Anna Smith looked up in confusion, the silk shirt she had been admiring just moments before fluttering to the ground. The ringing in her ears caused by the deafening sound of shattering glass had ceased, and from outside the store she could hear screams and the tinkling of glass shards hitting the concrete floor. Leaving the shirt where it was, she grabbed her young son's hand and tore into the mall proper and froze, mouth agape. The magnificent glass ceiling over the foyer of the mall had shattered, leaving huge chunks of glass strewn around on the floor. All around her, people were scrambling towards the exit, away from the gaping hole in the roof. A terrorist attack? she wondered. No, it couldn't be. There would have been an explosion if it was. So what was it?
She ran to the balcony and peered over the edge. What she saw astounded her. There on the ground floor, shaking fragments of glass out of its emerald scales, was an enormous lizard of some kind. She stared at it, her hands gripping the railing until her knuckles turned white. The beast unfurled leathery wings as long as semi trucks. The creature itself was dwarfed by its immense wings, looking to be only as long as a school bus. The combination gave it a lopsided appearance. In fact, it would have looked comical had it not looked so fierce. Beating its wings, it raised its crowned head and let out a high keening sound that made the hair on her neck stand on end.
"Come on, Derrick," she said, tearing her eyes away from the creature. "We have to go." But Derrick wasn't there. Her heart skipped a beat. "Oh no," she breathed, glancing around frantically. He was nowhere to be found. "Derrick!" she called, panic squeezing her heart like an invisible hand. She jogged over towards the exit, hoping against hope that he had been smart enough to head for the doors and wait for her there. As she passed the stairs, however, she heard an all-too-familiar giggle. Anna's heart dropped like a stone. She ran to the stairs, and what she saw made her breath catch in her throat. There, running towards the beast with the innocent curiosity of the four-year-old he was, was Derrick. The lizard had seen him. It crouched, a predatory gleam in its eye.
"No!" she screamed, bounding down the stairs. She descended them three at a time; the monster looked up, startled by the sound. Catching up to with Derrick, she wrapped her arms around him and placed herself directly in the path of the monster. "I don't care if you hurt me, but leave him alone!"
The creature lowered its head on its long neck until it was staring directly into Anna's eyes. She could feel its hot, fetid breath on her face. Drawing Derrick close, she closed her eyes, ready for the end.
"You would sacrifice yourself to save your offspring?" a deep, melodious voice asked her.
"I would do anything to protect my child," she said emphatically. Then she blinked in surprise. The voice was like none she had heard before. She looked around. The mall was empty, save them and the creature. She looked at it, mystified. If they were alone, then…but it couldn't be. Could it?
"Did…did you just talk to me?"
A low chuffing noise issued from the creature. A chuckle? "I can communicate, yes," it said; but it couldn't be speaking, could it? Anna hadn't seen its mouth move. "I'm not actually talking, no," it continued, as if reading her mind. "My vocal chords are not complex enough to mimic a human's. I'm communicating with you telepathically."
So it could read her mind! Her mind was immediately filled with a million questions, but the most important one was the one that she voiced: "What are you?"
There was that sound again. "I am what you humans call a dragon. Oh, don't worry," it continued, seeing Anna's involuntary shudder as her grip on Derrick tightened, "We're not half as bad as some of your legends surrounding us make us out to be. We're actually quite peaceful, despite our appearance."
Anna stifled a humorless laugh, the dragon's grand entrance still fresh in her mind. "Well, dragon…Should I call you dragon? Or do you have a name?"
There was no mistaking the humor in its mind-voice now. "I do, though it is unpronounceable in your tongue."
"What is it?"
The dragon hummed, gradually increasing in volume until it shook the glass in the store windows. It then let out a long, undulating cry that seemed to cover the whole spectrum of sound. It ended the cry abruptly, leaving a ringing silence in its wake. "Care to give it a go?" it asked mildly.
Anna smiled weakly. "Point taken. I'm Anna, by the way"
The dragon gazed thoughtfully at her. Finally it said, "Hello, Anna. You can call me Shell."
"Yes. I'm still a very young dragon, barely two months old, by human measurement."
Anna gaped at it. "Two months? But you communicate so well!"
Shell blinked his eyes at the compliment. "Thank you. Dragons mature much more rapidly than humans. This is my first hunt."
"So you came to hunt us," Anna said, narrowing her eyes accusingly. Shell shifted slightly, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
"That was an accident," he admitted. "I was only flying this way because the hunting grounds are a little further on. I'm still young, though, and THESE-" he raised his wings for emphasis, "are still a bit too cumbersome for me. I lost control and crashed here. I wasn't trying to hunt humans," he finished. For a moment, Anna could have sworn that he looked embarrassed.
"You may not have meant to hunt us," she said slowly, "but I saw you almost pounce on Derrick before I stopped you. If you weren't hunting him…?"
"I was curious," Shell said matter-of-factly. "All the other humans here immediately ran away when I appeared, but he came to me without fear. My kind has studied yours for millennia, and we have deemed you to be a fearful race."
"Fearful?" Anna shouted, surprised and annoyed. "Why wouldn't we be, with giant lizards crashing into our buildings? What are you expecting, a tea party?"
Shell chuffed loudly. "True, I would hardly expect a warm welcome. Still, not including my impromptu visit, your kind seems to live in constant fear. Especially fear of getting killed by one another."
"Yeah," Anna said, her mind flashing to the news report she'd watched that morning. "What with the school shootings and terrorist attacks and whatnot, people have every right to be."
"Your son is different, though," Shell said, leaning his head forward and nudging Derrick, who giggled and started to pet Shell's vast nose. "He isn't frightened by my appearance."
"He's young," Anna said dismissively. "Kids aren't afraid of anything." She paused. "Well, no, scratch that. Derrick's afraid of the dark. But most kids are. They haven't seen how scary the world really is, or else they'd never leave their beds. Heck, some mornings I have a hard time justifying it with all the crazy stuff going on."
"And yet, you do," Shell said softly.
"Well, yeah. I mean, humanity is messed up, but spending my day in bed isn't going to change things. I have to make sure that my little corner of the world is one where Derrick doesn't have to be afraid." Anna smiled down at the boy in her arms. "Children are our future, after all."
"Amazing," Shell's voice was a murmur, almost like he was talking to himself. "To be so fearful, yet so brave for the sake of others. I feel like I've learned much about humans from you, Anna."
"You're welcome," Anna replied. "I feel like I've learned a lot about dragons, too. Mainly that they exist."
Shell's chuffing laughter was cut short. He suddenly seemed alarmed. "Your authorities are on their way. I'm in danger. I must go."
Anna strained her ears. She had been oblivious to it before, but now that Shell had mentioned it, she could hear the tinny sound of a siren in the distance. "Wait!" she said, as Shell unfurled his wings. "How have you dragons stayed hidden for so long?"
Shell looked at her sadly. "I can't tell you. If humans knew that we existed, and where to find us, they may seek to destroy us."
"You're right," Anna replied, subdued. "I won't tell a soul about you."
"I thank you," Shell responded gratefully. He raised himself on his hind legs and spread his massive wings. Taking hold of Derrick's hand, Anna pulled him back as the large wings beat the air, stirring up currents and launching Shell high above them. He stopped just short of the opening and looked down at them both.
"Until we meet again," he intoned, and then he soared through the hole in the glass ceiling and was gone.
Anna waved, wondering how she was going to explain her day to her husband.
"Mommy, can we go home?" Derrick asked, looking up at her in wide-eyed innocence. She smiled back down at him.
"Of course, Derrick. Let's go home."