So, I’m changing my approach to writing. It starts with a rewrite of my short story Soda Pop Dragon Charm, a chick lit fantasy I wrote some time ago. I recently decided to take a second look at it and compare it to the things I’ve since learned and, wow, I had no idea I’d written such a terrible main character. Very annoying. I kind of wrote her that way on purpose but didn’t expect her to be that boring to read.
I also took out a bunch of stuff that I thought was funny but that strikes me as offensive now.
So, I rewrote it a bit and tried to add in things I’d learned. I hope it’s improved somewhat. Any and all (non-spam) comments are welcome at this point. Thank you for reading.
(All rights reserved. And there may be further changes. Just so you know.)
Soda Pop Dragon Charm
by Amy Keeley
CHINESE ZODIAC PETS ON SALE! Friendly red letters on a yellow background with anime versions of the popular magical items smiled brightly down on Pax Caron, who stared at it from the sidewalk below. She felt like an idiot.
Go there, her mother had said, mala beads around her neck hitting the table as she leaned forward. That’s where I found my monkey charm.
And because the monkey had looked cute, like a little stuffed animal come to life, and Pax had been passed over for a promotion more often than she could count, and this job was all she had left, she agreed. Now, though, standing under the sign, she’d begun to have some misgivings.
But then, she’d had misgivings when she’d quit art school to focus more completely on her job. And look where that had landed her? True, no promotion, but she wasn’t a starving art student anymore. She didn’t even do it as a hobby anymore, so…yeah. Better to focus on what was paying the bills and if she wanted to do more than that, she would need a little help.
She thought of her last presentation and cringed. Maybe more than a little help.
One tug on the door and she walked through.
The wall behind the counter didn’t have a single license from anyone showing this place was legit. The place was stark, with not even a plant to make things look more homey. And no windows. Nope. Even the door in the wall to the right didn’t have one and had so many layers of paint it looked as if that was all the door was made of. The guy behind the counter in the small entryway was reading a manga and laughed as she approached. But her mom had gotten her charm through this company and ended up with a new husband, a paid vacation she won in a raffle, and free donuts for life from the local donut shop. It was because of the gift of my zodiac pet, she had said more than once. So, Pax approached the counter.
The man didn’t look up. “Yeah?”
Not promising. Still, she smiled. “I was told you sell…charms? Good luck charms?”
“Yeah?” He didn’t move or say anything more.
This isn’t how you do business, she wanted to snap, amazed that a shop with such poor customer service was able to exist. Taking a deep breath, she said, “You’re registered?”
He gestured to a wall behind her, where the necessary licenses hung from the wall, signed by the Secretary of Energy and Magical Development. Next to them was a picture of the man behind the counter, standing next to three or four elderly Asian women. Were they the ones who actually made them? It didn’t matter, she decided, as long as he was certified. “Great. I would like to buy one.”
“Oh. Yeah? ‘Kay. Just a minute.”
He walked through the windowless door. After a moment, he returned. “What year were you born?”
Ah. To pick the right animal. That didn’t matter. She knew exactly what she needed. “I want a rat. According to my research—”
“It doesn’t work that way. What year were you born?”
“I don’t think you heard me.”
“Truer of you than me. See, we create custom charms here. We don’t outsource to some sweatshop in China or Cambodia. We make the charms right here in the States. Custom. All you do is tell us the year you were born, and we create the animal. You can go to any big box store and get a cheap little charm that won’t bring you a bit of luck, or to some charlatan in a cute cottage with plaster statues and a neglected zen garden and maybe the charm will work, maybe it won’t. We guarantee our charms will bring out you, the real you, and that’s magic you can always count on.”
She folded her arms across her chest. “Look, I know what I need. I need a rat. They’re articulate, good with people, charming, that’s what I need in my life.”
“How do you know?”
“How do I know what I need? Because I’m me, that’s how.” She took a deep breath and put on the mask she wore at work, the one that helped her through times when she was certain she’d lose her temper and undo all the hard work she’d done getting as far as she had. “I don’t need the creature that came with my birth year.”
“And what year is that?”
Pax felt like she was going to scream. Gritting her teeth, she closed her eyes. Her life problems were not this man’s fault. “Seventy-six.”
“Ooo. Year of the Dragon. Nice. Don’t know why you wanted a rat. Dragons are awesome!”
Because her research told her rats were charming, funny creatures who were able to think their way out of any situation. More importantly, they weren’t intimidating.
Dragons on the other hand…she sighed. Her boss, Mr. Deats, liked charming. He was always picking people who were charming. And quiet. Controlled. Not larger than life. Like a dragon.
“If you wouldn’t mind filling out this form, we’ll have your charm delivered to wherever you like. Should be ready in about a month.”
She looked up from the form she had been about to fill out. “My mom got hers in a week.”
“That was a monkey. Easy to make. Dragons, this dragon anyway, is going to be a little more difficult. But don’t worry. I think you’re really going to like what you get…Pax? You mean like Pax Romana?”
She kept the mask in place. Even managed to make her smile a bit wider than before. “Yeah. Yeah, like that. Roman peace.”
He grinned. “Peace out.”
She got out before the mask crumbled.
Pax straightened her desk with an efficiency that would have amazed her mother and, she hoped, would impress her boss. Nothing out of place. Calm. Ordered. Perfect. She didn’t smile as she closed the door behind her, the work day finished.
It had been almost a month, and she hadn’t heard anything from Kawaii.
“Hey, Pax!” She could hear the sound of someone loping down the hall toward her.
She grit her teeth. The would-be novelist. Turning, she plastered a smile on her face, putting up a different version of the mask she wore around other co-workers. “Hey, Den. What’s up?”
Eden “Den” Whitmore, pen name D. H. White, had a brilliant smile. Always the clown, always the slacker, coming up with the craziest, funniest copy, and somehow managing to figure out what the clients needed in spite of vague requests and ambivalent emails. A people person, her mother would say. His dark brown hair fell into his eyes in a way that must have made more than one girl hope his smile was only for her. “I finished that chapter.”
“Oh? Which one was that?”
“Which one was that?” he mimicked, his grin only growing. “The one. The build-up to the climax where everything transitions?”
“Oh. That one.” She nodded. “Good to hear. I’m happy for you.”
“We need to celebrate.”
She blinked. Ever since she’d started working here, Den had taken time to stop by and say hello. She didn’t think anything of it. He did that with every one. And it was fun. At first. But then, a year ago, he’d started writing. Instead of spending free time gabbing about the latest movies, he could usually be found in the break room, a new book on writing in his hands every day. “You read fast,” Pax had commented once as they left the office together.
“I learned how in college. Life’s too short, you know?”
She had nodded, remembering half-finished drawings and sketchbooks piled in the back of her closet. “Learn anything new?”
“Sometimes. Sometimes it’s written more for beginners, and sometimes—”
“Wait. Beginners? I thought you were a beginner.”
“Well.” And then his smile had become somewhat shy. “I wanted to be a novelist when I was younger.”
“It’s not like you’re old.”
“Thanks.” And she could swear he blushed, which she found endearing. “I read a lot of books then, too, and wrote a lot of short stories. And started a novel. I kept meaning to get back to it, it’s just…I took this job because I needed the money. And before I knew it, all I was doing was writing copy.”
“You’re good at it.”
“But I don’t love it. And frankly, I think I would stab myself in the aorta with my least favorite pen if I knew I’d be doing this for the rest of my life instead of writing fiction.”
“You help people, though.”
“True. I help them decide their old TV isn’t good enough and—”
“Oh, don’t do that. You write copy for products that really help people.”
“Some of them. Not all.” And when he’d looked at her then, she’d realized he was handsome. “I don’t want to write the Great American Novel. I just want to leave a little something of myself behind. And maybe leave some inspiration along the way.”
She’d gone home that night and stared at her old drawings. Sketches of dogs, of buildings, of people who happened to be walking through the park, stared back at her.
There was more than this from her college days. Chalk drawings, watercolors, and vibrant acrylics that her mother loved because they were full of motion. But mostly, she drew cartoon characters. Silly things, her favorite professor had said. Not real art. Illustrations maybe. If she worked hard enough. And it didn’t make her any money, so she’d put them away.
Every time she talked with Den now, she thought of those drawings, because every time they met now, he would talk about stories he’d written in the past, story ideas he had for the future, and every now and then, progress on his current novel. And when he talked to her about those stories, she itched to draw what she saw.
She’d begun to avoid him. When she could. “So, what’s next?”
“The climax, then the denouement, and then I’m done. Done! Gah, years of late nights, staying up until one or two or four a.m. and I’m done.”
She nodded briskly. “Well, that’s good then.”
“I want you to read it.”
Dread pooled in her stomach. “What?”
“When I finish, I want you to read it.” His voice had become softer and she found she liked it.
She never be able to stay away from drawing if she actually read the book. “I don’t know. I’m pretty busy, trying to get new clients, keep the ones we have satisfied, you know.” She nodded, and he nodded with her.
“Still trying to get promoted?”
“Oh, yeah. I mean, I’ve worked here long enough, I should have already gotten it.”
He nodded, thoughtful. “You know, your mother came by this morning.”
She tried not to cringe. “Really?”
“She said something about a package? That doesn’t matter. The point is, she had found some old drawings of yours in her attic and thought you might want them.”
“I don’t draw anymore.”
His face clouded. “Oh. That’s too bad. I thought they were good.”
“Doesn’t matter if they are or not,” she found herself saying, her mask slipping. “It doesn’t pay.”
For a moment, he stared at her. “I don’t know. Graphic design doesn’t seem like a bad career.”
She didn’t even want to think about this. “I mean,” she continued, “I’m sure other people can do that just fine. There’s nothing wrong with taking the road that has a paycheck at a regular time. Something to expect, you know? Security, and…”
“Yeah. No.” She rubbed her forehead, and nearly cursed. Her makeup. She was rubbing it off. “I gotta go.”
“About the novel—”
“I’d rather not.” It wasn’t just the words that she regretted the moment they slipped out. It was the tone.
This time, he stared as if she had been replaced with someone else. “Okay. Sure.”
“Oh, hey.” She could feel something falling apart between them, and hated it. “The package. What did my mom say about it?”
“She said it shouldn’t be left on your porch, so she brought it by. Might want to check the front desk before you leave.” And he began to walk down the hall back to his section of the cubicle farm.
She thought about following him, telling him that she really was interested in his novel though it would only make her want to draw all the more. She stared at his retreating back the whole way, only turning when he disappeared around a corner, never looking back.
With a sigh, she went to the front desk.
When she saw the box, she thought for sure there must be a mistake. “I should leave you a note, Melanie,” she muttered, though the new receptionist had long gone. “Packages are given to the people whose name is on the box, not shoved under the desk.” Getting out a letter opener, she sliced through the tape. Opening the box carefully, she nearly dropped it. “What the—”
Inside was a bunch of crushed soda pop cans.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding.” She reached into the box to rummage through the cans.
They moved away.
With a shriek loud enough to echo for miles, she threw the box from her. As it flew, the cans streamed out in a long, clacking line, forming into a sinuous body, with claws forming from twisted bits of aluminum, and a head that seemed like metal origami. And yet, when she studied it as it turned in the air, she realized that, too, was made of the cans. Green and red were the prominent colors, but there was some gold and orange and purple as well, especially in its head. And all from soda cans.
The dragon flipped gracefully onto the floor, one claw barely touching before it raced away, like a snake hellbent on getting away, fast.
“Oh—no—oh—no—oh—no—oh—no,” she said, chasing after it. “Den?” she called out.
A shouted curse told her he was closer than she expected. “You see it, Den?”
“What is that!” But he didn’t sound afraid.
“Catch it! Please!”
By the time she caught up to him, he was in the break room, looking behind the fridge. Glad they had it cornered, she sighed in relief. “I’ll get a box and—”
He held up a hand. “Not yet. It’s scared.”
“It’s not the only one,” she muttered. Her boss couldn’t see this. She’d get fired for sure.
“Where did you get this?” His eyes never left the fridge.
“Some shop my mom told me about.”
“It’s beautiful.” And he meant it.
The clanking grew a little louder, and the dragon’s head poked out from behind.
“Oh, you like hearing that, do you?” She swore she could hear his smile in his voice. “Well, you are. You’re gorgeous.”
The dragon made a sort of chortle that she assumed meant it was pleased. It sat in the small space, nearly out in the open.
“I can still get that box,” she said.
“Did they tell you how intelligent it is?”
“Look at its eyes. Very intelligent. And young, I imagine. Am I wrong?”
It took a moment to realize he was talking to the dragon through her. With increasing dismay, she watched as he managed to flatter the dragon until it was sitting his lap, happily purring like a cat. “I didn’t know they purred,” he said.
“Yeah, well, you learn something new every day. Thanks for your help, Den. I’ve got to—”
He put a finger to his lips. “It’s not asleep yet. See? Look at its eyes.”
They were half-closed. “And?”
He blinked. “Did something happen today?”
She hesitated. “No.”
“A few weeks ago then? You seem to be pretty tense these days.”
She wanted to tell him. But she realized she wasn’t sure which was more frustrating: that she couldn’t seem to advance in her career, or that hearing him talk about his dreams made her wonder if she wanted this career at all. If she started talking, she was afraid she’d end up throwing away that secure paycheck. “Just business as usual. Nothing—you know, I really need to get this charm home.”
The dragon became a streak of red and green as it leaped from Den’s lap and raced away again, this time looking all around as it jumped from desk to desk. They both chased after it, Den laughing the whole time. “You think this is funny?” she snapped as they ran.
The dragon scurried toward her desk, sounding like a trash bag full of cans all the way. It ran in and out of several offices until it got to her spot. Curling up at the top of the bookshelf, its claws dug into the particle board. “Great,” she muttered, wondering how she could fix the havoc this charm had wrought. “Just great. You were supposed to help me.”
“Apparently it’s supposed to help you with work,” Den said, still admiring it from the doorway.
“It’s going to get me fired.”
“My brother had a charm. The first few days are awful, he said. The good ones know where they’re needed and act on that, whether you want them to be there or not. But once you’ve figured out what they’re trying to tell you, the rest is pretty easy.”
“Yeah.” She stared at the dragon, who seemed to be staring back with what she swore was a smug expression. “Look,” this time she spoke directly to the dragon, “I can’t have you here. I can’t have pets at my desk, and my boss doesn’t like anything that smacks of ta—”
Den’s hand covered her mouth. Shocked, she stared at him as he slowly withdrew it. “Don’t,” he said softly. “Not unless you want to see it angry. It’s not tacky. Its beautiful. Right?” He winked.
In that moment, it took a lot, but she tried to smile. “Yes. Yes, it is.” Clasping her hands in front of her, she said, “In fact, I think you are just too pretty for this office, yes you are.”
The dragon shook its head, making a soft jingle noise as it did. It didn’t budge.
She straightened. “Did you see that?”
“Intelligent,” Den grinned. “Yup. She’s supposed to help you here.”
“Is that all right with you?” he said to the dragon. “Or do you prefer ‘it’?”
Pax swore the dragon shrugged.
“I guess she doesn’t care,” he said.
“Why do you assume its female?”
“Why not? I don’t think your charm cares, either way, and I prefer to use ‘she’. You have a preference?”
Pax stared at the dragon. Did she? Did it matter? She shook her head, amazed at how quickly things were going wrong. “I got this to help me.”
“And I’m sure she will. But not tonight. Any special instructions?”
Pax blinked. “I don’t know.” And she found she was torn between charging back to the box to see if there was some way she could get her charm home and sticking around to make sure the dragon didn’t do anything to the flammable parts of her office.
Den must have guessed her predicament. “You want me to go check the box?” The grin he kept trying to suppress made her want to stick her tongue out at him, no matter how childish that would be.
But it was no use. The box he brought back with him had nothing else in it except the receipt. It was too late to bother calling the company itself, and her mother wasn’t answering her cell phone.
“You know,” Den said, hands in his pockets, leaning against the wall opposite her office door, “I wouldn’t worry. The charm is supposed to help with your work, right? It’ll just stay there until its job is done.”
She frowned. “And then what? It’ll turn back into regular recyclables?”
The dragon huffed and dug its claws deeper into the particle board. Den laughed. “I have no idea.”
Pax folded her arms tight across her chest and glared at the dragon.
“You aren’t going to get very far with her like that,” Den said. “Come on. I’ll buy you dinner, to make up for my lack of helpfulness.”
“I can’t leave it like this,” she muttered.
“Why not?” He sighed. “Look, Pax, it’s supposed to help you.”
“And what if it ruins something while I’m gone?”
“Would that be a bad thing? Come on. Dinner, and then I’ll try to convince you to illustrate one of my books.”
He meant it as a joke. She knew it in the way he tossed it off, in the way his smile lit up his eyes, but it reminded her of why she’d begun to avoid him. She very much wanted to illustrate his book. And spend more time with him as well, without the mask she usually wore. Shaking her head, she went back to watching the dragon. “I think I’ll stay a bit longer.”
Another sigh, but this time Den nodded. “Okay. See you later, then. And good luck.”
“Thanks.” She watched him turn, and continued watching him until he disappeared down the hallway that led to his cubicle. A few moments later, he left, his coat draped over one arm. And she wished she had accepted his offer.
Nothing worked. She’d tried bribery, threats, cajoling, and even, in one of her more desperate moments, a bit more flattery. Nothing moved it. The most that had happened was she learned it became very interested in her soda she’d gotten from the vending machine. But not enough to climb down to investigate.
She ended up falling asleep at her desk.
In the early hours of the morning, she woke up, her eyes feeling as if someone had poured sand in them. A quick rub took off what little mascara remained. She didn’t want to look in the mirror.
A quick knock on her office door woke her up the rest of the way. Den’s smile looked troubled. “Hey.”
“Hi.” She quickly ran her fingers through her hair, even more aware now of how awful she must look. “You’re here early.”
“I thought you might want…no, need someone to take over your shift. I’ll watch your charm while you go home and get cleaned up.”
“How did you know I’d be here?”
He laughed, though it didn’t have the freedom of yesterday. “I’ve seen you work. When you get focused on something, you become a force of nature. It’s actually pretty impressive.”
“Um, thanks.” She didn’t want him to see her like this. Vulnerable. She felt too vulnerable right now. She looked at the dragon and felt like crying. This wasn’t going to help her job at all. Her boss would take one look and…no, if she thought about it, she really would lose it.
“You know,” Den said as she gathered her purse, “he might think it’s cute. He’s always had a soft spot for anything Japanese, and he likes origami.”
She watched the dragon for a moment, watched its stillness as it regarded her. “Maybe,” she conceded. “All right. All right, I’ll get cleaned up.” She paused. “Thank you, Den. For last night, too.”
“No problem.” The tone of his voice, though it was the vocal equivalent of a shrug, thrilled her in ways she’d rather ignore. “See you soon?”
For that brief time, she tried to focus only on getting home, getting changed, and cleaning up enough that no one would know she had slept in the office the night before. Still no word from her mother, and it was too early to expect any calls from the company that had made her the charm. A few more minutes to pack a couple of sandwiches, and she was headed back to the office, dread growing in her stomach with each stoplight that brought her closer to what she was sure would be her eventual doom.
The dragon was still there when she got back. Her office was untouched. And Den was writing something on his phone. His smile when he saw her made her glad she’d taken the time to fix herself. “No trouble?” she said.
“None at all. Just soak in the luck, Pax.”
“Thanks. Thank you.” And she more than a little aware of just how close he was.
And with that, he got up and went back to his own desk.
Happy in a way she realized she hadn’t felt for some time, she stared up at her charm. “All right,” she whispered. “You can stay. But stay low and be quiet, okay?”
A smile stretched across its features and she swore she could see mischief in its eyes as it snuggled closer to the top of the bookshelf. But that only lasted a moment. It must have been her imagination.
The morning went incredibly smooth. In fact, it went exactly as she’d hoped it would. The dragon hardly moved at all, which meant there was no noise beyond an occasional soft jingle every hour or so when it shifted position. And the jingle was soft enough no one at any of the other desks noticed. In fact, everyone was so focused on their jobs that no one noticed it at all. Or maybe her luck had grown tot he point where the thing was invisible. That would be nice.
And so she fell into her own work. It wasn’t until close to lunch time before she realized it was asleep.
Good, she thought. I can take lunch if I hurry.
She turned and saw her boss, Mr. Deats, standing in front of her.
“Miss Caron,” he said. “I heard you have a visitor today.”
Biting back curses for her missed opportunity to eat lunch somewhere else, she wondered who had gossiped about her charm. Den. It must have been Den. “Yes. I do.” And she looked toward the dragon, bracing herself.
The dragon lifted its head and wagged its tail like a dog making a pleasant jingle that vaguely reminded her of wind chimes.
“I see.” Mr. Deats’s eyes narrowed, though his smile didn’t leave. “That’s rather creative, I think. Where did you get it from?”
“Oh, just a little shop downtown.”
“Great place. My favorite restaurant is there.”
She brightened. Maybe this thing was more lucky than she thought.
“While I’m here,” and she realized this was the true reason he’d come by, “I wanted to talk to you about Bandas.”
One of the agency’s larger clients, and one that had told Pax to do whatever she liked. “I turned in that campaign yesterday.”
“Yes, I know. The client hates it.”
The dragon shifted on top of her bookshelf, the noise of cans sliding against each other barely audible as she tried to figure out what had happened.
“I know this was a big client,” her boss was saying, “and maybe we gave you more than you could handle.”
Don’t patronize me, she nearly snapped. “What was wrong with the campaign?”
And thus began a list of things no one from Bandas had told her about when she’d first made her presentation. As he ticked off each item, explaining in excruciating detail how much she’d screwed up, when none of this had been communicated to her, in spite of continual requests for feedback gah why didn’t they actually say what they wanted in the first place, the dragon kept shifting positions, making a small racket whenever it did.
Eventually, Mr. Deats sighed. “Would it be possible to put that thing somewhere else?”
She wanted to tell him that it was impossible, there was no way to get that creature down if it didn’t want to get down from wherever it had decided to roost. Tall as he was, and as much as he initially liked the pet, maybe he could sweet talk it down. Instead, she tried once more, in a tired voice, to call the dragon down. “Come here.”
It didn’t move. It didn’t matter how often she called it, how softly. When she finally stood, it dug in its claws and glared at both of them.
Giving up, she turned to see Mr. Deats glaring at her. “I can’t have it destroying office equipment. I want to see that thing gone in the next hour. And get with Bandas. Give them what they really want, not what they say they want. Basic stuff, Pax.”
And with that he turned and walked away. Pax balled her hands into fists until her perfectly manicured nails dug into her palms. With an awareness of everyone looking at her, she tried very hard not to keep her voice to a whisper. “Do you know why I bought you?”
The dragon nodded, once again making a soft, pleasing jingle.
“You were supposed to help me in meetings. You know why? Because I’m lousy in meetings. I’m lousy with presentations. I get by, but I can’t—I can’t read people. Den, I don’t know why he’s a copywriter. He should have been a senior account executive because when he’s in a group of people, he’s able to pick up on things I would never see, and translate what people want on both sides. Me? I’m the one floundering around with the conversation because I have no idea what’s going to make me someone’s best friend and what’s going to lose this company a major client. Like Bandas.” Taking a deep breath, she got up. “I need people skills I don’t have. That’s why I wanted a rat. You, on the other hand, you did well this morning and I thought you were giving me some luck earlier. So where is it? Why didn’t you bring me luck just now, when I needed it most?”
The dragon only sank its claws deeper into the particle board bookshelf.
“Yeah. Well, I have to get you home in the next hour or Mr. Deats is going to get someone to remove you for me and I doubt they’ll be as gentle. So, don’t mess with a single thing in this room. I’m going to have lunch with Den, since you seem to like him so much, and see if I can’t get some advice on how to get you out of here. Honestly, I’m wondering if just letting Mr. Deats take you isn’t such a bad idea.”
The dragon’s eyes narrowed in such a way that anyone else would have worried they would find one of those spiky claws in a bit of soft tissue somewhere on their person. Pax only glared right back. “Stay put, and no fire breath. Or whatever you do.”
“I doubt she can breathe fire,” Den said around a mouthful of turkey sandwich. The rest of his lunch was next to his laptop on what passed for a desk in his cubicle. “Probably acid or something.”
“Because of the soda?”
“If she can do anything like that. I doubt it, though. It’s not legal.”
“I see.” Pax rested her chin in her palm. “Do you have a pencil?”
“Are you serious?” He opened up a drawer full of pens and pencils of all kinds, along with a few legal pads. “I kind of collect them.” He handed her both the asked for pencil and a legal pad, as well.
Taking them, she began to doodle. “I’m lost,” she said. It didn’t matter what she drew. She didn’t care. It was just a way to calm herself down. “Mr. Deats says he wants it gone—”
“Have you given her a name yet?”
She paused, lifting her pencil from the paper. “No. Should I?”
“It might help improve your relationship.”
“It’s just a charm.” Pencil still in hand, she stopped doodling and was gesturing now. “It’s not like a pet. I don’t have to feed it, not that I can tell. It doesn’t need housebreaking, and about the only thing I have to worry about is if it annoys my boss.”
“First off, Mr. Deats has trouble listening sometimes. Second—” he paused, understanding lighting up his eyes. “That’s why you got it.” And he laughed so loud it embarrassed her.
“Of course, that’s why. I’m okay with most of the clients, but it’s not like when you talk to someone. Some of these clients, I just—I don’t know what they want.”
“You’re not unique. A lot of people have that trouble. I’m sure you could learn how, but it’s still going to take time.”
She went back to doodling. “You know why I liked art so much when I was younger? Because I didn’t need to worry about what anyone else thought. And my mom loved it. She’s always enjoyed it, even collects it now. Each painting tells a story, she says.” Her voice trailed away as she lost herself in the lines and shading and soon she was staring at a rough sketch of Mr. Deats and the dragon glaring at each other. “It was mine. My story. Told my way. Until I got an art teacher who said all I did was draw cartoons. Not art.”
“Well, everyone has their definition.” He leaned forward, gazing at the sketch. “Your charm is pretty well-made, I think.”
“Why do you say that?”
“You’re both independent, strong-willed, and stubborn. Not that that’s a bad thing. At least, as long as what you’re doing isn’t hurting anyone. You have to work to be that all-important ‘team player.’ May I?” He gestured toward the sketch.
“Sure. It’s just a doodle.”
“It’s not bad. I was only half-joking when I mentioned you illustrating one of my books.”
“I wouldn’t have the time.”
“Yeah, I said the same thing. That’s why I put off my novel. Have you considered showing this to your charm?” He pointed at her sketch.
“No.” And then she remembered how it had responded to flattery. “No,” she said, thoughtful this time. “I haven’t.” Getting up, she said with far more emotion than she had in years, “Thank you, Den.” Then paused. “I’m going to try something. If it works, I want to take you out to dinner.”
His smile warmed her. “Dutch, or I’m not going.”
“Deal. And can I take this pad?”
The dragon, now named Celia, just because Pax had always liked the name, posed elegantly on top of the bookshelf. The pencil Pax held made quick strokes on the pad. It hadn’t taken much at all to get Celia to pose, especially after Pax had given her a name. Her plan was simple. First, she would sketch the dragon here in the office. Then, she would convince the dragon to pose among the plants in the lobby. Then, she would make a case for the small garden at her mother’s house, among the bamboo and other Asian plants her mother had insisted on planting a few years ago. Finally, she would mention she had some lovely pillows at her home that would make a fantastic setting for the best sketch of all.
All her calls had gone to voicemail. All the requests had been pushed aside. She didn’t care if her co-workers thought she was goofing off or working on an ad campaign. All that mattered right now was the pencil in her hand, the forming vision on the paper, and the dragon’s mischievous, Coke-red eyes that stared back at her from the sketch growing in front of her with each stroke. It was as if she had just opened the box and was staring at the charm for the first time. Light reflected off the shiny metal in her sketch, and she had to admit Celia looked more magical the more she sketched the details.
When she was done, she found she was happier than she’d been in ages.
Holding it up, she said, sincerely, “What do you think?”
Celia scrambled down the side of the bookshelf and up into her lap. Pax didn’t dare breathe, only stared at the charm now staring at her sketch. And when it looked up at her with those beautiful Coke-red eyes, she knew she was going to keep it, her, no matter what happened.
A member of security approached her desk. “I’m here to get rid of the charm.”
“I’m working on it.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. Your hour is up.” And he reached out to pick up Celia.
Spit and hiss, and Celia was a blinding whirl of metal, racing out the door and down the hall, clanking loudly the whole way.
“Couldn’t you have waited a few more minutes?” she hissed. “Celia!” And then she froze. She recognized those suits walking through the office with Mr. Deats. Bandas. And Celia had just raced up one of those suits, catching the material in her claws as she went, while the man inside the suit was trying to bat the poor thing off. Terrified they would bend something on Celia, or that Celia’s sharp claws would catch something other than suit, she forced herself to move forward, seeing her job disappear more with each curse, each shout, each cry from the other suits, all in front of Mr. Deats.
“There’s my beauty!”
Celia raced toward the sound of Den’s voice. The other suits stepped back, their faces a mixture of horror and dismay at the strange magical creature. “So that fad has even made it here,” she heard one of them mutter.
“Are you part of this, Whitmore?” Mr. Deats said through clenched teeth.
Den’s smile faded when he saw what Celia had done to that immaculate suit. “I’m so sorry—” he began, as if he were the cause of all the trouble.
“Celia is mine. I’ll pay for any damages.” Pax knew if she waited, Den would take the whole blame for her.
“We’re not staying,” the head of Bandas marketing team said,and they all turned and began to walk toward the exit.
Mr. Deats’s eyes blazed. “I told you to get that thing out of here,” he said in a harsh whisper before hurrying after them.
And as she looked from the suits’ and Mr. Deats to Den’s pale face to the trembling, clanking dragon hiding now behind Den’s legs, she felt all the pressure that had been building up all these years dissipate in the realization that this was not her place. This was not what she should be doing.
“Come here, Celia,” Pax said softly. The dragon looked from Pax to the still irate suits, muttering about how destructive the charm was and how could he let her in. Not wanting to put Celia through anything more, she moved until she was standing next to Den. Once she was close enough to Celia to pick her up, she held out her arms and, relieved, sighed when Celia climbed into them. Holding her close, she began walking.
“—new account executive,” she could hear Mr. Deats saying as she walked past. “This is her last day.”
Squeezing her eyes shut, she held Celia closer. “Let’s go home,” she said, “and I’ll draw you in my mom’s garden. I think you’ll look very pretty in it.” She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to see Den.
“Hey,” he said, “While you settle her in, I’m going to talk to Mr. Deats and see if I can’t help you keep your job.”
Pax leaned into him, torn between hating that she had to rely on someone she now realized was a friend, and gratitude that he was willing to do so much for her. “Thanks,” she said. “But you don’t need to trouble yourself. I’m not coming back.”
“Oh, I know that feeling.” She blinked. His tone was mellow, like a spring afternoon when the sun is just warm enough to make you want to lie on your back and bask in the glory of it. Curious how he viewed her now, she looked up, but he’d turned away and had begun to walk back toward the scene of the earlier disaster. “But you’ll care when the rent comes due.”
Her chuckle seemed to bubble out of her, lighting up her world. “Hey.”
Den turned to face her, though he continued walking in the same direction. “Yeah?”
“Would you mind—I’d like to read some of your novel when it’s done. If it’s okay.”
His smile stretched wider than she’d ever seen. “Sure. Soon as it’s done. Are we still on for dinner?”
It had been a long time since she’d felt this happy. “Yeah.”
“My treat? You’re going to need to save your pennies.”
“All right, then. It’s a date.” And, looking pleased, he continued walking.
Feeling warm, even with a collection of origami cans in her hands, she couldn’t stop smiling. “Homeward bound,” she whispered to Celia, her mind full of sketches. Thinking of Den’s reaction, she said, “maybe I could put sketches online. Some portraits. I could sell some. And I’m sure there’s some businesses that would love to have a logo drawn for them. That could help pay the bills.” she sighed. “Lots to plan, Celia. Lots to plan.”
Her dragon charm purred.
So, there it is. I can’t fix everything, but I think I’m heading in the right direction. What do you think?