Author's Note: Written for slodwick's Stephen King Titles Challenge.
The Eyes of the Dragon
by Tara O'Shea
When he was still a child, he used to climb up into his mother's lap while she was at her writing desk. Every Sunday, after brunch, she would sit down with a box of heavy cream-coloured stationary, and a variety of pens, and writer letters with Lex in her arms. She always had letters to answer. In the days before e-mail, his mother had correspondence. Old college friends, writers she admired, far flung relatives whose missives came embellished with strange foreign stamps that he used to cut off the battered envelopes and hotel postcards and keep in a biscuit tin under his bed.
He used to love playing with the clay bowl of pebbles that sat next to the pencil cup. The stones were all different, except for two of them, which were what he later learned was called Malachite. They were a deep and vibrant green, with black swirls that made them look almost liquid. They were perfect ovals, almost exactly the same size, and each of them had a deep black fleck just off from the centre, like a pupil. She'd told him once, almost as an after-thought, that they were dragon's eyes.
He'd been an imaginative child—both his mother and Pamela read to him every night, feeding his appetite for adventure, truth, dreams and wonders. Everything from Grimm's Fairy Tales to Tom Sawyer to the Berenstain Bears. His father was always too busy to read him a story—and the one time he had, it had been from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Lex had fallen asleep five minutes in and had never learned what had happened to Phaeton until years later, in Latin class. In retrospect, that was probably just as well.
She had given him the dragon's eyes to play with, and then later, showed him a box she'd gotten while on holiday with his father. Inside the box, she kept letters and photos. It sat on her writing desk, next to the bowl of stones. It was dark grey, and it was like a treasure chest from a story. It wasn't ornate—no jewels were set into the dull metal, no thought had gone into making it beautiful. But somehow, that made it seem so, despite the lack of any kind of ornamentation.
It had been fashioned from the armour of St. George, she'd told him, a smile in her light eyes. St. George had killed a dragon.
His six year old jaw had fallen open in shock, and she'd handed him the box. It was so heavy he almost dropped it. A real dragon? he had asked her, sure she was just telling him a story. She'd capped her pen, and tugged a book down off the shelf and opened it up to show him page after page of paintings—stiff looking religious icons, shining with gilt, romantic paintings with boys who had curls like angels, crude and simple frescos, and epic works in oil. Pictures of every type, but all depicting the same image. A man from a fairy tale, grappling with a fairy tale beast.
A real dragon, she'd said solemnly, and read to him about brave Sir George and how centuries ago in the Holy Land, he had freed a princess from a scaly dragon who would have eaten her up just like a pudding. She'd read him the story every night for a week, and he'd dreamed of swords and fiery breath, unable to imagine with sulphur stink would have smelled like, unable to comprehend with the smoke and heat would do to a man.
Ever since that afternoon, it had been their ritual. She would write, and he would sit and daydream, Malachite stones in each palm. Even when he grew so tall he could rest his feet on the floor, and read her looping cursive which had seemed a cipher to him as a child, she would hold him tight, brushing his hair back from his forehead as she rambled on to cousins and maiden aunts about the mundane details of that week. He'd sit, the pebbles clicking in his fingers, and imagine a man in shiny black armour, battling fire-breathing flying monsters in a fanciful world of long-ago that was half child's fantasy, half-Saturday matinee memories until she'd put the last stamp on the last letter.
All that had changed, after that fall day in Kansas. Then, he'd had nightmares of fire and smoke. Fitful dreams, from which he'd wake crying. He'd seen the dragon, he'd tell Pamela when she'd come to dry his tears in the dead of night, so he wouldn't wake his sleeping parents. He outgrew the nightmares. Outgrew the Sunday mornings. Her lap became too small for a growing boy. Smaller still when she carried his brother. The memory of her arms around him, to the music of pen scratching against paper, fading after they buried Julian—so small, so tiny, so helpless.
Their ritual was broken. When she fell ill, she wrote from her bed until she no longer had the strength to hold the pen. Eventually, the letters to answer stopped coming.
When Lex was thirteen, as she lay dying, she'd pressed the box into his hands. Told him again the story, as if she worried he'd forgotten it. Told him how the wizened little man in Morocco had insisted the box had been forged from the armour of St. George, patron saint of England, farmers, knights, and Boy Scouts. How she'd laughed, and paid him without even haggling.
After her funeral, he'd laid the box back on her writing desk, his hand fishing through the bowl of stones until he found two well-worn shapes. They seemed smaller, in his hands, than he'd remembered. They no longer seemed to be the unblinking eyes of a beast made to be slain. Just stones, almost identical, marked with swirling grey patterns.
He'd put them in his pocket, and when he reached the lake at the edge of his parent's estate they'd shone dully in the late summer sunlight before he flung them, one at a time, into the deepest part of the water.