A university student seeks special accommodations for her new support animal, causing havoc all around her.
“Sir,” Bonnie said, “we have a situation.”
Elliott looked wearily up at her. It was only ten in the morning and he’d already fielded three companion animal challenges. No, a student could not bring a cockroach into the dorms as an emotional support animal, because cockroaches couldn’t be neutered. No, a nursing queen and her five kittens could not be counted as one emotional support animal, and six animals were not allowed in one dorm room. No, the student whose Vietnamese potbellied pig was trained to alert to oncoming seizures—and was therefore a legitimate service animal—was not allowed to roll in slop from the dining hall, because the Student Eco-Alliance had already claimed the slop as compost for their community garden.
Outside Elliott’s window, he heard the familiar chanting of the Monday morning protesters. Free Animals Now, the student group maintaining that all animals were sentient persons and that using any of them to help humans was flat-out slavery, rotated their daily protests. Today they were at the Office of Animal Affairs, which Elliott directed. The rest of the week, they’d show up at various labs; at the stables which housed the campus’s four miniature horses, the latest rage in guide animals; at the Student Counseling Center, which had a fish tank in its lobby; and at the dog park on the university quad. Elliott liked FAN. They were nice kids, among the most thoughtful Elliott had met, with a refreshing tendency to forego ironic snark for old-fashioned sincerity. He raised his voice over their chants of Will all be free? Free will for all!
“Yes, Bonnie? What is it?”
“Tatiana Prentiss, sir.”
Elliott bit back a groan. He loved animals, and he empathized with most of the students he saw. Tatiana Prentiss was a trial both to him and, as far as he could tell, to anyone else who had to deal with her. She used an alphabet soup of DSM diagnoses—ADHD, PTSD, BPD—to sidestep every rule other students with the same conditions worked so hard to observe. She couldn’t take exams, which triggered her anxiety. She couldn’t write papers because of her processing issues, and anyway assignments were coercive violations of her freedom of speech. She insisted on fulfilling her course requirements through hours-long one-on-one meetings with professors, whom she promptly sued if they gave her anything less than an A. Smitten with fantasy, a genre Elliott himself enjoyed, she wore her long blonde hair in elven braids, spoke fluent Klingon, and was reportedly a dab hand with an epee, a skill Elliott had no wish to witness. If the university tried to expel her for being outrageous, she’d sue.They were all stuck with her for at least two more years.
“I take it Tatiana has a new emotional support animal?”
“Yes, sir.” Bonnie’s face was impassive, her tone as professional as ever, although she of all people had every right to resent Tatiana Prentiss. Bonnie was the best student worker Elliott had ever had, maybe because she was one of the oldest, here on the G.I. bill. Her daily outfit of a crisply pressed dress shirt and khakis amounted to a civilian uniform. Everything about her was neat: the dark hair coiled into a bun at the nape of her neck, the prosthetic right hand with which she wrote meticulous notes, the sling around her neck holding her own emotional support animal.
She reached into the sling now with her left hand, the one that hadn’t been destroyed by the IED, and gently removed Siren. “Here, sir.” She passed Elliott the guinea pig. “He’ll help you stay calm.” Elliott had never seen Bonnie be anything other than calm, but he’d also never seen her without Siren.
“Weep weep,” said Siren, and Elliott smiled as the bean-shaped creature rooted in his shirt pocket, looking for treats. Elliott hadn’t brought any today.
“Thank you, Bonnie. So what poor creature is Tatiana dragging to campus now?”
Bonnie’s face twitched, and Elliott saw her suppress a smile. “She says it’s a dragon.”
“A dragon?” Tatiana must have gotten hold of some kind of lizard, and that couldn’t end well. Reptiles weren’t easy to care for. Tatiana hadn’t even done a decent job of training or controlling her first emotional support animal, a Pekingese who attacked everything it could reach and had been banned from campus after it mauled a blind student’s much larger guide dog. Tatiana had sued, of course. The case was still wending its way through the courts.
Elliott yearned, as he so often did, for the days when only actual service animals, highly trained to perform specific and crucial tasks, had been allowed on campus. Emotional support animals had been a gray area for a long time; they were technically covered under disability law, but required no training or documentation. University disabilities offices around the country had been quietly discouraging them, but then some provost or other had realized that, like parking, they could be a sizeable source of income. Emotional support animal fees ranged from five hundred dollars a semester for low-maintenance animals that could live easily in dorms—cats and dogs and guinea pigs—to upward of two thousand dollars a semester for animals requiring additional housing, like the miniature-horse stables.
Elliott found the university’s greed infinitely depressing, especially since as far as he could tell, the money—whether from parking or ponies—went into athletics, not academics. He hated having to pay four hundred dollars a year to park at his own job. Parking spaces never attacked guide dogs.
Tatiana had sued to protest the fees the summer before her freshman year. That one was still tied up in the courts, too. Elliott wondered how she was paying her attorney; it was all contingency work, he guessed. He’d heard a story that at least one lawyer had fired her and been sued himself for his trouble. Elliott rubbed his eyes, gave Siren one last pat—“weep, weep!”—and handed the rodent back to Bonnie.
“She says it’s perfectly safe, sir. She’s done something to keep it from breathing fire.” Bonnie almost smiled again. “She says its wings are clipped.”
“Ah.” Elliott nodded. “You mean she’s thinking about other people for a change? Or is she telling us this so that when she shows up with a gecko or a green anole, we won’t point out that a real dragon would be a lot bigger, fly, and breathe fire?”
“I don’t know, sir. But we’ll find out soon. She’s bringing it here at one this afternoon to demand special accommodations for it.”
If Elliott was going to deal with Tatiana Prentiss, he needed air. He took a long lunch, bought a sandwich and coffee at the student union, and carried them outside. He’d texted his plans to his wife, Shelley, and she met him on his favorite bench along the quad, where they could watch students playing frisbee, and gamboling dogs leaping to catch the frisbees, and stately trees rustling in the soft September breeze. Soon the leaves would change. Elliott wondered when students would start bringing emotional support plants to classes. That would be a lot easier to handle, although any such development would probably be accompanied by protesters maintaining that plants were sentient, could feel pain, and shouldn’t be enslaved.
“So,” Shelley said, sitting next to him. “Another Tatiana drama?”
“Yeah. I probably shouldn’t talk about it here. News at eleven.” Shelley laughed, and Elliott reached for her hand. He still wasn’t sure why she’d agreed to marry him fifteen years ago, but he’d been giving thanks ever since. “And how’s your day going?”
When Elliott and Shelley met, in grad school, he’d been studying for his master’s in the philosophy of science and she’d been getting a PhD in English, writing her dissertation on Spenser’s warrior women in The Faerie Queene. Now Elliott fielded inquiries about cockroaches while Shelley, Assistant to the Second Deputy Vice President for Academic Integrity, helped professors investigate and prosecute plagiarism cases. They were both lucky to have jobs, and they knew it.
“Way too busy, considering that it’s only September,” she said. “A doctoral student in the sciences stole another student’s research results, and a liberal arts master’s student lifted part of his written comps wholesale from Wikipedia—”
“Yep. Cheating standards get lower every year. Meanwhile, the provost is still pressuring us to try to shut down the frat paper-and-exam files, although how we have any hope of doing that is beyond me, and even if we could, there’d still be all the online services. Sometimes I wonder if there are any honest students left.”
Elliott interlaced his fingers with hers and squeezed her hand. “You’re seeing a skewed sample.”
“Bad lenses. So I tell myself.” She nodded at a figure approaching them. “Well, here’s someone who should be able to cheer us up. Hey, Russell! Care to join us?”
Russell Gibbons was a Foundation Professor in History and the head of the Honors Program. Honors students reliably swept university awards, graduated with impossible GPAs, and sailed off to top medical and law schools. Last year, one of the program’s freshpersons had grown a working human kidney in a Mason jar in her dorm room and been flown to the White House, although she’d since dropped out of school to sell boutique body parts and publish her wildly popular webzine, Organ Girl.
Russell, who had already seemed ancient when Elliott and Shelly arrived on campus ten years ago, settled himself cautiously next to them. “Hello, youngsters.” This was an old joke between them. “As you know, my doctor wants me to stay out of the sun because of that infernal skin cancer, but I’m fleeing a battalion of parents demanding detailed explanations for why their darlings weren’t admitted to the Honors program. One mother excoriated me for caving to politically correct pressures to admit more minority students. Someone’s father informed me that, since I’m an old white guy, the Honors Program is obviously racist, imperialist, and homophobic.”
He gave them a wan smile. Russell, an internationally recognized scholar in the history of human rights movements, had been arrested at the 1963 March on Washington. Through strenuous recruiting, he’d increased BIPOC enrollment in the Honors Program from twelve to thirty-eight percent, a number he still considered far too low. He and his husband Howard tithed ten percent of their annual income to Amnesty International.
“Oh, hell,” said Shelley. “We were counting on you for good news.”
“Students and their parents move through here in four years, usually,” said Russell. “We abide, barnacles clinging to rocks. We are intellectually rigorous, committed individuals who take the long view, eschewing fads and instant gratification.” He pulled a chocolate bar out of his pocket. “And if you ask nicely, I’ll share this with you.”
Fortified slightly by the chocolate, a bracing 76% superdark laced with bacon and habanero pepper, Elliott returned to the office, where he found Bonnie supervising two university maintenance men as they wrestled the huge glass-topped table out of the conference room. He raised his eyebrows at her.
“Tatiana says we’ll need a lot of room, sir. But there are still chairs in there.”
“Ah. So maybe it’s not a gecko or a green anole? I bet she dressed Mickey up in some kind of giant dragon costume.” Tatiana’s friendships rarely lasted long, but her latest follower—the quiet, studious Michaela Zins—had proven unusually loyal. Elliott wondered how she found time for coursework while keeping up with Tatiana’s antics.
“I hope so, sir. Mickey would be a very polite dragon.”
Elliott sighed and checked his watch. Twelve fifty. For all her vexing attributes, Tatiana was prompt, and in fact often early. “I guess we’d better go inside and wait.” Bonnie would be there for backup, and as a witness. Tatiana hadn’t yet accused anyone of sexual harassment, but Elliott didn’t want to leave her any openings. Such precautions were standard procedure now even with less litigious students.
They went inside. They hadn’t been seated thirty seconds when Elliott heard the office door open. That would be Tatiana.
It was Mickey. She rushed into the conference room, her face pale and tracked with tears. She was shaking. “She— She— You can’t let her! I don’t care how much she threatens you with lawyers or whatever! She can’t get away with this!”
“Sit down,” Bonnie said, and handed her a tissue. “Do you need some water?”
“Get away with what?” Elliott said. But just then, Tatiana strolled into the room. Today her hair was in especially elaborate braids, and she wore clothing of some black shiny stuff with a vague resemblance to armor. Elliott hoped she didn’t have her epee with her. She looked extremely pleased with herself.
She was alone. She wasn’t carrying anything; he saw no creature perched on her shoulder. If not for Mickey’s distress, he’d have thought Tatiana had just played some bizarre joke on them, although she usually took herself very seriously indeed.
She grinned at the three of them. “Let me show you my new emotional support animal. Mickey’s already seen him; I guess she wanted another look. I don’t blame her.” She waved a hand, and the air rippled. Elliott felt his ears pop, smelled an odd mixture of sulfur and manure, and saw a section of the conference wall opposite him shimmer as something slithered into the room through what he could only guess was some kind of tear in the space-time continuum.
The head emerged first: as large as Elliott’s Prius, scaled in bronze, the eyes glowing red coals. The rest of the animal followed, a vast length of muscled gold supported by five-toed feet sporting two-foot talons. The creature’s wings stayed folded tight against its sides. Had they been outstretched, Elliott guessed, they would have shattered the conference room walls like eggshells. He stared, dazed. Bonnie had raised both hands to her face; Mickey hiccupped. He heard a tiny, muffled “weep weep,” and tore his gaze from the dragon to see that Siren had burrowed into the very bottom of Bonnie’s sling.
Tatiana was talking. “You already have documentation about my disabilities, but I know you need a specific letter from my shrink about how this animal will help relieve symptoms.” She reached into a pocket and pulled out a piece of letterhead covered with shaky writing. Her psychiatrist usually typed his letters, but at this point, Elliott knew his signature. Even from here, the document looked legit. “He was pretty scared when he was writing this, and it’s a little hard to read, so let me summarize.” Her tone defined the word smug. “He says that my dragon alleviates my ADHD because I have to stay so focused to summon him and keep him with me, and alleviates my PTSD from being bullied in high school by making me feel really powerful, and alleviates my BPD symptoms by making me feel less empty.” She held out the letter. Bonnie took it; Elliott, transfixed by the dragon, couldn’t move.
Tatiana kept talking. “I can keep him from flying and breathing fire. He has to do what I say; he’s bound to me. See, like this.” She turned to the dragon and said, “Open your mouth.”
The dragon’s mouth was lined with many rows of teeth. Its dark gullet emitted a stench of charred wood. “Close your mouth,” Tatiana said, and it did. “Now hold out your hand.”
The dragon extended one of its taloned feet, considerably larger than Tatiana’s head. She touched her palm to the bottom of it. “High five! See, he’s completely safe. I’m not going to tell him to roll over, though, or we’d all be crushed.” She giggled, and Mickey whimpered. Elliott, who felt like he’d been kicked in the solar plexus, struggled for breath.
Bonnie found her voice, although it was strained. “What does this creature eat?”
Anyone Tatiana doesn’t like, Elliott thought. God help us all.
“Um, well, he eats salad. I gave him salad and he ate it. With nuts and fruit. And yogurt.”
Yogurt. Elliott cleared his throat. “Tatiana. Is it an omnivore? Does it eat meat?” He had a sudden image of the dragon hoovering up all the dogs on campus, service animals and emotional support animals and badly trained pets alike, along with their human handlers.
“He’s under my command.” Tatiana’s voice was stronger again, more confident. “He won’t eat anything unless I tell him he can.”
“Which means you may be depriving him of his proper diet,” Bonnie said.
Annoyance flickered across Tatiana’s face, and the dragon emitted a low bellow, a cross between a foghorn and a lion’s roar. Elliott forced himself not to flinch. “He’s not with me all the time. When I’m sleeping I let him go back . . . well, back to where he came from. He can eat whatever he wants there. So I don’t need a special dorm room for him.” She said this in a tone suggesting that she was doing the university a great favor. “But when I summon him, he has to come here, and when he’s with me, he can’t eat anything unless I allow it.”
She raised her chin. “He’s perfectly safe. But I need to meet with my professors in places where there’s room for him, because having him with me makes me feel stronger and smarter and more stable. You have the letter from my doctor saying so. So I need to be able to reserve one of the big conference rooms at the library, and the library says other people need those rooms and my professors say I have to meet with them in their offices, but their offices are too small. So you need to talk to them. And to the library.”
Her psychiatrist had clearly already seen the dragon; Elliott doubted the others had. Surely gossip like that would already have spread across campus. Or maybe not; who would believe it? He took a breath, about to tell Tatiana that they’d look at her paperwork and consider the matter—standard stalling language—when Mickey said, in a quavering voice, “Tat. Let him go. This is wrong.”
Tatiana’s eyes narrowed. “No one asked you. You shouldn’t even be here.”
“He’s not a cat or a dog or a horse. He’s not domesticated. He’s huge and old and wild and beautiful. He doesn’t belong to you. Let him go.”
Tatiana shrank a little; Elliott had never seen one of her friends defy her. But then she glanced at the dragon, took a deep breath, and stood up straighter. “Shut up, Mickey. You can’t tell me what to do. You’re just jealous.”
Mickey swiped tears off her face. “No! I’m not! Let him go. You’re hurting him.”
Elliott remembered how upset Mickey had been when she rushed into the office. Now he realized that she’d been frightened, not of the dragon, but for it. He looked at the beast again, forced himself to meet that glowing gaze. The dragon turned slightly to regard him; it sniffed the air between them, and then lowered its head until its chin rested on the floor mere inches from Elliott’s feet, the huge snout towering above him. To his shock, Elliott felt the animal trembling, a shaking in his own bones. He reached out instinctively, as one would to calm a dog, and barely brushed the shining skin.
And was flooded with the pain of contortion and constriction and shattering loss. Ageless beauty and wisdom, grandeur, the sweep of time and history all confined by the cruelty of a tiny parasite, an agony of imprisonment, the gasping terror of fettered breath. And amid all that, a single syllable, word or thought or image Elliott couldn’t have said, but undeniable however it had formed: Please.
He withdrew his hand. No dragon should have to beg. Hatred of Tatiana knotted his stomach. “Have you touched—”
“Of course I have.” She shot him a look of loathing, and Elliott tasted bile. Tatiana enjoyed the dragon’s pain.
Bonnie rested her fingers on the dragon’s skin now, and snatched her hand back almost at once. She had gone as pale as the paper covered with the doctor’s shaky writing. Elliott saw her swallow. He forced himself to speak. “We’ll talk to the library. We’ll talk to your professors. Come back tomorrow.”
Tatiana smiled. “You can go now,” she told the dragon sweetly, and it vanished far more quickly than it had arrived, with a thunderclap that rattled the conference room door in its frame.
Bonnie. Her PTSD. Elliott turned, reaching unthinkingly to reassure her. She leaped away from him, her face still the color of bone, fists clenched, and let out a low wail, a horrifying sound from someone usually so composed.
“I’m sorry,” he said, stammering. “I’m sorry, the noise, I thought it must remind you— The IED— I shouldn’t have—”
“Weep weep weep weep weep!” Siren was an agitated movement in the sling. Elliott glanced behind him to see Mickey bracing herself against the wall. Tatiana was already gone. Elliott was surprised she hadn’t stayed to revel in their pain, too. He supposed human tears would be meager fare for someone who had learned how to torture a dragon.
Bonnie sucked in a breath, and he turned to face her again. “My apologies, sir.” And then, after a small hesitation, “The explosion isn’t why I need Siren, sir.” She paused again, and he waited, wondering numbly what could be worse than an IED. He was just about to tell her that it was all right, that she didn’t need to say anything else, when she did. “I’m a survivor of military sexual assault. Sir.”
Her face was wet. Touching the dragon must have been a thousand times worse for her than for him.
“I’m so, so sorry.” Nothing he could say would come close to being adequate.
“It wasn’t you, sir.” She drew in a long, shaky breath. “But sometimes my nervous system overgeneralizes.” She looked over his shoulder at Mickey. “Are you okay?”
“Fucking monster,” Mickey said, and Elliott knew she didn’t mean the dragon.
The three of them wound up huddled on the floor in Elliott’s office, backs against the wall, knees to their chests. They’d closed the door. Elliott knew they’d look ridiculous to anyone who saw them, but they all felt better this way. Siren, nestled in Bonnie’s lap, nibbled on a blueberry she’d given him as a special treat.
“How,” said Elliott, “did she do that? How did she find a dragon? How did she bind it? That’s like—like an amoeba lassoing a blue whale.”
“Extreme Wicca,” Mickey said dully.
“Wicca? I thought the principles of Wicca were ‘Harm none, do as ye will’ and ‘Whatever you do to others will return to you threefold.’”
“Not in the extreme version.”
“She’s a bad witch,” Bonnie said.
Mickey almost smiled. “She thinks Extreme Wicca sounds better.”
Bonnie frowned. “Are there others? A coven?”
“Nope. Solo practitioner. She tried to join the campus coven, but they kicked her out, so she started her own thing.”
“Okay,” Elliott said. Good for the campus coven. “How is she doing this, and how do we stop her?”
Mickey shook her head. “I have no idea. If I knew, I’d have stopped her myself.”
Bonnie, incongruously, looked at her watch. “Sir? You have a meeting with the Academic Standards and Admissions Committee in fifteen minutes.”
“And so I do.” Shelley and Russell would be there too; he’d never so badly needed the comfort of love and friendship. He heaved himself up from the floor, feeling a thousand years older than when he’d arrived at the office that morning. “Bonnie, you have the rest of the day off. Mickey, if I were you, I’d cut classes today.”
“I’ll stay at work, sir. We need to file those contracts.”
Mickey looked baffled. “Why would I skip classes? I love them, and I’ve paid for them.”
Maybe there was still hope.
The meeting went fine, and when Elliott got back to the office, the day seemed to have settled back into normalcy. He and Bonnie sorted paperwork, getting the year’s set of contracts and permissions organized. It was the kind of tedium Elliott normally loathed, but today it was soothing. He knew he should be working on the problem of how to free the dragon, but he had no idea where to start. And the paperwork was pressing, and—as Bonnie had reminded him—had to be done today.
At five minutes to five, the office phone rang.
Elliott shook his head. “Why do people always call when I’m about to go home?”
Bonnie, adept at screening calls, smiled and picked it up. “Office of Animal Affairs, this is Bonnie. How may I help you?”
There was a pause, and then, “Mickey, breathe. Slow down. What’s going on?”
Alarmed, Elliott looked up to find Bonnie frowning. “Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Okay. We’ll be right there.” She craned her neck to peer out the window facing the quad. “Um, yeah, I do see. Thanks for letting us know.”
Elliott looked out the window too; a group of people had gathered at the far end of the quad, and something shone and flashed in the air above them. “Oh no,” he said. “Is that—”
“Apparently so.” Bonnie had hung up. “We should go out there, sir. Tatiana’s upset, and Mickey thinks we can help.”
Tatiana was always upset. “Help how? And with what? What exactly is happening?”
“Tatiana’s making the dragon do tricks.”
“Tricks?” Oh, great. “What kind of tricks? Like eating people?”
“No. That’s not the problem. It’s not hurting anybody, but, well, people can’t see it.”
“What?” Elliott could see it even from a football field away. “How can they not—”
“We need to go there, sir. Mickey asked us to. I told her we would. She trusts us.”
And Elliott trusted Bonnie. He texted Shelley—l8 at work, sorry, home as soon as I can—and hurried out the door after Bonnie. He wondered if he should have warned Shelley that he might be about to be eaten by a dragon.
Elliott and Bonnie got to the quad right before the university police did, which was a good thing, because otherwise they wouldn’t have been allowed in at all. Tatiana stood in the middle of the huge grassy field, the dragon crouched next to her. It was far larger than Elliott could have guessed from the small bits of it he’d seen in the conference room. In the late-afternoon sunlight it glimmered: a variegated jewel, red and gold and silver, with flashes of purple and green. It wasn’t doing tricks. It wasn’t doing anything. It was just sitting there.
A group of people stood watching. Mickey, on the outskirts of the crowd, waved and ran over to Bonnie and Elliott. “She’s trying to use it to impress those sorority girls because they didn’t let her in when she rushed, but they don’t see it, or they say they can’t see it. They’re making fun of her. She’s having a meltdown.”
Tatiana was declaiming to a trio of blondes. “I don’t need your stupid sorority house! I have something better! I have him! And I can make him do whatever I want!”
She snapped her fingers, and the dragon rose into the air, writhing, and executed an awkward figure eight, releasing a softer version of the groan Elliott had heard in the conference room: the sound of continents shifting, mountains rising from the earth. His stomach twisted.
The three blondes gazed at the spot where the dragon was, but they were clearly puzzled. “What is that?” one said. Elliott recognized her as one of Russell’s Honors students. Economics, if he remembered right. “A kite? She’s really lost her mind.”
“Yeah, she’s crazy. Look, somebody must have called the cops.”
To his left, he heard a group of students talking to one of the cops. “What is that thing?”
“I don’t know,” said the cop. “It doesn’t look dangerous, does it?”
“Some kind of bird? It’s awfully big.”
Elliott blinked. They couldn’t see the dragon. They couldn’t see that it was a dragon.
Imagination. They didn’t have any, and neither did Tatiana. She was in school because everyone her age she knew was in school, because she was desperate for approval she was never going to get, because she couldn’t conceive of doing anything else. He thought of fantasy stories where lack of imagination was the downfall of the villain. Sauron, who couldn’t imagine that two hobbits would try to carry the Ring to Mount Doom. The White Witch, who couldn’t imagine the deeper magic from before the dawn of time. King Haggard’s Red Bull, who knew only the difference between what Haggard wanted and what he didn’t want.
Tatiana knew this was a dragon. She read fantasy; she’d heard of dragons. But she could only imagine a dragon as a weapon or an accessory, a piece on a game board. The cop and many of the watching students could only imagine a dragon as a bird.
“Make fun of me all you want,” Tatiana said, “but you can’t do this!” She gestured at the dragon and it groaned again, flailing, dragging itself through the air in a series of loop de loops.
“Oh boy,” the cop said. “What kind of bird is that, anyway?” Elliott heard him muttering into a walkie-talkie, calling for a MOST team. MOST was city, not campus, the officers dispatched to psychiatric crises.
His stomach sank. Tatiana was a royal pain in the ass, and her cruelty to the dragon was unfathomable, but in this case, at least, she wasn’t crazy. The dragon was real.
The problem was that anyone who claimed to believe her would be called crazy, too.
All right: The situation had just gotten more complicated. Freeing the dragon was imperative, but so was protecting Tatiana. She was very young, desperately unhappy, and undoubtedly burdened with several personality disorders in addition to the ones on her official record, but if Elliott could figure out some way to turn this around before MOST showed up, she wouldn’t wind up in jail or a psychiatric holding facility.
He and Bonnie and Mickey all knew the dragon was real. He scanned the crowd for other allies, and spotted two FAN kids he knew to be big Tolkien readers. Chaz was solemn, owl-eyed, and wore tiny spectacles that created the impression of a twelve-year-old impersonating an AARP member; Johnna, thin and dressed in clothing that appeared to have been sewn together out of leaves, stared at the dragon with an expression of bliss. “A green great dragon!” she said, and Elliott smiled, recognizing the Tolkien reference.
Chaz’ gaze was even wider than usual. “It’s all kinds of colors,” they said. “Not just green. It’s beautiful.”
So other people could see it; he and Bonnie and Mickey and Tatiana’s shrink hadn’t been hypnotized somehow. “Tatiana,” Elliott called. She ignored him. “Tatiana, let the dragon go. You’re about to get into a lot of trouble. As in psych-hospital-level trouble.”
She ignored him. She was fixated on the sorority triplets.
“Good lord,” someone said next to Elliot. “She has a dragon, and this is what she does with it?”
It was Russell. Shelley stood next to him, gaping. “Both of you can see it,” Elliott said.
“Of course we can see it.” Shelley’s voice was hushed, reverent.
“Bonnie,” Elliott said, “what do you think will happen if she lets it go? Will it hurt us?”
Bonnie shook her head. “I think it will run. If it has a way out, it will take it. Most animals will flee rather than fight if they have a choice. I think we’ll be safe.”
“I hope to heaven you’re right,” Elliott said. “Tatiana! Tatiana Prentiss!” He used his best teacher voice, and Tatiana’s gaze flicked toward him. “Tatiana, let it go. The cops are calling for a psychiatric evaluation. You’re about to be in more trouble than you want to have to handle.”
She squinted at him. “I’m not crazy!”
“I know you aren’t. Bonnie and Mickey know that too, and so do a couple other people here. But not everybody can see the dragon, okay? If the cops who come can, well, they won’t think you’re crazy, but you can’t count on that. Bonnie and Mickey and I will vouch for you, but they might just think we’re crazy too. Let it go, Tatiana.”
One of the sorority girls laughed. “A dragon? She thinks she has a dragon.”
Tatiana flushed. “I heard that!” She gestured at Russell and Shelley. “They can see it too. One of you tell them! Mickey, tell them it’s real.”
“It’s real,” Mickey said, very gently, “and you’re hurting it. Let it go, Tat.”
The middle sorority girl looked up at the dragon, shading her eyes. “Sorry, but—”
Her neighbor nudged her with an elbow and said loudly, “Okay, I see it now. There it is. Don’t you see it, Casey?”
“Uh, oh—sure! There it is!” She smiled brightly, pointing, but she was pointing in the wrong direction. Tatiana, looking miserable, followed the trajectory of her pointing finger, and just then there was a thunderclap. The dragon was gone.
Tatiana whirled in a circle, her face flushed as she muttered increasingly frantic incantations, and finally let out a wail. “Wow,” Mickey said. “It looks like she’s lost control of it for good. How—”
“Doubt,” Elliott said. “Whatever other methods she was using, I’m pretty certain you can’t hold a creature like that unless you believe in it completely. She said so herself in our meeting, remember? That it alleviates her ADHD because she has to stay so focused to summon and hold it? She could tell those young women were trying to humor her. She thought maybe they were right. She thought maybe all of us were trying to humor her too.”
And here was the MOST team. Tatiana was still whirling, looking for the dragon. She’d started chanting, probably trying to summon it again. Elliott’s heart sank. She really did look deranged. At this point, it would have been better if the dragon were still present. Maybe one of the cops would have been able to see it.
“Tatiana,” Elliott said. “I know you’re upset. I do know, but you need to get a grip right now for your own sake, all right?” He felt awful. Telling upset people to calm down was the worst thing you could do, but he wasn’t sure what else to say. He wished her psychiatrist were here.
“But it— He—”
“Yes, he’s gone. Look, if you could hold a dragon even for a little while, why do you care about getting into a sorority? Why do you care about grades? Why even stay in school?”
Her back stiffened, but he had her attention now. “I’m not a quitter!”
“Why not? Organ Girl quit; she didn’t need school when she could sell people body parts. It certainly wasn’t because she was stupid. Why do you need school if you can summon a dragon? You could charge the people who can see him money just to look at him. You could use him to, I don’t know, fly around the world. There have to be better uses of a dragon than inflating your college transcript.”
Shelley was frowning at him. With the near-telepathy of long marriage, he could guess what she was thinking. What are you doing, Elliott? Why are you encouraging her?
He didn’t know, but he kept talking. “What are you going to do with all these excellent grades you’ve extorted? Go to grad school, where it will be more of the same? Get a job where you won’t be able to perform, because you haven’t learned anything here except how to manipulate the system?”
Shelley’s frown had deepened. Elliott was being cruel. He knew he was. But he was also telling the truth, and Tatiana needed to hear it.
She didn’t answer. Had she even been listening to him? She’d sunk onto the ground, where she sat cross-legged, hugging herself. A MOST officer approached her, and Tatiana looked up at her and said, in a voice that shook only slightly, “Thank you for coming. I know you’re trying to help me, but I’m all right now. Do you want to talk to my psychiatrist? I can give you his number. I’ll be seeing him tomorrow. I’ll talk about this, I promise.” It was as adult and rational as Elliott had ever heard her.
The officer said something Elliott couldn’t hear and handed Tatiana a piece of paper. Tatiana wrote on it and passed it back, and the officer retreated to the edge of the quad, although she and her partner stood watching.
The sorority girls had wandered away, and almost everyone else had, too, except Bonnie and Russell and Shelley and the FAN kids. Elliott went over to them. “It might be best to go home. I don’t think she wants people staring at her right now.”
“Okay,” said Chaz. They called out to Tatiana, “I hope you feel better,” and turned to leave.
Johnna lingered a moment later. “Thank you for showing me that dragons are real,” she said, and flashed Tatiana a peace sign before joining Chaz on their way back to the dorms.
Shelley came over to Elliott and said, “I talked to the MOST team. They’re okay with this being handled on campus. The Disability Resource Center will follow up to make sure she gets to that appointment tomorrow.”
Elliott nodded. Tatiana had drawn her legs to her chest and had her arms around them, rocking. He hoped MOST hadn’t left too soon. But when he and Bonnie picked their way over the grass to Tatiana, she looked up at them, her face tearstained.
“I know you’re sorry he’s gone,” Bonnie said, “but you were hurting him.”
Tatiana looked honestly bewildered. “I was?”
Elliott frowned. “You said you touched him. You must have known how much pain he was in.”
Tatiana shook her head. “But I didn’t do that. Did I? That’s how I feel all the time. I thought— I thought he’d be my friend because he felt the same way. I thought—”
She was starting to cry again. Elliot, appalled, stared at her. That glance of loathing she’d given him in the conference room: It had been loathing of herself, not him. And she’d shrunk away when Mickey challenged her. There had been cracks in her armor all day, but he’d been too blind to understand them.
She’d been putting on a complicated act for a long time. She must be exhausted. He still didn’t like her, or what she’d done. He still wondered how she was going to work her way back to anything like reasonable social functioning. But she was fully human to him now, not a caricature of adolescent entitlement.
She was huddled again, sobbing. Mickey came over and put a tentative hand on her shoulder. “Tat. It’s going to be all right. You have to tell people how you really feel, is all.”
“I hurt him? I did that?”
“He’s okay now,” Mickey said. Elliott fervently hoped that was true. “He’s free. Just don’t . . . don’t ever do anything like that again, okay? Give up Extreme Wicca. Can’t you just be a regular Wiccan, or Episcopalian or something?”
Tatiana shuddered. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” She looked up at Elliott. “I mean, school and all. What you said. I don’t know.” So she’d been listening after all.
“Well, you have time to figure it out.” That was Bonnie. “Here. Do you want to hold Siren for a little while?”
Elliott couldn’t believe she was handing over her trusted companion, but Tatiana smiled and cradled Siren in her lap, stroking him. Elliott could see how careful she was being not to hurt the little creature. “I don’t belong here, do I?”
“Where?” Mickey said. “School? Planet Earth? Life?”
Elliott winced at Mickey’s bluntness—although he’d been every bit as blunt himself—but Tatiana didn’t seem to notice. She handed Siren gently back to Bonnie. “School, to start.” She looked up at all of them and fastened on Russell, standing a few feet away. “You’re the Honors guy, right? I’m not smart enough to be here, am I? I’m not smart enough to be in school.”
Elliot’s stomach twisted. He wished he didn’t agree with her. But Russell said, “I think you’re perfectly smart. You need to find better uses for your intelligence, that’s all. You’re hardly the only person with that problem. But a dragon! Dragons are ancient! How old was that one you showed us?”
Tatiana looked down at her lap and said in a mumble, “I don’t know. Really old.”
“Yes,” Russell said with a smile. “And what’s the dragon’s name?”
She blushed now. “I don’t know. I never asked. I guess I should have asked.”
“He wouldn’t have told you,” Mickey said. “Dragons don’t reveal their true names.”
Tatiana twisted a piece of grass. “Then I should have given him one.”
Russell moved to kneel beside her. “Maybe he’d be honored, if you gave him a name. Just think what you could learn, if you could befriend a being like that instead of torturing it! Think what you could teach the rest of us. Think what that dragon has seen!” Tatiana squinted at him, blinking, and he said, “Universities are places where people value very old knowledge a lot of society doesn’t care about anymore. They’re also places where people believe in what isn’t always visible. Quarks. Dragons. Justice. I’d love to learn from you, if you could find a kinder way to teach us. Do you think you could do that?”
Shelley reached for Elliott’s hand, and the two of them shared a smile. Russell and his long view. He was throwing Tatiana a lifeline, and if she was indeed smart, she’d take it.
“The Long View” copyright © 2022 by Susan Polwick
Art copyright © 2022 by Corinne Reid