From the author: It's tough to be a father while still dealing with being a son. How can you condemn him for abandoning you when you want to run away yourself?
"Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, I shot a dragon in the garden with the video camera!"
Thomas winced at the word, "dragon," and then, when he shifted his shoulders to get a better angle with the wrench, he clunked his cheekbone against the kitchen sink's U-joint. He thought, not the dragon again. The cabinet edge dug into his back while the cold, rough underside of the sink pinched his elbow against a copper tube. He couldn't see his seven-year-old. "The camera's not a toy, Dolby." Trapped by the plumbing, Thomas' voice sounded stupidly hollow to him.
"Mom said I could use it."
"Tell Mom I said it's not a toy."
"I'm filming your feet, Daddy,"
Thomas tried to pull himself out of the cabinet, but when he turned, his elbow forced the copper tube to bend, starting a fine mist from where it joined the faucet deep in the dark gap behind the sink. "Oh, damn."
"Louder, Daddy. I don't think I got that."
Holding his temper, Thomas said, "Hand me the pliers, son." With his free hand, Thomas bent the tube back, but the mist kept falling. Since he was lying flat, looking up into the workings of the sink, the water sprayed straight into his eyes. He blinked rapidly, as if clearing tears, then leaned his head to the side. His ear filled and the wet pressure on his eardrum throbbed with his pulse. "The pliers in the tool box. Get me the pliers." He stretched, felt the nut that held the tube flush to the underside of the faucet and put his finger over the leak. A trickle ran down his arm and into his shirt. His other arm ached from holding the wrench in place; its handle felt huge and unwieldy, and he couldn't help thinking it was his father's wrench, that he shouldn't have it. Thomas' most vivid memory of his father was of a huge man bending over him, hand raised, screaming, "Don't mess with the tools," and then the slap. Thomas's dad disappeared when Thomas was six. Now that he was a dad himself, he thought about his own father a lot. Even though the tools belonged to Thomas, he seldom took them out.
Thomas waited. Water pooled between his shoulder blades and crept along his backbone. "Dolby?" The back screen door slapped shut.
"Ah, hell." Pulling his hand out of the gap increased the spray and shifted the wrench on the sink trap. An ooze of black slime slipped out of the joint, hung from the bottom of the pipe and dropped into his mouth. He spit hard as he extricated himself from the cabinet.
The shut-off valve spun freely when he twisted it. Flicked with his finger, it whirred like a propeller. Water dripped onto the green tile his wife loved, but only reminded him of his kitchen when he was a child, the place of many arguments between his father and mom. Thomas had warned his wife that old country homes like this were maintenance nightmares, but she hadn't cared. Leaky pipes the first month we live here, he thought. Heaven help us in the winter. He pushed a towel against the cabinet base to soak up the water.
Thomas picked up the tool box and headed for the cellar. In the living room, his wife lay under a fuzzy, blue and yellow afghan, a washcloth folded over her eyes. Thomas said, "I'm going to have to find the main water cut-off."
She nodded slowly.
He said, "Another headache?"
"What about our dinner?"
"I called the sitter."
Thomas slumped. "I was looking forward to getting out together. The two of us."
She lifted her hand, waved it languidly like a handkerchief towards him. "My head."
The tool box's handle was cutting off the circulation to his fingers; their tips tingled. He shifted it to the other hand. "Maybe we ought to see somebody. You got one of these the last time we were going out."
She sat up; the washcloth dropped off her eyes, leaving a red stripe across her face like a broad swath of Indian war paint. "If you really want to, we'll go."
"No, no. I'm just saying you get a lot of headaches."
She pressed the washcloth to her eyes and sank back to the pillow. Thomas started to speak but didn't. She was motionless, absolutely rigid, frozen.
He asked, "Did you tell Dolby he could play with the camera?"
"He said he wanted to film a dragon. I can't talk to him."
Thomas said, "That's a thousand dollar piece of equipment," and it sounded to him like his father speaking.
She sighed from under the washcloth.
Thomas shined the flashlight up into the floor joists. He had only been into the cellar twice, first when the realtor showed them the water heater was new and second when he carried the love seat they didn't have room for down the rickety wooden steps. He thought the cellar was a creepy and ugly place. In the cobwebs dozens of pipes and wires went every direction. Some pipes were obviously old plumbing that hadn't been removed when new was installed, and it looked like new plumbing had replaced old several times. He thought some must be for gas, but there was no way to tell immediately what did what, what went to what, and what was functional. He tracked an insulated pipe from the water heater to a junction where one pipe veered towards the bathroom and another disappeared under the kitchen with several other pipes into a hole that was dripping steadily. He couldn't tell which pipe carried unheated water.
Dolby's behavior preyed on Thomas's thoughts, but more than that, his reaction to his son bothered him. Nothing he said ever seemed to penetrate, like the boy purposefully ignored him when he spoke. And what worried Thomas was he believed he behaved that way when he was a child. He remembered Dad talking to him, but remembered little he said. Like Dolby, he had lived by his own agenda. After Dad had left, Thomas had a dragon of his own. He had to have one. No one ever listened to him, he had thought. Now, Dolby was fascinated with them.
He played his light around. Except for the love seat, this end of the long, narrow cellar was almost empty. The old water heater, a huge, rusting tank with a grate for coals under it stood next to the new heater, a gleaming white eighty-gallon Sears model that seemed out of place.
At the other end, against a rough stone wall with chunks of mortar missing, a ladder stood in a broad pool of water that covered a third of the cellar. He shined his light on the rippleless surface, wondering how deep it was and if there might be snakes or rats. He guessed there must be a way to drain the cellar. After a few minutes of opening and closing the many fuse boxes cluttered with knife switches and fuses as big around as shotgun shells, most that didn't seem to be connected to anything, their wires hanging loose, he found a button marked, "sump," and without much hope, pressed it. In the lowest corner of the uneven floor, a low gurgle showed the pump worked, and immediately water began sliding towards it. He set the ladder under the kitchen and climbed carefully to the pipes.
Lines of yellow drops marched away from the hole in the floor down the pipes to release one by one several feet away. The plink of dripping water and the heavy, humid air made the cellar seem subterranean, like he was hundreds of feet underground instead of a few steps from his kitchen. He braced his hand on one of the joists and an inch of rotten wood sloughed off. The splinters felt spongy and weightless in his fingers. He dug his screwdriver deeply into the joist. He figured, at least here, only the sheer mass of the thick timbers kept the house from collapsing into its own foundation. He gazed sourly at the other joists and wondered how much more damage he would find as he searched for the main valve.
Two pipes rattled loosely when he shook them. A rusty iron one he guessed was the gas, and a slightly newer pipe he hoped was the water line. He followed it with his light as it went through joist after joist until it ran down the wall and into a wooden hatch set into the floor next to the old water heater.
A leather strap served as a handle. He wrapped it around his hand and grunted as he pulled the water-logged door open. A moist, vegetable smell floated against his face when he lay on the floor to look into the hole. Green and black fungus coated all eight of the valves within. Fortunately, the new valve was on top the old ones. Thomas reached down, spreading his legs for leverage, and he twisted it. The valve creaked, but didn't move. His fingers slipped.
He slid more of his chest over the hole, bracing himself with one hand against a wet pipe. He heard someone on the stairs.
"Daddy, I'm filming your feet." The camera's bright light filled the top quarter of the hole, but the contrast made Thomas's hand invisible. He couldn't tell what he was holding onto.
"Dolby, come shine the light for me."
"I can't. I just wanted another blank tape. I'm recording the dragon."
"Tapes are in the T.V. cabinet, but come hold the light first."
The light blinked out. Dolby's feet pounded across the kitchen. Thomas sighed and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim light from his flashlight that was on the edge of the hole. He twisted again with no result. The valve was too slippery.
Thomas rummaged through the drawers in the kitchen looking for a rag. His wife mopped water off the tile.
"Why don't you turn the water off?" she said.
"The valve's stuck." He picked up a cloth place mat and held it up to her.
"That's our wedding present from Aunt Mary."
"I've never seen it before."
"I'm waiting for a special occasion."
He put it back in the drawer and opened another filled with plastic spoons and forks. He shut it.
"What do you need?" she asked.
"An old towel or something."
"I threw them out when we moved."
"What can I use?"
She dropped the mop--its handle bounced--dug impatiently into a laundry basket and tossed him one of his older shirts. "There." The shirt landed at his feet, a sleeve draped over his left foot.
"How's your head?" he asked.
"Wonderful. I can stand it. A flood in the kitchen doesn't help. I thought men were supposed to know about plumbing."
"My dad never taught me," he said.
"Fine, then, blame your dad."
"Sorry," he said, and felt awkward because "sorry" wasn't really the right response. He picked up the shirt. "It'll be dark soon. Don't you think Dolby should come in?"
She sat in a kitchen chair, massaged her eyebrows with her thumbs. "He says he's found a dragon. Have you been telling him stories again? If he wakes up screaming tonight..."
Thomas squeezed the shirt into a ball. "One dragon story months ago. If he ignores it, it will go away."
"The dragon or the nightmare?"
"Yeah," said Thomas.
"You call him."
Thomas put the shirt on the table and opened the back door screen. His wife rested her face in her hands. He saw just her nose and a slice of her lips.
The last edge of the sun setting behind him, Dolby stood on a stump in the back yard pointing the bulky camera at the roof. Thomas called him.
"I can't come now, Daddy. He's right above you."
Thomas resisted the urge to look up. "Don't make me tell you twice."
Dolby jumped down and stomped into the house, the camera slapping awkwardly against his legs. Thomas turned sideways to let him in.
"Did you see him?" said Dolby, his face red and angry, "Is it the same one?"
"No," said Thomas.
"Don't you want to see him?"
"What I want is for you to get ready for bed."
"I'm going to watch my tape."
"It's after your bed time. No T.V. after bed time, son." Thomas let the door swing shut behind him. The screen pressed against his palms like coarse sandpaper.
"I want to watch this, though. I filmed it."
Dolby glared at him and then at his mother, her hands still over her face. "It's not fair!" He threw the heavy camera on the floor. Something delicate crunched inside; a lens rolled across the tile and under the refrigerator.
All of Thomas's muscles locked. For a second he could see himself stepping forward, bringing his hand around and slapping his son, a full body weight swing that would take his head off. So Thomas didn't move. He knew he couldn't move.
The boy, crying, ran out of the room. His feet drummed on the stairs, and then his bedroom door slammed shut.
Water hissed out of the leak under the sink; a new peninsula of wetness formed on the recently mopped floor.
Thomas exhaled and realized he'd been holding his breath, then said, "What are we going to do?"
"I'll pick it up."
"About Dolby. What are we going to do about him?"
His wife bent stiffly, as if her back hurt too, and lifted the camera by its strap from the floor. Broken parts shifted inside. "He's your son."
"I didn't tell him about dragons." She dropped the camera in the trash can.
"Maybe it can be fixed."
She snorted. "I'm going to bed."
"I'll turn the water off, and then be up."
She paused at the doorway, rested her hand on the door frame. "Don't bother." Her head leaned against her arm. "I'll be asleep."
In the cellar, the flashlight flickered. Thomas slapped it angrily against his palm and the light brightened to a dull yellow. He shined it the length of the cellar towards the sump where the floor glistened, but the pool was gone. The pump's motor whined. Black algae covered the stone floor. He wondered how long it had been since the pump had been turned on and how algae could grow without light. He discovered the float valve on the sump was missing. If he hadn't come downstairs, he figured, the bearing would have burned out by morning. He pressed the button on the wall, and the motor's noise dropped into the silence of dripping. Water stained the rough stone walls. How often did the cellar need to be pumped?
At the trap door, he dropped onto his chest, reached into the hole and wrapped the shirt around the valve. It turned stiffly, and the constricted water shrieked at the end of the last rotation. Thomas rolled to a sitting position, suddenly exhausted.
Gradually, the flashlight dimmed, then winked out, and he lowered his head to his forearms.
He thought about his father who had never taught him anything, except maybe that you can always run away. He didn't know much about him. A few photographs and a box full of tools were all he had, and now Thomas had to raise a son. Thomas remembered one evening a week after Dad had left. He sat dry-eyed but desperately alone on his kitchen porch step. The horizon glowed faintly orange. The dragon came to him, flying out of the sunset, then landed in the yard and consoled him. For a year after whenever he was most alone, the dragon came. When the hurt faded away, when Thomas found other friends, the dragon quit coming. Thomas hardly missed him. But now, he thought, he would rather have had a father. What does a father do? he thought. What does a father do when his son doesn't listen to him and his wife is so distant that when they are in the same bed late at night the father is afraid to breathe because she may hear him? Thomas's father had taken the magic escape. He had ridden the dragon and never returned.
Thomas sat in the dark with his eyes closed until his back and thighs ached from the cold floor.
When he looked up, he saw the cellar was not unlit. The hot water heater's blue-flamed pilot washed a cool and steady light the length of the room. Shadows were deep, black and long. The wet floor glistened like a still ocean under the moon, and from floor to ceiling, tiny mirrors of quartz or mica in the stones reflected stars of pure blue. His cellar suddenly seemed to him the most beautiful place he had ever seen. He imagined he could form constellations from the reflected points, name them anything he wanted, after his dad, his wife, his son, himself.
His back cracked when he stood, and all the stars changed. His own shadow blocked out half the room. He picked up his tools and climbed the stairs.
Under the sink, the steady hiss of escaping water was silenced. Thomas mopped the floor again, squeezing the mop dry after each pass across the tile, filling a bucket half way. When he was done, he stored the mop and bucket, rung out the towel he'd placed under the sink, hung it to dry, and, after making sure the kitchen was in order, opened the screen door and walked into his back yard.
His neighbor's corn field on the other side of the fence rustled like a thousand sheets of paper rubbing against each other, and the moon glowed in the tassels. Thomas faced his home; light from the kitchen streamed through the door and windows. His bedroom window on the second floor was dark. Dolby's was lit. On the roof the dragon lay, straddling the apex. As long as the house, its tail looped around and under its front paw.
Graceful as a cat, the dragon came down and stretched itself at Thomas's feet. He could hear its breathing, low and rumbling, and when the dragon turned his head toward him, its eye was big as a manhole cover. A clear membrane flicked over the eye from below, changing it from green to milky grey for an instant and then back. Then the dragon turned its head away and lowered its shoulder. Thomas saw the flat place behind its head and in front of the wings. A place where a man could mount and hold on.
Thomas stepped forward and stroked the dragon's neck. The skin was warm and the scales finely textured like silk. Thomas said, "I know why you came back, but I can't go with you. That was my father’s choice."
Under the moon, in the night, in Thomas's back yard, the dragon raised his head and looked down at him. Thomas said, "I have to fix the plumbing." The dragon's breath growled. Thomas added, "I have work to do."
Thomas walked inside and started to shut the door. The dragon's eyes followed him. Thomas lifted a hand to wave. "I'm sorry," he said.
In the kitchen, he waited until he heard noises like gusts of wind, the huge wings flapping. He listened until he couldn't hear them any more and then he headed up the stairs.
At the top, he paused. The house was quite. No dripping. The pressure was off. Thomas knocked on his son's door. "Dolby, we need to talk."
This story originally appeared in On Spec.