The spring she was thirteen, Annie taught herself to see dragons.
She sat by the window in the hospital and looked out at the soft, strange Smoky Mountains, and the spreading gossamer haze that rose off them, and the white rucked clouds above. “I thought the old dragon was too mean to die,” her father said on the phone with his brother, Uncle Phil. Annie blinked hard when her eyes blurred, and thought, Dragons. Her parents talked about living wills and power of attorney and DNR, and Annie imagined herself turning to stone and cloud, and not caring, and she looked for sleeping dragons.
She didn’t see them, and she and her parents drove five hours home on Sunday, away from the mountains and the clouds. Her parents argued in vicious whispers, and Annie pretended to sleep and thought about the dragons who slept in the earth and sky, whose spines rose like mountains and twisted like clouds.
School was a blank gray nothing. One day, Ms. Forrester had Annie stay after class. She said, “I’ve noticed you seem distracted, Annie. Is there something wrong? Trouble at home?”
“No, ma’am. I’ll try harder.” The trouble was that she didn’t have a home anymore, just a house where she lived with her parents. Her home had never been there, and now it was nowhere.
On Friday, she packed her bag while her parents yelled at each other, and then it was five hours in the car back to the hospital.
All the way, Annie stared out the window for the first sign of mountains and did not listen to her mother crying in the front seat.
At the hospital, there were more doctors and more machines, and no sign of Annie’s grandmother. Just a body that had a machine breathing for it and eyes like dirty glass. Annie tried not to look at the body or at the machines. She looked out the window at the soft ridges of the mountains and the great echoing ridges of the clouds and the hazy breath of sleeping dragons between them. For a moment, as her eyes blurred and stung, she saw the muscles of a dragon’s haunch and the long rocky curve of its tail, but then she blinked and it was gone.
On Sunday morning, Aunt Laura showed up, brassy, relentless Aunt Laura who always announced that she was praying for people as if it were some enormous, undeserved favor. She and Annie’s mother went out into the hallway and had another fight, loud enough that Annie wanted to put her hands over her ears. She imagined being stone instead, imagined stretching across the sky, and the dragons spread their white wings and furled them again into sleeping clouds.
Her mother and Aunt Laura came back in with one of the doctors. Annie turned her ears to stone and did not listen, until her mother touched her arm and said timidly, her voice wavering, “Annie, don’t you want to say goodbye?”
Annie turned and looked at her, her red-rimmed rabbit’s eyes, her soft mouth. Annie’s eyes were stone, her mouth was stone. She’d said goodbye to her grandmother weeks ago, when she’d realized the body was all that was there, that her grandmother was gone, leaving Annie behind with the body and the machines and her parents’ anger and useless grief.
Leaving Annie alone.
She turned back to the window.
Her mother said in an apologetic whisper, “This has been so hard on her.”
Aunt Laura snorted. “Hard? That child’s hard as stone.”
Annie stared out the window, seeing claws and wing-ribs and flared nostrils breathing haze. She did not see the bustle reflected in the window, did not see her mother sobbing against her father’s unyielding shoulder. She saw the dragons sleeping in the earth, the dragons sleeping in the sky, the hunched lines of hips and shoulders, the long sweep of necks and tails, the great maned heads, whiskers trailing across the sky like contrails.
Behind her, the machine stopped breathing.
Annie’s eyes were stone, her heart was stone, she was cold and distant cloud, and she saw the dragons.
The dragons, stone and cloud, opened their eyes, as gray as rain, as gray as granite, and saw her in return. They saw a stone girl standing at a window. They saw the clouds that closed around her.
“Annie?” Annie did not answer. “Annie?” Her mother pushed at her shoulder, not hard, but hard enough to overbalance the delicate counterpoise of the sandstone boulder that was all that was left. It toppled, and shook the entire hospital with its fall.
(Later, when the hospital staff finally managed to move the boulder, they found a crater in the floor from the point of what had been Annie’s elbow.)
Annie’s mother began to scream.
The dragons closed their eyes again and slept.
© 2017 by Sarah Monette