Gertrude’s grandmother used to tell her there were two types of people in the world: People who preferred art museums and people who preferred natural history museums. Theoretically there was also a third group consisting of people who did not like any museums, but Gertrude never had much use for them anyway.
The skeletons and dioramas of long-dead animals never brought to mind old ghosts or lives cut short when Gertrude wandered the museum exhibits. History was filled with both, of course, but seeing it on display always felt more like a privileged window to somewhere far off rather than a cautionary tale or something to fear.
Natural history museums used to be the domain of dinosaur bones and speculation. But that was years ago. Before glaciers began to melt and dragons awoke to migrate farther south.
No one knew what happened to the larger dragons–the dangerous ones. No one knew why the smaller dragons came to the cities, only that they chose to settle in the sewers and subways systems. Some people–foolish ones–adopted hatchlings that had been abandoned or orphaned. They told themselves a collar and a leash could make a fierce predator into a house pet. How Gertrude envied their reckless confidence.
When she was younger, Gertrude’s grandmother would braid her hair while they watched game shows in the early evening. As her grandmother combed her wavy, dark hair Gertrude would ask what it had been like before the dragons came back.
As she divided Gertrude’s hair and began to braid, her grandmother would talk about days when the subways still ran without interruptions and water mains broke for reasons that had nothing to do with dragon teeth or claws. The tugs on Gertrude’s hair would punctuate each story as she tried to imagine manhole covers without the now-common warning “THERE ARE DRAGONS HERE” emblazoned on them in bold capital letters.
Her grandmother was always careful to tell Gertrude to be wary of dragons and remind her of their many dangers. But even as a child she heard the longing in her grandmother’s voice. The wish that she’d been one of those foolish people with a dragon of their own.
Gertrude had been eleven when her grandmother’s arthritis put an end to the braids. Three years later, at fourteen, she had seen her grandmother placed in a nursing home. She had died a year ago. She was buried the day after Gertrude’s seventeenth birthday.
She never found a dragon to adopt. As far as Gertrude knew her grandmother had never even seen one outside of newspaper clippings and television segments. And, of course, museum exhibits.
Her grandmother was also a lover of natural history museums.
Walking from the bus stop to the American Museum of Natural History, Gertrude studiously avoided the grates and manhole covers in the sidewalk. It had been years since any incineration incidents, and even those might have been more urban legend than fact, but as her grandmother had always said, “You can be reckless later. As long you’re careful right now.”
Her grandmother’s warning ran on a loop in her head. She told herself she had to remember the part about being careful but it was the part about being reckless that she kept hearing over and over.
Gertrude stood at the base of the museum’s steps as she cleaned her glasses with the hem of her lucky red shirt. Even with the short-sleeved shirt and sandals, her jeans were uncomfortably warm in the summer heat.
The museum’s heavy air conditioning would be a welcome change. There was plenty to explore in the museum’s various wings and exhibits and a variety of places to hide with a sandwich and a laptop to while away the hours. So far she had made it an entire week without being asked to leave or informed of the museum’s policy on outside food and drink (or loitering).
Surveying the front of the museum now with her clean glasses, she realized she wasn’t the only one hoping to spend the summer haunting the museum.
She had first noticed him four days ago when he leaned against a museum wall while he smoked in a light shower. The rain had been heavy enough to soak his button down shirt and change the color of his khaki pants but light enough that his cigarette stayed lit. He had looked a bit like a wet cat as she watched him from the shelter of her bus stop. That is, if a wet cat could look supremely unimpressed, dashing, and just a little bit dangerous–like he might claw you if you tried to touch him.
Today he sat on the steps in a black t-shirt and khakis again staring intently at a laptop computer perched on his lap. Gertrude was embarrassed to notice that his hair was shorter, newly cut, and he had on glasses.
He was smoking again. She wondered if anyone had told him that cigarettes would kill him. A girlfriend must have. Unless she was a skinny model who smoked to keep the weight off. Then she wouldn’t care. Maybe they split a pack of cigarettes every week. Or maybe he smoked a pack a day by himself.
He was probably already eighteen but with the short hair and casual shirt he looked younger. As she watched him remove the cigarette from his mouth, holding it between his thumb and index finger, Gertrude was struck by how much more illicit the cigarette looked held that way.
Too late, she realized she had stared at him for too long. His eyes shifted from his computer to her direction. Quickly, and probably without much subtlety she looked away. As she climbed the long row of steps, she forced herself to keep her eyes straight ahead.
Restless from her encounter on the front steps and an idea she couldn’t let go, Gertrude found no comfort in the museum that day; her own skin felt snug and scratchy. Having done a quick circuit of the prehistoric dragon skeletons on display, she accepted defeat and proceeded to the coat check to retrieve her too-large-for-security’s-tastes-bag.
Moving through the coat check line, she thought about her grandmother’s warnings to be careful and save reckless for later. Gertrude began to wonder if it might just be time to be a little reckless.
As she waited for her bag to be exchanged for her coat check token, someone tapped her shoulder. Turning around, she was unsurprised to see he had found her. After circling each other for days in various parts of the museum, it only made sense that he would find her now, stopping next to the coat check line to approach her.
His laptop was hidden away in a messenger bag with a museum ticket stub pinned to the front with a large safety pin. The cigarette was gone though the smell of smoke lingered on his breath and maybe even his clothes. Inside, this close, she could see that his glasses were thin wire-rims; the lenses still too tinted from the sun outside to gauge the color of his eyes.
“I saw you watching me,” he said with an easy smile. “I’ve seen you a few times actually.”
Gertrude didn’t know how to reply. As they looked at each other she wondered if he noticed her eyes widen. She hoped not.
He leaned closer to be heard over the din of the museum’s entrance hall. She felt his breath against her ear as he said, “Does your red shirt mean stop?”
She said, “Isn’t that what red usually means?”
Another smile. “What if I don’t want to do that?”
“I guess I’d need a reason to let you keep going.” As she said it, smoothly and without any indication of her nerves, she couldn’t tell which of them was more surprised. Their eyes locked and she could see now that his were brown, almost black.
They walked out of the museum together as he asked, “How about I keep you company on your next errand? That seems like a pretty good reason.”
Back on the pavement she turned to him. They were almost the same height. Eyes level with his, she said, “A name would be a better one.”
“I asked first,” she replied, still impressed by the calmness in her voice; the easy way she could talk even as she took in the square line of his jaw, the elegant curves of his fingers, and wondered how she was standing on the street talking to someone like him as if it didn’t matter at all.
“Alec,” he said after a moment. “Now you have two good reasons. And you owe me a name.”
“Gertrude,” she said as she automatically offered her hand to shake.
“Pretty name, but you must get lines about that all the time,” he said with another easy smile as they shook hands. Instead of letting go, Alec shifted position so they were holding hands as he looked toward 82nd Street. Gertrude was inordinately glad he couldn’t see the blush that must be creeping along her cheeks.
“So,” he said, “where are we headed next?”
A moment ago, Gertrude would not have had an answer. She would have said her awkward goodbyes, headed home, and tried to avoid Alec the next time she came to the museum–if she came back at all.
Now, as she held a stranger’s hand on the sidewalk in front of hundreds of people, she realized she had been careful long enough.
“Downtown,” she said with complete certainty.”I’m adopting a dragon today.”
It was too loud in the subway to talk. As the train moved them closer to Union Square, Gertrude wondered if she was making a terrible mistake. Really, though, if anyone was to blame it was her father.
As she handed him his carry-on suitcase, her father had smiled at her.
“I expect a signed book for every day you’re away,” she said as she always did before he went away.
He offered the expected reply, “I hardly think you need that many copies of my books.”
“I’ll muddle through somehow,” she said as they hugged. As his tour continued, shipments would begin to come from various destinations with inscriptions from all of the authors her father had met along the way. The glamour of so many books, so many gifts, made up for her father being away for weeks at a time whenever a new book came out. Mostly.
It was harder when he left this time—his first tour since they had buried Gertrude’s grandmother. Previous tours had seen Gertrude spending her days visiting her grandmother and listening to stories about dragons. Now that she was old enough to be left alone, now that there was no one else to be with, Gertrude wasn’t sure what to do with herself.
Before he had disappeared into a waiting taxi, her father had given her one more kiss and hug. His parting advice had been, “Don’t adopt a dragon while I’m gone.”
Since then, she had thought of little else.
She started haunting the museum hoping to assuage her sudden dragon-shaped want in other ways.
It hadn’t worked.
Even as Gertrude had told herself it was madness, she knew she was just marking time–just waiting for some sign that it was the right time to find her dragon. Since the idea had taken hold she’d had no doubt that there was a dragon out there meant for her. There had to be.
Sitting next to Alec, still somehow holding hands, Gertrude knew she had finally found her moment. Soon, she was certain, she would find her dragon.
Union Square was known for its weekend farmer’s market. Even dragons could not change that. Now, though, instead of the usual produce and freshly baked foods some industrious vendors also had dragon hatchlings. Orphaned before they hatched or too small to make themselves known among their brothers and sisters, these unfortunates would die without intervention.
Most people—the sensible ones—thought the hatchlings should be left alone. Darwinism at work. Reduce an already undesirable population. Stop pretending dragon teeth were meant for anything but rending flesh from bone and causing destruction.
Other people—people Gertrude now sought—rescued these runts and orphans so that they might still be saved.
Standing in front of a stall full of dragons, Gertrude let go of Alec’s hand for the first time since they’d left the museum steps. She gave her donation to the man sitting behind the table. He easily palmed the bills with a hand dominated by gnarled knuckles.
She offered that same hand to the smallest dragon on the table. Squat with four legs, a long tail and wings that had not yet opened, the dragon had purple scales tipped with yellow. Eventually those scales would shimmer as if they were made of gold or precious gems.
She could easily have held the dragon in one hand. Years of reading and countless museum visits told her the dragon would not get much larger. She held her hand out to the hatchling as it blinked its round, orange eyes at her. Staring intently at her hand, the dragon made a squeaking sound.
You only had a few seconds to impress a dragon—moments to move from food to friend. If you missed that chance, or worse wasted it, the opportunity was gone forever. It might be possible to train them, maybe even domesticate some, but no dragon changed its first impression of a human.
As Gertrude held out her hand, letting the dragon find her scent and sense her temper, she held her breath. It was too late, she knew, to find any other dragon. Far too late when she already felt her heart constrict watching this small, plum-colored hatchling. Alec inched closer to her.
“I think it’s a girl,” he whispered, neither of them taking their eyes off the hatchling. “I read that females always have longer tails. Most of her length is tail.”
“I think you’re right,” Gertrude whispered back.
She waited for the telltale pinch of the dragon biting her hand, telling Gertrude she was not wanted. It would hurt.
She closed her eyes and took what comfort she could from Alec’s presence. He wanted her. He, she somehow knew, would not be leaving her.
As the dragon leaned forward Alec moved closer still so that his arm wrapped around Gertrude, holding her other hand.
Slowly, the hatchling opened her mouth. But instead of the bite of sharp teeth, Gertrude felt a leathery tongue scrape across her hand, licking her. Claiming her.
Gently, the dragon began to climb up Gertrude’s arm.
Alec cleared his throat as he watched the dragon ascend. “What are you going to call her?”
“Adelaide,” she said immediately. “It was my grandmother’s favorite name in the world. After Gertrude, of course.”
“Of course,” Alec said with a smile Gertrude could hear in his voice.
Carefully, Adelaide found a comfortable seat on her shoulder. Poking past a strand of Gertrude’s hair, she leaned over and licked Alec’s cheek—claiming him as much as she had claimed Gertrude.
Gertrude stared as Alec’s eyes widened behind his glasses.
“I’ve never read about them doing that,” she said quietly, letting Adelaide wrap her tail around Gertrude like a necklace.
Alec leaned over hesitantly to stroke Adelaide’s head as he said, “Neither have I.”
Still holding hands, they walked away from the stall with Adelaide easily keeping her footing on Gertrude’s shoulder.
“I guess this means you’re stuck with me,” Alec said into the silence.
“My father comes home next week. I’m making spaghetti to welcome him back,” she said as she watched a bus turn the corner.
“I do love spaghetti,” he replied as they stepped over a “THERE ARE DRAGONS HERE” warning carved into the pavement.