FICTION: The Dragon’s Lair

Magical Realism Short Fiction By Kaelan Strouse   (5,800 words – 25 min read time)

 

“I know who you really are,” the grubby man spoke as he peered at me through one, droopy-lidded eye.  The other eye was patched and covered.  “You can’t hide from us.  We know… we can always know our own kind.”

He began to cackle; I pulled away from him.  How could he know anything about me?  This vagabond, this street performer?

And yet…

Yet there was this spark of recognition when I saw him.  Something about him that hummed a familiar harmony to the song within my own soul.

He stared at me through his one good eye.  A knowing stare.

“The answers for which you seek are below ground.  Go there and know yourself.”

With that, he and his many layers of coats turned; scooped up his open violin case; and shuffled off into the bustling Michigan Avenue streets.  The Christmastime crowds swallowed him up in their excitement over newfound treasures to bring home to loved ones.

Meanwhile, the flurries danced around all of us in the cold, December air.

I wondered how he could know?  That for the past many weeks, as I have set out for my evening walks, I’ve kept finding myself being drawn to the same route… below ground? Down to the lower levels of Chicago’s vast underground network of roads.  A labyrinthine nest of crisscrossing alleyways beneath the pedestrian hubbub of the city.

I stopped tracing his disappearance through the crowds and quickly glanced at my watch.  Oh shit. Late again, I chastised myself.

I clutched my “To Go” bag tighter as I sprinted around the tourists and the shoppers ogling store windows featuring wares that were priced far too expensively for their respective costs of manufacturing.

I’ve worked in one of the gleaming towers on the Magnificent Mile for two years now.  A tall, stone and concrete block with crystalline eyes that shine out over the teeming masses below.

As beautiful and festive as the streets below have been for the holiday season, my office was counterpointly bleak and bland.

Gray walls.  Gray cubicles.  Gray, little men and women with tired eyes and defeated shoulders shuffling papers back and forth alongside reams of pointless emails.  Monies sent and received.  Bills paid or owed.  Projects in process or completed.

And all of this meant exactly nothing to me.

The elevator dinged, allowing me entrance, and rushed me up the thirty-seven stories to a pool of boringness in the air.

My supervisor, Tom, a short, stubby man with bespeckled eyes and a constant air of sniffing something that smelled like shit hovered by the entrance.

He looked at me.  He didn’t comment on my being late from lunch, but his glare communicated all that he needed to convey: thorough disapproval.  It were as if ‘thorough disapproval’ were his creed in life.  Constantly letting his employees know that they could be optimizing their time more effectively, being more productive.  Wasting less, doing more.  If he could replace everyone with machines, it would make his small, joyless heart glad.  Machines wouldn’t need obligatory breaks or paid sick leave.  They could work 24-hours straight with no complaints.

I bowed my head slightly as I scurried past him, as if to acknowledge that I understood the implications of his leer.  I slipped around a few corners and into my cubical.  I had tried to liven my surroundings up with a bit of twinkly garland and some holiday cards pinned to the walls.  I wedged a photo of some loved ones wearing Santa hats in one corner.  The organization had always disapproved of too overt decorating or personalizing of one’s workspace.  They wanted everything clean and uniform.   They wanted the grayness to seep into the very corners of our souls.

How did I end up here?

Another day.  Another dozen spreadsheets completed.  I looked up at the clock: nearly three o’clock.  Nearly time for early dismissal.  They’ve pandered these perks to us as if they were huge gifts to be cherished: an extra two hours off on the Fridays between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  How generous.  How beneficent.

Why did I choose this life?  Did I even choose it?  Or did I just end up here?

When I ate my lunch, I hardly even tasted it.  Absorbed in my work.  A ham sandwich on rye with a pickle and coleslaw that tasted as bland and soulless as my surroundings. The suffocating monotony of the job sucked the flavor out of even the best, local delicatessen’s signature dish.

Another hour to go.  Then, another thirty minutes.

And not at all too soon…  it is finally time to depart.

I flick off my monitor; power down my computer.  Pack up my satchel and my gym clothes.  Every morning I hit the building’s gym seven floors below.  An escape from the madness above; a chance to stretch and move my body.  A chance to hit something, often with an image of my boss’s face superimposed on it in my mind.   A chance to let out some heat, some aggression.

I have the sweaty clothes from this morning bundled up.  I will wash them this weekend.

I used to walk home straight from work; I live only twelve blocks away.  But I haven’t done so for some time now.  Not since the home I have to walk into is now empty.  Half the possessions gone.  Half of what used to make my apartment a home were absconded with in the night by someone I had once considered my love.

Since then, my house has been merely a place to store my stuff.  A place with half-emptied cupboards and half slept-in sheets.

So after work: I walk.  Sometimes for hours.

At first, I walked all over the city.  Exploring the many parks, bridges, and fountains that the glorious Daniel Burnham and his successors installed in Chicago’s waterfront.  But more recently, I’ve again and again found myself heading to the same place: Lower Wacker Drive and its environs.  I can not for certain say why.  There is just something… about it.

My mind flashes again to the grubby violinist that accosted me on the street earlier this afternoon.  “I know who you are,” he said.  “I know what you’re longing for and why you keep walking to the same place blow ground, night after night,” or something along those lines, I think, is what he said to me.

Down the elevator.  Thirty-seven floors and then, Ding!

I shoot out through the lobby like a bird escaping its cage; out into the street.  The snow has stopped and the sky is clear.  It might be only three p.m., but the sky is already almost dark.  The solstice is upon us and by four p.m., it will truly be nighttime.

The wooden soles of my shoes make gritty clacks against the wet concrete.  They’ve salted already in premeditation of the ice that will come when the sun fully sets its hazy head.

I turn a corner.  Down Ohio street, towards the Pier.  Tourists and children gather here alike for the Ferris Wheel and gardens.  The city has tried to make it less touristy of late but has only moderately succeeded.

Over the river, onto a bridge with swift moving cars and boarded up exits and entrances.  It was erected at a time when the city government was more trusting of its civilians to safely egress through stone stairways towards the river below.  From there I walk up to the permanently moored ship in the water that serves as some sort of yacht club for those bourgeois enough to afford their own boats… and then over the snow-laden, grassy hill and into the dark beneath.

Upper Wacker, Lower Wacker, Water Street, Lower Lower Wacker.  Three or four stories of roads built on top of each other… most of them in dusky twilight, illuminated only by sparse, orange street lamps.  The further down one goes, the more deserted and less evenly lit it becomes.  Apparently the lights down here used to be green; they used to call this area ‘Emerald City.’

And even from these deepest levels… more corridors leading further down.  Some of them with no lights at all.

There is something about this area… perhaps it is the isolation in the otherwise noisy city.  Perhaps it is the sense of un-knowing, of mystery. …There is just something about it for me.  A feeling.

For all my life, I have always had feelings I couldn’t quite name.  Premonitions, almost.  Sometimes, a sense of when something critical were about to occur.  Or, sometimes, a sense of being in the right place at the right time to encounter a person who would prove to be of significance to my journey ahead.  Finding things at the exact moment I most needed them.

This intuitiveness makes it all the odder that I accepted a position at a mercantile company so at odds with my passions and purpose in life.  A place that kills spontaneity and joy rather than creates it.

I brush the side of my shoe against the concrete gutter.  The accumulated dust flutters up into the air in dancing spirals.  Whether it is so dirty because none of the city street sweeping machines have bothered to make it this far down of late or because this area serves as a rainy basin where water and debris can too frequently accumulate, I do not know.  But this part of the city is indeed filthy.  Covered in layers of dusty grime a millimeter thick.   I like it here, but I know not a reason why I should.  It isn’t the least visually appealing.

The logical part of my brain knows it is unsafe to be here by myself.  None of the kevlar-laden policemen or women patrol these areas.  It is too quiet, too abandoned, except for the speeding vehicles trying to escape the traffic above.  I logically know that any sort of unsavory characters could be lurking in one of these shadows.  They might have a need to cause pain or perhaps a simple desire to claim a wristwatch for their own.  Apart from my coat, I really do not have much of value on my person.   The crime in the city has gotten better, but it still isn’t great.  Perhaps I should be more careful?  My hair is parted perhaps a little too neatly to avoid notice from those looking for an easy score.

Suddenly, I hear coughing from around the next corner.  Someone or someones are waiting and gathering nearby.  I pause.  ‘Should I move forward?’ I wonder.  I don’t see any great alternatives around me.

After a moment’s hesitation, instead of continuing forward on this route I’ve walked before, I turn to my left.  Abandoned.  No noise coming from it.

And it is dark.  Nearly dark as pitch.  I can barely see the shadowy shapes surrounding me.  Some areas of these lower, lower areas seem even less frequented than others.   This one seems entirely forgotten.  How could anyone function down here to make deliveries or proceed with any purposes whatsoever when they cannot see?

Up until this point, I’ve always stayed where the lamps burned brightest.  I realize that I now have three options: go back the direction from whence I came, take the street where the expectorating individual lingers, or forge ahead into the thick darkness.

I decide to continue onwards, again against my better judgment.  I fish around for my cell phone in my pocket.  Perhaps, I can find more reassurance with a little illumination without attracting too much unwanted attention.

I flick open the control pane, press the button that ignites the LED as a lightbulb, and journey on.

This street smells almost earthy, I realize.  The walls and ground feel wetter here.  Dank.  There are signs of vegetation starting to creep through the walls and concrete slabs under my feet.  Little mossy and viney things sprouting their verdant heads into the black abyss around me.

The city is quieter, too, I observe.  The distant sounds of the roaring and beeping trucks and cabs seem fainter.  I realize this street feels… older.  As if it were one of the original streets of early Chicago, buried deep beneath the steel and glass parapets above.

And perhaps it is.  The city raised the street level of downtown not too many generations ago.  Maybe I am setting foot on an older, more exotic part of the Chicago that once was.  Buried between the foundations of gleaming skyscrapers.

I take several steps forward.  I loft my cellphone light above me as if I’m Indiana Jones exploring some mystic’s cave, expecting boobytraps to be triggered at any step.  There’s no rubbish here, I notice.  No garbage cans, no soda cans, no litter.  The walls and floor have suddenly become brick.  That’s a very unusual sight amidst the modern jungle around us.  It’s been many years since cobblestone had been employed in construction uses in these parts.  I thought all of it had been torn up and discarded by now.

Further in yet, and the mossy, earthy smell continues to grow.  It feels… warmer, too.  Like I’m being cradled by the Earth.  The ground is now curving downwards beneath my feet.  In the dim light ahead, I begin to discern that the street culminates in a cobblestone archway.  I notice that on the sides of the vestibule are sheets of iron riveted to the walls.  Something had been welded or wrought onto each of the plates of metal, but have since been ripped off.  Perhaps there had been torches mounted there; there are soot marks on the rough bricks above.

I step cautiously up to the archway.   Strange to see this style of craftsmanship here.  Metal doors I see all the time down here.  Barbed wire, too.  But this… it seems almost to beckon to me like a gateway to another world.  A portal.  A wardrobe.

I peer my light through the opening and see stone steps circling down and out of sight.

Now, this is even more highly unusual.  I haven’t seen steps like this, or nary any steps at all going down… I am already so far down, probably even beneath the water line of the river already.  There’s a chance this may be an egress for the transit or sewage tunnels below, but those are always fenced off and locked tight.  They tend to have an industrial, unused look; like they had been built for regular passage but have since been abandoned. But this looks… frequented.  There is no other way to describe it.  People have been here with some regularity.  I can feel it.

I peer closer to the stonework.  It appears to be well over a century old.  I see stamps in the bricks dating back to the eighteen hundreds.  It has held up remarkably well.  Some of the bricks are crumbling or lacking their edges… but it’s remarkably clean.  Like someone has taken the care to scrub the walls.  And there’s… there’s a life about this place that is stark in contrast to the gray filth and modern construction of all the areas I’ve walked in hitherto.

As I lean against the pillar of bricks preceding the steps… I hear a distant drumming.  Drumming? I wonder.  Down here?   Like a heartbeat, only faster.  The sound of distant banging, in time, moving in complex and weaving rhythms.

It doesn’t sound like the street performers from above ground, with their flipped-over, five-gallon, white buckets and improvised drumsticks.  Begging pedestrians to leave them a buck for their musical aspirations.

No… it sounds more… tribal, I would almost say.

The rhythm moves something in me… a feeling reminiscent of the sound beat of my ex-lover’s heart when I would lay on his chest and count the moments of my existence by the silences between thuds.  Or… the melodies of a civilization, far removed from this urban sprawl, who called to their ancestors through the ritualistic banging of drums.

I know without being told that it is a drumbeat of significance and importance, even as distant as it is from where I currently stand; I can tell it serves a greater need.

I feel a longing.  A deep desire within me that I haven’t felt since… since.  Since I know not when?  I would have said that night I met Bryan, my ex.  But no, this extends even back further than that. A deep pull within me.  An itch so deep in my psyche that it reaches into the core of my very soul.

This inspires in me a sensation that I haven’t felt since I was a child.  From when I believed that anything was possible and magic was as real as the snow that danced before our windowpanes every December.

And before I can even realize what I’m doing, I discover my feet are carrying me down the steps.

I’ve passed the archway; and with great haste, I am descending.  Down and down and down I go.  Circling these stone steps that are cascading onwards.

Level by level in tight, serpentine spirals.  Like traversing the interior column of a great cathedral.  I’m being pulled—drawn—by an unseen force.

As I descend into the levels below, the drumming gets louder and the air even warmer.  Soon, I am regretting my coat and hat.  It’s positively sultry.

Now, the vibration from the drumming is feeling very present around me.  The walls are resounding with the rhythms.  It is moving within me a feeling that language can never adequately describe.  The closest that I can parallel this experience to is the sensation of when two people are in the throws of passion, nearing climax; and their bodies are fully in sync, moving together as one.  And the fervor builds and lifts; and there is energy pulsing through them like a madness.  A feeling of creation, and that they could be capable of doing anything, even beyond the limits of physical practicality.  That they, in that space, feel beyond human.  Transcendent.

That’s how I feel as I circle these final few repetitions of stairs.  That’s how I feel, still, as my feet carry me beyond the final steps and into a dimly lit corridor beyond.

I am well, well below the city now.  Perhaps even beneath the foundations of the river.

Here, wrought iron torches smolder, riveted to the walls.  It’s firelight, but very dim.  There are four on each wall preceding a heavy, wooden and iron-bound door at the far end.  It is through this door that the drumming is emanating.

It is through this door that my soul is vibrating.  Towards which my whole existence is being dragged.

I can not turn away now, even if I wanted.  Even if I could.  Like metal shavings being pulled to a magnet against their will, I am being pulled to this door and whatever lies beyond it.  I am feeling a completeness unlike anything I have ever felt before or fear I will ever feel again.

This is heaven, and I am in ecstasy as I traverse the evenly-laid flagstone slabs beneath my feet.

As I cross the room, I abandon my hat and coat. I’m in my shirtsleeves and pants again, as I was in my office.  But now, I am sweating from every pore.  And it isn’t from the warmth alone.

It’s from the vibration within every cell of my body in time and tune with the rhythms dancing ahead.  I have to blink my eyes to clear the sweat trailing off my brow.

As I reach the door I sense, rather than see, that it is made of ancient oak.  Oak that has been here so long that the much of the softer parts of the tissue have been worn away, leaving heavily raised ridges from the tougher layers of Xylem.

I place my hand on the braided, metal latch.  It’s in the shape of an ornate serpent biting its own tail.  I clasp it firmly in my right hand, turn it clockwise, and pull the heavy door towards myself.

My left-hand flicks closed my light.  I don’t need it now, and I don’t necessarily want to alert the occupants in the room beyond of my presence immediately upon entering.  I’m sure they will notice the door opening, but I don’t need to add the artificial, daylight-tinted, LED light to further highlight my arrival.

In the room beyond…  Well, there’s really no way to fully explain what I see.  To be honest, even staring for several seconds, it takes my eyes more time than I have given them to make sense of the landscape.

The first thing I observe is the movement.  Whether human or some other sort of creature, I cannot immediately discern; there is flowing, undulating dance ahead of me.  Flailing wings of gaussian material swirl before me in complex and synchronized patterns.  After a moment I realize that it is young men and women in elaborate and feathered attire dancing in perfect unison around large, hulking objects.

There are giant, glowing orbs.  Well, actually, they’re more egg-like in shape. Standing four to five feet high and appearing to be made of internally-lit alabaster.  All golden-hued and veined with dark splotches throughout their exteriors.  They are some of the most magnificent examples of stone workmanship and luminosity I’ve ever encountered.  They glow and dim themselves in rhythm with the dancers and the unseen drummers that must be somewhere nearby.

There are five of these giant eggs surrounding an emerald, glittering mountain between them.  This hulking mass must be seven feet high and thirty feet long, around all of which these dancers sweep themselves.  The landmass is made of snakeskin-like material, but each scale is reflective- …no, self-illuminating.  It sparkles and swims with tones of magenta and blue and gives off a faint glow.  There are mounds and ridges…

And as I look closer and longer, I realize that it is not an non-living thing at all… but some sort of breathing creature.  It looks like a giant, crouching lizard of some sort.  Yes, I can see it’s tail and legs curled around itself.  Its head and neck are turned away from me, so I cannot examine it closely.

I take two steps forward.  Against my will, the door silently shuts behind me.  I sense rather than hear it click; and as I try to feel for the latch on this side, my fingers tell me that there is none.  I reach for some way to reopen the door, but my searching fingers turn up empty.

With a great clash the music crescendos and abruptly silences.  Emptiness fills the room.   The dancers pause, erect themselves to their full height, and as one: turn to face me.  Standing stock-still and breathless, they all turn their gazes on me.

I sweat more.  I start to stammer.  I want to excuse myself.  To apologize for intruding.  To express my regrets and attempt to extradite myself from the surroundings.  But no words come.  I can no more squeak as make any sort of coherent statement.

Still, they stand… staring.  Why don’t they say something?!  Move in some way?!  I would, if I were able… I’m stuck, stone still.

And that’s when the glittering, green mountain in front of me begins to sway.  It starts to lift itself up… climbing up onto its scaly legs… and the great creature’s neck turns my direction.  Unwrapping vertebrae by vertebrae, the creature leverages its head towards me.  Now I see, it’s more a stegosaurus than a lizard.  Its triangular head faces me directly and the creature’s amber eyes take me in.  Its pupils are star-shaped and purple.   It stares into my eyes with the wisdom of a being more ancient and worldly than any human I’ve ever encountered.  It stares into the depths of my being, the core of me from which my consciousness emanates.

Come, the dragon says.  But he does not use words.

I do not know how I know that ‘he’ is a he.  But I do.  With certainty beyond articulation, I know that this dragon (it is a dragon, I know that too) is male and wants me to follow him.

His heavy steps reverberate through the cavern in which we are standing.  He turns his head and body towards a dark archway opposite from where I stand, on the far, diagonal corner of the room.  He marches one step at a time towards the darkness.  The men and women around us back themselves to the walls and bow in deep reverence to the ancient beast as he departs their presence.

As I cross the stone floor, worn smooth with age and regular use, I glance at the supplicated dancers around me.  They aren’t all young, now that I look closer.  Some look positively ancient.  Nearly as old as the dragon creature surely must be.  But watching them move… their fluidity, their grace… I would have been sure that the eldest could have only been nineteen.  They were all so spritely and agile; they moved effortlessly.

Men and women of all different ages, colors, and body shapes.  Some very attractive, others not.  As I glide across the room, eyes are darting up to meet mine, but for only the merest flashes.  They then return their focus to the stone floor beneath them.

For being such a heavy and gigantic animal, the dragon moves quickly through the archway.  The room is now empty of his presence.  My feet are carrying me again, for if my body were responding to my own desires at this moment, I would assuredly turn heel and flee the opposite way.  Or stay rooted in the spot where I formerly stood, unable to move.  Instead, I find myself traversing the space more quickly and assuredly than I actually feel at this moment.  I should be in blind terror of the situation in which I find myself.  I should be running to hide.  But, instead, I’m not afraid.

My heart is racing… but it is not in fear.  It is in anticipation.  I am longing for whatever is on the other side of this stone archway like I am longing for Bryan to return.  Like I am longing for my favorite toy from childhood.  Like I am longing for every hope that I have ever lost.

I approach the darkness.

I step inside.

The room beyond is not as entirely dark as I anticipated.  It is large, with a low ceiling.  The furthest wall is maybe sixteen feet away.  There are boxes and barrels scattered about.  And crouched against the wall opposite me is this self-illuminating dragon.  Giving off a pale, green light… that somehow makes the room feel warm and welcoming, rather than sickly.

Sit, he commands.  Again without words.

I find myself crosslegged on the floor.  I don’t remember getting down here.

Tell me why you have come, he calls.

I hardly know what to say.  I don’t know why I am here.  I don’t even know where here is.  And I certainly didn’t have a well thought out reason for barging my way into their arcane ritual.

But words, words I did not know I had, are pouring out of my mouth.

“Because I knew… I knew that there was a truth down here far beyond the one being sold to me in the world above.  More than the shops, and the t.v. shows, and the horrible bosses can give me.  That there is a truth beyond logic, beyond thought, in the shadowy gloom beneath the city streets.  Because… for all of my life… I have been looking for you!”

I said those last words with an assurance that I did not know I possessed.  I had been looking for a dragon?! Me?!  I didn’t even know that dragons existed, let alone that I wanted to find one.  And why would I want to find one, some part of my brain wondered?

But as I spoke the words aloud, I knew with a rock-hard certainty that they were true.

I had been looking for this.  All of my life.  Part of me knew this existed.  Knew that this was real.  And that I needed it.

I knew that this dragon would be able to teach me more about life and about myself than anyone up in the world above.

The dragon smiled, if dragons can smile. He bared his pointy teeth, anyways, while I spoke.

Come, he says.  Kneel before me.

And I do!  Like some sort of supplicant before a minister, I bow down and kneel my head before this great beast.  Again, the logical part of my mind is screaming.  Laying my head before his mammoth claws and fangs.  But I do.

The dragon leans down and his snout hovers above my crown.  He sniffs in air.

And with an incredibly delicate touch, a ruby tongue extends from his mandible… and grazes the top of my head.

In a moment, I no longer exist.  Me, as I know it, is gone.

I am swimming through seas of eternity.  Galaxies whirl around me in a complex dance of immense beauty and destruction.  Worlds collide and are born anew.  Life generates and deceases with startling regularity.  Creation undulates around me.

I see atoms.  I see cosmic particles.  I see matter form and dissolve.

I feel joy; I feel bliss; I feel immense sadness.

I feel a world, a universe of experiences all in one moment.  I am everything.  I am nothing.  I am… I have gone beyond transcendence.

I see the world from whence I came.  I see my city: Chicago.  I see and feel all its millions of its inhabitants.  I know without thought each other their musings, aspirations, and fears.  I live a million lives in an instant.  I am everyone.  I am no one.

I am the leaves of grass that grow along the lake in the summer.  I am the bird that builds her nest in the trees.  I am the fish swimming up the river towards Lake Michigan.

I am the sewers; I am the buildings; I am the sky; I am the land.

I am everything and nothing.  I am everywhere and nowhere.

I am creation.  And I am dust.

I am life.  And I am death.

After both seconds and centuries of this experience, I am back on the stone floor, beneath the great beast.

In this moment, I know what will happen from here.  I know my whole life in a mere instant:

I will return to the surface, quit my job, and move out of my apartment.  I will live on the street, begging for money from people who pass by.  People will always give me more than enough to live.  I will teach the great lessons I’ve learned from the Dragon.  I will be regarded as a great sage in the city.  People will come to learn my thoughts on life and love and fellowship.  I will be heralded as an incarnation of Christ.  I will develop a church.  I will lead thousands to their enlightenment, to their salvation.  I will die, happy, at the age of eighty, with friends surrounding me.  I will thereafter go and live on another planet in a galaxy not too far away.  I will have many children there.  I will go from lifetime to lifetime sharing the Dragon’s teachings.

I’m back on the stone floor, beneath the dragon.  Sweat pours off my brow and onto the slabs of stone below me.  I breathe.  In an flash, I know where my life will go from here:

I will go back to the surface.  I will return to my job and tell my boss he’s a fucking moron.  I will get a better job, one that benefits people who are most in need of aid in the city.  I will go on to found a philanthropic agency; I will bring access to healthcare to those who require it most.  I will adopt many children.  I will fall madly in love.  I will die at the age one-hundred-and-nine being cradled in my husband’s arms.

I’m back on the stone floor.  Breathing heavy.  Again, I know how my life will unfold:

I will never go back to the surface.  I will stay down here and be a servant of the Dragon.  I will daily dance with my fellow acolytes.   And when those amber eggs hatch, I will create havens for those young dragons.  I will live a life of servitude, dedicating myself to their wellbeing.  I will grow older and die here, dancing and chanting and being ecstatic.  I will die at age fifty-three.  I will be reborn to a family nearby and grow up knowing about the Dragons that dwell beneath the city.  I will enter their service again, in another life.

Again, I’m back on the stone floor.  Breathing, and:

I die.  My soul is transported.  I reawaken in Heaven.  This is all a dream.  Saint Peter is calling to me.  He says my name is not in the book.  Woosh!  I am drawn down into Hell.  Fire and brimstone.  Little, red men with pitchforks pinch at me.  I burn.  I am reborn on earth.  I live alone with my husbandless mother in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains.  I will become a lumberjack, like everyone else in the town.  Like my father surely was.

I am back on the stone floor.

I look up at the dragon.  He stares intently in my eyes.

Go now.  This life is your own.  Make of it what you will.  And know what you’ve seen here to be just a small taste of what is possible.  Come back to me when you are ready for more.

I don’t know what’s happened.  I’m standing outside a stone archway, with a cascade of cobblestone steps heading downwards, beside me.

How did I end up here?  Where have I been?  Did I go down and meet a dragon below?  Or was this all a dream?  Who brought me back?

I look down at my body to check to see that I’m still all there, that I am still corporeal flesh.  Everything is as I remember it.  But then… as if sensing more than seeing it, I turn my wrist over.  There is a sparkling, green scale tattoo on my right forearm, the size of a quarter.  It’s brilliant and self-illuminating.  I hold it up to my face and once again…

Woosh!

I am soaring through the cosmos.  I am some sort of interstellar bird, flying on the winds of the empty either.

I am everything; I am nothing.

I am back in my body, back in Chicago.  Standing in a dark, subterranean street.

I do not know where I am going to go or what happens next.  I saw many possibilities for my life before me in the lair of the dragon.  And I’m sure there’s many more besides.

That street musician was right.  The answers I sought are below ground.

Onwards I walk, out of the darkness and into the light beyond.  I will be back, of this I’m certain.

 

Photo by Roman Boed (https://flic.kr/p/Xdgqpm)

FICTION: The Gay Plague

Short Story – 6000 words (20 min read time).  By Kaelan Strouse.

 

Fucking faggot.”

I mutter it quiet like, under my breath.

I walk past the fool making a spectacle of himself in the town square.  Carrying on like that; drawing attention to himself, as if we had nothin’ better to watch than his antics.

I’ve never liked them.  Not before.  Not now.

You see, I came from a place that said men are men and women are women.  And nary the two shall meet.

And these… these perverts.  Well, they creep under my skin, if you know what I mean.

And that’s even before the disease took hold.

I remember Mr. Bryant at school.  We always suspected him.  Me and the other boys on the softball team.

Nothin’ that he ever did was too overt.  It was just this, this feelin’ we got.  The way he looked at us when he thought no one was watchin’.

And then, of course, when the disease started to take hold of him, our suspicions were confirmed.  And we didn’t let him hang around to infect anyone else.

No, we did what any true ‘merican should do: run them out of town with guns and pitchforks and torches.  Okay, some of ‘em were tiki torches; but they were torches none-the-less.

At least, that’s what we did in the beginin’.  Too many of ’em, now.  Can’ get rid of ‘em all.

You see, we didn’t want any of that perversion spreading to anyone else.  I know they say it’s not “communicable” to us normals.  But like I said: we aren’t taking any chances.  And we don’t want them intuitin’ our business anyhow.

I remember the day we first saw the disease appear in our town.  We heard about it, ‘course.  We all had.  It had been all over the news, all over Twitter.  But we hadn’t seen it for ourselves.

It was Billy.  Tina’s queer son from the end of the block. Twenty-somthin’.

We all figured ‘bout him.  He went off to a big city for school (we hear they’re more accepting of these twisted weirdos in places like that… cities.  Even now.  Still accept ‘em, or some shit like that).  Anyways, when he came back… he was all… swishy, if you know what I mean.  Dressed differently.  Talked differently, too.  Had a way about him that you could just tell… he wasn’ like the res’ of us.

He was the firs’ to get it.  Started wandering up and down the streets.  Screamin’ at the top of his lungs.  Sayin’ things… things he nor any red-blooded, decent ‘merican should know.  We did with him like we would later do with Mr. Bryant… ran that fucker into the woods and told him never to come back.

But then there were too many.  Men and woman we’d never suspected.  They started poppin’ out.  Faces all strained.  Confrontin’ law-abiding citizens as they made their way about their business.  Harassin’ them.  Telling them their own dirtiest secrets right to their face.

Not that I think there’s anything inherently wrong with the gays.  I mean, I was as marginally accepting as the next guy… but once this sickness took over… and they could hear our thoughts… and felt compelled to shout our private, secret musings and thoughts from the rooftops… telling everyone in listening range everything we ever feared, or dreamt, or hoped for… I mean…

I just can’t fucking stand ‘em!

Telepathy, they call it.  I call it being a fucking nuisance.  I mean, what right have they to know my private matters?  My thoughts are mine and mine alone… at least that’s the way it should be… the way it always has been.

They still have no answers for us.  Why it’s happening.  Or how.  Or why it’s only the fags that are affected.   Or how it’s transmitted.

Is it a foreign government using chemical warfare on our civilians? Is it a trick of evolution?  Have the magnetic fields around the Earth shifted?

I’ve even heard some folks hail these weirdos as saints.  Saints my ass!

Anyways, no one knows… all we do know are the signs.

First, they get really sick.  Like a really bad flu.  For days.

Then… then they start hearin’ voices.  Only the voices aren’t ‘maginary.  No… they start hearin’ the thoughts of anybody around them.

Then, every so often… it’s like a volcano… they start shakin’, turn all pale, like.  And suddenly they get all rigid and start screamin’ the thoughts of whoever they heard lately.  Say they can’t control it.   It just happens to ‘em…  don’t know if I believe that.

You can control it.  You can control anythin’ if you just try hard enough!

They go on shoutin’.  Whether it’s bank codes.  Or how a guy fucked his wife’s sister.  Or other deep secrets that no one likes bein’ told.

I ain’t want no one sharin’ my secrets.

So we were runnin’ em out for their own good.  Keep the public safe.  What happens to them, then?  Not our business.  I hear they got a little, leper-like colony goin’ now.  Sharin’ all their private business to one another.  Probably fuckin’ each other’s brains out too, those heathens.

And that’s the thing that irks me most: sin.  If they weren’t so sinful creatures to begin with, this probably never been happenin’ to them.  See, that the reason firs’ they got the AIDS.  Now this.

This sickness.  This perversion.

I walk through town.  Thinkin’ who’s next?

I look at my friend from childhood, Billy, as he passes me by on the street.  Could it be him?  He always liked dancin’ and singin’.  It could be him.

How do we keep each other safe?  How do we protect ourselves when our most beloved memories and thoughts could be ripped from us any second?

I’ve been worryin’ myself about it too much.  Makin’ myself sick.  Have to take care of ‘ma and the younger ones.  She’s still been sick, and they all be look up to me.  Been feelin’ not myself these las’ few days.  Didn’t even feel up to goin’ out and bailin’ hay like I do every mornin’.  But chore’s still gotta be done.  Life goes on, even with this strange turn of events.

God, how I just wanna get back to normal.

Pass by Gerry.  As he walks by, he says somethin’ to me.  I almos’ don’t quite hear it.

I call after him:  “What you say, Gerry?!”

He turns.  Looks at me up an down.  Looks at me like I be crazy.  Then he says it:

“I didn’ say nothin.”

Our eyes meet.  What the fuck?!

He walks away.

Another fella passes.  I don’ know him. I hear him say somthin’ too…. but his lips ain’ movin’…

What the fuck?!  His mouth…

And that’s when I feel it.

A rumblin’.  Starting at the base of my spine.  I start a quivering and shakin’.

It’s like there’s a monster inside of me, clawin’ its way up my back, trying to escape.

I feel full of fire and air.  The world starts spinin’.  I feel like I might throw up or fall over, but I can’t move.  Stuck still as a gravestone.

The creature inside me works its way up to my neck and I feel like a column of spinning flames all the way down through my rear.  My head drops back.  My eyes roll up into their sockets…

And I start screamin’.  Screamin’ from the bottom of my lungs for all the world to hear.

I can’t see.  I can barely hear the words emanatin’ out of me.

I’m sayin’ things.  Things I’ve never thought nor heard before.  Secret things…

And that’s when I realize.  That wasn’t just no cold I had last week.

How the fuck did this happen to me?!

I can’ be… I ain’t no… I’ve never been.

They say only queers get it, but I ain’ no queer!  There’s some sort of mistake!  Normals can get it too!

Or… am I lyin’ to myself?!

The words keep spouting out of me like some sort of toxic fountain.  I am out of control.  There’s absolutely nothin’ I can do to stop it.

In a moment… In one fucking moment… my entire world comes crashing down.

How can I ever go home?



 

Where’s Paul?

I almos’ wonder it aloud, under my breath.

He should have been home by now; sun’s nearly down.

It’ll be dark soon; and the chil’ens need feedin’; and the chickens need takin’ in.

I’d do it m’self, but I be havin’ another one of my spells.

The Chinese lady came by again today.  Stuck her needles in me.  Gave me some sor’ of tonic to drink again.  It helps… but only a little.

Grateful that anythin’ be helpin’ at all.  Western medicine failed me.  Can’t tell me what’s wrong.  Why I can’ get out of bed mos’ days.  Why I’m always so tired.  So unable to do the things I oughta.  The things I’ve always been gone and done.

The needles make me a little less tired.  I can do a bit after that Cho lady comes. But not enough, anyways.  I hear the liddle ones callin’ down the hall.  They’re home from school.

I call out to Steven to help them, since Paul’s not back yet.

He was gone ages ago… I don’ know what that boy’s got up to now.  He’s usually so reliable.

Had to get me a type of mushroom from the store.  Had to order it special for me; needed a prescription and everythin’.  Needin’ so much lately jus’ to make me alrigh’.

Don’t know why I need it.  My ‘Ma and ‘Paw worked sun up through sun down every single day of their lives and never once took a break.  Died workin’, they did.

And here’s me.  Spending nearly five years restin’.  Takin’ naps.  Lyin’ around while others take care of me.

It isn’ right, I tell ya!  If a person can’ contribute, they’d best be gone and takin’ themselves off to the house of the old or takin’ their own lives, if you know me.

Those who can’ contribute have no place in this world – that’s what I’ve always said.

Makes me so ashamed.  So damned ashamed to be where I am!

Where is Paul?  This really isn’t like him.  Has me all worried something proper, now.

I call out to Steven.  He hollers back.  Sounds like he got the liddle ones all situated.

If their father were back, nothin’ would be like this.  I’d be well – up and about.  He’d be raisin’ the family.  It wouldn’t fall on poor Paul; world on his shoulders, that one.  Takes everythin’ so seriously.

No, if John hadn’ run off and left us to fend for ourselves, nothin’ would be like this.  We’d be a proper family.  I’d never have come down sick. It’s all his fault.  Damn man.

Clutching my cane for support, I make my way over to the window.  A forty-seven year old woman, and I need a cane.  My, how God has cursed me.  Don’ know what I did wrong to deserve this.

I make my way over to the ledge and grasp it hard.  I make it over just in time to see the sun fully set behind the tree line.  The sky is as azure blue as the first day of spring, with lines of fuchsia startin’ to trace its way across the clouds.  I cherish these vibrant sunsets like the last little bit of water before it passes through a sieve.  I know they are so temporary.  Like this life.  Somethin’ so short and brief – and must be heartily cherished.

I don’t know how much longer I’ve got on this world.  Maybe I’ll make a full recovery and live another fifty years.  Or perhaps I’ll kick over the bucket tomorrow.  Sometimes… sometimes I feel so damn tired that I could just die tomorrow.  Go to sleep and never awake.

How bliss’ul that’d be, to sleep.  To sleep… and p’chance, to dream?  For an eternity?

I hear some noise from outside.  Hollerin’.  Seems like some things almost at fisticuffs.

The trees yonder have cast long shadows across my front yard for the last hour, so it’s nearly too dark to see who or what is causin’ the commotion.

It looks like two young men.  Hollerin’ and shovin’ each other somethin’ awful. I can tell by the way one of them moves that it’s my Paul.  …my Paul?

I holler at ‘em, through the screen: “You two stop that ruckus RIGHT NAW!  PAUL, you get your ASS inside double quick now, y’hear?!”

One shoves the other one time more and spits at his feet.  The one shoved tumbles over, and the man doin’ the shovin’ runs off into the blackness.

He, I’m ‘ssumin’ it’s Paul at this point, picks himself up; brushes off his knees; and picks up some items littered around the yard from the kerfuffle.   He jogs his way into the house.

I hear the door swing open and shut.  I start to pour my weight into my cane and turn my way ‘round to head to the door.  Why would Paul be gettin’ into a fight with someone?  Let alone, why they be spittin’ at him?  That’s not like Paul… he’s such a good boy.  So patient and gentle.

The voices in the hallway sound frantic.  Heated, even.  I cross the rag rug my gran’ made for us when she was a girl.  Stich’d it herself.  It’s been worn down considerably over these last eighty or so years… but it still brings me joy to see it.  It was my ‘Ma’s and now it’s mine.

The wood of the old farmhouse creeks under my feet.  Even wearin’ my pink, terrycloth slippers, I still make the floors squeak.  My feet are so cold…and feel so heavy.  I’ve lost all my muscle, but I swear my limbs feel ten times heavier than they used’ta.

As I reach the door, I can hear the voices clearly now.  I’m sure it’s my oldes’, Paul, doin’ the speakin’:

I can’ help it!  I don’ know what to do!  You know me, Steven!  You know this ain’ me!  Yah gotta help me!”

“Like Hell I do, Paul.  You know what we do to people like them!  You get gone now! I’m sick at the sight of ya!”

“I tell ya, Steven!  It ain’ me!  I ain’ never done nothin’ like them… them… weirdos!  You know me!  I’ve been..”

“Talk to ‘Ma.  She’ll tell you what’s what!”

I hear their footsteps racin’ towards my bedroom.  Up the stairs.  Double pairs of heavy, worn work-boots clumping their way up teh me.

I stand there in the doorway.  My floral nightgown fluttering around me from the breeze of the open window.

What in tarnation is happenin’, I wonder?

I see the peeks of their heads emerge over the bend in the stairwell.

Paul, my oldest.  So handsome.  Looks just like his ‘Paw.  Jet black hair and a five o’clock shadow that starts at nine o’clock in the mornin’.  His slightly younger brother, Steven, who always took after my side more.  Looks like my brother, Ben.  They both look angered somethin’ awful!

I see fear in both their eyes.  Fear ain’ an emotion I feel accustomed to seein’ in either my young men.  The liddle ones?  Sure; I see fear in ’em all the time.  But not these men.

They stop in fron’ of me.  Both of them quiverin’.

Tears start wellin’ up in Paul’s eyes.  Lord, I haven’ seen that boy cry since he was seven years old.  Doesn’ suit him.  I nearly wonder aloud what on Earth could have happen’ to him in the village today to merit such behavior.

He looks at me.  Then looks at the floor.

Steven ain’ looking at me neither.  Under his breath, he mutters:

“Tell her, Paulie.  She’s gotta right to know, ya know?  To hear it from you.”

Paul quivers.  A single tear is runnin’ down his check into his manly stubble.  I always loved that part ‘bout him.  Reminds me keenly of his daddy.

Wha’sit, Paul?  Whas the matter whit’cha?

And then, I don’ believe it… Paul falls onto his knees.  Starts rockin’ and shakin’.  Heavin’ up a bellow of sobs like the worl’ be endin’…

Oh Ma! Ma!” He cries over and over.   Repeatin’ those words like he would wrangle with his blanket when he was a babe: wrappin’ it round himself again and again for comfort.

Wha’ is it, child?”

“Oh, Ma! …I gots it… I gots the sickness…”

He looks up at me.  Eyes huge as teacups.  Looks at me, expectant like.

The sickness?  What he mean, “the sickness?”

I don’ know what he mean.  He catch ill?  He got the mumps again?  The shingles?

I motion for him to rise up.  He staggers slowly to his feet.

Nah tell me clearly, Paul, what’s ailin’ yeh?”

I pray that he ain’ like me.  That he take aftah his daddy.  That he be strong and vibrant, like his daddy was.  Not be like his rottin’, ol’ motha’.

He speaks again… then stops.  Afraid, almos’ to say what is next…

Silence.

I smile at him, reassurin’ like.  Go on, I try to say wit’ my eyes.

He tries…

“Ma… I don’ know how I gone done catch it… y’alls know what I’m like… who I be…  ‘Cause I never!  I promise I never with… but I done… I done caught the plague…  The… oh, you know which one I’m talkin’ ‘bout…”

I look at him closely.  It can’t be true.  Not my Paul.  Steadfast, and pure.  Always doin’ the righ’ thing…

I look at Steven… he’s noddin’ his head.  He says he overheard the fight outside.  That was Mary Sue’s son, Bishop, wrestlin’ with Paul.  That boy heard him a shoutin’ and a stammerin’ in the market place.  Tellin’ everyone their secret business.  Told Paul he should get outta town, if he knows what’s good for ‘em.

Silence again… both, in my mind and in the room.

I know not what to say or think.  This can’ be true.  Not my Paul!

And then words… words I would never have known were mine were comin’ outta my mouth:

Well, that be true, you’d be hightail it outta here now, Paulie!  Can’ have you ‘round ‘fectin’ any of the other chillins’.  You betta shoo quick-like, les’ I have Steven chase you off with Dad’s ol’ revolver!”

That can’ be me!  I can’ be sayin’ these words to my own son!  My own, beloved Paul!

But sure ‘nough, I said ‘em.  Paul’s eyes go even wider, if ya can believe it.  Stares at me like he don’ know me.  Like I ain’ his kin…

Ma… Ma… you can’… you can’ mean you would…”

“I mean what I done gone say!  You get your ass outta my house this moment, or Steven will shoot your butt-cheek off!”

He stammers.  He cries again.  He grabs for my nightdress and tries to pull me into a hug. I pull away.  I don’ wan’ his poisoned hands touchin’ me or my things.

Is this really my oldes’ son that I’m currently pullin’ away from?  I should be kissin’ him!  Coddilin’ him… Tellin’ him everythin’s gonna be alrigh’.  There’s a mistake!  Or, if there isn’ …we’ll find some way to fix him… somehow or some way…

But I ain’t.  I’m pullin’ my skirt free of his grasp, roundin’ round the door, back into my bed chambers.  And shuttin’ the door on his face.

He’s on his knees, pullin’ on his hair.  Screamin’ and a cryin’, carrying on…

With the door bolted shut, I lean my back to it; collapse onto it.  Tears are streamin’ down my face now, too.  How could I do it?  How could I shut the door on my oldes’, my precious son?

I don’ rightly know.

I hear Steven and Paul shoutin’ on the other side of the oak.  Steven is tryin’ to get Paul onto his feet.  Threatin’ him.  Pullin’ on him.

Paul is refusin’ to budge.  He’s bangin’ on the door… hollerin’ to me.  Callin’ to me to let him in!  That there’s a mistake!  To please answer his pleas.

But I don’t.  I remain stock still.  Silent.

I don’t budge a muscle or make a noise.

I hear Steven pull him down the stairs.  It sounds like Paul refused to walk and maybe had to be pushed down a few.  I hear a hard knocking sound as part of his body gets dragged down the steps.

Still, I don’ move.  I don’ respond.  Why don’ I?

I’m sure the little one’s have gathered below to watch the scene, by now.  Little Jimmy and Phil and Martia.

I hear more fightin’, more screamin’ at the front door.  Steven is the loudest.  Paul is still wailin’.

And then…

Silence.

Again, silence.

I’m wonderin’, waitin’ to find out what’s happen’.  Did Paul quietly go?  I didn’ hear the door slam close…

And then I hear it…

BANG!

Daddy’s revolver.  I hear a scream:

Paul’s.

More sobbin’.  The front door opens and shuts quickly.  I hear a man outside sufferin’.  Rushin’ and stumbin’ and screamin’ his way to the fron’ gate.

I hear more shoutin’ downstairs.  Steven shoutin’ after him.  I can’ quite hear what exactly he’s sayin’.  Probably somethin’ along the lines of, “Never come back or we’ll kill ya proper.”

It’s nearly dark outside now.  The sky has gone to mauve and eggplant and deep blue.

Little traces of gold can still be seen vibrantly glowin’ on the edges of the lowest clouds.

It’s past sunset, truly now.

I stand there, back still to the door…

And I wonder, nearly aloud:

What the hell did I just do?

I don’ move for nearly five minutes… until Steven comes and knocks on my door.




 

What’s that?!

I almost speak it aloud, as startled as I am.

I sit up in my tent.  The plasticky fibers of the sleeping bag brush against my naked skin.

Somethin’ is out there wanderin’, and it’s hurt bad.  I can feel it.

It’s one of the many surprises that have come with this new disease.  The ability to sense another living being’s pain.  Animal, plant, or human: doesn’t matter.

It’s part of the reason that I’ve liked livin’ out here in this makeshift community of outcasts.  There’s less sufferin’ goin’ on out here for us to have to feel.  Less hatred and meanness.  In the towns there’s so much of those feelin’s, both for one’s own self as well as one’s neighbor.

Not that the animals don’t feel them: pain, hunger, frustration.  But their feelin’s are more muted, like.  More distant.  A little less complex.

And, generally, they’re happier than their human counterparts.

But this ain’t no animal.  Nope – I can sense it clearer now.  There’s someone – a human – in tremendous physical and emotional pain not too many leagues away.  He’s been injured somethin’ powerful in his body.  But that pain in no way comes close to the ‘mount of sufferin’ in his mind.

I glance at my ol’ Nixon watch.  Nearly midnight.   This poor things’ probably been tramplin’  through the woods for sometime, I reckon.

We all go to bed pretty early here.  I wonder how many of the others have woken up ‘cause of this?  It might just be me.  I’m a light sleeper anyways.

I reach over the edge of my cot and grab my polka-dotted boxer shorts.  I unzip the side of my bag, quiet like, so I don’t wake my tentmate.  His name is Fred, and he’s been here two weeks.  I’ve been here for much longer; I’ve no wish to go back now.  Fred still hopes he can one day return to his family and loved ones in a village two leagues over.

… We’ll see.

He’s sleepin’ like a little kitten.  Crouchin’, I slide my undies up over my thighs; wrangle a pair of muddy jeans from a heap nearby; and throw on my boots without botherin’ with socks.  I have my puffy, brown jacket in the corner.  I don’t bother with a shirt, the jacket’ll do jus’ fine.

It’s a surprisingly chilly October night.  Normally, it wouldn’t get into the forties for another couple of weeks.  Guess winter’s comin’ on early this year.  Or jus’ a freak drop in the temperature.

I’ve got an old kerosene lamp by the foot of my tent.  I wrestle out some of them waterproof matches from my pocket and strike one alight.  I keep the lamplight low so as not to awaken any of the others who aren’t already aroused.

Awe, that poor fella, whoever he be, is wanderin’.  No idea where he’s goin’, I can tell.  From what I reckon, where I sense all those feelin’s are comin’ from, he’ll shortly be in danger of fallin’ into the creek.

And in this cold weather, a quick drop into those icy waters might be lethal.  And he won’t know he’s upon it until he’s fallin’ right smart into it.

I best be hurryin’.

I try to scurry between the trees as quickly as I’m able, makin’ my way towards the poor fella out there all alone.  I don’ hear nothin’ yet.  But I know he can’t be too far away.

A full moon peeks it’s glossy head through the tree tips.  The air is so cool and crisp.  I can see my breath a l’il.

I’ve always loved the autumn nights since I was a young boy.  I used to imagine witches and warlocks wanderin’ about on nights like this.  Under the harvest moon – like tonight.

Never thought back then that I’d be livin’ in my own version of one of them fantasy stories.

My brother caught the illness first.  He’s gay too.  Came out before I did, even though he’s the younger one.  Gave me the strength and the guts to admit proudly who I am too.

He’s livin’ in the camp as well.  Got himself a boyfriend, now.  They share a tent together.

Me, I ain’t got nobody.  My tentmate was put there with me by the fine individuals who keep this little rustic, tent dwellin’ community in order.  We’ve got our own mayor now and everythin’!  Assign chores, do what’s necessary to keep everyone happy and healthy, do our part.  It’s our own little haven, out here on our own.  Never expected when they be runnin’ us out of our houses that they’d actually be doin’ us a favor.  But, it’s better out here.  Really.

I can hear the guy now.  Moanin’.  Bumpin’ into things.  He don’t sound well, even from this far away.

Quiet and gentle like, I whisper out to him:

Don’t be ‘fraid.  I know you’re there and you’re injured.  I’m here to help yah… if yah wan’ it.”

He pauses.  Doesn’t move a muscle.  I can tell he’s scared of me.

I speak again:  “Whatever’s goin’ on for you… you’re welcome here.  We hold no grudges ‘gainst you for what you might’ve done or who you be.”

I pause.  I don’t move; still as the grave.  The lamplight extends out about twelve paces yonder.  He’s just beyond the edge of my ring of light.

I hear him move a bit.  Shufflin’.

I suspect he’s makin’ up his mind.  This is not an easy decision for him to make. Does he walk towards me, accept my help, or does he run away?

It’s not easy for townsfolk to join us, sometimes.  ‘Specially if they were one of the ones to hate us most.  Some of the biggest haters ended up joinin’ our community.  Seems like those most vocal in their hatred and disgust had the most to hide themselves.

Hard to admit their hypocrisy when the time comes that they can’t hide it no longer.  Takes serious guts to admit when you’re wrong.  Some of ‘em just ain’t strong enough for it.  Prefer to go it on their own, rather than apologize for their mistakes.

This guy’s havin’ a hell of a time reckonin’, I sense.  If he weren’ so injured, I ‘spect he probably wouldn’t be seekin’ our aid.  Probably try to go it on his own.  …but if he were to try that now… I reckon he’d be dead by sunrise, the condition he’s in.

I don’t think he really wants to be here, lookin’ for us… but he knows he gotta.  He gotta accept our help, square with his own true feelin’s.

I wait, patiently.  I want to let him decide…   Will he or won’t he?

Shortly, I see a tall figure start to make his way into the lamp ligh’.  Broad shoulders, brown work boots.  He’s all hunched over; and I see that his left shoulder is all crimson, slick with blood.  It’s dripping down his arm and past his waist.  He’s lost a lot of it, I clearly see.  He’s going to need a medic quick, if he does decide to come with me back to camp.

As he gets closer, he begins to lift his head and try to discern my face past the lampligh’.

As the golden hues of the flame illuminate the ridges of his face, I almost falter: I almos’ take a step back away from him.

It’s Mabel’s son:

Paul.

Paul had been one of m’best friends when I was a kid.  Right through till we became teenagers.  But then, round fourteen or so, he began to change.  Was mean.  Never knew him to have a mean bone in his body till that point.

Started pokin’ at me, jeerin’ me.  Makin’ fun of the way I moved and talked.  Wanted nothin’ to do with me.

When I was one of the first ten or so to catch it in town (after my kid brother, Billy), he was one of the most vicious rioters chasin’ me out with torch and pitchfork…

He’s one of the las’ people I suspected would end up here.  And he’s also probably one of the least welcomed.  He hurt a lot of people, Paul did.

I’ve got some really strong feelin’s myself about him.  Don’ know if I really want to be offerin’ my help at all now, actually.  Feelin’ the hurt of a lot of old stings and bruises.

Don’ know why I didn’ suspect all that macho bravado was jus’ an act.  Compensatin’ for whatever insecurities he felt inside.  Tryin’ to act all manly, with his daddy all gone and all.  Tryin’ to act super macho to impress his little friends and kid siblin’s.

Compensatin’ for the fact that he was just a little, lost queer kid at heart.

Can’ tell you how some of the roughest, biggest, most macho-posin’ men have ended up here.  All of ‘em fakers.  Pretendin’ to be somethin’ they ain’t.  Tryin’ hard to pass off bein’ straight when that weren’t their birthright.

Our eyes connect.I’m so surprised to feel this flood of my own feelin’s in the forefront of my mind.  Hate. Betrayal.  Anger.  Righteous vengeance.

All the resentment I’ve held for this man over the past many years.  How he hurt me.  Hurt me true and deep.

But then, below that, almost like a balloon rising out of a patch of fog… I start to feel… love, forgiveness, acceptance.

It’s hard, these powers of telepathy.  Knowin’ what another fella is thinkin’, and more-so, what they’re feelin’.  But, I swear, it’s even harder bein’ so much more aware of your own self.  Gotta see everythin’ you’re really goin’ though.  Can’t hide from it or mask it.  Can’t drink it away.

And in him, I start to sense all the years of struggle and frustration.  All the lies he had to tell to himself and everyone around him just to be able to go on with his life.  How much hatred he had (and still has) for himself and those like him.

And how much fear.

It’s hard to hate someone truly, once you know all the crimes they’ve forced upon themselves.  All the suffrin’ they be made themselves go through.

What he did to me, the pain he caused me, is nothin’ in comparison to the damage he’s done gone did himself.

And in all but a matter of seconds, I’ve fluttered through this cyclone of complex emotions and landed on just one:

Forgiveness.

I forgive him entirely.  I pity his curren’ state, and I wan’ nothin’ more than to ease his burden.

I hear there be some that think of us as bein’ saintly.  I don’ think that’s right.  We just be one thing, and one thing only: Human.

This disease has made us more human, not less.  It’s let us empathize with our fellow men in a way we never could have before.

And I love this man, I realize.  Like I love myself.

In his eyes, I see all the happy memories we shared as boys.  Our many adventures together.  The mischief we got up to.  Like smashin’ the windows in Mrs. O’Keenen’s barn.   And tumblin’ in the grass together, laughin’ our heads off as we rolled down the hill behind the schoolhouse.

I love this man.  There’s no other word for it. I do.

I open my arms wide to him.  A gesture of welcomin’.

“I’d like to help ya, Paul… if you’d let me.”

He looks at me.  He doesn’t know what to do.

Does he give up his mountain of sufferin’?  Does he join us?  Does he give up every illusion he’s ever believed about himself?  Or does he carryon on his own and probably die before mornin’?  It sounds like an easy choice to make… but it’s not easy for him.

He’s going to have to walk the rest of the way to me.

Tears are wellin’ up in his eyes.  I know there’s a lot he want’s to say, I can feel an avalanche of feelin’s rushin’ through him.  It’ll take him many days to process what’s happened tonight.  I’m assumin’ this was the firs’ nigh’ of his awakenin’.  When he discovered his gifts.  For that’s what I see all this as: not some sort of disease or sickness.  But a blessin’.

He takes another step forwards.  And pauses. Tears are streamin’ down his face proper, now.

He’s holdin’ out.  Parts within him are warrin’, I can feel it.

Which way does he choose?

One step.  Then another.  Then a pause.  Almost turning back.

Finally…

He does it: he’s standin’ next to me fully.  He stumbles and practically falls into my arms.

I wrap my arms around him as gently as I dare, with his gapin’ bullet wound and all.  I wonder how he got it.  I could probably pry, reach out with my mind to see his memories of tonight, but I don’ want to.  That’s private, and he can tell me his story when he’s good and ready.  We are not nosey as the townsfolk make us out to be.

Gently as we’re able, I start to walk him back to camp.  I’ll alert Mr. Stevens, the best doctor in the community; see what he can do to set him a’right.

We haven’ lost anyone yet who’s found their way to us.  No matter how badly off they come to us, we somehow heal them, bring them back.

It’s like we got magic about us, or somethin’.

Paul tries to use his voice: “Bryan… I’ve, uh… I’m…”

I can figure what he’s tryin’ to say.  Again, I don’t want to pry… but I can imagine what a fella in his state would be wantin’ to make amends over.

“I know, Paul…  you don’t need to say no more…  save your strength, ol’ buddy…”

He tries to stagger to his feet, free of my support.  I pull him back into my grasp once more… And then…

Then… he leans forward and puts his face close to mine.

I’m surprised.  Is he gonna spit at me? Or want to apologize for what he’s done?  Or does he say ‘get out of here and leave me be, you fucking queer?’

He leans closer… his eyelashes are nearly brushin’ mine…

And he… he…

My mind goes blank.  I’m entirely surprised.

Guess I don’t know everythin’.