Let it not be forgotten that the old Camelot Grocer and Gas once stood at the intersection of Weaton Road and Linklater Lane in the town of Boone, holding the memories of many summers past. Meanwhile, the town itself was more a ramshackle collection of lean-tos, cracked windows, and leaking roofs than anything. Boone wasn’t exactly easy on the eyes—unkept streets and sidewalks put a stop to that. But it was home.

I remember the incident involving the dragon like it was yesterday. Cicadas buzzed in chaotic harmony, the air swimming from the sweltering heat wave. The owner of Camelot, Mr. Ray, hammered away at the rusted castle towers watching over the gas tanks out front. It was a hot, lazy day. I frequented the station to satiate my desire to learn more about automobiles. Unfortunately, no cars entered the gas station, to my great disappointment. Only a couple of locals strolled by in scattered groups of twos and threes. As the sun hit its apex in the sky, I peered over the rear walls of Camelot at the frightful hound draped over the ice machine, cool air washing over his fur.

Had it been standing, it would have towered well over me. Its body rippled with toned muscle, teeth sharpened to a razor’s edge. But, most importantly, it blocked both the soda machine and the ice. I fingered the fifty cents of change Mother had given me for the vending machines.

But as I scrutinized the watchdog, I felt another pair of eyes on me. No, two pairs. Tearing my gaze away from the hound, I met the eyes of two other kids, curiously watching my predicament from a distance. A moment later, they dashed over.

“So, do you have plans to slay this great beast, this dragon?” The gangly, adventurous-looking boy joined me at the fence to my right. The girl followed suit to the left.

“Dragon?” I asked.

“Of course, this is Camelot after all.” He pointed up at the sign of the grinning knight, faded from sunlight exposure. The wooden ramparts lining the roof were similarly weathered with fading paint and chipped edges.

At this point, the girl chimed in. “And what is the name of this new knight of the realm?”


A sigh. She rephrased her question. “What’s your name?”


“Nice to meetcha. Name’s Sadie. That’s Connor,” Sadie said, introducing the odd pair. “Why are you watching old Sniffles?”

“He is sitting on the ice machine so I can’t get ice for a slushie.”

“Then we’ll help you,” Sadie insisted, running inside Camelot to grab something. She reappeared shortly afterward from the store, her eyes glimmering with excitement. “Have you thought about baiting it away with treats?” She held up a can of salmon.

“Do dogs really eat fish as treats?” Connor took the can to briefly inspect it before handing it off to me. “Well, go on. Get your ice.”

Sadie stepped in. “Don’t let him boss you around. He can do it himself if you don’t want to risk getting eaten by the dog.”

I shook my head. Despite my fear, I wanted to do this. Gingerly edging forward, I approached the dragon, its rancid breath washing over me as I approached. Hearing my footsteps, the beast raised its head. I tossed the fish onto the ground and leapt backward in fear. The dog, Sniffles, leapt down, snapped up the fish, and sat on its haunches, staring expectantly at the salmon still in my hand. I released the tightness in my chest with a dramatic sigh. It worked.

Sadie came over and began rubbing the dog’s head. “See. Nothing to worry about.”

Dragons are creatures of unrivaled power. They embody the unscalable mountain. The unconquerable. The accomplishments beyond our reach. But we face them all throughout our natural lives, striving against the seemingly impossible. We had conquered our first.  


“Guys, we should build a tree house!” Connor declared as he stared up at the sky, rubbing his injured leg. He walked with a limp in his right side from an injury during a soccer game. Robbed of his ability to play, he was restless. We could feel it.

Sadie and I threw rocks into the back of Mr. Ray’s truck, reveling in the satisfying clank of rock on metal of each impact. What had started as a game to knock over cans set up on his truck quickly morphed into a pastime. To have the best vantage point, the three of us sat atop Camelot’s roof, feet dangling over the edge. Sniffles sprawled out beside us, panting from the blazing heat. Five summers had passed since we first met.


“Is this going to be like the camping trip? If so, forget it,” I said.


“What are you talking about? The camping trip was great,” Connor said. “Don’t you remember how enjoyable it was cooking s’mores and sleeping out in the forest?”


“That’s not how I remember it at all,” Sadie said with a sheepish grin. “I recall having to set up the tents and cook the food all by my lonesome.”

I reached for another rock but found nothing. Guess we had used them all. I swung my feet back over the rooftop. “And I distinctly remember starting the fire by myself while someone was off hunting for Bigfoot.”

Connor sighed in defeat. “Both of you get my point. It would be fun.”

“And where would we build it?” Sadie asked, always the thinker, two or three steps ahead of us.

“I already have the perfect spot picked out.” He pointed over to a copse of trees clustered behind the building. One oak with thick, low-hanging branches stood out in particular. It was a good tree, perfect for treehouses. He turned to me. “Don’t you want to try it?”

“Um, I d-don’t . . . I’m no—”

“Come on.”

I could feel his eyes boring into me. Pleading. Begging. He needed this. “All right, let’s do it.”

An expression of disappointment, maybe even sadness, flashed across Sadie’s face. Her eyes lingered on me for a second before she put her mask back on, smiling, shrugging her shoulders, and agreeing to the endeavor.

So, we set to clearing out the shrubbery from the base of our chosen tree. After doing so, we found ourselves in need of wood to construct our fortress. The three of us pooled our money from our allowances and odd jobs in order to purchase the lumber. May flew by, and half of June had passed before we had enough. We purchased the wood from Mr. Wren, a local tree farmer.

“But now we have a new problem. We can’t move the wood since he refused to.” Sadie huffed in exasperation. Her designs for the tree house were splayed out in front of her, rocks holding down the edges from the wind’s prying fingers.

“Sure we can. There’s got to be another way we haven’t found yet,” Connor protested. We had tried, but it simply wasn’t doable. Connor’s leg got in the way. Every. Single. Time. “What about Mr. Ray?”

Sadie shook her head. “Already asked. He is still bitter about us getting Sniffles hooked on expensive salmon. He won’t help.”

From our perch on the awning over the gas tanks, I watched cars whizz by as their discussion played out in the background. One after another they shot by. And then there was the one that rattled, barely crawling along the road. It just barely pulled into the station parking lot before sputtering and seemingly giving up the ghost.

I turned around. “Guys, I think I found a solution.” They followed my gaze, and their expressions dropped. But a beater was better than no truck at all.

Two people, siblings, emerged from the truck. One looked about nineteen, old enough to drive, while the other appeared to be our age. The older brother popped open the hood to assess the damage, which is where I chose to make my entrance.

“It looks like you’ve got a bit of a truck there. I-I mean you have a problem with your truck.” The girl giggled. My cheeks burned from embarrassment. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go at all.

“What our friend is trying to say is that he noticed you had an issue and that he wanted to help,” Connor said, swooping in for the save. Shortly behind him Sadie followed, climbing down the roof with the designs tucked under her arm and Sniffles padding along in her wake.

Thankfully, getting the truck itself fixed wasn’t a problem. We found out that the pair were indeed siblings, having just moved into town. After I fixed his truck, the older brother, Marc, agreed to load and ferry the wood from Mr. Wren’s to Camelot but refused to help build it. He said he wasn’t interested, but the younger sister, Alex, stayed. This left building the treehouse to us. But it was primarily me doing the bulk of it as I was best suited to carrying planks of wood up after they had been cut down to size.

Looking up at the climb with a plank of wood for the roof tucked under my arm, I hesitated. “I don’t know about this.”

“This shouldn’t be a problem for you, River. It’s not that far a climb. You’ve done it plenty in the past couple of days. And I could do it without a problem,” Connor proudly asserted.

“Could have done it,” Sadie stated, “past tense.”

“Fine. Past tense. That’s why River has to do it,” he said, voice taut with frustration. “What do you think, Alex?”

“Well—” she began.

Jumping in a second time, Sadie interjected. “Quit trying to push him. If he doesn’t feel comfortable or safe doing it, he doesn’t have to.”

“Let him make up his own mind.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do!”

“Enough!” Connor turned to me. “Are you gonna do it, River? Yes? Or no?”

I nodded tentatively and walked toward the tree. One fingerhold at a time, I began to ascend. The only problem was the wood slung over my back, which kept getting caught. Eventually, the plank got snagged on a branch and couldn’t be easily freed. I attempted to tug it free, but my foot slipped out from under me. The pit in my stomach dropped. Then nothing.

I awoke to Connor and Sadie standing over me and loudly arguing back and forth.

“You! This is your fault! You shouldn’t have pushed him into doing it!” Sadie roared at Connor.

“Hey! He still chose to do it. He could have said no,” he returned.

“You know he won’t say no to you. You know that. And you use that against him all the time.”

“I do not. I’ve nev—”

“You should have just let it go, Connor! You both need to let things go! The two of you get committed to something, and then neither of you can back down. You refuse to!” Sadie, her anger boiling over, stormed off.

Alex returned from Camelot and rushed over. “I got Mr. Ray to call an ambulance. It’ll be about thirty minutes. Just hang in there, okay?” She offered her best reassuring smile.

The ambulance arrived forty-five minutes later and fifteen minutes behind schedule. My fall led to a month-long hospital stay, two grumpy parents, and a mound of hospital bills. I spent the remainder of my summer staring at an unfamiliar ceiling. That fall, I walked to school with Connor and Alex. Sadie was nowhere to be seen. Neither Connor nor I ever spoke about the incident. Our matching limps said it all.


It was overcast as I pulled into the Camelot Grocer and Gas, windows shuttered, doors barred. I stepped out of my truck to take one last look at the place. The demolition was scheduled for next week. There wouldn’t be another chance.

Sniffles dropped from the car and waddled around, his speed greatly reduced in his old age. Twisting the ring around my finger, I wandered through the twisted remnants of my childhood. Weeds sprouted from the cracked cement while cobwebs occupied the empty corners. I peered through the windows to look inside, but the store itself was empty as a ghost town, haunted by echoes of past memories.

As I stepped back from the window, another car, a sleek one with a fresh coat of paint, not a spot on it, drifted into the station. “It’s not open!” I called. “It’s been closed for several months now!”

“River! Sniffles!” A figure emerged from the vehicle, dressed in a clean suit. “Is that really you?”

Upon a second look, I recognized Connor, now a head taller than me and more successful looking too. Sniffles plodded over to him and licked his hand in greeting, and Connor returned the favor by bending over and rubbing his head.

I kept my voice steady. “It’s been a while, Connor. Four years, right?”  

“That’s right. What have you been up to these days?”

“Running my own business,” I replied. At this point, Sniffles had found a comfortable position on a nearby bench, settling in for a nap while we talked by the old gas tanks.

“Really?” He looked surprised.  

I nodded. “An autobody shop. What about you? You’re all dressed up.”

“Oh, this. I’m working on becoming a lawyer. Putting my power of persuasion to good use, eh?” he wryly commented. “Say, how many of the old gang are around?” he asked hopefully.

“I haven’t seen Marc or Sadie in a while.” Seven years, to be specific. I hadn’t talked to Sadie in seven years. I wondered what she was doing now, so far removed from the argument that fractured our inner circle. It struck me that more time had passed since we’d last spoken than the entire time we had been friends. Those five years felt so full of joy and wonder compared to the seven since. It’s not that life was bad, but it just wasn’t the same as it used to be.

“That’s too bad. I wanted to catch up with everyone. I miss talking to them.” Connor paused. A disappointed, longing look crossed his face before lighting up a moment later. “Wait a minute. What about Alex?” I held up my left hand, showing him the band adorning it.

“Wow! Congratulations, man. I never would’ve expected the two of you to hook up.”

“Well, life is full of surprises.”

Our conversation gradually drifted off. The reason was simple: we no longer knew each other. I was married. He was a bachelor. I stayed in our hometown while he left at the earliest opportunity. We were strangers. Guilt and longing tugged at my soul, crying out because of broken bridges, severed friendships, laughs never shared, tears never shed, and memories that never existed. But all we shared now was an old vision of knights and dragons, nothing more. And after a few awkward moments of weighted silence, accompanied by several cautious questions and half-hearted responses, our conversation drifted to its inevitable conclusion.

“So, what happened to Camelot?” Connor nodded at the faded visage of the smiling knight. “It’s a small town. There’s not exactly a lot of competition.”

“Mr. Ray moved. I spoke to him before he left, and he asked me to take care of Sniffles.” I gestured to the dog sleeping on the bench before continuing. “He also said he was losing money hand over fist and going into debt. The population here is shrinking. There is not just a lack of competition but a lack of customers too. You’re not the only person who left.” I struggled to keep the bitterness from seeping into my voice at the end. I still hadn’t let it all go.

I must not have entirely succeeded. A guilty expression flashed across his face.

“Well, I better get going.” He began walking to his car, his limp had mostly vanished by now. But he paused a few feet short. “Hey, River?”


“I just wanted to let you know that all the time we spent together here means the world to me. All of it.”

“What do you mean by saying that?”

He shrugged. “Just wanted to say sorry, that’s all.” Without further explanation, he got into his car and drove away.

I followed suit a moment later, loading Sniffles into the truck as I processed his farewell. As I pulled out of the gas station under an overcast sky, I couldn’t help but remember that one brief shining moment on a hot summer day where three kids faced their first dragon, and everything was as it should be. But things were never going to be that way again. And that was okay. I waved goodbye to Camelot with all the phantoms of past summers and drove home.