This story contains depictions of a child in a life-threatening situation.
He woke up in a shallow puddle on the edge of the forest, mud thick and golden like molasses coating his bare body from head to toe. He felt like he’d just belly-flopped across a football field of sandpaper.
The noonday sun cast splashes of yellow through the canopy of the ancient, sprawling cypress trees that surrounded him. He recognized the overgrown dirt road leading from the town’s outer limits toward the nearby swamp stretched out to the left of him, where a faded wooden sign in the distance warned that the area was in gator territory. He had no idea how he had ended up here, though.
His wife was going to kill him.
“Fuuuuck,” he groaned out, letting his eyes slide closed and his head roll back. A tension headache slammed him in the skull in time with his heartbeat. What the fuck had happened last night?
“Hey, Mister,” a soft voice called.
He opened his eyes again. A thin little Black girl, her dark skin as velvety as a midnight sky and her full, kinky hair piled in two perfect puffballs on top of her head, stood over him with wide eyes. She was hugging a Moana backpack protectively against her stomach.
Fuck, he thought again, his heart racing. He shouldn’t be here. The warmth of the sun and the dense humidity made his blood sing, and that was kind of the problem.
But before he could utter a half-assed excuse and hightail it back home, the girl dropped her bag to the ground and raised her arms, palms facing outward. At first glance, all he could see were the grains of sand that stuck to her wet skin in clumps, but then the sun caught the unmistakable glint of scales on the underside of her wrists. They were glistening with a subtle sheen and shifted easily from black to white and back again. He knew the sight of those scales as well as he knew his own, because his wife’s looked just like them.
He could only stare at this little girl in awe, and here he was, butt-fucking naked and covered in mud. Not a good look, to say the least.
“Mister,” the girl whispered. “Are…. Are you like me?”
He didn’t have the presence of mind to answer her. He didn’t have a chance to.
A gunshot rang out nearby and a flock of cranes flooded the sky, their squawks frenzied and afraid. Beneath him, the ground vibrated in slow, haphazard waves that settled deep in his bones. The girl didn’t seem to notice, her searching gaze trained on the mud-caked skin of his right forearm. The commotion was too close for comfort. He needed to go, and so did she.
He sat up with a groan and glanced around. Spotting his black Nike shorts clinging to a bush a couple yards away, he pushed to his feet and angled his body away from the girl, awkwardly covering himself with his hands splayed out over his junk. The mud hid the details, but…. Well. Last thing he needed was to traumatize the fuck out of someone’s kid.
“Sweetie, I’m just going to grab my shorts, okay?” he said. “Can you…. You know?” He twirled his finger, indicating for the girl to turn around.
She rolled her eyes, and with an impatient huff, she spun on her heel until her back was to him. Okay. She wasn’t afraid of him…. That was probably a good sign?
“What’s your name, honey?”
He shuffled over to his discarded clothes. “That’s a nice name. Pretty.”
“It’s short for ‘Trinity.’ But ain’t nobody call me that. You should call me Trini.”
“Okay. What you doing all the way out here, Trini?”
“That’s rude, Mister,” she scoffed.
“Ain’t you gonna tell me your name, too?”
He had to laugh at that. “Oh. Sorry. Name’s Roosevelt.”
“Like that dead president guy?”
“Yeah, sorry. I didn’t pick it.”
“I’m visiting my granddaddy,” Trini continued, unfazed.
Roosevelt fished his soggy T-shirt out of a ditch and began to pull it on before he caught whiffs of must and mildew and thought better of it. Instead, he picked at the largest clumps of dried mud embedded in his chest hair.
“He lives down by this way,” Trini continued. “But he went swimmin’ last night and I ain’t seen him since, so I came to look for him after I ate breakfast.” She beamed. “I made cereal.”
Roosevelt frowned; he had a bad feeling if someone had left a child alone this long. “What’s your granddad’s name?”
“Percy. Percy Gentry.”
“I don’t know anyone ‘round here with that name.”
“He travels a lot. He don’t like nobody knowing where he is.” Even though Roosevelt hadn’t given the all-clear, she whirled around and threw him a glare. “So don’t tell nobody you saw me or know about my granddaddy, okay, Mister?”
“Your granddaddy a coldblood, too?”
She grinned, showing off the big gap between her front teeth. “He’s the biggest dang mud snake you’ll ever see!”
Another gunshot — then three more in quick succession. Roosevelt’s skin crawled. That sounded like buckshot, but it wasn’t hunting season. Even if it were, there wasn’t a deer alive that required that much ammo.
A mighty roar shook the treetops, followed by the distinctive crack and boom of a massive trunk being split and then slammed to the ground. Trini’s eyes widened, her mouth dropping open in horror.
“That sounded like my granddaddy,” she whispered, her voice cracking.
Roosevelt didn’t think — still barefoot, he took off running toward the shots and the bellows of pain and rage. It was an ancient language among their kind, one even he didn’t entirely know, but that deep rumble was unmistakable. It set his blood on fire.
“Go back to the swamp and hide!” he yelled over his shoulder at Trini. “I’ll come back when it’s safe!”
The thick summer air filled his lungs as he sprinted at a steady clip, his skin prickling just as a group of four men in bright orange hunting vests came into view. They crept forward with their shotguns aimed and at the ready, the sound of thrashing and strangled hisses rising from the underbrush before them.
“Get the fuck back!” Roosevelt yelled, his words dissolving into an aggressive hiss of his own as he began to transform. The hunters whipped to face him, and one of them curled his lip as mottled red spots bloomed all over his pale face.
“There’s another one! Keep your eyes on the prize, boys, I’ll git—”
Freed from his human skin, Roosevelt lunged forward and sunk his fangs into the man’s shoulder. Blood flooded into his mouth, rich and sharp. The hunter dropped his shotgun, which sunk into the mud with a wet plop. Roosevelt leaned into the bite, sliding his fangs deeper, past muscle and bone. He knew the exact moment he severed the subclavian vein — the man seized once and then slumped against him. Roosevelt yanked his head free.
Roosevelt staggered from the shot to his chest, but didn’t fall. He swung to face the three other men, who’d abandoned their pursuit of Percy for now. Roosevelt hissed and bared his fangs, each as thick as a man’s forearm and just as long. He spied a thick barrel of a mud snake covered in the typical black-and-red striped pattern, although the vibrant color had faded with age. Percy was curled on his side with a gash the size of a tire leaking dark blood and yellow mucus. He was as big as an elephant and five times as long.
“This fucking swamp is infested,” one of the men spat. “Fuckin’ coldbloods!” He lifted his shotgun, aimed at Roosevelt.
Before the man could pull the trigger, another mud snake’s earth-shattering roar swallowed all the sound in the world. Hundred-year-old trees snapped like toothpicks and crashed to the earth under the weight of a giant reptile whose stripes of alternating scales — a familiar black then white, black then white — glistened under the Mississippi sun. Trini reared up and flashed her fangs — though she was less than half the size of Percy, she was still an unstoppable force. Her beady black gaze swept over the assailants. The same hunter tensed his shoulders and, with a muttered curse, finally took the shot.
Trini lunged at the same time Roosevelt did. He jabbed at one of the men with his sharp tail, and when the man stumbled back, Roosevelt sent all three of the hunters flying with a single flick. He hissed and charged, grabbing one man by the leg in midair. None of them could be allowed to live. Roosevelt flung the man up and caught him between his jaws with an audible crunch. The other two he left to Trini, who coiled around them and squeezed until their strangled cries choked off into silence.
He let the corpse drop from his mouth, flicking his tongue to clean the viscera from it. He didn’t have time to keep feeding, and the asshole tasted like unseasoned chicken anyway. Roosevelt slithered over to Trini, who had moved next to her grandfather as plaintive groans ushered from her.
It was only then that he noticed the details of her shape.
She had a row of spiked ridges trailing from the back of her neck down to the tip of her tail and a vestigial pair of wings folded tightly on either side of her shoulder blades. Thick, strong legs — four of them — were tucked underneath her slender, serpentine body. The scales were thicker there, and even with her coated from the chest down in swamp mud, he could see sharp claws protruding from her toes.
Roosevelt didn’t know the ancient language, but he knew its oral stories: how dragons had once soared through the skies, only to abandon their wings and legs and slither along the ground amid filth to escape the ever-encroaching pestilence of man. A story, he’d thought. A myth.
He glanced at Trini, at her wings. She was real. And if there was one dragon, did that mean there could be others? The world shifted on its axis, at least in Roosevelt’s mind. Did this mean there was hope for his people, who had slunk around and stayed out of the way for as long as memory could hold?
Trini groaned again, nuzzling her head against her grandfather’s. The elderly coldblood’s chest rose and fell slowly. Besides the woeful noises of the dying and mourning, the lowlands were quieter than Roosevelt had ever experienced them, as if every creature had paused to grieve with them.
“Don’t cry, baby girl,” Percy muttered in the ancient tongue. Somehow, Roosevelt understood every word. “Roar.”
Trini stiffened against him, the ridges on her back rising. Roosevelt could smell her distress with each flick of his tongue.
A growl built in her chest, low and tentative. As her grandfather took his last breath, she flung her head back, and roared.