A GIRL SINGING HER heart out about a miracle boomed inside my ear. A miracle would get me what I needed: a chance at a semi-normal life.
The bedroom door hitting the wall expelled the thought from my mind. With his hand tangled up in his copper hair, and with huge brown eyes, Dad’s figure filled the entire doorway. “Pack your bags.” He had that set to his jaw, the one that meant there was no way out of this. He bolted out of the room just as suddenly as he had appeared.
My teeth ground hard against each other, and the sharp pain behind my eyes, I guessed from the lack of sleep, grew stronger. Every fiber of my being wanted to explode.
Ever since I could remember my name, Dad and I had been on the run. From what? Beats me.
For the last two weeks, I’d been pacing up and down through the house, struggling to fall asleep at night, waiting for this day.
For the love of blueberries, no sixteen-year-old should live this way!
I climbed off my bed, and the first step I took left my toe tangled in the wide leg of my jeans. I tried to regain my balance as the closet inched closer, but with wildly flailing arms, I came crashing down. The thud reverberated across the wooden floor, and it sounded as if I’d broken something.
Dad darted back into my room. “Are you okay?” He lifted me back onto my feet as if I weighed nothing.
Tears lurked in the corners of my eyes, threatening to burst, as I stared up at him.
“Don’t give me that look, Elena. Please, we need to hurry.” He pulled my suitcase from the top shelf and chucked it haphazardly onto my bed. “We need to go. Now.”
He started to grab my clothes from the shelf and tossed them messily inside my small suitcase. Then he paused, sighed, and looked up with soft eyes. He stroked the side of my cheek. “This . . .” He looked past me. “. . . wasn’t the right place, Bear. Please, you’ve got to trust me.”
His hand reached back to pull everything off my shelf, while my hands curled up into balls of fury. My heart pounded fast as those two words bounced inside my skull. “Trust you?”
“Elena, we don’t have much time,” he yelled. “Pack your bags! You can ask questions later.” He left, and the hollow thump from his stomping footsteps rang loudly as he made his way into the hall.
Ask questions? Yeah right! I’ll only get answers that don’t reveal why we are on the run for the gazillionth time. “Trust me” and “I’ll tell you when the time is right” were the only two answers Dad gave. Guess the time with him will never be right.
It was no use arguing with him anyway. Once, he threw me over his shoulder and carried me out without any of my things.
So I grabbed the stuff I needed: my mp3 player, a photo of Mom and me on my first birthday that Dad didn’t know I had, and my journal from underneath my bed. I tossed them into my backpack. It wasn’t much, but it was the stuff that made my miserable life feel less pathetic. I zipped up my suitcase and took a deep breath. Looking around my bedroom for the last time, I said goodbye to my sixtieth-something room.
Dad almost ran me over in the hall, with his army bag slung over his shoulder. He grumbled, which I assumed was an apology, took my suitcase, and ran down the stairs. He always rented these huge old houses, pre-furnished and near the countryside, and we always left after three months.
The pickup’s horn honked as I shut the front door. I closed my eyes and took another deep breath. Just two more years, then I’ll be eighteen and free from this freak show. Huge raindrops fell hard onto the ground. The smell of wet dirt filled the air. It was my favorite smell.
The water that pooled on the ground covered all the gaps in the driveway, forcing me to hopscotch around all of them. My shoe got caught in one of the gaps and I smacked down hard in a huge puddle. By the time I reached the truck, my jeans and shoes dripped with water.
Warm heat from the vents inside the truck hit me full blast as I jumped in; a million goose bumps erupted across my skin. As soon as I shut the rusty door, Dad floored the gas pedal. Tires screeched and the truck spun away as if the Devil was chasing us. My lower lip quivered softly as he swerved onto the road. The streetlights flew by in a blur, and I plugged in my earphones. The same stupid song about a miracle boomed from my mp3, drowning the sound of the engine and the hard dribbles on the roof, a percussion that became the perpetual soundtrack to my misery.
A feeling of utter loneliness consumed my heart while I stared out the window. Homes with white picket fences and a convenience store whizzed by in a flash. A tear rolled down my cheek. Saying a silent goodbye, I released my breath and watched as it created a foggy condensation on the glass. Reaching out with my index finger, I drew a small heart. These were the reasons why Mom had left. She couldn’t handle his paranoia, but why she’d left her two-year-old daughter to deal with it was a mystery. Dad constantly reminded me of the latter; that was the only time he ever spoke of her. If he ever discovered I had that picture, he would kill me. That was how much he hated her for leaving us.
The lights of a vehicle in the upcoming lane shone directly into my face. I shut my eyes, waiting for it to disappear. When I was little, I used to watch Dad as we drove away from yet another house. He would glare into his rearview mirror every five seconds, every muscle in his face clenched, and his knuckles white on the steering wheel. I hadn’t been able to force myself to peek out the window then, as it used to scare the living crap out of me to consider the possible reasons why he was fleeing, or who might be following us. Now, I didn’t look at him or care much about what he was going through. He’d created this problem, with me becoming the luggage. It was a ritual I endured every three months, and nothing over the past sixteen years had ever changed that.
The “Interstate 40” sign flew by in a whirl, and the pickup slowly moved onto the turnoff lane.
My eyes started to burn as I stared at the rain running sideways against my window. Each rivet resembled another town, another place I could never again call home. Exhaustion consumed me and my eyelids felt heavy. I laid my head against the window and struggled to stay awake.
Suddenly, a huge figure flew past me. Dad swerved to the left, which made me crash into his side. My entire body pumped with adrenaline. I jumped straight in my seat, tore out my earphones, as I wrenched the seatbelt over my shoulder to buckle myself in, while trying to process what had just happened.
“What was that?” I looked at Dad.
He kept checking his rearview mirror every five seconds with huge eyes. Beads of sweat rolled from his hairline down to the side of his temple. Sure, he was paranoid, but I’d never seen Dad look this scared in my entire life. This was something more than his usual paranoia.
“Did you see where it went?” he asked, attempting to inject calm into his voice, but I could hear the fear lacing each syllable.
“See where what went? Dad, what was that?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“For once in your life, just tell me!” I screamed. Sixteen years of frustration exploded from my lungs. I couldn’t take the unknown anymore.
“Fine.” He mumbled something else that I didn’t catch. “Do you remember the stories I used to tell you?”
“Stories? What stories?”
“The stories about Paegeia, Elena.” He looked in his rearview mirror again with huge, unblinking eyes.
Vaguely, but I didn’t tell him that. “What does that have to do with this?”
I froze and stared at him.
“All of it, it’s real. The dragons, the magic, the wall, everything is real.”
“Dragons!” I couldn’t believe this. “Is this why we’ve been on the run my whole life? That’s your reason?” I took a deep breath.
“You can believe what you want, it doesn’t change the fact that they are real, and somewhere out there.” He looked over his shoulder.
A figure with huge paws and talons flew in front of the truck. Tires screeched at the same time I shrieked. The truck spun around on the turf a couple of times and came to a standstill on the dark stretch of road. My heart jumped at a great speed inside my chest. My throat and lips became dry from my deep and heavy breathing.
Pushing my face against the cool glass of the passenger window, I searched the horizon for any sign of life. Apart from the pickup’s headlights, there wasn’t a single light peeking through the blanketed darkness, and the rain crushing down made me see figures but I couldn’t tell if they were real or imagined. Dragons don’t exist.
“You okay?” my father yelled.
“I’m fine.” I tore my eyes away from the window.
His hands were on the door’s handle. “Elena, I need to get out─”
“No, no, please don’t leave me here!” I grabbed a piece of fabric from his jacket. I could feel the fear beginning to rise up again and my vision became blurry. Why am I afraid? Dragons aren’t real.
He cupped my face and made me look at him. I only noticed now how his hands trembled. “Listen to me, Elena. Listen!”
I tried to swallow my tears, but it was no use. They were caught in the back of my throat, silencing me.
He hugged me tight and kissed me on my forehead. I could feel the love he had for me behind that kiss. “You drive like hell, you hear me? Don’t slow down for anybody. There’s a motel on Interstate 40. Just stay on this road, you can’t miss it. Someone named Matt will meet you there.”
“Dad, it’s pouring outside. I can’t leave you here with whatever…” We can sort this out rationally.
Dad cringed and looked at his jeans for a minute. When he looked at me again, that set to his jaw was back. I knew my words hadn’t made any impact on him whatsoever. He had already made up his mind for the both of us.
My strength returned as I slowly came to terms with what I had to do.
A man appeared in the middle of the road. We both stared at him for a few seconds. I squinted, as the rain made it hard for me to see him, but the headlights of the truck outlined his figure. I looked back at Dad and could see that this guy was no stranger by the look on Dad’s face.
My gaze turned back to the guy in the rain. He was tall with long black hair; wet strands clung to his face. He wore a pair of pants, no T-shirt, and it looked like no shoes either. He stared at the pickup for a couple of minutes, and it made my heart pound faster. He began to walk slowly toward us.
“Dad?” I slapped his shoulder, trying to expel the fear from my body.
“Elena.” He grabbed my wrist. “I’ll be fine. You need to go. Now. And, Bear, I’m so sorry. Whatever happens, don’t stop for anything.”
“Dad?” My lower lip quivered again. He kissed me one more time on my forehead and wiped away my tears gently with his thumbs.
“I’ll meet you there.” He sounded stern, climbed out of the truck and slammed the door. My gaze switched back at this macho loon making his way toward Dad, who stood right next to the pickup. I quickly moved into the driver’s seat, took a deep breath, and buckled up.
With my hands trembling on the steering wheel, I took another deep breath.
You can do this, the voice in my head rambled a couple of times. The key sat lazily in the ignition, and I jerked it to the right. The pickup sputtered and died. The guy disappeared into the darkness, and a new fear pumped through my veins.
“No, no, no, no! Please don’t die on me now,” I mumbled as I tried to restart the engine. The man appeared again by the faint glow of the headlights. He was getting closer.
“Start you stupid piece of crap!” I yelled over the roar of the blood pumping in my ears.
The engine came to life and I screamed as the man’s figure leaped toward the pickup. Dad jumped from the asphalt and tackled him in mid-air. “Go, Elena!” he shouted over the pounding rain.
I floored the gas pedal and the pickup’s tires screeched as I drove past Dad, who’d wrestled the guy onto the road. Tears blurred my sight.
I can’t just leave him back there. I struggled to come to terms with what was going on.
My father and the other man quickly disappeared into the horizon of my rearview mirror. I wiped away my tears with the back of my hand and lowered the mirror so that I could see Dad, but they had vanished into the night.
Don’t stop for anything, his voice replayed inside my head.
My hands trembled on the shift as I found third gear. A strong force hit the pickup on the passenger’s side. The impact of the blow jolted through my body as the truck rolled a couple of times, and came to a halt on its roof, leaving me suspended in the air. My head and body throbbed with pain, and my hand went automatically to the ache on my head. It was warm and wet and when I brought back my hand, it was smeared with dark blood. My head began to buzz and the view started to slip away.
Lightning struck, and the road was instantly engulfed in flames, leaving me wide-awake. Something to the left grabbed my attention as the fire slowly began to creep toward the overturned truck. Something lifted the truck, righting it on the asphalt once again, and a shrill sound left my lips.
The belly of a huge, blue beast on four legs the size of tree stumps stood in front of the pickup. The sight left me breathless and my entire body froze. Dragons don’t exist.
A part of its head popped in front of me. Huge horns on the top of his nose lingered inches from the windshield, leaving a foggy condensation on the glass as he breathed. One of his frilly ears lay flat against his head, like a cat’s when sensing danger.
He climbed on top of the hood with one of his front legs, and my body trembled as the truck started to crumble. A part of his wing came into sight. It appeared to be shredded, with a sharp talon located at the end. Oval-shaped blue scales fanned over its entire body, glistening in the flames on the side of the road. Maybe it only looked that way through the tears blinding my sight. Beady eyes, sunken deeply into its skull locked with mine. The picture in front of me just became my nightmare. I yelped as the dragon’s weight shifted, forcing the pickup to crumble even more.
Another dragon sank its jaws into the one in front of me. Two huge copper horns lay flat on top of its copper head. The blue dragon growled, and snapped with gaping jaws at the copper one attacking it. With powerful force the blue dragon was dragged off the pickup’s hood and thankfully away from me. The truck shook slightly and groaned as if a huge weight had been dispelled; while my heart pounded as if I’d just run a hundred meters.
A bolt of fire came from the sky and lit up the entire scene in front of me.
More dragons landed with a thud in the middle of the road. One seemed to be green with a long neck and a fin-like mane running from the top of its head to its tail. A cloud of dark fog emerged slightly from its nostrils. The other dragon was red and oddly beautiful, but something evil derived from its aura. They attacked the copper dragon with startling savagery.
Get the hell away from here, my voice shrilled in my head. Quickly, I tried to unbuckle my seatbelt, but the clip wouldn’t release. For the next couple of minutes the earth shook with bolts of fire, and lightning flew through the air, while I tried to free myself.
My father wouldn’t just leave me here! As each second ticked off my watch, I became more worried about Dad.
The dragons came close to the truck a couple of times, but the copper dragon kept driving them back, as if it was trying to protect me. I shook my head, trying to expel that thought. Dragons don’t exist. Wake up. The tips of my fingers felt raw as I hammered endlessly on the buckle of the safety belt. My face was soaked with sweat and blood, but I knew that I had to get out of the truck, and quickly too. With trembling hands, I pounded on the buckle with my fist until it unlocked. Throwing the vicious restraint from around me, I watched in horror as the copper dragon bit fiercely into the blue dragon’s neck. Blood squirted everywhere and pooled in thick puddles on the road. It staggered and dropped down to the ground. Electricity still sparked off its body, but it soon died away. The green and red dragons jumped on top of the copper dragon, but it knocked the red dragon hard onto the ground and crushed the green dragon with its huge front legs. The sound of flesh ripping made me feel sick, and I had to lean over as tremors wracked my stomach, but for some reason I couldn’t look away. The picture of the copper dragon shredding the green dragon’s wing sent a stab of new fear deep into my core.
Dad, where the hell are you? I pleaded into the darkness.
The red dragon got back up and flew away just as the copper dragon moved from the green dragon’s wing to his neck. I flinched and finally looked away as more blood squirted out of where the green dragon’s neck used to be. When I looked again, the copper dragon had turned its gaze to me.
I started to kick at the windshield with my newly freed legs. A new sense of urgency punctuated every kick.
C’mon! I kicked three, four times, but it only left long cracks in the glass. Watching the copper dragon trudge toward the pickup through the jagged cracks made the scene before me look more terrifying. The copper dragon stopped right in front of the pickup. Our eyes locked, and I could see the vertical pupils inside a pair of dark, rich brown irises. My heart thumped wildly inside my chest as it hooked one of its talons gently into the windshield and ripped it off.
It paused, stared at me for what seemed like an eternity, took a few steps back, and nodded in my direction.
It wants me to get out? You’re imagining things, Elena. Dragon’s aren’t real.
I didn’t act. I couldn’t. The dragon started to shrink. Its wings and legs dwindled into a smaller size until they disappeared. Its big head and horns shrunk into nothing. I watched as the dragon’s huge figure melted away. The heap transformed into a figure crouching low to the ground. The figure lifted up its head, and huge cuts with blood seeping from them ran down his face. It felt as if somebody had squeezed all the air out of my lungs. I’d finally found my father─ without a shred of clothing