The Dragon came when the world grew dark, and the stars drew out like hunters to end the hues of day. They left their Offerings to him underneath the Arbitrary Tower, on the beach where the river forked, and the pines bent as if weeping.
The Offering was always a girl child, no older than twenty; she was pretty, thoughtful, young and sad, the perfect sacrifice for a ravenous demi-god. That was the deal the Dragon had struck with the people of Village in the age when Village was young: one girl for one year’s peace. No more, no less.
A fair trade, it seemed to Coal, until the calling bones named Clisha.
Gimme your peanut butter and jelly, faggot.
It had been Coal’s thirteenth Ceremony of Offering. They were sitting around the fire on the floor of the Great Hall listening to the Wisemen sing. His big sister had leaned in to whisper something snarky in his ear, the calling bones clattered, and the Wisemen said a name.
Clisha, huh? That has to be a joke. One of the Creatives is messing with me, Coal thought as they marched through ash-blanketed woods, passing the moldering archery butts that marked the outskirts of Village. The darkening sky burned lilac through the bare winter trees. The Dragon’s hour was near.
“Are you scared, Coal?” she asked him.
“What?” Coal said.
“I said are you scared? It’s all right to show fear sometimes. It’s healthy for men to show their emotions and vulnerabilities.”
“Sorry. I’ve done this one a lot today. I just want to go to recess,” Coal said.
“I don’t like your tone, Coal.” His sister tugged at the hood of her deerskin robe to keep out the howling drifts of ash. Her bow was slung over her back; her quiver held a single arrow. Coal’s jacket was only hare skin – thinner, but with more room for his knives.
Six of his ribs had been cracked and his front three teeth kicked in. The scars were gone here, where his body, skin, and flesh were only a false milieu of pre-set locutions and artificial parameters, but he still felt them just the same.
You have to say the right words, and then you can go to recess, Coal reminded himself. “Yes, I am scared. I won’t let the Dragon take you. Together, we shall defeat him,” he said. Yes, those were the words They wanted to hear.
Clisha rubbed his shoulder. “See? Don’t you feel better already? It’s good to express our emotions, rather than keep them bottled up inside. That can lead to unhealthy manifestations, such as violence.”
“I’ll express my emotions. I won’t cause trouble. I’ll be a good, obedient boy,” Coal lied. Coal was a terrible liar, but he thought that sounded pretty convincing. If he didn’t convince Them, he might never go to recess.
“We all get scared, believe me,” Clisha said. “If I could turn tail and run, head for City and never look back, rather than marching to do battle with some eldritch monster, I’d consider it. But if I did that, everyone in Village would die. You see, little brother? Sometimes we all must make sacrifices for the greater good.”
Gimme that sandwich, you pretty boy queer.
Coal stared at the path ahead. A storm the night before had hidden the ground under a thick blanket of ash, where a deer’s tracks floated like a single voice interrupting a long silence. There were no other signs of life, no leaves on the trees, no flowers in the soil. It all looked so bland and boring. Maybe one of the Creatives is on vacation, Coal reflected.
“Coal, you’re ignoring me. You’re being rude.”
Coal snapped to attention, automatically reciting, “It is my honor to stand and fight by your side, sister.” He slipped his hand under his hare skin coat and ran his finger along the edge of his biggest knife. This iteration of the sister character annoyed him. He could probably stab her ten or twelve times before They pulled him out.
His vision skipped, and a tear opened, splitting his reality. In the blink of an eye it sealed. The ash resumed falling.
Someone was definitely on vacation.
“This is it,” Clisha said, as they rounded the bend and a fork in the road came into view. “This way leads to the Dragon.”
His sister knelt down and clasped Coal’s hand. His vision skipped again and the girl’s mouth lagged before the sound file played. “… …. … I’m ready. Are you?”
Coal snorted. “Man, you guys really sent this one through before it was finished cooking, didn’t you?”
Clisha stood. “I don’t like your tone, Coal. You’re being rude. Disagreement shows a lack of respect for authority, which can lead to horrible behaviors, up to, and including, harassment.”
Gimme your peanut butter and jelly, faggot.
I’m not giving it to you, you fat piece of shit.
Gimme that sandwich, you pretty boy queer.
Look at this skinny little bitch. You scared, bitch?
Yo, let’s smash this fool!
Coal closed his eyes and muttered, “Sorry.”
“What was that? I can’t hear you,” Clisha said.
“I deeply regret my harmful, insensitive actions,” Coal said, louder.
His sister produced a leather satchel from the inside of her coat and tossed it to him. “Take this. You’ll need it if we are to prevail in the battle that lies ahead.”
Coal opened the pouch. It was filled with glittering crimson dust. Poison strong enough to kill a dragon. I wonder how fast it would kill her?
He pulled out the big knife, balancing it on his finger, spat on the blade and let his saliva run down the edge, and dusted it with the fine, red powder. He nodded to Clisha that he was ready, and the two of them slid down the path to the edge of the trees, where the smooth, white stones of the beach ran down to black, fast-moving water.
Clisha motioned for them to hold back. “Wait. Before we do this. I need to tell you something. I snuck out to watch last year’s Offering. I watched the Dragon take Nika. I think I know where its weak point is,” Clisha said.
“Actually, do you think it would be okay if we skipped this part? I’ve already watched it a hundred times today, and to be honest, it’s getting a bit boring,” Coal said.
His sister’s smile descended to a flat line. “First, there was a ripple in the water, like he was coming up for air. Then the water just… parted. The Dragon is gigantic, twice the size of those trees, but you can’t look directly at it, or you’ll go blind. They say no mortal eyes can look upon him. You can only look at his shadow, which shimmers like the air above a fire.”
Coal choked on a laugh.
“Coal, you’re being rude again. Do we have to go back to the beginning?”
Staring at the dark slashes of water moving swiftly between the trees, Clisha went on. “When the Dragon took the Offering, there was music playing. It was coming from inside his claw. Nika didn’t fight back. I think the music hypnotized her. I’m almost positive that’s where his weak point is.”
“The inside of his palm?” Coal said.
“Is it red and glowing, too?”
“Nothing,” Coal said. “So, that’s our plan, is it? You stab it in the hand when it reaches down to take you, and then I throw my knife in its mouth when it screams?”
Coal shrugged. “Listen, I know you guys have all these hoops you want me to jump through, but this plan is bullshit. If a projectile attack to the mouth is what’s supposed to kill the Dragon, why not just have Clisha here shoot it in the mouth with one of her arrows? Why bring me, at all? How is this productive? You’re expecting me to use violence to end a system that’s oppressive because it’s violent, ostensibly to send the message that violence is wrong. If there’s another moral here, I’m not getting it. Can I please just go to recess?”
Clisha stared at him blankly.
“No? Seriously? All right, then… are you really trying to tell me that for thousands of years an entire village full of grown men cold-hearted enough to sacrifice their own daughters to some giant, ancient monster, were never able to figure out its weaknesses, but that this walking stereotype of an action girl did it in five minutes? Come on.”
“You will not make hurtful, gendered comments,” Clisha said.
Coal ignored her. “Besides, if no mortal eyes can see the Dragon without going blind, how the Hell did she look at it, anyway?”
“One more word, and you’ll lose recess today, tomorrow, and all of next week. I’m not joking with you, Coal. And you can be sure this incident will be marked in your semester report,” Clisha said.
Coal sighed, gazing down at the beach. The Dragon was already there, pulling itself up from the picture-still river, a gargantuan mass seeming to swallow the light. His sister was right. Its shadow did look a little like the shimmer rising above a fire. Even far away, the creature’s smell made Coal’s guts churn.
See this, skinny bitch? That’s your blood. Better lick it up, fag. That’s the only lunch you’re getting today. My sandwich, now.
“Let’s get this over with,” Coal said, drawing the big knife.
Clisha broke the arrow over her knee, grasped the pointy end like a dagger. “I fear no Dragon,” she said, and left the cover of the trees to march stoically down the beach to the Circle of Offering.
The Dragon dragged itself forward, its colossal claws slowly extending toward her. Coal slipped the knife into the crease of his palm.
“Hey douchebag,” Coal said to the Dragon. “C’mon. Show the goods. I want to go to recess now.” The monster looked at him.
Coal’s skin blistered under its scorching gaze.
“Coal, stop it! We have to let him get close!” Clisha hissed at him.
Coal poised to make his throw. “This is a shortcut. Shut up or I’ll let him get you, like last time.”
The Dragon rose on its hind-mass and screamed full bore. Coal thought the sound might crack the world. His vision lagged and tore. His blood boiled in his veins. The vibrations thrummed through his body so hard they cracked his smallest bones. But he didn’t care. He wanted to go to recess.
Gimme your peanut butter and jelly.
“Have any of you ever been in real danger? Have you ever actually feared for your life? It’s nothing like this,” Coal said to Them. He knew They were listening.
“That’s it, young man. One more word, and you’re expelled!”
Coal lofted the knife and threw it at her.
Coal opened his eyes under harsh, sterile lights.
He was lying on his back. The dreampod lid slid slowly down his body towards his feet as the cushioned bed swiveled up underneath him so he faced Them in Their matrix of screens, four colorful heads suspended upon the cold, white wall.
“…We’ve tried that,” the man wearing the red helmet said. “This dream-sim was designed specifically for boys with Coal’s designation.”
“Hey,” Coal said groggily. “I’m awake. Take these off.” He pulled at his restraints. The people on the screens ignored him.
“In every one of the 6,838 lower rehabilitation programs Coal has tried, he exhibited similar if not greater levels of rudeness, detachment, and hostility. He’s rejected all the fantasies about being the captain of a starship, or the brave soldier, or the Chosen One who kills the Dark Lord with his father’s magic sword. He’s even rejected our more experimental fantasies, like our newest one, where the boys dream they’re a rebel fighter out to save the world from an oppressive, dystopian government,” Red Helmet said.
“Coal simply doesn’t seem to enjoy these channels of masculine wish fulfillment. Frankly, we’re not sure dream-therapy is going to work on him,” Yellow Helmet chimed in.
“What about something more permanent?” A woman Coal didn’t know, wearing a blue helmet, said.
“You mean expulsion?”
“I mean expulsion.”
“That is one possibility,” Yellow Helmet said.
“Can I go to recess now?” Coal said.
“I’m not thoroughly convinced we should give up yet,” Blue Helmet said. “Coal’s behavior is highly disturbing, but you did pull the plug before he had the chance to hurt anyone.”
“This time,” Yellow Helmet said.
Blue Helmet shrugged. “Have you tried giving the girl the knife? Maybe what Coal needs is a strong female character to guide him, who will let Coal divorce his sense of masculinity from an object of violence. Girls can use knives, too, you know.”
“We’re aware of that,” Red Helmet said.
“What’s the point of the knives, anyway?” Blue Helmet said. “Are weapons even necessary in these fantasies?”
“He likes them,” Red said.
Red Helmet considered the question. “Coal has… rejected every fantasy we’ve created where someone else had the weapon, male or female. He lashes out. In those fantasies, Coal didn’t even make it past the first minute before having an outburst.”
“What about fantasies where there is no weapon?” Blue Helmet said. She sounded angry.
Red sighed. “In those cases, he used his fists.”
The man in the green helmet, who had so far been silent, interrupted. “Hmm, yes. I wonder if there is a hmmm, traumatic event in Coal’s past which is making him have these delusions of the world being so, hmmmm, against him. He is, hmmmmm, imagining that he must defend himself from some adversary. This inevitably leads to such, hmmmm, destructive behaviors.”
Red Helmet nodded. “I believe it’s in his file. Coal was involved in an incident with a gang of other boys at his last school, before he was enrolled at this institute.” Red Helmet hesitated. “It was a fight.”
Blue Helmet gasped.
“Yes. I, hmmmm, read about it in the papers,” Green Helmet said.
“Remember that Coal’s diagnosis is severe,” Yellow Helmet said. “He’s an Aggressive, which means treatments that work on less masculinized boys don’t work as well on him, or at all. That’s why we’ve invited you here today. This is one of our newest fantasies. Cutting-edge stuff.”
“And what, hmmm… was the reason for this fight Coal was in?” Green Helmet said.
Red clasped his hands. “It was over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
“A… hmmm…. what?”
“A peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” Red repeated. “Coal claimed three other boys tried to steal his lunch. All four boys showed physical signs of being in a fight, so they were all immediately put into rehabilitation programs.”
“Hmmm, yes,” Green said. “Fascinating. Fascinating.”
Coal’s stomach grumbled. He kicked the inside of the dreampod. “Can I go to recess now? I’m starving.”
Disgust seeped into Blue Helmet’s voice. “Sure hard to believe something like that could still happen in this day and age. As a member of the Board, I want to commend all of you for what you’re doing here, treating these boys before they become a danger to society.”
“They broke my ribs! They knocked out three of my teeth!” Coal shouted.
Red Helmet wiped his faceplate with the back of his sleeve. “Not all the boys can be rehabilitated. The three other boys Coal fought with were all designated as Violent, so they had to be expelled upon enrollment. Coal was the only one to receive an Aggressive designation, which allowed him to stay here and begin dream therapy.”
Coal shivered. The cold here wasn’t like the cold in Village, where he had his hare skin coat. It was actually cold. His sweat felt freezing on his skin.
“As far as I can tell, the simulation you just showed us indulges in several dangerous stereotypes: expecting boys to be heroes, girls being used as human sacrifices, knife-throwing, hunting inhuman animals, racist caricatures of pre-liberated cultures… and so on. How will any of this help fix Coal’s pathology?” Blue Helmet said.
Red Helmet sounded terrified. “Um, Mrs. Director… it’s a fantasy.”
“We’ve found that letting these boys indulge in harmful behaviors in dream-sim reduces such behaviors in real life. That’s the whole purpose of the dream therapy,” Yellow Helmet said.
“Hey!” Coal shouted. “Can you let me out of here now? I want to go to recess.”
Red Helmet looked at him momentarily, but said nothing.
“What’s your success rate for cases as… unlikely as Coal’s?” Blue said.
“We don’t have exact data on that at this time,” Yellow Helmet began.
“Stop talking. I’ve seen enough. Unfortunately, gentlemen, my colleague and I both have many appointments today,” Blue Helmet said.
“Sure, no problem,” Red Helmet said.
“Thanks for stopping by,” Yellow Helmet added.
Blue Helmet sighed. “Today truly was an eye-opener for how far this project still needs to go. But I’m willing to give you another chance. It’s a yes for me.”
‘Thank you very, very much,” Red Helmet said.
Green Helmet hesitated. “Hmmm, I’m not as enthusiastic as the, hmmmm, director. Coal’s case is monumentally unnerving. It’s all so upsetting. It makes me feel uncomfortable. I’m not convinced Coal can be rehabilitated at all. So, hmmmmm, yes, I need to sleep on it. We’ll be in touch.”
“That’s fine. Thank you, Board members,” Yellow Helmet said, as their screens flickered off.
“HEY! Let me out of here!” Coal shouted, banging on the sides of the dreampod.
“He’s getting antsy,” Yellow Helmet said.
“Read the designation: Aggressive. Stupid idiot is always gonna think someone’s out to get him. Is their feed disconnected yet?” Red Helmet said.
Yellow Helmet checked, and nodded.
“We’re gonna lose our goddamned funding,” Red Helmet said. Coal heard the man’s fist smash into his desk.
“Maybe. But it will only be a minor reduction. A few possible layoffs. I’m sure it won’t jeopardize the program. But, I would remind you that it was your idea to show them one of the Aggressives. You said they’d appreciate the progress,” Yellow Helmet said.
Red Helmet sighed. “I know. Oh man. Donna’s gonna divorce me. I’m already her lowest-earning housemale. Goddammit! Give me a minute. I need to think.”
“Maybe we should shut off the two-way feed,” Yellow Helmet said.
“Why would we? I want him to hear this. You hear me, you little animal? Because of you, millions of boys are going to be expelled, all because you couldn’t behave. Look at him squirming, the worm,” Red Helmet said.
Yellow Helmet tapped the side of his faceplate. “You know, there is another way.”
Coal’s heart skipped and dropped into his stomach. No. They couldn’t do that to him, not after he’d played their stupid dream so many times. They said he could go to recess. They said…
Red Helmet snapped to attention. “What do you mean?”
“Do you really want him to hear this?”
“I don’t give a damn about that monkey.”
Yellow Helmet cleared his throat. “We could always change his designation.”
“Oh yeah. Yeah, we could do that.”
“Wait! I’ll kill the stupid Dragon! I’ll do whatever you want! Please!” Coal shouted, writhing in his bed of shackles. The leather cut deep into his skin.
Yellow Helmet’s voice became jovial, like he was wearing a wide, self-satisfied grin under his faceplate. “I just did. Saved you the paperwork. You’re welcome.”
Red Helmet whistled. “I doubt the Board will be pleased to hear about another expulsion…”
“But they witnessed the situation today with their own eyes. I think they’ll recognize it was for the greater good,” Yellow Helmet said.
“The greater good,” Red Helmet. “Well, color me convinced. It’s getting late. By the way, you planning any in-person visits up here to the facility any time soon?”
“Please!” Coal shouted, kicking so hard the restraints scraped the skin off his shins. Warm blood seeped down his calves, splattering the floor of the dreampod. “PLEASE!”
Yellow Helmet shook his head. “Can’t. My girlfriend’s about to go into labor, and she said there’s a twenty percent chance the child is mine, so I need to be there.”
“Hey man, congratulations! Boy or girl?”
“Girl,” Yellow Helmet said. “Thank God.”
Coal felt something sharp jam into his arm. There was a needle sticking there, extending out from the wall of the dreampod. Pressure flooded his veins, then lightness. He felt tired. The covering of the dreampod began to slip up over his face again as his world spiraled into darkness. “Wait… Recess… Peanut butter and jelly…”
By the time the dreampod sealed, Coal was already gone. For a short time he drifted, dreaming of a white stone beach framed by weeping, leafless trees and an Arbitrary Tower, where he sat by the water in a deer hide coat and waited to be taken.
Adam Vine is the author of Lurk, out now from Forsaken Books, as well as various short stories and video game story lines. He currently lives in Boston.