This story is a major overhaul of one of the first stories I ever published on Medium (previously known as Wingspan).
As I stepped off the platform of the train station, a sleek, silver cab was pulling up to the curb. Assuming that it was taken, I dialled the number of the taxi company and waited for the line to connect. During this time, I watched the rest of the passengers descend the exit ramp. There were hugs and kisses from reunited relatives, and dapper men and women in uniform, loading suitcases into awaiting cars. Strangely, no one paid any attention to the silver taxi, even though the door was open and the driver was leaning against the door.
“May I be of assistance, sir?”
I looked up and noticed that the taxi driver was looking right at me and smiling. I smiled back. With her silver flecked hair and oversized glasses, she reminded me of my grandmother.
“Could I trouble you for a lift to Broadbeach?” I called back. It was already so late. The sooner that I could get to the hotel, the sooner I could turn in and get some rest.
“Of course”, she agreed. Relieved to be on my way, I pocketed my phone and made my way down the ramp.
The first thing that I noticed was how smoothly the taxi was running. I could not get over how quiet the engine was.
“Are all of the taxis like this on the Gold Coast?”
The cabbie grinned proudly.
“Electric cars are the way of the future, you know? Supposedly they are better for the environment, so they have my approval”.
“Incredible”, I marvelled, having never heard of anything like it before.
As the journey continued, we attempted some small talk to pass the time. She introduced herself as Johanna Stern, so I told her that my name was Matt.
“So is this your first time to the Goldie, Matt?”, Johanna asked.
I nodded, forgetting that my face probably wasn’t visible in the darkness. It was then that I heard the roar of the ocean. I pressed my nose up to the window in an attempt to make out the view. Then, just around the next bend, I saw it. I could just make out the barrel of waves as they crashed upon the sand.
The cabbie laughed at my enthusiasm. A little embarrassed by my reaction, I explained that I had grown up on a farm. For the people who had grown up on the Gold Coast, the seaside was so normal that it was likely taken for granted. For me, I may as well have been on another planet. Seeing the ocean, at last, was nothing short of incredible.
“I understand completely”, she replied. “I can also assure you that your assumption is incorrect. I grew up here and yet every time that I come to the beach it still takes my breath away”.
So Johanna lives here.
I grin, unable to believe my luck. During my tour of the States, I had started my visual diary. My intention was to create a new drawing of every new place that I ever visited; something that captured its unique spirit. I was very fortunate to have this chance to tap into some local perspective.
“If you could choose just one spot for me to visit this weekend, where would you recommend?”, I asked eagerly.
Johanna smiled with local pride.
“It is impossible to pick just one “.
“Please won’t you try”, I begged. I explained about wanting to add a new sketch to my diary.
“Somewhere picturesque would be ideal”.
Her eyes lit up. Recognising what I was after, she rewarded me with a list of beaches. She also named a place called the Starlight Tower which she deemed to be the best viewing platform in all of the Gold Coast.
“Have you always been interested in drawing, Matt?”
I laughed and told her that I was more than interested. Drawing was my life, and it was also what I did for a living.
“Can you make a living as an artist?”, she gasped.
I laughed, for it was the typical reaction from strangers after learning about my profession.
“I am very lucky, aren’t I? I would have become an artist no matter what, so it is a good thing people are kind enough to throw some money my way every now and again”.
I told Johanna that I had drawn every day for as far back as I could remember. I had continued to do so because I had no other choice. For me, the need to draw was equal to the need to eat, breathe and survive. Despite ridicule and the doubts of other people, I continued to follow my passion. I was well aware I was one of the fortunate few to be noticed and actually receive payment for what I do.
“I suppose you are headed to that convention this weekend, then?”
My writing partner and I had been lucky enough to be invited to showcase our latest comic: Deep Blue Sea.
“Hero-Con has been going on, ever since I was a little girl”, the driver reminisced. “My father only likes it for the taxi business it generates. He took me along once, but he wasn’t impressed. According to him, it was a gigantic waste of time for everybody involved”.
I could not comprehend such a sentiment. There had nothing like it around when I was a kid, so my memories of attending conventions were all very recent. I had just flown back from my very first Comic-Con in Los Angeles. Just being there, let alone being invited to take part had been electrifying.
“And what did you make of Hero-Con?”
I hoped that Johanna had been more open minded to the experience. Johanna thought about it and frowned.
“I remember coming around to Dad’s point of view. Surely there are more productive ways to spend your time than dressing up, looking at drawings and playing pretend. That being said, I do remember that it wasn’t all bad. My mother made me a Star Wars costume to wear, which I was quite pleased with at the time. In particular, I was impressed with the wall of art and comics. It is hard to believe, but I used to be a lot like you. There was a time when I would carry a sketchbook everywhere. As you can imagine, the hobby wasn’t tolerated for long in our house. There are times that I miss it. If only these weary hands weren’t so shaky, I might just consider trying my hand at drawing again”.
“You really should”, I insisted. For me, drawing was freedom. If Johanna could even get a fraction of the peace and pleasure she used to from her art, then it would all be worthwhile.
Suddenly, Johanna turned shy. I could just make out the blush upon her cheeks.
“I could never”, she sighed. “I wasn’t like I was any good at it. Anybody who ever saw my pictures said that I was wasting my time”.
“Who cares?”, I exclaimed.
“Did you enjoy what you were doing? If you miss it, then it must have made you happy once. Growing up lots of people wrote my drawings off as scribbles, and I never cared. Your drawing are a part of you. That makes them important, even if you are the only one who will ever get to see them”.
“My drawing are important, hey?”, the Johanna sighed. “I suppose I should be glad that somebody thinks so”. A part of me inside died. Horrible memories of art school came flooding back to me. Pretentious Ms Sharp had been set in her belief that there was only one way to produce a quality piece of art. Heaven help your grades and self-confidence if yours was the wrong way. During the last thirty-two years, I had seen too many potential artists give in because of what others thought of them. To see this sweet woman fall victim to the disapproval of others was devastating.
“What did young Johanna Stern like to draw?” I asked her, hoping to re-spark the fondness for drawing that had been beaten out of her over the years.
“Flying monsters” she answered without hesitation. Dragons, harpies, gargoyles: Johanna had obsessed over drawing flying, fantastical creatures.
I wished that I had been around to know young Johanna. Her creations would have been an excellent pairing with my endless assortment of sea monsters.
“Then I think that is what you should draw now as well. Please give drawing another try. All that it takes is for you to believe in yourself”.
“Mmm hmm”, Johanna muttered. At that moment I knew that she was still a prisoner of her father’s scorn. It was impossible for her to free herself of her doubt. I could ride in this cab with her all day and still never have any hope in convincing her to take a risk and try.
We rode in silence until she announced our arrival. I glanced at my watch. How could that be right? We had only been on the road for fifteen minutes. I did not expect to arrive at the hotel so soon. Shrugging this off, I paid Johanna her fare and waved her off into the night.
I should have been exhausted. I had only been back in Australia for a couple of days, and I was still trying to catch up on sleep. My eyelids were heavy, but I was unable to relax. Inspiration had struck, and my idea wasn’t going to let me rest until it had been set free. I unpacked my one of my unused sketchbooks and my inks and started to draw. Panel after panel flowed out of me until unexpectedly I had a new story. At the end of it, I added a dedication.
For Johanna. Never be afraid to spread your wings and soar.
Day one of Hero-Con was amazing and exhausting. My voice was hoarse, my hand was cramped from signing and sketching, and I was all too eager to do it again tomorrow. For now what I craved was some time to myself to relax and recharge. With the rain spoiling any plans of visiting the beach, I thought back to Johanna’s sketching recommendations.
“Hey Maria, you haven’t come across the Starlight Tower in your travels yet, have you? I was thinking about going up there tonight and having a quiet sketch”.
My writing partner shook her head. To help me out, she flagged down our convention director and local guru Phoebe James.
When I asked Phoebe, she frowned.
“Sorry, Matt, I have never heard of it”.
Strange. Johanna had made the Starlight Tower sound like it was a big deal. One by one, each person I asked within Artist Alley denied having heard it. Horace even tried finding out where it was on his laptop and he had no luck locating it either.
“It’s fine”, I declared after a while, tiring of the search. Figuring the best solution was to go directly to the source, I retrieved my phone.
Having chased up the number of the company, Seashell Cabs, I made the call.
“Hello, I am after a taxi, please”.
The receptionist on the other end was very polite.
“Certainly sir. Can you please give me your details?”
I did so, then informed the operator that I would like to request a particular driver.
“Her name is Johanna Stern. She was very helpful the other night and it would mean a lot to me if I could request her services again”.
“I will see what I can do”, the receptionist replied. I could hear the rustling of papers through the phone line.
“Stern.. Stern…. Are you sure that you have the right name? I don’t see any Johanna Stern here on our payroll”.
I told her that I was quite sure.
“Maybe there is a mistake in your paperwork. Her name was definitely Johanna Stern. She is an older lady, quite short and she wears large tortoiseshell glasses. She drives one of the silver, electric cabs”.
There was a prolonged silence on the other end.
“And you are sure that she was working for Seashell Cabs?”
“Of course I am sure”, I snapped. Surely I had not imagined the bold lettering painted onto the side of the car. There had even been a seashell next to the logo, for goodness sake.
“Sir, I am sorry but there seems to have been a mistake. Johanna Stern does not work here, nor do any of our drivers have cabs that fit that description. All of our cars are gold. I have never heard of a silver electric taxi anywhere, especially here in the Gold Coast”.
Clearly uncomfortable, the operator hung up before I could pose any argument.
“Matthew, come with me right now”.
Maria was suddenly by my side. Supporting my weight, she guided me to a nearby chair.
“What happened to you just now? You look like you have just seen a ghost”.
Poor Maria. I knew that I was trembling and causing her to worry. Not having any other explanation, I settled for the truth.
“Maria, I think that I am losing my mind”.
Maria and Phoebe’s suggestion was an early night’s rest. They put the whole incident down as brain fog: the result of bouncing from convention to convention and not getting enough rest. Too tired to argue, I let them call me a cab. The car that came to collect me was yellow and depressingly ordinary. This driver had no desire for small talk which was a relief. I closed my eyes and tried my best to push Johanna Stern out of my head completely.
While I wasn’t required to be at the Convention Centre until 10 am, I couldn’t bear to miss the costume parade. Blending in with the crowd, I stood back and watched the assortment of heroes, villains and monsters, march, wave and dance down the streets of Broadbeach. After it was over, I made it back into the centre just in time to hear the end of the costume competition.
“And now”, announced Phoebe, “Here at the 5th annual Gold Coast Hero-Con, here are our costume winners”.
My blood ran cold. Had she just said it was the 5th convention? Not the 25th or the 50th? I could distinctly remember Johanna saying she had attended this convention as a little girl but clearly that wasn’t possible. I grabbed at an abandoned programme left at my station and saw the number clearly in front of me: 5th. I slid into my chair and made a mental note to have a sit down with Phoebe that evening. Maybe I was suffering convention fatigue as she had suspected. We had five more appearances booked across the country across the next few months. As much as it would hurt me to do so, if I was losing my mind, then it was probably for the best that I pull out.
Thankfully, my fans forgive me for being distracted and unwell. Having discovered early in the day that I was too disturbed to draw any commissions, I limited myself to signings and answering questions. As a replacement novelty, Maria tracked down some drawing paper and pencils and set up an art station for budding illustrators. ‘Have Maria Goldstein name your creature’ was her pitch. I did not mind that most of our visitors that day were kids. At least I could get some pleasure watching them express their creativity. The lapse in attention turned out to be a blessing. If I had been distracted by a fan, then there was a good chance that I would have missed her. The little girl, especially in this crowd was in danger of being swallowed up by it completely. An older man, presumably her father, was dragging her along at an alarming rate.
“I have no idea how you roped me into this, Johanna. I can barely breathe in here. Choose one last thing to see then I am getting us out of here”.
Did he just say?
I focused on the girl, examining her jet black hair and oversized pink glasses. She was dressed up as a Star Wars character but it was not Princess Leia.
I stood up.
“I like your costume, Johanna”, I called. I could feel Maria staring at me. It was the most spirited that I had been all day.
“You’re Rey from The Force Awakens, right? You have good taste. I love that movie”.
Johanna and her father stopped and turned to me. Even though Johanna didn’t have a clue who I was, she smiled right at me.
“I’m going over there, Daddy”, Johanna announced. The father rolled his eyes and walked up to the counter with her.
“How exactly do you know my daughter?” he asked. I ignore him.
“Do you like my sea monsters, Johanna?”
Johanna took a moment to scan my display wall. When she looked back at me, her brown eyes were sparkling.
“Uh huh. Did you really draw them all?”
“Do you want to have a turn?”, I offered. “Why don’t you ask my friend Maria for a piece of paper? I would love to see your best monster”.
“Not another monster”, he remarked under her breath.
“Please, Johanna”, I begged, not being able to bear her being discouraged. Johanna looked from me to her father, and then to Maria.
“Can I have some paper please?”.
I watched as this six-year-old created her masterpiece. While it was far from perfect, it was easy to see what it was supposed to be. The majestic, forest green dragon was covered in leathery scales and its wingspan was fully extended. I could see its spiky tail and the fireball coming out of its mouth. Maria, God love her, whistled when it was done and dubbed it Flaminator. Johanna giggled.
“Do you mind if I add something?”, I asked, grabbing my pen and her creation. I drew my first picture of the day, firstly adding an ocean underneath Johanna’s dragon. Then I added one of my favourite creatures, the aerobatic Seaclaw Dragon. I drew it leaping out of the water, splashing the Flaminator with its spray. I finished with my signature and a message of encouragement.
For Johanna, from your number one fan, Matt Chastain.
Rummaging underneath my table, I found my sketchbook from last night and presented it, and the drawing to Johanna.
“Read this when you get home, okay? I hope that you enjoy it”.
Johanna took the sketchpad. She opened it. When she saw the griffins on the first page, she gasped.
“I love it”.
“Are we done now? Fantastic”. With his patience exhausted, Johanna’s father dragged the poor girl away. As Johanna turned her head to catch one last glimpse of my art wall, I prayed that my comic would be enough to keep the girl inspired.
My mother used to tell me not to examine life too closely. It was much better by far just sit back and enjoy the ride. I have done my best to follow this advice over the years and not dwell upon my mysterious encounter. The best explanation I could come up with was that I was visited by a ghost that night. Was is a ghost of what could have been? An echo from another lifetime and time, from a future Johanna filled with regret? There was no way to know for sure. The one thing that I do know for certain lies in front of me here and now. I am standing in line waiting for the most remarkable young woman. As she looks up and smiles at me, I beam with pride. I wish that I had been that professional and composed at twenty-one. Of course, I don’t expect for her to recognise me. Even fifteen years can seem like a lifetime ago. I wait patiently for my signature and then thank her before I leave.
I feel a touch upon my hand.
Johanna rummages behind her station. She pulls out a clear packet and hands it to me.
“It only seems fair that you get to keep a copy. I still have mine. I cannot begin to tell you how much it means to me”.
I pull the comic out of the packet and flick through the pages. Each panel was the same as the ones I had drawn for Johanna, except she had redrawn them in her own style. She told the story of the griffins, not just once, but many times. Flipping through I could see her progression as an artist over the years. On the back page, she had drawn two dragons entwined. The large one was blue, jagged and dripping with water. The second one, though smaller and covered with fine purple and green feathers, has an impressive wingspan and a fierce look in her eyes. Underneath, I read her inscription.
For Matt Chastain. Thank you, Dragonfather. It is because of you that I was able to find my wings and soar. From your number one fan, Johanna Stern.
I take another look at our dragon portrait, and then quickly turn away, in fear of causing the ink to run.
“You astound me, Johanna” I manage to say at last. I reach for my Dragonchild and give her a hug. I could see her wings, on and off of the page, and they were magnificent.
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