Read an Excerpt
ASHES TO ASHES: THE DRAGON'S FLAME
It wasn't right.
It wasn't the way it was supposed to have been.
When she'd discovered she was pregnant, Tommy was supposed to insist that they get married immediately.
But instead of putting his arms around her and assuring her that everything would be all right, he'd looked at her with such pure fury blazing in his eyes that she thought he was going to hit her, that he would throw her out of the roadster right then, and she'd have to walk all the way home. "How could you be so stupid?" he demanded. They were parked on the lovers' lane on the slope of North Hill that faced away from Blackstone, and he'd yelled so loud that the people in the backseat of the only other car up there that night had rubbed a clear spot in the steamy window and peered curiously over at them.
She'd shrunk down in the seat, so embarrassed she wanted to die. Then Tommy started the engine and took off, slamming the car through the curves so fast she was terrified they were both going to get killed before they got back to town.
Maybe that would have been better than what happened next. He pulled up in front of her house, reached across and shoved the door open, then glowered at her one last time. "Don't think I'm going to marry you," he growled. "In fact, don't even think you're going to see me again!"
Sobbing, she stumbled out of the car, and he roared away, tires squealing, and disappeared around the corner. A week later, when she heard that Tommy had joined the army and was going to Korea, she knew she had no choice. She had to tell her parents.
She expected her dad to go into a rage,threatening to kill whoever did this to his little girl. When she told him Tommy was in the army, his face blackened with fury and he swore that if the North Koreans didn't kill the stinking son-of-a-bitch coward, he would, no matter how long it took. Her mother demanded to know how a daughter of hers could ever let a man use her the way Tommy had, and sobbed that she would never again be able to look any of her friends in the face.
All of that, she had expected.
What she hadn't expected was what happened the next day: Her parents took her up to the top of North Hill and committed her to the Asylum.
She sobbed and begged. She raged at her father with every bit as much fury as he'd raged at her the day before.
But her parents were implacable. She would stay in the Asylum until the baby was born.
Only then would they decide what would be best for her to do next.
For the first two months, she lived in terror, afraid even to leave her room for fear of what might happen to her. All her life she and her friends had lived in quiet fear of the building at the top of North Hill. All through her childhood there were whispered stories of terrible things that went on up there, and she'd spent more than one sleepless night cowering under her quilt at rumors that one of the "lunatics" had escaped.
The first few nights in the Asylum were the worst. She was unable to sleep, for here there was no quiet at night; instead the hours of darkness were alive with the screams and moans of the tormented souls hidden away within the forbidding stone walls. But slowly her mind became inured to the howls of anguish that echoed through the small hours of the night. Finally she began to venture forth into the dayroom, where she joined the rest of the lower security patients, who whiled away their lives playing endless games of solitaire or thumbing through magazines whose pages they never actually read.
And they smoked.
During her second month in the dayroom, she began smoking too. It passed the time, and somehow numbed the pain of loneliness and hopeless desperation.
As the weeks turned into months, and her belly swelled with the child she was carrying, she began slowly, tentatively to make friends with some of the patients. She even tried to befriend the woman who always sat perfectly still, only her constantly darting eyes betraying her consciousness. But the woman never spoke to her.
One day, the silent woman simply vanished, and though there were stories that the woman had died somewhere in the secret chambers rumored to be hidden deep in the Asylum's basement, she didn't quite believe the talk.
Nor did she quite disbelieve it.
Her family had not come to see her. That was no surprise: Her father was far too angry, her mother too ashamed.
And her two little sisters, both much younger than she, would be far too frightened to brave a visit to the Asylum on their own.
So the months passed.
Today, on a cold March morning after a night in which the howling of the wind had been loud enough to drown out the cries and wails of the Asylum's occupants, she felt the first painful contraction.
She winced as it gripped her body, but didn't let herself cry out, for over the months of her pregnancy she had come to understand that the pain of childbirth would be nothing more than punishment for the sin she and Tommy had committed.
A punishment she had vowed to bear in silence.
Within an hour, though, the contractions were coming every few minutes, and she could no longer bear the pain without crying out. The women in the dayroom called out to one of the orderlies, and the orderly summoned a nurse.
With the pains coming every two minutes, and her body feeling as if it was about to be torn apart, she was strapped onto a gurney and wheeled into a white-tiled room. From the ceiling, three brilliant lights blazed down, nearly blinding her.
The room was cold--close to freezing. The orderlies began to strip her gown from her body. She begged them not to.
They ignored her.
The nurse came in, and the doctor.
As yet another contraction racked her body, she begged them to give her something for the pain, but they only went about their work, ignoring her pleas. "It's not an operation," the doctor curtly told her. "You don't need anything."
Her labor intensified, and then she was screaming, and thrashing against the restraints that held her strapped to the gurney. It seemed to go on forever, wave after wave of pain so intense she was certain she would pass out, until, with one last agonizing spasm, she felt the baby slip from her body.
She lay gasping, trying to catch her breath, her exhausted body still at last. Then she heard it: a tiny, helpless cry. Her baby, the baby for whom she had endured unimaginable pain, was crying out to her.
"Let me see it," she whispered. "Let me hold my baby."
The doctor, his back to her, handed something to the nurse. "It's better you don't," he said. "Better for both of you."
The nurse left the room, and she heard her baby's wails fade away into the distance.
"No!" she cried out, but her voice was pitifully weak. "I have to see my baby! I have to hold it!"
The doctor finally looked at her. "I'm afraid I can't let you do that. It would only make it much harder for you."
She blinked. Harder? What was he talking about?"I--I don't understand--"
"If you don't see it, you won't miss it nearly as much."
"Miss it?" she echoed. "What are you talking about? Please! My baby--"
"But it's not your baby," the doctor said as if talking to a small child. "It's being given up for adoption, so it's better that you not see it at all."
"Adoption?" she echoed. "But I don't want to give--"
"What you want doesn't matter," the doctor informed her. "The decision has been made."
Now a new kind of pain flooded over her--not the sharp pangs of the contractions, which, as violently as they'd seized her body, had quickly dissipated. This was a dull ache that she felt taking root deep within her, which she knew was never going to fade--a spreading coldness that would grow inside her cancerously, filling her with despair, slowly consuming her, leaving her no avenue of escape. She could already feel it uncoiling inside her, and someday, she knew, there would be nothing left of her at all.
There would be nothing left but the pain of knowing that somewhere there was a baby who belonged to her, whom she would never nurse, never hold, never see.
Left alone in the operating room under the cold, merciless lights, she began to cry.
No one came to comfort her.
When she awakened the next morning, she was back in her room, and though her blanket was wrapped close around her, it did nothing to protect her from the icy chill that had spread through her body.
Though she felt utterly exhausted, something drew her from her bed to the window. The landscape beyond the bars was no less bleak than the Asylum's interior: naked gray branches clawed at a leaden sky. Only a wisp of smoke that curled from the chimney of the incinerator behind the Asylum's main building disturbed the cold, silent morning. She was about to turn away when a movement caught her eye--a nurse and an orderly emerging from the Asylum and walking toward the incinerator. It was the same nurse who had been in the operating room yesterday, and the orderly was one of the two who had strapped her to the gurney.
The nurse was carrying an object wrapped in what looked like a small blanket, and even though she could see nothing of what was hidden within the blanket's folds, she knew what it was.
They weren't putting it up for adoption at all.
She wanted to turn away from the window, but something held her there, some need to see exactly what was going to happen, even though the scene had already played itself out in her mind. In the next few moments, as she stood shivering with cold and desperate fear, the scene she had just imagined unfolded before her eyes:
The orderly opened the access port of the incinerator, and the flames within the combustion chamber suddenly flared, tongues of fire licking hungrily at the iron lips of the door. As she watched, the nurse unfolded the blanket.
She beheld the pale, still form of the child she'd brought into the world only the day before.
A scream of anguish built in her throat, erupting in an agonized wail as the orderly closed the incinerator door, mercifully blocking her view of what had been done to her baby. As they turned away from the incinerator, both the nurse and the orderly glanced up at her window, but if they recognized her, neither of them gave any sign. A moment later they too vanished from view.
For a long time she remained at the window, gazing out at the lonely, lifeless landscape that now seemed a perfect reflection of the coldness and emptiness inside her.
Her own fault.
All her own fault.
She should never have told her parents about the baby, never have let them bring her here, never have let them make the decisions that should have been hers.
And now, because of what she'd done, her baby was dead.
At last she turned away from the window, and now her body, as well as her spirit, felt numb. As if in a dream, she left her room and went to the dayroom. Seating herself in one of the hard, plastic-covered chairs, she stared straight ahead, looking at no one, speaking to no one. Hours passed. Sometime late in the afternoon a nurse came into the dayroom and placed a small package in her lap.
"Someone left this for you. A little girl."
It wasn't until long after the nurse had gone that she finally opened the package. She peeled the paper away. Inside was a small box. She opened the box and gazed at the object inside.
It was a cigarette lighter.
Made of a gold-colored metal, it was worked into the shape of a dragon's head, and when she pressed a trigger hidden in its neck, a tongue of flame shot out of the dragon's mouth.
Click. There were the flames that had shot hungrily from the mouth of the incinerator. Click. The fire leaped and consumed her baby.
She held the flame to her arm, and though her nostrils quickly filled with the sickly smell of burning flesh, she felt nothing.
Nothing at all.
Slowly, methodically, she began moving the dragon's flame over her skin, letting the fiery tongue lick at every exposed piece of her flesh, as if its heat could burn away the guilt that was consuming her.
As the rest of the patients in the dayroom silently watched, she burned herself--arms, legs, neck, face--until at last there was no more flesh to torture.
The dragon, its flame finally extinguished, was still clutched in her hand when the orderlies finally came and took her away.
Within the hour, her own body had joined her baby's.
The dark figure's gloved hand closed on the dragon, and he smiled.
It was time.
Time for the dragon, after nearly half a century hidden in this dark lair, to emerge once more into the world beyond these cold stone walls.