A gust of wind howled through the stairwell. Bill paused, shut the door, and savored a few seconds of warmth before pushing forward again. Outside on the street it was even worse. The wind greedily leeched the heat from Bill’s body as soon as he left the vestibule.
“That’s it Harry, I’m moving to California. Last straw.” Bill dusted his jacket like he was beating the cold away.
Harry waved him off. “Yeah, yeah. You’d be pining for New York before your luggage came off the carousel.”
Several triads of software developers were huddled around the office in standup meetings. The sales team were all headsetted up, making their first calls for the day.
“Maybe I’ll get a place in Venice. On the beach.”
Harry wasn’t even looking at him anymore.
“Serious. I have a cousin in–.”
“Go get a bowl of hot noodles or something. You’re hangry and cold and your beach fantasies bore me.”
Bill’s stomach rumbled on queue.
“It’s too early for soup. . . .” he trailed off. Harry’d stopped paying attention completely. He was battering the keyboard, staring through the screen. Bill zipped his jacket back up and turned toward the door.
From behind him Harry called out, “Go to Lam Zhou. Get the dragon soup.” The clatter of Harry’s keyboard continued uninterrupted.
The noodle shop was the size of a California walk-in closet, a New York studio apartment, or a wide parking spot. The place had too many tables to fit its space but too few to seat the crowd.
Bill shouldered up to the counter and ordered a bowl of dragon soup. Twenty bucks! Nothing on the menu was more than six. Hell, you’d get eighteen dumplings for six bucks. The beef noodle soup was four dollars. This shit better be made with real dragons.
A surly man with clown baldness clattered the bowl on the counter. Bill dug a twenty from his wallet and jabbed it at the guy hoping for at the very least an apologetic shrug. Clown Bald whisked the banknote from the counter and disappeared into the back after a pile of noodle dough.
The soup was dark and had bits of leaf floating between thick white noodles. The smell was between peppercorn and smoke. Bill’s stomach growled. He stuck a spoon in and went to work.
The broth hit his mouth like liquid fire. Hot not heat-hot and not even spicy hot just somehow hot. Bill’s first instinct was to spit the mouthful back into the bowl but to his surprise he swallowed it down. The fire burned all the way to his belly but he had no time to even consider the carnage in his guts because he’d already filled his mouth with another spoon of soup. Smoke like a tea plantation fire; heat like jealousy. The edges of Bill’s vision blurred leaving only the rapidly disappearing bowl of soup. He shoveled, unable to stop.
Bill pushed the empty bowl back. He leapt up and ran into the street before he’d got his coat zipped up. The cool air floated past leaving him unmolested.
“The fuck, Harry. Twenty bucks.”
“Chill. You want a coffee?” Harry bee lined for the break room. “One sugar, right?” He was around the corner before Bill could answer.
Bill dug through his emails; dutifully replying, forwarding, carbon copying. The warm rumble in his stomach wasn’t going away. He put his hand to his belly but jerked it away quick. Hot. Like stovetop hot.
“Goddamnit!” He yelped in surprise.
Harry set a cup of coffee on Bill’s desk. Bill was about to give Harry a good earbashing over the soup and the hot belly and whatever the fuck was happening to his body but his stomach had declared emergency. He ran to the bathroom not knowing which direction the soup would take on its way out, only that an exit was inevitable.
Bill locked the door behind him and fell to his knees in front of the toilet. His body convulsed and the ball of heat and smoke worked its way up his esophagus with agonizing slowness. He opened his mouth and a sharp teakettle hiss escaped followed by billowing smoke and what felt like an owl’s pellet full of feathers and bones wriggled from his throat, blocking his air. Bill panicked, grasping the side of the toilet, frozen in fear.
A convulsion racked Bill’s chest.
The blockage cleared. Air rushed into his lungs.
A snake, about a foot long, sat coiled on the toilet seat. Bill backpedaled and fumbled at the door handle which he’d locked a few seconds before. The snake shifted revealing several sets of small legs and its head was not the head of a snake at all but more like a crocodile’s with tiny little deer antlers on top.
Then it spoke.
“Hurry! Hide me in your shirt and let’s get out of here, I’ll explain on the way.” The snake thing sprung from the toilet seat to land on Bill’s arm, its six legs gripped his sleeve like monkey hands. The thing reared its head and looked directly into Bill’s eyes. “Come on, there’s not a lot of time!”
The eye contact shocked Bill into averting his gaze. He met eyes with his own reflection in the bathroom mirror and stood stunned at the image. The snake with feet and antlers glared impatiently. Confusion fucked up Bill’s fear instinct. He mumbled, “Climb in, I guess?”
The thing wriggled into his shirt. Bill braced himself for sharp claws and gross reptile skin but there was only the hint of a warm breeze under his shirt. He patted himself down, double checked the mirror, wondered if he’d imagined the whole thing, ignored the implications if he did, and left the bathroom.
“Let’s ditch,” the voice whispered from under his clothes. “Get your stuff, we’ve gotta blow this popsicle stand, man.”
Bill snatched his coat.
“Early lunch?” Harry asked, eyes on screen. Bill could have sworn there was a smirk relaxing at the edge of Harry’s mouth.
The sun was out which made things bright but in no way warm. A cluster of cars sped down East Broadway kicking up a frigid breeze in their wake.
“What do you want?” Bill hissed through chattering teeth.
“Same thing as you new buddy.” The voice was familiar, friendly. Like a college roommate or that one dude who played acoustic guitar and always had great weed. “I want to go to California.”
“What in the hell are you?” Bill jogged toward the subway entrance.
Bill paused hoping the word would find another to connect with in his head. After a few moments, “A dragon who—correct me if I’m wrong—came from soup and wants to go to California?”
“I’ve been working on a screenplay but never mind that, like we both want the same thing right? We can help each other out.”
A train pulled into the station.
“Wow,” the dragon said, “that’s loud. Why don’t they fix the brakes on these things?”
Bill pressed into the car, it was shoulder to shoulder.
“Psst,” the dragon whispered. “Can we get off at the next stop? It’s way too crowded in here, I’m gonna suffocate.”
They came up the stairs at Delancey to find the wind had not slowed or warmed in the last twenty minutes. Maybe it was residual warmth from the subway but the wind didn’t penetrate his jacket. The apartment was only ten or twelve blocks away. Maybe he’d just walk.
“So uh, dragon, how are you going to help me get to California then?”
“I’ve got a name.”
Touchy little prick.
They walked to Chrystie and cut down through the park.
“Steven. That’s my name. I figured you would ask but since you didn’t: Steven.” The dragon gasped in shock, “That’s garbage, piled up on the sidewalk? Ungh, I hate this city. How can you live here? Those trains? The crowds?”
“What’s this about helping me get to California?”
“Helping you? Whoa you got that wrong. No man you buy the ticket and we fly out and I work some dragon shit when we get there. I’m like genetically super charged good luck. So if you want we can go to Vegas for a sick party weekend and make a bajillion bucks on the craps tables. Promise, it’s like money in the bank. If you’re into it we can get hookers and shit too but for reals, you gotta buy those tickets before we can do this thing.”
The wind blew hard but the cold (again) didn’t penetrate Bill’s jacket. He stepped aside as a delivery guy on an electric bike cut across his path. Barely any breeze at all.
“So we hit your place and get some tickets and then pack your shit and get a cab to the airport. Clean break. This is your chance.”
“You’re warm, you know that? I’m warm right now and you’re under my jacket so that must be you?”
“Yeah, I’m a d-r-a-g-o-n.”
A fishmonger dumped a bucket of ice onto the sidewalk. Two Chinese aunties shouldered past Bill to get a look at an open box of long jawed silver fish. The rank smell of cut durian assaulted his nostrils but instead of triggering the usual annoyance it filled him with a sense of home.
“Buddy, er, Steven? You want to stay tucked in my jacket for a bit?”
Harry peeked over his monitor. “How was the soup?”
“Still moving to California?”
“Nah, you were right about that. Something tells me I’d really hate California. Thanks for the advice by the way. The soup warmed me right up.”
“I know, man.” Kevin’s typing stopped, leaving an eerie silence between them. “I was in the same headspace last week man and Ben in marketing told me about the Lam Zhou thing. Dragon soup.”
“Cure for the winter blahs.”
“You got that right, man.”
A muffled grunt came from under Bill’s shirt. He reached inside and pulled Steven’s head out to check that his airways weren’t blocked and readjusted the tiny ball gag to keep his grumbling quiet. Perfect. He stuffed the silenced dragon back into his shirt.
Harry made a knowing look.
Bill grinned, slipped his headphones on and started work on his emails. He had almost a whole day’s worth to catch up on.