Stanley Wiltern was late again. He stamped his breaks to prevent hitting a woman in a yellow rain suit holding a stop sign. The car skidded just enough to splash water onto the feet of a little girl waiting at the curb. He gave the girl an apologetic shrug as she entered the crosswalk in front of him. She smiled at him and jumped into a puddle as if to reassure him. His passenger door flew open in a whirl of wind and teenager. A boy with an acne bespeckled face and hair way past due for a trim hopped in.
“Sorry I’m late, Jack,” said Stanley.
“Doesn’t matter,” Jack said quietly.
“It does matter. I got stuck in a meeting and didn’t realize it was raining.”
Stanley wanted Jack to yell at him. Or at least show annoyance. It bothered him that his son seemed to walk through life in a fog of apathy. He wondered if Jack’s friends—yes, surprisingly they existed—found Jack’s indifference as aggravating as he did.
“Did you see that girl splashing through the puddles? She was adorable.”
Jack didn’t even bother to reply.
“Is Justin coming over again tonight?” asked Stanley.
Jack unzipped his book bag and pulled out a paperback with what Stanley thought looked like elves on the cover. “Do your friends read those silly books too?”
“They’re not silly,” Jack retorted with a fierce insistency.
It was the only way Stanley knew to get a rise out of him. He regretted doing it but needed to see that Jack was capable of emotion. Plus, those books were ridiculous. There was some sophisticated science fiction, like Orwell, but filling one’s head with visions of strange creatures and magic was counterproductive in the real world.
“And no, they don’t read at all unless they have to for school,” said Jack. Stanley smiled to himself, pleased at the reaction.
“What about Justin? I thought I saw him with one of your books the other day.”
“Justin’s different,” Jack replied, returning to his customary near inaudible mumble. “He was reading it because I asked him to.”
“Have you talked to Daisy lately?” Again, Jack ignored the question.
When they arrived home, Jack headed straight to his bedroom, flipped on his PlayStation, and flopped down on his bed, controller in hand. A moment later, a picture of a knight holding a sword and standing in front of a dragon silhouette lit up the sixty-five-inch screen. Heather, Jack’s mom, left when he was ten and had spent the last few years appeasing him with gifts. Stanley considered telling Jack he had to finish his homework first, but Jack almost always got straight A’s. Best not to mess with what worked.
“Tomorrow is ‘bring your kid to work day’ at the office. Want to ditch school and see how the old man brings home the bacon?”
“No, but bacon sounds good.” Jack rolled out of bed and strolled to the kitchen. The kid even cooked for himself. Most dads would be pleased, but Stanley found it unnatural. Teenagers needed a little scolding from time to time, but Jack rarely gave him cause.
Stanley worked in the IT department of an inventory company. Cubical City, his name for the main floor of the large corporate building, bustled with children when he clocked in the following morning.
“Where’s Jack?” asked Frank, a tall thin man with a full greying beard.
“Are you surprised he didn’t want to come?” Stanley responded. Frank was Stanley’s best friend. Jack and Frank’s daughter, Daisy, used to play together every weekend when they were kids. That had stopped soon after Heather walked out. Stanley guessed it was because Daisy thought Jack had become a nerd. They used to build forts down at the creek, and when there was enough water, they floated down it on inner tubes all the way to the beach. Now she was a cheerleader and the most popular freshman at Balboa High School. Jack spent his days reading fantasy books and playing video games. Stanley couldn’t blame her for not coming over anymore.
“Hi, Mr. Wiltern. How are you?” Daisy had come to work with Frank. She had wavy almond-colored hair tied into a ponytail with a violet ribbon and sported square glasses that framed her face, enhancing her natural beauty. Frank had confided to him that her vision was perfect. She was the politest teenager Stanley had ever met. Frank and Cindy had done something right, and staying together was probably part of it.
“I am doing well, Daisy. I saw one of your posters when I was picking up Jack the other day. Very professional. I would vote for you.” She was a shoo-in to win Freshman Student Body President. She was in the same grade as Jack, but they didn’t have any classes together.
“Thank you. My friend Kayla designed it. You must be proud of Jack. I heard he won the story contest for the Writer’s Club.”
“He didn’t tell me that,” said Stanley with a broken voice and a questioning frown.
“Most kids think it’s dorky, but I think it is kind of cool. Tell him I said hello.”
“I-I will, Daisy,” said Stanley. “I definitely will. I miss having you around the house.”
“Me, too,” said Daisy as she wandered over to the breakroom where a few of the other older kids congregated.
“Well, time to actually do some work,” said Frank. “See you at lunch. You are welcome to join Daisy and me if we can drag her away from her new clique for the day.”
When lunchtime came, Stanley headed to the breakroom to meet up with Frank. Daisy was still there talking to a couple of boys. Stanley knew the boys. They were a couple of years younger and still in junior high, the sons of Ruth from QA and Porter from Research and Development. They were all three rapt in their conversation and had not noticed him standing there.
“It doesn’t make any sense. Even if dragons did exist once, there is no way they breathed fire,” said Daisy.
“They have flammable gasses in their exhalations,” said Porter’s boy. “Their biology and what they eat causes it. Think of it as crazy farting through the mouth. You know, like how people light their farts on fire, but way more intense.”
“Is that true?” asked Daisy, giggling. “Can you really light your farts on fire?”
“Yes, I could show you sometime,” said Ruth’s son, winking.
Daisy burst out laughing. “But wait. How does the dragon light the fire? It can’t just always be burning.”
They were all three still deeply pondering Daisy’s question when Frank walked up. “You ready to go, Stanley?”
Daisy stood up and walked toward them. “Hey, dad, can Todd and Cody come with us to lunch? We have to figure something out.”
“Not today. I’m sure Ruth and Porter have plans with them,” answered Frank.
“OK, well, let me know if you guys ever figure out the answer,” Daisy told the younger boys.
“Can I have your phone number?” asked Cody, Porter’s son. “You know, for when we figure it out.”
Daisy winked at him. “OK, but don’t give it out to anyone else. Let me see your phone.” Cody’s face beamed with a goofy smile found only on the newly pubescent as Daisy entered her number.
Later that evening, Stanley and Jack sat in silence at the dinner table with their heads down, eating Sloppy Joes. Stanley was trying to figure out how to broach the subject of the writing contest. Why had Jack not told him about winning? And how long had Jack been writing? He rolled his eyes, imagining the stories were about fire-breathing dragons. He tried to picture a dragon farting out of his mouth when the answers came in one thought, like striking two matches and creating one flame.
“Flint and steel!” Stanley whooped.
Jack lifted his eyes. When Stanley slapped his forehead, exclaiming his stupidity, Jack looked up and said, audibly, “What the heck are you talking about?”
“What do you know about dragons?” asked Stanley.
“A lot,” Jack asserted. “What did you have in mind?”
“They breathe out fire, right? But how do they do that?”
“Well,” said Jack, pausing to consider the question. “I read a book that tried to answer that. Humans exhale carbon dioxide, but dragons exhale a far more flammable gas.”
“Like farting out their mouth,” said Stanley. “You know, because farts are flammable.”
Jack smiled. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“But how do they start the fire? It can’t always be lit, right?”
Jack thought about it for a minute. “Good point. I’m not sure.”
“Their back teeth are like flint and steel!” exclaimed Stanley in a Eureka moment that would put Archimedes to shame.
Jack gaped at his dad, stunned. Finally, just as Stanley’s anticipation began to burn, a grin big enough to fill years of silence lit up Jack’s face. “That’s freaking cool, dad.”
Stanley smiled openly at his son, pleased at the reaction.