Art by Richard Mandrachio
For as long as he could remember, James was afraid. He was afraid of spiders, bullies, talking to girls, and giving reports in class. There were other things, but these were the top four. People seemed to sense the fear in him and would ridicule him or harass him over his fears. He had spent the past 17 years running from whatever frightened him. He missed going to his junior prom last weekend because he was afraid to ask a girl out and was afraid to go by himself. He didn’t quite know why he was so afraid. Well, spiders were easy to figure out as well as bullies. Girls were a mystery to him, and he didn’t know how to act around them. And everyone was afraid of speaking in public, right? James knew that if he ever had to give a report on spiders in front of his classroom full of girls and the bullies who taunted him, he would just melt into his shoes or fall over dead.
The week ended much as many others had. On Friday, he was shoved into a locker while some of the girls’ volleyball team watched and laughed at him. He pulled himself up and out of the locker and made his way home. On the way home, he stopped by the bookstore and picked up the latest issue of his favorite comic book to make himself feel better. Superheroes never had to worry about bullies or spiders or girls. They always knew what to say after saving the world. He wished he could be a superhero or maybe even just a sidekick.
Before turning off his light that night, he finished reading the comic for the fifth time. He put the comic on his nightstand, turned off the light and rolled over to sleep.
“I wish I wasn’t so afraid. I wish I could be brave like the heroes in my comics.”
With that, James drifted off to sleep.
When he woke the next day, James felt very warm. In fact, he felt hot, real hot. He opened his eyes to see what was going on and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Instead of his bedroom, he found himself on a high plateau, lying just inside a cave. The heat was coming in waves from deep inside the cave. He quickly scrambled to his feet and looked around.
“What’s going on? How did I get here? Where am I? Am I dreaming?”
A voice, deep and rumbling, sounded from within the cave.
“You ask too many questions, boy. It is enough that you are here. It is enough that I brought you here, and here you will stay.”
James spun around to try to see who was speaking to him. At first, the cave was too dark to see much. He could see some movement and could feel the waves of heat. As he stood there, he could start to make out a very large shape coming closer to him. He started backing up as the shape became larger, came closer and became more dragon-like.
“Dragons aren’t real. I have to be dreaming.”
Suddenly, a scaled claw reached out and struck him across the face. James stumbled backward and fell.
“Did that feel real enough, boy? Yes, I am real and yes, I can read your thoughts. Human minds are very rudimentary. At times I can’t figure out how you humans have achieved the few accomplishments that you have.”
The dragon finished exiting the cave. Head to toe, James guessed the dragon was fifteen feet long. It was blue with red streaks scattered about its body. The dragon circled around the plateau forcing James to retreat until his back was to the cave entrance.
“Wh-Why did you bring me here?”
“I brought you here to grant your wish, boy.” The dragon sat back on its haunches and crossed his front claws in front of him.
“Wish?” James said. “I don’t remember wishing for a dragon to take me to a cave, hit me and insult me.”
The dragon seemed to smile a little. It was not a particularly pleasant smile.
“Well, not exactly, although that would have been an interesting thing to wish for. It would have at least shown some imagination. No, boy, you wished for courage. I am here to help you find it.”
James was dumbfounded. He looked for a rock to sit down on. When he didn’t find any, he sat on the ground.
“What? How? And how does hitting me figure into this?
The dragon rolled his eyes.
“You need to get past this ‘hitting’ thing. All I did was give you a little tap to get your attention. If I really hit you, we wouldn’t be able to have this conversation. You would be dead.”
The dragon shifted his weight a little.
“As for how, there is only one way to truly gain courage. You have to be made to be afraid and then do something about it.”
James stared at the dragon.
“Let me get this straight. You’ve brought me here to help me and you’re going to help me by making me scared and waiting to see what I’m going to do. Have I got this right?”
The dragon nodded.
James stood up.
“Well, getting me scared won’t be hard, I stay scared all of the time.”
The dragon let out a small puff of smoke. The smoke surrounded James, making him cough a little.
“You’re not scared, boy. You’re just a little unsettled. I’m going to make you terrified. I’m going to make you paralyzed with fear. Then we’ll see what you do.”
“Now, wait a minute,” James said. “I don’t like the sound of this. You’re a dragon and dragons can do magic, right? Can’t you just do some magic and make me brave? Or give me a potion to drink or something?”
The plateau shook as the dragon slammed a front claw on the ground.
“Foolish boy! You humans always look for the easy way out! There is only one way to gain courage. You have to earn it. You have to find it within yourself. No one can give it to you. Courage is doing what has to be done, no matter your fear or what it might cost you. You have spent your life running from courage, not fear. It is time to stop running!”
With that, the dragon rose up and took flight. The dragon started circling the plateau, his great wings flapping effortlessly as he rose on the thermals.
“Be ready, boy! Be ready or be dead!”
A stream of fire shot down toward James and exploded near his feet. The blast knocked him backwards and he almost lost his footing.
“What are you doing? Have you lost your mind?”
James ran toward the cave entrance just as another stream of fire shot past him and exploded on the rocks. Once inside the entrance, he looked for any kind of cover. Not finding any, he ran further back into the cave hoping the dragon wouldn’t shoot fire into the cave and roast him.
As he looked around the cave, he noticed the cave had luminescent stones which gave off sufficient light to see about fifty yards ahead of him. He was so preoccupied with finding cover, he did not notice that he was not alone.
“Ahhh, fresh food. It has been a long time since I had such fresh food.”
James spun toward the voice but could not see anyone.
“Who’s there? Who said that?”
James could hear a slight rustling on the floor ahead of him.
“Yes, I shall feed well today.”
James strained to see who was speaking. Slowly, a figure began to appear. James could see light reflected in multi-faceted eyes as its eight legs brought the creature into view. The front pincers clicked as the creature spoke.
“Yes, feed very well indeed.”
James started backing away from the enormous spider which was steadily making its way toward him. His heart pounded and his mind screamed with fear. He had to get away! He had to run, but he felt like he was moving in slow motion while the creature came ever closer.
As he got closer to the cave entrance, another burst of fire landed nearby. The dragon. James had forgotten about the dragon trying to incinerate him. He couldn’t run from the spider and he couldn’t continue to hide in the cave from the dragon’s fire. He was out of options and the spider was getting closer.
James continued to back away from the spider, trying to figure out what to do. He was almost to the entrance when he tripped over something. As he scrambled back to his feet, his hands found a sword lying on the ground. He gripped the sword and held it between himself and the spider. The spider regarded him for a moment.
“Don’t struggle, food,” it said. “Don’t struggle and I will make this quick. Put down the sword and give up. You cannot beat me. You might as well admit it to yourself. I can smell your fear.”
James lowered the sword and held it at his side. The spider clicked in excitement and made a quick move toward its prey. James turned to one side and drove the sword to the hilt into one of the spider’s eyes. The spider jumped back, bellowing in pain and anger. The screams were horrible to listen to as the creature thrashed its head to shake the sword loose. Unable to do so and unable to see, it staggered out of the cave and over the side of the plateau. The screams faded away until they were completely gone.
James collapsed against the wall of the cave. He had the blood and ichor of the spider on his clothes and on his hand which held the sword. He had gotten rid of the spider, now he had the dragon to deal with and his sword had gone over the edge with the spider.
It was then that James noticed how quiet everything had become. There were no gouts of fire exploding or the sound of flapping dragon’s wings. James walked cautiously over to the cave entrance and looked out. He was surprised to see the dragon resting on the plateau where he had been before.
James slowly walked out of the cave. The dragon watched him.
“Come on out. I won’t kill you.”
“You’ll understand if I don’t believe you,” James said. “You did try to kill me earlier.”
The dragon blew out a puff of smoke.
“No, if I wanted to kill you, I would have. I can aim where my fire goes. I missed you on purpose.”
“To get you to go into the cave and to keep you there, of course.” The dragon scratched a place behind its head.
James walked a little closer.
“You knew that thing was in there. You knew it would try to kill me. I thought you said you were going to help me.”
“I did help you.”
“How? By making me dinner for a humongous spider?”
The dragon raised itself up to a sitting position.
“Remember what I told you? You have been running from courage, not fear. You always had your fear with you no matter how far you ran. I provided an opportunity for you to stand and find the courage you had been running from. I also provided the sword.”
James stood speechless thinking about what the dragon was saying.
“You see, human, you had choices. You could have given into the fear and been killed, you could have continued running and been burnt by my fire, or you could have stood your ground, found your courage and fought your fear. You chose to fight.”
James sat down on the ground. Everything the dragon had said was correct. He almost gave in to his fear and let himself be killed. He looked at the dragon.
“I guess you’re right. I should thank you, I guess. Now what happens?
The dragon walked over to him.
“Now, you go back home. I can only hope you remember what has taken place here and learn from it. Hang on to the courage you have gained. Don’t let anyone take it from you.”
The dragon breathed a puff of smoke in James’ face. James dropped down to the ground as everything turned black.
The morning sun shone through the bedroom window, right into James’ eyes. He rolled away from the light and opened his eyes. It took him a minute to realize he was in his own bed. He sat up and looked at his clothes. There was no blood or anything else on his clothes or his hands. He fell back and stared at the ceiling.
“Was it all just a dream? Did none of it really happen?”
He couldn’t shake the feeling that what had happened was more than a dream. He felt better and more at peace than he had in a long time, perhaps in his whole life. If it was just a dream, it had somehow changed him. He didn’t feel afraid anymore.
James got out of bed and started to change out of his pajamas. He felt something heavy in his shirt pocket. Reaching in, he pulled out a small sword on a chain. Engraved on it was one word:
George Stewart is an avid fan of history, literature, film noir, and 1940s radio shows. He is a writer, warehouse supervisor, preacher, and adjunct instructor of business and logistics. George holds a Master’s of Science in Management, management of integrated logistics specialization from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He lives in the wilds of Indianapolis, Indiana with his wife, two kids, and two cats.
Art by Richard Mandrachio