Friday, 16 September 2016 20:40

Tonight, We Hunt Dragons by Michael D. Burnside

Tonight, We Hunt Dragons by Michael D. BurnsideThe dragon emerged from its cave with a cloud of smoke, its nostrils trailing flame. It reared back on its hind legs, towering over me by more than twenty feet. Nisha stepped forward. Her blue robe fluttered about her lithe form. Lightning crackled across her hands. She raised her arms and delivered a magical strike. Brilliant light tore into the dragon’s right side. It roared in anger and hate. I raised my sword and charged.

The dragon stepped forward and stomped on my head, killing me instantly.

I sighed and dropped my game controller. Nisha’s voice crackled in my earphones. “Didn’t I just tell you not to charge until I got off a weakness spell?”

I leaned back on the couch and stared at the “You are dead” text on the screen. “Well, why didn’t you cast that first instead of the lightning spell?”

“Because it’s harder for the dragon to resist the weakness spell if he’s taken some damage.” Her smooth voice hid any irritation she may have had. “Do you want to try again?”

I looked at the clock on a nearby bookshelf. Nestled between “The Hobbit” and “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” the clock’s glowing red numbers flashed “12:01.” I rubbed my eyes. “Better not, we both have to work in the morning.”

“All right. See you tomorrow at the fun factory.”

The “fun factory” is actually an independent electronic entertainment and appliance store called “Good Buy.” It’s occasionally visited by angry lawyers from a large national chain with a similar name, but apparently the owner is pretty safe because it’s still in business after ten years. Nisha and I had been working at the store for the past year.

The next morning, Nisha got in before me, as always, and waited for me by the service desk. As I walked up to her, I couldn’t help but take in her beauty. Her jeans showed off the curves of her hips. Her long black hair cascaded down to her waist, complementing the deep blue of the company shirt she wore. Her skin is caramel and her dark eyes are like onyx gemstones that easily reflect light.

She kept her eyes on my face the whole time I approached. She flashed me a smile. “So there’s my squishy knight!”

I put my hands in my pockets and shrugged. “Sorry.”

She chuckled. “Stewart, don’t worry about it. We’ll give it another try tonight.”

I nodded. Not wanting to be creepy by continuing to stare at her, I looked around. A few of our fellow blue shirts wandered the aisles. A small cluster of managers talked amongst themselves near the front office. Early morning customers, waiting for us to unlock the doors, shuffled back and forth outside. Some of them peered at us through the large front windows like we were zoo animals.

I sighed. “Man, I hate this place.”

Nisha rolled her eyes. “You say that every morning. Did you apply for that developer job at IT Pros yet?”

I looked at the floor. “No.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s scary. What if I suck at it? What if the people there are jerks? What if it’s too stressful?”

Nisha playfully punched my arm. “Why are all your ‘what ifs’ bad? What if it’s awesome?”

I glanced up at her. “How awesome could it possibly be if my best friend isn’t there?”

She rolled her eyes at me again.

“Seriously, apply with me.”

Nisha shook her head. “I like it here. You’re the one who’s unhappy.”

“Then … then at least reconsider going out with me.”

She sighed. “Stewart, I told you, I’m not interested in going out with anyone, not romantically anyway. Anytime you want to hit a movie together or slay some monsters online, I’m your girl, but I can’t offer you anything more than that.”

“Because of the asexual thing?”

“It’s not a ‘thing.’ It’s who I am.”

I frowned. “How am I supposed to know you’re not just saying that as an excuse not to go out with me?”

Nisha glared at me. “Because you’re my friend and trust that I wouldn’t lie to you.”

I felt blood rush to my cheeks. I mumbled, “Sorry,” then I hurried right back at the delicate topic because I’m a persistent idiot. “I did some reading. Although asexuals aren’t into … physical affection, some are into emotional romance. Maybe we could be like that?”

“I’m not one of them.” Nisha took a step closer. “Look, Stewart, you need to understand this. I don’t get a tingly feeling when I see Benedict Cumberbatch. Although I recognize that Jennifer Lawrence is beautiful, the sight of her doesn’t make me swoon. So, I’m not straight, I’m not gay, I’m not bi. I didn’t flee the specter of an arranged marriage in my own country just to have a loveless relationship here. The romance and sex thing just aren’t a part of me. I’m okay with that, and I need you to be too.”

I nodded and said, “Okay,” with more conviction than I really felt. I checked my watch and looked toward the front of the store. Some of the waiting customers had their faces pressed up against the window. One tapped on the glass as if her thumping finger could speed up time.

“But back to the job thing, don’t you want more than this?” I asked.

“Nope. I do an eight hour shift, and go home without any worries about the next day. I read adventure novels, play computer games, and pet my cat. It’s all I need in life.”

I smirked at her. “Don’t most novels have a romantic subplot?”

“I skip the mushy parts.”

I chuckled then sighed. “I wish I could be like you.”

She patted me on the shoulder. “Don’t try to be something you’re not. And don’t forget, you have me as an ally. I’ll help you find a better job and a girl.” She pointed at one of the customers peering into the store. “How about that one?”

“The one with curly blond hair that looks like a goldfish?”

“Yeah.”

I shook my head. “You really don’t know my type.”

“Fine. What’s your type?”

“Long black hair, caramel skin, smoldering dark eyes…”

Nisha gave me a slight shove. “Are you describing me?”

“Yeah.”

She punched me in the arm. Hard.

“Ow! You’re really strong, you know that?”

“Smoldering eyes. Good grief. Am I setting fire to everything I look at?”

“Kind of.”

Nisha glared at me.

“See, the heat of that stare is just illustrating my point. And you can’t be mad at me for what I find attractive.”

Nisha nodded. “Okay, fine. But I advise you not to get too hung up on what a person physically looks like. Eventually, everyone ends up wrinkly and stooped over. Looks don’t last.”

“Fine, I’ll settle for any girl willing to smooch with me on the couch as we hunt dragons together.”

“See if you can get one that’s a healer. We need someone who can keep you alive until I get my spells off. "

“Now, you’re asking for the moon and stars,” I said.

An assistant manager with a faded red tie walked briskly toward the front doors. I checked my watch, frowned, and said, “The day begins.” I sighed. “I wish we really did fight dragons instead of working here.”

“Then you’d be dead,” said Nisha. “Being clawed, bitten, and set on fire is easy to handle when it’s happening to your character while you sit safely at home. Besides, real life offers us plenty of dragons to fight. This place is your dragon. You’ll never escape its grasp until you overcome your fear and start applying for other jobs.”

I considered Nisha’s words as the manager unlocked the doors and slid them open. A horde of barbarians poured into the building.

Okay, maybe a dozen shoppers doesn’t really count as a horde, and they didn’t really move fast enough to be very barbarous. How about ... ­ a trifling herd of ill-tempered wildebeests trudged into the store?

I recognized one of the wildebeests. He sported a beard too scraggly to cover jowls that would have been at home on a bulldog. He was slightly above average in height. His body shape indicated he had once had plenty of muscle mass, but it had not been maintained, and was now sloughing off him like slow moving landslides of molasses. He scanned the store and spotted me. His jaw jutted out, and he moved in my direction.

I felt my whole being deflate. “Oh, no. It’s Mr. Barnsbe. Why does that man hate me so much? And why does he keep shopping here?”

“Do you want me to talk to him?” asked Nisha.

I shook my head. “He won’t talk to you. He’ll know he can’t bully you so it wouldn't be any fun for him.”

Nisha crossed her arms. “Well I’m going to stand right next to you then.”

“Nisha!” An assistant manager came running up to us with keys dangling in his hand like Christmas bells. “Nisha, the cleaning storeroom door is stuck again, and a customer just dumped a latte on a keyboard.”

“I need to help Stewart with a customer,” said Nisha.

The manager glanced at me. “Stewart can handle it. Come on, Nisha, you’re the only one that can force it open without breaking the doorframe.”

Nisha furrowed her eyebrows and looked at the manager. “Twist the handle, pull the door in tight, and then give it a hard nudge with your shoulder. It’s easy.”

The manager opened his eyes wide and bowed his head a little. “I can never get it. Please?”

“Oh, all right.” Nisha patted me on the back. “I’ll be right back, okay?”

I nodded but kept my eyes on the approaching wildebeest. Mr. Barnsbe had a slight limp and had difficulty moving through the narrow aisles in the store. I could outrun him easily. I considered making a dash for the backroom, but the image of running from a customer struck me as ridiculous. If I had reached that low, then it really was time for me to move on.

Mr. Barnsbe came to an unsteady stop in front of me at an uncomfortably close distance. I took a step back and asked, “Can I help you, sir?”

Barnsbe snorted and took a step forward. He pointed a stubby index finger at me. “You sold me a cheap stereo system yesterday. The bass on that system sucks.”

I felt my pulse quicken as any hope that this wouldn’t be a confrontational encounter vanished. “Uh, sir, I recall explicitly warning you that the highs and lows on the budget system you selected were merely serviceable.”

Barnsbe jutted out his chin. “You said it would sound just fine.”

I shook my head. “I recall the conversation very clearly, sir. You insisted price was more important than quality and declined to listen to any of the systems I suggested.”

“You calling me a liar?”

I shook my head again, “No, sir but…” No more words came out of my mouth as I realized I was indeed calling him a liar. In my defense, it was because he was lying.

Barnsbe waggled his squat finger at me. It looked like he might have had an unfortunate encounter with a band saw or angry beaver at some point because not all of the finger appeared to be there. It came to an abrupt end right after the knuckle. My fascination with the wiggling stump caused me to miss part of his rant.

“… been coming here for years and all I get is lousy service from snotty pieces of crap like you who think you’re smarter than me. Well, I’m going to talk to your manager and get your ass fired. Go get him and clean your crap out of your locker.”

A firm female voice cut in. “I’ll be happy to get a manager for you to speak with sir, but Stewart isn’t going to be fired. He’s one of our best associates.” Nisha had returned and taken up a flanking position on Mr. Barnsbe’s left side.

Barnsbe turned slightly toward Nisha and took a step back. He pointed toward me again. “He’s one of your best? I’d hate to see one of your worst.” He made an attempt to laugh but it came out as a cough.

Nisha’s stare at him so fiercely I wouldn’t have been surprised to see laser beams fire from her eyeballs. “No one else has ever had any complaints concerning his performance.”

Barnsbe redirected his point finger to his own chest. “Oh, so you’re saying I’m the problem?”

Nisha made no effort to deny the assumption. “Do you want me to find a manager for you to speak with?”

Barnsbe was silent for a moment. I suspect he was calculating how likely it was that any manager in the store would be willing to take his side against Nisha. He must have realized, correctly, that the answer was near zero. “I don’t have time for this right now.” He walked right at me, forcing me to take a quick sidestep to avoid him. As he passed by, he muttered, “I’ll be back when your little foreigner girlfriend isn’t around to defend you.”

The impulse to trip him and send him tumbling into a row of wide-screen TVs struck me hard. I forced myself to take another step away from him.

Nisha put her hand on my shoulder. “Don’t let that guy get to you. He’s just a toothless ogre. He doesn’t really have any power over you.”

“I almost tripped him into that row of TVs.”

Nisha tugged on my shoulder so I turned away from the retreating Barnsbe. She looked into my eyes and said, “Good for you for not giving into that. He’s not worth getting fired and arrested over.”

“I’ve never felt an urge to hurt someone like that before. I’ve got to get out of here. This place isn’t healthy for me. I’m applying for that job at IT Pros as soon as I get home tonight.”

Nisha smiled at me. “Well, maybe I misjudged that grumpy customer.”

I raised my eyebrows. “How so?”

“He’s managed to convince you to actually act on what you’ve been saying for months. That’s something I couldn’t do. Perhaps he’s not an ogre after all. Perhaps, he’s your biggest ally.”

A week later I started my shift at the Good Buy with a smile on my face. I even beat Nisha into the store. As I watched her walk up to me, I realized I still loved everything about the way she looked. I loved her hair, her grace, and the confidence she projected. And I must admit that I still loved her. I loved her kindness and her loyalty. But my feelings of physical desire for her had faded.

Nisha grinned at me. “You look happy this morning. Did you hear back from IT Pros?”

I shook my head. “Not yet, and I don’t think I’m going to get it anyway considering how badly the interview went.”

“Then why the warm, wonderful smile?”

I felt the grin on my face widen. “Because I have heard back from the receptionist at IT Pros.”

“You’re confusing me. You just said you hadn’t heard back from them.”

“I haven’t. The receptionist didn’t call me in a professional capacity. She called to ask me out for coffee.

“Oh?” Nisha put her hands on her hips and smirked at me. “How did that come about?”

I shrugged. “IT Pros made me wait for an hour in their lobby. The receptionist, Mia, was bored and thought I was cute. A fortunate combination for me. We talked until a manager finally got around to interviewing me.”

“Mia … not an Indian name. So I take it I don’t have to worry about her looking just like me?”

I shook my head. “She’s Puerto Rican. She has the long black hair and same skin tone as you, but other than those two things, no, you two don’t really look alike:”

Nisha nodded. “Good. I can’t tell you how creepy my best friend dating a clone of me would be.”

I grinned. “There’s no need to worry about that. There’s only one Nisha.”

“And why didn’t you tell me about this girl sooner?”

“I wasn’t sure if Mia and I would click or not. I waited to tell you because I wanted to see if there was really anything to tell.”

“And there is?”

I nodded. “Yeah, she’s awesome. We’re still getting to know one another though, so I’m going to try and not get over-excited.”

Nisha wagged a finger at me. “Don’t let the possibility of a girlfriend be an excuse to slack off on your job search. You still hate it here, remember? Or do I need to go find the ogre customer to remind you?”

I raised my hands in mock surrender. “No need! No need! My search continues.”

“Good.” Nisha tapped her fingers on a nearby counter. “So, there’s still an important question I have about her… does she play our game?”

“She’s a druid,” I said with a big smile.

Nisha squealed and bounced up on her toes. “A healer class! And you said I shouldn’t wish for the moon and stars.”

I shook my head. “I should know better than to doubt you. Mia promised me she’d be online tonight.”

Nisha grinned. “All right, then. Tonight, we hunt dragons.”

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Michael is the creator of the role playing games Space Conspiracy and World War Two Role Play. His fiction writing includes steampunk, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. His stories have been featured in several anthologies including Fossil Lake: An Anthology of the Aberrant, Fossil Lake II: The Refossiling, and Life after Ashes. His short story, "Exodus from Mars" is featured in the July 2016 edition of Outposts of Beyond. Michael lives in Dayton, Ohio with lots and lots of cats. Read more nice things about him, as well as some free stories, at www.michaelburnside.com.