On the Backs of Dragons


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This is how the end begins:
Nearly twenty years and you can’t say you saw it coming. Browned hair and leathered shoes, he picked up his satchel of broken parts, long feet trudging down the side street, a set of fresh dew over his heart—what was left of it.
He curled a piece of paper. Hung it at the edge of his mouth.
They’d told him it would hurt less the second time.
What a goddamn lie. Then came the third time and the fourth and the sixth and there was an avalanche pulsing through his body and he couldn’t tell where it came from.
So tell them.
Just say it.
He’d lost himself at the last junction. Fingers limp, back arched against the pale moonlight. He could taste his failure like it was stuck between his teeth. The aftertaste of disappointment.
He took a long drag.
Bastards. He’d laugh at them the next time he saw them. If he could only muster the breath. He sighed, its white tail winding like a noose about his neck. Sometimes there were words where there should have been silence. And sometimes there was silence where there should have been anything.
Christ, he ran gloved fingers over his eyes, after all, it was the product of his own creation which had led him to this street corner, bathed in ashes of an identity he had burnt himself on.
No, not burnt. Crumpled. Tangled. There was room to pull at the string and unwind. God, he rubbed the butt end of his cigarette into his palm, why was he always like this?
“Oi, Gov’ner!” He wanted to crawl into a corner and disappear. “Look o’er ‘ere!”
There was a small cart set up between the masonry, a dark shroud of velvet sky nestled into the crevice, leaning just out of reach of the glow of an oil lamp.
“An ‘alf pence boy, solves all yer problems,” the old man was saying as he approached, Grecian features hidden behind the shadows of a hood. He looked like death. “Right ‘ere,” a sleeve spread across the table, “take a look.”
“Not interested.” The words felt shallow and crisp on his tongue, the sound stuck in his throat. Distant. Was this how his voice always sounded?
“Doing it up fer such a thing? Ye’ve gulled yerself, ye ‘ave. Why’d ye come o’er?” Two dark eyes set upon him. “P’raps yer afraid o’ the dark.”
“Why should I?” he said. The night had wrapped its arms around him, nestled its face into his neck. He wasn’t afraid of the dark. He was afraid of what it wasn’t. The darkness was his.
“That’s it, boy, look closer.”
The young man bent over the cart, face souring in the dim lamp light.
“A rat? You’re selling me a god damn rat?”
“Careful ‘ere gov’ner. ‘E don’t like you calling ‘im names.”
It was a dark little creature, it’s snout dripping with muddied rainwater from the roof overhang. It sniffed once, padding its claws on the wooden trough of the cart.
“Huh,” he flicked a speck of ash with his finger, “what’s he prefer?”
“Sticks.”
“Ye,” said the young man, “like the ones on the ground? Can he light up a fag?”
There was a flash of teeth in the darkness. “Aye ‘nough to make ye choke I reckon.”

He hated how easily she slept. Draped half way across the bed and feet curled into her torso like the swirls in a fresh vial of ink. He wanted to paint his eyelids black with the color of her sleep.
“Victor?” The sheets were shifting with her weight.
“No,” he said, fingering the knot at his throat, “Todd.”
“Oh.” A sigh muffled into the pillow. She rolled over. He wondered how long it would take her to notice if he was gone.
A flame licked a candle in the darkness, embers outlining his body in red. What a waste, they whispered in every shade of embarrassment they could think of.
He took the creature out of his waistcoat and placed it next to the clock on the mantel, where the shadow of its hand hung just below the three.
The creature was still. How wonderful, he pinched its nose, you bought a god damn toy.
A flash of pain shot through his finger, smoke wafting from the dragon’s nostrils. “Fuck,” he said, “fuck!” The candle was on the floor.
“Seriously,” said his wife from the bed. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing,” he sucked the tip of his thumb. “I need a smoke.”
The whole world tasted of ash.
“Well do it outside then.”

It was perched on the railing, wings spread in an arc below the dripping sky. Somehow it had grown two feet. He thought he should be surprised. Scared. Something—something other than this—this nothingness.
The butt of his cigarette glowed in the darkness.
Maybe he just didn’t care. He felt his life in the tobacco smoke. Airy and completely empty. Twirling up in the sky with chimney tails. He fingered the matchbox in his waistcoat and wondered how he had built the clouds with his breath.
What good are you, his mother had said on his wedding day, don’t you know how to smile?
A ball of scales dipped past the street sign. Look at the box, darling.
Embers like stars in the sky. You want to fly too, Sticks—what an odd name. The flash of magnesium. Erupted into a ball of light. Colors swirling into crisp leaves that painted tear drops along the headboards.
“What did you do?” his wife was sitting up in the bed next to him.
“What?” He touched his face. “Where’s my cigarette.”
“Your arm,” she said. “You’re staining the sheets.”
He looked down at himself, dragon teeth marked over his wrist. “That wasn’t me.”
“No,” the bed creaked. Was it?
“Where are you going?”
The door closed behind her.

“Dear boy,” said the reverend, fingers drumming on a knee crossed over his leg, “you’re worrying your wife.”
“Why is this about her?” he said. “It’s about me.”
“Todd—”
“Leave me alone.” Where was Sticks? He felt a hand wrap around his forearm. “You don’t even care.” Like an avalanche you fell to rock bottom, broke off pieces of yourself along the way. “Fuck, you take a long time to say nothing.”
She stopped pacing; hands crossed in front of her. “Don’t you realize? You make everyone miserable—”
“Good,” he said. “Now you know how I feel—where the hell are my cigarettes?” His hand slipped between the dull buttons of his waistcoat.
What was it about this moment, this incessant moment, that suddenly made him worth something?
There was a scratch of a dark tail at the window, the wind letting itself in. “Why can’t you see?” He said, arms flailing at the dragon now sitting in his lap. “How can you not notice?”
“Get up.”
“What?”
“You heard me, boy, get—”
“What the hell is the matter with y—uhng,” a hand connected itself hard with the back of his head. He let out an involuntary groan, collapsing on the floor beside his chair, the dragon slipping from his grasp and shattering on the wooden panels at his feet.
How pathetic, you, despicable creature, to think you could change anything, that you deserved more than you were given.
Somewhere a shriek like thunder. The house was on fire and nothing was burning but him.
“Todd—”
“No,” he heard his wife say. “Let him go. Thank god.”
He didn’t know how but he knew exactly where he was going—west, past the stooping houses and stretches of weed to the rocky craig where the sun would set in swollen drops of color. A hideaway under the sun. Even before he could see the edge, he heard it growl. Spinning shadows in the clouds below.
Sticks had grown to tower the mountains. God knows how many feet and it would carry him on its back until he ran out of breath. There was a hint of ash in the back of his throat.
I’m here, said the dragon, I’ve always been here. A gust up through his toes. The edge of the rock face disappearing above him. It’s what they’ve always wanted. And as the wind wrapped him in arms of ice, he screamed himself to the heavens.
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