Hi, Eileen.  Sit here.  Yeah, lunch is pretty much as putrid as usual.  I don’t think I even want to know why the macaroni and cheese is so shiny.  I swear, the cafeteria ladies are trying to kill us.  But enough of that.  How was your—

Yeah.  Yeah, something is wrong.

Damn.  I was hoping to do this more gently.  I don’t know why I can’t fool you. Yes, I know we’ve been going out for a year, and that must seem like practically forever to you.  I guess it is in High School.  But it’s still not nearly enough time to get to know someone. 

No, you don’t know me.  That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately, and I’ve finally made a decision. 

No, I’m not breaking up with you.

I’m not coming out, either.  I wish it was something that simple.

Excuse me.  No, you can’t sit there.  We’re having a private conversation. 

Because we were here first. 

Listen, you little strutting coxcomb, neither you nor your bravos impress me one whit.  Be gone before I pull your guts out your gullet.

I’m sorry about that, but I really don’t want other people around when—

Talking funny?  Again?  Oh, shit.  I did, didn’t I? Damn it.  I’m sorry—sometimes I just forget when I am.  I mean, where I am.  Sometimes that Shakespearean stuff from drama class just bubbles up at the weirdest—

No.  That’s not true.  Forget I said it.  I’m sick of all the lies.  That’s why I wanted to talk to you.  I thought you deserved to know:

Eileen, I am a dragon.

No, I’m not joking.  I’m not crazy, either, so stop staring at me like that.

Yes, I know that I look pretty human, but—

‘Sblood.  I mean, fuck.  I hate lunch.  Once you get your food, you only have fifteen minutes left.  Wait!  Look, don’t call the men in the white coats yet.  Just meet me after school.  In the auditorium.  That doesn’t matter.  I don’t give much of a shit about football practice tonight.  I’ll explain everything then.  Please?  Okay.  I’ll see you then.

                                                            *

I was afraid you wouldn’t come.

That’s right.  I’m not joking, and I’m not lying.  I’m glad you still believe in my sincerity, whatever else you may be doubting right now. 

But I’m really not crazy.  I’m really not.  You, Patrick, Sarah, Brian, Kirsti, Matt, Jessica—everybody—you’ve known me your whole lives, and—

No.  You haven’t known me for my whole life.

You really haven’t.

The point is, you’ve known me for eighteen years.  Have I ever done anything crazy?

Besides today.

Yes, I know that I look human.  I’m a shape shifter.  I can be just about anything I want to be.  In the past--and even today, in some countries--I could just take another face and build a life from there.  But here in the USA, a lot depends on being able to prove that you are who you say you are.  So what I do is take the form of a baby, get myself adopted, live a full human life, then fake my death and take the form of another baby.

God, even as I’m saying it, I hear how delusional it sounds.  But I swear, it’s the truth. 

Eileen, wait. 

Eileen!  Come back! 

Look!  Look at this!  Look at it!  That’s a forepaw, Eileen.   Not a right hand.  No more pink skin, no more tiny, useless nails.  Silver scales and black claws. 

Do you see it?  Then I guess we’re both delusional.

Eileen?  Please don’t look at me like that.  I’m sorry I had to do that, but I couldn’t think of any other way to prove it to you. 

I would never hurt you.

Shh.  It’s okay.  It’s okay.  Just take it easy.  Calm—

My back?  What is—oh.  Oh, jeez, I’m sorry.  I’m so worked up, I’m shapeslipping.  I let it go a little bit with my paw, and it all starts to fall out.  Those are my wings. 

Here, let me show you

You know, back in the day, when I didn’t have to be so secretive, I’d sometimes use them to hug with.  I can completely encase both of us with them.  Like this.

Oh, God, Eileen, I’m so sorry.  I forgot all about your claus—

Later?  When?  Please, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.  I just forgot.  I know it’s not that, but...please.  When, if, you get ready, please call me.

Please?

*                                                          *                                                          *

Hi.

It’s been a long week.

Finally decided that you believe in dragons, huh?

I must say, I’m surprised.  I wouldn’t think you’d want to do this out here at Lover’s Lane.  I’d think you’d do like all the self-defense pamphlets say, and meet the strange man at a safe, public place. 

Well, no.  That’s true.  If I wanted to hurt you, there isn’t anyplace that’s safe.

Have I told you how amazingly brave you can be?

So.

You probably want to know why I decided to ‘come out’ to you about this, or why I waited until now. 

It’s because I’ve decided that…that my time is over. 

What do you think I mean?  I’ve spent hundreds of years wearing costumes, and I’m sick of it.  I want to be me again.  But you’ve seen Godzilla.  You know what happens when the dragon shows up in your midst. 

And I came out to you because I needed to talk to somebody before I did it.  I needed somebody to know, to…to understand.  And I just thought…well, that you were the best choice. 

Um…do you have any questions? 

I know, I know.  That’s such a conversation-killer, isn’t it?  Your mind might be full of questions, but someone asks you that, and you go blank. 

Oh.  Right.  I forgot you’re immune to that.  You know how much the rest of the class hates you for that, right?

Sorry.  Go ahead.

How long have I been doing this?  You mean hiding in human form?  Oh, a long, long, time.  I blame the explorers:  the Marco Polos, the Magellans, the Vasco da Gamas, the Lewises and the Clarks.  They...found everything.  They set everything in stone, made the whole world all mapped and codified and limited.  They left no room for us.  The Legends.  They used to write my name in the blank spots on the maps, when they didn’t know what lay beyond the margins.  Here be Dragons.  But now there are no blank spots, and there are muscles I haven’t flexed since Columbus sailed.

Nope.  Haven’t dared to show my real face since then.  Not once.  I’ve lived one human life after another.

Yes, it has been terrible.  That’s why--

Are you sure you want to know that? 

Well, I’ve had a wife for each lifetime.  Usually several lovers, too.

Don’t think of it like that.  Every single one of you is unique.  I’ve never tried to compare any of you to each other.  I’ve loved each one like they were the only one. 

Huh?  Why is that a good thing?  It’s not like I get human STDs or anything.

Ha!

No, it doesn’t have any spines or any other nasty surprises like that.  What you should worry about is the fact that it’s about ten feet long in my natural form.  On the other hand, you’ll never get to experience the benefits of a forked tongue.

Oh, God, Eileen.  I didn’t think anyone could make me laugh right now.  I should have known better.  I could go on like this all afternoon—I don’t even care that you’re just trying to stall me.

Eileen?  Eileen, I’m sorry.  I…I just…

I’m sorry.

Eileen? 

I’ll tell you a secret, if you’ll listen. 

I’m not the only one.  

Oh, yes, I’m the last dragon.  But there are other Legends.

You know how there are so many UFO sightings in the southwest?  Area 51, Roswell and all that?  Well, that’s because the Thunderbirds live in the southwest. 

There’s a serial killer that the police just can’t find.  He kills anyone, regardless of age, race, or sex, and he operates all over the United States.  They’re sure it’s the same person doing all of the killings because the crimes have the same signature: the victims are beaten to death with a spiked, blunt object, then partially eaten.  That Killer is the Manticore.  The “object” is his tail.

There’s a girl.  Maybe you’ve even met her—she goes to school near here.  She has red hair and a wild heart.  She’s always getting in trouble, because she just can’t settle in and follow the rules.  She’s always skipping school, talking back to teachers, beating up bullies, and so on.  But she’s thoughtlessly kind to everyone.  She’d give a total stranger the shirt off her back and the shoes off her feet.

She’s a phoenix.  Maybe the phoenix by now, I don’t know.  She’s pulling the same trick I am.  Well, pretty much.  She can’t change shape like I can, so she has to come back as someone new each time she burns.

I don’t know if it hurts.

I think there may be a unicorn or two left, although they’re kind of in a last stand, with the way you people are tearing up forests.

We’re still here.  The last of the legends.  Hanging on for dear life in a world that doesn’t believe in us anymore.  We’re as powerful and eternal as dreams, but the world has different dreams now—dreams of steel and starships, cybernetics and rayguns.  And the old dreams can’t survive in the light of day.  So we hide:  the unicorns in their woods, the sea serpents and krakens in their trenches, the phoenix and me in our lives.  Those of us who couldn’t hide are gone.

I’m sorry.  I’m yammering on.  But I haven’t had anyone to talk to about this for decades.  That last little speech I gave you has been bouncing around in my head since the eighties.  The eighteen eighties.

No, I guess you wouldn’t care if you were just stalling.

You asked before, why I’m telling you.  You really want to know?  I’m telling you because you came up to Lover’s Lane with me after you found out that I’m a dragon.  I’m telling you because I think you can handle it.  I’m telling you because I need to tell somebody.  I’ve needed to tell somebody for a long, long time.

I’m old, Ellie.  So very, very old, and the world has changed so much.  I remember when a “city” was a wall around a bunch of mud-brick huts, and humans were a tiny race grubbing for survival in fertile river valleys.  I’ve seen the hanging gardens of Babylon, and Solomon’s first temple.  When Master K’ung Fu-Tse wrote his Analects, I read the first edition.  I debated with Socrates—little bastard beat me, too—and I saw the chariot races in imperial Rome.  Which is how I happened to be there to see some poor carpenter from Nazareth get crucified.  

I read the proclamation when the Council of Nicea compiled the Bible, and I read the 95 theses that Martin Luther hung up on that church door before someone tore them down.  I saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream it its first run, and I wondered how this man Shakespeare had captured Titania and Oberon so well.

I cheered the Gettysburg address, and I was stunned when the Wright Brothers flew, and claimed the sky for your race.  I…witnessed…World War II.  I’ve seen so much war and Genocide in my time that it all starts to blend together, and I lose track of who’s doing it to whom right now, but I never imagined horror like that war unleashed.

I marched on Washington, and I heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, as I’d heard Mahatma Gandhi before him, and Sojourner Truth before that.

One thing I didn’t make it to, though—I missed Woodstock.

And something else that goes along with being so old: so many people have left me behind.  My original mate was murdered.  Maybe you’ve heard of it?  I believe it’s called the story of St. George and the Dragon.  As you can imagine, the story is a little different from my perspective.  I told her that she shouldn’t have taken those cattle, but we’d been hibernating for a few decades and she was just so hungry.  We would’ve paid if they’d come to us about it, but I guess they were too scared of us to demand their rights.  Instead, that so-called knight snuck up on my mate when she was basking on a rock and killed her in her sleep.  If I hadn’t been in the cave at the time, he probably would have gotten me, too.

Since then, it’s been one long, never-ending stream of goodbyes: my friends, the rest of my People, the other Legends—every one of them left me behind.  All of those wives and lovers I mentioned?  I can still remember each of their names.  And I miss them all so much. 

Even my children.  Imagine that—watching your children grow old and die, over and over again.

I’m tired, Eileen.  I’m tired of hiding, all the disguises I’m forced to wear.  I’m tired of losing people I love.  I’m just…tired.  And I’ve decided that it’s time to lay down my burden and rest.  Let go and step into the sunlight.  Didn’t one of your own poets say that it’s better to burn out than to fade away?  Well, I want to burn out, Eileen. I want one last flight before your era’s knights come for me.  I want to die a dragon.

Besides.  I don’t think I can stand to watch another set of friends, another family, another…woman I love…grow old and die.  Again.

No.  You’re right.  It’s not fair to lay this on you.  And I should have told you how I feel before now.  You deserve to hear it every day of your life. 

Let me make a deal with you: I don’t want to die.  Not so much as I just want to live as me.  I want to fly again.  So that’s what I’ll do—just fly, that’s all.  I’ll try not to do anything scary, and I’ll let your people decide what they want to do.

But I’m pretty sure I already know how this story ends. 

It’s strange.  I’ve seen so many ages pass, and now I find myself at the end of another.  Watching an age pass is sad.  But what’s even sadder is being last.  Lingering past your time.

Goodbye, Eileen.  Here be Dragons.

 

                                                Eileen

He was beautiful.  At the end, Zack was so beautiful.  He spread his wings and sent his shirt flying in denim shreds, and he looked so satisfied when he did it.  He must have been waiting to do that for centuries.  He turned and hugged me one last time, and he used his wings, but this time he was careful to leave my head free.

Then he turned and walked into the rising sun, shapechanging on the way.

He was huge, over a hundred feet long, I think.  He was dark blue, with a diamond pattern in gold on his back, and whorls of red and purple.  Only his right front paw was silver, like a horse with a white hoof.  His horns and his claws were glistening ebony.

He took off from the overlook, and he flew for hours.  Back and forth over the town.  Just flew.  That was all he wanted.  Just to fly, just to be himself again. 

They came around nine o’clock.  The soldiers, with their guns and their planes and their missiles.  Our modern-day knights with their modern-day lances to take down the monster among us.

I tried to stop them.  I had run all the way down from the overlook as soon as he took off, and I told everyone who could hear me.  Most were too scared to listen, but some of us—some of his family and friends—did our best to stop it from happening.  We shouted, we begged, we got in the soldiers’ way.

We couldn’t get in the way of the planes.

What does it say about the human race that Zack knew that all he had to do when he was ready to die was show himself?

He didn’t even fight it.  Not really.  He roared out his fire one last time when they started shooting at him, just to let everyone know what was leaving the world.  Then he flew straight up, spread his wings and made himself as big a target as possible.

He left a note to the town paper that explained everything, and now people who didn’t know him very well are going around saying how they can’t believe that a monster lived unnoticed among us for so long.  They look at times where he lost his temper or seemed to like fire just a little bit too much, and say “Ah, hah!  That should have been our sign!” or “I always knew there was something weird about him.”

We didn’t.  His parents, me, Patrick, Sarah, Brian, Kirsti, Matt, Jessica —all of the people who knew Zack and loved him—we didn’t know.  We never even knew his real name, or if “Zachary” was anything at all like it.  But in the end, does it make that much of a difference?  He was our friend, no matter what he was, and “Zack” was good enough for us.

We even know for a fact that he loved us—how many people can say that?  After all, the reason he couldn’t stay is because he couldn’t stand to lose us.  He’d been there too many times.  It doesn’t make it any easier when the anger or the sadness comes on us, but at least we can understand it.

We’ve set up a memorial site where he landed—the big clearing at the top of Bald Hill.  Leave it to Zack:  He even made sure that he wouldn’t land on anyone when he fell.  Not that there was much left.  Some say that the missiles completely incinerated him.  Maybe.  Maybe his own fire did that.

Not that it matters. 

We all go up there sometimes…sometimes alone, sometimes in groups.  People have set up all kinds of shrines and memorials—everything from a few candles to sculptures carved by great artists and donated by rich people from all over the world. 

I’m not sure why they all bother.  Maybe they feel guilty about what they allowed to die, or they’re sad that it’s gone. 

Good.

But of all those shrines and memorials, my favorite is the sign at the entrance.  It’s hand-carved, highly polished, carefully maintained, and it’s the first thing you see as you walk toward the gate.  I insisted on it, and so did his family when I explained.  There are only three words on it, but they’re the words that would have made Zack happiest if he’d been here to see them:

Here be Dragons.

Published by Matthew Keville