“Is Roger here today, darling?”
His little girl, his cô gái nhỏ, beamed at him and shouted, “Yes!”
Roger smiled, whiskers furling out and mane shaking in the early spring sunshine.
Her mother smiled indulgently and said, “Let’s eat lunch.”
The little girl held her mother’s hand tighter and said, “I love noodles!” She looked back and said, “Bye, Roger!”
Roger settled back in the overgrowth by the fence, settling in and breathing the kitchen smells from the pho shop, the lemongrass, the ginger.
Of all the places to get stuck, in the middle of the city in America, on the edge of a neighborhood next to a pho shop. At least the smells reminded him of home. At least someone recognized him.
The backdoor of the restaurant opened and the old woman looked out, then hung her red apron on the hinge and lit a cigarette.
Roger crept closer to her, crouching at her waist, tucking his whiskers back and watching. She was home. Even though he didn’t know where that was.
She dropped into a squat, resting on her heels, looking at the overgrowth along the fence line. He did the same, craving the call of sunshine and heat, the humidity and breeze at the shore and the stifling stagnation in the jungle. If he knew how to get there, where it was, he would. He didn’t know when he came here or how. Just that he was. He didn’t even have a name until his cô gái nhỏ looked at him and shouted, “ROGER THE DRAGON!” in that way small children do.
Her mother said, “What color is Roger?” with a laugh.
He perked up, his mane fluffing out and whiskers rising. She saw him.
He had been invisible for so long. A little girl seeing him was new and wonderful.
Grandma took one last drag and threw the butt in the sandy bucket. She sighed, looking out over the valley, when her daughter bustled out.
“Mom, we’re getting busy. I need you.”
The older woman rose slowly and said, “I’ll be right there.” Her back and shoulders stooped.
The younger woman paused and said, “I’m sorry. I know you’re tired.”
She sighed and said, “I’ll be there in a minute.”
Grandma eyed the cigarette butt in the bucket. The thought to stay and have another telegraphed across her forehead, but she went back in.
Roger waited for his cô gái nhỏ to leave before flying to the duckpond. Terrible smell, but the water was calming. Water always calmed him. The ducks gave him a wide berth, but didn’t flee. No cranes or tropical fish but it was calming. No one at the park, no mother child units feeding the birds.
He didn’t belong and he knew it. He craved the heat and the salty ocean air. He was out of place. Lost. And useless.
In an effort to cheer himself, he flew low over the buildings, buzzing the pigeons, causing the grimy flocks to raise in fluttering alarm. The air pushed his whiskers into his face, against his golden scales, the wind flattening his mane. The speed was a delight. Almost enough to shake him from his funk. But once behind the pho shop, his mood soured again.
He moped and there was nothing to lift him from it, he was sure. Dour and immortal. What a combination.
Time went by in its utter predictability. What use was immortality if nothing new ever happened?
He sulked. He was certain he was the sulkiest damn dragon to exist.
The old woman grew older and more tired, her daughter as harried as ever. And his cô gái nhỏ grew.
His cô gái nhỏ was walking in rain boots today.
“Is Roger here today?”
He smiled. That warm smile of being recognized and loved.
She held out her pink and purple rain boots to show him, the pride of a child’s accomplishment. “I got new boots! I wanna stomp puddles.”
If only everyone else was as excited about anything in their lives.
They went in and Roger settled, happy for the moment. At least he had someone.
Grandma came out, hands shaking, fumbling to light the cigarette. Roger wished she could have the rest and joy her long life of hard work earned her. She looked up at the sky and whispered, “Thank you, sky dragon.”
Something prickled in the deepest depths of his soul. She should thank a sky dragon. She was thankful for the weather?
That sounded right. That felt right.
She finished smoking and went back in.
All his scales prickled, he discovered something.
His cô gái nhỏ came out, marching in her little boots. Now that grandma had gone in, he would try.
He shifted his consciousness to the sky. The humidity was nothing compared to the jungle, but for the desert in the mountains, there was enough. He pulled it closer to earth and felt it coalesce into drops.
Another tug and a raindrop fell.
His cô gái nhỏ squealed with delight. Her mother lifted the umbrella and cast a look at her own rain boots.
“Are you ready for a puddle splash walk?”
Roger tugged again and the sky opened.
His cô gái nhỏ laughed, then shouted, “Yes, momma!”
They started walking and she said, “Wait!” The little girl looked at him, then smiled. “Bye, Roger!”
Well that was a start. He had control of something in the world.
He watched his cô gái nhỏ and stayed, watched the other children and wondering what kept him.
Grandma came out for her afternoon smoke break and he went to her side as usual. She froze as he neared. Her hands trembled and she reached out carefully, putting her palm on his face. Almost a stroke, almost to check if he was real. She drew a deep breath and said, “Hello.”
He looked up into her careworn face. The grey mixed in with the black hair, more grey than black now.
Her fear melted to pleasure, running her fingers through his mane, careful and tender, singing a song of dragons from her childhood, in her tired, rough voice.
“Thank you,” she whispered after. She drew a deep breath and kissed his forehead.
Her daughter opened the door and said, “Mom, what’s taking so long? I need you.”
Grandma turned and said, “The dragon…”
“Mom, what are you talking about? Dragons aren’t real. You…?” Her voice thickened. “I know you’re tired, I know this is almost too much for you…” she faltered.
Grandma turned back to him and smiled. The smile of doors closing and opening. They went back in and Roger knew it was doubtful he would see her again.
He liked to watch and listen to her. Her accent sounded like home.
He settled and studied the weather and environment. Enough humidity, enough heat. The plants were growing and seemed happy. He took a little nap and indulged himself.
Until, “Is Roger here, darling?” woke him.
His cô gái nhỏ studied the alley, then said, “Momma, dragons aren’t real.”
He was up and right in front of her, at eye level. And she couldn’t see him. Nor believe in him. Something had shifted. He was always the same.
A moment’s anger and sadness washed over him and the sky turned grey. Her mother looked up and said, “Oh, let’s get in, sweetheart. It’s not supposed to rain.”
A chubby drop fell.
They ran into the restaurant.
Roger curled into a ball, continuous waves of loss hitting him. Change was endless but here he was, just the same, immortal and watching the same story play out.
He realized this broke him. This drove him away, the cultural shift from not believing in dragons. A catty moment of If you don’t need me, I don’t need you.
He’d left, traveled across an ocean and found a new home. And for hundreds of years he had nothing but the occasional native passing through. Nothing but deer and coyote and mountain lions. No wonder he’d forgotten. Easier to forget than ponder the loneliness of millennia.
He was Rồng vàng, a golden dragon. No wonder he liked the name Roger. It was almost close enough to sound right.
He rose in the air, up into the clouds, where he belonged, controlling the rain and weather. Above it all in so many ways. And waiting until culture aged like Grandma to see him again. If he learned anything today, that was it. It was all cycles and it was just a matter of time.