Jamie saved up her babysitting money for the tattoo. It hadn’t taken long, her dad liberal with his guilt money. He paid her well to handle his responsibilities — Jamie’s twin half-brothers — while he wined and dined his new wife.
They left for the city at seven in the morning, Sean driving his mother’s black SUV slowly in the rain, the windshield a tablet of liquid gray the wipers pushed about uselessly.
His mother, like Jamie’s, thought they were taking their SATs.
“I feel a little guilty, lying. She left me a good luck note with the keys,” Sean said.
An image of Jamie’s mother flashed into her mind. “No tattoos!” she’d said. “They’re permanent, Jamie.” Something else her mother didn’t know. Nothing was permanent these days.
Getting the teal-colored dragon inked on her upper arm didn’t hurt the way Jamie had anticipated. What she didn’t expect was the ache in her bicep, long after the scabbing was gone.
But each day at school Sean inspected the tattoo and pronounced it fine.
Over time the ache lessened but the tattoo kept Jamie awake at night. Or rather, it woke her.
The dragon left his roost on her arm and towered above her, stared her down with glittering, garnet eyes displaying an emotion she couldn’t identify. Something the creature had drained like osmosis from her body. She always woke before she discovered the dragon’s intentions.
Jamie first saw the fire one night when, fresh from the shower, she was toweling dry. A scarlet-colored cloud roiling from the dragon’s nostrils. She ran her fingers over it.
It couldn’t be infection — the fire was as well defined as if it had been inked there. She pulled on her nightgown and called Sean. They agreed to meet by the tennis courts before school in the morning.
In Jamie’s dream that night the dragon was immense, spewing a dense blue smoke that paralyzed her. The swirling smoke pulled apart in patches to reveal the twins’ cribs. Jamie woke sweating, her nightgown plastered to her chest.
Heart pounding, she carefully pushed up her sleeve. The flames were now a deep magenta.
In the morning Sean walked her to the nurse’s office. The school nurse called Jamie’s mother herself, reporting that though Jamie didn’t have a fever, she’d come down with something; her face was pasty white.
At home, Jamie slept all afternoon — no dreams.
That night she was wide awake; she sat in her desk chair looking out the window upon the silvery lawn, the maple tree a solemn sentinel. The stillness held something.
By daylight the dragon breathed purple. Jamie went to her mother, shook her shoulder, and announced that she was still sick. Her mother’s sleep-puffed face tugged at Jamie. She wanted to climb in beside her, nest into her mother’s side. Her mother sat up and pressed the alarm button off with a short capable finger.
“Go back to bed,” she said, swinging her feet to the floor. “I’ll see if I can get you into the doctor’s today.”
Jamie dragged her leaden body back to her room, tunneled under the covers she knew offered no protection. Soon her mother appeared bearing tea and toast on a tray. Food was her mother’s answer to everything. “I got you an appointment for ten.”
Doctor Snedden found nothing wrong. Did Jamie have something on her mind? A lot of teens went to counselors. She wrote down a name and handed Jamie the slip of paper.
Her mother dropped Jamie at home, saying she needed to go into the office for the afternoon. Jamie should get caught up on her homework, prepare to return to school tomorrow. “Warm up some soup for lunch,” she said.
“Jamie?” Her mother, from the foyer.
“Out here.” Jamie slid her sleeve down over the dragon whose fire was now blue, orange, chartreuse. The dragon’s belly had transformed: carnation pink, parrot yellow.
“I stopped on the way home.” Her mother placed a pizza box on the counter and opened it to show Jamie. “Vegetarian. Black olives, too.”
Her mother’s dimpling face, its eager expression filled Jamie with a vicious rage. “Can’t you think of anything but food?” Her arm jumped, swiped the pizza to the floor. Sauce splattered across the tile.
For a moment they stood together silently. Then her mother sighed and took up the roll of paper towels.
Because she didn’t know what to do, because she hated her mother on her knees, hated herself for putting her mother there, Jamie spun and punched the arm through the window.
It didn’t hurt.
Blood streamed from her cut hand down to her elbow, leaking off onto the floor.
Her mother’s face was white as she wrapped a dish towel around Jamie’s hand, squeezing pressure to the cuts. With her other hand, she moved a wad of paper towels up Jamie’s arm, mopping blood. Then she saw the dragon appear from under the sleeve.
Jamie watched her mother’s face. Then she, too, looked. The fire was gone. The tiny teal-colored dragon sat placidly, almost comically.
Her mother licked a finger, rubbed the ink. “It’s permanent?”
Peg Alford Pursell is a National Endowment for the Humanities Independent Study Fellow and the founder of the Creative Writing Program at the Charleston School of the Arts. She teaches classes on fiction writing in the San Francisco Bay Area, received the South Carolina State Fiction Award, and is an American Fiction Award finalist.