F Smoking Dragon

Editor’s Foreword

Sure, it’s a nice jacket, but she’s not allowed to wear it in restaurants and bars.

But, she should be grateful the gift didn’t come in a TIME GIFT™ box.

I knew the minute I opened the package that I was in danger, but I didn’t have a clue why.

Wrapped in pale yellow tissue paper was a lightweight, blazing scarlet silk baseball jacket, a black dragon with glowing golden eyes embroidered across the back. It was exquisite, gorgeous, expensive.

And I wanted nothing to do with it.

Tucked into the bottom of the box was a small piece of plain note paper, the message in neat block handwriting. “To my most favored student on her 15th birthday, may you find the dragon within.” Most favored student, only because I didn’t argue with the teacher, Dr. Chee, my mentor, who’d gone beyond the realm of English literature in his efforts to convince me that I was too nonaggressive, nonassertive, and nonargumentative.

I couldn’t debate the truth of his words. He was right. I detested confrontation and had a distinct tendency to avoid trouble. Made sense to me. If the situation wasn’t life-threatening, I ignored it completely.

Even though I screamed my frustration in the privacy of my head.

Still, I didn’t consider it a weakness, simply a logical and compelling way to wade through the daily hassles of life. I felt the dragon’s shimmering golden eyes follow my movements as I started to fold the jacket away.

Impossible.

With a very deep breath and more bravery than expected under the ridiculous circumstances, I touched the brilliant eyes, reassured that they were only embroidered golden strands of silken thread. As though they could be anything else.

Determined not to be spooked and pretending to respond to an inanimate object’s desire, I hung the jacket over the best wooden hanger I could find in my very snug room. If the dragon didn’t want to be folded away in a box, I’d give it a place of honor. I started to shut the closet door, but stopped, my hand paused in mid-air, hesitating even as I pondered my sanity, knowing that the dragon didn’t want to be shut away for the night in the dark, where it couldn’t see me.

Utterly impossible.

But still, not wishing to argue the logic of my irrational actions with the rational half of my brain, I kept the closet door open as I undressed for bed, suddenly exhausted from only a celebratory dinner with my mom, who then went off to her night shift at the hospital.

Slipping a stretched t-shirt over my compact frame, I sorted idly through the pile of mail she’d left on my dresser. Deliberately turning my back on the dragon, I picked up two birthday cards, one from my married sister in Ohio, the other from my father in Canada, both of them far from New York City. The rest was junk that I cast aside in disgust, followed by a magazine I’d never have time to read and another solicitation for a new credit card. Didn’t they know I was only 15? My part-time job at the pet store on Eighth Avenue certainly didn’t make me an eligible and attractive customer. Well, maybe it did, since I couldn’t afford to buy many things in cash.

Releasing a huge yawn, I sank onto my familiar, lumpy bed and turned off the light. My heart nearly stopped. Two golden dots were clearly visible from the direction of the closet, watching me.

Eerily impossible.

I turned the light back on and crept over to the closet, peering inside with great trepidation at the midnight black dragon stretched across the scarlet silk in fighting splendor. What had Dr. Chee given me?

Golden thread, most likely luminous, I decided. Feigning nonchalance and taking a very deep breath, twice, I turned on my bare feet and went back to bed, shut the light, and refused to worry about glowing dragon eyes. They weren’t real, and I needed sleep.

* * * * * * *

I didn’t, however, need dreams of fierce, smoke-spouting, roaring black dragons. Half fearful of finding my tiny room a shambles and burnt to a crisp, I slid open one eye as the radio alarm screeched in my ear. Everything looked normal. The jacket hadn’t moved, simply hung in its place of honor. The dragon hadn’t ravaged my furnishings.

Bleary-eyed, I fumbled my way through cold orange juice and dry toast, took a near-scalding shower to wake up, and let my short-cropped blonde hair dry naturally. I brought the jacket and junk mail into the kitchen, including the ridiculous invitations to apply for a credit card.

A low growl sounded behind me from where I’d placed the jacket on a chair.

Convincingly impossible.

Looking calmer than I felt, had anyone besides the dragon been peeking, I turned. The dragon stared back at me, unperturbed. Black and gold embroidery on a scarlet silk jacket. Nothing more. Right?

I was losing my mind. And the jacket was going back to Dr. Chee. Heading back to my room, I grabbed a clean pair of jeans and t-shirt, suitable first for my job at the pet shop, then an unscheduled meeting with Dr. Chee, and got dressed, shoved my feet into comfortable sneakers, and reached for the jacket, intending to fold it back into the box, out of my sight. I slipped it over my shoulder instead. I hadn’t meant to. Cross my heart. Worse, it fit me perfectly, even the sleeves.

I looked around for my keys, found them pushed aside behind the mail. Straightening the letters again, I found the credit card application in my hand. Without hesitating, without thinking, without conscious effort, I scanned the paper for the customer service number and dialed. A moment more until I heard the voice on the other end, and then I calmly, rationally, and very politely, told the customer representative to stop sending me junk mail or I’d contact every government agency that monitored the company’s operations and put his boss out of business. And then I hung up the phone, stunned.

What was happening to me?

I felt a shiver along my back that made me think the dragon was, well, pleased.

Insanely impossible.

I tiptoed to the mirror and glanced over my shoulder at the back of the scarlet silk jacket. No change. Well, what did I expect? It was silk and thread, not a living, breathing dragon that told me to call the credit card company and give them a piece of my mind.

Right?

Another shiver caressed my shoulders as though the dragon were amused. I released a heavy, resigned sigh. The day wouldn’t go fast enough until I returned the jacket to Dr. Chee. Grabbing my keys, I left a note for my mother and headed straight for the pet shop down the corner. Larry, the owner, had hired me a year and a half ago, liking the way animals relaxed around me. Maybe that’s why the dragon was so–

Ridiculously impossible.

I nearly ran over an elderly customer, goldfish bowl and fish food in hand, in my haste to get inside the shop with other people. Normal people. The store was a little less crowded than usual for a Saturday morning. Though Larry was busy with a family trying to decide on a ferret or a hamster, he caught my eye and waved as I headed toward the tiny employee room in the back to hang up my weird jacket.

I didn’t quite make it that far. The store was chilly, despite the fact that Larry rarely turned the air-conditioner up high, even in the hottest, muggiest, haziest days of summer in the big city. Something told me to keep it on.

I didn’t bother arguing with the dragon.

Coming back toward the front of the shop, I spied two little boys, old enough to know better, poking a sleepy-eyed, frightened German shepherd puppy. I started to walk in the other direction. After all, it was too early to scold the customers. Right?

A low growl at my back startled me, bringing my resigned feet to a halt in the middle of the aisle crammed with turtle food and kitty litter. I glanced around, guilty, but no one else seemed to have noticed.

Impossible. Well, maybe not. Maybe I was having hallucinations. Too much homework, too little sleep, too creative an imagination.

I strode right over to the two boys, surprising them, and grabbed them by their grimy collars. “How would you like to be poked and prodded when you’re trying to sleep?” I demanded, eyes blazing in self-righteous fury. Both boys mumbled nonsense, clinging to each other for protection from the half-mad girl. “If I ever see you in here again, I’ll call the police first, your parents next. And maybe drop a poisonous snake in your underwear. Understand?”

That prompted a “yes, ma’am,” a quick escape into the safety of the street, and a low grumble of, well, approval, from the back of my jacket.

“Trouble?” Larry came up beside me as I soothed the trembling puppy. His customers were now wondering about the possibilities of a guinea pig and turtle.

“Boys. You know how obnoxious they can be.”

“They looked more terrified than obnoxious. I saw their faces.” He matched my grin, brushing thick brown hair from his forehead. “Good to know I have my own store security, though I didn’t think you’d ever yell at anyone. First time I ever heard you.”

“I didn’t, not really. I–”

“Hey, let me see that.” He spun me around, just catching a glimpse of the ebony dragon. “Cool.”

“It’s a friend’s. I’m bringing it back today.” I ignored the blatant grumble of disapproval from my back, not surprised anymore that Larry was oblivious.

“Too bad. It’s beautiful.” He stroked the ebony thread outlining the dragon’s elongated body. “It really is special. Handsewn, I think. Must have cost a small fortune.”

“Yeah, well. But it’s not mine.” I shrugged, glad when his undecided customers finally waved him away, all four pets in tow, along with food and cages and toys. “And it’s a good thing,” I muttered, refusing to acknowledge the unhappy rustle of silk along my shoulder blades.

* * * * * * *

The rest of the day in the pet shop was uneventful, and I headed over to the east side of Manhattan where Dr. Chee lived, determined to return the jacket immediately. I’d never been to his apartment, and shoved aside my reluctance. It wasn’t polite to go unannounced, particularly to a teacher’s home, but I was afraid he’d somehow talk me out of returning the jacket. I had a dragon on my back that needed to go home. And I didn’t want to waste time arguing with Dr. Chee.

Or the dragon.

He answered his doorbell on the first ring, dark eyes smiling in delight at the sight of his most favored student. Though the tiny glimmer of anticipation made me wonder if he had been expecting me. In polite silence, he eyed the dragon jacket, then, “It’s a perfect fit.”

“Yes. No. Can I come in?”

Dark eyes narrowed in suspicion, Dr. Chee smoothed the short strands of his gray hair. “You are not pleased with my gift.”

“I’m–” Confused, bewildered. Scared.

“Come.” He led me inside his modest apartment, neatly furnished with inexpensive and serviceable, but attractive, furnishings. Except for the plush scarlet rug in the center of his living room, an ebony dragon with golden eyes woven into the center of the design.

My heart sank.

“You like it? It matches your jacket.”

“Dr. Chee–” I stood at the edge of the rug, unwilling to walk on top of the exquisite dragon, which grumbled in approval.

Fiendishly impossible.

“It likes you, too.” His dark eyes tried, didn’t succeed, to look innocent. “You have shown respect.”

“You heard it?” I whispered, afraid of his answer.

Dr. Chee’s face was exquisitely bland. “I heard nothing, my dear. I was teasing, making a joke. You looked as though you heard something.”

“Oh.” My face flamed as scarlet as the silk of the dragon jacket. I was going mad, truly. “Dr. Chee, I appreciate the gift, but I have to give it back.”

Two low growls this time, one at my back, the other beneath my feet.

Doubly impossible.

And still Dr. Chee stood motionless, eyes unblinking as he tucked his hands into the pockets of his khaki pants. “It does suit you. But if you don’t like it, then–”

“It’s not that I don’t like it,” I rushed to say before the growling started again and I was engulfed in a blaze of dragon fire. “It’s too beautiful and expensive a gift.”

He placed a hand on my arm. “Wear it a little longer. If you are still determined to return it, then I shall accept it and give it to another.” His dark eyes flashed with disappointment, and I immediately regretted my words. “Though I would rather not,” he added softly, a definite hint of mischief in his eyes. “I think it does suit you. Very well.”

I sighed heavily. “Two more days. I’ll return it Monday night if–” I shrugged, ill at ease, not wanting to insult him further.

“Two days.” His smile was eloquent, and I wanted to strangle my most favored teacher with the dragon’s tail. “That should be sufficient.”

* * * * * * *

Sunday was uneventful. No growling, not even a whimper. The sky poured buckets of rain, a typical spring shower in New York, and I spent the day surrounded by reference books, working on my term paper. Thank goodness my class was in English literature and not Chinese philosophy. I spent the rest of the day ignoring the dragon in my closet, who stayed quiet until the telephone rang sometime between midnight and dawn.

Jangling at my bedside, the phone wouldn’t stop ringing until I’d picked up the receiver, dopey from sleep, and shaken from dreams of black-winged dragons in flight.

“Hello.”

“I’d like a cab to pick me up right away. I’m at 745 East–”

“You’ve got the wrong number,” I grumbled, starting to hang up.

“Is this 646-2222?”

“No.”

“But I called 646-2222.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but you couldn’t have.” Again, I started to hang up, but the caller was insistent.

“Don’t lie to me. I know you kids are lazy. Don’t want to get out of the office and drive over here and–”

I didn’t want to deal with it so I hang up, then kept the phone off the hook. And heard the unmistakable growl of disapproval from the closet. “Did you want me to yell at him?” I shouted at the closet, thinking that I’d truly gone off the deep end. “Well, I don’t much feel like it, so leave me alone.” And tried to sleep, tried to ignore the annoying buzz of the phone lying off the hook, and the golden glimmer of dragon eyes nestled inside the closet, keeping silent watch over me.

* * * * * * *

I was late for class, after finally falling asleep two and a half minutes before the alarm nearly stopped my heart. Fumbling into my clothes, I decided not to wear the jacket, remembered my agreement with Dr. Chee, and grudgingly slipped it over my polo shirt. And felt ready to face the world and confront the bullies.

Laughingly impossible.

I was going mad. “Listen,” I snarled to the dragon at my back. “Let’s get one thing straight. I’m only wearing you today because I made a promise to Dr. Chee. But that’s it. Tonight, you go back to him. And you and I will never have to growl at each other again.”

A faint hint of smug laughter, with an eerie touch of sadness, slid into my awareness.

I grabbed my keys, dumped notebooks into my backpack, and fled to the safety of the school building, right smack into the principal, carrying a ridiculous armful of books that blocked his vision. When I slammed into him, the precarious tower of books scattered across the polished corridor floor.

“Ms. Smithe, why don’t you watch where you’re going?”

I started to apologize, then stopped. “Mr. Wessler,” I knelt to help him pick up the books. “I do apologize, but you should have been watching your own steps. How could you see where you were going?”

He stared at me above the rim of his finger-smudged glasses. “How dare you?”

“I’m only being reasonable,” I explained calmly, stacking the books into a neat pile beside him. “I’ll take half–”

“You’ll take a failing grade this semester.”

Crouching beside the principal, I held his gaze. “I don’t think so. That wouldn’t be fair. You use excuses like this to threaten students all the time. I’m afraid I can’t let that continue.” Getting back to my feet, I towered over his kneeling figure. “And I think the board of trustees will agree.”

I left him staring, mouth ajar, as I fled to the safety of the nearest ladies room. Flinging the jacket off before I could think too much about it, I shook it hard. “That’s it. You’ll have me kicked out of school if this continues. No more. I don’t need your interference. I’m perfectly capable of making my own decisions about whom to confront and whom to avoid.” I shook the jacket once more for good measure. “Do you understand? Do–”

The ladies room door opened, two fearful eyes peeking inside. The wide-eyed student glanced around the room, beneath the stalls, looking for the other half of my conversation.

I smiled with confidence and left her wondering as my reputation headed down the toilet. Steering my reluctant legs back to class, by now inexcusably late, I slid into an empty seat in the back of the room.

“Ah, Ms. Smithe, glad you could join us.”

I mumbled an apology, waiting for a growl from the scrunched up jacket in my backpack. Nothing. Maybe it was listening to me.

Wishful thinking.

Two students in front of me snickered as the teacher made another comment at my expense. I ignored them, waiting for another growl.

Nothing.

Relieved, I managed to pay attention to the rest of the lecture, even contributing an intelligent question in the following class, heading down toward Dr. Chee’s office about mid-afternoon. Just in time to hear voices inside the office, one loud, the other, deeper, softer. I started to turn away, but something in the loud, female voice made me stop and listen against my better judgment.

“If you don’t change my grade from failing to passing, I’ll tell everyone on the faculty that you’re under investigation by the city police for selling drugs to students.”

“But that’s not true,” Dr. Chee protested, his voice restrained. “And you can’t convince the faculty of such an appalling lie. You have no evidence.”

“That’s what you think.” The student laughed, a sound that raised the tiny hairs on my neck. “I know people who can make up evidence so convincing, you’ll even believe yourself guilty.”

I started to walk away, uneasy at eavesdropping, not wanting to get involved in Dr. Chee’s problem.

“It doesn’t matter,” he insisted, soft voice amazingly serene. “I can’t change–”

“You can, and you will. Or you’ll regret it.”

And suddenly, my whole body went rigid with anger as I stormed into his office. “He will not.”

The student, a slender brunette with a contemptuous smile, glared at the intrusion. “Get out. It’s none of your business.”

My smile matched hers. “I’m making it my business. If you don’t stop hounding Dr. Chee, I’ll call the cops and make a witness statement. And then I’ll photocopy that statement and put it on every teacher’s desk.”

“You wouldn’t dare. I have friends–”

“So do I.” I inched up to the brunette, a frosty look in my eyes that made her swiftly edge back, stumbling over her own feet. “Now why don’t you leave, and Dr. Chee and I will pretend you never had this conversation with either of us.”

She didn’t argue, and fled swiftly, all sense of power vanished. In the awkward silence, Dr. Chee carefully studied my flushed expression. I’d been waiting for a growl of approval from the jacket stuffed inside my backpack, disappointed that there was only silence. And yet, I didn’t want it around.

Or did I?

Afraid to break the uneasy quiet that stretched between us, I knelt beside the backpack, unzipped it, and pulled out the red silk baseball jacket. Shaking it out to smooth the wrinkles, I yelped as a sudden heat singed my fingers. The ebony dragon with its golden eyes hadn’t changed. But a thin ribbon of smoke escaped from its mouth.

Dr. Chee arched one eyebrow and smiled with pleasure and pride as I slid the jacket over my polo shirt. “You have found the inner dragon without the outer dragon.”

“Yeah, well. But to tell the truth, I don’t mind a little extra help now and then.”

 

About the Author

Virginia G. McMorrow, author of four fantasy novels from Archebooks Publishing (Mage Confusion, Mage Resolution, Firewing's Journey for young adults, and Mage Evolution, which is coming summer 2005.

 

Where to Find this Author

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