Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cloud Dragon

It was the last week of summer vacation, the Sunday before Labor Day. Robbie Manson and his father were out back playing catch on the green stretch of field that they shared with four other houses on their side of the street. Their once-idyllic suburb had been overdeveloped to shit, Frank Manson was fond of saying, but here was one piece of land to which the city had for decades denied real estate developers to stake claim.

On this day, the weather was particularly gorgeous, the last remaining gasps of summer mixing with a subdued breeze that hinted fall. Stark-white clouds drifted along slowly in the azure sky like fat tufts of cotton.

"Dad," Robbie asked his father, "what are we having for supper?"

"Not sure, Sport," Frank replied, repositioning the brim of his cap to block out the early afternoon sun. Then, "You ate two hot dogs not twenty minutes ago. Still hungry?"

Robbie didn't answer, only shook his head and threw the worn Rawlings ball back to his dad.

Something had been troubling the kid, Frank knew, had been troubling him all day. He supposed it was the coming school year. Robbie, a smart kid who made friends easily, was going to have to repeat the third grade. He had been diagnosed with leukemia the year prior, and although he was one of the most intelligent kids in his grade, he simply hadn't attended enough classes to be allowed to pass.

Frank tossed his glove and the ball to the ground. He sat down on the grass. "Sidle up, Sport," he said as he fished inside his windbreaker for a pack of Juicy Fruit. Robbie tucked his glove under his arm and jogged over with his hands in his pockets. They each had a stick of gum.

After a minute of slow, silent chewing, Frank spoke. "Your mother's going to kill me for this, but there's something I think you're old enough to know. You certainly have more mileage than either of us, so that's why I'm telling you."

Robbie looked startled. He cleared his throat uncomfortably. "If it's about sex, I know all that stuff already."

His father let out an amused laugh. "No, no, it's not that, and I'm sure you do. This isn't about the birds and the bees, although it does concern a creature that flies. Your mother doesn't think I should tell you. She thinks it might scare you, but there are things you've experienced that are far scarier and more frightening than she or I can imagine. Still, it's up to you. Stop me if you don't want to hear it."

Robbie was silent, his wide eyes displaying genuine curiosity. His father went on.

"I probably shouldn't be saying this here, given the weather, but I think we're safe. I'll keep my head up just to make sure, though, and maybe you should do the same. See, there's this creature; I guess you could call it a dragon, although it doesn't have scales or breathe fire. It actually looks more like the skeleton of what you might imagine a dragon to look like, with long white hair covering its body and curling out like tendrils of smoke. A really gruesome-looking beast, understand. It's the size of a city block, and when it's hungry, watch out."

Robbie laughed. His father could fool him sometimes, had once convinced him that Christmas had been moved back to April 25 because winter weather discouraged shopping, but this was just ridiculous. "A white dragon?" he said incredulously. "Dad, I'm not that stupid."

"I know it sounds crazy," his father continued, "but hear me out. I don't believe in Bigfoot, the Montauk Monster, or the Mothman, either, but that's because such creatures, if they existed, would have been shot and bagged by now. They live, hypothetically, on terra firma, and there's not much uncovered earth on which to roam, is there? This thing though, this dragon -- if that's what you want to call it -- it lives in the sky. It has hidden in the clouds unseen for centuries. Even in the modern age, it remains undetected by airplanes or satellites. It knows it's the last of its kind, too, so it usually strikes at opportune times, like when there's a hurricane or other natural disasters. Sometimes, though, when the weather is calm and it's starving, it'll fly from cloud to cloud until it spots a victim to spirit away without drawing attention.

Your mother thinks I worry unnecessarily. And, indeed, the chance of being eaten by the cloud dragon is probably a lot lower than any of the other innumerable dangers a kid can encounter. But there are ways I can protect you and there are ways I can't. Your leukemia is one such evil I couldn't have prepared you for or saved you from. I can, however, do that now by making you aware of the cloud dragon. There's only one of him -- or maybe it's a she -- and the world is large, but if you find yourself outside on a day like today, it would be prudent to keep an eye out. Can you do that for me?"

"Dad," Robbie asked, "how come you're such an expert on this cloud dragon? How do you know about it?"

"I'll tell you when you're older," Frank Manson said. "Now let's head inside. I've managed to give myself the creeps just telling you this."

They got up and collected their gloves and ball. Frank Manson whistled as he strode home. Robbie, his legs too short to mimic his father's gait, scuttled to catch up. When he was even with his father, he threw his arms around his waist.

"I love you, Dad," he said.

Then he looked up into the sky and stuck out his tongue.

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