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The Dragon Slayer
By Leigh Kilton-Smith

I look around the apartment, government housing, acquired just as she was diagnosed with lung cancer, so it doesn't yet smell of burned grease and cigarettes. The walls are fairly new, no holes. There is, however, this really odd assortment of ceramic animal plaques. There is a black panther, reminiscent of a school mascot, framed by two seemingly brave cheerful squirrels insanely scampering directly towards the panther. There is also a leopard and a cockatiel within friendly distance of each other. A propane company calendar, September seems to be the white-tailed deer month. I sneer at the hypocrisy. Deer hunting is, second to football, the most anticipated season in Texas.

There are three wooden decoupage plaques that seem thematically connected, with beautiful pink roses on each of them though each bear a different greeting. One reads, "I love you Mom," the next reads, "I love you Bro," then, "I love you Sis," and finally, "I love you Dad." The last bears a signature. I look closer, recognize my brother's name and I realize these plaques must make up the "my son that I gave away who, surprise! wound up in prison making stupid plaques" collection.

Stupid plaques. Stupid Chihuahuas. What am I doing here?

There were always Chihuahuas, always. She showered them with the affection she didn't, couldn't, show her children, giving them oh-so-subtle names like Chico and Paco and Taco. Once, after a particularly bad beating, I tried to bake Chiquita in the oven. Mama and Daddy had left to go somewhere that I am sure involved Coca-Cola, cigarettes or beer. I watched them go and then I put the stupid dog in the oven, but I didn't know how to turn it on so eventually I let it out because it kept barking and scratching and, besides, the gas smelled bad.

She wheezes and claws at her chest. The nurse earlier explained that this was normal for people whose lungs are collapsing. I ask if she needs anything, her eyes stay closed, but she just shakes her head no.

I sit at a safe distance, keeping watch.

Yesterday, when she touched her lips over and over I thought she wanted a kiss. I leaned in and she slapped me. Perfect. Seems she wanted a cigarette.

I am sleepy, I pull the blankets off the sofa cushions and make a pallet nearer so I can see her just by looking up. I lay back down.

I smile at the irony that I am, once again, on a pallet on a cold floor while she is a few feet away in a bed.

But it's not the same as before. I am grown and I am strong. My friends, when they hear a noise outside, come to me to make them feel safe; children hold onto me when they get scared. I have recognized that this is my role and I have taken comfort in this -- and have also outgrown it somewhat. See, I have these amazing friends and an amazing husband who make sure I am as good at receiving love as I am at dispensing courage; still lessons to learn, but hanging in there.

I have also outgrown the role of abused child, lived long enough to have tired of talking about it, watched as my friends grew weary of me always winning the "my childhood sucked" competition.

I wake up a while later when I hear her stirring. I open my eyes, she settles, but I, oh for fuck's sake, can't believe what I am seeing. She is lying in her bed with her arms extended upwards, bent at the elbow so her forearms rest on the top of her head.

And I am lying in the exact same position.

I jump up, breathing hard, old fears causing my heart to pound. I am not her, she is not me! No! Okay, okay, okay, it's okay, it's okay, so what? People sleep in weird… oh whatever, quit looking for meaning behind everything. Jesus.

I hear my dad in the bedroom. He cries out, still asleep, "Oh I love ya." Then I hear him shuffle, awake now. He goes to the bathroom and back to bed and never sees me. I am standing right there.

She has moved towards the rail of the county-provided hospital bed. I move her slowly, gently back towards the middle. Her skin feels like a dragon's, scaly, loose and hanging in heavy folds. She is incredibly tiny. She was never more than five feet tall but the terror that she wielded in her life was worthy of the biggest, most fearsome dragon, never without cigarettes and Coca-Colas, so she often, literally, breathed and belched fire… and yet here she was, so tiny, so weak, so….

Yeah, fuck her, I was a kid, a fucking kid, fuck her, I could kill her right now if I wanted to, I could slay this fucking dragon, I could give back to her every bruise my body ever suffered, I could, I really could… I could.

She tries to pull the covers up under her chin, she can't hold onto the blanket and I watch her struggle, but only for a moment, then I help her.

I did not raise me to be heartless.

Though I will never forget she is a monster. The monster.

I pledge again to never forget.

She is quite lucid at times, demanding a cigarette, demanding water, demanding, demanding, then other times the pain is too much and the morphine is dispensed and she goes in and out of pseudo-conscious ramblings.

I can't sleep, I am afraid to sleep; afraid I will wake up in the same position again.

I decide to check on Daddy. I half-open the door, Boomer barks like he's on cocaine. I viciously flip him off and shut the door.

She is turning her head from side to side like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, my daughter, my sister, my daughter. She smiles in her sleep and kicks the covers off. I watch, waiting for her to calm down. She touches her lips. Now, I know. I know it's a cigarette she wants and not affection, but I offer water and she kinda nods, so I lift the Circle K Day Breaker Travel Cup to her parched lips, I push the bendable straw in and she sucks greedily for ten seconds and then stops. I wonder for a moment if this is it… but she mumbles something grumpily and claws at her chest again.

She's going for it, so I gently lift her nails away from her chest, so now she claws at air.

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