This story by Brent A. Stinebaker is an honorable mention in the 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Brent A. Stinebaker was born in Texas but immediately found himself moved to Shanghai, China due to familial and business reasons. Spending most of his youth in Shanghai, he attended international schooling that led to his acceptance by the University of Southern California where he currently is trying to finish his studies in International Relations and Communication. You can find Brent on LinkedIn and Facebook.
Down through the breaking storm clouds he plummets, lightning cascading around him, freed dragons drifting down alongside him, listening to the wind whistle his praises as the Fortress of Thunder far above him crumbles into pieces, weeping sparks and storms from its broken shell.
He had succeeded. The Sky-General’s tyrannical grip over the lowlanders was broken. Yet, as he plummeted down towards the ground, ever getting ever closer, Otto found himself faced with the quandary of his continued survival.
Just as all hope seemed lost, as the Otto resigned himself to his certain fate, a single dragon broke off from the rest to dive after Otto, matching his descent and placing him atop its scaled skin. As the beast of the sky pulled back against the roaring air, Otto felt his stomach lurch up into his throat while the dragon opened its wings to slow their fall. With the oppressive clouds now broken with the fortress, Otto could see the lowlanders clearly in the resplendent sunlight, barely hearing their cheers through the whistling sky.
Waving at the noble folk beneath a newly liberated sky, Otto pulled out his flask to quench his thirst. All too hastily, he downed the hot murky coffee in his horn.
Hacking and coughing, he spits out the coffee, shaking his head. He needs to get a new coffee maker. Otto’s world froze. Coffee maker. Dragons. Otto’s head slowly craned down to glance at his watch.
He’s late. Two minutes behind schedule. Two minutes overindulged.
Otto grunts as he pulls himself off his chair, snatches his tie from atop the couch where he left it, and begins to bolt. He forgets to turn off the light as he flings his front door open to embrace December’s unwelcoming breath.
Stumbling outwards towards his car, coated in frost, Otto grits his teeth as the harsh cold air bit into him, sinking past his skin and digging under his flesh. Winter’s tongue licks at him and the gushes of wind do little more than mock him as he tries to resist the dry chill.
Pulling the car door open to its usual greeting in the form of a low grinding groan, Otto runs his fingers through his hair, snorts up some snot, and slips right onto the stained seats. Rubbing his hands together, he kindles a bit of warmth and starts the car.
The heater hasn’t worked in that Volkswagen since he bought it.
Glancing out, the snow falls gently building an ever growing blanket of snow, with a small hill right on his street. Otto grins to himself; he’s going to enjoy driving through it. And so, with his feet to the gas, the barricade of white breaks apart. There is something enchanting about watching the fleeting mounds of snow peel off his bumper.
His smirk evolves into a smile.
Free from the walls of the Fortress of Ice, the frozen tundra greets him as an old friend would, snow bending and weaving around him in swirls like it was waving at him. He pats Volks, his Snowgobbler mount as it munches through the barricades of snow in hearty gulps. Laugher echoes out in the winter wonderland as Otto feels himself bounce atop his saddle as his trustworthy friend breaks through the last bit of snow.
“The way to Falka’s Veins is clear to us, Master Rider,” grumbled Volks in a monotone grumble. Elsewhere, somewhere inconsequential, a GPS blurts out directions lifelessly to a man who’s just not there.
Falka’s Veins flows upwards towards the sky in diverging pillars of ice and water. Flocks of Frostwings and legions of liberated slaves followed in Otto’s wake, freed from their torment through his deeds and trailing closely behind towards freedom.
Otto points outwards. “Onwards, Volks! Let snow and mist be the guide for those behind us towards the horizon.”
Volks makes a sputtering noise—a sound he typically makes—and rumbles with heat and velocity, kicking snow and bifurcating the frosted land with every pound of his claws.
A horn blares behind Otto’s head, startling him back into reality. He ignores the rude gestures directed at him and tries to make up for his mistake by moving out of the way. His intention is not shared by his vehicle as it splutters and groans. Falka’s Veins fade from his sight as a decidedly normal bridge filled to the horizon with cars and passing people exiles the rest of his fantasy.
In silence, he waits, hearing the coughing, choking grumble of his car as it struggles on forwards through another day. Soon, the quiet grows too stale for even Otto’s tastes as he turns on the radio to hear someone at least talk at him.
“Do you know what you want?” asks the commercial. Otto pretends that it isn’t a commercial, that they’re actually invested in him.
“No,” Otto sighed as he eyed his clock; nine and fifteen: fifteen more before he’s late. “Not in this reality, at least.”
“Do you ever feel lost?” With a quick jab of his finger, Otto shuts off the radio, not wanting the soon-to-come plea for him to buy something new and wonderful and worthless interrupt his reply.
“No. That’s not the problem. Don’t know how to tell this to anyone who could reply—its either shame or fear—but I don’t know how to keep happy . . . here. I just don’t know. I go away for a while and . . . well, I guess I matter inside my head, but out here—” Otto bounces slightly as he crosses over a bump at the end of the bridge. Some days, he dreams that he’s a cowboy on those bumps. Not today. He’s not in the mood today. “Nothing occurs out here. Things happen, but that’s it. Not much a story to life. Sorry if it sounds like I’m complaining. Just wanted to whine to someone for a while before I get there. You understand, don’t you.”
He takes the silence for a yes as he rolls onwards into the city bereft of radiance, towards the serried spires of the ominous variety. Somewhere in that neat mess was his spire. His office building.
The elevator dings and the doors open as Otto stands, waiting. A slightly older, well-dressed man slides in right next to Otto.
“Hey Otto,” said Henry smirking at him, “you actually made it on time today. And you actually remembered your bag as well. Two for two today. Good job.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Henry just rolls his eyes at Otto. For a while they stand in silence, as Otto tries not to initiate eye contact. He doesn’t want Henry to resume the conversation from yesterday.
“Hey Otto.” Otto frowns a bit as Henry remembers despite his efforts. “You remember our conversation yesterday? The offer is still open you know.”
“Well, do you want to—you know—come and eat with us today.”
Like a dying flower Otto wilts up and retreats into himself. They won’t find him interesting.
“Hey, we’re not forcing you or anything.” Mouth held agape in a pregnant pause, Henry tries to put his words together in some cogent manner. “It’s fine that you spend time alone with yourself. Hell I think it gives you personality. But—you know—don’t get lost in there. There something out here for you too. People.”
“Okay. I know.”
Henry’s mouth opened slightly before shutting again; he was already sounding too sententious. “Just—think about sharing the party in your head Otto. It looks fun.”
And with that the doors open and let them out. Henry heads for his office, a chorus of greetings trailing along. Staring at Henry’s back before he catches himself, Otto heads for his desk with a considerably less audible welcome.
Slumping into his chair and pulling out his laptop, Otto finds his dreams itching to possess him again. He doesn’t dream about the trapped numbers in his excel spreadsheet, imagine them as prisoners locked in cells against their will. He doesn’t tell himself that the janitor is actually a highly skilled government agent who is only there because he finds cleaning offices soothing for his tortured conscience. He doesn’t even start to think about Jenna escaping the front desk into her small notebook of doodles—that she keeps leaving open for all to see—to have adventures in another land of ink and paper.
Instead, Otto imagines something less than fantastical, slightly more probable, falling cleanly in the realm of possibility. Otto imagines himself joining the rest of his co-workers at lunch and one by one they greet him; they know his name; they are happy to see him.
And Otto smiles to himself again in the way that Henry describes. He matters. He matters in ways that he can’t imagine himself mattering in life.
He imagines that he has the courage to approach them. He dreams that he actually walks over and sits down with them.
And maybe he does.