A boy buys a dream, for only a quarter.
|The quarter was burning a hole in Georgie’s pocket.
He pretended to fly like Superman as he followed his mother through the aisles of the supermarket, and impatiently watched her pause again and again. She read labels on packages of stuff that he didn’t care about, and compared prices. She always chose the cheaper one, even if it wasn’t as good.
Georgie followed her up and down every aisle, and imagined himself flying through the concrete canyons of Metropolis, on patrol. Even with his flight of imagination passing the time, it felt like they had been inside the store forever. Finally, Mom joined one of the checkout lines, and they had to wait for another century or so.
At last, it was their turn. Georgie started to help Mom put stuff onto the belt that carried it to the cashier, but she kept getting in his way. Finally, she said, “Georgie, honey, why don’t you go on over to the vending machines and see what you can get with your money?”
“Okay, Mom! Thanks!” He rocketed away. His imaginary cape fluttered in the wind of his headlong flight. His feet were lent an extra burst of super-speed by his too-tight Nikes. This was the moment he had been waiting for his whole life, since they had come in: the gumball machines.
They stood before him like a triple-row of space helmets. The bottom two rows had round, clear glass bubbles that displayed their colorful contents: several different gumballs, Skittles, Chiclets, M&Ms, those peanuts with the bumpy coating of candy, Mike and Ikes, and a bunch of other stuff.
The top row of machines had squarish containers that reminded him of the weird spacesuit Captain Kirk wore in that episode of the old Star Trek show he had seen on a channel way up the cable band. These were filled with plastic balls that had cool stuff inside, like rubber lizards, gooey ooze, yo-yos, and those tattoos you could put on after you licked a spot on your arm.
Georgie’s face fell as he noticed the prices over the coin slots: 50 cents for the round ones, and a whole dollar for the top row! He was sure that there were quarter machines here the last time. But that time, he hadn’t even had a quarter.
He walked along the rack of machines. His eyes began to tear up. He thought of going back to ask Mom for another quarter, but he knew she’d just tell him that he would have to be content with what he had, or save it. It all added up, she’d tell him.
She was probably right, but that didn’t help him today. He was here right now.
Georgie sniffed, and began to put his quarter back into his pocket. Then he saw a machine standing by itself at the end of the rack, almost hidden by the soda machine. It was old-fashioned, with a round glass bubble on top of a heavy iron pedestal, painted glossy red. It was filled with globes of different colors.
The price label said 25 cents.
Georgie was thrilled. Here, at least, was one machine that still worked for a kid with a measly quarter. It didn’t say what the prizes were, though. Jawbreakers? Balls that bounced way high? Not that it mattered. Georgie slipped his quarter into the slot, and turned the bowtie-shaped handle. The machine made ratcheting noises as he twisted the handle all the way around. There was a rattle and the flap over the prize chute jumped.
Georgie’s hand trembled a little as he held it beneath the chute. He raised the flap with his other hand, and a clear ball popped into his palm. It was kind of heavy; it felt more like a jawbreaker than a bouncy ball. George held it up for a better look. It wasn’t a jawbreaker, or a gumball, either. It seemed like it was made out of glass. A marble, maybe...
He brought it right up before his eyes. It was hollow. Curled up inside, its golden eyes locked on his, was a tiny, winged lizard. It looked so real. Like it was alive. It flicked a forked tongue. Georgie gasped, and nearly dropped it. He looked again. The tiny creature moved its head to meet his eyes.
“Wow...” he murmured. “It’s really alive. You’re so cool,” he told it. It blinked, as if to agree. “I bet you’re a real dragon, huh? How’d you get stuck in that little ball?” Its head drooped a little, and Georgie felt a wave of terrible sadness. Suddenly, he knew what he had to do.
He turned toward the automatic door. It occurred to him to wonder what else might be inside that old-style gumball machine. Regrettably, he couldn’t find out; he had no more quarters. As he started away, he cast a last glance over his shoulder, and stopped cold. The old machine was gone. In its place was a change-making machine. $1-$5-$10, it said above the bill tray. He blinked at it, then quickly looked down, suddenly afraid it had all been a daydream. But the dragon was still in his hand. Its golden eyes looked up at him. He shook his head, confused. He didn’t know what was going on - magic, he guessed. Duh, he thought. What else would it be? Whatever, it doesn’t matter. Georgie headed out the door.
He emerged onto the sidewalk. It was dusk; the sky was deeply blue, with high, thin clouds painted orange and pink by the setting sun. Georgie walked to the row of trees that separated the parking lot from the Wal-Mart next door, and took the glass prison from his pocket. He looked at the dragon trapped inside.
“Okay, get ready,” he told it. It stood on four tiny, clawed feet, and looked at him expectantly. Georgie found a flat rock and held the bubble over it, between forefinger and thumb.
He let go. The bubble dropped, shattered on the rock. A flash of light made Georgie blink, then a much larger dragon, the size of a horse, stood before him. Its green scales glittered in the brightening light of the parking lot lamps. It regarded him with deep golden eyes, and spoke in his mind.
“To fly again, after so long... Thank you, my friend.“
“No problem,” Georgie breathed, awestruck.
It asked, “Do you fly?”
Georgie hesitated, then regretfully shook his head.
It lowered its muzzle to his cheek. Georgie felt the cool, wet kiss of its forked tongue. “One day, we shall fly together. For now, fare well.”
Wings spread, it launched into the air over the Wal-mart lot. Georgie watched it dwindle.
Mom’s voice brought him back to dull reality. “Come on, Georgie, it’s time to go.”
That night, in dreams, he flew.
George sat down in his old recliner and sighed. The chair was kind of creaky, but it was still comfortable. George leaned back, and pushed down on the armrests. The footrest swung up, and his tired feet, the elevation easing his tired feet a bit. He should have taken off his steel-toed work boots, but he hadn’t bothered. It was a real find, this chair, down at the second-hand store. A little oil, a tightening of a screw here and there, and it worked just like new. Sure, the upholstery was kind of stained, but that was nothing that one of Fran’s old corduroy skirts and a bit of her skill with needle and thread couldn’t cure. It was like a brand new chair, almost. It was just temporary, they had thought, until they socked away enough money for some new furniture.
That had been, what? Almost fifteen years ago, when they first moved in together. Now, the corduroy on the armrests was worn thin.
George looked around at their little home with mixed emotions. It wasn’t much; the couch they had bought with his tax return the year they got married was looking the worse for wear, too. They got a slipcover to hide the stains and abuse of two rambunctious kids. A faint smile ghosted across his lips as he remembered how George Junior and Dora Lynn used to take turns leaping off the back of the couch. They’d land in the cushions, bounce a foot into the air and squeal with delight. He used to give them hell for it, too, while he struggled to hide a grin. He loved to see them fly. So did Fran. Those were wonderful days. Even with the money worries, they’d been happy.
The smile faded. Nobody jumped on the couch anymore. Georgie was fourteen, and he had plenty of activities to keep him busy after school most every day. Soccer, basketball, that science competition, friends... anything to keep him out of the house. Anything so he wouldn’t have to hear his mom and dad fighting. Anything to help him forget about what had happened to his little sister.
It turned out that he and Fran both carried a recessive gene. Though they didn’t know it, it was a roll of the dice whether their blood would combine in just the right way to make it happen. Georgie had been okay. But in little Dora Lynn, those genes came forward. She was born with cystic fibrosis.
These days, modern medical science had lots of good, effective treatments for CF; more kids survived to adulthood than ever before. But the treatments were expensive. The hospital stays, when she came down with pneumonia year after year, were expensive, too. George’s job didn’t provide him with health insurance. Neither did Fran’s. They had spent everything they’d saved, taken out a second mortgage on their little Cape Cod home, begged and borrowed - God help him, George had even considered stealing - to pay the bills.
None of it had been enough to save her. It got to the point where they were afraid to take their little girl to the hospital. When she got pneumonia that last time, they had hesitated. Let’s use the vaporizer and wait until morning, he told Fran, she if she’s any better. She looked at him for a long moment, her eyes opaque for the first time since he’d known her, before she nodded.
By five a.m., their Dora Lynn was dead. She was only six.
Dora Lynn was gone, but the debt remained. It had never been the same between Fran and him since then. There was no tenderness left, no affection. There was only anger, or at best, indifference. It was almost like she blamed him for what happened. Maybe she was right, too. God knew he blamed himself.
He leaned all the way back in his chair and closed his eyes. His arms and legs were leaden. He felt as if he was heavy enough to fall right through the floor, and all the way down to hell. He remembered how when he was little he used to pretend to be Superman, flying all around with his arms stretched out in front of him. He’d felt light as a feather, then; he could run forever, and never get tired.
Flying. He used to dream of flying. He’d soar through the sky while the cool, crisp air blew through his hair, filled his lungs, fluttered his bright red cape. High above the earth, he’d look down at the tiny houses and trees, the ant-sized people far below. He didn’t dream like that anymore. His heart was far too heavy to get off the ground. He felt lucky to get through a night without the litany of his failures parading before him. Those lucky nights of oblivion were few and far between.
Now, Fran was gone, too. Well, gone the rest of the way. Her heart had been gone for a long time; she had just gotten around to moving her body out after it. He could fight her for custody of Georgie, but what was the point? He’d just spend a lot of money he didn’t have; money that would be better spent supporting the boy, maybe helping him get started in the world in a few more years. It wouldn’t be long before he was out on his own. He might even want to go to college. If he could, George would help that to happen; his son had the brains to make something of himself. George had wanted to go, but money and circumstances held him down. Mom told him that college cost too much, that he needed to work, to help the family get by. So he got a job at the paint factory and forgot about college. That was another aspect of his life that never got airborne.
His marriage had been the one thing he thought he’d succeeded at. Fran was his dearest love; together, they soared high above the clouds, where the sun always shone. Their children lifted them even higher. It seemed so perfect. But the flaw was there, inside them both. Their flaw, not the sun, melted the wax, dissolved their wings, and they crashed into the cold, hard ground.
He knew he should get up, see about getting himself some dinner. It wouldn’t be long before he’d have to be at the Shell for the second shift. After that, he’d catch a few hours sleep before tomorrow’s shift at the factory. Regardless, he didn’t move. He just didn’t have the strength.
He listened to the heavy silence in a house that used to be so full of lively noise, and drowsed, while random thoughts glided past his awareness. Then, one stuck.
The old Shur-Save market, where his mother used to take him when she did the shopping. He remembered his impatience with her endless label-reading and price comparisons, and the corners of his mouth tugged upward a little. He did the same thing himself, now. He remembered how tall the shelves had seemed, like skyscrapers, and how he used to pretend he was Superman, flying through the city. His smile grew a little wider.
Then he remembered a certain day, a quarter, and a strange gumball machine, where he had bought a dragon in a bubble. The memory focused, crystal clear, its colors vibrant. He remembered the treeline, the flat rock, the parking lot, the evening sky. He saw the bubble shatter, the blinding light, and the dragon looking down at him. He remembered its kiss, and how he watched it fly away, chasing the sunset. He remembered the smell of its smoky breath, the glitter of the parking lot lights on its green scales, the golden depths of its eyes. He remembered the way he could see light glowing through the leathery membranes of its wings as it spread them to take off across the Wal-Mart parking lot. He could almost hear the dragon’s voice in his mind. One day, we shall fly together.
Could it have been real? Nobody else had seen it. There had been no reports of flying lizards above Merchants Avenue on the TV news that night, or any night thereafter. But that was when his flying dreams, the ones that seemed so real, had begun.
He had convinced himself that he was special; that he was destined for something great. But, disappointment by disappointment, failure by failure, he discovered differently. Eventually, the dreams stopped. He hadn’t even thought about that day in years. It had become a painful memory, the silly fantasy of a boy who had very little but imagination with which to entertain himself. Stuff like that had no place in the thoughts of a grown man.
Besides, every thought of flying just made him feel worse about being stuck down on the ground. He had to stop trying to get above himself, and learn to be content with his lot in life. He was better off without such dreams.
George opened his eyes and heaved himself forward. The recliner moved with him, and he forced the footrest down and stood. As he shuffled into the kitchen to make himself a sandwich, a tear escaped his eye and rolled down his weathered cheek. He didn’t bother to wipe it away.
“I’m sorry, George,” said Doctor Ketcher, as they stood talking in the hall outside the exam room, where George sat on a paper-covered exam bench. “Your father isn’t getting any better. His cognitive ability is declining at an alarming rate. The formation of plaques and tangles in his brain is accelerating. I’m afraid the prognosis is poor.”
“I see,” replied George Junior. “How long do you think he has, and what can I expect to happen as he declines?”
“Well, it’s difficult to measure exactly how long before the deterioration begins to affect vital systems. The final phase could come in a number of different ways. His mobility will most likely become even more severely restricted. Infection may set in, his respiratory system may shut down, he may become dehydrated. Sometimes, patients lose the ability to swallow. At the rate it’s been going, though, I would estimate no more than a few months, perhaps only weeks. One thing is certain, though; he can no longer live alone, as he has been. I know you’ve had visiting nurses coming in, but he requires constant supervision now.”
George looked in at the old man. “He put me through college, you know. Made it possible for me to get my undergrad degree. From there, I took off: MS, PhD, research grant. I owe him. But, because of the opportunity he made possible, my work keeps me very busy. Doctor, I can’t be his primary caregiver.”
“Are there any other relatives who could take him in?”
“No. I’m afraid he needs to be placed in a continuous care facility.”
George heard them talking about him, but he paid very little attention. The sound of his son’s voice was a comfort; it didn’t matter what he was saying. George sat where he was, and waited for Georgie to come and help him down. He hoped Georgie would finish talking and come soon. He didn’t like it here very much.
At last, Georgie came in and helped him down from the bench. He held onto his arm, talking softly to him as he shuffled out of the doctor’s office. It still didn’t matter what he was saying. He was such a good boy.
Grounded. George stared up at the porous drop ceiling panel, despairing. Straight from the doctor’s, Georgie had taken him here. His son assured him that it was best for him if he stayed here in this place, that it would be all right. But if it was all right, why did Georgie have tears in his eyes when he left?
That had been a long time ago, George thought, though it was hard to tell. It felt long, though. He had gotten weak. He couldn’t move out of bed. Strangers changed his sheets, his gown, his diapers. A nurse came in and tried to get him to drink something out of a straw. Even though he was thirsty, he didn’t bother. After a while, she went away again, leaving behind only silence, broken by the beeps of the life monitor.
George was all alone. He wondered where his family had gone. Where was Fran? Where was Dora Lynn? Where in the world was Georgie? He wanted to go home. He wanted to go home. He wanted to go... home.
“Come, Georgie,” a voice said. “I will take you home.”
He smelled a whiff of smoke, heard a slurry as if scales slid across a tile floor. He saw deep, golden eyes looking back at him from somewhere up by the drop ceiling.
“Come, my friend, “said the voice. “The time has come for you to fly.”
His breathing slowed, shallowed, and so did his pulse. His heartbeat, too, eased off the work it had done for seventy-nine years without a break. Eased, slowed...
The long, shrill beep fell away behind and beneath him. Georgie sat astride the glittering green shoulders of his dragon friend. Its giant wings pumped up and down in a slow, strong rhythm, and the earth scrolled by far below. The tall buildings that sat where farms and a rural village had once stood looked like toys from way up here. The cool, crisp air swept back his hair, filled his lungs, his heart, his whole being. He squeezed his legs more snugly against his friend’s neck, and his Nikes felt snug on his feet, but not tight. Like they were brand new.
He felt brand new. And, at long last, Georgie flew.