The gutter. Even in his wasted state, he managed to grasp the cliche of what was potentially his last moment. To not die an unoriginal death…that was worth fighting for. He sucked air through his swollen throat and focused on rolling to his stomach. Vertigo had come and gone, replaced by shock, and every cell in his body vibrated to the sad rhythm of entropy. His muscles felt broken. If he could just get to his belly…tomorrow he would do it. Energy draining, arms all tremors and consciousness slipping, he gave a final heave. A soft grey everything replaced the hard grey cement.
“Mr. Adams…MR. ADAMS, WAKE UP.” A marker bounced off Lars’ head and he lurched awake to laughs from all sides.
“Huhoh…sorry Mr. Templeton.”
Lars stared at the front of the classroom, unhearing.
The balding teacher at the head of the classroom peered at the dazed Lars Adams and cocked his head.
“Mr. Adams, why are your eyes so red?”
“Be..because I was sleeping.”
“Yes sir. I’m sorry sir. It won’t happen again.”
“See me after class, Adams.” He thought a moment and then turned back to the board. “Ok, everyone, turn to page 109 in Understanding Mythology. Today we are discussing the dragon and the curious way it shows up in the myths from around the world. Simpson, start reading at the top of the page, please.”
Oxygen from a mask is nothing like the real thing. It’s sweet and overwhelming and entirely un-oxygen like. Cotton candy saturated in Southeastern humidity. That’s the taste that invaded his mouth, a flavor he’d known before, as his mind trembled awake, searching for answers.
“Can you hear me?”
A crusty eye opened, then the other. He looked up to see a masked man looming over him, head encircled by a halo of warm halogen light. Another cliche. Fitting, he supposed, to die and be reborn in the spirit of a stereotype. As his sense returned, so did the craving. Peace replaced with turmoil. Shadows and ghouls, remnants of his gnashing self, swarmed his awareness and choked each passing second with despair.
“Morphine..” He croaked.
“If we give you anything, you’re not going to make it. We’ll get you some Methadone in a few days if your system can handle it.”
He returned to the grey blanket of nothing.
“…Although dragons occur in many legends around the world, different cultures have varying stories about monsters that have been grouped together under the dragon label. Sometimes the dragon is simply an opponent to be overcome by a hero, and other times the dragon takes on the role of ultimate guardian, serving as protector of great treasure…Do you want me to keep going?”
“No, that’s fine Mack. Thank you. Okay. So, all that said…what’s so special about these dragons that they show up in so many different stories?” Mr. Templeton asked his confused class. Nobody spoke.
“Oh come on,” he said. “Somebody. Take a stab.”
“Sir?” A girl called out, lifting her hand.
“Yes, what do you think?”
“This…is a metaphor, right? Like, the dragon is, like, the quest or something?”
“Close! Very good, but not quite there. Anyone else?”
No hands raised. Mr. Templeton sighed.
“Ok. Well…What did we learn earlier, last week, about all this stuff..about mythology in general?”
Still no hands.
“If you people don’t start participating, I’m adding a three page essay to your homework.”
He stopped for dramatic effect before continuing. “You’ll thank me later. You don’t realize how valuable all this really is.”
A reluctant hand rose from the back of the room.
“Ah Ms. Briggs, thank you.”
“Mythology is pretty much the stories of our lives, right? Like the stories that we use to live?”
“Getting closer!” Templeton’s face brightened as the spark lit his flammable enthusiasm. “Yes, they are the stories…the guiding stories of human cultures. You are all living in many myths right now, although you don’t realize it. But what about these stories is even more interesting? Come on, anyone remember?”
Another hand rose.
“They all share…themes?”
“Yes! So what does that mean? Come on, you’re close.”
“Yes, I remember sir. This means that there are no new stories. It’s all patterns. Every story is always a never-ending repeat of the themes we’ve always had.”
“Mr. Adams? Mr. Adams? We have to do emergency surgery. You’re going under in twenty minutes.”
The doctor loomed above Lars Adams’ prone body and hoped that beneath the flickering eyelids, the words had registered. Lars grunted an acknowledgement.
“You have some family here to see you though. Would you like to talk to them before you go in?”
Lars cracked his eyes and tried to move his head.
“Where…are…they?” He wheezed. A choked voice responded on his left, uttering words between sobs.
“I’m right. Here. Baby.”
“I told you not to coddle him Jean,” another voice boomed. “This is his own damn fault. And this is the last time I’m coming to any of his hospital stays.”
Lars flopped his head to the side and stared into his parents aged faces. He locked his gaze to theirs and could see pain. He tried to feel it–what their expressions conveyed–but all he noticed was the throbbing headache and the pit. The pit; the cave that never got full.
“Hey,” he managed. “Thanks…for coming.”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” The man said.
“Lars. Honey. This is. Too. Much.” The woman added between hiccups.
Silence filled the room.
The man softened, crouching down to eye level.
“Lars. Buddy, what happened? You had two years, son. Two years clean! You had a job. Your…uh, friend. Why, buddy? Why?” Tears formed at the edges of his eyes and he gripped the side of the gurney to avoid a full breakdown.
“I’m sorry…dad. I’m…so…sorry.”
As Templeton closed his book with a slap, he offered his farewell to the class. The students relaxed and began packing their bags and chatting, rising and leaving in groups.
“Not you Adams. Remember?”
Lars approached the desk of the most feared and respected teacher in the school and tried to hold it together. Six bong rips at lunch. He calculated that was four too many for this situation. He hoped the smell had dissipated, and he tried to deepen his breath to combat the adrenaline.
“So. How was class for you today?”
“Uh. What do you mean?”
“Come off it son. You’re stoned out of your mind. You think I haven’t taught high school for twenty years? I’ve been around the block, from this side of things and from yours. I know what’s what.”
Lars froze, waiting for the inevitable chain of events to unfold.
“Oh..Ok sir. Uhm, I…I…”
“Save it. I’m not going bust you. This time.”
Lars’ shoulders dropped. His face relaxed and his mind started moving again.
“Wipe that fu… stupid smile off your face. This isn’t funny. This is your life. And you’re throwing it away,” Templeton blurted, face reddening.
Lars didn’t respond, realizing that rather than being off the hook, he was about to pay for his actions with a currency that only Mr. Templeton could elicit: Burning, warping shame.
“Yes sir? Is that all you’ve got to say for yourself? YES SIR? Adams…Why do you think I taught the class about dragons today?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“Because of you, boy. Because I have known you for the last two years, and I know every time you’re high, and I know exactly why you’re running.
“Running? What do you mean running? I’m not running.”
“Cut the shit Lars.” Templeton countered. “I know your parents and who you hang out with and I can probably piece together your past with 90% accuracy. I see where your eyes go when everyone walks into the classroom.”
At that, Lars’ response caught in his chest and a shockwave burst through his mind.
Templeton’s voice softened. “Lars…I know. I know your secret. And I want you to know that it’s okay. You don’t have to hide it and you don’t have to numb it away.”
Lars began to shake. How…how could he know? Was it that obvious? Lars didn’t even know it himself. Not really. He didn’t want to.
“And you know how I know? Because I’ve been there. I’ve felt those feelings Lars, and I know how hard it is. I got bullied, of course. It was harder when I was growing up…I tried to run away too. I got hooked on various things, ended up chasing the dragon for a while…”
“Chasing the dragon?” Lars interrupted.
“You’ve never heard it?” Templeton looked surprised. Lars shook his head.
“The dragon son…Chasing the high, the distraction. Rejecting life, rejecting yourself.”
Lars looked at the floor.
“It’s called chasing the dragon, but really, it’s avoiding the dragon. The dragon is chasing you. And you’re running like hell.”
Lars’ body hunched. He suddenly felt paralyzed and naked. The familiar sinking, the icy recoil, the eternal failure. Here he was again, the spear through his heart that refused to let him forget. It had been a while, but the ache in his chest and the chill in his mind were the same as always. He couldn’t speak so he just stooped under Templeton’s gaze and stared at a piece of gum stuck to the white tile floor.
“Lars, look. I’m going to tell you this as an equal. Not as your teacher. Just as someone who knows, who’s been there. You’re going the wrong direction son. You think it’s about the high; you think the treasure is in the joint or the pipe or the beer. You think it will always work, that you can keep on forgetting.”
Lars frowned, trying to compose himself. “Sir? I don’t…I don’t think I understand.”
“Yes you do. You understand exactly what I’m saying.”
“Welcome back Mr. Adams. How are you feeling?”
“Shitty.” Lars mumbled.
“That’s to be expected. But hey, you’re alive. Your parents are obviously ecstatic.” The doctor waited for Lars to look his way.
“The surgery was successful. We stopped the bleeding in time. I’ve told you this before, and–God help me–I don’t want to tell you again, but you are very lucky to be here.”
“Thanks, doctor.” Lars fidgeted with his hands while his eyes adjusted to the light. “Where are my parents. Can I talk to them?”
“I’ll send them in. Do you have any questions for me before I go?”
Lars thought a moment, letting the question sit. A pang of desperation shot through him.
“Dr. Martin..how can I get better? I don’t want to end up here, I don’t want to do this again.”
Dr. Martin scratched his head, unconsciously tracing the receding hairline along his scalp.
“Lars. I’m going to step out of being a doctor and just speak as your friend, okay?”
“I’m not a psychologist, but I think you should see one. You’re too stubborn. Your mom told me about…everything. Just face it Lars, face the thing. Stop running away. Heroin is not the solution to this. You have to feel, no matter how much it hurts.”
Despite laying down, Lars curled forward involuntarily. His mind lurched out of the post-surgery haze and began raging. IT. IT. The dragon. And now the doctor too. Everyone knew. His face burned with shame and he felt suffocated by the stale words stuck in his throat. The room swirled and suddenly the gaze of a thousand suns, the long forgotten truth, stared through Dr. Martin’s eyes into his own. He looked up at the ceiling, into the burning fluorescent light of the recovery room, and slipped into unconsciousness.
“I think we’re getting a little deep for your current mind state. But you know what I’m saying. Turn around Lars. Stop running. If you really want the treasure, the real treasure, turn around and face it.
“What’s the real treasure?” Lars asked, averting his eyes.
“Oh, you don’t need me to tell you that. The treasure is more valuable than any worldly possession. You know exactly what it is. It’s calling to you in every moment.”
Lars turned and stared into his teachers’ eyes. He allowed himself a brief smile.
“How do I get it? How do I get there?”
“Well, what guards the treasure?”
“Okay. Okay, I will Mr. Templeton. I get it. I’ll face the dragon.” Lars said, trying to invest the words with meaning. He managed a couple seconds of eye contact before looking away. The greying teacher didn’t flinch.
“Do it then.”
“Say it. Right now. You can tell me. Say it and be free, son.”
Panic flooded Lars’ mind and he clutched at his pen with a sweaty right palm. Bare, unprotected, dying. He was dying, pushed off a cliff, mind clutching for the rip cord, finding only the vacuum of space and self-loathing. Sweat formed on his forehead and under his arms. He thought about the words, that short statement of declaration that would change everything and nothing. He pursed his lips and fought the urge to pass out. Images of his childhood flooded his mind, the bullies, the insults, the hatred. What would dad say? What would everyone say? He couldn’t do it. Not yet.
“Sir.” He stuttered. “Sir, I really have to go, have to get to..nnext class..”
Mr. Templeton stood still with his arms crossed over his chest. He took a deep breath and nodded.
“Alright Lars. That’s fine. You’re free to go. But just know, this will follow you. The dragon never sleeps. I’m here after school if you want to talk.”
As he slowly emerged from dreamless catatonia, Lars felt them in the room. He kept his eyes shut, feigning sleep while he thought about what to say. His third overdose. How do you explain a third overdose? They knew his secret, and he knew they knew. But still, after thirty-four years, he couldn’t say it aloud. Dad didn’t want to hear it. Neither did Lars.
“Hello honey. How are you feeling?” A woman said with soft concern. Nausea overtook Lars, followed by a stab of regret as he thought about his mother and her enduring love. He wanted to break; to let the river of rich, redeeming pain held behind the numb levy in his chest crack through. He wanted to cry and be held and healed. He wanted to melt into the torrent of her foreverness, the bottomless well of Home, the only refuge left. He felt it, the tidal wave waiting for an earthquake, and he moved toward it. But he was interrupted.
“Lars, you bring shame to the whole family. It’s a good thing you had surgery and I’ve had time to cool down.”
Lars opened his eyes and looked over at his father who was still wearing his officer fatigues. They stared without emotion into each other’s eyes.
“I’m sorry dad.”
“No you’re not. You’re not sorry. You said sorry last time, and here we are again.”
“Well I don’t know what to say then. I…I need help dad. I need…”
“You need to face your problems like a fucking man. That’s what you need to do. You’re an Adams, you pick yourself up and deal with this.” He smashed his fist into his palm. “Thirty-four years old, Lars. A fully grown adult and you still act like a god damn child.”
Lars remained silent, staring out the window. His jaw was squeezed tight and he watched as dead leaves, shades of yellow and orange, fell from the trees outside. Finally, clutching the edges of his bed, he spoke.
“Alright. Fine. Fuck it. Dad I’m…”
“You’re a mess, is what you are. I don’t want to hear it. No excuses Lars. I love you, but you have to be a man. You have to do the right thing.”
As the final bell rang, Lars looked out the window at what was sure to be the first true day of summer. The grass was freshly cut and the sun painted the whole scene with a warm promise of swimming pools and camping and parties and freedom. He smiled, mind calm.
Slinging his backpack over his shoulder, Lars reached for his phone as he left the art room. Someone was already calling.
“Hey. Yeah. Yeah man, it looks great out there.”
He walked to his locker and spun the combo, opening it and throwing his books inside as the conversation continued. Pulling on the empty pack, Lars made his way to the parking lot.
“Right now? Yeah, I mean…”
Lars looked up as he walked past the English room and remembered what Mr. Templeton had said. He stopped walking.
“Yeah, I’m still here. Uh…right now? Uhhhh…”
He stared at the wooden door and considered the choice without hanging up the phone. And then he kept walking.
“Yeah sure, where do you want to meet?
The church was filled past capacity. Women and men in varying shades of black stood and shook hands with downturned eyes. Others sat in the pews with hands clasped in laps, staring straight ahead. Tears could be assumed from the quiet moans coming from the front-left of the room. A man in a robe stood at a raised podium in the center, his face placid and unsurprised. He tapped the microphone and began speaking.
“Alright, alright everybody. Please take a seat so we can begin.”
The moans grew louder.
“We have gathered here today to commemorate the life of a son, a brother, a father, a friend, a gentle and honest soul…”
A shriek pierced the soft words. The pastor continued.
“…Lars…was a beautiful light, trapped in his own mind by monsters, beasts only the best of us are ever called to face. Monsters the likes of which most of us will never know, and even fewer will slay. And he fought them, he fought them like a true warrior. I knew Lars for almost the entire duration of his life, and I watched the heart he put into his battles…”
One by one, family members rose to the podium and told their stories, weeping and gurgling, and in the back of the church, near the exit, a stooped man with no hair stood with a cane. He watched the procession with heavy eyes and allowed the tears to fall. When it was over, when the last had spoken, he turned and hobbled out the door, into the grey January day.