Dragon’s Breath

Hola, Face­less.

I entered this sto­ry in a writ­ing con­test a few months back — over 6,300 entries, and 11 win­ners in total (don’t get too excit­ed — I wasn’t one of those lucky 11).

could have been 12th, or I could have been 6,299th; my sub­mis­sion may have been great, or it may have been unfit to use as toi­let paper… I’ll prob­a­bly nev­er know. But what I do know is that I thought it up, I wrote it, rewrote it some more, and actu­al­ly sum­moned up the nerve to sub­mit it. And win or lose, it’s the begin­ning of some­thing.

I hope you like it… please take a sec­ond and drop me a note when you’re done in the com­ment box at the bot­tom? I’ve even made it easy for you to main­tain that beau­ti­ful Face­less mys­tery of yours, if you wish — and no one gets to see that feed­back except for Yours Tru­ly.

And thanks for tak­ing the time to read it at all — it means a lot.

-Your Writer.

 

DRAGON’S BREATH

They sat around the dark wood din­ing room table. It was immac­u­late­ly set, as was typ­i­cal with their moth­er. There’s no point in half-doing any­thing, she had repeat­ed more than once to them when they were young.

The uten­sils were buffed to a high shine, the gor­geous porce­lain serv­ing trays that resided on the top shelf—the ones she reserved for only the most spe­cial occasions—were set out on the table and brim­ming with meats, veg­eta­bles and fresh­ly baked buns. Bot­tles of wine and water dot­ted the table.

One would think this was a feast for a dozen peo­ple. It was just the four of them, to Adam’s under­stand­ing; and she would be the first to admit that she may have gone a touch over­board, even by her own stan­dards. But she had wait­ed for over a year to orga­nize this din­ner, almost aban­don­ing hope that it would actu­al­ly hap­pen. Were it not for Adam’s per­sis­tence, it like­ly wouldn’t have.

They were all final­ly togeth­er and every­thing need­ed to be per­fect. Noth­ing less would do. And while per­fect may have be a strong term, the evening was clos­er than she had dreamed it would be.

Or it had been, at least.

Their moth­er cir­cled the table for the fifth time, refill­ing the wine and water glass­es. Adam placed his hand over his glass as she approached.

Please, moth­er. Sit down, you’ve bare­ly touched your own plate.”

She ruf­fled his hair as if he was still a lit­tle boy. “Non­sense. Your glass is emp­ty and I must refill it. There will be no argu­ing with your moth­er, Sergeant.” He relent­ed and she began to pour.

Per­haps it was just ner­vous ener­gy that made her rest­less. Or maybe she could sense the storm that was qui­et­ly blow­ing in, much like a cat does before the rain. Bri­an had been unusu­al­ly qui­et for some time; her old­est son was nev­er qui­et unless some­thing was brew­ing.

She made her way around the table to Arthur and did a quick sur­vey of his plate: his glass was emp­ty and he had no buns, which hap­pened to be sit­ting direct­ly in front of Bri­an.

She cleared her throat. “Bri­an, can you please pass the rolls to Arthur?”

Bri­an sat silent­ly, his fin­ger­tip cir­cling the edge of his half-emp­ty wine glass, appear­ing not to have heard her request.

Bri­an, dear? The rolls? Can you please—”

Arthur reached up and rest­ed his hand on her wrist. “It’s alright Mary, let him be. I’ll grab one in a sec­ond.” He plant­ed a kiss on her hand. “I’d love a bit more wine, though.”

Bri­an tipped the con­tents of the glass at his fin­ger­tips down his throat in a sin­gle motion. “Yes, moth­er. His arms work just fine, he can reach them all by him­self.”

She stopped mid-pour. “Par­don me?”

Adam shook his head. “Bri­an, we talked about this.”

Bri­an stared into his glass as he spoke. “What’s that, Adam? Oh, right. I should just be his good lit­tle boy. Just pass him his bread or clear his plate, maybe?”

Adam turned to face him, but Bri­an wouldn’t return his gaze. “Please don’t.”

Bri­an would not be deterred. His storm had arrived.

Oh wait, wait. I’m not his lit­tle boy though, am I? Just some art­sy fag­got his new wife had–not the strap­ping man’s man that you are, eh Adam? Such a dis­ap­point­ing turn of events.” He final­ly lift­ed his head to look at Arthur and shot him a sar­cas­tic wink. “Bet­ter luck next time, Art.”

Bri­an had prac­ticed this scene count­less times, wait­ing for the right oppor­tu­ni­ty to fire that jagged, hate-filled pro­jec­tile. His goal was to wipe their smiles away, to oblit­er­ate their hap­pi­ness. He need­ed to—he felt it was his duty to—remind them of the hurt and sad­ness that he still felt, to res­ur­rect the pain they had giv­en the slip too soon for his lik­ing. And from the dev­as­ta­tion that now ran from his mother’s eyes, streak­ing her mas­cara and spilling onto her beau­ti­ful new blouse, it was clear his shot had hit its mark.

Adam sat back in his chair and took it all in. His moth­er stood behind Arthur with her hand on his shoul­der, long black tears streaked down her face. He looked at Bri­an, who shift­ed awk­ward­ly in his chair and fid­get­ed with his emp­ty wine glass. Adam was afraid some­thing like this may hap­pen, his broth­er being—well, his broth­er. But things had been going so well until then. He thought he was just being para­noid.

It was Brian’s turn to look around the table. He wouldn’t look at Adam, hav­ing a good idea of what his lit­tle broth­er was think­ing at the moment. He couldn’t bear to look at his moth­er in tears, so his eyes came to rest on Arthur. Instead of the angry hate­ful glare he expect­ed to be greet­ed with, the look of con­fu­sion and hurt Arthur returned made his stom­ach turn.

When he had rehearsed this epic moment in his mind, the scene always end­ed with Bri­an smug and vic­to­ri­ous, pleased with the fresh hell he had spawned. And it had all gone accord­ing to plan: he hit his mark at the per­fect moment, he spared no one at the table in his attack. He even man­aged to hit his broth­er with some shrap­nel, although it had nev­er been his inten­tion. He was shocked to dis­cov­er how far vic­to­ry was from his mind after the real life per­for­mance, regard­less of how per­fect it was. At that very moment, all he want­ed to do was vom­it up his steak and run.

No one spoke. Their moth­er had tak­en her seat at the table beside Arthur, her head rest­ing on his shoul­der. All eyes were on Bri­an as they wait­ed to see what the storm would blow in next. It was clear to every­one that he was in a minor pan­ic; his mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water as he strug­gled to say something—to apol­o­gize, to say any­thing that could break the deaf­en­ing silence he had created—but no words would emerge.

He pushed out his chair and stood sud­den­ly. The room seemed to sway and dance as if it was sus­pend­ed by strings; he found it hard to take even the small­est breath. He turned abrupt­ly from the table and lost his bal­ance, hav­ing to grip the back of his brother’s chair to gath­er him­self. Per­haps that fourth glass of courage he had chugged to pre­pare him­self for his big moment wasn’t the best idea after all. His com­po­sure part­ly regained, he crossed through the kitchen and walked out the patio doors.

It had snowed all after­noon. Fluffy mounds of white clung to the trees and blan­ket­ed the cov­er on the pool. Bri­an sat on the top step of the deck, tak­ing in the silence of the yard. The annoy­ing yelp of the neighbor’s dog punc­tu­at­ed the still­ness, part­ly muf­fled by the falling snow.

The patio doors quick­ly slid open and shut behind him. He lis­tened to the foot­steps that gin­ger­ly approached, as they slipped around while try­ing to main­tain their foot­ing on the slip­pery deck. He knew who it was.

Adam slipped a coat over his brother’s shoul­ders before sit­ting on the stair beside him. “Jesus, that’s a treach­er­ous walk.”

Bri­an stared down at the snow. “I fucked up, Adam. I know it, you don’t have to tell me so. I don’t need the lec­ture.”

I’m not lec­tur­ing. But what could pos­si­bly have come from that? I thought we agreed–”

Yes we did, and yet I still found a way to make a mess of things. I’m sor­ry.”

It’s not me that you should be apol­o­giz­ing to.”

I just can’t get past it some­times. They were best friends–”

Adam inter­rupt­ed. “For Christ’s sake, Bri­an. It’s not like he stole her away from him; the man died. And Arthur was there for her far more than either of us were. You were on stage some­where and I was in a tank. And this had noth­ing to do with that.”

They sat in silence for a few moments.

Did you bring your smokes out with you?”

Adam shook his head. “I quit, remem­ber? So should you.”

Bri­an waved his hands in the air.” I’m on a steady diet of self-destruc­tion as of late. There will be no quit­ting for me.”

Adam looked across the yard in the direc­tion of the yap­ping dog. “Help me, Bri­an. I’m try­ing to under­stand what’s going on in your head. This was a very nice evening before that lit­tle tirade.”

Bri­an let out a weak laugh. “Under­stand? Don’t waste your time, lit­tle broth­er. I’m a hot fuck­ing mess.” He scooped some of the snow up from the step and held it in his palm until it burned from the cold.

Adam nod­ded. “I won’t argue with that.”

The broth­ers had done this before. It was three years ago to the day after the funer­al, their father only a few hours in the ground. They sat in that same spot, watch­ing the snow paint the yard in a coat of clumpy white while a mix of their fam­i­ly and friends were in their liv­ing room. They nib­bled on cheese plat­ters and sipped wine, all while offer­ing their con­do­lences and mak­ing awk­ward small talk.

Bri­an had left his the­ater company’s tour to fly home for the funer­al; Adam had just returned home from his last tour over­seas. The focus on he and his broth­er was more intense than he had bar­gained on, but his years of being on stage had made him accus­tomed to being the cen­ter of atten­tion. But walk­ing into the kitchen and see­ing his moth­er in Arthur’s broad arms, shar­ing a ten­der embrace proved to be too much to bear.

In what proved to be typ­i­cal Bri­an fash­ion, he downed sev­er­al glass­es of wine before he pro­ceed­ed to throw the fit of all fits, rant­i­ng on about how bogus and insin­cere the lot of them were, gath­er­ing for funer­als like a pack of old vul­tures and dis­pens­ing a few oth­er stage-wor­thy lines. He launched a full veg­gie plat­ter into the air before mak­ing his grand exit through the crowd and out to the snowy deck, near­ly flip­ping ass over head on the icy cedar.

He tra­versed across the frozen wood and sat on the steps that led down to the snow-cov­ered pool. The door slid open and shut, and Adam fol­lowed behind with a coat to throw over his brother’s shoul­ders and a steady voice to calm him.

Bri­an had con­tem­plat­ed peel­ing back the cov­er and slip­ping into the semi-frozen water, allow­ing him­self to sink to the bot­tom like a piece of debris and leav­ing the world behind. But instead, the broth­ers talked until their faces were numb from the cold, even­tu­al­ly return­ing to the warmth of the room they shared as kids and con­tin­u­ing to talk into the night. Bri­an slipped out the fol­low­ing morn­ing before any­one else was awake. He hadn’t even said good­bye to Adam.

Adam’s voice broke the silence. “A man’s man? What the hell does that even mean?”

Bri­an shook his head. “I don’t know, I didn’t mean to involve you. It just came out, like I was pos­sessed or some­thing.”

Adam ignored his com­ment and con­tin­ued on. “You know ful­ly well that Arthur doesn’t think that way at all. He was incred­i­ble when you told him; so warm and accept­ing. Not at all like Dad. Per­haps you’ve for­got­ten how bad­ly he would have han­dled your lit­tle rev­e­la­tion? You remem­ber the night Mom float­ed it out there, just to see what he would think. I’ve nev­er seen some­one so, so—”

Brian’s face was emo­tion­less. “Dis­gust­ed is the word you’re search­ing for. And no, I haven’t for­got­ten.”

Adam nod­ded. “But not Arthur.”

Bri­an waved his hands. “Yes, yes. He was dis­turbing­ly won­der­ful, which just makes me an even big­ger ass­hole.”

Adam blew some air into his hands before tuck­ing them under his armpits to stay warm. “You’ve refused to speak to the man in months, you’ve inten­tion­al­ly avoid­ed com­ing home and you don’t even return Mom’s calls. They’ve found hap­pi­ness in a mis­er­able sit­u­a­tion, Bri­an; there’s no crime in that. Stop push­ing him away.”

You said you weren’t going to lec­ture me. And it was the wine talk­ing. You nev­er should have let me open that bot­tle, you know how I get.”

Yes, I do. And I also know that it had noth­ing at all to do with the wine. That was all Dad.”

Bri­an watched the puffs of vapor his breath made in the crisp win­ter air. The breath of a drag­on, his father called it when he was lit­tle, a phrase that seemed par­tic­u­lar­ly apt today. He still held the snow in his palm; he brushed the rem­nants off and stuffed his hands into the coat.

I told you his was a hor­ri­ble idea, Adam. The third anniver­sary of the worst day of our lives. What a cel­e­bra­tion.”

Adam looked out at the frozen yard. “That’s a bit much. This didn’t go exact­ly as I had planned, but you’re here and that made her so hap­py. I’m call­ing it a suc­cess.”

She’s cry­ing, Adam. I made our moth­er cry.”

Yes, you did. So for your next act, you’re going to go apol­o­gize. To both of them.” He looked down at the pool cov­er. “Unless you’re going for your swim this time? In which case, I’ll go back inside and let you be. Don’t for­get to pinch your nose before you jump.”

Bri­an shud­dered. “You’re a fuck­er. I should nev­er have told you about that.”

You tell me every­thing, whether I want to hear it or not.”

You’re my broth­er, you’ll lis­ten. You have to.”

Bri­an looked over his shoul­der at the house. He caught a glimpse of their moth­er walk­ing away from the patio door and back to the din­ing room table.

How do I fix this, Adam? Tell me what to do, I promise I’ll lis­ten.”

Adam rose to his feet and wiped the snow from his pants. “You’ll remem­ber that you’re not on stage here; you’re home with peo­ple that actu­al­ly love you, Bri­an. Even Arthur. Let’s start with that.”

He brought his hands up to his mouth and blew some warm air into them. “Jesus, it’s cold. Let’s go inside.”

Bri­an looked up at him, the shame on his face inescapable. “How? How do I go back in there after that? They must hate me. I hate me.”

Enough. No one hates you.” He waved his out­stretched hand at Bri­an. “Now let’s go, broth­er; you can’t hide out here for­ev­er.”

Bri­an took his hand and stood up. They could see their moth­er and Arthur sit­ting at the din­ing room table, her head on his shoul­der.

He’s good for her, isn’t he?”

Adam nod­ded. “I’m not sure she would have made it with­out him, to be hon­est. I’ve spent the last few years dodg­ing bul­lets while you’ve been around the world dodg­ing the paparazzi. We should have been here more. But she has him, and we have each oth­er. Dad would be hap­py, I think.”

Bri­an turned to face his broth­er. “How did you get to be so wise? You always make me feel so child­like.”

Adam smiled. “I’m just here to pick up the pieces, which there is no short­age of with you. You keep me quite busy.” He walked ahead to the patio door and gripped the han­dle.

You ready?”

Bri­an closed his eyes and took a long breath, hold­ing it deep in his lungs before open­ing his eyes and slow­ly exhal­ing, watch­ing the vapour slip away into the evening sky. “Ready.”

Adam slid the door open; a wave of warm air wel­comed them back to the world they left inside.

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