The penny was gone again.
Caro huffed and dropped her grocery bags in the hall. She reached in, took a penny from the change bowl by the door, and rubbed it between her thumb and forefinger, said Nana’s charm for the house spirits, to keep them happy and home.
She blew on the penny and tucked it down by the threshold.
Five days she’d lived here, and seven times the penny had been gone, either in the morning or after she returned from an errand. The apartment didn’t set off her Spooky Senses, but the penny thing was weird.
Nana was unsympathetic.
“Girl, you got house spirits with expensive taste,” she said, laughing. “That’s what you get, moving yourself where everything’s snow and concrete. Down here the house spirits know us. They miss you.”
“Nana. That’s you missing me,” Caro said, guilt eating at her just a tiny bit.
Just a tiny bit: mostly, she was still pinching herself that everything had worked out so smoothly: this cute little apartment with southern exposure, high tin ceilings, and a dark-stained, carved sideboard set into the dining/living room wall that she loved so much she wanted to lie down on top of it despite its sticking drawers. This ridiculous neighborhood that was like something out of a romantic comedy, with its painfully adorable coffee shops, blocks of grey stone townhouses, and ethnic restaurants entirely outside the dreams of most other people from Pointe Coupee Parish.
And the job. Hired from across the dang country to write cybersecurity algorithms for enough money that the offer letter had made her choke, when surely there were a thousand coders nearby who’d have jumped at the chance. After 2 weeks, she still half expected that to show up at the address every morning and find an empty lot. It was too hard to believe this was all real.
“Yes, it’s me missing you, baby. Every old minute. But you know I’m happy for you.”
“I know, Nana.”
“Your mama keeps asking after you.”
And there was the familiar sensation of acid boiling up into her sternum.
“Nana, you won’t –“
“I won’t, baby. I won’t ever give her your number, I promise. I do keep telling her you’re happy as can be.”
“That must make her furious.”
Nana laughed too, but high-pitched, tense.
“That it does. Don’t you let that snake I birthed hurt you all that way away. You go to your fancy job and show them how lucky they are to have you, and call me on the iPad on Sunday so I can see your face.”
“Love you Nana.”
“Love you, baby.”
The penny was gone again in the morning. Caro rolled her eyes and put another one down.
It was the biggest mystery of her new life in Chicago – which, as troubles go, she was not going to complain about. It wasn’t like an extra half-dollar or so each month to appease her greedy house ghost was going to crack her budget, but it vexed her.
Well. And there was that scratchy sound behind the wall in the back hallway, next to the bathroom.
“No way, I spray once a season,” her landlord said. “Sorry, kid, it’s just an old building. It makes noises.”
Which was okay.
“It’s rats in the walls. Every building has them. Anybody ever tell you about the super-rats from the eighties? They were the size of cats. My cousin knew a family whose dog got killed by one.”
This not-okay statement solidified Troy from sales as The Office Asshole. Poor guy, he seemed so shocked when his follow-up invitation for shots after work got shot down. Ha ha.
Still: rats. Was there anything more gross than rats? Every time she heard that faint scritch behind the wall it made her spine feel like a spaghetti noodle. Was it enough to give up the sideboard? Was it enough to give up her three-block walk to the train? Or the taco stand two doors down?
She stood in the hallway, staring down at the wall panel, waiting. Wasted hours this way, it was so stupid.
It was easy to spend long days at work, avoiding her apartment and the scritch. It was easy to take long walks on weekends. She found an endless supply of cute boutiques and tasty stuff to eat. She learned her way around St. Bran’s so thoroughly that she was almost grateful to the scritch for driving her outside.
Her neighbors in the other five apartments were a quiet bunch – she almost never saw them, other than brief greetings at the mailbox or holding the front door open. Seemed like maybe two couples, a guy her age, an older woman, and someone on the third floor who listened to a lot of classical music but never left the building.
Caro found herself in the laundry room with the older woman on a Saturday morning, having just heard a particularly loud, long scratching sound and something almost like a purr.
“Rats?” the woman said in answer to her question.
She frowned with soft eyes, as if thinking hard. When she shook her head, the beads in her long grey dreads clacked.
“No, I can’t see rats. It’s an old building, sure, but this is a clean place. Protected.”
Then the woman grinned and squeezed Caro’s bicep in a strong grip.
“You’d be more likely to find, I don’t know. Borrowers in the walls. Did you ever read that book when you were little? That wouldn’t surprise me a bit.”
She pulled her clothes – ancient jeans, calico smocks, and faded concert t-shirts – out of the dryer and laughed to herself.
“Borrowers in the walls,” the woman said, “that’s good. I’m going to use that.”
Caro shrugged after her.
It made her feel better, though, that her neighbor couldn’t “see” rats. To someone who went to the actual bank to get rolls of pennies for house spirits, it didn’t even sound so weird. She looked up Borrowers and wished that her eight-year-old self had read the books. Tiny people in the walls who collected junk and put it to ingenious use. That would’ve been like holding a piece of Nana’s old trailer with her, back in the days before Nana got custody.
Back in the days when she hadn’t had any possessions she couldn’t sleep in, on, or around without their disappearing into vodka bottles or the garbage or the toilet. So a book wouldn’t have lasted long anyhow.
She went so far as to actually speak to the cute girl at the gym, whose name – Aly – even turned out to be cute. The first time they went for drinks, Caro stumbled home drunk enough that when she fumbled emptying her jacket pockets and all her change spilled to the floor, she thought ‘screw it’ and went to bed.
The change was gone in the morning.
God dang. It had been like seventy cents.
Caro heard the scritch and the little purr-sound and knocked one knuckle sharply into the wall panel. The resulting silence was full. Whatever was frozen on the other side of the wall, possibly praying that she had run into the wall by mistake, was too smart for standard rodentia.
“Hey,” she said, “don’t get greedy.”
The penny by the doorjamb stayed for three days, then disappeared. Caro laughed at the floor, pulled a penny out of the bowl, and said the charm.
“I see how it is,” she said to the panel in the back hallway, “you require regular offerings. I get it.”
She took to leaving pennies and nickels on the floor around the living room. As long as there was a coin or two hanging around on the floor, the luck penny stayed by the front door.
“See? You’ve worked things out,” Nana laughed into the phone. “Though what a house ghost wants with that much currency I can’t imagine.”
In October, Caro came down with a bad case of the flu and didn’t leave the apartment for eight days straight. Takeout and an emergency drop-off of oatmeal and cans of soup from Aly saved her life, but mostly she lay on the couch, alternately shivering and sweating, wishing she’d ever bothered to buy a cable package or at least a charging cable for her iPad that reached all the way to the couch.
She almost called Aly for a ride to the emergency room on day four when she woke from a nap and hallucinated a small black creature in the middle of the floor, picking up a nickel and running down the hallway.
Still, there was no denying when she woke up later that the nickel was gone.
Caro couldn’t blame it on the flu when she woke from a Saturday-afternoon nap three weeks later and saw it again, sitting by her desk with a penny in each. In each claw.
The thing froze when she inhaled; Caro willed her body to relax and closed her eyes to slits. Her heartbeat was fast as a bird’s, but she held herself still, hopefully as if she remained asleep.
The thing blinked its red eyes twice, then looked back down at the pennies it held. It made the purring sound she had twice heard behind the wall.
She figured she could probably hold it in her two cupped palms: it was the size of a kitten, the color of charcoal, with a triangle-shaped head and two greenish horn-things curling over the top.
It was obviously a dragon. The tiniest, cutest, most ridiculous dragon any person could imagine, which Caro was obviously doing, because dragons were obviously imaginary. Except for the part where it held a penny in each forelimb. Except for the part where it shoved both pennies into its pointy little jaw and galloped across the room to the back hallway.
Except for the part where something had been taking her loose change for the past three months and scritching behind the wall.
Caro tried to see it again. She left change all over the floor and pretended to take naps almost daily, but though she heard it behind the wall, the little sucker remained elusive. She knocked on the wall once and pitched her voice to be as gentle as possible when she said,
“Hey, it’s okay to come out. I won’t hurt you.”
Silence – and all the coins remained on the floor for a couple of days after.
She learned that value wasn’t the creature’s priority: it liked pennies best, followed by nickels. Dimes and subway tokens would stay on the floor until they were the only things remaining. She got a Canadian penny among her change once; that was snapped up. It preferred shiny pennies to dull ones.
Emergency life-saving via oatmeal caused Aly to appoint herself Boss Of Caro, which sucked at the gym (so many reps) but had its own advantages, aside from Aly’s fundamental cuteness. She pitched enough of a fit when she found out that Caro wasn’t going home for Thanksgiving that several of the dudebro lifters glowered in their direction. She arrived outside Caro’s building at nine a.m. for the drive out to River Forest. Caro brought a bottle of wine and flowers and tried to treat it as a cultural expedition, eating turkey without any cayenne on it, dressing made of bread instead of rice, and not one oyster on the table.
Caro called Nana during the break between dinner and dessert, when Aly and her dad were setting up trays in front of the football game on TV. If she hadn’t been at a stranger’s house, Caro would’ve thrown up on the carpet when Nana answered the phone with their code phrase, “I’m sorry, I don’t make donations over the phone, but thank you for calling.”
Mama was there.
“You all right, honey?” Aly’s mom asked.
Caro took the plates out of her hands and used to walk to the living room to calm herself down.
Over the long Thanksgiving holiday, Caro holed herself up with leftovers from Aly’s family dinner and banished all motherly thoughts by trying to draw the dragon out, making a trail of pennies down the hallway that led to a highly polished quarter laid just inside her bedroom door. She turned off all the lights at 8:30 and climbed into bed, wedged among pillows, her blankets swirled around with only one eye uncovered but a clear view of the hall and the doorway.
It was over an hour, easy – more than enough time for her limbs to ache with the desire to sleep. Finally, she heard a creak, a scratch, and a sound that might have been sniffing. The little dragon ran down the hallway and skidded to a stop right in front of her doorway. It was almost impossible to see when it was still – just a shadow in the darkness – but she could hear it sniffing. When it walked forward, she could see its little hunched shape, its tail.
She could hear when it found the stack of pennies just inside the living room.
Its voice was high-pitched and creaky, almost like a dog’s squeaker toy, and it took every drop of Caro’s willpower not to laugh at the sound.
And happy Thanksgiving to you too, she thought.
It ran back and forth eight times, carrying the pennies to its home behind her bathroom wall, humming to itself the whole time.
It left the ones closest to her bedroom door for last, standing up on its hind legs in a posture so cute that Caro wanted to curl up into a ball, tilting its head back and forth and sniffing.
“Raaaaar,” it hummed softly.
The dragon crept into her room, one foot at a time, peering up at the bed between steps, while Caro held herself completely still.
It stopped in front of the quarter and stared down. Sniffed. Bent to touch the coin with the pointy bit of its face. Did it lick the coin? Caro hoped it licked it.
“Haaaaaa,” the little dragon breathed.
It picked up the quarter and put it in its mouth, but the coin dropped to the floor with a clink. The dragon froze, staring at the bed. Caro did her best impersonation of a rock.
After half a dozen breaths, the dragon reached down again and picked up the quarter. It shoved the coin back in its mouth and held it in place with one forelimb, then hobbled out of the room on three legs.
Once it was gone, Caro curled up and put both hands over her face. What even was this? If her life got any cuter she might not survive it.
“A dragon,” Nana said the next day, her skepticism so strong it would’ve curdled the cord on a landline.
“I swear! A dragon the size of a kitten.”
“Sweetheart, you sure you didn’t drink too much at your friend’s house?”
“Nana. I’ve seen it three times. It’s what kept taking my spirit penny! I’ve been leaving coins out for it for months! I wish I could get a photo of it, you would not believe it.”
“I don’t believe it, baby.”
“Nana,” Caro groaned. “How is this any weirder than your spirit pennies and all your red strings with knots in them and that gross jar full of herbs that’s as old as me?”
“Don’t you bad-mouth my binding jar, it’s what keeps your mama from making even more trouble.”
“Uh huh. And?”
Caro knew the expression Nana was making back at home – lips pressed together so the places where her pink lipstick had feathered up into the wrinkles around her mouth stood out, eyes narrowed behind her gold-rimmed glasses.
Caro noted a trend toward her own face doing the same thing.
“Well. I guess I don’t want to call my best grandbaby a crazy person. Are you sure it doesn’t mean you any harm?” Nana said finally.
“One hundred percent. It’s only interested in money.”
“Well that’s true of lots of folks! You ever left a dollar bill out for it?”
Once she bought in, Nana had a dozen questions about the little dragon. She laughed again when Caro tried to imitate its squeaky voice.
“Aw, baby, I still don’t know how this can be, but damn me if that don’t sound like a pure delight. Who knew such things could live under the sun.”
Nana pitched her voice lower.
“And you know if we both have to spend our time with dragons, at least yours is a cute one.”
Caro couldn’t make much of a laugh at that one. Mama had shown no sign of leaving Nana’s house. At this rate, Caro wouldn’t be able to ever go home again.
Caro heard a series of sharp, muffled thunks over the phone, followed by,
“The hell you out there doing, Mama? You’re out of cooking sherry.”
Caro hadn’t heard her mother’s voice in three years, but even over a phone line and through a closed door, she could hear the telltale burr that the cooking sherry had gone done Mama’s gullet. She wondered whether it was the old bottle that had sat at the back of Nana’s cabinet for as long as she could remember.
Was it too much to hope that it had turned to poison?
“Don’t you worry, Betsy,” Nana bellowed into the phone, making sure Mama would hear every word, “I don’t mind a bit doing the altar on Sunday. You just rest that ankle. I’ll be there at seven-thirty sharp.”
“Gawd,” Mama said.
“Got it,” Caro said. “I’ll call you then. I love you.”
Caro sat on the floor by the bathroom door to have her cry. She didn’t mean to scare the little dragon, but she didn’t want to feel alone.
Her phone rang on Saturday afternoon – Nana must’ve slipped out to the grocery store.
“You okay?” Caro asked when she answered.
There was a long pause, then.
She registered that it was Mama’s voice just as the phone beeped to signal the line being cut off.
She called Nana at 7:34 the next morning, and Nana picked up on the first ring.
“Nana, are you all right?”
“Sweetie, I am so sorry. I’ve been so good about keeping my phone on me, I just let it go for a minute.”
“Nana. Are you okay.”
Oh, the pause was too long.
“What did she do?”
“I’m fine, baby.”
“It was just one cigarette and I got butter right on it, my hand’ll be fine.”
Caro sat down on the floor.
“Honey, I’m fine. I swear.”
“Nana, you have to make her leave.”
“Well, baby, I think I did. I spent last night at your aunt Betsy’s house, and we’re headed back to the house after church with Pere John and Sheriff Huntley to make sure. Sheriff’s got a locksmith friend who’s coming out to change all the locks and help me fix up my windows. But Caro, baby. Your address was in my phone.”
Caro lost all ability to remain vertical and lay on the floor.
“You should get a different phone, baby.”
Caro’s belly dropped at that tone. It wasn’t one she heard very often. Nana tried hard not to let her down. But it happened. Nana wasn’t a superhero.
“What else, Nana?”
“Baby, I’m sorry.”
“I know you are, Nana. What else?”
“You know I always kept my Christmas tin in the same place.”
Always. Caro had stolen from it once or twice – never more than a couple of dollars for candy, until the day Nana caught her and said “don’t be like your Mama, Caro. The road’s too hard.”
She’d never touched it again, and it wasn’t because of a hard damn road.
“She’ll probably drink it all up, sweetheart.”
“Was it enough for bus fare?”
There was a long silence. Caro enjoyed how cold and hard the floor was. She was glad she hadn’t gotten around to buying a rug. Her shoulder blades ached against the wood, so there was one part of her not filled up with sickness and worry.
“She’ll probably drink it all up,” Nana repeated.
Probably. But not certainly.
“I’m so sorry, baby,” Nana said.
Then she remembered her manners.
“It’s okay, Nana. You didn’t do anything.”
“That’s half the trouble, isn’t it?”
Caro would never agree to that aloud.
“Let’s just hope you’re right and she goes on a bender in Baton Rouge.”
“I love you, sweetheart,” Nana said, her voice miserable.
“I love you too. I’ll send you my new number.”
She turned the phone off. No use in courting trouble.
But she wasn’t going to sleep, not with the idea that Mama might show up at the door, expecting food, booze, the bed, to be the center of all attention. To have her every whim obliged on pain of broken bones, property destruction, and plain viciousness.
Caro watched TV (looked at the TV without registering what was on it) for several hours, until her eyes felt coated in sand. She had gone through hungry and out the other side to a queasy exhaustion.
How Mama would laugh at all the change on the floor. Before she picked it all up and pocketed it.
Caro reached for her wallet on the table next to the sofa. She had five quarters in the change pocket. She tossed them onto the floor in front of the sofa and wrapped up in the quilt aunt Betsy made for her high school graduation. May as well make a little happiness in the house.
And boy howdy did she. She dozed a bit, so she had no idea how much time had passed by the time she woke to see the little dragon hopping around the quarters on its little claws. She had always thought the word “scamper” was a dumb word, until she saw it in action by a miniature imaginary creature.
“Rar raaaaar!” it squeaked.
And she couldn’t help the choked-off sob she made – it was such a relief to see happiness.
The dragon froze and stared at her. Caro stared back, keeping her hands inside the quilt and her head still, but not bothering to hide her face.
After a long pause, the dragon blinked at her, titled its head back and forth. She blinked back.
It sniffed. Caro sniffed.
The dragon laid one claw experimentally on a quarter, and Caro blinked again.
“Go ahead,” she said in a soft voice.
The dragon startled, but it didn’t move. It tilted its head again.
“They’re for you. Take them.”
It waited a long time, moving its claw fractionally, until the moment when it lifted the quarter to its mouth and skittered on three legs down the back hallway. She thought maybe she had scared it for good, given the length of quiet afterward. Long after she’d given up, she saw it creeping along on the floor, hunched down, its triangular head angling toward her as it passed.
The knot in her chest let go. The dragon went totally still when she sniffed in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the tears rolling out of her.
“Sorry,” she whispered. “I’m just really glad you came back.”
The little dragon huffed at her. Caro wiped her face on the quilt, and by the time she looked up, the dragon was gone with a second quarter.
It didn’t hesitate to come back for the third one. By the fifth one, it didn’t even pause. It sauntered casually past the sofa and lifted the coin straight to its mouth.
“Rrr!” it squeaked.
“You’re welcome,” she said, and it was enough to let her sleep.
The knock she dreaded came two days later. She’d had a very uncomfortable conversation with her boss, who shocked Caro to her bones by calling HR on speakerphone and asking them to get started on transferring Caro’s desk to the badge-only floor.
“Do you have a picture of her?” he asked. “Get one to security and they’ll make sure she doesn’t get in the building. You want somebody to travel back and forth with you?”
Caro cried a little bit, much to her horror.
“Look, I don’t care how much you try to pull this ‘y’all don’t bother about lil ole me’ crap,” Aly said at the gym. “I’m coming over on Saturday, and I’m staying until you find out for sure that you’re not getting any unwanted visitors. Pay me in pancakes.”
That had made her cry a little again.
So she had a little steel in her spine by the time the door rattled. Was a fifteen-year-old restraining order from Louisiana in force in Chicago? She had no idea.
“Caroline, it’s your mama, open up!”
Caro tried to will herself to grasp the doorknob and was unsuccessful.
“Caroline! I saw the light on, I’ve been traveling a whole day and night, darlin, don’t you want to see your mama after all this time?”
She pounded on the door again.
“Open the fucking door, Caroline.”
Her neighbors would be able to hear all this. Her neighbors seemed like nice people. They’d try to help, if they thought there was trouble. Trying to get between Mama and what she wanted was a great way to get hurt.
She opened the door. The grimace on Mama’s face morphed into something like a smile.
She pushed past Caro into the living room and looked around, clearly displeased. She was still taller than Caro, still broad-shouldered. But her skin hung loose on her frame, aside from her round belly, and she looked a decade older than her early fifties.
Friends ought to take care of one another, Caro thought.
Mama’s best friend, ethanol, didn’t take good care of anybody.
“The hell kind of dump is this?” Mama said. “Can’t afford anything modern?”
Caro remembered that she was a grown-ass adult and not a terrified elementary schooler.
“You’re more than welcome not to stay,” she said.
Mama rounded on her with a well-remembered expression: narrow eyes, lower jaw jutted out, cheeks dark with more than the standard burst capillaries.
“What makes you think you can talk to me that way?” she said, grabbing Caro’s arm. “I’m your mother, you show some respect.”
Caro shrugged hard, trying to pull her arm free, but Mama’s grip was as fierce as her snarl.
“Don’t you fight me, girl, I know every trick you’ve got.”
“Let me go.”
“You don’t tell me what to do, Caroline.”
“You let me go!”
Caro pulled. Her instant of calm had devolved into the weak-kneed helplessness that dogged her every time she saw her mother. She heard her own breath. She would lose. She always lost. Mama was a juggernaut. Everything fell down in her presence. Everything had always fallen down.
“You straighten up now, girl, I won’t have –“
Mama’s face went vaguely green, her eyes wide. A calm corner of Caro’s mind saw that the sclera were yellow.
“What,” Mama croaked, looking over Caro’s shoulder.
Caro turned. The little dragon was barely three feet away from them, tiny white teeth bared and its back end wriggling like a cat about to pounce.
“No! No, run!” she yelled, pulling so hard that she wrenched her arm free, although the sleeve of her sweater tore.
The dragon hissed.
“The hell is that,” Mama whispered.
“Oh, don’t,” Caro said, then backpedaled when the dragon jumped.
She landed hard on her butt and stayed planted, mouth open, while the dragon leapt at Mama’s knees, banked off them, whirled around on the floor, and jumped again, making its squeaky growl the whole time. Its little claws stuck in Mama’s clothing while it climbed her, shrieking in a rasp. Mama stayed frozen and gaping until it reached waist height, then she batted at it and cried out.
The dragon latched onto her hand with its mouth; Mama yelled again and waved her arm. The dragon let go, arched in mid-air, and landed on her shoulder, scrabbling around on her back while Mama pounded her own shoulders, turning in a circle. The dragon kept squeaking “rar rar” and head-butting her between the shoulder blades. Caro could see little spots of blood along Mama’s arms and seeping through her shirt. The dragon moved so fast that sometimes it was a blur, crawling up and down Mama’s body, pausing only to head-butt her or bite.
“The hell is this?” Mama yelled, “What the hell is going on?”
The dragon hopped onto Mama’s shoulder and dug in, then clamped its jaws around her earlobe.
Caro felt a vast hysteria rising up from her guts.
Over the sound of Mama’s shouts and the dragon’s squeaks, Caro heard a firm knock at the door and a muffled voice,
“Neighbor? Everything all right in there?”
Whatever this was, she could answer that question.
“No!” she shouted, “it’s not!”
The door slammed inward, and the non-rat-seeing neighbor jumped inside, her dreadlocks flying like Medusa’s own snakes. She glanced from Mama, to Caro, back to Mama again.
“Get this damn thing off me!” Mama yelled.
The dragon squeaked one more time for good measure, then dropped to the ground. Mama lunged for it; it scrabbled briefly against the wood floor and took off for the hallway. Caro lunged to get between it and Mama –
Who was on her knees, her arms pinned back by the neighbor, eyes wide, her chin shiny with spit.
“What was it?” Mama said in a hoarse voice.
“Are you all right, sweetie?”
There was no sign of that dreamy look in her neighbor’s eye: this glance was all business.
“I’m okay. I’m not hurt,” Caro said.
And then, “I’m not hurt,” with a laugh.
“The hell was it?”
“I think you should leave now,” the neighbor said, tugging so that Mama grunted and climbed to her feet with a stumble.
“What was it?”
“I can tell by your voice you’re not from here,” the neighbor said. “Why don’t you get on home, now?”
“She came on the bus,” Caro said.
Mama had left a bag in the hallway. There was a return bus ticket in the side pocket. Open ended. Of course.
“Are you stupid?” Mama barked when the artist crowded her into the hallway and pressed the ticket into her hand. “Didn’t you see that thing?”
“This is a safe place,” the neighbor said, staring up at Mama. “Protected. I don’t think you’re a very safe person. You should leave now.”
“I’m not damn well –“
Must’ve been some kind of martial arts training. Anyhow, whatever the artist did to Mama’s elbow, Mama went down the stairs with her and out the door.
“I’m not leaving my daughter in this hell hole with some kind of goddamn monster,” Mama said at the end.
The dramatic intensity of this was greatly lessened by her saying it through a cab window.
“Oh, I think you are,” the neighbor said. “I think you’re leaving her here for good.”
She slapped the cab, and it left.
“Well!” she said, “sorry about your door! I’ll make sure Mike knows to put that on my rent and not yours.”
“I don’t even know how to thank you,” Caro said.
“Oh honey,” the neighbor said. “Just bake me some brownies or something some time. It all comes out in the wash.”
She peered into Caro’s apartment on the way back upstairs.
“I didn’t know this place was protected quite so literally. I’m definitely going to use that.”
Caro lay on the floor in front of her sofa and took a while to alternate between hysterical laughter and hysterical sobs. It seemed the thing to do.
When her voice felt as if it might be trustworthy, she called Nana, who took her own turns between laughing and crying during the high points of the story and set Caro off again.
Caro didn’t see the dragon the first night, and fretted. The second night, she put down coins and sat on the sofa. The dragon came out a couple of hours after dark, walking slowly.
“Are you okay?” she whispered.
The dragon swiveled its little head toward her and heaved a squeaky sigh.
It looked around at the coins on the floor and sighed again; put a penny in its mouth and walked slowly toward the back hallway, exhaustion plain in every scale on its tiny body.
“Oh!” Caro said, and put her hands to her chest, laughed a little.
She gathered up the coins and took them to the hallway next to the bathroom door.
“Rrr!” the dragon squeaked when it saw her sitting there, the coins in her hands. But it took them from her, one by one, disappearing in between into a shadow under the sink that during daytime was a plain piece of wall. Up close, its body was hot, and it smelled of copper.
“Hff!” it sniffed when it took the last one.
“You’re welcome,” she said. “Go get some rest.”
“Oh baby, I know it’s all my fault,” Nana said on the phone the next day.“I just couldn’t stop her.”
“It’s okay, Nana. It’s all okay.”
“How are you going to thank your little friend?”
“I’ve got a good plan.”
She went to the bank and stood in line to see an actual teller. Slid a twenty across the counter.
“I’d like to exchange this, please, for dollar coins. The gold Sacagawea ones, if you have them.”