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.

‘How?’

‘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.

‘Quinn?’

‘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—’

‘With absinthe.’

 

Coraline starts to laugh, then falters at Quinn’s quizzical look. After a moment, the corner of Quinn’s lip tweaks up, somewhat against their will. Coraline turns forward again. But her grip around Quinn’s hand remains comfortingly tight.

Quinn looks up at the cloud-blackened night sky, strobing with vicious streaks of lightning, and feels the rain pounding like ice crystals upon their cheeks. It slicks their long straight bangs back from their face. It feels like atonement. Or destiny. A last stand at the edge of the world—

Holy shadows of midnight. Quinn stops and shakes Coraline’s hand from theirs as a particularly vibrant slash of lightning illuminates an opening about twenty feet above, cut into the rough face of the rock. They swipe a hand over their eyes, barely even noticing the smudge of smeared eyeliner across their palm.

‘That’s it,’ they say.

Coraline turns back. Her eyes track Quinn’s gaze upward until she, too, sees the fissure in the rock.

‘Oh. Right,’ she says. ‘That used to be some sort of spelunking rock-climbing attraction, about, I don’t know… fifty, sixty years ago? But then someone fell, and the place was shut down.’

‘No one climbs up there now?’

‘I think it was boarded up. Didn’t want to encourage anyone.’

Quinn had planned to lower their body over the cliff in the deepest dark of the storm and creep, wraith-like, into the protection of this breath-taking haven cut into the side of the world. A dragon somewhere at their back, the wrath of nature’s fury playing out panoramically before them. So why, when faced with this moment in person, does it fail to produce the same surge of excitement? Is it fear? Quinn isn’t afraid of heights; they’re a seasoned enough rock-climber, after all, and have spent many an epic moment atop the sheer rubbery faces of climbing gyms, leagues above the safety of the cushioned mats below.

It’s just that those cushioned mats are a sight different when they’re made of silty water hundreds of feet deep, reshaping the look of Quinn’s potential fall with every surge…

Quinn might have turned around, in some other life. But Coraline’s presence at their side bolsters them; the memory of her laughter, her prairie-green eyes and possibly peppermint-flavoured lips, and the burning paralysis of the thoughts that will play through her head if Quinn backs down now.

Quinn turns to her. ‘Well-met, fair Coraline, but I fear this is where our paths div—’

‘You fool,’ she interrupts. ‘You’re not thinking of climbing that, are you?’

‘True quests cannot be abandoned on a mere whim,’ Quinn says.

‘What? Cut the bullshit already!’

But Quinn tucks the broken umbrella in their coat and hauls themself up the side of the cliff, steadfastly refusing to allow their mind to dwell on anything other than the slippery handholds before them.

It’s exhilarating. For a second. And then – Dear God, what am I doing? – those cursed thoughts intrude again, like lightning to the brain. Lightning. Lightning flashing all around them, capable of hitting Quinn with one good strike and sending them to kingdom come.

Shit shit shit shit—

But somehow, Quinn doesn’t stop moving, even during the deluge of panicked thoughts. They haul themself up – wraith-like – into a jagged, mud-coated indentation in the rock – a breath-taking haven – covered in wet litter and the shells of crabs and molluscs. Quinn crawls farther in on all fours, their legs and arms shaking from the adrenaline of the short climb. One of the fine silver chains on Quinn’s buckled boot snags on an outcrop and snaps. Quinn’s head jerks back when they feel the tug. The next flicker of lightning shows an unsightly gash where the chain was torn from the leather. Something tightens in Quinn’s chest. It took them quite a while to save up for these boots.

It seems like only a second before Coraline is there, cupping Quinn’s face in her hand. Her voice is alarmed. ‘Are you okay? You’re crying, did you hurt yourself?’

Quinn’s jaw clenches. ‘I’m not crying,’ they say, then somewhat contradict the point by gesturing at the broken boot.

‘You hurt your foot?’ Coraline says.

‘No, I—’ Quinn falters, stopping the words just in time. ‘Yes. Yes, I fear I did.’

‘Can you walk?’

‘No amount of pain can keep me down, Miss Coraline. I will push through it.’ Quinn struggles to their feet. ‘You shouldn’t have followed me.’

‘Remember. You’re giving me the treasure.’ Coraline points toward the back of the cave. ‘But you see what I mean. Boarded up.’

It is indeed. But Quinn pulls out the broken umbrella and approaches the boards nailed across the entrance, then uses the pointed metal end to pry at the slats. There is something brutally satisfying about using this gift from an officer of the law to break into this forbidden domain and something even more satisfying about knowing they’re as protected as they’ll ever be, doing this during a storm when no one in their right mind will climb down and catch them in the act.

‘Are we gonna talk about the fact that this dragon of yours would have trouble hunting on the full moon with these boards blocking its way every time?’ Coraline says.

Quinn pauses, the umbrella’s tip frozen like a lever behind a particularly stubborn board. ‘We are not,’ they finally say.

Coraline sighs. ‘Well, I guess I’ve come this far,’ she says and joins Quinn in yanking at the boards.

The two of them finally pry a hole large enough to fit through. Pitch blackness greets them on the other side. Quinn has come prepared for this. The only problem is the hours they spent learning to spark wood into a burning torch are useless when the detritus is soaked as thoroughly as they are. Coraline watches them try to strike the damp wood together for several agonizing minutes before finally producing a small flashlight from beneath her poncho.

‘That was inspired,’ she says as she passes it over.

‘Shut up,’ Quinn mutters.

They squeeze through the aperture, Quinn in the lead. Dead silence greets them. Even the noise of the storm seems muffled in here, and Quinn feels some of their anticipation returning. They know for a fact they will find something here; they’ve been led here by fate, every step of the way, from the tome that was left unshelved at their local library to the Frequent Flyer discount that just happened to scroll across their screen two days after they checked the airline listings.

The bare whisper of a path leads downward, barely navigable between the sharp jutting rocks of the cave floor. The ceiling is low enough that Quinn can touch it with an outstretched hand. Graffiti mars the rocks around them, visible as slashes of elaborately gothic letters and crudely drawn genitalia in the sporadic circle of Coraline’s flashlight. A clap of thunder follows them in, echoing from the close walls. Quinn wants to hold Coraline’s hand again, but with the broken umbrella in one hand and the light in the other, they don’t see how to do it without making it weird.

Quinn and Coraline descend farther. The sound of the ocean dulls even more, and the utter isolation of the place fully sinks in. The passage snakes downward, closer to where Quinn knows those massive waves beat against this very rock. The thought of being beneath the raging ocean’s surface is one Quinn doesn’t care to dwell on. The light shakes slightly in their hand. Their wet clothes have chilled them to the bone, and the damp and cold of the cave only make it worse.

If Quinn belongs anywhere, it’s deep in the heart of… of an ocean-battered tomb, surrounded by the smells of fish and mildew, under hundreds of thousands of pounds of stone, beneath the pummelling of a storm that could at any moment pour through that single opening like—

There’s a loud screech in the cave before them. Quinn startles violently, dropping the umbrella and spinning to shield Coraline. They cup the back of her head and crush them both against the nearest wall, their heart pounding. The flashlight falls from Quinn’s hand and sends splashes of light dancing erratically for a moment before disappearing entirely.

‘It’s a bat. It’s just a bat!’ says Coraline.

Her lips are so close that Quinn feels the puffs of air on their mouth when she speaks.

Quinn lets out a shaky breath. ‘I—I was fully cognizant of that. But thank you.’

Coraline doesn’t show any signs of pushing them away, but Quinn steps quickly back anyway, terrified suddenly of what Coraline is thinking… but, in all honesty, terrified of their own thoughts as well.

The thing is, Quinn has never kissed a girl. Before Quinn realised they didn’t fully belong on either side of the gender binary, they’d exclusively been interested in guys. Whether that meant they were gay, or straight, or what exactly is a question that’s nagged at Quinn for longer than they can remember. As if by figuring out exactly what label matched, they would know exactly what they were. But it didn’t matter. Quinn knew what they were, long before straight or gay ceased to fit into their image of themself. But it doesn’t change the fact that this attraction is new or that it sets off those mental questions again in a slightly panic-inducing flutter somewhere deep in their stomach. Like a need they didn’t know they had.

It’s been a long time since Quinn has even tried to belong…

They’re glad for the absence of light to hide whatever expression is on their face. But this journey can’t be continued in darkness. Quinn kneels, crawling until they finally see the faint light they dropped, just beneath an overhang of rock. They sweep it up, along with the broken umbrella they dropped.

‘Quinn?’ says Coraline.

‘I’m right here, Miss Coraline. I found our light.’

‘Thanks for… you know,’ Coraline says. ‘Leaping to my rescue like that.’

‘I do not leap,’ says Quinn stiffly.

‘You and I both know that was a leap,’ says Coraline.

Quinn starts to answer, but their words are cut off by laughter again. Their mouth twists. ‘Coraline, I swear, if you cannot stop laughing at me—’

‘Be quiet, Quinn,’ she breaks in. ‘That’s not me.’

Quinn freezes. No… no, she’s right, it’s not her at all. It’s several voices, in different resonances, echoing from somewhere down the cave.

Coraline jerks her head toward the graffiti they passed on their way in. ‘It’s probably just teenagers, like us,’ she whispers.

Quinn glares at her because ‘teenager’ is never a word Quinn has used to describe themself; even the sixteen months ago that it would have technically been accurate, Quinn was nothing like whoever Coraline is comparing them to now.

She must have caught the look because she lets out a snort. ‘Yeah, yeah, I know, I’ve never been a teenager, Miss Coraline, how dare you. Next, you’ll bring up how you travelled here on your own, so how could you be, right?’

‘Well, my parents did help with the plane ticket,’ says Quinn. Their mouth snaps shut a second too late; why in the world did they see fit to share that?

‘What?’ Coraline says. ‘You mean they’re actually helping with your dragon hunting—’

‘With my career,’ Quinn interrupts in a low growl. ‘As a writer.’

Coraline laughs. ‘I can picture the T-shirt you’ll give them now. I went hunting for dragons, but all I found was this lousy gang of cave punks.’

‘That’s not teenagers down there,’ Quinn breaks in.

She frowns, caught off-guard. ‘What?’

‘There were no gaps in those boards large enough for entry.’

‘Yeah, but…’ Coraline falters. ‘But there must’ve been. Maybe near the bottom, something just big enough to squeeze through.’

Quinn glances back, unconvinced. An erratic racing has started up in their heart – a thrumming beat telling them they’re on the brink of something here.

‘Wait,’ says Coraline. ‘You’re not seriously attributing that laughter to somehow being your dragon, are you?’

‘Dragons are crafty creatures, wiser and cleverer than anyone knows,’ says Quinn. ‘One should never assume that such a creature can’t use humans’ own assumptions against them.’

Coraline’s eyes widen in the dim glow of the light. ‘Can I ask you something?’

‘Anything,’ Quinn answers.

‘Where do you come up with this shit?’

Quinn huffs, trying not to think of all the other things they were hoping that question would be. ‘I don’t expect you to understand,’ they say. ‘You haven’t lived on the fringes of society for year after painful year the way I have.’

‘Wow. I can’t even begin to tell you how backwards that—Hey! Wait! Where are you going?’

Quinn looks back from the boulder they’ve just rounded, another dozen feet down. ‘I’m investigating.’

‘You’re not leaving me,’ she says.

‘What? No.’ Quinn is genuinely confused. ‘You’re coming, right?’

‘To go hang out with those teenagers? No, thanks. I’ve got better things to do.’

Quinn struggles to find words. ‘But it’s not… we won’t… that’s not what we’ll find, Coraline.’

‘How could you possibly know that?’

‘I just do. I know it in my heart. The world brought me here for a reason.’

After a moment, Coraline lets out the most exasperated sigh Quinn has ever heard. ‘If you end up dissolving into a hundred ravens wearing that coat,’ she mutters, ‘it would almost be a relief at this point.’

Quinn’s eyebrows raise as she gets down to their level. She eyes them suspiciously.

‘What’s that look for?’

‘Nothing,’ Quinn says. ‘It’s just… it’s a stunning image. That’s all.’

She shoves their shoulder, half-playful and half-irritated, and Quinn turns back to the passage. They continue down. And somehow – Quinn doesn’t know how but doesn’t dare question it – Coraline’s hand is wrapped in their own this time.

There’s one thing Quinn is forced to acknowledge: the dragon has not gone out hunting on the full moon. The lair was supposed to be empty this fated night, but everything, from the boarded-off entrance to the definite presence of something deep in this cave, points to the fact that the treasure will be guarded by a very possessive owner. The passage creeps lower and lower, becoming steeper as they go. How many dozen feet are they below the ocean’s raging waves now? Quinn’s heart pounds in their ears. Occasionally, the sound of laughter reaches them again, but it’s too intermittent to make anything out. Quinn pauses and passes Coraline’s flashlight back to her, then pulls the broken umbrella from their coat.

They picture happening upon the dragon, all eight-inch long teeth and baseball-sized eyes and spikes running down its back like a mohawk. They picture themself brandishing the umbrella, pointed side out, while Coraline blinds it with the flame of her light—

‘Give me that,’ says Coraline, snatching the umbrella from them. ‘You’re gonna hurt yourself.’

Quinn would argue, but one of the broken metal ribs has somehow stabbed their palm, and it smarts something fierce.

‘I hear the ocean again,’ says Coraline.

A chill goes through Quinn. It’s true. Down below them – maybe not even that far down – there’s the definite sound of waves breaking against rock.

‘There must be some undercut in the cliff where the water comes in,’ she says. ‘Quinn… we shouldn’t be down here.’

Quinn shivers in their wet clothes. But at that moment, they hear the laughter again, just above the noise of the surf. Quinn can almost… almost… hear snatches of words in there, too. Something that sounds like ‘Not in this lifetime, bro.

Quinn bites their bottom lip. Seventh level of hell. Coraline was right. It’ll be nothing but drunken teenagers down here, and Quinn will have to admit they were wrong. That there’s no dragon, no treasure, no epic tale to rocket them to their dream of being a famous author, no future here at all. They make their way farther down anyway, jaw clenched tight in anticipation of the embarrassment, their nose twitching as it catches a whiff of cigarette smoke along with the fishy smell of the encroaching sea.

Quinn almost stumbles on something and stops short. Coraline grabs their arm to steady them. Quinn squints down in the erratic lighting and sees…

It’s a tail. And dear God, not just any tail. It’s scaly and green and shimmery and easily as big around as Quinn’s waist. Quinn meets Coraline’s eyes and sees her expression is as shocked as their own. Slowly, Quinn kneels, running their hand along the length of the otherworldly appendage without quite touching it. They whisper a silent prayer of thanks that the world has delivered this to them and that they won’t look like a fool in front of Coraline after all—

Something rears up and smacks Quinn’s hand away so violently that they reel backward. Their coat tangles in their legs and sends them crashing to the jagged ground.

‘Whaddaya think you’re doin’, puttin’ your hand there?’ a gruff voice says. ‘Fuck off!’

Quinn is still staring into the shadows, mouth agape, when Coraline shines her light in to illuminate the passage ahead of them. It’s a sizable chamber, at least fifty feet wide, with a tall ceiling hanging with stalactites and a floor that’s literally nothing but the raging sea coming in from the west. If Quinn hadn’t been stopped by the tail crossing the passage, they would have easily walked off the ledge and right into the ocean.

But it’s the people lounging around and in the water that really draw the eye. People just like Quinn and Coraline… except that their torsos end in thick fishtails.

‘Holy shit, Quinn!’ Coraline says, her voice coming out in a squeak. ‘You discovered mermaids!’

The chamber has gone silent but for the crash of the ocean. At least seven pairs of eyes are pinned on Quinn and Coraline, glaring as if they interrupted a particularly intimate party. Which, to be fair… Quinn’s gaze darts from the hairy mermaid still splayed across the passage, coolly watching Quinn through a cloud of cigarette smoke, to another mermaid – topless, female-presenting – who has a bottle of what Quinn can only assume is liquor in an honest-to-God paper bag. Someone across the chamber lets out a belch.

Quinn pulls themself up from the ground, still staring. ‘No,’ they say faintly. ‘No, no, no, no, no. You were supposed to be… I heard there was a dragon…’

The mermaid in front raises an eyebrow, then flashes a grin at the others. ‘Ha! Classic Ernie!’

The others let out a cascade of whoops and hollers. They drink, as if Quinn has introduced some sort of chugging contest. Quinn’s hand finds Coraline’s again as the raucous cheering continues. One of the mermaids across the chamber tips and falls into the water, which starts up a whole new round of cheers.

‘Mermaids!’ Coraline whispers again, still in shock.

‘Mermaids,’ repeats Quinn, their lip twisting. They try to imagine this scene in their book – the majestic dragon I’d hunted for months turns out to be, much to my utter delight, a gang of rowdy and drunken mermaids… Quinn’s jaw tightens because the word delight isn’t fitting in well there. Not well at all.

Quinn steps forward, hands out in pleading frustration. ‘There was supposed to be a dragon,’ they say again through clenched teeth. ‘And a treasure. And I was supposed to—’ They flail their arms, hoping that these beings will parse their meaning and somehow, magically, step up to the plate and be what Quinn needs them to be.

Heads jerk toward them as if the mermaids had forgotten they were there.

‘Treasure?’ one of them says.

‘Y-Yeah,’ Quinn says. ‘You see, I… I’m writing a book—’

‘Humans!’ someone interrupts, and the laughter breaks out all over again.

‘Here!’ one calls. ‘Here’s your damn treasure. Now stop leering and scram!’

Something flies through the air and thwacks Quinn across the chest. Quinn barely catches it – it’s some sort of soft-bound book – but they don’t have time to look at it before Coraline is pulling them back up the cave passage, away from the jeering mermaids. She guides them, hurrying over the jagged rock, and doesn’t stop until the sound of laughter is far behind them and the cold silence of the cave has enveloped them once more.

Quinn’s thoughts are in tatters; the beating heart of the storm that was supposed to hold their salvation and destiny has betrayed them in a way they never imagined. They sink down onto an overturned boulder, looking for the first time at the ‘treasure’ the mermaids threw at them before they ran. Naked breasts and fishtails and hands sliding in between…

Quinn drops the magazine, their face burning red hot.

‘Porn,’ they say in a strangled voice. ‘They gave me. Mermaid. Porn.’

Coraline kneels and picks it up. ‘How do you think they’d even go about printing something like this underwater?’

‘I don’t know, Coraline.’

She hops up on the boulder beside them, flipping casually through the magazine. ‘It’s not so bad, right?’ she says. ‘You did exactly what you set out to do. You went on an adventure, found a mythical creature, got a treasure…’

Quinn feels like crying. ‘I can’t write about this!’ they say, gesturing at the magazine.

‘What, this isn’t the treasure that’s been in our hearts all along?’ Coraline says distractedly, turning the magazine sideways.

‘I will kill you,’ Quinn says darkly.

‘Look. I shouldn’t say anything, but…’ Coraline sighs and lowers the magazine. ‘All that I’ll never belong stuff you were writing in your journal. Don’t you feel like maybe…’

Quinn turns toward her, frowning. ‘Maybe what?’

Coraline grimaces. ‘That maybe belonging means not following a well-laid path. Like your plans for your book. Like your journey here. Like your…’

Quinn studies Coraline’s green eyes, locked on their own, and feels their heart rate pick up. ‘Like my attractions,’ they whisper.

‘What? What about them?’

‘I’ve never… I mean, I don’t know if I’m… I haven’t figured out what I…’

Coraline’s brow furrows. ‘Quinn,’ she says slowly. ‘Are you saying you want to kiss me?’

‘Yes,’ says Quinn, their voice hoarse. ‘I… I do believe that’s what I’m saying.’

‘Then what the hell are you going on about?’ Coraline grabs the front of Quinn’s long coat and pulls them forward. Her lips close over theirs.

Quinn’s thoughts are lost in a sudden dizzying plunge from all sensibility. All Quinn knows is that this wasn’t the book they’d been planning to write. Their book didn’t have mermaids, it didn’t have a love interest, it didn’t have… oh God… lips that taste not of honeysuckle or peppermint, but sea salt and rain, and the gentle flicker of a tongue. It didn’t have a main character who wasn’t exactly straight and wasn’t exactly gay and wasn’t exactly sure whether the girl kissing them was doing it because she liked them or because she’d just been looking at porn.

But Quinn suddenly wonders: why? Why are they even searching for a label for this? Can’t this be enough? Whatever Quinn is, this moment here doesn’t change their self at all. Quinn likes Coraline. A lot. And they’ve been thinking about her since the moment they laid eyes on her. That’s really all there is to it.

Belonging is a tenuous concept at the best of times. But that doesn’t make it unattainable. Quinn can belong to the smell of the pounding rain in the deepest dark of the storm… but they can also belong to the vibrant thrill of uncertainty, or to the spontaneous kiss of a beautiful stranger, or – perhaps most of all – to the newfound freedom of knowing who they truly are, without feeling the need to define it.

Maybe… just maybe… Quinn will end up writing that book after all.

Reese Hogan

Reese Hogan is a nonbinary transmasc science fiction author from New Mexico. He has published three novels, and the latest, Shrouded Loyalties from Angry Robot, was a Best SFF of August 2019 pick by both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. His short fiction has been published in The Decameron Project and Clockwork, Curses, and Coal, an anthology of steampunk fairy tale retellings. In addition to writing fiction, Reese is a content writer for the Writing Mastery Academy at writingmastery.com. You can find Reese on Twitter @ReeseHogan1.