I opened my eyes and looked to my side. All I could see was tall grass and a caterpillar on a grassy reed.
“Am I dead?”
“No, far from it. Welcome to a whole new world…or a great kingdom, however you want to call it.”
I stood up and looked to Gabe. He appeared at ease and calm, like this was just another everyday, common occurrence for him.
“Care to take a look around?
“Look around for wha—” I looked to the distance to see a massive fortress.
“That’s where the king lives.”
“Yeah, you know: kings, knights, knaves, princesses, chivalry, and all that.”
“Yeah, right. So I’m a knight on a quest? That’s your test?”
“Well, it was either to try and get you to go up to her in a modern sense with the teenage eyes of cruel judgment holding court over you or you could go against a fire-breathing dragon. I thought this would be easier.”
“Dragon? Whoa, you’re serious?”
“Look around. We’re standing in the shadows of a citadel.”
“That doesn’t mean there has to be a dragon.”
“How about a row of your peers and you, standing, in clown pants?”
“Bring on the dragon.”
We walked for what seemed like hours but was probably less than fifteen minutes. I could feel the sweat dripping off my head as we trudged through the rocky terrain. Gabe looked like he could run the New York Marathon—twice—with a backpack full of lead, and still not feel any pain. We finally stopped at the mouth of a large cave.
“Think you can handle it?”
“Why am I having to fight a dragon? “
“Let’s set the scene: We have a dark cave, you have a sword…oh, and we have to have the obligatory princess in distress, right?
“Of course, the question still remains: what does a dragon do with a princess? Besides eating them, I don’t think that’s ever been looked into…Not like they’re very good with conversation.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Draw the sword, slay the dragon. Get on the bandwagon here.”
“Yep! Go get ’em!”
“He’s not going to die anytime soon on his own.”
I walked into the mouth of the cave but then stopped. Not because I was afraid, but because I really didn’t see the point of it.
“This isn’t real…it’s just a—”
“Dream? Fine. Wake up then.”
“I don’t think you’d let me if—”
An ear-piercing screech filled the air as I crept into the darkness.
“A flashlight would be great right now,” I muttered to no one in particular as the darkness closed in. Soon, I found myself feeling around the rocks and shuffling my feet. If I was going to die, it was not going to be due to taking a leisurely stroll into a spike-filled trap or something. Of course, I could have slammed my head on a stalactite and receive a gash so huge I’d topple to the ground in agony. Either way, I was ill at ease.
The feeling of dread did not go away the further I went into the cavern. Every other minute or so, another “fingernails on a chalkboard” screech reverberated off the walls. Then I felt a hand tap on my shoulder.
I swiped my hand at it and felt nothing.
Then a finger tapped at my back.
And another one flicked my forehead.
“Very funny, Gabe…ha ha. Where have you been all this time while I’ve been crawling blindly around this ca—?”
Several hands grabbed me, and I slammed my back against the wall. Unless he grew three more sets of hands, it couldn’t be Gabe. Was it the dragon? Crazy thieves? Large roaches that wanted me to know how it felt to be squished? I couldn’t tell, but I chose to swing my arms and fists in a desperate attempt to connect with something.
“Let me go!”
I darted forward and ran as fast as I could—even though I had the squeamish thought that I was going to collide with something in the darkness. “Oh, Mr. Bottomless Pit? Where art thou?”
I stopped running, eventually, and leaned against the side to catch my breath and to wince because my back was aching from…well, from whatever it was back there.
“What were you looking at?
“Who else would be in here with you?
“There were hands…hands—”
“Hands reaching out to get you and pull you into the shadowy darkness?”
“Do you see any of them now?”
“No. I don’t really see much of anything.”
“You know, I forgot to give you something.”
“A sword. Here, take mine.” I shielded my eyes as a blinding light shot out before me. I could barely see Gabe as he handed over the burning sword. “Don’t you have a princess to save?”
Grasping the sword's hilt with a new found bravado, I walked steadfast through the now brightly illuminated cavern. What was dark and foreboding was now lit up and…still looked foreboding. Not to mention the shrieking roar, which got progressively louder with each step. I finally stepped into a large open-spaced room—with a large crevice between me, a large, leathery-colored dragon…and…Tiffany, sitting rather calmly at a desk.
The gorge was at least…well, I don’t really recall how large it was…but I knew I had to cross it. I had a princess to rescue. How to do it? Stealth? Full frontal assault? Talk it into submission? I looked at the sword in my hand and then at the dragon.
“I’m not backing down.” I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and ran toward the chasm.
With sword drawn, I leaped down to the ground and locked eyes with the fiery beast. It reared back and opened its mouth.
A hail of dragon fire shot toward me, but I dodged to the left and circled around.
And it screeched again, and another barrage of flame came at me, this time over my head. I ran closer to the dragon and took a swing at it, striking at a bony plate that caused me to nearly drop the sword on impact.
The dragon was not amused, and it lunged at me. Deftly, I struck at its face, causing the dragon to recoil and scream. Time was now of the essence. The giant lizard was not in a good mood when I arrived, and striking at it would not earn me any points. I had to put it down.
Duck, parry, thrust, kick, strike.
Dodge, evade—a glimmer of sweat fell from my brow as I ran up the dragon’s tail to the center of its back and stabbed it in the heart. The sword burned through, down to the ground, and the dragon fell to the floor in a crumpled heap.
I drew the blade out, and it was clean, clear of any blood whatsoever.
I turned to where Tiffany sat against the wall.
“Hi…uhh…” At that moment, any ounce of courage that I thought I had withered away. No amount of kryptonite could compare to it.
“Problem? Hey, nice sword.”
Gabe walked up from behind me and took his sword back in a quick grab.
“This is where I wake up. Right here. I never get to ask her.”
“Do you want to wake up now?”
“It doesn’t matter. She’s not real…this isn’t really her.”
“You’re wrong and you’re right. It does matter. And true, this isn’t her, but that didn’t stop you.”
“It’s just a dream though.”
“Maybe so, or maybe you’re just thinking way too hard about everything else except what you should just go and do. You’re in a cave with a sword. There is a dead dragon over there. Who killed it?”
“Yeah, I get that.”
“At any time did you think it was hopeless or impossible to succeed?”
“No. Well, it was hard to--to try”
“Then stop trying. And just ask her.”
* * *
Once again, I could hardly sit still in seventh period English. Forget the fact that I could barely tolerate reading The Hobbit; there was so much more on my mind. I was never a clock watcher, but I became one for the remaining fifty-three minutes and twenty seconds of class. The clock hands moved at an incredibly slow pace, almost falling back a second for every two it moved forward. Yes, I felt that time was now against me. It would have been a fitting time for the world to end right at that moment, or any time after that.
I had it all planned out this time: find her after school, walk with her for a bit, and then pop the question. Well, no, not that question, perhaps that was a bit overzealous, considering the fact that I had no idea what she would think of such a question. Our student handbooks did mention married students…but I think it was because it was used for the high school and, to save money, they gave the same handbook to the junior high kids.
“Okay, back it up a bit, Dennereck,” I thought to myself. “Don’t walk up to her like you’re an insane maniac. Play it calm. Everything will work out. Nothing will go wrong.”
“Yes, Mrs. Jemison?”
“Since you don’t feel like reading, why don’t you march yourself to the office.”
“Can I read instead?”
“Are you telling me how I should run my class?”
The bell chimed at 3:20 and I ran into the hallway. I was never one to push my way out of class, but on that day, I would probably shove a band of blind nuns to get where I was going to. The hallways were packed with a sea of bodies. If there was ever a superpower that I wished I could have, it would the power of flight or levitation—anything to rise above the masses and get to where I needed to be. At this time, I wanted that wish more than free pizza for life…because I could not find Tiffany anywhere. That, and I really didn’t know where her locker was to begin with.
“Think, Jason, think. You never see her at the front buses, so maybe she’s at the side.”
Keith stepped up beside me as I piled my books into his hands.
“I have to go do something…try to stop the bus from leaving.”
“I’ll be right back.”
“You didn’t answer the question!”
I ran out the side door and across the front of the school so fast you’d swear the building was either on fire or that a rampaging lion was hot on my heels. Life was an obstacle course as I had to sidestep other students, some twirling backpacks, purses, or a tuba case. I passed by two buses until I saw her walking toward the third and final bus on the side.
“Tiffany,” I said her name without fear…of course, at this point I was at the point of no return. There was no going back now.
“Umm…” I tried to not sound like I was out of breath, but it failed. “I really don’t know how to say this, umm…”
“Okay…umm, there’s the dance tomorrow night, and would you like to go?”
“Yes, I would. I’d have to see if I can. Parents, you know.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“But if they say yes, then yes. I’ll love to go with you. Can we talk about it tomorrow before band?”
“Yes, of course. I’ll see you then. Umm…well, I don’t want you to miss your bus.”
“Thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow. Bye, Jason.”
“See you tomorrow.”
She walked onto the bus but looked back to me and smiled.
I stepped back from the sidewalk and turned to see Keith behind me.
All I could do was stand there with a stupid grin plastered on my face.
We stood on the side as the bus pulled away.
“Dude, did you ask her?”
“Weren’t you watching?”
“Yeah, but I thought she was telling you to drop dead or something, so— “
“Thanks a lot.”
“You set the expectation. Oh, and you’re gonna have to call your mom.”
“Bus left already?”
Despite the short lecture I received from my parents about missing the bus, nothing could make me lose the high that I was on. I could feel it was truly the start of something that would continue on through high school, college…eternity even! The thoughts running through my head were dizzying. Where to begin? What would I say to move it to the next direction, and why didn’t I ask her for her phone number? Not a huge deal—there would be time to ask her tomorrow. Now that the hard part was over, there was nothing that could stop me.
We ate dinner with very little conversation, which was normal, as my parents never really asked me how my day at school was unless I volunteered the information, and usually, I never volunteered anything beyond “it was okay.”
My parents looked back and forth at each other, like each one wanted to tell me something but didn’t know how to phrase it.
“Jason, I have some news for you.”
“Okay?” I said in that manner that kind of sounds like a question but really means “I’m not sure I want to hear what you’re about to say.”
“Across town?” I hoped this was the answer. Sure, I’d miss Keith, but perhaps a bigger house in a new neighborhood—with a pool maybe—would be fun.
“No, across country,” Mom replied.
“How far cross country?”
“Spokane, Washington,” Dad replied.
At that moment, the food in my mouth tasted like dirt, and a giant pit grew in my stomach. I wanted to throw up right then and there, but if I did, I think that I’d start crying right after that, and I really didn’t want to do that either.
“We can’t move…we just moved here, like seven months ago, and we have to stay for three years or…or longer.”
“Not how it works, Jase.”
“Can you put in a request to stay, or can you defy the order? Don’t you have some seniority to say no?”
“If only,” Mom replied. “I have to pack the bookcases again.”
“Okay, so what if I stay here? I can take the bus to school, order pizza for dinner, and call you if I need help with homework.”
“Are you going to mow the lawn too?”
“Don’t think that’s going to work.”
“Why do you want to stay here?” Mom asked.
“I just do, okay? Can I be excused?”
“It’s just…you wouldn’t understand.”
Of course they wouldn’t understand the issue. They were parents. If I was to tell them what happened, if I had stated that I finally acquired the nerve to actually talk with Tiffany, they would either not care or throw some pearl of wisdom like, “You’ll meet someone else one day" or simply dismiss it as “that’s life” and say that I need to move on with it. I actually didn’t want to leave my school.
I didn’t want to leave Prattville.
I didn’t want to go somewhere new and lose everything I had. I didn’t have much, but I had a friend, and I had a love; and in my book, that was too much to let go.
I walked up the stairs to room and silently closed the door. Slamming it would only get the ire of my parents, even though at that moment I wanted to do something to ease the pain I felt.
“It can’t end like this. It just got started. It’s like getting ready to watch a movie and then you fall asleep and wake up at the end. I don’t want to miss this.”
Lydia stood at the other end of the room with her arms crossed.
“I know. I know. You got over your fears and you asked her and she said yes and you feel so much happiness right now. I’m sad that it feels like this is the end, but there is a way to stop it.”
“At least I think you can do it. You’d do anything for her, right?”
“You’d jump off a bridge?”
“I don’t think she’d ever ask me to.”
“You never know what people will ask of you, but you have to be ready to give up everything for them. Are you willing to give up everything?”
“It’s not just a saying, you know? When you love somebody, you give all you can for them, at the sacrifice of yourself to be with them. Do you want that?”
“You just can’t say you love her. You have to show it. Show her the future of the two of you together. Would you like that?”
“With all my heart, I—”
“I don’t know. I don’t think you—”
“I’ll do whatever I have to do. I want a future with her.”
“We’ll work with that.”
She picked up a large book from off my bookshelf. The cover was leather-like, and it looked very old, and I had never seen anything like it at all in my room or in any library.
“I need to assign a little homework. You need to read this.”
“What’s it about?” I asked as she handed it over. It was pretty heavy, and the book’s weight seemed to increase with each passing second.
“I can’t tell you that, it would spoil the ending, but I’ll give you a hint: it’s not about an 'it' but more of a 'who'. The story of a lifetime. And I’m not referring to Bilbo Baggins”
I opened the book to the last page, it was blank. “What do I do with it?”
“Write the ending you want. But it’s best to start at the beginning…or the middle, if you choose.”
“The ending I want…”
I turned to the first page, and in a large, as in a “you couldn’t miss it even if you were blind” font, the title of the book sprung out: Tiffany Creighton.
“Keep reading…I think you’ll learn everything you want to know.”
I turned through the pages.
“This says everything?”
“Is it divided into chapters?”
“I suggest you just read through it…be careful though.”
I kept turning through the pages, partially ignoring whatever Lydia was saying at that moment. It was just so cool. I could know her birthday.
The pages went by in a blur as I tried to read everything—locations, names, people—but soon, my eyes and brain were at odds on who would stay awake the longest. I don’t recall when I finally dozed off, but I woke up with my head hanging over my bed and the book lying on the floor.
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