Weekly Illustrated Fiction Series:

No Dragons Press: A HIGH FANTASY Adventure

by Maggie Gibbs

Illustrations by Emily Ruf

Chapter Five: Addie Makes a Choice

As I pull off the main road that winds its way down the limestone bluffs to the town of Myrick below, I glance at my dashboard clock: 9:32, way too early for my eleven o’clock meeting with the guys, but late enough that Bradley could theoretically be heading over by now to pester me about my day, even on a Saturday.

My plan for The Talk—which I’ve actually, magically, finally convinced myself to have—is to meet briefly before my evening shift at the bar, which gives me a built-in end time. And the only way I’ll be able to manage it is if he doesn’t distract me in the meantime.

Once I’m blocked from the road by a low cluster of trees and parked in my usual hiding spot, I can breathe a little easier. Now, even if Bradley heads up the bluffs toward my house, he won’t see me on my way down. I kill the engine, click the radio back on, spark a bowl, and try to enjoy the scenery.

It’s the perfect time of year: the lush green slopes behind my house are bursting with trees and brush, the landscape dissected into vertical slices like watermarks by walking trails and limestone ridges—and to the east, beyond the city nestled under the bluff like barnacles, the browns and silvers and hazy blues of the river. In the fall, visitors from miles around swarm (and trample all over) the woods, scaling the bluffs to ooh and aah over the oranges and reds exploding from the slopes below, or heading back down and looking back up to ooh and aah over where they were.

But I love the summers here: the harsh sun gives the vibrant colors an air of overexposure, as if the intervening atmosphere were a separate layer across the scene and someone with more enthusiasm than taste had gone to town with the blur filter. They remind me of days spent hiking with my dad and s’mores in the backyard and fireflies dancing at dusk to alien bullfrogs and sizzle of insects and shuffling leaves.

But even though I’m back in the house I spent my childhood in, and, later, discarded it, with this conversation looming, I’m more comfortable here than my own home. No matter what reason I give Bradley for wanting to be alone, he’s been showing up unannounced more and more often lately, an apologetic grin on his face and Chinese takeout and a six-pack in his arms, and my avoidance tactics are simply no match for any of these. And it is a scientific fact that you can’t break up with a guy while he’s offering you egg rolls and Sam Adams. It’s like that thing about folding paper in on itself eleven times or whatever: against the laws of nature. Can’t be done.

The station flips from Queen to Rush to old-school Clapton, and every passing beat is a mantra: You can do it. You can do it.

When Morrissey starts droning at me, I curse and flip to public radio, then start the ignition. The forest recedes into my peripherals and the town below swallows me up, and as I wind down the bluffs to the clanging and chopping of a kitchen program, I can almost feel the density of the atmosphere around me, like I’m plunging into a cold bath, shocking me into my senses.

I’m doing it. I’m really doing it.

And when it’s over, I’m shutting myself in, locking the door, turning off my phone, and smoking the biggest bowl in the world.

But somewhere in the winding miles between my lookout in the bluffs and the intersection of Madison and Twenty-Fourth, somewhere past the threshold of atmospheric sea level, my confidence has dwindled along with the elevation. I’m usually happy to spend time with the No Dragons Press crew, not to mention it’s Saturday morning. I may not have a regular nine-to-five, but there’s still something about Saturday mornings in the bluffs that casts a sepia tone over everything, making everything in the world perfect, like life is looking at you through a pair of Blueblockers, or like you have your own personal Instagram filter across your brain.

But today, even the fact that it’s Saturday can’t pull me out of my funk. I am not looking forward to this.

If you’re wondering what business a graphic designer has reading slush pile submissions for an independent speculative fiction magazine, the answer to that would be none whatsoever. Which, coincidentally, is the exact same amount of business an ex-engineering student has with any of this, but that hasn’t stopped Tristan so far, so it isn’t about to stop me. Plus, after a few weeks to figure out just what type of submissions Nate and Duc (and Tristan) are looking for, I’m starting to think I might actually have a knack for this.

Hey, there’s a first for everything.

“Where’s Duc?” I say to Nate’s upstairs apartment, tossing a dozen-box of donuts—now down to ten—on the kitchen table before shrugging my coat off and tossing it over a chair. I sit and begin working on my boots.

“He’s not here,” Tristan responds in that answering-without-answering way he has. Then he plucks my jacket off the chair and takes it into Nate’s bedroom, where he brushes it smooth with the back of a delicate hand before laying it across the bed in neat folds. This always strikes me as unreasonably precious, if a little goofy given that he doesn’t actually live here, and I suppress an urge to get up and hug him.

“Post office,” Nate informs me from the couch. “Picking up the monthly submissions.”

“You only pick them up once a month?” I say. “How does the post office feel about that?”

“They don’t love it,” Nate says cheerfully, the way he says everything.

I look askance at the messy pile of clipped and stapled manuscripts spilled over the coffee table before him. That means this mound consists of last month’s submissions—which means we have our work cut out for us.

Once I’m shoeless, I cross through the kitchen and into the rest of the apartment and sink into the armchair I’ve gotten in the habit of claiming, smiling at Nate as I tuck my legs up underneath me.

But my smile doesn’t stick.

It’s not fair that it all happened so seamlessly—that something that snuck up on me until my thoughts, my time, my nights were all wrapped up in it should require something so huge and dramatic and painful just to extricate myself from it. If only people could separate in the same way they got together: each waiting for the other to make a move, then slowly building actions toward habits until that inevitable choice between occupying more of each other’s airspace or slowly fading away into strangers.

Seriously, though—when did I lose slowly fading away as an option? I try to think back to the beginning of our couple-year relationship, but right now I can’t for the life of me remember actually meeting Bradley. It’s like he’s always just . . . been there.

Am I the biggest coward in the universe? Probably. But I’m, you know, finally doing something about it, right? Assuming I can get through it without dying from of sheer awkwardness.

“You OK?”

I consciously smooth my forehead and smile brightly at Nate. “Oh, but of course,” I say, chipper and British.

Nate gives me a sympathetic smile and does not press the issue. This is one of my favorite things about him: he lets people just be without trying to solve them like a puzzle or tune them like a guitar, which is a rare quality. At any rate, I’m not exactly a lets-talk-about-our-feelings kind of person . . . and even if I were, and even if I didn’t have The Talk on the horizon, I’m very clear that Nate is not the person to open up to about this.

But this doesn’t really have anything to do with Nate, not really. Or it has everything to do with him, but then just as much to do with Tristan and Duc. It’s more the idea of Nate, the notion that there might be other people out there who I can enjoy being around more than Bradley—and the equally novel concept that I might actually deserve that kind of enjoyment.

I cough, in case there’s any scrutiny to deflect. “So all these are last month’s?” I say, projecting my dismay onto the pile of manuscripts.

Tristan stops pacing, a sub in one hand and a fist of his own hair in the other, and snaps his head up to face me. “Oh. Not all of them. I’ve got the rest in a box downsta—”

“I’ll get it,” I say, springing off the couch and heading for the kitchen. And get out of here before I spring a leak, I don’t add. “Where is it?”

Tristan peers at me, then shrugs. “They’re on the desk with the book on it. The one Duc spilled the coffee on that time. The—”

“I’ll find it,” I say quickly. Then I yank the door open, pull myself through, and slip down the stairs to the No Dragons Press offices in my stocking-feet, before anyone can see in my face that I’m beginning to drown.

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