“Oh no, oh no, oh geez…”
Carl patted his pockets and rummaged through his glove compartment. Nothing. He must’ve left his allergy medication at home. Ohh…Stupid Carl. Stupid, stupid Carl!
He sighed, gazed out the window of his parallel-parked Fiat. The restaurant looked amazing. It reminded him of the architecture of 17th century France, even though it was an Italian restaurant. Humans did that a lot. They had bad memories and short lives, so they got confused easily, the poor things. Their historical accounts were a mishmash of truth and falsehoods, confusing things that happened in one era with another, one part of the world with the other.
They’d recently invented a similar thing called file sharing, though, a technological version of how dragons biologically kept history. Maybe their records would actually be accurate from now on.
“No,” Carl said. It sounded flat in the empty car. “Not a dragon. You’re a human, Carl.
Not a dragon.” He nodded and reminded himself a few more times.
What had he been doing? Oh right, he—
His phone buzzed. Not many people had his number so it always made him anxious when he got a text message. He picked it out of the cup holder and flipped (yes, flipped; he’d never understood the big deal about smartphones when he could get on the Internet on his home computer, with a normal-sized screen and a mouse to click links; it was so much easier) it open.
No text. Which made him a little sad. He’d been living among humans for hundreds (maybe thousands, actually—he’d lost count) of years, but he still didn’t really understand how to connect with them properly. It was easier in writing, where he couldn’t be distracted by their vocal tones and facial expressions and things like that. The era of the telegram had been interactive bliss, but then the telephone came along and ruined everything. Thankfully, text messaging had been invented. He didn’t have any friends to practice communication with, but sometimes he’d text a random number and see what happened. Every time he got a response, it was like Yule. But he hadn’t gotten a text now. Instead, the buzz had been his meeting reminder. Specifically, the alarm he set after his regular alarm.
“Oh no, oh geez…” He’d gotten lost in his head again and now he was late. He fled the car, rushed around it to head into the restaurant before coming to a full and sudden halt. He sucked in his breath, eyes wide as teacups.
Daisies. Bushes of them. Bushes and bushes and bushes of them, a daisy-laced catwalk leading up to the restaurant door. Carl stared in revulsion, suppressing the bubble of flame that welled in his belly, urging him to roast their entire daisy army. In his perfect dragon body, all
plants had played the same non-existent role in his life. He couldn’t even tell one from another. But human bodies were frail (also, he needed to read more human biology books; he always messed something up). He’d grown tired of the tight muscles and hormone surges of a youthful body, so this one was a bit older, a bit softer and easily tired. It also had severe, crippling allergies. Innocent daisies became white-petaled landmines waiting to detonate, an explosion of pollen-shrapnel that shredded his sinuses, blunted his throat, stabbed his lungs like a unicorn horn.
He held the breath, puffing his cheeks with air, and speed-walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Daisies. When he reached the restaurant door, he dashed in, and emptied his lungs, bent over, panting, face flushed.
What kind of place would plant daisies outside? Humans were so stupid sometimes. If he owned a restaurant, he wouldn’t have plants at all, much less daisies. He’d have a ranch out front, full of (moderately) intelligent life, tigers and sloths and crows, and maybe a giant tank for the smart aquatic animals like dolphins and octopi. Actually… maybe no dolphins. They were almost as bad as unicorns. But octopi, for sure. They were smarter than humans, in a lot of ways. Humans were like ants—dumb as individuals, but smart in big numbers. Octopi were more like dragons, solitary and brilliant. A shame they couldn’t stay above land very long. All the fun stuff happened above land, especially in the sky.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d spread his wings and taken flight. The spell to return to his dragon body was much simpler than the one to create a human one, but he had to play it smart. It was too risky to fly around nowadays. Humans had planes everywhere and where there were no planes they were always shooting their phallus-shaped weapons at each other.
Never mind flying, it was too risky to simply exist in his real body. They inhabited almost the entire planet, humans did. He remembered when they were less than a thousand, a few small bands of upjumped monkeys. Incredible species, really. He never would have thought that they would be the ones to survive when so many others—manticores, griffins, satyr and the sort
—had died off. They even had a presence where they didn’t physically exist, with satellites circling the planet and cities goose bumped with cameras. If he ever tried to retire to a frigid Siberian cave or a molten peak along the Ring of Fire, it was only a matter of time before a government task force showed up, or, worse, he ended up on some backpacker’s YouTube channel.
He unbent rapidly, and then stumbled sideways as the blood rushed out of his head.
Stupid Carl…stupid, stupid Carl. He stabilized and his vision returned from black, revealing the image of a human female.
“Oh Adelinda, hi,” he mumbled, fumbling through the pockets of his coat for a napkin. He felt sweaty and flustered and couldn’t think of anything charming to say or do. Also, she was really beautiful. Well, human-beautiful. He’d been in a human body for so long that he had come to appreciate their apelike beauty. She had symmetrical features, full lips, thick, glossy hair; all signs of fertility. She wasn’t perfect, though. She had a serpentine slenderness to her that made her look frail, prone to sickness. He liked her sleek features, but it probably devalued her stock with human males. They preferred fleshier women, from what he understood. They wrote songs about it.
“Hi, I’m late,” he continued. “I mean, I know you’re busy. So I’m sorry. You like to sit?
Would you like to sit?”
He dabbed away the dampness on his forehead, still breathing like a dog. This was a terrible experiment; his next body would be in better shape. She gave him a strange look, but then smiled gently and took the arm he’d forgotten to offer. “I’d love to,” she said.
The host came and walked them over to their table. Carl gazed around the restaurant, watching all the humans eat and laugh and engage in nonverbal communication—relentlessly social creatures. Dragons left their mothers as soon as they could breathe fire and only saw other dragons when mating, but humans… they were drawn to each other, always forming families and tribes, towns and states and nations full of people. Not based on genetic closeness like ants or dominance hierarchies like wolf packs, just based on…
Sense of humor, maybe.
Walking to a table at a high-class restaurant with a beautiful (for a human) woman on his arm, Carl began to feel more at ease. His breathing slowed to normal, his sheen of sweat receded under the air conditioner. What was there to be nervous about? He rarely interacted with the humans he lived among, but it couldn’t be that hard. And a human date was just a dragon mating dance, but with less threat of burns. He could do this!
The host sat them at a table for two, across from each other. He smiled.
She smiled back.
It was their first date, but they’d sent so many messages back and forth on Match.com that he felt like he already knew her. She was a pharmacist—divorced and childless. Her favorite movie was Godzilla (he wasn’t sure how he felt about that) and her favorite band was Maroon 5 (which he loved). They’d spent several messages talking about how much the band had sold out. Maroon 5 had always been mainstream, but Hands All Over was still funky and insightful
enough to be a good listen. Since Overexposed, however, they’d made nothing but money- grubbing pop, with generic lyrics and recycled melodies. It wasn’t like they were hurting for cash. Adam Levine was on that singing reality show that won all the Emmys, and every time Carl went to their concerts, the seats were filled. Musicians nowadays liked to complain about digital downloading and used that as justification for putting out gratuitous amounts of mediocre music, but Carl could remember times when musicians understood what they were: beggars.
They were beggars with a gift and they understood that it was a privilege to live off others in exchange for a service that no one needed, but still appreciated. Antolicus of Athens had never tried to copyright his songs. Mbembe had played shows for free on a weekly basis, just so people could enjoy her voice. All artists—musicians, painters, writers, sculptors—knew their role, back in the day. Well, except for Shakespeare. That guy was the worst. Couldn’t write his way out of a glade of fairies, but always went on and on about how great he was. Carl had watched some of his plays when they debuted, and they’d all just been re-tellings of other stories, but with a ghost or poison or some gimmicky twist thrown in. Human souls didn’t reincarnate, but Carl had always suspected that Billy Shakespeare had come back as that Indian American man who wrote The Sixth Sense.
He hadn’t said a word for over a minute, he realized, mortified. He’d just been staring and smiling. Oh geez… Stupid Carl! Just be human for a little while! Is that so hard? He figured she would be disinterested and annoyed by now, but he actually saw a small smile on her lips.
“Oh, you’re back,” she said. “How was the moon?”
“I’m so sorry,” he breathed. “I was… I just… I was thinking…”
She laughed. It was an amazing sound, throaty and sweet like a frog and songbird harmonizing. For all their flaws, the human laugh was superior to the dragon laugh. With their
tiny lives, there was a courage to it—as if they were always laughing from their deathbeds—that he’d come to admire. When dragons laughed, it was because something terrible had happened.
“Thinking. Huh. You’re weird,” she said. “And spacey, but in a charming sort of way.
You remind me of Professor Plum, from Clue. What were you thinking about, Professor?” “I was thinking about how beautiful you look.”
YES! Nailed it! It had come out on its own, from his belly, without filtering through the romantic sewer of his brain. She was speechless, a look of pleased surprise arching her eyebrows.
Carl opened his mouth to deliver further verbal seduction, but stopped at a catch in his throat. He felt a small pebble scratching around his windpipe. He coughed softly, trying to dislodge it. Luckily, the waiter arrived to fill the silence.
“Hello, my name is Luigi, and I’ll be your server. Our special today is a wild tilapia fillet, slow-baked in a lemon glaze and served in plum sauce.”
Luigi? Carl suspected it was a fake name. “Thank you. We’ll have—,” he coughed, harder than before, “we’ll have water to start and a bottle of Merlot. We’ll need a minute for our orders.” Human women liked it when men told them what to eat and drink, he’d read.
“Wonderful, I’ll be right back with your drinks,” Luigi said. Luigi, really? It was the sort of name that a non-Italian would assume is a very common Italian name. And it was, to be fair, but the waiter’s accent sounded fake anyway so Carl felt okay doubting his identity.
Adelinda leaned forward in her chair, sliding her elbow along the table, putting their hands in close proximity. Classic display of attraction. “So, Carl.”
He scratched his right eye. It was itching fiercely, and watering. The human eye was already terribly weak (what sort of eye has a blind spot?) without any additional problems. “Yes?”
“You’re so mysterious,” she said with a smile in her eyes that said she wanted to solve that mystery. “I feel like the wheels in your head are always turning. Tell me more about yourself.”
“What would you like to know?” Mysterious? He didn’t really see what was so mysterious about him.
“Something new. Something not on your Match profile,” she said. “What’s your family
“Yeah,” she said. “Siblings, parents. Any famous relatives? I once dated a guy who was a direct descendent of Charlemagne.”
“I…” he trailed off, unsure. Oh no… He should have known this question would come. It was a perfectly normal human question. According to some psychology texts, up to 80% of human behavior could be explained by the family dynamic. But dragons lived alone. He didn’t have a family, in the human sense. He began to say as much.
“I…” he trailed off again. But he did have a family in a way. Dragons were born with a connection to each other that transcended distance. Every morning of his life, he’d woken with a nugget in the back of his head, an itch in his heart that let him know there were others. As a species, they were his family. He didn’t need to be around them to know that they were out there, somewhere, feeding and hoarding treasure and experiencing the same things he was experiencing. He knew that he was never alone, not really.
But that was before. Then the continents had drifted apart and meteors had crashed down from the heavens. Then volcanoes erupted and the sun was covered in smoke, then the world froze and the Knights came with their faith-powered blades, then the humans discovered machines, pumping poison into the air and water and societies. Then, over millions of years—no time at all, the blink of an eye—the dragons disappeared.
And as the dragons around him vanished, the dragon within him did as well. Every century took something from him, silenced the internal hum that told him he wasn’t alone. The fewer dragons there were to connect with, the thinner the connection grew, until it had finally dried up altogether. He woke up one morning in a world he hardly recognized and knew that he was the last one. Just me, thought Carl. Just stupid, stupid Carl.
He looked at Adelinda and said the first thing he could think of. “My father was a nomenclator.”
Oh geez… He tried to keep the panic from his eyes. The nomenclator was a job of the slave class! No human woman wanted to date the son of a slave, no matter how limited her romantic options. Stupid, stupid, stupid Carl!
Her eyebrows furrowed, then relaxed, and then furrowed again. She opened her mouth, then closed it. Then opened, but was cut off.
“Hello sir and madam, here is your wine,” said Luigi, appearing and filling their glasses. “Are you ready to order?”
“Yes, we are,” Carl said, relieved at the waiter’s timing. He may’ve had a fake name (and accent), but he wasn’t so bad. “I’ll have the special and she—”
“I’ll have the Ravioli di Portobello,” Adelinda finished. She smiled. He smiled back. He’d forgotten to look for an order for her anyway.
“So…Adelinda!” he said as Luigi left with their menus. “Where were we? Talking about my job, I believe?
“Oh…” She seemed to doubt herself for a second, but dismissed it. “Okay, yeah. Your profile said you work in finance. What exactly?”
He smiled. He’d practiced this lie. “I’m an accountant.” “Ohh…” her eyes twinkled.
“And you’re a pharmacist, right? How is that?” She waved it away. “It’s what you’d expect.”
He laughed. A mimicry of the human sound. “Yeah, I bet.” Giving allergy meds to dragons all day?
“You bet? I’ve never known a gambling accountant.”
He laughed again. There was nothing he loved more about human speech than puns. Or was it an idiom?
“Yeah, I bet,” he said. “But I always win. You can…count on it.”
She quickly rolled her eyes (A gesture he didn’t know well. What did it mean when a woman rolled her eyes? He’d once seen an episode of Scrubs in which Elliot rolled her eyes during orgasm. Did Adelinda just orgasm? Why would she do that?), but followed it up with laughter. It sounded different this time. It was more careful than normal human laughter, as if she’d made the sound on purpose instead of it happening by itself.
“You’re very funny, Carl,” she said, tossing her hair over a shoulder, unveiling the side of her long, creamy neck.
Carl sat upright in his seat. A woman didn’t just expose her neck for any reason. That was a serious indicator of submission, and often occurred shortly before copulation.
He’d always thought he was charming, but it was good to see proof that his charm translated across species. He should’ve known. Even the unicorns, when they were around, had tolerated him and unicorns were the most ignorant, abrasive animals that had ever lived.
“Thanks,” Carl said. “I watch a lot comedic television.” “Oh, so do I. Do you watch Scrubs?”
They spoke of Scrubs at length, then continued on to Parks & Recreation and a number of other shows. Carl recommended that she watch New Girl and she told him to watch Archer. It was easier for Carl to talk about things like this than it was for him to talk about himself, and Adelinda seemed more comfortable as well, no longer bombarding him with sexual advances. It allowed him to focus on the actual conversation, and he found that he truly enjoyed her company. It had been so long since he’d talked to someone like this, since he’d had someone that understood him, even if it was just about television shows.
“Oh, but what about Community?” he asked.
She scrunched her nose, shook her head. “I’m not a fan.”
“Nor am I!” Carl said, slipping into dated English in his excitement. “It’s Joel McHale, isn’t it?”
“Of course. I can’t stand the man. He’s worse than Shakespeare.” “You…you hate Shakespeare?”
Carl considered proposing.
“And, here you go sir and madam. The tilapia special and the Ravioli di Portobello.”
Luigi was back, placing their food on the table with his long, stupid fingers. Carl hadn’t eaten properly—like a dragon—in centuries. He’d learned to suppress the urge for raw meat a long time ago, but at the moment he wanted nothing more than to burst out of his spell-forged
human straightjacket and swallow the waiter whole—from his stupid, expensive shoes (How much did waiters even make?) to his cartoonish haircut—all in one gulp.
His nose itched. He reached up, scratched it, and then froze. Oh no… “Will there be anything else?”
“No, we’re fine. Carl?”
It was the allergies. The scratchy throat, the itchy eyes. And now the tickle in the nose.
He was going to sneeze.
No, Carl, please not now. Not here. No, no, no…
He could hold it. He just had to hold it for a bit longer. “I’m fine.”
“Very well, then. Bon appétit.”
Carl ate in silence, trying to think of an escape plan while the pressure built in his nose. The bathroom was probably too small. He could pretend he had a phone call and go outside, but any single sneeze would probably be followed up by more. Unless he stayed outside the whole night, it wouldn’t matter. He didn’t want to leave yet, though.
“Hey Carl?” Adelinda asked.
He stuffed food into his mouth so he didn’t have to answer. Talking made it more difficult to hold in the sneeze. He pointed to his full cheeks apologetically, chewing but not swallowing.
“Oh, take your time. I was just going to ask what made you turn to online dating.
Socializing seems to come easy to you, so I’m sure you meet a lot of girls.” Carl swallowed in disbelief.
She smiled. “Yeah, you. A friendly guy, mid-thirties, stable job, most of your hair. There have to be women in your life that are interested. Maybe even clients.”
“No, no,” he said, “I don’t really get out much.” He needed to change the topic.
“But what about you?” he asked. “You’re gorgeous!” It was somewhat true. She was human-gorgeous to him, even if other men wouldn’t think so. “What are you doing on a date with a guy like me?”
“Having a great time.” She smiled.
He smiled back.
“You know, recently,” she continued, “I’ve felt kind of alone.”
“Since the divorce,” he said. He scratched his nose again, crushing a tickling feeling. “Yeah…since that. I don’t know. I feel so awkward and uncomfortable all the time. It’s
been nice to meet someone that gets me.”
Carl felt something strange, like a tug at his heart. That was a human thing, right? A phrase they used in English, “tug at your heartstrings.” But it wasn’t just that. It was as if someone had pressed his “on” button, plugged him back in. As if he’d just brushed away the cobwebs, turned on a light switch he’d forgotten about, and now his dark, cold attic was being filled with light and a comfortable warmth. For whatever reason, this woman liked him. She had met him and talked to him and felt as connected to him as he did to her.
Loneliness didn’t get easier over time; it was weird like that. Being alone was one thing
—solitude was a normal part of being a dragon—but loneliness was like a toothache. It was easy to go out into the world and act normal, but the pain was always there, settled deep inside where
it could only be reached by someone else, someone with the right view and proper tools to go in there and fix it.
But what comes next? He thought. Would they schedule another date, maybe start calling each other during the week? And what if they really, really liked each other? How long would he lie to her about what he was? No matter what he looked like and how human he acted, he was still a dragon and she would learn that someday. Then what?
“I’ve really enjoyed tonight too, Adelinda,” Carl said. “But, I…” he trailed off. No, he had to finish. Better to disappoint her now than to draw it out.
“I need to…”
It was only fair to let her know what she was getting into. “You should know…”
“Should know what?” she asked, eyes full of hope.
He had to tell her. To let her decide, no matter what she chose. “Adelinda, I—ACHOOO!!”
The sneeze came suddenly, unpredictably, and with it a gout of flame. Not just any flame
—dragon fire, a blaze of blue-red, a cloud of heat unlike anything humanity had felt in a thousand years. It spurted out of his nostrils and open mouth, streaming forth and rolling through the air, washing over Adelinda’s face. Her long hair was instantly vaporized and her eyes burst, dripping out of their sockets and over her cheeks like egg yolk. In an instant, her skin went from healthy to dry to charred and hollowed, a tree stump after a forest fire. She hadn’t even had time to throw up her hands in protection.
There hadn’t been any screams or panic from the other patrons; it’d happened too quickly for all that. One second a man and woman were enjoying a lovely meal across from each other,
and the next second the woman’s head was blasted away, leaving only a round, steaming mass with…
…with scales. With green-gold scales that glinted in the restaurant lighting and a long, sinewy neck and two large, coal eyes blinking out from the scaled face.
That’s when the panic started. People screamed and ran and flung chairs out of their escape path, but Carl sat in place and studied the new woman that sat before him.
She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Dragon-beautiful.