Before that year of plane crashes, the boys skipped past the playground to see the dragon behind the portables. The beast slumbered atop a damp bed of grass clippings left behind by the man who mowed the school lawn. Many sprinklers were burrowed behind the portables, and the boys reasoned that the dragon was partial to their spray upon its scales. It overheated, the story went. The dragon had a temper tantrum and needed to take a timeout from the sky. During recess, Petra and Katie did spider-legs on the swings. Jocks took to tetherball. A handful of less fortunate slackers hopped up on Ritalin suffered in detention doing the homework they did not do, and here, cooling down just out of the teachers’ view, lay the dragon. The boys were the only ones to know of the whereabouts, let alone the very being of the dragon behind the portables. Its breathing was made mute to those on the playground by the air conditioning units’ hum.
They never thought to mount it. There was no roughhousing around the beast. Most of the boys that looked upon it during those hay fever days were pretty scabby kids—wannabe juvies prone to bloody knuckles, arm wrestling, wedgies. They pulled down each others’ pants when the other wasn’t looking not so much to humiliate, but for something to do, and to communicate true fraternity. Individually, they were decent boys. Together, they had no manners. They talked a lot of shit. But around this beast they behaved with a deep respect, because such a creature deserved such treatment, and they knew that they were lucky to have made its discovery. The boys rarely even spoke in the presence of the dragon behind the portables. As if before something inexplicably holy, their voices became hushed. They tended to go slack-jaw around the beast, sitting in a semi-circle, propped up by their hands in the grass such that their palms turned green.
They never brought their parents to see it. They never called the police. The dragon behind the portables, it was agreed, was not for others to know. Inevitably their older brothers found out, and at dusk tried to get it to breathe fire to light the ends of their joints, but the dragon behind the portables would not oblige them.
It was sick, they thought. The dragon wheezed a little, and the scent that came out of its tail end suggested stomach pain, if not pending diarrhea.
The boys thought about how they might nurse it back to health. They thought about what they might give it, to feed. Gabriel offered his Capri-Sun with the straw punctured through the pouch and all. This, only after Timothy peeled apart and flung at the dragon, every artificial slice of bologna from his Lunchables, from a safe distance. Before they could stop him, Oscar came tearing down the steps from Mrs. Johnson’s class and lobbed the class chinchilla into the beast’s sulfuric maw. But rather than indulge a snack, the dragon behind the portables showed mercy, spat the pet out whole.
And so the boys earned the trust of the beast and sensed that they could in time close the distance between it, to pet its pebbly dome, run their fingertips along its seashell spinal plates, lay their heads sideways atop its belly to rise and fall with its deep in and exhalations, and in those moments of recess they would be one with their own wonder.
They did a little less homework and attended fewer soccer practices because, come on, how could you place such importance on such things when there was a dragon behind the portables? There were even less video games played on account of the beast, less pizza parties, fewer sleep overs. The dragon swallowed time.
To this, one particular mother of the parents’ association did not take well. She went so far as to phone up the moms of the other boys who claimed to be spending time with this “dragon behind the portables,” and to have their sons rounded up for counseling. The guy they got had a beard and specialized in kids who held on to imaginary friends.
If such a thing did exist, the shrink said to the boys in a well-furnished room with oppressive AC, Why do you think it would let itself be known to you?
Why would it hide, only to be found by kids?
It’s a runaway, Gabriel theorized, twiddling his rat-tail. A dragon pup that had flown too far in the wrong direction, lost its way and now just wanted to you know, play?
An outsider, Andy said, An outcast that wouldn’t get with the like, system.
Could be dangerous, Oscar suggested. It has a temper.
Naw, said Gabriel.
Timothy, being mute, used his hands to sign: IF WE DON’T HURT IT, IT WON’T HURT US.
Straight up, Bradley said, I think it’s just a fucking alligator.
But it had wings.
Fernando was the only one to see them outstretched. In the spring the following year, the boy would die of a cancer that he and his family had been graciously fighting without insurance, a disease that was beyond his parents’ finances, and his friends’ comprehension. The Make a Wish Foundation heard about Fernando’s suffering, and naturally offered to send the child on a long weekend to the Most Magical Place on Earth. But he refused, claiming that he had already seen all that he had wished to in his short life, that he had befriended the most magnificent of beasts, that he had flown a kite beside the dragon behind the portables, a purple one. Illustrations of the beast soaring in tandem with the kite above a baseball diamond decorated the walls of his bedroom, in which, over months, he lost his thick hair in clumps to chemotherapy. And though Fernando’s family agreed that the scenes depicted were fantastical, no one, not even his older brother would question the authenticity of the awe that had inspired them.
No other saw the beast, aloft. Between games of hacky sack, the boys spoke to the dragon of far off places they would visit and the various adventures they would share in life as they grew older and its wings became stronger and capable of flying greater distances. But the boys would never actually go anywhere with the dragon and would instead abandon it behind the portables when they hit puberty, and years later, get jobs.
That’s how come all the plane crashes, Fernando said.
A Malaysian airline vanished over the South Pacific that year. Another fragmented above Russia and Ukraine. A German plane fell into a mountainside. AirAsia QZ8501’s didn’t make it to its destination, neither did Trans-Asia 235, not to mention an Algerian plane bound for Burkina Faso. Newscasters theorized in as rational terms as possible the causes of the various incidents—engine failure, microbursts, geopolitical conflict, sheer nihilism—all plausible, but Fernando said he really knew why.
And though they dismissed his nonsense as the fever dreams of a boy on his deathbed, sometimes during family barbeques the boys would squint from their lawn chairs, and swear that they caught a glimpse of a clawed silhouette in the baby blue sky, lonely or angry or both, looking for companions in the backyards below.