Weekly Illustrated Fiction Series:

No Dragons Press: A HIGH FANTASY Adventure

by Maggie Gibbs

Illustrations by Emily Ruf

Chapter Three: Addie Sneaks a Smoke

Loading docks are almost always excellent places to grab a private smoke—there’s usually something to stand behind or against, blocking lighters from the wind and smokers from the unenlightened public—and as the circle of light from the door blooms in the darkness, I find the small concrete clearing behind the No Dragons Press building is no exception. Nestled in a side street just off the relatively prominent intersection of Madison and Twenty-Fourth, the recessed rear entry to the building faces a row of thick trees, and a brick dividing wall blocks the view from the sidewalk and, ultimately, the bluffs beyond.

Basically, unless you had a reason to come down here, you’d never be here.

Perfect.

Yawning, I rummage in my bag with one hand while rubbing my eyes with the other. After what feels like a year of reading, the thrill of jumping headfirst into Tristan’s secret world of messages and codes has diminished somewhat, and my earlier eagerness for a fast-paced Umberto Eco-style literary adventure has dissipated in the face of the staggering intellectual maneuvers required to comprehend just what the fuck it all means. My brain is sluggish, like it’s buffering to deal with the information overload, leaving me bleary.

It’s heady stuff, these submissions of Democritus. There’s an odd color to the language: stiff almost to the point of quaintness, but with an indefinable cadence to the words that approaches elegance. It’s as if they’ve been translated over and over, trawled through many tongues but carefully edited to retain distinct linguistic patterns of each one.

And Tristan was right—even without an attribution, the works themselves are noticeably and undeniably similar, in tone if not in topic. And the individual submissions are well structured and solidly presented, despite the odd repetition and casual redundancy.

But patterns? Coded messages? Certainly the themes are similar enough—but this is genre publishing. Themes are always similar. So a few details popped up in more than one piece: a heating coil in two submissions, and, more innocuously, three tin cups.

So . . . what?

Sigh. Still buffering.

When a strange choking sound emerges from the darkness, I whirl, keeping my hand behind my back.

It’s Nate, tucked in a dark corner of the concrete space. He’s got his own hand behind his back, a pinched look to his mouth and a guilty expression on his reddening face.

I’m the first to laugh, and when he does the same, smoke coils from his mouth and nose like one of those gargoyle incense burners everyone had in high school. After fighting and winning a brief battle against coughing, he sends me an uncertain smile. “Well, you found me.”

“I wasn’t looking for you,” I say, responding a little too immediately for this to sound like the truth, even though it is. “I was just, ah, stepping out myself.”

Now he’s smiling for real. And when he reaches out to offer me the joint in his left hand, so am I.

While joints are generally not my favorite vehicles for combustible greens—I find them wasteful, not to mention impossible to handle without burning myself, after a certain point—the sunny end of someone else’s joint is almost always better than a solitary one-hitter on my own. And this new leveling of playing fields somehow makes Nate a lot more approachable, making me almost comfortable in his presence, able to snap out of the bumbling idiot routine.

Then I stop overthinking things, smile, and take the joint.

There’s something a little bit magical that ties two people together when they realize they’re both closet smokers. Because I dislike most people generally (and obvi-stoners specifically), as my small circle of friends has slowly migrated into other more traditional, smoke-free lifestyles—working in government, starting businesses, having babies—I have become a bit of a lone smoker. A circle of one.

(Government. Babies. Shudder.)

Not to mention Bradley is not shall we say enthusiastic about me smoking. He tolerates it, but stiffly, in a way that hints that although I’m a gainfully employed, tax-paying citizen who has never had so much as a parking ticket in her entire life—and although he’s the one who burns through American Spirits like there’s no tomorrow—I am, on some fundamental level, morally bankrupt.

I consider this as I bring the joint to my lips again and inhale, choosing to assume Nate isn’t noticing my unpracticed embouchure and letting the smoke quell this cloud of disquietude settling over me. Maybe that’s why I felt so immediately drawn to No Dragons Press, where the gleeful strangeness and earnest sincerity of its residents is a welcome break from the silence and the sarcasm—and, lately, the strange clinginess—that characterize my relationship with Bradley.

At the very least, it isn’t terrible that I might have a new work friend, someone I can share this part of my life with again.

“So how did you get mixed up with all this?” I say, gesturing vaguely, then I pass the joint back with a grateful nod before pulling the hood of my sweatshirt up over my head and leaning my head back against the wall. I close my eyes, touching the surface behind me: rough, cool. It’s brick, but I only know that because I knew it already. For all my fingers know, we’re inside a cave.

“Mixed up in what?” Nate says at length.

“Tristan and Duc’s little brainchild.” I gesture again without opening my eyes. “No Dragons Press.”

Nate’s laugh echoes in the cave’s interior. “Actually, it was my brainchild. Not the name, as you probably gathered by now, but the idea.”

I open my eyes now, tilting my head back to consider the long windows of the apartments above. An early moon illuminates divided glass. Not a cave, I decide, tenting my fingers symmetrically on the rough surface behind my back. It’s too bright: the moon is full, or almost full—I can never tell which—or anyway it’s shining off Nate’s beard and the curl of his hair, so it can’t be a cave or we’d be standing in darkness. It has to be an open structure of some sort. Ruins. Ancient walls. “I thought you just lived upstairs.”

“I do. Tristan was a grad student at the U,” Nate explains, which is funny because it’s actually true. No wonder he has that academic air about him, that hint of way too much knowledge in topics that are way too obscure and none whatsoever in the regular stuff. I chuckle.

“He was Duc’s friend,” Nate continues from somewhere in the darkness behind my eyelids. “Left his program kind of abruptly and needed a workspace for all his equipment, and we weren’t using the basement for anything important. It worked out well.”

I accept the joint again with one hand, remaining tethered to the ruins with the other. We stand for a while in comfortable silence while I consider Tristan.

It’s absolutely none of my business why Tristan left his graduate program. Even though Nate had mentioned it first, after Tristan had been so secretive about his top-secret basement secrets, I know I should tamp down on my curiosity. Tristan is allowed his secrets. Everyone is allowed to have secrets.

“Why’d he leave?” I ask.

Nate’s face takes on an unreadable expression, but I get the distinct feeling he was waiting for me to ask. “If you ask Tristan, he was being kicked out, he just left before they could do it formally.”

This only makes Tristan’s story more tantalizing—but I think of the many and varied emotions I’ve seen flitting across his face in between scowls in just the brief time we’ve spent together, and I resolve never to risk opening old wounds by asking him about it.

But it turns out I have no need to, because after a final inhale, Nate passes and continues his story. “Basically, it came down to a disagreement about his graduate thesis—his advisor thought it was too out-there, even for Tristan, told him it wouldn’t qualify or he couldn’t write off on it or whatever. Guess the whole thing got a little ugly. But, Tristan being Tristan . . .”

I give a soft snort. I can only imagine.

“Then again,” Nate adds, “things sometimes look a little different to Tristan than to other people.” He gives a low chuckle and shakes his head. “Part of me wonders whether Tristan just didn’t like being challenged, and he stormed off before considering alternative, and he’s maybe just being stubborn. I suppose the only people who know what really happened are Tristan and his graduate advisor. But he’s been holed up here ever since and he seems happy enough with the situation, as happy as he ever is about anything.”

I think of Tristan’s Do Not Enter sign. What could he possibly need the basement for that he couldn’t do in one of the main-floor offices—or, for that matter, at his own place? He has a place other than here, right? And what exactly is his role here at the Press?

“What does—”

Nate is suddenly close to me, way too close, pressing his body against mine, and it’s happening faster than I can keep up with. What’s going on right now? Did I send some sort of signal? Should I have told him about Bradley right away? I never know the right timing for this kind of thing.

“What—”

“Shh,” Nate says, bringing his hand to my head, my face . . . then over my mouth. He’s pressing me into the brick wall behind me. It is both uncomfortable and not uncomfortable. Then he says, “Do you hear that?”

My heart is thumping, pounding, buzz-rolling, and I’m glad it’s dark out, because as it begins to sink in how wildly I have misinterpreted what was happening, my face must look like a red filter gone wrong.

“Hear what?” I finally manage. I am definitely uncomfortable.

“Someone walking.”

I wonder if he can see my eyes in the darkness. I can see his, darting from one brick-walled edge to the other.

“Where?” I say, my voice now a whisper. I tense my body, signaling that it’s time to let go now. Really uncomfortable.

“Sidewalk,” he whispers. His beard tickles my ear when he moves his chin, and he does not appear to have noticed my comfort level.

“You mean . . . a pedestrian?” I start to pull against his hold, gently, so he knows I won’t make a fuss. “It’s a sidewalk, Nate. Walking is acceptable sidewalk behavior.”

He nods at this. “It is,” he acknowledges, but the worry on his face remains as he watches the space where the walls of the loading dock end. Then he releases me all at once, like he only just realized he was still holding me.

“What’s wrong?” I ask from a more breathable proximity.

He doesn’t respond right away. Then he says, “This is usually a pretty quiet neighborhood.”

“That was a pretty quiet pedestrian.”

Finally appearing satisfied that hordes of sidewalk ninjas are not about to scale the walls in sneaky violence, he stops sweeping the darkness with his eyes and looks back at me. “Sorry. You’re right. Just been hearing things around here lately.”

“You’ve been reading too many creepy submissions.” This rings a very dim bell, and, after replaying the last few minutes of our conversation before nothing happened, somehow, heroically, I identify the source of it. “So Tristan was, what, an English major?”

Nate gives me an odd look. We’re still on that topic technically, right? Then he shakes his head. “Chemical engineering.”

I frown at him, utterly failing to connect the pieces. “Chemical . . .”

He laughs. “Addie, Tristan doesn’t work here. No Dragons Press is just Duc and me. He just rents the basement.” At what must be an amazing expression of bewilderment on my face, he laughs harder. “He’s Duc’s best friend. And, as it turns out, he has a great eye for literature.”

“Just as long as there’s no dragons,” I muse aloud. “So, my interview . . .”

“Was all Duc,” he confirms. “He saw your stuff online when you responded to the job listing, already knew he wanted to hire you. I think he just wanted to see how you’d handle Tristan.”

I shake my head, laughing. It had been a test after all.

“And you?”

Nate shrugs. “I run admin stuff, help Duc, keep things running.”

I nod. Someone has to; it might as well be the lumberjack.

Pass, breathe.

“Is he always so . . . intense?”

“Always,” Nate says without hesitation, and I know he knows I meant Tristan. “He’s an old soul. Says there’s nothing new in science fiction, gets really worked up about it.”

“So, what’s wrong with dragons?” I ask. I honestly don’t know how I haven’t asked this before, but it feels safer to open the subject here with Nate than with Tristan.

Nate smiles. “Tristan thinks dragons are the epitome of derivative bullshit. ‘Intellectual dishonesty,’ he calls it.” He shrugs. “Useful enough rubric for sorting submissions, I figure, and he isn’t really a guy you can argue with . . .”

“I suppose not,” I say, trying to imagine even making the attempt, then decline another pass of the joint with a gesture. I’m feeling fucking fantastic right now. I may have to rethink my opinion about joints.

Then I frown. “But there’s a lot of derivative bullshit, in fantasy and sci-fi, too. In anything, for that matter. Why single out the dragons?”

Nate shrugs, tapping the red portion gently against a rock until his fingers stop glowing and stashing it somewhere in the darkness before he straightens to head back inside. He holds the door open for me with a hand, holding the other out in invitation, and on my way past him—keeping my ear well away from his beard—he says, “You’d have to ask him.”

Did you know?

You can listen to No Dragons Press as a podcast!

LISTEN TO EPISODE THREE