Stacie McCall Whitaker - Stone Coast, Maine

Riding the Dragon

With a grunt, the dragon pulled back a ribbed scale, exposing dark flesh that was soft as velvet and pocked with puncture wounds the size of grapes. Jessica took a breath, gripping the oversized hypodermic with sweaty hands as she lined it up to get a clean entry.

There was a rumble, like a jet plane in the distance, an angry tone that held the potential for real danger. The dragon was growing impatient.

“Hurry up and stick me,” he said. Flexible lips formed the words, dark shapes slithering behind the tearing edge of his massive beak.

Not willing to risk his anger, Jessica found a slight swell of skin that hinted at a vein and shoved the needle home. Hands steadying the syringe, she pushed the plunger in with her hip, and a two-count later, Silas’s immense, serpentine form went limp. He sighed a great breath of foul-smelling relief, and Jessica barely managed to pull the hypo out before the scale snapped back into place.

Silas arched his back and murmured a deep “Ohhhh…” that rattled the windows in the cupola overhead. The length of a city bus, the dragon curled at the feet of a skeletal dinosaur that welcomed visitors to the museum’s great hall. He and Jessica were surrounded by heaps of paintings, sculptures, and jewelry that had been collected from the rest of the building, stolen from some scientists’ collection in order to create Silas’s treasure hoard.

It served them right—it was the scientists’ fault that Silas existed at all. Some idea to save animals from going extinct. Or maybe it was the military running covert experiments; Jessica remembered seeing something about it on a waiting-room television, but she’d missed the details. Whatever the reason, the next thing anyone knew there were rocs in the Capitol and dragons in Detroit. And now here she was—a virgin sacrifice. Not that anyone had bothered to ask about the virgin part.

“You good, Silas?”

The dragon rolled onto his back and batted a claw in the air. “Oh, yeah. I’m good.”

He’d never told her his name, but he looked like a Silas and he responded to it easily enough. She set the needle down on a desk that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson and walked toward the dinosaur.

Scales shifted. A tail the width of Jessica’s torso slid a few feet to one side. An armored eyelid cracked open and a heavily dilated yellow cat-eye peered at her.

“Where are you going?”

She jerked her thumb at the skeleton. “My gear. I want another hit.”

Silas hummed, a chest-vibrating bass note that signaled his assent, and Jessica began to climb the makeshift ladder leaning against the dinosaur’s ribcage. The discolored brass plaque called it “Brachiosaurus.” Whatever it was, it was big. Its neck stretched three stories straight up, almost touching the window-ringed dome of the great hall.

At the top of the ladder, Jessica steadied a foot on the broad shelf of a shoulder bone. With a quick flip of one leg, she mounted the dinosaur’s back. The skeleton wasn’t made to be climbed, and there were several stretches where she struggled, clinging to neck bones thicker than her waist. But it was worth it when she reached the head. The skull was bigger than most barstools, and she could drape herself across it, securing herself with a length of rope she’d left there like a jaunty scarf around the dinosaur’s neck. She reached into the hollow of its skull and retrieved her kit. High above the ground, on the skeleton of a thunder lizard, she cooked up.

From below, Silas called to her. “Any knights on the horizon?”

Jessica gave a cursory glance around the building. Not that she needed to. Silas ruled the entire downtown area. He was feared and obeyed. But Silas said that somewhere there had to be someone, armed and armored. There would always be knights willing to fight a dragon.

“Looks good,” she said. “But you never know. This could be the day they come, right?”

“Let them come.”

She could hear the smile in the dragon’s voice, even if she couldn’t see it on his face.

“Don’t jinx us, big guy,” she called, but got no response. “Did you check the doors?”

Silas was silent.

“Hey, Silas!” She could hear his breathing, deep and even.

She pulled a can of soda she’d stashed in the skull and dropped it, watching it fall thirty feet before striking the dragon’s exposed belly. Silas twitched, but didn’t wake. It would take something much heavier to pull the dragon from his slumber.

With a shrug, she turned back to the task at hand. A freshly loaded hypo clenched in her teeth, she sought a good vein with her thumbs. It took a minute, but she found one on the top of her foot.

The junk hit her like a warm hug.

When she’d been hauled to the museum via a reclaimed cop car, they’d let her keep her gear. She supposed the bastards had felt guilty about giving her up to a dragon. It wasn’t even like Silas had asked them to bring her, or anyone else. They were just acting out some half-remembered story, from the days when fairy tales were for kids, and ogres didn’t haunt overpasses.

The dragon, naturally enough, had thought she was a thief.

“What is that box?” he’d asked. “The one clutched to your chest. Is it something dear to you?” The whole museum seemed to shake as the dragon moved closer. “Is it…treasure?”

She’d never thought of H like that. She told him it was both. Treasure and thief in equal parts. Silas had been fascinated and pressed her for details.

“It’s like—” She chewed her lip, searching for a way to describe the indescribable. “It’s like going to visit your grammie, the nice one who lives out near Penobscot. And she makes you tea while a snowstorm rolls in outside. Then she tucks you in under a grammie quilt, and you can see all the snow and slush building up on the windowpane. You know the cold and nasty shit is still out there, but that just makes you feel even more safe and warm.” She’d stared at the ground, afraid to look him in the eye. “It’s just so…nice.”

That evening, Silas watched her get high. The next day, the dragon made his first official demand of the people in his thrall: a veterinary syringe and a bundle of heroin. A week later, he upped it to a brick. It might have been the end of civilization, but poppies still bloomed and big trucks still rumbled the highways, merchants trading the stuff of dreams for food, supplies, or whatever the needy had to offer.

The quality varied, and Jessica always rode first when they got a new batch to make sure it wasn’t dirty, but she didn’t mind. How else was she going to get this kind of hook-up? And besides, Silas could be a pretty good conversationalist when he wanted to be.

Secured on her perch, Jessica couldn’t keep her head up. That happened sometimes when she rode—she got the nods something fierce, like a little kid trying to stay awake in summer school. She wrapped her arms around the petrified skull, and the world rushed away from her.

In the morning, Jessica cracked an eye and watched Silas perform his daily routine. Threading his way through the legs of the dinosaur, he touched each of the items in his hoard. From her perch, he looked like a cat strolling through the legs of a golden retriever. The dragon stopped when she stirred and looked up at her. If he reared up on his hind legs he’d still be only halfway between her and the ground. She waved at him. The dragon was always mellow in the morning.

“Tomorrow is Tribute,” he said. Every two weeks, the neighborhood residents brought Silas items of value. Everything from antiques to items bartered from surrounding areas made it to the museum’s front steps. Most of the haul he discarded, but Silas seemed to enjoy the ritual.

“I think,” said Silas, “I would like one of the golden statuettes you spoke of.”

“You’re in Detroit,” she said. “No one here’s got an Oscar.” She stretched out, enjoying the view from the dinosaur. “We got Grammys, though.”

Silas flared his nostrils. “I have no use for an old woman from Penobscot.”

Jessica grinned widely and began to descend the dinosaur. “Not my grammie. A Grammy.”

The dragon watched her, still as a statue.

“Forget it,” she said. “Ask for gold records. This town’s got plenty of them.”

Silas let out his breath in a long hiss. “Yes. Tomorrow, I shall demand gold records. For now, I’m going to find food.” Jessica didn’t ask for details. Living with a dragon meant not asking too many questions.

She reached the floor and he departed the room, a ribbon of undulating darkness that was gone in an instant. Her own stock of food was running low as well, so Jessica decided to stroll a block to the nearest gas station and see if there were any boxes of mac and cheese left.

There wasn’t much in the way of stores in the immediate vicinity, but they were relatively untouched. Silas’s presence kept the looters away. In fact, Jessica rarely saw another human apart from Tribute days. Which is how she preferred it. Tribute days were busy, especially since Silas had made an example of one old man who’d failed to show. Sick and failing, the man had stayed in bed instead of dragging himself out to offer a Tribute of vinyl records. Or comic books. Or whatever valuables someone that old and worn might possess. Jessica had worked hard to forget the sound of the man’s torn and bloodied cardigan, flapping in the wind at the top of the museum’s flag pole.

Solitude suited Jessica just fine. In her experience, most people couldn’t wait to tell her how much she was screwing up her life. At least that’s what they did when they weren’t busy sacrificing her to a dragon.

She headed out into the early morning fog, her mind wandering while she walked down the middle of the street, avoiding abandoned cars as they appeared in the mist. She wondered if it was time to talk to Silas about the other side of the ride. There were certain facts of life that everyone who used figured out sooner or later. That each time you shoot up, you gotta get even higher than the last time, just to almost feel as good. Like climbing a ladder—you do one bag a day, then two, then two at a sitting. Rung by rung, higher and more. But it never feels like the first time, so you keep climbing. Sooner or later, you’re gonna fall.

It was a tough talk, and most people ignored it. She sure as hell had, the first time she’d been on the receiving end. But Silas got her, like no one else did. So maybe it would be okay.

Emerging from the fog, she found herself in front of a Speedway. There was no electronic beep as she walked through the convenience store doors, but there was a rustle of movement in one of the aisles. Jessica stopped cold.

There was a kid there, wearing black jeans and a hoodie, its once-bright logo blacked out with spray paint. Jessica had seen graffiti guys dress like that, to reduce the odds of being spotted while they threw up tags or murals in the night. He had frozen as well, a can of beans in hand, halfway between the shelf and his backpack.

He squinted at her. “You with the Guns?”

Jessica didn’t know what that meant, so she shrugged. The kid went back to loading his bag.

“You shouldn’t be here,” he said. “Midtown’s the dragon’s territory.” As if she didn’t know where she was. He glanced over his shoulder. “I wouldn’t be here at all, but they’re moving through my turf. Forced me out.”

“The Guns?”

He nodded. “Soldiers, like. High-tech. Almost as bad as the dragon.”

Jessica looked away.

“He’s okay,” she said. “The dragon.”

“‘Okay?’” The kid shot her a look. “It’s a dragon,” he said. “It eats people.”

He moved to the next aisle. Jessica kept pace, staring at him over a chest-high barrier of perforated sheet metal.

“Besides,” he said. “How would you know what he’s like?”

“I met him.” Jessica lifted her chin with pride. She’d walked into a dragon’s lair and found a kindred soul. “I know him.”

The kid eyed her for a long moment before dropping a package of Pringles into his bag.

“Thing’s a monster,” he said.

“Silas ain’t like that.”

“You named him?” The kid tsked his disapproval.

“Everyone needs a name.”

He shouldered his backpack. “You want my advice?”

“No.”

“You’re sleeping next to a pit bull with a gun under your pillow. How you gonna play all surprised when that don’t go well?”

Jessica grabbed a box of mac and cheese, not caring if it was off-brand. “I know what I know,” she said. “And I know he’s less dangerous than wherever it is you’re going home to. He’s damn sure less dangerous than what I used to go home to.”

“You keep telling yourself that. I got to move.” The kid turned on his heel and retreated. The fog was lifting, and his dark hoodie and black jeans blended into the shadows cast by the mid-morning sun.

Jessica wandered the aisles for a few minutes, poking at left-behind pickings and telling herself that the kid had no idea what he was talking about.

Stomping back towards the museum, mentally ticking off a million things she could have said to the kid in the Speedway, Jessica shoved a hand in the back pocket of her jeans. She stood up straighter as her fingers brushed against a packet of heroin. She pulled it out with a sense of wonder. She’d forgotten it was in there.

Meeting Silas had changed everything. Before him, the concept of extra heroin simply didn’t exist. She could account for every bit of it down to the last off-white grain. Now here she was, finding dime bags in her pocket like spare change.

Her pace turned leisurely as she rubbed the packet between her finger and thumb, savoring its texture. Wrapped up snug like a swaddled babe, always in tin foil and wax paper to keep it safe and dry. It was 50mg of warmth and belonging. She squeezed the packet in her fist; it fit perfectly. Jessica smiled and closed her eyes. Walking blind, she turned her face to the sky and enjoyed the feel of the sun on her cheeks.

When that warmth was blocked, she opened her eyes. She’d walked into the shadow of a building. On its rooftop a figure stood in silhouette. Even with the sun at its back, Jessica could see the rifle in the figure’s arms.

She dropped her eyes. Another figure stood in the alley across the road. Dressed in dark leathers and motorcycle helmet, tinted glass obscuring the face beneath. Jessica stepped back, turned, and collided with another, identical figure. A gloved hand gripped her shoulder, not quite hard enough to hurt. She jerked away, and leather crinkled as the hand tightened its hold.

“It’s okay.” A man’s voice. He flipped up the visor of his helmet. “My name’s Damon. We’re here to help you.” He made a show of releasing her, stepping back with hands raised.

Jessica watched him for two heartbeats, then started running.

He chased her, and they dashed along the sidewalk, dodging piles of trash. The slapping sound of his boots grew louder. He was gaining ground. Jessica craned her head, looking for an escape route. There was an alley on her right. She pumped her legs and headed for its darkness.

Alleys had always been dangerous. They were only marginally more so since Silas’s arrival. She could tell something unnatural was in the alleyway, skittering movements more sensed than seen. Whatever it was pulled back as she came closer. There was a groan and scraping sound as if something clambered into a dumpster.

The Gun—Damon—paused at the alley’s mouth. Apparently he still feared the things that slinked in shadows. Jessica skidded to a halt, glancing around for an exit and keeping a wary eye open for anything unexpected.

The helmeted figure called to her from where he stood gleaming in the sunlight.

“We just want to talk.”

Jessica said nothing.

“We know who you are.”

She didn’t respond, and kept the packet of heroin tucked safely in her palm.

“We don’t want to hurt you.”

She imagined what Silas would say to that, and in the back of her mind a ribbon of darkness stretched its wings. The dragon’s soft voice tickled the near side of her eardrum. Lies, he said. They are thieves.

“We want to take you away from here.”

You see?

“You’re in danger,” he said.

“There’s worse things than dragons,” she called back as she glanced around the alley. “Maybe the dragon keeps them away.”

“You think you’re the first person that thing’s taken in? What’s happened to everyone else who’s gone before you?”

She tried to imagine what Silas would say to that. His voice was silent in her head.

“You’re lucky to still be alive,” said Damon.

Jessica shook her head. No one ever gave her credit for surviving.

Damon took his motorcycle helmet off. His hair was cropped short, cactus prickles of silver sticking out between the bright pink scars crisscrossing his scalp. But he had pouty lips and round eyes that gave him a baby face in spite of his wounds.

“I’ve seen what happens to people like you,” he said.

“You don’t know me,” she said. She hated his look of earnest concern, just like she hated the seed of doubt he’d planted.

“We’re rebuilding,” he said. “Slow going, but we’re doing it.”

“Rebuilding what?” she asked, though she knew he’d tell her soon enough, once he was done telling her how she should be living.

“Cities. Civilization. Everything.”

In her head, in her heart, Silas hissed his displeasure.

“You can be safe,” Damon was saying. “Belong somewhere. Build a new family.”

I will keep you safe from the storm.

“I don’t have grandparents!” she said, surprising herself.

Damon’s brows pulled together, the lattice of scar tissue on his head drawing in like a cloud bank.

“I mean,” she said, “I had them, you know, I just never met them.” She glanced in the direction of the museum. “I’ve thought, before, about what they’d be like. Maybe my grammie would be a nice old lady in Penobscot. You know?”

Damon relaxed and gave her a grin. “I think so.” Then he ruined it by saying, “I know you’re afraid. You don’t need to be.”

Jessica looked farther down the alley. Down there, fingers of fog still swirled in the air, protected from the sun and obscuring the path. She headed towards it, running from the light and into the disorientation of the fog.

From the mouth of the alley, Damon called after her. “We’ll come for you. It’s what we do!”

Silas’s whisper intruded, crowding out the speech from the man in black leather. Let them come. Let them come and you and I shall dance over their crumpled, burning bodies.

She glanced back, then embraced the grip of the fog, confident that Damon and the others wouldn’t follow her there. This place of darkness and confusion was hers. Hers and Silas’s.

 

#

 

She got back to the museum before Silas. She ate her mac and cheese and wandered the halls, looking at the walls covered with treasure and thinking about how she was going to tell Silas about the Guns. When the dragon came back that night, she greeted him at the dinosaur’s feet.

“You have a good day?” she asked.

“Delightful.”

Silas’s tail swished, and a stack of Incan masks threatened to tip over in its wake. She took a breath and gathered her courage. “So, today—”

But Silas had already turned, the scaled muscles in his back rippling with the movement.

“Let’s cook,” he said.

That sounded like a great idea. Just something to calm her nerves. Once she could think straight, she’d tell him everything, and they’d figure out what to do about the Guns.

As always, Jessica did the honors. When the veterinary syringe was primed, she turned to Silas. He dipped his head and pulled back a scale, a different one than last time; she’d taught him to rotate veins. Jessica approached, enjoying the heft of the full syringe. She pulled it back, but paused before sinking it. The claw that held up the scale had a tuft of fabric caught beneath the talon. Dark fabric, a bright logo blacked over with spray paint.

She told herself it didn’t matter.

Later, as she tied in to the dinosaur skull, she told it to herself again. And when the heroin hit, it turned into truth. She stretched, at peace in the moment. The thrum in her veins let her know it was going to be okay. When she was riding, no one told her what to do.

“Hey, Silas,” she called. The words were thick, heavy, as if she were speaking with a rag in her mouth. “Did you remember to check the doors?”

There was no response from the dark, coiled shape below her.

“Silas?”

She turned her head and saw movement at the end of the hall. Leather-clad figures streamed into the room, communicating with silent gestures. The knights had arrived, and they had such big guns.

Jessica struggled to sit up, one arm flopping loosely out of the nest she’d built, her finger extended like she was coming down from the Sistine Chapel. The syringe fell from her hand, tumbling down towards Silas’s slumbering form. When it struck, he twitched but didn’t wake.

It would take something far heavier to rouse the dragon, and Jessica was alone on her perch. She looked at the Guns. Faceless and menacing, they crept closer. Each quiet step tightened their circle and brought them nearer to imposing their vision of what her life should be. They’d come to rescue someone; whether she wanted to be rescued was irrelevant.

She thought about the men who’d abandoned her at the museum in the hope she’d be enough to satisfy the unknowable beast within. She thought of the kid in the hoodie who’d judged her, and the Guns who knew what was best for her. She thought about Silas, and the soft skin under the scales, velvety and dark like a grandmother’s dress. He was dangerous, but sometimes he was just so…nice.

Her heart raced, stirring the drug in her blood. The junk roared softly, making her feel like she was swimming in warm honey. The kid in the hoodie was right. Living with a dragon was living on borrowed time. She grabbed the rope that tied her to the dinosaur and yanked, wincing as the woven fibers bit into her palm.

Borrowed, begged, or stolen, her time was her own. Only she got to decide how it was spent, and only she could do the rescuing. She pulled again, harder, and the knot released. Relaxing her grip, she allowed the rope to spiral to the floor. It was heavier than the syringe, but still not enough to wake the dragon.

Below, the Guns drew into formation, weapons trained on the slumbering beast. Jessica leaned forward, teetering on the edge of her perch as she stared at Silas, and the heroin in her veins pulsed. For a fleeting moment, it seemed as if she were wrapped in a thick quilt, and all the troubles of the world were just storm winds pelting at a window. She knew it for a lie, but it made her smile. And smiling, she made her choice.

Without the rope’s restraint, a twist of her foot was all the push she needed. Slowly, inexorably, she slipped from the dinosaur’s neck and plunged toward the dragon below.

About the Author

Dan Stout lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he writes about fever dreams and half-glimpsed shapes in the shadows. His fiction draws on travels throughout Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Rim, as well as an employment history spanning everything from subpoena server to assistant well driller. Dan’s stories have appeared in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post, Nature, and Mad Scientist Journal. His debut novel Titanshade is forthcoming from DAW Books. Find him on the web at www.DanStout.com.