“Tell another, Gram. Please?”
The window beside Gram’s bed opened on a summer sunset, the last of the sun’s rays glinting off machine displays and diffusing in little golden snakes that George made a game of watching slide up and down the tubes that the doctors put in Gram’s nose. Scoot this way and the snakes slide up. Scoot that way and they slide back down.
“All right. Just one more, Curious George.”
His and hers matching smiles. Hers tired, his ecstatic.
“And it’s a true story now, so you better listen close.”
George unconsciously scooted closer in his chair, tiny legs dangling well over a foot from the floor.
“Who’s in it?”
“Well, me. Me and a dragon.”
“Come on, Gram. There’s no such thing as dragons.”
“Maybe there aren’t any dragons now, but there were plenty when I was a little girl. And believe it or not, your old gram fought one. That’s right. Trying to catch the rain with your mouth open like that?”
“Sorry. Where does the story start?”
“The only place a good spooky story can start. In the cellar.”
A child’s dress of paisley print catches the lone strip of dusky light filtering in through dingy house’s main windowpane. A tiny buckled shoe mounts creaky cellar stairs. Tentative steps down and into the dark, a pause at each creak so as not to be heard. Fumbling in the dark as she swings her tiny hand blindly, searching for the string. Catches it and yanks it down, bringing light from a flickering bulb.
The cellar’s dirt floor scuffs up dainty buckled shoes, then paisley print dress as miniature Gram takes a seat and begins her excavation.
Tiny hands soon make purchase with something smooth. Dirt under carefully kept nails as she goes to work unearthing her find. It’s a clear, empty bottle caked with clinging dirt. Delicate fingers clear away what they can, and are given “Jim Beam” for their efforts. The dig continues, and more of Jim’s fellows are found. She piles the bottles neatly at her feet.
“They were real dragon eggs?”
“That’s right, Georgie. Real dragon eggs.”
She reaches the last one–it’s especially delicate. As she works at clearing off the label, the fragile bottle’s neck breaks away in little Gram’s hands. Bottle strikes pile’s top and begins a bottle avalanche. Partially shatters as the others clink loudly. Breath is held. Body is frozen. Name is called from upstairs. Bellowed is more like it. She doesn’t answer. Bootsteps overhead. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Shadowed form at stairs’ top.
“So help me God, if you’re down in that cellar…”
Little Gram looks around. Hiding options are few. Her eyes settle on the musty, dusty workbench on the other side of the room. She scrambles and hides under it as heavy boots stress cellar steps. Her father reaches the final step and looks at the neat pile of bottles for a moment. Studies it.
“And the dragon caught you stealing the eggs?”
An inarticulate yell. A steel-toed boot kicks the pile and shatters a few against the far wall. Tiny Gram shakes involuntarily as her father sways on his feet and booms her name.
George was actually at seat’s edge, his eyes wide and expectant. His tiny chest rose and fell quickly as Gram took her time with the story.
“And what happened next?”
The sun was nearly set on the horizon now. Gram looked very tired. Her machine beeped steadily; slowly.
“The dragon came peering into my cave. It was so close I could practically feel the heat of its firebreath on my skin.”
Gram’s father drops to his knees and crawls past the clutter that surrounds his workbench. Glassy eyes peer into deep shadow. Tiny Gram scoots back as far as she can, squeezes herself against the wall to avoid the light that spills against the floor and threatens her darkened hiding place. Her father’s beer breath makes her eyes water. She plugs her nose and tries to hold her breath.
“The dragon had me trapped. There was no way out.”
Dirty, thick hands clutch and grab mere inches from little Gram’s face. Fingertips graze errant bangs that have since slipped past hair ties. Bulky shoulders eclipse bulblight and threaten to close up her last remaining escape route.
She scurries out before they can and runs for the cellar steps. Her father wheels around and catches her hair in a painful handful. Pulls her back into the dirt with a slam.
All light had nearly faded from the hospital room’s windowed view. Gram seemed on the verge of sleep–or something else.
“What’d you do then, Gram?”
A defiant smile lit her weary face. Made it glow.
“I did the only thing I could. I fought.”
Little Gram scrambles to her feet, tears threatening her eyes. Three objects appear in her bleary vision: her father’s hulking form, the cellar steps, and the ruined bottle pile. She runs for the pile and grabs the first bottle she can find. Its jagged neck slices her fingers, but she raises the bottle anyway. Throws it at her father’s head. Grabs another before his shock can wear off. Throws that one too. A glittering barrage strikes from every angle, till his arms are up at face level and his screams sound more pained than angry.
When the last bottle goes, she scrambles up the steps and out the front door. The screen door slams and rattles as she clears the precipice and kicks up dirt behind her in a thick cloud. She’ll find no bottles buried beneath this dirt.
The machine’s beeps slowed their song then, display’s lines dipped and swayed lazily as George stared awe into his Gram.
“And that’s how…”
A deep, labored breath.
“…how your old gram beat the dragon.”
A weary, knowing smile. She took George’s tiny hand in her own and closed her tired eyes for the last time.