Feeling frustrated with his day, and perhaps the world as a whole, Elijah abandoned his routine and ventured into the woods. He had never followed this trail before, and he had no idea where it would end up. None of that mattered. At that moment, his only concern was moving as far away from everything as possible.
Sweat soaked through his white button up dress shirt and the wet material irritated him. He loosened his red tie, but left it dangling around his neck since he didn’t know what else to do with it. With a laugh, he considered tying it around his head. He unbuttoned his shirt and kept walking. After some time he came upon an intersection. Elijah wasn’t a hiker. Following a cleared off path didn’t take much thought, but now he had six options in front of him. For the first time he noticed dashes of different colored paint on some of the trees. He followed the yellow trees since he liked that color.
Birds chirped. He could hear a steady low level buzzing that was either a sign of some sort of hearing problem or perhaps what silence sounded like. Silence wasn’t a sound he had ever paid much attention to, and he longed to blast it away with aggressive heavy metal music. He reached for his phone to play a song, but nothing was there. He remembered putting it on the roof of his car for a moment, and then he must have left it. He stopped walking as panic filtered through his entire body, and glanced around like something might happen. Of course, he logically knew nothing would. Nothing bad happens when you are without a phone, but it felt like something would. He could trip and not be able to call for help. He could get completely lost and not have a GPS. Could he navigate the woods on yellow paint alone? Then there was the concern about leaving his phone on the roof of his car. Someone could steal it, and what if they decided to further ruin his life by sending prank text messages to people on his call list. What if they said something embarrassing to Kelsey? He shook his head to clear the thoughts out, because he knew they were stupid.
Bright orange called his eyes to the leaf covered earth. “Is that a fucking mushroom? Holy shit! It’s so bright.”
Elijah walked closer and bent down to inspect the cluster of vibrant orange mushrooms. He wondered if they were the crazy drug kind because they looked so fancy with their wavy, flower petal-like appearance. Then he wondered if he was stupid. Maybe he spent too much time locked away in his cubicle. “Human cubbies. Cubicle. Cubby. Lots of little boxes to hold meaningless stuff.”
Elijah sighed. He felt completely meaningless.
“Hola, amigo humano.”
Elijah spun his head and saw a small … weasel? The creature had a dark fur mask around its eyes like a raccoon, but its head was more like a squirrel. Small. It didn’t have the coloring of any squirrel he’d ever seen or the bushy tail. Elijah stumbled back, landing on his butt.
The animal tilted its head to the side. “Bonjour, ami?”
Elijah’s mouth dropped open and he wondered if merely being in the presence of some mushrooms could cause hallucinations.
“Hello?” The animal tried again.
“You can talk?” Elijah’s eyes widened. He leaned forward to get a better look, while still considering that he had completely lost his mind. This might be what a mental breakdown looked like.
“Ah, there we go. Yes, I speak many languages.”
“That’s unbelievable.” Elijah shook his head.
“Not really. I’m a special agent. Part of the job.”
The animal sighed. “I understand. You humans live a sheltered life and take a lot of time to adjust to things, but frankly we don't have the time. I’m going to need you to get up to speed quickly.”
“What are you?”
“A ferret. It is a bit rude to just ask someone what they are though. Better to ask for a name, I’d think. My name is Chaos. What’s yours?”
“Very good. I need your help, Eli.” Chaos stood on his back paws and put his front paws together as if saying a little prayer. His eyes seemed to radiate waves of cuteness.
“How could I help you?”
“I’m looking for a knight.”
Eli laughed. “My last name is Knight.”
Chaos scurried over to him. “You can slay dragons?”
Eli shook his head. “Oh, that kind of knight. Look, they don’t exist, because–”
“Of course, they exist. All the stories say so.”
“Eli, there’s a big mean dragon who has robbed me of my precious hoard and I need your help getting it back.”
“I can’t believe this. Dragons aren’t real. Neither are talking ferrets. What the fuck is happening to me?”
“Eli, I don’t have time for this. The fate of the world depends on this!”
Chaos dug his claws into Eli’s pants and climbed up his clothes until they were face to face. “I told you. I’m a special agent. I’ve been entrusted with hoarding some very important information that will impact the entire world. That dragon stole it along with all my gold, jewels, socks, soda cans, paper rolls, and various beloved gadgets. We must get it back.”
“I can’t believe this is happening.”
“Of course you can’t. Adult humans never believe anything. They claim they have to see it, but even when they see it, they think it’s a hoax. This world is made up of millions of unbelievable things you accept every day. Still, one more is too much. Tell me, Eli, how much of the world do you even see? How do you know what’s possible?”
Eli opened his mouth, but the words fell short.
“Now follow me and slay this dragon.”
“I don’t know how.”
“What if I can’t?”
“Well, then you’re dead and I search for another human. No loss to me really.”
“Wow, thanks,” Eli rolled his eyes, but he followed the dark furred ferret. How could he walk away from this after all? Leave the prospect of seeing a dragon and knowing a talking animal, to lock himself back in his boring little cube? Besides, he figured all this was the mushrooms somehow, and why not have fun with it? Though he hoped he wouldn’t wake up from this trip passed out in the middle of the woods dehydrated, starving to death, and completely lost.
Chaos veered off the trail towards a twisted cluster of shrubbery.
“Where are you going?”
“It’s this way,” Chaos said.
“We’re not supposed to leave the trail. Leave no trace and all that.” Fear pounded like a gong in Elijah’s heart. Abandoning the trail meant even the yellow paint couldn’t save him. Being off trail meant he could really end up anywhere. What if this was a delusion and Chaos would disappear soon?
“If dragon thieves lived right on hiking trails, you’d know they existed and they wouldn’t be able to hide their stolen goods. Obviously, we need to leave the trail. Don’t worry, you have me as a guide.”
Something about the way Chaos said that sent chills pinballing down his spine.
“Hey, where did your name come from, anyway?” Elijah asked.
“Right this way, Eli.” Chaos hopped and skipped into the shrubbery.
Eli sucked in a deep breath of flower scented air and tried to follow. Maybe it was having an animal talking to him and knowing he was on his way to meet a dragon, but things felt magical and this caused him to believe he could walk through the shrub with ease. Then reality hit as he found himself twisted up in branches and screaming as prickers stabbed into his flesh.
“Sorry, I forgot your size,” Chaos called back. “Try crawling.”
Eli dropped to his knees. Branches pulled at his dark hair and one flicked him right in the eye, but he pushed his way through. On the other side, he stood before an enormous cave. “How did I not see this from the trail?”
“Don’t worry, Eli. Humans don’t have the best eyesight. Follow me.”
“Into the cave? Is the dragon right there!”
“No. It’s more of a portal than a cave.”
Chaos sprang forward without any further explanation. “It’s basically a tunnel, Eli. I love tunnels!”
Creeping slowly into the dark cave, Eli wondered how he would see. He ran his hand across the stone wall. It felt cold and damp, then sticky. He pulled his hand off quickly and wished he had his phone. A swirling tunnel of bright neon lights appeared before him. “Those mushrooms are really kicking in now. I get why people like them.”
“Eli, I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about, but you’ll love this. Tunnels are the best.” Chaos raced forward into the center of spinning colors, and Eli followed.
Chaos bounced and hop skipped merrily through the sparklingly vibrant colors. The tunnel stirred Eli’s stomach and he felt sure he’d vomit all over the place, but suddenly they were spit out onto lush green grass. It looked like a completely different world. All sorts of animals roamed freely. Hundreds of them.
“Is there somewhere we can get supplies?” Eli asked.
“Dragon slaying supplies.” Eli shrugged.
“Oh sure, what do you need?”
“I don’t know. A sword?”
“That makes sense, but we don’t have a weapons maker here. We have all we need with teeth and claws and so on. Perhaps we could whittle a spear.”
“And do we need food and water for a long treacherous journey?” If Chaos got this knight idea from a story, Eli figured all the details would be fairy tale like.
“Oh no, the dirty thief lives right in town.”
“Yes. She runs the library.”
“Unfortunately. Would you like a spear or a rock?”
“I don’t understand what I’m doing here.”
Chaos picked up a stick and a sharp rock. “Here. Take both.”
“Won’t the other animals get mad?”
“Yeah, but they’ll be mad at you and we already hate humans so that’s normal.”
Eli turned to see a group of squirrels sitting in a circle listening to a squirrel telling a story. It felt a little odd being the only human, but also a bit nice after a week of being completely broken down by the cruelty of humans.
Chaos slid through a patch of soft grass like a snake, basking in its comfort. “We should take a little break.”
Elijah agreed. He sat down and pulled off his sweat soaked shirt. Then removed the tie and pulled off his shoes. Bloody blisters covered his feet. Chaos drank from a lake and offered Elijah an egg. Not wanting to eat raw eggs, he refused. Chaos chomped them down. While watching a coyote on the other side of the way-too-blue water, he thought of the posts he’d seen online saying animals were better than people. Could he make a pet out of Chaos? It seemed likely Chaos was a lost, stray. Elijah decided nothing was real, except for this lost ferret. He had been foolish to wander out into the woods on a hot day wearing a heavy business suit and not bringing any water. This water here couldn’t help him because it looked too clean to be real. He figured he could be having a heat stroke and seeing mirages like people do out in the desert heat. If Chaos was real and he could help him, then his life wouldn’t be so meaningless anymore.
“You should drink some water, pal.” Chaos said.
“If you say so.” Chaos licked his paws clean like a cat, and then rolled around on the grass.
For the first time in days, Elijah felt relaxed. Like he could lean back and fall asleep with the warmth of the sun wrapped around him and the soft blanket of grass beneath him. Deer, birds, and chipmunks all walked around, seeming not to even notice him, and he felt safe here. “It’s nice here.”
“We should get on with the dragon hunt. I really need a nap, and I can’t rest until my hoard is safe.”
Elijah nodded. He left his shoes, shirt, and tie behind. Walking barefoot seemed better than keeping those shoes on. The animals might take his stuff, but he didn’t care anymore. It all seemed too heavy to carry.
“You’re not looking so good,” Chaos said. “I hope I wasn’t wrong about you.”
“I do have a habit of disappointing lately.”
Chaos wagged his tail rapidly. “We’re here!”
All Elijah saw was a giant hole in the side of a hill. Another tunnel. They walked through. The dirt walls around them were covered in worms and insects. Elijah gripped the stick tightly, and felt the weight of the rock in his pocket. If there really was a dragon, would this be enough? The walls around them vibrated, and he could hear a rumbling sound. His heart hammered quickly in his chest. Suddenly, this all felt like a terrible mistake. Chaos grinned up at him, but those once cute eyes looked a little menacing now. They glew a reddish color. Little fangs popped out of his mouth like vampire teeth.
“You’d tell me if this was a bad idea, right? I mean, we’re friends, right?” Elijah’s hands were shaking. The air felt humid and sticky. Even more uncomfortable than in the woods. Yet chills still lifted each hair on his arm.
“Friends, eh? Sure, I guess so.” Chaos bounded ahead.
Elijah froze. He considered turning back. He was in no state to fight a dragon, real or imaginary. He could run. That was what he was good at. What did he owe to this little ferret anyway? Chaos wasn’t that nice, really.
“Eli?” Chaos’ voice echoed off the tunnel walls. It sounded so vulnerable and sweet.
Elijah gripped the stick tighter and realized they never whittled it into a spear. What was he going to do with a stick? It didn’t matter. Chaos needed him. Chaos was small and had no way to defend himself. Elijah knew what that was like. For once he could do something. He could help. He could be a hero. He stormed forward.
The tunnel opened to a wide room. Books lined the walls, gold sparkled in bundles spread across the floor. Elijah gasped taking in all the stuff.
“What have you brought me, my little friend?” A golden dragon stepped out from a dark corner. Elijah stumbled back. The dragon was taller than anything he had ever imagined. In one bite, the dragon could devour both of them.
“I brought you the human, now I take the treasure?” Chaos stood on his back paws again with his front ones clasped together. His eyes radiated cuteness again.
“You set me up?” Elijah felt tears stream down his face. He couldn’t take any more betrayal. He threw the stick and it clattered at the dragon’s feet. His stick wasn’t even as long as one of the dragon’s toenails.
“It’s nothing personal, friend,” Chaos said. “I was promised the shiny!”
“Yes, you’ve done good,” the dragon said. “Take as much treasure as you can hold.”
Chaos dove into the pile of gold.
“What do you even need gold for?” Elijah said.
“It’s pretty!” Chaos yelled while swimming through the coins and jewels.
“But we’re friends.”
“Yes, sure, friends. You’re a good friend to get me this. I’ll visit you while you serve the dragon.”
Elijah sighed. “Are you going to kill me?”
“Oh no, of course not. I need you to run some tests.”
“Yes, our rat population is suffering from a terrible disease and I think we can use your blood to create a cure. You’ll be our lab human. Think of all the lives you’ll save.”
“Yes, a real hero!” Chaos said while tossing gold in the air.
A part of Elijah still hoped this was all the mushrooms or the heat and he’d come out of this soon enough. Another part thought maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. He’d finally have a purpose. His life could still amount to something.
“You won’t hurt me?”
“We’ll try not to, of course.” The dragon smiled and lowered her head to look at Elijah better. Her emerald eyes glittered.
He didn’t trust the dragon. Not really, anyway. Still, this seemed better than what he left behind. “I’ll help you!”
“Good little human.”
Elijah beamed. He had a friend, maybe two, and a purpose. Sure, there was an uncomfortable twisting in his gut, but new things are always scary.