“There Be Dragons”

People seemed to enjoy “Street Spirit,” so I figured I’d post another of my short stories. This one is significantly longer. I was trying to ape Joyce’s “Araby” and draw from my experiences growing up in Mount Pearl. I strove for verisimilitude but made some changes to the geography where convenient. I have some of Gregory Crewdson’s photography dispersed throughout for the ambiance factor.

(the Pearl)

There Be Dragons

Red claws tore through the soft blue sky, promising warm summer days ahead of these mild May evenings. The boys ran out of the theatre waving their plastic light sabers, reenacting The Phantom Menace’s climactic choreography. Will spun his around like a windmill, until John jabbed him hard in the stomach. “Ow, you prick,” spat Will. He punched John hard on the shoulder. Ryan put his away as they walked down Topsail Road, Will and John trying to hold back tears. They passed Mary Queen of the World, walked down the path, and crossed the bridge. They reached the cul-de-sac and started to make their way towards Park Avenue. “We should just take the trails,” suggested John. Ryan and Will stopped. There Be Dragons. Their parents always told them never to take the trails at night because High-Schoolers roamed there sans Parental Supervision. Ryan looked at Will who appeared unsure, and then at John, who appeared to be getting impatient. “Come on,” ordered John. “It’ll save like 10 minutes of walking. Don’t be such pussies.” He turned and started walking the old Railroad-tracks trail. Ryan and Will silently followed.

The light was waning but Ryan could see that the coast was clear for now. The trail momentarily broke once it intersected with Riverside. They stopped once they heard laughter and shouting up ahead. High-Schoolers. “They must be trail blazing,” observed John. Ryan and Will didn’t dare ask for a definition. “Let’s go,” said Ryan, walking up Riverside towards Park. “Hold on,” said John. “Maybe they’ll sell us some weed.” Ryan and Will gave each other nervous glances. They heard a bottle smash followed by loud laughter. “Fine,” said John, turning from the path. “Hey,” he said. “Isn’t that the Witch’s Hut?” In amongst the trees stood a solitary house, unlit. John crept towards it. Ryan and Will silently followed. “She isn’t actually a witch, though,” whispered Will. Ryan and John chuckled, much to Will’s chagrin. “’Course not, dumbass,” said John. “She’s a crazy cat-lady who lives by herself.” Will gave him another bump on the shoulder. “My sister’s boyfriend told me she has like a hundred cats,” explained Ryan. “And she never leaves the house. She has everything delivered to her. Like food, clothes, everything.” Ryan’s sister and her boyfriend were twentysomethings; their wisdom was never questioned. Ryan may well have just descended from Mount Sinai and cited a burning bush as his source.

One half of the house was practically dilapidated. Paint peeled from its sides and the grass, littered with dandelions and weeds, could nearly reach their kneecaps. John ventured further in, daring to peek through a fold in the curtains, his hands clinching the windowsill as he stood on his toes. This time Will refused to follow and stood his ground. Ryan slowly stepped away from Will, and stood halfway to John. Out of the blue, a burst of light flared from inside the house. John let go of the windowsill and took off running. Will was already gone. Ryan stood transfixed trying to see if a silhouette would emerge. John seized his arm and they all ran up Riverside together until they reached Park. They overtook Will who was already winded and walking, holding on to his side. “Wait!” he shouted. “I have a stitch!” John and Ryan stopped eventually.

They stood bent over with their hands on their knees trying to catch their breaths, waiting for Will to catch up. “Hey, did you guys loose your lightsabres?” asked Will when he finally reached them. They had. “Are you going to go back and get them?” John and Ryan considered it. “Screw that,” said John. “That shit’s gay anyway.” On the way home to Power’s Pond, they probed each other to see if either of them had caught a glimpse of the Witch. They then discussed the trailer they saw on the Internet for The Blair Witch Project. Ryan didn’t sleep very well that night.

* * *

It was early June and school was almost out. Ryan sat sweating in math class. A warm Friday afternoon is the absolute catalyst for a young male’s hormonal system. Concentration on scholastic affairs was hopeless. He had his textbook laid on his lap, leaning at a near 90% angle, so as to conceal that he was actually sketching a picture of Link, hero of the Legend of Zelda, waving his Master Sword in the air. His attention was briefly diverted as he watched Kristen Dwyer get up from her seat and walk to the pencil sharpener. He redirected his eyes back to his work-in-progress when she smiled at him. As she passed him on her way back to her desk, she tossed a folded up piece of paper onto his lap. His name was spelled across the front quadroon. A note. He remained motionless so as not to arouse suspicion. He dared a glance at Mr. Baggs to see if he’d been apprehended. The young substitute teacher was back on, drawing isosceles triangles on the board. He gingerly unfolded the paper. He skimmed through the inane gossip and class editorials (all the girls totally want to hook up with Mr. Baggs) until he reached the note’s raison d’etre:

Do you & John want to go to Thomas Amusements with me and Robyn?

Kristen

It was common knowledge that John and Robyn were making out at the dance last week. Ryan did the math. His pulse rose. The bell rang. Everyone filed out of class. It was the last class of the day. He had no time to digest any of this. Jesus Christ, what am I doing? He found John at their locker. He explained his dilemma. “Yeah, man,” said John. “Robyn told me all about their plan.” Their plan? Too late to elaborate – the girls were already closing in. A two-bodied phalanx with devastating artillery. Shock and awe. “Don’t worry,” assured John, “I got this.”

The girls had them hemmed in against the lockers. Kristen and Ryan were silent as Robyn and John publicly displayed their affection. “So,” announced Robyn. “How about you guys come get us at 6?” “Sounds good,” replied John. “yeah. ok. sure,” mumbled Ryan. “Great,” said Robyn. The girls withdrew, shuffling off, whispering to each other and giggling.

“What the hell are we going to do?” asked Ryan. “Thomas Amusements blows. It’s for kids.”

“Dude, that’s just some crap we tell our parents. Once we get there we’ll just sneak off somewhere and get some pussy.” Ryan’s body turned to 451o Fahrenheit. “You’re lucky,” continued John. “Kristen has nice…”

“Hey guys,” interrupted Will. “You want to come over and play Super Smash Bros.? I just got some new Rumble Paks.” Ryan explained their plans, oblivious to John’s visible displeasure. “Well, can I come too?” asked Will.

“Sorry, dude,” said John, “my mom’s car can only fit four people.” He then walked away dragging Ryan with him. “Don’t be a tool,” said John. “Girls don’t like Will. He has pimples and smells bad. And don’t talk about video games, or Star Wars, or comic books around them. They aren’t into that.” Ryan took note. How did John have access to such information?

They sat in John’s car, his mother driving. They listened intently to the radio. No one spoke. It was playing Aerosmith’s god-awful I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing. But the girls liked it so no one complained. Ryan contemplated the plan and visualized the steps:

1)      arrive at fair. leave fair via trails leading to Cowan Heights subdivision. arrive at Robyn’s house.

2)      Robyn’s parents out of town. is staying at Kristen’s house. has made copy of house key prior to parents’ departure. once inside, break into pairs: Robyn and John to her room; Kristen and Ryan to couch in living room.

3)      make move.

4)      leave @ 2130 hours (9:30). arrive at fair in time for 22h pick-up (10).

Ryan swallowed his anxiety. Battery acid poured down his throat, pushing his stomach down into his genitals.

With a grin spanning ear to ear, John’s Mother dropped them off. Ryan stepped out of the car and stared at the centrifugal motion of lights oscillating in the humid air, listening to the cacophony of pumping hydraulics, gears switching under rotating metallic joints, and kids screaming, held by their parents, laughing. John bought the girls cotton candy. Ryan’s t-shirt clung to his sweaty body. As planned, they casually walked through the fair and onto the trails. Robyn and John remained a few paces ahead, engaging in their own conversation, slightly out of earshot. Ryan and Kristen walked in silence. “I like your hat,” said Kristen, breaking the tension like an auger penetrating a sheet of pale blue ice. Ryan was wearing a red ball cap with a black Yankees insignia. Official MLB 59Fifty New Era. Size 7 1/8. In a stroke of genius, or pure luck, Ryan had managed to anticipate the Yankees cap’s oncoming wave of popularity – this colour scheme in particular – as Fred Durst, thanks to MuchMusic and MTV, debuted on televisions all across suburban North America. This was one of the few times he dared wear it out, fearing any kind of dirt or wear and tear may dull the crimson pop, thus robbing it of its supernatural aura. “Thanks,” replied Ryan. He spent the rest of the trek discussing his trip to New York the previous summer; how got to see the Yankees play (’98 World Series winners, and arguably one of the greatest teams ever assembled); and Green Day play at MSG. Kristen was especially impressed by the latter anecdote – she was a big fan. Having scored some major points, and knowing it, Ryan felt his confidence grow.

They got to Robyn’s house, and stood in the foyer after removing their sneakers. “You guys can watch some TV,” suggested Robyn, smirking. “If you want.” She and John then walked up the steps to her room. John passed Ryan a secretive wink. Good luck. Ryan and Kristen went downstairs and sat on the big sofa. Silence again. Ryan lost whatever confidence he’d built up on the way over. Kristen picked up the remote. “Want to watch something?” she asked. “Sure,” croaked Ryan. Kristen flipped through the channels and settled on The Simpsons. This is it. Ryan was Mount Pearl Junior High’s foremost Simpsons Impersonator. He’d made a good play earlier, but this was his chance for a base hit. “Lunch Lady Doris, ‘ave ya got any graice?” Ryan intoned, mimicking Grounds Keeper Willy. Yes, yes we do. “Then graice me up, woman!” Kristen laughed hysterically. If he had John’s chutzpah, he’d’ve swung for the fences, but he tried a bunt instead. He reached his arm around her shoulder just like he saw his sister’s boyfriend do. He felt her snuggle in a little closer so he relaxed his arm and rested it against the back of her neck. She laid her head on his shoulder. “You smell really nice,” she said. “Thank you,” thought Ryan to himself, eternally grateful to his sister for letting him use some of her boyfriend’s cologne.

In a flash, the episode was over. What now? Is it time for the The Move? How does one execute it? John hadn’t provided much detail here. Kristen turned her face up towards his. “You’re funny,” she said. Scared-elated, Ryan dared disturb the universe and pressed his lips against hers. He felt the warm air of her breath, and slid his tongue into her open mouth and tasted her kiwi lip-gloss. She pulled her body in tight against his. He leaned backwards until he was flat on the couch, she lying on top of him. They laughed when strands of her long, chestnut hair got tangled up in their wet lips. She sat up and tied it back into a ponytail. He laid his hat on the coffee table. She stretched out on top of him and they resumed. He turned to jell-o when he felt her breasts, like two soft peaches, press against his chest.

They sat up when they heard loud footsteps coming down the steps. “Alright guys,” called Robyn, “it’s time to go.” 9:30 already? Impossible. Ryan checked his watch. Sure enough. 9:30 on the dot. But if The Simpsons was over at 7:30 that meant they were

making out for 2 hours. Madness. Kristen was reapplying her kiwi lip-gloss. He felt his own lips raw and chapped. A veritable time warp. Einstein’s theory of relativity made flesh. They stood in the foyer putting their sneakers on. John stared at Ryan with raised eyebrows, inquiring. Ryan gave him a wink, affirming. John smiled and wiped his two forefingers across his upper lip, sniffing in mock fashion. Ryan barley suppressed a chortle.

They made their way down the trails back to the fair. John and Robyn lead the way with their arms wrapped around each other, in some kind of three-legged race formation. Ryan and Kristen followed, modestly holding hands. Up ahead they heard the oncoming assholery of High-Schoolers. They immediately disengaged and silently passed through the pack, trying hard to maintain focus, careful not to draw attention, but also hiding any semblance of fear or intimidation. They felt the gaze, and heard some snickers, but managed to escape unscathed nonetheless.

They arrived back at the fair and got into the car without any further complications. Everything had gone according to plan. John regaled his mother with tales of cotton candy, bumper cars, and degenerate carnies. The three other accomplices merely assented in agreement to John’s performance when appropriate. She bought the subterfuge, hook, line, and sinker. Indeed, these are not the droids you are looking for. Ryan was always impressed by John’s self-control and guile before girls and adults. Yet, they’d all grown up in the same neighbourhood, went to the same schools, and shared similar experiences, so why was John able to pull off such bold and ambitious coups, while Will was content to atrophy on his couch, nestled in the virtual realities of role-playing games and first-person shooters? And where did this leave Ryan? Somewhere between the two? He wanted more than John’s Sidekick. He would become an equal partner. During the drive home, he cautiously slid his hand into Kristen’s back pocket. She leaned forward gently to oblige him. They smiled when Time Of Your Life began to play on the radio.

* * *

1999 was the year for movies: Star Wars, The Sixth Sense, The Matrix, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, American Beauty, the list goes on. Ryan and John, with either their girlfriends or the guys, spent a lot of time that summer at the theatre. They devised schemes to sneak into R rated movies, and, when they were low on funds, ran the Three-Way Ticket Exchange to get a least one free seat. Allow me to explain. The plan requires at least 3 people to get 1 free seat. One waits in the bathroom while the other two buy their tickets and get their seats. Then one of the two gets up and goes to the bathroom with both tickets. He meets his accomplice in the washroom and hands him a ticket. They then leave in appropriate intervals so as not to arouse suspicion.

Having pulled said scam, John, Ryan, and Will were now leaving the theatre. Will was rigorously massaging his neck – he suffered a muscle-spasm when he turned his head too quickly in freight when a ghostly Mischa Barton, yellowy paste leaking from her mouth, invaded Haley Joel Osment’s make-shift, red blanket tent of solitude. To add insult to injury, Will was unable to conceal aforementioned spasm from John, who, for the remainder of the year, refused to let it go.

The boys, now possessing supreme early-teenage confidence, had no reservations to walking the trails at night. On their way home tonight they came upon their “Witch’s Hut”. John paused. “You can’t tell me that doesn’t look just like the house from the Blair Witch Project,” he said. “I guess,” said Ryan. “Come on, guys,” pleaded Will. “My mom’ll be pissed if I’m not back by 10 again.” “Then go, pussy. We’re going to check this place out for real this time,” proclaimed John, gesturing towards Ryan. Ryan shrugged his shoulders and followed. Exasperated and too scared to walk home by himself, Will followed suit.  They tried to peek through front windows, as Will stood watching from a safe distance. They couldn’t see anything of substance. “Come on,” said John. “Let’s go around back.” Will refused. Ryan explained to him that they needed a point man to stand guard and alert them if anyone, or anything, was coming. Will reluctantly consented. In the backyard the grass stood even higher. With no lights coming from inside the house, and tall conifers blocking the outside world, the space was practically pitch black, save for the stars glowing from up above. John and Ryan stepped onto a small balcony where stray cats roamed freely, reeking of stale piss and shit. Ryan elbowed John, drawing his attention to what appeared to be the decomposing carcass of a large rat. John shuddered, and lurched into a dry heave. Ryan barely controlled his laughter.

They stood up against the kitchen window and could see a table, a refrigerator, scattered dishes, bags, a myriad stacked boxes, and more cats. In the distance, Ryan could see a soft blue light flickering from a small television. He then saw what he thought might be a foot, possibly attached to a body watching the television. He was about to bring John’s attention to this discovery when he heard a voice. “Guys!” Will whimpered. John and Ryan turned to where Will was standing and saw him staring in abject terror at something. They followed his field of vision and saw a figure standing at the base of the balcony, approximately 4 meters away. Draped in a bright red shawl, the details of the woman’s face were concealed in a bush of frizzy hair. She raised her arm and pointed at them. “Sie sind mein Kind nicht!” She shrieked, crying into the darkness, her voice like dry splints snapping in fire. “Peter, wo hist du? Ich habe dich vergessen nicht!” Will took off running, so too did John and Ryan. “Jesus Christ!” shouted John, “she’s casting spells on us!” They all ran up to the top of Riverside and on to Park.

“Are we cursed?” asked Will, wheezing, tears flowing over his cheeks.

“I think she was speaking in German,” speculated Ryan.

“How the hell would you know?” asked John.

“That’s what they sound like in Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.”

“I don’t know, man,” moaned Will. “It all sounded crackly to me. I think she put a spell on us for disturbing her. Now we’re going to transform into cats because we’ve seen her true form.”

Ryan and John fell to the ground in laughter. “She not actually a Witch, you retard,” said John. Will glared in anger. “What was she doing out in the middle of the goddamn woods at night?” asked Ryan. “Who knows,” said John. “And what took you so long to see her coming towards us, dumbass?” said John to Will. “Cat got your tongue?” Will hauled back and punched him in the face. John stumbled backwards and dropped to the ground.

“Eww broch mei yose, eww huching aschole!” he said, his nose a crooked red faucet, pouring blood over his mouth and down his throat, staining the collar of his shirt.

They walked down to Chilly Willy’s and used the payphone to call Ryan’s mom for a ride. While waiting, they devised the narrative they’d tell their parents, hoping to keep this whole witch business under raps. Ryan was now sufficiently adept in the art of truthiness. Will, on the other hand, possessed no such ability, and, expectedly, cracked under the pressure of Parental Interrogation. Unexpectedly, however, he went above and beyond this particular event and told his mother about their theatre schemes; that they sometimes smoked cigarettes; the times they pinched some vodka or beer from their parents; and how he was often an accessory to John’s and Ryan’s clandestine carnal escapades with the girls. Perhaps, having confronted his own mortality, Will needed to wash himself of his sins. Suffice it to say, they were grounded. But first their parents decided they were to go apologize to this poor, old woman.

The next day, Ryan’s mother drove them to her house. There was no telephone listing for her address, so they drove to her house, assuming she’d be there. Ryan and the guys gazed at their shoes as he knocked at her door. No response. He reknocked. Again, no response. His mother got out of the car and also tried unsuccessfully to raise the old woman. “Wait in the car, boys,” she said. She sought out the woman’s closest neighbour. They confessed they hadn’t seen her in months. It was quite normal for Mrs. Epelbaum – that was her name – not to materialize for such extended periods of time so they thought nothing of it. One of the oldest faculty members of the sciences at Memorial University, she taught physics for 40 years, starting in the early 50s. She moved here from Poland but spoke little of her home and family. Still, if one knocked at her door one could expect a response. She was, as a matter of fact, very friendly and very accommodating.

They contacted the authorities to be sure something wasn’t amiss. They boys shook with anxiety. “What if we gave her a heart attack?” wondered Will aloud. A thousand year old stench billowed from the house when the police knocked the door open. The yellowy cloud swirled upward, escaping into the outside air dispersed. Inside they discovered her corpse, most of which was consumed by the cats. The medics later determined that she’d been dead for weeks.

* * *

Kids are nothing if not resilient. The ability to adjust and persevere wanes as we age. The younger we are, the better we absorb recalcitrant experiences and change our gestalts on the fly; our web of knowledge stiffens along with our joints until our purview is rigor mortis. The malleability of a child’s consciousnesses gives him/her a distinct advantage over his/her older counter parts. Of course it makes evolutionary sense – how else could we have change (progress?)? It is only until we are older and our engines stall that we require professional assistance to make all the pieces of the experiential mosaic understandable. Youth has no need for such ad hoc cognitive mapping: this is how the world is, and it’ll probably be different tomorrow. We were existential acrobats when we were young.

After a few sleepless nights and bad dreams, John and Ryan recovered, and, having served their time, returned to their antics. Will, as was expected, took a little longer to come around. He further ensconced himself within the rules of his mother, and rid himself of whatever youthful audacity he may have contracted from his comrades. They learned quickly to perform their ghost story sparingly. Most refused to believe, some ridiculed them, and adults appeared outright disgusted, often bemoaning anti-Semitism in our culture; the growing fetishization of the macabre in video games, and mass media; or the need for greater Adult Supervision. John and Ryan weren’t sure what to make of it all. Will simply repressed the whole thing.

It was the last day of summer now. In 24 hours they would officially be freshmen in High School; Level I’s trying to evade the annual hazing ritual of Paddling. This year, however, Concerned Parents have notified the authorities, and charges of assault or abuse can and will be dished out. Just another example of the previous generation underestimating the next. In ancient Greece, on the island of Crete, boys were made to spend the night in a cave atop Mount Ida as a rite of passage to manhood. There was no light, there were strange noises, and some saw the face of the Old Man carved into the very geography of the rock, whose tears pierced the cavern’s floor, filling the Acheron, Styx, and Phlegethon, until finally congealing into Cocytus, thus forming the four rivers of hell. Vexilla Regis prodeunt inferni. Lips that would kiss Form prayers to broken stone…In this valley of dying stars…In this hollow valley…This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms.


They would spend the day biking around St. John’s, spending time at various destinations. John had to go to Canary Cycles to research a new BMX he wanted for his upcoming 15th birthday; Ryan wanted to go Grifith’s to check out their seven-string Ibanez, which his parents would never conceivably spring for on any occasion; finally, Will chose Wendy’s. He wanted a Classic Triple with bacon, Biggie Fries, and a Biggie Coke. (Indulging his gluttonous lust for fast food was about as far he was willing to stray from his Mother’s Authority.)

The light was fading as they biked up Kenmount, their stomachs heavy, stuffed with cheeseburgers. They discussed rumours they’d been privy to through out the summer: how Tommy Mahr broke his face when he lost a fly ball in the sun; that the city may finally install a skate park; and which girls grew tits over the break. It was virtually dark when they finally reached the top of Mount Carson, overlooking the suburban sprawl of the Pearl. Will had protested this route but John insisted. Ryan didn’t really care either way, but his saliva evaporated nonetheless when he looked over the geometrically daunting drop. They paused at the top and discussed strategy. The key was the traffic lights at the intersection with Topsail, representing the halfway point. If it were red, they’d have to apply the brakes well ahead of time in order to come to a full stop at the cross walk. If it were green, then full speed ahead. It was all about the pedestrian sign. They’d have to gauge whatever window of opportunity it afforded them.

Enough talk. John took the lead, Ryan peddled in the middle, and Will trailed behind. Traffic was held to a standstill as the drivers awaited the light to change. The guys were halfway to the intersection when the light changed. Cars began to roll ahead and the clock was ticking. Their window was now open but it may’ve been too soon. Ryan took his hands off the brake levers, allowing gravity to work its magic and bring him to terminal velocity. He passed John, and sped towards the crosswalk. His eyes watered as the wind backhanded him across the face. He looked to his left and saw that he was overtaking the cars. He saw kids sitting in the back of their parent’s minivan, gazing in admiration at his blatant disregard for the laws of physics and personal safety. He heard the Wu-Tang Clan blasting from a red, two-door Civic tailgating a black Chrysler car-boat crawling through the intersection, breaking before the green light. Ryan maneuvered his bike around the traffic island and out onto the crosswalk. Just as he touched the first white rectangle, the peripatetic Green Man transformed into a prohibiting Red Hand. John was a few meters behind but decided to speed through nonetheless, inducing angry horns from a driver attempting a left turn. Will was forced to stop and wait.

Ryan continued to put his faith in gravity, and slowed only as the hill reached its nadir and parabola’d upwards. He finally stopped once he arrived at the intersection of Park and Commonwealth. John was not far behind. Together they laughed and reveled in the ambrosial alkali-adrenaline of this new experience never before tasted and likely ever again. Will eventually caught up and they set out for home, the thrill of the fresh and new still electric in their bodies.

* * *

cheers,

-B

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~ by braddunne on April 4, 2011.

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