The summer between Jack Booth Jr.’s sophomore and junior year of high school, his mother left him and his dad for Tennessee with her friend Linda. She was trying to determine the nature of her slippery, vivid sexuality, and she could not do that in West Virginia, she said.
Jack sat with his mother on the front porch and sipped iced tea while they waited for Linda to pick her up. She said, “Honey, eventually every real woman gets to a point where she’s given her last fuck. I gave my last fuck on Tuesday.”
Jack Booth Jr. nodded and wondered whether she meant “fuck” literally. When the little black Honda pulled up he watched Linda check her lipstick in the rearview while it idled.
“You understand, honey, right? I’m not leaving you. I’m leaving your dad.”
His mother kissed him on the cheek and pulled him in close for a hug. He heard the upstairs window slide up in its ungreased casement and felt the presence of his father.
“You’re a good boy,” his mother told him, then corrected herself. “You’re a good young man. You’re going to be just fine.” She had tears in her eyes. The smell of cigarette smoke drifted down from the second floor. “I love you, honey. I’ll call you real soon. Real soon.”
“Fuck you, Celine,” called Jack Booth Sr. from the second floor.
She stood up. “Fuck you, too, Jack.” Her tone was not bitter. She was tall and strong, like Jack Jr., and threw her suitcase into the trunk with ease. She blew Jack Jr. a kiss and shook her fists at him as if to say, “We’re in this together.” Then she slammed the passenger side door behind her, and Jack watched as Linda drove her away.
Jack Booth Sr. was Southeast manager for West Virginia Refrigeration, an outfit that sold, shipped, and installed Japanese-made industrial refrigerators. He responded to his wife’s departure by spending more and more time at work. Stayed long hours at the warehouse, shooting the shit with his co-workers, watching golf on the eleven-inch TV in the break room. Jack Jr., with nothing to do from June to September, began joining his dad at the office. Sometimes Jack Sr. would show his son how things worked around there. He’d explain to him about workflow and capital, equity and debt. Other times they’d order Papa John’s and sit together at the parking lot picnic table as the mosquitoes whined and the sun went down, reflected in pools of oil on the blacktop. The drive home was muggy, quiet, and dark. It was the first they’d spent any real time together since Jack Jr. was very young.
Childhood still clung to Jack Jr. as the scent of a lived-in house clings to one’s clothes after a long visit. Polite, athletic, and pretty well-liked, he still had not mastered the art of small talk. His ears were too big. He read fantasy novels under the covers. He had always been his mother’s son, shared her dark sense of humor, her restless loneliness, her fascination with magic. Jack Sr., with his commanding voice and his patriotism, was supremely normal. He seemed glad to have Junior to himself for a while, seemed to hope some of himself would rub off on his son. In mid-July, when his company landed a major deal with a chain of restaurants opening up in south Florida—Crawdaddy’s, where he would oversee the installation of industrial refrigerators in six franchise locations—he invited Jack Jr. along.
“It’ll be a road trip,” he said. “Endless highway. Sky as far as the eye can see. As much fast food as you can eat.”
Did Jack Jr. hear a kind of desperation in his father’s voice? Maybe so, maybe not. Either way it seemed to him that his good performance was essential. They tumbled a couple of duffle bags into the back seat and set out in the early morning. When they stopped for food on the road, Jack Jr. ordered a double cheeseburger. When a song he liked came on the radio, he cranked it up, rolled down the windows, and whooped. His father was plainly delighted. They stayed in a Motel 6 in South Carolina to break up the trip, and watched a show together on cable where a rugged Australian host led a camera crew through the Mexican wilderness in search of the Chupacabra.
“I can’t believe people pay money to make this crap,” said Jack Sr. He was drinking a beer in his underwear, leaning against the headboard of his twin bed.
“I can’t believe people pay money to watch it,” said Jr.
Sr. lifted his beer in appreciation.
“I mean, if they really want to find the Chupacabra, they should be in Kentucky.”
Jack Sr. laughed. “What the hell?”
“That’s where it was last spotted.”
Jack Sr. stopped laughing, shook his head. “Just like your mother,” he muttered, and took a swig.
They arrived in Florida the next afternoon. The hotel was one of a familiar chain, but everything else was alien. Spanish moss hung like cobwebs from the fleshy trees. Spindly insects moved in slow motion in the front lawn’s floodlights. The sounds of toads and cicadas and the six-lane highway beyond the trees all merged into one rushing white noise so loud they could barely hear the car doors slam. “Alligator,” announced Jack Jr. as they lugged their things from the parking lot toward the front entrance. Jack Sr. looked around with an agitated face, and Jack Jr. laughed at him.
They had dinner at an unopened Crawdaddy’s with the owners and contractors and some other men at a long oval table in the middle of the empty restaurant. A fishing net, a plastic bass, half a rowboat, and other thematic trappings hung from the ceiling and on the walls. Neon lit the bar. There had been some snafu with the doorknobs distributor, so all the doors were still cut with perfectly round, raw holes. Jack Jr. gorged himself on coconut shrimp while the older men drank daiquiris from brightly colored plastic cups. When the owner came around to take drink orders, Jack Jr. quietly asked for a beer. The guy winked, and when he brought it he gave it to Jack under the table. There was a main course of burgers and Cajun-spiced French fries, and butter cake, peach crumble, and milky cocktails for dessert. Jack Jr. had one of the milky cocktails, too, and began to enjoy the fuzzy sensation it gave him. The men were boisterous and red in the face. Someone suggested a nearby strip club, which received a more or less enthusiastic response. Jack Jr. shot a goony smile at his dad. In return, he got a shake of the head and a frown. “No way in hell, son,” Jack Sr. said, though he rarely called his son “Son.” The other men shouted their disapproval. “Come on, bring him.” “Look at the kid! He wants to come.” Jack Sr. shifted heavily onto his left butt cheek to get at his wallet. “Here’s a twenty. I’ll bring you back to the hotel and you can get yourself a second dessert.”
It was only eleven. The hotel was quiet. Jack Jr. did the things one does at sixteen in a hotel room alone. He blasted the air conditioning, jerked off in the pristine bathroom. Turned on the TV and flipped through the channels, jerked off again to a rerun of Friends. Read a line or two in the tourism magazine that lay open on the bedside table. He couldn’t concentrate, he wasn’t interested in the television. To be wide awake and tipsy without an adventure, he felt, was a waste.
At quarter to twelve he wandered down to the hotel bar. Two men were sitting there: a stocky Mexican guy with thick black hair, and a tall white man with a long gray braid that swung when he moved. The one with the braid was doing all the talking. The bartender—in his fifties, tanned, with a gut and a receding hairline—was leaning against the sink with his arms folded high on his chest, laughing. The man with the braid was gesturing as he talked, the other two laughing so hard it was coming out silent. “So I stick my hand in there, and root around a little—and I feel something bite down! Right on my finger.”
The bartender wiped his eyes. The Mexican staggered down from his stool and put two hands on the bar to steady himself.
“You going to ralph, Ralph?” the bartender asked.
When he stood up tears were streaming down his face. He gasped. “Been holding it in since you started,” he managed, “but now I gotta piss for real.” He walked, a little bowlegged, to the back of the room and passed through a swinging door.
“That’s a good one,” the bartender said, filling up the braided man’s glass. “That is a good one.” He turned his attention to Jack. “I help you, friend?”
Jack climbed up onto a stool. “Guess I’ll have a beer,” he said in a low, thoughtful voice.
“What’ll it be? We got Bud, Bud Lite, Miller, Miller Lite, Heineken, High Life, Coors, Coors Lite…”
“Easy, Mike, you’ll make the kid dizzy,” said the man with the braid.
“I’ll have a Bud,” said Jack Jr., careful not to hesitate too long.
“Wise choice,” said the bartender. He turned his back on them a moment to open the fridge. “Only reason I’m not going to ask you how old you are is I don’t want to know.”
The man with the braid turned to Jack Jr. “What brings you to town?”
Jack Jr. squinted. “Business.”
The two men seemed to find that amusing. “What kind?”
“Refrigeration.” The man with the braid nodded solemnly as the bartender put a beer down in front of Jack. “Let me ask you something: What’s the difference between a gay man and a refrigerator?”
Jack took a drink from the bottle, stayed quiet. Fixed an open, questioning gaze on the braided man.
“When you take your sausage out—”
The braided man was interrupted by the Mexican approaching them. “Got to call it a night, man,” he said loudly. “Woo-ee, what a night.”
“Get home safe,” the bartender said.
The man with the braid was a storyteller, and the freshness of Jack Jr.’s audience seemed to bring him more vividly to life. The bartender seemed to like their company, because when Jack Jr. finished his first beer he refilled it without saying a word. Jack tried hard to concentrate on the braided man’s rambling plots, but the drinks were slowly stripping him of his acuity. By the middle of the second beer he felt as if his whole being had been reduced to a pair of foggy eyes and a slack jaw. The man with the braid, by contrast, seemed to become sharper and larger as the night went on. The deep lines in his wide brown face sank and darkened; his jawline broadened into a hard square. His hair grew longer and whiter, his braid thick and coarse as a horse’s tail.
“Ever heard of such a thing as a spirit animal? I thought it was a crock of shit too. Then I lived with the Inuit. They gave me an Inuit name. Krearnartok: Blue Fox, it means. Good people, the Inuit. Serious people. Generous. Mi casa, tu casa. Share each other’s wives. I passed through their village what I thought would be a couple days, ended up staying a year. Used to tag along with them mornings, when they went out to hunt. Sun coming up pink over the snow. Dogs and sleds, just like in the movies. You bet. Why’d they bring an old fart like me? I got good eyes. Always have. Spot a hawk ten miles away. And to think both my parents were blind! God’s a joker, isn’t he. Thank you, Charlie.”
The bartender nodded over the whiskey bottle he was emptying into the storyteller’s glass.
“Those hunts were magnificent. Sleds flying. Men yelling, whipping the dogs. Those dogs were faster’n a goddamn horse. You think your golden retriever’s an athlete. Well, one morning I’m out with these guys and I spot something, just a little speck, running along the horizon. I gesture to the men—they knew what I meant—and off we go, the whole team of dogs, quiet as the wind, flying over the snow. I didn’t know what this goddamn thing was, y’understand. All I know’s there’s good chance it’ll be dinner. Well, we’re after it I don’t know how long. The whole day goes by, and whatever it is always keeping far enough away we couldn’t tell what it was. Leading us all over the goddamn place. Parts of the area I never seen before. I’m beginning to worry we’ll all be lost. Well, just as I’m really starting to feel the cold, the team stops to rest, feed the dogs, take a breather. I’m stretching my legs by the side of my sled when I feel something. Like a shiver up my spine—but warm, fierce. Like a sudden burst of blood from the veins. I turn around, and what do you think? No one else saw him. Maybe a hundred feet away. What do you think?” The man with the braid was leaning toward Jack, his eyes wide with expectation.
“A blue fox,” said Jack Jr.
The man with the braid leaned back, clapped once, victorious, then leaned in and lowered his voice. “Staring straight at me. Big wet eyes. Fur as blue as the blood in your veins. I aimed my gun straight at him. He didn’t move an inch. He just stared right at me. And.
“Bam! Shot him. Right between the eyes.”
Jack Jr. startled in his seat, and the man with the braid laughed loudly, putting a large, comradely hand on Jack’s shoulder.
“Oh, I never ate anything before or since as good as that blue fox. It was a special occasion, you can be sure of that. Big old bonfire, shit-tons of booze, singing and dancing until the sun come up. I was Krearnartok from then on.”
Jack Jr. finished the last of his beer and wiped his mouth. The bartender put his hands on the bar, far apart, and leaned toward them, pushing out his elbows. “I get you another drink?”
The man with the braid gestured at his glass. “Top me off, Len.”
“Anything for you?” the bartender asked Jack Jr.
“I’ll have what he’s having,” said Jack.
“Atta boy!” said the braided man.
“A whiskey?” said the bartender.
The bartender shook his head, but fetched a small glass and poured a dash in it. “That one’s on the house.”
Jack nodded and lifted the glass to his lips. The liquid made his tongue tingle. He sipped and coughed.
“Speaking of the animal kingdom, and life and death,” the man with the braid went on. “Speaking of spirit animals. Where you from, Jack?”
“No kidding. No sir. What a coincidence. You know, I used to know a woman from West Virginia. Beautiful woman. No breasts at all. That’s right. Cancer got one, so she cut out the two. Had the doctors rip her right open and sew her back up. Long, beautiful scars all up her chest, tattoos over the whole shebang. Birds and fish and moths and snakes, crawling all over her.” He snapped his fingers. “You know, come to think of it, she was the one told me about the dragon dealer.”
“The dragon dealer?”
“Being from West Virginia, what you might not know about this part of the world is there’s all kinds of wildlife around here. Alligators, flamingos, sure. You seen them on TV. But there’s other creatures too. Prehistoric creatures. Direct descendants of the dinosaurs. You don’t think all the dinosaurs got wiped out at once, do you? You believe everything they tell you in school?
“Well, this woman with that tattooed chest, years before I knew her she worked down here—terrific cook, this woman—at a tiny little Cajun place, just a couple of tables, long gone now. Used to be famous for its alligator stew. Being the sole employee, it was this woman’s job not just to cook and clean and serve, but to hunt down the alligators, too. It was on one of these alligator hunts that this woman saw a dragon. Just crouching up on a rock, staring her straight through. Scales glistening. Lizard eyes blinking from the bottom up. She went back all excited, told everyone she could find. Turned out one of the diners that evening was a dragon dealer. Says to her, ‘Tell me where you saw it.’ She knew right then he aimed to capture it and sell it, so she told him a different spot, somewhere way out on the other end of the peninsula. She might have saved that dragon, but of course she weren’t able to save ’em all.
“Course I resolved to look this dragon dealer up just soon as I got back. Paid him a visit one afternoon. Business was slow: the truth of it is the dragon population’s pretty slim. They cost a fortune. This guy made a couple big sales in the eighties and nineties, and was basically set for life.”
Baffled by the story’s premise, Jack felt the need to bring things back down to Earth. “Who buys dragons?” he asked. “I mean, who are this guy’s customers?”
The storyteller pointed at him and winked. “Refrigeration, right? He’s thinking like a businessman.” He leaned back. “I guess he sold one to an Italian heiress. One to a Norwegian prince. There’s an American businessman who was after him when I was there, some asshole made a fortune on sub-prime mortgages, but he was reluctant to sell. He felt the guy just wanted to use the dragon for a stunt of some kind. Dragons are delicate creatures, Jack. They’re endangered. You have to care for them just so. That’s why he trusted me: he could tell I have a way with the living and breathing.”
“He sold you one?”
“Gentlemen,” said the bartender, coming forward out of the darkness. “I got to close up shop. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”
The storyteller’s attention was drawn away from Jack as he reached for his wallet. “What’s the damage, Bud?”
The bartender folded his arms and regarded their empty glasses. “Let’s call it eighteen even.”
“I’ve got twenty,” said Jack Jr.
The storyteller paused mid-reach and looked at Jack. “That right? It’s on you tonight?”
“Sure,” Jack said. “Yeah.” He reached his father’s crumpled twenty from his pocket and laid it on the bar.
“I owe you one, pal.”
“So this guy sold you a dragon?” Jack persisted, becoming aware of a childish quality in his own voice.
“In a way,” said the storyteller. He stood up and stretched, pressing his large hands against his back as if to push himself out of his own pelvis. “To be frank, Jack, it’s sort of a sticky situation.”
The storyteller shook his head at the floor. His long braid fell forward over one shoulder. “A guy like me don’t want to be tied down by something that precious. Precious things aren’t really for owning, Jack, at all. You own a precious thing, all of a sudden you’ve got responsibility.” He looked back up at Jack. “What are you doing tonight, son?”
“What do you mean?”
“Night’s still young. I’ve got some beers back at my place. Why don’t you come along with me.”
“Nobody wants to drink alone.”
The bartender was wiping down the bar. Jack glanced at him, but didn’t succeed at making eye contact.
“Not going to hurt you,” the man said with an unreadable smile. “I just want you to see, is all.”
“Let the boy go to bed,” the bartender advised, not looking up.
“Ah. You’re right.” The man with the braid shook his head. “My mistake. Just seemed he was interested in the dragon, is all. Not every day a boy from West Virginia has this sort of an opportunity.”
“So you do have one,” said Jack.
“Hey, kid,” said the bartender, looking up now as if to stop him.
“I’ll go,” said Jack.
“Course you will,” the braided man grinned.
The bartender stepped back. “You gentlemen have a good night, then.”
“Night, Captain,” said the man with the braid. He turned and walked toward the door. In the back of Jack’s mind he heard his mother’s voice—Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do—and a memory occurred to him. It was a simple image: his mother on the dance floor at his cousin’s wedding. It was the beauty of her long arms, the abandon in her closed eyes and grave smile.
He shook his head. He jumped down from his stool. He followed the man with the braid out into the night.
Outdoors in the parking lot it was humid and cool. The man with the braid opened the door of a dented old pick-up without unlocking it. He leaned in and started fiddling with the wires under the steering wheel. “Lost the keys years ago,” he explained from underneath the steering wheel. “Left them on a woman’s bedside table. Now I just hotwire it. Works like a charm, most of the time.” Jack watched as the man cursed under his breath. The truck rumbled to life and the man clapped once. “That’ll do her. Jump in.”
They rode with the windows down and the bright flat moon above followed them along the highway. Jack drank up the heavy air like water. At a blind turn they took a hard right and the truck wobbled through some thick wild trees and up a short driveway, and then they were in a small field where an old trailer was parked along with two lounge chairs, a dank fire pit, some scattered crushed cans and other detritus, and a few flat rocks that glowed in the moonlight. The man with the braid parked the truck and they got out to a whiff of wet coals and unfamiliar flora. In the tangled shrubbery Jack Jr. thought he glimpsed a reflective pair of eyes.
“Don’t dawdle,” the man with the braid instructed, heading toward the trailer. “Beer ain’t going to drink itself.”
The trailer was dark and smelled of dirty clothes and soured food. The man with the braid was large in the narrow space, and walked with his head ducked down instinctively so as not to bash into any cabinet or doorway. He rustled back toward the bedroom, murmuring to himself, and Jack Jr. glanced out the window. He was beginning to feel a little nervous. The drive there hadn’t been long, but he’d lost track of the turns they’d taken. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to find his way back to the hotel if he had to.
Then the man with the braid emerged from the back room with a good sized aquarium in his arms, about two feet wide and a foot and a half deep, with a handmade screen over the top. “Grab us some beers,” he said, and made his way down the steep metal steps out the open door. Jack Jr. opened the small fridge. It was not cold, and it stank.
Outside the man with the braid had set the tank in one of the lounge chairs, and was muttering into it in a quiet, urging voice. Jack Jr. approached, handing him a can, but froze a few feet away with his arm stretched out. In the aquarium was an animal. The animal was undeniably a dragon. It was about the length of Jack’s forearm, and black. Though there were no spikes on its back, as there had been on dragons in his childhood storybooks, two delicate bat wings on its back folded back like umbrellas, then rose from its haunches and hovered there while the man with the braid raised the screen and reached a hand in to scratch the back of its slender neck. Its skin was thin and papery as a lizard’s, and crinkled at the joints. Its head seemed heavy but elegant, the shape of a trowel and the size of the palm of Jack’s hands. Yellow eyes on either side blinked slowly, the lids coming up, like a bird’s, instead of down. The man with the braid murmured and scratched it gently, and its dime-sized nostrils flared and snuffled. Its mouth hung open an inch, wheezing, revealing a row of tiny sharp teeth and a forked tongue that did not flick, just hung limply. It didn’t seem alarmed by Jack Jr. More than anything, it seemed ill.
“Is he alright?” Jack asked.
“You’d be tired too if you were a hundred years old.”
“He’s a hundred years old?”
“Don’t know, to be honest. Only had him a few months.” The dragon turned toward the man’s immersed hand suddenly, with a warbled growl, and hissed like a cat. Its pointed tail flicked. “Okay, alright. I get the picture,” said the man, quickly retracting his hand. He turned to Jack to take the beer. “They’re wild, after all.”
“What does it eat?” Jack asked.
“I give him whatever I can find. Mice. Deli meat. Freshwater eels from the river. He goes nuts over those.”
Jack became aware of a loud, shrill buzzing coming from the woods. Cicadas. “Does it have a name?”
The man drank. “You imagine calling an animal like that Fido or Sparky? No. I wouldn’t insult him like that. He’s his own beast. I let him know his own secrets.”
Jack kneeled on the damp ground to get a closer look. It really was a remarkable creature. Yet its belly seemed bloated, almost distended. It lowered its head with a congested sigh and lay down, breathing heavily. “What’s wrong with it?”
“He was sick when I got him. Weren’t this sick, though. I haven’t been able to find out, neither. You bring a creature like him into a veterinarian’s office, your goose is cooked. The fine alone would bankrupt me. It’s not just illegal to own one of these. It’s an issue of security. I’m talking national security. I’m talking about the Feds. Government don’t want you or me knowing things like this even exist, you know. They’re afraid people’ll start breeding them. Making stronger, fiercer strains. Using them for underground fighting—or, worse, guerilla warfare. The only way you can own one of these suckers legally is if you can pay for the license—which, frankly, is cost-prohibitive. I decided a long time ago I weren’t going to give my hard-earned cash to anyone. They’re going to have to pry my taxes from my cold dead hands.”
Jack Jr. was losing track of what the man with the braid was talking about. “If it’s illegal to own one of these, why’d the guy sell one to you?”
The man with the braid was walking away and up the stairs to the trailer as he spoke. “Jack, sometimes you wander into an opportunity that’s too good to turn down. This creature weren’t movable merchandise, if you know what I mean. He wasn’t going anywhere.” He disappeared into the dark, still talking, and Jack Jr. was left alone with the dragon. “I just did him a favor and took the sickly thing off his hands. He weren’t doing it any favors, just keeping it on his back porch all alone, away from the rest of them. He didn’t know how to take care of it right. He didn’t care. He was after the money, was all. Problem is—he knew, and I know now—owning a creature like this is a liability.” The screen closure of the tank wasn’t even attached, was just loosely placed there on the top of it, yet the creature wasn’t trying to fly away, didn’t seem to want to escape. It stared back at Jack through the glass with its strange yellow eyes. Its eyelids came up like windshield wipers and it squeezed them shut. Then it began convulsing, letting sudden, forceful bursts of breath out of its half-dime nostrils, backing itself up against the edge of the small tank. It looked like it was pain.
“What’s it doing?”
The man with the braid reemerged in the doorway. “He’s sneezing.” Jack looked up at him and saw that in his hand was a long, wide knife, like a meat cleaver. Jack jumped to his feet, dropping his beer in the process. It gurgled and pooled and began to soak slowly into the loamy ground under the lounge chair.
The man was walking toward him, idly swinging the knife back in forth in one hand, holding his beer in the other. “Got a friend in California,” he said. “In the business of medical marijuana. He goes out there every year, works the harvest, makes fifty, sixty grand. Spends the rest of the year on root. Last year he went to Venezuela. Picked him up a beautiful woman. Divorcee. Breasts out to here. Doesn’t speak a lick of English, but she can dance. Told me about his set-up, and I thought to myself, that sounds like a pretty decent life. That sounds pretty goddamn good. I could use fifty, sixty grand right about now. This guy ain’t doing nothing but weighing me down.”
Beside Jack, the dragon had curled around itself in the corner of the tank, its face hidden under a wing.
“They live in dorms out there,” the man went on, “communal housing, communal living. There’s a garden. Everything’s straight from the earth. It’s hard work, but it’s good work. It’s like the sixties all over again, my friend says. You’re too young to know anything about the sixties, man, but let me tell you. He’s working outdoors, smoking ganja all day, telling stories all night around a bottle of wine. You think I can bring a sick dragon along with me somewhere like that?” The knife flashed in the moonlight as the man approached. “They got enough legal headaches over there just trying to keep the place running. You think they’d want me waltzing in there with a sick creature like this? I’m too old to let another year go by, Jack. I’m too old to take care of a sickly thing. I’m sickly myself. Both my parents died of cancer. I can’t be tied down. I’ve got to live.”
“So you’re just going to kill it?” Jack asked, “just like that?”
“Don’t be stupid, Jack. Why do you think I brought you here?”
Jack had begun to feel a little sick. His heart was beating faster and a wave of nausea was rising in his gut. “Wait, you want me to kill it? I’m not going to kill that thing. You said yourself they’re endangered.”
The man didn’t seem to be listening. He swung his knife back and forth and looked up at the stars. “It’s a great honor to slay a dragon, Jack. You’ve read all the storybooks. I know you have. You slay the dragon, you marry the princess. You slay the dragon, you come home a hero. Hail, the conquering hero!”
Jack’s mind was racing. “Why don’t you sell it? Isn’t there a black market for these things? You could probably make a killing.”
The man laughed. “Only thing worse than the Feds coming after me’s that goddamn dragon dealer finding out I’m hawking his own goddamn property. You know what he’ll do? He’ll find me out, he’ll hunt me down, he’ll cut out my eyes and slice open my throat.” The man was gesticulating at Jack, using the knife to illustrate. He was very close to Jack now, and Jack felt the urge to back away, but he stood his ground, his heart beating madly. “No, no, there’s only one thing to do, and that’s to slay the poor sucker.” He held the knife out, handle first.
Jack could see it in his mind’s eye: the glint of the knife, the cry of the animal, the black blood pooling on the surface of the rock. “This is crazy. You’re crazy!”
“What do you want, Jack? What do you want?” The braided man was suddenly so close that Jack could smell his foul breath and see the skin flaking at his scalp. The man closed his eyes and hummed, bending down a bit so his face was level with Jack’s, breathing deeply through his nose. “Mmmmm. What do you want. What do you want. I can get it. I have a talent for such things. I can guess what people want. It’s like a sixth sense, Jack. What do you want? Oh, you’re afraid. Well, sure, you’re afraid! You’re lost in the swamp with a dying dragon and a strange man with a meat cleaver. Sure you’re afraid. But what do you want? Is there a princess somewhere back in West Virginia you’re itching for? What are you, fifteen? Sixteen? No. What you want is your daddy. You want to go back to the hotel, run back to your daddy.” The man began to stand up straight again, then stopped. “Wait, what’s that?” He leaned back in, toward Jack. “You don’t want your daddy, do you. You want your mommy. You want your mother, I can smell it.”
“I want the dragon,” Jack said quickly. “I want to take the dragon home.”
The man’s eyes popped open. He stood up and considered Jack a moment. “I don’t know if I’ve made this point with complete clarity, but generally these animals are extremely expensive.”
“I’m not paying for it.”
“Course you probably don’t have any money. But your daddy. The refrigeration business.”
“Consider it a favor. I’m taking it off your hands. You can go off to the marijuana fields unencumbered.”
“Unencumbered. I like that.” The man turned around, thinking, his long braid swinging. “Un. En. Cum. Bird. You know, it’s a big responsibility keeping an animal like this.”
Jack picked up the tank. It was heavy. The dragon in the corner didn’t stir. They stared at each other. Jack felt he knew just how that blue fox must have felt so long ago in Alaska: like prey. The man’s dark eyes were narrow and his mouth was set in a nasty scowl. His breath was heavy and labored, and his wrinkles were deep as riverbeds in that moonlit skin.
Then, at last, a thought seemed to occur to him. He straightened up with a sigh. He dropped the knife. It fell into the ground point first and stuck there, cockeyed as a drunk.
“Well. So you’re set on that. Have it your way. Works for me.”
“You going to drive me back?”
“It’s been a night, I’ll give you that.” The man with the braid yawned and ambled unsteadily back toward the trailer.
“You’re not going to drive me back.”
The man stepped up the stairs of the trailer and turned around in the doorway. He looked large and luminous in the moonlight, and very old. Reaching a long finger out, he pointed at the tank in Jack’s arms. “Be careful with that little son of a bitch. Don’t tell anyone about him. You never know who you’re talking to.”
Somehow Jack found his way through the thick wild bushes to the road. The woods were loud with thousands of small creatures. He had the distinct feeling he was being watched—worse, that he was being followed. As he stumbled over the uneven gravel and mud up the road under tangles of moss and vines and trees, every rustle was a warning. His heart beat so hard he could feel it in his gums, the creature in the aquarium was waking, and seemed stiff and alert, pacing as well as it could in its cramped habitat. It heard something too, Jack saw, and he had a vision of the braided man stepping out of the woods with that meat cleaver—or, worse, with a long fat pistol—and the words, “Well, I guess I’ve changed my mind!”
Just when he was beginning to think he was going exactly the wrong way, half out of his mind with panic, Jack lurched through a swampy puddle, and stumbled out onto the wide moonlit blacktop of the highway. He was standing with his feet apart in the middle of the road and the crunching in the underbrush was getting louder and realer all the time—until something nosed its way through. Gradually he became aware that he was sharing the asphalt with a long, slick-skinned, slouching animal, herself the length of a trailer—no, the length of a semi—her long tail held up horizontally for balance, her black scales glittering, her black eyes staring, her long snout breathing loud and hard. She was keeping nervously to the side of the road, as if wary of him but curious—
no, not curious. That look in her eyes wasn’t curiosity at all. The little creature inside the aquarium in Jack’s arms was throwing itself against the glass, was wheezing and sputtering and making a fuss, and the larger animal seemed out of her mind with ambivalence, rolling her eyes around pitiably, first stepping toward Jack with one enormous, timid, wrinkled foot—the claws themselves were the length of his tibia—then stepping back to cower against the bulbous trees. Slowly Jack put the aquarium down to rest on the road. He removed its screen ceiling and backed away step by step, as smoothly and gently as his spastic, violent heart would allow. When he was maybe fifty feet from the tank, he squatted down to watch.
The larger lizard crept, long and careful, toward the aquarium. When she reached it, she spread her wings for balance—they cast a shadow over the entire width of the highway—dipped her head down, and tipped it over with her snout. She was clumsy; the glass shattered under the force of her nudge, and the little one let out a shriek that was half owl, half gym whistle, startling a bunch of birds that had been nesting in the trees. As the birds rose into the sky—it was getting lighter now—the creature lifted herself, wings flapping, to maybe six feet above the ground. Around them leaves and petals sprung into the air from the force of the wind of her wings. With her long neck she reached her head into the mess of shattered glass, picked the baby up with her massive jaws, let herself back down onto the ground, and lumbered, head down, back into the woods.
Jack Jr. was unsurprised to find he was crying. He sat down on the hard road and put his head in his hands and let himself sob. He sobbed as only a boy can sob, a boy who’s had too much to drink, and who has witnessed something so singular and beautiful and unbelievable that if he tried to tell anyone they’d think he was nuts or a liar or, worst of all, weird. The tears streamed down his face and neck and wet snot ran from his nose to his mouth and he wiped it again and again with his shirt sleeve and cried loudly, without vanity. The only person he could think of who would understand, who would listen without judgment, without skepticism or making fun, was his mother, his stupid selfish mother, who hadn’t even left a phone number. I’ll call you real soon, she’d said, but what about when Jack wanted to call her, what then? What about when he’d just experienced the best and worst night of his life, when he had been threatened at knifepoint, when he was lost and drunk and sobbing on a deserted highway in south Florida, two whole days from home—
The highway was lit, suddenly, by headlights. Jack Jr. scrambled up from the ground and ran to the shoulder to get out of the way of a quickly approaching car. It pitched to a stop a few feet from him and the door opened and a man jumped out of the driver’s seat. It was his father’s car, dinging methodically from the inside to remind them that the door was open, and the man was his dad, rushing toward him with a look of desperation Jack Jr. had never seen before. His drawn eyes and open mouth were a portrait of worry, his monologue a cuss-studded diatribe: “Jesus fucking Christ, motherfucker, Jack, my God, you’re alright, my God, I was out of my mind! What the fuck are you doing, what the fuck are you doing all the way out here, what the fuck, Jesus fuck, come here, Jesus, oh my God.” Jack Sr. didn’t stop to look in his son’s face. He reached for Jack Jr. and mashed the boy’s head into his body. Jack Jr. smelled his father’s sweat, the sweat of a long, fraught night, and listened as the familiar voice cursed itself quiet.
In the car back to the hotel Jack Jr. locked his seat belt into place. He leaned his head back, rolled his window down, and let the wind dry his face. The night was graying into dawn. He closed his eyes and felt the engine vibrate through him. There was a certain gravity to riding in his father’s car, a kind of trusting silence. He was free to lose himself in thought. Entrusted in his father’s steady hands, he was free, at last, to sleep.