Noah’s Boy – Snippet 15

“And what is with Conan’s thing?”

“You’re not going to forget that, are you?” Tom asked, turning out of the parking lot and into the bumper to bumper traffic on Fairfax Avenue, the street that crossed Goldport from one end to the other.  He headed west on it, and traffic cleared after the warehouse district.

“No.  It’s something with the diner.  And you’re not supposed to do anything with the diner without telling me.  Is he having a party or something?”

Tom shook his head.  “No.  You know Wednesday is our slow night, right, so I thought there would be no problem at all with letting him sing.”

“What?  Tom!”

Tom sighed.  He’d known for the last few months that while Conan was a decent waiter and could hold down the fort when they were needed elsewhere, Conan had ambitions beyond food service.  Having grown up in NashvilleTennessee, where his parents owned a Chinese restaurant, he wanted to be a country-western singer.   “He can’t be that bad,” he mumbled.

“How do you know?” Kyrie asked.  “We have never heard him sing.  And he couldn’t have practiced the guitar in the time he’s spent re-growing the arm he had ripped off.  He could be absolutely horrible.”

“Well, Wednesday is our slow night,” Tom said.  “If he’s absolutely horrible, we only let him do one song.  But he wanted to sing in front of an audience, never having done that before, and he asked, and –“

“And you have no ability to say no?”

“I don’t see what it could hurt.  Remember the coffee shop down the street has really bad poetry readings?  They still bring people in.”

“Yes, but… if you have really bad singing, that makes people go out.”

A sound like a snuffle from behind them, made Tom look in the rearview mirror, to see Bea hiding her mouth, her eyes filled with amusement.  “You find us funny?” he said.

“It’s just that… are all shifters like this?” she asked.  “Do you live in communities that behave like families?”

“No,” Kyrie said.  “I suspect most shifters in the world are all alone, and don’t know anyone like them.  We have two things that make us different.  One of them is that at some point someone — we’ll tell you the story another time, if you must hear it — sprayed the entire area around the George with pheromones that attract shifters from hundred of miles round.  The other is that –“

“The Great Sky Dragon has at least temporary headquarters in town,” Tom said.

“No,” Kyrie said.  “I don’t know why he has that, but I know –“

“Because you’re his heir,” Bea said.

“What?” Tom said.  He couldn’t have heard the words right.  She’d said it so naturally, it was as though it were something obvious.

In the rearview mirror, he saw Bea’s eyebrows arch over the bright green eyes.  “You didn’t know that?” she asked.  “That’s why he wanted me to marry you.”  In a hurried voice she told a fantastic story of the successor of the Great Sky Dragon having to be a male, who could shift — apparently it wasn’t a given all of his descendants could — and who was descended on the male line unbroken.  Tom was actually descended from the Great Sky Dragon’s son, Bea said, shrugging, on both sides, the male line broken of course by his mother on one side.

“It sounds … inbred,” Tom said.  “And neither of my parents is even slightly Chinese.  Dad is of Swedish ancestry, and I think most of mom’s ancestors were French, though I’m not sure now why I think that.”  He added, as explanation.  “She left when I was a kid.”

“Oh,” Bea said.  “But this would be thousands and thousands of years ago.  I gather the Great Sky Dragon is near immortal.”

“Which begs the question of why he needs an heir?”

“Because he says something is coming that might kill him.”

“Irrelevant, since I don’t intend to lead a triad, even if they obeyed me, which I doubt.  But… so that’s why he’s taken an interest in me.”  Tom was now driving out of town and into the country expanses of I25, with unlit fields on either side.  “Would you watch out for the turn to Goldminers Road, Kyrie.  Otherwise I might miss it in the dark.”

“Yes.  But what you said about The Great Sky dragon has nothing to do with the community of shifters around the diner.  What makes it… well… a coherent group, instead of just a bunch of unrelated people — what makes us work together and cover for each other, and… care for each other is Tom.”

Kyrie said it so convincingly it was no use Tom laughing.  Instead, he said, “I’m not some kind of saint.”

“No.  You’re just a natural leader — and you care about people.  It’s one of those natural things.  You either have it or you don’t.”

“Maybe that’s why the Great Sky Dragon thinks –” Bea said.  “I mean –“

“Irrelevant.  As I said, I have no intention of leading a triad anymore than you have any intention of marrying me.”

“No.  Of course not.  It’s just… mind what he did to me,” Bea said. 

“Oh.  Yeah.  I expect he’ll be trouble,” Tom said.  “And that’s nothing new.”

“Goldminers on the right, Tom.  Exit.”

* * *

Bea sat quietly.  She was starting to get, if not a clear idea of what was happening, a suspicion that she might get a clear idea sometime.  There was… sort of a shape of events forming in her mind, and she wasn’t sure what they were.  But there was a sense of a pattern.

Tom took the exit off the highway, onto a narrow street, and from that onto a dirt road.  The narrow street was flanked by trees and the dirt road traveled amid an expanse of rocky ground covered in what appeared to be low, thorny bushes.

Tom pulled over to the side and parked the van, then left.  He stepped out of the circle of the headlights, and for a moment Bea wondered why, then realized that it was so he could undress — presumably in respect for her modesty.  Meanwhile Kyrie moved over to the driver’s seat.  A few minutes later, Tom emerged into the headlights.  No.  Tom’s dragon.

His scales glistened blue-green in the light, and it was impossible to believe that this was the same young man who’d been talking to them and driving moments before.  Impossible, that is, until he turned to look at them and she got a good look at the dragon’s blue eyes which were, very reassuringly, Tom Ormson’s.

She wondered how much knowledge of their human self other people retained while in shifted form.  She’d never known anyone else who shifted, never had a chance to ask.  She just knew that her control over who decided where the dragon went had improved over the years.  When she’d first shifted at fourteen, she’d hardly known what she did when she was the dragon.  Later, there had come memories of her actions — as if in a dream — and by the time she was sixteen, she could control the dragon to some extent.  Now she could control what the dragon did, and she could even — most of the time — avoid shifting when she didn’t wish to shift.

But she wondered if everyone else was like that.  Clearly Tom Ormson was.  But was that normal or just part of being a descendent of the Great Sky dragon?

“Okay, here we go,” Kyrie said, as Tom took to the skies, unbelievable in his look of archaic fantasy, flying over a land crisscrossed by highways and lighted by electricity.

Bea shivered a little.  “I’ve always wondered,” she said.  “Why none of us is photographed.  I mean… when I had little control, I was flying over this Atlanta suburb.”

Kyrie shrugged.  “My form?  I change into a panther.  I’ve often wondered if we’re responsible for all the sightings of great black cats.  And if other shifters account for all the out of place animals seen here and there.  But with dragons and other… less normal forms, I suspect the thing is partly that no one believes it.  People don’t fully believe what they’re seeing.  Other people look at pictures and think what a clever photoshop job.  I’ve told Tom we could make a great deal of money on the side by taking pictures of him and Conan flying over the city and making a calendar.  Everyone would think it was made up.”

Bea turned the idea in her mind.  “Except that over time it might give people the idea that … well, that it exists.”

“That’s what Tom says, though you know, dragons shifters are not just a genetic impossibility.  They’re a physical impossibility.  Those wings of yours shouldn’t be able to hold you up.”

The road bumped under them, and Bea held onto the seat with both hands, despite the seat belt across her middle.  Kyrie turned willy-nilly into something that couldn’t possibly be a road, only a bumpy sort of track amid a burned landscape.  Ahead, Tom descended towards a field where Bea’s eyes couldn’t discern much more than thorns and rocks.

“Are you saying we don’t exist?” Bea said.

“How can I?” Kyrie turned off the ignition.  “I’m saying that you are impossible, but, hey.  I live with Tom.  He very much exists.  Come on.”

They got out of the van and closed it.  Bea looked for the huge form of the dragon ahead, but couldn’t see it.  It took her a moment to realize that Tom had shifted and in fact stood nearby, putting his shoes on.  She wondered if he’d carried his clothes.  That was control she’d never quite managed.

Then she realized there was someone at Tom’s feet, and stopped suddenly.