Noah’s Boy – Snippet 18

There was a shuffle, shuffle sound from the other side and then the sound of the lock sliding.  Tom opened the door, while telling himself that they really needed to get rid of the deadbolt on the inside of the storage room.  And they would have, by now, if it weren’t for the fact that the storage room was where he and Kyrie and other shifters in their confidence retreated to change clothes, or to put clothes on, when their clothes had been lost to an unfortunate shifting episode.  It was also where they retreated when they absolutely must discuss something the non-shifting employees couldn’t know.

The room looked as usual: vast metal shelves held up supplies of paper products, barrels of flour were stacked against the wall, and vats of condiments against the other.  Despite the irregular use to which it was put, the room was kept scrupulously clean.  It was the rule around here that if you used the room you must make it perfectly clean afterwards.

In the middle of the shiny linoleum, Conan stood, irresolutely.  He was, Tom thought, preposterously attired.  Not that Conan was ever much for clothes.  Normally he made do with jeans and t-shirt.  But now… but now he’d got himself wearing what — probably in his own mind — a country western star should wear. 

That is, he had probably gone to that stupid touristy store downtown, the one that had the huge plastic cow on the roof, and he’d bought everything that was thrust at him.  Which meant he was wearing a shirt in giant blue and white checks with big, bejeweled mother-of pearl buttons, jeans with rivets so large they probably hurt, a vest with fringe on the pockets, a bolo tie — a bolo tie, for heaven’s sake — and the biggest cowboy hat that Tom had ever had the misfortune of seeing.

In his normal everyday persona, Conan was not a bad looking man.  He was small, thin, Asian, with hair that insisted on falling in front of his eyes.  But his thinness was wiry rather than undernourished, and his eyes tended to crinkle at the corners when he smiled.  He had certainly made an impression with Rya, and there were probably several other young women in the diner who would have given him a chance.

But now he disappeared inside those preposterous clothes, and had to tilt his hat up for Tom to see his face.  That face was so pale that Conan looked like he was made of wax.  His wide eyes were fixed in terror that Tom didn’t remember ever seeing not even when he and Conan had fought side by side against overwhelming odds.

“What is this now?” Tom said, more softly than he’d meant to.  “People are out there to hear you, Conan.”

Conan backed up to sit on one of the flour barrels.  His guitar was propped up against it.  “I know,” he said, softly.  “I was such an idiot.  I thought if I put it on my Facebook page, a few of my friends might come.”

“I’d say –“

“No, you don’t understand.  I was all excited, and I made the banner and everything –“

“Six string dragon, Conan?”

A pallid smile.  “Well, seemed like a good idea, okay?”

“Yeah?  And why is it not now?”

“Anthony said…”  Conan swallowed audibly.  “Anthony said that people probably made it go viral because they thought it was funny, because it was so bad.”

“Anthony said that?” Tom asked, shocked, because Anthony was many things but cruel wasn’t one of them.

“Uh… not… he didn’t exactly say that, but he said that people shared all sorts of crap they found funny, and I remembered all those videos people share, people from Hong Kong singing “I’m sexy” and stuff… and I thought…”

“And you thought crazy stuff.  Did anyone make fun of it on your page?”

“No.  But they wouldn’t, right?  Can… can you tell them, please…”  Conan looked up at Tom, his eyes immense and fearful.  “That you, you know, that you found that… that it’s against regs, or something?”

Tom pulled himself up to sitting on the plastic flour barrel next to Conan’s.  “I can do that, Conan, if you want me to, but I want you to think this through very carefully.”

The blank look in Conan’s face indicated that Conan’s brain was rather like a skittering rabbit, incapable of focusing on anything.  But Tom tried anyway, “Look, it’s always scary to take a big step and to realize our dreams.  Do you think I wasn’t scared when my dad said he’d get Kyrie and me this diner?  Do you think I wasn’t afraid of screwing it up?”

“That’s different.  People weren’t making fun of a video of you running a diner.”

“You don’t know if they are,” Tom said.  And paused, not because of hesitating about what to say to Conan, but because of a weird feeling he couldn’t quite pinpoint.  It was, he thought, as though something cold and strange had touched his mind for just a minute.  “You don’t know,” he started again, “that they’re even making fun of your video.  They could very well be enjoying it, and that’s why they told all their friends.  Look, Conan, if they were making fun of you, someone would have told you.  Rya or someone.”

“I told Rya to go away,” Conan said, as though confessing to a crime.  “She’s going to be so mad at me.”

“Unlikely.  You know, she knows you’re nervous.”  The feeling was there, again, stronger this time.  Something was touching Tom’s mind, something cold, ice cold.  Something alien.  He had once had the Great Sky Dragon in his mind, and it hadn’t felt that alien or that cold.

“Look,” he said, ignoring the weird feelings and concentrating on the problem at hand.  “You have stage fright.  It’s completely natural.  You should go out there and face your fears.  If you shrink from it now, you’ll never –” There it was again, and now with a feeling of near-physical pain.  “You’ll never be able to try again.  You must go out there now, Conan.  You must.”

“Are you okay?” Conan asked, concerned.

“Yeah, I’m fine.  I guess I just shifted once too many times tonight and –“  and on that moment, the Great Sky Dragon was in Tom’s head, or at least his voice was, loud, unavoidable, I DIDN’T INTEND IT THIS WAY, it said, the capitals clearly audible BUT YOU MUST CARRY MY BURDEN NOW.  PROTECT MY PEOPLE.

There was a scream, and Tom wasn’t sure if it came from The Great Sky Dragon or from himself, but it was loud, high-pitched, blotting out all thought, and then… and then unbearable pressure and light, from within.

Damn, I’m going to shift, Tom thought, and his last conscious act was to try to get Conan out of there, before he found himself locked in with a larger dragon out of control.  “Go out there Conan.  Go out there and sing.  That’s an order.”

His voice seemed to reverberate unnaturally off the walls.  He registered that Conan’s terrified face managed to look even more terrified, and then Conan bowed and ran from the room, closing the door behind him.

Tom let himself fall to his knees, under the weight of pain and pressure he could not understand.

And then blackness blotted it all out.