“I can’t believe you’re taking the whole summer off. Teachers are so lucky. You don’t have to work all year long like the rest of us.”
That’s how it started. Or at least, according to the writing class I took, it’s where the action started. And action, according to Manny Vanderbris, creative writing teacher extraordinaire, is the most important thing when writing.
So I’m starting my book with action—that of me setting up my laptop on a small writing desk, my next-door neighbor Teresita idly watching me arrange a tablet of paper, five freshly sharpened pencils, and a red pen in proper symmetrical order on the desk. “You’d be surprised how much work we do in the summer. We have classes to take, summer school to teach, side tutoring jobs, meetings and webinars and planning. It all has to be done before school starts again. Would you mind not doing that?”
“Sorry. You’ve been so normal lately, I forgot your OCD.”
I returned the five pencils she’d taken from the small vase that was set at two o’clock on the desk, at a perfect distance from the computer to avoid spilling onto it, and yet easily reachable by my right hand. I fought against the anxiety that suddenly swelled, reminding the small panicked animal that I imagined lived in my brain that everything was in its place, exactly where it needed to be, and moving the pencils into place again would serve no useful purpose. “If you were anyone but someone I’ve known since I was four years old, I’d take offense to that normal bit. OCD people are perfectly normal. We have issues that we have to cope with, just like everyone else. Ours simply get in the way sometimes.”
Teresita shifted away from the wall, and wandered over to the mantelpiece. I bit my lip against the request that she not move my things around, telling the anxiety animal that it was okay if someone else touched my possessions. It was even bearable if they were moved out of place.
“Veronica James, did you just lecture me in your teacher voice? You did, didn’t you? I’m sorry about the ‘normal’ thing…you know I think you’re perfectly sane, even if you did have nutball parents. And your therapy has helped so much. I’m proud of you, girl! When I think about that year when you couldn’t leave your apartment because you couldn’t stop tidying and making sure everything was in its place, and then I see you now, it’s like you’re a whole new person. What’s your book going to be about?”
“I don’t know.” I glanced over the writing table, allowing the rightness of everything to fill me with a glow of happiness. Embracing that happiness went a long way to dealing with the anxious animal in my head. “I haven’t gotten that far. Mr. Manny says it’s best to meditate before writing because that lets your inner storyteller speak without fear of failure. I have a yoga DVD I’m going to use to do that.”
“Yoga in order to write?” She lifted, one by one, a series of seven small ceramic horses that galloped across my mantelpiece in a riot of white flashing manes and tiny pounding hooves. “That sounds like a load of bunkum. Shit, is that the time?” She dropped one of the horses and spun around, hurrying toward the door. “I told Dan I’d be gone for five minutes, and it’s been almost half an hour. He’ll think I’ve run off with that hot guy who moved in downstairs yesterday. Good luck with your book. See you later!”
“Bye,” I called after her, wincing only a little when she slammed my door shut. “And why people can’t close a door properly, let alone be in a room without touching other people’s personal things…”
I couldn’t stand it. I bustled over to the mantelpiece, arranging the horses the way they were meant to be, tsking over the chip on the hoof of the horse Teresita had dropped. The animal in my head shrieked that it was no longer perfect, but also, I couldn’t throw it away. That would leave only six horses, and six wasn’t right…
“Geez, Veronica,” I lectured myself, putting down the horse. “And just when Teresita was praising you. Deep breaths, girl. It’s fine. A chip doesn’t matter. The little horses are all where they should be, and that chipped one is just fine.”
My phone chirped just as I forced the anxiety animal back into its cave, still thinking about the chipped hoof. I glanced at my phone, but didn’t recognize the number. “It’s not like I can’t glue it together…Hello?”
“What are you trying to glue together?” The voice on the phone was female, slightly breathless, and familiar. “I’d say the pieces of your life, but you are the smartest woman I know, and I’m sure by now you have all your kinks figured out.”
There was only one person who referred to my condition as kinks. “Helen?” I asked, startled.
I hadn’t spoken with my half sister in years. Literally years. “I haven’t heard from you in four years, eight months, and twenty-seven days. Where on earth have you been? Have you talked to Mom? The last time I talked to her—which, sadly, was her calling me to bail her out of a DUI charge—she said you were out in the South Pacific helping set up some sort of a school for orphans. Are you back?”
“I am, and the school I was setting up wasn’t for orphans. Well, not exactly. Kind of. What are you doing?”
“I teach high school math, but you know that. Or you should know it.” Carefully, I set down my chipped horse and decided to worry about repairing its hoof later. “I told you a few years ago in a Christmas card that once I got a handle on my issues, I got a job at the local high school. What are ‘not exactly’ orphans?”
“They’re people who are in hiding. Listen, Ronnie, I’m in a bit of a hurry. Can you meet me? Now?”
“Right now?” I glanced around my sunny apartment. Everything from the two goldfish who swam lazily in a large tank to the writing desk glittered in a golden-red glow of the setting sun. An air purifier hummed away in a manner that reassured me it was sucking all sorts of dust and allergens from the air. I loved my apartment. Everything was in its place, everything was bright and clean and fresh. There was no yelling, no drunken fits of violence, no apathy-induced squalor. It was my own little haven, and now that I had conquered my mental animal, it was a place of peace. “I don’t think I can. I have dusting to do under the bed, and I want to vacuum my heating vents, and then I have some yoga to get done in order to write my book.”
“You’re still trying to writing a novel?” Amusement touched her voice. “Is it the same one you said you were going to write as soon as you left college?”
I bridled briefly at the still. “I’ve taken the summer off to write, and these things don’t just burst out of your head, you know. You have to prepare for them. You have to set up a dedicated writing area. You have to get into the mental mind-set of writing, and free your inner muse with yoga and meditation. All that takes time and effort. What did you need? Is something wrong? Oh, lord, did Mom get out of prison early? I thought she was supposed to be in until next year?”
“I had no idea she was incarcerated again, so I’m afraid I don’t know where she is. Listen, Ronnie, what I need is too complicated to tell you over the phone. Can you postpone your dusting and novel-writing and meet me at…” There was a muffled sound of her speaking, and a low answering voice. “Can you meet me at the Fashion Armadillo?”
“It’s a clothing store at the far end of the strip mall out on Sunset. Do you know it?”
“I thought that mall closed. Are you there with someone? Is it a man? You know I’ve broken up with Austin, right? If you had an idea of doing a couples thing, I’m solo now.”
“Good, he was a sociopath.”
“He was not! He was just a bit rigid about things, and had rules that he liked everyone to follow.”
“That’s putting it mildly. No, no, don’t get your feathers ruffled, this has nothing to do with you, your quite possibly homicidal maniac of a former boyfriend, or a couples’ date. Just come to the mall and I’ll explain it all. As soon as possible, okay?”
I glanced at the clock that sat exactly in the center between two windows and allowed a little exasperation to tint my voice. “I have things to do, Helen.”
“I know, but this is important. Life-changing sort of important. Please come. I…I need to see you again. I want to tell you something that it’s time you knew.”
“If I was Mr. Manny, I would tell you that you’re foreshadowing, and that is a big no-no.” I sighed loudly. “All right, I’ll come out to the Fashion Armadillo, although what on earth you’re doing there—”
“Great. See you in a few.”
She hung up before I could say anything more. I stared at my phone for a few minutes, cast a regretful glance at my now-perfect writing table, and mentally apologized to my inner storytelling muse who was waiting for me to do some yoga so she could start the novel I’d been planning on writing for the last twelve years.
Exactly twenty-six minutes later I stopped my VW Bug in front of the now-darkened windows of the last shop in a somewhat seedy strip mall on the outskirts of town. There were no cars in the parking lot, and a tall sodium light meant to illuminate the path of shoppers flickered and buzzed loudly. I sat for a minute staring at the faded, garish painting of an armadillo wearing a flowered hat and psychedelic dress, dancing across the front of the obviously dirty shop windows, and wondered just what the hell Helen was playing at.
To my right, the parking lot yawned empty and mostly dark, only five of the lights actually working. Even so, the place had a decayed, forgotten air to it that gave me the willies. Making sure my door was locked, I dialed the number Helen had used to call me, counting the rings until an automated voice mail picked up and informed me she was not available.
“Helen?” I rolled down my window and leaned out, my voice sounding hushed in the stillness of the night. Although Sunset was one of the main streets in my little Oregon town, the noise from the cars as they zipped by was muffled and distant. “Helen, God damn it, where are you? I am not going to wander around an empty mall that probably has drug users and other squatters holed up inside one of the empty stores. Helen?”
A metallic sound came from behind the building, the sort of sound you’d hear if someone knocked over a hubcap.
I sat for a moment in my car, wishing I’d never agreed to come out, wishing I was back safe in my little apartment, wishing I’d was at that moment performing downward dog in order to kick start my muse.
But a sister is a sister, even when she has a different father, and left home at age sixteen under somewhat mysterious circumstances.
“Familial guilt or not, she is so going to hear about this,” I grumbled, pulling from my purse a bottle of pepper spray and a bottle of hand sanitizer. With one last glance around the parking lot to make sure no druggies were streaming out of the empty shops intent on beating me to death and stealing my car, I got out, locked it and set the alarm, and holding the pepper spray in one hand and hand sanitizer in the other, I made my way around the back side of the building.
I thought at first that no one was there. Big black shapes of squarish trash bins were scattered down the back wall, as well as a few boxes, wooden crates, and two stacks of pallets.
“Helen?” I asked, my voice a lot more wavery than I had hoped it would sound.
One of the shadows next to the nearest trash can moved. “There you are. I was wondering when you’d get here.”
Relief swept over me at her voice. I hustled forward, the faint glow of light from the parking lot barely showing Helen sitting on the ground, leaning back against the trash can, her legs out in front of her. “For the love of God, woman, what are you doing?”
“Waiting for you. Pull up a pallet and sit.”
“Are you kidding?” I glanced around, my nose wrinkling in disgust. “Who knows what those pallets were used for. It’s probably germ city. I don’t wish to pick up some mystery super bug resistant to every known antibiotic.”
Amusement was evident in her voice. One arm swept out toward me, offering me an indefinable black object. “Fine, but do you mind sitting down? It hurts my neck to look up at you like that. You can sit on my coat. I swear I have only normal germs that antibiotics love.”
I hesitated for a moment, the animal in my mind screaming we should have brought some disinfecting spray, but told myself that was stupid; Helen was my sister, and wasn’t an unclean person, so I accepted her coat. I made a little pad and sat cross-legged next to her on it, ignoring the urges that drove me to leave. “You want to tell me why we’re here and not at a decent place, like a Starbucks where we could have the waitstaff wipe down a table so we could sit without catching diseases?”
“I do and I will.” She shifted slightly against the trash can in order to look at me, her face pale in the faint light. I studied it, noting that although she had the same honey-brown hair that we shared with our mother, her features were not at all like mine. Where my face was round, hers was delicately boned, with cheekbones that she didn’t have to highlight. Her eyes were dark, whereas mine were a particularly blah shade of gray. She had the lithe, elegant body of a ballet dancer. I was shaped like a potato, with short, stubby legs, a long torso, and arms that I felt were inadequate for my body. I disliked the fact that my proportions felt so wrong when she was the perfect balance of form.
“You remember when Dad left suddenly?”
I nodded. My stepfather had always been a nice man, one who was away for more time than he was home, but since his presence brought calmness and sobriety to our disturbed mother, we always cherished the time he was with us. It was a little oasis of sanity in an otherwise insane life. “I was seventeen. Mom went downhill after he left for good. You must have been about thirteen.”
“I was. That was the summer I was sent to the McManahans.”
“Foster care.” I made a face. “Again, I feel like I should apologize for going to Gram and Gramp’s house, and not making them take you, but you know how small their house was, and they had Aunt Ruth and her kids there, too.”
“Sweetie, I didn’t call you here to make you feel bad about our respective horrible childhoods. And for the record, I loved the McManahans and wanted to stay with them, but you know how Mom was when she came out of rehab—everything was going to be better, she was done with addiction, etcetera. But all of that is neither here nor there. What I wanted to point out was that when I was sixteen, I left home. Did Mom ever tell you why?”
I raised my eyebrows. “No. She didn’t talk about it other than to say you ran off to be with your dad, which made me feel a lot better about having my own life in college. I figured if you were with him, you’d be safe. Isn’t that where you went?”
“No. Well, kind of.” She shook her head. “It’s all a bit complicated, but I have to tell you about it quickly. We don’t have much time.”
“We don’t?” I glanced around. “Are the murderous car-stealing druggies coming to get us?”
She gave a little laugh that ended abruptly on a hiccup. “No, it’s too late for that. Ronnie, did you ever feel like…like something was different with Dad?”
“Yes,” I said slowly, not wanting to say anything I might regret. He was, after all, her father, and I assumed he was still alive despite not having heard anything from him in more than sixteen years. “He was always kind of…distant…with me. I thought at first it was because I was a stepkid, but he was that way with Mom, too.”
“It wasn’t you, or Mom. He had to do that to protect us. All of us. Just like I have to protect you now.”
“Protect us from what? Oh, God, is he some sort of drug kingpin with a secret life?”
She gave a half laugh. “No, and you have a serious obsession with the idea of drug users. Look, there’s no way to tell you this easily. I’m just going to have to blurt it out. Are you ready?”
“I don’t know,” I said somewhat wildly. “What on earth are you going to blurt out? Is it bad? Will I hate it? Good God, are you in the wrong body and you want to be a man now? Because I will totally support you transitioning—”
“Dad was a dragon!” she said loudly, interrupting me.
I stopped gibbering and stared at her. “He was what?”
I blinked a couple of times. “Let’s take this slowly. Dragon like the big scaly mythical creatures with wings, that breathe fire and have a virgin fetish?”
“Yes, except they don’t have wings. They have a human form and look just like you and me, although Dad said he could breathe fire when he got really mad.”
“You’re joking, right?” I asked, my brain trying to wrap itself around the idea. It wasn’t having much success.
“I wish I was.”
“But dragons are…Helen, they just aren’t real.”
“I assure you they are. Just forget what you know from mythology, and imagine them as a different type of person.”
“Even if I could imagine that, dragons aren’t good news. At the risk of more censure, if they were people, they’d be the sort who sell drugs cut with antifreeze and get little kids hooked on it.”
She shook her head, a sense of weariness settling around her. “You’re letting literature bias your opinion. Not all dragons are bad, although sometimes they have a bad impact on the mortal world.”
“Mortal world? Are you saying your father wasn’t mortal?” I felt like I was being pulled out to sea by a violent undertow, one that was threatening to consume me. The anxiety monster tried to panic, but I reminded it that it held no more power over me. “Holy shit, Helen! Are you saying your dad isn’t really a man?”
“He’s a man. He’s just also a dragon. A half-blood dragon, actually, a dragon hunter.” She hunched over for a moment. “And because I’m of his bloodline, that makes me the same.”
I stared at her. There was nothing more I could do. I just stared.
“When I was sixteen, I came into my powers. Dad had left a letter for me, telling me what was happening, and where I could find him. I did so, and he told me that my whole life had to be devoted to protecting mortals from the bad things in the world.”
“Bad things like drug lords?”
She gave a horrible sounding chuckle. “Sure, if you like. Mostly demons, but also any number of other malignant forces that are hidden just beyond our view. Dad said that dragon hunters exist to protect the mortal world against the threats that they don’t even know are there. And if they fail to do that, they’re…well, summoned.”
“This is all like something out of a fantasy movie,” I said, trying to assimilate all the information. I’d say Helen was hallucinating, but she appeared all too lucid. “Do I want to know where they’re summoned?”
“Was your dad summoned? Is that why he disappeared?”
“He was, but he didn’t stay that way for long.” She turned away for a moment. “Someone took his place. He didn’t tell me who, and there wasn’t time to ask him what happened before…Dad was fine for a week and a half, and then…he’s dead now.”
“Oh, Helen, I’m so sorry.” I put a hand on her shoulder, giving her a little squeeze. I don’t know at what point my brain had processed the information she was feeding me, but it was starting to, and my heart went out for the pain my sister was feeling.
She coughed and hunched over again. “I have to do this quickly. I need your help.”
“Sure,” I said, wondering if I could write this all down and use it in my book, then decided it was too far-fetched even for a novel. Mr. Manny had many things to say about using improbable premises. “Whatever I can do, I will.”
“Good. I’m sorry about this.”
While I spoke, she reached out and grabbed my arm, biting my bare wrist so hard that her teeth cut into my skin.
I tried to jerk my arm back, but she pulled me forward, then moved slightly and pressed my arm against her stomach. It was warm and wet and horrible, and I gave in to the anxiety that washed over me, struggling to get away from Helen, to get away from the germs that would infect me.
I needed to wash myself, right then, my whole body. Wash, and wash, and wash. I doubted if there was enough water to do all the washing I knew would be needed.
“What the hell?” I shrieked, trying to backpedal and pull my arm from her, my mind desperately focused on the need to wash, but her grip was like iron. I swore a red light kindled in her eyes as she looked straight into mine, her nose a few inches from me.
And at that moment, an odd thing happened—the look in her eyes scared the animal in my head back into its cave, stopping it from chanting its demands into my brain, and left me filled only with perfectly normal panic and horror.
Helen’s breath ruffled my hair. “Now my blood flows through your veins. You can pick up where I am forced to leave off. Swear to me that you will do what is right, Ronnie. Swear you will be what I can’t be.”