Dragon Crossing by Jennifer Shelby
First came the spooky feeling on his heels, a warning gust of wind in the trees. A shadow, half-seen, and a piteous moan. A monstrous, disembodied arm reached out to him. With a shriek, Gavin turned and ran, the gloss of the tombstones flashing in the moonlight.
Willow trees billowed up from the ground. Statues looked on in ominous silence across the cemetery’s pond. He whirled around, looking for somewhere to hide.
“Graveyard’s closed,” said a raspy, female voice.
Gavin looked up, surprised. People usually took in his hairless head, his gaunt frame and hospital gown, and left him alone.
“State your business, please.” A short, elderly woman, her skin a labyrinth of wrinkles, sat on a faux stone bench beneath a weeping willow. She wore a black patch over her left eye and a white braid hung over her shoulder. The knife in her hand caught the moonlight with a menacing glint.
“I was trying to get away from…” Gavin glanced back. “From…”
“Well, it must’ve been bad if it chased you into the graveyard,” quipped the woman. She sliced into a round fruit with her knife. “Pomegranate?”
He shook his head. “No, thank you.”
She nodded, popping a few seeds into her mouth and crunching them down. “I’m Morgan Whitmore, but folks call me Jinx. I’m the groundskeeper here.”
“I’m Gavin.” He tried not to stare at her eyepatch. “Do you work all night, alone, in a graveyard?”
Jinx shrugged. “I don’t sleep well on the full moon.”
“You live in the graveyard?”
“Sure. Little cottage at the edge of the property. Gives the added benefit of built-in security.”
“Security from what? Ghosts?”
Jinx eyed him up and down. “From folks like you, I suppose. You get all sorts in graveyards.”
Gavin remembered a joke his father used to tell him whenever they’d pass a cemetery. Used to. He’d stopped when Gavin was diagnosed with cancer. What was it again? Ah yes. People are dying to get in there. He peered at Jinx’s shadowy face, wondering if she would appreciate the joke. He decided against it.
The monster moaned again, somewhere in the shadows. Gavin moved closer to the groundskeeper.
She squinted across the moonlit pond with her good eye and spat on the ground. “Sounds like someone’s in agony.”
The sound grew closer. Gavin wondered if he should run, but then he’d be alone. In a graveyard. At night. The willow trees and the pond were pleasant enough with the cheery full moon shining down, but it was still a cemetery.
A mist gathered atop the pond and a dark, unfocused head materialized, dissolved, and materialized again. Jinx hissed, but she kept her seat.
What made her so brave? He stared up at the beast, a prickle of cold sweat on the back of his neck. It shifted, closer, the head appearing above him. For a moment, it looked familiar. He hesitated. A great gob of drool fell from the beast’s jowls and slapped onto his face, slimy and stinking. Gavin retched and rolled off the bench, away from the horrible creature.
“Come on, we have to run!” Gavin grabbed Jinx’s hand and tugged.
“We do?” She abandoned her snack and hobbled alongside him.
Past the willow grove and into a shadowy forest of tombstones they ran. Gavin led her behind a statue of an angel to catch their breath and wait.
The graveyard looked endless. How many people do you think are dead in there? Gavin heard his father ask, deep in some old memory. All of them!
Jinx peered back the way they’d come. “Is that your monster, then? This some sort of game?”
“What? I don’t have a monster.”
“You don’t? You sure about that? Some folks get monsters without realizing it.”
Gavin scratched his head and felt a shock of hair. He tugged at it, feeling it pull at his scalp. The hair was his.
“What are you yanking at your hair for? Are you some sort of crazy person?” asked Jinx.
“No. I just—I don’t have hair.”
Jinx looked him up and down. “You said you don’t have a monster, either, kid. Pardon me if I don’t believe you.”
Gavin discovered he wore a t-shirt and a pair of black pants. Not a hospital gown or pajamas. When had he changed clothes? He couldn’t remember much before the monster.
“A monster’s nothing to be ashamed of. I see strange things in my line of work. Not all of them with my good eye, either.” She pointed at her eyepatch with her finger.
The ragged black fabric fascinated Gavin. “What’s behind it?” He clapped his hand over his mouth, embarrassed he’d said it aloud.
The old woman threw back her head and cackled at the stars. “The cheek of it! Well, you’re young after all, I suppose. But it’s frightening, boy. Something like that,” she said, “you can’t unsee. You’ll scream and run away.”
“I won’t,” Gavin said. “I’m brave. I fought cancer.”
She squinted at him. “Did you win?”
He couldn’t remember, he realized. Strange. “I won’t scream or run away. I promise.”
Jinx sized him up a moment before lifting the eye patch and leaning toward him.
At first, Gavin thought the skin had torn away with the fabric, but there was no skin. Just bone. The eye socket of a skeleton. And in that socket a wolf spider had spun its web. It stared back at him from its macabre cave, its front legs poised to pounce.
Gavin swallowed a scream, remembering his promise. He shoved his fear aside, the way he’d learned to do through endless surgeries. “What do you feed it?”
Jinx laughed, a dark, wheezy sound. “You don’t want to know. I like you, kid. I guess I’ll help you out with your monster.”
“I keep telling you, I don’t have a monster.”
Jinx leaned against the weeping statue. “You’re what, eleven? Twelve? How long have you been sick?”
“So, you’ve been sick since you were five or so. In and out of hospitals, no doubt. Sleeping in scary places full of weeping parents and dying children. Chemotherapy. The pukes and the shakes. The cold that gets in your bones. You mean to tell me you never imagined yourself a friend to help you escape all that?”
He couldn’t imagine why it mattered so much, but he told her. “I had a dragon named Zamfir.”
Jinx screwed up her face like a withered apple. “You named your dragon after a pan flute player from the eighties? How old were you then, negative thirty?”
Gavin blushed. “They play a lot of old music in doctor’s offices. Besides, Zamfir isn’t a monster. He has scales like emeralds, eyes of amber, and he breathes a cobalt flame when I ask him to.”
“So, ask him.”
Fine. He’d prove her wrong. The audacity of thinking Zamfir a monster. “Hey, you!” Gavin shouted across the graves. “If you’re Zamfir, breathe blue flames for me!”
A now-familiar mist collected beside the bereft angel. A bit of black scale came into focus. There, thought Gavin, Zamfir is green.
A popping sound followed by a rush of blue flame filled the air above him.
Gavin stared up, his jaw slack. “Zam?”
Jinx smacked her gums. “Crossing over’s tough when you’re imaginary. Still, he’s luckier than some. You didn’t grow up and abandon him.”
“Crossing over?” Gavin looked down at his regular clothes, at the dim tombs surrounding him, at the smudge of blurry dragon hanging in the air. “Am I dead?” He tugged at his hair again. He didn’t feel dead.
“I should say so!” Jinx hopped onto an ancient tombstone and picked at her nose with a long fingernail.
Zamfir moaned. Gavin recognized it now. The sound of a dragon in mourning. He’d imagined this when he thought of what his funeral might be like.
“You’re taking this rather well,” said Jinx.
Being dead didn’t hurt like living did. It didn’t hurt at all. It felt good. Free. Strangely alive, somehow. “It’s about time,” he said, astonishing himself.
Jinx wiped her nail on her pants. “Best attitude to have, considering.”
Gavin remembered his mother. His father. His brother and his baby sister. They must be so sad.
“Don’t you go finding reasons to feel bad, now. We’ve got a dragon to save,” said Jinx.
“Well, can’t have him stuck between worlds. Piteous moans aren’t good for my graveyard’s reputation. I can get you started, but it’s a tough job. Bright side is, if it works, you’ve got yourself a proper dragon for life. Well, death. Same difference. But you can’t stay here. This is my graveyard. Deal?”
Gavin couldn’t imagine why he would want to stay in the cemetery. “Deal.”
Jinx jumped down from the tombstone and waddled toward a grove of maple trees.
“Where are we going?” asked Gavin.
Gavin hesitated. People stored bodies in mausoleums. Dead bodies. His first instinct was to turn back, but he remembered he was dead himself. Strange, knowing that. Was this how healthy people felt every day? Strong limbs, settled stomach, breath coming easy, heart keeping time, and a stockpile of energy to spare? He wished Zamfir were here; they could play a wicked game of hide and seek in this place.
Behind him, a piece of the unformed dragon whimpered.
“Sorry, Zam. I’d forgotten.”
“Are you talking to yourself or to your imaginary friend?” demanded Jinx.
“Is there a difference?”
Jinx cackled. “There might be.”
Before them loomed a stone wall built into the side of a hill. On the iron gate, the name “Whitmore” was woven into the design. Jinx’s last name. Gavin tried not to think about what that might mean.
Jinx pulled a set of skeleton keys from her pocket and wiggled one into the lock. With a grunt, she yanked off the padlock and the gate creaked open.
“You got any coins on you?” she asked.
Gavin dug into his pockets. To his surprise, he discovered two gold pieces.
Jinx nodded. “I thought so. Dead children often find an extra coin in case their parents decide to follow. They’re meant for the boatman, so don’t be giving them to anyone else or you’ll be stuck worse than dear old dragon.”
“What boatman am I supposed to pay?”
“Bah! Kids these days. Don’t they teach you anything in school?”
Gavin blushed. He’d never been a good student.
“Well, you’ll figure it out.” Jinx stooped to a small, cupboard-sized door and opened it.
Gavin’s mouth went dry. With a flicker of panic, he realized the hole wasn’t the size of a cupboard. It was the size of a coffin. He shook his head. “I can’t go in there.”
Her mouth flattened into a grim line. “It’s the only way to the other side.” She crossed her arms. “Elsewise we’ll have to be getting rid of your dragon the old-fashioned way.”
“What does that mean?”
Jinx grinned, dark and toothless. Gavin followed her gaze to the edge of the crypt. Shadows gathered, growing darker, taking form. A beast with slathering jaws and eyes of living flame emerged in the gloom. Its snout grew and it sniffed at the air.
Gavin stepped back, the scent of sulphur burning in his nostrils. He must really be dead, elsewise he would have soiled himself. “I’ll go,” he said, climbing inside the coffin cupboard.
Jinx reached past him and flicked on a light switch. The crypt filled with light. “Mind the ladder now.”
The ladder rungs were slick with slime and pitted with rust. He stepped on the finger bones of a skeleton still gripping the ladder below him. The bones fell to the crypt floor with a crash and a puff of dust. The sound of his breath echoed in Gavin’s mind, the taste of the dust on his lips. He stopped, gripping the ladder, waiting for his heart to steady. It had never beat so fast when he was alive.
“Follow the tunnel ’til you come to the river. I expect you’ll find the rest of your dragon in there, swimming around with the other lost souls.”
“You’re not coming with me?” Gavin squeezed his eyes tight, hoping for a positive answer.
Jinx guffawed. “Me? Go in there? Can’t do it, kid. I’m on the clock, remember? Graveyard shift. But you’ll be all right. You got your coins. Have you remembered to bring your courage?”
“Sure. It’s in my other pocket,” Gavin said.
Jinx snickered and peered down at him. “Snarky. I like that. You’re a good kid, Gavin. Best of luck with your dragon, and remember, you promised you’d leave in the end.”
Gavin didn’t answer. Some ally she’d proved to be.
“Keep those coins safe!” Jinx called into the gloom.
Gavin heard the door shut as he stepped off the ladder, giving the bones a wide berth. A row of bare lightbulbs above him fizzled and hissed, revealing a long, winding brick tunnel lined with coffins. He gulped, trying not to picture moldering corpses coming to life within them.
What did the casket say to the other casket? he remembered his dad asking. That you coffin?
He hurried down the tunnel. He wondered what his own casket was like. If his body was rotting yet. He clenched his fists. They were solid, whole, warm. This body felt real enough and it wasn’t weak, it wasn’t diseased, and it wasn’t forever dying. This was his body now, he decided.
As he moved deeper, the bricks gave way to seeping rock walls. Stalactites formed in the warm damp, reaching down toward him with stabbing fingers.
The lights flickered on and off. He found himself in darkness, reaching for the lights ahead. A massive cobweb stuck to his face as he stepped through it. He pulled the webbing from his face with a grimace, wondering if he’d somehow stumbled into Jinx’s eye.
The steady drip of moisture grew thick, its plop heavier. Gavin tried not to think of blood as a warm splotch dribbled through his hair.
He heard a flutter of sound behind him, a squeak. Mice, or bats, he told himself. Footsteps shuffled far behind him. He didn’t dare look, afraid to turn and see Jinx’s eye spider waving its legs at him.
An echo of chilling howls grew steadily louder. Too frightened to breathe, Gavin moved on through the shadows. A smudge of gray river flickered in the darkness.
He squinted at the river, his body tense. A myriad of human forms writhed and tumbled over each other in the mist. Theirs were the howls he’d heard.
Zamfir was in there, somewhere, all because of Gavin. He should have imagined the dragon capable of crossing over whenever he wanted. Gavin couldn’t leave him there.
A path lined with jagged rocks and broken stalactites led Gavin to the riverbank. The river rose like a wall of thick mist. Ghostly, human shapes swirled in the current, reaching out to nothing, mouths open. The howling, Gavin realized, was the collective moaning and wailing of these…what were they? Ghosts? Wraiths? He gulped. Souls?
Gavin squinted into the grey smudge of river, looking for his dragon.
He paused, gathering his courage. It couldn’t be worse than having cancer. Or dying.
Gavin closed his eyes and stepped into the current. It swept past him, more wind than water, tugging on his clothes as his ears filled with the moaning of the trapped dead. The chill of the river sank into his bones.
The wraiths turned to look at him, beseeching at first, then angry, their mouths open, baring inhuman fangs.
“Zam!” he called. The rush of the current swept his words away, drowning them in the wails of myriad ghosts.
Gavin’s hands began to shake.
“Zamfir!” How was he ever to find his dragon in this endless river? How could Zamfir hear his yells amidst the endless wails?
“Think Gavin.” He peered into the blurry distance. This was hard. He’d always just imagined the dragon before and he would appear. Was Zamfir still imaginary, or was he real on this side of life?
Gavin’s head spun. Death complicated things.
Something tugged at his pants. He looked down to see a wraith digging into his pocket His coins! Gavin backed away, tripping over a broken stalactite. He would have fallen hard, but the current caught him and bounced him along before depositing him in a hollow.
The wraith smiled, its mouth spread into a ghastly grimace. A shine of gold flickered in its hand.
Gavin reached into his pocket. A single coin remained. A cold, dark feeling washed over him.
The gold attracted the attention of other wraiths. Within a moment, a crowd gathered, each of them ripping at his pants with clawed fingers. Some swiped at him with their teeth, anything to get his precious coin.
Jinx’s warning echoed in his ears. If he lost the coin, he’d be stuck in this place forever, and so would Zamfir. Gavin kept fighting, curling his legs into his belly and gripping them to protect the coin as he grew tired.
Tears trickled down his face. He’d failed. He’d never last against this endless army of the lost dead. He’d lost his fight with cancer. He’d lost his dragon. And now he’d lose his last coin too.
The hands of the ghosts battered against him, but he ignored them, curled up in his little ball. Moments like these were not unfamiliar to a boy who fought cancer. These were the moments that birthed an imaginary dragon. What would happen if he died a second death in a river of lost souls? Would he have to stay here forever?
He only had one coin left. He could save himself.
No. It would be better if he gave the coin to Zamfir. He’d imagined Zamfir as the cleverest dragon in seventy kingdoms. Zamfir would find a way back and he’d save Gavin in return. He knew Zamfir wouldn’t give up on him.
A sudden roar drowned out the snarling dead. Gavin lifted his head to see the ghost of a mighty dragon tossing the ghosts aside in a fury. “Zam!”
The dragon clutched Gavin to his chest and cooed, giving the boy a questioning look.
“I came to save you,” Gavin explained. “I had these coins. This groundskeeper, Jinx, she told me we could use them to get out of this place, but then all the other ghosts tried to steal them and…”
Zamfir nuzzled the top of his head with his nose, gurgling deep in his throat.
“We give them to some guy in a boat, and he’ll take us out of here.” It seemed ridiculous when he said it out loud. Why did he believe everything Jinx said, anyway? What did he know about her, besides the creepy spider in her eye socket?
The dragon nodded, his scaly brow furrowed in concern.
Gavin stopped. “It’s good to see you again, Zam.” He gave the dragon another hug. Through the moldy, earthy smell of the river, he could smell a whiff of newly mown lawn and campfire. It was just the way Gavin always imagined his dragon would smell.
Zamfir helped Gavin onto his back, giving the wraiths another warning growl.
“Have you seen anyone with a boat?” Gavin asked.
Zamfir gurgled, deep in his gullet. Gavin interpreted it as a maybe.
The dragon pushed off, drifting into the dark current. Gavin clutched at the beast’s scales as wraiths swooped past, shrieking.
They travelled this way until the current pushed them close to the far edge of the river. Fluorescent lights and a rush of hospital foot traffic showed through the grey. Gavin watched in awe; had he just died? Hadn’t he been here, on the other side, all night?
With a beat of his wings, Zamfir broke through the edge of the river, the pair of them sprawling on the hospital linoleum.
A nurse ran through them, carrying an IV bag into the children’s oncology ward.
“We’re ghosts now,” Gavin realized.
Zamfir gurgled to the sky.
Gavin giggled. “Yeah, now I’m imaginary too.” He got to his feet.
Waves lapped at the tiles beneath his feet. Shocked, Gavin turned around. Behind them a wide gray river yawned into a dark cave. A ghostly hand rose from the waves and sank below again. A boat, large enough for a boy and his dragon, moved steadily toward them, slicing through the waves with a pointed prow carved with the likeness of a dragon and marked with a series of unfamiliar runes.
Gavin clutched one of Zamfir’s claws, trying to think of a way to get the dragon to board without him.
The boat slowed to a stop before them. Gavin took a deep breath. A shrouded figure held out a hand. “Pay me gold or make me laugh,” he said in a gravelly voice.
Gavin exchanged looks with his dragon. “Make you laugh?” he asked.
The boatman waited, saying nothing.
He remembered one last joke from his father’s endless repertoire. Gavin took a deep breath. “Why didn’t the skeleton cross the river?”
The boatman held a bony finger to his lips. Gavin’s hopes evaporated. He hadn’t realized the boatman was a skeleton.
“Why?” asked the boatman.
Gavin squeezed Zamfir’s claw. “Because he didn’t have the guts!”
Gavin exchanged a worried glance with Zamfir. He wished he’d remembered more of his dad’s jokes.
The boatman shook his head.
Gavin’s heart thudded in his ears as his hopes fell. “Here’s your coin, Zam. You go first, I want to say goodbye to the hospital.” He pressed the lonely gold coin into the dragon’s paw and watched his friend board the boat.
The boatman held out his hand to Gavin.
Gavin shook his head.
“You shall not cross,” said the boatman.
Zamfir screamed as the boat moved offshore.
“It’s all right, Zam! You’re clever! I imagined you cleverer than I am! You can come back and rescue me this time.”
Zam tried to fly from the boat, but he couldn’t. Gavin never imagined him stronger than Death. They disappeared into the darkness, the dragon’s screams muffled in the distance. Tears streamed down Gavin’s face. He closed his eyes, ready to return to the awfulness of that grey river.
The familiar trill of the heart monitor comforted the boy. He missed his dragon. Everything hurt.
“Gavin? Gavin can you hear me?”
“Mom?” Gavin opened his eyes. The river hadn’t swallowed him up. He was in the hospital, his mom and dad smiling down at him, looking frightened and relieved all at once. He closed his eyes, tears slipping from his eyelids. He’d lost Zamfir.
“Thought we’d lost you, bud,” said his dad.
“Your heart stopped, honey. We were so scared.” His mom dabbed at his tears with a soggy tissue.
“I lost my dragon,” Gavin said. He couldn’t think of anything else.
His mom and dad exchanged worried glances.
His dad tittered the way he did when he was nervous. “Hey, bud. What do you get when a dragon sneezes?”
“Out of the way!”
Gavin tried to smile. “I need to remember that one.”
“Glad you’re still with us,” added his dad.
“Yeah.” He missed his hair. His body ached. It felt weak. He wondered how long it would take Zamfir to rescue him. “But I don’t think I’ll be here much longer, okay?”
His mother gasped.
His dad nodded in silence. “Yeah. We know.”
“It’s not so bad on the other side. It doesn’t hurt. It felt great. I rescued my dragon and met this old woman who kept a spider in her eye socket.”
He didn’t like the way they were staring at him. “I’m sorry. I mean, I missed you, but it was okay. I was okay. And I remembered your jokes!”
His dad squeezed his hand.
“I love you guys.” His eyelids were heavy. Too heavy to keep open.
The heart monitor screeched. His mom started to cry. His dad held his hand, steady and firm. Gavin could smell campfire and newly mown lawn. Instead of his father’s hand, he felt a cold coin pressed into his palm. He smiled to himself. He knew Zamfir would save him.
Jennifer Shelby hunts for stories in the beetled undergrowth of fairy infested forests. She fishes for them in the dark space between stars. As part of her ongoing catch-and-release program, her stories have appeared in Cricket, the anthologies Unlocking the Magic and Flights from the Rock, and is forthcoming in Kaleidotrope. Find Jennifer at her Twitter and blog.