Chip Cheek


Charlie Miller was a dragon—a sort of were-dragon, say. Half man, half beast. Most of the time he was human. He lived in the River Oaks section of Houston and owned a graphic-design firm; he was a loving husband to his wife, Robin, a devoted father to his four-year-old daughter, Eva. But some nights he would sneak outside, drive his silver Lexus out to some rural place north of Huntsville, and strip off his clothes. Then, in a flash of light, molecules turning into pure energy, energy reordering the body by a process of…by some complicated, quantum mechanical process, he would transform himself into a fire-breathing dragon. He was the size of a tyrannosaurus. The air near him was charged and smelled like a thunderstorm. He would fly low over pastures and lift cows into the air and with his mighty jaws snap their necks. Then, by a dark, hidden creek, he would pull the flesh off their bones, satisfy his hunger.

          Back in his bed he would lie in his boxers, and Robin—his love, his high-school sweetheart—would roll over to him, her short hair ruffled cutely from sleep, and breathe his animal smell. “You been running again?” she would mumble, and he would nod, and she would lay her bare leg over his shorts, groaning contentedly…


Or wait, imagine it this way: as a little boy, Charlie Miller’s body exhibited strange signs. This was back when his family lived in a small house in The Woodlands, one of the suburbs north of Houston, long before he made it rich and married Robin. He was lean and well-proportioned, but his penis was gigantic. When Charlie was born the obstetrician had labeled it a deformity but assured his parents (with little tact, it must be said) that he would grow quite accustomed to it. He was stronger, by powers of ten, than any other child his age. He could eat a steak whole by the age of three. By five the fevers began, his skin would flush, and when he cried out for help and his mother ran upstairs and opened his door, a wave of heat would roll out of his bedroom as if from an oven. He lay sweating on his bed, naked, his gigantic penis looming over his stomach like a boom. One night, hearing blood-curdling screams—Charlie was eight, say—his parents burst into his room and discovered that wings had sprouted from his back, they were flapping and knocking his toys off the shelves. The heat from his body made his Star Wars posters curl. His parents screamed, his mother fainted—or better yet, his father fainted. In a flash, the wings disappeared.

          At night little Charlie sobbed in fear and shame. Something within him was stirring and growing stronger. He didn’t understand it.


The flight from Houston to New York was four hours long, and Charlie, depressed and hung over, was cramped between the window on his left and a fat man with pungent armpits. The man had a black beard and wore a necklace with a leather strap, at the end of which was a pendant of a silver dragon. (His Harley was probably waiting for him down in the cargo bay.) The man was snoring, and his thick fingers twitched every now and then, brushing Charlie’s knee.

          Charlie was short and slight and had a thick flurry of brown hair that made wings over his ears and bothered his eyes. Robin—she was Robin Turner then—had once told him how adorable it was that he cared so little for his hair; he looked like someone from the seventies, she said. So he had stopped caring for it altogether.

          He replaced the book he’d planned to read but never opened—Robert Fagles’ new translation of The Aeneid—in his frayed canvas bag, careful not to wrinkle his sketches. He was writing and illustrating a graphic novel, or trying to, anyway, when he wasn’t designing brochures for work. He had started four ideas but lost interest less than halfway into each of them. The ghost pirates. The traveling interstellar spirits. The zombie squad of late-reformed dictators (very briefly). He was hoping to hold onto the post-apocalyptic clan wars, but he could already feel it slipping away. Which was a shame, because the few pages he’d colored in fully were some of his best work as an artist, the colors rich and dark, like a Caravaggio. But for now he kept his work to himself, and it made him feel like he had a secret identity. Which he had. Which, when he thought about it, everyone had.


One spring Saturday, shortly after the incident of the wings, the doorbell rang and Charlie’s father was greeted by a middle-aged man in a funereal suit who bore a striking resemblance to Alec Guinness. “My name is William…Sheafson,” the man said in an English accent, “and I represent a highly secret organization.” He held up a cedar box with ornate designs carved into it. “The time has come to speak with you about your son.”

          While Charlie was outside playing (as usual, by himself, with a toy rocket or a plastic sword), the strange visitor sat the parents down and revealed the truth about their son. He was a dragon. Latin name: draconis flammulensis. He opened the cedar box and took out several ancient-looking papers with strange writing on them—Celtic script, perhaps—that documented old secrets: rival bloodlines, say, ancestries that led back (on the mother’s side, as it turned out) to the ancient Picts of the Firth of Forth.

          The parents were numb. How could they react? So this is my doing, the mother thought bitterly. The father, the green fabric of his golf shirt darkening under his arms, whispered Jesus’ name over and over again.

          The man said it was time for him to speak with Charlie. He left them with a book, For the Parents (translated from the Latin), and went outside and introduced himself to the little boy. He took his hand and together they walked to a park near the house. Shadows of leaves fluttered on the ground. Children Charlie’s age were playing on a jungle gym. (Would Robin have been among them? No, of course she wouldn’t, she hadn’t moved to The Woodlands yet.) The man told Charlie everything he had told the parents, and more. Charlie’s was a rare and secretive species, he said, one of only a handful in existence, and the most powerful life-form on earth. He would live for two hundred years. Charlie was shocked at first but quickly got hold of himself. He was a precocious boy—at eight, he had read all of Homer—and he was wise in a Zen kind of way. He felt a connection with nature, even as the animals were terrified of him; dogs whimpered and ran away, squirrels scrambled up tree trunks, babies cried. Deep down he had always known what he was. He looked wistfully at the children playing on the jungle gym.

          How different I am from them.

          He asked the man if he was a dragon, and the man laughed and said no, he was the representative of a secret order based in London—no, in Galway, a small port city in western Ireland (his accent was more Irish than English, really), and this order, which had no name, drawing on vast wealth and an underground network, had offered training and support to dragons for more than two thousand years.

          “This summer, you will begin your training. You will learn things that no one, not even your family, will be able to understand, and it will make you feel alone. But we’ll be there for you.”

          Charlie looked up at the man. “But what does it mean to be a dragon?” he asked. “Am I a force for good? Am I evil?”

          The man laughed and looked away before answering…


What did it mean to be a dragon?

          In the East, dragons were good, symbolizing—what? Good luck? Fertility? Charlie didn’t know; something positive. In the West, they were evil. Saint George slew the dragon, which was poisoning the lake. They symbolized the heathen, the uncivilized, the un-Christian. But so what? What they were, universally, was a force of nature—weren’t they? Yes, they were. They were comprised of the four elements, water and fire and air and earth. They were potent and terrifying to behold. That was all that mattered.

“You are a force of nature,” the man said. “You’re neither good nor evil—you’re alive. We’re here to help you live. And to worship you.”

          Alive. A force of nature. Worshipped. Charlie smiled and took the man’s hand.

          That summer he left his family in The Woodlands to begin his training. With Mr. Sheafson, as Charlie called him, at his side, he flew, not to Ireland but to someplace more remote, to Vancouver, say, then hopped on a bumpy Cessna to a town further north, and from there took an overnight train to the last stop, a small town where everyone they met looked at him expectantly and shook Mr. Sheafson’s hand. So I am a chosen one. Then, by Humvee, they drove five hours up a snowy mountain range and back down into a valley of timber and flowery meadows, in the middle of which sat a great manor house made of equal parts stone and wood. Inside was a gaping fireplace and thick rugs and tapestries depicting dragons and naked people and, in the main hall, King James I, who, as it turned out, had been a patron of the secret order. Other people were there to greet him, rugged-looking men in wool-collared ranch coats and a graying, matronly woman who appeared to be the keeper of the house. Her name was Madam Lenore Farthingale. She told Charlie to remove his clothes, he would have no need for them here. He obeyed and stood naked before them all: sculpted chest, virgin tuft of hair between his legs, his limp penis hanging three-quarters of the way to his knees. She gasped, the men stepped back, then everyone regained their composure and nodded their approval. The training began. By day Charlie ran through the forest and lifted stones and read books. At night the rugged men built bonfires in the wide field behind the manor, and with Mr. Sheafson and the madam they chanted in strange tongues and beat drums while Charlie danced around the flames and clawed at the rocky soil.

          That first summer, in a searing burst of energy, he succeeded in transforming into his true self. He was the size of an emu; steam curled from his nostrils. The second summer, the size of a horse, he learned to channel the heat in his body and breathe fire. Then he learned to fly, spiraling above the bonfire until it was a point of light between his claws. (“Don’t lose sight of the fire, Charlie!” Mr. Sheafson called out to him. “Not yet!”) The third summer, already the size of a small dinosaur, he flew over the meadows and hunted. He learned to snatch a single sheep from the middle of a herd without disturbing the rest. He would eat one himself and bring a second one back to the bonfire, and together he and the others would feast.

          Between summers Charlie went back to his family in The Woodlands. His parents were nervous around him. His older brother, a varsity football player, thought he was going to summer camp every year and made fun of him for it. Charlie thought: It’s all right. You don’t know that I could kill you in an instant. He forced himself to listen to the idiotic lessons doled out by the teachers of the Conroe Independent School District. He aced his tests and spent his days reading the old texts Mr. Sheafson mailed him. He wrote poetry. He made few friends, but he didn’t care. Robin hadn’t moved to town yet, anyway, and changed his life. And would she have now? Would she have been in his life at all? He was on another plane of existence now, and inside him, always, was the burden of his true identity, which was growing stronger every day.

          By the summer of his sixteenth year, his dragon self had grown to full size. He was a giant. He shot streams of fire one hundred yards long. He no longer needed the bonfires to guide him back to the manor but flew to the distant, moonlit peaks and perched on the icy crags. He roared at the valleys and the valleys howled back at him. Ice cracked under his claws. The stars shivered.


Robin. Robin Cronk. What a horrible name.

          Charlie looked absently at the in-flight movie, one of those terrible, live-action children’s movies that had gone straight to DVD after a week at the theaters. He pushed his seat back, closed his eyes, and—just for a few minutes, he told himself, no more—let himself imagine the old fantasy: Robin was back at their giant house in River Oaks, standing in their spacious kitchen with the island range and the Viking stove. She was cutting an onion, chopping the layers into tiny bits. Her hair was parted on the side and held back with silver barrettes. She was lanky, her breasts were too small, her feet were too long and flat, and she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. There was her lower lip. It was fatter than most girls’ lower lips. He could kiss just that lower lip, and it would be enough. Nina Simone was playing on her iPod, which was hooked up to the new sound system Charlie had installed in their kitchen, and she was peeling away the layers of the onion and tears were streaming down her cheeks. Was there anything more beautiful in the world?

          His daughter Eva was a smudge of light outside the kitchen window, on the back lawn. Perhaps she was more beautiful, the product of their love, the visible proof. What did she look like? He had never been able to conjure a clear picture of her. Say she was playing in the sprinkler, it was summer. He could see her little wet calves, the grass blades stuck to her feet. Now cut back to Robin’s feet, bare in the kitchen, patting the linoleum to Nina Simone.

          The airplane roared. Charlie groaned with it and tried to match its pitch. Who cared? Who would hear him anyway? The fat biker was still asleep, so Charlie could groan, in misery, to his heart’s content. The left engine was right beside him, under the wing, he could feel it between his legs.


No, come to think of it, Robin would not have been in his life. She would have moved to town in the tenth grade—the ninth grade for her—but by then Charlie would have been too far gone in his training, he would not have noticed her. Maybe Bryan, who was in theater with him (would Charlie have been in theater? Would he have auditioned for the high school production of Little Shop of Horrors and won the role of the Dentist?), maybe Bryan would have been his friend, but certainly not Kevin, the baseball player, whose cheerleader sister had taken the new girl under her wing. He would not have noticed Robin that night in the game room at Kevin’s house, the first weekend of summer after the tenth grade: the poof of her bangs, her bare legs, the telephone cord she was twisting with her big toe. He would not have spent the night at Kevin’s house for a week straight, drawn portraits of her in the guise of various superheroes, shown her his famous impression of Mr. Lankowski the Economics teacher. He would not have snuck out with her at night and walked around the unfinished houses at the end of the street and kissed her for the first time. They would not have made love at her apartment every afternoon after her drill-team practice, while her mother was at work. He would not have had to endure the nausea of moving three and a half hours away from her, to Austin for college, nor the weekend of binge drinking he put himself through a month later, after Kevin called him to tell him she was sleeping with Todd—Todd, that pasty death-metal fan, that smart-ass stoner a grade below him, and what the hell was she thinking? Todd was a blip in her life, as it turned out—but would it have mattered? It would not have mattered, not to Charlie, he was a dragon. There would not have been the empty years at college, the handful of friends, or the single, irrelevant night of sex with a girl named Stacy. The Christmas before graduating (except he would not have graduated), there would not have been a bittersweet reconciliation with Robin, no warm hug and kiss on the cheek. He would not have cared that, after her black-cherry-lipstick phase, she went off to college at Duke and turned prim. The law-student and jazz-saxophonist boyfriend? Never heard of him. (Blake was his name. Blake.) He would not have moved to New York and worked in the marketing division of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, designing flyers, and so she would not have stayed with him in Queens during her interviews with the publishers, so there would not have been the drinks, or the aching kiss (“It’s so funny, I still have that Cat Woman picture you made of me—isn’t that funny?”), or her cotton slacks slipping off and the eight seconds of bliss—or his apology, or her It’s O.K., Charlie Brown, or the morning after (“There’s too much history, Charlie, you know? And Blake…”), or another warm hug and kiss on the cheek, or the teasing, friendly, agonizing email correspondence that began soon afterward. She did not get the publishing jobs in New York, and Blake dumped her, but Charlie would not have cared, because he would not have known her. And so, alas, there would have been no need for the should-haves and could-haves, the fantasies he otherwise would have nursed in his imagination for the next four years: no nightly phone calls to console her in her misery, when she lived with her mother, no heroic plane ticket back to Houston, no flowers, no begging her to marry him, no yes, no graphic-design company, no money, no Lexus, no giant house in River Oaks, no Eva.

          There would have been none of it, because by sixteen Charlie would have been a full-grown force of nature, and Robin Turner would have been irrelevant to him. He was terrifying. He could breathe fire. He could eat cows raw. And—yes, goddamn it—he was super-potent. That was the cross his species had to bear, an irrepressible sexual drive, brought about by an excess of energy which found its center of gravity in the loins. Had he noticed Robin at all, she would not have been able to withstand his potency.


At sixteen, in human form, he paced the dark halls of the manor house at night, naked, unable to sleep, his purple cock bobbing with his steps, smacking the tip of his sternum like a monstrous flagellate. Mr. Shielding and Madam Faversham watched him. It was time for the next stage of his development.

          And so, in July of that summer, they summoned a young woman to the manor. A woman from the secret order, which meant that her coming would have been ethical and not at all demeaning to her as a woman—in fact, she would have wanted to come, it would have been an honor, she would have been on a waiting list, say—or not a waiting list—but in any case she would have been there, nervous but of her own free will, and there would have been a shy meeting, and her name was…Edie…Kate…Cara—Laura, say, and there would have been a dinner, rare steak with a dessert of butterscotch cream, and the next day they would have been left alone in the manor house.

          She appeared in his chambers in the early evening, wearing a slip and lace underwear. Robin was a girl. This was a woman, Venusian, in her twenties. He stood up and pulled the slip off. Behold: her breasts. Robin had nothing for breasts, but Lori’s were… He kissed her forehead. There was no need for talk, this was instinct, they knew what they were here to do. Being of super-human strength, he lifted her with no effort and set her on the bed. With his fingertips he removed her underwear—and there, at last, she came into focus, swollen and glowing. With trembling hands he pushed his jeans down, he didn’t wear boxers, and at the sight she let out a cry and put her hand to her mouth. He crept onto the cushion, the springs popped, she inched away from him. He showed signs of apology, hesitation—he was sixteen! He was so young! Try to understand him, Carrie! She came back a centimeter, they made negotiations with their fingertips, and then, like the young gentleman he was, with one hand on his giant cock and the other on her hip, he gently pressed the terrible thing into her, and she winced, it would have seared her skin—and now a close-up of a single teardrop falling from her eye, down into her ear… Ah, Cori! She wasn’t an abstraction; she must have had a birthmark under that ear, or a U-shaped scar on her knee, or if she spoke, a Canadian accent, a tattoo under her belly button for the Vancouver Canucks. Or say her big toe, from the ball of her foot, pointed inward—yes: she had those kinds of toes, not Robin’s frog-like toes, which weren’t beautiful at all when Charlie really thought about it, they were quite ugly, in fact. Oh, Carol, he whispered, kissing the scar on her knee, you’re amazing. And so it began, their muscles gave way, and the head-posts punched into the sheetrock, and the paintings on the walls went askew, and the windows fogged, and foxes scrambled for higher ground, and birds scattered from the pine trees, and lightning split the bruised clouds, and the glaciers cracked, and the plates rubbed, and the magma pressed, and the soil dewed, and mushrooms, and blueberries, and raspberries, cherries, peaches, pomegranates ripened and split open, the red juice and seeds glistening, and after forty-five minutes (it was only his first time, after all), Charlie let loose and lay waste to civilization. Karen’s body was a scene of devastation. She gasped for air and stared above her as if at some horrible, prophetic vision, and all was soaked in sweat and potency. Their bodies. The sheets. The headboard. The bay window behind the headboard.


Charlie had a painful erection. The biker was listening to music now, eyes closed, tiny speakers in his ears. Surreptitiously, Charlie unbuckled his seatbelt and adjusted his jeans. If he were a man-dragon, he would not have been able to wear jeans. But he was not a man-dragon. For a moment he felt conscious of himself and had the sense that everyone on the plane could read his mind. He turned to the window. The sun was setting.


Charlie sat up in the bed, his shoulders slumped, and stared at his mute, insolent penis. His absurd penis. He took Clara’s hand, and she squeezed it back. He asked if she was O.K., and she told him she needed a glass of water. He brought back a pitcher for her, anything for her. He watched her drink. She had a short, soft neck. Nothing like Robin’s neck—that stiff giraffe, that freak.

          Charlie left the woman alone at the manor and glided over the mountain peaks, searching the deep blue empty valleys and plateaus, leaving a vapor trail across the sky.

          At the other end of the continent, Robin lay by a pool, reading Rolling Stone. After a while she would get up and live her life, finish high school, go to college, and come back to Houston, where she would finally find a job at a small publicity firm downtown. One of her clients would be Darrell. A solid, no-nonsense name, Darrell—cursed, unfortunately, with the surname Cronk. But he would be a good man overall. He would own a company that installed piping in new neighborhoods, before the houses were built. He would listen to country music but Robin would fall in love with him anyway, introduce him to Nina Simone, and it’s funny I think he’s really getting into it. They would be together for two years before he proposed, and she would say yes, yes, yes.

          Charlie would know nothing about any of this, of course.

          But imagine this: what if he had lived his life, too? What if, insisting on normalcy, and despite his super-human strength and animal desires, he had gone to college and then moved to New York? What if he had taken his job at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company? What if, months later, at happy hour, he had walked into his favorite pub—Milano’s, on Houston Street—and seen a woman there, sitting with friends? And say this woman turned and saw him, and they stared at each other, and at that moment they knew. Her face flickered between Robin and Not-Robin. Maybe her hair was long and curly and tied up, not short like Robin’s. And maybe they communicated in brain waves, which made whispering sounds in their heads.

          Because she was like him, she was a dragon, too.

          My God, I didn’t know there was anyone else like…

          I know, I never thought I’d…

          Before saying their names they left the bar and took a cab to the closest apartment—hers, up on East 14th Street—and they made love, and this love, this consummation of double-dragon super-potency, bringing complaints, a squad car, a fire engine—but that was not the point. Just imagine it, they were inseparable. They left New York at will and crossed the ocean together. By night, they flew. By day, to avoid detection, they swam in the middle of the sea. Their bodies were impervious to the elements. When ships came they ducked under the waves. They could hold their breath for hours and feed on the fishes. In time they were married, they had a dragon-child. For a base they built a house on the coast of Maine, but most of the time they roamed the Earth, carrying their baby. They made love in the Andes, in the Alps, in the Himalayas, down in the Amazonian Basin, in the middle of the Sahara, out in the wasteland of Siberia. In little canvas pouches they carried robes which they could fashion with pins and cords into temporary clothing, and so they could walk onto any shore and roam the cities of the world, stay at fine hotels, pay homage to monuments, sip coffee in sidewalk cafes, all using credit cards provided by the secret order, whose balances were limitless. And perhaps, when necessary, they could mingle in the affairs of humans. Yes: they could have adventures, maybe even fight for justice, a trio of all-powerful were-dragons…


The flight attendant was leaning toward him, holding out a blue napkin. “Would you like something to drink?”

          Charlie stammered but eventually said, “Water. And a Coke, too, if that’s O.K.”

          He lowered his seat tray and gulped down his water before she’d finished serving the biker his ginger ale.

          The biker turned to Charlie. “You got a lot on your mind, man?”

          Charlie nodded. He hated making conversation. He was no good at it. And he could still smell the biker’s armpits.

          “It looks pretty serious. You all right?”

          “It was a late night,” Charlie said. “You know?”

          The biker laughed and said he knew, all right. And then, as Charlie had feared, they were talking. The man said he lived near Brenham and worked at the ice cream factory there, and he was headed up to Poughkeepsie to visit his sister and his little baby nephew. “Her husband left them not so long ago,” he said, “and I’ve been trying to convince her to come back home. I mean, what’s she got to do all the way up there in Poughkeepsie? But she won’t listen to me, she never did.”

          Despite himself, Charlie liked the man’s voice. It was deep and sincere, and something about his voice, and the fact that he was going to visit his sister and baby nephew, made Charlie want to talk to him. When the man finished his story and it seemed as if the two of them would return to their own thoughts, Charlie said, “Do you want to hear something crazy?”

          The man told him to shoot.

          “Just yesterday, I watched the love of my life get married. I watched it, I saw it coming, and I didn’t do anything about it. How do you like that?”

          “Oh—damn,” the man said, laughing and screwing up his face. It made Charlie smile. The man said, “I don’t like that at all. You went out with this girl?”

          Charlie nodded. “Two years,” he said. He told him how they’d kept in touch in the years afterward, and how, six months ago, she’d emailed him to say she was getting married. She wrote, “I hope you’re O.K. with this. I really want you to come, you know how important you are to me. Will you? Darrell thinks you’re the coolest”—and she put a smiley after her name.

          “Bitch,” the man said, and though Charlie laughed, the word shocked him somewhat. It wasn’t a word he used. He let it knock around in his head, settle down.

          He explained how he’d told Robin—that was her name, Robin Turner, except now it was Robin Cronk—he told her he would be there, especially since the date fell in the summer, when he usually took a week off anyway to visit his family. At the end of June, he packed the nicest of his three work suits and left for Houston. The wedding took place at the new Methodist church in The Woodlands, a sprawling complex with a central chapel everyone called the “Methodome.” A giant cross hung over the choir. He saw nothing of Robin until the moment everyone stood and she came down the aisle in her wedding dress, her mother at her side. Charlie was seated halfway down the aisle, with old friends from high school. She didn’t see him as she walked by. Of course, she looked amazing. They finally met up at the reception a couple of hours later, at a steakhouse with a large back room the groom’s parents had rented out. Robin, changed into a black evening gown, wrapped him in a long hug and kissed him on the neck, behind his ear. Charlie told her how happy he was for her. And he really was.

          “But goddamn,” the biker said.

          “Yes,” Charlie said. “Goddamn.”

          “So how long has it been since you were with this girl?”

          “Four years,” he said, remembering when she’d come to visit him that time in New York. He wasn’t about to tell the biker it had been twice as long since they broke up.

          “Four years!” the man said. “Jesus Christ, buddy. She must have been something else.”

          Charlie shook his head and looked down into his plastic glass. He frowned at it and jiggled his ice, as if he’d found a hair in his drink.

          She must have been something else. That was true, Charlie thought. He loved her, but he didn’t know her anymore. She was an emblem. She was the girl who had ruined him, years ago, and he’d tripped and fallen into himself and never been able to climb back out.

          Charlie didn’t tell the man about the last hours of the reception, when he was drunk. He’d seen Robin pulling playfully on Darrell’s arm, and he’d heard her say something about “check-in,” and he knew that all she wanted was to get away from all of them and go to the hotel. She’d barely spoken to Charlie the whole night. But that wasn’t her fault, was it? It was her wedding, for God’s sake.

          When she was not surrounded by a million people, he put his arm around her shoulders, startling her, and rocked her back and forth.

          “Ah, Robin!”

          “Ah, Charlie!” she said, laughing. She was probably a little drunk, too.

          Charlie let go and stood in front of her, and there must have been more desperation in his face than he was aware of, because at once her eyebrows came together. He told her how amazing she’d looked in her wedding dress. She always looked amazing, she looked amazing right then and there, standing in front of him. Hot, he said, she was still so hot.

          She backed away, and not out of fear. She was concerned about him, he could see that.

          “Stop, Charlie,” she said. “Come on.”

          He changed course—he was only playing! With his arm around her again he repeated her name, trying to sound like a jolly chap recalling the good old Oxford days. And in the same voice he said, “Whatever happened to us? To me and you? You never explained it to me…adequately.”

          “Oh, Charlie,” she said, not without tenderness. But they had had this conversation before. “Nothing happened, sweetie. You’re drunk.” She pecked him on the lips. “My first, my superhero, my cutie. It was good, Charlie, it really was. You did everything right.”

          They talked a little longer, and then she hugged him and said she hoped she’d see him soon. She left. A few minutes later he heard her scream and he turned to see that Darrell had thrown her over his shoulder, her black heels dangling from her toes, and he was carrying her out of the restaurant, out to the curb, where presumably a car was waiting to take them to the hotel. The next day—today—they were heading to the South of Spain.

          The biker was still talking. “You artist types,” he said, and his eyes flitted to Charlie’s canvas bag. At some point he must have noticed the pages of drawings. “You feel it in your bones, don’t you?” He threw back a piece of ice from his cup and crunched on it. “But you’ll get over it, buddy. You know what I mean?”

          Charlie nodded amiably and turned to the window. He was finished talking. It wasn’t making anything better. The lights of the Eastern Seaboard were already below them, and Charlie was thankful. It was unbearable to be trapped on a plane, with no recourse, with nothing whatever to do.

          He excused himself, walked unsteadily back to the lavatory, and used the toilet. The wall was angled and he rested his head against it. Through his skull the jet engines hummed.

          He was flying, in dragon form again, the size of a dinosaur, his wings spread wide to catch the wind, riding at the head of a front down from the polar regions back to Texas. He bust through the Methodome’s walls, sent bricks and sheetrock and wood beams crashing down. He roared and the stained glass shattered. The giant cross creaked back and forth and tumbled into the choir. The wedding guests screamed and scrambled over the pews, over themselves. Darrell dropped Robin from his shoulder onto the altar and ran for his life…

          It was ridiculous. It solved nothing. And if he were a dragon, leading his dragon life, it wouldn’t even have made sense for him to be there. He zipped himself up and washed his hands, annoyed at the lever-controlled faucet, which only let him wash one hand at a time.

          He was opening the lavatory door when something turned inside him. He hardly recognized it until he was halfway down the aisle. It was nothing life-changing, only a tiny, pleasant ache. His dragon life. The woman, the dragon like him, the Robin/Not-Robin, in the little bar in New York. The brainwaves that passed between them. The open sea, and the house in Maine, and the dragon-child. (Eva. Her name could be Eva.) And the mountains, the cities of the world, the secret order. And the adventures, fighting for justice—or something, fighting for some reason he would have to figure out.