Halfway through her seventeenth game of solitaire, she realized that she was breathing fire. "Well, I'll be damned," she said aloud and grinned, "it's only fair that I should get to be a dragon after a lifetime surrounded by vampires, energy and otherwise."
She lifted her left wrist and puffed at it. The tops of the hairs on her arms sizzled, while her pink plastic watchband, once raspberry scented, contorted and fell onto the King of Spades. The fire itself was invisible.
She gave a thumbs up sign to the twelve-foot cardboard dragon, once a Chinese New Year's display at Pier 1, that soared, one leg missing, on the end wall of her living room. "Right on man." She'd been fighting mind parasites for days, using endless games of solitaire to insulate her from them. This technique had been so successful that the previous night she had dreamed a complete game of solitaire, perhaps the most terrifying dream that she ever had. Now rescue seemed to have come. The house had done its work.
Built on several levels, situated on top of a hill in the desert community of Opal's Fire, twenty miles outside of the city, the house functioned as an extension of herself. It was here that she sought the philosopher's stone. No dingy dungeon like the laboratories of the alchemists of old, the house was flooded with light from every direction, a living Georgia O'Keefe painting. Half of the living room was roofed by a loft, her laboratory, where she studied and wrote, her back to the window wall which framed a spectacular view of Red Rock Cliffs.
Each wood-silled window, including the long, narrow ones reaching for the ceiling, framed an exquisite view of desert, village or sky. A pair of Foo dogs, one looking out and one looking in, guarded the slit looking out of the back of the loft. A ten-inch-tall statue of Kali, the Indian goddess of death and rebirth, her black stone gaze never wavering from the village, stood on one foot in the other tall, narrow window. A small fierce, red and orange Balinese creature, known affectionately as Little Ugly Thing, defied potentially marauding forces from the window at the foot of the stairs.
The sills of the large windows had become bookshelves, books held up with bookends carved from living basalt by a favorite student. The ancients had carved gods from basalt to give form to the power stored inside. C.S., a geologist, had reserved the integrity of the stone, creating two, flat surfaces, one as a base, the other to stand flat against the books. She often stood staring at the cliffs, a human transformer, arms spread wide, each hand tingling from the energy pouring from the basalt under her fingertips.
Books were everywhere, often doubling as decor. Coffee-table books about the Himalayas lined the loft floor, colorful covers displaying Mount Rakoposhi and the Turango Towers, inviting the reader's comfortable perusal of their wild beauty. The casual observer would have been hard put to categorize her from her books. Magical grimoires stood side by side with contemporary philosophical texts. Science fiction novels jostled those dealing with terror and the supernatural, and texts on Eastern mysticism, contemporary physics and virtual reality spilled in unruly stacks, punctuated by first-hand accounts of exploration and adventure. Here was no narrow specialist.
An assistant professor of philosophy, she pretended to the administration that she was a traditionalist. Select students, however, knew that she was deeply committed to the idea of rapid evolution of consciousness and trekked with her into the rarefied atmospheres in which she was the most happy.
She had no real idea how greatly the more pedestrian feared her mind and methods, believing that the road blocks they threw in her way were the result of simple sexism, certainly a factor, rather than terror in the face of a being they couldn't comprehend. Baffled by her lack of interest in being one of them, they sought desperately to make her understand that they were excluding her, not she they.
In point of fact, she ignored them except when evaluation time came around, and she had to fill out endless sheets of paper with her considerable accomplishments, none of which would count in terms of pay increases or promotion. Naturally she ground her teeth and bitched incessantly when some untalented little worm got a huge grant to go off and waste time in pursuit of the mundane, when there was the Great Work to be done.
Still she had her wonderful house, well guarded by her house spirits. The inanimate protectors in the windows and the invisible spirits that she felt around her were joined by her friends from the animal kingdom who would in an earlier time have been considered familiars. Akela, her sweet Malamute; Dink, an amiable, declawed black cat who had been raised from a kitten by Akela and suffered from delusions that he was a pygmy sled dog; two illegal silver and gold California rosy boa snakes, and an undetermined number of dusty green lizards who patrolled the walls and took care of less desirable insects, joined forces to make her house both a temple and a sanctuary.
Somehow she was not terribly surprised that she had been given this power. It hit her; it was POWER. Only for a brief period after she had climbed in Patagonia, returning with a superbly tuned body and an awesome sense of accomplishment, had she felt truly powerful. The sense had leaked away with her physical conditioning when she returned to the vitiating atmosphere of Wilson College.
Power! She picked up a rather dusty candle in the shape of a wizard, which had resided for some time on an end table, and transferred him to a plate. "Okay, Merlin, we're finally going to light your fire." She puffed at the wick sticking out of his hat, instantly reducing the little figure to an amorphous blob surmounted by the brave little peak of his hat. "Oops, sorry guy," she said ruefully to the blob, waiting for it to cool sufficiently to be removed to the garbage; then thinking better of it, took it out for proper burial. After all, Merlin had been around for some time and deserved some respect. Suddenly she realized that she was no longer depressed, but she was hungry.
She passed under the lurid Chinese dragon meant to be carried in a Chinese New Year's parade, which hung from the entrance to the kitchen. The interior of the refrigerator was bleak, revealing little but a package of English muffins. She put a muffin in the toaster oven and started water for coffee. Then thinking better of it, fished the muffin out and blew on it. The smell of burning bread and acrid black smoke filled the kitchen, as she flipped the remains from hand to hand and into the sink.
"It's okay," she yelled after Akela, who had fled the mess, "I'll be more careful." She didn't succeed until the sink was filled with the incinerated remains of five muffins. The sixth muffin turned a satisfying golden brown. By now her coffee was cold and with a gentle exhalation, she managed to warm it without bringing it to boiling. "Just call me Hot Lips," she said to the ever hungry Akela, who had sidled back into the kitchen.
"If worse comes to worst, I suppose I can always hire out as a stove. You know Akela, this will make a great camping stunt. One whiff and dinner will be cooked." Akela's blue-eyed stare never wavered from the muffin. She tossed him the last bite, which disappeared with one smack of the huge jaws. He sighed and flopped down.
"Okay, gang," she said, addressing the multiple personalities of the house, "is this a blessing or a curse? We know that I can eat, so it's not Midas and his golden touch. This fire doesn't burn my flesh, even though other fire still does." She touched the blister on her thumb, received when she'd touched the iron left plugged in earlier in the day.
First of all, she had to figure out where the gift, if such it was, had come from. In her erratic fashion, she had been practicing Kundalini yoga, unsuccessfully she had thought, in the clear space of floor at the head of her Pier 1 dragon, staring at the painted flames coming out of his mouth before she gave up and started the solitaire. She must have shifted mental gears in some fashion. She'd been so damned eclectic in her studies that she would never be able to reproduce the effect in anyone else, even if she wanted to. She wondered if it would be hereditary if she produced a late child.
The telephone rang and she answered, taking care not to melt the mouthpiece. It was Elaine, the department secretary. Horrible Harry Harrigan, nicknamed HuHuHuHarry by the students because of a rather serious speech impediment, wanted her to drive in right away to sign some papers that he maintained she had neglected. At Horrible's name, she almost belched fire before she caught herself and said meekly that she would drive in. "Shit, Akela, if I'm not careful I'll fry us all. What if I have a bad dream and set the sheets on fire?" At that suddenly sobering thought, she decided to pick up some smoke alarms and fire extinguishers when she finished with Horrible's paperwork.
Thumbing through the Yellow pages, she found a large ad that she had never noticed before:
YOU SET 'EM - WE WET 'EM
The accompanying photograph of an extremely handsome man, costumed as Mephistopheles, wielding a fire extinguisher, was arresting, and she wondered if Chauncey had posed for it. It was worth a shot, and she tore the page out of the phone book, stuffing it in her purse as she rushed out the door to meet Horrible's deadline. Perhaps Chauncey would remove the taste of Horrible from her mouth.
Chauncey's Inferno was as outrageous as its name. Only in Las Vegas, she thought. The outside was done in a bright-red, metallic finish that reflected the desert sun in an alarming fashion. A fireman's glove into which one inserted a hand and twisted was attached to the door handle. She inserted and twisted. A fire siren went off as the door opened. Stage decoration flames flickered on all of the walls, set in motion by an overhead fan. A hologram of the person pictured in the ad constantly sprayed an imaginary fire.
"Does existence precede essence, or is it the other way around?" she said half aloud.
"You mean you don't know, my dear Dr. Faust?" Chauncey's amused voice was black velvet. His photographs didn't do him justice. She stared into a pair of eyes so dark that they seemed to have no depth.
With a little gasp, she pulled herself back regretting every ounce of the twenty pounds that she had piled on. "You must be Chauncey. However, I am no Dr. Faust, although somehow you got the Dr. Right." She supposed that he had seen her on the local news when she got back from Patagonia. "I am Tessa Holtzman, Ph.D., and you, sir, have a really weird way of greeting a customer. Although I suppose weirdness is to be expected from anyone who would design a place like this." Chauncey's eyes crinkled, in contrast to the serious expression on the face of the hologram which kept spraying its imaginary foam.
Her gaze dropped from his eyes to his cleanly scraped cheeks, the blue of the beard barely discernible under the olive flesh. She'd had fantasies about men who looked like this. His cleanly chiseled lips half smiled, half sneered. "May I help you?"
This was really too much for one day. First dragon's breath, then a confrontation with HuHuHuHorrible, now she was standing in front of the sexiest man she had ever seen, who was undoubtedly crazy. Mesmerized, she didn't answer.
"I say, do you have a fire problem? I know everything there is to know about fire."
"I'm certain you do," she murmured, falling into his eyes again. "I'll bet you set them just so you can put them out." If it's true that we really create our own realities, I'm doing one hell of a job with this one, she thought. "I want to buy some fire extinguishers and smoke alarms, a lot of them. I need one of each for every room in my house, for my car and for my office. What kind do you recommend?" Those eyes. Her stomach did flip flops. Talk about heat!
"Perhaps I should install a sprinkler system for you. Something to cool the fire before it begins." Her eyes watched every word form on Chauncey's chiseled lips.
"I'm certain that I can't afford you. My house is wonderful, but very old and built on many levels, and Horrible Harry keeps me from getting my raises, so that I never have enough money."
"Pity. Are you sure that you're going about it in the right way?"
A cough rose in her throat, and her eyes widened as she clamped her hand over her mouth. Holy shit, not here. The cough subsided. "I'm not really certain of anything anymore, but I do have this fire problem."
"You seem upset. Would you care to have a cup of tea while we discuss your problem?" He stretched one perfectly proportioned hand out to her, as he pulled a set of flame-printed drapes aside to let her enter the back room which served as his office. She followed numbly, wondering where the power that had surged through her when she discovered her dragon breath had gone. Chauncey was obviously literate. Books littered the place, some duplicates of those that she was reading.
"Hot tea, or iced tea? I've a nice herbal blend that will relax you."
"Iced, please." Her eyes lingered on the black glow of his cheeks. Talk about heat. He was attractive. It seemed unlikely that tea would quench either of the interior furnaces blazing in her, but she was suddenly very thirsty. She drank the first glass down like a thirsty child, eyes staring at Chauncey over the rim of the glass.
He lounged against a high table near her chair, his thigh seeming incredibly close to her more than ample bosom, while he slowly swung his leg. Even his feet in handsome leather sandals were beautiful. Ordinarily she hated feet. Men's feet...Women's feet...Baby's feet...All feet. Her eyes were distracted from the moving foot when he reached across her for the pitcher and refilled her glass, ice cubes clinking. The spicy tea had a pleasant, but unfamiliar, taste and a seductive aroma.
"I am here to help you." His dark eyes seemed to spin, pulling her in.
"I didn't know this shop was here. I don't know why I never saw it before," she babbled, trying to think.
"It wasn't here before."
"It wasn't?" The walls seemed to waver. Perhaps she was dreaming, or ill and hallucinating.
He leaned over, his hand grazing hers. "I'm part of a package sent here to help you, Dr. Faust, and you are Dr. Faust. You are the latest descendent of that noble philosophical line. We couldn't stand by and see you in such distress. Seventeen games of solitaire indeed. And a totally unworthy opponent such as Horrible." His lip curled.
This had to be an hallucination, but it was fun so she decided to ride with it. One reality was as good as another, and this was certainly an improvement on the one that she had been using.
"What if I set my sheets on fire?"
There came the smile again. "It might be fun. Care to try? Perhaps you'd rather adjourn to my hot tub where you know you will be safe?"
He had pushed it too far.
"Look Mr. Chauncey or whatever your name really is, you're taking one hell of a lot for granted. I don't know what your game is, but I don't think that I want to play. I came in here to make a simple purchase, apparently the only customer you've ever had, and you lay some number on me about being a descendent of the first Dr. Faust. Whether it was a lucky guess or what, I am a philosopher, but my name isn't Faust any more than yours is Chauncey. Ask me how I know that one! Furthermore, I'm getting out of here. I'm sure some normal hardware store will be happy to fill my order."
"You are a fire breather." He seemed delighted.
"What is this?" She dropped back into her chair.
"Just what it looks like. Because of past lives' credits and because of a blip in the celestial computer which made you female and put you in the wrong place, under Horrible's thumb, instead of M.I.T., where we believe you were supposed to be to make the great philosophic/scientific discovery that your line has been leading up to for the past six hundred years, you have qualified for help with no karmic debt. After all, we mustn't slow up the Great Work, must we?"
She reached for her iced tea.
"The gift of dragon's breath seemed appropriate in many ways, considering your interests and your house decor. Besides, you always did love the Dragon lady from the comic strips. Think of all the times you tried to draw her in your notebooks. The catch is, as you might imagine, that you must use the gift wisely. I can offer advice, but you must make all decisions yourself. If you screw up, POOF!"
"By the way, you are correct. My name isn't Chauncey."
"You know who I am. Certainly our surroundings should give you a clue. This culture with which we have struggled for the last two-thousand years with its perverted sense of good and evil, its blood lust and hatred of the life force has called us many names, most more flattering than they knew. Poor Jesus overestimated mankind when he attempted to take the Great Work into his own hands and ended up crucified with a religion named after him and bloodshed everywhere. We have attempted to be more careful since then.
"Faust is your rightful name. In the late 19th century, Theophrastus Faust changed his name to Holtzman as he was fleeing changes of charlatanry and an angry mob that came close to being the proverbial peasants with torches. Your entire line has been romantic, touched with madness. Your particular brand of madness is an essential ingredient to the next step of your species. All of you have managed to get into trouble in one way or another. We can interfere only so much or the plan won't work or will be seriously delayed. Even we do not completely understand the plan or the nature of the discovery that you are to make.
"Our calculations show that you were born both in the wrong place and of the wrong sex. How or why, we are not sure. Had you been a man, Horrible would have backed off. You aren't and he didn't; hence your gift of dragon's breath. The kiss of fire.
"It's up to you to learn to use it, before any of us can move to the next level. You should have learned enough in your T'ai Chi classes to know that you must use an opponent's strength against him."
He crossed the room, picked up a package and put it into her lap.
"Take your fire extinguishers and go home, unless, of course, you want to take me up on the hot tub."
She wanted to, of course, but concern with cellulite took precedence over lust and she left for her car.
After stowing the things that Chauncey had given her --she couldn't remember paying for them -- into the trunk of the car, she stretched luxuriously. The thin body inside the plump one was clamoring to get out. As she pulled away from the curb, she looked in the rear-view mirror to take a last look, and saw not Chauncey's Inferno, but a boarded-up building adorned only by a tattered poster of Seigfried and Roy jumping tigers through flaming hoops. Weird!
After she got home, Tessa practiced breath control until she was fairly certain that she wasn't going to set the house on fire, although she kept one of the smallest extinguishers next to her at all times. Then she began preparation for her class in alternate realities. AR was packed every semester, its very existence driving logical positivist Horrible out of his mind. Now that she had entered the zone of her speculations, teaching seemed remarkably unimportant. Satisfied that she had enough material for the next day's class, she went to the kitchen for a brownie and emerged with an apple instead. When she finished, she sighed and walked across the room to the treadmill that had stood quietly since the third week of its acquisition. Out of breath after five minutes, she headed for bath and bed.
For two weeks, things went on normally. Chauncey was nowhere around and she avoided Horrible, sneaking up the back stairs to her office and leaving immediately after class. She was up to thirty minutes a session on the treadmill and amazed at the speed with which her body was regaining its formerly attractive lines. While exercising or driving, she kept mulling her gift and wondering what to do with it. Power was obviously what was behind the regeneration of her personal appearance. She hadn't realized the degree to which feeling powerless had affected her daily life. She decided she was ready to leave T'ai Chi and go on to Akido.
She and Akela hiked in the early mornings before the desert sun really began to broil. Poor Akela couldn't handle much heat, his body being geared for the Arctic, not the Mojave desert. The creek to which they hiked was a mere trickle at this point in the summer, offering little respite to Akela who wallowed in it, getting as wet as possible to ward off heat on the hike home. Tessa's creative faculties worked overtime on these hikes and she assumed that her hiking worked like meditation, in that it occupied the body sufficiently to let the creative part of the mind function properly.
The subject under discussion with herself was power. Now that she had it, how would she use it? She was glad that Chauncey hadn't been around for a while, because she firmly subscribed to the Buddhist belief that all is clouded by desire and she could see plenty of clouds forming around Chauncey's handsome head.
Eve, poor old Eve, had really been screwed. Tessa had always thought that going for the apple of knowledge was completely reasonable. Was knowledge power? Was force knowledge? All this tied in with the martial arts that she had yet to explore, yet she knew that probably all of the above was in some fashion true. Eve should have stayed with the snake and let Adam leave her to Eden.
On some of her walks, it seemed as though millennia of previous incarnations were attempting to get through, as though her consciousness included centuries of geologic layers through which the lessons she had learned in the past had to percolate. Although these bubbles battered the skin of her awareness, there was no way that she could ease their birth. She could only wait.
The desert bushes were really dry. "Only you can prevent forest fires," she giggled, pulling up her too loose pants. Akela panted glumly, attempting to find some surcease from the sun in the shade of a too small desert bush. He watched as a rabbit ran past a few feet away. It was too hot to chase it. "I'm sorry old buddy, but we do need exercise. C'mon, we'll go home." Akela dragged himself to his feet and followed her.
She thought of Chauncey. Did he really exist, or was he simply a figment of her imagination? Was M.I.T. looming on the horizon? She also thought of the acts of derring-do that she could perform with her trusty hot breath. "Just call me Tessa the Torch," she giggled to Akela, while she tried to manipulate the sizzling car door handle.
Her mood suddenly shifted to gloom. "Where are you, Chauncey?" Just when she thought that she had being alone wired, she found herself lonely. The car air conditioner blasted them with an inferno.
"Chauncey, come and take me away from all this," she spoke to the air. There was no answer.
As she pulled up to the house, Akela suddenly came alive with great tail wagging and wolflike rumbles. Somehow the house looked different. It had to be O.K. or Akela wouldn't be having such a fit. It seemed to glow with a crystal light, a seductive oasis in the heat.
Akela leaped from the car the moment she stopped and stood scratching at the kitchen door. She slid it open and he bolted into the living room. The house had an almost familiar spicy smell. Of course, it was like Chauncey's tea. She stood looking around and sniffing. The walls glowed like ice, and while her belongings glittered with frost, everything seemed to pulsate. This was enchantment.
She moved slowly past the cage where the silver and gold rosy boas were entwined, to the living room where Chauncey stood, his hand on the head of a magnificent, jet-black female wolf, the object of Akela's undivided attention. Chauncey lifted his hand. "Go to him, Rishi." She did.
"Dr. Faust, I presume," Chauncey's voice was still black velvet, the dark eyes still seemed to spin, and his cleanly scraped, darkshadowed cheeks begged to be caressed. He and passion were one. He was Pan, the Green Man, Satan, the Horned God --the dark lover feared by every man and desired by every woman.
Only the icy temperature of the room kept her from bursting into flames as she went to him unaware of anything except that this was her mate, her equal.
"Oh, My Love, My Demon Love," she was in his arms, her hands first on his cool, dark cheeks. They were fire and ice, his cool body both quenching and igniting the flame that was she.
"This then is knowledge, my beloved mortal," he whispered. "We will pay a heavy price." She did not object. Their bodies joined in prolonged ecstasy, while their bright spirits soared and spun from the Pleiades where immortals first descended to join with their human lovers, outward in every-widening double helixes to the non-ends of space and time, pulsating with the essence of eternity, until the climax, the second coming that twenty centuries of mankind had fearfully awaited.
The celestial computer had not erred.
This one was female.
by Felicia Florine Campbell