Peter M. Ball
I asked Jay what he was doing when the thorns came, because that’s what you do when you get together on Briar Day. His face screwed up. “I thought we weren’t going to talk about the thorns.”
We weren’t. We’d run into one another at a work seminar, one of those pre-arranged accidents we never really talked about, and decided to go for drinks. We’d picked this bar on Elizabeth Street because it was quiet, an upstairs place that hid behind a narrow flight of stairs and a decaying sign. People came here to drink, not to party. Now it was getting late. I should have been home with Annie and we both knew it. “Come on,” I said. “Four years we’ve been doing this and you’ve never said a thing.”
Jay sighed again. He held up his hand until a waitress in cherry Doc Martins came and took an order for another round. I smiled at her, paid the money, and waited. Jay drummed his fingers on the table. He knew me well enough to figure this wasn’t going to go away. “You first,” he said. “If we’re going to do this, we do it right. What were you doing?”
“I was at work,” I said. “Three days in the bank, eating breath-mints and watching the vines wrap over the glass wall at the front. We thought we were going to die when the glass started cracking.”
“Bad place to be,” Jay said.
“There were worse.”
“Did anyone try to get out?”
“Sure,” I said. “A couple of customers made a run for it, but they mostly got cut to shit by the thorns. I sat tight. Allergies, you know? I was fucked the moment the briars grew.”
“Huh,” Jay said. The waitress arrived with our beers, putting the heavy steins on the table along with my change. I took a long slug from mine, but Jay just held his with both hands. “What about the dragon?” he said.
“We heard it,” I said, “but it was just roaring and the sound of wings; I had no idea what caused the ruckus until everything was taken care of.”
Jay’s face was getting tight, his mouth turning into a thin line. He was running out of questions to ask and I was running out of story to tell. I wished I hadn’t brought it up. There’s a reason I catch up with Jay on Briar Day; it never makes me feel like I missed some great and defining experience. Spending three days trapped inside a bank, ground floor city centre. Sometimes it was kind of like sleeping through Kennedy’s shooting when you had an apartment on Elm Street, Dallas, in November of sixty-three.
Still, I’d brought it up. Nothing to do but plough forward. “So how about you? What were you doing when the briars came?”
“We do this once.” Jay stared into his beer. He tipped the stein to one side, watching the liquid slosh around. “Just once.”
I nodded. Jay took a deep breath.
“You never met Caroline,” he said. “That’s probably why we’re still friends. I had people, friends, stop talking to me afterwards. No real reason, just picking sides. The usual shit that happens when people stop living together. And me and Caroline, man, it was always going to get ugly, somewhere along the line.”
He stopped and closed his eyes, frowning as he took another drink. When he opened them again he didn’t look at me, just focused on something over my shoulder. “Maybe that’s not a good way to start it. Let’s try this: I was baking. Butterscotch cookies, probably. I do that when I’m upset. It makes the house smell kinda soft and golden, gives me something to eat when the sugar crash kicks in. So let’s assume I was baking, even if I wasn’t. It was a Wednesday morning and I wasn’t going to work, hadn’t gone to work for a week. I pulled a tray of cookies out of the oven, then I turned and the kitchen was dark; shadows on the window, a few rays of afternoon sun getting through the foliage. Just like, wham, all of a sudden, there it was: thorns longer than your finger and those weird blood-rose flowers that were bigger than your head. The only things I could see from my kitchen were vines and the top of the street lights.
“None of this is special, I know that. It’s the same shit everyone blabs about: thorns, flowers, freaking out. None of it’s special, but it feels like it should have been. You start off panicked but eventually you start to feel safe, a little weirded out, but safe, and you start to calm down. That’s what happened to me. After I while I got used to the thorns.
“And that’s when my phone rang.
“If I’d been smart, I would have left it. I knew who was calling and we shouldn’t have been talking yet. I went looking for the phone anyway, telling myself Caroline was the kind of girl who’d keep ringing until I gave in. She wasn’t one for reading between the lines when you didn’t answer. When I picked up she said, ‘Thornbushes. Giant fricken’ thornbushes. You can see them too, yeah? It’s not just me?’
“‘It’s not just you,’ I told her. I was laying in bed, speaking on the cordless. I can remember playing with this red pillowcase I had, picking at the stray threads. Caroline didn’t say anything and I wasn’t really in the mood to be speaking, so I just sat there listening to the phone line cracking and the soft scratch of thorns as they embraced the house. It wasn’t really an awkward silence, but it should have been. Would have been, if things weren’t so weird before the call even started. We’d been doing it a lot, these non-conversations, and I was always the one who got tired of them first.
“‘Listen, Caroline,’ I said. ‘I gotta go.’ I still stumbled over her full name. I hadn’t used it in years, not since we first started dating, and it felt like I was talking to a stranger when I said it out loud. And she was, I guess. This Caroline was unfamiliar, a girl who sounded similar to someone I once dated, and talking to her made me feel hollowed out. The conversations usually devolved into fights after I got that feeling.
“‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I know I shouldn’t have called. It’s just…’
“‘Yeah, I get it.’ I said, but I didn’t. I told her I’d call her later and hung up. Then one of those flowers bloomed, right next to the window, and I felt like a bastard. I spent the next hour crashed out on the bed, not really thinking about the thorns. I really wanted to break something, so I was killing time until that feeling went away.
“Then I heard the dragon for the first time. It flew over the house and I heard the wings, that noise like the echo of a slap across the face. That freaked me out more than the thorns did.”
Jay tipped his head back, pouring as much beer as he could down his throat. When he put the stein down it was half-empty. He wiped the excess foam off his lips with his left arm.
“I thought the briars weren’t that bad, out your way,” I said.
Jay shrugged. “Maybe they weren’t.”
I noticed the buzz of the crowd for the first time, all those wrinkled old people hunched over their drinks and talking. It was too hot in the bar, far to hot. Jay put his drink down and stared at me. His eyes were turning red after the last two pints. Jay was a mean drunk. He should have been calling it a night. And I should’ve been calling Annie by that point, just to let her know where I was. It was polite, if nothing else. Jay blinked a few times, looked away. I lifted my beer to my lips, but I didn’t really feel like drinking anymore.
“I tuned into the news, just like everyone else,” Jay said. “I mean, what else are you going to do in an emergency? I sat through that anchorman with a perfect helmet of hair telling us that the suburbs were swamped, that there’d been sightings of a dragon in the city centre, that there were reports of the dragon kidnapping a maiden and holding her to ransom. They even called her that on the news: the maiden. You could tell he didn’t want to be saying it, but someone was making him go through with it. I guess once you accept the city is overrun with giant thorns, everything else becomes credible, so you start covering all the bases.
“He did a good job, the anchor, given the circumstances. Refused to be rattled by anything. They trotted out specialists to tell us what they thought was going on, then cut back to footage of the city getting choked to death by thorns. You could hear the steady whine of the rotor over the reporter’s commentary.
“The phone rang during the sports report. I muted the sound and picked it up. Didn’t even bother saying hello. And there was Caroline on the other end, asking if that was it. Wanting to know what good the news was if that’s all they had to offer.
“‘What more do you want?’ I asked her.
“‘Explanations,’ Caroline said. ‘Direction. Some idea about when it’ll end.’
“‘They don’t know, stay inside, and they have no idea,’ I said. ‘It’s not like they have any answers, is it?’
“‘It’s the news,’ Caroline said. ‘They should have answers. That’s why we watch.’
“‘You don’t watch the news.’
“‘I did today.’
“‘Once,’ I said. ‘Just once, this year. I’m not sure you’ve got grounds for a complaint.’
“Caroline laughed. I laughed. It felt like old times. Sometimes that happened, when she called, and it hurt. The sports report switched over to the weather; sunny with a strong chance of thorns and rain. Caroline wasn’t saying anything. I wasn’t saying anything. We remembered we weren’t together anymore.
“‘So,’ I said.
“‘Yeah,’ she said.
“The phone line crackled.
“‘I don’t have any answers either, Carol,’ I said.
“‘Yeah, sorry,’ Caroline said. ‘It’s just…’
“‘Yeah, it’s just,’ I said. It was always just back then, and I kept letting that work. I fidgeted, tapping out a rhythm on the coffee table with my toe. I don’t know what Caroline was doing on her end of the phone, but I’m willing to bet she was crying.
“‘Look, I’m just irritable,” I told her. ‘You know how I get when I’m inside for too long.’
“‘Yeah,’ Caroline said. Her voice was hard to hear, like she was whispering through a keyhole after locking herself in the bathroom. ‘I know.’
“She hung up. I hung up. I left the news on mute and listened to the thorns grinding against the windows, trying to get in.”
“You want another round?”
I jumped. There was a waitress looming over our table, thick eye shadow like two slices of orange peel beneath the line of her manicured eyebrows. She picked up my empty glass and added it to the pile on her tray. I looked at Jay; he shrugged.
“Sure,” I said. “Why the hell not?”
“You got any plans for later?” she asked. “Couple-a young guys like you, surely you’re heading for a party somewhere?”
Jay rolled his eyes.
“Probably not,” I said. “We’re just after a quiet one, you know? A chance to sit back and reflect.”
“Fair enough,” she said. “Happy Briar Day.”
The waitress took my money and left, heading for the bar. Jay sneered at her back.
“Fuck it,” he said. “This was a bad idea.”
“One waitress,” I said. “No big deal.”
“You started this,” Jay said. “‘What were you doing when the thorns came?’ You know what happens after you ask that.”
“Fine,” I said. “Fuck it, it’s my fault.”
“Has Annie called yet?” He started patting down his pockets, searching for his cigarettes. I fished a pack out of my jacket and slid it across the table. I didn’t check my phone. It’s not like she needed me to come home. Annie never really seemed to need me for anything. Jay lit up without pressing the issue.
“I was probably one of the first people to hear the dragon, you know,” I said. “I was awake a lot of the time; even with the antihistamines, the flowers were doing a number on my allergies. I was awake in the bank while everyone else was sleeping, taking cover behind the counter. I heard this damn rumble, like when a truck goes past you on the highway, and I felt it in my gut. It was fucking frightening, okay? Knowing that something was out there, without knowing what it was. Allergies and fear; it’s a fucking bad way of getting through the night.”
Jay waved a lit cigarette in the air. He adjusted his glasses to glare at me.
“The dragon,” he said. “Everyone goes on about the dragon, but the only person it hurt was that dick with the sword. You know what frightened me? The flowers. The way they’d burst open all of a sudden, so quick and soft that you heard the pop when they split apart. All that fucking pollen in the air, drifting away so it could create another thorn bush; that was fucking disconcerting.”
His eyes were frightening, wild as hell. He stopped and shook his head, the angry lines across his face disappearing. I took a deep breath. “Yeah,” I said. “The flowers. I dream about them sometimes.”
The waitress brought our drinks over. Jay looked at his like it was hiding something dangerous, swaying a little in his seat. “I tried to go to work,” he said. “That second day I got up and got ready like it was no big deal. I rolled out of bed and I showered, drank the last of the coffee and made a note to pick up more on my shopping list. I don’t know what I thought was going to happen when I was done. The house was still wrapped up tight, the windows blocked by thorns and vines. I couldn’t even see the streetlights anymore. There was no hot water either; I was on solar in that place and I figure the thorns had grown over the panels and blocked off the sun. I cut myself while I was shaving and I ironed a shirt while I was still half-asleep. I turned the radio on while I was having a shower and the Morning Crew was making jokes about the dragon, the knight, and that girl, the maiden, who they’d found hiding on the roof with the dragon around three in the morning. I turned it off again when I was dressed. All I really wanted at that point was some music.
“I got as far as the front door before I realised there was no way of leaving the house. I spent the rest of the morning on the couch, eating cracked fragments of butterscotch cookies, flicking through the news channels until I figured out what was going on. They had footage of the dragon in flight by then. It was a big, dark fucker, that dragon; black as an evil glass of cola. You could see it on every channel. The dragon and the attempts to get decent footage of the blond girl it captured-”
Jay clicked his fingers, searching for the name.
“Diana Crowther?” I said. Jay nodded.
“Yeah, her” he said. “I watched them trying to coax her out from underneath that satellite dish she hid behind whenever the dragon came close. I remember how weird it was, in this day and age, that suddenly there were dragons and kidnapped maidens on the TV. They were just starting to get the first real shots of that Crowther girl out in the open on the roof, the camera shot zooming in from a helicopter a couple of kilometres out from ground zero. Grainy details, a little pixilated, but you could see her yelling for help and crying. I got pissed off watching that, thinking about all those people who needed help, people trapped in their homes, hurt or dying, and this bitch was getting the focus because she’d been kidnapped by a dragon.
“Then they cut to the first footage of the knight.
“He looked like something off the cover of a romance novel. He had one of those square jaws with a dimple and the kind of long flowing hair that most guys can’t manage because they forget little things like washing it every day. He was harder to believe in than the dragon, somehow. The dragon looked real, for all that it was a big lizard with wings. The knight looked like he was an illustration given life, slicing his way through the briars, making a beeline for the city. And it wasn’t even like Diana Crowther was a princess, not when you saw her up close like that. She was just a pretty girl with blond hair and business suit, maybe twenty-three years old, who happened to be trapped on a roof by a dragon.
“The news reporters avoided words like knight at first. They just called him an unidentified citizen. We’d all been watching him go at it for two straight days before they got with the program and started using the term we’d all been thinking. I mean, he was good looking, he had a sword, and he wore about thirty kilograms of solid steel for protection. That means he’s a knight, no matter how you cut it. I think the anchorman was jealous of all that hair.
“Eventually they got bored with following him and taking long-range shots of the dragon, so we had the specialists trotted out to deliver the same messages as the night before.
“The phone rang. This time I counted to three before I answered it.
“‘I can’t go to work,’ Caroline said.
“‘There’s a lot of that going around.’
“‘I got dressed and fed the fish and went to open the front door, then I remembered.’
“‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I get that.’
“‘ I’m sorry,’ Caroline said. ‘I know you’d prefer it if I didn’t call.’
“‘It’s okay,’ I said. ‘Today’s a weird kind of day.’
“‘Did you hear the roaring last night?’ she said. I told her about the dragon.
“‘A dragon?’ she said. She didn’t sound convinced.
“‘According to the news;’ I told her. Then I told her as much as I could remember about the theories and the dragon and the knight. I searched the cushions for the remote. I flipped through channels until I found some cartoons.
“‘Wow,’ Caroline said. ‘I figured it was a lion or something.’
“‘A lion?’ Why would there have been a lion roaming the streets?
“‘I don’t know. There was a roar. Why wouldn’t it be a lion?’
“‘Is it just bored and looking for a good nightclub?’ I said. She told me to shut up.
“‘Maybe it was just searching for a late-night cappuccino?’ I said. I was proud of that one.
“‘It might have escaped from a zoo,’ Caroline said.
“‘Of course,’ I said. ‘It got itself locked out of the cage because it snuck away after lights out and forgot to hide a key under the flower-pot by the door.’
“‘Forget it,’ Caroline said. ‘Just forget it.’
“‘Of course, we don’t actually have a zoo,’ I said. ‘So we can explain the lion, but it opens up a whole new line of questioning about the mysterious origin of the zoo.’
“She told me I was dick and laughed. I was laughing too. It felt good to laugh, like it was possible to forget about the thorns and feel like everything was normal. Then Caroline said, ‘I miss you.’
“The laughter stopped. I let the line go quiet for a bit. I think she surprised herself with that one. The silence panicked me and I said something about the dragon, plunging on as though I hadn’t heard her. I tried making a joke about dragons having weird virgin fetishes, but it didn’t really work. In the end I shut up and closed my eyes, counting under my breath. I didn’t trust myself to plug the silence. Then we made our excuses, hung up. And afterwards all I could think about was that once upon a time I’d been good at making Caroline laugh.”
My phone buzzed in my pocket. I took it out and flipped it open, checking the number.
“Annie?” Jay said. I nodded. The message asked me what time I thought I’d get home.
“Should you be going?” Jay said. I shook my head. Annie and I had met at the bank, a couple of weeks after the briars were gone. Lots of people got together after all that happened, patching things up with former partners or falling hard for someone new, but whatever made us cling to each other was starting to wear off. I had plenty of friends who had separated over the last year. It made you think.
“Why are you still here?” Jay said. He drained the last of his beer out of its stein. “It’s getting late. She’ll worry. She’ll worry and you’ll fuck things up.”
“Finish your story,” I told him. Jay’s head rolled back a little as he focused his eyes in my direction.
“You’re a stupid fucker, you know that?” Jay said “Fine, fuck it, the rest of the story. It ends like this: on the third day, at six in the morning, I get another phone call. Caroline again, all in a panic, telling me to turn on the TV and tune into the news on Channel Nine. She stayed on the phone until I found it, waiting until she could hear the fight through the receiver. And there it was, the Knight squaring off against the dragon. Sword versus scale for the fate of Diana Crowther.
“You can’t really imagine what it’s like, seeing that live with your ex crying in your ear. Seeing it without knowing what’s going to happen, thinking the dragon’s going down because that’s what knights and dragons do. The knight kills the dragon and saves the girl; happily ever after. But it didn’t go like that, and I was sitting there with Caroline falling apart on the other end of the phone, and all I could do was say fuck over and over until the word started to go soft and I needed something worse to express my feelings.
“The camera zoomed in on the girl, getting a close-up of her right on the rooftop. She was on the edge of the building, watching it all go down. She wasn’t screaming, wasn’t crying, just standing there all pale and calm. Like she still thought someone was going to come rescue her. Caroline was crying on the other end of the phone and I couldn’t really handle it anymore. I hung up and had a shower, trying to wake up. I leant against the tiles, letting the cold water wash over me. I pushed my face into the showerhead and pretended I wasn’t crying.
“And when I got out I made breakfast like nothing had happened. I ate toast, let the phone ring a couple of times before I got fed up and unplugged it from the wall. I went back to bed and closed my eyes, pretending that I could go back to sleep. I thought of the girl on the building, guarded by the dragon, waiting for someone to save her. Someone had to, sooner or later.
“For a moment, just a couple of minutes, I wondered if maybe it could be me. I started rummaging through the house, found myself a jacket, something thick and heavy to help fend off the thorns. I searched the kitchen for a big knife, something that could hack its way through the arm-thick strands of the vine. And I got as far as the front door before I changed my mind. I put my ear to the wood and listened to the thorns, the quiet scritch-scritch of barbed fronds desperate to break inside. Then I went back into the lounge room and plugged the phone in. It wasn’t long before it rang.
“‘He died,’ Caroline said. ‘Oh my god, it killed him.’
“‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘It did.’
“‘But the girl,’ Caroline said. ‘The dragon? All the thorns around the city?’
“‘They’re problems,’ I said. ‘Someone will fix them. I mean, fuck it, that’s why we have scientists and armies, isn’t it? She doesn’t need some random guy with a shiny sword, she needs a SWAT team and the fire brigade.’
“Then I hung the phone up and cut the chord, cut through it with a knife. I didn’t turn on the news until the thorns went away a couple of days later and everyone started walking around like something special had happened. I didn’t replace my phone for a week, didn’t answer it for three or four. And there was no more it’s just with Caroline after that. No more conversations, really. I was over it. I stopped being whatever she thought I was after we broke up and started being just another guy she used to date.”
Jay opened his mouth to say something else, then he stopped and looked away across the bar. His knuckles were white as he lifted the beer stein. He drank everything that remained in one long gulp.
I’d seen the footage of that fight, in the aftermath after they rescued us from the bank. They still replayed it from time to time, especially once the documentaries started. It was always the same thing: the knight is slicing his way towards the tower, the dragon sees him and swoops down. No-one had gotten close to that tower with the dragon there, so the news was all over it. You saw shaky close-ups of each burning breath and sword stroke from a dozen angles, played out on every network. You saw that moment when the dragon catches him, picking that blonde-haired knight up in one claw. You saw the blood as his head was squeezed off, twisted between two claws.
And that close-up on Diana Crowther, watching all this from the top of the building, her face pale and her eyes full of tears. She was an average-looking girl, but that shot made her look beautiful. She instantly became the kind of girl you fall in love with. She was something more, something special, and I fell for her every time they interviewed her on the television.
“Fuck,” I said. “Aren’t you a charmer.”
“It’s not like I’m proud of the way it went down.” Jay stole another cigarette and lit it. “I’m not a knight, you know. I write computer code for a living. I work with a laptop. I drink beer on the weekends. I wasn’t saving anyone, and I was tired of holding onto the idea that I could.”
The fireworks started in the town square. We could hear the soft pops over the buzz of the bar. Jay turned towards the noise and closed his eyes. Somewhere out there, in the centre of the celebrations, Diana Crowther would be giving a speech or smiling for the cameras. They might even be shooting her hiding under that famous satellite dish, miming her fear of a dragon that’s been dead for three years. The waitress came and took our empty steins away. We didn’t order anything else. Jay nodded towards the sound of the fireworks.
“That’s what I imagined those flowers sounded like when they bloomed,” he said. “Just like that, but softer.”
I nodded. Jay shook his head and stood up. He’d looked better. “I gotta piss,” he said. “You should go home.”
“Annie’s not a worrier,” I said. “I can stop off and buy her flowers or something on the way home. She’ll forgive me.”
“It’s not about worry,” Jay said. “Hell, sometimes it’s got nothing to do with flowers. Call her and go home, you stupid fucker.” He shook his head and lurched away from the table, heading towards the men’s room. Maybe he was pissing. Maybe not. The sound of the fireworks ended and Jay still hadn’t come back from the bathroom. As I left I called Annie, punching the numbers on my phone with a clumsy thumb. She answered on the fourth ring, her voice sleepy. “I coming home soon,” I said. “I love you, okay?”
She said she loved me too, the words exchanged in our regular routine. A quick conversation, easy as hell; neither of us had to feel a damn thing.
Peter M. Ball is a writer from Brisbane, Australia. His publications include the novellas Horn and Bleed from Twelfth Planet Press, and his short stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Interfictions II and previous issues of Moonlight Tuber. He can be found online at www.petermball.com.