Rafiela turns on the radio before she gets dressed, before washing her face in the kitchen sink, before the weight of reality settles down on her. The radio reports that a dragon has been spotted in Whispering Pines Park, and should be considered extremely dangerous. The park borders the house where Rafiela works, and Americans are given to hysteria when it comes to wild animals. She considers the possibility that she will be asked to stay home and can’t decide if she is relieved or disappointed. But of course this is not the case.
The kitchen telephone rings at a quarter to seven, and Mrs. Cobb is on the other end. “Thank god I caught you,” she says. Rafiela allows herself an instant to acknowledge the stupid warmth that rushes over her at the sound of the familiar voice speaking out of her mint-green receiver. She sees Mrs. Cobb every day, but she has never called Rafiela at home, the way a sister might, or a friend. “Listen, the park is a nightmare, crawling with reporters and police and I don’t know what else. Can you come in as normal, but wait at the bus stop for Marcel to pick you up?”
“Of course I can,” Rafiela promises, cradling the receiver with both hands. “But it is not necessary for Marcel to come,” she adds, struggling briefly to form the sentence correctly in English. “If there are police and reporters, it is safe, I think.” She doesn’t add that she’s seen dragons before, little red-spotted ones that lived in the trees outside her home in Veracruz, that probably this dragon is as shy as they were.
“Oh are you sure?” Mrs. Cobb asks, and Rafiela replies yes, she is sure, yes, she will come. “Thank you, Rafiela,” Mrs. Cobb says softly, and she is too surprised to reply. Mrs. Cobb does not often say Rafiela’s name. “We’ll see you soon,” Mrs. Cobb adds, and hangs up. Rafiela leans against the sink for a moment with the dial tone ringing against her ear, smiling at nothing.
During the bus ride from downtown San Pedro to the Palos Verdes estates, she learns a great many things about the dragon. A discarded newspaper on the seat beside her relates that it was first spotted by a pair of frightened gardeners who sounded the alarm, followed by a paparazzo waiting for Lana Turner to exit a friend’s mansion. Startled out of his rosebush, the man snapped several photographs before fleeing in terror, one of which graces the cover of the Times. It is only a black-and-white silhouette, but it is enough for the experts to weigh in.
The dragon is ten feet long, at least. It weighs over two hundred pounds, is armored in scales as strong as bone, can smell blood from up to ten miles away. It is of the species Coco draconis, native to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Ecuador, hunted nearly to extinction by the conquistadors, the larger and more famous cousin of the little dragónes that chittered in the trees outside her house in Veracruz. It is a deadly predator. It dislocates its massive jaw to swallow its prey (goats, dogs, pigs, humans) whole, but then it must spend two to three days just digesting, during which time it is completely helpless. The wings are merely vestigial. The teeth, though. All three rows are razor sharp, and could sever a man’s limb in under a second. It is not until the very last detail is revealed that Rafiela begins to be afraid: an expert predicted that the dragon was probably an illegal purchase, raised in captivity by a Hollywood millionaire, and dumped in the park when it got too terrifyingly large for parties. Animals raised without fear and experience to guide them cannot be predicted. She disembarks from the bus with tightened shoulders.
Her walk from the bus stop through Whispering Pines Park is only half a mile long, and the park is indeed crowded with people. There are men with heavy cameras hanging from their necks, men in tan uniforms who could only be park rangers called in from Laguna or Hollywood or somewhere with more animal problems. Even when she can’t see them, she can hear them calling to each other. She feels silly for being afraid, even momentarily. It is not a large park, only five or six acres of bourgeois wilderness and white-picketed horse paths to work through. She imagines the dragon will be caught very quickly.
The Cobb home is stucco-white and ornate, a red-tiled castle bordered by a courtyard on one side and the edge of Whispering Pines Park on the other. Today, it is on red alert.
Mrs. Cobb greets her at the door with the baby in her arms, caught between stress and relief. Her fine blonde hair is in disarray, there is a faint spot of drool on her dress where the baby is sucking idly at the fabric, and she is wearing only one earring. She looks beautiful, but Rafiela always thinks she looks beautiful.
“Thank god you’re here,” Mrs. Cobb says, and gently drops the baby into her arms, fingers just brushing Rafiela’s skin. Rafiela adjusts the baby so his weight is against her hip, and Mrs. Cobb lets out a fragile sigh. “I’ve been going out of my mind.”
“I’m sure they will catch the dragon soon,” Rafiela murmurs. A string of spit falls from the baby’s mouth onto her blouse. Mrs. Cobb says that she hopes so, but she isn’t certain of anything. “Anya wouldn’t come in at all, and Marcel took Mr. Cobb to the office—so it’ll be up to you to hold down the fort. Is that all right?” She’s wearing an earnest, guileless look of expectation—the kind of look that wouldn’t be nearly as effective if she weren’t so lovely, or so young. Mrs. Cobb is only twenty, two years younger than Rafiela herself. As it is, she reminds Rafiela of the blonde Madonnas she’s seen in paintings, translucent and full of hope.
“Of course it is all right,” Rafiela says, bouncing the baby a little. “I am here to help.”
Mrs. Cobb gives Rafiela a grateful smile and a set of instructions handed down to her from Mr. Cobb. The instructions run like this: all the doors in the house must be locked. Rafiela suspects that even the deadliest lizard on earth couldn’t manage to open a closed door without opposable thumbs, but she nods encouragingly as Mrs. Cobb continues. The windows on the first two floors should be bolted shut. It is eighty degrees in Palos Verdes, and yet the nursery too must remain completely impregnable, even though it is on the second floor. Rafiela suspects the heat is more likely to kill the baby than any dragon, and resolves to relocate the kitchen fan to the nursery. The baby starts to wriggle in her arms, so she puts him down with his back resting against her legs, letting him blink stupidly at the hardwood. He slaps the floor with his fat little hands.
“No walks in the park today,” Mrs. Cobb goes on, wincing to show that she understands Rafiela knows this. “Um, no walks in the neighborhood, the courtyard, or down to the beach. Just don’t take the baby outdoors, at least for now.” The house will be oppressively hot during the day, even with the fans, and Rafiela finds the baby’s company tedious even on the days when she can leave the house. With the rest of the staff off or busy and Mrs. Cobb working at her art all day, she’ll be left quite alone.
“Can Marcel take us out in the car?” Rafiela wants to know. The Cobbs employ a full-time driver, and occasionally he will drop Rafiela and the baby off at the beach or the shops, when he has long breaks between driving either Cobb to their engagements.
“Would you mind terribly just keeping him in the house? I’m sure they’ll kill the creature soon, but I don’t want to take any chances,” Mrs. Cobb says, a pale hand slipping down to her heart. Her dress today is green silk, and her fingers leave little ripples in the fabric.
“Of course, Mrs. Cobb,” Rafiela says, and is rewarded with a pink smile. In a flurry of silk and relief, Mrs. Cobb hurries up to the third floor, where her little art studio and its open windows wait. She will likely not emerge for hours. Rafiela and the baby are left alone.
She is not fond of the baby, although she has spent four of the six months he has been alive at his side. His name is Alvin Jasper, which she cannot pronounce to Mr. Cobb’s satisfaction, so she’s gotten into the habit of just calling him “the baby,” or, when the Cobbs are not near, “el pescado,” because he reminds her of a fat little fish on a hook. He is large and wriggling and has the pink and slightly raw look of undercooked salmon, particularly when he sweats inside his white shift, as he is sweating now. He drools, so the entire front of his body is always wet. His toothless, gummy mouth also reminds her of a salmon, open and gasping. He sucks at her fingers, at her uniform, at whatever part of her she allows in reach of his hungry mouth. He is teething. Babies like the pressure of something solid against their gums as their teeth come in, and el pescado seems determined that it be her.
“What do you think?” she asks el pescado in Spanish, scooping him up off the floor. “Do you think the dragon will come inside? Will we all get eaten up?” El pescado grabs for her index finger with one tiny hand, as though to demonstrate the extent of his strength. “If I had to pick between saving you and saving your mama, I’d pick her,” she says, but gently. “You can’t even run.”
* * *
Mrs. Cobb remains upstairs all morning. This is not unusual—Rafiela has known her to paint for five or six hours without interruption. But today she resents it, just a little. It must be cooler on the third floor, with the windows open as wide as Mrs. Cobb likes, the breeze taking away the smell of turpentine. The fans downstairs simply blow around hot air. The baby fusses, hot and unhappy, as if he too knows his mother is just above his head. Rafiela reads him a book, drapes a wet cloth over his warm belly, carries him to all the potted plants in the house so he can gravely examine the flowers. He is amused for a while by a vase of pink roses, and Rafiela plucks one out to dangle over his head. He grabs for it, and she flicks it out of his reach. It is the same game she would play with a dog. Eventually she lets him catch it, petals crumpled by his clumsy grip.
Soon she hears Mrs. Cobb’s heels clicking on the red-tiled staircase, and she joins them in the kitchen.
“Oh, here you are,” Mrs. Cobb says. “I was beginning to get lonely.”
“We are here,” Rafiela says, patting el pescado’s belly. He grunts, sucks harder on his bottle, and Mrs. Cobb smiles.
“Yes,” she says. “Of course you are.” She goes to the liquor cabinet. Rafiela focuses on feeding the baby while Mrs. Cobb fixes herself a drink. The baby stops drinking to gulp in air.
“How does the painting come?” Rafiela asks.
“Oh, it’s all right,” Mrs. Cobb says, seating herself at the edge of the kitchen’s marble counter, a mere three feet from Rafiela. It feels uncomfortably domestic, and Rafiela’s foolish pulse quickens, her mouth goes dry. “I haven’t been able to stop listening to the news. Did you know,” she says, voice taking on a hushed quality, “that two years ago Rita Hayworth’s husband lost a toe to a dragon?” She takes a healthy sip of her drink.
“I did not know,” Rafiela says, and Mrs. Cobb tells her that it was a trip to the Los Angeles zoo gone very wrong, that Rita Hayworth is so disturbed by the presence of a wild dragon that she’s gone to New York for the week. “I’m jealous,” Mrs. Cobb admits. “I’d love to be halfway across the country by now.”
“Why did you stay?” Rafiela ventures, and Mrs. Cobb laughs.
“I’m a very silly woman, you know,” she says, finishing her drink. “I’ll worry about anything. And David doesn’t think there’s any danger, really, so long as we stay inside. But I do wish he’d have stayed home, at the very least.” She looks very young, like a child herself, before suddenly smiling, bright and focused. “But you’re here! So I’ll try not to worry.”
“I am here,” Rafiela agrees, and wills her heart not to ache. She keeps her breathing even, her eyes on el pescado’s bald head.
She is not a stupid girl. She understands what it is that she feels. More than that, she reads the pulp magazines. Flimsy books with beautiful and tortured women on their covers, their titles things like El Camino Extraño, La Camina Tercera, La Falta de Maria. She understands these stories. Any girl crazy enough to fall in love with another girl is doomed to suicide or madness, and both spell death for a woman. Tragedy is the world’s punishment for sin.
* * *
She only got the job because of Mrs. Cobb’s whimsy. She is only twenty-two, and has one paltry reference to speak of—the Irish woman in Rafiela’s neighborhood who needed help with her children. Nothing about her background should merit a job working for David and Evelyn Cobb. She met them purely by accident, at a little cove near Corona del Mar, the most beautiful beach in all of Southern California (or so Mrs. Cobb later assured her). Mrs. Cobb left the baby with his first nanny—an older woman Mrs. Cobb resented for making her feel inexperienced—and went to revive herself at the crown of the sea.
Rafiela arrived at the beach with four of her youngest cousins in tow. The cousins all happened to be born of her tía’s Swedish husband, and so each of them had hair as fine and light as sunshine. She imagines Mrs. Cobb’s first view of her, descending from the cliff face down into the water like a brown shepherd followed by a tiny white flock, like everything Mrs. Cobb needed.
Rafiela emerged from the sea with one blonde child on her shoulders to find a white woman staring at her. Rafiela was struck by how very fragile she seemed—even her skin seemed like it could barely hold back her blood, flushing pink at her elbows, her knuckles, her soft knees.
“You’re so good with children,” Mrs. Cobb said, smiling radiantly.
“Yes,” Rafiela said, fighting back a wince as the cousin on her shoulders pulled at her hair.
Mrs. Cobb laughed and reached out to detach the child’s hand from Rafiela’s curls, and Rafiela caught her breath. It was not even that Mrs. Cobb looked like a film star, with her clear skin and wide green eyes—it was simply her proximity, the fingers delicately resettling Rafiela’s hair. It was like finding a string of pearls washed up with the seaweed. As though something beautiful and rare had come suddenly and inexplicably within her reach, although she could never afford it. Mrs. Cobb asked her more questions, youthful impulse mingled with delight. Did she live in Los Angeles? Did she love children? Would she submit to a background check? Would she be willing to come in for an interview? All Rafiela could say was yes, she did, yes, she would, yes.
* * *
Mrs. Cobb stays in her company all through the afternoon, to the early evening. She is tipsy and full of praise, slipping off her heeled shoes and leaving them on the living room floor, as if she’s forgotten that the rest of the help will not risk death by dragon to come and clear them away. She plays a silly game with the baby for ten whole minutes before she gets bored, tapping him on the nose and laughing when he smiles. She puts on music and dances in her bare feet. She attempts to cajole Rafiela into dancing as well, but Rafiela is too embarrassed—and besides, she is content to watch. Mrs. Cobb mixes more drinks and stands for several minutes before the kitchen fan, her hair blowing back from her face. When Rafiela finally goes to put the baby down, Mrs. Cobb follows.
The nursery is still too warm, even in the late twilight. Mrs. Cobb leans against the locked window, the light fading behind her, as Rafiela settles the baby in his crib.
“No lullaby?” Mrs. Cobb asks.
“I don’t know if all the words are right,” Rafiela confesses. She often sings el pescado lullabies in Spanish, but she does not want to sing those in front of Mrs. Cobb.
“That’s all right,” Mrs. Cobb says, and comes to stand beside the crib, next to her. “I’ll chime in if you need help.”
“Hush, little baby,” Rafiela begins, flushed and uncomfortable. Mrs. Cobb’s hands are very close to hers on the smooth wooden rail. “Don’t say a word. Mama’s going to buy you a mockingbird.” She pauses, and Mrs. Cobb taps her hand lightly with two fingers.
“Come on,” she says. “You know the rest. And if that mockingbird don’t sing, Mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.” She joins Rafiela for the rest of the song, and she keeps those two fingers resting on the back of Rafiela’s hand.
When el pescado finally closes his puffy eyes, Rafiela goes to slip out of the room, but Mrs. Cobb catches her by the wrist, looking grave. “Do you really think there’s no danger from the dragon?” she asks in a whisper.
“I think you are safe,” Rafiela tells her, honestly. “I think outside, maybe there is trouble. But here you are fine.”
Mrs. Cobb nods, still unaccountably solemn. She lets Rafiela’s wrist go and turns away to open the window, just a crack. Cool air sinks into the room. “Thank you, Rafiela,” Mrs. Cobb says, still in that soft voice.
By the time Rafiela collects her purse and leaves through the side door, it has gone full dark. The black tangle of the park looms before her. Things stir in the leaves. She goes back into the house to ask Marcel for a ride to the bus stop.
“I don’t even know why you showed up today,” Marcel tells her on the way. “I told him this morning I’d only come in if I didn’t have to get out of the car. You hear about Rita Hayworth? These things could kill you.”
“Sucker for punishment, I guess,” Rafiela says, looking out the dark window.
* * *
The dragon remains on the loose all week, and Mrs. Cobb stays with them in the house. Rafiela is alternately pleased and exhausted by Mrs. Cobb’s constant presence, on edge, uncertain in her own skin—and of course there is always the dragon to fear. Some days she wakes up at four a.m. just so she can walk the five miles down the dirt road from the bus stop instead of cutting through the half-mile of park. Dragon slayers have been summoned all the way from Florida to root it out—and they are flummoxed. The radiomen are morbidly delighted. The weather is exhausting. Rafiela and the baby grow very tired of the new state of affairs.
At the week’s end Mr. Cobb comes home for lunch, very dour. He explains that he’s only here to grab some papers from his office, but since it’s noon, could Rafiela please fix him a sandwich? Mrs. Cobb frowns slightly but does not countermand the order.
“I’m afraid I have bad news,” he tells his wife as Rafiela fixes him his sandwich. The baby is settled in his high chair, amusing himself by chewing on his own hands. Mr. Cobb glances once in his direction from where he leans against the marble top of the kitchen island, but does not go to him.
“Won’t you get it over with?” Mrs. Cobb asks him, the newly prepared cocktail trembling a little in her hands.
“Now, I don’t want you to worry,” Mr. Cobb says gently, “because you girls are perfectly safe. But there was an incident a few hours ago. It hasn’t hit the papers yet, but there’s been an attack in the park.” Mrs. Cobb gasps, and he holds up a finger, accepting the plate Rafiela sets in front of him. “No one was killed,” he says soothingly. “And it was no one you know—just the Murphys’ gardener.” He takes an enormous bite.
“The Murphys live next door,” Mrs. Cobb says sharply. “What happened?”
“Well, the dragon came right at him,” Mr. Cobb says, swallowing. “Out of the shrubs.” Another bite. The thick crunch of teeth on romaine. “It got his hand in its mouth. Lucky for him he had a pal nearby—got the dragon right on the head with a shovel.”
Snap. Crunch. The baby blows a spit bubble. Mr. Cobb sucks some mustard off one finger. “It sounds like he only lost a few fingers, in the end—he’s gonna be just fine. But it was close, Evelyn. So I want to make sure you don’t do anything reckless.” Mrs. Cobb promises him that of course she won’t, her voice pitched high with fear, and Rafiela gathers up the sandwich ingredients and returns them to the refrigerator. “That’s my girl,” Mr. Cobb says, wiping his mouth with a napkin before dropping it onto his plate. “Better safe than sorry, right?”
* * *
Mr. Cobb leaves, and Mrs. Cobb is visibly shaken. The Murphys are right next door. Just a couple of fingers. Jesus. She thought it would be gone by now, but it’s not gone, and she doesn’t know what to do with herself. She insists that Rafiela and el pescado accompany her to the third floor. She takes them to the studio—a little white room with wide windows, where she does her painting—and proceeds to lock every window, draw every curtain. She shuts the door, and sits herself against it. There is no fan in the studio, but Mrs. Cobb is too frightened to see reason. “Just for a little while,” she begs Rafiela. “Just until I can feel safe again.” El pescado hiccups, and Mrs. Cobb flinches. “Christ.”
“It will be all right,” Rafiela says helplessly, el pescado in her arms. He is fussy, unhappy with the heat, with the room, and keeps spitting his pacifier out and then raging at its absence.
“Can you make him be quiet?” Mrs. Cobb asks, with her knees drawn up to her chest. There are pale blue shadows under her eyes, where the skin is very fragile, and Rafiela wants very much to trace them with her fingers.
“I’m sorry” is all Rafiela says. The studio is very still, warm and yellow, and of course it is very hot. “I could take him back downstairs.”
Mrs. Cobb shakes her head. “Just, um. Tell him a story. About anything. Maybe that will help.” Speaking for great lengths in English is not Rafiela’s strength, but she does her best.
Rafiela tells el pescado and his frightened mother a story about a princess. The princess goes one day into her garden, and there she finds an orange. She peels the orange, and what should be inside but a dragon. A little dragon, like the ones Rafiela knew, the size of your hand. The dragon tells the princess she can have a wish. Anything she wants.
“What does the princess want?” Mrs. Cobb asks softly. She is looking right at Rafiela, but Rafiela is not quite brave enough to meet her gaze.
“The princess is lonely,” Rafiela mumbles, staring at the sparse hairs on el pescado’s sweaty head. “The princess wants for company.”
There is a very long silence, and then Mrs. Cobb lets out a shaky breath. “I’m being a fool again, aren’t I?” She stands and opens the windows, all of them, all the way up. When she comes to sit back down, her knee brushes Rafiela’s knee. She can feel the warmth of Mrs. Cobb’s body, warmer still than the yellow room around them. “What does the dragon want?” Mrs. Cobb asks.
Rafiela does meet Mrs. Cobb’s eyes this time. The whisper of a breeze has stolen into the room, soothing el pescado in her lap, and Mrs. Cobb is looking at her as though Rafiela can give her something. “I don’t remember,” she says, hoping her heart is not beating too loudly, giving her away. “What dragons always want.”
“Meat?” Mrs. Cobb asks.
“Princesses,” Rafiela replies.
There’s a strange little pause, and then Mrs. Cobb laughs and stands up again. She stretches out a hand to Rafiela, to help her up. Rafiela takes it, the baby awkwardly pressed to her chest one-handed, and lets Mrs. Cobb pull her to her feet. “I’ve been so silly,” Mrs. Cobb says, not relinquishing Rafiela’s hand, “making us come up here. Let’s go back down.”
Rafiela tentatively squeezes Mrs. Cobb’s hand, and is tugged out of the room and back down the stairs. “Here,” Mrs. Cobb says, her voice a little higher than usual, “we can put the baby on a blanket, and we can listen to some music! I think I’d like some music.” She leaves Rafiela to settle el pescado on the floor and fiddles with the radio until music pours into the room.
“Dance with me,” Mrs. Cobb says, playful and girlish, and Rafiela is forced to repeat herself.
“I don’t like to dance, Mrs. Cobb,” she says.
“Dance with me anyway,” Mrs. Cobb says. She steps close and catches Rafiela’s hands, pulling her into motion. Rafiela doesn’t know the song, and it’s hard to understand songs in English, anyway, they go so fast—she catches words here and there: baby, honey, always, you, still. They dance like girls, holding hands, Mrs. Cobb’s skirt twirling out and brushing Rafiela’s shins. The baby is grunting to himself on the floor, and they both ignore him. “And why don’t you ever call me Evelyn? We see each other every day.”
Rafiela tries to steady her breathing, and somehow cannot come up with a satisfactory answer. Why doesn’t she ever call Mrs. Cobb Evelyn? She is only twenty. Only a year ago Evelyn’s last name was not even Cobb, although Rafiela did not know her then. Imagine—just a year ago, Evelyn was an unmarried girl, and Rafiela did not know her. “I don’t know,” Rafiela says, and she is gripping Mrs. Cobb’s hands now, hard.
Mrs. Cobb kisses her. It’s a chaste kiss, a girl’s kiss. Rafiela goes utterly still, the music washing around them like water over stones. Mrs. Cobb gives her a very close and very small smile. Tragedy, Rafiela reminds herself, suicide, madness, other forms of heartache. But she can control nothing, not her breath or her pulse or the shiver of surprise running down her spine. She closes her eyes and kisses Mrs. Cobb.
The song ends, and a news program begins. For all you folks worrying about the Whispering Pines Dragon, you can rest easy now. A team of dragon slayers—including Florida’s own Noah Gursky—managed to subdue the animal and get it into a truck. Looks like it’s headed to the LA Zoo, according to a Times reporter.
Mrs. Cobb breaks away, and for an awful second Rafiela is afraid that this was it—that once the dragon and their strange imprisonment were gone, they would have to pretend this never happened—but then Mrs. Cobb gives her an enormous, dazzling smile. She laughs and kisses Rafiela on the cheek before whirling away to scoop up el pescado from the floor. “It’s gone,” she says, and kisses his forehead, making his red face wrinkle with pleasure. “It’s gone,” she repeats, a delighted child. He starts sucking on the collar of her dress, but she does not appear to notice, returning her attention to Rafiela. “Let’s go outside,” she says, all bright eyes and relief. “Don’t you want to go for a walk?”
“Yes,” Rafiela says, as though she has ever said anything else.
* * *
Mrs. Cobb puts the baby in his stroller and throws the front door open. She darts into the courtyard, pushing the stroller into the sunshine. It’s a hot day, but the breeze is drifting around them, a hopeless relief after the stifling week. Her dress is so red against the bright grass. She looks like a girl pretending to be a mother, innocently pleased. The baby is gurgling too.
Mrs. Cobb calls for Rafiela to join her, and she steps forward, onto the grass. There’s no one there to see them, but it still feels bold. Mrs. Cobb takes her hand and pulls her along. What a picture they must make, Rafiela thinks—Mrs. Cobb pushing the stroller and Rafiela right beside her, and their hands clasped.
“Sometimes I am so unhappy,” Mrs. Cobb says dreamily. “Sometimes I feel like I could be trapped in an orange, waiting for someone to peel me open. I don’t suppose you have any idea.”
“I have some idea,” Rafiela says.
“I’m happy now, though,” Mrs. Cobb says. She lets go of the stroller, and it rolls forward just a foot. El pescado makes an interested chirp. She does not let go of Rafiela’s hand. “Are you happy?”
Rafiela answers yes. But she is only here for the baby.
“The baby, the baby,” Mrs. Cobb says. Her thumb strokes a line down Rafiela’s thumb. “Do you know he nearly killed me when he was born? Why should you care about the baby?”
“He’s why I’m here,” Rafiela says in a breathless rush. “He’s the only reason I can come here.”
“Do you love my baby?” Mrs. Cobb asks. She laughs, and Rafiela does not know what to say, her heart pounding, so she kisses Mrs. Cobb’s knuckles, a sweet little brush. “Come on,” Mrs. Cobb says, and pulls Rafiela forward, just into the shady cover of the trees, where they can no longer be seen from the house.
“I’ve been lonely,” Mrs. Cobb says, and draws Rafiela’s hand up to her face, pressing it there with her own. Her voice trembles a little, and that is what gives Rafiela the courage to lean forward and kiss her again, a real kiss this time. Mrs. Cobb sighs, and Rafiela cannot even close her eyes, she is so overwhelmed. Mrs. Cobb smiles against her mouth, and they break apart for a moment to breathe.
Mrs. Cobb looks like a princess in a fairy tale, so impossible that she might as well be long ago, or far away. And then Mrs. Cobb is kissing her once more, is pushing her into the soft trunk of an aspen tree, her hands dropping to Rafiela’s waist, and Rafiela does close her eyes then. “I’m glad,” Mrs. Cobb whispers, and Rafiela is glad too, so glad.
They break apart at the sound of the stroller tipping over.
* * *
Neither the radios nor the gossip nor the papers prepare Rafiela for exactly how fast a fully grown dragon can move. The fire is a myth. The wings are vestigial. But it is still every inch the monster from the stories. The stroller lies on its side in the grass. The jaw distends. Later, Rafiela will learn that the dragon fooled its human jailers and escaped from the armored car, still hungry. There is a great deal of blood.
Mrs. Cobb will not stop screaming, even as Rafiela shouts for her to go inside, call the police. Rafiela herself runs toward the park, dumb instinct driving her and nothing else.
The park is green, and the dragon’s shifting scales vanish immediately in the dappled light. Baby, Rafiela shouts as she runs, and then Alvin, Alvin. She runs for a long time, flinching toward the slightest noise, the slightest movement, under the fronds of familiar pepper trees, past junipers and the odd palm and some winding passion flower vine, the delicate horseback riding trail left behind.
Eventually she must slow to a walk or fall. Her heart is pounding violently, her blood pulsing with effort, her breath coming in sucking gasps, and she has a stitch in her side so terrible it feels like a knife. She is deep in the park, now. The path is somewhere behind her, as is the house, the manicured lawn, Mrs. Cobb with her swollen pink mouth. She does not know where the dragon is, but she picks up a branch from the ground, long and thick.
All right. All right. There are some things Rafiela does know. She will no longer have a job when she returns. Oh, no matter what happens, she will no longer have a job. Accidents happen, but of course blame will be laid regardless. Can she even claim innocence of guilt, when she knew she had tempted fate? When she knew the world could not suffer such sweetness, that it must always be bought and paid for? Perhaps she should have tried harder to love the baby. He screamed when the monster came for him—a familiar ragged wail—the same scream he gave for any number of reasons. Because he did not like the dark, because he was hungry, because he was tired. Rafiela cannot return to the house without the baby.
She walks for a very long time.
* * *
It is twilight when she finds the dragon. She hears no sirens, no sounds of a search party. She is very deep in the park. She is tired, so tired that she is reduced to dragging the branch behind her, and that is how she discovers it at all—the stick catches on the snarled edge of a rosebush, and Rafiela stumbles and falls, only to come face to face with one large yellow eye.
The dragon is almost entirely hidden under the rosebush, lying very still. It bares a purple tongue and sharp teeth, but she can see the enormous lump in its belly where the child sits, straining its body to the limit. Very distantly she remembers the radio informing her that dragons are like many other big lizards, taking hours or even days to digest their prey. During which time they are completely helpless. Shaking badly, she prods the dragon with the stick. It thrashes for an instant, but does not lunge. She taps the lump lightly, and it hisses. Her breath hurts to draw in.
She wonders if the baby could still be saved, were she to cut open the dragon’s stomach now, just as the baby was first cut out of Evelyn Cobb. Babies are so used to liquid worlds, without breath, without touch. Maybe el pescado would become the first child to survive a second, stranger birth, a fish returned gasping to the air. Rafiela has no knife. Just the club.
“You look just like a mother,” Rafiela tells the dragon, now shaking so much that she cannot keep hold of the club. If she does not think about the baby, the dragon is only beautiful. Shifting scales, neat wings folded over its back, black claws extended in empty warning. Rafiela scoots forward on her knees, close enough to touch. Its tongue flickers out for a brief instant, its yellow eyes widen with alarm, but it is clearly too exhausted to protest further. Satiation brings its own pain, its own dangers. She can feel the dragon’s breath, hot and strange on her skin. She wants to tell the dragon’s baby she is sorry, but she is so tired.
She lies down beside the dragon, their monstrous backs in the dirt, the black tangle of thorns nearly blocking out the sky. She reaches out and touches the scaled belly, and it feels rough and cold, like stone. The dragon gives a soft, almost childlike sigh. When she has rested, Rafiela will take up the stick. She will do what life requires of her.
“Hush,” she whispers to the dragon, and does not close her eyes. She does not say a word.
Molly Olguín is a third-year MFA candidate at The Ohio State University. Her work has appeared in Quarterly West, New Millennium Writings, and the London Library Magazine, and is forthcoming from Zymbol magazine. She was selected as a winner of the 2015 AWP Intro Awards in Fiction.