neglected his little charge. Good morning, me. And on top of that I had a full day of eating stupid human travelers ahead of me.

“Apollodoros!” I roared, lifting myself off my couch with a beat of my wings. “Apollodoros, stop right where you are!” I landed on the marble floor of my bedroom, my heavy paws barely making a sound, and paced out into the main living area.

Apollodoros had half hidden himself behind the kitchen door, his round eyes huge in the shadows. A chubby finger stuck out and pointed at the shattered jar and the spray of meal all over the floor.

“Porridge!” He said. “I makes!”

“Oh great Zeus above…” I muttered, picking up my paws gingerly as the meal stuck to them. Heedless of the smashed pottery, Apollodoros shot out from behind the door, scampered across the room and threw his arms around my front legs, looking up at me with those shiny human eyes. “Porridge, Finks? Porridge?”

I made him porridge with some of the meal I found in another jar. Making porridge isn’t easy with paws, but I manage because I have discovered that mornings are not worth living for Apollodoro if they don’t include porridge. Not that I particularly care if he doesn’t get his every whim—it’s just he has a knack for then making the morning not worth living for anybody else in a hundred foot radius either.

He stuck his spoon into his porridge and inquired, as he shoveled it in his mouth, “What doing?”

“I have to guard a mountain pass today!” I said brightly.

“What do dere?”

“Pose impossible riddles to stupid humans so I can then eat them.” I said dryly.

I have no idea how to talk to small children. I’m a sphinx, not a nursemaid, yet Apollos had the temerity to name this particular little demigod “gift of Apollo” and then thump him on my doorstep without much more than a list of his favorite foods and his stuffed minotaur. I think he is two. Humans are absurd creatures. They are needy, selfish, fickle and changeable. Pretty much the only good thing about them is how quickly and easily they die. Meanwhile, monsters are immortal, dependable—look at me, I’ve guarded the mountain pass going into Thebes for the past seventy years—and yet the humans rule the world, not the monsters.  To be bluntly honest, I generally pose impossible questions, because I can’t see how any of them are worth letting live.

“I don’t know what to do with you.” I said to him. “This particular job tends to be bloody. I’ve half a mind to drop you on some unsuspecting fisherman’s wife and just hope she feels sorry for you till I’m done watching the mountain pass today.”

“I come!” He announced, banging the spoon on his bowl. “I come help!”

I snorted. “Absolutely not.” I said.

——

Two hours later, I crouched on my post and flinched as a small stone went whizzing past my head. “Stop that!” I hissed over my shoulder, and then moments later I abandoned my post entirely to whisk Apollodoro away from a snake.

“’Nake!” He shrieked, delighted.

“You irrational creature! That thing kills!” I said, swooping him a far distance away and setting him down on the ground. “You don’t even have claws!”

I flinched backwards as he howled in protest, stamping his tiny feet, going red in the face, and beating on my paws with his fists. “WANT NAKE!” He screamed.

I generally deal with humankind by biting their heads off. “Do you not realize that I can eat you?” I inquired, assuming he would not understand that I could not, in fact, do this without offending Apollo. “I am much more dangerous than that snake. Do you not realize how small you are?”

He did not. He continued to howl for several minutes and then he noticed a stick. He sniffed, wiped his nose, and began to dig in the sandy soil with it. I stared at him, bemused. “How, without divine intervention, do any of you attain maturity?”

About that time I heard the creak of wagon wheels, and hurried back to my post to issue the riddle and exact the punishment. This took some time, as the merchants had heard of my presence and came armed. Not too much time. A rusty sword and buckler is not much use against my teeth and claws. Again, they thoroughly deserved their fate.

After rolling their wagons back down the hill for the townsfolk to find and spread horrible rumors about me, I went to look for Apollodoro in the little cleft in the rocks I’d left him in.

He wasn’t there. How could a small skin-covered person get far? I’d find him shortly. “Apollodoro!” I roared. Curse that god for saddling me with such a useless small creature.

There was no reply but the faint echo of my own voice. I thought about his chubby hands and his tiny soft arms and I had a strange feeling, almost like panic come over me. I jumped into the air, spreading my wings. But I saw nothing on the ground below. An eagle in the distance banked away from me (sensibly) but I soared after and overtook it immediately, demanding as I knocked him aside with a gust from my wings: “Did you steal a little boy? Where is he, or I will tear you to pieces and scatter you at such distance on the mountainside that you won’t make a decent feather duster!”

The beasts understand the language of the gods and monsters, though they do not speak it well, and the eagle cringed away from me, clacking his beak in a panic. “Just fish.” He croaked. “Only eat fish.”

I left him and dropped swiftly down close to the mountainside, roaring, “Apollodoros!” That unprotected human skin would tear if he fell and tumbled against the rocks. What would he do? Would he know to call for me? Would he be afraid?

Then I saw him.

He was capering around in the middle of a dirt road around a man whose hair was white and whose shoulders stooped with age. The old man was limping, and calling out to the boy, “Hold fast, Doro, I can’t keep up with you!”

I landed as softly as only a sphinx can, and followed them, listening.

“It’s so good to see you, Doro. Do you remember me? I’m your grandfather. Where have you been staying? I’ve missed you and your mother since you went away.”

“Finx!” Apollodoros announced, waving a hand in what he supposed was my general direction. “RAWR!”

“Is that so? I doubt a sphinx would have much patience for a little hooligan like you, my boy.”

Well, he was right there.

“Come here before you get run over by a cart!” And he snagged the back of Apollodoro’s tunic, ruffling the boy’s hair even as Apollodoro squirmed and giggled and nearly knocked him over.

The question was, would this old, injured peasant be willing to take this inexplicable, mercurial being off my hands? I doubted it. The boy was of no practical or monetary value and humans put immense value on those things. This old man would be no different.

“Doro, I can’t keep up with you.” The old man said gently, and to my surprise, Apollodoro hesitated, turned around, and ran back to hold his grandfather’s hand. He began chatting away about Finxes and Porridge in the semi-human tongue he used.

His grandfather was obviously abstracted, only half listening. He finally voiced what he was thinking. “I don’t have much, you know.” He said. And I thought, here it comes. He’s fishing for an excuse to abandon the boy.

“But you stick with me, my boy, and I’ll give you what I can. I’m not sure how I’ll manage it.” He squeezed Apollodoro’s shoulder. “You’re a bit young to do much work in the fields, after all! But I’ll figure it out, I will. A boy ought to have a family.”

Far ahead of them I saw a cart drawn by a seedy looking donkey rumbling towards them. The men driving the cart looked familiar, and rascally (a group of bandits I’d spied several weeks earlier, perhaps?) but I was too occupied with my thoughts to give them much heed.

I sat down in the dirt with a thump, feeling rather odd. Was this why the gods loved humans? Were they searching for this type of person, who, with no hope of payment or recompense, simply took up the responsibilities of raising a small human? And had I not just abandoned my post to search for the very selfsame small boy who could offer no recompense for my attention?

Up ahead, the donkey cart paused by Apollodoro and his grandpa, and one of the men I distantly recognized began sidling up to grandpa, so obviously wheedling that I didn’t need to be there to hear the pathetic whine in his voice. My hackles raised. I would have immediately leapt forward to send the carters away from the impressive grandpa, but at the same moment, I heard the sounds of feet coming up the mountain path. I froze, tail lashing. Why should I neglect my duty to save two insignificant humans? I was getting as bad as the gods, imagining good qualities in these shallow creatures. I launched myself into the air to return to my ledge.

I settled into my place just as a young man came into view. All I ever saw in human faces was animal fear or ridiculous hubris. For all their technology and brains, faced with a monster, they were no better than a rabbit looking up at a fox, so I generally avoided their gaze. But spurred by thoughts of Apollodoros and his grandpa, I looked at this one. He was young, with bright, intelligent eyes. If I didn’t eat him, would this one turn into the kind of being who would patiently care for someone weak and helpless?

“What’s your name?” I asked.

He looked surprised. I felt a little surprised myself for caring.

“Oedipus.” He said with a tilt to his chin as if he’d announced a title.

No, I thought, this one is proud. This one is not like that old man. And I began to look forward to eating him—when I heard a panicked scream below me. “HELP, FINX!”

I bolted upright in a panic. Those bandits! Apollodoro!  And yet, it was my duty to riddle and eat this man in front of me, to rid the world of yet another human parasite. Was it possible that that old humble man had once been a young arrogant man? Were humans, with their tiny lifespans, capable of changes monsters were not? And if they were, did that make their lives more valuable than I’d thought before?

Apollodoro screamed again, and I heard the old man give a helpless shout of fright.

I made my decision. I gave Oedipus a solvable riddle. “What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening? Hurry!”

I saw comprehension dawn on his face, and that silly look humans get when they forget they’re the rabbit and mistake themselves for the fox. “Man!” He said, “Because—”

“Because you can change!” I shouted, and leapt backwards off the side of the cliff, spreading my wings as I drove. “I’m coming, Apollodoro!”

 

 

 

 

Consumed, Part II

I don’t read a lot of horror. But it impresses me that what I have read and seen frequently centers the real darkness of the tale on the human heart. It’s not the dark basements or creaks in the night or vicious ghosts that are truly evil–it’s the greed, corruption and malice in the human heart.  Like G. K. Chesterton, characters in good horror stories often respond to the question “What’s wrong with the world?” by answering, “I am.”

“I didn’t believe in you, so it doesn’t count, okay?”

When she spoke, the house muted her words, swallowing them up in muffled swathes of furniture covers, moth-eaten velvet, brocades covered in dust.

“He deserved it!” She shouted louder, insistent that this house that had passed judgement on her would listen. “Or deserved something, anyway. It went further than I wanted it to. You went further than I wanted you to! I never…” she trailed off and tried again. “I mean, I thought about what all the legends said, but I didn’t really want…”

A voice spoke behind her, familiar, calm. “What did happen that night, Diana?”

“Detective Pearsons.” She said, and her voice wobbled. Of course, he’d followed her. Well, she’d known he would find out, hadn’t she? She didn’t look at him, kept staring up the dark stairs, but she started talking. “Two weeks before it happened, I found him—my fiancé—in bed with my roommate. On our anniversary. I loved him like I’d never loved anybody or anything else and he threw me away like I was trash.” Her hands worked by her sides. “So I decided to make use of the family legends.”

It was 9:20 October 31st, 1987. Diana sat in her car, waiting for the signal. Inside, her Grandpa, a stately figure easily recognizable by his black velvet suit, passed by a brightly lit window and lowered the blind six inches.

Her fiancé, lolling in the passenger seat, grinned at her vacantly. “Why are we sitting here?”

“Shh,” she said, getting out of the car. She scampered around to the other side and pulled him up by the hand. He lurched forward, heavy against her, his face inches from hers. He tried to kiss her but she twisted away, pulling him along with a tug of the hand and a teasing glance over her shoulder. “We’ll just sneak up the back way so Grandpa doesn’t know we’re here.”

“Okay.” He giggled, lolling drunkenly after her. “I’m so glad you’re understanding, Di—it didn’t mean anything, you’re really the one I love.”

She turned back to him, running a thumb down the edge of his face and smiling down at him. “Of course, I understand Daniel. Now let’s get inside and,” she cocked an eyebrow at him, “I’ll show you exactly what I think about your love.”

They ran across the parking lot holding hands. She was silent but a trail of drunken giggles bubbled out from him. From the window, Grandpa watched them go and raised a glass in a silent toast.

All the Warfalls knew about the back bedroom in 97 Blinkwell Court. They didn’t talk about it. They tried not to think about it. It wasn’t the kind of thing modern people believed in, so they convinced themselves he was joking—another tasteless joke played on the world at large by their larger than life patriarch. And because they knew how he made his money but depended on him for cash anyway, they were already quite good at ignoring unpleasant realities.

The unpleasant reality, in this case, was half a dozen obituaries scattered over two decades. All those people had died in the back bedroom. The circumstances differed wildly; one was one of Grandpa’s “girls” who went where she’d been forbidden, one was a drunken man who stumbled in accidentally and tried to nap on the bed; and twice couples decided like it looked like a nice place for a tryst.

Grandpa’s money kept the details of their deaths underreported, but the little bits of truth that did slip out were so bizarre they were easily disbelieved—decapitations, pools of blood, burned corpses in an untouched room. Grandpa, with his characteristic unreserve about his career told the family: “I don’t kill ‘em. The house carries on its own business. That’s where it leads the ones it doesn’t like. I’ll end up in there someday.”

In the haze of rage and grief that followed Diana’s discovery of Daniel’s infidelity, one moment stood out with clarity: her Grandpa, his sardonic half smile on his lips, his watery blue eyes alight with malice.

“If you want revenge, just take him up to the back bedroom for a romantic night.” He made an expansive gesture. “I offer it to you on the house, compliments of your doting Grandpa.”

So now, after weeks of deliberation and inner debate, she tugged her inebriated former fiancé up the stairs, reasoning through her argument again. She couldn’t be expected to believe that there was something truly unsafe about the legendary back bedroom. Her only crime if something happened to Daniel was that she hadn’t fully believed a monster story she’d learned at her Granpda’s knee. And that was hardly a crime. Nobody could blame her.

But as she ushered him through the back bedroom door, she stopped to look at the room, and her lip curled in distaste. The whole room was a melodrama. A black trunk stood at the end of a bed hung with red velvet curtains. A massive painting of Lovis Corinth’s In the Slaughterhouse dominated one wall, the streaked reds, blacks and creams of the painting calling to mind raw meat, echoed in the dried blood color of the carpet under the bed. An axe, glittering in the low lamplight, hung over the fireplace.

Somehow, if the room had been done in clean modern lines she might have believed in it. But this—this was only her Grandpa’s twisted sense of humor. And even though she’d  convinced herself she didn’t want real harm to come to Daniel, the discovery that he was in no danger whatsoever made her tremble with anger.

Snorting in disgust she half heaved her boyfriend onto the bed, where he lay, sprawled and gurgling happily. She surveyed him, hands on her hips. She might have overdone the drugs.

“Come on baby,” he said, holding up his arms. “You said you’d forgive me.”

This room was a fraud. It wouldn’t kill him. It wouldn’t even scare him. There was only one person left who could do that.

In moments, she’d crossed to the fireplace and snatched the axe down from the wall hanging. She didn’t notice at the time that it came easily off the hangar, that it was dust free and polished.

“I think you misunderstood,” she hissed, advancing on him. “I’m sure you misunderstood.” A thrill of pleasure ran through her when she saw the fear on his face. “Do you really think I’m so stupid as to take you back after you cheated on me? You didn’t even apologize!”

She was almost over the bed, the axe poised over her head, when a movement distracted her. The curtain hangings of the bed shifted, red and…wet? It was hard to tell in the dim light, but it seemed like the curtains were pulsing.

Over the pound of her own adrenaline and rage she was suddenly aware of breathing, so slow and deep it couldn’t come from normal human lungs. Daniel, who had half scrambled upright at the sight of the axe, suddenly yelped, drawing up his hand off the coverlet, soaked red.

“It’s blood!” He shrieked, staring at her. “Blood!”

That’s when they both saw the teeth sliding out of the roof of the bed, brutish knife-like triangles, shark’s teeth. Daniel screamed, scrambling to get off the bed which suddenly seemed muscled and alive, writhing under him to keep him in place.

Diana threw back her head and laughed. It was true! She could commit the perfect murder, give this cretin exactly what he deserved, and she would be free!

Daniel made it to the edge of the bed. The teeth descended. A roar, a crunch, and Daniel was on his knees in front of her, covered in his own blood, staring at the stump of his arm.

It wouldn’t be the perfect murder if she left covered in blood, so she smirked at his stupid, dazed expression. “Well, sorry I can’t stick around, Daniel. Hope you have a nice night.”

In the dusty darkness of the house Diana stopped telling her story, her breath ragged.

Pearson’s voice spoke from behind her. “The Daniel Palozza case is still in the police files. A particularly bloody cold case.”

“Yeah, well that wasn’t the end. You police maybe didn’t get justice, but the house…the house knows…” And she continued her story.

She turned to leave and found that the deep plush carpet had grown up over her feet, tendrils and branches made of carpet fiber wound up her legs, pinning her in place. And the carpet was slowly, slowly, creeping her towards the bed; the bed with its big, bloody teeth still clenched shut on Daniel’s dismembered arm. She struggled, clawing at the carpet that held her fast.

The carpet had edged her past Daniel now, and a different section of carpet had wrapped red cords around him, dragging him down, pressing him flat into the floor.

The teeth were an arm’s length away from her, smelling of raw meat. As she was drawn closer, they parted, letting out a deep, hot breath, and began to open, wider and wider.

Diana screamed. Remembering the axe in her hands, she hacked at the vines, leaving huge gouges in her legs in her haste, but slicing through them. Stumbling, she threw herself off the carpet even as it jerked her towards the teeth. She landed on her elbows, rolling away as fast as possible.

Daniel was screaming somewhere inside a carpet that was rolling him towards the teeth.

She threw herself at the door. Locked. The axe was sliding away from her, being pulled back into the thicket of carpet, and she grabbed at it, heaved, and slammed it into the door again and again.

Pearsons, still calm and quiet at her back, said, “You got out.”

“Barely.” She laughed, bitterly. “And I always knew it would get me some day.”

“That’s almost right.” Said the calm voice. “It always has had you. You thought getting away with murder was the same as freedom, but you haven’t been free. Not for decades. You could have turned yourself in. Given up the money, the clothes, the status, and then you might have gotten free. After all, what human isn’t corrupted? But you didn’t even look for an escape. You’d rather have what you want and live in debt.”

“Like you’re not human, too?” Diana half laughed. “You’re just as culpable, by that standard!”

Even as she said it she realized the voice had been changing, growing larger, shifting out of Pearson’s quiet tones. And then the voice rang out, impossibly large, completely inhuman, an alien judge pronouncing sentence: “Today you will pay your bill.”

Diana swung around.

The foyer behind her was empty. Only one set of muddy footprints, her own, had walked into the house. Then the door swung shut. The lock clicked in place. Diana began to scream.

Consumed

I guess I subliminally pick up the subject of ghouls and blood from the Halloween preparations this time of year, since they don’t normally crop up in my regular writing.  This year’s ghost story is a little less cheery than last year’s though (Incorporeal Estate, if you’re interested) and a two part story.

If a house could be imagined eating people, this would be it. Dark stains leaked down the brown brick and the windows glinted out across the park like a predator sighting prey. The door swung open with the silent ease of spreading mandibles; chandeliers twinkled inside like snake’s fangs hung from the ceiling.

Its original owners, a family named Warfall, vacated it suddenly. For a while, it was rented by a steady succession of people who bore certain similarities. Their mouths were open in loud laughter, and their eyes were sad and tired. They dove into life with zest and enthusiasm—and they popped pills before bed so they didn’t lay awake crying through the night. They never stayed long. “It’s a gorgeous house,” they’d say, with wide white smiles, “just not for us.”

But stories escape their hiding places easily, and before long, everyone had heard tales of the nights spent at their house, and disturbing mentions of mysterious accidents and near-death escapes. Eventually, the stream of renters dried up entirely. The windows were boarded up so they could no longer leer out over the lawn, and the door was bolted shut.

For ten years, it sat, abandoned.

And then one morning, Diana Warfall received a call.

“Ma’am? This is Detective Pearsons. There was a break-in at your house last night, and three young men are dead.”

“My house?” Diana stared around her intact living room in surprise. The electronics were undisturbed, the family’s original Gauguin hung exactly where it had always been hung, the china cabinet didn’t have so much as a fingerprint on it. “My house is fine.”

“Your property. 87 Blinkwell Court.”

“Oh.” She sat down on the edge of the couch with a thump. “That place. I hadn’t even thought about it in years.”

She shut her eyes. She didn’t want to think about 87 Blinkwell Court; no one in her family did. It hates us. She thought, somewhat hysterically. We thought it would be happy if we left it alone, but it hates us and now it’s going to get us on murder charges, and I had to be the one Daddy willed it to. He always liked me least…Oh, I don’t want to go anywhere near that place. I don’t want to see it.

“Ms. Warfall?”

“Excuse me?” The detective had been talking and she had been woolgathering.

“As the current owner, we’d like you to come down and tell us some about this house.”

—-

Two hours later, Detective Pearsons met a well-dressed woman outside of 87 Blinkwell Court. Diana Warfall was an attractive woman in her late forties with chestnut hair in a loose bun and in the detective’s opinion, a little too much rattling jewelry. She smiled at him, but he saw fear in her eyes as she looked over his shoulder at the looming brown house.

“H-how did they die?” She said, without preamble, her large eyes darting back at him, bracelets clattering as her hands clutched together. “I don’t want all the gory details, but…”

Pearsons frowned. She was expecting something unusual. She would get it. “One drowned in a keg of beer. One appears to have fallen down the stairs and broke his neck. One…was found half inside a closet, half outside, cut neatly in two.”

Diana’s lips trembled. “I see.”

“Apparently,” the detective continued, “a few frat boys thought they’d found a particularly rich place to party, broke in and invited all their friends. As far as we can tell from interviews and from the state of the house, the party ended unusually early. We’re interviewed some of the other party goers, and oddly enough, they said they all left shortly after dark. Out of fear. Though none of them could explain exactly why they were afraid.”

Diana took a deep breath and clutched her hands together again. “Detective, we boarded this house up because…because it’s a monster. I don’t know how else to say it, but it hates people. We’re not good enough for it. Grandpa built it. He was a…um,” she blushed, “not, perhaps a very moral man…”

Pearsons’ face registered no emotion. Grandpa Warfall had been a pimp and a drug dealer in a large way. He also had the mayor and the police commissioner as clients, so he had been quite flagrant in his excesses. Grandpa Warfall’s legacy had given the surrounding town of Bickerstaff such a bad reputation it survived the decade and a half since Grandpa Warfall’s death. Pearsons wasn’t too fond of the family that had quietly allowed their patriarch to destroy half the town.

“When he’d throw parties, people would die in strange ways.” Diana whispered, miserable to be revealing family secrets. “He hushed it up and kept having them. And then we found Grandpa, dead on the lawn one morning, flung out of his own window.”

“Flung?”

“Oh, we said it was suicide because there wasn’t any evidence, but…we knew. The house kicked him out. It’s not safe. It’s…” she searched for words and then simply repeated, “it’s a monster.” She darted a glance at him, her fingers now wrapped around each other so tightly they were leaving white marks on her skin. “Am I going to be held responsible for those boys, Detective? Because my house killed them?”

Pearsons blinked. “I…doubt that would hold up in a court of law. However, we’re going to need to see if you can assist us for a few days, though. Identifications and so forth.”

Diana stared at him, eyes glassy with fear as she read the suspicion in his face. It didn’t matter what he said, the house wouldn’t have killed people if it weren’t going to pin them on her. The police might not have evidence now, but the house would change that. She remembered the last time she’d been to the house. Behind her, its boarded windows like gouged out eyes, she saw it watching and she knew it had not forgotten. She had escaped that time, and it remembered.

—-

She stayed in nearby Bickerstaff for the next three days, living in an empty hunting lodge owned by the family—hunting lodge being a gross simplification for the luxuries and elaborate architecture of their temporary house. But the Jacuzzi tubs and loft bedrooms did nothing to ease her fear. Pearsons suspected something; she knew it every time she caught him watching her, chewing thoughtfully on the corner of his mustache, insisting she go over her nonexistent alibi yet again.  He always managed to arrange meeting her by the house, or driving past it, and she saw him eyeing her as she clutched at her bangles or wrung her hands—but, miserable, she couldn’t help it. The house was watching her. There would be no escape from it this time.

One afternoon Pearsons had her sit beside him across a table from a frat boy whose initial shaky responses to Pearson’s questions eventually reduced to repeating over and over, his voicing rising to a shrill shriek: “I don’t know, man, it was freaky. I can’t explain it. It was freaky, man, freaky, and, I didn’t do what they did! I don’t even know what they did! I didn’t stay!”

At that point, Diana excused herself, claiming a need to use the ladies’ room. She stood in the police bathroom, staring at her own face in the mirror. It was rounder, plumper, than it had been twenty three years ago, and at the moment it was an unpleasant sickly color.

I’m not a bad person, she told the reflection in the mirror. I did a lot of good. Daddy had always said that as the most wealthy family around they had a responsibility to give back to their communities, to bring others up to their level, and she had. She funded charities, she bought books for schools, she even had her name on a plaque at the Bickerstaff Community Park if anybody cared to go look.  Why couldn’t it ever be enough for that stupid house? She was dimly aware of the countertop edge cutting into the palms of her hands as she gripped it. I shouldn’t be afraid.. She said to herself. I don’t deserve to be afraid.  It’s just a stupid house. In fact, I don’t know why we’ve kept it all these years. I’m going to go out there and put a for sale sign on the lawn.

She left the police station lit with determination, so focused she didn’t see Pearsons watching her leave.

The wind of doubt did not flutter her resolve until she turned onto the drive and started down the long, silent corridor of pine trees. But before she could reconsider, there it was: 87 Blinkwell Court, the dark stains leaking down its face, the mold creeping up its foundation—the door that had been boarded over standing wide open.

Diana slammed on the brakes and sat there halfway up the drive, trying to swallow, trying to ignore the cold fear creeping up her limbs. The house was smiling at her, open mouthed, inviting her inside.

She got out of the car, her eyes fixed on the dark doorway, barely aware of the for sale sign dropping limply from her fingers. She didn’t hear the quiet crunch of footsteps on gravel behind her as she climbed the steps, walked across the porch, and into the open doorway.

Frostbringer’s Failure

In the days before the greening of the world, when everything was covered in ice and snow, Harrod Frostbringer rode his white dragon in the skies above Northwol. His sword was true, his spear was feared. Where the white dragon rode, no official oppressed the poor, no thief dared break into a house, no parent neglected their children because Harrod was the king’s man. The king had been away on a journey for many years, but his law and his memory remained, and he was not a king that allowed injustice to remain unpunished.

Harrod was loved, but feared, partly because of the power he wielded, and partly because he was a strange man. His blond hair hung down his back in knotted dreadlocks hung with silver charms to ward off the evil beasts he encountered. His beard was straggly and he kept a chicken bone tied up close to his right ear.

But stranger than these were his mannerisms. Sometimes when he was visiting town, he pierced every person with his unbreaking blue stare and was frequently abrupt and awkward in his conversation. So unnerving was his stare that even the shopkeepers selling him supplies for his journeys felt that he could somehow look straight into their minds, and once, when Harrod only said “I want a wheel of sharp cheese” to a cheesemaker, that man burst into tears and admitted overcharging his patrons by ten percent.

At other times, Harrod seemed so shy he never looked above anybody’s boots and muttered all his words. There was one woman he never looked in the eye at all, and that was Ingrid Nielson, the prettiest girl in Roarn, a village in the far north. No one noticed this but Ingrid herself.

The only time Harrod acted completely naturally was when he was carrying out the king’s business. He was swift to protect the innocent and just in his punishments. When Harrod caught a man beating his wife, he beat up the man himself, then left him bruised and in the uncomfortable guardianship of his dragon while Harrod spent extra time in the village finding people to support the woman as she recovered. Then he returned to the man and took him to the ice-breaking lines on the coast to work to support his wife from afar. In this and other similar matters Harrod carried himself with confidence, interacting with people normally and carrying on easy conversations.

The priest in Roarn, one of the few people who called him friend, asked him why he found it so easy to deal with people when he was helping them. Harrod fiddled with his hunting knife for a long time before he said “I know, when I am helping, that it is the right thing to do. I am useful. Other times…” He trailed off and shrugged.

Unfortunately, a time came when there was much more for Harrod to do. Another king began to attack the far northern villages and cities. He thought that because the king of Northwol was absent, the land was unprotected. He was wrong. The garrison in the north, kept in readiness for the king’s return, immediately acted to repel the invaders, and Harrod himself stayed at the front lines, flying back and forth from village to village on his dragon, warning them of approaching attack, defending them, and sending messages to the capitol asking for more military support.

The invading king attacked ferociously, wiping out entire villages for the plunder and saving only a few for slave labor. He hurled the heaviest portion of his force at Illia, the largest northern village, and Harrod flew there immediately, fighting day and night to protect the citizens of Illia and support the soldiers. It was several weeks before the siege lifted, and he was able to leave and patrol the rest of the territory.

As he crested the ridge of pine trees that surrounded Roarn, he saw smoke billowing into the sky. Soldiers ran through the town, burning houses, hauling people out into the cold. Bodies lay motionless in the snow. And Ingrid’s house, the house with green shutters, that she kept so tidy—it was broken in two, burning, and crushed. Blood covered the ground in front of the house.

Harrod made no sound, but his dragon sensed his master’s rage and roared, bending the trees to the ground with the force of its icy breath.

So Harrod and his dragon descended like a falling shard of glass, blinding in the sunlight as they dropped upon the town. Even the stoutest enemy fled before the wrath of the white dragon and its rider. Harrod dismounted, striking out as he slid off his dragon, and his sword was wet with blood before his feet touched the earth. The villagers took heart at seeing him, and those who had weapons raised them with renewed vigor and swept forward so that the invaders became afraid and ran away, out of Roarn, scattering into the frozen hills where wolves and bears and ice killed them one by one.

Harrod ran for the house with green shutters, but each time he passed a body, he stooped over it. He knew every one. A shopkeeper. A shoemaker. A mother. A son. By the time he reached the empty, burned shell of Ingrid’s house, he was barely walking with the weight of each corpse he’d passed by. He dropped down on her bloody doorstep and put his head in his hands, weeping for the lives he had not saved.

“Why are you crying, Harrod Frostbringer?” A voice behind him said.

“I have failed. I cannot fix this. There is nothing I can do to right this wrong.”

“It is the king’s power to right wrongs and undo injustice, Harrod. You can only follow his orders.”

“Then why didn’t he stop this himself? Why did these people have to die?”

“I do not know.” Ingrid eased herself onto the stoop beside him, wincing as she moved. Blood ran down the side of her face. Her clothes were torn, and she held a bloody hunting knife in one trembling hand. Harrod looked at her with joy—then his face fell, and he said: “Why are we alive and they are not? How is that just?”

Ingrid looked out as a weeping woman knelt by her husband’s body lying in the snow. She stood up. “I can only do what is in front of me and hope for the king’s quick return.”

Harrod stood beside her. She slid her hand into his but he had another question: “What can we do in the face of all this pain?”

“Weep. And hope.”

And they went down the hill, hand in hand, to comfort the grieving.

 

 

 

They Are In The Shadows

My husband said my stories are getting too similar. So here’s my attempt at something a little different…

Yes, I do like to be in the light. I like it when there are people around. What I don’t like to do is think about why I prefer the light and people. My favorite place is this café, Beauregards, just off Sixth and Main, you know, smack dab in the heart of the city, right by the business district so there’s all these businessmen and women having lunch in the afternoons and evenings but it’s near the science museum and the farmer’s market, too, so there’s old people in the mornings and kids after school lets out. I like that. Lots of stuff to see-hear-touch. Kids shouting, people talking, the smell of coffee and the grilled paninis and the way the ironwork of the outdoor table feels under my fingers.

I only drink seltzer water in between meals. I don’t do stimulants. A little bit of caffeine and I can feel my heart making triple beats in my chest, and then if somebody notices I might have to lay down or they want me to rest which would mean I would have to go away from all the people, and I’d have to go be alone, and I don’t want to be al—no, I’m not going to think about that.

I already have to think about being alone, every day at nine PM. I do my work on a laptop outside Beauregards, unless it’s raining, and then I do it inside. That’s another reason I picked Beauregards, is that it stays open latest of all the cafes. For a while I thought it might be better to go home earlier, when it was still light, at least in the summer, because I am so tired, so, so tired….but—no, light or not light doesn’t really matter to them, not like you’d think it would. Not once you’ve seen them. Not once they’ve seen you. So I stay as late as I can, and I work as long as I can, and then—I said I wasn’t going to talk about that. I’m not. I won’t. It’s not nice. I wish you’d stop asking about it. I don’t want to talk about it. Please leave me alone, everybody else does.

I’ll tell you about my days instead. There’s one barista, a girl who dyes her hair in purple and black stripes. She talks to me and is nice to me. The others call me “the crazy corner guy” and they think I don’t hear, or they don’t care if I hear, but she is different. She still thinks I’m crazy though. I was stupid one night and told her why I don’t want to go home. She kept being nice to me, but I can see she feels sorry for me because she lets me stay after closing until they’re done cleaning up sometimes. I don’t know why nobody believes me. Someday I’m afraid I’ll be tired and just decide to believe that I’m crazy, like everyone else thinks. It would be so restful, so nice to know I was wrong. But then they would get me for certain. Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be worth it just to give up and let them have me. I don’t know why I’m the only one who sees—No! I am not going to talk about them! I’m talking about daytime things, people things.

Today, I am going to stay here at Beauregards, in the panini grilling -talking people-dishes clinking-cars honking-buses hissing world as long as I can. When I was leaving my apartment today I looked into my bathroom—I wear my pajamas to the subway and get ready in the public bathroom, but sometimes I look into my real bathroom on my way out—I don’t really know why—and—I saw writing. Writing on the mirror. I didn’t write on the mirror. They wrote on the mirror.

I’m not going back. I’m going to sleep on a park bench tonight, sleep on the subway, sleep—never again. I’ll go to the worst bars that stay open all night. I’ll take a bus out to a Walmart. There have to be people, and noise, and doing, constantly, keeping away the silent pockets, the empty parts of the world, the quiet. They’re coming for me. They’re going to get me. I can’t be alone…I’m so tired…

But Rilla, the nice barista, is cleaning up now. She keeps looking at me funny. What if she wants to drive me home? I try to smile at her and she just looks more worried. I tell her I prefer the bus, but she laughs, because she says nobody prefers the bus. No, no, she’s coming over to me now. She has a kind look on her face. If I tell her I’ll ride with her, maybe I can stand at the door till she leaves, go away, hide from them. I’ll do it. She won’t know. She’ll think I’m just mentally ill. Oh, I wish I was.

_____

Two people stood at the peeling door of an apartment at a seedy apartment complex. The parking lot light buzzed and flickered, casting a yellowish glow on alsphalt lined with cracks and filled with weeds. The taller of the two people at the door was talking. “Are you sure you’re okay, Mr. Stevenson? I’m afraid you’re sick. I’ll just see you inside, okay?”

“I’m fine.” The man whispered, shoulders hunched, his hands shaking as he lifted a key to the doorknob. “Just fine. Please, go. It won’t be safe for you once they see you.”

The door clicked open, a black sliver of darkness showing, cold air slipping out.

The woman with the purple and black hair sighed. “If you insist. You call me if you want a ride in the morning. Or if you need a ride to the hospital. Seriously, Mr. Stevenson. You were looking bad tonight. I know you say there are ‘things’ out to get you, but I think it might be your own mind or your own body that’s causing you problems. Will you call me? Is that a promise?”

Mr. Stevenson was staring with trembling lips at the black line between the door and the doorframe. It slowly crept open. “Yes.” He whispered.

“Okay, well I’ll see you tomorrow, alright? Same place, same time?” She grinned at him, and thumped him on the shoulder before walking back towards her car. Stevenson never took his eyes off the crack.  He moved his lips in what might have been a goodbye or might have been a plea for help.

Her car started and drove off, the headlights coasting over the parking lot, bouncing at the exit, and vanishing down the road.

Mr. Stevenson stared at the open door in front of him. Like a man in a dream, he stepped forward, one step, two steps, and shut the door behind him. He flicked on the entry way light and saw the familiar coat hooks with a single jacket, the dusty fake fern sitting by the door, the brown linoleum. Somewhere past the glow of light, the refrigerator hummed and clicked. The air conditioning cut off. But Mr. Stevenson stood perfectly still, his keys dangling from his fingers. In the living room, a dark shape separated itself from the shadows. Another dark shape separated itself from the shadows. And another. They began to walk towards him. In the silence, their footfalls were loud.

 

The Phoenix Task

Aurea was raised by a dragon, so when the bird left, her first impulse was to burn everything to the ground.

It was supposed to be a simple task. She had apprenticed herself to the master wizard in her village, but because she was only twelve instead of the normal apprenticing age of thirteen, he’d asked her to complete a test before being formally accepted. Every one-hundred years the phoenix would return to the top of Mount Seer from the sun, burn to death, and be reborn in the ashes to begin another one hundred year journey to and from the sun. Aurea’s task was to climb to the top of Mount Seer and pull a feather off a newly hatched phoenix right before it began its flight to the sun.

Brimming with confidence, she climbed the mountain at the traditional time for the phoenix’s return, her bedroll and supplies strapped to her back. She had lived much of her early years in a cave as part of a dragon’s hoard. The idea of living in a cave for a day or two, waiting for the phoenix to come down from the sun and then pulling a feather from a hatchling certainly didn’t sound difficult.

Early in the morning she climbed up the mountain through the leafy poplars and maples to where scraggly pine trees grew in pale shale, and found a cave. In the cave, in the middle of a smoldering pile of ashes, was something round, glowing bright with sun-gold and radiating heat.

This was better luck than she could have dreamed; she’d come up on the exact day the dead phoenix had transformed into an egg. She wouldn’t even need the bed roll—she could take the feather and be an official wizard’s apprentice by the evening.

Barely breathing, Aurea climbed into the cave, sat down her bedroll and supplies and inched closer. Then the red globe unrolled itself, extended a long pliable neck, iridescent and red gold, and cocked a bright black eye at her. She froze. It was already hatched. Her task was reduced from days to a matter of minutes. The phoenix stretched itself and stood on yellow legs. It walked past her and she followed, hand extended towards the two plumes of purple feathers cascading off its head, expecting it to spread its wings and launch itself into the air at any minute.

Instead, the bird walked to her bedroll, inspected it with its head to one side, and then sneezed a fireball. Aurea yelped as her bed lit on fire and scrambled to douse it with water. When she’d put out the fire, she turned around to find the bird resettled in its nest, watching her out of one eye. If it had been any other creature than a bird, she might have thought it looked amused.

After that the bird did nothing she expected it to do. It showed no signs of leaving that day, or the next, or the next. When she was down to a slab of jerky and the final drop of water in her water bottle she faced the fact that this phoenix was not behaving normally and she would have to adjust her plans.

The first hurdle was how to get water without leaving the bird unattended. She made a pouch from an extra shirt and trekked down the mountain with the bird tucked on her back, a hot ember, sweat streaming down her forehead. Then she trekked her way back up, carrying buckets of water. Halfway up the bird started making little irritated grunts and she peered over her shoulder to scowl at it. “Well if you weren’t the most contrary phoenix that ever lived and left like you ought in the first place, maybe I wouldn’t have to drag you up and down the mountain! Ever think of that?”

So it went. Her mornings began with the bird standing on her, hot feet burning acute angles into her chest, as he sang his greeting to the dawn. It was a beautiful song, but she did not appreciate it. “Get OFF!” She’d shout. “GET OFF OF ME! Your feet are like hot irons!”

Then there was water to fetch and food to hunt, all with the burning coal of the bird strapped to her back, radiating heat, and of course, in between cooking and hunting there were hours and hours of boredom, propped up in the shade of the cave, staring out over the shale. The bird liked to sit right next to her, close enough to be uncomfortably warm at all times.

“I guess I could wait to apprentice.” She said to the phoenix one afternoon, flicking a piece of shale down the mountain and hitting a stump. “But everybody else belongs in the village; it’s theirs, they fit in it…I want something of my own, something to keep for me, even if that’s just an apprenticeship.” She edged away from the phoenix’s heat and it edged after her. She sighed. “You need to hurry up and leave! Because you getting on with your job is the only way I get off this mountain before going completely crazy!”

She lay under her blankets and watched him in the evening, his feathers glowing purple and orange like hot coals in the darkness. Didn’t he used to be brighter? Was he fading? Was he sick? Maybe this bird wouldn’t fly to the sun at all. Would she be able to apprentice if her phoenix gave up on the sun journey? Uneasy, she edged her bed around so she could see his glow even through her closed eyelids.

The next morning she woke without hot feet on her chest and immediately jumped to her feet, feeling sick. He’d gone! Seconds later her mind registered the sound of the phoenix’s song and she relaxed. The relief that swept through her should have told her something about herself, but she did not pay attention because the phoenix’s song had changed; it was charged, like musical lightning, and the phoenix stood at the edge of the cave with massive wings outstretched, glinting in the morning sunlight.

Aurea stared, her mouth open, eyes squinty with sleep, her hair in an untidy curly mess. The bird raised his wings, and they caught fire in the dawn. She reached forward slowly, almost unconsciously, and snagged a single feather from the bird’s wing—then there was a rush of heat and wind, a single, beautiful note, and he was gone.

The cave was silent. The wind hissed in the pines outside. Aurea let the feather fall from her numb fingers. It drifted down to settle on the bag, unnoticed, forgotten.

If she had known how much she was attached to the bird, the rage would not have gripped her so completely. But she hadn’t understood herself. The loss of the phoenix felt like having a limb ripped out of her chest. All the memories burned like coals in her stomach. She had been raised by a dragon, and had learned more of its hoarding ways than she realized. And, like a dragon, she reacted to the loss of her treasure.

The rage took her, a wild flame kindled from the inside and burning out through her, smoke sizzling off her skin. She just wanted to smash something, to burn it, to destroy it because that was her bird and she wanted it back. She hadn’t fed it, she hadn’t loved it, she had just put up with it, and somehow and she was bereft without it.

Aurea stood up, her fists clenching, eyes blazing. “You can’t leave!” She threw her head back and howled it towards the sky, “You can’t just leave! You were mine!”

She grabbed a torch leaning against the wall and shoved it into the embers of the phoenix’s nest. The torch burst into flames and she swung it around, scattering coals from the nest all over the cave, storming out into the sunlight, wanting to burn.

The torch blazed, searing the side of her face and for a moment she paused, burning inside and out. Why am I angry? Her own voice said inside her head. It was fading and losing heat. It might have died if it stayed, and would it be reborn if it hadn’t gone to the sun? Then a louder voice in her mind simply roared, BUT IT WAS BEAUTIFUL AND IT WAS MINE! And she plunged the torch into a drift of pine needles and sticks that had been blown up against the mouth of the cave. They roared up in a crackling, towering blaze of flame and smoke.

She bounded forward, her eyes fixed on the forest beyond the shale. If I can’t have what I want, let it all burn! She leapt up on a stump and looked into the sky to shake her fist at the bird that dared leave when she wanted it to stay.

And stopped.

It was spiraling upward towards the sun, a comet tail so bright it blazed hot red even against the blue depths of the sky. And it was singing. It was a triumphant song, the song of creature doing exactly as it was created to do, a thing fitted perfectly into nature.

Aurea, still staring upward, carefully sat down on the stump, tears running down her face. She plunged the torch into the shale and let it fizzle out, smoking quietly beside her. Behind her, the drift of leaves and needles burned out and black smoke twisted into the sky. She sat there and cried for the loss of the bird and for the beauty of it.

She went back to town and to her master later that day. The old wizard opened his door and smiled down at the smoke-smudged, tear stained face framed with pale curls.

“I don’t have the feather.” Aurea said, staring straight ahead. “It got burned.”

He didn’t seem at all surprised. “But what did you learn, child?”

She looked up at him, eyes swimming with tears. “It wouldn’t have been beautiful anymore if it had stayed.”

The wizard smiled and put a hand on her shoulder. “Come in, child. We’ll begin your apprenticeship today.”

 

Glued

This has been difficult to compress. At one point it was four pages, single spaced–have no fear, I did trim it down to a reasonable size. I’m rereading Les Miserables, so I blame Victor Hugo.

(This is a rant and totally unnecessary for understanding the story. Feel free to skip.)

The silly man feels that to set up a single scene between two secondary characters at the Battle of Waterloo, he must take his readers through a detailed description of the geography of Waterloo, an account of the battle itself, an analysis of the meaning of victory, the nature and qualities of the combating nations, and some thoughts on the commanders of the two armies before finally getting to the scene with his characters. With all that rolling around in my head, how am I supposed to be brief and punchy and modern?

And welcome to Garden Terrace Retirement Home. I’ll be revisiting this place.

Patrick Smiley, age 35, sat on the front porch of Garden Terrace Retirement Center and Nursing home and listened to the nurses behind him whisper about him. This was not difficult as he had extremely acute hearing, a fact often overlooked in contrast to his other gifts.

“Phyllis, Patrick’s in a mood. He was bullying Andrew again, and now I have to take him his lunch. Can’t you do it? I’ll cover your night shift next week!”

The head nurse gave a heavy sigh.

Patrick had the porch to himself, of course. Just a minute before he’d found Andrew Clarkson, once called The Wolf, sitting out here.

“Hey Andy, could you open a pickle jar for me?” Patrick mocked. “Oh, wait, you can’t because you’ve voluntarily destroyed your own hands. What a pity.”

Andrew, a tall old man with masses of white scar tissue running along his knuckles, wordlessly got up and left, which was exactly what Patrick wanted.  Every time The Wolf extended the claws hidden in his hands for battle, they ripped open his skin, and after decades of service, his hands were so scarred they were nearly unusable.

But Andrew was not the only superhero not allowed to share space with Patrick Smiley. Even the residents with decent powers like Mr. Fireball and Captain Electro stayed away from the porch when Patrick wanted to have a seat.

He’d never cared for the dramatic superhero names and he was too powerful to need a secret identity. Patrick Smiley, that’s all he’d ever been. He didn’t need to brand himself, he didn’t need to advertise to find work, he didn’t even need a catchphrase or a cool name. Patrick could transmit a fatal virus at will with a single touch, he could burn through reinforced steel with laser vision, he could see perfectly in the dark, he had telekinesis, he could fly, he could sense metal far as 100 yards away and change it from a solid to a liquid or gas, he was impervious to bullets, knives, and snake bites, his clothes never wrinkled and (as mentioned) he had exceptionally good hearing.

And yet…at thirty-five he was the youngest resident at Garden Terrace by over a decade. He was slim and healthy. His only noticeable failings were thinning hair and his unpleasant sense of humor.

He had quit active duty abruptly and without explanation on his thirtieth birthday. The Department of Defense still sent envoys over to him asking him to come out of retirement. Sometimes he was sarcastic with them: “Oh, come out of retirement to get yanked around by some greasy politician? Why, sounds like a treat!” And other times, he just slammed the door in their faces. On their last visit, he had thrown a lamp and screamed at them and they hadn’t been back.

Everyone assumed he had some traumatic experience in the field (the DoD used to send psychiatrists to him, too, but after he started singeing their clipboards with his laser vision, they refused to visit him) but it wasn’t true. The reason was much simpler than anyone suspected.

Patrick Smiley was achingly, mind numbingly, excruciatingly lonely.

Patrick didn’t know he was lonely. Even inactive he was the most feared, unstoppable superhero in the world—that was the pinnacle of success, successful people are happy, ergo, he was happy.

So now he sat, at thirty-five, alone on the front porch of a retirement home and told himself he was amused that the nurses were afraid to bring him his lunch.

Not thirty seconds later, his entire life changed because of a loose board in the Garden Terrace porch.

The Amazing Goo Woman, coming back from her weekly hair appointment, tripped coming up the steps to the front porch and in her flailing attempt to recover her balance, shot a great blob of her iridescent, bubblegum scented adhesive straight at Patrick.

The nurses rushed out to assist her, but Patrick stayed where he was, howling with laughter. There is a certain stripe of person that finds humor in an eighty year old woman wearing platform boots and purple spandex tripping on a loose board. But it would have been better had he moved to help her—by the time she was upright Patrick was immobilized, glued to his chair by her goo.

“Hey!” He shouted, as they helped Goo Woman inside, “Hey, I’m stuck!”

Phyllis, the nurse carrying Goo Woman’s purse for her turned around with a raised eyebrow. She was a large woman with a frizz of black hair pulled back into a ponytail. “Um, break out of it. Can’t you do that? Super strength and all?”

Patrick rolled his eyes. “I have the laser vision, not the super strength, which you would know, if you kept up with the resident profiles like you’re supposed to, Phyllis.”

Phyllis’s lips tightened. “Alright, Mr. Smiley. I’ll be out to help you in a few minutes.”

And she went inside. The door shut. The sun had fallen behind the trees and the porch was in cool purple shadow. Patrick tried to wriggle free of the glue but couldn’t even shift under his clothes—the glue had soaked through the (unwrinkled) fabric and adhered to his skin, rendering him completely immobile. He started to hyperventilate.

“I could use some help out here!” Patrick shouted. Nobody answered. He fumed, taking refuge in anger.

“Do you know who I am?!” He yelled. “I could destroy this place!”  He considered doing it right then—just lasering down the whole front office, but then he had a momentary vision of himself, glued to a chair, stuck on a burning porch and unable to get away. That would be a humiliating way for the greatest superhero to die. He’d wait till he unstuck before he burnt anything.

And then the thought occurred to him—would he ever unstick? He tried to remember if he knew anything about Goo Woman’s powers, but he had never paid much attention to other superheroes, and he didn’t know.

Do you count as the most powerful superhero if an eighty-year-old woman can glue you to a chair for eternity?

The air was cool and clammy by the time Phyllis came back out. “Goo Woman says the glue will eventually break down, but she doesn’t remember how long it’ll be. Will you need help using the bathroom?”

The details of managing to use the bathroom while being glued to a chair were difficult and embarrassing. At one point, Patrick found himself tipped upside down as a janitor took a hacksaw to the bottom of the rocking chair. He dangled there, face red, covered in bubblegum scented glue, and looked at the impassive, upside down faces of the people around him. No one cared.

For the first time in his life, Patrick Smiley knew he was lonely.

But the realization did him no good—in fact, in a paroxysm of anxiety the next morning, he shouted at Phyllis when she came in to help him. From there he proceeded to stare in stony silence at the meal lady when she came to feed him his supper (he didn’t know how to talk to other superheroes, let alone normal civilians) and made an offensive joke to Goo Woman when she dropped by to apologize. He offended her so much, she glued his remote to his coffee table and stormed out.

This continued for two days. The glue held him fast. Every part of him ached from immobility. Each minute that passed left him more panicked. Since Goo Woman, no one had asked how he was or dropped by to see him.

Finally, one morning after he’d been sarcastic and snippy to Phyllis all morning, she drew herself up and planted her hands on her hips.

“You are a pathetic creature, Mr. Smiley.”

And to their mutual surprise, he said meekly, “I know.”

She stared at him. “Come again?”

Patrick regretted his honesty and changed the subject. “Can you leave my door open today?”

She narrowed her eyes at him and pursed her mouth like she had something to say, but silently did as he asked.

He sat in his recliner, staring out at the people that passed. There was Andrew, The Wolf, making his slow way down the hallway, massive shoulders bowed. He stopped and spoke to the Ice Queen. She was inching along, her hands perpetually frozen to her walker, her hair so thin and white it looked like a cloud around her head, but she smiled up at Andrew and answered him in cheerful tones.

Patrick watched Andrew slowly lumber on and felt a tug of jealousy. True, Andrew Clarkson had one of the most self-destructive powers Patrick had ever heard of. And yet, the man had been the terror of sex trafficking rings worldwide. He looked at his own, thin, dexterous hands and imagined ripping them open every time he tried to fight someone, and doing it repeatedly for decades. What motivated that?

“Mr. Clarkson?” Patrick called, and his voice cracked.

The big man turned and walked back to Patrick’s door, looking in at him with sad eyes. “Mr. Smiley.”

Patrick blushed, coughed and said, “Um, would you care if I joined you on the porch? I wondered if you could tell me some about your career.”

 

Dragon, Undefeated

She was the only one who knew he’d left the dragon alive. And every time she ran with his other children to be swept into a big bear hug, and every time she sat at his table and had good food for the first time in years, the grief of that knowledge weighed her down.

He’d found her in the dragon’s cave six months ago, a little seven year old child with a head of golden curls, sitting on a pile of gold behind a half-burned ribcage. He crouched down to her level, a bearded, weathered man with friendly crinkles around his eyes and rough comfort in his voice. “Now this is a treasure indeed,” he said, smiling at her. “I bet there’s not a dragon in the world with something so dear. Does old Grimaud treat you well, child? Would you rather come and be safe in my home? My wife would love you.”

There had been others who had come to kill Grimaud, and she hadn’t shown herself to them, hadn’t trusted them, but she sized up this man with eyes shrewder than the average seven year old, and marched straight out to him, holding out a hand to shake as her mother had taught her. “My name is Aurea,” she said. “Nice to meet you.”

He’d brought her back to the village, riding on his shoulders as the wreak and smoke from the (supposedly) destroyed dragon boiled up into the air behind them. He hadn’t said much as the villagers celebrated and congratulated him on the destruction of Grimaud, which they assumed was due to his natural humility. Aurea knew the truth, though, and she read a silent apology in his eyes when he looked at her.

So she came to live in his house, with his five children and laughing, merry wife. She loved them all. She loved baking bread with his wife, she loved playing at war and house with his children, running around shrieking and barefoot all over the village. She brought the man his boots when he got up in the morning (having grown accustomed to being up and about early before the dragon rose) and sat with the other two youngest children when he told them stories at night.

But the dragon was not dead, and she was part of the dragon’s hoard. Someday unless Grimaud was killed, she knew the crafty old beast would do much worse to her friend than simply take her away. But she said nothing, because she had seen him fight the dragon. And she had seen him lose.

She still had nightmares sometimes about that fight. Grimaud had come back just moments after her friend had found her and gotten her out of the cave. The dragon had descended like a meteor, flaming and raging and unstoppable.

In the stories, Aurea thought, the hero is always almost outmatched, but in this case, there was no almost about it. No matter what the ridiculous stories of knights may say, the bravery of a single man cannot stop a grown dragon in full charge. He had an old sword and buckler that he had some skill with, yet moments after the dragon’s attack, he had lost both and was tumbling down the hill as the dragon’s breath ignited the trees around him into a blazing inferno.

Grimaud slammed a scaly forepaw onto the ground and caught him by his hauberk just before he tumbled over a cliff near the edge of the cave. “Hmmm,” the dragon rumbled, “Just a single human man. I was hoping for something more bear-sized for my dinner party. Still, I suppose you’ll make good hors devours.”

Then she’d heard his voice, shaking with terror, not a strong warrior any more, just a scared man.

“If you let me live, I-I can be useful, I can do something for you! Just let me take the girl and I’ll raise her for you. She’ll be more beautiful if she’s raised by humans. A good addition to your hoard!”

Grimaud smiled a slow smile that showed every one of his two hundred and fifteen teeth. “There will be a reckoning, you know. I don’t loan out my hoard for free.”

“Just let me live.” Her friend begged, “Let me take her with me. I’ll give her back better than before, I promise.”

And amazingly, the dragon agreed. But Aurea looked back at him on her way down the mountain and saw his eyes glittering in the darkness of the cave and the razor sharp edges of his teeth still showing in a smile.

You might have thought that Aurea would object to her friend using her as a bargaining chip. But she was, as mentioned, an unusually canny seven year old, and besides, she understood all too well what it was like to rendered powerless, grabbing for straws to survive. She also knew he was fond of her and guessed that he had no intentions of giving her back to Grimaud.

At any mention of the dragon, her friend changed the subject as if the threat would go away if he didn’t talk about it. But Aurea knew that as long as she, a piece of the dragon’s hoard, stayed in the village, Grimaud would consider himself within his rights to burn the entire place to the ground, to eat the livestock and burn the people to regain her. She woke up during the nights, crying from visions of her playmates, her friend, and his wife, all dead, burned, and eaten.

So every single day, she got up early, put on her cloak, and slipped out the door into the grey morning mist. An hour later she’d be back and standing at his bedside with his boots. She’d sit beside him while he put them on.

“You need to kill Grimaud.” She’d say, quietly, so his wife wouldn’t wake up. Then he would look at her with despair in his eyes because they both knew he’d already tried.

He knew she went out in the mornings, but he didn’t ask her where she went or what she did, because though his family loved her, the two of them understood that she did not belong to him.

Then one morning she brought him his boots, his sword, and his buckler, a grim expression on her face, and her eyes big and solemn under the mass of blonde curls. “You must kill Grimaud today.”

They looked at each other for a long time, her small will striving with his. Finally, he put on his boots, slung on his sword, and went out to make the long, slow walk up the hill towards the dragon’s cave. His shoulders were bowed. Aurea followed behind him, almost invisible in her cloak.

At the entrance to the cave, he straightened up, sighed, and said, “Grimaud.”

The dragon slithered out, circling round the man to demonstrate the awesome length of his armor-plated body, the way the morning sunlight glinted off his scales and his teeth, and purred, “Well, this is a surprise. Suicidal, much? Returning the girl now is hardly holding up your end of the deal. She’s not even an inch taller! I may just go burn down your village anyway”

Without preamble, the man raised his blade and swung. Grimaud lifted one lazy claw to spear the man straight into the ground. Instead, the sword caught on the claw and he found his arm jerked to the side by the force of the blade’s shove.

Shocked, both the dragon and the man looked at Grimaud’s claws. They were filed down to nubs, nubs with little hatches in them that a blade could easily catch on and unbalance the dragon. Dragon and man looked up at each other, and for the first time, there was a spark of alarm in Grimaud’s eyes. “You’re still just a weak human!” Grimaud howled. “I don’t even need claws to kill you!”

He attacked. But even with his extra weight and size, the man’s sword kept catching in the hatches, jerking the dragon off balance, ruining everything. Grimaud whipped his head around, catching the man on the jaw and sending him flying. The sharp plates of his armor tore the man’s hauberk and left bloody tears in the skin underneath. The man fought on, sweat dripping into his eyes, muscles aching, wounds burning. But this time, the fight was not impossible.

Flustered and irritated, Grimaud had had enough. He swelled up, preparing to burn the man alive. He’d been rather cold over the past week, and had the sniffles, but a little head cold wouldn’t stop a belly full of fire from leaving this hoard-thief a charred shish-kebob. He opened his jaws and roared, sending out a jet of

—a trickle of—

watery charcoal.

No jet of fire.

Grimaud screamed in fury, opened his mouth once more, feeling the familiar burn spark to life in his belly again—nothing quenches dragonfire for long—and in that moment the man summoned up all his courage, ducked under the rows of sharp teeth, leapt into the damp, hot mouth, and plunged his blade into the dragon’s throat.

Grimaud died that day.

When it was done, Aurea’s friend sat down on the carcass of the dead dragon with a thump expressive of shock, relief, and complete befuddlement. A head of golden curls popped up from behind the dragon. Aurea straddled its neck and kicked her legs.

She grinned. “I’ve been sneaking ice water into him for weeks.” She said. “And filing his claws.” She slid down the side of the dragon’s neck and stood in front of him. “I don’t think Grimaud killed my whole family when he stole me, and I need to find them. Will you tell your family goodbye for me?” She threw her arms around him. Then she scampered away, golden curls visible, shining in the sunlight, for a long time as she vanished down the trail.