copyright 2023 by Joan Marie Verba. All rights reserved.
Rhea Monroe sat on her favorite stone bench on the University quadrangle and looked up, searching the sky for dragons. She saw a brilliant blue sky with scattered clouds, but no sign of her dragon friend, Wondry, who had flown away six years before.
Every day since then, Rhea had started her morning by scanning the heavens, hoping that Wondry would come back for her. But just as with all those other days, there was no sign of her friend this day. She sighed.
Her boyfriend, Nick Grant, appeared between the library and the administration building. He walked toward her and put a hand on her shoulder. “One more final and we're done. Ready?”
Rhea turned to him, smiled, and nodded. “Let's go.”
After the exam, free of the obligation of going to classes and taking tests, Rhea felt as if a burden had been lifted from her. Smiling, she took Nick's hand. They strolled through the quadrangle again, unhurried. Only a few students lingered there, with finals over, sitting in the grass or on the stone benches.
Nick turned to Rhea. “Do you want to check out the farm display in the agriculture department, so you can tell them everything they did wrong in the dragon exhibit?”
Rhea chuckled. “I'm not the only one with dragon knowledge. Dragons have been appearing at farms regularly since the 1890s. The Dragon Appreciation Society has an entire library of accumulated knowledge.”
“But you're the only one I know of who grew up with a dragon in her home.”
“Only because a farmer sold his land to a developer and placed his dragon in an animal shelter for someone to adopt.”
“Still, you probably have more knowledge than most.”
Rhea took out her smartphone and checked the screen. “That's probably why they invited me to check out the preview. My pass says I can bring a guest.”
“I'm game if you are.”
They found the building easily, which had a banner at the front announcing their official opening on Saturday. At the entrance, a security guard checked Rhea's electronic pass before letting her and Nick through.
They walked past the displays of cows, chickens, hogs, and other farm animals until they reached the dragon display. There they saw a figure of a dragon standing in a diorama behind a descriptive plaque.
“Until 1891, dragons were thought to only be legendary,” Rhea read. “But that year, mother dragons began appearing on our world to lay their eggs on farms before disappearing again. At the farms, the dragons hatched, grew, and became part of the farm family by keeping away predators, eating pests, and fertilizing land with their droppings. Farmers welcomed them eagerly, even though when the dragons reached 15 or 16 years of age, they would grow wings and disappear, presumably to their world of origin. Dragons continue to come here to lay eggs regularly and can still be seen in farm country.”
Rhea turned to Nick. “So far, so good.” She leaned forward to inspect the dragon figure. “It looks accurate. It has the scales and spine ridges. I can't tell what the model is made out of, though.”
“Did they stuff a real dragon?” Nick speculated.
Behind them, they heard a laugh. “No. Oh, no. Dragons are a protected species. We wouldn't do it if we could, and we couldn't because there's no known way to kill a dragon. No dragon appearing here has ever been known to die. They all grow up and fly off.”
Rhea and Nick turned to see a slim, black-haired man in his late-20s standing behind them.
He smiled and extended a hand. “Daniel Yang, DVM.”
“Rhea Monroe,” she said, taking his hand and shaking it. She indicated Nick. “My boyfriend, Nicholas Grant.”
“Call me Nick.” He shook hands with the man. “Pleased to meet you, Dr. Yang.”
“Oh, call me Dan. Dr. Yang is what they call me when someone needs a veterinarian.”
“You practice on dragons?” Nick asked.
“Not exactly,” Dan said. “Since dragons don't get sick, I haven't treated any, but I do study them. I did a lot of my veterinary training at farms and started gathering all the information on dragons that I could. I did a lot of searching in the literature and found out there was nothing in the veterinary journals about them. Nothing. About the only information I could get was published online by the International Dragon Appreciation Society, but that wasn't very comprehensive. I read articles about dragon habits, but nothing about dragon anatomy or cellular structure, for instance. I did whatever research I could and published some papers myself, hoping that others would add to the research, but no one did. I got a reputation as being the world's foremost expert on dragons, even though I felt I really didn't know that much about them. That's why my husband, who graduated from the School of Agriculture here, recommended me to consult on this exhibit.”
Rhea nodded at the model. “I think you did a good job.”
Dan turned toward the model. “The artist made a good copy, after going out to a farm and studying a dragon. By the way, this is a female dragon. Their scales are golden. The male dragons are silvery.”
Nick motioned toward Rhea. “Rhea grew up with a dragon.”
“I know,” Dan said. “I read interviews with her in the Dragon Appreciation Society newsletter and saw her picture there. When I noticed her name on the Dean's list, I asked the exhibition managers to send her an invitation. I was hoping you would come.”
Rhea smiled. “Thank you for that.”
“My pleasure. I'm always happy to meet another friend of dragons.”
“I've never seen a dragon,” Nick said. “Rhea's dragon companion, Wondry, grew wings and flew off before we met. But she's told me some amazing stories.”
Dan nodded. “Probably much more than I read in the newsletter interviews.”
“Oh, yes,” Rhea said. “At first all we knew was what the lady at the animal shelter told us. But as the years went on, we learned a lot.”
“I bet you've seen amazing things yourself,” Nick said to Dan.
Dan nodded. “I saw a dragon mother lay an egg once. She appeared out of nowhere in the sky, landed next to the barn, laid the egg, flew back into the sky, and disappeared.”
“Must have been quite a sight,” Nick said.
“It was. The farm family was delighted. They had always wanted a dragon, since the next farm over had a dragon and it kept the pests under control. They told me that they had relatives who were cattle ranchers out west and they were always happy to have a dragon since it scared the wolves away.”
“Didn't the dragon eat the cattle?” Nick asked.
Dan shook his head. “The dragons I observed treated the farm animals as family and protected them. They ate the intruders. The cattle ranchers reported that the dragon would largely eat deer and foxes and such.”
“They'll eat anything,” Rhea said. “They love flowers, it's like candy to them.”
Dan nodded. “They'll eat rocks, too. Helps the digestion, as far as I can tell.”
“You said earlier that there's no known way to kill a dragon,” Nick said. “Not that I endorse the idea, but has anyone tried?”
“They have,” Dan said. “People with guns have tried to shoot them, others have tried to stab them, a couple of times someone has tried to use explosives. Nothing has worked. Farmers and others organized and got laws passed to protect them.”
“Has a dragon ever attacked a human?” Nick asked.
Dan shook his head. “Though they'll get angry if someone harasses them. They can let out a roar that has the power of a sonic boom.”
Rhea lifted her head slightly. “Wondry did that once. It was heard for miles around.”
“I'm not surprised,” Dan said.
“What about breathing fire?” Nick asked.
“Hasn't been observed in the young dragons,” Dan said. “Some who have seen the mothers come to lay eggs say they've seen them breathe fire.”
Nick waved at the dragon model. “Is this as big as they get?”
Dan turned in that direction. “The model is between four and five feet high. I'd say maybe six or seven years old. Older dragons are significantly larger.”
Rhea nodded. “The model is about the size Wondry was when she joined us. At first, she was small enough to fit in my double bed. Eventually, she became too large to fit through a door. My dad built a shed for her in the back yard. Then she started to grow wings. When those were large enough, one day she just flew into the sky and disappeared.” Her voice broke at the end. She rubbed her face with a hand.
Nick put an arm around her shoulder and gave her a brief hug.
“Did she ever talk to you?” Dan asked.
Rhea sobered quickly and turned to him. “Talk?”
“Yes. They have vocal cords.”
“I didn't know that. No, she only made sounds. Trilling, like a bird.”
“How do you know they have vocal cords?” Nick asked.
Dan smiled. “Well, it's difficult to get a dragon to hold its mouth open long enough for me to look at its throat, but I have managed to coax a dragon to do that once or twice, and there are definitely vocal cords there. I have pictures.”
“Did any dragon ever talk to you?” Nick asked.
“No. I was hoping one would, but none ever did. I'm sure that if any of them talked, someone would have reported it.”
Rhea shook her head. “I wish she had talked. We did communicate, in a way. She'd nudge me if she wanted me to go in a certain direction. She'd nuzzle me if I was feeling sad. Sometimes, when she was smaller, she'd cuddle. The day she left, she rubbed her head against me and gave me a sort of hug with her forepaws. After she had gone, I wondered if that was her way of saying goodbye. Ever since, I've been watching for her. I thought she might come back, if for no other reason to lay an egg.”
Dan lifted his phone. “I wondered if I could give you my number, in case she comes back. I'd like to see her.”
Rhea faced Dan but did not answer immediately.
Dan put the phone down. “It's entirely up to you, of course. I don't want to be intrusive.”
Rhea waved a hand. “Uh, no, it's not that. Of course, you can give me your number. It's just that…well, I hoped she'd come back, but it's been so long. I can't guarantee anything.”
“I'm not asking you to.” Dan tapped his phone against Rhea's when she reached over with it in her hand. “Thanks.”
His phone beeped and he checked the screen. “Oh, gotta go. It seems I have a consult.”
“Are you assigned here?” Nick asked.
Dan nodded. “The university veterinary clinic is my home base, though I go out to farms and other places when called. I live close to campus, at least until my husband returns. He's doing a land reclamation project for a few months.”
After they had said their farewells and Dan had walked away, Rhea and Nick went to the college cafeteria. The area stood largely open since most students only came to campus on the last day of finals if they had a test. Rhea and Nick took their trays and sat side-by-side at a long, empty table.
They ate in silence at first. After a few minutes, Nick turned to Rhea. “Can we talk about our relationship, now that we've almost graduated?”
“I was hoping we could start making some plans,” Nick said. “Jobs, living arrangements, that sort of thing.”
Rhea sighed. “I know. It's not fair to you, really. I realize I've held off on our being intimate….”
Nick waved a hand. “I can wait until you're comfortable with the idea. I just want to know where our relationship is going.”
“I told my parents that if Wondry ever comes back for me, I'm going with her. I didn't want to make a commitment to you until I was sure.”
“I don't know, Nick. I just have this feeling, this strong feeling, that I'll see her again.”
Nick reached over and took Rhea's hand. “If you go, I'll go with you. We've been seeing each other ever since freshman year, and we did fine going on the Engineers Beyond Borders projects.”
“That was with a large group, Nick.”
“Still. You're my one and only girlfriend and I was sorta hoping that would continue.”
“You talked about plans, but I haven't made any plans, Nick. I don't have a job lined up. I kept hoping I'd see Wondry before that.”
“Well, I came into my inheritance at my 21st birthday last month. Uncle Jack told me I needed to get out and make my own way in the world, so I have no attachments and more than enough to support both of us, if you want to wait.”
Rhea considered for a moment. “No. I guess it's unrealistic of me to wait forever for Wondry. I'll just have to go back to my parents and start looking for a job.”
“Why not stay together? Engineers Beyond Borders can still use us, and we can apply for jobs while working with them.”
Rhea nodded. “That sounds like a plan.”
Nick squeezed her hand. “I love you, Rhea.”
She smiled. “I love you, too, Nick.”
They exchanged a kiss and turned back to their lunches.
On graduation day, Rhea's parents, Heather and Steve, and her younger sister, Lynn, came over to campus for the ceremony. Nick had already helped Rhea move her things from her dormitory to her car, which was fully packed. After the ceremony, Rhea's family went to a fancy restaurant and had dinner with Nick and his Uncle Jack. Nick's Uncle gave Nick a hearty congratulations and warm farewell before leaving. Rhea's parents said they'd meet Rhea at home.
Hand in hand, Rhea and Nick walked across the empty quadrangle toward the place where Rhea's car was parked.
A strong sudden wind hit them in the face. Rhea looked up to see an enormous golden dragon in the sky, wings beating the air.
“Rhea Monroe! Come with me!” the dragon's voice thundered.