Peggy had been able to see the dragon from over a mile away—not exactly a surprise given the flat, unvarying landscape. At first it had been a vague grayish smear on the horizon. As her battered old station wagon had gotten closer, the smear had resolved into a large metallic cylinder with a single flat triangle on either side about halfway up. Closer still, she’d been able to make out details on the structure matching the somewhat blurry photograph on the cover of the brochure. The cylinder was the dragon’s body, and the triangle shapes attached to its sides were wings. Its body was plain and unadorned, but there was a surprising amount of detail on the neck and head. Twists of metal formed perked-up ears like a terrier’s and a crest along its neck, and its eyes glowed a sultry red that mimicked the late-afternoon sunlight.
Peggy pulled off the road into the dusty parking lot and tossed the brochure onto the passenger seat. The dragon belched a huge gout of flame, a plume of brilliant orange that made a breathtaking contrast with the unbroken blue of the sky. Peggy gave a startled gasp and slammed on the brakes. She’d expected the flames—it said right there on the brochure, “Pay just $1 and see the dragon breathe fire!”—but they still took her by surprise.
She eased the station wagon into a gap between a minivan and an old Camaro. A rush of pleasure shot up her legs as she stretched them after hours of driving. Up close, the size of the dragon was even more impressive. It towered over the windmill beside it, and the building that housed the gift shop looked like something a child would have built out of Legos.
When most people went on a long road trip, they visited famous attractions like Mount Rushmore or the Grand Canyon. They didn’t usually stop to gawk at a hundred-foot-tall metal dragon. If they did, it was because chance brought them within view of it, not because it had been their intended destination. But most people weren’t Peggy Munroe.
She was ten years old, accompanying the rest of her family to a huge outdoor flea market where a maze of wooden stalls displayed everything from homemade soap to antique coins. Her father was rifling through a box of LPs by the rock bands of his youth, while her mother examined the produce from a local farm. Her older brother Bobby was engrossed in selecting a plastic action figure from some cartoon show—he was having a hard time choosing between Ghostbusters and Transformers.
Peggy, on the other hand, was bored to tears despite the bewildering array of products available for sale. All the knick-knacks and tchotchkes were just that: aged household items that the owners didn’t have room to keep anymore or collections of stuff they’d avidly bought in their younger days and had now lost interest in. Wandering ahead of her parents and brother, she glanced briefly at each stall she passed, hoping that something more interesting would turn up but always being disappointed.
Until she saw the taxidermy stall.
It was manned by an older gentleman who sported a plaid shirt and a bushy mustache. There was an owl poised as though in the act of swooping down on some poor unsuspecting mouse, a fox with its white-tipped tail raised at a jaunty angle, and a squirrel holding an acorn to its mouth. Twigs were attached to the wooden beams that supported the roof of the stall, and there was a songbird perched on each one: a goldfinch, a cardinal, and two blue jays. The owl was mildly interesting, because Peggy had never seen one before, but what really caught her attention was the piece almost hidden behind it.
It was a chick, covered in fluffy yellow down. Its tiny wings were held close to its body, and one of its beaks was slightly open as if in mid-chirp. What set this particular chick apart from all others was that it had two heads. They sat side-by-side atop the chick’s body, one turned to the right and the other gazing straight ahead. Nothing else about the chick was out of proportion, so the two heads gave it a top-heavy look.
Peggy approached the table, hesitant at first but encouraged by the welcoming smile the old man gave her. She reached out for the chick, then remembered the manners her mother had taught her and asked, “Can I hold it?”
“Sure you can,” the man answered. “Just don’t play with its wings or nothin’; you’re apt to break ‘em.”
Peggy nodded eagerly and picked up the chick. She expected its feathers to be stiff and hard, but they were as soft as they must have been when it was alive. The glass beads that replaced its eyes were jet-black and gleamed in the late-morning sunlight. Its tiny toenails were short and blunt, clearly not having had time to be used for much. Peggy wondered about its twin heads: had someone sewn a second head onto the chick’s body? It didn’t look that way. Neither head jutted off awkwardly to the side, like it had been stuck on as an afterthought. Both looked as if they belonged there.
Although she was well aware that her parents, and maybe even Bobby, would have found it grotesque, Peggy was fascinated. Among all the discarded toys, mundane baked goods, and worn-out books of the flea market, here was something that was truly unique. And it had been just sitting there, waiting for her.
Since that day, which was longer ago than Peggy liked to admit, she had been captivated by the unusual and overlooked, by things that her peers would have found either forgettable or downright repulsive. This tendency extended beyond objects to encompass places as well. Given the choice, she was far more likely to want to visit the Button King Museum than Disney World. So it was really no surprise that she had chosen to make a stop at an out-of-the-way roadside attraction like the Kaskaskia Dragon on her way back from dropping Paul off at college.
Locking the door of her car, Peggy did a double-take, unused to seeing it nearly empty. For the past few days, it had been so full of clothes, school supplies, and the miscellaneous junk that Paul had insisted he absolutely couldn’t survive freshman year without, that the muffler had scraped against the road every time they drove over a bump. Paul himself had been a constant presence in the passenger seat, fiddling with the radio settings as they passed through areas of local station coverage to keep it on his preferred brand of hip-hop.
A girl squealed in delight as another jet of flame issued from the dragon’s mouth. Peggy got out of the way of people lining up in front of it and extracted her camera from its case. Holding it up, she zoomed out…and zoomed out again…and again. Finally she managed to get the whole dragon in the frame. She waited with her finger poised over the button. It took her three tries to take a picture at the exact moment it was breathing fire.
She fed her dollar bill into a machine off to one side of the line, and it obediently spit out a token. As she took her place in line behind an elderly couple, the warm day was interrupted by a cool breeze. It was a tactile reminder that summer was ending, and it made her think about how Paul wouldn’t be sitting on the couch playing video games when she got home. As much as she had to nag him to put the controller down and do his homework, the beeps, explosions, and stilted dialogue had filled the main floor of her house with a sound that over the years had become a comforting sign of normalcy. Even if she dispersed the thick silence with other sounds—the classical music she liked, sitcoms on TV, the barking of a dog—they wouldn’t be the same sounds.
“Hey, are you gonna go?” Peggy looked back over her shoulder and saw a small boy staring up at her with an impatient expression. The elderly couple in front of her had already put their token in, oohed and aahed over the dragon, and headed for the gift shop.
“Uh, yeah, sorry about that.” She slid her token into the slot. There was a brief pause, a fiery blast, and then it was over.
Peggy stepped aside to let the boy take his turn and followed the old couple into the gift shop. There were all sorts of trinkets on sale there: postcards, T-shirts, snow globes. Peggy bought a T-shirt and a postcard. Maybe I’ll send the postcard to Paul, she thought. Would that make her too much of a…what was the term? Helicopter parent? No, surely a single postcard wouldn’t qualify her for that status. She picked up one of the snow globes and shook it. There was something amusing about the contrast between the snow and the flame that was shown coming out of the dragon’s mouth, but in the end she decided against buying one.
All in all, she was happy with this stop, and hummed along with the radio as she drove to the motel she was staying at for the night (even though it wasn’t Paul’s music, and thus not as indefinably reassuring, regardless of its better quality).
Peggy had read an article once that claimed people often dreamed about subjects that occupied their minds during their waking hours. That was why students often dreamed of being at school and adults of their jobs. So after spending nearly ten hours in the car today, it seemed almost natural to find herself back in her trusty station wagon in her dreams.
She was driving along the highway, the dragon silhouetted against the sky ahead of her. It was almost like a replay of that afternoon, except that now the sky was velvety black, lit by a full moon and what seemed like millions of stars. The parking lot was completely empty. This turned out to be a good thing, because when the dragon moved, she wrenched the steering wheel to the right and would probably have hit the car next to her if there had been one.
Peering through her windshield, Peggy’s mouth dropped open in amazement as the dragon arched its neck and released a plume of orange fire. Superficially, it looked the same as it had during the day, with its smooth silver body, glowing red eyes, and a ridge of upraised scales along its neck. Yet there were small differences that she noticed as she continued to stare. The silvery gleam of its body was softer and smoother than metal should have been, and Peggy could see the delineations of individual scales. Its neck ridge crinkled in a clearly nonmetallic way as the dragon turned its head this way and that. Catching sight of her car, it craned its neck downward, and from this closer perspective she could see that the glow in its eyes wasn’t the harsh light of LEDs but more like the bioluminescence of fireflies and deep-sea fish. But the wings were the most noticeable difference.
The wings of the dragon she’d seen that afternoon had been stubby, stunted little things. Now they were magnificent. Even folded, they jutted out far beyond the curve of its back, and she thought they would cast a shadow over the entire parking lot if fully unfurled.
A disturbing thought penetrated the cloud of fog around Peggy’s mind: dragons had a definite reputation in folklore for eating maidens. Not that she was a maiden, not by a long shot, but the dragon couldn’t be expected to know that. And it did seem to be gazing at her with some intensity. She contemplated whether it would be better to throw the car into reverse and slowly back away from the dragon or to floor the gas pedal and get out of the parking lot at top speed.
Peggy had just decided on the “back away slowly” course of action, because there was no way her car was going to outrun a dragon, when she saw something that made her reconsider the idea of escaping altogether. The dragon’s feet, another feature it hadn’t possessed earlier in the day, were chained to the ground.
The dragon stretched out its neck even further toward her, and its forked tongue flicked in and out like a snake’s. Then it tilted its head and gazed at her, its newly expressive eyes conveying a plaintive query.
I’m dreaming; I have to be dreaming. With that realization, the tension drained out of Peggy’s shoulders. Okay, so what should I do? The dragon’s chains meant that it wouldn’t be able to follow her if she left, but she couldn’t quite make herself put the car back into gear. The dragon’s expansive wings made it clear that this was a creature meant to be in the sky, and here it was tethered to the land. It made her think of animals she’d seen in an underfunded city zoo as a child, peering out morosely from their too-small cages. She unbuckled her seat belt, slowly pushed the car door open, and got out. The dragon continued to watch her, flexing its wings but otherwise not making a move. Peggy took a few tentative steps forward, watching for any sign of aggression. Still the dragon remained motionless, smoke drifting up from its nostrils. Now that she was out of the car, she noticed yet another difference from the dragon’s earlier form. Its belches of flame had previously been accompanied by the acrid tang of kerosene, but now the air was filled with the rich scent of a wood fire. It brought back memories of camp-outs with her family, toasting hot dogs over a campfire and huddling close to Bobby as he told scary stories.
She edged closer to the dragon, and it only watched her. If it’s chained up because it’s dangerous, why hasn’t it tried to attack me? She was close enough now that it could have snatched her if it wanted: it might be chained, but its neck was long and, in this flesh-and-blood incarnation, flexible. Getting even closer, she saw that while the manacles around the dragon’s ankles were thick, the chains themselves were delicate to the point of absurdity. How has it not broken those into pieces? She had to remind herself that this scenario was a dream, and thus not confined by the normal rules of logic. If a metal dragon could become a living being, was it any more unbelievable that it could be held in place by such flimsy restraints?
Peggy retreated to her car. This action was met with a disappointed-sounding snort from the dragon. “Don’t worry, buddy, I’m not leaving you. Just gotta look for something in my trunk.” The items Peggy normally kept in the trunk had been pushed to the very back to accommodate Paul’s belongings. She leaned over and reached as far in as she could, feeling for the tire iron. “Got it!” she exclaimed in triumph as her fingers curled around it.
She carefully approached the dragon, holding the tire iron down by her side to show that she didn’t mean to use it as a weapon. Despite its apparent disinterest in taking any hostile actions, and the fact that this was all a dream anyway, being so close to the creature still made her nervous. Pulling at the glittering chains that kept the dragon pinned, she laid them out flat against the ground. Raising the tire iron over her shoulder, she slammed it down on the chains again and again. Her efforts were in vain, however: as slender as they looked, the chains were strong.
The dragon twisted around, and she could see that it was trying to get into a position where it could unleash its fiery breath on the chains. Despite the length of its neck, though, its huge body got in the way. Giving up on that tactic, it stretched out its neck toward a small shed on the opposite end of the parking lot from the gift shop. Snorting again, it looked down at Peggy.
“You think there’s something in there that could help?” Setting down the tire iron, Peggy made her way back across the parking lot to the shed. It was latched shut, but that was easily dealt with upon retrieving the tire iron. Inside the shed, Peggy found more lengths of that strange chain, and what appeared to be an acetylene torch. Rummaging around, she managed to locate the accompanying mask and gloves.
Returning to the dragon, she set to work. The flame of the torch was a searing blue that reflected off the dragon’s scales to give its whole body a cerulean tint. The links of chain surrendered to the precise flame in a way that they hadn’t to her crude bashing with the tire iron, and within a few minutes the dragon was no longer bound to the earth.
Peggy looked regretfully at the manacles that still encircled the dragon’s ankles. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can cut those off without hurting you.”
The dragon shook its wings, almost as if it were shrugging—and then spread them.
The twinkling points of light overhead were obscured by vast sheets of translucent silver. As they arched over her head, Peggy could see the delicate webbing of veins that criss-crossed the wings, and the long, thin spines of bone between which the membrane was stretched taut. As she had thought they would, the gargantuan appendages shaded the entire parking lot from the moonlight.
The wind that buffeted Peggy as the dragon’s wings began to beat was strong enough to make her stumble backwards. After flapping only twice, it had risen nearly out of her reach. As the great wings rose a third time, she stretched out one hand and brushed her fingertips across the dragon’s flank. Its argent scales were dry and smooth, like the garter snake she’d found in her friend Billy’s woodpile one summer. They were warmer than the snake’s scales, though: they radiated a gentle heat like clothes just taken out of the dryer. Then the wings came down, and Peggy tilted her head back to watch as the dragon lifted itself higher into the air. The windmill spun wildly, and loose papers skittered across the parking lot.
The dragon hovered briefly above Peggy and then continued to climb. The whoosh of air displaced by its wings reverberated through the night over and over again, regular as a drumbeat. She would have expected such a massive creature to be slow and ponderous, but each flap of its huge wings carried it a remarkable distance. Soon it was merely a tiny dot streaking across the moon, and soon after that it was gone.
As she got into her car and drove back to the motel, Peggy was still so lost in awe that she was glad there were no other cars on the road. Returning her car to its spot in front of the motel, she went back to her room, undressed again, and got back into bed.
Peggy woke up later than she’d intended to the next morning with a dull ache in her shoulders. I hope I haven’t missed breakfast, she thought as she hurriedly pulled on her blouse and jeans. Entering the small dining room, she was relieved to see that the bagels and toast were still set out on the long table. As she grabbed a sesame-seed bagel and shoved it into the toaster, she noticed that the manager of the motel and several of her fellow guests were clustered around the small TV that was currently broadcasting a morning news program.
“That’s terrible,” the manager lamented, shaking his head. He was an older man with wire-frame glasses and a thin ring of gray hair fading to white around his mostly-bald head. “Who’d want to do a thing like that?”
“I don’t believe this!” a man with a southern accent exclaimed. A plump, curly-haired woman whom Peggy guessed was his wife shook her head in sympathy. “We drove ten miles out of our way to see this dragon, and now it’s gone?”
That caught Peggy’s attention. “Gone? What do you mean, the dragon’s gone?”
The manager turned to her. “When old Dan who works in the gift shop went to open up this morning, he saw it was gone. Just vanished overnight.”
“How did it happen?”
“Well, nobody knows, do they? The police are investigating, and they say they’ve found some tools from the maintenance shed sitting on the ground near where the dragon used to be. Now, there’s an acetylene torch in with that lot, so the best anyone can figure is somebody cut up the dragon with the torch and hauled it off in pieces. ‘Course, there’s no way that dinky little torch could’ve cut up something so huge in a matter of hours, but that’s the theory they’re working on for now.”
“So they think somebody stole it?” asked the man with the southern accent. “Who?”
The toaster dinged, and Peggy began spreading margarine over her bagel. She chewed and swallowed on autopilot, barely tasting it.
Her packing was done in a similar preoccupied state, her mind full of silver and flames and eyes that glowed like smoldering coals. When she set out for home, the placid strings and flutes of her favorite classical music station didn’t sound as hollow as they had the day before, and the empty state of the passenger seat and trunk seemed like the natural state of things instead of a gaping wound.