PodCastle 784: La Vitesse
By Kelly Robson
March 2, 1983, 30 kilometers southwest of Hinton, Alberta
“Rosie,” Bea said under her breath, but the old school bus’s wheels were rumbling over gravel, and her daughter didn’t hear. Rosie was slumped in the shotgun seat, eyes closed. She hadn’t moved since Bea had herded her onto La Vitesse at six-fifteen that morning. She wasn’t asleep though. A mother could always tell.
Bea raised her voice to a stage whisper. “Rosie, we got a problem.”
Still no reaction.
“Rosie. Rosie. Rosie.”
Bea snatched one of her gloves off the bus’s dashboard and tossed it. Not at her kid — never at her kid; it bounced off the window and landed in Rosie’s lap.
“Mom. I’m sleeping.” Big scary scowl. Bea hadn’t seen her kid smile since she’d turned fourteen.
“There’s a dragon right behind us,” she said silently, mouthing the words. None of the other kids had noticed, and Bea wanted to keep it that way.
Rosie rolled her eyes. “I don’t read lips.”
“A dragon,” she whispered. “Following us.”
“No way.” Rosie bolted upright. She twisted in her seat and looked back through the central aisle, past the kids in their snowsuits and toques. “I can’t see it.”
The rear window was brown with dirty, frozen slush. Thank god. If the kids saw the dragon, they’d be screaming.
“Come here and look.”
Rosie crawled out of her seat and leaned over her mother, hanging tight to the grab bar behind Bea’s head. Her too-tight black parka carried a whiff of cigarettes.
Bea flipped open her window and adjusted the side-view mirror for Rosie. Behind the bus, a long, matte-black wing beat the air in a furious rhythm. The pale winter sun glinted on the silver scales that marked the wing’s fore-edge.
“Wow,” Rosie said, her voice so low it was almost a growl.
Bea stepped on the gas. La Vitesse surged ahead, revealing the dragon’s broad chest, rippling with flexed muscles. It lifted its taloned forelegs as if reaching for the bus, and showed them the barest glimpse of a lissome neck and triangular, snake-like head before it caught up to the bus and disappeared into the mirror’s blind spot.
Rosie pushed her ragged bangs out of her eyes and leaned closer to the mirror.
“No fire. Why isn’t it trying to roast us?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s breathing too hard,” Bea said. “But honey, you got to help me. Herd the kids into the front seats. Pack them in tight.”
Rosie wasn’t listening, though. She stared at the mirror, transfixed, watching the dragon’s wing flexing from hooked tip to thick shoulder.
“Rose, please.” Bea slapped the wheel with both hands. “Get the kids up front.”
“Yeah, okay.” Rosie straightened, then leaned over her mother again for one last look.
Even Bea had to admit her kid looked scary, especially lately, with her death metal T-shirts and her angry slouch. Not yet sixteen, but so big and tall she looked twenty. Add all that to the black eyeliner Rosie melted with a match and applied smoldering, and the spiky haircut she’d given herself in grade ten and kept short with Bea’s only pair of good scissors, and yeah, Bea could understand why other mothers gave her hell for letting her kid look so rough.
Bea couldn’t do anything about it. Rosie had always been more trouble than Bea could handle. But as long as she came home on the bus with Bea every day, nothing else mattered.
But Bea didn’t like the way her daughter looked at the dragon. She wasn’t scared, not even a bit. Maybe she was even glad to see it.
Bea drove the longest and most remote bus route in the school district. Starting at her trailer south of Cadomin, she headed north and picked up kids along the Forestry Trunk Road all the way past Luscar and the Cardinal River coal mine, then turned east on the Yellowhead Highway, and hauled the kids through town to drop them off at all three schools.
The round trip took five hours — two and a half each way. La Vitesse was a fast bus with a big V8 engine but Bea drove slow. She had to. The Forestry Trunk Road was gravel, heavily corrugated with washboard created by runoff from the surrounding mountains. The soft shoulders on either side of the gravel road could easily pull a vehicle into the ditch or off a cliff, and moose lurked around every corner — often right in the middle of the road. Bea had seen what hitting a big bull moose could do to a bus, and she didn’t want anything to do with it.
So Bea drove slow. She was kind, too. School bus drivers were allowed to leave kids behind if they weren’t outside on time, waiting by the road, but Bea never did. Bears were common fall and spring, and cougars hunted year-round. A kid waiting for the bus made a nice warm snack.
And lately, Bea worried about dragons, too.
Rosie herded the kids into the front rows, three and four to a seat. Too rough: Rosie was always too rough with other kids, but it didn’t matter now.
“We’re playing a game,” Bea sang out in her best sunny voice and smiled into the rear-view mirror. “Let’s see how fast La Vitesse can stop. I’ll honk my horn ten times. You all count with me. On the tenth honk, I’ll hit the brakes. Everyone hang on tight. Brace yourselves, okay?”
In the rear-view, hoods and toques framed twenty pairs of big, scared eyes. They knew something was wrong. Kids always did.
“It’ll be fun,” she said, smiling wider. “Ready?”
The kids counted along as she honked. She hoped the horn might drive the dragon off, but she’d already tried that and it hadn’t worked.
On the tenth honk, they were on a good flat straight-away. Decent gravel, no pot holes or washboard. Shallow ditches on either side, lined with slender young spruce. If La Vitesse skidded off the road they’d be okay. The bus would stick though, Bea had faith.
When she slammed on the brakes, one kid screamed. Several whimpered. The dragon hit the back of the bus with a hollow thunk. La Vitesse skidded but stayed square in the middle of the road. Bea shifted to first gear and slammed the gas. La Vitesse’s engine roared, then screamed. Bea let the revs build and shifted to second, her foot flat on the floor.
In the side-view, the dragon lay crumpled on the gravel, wings canted like a broken tent.
Bea held her breath, flicking her gaze from road to mirror to road. Dead, she hoped. Let it be dead.
The dragon lifted its head and yawned. A tongue of blue flame licked from between its fangs. It clawed the gravel with the hinges of its wings and staggered to its feet. In the early morning light, its eyes sparked a keen and murderous ice-white.
Bea had seen the first dragon in 1981, two years back, when she was bringing home a bus full of soccer players after a tournament in Jasper.
She’d been cruising east along the Athabasca River, heading toward the Jasper park gates. The sunset light turned the mountains mellow orange, and the trees threw long, spear-shaped shadows across the highway. La Vitesse’s speedometer was two fingers below the speed limit. The wheels hummed on the gently curving highway. Bea was thinking about making barbeque ribs for Sunday supper when she spotted the dragon perched on the massive cliff-edge of Roche Miette.
On the mountain high above the highway, the dragon’s red scales gleamed bloody in the sun. It stretched its wings and beat them once, then pointed its narrow head at the highway below. It dropped off the cliff, kited low, and disappeared behind the trees.
When La Vitesse rounded the curve, the red dragon hunched spread-winged atop the dynamite-blasted rock face where mountain met highway, a bighorn sheep clamped in its jaws.
“Look,” Bea squeaked. But the kids were making too much noise to hear. She floored the gas and watched the dragon recede in the rear-view mirror. If she busted the speed limit all the way home, nobody noticed.
Twenty kids, and Rosie made twenty-one. The youngest not yet six, and Rosie the oldest at nearly sixteen. More than half of them were crying.
“Brake check all done!” Bea’s voice was high with tension. She hunched in her seat and twisted from side to side, scanning the sky through the side-view mirrors. “The brakes are fine! La Vitesse is a good bus.”
She patted the dashboard like it was a horse.
“Mom. They heard it hit us,” Rosie growled. “Fucking tell them.”
“A moose ran up the ditch,” Bea said. “Gave us a little knock on the bum but we’re fine.”
The kids wailed louder. Tony Lalonde yanked his toque down over his eyes and howled.
“The moose is fine, too,” Bea insisted. “Everything’s okay.”
But it wasn’t okay. The dragon wasn’t hurt. It flew a dozen car lengths behind, wings beating hard, mouth gaping. On every downstroke, that blue flame licked the road. Was it hot enough to melt her tires? Probably. She couldn’t afford to find out.
Behind her, Rosie stood in the aisle, surfing the bumps. When the dragon tore the emergency exit off its hinges and lunged up the aisle, Rosie would be its first victim. It would rip her daughter’s head off and slaughter the kids one by one while Bea sat behind the wheel. She had to think of something.
“Rosie, honey,” she said in the sweetest voice she could muster. “Come and drive the bus.”
When Bea reported the red dragon to the Hinton RCMP, the Mountie at the front desk had just smiled.
“Imagination goes wild in the mountains,” he said. “I had a coal miner in here the other day saying a giant black cat was lurking around his dragline.”
“Yeah, okay, but have you been to Jasper lately?” Bea asked. “You know the bighorn sheep along the highway? The ones that graze under Roche Miette? They’re gone. All of them.”
The Mountie smirked. “Last summer a bunch of campers said they saw a Bigfoot at Jarvis Lake.”
Bea gave up. He was from Toronto. What did he know? Nothing.
Bea and her family weren’t coal miners and they sure weren’t campers. The mountains weren’t terra incognita to her. She’d been born in the bush, like her parents, and their parents and so on back all the generations. Her ancestors lived in Jasper before it was a park, until they were kicked out and resettled in Cadomin. Those Rocky Mountain ranges were her true home, so when Bea said she saw a dragon, she saw it. No matter what some Mountie said.
“You want me to drive La Vitesse?” Rosie said. “Are you fucking kidding?”
From the back of the bus came a high-pitched rasping sound, like metal on metal, and if Bea had been unsure, she wasn’t any longer.
“I’m not kidding. Take the wheel, please.”
They exchanged positions awkwardly. Bea’s ample hips didn’t leave much room, but Rosie slid in behind her. What mattered most — after staying on the road — was keeping pressure on the gas pedal. Bea hung from the grab rail and stretched to keep her toe on the pedal, like a swimmer testing the water.
“Let go, let go, I got it.” Rosie dug her shoulder into her mother’s hip, hard.
“Okay, honey. Keep it above fifty, even on the curves. Floor it on the straightaways. And if you see anyone coming, lean on the horn and don’t let up.” Bea grabbed the fire extinguisher from the stepwell. When she stood, Joan Cardinal glared at her from under her glossy black bangs.
“I’m going to tell on you,” Joan said, fully thirteen and fierce.
“That’s okay, honey. You do that.” Bea cradled the fire extinguisher like a baby.
“Let’s play another game. Here are the rules. Everybody stay in your seat. Don’t get up. Hold tight to your seat buddies, stay quiet, and do everything I say. If you do, we’ll stop at Dairy Queen on the last day before Easter break. My treat.”
Every kid’s mouth dropped open. Ice cream was the bus driver’s secret weapon.
“Sundaes or cones?” asked Sylvana Lachance, ten years old and already a master of negotiation.
“That depends on how good you are.” Bea gave them a big motherly smile. “Now take off your snowsuits.”
Rosie only had her learner’s license but she’d been driving since she was ten. Out in the bush, all kids drove early. She’d learned on Bea’s rusty Chevy Blazer, a four-speed with a sticky clutch, and had been driving it with confidence for years. Maybe the Blazer was nothing like La Vitesse, but Bea had no choice. She couldn’t do anything about the dragon while stuck in the driver’s seat.
Bea knelt in the aisle and stuffed her own parka inside Michelle Arsenault’s tiny pink snowsuit, then padded the legs and arms with all the toques and scarves within reach.
“Who’s got meat in their lunch today? Anyone?” The kids shrank in their seats. “If you’ve got it, I want it.”
Blair Tocher threw her his lunch bag. Bea ripped it open and tore through the plastic wrap with her fingernails. Peanut butter, that was fine. All animals liked that, right? She smeared the insides of the sandwich all over the snowsuit.
“Nobody’s got baloney for lunch? Sausage? Spam?” She tried to sound normal, but her voice was high and shrill.
“Give her your lunches,” came a growl from the driver’s seat, where Rosie hunched over the wheel. “Do it or I’ll take us into the ditch.”
Bags rained on Bea’s head. Pork sausage on thick homemade bread with mustard and a lick of golden syrup — that would be Manon Laroche’s grandkids. Baloney and cheese on brown — could be anyone’s. Cookies, apples, celery with Cheez Whiz, those all went inside. The meat she smeared on the outside, grinding the greasy dregs into the snowsuit’s knit cuffs and fuzzy hood.
“Okay,” Bea said. She hefted the snowsuit in one arm and grabbed the fire extinguisher with her other hand. Then La Vitesse hit a pothole and the whole world spun around her.
“Try steering around them, Rose,” Bea called from the floor.
“We got a logging truck coming.” Rosie’s voice was strangely deep.
“The horn. Hit the horn, honey!” Bea scrambled up the aisle on all fours. “He’s got a radio, he’ll call for help.”
She waved her arms as Rosie blasted the horn. High in the truck’s cab, a man in a trucker hat and stubble. Sunglasses though it wasn’t even full light yet. One hand on the wheel with fingers raised in a lazy wave while the other hand brought a white styrofoam coffee cup to his lips for a sip. The truck flashed by.
“Did it work?” Rosie asked.
Bea ran to the first empty row and dived for the side window. She pressed her forehead against the cold glass and watched the truck disappear around a curve.
“No,” Bea said. “He wasn’t looking.”
She limped up the aisle.
“I didn’t turn on the hazard lights.” She reached around her daughter and flicked on the hazards. She hit the warning lights too, the big orange traffic flashers front and back. Then she turned to the kids and took a deep breath.
On her left and right, all twenty kids, their precious little upturned faces. Tear-stained. Some contorted in fear. Most blank with shock. Her fault. She’d failed them all.
“It’s a dragon,” she said. “A big one.”
Hinton didn’t have a real library. Technically, the high-school library was open to the public during school hours, but the librarian had ideas about the kinds of people who should be allowed to walk through the door. And in grade eleven, Bea had been banned. That might be sixteen years ago but as far as she knew, she was still banned.
Still, Bea needed information and the library was the only place to get it.
After talking to the Mountie, she’d parked her bus at the hockey arena and walked over the playing fields toward the high school. Across the road, the pulp mill’s stink-stacks belched rotten-egg vapor that drifted over the high school in a yellow haze.
She slipped into the library, walked softly to the reference shelf on the back wall, and pulled out Encyclopedia Britannica Volume D. The entry on dragons was subtitled “mythological creature.” She examined the illustrations. Clearly her dragon was the European type. Its snaky head and batlike wings matched the picture.
In European myth, it said, dragons terrorized entire valleys. After eating all the sheep, they’d start eating children.
Sheep. The sheep in the picture were fairy-tale versions, white and fluffy — nothing like bighorn sheep, with their sleek brown fur and curling horns. But the sheep under Roche Miette were gone. Did that mean the children were next?
Bea slammed the encyclopedia closed. Mrs. English watched her over the edge of her reading glasses.
“You’re not allowed in here,” she said. “You’re banned.”
Bea slipped the book back on the shelf and padded toward the door, keeping her eyes low.
“High school was a long time ago,” she said softly as she passed the check-out desk.
“Not for me,” the librarian snarled. “Don’t come back.”
Bea stood on a bus seat, reached high, and yanked open the rooftop safety hatch. It popped up easily — Bea kept the hinges well oiled. She steadied herself with one hand on the hatch’s open edge and put her foot on the seatback, holding the greasy stuffed-and-smeared snowsuit between her teeth. With both hands, she shoved the hatch fully open.
Still awkward, but steadier now as she poked her head and shoulders through. Her hair whipped her face.
The dragon kited behind the bus. It scrabbled at the roof with its forelegs, raking its talons along the metal, looking for purchase. It lost its grip and fell behind, twisted in the air, then extended its long neck and beat its wings hard to catch up again.
All along the roof, long shiny marks gashed the paint and road dust. It was only a matter of time before it hooked a talon into La Vitesse.
Bea yanked the stuffed snowsuit through the hatch.
“Here,” she yelled. “Do you want dinner?” She held the snowsuit by its waist and danced it, the arms and legs flopping. She pitched it at the dragon, then grabbed the hatch handles and slammed the hatch closed.
“Floor it, Rosie,” she yelled.
But La Vitesse was already moving fast, and the highway intersection was on the horizon. No choice, they had to turn.
Bea lunged up the aisle.
“Slow down, honey! You won’t make the turn.”
“It didn’t work.” Rosie had her eyes on the side mirror. She wasn’t even watching the road.
“Slow down now!”
Bea grabbed Rosie’s shoulder and tried to pull her from the seat. The bus swerved. Rosie hunched over the wheel, gripping it with both hands, knuckles white, her whole body tense.
“Get out of the seat.” Bea’s voice rose, high and shrill. “Rosie, get out now.”
A ripping sound of nails on metal. A gash of sunlight appeared in the ceiling over the left rear seat.
“That’s a problem,” Rosie said in a low, ominous voice.
“Slow down or we’ll flip,” Bea pleaded.
Rosie nudged the speed down a little. Bea grabbed two armfuls of kids from the seats behind Rosie and pushed them into the seats opposite.
“Everyone on the right side.” No time to be gentle. She grabbed arms and shoulders — whatever she could get a grip on, and then leaned in, pressing a seat full of the littlest kids under her belly. “Hold tight.”
A popping sound. Bea twisted to look. Just above the smeared rear window, three talons punctured the bus’s roof. The window itself was dark. The dragon hung from the back of the bus.
“Sundaes,” Bea shouted. “If we make this turn, I’ll buy you all sundaes.”
“Hot fudge,” Rosie said, and swung the wheel.
When she was a teenager, Bea took books from the high-school library. Not often. Not every book. Just the good ones. But it wasn’t stealing, not at first. When she started, she’d bring the books back. That’s how she got caught.
First day of grade eleven, she was returning the books she’d taken home for the summer. Her plan was to slip them onto a shelf in the morning, make herself scarce, then sneak back in the afternoon like she’d never been there. But the load was too heavy. The books tore through the paper bag and spilled across the library linoleum, right in front of Mrs. English.
In the vice principal’s office, Bea kept her eyes hooded and looked at the floor. Never confront them, that was the survival strategy. It’s what her grandpa did when hunters crossed the ridge where he set up his sweat lodge. It’s what her mother did when the grocery-store manager followed her through the aisles. Eyes down, calm breaths, wait for them to lose interest.
Getting banned only kept her out of the library for a week. Mrs. English wasn’t always watching. The student volunteers didn’t care, and best of all, nobody else seemed to know what Bea knew. To steal a library book, all you had to do was sandwich it between two other books, say a binder and a math textbook, and hold the stack horizontal as you walked through the exit door. Held flat, the magnetic strip wouldn’t set off the detector.
So Bea still had all the books she wanted, even though Hinton had no place to buy them but the drugstore’s rack of boring bestsellers. She stocked up. After getting roasted by Mrs. English and the vice principal, she felt absolutely fine about it.
La Vitesse’s rear wheels screeched as they skidded sideways over the gravel-coated asphalt at the Forestry Trunk Road intersection. One rear wheel parted from the ground. The chassis shivered like it was Bea’s own flesh.
She clung to the seatbacks with her nails and wrapped her sneaker-clad foot around a seat strut. Under her belly, she pressed the littlest kids hard into their seat. As La Vitesse fishtailed, the dragon’s claws ripped through the roof — four jagged rents lengthening in a clockwise curve as the dragon swung like a pendulum. A wing slapped the left rear windows, once, twice. A foot scrabbled at the glass, talons clacking in rapid staccato.
Warm wet spread across the thigh of Bea’s jeans. One of the little kids was peeing himself. The dragon hung from the bus’s side, talon tips hooked into the window seals. Its head whipped back and forth like a flag, bashing La Vitesse’s side windows.
Under Bea, Tony Lalonde wailed. But if he could cry, he could breathe, and that was all that mattered to Bea.
The bus fishtailed onto the highway, spun across two wide eastbound lanes, and spat gravel across the median. The dragon’s maw opened in a scream, but instead of sound — a lick of blue fire, transparent, like the propane flame from Bea’s camp stove. Then it lost its grip and fell. One talon dangled from the window, smearing ashy gore from its root.
Bea plunged up the aisle and scrabbled at her daughter’s shoulders.
“Out of my seat, now,” she demanded.
“This is almost over.” Under the caked eyeliner, Rosie’s narrowed gaze was flinty. “Take care of the kids. They hate me.”
“That’s okay. I hate them, too.”
No use. Bea had never been able to stand up to her daughter. But Rosie wasn’t wrong. It was almost over. She turned to face the huddled kids.
“We’re going to be fine.” She gave them her best motherly smile. “Rose will drive us to the RCMP station. Five minutes.”
Those little tear-streaked faces just about broke her heart. Theresa Lalonde held tight to her little brother. He sobbed into his big sister’s sweater. Bea stooped over them.
“Did I hurt you, Tony? I’m so sorry.”
“This is your fault,” Theresa said. And she wasn’t wrong. Bea had known about the dragons for months, and what had she done? Nothing.
“It’s okay. Someone will rescue us,” she said, but she knew it wasn’t true.
Encyclopedia Britannica Volume D was the first book Bea had stolen in sixteen years. She hadn’t lost her touch. All she had to do was wait for Mrs. English’s smoke break. The teenage girls behind the check-out desk didn’t look up when Bea walked in, or when she took the volume off the reference shelf. Bea walked through the anti-theft gate, the heavy book held flat at stomach-level.
The book fit perfectly over La Vitesse’s steering wheel. Bea read through the Dragon entry twice to make sure she hadn’t missed anything, but there wasn’t much. European dragons were voracious. They slaughtered, consumed, and laid waste to the land until finally stopped by a great hero.
Bea had lived all her life in the bush, but she knew this much about the world: Heroes were more mythical than dragons. They simply didn’t exist.
“Slow down, honey,” Bea said. “Turn on Switzer.”
La Vitesse shuddered. Rosie had the gas pedal flat on the floor. They’d be in the RCMP parking lot in minutes. But first, they had to take a sharp right onto Switzer Drive.
“I said slow down,” Bea repeated.
Rosie didn’t slow.
“What are you doing?” Bea screeched as they blew through the intersection.
“Do you want it to grab us again?” Rosie said.
Rosie flipped the latch on the driver’s-side window, stuck her hand out and pointed the mirror at the sky behind them. The dragon was still following, ten lengths behind and high above the highway.
“We’ve got lots of room,” Bea pleaded. She gripped her daughter’s shoulder and pointed at the last access point to the service road, coming up fast on their right. “Slow down and turn.”
Rosie shrugged off her mother’s hand. “Too late now.”
Tears sprung to Bea’s eyes. “Rosie, baby. You can’t do this.”
The rest of the highway was a straight shot through Edson and on to Edmonton. Three-and-a-half hours of bush. But Hinton had service roads lining either side of the highway, busy with gas stations and strip malls. Not much traffic this early in the morning, but someone must have spotted the dragon by now. They were probably already running to a pay phone.
Bea raced to the back of the bus. The glass was clearer now, its coat of grime smeared thin by the dragon’s swinging body. A little red Datsun chugged along in the right lane. Bea caught a glimpse of the driver’s shocked expression, their mouth open in a perfect O as La Vitesse roared past.
High above the highway, the dragon folded its wings. It seemed to hover in the air. Then it dropped toward the tiny car like a torpedo.
It hit with all fours like a pouncing cat, talons puncturing the flimsy fiberglass roof. The car swerved through the median and plunged across the oncoming lanes. The dragon rode the car like a rodeo cowboy, legs flexing, wings slapping the air as if it could lift the car right off the road.
“Brake, brake,” Bea whispered. “Throw it — oh, no.”
Hinton’s Husky station was the biggest in town, impossible to miss with the massive Canada flag snapping above. Big diesel pumps for the semis, four banks of regular pumps for the summer tourist traffic. And the Datsun was out of control. It missed the first pump but hit the second. The station went up with a whump.
Orange flames. Boiling smoke. And from the conflagration rose the dragon. Its wings fanned the flames with long, lazy beats.
“Go, Rosie!” Bea howled. Maybe they could get around the next curve before it spotted them. “Faster!”
Maybe the dragon would attack another car, blow up another station. Did she want that? No — it was horrible — but neither did she want the dragon on their tail again.
Then La Vitesse’s horn blasted. One long, insistent, unending bellow.
“No, Rose!” Bea screamed.
The dragon’s wings hitched. It flipped and turned, graceful as a swallow, scales shedding streams of smoke. Its eyes gleamed, two chilly points, square and level.
Bea lived in the bush. She’d seen plenty of cougars, and she knew this: when a predator’s eyes focus on you, two orbs in perfect alignment, you are meat, meat, and nothing but meat. Whether you live or die is no longer in your control. Your fate lives between the claws and teeth of another.
“Honey, why?” Bea moaned. But there was no answer, never any answer with Rosie. She did as she pleased.
From the time her daughter was born, Bea’s one goal was to keep her at home for as long as possible. With a kid as strong-willed as Rosie, that meant giving in, always. It also meant feeding her well. Tasty food, and lots of it. Though tiny as a baby, Rosie had always been a good eater. She’d grown big and tall — nearly six feet and still growing — with broad shoulders and big hands and feet.
The food was an important strategy. Bea knew from experience that, aside from weekend bush parties, going for pizza or fries with friends was pretty much the only thing a Hinton teenager could do to beat the boredom. Bea had been caught in that trap herself.
At sixteen, instead of getting on the school bus for the long ride home, she’d head to Gus’s Pizza. Then she’d wait outside the IGA grocery and try to catch a ride home with a neighbor. But that didn’t always work, so she started hitchhiking. The first two times were fine. But the third time, her social-studies teacher picked her up. For half an hour, he’d lectured her about the dangers of hitchhiking, and then pulled over and slipped his hand into her jeans. That’s how she got pregnant.
Bea didn’t want that to happen to her girl. So if the poutine at the L&W was good, Bea’s was better — the fries crispier, the cheese gooier, the gravy dark brown and chunky with lumps of salty hamburger. And that was just the start. Bea’s nut-crusted elk roast was perfection and her open-fire flatbread with homemade jam beat any cake. So when Rosie got to that dangerous age, she never even thought about staying behind after school. Why would she hang out with kids she hated and eat substandard snacks when her mom’s food was so good?
Rosie scared her teachers, but Bea didn’t care. If her daughter sat in the back of every class and did the bare minimum of work to pass, that was fine with Bea. And if she stomped down the hallways with her elbows out, glaring at the other kids from under her ragged dyed black bangs and wore the same two Slayer T-shirts for a year, that was better than fine. Nobody would ever take advantage of her Rosie. Anyone who tried never tried twice.
La Vitesse blasted east, the speedometer topping out, the dragon still chasing them, and nothing ahead but open highway. Soon, they’d start climbing Obed Mountain. The engine couldn’t take it at speed. Bea had to do something but she was too scared to think. Scared of what the dragon would do when the bus began toiling up that long, steep slope. And also, for the first time in her life, she was scared of her daughter.
Rosie hunched in Bea’s seat, her mouth set in a permanent sneer. The remnants of her blue-black lipstick smeared her chin. Maybe the biggest danger they faced wasn’t the dragon. Maybe it was Rosie. Maybe it always had been.
The kids knew Rosie was dangerous. They’d always known. Bea made a habit of looking away when the kids scooted past Rosie’s shotgun seat as if it were on fire. She ignored it when Rosie snarled at a tardy kid, and when she snagged a treat out of one of their backpacks, Bea treated it like a joke.
Bea knelt beside the driver’s seat and put a gentle hand on her daughter’s thick wrist.
“Honey, whatever I’ve done, I’m so sorry. But take it out on me, not the kids.”
Rosie’s brow furrowed. The bridge of her nose crinkled like she smelled something rotten.
“Don’t talk shit, Mom,” she snarled.
Bea moved her hand up to her daughter’s bicep and tried again.
“You’ve been angry for a long time, haven’t you? And now you’re in control. And you do have control. You’re making all the choices. So make the right one, honey. Turn us around.”
“Fuck, Mom, what do you think I am?” Rosie said. She took a deep breath and screamed, “Hang on!”
Rosie slammed on the clutch and brakes and spun the wheel. The momentum threw Bea down the stepwell. She hit her head on the door, hard. By the time she’d shaken off the pain and climbed to her feet, La Vitesse sat idling in the middle of Pedley Road, a gravel-top dead-end with nothing along it but a few old houses tucked back deep in the bush.
“Good girl, thank you. I’ll drive now.” Bea laid a hand on her daughter’s thick shoulder. It was solid as stone. Rosie’s right hand strangled the steering wheel and her left stuck stiffly out the window, twisting the side-view mirror to scan the sky behind them.
“No,” Rosie said quietly. “Stop touching me.”
Rosie shifted the bus into first gear, then second. They rolled up the road. Over the soft crunch of wheels on gravel and the engine’s low hum, the whump-whump of wide wings sounded, louder and louder. Behind Bea, the children sniffled and sobbed. Maybe Bea did too. She knew she should fight — but how? Bea had never hit anyone. Certainly not her child. Not ever. How could she have known it was a mistake?
“I’m sorry,” Bea whispered. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was too young.”
When Rosie answered, her voice was flat and emotionless. “Stop. I’m trying to think.”
“I should have made you play with the other kids. I wanted to keep you home. Keep you safe. I didn’t know what it would mean. That you’d be isolated. That it would be bad for you.”
Bea leaned her left cheek against Rosie’s arm as La Vitesse rolled toward the Pedley railway crossing. The lights flashed red under the white-and-black crossing sign. A train was coming, but Rosie was utterly focused on the side mirror, jaw clenched, eyes narrow.
The train’s low horn sounded in the crossing pattern. Two short blasts, one long, one short. Bea put a soft hand on her daughter’s fist where it gripped the wheel.
“We have to stop before the tracks, honey.”
No answer. Bea climbed to her feet. The fire extinguisher lay in the aisle, beside a tiny sneaker that had slipped off the foot of a terrified child. A child who was in her care. A child she had to keep safe.
She hoisted the heavy extinguisher in her arms. Bea knew herself. Violence wasn’t in her nature. She’d never raised a hand to anyone, even when she should have. Even when they were hurting her. Now she had to hurt her daughter. Had to. Lift the extinguisher high and drop it on Rosie’s head. That’s all.
But she couldn’t. She put the extinguisher down and turned away.
The bus’s front wheels bounced over the rails. The train raced toward them, a massive stack of silver metal topped by a curved glass windshield. Close now, so close Bea could see its wipers stuck at a low angle across the glass. Its horn screamed as it bore down on them with all its murderous weight and velocity. Rosie still had her hand out the side window, yanking at the mirror with her thick fingers.
Behind La Vitesse, at the bus’s grimy rear window, a shadow reached out to wrap its wings around the bus. Then a wall of silver speed obliterated it.
Rosie couldn’t get the bus door open. Not even with both hands and all her muscle and weight.
“Mom, how the fuck do you do this?”
“There’s a trick to it.” Bea slipped her soft hands over her daughter’s and flicked the rubber thumb control on La Vitesse’s spring-latched handle. She cranked the door open, just as she’d done a thousand times before, but never with such relief.
The train was still rolling past, brakes howling and throwing sparks. When it had cleared the crossing, Bea ushered the kids off the bus.
“You too,” she told Rosie, and followed her daughter down to solid ground.
Bea wrapped her sweater around little Michelle Arsenault and lifted her up to settle on her hip. She wiped the child’s nose with a crumpled tissue from her jeans pocket, then lifted Tony Lalonde onto her other hip.
At the railroad crossing, the tar-smeared sleepers and silver rails were painted with red-brown gore, thick and smoking. The dragon’s head lay beside La Vitesse’s right rear wheel. Bleeding pits marked the milky sclera of its eyes, and a blue liquid leaked from its fanged jaws.
Rosie heaved the dragon’s head so it lay chin-down on the road.
“Where’s the rest of it?” Michelle Lalonde whispered from under Bea’s elbow.
“Here, in the ditch,” Rosie said. She slipped down the icy incline and hefted a tattered wing, then dragged it up to the road and deposited it beside the dragon’s head.
“That’s not good meat,” said Blair Tocher, eleven years old and an experienced hunter. “Smells like bear gone bad. You can’t eat that.”
“I think Rosie could,” Joan Cardinal said.
Bea shivered, cold without her sweater, and her forearm was wet where she was supporting little Tony Lalonde against her body. His arms gripped Bea’s neck and his little snot-smeared face burrowed into her.
“Is someone coming to help us?” he asked in a whisper.
“Soon, I think.”
Far up the tracks, the train had finally stopped. The engineer would have already reported the incident. She couldn’t hear the sirens yet, but it wouldn’t be long.
Rosie dragged the dragon’s torso from the far side of the tracks. Its gut had split open, revealing a nest of mottled entrails padded with honeycombed tissue.
“The dragon you saw on Roche Miette was red, Mom.” Rosie stripped off her gore-soaked gloves and dropped them on the ground. “That’s what you said.”
“That’s right,” said Bea. “And you didn’t believe me.”
“Then this isn’t the only dragon.” Rosie shaded her eyes with her hand and scanned the sky.
Bea nodded. “There must be one more at least.”
Tony whimpered. Bea hitched him up higher on her hip.
“We’re okay. We’re safe,” she told the kids. “Right, Rose?”
Rosie shrugged and drew a pack of menthols from her pocket. A cigarette dangled from her lips as she fished for her lighter. She glanced at Bea, furtively, as if she needed her mother’s permission to light up in front of the kids. Bea almost laughed.
She’d thought there were no heroes, but she was wrong. Dead wrong.
“Go ahead and smoke, honey,” Bea said. “You earned it.”
About the Author
Kelly is an award-winning short fiction writer. In 2018, her story “A Human Stain” won the Nebula Award for Best Novelette, and in 2016, her novella “Waters of Versailles” won the Prix Aurora Award. She has also been a finalist for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Theodore Sturgeon, John W. Campbell, and Sunburst awards. In 2018, her time travel adventure Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach debuted to high critical praise. After 22 years in Vancouver, she and her wife, fellow Spec Fic writer A. M. Dellamonica, now live in downtown Toronto.
About the Narrator
Kae Mills is a creator and performer based in Ontario, Canada. They have worked in live theatre, visual arts, graphic design, clown, voice, and writing. When not working, they can generally be found reading, collecting books to read later, or drastically changing their hair.