PART ONE: STRANGE MAN
There’s something special about the grass in Oregon, thought Harrison. It doesn’t just blow in the wind, it dances. Mist rises from the river and catches the smell of wine in the breeze, sweeps through the valleys and through the mountains. He took a deep breath and imagined he could taste the Merlot or the chardonnay despite being only seventeen and having virgin taste buds. Except, he reminisced, that he had one time snuck into his dad’s whiskey cabinet on a dare when he was fifteen and sipped from a bottle. He smiled at the memory. It was a memory long past, or so it felt. It was an experience left back home, across the country, with friends more than a call away.
He tucked his knees into his chest and took a handful of the moist grass in his fist. Even two years later Harrison could still recall the gut-wrenching feeling of the future he’d imagined being ripped from him. His eyes closed, locking himself away from the fluvial hillside, letting only the mist and sounds of the water remind him where he was.
“It’s for the best,” his mother had told him on the plane two years earlier. She fiddled with her purse, wobbling back and forth against the armrests as the turbulence unbalanced the vessel. Harrison was leaning away from her, unresponsive. Instead, he watched the flight attendant moving down the aisle with refreshments and tiny bags of pretzels. “It really is,” said Harrison’s mother when he didn’t respond.
“Yep,” he said.
“We have to get your father away from… Well,” Harrison’s mother tapered off, fell quiet for a long moment. “Well, you know.”
“I know,” he said. He did know, but he didn’t understand. He knew his father was spending his afternoons shrouded in shadows, in the company of another woman. He imagined them, his father and his mistress, outlined in black and white against the window of a skyscraper, a lurid cityscape beyond. They were hiding in his office but displayed to the world.
The plane rocked without warning, clouds engulfing the windows. The flight attendant with the refreshment cart fumbled a cup of coffee that spilled, steaming, onto the man for whom it was intended. “What the hell,” he shouted, flicking the newly emptied cup up and away, nearly into the flight attendant’s face. She caught it from the air and began apologizing frantically, as though her life, her very soul, depended on it. Harrison looked away, embarrassed for the woman and wishing that spilled coffee was his own biggest problem.
Harrison’s eyes opened, back in Oregon, with the trees bounding up around him. He inhaled and tasted the breeze once more. The leaves danced like liberated fairies, beckoning him to join them. He wished he could. He wished he could stand his ground, take root and remain as he was when he was still happy and stay there until he was old enough to shrivel up and crumble to dust. But it couldn’t have been: A lumberjack had too soon cut him down.
The pencil in his hand wavered against his small notepad, a fractured poem sprawled across its coarse paper. He pressed the led point against the page, but it remained stationary.
“Harrison? Come on, darling,” called his mother from the road up the hill. “We’re ready to go.”
“Coming,” is all he said, closing the notebook around the pencil as he did. He turned from the trees and the wind that had so willingly accepted him, and he climbed up onto the asphalt, back to the reality of his world. The blue sign their red SUV was parked by read,
Rest Stop Exit
Troutdale – 30
Portland – 50
“C’mon, kiddo,” said Harrison’s step-dad with a grand smile. He had a huge black beard, a thick flannel shirt, and blue-jeans with a belt buckle that said DADDY on it in gold lettering. “If we’re gonna make Portland by sundown, then we gotta keep movin’ along.”
“You okay, Harry?” asked Harrison’s mother, her petite nose crinkled with suspicion. Harrison worked up a smile, one he’d been practicing, and nodded. His mother’s cherry-blonde hair almost glowed in the low sun. It reminded Harrison of the New Mexico summers growing up, the way his mom, and their family, used to be. His smile wavered but remained. “You sure?” she asked in a hushed voice, even though her new husband had already climbed in the SUV and closed the door with a thud.
“I’m good. I’m excited for Portland,” said Harrison. His mother rubbed his shoulder and assumed his words were earnest. They climbed in the car.
“Your birthday is soon,” said Harrison’s mother after a while of silence on the road.
“Next week,” added his step-dad with a pump of his fist. “Eighteen will be great to you, kiddo. Don’t tell your mom;” he paused and glanced at Harrison’s mother in the seat beside him. “But when I was eighteen, I had my first sip of good ol’ American whisky. Maybe we can share the same experience together next year.”
Harrison breathed out his nose, something that might have sounded like a laugh, and continued studying his book, Anne of Green Gables.
“Oh, don’t say things like that,” croaked Harrison’s mother as she slapped his step-dad on the arm. “He might get some ideas. Don’t you get any ideas, Harrison!”
“I won’t, mom,” he said, trying out his smile again. Not much later, they pulled off the I-84 and onto the Steel Bridge. Buildings sprung up around their SUV as though they were cement fists reaching desperately for the clouds, all cast in black and white. Rain sputtered against their windows and dripped down the sides of the skyscrapers to gather in the gutters. Signs hung on storefronts telling every passerby to keep Portland weird. Posh businessmen in felt trench coats rubbed shoulders with people suffering from homelessness and half naked substance abusers. Wide-eyed transients turned in circles, some who would never again leave the city and some who would bask in its cement glory for as little time as possible.
“Say, who’s hungry?” asked the step-dad.
Harrison’s mom pulled her shoulders up in a feigned shrug and said, “I could eat. How about you, honey?”
“Yeah. I’m hungry,” said Harrison, a light flickering in his eyes. Food was one of the few things that brought him joy anymore. “What’s around?”
A half hour later they were in what the locals called a hole-in-the-wall, and a highly recommended one. The menu sported everything from hamburgers to sushi, each time accompanied by a different name like Bellybomb Ham Slam and Down Unda Tuna Thunda. Harrison played it safe with some udon noodles and a California roll. When the food came, his step-dad was on his third glass of bubbling, crimson-brown alcohol.
Harrison distracted himself with the ornate light fixture dangling in the center of the restaurant. It was a collection of red saucers, strung up and angled into the shape of a dragon, or at least he thought it looked like one. Fake candles lit its wings and eyes, illuminating the fiery beast in an orange glow. It swayed slightly, like the northwest wind was even strong enough to move through walls. When Harrison listened closely, he thought he could hear the dragon breathe.
“Quite the architecture,” said a man’s voice beside Harrison. Everyone at the table looked up, first at the man who’d spoken, and then at the red saucers and fake candles to which the man had pointed. “Almost as though its creator had one foot in the world of humankind and one behind the veil, in the world just around the corner.” The man looked down at Harrison and grinned a humorless grin. He was tall and slender under his cheap, maroon suit, with a sharp nose and two different colored eyes. One eye like the high moon. One eye like the rising sun. The man winked his white eye and walked away before Harrison could respond, leaving the restaurant.
“What a strange man,” said Harrison’s mom.
“You mean, what a freak,” the step-dad scoffed. There was a brief quiet before he continued on, shifting his tone down to indicate a change to more serious subject matter. “Hey, listen, kiddo… I noticed you haven’t been writing your poetry lately. Like you used to.”
“Oh,” is all Harrison said. He struggled to find a better response, and failed.
The waitress showed up with another beer before Harrison’s step-dad went on. “Our move to Portland has been tough on you, I know. But I wanna get you involved. Maybe we can get you in a class or somethin’ to hone your skills!”
Harrison, for once, thought his step-dad might have had a good idea. “I could try that,” said Harrison with a smile, one he only marginally had to force.
“Great,” said the step-dad, throwing his napkin down as though he’d scored a touchdown. “I’ve gotta go to the bathroom, babe, but could you call for the bill?” He rose from his seat and pointed a finger at Harrison. “We’ll talk more on the way home, okay?” Harrison nodded, and his step-dad marched off, proud as could be.
“Thank you, honey,” said Harrison’s mom in a hushed voice. “Thank you for trying.”
His mother hesitated, and then said, “I know you miss your dad—“
“No,” said Harrison, speaking over her. “No, I don’t miss him.” He paused, concluded he was lying, and continued anyway. “I know who he is. I know he didn’t want to be apart of…” Harrison trailed off. When his step-dad returned, red in the face and smelling of booze, the bill hadn’t been called yet, so he remedied the matter with a slurred call to the waitress.
Harrison’s mom suggested she drive when they were climbing back into the SUV, but his step-dad waved his hand gingerly. “Nope, I’m fine,” he said. He struggled to pull out of their parallel parking spot, but when he hit the road, he hit it going straight enough. The light ahead glowed green, brighter than what Harrison thought was normal. “I was thinking we could look into something at Portland State for classes,” the step-dad said, looking back at Harrison through the rear-view mirror.
Harrison’s mother looked back over the seat’s headrest, observing her son’s expression. The light ahead turned yellow. Harrison opened his mouth to warn his step-dad, but the lumberjack kept talking, kept driving on. “The northwest is famous for its coffee and its writers, you know.” The light turned red. “I bet we could find some incredible opportunities for a young guy like you. Eighteen, almost. Everything is ahead of you, kiddo.”
“The light,” Harrison shouted.
His step-dad slammed on the breaks. Smoke billowed up behind them and consumed the crosswalk. Horns blared from every direction, one growing more distinct, louder, closer. Too close. The windows shattered and cascaded onto Harrison like glass rain. For a brief second he could smell the wine on the wind again. He reached for a final breath.
The air never reached his lungs.
He was blipped out of existence, the world swallowed up by a deep, cold darkness, and fell into the emptiness, into an eternal void. Silence was the only sound, the only sense. He didn’t attempt to grasp or flail; somewhere in his gut he knew it was useless. He only fell. He fell until, somewhere in the far reaches of the darkness, there appeared a flickering light. It weaved back and forth, circling around itself, moving nearer and growing larger. Slowly, steadily, the light became the shape of a bright red dragon, scales shifting and shimmering, each one alight with fire. Its eyes, one white and one gold, jotted and danced as though to a song that Harrison couldn’t hear, couldn’t even imagine. The beast swirled and twirled around itself until it consumed nearly every inch of the darkness, and then its scales separated, revealing themselves to be only a tangle of red saucers decorated with hellish flames. Like a black hole in the dead of space, the dragon’s mouth spread wide, surrounding Harrison with dozens of razor-sharp fangs and bathing him rank breath. Harrison closed his eyes and accepted this fate, willingly letting the dragon’s mouth snap shut around him, swallow him down, and fly on until it vanished back into the depths of the nothingness.
To Be Continued…
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