Breathing Fire and Other Stories
Published by Courtney Wallace at Shakespir
Copyright 2017 Courtney Wallace
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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Dragons are the best protectors from storms. That’s what Annie’s Dad told her when he painted the dragons on her bedroom walls. Her favorite is the green one, she named him Bobo. He took up the entire wall above her bed. His wings are spread wide and smoke curls from his nostrils like he’s ready to swoop down and take her away from any danger. During the bad storms Annie always reaches her little hand up towards the wall, pretending to stroke Bobo. The thunder became quieter and the lightening darker.
A different kind of thunder rained down over England that night, though. It was the kind that wakes the sirens and leaves soot floating through the air. It reminded her of the mean dragons from the fairy tales her Dad reads her every night. The kind that the knights are sent to slay, not like the ones on her walls.
“Annie? Annie darling, get up.”
“Now, darling. We need to go down. Your father’s downstairs.”
Sirens wailed in the distance like dragons annoyed that their slumber has been disturbed. Annie put on her house coat and brown shoes, the ones with the tough soles that can walk on gravel. She stumbled down the stairs, rubbing eyes. Her father stood in the kitchen, completely dressed as if he never even went to bed. He’d been waiting for the dragon’s wail.
“Hello, dear. Did you get any sleep?”
“You mean until mummy came in?”
Her father smiles as her mother rounds the corner.
“Alright, everyone, let’s go. Annie, ready? Dear?”
“Of course! After my darling wife and daughter.”
It was very bright for night time, a fact that went unnoticed by Annie. After all, she had grown up in the spotlights of nightly air raids. Nightly dragons breathing fire over her home. Neighbors swarmed around them in housecoats, slippers, boots, and nightwear. Annie’s parents gently pull her down the street.
“Is it the Jerries again, mummy?”
“Yes, my darling.”
“Oh.” The strange thunder wrapped around a young woman’s scream. Annie looked up at the sky as her parents tug her towards the shelters. She heard the constant buzzing of their wings as the dragons grow closer. They would be breathing fire down on London soon enough.
Her parents gently nudged her into the nearest underground shelter. Traveling underground is always a smelly experience. With another clap of strange thunder the ground shakes under her feet.
“Right here, Annie. Against the wall, please.”
“But, mummy, I don’t want to stand against the wall. It’s all dirty!”
Her mother points to the wall. Annie leans against it, crossing her arms.
“Annie! Annie! Guess what? I heard the Jerries got the school this time!”
Annie looks up at her mom. The dragon’s yowling gets closer. Across the grimy tunnel, Annie sees one of the neighbor ladies crying silently. Another man is pacing, looking at his watch. The dragon comes closer, the ground quaking under its heavy paws.
Soon the lights flicker out. Everyone screams.
“It’s alright, darling. Mummy and I are right here.”
“I don’t like the dark, Daddy.”
“I know. It will be over soon, you’ll see.”
Annie reaches out blindly, until arms wrap around her and she smells lilacs.
“Mummy, what if the Jerries get my bedroom! Where will I sleep? And my favorite books are still at home, can we go get them? They’re in English; the Jerries won’t understand them.”
Her parents chuckle.
“I’m sure the house is fine, dear.”
“But what about the birds! We left them all alone! Won’t they get hurt?”
“They’re lovebirds, dear, they have each other. Besides, I’m sure they’ll be quite alright.”
Soon, the dragon’s roars and rumbles lulled Annie to sleep. She dreamt of green grass and afternoon tea outside and of sleeping through the night and not climbing over bricks to go to school each morning.
She woke to her father’s voice.
“Perhaps we should just let her sleep. I’ll carry her home. She has school tomorrow, after all.”
Annie stretched, her muscles groaning in protest. She didn’t want to miss the dragon’s destruction. The ground had stopped shaking; the crying women wiped their eyes.
“Are we going back home, Daddy?”
“Of course, darling. Hold our hands now, their a big crowd by the entrance.”
Annie watched people migrate toward the dusty entrance of the shelter. Some were grumbling about work, others wanted to know if their homes were still standing. Soon Gladys Higgins came running up to Annie, the same dark circles under her eyes.
“Mummy, does that mean I don’t have to go to school anymore?”
The best part of 7-card stud is that it can be played in complete silence, which made Sheriff Douglas happy, as he was running out of things to say. He drank the rest of his lemonade and Ed poured him some more.
The sheriff rubbed his sun burned neck and posted the bring-in. A red chip sailed into the wicker basket.
“Ed, can you turn up the air conditionin’?”
“It broke last Tuesday. I haven’t had a chance to fix it yet, sorry. You gettin’ warm?”
“Me too. Sorry, man. Lord, I’m burnin’ up like a sinner in church. What about you?” Ed cracked a smile. Douglas looked down at his cards.
The queen of spades was dead. The five too, though that wasn’t as important. Sheriff Douglas was riding a spade railroad to a lighter wallet.
Ed shuffled the cards again. Sheriff Douglas guzzled his lemonade, rolled his shoulders, and let out a weak yawn. The hard, wooden kitchen chair was making him squirm. He eyed Ed across the table.
“So, Dougie what do ya want to play next. More stud or how about some black jack?”
“I don’t know Ed, it’s gettin’ pretty late. I’m beat and I’m sure you’re tired, might want to get some sleep.”
“I can’t sleep in that bed, Dougie.”
“Why? ‘Cause of Maylee? Now, Ed she wouldn’t want you making yourself sick on her account.”
Ed examines his lemonade, looking at the small leaves sticking to the sides of the glass. The sheriff quickly grabbed his glass again.
“What’s with these damn tiny leaves in the lemonade, Ed?”
“Oh, Maylee made this pitcher before she, you know. She thought the leaves were cute, decoration or something.”
The sheriff takes out one of the leaves, sniffing it. He pops it in his mouth, chewing the grainy texture.
“I know you slept with her.”
Sheriff Douglas put down his lemonade.
“How long you known?”
“How had it been goin’ on for?”
“You don’t have to answer. I get it. It’s just, I need to know, you know? For my own peace of mind. Now that she’s gone.”
Sheriff Douglas wiped the sweat off his forehead, he munched on the little leaf stuck on his molars.
“About two years now.”
“Okay. I’ve known now about six months. I wish she woulda said something. Told me what was goin’ on.” Ed said. He leaned back, head tilted toward the ceiling. The sheriff could nearly smell the salt of Ed’s tears. The smell joining the reek of the sheriff’s own sweat. “I woulda forgiven her, you know. Even now, knowing all this, I woulda still forgiven her. I woulda said ‘it’s okay darlin.’ We’ll get through this darlin’. Ain’t nothin’ to worry about anymore.’ And then we’d a been okay.”
“Ed. It was a mistake.”
“It’s all right, I suppose. Ain’t like it could happen anymore right, Dougie?”
Ed looks back down at the forgotten poker cards on the table. He started to shuffle, not even bothering to finish their game of blackjack. He dealt again.
“I just need to know somethin’ else. Did you love her?”
“Ed, I, it’s not that simple.”
“Ain’t it, though?”
“Maylee and I, we had fun. She was fun and carefree, she just wanted to hang out with someone like her sometimes. She loved you.”
“You didn’t love her though, and she didn’t love you. I don’t get it then.”
“Get what, Ed?”
“I thought I was your friend, Maylee was my wife.”
“Ed, it wasn’t anything serious, you gotta believe me. We had fun, that’s it.”
“She couldn’t have fun with me?”
Ed pushed his glass away, still full.
“Ed, you’re a great guy, but you’re always serious. It’s all about payin’ bills, goin’ to work, havin’ kids, mowin’ the lawn. All that crap. Did you know she didn’t even want kids?”
Ed threw his cards on the table. “I fold.”
“She didn’t want all the responsibility that you wanted. Ed. That’s why we just had fun. I just wanted her to have a chance to loosen up sometimes. You know what I mean?”
Ed looked at the Sheriff, eyes swimming. Douglas flinched.
“Yeah, I do.”
Sheriff Douglas started to shuffle again.
“Ed, I just want you to know I really am sorry. I didn’t want you to get hurt and I’m sure as hell Maylee didn’t either. You gotta know that.”
“I said it’s all right, Dougie. It’s all in the past. Bygones be bygones and such.”
“She did love you. She loved you a lot. That I’m completely sure of.”
Ed nodded while Sheriff Douglas took another swig of lemonade. He looked at his cards. Not a great hand this round. He made eye contact with Ed across the table.
“I gotta know, Ed. How did you find out?”
Sheriff Douglas took off his suit jacket. He had sweat stains under his arms that reached toward the middle of his chest. His esophagus filled with vomit, he swallowed hard, forcing the acidic lava back down. Another swig of lemonade.
“Aw, you know what they say about poker, Dougie, follow the queen.”
“You followed Maylee to the hotel—”
“Yep, followed her and saw you two together. Everything made sense then.”
“Ed, I’m sorry.”
“I know. It’s all right. Can we talk about something else?”
Rivers of salty water fell from the Sheriff’s forehead.
“I’m sorry, Dougie, but since we’re bein’ honest, I gotta tell ya. I lied.”
Ed stretched his arms out, fingers nearly hitting the ceiling, adding a good foot and a half to his height. Then he took off his wedding band and spun it on the table. Sheriff Douglas looked at him, his eyes were dry now.
“Yeah. Maylee ain’t the one who put the little leaves in the lemonade. Sure she made it, but I was the one who put in the little leaves. The day before she died I fed her about three glasses, I suppose.”
“What’re you tryin’ to say here, Ed?”
“I think you know, Dougie.”
The Sheriff put down his lemonade.
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Hemlock leaves. They don’t have a flavor compared to the lemons and nobody really recognizes them. But they grow wild all around.”
Sheriff Douglas leans to his right and vomited onto the floor.
“Why, Ed?” The Sheriff clutches his chest.
Ed leans around the table and grimaces at the mess.
“You slept with my wife.”
Sheriff Douglas uselessly wiped at the vomit smeared on his shirt.
No use being mad at a dead person now is there?”
“But, Ed, you’re such a nice guy.” The sheriff tumbles to the floor, eyes closed.
“Yeah, I was, Dougie. Look where it got me.”
“Dr. Faber, subjects Alpha through Mu have been awakened and moved to the eastern corridor near entrance D.”
Dr. Olivia Faber looks up from the main computer console. She spies the camera in the ceiling, the fish eye hooking into her image.
“Thank you, Ralph.”
She opens a glass cabinet and looks through a maze of petri dishes, all labelled with cramped blue writing. Olivia piles them into her duffel bag.
“Ralph, could you please unlock the cages for subjects Nu through Omega?”
“Of course, Dr. Faber.” Ralph says, his voice the usual emotionless monotone.
The line of metal cages hiss, doors swinging open slightly. Ralph turns on the rest of the ceiling lights.
“Thank you, Ralph.”
“Of course, Dr. Faber.”
“And could you wait to send your nightly clock in and out report to Mr. James?”
“Protocol states that the time card report is to be sent in at exactly midnight—”
“I know, I just want you to delay for a couple of hours, please?”
“I can only delay my report for up to one hour, Dr. Faber. It is written into my software that a report must be sent to Mr. James between twelve and one a.m.”
Olivia lifts a tank out of Subject Omega’s cage and Benny leaves slobbery kisses on the glass. His little snow-colored body tries to climb up the glass walls of his home. His perpetual smile reassures Olivia as she puts down the tank.
“Thank you, Ralph. Please, disengage.”
“Yes, Dr. Faber.”
Olivia starts pulling the blue stickers off of Benny’s skin. Red polka dots litter his chest and sides.
“Sorry, buddy. I know this hurts but we’ve got to get this heart monitor off you, we can’t have the company tracking you, now can we?”
She towers over the tank while Benny tries to nibble on her hair. Chestnut wisps stick to his oily, white skin. The doors to the laboratory hiss open. Kevin smoothes out his flannel pajamas shirt and runs a hand over his eyes and through his hair.
“Olivia! I got your message, what’s going on? Why are you here so late?”
“Kevin, I’m glad you could make it. Can you take the salamander tank out to my car please? I’m parked near entrance D. Thanks!”
Olivia pushes the tank into Kevin’s hands. Water sloshes on his shirt as he jumps back. Benny looks up at him and curls into the corner of his tank, pink gills waving happily to Kevin. Olivia shoves the duffel bag across the metal island toward Kevin. The glasses rattle.
“Wait! Olivia, what are you doing? What’s going on?”
Olivia slams a black tote bag on the island. Tissues, notepads, and a tube of lipstick fall on the floor. She slides the manila folder across the island.
“This letter was sent to me last week. I don’t know who it was from. It was about the Raphael Project. Some of the original financial figures, our interview transcripts, original proposals to the United Nations, stuff like that. But something seemed off the entire time I was reading.”
Olivia opens the chrome-colored filing cabinets. The drawer slide crashes against the out-stop and reveals a menagerie of multicolored folders labelled with black, cursive writing. Kevin sets Benny’s tank down on the metal island.
“So, I decided to do a little digging. You know what I realized, Kevin, I really didn’t know much about Daniel James or The Abbott Organization or why he decided to start the Raphael Project. Did you know that when the organization was first formed they produced military weapons, not medical machinery?”
“No, I didn’t, but what does—”
“Or, that Mr. James had quite a colorful life before he went into business? He had a huge police record for battery, assault with a deadly weapon, attempted rape, and a bunch of other stuff that made my skin crawl. He’s not a good man, Kevin. Not like everyone thinks.”
“Olivia, calm down. You’re starting to get hysterical. Here, give me those folders.” Kevin places the flood of folders in her tote bag. “Okay, so Mr. James is just another ruthless business man with a checkered past. It sucks to work for him but remember what we’re trying to do here. To help people survive.”
“But we’re not!” Olivia says. “Mr. James doesn’t care about the world, or the human race, or fighting disease. I think he would be content to just let these super-diseases ravage the planet.”
Kevin moves toward Olivia slowly.
“Then why would he fund a project just to find ways to stop the super-diseases from ravaging the world?”
Salty water drips down Olivia’s cheeks as Kevin cocoons her. His flannel shirt makes a soft tissue.
“We can’t keep doing this, Kevin. It’s wrong. We’re hurting animals and people.”
“Okay, I’ll take a look at the research you found, but I think you’re overreacting. Besides, Mr. James is a pretty powerful person. He has a lot of connections.”
“I don’t care. I’m getting the test subjects out and then I’m going to the press in the morning.”
“Think about this rationally, Olivia!” Kevin pushes her away gently. Kevin picks up the manila folder. “You could be putting yourself in some serious danger. If you’re right, Mr. James won’t want this information to come out. Please, just think about your own safety here.”
“And what about the safety of those people we keep experimenting on? We’re turning into brainless monsters for The Abbott Organization to use like puppets.”
Olivia takes out a tank full of mice from Subject Sigma’s cage.
“What about these little guys, Kevin? Do they deserve to have their organs harvested, limbs cut off, skin scalped, only so we can study their regressive properties? Especially when all that research goes into fuel The Abbott Organization’s plans for a super human army to do God knows what!”
Kevin takes the tank from her and sets it on a metal cart. He grabs the duffel bag and salamander tank, putting them on the cart as well.
“You’re going to help me?”
“You haven’t left me much of a choice. I believe in you Olivia, and if you really think it’s the right thing to do then I’ll help you.” Olivia wraps her arms around him and nestles her chin on his chest.
“Thank you, Kevin.”
“I just want you to be safe.” Eyes closed, he grips her sweatshirt. “I’ll go ahead and put this stuff in your car and drive mine around to entrance D. I’ll put some of the human subjects in mine since it’s bigger. Then I’ll come back up, okay?”
“Okay, I’ve got all the research together we need to save. Now I just need to finish with the animal subjects. I’ll have the planarians and the echinoderms ready when you get back.”
“Great, I’ll see you in about twenty minutes or so.”
Kevin starts to push the metal cart out the door, towards the elevator across the hall.
“Wait! Here, take the evidence with you.” Olivia hands him the manila folder. “I’ll see you soon. Thanks again.”
The elevator dings and Kevin hits the Level 1 button. The doors hisses closed. The Abbott Organization insignia stares back at him.
Olivia throws her name badge and key fob on the metal island, next to a tank of planarians. The clip rattles against the metal and mixes with the sound of machinery. She runs a hand through her hair, catching on multiple knots. Her feet protest as she walks around the lab one final time.
“Well, it looks like you have everything wrapped up nicely, doesn’t it, Dr. Faber?”
Olivia trips over a toppled beaker, landing against the main computer console. Daniel James raises his eyebrows.
“What are you doing here so late, Dr. Faber? You don’t usually work nights or Sundays,” Mr. James says as he starts to walk towards her. “Are you looking for something?”
“No, Mr. James. I was, I mean I—”
“Well, then what are you doing here so late? Looking through files, destroying things, removing the test subjects.”
“Oh. I was, just, um. How did you know I was here?”
“Didn’t Ralph come overhead and tell you? It’s approximately,” he looks at his watch. “one-twenty one in the morning.”
Mr. James fixes the sleeve of his white collared shirt, his heels click towards Olivia. She backs up towards the wall.
“I was here, to get some extra work done, that’s all.”
“What are you doing here, Mr. James?”
“Well, checking on you, of course. See a little bird told me that you received some troubling documents the other day.”
Olivia feels the cold, tan wall behind her back. Mr. James’ shoes stop tapping.
“Now I’m sure you realize that, with all the backing I’ve received from various world leaders, I can’t have you going to the press with all your crazy ideas.”
“I don’t understand—”
“I believe you’re beginning to though.” Mr. James pushes her hair behind one of her ears. “I don’t care about the state of the world, or how the other countries are going to survive all these plagues. I care about my organization and the money we can make from these failing economies though. While the U.S. builds strong, resistant soldiers the rest of the world declines more and more. What type of business man would I be if I didn’t take advantage of that?”
“But I thought you were going to spread the research and solutions around the world?”
“Really? You scientists don’t understand the world of business at all, do you?”
Mr. James looks down at Olivia, his chest brushing hers.
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“Well, it’s not like you’re going to be going to tell anyone now, is it?”
Olivia furrows her eyebrows and says, “But why not—”
His heavy hand leaves sweat on her cheek, on top of a large red mark. He pushes her down and kicks her in the stomach. Olivia tries to crawl away, towards the door.
“I apologize, my dear, but I cannot let you leak this to the Press.”
Mr. James stands back. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small revolver.
Aiming it at Olivia’s head, he says, “It would be bad for business.”
The gunshot echoes through the empty lab.
Courtney Wallace is a short story author and novelist whose writing walks the more mysterious and cadaverous side of life. She is earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Courtney writes fiction to give ridiculous and unconventional answers to life’s more conventional questions. You can visit her on
“Breathing Fire” How do you explain war to a child? Annie doesn’t need it explained, she’s grown up in it for as long as she can remember. Set in London, during the German Blitz attacks in World War II, Annie watches her home being threatened every night. The great German dragons come to blow fire down on the Englishmen as they run for the shelters. It never seems to end and Annie is often found wondering what life looks like without the threat of death. Without the threat of gas chambers and extinction. “The High Card” Doug was never a fast learner. It took him years to learn to read and even longer to perform any basic math but there are some things in life that are, unfortunately, very obvious. Like, when the sun sets the moon rises, or if you stand out in the rain you will get wet, and especially that if your wife becomes distant and leaves at odd hours she’s probably cheating. Doug was slow but he wasn’t stupid, he saw the looks and caresses between his wife and best friend. He thinks, it’s about time he did something about it. “Genticae Experimenta” In the future germs, infections, and bacteria rule over all. Antibiotics and immunizations have failed us and the entire human population is being picked off. The Abbott Organization has come to the rescue, hiring the best scientists from across the globe to find cures to these superbugs, by any means necessary. Quickly, the project takes a darker turn. Humans and animals are brutally experimented on, leaving physical and emotional scars. But who is to blame? The desperate scientists or the ambitious and ruthless CEO who created the project?