George Warren had never been what anyone would term ‘successful’. He was fifty-six years old, looked ten years older – and felt twenty. He’d already been divorced for years, didn’t own a home, and hadn’t had a real promotion since his early thirties.
He sat, crammed into a tiny office that used to be a broom closet, and did the most miserable job in the entire universe.
He poked the button on the ancient brown speaker system on his desk and sighed as it whined and crackled.
His fingers went to the polyester noose…er…tie around his neck and tugged it down.
He wiped his face with his handkerchief, reached into his desk, pulled out a blue bottle of antacid, and chugged the stuff like it was tequila.
Jesus, he wished he could have tequila. The ulcers in his stomach had resulted in two things: his diet consisted of mostly clear broth, oatmeal, and Maalox; and he spent a good chunk of his tiny paycheck every month buying antacid by the case.
He stood up, not bothering with the second-hand jacket that habitually lived on the hat stand in his office. Policy dictated that he should wear it, but he’d been ignoring that since the thermostat had been set to eighty-five degrees after a decade long inch upward to “save valuable company resources”.
It was probably part of the reason why he hadn’t had a promotion in decades.
He called out the door, “Edna, the speaker is acting up again. Can you call maintenance and see if they can work me in before the turn of the century?”
Edna Fields, septuagenarian, office manager, and if he were brutally honest with himself, his only friend, nodded as she entered the doorway and hoisted an improbably large cup of coffee to her lips. He was frankly amazed that her skinny arms could even lift that much weight at her age. While he lived on mostly antacids, Edna seemed to subsist entirely on black coffee and cigarettes.
“Don’t forget you have that meeting with the director at three o’clock. His battleax of a receptionist croaked out the orders before disappearing like the giant bat she is.” He nodded. Like he could forget something like that. He’d only gotten a handful of memos from the director over all the years he’d been with the company.
“I’m not worried.” Edna gave a significant look to his tie and the bottle of antiacid. He took another long swig and pulled at his tie again. “It’s not like there is much they can legally do to make my life worse. If they somehow find a smaller office, it’ll count as a coffin.”
Edna’s eyes narrowed, “You laugh but Jim went in six years ago and no one has seen him since.”
“I heard he took the early retirement package and left.”
Edna snorted. “I’ve been friends with his ex-wife for forty years. Nobody’s heard from him since.”
George shrugged. “He was a misanthropic bastard. Maybe he took his payout and went down to Mexico to dodge alimony payments.”
Edna took a long drag off her cigarette. “Bullshit.” She smashed the remains in the ashtray.
He gave her a half grin and a mock salute as he straightened his tie.
At three o’clock he found himself outside the office with his sweltering coat on and his tie reasonably straight. The receptionist was at her desk, cigarette burning in her ashtray as she hunted and pecked on her typewriter. Her glazed expression mirrored how he felt nearly every day at three o’clock.
“Go in.” The words seemed forced from her lips.
He stood as straight as he could, took a deep breath, and knocked three times. He heard something inside. George peeked back at the receptionist, but her stare indicated nothing except extreme apathy. He stood for a long moment, debating, but took a deep breath and inched the door open. He could feel the sweat running in rivulets down his neck and he cursed the thermostat.
“Hello? Sir, it’s George Warren. You were expecting me at three o’clock?”
The first thing he noticed as he entered the office was the size: he’d always known there was a disparity between himself and middle management, but this was ridiculous. You couldn’t even see the end of the room! Paintings and sculpture were placed in haphazard piles, along with piles of what looked like gold bars…some kind of artistic statement he was too plebian to understand, no doubt.
The second thing he noticed was the smell.
The director was hardly ever encountered by anyone except his crotchety receptionist…and George wondered for a long moment if the man hadn’t been dead for several years in this room while the receptionist guarded the door for some outlandish reason.
But no. He knew the sickly-sweet smell of death. Who hadn’t found a ripe corpse of some dead animal or another in summer? This was different. Harsher.
His throat constricted and he managed a tremulous, “Sir?”
A rattling noise from his left caused him to pause for a split second, and some instinct had him dodging before the thinking part of his brain knew what was going on.
He had the impression of something sharp and not at all friendly on his right so he rolled behind a pile of Renaissance paintings and tucked as fast as his protesting knees would allow him.
He huddled near the paintings while he tried to calm his racing heart. Something was in here, and it seemed less and less likely that the director was still alive.
A voice rolled from one dark corner. “Not what you expected from your performance review?” There was a slithering, scraping sound, along with the quiet noise of artwork being repositioned. “I have to say, it’s been a while since anyone noticed me. I must be slipping. Old age, you know. Comes for us all. Humans much sooner than my kind, but no one is immune.”
George started inching away from the art, sticking to the darkest shadows. Whatever was talking to him was blocking the door, so the only option was to go further into the gigantic ‘office’. He felt when the carpet was replaced with bare stone under his shoes, and altered his step to tread lightly.
The creature behind him followed at a steady, unhurried pace.
“It’s been decades since I’ve had a proper conversation. Is Kennedy still president? Surely not. They don’t last long, these new-fangled presidents.”
George couldn’t help but make a slight noise at that, and he heard the scrape of talons on rock quicken slightly. He hunched over, trying to make himself small as he dodged piles of goods. He started zig-zagging a bit around them, as quietly as he could manage.
“Despite it all, not much has changed. My princess keeps me apprised of the things I need to know, acts as my human eyes and ears. Unfortunately, it destroyed her mind years ago, so unless I am actively directing her, she’s little more than a meat puppet now.” The voice let loose a small sigh. “I hate to lose her, but I shall have to replace her soon. Pity. She’s not even fit to eat, all skin and bones.”
George heard a sudden sound to his left, overbalanced (thanks to his darned back, which was not used to being hunched over – thank you very much!) and landed on his admittedly well-padded posterior in something that felt like a pile of coins – which was less comfortable than one might imagine.
Out of the corner of his eye he finally saw what was chasing him.
“You are a bit thinner than the last one.”
It – he- stood on four legs, with rows of wicked-looking teeth, and huge, predatory eyes.
“You are a dragon.”
“Yes.” His tail lashed back and forth, almost playfully.
George jerked off the polyester tie and tossed it as far as it would flutter – which was about two feet. “I’m not dying with that thing on.”
The dragon radiated amusement. “That’s sensible. I’ve never cared for the taste of human clothing. Fell free to disrobe entirely if you wish.”
George reached out for a weapon an found nothing. Only a handful of ancient coins. He picked them up anyway. “I’ll pass, thanks. So you’ve been in here all these years, eating a few of my co-workers every year or so?”
The dragon shrugged. “Just one every five years. The rest actually left. It was my princess’ idea. It created a smoke screen to befuddle any irritating human authorities.”
George looked back toward the door. “Princess? You mean your secretary?”
“She’s royalty and had no quarrel with extending her meager human lifespan for the cost of a few peasants.”
“As one of the peasants, let me cordially invite you both to kiss my –“
“Now, now, don’t be rude. Someone as chewy as you are bound to be is rather obligated to at least be entertaining.”
“Am I really?”
“I suppose you could be rude, but that might make this conversation – which is currently extending your plebian life – end rather abruptly.”
George flipped a coin thoughtfully. “I suppose talking is not the worst idea.” He stood up, trying to surreptitiously stretch his back. “Let me get a little more comfortable. My back’s going to start throbbing and I’ll be begging you to eat me when it does.”
The dragon extended a clawed hand. “I have a very nice dining set over there that would be infinitely more comfortable than that pile of doubloons.”
George squinted into the darkness. The light suddenly came up and he could see the actual size of the dragon. “Jeez. How do you live on just one human in five years?”
“My digestion doesn’t really allow me to eat most meat anymore. My princess supplies me with a meat substitute known as Spam.”
George shook his head. “That’s rough buddy. I’m right there with you. I can’t eat much of anything except clear broth myself.” The dragon sighed and nodded toward the chair. George ambled over slowly – he was going to pay dearly for running around like an idiot in short order. It was almost enough to make him hope the dragon would just eat him and put him out of his misery – almost. “So why eat people at all if it’s bad for your digestion and you don’t like the taste?”
The dragon grumbled, “I liked the taste fine two hundred years ago before they invented ketchup. These days all of you cover everything in it and it makes you taste weird.”
“Chalk one up to good old American Hamburgers then.”
“I’m pretty sure the weight you have around your gut could be chalked up to those as well.”
“Hey. Don’t knock it until you try it.”
“I won’t be trying anything until I replace my princess. She’s lived well beyond the limits of even what our blood pact should be able to do.”
I guess that’s how you control her like a meat puppet.”
The dragon snorted. “Just since she passed four hundred. She was quite feisty before that. She managed to set up this business that’s been adding to my gold horde and managed it quite nicely.”
“You should give her a retirement package.”
“It’s when you give people who have done a good job a nice bit of cash and let them toddle off to spend their last years on a golf course somewhere. Companies that treat their workers as more than cattle tend to make a lot more money.”
“Really?” The dragon muttered to himself, “It IS rather inconvenient to eat the older ones – they keep getting stringier and they have that nasty gamey aftertaste…and don’t even get me started on the non-natural fibers…”
George hadn’t ever been what you’d call a successful man, but he wasn’t stupid either.
“You know – I think we might be able to solve each other’s problems.”
The dragon curled around a pile of doubloons. “How so?”
“I can’t believe that you managed to get him to get rid of that barmy bat of a secretary.”
“The General manager was retiring, so he took her with him.”
Edna smashed another cigarette and went to light another. He reached for her hand. “You really need to cut down you know. The retirement package the company is giving you is for the rest of your life – might as well hang on as long as you can.”
“I can’t believe I’m finally going to get to move to Florida and retire!”
“You’ve earned it.”
George watched his best (only) friend walk out the door of their shared office for the last time with a lot of pride and only the tiniest bit of regret. He’d visit, of course, but the years would pass quickly for her and not at all for him.
He took his briefcase and walked into the dragon’s ‘office’.
“And what gastronomic delights do we have today?”
“Hamburgers, no ketchup, pizza, and a bunch of donuts.” The dragon popped a glazed donut into his maw. “Oh! I like these.”
George smiled. “I thought you might. If you’ll look on page nine of my new company plan, you’ll see that weekly donuts and business casual clothing are going to be part of the new corporate culture.”
“And you think this is going to earn me more gold AND give me an accounting excuse to order fast food?”
“Exactly. And we can write it off our taxes too.”
The dragon stopped and blinked, like he was trying not to cry. “You might be the best princess I’ve ever had, George.”
Regarding Dragons by Vanessa Wells<<–YOU ARE HERE!!