She went up to the mouth of the cave and pulled a large rock out of her messenger bag. She hurled the rock inside. The sound of it echoed throughout the cavern.
"Hey!" she shouted. "Hey! Wake up!"
There was the noise of rough skin sliding over stone. A gust of hot, humid air blew out from the cave.
"What?" said a gravelly voice inside.
She crossed her arms. "I've been bringin' you papers all year and you ain't paid me a thing."
"So pay me or you ain't gettin' any more papers."
The voice growled. There was the noise of movement. Then, a green claw almost as big as she was hurled a bag at her feet before disappearing back into the cave.
"Will that cover it?"
She hefted up the bag. It was full of gold. "Yeah, that'll do."
She pulled a rolled up newspaper out of her own bag and tossed it inside.
"Thanks," said the dragon.
She waved him off, put the bag of gold into her bike's basket, and started for home.
"Seeya in the morning," he said. He went back to sleep.
* * * * *
She rode her bike home to drop the gold off, then went to the next stop.
The forest was quiet when she arrived.
As soon as she was in, weeds grew and tangled up her bike and the tree branches snagged her clothes. She parked the bike and hoofed it the rest of the way. The tree she was looking for stood in the middle of the forest in the middle of a clearing, all by itself. She went and knocked on the bark.
"Hey," she said. "Wake up."
The tree was quiet. She knocked harder.
"It's payday. Open up."
The tree remained still. She pulled a rolled up newspaper from her bag and smacked the tree with it.
"I said open up!"
The entire tree shuddered, and the bark in front of her morphed into a face. The face moved and stretched and pulled itself from the tree until the dryad was all the way out.
"What do you want?" she said. The leafy vines in her hair rustles in the breeze.
"My pay. You're three weeks overdue."
"I'll have it for you next week." The dryad reached for the newspaper.
"Oh no," the papergirl said, holding it out of reach. "No pay, no paper."
"Aww come on!"
She made like she was going to leave.
"Fine!" the dryad said. She melted back into the bark, and the tree began shaking madly. It burst into yellow blossoms which quickly fell away, instead turning into rapidly aging apples. The apples grew larger and larger until they all fell off the tree, fully grown. They hit the ground with loud thunks.
"There," said the dryad, sticking partway out of the tree. "Happy?"
The papergirl picked up an apple. They were made out of ruby. Their leaves were pale green amethyst. She nodded.
"Good. Gimme my paper."
The paper girl obliged. The dryad and the paper melted back into the tree, leaving the papergirl to pick up the apples on her own.
* * * * *
She rode home to drop the basket of apples off, this time taking with her a set of clothespins from the laundry room before heading off.
The next stop was a cave whose insides smelled like rotten eggs.
She parked her bike just inside the cave and put the clothespin on her nose, blocking out the smell. The deeper she went into the cave, the warmer (and smellier) it became. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the tunnel in the cave sloped downward.
It was a long walk.
Eventually, she reached a doorway. The doors were stone and intricately carved with angry looking faces of goblins and gremlins, and when she used the heavy iron knocker, all the faces scowled at her in disapproval.
She didn't care.
"Hey!" she said, kicking the door, right between the eyes of a particularly nasty looking face. "Open up."
A round little imp no taller than her knee peeked out.
"Whaddaya want?" it grumbled.
"It's pay day, and you're overdue."
"Get it to you next week. Gimme the paper."
"No," she said, dangling a paper over his head. "Pay first, paper second."
He grumbled some more and said, "Hang a sec. Gotta make a call."
He went back inside. She waited.
A few moments later, a slick looking man in a black suit came out. He smiled at her.
"What seems to be the problem?" he said.
"You're overdue. If I don't get paid today, I'm cutting you off."
"And I suppose an extension is out of the question?"
He shrugged and gave an apologetic smile. "I'm afraid I haven't got anything on me," he said. "The new system's got everything running on plastic. You don't take Visa by any chance, do you?"
He sounded hopeful. She shook her head. "Nope."
"I'm sure we can work something out-"
Just then, a whole horde of puppies ran out from the open door, the fat imp from before huffing after them. Half the puppies were black Labrador looking things, the other half were white with red ears and looked more like Corgis. All of them were tiny, and all of them immediately crowded around her legs, wuffling, snuffling, and wagging their tails.
"Get them out of here!" said the man in the suit.
"Tryin'!" said the imp. He grabbed one of the puppies tails, and was flung into the wall of the cave when the dog's tail wouldn't stop wagging.
"Aww, they're cute." She bent down to pick up a little red-eared one. "They yours?"
"Now, yes. The dark ones were mine, the white ones were just recently given to me. My cousin's dog had puppies. He sent me some because he knows I like interesting dogs-"
"I'll give you an extension if you give me a puppy," she said. The little dog wriggled happily in her hands and tried to lick her face. The horde of puppies swarmed around her bike.
"No," he said instantly. "Void the standing bill and you get a dog."
"Only if you throw in a leash."
She placed the puppy in the bike's basket and tossed the man a newspaper. The imp materialized beside her with a leash, which she then placed in her messenger bag. She started walking her bike towards the exit, trying not to squash any of the puppies. Her own dog sat still in the basket, apparently happy just being there.
"Pleasure doing business with you," said the man, tucking the paper under his arm.
"Thanks for the dog."
Seeing that she was going too far for them to follow, the horde of puppies turned around and swarmed the imp. The sounds of their high pitched barking and his shouting for them to get off echoed through the cavern the whole way out of the cave.
* * * * *
She decided to take her new puppy with her to the next stop. He would have to get used to these rides if he was going to stay. At first she was worried that he might try to jump out, but to her surprise he behaved perfectly well the entire ride. He placed both paws on the basket's front and thrust his face into the wind.
It was probably around two when she reached the river. She parked the bike by a big shady tree and tied the dog to one of the branches, making sure he had plenty of leeway to waddle around in.
"Be right back," she said, scratching his ears. He sneezed and then started sniffing the grass. She wondered if he'd ever seen any before.
From her bag, she pulled out a special newspaper made from a thin, but sturdy, plastic. She approached the edge of the river.
"Hello?" she said. "I'm here."
A dark shape rose up to the surface. The water bubbled. The sea serpent poked his head out of the water. Then, seeing it was her, he lifted himself further and further out until his head was above hers.
"Good morning!" he boomed. His voice was deep and loud reminded her of the dark places at the bottom of the ocean. It didn't seem to match the sleek looking rest of him. "How are you today?"
"Doing well," she said politely. "I have your paper here." She threw it out into the water. His tail snapped up and plucked it out of midair, then disappeared again into the river.
"Thanks," he said. He tilted his head. "Are you alright?"
She smiled tiredly. "I'm okay."
"Liar." His tail snapped out of the water and pointed to a dry rock jutting out from the river's edge. "Sit."
She kicked off her shoes, dropped her bag, and sat down the on the rock, dangling her feet in the water.
"People were just being difficult today," she said.
"Why do you think that is?"
She fiddled absently with a bit of reed sticking out of the water. "It's collection day. I was calling in everyone's tabs-"
His eyes widened. "Dear me, I haven't forgotten anything, have I?"
"No, no, you're good," she said. "Don't worry."
He relaxed. "Oh good. I'd hate to think I was part of the problem. Especially since, if I recall correctly, today happens to be a special day."
"Special?" she said. "What-?"
Before she could finish, the serpent dove under. She leaned over the edge of the rock to see, only to have the serpent's tail whip out of the water and push her into the river.
For a long moment, there was nothing but water and bubbles and splashing. When she finally broke surface, she shouted, "What do you think you're doing?"
"I've got something for you," he said, his head rising up beside her. "Come on. Unless, of course, you don't want to. . . "
She splashed him and crawled onto his back. "Let's go."
He dove down.
The little river was deeper than the it had any right to be. She clung to his back and just when she thought her lungs were about to pop, he said,
"You know, you don't have to hold your breath."
She gasped, expecting to take in a lungful of water. Instead, it felt just like she was breathing air.
"I'm sorry. I should have mentioned that before. Oh, here we are!"
He pulled up to the bottom of the river, floating a few feet above the mud. In front of them, carved into the bank, was a cave.
In the cave was treasure. Piles of it lying on the mud. Old time-y pirate chests of it spilling off along the side wall. Shelves carved into the rock were full of more of it. Gold, gems, silver, necklaces, coins, crowns, tiaras, armor, swords, and a thousand other things she couldn't process. Most of it had to have been magic. It was the only explanation she could think of for why none of it was rusted.
"Go ahead and pick something," he said. "Anything you want."
She let go of him and instead of being pulled back to the surface, or down the river by the current, she found herself slowly sinking to the ground. If she kicked off the ground, she went floating several feet ahead in a way that reminded her of astronauts hopping around on the moon.
She hopped into the cave and looked around. It was all very pretty, but she couldn't bring herself to take any of it. Everything there was far too valuable for her to accept as a gift. But the sea dragon was looking at her so hopefully, like someone who'd just made dinner and was waiting for the guest's verdict.
He caught her looking at him and nodded eagerly. She smiled back and went to one of the carved-in shelves. She idly ran her hand over the things on the shelf and wondered how she could say politely that she didn't want anything. Her hand brushed across something glass and for the split second of contact, she heard the sound of singing. She snatched her hand away and the singing stopped.
"You alright?" he said.
"Um, yeah. I'm fine."
She peered in the area where her hand had been and tentatively poked the things there. A vase. A few small jars. A gold chain. Glass looking triangle things, a small set of scales, a glass bauble- the singing started again. It was a wordless song that started off alone with a woman's voice, but soon melted into an entire choir. When she moved her hand away, the singing stopped.
She picked up the bauble. It looked like a swirly blue marble and was bigger than a quarter, but smaller than a half dollar. It was set in a little silver-y clip and had a simple silver-y chain, and when she touched the blue part, she heard the singing in her head.
"Did you find something?"
"I think. What is this?" She astronaut-hopped back to where the serpent was waiting. He examined the bauble.
"Oh, that. It's a siren's song."
"A song?" she eyed the bauble.
"Yes. She sang it once and a wandering magician happened to catch it. This song is older than you are. Probably older than your mother. Do you like it?"
She stared at the song. "Yeah, actually. I do."
"Then it's yours."
"But I couldn't possibly-"
"No, I won't here a word of it. It's yours." He looked up towards the surface. "We'd probably best be getting back before someone comes along and takes your bike."
"I left my dog to watch it. I have a dog, now." She crawled onto his back, the bauble around her neck.
"You must be sure to introduce us, then."
He shot up to the surface and they broke with a splash. The waves carried her over to the rock where she'd been sitting earlier, and she climbed on.
She held up the bauble.
"Are you really sure I can have this?" she said. "It's so pretty, I don't-"
"It's a gift," he said firmly. "Think nothing of it."
"Why?" she said. "I appreciate it and everything, but how come you're givin' me a present?"
His eyes widened. "You mean you don't know?" He sounded like he was trying not to laugh. "Think. What's the date today?"
Sunday. The fourteenth. Fourteenth of-
She flushed. "Oh."
"I was too busy thinking about collecting."
He threw back his head and laughed. She was pretty sure people in the next town over could hear it.
"Thank you," she said.
"Happy birthday," he said, sinking beneath the surface. "Tell your parents I said hi."
She waved and his tail waved back before he disappeared completely. She headed back to where the dog was waiting by her bike. He yipped happily when he saw her and tried running to her, only to tangle himself up on the tether.
She untied him from the tree and scooped him up. A little pink tongue that smelled oddly of spearmint licked her face. She shrugged on the bag and touched the song. The siren's singing filled her head.
She'd had a good ride. She'd got most of her pay. Got a puppy. Got a nice present from a friend. Altogether, not a bad day. Maybe she would save the rest of the collections for tomorrow.
She put her puppy into the basket, secured her bag, and went pedaling home.
Not a bad birthday at all.