Strange Pair, a short story

[Short story I submitted to the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Short Story Competition in September 2018.]

Grabbing my jacket, I threw myself out the door and took the steps at a half gallop, half stumble down and almost tripped over my landlady, Mrs. Coppercroft, in the process. She reached out for me, smiling as she steadied my arm and wrapping my jacket around me, “First day on your new legs, Dear?” she chuckled at the joke, nodded at me, and disappeared into her sitting room.

Somehow the kind old woman was always right where I needed her to be when I was in a bind. I was always marveling at her ability to zero in on my distress. One more glance at her sitting room and I turned and burst out of the large Victorian stained-glass door of the bed and breakfast.

I let my feet set the destination, forcing my mind to sit quietly in the back-seat. It started out pretty well, like a four-year-old mesmerized by the whirring of trees zipping by. But, also like the four-year-old, my mind grew restless and started demanding if we were there yet.

“Oh shush, like it matters” I grumbled, not realizing I had said it out loud until I noticed the strange looks on faces I passed. “See, this is why we can’t have nice things,” this time I kept my thoughts to myself but couldn’t help the half chuckle at the fact that I was still very much talking to myself.

I stopped at the vendor outside of the park and bought a coffee, no creamer, and blew at the steam as I turned onto the path into the greenspace. The storm may have calmed down but it left behind a chill that my jacket didn’t quite block. The park was strangely quiet for the first clear afternoon in several days and I wandered over to an open bench overlooking the small duck pond.

I have a pathological need to be liked. I find this often gets in the way of my writing; the fear that someone might disagree with a line, or draw too close a resemblance to an unlikeable character. It gets in the way of a lot of things really. I paused in my musing, my coffee having gone tepid in my hand, as someone tapped my shoulder from behind. I was grateful for the lid on my cup as I jumped, turning to stare into the kindly face of Mrs. Coppercroft. Her pale eyes twinkled at me and I couldn’t help but chuckle.

“Sorry to startle you honey, you were just so deep in your thoughts I guess you didn’t hear me coming up.” She stepped around to the front of the bench and sat down, resting her purse on her lap as she stared out at the pond.

“Not at all, I was just trying to sort out some of my book,” I felt my eyebrows draw together and I sighed.  “Decided to enjoy some of the weather today I take it?” I glanced at her as I sipped my coffee, wincing at how cold it had gotten.

“Hmm? Oh, not really. Actually, I was looking for you,” her face, normally relaxed, seemed drawn and serious. I was a little taken aback, not sure why she could be looking for me. I was paid up through the end of the year at the Bed and Breakfast, I was quiet so there couldn’t have been any complaints about me from the other guests; I was still thinking about what she could want to see me about when she stopped my thoughts. “Nothing to be so concerned about, I’m just worried about your work, your struggle to finish things lately dear.” Her voice was soft, but firm, and her lips pursed as she stared out at the duck pond. Her hands deftly broke apart a piece of bread I didn’t realize she had brought with her and the chunks quickly landed along the edge of the pond, attracting the ducks closer to us.

I drew my feet back and sat up straighter, I wasn’t sure how to respond, wasn’t sure I needed to defend myself here, but at the same time I felt compelled to answer. “I don’t really feel like, let me say” I sighed, running my hand over my face, “Well, let me just say that finishing things has been a bit trickier than I expected.” I was puzzling over the next slice of bread that she held out to me, still not sure where she’d carried it, her purse sat closed on her lap where she’d set it when she sat down. Taking the bread, I broke it into several pieces and flung them out closer to the water, “I just feel like I am struggling with completing things, and walking helps clear my head.”

She nodded, “Sure, dear. But what happens when the walks take up more of your time and you still aren’t finishing things?”

I slouched back into the bench, chewing on my lip. She was pushing me to dig into thoughts I usually walked to avoid, and I didn’t like that I was admitting that, even just in my own head. I stared back at the bread, she was tearing up another piece and I still had no clue where it was coming from, her coat pockets couldn’t be large enough to hold the slices unless they were somehow related to Mary Poppins’ bag. Mrs. Coppercroft’s lips twitched, and she shook her head, holding out another slice of bread that I stared at uncomfortably for a moment before taking it and breaking it into small pieces.

“I don’t like that I’m not finishing things, I just can’t stop getting into my head about it, and the next thing I know I’m trashing entire sections.” I leaned forward, watching the ducks chase the bits of bread caught up in the wind, hoping they didn’t decide to waddle up closer for more. Birds were ok, but ducks I had found had the propensity for viciousness and I was not interested in taking chances.

“Sometimes you have to take chances to get anywhere,” Mrs. Coppercroft’s voice echoed my thoughts, and I jumped, staring at her, my jaw hanging somewhere near my chest. I shook my head, realizing that she couldn’t be referring to my own thoughts about taking chances, and I watched her for a moment, waiting to see if she would continue. “Eva, we all have moments that we have to face our inner fears, fight the dragon holding us back if you will,” she paused, looking at me for a moment, “Maybe today you need to face your dragon.” She stood up, shaking crumbs from her lap, holding her purse on her arm and patted my shoulder. “You’ll figure it out, I believe in you,” and she turned and headed out of the park just as the first rain drops started to patter down.

I sat there for a minute, the large drops plopping on my head, slow at first, and I wondered at what she said about believing in me. That support she offered in a few words made anything seem possible. I debated sitting on the bench a little longer, but the slow rain suddenly became giant splashes from unseen buckets in the sky and I jumped up, ready to sprint back to Mrs. Coppercroft’s. As I ran towards the entrance to the park the rain turned into a tropical storm, hiding the path in front of me. Unable to see anything I squinted and bent my head away from the rain, hoping to stumble into something that might serve as protection from the storm. This plan seemed to work as I slammed directly into a stone wall, sliding my hands against it I kept pushing forward, hoping this was the wall that connected to the park’s ancient gazebo.

After a few feet of struggling with the water in my eyes I was relieved when I fell into the alcove, although I was unsure where this particular spot was in the park, my memory not recalling any nooks from my walks around the edges, but I ignored that and leaned against the wall appreciating the lack of water pelting me from all directions. After catching my breath, I glanced around, my eyes still working to adjust to the dark enclosure. I fumbled my phone out of my pocket barely catching it before it flew to the floor and slid the built-in flashlight on, waving it around me to get my bearings. The alcove looked to widen up just ahead and I found myself following impulse as I moved deeper into the darkness.

My flashlight started to dim and I glanced at the phone screen, the battery was dismally low and I tried to think back to when I had last charged my phone. Coming up blank I sighed, I really needed to pay attention to the smaller details like this. I stopped suddenly, the small details were exactly what I was missing in my story, the minutia that made a character seem real. I was so excited that I stopped paying attention to my phone until the power save mode shut off my flashlight, drawing me back to the moment in front of me. I suddenly wasn’t sure how far into the cavern I had wandered and couldn’t figure out how to turn around to get back to the park, finding myself instead spinning in circles.

I stumbled in the dark, my hand brushing against the cold rock wall, rough under my fingers. My eyes were unable to make out the details around me and I found myself leaning into my other senses, my ears picking up on a snorting, snuffling noise just ahead, or maybe to the right? I paused, hugging the wall and holding my breath, “Damn it eyes, adjust!” I whispered hoarsely, even that soft sound echoing into the chamber around me.

The snorts stopped, a softer, more alert breathing taking its place. A warm, swampy air caressed my face, forcing me to clamp my lips together to avoid tasting the scent of decay that traveled through the air. Rough, leathery scales brushed against my hand, and I tried to blend into the wall to avoid whatever they belonged to. Unable to move, the wall against my back, something sharp and cold closed behind me squeezing my waist.

A burst of scorching flames erupted from the creature and I could see clearly for a moment, making out its features. Its body filled the cavern around us, and in the little light remaining from the lingering flames I called the thing in front of me the only name I knew for it; Dragon.

I felt my knees quivering, a sickness building in my stomach as I raced through stacks of research about dragons in my mind, coming up blank. I hadn’t bothered to commit any of it to memory after finishing the stories I had worked on, since it had all been other people’s works of fiction and not worth holding onto. I closed my eyes, trying to dredge up anything that I could piece together to make some kind of plan, only finding myself drawn back to my conversation with Mrs. Coppercroft earlier in the day. If I’d realized then I might be facing a real dragon I might have gone home and armed myself with something more than a dead cellphone and a stilted imagination. The panic was gripping me harder, forcing all reasonable thoughts out of my head and leaving me only the emotional responses of the first man – fight or flight.

My hands were still free, the dragon’s grip situated under my armpits and around my waist, and in my tight grip I had managed to keep a hold of my cellphone. I took a deep breath and drew my arm back, hoping that my summer of softball practice over twenty years before were somehow buried into my genetic memory bank and I hurled my cellphone across the cavern. I wasn’t sure what I had been hoping for, and I waited in the silence for something to happen. A moment later I felt the claws loosed at the same time a clattering echoed around us. I leveraged my hands against the scaly grip and pushed myself through the slight opening that had been created, refusing to think of anything other than getting away as I hoped I was speeding the right direction toward the exit of the cave.

I had managed, barely, as a sprinter when I was younger, leaving long distance running to the professionals, but in this moment, I dug deep into myself for every ounce of energy that would help push me towards freedom. I had acted purely on instinct, refusing to overthink anything and was rewarded with the entrance to the cave just ahead of me. I didn’t hear anything behind me, but I was taking no chances with slowing down and instead pushed harder towards the exit. I didn’t pause once I escaped back into the open area of the park, not allowing myself to slow down until I reached the park gates, only then realizing that the rain had again calmed down.

I gulped air into my burning lungs as I bent over, my legs screaming at me for rest. I glanced up ahead and realized I had another mile to walk to reach home, and my cellphone was now the proud possession of a creature from some long-lost fantasy. I moaned as I forced myself upright and trudged the distance to the bed and breakfast. When the cheerful stained-glass door came into view I whimpered, almost ready to drop to the ground and crawl the distance there. Instead I forced myself to close the distance, and once inside I sat on the bottom step, unsure I had it in me to make the way up to my attic room.

A moment later I heard a rustling in the hall, startling my eyes open and I looked up into the steaming mug that Mrs. Coppercroft held out to me. “I find that a hot cup of tea is always good after a stressful day dear” her eyes held answers to questions I had only just realized I wanted to ask.

“Thank you,” I sighed with relief as I took the cup from her hand. She stepped back and gestured toward her sitting room, the only room in the house I had not been in since I became her tenant at the beginning of the summer. I managed to push myself to my feet and ignored the outraged cries of my leg muscles as I slowly made my way across the hall.

I stepped over the threshold and found myself in a room that felt much older than the rest of the house. I groaned as I settled into a large chair, feeling the cushions pull me in like a hug and I stared at Mrs. Coppercroft as she sat in a smaller chair across from me.

She lifted her tea cup to her lips and sipped, but I had the feeling she was waiting for me to probe her with a series of questions. I wasn’t sure where to start, the dragon still taking up most of my thoughts.

“That’s probably a good place to start, I’d think,” her eyes danced as she seemed to pull my thoughts out of the air. I thought back to the park, her statements seemingly in line with my thoughts then and it was like a puzzle piece sliding into place.

“You knew about the dragon.” It wasn’t a question, and this statement made me feel bold as I leaned forward, resting my elbows on my knees as I gingerly held the fragile tea cup in both hands. Shaking my head, I stared at her, unable to feel anger in the moment. “How did you know?” It was the question that seemed the most pressing. I could only focus on the how to start with, the rest I felt would fall into place after.

She glanced around the room as she leaned forward setting her cup on the worn wood table between us. A small sigh escaped her and she pushed up and wandered across the room, pulling a couple books down from shelves and bringing them to where I sat.  “It’s more than just the dragon, really it goes all the way back to the day you came to stay here,” she watched me for a second and set the dusty tomes next to her tea. “You were looking for somewhere that you could finish your writing, and I was looking for someone that wouldn’t run from duty.”

I wasn’t sure that this explained anything and I quickly jumped up, “Nope, not happening.” I was plowing toward the door when Mrs. Coppercroft called out, “Perhaps just this once the hero should accept the call, instead of fighting quite so hard?”

I hesitated, glancing at her as she began opening the heavy volumes in front of her. “I don’t really understand, what kind of hero do you expect me to actually be?” I couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of my voice, and I winced at the sound as soon as the words left my mouth.

She never looked up as she flipped through pages, instead gesturing at the unopened book next to my tea. “Start using those research skills you’ve let go and find anything on trapping dragons.” She whipped through several more pages as I watched her.

“You mean kill it, right?” I was unsure how could she hope for an old woman and a sorely out of shape writer to trap a dragon. Killing it seemed a bit out of the question as well if I was being honest. She continued to flip through pages, her only response that she heard me was a wave of her hand to let me know I should be turning pages too.

I scowled at the tiny print, trying to decipher the well-worn words as I scanned several pages. After a few minutes I was staring at a line that seemed out of place, words that seemed to hint at technology amidst ancient magic, and I felt an idea brewing in the back of my mind. Before I could lose it, I dashed out of the room and ran up the three flights of stairs to the attic landing, ignoring my leg muscles as I launched into my room. Tossing papers onto the chair I dug around at my desk for the tablet I used for research and I double checked the charge. Unlike my cellphone this was fully charged and ready to go. Pulling the slim piece of technology against my chest I raced back down the stairs, slamming my feet against the steps as I went.

I flopped into the chair, ignoring Mrs. Coppercroft’s stern look and stared back at her with a hyper excitement, my lips pulled back in a giant grin. “Technology meet magic, magic meet technology,” I hoisted my tablet up into the air like a trophy, “That’s how we trap it.” I answered her puzzled expression, calming down a bit to show her the page I had found.

“I’m not sure I see how technology and magic meet here, dear” She turned the page back and forth, studying the wording, but unable to see what I had.

“This tablet is paired to my phone, which I lost in the cave trying to escape from the terrifying monster you chose not to tell me about,” She raised an eyebrow at me and opened her mouth to speak, “No hard feelings,” I grinned, the excitement at the adventure overriding any frustration I may have felt earlier. “But because my phone and tablet are connected we essentially have what the text describes as a focus pair.”

“A focus pair,” her eyebrows knitted together as she reread the paragraph. “But how will you replace the crystal energy required for the incantations?”

“Liquid crystals that are used in modern mobile device screens.”

“Actually, that would do it” I watched her, the first hint of realization rising into her eyes, and then it fully hit her and she grinned up at me, her excitement suddenly matching mine.

We spent the next hour configuring my tablet with the necessary incantations to create a magical focus, setting up the data synch to boot up my phone at the time I planned to arrive at the cavern. “Just one question though,” I paused, unsure if I really wanted to know why this sweet old woman was in the business of trapping dragons.

“Because someone has to make sure no one else encounters that dragon; and of course, because someone could use it as a weapon and I feel like that would not be good for anyone.” She watched me, and I nodded as I stood pulling my jacket around my shoulders, ready to head back into the terrifying path of a very large creature. “Hurry back now, we’re having roast chicken for dinner.” She sounded so calm, but I felt her nerves through the air, identical to my own and I shot her a thumbs up, not trusting myself to show the same bravado.

The walk to cavern in the park felt like it went too fast, my feet carrying me there as if I wore winged shoes, and I found myself standing in front of where my world had drastically shifted just a few hours before. I took a deep breath and forced myself into the dark cavern, this time without a light to guide the way. On cue, a few feet into the cave I heard my cellphone alarm notify me of an update and the synch to my tablet began. The dragon was curled around the tiny device, and my cellphone looked like a small button next to its large tail. The sound and lights had attracted its attention, and it snuffled and snorted towards the phone.

I slipped along the cavern edges, slowly moving towards it, trying to keep the dragon’s focus on the phone. I felt my foot hit a crevice in the floor and I dreaded the crash forward, throwing my hands out and catching my breath, my clumsiness making another grand appearance. A moment later the phone went silent, but the light stayed on, we had discussed how the phone charge was so low we’d only get one chance to do this, and that window was very narrow.

I stayed on the ground crawling forward and threw myself over its tail, grabbing the phone and rolling onto my back exposing my belly to the dragon, begging any deity that wanted to listen to let this work. “Please, Buddha, Zeus, Odin … if any of you want to help that would be much appreciated right about now,” and I squeezed my eyes shut and hit the home button on my phone, feeling a heavy warmth surround us, the dragon drawn forward and suddenly, like smoke, dissipating onto – into – the screen of my phone, trapped by the crystals there.

I collapsed with relief and stared at the tiny box in my hand, “I hope my account is flagged for an available upgrade” I muttered as I stood up, wandering back out of the cave and towards the path back to the Bed and Breakfast. Mrs. Coppercroft stood on the steps holding my tablet, watching the path. I waved as I stumbled onto the steps, and she sat down next to me.

“Do you think you can see this as a regular hobby?” She set my tablet down beside me.

“I think so, if nothing else I feel like I never have to worry over what to write about ever again.” I leaned back against the steps and she patted my shoulder, sitting silently next to me watching the clouds roll in.

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