People called him Ace, and it had nothing to do with his hand at cards. Well, they actually called him Dr. Ace if we’re being technical. But it doesn’t really matter what his real name was. Besides, everyone who worked with him had forgotten anyway.
Late again, Ace thought. He surveyed the line in front of him with a kind of annoyed dismay. “C’mon people, how hard can it be to order a latte,” he mumbled under his breath. My toddler could order quicker. The line of exhausted caffeine addicts snaked out the door and down the street where they were dwarfed by the glass buildings that scraped the sky. “L-A-T-T-E. I can spell it faster than you can say it.” He tapped his shiny black Oxford on the grey cement floor for each letter.
The sounds of whirring expresso machines, clinking mugs, and exhaled steam bounced off the ceiling and slowly pinged the customers awake. The atmosphere, infused with the hope of survival and coffee, came alive as the minutes passed.
Of all the days, why today? Ace thought. He studied the antique train station clock hanging to his left. 8:15 already, and I need to be there by 9:00. If you’re not fifteen minutes early, you’re late. Ace imperceptibly sighed as he remembered his late father’s maxims. I’m making you proud; I won’t let you down, sir. Today’s the day I move up in the world. He felt a warm sensation rise in his chest as he thought about his bright future.
“Don’t have enough? What do you mean?” said the lady ordering in front of him.
Ace’s attention shifted to the interaction at the counter. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said in a low tone. He rubbed his oddly dry wrists, then straightened the golden cufflinks on his sleeves. He pulled the black suit fabric down, precisely to the top of each circle.
“Can you try again?” she said. She swiped the card. The machine’s rejection beep sounded red. “Here, maybe I have something in my purse. I still have two more orders to place.” She rummaged through the handbag slung over her shoulder for a minute before plopping it on the counter to dig deeper.
Another minute passed. A full sixty seconds of unbearable ticks and tocks. 60,000 milliseconds of the smaller ticks and tocks between each movement of the second hand on the clock. I’ve got places to be, thought Ace. I would never inconvenience people this way. It wasn’t fair for those who had it together. He looked at the long line behind him. The snake was getting restless. It fidgeted as it waited. He decided to end her suffering and squelch the shame they all felt on her behalf. And, well . . . get the coffee he deserved.
“Ma’am, you mind stepping out of line as you look?” said Ace. He flashed a smile of straight white teeth, sure of his winning personality. The woman really ought to move without being asked, he thought. She’s wasting my time. It’s already 8:25.
The woman looked up in surprise. She gazed from purse to elegant businessman and back again, akin to a deer in headlights.
“Thank you,” replied Ace. He stepped up to the counter and started ordering without missing a beat. The disgraced woman faded to the side of the counter. Ace swiped his card, left a decent tip considering his wait time, and stood in the pickup area. He felt the tiny bumps on the back of his neck and massaged the sore muscles. I need to put heat on that when I get home tonight, he thought.
Time was ticking, relentless. Being late was not an option. “Hey, where’s my coffee?” Ace called to the barista. “It’s been five minutes.” The barista said something he couldn’t hear and knocked over something inside her station in her haste. Really? Was she that bad at her job? he wondered. Her pace increased under his scrutiny. I could’ve made it faster. “Just give me whatever you have.” At this point he was almost yelling.
“Dr. Ace.” The barista called his name quickly and handed him the large cup. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said. Her shaking hands spilled some of the hot liquid on the arm of his suit jacket.
Dr. Ace let out a steamy breath as the hot liquid soaked into his skin. “You need to be more careful,” he snarled. “This is an expensive suit that was handmade in Italy. It’s worth more than you make in a month.” He turned on his heel and walked out the door, carefully sipping his coffee. The suit felt tighter than he remembered in the back, maybe a bit bumpy. He shook his head. The white dress shirt underneath would be stained.
The wind gusted as he walked out the door. Ah. Ace knew he was a hero. He even felt like a hero. He could just read the headline in the papers now: “Local Businessman Keeps Coffee Line Running Smoothly, Saves the Morning.” No. “Local Doctor and Businessman Keeps Coffee Line Running Smoothly, Saves the Day.” He chuckled. Perfect. I didn’t get those doctorates for nothing, he mused.
As Ace drove through the heart of downtown, he admired the works of art around him. Each building was unique. Some were made entirely of manicured glass while others were an interesting combination of both glass and cement. Like modern art with a twist of “What were they thinking?” But with the sun glistening off the surfaces, the whole city seemed aglow. I will have at least one to myself one day, he thought. If he made a good impression with his bosses today, he’d be well on his way.
Suddenly, traffic slowed. “8:40,” read Ace. He was cutting it close. He craned his neck out the window to spot the holdup. “I’ve got places to be. Should’ve called in the company helicopter today.” He was the only employee who wasn’t an executive that had access to the chopper. Without noticing, he scratched his elbow.
A beat-up car cut in front of him from nowhere. “Hey, watch where you’re going!” Ace shouted at the driver and honked the horn. If you put a scratch on this beauty, I’ll make sure you don’t forget it, he thought. He had just gotten his car washed and waxed in preparation for today. “Appearances are everything. That’s what Dad always said,” he reminded himself. He breathed in and out to calm himself, trying to maintain his composure. It wouldn’t do him any good to yell at the idiot. I bet he’s a high school dropout. Surely decent people can afford decent cars.
Ace felt a shiver run up his spine as the suit tightened around his back. But my wife is different, he thought. She couldn’t help it, and she turned out wonderful. He almost regretted his words after thinking about her. She was gentle, patient . . . but he shook his head instead. The pinprick in his chest disappeared. If he didn’t want to be late, he had to focus on maneuvering through traffic.
Ace arrived at his building with ten minutes to spare. He smugly smiled in the rearview mirror and finished his coffee. After double-checking his slick black hair, he polished his glasses and walked to the elevator.
“Dr. Ace!” A voice greeted him from the side as he walked into the elevator. “Good morning to you, sir.” A lanky red-headed guy ran through the doors before they closed.
“Good morning, Charlie,” responded Ace. The intern, he thought. He selected his floor number and waited for the trap to enclose him.
“How’s your morning, sir?” said Charlie. He shoved his hands in his pockets and gazed at the short man in front of him.
“It’s fine. Thank you.” I hate how tall he is, thought Ace. He felt a touch insignificant at times due to the intern’s size. At least I’m intelligent. I’ve built a good reputation for myself.
“Is it true you have three doctorates and two master’s degrees?” asked Charlie. His eyes bulged as he waited expectantly for an answer. He looked like a puppy.
“And you’re only twenty-seven?” Charlie scratched his head as he tried to wrap his brain around the phenomenon.
“Yes.” Ace straightened his sore back and relaxed his shoulders into perfect posture.
Charlie let out a low whistle.
“I’m proud to say I’ve worked very hard to get here,” he added. It’s been my life. The all-consuming purpose of my life. “And you? What are you doing here?” Just a boy, he thought.
“Oh, well,” began Charlie, “I’m not actually sure. I’m still working on my degree and stuff, but I’m not sure what I want to do.”
Ace chuckled as he looked out the elevator door at the gleaming city of gold below. He scratched his side for a few long seconds before responding. “I meant, what are you doing today?” What poor soul gets him today? he mused.
“Oh, today. Right.” Charlie sheepishly glanced at the floor. “I’m supposed to help you with stuff.”
Ace froze. Me? They put him with me? Today? He cleared his throat. “Uh, what kind of stuff do you mean?” No, not him. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. Put him with ME?
“Oh, um, I mean, just like paperwork or whatever you need.” Charlie’s eyes gleamed with delight. He tried to conceal his nervous-excited energy, but it shook his body and raised his voice. “They said you had an important meeting today, and I could do things for you while you’re gone.” He wrung his hands together.
That tiny pang hit Ace in the chest again. I remember being that hopeful once . . . being that new to life and waiting for the exciting things to come. He shoved the feeling down. No time to be distracted now, thought Ace. The 66th floor can’t come soon enough. He scratched his side again, careful to shield it from the intern. So much dry skin recently.
“I’m so excited!” Charlie’s voice cracked halfway through his exclamation. Deep red jumped to his face, and he looked out the elevator window towards the city.
Ding. The elevator announced the 66th floor and saved both men from the embarrassment they had felt inside it. Ace stepped out first, and Charlie followed behind.
At least he knows his place, thought Ace. I’ll give him some errands in the city. That’s the easiest thing to do. “I’m going to set my things down in the office. Then I’ll give you a list of things to do.” He continued walking towards his office without looking behind him. The shuffle of feet on the carpet behind him was enough to confirm his fear. He was stuck with the giant klutz.
Ace walked into his office and flicked on the light. He smiled. Corner offices are the best, he thought. Full length windows with a bird’s eye view of the city. Space upon space upon space, both inside and out. Power.
“What can I do for you, Dr. Ace?” interrupted Charlie. He stood with his feet barely over the threshold.
Paperboy, Ace thought. He set his things on his perfectly manicured desk. A burning sensation rose in his head, and he staggered a bit to his chair. “Here’s a list of things I need done today. Have at it.” He waved the hastily written list at Charlie.
“Thank you, sir. I’ll get right on it.” Charlie quickly grabbed the paper, studying it as he left the office.
A horrible pain shot from Ace’s stomach to his head. He gasped and held his head in his hands, willing the episode to be over. Glad Charlie’s not here for this, he thought. “Maybe those chili cheese fries with Carolina Reaper ketchup weren’t the best choice last night,” he groaned. “But they were so good. So spicy.” Within moments the pain dissipated, and he felt almost normal. But something feels off, he thought. He shrugged it off, thinking of the gooey, cheese-smothered fries. His mouth watered.
The stately grandfather clock in the corner of his office struck 9 a.m. “They’re going to be here soon.” He tidied up his already spotless office and paced to the window. This is my chance. I’ve waited too long to become an executive. They need me to take this place to new heights. He looked at his reflection in the glass. I will run this company one day.
His reaction to the sight was delayed.
“What?” Ace reeled from the glass like he’d been slapped. He rubbed his eyelids and shook his head like there was water in his hair. I can’t believe it. There’s no way in the world, he thought. “Are my eyes . . . black? No.” He blinked again. “My eyes are green. But they don’t look green.” Something deep within his soul burned. It bubbled and washed through his veins. A deep cough welled up in his lungs.
From down the hallway came the sound of executive slang and low chuckles. Ace ran to the mirror on his desk, scratching both arms as he crossed the space. Black. My eyes are black. There’s no way. He stumbled to the window, trying to appear casual despite the fire running through his body. Everything hurts. He resisted the urge to double over but leaned heavily on the glass instead. I almost wish I wouldn’t have sent Charlie away so soon.
“There he is . . . our man! THE man,” the first executive quipped. “Dr. Ace in the flesh.”
“Knock, knock,” said the other. “Let’s getting this meeting started.” The two men in suits advanced through the door with smiles beaming on their faces.
Ace shuddered at their cool demeanor. Perhaps I could ask for a few minutes before it started. Use the bathroom or something, he thought. “Croak.” A hissing sound followed.
The executives stopped in their steps. “Dr. Ace, are you okay there?” said the first.
Ace cleared his throat. “I—” No other words came out. The fire. Burning. His skin broke through his suit. It was cracked, marred, and jet black. The carpet beneath his feet smoked as it burned, then he stumbled to his knees. His arms and toes twisted, growing sharp claws where his nails used to be. The tightness around his back and neck broke free of the fabric. He coughed, and smoke and fire shot out his nostrils and mouth.
The executives screamed and ran out of the office, leaving the strange beast behind. Ace could smell their fear. What’s going on? he thought. I feel like a monster.
Ace bellowed, and his office caught fire; the clock incinerated in an instant. Everything in the office seemed to get smaller as he grew scarred muscles that brushed the ceiling. Help! he screamed. But a roar came out instead.
Crash. The windows splintered as he clawed around his office. He staggered, then collapsed to one knee. His body was too big to fit inside, and it tumbled out the side of the building.
Suddenly there was nothing but the rush of cool air.
A sickening stomach-lurch at the drop.
The growing black mass hurtled to the cement below. Ace helplessly looked at his deformed body in the reflection of the skyscraper as he fell. The once-golden light, now more of a rust color, seemed to mock him, for he looked like a piece of the night sky. A fallen angel. I’m going to die, he thought.
The sounds of screaming, honking, and siren wails reached his ears. His back sprouted a talon-like spine that curved out. There were now rows of razor-sharp teeth in his mouth. Even the underside of his belly felt like a sea of scales, and a feathery black beard replaced his smooth chin. To top it all, a crown of grisly black branches grew from his head. The thorns looked deadly.
He wasn’t sure what happened next. Instead of smashing into the street below, his shoulders tensed and suddenly he soared through the air. Wings. Arching, scarred wings draped his body through the air, twisting him in between the glass buildings of the city.
Burning, he thought. This sensation and another surfaced simultaneously. Pain, deep pain. What had happened? What had he done? He pushed the feeling down.
Charlie? The dragon swooped down closer to see a red-headed boy bound into a shop. No, too young. Couldn’t be him. I need someone to help me. But everyone he approached ran away screaming. His feet left scorched footprints on the pavement that smoldered. He smoldered inside, too.
Ace, if he could be called that anymore, flew to a park outside the city, far away from the pointing fingers, stares, and chaos that followed in his wake. He sat on the ground and blew at the grass until it turned to ashes. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
Guilt. Remorse. He didn’t push the feeling down this time.
So much for the executive life, he thought. He mourned his loss in silence. Then, with a pang of sadness something else hit him. My wife, my baby boy. Hot tears fell from his large black eyes. They sizzled before reaching the bottom eyelashes. His leathery eyebrows scrunched in pain.
He wept openly. He looked at his tail with the glistening spade. The scars on his body burned deep into his bones. Ugly.
I hate the crown on my head. I’d give anything to take it off. He tugged and tugged but it wouldn’t budge. He tried to burn it off, but it only glowed orange, then cooled to black. He sat until dusk had almost given up to dark. Small rings of smoke still signaled up into the celestial void.
I was wrong, he thought. He bowed his obsidian head. I don’t need my degrees or a fancy car or a corner office to tell me that. I’m not the most important thing in my life. What I wouldn’t give to hold my baby and kiss my wife. His heartstrings, if he had any left, broke.
And with their breaking a single scale fell off his body.