Precious Package

by Greg Nooney

We celebrated Thomas’ 119th birthday alone on the balcony overlooking the lake. It was that special time of year when summer wasn’t quite finished with its preoccupation with heating things up but was no longer up to the task, and autumn was still a newcomer, not sure of its role. There was a gentle breeze that shifted my hair slightly, so that I had to pull it away from my face. Thomas was a mere slip of the man he used to be, his back bent, his cheeks reddened by his acquiesce to a decade-long series of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Fingers spread slightly apart, I touched his cheek, and noticed the beginnings of fuzz just starting to grow on the top of his head. I thought of the countless hours of cleaning up after him, sitting by his hospital bed in the living room overseeing the lake view, late at night listening to his raspy breathing, afraid to go to sleep lest he slip away, and I felt new levels of resentment rise in my chest.

After he forced himself to swallow a few crumbs of birthday cake, he turned to me, but he didn’t touch me. “Read the paper to me.”

He closed his eyes as I began to read, and I wasn’t sure if he was awake or asleep.  “Oh, it looks like the opening of that time capsule is tomorrow,” I remarked, and his eyes flung open.

“What did you say?”

“The hundred-year-old time capsule, they’ll be opening it.”

He leaned toward me, now fully awake, and whispered. “We have to go.”

I paused, took a deep breath, and snorted a laugh. “You’re kidding me, right?” I wanted to say You’re not going anywhere. Can’t you face the fact that you are dying? Instead, I said, “You know it’ll be outside. There’ll be lots of people. I don’t even know if your chair will be able to navigate the town square.” I paused, searching for what else to say. “Thomas, let it go, please. We can watch it on television.”

Thomas grabbed my hand. “You must promise me that no matter what it takes, you will drive me to the courtyard even if you have to carry me.” I felt my chest swell as my resentments threatened to turn into anger, but when I looked into his eyes, his desperation peaked and my own waned. “Of course,” I replied, then let go of his hand and hurried back into the house. When I checked on him fifteen minutes later, he was sitting hunched over, whispering into his phone. “Who are you talking to?” I asked. He shook his head, and made a gesture of dismissal in the air.

I looked down at him, and our eyes met. There was passion in my gaze, but no anger; rather, there was a deep-rooted pain, and fear, a longing that I could never share with him in words. My gaze told him that he owed me, that the time for secrets was long past, that my years of devotion had to be worth something. My eyes were challenging him to prove what sort of a man he really was, if he couldn’t trust me after all that we’ve gone through together. I’m sure he took all that in, but his response was cruel. I saw a hardness settle into his eyes, a coldness that was not quite condescending, a reminder that I was his employee, that he compensated me well, and that he was the boss. “I’m just calling in a few favors,” he said. Even though I knew I was expected to be thankful for every tidbit of information I received, that he had no obligation to tell me anything, his words still stung, and I could barely hold back my tears long enough to step back into the house.

If Thomas had been demented, my job would have been simpler. I would have been able to convince myself that his rudenes, his curt demands, his total lack of kindness, was due to his cognitive decline. The truth was that no matter what new forms of poison the doctors prescribed and pumped into his body, his mind stayed alert, sharp. He treated me the way he treated me because that was the man he was.

If only I hadn’t fallen in love with him.

Thomas awoke the next morning with a start. He sat up in bed and looked straight into my eyes. “I dreamt of dragons.” he said. I pressed him for details, but he wouldn’t elaborate. The next hour was spent preparing for our trip into town. He insisted on wearing a suit, but all his suits were two or three sizes too large, so I did the best I could in dressing him, and a memory came back to me. A few weeks after I accepted the job of primary caretaker for Thomas, fifteen years ago, he told me a story of how he had been a 19-year-old cadet when the time capsule was sealed and he had secretly added a small package into the capsule. He didn’t reveal what the object was, whether he was following orders, or, if not, why he did it.

My curiosity got the better of me. “Thomas,” I said, “what did you put in that time capsule?” Thomas looked down at his lap and shook his head. I placed the palms of my hands on his shoulders. “Please, just tell me!” He wrapped his hands around his knees and buried his head between his legs. I felt a knot of guilt form in my belly. My knees buckled, and I almost doubled over. I stopped to check myself and took in a gulp of air. Adrenaline rushed through me, washing the guilt away with each additional gasp of air. I let go of Thomas, shook my head, and went down to the garage to load his special chair into the van.

When we arrived at the town square we were immediately escorted to the front row of the crowd. I had no way of knowing if this was to accommodate his wheelchair, based on one of the favors he called in, or simply due to his upstanding status in the community. I turned to him, and he moved just enough to glance at me out of the corner of his eye. The tip of his tongue protruded and attempted to moisten his lips, so I grabbed his water bottle and helped him place the straw in his mouth. It took a great effort on his part to suck in a little of the liquid. In spite of his wheezing, the drink seemed to revitalize him, and he made eye contact with me. There was a softness to his eyes, which I interpreted to mean he appreciated me. Gooseflesh pebbled my arms; delight billowed in my heart; and the last of my resentment vanished. I suspected this day would not end well, and I was willing to accept whatever consequences may come our way, with no regrets.

The mayor, Braulia Rodrigues, was about to open the capsule when a black SUV with tinted windows pulled onto the courtyard and slammed on its brakes a few feet from the mayor. Two burly men emerged, automatic weapons in hand, dressed in military garb, and took positions on either side of the vehicle. A loud gasp erupted from the crowd and the press drones buzzed with activity. The mayor’s mouth formed a circle as she touched her hand to her face and retreated several paces, and I realized the military escort was not an invited guest to the ceremony.

A third soldier, a tall woman in a dress uniform, stepped out of the SUV, walked up to the mayor and introduced herself. “I am General Nia Abara, ma’am, and I apologize for disrupting your ceremony.” She handed Mayor Rodrigues her credentials. “I am here under the direct orders of the President of the United States.” I noticed the four stars on her shoulder, and remembered the five stars on Thomas’ uniform, which hung fresh and crisp in his closet, the uniform I sent to be cleaned twice a year, even though Thomas hadn’t worn it in decades.

Thomas took a deep breath and touched a button on the arm of his wheelchair. The wheelchair purred as it extended itself up to its full height, making Thomas appear to be standing. His blanket fell to the cement, revealing his spindly legs, a minor detail to which he paid no notice. He turned slightly towards the mayor, keeping eye contact with Abara. “Madam Mayor, would you be so kind as to introduce me?”

The mayor’s posture straightened, and she gestured as she spoke. “This is General Thomas.”

I noticed the slightest muscle beat in General Abara’s jaw, from which she quickly recovered, and saluted. “I am honored, sir; your accomplishments were required reading at the academy.” The edges of her lips twisted momentarily, then managed to produce a wry smile. “I am surprised to see you here. I thought perhaps you might be resting, given your age and medical condition.”

With massive effort, Thomas straightened his spine as best he could, and waited for several moments before returning the salute. “At ease, soldier.” General Abara’s face screwed into a scowl, her shoulder muscles locked, and she sat down on a chair which had been placed near her by one of the mayor’s attendants. “What is your business here?” Thomas demanded.

Her jaw protruded forward. “There is a small item in the time capsule. My orders are to retrieve it,” she said.

The dignitaries sitting closest to the center of the square were turning to one another, talking in low tones, and the townspeople sitting further away had gone silent. It didn’t seem to be a comfortable silence: the muscles in my shoulders tightened; and I was relieved when Thomas spoke.

“Well then,” Thomas turned slightly to the mayor, “let’s proceed.” Still visibly shaken, Rodrigues nodded, hoisted the edges of her mouth into a smile, and spoke into the microphone, announcing she would open the capsule. One by one she removed the contents, held them up for all to see, and described them: pictures drawn by Kindergarteners who were likely dead due to the one hundred years that had passed, several hardback first edition books by authors I had never heard of: Novik, Owen, McCaffrey, Paolini, Walton; letters written on archival paper enclosed in plastic; and several other items, which were, in my view, equally unimpressive. Finally, at the bottom of the capsule, with a surprised look, she brought out an item wrapped in translucent silk, turned to her assistant and whispered, “this was not on the list.”

General Abara stood up and the features on her face drew tight as she held out her hand. Her words surged forth, precise and demanding. “That item belongs to the United States Government.” The two soldiers raised their automatic weapons and took one step closer to their commander. General Abara’s eyes darkened and her face was serious. “Ma’am,” she demanded. The mayor did not let go of the bundle as she looked it over and glanced up at Thomas, as if to ask him what to do.

Sitting so close to Thomas, I could see a small amount of spittle when he spoke, and I resisted the urge to reach over and wipe his mouth. “I can’t allow it,” he said. I saw his long fingers starting to punch in codes on a small device affixed to the arm of his wheelchair, and I heard an almost imperceptible click. Out of the corner of my eyes I saw movement from the nearby press drones, a flash of light, and suddenly the two soldiers brandishing weapons collapsed onto the concrete, darts sticking out of their necks.

The crowd gasped, and I felt a slight tingle in the center of my spine. As the sensation slowly traveled up my back, I was unable to determine if it was excitement or fear. That Thomas’ network of favors extended to gaining the ability to hack a series of press drones did not surprise me. That it reached far enough into the military-industrial complex to allow for the installation of military-grade poison darts to said drones, did.

“I do not wish to incapacitate you as well, General. Stand down. Now.” Thomas’ words were not loud, but clear and commanding.

General Abara bit her lip and her hand started to edge toward her sidearm. But she must have thought better of it, because she turned to face Thomas instead. “General, if you take possession of the egg, against my orders, there will be serious consequences.”

When Abara said the word “egg,” I leaned forward to see the bundle more clearly, and imagined a decent sized egg hidden beneath the silk. I noticed the way the orange translucence of the silk contrasted with the blue of the sky as the mayor held it up, and I turned my attention to the conflict erupting between Abara and Thomas. I noticed Thomas’ lips tighten, and his eyes widen. He said “I outrank you, General.”

“You are retired, General, and have no authority here, as you know fully well.” The ridge of her back went straight, her eyebrows folded down, and she lowered her voice. “I’m trying to show you respect among your townspeople, sir, but I cannot allow you to take possession of the package.”

Thomas matched General Abara’s softer tone. “Nia, I must protect the sovereignty of the being. It may be the last of its kind, and I will not allow the government to experiment on it. It must be set free.”

General Abara reached for her sidearm, but Thomas was quicker. Just as she succeeded in getting her pistol out of her holster, the dart from the nearest drone hit her in the neck and she collapsed, her mouth open. Whatever she planned on saying, was left unsaid.

Madame Mayor shuddered at the sight and quickly handed the precious bundle to Thomas, as the crowd froze into a deadly silence. With great care, he opened the silk wrapping, closed his eyes, and cupped the brown-and-purple-spotted egg in his hands for several minutes, then held it close to his heart, providing it his warmth, and I suspect, his love. I heard a cracking sound, and Thomas held the egg up as high as he could, gasping at the effort. The crowd watched, captivated by the sight, until a small creature emerged and unfolded itself, shaking its head. It extended a pair of leathery wings, and leisurely licked them clean. The scales on its flank and tail glimmered in the sun. It opened its mouth and showed its sharp teeth, and for a moment I thought it was going to speak. Instead, it coughed, and a small cloud of smoke emerged. It shook its head again, turned to gaze at Thomas, and I imagined I saw intelligence in its large vertically pupiled eyes. It nodded its head, snorted, then extended its wings to the peak of their span. Then in the blink of an eye it leaped from Thomas’ hands, flapped its wings and flew in spirals higher and higher overhead.

I felt a sheen of sweat form at the back of my neck, and my legs threatened to give way. I turned to Thomas just as the last of his energy left him and he collapsed onto his knees, his back bent forward. As I felt my hands reaching toward him, I heard a cracking sound. His suit coat and pressed white shirt was pulled away and a fissure formed along his curved back. I pulled my hands away as the fissure deepened and a black gooey substance emerged and spread along his arms, and slowly grew into a pair of leathery wings. What was left of his white chalky skin flapped unused and unimportant.

Bile rose slowly from my stomach and I fought off the urge to vomit. His neck grew sparkly scales as it snaked upward to a repulsive length. His nose became disfigured as his face stretched outward, his mouth becoming a horrid thing, and I heard a popping sound as each pointy tooth emerged. Scales formed on his spindly legs as they merged into a long tail, and new legs sprouted from his chest and belly. There was a sharp sound as his newly formed claws struck the concrete. He turned to me, fully transformed, and I looked deeply into the vertical pupils of his eyes, and called his name “Draco.” He had always hated being called by his first name, but it seemed appropriate today. If he heard me, he gave no notice.

He turned his head upward and made several clicking sounds, which were repeated by the newly hatched baby. With one wing he flipped his wheelchair out of the way, opened his wings to their full length, and ran along the square, people hurrying out of the way, until he gained enough momentum to take to flight. Once in the air, he flew in a wide circle around the town square, and I called after him “Draco, Draco.” I watched for several minutes until he and his offspring became little dots in the distance. I imagined that when he came to his senses, he would remember that in fact he loved me. I would wait each evening on the balcony where we used to sit. One day he would fly up to me, and I would climb onto his back. He would carry me higher and higher, into his magical dragon mountains, and he would ask his little dragon baby to call me “daddy.”

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2 Responses to “Precious Package”

  1. Delores Phillips Says:

    Thankyou ,Greg. The story really pulled me in, such a great mystery. Good Luck!

  2. Marianne Nooney-Buford Says:

    Awesome story brother!!!!

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