Day One Hundred and Seventy-four: Carl’s Dragon
“Carl, no you don’t.”
“I do! Seriously, Annie, I do!”
Annie sighed and slammed her pencil down on her desk. The teacher looked up from the front of the classroom and raised an eyebrow – they were supposed to be reading silently, not arguing with each other. Annie ducked her head in apology and the teacher went back to writing. She flipped back to the page she had been reading so she could get back into the story. This lasted about three minutes before Carl leaned over and slid a note onto her desk.
She stared at it and sighed. Her friends had told her that the new kid was weird, that she shouldn’t have anything to do with him. They had already started their special brand of high school harassment on him: whispers in the hall, lying to him about classes or where rooms were in the building, that sort of thing. They hadn’t started beating him yet, but she could see that coming on the horizon.
He seemed kind of weird, true. He dressed like he’d never heard of co-ordination and wore an old fedora that he said his grandfather had given him. He was an absolute catastrophe in gym class, he did his summer reading report on a twelve-issue comic book maxiseries that no one else had read and went into great detail about how universe-shaking it was. With PowerPoint.
Still, he was cute, in a nerdy way, and he was relentlessly upbeat. Annie just didn’t get it, but he came to school in a good mood every day, really seemed to enjoy his classes, and at the end of the day he was just as cheerful as he was when he arrived. In her experience as a teenager, that wasn’t just bizarre – that was downright alien. But as alien as it was, she found herself wanting to be nice to this poor, weird kid, and took the time to introduce herself and welcome him to Ravensbrook High.
Then he started talking about his dragon, and Annie saw the rest of her high school career going down in flames.
She picked up the note and slowly unfolded it, glancing up at the teacher. When she saw it, she sighed and put her head on her desk:
I really do have a dragon. Do you want to see it?
[ ] Yes
[ ] No
[ ] Maybe (please elaborate)
This was the third day he’d asked, and she had said in the nicest way she knew that she thought he was insane. she’d laughed it off and argued it away and outright dismissed it, but it seemed like no matter how she tried, there he was. And he wanted her to believe in his dragon.
Maybe that was it. He wanted her to believe him, and he was so sure that she would if only she gave him a chance. It was crazy, of course. There were no dragons and never had been, and even if there were, why would one be living with him? Why not on some mountaintop somewhere, with a giant pile of gold? Or a small country with a few extra virgins?
But he didn’t seem crazy. Excited, eager, a little baffled that she wouldn’t even entertain the notion, maybe. Somehow, for whatever reason, Annie found herself checking the little “Yes” box. She wrote down below, Don’t think that I believe you. I’m just doing this so you’ll stop bugging me about it. Keeping an eye on the teacher, she slid the note over to his desk. She felt her shoulders tighten up as he unfolded it and read it.
Carl managed to keep quiet for about an eighth of a second before crying out, “YES!” this earned him a stern rebuke from the teacher, and by this time everyone was looking at him. At them. Annie put her head down on her desk again and wonder what she had done to deserve this.
They agreed that she would come to his house at four, and then she made him promise not to talk to her again for the rest of the day. He seemed almost gleeful when he agreed, and Annie set about making sure no one else knew.
That, of course, wasn’t going to happen.
Becky was the first one to find her, and certainly not the last. “So,” she said, and the insinuation was clear in her voice, “You’re going with weird kid now?” She clucked her tongue, opened her locker and shook her head. “Never would have expected it of you, Annie.”
Annie counted to five, but that didn’t work, so she just slammed her locker shut. “I’m just humoring him so he’ll stop bugging me,” she growled.
“Oh, of course,” Becky said, batting her eyelashes. She patted Annie on the shoulder gently. “Good luck with that.” She flashed a patently artificial smile and flounced away. Annie tried not to think of how she wanted to just grab that pretty brown ponytail and throw her against the wall and -
Annie took a deep breath. This wasn’t helping. She opened the locker again and grabbed her iPod. Skipping biology class would give her a chance to cool off, so she headed to the library and found a quiet place where no one would come looking for her.
After school, she made her way to Carl’s house slowly. His family had moved into an older housing development that was within walking distance of the school, which meant they had some money. Maybe the dragon’s gold, she thought, and that got her the first smile of a very long day. The houses were much nicer than hers, and she was starting to feel a little underdressed just walking around there.
When she rang the bell, Carl’s mother opened it and got about halfway through saying, “Oh, you must be Annie,” when there was a thunder of footsteps and Carl practically shoved her out of the way. “Annie!” he said, breathless. “You’re here!”
“Yeah,” Annie said. “I’m here.” She avoided looking at him and pretended to be very interested in the shrubbery around the front yard. “So, are you gonna show me that dragon of yours or what?”
Carl looked to his mother, who rolled her eyes. “Carl Andrew Stockman,” she said, “what do we do when we have a guest?”
He seemed to think for a moment. “Offer a drink?”
“Offer a drink, yes.” She opened the door a little wider, inviting Annie in. and then walked ahead to the kitchen.
The house looked barely lived-in. She knew Carl had been coming to school for about two months, but from the emptiness of, well, everything, it looked like they didn’t expect to stay for long. The walls were mostly unadorned, and there were still cardboard boxes in the corner of the kitchen. The whole house had an un-lived-in feel to it that made her uncomfortable, and it was worse when Carl’s mother had to check three different cupboards before she found the glasses.
“Sorry the place is in such a state,” she said. “We’re a little slow to unpack.” She smiled as she put a glass of fruit juice down on the kitchen counter. “Something to eat?” she asked, looking at the two of them. “Snacks?”
Carl was practically vibrating. “Mom, Annie’s here to see the dragon, okay?” He sounded like he was begging with her, and she didn’t seem at all bothered. Annie wondered how often they had conversations like this. “Can we go? Please?”
There was that moment of thought, and then she threw up her hands. “Oh, go ahead,” she said. “Have fun with your dragon.”
Carl leaped up and grabbed Annie by the hand, dragging her to the back door. “Okay,” he said. He glanced out the window. “He’s out there, but I don’t want you to freak out or anything, okay?” He looked at her intently. “He’s really nice. Really.”
“Okay,” Annie said, not quite sure what else would work.
He grinned broadly and opened the door, leading her out to the backyard. He stood on the porch and gestured proudly out to the backyard. “Well?” he said. “What do you think?”
What she thought was that Carl was, in fact, insane.
The backyard was empty. The grass was overlong and needed to be mowed. There were some flowers in the middle, poor faded things that huddled together in a tiny patch of mulch. The whole yard was bordered by tall, scraggly hedges that just blocked out the other houses. And that was it.
She looked out at the yard and back at Carl. Then out in the yard again. “I’m leaving,” she said. She turned around and opened the door back into the house.
“NO!” Carl yelled, and he grabbed at her arm. She pulled it away, her anger rising at him. She had trusted him, taken his crazy seriously enough, and now he shows her his stupid empty backyard? She wanted to snap at him, to yell at him. To hit him, even. He looked furious at her, that she would try to walk away, and all that cute nerdiness seemed to slip right off him. “No!” he said again. “You made a promise!”
“A promise?” she said. “Look out there, Carl! There’s nothing there! Your crappy yard is empty – no dragon, no nothing!”
He looked from her to the yard, and for a moment he seemed genuinely puzzled. He looked out again, and said, “But he’s right there!”
“No, Carl,” she said. “He isn’t.” She crossed her arms, not sure if going for the door again was a good idea.
He seemed to think for a moment, and then burst into laughter. “I get it now!” he said.
“You mean you realize there’s no dragon?” she asked.
“No, no,” he said. He lifted a finger and pointed out into the yard. “He’s shy!”
She blinked. “Shy?”
“Shy! He’s never met you before, he doesn’t know anything about you – he’s shy! So he’s made it so only I can see him!”
Annie stared at him for a moment. “You’re kidding me,” she said.
He shook his head. “He really doesn’t get out a lot,” he said. “He stays in the yard, or maybe in the garage.” He turned and cupped his hands around his mouth. “You don’t have to hide!” he yelled. He waited for a moment and then laughed again, looking over at Annie to see if she was laughing too.
“What?” he said. “Don’t you get it?”
“His joke! ‘Monkey doesn’t see!’ It’s great!” He started laughing again until he realized that she wasn’t laughing with him. “What?”
Annie sighed. “Let me guess,” she said. “You’re the only one who can hear him. Right?”
He shook his head and looked disappointed. “Oh, now that’s just ridiculous,” he said. “You’re being silly!” he shouted out into the yard. He shrugged and looked back at her. “Like I said. Shy.” He waggled a finger out at the yard like he was chastising his dragon.
Annie wasn’t sure if he was trying to pull one over on her or if he was completely insane. If he was trying to trick her, then it was an awfully long game, and he wouldn’t gain anything from it. In fact, once she went back to school and told everyone what happened, his chances of ever having a normal high school life would be effectively zero. If he was insane… She thought that night explain a lot, actually. The cheerfulness, the intensity. The dragon.
If he was insane, then all she could do was humor him. She just wasn’t sure yet.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s assume there’s a dragon.”
“Okay, okay,” she said, holding up her hands. “If there’s a dragon out there, then…” She gestured out to the lawn. “Look at the grass.”
He looked. “What about it?” he asked.
“Well,” she said, “a dragon is a big creature. If there was a dragon out there, it would be trampling the grass down. But yours is all sticking up.” She crossed her arms over her chest and tried not to look smug. “And it needs a mowing, too.”
He stared out for a moment and then back at her. “Well,” he said, “you’d be right if he wasn’t floating.”
She blinked. “Floating?”
He nodded. “Yeah. He floats, because of all the hot air he’s got inside.”
Annie narrowed her eyes at him for a moment, and then said, “Ah!” She grinned widely. “My dad has these infrared glasses he got from a catalog. I can get those, put them on and take a look! If he’s full of hot air, then he should light up like crazy!”
Her smugness drained away as he shook his head. “For one,” he said, “if he doesn’t want you to see him, you won’t see him. And even if that worked, it wouldn’t matter. Dragons are room temperature.”
That was too much. “You’re saying that your fire-breathing dragon is room temperature?” He nodded. “That’s nuts!”
“No,” he said. “They have to hold in all their heat so they can fly, spit fire, all that. So from the outside, they look cold – none of their heat escapes.”
Annie leaned on the deck railing. “And if I run out there and try to grab him?”
“He’ll probably just move away, yeah,” Carl said, starting to figure out where her logic was going.
She sighed and stared out at the yard. At this point, she wished there was a dragon out there, just so the crazy would stop. But stare as she might, she couldn’t make it appear, and she was beginning to get the feeling that she’d walked into a very weird and not-funny joke. Somehow, perhaps, this was his way of striking back for the teasing and the problems everyone was giving him at school. Maybe he thought that somehow this would get him some kind of weird respect, for having pulled a prank so far. Annie felt her temper rising again, and she wanted to stand up and yell at him for treating her like she was one of them. Like she had been one of the people making his life miserable instead of being the only person to show him any kind of kindness.
Instead, she looked up at the sky. It was starting to get dark. She stood up straight, took a deep breath, and said, “Carl, I have to go home.”
“What?” He looked up at the sky. “No, you – you can have dinner here! My dad is away, and mom always makes too much when he’s on a trip.” He started to move to the door. “It won’t be a problem, I promise!”
“No, Carl, I…” Her mind raced for an excuse. “I have to get home. My aunt is coming over tonight. It’s Friday – she comes over every Friday for family dinner.” She rolled her eyes and shrugged, trying to sell the lie. Her aunt lived in Winter Falls, and hadn’t visited in years. “It’s totally boring and everything, but she’ll give me hell if I don’t go.”
Carl looked deflated. “Oh,” he said. “Okay, I guess.” He looked out at the darkening lawn, then back at her. “You really can’t see him?” he asked. Annie shook her head. “Okay.” He looked down, and then brightened. “Maybe I can talk to him,” he said. “See if he’ll come around!”
“Maybe I can convince him to show himself to you! Are you busy tomorrow?” He grinned up at her, bouncing on his toes.
She wanted to say yes, to make up another visit or another relative, anything to put an end to this. The longer she went along, the worse it would be when he finally gave in and told her that he’d been messing with her the whole time. She’d look like even more of an idiot if she humored him, and she knew it… but a new thought blossomed in her mind. Okay, she thought. You want to take this to another level? Fine. I can do that.
“Tomorrow?” she said, smiling sweetly. She dropped the smile as quickly as she could, as it was probably suspicious. “Sure. I’ll come over in the morning. Okay?”
Carl showed her out through their curiously empty house and stood at the door until she was out of sight. As she walked her bicycle around the corner, she took out her phone and started sending texts. If that was how he wanted to play, then she would show him what happened when you tried to make Annie Deaver look like an idiot.
The next morning at ten thirty, Annie showed up at Carl’s house carrying a duffel bag. His mother opened the door again, a bandanna tied around her head and paint-stained clothes on. “Oh, yes, Annie!” she said. “Carl’s been waiting for you. He’s out in the back.” She let Annie into the house, and she went back to her painting. Annie hefted the bag onto her shoulder and checked the time on her phone. Another five minutes and she’d be ready to show Carl just what being embarrassed and humiliated meant.
He was in the yard, fixing his bicycle, and he stood up when he saw her. “Annie!” he cried. “I think I can get him to show himself!” He wiped his hands on his jeans and ran over as she came down into the yard. “I talked and talked to him, and I convinced him that you really are a good person. So, all he wants is an apology for being mean yesterday and he’ll let you see him!” Carl looked up at her expectantly, and then glanced down at the duffel bag. “What’s in there?” he asked.
“Well,” Annie said. “I was thinking about your dragon last night, actually.” She put the bag on the grass. “He can make himself invisible and talk inside people’s heads. He can hide his heat and float around, and all that is really cool.” She bent down and unzipped the bag. “But there was one more thing I wanted to try. Just to, you know, satisfy my curiosity.” She glanced around. “Can you tell me where he is right now?”
“Sure,” Carl said. He pointed to an empty space a couple of yards to her right. “He’s over there. What’re you gonna -”
He didn’t get to finish his sentence before she stood up, pulling a large water rifle from the bag. As she did so, she shouted, “NOW!” and a dozen kids from school erupted from behind the hedges, all of them armed with water guns and all of them yelling at the top of their lungs. As one, they began to shoot. Annie fired into the empty area first, and some of the kids joined her, but most of them just shot at Carl, soaking him in water that had been dyed different colors. Soon there were streams of blue and red and virulent green water flying through the air, accompanied by the cruel laughter of Carl’s classmates.
Worst of all was Annie’s laugh. It was high and shrill and mean in his ears, and he could see her face even as he tried to block the sharp sprays of water that were trying to hit everywhere they could. She looked happy, for the first time since he’d met her, but it wasn’t a good kind of happiness. It wasn’t the happiness he’d had in mind for her when he invited her over. It was the happiness of cruelty. Of anger. Just like all the other kids in school, it seemed that Annie was happy to tear him down just because he wasn’t like the rest of them. Carl sank to his knees under the onslaught of water and put his arms down, just letting them hit him where they wanted. He’d tried, and he’d lost. Just like all the other times and other schools.
It was a few moments before he realized that the water had stopped, and so had the shouting. All the kids were staring at something behind Carl, their faces white and slack with a mixture of terror and amazement. Carl turned around and looked up.
The dragon was hovering in the air behind him, dripping a dozen colors of water and glaring at the children with glowing cobalt eyes. Its iridescent silver scales glimmered wetly in the morning sun as it floated so very impossibly for a creature the size of an SUV. It stuck its head out on a long, sinuous neck, past Carl, and raised itself to look down on the small crowd of terrified teenagers. The dragon’s nostrils flared, and two wisps of grey-black smoke started to swirl upwards past the rest of its head. It made no sound as it moved, but the way the light came off it, and the way its eyes glowed, it should have sounded like metal uncoiling, like a furnace just about to roar into flame.
The dragon looked at each of them in turn and then slowly, carefully, it opened its great, fanged mouth.
“Run,” it said, and its voice was like an avalanche.
The kids scattered, flying back through the hedges as fast as their feet could carry them. All except for Annie, who was backing up slowly, her eyes never leaving the dragon’s. It came closer, more smoke escaping its nose and its mouth, and a low rumble started in the back of its throat.
Carl could barely hear her speak when her mouth started to move. After a moment, he realized she was saying, “It’s real. It’s real. It’s really real.”
The dragon chuckled, and said, “Yes. It is.” It snorted, and two jets of flame touched the grass right in front of her, instantly burning down to the soil. She jumped back, but never took her eyes off the great and terrible monster. “Now, woman-child,” the dragon said. “I will not tell you again.” It inhaled deeply, its chest expanding like a bellows. In the depths of its gaping, blackened mouth, a roar was coming. It was low, and it sounded far away, but it was the roar of firestorm that was ready to burn the world. Ahead of that roar, the dragon said again: “Run.”
This time Annie ran. The great gout of fire that blasted forth from the dragon’s mouth barely missed her before she could pass through the hedges and escape with her life.
The dragon chuckled and then watched as Carl walked, slump-shouldered, to get the garden hose. He came back and sprayed down the bits of burning lawn and hedge, and then turned to the dragon. “Did you really have to do that?”
“They were not worthy of you,” the dragon said, its eyes softening. “You deserve better.”
Carl nodded. He’d heard that before, too. “I guess this means we’re going to have to move again,” he said.
The dragon let go of the earth and lifted back into the air, its expression one of unconcern for the social damage it had just done. Carl sighed and walked with heavy steps back into the house. His mother was going to be furious.
This story was inspired by Carl Sagan’s excellent “Dragon in my Garage” essay that was part of his book The Demon-Haunted World, long considered an indispensable book on skepticism. I have, of course, taken certain liberties with it in the name of fiction, but I’m very nearly certain he would forgive me. The characters are, of course, named for him and his wife, Ann Druyan. No actual resemblance intended, of course, unless Ms. Druyan has enjoyed reading this story, in which case, OMYGOD – HI!!!!