In the Realm of Dragons

In the Realm of Dragons

by Esther M. Friesner

Illustration by Darryl Elliott

The bus from Philly to New York was hot as hell. The air conditioning had broken down thirty miles out of the city. Not the best turn of events on a late September day that felt more like high August. Ryan Lundberg sat back limp in his seat without so much as a silent curse to spare for the sweltering air or the stink of urine from the tiny onboard bathroom. He had strength to save, a calling to heed. His eyes closed, dragged down by a weight of scales.

The little clay dragon in his hand smoldered and pulsed with the heat. He held it to his heart and told it to lie cool and still. Time enough for fire when they found Uncle Graham’s murderers. Plenty of time for fire then. He drowsed, lapped in thoughts of flame. He was not even a little startled when his head nodded forward and he felt the sting of spiny barbels as his chin touched his chest.

He had not brought the dragon with him on the bus—he knew that with the same certainty that he knew his own name—yet here it was. Here. Not where his hands had placed it, tucked away safe in his top drawer at school, keeping watch over photographs, condoms, dryer-orphaned socks he never got around to throwing away. He’d found it in his wasn’t-it-empty pocket after the bus left the rest stop on the turnpike. He did not try to understand how it had come to be there; that was to invite madness.

“I just draw the castles,” Uncle Graham used to say. “People who ask me when they can move into them and if the rent includes unicorns, they’re the ones who’ve got problems.” And he would laugh.

Problems… The echo of the long-since spoken word faded into the far-and-far behind Ryan’s eyes. Yeah, Uncle Graham, there’s more than a few of us around with problems now. He flexed his hand and felt claws gouge deep chasms into the cheap plastic armrests. Insanity is not what you see, but what you admit to seeing. The litany he’d composed to hold onto some sliver of control warmed his mind. Craziness is the compulsion to explain. The dragon that’s suddenly, solidly here when I know I never broughtLet it be here unchallenged. And what I feel closing over me… let that come for me unchallenged too. Just accept the apparitions and no one needs to question if I’m numbered among the sane.

You must do more than accept, the thin, sharp voice hissed in his head. If you would have the reward I’ve promised, you know you must do more.

A reward? Ryan repeated, wasting irony on the echoes in his skull. A world!

The key to Uncle Graham’s apartment was also in his pocket, but at least he knew there was no magic connected with its presence. He had taken it himself, stolen it from Mom’s dressing table last night, while she and Dad lay sleeping, after he awoke from the dream. The key had arrived with Uncle Graham’s body, in a small envelope entrusted to the funeral director’s care by his uncle’s landlady. Included with the key was a friendly note urging Ryan’s mother to come to New York as soon as possible to see about the disposal of Uncle Graham’s possessions. That was the word she used: disposal. When Ryan read it, he thought of a hungry hole in the universe, devouring even the memory of a life that had been—honestly, now—an inconvenience and an embarrassment to so many, even to those who owed it love.

Ryan leaned his head against the window, feeling a film of sweat form between flesh and glass. The black kid in the seat ahead of him lost another battle with the window catch and cursed it out with a fluency one of Uncle Graham’s graybeard wizards might have envied, stolen, but never improved. Ryan sighed, a hot gust of breath that only added to the bus’s burden of muggy air.

He hadn’t known deceit could be so exhausting. His parents had no idea where he was, what he intended to do once he got there. They thought he was back at college. The day after Uncle Graham’s funeral, back home in Clayborn, Ryan’s father had put him on the bus almost before it was light. When it reached Philadelphia he had only stayed in the city long enough to get some things from his dorm and give his folks a call to tell them that he had arrived safely. Then he went right back to the terminal and took the next bus to New York.

What would they say if they knew? Mom would have a cat-fit, most likely, and Dad… Dad would look at him that way again. Why does Uncle Graham matter so to you? He’s dead now, safely dead, but youWhy, Ryan? Why care? You’re not—?

And the question, even in thought, would die away, withered by the chill fear Ryan saw in his father’s eyes, the fear should his only son give him the answer he could not stand to hear.

No, Dad, Ryan responded to his father’s phantom face as the heat drank him further into sleep. I’m not, don’t worry, I’m not like him. Remember last year, the time old man Pitt showed up on our porch, mad as hell, yelling for you to keep me off his daughter? God, I don’t think I ever did anything in my life that made you happier, not even the scholarship. Just the hint that I was screwing a girl, some girl, any girl! He shifted his shoulders against the rough fabric of the seat back. So now is it okay with you if I care about Uncle Graham? If I’m not gay, is it safe for me to love him now that he’s dead?

In his cupped hands, the little clay dragon stretched out a single paw and dug into his flesh with the talons of dreams.

So you’re Ryan. Graham’s told me all about you.

Slim and dark and exotic looking, only just into the beauty of his twenties, Uncle Graham’s lover offered a hand that closed around the little clay dragon and cupped it in transparent flesh long since returned to earth. Through the milky prison of those ghostly fingers, Ryan could still see the dragon swirled roundabout with Christmas snow.

Ryan patted the last handful of snow into the dragon’s side and smoothed it down, embedding jagged holly leaves for teeth, clusters of the bright red berries for eyes. His hands were damp and cold, even through his mittens. Mom was on the porch, holding her sweater tight around her, calling him home. Uncle Graham stood beside her, laughing at what his eleven-year-old nephew had done.

You know, most kids make snowmen.

Ryan shrugged. I like dragons.

Uncle Graham put his arm around Ryan’s shoulders. Watch out, kid. If you’re any good at it, you get to leave this town.

Ryan grinned. Eleven years old, he was just waking up to the possibility that he might want to live out his life somewhere else besides Clayborn.

Christmas in Clayborn. Christmas in a place where there were still things like corner drugstores with real working soda fountains, and big autumn bonfires down by the lakeshore, and pep rallies, and church bake sales where everyone knew how each housewife’s brownies were going to taste even before they bit into one. There were still such things as high school sweethearts here, and special pools of warm, sweet, private darkness, down the shady orchard lanes, between the rolling Pennsylvania farmlands, where a boy could take his best girl and see how far she’d let him go.

And this was where Uncle Graham brought his New York lover. Even without people knowing, Bill would have drawn stares. On Christmas morning he sat right up close beside Uncle Graham, resting his chin on Uncle Graham’s shoulder while the presents were unwrapped, softly exclaiming the proper oohs and aahs of wonder and feigned envy as each gift was brought to hght.

Ryan watched, fascinated. Whatever Mom had said about Uncle Graham’s way of life, the reality was infinitely stranger. He sat on the floor, like Uncle Graham and Bill, and felt as if he were peering through an overgrowth of jungle vines at bizarre creatures never before seen by the eyes of civilized man. Bill’s low laugh sent peculiar chills coursing over Ryan’s bones. His mind blew a glass bell jar over Uncle Graham’s lover and held him there, safely sealed away for observation.

Outside there was snow, crusted over, hugging blue shadows to every curve of the slumbering land. It threw back the brilliant sunlight in harsh assaults of dazzling whiteness. Ryan sat at his father’s feet and looked up to see a taut jawline, a gaze fixed and fastened on Uncle Graham and Bill. Ryan felt his father’s hands come to rest on his shoulders many times that morning—more times than felt right, when right means usual. The sunlight struck a wall of darkness cast by the shadow of the wings that Ryan’s father called up out of empty air to mantle over his son. This is mine; you won’t touch him hung across the room like a fortified castle wall that Ryan’s father made and maintained and walked guard on from that moment until the day Uncle Graham and his lover left to go back to the city.

Ryan’s father was not invisible and Uncle Graham was not blind.

There were no letters from Uncle Graham the rest of the winter, no calls, no more news than if New York were really a cloud kingdom full of so many sweet, glorious pastimes and amusements that the souls lucky ...

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