This flash piece originally appeared in the Big Pulp quarterly magazine in the Fall 2012 issue featuring the title story, We Honor Those We Serve by Steve Singleman. Please check out Big Pulp and the quality genre fiction its editor, Bill Olver, dishes up.
The story was originally written as a critique group challenge but has molted somewhat since then. Interestingly and at first unintentionally, along with one other story that I'll post later this month, it forms a deep backstory for the hard SF novel I've been toying with (and will publish...after I've finished the Schattenreich series).
FOR NOW, HOWEVER, THE DRAGONS HAVE FREE REIN
S. K. Reamer
The sun blazed with midsummer hot but couldn't compare with the lights. They flashed through the living room windows, and then she was gone.
When my mother came back in, she was different.
Chandler hugged her our mom's knees. "Mommy, you saw the lights! Just like on teevee. Are you going on teevee? Did they say 'the universe is trying to kill you'?"
The reality show always started with the announcer saying those words. I knew when I heard those words it was time for sit-still-and-listen behavior.
Mom looked at me. "Did you let Chandler watch that show again?" Her lips had stretched out like she was about to give me a spanking.
My brother couldn't say 'universe'. It came out 'oonibus' instead. Mom didn't spank me. She reached out to smooth my brother's sun-bleached hair but then stopped and clenched her hands.
"Yes, Chandi, I'm going somewhere like that. But you," she glanced at me, "and Sandia can't tell anyone. The truth is dangerous."
Chandler and I ran outside, dashing here and there, but the lights had vanished. I sat on the swing. He dug in the sand. The Standard Model of our universe contained just two particles – me and him. He ate dirt. I tried to clip him with the swing. He didn't notice until nearly too late and shoved me sideways.
I yelled, "The universe is trying to kill you," and wrestled him into the sand.
Father's catamaran appeared on the horizon. He rode up with the roaring tide, the retreating sun making his sail glow. We ran out to help him beach it, jostling each other for a hug and some kind words.
"How was your day, little ones?" He hugged us with strong Daddy arms.
Chandler spat out his words. "Mom met the lights. But we couldn't find them. They just went away."
Dad looked at me.
I nodded. "She acted funny afterwards."
"Sandia said that they were hiding. But if they're hiding, we should be able to find them, right, Dad?"
I peeked up at Dad, making my eyes into slits to look more grown up. "What is it? The lights. Is it a car?"
Dad pulled us in close as we marched up the ridge. "No, not a car, but no one can see it who's not supposed to. It's a container bigger than a catamaran and smaller than a mouse all at the same time."
Chandler screamed with laughter. "A mouse as big as a catman. I'd like to see it move!"
Dad smiled at Chandler's not being able to say catamaran, but his eyes looked sad.
I wanted to ask more, but we'd reached the front door. Dad's arms dropped from our tanned shoulders to hang limp at his side while he scuffed the sand from his sandals.
Mom sat in the living room with all the shades pulled, her hands folded in her lap. She didn't look up, not even at Dad.
"What's for dinner, what's for dinner," Chandler sang, dancing around the room. He didn't get it, that something was wrong with Mom.
"Settle down, Chandi, I need to talk to your mother."
Dad stood there, all tightened up, like he was about to dive into cold, rough surf. Chandler's singing had that annoying sharp edge to it. Dad sat beside Mom on the couch. I stood in front of Chandler, arms crossed to block his way. He screamed at me.
"Didn't I tell you kids to settle down?"
That calmed my brother. I dropped to the floor and dragged him with me so they would forget we were there. My father talked in quiet tones, telling my mother about the usual quantum physics stuff at the lab. Today they made the brane vibrate enough to generate the waves that could be powered up to use as a multi-dimensional trap against the dragons.
Finally he asked her, "Do you want to talk about it?"
Dad held her hand, tight, like Mom did with us whenever we crossed a busy street. She smiled at him. Her face had that happy look she wore when they thought we weren't watching.
Chandler puffed at a displaced sand cricket. "The oonibus is trying to kill you," he hissed as the bug tried to escape.
The TV show told stories about people who had seen the lights. They disappeared after. Sometimes they came back, but then they weren't alive anymore, or they wore their insides on the outsides. I put my hands over Chandler's eyes when they showed that, even though they didn't show it up close.
"I met a man, at least he still looked like one," Mom said. "He said I've got the kernel inside me."
Dad looked down.
"I have to go."
"Who was it?"
She shook her head. "I don't know. Doesn't matter now, does it?"
"When do you have to leave?"
She put a finger to his mouth. "I asked him. He said it's not true. The show. It's all different…there."
"Keep working on that trap." Mom took her hand from Dad's, sliding her fingers slowly across his palm.
The show's announcer always explained at the end. About how after the accident, after the fabric of space split – but Dad said that wasn't right, you can't split something that's not even there, but they still didn't understand what happened – they relocated the lab south of the border. That's where my dad and the others work to try and contain the dragons – those scientists who had gotten caught – who were part of the nonexistent fabric of space and who weren't quite human any more.
The narrator's last line always made me shiver, the line Mom spoke as she walked away. A thin ridge of red welts trailed down her neck and back. They looked like dragon scales. They pulsed. I put my hands over Chandi's eyes. He chanted it, at the same time Mom did. "For now, however, the dragons have free rein."
©Copyright 2014. All rights reserved. This story may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.
Big Pulp cover illustration by Ken Knudtsen
Grunge illustration by duncan walker via purchased istock