Old Friend

NOTE: This is part of the new novel I am writing. I am posting it here as a diversion for readers who may be living under shelter-in-place policies while the world waits for the coronavirus pandemic to pass. For an explanation of this project, please click here. To read the chapters I’ve posted in order, click here.

Old Friend
Sangre Mesa ~ Coldwater, N.M.

Holly looked at Morgan. By all rights, the girl should have been exhausted. They’d been climbing for two hours, boosting each other over boulders, dodging thickets of prickly pear that clung to the rock, and flattening themselves against the side of the mesa at spots where the terrace narrowed from feet to inches, revealing the reason the Civilian Conservation Corps workers who built the trail in the 1930s had chosen a different route. Every now and then, Morgan would pause, panting, spread her arms wide, lay her cheek against the crimson sandstone, and embrace the mesa itself. After a minute or two, her breathing would even out, and she would peel herself off the rock and begin climbing again with renewed vigor, as if she were drawing energy from the stone that supported her footsteps. The raven flitted ahead of them, its presence encouraging the weary climbers.

A few more steps, and they reached the top. The view was dazzling, but Morgan didn’t seem to notice it; as soon as her mother and Holly were up safely, she walked across the flat surface to a massive diamond-shaped boulder at the center. The boulder, which was roughly the size of a doublewide house trailer,  resembled a reptile’s head even more from up close than it had in the tiny aerial view on Holly’s smartphone screen. 

Morgan stroked the stone dragon’s “snout” as gently as she would a strange dog. She pressed her forehead against it, eyes closed, and whispered something Holly couldn’t quite make out. 

“What’s she doing?” Sierra asked, her voice soft. 

“No idea,” Holly murmured. 

Morgan dropped to one knee, bowed her head, and waited in silence — for what, Holly wasn’t sure.

The answer became obvious a moment later, when the ground shifted under her feet, there was a great grinding sound, and the “mouth” of the dragon tipped up and back to reveal a cave with a pair of stalactites hanging down like fangs. 

“Morgan!” Sierra cried, starting forward. 

Holly grabbed her arm and pulled her back. “Wait.”

“But she can’t go in there! God only knows what’s inside there! What if it’s the monster?” Sierra tried to pull away, but Holly held firm.

“Sierra. She knows what she’s doing. Look at her. Look at her.

The muscles in Sierra’s arm remained tense, as if she were preparing to bolt forward at any moment — which Holly supposed she probably was — but she stood still for a moment, watching. 

A tongue of yellow-orange flame darted out of the dragon’s cave-mouth and touched Morgan’s hands, hair, and face, flickering harmlessly over her like a wary animal sniffing a stranger to determine whether she was safe. She was still, and if she felt the fire passing over her skin, she gave no indication. A moment later, the flame dropped to her feet, then licked over the girl’s body from toes to temples, drawing a giggle from her. The entire mesa seemed to tremble as the flame licked Morgan over and over like an overexuberant pit bull greeting a long-lost master, until at last the girl rose, still laughing, and stood before the cave. 

“Enough!” she said. “Settle down.”

The flame retracted into the cave, and the ground stilled. 

“That’s better.” Morgan took two steps toward the cave and began petting the dragon’s sandstone cheek. “Good girl. Gooooood girl. I know. You missed me.” She kissed the rock, and the ground pulsed with a thump-thump-thump, like a happy dog patting its foot in response to a comfortable scratch from its owner. Holly and Sierra struggled to keep their footing. 

Morgan laughed. “OK, beautiful. Easy now. I need something from you. I need you to help me. There’s something that I’ve forgotten, and it’s very important for all of us that I remember it. Can you help me remember? I think it’s something you saw happen a long time ago — something scary and sad that I need to understand so I can keep us all safe.”

The girl’s words bordered on incoherent as she spoke to the dragon, but it seemed to understand. The flame gave her face one last playful lick and then withdrew into the cave again, illuminating a flat stone the size of a dining table. 

Morgan turned to smile at Holly and her mother. “It’s OK,” she said. “Mom, it’s fine. Really. You’re not going to like this part, but you have to trust me: I will be totally fine. Please don’t freak out.” 

Sierra was practically vibrating with pent-up energy, and Holly knew it was taking all the restraint she had to keep from rushing forward and pulling her daughter back, but she held steady as Morgan walked into the cave, lay on the table, and closed her eyes. 

Then, without warning, the giant mouth closed, and Sierra’s willpower snapped as she broke free from Holly’s grip and began beating on the stone until her fists were bruised and bloody, her screams more terrifying than any the bean sidhe had ever heard.

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