I circled the castle twice before beginning my descent. Soldiers rushed onto the parapets, and people in the village nearby pointed and followed my progress.
The cobblestones within the bailey made for a clean landing without the usual dust storm, but the reek of humans nauseated me. I folded my wings and drew back my head, ready to strike at the first sign of treachery. Humans are notoriously sneaky, and the bailey was a perfect place for an ambush.
Grandmother had taken up residence in Grundia Keep, everyone knew that, but what if she had died, or worse, been deposed? It wasn’t long before more humans appeared, snaking onto the bailey from their holes in the walls and carrying steaming bowls and cloths. After sidelong glances at one another, they approached with cautious steps. I reared, but refrained from snatching one up, remembering grandmother’s instructions.
I’d never been touched by humans, yet the warm water soothed me, and I decided to spread my wings for a thorough cleaning. Then came a surprise. Four of the creatures presented me with a chain mail vest. I had ripped through enough chain mail to know it was a flimsy excuse for armor (all right, perhaps a few humans touched me then), but its edges were lined with emeralds to match my skin. After a clumsy attempt to slip it over my head — they could barely lift the hem high enough — I snatched it from their hands. It hung nicely over my breast.
Then they presented me with pointy silver tubes ornamented with filigree and pearls. A trembling hand slid one of them over my right middle claw. Fingernail sheathes, the humans called them. They doubled the length of my claws but were far too frail to be of any use in combat. Still, if I walked with nails retracted they clicked pleasantly on the stone floor. My grandmother’s design, no doubt.
A tasty-looking morsel bowed and mimed that I should proceed to the entry, unaware that I was fluent in Vulgate. The portal, apparently enlarged to accommodate dragons, opened into a feasting hall. More humans poured in from smaller doors which made me suspicious, just the place to take cover if I released my fire, which I’d been withholding with some reluctance. Grandmother could have roasted half the gathering in a single burst. Yet years ago she chose to defend these weak creatures, holding off the mountain trolls at Highwater Pass. Subsequently, the humans served her. At least, that’s what I’d been told as a youngling.
The nameless morsel escorted me down the center aisle between tables laden with what they presumed to be food. I smelled meat but didn’t see any. If they thought vegetables and bread loaves would impress me, they were mistaken.
A stone platform awaited me to the right of a larger platform, that one clearly intended for grandmother. The pathetic humans stared wide-eyed as I turned, lowering myself onto the stone.
A gong resounded through the hall. Dozens of human males appeared at the main doorway pulling a platform on rollers. Grandmother sat on it, still as stone. At first I thought they had killed and mounted her, but as soon the platform cleared the doorway, she spread her golden wings. It was a perfectly silly display; neither of us could have taken off in that hall, but the weak creatures cheered and raised an extraordinary clamor. She could, of course, have leapt the entire distance of the room to her perch, and yet she suffered to be dragged slowly to the platform, pelted by flowers.
When she reached my end of the hall, she took her place, lifted her head to the ceiling and roared. One of the human females fainted, and birds perched among the high timbers dropped onto the tables. I, being only half her size, was obliged to lower my head to the floor in obeisance.
She then gestured, a fluid motion that flashed her fingernail sheaths, and humans appeared carrying meat. At least that part of the ridiculous ceremony made sense.
“Welcome, Heisskopf.” At last she recognized me.
“I honor you, grandmother,” I said, again lowering my head to the floor.
“It is well that you followed my instructions.”
“Together, we could roast this hall and feast properly.”
She belched smoke with her laughter.
When the meat arrived, I reached for the spitted carcass of a stag. Her hiss stopped me.
“Remove your fingernail sheaths before eating.”
“Why, grandmother?” I said, though I obediently pulled the sheaths from my claws.
“The humans will think you uncouth.”
“And that matters because…?
I thought she would strike me, but instead, she said: “Treated well, humans will follow you.”
“I do not need followers.” I bit into the carcass. “I can feed myself.”
“Humans increase in numbers. Dragons do not. We must adapt.”
“Dragons do not adapt, we conquer.” I had been overly bold, but she ignored my impudence.
At the end of the feast, she instructed those who fed us to give the remains to the “poor.” I did not know the term, but the humans seemed moved by the gesture.
That was the first of many visits. The battle of Cascalaid was not for years later, a decisive victory, and we won because of the humans. When grandmother fell they rose up like a wave. I thought they would flee in panic, but humans can indeed be courageous.
Tallyhern, the bard of Grundia, wrote an epic poem about grandmother and the battle. Her body, pierced by more than three hundred arrows, killed five trolls when it struck the ground. But the song is hard for me to listen to now, sitting in her place in the great hall, and I grind my teeth to hold back the tears.
This evening I receive ambassadors from Eldertorn and Corynthia. The balance of power in the mountains is shifting. Gesturing to old Stallrund to bring the meat, I remove my fingernail sheaths before the feasting begins.
Gerald Warfield’s short story, “The Poly Islands,” won second prize in the first quarter of the 2011 Writers of the Future contest. The same year, his humorous story “The Origin of Third Person in Paleolithic Epic Poetry” took first place in the nationally syndicated Grammar Girl short story contest. “Spores of the Volcano” appeared in NewMyths and the Campbellian 2014 Anthology. “Return of the Mayflower” is scheduled to appear in Perihelion. Several of his flash pieces have previously appeared in Every Day Fiction. Gerald published music textbooks and how-to books in investing before turning to fiction. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writers Workshop (2010) and a member of SFWA.
Mr. Gregor had seen the poster in ShopRite when he was standing in line to buy his tea, cheese, bread and bananas. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was being performed at the high school. He looked at the items in his cart and thought about putting them back on the shelf, but the gnawing hunger in his empty stomach prevented him. Eight dollars, the cost of a ticket to the show, was half the money in his wallet. Although the night air would be cold, he would walk the ten blocks to the high school and save the bus fare.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Gregor,” said Dorothy, the pretty, young cashier as he moved through the check-out line.
“Good afternoon, Dorothy,” said Mr. Gregor, his voice rich and deep.
His total was $12.38. After putting the change in his wallet, he took his bag of groceries and went out to the parking lot where the community bus waited to take the seniors back to the apartments where he lived. He took a seat and looked out the window at the melting snow and his mind spiraled back, more than fifty years, to his time on the high school stage. He remembered the thrill of opening night. The dressing room. The girls who did hair and make-up getting so close he could smell their perfume, their soft skin grazing his as they combed his hair. The fear. The rush. The nerves. The energy. He was the star. Puck. Robin Goodfellow.
The memory brought a smile to his lips and he made up his mind. He would go tonight. He would bundle up in his olive green coat. The one he had bought at the Salvation Army last winter for $10. He would set out early and walk to the school. Money was the only thing standing between him and the show. He had to go. He couldn’t miss opening night.
Applause. He had lived for the applause. There was no better feeling than the thrill from the roar of applause. The audience’s reaction bursting out after you made them feel something. Happiness, sadness, it didn’t matter. As long as they had connected with the character. As if it was yesterday he still missed the applause. After high school he had landed a small role in the ensemble of an off-Broadway production. Then he was cast as Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at the P-town Summerstock Theater.
There he met her. She was a producer, eighteen years older than him, but still a beauty. He was lost in her world; she was his world. They were together for two seasons. She paid him with a role in Othello. A small part, but he was just twenty years old and he couldn’t believe his luck. He had reached the highest stage. Away from the white lights, she introduced him to the thin white lines of powder that gave him a rush almost as good as applause. At first, they did it once in awhile, but gradually it was more and more. She could take it or leave it, but he felt a need for it. Soon she became tired of his mood swings and his constant demands for the white powder. She moved on.
The show closed. He was alone. Having nowhere to go, he returned home and cleaned up. His mother got him a job as a janitor at the middle school. After she died, he applied for an apartment in the senior housing complex, ten blocks away from the high school. Ten blocks away from where Puck would take the stage tonight.
That evening he bundled up and walked to the high school. His nose was running by the time he entered the small, worn lobby. He could feel the excitement. He scanned the headshots hanging on the wall behind the ticket booth. Fresh, young faces all full of promise mocked him as he slowly approached the table. Wiping his nose with the back of his hand, he stood on line and took the only three dollars he had out of his wallet. When it was his turn, he held them out to the woman seated behind the table. She took them and counted them. She looked confused. “I’m sorry sir, the ticket is $8,” she said.
“I was Puck many years ago on this very stage,” said Mr. Gregor smoothing a clump of matted hair that had fallen over his brow. “I just want to see the show. Maybe a senior rate…” he tried to say as the woman looked around for someone to come to her aid.
“I was the lead. Puck. Robin Good…” Mr. Gregor felt a hand on his arm. He turned to confront the school principal.
“Can I help you?” asked the young man in his starched white shirt.
Mr. Gregor pulled his stooped shoulders back and exclaimed, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” Excited parents turned to stare. He could see by the look in the principal’s eyes that he wanted Mr. Gregor to go. To stop spoiling opening night.
“You go on home,” said the principal. “You don’t belong here.” He started to pull Mr. Gregor in the direction of the door. Cold air hit his face when the principal flung the door open and guided Mr. Gregor into the still of the night. Moving him away from the packed auditorium where the lights were just going down. Away from the show he yearned to see. The applause he yearned to hear.
The old man stood on the steps. The cold wind whipped his cheeks and blinded his tearing eyes. “But I do belong here,” he said. Slowly, he shuffled down the stairs. The wind had picked up as he started the long, cold walk back to his apartment.
Ann Ormsby is a freelance writer and novelist. Her debut novel The Recovery Room is now available on Amazon.com.
Showing no class, Debbie called me at work over Insure-A-Lot’s toll-free line to break up. “Jeff, you’re just too — boring.”
“Boring? Tonight, I’m interviewing a van buyer,” I said.
“Vampire? Whoa. That could be exciting.”
“Van buyer. About a specialized policy for big stakes.”
Since we’d never written a specialized policy like this, I personally questioned the van buyer, drinking a brewski with him on the curb of his Burbank apartment building that sultry July night. Establish rapport, collect answers to Corporate’s paranoid underwriting questions, earn a very un-boring commission.
A blonde Betty I know would call the buyer’s rolling work of kitsch a “kidnap van,” it being windowless, but kidnap vans wear white and this one went black as proverbial midnight except where colorful murals outshone the darkness. The van featured vivid tattoos imprinted into its paint-skin, “subcutaneous frescoes” in the October 1979 words of Vans Illustrated, portraits reportedly reflecting the viewer’s expectations: kidnapping, perhaps, if you’re a blonde Betty; Vikings astride winged unicorns if you’re Betty’s D&D-playing little bro; The Virgin Mary, Mother of the Lord of Lords to disciples of the Divine Dude. If you were starcrossed, you’d see gleaming galaxies and cosmic comets, blue moons, green clovers and purple horseshoes but I required answers deeper than superficial.
“Yeah, she used to be an abduction van until someone four or nine owners ago repainted her and went to work on the murials” — he said “murials” — “and installed the werewolves and mummies and the red shag carpet and stainless-steel spider webs. Goth-ed her out completely,” said the buyer of the van, an hombre I swear to the Divine Dude was named Van, former Marine, ex-Hippie, current owner. “I call her the ‘Van Go,’ get it? Like Van Gogh?”
“Say again?” I smiled at him. “I’m missing one ear.” Were we establishing rapport?
“I don’t follow you.” Van was cool enough to lay the allusion to the Dutch painter but not frosty enough to catch my counter-reference to Vincent’s alleged self-mutilation (severed in a secret duel by the sword of Gauguin).
“Since you wrote in ‘big stakes,’ the nit-pickers want the vehicle’s particulars and peculiars.”
Van frowned and watched a pony-tailed boy on a green 5-speed Schwinn ride past us down East Elmwood Avenue. “I completed the application.” No rapport.
“The bean counters insist. Can she fly?”
He took a hit of his Coors. “She’ll do 98 miles an hour in the quarter mile.”
A non-answer. “Will she leave the ground?”
His sneer said, “Who would ask that?”
“Work with me, Van. I’m on your side. Can she turn into mist?”
“Take the tachometer to five-thousand, drop the tranny into Low, ease off the brake pedal and she’ll fry the rear tires, like, good-’n’-smoky.”
“Kind of a waste of Goodyears but I can see how a burnout would make for quite the hazy daze.”
“Straight up.” He took another hit of his Coors. The Banquet Beer. Golden, Colorado.
“She casts no reflection in a mirror?”
“One night, I snuck up behind two bottle-blondes in a Bimbo Bucket doing their makeup in the rear-view and I flipped on the high-beams, laid on the horn and revved the engine. Jumped out of their skins. Lipstick everywhere, man, like clowns.”
I translated it back to him in case he was testing my hipness. “So, with stealth, you surprised a pair of primping girls in a convertible VW Rabbit and terrorized them?”
Meaning, I’d passed his test — for now. Rapport equaled honesty equaled completed forms equaled satisfying the underwriters equaled commission. For “Lack of Reflection,” I check-marked “Yes.”
“Sunlight a problem, like a severe problem, Van?”
He drained the dregs of his barley pop. “Gotta constantly reapply Kolor-Restor or the murials go faint, fade under bright lights like the Los Angeles Rams.”
I nodded in sympathy, being a Baltimore Colts fan. “What else? Holy water? Any aversions?” Coors is surprisingly satisfying on a Burbank apartment building’s curb beside a supernatural murial van on a sweltering July night.
“‘A-versions?’ She’s a con-version van, Holmes, converted from a kidnap-mobile into a den of iniquity.”
So, he knew from “iniquity.” Straight up. “Tell me about fangs,” I said.
When the kid on the Schwinn pedaled by again, Van hucked his empty at the longhair lad. “No idea what you’re talking about, Holmes. ‘Fangs.’”
“The underwriters cut me no slack.” I tapped my clipboard. Lucite. Clear Lucite. “Questions need check marks. Can the van turn into a bat?”
“I keep a Louisville Slugger behind the driver’s seat. Good enough?”
“I’ll make it work. Any extraordinary powers?”
He gazed at a tube-topped, bell-bottomed blonde highlighted by a streetlamp two apartment buildings over. Probably a Betty. When Van rubbed his temples, she turned and smiled at us.
I nodded. “Power of persuasion.”
“Straight — ”
“Up,” I interrupted. I’d felt his vibe well enough to finish his…
“Sentences,” Van said aloud.
“How’d you – ?” I asked.
“Intuition. No shine-o-la, Sherlock: van buyers wield mystical influences.”
I remembered a horror flick where a portraitist imprisons the souls of his subjects in his murials, I mean paintings.
“Hollywood only tells half the van-buyer story, Holmes.” He smiled. Despite the night’s balminess, a glint of fangs drove a shiver up my spine.
No small feat, I feared him more than I feared Corporate’s underwriters. I swigged more malt beverage, dashed off the remaining pre-printed boxes and said, “Sign these forms, write Insure-A-Lot a $100 deposit check, and you’re insured.”
“For one conversion van to be driven by one Van Helsen up to twenty thousand miles per year; covered for liability, towing and uninsured motorist; complete replacement in the event of impaling by tree, post or wooden pole.”
“Straight…” said Van.
“Up,” I said, nervously.
I took my half-can of Coors to go.
The blonde two apartment buildings over? Not a Betty. A Victoria. Taurus. Classy enough to act impressed I’d insured a van buyer for big stakes, impalement by big stakes.
Sean Jones says: “When I read other authors’ bios, they talk about their cats. I don’t have any and I wonder if other authors really do. After all, they’re creators of fiction. Let me tell you about my cats. Jasmine is black Siamese with green eyes and she loves to scamper on the back porch and catch moths in the moonlight. Thor is a tabby who sleeps all day, ironically through thunderstorms. Then, there’s Penelope, a Persian…”
Bongi clawed at the steep lake’s banks and caught a branch, but it broke off. He caught some strongly anchored weeds, unsure how long he could hold on. His right leg was being dragged towards the bottom by two heavy bricks, his nostrils were full of water, and his lungs ached like they would explode any minute.
The weights on his leg prevented him from scaling the brittle bank’s sides, but sliding his fingers against the sand, he felt for possible gripping points. A hard object that protruded from the bank’s sides gave him some transient hope.
A tortoise shell?
He was about to look away when his hand hit it and tiny air bubbles escaped from underneath. Grabbing the shell, he pried it from the sand and quickly turned it so the dome faced up. He stuck his face into the shell’s cavity and inhaled deeply.
There isn’t much left but maybe it’ll buy me time to think a plan through, he thought.
He exhaled, then took a second breath from the shell, estimating he had one or two breaths left.
In vain, he tried to wiggle the rope off his tied leg, hoping the knot had been done sloppily. This was strenuous. Attempting to slice the rope by scraping it against a stone stuck in the sand also proved useless. The rope slid against the stone like a slimy slug on ceramic tiles.
He took another breath from the shell. So this is how it feels from down here.
It was usually someone else doing the drowning while Bongi stood on the bank looking down, like the angel of death. The unlucky bastards he had dumped into the lake over the years were debtors for the most part. Others were snitches.
Just one time it was this guy that looked at him funny. Bongi had regrets over that kill. “I may have overdone it that day,” he would sometimes say after narrating this particular incident.
Some water forced its way through Bongi’s nose and slithered down his trachea into his lungs, dragging him away from his daydream. The muscles in his right arm began twitching uncontrollably.
He went for another breath of air and, though not very religious by nature, began to pray. “Lord, we haven’t spoken in a while,” he started. “Bad timing, I understand, but please don’t hold that against me. I am sorry. Sorry for all the bad I’ve done, all the poor people I’ve killed.”
His arm suddenly gave in from having to hold his and the two bricks’ weight. “I don’t want to die, Lord. Save me and I swear each day that I spend on this Earth shall be devoted to serving you. I will use every penny of the fortune I’ve amassed to save a person a day… I will even go to church with my mother on Sundays.”
At that moment, on the brink of death, he truly had faith. So he prayed, and believed he would be saved, for Jesus is love and all sins on this earth can be forgiven through love. Yet nothing happened.
His lungs kept filling up with the brackish waters of the river.
He kept sinking.
A severed hand floated before him. He recognized the ring on it, his ex-wife’s. That was another messed-up story. She cheated, he got angry, and one thing leading to another, she found herself being tossed into the lake. The crocodiles did the rest.
One of those crocodiles may even have been the one that, unfortunately, Bongi spotted not too far on the left. The crocodile looked at Bongi, giving him the kind of stare commonly reserved for a piece of juicy chicken on the dinner table after a long day of work.
“I’ve learned my lesson. Please, Lord.”
Right then, he woke up in sweat. He was in his bed, alone. The view of the all-wood floors in his vast open bedroom was comforting. Focusing on the dry, wooden floor and consciously taking deep breaths further calmed him down.
After a minute, his heart stopped throbbing.
“It was just a dream,” he said, lying back down to stare at the white roof. He laughed, feeling the tension that had held him quickly dissipate with each rhythmic spasm. “Whew. And here I was thinking I would need to go to church next Sunday.”
Right then, water squirted out of his mouth and he found himself back where he’d started. The crocodile stared at him with thin, blood-shot eyes. “You should really learn to keep your promises, Bongi,” the crocodile said, then stretched its jaws open.
Robertson Klaingar says: “I like to write because I like to daydream, and writing is a never-ending daydream.”
The faceplate lowers and seals itself as my suit reacts to the hull breach alarm. It’s called a siren by tradition, but sounds more like a wounded bird’s squeak.
Colin tees up the self-repair sequence, though we both know better. With the ship’s diagnostics fried to shit, its proprioceptors can’t locate a breach, let alone fix it.
Orbital decay accelerates. Our TX-1 Orca prototype is licking the fringe of Earth’s atmosphere.
“Nav still responds,” Colin pleads, his suit hunched over the controls.
“Prepare to bail.”
“Negative, sir. We’ve respected her, she owes us a safe ride down. We ditch her now, and it’s a whole different karma.”
Part of me is glad Colin phrased it this way. Now I don’t have to listen to my gut, or his gut, or this jinxed ship.
“Wings on, Grossman. That’s an order.” First time I’ve had to use those words with Colin in — what — twelve years?
I arm the self-destruct (can’t risk gifting a piece of the Orca to the Chinese) and follow him to the wingfitters. Colin is a better-than-okay wingjumper, but an outstanding test pilot. Me, I dig flying and jumping about even… except for the fitting part. I lean back and brace for a jab in the ribs as the wingpack anchors to the connectors on my flightsuit shell. Bruises guaranteed for a week.
Colin gets up, wingpack attached, and turns in front of me. All looks in order. I give a thumbs-up.
My turn to turn.
“Yellow eleven.” Without hesitation, he points to my bottom left connector head.
I tug on the connector — feels solid. The diagnostic on my visor passes it, too.
“Looks tilted,” insists Colin.
I zoom in with a worktip camera on my glove. A tiny fold of the shell fabric is caught under the head. Leave it to Colin to notice such shit. Most jumpers miss it and land safe, nine times out of ten.
Back to the fitter. Detach. Refit. Another jab in the ribs. Get up. Turn. Colin points —
“Enough!” I’m not refitting for another nanowrinkle.
I practically push him out of the airlock. As we fall away, I briefly train the camera on the Orca hull – can’t observe the damage. Must be on the belly, or portside.
Ahead and below me, Colin’s wing unfolds from the pack. It slows his fall, and I pass him just before my own wing snaps open and the suit stiffens for the aerodynamics and temperatures of descent. Working from the center out, I test-check the stabilizer, breakers, ailerons and winglets, all the while bracing for the inevitable shockwave from Orca’s self-destruct.
“Hernandez, tango-bravo-one, homebound.” I am now a small aircraft.
Colin streaks by. Fast. With a visibly brighter friction glow at his right winglet.
“Slow down and check your roll.”
“Grossman, tango-bravo-two…” He sounds detached, like we’ve landed a week ago. “Never bailed before, sir.”
I tap the feed from his visor display. Sure enough, he’s got his camera pointed at the Orca, its hull hogging the centerfield of his visuals.
“Snap out of it, Grossman! Watch your — ”
The glow brightens along Colin’s right-side leading edge. A split-second later, his wing doubles over, origami-like, and Captain Grossman flickers out like a stray bonfire spark.
Of my entire recovery team, just Lazy Charlie… And who’s the hot-ass Major?
“Melanie Lonovoi, Legal Ops.”
“A lawyer? That was quick…” I ignore her hand. Any other day, I’d get busy charming my way into her pants.
No one says much until we board the plane. Major Lonovoi and Charlie strap in first, opposite each other. Colonel Montgomery from cybersupport (what’s he doing here?) plops down next to Charlie, leaving me to either continue being rude or join Lonovoi.
Should’ve stayed rude. Her torrent of legalese starts the moment we lift off. Ethics Commission… Inquiry… Orca project… babble-babble-babble…
We have the same rank, except I earned mine up in the sky.
“Where’s the team?” I shout to Charlie above the engine growl.
Charlie turns to Montgomery. “Sir?”
“At the landing pad, where they should be,” says Montgomery.
“The Orca autolanded an hour ago,” Charlie adds, his face stiff.
“Bull. I scuttled it.”
Yet I don’t recall a shockwave from the self-destruct.
“You did. It didn’t,” says Charlie. “Tell him, Colonel!”
“You’re out of line, Lieutenant… Major Hernandez, the goal of this mission was to evaluate the new crisis management software.”
A ball of ice explodes in my stomach.
“Did our systems really fry?”
“They were designed to go off-line, simulating electrical fire.”
“And the hull breach? Was that real?”
“Trickiest part!” Montgomery’s eyes light up. “We had to engineer an openable six-inch slit in the underbelly.”
“A U.S. Air Force officer is dead, sir. Hope you aren’t gloating.”
“Look: we sent up the ballsiest test crew, they bailed, and Orca still landed. This is the future of spaceflight.”
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“So your app landed a spacecraft with a neat, six-inch slit. What if it’d been a four-foot structural fatigue crack? How can you know your software’s decision wasn’t dumber than mine?”
“How do you know that if you’d listened to Captain Grossman, he couldn’t’ve gotten you both down safe?”
My mind rewinds to Colin’s visor feed — sacrificing the last seconds of his life to inspect the Orca hull for damage, baffled, ashamed. Best fucking test pilot I ever knew.
Before I can verbalize any of it, Charlie leans over and clocks Montgomery in the jaw. And again. And again.
“Hey, stop that!” Lonovoi moves to unstrap herself.
I lean over and casually place my hand on hers, pinning the strap release under her wrist.
“I agree, Major. Got to stop such experiments. I’ll testify, or whatever it is you wish me to do.”
Still going… never seen Charlie lose it like this. I’d rate Montgomery’s chances of deplaning unassisted at fifty-fifty.
Sarah Sotan writes in Vermont, USA.