Bioengineering a New Creature
“There weren't always dragons in the Valley.” The dissonant squawking of seagulls fighting for food drowns out his mother’s voice emanating from his cellular phone. Zavier Mahler knows Hope wants to meet him here today at Leviathan River Valley, yet isn’t really sure why. He’s sitting on a log on the river bank. The air is pleasantly cool on this early June morning. A dark green dragon with a wingspan of forty-one feet flies through the bright light blue sky as Zavier breathes in the summer breeze, feels his lungs expand, and heaves a melancholy sigh. He remembers how his father, Lucien, used to take him here on weekends back when no real dragons were ever seen.
Lucien left him alone for a few minutes once. Zavier felt a strange mélange of fear and exhilaration when two German shepherds started fighting in front of him. He imagined that the dogs were dragons battling to the death. Zavier couldn’t sustain this fantasy when he witnessed the dogs’ owners berating each other and shouting curse words. A bead of sweat formed over his left eyebrow as he worried that his father wouldn’t come back. He decided to run away from the log and the crazy dogs and people and wanted to cry tears of joy when he saw his dad walking towards him. His dad lifted him up in the air, and Zavier felt as if he could touch the sky like the cloud-white ceiling at home.
His mother’s voice interrupts his nostalgic reverie: “Zavier, I’m sorry I’m late.” She smiles, sits down on the log, and before setting her turquoise purse down on the ground, she takes out a menthol cigarette and lights it hastily, inhaling the cool smoke into her lungs. A diaphanous grey-white plume of smoke flies out of her mouth like a chimerical dragon-ghost. “I know I wasn’t the best mother I could’ve been; just, please, don’t ever scare me like that again.”
He's taken aback by the naked emotion in her voice. He doesn’t want to think about his overdose, the anniversary of his father’s death, the psych ward. “I just wanted to be with him again.”
“I know how much you loved him . . . how much you still do . . . You know, since he died, I’ve never fallen in love again . . . He’s dead, and we’re forced to go on living without him . . . Your suicide attempt made me realize I have to tell you the truth.”
“What truth?” Zavier frowns while searching for a joint in one of the many compartments of his backpack.
“You don’t remember, do you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Do you remember how he died?”
Zavier finally finds the joint and proceeds to light it with a pale blue lighter. “Yeah, you told me he was murdered by some bum who sought retaliation because his nephew was killed by the River Valley biker gang.”
“That’s not how it happened.” She crushes the cigarette stub in the dirt, then clumsily reaches for her bag, yet thinks better of it, remarking, “I really should quit . . .”
“What do you mean?”
“We all lied to protect you from the truth . . . He wasn’t murdered . . . He killed himself.”
“ . . .”
“My impression was that he couldn’t live with himself after he helped create the Frankenstein dragons we all know and love.” As she says this, the blue-green dragon roars loudly as it engulfs a poplar in flames. Several firefighters run to put the fire out; their work has become even more essential, although the dragons rarely breathe fire unless they have a good reason. Hope then says the following in a quieter voice: “I think he knew some classified secret about the dragons, and—”
“How did he die?”
“I’m sorry, I’m sure this must be difficult to process,” Hope says. “You must have repressed the memory: You found his dead body on the bathroom floor . . . A gunshot wound to the heart.”
He wants to shield his face with his hands. The soporific inferno of the sun is too bright, and not even the joint he took a drag from can provide respite from the unwanted revelations his mother has burdened him with. He knows the marijuana is further enervating him, alienating him from the world, but he doesn’t care. He sees a father and his wife and children and happy couples and families and feels nothing, except maybe some bittersweet pain and resentment for their being allowed to enjoy what he has always felt deprived of.
“I’m so sorry I lied to you.” Zavier says nothing, just stares off into the distance, at the river, the valley, dragons, clouds, anything. “Please don’t shut me out,” she says.
“For all I know, you’re lying now too. Maybe he’s still alive.”
“I wish he was. He died, and you were the first to find out. If only I knew how much that would scar you.”
Zavier tries with all his might to remember discovering his father’s dead body, yet all he sees is bright orange-red behind his eyelids. “Why? Why did he kill himself? Was it just because of the dragons?” He opens his eyes only to be blinded by the sun again.
“You know we were both gambling addicts at the time. His government bioengineering job wasn’t making him as much money as he would’ve liked. He’d lost more than I thought; he was in debt. Do you remember one of the last times we left you waiting outside a casino when you were eight-years-old? You were warning people not to enter, that they would lose their souls and all of their money. You were wise beyond your years . . . I don’t want you to destroy yourself like your father did. He became an empty shell of a man because of his addictions.”
“Don’t worry about me; I know the truth now.” He smiles wryly and stands up.
“Where are you going?”
“I have a job interview.”
“Your father would be so proud to see the talented and hard-working man you’ve become.” Zavier says nothing as he buries the toe cap of his shoe into the sand. “Don’t kill yourself,” says Hope, “like the man who loved you. My father always had a weakness for the bottle. And then it developed into a bad habit he couldn’t get enough of. Why should everyone in our family perpetuate these cycles of addiction and madness?”
“I won’t . . . Like I said, I know the truth now.”
“And please don’t go see a shrink. She wouldn’t understand. It would only make things worse to open up old wounds.”
“Goodbye.” As he walks away from his mother, he’s overwhelmed by the oppressive desire for a stronger high—pretty much anything to distract him from these disturbing revelations about his father. It hurts to believe this could be the truth. If only I could’ve saved him, stopped him somehow.
Zavier takes a bus and texts his drug dealer. He feels somewhat anxious; his heart rate has increased under the influence of the marijuana. He texts, “I would like to see the golden dragon today.”
The dealer texts back, “Ya sure. Meet me at Dolphin Bay in half an hour.”
Zavier knows that half an hour usually means two to three hours, so he decides to pay a visit to his deceased father’s former employer. (He lied to his mother about going to a job interview.) As Zavier walks by a bookstore, he notices a new book bearing the title A Concise History of the Dragons. And then he remembers what his mother said: “There weren’t always dragons in the valley.” But that’s the complete opposite of what he was taught in school; and although he’s beginning to quietly and indolently question the stories that depicted dragons as being the only ones who could save our world, Zavier conceals his weariness behind the charming polite mask he wears to face the world. The marijuana surely doesn’t hurt, and he laughs when he sees an advertisement on the ceiling of the bus that depicts a smiling John Crum in a lime-green suit and tie as he dances with a green dragon.
When he arrives at the grey unnaturally tall and imposing building that houses the laboratory in which his father toiled, the wealthy oil tycoon, John Crum, is delivering a speech in the lobby. “ . . . No more fairy tales. No more lies. The truth is that sixteen years ago I invested an enormous amount of capital in a bioengineering laboratory that created the dragons that all of our journalists and writers have been telling you were always part of our world. I don’t blame them; I myself didn’t realize how destabilizing and traumatic the invention of real flesh-and-blood dragons would be to the human psyche. I think we all needed myths and stories to help us process and cope with what happened. But I now think that enough time has passed so that the truth shouldn’t be too difficult to handle . . .”
A female journalist suddenly asks Crum a pointed question: “You’ve always had a lot more money and success than the average person, so I’m sure we all want to know why you’d even want to help create dragons. What’s in it for you?”
Mr. Crum takes a few moments to respond as he gazes at his audience, and is somewhat surprised by how poor, badly dressed, and thin many of them appear to be. “I just became so fascinated by the more advanced, experimental, and cutting-edge sciences that were truly building inroads toward the future. I found so much more to admire in practical intellectuals who were making progress by making humanity more scientifically advanced. I didn’t really understand what they were doing, to be honest, but I think they decided to invert and transpose the DNA of the wandering albatross with that of the saltwater crocodile, and some extraterrestrial genetic contributions as well.” A noticeable murmur reverberates throughout the building’s lobby. “We thought the dragons could be helpful, but maybe they turned out to be more like many of the androids of our films and novels than I’d like to admit.”
Zavier picks up on the atmosphere in the room, the sense that a hundred worlds have been crushed like Christmas globes under heavy feet. He feels overwhelmed by the weight of so much unspoken emotion that he decides to leave. Before he walks away, the journalist approaches him, saying, “I’m Catherine. Mr. Crum has decided to wrap up his press conference. What did you think of it?”
"I don’t know . . . Perhaps we think that we are trying to improve our human condition, but sometimes the results might not be what we intended.”
When Zavier gets to the beach, the sun is setting: an uncanny yellow-orange-red glow suffuses the almost crepuscular horizon. He ignores the stench of urine inside the washroom. His dealer is there and hands him the blotter in exchange for cash. Zavier takes the LSD and they both walk outside together. They sit down at an empty bench. Zavier is still waiting for the drug to take effect. “So is there anything different this time?”
“The trip should last longer.”
“As long as I learn something new, I’m happy.”
“Don’t ask for so much.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re hoping for some sublime insight, some epiphany, to lift you up, to make you feel more connected to the world around you . . .”
High up in the sky, a sparkling sapphire dragon exhales a plume of radiant orange fire. A serpentine golden dragon valiantly defends itself and breathes a jet of luminous jade.
“Are you part of the brainwashed dragon cult?” the dealer asks. This is the first time he’s decided to spend some additional time to get to know Zavier better.
“I’m not. I do have a talent for pissing people off, though.”
“Never would’ve guessed, dude . . . So where were your parents from?” the dealer inquires.
“My parents were from Georgia. My father was born and raised in Atlanta.”
“My parents grew up in New York.”
Zavier stretches his arms and legs, then sits back down.
The dealer says, “You know, the way I see it, we’re both two normal, hard-working men who have been forgotten and neglected because of this new Religion of the Dragon.”
“I don’t think I’m normal, or at least not ordinary.”
“We’re all human beings,” the dealer continues, “but John Crum wants us to fear each other. He wants us to become so consumed and distracted by mistrust and resentment that we can’t see where the true dangers lie. If we can’t stop blaming and resenting one another, then how can we wake up to the reality that billionaire John Crum doesn’t actually care about the poor, or even the middle class, although he used to act like he did? . . . That dragon is flying awfully close.”
They both stand and run away from the bench in opposite directions. The dragon scorches the drug dealer with its mystical fire and proceeds to devour him. Zavier sees another dragon, a serpentine golden dragon, flying in the air. “Am I next?” Zavier wonders.
The golden dragon telepathically communicates with the dragon that ate a human being. I’m hungry too.
Fine. Don’t forget we have an important meeting tonight. The sparkling sapphire dragon flies away.
Zavier starts to run, but the golden dragon flies toward him and surprises both of them by speaking out loud. “Stop,” the dragon says. “I don’t want to hurt you. You have to trust me. John Crum and at least some of the scientists and geniuses he’s bought have designed us to eventually be triggered by some special signal that will make us his weapons and surveillance. I’m not sure why I’m immune, but I want to take advantage of whatever free will I may still have to tell you this: John Crum murdered your father.”
About the author
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
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