Kara followed the New Year’s procession through Chinatown, deep drumbeats echoing in her ears punctuated by the pop of fireworks. Smoke from the fireworks hung low in the windless air, filling her lungs with an acrid scent and making her cough.
She welcomed the smoke. It gave her an excuse for her tears.
Chinese New Year had always been celebrated at her grandmother’s home, where banquet tables groaned under the weight of the food. Rooms filled with cousins she adored, even though they threatened to drive her mad.
Then, they would finish off the night with a family trip to view this parade.
All of those traditions ended the night her grandmother died.
Perhaps it would have been different if she’d died of natural causes. If they’d had a chance to say goodbye. Instead, she’d died for worse than nothing.
She died paying for another person’s addictions. Her family was shattered that night, and none of them had ever figured out how to put it back together.
Kara scanned the crowds again, hoping to see a familiar face. No such luck.
She fell in behind the procession, following the last group of dancers moving down the smoke-choked streets.
One “lion” in particular caught her attention. Its low, slithering movements were more serpentine than feline, and appeared to defy gravity, while the pair of human dancers manipulating its movements remained completely invisible.
Such skill. Such amazing skill.
The main body of the lion was a brilliant red cloth, embellished with lush white fur. The huge head turned briefly in her direction.
She waved her red envelope high in front of her face, but the dancers did not come back for her offering. That was unusual. “Wait. Please.”
A commotion further up in the parade line forced the dancers to stop. She scurried in front of the lion, and waved the envelope again. “This is for you.”
The cloth head opened at the mouth, revealing another lion within.
Not another lion. A lion would not have scales. Or horns.
It was a dragon.
Kara touched her hand to her throat, feeling the gold charm, one that had belonged to her grandmother. She’d been wearing it the night she died. The robber had mistaken it for a bargain store trinket, not realizing its value and antiquity.
The creature before her looked exactly like the one on her chain.
The dragon opened its mouth revealing long, wickedly sharp teeth, but she felt no fear. Tradition described dragons as benevolent creatures of good fortune. Her family had several stories about encounters with the beasts throughout the generations, though Kara had never believed the tales.
There was nothing threatening about the dragon. Instead, it seemed to be the frightened one.
She stepped closer. “Are you hiding?”
A brief pause. Then a nod.
“Hunters.” The word ended in a low, sibilant hiss. “Please. Help me.”
“I must reach the sea so I can go home.”
The shore was a good twenty miles away. Impossible for the creature to walk there without being seen, and if it tried to fly, it would be seen by people, or radars at the very least.
“Why are they trying to kill you?”
The dragon’s eyes were endless deep pools, and she nearly drowned in their depth. “Fear, of course.”
“People everywhere try to destroy what they are afraid of.” Like a ninety-year old grandmother. “It’s a weakness of human nature.”
“Not at home. Not always.” The creature shook its head, the fur of the lion costume shivering. “Fear can be tempered by respect.”
“Then why did you leave?”
“Curiosity.” A glint of humor appeared in the dragon’s eyes. “You humans often say curiosity kills the cat. I never thought it could apply to dragons.” It cocked its head to one side. “Are you not afraid of me?”
“I saw the way you danced. I think if you really wanted to hurt me, you could easily do so before I could defend myself.”
The dragon gave her a startled look. The massive jaw dropped open into what she assumed was a grin. “You’re a very unusual human.”
“Thanks. I think.”
It glanced up the street, at the increasing distance between them and the tail end of the parade. “As intriguing as this debate has been, this is not the time or place. I must reach the ocean.”
“My truck is parked at the beginning of the procession route. If you can fit in the bed, I’ll take you to the beach.”
The dragon gave a surprisingly elegant bow, despite the awkwardness of its disguise. “Thank you.”
They turned away from the crowds. Tension radiated from the dragon when two men approached. They looked ordinary enough, until she saw the rifles in their hands.
The need to kill the dragon must be intense, if they were willing to walk the city streets with their weapons exposed. Oregon might technically be an “open carry” state, but Brenton, like Portland, Salem and many of the other larger cities, had a ban on carrying loaded firearms. This was more than a simple case of fear driving them to kill what had frightened them.
It was deeper and more sinister than that.
Kara fought back a shiver.
The men studied her. Her chest tightened, trapping her breath in her lungs, but she forced herself to meet their gaze.
No fear. She could not show any fear.
Their attention turned from her to the dragon. Matching frowns further marred their faces.
The muscles of her neck contorted into painful knots. Her fingers tightened in the fabric of the lion costume as they continued walking. She focused on the open sidewalk beyond the hunters. If they could just pass by without giving themselves away, there might be a chance.
Almost there. Almost…
A pair of metallic clicks. Something small and hard pressed into the back of Kara’s neck. “Take another step, and I’ll blow your head off.”
The second hunter aimed his shotgun at the dragon. “All right, buddy. Let’s see what’s under the costume.”
No movement. Not even a flicker of fake fur.
The end of the barrel pressed deeper into her flesh. Fear spiked through her veins. Tears burned her eyes and caught in her lashes. The world blurred.
This must be what her grandmother had felt, in her last few moments.
“Don’t be stupid. And don’t try to be a hero.” For a moment, she thought the hunter’s words were meant for her, until he added, “Would be a shame if we had to hurt the lady.”
“Take off the costume,” the first hunter said. “Nice and slow. No sudden movements.”
The fabric moved. Flowed down to the ground. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the whole dragon for the first time. It was much larger than she had expected.
A strong odor filled the air: musk mixed with a touch of sulfur.
One of the hunters retched. “Great move. You scared it into taking a crap again.”
That scent was coming from the dragon? It smelled similar to a skunk, but much stronger. Perhaps it was also meant to be a defense mechanism, like the skunk’s musk.
The second hunter gave a harsh laugh. “Then shoot it and put it out of our misery.”
“Don’t,” Kara said softly. She had not been there to save the one she’d loved, all those months ago, but if she could keep them from murdering this innocent creature… “Please.”
“It’s all right.” The dragon turned to the hunters. “Leave her alone. She has nothing to do with this.”
“Yeah? And how do we know she isn’t one of you beasts in disguise?”
“If dragons could change into humans, do you think I would have let you see me like this?”
So calm. So rational. A stark contrast to his hunters. For a moment, Kara wished she was a dragon. His kind seemed so much easier to live with than her own. “Why are you doing this?”
“It’s simple, babe. Nobody will believe we saw a dragon, without the body.”
“What? You’ve never heard of a video camera?” She needed to keep him talking. Each time he spoke, she felt his gun waver from her neck, as if he could not manage both actions at the same time.
“Not taking that chance. It never worked for Bigfoot.”
The dragon began to breathe faster, and the air grew heavy and damp.
It started raining, cold and unpleasant in the chill of the February night. The sky overhead was clear, the stars sparkling bright. Not a cloud in sight.
“Not again. I told you to shoot it right away.”
“Hey. I’m not the only one with a gun here.”
“I have another target. Even you can see that.” The gun slipped again. The barrel brushed her shoulder. She took a quick glance back, unnoticed by the hunter, who continued arguing with his buddy. His gun dropped further, and Kara slammed her elbow back into his gut.
He let out a howl, and his weapon clattered to the ground.
Kara jumped for the shadows.
The dragon roared. The fog and rain intensified into a downpour. Her field of vision reduced to mere inches.
The men cursed.
“Hold out your hands.” Something smooth and slick passed beneath her palms. His scales. “Grab onto my fur.”
Kara clutched at the long silken hair of his mane, letting it tangle around her arms as her feet left the ground.
She bit back a scream.
They rose above the fog, which reached only as high as the second floor of the nearby buildings. Gunshots fired into the air, random and wild.
The dragon twisted and slipped between her legs so she straddled his strong, serpentine body. He was surprisingly warm. “You said you have a vehicle?”
“At the start of the parade route. To the east.” They covered a lot of distance in a very short time. The sensation of flight was strange and wonderful, and she didn’t want it to end, but landing would be the rational thing to do. “There’s my truck.”
The dragon touched down beside the vehicle, and Kara slid off his back. She glanced from the truck, to the dragon, and back again. “I don’t know if you’re going to fit.”
He slithered up over the bed and constricted like a snake, coiling back upon his body. She drew the bed cover over him, and found that it concealed the dragon completely.
She drove in the opposite direction of the hunters, though it wasn’t the most direct route to the beach. She didn’t know if the men had a vehicle, or if they had managed to follow them at all.
Just to be safe, she drove about in a meandering, wandering route, careful to keep to well-lit, populated streets, where it would be easy to see if anyone followed them.
No one did.
Kara pulled up to the beach. The chilly weather, combined with the late hour, ensured that the sand and the water were empty. She let the dragon out, and followed him to the edge of the ocean.
For long moments they simply looked at each other in the pale, dim light of the crescent moon.
Then the dragon circled her, breathing its warm, misty breath over her shivering body. The heat concentrated in the pendant she wore, and made the gold glow in the night. “You were very brave. Thank you.”
“Take me with you.” The words were an impulsive plea, blurted out without thought.
“Someday. Perhaps.” He made one final circuit around Kara, then slipped away, diving headfirst into the waves.
Kara watched until he was nothing more than a glimmer of scales. The waves nipped at her feet, soaking through her shoes to chill her skin, but she barely noticed.
Kara turned, and trudged up the sand.
The pendant continued to glow, and under the gold, the heat branded the shape of the dragon into her skin. The dragon was gone, yet it remained.
© 2015 by Jaymi Mizuno
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