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The Dragon Queen of the Suffix County Public Library

Barbara A. Barnett is a writer, musician, Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, coffee addict, wine lover, and all-around geek. In addition to previous appearances in Daily Science Fiction, her short stories have been published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Cast of Wonders, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere. She has spent most of her non-writing life working for performing arts organizations, most recently as an orchestra librarian. Barbara lurks about the Philadelphia area, where she lives with her husband and a pantsless stuffed monkey named Super Great. You can find her online at babarnett.com.

Dara the Library Director sprouted the first scale during our weekly staff meeting, after I suggested a change to the Staff Favorites book display. We all tried not to notice, the way you try not to notice a pimple on the tip of someone's nose--you force your gaze away, but the damn thing keeps drawing your eye. Thick, leathery, mottled green and tapered to a sharp point, the scale was at least the size of a quarter and right on the side of Dara's neck.
"Are you feeling all right?" I asked, inching my chair away. But with the entire library staff crammed around a stale-coffee-scented conference table, one could only move so far.
Dara let out a growl-like sigh. "No, I am not all right." Her beady eyes looked like two black, simmering pinpricks. "I am upset at the disrespect I am constantly getting around here."
Disrespect? Because I thought the Staff Favorites display should include more than just her favorites? The week before it was because I had concerns about her "fun" idea to make patrons answer riddles before they could request an interlibrary loan. Not that she should have been worrying about either of those things with a major grant deadline looming. I was beginning to think I should change the title on my business card: Keiko Knight, Assistant Library Director and Handler of the Director's Irrational Flake-outs.
I pointed at Dara's neck. "I meant the... your... you have--" Was it rude to tell your boss she was growing scales? She'd look in the mirror eventually, right, figure it out on her own? Hell, she'd only been with us a month; maybe this was normal. "You have--"
Dara held up a hand. "If no one liked the display, they should have said something earlier."
"I did say something earlier." More frustration than was wise crept into my tone, but we'd had this conversation already. Like, three times.
With a meek raise of her hand, Courtney the Intern made a squeaking sound that resembled the words, "Me too."
Even Tiffany from Technical Services looked up from her phone long enough to chime in. "Ditto."
Dara growled. A full-on rumble-through-the-floor, feral-beast-style growl. "So this is how the coup begins? This is how you challenge my authority?"
"Nobody's staging a coup." I used the kind of tone I'd normally reserve for a child throwing a tantrum. "The staff just thinks the display should maybe have a little more variety. Game of Thrones and The Hobbit are both great choices and all, but--"
Another scale sprouted from Dara's neck with a wet, slithery pop. "Coup," she muttered, then stomped out of the conference room.
Tiffany nodded after her. "Did she finally shit that brick out of her ass?"
"Either the brick," I said, eyeing the odd lump in the seat of Dara's pants, "or she's growing a tail."
Dara was indeed growing a tail.
The day after the staff meeting, while Dara was rearranging the circulation line into a stanchion-riddled, labyrinthian nightmare, the tail tore through her slacks, rending the fabric with a sharp, loud rip. The scabrous little stub was the same green as her scales--she'd grown a few dozen more of those--and thinned to a spiked point.
Like the scales, we all tried not to notice. Besides, I was too busy handling the budget report Dara had forgotten about. I didn't have time to deal with her weird-ass skin condition. But when I came back from lunch to find the custodian cleaning blood from the carpet--well, there was no ignoring that.
"Dara bit a patron," Tiffany said. "Courtney threatened to call the police, so the Dragon Queen called her a little bitch and dragged her into her office and everyone's too scared to go in there." She held up her phone. "I recorded the whole thing, wanna see?"
I waved her off and pushed through the double doors marked "staff only." Dara's office stood at the end of a short corridor, flanked by cubicles. Even with the carpet absorbing my footfalls, I couldn't shake the feeling of walking toward the darkened mouth of a cave. An overturned book cart outside Dara's door took on the semblance of skeletal remains, some poor beast picked clean. I grasped the door handle, swallowed hard, and opened it.
A blast of hot, stale air hit me. I gasped--partially from the heat, but more from the sight of Dara curled up on her desk. She was fully covered in scales now, fleshy wings tucked behind her, serpentine tail lashing about. Books had been spread around her desk, piled high like a treasure hoard. And in the far back corner of the office, Courtney the Intern cowered.
"Keiko!" Courtney said, starting toward me. "Oh, thank god you--"
With a rustle of scales and a sound like a sputtering blowtorch, Dara belched flame across Courtney's path, forcing her to leap back. That sent my heart into marathon-running mode. Dara breathed fire now?
I took a cautious step forward. "I heard about what happened, Dara, and, well--you know you can't bite the patrons, right?"
"He's not a patron." Dara's voice had always been on the deep side, but now it was full-on basso profundo. "He's a homeless man who only comes in here to wash himself in the restroom."
"You still can't bite him. We're here to serve the public, and that includes the homeless."
Dara rose onto all fours, sending books cascading to the floor. "I don't have to answer to the public!"
"Actually, as the director of a public library, that's exactly what you have to do."
Dara unfurled her black-veined wings. "I am the director and I will do as I like!"
That did it. This woman was clearly more interested in throwing her title around than doing the job that came with it.
"Here's the deal," I said, a tight little ball of anger knotting in my stomach, "you're going to let Courtney walk out of here with me, or I'm going to file a complaint with the Board of Directors."
Dara turned toward Courtney with a maniacal chortle. "I think not." She ran her tongue--forked now, because of course it was--over her teeth. "This one is going to join me for lunch."
Holy friggin' Donner party, she was going to eat the intern. That did it. I snatched a copy of Beowulf from Dara's hoard and flung it across the office. While she leapt after the book with a growl, I grabbed Courtney's arm.
We dashed out of the office, narrowly avoiding the flames Dara sent spewing after us. We pushed through the double doors into the main library, where the rest of the staff converged on us with a flurry of questions. I ignored them and made a beeline for Dara's Staff Favorites display. One hard kick and it toppled to the floor in an avalanche of books and poster board. I grabbed the wooden easel, snapped off one of its legs, and touched a finger to the sharp, splintered tip.
"What are you doing?" Courtney asked.
"Changing the title on my business card." I hefted my makeshift spear and strode back toward Dara's office. "Keiko Knight, Assistant Library Director and Slayer of Dragons."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 24th, 2020

Author Comments

Someone told me during a rather bizarre disagreement that people in her position "all have a dragon that sleeps inside us." My first thought: she'd been watching way too much Game of Thrones. My second thought: I needed to write a story where someone in a similar situation literally turns into a dragon.

This story was originally much longer, but that version wasn't quite working. After someone suggested the story was too long for what it was trying to do, I set myself a challenge: turn a 5,500-word story into a flash piece. What's been published here is the result of that challenge, so I think I can declare it a successful experiment.

- Barbara A. Barnett
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