A HARROWING TALE OF THE AUTHOR'S PLIGHT
By Reese Hogan
Content Warnings: None.
Belonging is a tenuous concept at the best of times. It’s been a long time since Quinn Bellweather has even tried. If Quinn belongs to anything, it’s to the smell of the pounding rain in the deepest dark of the storm or the feel of a bramble stuck fast in one’s flesh the second before the blood comes. Which is why Quinn feels deep inside that the smell and taste at the edge of the world is made for them and them alone; an invitation with its own perilous—
‘Before the blood comes?’ says a voice. ‘Is that what I just read there?’
Quinn slams the journal shut, only now registering the smell of sandalwood perfume alongside the scent of rain through the diner’s open window. Once again, Quinn has failed to remain cognizant of their surroundings, and this stranger’s unwanted attention is the bitter price of that failure.
The stranger slides uninvited into the seat across from them. Quinn takes a moment to plant The Smile on their face before looking up. They don’t think of it as fake; they think of it as an outside presentation of an inward intention that doesn’t always happen to be true. The person across from them smiles back easily, lips painted a lavender blue reminiscent of sunset’s last kiss and eyes as green as a wind-whipped prairie in the throes of a forming twister. This person has curves and high cheekbones with a roguish flush and dark curls with bronze highlights that reflect the establishment’s electric lights. It’s a face for a book… maybe even a memoir.
Quinn’s fingers twitch against the vellum cover of their journal. ‘And you are?’ they say mildly.
The corners of those pale blue lips turn down. ‘Oh, I didn’t realize you were a…’
But Quinn holds up a hand before the stranger slides them into some binary gender that’ll set off feelings they don’t need right now and offers a simple shake of the head.
‘Right,’ the stranger says. ‘I’m Coraline Huff. Miss Coraline Huff.’
That last is added hurriedly, as if she realizes the importance of offering her own gender, which Quinn appreciates more than they’ll admit. Quinn relaxes, at least insofar as one can the same night they’re planning to rob a dragon.
Coraline props her chin on her palm. ‘Tell me more about “the smell of the rain in the deepest dark of the storm,” O mysterious stranger. I do love hearing from a good author on a savage night like this.’
‘I’m not an author,’ says Quinn. They leave the yet unspoken. For now.
‘Oh, come on. I know I saw the word “dragon” in there,’ Coraline says, gesturing at their journal.
‘You do know there’s a dragon living in the seaside cliffs just outside your town, right?’ says Quinn. ‘And that it hunts on the full moon?’
Coraline’s eyebrows raise in surprise. Her gaze flickers to Quinn’s journal, then to the storm outside, and lastly to Quinn’s long black coat and short black fingernails. Her lips quirk, as if she’s trying to hold back a smile. ‘Let me guess. You’re here to hunt for this so-called dragon.’
Quinn lets out a long-suffering sigh at the word ‘hunt,’ which they’ve never felt fully encompasses the myriad depths of their undertakings.
‘Hey,’ Coraline says as if struck by a thought. ‘Any chance you’re being paid for it? Because between you and me, that sounds like a better gig than flipping burgers here.’
Quinn looks at her incredulously. ‘It’s not a gig,’ they say, their jaw tightening.
‘Shame,’ says Coraline. ‘I’d take just about anything right now.’ She glances toward the counter in resignation.
Quinn notices with a start that the diner has emptied. The red-and-yellow tables beneath the golden arches adorning the wall have been wiped and dried, and the late-night servers in paper hats are cleaning up behind the counters of the establishment. It’s not a night for staying in well-lit places and drawing attention, and Coraline is proof that ‘drawing attention’ is exactly what Quinn has done.
They stand abruptly, crumpling the wax casing from their evening meal and depositing it in a nearby bin. Then they pick up the journal and slip it into an inside pocket of their long coat. They feel Coraline’s eyes on them, appraising the sweep of the coat’s hem over the thin chains across Quinn’s black boots. A slight smile tugs at her lips.
‘A majestic coat for dragon-hunting,’ she says in a husky voice, ‘or mayhap walking the cliffs beneath a lightning-lit sky, yearning for some long lost love to return on the wings of the coming dawn.’
Quinn stares at her, faintly aware that she’s either mocking them or flirting with them. But they have no idea which one. Unless there’s a chance she is like Quinn, deep down, and this stab at poetry is her way of…
‘But that’s pretty dramatic eyeliner to wear just for hunting dragons, isn’t it?’ Coraline adds.
Quinn huffs, their momentary curiosity extinguished like a snuffed candle. They turn on their heel and head for the door, pulled by the wish for the wind whipping over the sea and the full moon behind the black clouds. Their journal presses against their ribcage, primed and ready to immortalize the coming hour. There’s no room in that book for lavender-blue lips or eyes the colour of a prairie storm anyhow. This adventure belongs to Quinn and Quinn alone, just as Quinn belongs to the tacit anticipation of facing one’s inevitable demise.
‘Yo, there’s nothing back there but the dumpst—’ one of the staff members yells out right before the door slams behind Quinn. Quinn spins, dark hair plastered to their face by the pouring rain, but the door has already locked behind them. No one returns to open it.
Sheets of rain catch the town’s neon lights, sending a kaleidoscope of colour scattering through the night on every individual drop. The seaside village is a rainbow burning with life, rich with the scents of wet soil and sea salt and the heady savouriness of cooking meat. It is also, unfortunately, rich with the lingering smell of garbage that Quinn hasn’t been able to dispel ever since using the dumpster to climb over the barbed wire atop the alley’s enclosing wall. There’s now a tear in the sleeve of Quinn’s black coat. They try not to look at it, but it flashes at the corner of their vision as they walk, as bright as any of the city’s lights.
Quinn knows the dragon is a myth to most, so they’re not sure why Coraline’s words stick like a sharpened barb in their side. Perhaps Quinn was hoping that here, at the outer edge of the world, they would run into someone who could connect with them on a deeper level – someone who could understand the emotions that drive them, almost self-destructively, to the purpose they were truly meant for. Someone who grasped the pull of an intoxication powerful enough to lead one over the lip of a seaside cliff in search of a dragon’s lair that will redefine their entire future.
To be fair… Quinn hadn’t anticipated the storm. But to wait for the next full moon is neither within their limitation of patience nor desire. The full moon has been an integral part of planning this book all along. Besides. What is adventure, after all, if not the fraction of a hair that separates one from the lip of the eternal abyss?
The bright colours of the neon lights coalesce into a more definitive red and blue strobe that lasts only a second before cutting out. Quinn turns their head, shivering as rivulets of cold water creep beneath their collar. It is, of course, one of the town’s myriad constables-on-patrol, drawn in by the void of colour that separates the rain.
The window nearest Quinn rolls down, and an officer, male-presenting, leans across the empty seat. ‘Can I give you a ride somewhere out of the rain, friend?’
Quinn hunches into the collar of their coat. ‘My destiny does not align with hospitality tonight,’ they answer.
‘What was that?’
Quinn raises their voice. ‘I said, my destiny does not align with hospitality!’
The officer’s brow furrows. Quinn continues on their way, wet coat slapping at their ankles. The vehicle creeps after them and stops again, just a few feet ahead of where Quinn walks. Quinn slows, bracing for the officer to swing the door open and haul them in.
‘Can I at least offer you an umbrella?’ calls the unseen officer.
To accept gifts, Quinn knows, is to indebt yourself in ways you may never fully realize. Quinn speeds their pace and walks past the vehicle, tossing their hair from their face with a flick of the head. Irritatingly, their long bangs stick fast across their brow. Quinn’s jaw clenches as another shiver racks their body. They stop abruptly and turn, glaring at the umbrella now being held out from the open door. It’s blue. Blue enough, perhaps, to look black when it’s wet. Quinn steps back and takes it, feeling soiled for this brief show of weakness. The officer smiles and leaves them, no further questions asked.
Quinn opens the umbrella. They’ll only use it until they reach the edge of the city, they decide. Who can fault one for wanting to keep the harsh glare of streetlights from their eyes on a night like this?
But by the time Quinn has left the city’s border and struck out across the open terrain toward the sea, the storm has worsened. The rain drives beneath the umbrella, lashing Quinn’s face like the strokes of a whip. Quinn squelches through ankle-deep mud, struggles to keep their long coat from tangling in their legs, continually shoves their soaked hair from their eyes, and tries desperately to come up with a better word for ‘squelches’ for when this scene goes in the book. The thought that the journal within their coat is no better protected than the rest of their body is a pain even sharper than the memory of Coraline’s knowing eyes and mischievous smile.
Quinn wonders, quite without warning, whether lavender-blue lips would taste more like honeysuckle or fresh peppermint.
The wind snaps the umbrella inside out. Quinn pins it to their body, trying to wrestle it back into shape, but the metal ribs are done for. The rain is suddenly hot in the corners of Quinn’s eyes. They wonder as they stare out at the darkness, just for a moment, what the hell am I doing? It’s a brief moment of insanity, trapped quickly beneath their determination to rise above what they once were. This is Quinn’s domain. The rich scent of the loam beneath their feet and the lightning flashing in every direction and the sound of ocean waves beating the jagged rocks beneath the cliff that approaches by the second. If Quinn belongs anywhere – anywhere at all – it’s here.
A vehicle passes on its way out of the city, splashing a wave of water from the street over Quinn’s entire body. Quinn glares as it slows and stops, its red brake lights bright enough to hurt their eyes. A second later, a window rolls down, and a voice yells:
‘Hey! Dragon Hunter!’
Quinn groans aloud.
‘You know that was a joke about keening at the cliffs for your long-lost love, right?’ Coraline shouts over the pounding rain.
‘Begone!’ Quinn calls.
‘Do you even know where you’re going?’ she says.
‘I know exactly where I’m going!’ Quinn snaps.
‘A tome called A Tragic Tale of the Dragon’s Last Stand.’
There’s a pause. ‘You’re fucking with me, right?’
‘I know exactly where to find the dragon’s lair,’ Quinn says. ‘You don’t need to worry; I have no intention of slaying your village’s monster. But it hunts on the night of the full moon, leaving its lair empty long enough to retrieve a treasure from its trove.’
Coraline pokes her head through her open window, squinting through the rain. ‘Did you say treasure?’
‘I did,’ Quinn admits.
‘You said there was no chance of getting money out of this!’ Coraline says accusingly.
‘That’s not what I said,’ Quinn points out. ‘I said it wasn’t a job. And it isn’t.’
‘But it is. Because you’re a treasure hunter!’
‘What?’ Quinn splutters. ‘No. No! I intend to write about it. As an author.’
Coraline studies them, a look of incredulity crossing her face. ‘If you were to find treasure, O dragon hunter, then wouldn’t you be rich without the extra step of writing about it?’
A storm cloud to rival the ones in the sky crosses Quinn’s face. ‘It’s not about being rich, Miss Coraline. It’s about how I get rich. Cashing in a piece of bawdy treasure has no beauty in it. No tale of overcoming greater odds—’
Quinn trails off as they realize Coraline is laughing. Darkness above, she’s laughing so hard in there it drowns out the words Quinn was so earnestly sharing. Quinn grinds their teeth, remembering – again – why belonging has always been so far from their grasp. If Quinn belongs to anything, it’s to the rejection of public perception and the torturous path toward achieving one’s distant dreams.
Quinn starts walking again. Coraline finally stops laughing long enough to yell after them by the time they’re passing her hood.
‘Look, I’m sorry. It’s just… it’s dangerous out there. You can’t write your book if you slip and fall in the sea.’
‘How very considerate,’ Quinn says without slowing.
‘Hey! Wait a second, will you?’
Oh, for all that’s holy. Now Coraline’s following them, creeping her vehicle alongside to match their pace.
‘Get in,’ she says. ‘At least let me drive you.’
‘I will not,’ says Quinn.
‘It’s freezing out here!’
‘I am not bothered by the cold.’
‘The leather of your fine coat isn’t made to get wet.’
‘It’s a little late to concern myself with that now,’ Quinn fires back.
‘The words you were writing in your journal will bleed until you can’t read them,’ she says.
Quinn’s hand goes to their ribs, feeling the hard shape of the journal beneath their coat. Though they don’t say it aloud, they rather appreciate Coraline’s turn of phrase there. There may be hope for her yet.
‘I thought about that,’ they admit.
‘Please get in.’
‘How much longer to get to the cliffs?’ Quinn asks.
Coraline hesitates. ‘I know of a walking path,’ she says after a moment. ‘It goes down the side of the cliff. Fenced in. Much safer. Do you think you could promise to look for this dragon’s lair from that walking path since you’re so hellbent on going tonight?’
Quinn’s gaze shoots to her in disbelief. A walking path? How would that look in their book? Rain fell in torrential curtains onto the angry sea below as I approached the ancient dragon’s lair, my hand wrapped tight around the guardrail with its comfortable no-slip grips…
They flinch, a full-body jerk that travels through every limb like an electric shock. A loud crash of thunder accentuates the movement.
‘Promise me,’ says Coraline again.
Quinn stares at her – at the dark curls surrounding her face, those prairie-storm eyes boring into theirs, and that enticing lipstick they can’t seem to get out of their head – and they say something they have absolutely no intention of saying and would snatch from the air as fast as one of those lightning bolts if they could.
‘Would you like to come?’
Her eyebrows raise, but to Quinn’s relief, she doesn’t laugh again. ‘You offering to share that treasure, then?’
‘The treasure is nothing more than a shackle that will forever tie your fate to society’s expectations,’ says Quinn. ‘But sure. If that’s your thing.’
Her eyes narrow. ‘Then what exactly do you call writing your…’ But she trails off, her hand raised in surrender. ‘You know what, never mind. If there’s a chance of treasure here – even if it’s a damn slim one – then who am I to throw it away? God knows I could use it. Sure. I’ll come. Get in.’
There comes a time in every adventure when one is forced to make a choice: to continue hacking their way through insurmountable odds, through cold and wind and upward battles determined to bring one to their knees… or to take the held-out hand and ease that journey just a little, just enough to make one stronger in anticipation of the next hurdle.
Quinn tucks the broken umbrella beneath their arm and turns west again. ‘I’ll meet you at the cliffs,’ they say, then head off into the darkness, letting the storm embrace them like a lover.
The walkway Coraline mentioned is no simple guardrail. It snakes down the side of the steep cliff with a wall of wide steel mesh on one side and the cliffside itself on the other. The openings in the steel wires are big enough that when lightning flashes, the churning ocean is starkly visible below, raging up the side of the cliff like a monster from the deep. The huge swells smash against the rocks, making the ocean appear deeper and fuller for fractions of a moment until it recedes again, exposing the crumbling stone at the base. Quinn stares down into the ocean’s surges and experiences vertigo, unlike anything they’ve felt before. They can imagine tipping into that never-ending sea, swallowed whole, shoved deep, deep beneath the surface into a world somehow bigger than the sky above.
‘Dragon Hunter!’ Coraline screams in Quinn’s ear.
Quinn yells aloud, and their boot skids on the slippery mud coating the wet rock. They barely catch themself by grabbing onto the cliff side of the walkway.
‘That’s the third time I’ve called you,’ Coraline says. She’s wearing a green plastic poncho with the hood pulled up. She looks much dryer than Quinn feels.
‘It’s Quinn,’ Quinn gasps out.
‘Yeah. Not “Dragon Hunter.”’
‘Okay. Quinn. What direction is this cave of yours supposed to be?’
‘South,’ Quinn whispers, prying a shaky hand from the cliff long enough to point to their right. Fortunately, it’s the same direction the walkway is heading.
Coraline takes their outstretched hand in hers. ‘You’re not gonna fall,’ she says. ‘But don’t touch the metal, okay? Lightning storm and all.’
Quinn nods, finally loosening the grip of their other hand just enough to turn their feet down the walkway. They still have the officer’s umbrella pinned between their arm and body and have no plans of relaxing their muscles enough to get it out any time soon. Lightning flashes again, and that monstrous ocean is visible once more, immense swells as far as the eye can see.
‘I belong to the perilous plight of uncertainty,’ Quinn mutters beneath their breath. ‘I belong to the pull of the abyss, where a single cut of the blade could bring me either safety or insanity…’
Coraline looks at them over her shoulder, and Quinn lets the words die.
‘Did you come here by yourself?’ Coraline asks.
Quinn tears their eyes from the sea. ‘I had no intention of tying my fate to another’s,’ they say.
She looks at them sceptically. ‘You didn’t come here on some sort of dare, did you? Some sort of… I don’t know… initiation thing?’
‘I did not,’ says Quinn.
‘So this is really you? You go around wearing that, climbing down cliffs, seeking out dragons, writing books…’
‘As opposed to what?’ says Quinn. ‘Drinking coffee, working a job, exercising?’
‘Like those aren’t valid things?’ Coraline says with a laugh.
‘They’re perfectly valid,’ says Quinn. ‘But they’re no more valid than what I do.’
Coraline considers this. ‘Fair enough.’
‘I do like coffee, though,’ Quinn says after a moment.
‘Well, thank God for that—’