Thursday, August 22, 2013

Dragon Division

[To help my writing camp kids get started, I wrote several ideas down on scraps of paper and threw them in a hat. The first category was a class of character ( ninja, dragon, pirate, ghost…). The second category involved a personality flaw (shy, vain, ADHD, paranoid…). “This might mean we get vain ninjas, ADHD dragons, and friendly pirates,” I enthused, “but that's just part of the fun!”

The next step was to generate a plot by torturing the character. “Ask yourself what’s the worst thing you could possibly do to this character,” I said, “And then do it. Write down what happens. If you have a character, a problem, and, at the end, a solution to the problem, you have a story. Simple!”

Well, the idea of an ADHD dragon stuck with me. I imagined a young female dragon, the equivalent of a girl about nine years old, and then I had an idea…

Over the last month, while my workshop kids have been writing in class, I’ve been working, too. Today for the treat, I read my almost-finished story to them at the end. After they left, I polished it some more. I don’t claim this is any Great Literature; if I write something I think is really good, I’m more likely to save it and try to publish it formally someday, which means my blog readers get all the mediocre stuff. (Anything terrible gets discarded, naturally.)

I felt like I was trying to be Diana Wynne Jones. If you have limited time, go read her stuff; she’s awesome. If you have a little extra time, try my middlin’ offerin’ below.


Dragon Division

  Wizard Wesley looked fearsome, for a human.
                “Family—heirloom—priceless—artifact!!!” Impressive silver sparks spurted from his staff in tempo with his spluttering words.
                “Young l…ing“--he stumbled over calling Norberta a “lady” and converted his word quickly--“Do you realize how expensive this telescope will be to replace?”
                Norberta hung her head, her face scales heating from leaf to emerald green. She hadn’t meant to ruin anything. She’d just crept from her den to stare curiously at the wizard taking astronomical observations on their hill.  The squirrel had not been her fault…
                “And, by Merlin’s maneful of miseries, can you not keep that tail still?
                Norberta felt her blush deepen. “I thought…it was only twitching a little…” she mumbled, self-conscious of what was probably now a hunter green cast to her nose, “I CAN’T hold still. I think I was cursed in the egg…”
                “Cursed?” cried Wesley. “I’ll show you cursed!  You need a lesson. I hereby bespell you to spend a day—in school!—sitting absolutely still. Magical punishment to lift only after the bell rings for dismissal.”
                Norberta trembled. “Please, sir,” she sobbed. “Not school…anything but that…I could do community service…help with the forest fire problem…roast s’mores for free at the county fair…?”
                Wizard Wesley hesitated for a moment. He might have softened, but just then the little dragon blew her nose violently. Sparks flew everywhere and landed on the wizard’s woolen robe, which began smoldering. He glared at her.
                “Um, sorry,” she whispered. He glowered, and she panicked. “Well, at least it wasn’t an ancient, priceless family heirloom…?”
                “It was new,” wheezed Wesley.  “A graduation gift from my mother. And you are a menace.”
                He raised his wand. Norberta yelped and ran for cover.
                “Hold still!” he shouted, chasing after her. “I’m…doing…this—“ he stumbled over a rock but righted himself. Norberta dodged behind a tree. “For…your…HOLD STILL!!!...own—Sedentatify!
                Norberta ducked as the spell hit her. Her tail, back legs, left foreleg, and most of both wings tingled.
                “Drat, it missed your head and leg,” gasped Wesley. “Well, that should be good enough. This way you can still answer questions and hold a pencil. I need to go help with the forest fire suppression, but I’ll track things remotely—that should be entertaining.“ He cackled, then began packing his gear, including the broken telescope pieces, into magicked pockets of his cloak. “I’d better flee before Your Nuisance breaks my crystal ball, too. It was my journeyman’s graduation project.  Spent hundreds of hours making the thing.”  He stowed the last item, then vanished in a dramatic puff of orange smoke.

                At dinner that night, Norberta explained the situation to Horace, her employer. “Wha’?” He exclaimed in his broad Dermish accent. “Tyke you awhy wi’out talkin’ to may? I’m enti’led to your lybor, I am. Don’t you worry, I’ll ‘ave a talk wi’ anyone wha’ tries it!”
                Norberta felt better, but decided to work on harvesting deadwood the next day, a chore that would take her under the cover of trees and out of sight. As she curled up that night, she thought, drowsily, “They can’t make me go to school if they can’t find me.”
                The next morning Norberta awoke early. “I’ll eat breakfast quickly,” she thought, “and then sneak away.” Just as she was finishing her termite toast though, there came an ominous knock at the door. Horace went to answer it. Norberta tried to crawl out the back window.
                The window seemed to have shrunk in the last six months. The last time Norberta had used it, fleeing Horace’s wrath after the unfortunate axe incident, she had squeezed through easily. Now she scraped and strained to get her shoulders through. Between her grunts, she heard snatches of conversation from the door.
                “Got a tip…little girl…school…”
                “She’s only a’indentured—“
                “But the new law says even indentured children must go to school!”
                “Tha’s wha’ I’m tryin’ ta tell ya, she ayn’t—“ Norberta heard a scuffle, then heavy footsteps approaching behind her. “—a chi’l, jes’ a dra’on!” Horace finished.
                Norberta winced. She knew she must look silly with three legs and a wing hanging out the window.
                “A dragon?” scoffed the constable. “I may be only an acting truant officer, but I’m not falling for such a crazy story. What do you call those little girl bloomers, then?” He turned toward Norberta pulled her back inside. “Into the house, child. It’s indecent, you flashing your underwear like that.”
Norberta blinked. Underwear? She wasn’t wearing any clothes. The constable had seen her before, doing chores in the yard and he’d never complained about her bare scales. Apparently Wizard Wesley’s curse included people seeing her as a human girl. She paused for just a moment to consider the power he had put into this spell. “He must have been really, REALLY, mad” she thought, and mentally tripled the value of the telescope.
The constable continued. “Obviously no one ever taught you any manners—“ he glared at Horace—“but you’ll soon learn from being around other youngsters your age. Come along now, I’ll see you settled at school.”
                “But—“ Horace and Norberta both protested together. Their words mixed so that the constable heard “I’m she’s anot drachigonuld.”
                “Now see here,” said the constable, firmly. “I’m here to enforce the law, I am. Mr. Horace, I’ll see you fined if you don’t cooperate.”
                The mention of fines was too much for Horace. Weakly, he looked at Norberta. “The wizar’ did sigh ’twas just for one die,” he whispered apologetically. “Affer that, I’m sure the curse will wire off an’ thing’ll go back t’ normal. Ru’ along, then.”
                Norberta seethed. “Just like a human,” she muttered. “Traitors, all of ‘em.”
                Halfway to the school, Norberta tried to run away, but only her head, right foreleg, and part of her right wing seemed to cooperate. Her other three legs, wing, and tail continued marching to their doom automatically. Norberta flailed around desperately, but the independent parts of her body were dragged along by the rest. All Norberta’s struggles accomplished was an awkward trip and a tangled wing.
                The constable tsk’ed. “None of that now,” he said, firmly. “Don’t spoil your dress. You’re going to school willy nilly. Might as well come quietly.”
                “What exactly does my dress look like?” asked Norberta, curiously.
                “Well…a bit hard to see under the stains,” he scratched his head. “I would say it’s dark brown with, um, orange polka dots.”
                “Orange!” snarled Norberta. “A dress is bad enough, but orange polka dots???”
                “Well, I did think it a tad odd, myself,” the constable conceded, “But I’m not a judge of fashion, y’know. And if the other little girls laugh, well, you’ll be learning how to make your own clothes soon enough in sewing class.”
                Sewing class? This was sounding worse and worse. “Only a day,” thought Norberta. “I can do anything for one day…”
                Two hours later, she had changed her mind. The first half hour hadn’t been too bad, as the teacher had taken attendance, explained the day’s schedule, and gotten Norberta settled in a desk.
The math lecture had been interesting:  Norberta was fascinated with the idea of long division. She could divide things up, of course, but she had always done it by making piles. Modeling the problem in her head could save her some effort in hauling stuff, and decimals looked fantastically useful. “Imagine dividing something into tenths, not just halves,” she thought, and started daydreaming about practical applications for sharing partial candy bars among her friends.
                After that, though, came the worksheets. Three pages filled with practice problems. After much trial and error, she managed to hold the pencil, though the teacher kept coming by and trying to correct her grip. “I’m doing the best I can!” protested Norberta, “It’s not easy with talons instead of fingers!”
                “Work, don’t whine, dear,” answered her teacher, absently, before moving on to whisper “Billy, stop blowing spit bubbles!” to another boy.
                After four practice problems, Norberta’s right claw ached.  The pencil kept slipping on her scales; the teacher said something reassuring about “building up calluses in a few days,” but that didn’t help the dragon now. (“I wonder if it’s possible to get calluses on scales,” wondered Norberta, and enjoyed a pleasant three-minute daydream about ways to test that idea…until the teacher ordered her to focus.)
Every time Norberta dropped her pencil, it made a loud noise and the teacher frowned disapprovingly. Then she had to pick it up with one claw. “This would be easier if I could use my other hand to help,” she grimaced, but her left arm seemed paralyzed, as did most of her body. Norberta’s tail had gone numb. Was she sitting on it wrong? Had it lost blood circulation? Would an entire day of this mean gangrene and amputation…?
“Norberta, dear, concentrate,” said her teacher in exasperation. “You’ve only gotten four problems done in all this time? You’ll need to stay in from recess, then.
“The next time I see Wizard Wesley,” Norberta vowed silently, “I will break every single crystal ball he owns.”
The teacher dismissed the class for morning recess, reminding them not to go too near the forest because of smoke from the wildfires. (“Though I hear Wizard Wesley himself is taking charge and things should be under control in another day or two,” the teacher added.)
With incredible effort, Norberta managed to write the answers to another ten problems. Her claw was cramping by the time everyone else came back inside. The teacher surveyed Norberta’s paper. “Ten more problems, that’s an improvement, and the answers are correct—oh, but Norberta, you didn’t show your work. You need to write down your steps so I know you did the problem correctly.”
“But I got the right answer!” protested Norberta, stung at this injustice. “I understand how to do it fine!”
“Yes, but you could have copied the answers from my desk while I was away,” said the teacher. “I need to make sure you did your own work and didn’t just copy.”
“You think I cheated?” roared Norberta. “But—I wouldn’t—and besides, I’m paralyzed! I couldn’t get to your desk if I tried!”
The teacher looked Very Disapproving. “There’s no need to exaggerate, Norberta,” she said, severely. “And that outburst was inappropriate. I’m afraid you’ll need to stay in your seat and continue working on division problems while your classmates get to work on their history skits. This is a sad consequence of your own poor choices.”
For one moment, Norberta thought she saw a reflection of Wizard Wesley in the teacher’s glasses. He was laughing at her.
“All his crystal balls, robes, wands, staves…his laboratory…” swore Norberta. “I will get vengeance if it’s the last thing I do…”
Norberta’s stomach growled. “When’s lunch?” she asked her teacher. “Another forty-five minutes,” answered the teacher, “And remember to raise your hand.”
Abruptly, Norberta realized she hadn’t brought a lunch. “And his library!” she added, feeling wicked. “Though I’ll sort out any interesting books, first.”

She finished six more problems, showing her stupid, pointless, extra, inefficient work this time. Eight problems to go, and her claw felt like it would fall off.
Giving up, she looked around the room. Most of the children were moving about, practicing their history skits. The teacher was grading papers. Billy sat on the floor, blowing spit bubbles vacantly.
“I wonder if I could blow spit bubbles,” mused Norberta, and tried it. Her snout didn’t seem to be shaped quite right, her teeth kept getting in the way…try again…was that it? No. She tried blowing harder…
Sparks flew from her mouth and landed on her desk.
Her math worksheets caught on fire. The desk began smoldering.
Norberta, immune to low grade smoke and fire, watched with hypnotized interest.
Then one of the kids announced, “I think I smell smoke!”
The teacher stood up hastily. “But—the forest fires—miles away…” She saw the smoking desk and shrieked, but then recovered quickly. “Children, fire drill!” she announced with false cheerfulness. “Just as a precaution, of course. Line up by the door. You too, Norberta,” she added.
Norberta, delighted, tried but found herself still paralyzed. Her desk was smoking more violently now, and a dull haze was filling the classroom. “I can’t—“ she wailed, furious at the thought of everyone else getting a free second recess.
Norberta jumped at the noise overhead. “What was that?” she asked.
“That’s the fire alarm, dear!” said her teacher, impatiently. “The bell rings to alert everyone that we should all evacuate the building. Now come on.”
Norberta heard a crashing sound behind her and turned automatically. Her tail had knocked over a desk. It was lashing back and forth violently in agitation…
Dimly she heard the teacher order the other children to follow another class outside, but Norberta hardly noticed. The spell had lifted! “Ahahaha! Yippee! O frabjous day!” Norberta turned cartwheels. Six more desks went flying, and one of them broke. “Oops. Oh well, sorry,” she shrugged.
“Norberta!” said her teacher, shocked. “This is a dangerous situation. Your antics are absolutely inappropriate. You’ll serve detention after school—“
“No I WON’T!” shouted Norberta. “I’m FREEEEE…” She began to race out of the room, then paused. “You tried to be a good teacher,” she said, kindly. “It’s not your fault I hate school.” She returned to her desk and used her tail to beat out the fire. Splintering her prison into a thousand pieces was a happy bonus.
“Norberta, no!” shouted the teacher. “It’s too dangerous—you’re just a child—where did you get that blanket…?”
The little dragon ignored these protests. As the teacher tugged on her, Norberta  extinguished the last few sparks, yanked her wing from the teacher’s grasp, and raced away. “Sorry about the mess!” she yelled. “That kind of thing happens to me all the time. You should be glad I’m never coming back….”
Several hours later, as Norberta recounted her day to Horace over squirrel stew, she paused for a moment.  “Why did the spell lift early?” she wondered. “I thought I’d be stuck for seven hours, but it was only about three. Not that I’m complaining!”
“Well,” Horace shrugged philosophically, “Th’ wizar’ did sigh you’d bay stuck thar ‘till th’ bell ryng. I s’pose th’ fire alarm’s wha’ di’it. Mybe ‘ee di’nt se’ it right, though I must sigh ‘ee pu’a powerful lo’of punch innoo it. ‘Ee should be sighvin’ ‘is mana for them fores’ fires, if you ask may.”
“You mean,” paraphrased Norberta, to make sure she’d understood correctly, “You mean the fire alarm counted as the dismissal bell? He wasted lots of magical power on my curse, but not much time programming it properly?”
Horace nodded sagely. “That’s very clever thinking,” Norberta congratulated him. “Maybe you should have been a wizard instead of a forester.” Horace shrugged modestly. “But,” she continued musing, “Why did the teacher still see me as a human even after my restraints lifted?”
Horace began to say something about independent variables and a grace period for the illusion, but Norberta noticed a squirrel outside and stopped listening.
That night, as she snuggled into her den near Horace’s hut, she took another moment for reflection. “It was only three hours,” she thought, judiciously. “And I did learn something useful. And I did break the wizard’s telescope. But bloomers and orange polka dots and being paralyzed! I guess I’ll just ruin his crystal ball and call it even…”
She drifted off to sleep, imagining her revenge.

[Now I want to write a sequel in which Norberta and Wesley are forced to work together to quell the forest fires. But, darn it, I have tons of other irons in other kinds of fires right now.]

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