His workshop is filled with dragons. Some large, as big as a footstool. Some small, able to fit easily in his palm. Some are frightening, eyes angry and fire spewing from between sharp fangs. Some are docile, sleeping curled up amidst small piles of treasure.
“You sure like dragons, pop,” Ben says, arching his brows. Bailey can hear the good-natured disapproval in his son’s voice. He smiles.
“To each their own,” he says. “I’ve merely found a niche for myself. Besides, I’ve found it’s rather . . . soothing to work on them.”
“Well, not today,” Ben says, clapping him on the back. He’s been taller than his father since fifteen. Now, at thirty-two, he is a solidly built, good-natured man, with his own wife and two children. Bailey marvels, as he does often, what a fine man his son had turned out to be. “Today is Father’s Day, that means no huddling all day in here—don’t look at me like that, I know that’s what you do. Come out here and . . .”
With a crash the workshop door flies open and two little ginger heads bobble inside. Ben quickly intercedes, one in each arm, before their sticky hands could reach the nearest sculpture.
“Grampa, grampa!” shouts six-year-old Sandra, struggling on her father’s broad shoulder. “Aunt Cindie is here and she made cake! It looks so cool! You have to come see it!”
Bailey favors his granddaughter with a grin. Ben is right, today is no day to be cooped up in his workshop. It is a day for celebration. He has not seen Cindie in over three months, not since she went to study abroad. But she has returned, just in time for Father’s Day. He already knows what will happen today. His family will gather around him, they will chat and laugh, while cooking old family recipes and telling stories about their dearly departed mother. Sandra and little Jake will fight over who gets the fancy sugar rose on the cake, then play until they fall, exhausted, to sleep in the spare bedroom. The adults will pour some wine, talk about things at Ben’s firm, about Cindie’s days in Rome, about his daughter-in-law’s new business venture, about nothing at all, and they will leave much too late, but he won’t mind.
He will see them out, sleeping kids in their arms, and promise to get some rest. But instead, he will return to his workshop and start on the next dragon.
He had decided this time that the dragon will be red, a deep red like ripe roses or fresh blood. He spends the summer drawing up its form, designing each part carefully, sitting at the workbench for hours, thinking and re-thinking. The hot days wear on, but he hardly notices. Each day he wakes early, goes to his workshop, and draws the red dragon.
The chemotherapy starts in August. He completes three weeks at the hospital, then another eight at home, sitting silently by the window and watching the wet autumn rainfall. The sound of rain drowns out the drips of the IV. Almost. What’s left of his hair begins to fall out and he shaves the rest. The looks is not entirely flattering on him, but at sixty-five he hardly has the time for vanity. The chemicals leave him nauseated and he eats little. His weight drops but he manages to remain in good enough shape to make the trek from his bed to his workshop most days and in that he counts himself lucky.
In October he begins carving.
He acquires a wonderful piece of wood, from the same dealer he always does, and begins to slowly whittle away at it, each movement done with great care. Leaves fall outside. His son and daughter call, inquiring about his health, asking what he needs. He tells them he is as well as can be, and that he needs nothing. Cindie is unconvinced. Now settled back in the country at university, she returns home every other weekend, as if paranoid that he might drop dead without her supervision. She offers to go to chemotherapy with him, but he declines.
In December they rule he is in remission. His family celebrates with a beautiful Christmas gathering. He smiles as they toast his good health. After the children have opened their presents, the holiday ale has been drunk, and holiday wishes exchanged, he returns to his workshop. The dragon is taking shape. He takes up his chisel and begins to carve small, delicate scales, one at a time.
In spring he is near completion. The red dragon is, without a doubt, his finest work yet. Almost four feet in length, it rears up, claws extended, long fangs glistening. Four sharp horns protrude from its head above piercing eyes. Intricate scales cover its body like armor, and from its back sprouts great sweeping wings. It looks ready to drop down from the sky and devour its enemy without mercy. His children and grandchildren gape in awe each time they stop by. He nods with humble pride at their praise.
The pain in his side comes back mid-March. He does not need doctors to tell him that the cancer has returned. He already knows. It is at first dismissible, but as the spring deepens each step becomes more difficult than the next. He finds himself taking longer and longer to take the less than a hundred paces from bedroom to workshop, and some day he leans on the nightstand for several minutes before standing. Sitting at the workbench is agony, and he must pause to rest many times throughout the day.
He lays red paint and glaze on the dragon patiently, steadily. It glimmers, coming alive at his touch. He admires it grimly. Spring turns to summer.
In late May he attends Cindie’s graduation. Her long-time partner proposes marriage immediately after the ceremony and they are to be married in the fall. She is elated, as is he, though when she eagerly discusses the autumn-themed wedding and his role in it, he remains silent. Three weeks later his daughter-in-law gives birth to a healthy baby girl, his third grandchild. He holds the tiny bundle in the hospital room and inhales the scent of new life, fresh and clean. Ben names her Regina, for his late mother.
The day after he meets Regina for the first time is a warm Saturday in June. In the afternoon it rains, as he knew it would. He sits in his workshop, listening to the sound of the rain and admiring the red dragon as his visitor lets himself in.
“Good afternoon, Bailey.”
He turns and pretends to tilt his hat in good humor. “Gordon. Nice to see you, as always.”
Gordon steps into the workshop. Bailey notes, as he always does, that despite the falling rain outside and lacking an umbrella, Gordon seems to be dry. His gray suit is perfectly pressed, not a drop of water to be seen, and his hair is flawlessly sleeked back. He gestures to the corner of his bench, where he had cleared a spot just for the occasion, and Gordon sets down his suitcase.
“Happy early Father’s Day.”
“How are you feeling?”
Bailey chuckles. “Come now, you already know the answer to that.” He scoots off his stool. “How about a beer this time? You’re in no hurry, I trust.”
Gordon hesitates, then shrugs. “Sure, why not?”
Bailey fetches two cans from the kitchen and hands one to Gordon. He’s always liked Gordon, perhaps because the man reminded him so much of Ben. They pop open their cans and clink in a gentle cheer. As he sips, Gordon turns to the dragon.
“You’ve outdone yourself this time,” he says, genuinely impressed. “Though I must say, the dark green one will always be my favorite.”
“I felt like something brighter this time,” Bailey replies. “I don’t suppose it’s enough?”
Gordon’s smile is wry. It’s an old song and dance. “I’m sorry,” he says. “For terminal conditions, the bar for trade value is quite a bit higher.”
“I’m not going to make it this time either, am I?”
“Not in the time you have left, no.” Gordon sets down his beer and opens his briefcase. “But the usual options are there. You can stick around long enough to see her get married. She will be a beautiful bride, though the cake will be a disaster—whoever heard of choosing apricot for a wedding cake?”
Bailey shakes his head. “I have already thought about it, but I can’t do it.”
“So the same old deal then?”
He looks at Gordon. “If I do, will you judge me for it? Is it selfish of me?”
Gordon shakes his head, and Bailey finds himself oddly relieved. “I understand,” he says. “Death is frightening, and to leave your loved ones, more so. I won’t fault you for taking the same deal again. It’s not my place.”
“Thank you,” Bailey says. He looks up at the roaring dragon his bench. “Sometimes I feel like a coward, running again and again.”
“Well,” says Gordon kindly, “if it helps, you’re not the only one.”
His workshop is filled with dragons, all except a space in the center, set aside for something special.
“You sure like dragons, pop,” Ben says, arching his brows. Bailey can hear the good-natured disapproval in his son’s voice, as he has . . . how many times now? Ten? Twenty? Fifty? He smiles.
“To each their own,” he says, as he has the last ten, twenty, fifty times. “I’ve merely found a niche for myself. Besides, I’ve found it’s rather . . . soothing to work on them.”
His grandchildren run in, shouting about Aunt Cindie as they have before. They will eat cake, he will go to chemotherapy, Cindie will graduate and become engaged, and he will meet his new granddaughter, Regina, named for his beloved wife, for the tenth, twentieth, fiftieth time.
This time, he thinks, perhaps the dragon will be blue.