National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a project where people agree to try and write a 50,000 word novel in a month. I should have over 12000 words done already, but I’ve only done around 2500, and I’m just making it up as I go along. For the heck of it, here’s what I’ve written so far.
“Who wants to see a dragon?”
This question was quickly followed by one girl’s squeal, and one boy’s groan. This was to be expected, however. John Tuttle’s children were just the type of children from who you’d expect to get that sort of reaction. Lily had just entered middle school, and was at that place between being a little girl and being a big girl. She’d figured out that some boys could be kind of cute, when they’re not being all gross, but she had no clue what to do with that information while chasing her friends around the neighborhood. Christian, however, had entered high school this year, and was full of the typical “I hate everything” attitude you would expect from a fifteen year old boy who spent all his spare time in front of the computer.
He was slumped in the back seat, arms folded, head down, while she sat across from him, gazing intently at the scene going by her window. “Dragons?” she squeaked. “Where would they find a dragon downtown? How did they catch it?” Christian sneered at his sister, upper lip curled. “It’s probably just some stupid painting, or lame sculpture, or something.”
John smiled. For as surly as Christian could be sometimes, he did manage to pay attention. “He’s right, dear.” Lily visibly deflated as John said this, while Christian snorted and rolled his eyes. “It’s a new piece I saw down in Graffiti Alley the other day. I think it looks pretty cool, and thought you might like to have a look.” He shrugged as he came to a stoplight. “We don’t have to go see it if…”
Lily sparked back to life. “No no no! I want to see it! Can we please see it? You can come too!” she gushed, as she tugged on Christian’s sleeve and bounced in her seat.
Christian yanked his arm away and growled at his sister as John laughed. “Okay, okay, we’ll go see it! You both just need to calm down while I find somewhere to park.”
Graffiti Alley used to be a big mural in a back alley just off of East Liberty in Ann Arbor, until someone vandalized it by covering it all up with white paint. Shortly after that, some graffiti artists thought that big white wall was a good spot to tag, and then someone else did, and then someone else, and then… Now it’s an entire city block of every color and shape and design you could imagine… and then a lot more that you couldn’t until you got there.
And Lily and her dad and grumpy brother just got there.
She was already several steps ahead of John as they approached the entrance to the alley. She was skipping and jumping and excited in her sparkly t-shirt and torn-up jeans, long curls bouncing in the breeze. Christian was several steps behind, muttering and scowling from beneath his hoodie, hands jammed deep into its pockets. “I don’t even know why we’re coming here, it’s just a bunch of dumb paint on a bunch of dumb walls!”
John called Lily back to him; she was far enough ahead already, and he didn’t want her going into the alley by herself. It was, after all, an alley, despite its artistic merits, and attracted all sorts of people, from artists to panhandlers to the occasional drunk or junkie. As she bounded back to him, singing an impromptu song about dragons, he turned to Christian and said with a sigh, “Because I think it’s cool to see what sorts of things people can do with their imaginations. Don’t you?”
Christian stomped a foot. “No! It’s graffiti, and it’s vandalism, and it’s wrong!” Indignation flared in his eyes, and his fists clenched. “How would you like it if someone spray painted our house?”
Lily rolled her eyes, knowing where this was going. The two males of the family, butting heads again.
“But it’s not our house, it’s an alley in the city! There’s hardly an alley in town without something sprayed in it!”
“So? Why doesn’t someone try to stop them? It’s not right!”
John opened his mouth to respond, but Lily wedged herself between them. Shaking her head, she looked back and forth at them and said “Can’t you two ever stop fighting?” Then she took John’s hand and started down the street again. “Come on, Daddy, I want to see the dragon! Oh, and then can we see the fairy doors after we’re done with the dragon? Oh, and don’t forget the gum!”
John looked back at Christian, who was already a step behind him, rolling his eyes at the mention of fairy doors.” Come on. We’ll just be a few minutes, and you’ll make your sister happy.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a pack of gum, and as he drew out a stick and handed it to his son, said: “And then we’ll go get ice cream.” Christian perked up a bit at the mention of ice cream, then lowered his shoulders again, slowly following his dad and sister into the alley.
The entrance to the alley was at one point painted with a castle gate motif; the look of granite bricks and vines could be seen up high, out of the reach of your typical, ladder-less taggers. But as your gaze moved lower down the wall, the original mural gave way to stenciled political slogans, and random snippets of poetry or song lyrics, and grotesque and / or obscene cartoon faces, all smeared with a thousand other colors and shapes. Even the ground itself was not immune, with scrawls and swathes of vulgar social commentary from one wall to the other. But across the ceiling, twelve feet high, was a field of deep blue, scattered with gold stars, and untouched by the hands of vandals. There was a verse on what looked for all the world to be a sheet of paper painted there as well:
“THIS OLD ANVIL LAUGHS AT MANY BROKEN HAMMERS.
THERE ARE MEN WHO CAN’T BE BOUGHT.
THE FIREBORN ARE AT HOME IN FIRE.
THE STARS MAKE NO NOISE.
YOU CAN’T HINDER THE WIND FROM BLOWING.
TIME IS A GREAT TEACHER.
WHO CAN LIVE WITHOUT HOPE?”
Lily still had her father by the hand, happily and eagerly chewing away on the stick of gum he had given her. “So where is it, Daddy?” she asked.
John gestured to the right as they walked down the entrance. “It’s down that side, way at the end.”
Her face twisted into a bit of a frown, and her pace slowed. “Oh… I don’t like that part.”
Christian suddenly appeared behind her. “Yeah, it’s because it’s dark and dirty and noisy and smells like pee!”
“Gross!” She whirled around and slapped him on the shoulder. He laughed as he flailed the ends of his sleeves at her. “Yeah, but it’s true!”
And it was true. Once you walked past the covered entrance of the alley, it continued straight ahead another 75 feet or so, before taking a right and ending behind the Michigan Theater, the graffiti tapering off as the lights of the back doors shone upon the area. But it also took a right immediately after you left the entrance. That part was much more narrow, and didn’t have as open a view of the sky as the straight ahead stretch. This part had pipes and ladders and wires and air conditioning units overhead, and the graffiti was, shall we say, less artistic than in the other sections. The AC units kicked on and shut off randomly with horrific clacking and buzzing noises, rattling their makeshift stands. The slabs of concrete that made up the ground were cracked and broken, and littered with ground up bits of glass and masonry. Food wrappers and empty bottles of alcohol were tucked into the corners, carried there by errant breezes and clumsy feet.
And yes, it smelled like pee.
John put a hand on each of their shoulders and separated them. “Okay, that’s enough, the both of you.” He turned to Christian and gave him a stern “Dad” look. “You really need to be nicer to her.” Christian scowled at Lily, as a smile started to creep across her face. John then turned to her and said, “and you need to stop hitting him!” Her face dropped, and Christian flashed a quick sarcastic smile at her. John sighed and shook his head. “So are we going to look at it, or not?”
Lily perked up again. “Yeah, yeah! But the gum first!” And she turned and starting running down the alley.
Past the entrance, where the alley splits between right and straight ahead, a corner was formed by a building with no signs or labels. This corner was covered from ground to head high on a grown-up with wads of gum. Nobody knows why they started showing up here, only that there are hundreds of them; thousands, probably. Most of them had just been stuck to the wall, but some had been shaped into minor works of art on their own. Small globby human figures could be seen, and tiny pyramids poking out from the wall, and smiley faces where a wad had been stretched to make a mouth.
This spot had also been covered in graffiti at one point, and was then covered again in gum. But, like the original mural, someone had painted over it, this time with a chocolate brown paint, turning all the multi-colored blobs into little brown lumps on a brown wall. But like the cover-up on the rest of the walls, the graffiti was creeping back in, and the gum as well.
Lily came to a skidding halt in front of the wall, noticing one piece of graffiti in particular. She pointed at it, chewing her gum “What’s that supposed to be, Daddy?”
John stepped up and took a closer look at the object of her attention. It was a shape traced in black; a thick circle about the size of a grown-ups hand, with a thinner circle just inside it. There was a single line inside that which looped three times before coming back to rest on itself, making what looked like a three petaled flower inside the circles. He adjusted his glasses. “Huh. It looks like some sort of Celtic knot work, but it’s a pretty simple design. I’ve never seen it before.”
“Celtic whatwork?” Lily said, and snapped her gum.
“You know, like what Momma has on her jean jacket; the shapes with all the curls and swirlies?”
She raised her eyes for a moment in thought, and then her face flashed. “Oh yeah! Like what you painted on her sleeves! Like from the Renaissance fair!”
John smiled. “Yes, like those.”
Christian let out a loud sigh. “Are we going to be here all day?”
John shook his head. “No, we’re not. What I want to show you guys is right down here. Let’s go…”
Lily stopped him from going. “Wait! Let’s do the gum first!” she said eagerly, already reaching for her mouth.
John chuckled. “Okay, okay, we can do that first. So, where will it go?”
Lily bounced up and down. She gestured at it wildly with the pink wad in her fingertips. “In the knot thingy! It’s new, it needs to be decorated!” Christian moaned, complaining about vandalizing vandalism. John said, “That sounds like a plan. Should we just stick a piece on each of the points on the swirl? There’s three of us, and three points.”
Lily grinned. “Yes! I like that! Let’s do it! I’ll put mine here…” she said, as she smushed her gum into the point on the right of the design. “You can put yours there…” she said to Christian, gesturing to the left point. “…and Daddy can put his on the top, since he’s the daddy!” she said triumphantly to finish her directions.
Christian sighed, pulled the wad of gum from his mouth, and lightly placed it on the wall. He then quickly wiped his hand off on his jeans, and then stuck it back in his hoodie pocket. John carefully placed his at the top of the knot, making a crude attempt at shaping it into a crown, before giving up and leaving it more like a deformed star.
The three of them then stepped back to admire their work. Well, two of them admired it; the third looked bored and annoyed. “I think the pink looks nice on the brown”, John said to Lily, giving her a playful tousle of her hair. “Me too,” she said happily. “And I like your crown!” From under the hoodie came a groan, and a “Can we get going?”
John looked at the hooded grump and sighed. “You know, you really need to learn to lighten up and try to have a little fun sometimes, kiddo. But yes, we can get going.” And he turned to face down the alley, took his daughter’s hand in his, and extended his other hand to his son, who just harrumphed at the gesture.
As they turned, they failed to notice the flicker of light, like static electricity, that jumped between the pieces of gum they stuck on the wall. Just a quick spark, a triangle traced in blue, and nothing more.
And so they walked. As they walked under an air conditioning unit sitting on a couple of two by fours slung overhead, it kicked on with a loud metallic rattle, startling all three of them. It continued to rumble and clatter as they walked away from it, and the noises echoed down the alley. They took a few more steps, and the air began to change. It started to feel a bit heavier, like a fog was settling in. Only John noticed this, as one child was intent on seeing the dragon, and the other was intent on seeing nothing. Maybe it was just having the two of them in the alley with them; it was a bit more crowded this way, after all. The light began to change as well, getting brighter as they moved closer to – yes, that; the dragon.
It was sprawled across the end of the alley, where someone had boxed in a big floor-mounted cooling system with chain-link fence. It hung menacingly on the walls, more than head high, its green scaly body spread across the back wall, head curled around the left wall, tail across the right. Flames flickered from its mouth, and smoke from its nostrils. It looked as though it was starting right at you with its squinted yellow eyes, and you could almost sense the claws at the end of its feet scraping across the bricks.
Lily saw it, let out an excited yelp, and bolted forward. John still had hold of her hand, and lurched forward with her. By reflex, he reached out to Christian and got a hand on his shoulder. Christian started to yelp in complaint…
And then the alley was empty. No John. No Christian. No Lily.
And no dragon.