Book excerpt

Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls

Jane Lindskold

Tor/Forge

Chapter One 
"Morning falls on the just and the unjust," i observe, and the nurse smiles politely and continues brushing my hair.
 
Betwixt laughs from where I clutch him in my hands, the other head, Between, snores. He is not a morning dragon.
 
"Turn us over, Sarah," Betwixt coaxes, and I do this carefully, balancing the four stubby legs on my pant leg just above the knee.
 
Betwixt growls approvingly, "That's a good girl. Now, be a love and scratch in front of my left horn, right above the eye ridge."
 
I do this, studying my friend as I do. Betwixt and Between are a two-headed dragon. They are small as dragons go, standing only seven inches at their full height and running only ten inches long from barrel chest to tail tip. They also have blue scales, red eyes, and smell faintly of strawberries.
 
The nurse interrupts my thoughts and turns me to face the mirror, "There, now, don't we look pretty this morning?"
 
I look, pleased as always by the effects of my weekly bath. Hair straight but thick, shaded the yellow-white of cream, falls shining to well past my shoulders. My skin is fair and touched with rose. My eyes are the pale green of milky jade.
 
Smiling, I borrow Bacon's words, "There is not excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion."
 
When I finish dressing, I "run along" as the nurse tells me, firmly holding Betwixt and Between. Breakfast for ambulatory residents is being served in the cafeteria. I get on line, place my dragon on my tray, and accept what is handed to me.
 
"A day without orange juice is a day without sunshine," I say to Jerome, whose dark face parts with a bright smile.
 
"You've got Polly well trained," another worker says.
 
"Sarah," Jerome replies. "Her name is Sarah."
 
"Polly'd be a better name," the other laughs. "The loony who never says what but anyone else teaches her--just like a pet parrot."
 
Jerome gives some soft reply. He is a Witness and always turns the other cheek.
 
I see something in his eyes, though, and whisper softly, "Beware the fury of a patient man."
 
He nods once and I move on and find a seat at one of the tables. Between is awake by now and with Betwixt is eagerly awaiting his share of my breakfast. First, I dip my index finger in the juice and place a drop on each dragon's tongue. Then I take the plastic jelly packet, break the blister, and squeeze a tiny dab of jelly into each of the dragon's mouths.
 
A shadow falls over the table and with a scraping of chairs two people join me. Both are men. Both are like me, insane.
 
Ali is schizophrenic. Often he is drugged so heavily that he shuffles like a zombie. He must be throwing his pills away again, because his tiny eyes in his swollen, porcine face glitter with malice.
 
Francis is manic-depressive. I do not need to see his bright, mismatched clothes or the nervous way that he flutters his long-boned hands to know that he is currently manic. The way he laughs as he takes his seat and nudges Ali, who "accidentally" shoves my tray, spilling my juice onto my toast and eggs, tells me.
 
I suppress tears and hear my dragons hiss. Then I cut the ruined part from my toast and squeeze the remainder of the jelly onto it. The eggs are beyond saving, the juice mostly gone. Because of my grooming, I have missed the early service and already the food line is closing down.
 
Ali and Francis don't like that I am ignoring them. Ali reaches to grab Betwixt and Between. They hiss warning as my free hand flashes out, faster than Ali's flabby paw. I tuck the dragons onto my lap and finish my toast.
 
"Hungry, Sarah?" Francis asks.
 
I nod slowly, wondering if he is sorry for what he made Ali do.
 
He sniggers. "Then you shouldn't feed your breakfast to a rubber dragon!"
 
Seething, my temper hisses. I see that lined up on his tray are three linked breakfast sausages. They are cold, and white grease congeals on their edges, but they look better than my soggy, orange-juice-flooded eggs.
 
Again, my hand flashes out and I seize the sausages. Jumping from my chair, I laugh.
 
"The line between hunger and anger is a thin line."
 
Then, my dragon in one hand, the sausages in the other, I dart away. I finish my breakfast in the ladies' room, carefully washing my hands after. I am finger-combing my hair into order when the five-minute bell buzzes.
 
Seizing Betwixt and Between, I scamper to the sewing workshop. Ali and Francis will not follow me there. By evening, they will have forgotten--I hope.
 
I am ruining a zig-zag stitch seam when a group of people come into the workshop. Nani, the workshop moderator, rises from the machine where she is sewing a fine seam and goes to meet them.
 
I immediately recognize Dr. Wu, who supervises my Wing at the Home, but the woman accompanying him is a stranger. She is tall and curvaceous, with golden hair and a sunscreen-pale complexion.
 
The buzz of conversation from those patients closer to the front alerts me that something interesting is going on. I stop my machine and remove the shirt I am sewing. Picking up my ripper, I begin methodically removing what I have sewn, all the while stretching my ears to hear what the visitors are saying.
 
"I think you are distorting the definition of functional, Dr. Haas," Dr. Wu is saying angrily. "Yes, some of these patients can walk and feed themselves after a fashion--if someone supplies the food--but they are not fit for mainstream society."
 
"Come now," Dr. Haas says in measured, reasonable tones that make me shiver. "Certainly you are being overcautious in your diagnosis. I see nearly twenty adults in here, all busily working. If they can work, they can get credits; with credits, food can be found."
 
"Don't be ridiculous!" Nani snaps. "Work such as these patients are doing here has been done solely by machines for centuries. There is no market for these skills. What we make here is cycled back into the Home to help defray costs."
 
Dr. Haas's cool smile turns predatory. "Cost is the bottom line here. The beds are needed to take care of completely nonfunctional patients. Those you are coddling will be reclassified and discharged. Perhaps some of the borderline cases can be given work as orderlies."
 
Their progress through the room has brought them up beside my table. Trembling inside, I quickly feed the shirt fabric back into the machine. Dr. Haas pats me on the shoulder, but her attention is for Dr. Wu.
 
"Tell me what's wrong with this lovely child," she purrs.
 
"Sarah was diagnosed initially as autistic. She is hardly a 'child' either. Her records list her as nearly thirty. That innocent expression you mistook for youth reflects her utter inability to relate to her environment."
 
"She does not show the withdrawal characteristic of autistics," Dr. Haas challenges.
 
"No," Dr. Wu hesitates. "That was the initial diagnosis. In the past five years, she has become more responsive to external stimuli, but hardly in a constructive fashion."
 
Dr. Haas interrupts him and turns directly to me. I shrink away from her bright green eyes, cuddling Betwixt and Between for comfort.
 
Baring perfect teeth at me, Dr. Haas asks, "How are you today, Sarah?"
 
I stare blankly.
 
" 'Sarah'--That's your name, isn't it?"
 
"What's in a name?" I manage.
 
The golden eyebrows shoot up as Dr. Haas turns accusingly to Dr. Wu. "Shakespeare?"
 
"Sarah shares a trait common to autistics in that she has a nearly perfect memory for the oddest things. We had a patient here several years ago who read a wide variety of works--especially Shakespeare and other literary classics--to Sarah for hours on end. Sarah appears to have retained a great deal of what she heard."
 
"Can she communicate, then?" Dr. Haas seems anxious.
 
Nani replies, "Poorly, after a fashion. If she attaches importance to some phrase, she will recycle it."
 
Something in her posture tells me that she is already defeated, despite the brave smile she gives me.
 
Dr. Haas's smile is broad, but unauthentic. "Well, I think Sarah is a fine candidate for reprocessing. With her looks, she can find work as a model very easily. We're doing her a favor, helping her out of the nest."
 
They move on. I sit unmoving at my machine. No one seems to care.
 
 
"History?" the stern man at the terminal asks without turning to face me.
 
I stare, poised in the doorway for flight.
 
"What is your history?" he snaps again.
 
"What is history but a fable agreed upon?" I ask.
 
He swivels his chair and studies me. "Oh, yes, I was warned about you. Give me that disk."
 
I extend the piece of plastic and he drops it into the terminal.
 
"Patient's History--Review--" he tells it.
 
"Sarah. No surname. No precise date of birth," the disembodied voice announces. "Admitted from Ivy Green Institute, private facility."
 
A light begins to flash and the voice states without change of tone, "Classified! Classified!"
 
The man studies me for a moment, then shrugs, his face falling into lines of habitual boredom.
 
"Don't matter," he says, punching a button. "Computer, reprocess patient as socially functional and discharge her."
 
The computer grunts and he hands me another plastic disk. "Here's your walking papers, Sarah. Go out of here and turn left. They'll send you on your way."
 
I stand frozen. He repeats his instructions more slowly. I turn and walk to the door. Betwixt and Between mutter comfort, ignoring that in my unhappiness I am swinging them upside down.
 
The normally sepulchral discharge area is in chaos. Myra Andrews, who usually spent her days watching the soaps, is frantically processing orders. Her subjects are panicked men and women who, until that morning, had been cloistered, in many cases for most of their adult lives. Various flunkies drafted from other areas try to keep order. I recognize Jerome from the cafeteria. He waves but is too busy to stop.
 
Another flunky takes my name and gestures me into line, where I find that both Ali and Francis are in front of me. Too numb to be surprised and welcoming them as something familiar on a day too full of change, I smile.
 
"So, you're getting out, too?" Francis says. He's clearly verging on his depressive phase.
 
"They can only set free men free," I reply.
 
"You're right, sister," Ali agrees, seeming to have held on to his belligerence. "We were long ready to get out of here. They aren't throwing us out. We're leaving!"
 
We huddle together: frightened, defiant, numb. Orderlies arrive and take charge of us. My flunky is a lady I faintly recall from the Library staff. She is chatty and kind.
 
"Come along, Sarah. First, we'll get you your medical clearance."
 
She takes the hand in which I do not hold my dragon, leading me like a child. We go to a temporary bank of medical scanners. They are easy to use, but a bored-looking tech drifts over to assist.
 
"If the patient checks out clean," she explains to my escort as they match my body to the human silhouette on the chair, "then press this tab. It'll give her a whole host of immunizations and a five-year sterilization."
 
"Five years?" my aide seems concerned. "That's quite a while, isn't it? What about the patient's civil liberties?"
 
"Flip 'em," the tech replies. "If I had my way, we'd sterilize them permanently. What good can a crazy contribute to the gene pool? Anyhow, check the chip when you finish the outprocessing. Technically, these folks remain the wards of the state for the next decade. Loco parentis."
 
She laughs at her own joke as she helps me to my feet. Next, my aide takes me to a supply heap. Digging through various stacks--much of it clothing I recognize as having been made in the sewing workshop--she packs a nylon travel bag.
 
When she hands it to me, I realize that it is so light that it couldn't possibly contain more than a single change of clothes and possibly some extra socks and underwear. I sling it from my shoulder and let Betwixt and Between perch on top. They have been very quiet, but I feel that their ruby eyes have missed nothing.
 
The last thing my aide gives me is a plastic credit card, not unlike the ones we use in the Home for merits and demerits. She points to the glowing numbers.
 
"This is your money, Sarah. It's not much, but if you are careful, you should get by. Do you understand?"
 
I don't, but I nod.
 
"Good. Can you read?"
 
I shake my head. She frowns and puts aside a list she had been about to give me. For a moment, I think she will say something. Then she takes my arm and leads me to the exit door.
 
"Good luck, Sarah," she says and pushes me gently through the doors that open before me.
 
I step and find myself facing the busy street I had often watched from the windows. Newly processed patients huddle singly and in groups, uncertain what to do. I see Ali and Francis and hurry toward them, the enmity of the morning forgotten.
 
They only nod and we stand and watch the traffic hiss by. Rain has fallen recently and the streets are still wet. Evening darkness is filling in the gaps left by the parting clouds. Here and there, automatic lights flicker on.
 
Ali holds Francis by the arm. The other man has retreated into a depression more paralyzing than any of the drugs he has taken in the past.
 
"See ya, Sarah," Ali says. "We're off."
 
He shepherds his friend off, muttering confidently. Neither spares a glance for me.
 
"Parting is such sweet sorrow," I whisper after.
 
Looking around, I find myself alone and for the first time in memory there is no one to tell me what to do or where to go. The doors of the Home are locked behind me.
 
Staring out into the darkness, I start to cry.
 
Copyright © 1994 by Jane Lindskold Jane Lindskold is the author of the Wolf series, comprising Through Wolf’s Eyes, Wolf’s Head, Wolf’s Heart, The Dragon of Despair, Wolf Captured, and Wolf Hunting; along with several other fantasy novels. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.