Noah’s Boy – Snippet 24

“I know,” she said, very quietly, interrupting him.  “I know.  It’s not so much that you are afraid of going out.  You aren’t.  I’m not.  It’s that you’re concerned for how worried they are for you, and you want to make sure that nothing, nothing, ever happens to you that can hurt them.  You… you’re very protective of them, not the other way around.”

He looked at her, speechless, for a moment, then a small smile formed on his lips.  “Yeah.  You get it.  If they’d treated me badly when they found out–  If they’d been like Tom’s father when he kicked him out, if — then I would have been free to grow up, go away and … be on my own.  But they are the kindest people in the world, and they do everything they do to protect me, and they feel so guilty that they somehow passed this genetic doom to me, that the only thing I can do, the only thing I can think is how not to hurt them.  They were very worried when I was at college in Denver, you know.  They used to come up for dinner twice a week, and I ended up driving home most weekends, and everyone said I was mama’s boy, but that wasn’t it, you know?  That wasn’t it at all.  I didn’t want them to worry.”

“I understand.  I do the same thing with my parents,” Bea said.  “Which is why I was so worried that they might … you know… Worry themselves sick, or think the evil dragons had got me, or something.”

“Yeah,” he said.  His hand was on the kitchen isle.  “yeah.”

She touched his hand briefly, with her fingertips, then she said, lightly, casually, trying to make little of that touch, “We should eat.  Is the chicken ready?”

* * *

Tom looked at Conan, and it seemed to him he was looking at his friend as though from a long, long distance away.  Which was weird.  Objectively, he knew that Conan was just there, just out of reach of Tom’s outstretched  arm, if that far away.  He was just standing there, looking up at Tom, his eyes as wide as he could make them.  He’d removed his hat, revealing a wealth of very black, glossy hair.  In what remained of his performance outfit, clutching the guitar neck, he looked like a Chinese elementary school kid masquerading as a cowboy.  The impression was increased by his look of bewilderment.  “Tom, I must talk to you.”

In Tom’s ears, the words reverberated like something said a long way off, and through a membrane, echoing as weirdly as Tom’s own voice had sounded inside his skull for the longest time.  And Conan looked tiny, as did Rya and even Kyrie.  He could turn around and look at them, in turn, but while he knew they were all crowded right there around the counter, the feeling was that he was very alone in the middle of a vast circle of emptiness with all his friends looking on from a great distance.

He swallowed, hard.  Maybe this isn’t just the obtaining of some files.  Maybe there is more to this than just my receiving knowledge from the Great Sky Dragon.  A bad thought of how the Great Sky Dragon had spoken through his lips was dismissed, and instead he swallowed hard again, and heard his own voice vibrating oddly, trembling.  “Kyrie,” he said, probably louder than he intended, and full of the urgency of someone who feels his control falling away.  “Kyrie, please take over.  I… I need to talk to Conan for a moment.  It’s…”  Swallow to try to keep his voice clear.  “Important.”

Kyrie, looking up at his face, seemed like she’d argue, then decided not to.  She nodded.

Tom ducked under the pass-through, rushed down the hallway, not quite sure where he was going, but aware that Conan was following him, wherever that was.

They stepped outside the back door, and there was an alligator by the trash dumpster.  This was neither strange nor unexpected.  Old Joe, an old alligator shifter often hung out near the dumpster.  It had been rescuing a kitten from Old Joe’s happy-snapping jaws that had saddled Tom and Kyrie with a pet cat.

But old Joe didn’t even slow down Conan, which was odd, because Conan never trusted the alligator.

And as the warm air hit Tom, he felt something odd.  He felt like he was going to shift.  But it was like no shift he’d done before.

“Be careful,” Conan was saying.  “You can’t have them here.  Not unless you want to give the whole thing away.”

“What?” Tom asked, still feeling as though he were dizzy and nothing made much sense at all.

Now Conan was grasping his arm, squeezing, “Listen, Tom, before you shift.  You must pay attention.  The dragons are coming.  All the dragons.  All who can get here in time. You are now the Great Sky Dragon, aren’t you?”

Tom tried to make some protest, but he couldn’t quite speak, and then Conan said, “You are.  I knew it when I looked at you in the diner.  It was all I could do not to — I knew you’d be some day of course, but not… this soon.  Tom.  You must not shift here, or if you do you must fly away soon.  Where are you going?  Where are you going that the dragons can come?

“They’re coming, Tom.  You can’t stop it.  They’re coming to pay you homage, to see with their own eyes that we still have a leader.  And you must be where they can all land, and not be seen by everyone.”

* * *

The parking lot of the Three Luck Dragon, Tom thought.  And the idea was obvious, as was, in retrospect, the advantage of that place.  It explained why dragon gatherings took place there so often.  Set against the cup of a hillside, its near neighbors — a jewelry store with a prominent sign that it bought used gold, and a little hole-in-the-wall Laundromat — were closed at night.  Which left the parking lot — far more vast than should be needed by three such establishments — free for gatherings of large-bodied, flying, secretive creatures.

“The parking lot,” Tom said.  “Restaurant.”  And saw Conan nod, which was good, because Tom was already shifting.  And that was bad in itself, because they were in the parking lot, where customers of The George might see it.

Half lopping, feeling as though he were already losing control of his body, Tom rushed into the alley and behind dumpster.  Barely in time.  He’d just managed to duck behind the dumpster when the pain of shifting hit him, and he managed — just — to discard his clothes before they tore.  He was aware that Conan was doing the same, but it didn’t matter.  Shifting was a private hell, a nerve-ending searing experience that preempted all rational thought and made it impossible to see clearly.

When it was done, Tom realized Conan was indeed nearby, a red dragon, Chinese style, with the funny cat-like face of Chinese dragons and unusually long red whiskers.  Conan’s look at Tom was the first time Tom realized something was wrong.

Oh, not wrong, exactly.  But something was strange.  He’d been shifting into a dragon for over seven years.  By now he should know what his dragon felt like.  Only this felt different — bigger.

It was, he thought, like when he had a growth spurt as a young boy, and would for a few days feel as though his outlines, his sense of where his body was, had gotten horribly distorted.

Now, when he spread his wings their span was huge, and as he flapped them to get to the sky, he flew much faster.  He could sense Conan flying behind him, too, and he had a sudden, odd, impression of himself as having grown… what?  Two times as large as he’d been.  Note to self, shifting in a small powder room could kill you.

His size changed everything, including his perception of where he was going — or how long it would take to fly there.  But he managed, feeling as awkward and strange as a male adolescent in a suddenly large body.  Which, he thought, in the human mind at the back of the dragon’s thoughts, might very well be what he was.

The parking lot of the Three Luck Dragon seemed to rush up at him far too quickly, and he landed awkwardly near the closed doors, aware that even as he landed they opened, and two men already in the process of changing, rushed out to stand behind him.

He had no time to wonder who they were or where they’d come from.  It was as though his landing had been a signal, but more than likely his landing had been just in time.  Because this would have happened wherever he was:  as soon as he landed, he was aware of the sound of wings all around, a flapping noise, like sheets in the wind, like exceptionally large flags being whipped around.

He turned around, barely able to take in the sight.