Mary E. Lowd lives in Oregon with her husband, daughter, five cats, and three dogs. Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of venues, and her first novel, "Otters In Space," was nominated for an Ursa Major Award. For more information, visit www.marylowd.com.
The curved neck and stretched wings of the black Dragon dwarf the figure of the doe-like white Unicorn. They make an unlikely picture behind the glass panel and aluminum frame of my sliding glass kitchen door. As always, quite the sight to see. I ask them in.
Scaled claws and downed hooves step through the door. The Dragon slashes his tail, impetuous at being kept so long. The Unicorn paws the linoleum floor and bows his horn. "An honor, as always," he says.
I slide the glass door shut behind them, careful that all the tails are on the right side.
"Is the water ready?" the Unicorn asks.
"Not yet." I walk around the counters to the electric stove feeling the Unicorn close behind, his breath on my shoulder. The Dragon stays away from the kitchen, where cupboards and countertops would cramp his wings. He lingers instead, looking at pictures on the wall. Grumbling to himself.
My tea kettle sits on the Formica counter in the customary spot, nestled between the sink and the toaster. I fill it with water and put it on the stove. The Unicorn shuffles his hooves in restless excitement as I open the cupboard with the mugs. "You know which one I want," he says, "right?"
He always picks the mug with a picture of geese wearing bonnets, drawn by Beatrix Potter.
The kettle whistles, piercingly, and I pour the steaming water. As always, I make ginger tea for the Dragon, lemon tea for myself, and hot chocolate for the Unicorn. I place the mugs on a tray and carry them into the living room where we settle on the floor. My friends are ill-suited to sitting at tables. Chairs don't fit them well.
The Unicorn folds his hooves neatly beneath him, and the dragon crouches, all angles, with his wings half folded and his sinuous limbs bent like compressed springs. Entirely alert. I place their hot beverages before them on the living room rug.
"Shall I tell a story now?" I ask.
"Let's play a board game," says the Dragon. He takes his mug, my largest, in his great talon. He dwarfs the tiny mug and has to drink from it daintily. A giant sipping tea from a thimble.
"I'd like a story," the Unicorn says. He's been blowing on his hot chocolate to cool it. He stretches his snowy neck, leaning his nose down to taste the dark liquid.
"You always want a story," the Dragon snarls. The Unicorn shies away from him, but he's not really scared. The Unicorn and Dragon are the best of friends. My best friends.
"I'll tell stories first," I say. "Then we'll play chess," I tell the Dragon.
The Dragon rolls his massive, round, green eyes heavenward, but he holds his forked tongue. He can wait. Dragons can be both patient and impatient.
I tell stories to the Unicorn until he falls asleep, head resting on hooves, nostrils flaring gently with deep regular breaths, and the shining tip of his horn barely gracing the carpeted floor. His sides heave with a sigh, and I know he's dreaming about the worlds in my stories: a world with an ocean whose smallest drop can turn you into a rabbit; a world where glittering, faceted cat statues are cut from gemstones and come to life; a world where otters fly water-filled spaceships.
"Shall we play chess now?" the Dragon asks, his voice a soft hiss so as to not wake the Unicorn.
I agree, and we're deep in a game when the phone rings. "Just a minute," I say as I go to the old style corded wall phone to answer it.
The call is from my boss. He wants to be sure that I remember to bring in the files for our meeting tomorrow. I hate it when he calls me at home, but it's true that otherwise I would have forgotten. I get the files and place them on the end table by the front door where I can't possibly miss them. Now I won't forget.
I go back to the living room and see my spiral notebook on the floor open to a freshly scribbled page; the copy of Historical Chess Games that I checked out from the library is propped up next to my chess board; and there are three mugs -- one filled with lemon tea, and two empty on the floor.
"Dammit! This was easier as a child," I say.
I close my eyes and remember my friends. My imaginary friends. They're insubstantial, transparent, shadows of the vivid beings they once were. When I was young, the world was filled with fantastical creatures, and they all centered around me. Ponies galloped through my backyard; cats with wings flew above me, following wherever I went. I never had to think about them. They were just there. An everyday part of my life.
Now, I work in an office, and I come home to an empty house at night. But I'll be damned if I let them fade out of my life like the song. My Dragon will not be Puff. My Unicorn will not be forgotten.
I open my eyes, and the Dragon says, "It's your turn already. Move."
So easy. And, yet, so easily lost.
I sit down and finish the game with him. When it's over, I place a hand on the Unicorn's rump. He wakes up at the touch and says, "Is it time to go?"
I nod, and I show my friends back to the sliding glass door in the kitchen. "Come back soon," I say as the fearsome black Dragon disappears into the dark of the backyard at night. The small Unicorn walking by his side, glowing and white, is visible much longer.
I close the door and return to the living room. I tuck the notebook and chess book carefully under a throw pillow on the couch. Then, I put the mugs away. Mine in the dishwasher. The other two, I return to the cupboard.