My brother, Happy, started his day with a traditional dwarven call. He could have sung the ‘call to work’ inside the apartment, like a civilized dwarven being, but he planted his feet against the frame of the open front door, inhaled until his chest was the size of a barrel and shouted into the morning: “HI HOOOOOO!”
And like clockwork: “Shut that racket up, you fucking weirdo! It’s 5 in the morning!” From the pounding on the wall, it was our neighbor in 5D. I’d ask Sleepy to make him another tray of oatmeal bars to smooth things over.
While Happy was inhaling for round 2, I grabbed him by his collar and dragged him into the apartment, gently shutting the door behind us.
“You little shit!” I said before my getting my temper in check. Damnit, there’s only so much a tray of baked goods or a repaired sink can make up for. This was the third time this week!
“We’ve got to live here!” Happy’s smirk wasn’t doing much for my mood. “You wanna piss off the whole block, then get your own place! You wanna live with your family, you start thinking about the rest of us, too!”
His smirk turned into a full-blown smile and that was it. The little shit had been holding on to something ever since we got kicked off the mountain and now he was finally gonna let it loose. I’d been waiting. I’d been ready. And I’d been holding on to something too.
My brother, Doc, had this way about him that was like getting hit in the face with a bucket of ice water. The bucket made you mad as hell; the ice water took your breath before you could cuss him out.
“Good morning, brothers. Do either of you plan to go to work this morning?” he asked in that slow, clipped manner that made me wanna pull my sleeve back and make a fist.
Happy kept grinning, his eyes meeting mine. “It’s off to work we go,” he whistled softly, opening the front door. The soft melody followed him as he walked down the street.
“Come with me, brother,” Doc said. He moved with the steady gait of a monk or impoverished nobility. I guess in his mind, he was both. Once upon a time, we’d rubbed elbows with charming princes and snow-white princesses. But everybody’s fifteen minutes ends at some time.
“You must be patient with Happy,” Doc offered advice that I know I didn’t ask for. “He’s having a difficult time adapting.”
“And – yawn – he’s taking it out on – yawn – everyone else.”
Of its own power, my arm pointed emphatically at my brother, Sleepy, who’d just made an excellent point. The boy stayed up all night playing those silly video games, but nothing got past him!
Doc tutted, “Please, brother Sleepy, focus on your task.”
Sleepy gave a tired shrug and went back to making coffee with half closed eyes.
“Happy’s always been more of an oak tree than a willow,” my brother, Bashful, said while flipping a skillet of eggs and hash with a flick of his wrist. He poured the cooked egg mixture into 7 flour burritos. “The wind’s been blowing hard and if we don’t support him, he may break instead of bend.”
“You get that outta one a those self-help books?” I asked. “We’re dwarves. Not trees.”
“It’s a metaphor,” Doc said in his slow, obnoxious drawl.
“It’s stupid. We lived on a mountain. Now we live in an apartment. Nothing’s changed but the location, so what’s all the drama for?”
“You can’t just, sniff, force someone to adapt when their, sniff, world has changed,” my brother Sneezy replied while folding the burritos into foil and tucking them into the stupid matching lunch bags Doc had bought for us.
“Oh, go snort a Claritin,” I replied, pissed off at being ganged up on.
“Well, if that’s the way you’re going to behave,” Doc looked down his snooty fat nose at me, “there’s little point in continuing this discussion.”
So off to work we went.
Happy was at the train station when we got there and with a smile let us know we’d missed the 6:05. “Dwarfs,” he said, a giggle lingering in his eyes, “who are late to work. Our father’s father would be proud.”
Just when I was about to let fly what I thought about this new sarcastic Happy, Doc put a gentle hand on my arm and spoke like a patrician metronome, “Our father’s father faced war, dragons, Orcs and the great wizard Merlin. He knew that there are times when one must light the sacred lanterns a few minutes late.”
Happy turned away and began reciting the “5 Rules of a Good Dwarf” from Dedicated the Dwarf, our father’s father and founder of our family line.
Sleepy glared at his back, found himself a seat, slumped into it and promptly began snoring.
Sneezy used his phone to search health blogs for homeopathic cures and check the side effects for over-the-counter medications (he said his Claritin made him itchy).
Bashful kept staring at a water sprite we’d gone to school with. I think he was working up the nerve to talk to her (so much for all those self-help books, huh?).
Dopey was watching an educational program on his phone. There were only a few we let him watch; this one had puppet monsters living in a boarding school solving mysteries about the alphabet.
Doc was reading the morning paper as if he were a lord of leisure sipping sherry in a mahogany study instead of a near broke dwarf riding a urine-soaked subway.
I glared out the window.
As the train left the city, it emptied until the only passengers were us and a sleeping form. I got up to kick the drunk awake and but stopped once I got a good look. Our mother, may she rest in Ontalvhar, would have boxed my ears and pulled my nose if I’d disturbed this sleeper.
“I’ve never seen a tree spirit in person before,” Bashful’s voice was quiet and awed.
She was dressed like a human, in black leather boots, stylishly ripped shorts and a band t-shirt. She mostly looked human…except her skin was like rolling earth, shades of umber, wheat, clay and yellowing leaves. Her hair was a thick canopy of leaves, dotted with vines and rare flowers. A snake crawled up her outstretched arm, and a bird flitted into and out of the depths of her cleavage.
Then I blinked, and she was just a human girl with fluffy black hair and even brown skin. She reeked of cherry wine, apple cider, and soured fruits.
“Anybody got an offering?” I asked.
Dopey, without hesitation, held out his breakfast burrito like it was made of gold and delicately placed it on her lap before tiptoeing away. Happy looked away.
The work site was a treeless mountain. A battered, rusty, red trailer sat on cinder blocks at its base. I used my key to open the door and let my brothers in ahead of me. Even designed for human heights, it was crowded.
There was only one human who ever visited up here: a tall, broad-shouldered male with twinkling eyes. He didn’t offer much in the way of advice, or knowledge, or skill, or experience. But he left behind lots of brightly colored post-it notes with phrases like “The team that works together, wins together!” and “Only you decide your limits!” written on them.
Doc and I shared a look after reading the most recent post-it.
“Slay the dragon of mediocrity?” Dopey read. He looked at us, his normally gentle, blank face filled with confusion and worry. “I don’t wanna kill any dragons. Dragons are our friends.”
Even Happy, normally wrapped up in himself, reached over to soothe Dopey.
“It’s a stupid human saying, Dopey. We ain’t killing no dragons,” and to head off the question I knew was coming, “and humans ain’t allowed to kill dragons either. Nobody can kill dragons no more.”
“Except dragons,” Sleepy added around a yawn. Dopey began wailing.
Sneezy sat at the only chair in the trailer, a stained, gray, creaky affair. With one hand, he reached for the phone, with the other he logged into the desktop PC. “Ah-ah-ah,” he held his breath before resuming, “I can call the haulers in early if that’ll help.” The sneeze overtook him just as he put the headset to his face.
“Do that, please, brother,” Doc nodded.
After Sneezy called the haulers, my brothers and I took Dopey back outside; partly to work and partly to keep him busy. In the trailer, Sneezy used geographic imaging software to plan the placement of the charges. Bashful kept up a game of I-Spy with Dopey while they cleared the demo sites. After getting the “all clear” from me, Happy and Sleepy laid the charges and then Doc hit the ignition.
Normally, we’d do the whole process a few more times before calling in the haulers, but because a speciesist post-it note was left by our stupid human boss, Dopey was having a panic attack. So, the haulers were called in early.
The clutch of dragons hired by the company (wearing matching lime green vests and baseball caps) were happy to come in early and speak with Dopey. They rarely got the chance to see a demo from start to finish and were curious.
Flying ahead, an aerial honor guard for Dopey and Bashful, the fire-breathers scored a path to the next planned demo sites. As Sleepy, Happy, and I laid the charges, the lead dragon mentioned that their union had applied for the demo job but had been turned down because health insurance was part of their standard contract.
“Dwarfs don’t get sick much.” It wasn’t our fault they lost the bid, but what the hell else was I supposed to say?
The dragon, a red-scaled female with eyelashes longer than my hand, shrugged her shoulders. “It’s just business.”
The charge was detonated and when the smoke cleared, an older layer of earth reappeared. A reverent hush fell over the crowd; the dragons eyed my brothers and I, we eyed each other.
“What do we do?” Bashful asked, looking at the dwarven skeleton. Its petite (by human standards) body was surrounded by furs, an engraved pickaxe lay at its side, a gold chain crossed from its right shoulder to its left hip.
“They were required to ensure it was sepulcher-free,” Doc whispered. The dragons scoffed, rolling their eyes at each other: the company cut a corner to save money? Big surprise.
Rolling up my sleeves, I dropped down in to the grave. The etching on the axe seemed familiar but I looked at the chain to confirm: Grandfather Dedicated.
“Here’s what’s happening: You,” I pointed at Sleepy, “head back to the trailer and grab that big cooler. The one we used for all the soda and hoagies on Dopey’s birthday. Bring it back here.”
“You,” I pointed at Dopey and Bashful, “get shovels and tarps. If you can’t find tarps, grab the curtains from the trailer.” Sleepy, Dopey, and Bashful ran off towards the trailer.
I buzzed Sneezy via the walkie-talkie. “Keep an eye on the road. Lemme know if Bossman shows up.”
“What’s ah-ah-ah going choo on?”
“Bash and Sleepy’ll explain.”
“You, you and you,” I pointed at the haulers, “you gonna narc on us?”
Two of the dragons, a blue and a green, looked at the third, the red. The red held my eye as she responded. “The company purchased this mountain. All it contains, by human laws, belongs to the company.”
I huffed, “Human laws.”
The red dragon nodded her head. “We’ll keep your confidence.”
I glanced at Doc, he gave me one of his patrician nods back, “Then let’s get to it.”
We started by gently lifting the bones of our ancestor from his burial ground.
“Wait,” Happy’s voice was a squeal. I looked back at him, confused that he wasn’t helping, then went back to caring for my ancestor’s bones.
“Happy, there is a limited amount of time before our employer arrives for his daily inspection. We cannot wait.”
Happy rushed at us, stumbling into the grave, kicking our ancestor’s bones. “Wait! Wait! Just wait! We shouldn’t be doing this!”
“My brown furry ass!” I pushed him out of the grave. “This is exactly what we should be doing.”
Happy steeled himself, then threw a clod of dirt at me. “We need this job!”
Doc and I stopped scooping dirt from Grandfather Dedicated’s body and stared at Happy.
“I need this job,” he whispered.
Doc rose and, with a level of gracefulness that pissed me off, reached a hand out to Happy. “Brother, how can this job be more important than preserving our father’s father’s bones?”
Happy’s eyes flitted to me, then stayed on Doc. “Mr. Charleroi said if I do a good job, he’d get me a promotion. He said in 5 years I could be working in the headquarters in Morrowind. Morrowind!”
Had he lost his mind? Had he forgotten everything our mother had ever, ever taught us? These were our father’s father’s actual bones. Not a metaphor like it usually is, but the actual bones. Laying before us! Barely an hour from being blown up by the same company that he was hoping for a promotion from! Had he lost all sense of who he was? Had he lost all sense of what it meant to be a dwarf?
At some point, I realized I was yelling at him. And Happy was yelling back. Yelling that he was sick of us. Sick of sharing a room with farting, snoring dwarfs. Sick of doing the morning call when no one cared. Sick of sharing everything seven ways. Sick of having nothing for himself. He deserved something for himself. After everything was taken away from them, he was going to get something for himself and we were trying to ruin it. Over a dwarf that we’d never even met!
“You sound like a human right now,” I whispered.
Happy scoffed through a grin. “Humans own our mountain now, Grumpy.” He looked down the slope, where Bashful and Sleepy and Dopey had stopped, mouths agape to watch our final argument. “Maybe if we were more like humans, we’d still be there.”
“We’re taking the bones,” I said, stepping towards Happy.
Happy shrugged, no longer caring, a pariah already. “Take them and I’ll tell Mr. Charleroi everything.”
“We’ll get fired, for sure,” Bashful whispered.
“Worth it,” I declared to the crowd. I got on the horn to include Sneezy. “Anybody else care more about money than these bones?” No response.
I nodded to the dragons, “Tell the company we took what’s ours.” I looked at Happy, no longer my brother. “Tell ‘em to make our last pay checks out to Happy Son of None.”
Ayesha Martin is a Continuing Education student from Harrisburg, PA who was first published in Inked last semester. She writes, “I have a few nieces and nephews who I adore and spend all my money on.”