This is an excerpt from the lead story in my collection “The Dragon Ticket and Other Stories”. It is available in print and in downloadable e-versions.
The Dragon Ticket
Michelle hesitated, then knocked on the open door and entered the dimly lit room. A man sat in a wheelchair facing the window. His right hand trembled slightly. Gray rain clouds filled the sky; a misty drizzle floated slowly downward, drifting here and there with the wind’s currents. The dilapidated apartments across the street had been boarded up and appeared ready to be demolished.
“Not much of a view,” she said.
“I think that building’s been left to crumble of old age.” When the man smiled, the right side of his face twitched. “Michelle. I’m glad you’ve come.”
She kissed him on the forehead. “How are you, Daddy?”
“Well, the polite answer would be ‘fine’ but actually I feel like hell. I can’t even get my hand up to scratch my face.”
“Where does it itch?”
“Don’t patronize me. I can use the other hand. That’s just an example.”
Michelle sat in an armchair near the window from which she could see her father’s face. Despite the rapid debilitation the multiple sclerosis had brought on, the blue eyes remained kind and the smile seemed sincere, but she detected a hint of despair behind the gentle façade, and he’d obviously lost a lot of weight and looked pale and weak.
“Where’s the nurse?”
“Out shopping. I wanted to talk to you alone. How’s it going with your roommates?”
“Okay. We have good times and bad times. We’re planning a camping trip this summer.”
“God, I miss you!”
“Yeah, sorry. I know I promised. I didn’t ask you to come to tell you that. It just kind of escaped.”
Michelle smiled. “I miss you too.”
With his left hand he wheeled the chair closer, until his knee almost touched Michelle’s. “I want to show you something I’ve never shown anybody,” he said. “I don’t know why I never did, or why I even kept it all these years. For a long time I didn’t think it was important. But now…”
“What is it, Daddy?”
He reached into his left pants pocket, pulled out what appeared to be a yellow piece of paper, and handed it to Michelle. Within a rectangular frame of black ink was a dragon with bulging eyes, a curled tail with the tip shaped like an arrowhead, and a wide-open mouth full of sharp teeth. It was a simple drawing; there was no writing.
“I picked it up in Nepal in my hippy travel days, before I met your mother.”
“It’s kind of weird-looking. What’s so important about it?”
“When I found it I just had a feeling I should keep it. I didn’t know why.”
“Little pictures like that are so common in the East I would never have thought to save one. But there’s something different about this. Try to tear it up.”
Michelle hesitated. “Are you sure?”
She shrugged, gripped it between her index fingers and thumbs, and tried to rip it. She frowned, and tried again. Then she held it more tightly, and tried with as much strength as she could muster.
He smiled. “Nothing, right? Not a tear, not a scratch, not a wrinkle. Now hold it up to the window so the light shines through it. Look closely at the dragon’s right pupil. See the tiny dot that seems darker than the rest? If you run your fingers along the surface you can feel a little bump.”
“Yeah. What is it?”
“I don’t know. Some kind of microchip?”
“But you said you found this thing about twenty-five years ago.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Neither do I. I really don’t understand. But lately I think it’s been transmitting a message.”
Michelle looked into her father’s eyes. “Dad?”
“I know it sounds strange. But just try one thing: take it home with you; keep it near you for a while. See if you can get what it’s trying to say. Then compare it with what I’ve written here.” He handed her a sealed envelope that had been on the window ledge. “If it matches, please come back and tell me. Please. Will you do this for me?” He chuckled, but the sound had a hint of pain and fear of rejection. ”I hope you don’t think I’m crazy. I’m not sick in the head; it’s just my body that won’t work right.” He wheeled himself backward a few feet, and lowered his head. “If you don’t want to do it, just leave it here. I won’t blame you.”
She stood up, leaned over, and put her hand on his cheek. “I’ll do it, Daddy,” she said. “I will.”
* * *
From the balcony Michelle watched the sun as it touched the ocean on the horizon and cast an ever-widening golden path towards shore.
“Come on, Michelle,” one of her roommates called from inside. “Come with us.”
“No, I’m not in the mood.” (Of course I want to go with them, she thought. I wanted my own life, and this is the type of life I wanted. What’s the matter with me?)
A moment later she heard the door open, and a voice said, “Last chance!”
“Go ahead. I’ll see you later.” (Why did I say that?)
Behind her the latch clicked shut. The sun had become a blood-red semicircle, staining the sky a rusty color.
She pulled out the dragon picture and looked at it, then stared into the darkening night. She didn’t want to go to Nepal. She knew she didn’t. She wanted to keep doing what she was already doing. She had friends, a nice place to live, enough money. She should never have agreed to take this thing home.
But now it was too late. Her father was right: there was a message. She felt it with increasing urgency the longer she kept the yellow paper close to her.
(It’s not for me, it’s for Daddy, she thought.)
But as much as he probably desperately wanted to, her father couldn’t go. That’s why he’d confided in her.
Slowly she pried open the envelope’s flap. (I don’t want to see this, she thought.) As she unfolded the piece of paper, she knew what it would say; still, her heart began to pound furiously as the words her father had written exactly echoed what she’d been hearing inside: “Return to where you received this; if you don’t come soon, it will be too late.”
* * *
From the roof of the hotel, as the morning sun gleamed upon the snow-capped peaks, Michelle searched the surrounding foothills. Her father had said that when he was there the shrine could be seen from the city, but that had been twenty-five years ago. Was it still visible? Her gaze wandered over the crests, the convolutions, the abrupt cliffs, the sharp bare rocks. Yes. Beyond the golden dome of the Monkey Temple, high on a green hilltop across the valley, Michelle spotted a small but distinct gray object.
But how could she get there? Nepal was in the process of closing itself off to foreigners in an attempt to isolate itself from the worsening global political situation. The army had put a cordon around Kathmandu City and was carefully inspecting anyone coming or going. She had only managed to get in by wearing a sari, slicking back her long dark hair and knotting it into a braid, and marking a bright scarlet spot on her forehead with lipstick. Then she’d boarded a bus at the Indian border and had made the long, arduous trip along the narrow winding road through the Himalayan foothills to Kathmandu. By the time the bus arrived it was after dark, and in the confusion of the inspection she’d managed to pass as an Indian woman.
She’d have to wait until nightfall and try to slip past the sentries. She sighed. From the pouch at her side she pulled out a small yellow rectangle; though she knew every dot and line of the picture by heart, she studied it for a long time. Then she raised her head and looked again at the gray spot on the green hilltop and the majestic, seemingly endless range of mountains. She didn’t know why, but she felt a sense of urgency; she was almost out of time.
* * *
After dark she left the hotel, carefully walking through the narrow streets to the city’s edge. She descended the steep bank to the river and followed the reeking water, picking her way through the garbage, and slowly tip-toeing past the groups of large pigs noisily rooting through the decomposing piles of rubbish. She saw armed soldiers on either bank but managed to slip by them unseen. She took small paths in a zigzag pattern through the rice fields until she came to the foot of the hill, then she circled the base until she found a dirt track winding upward.
* * *
It was late when Michelle reached the summit; her watch, set to local time, said 1:30. A thin crescent of moon dimly illuminated the hilltop.
The shrine, built of large pieces of gray granite, crowned the hill. Inside, a leering idol sat cross-legged. It had many arms like a spider, and long fangs like a vampire bat. Before it lay the wilted flowers of past offerings.
The cold air easily penetrated the thin sweater she had brought. She tried striding back and forth to keep warm, but it didn’t help much.
Countless stars stabbed through the blackness. The icy peaks in a vast circle around her stood like silent sentinels.
Finally she gave up pacing and sat down on the grass facing the mountains and the valley below, whose few puny lights seemed insignificant in comparison to the myriad stars above. (Maybe Daddy sat here, she thought. Maybe he sat on this very spot.) As she waited she began to shiver. (What if nothing happens? What will I do? This is so crazy; I can’t believe I’m really here. And yet…) She felt the dragon paper beneath her sari. Her apprehension subsided. Though she continued to shiver, inwardly she became calm.
Suddenly behind her she heard humming, first faintly in the distance, then increasing in volume as it came closer. She felt the touch of a warm breeze that became stronger and stronger and finally completely enveloped her.
(Should I turn around? I can’t! I must!) She remained motionless, her eyes closed, letting the warmth penetrate her skin and drive away the last vestiges of the cold’s grip.
But finally she looked. It was a round metallic object about the size of a basketball, with tiny multicolored lights skimming around on its surface like flashing bugs.
The humming subsided. Whatever it was greeted her and then began to speak rapidly in Nepali.
“Wait, I don’t understand.”
“Language adjustment: English: West Coast United States. There, is that better?”
“Much better. Who are you?”
“I’ve come to activate your gift.”
“You must have received a ticket or you wouldn’t be here.”
“My father picked it up a long time ago. But he couldn’t come.”
“Yes, twenty-five years ago I scattered the tickets in several locations on the planet’s surface. Fishing for likely recipients, you might say. Only certain individuals with latent talent would pick up the right ticket from a myriad of ordinary ones. But before I had a chance to activate them I received a restraining order. I just wanted to help your people, but the strict policy at that time was non-interference. Now, the situation has gotten so bad here I’ve been allowed to proceed, in a limited capacity.”
“What is the significance of the dragon?”
“It’s a common local symbol. But I’m sorry; I don’t have time to answer all your questions. You were almost too late. I need to be moving on, but I sensed your approach, so I waited. Please hold your ticket in your hand.”
Michelle pulled it out and held it palm upward in front of her.
“A yellow one. The yellow tickets are for the gift of healing. I’ll be able to activate yours for six months.”
The humming sound increased; the warm wind became hot. A tingling sensation began on the hand that held the ticket, flowed down her arm, and spread until her entire body felt as if it were being pricked by thousands of tiny needles.
Then the humming stopped and the wind ceased. The multicolored round object raced away over the Himalayan peaks, and Michelle was once again in the cold, all alone.
“Wait,” she called. “Come back! What do I do now?” The soft silver gleam of the moonlight on the nearby snow seemed to transform the scenery around her into the landscape of another world, a world far away. “What do I do now?” she whispered.
* * *
Michelle left Nepal the same way she had come, in a local bus disguised as an Indian woman. At the border she got on a crowded third class train car to Delhi. She hardly noticed the cacophony and stink around her, so wrapped up was she in pondering what had happened, whether it was real or not, and what she should do now. She wanted to disbelieve; it was too bizarre, too crazy. But she couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that it was the logical culmination of events she had set in motion when she had first held the dragon ticket in her hand in a land remote both in time and distance.
Newspapers said that border clashes with Pakistan were escalating into full-scale war, and India was revoking visas and expelling foreigners. Circumstances were forcing her to leave as quickly as possible; she would soon be home again and able to relate to her father what had happened.
And then, she realized, she could put her supposed gift of healing to the test. She could try to heal her father. The thought struck her as a revelation, a sudden burst of insight. Of course! If it was real, he should be the first to benefit. If it wasn’t, he should be the first to know that too, because he was the one who had initiated this whole series of strange events.
She sat up straight, imbued with new purpose. While before she had been in a half-awake dreamlike state, oblivious to her surroundings, now she impatiently counted the miles monotonously click-click-clicking by on the tracks beneath.
* * *
In Delhi Michelle made a beeline for the airline office to confirm a reservation on her return ticket.
It was while taking a shortcut through a rubbish-strewn dirt lane that she saw the beggar.
At first she didn’t know why she stopped. She had seen hundreds, perhaps thousands of beggars on her journey. To some she had given loose change, if she had it. But eventually she had realized the futility of trying to change their condition. Even if she gave all that she had to relieve the plight of one, millions more were waiting behind, arms outstretched, hopelessly pleading.
It was not the beggar’s physical condition that caused her to pause, though that was indeed pitiful enough: the woman was no older than Michelle, and her arms, neck and forehead were blotched with open moist leprous sores ringed with pus; her sari was torn and frayed and so dirty that it had changed color from pink to shades of gray. But this too was far from unique.
It was the woman’s expression. She sat quietly, hopelessly, in despair, staring up from deep within the pit of her own private hell from which there was no escape.
At first Michelle didn’t realize that she had stopped and was staring at the woman. (Can I help her? She thought. No, no, it’s impossible. Just look at her. What could I do against this?)
She looked down the lane in the direction of the airline office. Dust roiled in shafts of late-afternoon sunlight. From the main street she heard the noise of car horns and rickshaw bells.
Then Michelle knelt before the beggar, looked into her eyes, and reached out and touched her. Immediately a warm tingle similar to what she had felt when she had held the ticket in front of the strange alien object crept up from somewhere deep inside Michelle and flowed through her arms and fingers. That the woman felt it was obvious: her expression changed to one of a little girl who had been injured and was seeking solace, and she leaned her head on Michelle’s breast and clung to her.
How long they remained like that on the ground, the woman in Michelle’s arms, the warmth surging through them both, Michelle did not know. It must have been hours. Twilight descended, then night. Streetlights from the nearby main roads dimly illuminated the now all-but-deserted lane. Then, together, they fell asleep.
Michelle awakened to a cock’s crowing, bird songs, and rickshaw bells. The early morning sun shone high on the crumbling brick and plaster of the surrounding buildings, but the alley was still shadowed and slightly cool.
The woman in Michelle’s arms stirred and sat up. Her sleep-glazed eyes at first registered incomprehension, then surprise. She looked at Michelle, then at her arms. She ran her fingers over her face.
Her skin was clean. Not a trace of the sores remained.
She gasped, sobbed, wailed. Then she threw herself to the ground in a posture of oblation, her forehead on Michelle’s foot.
Michelle had difficulty prying her out of her worshipful position and getting her to sit up. Then for a time the woman was too distraught to speak. Finally, though, Michelle was able to ask, “Your name. What’s your name?”
The woman pointed to herself. “Sonia. I Sonia. Are you doctor?”
Michelle shook her head. “No.”
“But you are healer.”
“I suppose so.”
Sonia got to her feet and grabbed Michelle’s arm. “You must come with me.”
“To my village. You must meet my parents.”
“But I can’t I have a plane to catch.”
“You must come. You must.”
In the end, Michelle allowed herself to be persuaded. She wanted to see Sonia home safely, and she was curious as to where this digression might lead. Something was beginning to happen; she felt she must be open to new leadings.
* * *
It was a six-hour journey to the west on a narrow-gauge train. When Sonia arrived her parents, brothers, sisters, and cousins hugged her and wept over her; the rest of the village came out to watch. When Sonia led Michelle into the small, whitewashed house everyone formed a semicircle a short distance outside and sat down to see what would happen.
A feast was held that evening, at which Michelle was the guest of honor. There was rice on banana leaves, and stainless steel bowls full of all types of vegetable curries; then sweets, and cakes, and fruit. Sonia’s family kept urging Michelle to eat more and more until she thought she would burst. The story of Sonia’s healing was told again and again; each time it was slightly embellished.
When the next morning Michelle made it clear that she was planning to leave, Sonia’s family refused to let her go. They insisted she remain and accept their hospitality longer; they wanted to repay her somehow, though she tried to explain that it was unnecessary.
In the meantime word had spread to the nearby villages.
And by afternoon the sick began to arrive.
Some were on foot, painfully limping; some were carried on litters; some rode oxcarts or cycle-rickshaws. Some were lepers, and some had various degrees of fever. Some were lame, or deaf, or blind. Some had malaria, or typhoid, or other diseases with which Michelle was unfamiliar. But they all had the same expression of deep sorrow Michelle had seen in Sonia’s eyes, tinged with desperate hope that Michelle might be able to help them.
She felt like a child faced with the task of trying to empty the ocean with a plastic bucket. On the one hand it was overwhelming, and she had the urge to get out of there as quickly as possible, to return to her father as had been her original plan; on the other hand she did not want to turn her back on all these people who had come to her for help, knowing that she indeed possessed the power to help them.
(I have six months, she thought. I can work with these people for a while, and return in plenty of time to save my father.)
So she walked out into the crowd.
Copyright 2010 by John Walters