*This is the first time in a long time I forgot to post early. Sorry. It's particularly vexing since I meant to put up the free short story I wrote for the Knight Agency blog and which is also on my blog right now. It was supposed to be an article about our favorite holiday short story -- only as you guys probably know it's easier for me to write short stories than articles. So, I wrote this. It's set in the world of the Shifters (Draw One In The Dark, Gentleman Takes A chance. The people who frequent my diner got it yesterday because membership hath its privileges. Sorry for not writing an article, but I spent three days painting the bathroom and am now coming down with something."
You shouldn’t cry when it’s snowing. Besides, crying wasn’t going to do me a bit of good. Not on New Year’s Night with a blizzard blowing in low and tight over the city of Goldport, Colorado and turning everything further than two inches from my nose into vague shapes that I no more than suspected might exist.
I abandoned my car on Fairfax Avenue. People say Fairfax is the longest straight street in the western states. Perhaps it is, since it runs from one end of Goldport to the other and clean out of town on the other side. Which makes it a very easy street to follow, even in pitch dark night and under the snow. But not when your car was low on gas and the street was coated in ice.
As I got out of the car, pulling my gloves on and wishing I were wearing my snowboots and not the tennis shoes, I thought mom might have been right at that, when she said dad hadn’t left her so much as he’d left Colorado. You see, my father was a meteorologist, and mom said the Colorado weather had driven him insane being completely unpredictable. You could start the day with eighty degrees and bright sunshine and end up at noon in a hard frost and subzero temperatures. I’d always suspected dad had other reasons for leaving, but now I wasn’t so sure.
I’d left Denver, three hours ago, in eighty degree weather and bright sunshine and look at me now.
Blinking, because it felt like my eyes would be frozen in their sockets, I walked carefully along the street, heading for the sidewalk. There should be a space near the buildings where it was relatively warmer and perhaps not quite so icy. Also there was a chance – okay, a chance in Hades – that a coffee shop or restaurant or something had left its door unlocked. And that would be good, even if no one where there, because then there was the chance I wouldn’t die.
The thought surprised me, because I had been thinking of it in terms of stupidity and annoyance. Stupid, stupid Rya had left home without her snow boots, or her emergency kit in the car. Stupid, stupid Rya had blown past the small towns on the way here without thinking to get her tank filled up. Now the thought came, stark and naked. Stupid, stupid Rya is going to die.
Which stopped my mind from spinning on the track it had been playing since I’d left Denver – how to tell one’s mom and step dad about one’s little embarrassing problem. Particularly when said embarrassing problem is of a bizarre enough nature they’ll consider having one committed?
In the sudden blankness of thought, I patted my pockets, suddenly wondering if I had what it took to survive this, if perhaps there would be a reprieve from my fatal idiocy. This was when I realized my stupidity was greater than it seemed. I’d brought my mom’s jacket instead of my own. Which meant I didn’t have my cell phone, or my lip balm – so I’d die with cracked lips – or the mini candy bar I’d put there after grandma’s holiday party. On the other hand, I had a matchbook, that mom must have picked up somewhere and put in there. I brought the matchbook out, wondering why people even gave them out considering that there was no smoking in bars or restaurants in Colorado anymore. It was black, with a name and address printed on it.
I blinked. The George. On Fairfax Avenue. In Goldport. That didn’t even make any sense. I’d come to Goldport to University, but I didn’t think my mom had even bothered to visit since the first weekend of my freshman year. It was all “Rya, won’t you come home.” And “Rya, darling, grandma is having a party.”
Grandma wasn’t really. She was my stepdad’s mom. Not that there was anything wrong with her. Or with Mark, my stepdad, except I always got the impression that they were more interested in having me there so they could show what a great family we were than in me, as such.
How long had mom been carting this around? On the one hand the matchbook looked barely creased. On the other hand, there were only three matches in it. Right. Three matches.
I found the edge of the sidewalk next to the buildings. I was right there was less ice there, except for little patches there the water had melted and run or perhaps run before it froze. I could watch for those, as I moved along, looking at the numbers. From the numbers, the George was about eighteen blocks that way which, of course, gave me plenty of time to freeze to death.
But hey, I had three matches. I flashed on my favorite holiday story as a kid, The Little Match Girl. My dad had read it to me on Christmas every year, with a bunch of others – which was kind of odd since The Little Match Girl takes place on New Years. Even odder since – as far as I knew – my dad didn’t have anything against little girls, and a holiday story where the happy ending is that she froze to death while dreaming of her grandma seemed kind of strange.
I patted the pocket of my jeans, on the off chance I had anything useful there. This was Colorado. We read about people who survived blizzards on three cough drops and snow melt all the time. Not that my big issue was hunger – even if I hadn’t eaten since breakfast – but more cold. And that... well... I’d just have to keep walking.
I stomped my feet, to make sure I could still feel my toes.
As though in answer to my stomping, there was a weird sound to the right, like a muffled hiss/growl.
“Who? Who– ” I said, sounding exactly like a very enthusiastic owl. The hiss/growl came again. All I could think was that someone’s dog must have got out of their yard, but if that was a dog, then it had laryngitis problems. Scare it away with something flashed through my mind which, unfortunately neglected to tell me what I should scare it away with? My keys? The way my lanky brown hair must be all messy and now getting crusted with snow? The matches?
As the hiss/growl came again, I figured what the heck I might as well try, right? I mean, what was the worst that could happen? I’d use up the match and that would seriously cut down my possibilities of smoking three cigarette...which I didn’t have. Right.
And besides, maybe if I lit a match I would see angels or get a great dinner. Right now an hallucinatory dinner seemed preferable to dying out here knowing how cold and how alone I was. I lit the match as the hiss/growl, followed by a slithery noise, dragged closer. And there, in the middle of the snow stood... I blinked. Okay, I was hallucinating, but this was no angel known to man. It was an alligator. A very old alligator, its hide scarred and marked by past fights.
The thing is that, though it was walking through the snow, straight at me – and were alligators supposed to even be alive in the snow? Weren’t they cold-blooded? Shouldn’t it be comatose or dead or something – clacking its teeth, it didn’t look dangerous. It looked like a happy alligator, out for a jaunt. Like... something out of a live animation movie about animals who move to the city, or perhaps what happens to discarded pets.
I blinked, but he didn’t suddenly sport a little jacket or a jaunty bowler hat, so I was at least not that far gone. Or perhaps he – for some reason I was sure it was a he – was real.
The idea had me backing up, feeling tentatively with my feet, till my back hit a street lamp and I stopped. “Please don’t hurt me,” I said, as the match burned down towards my fingers. “Please don’t... I’m not... I’m only out here because I couldn’t explain to mom I was a shape shifter. I kept trying to tell her, and she kept asking me if I was gay.” My fingers burned, and I dropped the match, and it was all dark again, except for the snow swirling around. I snorted, a snort half laughter-half panic. “As if that would be such a big deal today. But how do you say Dear mom, I thought I was dreaming of turning into a fox, but my roommate told me she’d seen a fox, and dear Lord, it was running in the gardens, where I’d dreamed of being. And then I started following footprints in the snow, and I think I am a were fox. My mom would have me committed.” From the darkness came a clack-clack that could be the alligator’s mouth opening and closing. “And then I had to storm out, with nothing and without filling the gas tank. Because I didn’t know how to talk to my mom. I am so stupid.”
The clacking of teeth somehow seemed like someone saying tut-tut, and then the alligator’s nose was so near I could see it, despite the darkness and the snow. He... sniffed delicately at my jeans and my shoes, and then looked up, his eyes contriving to look very amused and strangely human. Right. Now I was going nuts.
Fine if it was going to bite me, it could bite me as I was walking towards the more populated areas of town. I thought around that address on the matchbox there were apartments. Someone was bound to find me, right?
The alligator didn’t try to follow me, as I walked on, which was good but also, inexplicably, felt really lonely. Yeah, because you know, a girl and her gator was infinitely better than being alone.
I walked another three blocks, and it felt like my head was going to freeze solid by then, when I heard a weird flapping ahead and a little to the left of me. It sounded like someone was flapping sheets in a really high wind. And while the wind was there all right, the only thing blowing around in it were snow flakes. I tried to see ahead and could see nothing, and reached for my matchbox, because maybe these were magic matches, since they could scare away gators. if I hadn’t dreamed up the whole thing.
I paused, and tried to light my match, then realized there was a parking lot to my left – leaving a space without buildings, but somewhat sheltered, since the parking lot was bordered in warehouse walls on all three sides. I lit my match, then looked up.
The snow was less thick here, and the match did give a good amount of light.
None of which explained what I saw. I’d almost have preferred angels.
Right in front of me, looking like it had just alighted on the parking lot was a dragon. Not just any dragon, no. It was a red Chinese dragon, cute lion face and all.
Okay, I thought as I blinked at it in the light of my match. I’ve gone completely around a bend.
I registered that it was holding something in its right paw. And then it started coughing. I couldn’t move if I wanted to. The match burned towards my fingers, as it coughed and spasmed. it looked like what it felt like when I transformed into the fox. But... a dragon? Dragons didn’t exist, did they?
Of course, neither did shape shifters.
As I dropped the match, I could barely see the naked young man in front of me. Which was probably good, as he seemed to be trying – simultaneously – to cover his privates and put his clothes on.
I had glimpsed enough to see he looked Chinese and about my age. He had a red dragon tattoo on his arm.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice an unexpected surprise as not only did he lack any foreign accent, but he had a southern drawl thick as corn bread and slow and molasses. “Did I scare you? I didn’t mean to. Only old Joe called and said you were one of us and you were lost in the snow.”
“One of... one of ... us?”
“Yeah, a shape shifter,” he said.
“I’m not a dragon!”
He smiled. He was now dressed and very close, and he had a sweet smile. “No,” he said. “Dragons rarely get caught like this in storms. We fly. But Old Joe said you needed help. Where do you need to go? I’ll shift again and give you a ride.” The smile again. It was impossible not to trust him when he smiled like that.
I thought about it. My dorm would be good, but it was in the middle of campus, and someone would see me arrive on dragon back. I took the matchbox out, “I wonder,” I said, speaking as much to myself as to him, “If the George has a parking lot where no one would see you land.”
He blinked. “The... Why the George?”
“I don’t know. My mom had this matchbook with the address. I just found it in her jacket pocket.”
He gave me a half-evaluating half-puzzled look, then smiled. “The George it is, then. If you’ll just let me change...”
Modestly, he stepped just far enough away from me that he could shape shift without my seeing him naked, which was reassuring. Then the coughing started, and the sort of odd sound that suggested flesh being compressed and twisted and... a red dragon walked through the snow towards me. When it scrunched its face and let down its wing, it looked exactly like the young man’s expression when he smiled. I climbed the wing, carefully, hoping not to hurt him, and sat astride him then, because he seemed to be waiting for something, and because dragons – apparently – don’t come equipped with seatbelts, I leaned forward and wrapped my arms around his neck.
It was oddly intimate, but also very warm. Blessedly warm. I had to fight to keep awake, it was so... cozy and also because the relief of being rescued hit me.
In almost no time, we were flying over a diner. I could see even through the snow, a neon dragon flipping pancakes, and neon letters proclaiming The George.
My dragon friend flew over the dragon, to a parking lot at the back and let me down. I went around the front door which – surprisingly – was open. And the George was lighted and filled with groups of people. A young man with long dark hair, tied back, was at the grill. He turned and gave me a curious look as I came in, but I didn’t care. I was so exhausted. Of course, I didn’t have any money, but perhaps they’d just let me sit down and make a phone call.
I collapsed into a seat and closed my eyes and next thing I knew, I heard the southern drawn, “Kyrie this is the young woman that Old Joe called about.” I opened my eyes to look into the familiar face. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I never even asked your name.”
“Rya Stevens,” I said.
“Ah. I’m Conan Lung,” and then as though he feared I’d laugh, “My parents used comic books to study English. They thought it was a good American name.”
“Sounds like a lovely name. And you were a hero. I mean, you rescued me.”
I swear he blushed bright red. “Oh, it was nothing.”
The young woman he had introduced me to – Kyrie – grinned at me. “You poor thing must be frozen. Relax and I’ll get you coffee. Do you want a clam chowder?”
“I don’t have any money on me. I–”
“Oh, never mind that, we’ll just get you warmed up. You can pay some other time.”
She bustled away and Conan said, “that’s Kyrie. She and her boyfriend Tom own the diner.” I felt ridiculously relieved she wasn’t Conan’s girlfriend. Like I had some claim on him, or something.
“You said Old Joe told you about me?” I said.
“Yeah.” And at my look. “Alligator shifter. He said you were nice.” The blush came again. It was fascinating. I’d never met a man who blushed like that.
To stop staring at him, I looked around the diner. So many people, and none of them seemed very interested in us. In the next table over, there was a man scribbling in a notebook. He was probably fifty and he had... I stopped. He had hair exactly the color of mine. And I knew him. Oh, I hadn’t seen him since I was five, but a girl knows her own father.
“Dad,” I said.
He turned around, and he was dad. His mouth dropped open. “Rya!”
“You... did your mom tell you where to find me?”
I shook my head. “My mom knew where to find you?” She’d told me he’d left the state. She’d told me he never wrote.
He nodded and frowned at me a little, then squinted. “Are you... the one they called about?”
“So you’re one of us?”
“Us?” That again.
“Most people who come to the diner, and all here today are shape shifters. This is our safe place. The owners are shape shifters too. You... shift?”
“Fox?” he asked.
“Your mom was afraid... she wanted me to leave. She made me leave and she told me never to contact you or she would... She has pictures. I didn’t...”
“Oh, dad,” I said.
Later on I said a lot more, as we talked over the sixteen years of my life he’d missed. He’d been living in Goldport all along, but mom hadn’t told him I’d gone to college there. Now I understood why she’d tried to convince me to go to UC Boulder – because Dad was living in Goldport, retired and writing a novel. She’d been trying to convince him to move. She’d met him at the George just last week.
“Well,” I said. “She won’t want to ruin me and herself by implication. I mean, she’s my mother.” Though she might cut me off completely now she knew I too was a shape shifter. But I didn’t care. It wasn’t like I’d be left without any family now.
When the chowder came, I noticed there was an unlit candle on the table, and I struck my last match and lit the candle from it.
This time, the story of the little match girl did have a happy ending.