Edition 21: Inner Dragon by James Aquilone
Peter dreams of becoming famous, world-renowned for his writing. But is he happy to pay the price for his success? This tale from James Aquilone crosses between science fiction and Asian self-help fantasy to warn of the dangers of ego. SY
“Peter, are you ready to take the arduous journey toward your ultimate destiny? To face the abyss and let the abyss face you?”
Dr. De Graat stopped suddenly, looked at me with laser-focused eyes. They were quite beautiful blue eyes, I noticed. Sort of a cerulean-blue with flecks of green.
“Peter?” he said, eyebrows raised.
“Sorry. That wasn’t a rhetorical question?”
“Peter.” The sound of disappointment in his voice made me want to evacuate my bowels. “Tell me, what it is you want?”
“I want to be a successful writer. A bestselling author.”
De Graat clapped and let out a joyous laugh. “Wonderful! Wonderful!” His expression intensified again, his eyebrows knitting together and his jaw tightening. “Peter, you will be a success if you truly want it. If it is the only thing you want. If you can do this, it will be easy.”
“Easy. I like the sound of that.”
“First we will find your inner dragon and then we will release him. Once he is soaring through the universe, the dragon takes care of the rest.”
“How do I find my inner dragon?”
“I have a machine.”
After disappearing into the shadows of his office, De Graat returned with a large silver contraption. It reminded me of those old movie projectors, but it had two lenses instead of one.
He positioned the machine in front of me and looked me in the eye. It was intimidating, but I held his gaze.
“It is a simple process,” he said. “I am going to hypnotize you with assistance from the Dreams of Destiny Machine. Please, look into the lenses.”
He flipped a switch at the back and two beams of light jabbed me in the eyes. It didn’t feel like light; more like knitting needles.
“Don’t look away, Peter. Focus! The effect depends as much on your effort as it does on the machine’s. I have turned it up to compensate for your timidity.”
My eyes burned. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I wanted to puke.
“Concentrate, and visualize your ultimate desires, your dreams of destiny… Imagine the life you’ve always wanted… Envision your dragon. You will birth the beast you deserve…”
The light shone as brightly as a supernova and then everything went black.
When I left De Graat’s office I didn’t feel any different. I hadn’t felt my inner dragon being released, but what would that feel like anyway?
That night I met with my writers’ group where my new short story got savaged. Half the group hated the ending, the other half hated the beginning, and they all hated the middle. It was a typical session, except for the appearance of Bill McDougal, a recently retired Air Force captain. Bill had recently finished a fantasy novel he’d worked on for more than two decades.
“I’d like your opinions,” he said as he handed out hard copies; obviously the guy hadn’t heard of email. I felt bad for the old newbie.
I went home and hit the tub with the manuscript. The first five pages of Bill’s novel were a vague, confusing ramble. I made notes as I went along to help the poor guy out. The dialogue was mostly characters explaining things, the plot was full of holes and the end didn’t quite come together. But I loved the premise and a few of the minor characters. I thought there was a good story buried in there. As I was drifting off to sleep, I figured out how to make the story work.
Then I figured out how to steal it. He wasn’t going to get the novel published anyway, not in its current condition. But with my alterations I was confident I could sell it. I also knew I could finish in a week.
In the morning I told my boss I needed to take care of some “personal business” and wouldn’t be coming into the post office that week. Let someone else sort the mail! Then I started writing. I had never worked so fast. The words just flowed and I was done in five days. It turned out damn good and I figured there were enough changes that I would get away with it, so I sent it out.
A week later an agent was interested in my novel, Dragon’s Breath. Hal Jensen couldn’t have been younger than eighty-two. He was about five-foot-four with a comb-over and said he knew just about everyone in the book biz. What he didn’t say was that most of those people were long dead.
He thought I had potential. That I reminded him of a young Terry Brooks. I didn’t know who that was, but I still signed.
A mid-level publishing house picked up Dragon’s Breath for an equally mid-level advance. It wasn’t enough to live on for long, but that didn’t stop me from quitting my job. Actually, I just stopped showing up.
The critics hated Dragon’s Breath. They said it was “full of lazy writing,” “riddled with clichés” and “a monumental waste of time.” I didn’t care. Critics are just jealous, wannabe writers anyway, right?
What mattered was that the book was selling. Not a lot at first, but sales became strong enough that my publisher committed to a sequel and sent me on a book tour.
I met a grad student named Lauren in North Carolina. When the tour ended, she moved in with me. Three weeks later, she left. Lauren thought I was cheating on her. She was right. No one had ever wanted to have sex with me before and now there were women offering themselves. How could I resist?
But I had zero ideas for my second novel. I kicked myself for not hanging around the writers’ group longer and seeing if Bill McDougal planned any sequels.
It didn’t matter. All I needed to do was rehash the first book, add a few ideas from several current bestsellers and a couple of classics, a character from here, another from there and—voila!—I had another novel.
I fired my agent.
“But I believed in you.”
“This is business, Hal. Don’t take it personally.”
He started crying. I hung up. The guy was deadwood. He couldn’t take my career to the next level. His next level was six feet under.
A phone call out of nowhere, and I signed with the largest literary agency in the country. They got me out of my deal with the mid-level publisher and landed me a four-book deal with one of the big six.
Right now was all about my career. I wrote for at least six hours a day. I blogged about writing. I dreamed writing. In between there were signings and readings. I didn’t want to waste a second.
Other parts of my life just had to give.
“You’re never there for me,” my soon-to-be second ex-girlfriend, Jessie, said.
“I can’t write a bestseller and be there for some co-dependent whiner,” I said without turning from the computer.
I paid no mind to the fact that every morning I woke up sobbing, tears streaming down my cheeks and my hands wrapped around my pillow like I was a drowning man clutching a life preserver. Once out of bed the feeling dissolved, so I put it out of my mind. I had bigger things to worry about.
The critics detested my second book, Dragon’s Teeth. One called it “regurgitated, derivative drivel not worth a kilobyte of space on a flash drive.” I almost admired his perception. Derivative, yes, but come on, there was also some really fine writing.
Someone had to pay for the bad press. So I fired my publicist. Her name was Gloria, or was it Cheryl, or maybe Abigail?
Dragon’s Teeth landed on the New York Times Best Sellers list, peaking at 13. For some reason, dragons were hot at the moment and here I was at the forefront of a trend!
On yet another publicity tour I met a Classics professor named Gabrielle in Pittsburgh. Two weeks later we got married.
She thought my books were “modern fairy tales filled with Oedipal rage.” I didn’t understand a word she said, but she looked amazing in tight silk blouses. We had a kid, too, Ursula. But within months, Gabrielle had left. Apparently I was “unkind.” Who talks like that? She took the kid and moved across the country.
While preparing to release my third book, Dragon’s Tail, Bill McDougal threatened me with a lawsuit for copyright infringement. I sicced my legal team on him. Bill’s wife had terminal cancer and the medical bills were piling up. We threatened to tie him up in litigation for years. He quietly settled for ten thousand bucks. It was the right thing for him to do; he wouldn’t have made anywhere near that with his original novel.
The crying jags worsened. Now I was waking up every night at three a.m. shaking like a heroin addict going through withdrawal. I started taking sleeping pills.
I finally released Dragon’s Tail. It was my best writing to date.
It got an average rating of one-point-eight on Amazon, and critics called me the worst writer of the twenty-first century.
That’s when Dragon’s Tail topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.
I had done it. I had achieved my dream.
But I was miserable. The crying fits had followed me into the daylight.
I sat on the window ledge, my feet dangling seven stories above the ground, when my personal assistant—actually my third assistant—walked into my office.
“Mr. Palumbo, what are you doing out there?”
“I’m about to kill myself, Cheryl.”
“But you have the bestselling book in the country. And my name is Rachel.”
I leaned forward, looked down. It was a long way down. “Sorry, Rachel, it’s just not worth it. Everybody hates me. I hate me.”
I scooted closer to the edge.
“Wait! I know someone who can help. He’s a self-help guru named Gustav Karl. He specializes in fulfillment. He helped me. It was the only way I could bear to work for you.”
I thought about what led me there, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure it out. I had gotten what I wanted. So why was I so unhappy?
I moved off the ledge and made an appointment with the guru. What did I have to lose? I could always kill myself tomorrow.
When I entered the uptown office I found De Graat sitting by an open window smoking a cigar.
“Ah, my star patient.” He smirked.
“Now you’re hawking fulfillment as Gustav Karl?” I said as I sat down opposite him.
“I was always hawking fulfillment, Peter.”
“Well, I have to tell you I don’t feel very fulfilled.”
“Your success isn’t enough?”
“I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, but I’m not happy. I cry all the time now. I have half a dozen exes, and a kid—and none of them talk to me. I don’t have one true friend. What the hell did you do to me?”
“You need two things to be successful, Peter: focus and aggression. That is what it means to be the dragon. A dragon has only one unrelenting goal: protect its hoard.”
De Graat blew the cigar smoke out slowly through his thin lips. “You rid yourself of that which hinders most people: doubt, consideration, loyalty, kindness, accountability, fairness, reason… Dragons are filthy rich, but they aren’t well liked.”
“You and your machine made me a jerk?”
De Graat smiled wolfishly. “That is the surest way of activating the Law of Attraction. The dragon, once released, opens up whole new vistas of possibility. Haven’t you ever wondered why some people succeed even though they’re talentless hacks? That’s the Law of Attraction at work.”
“You never mentioned anything about the Law of Attraction before.”
“Had I told you, it might have undermined the treatment. It works best if you have no knowledge of its operation.”
“But people despise me.”
“You wanted material gain and status, Peter, not love. Classic mistake!” De Graat laughed. He was having a blast.
“Well, can you make me happy or not?”
“I can, but first I must lock up your dragon. I cannot make you a jerk and make you happy about it. That would turn you into a psychopath.”
“But wouldn’t I stop being successful?”
“If your success is contingent on you being a jerk and not having talent, then yes.”
“So I can be either happy or successful?”
“If you are happy, why would you need success?”
He wrote on a slip of paper, handed it to me. I had to count the zeroes three times before I was sure of the figure.
“But this is everything I have!”
“Success is easy to obtain, Peter. Happiness is not. And as I said earlier, one needs to be aggressive when one strives for success.”
De Graat tapped his ash into a platinum ashtray and checked the time on his gold Rolex. Turned out De Graat was a jerk too.
“Come back tomorrow with a check if you are still interested.”
I thought about not going through with it, but the next morning I found myself back on the ledge.
A day later I handed over the check and De Graat wheeled out the machine.
“First I will block your rampant ego.”
As the lights pierced my eyes, I reached for the pin in my pocket.
“Let’s begin the second phase and make you a nice and happy boy,” De Graat said after a few minutes. “Sit back and I’ll guide you.”
The lights burned into my skull. This time I relaxed and drifted. When it was over I felt supercharged. The world was brighter; I felt lighter and full of energy.
As I walked out, I pushed over his stupid machine, and kept walking with De Graat screeching behind me.
Screw him and his machine. I was still a jerk. But a happy jerk now.
I wasn’t going to give up success for happiness. Not when I could have both. So before the treatment I had studied several guides to hypnosis. By distracting myself with pain from the pin, I had nullified the first phase of De Graat’s treatment.
My dream of being a writer was too small. De Graat was right; I had made a mistake in wanting only material gain and status. Now that I knew how the process worked, I needed to shift my focus, to take control of my dragon.
In New Mexico, I founded my own religion. There was money and power, but most importantly, I also had love. Lots of love.
De Graat said a happy jerk would turn into a psychopath. But would a psychopath be adored by more than ten thousand followers? They would die for me. I probably won’t have them do that; my children are more valuable alive.
My inner dragon and I have big plans.
Now I want everyone to love me.
James Aquilone is an editor and writer from Staten Island, New York. His fiction is forthcoming or has appeared in Nature’s Futures, Galaxy’s Edge, Flash Fiction Online, and Weird Tales Magazine, among others. His nonfiction has appeared in SF Signal, Den of Geek, and Shock Totem. Visit him at jamesaquilone.com or on Twitter @jamesaquilone.