“Do you have bad breath?”
“That’s a nice thing to ask!”
“I read that dragons have bad breath. I was going to ask if you were going to eat me, but I didn’t want to make you mad.”
“And asking a dragon if he has bad breath won’t?”
“I’m eleven years old. I’ve never gotten text messages from a dragon before.”
I push the buttons on my cell phone so fast that I’m three words ahead of what appears on the screen.
I’m standing by what was probably a movie theater. We’re in Paperson, the used-to-be town where Dad grew up. The Sacramento River is on one side, the levee is on the other, and the mess of funky wooden buildings in between is Paperson. It looks like a Lego town built by someone’s little brother who ate too much Captain Crunch. Dad says it used to be a Chinese gambling town, but it doesn’t look or smell like Las Vegas unless there’s a part of the strip that smells like dead fish.
“My breath’s a diet thing.”
“You’re on a diet?”
“No, I mean it’s the stuff we eat.”
“What do you eat?”
“We eat disconnected memory.”
“You mean by ‘we’ that there’s more than one dragon in Paperson?”
“We’ve been here a long time, and there’s been a lot for us to eat here.”
“How come I can see you, but my dad can’t? He’s the one who says he grew up here.”
“Your dad’s never been able to see us. It’s not that he wouldn’t want to see us. He just can’t. So are you going to bet or what?”
I’m not even sure my dad notices that I’ve been texting this whole time. It makes sense that he wouldn’t see dragons. A lot of the time, I’m not completely sure he sees me. I click on my cell phone to bet 547 dollars and 43 cents. It’s not something I’d do normally, but the dragon talked me into it. Actually, I’ve never gambled, but the dragon’s really bad at blackjack. He keeps taking hits on seventeen and eighteen.
“You’re a terrible online blackjack player.”
“You’re not very diplomatic for an eleven-year-old girl. The other Tally wasn’t like that.”
“How did you talk to my grandfather? I never met him, but I know they didn’t have cell phones then. Dad says my great grandfather built the gambling house and this town out of nothing, though.”
The dragon flaps his wings from the blue tile roof of the community center. When I first saw the dragon, the building was just the remnants of a foundation. Wherever the dragon lands, things appear beneath him that weren’t there just a moment before. No wonder my dad kept getting lost trying to find the town, things appear and disappear a lot.
“Your grandfather was a good listener.”
“And my dad isn’t?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“I thought they didn’t have dragons in North America.”
“How do you know that?”
“My friend Meredith and I got into dragons for a while,” I tell him. “We even started sewing our own dragon beanie-babies. They have dragons in Asia where people claim that they bring protection and good luck. They have dragons in Europe where they’re almost always evil and dangerous. Why is that?”
“I came from China, so I guess that makes me one of the nice ones. Who knows why they don’t like us in Europe? We don’t really eat maidens or burn down villages. I think they blame us for the plague, Hitler, and Abba.”
The dragon jumps off the roof and glides downward. The community center fades from view, and he’s now crouched in front of a green-painted diner. The building’s too big to be just a diner, and people look at the ground when they walk in as if that’ll keep anyone from seeing them go in there.
“But now you’re in America, so what does that make you?”
“America is the place where you can grow up to be anything you want if you work at it.”
“So what do dragons want to be when they grow up?”
The dragon opens the door for three of the people in front of the diner with a flip of the tip of his wing. They seem happy to see him there and bow to him first before they walk inside.
“I’m not really sure. We mostly want to not be extinct.”
“That’s not much of a goal. Anyway, why would you hang out all this time in a place like Paperson? It’s just gross smelling old buildings with broken windows.”
“I like it here. The loquats are good.”
“You eat loquats? I thought you ate lost memories.”
“I like loquats, they help make me powerful. Ever had one? They’re sort of like steroids, except that loquats aren’t bad for you.”
“No, but shouldn’t your breath smell like loquats then?” I ask.
“Maybe the breath is part of nature’s delicate balance. It helps smaller animals know if I’m coming.”
“I had a fourth grade teacher like that.”
I’m now up 9,003 dollars and 39 cents in blackjack, though I’m not exactly sure how the dragon’s going to pay me what he owes. He’s so bad at the game that I’m not ever sure he knows how to make change. I’m not sure how an eleven-year-old would collect from a dragon anyway.
I can’t send someone to break both his wings.
“I didn’t ask. What kind of cell phone do you have?”
I ask because it occurs to me that the dragon’s claws are too big for pushing buttons on a cell.
“I can’t believe I busted again. Can we maybe take a break from blackjack?”
“I don’t have a cell phone. I use the signals from the TV tower just outside Paperson.”
“You can do that, but you can’t count past thirteen?”
“I can. It’s just challenging. Everyone has things they don’t learn easily. You got a C- in Spanish.”
“I never told you that.”
“What can I say? I’m a dragon. We got tired of watching cartoon reruns through the TV tower. Ever seen Beanie and Cecil? Sorry, forgot. You’re too young. We got bored, so we invented the Internet.”
“What? But you’re not real!”
The dragon stretches his neck then exhales. Little sparks come through his teeth and nose. I jump back.
“Tally, is this town real any longer?”
“I don’t know that it matters.”
“Exactly, your great grandfather understood that. You get it. Your grandfather got it. I’m not sure your dad did though. It skipped a generation or something.”
“It makes me feel bad for my dad. He always wants to go back here for some reason, like he might find some missing thing from his past. This is the first time he’s talked me into going with him, though.”
The dragon continues as if he hasn’t read my last text.
“When we helped come up with the internet, we invented something called the Dragonpedia.”
“You’ve heard of the Wikipedia?”
“Yeah, you use it if you have to do research for a school report the night before it’s due. It’s got stuff about almost anything a teacher could ever think of.”
“Wikipedia’s got stuff on what humans happen to remember or what they want to remember. The Dragonpedia has everything they forget that they might want back. That’s the reason dragons maintain it.”
“Wouldn’t that make it bigger than the Wikipedia?”
“Not if you compress the empty spaces in between.”
“So how was it you talked to my grandfather before there were cell phones?”
“Before cell phones, we were only able to talk to humans who could hear us. Your grandfather could, your dad couldn’t. We didn’t have an app for him.”
“So what is it that you dragons have grown up to be in America?”
“I connect what’s forgotten to what’s remembered.”
“So we can remember it again?”
“I didn’t say that… If you remembered it, it wouldn’t be forgotten anymore.”
“How’s that work?”
“It’s like dragons. Hardly anyone’s ever seen one, especially in America. Here it’s all Big Foot and Thunderbirds. Still, people know about dragons. How can you know what something is if it’s not supposed to exist? It’s like the square root of negative one and AC electricity. The number doesn’t exist, but when you flip the switch the lights still go on. It’s like talking to someone on the Internet, which by the way is the reason we helped invent it. When you saw me, you didn’t
say, ‘Ooh, a big lizard with wings.'”
“Well, I did wonder if you were some sort of dinosaur.”
“You’d have to bring that up wouldn’t you?”
“What’s wrong with being a dinosaur?”
“For one, they’re extinct. We’re not extinct. We’re imaginary.”
“Are you saying that I’m just imagining you? And can imaginary species go extinct?”
“Just is a very loaded word.”
“My dad brought me to Paperson so I could understand him better.”
“Are you still mad at your dad?”
“He realizes he was wrong to meet other women on Facebook. I think he should go away so Mom won’t keep yelling at him.”
“Isn’t that between them?”
“The yelling isn’t.”
“Dad said it was mostly just talking. Mom says ‘mostly’ doesn’t cut it. When she remembers, she gets mad. Sometimes, I think she wants to forget, though.”
“When’s the last time you liked your dad?”
I notice that I’m not texting the dragon and he’s not texting me; we’re now communicating without speaking like one of those identical twin movies on the Disney Channel. I’ve followed the dragon all through Paperson, and Dad still hasn’t noticed anything odd. We’re behind what Dad tells me was his grandparents’ house. It’s a bed and breakfast now, the last intact building in Paperson. Dad wanted us to stay there until he saw that they painted all the walls purple and put a black leather water bed in what used to be his room.
“A long time ago, he used to make us stop at this roadside attraction called Confusion Hill. It was this spot in the mountains near where Big Foot is supposed to live. Have you met him?”
“Never had the pleasure. I did meet one of his ex-wives online, but she didn’t like me. Perfect-Match isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.”
“You didn’t do Perfect-Match. My mom says a perfect match is an imaginary creature.”
“My point exactly, though humans don’t get access to the part of the site that includes us, which doesn’t mean that we imaginary creatures don’t sometimes get access to the human part of the site. By the way, if a match won’t meet you before dark it’s probably a vampire, and never meet anyone who appears on the site on the first day of the full moon. But you were talking about your dad.”
“Confusion Hill is this place where golf balls roll uphill all by themselves, and everything inside the fence there wobbles. Dad always wanted to stop there, but Mom never wanted to get out of the car. Finally, he pulled into the parking lot, and the two of us went while Mom hung out in the gift shop. Dad and I laughed about how goofy the whole place was, but Mom just didn’t get it. I got too old for it, but Dad kept wanting to stop there. It was fun though.”
“When was that?”
“A couple years ago. Mom says that Dad is weird. It’s like he’s really sad or he’s really silly. There’s no in between. When he’s sad, he doesn’t talk to anyone much. The other times, he’s all Confusion Hill. He’s been like that the last couple years. Ever since he hurt Mom, he can’t get back up Confusion Hill.”
We walk to the back of the bed and breakfast where my dad once lived. Dad makes the owner take a picture of us in the backyard where the walls aren’t purple. I was still holding a piece of watermelon from lunch. It looked fine, but it wasn’t ripe yet. It tasted like a piece of wood. The dragon takes off, and for a moment he blocks out the sun.
He lands right next to the loquat tree where he eats greedily. His breath smells like fermented garbage, but right now it doesn’t bother me.
“Have a loquat, Tally.”
The dragon looks longingly at a heavy bunch of fruit that makes a high branch look like a bow and arrow. It moves up and down every time the dragon takes a step. The loquats look like round apricots, but they smell almost like oranges.
“You’ll be powerful like me. You’ll connect the remembered to the forgotten.”
“How does that make me powerful?”
“As much as he’d like to, it’s something your father has never been able to do. That’s why he can’t get back up the hill.”
I pick a small smooth loquat from a low hanging branch, hold it between my fingers, and sniff it. The dragon nods his head up and down at me. He’s so excited that his tail thumps the ground.
“Are there any bad side effects I should know about?”
“It’s not LSD, it’s fruit. If you consider being able to see dragons wherever you go a bad side effect, that’s about it.”
I peel off the skin and take a small bite. It’s sweet and has the texture of really ripe cantaloupe. My mouth craves the coolness of the fruit, and I take a second bite without thinking. The dragon flaps his wings as more branches shake.
“Tally, promise me that you won’t tell your dad about this.”
I finish the loquat and spit the seeds on the grass. The dragon has picked up the entire bunch from the high limb and swallows it in a single gulp.
“So what’s the big deal? I ate the loquat and everything feels the same.”
The dragon points, and it’s like having 3D glasses that actually work. I see the community center, the movie theater, the gambling house that first looked to be the green-painted diner, and all those people all together and all at once. It’s like I can hear what they’re thinking even if I can’t understand a word they’re saying, and that’s just the buildings. I look at the house. There’s so much to see. My dad stands by the gate as he watches me eat loquats.
I see my dad and I see my mom only they’re both younger. Mom is blonder and Dad is skinnier. Dad tries to tell her about Paperson, the town where he grew up that no longer exists.
“It was never simple here,” he tells her. “We weren’t supposed to know that my grandfather ran a gambling house, but we did. Paperson was supposed to be a regular town, but it wasn’t. The family was like jello in a mold.”
He’s not explaining it well, and she’s not really understanding but likes the fact that he’s trying to explain. They walk over by the loquat tree and kiss in the way that always grossed me out.
They fade away.
If only they knew that everything in the world wobbles between what’s forgotten and what’s remembered. It’s just a matter of being able to see it.
The dragon flies towards the river then glides over it towards the television tower.
He lands and the tower changes color a thousand times before it blends into the sunset then disappears beneath him.