Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




I’ve Come to Marry the Princess

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

This story also appears in the BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY 2017, edited by Charles Yu (guest editor) and John Joseph Adams (series editor). Available October 2017 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Before Jack can apologize to Nancy, she has to believe that dragons exist.

Nancy’s mad at him because they were supposed to perform a skit at the talent show and he stood her up. They’ve been practicing it for two summers. It’s called “I’ve Come to Marry the Princess.” When Jack didn’t show, Nancy had to go on stage all by herself. He didn’t ditch her on purpose; his dragon egg was hatching and he needed to be there. Jack thinks Nancy would forgive him if he told her this, but she hasn’t given him the chance.

Nancy said her parents would give him a ride home at the end of camp this year and he doesn’t know if the offer is still good. He hopes it is. It would give him a chance to apologize, the two of them sitting on the gray velvet bench seat of her mother’s station wagon, the baby dragon between them.

“I told you dragons were real,” Jack would say.

“Dragons eat people, you know.”

Jack arrived at camp six years and three weeks ago. His mother dropped him off at his cabin with his trunk, book bag, and dragon egg. The trunk held three bathing suits, fourteen t-shirts, ten pairs of shorts, white socks, and underwear, each with Jack’s name written in black permanent marker in thick, block letters. Inside the book bag were five books from the Craven County Public School recommended summer reading list, a Walkman, various toiletries, an Uno deck, stationery, envelopes, stamps, and four bags of chocolate bars he’d stolen from his older brother Robert. Robert was going to a different camp, in the mountains, and Jack knew Robert wouldn’t notice anything was missing until he got there.

Sometimes Jack still gets letters from Robert. Robert ends each one with a running tally of how many chocolate bars Jack owes him now. It’s in the millions. “Because of interest,” Robert says.

Jack also gets letters from his parents. They ask him questions about sailing and motorboating and archery and tell him to be good, they’ll be there to pick him up at the end of the summer. They never do. Every August Jack drags his belongings to a new cabin and different campers arrive. In the fall they learn to play instruments: harp, violin, piano. In the spring it’s always math camp, science camp, or historical re-enactment. There are two weeks in the winter when adults fill the cabins. They play soccer and baseball, jump in the river, and stay up all night in the mess hall playing loud music. His counselor says next year they’re opening up a space camp, but he’s been saying that for a while now. Jack has had the same counselor each summer for seven years; he never remembers Jack’s name.

“This your first year?” he asks. “Don’t worry. You’re going to love it. It can be rough at first, but at the end of four weeks, no one ever wants to leave. You staying for one session or two? Most of us stay for two.”

In January and February the camp lets in high schoolers and college students to practice standardized tests: PSAT, LSAT, SAT, DAT, MCAT, PCAT, and VCAT. Jack wasn’t very good at them at first, but he’s been catching on. Before Nancy stopped talking to him, she lent him her Cosmo magazines for their quizzes. Nancy said there’s an art to multiple-choice questions. There’s always the right answer, the wrong answer that you want to pick anyway, the silly answer, and the answer that leads to the inevitable tragedy of human experience. If you read enough of them, you can figure out which one is which by the way they’re phrased, or the way they’re ordered. When in doubt, pick C, she says. Nancy said she hasn’t studied for a history test in three years because she knows exactly how to find out the key result of the Battle of New Orleans just by the way the teacher uses conjunctions. Jack told her there was no result. The war was over before the battle even started. He knew this because he had to pretend to die on a hill, his foot rotting from gangrene. Then the cook got mad at them because they stole too much cheese for special effects and they had to re-enact treaty signings the next year. And the year after that and the year after. Jack hated it. All they did was stand around in wool coats and sweat.

Even though he’s not very good, Jack has always secretly preferred standardized test camp. They stay inside and read and take snack breaks. He also likes the logic puzzles.

• • • •

A camper with access to the theater hut has six chances to apologize to a girl. The hut holds the following items: carrots, daffodils, earmuffs, and a fire extinguisher. The following requirements must be satisfied:

The girl does not like vegetables.
The girl does not like flowers.
The girl’s ears are quite warm.
The girl is not on fire.

Which one of the following could be a complete and accurate list of ways the boy could be forgiven?

• • • •

The dragon egg was a gift from his grandmother. She said she’d found it in the Wal-Mart parking lot, near the cart return. Jack used to get letters from her, but she died at the end of the first summer. Jack thinks that’s why his parents forgot to come pick him up.

When Jack and his mother first arrived, they drove past the girls’ cabins so they could say hello to one of the counselors. She was related to Jack, a first cousin, but he’d never met her before and had a hard time remembering her name. Whenever he saw her he always nodded and called her “Cuz” because that sounded like something Robert would say. She nodded back. She could never remember his name either. “Pleased to meet you, Jeremy.”

She introduced him to some of the girls in her cabin, girls who were about Jack’s age. Some of them looked as annoyed to be there as he was, which was comforting in its own way.

“They seem nice,” his mother said.

Jack’s cabin was not as nice as the girls’ cabin. The screen door was falling off its hinges and the wood smelled of damp and rot. Jack’s mom kept saying it had “character.” The bunk beds were all different heights and every surface had been written on in multi-colored markers: messages from previous campers and dirty limericks and crude drawings. Jack thought the messages in the girls’ cabin were probably nicer and more intelligent, with cartoon hearts and flowers to match their comforters and Laura Ashley sheets. He was wrong. Nancy told him the girls’ cabins were just as bad-word filled as the boys, that’s just the way camps were.

“But our diagrams are more anatomically correct,” she said.

Jack’s counselor introduced himself, and then the other boys. Jack watched as the counselor patted each of them on the back and surreptitiously pulled back the collars of their shirts where mothers had written out names like Bob and Timothy and George in the same black permanent marker that Jack’s mom used. Jack wondered if the counselor had his name in big block letters somewhere on his clothes too. Just in case he forgot it. Maybe there was a store they all went to that sold pre-named clothing.

When his mother finally left (“Be good”, “Okay,” “Make friends,” “Okay,” “Have fun,” “Okay,” “Don’t get eaten by a bear,” “Okay”), Jack grabbed his dragon egg and went out into the woods looking for a place to hide it.

• • • •

This is how I’ve Come to Marry the Princess goes:

Jack knocks on a pretend door. Nancy answers. She’s a guard.

“I’ve come to marry the princess,” Jack says.

“The princess?”

“Yes, the princess.”

“Okay. I’ll go ask her.”

The guard turns around to talk to the king. That’s Jack now.

“A knight’s at the door. He says he’s come to marry the princess.”

“The princess?” Jack says.

“Yes, the princess.”

“Okay. I’ll go ask her.”

Then the King tells this to the queen who finally goes to ask the princess. That’s Jack again.

“There’s a knight at the door. He says he wants to marry you,” Nancy says.

“Marry me?” Jack says.

“Yes. What do you think?”

“No, no, no, a thousand times no.”

They rotate again until Jack is the knight and the guard tells him No, no, no, a thousand times no.

“Then you must die!” and the knight stabs the guard with a foam sword.

Then he knocks on the door again.

• • • •

When the egg didn’t hatch that first summer, Jack wondered if it was defective. His grandmother had been certain it would hatch, and yet by September it was just as dull and solid as it could be. In the winter he asked one of the men in his cabin to take a look at it. He was a recently divorced ER doctor whose therapist said fresh air and exercise and socialization would do him good. He arrived the first day with a duffel bag full of mass-market paperbacks and refused to speak to anyone else in the cabin except Jack.

Jack asked him if he knew anything about eggs. The man asked if he meant dinosaur eggs. His son used to like dinosaurs.

“It’s not a dinosaur egg.”





“Platypus? Snake? Ostrich?”

Jack pulled the egg out of his backpack and showed him. “Dragon. Don’t know what kind.”

The ER doctor rolled the egg around on the floor and knocked on its shell. “Looks more like a rock to me.”

The doctor suggested that he place it somewhere cool and dry, where it could get plenty of sunlight. Either it would hatch or it wouldn’t. No way to tell for sure without cracking it open to see what was actually inside.

Jack met Nancy the second summer. He went to his cousin’s cabin on the first day of camp because he knew his mother would want him to. He went early, when he knew there wouldn’t be many girls for his cousin to introduce him to. There was a freckled girl named Anna, and Nancy. Nancy didn’t talk.

“Don’t worry,” his cousin told them, “it’s his first year too. Isn’t it, Justin.”

“Sure,” he said.

His cousin told him Nancy never talked to anyone. Her parents were hoping camp would help.

“My parents thought camp would help too,” Jack said.

Nancy didn’t talk to anyone the first week, nor the second. The boys in Jack’s cabin said Nancy had escaped from juvenile prison and was hiding out. Other cabins had their own rumors.

Nancy was a Kennedy.

Nancy had her tongue ripped out by wolves.

Nancy ripped out her own tongue.

Nancy had tattoos.

Nancy had no parents.

Nancy had seventeen parents, the result of a series of divorces, kidnappings, and illegal adoptions.

Nancy was an alien.

Nancy was a witch.

Nancy didn’t exist.

Jack thought Nancy had it pretty easy. She could join any group she wanted, do anything she wanted, and no one would stop her because they didn’t know what she’d do to them. One time a girl pushed her into the dirt and Nancy got up and then shook the girl’s hand. She didn’t smile or frown; she gripped the girl’s hand in both of hers and then walked away. Later the girl broke her nose after being hit in the face with the boom of a sailboat. Nancy wasn’t there, and that’s when the witch rumor started. But when the girl with the broken nose came back from the hospital, she told everyone that Nancy was just a nice girl who didn’t talk much. And the rumor went away.

“People aren’t nearly as mean as other people think,” Nancy told him.

The boys in Jack’s cabin weren’t mean, but there were too many of them and Jack had a hard time keeping them straight. So he divided them into groups. There were the boys who had been coming to Camp all their lives and already had all the friends they wanted to make. Jack called them the Jonathans. And the boys who were there for the first time but already knew how to sail or play sports or who had mothers who sent care packages every day filled with candy and Mad magazines and soda other contraband. Those were the Roberts. They were always more popular than the Jonathans, until their newness wore off and they became Jonathans themselves.

“This your first summer?” Jonathan asked Jack. “It must be. I’d remember you. Your parents send you with anything good?”

Jack had three trunks now. Summer, winter, and in-between. The summer trunk held five bathing suits, six shorts, six t-shirts, and twenty pairs of underwear. Every time he sent his laundry out with the other campers, more clothes came back. Sometimes they had other boys’ names written in the collars: Barnabus, Crispin, Derrek, and Pierre. Jack never wore these clothes. He was too scared of running into their original owners. Sometimes he wondered if he should take their names too, then maybe people would remember him; maybe another mother would come and pick him up.

That first day, Jack’s mother set up an account for him at the camp store. She said he could buy whatever he wanted, within reason. It’d make his father happy if he got some camp clothes: a hat, sweatshirt, maybe even some of those rubber sandals to wear in the river with the Morehead wheel sewn in white thread on the ankle.

By spring of his fourth year Jack had run up a tab of $1,847. He didn’t only buy clothes: the store also sold stamps, toiletries, and a stale tasting candy bar some camper’s father invented that no one ever ate. Even the ducks wouldn’t touch it. Around Christmas the store sold ornaments, wrapping paper, and better tasting chocolate. Jack liked the store best in February. They had an entire display case of No. 2 pencils stacked in a giant No. 2 pencil pyramid. You had to ask for help to take one. Jack bought several throughout the day, every day, just hoping it would crumble when the cashier reached over to get him one. It never did.

• • • •

When the knight knocks on the door the second time, the king answers.

“I’ve come to marry the princess.”

“The princess?”

“Yes, the princess.”

“Alright, I’ll go ask her.”

• • • •

Nancy was the only one who remembered Jack from year to year. “I’ve got a really good memory,” she said. “I’m constantly correcting people when they tell a story wrong. Details are important, unless they’re made up.”

Nancy told Jack he should try the administrator’s office and ask for his paperwork. “You would have to be registered for each session, each camp, otherwise they wouldn’t let you stay,” she explained. “Bills, medical records, test scores, all of them have to be recorded in the system. Ask for it, any of it, and it’ll collapse.”

Sometimes Nancy suggested that he just walk out the gate and down the highway. He could steal a horse from the barn, or one of the boats. Jack didn’t think those were very feasible, and he didn’t have a very good sense of direction.

Why not the bus? She asked. It dropped campers off at the Episcopal Church right downtown. Didn’t he say he lived on the river? He could walk from there. If he didn’t try, then it was his fault.

“When I was seven years old,” Jack said, “I went to a school that put younger students at tables with older students. Lunch was delivered to the head of the table, and it was the job of the older student to pass them out. That year, I was at a long table. There were two head students, and twelve of us. They passed out eleven plates. I guess each one of them thought the other one had taken care of me. I was reading a book, so I didn’t notice until I could hear the scrape of everyone’s knives. I waited until someone noticed. No one did. I thought about raising my hand, but I didn’t know which one of them to ask. By then it had been so long that I thought I had to think of a reason why I’d waited. They were going to have to ask the kitchen for another plate. One of them would get in trouble. So I kept waiting. I pretended to keep reading, and then I’d have an excuse. Then lunch was over, and I was still hungry, but no one had to be embarrassed about it.”

“That’s stupid,” she said.

“It happened again the next day, and I kept reading. I learned to stuff an apple in my pocket in the morning. I ate bigger breakfasts. Finally, by the third week, I spoke up. ‘Excuse me?’ I said to the older one, a girl. She seemed nice. ‘I don’t have a plate.’”

“Did she give you one?”

“It turned out I was at the wrong table. By the time she’d straightened out, my friend William had eaten his lunch and mine, like he’d been doing every day prior. He was mad at me after that and wouldn’t talk to me.”

“There are these boys in my school,” Nancy said. “They’re on the swim team. They’re always hungry. After lunch they walk around the cafeteria and go up to any girl who still has fries on her plate, or pizza. ‘You really want to eat that?’ they say. ‘You don’t want a paunch, do you?’ They always said ‘paunch.’ We learned it in English class. We all liked the way our lips quivered when we said it. Paunch. ‘Come on,’ they said. ‘We’re helping you out.’ Some girls, they just hold up their trays when they see those boys coming.”

“Why didn’t the school do something?”

“No one complained. The girls didn’t mind. Some girls, they got extra fries just so they could give them away. Of course, some girls spat on theirs, or brought in extra hot peppers or other things to dice up and put on their pizza, just to see what would happen. One boy got sick; he threw up all during fifth period.”

“Did they stop?”

“No. They were stubborn and stupid, like you.”

Last summer, Jack did try the bus. It took him all the way into town, where the campers’ parents were waiting at the Episcopal Church parking lot. Jack could see the top of his house over the trees. The driver wouldn’t let him off until a guardian signed for him. They waited all day. Jack asked the driver if he could go inside the church and call his house from the office.

“How do I know you’ll call your mother? You could be calling a stranger.”

“You could call.”

“Camp told me to sit on the bus and wait till all the campers’ mothers came and signed for them. Can’t leave the bus.”

They waited all night and the next morning the bus driver took him back to camp. A counselor checked his name off a clipboard.

“You’re going to love it here, Jack. What instrument do you play? Did you forget it at home? Don’t worry, we have spares.”

In June, when he saw Nancy, she sighed. “When I never see you again, I’ll know that something good happened.”

• • • •

There’s always a reason a boy finds a dragon egg. Jack didn’t have a reason. His grandmother gave it to him even though he’d asked for a soccer ball. All the boys at camp would know how to play soccer and he wanted to practice before he went.

“It’s an egg,” he said.

“A dragon egg,” his grandmother said.

“Does that make a difference?”

“You’ll be the only one at camp with one, I’m sure,” she said.

“Don’t dragons eat people?”

“That’s just a rumor. Make friends with it.”

He thought about telling people it was a soccer ball. A special one. That was heavy. And didn’t roll very well. And clinked when you shook it (“Don’t do that,” his grandmother said, “it’ll get mad at you”).

The only thing Jack liked about the egg was the thought of having his very own dragon. One that could fly, and speak telepathically, and breathe fire. But after the first summer, and the next, and the next after, he thought maybe his dragon was defective. What kind of dragon would come from a Wal-Mart parking lot?

Jack imagined flying over fields and forests in a dragon-sized silver shopping cart, the balls of his feet balancing on the metal bar as the cart’s front end rose and rose, right into the clouds.

“Rawr,” he said. “Behold the conquering hero.”

When the dragon finally hatched, it was blue. Blue eyes, blue scales, even blue tinted nails at the end of its delicate blue feet. Its wings were membranous wisps that flapped weakly against the dragon’s sides.

“Don’t worry,” he told the dragon. “You’ll grow into them. Then you can take us home.”

Jack thought long and hard about a name. Names had power. An evil wizard could ensnare his dragon by guessing its true name.

“Pencil,” Jack said. “No one would guess that.”

He thought about naming it Nancy, but if anyone in his life were to suddenly turn into an evil wizard, it would be her. Then the name wouldn’t be hard to guess at all.

• • • •

The king asks the queen who asks the princess, who still says no, no, no, a thousand times no. The knight kills the king and then asks the queen, kills her, and finally knocks on the princess’ door.

“No, no, no, a thousand times no,” she says.

The knight kills the princess, sees what he has done, and says “Now I must die!” And he does.

Before the audience has a chance to react, Jack and Nancy get up and repeat the skit, but faster.

Then they do it a third time where the knight kills anyone who answers the door.

They practiced it a dozen times, then two dozen. Sometimes they got mixed up and the king was wearing the princess’ wig when he told the knight no. Sometimes both Jack and Nancy were the princess, saying no to each other. Sometimes they were both the knight thrusting swords into each other’s bellies.

The skit wasn’t original. Robert and his friends performed it in the mountains; that’s how Jack knows about it. Even though he’s never seen it at his camp, Jack fears another cabin will do the skit before they have a chance.

Nancy says it doesn’t matter if theirs is the first, last, or the thousandth I’ve come to marry the princesses. Theirs will be the best.

• • • •

It is given that an average camp theater stage is 20’ wide and 14’ deep.

It is given that Jack suffers from a recurring nightmare in which he forgets to stab Nancy in the stomach and kisses her instead.

Quantity A: The speed Jack can run behind the curtain to vomit in a bucket placed there for just this purpose.

Quantity B: (x-2y)(x+2y) = 4.

D. The relationship cannot be determined from the information given.

• • • •

Every Sunday night at summer camp, they have devotions. The counselor reads a passage from something inspirational: the bible, Chicken Soup for the Soul, a favorite novel. It depends a lot on the counselor. Nancy said her counselor liked to read the embarrassing stories from Seventeen magazine so all the girls would know that it wasn’t just them who passed gas in front of boys, or got their first period while wearing white jeans.

“The stories are obviously made up,” Nancy said. “They have to be. Each Sunday we’ve been writing our own entries. Our counselor collects them and mails them off. We’re going to see which of us can be the first to get in.”

This was Nancy’s, published a year after the end of camp:

One time I fell flat on my face at the talent show. One second I was holding the microphone in one hand, and a foam sword in the other, trying to think of a joke to tell and when the spotlight hit my face, my knees locked and I fell. As I lay there I could hear a girl in the front row whisper Is she dead? And I said into the microphone: Not yet. Everyone clapped and I got up and walked offstage.

Jack looked forward to Devotions every week and tried to keep it up the rest of the year. The band counselor played violin and lectured on music theory. In standardized test camp they read admission essays that “made the difference.” In math and science camp, they went stargazing.

Adult camp had no counselor, so Jack improvised.

“This is what we do: we each tell a story. It has to be a true story. If you don’t have one, maybe just tell us about why you’re here. I’ll start. I’m here because my parents forgot to pick me up.”

“I’m here because my house is being tented for termites.”

“I was too cheap to go to Bermuda.”

“I went to Bermuda. It’s overrated.”

“I cut a kid’s chest open when he came into the ER. He had bullet holes in his chest, up near the neck. He was practically dead. So I cut his chest open. When the surgeon got there, she looked at me and said ‘What did you do and why did you do it?’ I cut his chest open, through the breast plate. I used a saw. ‘What did you do?’ the surgeon said. Couldn’t she see I didn’t know? The kid was dying. I’m a doctor. It’s what I do. She said he’d had a heart beat. She wasn’t there. She didn’t know. ‘It’s on the chart,’ she said. She wouldn’t operate. ‘You did this,’ she said. We scared the nurses. The hospital sent us both to anger management. Later, we got divorced. My therapist thought camp would help.”

The doctor left camp the next day. He left Jack his duffel bag full of books. “Sometimes when my wife got called into the ER to do a central line, it wouldn’t take too long and she’d be sent home. Only it was too late to go back to sleep, and too early to go to the office, so she told me she’d go to Wal-Mart and wander the aisles. She said the nice thing about Wal-Mart was it was always open and no one would talk to you. After the divorce I would drive by the parking lot looking for her car. I figure when I finally know what to say to her, she’ll be there.”

“What if she isn’t?”

“Then I’ll say it to somebody else. Hope that egg of yours hatches, Jack.”

• • • •

The morning after the talent show, Jack stole a dozen fish filets the cook was saving for the end-of-camp banquet. He wrapped them in a dishcloth and brought them out to the woods. He thought they’d help him train Pencil.

“Sit,” Jack said. His dragon did nothing.

“Sit,” Jack said. And the dragon did nothing.

“Come,” Jack said. And the dragon did nothing.

Jack figured that one day he and his dragon would develop telepathy of some sort. He didn’t know when that would be.

“Maybe I’ll bring you Nancy. You could eat her instead.” The dragon bit him.

“You’re right, that’s not very nice.”

When he got back to the cabin, the other boys said Nancy had stopped by to tell him that she’d never forgive him and she hoped he died.

“Your girlfriend was pissed,” they said.

“I don’t have a girlfriend,” Jack said.

“Damn straight,” they said.

By lunch everyone was talking about their breakup. About how she’d dumped him. About how she’d thrown bug juice in his face. And how he had cried.

Jack still hadn’t seen Nancy. He pictured her throwing bug juice in someone else’s face. A pretend Jack: a prop from the theater hut done up in Jack clothes and Jack makeup. He imagined the pretend Jack taking it on the chin. Pretend Jack listened to Nancy’s complaints, accepted responsibility, and apologized. Pretend Jack wouldn’t have missed the talent show in the first place. He would’ve left the egg all alone in woods while he pretended to run a foam sword into Nancy’s belly, and Nancy pretended to run a foam sword into his. The other campers would remember Pretend Jack the next summer.

“That was a hell of a skit you did last year, Jack,” they’d say. “I almost believed you both died up there. I was afraid I’d never see you again.”

• • • •

The dragon grew a little every hour. By dinner it was the size of a large dog. By breakfast the next morning, it was the size of a pony. Jack moved the dragon into the theater hut. It was always empty the last week of camp and Jack didn’t want Pencil getting lost in the woods. Jack still didn’t know what it ate. He brought it scraps from the mess: spaghetti, meatloaf, scrambled eggs, but Pencil wasn’t interested. Maybe dragons didn’t need to eat.

• • • •

Nancy and Jack tried revising I’ve Come to Marry the Princess to make it their own. They spent every afternoon in the theater hut. Nancy said it was her favorite place at camp. Jack agreed because it was the only building with air conditioning.

In one of Jack and Nancy’s made-up versions, the princess said yes. The knight said “Great!” and they proceeded to spend forty-five minutes making wedding preparations, passing messages through the guard, king, and queen. The climax of the story was when the guard misheard lilies for daffodils and it turned out the knight was allergic and he died from anaphylactic shock. The princess died from grief. Nancy said it was very important that they both die in the skit, otherwise people wouldn’t know it was supposed to be funny. If only one of them kicked the bucket, then it’d be a different kind of story entirely.

In another, Nancy and Jack developed an elaborate backstory for the knight and the princess. They wrote it out on cue cards to hold up to the audience to read before the skit so they would know the context.

The knight and princess went on a quest together. They fell in love and the knight has finally returned to marry her as he promised, only the princess is really mad it took him so long to get here.

“What if he had a good reason,” Jack asked. “Maybe he went on another quest.”

“Then he should have brought her with him,” Nancy said. “That’s what you’re supposed to do in these situations.”

In another, Nancy played all the parts. Jack stayed behind the curtain. Tech crew. This was Jack’s favorite version. The only time he appeared on stage was to drag Nancy’s body off when she died for the last time. If he wore all black, no one would be able to see him at all.

“Just imagine the entire audience in their underwear,” Nancy said. “And remember that no one will remember you anyway.”

“They will if I throw up all over the first row.”

In another, Nancy answered the door as a dragon, who ate Jack and then the princess.

“Maybe it’s a nice dragon,” Jack said.

“Don’t be stupid. Dragons eat people. It’s what they do.”

In the end, they decided the original version was best.

“But we can keep practicing until you get over your stage fright,” Nancy said. “If you want. I don’t mind.”

• • • •

Each evening, Jack decides to go to Nancy’s cabin first thing in the morning and explain everything. He always chickens out. She’ll want to see Pencil. She’ll want to know why he didn’t tell her about Pencil before. She’ll tell his cousin. His cousin will tell the government. The government will take Pencil and perform experiments in Nevada.

Finally Jack writes a letter to his mother. “If it’s not too much trouble,” he says, “please pick me up early this year. Please come get me on Sunday morning, before everyone else leaves. Before 10 a.m. if possible. I don’t like being the last one.” He knows when his mother picks him up, she’ll ask him why he didn’t say anything before. “I didn’t feel that way before,” he’ll say.

After Jack mails the letter, he feels good. Good enough to walk by Nancy’s cabin to ask for her address so they can keep in touch. He’ll write her a letter when he gets home. “I didn’t need you after all.” When Pencil is grown, he’ll go visit. They can go on quests. They’ll be friends again. Pencil won’t eat anyone. He won’t be that kind of dragon.

His cousin tells him she’s not there. “ How’d you like your first year at camp, Jonathan? Did you love it? Everyone loves it. This is my twelfth summer, you know. If I had a choice, I’d never leave.”

“People with choices always say that.” Jack looks for Nancy on the pier. He looks for her at the soccer fields, baseball, the archery and riflery ranges. No one has seen her. She’s still mad at him.

“Girls,” the boys say. “They get mad and stay mad. It’s what they do.”

Jack looks for her everywhere and at lunch he waits by the flagpole as all the cabins stream past him so he can catch her walking in. She never shows.

Jack runs to the theater hut even though he knows everything will be fine. The door is closed and everything is quiet.

• • • •

Nancy believes (C) that dragons exist. When she meets the dragon, it (C) doesn’t eat her. Nancy (C) teaches the dragon tricks. They become (C) good friends. Nancy (C) forgives Jack. (C) Jack’s mother picks him up at the end of the summer. (C) Everyone lives happily ever after.

• • • •

The afternoon before the talent show, Jack and Nancy decided to do the original version of the skit: I’ve come to marry the princess. I’ll go ask her. No, no, no, a thousand times no.

“You’ll be there, right? You won’t chicken out? I’m counting on you. I’ll never forgive you if you leave me up there all by myself.”

Jack knocks. “I’ve come to marry the princess,” he says.

He knocks again. “I’ve come to rescue the princess.”

He knocks a third time. “I’m going on a quest, and I would like the princess to come with me if she would be so inclined.”

Jack knows that Nancy will open the door and forgive him. He believes it with the certainty of choice; there are no other options.

“He’s such a sweet dragon,” she’ll say. “Why didn’t you say anything before?”

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Helena Bell

Helena Bell

Helena Bell lives somewhere. Her stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, The Indiana Review, and Shimmer Magazine, the anthologies Upgraded and Surreal South ’13, and other publications. She has an MFA in Fiction from North Carolina State University and one in Poetry from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. She’s also a graduate of the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop. If you have any suggestions as to what other programs she should attend, you can contact her via her website ( or Twitter @HelBell.