True love is melted cheese.
"Mom! Will you get here real quick?" I shouted from the kitchen, slicing tomatoes, slabbing them on the sandwich on top of tofu, pickles and some dairy-free cheese.
I was already late for work, but I needed her finishing touch.
She wasn't a typical mom, the one who raised me. She didn't teach me how to spell or prepare my lunch for school. No braiding my hair or dressing me up, no reading bedtime stories about princesses and dragons.
Those are incredibly discriminatory toward dragons, mind you. And unrealistic, to boot. Always end with the princess being saved by a little man, and the mighty dragon slain. Give me a break. I've never met a man who could stand up to her. Not even... No, we're not talking about that.
My mother never smelled like warm cookies, but I never held it against her. How could she bake if she lacked opposable thumbs? How could she hug me if her short arms were better for dismantling prey, taking apart a cow muscle by muscle with those nails, each one the size of my fist?
There were things I couldn't get on board with, for sure, but she was all I knew, and I loved her.
She was the reason I was alive, the one who had cared. Smart enough to find me human food after she'd found me in the forest. Kind enough to share me with the humans in town, courageous enough to put herself in danger to take me to them. To get me clothed and educated when I was old enough, to teach me how to speak like them. And despite all the comfort that came with living among people, I had always come back to her.
I never found out where I'd truly come from, or who let me go. She was my mother, the one who loved me.
The warm breath on my neck told me she was there. So silent when she moved, a predator.
"Can you heat this up?" I placed the sandwich on the stone countertop and glanced at her. She turned away, sighed.
"Come on, help me out. I need to eat before I go out. Do you want me starving the whole day?" Accusations weren't the way to go with her, they only made her mad. I needed her to soften. "You know it's my favorite."
Mom looked back at me, then closed her eyes and opened her mouth. A flame flew right above the sandwich on the counter, toasting it slightly, but not burning it. I took out a spatula and flipped it around, and another burst of fire from her throat made the toast turn a delicious golden brown.
The best way to melt vegan cheese was, by far, my mother's love. It was also the perfect thermometer of what she was feeling. If mom was ever angry, the toast ended up a charred, inedible block.
Today would be a good day to talk.
We'd had our problems, recently. She wasn't okay with my plans to leave her for a new job several hours away, in Helsinki. Then, there was that failed date I had been looking forward to. I had forgiven her, but it hadn't been easy. And she still hadn't forgiven me for leading him to our home.
The last drop had been me going vegan a couple of months ago. We had barely spoken since. She didn't have to tell me what was wrong, I'd always known it was against her beliefs.
But there are some things you just can't unsee. The screams. The eyes, begging for mercy. The ruthlessness in her eyes when she tore him apart. I'd always known what she was, but the smell of burnt flesh now reminded me of all of it. I support her, but I can no longer stomach the idea of eating the fruit of her hunting.
"Thank you," I mumbled, digging my teeth into the sandwich. The cheese was perfectly gooey, the bread crisp, the tomato and pickles the right amount of acid in the middle. "I'm glad you're home, it's been a while that our schedules have been conflicting. I need to talk to you about something."
Mom stayed frozen in the middle of the kitchen, as if hoping the problem would go away if she didn't blink.
"You know I'm about to start in that new job next month, right?" I said, still trying to look innocent.
She turned away from me.
"I've pushed it away for as long as I could, but I have to start now or I'm losing the position. The manager is going to be out for her maternal leave in six weeks, and I need her to show me the ropes before that."
Mom nodded, something I'd taught her to do after the humans had shown me that was our way of expressing agreement. She knew how to shake her head and shrug, too, but our disagreements were usually of a more incendiary kind. I had some scars from my teenage years, when things were really tough.
"You know how hard I've worked for this, and I know you've always wanted the best for me. I'm coming back to see you every month."
Mom unfolded her left wing and flapped it against the floor, signaling me to move on.
"I was just wondering if I could ask you for some assistance on moving day. Or maybe the night before. We don't need to scare my new neighbors, after all."
Mom raised one of her scaly eyebrows at me, and I struggled to chew my sandwich and not laugh. She had picked up this gesture from a sitcom character on TV and knew I found it hilarious.
"I know you're tired, but I just have too much stuff and too little cash. I don't want to bother the HR department by asking if the company will want to pay for four extra bags on top of waiting for me for all this time. So could you maybe fly them over to the new house? I'll treat you to a nice turkey or four in return."
She stood quiet, then let her chin fall once, twice. Things were improving between us.
I smiled, walked up to her and leaned my head on her chest. She closed her wing over me, squeezed just a little. I'll never understand how she always knew to be so careful around me since that day she found me in the forest, what maternal instinct had told her I was to be protected, not eaten.
"Thank you, I really appreciate it. I have to go now, though. I'll see you after work." Still holding the sandwich remains in my hand, I grabbed my backpack and headed for the door. Before opening it, I looked back.
"It's all going to be fine, you'll see. And maybe you'll find something new to do after I'm gone. Get a new hobby, maybe meet someone."
I still didn't know where she'd come from or if there were more like her. As far as I was aware, we were both mysteries. I had always wondered if I'd be willing to solve that puzzle, given the chance.
It was still dark out, being winter, so the police car's lights in the driveway blinded me. The officer, a lean, dark man with wisps of silver in his beard, saw me lift my arm to protect my eyes and quickly turned the headlights off.
"Jaana Draco?" He shouted. I nodded, closing the door behind me. My mother's existence was a rumor in the village, but those who really knew her kept it to themselves. The police had always been suspicious, so it was best to hide her. "Glad I was able to catch you before you left."
"I'm officer Olli Laine. We've been looking for a man named Sami Nieminen, he's been reported missing a couple of weeks ago and we have reason to suspect it wasn't voluntary. We heard you might know him, perhaps give us some details we haven't heard already." He smiled, but I didn't trust him.
Time to lie. "Um, Sami, you said?" Confused eyes, searching for the memory, then sharpening as if the thought had just occurred to me. "I think that might be the guy who stood me up last month, but I don't know his last name. Dating apps, you know."
"Tell me about it," the officer laughed. "It's a tough market. But at least you probably didn't get stood up. Nieminen seems to have vanished from the face of the earth."
I forced out a laugh. "Good to know, although a little sad for us single girls trying to get a date in this town."
"So just to be clear, you have no idea about the whereabouts of Sami Nieminen since November 12?" More inquisitive now, didn't believe me.
"I'd have to check out the messages on the app to give you an exact date, but it sounds around the same time as my date was." I got my phone out and fake-scrolled. "Around four weeks ago. Yeah, that's it."
I didn't love lying, but what could I say? She ate him. Bones crushed to dust, burnt, digested. Sami Nieminen had seemed like a decent fellow, but he had done something inexplicably reckless and more than a little creepy, following me home.
"Oh, just one more thing, Ms. Draco," Laine said, looking at the notepad in his hand. "That's a really original name, isn't it?"
I nodded. It was all mine, I'd made it up after learning to read, studying everything there was to know about my mother and her kind, trying to find out if there were more of her.
"Forgive me if I'm being too forward, but I'm new in this town and I'm still getting to know everyone. I've been looking at your information before coming here," Laine continued, "and I have to say it's unusual."
"Well, you seem to have come out of nowhere. I couldn't find anything on you or your family anywhere until about eight years ago. No education or records about your life, until you bought this house in the middle of the woods and started working at your current job. Everyone knows you, that's what I've gathered in my short time here, but the official records don't."
"I was homeschooled. We lived in another village up north, right next to the Swedish border, when I was a kid. That's probably why you can't find anything. My mother has all the records, but she's not feeling well." I waved my hand vaguely in the direction of the house.
"Oh, would there be some other time we could chat?"
"Not likely. She hasn't been meeting people since the pandemic started. She's immunocompromised." Not entirely a lie, she did get sick the few times she'd eaten people who were not fully burned. Just days and days of vomiting fire and blood, I thought I'd lose her then. A little now, too.
Officer Laine took a step back. "Alright, I won't bother you anymore. The main thing is that we find Nieminen."
"I'd love to know when you do. You know, just to confirm I wasn't stood up." He laughed, and I pushed further. "I'll give you my number, so you can let me know. Let me just grab a pen."
I stumbled back inside the house and found her in front of the TV, watching one of those sitcoms.
"Mom, we need to take care of something. Something bad."
She turned to me and smiled, another human expression I'd taught her. She had been waiting for this.
From mother to daughter and daughter to mother, we'd shaped one another. And we were both predators when we needed to protect the family.
About the author
Finnish by birth, porteña at heart. Recovering political ghostwriter. Fiction, relationships, politics, bad puns, popular and unpopular opinions. Occasional dinosaurs, because dinosaurs are the best.