The curve of the claw arched from the boy’s sternum to his clavicle, pushing hard enough against his throat to choke without puncturing his skin. He gagged and coughed, from the claw, the weight mashing him into the mud, and the stench of rotting fish.
The boy tried to push away the claw at his neck but had zero impact. He wiped away his tears with the sleeve of his jacket. “No, no, don’t. Please?”
The beast huffed once, then again, then deeper until, unmistakably, it burst into a diesel-throated laugh. Three more creatures slipped into the boy’s view, their split tongues tasting the air, crouching ever closer.
“Pojkar smakar gott,” said the one with yellow eyes.
“Inte nu!” growled blue eyes, the one pinning the boy. The others retreated a step.
Blue leaned in eye-to-eye with the lad. “My family wants to eat you. I want to eat you. Nothing but fish for twenty years and now here you are.”
Green eyes said, “We told you not to come back. Now we get to eat your whole family.”
“Wait!” said orange eyes, slithering her tongue at the boy. “He’s not afraid, not enough anyway. Why isn’t he afraid?”
Blue roared, “Others!” Blue, Green, and Orange scattered into the forest without a sound. Yellow leapt on top of a moss-bathed boulder, claws skritching on the rock as he settled into guard duty.
The boy sat up, coughed, and brushed dirt from his jacket.
“So, you’re the beta dragon,” said the boy. “Always left behind to babysit.”
“Håll käften, pojkan,” hissed Yellow.
“What is that language? Portuguese?” The boy reached into his jeans pocket. His hand wrapped around a quarter-sized rare earth magnet. Such magnets have astonishingly strong attraction. Two of them, even this small, are difficult to pull apart. Larger ones are actually dangerous because of their strength. “Chinese?”
“Shut up, boy.” Yellow’s eyes narrowed in anger.
“My name is Pike,” he said, standing up. Until now, anger had masked his fear but now it erupted. He risked everything on a hunch. If he was wrong, he would be eaten. Adrenaline trembled Pike’s hands but he forced his voice to sound calm. “Know what surprised me the most when I first saw you guys? Besides that you exist, I mean. It was how small you are. My dad weighs more than you. And no wings! Whoever heard of dragons with no wings?”
Yellow pounced, knocking Pike into the tangle of undergrowth, spewing wretched fish exhaust with every breath. “Idiot boy. Vee svim, ya, not doing de flying. I eat you now, pojkan.”
During his previous encounter with the monsters, he had found himself close enough to touch their black scales. They were slick like rocks covered with algae, but where the slime had scraped away there was an orange tint. He hoped it was rust. As Pike squirmed to get away, he slapped the magnet against the scales on Yellow’s leg. It stuck! The scales contained iron. He tried to pull the magnet off but it wouldn’t budge. Lots of iron!
He stopped struggling and rolled over to face Yellow. “Go ahead.”
Yellow reared back at this shocking turn.
Pike continued, “I’m just a kid. I can’t kill all of you. But if you eat me, the blue-eyed one will kill you for me. One of you dies today even if I have to die first.” While Yellow paused to unravel this strange twist of reasoning, Pike scrambled deeper into the bushes.
With a screech of fear and anger, Yellow crashed through the underbrush, his tongue searching for tastes of the boy’s scent. Losing the human child meant his own death, and without getting to eat him first. Desperately, Yellow plunged forward.
The boy’s smell ended at an ancient cedar tree. Yellow circled the trunk slowly. “I know you’re here, boy.” But not up in the branches, the tongue told him. On the far side, the trunk had been hollowed out by lightning. “There you are.”
But the opening was too small for Yellow’s head. He tried to grab the child with his teeth but failed.
Inside, Pike waited but not where Yellow expected. Four 16-penny nails gave him hand-and-footholds a foot above the ground. A two-foot section of steel I-beam stood next to him.
It had taken months of mowing lawns and running errands for neighbors to afford the dangerous one-pound rare earth magnet. He kept it safely inside a thick wooden box until he brought it to the cedar tree. The steel beam, which he had carted to the tree weeks earlier , lay on the ground near the trunk’s opening. Pike used a wooden mallet and plastic wedges to open the box, six feet away from the beam. With the lid off, he kicked the box over. The magnet and the I-beam shot towards each other, colliding with a ringing crash.
Yellow’s claw shot through the opening, snapping open and close in search of a human leg. Pike kicked over the beam. It wedged against the inside of the trunk while the magnet yanked the dragon’s leg to it with irresistible force. It would be impossible for the dragon to free his leg from the magnet, or the magnet from the steel.
Yellow roared in surprise, pushing against the trunk with his remaining three legs.
Pike suddenly realized he had no way out. He climbed down and tried to turn the beam but with Yellow pulling on it, it wasn’t going anywhere. The others would hear Yellow’s screams and return soon. Pike slumped against the back wall of the trunk, knowing he was finished. The plan had almost worked, though! So close.
And then the cedar trunk shredded away and the beam disappeared. Cautiously, Pike peeked out of the opening. Yellow used a back claw to try and free his foreleg from the magnet but only succeeded in getting both legs stuck. When he tried to bite at the magnet, his cheek stuck as well. Yellow thrashed and screamed, rolling away into the bushes.
Pike scampered out of the tree and raced through the forest without looking back. Dragon calls came from all directions, quickly grew closer, and then ceased. Out of breath, Pike stopped in a large clearing.
“Clever boy,” said Blue, stepping into the clearing in front of Pike. Green appeared to the left.
Orange ran up next to Blue. “Han är död,” she said.
Blue stepped forward. “Forgive my disrespect,” he said with a bow. “Dragonkiller.” The others bowed as well.
Pike drew himself up to his full fifty inches. “This can end right here. I have no need to kill you.”
“You misunderstand, dragonkiller,” Blue seethed. “I do need to kill you, now.” Blue launched himself towards Pike, reaching full speed in two steps.
Seconds dilated into minutes. Pike had time to notice the dirt and leaves flung up by Blue’s claws tearing at the earth. He coolly judged the ever-shrinking gap between them. There was no need to rush. At the last possible moment, Pike reached inside his jacket and pulled out a taser. He aimed and fired straight into Blue’s chest. The massive voltage surged across every iron-filled scale. Pike calmly sidestepped the unconscious dragon sliding past.
Pike stood over the nearly dead dragon and cried as his pent-up, long-delayed grief overwhelmed. He screamed at Blue, “You killed my dog!”
Orange and Green melted silently into the darkening forest.
Pike had spent days building a deadfall from a six-inch diameter log. He lashed a machete to one end. With a pulley, he had raised one end and tied the rope to a nearby tree.
When the flow of tears abated, Pike kicked the leaves of the clearing until he uncovered the X he had made of small rocks near the edge of the clearing. He grabbed one leg and pulled the dragon inch by inch until Blue’s neck lay at the center of cross. Blue twitched so Pike pulled the taser trigger again.
From his belt Pike removed a hunting knife, then walked over to the rope. He slashed the rope and the log fell.
Dinner was underway. Mashed potatoes, fried chicken, salad, so it was Saturday. Street lights began to flicker to life on the suburban street outside. Mom scowled at the empty chair to her right.
Dad caught the look. “He’ll be here any minute.” On cue, the back door opened and closed.
“You’re late,” called out Dad.
Mom covered her relief with, “Be sure to wash up before…”
Pike, a Jackson Pollock in blood with a necklace of dragon’s teeth, slowly entered the dining room. Speechless mouths gaped at both ends of the table. Pike walked to his Dad and slapped a bloody foot-long talon next to his plate.