Vernon’s a piece of living shit, and under any other circumstance, I’d cut off my left testicle before forking over any money to support his living. But he’s the only dragon dealer in town.
“Well if it ain’t Joffrey Adams,” Clive Atkintyre calls from ten feet away, before he’s all of a sudden here, and’s got his arm around my neck. “Haven’t seen you in this half-a-town in ages! What brings you by this fine evening?”
This fine evening’s been polluted with rain, soot, and old homeless men peeing on the church corner as if it’s God’s fault, mythical or real.
“Apple pickin’,” I tell him, forcing my arm to visor my head, shielding myself from the rain droplets. “And I was here last week.”
Apple picking used to be common back in the day, or so claims my father. It was like going to a market, or an orchard on a cold Saturday night. You couldn’t cross a street without passing another dealer, or stepping over a young dragon’s tail. Nowadays when people say apple picking, the majority of them really mean it.
“Next left for Vernon’s,” Clive says, leading the way as if I’d invited him.
I shake my head. Clive Ats, doesn’t make for the best company, or even good. But at least he knows what it means, to go apple picking.
Clive Atkintyre isn’t ever really nervous about anything, and it’s one of his worst characteristics. He’d walk you straight into fire without telling you where you were going first, simply because he wasn’t aware there was a need to be afraid. But he can’t seem to get used to the dragons — which I suppose is good.
“I remember this place used to be filled, young lads from all over,” Vernon calls, from his desk in the back. He’s still got his shop set up in a red tent, as if we aren’t living in the greatest time to be alive. He’s probably never even seen the rails. He sucks his tooth, before shoving air out his fat nose. “Everybody wanted a bird before they put those damn trains in. . . Where you gonna fly yours to?”
“Someplace far,” is all I feed him. Giving Vernon more than an ounce, is gateway to letting him scam you. Oh you’ll want the old bird, he knows every route to every place just say the word. Next thing you know he’s dropped dead after you paid, and there’s no refund or exchanges, just another bird for sale. It’s either that, or a sick puppy.
“Are you really leaving town?” Clive whispers, before leaping back from the closest cage, just to bump into the one behind him. Not that either of the dragons did anything more than roll over.
“I’m not going anywhere,” I whisper back. I don’t look at him though, rather I stare at the white scaled beast in the cage before me, hoping he’ll be the one I like the most, for the sake of getting out of here quicker. White scales, red eyes, foul breath, purple underbelly— he’s sick.
“The boys downtown host battles every Sunday,” I tell him, “Winner takes five grand.”
Clive shrugs. “That’s about as much as you’ll pay for the bird.”
I shrug. “If he keeps winning, it’s easy money every week. They said it’s supposed to be a fair fight, so I’m not worried about size. I just need something that can hold its own. Win at least a couple rounds, if nothing else.”
Clive shakes his head. “And if he don’t? Win?”
Clive always knew how to suck the life out of any room.
Without a word I grab the visor of his papers boy hat, and pull it down his face. He stumbles through the new dark, and his back hits the point of a cage, before he’s wailing on the ground, howling like a wild thing, and kicking his starving legs, before he bangs the edge of his toe against another cage, piling on another excuse to cry. I almost think to help him, seeing as it was possibly my fault. But when I turned back for Clive, I noticed the one in the back.
“He’s yours?” I ask, stepping over Clive, and slowly making my way to the back tent. “Personal, I mean. Under your desk?”
He’s an ugly thing, steel black with white splotches and bleeding red eyes, but he’s got all his teeth at the least. I noticed when he yawned. He’d be as tall as I am, if he stood on his hind legs. He’s small for his kind though— but the smaller they are, the quicker.
“I’m supposed to tell you, you don’t want that one,” Vernon says, his gruff voice masking whatever emotion he’s really feeling. He folds his fat legs over his desk, and his hands over his beer belly. “He don’t eat much, and half the time I wonder if he’s sleep or dead. But instead, I’ll tell you he’s three grand and you can wonder to yourself why the deal’s too good.”
“Yeah, I’ll judge if it’s too good,” I mutter, falling to my knees, to examine the beast up close.
The bird opens a single eye, when he smells me getting closer. He rolls it, as if I weren’t worth it. He yawns as if I bored him. His breath stinks, but it’s that of a healthy dragon at the least. If I can get him to eat, he might stand a real chance. Beats the hell out of paying more and still losing in the end.
“Three?” I ask.
“Call it seven,” Vernon says, as if it weren’t he who offered the lower price.
“You said three,” I say, getting angry at the tone.
He shrugs, as he’d obviously been trained by the proper best in customer service. “That was before you wanted him.”
I wonder if he’d act this way, if he weren’t magically the only person still capable of importing dragons in town.
I roll my eyes at the old, balding fat man, and shove my hand down my pocket. Nine grand’s all I’ve got, and I’ve been saving it for something important. This bird better damn well —.
“She would’ve loved that one the most,” Vernon recalls, randomly, and suddenly affectionate at the tone. And when I raise my glance to look at him, slowly rising from my place on the floor. I notice in his eye, that he is neither here nor there. He’s lost completely, in the image of someone gone, long ago. She would’ve been nineteen today, I think. His daughter always loved the little black ones, with white speckles.
“Seven?” I ask, hoping to bring him back.
He shakes his head. “On the house.”
Vernon’s a piece of living shit, and under any other circumstance, I’d cut off my left testicle before forking over any money to support his living. But before I go, I leave the original three on his desk.
“Do you even know what it takes to raise a dragon?” Clive asks, rummaging through my cabinets as if he lived here or had permission.
“Of course I know,” I huff, as if it weren’t a fair question. “We had one when I was young.”
“You’ve got a week’s worth of memory with that thing,” he says, hopping from the stool, and sliding the jam from the edge to the middle of the table. “You’re twenty-three years old now, you probably remember less than I do about that bird.”
“I learned stuff along the way,” I tell him, attempting to ignore the way he steals my rolls, and slices them with his dirty pocketknife, before dipping it in my jam.
I focus my attention on Nameless. He lies on the floor beneath the table, curling into his side. He hasn’t slept in the hours he’s been here, rather he stares at the ground and waits for something to cross his path. So far I’ve figured two things of him, but only one important; I think I bought the one bird in America that won’t eat meat.
“Here, Nameless,” I try again, waving a sausage link beneath the table, nearly pressing it to his nostrils. No luck.
“What if he gets aggressive?” Clive asks. “Putting him in fights is risky business, Adams— plus, his—.”
“That won’t be a problem,” I say. “His teeth are the best I’ve ever seen.”
Clive shrugs. “You don’t even need to battle. Honestly, you seem to be doing just fine with that job of yours. Not many people can say they’ve bought a house.”
Not many people can say they’ll lose it any day now, because their dead father’s debts have resurrected to collect. But I don’t tell him that.
“Whatever,” Clive says, sick of waiting for an answer. He pulls an apple from the far counter, and slices it open. The juice of it, runs down his palm, and leaks onto the wood-boards below us. “It’s your plot in the gr— AHHH!”
I was set to scold him for bursting my ear drums, until I realized the dragon had Clive’s fist fully wrapped in his mouth, and I screamed so loud I nearly fainted. . . Nameless won’t eat meat. We confirmed this when he let Clive have his hand back, slobbered but unharmed. He likes apples though.
In the week we’ve had him, I’ve decided I can’t like him. If not for the fact that Clive hasn’t left since he’s gotten here, then for the fact that when he isn’t finding a new surprise corner to shit in, he’s finding a way to be unconventionally opposite.
He’s eaten enough apples to support a small village, and he sleeps for the majority of the day and I’ve come to realize that Vernon lied when he said he couldn’t tell if he was sleeping or dead as he snores as loud as the train engines. He crawls into my bed at night as if he weren’t accustomed to sleeping on the floor, and his scales are hard and pointed but he snuggles into me as if I’ve got no right to care. Not to mention, that first thing I figured doesn’t seem to be improving or worsening. But it doesn’t matter, as he’s got great teeth, and most dragons these days only have half a rack left. He’s the worst during training.
“Come on, Nameless,” I call, holding onto the chain, as he flies twenty feet over the cliff’s edge.
He’s gotten better at least; the first time, I found myself hanging on for dear life, over the canyon. At least now, he lets me keep my feet on the ground.
“Come on, Archer!” Clive calls, cupping his hands at his lips. “Proud Bird, huh?”
Clive calls him Archer, because I refuse to name him Orchard in honor of the apples. I don’t like Archer either, but, it’s the more acceptable of the two.
Before the start of every round, the dragons spread their wings to show off the span. He hasn’t gotten the hang of it yet.
“Maybe he doesn’t like the chain?” Clive asks.
I watch as the metal collar, clangs around his neck, and the links swing from the sky to my palm.
“He has to do it on the chain,” I say. “It’s the rules.”
“One of the only,” Clive scoffs beneath his breath. “You’re just afraid that if you let him off, he’ll fly away.”
I roll my eyes at him, but eventually his words annoy me to the point of letting him be right— for the sake of getting him off my back. Soon enough, the collar’s in my hand. . . But Nameless is still here, standing beside me. I didn’t expect anything else. But, I didn’t expect that either.
I clear my throat. “Ahem. Alright, Nameless. Proud bird.”
With a swift motion, soon he’s up high in the air, and his wings are spread far enough to touch the corners of the earth.
“Alright, Archer!” Clive cheers. “Alright!”
In the week and a half we’ve had him, his stats have seemed alright from what I know of dragons. He doesn’t have any problems with his wings, and his breath hasn’t gotten any worse. I haven’t noticed any bruising, and his teeth are still good. He hasn’t whined about much, more than me slipping the collar on when we made it to the ring.
“You just have to wear it this once,” I assured him.
I was sure he’d revolt by the time it was his turn, but when they called out his name, he showed off his wings with no problem. I would’ve been proud of him, if it weren’t for the fact that he makes it impossible to like him.
I’ve devoted my every waking moment to this bird, with little thanks given in return, even for a beast. And anyone could say it’s harsh if they’d like— but you try stepping in what I did this morning, just innocently slipping on your shoe.
“Alright big guy,” I say, patting his side twice. “You’re up. Just picture the other guy as an apple, huh?”
Nameless whimpers at me as I slip off his collar, and urge him into the caged ring. Two men with ugly faces, one white and one a sickly green, pull the cage from either side, shutting and shackling it. I ask them if they’ll open it should the battle seem lethal; they said the cage only opens, when battles end, or if a person falls in. They were being jerks, as the cage is ten feet high. The only way a person’d fall in, is on purpose.
Nameless had a good while to himself, pacing his half of the sand field, and growing smaller at every holler from the crowd. His red eyes became big circles, and his ears pointed to the ground, when he turned around to look at me. I felt the pit of my stomach, flop in pure circles, before I remembered this is for dad.
“You can do it, Nameless,” I whisper. Hopeful to convince either him, or me.
“Do you really think he can?” Clive asks.
I want to respond, but I’m deafened to all, but the sound of his whimpers. The roaring crowd, the ringing bells, the squealing of the other half of the cage closing. I can’t hear anything, more than his cries—
“Joff!” Clive yelps, beating my shoulder with his hand. “Joff, what the hell is that!”
“What’s what?” I barely manage to say, before I set my eyes on his opponent. Yellow scales, white underbelly, double heads. Nameless couldn’t even reach his knee if he stood! They promised it’d be a fair fight! That beast is ten times his size!
“Hey!” I yelp to the man, who controls the bell. But he rings it, without giving me a second thought.
“Hey!” Clive yells. “Joff!”
“Open the cage!” I scream. “He’ll kill him!”
“Is it a person?” the bell man scoffs at me.
“Good teeth,” I mumble to myself, biting at my fingernails. “Good bones, strong tail, good speed, great teeth—.”
“Stiff arm,” Clive finishes. “It was the first thing you figured, when you brought him home, genius.”
Stiff arm. . . I hope it won’t be more important, than I originally figured it to be.
The beast paces side to side, shaking the ground with every step he takes. His yellow scales glisten beneath the window lights, and his black eyes lie locked onto Nameless, who whimpers to me. He whimpers to me, and every ring of it circles my lungs, and steals my breath away. He whimpers to me, and before I know it, I'm falling over the other side of the cage, landing almost in the middle.
I catch my bearings, and sprint closer to Nameless, the vibrations of the bigger beast’s steps nearly knocking me over my feet every time. When I make it, I turn to look at the other. He pulls the both of his heads back, cocking them as if to fire. When they lunge forward to blow, I tackle my bird, covering what I can of him with my body.
“Archer!” I scream, before the blast hits. . .
Clive says they pulled us out before the fire could mess up anything more than my arm, and that if I don’t keep the wound clean I’ll get infected and die. When I woke up, I was laying in an infirmary, with a sling around my neck and arm, and Archer sitting by my bedside and Clive too. Archer was sleeping, nudging his head into my side, as I imagine they told him he couldn’t sleep in the bed. But he woke up as soon as he realized I did.
“What are you doing now, genius?” Clive asks, as I bend over the bedside and use my good arm to lace my boots.
“I’m getting out of here,” I tell him, simple. “Apologies are better made outside of a room filled with dying men.”
“Apologies?” Clive smirks. “Well I never thought I’d see the living day—.”
“Not to you,” I scoff. I didn’t plan on becoming affectionate. But when I turn to Archer, I find it impossible to remain opposite, let alone not to smile, and take the back of his head in my hand. I think I still don’t like him. But he is mine, in a way that means something to the heart, more than likes and nots.
“Come on, Arch,” I say, soft and warm. “I think I know a place you’d like.”
Clive called me a softy when we made it to the apple orchard, and if I had two good arms I’d hit him. Instead I lied back to back with Archer, bending my knee and folding my arms, as Clive straddled him to drive. And Archer flew low, so we could get them all; apple picking, as I suppose it was meant to be.