The boy followed as closely as he dared, two full steps behind every shambling step forward the old man took.
“Easy, easy now,” said the old man, muttering to himself and not speaking at all to the boy. “Almost there.” His sour breath tinged the night air, already made foul by the stench emanating from the drenched earth that squelched under their feet. “Easy peasy.”
The boy nodded. His body ached, carrying his burden. His heart raced, chest pounding against the burden as he steeled himself against it. He kept his eyes down. He dared not misplace his steps. The old man had a reputation.
Somewhere in the near distance, a truck rumbled past, sending debris flying in the wake of its gigantic, steel-belted tires. The truck’s cargo (pigs to the slaughter by the smell of them) remained eerily silent; creatures who had no doubt accepted their fate, or perhaps were merely struck dumb by the fact of it.
The boy shuddered at the thought.
They walked on, a meagre procession of two, just beyond an overstuffed berm that obscured them from view. The moon had waned during the past few nights, and on this night the sky conspired with them, obliterating all traces of celestial light behind thick black clouds that roiled over the sleeping town like a nest of sewer rats. A few fat droplets fell upon their heads. The boy dared not wipe at them.
“It’s like I keeps tellin’ ‘em! I keeps tellin’ ‘em, storm waters be the best waters! Mark my words. Or am I wrong?” preached the old man.
The boy drew a breath but found it impossible to coax his voice from his small body.
“Hurry up, boy!” barked the old man, indicating that the boy should follow and not speak. The question was not for him.
The ground oozed under their feet, an undulating landscape rife with tall weeds, broken glass, discarded plastic bags and dying, spindle-like trees that clung to the undergrowth. The boy often glimpsed this place as he was driven past it: the trees were always dying. His sneakers were soaked through. His feet were damp and cold. His arms throbbed with a pain he’d never before experienced.
He did not complain.
The old man reached the water’s edge–an oblong, misshapen pool that was set offside from the dark expanse of highway which ran just above their heads–and stopped. He stood there a while, breathing heavily, buckled slightly at the knees. Unsure of what to do, the boy stayed well behind, clutching his burden, careful not to let it slip lest the old man swoop in and snatch it away from him.
“Well? Come on then!” snapped the old man, outraged, as if he somehow gleaned the boy’s thoughts.
But with the moment nearly upon them, the boy found that he could not move. It seemed natural, it seemed right not to move, to stay exactly where he was, at some critical distance away from the old man.
The old man, however, had lost whatever little patience he had left. He lunged toward the boy and grabbed him roughly by the scruff of his neck. “What’s the matter with you, boy? Won’t come when you’re called? Refuse to hear me, do you? Eh?” The boy didn’t even struggle, only remained limp in the old man’s grip and did his best to avoid the old man’s yellowed, bloodshot eyes.
And just as suddenly, the old man let go. “Ungrateful, useless whelp, you are! It’s a bloody disgrace! You.” He shuffled back to the pool. “Useless!” He spat.
The old man’s disgust finally shook something loose from the boy, drove him back to focussing at the task at hand. Slowly, he pointed to the depths of the dark waters. “Now,” he said. “It’s time.” His voice, unsure at first, finished strong, clear.
The old man shuddered and staggered back, forced at last to confront the enormity of what was being demanded of him. It was monstrous, what the boy wanted. But a deal’s a deal. He was bound.
He was, after all, indebted to the boy, was he not? Or would be. For what he was about to do, and for what would follow.
“I’m giving you what you need. You give me what I want,” the boy continued.
The old man sighed. “Pass me the burden then, boy. Let’s be quick about it.”
Adults are selfish beings. Children even more so. What saves children from the much greater transgressions and depravities of grown-ups is their sheer corruptibility.
The capacity to unravel a lie and spin it into truth, to discern the real and unreal in their myriad permutations and attributes…there’s a certain magic to that. One, of course, that is not limited to children, but which imbues children especially with the propensity to bring about that which otherwise could not, would not, should not be.
To see such things, first. Then to act, indulge, and be consumed.
Impossible things, great and small. Wonderous and terrible.
Things that lurk. Things in waiting.
Faraway lands and enchanted kingdoms. Glorious victories and impossible defeats. Treasure beyond measure, or reason. Elves, witches, kings, and talking bears. The Bogyman. The Tooth Fairy. The Devil and Santa Claus.
It is a sin to lie to a child. The old man knew it was so.
But just as children could be led astray, adults too fell by the wayside, didn’t they?
The old man’s time was nearly past. Yet, he foolishly held on, desperate, if not for an escape from the inevitable, then at least to secure a reprieve from it.
The old man did not care to ever know where the children who came to him had come from. He never guessed at their ages or asked their names. He simply took them to the places where dream and nightmare alike peeked through the pockmarked skin of the everyday. Places others had the privilege (and ignorance was a most powerful privilege) of denying (however fleeting that particular freedom might be). Being a parasite had become second nature to the old man. He had become, he knew, a bloodsucker, a leech, a great, insatiable louse. He was unwell, scarcely pitiable, barely alive.
Still, like all fools, he was proud: he resisted as much as he was able before his inevitable surrender. Not that the boy noticed, or cared.
The boy, indeed, knew exactly what he was doing. Had learned it, in fact, from Holly Tran, a girl at his school but not in his class. Holly Tran was a year behind him, but at least two years older. She knew things about the world beyond childish boundaries and all its twisted inheritances. About things that cannot die, no matter how many times they’ve been killed. About why certain things worked, and why they didn’t. About the fact of burdens–how to amass, cultivate and, finally, parlay them. Turn them into greater things than themselves. And for what, and for whom.
Such things Holly told others, for a price. Where Holly had learned it, only Holly knew.
The sky above them rumbled and loomed, eager, impatient.
The old man stepped forward, toeing the water with his boot. “Watch,” he said to the boy. From deep in the pockets of his tattered coat, he grabbed a foul-smelling bundle wrapped in a spotted handkerchief. Carefully, he peeled open the stained fabric with gnarled forefinger and pared thumb. Inside, the boy saw chunks of fleshy maroon and bruised puce.
“Chum.” The man grabbed a handful and scattered the offal remains into the water, not far from where it lapped languishingly against their feet.
A car with a single working headlight reeled past on the road overhead, thick fumes blanketing the pavement as it sped on.
Fear, then a kind of piercing exhilaration gripped the boy as the first bubbles broke the surface, the water rippling with the heaving bodies of unknown numbers. Dozens, hundreds or thousands. It did not matter.
It didn’t take long. One by one, in groups and then in droves–in masses–came the fish. The old man and the boy watched as murky liquid turned a riot of gold, red, black and white interspersed with orange, yellow, brown. Tails cut through the water, fins stabbed the air as the bodies churned the murk it into a frothy mess from which unblinking eyes glared at them like ungodly spotlights.
Poor abandoned creatures. Tossed away by those who had once been so enamoured by their charms, by the prettiness of their hues and underwater acrobatics. All of that now rendered grotesque. Life in the storm waters had caused the fish to grow massive in size and to swell into ungainly, ugly shapes; living testaments to excess and waste. Yet, they refused to die. Death was but a dream to them now, a luxury.
The old man threw another handful of chum into the water, only this time closer so that the fish surged into the shallows where water met land, frantic to feed.
The boy searched. Long moments passed in which all that could be heard was the thrashing of the bodies and water and the pop-pop-pop of mouths…so many open, toothless mouths. Gaping, searching.
The old man grumbled, muttered something about running out of bait but said no more, knowing full well that the boy would not be rushed.
Finally, the boy pointed. “That one.”
“Right-o,” said the old man, allowing the words to sweep through the side of his mouth. “Move,” he growled, roughly pushing the boy aside. The old man planted his feet and bent low, so that his face hovered dangerously over the ravenous fish. He then stuck out his fist, smeared as it was in blood and pulverized meat. He waved it in front of the boy’s chosen monstrosity–a truly gargantuan brute, even among the aberrations before them.
“Come on, then,” hissed the old man. The fish hesitated (one beat, two) then snapped out of its stupor, leapt up and clamped down, hard, eliciting a series of screams from the old man, who gritted his teeth and bore down. He nearly failed in his efforts; was pulled knee-deep into the water before he managed to fight back, re-grain his footing. They struggled in strangled silence. The boy prayed.
Finally, with the last of his strength, the old man braced as the fish launched itself out of the water, into the air, and then–still dragging the old man along–slammed its bulk on the ground, pounding upon the earth and scattering rocks with an audible SMACK!
The old man wrenched his arm free and dragged himself away, cursing loudly, leaving the boy on his own to contemplate the fish. The fish struggled, then stilled, as if taking a moment to absorb the circumstances of its miraculous rebirth. The boy watched it, transfixed. It was all Holly Tran said it would be; it was just as he knew it must be, and he stood there, elated.
“Mine,” the boy whispered reverently to the creature. “All mine.”
There was certainly an horrific beauty about the whole, accursed affair that could not be denied: shining scales the size of subway tiles; a glittering golden veneer slung over steadily metastasizing flesh that peeked out from under the edges of each scale like a series of hideous soufflés; rolling eyes that sat engorged on a bloated face; feelers thick as bull-whips. And more.
So much more.
For the creature’s neck and tail had already elongated, fine and sinuous; its four wide fins each spilt into five-pointed paws. Already the bull-whips were joined by twin horns that poked out tentatively from the top of its head; already the creature’s eyes became more focussed, more aware, as they shifted, facing forward rather than out from the sides. There was a fringe of fur growing along the nascent jawline. Ears, curiously soft, that budded from just behind those demon eyes. A mouth full of fierce teeth. Even the old man stared on in awe.
“Beauty,” he whispered. “Soon won’t even be needing the water anymore.”
The boy knelt and ran his hands over the creature’s quivering sides. He paused as its belly hardened into impenetrable armour. He grinned, watching as it struggled to steady itself on its fledging limbs. Soon, they would taper into razor-sharp talons. Soon, it would walk, soar all on its own.
His perfect beast. His Golden Dragon.
The old man was curious, despite himself. “What will you do now, boy? And how will you do it?”
But the boy had forgotten about the old man, had purged him from his mind.
The boy’s face began to sag a little more. Fine, indeterminate lines etched his formerly flawless, baby-smooth skin. His back slouched, his shoulders slumped, and not just because of the weight of the prize now slung over his back, precious treasure that it was.
The old man watched him go, then turned to leave–leave the boy, leave this forsaken place. Until another time, and then it would be just as before. For now, though, there was a bounce in his step he’d not felt in ages. His joints obeyed his whims with uncomplaining ease. The rattle in his chest was gone. His eyes and nose ceased their relentless watering.
He was tempted for a moment to look back after the boy. But then he just shook his head and, finally, smiled. The sudden exposure of his teeth to the open air sent a jolt of pain through his jaw and he quickly snapped his mouth shut, cursing himself.
The price was heavy, the changes to be wrought (in fact, being wrought; in fact, already wrought) by their exchange was irreputable. But he had agreed, hadn’t he?
A deal’s a deal.
Nothing more to be said or done about that.
In the end, he wished the boy luck. For both their sakes.
BIO: Cindy Phan lives on the outskirts of Toronto with her partner and their tiny son. She writes about the everyday fantastic, in which the boundaries between the tragic and the absurd shift, merge, transform and misbehave. Her fiction has appeared in Ricepaper Magazine, the Astral Waters Review and Augur Magazine. You can read more of her work on her website, besidealife.com, or find her on Twitter @besidealife.
The chinese dragon line-art clip art was sourced from here.