Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#29


May we offer you this hauntingly poetic tale? Madness or magic, you decide...


The Winter Dragon

By Richard J. O'Brien
About the author


THE PILLS CLOUDED DAVE PARKER'S MEMORY. Without them he remembered Sandy the dog, and he remembered the Winter People.

Outside the caged window snow fell on the institution grounds. Parker often entertained notions of a great escape. But the nurses with their small paper cups full of pills deterred most patients from even leaving their room much less descending four floors to ground level where four acres of open field lay between the hospital and freedom.

Parker worked out a system to bypass the pills. Sure, he placed them in his mouth and pretended to swallow them. He was never talkative, and the nurses rarely checked to see if he had swallowed the meds properly. After a few days without medication Parker was able to remember the dog. A few weeks after that the memory of Winterland returned.

There was a point in Parker's life when he thought he was just like everyone else. He had a place to live, a car, a good job, a decent health plan through his employer, a girlfriend whom he wanted to marry and good friends. All that fell away after he witnessed the other side. At first he told no one about the world next door. But after a seven-year-long visit to the other side, a place he named Winterland, Parker found it difficult to keep his mouth shut.

So, he started dropping hints. Not long after that he found himself in the care of psychiatrists at a state-run institution.

In the beginning, when he wasn't sure of himself, Parker wished he had never gone after the dog. Had his girlfriend Melody Thomas been awake that first night she might have gone out after her dog Sandy. Parker knew that he wouldn't have let Melody go after Sandy in the dark. It wasn't some outdated sense of masculine stoicism as much as it was how he felt about Melody's vision. He knew that Melody wasn't kidding early in their relationship when she told him that she suffered from night blindness. Parker went out into the dark night when Sandy got off her leash. When he crossed the threshold into Winterland his life changed forever.

* * *

Presently, a door opened. Parker turned and saw Dr. Epstein holding his clipboard.

"Good afternoon, Dave," said Dr. Epstein. "Will you be joining us at the group session today?"

"No," Parker interlaced his fingers with the metal cage that kept him from reaching the window.

"Dave," Dr. Epstein's demeanor was tranquil, his voice hypnotic. Most of the patients on the ward distrusted the doctor. Parker among them. "You missed the last group session. How about coming along with me?"

"I want to go home," he said. He tightened his grip on the window cage.

"Dave, how do you expect to go home if you don't take steps to better yourself?"

"And don't use my name anymore," Parker told him. "It drives me nuts."

"Dave, how do you expect to get better?" said Dr. Epstein. "Show me how bad you want to get out of this place by going to the group session. It will be a start."

Parker let go of the cage.

* * *

The sky was clear that night. A new moon hung hidden in the black sky amidst the stars. The air outside was cold. When Parker stepped onto the back porch the thermometer read 52 degrees Fahrenheit. On the hottest day of the summer that had passed a few months back the thermometer showed the same reading. Parker wanted to trash the thing. Melody told him that the thermometer was an antique. He let it go at that.

Parker scanned the treeline that bordered the backyard. He heard Sandy crashing through the underbrush.

Melody's dog was a mixed breed, a mutt, the kind of dog that people paying lip service to political correctness called an American domestic. Sandy's eyesight, for a dog, was horrendous. It wasn't that she was old. Sandy lacked the coordination most dogs took for granted. One night Parker called the dog the canine equivalent of a village idiot. Melody stopped talking to him for a week.

* * *

"Dave," Dr. Epstein said, "did you hear me?"

"Off in faeryland no doubt," Tom Paxton quipped. Paxton was a patient who prided himself on putting down others. No one knew what Paxton's deal was, at least none of the patients did. It seemed his whole purpose was to administer contemptible jibes at fellow patients. It was often said on the ward that if being an asshole was a mental disease then Paxton would never be cured.

"He's a shell," said Esther Rollins. "That's what he is."

Esther was sixty years old and she had lived half her adult life in various institutions. A long time ago she became aware that not all the stories one hears on the news or reads in the newspaper are true. Gradually, her paranoia got the best of her. Esther believed that the government had placed tiny silicon fibers in her brain in order to monitor her. Some nights she heard voices. Other nights she sat and cried for hours. Over the years medical doctors assured her that there were no artificial strands of any kind in her head. Esther believed that the doctors who examined her were part of a cabal run by shadow agencies who controlled the masses.

"Are they in your head now, too, Davey?" Esther cried. "Are they in your head? Sons of bitches."

"Ok, everyone," said Dr. Epstein. "Let's just settle down. Dave, let's hear from you."

Parker looked at him.

"Did you know it's snowing?" he asked.

"Snowmen are dangerous," Murray Dalton commented.

Parker looked at his fellow patient. "The Winterland high lord used to say that snow came from the winter dragon's breath," he said.

"Let's stayed focused on the here and now," Dr. Epstein said.

"Yeah, Dorothy," said Paxton. "Ain't no winged monkeys in this place."

"People drown in the snow," Dalton said. He was, among other things, a hydrophobe. In any of its various forms, water was Dalton's nemesis. "They try to eat their way out of snowdrifts and avalanches and they end up drowning."

"Attention, attention," Esther Rollins shouted. "Now hear this. Now hear this. In the year 2525 all citizens will be required by law to carry an identification chip that will be embedded in their forehead. That is all."

"Doc," said Paxton, "can't you do something?"

"All right," Dr. Epstein said. "I'd like Dave to speak."

Parker stared at the window behind Epstein. The dayroom window was missing the wire mesh cage that otherwise hindered escaped from the first floor room.

"What do you want to talk about?" he asked.

Epstein looked at his notes. "Tell me more about the winter dragon?" he asked.

"The Winter People believe that the winter dragon transports the dead to the next place," Parker answered. His gaze remained fixed on the window.

"Like animal familiars?" said Dr. Epstein.

"You wouldn't understand."

"Let's pretend I do."

"Now who's nuts, " Paxton mumbled.

"Tom," Dr. Epstein said, "please."

"Sorry."

"Now, Dave. If there is a winter dragon wouldn't it stand to reason that there's a summer dragon?"

"Somewhere, maybe."

"But you've never seen it?"

"Not in Winterland."

"Dave," Dr. Epstein flipped through the pages of his notes, "you told us that you lived in Winterland for seven years."

"I did," Parker folded his body so that he looked like he was crouching on his chair.

"According to police reports you were missing for seven days."

"I lived in Winterland for seven years."

"But Dave you were missing for only--"

"You do the math."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Time goes at different paces in different places," said Parker. "I don't make up the rules in other universes. I travel between them…or, at least, I did at one time. But I don't make up the rules."

"Let's take a look at some things in this universe you call Winterland," Dr. Epstein said. "Dave, I want to ask you a question."

"Shoot," said Parker.

Outside, the sky became a darker gray. The snowstorm quickened its pace.

"Where did you go, Dave?" the doctor asked. "During those seven days you were missing. Where did you really go?"

"Years," Parker stood up. "It was seven years. You don't have to believe me."

"Dave, come back," Dr. Epstein called after him as Parker exited the day room. After a moment he looked at the other group members. "Ok, who wants to go next?"

* * *

Parker stayed awake that night long after the lights in the patient rooms were turned off. On the following day the news stations would all repeat the same story about the worst snowstorm to hit the Delaware Valley in recent decades. Of course, Parker wouldn't be in the dayroom the following morning to hear the news. He had other plans.

Out in the hall he saw one orderly mopping the linoleum floor. When they made eye contact Parker pointed to the common area bathroom. The orderly shrugged.

"Go ahead man," the orderly said. "I ain't gonna stop you."

When Parker reached the dayroom he saw that it was empty. The doors had been propped open with fire extinguishers. Someone had left the television on loud. Parker knew that the overnight orderlies were to blame. They were a different lot than the orderlies who worked during the day. The overnight orderlies wanted nothing to do with the patients. Parker was thankful for their indifference.

All it took to gain freedom that night was a metal chair and two running starts. Weeks beforehand hospital engineers had removed the metal grill over the window in order to paint it. The grill had yet to be replaced.

Later that morning doctors and nurses would rush to the scene when the morning shift orderlies reported the broken window. A head count on the ward would ensue. When everyone realized that David Parker was gone the local authorities would be called in to assess the situation, and render aid in tracking down the escaped patient. By nightfall the unpainted grill would be reinstalled by the hospital engineers.

The night Parker spent in the woods between the hospital grounds and the neighboring town nearly cost him his life. He began moving again before the sun rose. His fingers ached, his ears and his nose were numb. The hospital scrubs he wore were caked with snow. At first light he happened upon an old barn. Inside he discovered a small tarpaulin, some rope, a few scraps of wood and an old box of matches. Parker fashioned himself a cloak out of the tarpaulin and rope. Then he lit a small fire in the barn.

At dusk he began moving again. The snowstorm stalled over the area. He knew that if anyone was out searching for him they'd never find him.

To keep his mind off the cold, Parker recalled the night he went out the back door at Melody's house to search for Sandy the dog. Now and again, as he marched west toward the town of Hillford, Parker called out Sandy's name just as he did on the night he discovered the gateway to Winterland.

"San…dy, here Sandy girl," Parker shouted. The falling snow muffled the sound of his voice.

When he had gone out that night to find the dog he didn't expect to have to chase her into the small grove that bordered Melody's property. Sandy crashed through the underbrush long enough for Parker to get a fix on her. Then he moved toward the area where he thought she might be.

Sure enough Parker found the dog. At heart Sandy was a home pup, the kind of dog that enjoyed life indoors. He was surprised to find her laying in the hollowed trunk of the largest oak tree Parker had ever seen.

"Sandy girl," he called to her. Slowly, he approached as he continued to call the dog's name. "San…dy. Here Sandy girl."

That's when he spotted another set of eyes looking out from within the shadow of the hollow trunk. Parker's first instinct was that the dog had fallen victim to a rabid raccoon. As he moved in even closer he saw the expression of sheer delight on the dog's face.

Sandy sat up and bolted from the hollow tree trunk in one quick motion. Before Parker could further investigate the oak tree the dog darted past him. He reached out to snatch the dog's collar, but Sandy dodged him and continued back to the house.

"I thought I told you to put her on the leash," was all Melody said when he got back to the house.

The next morning Parker took the dog out for a walk. Melody had gone food shopping. Parker moved into the woods. The dog headed straight for the old oak tree with its massive hollow trunk. In the daylight there was nothing odd about the dying tree. Parker shook his head in disbelief. Even Sandy wasn't interested in the tree trunk when she realized there was nothing inside.

A week passed before the opportunity for further exploration presented itself. Parker waited until his girlfriend fell asleep. He climbed out of bed, dressed quietly and led Sandy out of the bedroom.

Outside, standing beneath the shadow of a tall pine tree, Sandy sniffed the cold night air. Her tail wagged and she led Parker toward the treeline at the end of the yard. Halfway there Parker let the dog off the leash. Sandy ran on ahead into the woods.

He heard Sandy bark once as he moved toward the giant oak trunk. When he got there the dog was laying on the cold ground sniffing. Sandy wagged her tail furiously as Parker moved in closer. That's when he saw them.

The tallest one who emerged from the hollow trunk was no bigger than a small child. There were four of them. Their skin reminded Parker of the full moon on a cloudless night. They wore dark brown clothing and simple leather belts. One of them wore gold laces interwoven into his tunic. Even more captivating than their luminous skin was the color of their eyes. Parker had never seen such a hypnotic indigo shade. He stood transfixed for a several minutes, unaware of the dog beating its tail on the ground, unaware of the snow flurries that fell onto the woods.

* * *

When Parker arrived at Melody's house almost thirty-six hours after his escape he knew things were different. His ex-girlfriend's car was not in the driveway. Nor did he see any curtains in any of the windows.

Around back Sandy's old leash was still tethered to a pine tree in the center of the yard. The chain was rusted and dirty. At that moment Parker knew that his worst fears had come true.

Melody had moved away.

He didn't blame her. Part of the reason he ended up in the institution where he lived for three years up until recently was because Melody didn't believe in Winterland. Even when the Winter People brought wood to the back porch every night Melody didn't believe. There were other signs of the Winter People's favors as well. The yard was cleaned and raked almost weekly. At first, Melody suspected Parker. And when he tried to explain who was responsible Melody looked at him differently from that day forward.

Parker began thinking the escape might have been a mistake the more he looked at the empty house. He regretted leaving Winterland after the seven years he had spent there. The crossing over happened one night after he and Melody had an argument over the surplus of firewood that now spilled from the back porch into the backyard. Parker was at a loss for words. Melody, however, was not. Her constant ranting drove him outside and into the woods.

Seven years passed for Parker while he stayed in Winterland. When he came to the oak trunk they were there waiting for him. It was as if they knew he had a falling out with Melody. The Winter People, Parker had learned, harbored little tolerance or respect for nonbelievers.

Melody told him that the Hillford Police found him wandering around lake Togotha near her home. Parker was told that he had been missing for seven days. Melody was the one who suggested psychiatric treatment.

In the woods behind the backyard Parker found the old oak trunk. Three years had passed since he had seen it last. Some person or persons had filled in the tree trunk with cement. Now there was no going back.

The snowstorm picked up its pace as the day waned. Parker sat against the cement-filled tree trunk, attempting to remember everything he could about Winterland. Instead, the faces of the people he knew showed themselves to him. His family, his friends, Melody, Sandy the dog, Dr. Epstein and the other patients in the group therapy session. It occurred to Parker that there was a reason why some people lived apart. The Winter People were not like the people he had known. They expected nothing from him and asked for nothing.

The cold wind worked at Parker's extremities. He wondered wearily what it was like to die of exposure. Did a person go numb first? Was it painful? Many questions filled his head as the skies became dark. He drifted in and out of sleep.

After midnight, with his lower body numbed and covered with snow, David Parker opened his eyes one last time. In Winterland no one knew what animal spirit would take them when they were dead. It was, the Winter People had told Parker, the mystery of life for all things.

He sensed something astir in the dark woods. When the winter dragon revealed himself Parker looked in awe at the magnificent beast. Then he let the creature carry him to the next place.

The End.




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The Winter Dragon is copyright Richard J. O'Brien. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)