Weekly Illustrated Fiction Series:
No Dragons Press: A HIGH FANTASY Adventure
by Maggie Gibbs
Illustrations by Emily Ruf
Chapter Thirteen: Bad News and Good News
Ask any frequent smoker, and assuming they know you’re neither a cop nor an asshole, they’ll be proud to show you their setup. Some people are blatant carriers of baggies and glass pipes; some carry joints tucked inside cigarette boxes or wallets; some have intricate custom jobs, secret folds and pouches sewn into hems.
My simple canvas bag contains a tiny hidden pouch between two other compartments, and it is without a doubt the bag’s most valuable feature. Any modest bulk is easily mistaken for the contents of the neighboring pouch, and unless you know where to look for it, tucked away, the closed zipper looks like nothing more than a seam. It has passed more than a few bag checks in its day.
It is from that secret pocket that I now extract a flat, opaque plastic cosmetics jar and a tube of lip gloss: two ordinary objects which anyone who did manage to find would glance over and forget entirely.
But if that person were to investigate the contents of these containers, as I am doing now, he or she would find a small quantity of not face cream but marijuana, and instead of lip gloss, a small metal one-hitter concealed inside the hollowed-out tube where the product used to be. (The weight is off and there’s a rattle, but it’ll pass any sight test.) The setup is very convenient, very discreet, and precisely tailored to my needs.
It’s also very small, I reflect not for the first time, shaking the tiny plastic jar in the air and squinting dubiously at it, testing it for weight. It’s only about a twelfth of what I have back home in my trusty little jar in Myrick, but it doesn’t look like I’ll have the opportunity to refill it any time soon.
But I quell that thought before it has a chance to sour my mood. It is what it is, and I’ve found that stressing about it is a great way to ruin the very moment you’re about to make a little more joyful. It’s just good policy not to worry about future dry spells, and the universe going completely mad is no exception.
Then again, it’s also usually good policy to not go absolutely ballistic, but I’m hoping the universe going mad is actually a decent exception to that.
Shadows slowly move across my tiny space among the trees, and I lower my head, letting the sounds of the wind and the buzz of insects and all of my painfully loud inner workings blur and fade and combine to form a solid sheet of white noise.
I’d never thought about the life cycle of an entire body of forest before, but it suddenly occurs to me that what I was used to must have been newer woods, after the original vegetation was cleared at some point for human purposes. What I’m considering now is virgin forest, it has to be; its denser than any woods I’d ever seen.
What’s the difference between a woods and a forest, anyway? And where do jungles enter the picture?
Despite this mystery, I find myself able to relax and reach a state of almost calm, or at least something less than chaos. Making this the perfect time for a voice to interrupt my thoughts.
I’m not ready for it. I may have calmed the shrieking, panicking child inside me to the point where I can hear myself think again, but I am absolutely not ready to speak to another human being. But the voice doesn’t go away when I ignore it, so I lift my head, and I look.
“Hey,” Nate says again.
With my eyes finally free of my hands, the space looks different, unfamiliar. I’m not sure how long I’ve been hiding out here, but the sun has moved across the sky, illuminating nooks and crannies I hadn’t noticed and casting other landmarks into shade. It’s like I’ve never seen these particular surroundings before.
But all traces of my annoyance dissipate when I realize what he’s holding out towards me in front of them. His fingers at the fulcrum, the joint pinched between them flips lazily up and down like a seesaw at space camp.
It may be the most beautiful vision I’ve ever seen. Goddamn angels are singing.
Then, I remember how much of an asshole I was back there, and I look away. Joint or no joint, i just don’t want to face this.vI just don’t want to face me.
I’m about to ask Nate if he remembers seeing any holes I might be able to crawl into, but then he wiggles the joint again and my attention snaps back to it before settling on his face.
He dimples at me, offering a crooked, cheeky smile. “Thought you could use it.”
I consider how I must look: perched on a tree stump, bangs askew from jamming my forehead into my hands, glassy-eyed from the weed and from searching the ground between my feet for enlightenment, neither the shadows cast by the forest nor my fraying nerves doing my dark circles any favors. As if my way-too-public Bradley extravaganza isn’t doing enough to convince him I’m coming completely unhinged.
“What tipped you off?” I croak. Then I force a smile and drag myself to my feet and over to within passing range, willing myself not to wonder if there’s more where that came from.
We spend the next few minutes under a nearby tree in companionable silence, our butts in the grass and our backs against the bark, while the smoke soothes the sharper edges from my panic and frustration.
Incidentally, I’m beginning to love joints.
Nate, as he is so good at, shows no discomfort with my silence. He allows it to continue until I have arranged my thoughts back into a semblance of order. Except my thoughts haven’t been in any semblance of order for a while, not since we’d started this insane adventure.
But no—shit had gone off the rails earlier than that.
It occurs to me that I should have stayed to help brainstorm, to contribute to whatever planning the guys must have been doing without me. But with all this newfound anger I don’t exactly trust myself around Bradley quite this soon. Not that it matters. It’s not like I have anything to add.
“So what’s the plan?”
Nate inhales. Savors. Exhales. “We follow Tristan’s initial hunch. You saw him: he was pretty certain he knew which way to go.”
But he’s no longer certain, Nate doesn’t mention, so I don’t either. Instead I nod, digging my fingers into the corrugated bark behind me, feeling them disappear into the grooves. “Seems reasonable.” And it does. Tristan got us here; he’s the best one to listen to, even if he isn’t himself sure why.
Does this make sense? Absolutely not—but neither does disrupting the fabric of space-time with an electric circle of junkyard debris, or whatever it is he did. But Tristan made it happen, and if he says it’s the right way, then it is.
Trust in Tristan. All hail Tristan. In Tristan we—
“So how are you doing?”
I exude gratitude. I excrete goddamn serenity. “Better now.” I hand the joint back with a nod. “It’s just . . . you know, hard to believe any of this.”
That’s the thing about being high: it isn’t that bonkers shit is any less bonkers, it’s just that you care a little bit less how bonkers it is. It’s easier, mentally, to release control, especially over the things you don’t really have control of even when you’re sober as a judge.
Which seems like a harsh expectation of judges, to be sober. I mean, come on—what a stressful job. I’d drink all the time.
I blink hard, bringing the world back into focus. Man—where has Nate been buying this stuff and how long has he been holding out on me? This might actually be the most fantastic joint in the world.
I turn to look at him, feeling rough bark against my cheek. But if Nate notices my scrutiny, he makes no sign of it; he’s looking straight ahead into the distance, into the thick green forest, a faint frown sharpening the angles of his face and pinching his lips at the edges. The faint ghost of a dimple in the cheek facing me is evidenced by a small, localized bristle of his growing beard.
This tickles something in the back of my mind, the faint glimmer of a fact trying to make a connection with another fact.
What I suddenly want to ask Nate is what the soldiers with guns had been talking about, and who they’d been talking about, while I was out of the room. I suddenly want to ask him why it had sounded so much like Nate wasn’t actually Nate.
But he’s allowed to have a past, and he’s allowed to not share it with me. And I owe him the same sort of personal privacy he’s shown me, and continues to show me, by sitting here with me in silence.
Which is really, truly fantastic. More people really need to understand how nice it is to be with someone who isn’t talking.
When our comfortable silence has been spent, I clear my throat and turn to face him.
“Thanks for that,” I tell him, holding up what’s left of the joint, which is just as heartfelt as anything else I’ve said today. “What do you think? Should we save it?” I don’t want to put it out. What I want to do is keep smoking it forever, to use this never-ending joint as an excuse to never talk to anyone ever again.
But I let this go. All joints must end—but there’s plenty of this one left for another session later, and we’re definitely in that conservation mode familiar to any traveler. In fact, maybe we shouldn’t have smoked this much. I start looking around for a rock or a root to scrub the end against, holding it a little guiltily.
My eyes catch on the side of my boot—a likely-enough-looking surface—but before I can act, Nate stops me. He’s laughing, a look on his face that’s decidedly mischievous. “I guess I haven’t quite filled you in on everything yet.” And before I can see whether cocking my head at him is something I can accomplish against a tree, he reaches behind him and triumphantly produces a flat glass object.
It’s something between a flask and those maple jar containers the expensive organic stuff comes in, with a serious cork and a pleasantly curved outline. But what’s even more pleasant is the fact that it’s practically exploding with loose green shake. An impressive travel setup for the gentleman who prefers joints and expediency.
Nate outright grins at me, his expression one of easy joy. He’s leaning forward on his knees and looking back at me, and the sun mottles his hair and jeans and T-shirt and flickers in his eyes in a way I think I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
“I could kiss you right now,” I tell him. “But then I’d have to move.” I smile with a show of contentment and close my eyes, snuggling back against the tree. I’d been on a dangerously short fuse, and thanks to Nate’s magical powers of preparation, I now have a marginally better shot of keeping it together for the next . . . however long it takes to get home.
“Can you?” he says. “Move, I mean?” he clarifies, but not quickly enough to prevent a brief spike of . . . something. Nothing. “I could use some help with something.”
Now I do cock my head at him, and it works just fine. “Okay, what thing?”
“You’ll see,” he says, and when he stands and thrusts an enthusiastic hand toward me, I take it and let him pull me to my feet.
Ordinarily, I’m not sure I’d let this kind of bullshit non-answer slide—but right now, I’m feeling pretty good, and I’m definitely indebted to Nate for that. He has single-handedly turned this whole fucked-up adventure into something a little less terrible through the simple but reliable powers of marijuana and companionship. I should have known it would work.
And work it did, and now I’m ready for whatever’s happening next. Whatever it is that Nate might need help with, it won’t be anything I can’t handle.