“I don’t get many requests to do soles,” the tattoo artist said.
Darla clenched her teeth. “No kidding.”
She had slathered her foot with a topical anesthetic, but the effects were wearing off and she was starting to wonder how she was going to walk home.
Greg, the tattoo guy, must have read her mind. “You walked here, didn’t you?” he said. “Why don’t I get my wife to take you home? I don’t know how far away you live, but it’s going to seem a lot farther going back.”
“It’s just a few blocks from here,” Darla said, “but I have to admit a ride would be nice.”
When Greg’s wife Lacy dropped her off, Darla hopped to the stairs leading to her little apartment over the garage. After trying various options, she got up the stairs by sitting down and pushing herself up one step at a time using her arms and her “good” foot. She hoped Mom wasn’t watching her through the kitchen window—and she was glad the weather had warmed up enough to keep her backside from freezing as she inched up the stairs.
After crawling through the door, she flopped onto her couch. She had expected the tattoo to hurt, but she hadn’t been prepared for the reality of the pain on the sole of her foot. Still, it was worth it if it made David smile. She pulled her foot up and looked at the bottom. It was hard to tell what it was going to look like when the swelling went down.
Two days later, she had her answer. Though the foot still hurt, the design was clear. Small blue overlapping scales covered the bottom of her foot. Lighter in the middle and darker around the edges, there were hints of green and purple in the darker borders of the scales, but the overall color was blue. After putting on her socks and clogs, she hobbled over to the main house and into the kitchen.
“Where have you been all weekend?” Mom asked. “David’s been asking about you.”
“I, uh, have something special to show David, and it wasn’t ready till now.”
“Oh? What is it?”
“It’s something private. Between him and me.”
Mom’s tolerant smile changed to a look of alarm as Darla limped past. “What happened to your foot? You’re limping!”
“I hurt it a little but it’s already getting better. I promise.” She couldn’t risk Mom being concerned enough to look at the foot.
Without pausing, she continued on toward the den that had been converted into a hospital room for her little brother David.
“Darla!” His face lit up when she walked in the door. “I missed you!”
“I missed you too, buddy.” She sat down on the end of his bed.
“Remember that dream you told me about last week?”
His brow wrinkled in thought. His bald head made his skin seem even more fragile and transparent than it had before. “The dragon dream?”
“Yes, that’s the one. Can you tell it to me again?”
“Well, I dreamed a huge blue dragon was flying in the sky. He was so beautiful! And somehow, in my dream, I knew he was going somewhere wonderful. Just looking at him filled me up with joy. But when I called and begged him to let me ride on his back and fly with him, he just said ‘I’m not there yet.’ Do you think there are blue dragons in heaven and that they’d let me ride them?”
Darla smiled at him. “I dunno, David. But I know if heaven has blue dragons, you can ride them as much as you want. Look, I want to show you something.”
She took the sock off her right foot and swung it up on to the bed so David could see it. His eyes widened till she feared they would pop, and his thin face lit up with a hundred-watt smile.
“You got a dragon-scale tattoo? That is so awesome! What did Mom say?”
“Mom doesn’t know. It’s our secret, okay?”
He nodded, grinning. “Are you going to get the other foot done?”
She had expected this question, had been bracing for it.
“Yes, as soon as this one stops hurting and itching, I’ll get the other one done. We can pretend I am a blue dragon—in disguise. It’ll be our secret.”
By June, two months later, scales covered Darla’s legs up to her knees. Her car savings fund took a hit, but she didn’t really care because the dragon feet made David happy. She began working extra odd jobs to cover the cost of her ink. She still hadn’t told her parents. She wore sneakers and jeans most of the time so there was no reason for them to suspect that under those faded jeans she had dragon legs.
David was thrilled. “If you have dragon feet, you should have a dragon name. A girl dragon name.”
They spent several delightful days discussing and discarding every dragonish name they could think of, before settling on the name “Indiglory,” to emphasize the beautiful color of the scales and the general gloriousness of being a dragon. From that moment on, David never called her Darla again unless Mom or Dad was in earshot.
That evening, however, Mom climbed up to Darla’s apartment after David was asleep.
“Darla, you know I’m thrilled you and David have such a close bond. I would never have believed a nineteen-year-old and a nine-year-old would be such good pals. But Dad and I are worried about you.”
“Why? Because I care about my little brother?”
“No, dear—because you care too much. When was the last time you went to a movie with your friends? When was the last time you talked about taking college classes? What kind of life are you going to have left after David dies?”
“Don’t say that! Why do you give up so easily? He’s not gonna die! He’s getting all the right medicine! I’m helping him get better!”
“I don’t deny that you’re helping him feel better, Darla. But you know as well as I do that the chances are very slim he’ll recover.”
Darla put her hands over her ears. “Don’t say that!”
The next Saturday she kept another appointment with Greg, wearing a long skirt that reached to her ankles.
“I’m ready for the thighs now,” she said, trembling inside.
She was a modest girl who hated baring her thighs to anyone. But Lacy had been working side-by-side with Greg on her tattoos, and that somehow made it more bearable.
The scales had been gradually increasing in size as they crept higher up her legs. She would never have believed she would think her legs looked beautiful covered with scales, but she did. It helped that Greg and Lacy were such gifted artists. Getting the inside of her thighs done was even more excruciating than her feet, but at least she didn’t have to walk on them. She lay with tears streaming down her cheeks, but she didn’t move or cry out. If David could tolerate what he’d been through, who was she to complain about the temporary pain of a tattoo?
She knew that somehow, her tattoos kept David going. Each new addition to her scales delighted him. They spent hours speculating on the details of dragon life. Since the first tattoo, she had read him two whole series of books about dragons, making a point to choose books that portrayed dragons in a positive, heroic light. They now referred to his room as his “lair,” and they piled all his most prized possessions under his hospital-style bed to stand in as his dragon hoard.
That night, as she lay awake in bed with her thighs burning, she asked herself how far she was willing to go. She had once thought she would stop at the soles of her feet. Now, she often thought of herself as Indiglory rather than Darla. How would she feel about her beautiful dragon legs twenty years from now? Thirty? It didn’t matter. David mattered. He never talked about his illness anymore. The dragon dream had captured his imagination—and for the rest of her life, the tattoos would remind her of her brother.
By July her back was done, complete with folded-up wings and tattooed spikes down the middle—except for the part where a rider might sit. Her car savings were severely depleted. But when she put a swimsuit on under her clothes, and then showed her back to David, he gasped in delight.
“Oh, Indiglory, the spikes are perfect! I always imagined them a solid indigo blue!”
At that moment, Mom walked into the room and stopped dead in her tracks, her hand over her mouth. Darla stood there in her swimsuit, her blue-scaled legs bare.
“Please tell me you just drew on yourself with markers,” said Mom.
“Isn’t it awesome?” David said. “She’s my dragon sister now! Her new name is Indiglory.”
“Turn around,” Mom ordered. Her voice shook in a way that Darla had never heard before.
Darla turned around, exposing her back to her mother’s scrutiny. She heard the horrified gasp, but she kept a smile on her face and winked at David.
“I have nothing to say,” Mom said. “I’m speechless. I’ll let your father deal with this.”
She all but ran from the room and slammed the door, but Darla could still hear the sobs that echoed from the hallway.
She braced herself for the confrontation to come, wishing she could keep her parents and David happy. It would have been easier to take if Dad had been angry rather than sorrowful.
“I can’t order you to stop defacing your body,” he said, “because you’re an adult and you’re earning the money to do this to yourself. But I just want you to know it grieves me to think you didn’t believe your body was attractive by itself. You’ll always be beautiful to me, Darla, but the tattoos don’t make you any more beautiful than you were before.”
“It’s not about beauty or vanity, Dad. It’s about David. It’s a private world he and I share. A world where I’m a dragon called Indiglory and he’s my little friend.”
“He has been talking about dragons a lot lately,” said Mom. “He barely notices his physical discomforts because he’s so focused on dragons. I can’t fault you on your motives, Darla.”
Now that the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, Darla could get her hands and arms done. Lacy had misgivings about doing her hands.
“You may regret it someday,” she said. “I know you’re doing it for your brother, but someday you’re going to want to have your own life. It might be hard for you to do some things if you look like a giant blue lizard.”
Darla said nothing. Greg and Lacy were a second family to her now. How could they question her when she was single-handedly keeping David alive? Back in the winter, the doctor had said David would be gone before Easter—yet here it was August and he was still able to go outside every afternoon, to talk and eat and smile and laugh. Whatever the future cost might be, it was worth it. Her hands were inked with beautiful little scales, none larger than a quarter of an inch across. That night, Mom cried at the supper table.
Eyebrows were raised at work when Darla showed up with her newly inked hands and arms, but since it didn’t affect her ability to stock the shelves at Wal-mart, there were no repercussions.
By the beginning of October, her neck and chest were done.
“Don’t even think about asking us to do your face,” Greg said. “I promise you’ll regret it. Maybe not right away, but years from now when you have children of your own.”
“Chill,” she said. “I’m not ready to get my face done either.”
Temperatures fell as autumn progressed. During the warmest part of the day, Darla wheeled David outside to the back yard, after all but burying him under blankets and putting a thick fuzzy hat on his head. They talked about dragons and watched the leaves blow off the trees one by one.
“You’re almost all dragon now, Indiglory,” David said. “But you’re still my sister too. I like having a dragon for a sister. It makes me fearless.”
Darla smiled. “You’ve always been fearless, David. I’m the coward.”
He was even thinner now, and fear clutched at her heart when she looked at him. She couldn’t still pretend he was getting better, or deny what her eyes saw every day: her little brother was fading away.
When the shorter days of November came, they had to give up going outside. Darla kept David busy helping her draw a map of Indiglory’s dragon home world. For hours at a time, they discussed the history behind each feature on the map. David’s thin face lit up each time she laid the map out on the floor so she could work on it while he watched and made suggestions.
On December 3rd, the first snow fell, blanketing everything in white powder and transforming their little neighborhood into an enchanted dream world.
“Can’t you stay with me tonight?” David asked. “On a snowy night like this, I could use a dragon to keep me warm.”
How could she say no? She ran to her apartment to get an old pair of shorts and a t-shirt to sleep in. She giggled to think of having a sleepover with her little brother.
“Won’t you be cold with shorts on, Indiglory?”
“Dragons don’t get cold,” she said. “We keep our favorite humans warm.”
She climbed into the bed beside him, on the side without the tubes and wires, and carefully folded her arms around his impossibly fragile body as he snuggled next to her.
Mom came in. “What’s going on here?”
“We’re having a sleepover,” David said. “My dragon sister is keeping me warm.”
“Mom, could you please open the curtains before you turn off the light?” Darla asked. “We want the moonlight to shine in on us tonight.”
David yawned. “The first full moon after the first snow is the dragon moon.”
A frisson of excitement trilled down Darla’s spine. The dragon moon. It sounded so mysterious and tantalizing.
They lay awake for some time, whispering together and watching the moonlight on the snow. Finally, David fell asleep and Darla felt her own eyes drooping.
When she awoke, the moon was high in the sky and she felt something was wrong—not with David, but with herself. Ever so gently, she withdrew her arms from around David and slid from the high hospital bed onto the floor. Her feet felt weird. She walked over to where the moonlight came in through the window, and looked down. They weren’t her feet anymore. They were beautiful dragon’s feet, covered with glittering scales and complete with dangerous-looking talons.
She held her hands out. They, too, had transformed into dragon claws. The muscles of her arms and legs rippled under real dragon scales. It was incredible. Turning to look down at David, she was puzzled at how far away he looked, until she realized dragons were taller than girls. She flexed her shoulders and felt her wings unfurling behind her as they filled with the blood pumped from her dragon heart. If she didn’t get out of the house soon, she wouldn’t fit through the door.
Leaning down, she scooped up David in her dragon arms. He opened his eyes and they widened in the moonlight. His face filled with joy.
“It’s the dragon moon!” he said. “It made you real, Indiglory!”
“I have to get outside before I get too big. Do you want to come with me?”
He nodded, his eyes huge and bright in his pinched little face. He disconnected himself from all the tubes and wires and pulled on his old red bathrobe, now ridiculously big for him.
Hugging him to her dragon chest, she tiptoed through the house to the family room door, her long spiked tail dragging behind her. David giggled as she squeezed through the sliding door and popped out onto the patio.
“Come on,” she said. “Time to climb on my back. What could be better than riding a dragon on the night of the dragon moon? The snow can’t make you cold if you’re with me.”
She bent down and kissed his forehead with her dragon lips before he climbed on to her back and hooked his skinny little legs around her shoulders. Dropping to all fours, she spread her enormous wings out till they reached from side to side of their big backyard. Hot dragon blood coursed through her veins and filled her fierce dragon heart with strength and courage.
“Hang on tight!” she said.
David wrapped his little arms around her newly-lengthened neck. Even though she had never had wings before, she knew how to use them. Her mighty muscles lifted the wings and then brought them down. Just like that, she was off the ground. A few swift strokes and she and David soared skyward above the glittering moonlit world.
“Where are we going?” David asked, his voice full of joy.
“Wherever we want!” she answered, and they both laughed.
Denise Emerson lay awake in bed, worrying about David, her beloved only son. He was so frail now—he could slip away at any time. Thank goodness Darla was with him. If anything happened, Darla would let her know.
She heard a sound she couldn’t place at first. It sounded like someone was dragging something heavy through the house while making clicking noises. Yikes!
She nudged her husband. “Mark! I think there’s someone in the house.”
He sat up, alert. They heard the sliding glass door in the family room open.
“You stay here,” he said, swinging his feet over the side of the bed and stuffing his feet into his slippers.
“No, I’m coming with you.” The icy fingers of fear gripped her heart and she didn’t want to be alone.
Mark grabbed a baseball bat from the hall closet and they crept into the family room, where the sliding door stood wide open. Hand in hand, they ran to the door in time to see an enormous blue dragon spreading out its wings in the moonlight. David was on the dragon’s back in his old red bathrobe. His arms were wrapped around the dragon’s scaly neck, and while they watched, he laid his head down against that mighty neck. The dragon beat its huge wings, rose gracefully into the air, and soared across the full moon in the cold night sky.
She should be screaming or calling out, but instead she just watched that dragon—it must be Darla, somehow—fly away with her son. Hot tears welled from her eyes and cooled instantly on her cold cheeks.
“Well, they’re gone,” Mark said. “Both of our babies.” He sounded as forlorn as she felt.
He pulled the sliding door closed behind them when they finally walked back inside, and she said, “Don’t lock it. In case they come back.”
“They’re not coming back.”
He led her back to David’s room, the room where he had fought for life for over a year now. Eight months of that time had been a gift—a gift from the dragon that had once been their daughter. The door of David’s room was open and she heard Mark gasp in surprise as he crossed the threshold. She pushed past him to look.
Both of their children were still curled up on the bed. Darla’s eyes were open, her pearly white arms wrapped around the lifeless body of her little brother. There was no sign of a tattoo.
“Your tattoos!” said Mark. “What happened to your tattoos?”
Darla sat up and stared at her arms in the moonlight. “They belonged to Indiglory. I guess she took them when she took David.”
She looked at David’s body, stroked the soft bald head one last time.
“David’s dream came true, Mom. He rode home on a dragon.”