No Dragons Press: Book 1

by Maggie Gibbs

Illustrations by Emily Ruf

 

Chapter One: Addie Gets a Job

“Everyone’s trying to be Philip K. Dick.”

This is how Tristan greets me that first day, though of course he isn’t Tristan to me yet, and it isn’t much of a greeting. Here in the doorway of No Dragons Press, he’s just a lanky young man with large, shadowed eyes under dust-colored glasses, a morose expression on his pale face. In the hand that isn’t propping the door open, he’s clutching a stapled packet of pages so tightly a starburst of wrinkles shoots from his thumb to the edges. “Why is everyone trying to be Philip K. Dick?”

I blink, thrown off my prepared introduction. I am not ruffled, exactly—I don’t do ruffled—but I do get the feeling that the opportunity for “I’m Addie MacAlister and I’m here to apply for the graphic design position” has somehow come and gone.

I wonder, briefly, if I’m high enough for this.

“I thought you wanted everyone to be like Philip K. Dick,” calls a dry voice from somewhere unseen, saving me from having to respond just yet.

The guy at the door gives a deep eye roll, like he’s looking inside his own head for the source of the voice. “I want everyone to be him, not to try to be. There’s a difference.” He resumes frowning at the document.

That’s it. I must have the address wrong. I’ve somehow wandered into the wrong building, and this is an improv class or script rehearsal or some sort of role-playing kind of therapy that has escaped my radar until now—whatever it is, there’s no way I’m in the right place.

Just in case I’m right, I sneak another look at the door under Tristan’s hand. But there it is—NO DRAGONS PRESS—in bold letters on the frosted glass panel. This is definitely the place . . . but who the hell is Philip K. Dick? Is this some sort of test?

 

Then, I feel a flicker of a memory from a hazy Netflix session with Bradley. Harrison Ford, some creepy android stuff . . .

“The Blade Runner guy?”

But if this is a test, I appear to be failing. The man sends me a wounded look, the sunkenness of his eyes even more pronounced. He is so pale he’s a caricature of paleness, a skeletal ghost, and he focuses on me with an impressive glower. “The guy who wrote the short story Blade Runner was based on, yes.” Underneath his gloom is now smug indignation.

He returns his eyes to his fist, and since nothing better comes to mind, I watch him mutter at the crumpled pages. He looks a bit younger than me, mid-twenties or so. He’s wearing a faded T-shirt from someone’s distant past; over this an open work shirt, also faded, hangs from his shoulders with a look of permanence, sleeves crammed up above his elbows in a haphazard way that tells me cuffing them has never crossed his mind as an option. Topping all of this is a dark mop of hair that, while not greasy per se, could probably stand a wash. I’m guessing grad student—he has that look of professional scholarship—but the stains spotting his work pants look more industrial than gastronomical.

I frown down at my own “interview clothes,” already constraining me in ways no human was ever meant to be constrained. Should have gone with the sweatshirt and jeans after all.

When I look up, the heavy door is swinging directly toward my face.

My reflexes kick in, and I’m mildly surprised by my hand meeting the door—just in time to keep this interview from becoming a bloodbath.

Exactly two inches from my face, neat but plain fingers contrast layers of broken paint, each scuff and chip along the door’s edge hinting at an endless history. and as I consider things from this new vantage point, where my nose is an inch away from being shattered, a thought occurs.

I could leave, right now. Leave and head back to my bar, never mention to Bradley that I ever had this ridiculous urge to stretch out and see what I could reach. But whether or not I tell anyone I bailed, I will know the truth: that I failed before I even began at the one thing I’d decided to actually try.

It turns out I am high enough for this, because instead of turning and fleeing, decisive steps carry me across the threshold before I can talk myself out of it. When I turn to give the door a firm push closed, I find NO DRAGONS PRESS staring at me in reverse in the glass window, like some piece of heavy-handed Hollywood foreboding. I resist the urge to stick my tongue out at it, settle for screwing my eyes up in a scowl instead, then turn to assess the pale man circumnavigating the room.

Who has forgotten about me entirely.

He isn’t, I see now, as tall as I’d first thought. Slouched against the door, he gave the impression of coiled length, as if unfurled he would tower above me. Now that he’s standing, I see it’s his slender boniness that implies height. He’s an optical illusion.

I cough, shifting to get a better grip on my massive portfolio. “So, would you like to see some work samples?” I say in as bright a voice as I can muster. “It’s Addie, by the way.”

He lifts his head from the crumpled ball of paper he’s been quietly chastising and fixes his great cavernous eyes on me, as if he’s surprised to see me still here. Or maybe as if he’s just noticed me, although I’ve been standing here for the better part of ten minutes. (Which, okay, could easily be more like three, temporal awareness being a sliding scale sometimes. Sue me.)

“I’m here to apply for the graphic design position,” I add.

The next few moments are spent blinking at each other.

Because I am a professional smoker, I have developed a finely honed ability to pivot, to respond to any set of circumstances with nimble grace. It is, generally, a good decoy.

Because of this ability to pivot, I remember that the best way to deal with ridiculous situations is serene confidence, especially when trying to appear qualified for something. So I serenely lift my oversize folder and confidently do the thing where I open my eyes just wider than I feel like I should. Then I give the man a smile of calm assurance (which at least one of us could use right now), untwist the clasp, and begin fumbling for my best work.

But a corner of something is stuck on a corner of something else, and now nothing will go back in—but when I look up to give ol’ pale-and-gaunt another look of assurance, he’s nowhere in sight.

Sigh.

Maybe I’m too high for this.

Ha. Never. Resolved to make myself comfortable and see what happens next, I lean back against the door assess my surroundings.

Two closed doors stand to one side of a hallway leading back into the building. One sports an emphatically hand-drawn Do Not Enter sign, fixed in place with an equally emphatic tape job. The sign is pretty hilarious, but there’s something about the door—dark, dense, knotted wood, with a worn brass handle. Or maybe it’s how the door contrasts the very new, very shiny bolt lock attached to the front of it that unsettles me. The couch against the opposite wall is faded, floral, and, judging by the thick layer of dusty footprints and the bookshelf set in the wall above it, used exclusively as a stool. Hard plastic chairs huddle in clusters, the clock over the hallway has been out of batteries since some long-gone 7:06, and the whole place smells like a combination of printer ink and Chinese food and dark spaces. I can’t help but smile—everything about the room tells me I made it on the right side of the door before it closed.

After briefly considering the couch—which looks pretty hopeless, and I’m not super into an ass full of dust—I head toward one of the hard plastics in the hallway. Maybe I can catch a glimpse of whoever’s supposed to be running this job interview.

Once I’m settled, I can hear the unbroken chatter of a keyboard echoing into the hallway. But after maximizing all available sight lines the best I can with butt still technically in chair, I’m only able to see into one room. It’s empty.

Can’t do anything about it now, though. That door is four feet from my perch, and it is my policy not to attempt ambitious feats of spatial awareness when I’m playing it straight. I am a professional. So I sit, and I wait.

“Addie?”

If Tristan is the pale man who greeted me (ish) at the door, the man currently pretending not to notice the three feet I just cleared is his shorter, darker doppelgänger—right down to the glasses and the button-down shirt, although this version looks like he’s seen a mirror today. A slim laptop is tucked under his arm, and though his lip twitches slightly, he does an admirable job of giving me space to recover from my surprise without drawing attention to the fact that he’s doing it.

And then, in what is officially the most normal behavior I’ve witnessed so far today, he extends his hand for a shake. “I’m Duc,” he says. “Come on. Tristan is gathering the supplies.”

As he turns and walks back toward the main space, I pause to consider what I’ve gotten myself into, conclude that “supplies” sounds vaguely ominous, and remind myself to keep breathing. This may be the strangest job interview in the history of the world (and I’m pretty sure it hasn’t actually started yet), but I’m still here. That’s got to count for something, right?

But before I can follow Duc into the open space, the pale man is back, brushing past me and thrusting a slim packet of papers into my arms. Then he rides his own momentum into the dusty couch, flinging himself down and pressing his face into his hands.

I look around, mystified—at Duc, liberating a chair from a pile of books by moving them to the empty chair next to it—then at Tristan, cradling his head in his tree-frog hands. I may not know entirely what’s going on here, but I suddenly, fiercely realize one thing: I am really goddamn tired of everyone always trying to be normal.

It is immediately clear that the person responsible for the cover art on the slender folio I’m holding is also responsible for the Do Not Enter sign (and I have a pretty solid guess who that person is). The words No Dragons Press have been scrawled painstakingly across the entire top third in an odd, angular flourish—sort of Renaissance Fair meets Space Invaders. The D is disproportionately huge, shaped into what I recognize, after a moment, as a dragon, in the process of being decapitated by a thick, jagged sword—an action depicted in earnest detail and emphasized by giant double curves implying motion. The dragon’s head, naturally, is hovering suspended over its body, blood dispersed around and behind the rest of the logo in a cloudy, intricate mass.

When I look up, Tristan is peeking at me from between two fingers. Part of me expects him to snap them together, but he doesn’t, and that one eye remains fixed on me like a spotlight. I look back down at the pages quickly, suppressing a giggle.

“So, what do you think?” prompts Tristan.

“It’s very . . . nice. Very, ah, expressive.” I’m hedging, unsure of the scope of his question. I focus on the dragon’s tail, which I now see sports not just spikes but some sort of club as well, clasped in its prehensile grip. I cough.

“It’s just that Duc thinks we need something simpler,” Tristan is explaining, gesturing in the shorter man’s general direction, but Duc is buried in his open laptop and ignores him. “For the website, you see—maybe a little bit less blood, so the whole thing really pops against the background. Simpler, but something that still, you know, encapsulates the message of the original version.” He looks at me expectantly, as if he’s clarified his final point and now it’s my turn.

My turn.

“Right.” I pause. “Which is . . .”

“No dragons,” he says. “Fuck dragons.”

“Sure,” I agree. “Fuck dragons.”

I take a moment to consider how entirely, unbelievably odd the last several minutes have become. Then I take out my drawing pad anyway. “Okay. So you want less blood . . . because of the background?”

Duc stops clicking and closes his laptop with a sigh. “I don’t think it’s a matter of less blood,” he begins. “I think—”

“What we want,” Tristan cuts in, “is to stay true to the message behind the original version.” It’s clear he’s heard this particular point before. “And the original message—”

“—I think it’s a matter of no blood,” Duc continues calmly, as if this is how most conversations with Tristan go, which would not surprise me. I, meanwhile, feel a bit like I’m watching a somewhat baffling tennis match in which some key rule has changed and I never got the update.

“The original message,” Tristan says, almost tripping over his words in his excitement, “is that what we’re looking for is big, bold, creative, fresh ideas in the realm of speculative fiction. In any associated subgenre, nearly any subgenre—”

“But no dragons,” I break in.

“Bingo,” Tristan says, clicking his fingers at me. “Fuck ’em.”

Duc and Tristan start down a technical-sounding tangent involving genres, but I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten all the direction I’m going to get for the moment, so I tune them out.

If they’re really bringing their newsletter into the brave new world of the Internet, they’re definitely going to need less—less blood, less in general. Leaving aside the “enthusiastic amateur” style and dying-dragon motif, the current logo is way too busy to be effective. Simplification is definitely required.

And what is it they’re trying to convey, anyway? I’m still not entirely sure whether the ban is on dragons, specifically, or the fantasy genre at large—or are dragons acceptable subject matter if they’re brutally murdered in the end? I’m not about to try asking them, because it sounds like they’ve moved into a discussion of the individual moods inspired by acute and obtuse angles, which I don’t need to interrupt right now. I’ve got this.

I stop listening again and begin to draw.

Since I am a fully functioning human adult, I have embraced my lifestyle choice of spending dreamy afternoons in a hazy blur of freelance design work and episodes of Quantum Leap. But lately—even when Bradley’s around, sometimes—the couch has felt sinister, vacuous, as if I’m a tiny spot on an infinite canvas and I’m being sucked down into the cushions to languish among the pennies and dimes, a victim of my own gravitational field. During times like these, the couch and the gravity and the Quantum Leap all feel too big for one person.

I frown, unable to dodge this thought any longer, and file it away under shit I really need to deal with at some point. Not really my style—addressing shit—but neither is being unhappy with my life, which is what I suddenly realize I’ve been.

“It’s got to be bold,” Tristan is saying, waving his arms.

Duc is nodding sagely, pushing his glasses up his nose with a finger. “Bold,” he echoes.

“It needs dark shapes,” Tristan says helpfully in response, “great dark shapes, which are also bold.”

And just like that, a sense of purpose settles over me, as if I’ve just given myself a firm handshake. I had sent in my resume more as an exercise in futility than anything else, to prove that it would fail. But the little voice in the back of my head that sometimes reminds me to sit up and pay attention is whispering This! This is what you’ve been looking for.

“It needs to establish authority—”

“Inspire respect—”

“Strike fear—”

“How’s this?” I say, and I hold out my pad.

They stop talking.

I’ve drawn a simple logo containing two elements. First is a smoothly elegant, medieval-looking emblem of a dragon’s head in profile, slender and undulating, a solid icon with a lightly shaded bevel. Ridges on its back arc gracefully up as its neck curves in an attack posture, forked tongue protruding from fanged jaws. Then, around the dragon and in front of it, is a circle with a line through it: the universal sign for no.

I look up to find two twin expressions of amazement. Tristan isn’t complaining and Duc isn’t typing, which I’m beginning to understand are both good signs.

“No dragons,” I clarify to the silence. Then I stop talking, sit quietly, and wait, because this time, the silence is not uncomfortable.

And it is then, while I’m mentally cheersing myself for scaling just about every obstacle one interview can possibly throw at me, that the closet door opens and a lumberjack steps out.

Did you know?

LISTEN TO EPISODE ONE