The Dragon Rider- Part Two

dragon 2

 

“You’re selling your dragon?” Worley interrupted, as he caught up to Emeri and Anzel who were deep in serious conversation. His dusty grey hair hung over his widened eyes, his usual happy face darkened.

“That’s no way to address a royal, even though she may be the youngest,” his brother snapped as he cuffed the back of Worley’s head. He wanted to do more, but his other hand was full of saddle and tack.

“Sorry, Lady Emeri,” the younger brother said as he rubbed his head with one hand. The other hand held a dark brown leather saddle with a strap wound around it.

“You’re excused,” Emeri said, crinkling her tiny nose. “I never liked all that formal stuff anyway. When we’re riding, I’m just Emeri, dragon rider. I don’t have to think about all the duties that I’ll be immersed in when I return.” She sighed and looked toward the dragon stables they were headed toward. “The First Mistress wants me to sell Petal after the Silverpoint ride.”

“But we’re going to come up with a plan so she won’t have to do that,” Anzel added.

“But you’re a princess, Emeri,” Worley protested. “You can do whatever you want to!”

“Actually, it means I have practically no control over my life,” Emeri said. “First Mistress is determined to marry me off like my sisters. It seems that there’s no shortage of trade agreements that need to be cemented with a “joyful union.” I would have thought that Evelon’s marriage to the Baron of Duns and Ellenia’s with the Prince of Overland would have been enough. The suffering needs to be complete with taking away my freedom as well.” She shifted the weight of her saddle to the other shoulder, as if the weight of her words was adding to her burden.

“That too heavy for you. Let me take it,” Anzel pleaded with her. “Why do you always insist on carrying your own saddle?”

“It makes me feel like a real dragon rider,” Emeri replied. “Just let me do it. No one will see.”

“Why can’t you be a dragon rider anymore?” Worley wondered.

Emeri sighed, and the crunch of their steps filled the silence. The path led them through a speckled glade of white trees that separated the castle from the animal enclosures. It was a perfect sunny day for the capricious days of planting season. Finally she said, “First Mistress says that I must be married. It is her royal opinion that a prince would not want to marry a dragon rider. I need to settle down and take on more responsibilities.”

Anzel grinned. “Like producing royal heirs?” He was the oldest of the trio, nearly sixteen, and thought he was very worldly.

Flipping back her hair, Emeri retorted, “That’s not the only responsibility I’ll have. I will entertain leaders from all over Tessar. I’ll have to study what foods they prefer and how to greet them properly.”

“Doesn’t sound as fun as dragon riding,” Worley concluded.

The three friends arrived at the tall stone building that had a large chimney coming out of the center of the tiled roof. Smoke was curling out of it, but it wasn’t from a fire in the hearth.

A rumble of excitement greeted them as they walked in. “Petal,” Emeri cried, “I’ve missed you. Are you ready for a short trip around the queendom?” Her shimmering pale grey dragon shook its head, sending puffs of smoke up toward the high ceiling. The dragon stalls were huge, as was needed for keeping dragons, and built of special wood that was naturally fire resistant. Petal’s head hung over the six foot gate, and eagerly sniffed her mistress. At the familiar sound, three dragon grooms emerged from the tack room to saddle up their mounts.

Anzel and Worley greeted their dragons with apples they had brought from the main house. The older brother’s dragon, Blade, was dark green, with curly feathers that made a ring around the base of its long neck. Mist was Worley’s dragon, a smaller dark grey dragon with a shorter neck and a tail that had a hard bone shaped like a hammer at its end. The smaller dragons gobbled up the treats, turning their juices into steam as they crunched.

The grooms led the dragons outside and carried over the ladders to help the riders climb up onto the large creatures. Emeri scooted up her ladder with practiced ease and strapped in around her waist and legs. Petal watched her with a large purple reptilian eye, smoking curling out of her nostrils, waiting for her command.

When they were all ready, Emeri shouted in an unprincess-like voice, “Let’s ride!” and a loud whoosh of wings signaled their departure.

As they rose through the clouds, she felt a weight lift from her shoulders. Rushing wind whispered promises of freedom, and crisp fresh air filled her lungs with renewed energy. Dragon riding was her escape from a world she had no control over. To her right flew Anzel and Blade, who was wearing a huge grin. A glance to the left showed Worley holding his reins in one hand, his other on Mist’s neck.

The clouds below them thinned, and she could see the multicolored patchwork of fields surrounding Thorington Castle. For generations the Thorington line had controlled vast holdings of fertile farmland, which ensured their place as the bread basket of Tessar. Far to the south rose the wrinkled mountains of the Bearded Ones, the source of strange tales. To the west the deep blue ocean caressed the beaches of Ingest, while behind her stood the icy tips of the Crystal Mountains. All lovely lands of deep forests and tinkling streams. Only the eastern deserts were barren. From up here, all existed in harmony with no political turmoil or peasant squabbles.

The pulsing rhythm of Petal’s muscled wings reminded her of a pendulum clock, one that was counting her moments until she would have to give up dragon riding. What could she do? She knew that she could enlist the help of her dragon riding club, but to do what? Could she hide Petal somewhere with another rider’s help, and sneak away to ride as much as she could?

She knew in her heart it wouldn’t be fair to her spirited dragon to keep her secreted away. And she wasn’t sure how much sneaking away she’d be able to do once she was a royal wife. But she knew one thing — there was no way she was going to sell her dragon. If she couldn’t find a way to keep her, there was only one thing left to do.

Emeri would ride her back to the land of her dragon’s hatching in the Crystal Mountains and set her free.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Overnighter- Part Two

eating

 

When Diane parked her Harley at the hotel, her frozen fingers stuck to her handle bars were not entirely caused by the weather. In the last two hours of their ride, an icy mist had followed them out of Needles, buffeting the riders with tiny needles of sleet. Fortunately, the warm asphalt melted the icy drops into water, leaving the road wet but not too slick. Their fearless road captain led them down forgotten portions of old Route 66, seeking less traffic and an easier place to pull off if they needed it. She glimpsed shut down motels, gas stations, and road houses as they sped by, looking even more forlorn in the grey weather. “Not a great place to break down,” she thought. Any help would not be close by.

In her mirrors, she could still see a lone car following them. Surely it couldn’t be that same Prius? Then the car pulled out on the left to pass them on the two lane highway. “He’s really going to pass our whole line of bikes?” she thought. As it blew by, she tried to look into the car, but all of the windows were darkly tinted. Through the windshield she had only a glimpse of dark glasses, out of place on a rainy day. After passing their group, the car swung over into the right lane and sped away.

The road curved around a large foothill before spitting them out into another cattle speckled valley. Suddenly, brake lights lit up the road like Christmas, and the bikes slowed to a crawl. Patty looked back at Diane, who shrugged. Obediently, the line of bikes crept around another curve. The source of their caution was revealed as a white Prius stopped in the middle of the highway with its hazard lights flashing. Mitch pulled the group over as he and Dan went over to see if the driver needed help.
“What’s going on?” Diane asked Patty, pulling her bike up next to her friend.

“I don’t know,” Patty said. “Isn’t that the same Prius that’s been following us all day?”

“Doesn’t seem possible,” Diane said. “There’s a ton of those cars out there. That would be creepy, though.”

“I feel creeped out just thinking about it,” Patty agreed.

Then Mitch and Dan exchanged words, pulled their helmets back on, and returned to their bikes. The rest of the group, waiting in the misty rain, eagerly followed them down the road. Diane stuffed her curiosity into a box labeled Later, and focused on keeping her Harley up. “Come on, Charlie,” she thought. “You can do this.” The rain increased into a constant downpour that the bikes tried to outrun. It seemed like the day would never end, suspended in a grey curtain of water.

But all rides eventually come to an end, and she was relieved to get into her room and peel off her wet rain gear and boots. “Why in the movies does the biker girl’s hair look perfectly tousled when she pulls off her helmet, when in real life she looks like a drowned rat?” she thought as she regarded her limp locks in the mirror.

A short while later, the group assembled at the hotel’s restaurant, eagerly studying the menu. The tempting aroma of grilled burgers and steak made their stomachs grumble. Mitch and Dan began their usual harassment of the waitress, who took their orders and fled to the kitchen. Diane gave them both a stern look that was quickly ignored.

She couldn’t wait any longer. “What happened back there with that Prius?” she asked Dan, who was sitting across from her.

The rest of the group dropped their conversations to listen to them.

“It was the weirdest thing,” Dan said, sharing a look with Mitch at the end of the table. “When we went up there to ask the guy if he needed help, he said he was fine.”

“Yeah, he said his car was covering a sink hole that had opened up because of the rain,” Mitch added.

“So we looked under his car, and sure enough, there was a giant hole. Big enough to swallow up a Harley!”

“Was his car stuck in it?” Diane asked.

“That’s the thing,” Dan said with a smile. “The guy said he stopped his car to cover it up so that we wouldn’t ride into it.”

Another waiter had returned with their drinks, so the group helped him distribute the various microbrew beers with strange names. Diane sipped hers, called Bitter Barrel Butter.

“Why would the guy do that?” Patty asked, after all had refreshed themselves.

“I have no idea,” Mitch said before he took another long drink.

With no resolution, the conversation turned to lighter topics. Usually no one in the group wanted to dwell on potential crashes or road hazards. But Diane couldn’t get it out of her mind, even when her plate of baby back ribs was thrust in front of her.

“Was that driver really following us?” she asked Patty after a spicy mouthful of meat.  “Why did he stop to prevent us from falling into that hole?”

“It’s like he was some kind of guardian angel or something,” Patty said. She frowned at her phone. “I’ve been trying to get ahold of Paul all day, but he’s not answering his phone. We always call each other when we ride apart.”

“He’s probably sleeping or something,” Diane reassured her.  She ordered another beer, hoping that it would soothe her thoughts and prevent her from considering whether the man in the white Prius was a predator or protector.

The Shrinking Man

“Will you come and visit me in prison?” my new co-worker whispered over the grey fabric covered cubicle wall that divided us.

With a sigh I answered, “Of course I will.”

But this was not how the week began. Being the newest member of the Fidelity Life Customer Satisfaction Team, I earned the cubby next to Mike. His cubicle butted up against the corner, so he only had one shared wall. As our manager led me to my new desk, I saw the furtive glances as I headed toward the only empty cubicle in the row. Were their eyes full of pity or relief?

After showing me my new workspace, which was the same as all the other cubicles, the grey-blue haired woman reeking of White Shoulders peered down her reading glasses at me, the chains attached swinging in the quickness of her motion.

“Lunch is from 12 to one. If you have any questions, ask Mike. He’s been with the company for years.” She dashed away to wherever managers go, and I sat down. The chair had a cracked vinyl seat that dared to pinch my bottom through my best pair of black pants. Onto the grey metal desk top, I dumped the ream of paperwork I had been handed during my orientation, and suddenly was aware of being watched.

“Welcome to my level of hell,” Mike greeted me with all the suffering of the saints painted on his face. His hair was a tornado of dark brown curls, and his brown eyes seemed as deep wells at an abandoned farm house. He seemed the same age as me, not a young man, but old enough to know better.

“Hi, I’m new here,” I said, being the brilliant master of conversation that I was.

But Mike seemed not to notice my lack of wit, and continued on. “I may as well tell you. Everyone will let you know soon enough. I’m not the most popular man on our team.”

“Really?” I said, wondering why this was the most important information that he needed to share. My new neighbor stood tall over the top of our cubicle wall, his shoulders visible. To my eyes, he seemed a healthy man in the prime of his life. And yet his eyes looked a million years old.

“My girlfriend left me,” he continued. “She met this guy at the grocery store, he was a chef or something, and she moved out.”
“Man, I’m sorry,” I offered.

“The love of my life,” he said, his eyes growing wide and even darker. “We were a couple in high school. The night of graduation, we had a big fight. I was going to Arizona State and she was staying local. We were done. That’s what I thought.”

“That’s a tough break,” I said, moving slightly away from him. His face had turned boiling red, and his breath was broken and raspy.

“Why couldn’t she leave well enough alone?” he asked me as if I had been there. “No, no, no. She had to call me up years later, and beg me to move here. She was going through a big break up and she still had my number.” His hands that clenched the top of the cubicle were white.

I attempted another interjection, but the train of his thoughts had already left the station and was steaming full speed ahead.

“It was great!” he bellowed. I looked through my doorway to the cubicle across from us, and a mousy brown haired woman was furiously typing away. “For three years, we were happy, and then she finds this guy at the store! She moves out and immediately marries HIM, NOT ME!”

At this point, I was on my feet, and ready to run to the bathroom, if necessary, to stop the impending storm.

Then the clouds parted, and Mike smiled at me, his lips pulled back from his yellowing teeth. “I hope that guy turns out to be a lazy bum. What kind of a man works in a kitchen?” His cackling laughter echoed in my ears for the rest of the day.

That was Monday. The next day, I rode up the elevator with hope that my second day at my new job would be better. I tried to make eye contact with other cubicle dwellers as I strode down the aisle, but everyone was engrossed in phone conversation or madly typing on their computers. Only one pair of eyes looked my way, over my desk wall.

I shook my head and took another sip of my coffee. Was Mike kneeling on his chair? I walked up to the wall and looked over into his cubicle. My scrunched up face must have puzzled him as he was quick to greet me.

“I’m Mike. Remember me from yesterday? The guy that got trampled in the dirt by the woman he loved?” Of course I remembered him, but I was in shock. He was standing next to his wall. While yesterday, he had cleared up to his shoulders above the top, today only his curly head and eyes were able to see over.  Was I crazy? Or did I need a new pair of glasses again?

Mike didn’t wait for my reply before he started back into what I discovered was his favorite topic of conversation. “She called last night.” The white hot anger attached to those simple words could have burned through the wall.

“Dude, what did she say?” I couldn’t avoid asking since that was my line in the script he was writing.

“She wanted the T.V.” The energy of his rage forced him to begin pacing his small workspace. I thought I saw worn paths in the grey carpet, and wondered how long this had all been going on. His eyes glimmered with a fae light. “I wanted her to come get it. Let her come over with her big burly dish washer.” He looked at his trembling hands. “I could take care of them both. No problem.”

Not wanting to further this conversation to the point where I would enter into conspiracy, I said, “I’m sure you could. Well, I’d better get started. Who knows when Mrs. Blinkley might want to see our reports.”

“Later,” he growled, and thankfully I didn’t hear anything more from him for the rest of the day.

On Hump Day, I entered the office with diminished enthusiasm, having concluded that this job would be as dreary as the five previous. A man in a white shirt by the coffee pot said good morning, and I nodded. Walking down the aisle toward my corner, I wondered what Mike might say today. In no way was I prepared for what I saw, or rather didn’t see.

“Morning,” a smaller, squeakier voice said. I looked over my wall to see my dismal neighbor readjusting his tie in a small mirror on his wall. He was standing on his tip toes to see his neck in it. Today he was only half as tall as the cubicle wall! I rubbed my eyes and took a deep chug of my coffee. What devilry was going on?

His tiny squealing voice whined in my ear. “I saw her on the street today. Walking toward 1st Street.” His eyes flashed at me. “I wanted to run her down. All I had to do was jump the curb and take her out. Do you know how hard it was to keep my hands steering the car straight?”

“Now, Mike,” I said. “Don’t you think you’re getting a little carried away? You could really hurt someone.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m going for,” he giggled.

“I’ve got to get to work,” I said, not knowing what else to say. My hand shook a little as I grabbed my phone, but once I started on my calling lists the day passed quickly. The wall was quiet.

On my way to work Thursday, I struggled to keep up with the flow of pedestrian traffic. Was my co-worker actually getting shorter every day, or was my feeble imagination stretching its legs? I had to talk to someone else about this. It was tearing me apart.

In the elevator I recognized the woman who worked in the cubicle across from me. I think I heard her name was Susan. Stirring my courage, I turned my head toward her, leaving my body in the full frontal position required for elevator travel.

“Good morning, it’s Susan, isn’t it?” I queried.

She nervously turned toward me, as I was breaking the number one rule on an elevator, that you don’t talk to anyone. “Yes, it is. You’re the new guy across from me.” She held her umbrella like a cudgel, prepared for anything.

“I needed to ask you something.” She glared at me and motioned with her eyes toward our fellow riders. “It’s not personal or anything.”

“Well, okay,” she said with a frown.

“What’s the story about Mike?”

Her face froze. “What about him?” she hissed.

“I just wondered,” I said. “How tall is he normally?”
Her eyes narrowed as she said, “What do you mean?”

Under her glare, I lost all conviction. “Never mind.”

“Indeed,” she said with a sniff.

I walked slowly toward my cubicle, dreading what I might find. As I approached, I could hear mouse-like scurrying noises. Unable to help myself, I looked  into Mike’s office.

A small child was attempting to boost himself up into the chair. Hearing my approach, he turned toward me. My jaw fell open as I recognized the mop of brown hair.

“Good, I’m glad you’re here. Help me up into my chair,” he squeaked at me.

Not knowing what else to do, I helped the four year old sized man into his chair and adjusted it for him so he could reach his computer keyboard.

“I’m going to do it!” he insisted. “It’s going to be poison. He loves his food so well- let it be the death of them both!”

“Mike,” I said. “Don’t you think you should let this go? It’s eating you up, man!”

“Ridiculous!” he retorted. “They’ll get what’s coming to them. They ruined my life!” As he waved his hands around, he looked like a small child throwing a tantrum over eating his lima beans. Unable to bear the sight of him any longer, I sat down with a sigh. What could I do? Settling into the monotony of my work routine kept my thoughts from wandering. No one else seemed to notice anything. As the new guy, I certainly wasn’t going to ruffle any feathers.

Finally Friday arrived like a package you were waiting for in the mail. My limited capability for accepting new concepts had forced me into ignoring the diminishing stature of my co-worker. Since no one else at the company noticed anything, I was the last person who was going to run through the halls screaming “The Emperor has no clothes!”

I didn’t even look into Mike’s cubicle. I quickly took off my overcoat and hung it on the rack in the corner. I sat carefully on my chair and started looking at my emails. After the seventy-fifth one, I heard a faint whisper coming from the wall.

“Will you come and visit me in prison?”

Unable to resist, I stood up and looked over the wall. Sitting on the chair was a tiny person, barely larger than a baby, propped up on catalogs, holding his head in his tiny hands.

With a sigh I answered, “Of course I will.”

“Thanks, man. You’re the only one who gets me around here. I’m really going to do it, you know. She deserves everything she gets. After all she’s done.” His voice was so small it sounded like a recording heard from another room.

I had to try again. “Mike, do you think that your ex-girlfriend ever thinks about you? She’s going on with her life, and you keep raving on and on about her. Maybe it’s time for you to move on and live your own life.”

He looked at me with his tiny eyes in disbelief. “This is my life!” And he turned back to his computer, turning his baby-sized shoulders against me.

Shaking my head, I sat down to address the myriad of problems that had grown during the week. I was determined to leave work on time that day.

The weekend was filled with too short days and lonely nights and suddenly it was Monday again. The six blocks from my apartment to our office building seemed twice as long as the previous week. I was late again, for no good reason, and I rose up on the elevator alone. Entering the office, I saw the same guy at the coffee pot, now I knew his name was Harold, and Susan was delivering memos to cubicles, something too important for an email. She avoided my gaze, so I didn’t offer her a greeting. That’s what talking in the elevator gets you.

Entering my office, I threw off my coat and scarf, and got to work. Someone had thoughtfully delivered mountains of files into my in box, and I needed to dig myself out by lunch. The morning passed uneventfully, and it wasn’t until after lunch that I noticed that I had not received my daily rant from Mike. In fact, I hadn’t heard anything from his cubicle at all.

Hesitantly, I got up and looked over the wall. His cubicle was empty. No coffee cup, no coat, and his computer was dark. Where could he be?

My phone rang, and I was swept away into problems until the end of the day. As I put on my coat, I glanced over the wall. All was as quiet as a tomb. My mind, now free of the complications of the work day, ran free with wild speculation. Did he quit? Was he fired? Did he finally murder his ex-girlfriend and her lover? Was he really shrinking? This thought caused me to walk gingerly down the corridor toward the elevators.

As the elevator door closed, I stood in the midst of the crowded elevator and wondered. The sinking sensation of the descending car matched the feeling in my stomach as I realized that I knew the answer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

well enough alone

“When will you leave well enough alone?” I could hear the ghost of my long passed mother as I stood smothered by a thick wool full length coat and a fleece running jacket. The air was stale with traces of rotten gym socks as I delicately balanced in the pile of shoes. Hangers kept me pinned to the back wall. I desperately wanted to burst out into the room and breathe cool clean air. But my shame kept me hidden in my former bedroom closet as I strained to hear the conversation from the living room.

“All I wanted was my iPhone speakers,” I answered my mother in my head. I still had my key to the apartment so I stopped by after work. Peter never got home earlier than seven on a weekday night so I didn’t feel obligated to text him that I might stop by. After searching the living room and our bedroom, I dove into our closet, thinking that maybe my ex-husband had boxed up the remnants I’d left behind in the aftermath of our stormy breakup.

That’s when I heard the key in the front door bolt. I pulled myself out of the crammed contents of the closet, and prepared myself for the confrontation.

“I don’t care. Whatever you want to eat,” a familiar female voice answered a question started in the hallway. My entire body tensed as I realized who had accompanied Peter into our apartment. It was Susan, my best friend since the fourth grade and the maid of honor at our wedding. What was she doing with my ex-husband?

I know I should have walked out of the bedroom and confessed. But my morbid curiosity tossed me back into the closet. Closing the door behind me I waited in the darkness, listening.

“Come on, Sue. I always pick the restaurant,” my former husband said. In my mind, I could see his sneering smile that he thought was amusing.

“But you spoil me,” my friend replied. “We’ve gone out to white tablecloth restaurants every night for the past month. Don’t you ever cook?”
Heat started rising in my face. When we were married, my husband kept us to a strict budget, which didn’t include eating out. We barely even got fast food once a month. Where was he getting all this money from? Maybe there was an oil well in this closet.

“I hate to cook,” said Peter. “When Jenny and I were married, she insisted on cooking every night. Now it’s just easier to go out.”

I distinctly heard a low giggle. Really? He’s making her giggle. Not once in our marriage, except for when Peter ran into the bedroom door in the middle of the night, did he ever make me giggle. I tried to take slow calming breaths without making noise or inhaling fluff from my dusty hideout.

“Honey, you know I want to,” her husky voice managed to say.

“Then what, darling? I’ve waited patiently all these years.”

All these years? My husband and my best friend cheating on me for years? I quietly removed an empty wire hanger and started shaping it into a noose. Were there still skiing gloves buried in the bottom of the closet?

“I’m just an old fashioned girl,” Sue said. “I want to see the wedding ring on this finger first.”

“”This little finger?” my ex-husband purred. More giggling ensued from both of them.

Then a sigh that reminded me of a waiting locomotive. “Alright then. Let’s get some dinner.”

The front door opened and closed, the key clicking in the bolt. Alone once more, I emerged from my prison, sweating like a factory worker. Throwing down the hanger I still clutched in my hands, I fell into the soft tangles of blankets on the bed I had shared with my husband for ten years. I wanted to scream. I wanted to text both of them, scathing, searing curses that would burn into their hearts like acid. Instead I threw one of our heavy goose down pillows at the nightstand, where it struck a picture of Peter with his Harley group. The ceramic frame fell to the wood floor and dashed into pieces.

Encouraged by that action, I got up to find the baseball bat Peter always kept in the closet.

“Should have left well enough alone,” my mother said in my head as I started to swing the bat.