I met the dragon the summer after my fifth grade year.
It was the start of summer vacation—a magical time for children. The days were full of possibility, and back then, the summers seemed endless. That summer, I planned on spending hours curled up on the bottom bunk bed, my fantasy posters surrounding me in a cocoon of magic, as I explored other worlds.
The first day of vacation, I talked mom into dropping me off at my favorite used bookstore. I loved its musty old smell, the chaotic stacks of books, and the ferocious feline that stalked the aisles unless it was lounging in a pocket of sun. The place always felt tinged with magic (although that could have just been me). It was staffed by an eclectic mix of college students and retired librarians. The owner was a young, pretty blonde who always had a twinkle in her eye and a knack for finding the perfect book for every patron. I always half-expected that one day one of the clerks would hand me a copy of The Neverending Story, and my adventure would begin.
That summer, she had begun collecting and selling art, which was how I found the dragon. Among abstracts, landscapes, and realistic-looking bowls of fruit, I found a handful of 8×10 fantasy prints. I wanted them all, but I could only afford one with my allowance money if I wanted to buy a new book. I spent several minutes waffling between the prints. The one I kept coming back to, though, was one of a red dragon in a cavernous hall, the far corners lost in shadows, surrounded by piles and piles of books, reading by candlelight.
I felt drawn to this dragon and his hoard of books. This dragon was a creature I understood. I felt a powerful yearning to curl up next to him and borrow a book off of his stack.
The shop owner laid a finger on the side of her nose and winked when I bought it.
I took it home, found some sticky tack in the junk drawer, and stuck the picture to the wall next to pages from National Geographic and fantasy coloring books. My sister and I had finally gotten the bunk beds we had always wanted. I had let her take the top bunk and had turned my lower bunk into a reading cave. I had hung blankets all the way around and borrowed Dad’s lamp that clipped on to my headboard. The fantasy print was a nice touch.
I admired my (somewhat crooked) handiwork, then settled in to read the book I had brought home. Several hours later, Mom called us all to supper.
“It’s the first day of summer vacation, Erin, so I will let the hiding away to read slide. But starting tomorrow, I’ll have a list of chores and activities for the days. I don’t want you wasting away indoors all summer like you did last year.”
“But Mom,” I started, but the severe look on her face made me stop. I passed my dad the green beans and watched as my sister tried to hide one under her napkin. Unsuccessfully, it turned out. Mom and Dad were distracted with her the rest of the meal, insisting that she couldn’t leave the table until she finished drinking her milk.
I hurriedly cleared my place at the table and slunk back to my room. Before I could even crack the spine on my book, however, Mom was calling for me. The neighborhood kids were asking for my sister and me to go out and play. I about asked if I had to, but the stern look on Mom’s face was answer enough.
I reluctantly went outside to play tag. I ended up getting them to play act with me, a game where we chased dragons through the sky on the back of winged horses. When I finally crawled into bed, I gazed up at my fantasy print and smiled.
“No reading in your little fort after lights out,” Dad scolded, but his playful tone belied the words. I waited until they were both asleep, then pulled out my book and read with a flashlight.
My eyes grew heavy as the night wore on. I thought I saw flickering out of the corner of my eye. When I looked, all I saw was the red dragon in his picture. The candle couldn’t actually be moving. Could it?
I rubbed my eyes and looked again. It certainly appeared to be flickering. I put my face inches from the picture and could almost hear the rumbling of the dragon breathing. I reached forward and touched the candle with my finger tip.There was a lurching feeling, like when an elevator moves down, and then I was standing in a cavernous stone hall, the chill of the stones freezing my bare feet. I blinked and looked around. Was I in the painting? Was that even possible? I had read the Narnia books and had always hoped they were true. Perhaps they were. Or perhaps this was just a dream.
Excitement fluttered in my stomach, and I moved forward, toward the piles of books ahead of me.
Titles I’d heard of and titles I hadn’t. Fantasy. Science fiction. Just science. Philosophy. Books in every language and languages I didn’t know. More books than I had ever seen in my life.
I ran my finger along the spines. They felt real. And I was aware of musty book smell mixed with something else. Spicy and warm. I didn’t remember ever smelling things in dreams before. As I moved forward, the light got brighter, and the rumbling sound got louder. I had been so distracted that I had forgotten that the cavern had an occupant.
I looked up and met the large green eyes of the enormous red dragon.
I let out a tiny yelp and ran back the way I came. At the end of the hall, there was a painting of my room looking out from the bunk bed. I slapped my hand against it, the feeling of an elevator lurching up, and I was tumbling out into my bed.
I lay there panting for several minutes, not sure if I had just woken up from a nightmare or if that had really just happened.
I pulled my blanket over my head so I couldn’t see the dragon. It was just a dream. Things like that didn’t really happen, did they?
I tried to sleep late the next morning—I was tired from my late-night adventure—but Mom hadn’t been kidding about The List. After I was up and dressed, we cleaned, we organized, we put stuff in boxes to donate, we went to the pool for my sister’s swimming lessons, and we went to the store to stock up on groceries. All day long, I couldn’t stop thinking about the dragon and his books. Would it be able to come out and get me? If so, it probably would have.
By the time we got home, I was desperate to slink back into my reading cave, but Mom insisted I help make dinner. She granted me a brief reprieve once the table was set and the meatloaf was cooking. I had thirty minutes to read, and I all but ran to my room.
I stopped short, staring into the painting. I was pretty sure it’d been a dream. I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted it to be real. But the dragon hadn’t come out, so even if it was real, I was probably safe.
I flopped down on my bed and reached for my book.
It wasn’t on the nightstand. I checked under the covers and under the bed, down the sides to make sure it hadn’t fallen. I checked the top bunk to make sure my sister hadn’t swiped it.
It was nowhere to be found.
And then I remembered I’d been holding it when I had touched the picture. Had it gone with me? Had I dropped it there? Maybe I had set it on top of one of the piles of books?
But I couldn’t go back. There was a dragon guarding the books. He would surely eat me. I’d just have to read a different book.
I poked through all the books on my bookshelf, but I’d read them all more than once. The one I really wanted to read was gone.
And the dragon. He had so many books. Had I really gone there?
Finally, curiosity got the better of me, so I tried again. Besides. I wanted my book back.
I placed my hand on the picture, half expecting nothing to happen, but the elevator feeling made my stomach plummet, and there I was, in the cavernous hall again. My book was on the floor at my feet. I smiled and snatched it up. I almost left right away, but something stopped me.
Once this book was done, I’d have to wait for allowance money before I could buy another. Or beg Mom to take me to the library. Surely the dragon wouldn’t miss one book. He had so many.
I sucked up my courage and walked toward the piles. Within moments, I was lost in a sea of titles.
“I’m so glad you came back. I’ve been so very lonely,” a pleasant voice rumbled.
I nearly leapt out of my skin, dropping the books I held in my arms. I looked up and found the dragon watching me. His expression almost looked amused.
I don’t know why I was surprised he could talk. He obviously could read. I had a thousand questions, but blurted the first one that came to mind.
“You live here all by yourself?”
He inclined his head.
I looked around at all the books. Books were good company, but even I knew it would be lonely without someone to talk with about them.
“What’s your name?”
“Drake. What’s yours?”
“It’s an honor and a pleasure, Erin. Won’t you come sit by the fire and read with me?”
I hesitated a moment. “Do you promise not to eat me?” My voice trembled.
Drake rumbled a laugh. “Are you a princess?”
I scrunched up my face. “No.”
“Well then, you are safe. The only sentient beings I eat are princesses. Everyone else is too rough on the stomach.”
I was pretty sure he was joking, and I was strangely comforted by it. He seemed too proper to eat a princess, let alone anyone else.
“Come. There’s a chair here, or rugs on the floor, if you prefer.”
I wasn’t sure how long I’d been looking at books, but Mom had said half an hour. Surely I could sit and read for a few minutes. I nodded and made my way toward him.
My view into his world from the painting turned out to be very limited. His huge cavern had hallways running off in many directions. Behind where he sat was a hearth with a merry fire and the skin of some animal as a rug. There was an arm chair pulled up close to the fire. I curled up in the chair with my book.
I cast several glances his way while I read, but he paid me little attention. Looking back, I’m sure he was afraid he’d scare me off again.
I finally got lost in my book, forgetting where I was and that I was on a time limit. I jolted out of my book at the end of a chapter.
“Oh no! I have to go. I’m late for dinner.”
The dragon chuckled. “I do hope you’ll come back, Erin.”
I smiled. “Sure.”
I ran down the hall and lurched back to my own world, sprinting to the kitchen with out-of-breath apologies.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I lost track of time!” I told my mother.
She gave me a strange look. “Erin, honey, the meatloaf only went in a few minutes ago.”
I stopped short. How could that be? I had read several chapters with Drake. I squinted my eyes at Mom, thinking maybe she was tricking me. I slunk into the kitchen. Sure enough, the timer she had set had only elapsed about ten minutes. I had spent about that long looking for my book in my room.
Still thinking it was a trick, I peeked into the oven at the meatloaf. It was still mostly raw hamburger.
Was Drake’s library like Narnia? Did time not pass there? I felt my eyes go wide. If it was true, that meant I could still read all summer and Mom would never know. I could do all of the things on The List, and then sneak away to read whenever I wanted.
Still. Before I got too excited, I would have to ask Drake, just to be sure.
That night, after lights out, I slapped my hand on to the painting and went to visit my new friend.
“Time doesn’t pass in my world when I’m here,” I blurted without any preamble.
Drake put a claw in his book to mark his place and tilted his large head at me.
“That is true. This place is a pocket in time. No time passes while you are here. When you return, it is in the same movement you left.”
Drake dipped his head, a movement I had begun to accept as a nod. “Like Narnia.”
I blinked up at him, still amazed. But then I frowned. “But how did you get here?”
Drake let out a long sigh. “That is a frightfully long story involving knights and wizards and me ultimately being trapped here for all time. For my own safety, as it were.”
“I want to hear,” I insisted.
“Another time, princess.”
“I’m not…” I realized he was teasing me, calling me a princess. I squinted up at him. “So, if time doesn’t pass here, does that mean you won’t ever get old and die?”
He looked at me kindly, with what might have been the equivalent of a dragon smile. “Yes. But it also means I can never leave. I have a field just outside of those doors that is frequently refilled with sheep, with a lake full of fresh water, but I cannot leave that small area.” He gestured to a massive set of double doors at the other end of his cavern.
“Why? Couldn’t you come through my door?” Mom wouldn’t like it. He’d probably destroy my bunk beds, maybe even our house, but for him to be free…
His voice was sad when he answered.
“I’m afraid not. Anyone who comes here must go out the same door they come in, or all the time compounds upon them. I’d die instantly if I tried to go through any other door. And for now, I prefer loneliness and immortality to death.”
I was too young to completely understand death, let alone immortality, but what he said made sense to me.
“There are other doors?” I asked, interested.
Drake looked away. “Sometimes. But not for a long while.”
“Don’t worry, you don’t have to be lonely anymore, Drake. I will come visit you every day.”
“Thank you, little princess. That means the world to me.”
And so that summer, I spent hours reading with him, leaning against his soft, warm underbelly. Many times I’d fall asleep, but it didn’t matter, because as soon as I returned, I was in the same moment I had left. I was able to keep up with Mom’s demands and get plenty of reading in, besides.
And once I went back to school, I still made plenty of time to visit him.
He was my best friend for a time. I’d talk to him about everything and he would listen, always interested because it was something outside of his lonely existence. I brought him books, as well. All dragons have their treasure horde, and his horde was books.
As I got older, things began to change. My interests shifted from dragons and wizards to boys and doing well in school. I’d spend hours working on homework and escape into his cavern to squeeze in some fun reading or ask his help on whatever I was learning; he was wise beyond his years and well-read to boot. He helped me with math, with language, astronomy. There was no subject he didn’t know about and he was a patient teacher.
But my visits were shorter and shorter, and fewer and further between.
I got to an age where it wasn’t cool to share a room with my little sister, and I began to resent the bunkbeds. I begged for my own room and a double bed.
If only I had realized what I was asking.
The news came near the end of my sophomore year of high school. After years of searching for the perfect new home, we were finally moving into a bigger house across town.
At first I was excited. My own room! I could have friends over and have my own space. It wasn’t until we started packing that I panicked.
I rushed through Drake’s doorway and asked him what would happen if I took his picture from the wall and put it somewhere else.
He dragon face was unreadable. “It’s impossible to say. Perhaps the magic is in the door itself, not its location. But perhaps if you remove it the link, will be broken and you will never be able to get back.”
The thought was like a punch to the gut. And he seemed so calm about it. To lose his only friend. To never see me again! “Then I will just stay here with you forever.”
“Little princess, you can’t. You have to go and live your life. Grow up to be a magnificent woman. Your time spent here has been a great gift—both to you and to me—so take the experiences, the things you’ve learned, and change the world.”
I thought about refusing to leave. I was furious at him for not wanting me to stay with him. Looking back of course I understand, but how could I then? My best friend in the world didn’t want me.
So I left. And I didn’t go back. Not for a week. Not until the day before the move.
We didn’t talk about it. I set down the collection of books I had brought for him, picked one from his pile, and curled up next to him to start reading. We read for hours. Eventually I fell asleep.
When I woke up, I was alone. He had never left to hunt while I was with him, but I could understand. Or, I didn’t understand at the time, but I do now.
He didn’t want to say goodbye.
Sitting on top of the book I had been reading were three teardrop-shaped stones that looked to be made of glass. I knew they were a gift, but I didn’t realize until much later that they were dragon tears.
So very rare, so very precious. Dragons rarely shed tears. He had shed three tears for me. I took his gift and left, shedding my own human tears.
On the day of the move, I stood staring at Drake’s painting. This was it. I could leave it here and let the next occupants take it down or maybe find Drake’s magic library themselves, or I could take it with me and hope that I could reconnect the link to his pocket world.
As I peeled the picture off the wall, I felt something stretch and then snap. It could have been the crusty yellow pieces of sticky tack I had used to attach it to the wall, but I felt it deeper than that.
The magic had been broken. I knew it.
Still, when I got my own room in the new house, with my brand new double bed, I tacked Drake’s picture to the wall. I closed my eyes and focused on my connection to him. I placed my hand on the painting and…
Nothing. I couldn’t get back.
To this day, I don’t know if it was the magic of the house, or the magic of my youth, but no matter where I moved to over the years—from dorm rooms to my first apartment to my first house—I never was able to reconnect to the doorway. I carried Drake’s painting around with me for decades, always hoping that one day we would meet again. I was convinced that I just had to have the right wall again.
I missed my friend. I missed the stolen time. And I became desperate.
So desperate that I moved back to my hometown and made an offer the current resident of my childhood home couldn’t refuse.
Once I’d set up the bunk beds in an approximation of what they had been when I was a child, I waited until the first day of summer vacation, exactly twenty years later.
The moment of truth.
I stuck the painting on the wall with sticky tack and prepared myself for the trip. I took a steadying breath, reached forward, placed my palm against the picture, and closed my eyes.
Twenty minutes later I was still crouching there, hand pressed against the wall, not even able to cry.
In my pursuit of more time with my friend, I had lost so much of it. I had not become the great woman Drake had wanted me to be. I wasted so much of my life trying to get back to a place I was no longer welcome.
I walked out of the room and never went back to the house. I sold it to a young couple with twin little girls. I left the bunk beds and Drake’s painting still inside. All I could hope for now was that maybe he would find new friends who were better than me.
And maybe I still had time to become the woman Drake had seen in me.