The Last House on Cedar Street

for J.R. Bournville
who taught me about perseverance and seeing a project through to the end


“No, thank you,” the woman said before another door slammed in Leah’s face.

Every house on the block had been the same. Except for the ones who pretended they weren’t home. In a way, those were better. At least she didn’t have to waste her time on them.

Leah trudged back down the walk and turned towards the last house at the end of the street. This house was different. Unlike the other homes, this one was built in an older style, not yet purchased by some young family and remodeled to resemble every other single-family house in the city. This one had character. Even the trees in the yard seemed to have some sort of spark to which the ubiquitous shrubberies in every other yard could not hold a candle, their gnarled bark telling a story that spanned the years.

With a sigh, Leah straightened her lavender blazer and knocked on the door. Her knock was greeted by silence from within. Curious, Leah pressed her face to the narrow window beside the door. The golden head of a peacock with sapphire studded eyes stared back at her from the top of a cane situated in the umbrella stand beside the door. Next to the stand stood an antique coat tree, and Leah squinted to see past the overladen rack blocking her view. Both the umbrella stand and the coat rack were crammed with odds and ends that did not belong yet were right at home in their current positions. The bird-topped cane was joined by a croquet mallet, a lace parasol, a badminton racquet, tongs for a fire, and what appeared to be an authentic longsword. A polka-dot umbrella jutted from beneath a fur coat draped precariously over a mountain of assorted outerwear on the coat tree.

Suddenly, a harried “Just a moment!” rang out from within the house, and Leah straightened so quickly, she had to push her thick-rimmed glasses back up her nose and swipe strands of straight brown hair from her forehead and cheeks.

The door opened just enough for a young man to peer out, his hair a bit mussed and falling in his eyes.

“Yes?” he asked with almost too much interest.

Leah smiled and recited the speech she had repeated all afternoon, “What could be better than ensuring a better tomorrow for yourself and for the world? Not only does owning stocks in vital sectors help maintain key resources we need for our society to function, but it can help you save for your future and improve your retirement as you grow your capital. This strategy may even make it possible for you to retire up to ten years early! As a GoGo Market representative and trading specialist, I can assist you in diversifying and managing your portfolio.” Leah paused for a breath. “Would you like to make your first investment today? I can offer you stocks in popular commodities with companies such as SolarTech Industries or Oasis Pure Water.”

“Look,” the man said, “you seem really knowledgeable, and I do care about the state of the nation and all, but I don’t have time for this at the moment.”

Leah forced a cheery smile. At least he let her down kindly, and he hadn’t shut the door in her face. “Thanks, anyway,” she said with a little wave of her fingers.

The man raised his hand to wave back before thinking better of it, and Leah caught sight of the red splotches before he tucked it behind his back.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“Fine,” the man said. “All good.”

“Those look like burns,” Leah pressed, peering pointedly at the man’s side where his arm disappeared behind him. She took a deep sniff, brows furrowed. “It smells like smoke in there. Are you sure you’re okay?” she demanded, pulling out her cell phone to call 9-1-1.

“Wait,” said the man, reaching for her and exposing the blistered flesh of his right hand. He pulled back at his mistake, fingers curling. “Dammit.”

“You’re hurt. Let me call the paramedics.”

“You can’t.”

“Whyever not?”

“You just can’t!”

Leah glared at him. “You can’t expect me to leave you like this with third degree burns on your hand.”

“Second.”

“Excuse me?”

“They’re second degree burns.”

“Well, I still wouldn’t feel right leaving you with second degree burns. At least let me take a look. My nana was a nurse and taught me the basics of patching people up in a pinch.”

“I really shouldn’t inconvenience you while you’re on the job.”

“Nonsense,” Leah insisted. “No one is buying my stocks anyhow, and it will only take a moment.”

“If I let you bandage me up will you put that away?” he asked, indicating her phone with a jut of his chin.

Leah nodded, and the man sighed and held open the door, ushering her into the peculiar home.

“Jeremy,” he offered.

“Nice to meet you. I’m Leah.”

Jeremy nodded.

“Do you live here by yourself?” Leah asked, following him to the bathroom.

“Uh, no,” he replied, pulling a first aid kit from the cupboard. “This is my aunt’s house. I’m just housesitting for her while she’s…on sabbatical.”

Leah ignored the pause and took the kit from him. She opened the lid to find it crammed with almost as eclectic a mix of items as the umbrella stand and coat rack. Among small vials of herbs, a flask of what its label touted as holy water, and a suspicious cake wrapped in butcher paper with a big black X beneath the twine securing the package, she found gauze, scissors, burn ointment, and a pair of sterile nitrile gloves.

“What does your aunt do?” Leah asked in as neutral a tone as she could muster, however, she was beginning to wonder. The woman certainly did not seem ordinary in the least.

“She’s a zoologist,” Jeremy said.

“Hmm,” Leah muttered, impressed. “Neat.”

She washed her hands in the sink before pulling on the gloves.

“What have you done for the wound thus far?” she asked, inspecting the burned flesh.

“I was running it under cold water before you arrived.”

“Good. I am going to wash it and apply a dressing, but you really should have it looked at by a professional just in case,” Leah advised. “Do you have a sanitary towel?” she asked. “I don’t want you to dry it with the towel hanging in here in case it’s not clean.”

“There are paper towels in the kitchen,” he offered. “Will that work?”

“Better than this one. I’ll go grab a few,” she said. “The kitchen is this way?” Jeremy nodded confirmation.

Halfway down the hall, Jeremy called after her, “Wait! Wait.”

It was too late. Leah already smelled the smoke, stronger than before as if something were still smoldering, and ran towards the kitchen.

“Good Lord, your pantry is on fire!” She grabbed the fire extinguisher from its mount in a nook next to the stove and blasted the pantry door until the flames died down. Grabbing an oven mitt, she reached for the door to extinguish the flames likely within.

Jeremy caught her arm. “Don’t.”

Scrabbling sounded from the other side of the door, and Leah pulled away from him in horror.

 “Something is trapped inside!”

“I promise you he’ll be fine,” Jeremy pleaded.

“He?!”

Leah flung open the door, ready to combat more flames.

She screamed and threw the fire extinguisher at the small, scaly beast that darted out.

“What is that??” she demanded, scuttling away as it neared her boots with interest.

“My aunt’s latest rescue?” Jeremy offered, his expression begging her to leave it at that.

The creature was about the size of a border collie, had green scales like your average lizard, and sported two shriveled appendages on its back.

“Are those wings?” Leah asked from the other side of the table, maneuvering to keep the beast at a distance. It blinked up at her with golden eyes split with cat-like pupils.

“They will be,” Jeremy said. “He’s too young for them to be fully developed.”

Leah sighed. “I can only assume he’s a dragon?”

“Correct.”

“And you must know they are illegal to own?”

“Yes.”

“So why is he in your kitchen?”

“Like I said, he’s a rescue.” At her narrowed eyes, Jeremy elaborated, “From the black market.”

“Do you intend to keep him?”

“Hell no! You see how much damage the little bastard has done already!” Jeremy indicated the smoldering pantry and almost as an afterthought his burned hand. “He’ll be out of here as soon as my aunt can return him to his natural habitat.”

“Because she’s a zoologist and that’s her job?”

“Cryptozoologist, actually,” Jeremy said. “And not really. It’s more of a self-appointed mission of sorts. She can’t stand the mistreatment of cryptids, well, any living creature.”

“And her sabbatical couldn’t wait until she had taken care of the dragon?” Leah asked, gaze narrowed. She moved a chair between her exposed legs and the beast as he sniffed the air with growing interest.

“No?”

“Right.” Leah folded her arms and cocked her hip to the left. “I find that difficult to believe. She doesn’t seem the type to leave a poor, defenseless baby with improper care.”

Jeremy winced.

“Sorry,” Leah cringed too. “I’ve never interrogated anyone before, but that was harsh. Just be honest. I know you’re not telling me the truth.” She sighed. “Let me finish with your hand, and you can tell me what is really going on?”

Jeremy nodded and offered his hand. “I suppose that’s better than you running for the door to report me. It’s a short story, really.”

Leah sat him at the table, where the dragon instantly curled at his feet, and got back to work. As he spoke, Leah washed and patted his hand dry with a clean paper towel, applied the ointment, and gently bandaged the wound.

“He’s actually quite well-mannered, but I had to hide him when I heard the doorbell, and he really did not take kindly to being locked up,” Jeremy smiled ruefully. “But back to the beginning: My Aunt Agatha brought this little guy home three days ago, and shortly after, Sergio Bartelli sent his best mages to retrieve the little fellow. Aunt Aggie led them all through the no-longer-so-secret portal in her armoir and I suppose is still taking them on a wild goose chase, but she hasn’t returned and I’m beginning to worry I’m painting myself a nice little fantasy at this point.”

“Be sure to keep your hand elevated as much as possible to avoid swelling,” Leah advised to process and prolong having to respond to what Jeremy told her. When she was finally ready to speak, all that came out was, “THE Sergio Bartelli?”

“Who else?”

“I was just hoping there might be another, less-scary one,” said Leah.

“Right,” Jeremy chuckled. “I did the same, but turns out there’s just the one and only. And he’s pretty ruthless, not to mention powerful and nigh unstoppable. At this point, I’m sure the Bartelli Clan has Aunt Agatha, and I’ll probably never see her again. At least in one piece.”

His face drained of color and Leah cringed.

“You think he’ll try to blackmail you for the dragon?” Leah asked.

“Most definitely.” Jeremy’s shoulders slumped, and he dropped his forehead into his good hand. “Good Lord, what am I to do? I don’t think I could take getting a finger in the post.” He gagged at the thought.

“Your aunt seems resourceful,” Leah said. “Perhaps she’ll find a way out.”

“Maybe if I get myself locked up with her, I can bring her something we could use to escape!”

Leah was already shaking her head before he finished. “That’s insane. The Bartelli Clan is experienced and certainly not going to let you bring magical items or anything helpful. They’ll take everything from you the instant you arrive.”

“Well, I have to try. Aunt Aggie’s the only family I have.”

“At least think on it some more first? You’ll need one helluva plan to pull off an escape like that. In the meantime, I’ll at least help you hide the dragon. You’re going to need somewhere better to keep him than the pantry.”

“Aunt Agatha has a secret room which will be perfect,” he said.

“Of course she does,” Leah said with a short laugh.

The little dragon was all too happy to follow them and the bag of pepperoni in Jeremy’s hand up three flights of stairs and behind a flush, near-invisible panel which blended into the wainscot. Inside the secret space, there was an overstuffed sofa, a nest of pillows and blankets, a veritable library of books, toys, a mini fridge, snacks, and an old-fashioned television set.

“This should do the trick,” Jeremy said, the dragon already investigating the pile of blankets.

“We should probably leave the TV on for him,” Leah suggested, manually flipping the power switch to the ON position.

After a ripple of static, a breaking news segment clarified on screen.

“This afternoon, the FBI in partnership with the Cryptid Protection Agency brought in a SWAM* team and arrested long-time mafia leader and rogue magician Sergio Bartelli of the eponymous Bartelli Clan in what is already being called the bust of the decade,” said a reporter in a red dress.

“Are you listening to this?” asked Leah, unable to take her eyes from the screen.

The reporter continued, “Bartelli was taken into custody on multiple charges of using magic without a license, using magic for illicit purposes, and current possession of twenty-seven endangered cryptids.”

“What are you doing all shacked up in here, Jeremy? And who’s this young lady?” a voice behind them asked. Leah jumped and Jeremy dropped the pepperoni. The dragon scurried out from within his cocoon of blankets to gobble up the mess.

“Aunt Aggie!” Jeremy hugged her tight. “I thought Sergio had you locked up in his basement, or worse!”

“They couldn’t catch me,” Aunt Agatha said as if the idea did not phase her in the least. “And when I heard Sergio had been arrested and his hideout raided, I figured it would take the Bartelli Clan long enough to regroup with their leader and most of their muscle in handcuffs that I’d be safe for a while.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Jeremy said. “Aunt Agatha, this is Leah. She helped me…babysit this afternoon.”

Leah laughed. “Nice to finally meet you.”

“You want to help us return this little guy to where he belongs?”

“Thank you for the offer, but I think I’ve had enough excitement today to last me for the rest of the year,” said Leah.

“Where’d you find her?” Aunt Agatha muttered. “She sounds like an accountant or something. No flair for excitement.”

“And that’s how I’d like to keep it!” Leah said.

“I wouldn’t mind a bit of peace and quiet either,” Jeremy agreed.

At their feet, the dragon let out a loud burp followed by a puff of smoke.


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