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The Dragon in the Box

for M. Jean Craig and Kelly Oechsli

The clock is going to ring too soon and end this dream of mine. It’ll end in heartache. It’ll end in tears.

Let me tell you about my dragon, Caroline. I had him (yes, him) when I was a kid. I’m still a kid, just an older kid. You know what I mean. Anyway. A box arrived at our house one morning, along with the usual mail that made my parents look nervous and sad and sometimes angry with each other. But the box was addressed to me. There was no return address, and I didn’t know anyone besides my grandparents and aunts and uncles who would send me anything, so I was confused. Not enough to dim my excitement about getting a present, though, and I happily tore into the box to find…a smaller box. This box had a note on it: “Do not open until the egg inside has hatched and the baby dragon has wings strong enough to carry it through the air.”

“Baby dragon?” my older brother sneered. “What kind of a joke is this? Open the box already!”

There was no way I was going to open the box. Maybe my brother didn’t believe you could get an anonymous box in the mail containing a dragon egg, but I believed it with all my heart. The only way I was going to open that box was when the dragon inside was ready to come out. “Don’t listen to him,” my parents said. “We’ll help you take care of whatever’s in the box.”

I realize now that my parents were just humoring me. They didn’t really believe that I had a dragon egg in a box. Even now, they don’t really believe that Caroline appears to the moon while the rest of the world sleeps. The natives of the moon avert their eyes. They will not look at the dragon swirling in the space between the earth and the moon. They know it’s better to imagine the sky being hewn by dragon wings than to see the real thing. And if you try to understand this rationally, you’ll never understand it in your heart.

Sorry. Time is running down my dream, my memories. I’ll forget all of this any minute now.
Let me go on before all I have left are my tears.

I was a lonely kid. Shy. I didn’t have many friends at school, none that would come over to my house or invite me over to their house to play. Rainy days are perfect days to stay indoors and sprawl on the sofa with a good book, but when I was a kid, rainy days felt like the sky was a weeping ocean, its fat, cold tears pelting the roof and windows with an aching loneliness.

Holding my dragon egg’s box close to my chest gave my heart warmth. “Someday you’ll be free to fly away,” I whispered to it. “You can fly anywhere. Everywhere. You won’t be chained to one place. You won’t hear the clock ticking away the lonely seconds. You won’t feel the pain of time.” Telling that to my dragon egg made me feel better. Less lonely. Less afraid.

But the clock keeps ticking away. It’s going to ring too soon and end this dream of mine. It’ll end in heartache. It’ll end in tears.

I came down for breakfast one morning and announced, “The egg hatched. There’s a tiny, baby dragon in the box. His name is Caroline.” My brother snorted a laugh as he spooned a heap of milk-soggy cereal into his mouth. “Don’t laugh!” I said, my face suddenly hot. “One day a dragon will shake the world and swallow it up! You won’t be laughing then!” I had read about the Norse legend of Ragnarok in a comic book and imagined some distant great-great-great-grandson of Caroline would hatch from an egg in the middle of the sun and devour our world.

“Your dragon is a boy and has a girl’s name?” my brother sneered.

“So what?” I said. “A person can have any kind of name they want. So can a dragon.”

My brother rolled his eyes. “You’re so weird.” My parents just sighed and went back to eating their breakfast.

I made a tiny hole in my dragon’s box. Too small for much light to get through, because I knew he needed a dark space for his wings to grow strong, but I could sprinkle cinnamon and sugar through the hole. Caroline loved cinnamon and sugar. I couldn’t really see him through the hole, but I knew he was growing like a baby dragon should. I could feel his breath in my heart, quick and regular, warm and robust. He couldn’t breathe fire, not yet. But someday.

Time passes. We grow bigger. Some of us get smarter, some of us get wiser, but I don’t think any of us really change. Time passes, but it doesn’t move. It’s always now. What happened before feels more and more like a dream, distorted, misty, reverberating. The clock will strike, the alarm will ring, and the dream will wash away. I will wake up and I will cry.

I was eating a turkey sandwich for lunch one Saturday when my mother walked into the room with my dragon’s box, torn open and empty. “Your box,” she said, “what happened?”

“Caroline finally got big enough and strong enough to fly on his own,” I explained. “So I opened the box and let him go. He flew off this morning, just as the sun was coming up.”

My mother sat down next to me at the table and put her arm around me. I realized I had tears in my eyes and my nose was running. “Are you okay?” she asked. That was the first time she’d ever asked me that.

“I dunno,” I said. “I know it was time for him to go. A dragon can’t live in a box forever. He needs to spread his wings and fly off into the sky and find other dragons to play with. But…I’m going to miss him. I know I’ll never see him again and it hurts, right here.” I tapped my chest.

My mother kissed me on my head. “I know,” she said. “I’m sorry.” She wasn’t humoring me now. She meant it. The way grownups could go back and forth between real and pretend emotions confused me. It still confuses me.

Caroline and I, we had two hearts that beat together as one. All this timeless time after, my chest still hurts from losing him. I know Caroline is out there somewhere, dancing in the dusk and dawn, full of fire and sugar, free from the boundaries of time and space. His scarlet wings and dazzle-yellow eyes can be seen from distant stars, but I can only see him in my dreams. I know he’s whispering to me across the night, but I can’t hear him over the ticking of the clock.

The alarm will ring soon. I’ll wake up and all I’ll have left is my heartache and tears.

I miss you, Caroline.