Written May 2017
This story is almost six years old and was definitely inspired by the year I spent working at Borders Books after university. Let me know what you think. : )
Life as a cashier stretched long before him. His break was over. Lunch wasn’t for another hour. Jeremy wanted to do something strange—maybe dance?—but he lacked the energy.
Mark drifted by, looking as detached and bored as Jeremy felt. “Did you get those DVDs tagged?” he muttered to his coffee.
Jeremy pointed to the pile of stickered DVDs on the counter.
“Good. Call all the special orders?”
“All right. Um, clean up, get things neat…” Mark glanced at the counter, found some clutter to point at: a roll of tape, a few unsorted returns. “Call if you need any help.”
“Thanks,” Jeremy said, and knew Mark wouldn’t notice the sarcasm.
Nodding vaguely, Mark started toward the cafe to scold the baristas for talking.
What would it be like to just walk out—drive home, never come back? He could stand for a while under the summer sun, feel warmth for once instead of the curdled air conditioning of the bookstore. He actually considered it for a while.
But he couldn’t quite do it. If he did leave, he’d be fired within the hour. Then what? Hard enough getting this job—there wasn’t a lot Jeremy was qualified to do with half a college degree and a drug offense on his record. If he left, he’d end up working at Wal-Mart, and he had enough trouble paying the bills as it was.
So he stayed, counting minutes, and waited for people to buy books.
A young woman entered after a while, face stormy. She looked like the sort of person Jeremy would like to talk to: black bob, chain jewelry, chunky boots. He opened his mouth to ask if she needed help—anything for a conversation. Just then another customer appeared to distract him, though, and the woman kept walking. He didn’t see her again for several minutes.
When she returned from the back, she held a book—a thin, flat hardcover, dark-red velvet—under one arm. It was one of the ones from the bargain bin—a blank book, or one of the schmaltzy poetry collections no one ever bought. She carried it oddly, though, half-hidden, and after far too long Jeremy realized she meant to steal it.
The woman saw him watching, clearly realized he knew what she was doing. Now she’d turn around, put the book back, because it definitely wasn’t worth anyone’s time to call the police over stupid shit like this.
But she kept going, still watching him, as if she couldn’t stop. As if she had to take this book.
Jeremy shifted so that he could see her path clear to the door. It only counted as shoplifting if she actually took the book outside. If she did, then he’d have to call the police.
She was almost to the gates now. It didn’t look like she was going to stop.
He opened his mouth to call her back. He didn’t want her to get arrested, not over something like this.
But then… he didn’t call, didn’t follow, didn’t watch her take the book outside. Instead, he walked to the other end of the counter, turned his back on the door, and began clearing up. What did it matter if someone stole something—stole anything? The store was about to go out of business. Soon everything would end up remaindered, and it wouldn’t really matter what anyone took. The woman was just getting an early start.
When he turned back, she was gone.
The store was almost empty. There probably wouldn’t be more than twenty more sales tonight. Maybe Mark would bite the bullet and close early. It would be nice to go home a little early, though Jeremy couldn’t really afford the hours.
Suddenly, a tingle ran through the air. Ozone flickered across the back of Jeremy’s tongue. A storm? But the weather was clear, earlier—no storms had been predicted. He craned his neck, trying to see the doors.
Mark ran past, then, coffee abandoned. “You’re in charge, Jeremy!” he shouted, and went outside.
Jeremy abandoned the register and followed.
The woman stood in the middle of the parking lot, book open in her hands. She looked at the scattered shoppers as if she’d rather not be watched, but then lowered her head and began to read.
“Excuse me,” said Mark, approaching. “Miss. I’m going to have to ask you to—“
The woman kept reading, raising her voice to drown him out.
Jeremy couldn’t understand a word. It was… a poem, maybe, but not in any language he’d ever heard. But he felt like he should understand it, if he could just hear a little better. He started to move—then stopped, as a tingle of electricity ran across his skin.
The woman read on.
Clouds gathered. How had they formed so quickly out of a clear sky? One—enormous, and almost spherical—began to pulse, as if something could burst from it at any second.
Mark had stopped talking. He kept making little abortive motions, as if to grab the book, but never quite managed.
Jeremy hovered at the edge of the crowd. (Day or night, city or suburb, there’s always a crowd.)
The woman read on, voice rising and rising, until the great cloud opened and the dragons spilled out.
Like a swarm of bees, a vast colony of bats, they flowed towards the earth, descending to the streets and shopping centers—blue, silver, scarlet, all different colors, settling to the ground as graceful as the folds of evening gowns.
The woman lowered the book and squinted upwards.
The dragon that landed before her was the deep, rusting red of venous blood. Red-tinged shadows fell from its wings over the girl and the ground where she stood.
She raised her face, beatific.
The dragon lowered its sedan-sized head to nuzzle her cheek. Between its wings was something that, on any other animal, might have been called a saddle.
Two other dragons had landed here, too. One, sinuous, crouched by the Home Goods. It was gold mottled with red, an unsettling asymmetrical pattern like the spots on an alley cat.
The other, much closer to Jeremy, was almost as large as the bookstore, very solid. Its skin was a deep and satisfying black, like the tiny onyx beetles he’d played with as a child. Its head was shaped like a snapping turtle’s, less refined than the others’—but Jeremy liked it more. Somehow, Jeremy had barely noticed it land, but now it sat with its wings neatly folded, as if it had been there for hours.
It, too, had a saddle between its wings.
The mottled dragon surged to its feet and sauntered towards the store. Its gait was lazy, awkward—like a Komodo dragon, actually. Its wings stayed poised as if ready to take off.
The door of Home Goods was covered by a knot of screaming people—maybe barricaded by equally frightened people inside. Jeremy watched, mesmerized, knowing he was about to see violence but with no way to intervene. The woman by the red dragon watched, too. Her face was impassive, no more readable than the dragon’s.
The black dragon was watching him intensely. Its eyes were a deep, bloody crimson. They seemed to expect something, though he couldn’t tell what. Faintly, he could smell the dry odor of snakes, bitter herbs, cinnamon.
The yellow dragon was almost at the door. It lowered its head, as if to assault the building—maybe to assault the people. Jeremy couldn’t look away. Would it break down the door, rip it from the hinges—
Before the dragon could move, the door flew open. A young man ran out—tall and thin, stylish, with dark skin and a golden pompadour. He shoved past the screeching people and threw himself at the dragon.
The dragon froze drew back its neck and froze, oddly birdlike.
The man stood for long moments with his arms held open, as if he were barely restraining himself from hugging the creature around the neck. Finally, he stepped forward.
Someone grabbed his arm. Mark. Mark, who tried and failed to prevent the summoning, was trying to prevent whatever was going to happen next. Jeremy couldn’t hear what he was saying, but the gestures were clear: back away—dangerous—go inside. Jeremy wanted to laugh—trust Mark to bring a bit of the aggravated middle-manager into this event.
Then he looked again at the stranger. The laugh died.
The man watched the dragon as if transfixed—like a parent who’d just seen their child for the first time, or someone who’d just fallen in love. He lifted a hand, and the creature that had looked so fierce a moment ago nuzzled it like a giant cat.
The man curved his body towards the dragon. It leaned in, cuddling like a much smaller creature. They seemed bonded already, as if they were cementing some connection that had already been there before.
Jeremy couldn’t keep watching—the sympathetic emotions that were rising in him were getting overwhelming. He turned back to look at the other two dragons.
The red dragon appeared… bored, if anything. The woman, who had climbed onto the saddle, appeared to want to be gone. She would be gone soon—Jeremy was sure this summons was forever. Woman and dragon already looked like a unit—two parts of one being, inseparable.
That left the black one.
Jeremy turned back to the black dragon with… trepidation? Excitement? It was watching him as if he were the only person in the world. If the other two riders were chosen already, then the black dragon’s rider must be… Jeremy.
It felt like hours before he was brave enough to approach. Just as he started walking, a hand closed on his arm.
“Jeremy.” Mark’s voice, hoarse but recognizable—Mark’s average, muted manager voice. He stood at Jeremy’s shoulder, and clearly meant to keep Jeremy from leaving if he could.
Jeremy shook off his hand. The dragon watched solemnly, perhaps with a touch of humor. It must have seen many Marks throughout however long its time had been, would surely see many more.
“It’s dangerous.” Mark’s voice was hesitant, as if Jeremy had been compromised somehow and must be handled carefully. “There’s, like… some kind of spell on you, I think. You need to stay away… they’re too big…”
Jeremy started walking again.
The dragon inclined its head, as if it were a king greeting an honored guest or a welcome supplicant. Jeremy nodded back.
It was as hot here as under a blazing sun, though the day had been mild until the dragons came. The odors of snakes, herbs, and cinnamon grew stronger, along with a touch of brimstone now. Did they really breathe fire?
Mark made a sound of protest, but fell back. His protection apparently didn’t extend into the dragon’s shadow.
Jeremy walked until he stood between the curved, table-sized talons, and then looked up. The terrifying eyes were fixed on him.
He bowed. “I’m here to talk to you,” he said.
The dragon didn’t speak. Could it? In some stories they could. Maybe it would speak to him when it was ready.
“Are you here for me?” He knew the answer.
The dragon nodded once.
“I’m supposed to go with you.”
The dragon tipped its head—what was Jeremy doing standing, asking questions, when he could be on its back waiting to be taken away? And he wanted to go up there. Mostly. But he couldn’t leap without looking.
“Will we come back?” he said, after a brief silence. The lot was quiet; if anyone was speaking or moving, he didn’t hear. Nothing mattered in the world except this conversation.
The dragon cocked its head the other way.
This moment would define Jeremy. Would he go back in—go back to retail? Or would he sit between a dragon’s wings and be carried into the clouds? He felt that he could almost fly himself just knowing there was such wonder in the world.
But, thinking of his parents, he had to hesitate. Could he just leave without saying goodbye? They had always treated him well, supported him even now, although he’d disappointed them. And who would take care of his cat, if he left? He couldn’t just leave her. Of course, his parents would step in, but she was his responsibility. If he left on dragonback, he’d never see her again.
But it was a dragon.
As he considered, there was an odd dry huff across the parking lot, a scrape of talons on cement. When he looked up, the yellow dragon was bounding towards him. The rider, face hard and cool now, sat like a jewel between its shoulders. Like the woman, he seemed a part of his dragon, not an individual any longer. It was the most frightening thing Jeremy had ever seen.
He almost ran—but the black dragon wasn’t reacting, looked completely unimpressed, so it would be silly for Jeremy to panic. Still, it was hard to keep still, waiting for the yellow dragon to pass or kill him.
At the last second, the yellow dragon threw itself fluidly aloft, wings pumping down a hurricane wind below. Around the lot, people screamed and took pictures.
Next, the red dragon stretched, bowing nearly to the ground, back sloping upward like the side of a cliff. The woman gripped its shoulders almost absently. With a single beat of its wings, the red dragon flashed into the sky.
Then it was only Jeremy and the black dragon. Time to take his place, ride into the sky.
He couldn’t move.
The dragon leaned forward until its face was only inches from his. Its breath scorched him, but it felt comforting. The scent was everywhere—he breathed it in, and it seemed to spill out through his pores again, until he thought it would be a part of him permanently.
He leaned into the warmth. Slowly, feeling immensely shy, he laid one hand on the dragon’s snout.
The skin was bumpy, pliant, very hot. From that bare touch, Jeremy already felt a deep and subtle connection beginning to grow between them. He felt sure that if he didn’t back away now, he would never be able to.
The dragon head followed his hand with its head, quite delicately for something that size, as he tried to withdraw. Finally he pulled his arm away and hid it behind his back. The dragon lowered its jaw, great red eyes sorrowful as an abandoned dog’s.
“I have family.” With considerable difficulty, he stopped himself from reaching out again. “Parents. I have a cat.”
It looked at him as if he were insane. He probably was.
“Can I join you later?” It seemed unlikely, but he had to ask.
The dragon’s look was unreadable.
“I’m sorry.” Jeremy’s voice was rough. “I just can’t.”
He couldn’t bring himself to leave, and couldn’t bear for the dragon to leave, either. He wanted to touch it again, to feel that connection growing, but it wouldn’t be fair—they’d miss each other forever.
He almost begged the dragon to stay, but managed not to. If he couldn’t leave his family, make in a second a decision that would affect his entire life, he couldn’t ask it of the being that would have been his companion. And certainly he couldn’t ask the dragon to live here on earth—it couldn’t thrive here. Still, stepping back was one of the hardest things he’d ever done.
“Goodbye for now, I guess.” Jeremy held his hands forcibly at his sides. “Good luck.”
The dragon’s look was deep and sorrowful, full of unreadable meanings. It turned and bounded away, surprisingly light, almost silent, and leapt into the air.
Instantly, Jeremy knew he’d chosen wrong. He started running, through the crowd of spectators (of which he was one, once again), past Mark (who tried to stop him), past the stricken, crying friends of the yellow dragon’s rider—waved his arms, hoped the dragon would somehow see him and return, take back his stupid decision. “Come back!” He knew it couldn’t hear him, but he yelled as loudly as he could. “Please. I was wrong. Please. I want to go, too!”
But the dragon flew on, joining its companions, and the lines of dragons, dozens and hundreds of them, rising from all the places where they’d landed, most with riders on their backs though a few without, converged on the spherical cloud that was now closing like a flower at sunset. Then all of them folded into it like shadows, and at last the cloud was only a cloud.
He wanted to curl into a ball and die—go lie in bed, never get up again.
Mark was touching his shoulder.
“Yes?” Jeremy managed to say. Was he somehow still on duty?
Mark seemed embarrassed, like he didn’t have the words to talk about what had just happened. “You made the right choice,” he said, more compassionately than Jeremy would have expected. “I’m glad you’re still here. Are you all right?”
“Listen, uh…” Mark scratched his head. Though considerably older than Jeremy, he seemed much more confused and wrong-footed by the situation (though much less grief-stricken as well).
“I’m going to go.” Jeremy took a step back. He needed to find some place where no one had heard of him, sit down for a year or ten and figure out what had just happened. “Is that okay? I can’t work any more today.”
“What? Oh…” Mark clearly wanted to keep talking, but to his credit said quickly, “Of course, sure. Ah, take tomorrow, too, if you need to.”
“Thanks.” No knowing what else to say, after a moment Jeremy left. Mark didn’t call him back.
A few people tried to stop him. He ignored them. They had no connection to him anymore. He’d never come back here again—every time he saw the place he’d remember… could it be called disappointment if you could blame only yourself? Heartbreak, certainly.
Jeremy was halfway across the parking lot, and was considering walking home, when his foot struck something on the ground. He stopped.
On the asphalt, surprisingly clean and undamaged, was a cheap-looking book—flat with a dark red velvet cover.
It was in his hand in seconds. He began to open it—then stopped, aware of the crowd, wanting to keep this piece of magic to himself. He glanced around to see if anyone had noticed him pick it up. Some people were watching him, but that didn’t mean anything: they’d been watching him him since the dragons left, probably long before.
Holding the book firmly closed, Jeremy began to run—out of the parking lot, across the street, past the bank where his paychecks were deposited, past the grocery store. There were people here, too, many more than usual at this time of day, all talking and pointing at the cloud (indistinguishable now from the others, maybe not the original cloud at all). There had been dragons here, too. Jeremy wondered if they’d taken anyone.
He ignored everyone in the lot. They ignored him, too. He was no one special here, just some kid late to work in one of the shops.
He ran around to the back of the strip and found a quiet space behind the pharmacy. He sat down and held the book a long time.
He had to open it—find whatever the girl had read, read it out loud, bring them back—but what if… what if it wasn’t there? Maybe this book would turn out to be nothing—some other thing, “Poems About My Mother” or a blank diary or something? What if it could no more call dragons than he could on his own?
“Just open it,” he muttered. He took a deep breath and opened the book.
Immediately, he was disappointed: the book was in English. He was sure the girl had spoken a different language, so this couldn’t be it. But as he kept turning the pages, he realized that the poems inside were very unusual.
“The Lay of the Mermaid.” “Under a Cursed Tree at Midnight.” “The King Approaches.” “May the Spirits of the Damned Soon Fall Upon Your Enemies.” All were different; some weren’t poems at all. Some—“History of a Lost City and All That Tragically Befell It”—were walls of text, pages and pages that his eyes skimmed over without absorbing anything. Others were extremely short. One, “Awakening,” had only two lines.
Here and there Jeremy paused, suffused with the urge to read aloud—but he wanted the first poem he spoke, if he spoke any, to be the right one.
And there it was: “To Summon Dragons from the Sky.”
It was two pages, lines laid out neatly like the couplets in Beowulf. It looked approachable—would take only minutes to read. He could choose the perfect place and time, say goodbye to everyone, find a home for the cat…
But as he stared down at the page, he found that his resolve had wavered.
With a twinge of guilt, he turned to the next poem. “Lullaby for an Elfin Child Found Sleeping in a Bower.” He was careful not to read too much of it, feeling that too much attention could unlock the magic early—but it looked like a beautiful poem, very tender, full of starlight and sentiment.
He turned to another poem. “A Song to Breathe Underwater.” Deep echoes bubbled through his mind, and he felt that someone was calling to him.
Carefully, Jeremy closed the book and smoothed his fingers over the cover. There was time to decide. He’d look at them all—beginning to end—before reading anything aloud. He wouldn’t waste this choice. He had time.
Tucking the book under his shirt, Jeremy started towards home.