Structophis is a heartwarming YA adventure from the author of The Book of Deacon, Bypass Gemini, and Free-Wrench. It is based upon a concept and artwork by ProjectENDO.
In a small town in Colorado, Markus Spiros was just getting his life on track. By day he worked as a veterinary tech, by night he took classes. His steady little routine was rolling along nicely when his impulsive Uncle Dimitrios threw a wrench in the works. Thanks to an unannounced trip, Markus had to swing by his uncle's bistro to tend to the 'special oven.' When he arrived, he discovered it wasn't the oven that was special, it was the rare and exotic egg that had been incubating inside it.
And now it had hatched.
Suddenly, Markus found his life had become a good deal more complicated. The creature was a Structophis Gastrignae—a strange creature that was equal parts dragon and oven—and she'd become quite a big girl. Large as a refrigerator and curious as a toddler, the creature he'd dubbed Blodgette would have been a handful in any situation. Markus had bigger problems than figuring out how to take care of her, though. Owning such a rare and special beast was illegal, so should the cops learn of it, Markus would be destined for jail. Worse, there were certain unscrupulous people who would do anything to acquire Blodgette.
Now, with the help of his old classmate Gale, Markus must scramble to stay two steps ahead of the authorities and a corrupt CEO, all while being the best 'mommy' he can be to his brand-new pizza dragon.
Once, there was an artist named ProjectENDO who was having a bad day. He'd recently shared some artwork of a curious new creation, the Structophis Gastrignae, or Pizza Dragon. I enjoyed the idea of the character and the detail of its history, so I decided it might cheer him up if I wrote a little sample chapter of an adventure involving such a creature. Then I wrote another. Then I wrote another. Eventually there was an entire book. Structophis is every bit as carefully written and developed as my other novels, but it has become something of a running gag amongst my author friends, as it represents a marketing enigma that is practically impossible to solve. A pseudo-scientific, semi-fantastic piece of contemporary fiction with an off-the-wall premise and a heartwarming plot. It doesn't fit neatly into any genre, and the audiences who would like it most are unlikely to ever find it. Heck, I even gave it a hard to pronounce, hard to spell name. No one said I was smart man. – Joseph R. Lallo
"Wonderful original storyline. It took about a chapter to pull me in because of the unique situations surrounding the interesting creature. The beginning has less action, but is necessary to understand the plot. This cute story is worth the read, give it a chance and you will want a creature of your own!"– Becky Farrah (Amazon Customer)
"This book will keep you smiling! I have always been a fan of Joseph Lallo's writing style and this book did not disappoint. I loved the sense of humor and wit in this story! As a matter of fact, the whole book seems like a comedy of errors. A lot of enjoyable surprises. If you need a reason to smile, read this book as it will totally put a smile on your face the whole way through.– Elda (Goodreads Reviewer)
"This was new take on dragons and very creative! I'm never disappointed in Joseph's writing! Loved it!"– Barnes and Noble Customer
Markus had only just flopped onto his couch and pulled out his tablet for the first bit of nonacademic reading in… long enough that he couldn't remember how long it was. A full-time job as a veterinary tech would have been plenty to keep him busy. But lately he'd begun to feel as though tending to the pampered pets of the local ski towns wasn't as fulfilling and valuable to society as he would like, so he'd returned to college via night classes. It had all left him stretched a little thin. Unwinding with something that included damsels and/or spaceships sounded like a long overdue balm for his frazzled brain, and a half-day at the job meant he had time for it before lunch and studying. Perhaps inevitably, a ringing phone brought the whole endeavor to a screeching halt. And it was just when he'd reached the first instance of the word "forsooth," too.
He fumbled for the other glass-and-plastic rectangle that dominated his life and swiped the screen.
"Hello?" he muttered, endeavoring to imbue the word with the proper tone for it to convey the subtext, you are interrupting the only fifteen-minute period of my week not otherwise earmarked for thinking about or working with sick animals; please be brief.
"Markus?" said a voice on the other end.
He flinched. It was Aunt Sabina. This was not going to be a short call… The woman didn't speak in sentences, she spoke in cycles. If you ever missed something you just had to wait for it to come around again.
"Do you remember your Great Uncle Dimitrios?" she said.
"Yeah, I remember him. I spent a couple of years working in his restaurant."
"He always used to shovel coal into that big gas deck oven in the back," she continued, as though he hadn't spoken.
"Yes, Aunt Beeni. I was the one doing the shoveling."
"He was the one with the curly mustache and he always had egg stains on his shirt—"
"Yes! Yes. I remember Great Uncle Dimitrios," he barked impatiently.
"Well, he's dead."
"Yeah… or left on a trip. I don't know. It's not important."
"… Aunt Beeni, I submit that 'dead' versus 'on a trip' is in fact a very important distinction."
"Well, you know Dimitrios. Always the impulsive type. You remember him, don't you? He was the—"
"Beeni, I don't mean to rush you, but did you call for a reason besides giving me the most unsettling family update imaginable?"
"Do you still have the key to the back room to his bistro?"
"Good. You need to go down there and shut off the oven. He's been gone for days and the nice old lady in the apartment upstairs says she smells something burning. Dimitrios still has you as the emergency contact. He's got a note here that says 'Don't let anyone but Markus tend to the special oven.'"
Markus twisted his face a bit. Slowly, like a pile of junk teetering forward out of the recently opened door of a long-forgotten closet, a rush of memories slammed into him. He remembered "the special oven," and he remembered it with the very specific level of clarity reserved for things one has tried countless times to forget.
"Uh… You're… sure I'm the one who has to do it? I haven't been down there in like… five years," he said, adding in his head, I know, because that's when the nightmares started.
"It's that or someone breaks the door down. The lady upstairs says something's burning. And she's been hearing scratching. Probably rats. You know Dimitrios… Do you—"
"Yes, I remember Dimitrios. I'll be there in a half hour. Bye, Aunt Sabina."
He ended the call before she could go through another iteration and hopped to his feet, grabbing his car keys. After a steadying breath, he opened the closet and pushed aside a few old coats until he unearthed a soot-stained Dimitrios's Deluxe Delivery jacket. A bit of fumbling through the pockets unearthed a key. He held it as if it was liable to explode at any moment.
"Okay, Markus. You can do this. There's no way it's as bad as you remember."
Markus pushed open the staff entrance at the rear of Dimitrios's Bistro. A very unique, very intense scent struck him immediately. It smelled like char. Not any specific type of char, mind you. If anything, it was representative of the whole pizza-kitchen section of the char spectrum. There were overtones of charred oregano, some heavy charred flour smells, a little chunk charcoal, the spicy sting of charred red pepper, and the bright tinge of charred tomato.
"Okay, so the lady upstairs wasn't crazy about the burning smell," he said to himself.
A long, grating grind and the plink of metal rumbled out from deep within a back room, startling him enough to bash his head on the edge of the still-open door.
"Darn it," he said, rubbing his head. "So the sound wasn't her imagination either."
He shut the door and found the light switch, revealing a scene that brought back an almost dizzying rush of memories. Everything looked precisely as it had in the nineteen sixties. That wouldn't have been impressive if it had closed in the sixties, but the place had been open as recently as the previous Monday. Dimitrios was… distrustful of change. Everything was covered in either linoleum or Naugahyde, then topped with a generous layer of soot.
"Still?" Markus said, running his finger across a countertop to clear a line of the black dust that accumulated on every available surface.
Technically the place cooked all its food in gas ovens, but Uncle Dimitrios always kept a few sacks of natural charcoal to shovel into his "special" oven in the back room. That "privilege" had always been Markus's, despite the fact that he'd never been entrusted with what exactly it was that made the oven so darn special. As best as he could remember, there were only three things about it that made it any different from the other ovens.
The first difference was, rather than just stacking two deck ovens, Uncle Dimitrios had gotten all "junkyard wars" with it. He'd carved out the bottom of one oven and the top of another, then welded them together into one big, hollow monstrosity. The second difference was that he'd disconnected and sealed off the gas lines, deciding for some insane reason that it was a better idea to feed the contraption with good old-fashioned charcoal. Manning the shovel was sweltering and dirty work, to say nothing of the work of cleaning out the dust afterward.
Markus wouldn't have minded all the shoveling… No, that would be overstating it. He would have understood all the shoveling if they had ever pulled any pizza out of the oven. But as far as he could tell, nothing at all ever came out of that oven.
He stepped up to the door to the room Dimitrios had set aside for the special oven, and hesitated. That, of course, was the third thing about the oven. Markus had worked for his great uncle for the better part of five years, from when he was fifteen until he was almost twenty. One of the first jobs he'd been given was feeding the special oven, a task that had a very long and very precise sequence of requirements and instructions. Don't keep the door open too long, only use the chunk charcoal, be careful about the big round chunk in the middle…
Eventually his uncle must have changed his mind about the big chunk, because one day Markus had opened the oven and found that someone had removed it and tossed in a wad of dough. It had always sort of made Markus uneasy that his uncle evidently threw a new wad in every morning and despite baking all day, it never seemed to get any more "done." His uneasiness compounded over the years when the dough began to look… organic. There were recognizable bits. An arm here, a leg there. At the time he'd assumed his uncle was just experimenting with sculpture and was too cheap to buy a kiln. By the end of the third year though, his uneasiness had escalated to full weirded-out status. It was around that time a hunk of coal with a smoldering red center had gotten lodged in the dough/clay thing in a way that was a little too eyelike for his tastes.
By that time he had been eighteen and should have known better, but he could have sworn the thing was watching him, gazing as he opened the lower deck door to sweep out the spent powder and blinking up at him when he dropped the fresh stuff in the top door. It had sent shivers down his spine every time he'd seen it, but he'd stuck with it because Dimitrios had insisted it was the most important part of his job, and the old man simply didn't trust any of the other delivery boys to do it.
The last straw had been when he'd tended to the oven one morning, pulling it open to brush it out, and he was certain the thing had crawled toward him. He'd quit that day, and hadn't been back since. As far as he was concerned, there were only two possible explanations for that. The first was that he was going insane, and the second was that there was some sort of gremlin living in an oven in the back of Dimitrios's Bistro. Neither potential truth appealed to him, so he'd opted for the very popular let-us-never-speak-of-this-again approach, which had worked fairly well until Aunt Beeni called.
"Maybe… maybe I can just leave it. The darn oven's going to have to burn itself out eventually with no one to load it. What's the worst that could—"
He was interrupted by another grinding plink, then the unmistakable splash of water and an awful hissing noise. He took a step back as he noticed water rush from under the door and pool around his feet.
"Frickin' great. A pipe burst," he said, hastily fitting the key into the lock. "I've at least got to get the main valve shut off."
He muscled the door open and splashed inside the back room, eyes sweeping the floor for any electrical wires that might be in the water waiting to put him in an early grave. Dimitrios was one of those guys who cut the "fat peg" off power cords because "they only get in the way." It didn't give one a warm feeling about the survivability of a flooded back room.
When Markus finally glanced up, now in search of the source of the trickling water, the possibility of electrocution was suddenly a distant third on his priorities list. The first was his sanity, and the second was the thing that would likely kill him in the event he wasn't insane.
It was… a thing. That was as good a place as any to start. It was standing on two things that could certainly be called "feet," though "paws" seemed more appropriate. They were pudgy little footsies, a dark, crackly brown color like baked dough. The feet disappeared up into what had probably been chunks of the old oven, but it had seen better days. The front, back, and sides had all split in a number of places, roughly in equal lines that allowed them to bow out. From between these cracks more of the crusty hide could be seen, though some of them also revealed a deep orange glow. Some hunks of metal were pulled entirely away from the others, revealing a massive potbelly of the same dark, crackly texture. In the cracks on the skin, a dull glow was again visible. The way the plates and doors that had formerly made up the oven hung at blocky angles put Markus in mind of an old samurai warrior's armor.
Overall the… thing that had grown out of the oven was a bit bigger than the oven itself, and it had only slightly changed its shape. Two pudgy arms, very stout and ending in smallish hands with stubby little fingers, had emerged from the sides, wearing the strips of oven punched free when the arms emerged as a sort of half-gauntlet/extended brass knuckles. The roof of the oven sloped upward slightly along the creature's metal-clad shoulders, giving way to a long, crooked neck that was topped by a rather organically sculpted helmet of sorts that kept a bit of the samurai mojo present in the rest of the ensemble. There was a somewhat more forward-jutting snout than one might see on a samurai mask, but the top of it had the angular sloping shape that fit the bill nicely, and even antlerish metal horns that seemed to continue that aesthetic.
Behind it a crooked, kinked tail with a cruel-looking metal spade formed on to its end emerged from the back of the former stove. The jagged zigzag shape of the tail made it seem as if it had been pinned up against the wall of the oven until the day it had burst free, maintaining the creases it had earned during that time. Nevertheless, the tail was pudgy and bulky, almost as large as the rest of its body combined.
Currently the thing had its head tipped up to the sprinkler system, guzzling the flow of water out of a pipe it had punctured, like some sort of overgrown hamster slurping from a water dispenser.
"Whuuaaaaahua?" Markus said.
That was the most intelligent comment his brain could muster on short notice.
The utterance did the job, evidently, because as soon as he made the outburst the creature looked to him, eyes glowing through slits in the mask. It tipped its head to the side, releasing a rolling grumble. It didn't sound violent or threatening, but he felt it was probably best to take the "T-Rex" approach and hold perfectly still. Jurassic Park had yet to steer him wrong.
At this point, for the sake of some degree of specificity, Markus's brain resolved to label this thing a "dragon." The dragon waddled up to him, its body clinking considerably less than he would have expected, and leaned its head close. Thanks to the hunched-over fold in its neck, it was about the same height as him. Its breath, which swirled from two nostrilesque slits in the mask, was quite hot. Nothing in its body language seemed hostile. If anything, the squinting eyes and tipping head were more indicative of confusion. The holding-still thing was therefore a success, and Markus wasn't going to push his luck with any last-minute tactics changes.
Once again, pay dirt. The dragon glanced aside, then shuffled back and rummaged through a pile of old, sooty cloth. Its chubby mitts came up with an old delivery shirt and a coal shovel. Markus was fiddling behind him, trying to surreptitiously open the door and make his escape, but he once again froze when the dragon turned in his direction.
It stopped in front of him again and held up the delivery shirt, pressing it to Markus's front like someone testing an off-the-rack outfit at a department store. Markus felt the handle of the shovel being shoved against his hand. Out of habit, he grabbed it. The dragon then backed away, leaving Markus to obligingly hold the delivery shirt in place as well. After a few moments of tipping its head side to side again, a new look came to its remarkably expressive eyes. A look of recognition.
Markus cringed and shut his eyes as it lunged toward him. An almost-scalding heat pressed against him from the front, and a yielding crunch crackled around him. When he didn't burst into flames and stubbornly refused to be torn to shreds, he ventured a peek through squinted eyes. It took his brain a few seconds to register it, but the thing was—and there was really no other word for it—hugging him. It uttered a contented little murr, and the reasoning portion of Markus's brain dusted itself off to put the pieces together.
This… this was the thing in the oven. This was the thing he'd fed every morning and cleaned up after every night. For five long years he'd been this thing's keeper, even if he wouldn't allow himself to accept it at the time. And it remembered him. It had imprinted on him.
The dragon released him and shuffled back to the leaky pipe to drink some more, and for the moment the spine-tingling terror dropped away enough for Markus's veterinary mind to say a few words. He didn't know the first thing about this creature, but the way the skin was black, brown, and crackling when it moved didn't seem healthy. And if Dimitrios had been gone for a few days, it hadn't been fed, or at least hadn't been given any proper care since then. Its overall proportions didn't seem right, either. The body structure suggested something that should be longer, leaner. Its squat square build looked like the consequence of a mishandled upbringing rather than proper development.
This thing, whatever it was, needed help. It needed looking after. When it turned to him, he glanced down at the center of its chest, where the logo of the original oven manufacturer hung like a name tag. Blodgett.
Markus sighed. "So… Blodgett. You're going to make my life an awful lot more complicated, aren't you…?"