by Robert Boucheron
A little man in a Hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts strolled along a sandy beach. He had skinny legs and a round tummy. A fringe of gray hair peeped from under a straw hat. When a shell or a clump of seaweed lay in his path, he gave it a kick.
A cliff appeared through the morning haze. The man grew excited and picked up the pace. By the time he reached the rocky outcrop, he was panting.
“I wonder if he’s still here,” he said to no one.
There was the mouth of the cave. It looked smaller than he remembered, but everything looked smaller than it did sixty years ago. He stopped, cupped his hands to his cheeks, and shouted into the cave.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are!”
The little man squinted into the dark. He hopped up and down with impatience. A low huffing and puffing emerged from the cave, like a rusty steam engine trying to start. The noise grew louder, a wisp of smoke emerged, and at last the head of a dragon. It had pointed ears, rheumy eyes, and a snout filled with sharp yellow teeth. The dragon’s green scales clanked like chain mail.
“What do you want?” the dragon said. “Who is it?”
“Puff, it’s me!” The little man nearly turned inside out with glee. “Jack Pappenheimer. I came back!”
“Pappenheimer?” The dragon crawled halfway out. Its front legs were gnarled, with claws the size of sickles.
“You knew me as Jackie Paper when I was this high.” The man placed a hand three feet above the sand.
“Oh, right. The kid who brought strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff.”
“From my father’s stationery shop, discontinued items. You rascal! How are you?”
“The same as ever.” The dragon emerged fully, sprawled on the sand, and blinked in the sunlight. A gigantic tail flicked a heap of bones.
“I just retired from forty-plus years in accounting. I’m on vacation in Honalee. I wanted to see the old stomping ground.”
“Well, here it is. Stomp away.” Puff the Magic Dragon looked out to sea, past the little man in the loud shirt, and yawned.
“I’m so happy to see you. You haven’t changed a bit.”
“A dragon lives forever, Jack. What happened to you?
“I grew up. I had to go to school. Then there was soccer practice and piano lessons and chores and homework. I forgot about you. I went away to college, started a career, got married, had two kids, and they grew up. Now I’m divorced and free as a bird.”
“Good for you. It sounds like a full life.”
“It was. Except now I have so much time. I got to thinking about the past, and I wanted to reconnect. So here I am!”
“Fabulous. So what do you think of Honalee?”
“The beach is the same, but the town is so commercialized. All those condos and theme restaurants.”
“And gift shops. Did you bring me anything?”
“Sorry. I didn’t know if you’d still be here.”
“It’s mostly tourist trash, anyway.”
“I got up early and grabbed a bite at the breakfast buffet and hit the beach. After I’d gone a mile or so, I decided to look for Cherry Lane. Then I found your cave. At least the developers haven’t spoiled it.”
“So, Jack, now that you’ve seen the sights and had a brisk walk and checked on a certain large winged reptile, what can I do for you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Travel on a ship with billowed sail? Force some pirates to lower their flag?”
“Sword fights on the poop deck and twenty-one gun salutes! We frolicked.”
“Sure we did. And now?”
“Maybe we could just hang for a while.”
“I hate to disappoint you, Jack, but the sailing ships and noble kings and princes have moved on. Just like you did.”
“But you’re still here.”
“Where would I go? And what are you staring at?”
“I always thought you were male. I thought we were . . . pals.”
“Binary gender is so yesterday, Jack. If you must know, dragons are hermaphrodites. You made an assumption that suited you. Does it change anything to know the truth now?”
“No, I guess not. It’s just that . . . during all the years . . .”
“Spit it out.”
“Was there anyone else?”
“Did any other boys and girls come and play with old Puff? No, Jack, you were the one.”
“Your one and only?”
“The little boy who lit up my life, the playmate of my dreams. Isn’t that what you wanted to hear? Then one gray night it happened. You didn’t come. I was so sad and lonely.”
“No longer brave?”
“I slipped into my cave.”
“What a horrible tragedy.”
“I got over it.”
The two friends were silent for a while.
“Maybe I should get back to the hotel,” Jack said.
“Lunchtime.” Puff glanced at the sun, now a distinct bright disc that burned away the haze. “I wish I could join you, but it might be embarrassing. People would talk.”
“I don’t care what anyone thinks.”
“Yes, you do, Jack. A boy and his dragon. What a hoot!”
“Can you do one last thing?”
“Blow a smoke ring. The way you used to.”
Puff stretched. The huge head rose, the scales rippled, and a rumble came from deep inside. The fearsome jaws gaped. A lazy jet of smoke issued and curled into a perfect circle.
Jack laughed with childish delight. The laugh turned into a coughing fit.
“Easy, there, Jackie,” the dragon said. “Are you okay?”
“Better,” he said, catching his breath. “I quit cigarettes a few weeks ago.”
“It takes a while for the lungs to clear.”
“So long, Puff. I’ll always remember you.”
Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, NY. He has worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, VA. His short stories and essays appear in Bangalore Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Oxford Magazine, Pennyshorts, Poydras Review, Short Fiction, and other magazines.