Usually Jeff Saunders heard the sound of padded booties on the floors of the psychiatric ward, but today almost everyone was outside enjoying the sunshine and breeze and there was no sound except for his own scuffling feet against the cold tiles that lined the walkway.
There was only one patient inside due to his reputation as a killer, and that was who Jeff was going to visit. He wasn't supposed to play favorites in the ward, but he couldn't help it. Garwen Fleede was a strange young man only in the ward thanks to unnatural predicaments. He didn't speak too often, but when he did, one listened well because he was soft-spoken and hardly raised his voice to match the same pitch as everyone else.
He had been accused of killing his older brother because he was found pulling the knife from his back. Garwen insisted Quent Johnson, a man recorded as missing for twenty years at the time, had murdered his brother. The court couldn't hold a case against Garwen when the knife had once belonged to Quent, someone who didn't even live in the same state as the brothers and whom Garwen had never known; instead, men with psychology degrees announced that Garwen needed mental help and he was sent to the ward.
But doctors at the ward were afraid of his appearance not his reputation.
He was a short young man at four foot nine, almost nineteen years old (according to his theory about being gone for three years), with a tight mass of flame red curls atop his head that never darkened or faded and contained no highlights – natural or unnatural. He had a pair of dark hunter green, almost black, reptilian eyes. Doctors could say that he dyed his hair and wore freaky contacts if it weren't for his other features – a mouth full of razor sharp teeth stained red and yellow with what looked like blood and plaque; red-tinged, scale-textured skin; and a pair of sleek, pitch black horns curling from his head – which all added evil to his already grim façade.
"He looks like a dragon," Jeff said out loud, and his voice echoed incoherently down the empty hall as he stood before Garwen's door and pushed the cardkey into the slot provided for such a device; he heard the locks shift and smiled as he pulled the door open, slipped inside, and closed the door behind him.
"Hello Jeffery," the young man sitting in the white wood chair in the corner diagonal to Jeff said without looking up from the paperback book he was reading – Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke. "It's interesting, you know, to read something like this (so fantastical) when you have seen and ridden the real beast," he said.
"Mr. Fleede," Jeff pleaded. He hated it when people called him Jeffery; he was Jeff or Mr. Saunders. No one – not even his parents – called him Jeffery.
"Garwen, please," the young man said and closed his book after memorizing the page number. "What can I do for you, Jeffery?"
"Please call me Jeff," the other man said as he took a seat in the only other chair in the room. If he even heard, Garwen chose to ignore his request as he had every time in the past. "I have brought you some new books," he said as he pulled a handful from the white Wal-Mart bag and leafed through them before laying them on the bed and stuffing the bag in his pocket. "You might find them to your tastes; you might not."
"I'm sure I will. Almost everything you have brought me has been worth the read. Galsoon and I agree that you have some fine tastes Jeffery."
Jeff sighed. There was no way he could force Garwen to call him what he wished to be called. "Garwen, why do you insist that there are such things as dragons and magic? You know they would let you out of here if you just pretended you haven't gone to another world and haven't nearly been killed. If you would just explain what happened to Gomun Fleede then everything would be all right."
It intimidated Jeff when Garwen flashed him those razor sharp teeth. "So you finally admit to believing me, do you Jeffery?" he asked in a voice lower than usual.
Jeff shook his head. "You know I didn't say that..." He stopped and thought back on his answer. Had he not said just that when he had used the word "pretended"?
Garwen saw the indecision on his face and grinned again. "You don't know, do you?"
Jeff shook his head again; this time with less authority. Why was it that this young man – a mere child compared to himself – always had a habit of making him feel younger than he really was – less like a twenty-seven year old and more like a five year old? "I don't know what to think, Garwen," he admitted.
"That is the true question: what should you believe? On one hand, you have your psychology degree – that little piece of paper that tells you that you have the knowledge to work in this ward – and on the other hand, you have your sense of sight. You see me, and you wonder whether or not I could be telling the truth. I can see your predicament; you don't know who to trust."
He looked back at his book and smiled again. "Have you read this?"
"So you know it's about the salvation of dragons?"
"That was what my line of work was about when I lived on Geniserc, only I helped protect a whole system from downfall. There weren't many of us, skyryders one and all, who rode on the backs of dragons and learned to use magic and protected Iilane's dragon academy and Zhil from Jrengen and the hrens' onslaught using ruby dragons."
Jeff had heard enough. As much as the idea intrigued the small boy in him – the one who sat at his pappy's feet and listened to tales of courageous knights and fire-breathing dragons – there was no way that such a story was true, that such a thing had really occurred anywhere but in the young man's mind. He leaned forward in his chair and rested his elbows on his knees. "What happened to Gomun Fleede, Garwen? Who really killed your brother?"
Garwen sat back with a sigh. It was obvious the young man wasn't ready to accept the whole story yet, but it was time he told him; the story would just plague him until he did anyway. He looked Jeff straight in the eye, which Jeff found difficult and easy to do at the same time; he could not look into those reptilian eyes but he could not look away either. "I didn't."
"Then who did?" Jeff asked with an exasperated sigh.
The other young man frowned. "I already told you – Quent Johnson."
Jeff shook his head slowly. "No one has seen Quent in four years, Garwen."
"He'll show up though. You'll see. His name might change and he may look different but he'll show up."
Several moments passed during which neither said a word. The silence was deafening and made Jeff itch to move, to leave the room and find solace somewhere else. "Do you want to know what happened?" Garwen asked softly; had the silence not existed, Jeff never would have heard him.
"What happened?" Jeff repeated dumbly and blinked in confusion.
The young man nodded. Jeff had to think hard about his answer. If he said yes, would Garwen assume he believed his tale? He had learned long ago that it was easier to have a patient think he believed his tale to prevent injury to patient or doctor, but Garwen wasn't one of his insane charges. Would he know the difference? Jeff had a feeling he would because Garwen was weird in that sense. Garwen waited for his answer with a patience that astounded Jeff. He didn't fidget or budge and Jeff had a funny feeling he wasn't even blinking, which unsettled him, but he thought carefully nonetheless.
Finally, he nodded. "Go ahead and tell me," he said.
The young man with dragon features grinned. "Get me a way to write my story down and several cans of soda and you can read it instead."
"Why can't you just tell me?"
"You will ask too many questions and not hear the story."
Jeff nodded, stood with a sigh, and stretched to portray boredom. In truth excitement filled his core of being and caused the adrenaline to rush through his veins like a car along a track. He hadn't realized he had been so tense until he unknotted his shoulder with a small massage and walked out the door. He returned five minutes later, carrying a white apple laptop and five canned sodas in the Wal-Mart bag, to see that Garwen hadn't moved an inch.
"Thank you. Can you make sure I eat and drink over the next few days as I write this?" He laughed as if from a personal joke. "You'd be surprised how caught up you can get in a tale, even if you don't believe it afterwards."
There! That was what Jeff had been waiting for. Garwen knew he didn't really believe his story. Was there a chance he would after it was through? He didn't know.
Garwen settled back in his stiff white chair in a way that made Jeff's back ache, but Garwen didn't seem the least bit disturbed; in fact, he looked more at ease than Jeff who sat in a white desk chair with a cushioned seat.
For several minutes Garwen's eyes clouded as if remembering something. Then he spoke with a clear and precise voice. "It may have well started before the incident that took us to Geniserc; it may have started when I was born; I don't know. I do know this: Gomun and I were unique from the start as..." He stopped and watched Jeff for a moment. He wasn't ready for the truth yet, Garwen decided, at least not the truth he saw. "We both had magic flowing through our veins, which isn't something we really knew about until much later, but as it turns out, we did. By the age of five, I could perform bits of magic unknowingly even though Gomun couldn't at all until we appeared on Geniserc. I wonder sometimes why that was, but I guess I will never know."
Jeff heard the love in Garwen's voice as he talked about his brother. This wasn't the voice of a man who had murdered his kin.
Garwen sighed and tangled a hand in his mass of curls before he curled it around a horn and tugged it nervously. He frowned for a moment and looked away, lost in a moment that existed only in his mind. A lot had changed since he'd gone to Geniserc. Galsoon was almost four as Garwen was almost nineteen. Carosh had died when he was three, Garwen remembered. A lot of dragons died before their time, he thought.
Jeff waited for him to continue speaking in silence. Where was the boy's mind that he had such a pale and grim look on his face? What had happened four years earlier?
"I see no point in starting from my birth although that is probably the best place to start, so I will begin where I believe it all started, which is where I almost died the first time..."
– – – – – – –
"Jeff! Have you read this?" Timothy Saunders asked several months later as he stood and shook Jeff's hand before he pulled him into his embrace.
Jeff patted his back and pulled away. "No. I was asked not to until it comes out in paperback," he said, laughing.
Timothy laughed too. "This is great! Do you at least know what it's about?"
"I have a hunch."
Timothy sat down and grinned at him. "When you said you had a book for me, I never expected that you would hand me something quite like this!" He picked a book off his desk and tossed it to Jeff who caught it in both hands. The cover was black with blood-red letters spelling out the words, Ruby Dragon at the top the name Garwen Fleede at the bottom. "Who is this Garwen Fleede? I want to meet him. Can you bring him here tomorrow?"
"No, Timothy, I can't."
Timothy looked crestfallen at his statement. "Why not?" he asked.
"Garwen is at the local psychiatric ward where I work. He is a patient there because this book is supposedly his life story."
His older brother looked at him in surprise. "You mean that story was written by a crazy person?" he asked in disbelief. When Jeff nodded, he burst out laughing. "No way," he said and then caught the look on Jeff's face. "There is just no way," he repeated.
"Way," Jeff said with a smile. "He is in the ward because he believes this ––" he held up the book, "–– really happened. He is the Garwen in the story; he is in the ward because he believes it's true."
"Children will be reading this story in the next thirty years to come, and you're saying that the author is crazy?" Timothy asked.
Jeff nodded. "Yes."
There was a long moment of silence that remained even as Timothy began to come to believe Jeff. "Can I still meet him?" he asked finally.
"I am sure no one will stop you," his younger brother replied.
He nodded. "Good. Then I want you to take me to meet him."
"Now, little brother."
Jeff sighed, and not even an hour later they were talking to the other doctors and guards about letting Timothy see Garwen. The doctors weren't sure it was a good idea even though a couple of guards volunteered to stay right outside the room. Timothy argued that he would not have that.
After two hours of hard-core verbal fighting, Timothy was allowed into Garwen's room on the condition that Jeff remain right outside the room, ready to help if anything went wrong. Jeff did not remind them that nothing would go wrong. He didn't want the other doctors to start suspecting that he actually believed Garwen was innocent when he was still pounding himself with those questions.
The talk only lasted thirty minutes, and when Timothy came out of the room, he had a strange look on his face. It was a look Jeff had never seen before and hoped never to see again. It scared him, and he didn't know why.
"I don't know whether to think this young man is a lunatic or a genius. Either he is crazy and has had some surgeries done in the past to make sure he seems as strange as his story, or he is telling the truth and the story in the book is real."
He shook his head and left, and Jeff turned to look through the glass window at Garwen. The young man looked him straight in the eyes and nodded once. It was time for Jeff to read the book. The new cover was slick and clean except for the few fingerprints that Jeff's own hands had put on it.
"Well, here goes," he said with a sigh. Garwen was in his small white room, so Jeff never saw the smile that crossed the young man's face as he walked away.
– – – – – – –
After Jeff got off work late that night, he sat alone in the chair in the room across from Garwen's. He had clocked out but he didn't really have anywhere else important to be. He might as well start reading Garwen's book right there – in the same place it had been written. This was where he wrote it, he thought, and this is where it should remain.
Questions were pouring through his mind. Did he have what it took to read this story, knowing that Garwen thought it was the truth? Was there perhaps a chance that reading the book would change his mind? Was there really magic and dragons on another planet? Was Garwen really stuck here, as he claimed, until he found what he was looking for?
"It doesn't matter now," he said to himself and looked at the book. He had already read the summary on the back and knew the basics of it. "Well, let's get this done," he said and opened it to the first page. He passed the title page and started to go on to the start of the story but stopped at the dedication page for a moment as something caught his eye.
For Gomun for his being there when I needed him,
and for Jeffery for seeing the real me through it all.
Jeff blinked in surprise at that. "Does he really think that?" he wondered out loud. He shrugged after a moment and continued to turn past pages without reading them until he came to the start of the book.
He sighed, as if about to take a great weight off his chest. "Chapter one..."