Chandler Klang Smith
1. The Fall
This is a story about what it is to be young in a very old world.
Even before the dragons came, our city was crumbling. It was as though this place was a dream we'd dreamed together, a dream gone to tatters in the morning light. Dull-eyed humans drifted past boarded storefronts, walking all kinds of animals on leashes. Vultures perched on sick trees in the park. A man clad in garbage bags sang his song in the middle of a bleak avenue as a single taxi sputtered past. Young girls dressed as if for the grave in Sunday dresses and second-hand shoes. Couches appeared on the curbs, were joined there by beds and rugs and tables; whole rooms assembled piece by piece, and the shadows of people occupied these rooms. It became the fashion to speak of oneself in the past tense. Wine flowed from dusty casks into dusty glasses. Chaw regained its popularity; dream-candy, some called it, mutant psychotropic moss mashed up with molasses and additives whose names we’d never know. We chewed it up and spat it out. Neon words went dark, leaving orphaned letters behind. Sometimes we heard laughter in our unfinished apartment complexes, though no one else was renting the units on our floor. We lived in a ruin.
The dragons were old when they were born, or else always had been. They rose out of the waters at Nereid Bay. The first to see them was a little girl who sat in a clanking basket at the top of the Wonder Wheel. The motor had stalled, and she, the only rider, waited patiently for the firemen to raise their ladder. The sky, gray with thunderheads, hung low as a blanket over the world. Out past where old men with metal detectors prowled the shore, an island breached the sea's frothy waters. An island with a pair of eyes. She pointed, but no one turned to look.
Some think the dragons hatched from moon rocks or nuclear waste the government dumped into Nereid Bay, or that the hands of God shaped them from the bountiful putty of our sins. These explanations are as good as any. The fact is, we know little more about them now than that day, fifty years ago, when they rose from the silver waves with dripping wings. Here is what our scientists have learned:
1. The dragons never land.
2. The dragons never eat.
3. The dragons never sleep.
4. Ballistics, rockets, stun guns, paratroopers, lassos, toxic sprays, nets, high-pitched sounds, mass hysteria, and prayer do nothing to deter the dragons.
5. The dragons will not let us be.
We cannot name the dragons. We cannot grow accustomed to them. Even those who cannot remember a time before they filled our skies cannot look at them with anything like calm. They are very large and very wild. When they pass overhead, they cast our skyscraper canyons into dusk. Eclipses confuse animals, and the animals of the city are deeply confused. Most of those animals are us.
Sometimes the dragons quarrel with each other. At those times, they seem like a single creature, almost, a snake biting its tail, the helix of DNA. They twist together in a mass, tooth and eye and claw. At other times, they work together, moving over the city in parallel lines, a destruction patrol. They’ve torched the billboard that said KEEP SHOPPING. They’ve torched the building shaped like a lipstick tube. They’ve torched every bridge at least once, and Torchtown, the prison colony in the hardest-hit reaches of the lower city, has been en flambé in one place or another fifty years solid, to the day. We’ve developed slang for all the different kinds of fires: a sparkler, a smoker, a powder keg, a belch – that’s when the gas tank blows. We make light when we can. It’s not in us to think the worst. Even that little girl said the island winked.
Empire Island is a winking island too, an island full of eyes. We used to watch each other through its windows, to catch glimpses of ourselves in those mirrored windows as we strolled past. Those windows, cracked or hollow, watch us now, slogging through the cinders on the streets. They watch the skies for more bad news.
It’s late afternoon in the death of summer. The dragons are flying low today, churning the air over Torchtown. A cloud front’s rolling in, gray and muddlesome. High in the vacant blue stretches a thin white line, a crack in the dome over everything: a teenager in a How Fly, trailing out exhaust.
Duncan Ripple, nearly nineteen, is a cherub in a hooded sweatshirt, unformed and untried, rosy-skinned from acne medication, his sensual mouth ajar in bewilderment. He rubs condensation from the driver’s side window with a greasy napkin and squints down at the dragons. The two creatures move in tandem, the green one spewing out unending ropes of cursive flame, the yellow one shorter blasts, as if punctuating. Down there in the streets, the fires seem random – unnatural disasters, crap luck. But from way up here, the fires look like graffiti.
Ripple cranes his neck, moves his lips to sound out the words. Who do these wench trenches think they are anyway? They can't even spell. He twists the knob of the How Fly's stereo; thrumming bass fills the cabin of the air car. He'll show them how a man leaves his mark.
BOOM. BOOM. Wicca wicca whoo. BOOM. BOOM. Wicca wicca whoo.
Ripple pumps his fist. His knuckles graze the How Fly's padded roof as his song pounds out of the speakers.
The name is Ripple – fuck with me, I’ll fuck you up triple
Any torchy lookin twice end up cripple
Think I don’t own you? – Yo’ girlfriend showed me her nipples
Nasty ass slag that she is with her pimples
Cock pocket, you think I’m just drunk
Drunk, yeah with power – that’s why they call me the Dunk
Fuck with me you end up in the trunk, punk
This city is mine, that’s one test that you can’t flunk
When the female vocalists come in for the chorus, he sings along.
Ohh I’ll lick you up and down
Cuz I’m the Dunk
Ohh I’ll lick you up and down
Cuz I’m the Dunk