This story is by Jade Goh-McMillen and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
It was, Alice reflected, an admirable display of restraint on her part that she had waited three train stations before remarking upon the dragon.
Until a few seconds ago all it had done was stare at her, and that was harmless enough. As far as she knew, maybe dragons regularly took the subway and were every bit as awkward as humans regarding what they ought to be looking at. Still, she was certain that it was strange for a dragon to fly across the car and perch in front of one specific human stranger. (And this was, of course, predicated on the assumption that dragons existed in the first place, which she would have denied were she not in physical contact with one.)
“Drew,” she whispered, pointing downwards discreetly, “what should we do about the dragon?”
Drew looked up from his book and turned his gaze to follow her finger, and then looked back up and met her eyes, resting a hand on his chin. “Are you feeling alright?”
She frowned, settling her glasses back onto her nose and enjoying the shock of cool where the frame met her fingers. “Don’t answer with another question. It’s not very nice, you know.”
“Alice, there is no dragon,” he told her, making to check her temperature. She caught his hand before it reached her forehead, and paused. Was she warmer than normal, or was he just cold?
She made a show of blinking and delicately rubbing her eyelids.
“No,” she said. “No, I suppose there isn’t.” The dragon whined cattishly, and she silently pressed a finger to her mouth. Obligingly, it went quiet, though it still stared up at her with shimmering golden eyes that were cuter than they had any right to be.
“Have you been getting enough sleep?” He checked, then shook his head and sighed. “What am I saying? Of course you haven’t; you’re you, after all.”
She gave a wry smile. “I am, in fact, me.” Deciding to go along with the excuse he had provided for her, she yawned.
“Go home,” Drew suggested abruptly as the doors gave their jingle and closed once more. “Someone else can watch the test. Your class will be fine and your papers can wait.”
“Fine,” she acquiesced, rolling her eyes and gathering her backpack. “I’ll get off at the next stop and turn around. How’s that?”
Drew nodded. “Acceptable. I’ll stop by your lab.”
When the train pulled into the next station, Alice got up and strode out, waving over her shoulder to Drew. The dragon, skipping along with her so that it stayed by her knees, gave a chiming cheer.
Before she could switch platforms and start heading home, the dragon began to screech and shot off, zipping out the station doors. Against her better judgement, she ran after it, finding that it stopped to wait for her at corners and crosswalks. They wove through the rush hour crowds, dashing in and out of alleys and even at one point into a park, until they came to a dilapidated townhouse at the end of a tiny laneway. The dragon hovered by the large door (mahogany, Alice noticed, with scuffed varnish and tarnished silver inlay – this must have been quite fancy in its heyday), as if inviting her inside.
Carefully, she climbed the half-collapsed staircase, skipping the most broken steps and wincing whenever she heard the boards creak under her weight. She knocked on the door gingerly, but even the light contact her fist made with the wood sent it swinging open with a conspicuous lack of noise. The dragon craned its neck, motioning for her to enter, and she felt quite like her namesake stepping into Wonderland.
The inside of the house was the exact opposite of how she would picture Wonderland. Through the cracked windows and clouds of dust, the bright August sunlight turned bleakly grey. It smelled of smoke blended with something sickly-sweet, and Alice fought back a cough at every change of the wind. Now and then she heard something skittering about, and shuddered. She had never been fond of bugs or rodents, especially when she couldn’t see them.
“What did you want, again?” In the quiet of the room, Alice’s voice sounded impossibly loud. She realized belatedly that it wasn’t exactly an accurate question, as the dragon had never told her anything in the first place.
It responded by giving her a plaintive mew and gliding to the far side of the room. A quick flash of light washed across it, like the flickering of a candle in negative, and it whimpered. Trying to ignore her quickening pulse, she followed it through the halls and into what looked to be a bedroom. In the center of the room laid a terribly still old man. She searched for his pulse – wrists, nothing. Neck, nothing. All she could find was a faint stirring when she pressed her fingers against his chest.
“What do you want me to do?” She looked from the dragon to the man and back again. “I’m an archaeology professor; this is all rather out of my domain of expertise.”
The dragon sighed, lighting up once more. It was starting to go translucent, looking like tinted glass rather than the solid obsidian it had been before, and stared at her, eyes wide and almost wet. Calming down, Alice took out her phone and called for an ambulance, running out to the front of the house so she could find the address.
Two weeks later, she saw a picture of the old man’s discharge from the hospital in the local news, and wondered whether anyone else would see the pair of smiling golden eyes peering out of his shadow.