The Dragon of Savannah is a cool, cool kid. He’s got damp eyes the color of dripping Spanish moss and that long slink of smoke always trailing from the corner of his mouth. When he grins, it hisses out between his teeth.
We stalk him from a half-block away, my clump of friends like a ball at the end of an invisible chain. He laughs when he sees us and ducks into a courtyard. When we get there, the ivy cascades down the iron fence and I have to press my face to the bars. He’s there, sitting on the rim of a fountain, face tilted up at the marble Venus-girl pouring water from a pitcher. Like he knows her real name. I like how he lounges there, heat sucking his hair against his face, how he’s too cool to care.
He talks with a rhythm all his own, like his toes are always tapping or maybe it’s his heart. He sees me and smiles. “So, Isaac, may I call you Iz? What’s the going rate for a worm on a hook these days?”
None of us know what he’s talking about.
But when he calls me Iz again I answer, even though I sock Licker Stanley for trying it, too. His nose explodes with blood and his mom phones my mom and I’m grounded for a week.
So I’m picking at the crack in the plaster wall of my bedroom, chipping paint away and digging into the gray crust with my computer blaring a playlist I got from Missy in my geometry class. It’s full of twangy lyrics and awful guitar and I think it needs a better bass because the posts of my bed should be humming along if the song’s any good. I will not be sitting next to Missy in study period on Monday, because she wants me to take her to Homecoming and makes sure I can see her little pink bra under the straps of her tank top. And I’ll have to tell her that her taste in music sucks.
I smell the dry acid of the Dragon’s cigarette and lean out through my window into the thick, hot air. He’s standing on the balcony which is wrought iron and only a foot deep. There isn’t any ladder or stair so the only way up was to fly.
“Hey,” he says, dragging on the cigarette. “You haven’t been around.”
“Grounded,” I mumble.
“Ultimate tragedy for one so pretty as our Iz.”
I don’t know who ‘our’ is or how I feel about him calling me pretty, but I hold out my hand like I want the cigarette.
He smiles, and the thin curls of smoke circle round his moss-green eyes. “If you come flying with me, soaring with me. Up through the trees over the city-streets. We’ll check out the river and count the squares. There’s a demon in one who’d like to meet you and a ghost in another who needs a kiss.”
It’s like a poem when he says it and I can feel the rhythm in my pulse. “Yeah,” I say, flicking my fingers. The Dragon gives me the cigarette and I put it to my lips.
It’s as cold as a rolled up dollar-bill.
I suck at it, delicately first and then fiercely, but nothing. No spark or ember or smoke, and the Dragon is laughing and smoke coils off his tongue. He grabs my wrist and yanks me. My knees knock against the rail as we tip over the edge. I scream but it’s cut off by the Dragon’s claw as he grasps my face with a giant scaly paw and wraps his other around my chest.
My heart explodes again and again, popping my ears, as we fall. The asphalt careens closer and I squeeze my eyes shut until the snap of wings comes and a huge jerk leaves my body flat and my ribs crack and I can’t breathe.
But we’re skimming the tops of cars and great wide wings slam down at the air and we’re rising. I dig my fingers into his, but the scales are so hard like plates of smooth steel. Each beat of his wings tugs a quick groan from me as air is forced out of my lungs. His arms are tight around me and his chest against my back presses and expands and my feet dangle down like dead weights. I curl them up and grip his wrists. The tips of his claws prick through my tee shirt. I crane my neck but can’t see his head, can’t see any of him really but the dark arms around me and the long wings crushing the air. The thin green skin of them is like stretched plastic.
We are higher than the tallest buildings and the air is cooler, a gusting wind burning my eyes until tears fall and are scraped off my cheeks. I look below at the grid of streets, at the rectangle roofs and chimneys, at the thick dark green trees pushing up between rows of townhouses, yellow trolley-cars and dozens of buses, at tourists swarming past marble obelisks. We veer right suddenly, dipping sideways to avoid the Hilton hotel. I grin at a kid in the window as we flash past, wondering why nobody on the street looks up.
Wind rushing my ears, the whoosh of his wings, and my own pounding heartbeat drown out the traffic and yelling, and the calling of gulls over the river.
And there, there is the cemetery where we met him first, a brown and green square with an iron fence all around. He dives and I can’t breathe again until he drops me two feet onto the rounded roof of a tiny mausoleum. I lay bent over it, heaving, head reeling, for a moment before pushing up on my aching wrists. I sit and lean back against the red brick. It is like a bed, this tomb, about five feet tall and big enough for a giant. My bare feet bake against the concrete and I’m sweating immediately, turning all around to find him. There’s nothing in the sky but thin white clouds.
“How’s that for free, Iz?” The Dragon walks toward me from the wall of tombstones at the edge of the graveyard. A new cigarette in the corner of his mouth. Gone are the scales and wings, and he’s just that cool kid again I saw first with Alex and Chuck and the Frog six weeks ago, right here.
“It’s Isaac,” I say. My voice is hoarse from the high wind and gasping.
The Dragon smiles as he climbs up the curve of the tomb to sit across from me. I’m at the head and he’s at the foot, and we watch each other. The Spanish moss in the oak next to us ruffles in a sticky wind and so does the dragon’s unkempt hair. “Isaac.”
“Do you have a name?” We’ve never asked. Just admired him and listened to him and let him lean close to us while we talk about our own stuff and secretly bask in his attention.
“Yes.” He removes the cigarette and flicks it toward the ground where it hides in the grass.
“You gonna tell me?”
With his smoky grin, the Dragon shakes his head. I wonder if he ever went to school or ever had a mom. Has he always been here in the swamp? Or only came because there are plenty of crab cakes.
“I thought we were going to meet a demon or a ghost?”
“I’ve decided I’d rather keep you to myself. No soul-selling or phantom kisses. Only flying and mausoleums.”
“If my mom finds out I’m not in my room I’ll be dead.”
“You’ll still be pretty if you’re dead.”
“That isn’t comforting.”
“Wasn’t meant to be.”
He’s pretty, too, the Dragon of Savannah. It’s hard to look away, even though I want to, even though I kind of need to. His hands are just soft skin now, dark from the sun, but I remember the steel-scales crushing my ribcage. The beat of his wings that made my guts fall like a roller-coaster. My bones are like Jello and if I tilt one way or another under his unblinking eyes I’ll tumble off the tomb and die.
Which might be what I really want.
I scramble down, trip on the edge, and land on my hands and knees in the damp cemetery grass. I hear his jeans scrape down the bricks, too. Getting up, I turn to face him. My heart explodes again and again and the tombs and headstones of the cemetery spin. I’m the stable center of a merry-go-round and there’s just one word pounding over and over again in my head, beating against the inside of my skull.
He’s waiting, the Dragon. His arms crossed over his chest, a sly little grin on his mouth. There’s no smoke for the first time ever and he’s just watching me with his mossy eyes. I take a step closer and smell the dank summer rot all around us. I smell the acid of his smoke and it clears my head. Everything stops spinning. In a world gone still and smooth, I stand just in front of him and before I can feel the weight of the city push me back to the ground, I kiss him.
His lips open and accept me and I taste just a hint of fire.
I tug away, stumble and stare back at him. I whisper, “How’s that for freedom?”
The Dragon of Savannah smiles and relaxes back onto the tomb. “Better than flying.”
A tiny slip of smoke tickles up my lips and over my cheek.
image by James Michael Hill via flickr Creative Commons.