I remember lying in the snow, trying to preserve each snowflake that landed gently on my nose, a soft, huge silence stretching through the forest. The cold blanket buried me, soon covering even the tips of my boots, sapping my strength as the towering trees collected white frosting. I should’ve left when I first heard the dragon growl—while I still had the power to return to the back porch where a bright light kept its vigil. But I didn’t want to leave my burrow. It seemed so peaceful among the trees, and I wanted to stay just a little while longer, escape the world for just another moment.
The indeterminate creak of a distant branch echoed hollowly through the woods, and I tried to lift my arms, to break free from the heavy, wet snow. I tried to say something, to call out to the animals fleeing to their warrens—perhaps they heard the dragon coming too—but the words froze in my throat. My vision blurred, and the trees leaned over me, bending toward the ground with jagged black fingers to secure the beast’s next victim as it prowled. Beads of sweat moistened my back, a dampness that clung to my skin like a reptile’s kiss. I blinked away the flakes on my eyelashes as the dragon’s growl grew louder, nearer, stronger. A tremor shot through my bones, tingling my spine as I struggled to break free, to escape the creature that had hunted me since infancy—ever since I was diagnosed with type I diabetes. Ever since the dragon’s blood began to burn through my veins.
Time stretched moments into hours while the chalky clouds disgorged themselves upon the ground. Would my dad come looking for me? Would he realize I wasn’t coming back? Would he think I just got lost in the woods, or would he suspect the dragon, even though he could never feel it coming like I could? My mind drifted beyond the smoky sky, floating away into the distant galaxies vast and strange no matter how hard I tried to focus. The dragon’s shadow loomed over me, its hot breath a poisonous cloud that filled the grove, seeping through my blood with each heartbeat, draining my energy. A ravenous hunger gurgled in my stomach, and I opened my mouth, eating the snow that fell into it, wondering if it would be my final meal.
My dad’s voice, I imagined, drifting through the trees like a dream. I listened again, tried to raise my arm, to signal for help. Ignoring the dragon that stalked the woods rustling dead leaves and snapping brittle branches while it preyed upon me.
Louder this time, puncturing the silence.
I tried to call out. Tried to summon my savior. Tried to get the attention of the trees so they’d point him in my direction. But whose side were they on, anyway?
Jay, time for dinner!
If only I could scream that I couldn’t move, that the snow trapped me in place—that the dragon lurked nearby with hungry eyes.
If only he looked down, followed my scattered footsteps.
Here, I tried to say, my voice not even a mouse’s squeak. Here.
My breathing slowed. My pulse thumped in my ears. The reality of death gripped me as the dragon rumbled, my muscles weak as water, the snowfall deepening. I was too young to die. Not here. Not like this. Not in the clutches of the dragon.
“Jay? Come on, dinner’s ready!”
The crunch of snow, my neck cracking as I tried to look. The dragon hissed, refusing to let its meal go quietly.
“Jay! I’m not playing, it’s time to come inside.”
Right above me, his yellow parka bright against the gray.
Just look down. Just look down. I tried to drown out the dragon’s roar.
“Jay?” The snow absorbed his plaintive cries. He turned back, walked for a bit around the trees, passed so close I could’ve reached out and grabbed his pants if the dragon’s poison hadn’t paralyzed me. I shivered beneath the snowy blanket, sweat soaking through my clothes.
“Jay— There you are! Come on, get up. Did you not hear me calling you?” A hint of anger replaced the panic. “Jay?” He bent down and shook me, brushing the snow off my snowsuit. I blinked, letting him know I was still alive. The dragon hadn’t won yet. “Jay, what’s the matter?”
The slightest shake of my head, the last of my energy spent in that desperate motion.
“Are you okay? Do you feel low?” He scooped up my limp body, running back to the house as my head slumped against his shoulder. His hands shook as he sat me down at the kitchen table, the lamp above me like the dragon’s hot fire. The orange juice nearly spilled as he poured it into a glass and held it to my lips. Outside the kitchen window, the dragon bared its fangs as a dribble of juice spilled down my chin, shrieking as its quarry escaped.
My body screamed for more when I finished the glass—I needed more to dilute the dragon’s venom. The beast thrashed as my dad pricked my finger to check my blood sugar, wondering, maybe, if it might yet pierce me with its own sharp talons.
“Twenty-seven! Jay, how did you get so low? Dammit, next time drink some juice before going out! Or eat something.” He ran a hand through his hair. “What if you passed out? What if I couldn’t find you?”
Then the dragon would’ve slaughtered me, and the ice would have frozen my bones until spring, I thought, rolling my head against the chair’s backrest. The dragon flicked its forked tongue, its yellow eyes flashing as it reluctantly retreated to its woodland haunts, and the sky covered my body’s impression, leaving a slight dimple in the snow until the spring sun came and melted the sylvan tomb.
(This story first appeared in Breath & Shadow.)
AJ Cunder graduated from Seton Hall University with a Master’s in Creative Writing. His award-winning work appears in Permafrost Magazine and is forthcoming in The Lindenwood Review along with publications appearing or forthcoming in Breath & Shadow, Harpur Palate, The Laurel Review, and Flash Fiction Magazine, among others. He currently serves as a submissions reader for Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, works as a police officer, and volunteers with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation as a mentor, advocate, and motivational speaker. Find him on Twitter @aj_cunder or online at www.WrestlingTheDragon.com
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