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Dragons by Isabel Burke

Dragons, ©2021 by Isabel Burke

Content warning:

Mandy has good and bad knee days. This morning when they roll out of bed, they grimace and say they need the cane. On bad knee days, the head librarian lets them work at the circulation desk rather than shelving books.

Mandy uses their cane in the game, too, along with a sword. It's the best way to maintain their sense of balance.

“It feels so natural anymore,” they tell me. “It's weird when I don't have the cane.” Even when they put on the headset and slip into a new world, their body comes alone. I use my hearing aids for the same reason. Sometimes I can't hear exactly what the dragon is saying so I have to pause to adjust the volume, but the dragon understands and waits. I wear my glasses, too. Can't be without them, or my face feels naked.

Jess at work thought it was strange when I told her that I played the game with hearing aids and glasses.

“Why not go with a better body?” she asked.

“What's better than the body I'm used to living in?” I said.

She didn't have an answer to that.

Mandy has quite a collection of wooden canes with animal heads and flowers and Celtic knots carved in the top. I haven't asked if the dragon likes them, but the dragon and I talk about cooking more than aesthetics when we're done with a round.

We've tried to stop playing Dragons of the Fifth Dimension after work because of the risks, but it's difficult to quit. It isn't the game's fault, since the dragon doesn't actually kill you. You kill you, or your body kills you, or your body and mind get so wrapped up in the idea that four large claws have just raked themselves across your chest that they act accordingly. At times like those, you forget about the weight of the headset and take things too literally.

That's what we've been able to figure out so far.

But if you stay in the game and you're okay with your stomach and liver and large intestine sitting at your feet like some kind of weird abstract painting, the dragon shakes your hand and says “Good game. Ready to play again?”

We don't know if the dragon said this to Dougie since he was dead, which is why we're sitting around my apartment with two twelve-packs of beer and three large pizzas, reminding ourselves that we're idiots for this addiction.

“Addictions are supposed to kill you, or at least pose that threat,” Mandy says. We can accept that we're taking our lives into our joystick-wielding hands until someone dies and we wonder if the risk is worth it. It must have been, right? Dougie kept playing, right? But he was the second person in our group to go this way, which has given us more of an occasion to reflect than usual.

“I bet he saved the kingdom,” says Mandy. The remaining six of us nod. Dougie died a valiant death, ending his life with much bigger thrills than you can get from being a barista or grocery store clerk or person shelving books at the library, saving money to have bigger dreams or pay the rent. For most of us these are our bigger dreams--saving the world from space dragons, living to tell about it, and sometimes eating very good butter cookies with the dragon at the end of the game.

The dragon likes my glasses. We discussed that one day after I'd lost. My liver and intestines were coiled on the ground like obscene snakes, but the dragon asked if I'd like to stay for coffee and butter cookies. And really, who can pass on butter cookies? I never do.

“I've thought about getting glasses,” the dragon said as we sat on rocks with mugs in our hands and the tin of butter cookies on another rock between us. The dragon even had cloth napkins, which hid the gaping wound in my abdomen.

“I think they would suit your face very nicely,” I said.

“Sometimes I get a headache when I'm trying to read late at night,” the dragon said.

I told the dragon I'd had glasses since I was kid, and now it felt odd to go without them.

“I suppose anything becomes normal once you get used to it,” the dragon said.

The last time I played the dragon still hadn't gotten glasses, but after I defeated it we had another cup of coffee and the dragon asked if I preferred wire or plastic frames.

“Wire,” I said as I paused to collect a bit of dragon's blood in a small glass vial. It's supposed to bring people back to life, and I figured it would be good to keep on hand.

“I tend to agree,” said the dragon. “Would you like a napkin to clean that vial? Messy process, collecting blood.”

That time I'd brought chocolate chip cookies, which the dragon said were delightful.

“It's nice to chat before the next game,” said the dragon. “All work and no play, you know?”

I'm not sure if anyone else talks with the dragon at the end of their battles, or if that could save me in the end. Someday the instinct to believe I'm dead when my entrails are lying at my feet may be too persuasive.

Friendships aside, the addiction is clearly an addiction, but it's for a good cause. In a world where people too often feel helpless and alone, it's difficult to be a hero by yourself. You give twenty bucks to the food bank. You sign the online petition. You go to the protest on a Saturday morning and hope the government does something in response to your hand-lettered sign. Results are slow in coming in an otherwise impatient culture.

I don't know if this is why we find it satisfying to kill a space dragon and save the city from fire and twisted Internet viruses, but it's how I get a flash of adrenaline and feel like my existence might be worth it and I'm a good person, or a person with good intentions. But now Dougie is gone and no longer working his crappy job at the pizzeria and when I'm lying beside Mandy in bed I wonder if the dragon told Dougie “Good game.”

“Probably,” Mandy mutters when I poke them awake to ask. “It's always very polite. Especially when you're dead.”

My customers at the coffee shop tell me I'm great. A real lifesaver. They have addictions to expensive coffee drinks they can't afford, but I have a stash of dollar-off and buy-one-get-one coupons to use at my discretion. I don't give them to everyone, like the customers with designer purses who can clearly afford five bucks for a blended mocha, but what's wrong with telling a customer that if they wait a sec I can get them a drink for half price? Most take me up on the offer and find a new friend, and in the meantime we have a five-minute conversation about their kids or pets or jobs or relationships and other things that keep them up at night.

Screw the corporate dragon, anyway. Coffee shouldn't be so damn expensive.

I know I'm a drug dealer, a deal-maker, an enabler, but when people walk out of that coffee shop I have made their day a tiny bit better. Getting a five-dollar drink for two-fifty is enough to make folks smile for a whole fifteen minutes.

Mandy and I started going out after Izzy died. It was another pizza and beer night at my apartment, a time for serious reflection and justification as always happens after heartbreak.

Life's too short.

She went like she wanted to go.

If we didn't accept the danger, even want the danger, we'd stop playing.

Sometimes I've thought about entering the game and just chatting with the dragon, but it's never an option with the city already in flames. I tell myself we'll only talk, but my sword is out before I can think twice. The dragon is designed to spend five minutes insulting you, and I unsheathe the blade by the time it calls me a lard butt.

So much for peaceable intentions.

After we'd toasted Izzy eight or nine times and finished the pizza, folks went home and Mandy stayed to help me clean up. We lazed on my couch and watched a movie. How did we end up holding hands? I'd had two beers and didn't quite remember, but someone had died so it made sense to touch. When they leaned over to kiss me, I kissed back and took out my hearing aids. By that time at night my ears were tired of listening, but Mandy understood and things seemed to go well anyway.

We'd only ever been friends so I didn't understand the shift, the flutter in my chest, just knew in that moment I needed to be away from dragons though I'd return the next day. So would Mandy.

“If I said I'd give up the game would you give up the game?” I ask Mandy when we're drowsing in bed.

“I don't know,” Mandy says because they're always honest.

“We should find other things to do,” I say. “Take a walk to the park. Volunteer at the food bank. Play a different game.”

“I'm so tired after work,” says Mandy. “Sometimes the game is the only thing that energizes me. It's better than any medication for my knees. Or when I have a headache. It's not like I forget my body, but the pain doesn't matter so much, you know?”

I know. If we quit the game we'd have to find different friends, different hobbies, different rhythms, different ways to prove that we’re good people and have dreams and goals beyond making a good latte and helping fifth-graders with their reports on Myanmar without actually writing it for them.

When I almost die in the game it's a bit of a shock because nothing else seems off. I get a knock to the head, probably a bad concussion, but my body takes it too literally. I feel nauseated, struggle to my feet and am promptly disemboweled by a delicate silver claw. I shiver as I watch my stomach waterfall into the dirt. My legs tremble, my vision blurs. Is this what happens when your body thinks about dying? Why is my body thinking about dying now? It's been fine before. Come on, it's just a game, get with the program.

I put my hands on my knees. I take a few deep breaths. I fall over.

I lie there for a moment. The dragon roars, then pauses.

“Are you quite all right?” it asks.

I take a few more breaths and sit up. “I think so,” I say, and wonder if I got close to saying no. We have the usual coffee and cookies and the dragon continues to be overly concerned about my well-being and says maybe I should take a week off. I say I'll think about it.

When I explain to Mandy that I almost died, we're sitting on the couch watching TV. I tell them during a commercial, so in case it gets awkward we'll have something to divert our attention. They get quiet and peer at their feet.

“I almost died last week,” they say, “but I came out of it.”

We hug fiercely, both shivering, and when we go to bed I hold them more tightly than usual. We want to wake up next to each other. For four seconds before I go to sleep I think that maybe we could play the game together and remind each other to be alive.

But no. That would be...weird. The game is something we do alone. We have different relationships with the dragon. Maybe we have different dragons. We need the dragon. And is that more important than our relationship? I want to ask Mandy that question the next morning, but it comes out as “Would you like one piece of toast or two?”

I could stop playing the game, but what if Mandy didn't want to? And while I waited for them to come back from fighting the dragon in the evening, wouldn't I be tempted to play? I don't know who I should talk with about this, so I decide on the dragon.

I don't plan on crying when I enter the game. Or maybe I do plan on crying. I discover that the dragon doesn't try to fight when you arrive in tears. It roars for a while, but doesn't call you a lard butt. I sit on the rock and weep for ten minutes to clarify that I won't pull myself together, so the dragon sits next to me and asks what's wrong. It sounds concerned, like it honestly wants to help, which might be linked to the part of its programming that offers butter cookies.

“Why is it that one of the primary joys I have in life could kill me?” I say.

“That's the way it goes sometimes,” the dragon says, patting my knee with a gentle claw.

Is this the same dragon that could kill Mandy? That could kill me? Yes, of course. Just because intelligence is artificial doesn't mean it's not complicated.

“It feels stupid to say that aloud,” I say. “I love being with Mandy. I love it when a customer says I made their day. And I'm scared to get a job that would matter to me more. People who have those kinds of jobs tear out their hair out because trying to help other people doesn't always work.”

“I'm sorry,” says the dragon, handing me a tissue. I thank the dragon and blow my nose. I know I'm a coward, scared of messing up in real life. If I mess up virtually, a bunch of virtual people scream virtual screams and die in virtual agony, then we have cookies. Unless I mess up and die for real, then Mandy would be alone and sad and play the game to forget their sadness.

I wish knowing this was messed up would help me figure out how to solve the problem.

The small things we do together are why I love Mandy. Walking dogs at the Humane Society because our apartment doesn't allow pets. Going grocery shopping and trading off the times when we get apple versus orange juice. Making s'mores in the microwave and watching marshmallows explode. Sometimes when I come home from work they've made an elaborate dinner: pasta with pesto and goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, chicken roasted with portobello mushrooms and honey ginger carrots and scalloped potatoes. Sometimes they've ordered Chinese takeout because they know I love beef with broccoli. On the weekends I bake chocolate cookies and chocolate muffins and chocolate cake that they take to work in their lunch.

But the best times are when we sit side by side on the couch and watch TV, too tired to do anything else, their hand over mine on the cushion between us. They tell me about the grumpy person who came to the reference desk and needed help with online job applications, but after two hours of gritting their teeth they filled out six forms and the grumpy person’s frown wasn’t as severe. I tell them about the number of buy-one-get-one coupons I handed out that day, sticking it to corporate. We celebrate the tiny battles that are not enough.

Sometimes I watch Mandy sit at their desk with their headset, murmuring and smiling. I want so badly to ask where they are, the forest or open plain or seashore. Usually they hate beaches because sand gets in their shoes and makes it hard to walk, but they love beaches in the game. Mandy says that when they play, they don't need as many pain relievers.

My health insurance doesn't cover counseling, but I can talk to the dragon who reminds me that life is okay. I have a relationship with someone who loves me. I have a job I don't hate. I can apply for other jobs. If and when I don't get them, the dragon will be there for me to defeat, or to defeat me, and offer butter cookies afterward.

What does Mandy mean when they say they love me? That they won't complain about needing to yell at me when I don't have my hearing aids in. That they will answer the door and phone when I'm tired. That they will turn toward me so I can read their lips.

What do I mean when I say I love Mandy? That I will make the cookies chewy instead of crunchy even though I prefer crunchy. That I will refrain from leaving half an inch of milk in the gallon because it bugs the hell out of them. That I will clean the sinks and toilets to thank them for cooking. That I will lie beside them in bed, hug them, and not ask them to stop playing the game. They rest their hands over mine and press so I can feel the beat of their heart, the delicate understanding of having our lives at the tips of our fingers, the repeated rush of risking it all like the racecar drivers we are not. Does confronting our fragility make me hug them tighter, knowing we both embrace this risk that other people think is stupid? Can that be a form of love, or is it simply enabling?

I always ask the question when it's too late for them to answer.

Teresa Milbrodt is the author of three short story collections: Instances of Head-SwitchingBearded Women: Stories, and Work Opportunities. She has also published a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People, and a flash fiction collection, Larissa Takes Flight: Stories. She believes in coffee, long walks with her MP3 player, and writing the occasional haiku.
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