Stay down. Stay down. Stay down. It ran like a mantra through her head. The front door slammed behind her and Layla, the gray-muzzled black lab who had been patiently waiting on the worn rug by the door, stiffly levered herself to her feet, tail wagging. Anna hurried past her without a glance or a pat to the head and the dog stared after her, ears drooping. Charting a steady course across the scuffed wood floor toward the stairs, Anna’s vision had tunneled down to a path only a little wider than the runner tacked to the oak risers. She blindly looped her messenger bag over the newel post as she took the steps two at a time, ignoring the thud of the books inside it as they bounced against the wood.

She could feel it stirring inside her, could almost hear the rasp of wings and the slide of scales as it slowly began to uncurl. A whimper forced its way past her tight throat and clenched teeth. She moved even faster, shoving open the door to the bathroom adjacent to her bedroom and closing it with loud snick as the bolt slid across the strike plate and shot home. She stripped off her sweatshirt in an awkward dance of jerky arms, tangled hair, and desperation and then stood utterly still, back pressed tightly to the door, both hands covering her mouth: holding the world out, holding herself in. Then, as if all her strength had suddenly evaporated, she slid bonelessly down the door and landed on the tile floor with a painful thump, pressing her face against her raised knees.

The voices ricocheted around in her head, each one clawing its way over the back of the mantra she had been using to maintain control until it was pushed so far down she could no longer hear even an echo of it.

A C-. I expect you to do better next time, Anna.

Come home right after school. You’ll do it again, and do it right this time.

We’re going to have to rotate you into the JV squad but at least you’ll get plenty of playing time.

Just hold still and-

A soft knock at the door startled her.

“Honey, is everything okay?”

“Fine, Mom. It’s fine.” Catching her voice as it began to rise in panic, she closed her eyes and held her breath for several seconds before trying again. “I’ll be out in a minute.” She forced a laugh. “Shouldn’t have had that second pop before the bus came.”

Her mom’s voice sounded uncertain. “If you’re sure….” A voice called from downstairs, muffled but clearly impatient. “I have to take your brother to soccer practice. Your dad’ll be home in an hour. Don’t forget, he wants you to help him finish cleaning the garage tonight and I’d like you to set the table, too. I’ll start dinner as soon as we get back.”

Panic fluttered against her ribs. “I remember. I will.” As the sound of footsteps faded away, the muscles in her left arm cramped painfully and she stared at the hand with something akin to despair. It was like it didn’t even belong to her anymore. Slowly, the fingers folded down as if grasping a handle and the razor sharp claws that had started to push out from the nail beds gently pricked her palm.

No. No no no nononono. She rocked a little, eyes pressed tightly shut. I’m fine. It’s going to be fine. This isn’t going to happen. I’m just going to breathe and everything will be fine. From the other side of the bathroom door came a whine and a soft scratching. To herself as much as to Layla she said “It’s okay. I’m okay. I’ll let you outside in a little bit.” She wrapped her arms around her legs, left hand angled away, and squeezed tightly against the pressure building inside her.

This wasn’t going to work. She couldn’t push it down this time. Defeated, she turned her head to the side and let it fall back against the door. Tears rolled down her cheeks and she was caught within a seemingly endless minute where everything was strangely normal, manageable, controllable. Then the beast uncurled within her and that illusion of control slid away as she watched, remote and with something almost like relief, as the dragon pushed its way to the surface, this other within her now ascendant.

Anna…the Anna now trapped within her own skin, heard as much as felt the soft rasp of claws and her focus shifted to her arm. The nascent talon of her left index finger scraped across her right forearm and was chased by a welling of iridescent red scales that raced down her skin – as if the claw was drawing them to the surface. With each shift, each fading of her humanity into this serpent that coiled inside her, the fear that she might never come back – might never be “Anna” again – grew. Within that fear, though, was a small seed with roots that burrowed deeper each day. A sibilant whisper of doubt that asked if giving in to the change, giving way to the dragon forever, was really such a bad thing.

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