Once Bitten Twice Shy by Dan A. Cardoza

Content warning: child abuse.

The Headmaster scolded him for burning and biting his skin, and all he could do was apologize to his stepmother. Later that night, Mum beat Aayan within an inch of his life for not wearing a long sleeve shirt in July.

New research shows that Komodo dragon bites kill from a bacteria, toxin, and a newly discovered venom.

A close friend’s invitation to Heliot’s Steakhouse in London was worthy of acceptance. In spite of the erudite Grosvenor Crescent and Courtenay Avenue crowd, Aayan found a way to fit in.

Of course, it required an ever-so-modest shoehorn fit, and a lifetime of willpower to convey the appearance of confidence. His Shepherd’s Bush upstart roots deeply buried.

~~~

“I’ll have my usual, Johnnie Walker, Blue Label Ghost – neat.”

In matters of societal branding and blueblood decorum, his go-to Bombay Sapphire gin and tonic wouldn’t do. Besides, how we British love our James Dean swagger in the way we order our booze.

Such brazen requests kept him inconspicuous, yet he worried beads he’d stood out like a Cockney popped knuckle. He felt himself an awkward fit in his House of Testoni loafers.

~~~

Before ordering dinner, his hearing betrayed him again. That hissing sound coming from the bowels of the kitchen. Aayan ruled out the burble of a pressure cooker and the hallmark clamor of a flambé torch. To him, it was more like the grinding teeth of a Komodo dragon. He imagined the creature lapping its varanid forked tongue in a bowl of beef hock and marrow broth. Then came the caterwauling and bawling as it lurched, flicking its tongue for the scent of red meat.

No one appeared puzzled at his table as the creature labored and clawed the length of the hallway, from kitchen to elegant dining hall, making its presence known directly behind Aayan. He recognized the familiar slither of scales and stink, the rot of chordate jowl.

His friends scarcely raised a pompous nose tip or waxed brow. Yet Aayan obsessed over his Leviathan.

Emboldened by the company he kept, Aayan fancied himself a great success. He recalled, when high, how he’d won the Battles of Waterloo, the Somme, and Omaha Beach for those crazy Americans. He’d battled the Francos, crushed their armies. Now they were only capable of dabbing escargot to death with French bread and butter, stacking the empty shells, as dull as gunnysacks, in discarded rows. Since he’d ordered the expensive hors d’oeuvres, he felt himself uniquely honored.

Before he requested his usual bone-in ribeye, nearly raw, he and the server, Paul, locked eyes.

Aayan imagined himself screaming at him, “Paul, for the love of the Queen, I beg you, please tell me I’m not going crazy.”

Directly behind Aayan fumed the stench of his Komodo dragon, his stepmother’s ghost. Mum died some twelve years prior.

She flicked her usual vile tongue. “Use your damask napkin, Aayan. You weren’t your father’s favorite. Cut one piece of meat at a time. You had so much potential. Look into, not over your glass when drinking your water. You ass, you drank two marriages to death. Sit up straight, elbows off the table. Emily left you for a postie. Bet your God-damned letters have stamps as heavy as anchors.”

Aayan couldn’t help but shout, “Quiet, fuck’s sake!” The breath on his neck was fire. The dining hall grew silent.

Aayan smiled and pretended the heat from the burning furnace was not the Basilisk. He would tolerate its anger and thirst for attention until his steak arrived. The Komodo dragon settled, sat on her haunches, and patiently waited.

Aayan resolved all his complicated thoughts were from hunger.

When his ribeye arrived, it was sizzling, bloody rare. Spears of asparagus and sautéed Idaho potatoes served as honor guards for the marbled cut. Best of all, it was as thick as an elephant’s trunk.

After his sumptuous supper, he stopped server Paul in mid-sentence. “Please, no Choccywoccydoodah dessert, I’m stuffed, dying here.”

~~~

It could be nothing or anything that makes one use. Last time, it was a commonplace hamburger and fries. After the meal, he started Marlboros again. It could be as elemental as a tiny goddamned dilemma, or as consequential as being run over by a freight train.

Aayan began to feel the sticky rub of scales on his shoulders. The boa constrictor sensation had returned. The winding vapor slithered around his neck. It was all too familiar. Inhaling once again was life and death.

As a distraction, Aayan thrust both arms in the air. “Server, check, please?”

After, all his friends and new acquaintances thanked him. At Heliot’s, paying for things was just something you did to fit in. Aayan had experienced a lifetime of this.

Aayan autographed his Visa slip, included a generous tip, and gave next month’s rent away.

~~~

“Shepherd’s Bush?” queried the invading Liverpool cabbie.

Aayan asked, “How did you know that?”

The cabbie was wrongly smug. He paused. “Hmm, lucky guess, mate.” Then he quickly turned from Aayan, pausing his clumsy interrogation. As he scouted for traffic to calm, with his head out the window, he watched his tip fly off into the night. It disappeared like a bat into black.

~~~

Later, as midnight shook evil awake, Aayan awaited slaughter. After all, he’d been followed home by the Komodo dragon.

The name ‘Aayan’ means ‘strong as a wolf.’ He felt more like a mongrel.

In his flat, he sat at the kitchen table and peered through the patio door into abysmal shiny blackness. In the reflection, he saw fathomless pain.

He knew he could no longer keep the dragon muzzled.

~~~

Across the street from Aayan, in a softly lit second story window, a mother is nurturing her baby boy with a warm bottle, just before the break of a rouged dawn. He has so much potential. In the purity that is darkness, she looks across at the diminutive flickering light, reflected in tinfoil.

She calmly watches as Aayan is ingested again in smoke and fire.

~|elegant-themes~|elegant-themes-icon~|

Dan A. Cardoza

Dan A. Cardoza's poetry, nonfiction, and fiction have met international acceptance. He has an M.S. in education from C.S.U.S. Most recently his work has been featured in Brave Voices, Cabinet of Heed, Cleaver, Coffin Bell/2019 Anthology, Dime Show Review, Entropy, Gravel, New Flash Fiction Review, Poached Hare, Spelk, The Selkie, Thrice, Vamp Cat and upcoming in Five on the Fifth.

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