The Drummer Girl


Worth reading 😎

Deliriously rich world-building, clever creatures, a winding plot, and a cigar-smoking dragon await. Enjoy the ride.


Years after the suicide of her schizophrenic mother, Detroit-based musician Jing Elwood awakes on Psyche, an asteroid of glittery dunes and oases of bone, where spirit animals feed off “visions” received from Earth. With the help of several such animals, Jing searches out a path home, all the while receiving visions in which her band has fallen apart, the lead singer murdered under puzzling circumstances, and Jing herself is institutionalized and convinced she is living in the third-person perspective. Has she inherited her mother’s disorder? Is Psyche reality? Follow along on Jing's by turns horrifying and enchanting odyssey to discover the strange truth for yourself.

Trigger warnings for this book: suicide, schizophrenia, mental institutionalization, very graphic descriptions of gore and death.

After rousing from a potentially illicit-drug-induced stupor Jing realizes she isn't in Kansas anymore, nor her hometown of Detroit where she's the drummer in a band, or even Earth for that matter: she discovers she has somehow awoken on an asteroid called Psyche. Jing decides also finds herself preyed upon by a cigar-smoking dragon that feeds on her memories, seemingly protected by an elephantine dog. Through Jing's memories, the reader discovers that she remembers being committed to a mental institution called Glenbrook for a possible diagnosis of schizophrenia.

The Drummer Girl was clearly simmering in the author's brain for a significant amount of time. The world-building and descriptions of the features of the world are well-developed and luscious, enabling the reader to picture Psyche in all its fictitious glittering glory. (Speaking of glitter, have you seen the fantastic book cover art?) The creatures inhabiting Psyche as well as the landscapes remind me of Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation trilogy with a bit of Alice in Wonderland kissed by the horror fiction fairy.

Is schizophrenia what caused Jing's mother to take her own life and now wreaking havoc in Jing's own life? Is this diagnosis propping up Psyche as an schizophrenic-grade illusion, or is Glenbrook trying to tamp down Psyche? Is the asteroid, Psyche, ironically named? Is this all a really bad trip? While I can't recommend eating while doing so, I do recommend reading The Drummer Girl to find out.

Reviewed by

Owner of a very expensive piece of paper that assures me I am a Master of Library and Information Science. Loves weird and speculative fiction (especially horror fiction!), the Oxford comma, bluegrass, and foxes.


Years after the suicide of her schizophrenic mother, Detroit-based musician Jing Elwood awakes on Psyche, an asteroid of glittery dunes and oases of bone, where spirit animals feed off “visions” received from Earth. With the help of several such animals, Jing searches out a path home, all the while receiving visions in which her band has fallen apart, the lead singer murdered under puzzling circumstances, and Jing herself is institutionalized and convinced she is living in the third-person perspective. Has she inherited her mother’s disorder? Is Psyche reality? Follow along on Jing's by turns horrifying and enchanting odyssey to discover the strange truth for yourself.

The alarm clock crumbles when I touch it, and the music stops. Confused by the unexpected grittiness, I open my eyes and find I’m outdoors, my jeans and panties are pulled down, tangled around one calf, bra twisted about my stomach beneath my t-shirt. Pulse quickening, I rise to my knees and examine myself—no soreness, no blood or bruising, my inner thighs and pubic hair clean. Breathing a sigh of relief, I shimmy and shift my clothes back into place with a quick glance around.

No one in sight. Thank God.

I settle back down, shutting my eyes and massaging my temples. My head throbs. A chalky and bitter taste fills my mouth.

I squint at my digital watch, but the battery has died, the face blank.

Where is this?

I scan my surroundings. The ground sweeps up to the crest of high, glittery dunes. The sky is marigold, the air cool; feels like evening.

The river maybe?

No sign of water, no buildings, not even a scrap of litter—nothing but the dazzling sand waves arcing and humping into the distance, the rush of wind.

Several yards away I spot a spiky, black lump porcupining out of the sand—my purse. I crawl over and unearth it. Flick open the clasp, check for my bank cards, pull out my cash.

I count it—three hundred and change. All there. Wasn't robbed.

I pull out my compact and shake my short black hair free of sand, brush a caking of it from my face, and clean the various facial piercings.

I snap it shut and stow it away. My fingers graze against the snakewood handle of the straight razor at the bottom of my purse and linger there a moment, then they shift to the mashed pack of Camels. I coax out a cigarette—only three more misshapen smokes left—fish around for my lighter, and shield from the wind as I light it.

I study the dunes. The things are huge, big as buildings. Hell, they could be buildings. I probably dropped some acid after the show. This could all be happening in one room of the Compound or my apartment or anywhere.

Part of me wants to get up and explore, but it’s probably safer to wait until all of this sand melts back into graffitied sprawl or whatever reality underlies it. Then I’ll take a cab home, clean up, call Bower and explain what happened. Should have been packed and at the Compound by 6AM to load the bus—but, then, it’s only an hour drive from Detroit to Toledo anyway, and the first gig of the tour isn’t until tomorrow.

Gathering my knees into my chest, I take a deep drag off the cigarette and gaze up at the sky, at a thrilling show of planetoids floating and spinning across the sky.

Seems selective what the LSD has metamorphosed—everything but me. I smell old beer on my t-shirt, taste the thickening of smoke on my lips, feel the solidity of the tongue stud pressing against my palate.

As if to stress this point, tongues of rainbow aurorae lick their way into life on the horizon.

Another voice whispers Ma to me, wanting me to turn my mind towards her, but I’m not willing to follow it there. Not yet.

The taste of the cigarette begins to rankle, the smoke stinging my eyes. Extinguish it. Return it to the pack. By now mounds of wind-shifted sand have pooled around my red sneakers. If I linger here too much longer, I’ll be buried alive in this stuff—whatever it is.

I look back up towards the lights on the horizon, and it strikes me that what I'm seeing is the neon breath of the city—bars, music clubs, strip joints. Nightlife. Young woman tripping balls at night in one of the desolate burbs... I should move.

I stand and approach the nearest dune. About a hundred feet tall. I scramble up on all fours, expecting any moment for the sand to reassemble into brick or stone, but it stays obdurate and beautiful—like the detritus of an eroded pearl mountain. The snow-crunch of my feet and palms against the fine sand sends shivers up my spine.

Snakes of sandy wind whip up and past me, to the apex, where they fork and merge and slither over the hump. When I reach the peak, my eyes track across the countless dunes shrinking into the distance, drawn beyond them, towards the aurorae, to a crystalline mountainscape breathing in the light of the setting sun and singing it back into the sky in shimmering bands.

The sight is so gorgeous, I unconsciously plop down on my ass, my eyes scrabbling for purchase on the peculiar angles of the jeweled frostwork, and getting lost in the circuitry of light.

Detroit refracted through the acid lens.

How I’d wandered so far from downtown during the blackout is beyond me, but what matters now is to try and get my bearings at some landmark within the city. Work out the path home from there.

* * *

The first handful of dunes make for a fun journey—climbing up to the peaks and then bounding down. The novelty of this acid world is enough to entertain me—corkscrew horns of opalescent rock jutting out of the ground; caterpillars the size of trains, bedecked in spiny sails, coursing over the desert, ejecting sand spray out of their blowholes; a giant horse napping in a dune valley, regarding me dreamily as I pass by.

Up and down dune after dune, minutes of walking turn to hours—or they seem to. The sky, the sun, resist the advances of time. The sun has swept across the ice bloom horizon, casting everything in rainbow, but it looks no closer to setting than it had when I had set out.

The fun starts to flag.

Walking devolves into trudging.

By the time the sun has traversed the entire distance of crystal and reemerged, my throat is parched; I’m queasy with hunger.

Search my purse. In the far corner, a hoary cough drop has become entangled in the lining. I unstick it, prune as much lint and hair off as possible, then pop it into my mouth. Tastes grainy and metallic at first, but eventually the soothing menthol bursts forth. Keeps hunger at bay a while longer.

Time drags on.

Despite the cool air, a light sweat has blossomed under my arms and down my back.

My feet stumble along, then stop working altogether.

I drop down at the base of a dune and close my eyes for a few minutes, massaging the pressure points around them with thumb and forefinger the way Ma had taught me.

How could I have walked so far and gotten nowhere? It must have been ten miles at least, half a day of walking, and yet the city/mountains seem no nearer than when I’d set out.

When I didn’t show up for the bus this morning, the others must have gone knocking at my apartment, circled around my neighborhood, called around. Would they have reported me missing to the police? Maybe it hasn’t been as long as I sense it has. Maybe the acid has mucked with my sense of time. Desolate as it is, it must still be late into the night.

I consider smoking the second half of the cigarette, but my lips are far too cracked to make the experience enjoyable.

Then I remember my lipstick.

I turn over on my side, take it from my purse, twist up the angled, electric purple column. Can’t remember if this is also a balm, but it’s worth a try.

I lick my stinging, papery-white lips, spit out sand, then apply the lipstick, shifting around my lip ring with practiced ease, press my lips together, and pucker up for the warped reflection in the worn metal cap. It alleviates the pain somewhat.

I pull out the half-smoked cigarette, light it up, and knead my hands into the painful knot of my stomach.

* * *

A sunlit, bare stairwell, the landing sky blue linoleum.

A girl is seated in an Oriel window, smoking, reading a novel, now and again glancing up at the courtyard beyond, where wind stirs the falling leaves. She's slim, with large black eyes and small pug nose, her short hair uneven, the color of squid ink. A constellation of facial piercings glint in the autumn light. She wears black jeans, red sneakers, and hoodie, the rolled-up sleeves revealing a bandage wrapped around her left wrist. Tattoos sprout around its edges—alien flowers and color exploding out of intricate, black liana.

A man calls out from below, the words indistinct.

The girl snuffs out the cigarette in the ashtray on the windowsill, gathers up her things, and dissolves.

* * *

The sun has set, the sky aglow with a glitter spill of stars—no industrial-brown night. I’ve been half-buried, the cigarette butt glued to my sand-encrusted lips, ember a warm memory.

That was me in that sublimely mundane dream.

How long was I asleep?

Disinterring my arms, I pull at the butt, stretching the flesh an inch away from my face before it snaps off, and my lip recoils, stinging and offended with the coppery heat of blood.

I stretch out my arms. Something pricks my left hand. Stiffly propping myself up on one elbow, I dig up the spiked purse, empty out all the sand. I find my compact and open it.

Maybe it was some kind of wish-fulfilment fantasy, a dream of safety and normalcy.

Now back to this weirdness.

I examine my lip in the reflection. A black pearl of blood has beaded out of the crusted blue of my mouth, limned in a turquoise light.


I turn my head towards the source of this illumination. Several moments of blinking brings the phosphorescent aura into focus—a glowing copse nestled in the dune valley a hundred yards away, teeming with outlandish fungi and plants and stones.

I put away my compact and zip up my purse, rise and start approaching the inviting glow, when my footsteps falter.

Not stones, I realize—bones.

The flora-camouflaged skeleton—a bull’s—is enormous, its horns spanning forty feet or more. Massive roots fork out of its gaping mouth; tangles of vines and cacti weave skyward through the overturned rib cage in a sumptuous tapestry; pink sunflowers gopher out of its eye sockets and the cracks in its fallen god skull.

I continue forward and at the verge of the oasis breathe in the thick, living air, a welcome relief from the biting dry of the white sands. The place sounds alive too—clicking and skittering, humming and chirping—and is riddled with fabulous insects: jellyfish spiders; scuttling anemones; glowing, roly-poly-like worms, some big as cats, staring at me out of milky eyes, flexing their bizarre mouthparts as if in greeting.

I wander inward, winding between the bone pillars, steering away from the curious insects. Ahead, it opens up into a small clearing—very few bugs here—a good place to study the flora, maybe find some food. I was under the impression that desert oases flourish around a water source, but it doesn’t seem to be the case here.

In the clearing, I scan to see what my options are. Difficult to choose what might be edible: polyhedral fruits, elephantine mushrooms, rubbery flowers. One of the latter catches my eye. A red spider lily. Leafless, taller than me, its bloom a knot of fiery snakes.

I pluck one of the oversized petals, remembering how as a child I’d seen Ma in the garden stuffing one of these flowers into her mouth—during one of her lucid seasons.

Then it occurs to me I’ve abandoned all reason, taking the acid world at face value. On the tail of this thought, I searchingly re-examine my surroundings, attempting to link the components of the oasis to the layout of a more mundane place.

A convenience store maybe?

The bones might be shelving or architecture, the fruits goods on the shelves, the maggots... Christ knows. But what about a cashier? Other customers?

“Hello?” I say, voice rasping.

The only response is the scurrying of insects, the clatter of the tendril tree branches waving in the wind, and beneath it all the whispered promise of erosion.

“I’m going to eat this now,” I announce, creaking my way back into a more human tone. I take a five-dollar bill out of my purse. “I’ve got money. Anyone? I’m dropping the cash here.”

The folded bill flutters out of my hand, and I stuff the petal into my mouth, probe the texture and flavor: silky, a little tangy. After swallowing, I pause, monitoring my body for a reaction. When the most that happens is a few questioning grumbles from my stomach, I strip off more petals and continue eating, chewing with more gusto than before. After three petals I’m not full but have at least staved off hunger for a little longer.

Whatever it is I just ate, it hasn’t killed me.

Saw off several short stalks of the umbel with my razor and begin to head back the way I’d entered.

Several feet into the return journey, a queasiness hits; a numbness spreads down my limbs; a seed begins to grow in my head, right behind the eyes. It balloons into a lemony cloud, lifting, relieving my feet of the weight of my limp body, filling me with the visceral thrill of soaring.

For several yards I float along, mind pulsing with a sense of harmony and love for this wondrous oasis—before collapsing head first into the ground.

* * *

The woman, elegant, with short gray hair and a slightly masculine face, smokes as much as Jing.

A small office, the sound of their conversation muffled, the image of the two of them is scrambled, colors wavering, moments superimposed over each other. Jing is sparing with her words.

All of her piercings have been removed.

She no longer wears her studded, faux-leather belt.

The woman lights cigarettes for her.

The vision flickers out.

* * *

Hundreds of pinpricks jolt me back into the oasis.

Glowing worms are swarming over my body, chewing through my clothes, through my skin.

I whip and writhe, flinging the things from me, then struggle to my feet and swat at my chest and limbs and beat them out of my hair. Someone is screaming, keening. It’s me, my voice, fleeing my body like some exorcized demon. The woods quiver in pandemonium as more and more bugs flash out of the darkness, mouthparts flittering hysterically. One ferret-sized worm has burrowed into my thigh, sucking with zest, pulses of red spiraling through the semi-translucent maze of its innards. I yank at the thing, the flesh pulling away, then it rips loose, a piece of me clamped in its mandibles, blood gurgling out of the wound. The creature flip-flops out of my grasp, circling back and latching onto my arm. I try to shake it, wrench it off, but it has me in a vise-like grip, dangling there, guzzling my life.

The razor.

On the ground by my bag and the lily stalks.

I drop to one knee, trap the wriggling thing beneath my free foot, flick open the blade, and hack away. The exoskeleton is tough as thick, plastic packaging, but I manage to slice it open, releasing a stream of ripe, blood-streaked juice. Jab inward, twist back and forth, exacerbating the fountain. The thing squeals, loosening its grip. When it does, I stand and stomp down, popping its head open, then snatch up my purse and bolt.

Everything has turned carnivorous, grown lunging and chattering mouthparts.

I dodge and scrape up against boles of coral and powdery mushroom stalks, knocking the things off me.

Then I’m out in the cool, dry air. A star-dusted sky. Lovely, lovely, lovely barren sand.

I strip down, shaking with revulsion. Inspect every inch of my clothes and naked body. I find and kill twenty or so of the creatures, some as tiny as grains of rice, before finally reclothing. Even then I’m not satisfied—can’t shake the feeling that maybe one of them had managed to tunnel its way inside. A microscopic one. Maybe it’s laying eggs in there.

No. No. No.

After minutes of retching and deep breathing and gagging the panicky inner monologue, my hands steady out.

I’m Zen.

Back at the oasis, the worms have congregated near the bones at the tree line, facing out towards me, mouth-parts chattering.

* * *

Blood is still spurting weakly from both my arm and leg, but they’re the only bites that demand any attention. I rip the left sleeve off my t-shirt. Split it lengthwise. Bind both wounds as well as I can, mind working back over what had happened.

Ate a flower.

Had a seizure.

Weaker now than before the poison test.

What’s more vexing is my inability to link this event to the real world, assuming, of course, that all this is just a phantasmal gauze over reality.

In which case, I just stripped naked in public.

Christ, Jing.

I yell out into the night for help, for anyone that can hear me to call an ambulance. I scream myself hoarse, but only the wind and the distant chatter of insects answer—mockingly, I think. I stare out at the desert, towards the city/mountains, their snowflake spires glimmering in a vista between dune peaks, no closer now than they had been when I started out.

* * *

After several hours of walking, the sun rises behind me, no longer skirting the horizon as it had once done but moving in a wide arc, the sky at long last brightening into a friendly blue with scudding clouds. The day grows hot, then sizzling. I retreat into the shadow of a rock outcropping and wait out the sun. The sand is blinding. When I squeeze my eyes shut and stare into a black and orange nightmarescape behind my eyelids, I fear it has burned a permanent afterimage onto my retina.

I get snatches of sleep, dreaming of television static and ribbons of distorted space, and wake at sunset.

Continue wandering.

No secret cough drop to be found in my purse, I try eating a dollar bill, till my tongue ejects the mushy gray-green wad of fiber. Every hour or so I peer into my bag and feel the pockets of my ever-loosening jeans, expecting to discover something missed. There’s a scrap of paper with a guy’s phone number on it. Name doesn’t ring a bell. Stuff it into my mouth. Not as bad as the money, easier to chew, but it leaves me slobbering and more nauseated. Later I try the ticket stub from a show and gag.

The night suddenly grows cold, and I bury myself in the sand, breathing down the collar of my tattered shirt to warm myself. More static dreams.

I wake with bitter surprise, and a touch of dissociated fascination—how long can this go on?

Should have stayed by the oasis. Stayed there and systematically tried a little of each type of plant. Maybe even a worm.

But it’s too late for that now.

My jeans have begun to slip down my waist, forcing me to tighten my belt to the very last hole—still not quite tight enough.

Night and day come and go, seeming with no consistency in duration. Sometimes the sun never sets. Sometimes the night stretches on so long, frost films the sand.

The pain of hunger and fatigue and worm bites burn down to faint, morning campfire embers hidden beneath fine, gray ash. My throat is parched and sealed, a layer of grit cemented over every inch of me, eyes sun-dazzled. The only thing keeping me staggering forward is a hair’s breadth of obstinacy, but at last even that hair’s breadth snaps, and when it does, my white-caked sneakers cease shuffling, my remains sway in the wind, a wheeze issuing from my constricted throat, then my worm-bitten leg buckles, bringing me to my hands and knees, the shifting sand beginning to bury my limbs, foreshadowing what I’ll become—a sister dune to all the other wanderers that drowned in the sand.

Still, though, the faint embers of sentience glow on in the ash.

When I move, it’s from a far-off place, like in the dreams I had many days ago—removed a few steps from myself. Pull out the razor, unfold it, then sit back and draw it down the tattoo of the exposed left wrist.

Blood gushes out onto the sand. A startling garnet. The only color in the world.

The white sand drinks it up darkly.

The wind petrifies its shine.

I topple over.

* * *

My lips are wet. Something is dripping onto them.

I lick at it.

Sweet, cool.

It sparks the drive in me, and I open my eyes to a confusing sight—as if some desert plant had sprouted out of my mouth, a cactus, chartreuse and smooth, with sporadic spine clumps.

Dangling over my head, its juices trickling into my mouth.

Beyond the cactus, planted in a field of snow, a large black eye watches me. I incline my head to let the juice wash down my throat, body returning to life, then reach up and grab the arm, pricking my fingers, and pull it down to my mouth. The full weight of it transfers into my hands as the eye recedes, and the beast comes into focus—a white Alsatian massive as a truck, black bowling ball eyes ringed orange in the dying light.

I study her as I replenish myself. When it’s emptied, I drop the cactus arm, then lie back down—a flash of pain. Remembering suddenly that I’d been... did I actually do it? I shift the weight off my throbbing left arm and look down.

Split flesh and pinkish black grit. I curse, gritting my teeth, a complex of embarrassment and remorse heating my face. I fight the urge to touch the grisly fissure and verify it isn’t some horror-movie make-up job.

Can’t be real. I can’t have done that to myself.

The dog approaches, sniffing with the hot force of a blow-dryer, its animal odor rolling over me. Too weak to escape, I can only cringe, eyes shut, as it licks my wounded wrist. I moan and grimace at the pain, but let it continue. After suffering several buffets of the tongue, I open my eyes and watch the giant, purple alien washing over the bloodied, skinny arm, the bifurcated arabesque, each slather clearing away more blood-pink sand.

I reach out with my good arm and stroke the dog’s head, hand disappearing into the velvety, white fur. Too busy with its cleaning work, the dog doesn’t seem to mind. It blinks rapidly with each tongue lash. In between each blink I spot my reflection: emaciated beneath the ghostly patina of sand, ripped jeans marbled with blood, one-armed t-shirt loose and worm-eaten, hair matted down against the head with the ashy plaster of oil and desert, purple lips blanched to periwinkle. There’s something else in the large eyes besides me, in the distance, colors strident even through the obsidian lens, its size and elongated shape distorted by the fish-eye reflection.

“I know what you’re thinking.” The serpentine form stirs in the eye mirror. “‘How is it I’m still alive?’ Well, you have me to thank for that.” At once soothing and unctuous, the voice speaks in subtly-intoned Chinese.

The dog growls as I turn.

Coiled on the sand, its crocodile jaws resting on interdigitating claws, eyes a marble of roiling white and celeste fire half-shaded by scaly lids, steam curling out of every orifice of its body, spiny tail flicking up a cloud of sand—the dragon stares back at me.

As I cower back against the dog, wide-eyed, the rainbow-scaled monster unfolds its claws, revealing a bamboo leaf cigar, places it in the corner of its mouth, and puffs luxuriantly.

“It wasn’t my intention to startle you.”

I open my mouth to speak, but no sound escapes.

“A ‘thank you’ would be in order. If it were not for my intervention, you would certainly have become oasis food. The dog helped, of course, but only with my strong encouragement.”

Viewed from the front, it’s difficult to read the dragon’s expression, all that’s visible being the teeth, the fiery white mane and wispy beard, and those eyes with their mesmerizing purls of fire, but as it turns its head, blowing the cigar smoke away from me, I can see its broad, toothy smile—row after row of bone swords.

“Okay.” I clear my throat. “In that case: thanks.” My eyes wander over the many loops and knots of its endless body, failing to grasp its full length.

“Dog, go and fetch our friend something to eat.”

Though seeming reluctant to obey orders, the dog finally huffs and saunters off, the earth trembling beneath its massive paws. It soon reaches a distant floral grove, which I don’t recall having seen before when I’d fallen to my knees and slit my wrist, but at the time I hadn’t been aware of much else besides the plodding movement of my body up and down the dunes. Remembering what had happened, I have the impression of viewing a black and white film; silent, grainy, devoid of any sense but the simple flickering square of vision.

While the Alsatian busies itself with its task, the dragon rests its head in the crook of a dwarfish arm, its smoldering eyes still locked onto me. Unsettled by its gaze, I rip off a portion of my right sleeve, beat as much sand out of it as possible, and wrap up the cleaned wound, securing one end with clenched teeth and using my right hand to tie a snug knot. I use the opportunity to scan the ground around me for the razor.

Nowhere in sight.

The dog returns with a beach ball of a mushroom clenched in its jaws, drops it on the ground, and nudges it towards me. In the dying light of the day, the fungus glows only weakly. I remember having seen such mushrooms before when I’d ventured into the oasis of the dead bull—large, pockmarked puffballs growing in bulbous clumps—and hadn’t for a second considered eating one.

“Well, go ahead and eat up. It won’t hurt you, and you do look famished.”

I lift the mushroom, spongy and unexpectedly light-weight, rotating it to find an area clear of drool and sand. When at last I settle on a dry spot, for good measure I wipe it with my hand, then start to take a bite, when my lips sting from stretching too wide. Instead, I pinch off a piece and place it on my tongue, testing the texture and flavor.

Chewy, woody.

“Tastes like a mushroom,” I mumble, relieved, then tear off more pieces to pop into my mouth.

“Your first?” The dragon holds in the cigar smoke, then lets it drift out of its nostrils and eyes.

“Not exactly,” I manage in between mouthfuls, watching as the dog returns to the grove to gobble up her own dinner. I turn back to the dragon. “I’ve had mushrooms before. Just nothing like this. Saw these earlier but wasn’t sure if they were safe. I suppose I still might not know for a while.”

Each word stings, but it’s nice to talk. How long, how many days has it been since I spoke with someone—or something?

“The dog seems to likes them, but then again, dogs do not discriminate when it comes to food.”

“I guess I’m feeling a little gun shy.” I stuff in a piece of puffball. “I ate a flower a few days back. Didn’t go so well.” Another bite. “I’ve been wandering for days it seems with nothing to eat or drink. I should’ve been dead long ago.”

“Well, you’d better eat your fill.” It points its cigar at me, the blue of its unblinking eyes deepening.

“Okay...” Something in the look makes my skin crawl. I lapse into silence and continue eating, listening to the slurping and gnashing of the dog at the oasis, wishing it would hurry and return, all the while watching the dragon out of the corner of my eye. What the hell is this thing I’m conversing with? A freight truck?

“By the way”—I turn to the dragon—“do you know how to get to Jefferson Avenue from here? I’m trying to find my apartment building.”

“Jefferson Avenue?” it laughs. “How long did you say you’ve been wandering around? Days?”

My chewing slows. “What do you mean? Are we not near... I haven’t entered Canada, have I?”

“Canada? That’s even better.” The dragon puffs. “You wards are so full of surprises, but I have to say that you, girl, have been particularly slow to catch on.”

I gulp down a large bit of unchewed mushroom. My throat feels thick, resistant.

The gourmand’s soundtrack ends, and the dog trots back over and lies down beside me, resting her muzzle on her forepaws. I look over at the dog, wondering if she can understand the conversation. She had, after all, followed instructions more complicated than a simple “Fetch!”

“Well, where am I?”

“How about I give you a hint and test how clever you are? A hint, mind you, about where we are not.” Without waiting for a response, it gestures towards the sky. “Look up. That’s right. Away from the mountains, towards those dunes on the horizon. You see those three bright stars in succession? Directly above the middle one surrounded by a pentagon of stars, what do you see?”

A sapphire star. No, not a star. It doesn’t blink.

The word is on my lips, though I hesitate uttering it. I’m afraid to. It’s absurd.

“Earth?” I whisper finally. “You mean this isn’t Earth?”

“I’m impressed. That was rather quick, though perhaps the hint was too obvious.”

“No, wait. It’s the acid, Jing. The acid. Did I even really slit my wrist?” I probe my arm beneath the make-shift bandage. The throbbing pain is all too real.

“Yes, the slitting of the wrist did happen.”

“Okay... then it must be that I’m in the hospital—that’s what it is I’ve been seeing!—and you’re a doctor or nurse or something—or I’m in a coma—I don’t know.”

“Wrong again. Let’s give you a hand and end this tedious guessing game. This is Psyche.” It waves its cigar in a wide, encompassing circle.

“Of course it is.” I click my tongue stud against the back of my teeth. “My psyche, altered by drugs.”

“No, no. You misunderstand me: Psyche the asteroid, not psyche the mind of a solipsistic girl.”

I blink.

“It’s in the asteroid belt.”

“Asteroid belt.” I run my fingers through my sand-caked hair, disturbing an eye-stinging white rain. “Assuming I am on some asteroid, how exactly did I get here from Earth?”

“Oh, there are ways.”

I pause to consider this vague response. The dog, body slumping, begins to snore. I look up at the darkening sky, the splendor of satellites, then turn back towards the dragon.

“Go ahead and ask,” it sighs.

“It’s just that the atmosphere here... Earth is the only planet with an atmosphere that can sustain life, at least the only one I’m aware of. If there were another in the Solar System—”

“The tedium is creeping back in, girl. Clearly there’s an atmosphere, or else we would not be having this conversation.”

I shake my head. “I’ve lost my mind. Simple as that.”

“My advice would be for you to accept the situation you’re in and move on from there. The sooner you stop questioning everything, the sooner we will begin to enjoy ourselves.”

My chewing slows.

Enjoy ourselves. Enjoy ourselves.

“You said there are ways to get to Psyche from Earth. How exactly? And what about going back? How do I get out of this place?”

“I’ve not personally looked into these matters, but I imagine if you can come, you can leave. But anyway, let’s not rush to parting when we’ve only just met. For example, we haven’t even begun to discuss how you plan on repaying me.”

“‘Repaying you?’”

“Yes. For having saved your life. Surely there must be something owed for that tiniest of favors.” It smiles, relishing the cigar smoke, over-pleased with itself.

“Well, I don’t have anything to offer you, except three cigarettes”—I glance around and pick up my purse, eyes darting over the ground again, desperate to land on the razor—“a few hundred dollars Earth money”—no sign of it, probably the wind buried it along with the puddle of blood—“lipstick—”

“You do yourself little credit. You have plenty more to offer than these trivialities, and you are going to give me what is owed whether you want to or not. Don’t worry: I won’t hurt you as long as you acquiesce to my conditions.”

“What conditions?”

It tosses the cigar stub, cracks the knuckles of its claws, and then rears up on its short hind legs, its sinuous back popping as it stretches up to its full height, tall as a mature oak, much larger than I had judged it when it had only been knotted in comfort on the sand. The idea of defending myself with a razor officially becomes ludicrous.

“I want you to feed me.”

My heart skips. Of course. It’s going to eat me. I’ve known this all along. Known it since I first laid eyes on those vicious crocodile jaws, the way the saliva glistens on them.

“Feed you?” At some point my hands had clawed into the sand. I manage to dislodge them. “You mean, like, um, give you mushrooms to eat?”


It twists back down with a flair. Standing on all four of its stunted arms and legs, it arches and shakes off the languor, then flicks a long, narrow tongue across the points of its teeth.

“No, not mushrooms,” I whisper.

Those fangs would be wasted on mushrooms. However, even as this thought occurs to me, the dragon surprises me: “You will feed me consciousness, visions, your Earth energy.”

It begins to slither around the dog and me, arms and legs tucked into its sides, an intense heat radiating out with it.

Consciousness? The vein in my temple begins to throb.

“The condition is this”—it disappears behind the hulking mound of the dog—“if you do not give me what I ask, I will suck your cortex out through your eye socket.” Its head pokes around from behind the dog, gnashing teeth inches from my nose, the heat building.

The dog stirs, growling, hackles bristling.

The dragon shifts course and rotates onto its back while still somehow managing to worm over the sand, then begins to coil around on top of the ring its long body has created. “Now, on the other hand, if you do feed me as requested, I will allow you to live on together with me on Psyche.”

“Wonderful. Thanks.”

“I do not prefer the excerebration route—it is rather messy—but I have no qualms with doing what is necessary.”

It snakes under itself, creating a mesmerizing wall of shifting rainbow, the air roasting and reeking of sulfur. Drops of sweat start to bead my brow. Then it coils past, settling back down at its previous, more decorous, distance, eyes wide and burning. The sizzling heat washes away on the blessed wind.

“You may begin,” it says, eyes flashing brighter than ever.

I look away, trying to clear my mind of thoughts of dragons, staring out towards the crystal blooms barely cresting the nearest dune.

Consciousness, visions, Earth energy...

The dwarf stars of its eyes have burned a hole in my mind, a black hole leaking out all thought, all reality... then it occurs to me—the visions of me.

Without realizing how it happens, I feel my mind swell, hear voices burbling out of the silence, watch as colors occlude my mind’s eye. Something clenches and squeezes my head, and the flood of consciousness, suddenly much stronger and clearer than it had been before, overbears me, and the energy blasts out of me and into the dragon:

About the author

Tim Boiteau lives in Michigan with his wife and son. He is a Writers of the Future winner and holds a PhD in experimental psychology. His short fiction has appeared in venues such as Deep Magic, Dream of Shadows, and LampLight. view profile

Published on June 01, 2020

Published by Branching Realities

100000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Genre: Horror

Reviewed by