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My second-worst memory is my brother holding me underwater. We were playing in the above ground pool in our backyard when he dared me to hold my breath while under for as long as I could. When I said I didn't want to, he held me under, until I beat my tiny fists against him. I can still feel the chill of the water and his rough, hard hands gripping my shoulders as I kicked. I can still feel the sandy bottom of the pool as my feet scuff on the rubbery floor if I think hard enough about it.

My brother, Dakota, was not a nice person. He never was a nice person. He tried to weasel his way out of getting in trouble, after our dad yanked him off of me, then pulling me out of the pool. Dakota lost TV privileges for the week for that stunt and got threatened with military school for what had to be the fifth time that summer. That was a shitty way to end our vacation days.

My absolute worst memory began that night, and it spanned several days.

My bedtime was earlier than my brother, so I was in bed, curled up under my Ariel blanket when he came in. I could never shake his cold, blue stare when I'd kept him from getting his way. I should have been used to that look, but I never was.

“You're why mom died,” he mumbled in the dark. My seashell light cast deep orange shadows in my room, but Dakota seemed dark no matter where he was. “She saw how ugly you are, so she died.”

“Nuh-uh!” Dad told me that my mom died so I could live, and I'd see her in heaven someday. Dad trumped Dakota every time.

Dakota glared at me and padded across my rug. His gaze lingered for a minute before he spoke. “You took my TV,” He ripped the seashell nightlight out of the wall. “I take your stupid nightlight.”

“No!” That light was what kept monsters away!

Dakota held the light in one hand. “I'll give it back if you tell dad you wanted me to hold you under,” I said nothing, staring in terror at my big brother. “Have fun getting eaten, retard.”

Alone, in the dark, I felt fear. The shadows grew in sharpness, in darkness, and here I was. Trapped under my comforter like a soft, fluffy prison. Tears welled in my eyes at the thought of every monster imagined creeping from my under the bed, from the closet, even from behind the dresser. Then I heard a voice.

“What's wrong, little one?”

Carefully, I pulled the comforter down a little to look for the voice. The curtains ruffled by my window. The thin fabric settled on top of something I couldn't quite see. The shape was funny and looked like a living thing made up of heat waves, like the ones on the road when it's hot outside. It slipped in through my closed bedroom window. Just slipped through the glass, like water or a bead curtain. Broad, clawed handprints pressed into the carpet to my bed.

“H-hello?”

A gentle chuckle from the thing in my room. “Hello.”

“Who are you?”

A patch of carpet swished under an enormous, invisible tail. “I am the Haze Beast.”

“A b-beast? Are you gonna eat me?”

He snorted and shook himself like a dog. The curtains ruffled against him. I heard his ears slapping against the sides of his head. “Oh, why, I would never. I don't eat sweet little girls like you. You can call me Hazy if you like.” I could hear him approach, see his hands and feet leave large, four-fingered prints on my carpet. “Who was that boy that took your light?”

I inched out from my blankets. “Dakota.”

The Haze Beast's tail thumped once, twice, against the carpeted floor. “Oh, my. The same boy in the pool?”

I remember my eyes going wide, sitting up in my tiny bed. “You know about that?” Warm breath chuffed my arm. “Know about it? I saw it happen!” He left a large, long dent in my Ariel comforter as he rested his head on my bed. I could kind of see him, now. He still looked like heat waves rising off the road, but shaped like a long, bony dragon. “I'm sorry I couldn't help you. Grown-ups can get scared if they see me.”

Five year old me reached out, and carefully stroked his muzzle. He didn't seem to mind. “It's okay, daddy came and got me.”

“Good. Your daddy is a good man.”

“He's the best daddy! He got me that nightlight!”

“Ah, really?” I could hear the smile in his voice. “Tell me about your nightlight.” I kept on petting him. His skin felt like an old, leather couch. Soft and worn out.

I told Hazy all about how Dad had gotten the lamp on vacation to the beach. The story went that he'd met with King Triton himself, and told him about my bad dreams and the monsters in my room. The seashell nightlight was a gift from the king, and the light in the shell would keep monsters away.

“But my light is gone, so the monsters will get me,” I whimpered.

Hazy lifted his head, shaking it at me with a soft chuckle. “Oh, no, no. I won't let that happen.” Hazy's long, bulky form walked away and turned itself on my rug. The blue shag flattened under his weight. “I'll stay right here until morning. No monster will get past me.”

“Really?”

“Really. Goodnight.” The flattened mass of carpeting grew as Hazy stretched out. “Hmm... what is your name, little one? I forgot to ask.”

“Talia.”

“What a wonderful name! Well then, goodnight, Talia.”

“Goodnight, Hazy.”

I slept through the night and awoke the next morning to find Hazy was gone. Dad made chocolate-chip pancakes with scrambled eggs for breakfast and told me he was going to drain the pool that afternoon. Dakota had returned my night light while I was eating. I was grateful, even though he'd broken it at the base. It was an easy fix for daddy, though. It was back to keeping monsters at bay that night.

Hazy, however, came back to me again that very evening.

With a ruffle of the curtains, Hazy's clear form melted into my room via the window, four broad paws and a tail print showing up in the carpet one by one.

“Hello, Talia.”

I thought he was only a strange dream, but his return to my bedroom cemented how real he was. “Hazy!” I beamed and crawled to the end of my bed to see him better. A hard feat, seeing that he was near-invisible. “You came back!”

“Of course. I promised to protect you from monsters, didn't I?” His form stretched out on my rug, tail wagging at the tip only slightly. “I see your light is back. How about I tell you a story?”

I snuggled into my bed, ready for the tales only a dragon could tell.

Gently, Hazy told me stories in his soft, British voice. At least, I think it was British. It may have been Irish, but I don't know for sure. His tales of swimming with sea-monsters and dancing with demons made me stare at his vague form in awe. I fell asleep, safe and sound, with my friendly dragon not far away.

Dakota wasn't a demon, but he had his moments.

It wasn't long after the pool incident, two or three days after, that Dakota acted up again. While I was excited about starting school, Dakota was... not. He didn't want to go to middle school, or any school, at all. He was always in those classes for the kids that need extra attention.

When we went back to school shopping, I was over the moon! I couldn't wait to get everything I needed for my new classes. Dakota sulked nearby, as I looked for everything I could find that was even loosely based on The Little Mermaid.

“This is retarded.”

“Dakota, don't use that word.” My dad gave him a stern frown.

“It's retarded! I fucking hate school!”

“Dakota!” My dad grabbed him by the arm before dragging him out of earshot of me. I just kept looking for a backpack I liked. Dakota and my dad continued to argue. Again the term 'military school' was mentioned.

Dakota's punishment was the most boring supplies dad could find. Nothing but black and gray. Even when dad eased up a little and let Dakota choose his own backpack, he pitched a fit and wound up with a black pack.

I got, of course, a little mermaid backpack... along with a twenty-one pack of crayons. That night, in my bed, I showed Hazy everything with pure glee.

“See, it's like my bed!” I chirped while holding up my backpack to the wavy form of my friend. He'd slowly become more visible as days went by. If you've seen the first Predator movie, and the Predator is invisible but can kinda be seen? Hazy was at that point of visibility.

“I see! It's lovely, Talia. So, you go to school tomorrow?”

“Yeah! I'm gonna be in real school, not just kindergarten.”

“That's wonderful!” Hazy's grin was felt more than seen, like the rest of him. “That's a big step towards being a grown up.”

“Are you a grown up?”

“Well, I am quite old.”

“Did you ever go to school?”

He was silent, front legs crossed at the foot of my bed. He tapped a claw on my bed frame. “Hmm... not... not how you know it. I went to school with many children, and the school was one, big room. I was about your age when... well. I changed.”

I remember how alarming that was to hear. Hazy, a dragon, going to school with children? “Like, invisible and stuff?”

He chuckled at me, but he didn't have time to elaborate, as I heard the door to my bedroom open.

I immediately played dead, not sure if it was my dad or my brother. The prickles on the back of my neck told me that my brother was indeed the one in my room, staring at me coldly. I worried that he'd try to retake my light! That wasn't his plan, it seemed. My backpack was, very slowly, pulled off my bed. Something hit the floor, and Dakota scurried out.

I counted to ten before moving, in case he came back. When he didn't, I carefully sat up and looked around.

Hazy's form was still as a statue, and clear as glass, but there. “Talia, he took something,” mumbled the dragon.

“What?”

“A little box, with sticks inside.”

I gasped, eyes wide. “My crayons!”

I felt Hazy's curiosity. “Crayons? Oh, for coloring! I forgot.” I felt his breath puff my face. “Would you like them back?”

“B-but... Dakota doesn't want me in his room.” The last time I did that, he threw a boot at me. It left a scuff on the wall that dad wasn't able to scrub out.

A chuckle. “Well, how about I get them back? He won't even know it was me.”

“Really?”

“Of course. Stay here, Talia.”

I watched as Hazy's clear form stood from the floor, and I got a good idea of just how big he was. He carefully popped open my bedroom door with his nose and slipped out to the room across the hall. I could see the end of his tail still inside my room, a shimmery point with a tuft at the end. I'm sure he had to be twenty feet long from tail to nose.

He returned shortly, with a yellow box of crayons in one hand... paw... I'm not sure, really. But, he handed the box to me and huffed. “Your brother's room is a mess... and, why does he have two beds?”

“Two?”

“One, upon the other?”

“Oh! Bunk beds! We had the same room a year ago.”

Hazy shut my door with his back foot. “Why do you have your own room now?”

Not a fun memory. “Dakota wanted both beds. He peed the bed and told dad it was me.”

My friend growled. His form rippled gently. “How awful.”

His suddenly icy tone had me scrambling for a happy thing to say. Hazy would never hurt me, he told me so, but I still didn't like him being angry. “I got my own room, so it's okay! I'm a big girl, so I don't pee the bed.”

Hazy's growling lessened. “Dakota does?”

“It's a secret,” I whispered in the dark. Dad had to do a load of sheets just for Dakota's bed every two or three days. Mine only got changed every weekend, usually on Sundays so I'd have a whole week of new sheets.

“Ah, yes of course, but, you'd best be getting sleep now, dear.”

“Okay, but.... what if Dakota comes back?”

“Hmm, fair point.” He turned towards the door, his lanky form hard to see but still as present as before. “I can stop him, easily.” Hazy slumped his body against my door and wall, blocking it from opening. “Goodnight, Talia.”

Now, because of the different times we got home, Dakota would be back before me for quite a bit. I made sure to always have my own house key with me, because Dakota would, often, try to lock me out. Dad had a job that kept him out of the house until five, but we were never alone for long. Dakota only had to throw the deadbolt on the front door once before dad took it down. I got a key for the front and back door after that. Kindergarten was rough.

The first day of real school started up with trying to make friends that weren't Hazy. It wasn't easy, but I tried. I didn't want to be like Dakota and scare my classmates away.

Since it was the first week of class, we got to do drawings for our morning warm up. The prompt was to draw a picture of our family.

Since white crayon didn't show up on white paper, I used gray and pressed as gently as I could. There stood my family, all three of us humans and my dear dragon. I decided not to draw mommy as an angel in the sky because dad cried when I did that in a drawing before.

Hopping off the school bus that afternoon, I couldn't wait to show dad the drawing I'd made. I could see it as something to go on the fridge, hopefully out of Dakota's reach. He didn't look up from watching the TV when I got home. I went straight to my room, anyway.

Of course, Hazy was the first one to see my drawing. I could tell he liked it because he wagged his tail. “Oh, Talia, is that me?”

“Yeah!” I giggled at his wagging tail. It was going so fast it made a fwip-fwip noise against my rug. “You're like a puppy!”

“Puppy?”

“Yeah, you wag your tail when you're happy, like a puppy!” I giggled, then burst out laughing at the idea of Hazy doing tricks, or even playing fetch. “Daddy says that a dog is a big respo... responibilil...”

“Responsibility?” My friend offered.

“Yeah! Dakota doesn't like animals, anyway. I don't want him to hurt a puppy.”

Hazy's head tilted. “Has... has your brother hurt animals before?”

I shrugged. I was too young to understand why it was terrible, but I knew it was terrible. “Sometimes Dakota throws rocks at rabbits. One time he picked up a cat by the tail.” Now that I'm a lot older, I know that it was more that my brother threw a cat by the tail. Said cat never came near our house after that. It was a friendly cat, too, but it never seemed to come around after that happened.

“That's awful!” Hazy gasped, but I heard the growl within his words.

Picking idly at my bedspread, I whispered to my dragon. “Hazy, can you keep a secret?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Daddy took Dakota's BB gun away cuz he shot at the dog down the street. The dog cried like I did when I skinned my knee.” That incident was what caused the threats of military school.

A warm breath huffed against my neck. I hugged Hazy around his throat, and I felt a broad, clawed paw against my back. His whole hand was wider than my back. “Animals feel pain like you and I do. Only rotten people hurt something for fun.”

I wondered as Hazy's scent of wood smoke and honeysuckle washed over me, what he meant by rotten.

Suddenly, Hazy lifted his head to the door. “Your brother is coming. I think he heard us.”

“Are you gonna leave?”

“No, no, dear. I just have to be quiet and stay still. We can't have him see me.”

I shuffled my feet. “Okay.”

Soon enough, Dakota did come into my room. His cold eyes stared me down, and I clutched my picture behind my back.

“Who're you talking to?”

“My friend, Hazy.”

My brother made a dismissive noise. “That's a stupid name.”

I felt my face redden. “Hazy's not stupid! He's a dragon!”

“Dragons aren't real.” He unfolded his arms and glared at me. “What's that?”

“Nothing!”

“Gimme it, brat!” He made a move for my drawing.

“No!”

“Gimme it!” Grasping one of my arms in a tight fist, Dakota wrenched the picture from me and held it high out of my reach.

“No!” I jumped in vain to get it back, earning a knee to my chest that knocked me back.

“Shut up. I'm just looking!” Dakota held the drawing in both hands, frowning. “You draw weird. What's that gray thing?”

“That's Hazy. Please give it back!” Tears blurred my vision. I felt Hazy's warmth behind me.

Dakota glanced at me, then back at the drawing. In a swift, angry motion, he tore my picture in two. Crumpling the picture halves up, Dakota sneered. “Dragons aren't real, retard.”

I started crying immediately. “You're so mean!”

“You're such a crybaby.” He turned and left me on my rug, and closed my door behind him.

Hazy was on me in a second. “Oh, Talia, I'm so sorry.”

“Why'd you let Dakota do that?”

He hugged me, now looking more like blurry static than anything. “I didn't know he would rip your drawing. If I did, I would have-” He stopped, head to the door again.

“Is he coming back?” I whined.

“No, he came by for a moment...” My dragon strode forward and grasped my door handle. He gave it a turn and tug, only to be met with a solid door. “Does your door lock?”

I shook my head.

“It won't open.” Hazy tried again, pulling until the wood groaned. “Talia, I think he locked us in.”

I cried harder, then. I hugged my pillow tight. Hazy, again, tried the door, but it only made more noise and earned a muffled 'shut up' from Dakota. The sound of the TV grew loud enough to be felt through the floor.

“Shh, it's alright. When does your father come home?”

“F-five, but,” I sniffed hard, and rubbed my eyes. “I gotta go.”

“Go? Oh! Oh, my.” He lifted a paw to his head, scratching his scalp. “Can I open the window and hold you out?”

I squirmed. “Daddy said the window's painted shut.”

Hazy's form thumped across the floor, opening my toy box in the corner. “Let's see... ah! Alright. Try here.” As he turned to me, he held up a little, plastic pale that dad got me for my last birthday.

“In there?”

“It's better than peeing on yourself, I should think.” Hazy set the bucket down and turned his back to me. “I won't look. I promise.”

Still sniffling, but not having better options other than going in the corner or my pants, I used the bucket. I cried the whole time, and Hazy only turned around when I said I was done.

“Daddy's gonna be mad at me,” I whimpered, cuddling into Hazy's arms.

“He shouldn't be. You didn't have a choice, Talia.”

I breathed in his smell and closed my eyes. “Dakota's gonna be in trouble when daddy gets home.”

“As he should, that rotten boy.” Hazy nuzzled my hair, humming. “Do you have any homework?”

“Yeah. It's a math packet that I gotta finish for Friday.”

“Oh, wow. That sounds difficult. You could work on that until your father gets home?” I pulled away from Hazy and climbed onto my bed for my backpack. I got to work quickly, Hazy laying nearby. He was good at math, but never gave me answers. He only guided me as we waited out the clock for my dad.

I'd finished up that night's and the next, starting on Wednesdays, when the sound of the front door opening got my attention.

“Daddy's home!” I leaped down from my bed and to the door, trying the knob. It didn't work, of course, I just wanted to make noise and get out of the pee-bucket bedroom I was in. “Daddy!” I pummeled the door with tiny fists until I could hear him calling out to me.

“Talia, what... Dakota!

“Dad, it wasn't me!”

“Bullshit!” I covered my mouth in shock. My dad rarely ever swore.

“She was-”

“Go sit at the table. I'll deal with you later.”

“I didn't do anything!”

“Downstairs! Now!”

“Fine!” Feet stomped away and down. There was a scrape, and the door opened.

“Talia.” Dad opened his arms, and I ran right into them. He didn't smell like Hazy, he smelled like his aftershave and laundry soap, wonderful and familiar. “Baby, are you okay? I'm sorry I wasn't here.”

“I'm okay, daddy.” I hugged him around the neck. “Dakota ripped up my drawing, and I had to pee in a bucket.”

“Bucket?” He sounded concerned, but the anger was there along with it.

“I couldn't get out, daddy.”

“Shh, baby, it's okay. You're not in trouble.” Rubbing my back, he scooped me up off the floor. “Okay, sweety. You show me that bucket, and stay up here for a while. I'll have a talk with Dakota, then you can come down for dinner, okay?”

Setting me on my bed, I nodded, frowning. “It's by my toys.”

Frowning at the offending bucket, my dad picked it up from the floor with a sigh. “Okay. Now, you just stay here. I'll be back up soon.” Heading for the door, he left it ajar behind him and carried away the chair that had been wedged under the knob.

I didn't budge, but I listened. There was an argument brewing downstairs, and I wasn't sure where Hazy was. “H-Hazy?”

“I'm here,” he whispered softly. His weight pressed into the mattress next to me. “I'll stay here all night.”

I whispered back. “Are you here all the time?”

He nuzzled my arm. “I come by to see if you're home, but I'm usually in the woods.” Muffled yelling came up the stairs. I hunkered down, close to my dragon.

“I've tried everything, Dakota! You don't even care!”

Dakota said nothing, but I could picture him in my mind. Arms crossed, chin to his chest, glaring with those icy eyes.

“You won't talk to the therapist I took you to, you won't talk to me, you won't listen to me, and you keep harassing your sister!”

Silence.

“You think I was joking about military school?” The sound of paper hitting the table. “You're going on Sunday.”

A chair scraping against the floor. Hazy hugged me tight as I snuggled into his warmth.

“Dad, you can't!”

“Too late. I've given you a ton of chances.”

“Dad, please!” Dakota sounded near tears.

“Go to your room.”

Suddenly a crash and Dakota was shouting his lungs out. “Fuck you! All you care about is that stupid retarded baby-”

“Don't you-”

“I was here first! You like her more than me! I hate you!”

There was shuffling, and I hugged Hazy tightly. He shushed me, his scent and warmth calming me as I tried not to cry.

Dakota kept shouting the whole way to his bedroom. Dad gave him the same treatment that he'd given me- chair under the doorknob. Seeing as the upstairs bedrooms all had windows painted shut, Dakota was as stuck as I had been.

Carefully, Hazy pulled away from me, and my dad entered the room.

Sighing, he sat on the bed next to me and pulled me into a side hug. “Talia, sweety, Dakota's going away for a while.”

“Why?”

He fumbled with his words but tried to explain. “Well, you see, Dakota's... he's not nice. He's always doing bad things, and he's not trying to do good things. I want to help him, but I'm not, er... smart enough to.”

I gasped. How could my dad not know what to do? He knew everything, didn't he?

“So, I'm going to call some smarter people, and they will help Dakota. They'll teach him how to be a good person better than I can, but that means he's going to be, uh, gone for a while.” He smiled sadly at me. “I love him as much as I love you, but I can't help him right now. Those people at the special school can. You understand?”

I didn't have a reply. Dakota was always mean, but he was my big brother. “Does he have to go?”

Dad nodded. “It's not fun for me either, kiddo, but you sometimes have to do scary or sad things so that other people can be happy.” Patting me on the back, he stood. “How about chicken nuggets for dinner?”

I couldn't turn down nuggets.

The next day at school was a blur. Dad told me as he dropped me off that he'd try to be home early, so I wasn't left alone for long with Dakota. The deal was that if he were going to be on his regular home-time, he'd call the house a bit after I would be home and let me know.

I didn't like it, but there weren't other options on such short notice.

Gray clouds bubbled overhead, but it didn't rain until that night. It wasn't a fun day, knowing my big brother was going to be sent away for a while. I didn't see Dakota on the couch when I got home. I guessed that he was pouting, or he wasn't back yet. That struck me as weird because he was always home before me. I didn't know what to think of that, but I did know that I had math work to finish.

“Hazy?” I called out, making my way upstairs to my room. I was greeted with my bedroom door left wide open. I never left my door open out of habit. I couldn't see my dragon, not that I could most of the time. “Hazy?” I set my bag on the floor and watched my window for him to either come through or stand up. Behind me, my door clicked shut, and I turned. “...Hazy?”

There, still in his shoes and backpack, was my brother. He dropped his bag on the floor as he came at me. I didn't have time to get away. Dakota grabbed my shirt and tossed me like a rag doll onto the bed. I screamed, but he covered my mouth with his sweaty hand.

“Shut up!” I was pinned under my brother's heaviness, and no amount of thrashing could help me get loose.

I bit his hand and shrieked. “Hazy!”

Suddenly, my pillow was mushed against my face, and it was getting harder to breathe. I got one of my knees into Dakota's crotch, giving me time to inhale as deep as my little lungs could.

“Hazy!” I cried. “Hazy! Help!”

Dakota reared back and slapped me. Hard enough to hurt, but not enough to shut me up. “Your stupid dragon isn't real, so shut up! Shut up!” The pillow was back, and I began to fight back again, struggling and losing strength as I did. “I hate you! I hate you! I hate-” His shouts cut out as the world around me went black. It was like I was in the pool all over again. Running out of time, air, and strength.

There was a throaty, weird, warbling growl from my window. The pillow lifted as my big brother turned to the sound.

A growling, angry snarl stilled the air in the room. Four, heavy footfalls landed on my carpet. “Dakota...” It was said in a sing-song way, but fury bubbled under it. “You are one, rotten boy.” My brother rolled off of me, and I lifted my head, gasping for air. Then, as if appearing through a fog, I saw Hazy as he really was.

His skin was dappled, like a horse, but... hairless, and all of his limbs were mottled black. He was covered in scars that left white, raised lines all over his body. A long face like a borzoi, but with slits for a nose half way up the muzzle. Long, donkey ears pinned back in anger. A mop of greasy, slate-gray hair sat on a round, humanoid head. His whole body looked long, stretched out, like a reptile. His long, camel-like neck curved, so he was looking down his muzzle at Dakota. He rose to his back feet, shoulders touching the ceiling. His eyes near solid black, the only real color to them were the thin, purple irises that fixed hungrily on my brother.

“Rotten boys are my favorite!” He coiled, and lunged, revealing a gaping mouth full of sharp, tiny teeth. Dakota didn't have time to scream, as Hazy, my dragon, held one of his arms in each, bear-pawed fist. Hazy opened his jaws wider than a snake and shoved Dakota's head and shoulders into his mouth. His legs kicked, but Hazy grabbed his knees and pushed him deeper into his long, writhing throat. Hazy reached for the backpack at the foot of my bed and gulped that down, too. Jaws flexed like a hungry snake who'd finally found a meal. It was all over in less than ten seconds. There I lay, on my Little Mermaid bedclothes, watching in horror as my imaginary friend ate my big brother in a few, hard swallows. His stomach bulged under him, round and twitching slightly with the death throes of his meal.

Mouth agape, I found my voice enough to squeak out, “Y-you ate Dakota!”

“I did.” Hazy cracked his long, sagging neck with a loud series of pops. “He can't hurt you in my belly.”

“But... why?”

His chest and stomach rolled, like a slinky in a sock. I think I saw a foot kicking outward. “He was a rotten boy.” Hazy's wide eyes fixed on me, ears back like a scared cat. “He never would have been good, Talia.”

“...what am I gonna tell daddy?”

“Hmm, good question.” Hazy sank into the floor, frowning. He crossed his front legs, tail thumping on the carpet behind him. I got a good look at him, then, this strange creature. He seemed, at best, a cross between a moray eel, a horse, and bear... with enough human in him to look wrong. Hazy was, certainly, not a dragon. “Tell him...” A claw curled to his lip in thought, eyes glancing at the floor. “Dakota never came home. Would that work?”

“...daddy will miss him, Hazy.” I felt tears welling in my eyes.

The beast sighed and nodded his head. “He will. I'm so sorry.”

“Can you give Dakota back?”

“No. He's inside of me. He can't come back.”

I crawled forward on my knees. “Hazy?”

Black and purple stared at me with nothing but kindness, and in that second I feared him the most. “Yes, Talia?”

“You're not gonna eat me, too, are you?”

He looked stricken. “What? Of course not! I only eat rotten children! You're far too sweet, Talia.”

It finally sank in that he didn't just mean my personality.

Sitting up on his haunches, with his tail flicking softly against my rug, Hazy clasped one hand over the other, frowning. “I really am sorry for eating your brother. I know you loved him, but he was hurting you. He'd have done worse to others had I not eaten him. Children that are rotten like him always turn into rotten grown-ups and rotten grown-ups do horrible things.”

I sniffled. “Hazy?”

“Yes, Talia?”

“Are you gonna eat my kids when I grow up?”

Hazy stared hard at me, a lavender tongue darting out. “Not if they're as sweet as you.” With that, the dappled, friendly, awful beast slipped out of my window via the glass. His paw prints left huge dents on my carpet, as always.

Dad came home to me, alone. I told him as convincingly as I could that Dakota never came home. Since his shoes and backpack were gone with him, Dad believed me. The cops were called, then an amber alert went out. Searching the woods and sending out search dogs didn't turn up a thing. Dakota was gone as if plucked out of the world.

Or, swallowed by a monster.

I never saw Hazy again.

Right now, as I finish this, my first child is sleeping in the bassinet by my bed. Her chubby cheeks and cute little mouth working gently as she dreams. It's been two months of beautiful, post-birth bliss, no postpartum to be found here. As I watch my little girl sleep, I remember my childhood friend, Hazy the Dragon, and I pray. I pray that, as she grows up, my little girl stays as sweet as she is now.



Written by Evilblackbunny
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