I remember riding the dragon that first week of college.
Some kids in my high school had dragons, but none of those kids would ever give me a ride. So I was flattered when Matt, one of the guys in my new dorm, said he was taking his dragon out to the supermarket and asked if I wanted to come.
That day Matt wore loafers, cargo shorts, and a short-sleeved yellow shirt. Sunglasses perched atop his wavy brown hair. He led me out of our dorm and across the yard to the stables. His black dragon lay coiled in a stall, chained to the cement. A padlock dangled from its collar.
Matt used his key, and the collar clanged to the floor. The dragon unfurled, and slithered forward, everything about it gaunt. Built into its spine were two seats, one behind the other. Matt placed his shoe on the dragon’s shoulder, a fist-shaped protrusion of bone, and swung into the driver’s seat.
The dragon circled me, watching me with eyes the color of blood. Its face was skeletal, as if the manufacturer hadn’t had enough skin to give it cheeks or lips. You could always see its teeth, like black swords, even when its jaws were fully closed. I hesitated.
Matt said, “Come on. What are you afraid of?”
“They drink blood,” I said simply. That seemed sufficient reason to show caution.
“Of virgins,” he said. “You’re not a virgin, right?” As if that was unthinkable.
I chuckled and said, “No.” Though I was.
“Then come on. I have to be back for class at 2:30.”
I clambered up the dragon’s flank and slid into the passenger seat, which was upholstered with leather and smelled new. I pulled the straps down over my chest and connected them to the belt around my waist.
Matt yanked the reins. The dragon shot up, like we’d been catapulted. My stomach heaved. Wind smacked my face. The dragon’s wings exploded on either side, great black sails that filled the sky. I clenched the straps and knew I’d made a mistake in coming. The dragon scared me.
I gazed down longingly. To our right: the Pacific, white foam dancing on lazy turquoise swells. A narrow bike path wound along the beach. To our left: a placid tangle of palm-lined residential streets.
Matt said, “How you doing?”
It seemed he wanted me to admit that his dragon frightened me, so instead I said, “Great.”
Other dragons cavorted on the airy currents. Those dragons were cherry red or lime green or creamy brown. Their riders steered them up the beach, or inland toward the mall, or back to campus.
A slender girl on a pink dragon passed us going the opposite way, her blond hair billowing. Matt waved to her. He said over his shoulder, “I met that girl last night. Hold on, I want to say hi.” He yanked the reins and we banked sharply. My stomach lurched. We swept around in an arc and came up alongside the girl. Her dragon had the guileless beady eyes and scrunched up cheeks of a lap dog. Matt said, “Hi. Dora, right?”
“Deirdre,” she corrected. “And you’re … Matt?” He grinned, and she said, “I like your dragon.”
“Thanks. It’s new.” He pointed. “See how the spine bends? It can pull off turns like nothing else.” He paused, then nodded at me. “This is Chris. He lives in my building.”
“Hi.” She looked at me, appraising. “It’s fabulous up here, don’t you think? So liberating.”
“Yeah, I love flying,” I lied.
She asked me, “What kind of dragon do you have?”
“Oh, I don’t have one.” Me, embarrassed. “I mean, not yet.”
And she said, “Oh.”
Later, I would remember everything about that moment. The slant of her head, the pursing of her lips. Her eyes were very green. I remembered every angle of her face, every line of cheek and jaw.
We all flew back to campus, the supermarket forgotten. Her name forgotten too, by Matt, within hours. (It was Deirdre.) I remembered. Though it was him she went off with afterward, to watch their dragons play together on the quad. I saw her a few more times, around campus, but she didn’t recognize me, or pretended not to. I remembered that “Oh” so vividly, I think, because it was the last word she ever said to me, after I told her I had no dragon.
Two weeks after that ride, I was leaving my sociology class when a flyer on a bulletin board caught my eye: a photocopied dragon from a magazine ad, and printed below it in large block letters: BLOOD ON OUR HANDS? THE HUMAN COST OF DRAGONS. Below that: Presented by the Campus Greens. At 8:00 that night in a room across the hall. I decided to attend.
I tried to get other people to go. Everyone said they had too much work, though I knew they’d spend the evening watching TV. No one cared.
I stopped Matt in the hall on his way to the bathroom. I said, “Come on, it’s about dragons. That’s like your favorite topic.”
He scowled. “It’s against dragons. I’ve got better things to do than spend an hour listening to some hippie chick complain that the world’s not fair.”
“Aren’t you curious what they’ll say?”
“You can tell me all about it when you get back.” The bathroom door closed behind him.
So I went alone, and slipped into a chair at the back of the small auditorium. Out of sixty seats, only a dozen were taken. I guessed that the knot of five students in the first row were the Campus Greens. Beside the podium hung a movie screen. Finally, at 8:15, when it was clear no stragglers would arrive, one of the Greens stood and faced the crowd.
Matt would have snickered then, I was sure, would have whispered, “I called it,” if he’d bothered to come. The girl’s mildly frizzy brown hair fell past her waist. She wore heavy black shoes, glasses with thick oval frames, and a homemade skirt of stitched-together red and blue and purple. A hippie chick. Matt would have laughed, but in her own way she was beautiful.
She said, “Hello everyone, and thank you all for coming. My name is Miranda. I’m president of the Campus Greens. We’re here tonight to talk about the human cost of dragons and dragon riding.” Her voice was stronger and clearer than I’d expected. “Dragons drink blood,” she said. “Blood of virgins. Corporations tell us that the blood trade provides income for many people in poorer countries and also promotes morality. What they don’t tell us is that donors are paid pennies per pint and often work in tragic conditions.” She nodded to a friend, and the lights dimmed. A film played. “This video was shot by a hidden camera at a bloodshop in Malaysia. Some of the images are disturbing. I’m sorry to have to show this, but to really understand you need to see the images for yourself.”
The camera was jumpy, often pointed at a grimy wall or floor, but we saw enough. Filth-covered little girls with brown skin and matted black hair wearing shifts that had once been white. Buckets overflowing with urine and feces. Dark infected sores around syringes still taped in place. Tables piled high with plastic bags full of blood.
Miranda spoke more, about the need for new laws, about how dragons guzzle blood by the gallon while people all over the world die from lack of transfusions, but I barely heard her. The images of those little girls stayed with me.
Afterward, in a moment when Miranda stood alone, I approached her and said, “Hi. I’m Chris.”
“Oh, hi.” She was shy suddenly, in a way she hadn’t been while addressing the crowd. “I’m Miranda.”
I said, “I thought your remarks were really good. Really important. I can’t believe more people didn’t come.”
She smiled faintly. “You’re new here?
“Yeah, it’s my first semester.”
She gathered her belongings. “This was actually a pretty good turnout. It’s not the most politically active student body.” We chatted about that, then about classes. Her shyness faded. Finally, as her friends headed for the exit, she told me, “Our group meets at this same time every week, just next door.”
I said, “I’ll try to make it.”
“Great.” She smiled again, and her gaze lingered. “Chris, right?” I confirmed this, and she said, “Okay, bye,” and joined her friends.
So I started attending the Campus Greens meetings. Seven or eight people usually came, and we sat around in a circle in a classroom. Many people aired ambitious proposals, but Miranda was really looking for something more practical.
At my third meeting, I spoke up. “Okay, how about this? What if we all pledge not to ride any dragons for a month? We can walk into town and carry back any supplies we need. And we do it as a group, publicly. If we show everyone that it’s possible to survive at college without a dragon, then maybe more people will decide not to buy them.”
Miranda studied me, then glanced around the circle and said, “That’s good. I like that.”
Seven people showed up for the first walk. A photographer took our picture for the school paper. We walked into town along the bike path, ate at a Mexican restaurant on the beach, and went food shopping. Four people showed up for the second walk, but one guy said he couldn’t afford to eat out again, so we just walked and shopped and went home. For a while after that only three of us came: Miranda, me, and a girl who never talked named either Stacy or Tracy. (I was never sure.)
Then Stacy or Tracy stopped coming too, and it was just Miranda and me. Not much of a group, but I was happy to spend time alone with her. She was easy to talk to, and knew everything. She was even surprisingly funny, once she overcame her shyness. And she was deep. Sometimes when she spoke of Andrea Dworkin or Edna St. Vincent Millay I would feel like a fraud, as if I’d maybe once inadvertently said something profound that suggested to her unplumbed depths to my character that didn’t actually exist.
On the last night of our walking campaign, Miranda and I sat on a bench facing the ocean and watched the most beautiful sunset over water I’ve ever seen, a tableau of yellow and red. Dragons clogged the sky, dozens of them, all black in the twilight. I shifted closer to Miranda, and put my arm around her for the first time. Maybe she thought it was because of the sunset, but really it was because of the dragons. I felt a strange terror that they would descend on me, clawing and biting and swallowing pieces of me, enveloping me in a great slithering sphere. I sought the protection of her touch.
She leaned into me and said, “It’s been an interesting month.”
The two of us sat alone and dragons filled the sky. I wondered if any of our former companions were up there right now. I said, “Sorry my idea was such a flop.”
She tried to be encouraging. “It wasn’t a flop.” I looked at her dubiously, and she added, “I mean, not a total flop.”
I chuckled. “Thanks.”
She lifted her chin toward mine and smiled. We kissed as the sun vanished. She drew back a few inches and said softly, “See? Not a total flop.”
The next morning, Matt and I picked up copies of the school paper on our way into the dining hall. The article about the walking campaign had just come out, and Matt flipped to the photo of the seven original participants. “That’s her?”
I hadn’t told him I’d kissed her, or even that I wanted to, but either he’d heard or just knew. He said, “You could do a lot better.”
I said, “You could do a lot better to shut up,” in a somewhat joking way.
That night Miranda slept in my bed. As we settled beneath the blankets, she said, “I want to tell you something. I’ve never had sex. And I’m not going to, unless it’s with someone who really loves me.”
I smiled. “Maybe that’ll be me.”
“Maybe.” She kissed me lightly. “We’ll see.”
I waited a moment, then confessed, “I’ve never had sex either.”
“Really?” she said. I nodded. She squeezed my hand. “I appreciate you telling me.”
I joked, “I appreciate you not telling anyone.”
“I won’t,” she said, then grinned mischievously. “Well, maybe just Matt.”
“Don’t!” I warned her, laughing. And she laughed too, and everything with her was great, for a while.
But then the dragons started watching me.
Most people they ignored, but whenever I passed the stables where they lay chained they would all turn their heads very subtly, keeping me in view of their red eyes. Dragons were everywhere — landing in the yard, playing on the quad, being led down pathways — and everywhere they stared at me. I imagined that they hated me, for opposing them, for tempting them with my innocent’s blood. It seemed crazy, but I couldn’t shake the feeling. Miranda and I continued our walks, which had become a permanent habit, and the dragons loomed overhead. Miranda wasn’t afraid of dragons, and I felt safe with her, but I wondered what the dragons might do if I walked alone.
Miranda subscribed to piles of left-wing newsletters, and I read every article about dragons. Those articles revealed a disturbing pattern that wasn’t widely reported: large numbers of accidents involving dragons. Most of the victims were young. Probably virgins.
I began constantly quoting dragon-related statistics. Dragon riders were three times as likely to be injured while traveling, four times as likely to injure others.
Matt just laughed at all this. He and I would stay up half the night arguing, sprawled across cheap sofas in our dorm’s basement lounge. He said, “Riding a dragon takes skill. A lot of people don’t know what they’re doing, but you can’t blame the dragons for that.”
I said, “You think it’s just coincidence that so many of the victims are virgins?”
He said, “Are you a virgin?”
“No.” My heart raced. I was afraid he’d seen through me.
“Then what do you care?” He was oblivious to my alarm. “It doesn’t affect you. It’s not your problem.”
Miranda and I stayed together for most of the semester, and in that time other people got together, or broke up and got together with other people, or got together with several people and didn’t really remember because they’d been drunk, and the small number of virgins dwindled even more. That only emphasized my sense of vulnerability.
Night after night Miranda and I lay together on my bed, kissing and touching and undressing until she said, “Okay. That’s enough.” Then we’d talk until one of us fell asleep. I never voiced my frustration, but I know she sensed it. All she had to do was consent once, I thought, and this huge burden would be lifted forever.
Finally, one night in December I was in a weird mood and felt like I just couldn’t take this thing with the dragons another day. Miranda lay beside me in the dark. I brooded in silence a long time, then said, “We’ve been together almost three months.”
A moment passed. She said softly, “Yeah.”
And I said, meaningfully, “Yeah.”
She rolled onto her side, facing me, forehead cradled in her palm. She looked into my face. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” I said.
She asked, without inflection, “Do you love me?”
Did I love her? I wasn’t sure. I enjoyed her company. Admired her. Felt she was beautiful. Thought about her a lot. Hoped all her dreams came true. But would I have strapped on shining steel for her? Taken blade in gauntleted fingers and climbed a misty crag to risk death in the jaws of some black dragon for her?
I didn’t think so. I was afraid of dragons.
I said, “I think you’re amazing. I think you’re beautiful and funny and wonderful.”
She said, “That’s not what I asked.”
I said, “You only want me to say ‘I love you’? Just those words and no others?”
“Just answer the question.”
I sighed and sat up. “Fine,” I said. “Fine. I — ”
She interrupted, “Why do you want to do this? Really?”
“What?” I said. “What are you talking about?”
She stared at me. “Does this really have anything to do with your feelings for me at all, or is it just about them?”
Them. The dragons. I said, “You think I only want this because I’m afraid of them?”
She said, “Yeah, sometimes I do.”
“Look.” I didn’t know what to say. “All right, yes, I’m afraid of them, okay? Of course I am. It’s scary what they can do to people. I don’t want them to hurt me, and I don’t want them to hurt you either. We’d both be a lot safer if we did this, but that doesn’t mean I don’t — ”
She stirred and stood up off the bed. “When I do it, it’s going to be out of love, not fear.”
I said, “Where are you going?”
She picked up her heavy black shoes. “I need time to think.”
“Wait,” I said, as she crossed the room. “Wait. Miranda.”
She opened the door and stood silhouetted. Then she closed the door behind her, leaving me to darkness.
She didn’t show up for our walk, so I walked alone. I didn’t hear from her all week. I called her a few times, but she didn’t answer. After that I didn’t know what I’d say if I did see her. I kept doing our walk, out of some strange loyalty to the memory of us, but I avoided our usual route along the bike path and instead wandered the residential streets, so I wouldn’t bump into her.
Only one day I did. She was with two friends. She and I passed on the sidewalk with an awkward “Hi,” and I realized that she too had decided to avoid the bike path, so after that I switched back to it. The bike path was more exposed to dragons, but I felt too hurt and mixed up just then to care much about dragons.
Later, Matt knocked on my door and asked if I wanted to play frisbee. I told him no. He lingered in the hall. He said, “So, you and Melinda … ?” He must have heard about it.
“Miranda,” I corrected. I sighed. “Yeah.”
“Too bad.” He gave a sympathetic grimace. “How long were you together? Like a month?”
He nodded. “So did the two of you ever, you know … ?”
“No,” I said. And this time his grimace was one of pity, or maybe contempt.
I took my last exam on a Thursday and started packing to go home to Boston for winter break. It was snowing back east, so I decided to take one final walk along the beach. That’s when the accident happened.
The shadow. That’s how it started.
The sun had been bright but suddenly I felt cold. I raised my eyes from the bike path and saw sunlight receding all around me. A great winged shroud exploded over me. A dragon, descending. It’s time, I thought. They’re coming for me. I heard faint laughter on the wind.
I ran, arms pumping, loafer soles slapping on pavement. But not far. Teeth grazed my shoulders. My sweatshirt was yanked upward, my collar tugged hard into my throat like a noose. Lifted from the earth, I dangled. The sand sped by below. I heard someone screaming, “No! Stop it! Stop!” My cheek bashed against a monstrous jaw. I was dropped. The foam rushed up. Impact.
I lay on my side. Virgin’s blood poured from my nose, then a breaking wave washed away the blood and filled my mouth with salt.
I heard splashing. Something seized my shoulder, rolled me onto my back. I sputtered. Matt’s face above me. His hand on my arm. He said, “Chris! I’m sorry. I didn’t … I just … ”
Behind him, his black dragon coiled, malevolent, watching me. Beachgoers kept their distance from it as they rushed to help. Matt said, ” … Just a joke. You’ve been so jumpy. I was flying low and I saw you and I thought I’d … but when you ran, it … it just went … Are you all right?”
I was taken to the hospital. My eye swelled shut, and I had to get a mess of stitches in my back. Matt came to visit me. He kept saying he was sorry. They put down his dragon, but he got another one that he claimed was better behaved, plus, he said, it could pull a 180 in five seconds flat. Then my parents came and took me home to Boston so I could recuperate in the bedroom where I’d grown up.
One morning, when I’d been home two weeks and my eye was mostly healed, my parents came into my room. Mom said, “We’ve got a surprise for you.”
They led me to the backyard. A huge hulking dragon, cerulean blue, slept in the shadow of our elm. A heavy iron chain bound it to the toolshed.
Dad handed me the key. “Your mom and I agreed that it’s not safe for you to be just walking around out there with all these dumb kids and their dragons they don’t know how to handle. But nobody’s going to mess with you if you’re riding this.”
I couldn’t even tell them I was afraid of it, or why. It was too humiliating. I could just imagine mom’s reaction. “You?” she’d say. “But … those girls in high school. You dated Susan for almost a year, didn’t you? And Meredith. I just assumed … never?” Then she’d laugh and say, “I won’t even tell you about my first semester at college.”
That night I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and fidgeted and was angry. I thought, Has the world gone mad? People just flit about their neighborhoods on blood-lusting beasts, and everyone acts like this is okay. Isn’t anyone bothered by this? Doesn’t anyone care?
Outside I heard a soft jingle of metal. I looked up.
The dragon’s eye, filling my window. I scrambled to my feet. The dragon had stretched its chain and slithered across the yard. Its pupil followed me as I backed toward the door. Its eye was red as blood. Blood of virgins.
I ducked into the hall, then hurried down the stairs and through the dining room. The dragon moved to that window. The dragon was terrible and magnificent. It was mine, and would impress a girl like Deirdre. I didn’t want a girl like Deirdre. The dragon’s serpentine shadow drifted over me. The padlock that swung from its collar caught the moonlight. Then I knew what I had to do, if I ever wanted to walk without dread beside the sea again, or stare without doubt into Miranda’s eyes. I stepped out the back door.
The dragon crept forward on webbed and bony fingers. It halted ten feet away, its chain pulled taut. I took out my key. I approached the dragon, and it watched as I reached up and undid its padlock.
Its collar slid aside, then fell and hit the ground with a thud. The dragon fixed me with its hateful gaze. I stood my ground. The dragon snorted, exhaling fetid breath into my face. I thought to it, Go on, you bastard. Here I am. What are you waiting for? Maybe the dragon would lash out. But I refused to be haunted anymore. I waited.
Finally, the dragon looked away, losing interest. Maybe it disliked prey that it couldn’t terrify and pursue. I relaxed a bit. I heaved the collar back around its neck, then replaced and closed the padlock, feeling bold as any dragonslayer.
At breakfast, I told my parents that I didn’t want the dragon. Mom said, “Well are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure,” I said. “Dragons drink blood and they’re dangerous.” Then I added, daring her to respond, “Plus I’m a virgin, and they don’t like virgins.”
I’d never been that determined or blunt before. For once she didn’t comment. She just said, “Oh.”
Spring semester began. I’d only been back at school a few hours when someone knocked at my door. I answered it, expecting Matt, but it was Miranda. We both stared awkwardly for a moment, then she murmured, “You want to go for a walk?”
We walked along the bike path. Miranda told me about her vacation, then asked about mine. I said, “My parents bought me a dragon.”
“No.” She was incredulous.
“I made them return it.”
“I should hope so.” She paused, then said softly, “I heard about the accident.” I nodded, and she asked, “Is your back okay?”
She said, “Can I see?”
Reluctantly, I lifted the hem of my shirt, revealing the landscape of scars. Miranda gasped. I let the shirt fall.
“I’m so sorry.” She shook her head. “And sorry that I … You were right to be afraid.”
“No.” I stepped in front of her, facing her. “You were right. I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said, about fear and love.” I looked into her eyes. “I do love you, Miranda. I’m sorry I ever made you doubt that.”
“Chris.” She sighed sadly. “I don’t know. We haven’t … It’s too soon to be talking like that. We’ll see, all right?”
“All right,” I said, and we kept walking. But I was glad I’d said it. Because it wasn’t too soon at all. It was past time.
So now I walk with Miranda at my side again and think on all that’s happened since I rode the dragon that first week of college. The dragons are still circling overhead, ominously. Dragons have sharp teeth and lap up the blood of virgins. But now it’s spring semester, and I’m older than I was. And wiser too.