Abyss & Apex : Second Quarter 2010: Burning Bright

Burning Bright

by Jennifer Hykes

 

It started with the dragon in the backyard.

It was tiny, no bigger than a young cat. Other than that, it was straight out of a children’s book: long neck, snake-like tail tapering to a spike, a row of sharp spines down its back, a pair of wings that it flapped awkwardly as I approached. Its scales were yellowish-green, the color of a new leaf, as if it had just sprouted up the night before.

Before I could say anything (what would I have to say?), it raised its arrow-shaped head so that one of its round yellow eyes was staring at me, and spoke in a high but solemn voice. “I am small,” it said, “but in one month I shall be big, and then I shall eat you.” Its mouth snapped shut. The eye stayed fixed on me.

“Oh,” I said. “Well, then.” To be honest, I didn’t take it seriously. Mostly I was still convinced it was the latest toy. I looked to either side; my neighbor Donna was busy in her garden to the right. To the left was the Morris’s house, where Mr. Morris protested helplessly as his middle child, a five-year-old with blond pigtails whose name I could never remember, splashed through a mud puddle and covered her pink overalls with black muck. Nobody seemed to notice the dragon, even as it flapped its wings a few times before settling again.

Since it seemed to have nothing more to say, I walked back inside and went to the kitchen to make my usual after-work pot of coffee. Paul was at the table, scanning the newspaper to fill up time. I opened the pantry for a fresh filter, pausing to look though they were on top. I took a deep breath and chose my words carefully. “Honey,” I said, in one of my blander tones, “do you see anything weird out in the yard?”

Paul barely lifted his head, just enough to glance out the kitchen window. “No,” he said.

“Mm.” I fiddled with the coffee machine. Paul returned his half-attention to the newspaper, eyes lingering blankly on the page. I went to the bedroom to change clothes, kicking off my high-heels in relief and rubbing my aching feet. When I returned, Paul was still on the same page. He’d apparently given up looking for news of any interest, and was now waiting for it to come to him. I poured the coffee.

We didn’t say anything as we drank. Most days, we only spoke over coffee if something slightly noteworthy had occurred during work–a paper jam, a difficult customer. But today had been uneventful, and the kitchen was quiet except for the sound of the coffee mugs being lifted, sipped from, set down again. I found myself staring at the wood grain on the table, the coffee-rings of months and years past. The clock ticked. I got up to start dinner.

Paul folded the newspaper, his half-quest for news failed, and stood up to leave the room. I didn’t even notice he was still there until he spoke up. “Why do you ask, anyway?”

“What?” I looked up from a box of elbow macaroni.

“About the backyard?”

I’d almost forgotten about the dragon or toy or whatever. “Oh,” I said, “nothing in particular. Just thought–just thought I’d seen something. A reflection, probably.”

Paul hesitated, waiting for more, but he finally nodded and left.

I thought about the dragon. About what it had said, that it was going to eat me in a month. I laughed–a little nervously, I suppose. When I ran the cooked macaroni under cold water, I took that opportunity to look out the window over the sink, and there it was, a little light green lump on the lawn. It didn’t move; it wasn’t even looking at me. I could still hear the Morris kids laughing. Life seemed to be going on as usual: no visions flashing before my eyes, no voice thundering from the heavens. Just normal life. I stared at the colander full of macaroni, and didn’t know whether to laugh or sigh.

The next day I set the high heels aside in my closet, and pulled out my half-forgotten flats.

 

#
Danny came home the following Monday, after spending half of his high school’s Spring recess at a friend’s house. “Hey, Mom,” was all he gave me as he carried his duffel bag inside and headed for his room.

“Danny,” I began, without turning around. I suddenly wanted to ask him something, but I had no questions to ask.

He paused halfway down the hallway. I could tell he was rolling his eyes. He was at that age. “Yeah? What?” he asked.

I stared at the coffee maker, bubbling away on the counter. I thought of a question. “What’s your favorite band?”

For a moment, Danny didn’t say anything. When he did speak he sounded suspicious. “Why?”

“I’ve never asked before,” I said. It was true. I didn’t know.

“Linkin Park,” he said.

“Danny?” I went to the kitchen door so I could see him, and was amazed again at how tall he’d gotten. He looked like he’d grown another two inches in the past four days. He had Paul’s brown hair and the same clear gray eyes Paul had once had, before they’d gone dull and weary. He looked at me with those eyes like the last thing he wanted was to be standing there talking to his mother. From far away, my ear caught what might have been the sound of dragon wings, and a snapping maw.

“Yeah?”

I paused at the threshold. “I love you,” I finally said.

He gave me another suspicious look. When he didn’t say anything, I went back into the kitchen. I could hear his bedroom door shut.

 

#
“Printer’s on the fritz again.”

Barb frowned at my words as she passed me and grabbed a tray for the cafeteria line. I could hear her swear as she regarded the menu listing.

I didn’t bother with the line. I wasn’t in the mood for cafeteria food, though the only other option was the sandwich machine in one corner. Turkey and lettuce on a bun . . . it worked. I eased the bill into the machine, until it caught.

“I keep telling the boss we have to replace that thing. It’s just common sense,” said Barb, tossing things on her tray haphazardly. “I’m sick and tired of dealing with it!”

I had nothing to say. The machine spit out my bill. I tried again.

“I need to get out of this place.”

The machine hummed, appeased. I slid back the door I wanted and grabbed the sandwich. “Everybody says that. No one ever does.” I tried to think of what had kept me here. “It has good benefits.”

Barb set her tray down on the table, hard. She stared at the tuna salad and packaged dessert. “Benefits,” she muttered. “Is that what’s keeping you here?”

I thought of Paul and Danny.

I sat down across from Barb, peeled away the cellophane wrapping on my sandwich and took a bite. It was cold and fresh, but it wasn’t good. Barb was staring at her tray, poking at the tuna salad with a plastic fork.

“Honestly, some days I just want to say screw the benefits and get the hell out of here,” she said. She sagged a little, as if the energy of her words had drained her. Her eyes didn’t lift from her lunch tray. “Was this what you thought you’d be doing at this point in your life?” she asked quietly, in a distant voice addressed to no one in particular. She looked up at me suddenly. “Lori, what was it you really wanted to do?”

I thought of the dragon. The turkey sandwich was in my hands, but now I wasn’t sure if I wanted to eat it. All I could think of was sharp teeth tearing meat and swallowing it down into nothing. Closing my eyes, I tried to imagine another future for the meat, where it avoided those teeth and went away to do–what? I set the sandwich down on my napkin and tried to think of a time when I’d still had plans for the future, beyond just getting through the work week without having the printer jam. It was like looking through fog.

I took a deep breath. “You won’t think I’m crazy?”

Barb shook her head.

“I always wanted to open my own store.” There, the words were spoken. I’d had a plan once, and I’d laid it aside for a job I didn’t like, a cellophane-wrapped turkey sandwich and benefits. The words seemed to point a damning finger at me.

“What kind of store?”

I shrugged, as if it didn’t matter. “Homemade candies and chocolates.”

Barb raised her eyebrows. “I didn’t know you made those.”

I shrugged again. “I haven’t in a long time.” Those words were almost as bad. Housework, Danny’s home games, making dinner, watching TV, lack of time, lack of time. The words rang like a litany. I’d heard them all. I couldn’t count all the nights that I’d had the vague desire to make candy, only to have one of those excuses spring up like a wall. Even Paul had probably forgotten about my old hobby.

Barb didn’t say anything. We both sat there, nibbling at food that neither of us really wanted to be eating. What could she have said, anyway? She couldn’t have told me to quit my job and start my own business; what kind of friendly, sane advice was that? There was a cement block in her throat, holding back those words. I know; I felt the same thing.

I tried desperately to see a future that didn’t involve being eaten, but all I could see was endless weeks amid the same pale yellow walls, in the same cubicle, and then an abrupt wall, and beyond that blackness.

We finished our lunch in silence, then left through separate doors. Later that afternoon I got an e-mail from her.

“So this is it, then? We’re stuck here for the rest of our natural lives?”

I didn’t send a reply; I didn’t know what the answer was.

 

#
By the end of the week, the dragon was the size of a Saint Bernard. I had stepped onto the back porch for some fresh air, and there it was. Donna was still in her garden like she’d never left. Mr. Morris was sitting on a swing, keeping an eye on his kids as they played freeze tag. He didn’t seem to see them.

The dragon was chewing something. I didn’t really want to know what it was. But after I’d looked at Donna and Mr. Morris, I had nothing else to look at but it. Its scales were still bright, but a deeper shade of green; its wings trembled and snapped wide, as if it wanted to take off into the blue sky but knew it wasn’t ready yet. I stared at its jaws, which looked so terrible even in the calm reason of broad daylight. The sight of the dragon terrified me, but my eyes were drawn towards it like a magnet. I stepped closer.

It raised its head and looked at me, bending and stretching its long, sinuous neck. “I am small,” it said, “but soon I will be big. And then I shall eat you.” The air in front of its mouth wavered with heat.

There was nothing to say to that. I looked down only long enough to see that it was chewing on a high-heeled shoe, then walked back inside.

 

#
I could hear Danny opening the front door. “What’s that smell?” he called.

“Fudge,” I said, stirring the mixture furiously with a wooden spoon. I felt along the bottom for any unmelted chocolate pieces. “Do you want some? It should be done later tonight.” I took a deep breath. I was a bit rusty, but once the recipe had gotten going, I’d fallen into the old rhythms easily. I allowed myself to feel a little bit proud.

“Maybe later,” said Danny. His bedroom door shut.

I heard a step behind me and looked up. Paul stood in the kitchen doorway.

“I’d forgotten you made fudge,” he said quietly.

I set the spoon down, and settled my grip on the pan. I could see a dark, empty shape on its surface, where my face was reflected against the kitchen light. “I’d forgotten that, too,” I said, and hefted it up. “Make way.”

Paul walked ahead of me, opened the refrigerator door wide, and stepped aside.

 

#
Barb was standing in the doorway of my cubicle, eyeing me suspiciously, a conspiratorial smile on her mouth. “Do I smell chocolate in here?”

I sniffed my sleeve, inhaled the pleasant odor. “I was making some this morning before work,” I said.

Barb mock-pouted. “And you didn’t bring any in for me?”

I smiled, and took a deep breath. “I’m tweaking the recipe. Once I’ve gotten a few different varieties, you’re welcome to come over and taste-test, if you’d like?”

“Do you really need to ask?” she chuckled. “Just point me in the direction!”

“Are you free this Saturday? Come over and we’ll make a day of it.”

Barb gave me a look, and I immediately knew why. Neither of us had ever asked the other over for anything. We’d always been just coworkers. I tried giving her what I hoped was an encouraging smile, and she seemed to relax.

“You’ve changed, you know,” Barb said, peering over my shoulder at the computer monitor. My latest secret pleasure was there, on the screen: I was doing web searches for information on opening a new business.

“You’re really serious about this, aren’t you?”

I closed the window, my face burning. “No,” I said quietly. “I don’t know. It’s a lot of work, and Danny’s going to start college in a couple of years. Maybe when I retire . . .” I watched Barb for her reaction. She had closed her eyes and was sighing.

“All right,” she said finally, “Saturday. I’ll be there. E-mail me your address so I don’t lose it.” She left the cubicle, and I sat back in my chair. The dragon was in my mind again, as it usually was when I thought about the transformed kitchen, with its candy molds and ingredients pulled out into easy reach. I hardly ever had a cup of coffee after work anymore; I’d go right to the fridge to check up on the fudges or pull out a recipe and scribble notes on it, ideas to try for next time. And then I would glance out the window and it would be there. I had only a week and a half left. At one time that would have been a reason for me not to bother with candy or the business, an excuse among other excuses. But I found myself being pulled forward, as if I were trying to see how far I could go before the inevitable end. I could see the obituary: “Died due to complications with a dragon. She loved making chocolates and had been working on opening her own homemade candy business . . .” They could never say I was a woman who hadn’t followed her dreams. I had gone out doing something. I had gone out on fire.

I opened up another web search, and started to think.

 

#
“Lori’s Treats.”

“. . . No. It doesn’t have the right ring.”

“Sweets ‘n Treats?”

I gave Barb a look as she chuckled.

“All right, all right,” she said, waving me down. “How about you just keep it simple: Lori’s Candies. Or Lori’s Homemade Candies.” She wrinkled her nose. “‘Homemade’ may be a nice draw, but it also says ‘high-priced’.”

“Hand me that wooden spoon? Thanks.” I began mixing. “Good point; I hadn’t thought of that.”

Barb checked up on some of the cooling chocolate-filled molds. It was the first time I’d seen her in casual clothes: a pair of jeans and an old Disney World T-shirt that was now chocolate-spattered. Her wavy red-brown hair had been pulled back into a tight ponytail. I decided to ask her when we were finished about when she’d gone to Disney World.

I had fallen into the quiet, rhythmic motion of moving the spoon in a circle, over and over again, and didn’t notice until I’d finished that Barb had fallen silent. She was looking out the window into the backyard, squinting.

“What?” I said, a bit more sharply than I’d meant to. I stepped quickly to Barb’s side, hoping to draw her attention away. I could see the dragon in the corner of my eye. It was the size of a horse now: a big, green, scaly horse with wings. It was nibbling on a small white plastic thing that I realized was the coffee machine. I looked away quickly, focusing on Barb’s face.

She looked back at me, then slowly shook her head. “I thought I’d seen–nothing, it’s not there anymore.” She stepped away from the window, as if there were nothing more to be said.

“What? What did you think you saw?” Despite myself, I was desperate to know if she’d seen the dragon. Thoughts began running through my head. What did it mean if she had? Would she be eaten too? Perhaps I’d come across too strongly, because Barb was staring at me as if I were possessed.

“It was a reflection, all right?”

When she turned her back, I glared out the window at the dragon. If she had seen it . . . “You’re sure it was nothing?”

“Were you expecting something?” She gave me a pointed look.

I shook my head uselessly. It wasn’t something I could casually bring up. I went back to my recipe notes, and let the conversation drop.

 

#
The dragon squatted in the middle of the backyard. It was huge now, as tall as the roof. Its whiplash tail lay in a pile of dark green coils and its wings, outstretched, blocked the sun from the kitchen window. Whenever I worked in there, editing a recipe, executing one, looking at business real-estate listings, imagining the painted sign above the door–“Lori’s Candies”–I did it in the dragon’s shadow. I could feel the threat of its presence, knew that my death would come any day now. I knew all of this, and yet it no longer bothered me. I felt raw and glowing all over, as focused as a beam of light. It was like my skin had been pulled away and I was something new underneath, as fresh as the dragon had been on the first day I’d seen it. The shadow wasn’t a problem: I felt bright enough to light up the whole neighborhood.

I tipped the pan gently and let the liquid chocolate pour itself in slow folds into the mold, when I felt someone at my elbow. Danny reached over and held the mold steady for me. I gave him a questioning look; he normally never stepped into the kitchen except to eat.

“TV’s busted,” he muttered by way of explanation, his eyes traveling to the floor.

I smiled slightly; I knew that too big a smile would send him skulking back to his room. We said nothing after that, except for me giving directions which he followed wordlessly. The house was quiet; Paul had decided today to make use of his gym membership, acquired, like those of so many others, back in January and promptly forgotten about. He only returned home just as the last batch had been finished, and Danny and I were seated at the table, trying the different chocolates and deciding which worked and which hadn’t. Danny never said anything. He just tried a few and made faces, depending. When Paul came in, Danny got up to return to his room.

“Mom?”

I was halfway out of my chair to clean up. “Yes?”

Danny didn’t look at me. He was regarding the floor again. “You doing this again tomorrow maybe?”

“Probably,” I said. “You’re welcome to join me, if you want.”

“Maybe,” he said, which was as much as his age would allow, and left.

 

#
The coffee machine was gone. My high heels were gone. The digital satellite, with its three hundred channels of nothing, was gone. A late spring thunderstorm had swept in, and outside I could hear the dragon roaring amid the pounding thunder. Barb was on her way to spend the day cooking with me, but it didn’t matter. The dragon was hungry. I was going to be eaten.

I didn’t bother putting on a jacket; I might as well go down easy, if on fire. I stepped out the back door, and the rain hissed and steamed as it hit my skin. The mud squelched beneath my bare feet. Before me, the dragon sat back on its haunches, its wings outspread to their full length and flapping in barely-controlled anticipation. Its neck weaved back and forth, water pouring like a torrent off its scales so deep green I could fall into them like a hole. Its tail whipped back and forth, knocking over fences and trees, tearing up Donna’s garden and the Morris’s swingset. It threw back its head and its voice boomed through the entire street, echoing through sheets of rain. My eardrums ached, and I heard myself screaming as well. It felt like something inside me were trying to burst out of my skin.

The last of the noise died down, until there was only the swish of rain and the sound, so far away, of a car door slamming and the back door of the house opening. I thought I heard people calling my name, but I stood rooted to the spot before the dragon.

“Well,” I said, my hoarse voice cracking, “I’m here now.”

The dragon regarded the storm clouds with luminous yellow eyes. Then it focused on me. “One month has passed,” it said, “and now I am big.”

“So you’re going to eat me now,” I finished. My unwavering voice surprised me.

The dragon squinted at me, and its mouth widened into a dangerous lizard grin, sharp teeth gleaming in the lightless morning. I wondered if it were reflecting the light from the small human in front of it, from her burning dream bright enough to irradiate the backyard, the house, the neighborhood, the entire city. Again it turned its head, like on that first day, so all I could see was one great yellow eye like a burning orb. Reflected in that orb, I could finally see myself: the real me, raw and new, blood rushing in the heat of second birth.

“But,” said the dragon, “I have already eaten you.”

The dragon flapped its great wings, spraying me with water, and took off with a leap into the sky. I stepped back to keep my balance as the wind from its downsweep washed over my body, and found myself laughing. There in the doorway stood Danny and Paul, staring at me in surprise, me standing shoeless and jacketless and laughing in the rain. On my right was Barb, her head tilted back, her eyes following the dragon as its wings lifted it into the clouds. Her eyes were wide and her mouth open, but as I watched, she started to smile. Beyond her, so real I could touch it, Lori’s Candies squatted unseen in space, pressing the air around it as if waiting to burst into reality. I grinned.

I glanced up one last time through the lessening rain at the fading clouds, where sunlight was beginning to poke through in shafts of gold. “Thanks,” I said quietly, and the word poured out of my mouth like a last exhalation of fire.

 

#
The next week found me sitting in the backyard after work, flipping through a listing of local craft shows. I was hoping just for a modest start, where I could get a feel for what sold, and perhaps earn a bit of money towards a permanent location. I only looked up at the movement of something green on the Morris’s lawn. I couldn’t make it out at first, but then I could see the flap of tiny, yellow-green wings. And there was Mr. Morris standing next to it, looking down with eyes wide in newly-surprised wonder.

creb
 


Jennifer Hykes lives in Pittsburgh, surrounded by books and plush dragons. This is her first published work.


 

Story © 2010 Jennifer Hykes. All other content copyright © 2010 Abyss & Apex Publishing.

 





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