The change appeared like the onset of a fever. Her skin ached. Her legs threatened collapse. Though heat welled in her, she shivered and heaped blankets on her body. Her husband stopped sleeping with her, complaining that she steamed up the room. Her side of the bed darkened with stains that looked like scorch marks. Sometimes, when the baby’s roiling woke her in the early morning, she watched breath curl from her nostrils in long plumes.
The books said a rise in body temperature was normal. They also said that unnatural cravings should not be indulged.
The XXX salsa was too mild. The mug of boiling water too cool. At the grocery store, she bought tuna steaks and corn syrup. Ate the tuna from the wrapper on the way home. Caramelized the syrup on the stove and swallowed a spoonful straight from the bubbling pan. Removed the pan and looked at the flame circling the burner. Salivated.
It was as she suspected. This baby was after more than just heat.
The question was not if, but how. Shotgunning seemed best. There was a fair amount of control one needed to exercise in the throat. Getting it to the stomach was key. Once there, it’d be broken into constituent parts that could be delivered directly to the baby. So said the message boards, other women like her who’d rejected their doctors’ instructions. They traded illegal recipes and animated emoticons. They reminded each other to fight the good fight! and do it for the kids! and trust your instincts, mama! They complained about hardheaded husbands and infected interior burns. They shared wisdom from handbooks no longer printed: “Infants in the womb who are denied this crucial element are born with immature fire glands and lack the capacity to ignite.” They argued over methods but agreed that non-eaters were handicapping their children. Why not amputate their wings, too? she wrote, eliciting a round of virtual applause. No one on that board knew that she had yet to take the first swig.
The message boards didn’t convey how excruciating an eater’s pregnancy could become.
Her hair turned brittle. Her tongue swelled. Her eyes blinked back globs of mucous. Blood pulsed heavily through her veins. But consumption only strengthened her craving. Now the women on the message boards warned her: moderation, mama! And, Easy does it. You don’t want to create a little monster!
She wrote, Do you ever feel like your baby is stronger than you? To which the message boards replied nothing.
She wrote, Do you ever wonder if you’ve made a mistake? but she didn’t bother to check the replies.
When the day came, the sky hung wreathed with fire. She stood in the kitchen, smoke peeling from her thighs, fire breaking instead of water, water what might put her out. Her husband splashed orange juice on her skirt. Ran red lights until lights stopped turning. Hustled her into the emergency room with the D word: Dragon.
Because such births were not to be treated casually.
Because such births were not to take place unwitnessed.
She’d heard stories on the message boards, which flashed red when someone posted A Disappearance. Usually it was mothers who disappeared, leaving ash and a hungry child. But sometimes fathers got too close, bent to listen where the heart should be.
It was unfortunate about her husband.
Everyone said so.
He’d been such a good man.
Raising a baby dragon alone wasn’t what she’d imagined for herself. In sixth grade she wanted to be a princess and live in a castle. In seventh grade, a fire fighter. Now she was both, sort of; not really. The baby slept soundly. He was learning to crawl.
The message boards kept her company at night. How do I keep his lunch box from melting? and Does anyone use night breathing for cooking? She ferried words back and forth, Dragon curled in her lap, now pressed to her shoulder. Now sitting beside her in a homemade chair, slit in the back for his long green tail.
For Valentine’s each year, red heart on felt: I love my mother.
Now standing, now stooping in their low-ceilinged rooms.
The women on the message boards said little when she asked about The Flyaway. Sad, someone wrote, followed by frowning emoticons. Someone else posted a link to a video: a winged shape rising, hovering over green trees.
She wrote, How do I prepare? To which the message boards replied nothing.
She wrote, What will I love when he flies away? but she didn’t bother to check the replies.
One morning she woke early and stumbled to the window. Her son stood in sunrise on a skein of scorched lawn. His wings stretched the length of her car, the car she’d promised to give him if only he’d stay. While she watched, he staggered, flapping. Tried to lift off. Hovered briefly, crashed down.
She no longer needed the message boards. She knew without asking that flying meant leaving. Not this morning, not this afternoon, but summer, soon.
She could smell the forest burning.