It all started the day he came home, duffle bag in hand. He was such a sheepish little guy. It was hard to believe he was a troublemaker. But Mom and Dad adopted him regardless.
Maybe they didn’t believe he was a prankster. Or maybe they thought they could fix him. They were always looking for pet projects, why shouldn’t he have been one as well? But the thought occurred to me that maybe they just wanted another kid regardless of how bad he might be. For some reason they had an awful time finding an adoption agency willing to give them a child.
To me it didn’t make any sense. We were an upper middle class family in a nice neighborhood that wanted another kid. Isn’t that the target market of an adoption agency? But in the end it didn’t matter, we found Alex.
He had that long black hair you’d expect from an emo. The kind that fell down past his eyes and made him look sad. It was strange because he was young, only ten years old. Most kids who do their hair like that are in their teens.
He was lanky too. But that wasn’t exactly his fault. I couldn’t imagine most adoption agencies have five star chefs. It was only offset by his height. Despite being his senior by two years, I was at eye level with him.
“Hi,” I said when he walked through the door for the first time. “I’m Jack.”
He looked at my hand for a moment before shaking it. It was the same kind of awkward shake you give someone when you know he didn’t wash his hands after going to the bathroom.
I couldn’t really read his expression, but as far as I could tell he was nervous about his new family. Dad had warned me that Alex had gotten in trouble in the last few families he lived with. The complaints were all pretty similar. He’d play a few pranks or get in a fight and the parents would say, “He just wasn’t a good fit” or “We couldn’t make it work.”
When we showed him around the house he smiled like we had taken him to a candy store. Mom had taken what the agency had said to heart. The Sisters told us he liked dragons, so we covered his room in dragons. The walls were covered in images of dragons. Some were traditional European dragons, guarding women trapped in towers and whatnot. Others were more exotic Asian dragons, being worshiped as gods. My favorite was of some unpronounceable Native American god.
It was all too much for him. A “thank you” barely passed his lips before he fell onto the "How To Train Your Dragon" bed sheets.
“Dinner will be ready in an hour,” Mom said as she and Dad walked away. “Jack, why don’t you help Alex get settled in?”
That was her way of telling me to make friends with my new brother. As soon as the door fell shut I got a good look at my new brother.
“Put those dragons on the desk,” he ordered. He was referring to the bin of toy dragons sitting next to his bed. When I didn’t move he sat up and looked me dead in the eye, “Did I stutter?”
Following my Mom’s advice to help him “settle in,” I put the box of toys on the desk. He was lying down again, eyes closed. Relaxing? Meditating? It didn’t seem right, whatever he was doing.
“Now organize them,” he barked without deigning to look at me.
Not wanted to argue or start a fight, I obediently arranged the dragons. He didn’t tell me how to organize them so I just put them in a haphazard circle facing the center.
“Not like that,” he said, eyes still closed. “By size.”
With a grunt of annoyance, I set back to work. There were only six in total, so organizing them wasn’t exactly a challenge. When I finished I looked over at the strange young man, no longer wondering why the other families didn’t want him. “Is that all?”
“For now,” he quietly replied. “But don’t worry, I’ll have more work for you later. Now go away.”
I didn’t see him again till dinner. It passed like every other dinner, the only difference being the extra mouth. Mom pestered him with all kinds of questions, none of which seemed to interest Dad.
“Why do you like dragons so much?” she asked.
“I dunno,” he offered with a shrug. “Just do.”
“Did you like the toys?” she asked.
“Loved ‘em,” he replied, giving me a sly grin. I guess Mom didn’t catch the smile, because she didn’t ask about it.
Alex volunteered the both of us to wash the dishes afterward. It started out with him washing and me drying, but soon deteriorated to me doing all the work because he wanted to go to bed.
The night passed quietly, although more than once I heard noises coming from other parts of the house. My room was on the far end of the house, opposite to Mom’s and Alex’s rooms. Dad usually fell asleep on the couch, so he was in between.
I just figured Alex was having trouble settling in and left the noises alone. Maybe he was being mean just because it was his first day in a new home. Maybe he was just mean-spirited. I chose not to dwell too much on it.
The next day, I had to broach the subject with myself once again.
I was awakened by a shriek. I knew immediately it was my mother, but something was wrong. It wasn’t the way she would yell if it had been a spider or a stubbed toe. It was something serious.
When I ran out of my room, Alex and Dad were already on the case. “What’s wrong?” Dad asked, two feet from the couch he slept on. Evidently she’d woken him too.
She was staring at the mantle above our fireplace, which had once been decorated with family photos from various vacations and such. Now every frame was empty.
While that isn’t exactly something to scream over, the problem quickly became more apparent. It wasn’t just those pictures. It was all of them. Every single picture in the house that had one of us in it was gone. It didn’t matter if they were in frames, in albums, or sitting in a drawer. They were all gone.
We searched the entire house for them, top to bottom. My parents didn’t start the blame game yet. When we found them, I was in for a shocker.
They were in my underwear drawer, neatly stacked and tied with rubber bands. “I didn’t do it,” I argued. But it was useless. The evidence was against me.
They probably assumed it was something I was doing to get attention. To a parent that must have made a lot of sense. A new kid in the house meant I’d get less attention, so naturally I would act out.
So I was ordered not to leave my room for the rest of the day. But just before the door closed, I swear, Alex winked at me.
The next few days went without much incident. I was grounded, so I couldn’t really do much. The computer, TV, video games, and the pool were all off limits. So I spent the time with Alex. Now, I didn’t want to be his friend, let alone his brother, but if I could get him to confess to taking the pictures maybe I would be in the clear.
“I swear to God, I didn’t do it,” he protested after the umpteenth time I asked. I was beginning to think maybe he didn’t do it. But then who did? Was it a ghost? An intruder? Was I sleepwalking?
When I finally let it go, we slipped into a routine. Every morning when Mom and Dad left for work, they would tell Alex to keep an eye on me and tell them if I did something I wasn’t allowed to. Then, totally uncharacteristically, he would let me do what I wanted.
He gave me a little warning. “If you don’t do what I say, I’ll tell on you.”
Now, I’m no expert, but at the wise old age of twelve I knew this kid was going to be either a politician or really into BDSM when he grew up.
That was the day the first murder happened.
Alex went outside to get the mail. He came back with hands covered in blood. He was shaking, his voice quivered under the weight of the words. “I- I couldn’t save him.”
“What? Save who?” I asked, suddenly on my feet. I don’t remember running out to see the mess. I don’t remember calling 911. I don’t even remember where the wounds were. I do however remember the contorted face of our mailman, lying in a puddle of blood in the middle of the sidewalk. The one thing I’ll never forget is the tiny black dragon toy, resting safely on his head, as if it could fly away.
The police arrived. Then the paramedics. When we were sufficiently calmed, the police started asking Alex questions. He had been the one who found the body, so it made sense to ask him.
“Did you see anyone?”
“No, there was nobody.”
“Was he dead when you arrived?”
“No, I tried to stop the bleeding but he stopped breathing.”
“Where are your parents?”
“Do you recognize this?” the officer held up an evidence bag. Inside was the tiny black dragon. Evidently, it did not fly away.
“No,” Alex lied.
I knew exactly what the police officer was thinking. He saw a pattern emerging. Maybe this was going to be the first in a pattern of killings, marked by either toys or dragons. Maybe by black animals.
But I knew the truth the moment I saw the toy. I kept it to myself, for fear of reprisals. But deep down, I knew that Alex had done it.
Mom and Dad were comforting to say the least. They took us out to get ice cream and we didn’t come home until the crime scene was cleared away. But I couldn’t think straight. My new brother couldn’t be a killer. A prankster maybe. Certainly an asshole. But a killer?
As soon as I was no longer grounded I went online and did a little digging. After looking on a few local news sites I found a story about the “Dragon Killer.” The media, I found, has a way of giving criminals really bad names. The Dragon Killer? Was that the best they could do? Not “The Wyrm Warrior” or “The Cocatrice Cutthroat?”
Regardless of his poor name, the Dragon Killer seemed to mark his kills with toy dragons. So far three had been found. One was found on the body of a mailman, who had been disemboweled with a knife. The second had been found on the corpse of a gardener that had been strung up as if flying. The picture was pretty gruesome, blood stained naked body, as he laid suspended in the air, arms extended as if in flight. But I managed to recognize him as the gardener who used to work our lawn. The third dragon was in the home of my old teacher, Ms. Osney. She had been tied to a stove and covered in gasoline. They fire destroyed much of her house, but one of the things that endured was a dragon toy on the front porch. That one hurt me a bit more than the others.
Alex had been a busy boy. And it suddenly occurred to me how terrifying this situation was. I was living with a serial killer. How many of those dragons were meant for members of this family? Why had he attacked people we knew? Our mailman, our old gardener, my former teacher. Why these people in particular? But I was no fool; I knew what had to be done.
I needed evidence.
What kind of evidence might a ten-year-old serial killer leave behind? A bloody knife? Tank of gasoline? No, he wouldn’t have kept those things. I needed a confession.
One night after dinner I went to his room, careful to knock first. “Can I come in?” I asked when he opened up for me.
“Sure,” he said.
I risked a glance at the desk. Just as I had assumed, only three dragons remained. I noticed that he was using them in size order, just as he asked me to arrange them.
“What’s up?” he asked in a fairly casual tone.
“Just wondering how you’re settling in,” I lied, trying to keep a straight face.
“Fine,” he muttered. He was lying down on his bed, same as always.
“What happened to your dragons?” I ventured. What did I have to lose? “I could have sworn I arranged six of them.”
“I don’t know,” he said solemnly. “Maybe they flew away.” I honestly couldn’t tell him that sentence was serious.
After awkwardly wishing him a good night, I sped off to my parents’ room. I had to tell them what I knew. They had to help. They were talking when I arrived, so I waited outside the door to listen.
“Lena, three people are dead,” Dad said, evidently trying to sound level headed.
“Yes, but they weren’t killed by a fucking ten-year old. Would you listen to yourself?” she shot back.
“He had six dragons. Now he has three,” Dad replied, using my own rationale. “How do you dance around that?”
“I don’t know!” she yelled. “But our son isn’t a murderer. It’s insane.”
I don’t know why, but I suddenly felt the urge to look behind me. It felt like there was someone looking over my shoulder. But when I turned, there was no one. All I saw was Alex’s door closing. And then I knew it was almost over.
I sprinted back to my room and locked the door. If he wanted to kill me, he’d have to get in first. By then I could be out the window. It was such a perfect plan; all I had to do was stay awake in case he tried to get in.
And thank God he didn’t, because I fell asleep after ten minutes. I woke up terrified to the sound of banging on the door. “We don’t lock doors in this house, young man,” Mom yelled through the door.
I opened it and apologized profusely. Clearly I’d survived the night, but a quick Google search proved that not everyone had. The Dragon Killer had struck again. This time a nun from St. Agnes Adoption Agency had been killed. Apparently she had been forced to swallow coins until she suffocated. A small blue dragon had been left on top of her Bible.
What was he doing? Tying up loose ends? Seeking revenge?
I didn’t understand what was happening, but a week later I lost any sense of pity I felt for him. I didn’t want to understand him or his motive. I wanted to strangle him.
It happened when Mom was at work. Dad came home early to start cooking dinner. The police weren’t completely sure what happened, but he somehow got locked in the car while the engine was running. The carbon monoxide built up in his lungs and poisoned him. We didn’t find him until Mom came home.
The paramedics could do nothing. The police were just as useless. They did little more than investigate the cause of death and take the green serpent resting on the hood of the car.
The funeral was the most painful thing I’d ever been through. I cried the whole way through. Half because I missed my father, and half because I couldn’t tell anyone what really happened. There was only one dragon left. Alex only had one more person to kill. And while I hoped it was himself, I somehow doubted that.
He cried during the procession too. I couldn’t tell if he was faking it or not, but if he was then he did a damn fine job of it. Mom kept a stoic, yet distinctly pained expression throughout the day.
It was a hodgepodge of distant relatives, old family friends, and total strangers who apparently knew Dad. I had to shake all of their hands and thank them as they offered condolences. Almost everyone said that they were sorry for our loss. There was only one person who should have been sorry for his death, and that was Alex.
The weeks were a blur after that. The final dragon remained perched on the desk, the last of his family. His red scales reflected the sunlight that poured through the window, making him look like he was glowing. He was the biggest by far, about the size of a bird. And for weeks he didn’t move. For weeks the Dragon Killer made no move.
Then one night I heard a noise. It was louder than the sounds I’d grown accustomed to hearing. When I got up to investigate, I saw the dragon sitting on the coffee table. He was staring blankly at the couch where Dad used to sleep.
Once again, I felt a presence behind me. But this time when I turned around, it was Mom. “You’ve been counting dragons,” she said with a smile. But it wasn’t her smile. It was almost as wide as the Cheshire cat’s. It was the first time she gave any glint of happiness since the funeral, but it was unnatural. Then I saw what she was holding behind her back.
She had a short rope and two cinderblocks. As soon as I saw it, everything clicked. Suddenly the world made sense. Painful, brutal sense. Why did they adopt a kid with a record of bad behavior? Why did she want him in her home? She needed a scapegoat. Why were the killings themed after dragons? Because the scapegoat loved dragons. And how better to insinuate someone’s guilt than to use their toys as a calling card?
I tried to run, but she grabbed me by the collar of my shirt before I could get away. I tried to scream, but she covered my mouth before a noise escaped. “You’re a regular dragon hunter. It’s fitting that you’d get your very own tonight.”
A gag found its way into my mouth as she dragged me outside. The night was silent and crystal clear, but I was too terrified to take in the scenery. All I could focus on was the pool, shimmering in the moonlight.
She placed a knee on my ribs to keep me from moving as she tied the cinderblocks to my legs. The rope cut deep, almost drawing blood. She bound my hands just as tightly, for good measure. The water hit me like a rock. It felt like ice as it settled on my skin. The gag did little to keep it out of my lungs. I fought as hard as I could, but the ropes were just too tight.
The last thing I saw before I blacked out was my mother placing a red, bird-sized dragon at the edge of the pool.