“Tanya Got a Dragon”
by Topher Froehlich
Two letters addressed to the North Pole left number Seventeen Seventeen Edgemont Drive, Stonerock, New Jersey, as unalike as their senders.
One was written on pink stationary. Every single word had been written in a light, loving manner, as if each one mattered. It read:
Thank you for taking the time to read this. My name is Tanya. It almost rhymes with Santa! I am 8-years-old. I met one of your helpers at the mall last year. He was very kind. I know you must have talked with him because I got the cactus I asked for. Thank you very much!!! It is the coolest plant in the whole world. I named it Mr. Prickles. Mr. Prickles does not need that much water and even though I can’t pet him, he is still great to hang out with. Sometimes I carry him to school and everyone agrees he is the coolest plant in the world. I know everything about cacti. Did you know some cacti can grow up to be 60 feet tall? That’s taller than my house!
I feel greedy asking for more presents this year, but my mom and dad say it’s okay. I hope it’s okay with you too. You don’t have to give me anything, of course. I know there are lots of children who need stuff.
More than anything, I want a dragon, please. He or she can be any color. Do not worry, I will not let it hurt anyone. I would teach the dragon to be a good dragon. If you give me a dragon I will take good care of it. I will take it for walks, brush its teeth, play with it every day, feed it the correct food, and make sure it is happy. When I grow up I am going to be a veterinarian. If I can help a dragon I can help all the other animals too. I think Gary is a good name for a dragon. What do you think?
Have a Merry Christmas and say hi to all the elves from me.
Here was drawn a smiley face.
The second letter to leave Seventeen Seventeen Edgemont Drive was hastily scrawled across a standard sheet of computer paper, folded unevenly several times before being stuffed haphazardly inside an envelope. Many letters had blurred. Ink stains were rampant. The handwriting was difficult to decipher and required the professional expertise of an elf who specialized in decoding the sloppy writing of (primarily male) children. It read:
To the Fraud in the Red Suit,
I was forced to write to you because my little sister believes you exist and the whole family has to pretend we believe too. But I know the truth. I’m writing to nobody. No one’s ever going to read this. I can write whatever I want. I can write fuck shit fuck fuck fuck ass dick.
I wanted a bulldog for Christmas but Dad already said no. No pets, not ever. I’m not getting a Playstation 4 either. I don’t ever get anything I want, so why bother asking?
Everything about the idea of you is so dumb. It doesn’t make kids behave better, it makes them lie more. Nobody really cares about being good. It’s something everyone just pretends is important. Ass shit dick.
Eat my ass,
Two weeks later, Santa Claus abducted Tanya and Evan’s Dad.
St. Nick dispatched two elves to snatch the optometrist from his office Christmas party.
The slightly inebriated man, unaccustomed to teleportation, puked on arrival in the South Pole (the true HQ of Santa Corp. since 1911). After Dad’s stomach settled, the Big Man in the Red Suit introduced himself. Father Christmas gave Dad an extended tour of the toy shops, the candy cane fields, the snowman museum, and the reindeer pastures. The purpose of which only became clear when the two men sat in Santa’s own office.
“Usually, when a good boy or girl has truly earned a gift only I can give them, I sneak it into the pile and put a small enchantment on it, so that the parent believes they purchased the present. Last year I did just that for your daughter’s cactus…”
Wavering, Dad said, “No I got her the cactus.”
Santa arched one white eyebrow.
“Oh. No I. . . I guess I didn’t go to Home Depot after all. . .”
“We both know you are a well-meaning if often inattentive father.”
“Hey. I got custody didn’t I?”
“We both know that isn’t saying much. You haven’t reached your full potential as a parent, sir, but here is a chance to begin doing better. Your daughter has made a most unusual request. Given that she is a most unusually kind person, I want to grant her wish. However, this isn’t something I can just give a child without her parent’s consent.”
Santa told Dad what Tanya wanted. A fire woke in the optometrist. He sprang to his feet, began hollering and emphasizing his anger using his pointer finger.
“Absurd. You’re a madman, Claus. A deranged goon. I won’t allow a wild animal in my house, much less leave it alone with my daughter.”
“Have you never wondered why I have never given you what you want for Christmas?”
“I beg your. . . What I want? I never. . .”
“Say it out loud, but I see your heart. Your dearest wish for this Christmas would be a little recording studio in your den, so you could finally start making your own podcasts. The only thing you want more is to believe you have the talent to be worth listening to.”
While Dad sputtered, Santa put a grandfatherly hand on the optometrist’s shoulder.
“You have the chance to make your daughter feel as happy as that studio would make you. Let me know. In the meantime, take this.”
Santa placed a one-way plane ticket to New Jersey in Dad’s coat.
By the time he was 30,000 feet above the ice, Dad’s rage was ebbing. Below him was a place of legend, a secret world of wonder and generosity he had been blessed to visit. Only now was it dawning on Dad he had spent the entire tour irritated and willfully unimpressed. Babbling on about being kidnapped. When had he transformed into this mean old man? A bitter curmudgeon who at first sight of real magic in the world demanded it be kicked out of his house, kept away from his children?
If he denied his daughter her dragon, Tanya would never forget, or forgive him. It was one thing to take away a child’s video games for a week, but this. . . For the rest of her life, Tanya would see him as the Dad Who Took My Dragon Away.
Dad sobbed himself to sleep.
“Don’t wake me up before six please,” Dad said to Tanya after reading ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. “I told your brother the same thing. No going downstairs until five o’clock either, okay? I know you’re excited but try to sleep.”
At 4 Tanya was up. At 4:10 she heard the top stair creak. Poking her head out of her bedroom, she caught Evan trying to sneak downstairs.
“Evan,” she hissed. “We’re not allowed downstairs yet.”
“It’s gonna take forever,” her brother moaned.
She coaxed him into her room by suggesting a classic time-killer, beloved by them both: a game of Uno. After an hour of playing cards, however, Evan’s patience reached its end.
“I’m going,” he declared.
By his tone, Tanya knew, there were no ifs, ands or buts about it. Hopelessly, she tried anyway, appealing weakly with, “Let’s just play one more round.”
Evan was already down the first few steps, and Tanya felt she had no choice but to defer to his will. Following, she reminded her brother, “We can’t open anything without Dad. It’s tradition.”
“Uh, yeah, I know.”
“We’ll just peek at our piles, then wait in the living room. We can watch TV quietly.”
“C’mon I wanna play the guessing game. You know you want to.”
Two color-coded towers flanked the Christmas tree: a blue stack of gifts for Evan and a red stack for Tanya.
“Okay, Evan, we looked, let’s go see if A Christmas Story is on.”
He had spied a long thin package amongst his stockpile. Pointing to it, Evan said, “Oh that’s definitely my new hockey stick, YES.”
“Come watch TV with me, Evan.”
“Let’s see what you’ve got, Tanya, I bet I can guess a few.”
“Don’t, Evan, don’t.”
Both of them saw it at the same time. At the foot of Tanya’s gift pile. Big as a soccer ball. Black as cast iron. Smooth as a new car hood.
“The fuck?” said Evan.
“You said the F-word,” said Tanya, aghast.
“Shut up. What is that?”
“Don’t tell me to shut up. That’s mean. I’m telling Dad you said the F-word on Christmas.”
“Tanya, I don’t give a shit. I’m twelve. Okay? Now what the eff is that thing?”
Tanya wrinkled her nose and turned down her head. Evan waited, expectantly. Eventually she gave in and dutifully walked over to her brother’s side.
“It must be my dragon,” she said. “I asked Santa for one.”
“Are you kidding me? A dragon? You think a real dragon is sitting in our living room? You’re so. . .” The word on the tip of his lips was understood by both of them. His sister looked as hurt as if he’d gone ahead with it. “Obviously, Dad read your letter and got you a stuffed dragon and put it in that egg. Why didn’t he wrap it though?”
“It’s alive. You can’t Christmas wrap living things.”
Evan tsked. “It’s not alive, Tanya.”
He raised his foot like he meant to give it the soccer ball treatment. Tanya seized his leg and squeezed.
“Don’t hurt it!” she shouted.
“You’re gonna make me trip, let go.”
“Leave my egg alone. Please.”
“I can’t believe you grabbed me.”
A crack as clear as a snapped stick in a dead forest silenced them both. Their eyes fell to the splinter in the egg’s center. Something nudged the shell from the inside. The egg shook. The siblings shivered. A silver snout poked out, eggshell breaking on its scaly nose. Evan gasped. Tanya covered her mouth.
In one lunge the baby dragon broke free. Silver as Dad’s favorite watch from head to tail. Eyes like a cat, big, yellow and black. The dragon yawned, revealing toothless gums. It stretched its bat-like wings, which were dark purple underneath.
Tanya ran and hugged it. Evan screamed in disgust as well as shock. A new feeling took over and he kept yelling. He ran upstairs, booking it three steps at a time. Dad was already waking up, shouting, “What? Why so much noise?” when Evan flew into his father’s room.
“You gave Tanya a dragon?” he raged. “After telling me no pets? Are you kidding me? A bulldog isn’t even a mystical creature.”
Dad sat in bed wearing boxers and a glazed look. At his son’s tirade, he let out a long sigh. Ran a hand through unwashed hair.
“Shit. Okay. Um… well, I didn’t get your sister the dragon actually. Santa brought it for her.”
As he was saying it he knew how feeble it was as a defense.
“Are you for real, Dad? I’ve known there’s no Santa Claus since I was six.”
“I – I didn’t think there was a Santa either. I didn’t think he was real for more than thirty years, so. . . imagine my surprise. Um. . . look I need to go see if your sister is okay, there’s a dragon downstairs, oh my god.”
Evan followed him, shouting, “This is bullshit, Dad. Bullshit. Absolute bullshit.”
Then he shut himself in his room and refused to come out.
It took Dad twenty minutes of pleading to make his son emerge.
Evan opened his presents in silence, ripping the wrapping like he was pulling weeds. In every photo and video Dad took, his son was scowling, arms crossed, while his ebullient sister, Gary perched on her shoulder, thanked Dad and Santa for each and every gift.
“Can I be excused?” said Evan when the last present was unwrapped.
“That’s real nice, Evan,” said Dad. “Real nice for Christmas.”
“Christmas is ruined,” said Evan, before running to shut himself in his room again.
Dad smacked his face in his hands.
“Is Evan mad at me, Dad?”
“No, sweetie. No, Daddy fucked up.”
“I know, I swore. I’m very sorry, honey. Okay, well. . . I’m gonna make breakfast for us. Merry Christmas.” He kissed her head. Gary stuck his tongue in Dad’s ear and the old man nearly toppled over.
In the kitchen, Dad hastily scrawled a letter.
You need to send me a second dragon ASAP. I didn’t even bother to think how my son would feel about this and as you can imagine things are a mess here.
Only after getting to the mailbox did Dad remember there would be no mail today. He cursed some more and, resigned, went back inside.
As he was whipping up scrambled eggs, Tanya approached the stove.
“Oh God,” Dad said jumping at the sight of the dragon on her shoulder.
“You don’t have to be scared, Dad. He doesn’t even have teeth.”
“No, I’m just surprised, is all. I’ll—I’ll get used to it.”
Tanya slumped against the counter, nodding faintly.
“What’sa matter, munchkin?”
“Dad. . . we can. . . we can give Gary back. If it’ll make Evan feel better.”
He knew she meant it too. Her little face was heartbroken but resolved.
“Sweetie, no, no, no,” he said. “Listen to me. It’s not your job to make your brother happy. Okay? You deserve this little guy.”
Tanya smiled a little.
Dad set the table then went outside and tore up the letter.
He went up to Evan’s room and announced, “I’m coming in.”
His son was curled up, hugging his knees, back to his doorway.
The boy rolled over.
“Is Santa Claus really real, Dad?”
Never had Dad ever seen his son more profoundly disturbed. He looked like he had just discovered a dead animal.
“He is, yeah.”
“So he really knows if people are bad or good.”
Dad didn’t know what to say, so to end the silence he said, “I made breakfast for everyone.”
“What makes Tanya so special? She doesn’t feed the homeless or whatever. She’s never saved someone’s life.”
“Evan, we can talk about this more later but right now, you have to come downstairs. It’s not fair to your sister to act this way. Plus, Mom and Joey are gonna be here soon, so time to start behaving.”
“So we can all pretend we like each other, right?”
He left his Dad open-mouthed and ran to the bathroom, shutting himself in and locking it.
Between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve, Evan wrote Santa three letters.
The first read:
Dear Saint Dick,
I think it isn’t fair to trick kids into believing you exist, then making parents tell us you aren’t real, when you do exist. It’s really confusing and makes it hard to please you. How am I supposed to understand the rules of Christmas if you make it impossible?
If Tanya gets a dragon, I should get a bulldog. Or at least a PS4.
I’m a good kid too. I never get into fights. I never steal. I clean my room. I’m not a bully. One time I punched Mom’s boyfriend in the balls, but I said I was sorry and I don’t think it’s fair to punish me forever for doing that. Besides, he stole my mom. He better not have gotten anything nice for Christmas. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he did.
I hope you see the errors of your way and fix this quickly.
Happy Boxing Day,
When he was done, Evan crumpled it up and threw it out.
The second letter read:
To Mr. Santa Claus,
I seriously thought you weren’t real. If I knew you were real, I would have taken things more seriously. I apologize for everything bad I have ever done. Whatever those things are. Did I lie too much? Lying never seemed like a big deal. I know people say it is, but it always seemed like they were just saying that. In Scouts they say it’s important to be honest, but I know plenty of older scouts and scoutmasters who are mean and tell lies. I know kids who pretend to be really religious at church who brag about getting blowjobs at school. I guess I’m saying it always seemed like people were just pretending to care about being good, so I didn’t care either.
Evan threw this one out too.
The last one was the shortest. It read:
To Mr. Santa Claus,
I know I’m one of the bad kids. But I don’t understand what is bad about me. I don’t know what to do. How do I become one of the good kids? Please help.
This one he sent.
Valentine’s Day was around the corner and Santa had not answered Evan.
Desperate, he asked several adults for their advice.
“How do I be a good kid?”
Coach Rathers said, “Play fair, work hard, practice, practice, practice.”
Father Jeffrey said, “We must follow the Word of Jesus.”
Scoutmaster Hollen had Evan open his handbook and recite the Scout Oath.
Evan was too embarrassed to ask his teacher.
Dad told him he was already a good kid. This made Evan blow up.
“Clearly I’m not or else I would be on Santa’s good list.”
Then Dad recited a bunch of claptrap. “Treat others the way you. . .” “Remember the golden rule. . .”
In other words, the same old morality for babies baloney Evan had always heard. Nothing helpful. Nothing instructive. Everything was so frustratingly vague.
On President’s Day, Evan realized how stupid he had been. It was obvious who he needed to talk to.
Jenny’s job was to take the plastic off the cheese. Tanya placed it on the bread, then put the sandwich in front of Gary. The dragon breathed fire on it and presto! Each grilled cheese only cost a dollar, but most people gave the girls two, three or even a five.
Their table outside the Stonerock Supermarket had two signs. One was taped to the front of the table and said, “All proceeds go to UNICEF.” After just two hours, the girls had already filled twenty of the charity’s small boxes. Jenny’s mom had to run inside the store and buy more cheese, bread and paper plates.
The second sign was in front of Gary and said, “You can pet me but please don’t take my picture” with a signature smiley face drawn by Tanya. She had written this sign three times because Gary kept setting it on fire by mistake.
Evan arrived by bicycle. “No cutting!” said a little boy on line with his dad. Evan ignored them.
“Are these the Halloween boxes?” he asked Tanya.
“I’ve been keeping them. We got them at school but a lot of kids were throwing them out. So I just said I would take them all. Then Mrs. Schwab gave me a whole closetful.”
“Neat. Can I talk to you for a second?”
“Jenny, is it okay if I leave you to talk to my brother?”
“She’s not scared to be alone with Gary?”
“Her mom’s here, silly, she’s not alone. And nobody needs to be scared of Gary, he’s a good boy.”
The siblings walked over to the shopping cart stand.
“Can you teach me to be a good person?”
Of all the things her brother might have asked, this was by far the most surprising.
Without thinking, Tanya said the first thing that came to mind.
Of all the things his sister might have said, this surprised Evan most. Not sure if he should feel insulted, he said, “Because I don’t wanna be a bad kid anymore.”
“You’re not a bad kid.”
“Sure I am. I’m on Santa’s bad list and everything.”
“Is this about Gary? We can share him if you want.”
“See right there. How do you do that, Tanya? I would never share my pet dragon with you. I suck. You have to help me.”
“I don’t know. . .”
“I’m not a teacher. I’m not even grown-up.”
“The grown-ups don’t know anything either. I asked all of them. You’re the most good person I know, Tanya. You’re my only hope.”
“Well. . . I guess I’ll try.”
“Great. Amazing. You’re the best sister.”
He held out his hand for a high five. Tanya wasn’t sure her brother had ever high-fived her before. It was a little like being given a surprise cookie. She hit his hand with all her strength.
“Your brother’s a jerk,” said Jenny.
“Jenny,” said her mom.
“What, Mom? He is. He tried to kick Gary when he was still inside his egg.”
The dragon, sitting in Tanya’s lap, picked up his head.
“He didn’t think Gary was real,” said Tanya.
The four of them were driving back to Jenny’s house. Tanya was sleeping over tonight.
Maybe asking for Mrs. Zhang’s help had been a mistake. But she was a real teacher! She had taught Tanya’s first grade class. Even though Evan hadn’t said this was a secret, Tanya bet he was going to be mad if he found out she told anyone…
“So what?” said Jenny. “If my brother called me a dummy and told me to shut up all the time, I wouldn’t waste my time helping him.”
“You don’t have a brother,” said Tanya.
“Jennifer, cut it out,” said Mrs. Zhang. “Tanya, I think it’s very sweet you want to help your brother. I’m happy to help you make a lesson plan.”
“Does this mean we’re not gonna watch Jurassic Park? I didn’t invite you over to hang with my mom all night.”
“It won’t take a minute,” her mother reassured her.” Then she added, “You’re in a very touchy mood, young lady.”
“Here’s an idea for a lesson to teach your brother, Tanya,” said Jenny, “be nice to your sister. Or else your dragon will set him on fire.”
“Gary doesn’t set people on fire,” said Tanya, but she was grinning. And thinking maybe, just maybe, her friend actually had a point.
Save for the drawing of Mom and Joey, Evan’s favorite thing in Tanya’s room was the poster board of sketches. His little sister was getting quite good. Well beyond stick figures. It was like a mosaic of characters in good moods, or a poster for a movie starring the family, Jenny, Gary and a whole host of animals, from beavers to orcas.
Next best was her stack of board games. Beside this was Gary’s bed: a hoard of coins, mostly nickels and pennies with a few quarters tossed in, too. The dragon was asleep at present. Evan was seated like a good student in a pink beanbag chair. He even had a notebook. In teacher form, Tanya had her hair tied back in a bun. Accompanying her was an easel Dad had bought her. On the first page, in the boldest, brightest rainbow’s variety of color, was written Kindness Lessons.
“Lesson one,” said Tanya, turning the paper over. Written on the next page was Be Nice To Your Sister. “Part of being good is treating others with kindness. You can start with me. That means stuff like, no more telling me to shut up.”
To keep from saying anything biting, Evan rapped his pencil. His sister kept staring at him, like she expected questions.
“Okay, that’s not a real lesson,” said Evan. “That’s a personal complaint.”
“It’s a mean thing you do, Evan. It hurts my feelings. Maybe you think that’s corny or babyish, but it’s true. I don’t tell you to shut up.”
“Okay, well, I wouldn’t care if you did.”
“Listen. All brothers and sisters say shut up to each other. It’s just. . . I don’t mean it. It’s sarcasm. You know?”
“I know what sarcasm is. When you tell me to shut up it’s not sarcasm. You don’t think it’s important to listen to me. Even when you ask me to teach you.”
“Come on, Tanya.”
“Evan, this is easy. Really, really easy. If you can’t do lesson one, there’s no more lessons.”
Rap, rap, rap, went Evan’s pencil. The staring contest between brother and sister was a draw.
“All right, I won’t tell you to shut up anymore.”
“Good,” said Tanya, folding her hands. “Why?”
“What do you mean why? Because you said I can’t.”
“But that’s not the right reason.”
“Okay, I don’t get the reason then.”
“Well when you figure it out, we’ll do lesson two.”
“Are you serious? How am I supposed to learn anything, if you don’t tell me the answers?”
“I’m the teacher, Evan. You can’t scream at me.”
“I’m not screaming. I’m just mad.”
“Sometimes you scream. I’m telling you before you start.”
The rapping became faster, more furious. Finally, Evan threw his pencil down. His notebook too.
“This was a stupid idea. I’m an idiot.”
And he left.
After hockey practice, Coach Rathers lectured Evan, one-on-one, about his lack of focus. As if that wasn’t embarrassing enough, after Evan emerged from the locker room, he spied the coach chatting it up with Dad.
The old man shouldn’t have even been there. In the past, he’d shirked his carpool duties and let the other parents drive Evan. Since January however, Dad had been annoyingly persistent in achieving his New Year’s Resolution, one he had proudly announced to his children: to be a more attentive father.
One by one, Evan’s teammates emptied from the car, until it was just Dad and Evan, and the impending awkwardness of a “How are ya son?” chat.
“Coach says you’ve seemed really distracted for awhile now, buddy. Anything on your mind you wanna talk about?”
“No,” Evan said automatically. After some window watching, he said, “Were you and your brothers mean to each other growing up?”
Evan fully expected a flat-out denial from the old man, given that last time he’d sought Dad’s advice he’d received nothing but bogus platitudes.
“Uh, sometimes we could be. Yeah.”
Without coming out and saying it, Evan knew his Dad was afraid that this was the wrong answer. A nervous edge in his voice gave the discomfort away. Rather than robbing him of parental authority, however, the uncertainty in his reply endeared Evan to his Dad. At last, the old man was willing to be real.
“Did you ever tell them to shut up?”
“All the time.”
“So it didn’t matter. Right? Nobody cared?”
“I mean. . . if we didn’t really mean it. But you know if we did then we apologized. At least I hope we did. I think we did.”
Tanya found a note slipped under her door that night.
I am sorry for all the times I told you to shut up or called you dumb. I won’t do it anymore. Not just because you told me not to. It’s because these are mean things to say to your little sister. I feel like a big jerk. I had to write this down because saying it out loud would be really corny. Can we please do more kindness lessons?
The note was returned to its writer, slipped under Evan’s door. Beneath it, Tanya had written:
Apology accepted. But if you want more kindness lessons you have to follow my rules. You have to agree to do everything I tell you.
Tanya turned to the easel’s next page. Lesson 2: Be Kind to Everyone.
“Treat everyone like you’re learning to treat me,” said Tanya.
“Everyone?” said Evan. “What about assholes?”
His sister gave him the you-just-swore stare.
“C’mon, Tanya, I can swear and be a good person.”
The stare continued.
“Okay. Do I have to be nice to, uh, ‘bad people’?”
“Baby steps. For you, I think start with Dad.”
Together, the siblings came up with twenty-six ideas.
“For homework, pick one and do it. Write a short report for me.”
Evan smiled and chuckled.
“No, no, nothing. Just. . . you’re good at this. You sound like a real teacher.”
Pleased, Tanya folded her arms. “Don’t try buttering me up, mister.”
Feigning indignation, Evan cried, “Never.”
Evan’s Kindness Report
I took your idea to wash Dad’s car. It was better than all my ideas. Dad was really surprised. I think he knew you told me to do it.
“I hope it’s not too short. I didn’t know what else to say.”
The siblings sat on the front porch, with a big bag of marshmallows. Tanya took one, put it on a stick and held it out for Gary to melt. When it was ready, she gave it to her brother, then read his paper.
“It’s good, Evan,” said Tanya.
“How many times have you washed Dad’s car?”
“It’s not a competition.”
Tanya prepped a marshmallow for herself.
“But I wanna know how many more times I have to do it. Do I have to do it all the time forever?”
“It’s not about the car, really. It’s about doing nice things for people.”
“Do you do nice things for people every day?”
He looked scared to death of a yes.
“I don’t know. Maybe. Nice things can be small too, you know. Just say hi to people not everyone says hi to. Ask them how they are. When you have cool snacks for lunch, you can share. Um. Oh! I know a really easy one you can copy. I always bring too many pencils to class, so if anyone forgets theirs, they can borrow one. And I always share my pencil sharpener too.”
“You really think tiny things like that put you on Santa’s good list?”
“Evan, I don’t know why Santa put me on his good list. I’m just telling you ideas for being nicer.”
“Can I ask you this? Is it true you help teachers clean up their classrooms?”
“Uh-huh,” said Tanya through a big bite of melted marshmallow.
“What made you do that? Like the very, very first time. Cause I know you’re not a suck-up. You get good grades. So why?”
“Well. . .” Tanya chewed and thought about it. “When Jenny’s mom was my teacher in first grade, she always wanted Jenny to come help her clean up the room after school. But Jenny never wanted to. And Mrs. Zhang seemed so flustered all the time—flustered means all her work made her nervous—so I felt really bad for her. And I felt bad for Jenny being yelled at. So I decided to help clean. Then Jenny started helping too, cause she hated when her mom said, ‘I wish I had a daughter like Tanya.’ Which wasn’t nice to say. Jenny’s really great too. Anyway. Then it became tradition. Jenny and I started really looking forward to it. We got the cleaning done super fast, and Mrs. Zhang gave us brownies or cookies a lot of the time. Sometimes we sang silly clean up songs. Then all three of us helped the other first grade teachers. All the teachers we helped started helping each other. We became like a big team and all the cleaning was done lickety-split. Mr. Sorvino said it used to take him twice as long.”
“Wow. . . wow I could. . . I could never do that.”
“Yeah you could. Anyone can.”
The next Kindness Lesson was after hockey practice but before dinner. Evan collapsed in the beanbag, still wearing his jersey.
“I’m exhausted,” he announced.
“Today will be super quick,” said Tanya. “Think of it as Lesson Two, Part B. All I want is for you to do the same homework as last week, but instead of Dad, do something nice for Mom. . .”
“Ugh. Fine, I guess.”
“. . .And Joey.”
“What?” Evan jumped out of the beanbag. “No. Absolutely not. I’ll let Gary give me a haircut first.”
“Do you remember our agreement?”
“But Joey sucks, Tanya. He’s a massive piece of shit. I mean poop. No, I mean shit. Joey is shit, I’m not afraid to say it.”
“Calm down, Evan. Okay?”
“Why are you gonna make me do this?”
“It’s easy to do nice things for people we like. I’m teaching you to be kind to everyone.”
“Not Joey, Tanya. Never Joey.”
“This is mandatory, Evan. Mandatory means you have to. Mrs. Zhang taught me that word.”
“This doesn’t have anything to do with being good. This is about torturing me.”
“As Mom would say, you’re being dramatic.”
Evan threw up his hands.
“Why is everyone okay with Joey, except me?”
“I don’t know, Evan. He’s just a regular person.”
Evan growled and left the room.
The growling woke Gary, who looked at Tanya.
“I know,” she said, plopping on her bed. “If this was real school I’d give him detention for storming out all the time.”
Evan had to hand it to his father. Nearly five months into 2015, the optometrist remained committed to his New Year’s Resolution. He and Tanya were taking a bird-watching class together. So that Evan would feel someone was on his side in the environment, Dad had joined his son’s troop as an assistant scoutmaster. A summer vacation had not only been promised, but Dad was soliciting suggestions. Evan’s choice was Florida (all the theme parks!), while Tanya wanted to go to Yosemite.
Weekend outings were becoming common. Bowling, movies, mini golf, a trip to the space center, and this Saturday, a group bike ride.
Tanya was well ahead of them, pedaling furiously after Gary, the dragon gliding lazily down the bike path.
The moment seemed perfect to Evan for seeking the answer to a longstanding mystery.
“How come you don’t hate Joey, Dad?”
“You love asking me easy questions, don’t you, buddy?”
“I don’t care if you won’t tell me. I just think it’s like, super weird.”
“I know you blame your mom for the divorce, Evan. And I can’t tell you what to think, but that’s not really fair. You know, I can’t exactly explain all the reasons why, but we just weren’t right for each other. We drove each other a little crazy. Well. Mega crazy.
“Even after splitting up, Mom still wasn’t having the easiest time controlling her… I don’t want to get into this territory the wrong way. You have to understand, I’m not trying to say anything bad about Mom. Lord knows, I’m not the perfect dad. Anyway. Controlling her anger. That was always a problem. But you know, she’s made big strides, the last couple years. And I think Joey’s been a big part of that. He makes her happy. Which is good for all of us. He’s helping your mom become her best self. In a way it’s more than not hating him, I’m grateful there is a Joey for your Mom. He makes it so that she can be there for you guys. And I want you and your sister to have the best relationship possible with your mom. She’s always gonna be your mom. Is this making sense?”
In truth, it was far too much for Evan to process all at once. Only with a few days rumination was he going to come to something near terms with his father’s eye-opening words. At the moment, he was simply impressed less by the content of his father’s insights, but more so by the optometrist’s staggering and staggeringly frank honesty. Wowed, he felt obliged to say, “Yeah.”
A few days later Tanya found a sheet of typed paper slipped under her door.
Evan’s Kindness Report 2
Even though I still think Joey kind of sucks, I tried to do something nice for him. After all, I guess if the rest of the family likes him, I should try too. So I rode my bike to Mom’s house, which took forever, and was extra hard because the bucket in my backpack was heavier than I thought it would be. I was hoping to wash their cars in secret. But as soon as I turned on the hose, Joey came outside. He looked freaked out. Maybe he thought I was a vandal? Anyway, he saw me washing his car and then he seemed even more confused. I told him I didn’t want to talk, I was just there to do something nice for him. He went away. Then Mom came out by herself and tried to get me to stop. I think she thought I was up to something. We argued a little bit, but I finally told her it was your idea for me to be nice and she seemed to believe me. She left me alone. When I finished washing the cars, she came back out and gave me a snack. Which was nice of her. She wanted me to stay for dinner, but I said maybe another time. Joey came out to say thanks too and I let him shake my hand to make Mom happy. There was no way I’d let him hug me, even though Mom tried to make us! It was getting dark, so Mom insisted on driving me home. At first, we didn’t say much. I felt sort of weird. Like I’d done something wrong even though I had literally done the opposite. I don’t know why. Maybe you can explain? Is it how good deeds feel when you’re new at them? Anyway, Mom thanked me again and asked me more about why I washed the cars. So I told her about our lessons and then I kept talking about all kinds of stuff, like what it was like living with a dragon and hockey games. Mom was in a really good mood and even made me laugh a couple times. She took me out for pizza too. Basically, Mom was really cool for once and I think it was probably the most fun we ever had by ourselves. I think I made her happy, Joey too I guess, so mission accomplished!
Tanya returned the report to her brother, with a smiley face drawn next to an A+ written in red pen, with the single remark, “I’m proud of you, Evan.”
One of my elves informed me your brother sent a letter to me, requesting assistance to becoming a better, kinder person. Unfortunately, we receive so many of these letters, we cannot respond to each individually.
However, I have observed that you have undertaken to help Evan in his endeavor. Given your history of kindness and your brother’s efforts to better himself, I have decided to offer him the opportunity to apply for our fall internship program at Santa Corp.
Attached is the application form.
Gary appears to be quite happy! I am unsurprised, as he is in such capable hands. The elves all say Hello!
The family read the letter together at supper.
Dad was reading the gold typeface again, exclaiming over and over. “This is incredible. This just amazing, you two. You’ve done a great job, guys.”
Tanya was watching her brother with worry.
Evan poked listlessly at his dinner.
All he kept saying was, “He didn’t even write to me. He wrote to you.”
Santa wanted the impossible from Evan.
In five pages, Times New Roman, Double-Spaced, describe a time in your life when you helped someone.
This was no prompt. It was a taunt. Mocking Evan. Demanding him to admit it. Admit he was a bad kid through and through, without a single shred of evidence to account for the smallest hint of decency in him.
After hours spent with his head slumped on the computer desk, his mind gnawed thoroughly by doubt, Evan retreated to his sister’s room. He thunked down in the beanbag chair and proclaimed, “I can’t do it. I just can’t. You tried your best, Tanya, but it wasn’t enough. I’m still terrible.”
Tanya set aside her homework.
“Please knock when you want to come in, Evan. Now what’s wrong?”
“The essay. I never helped anyone. Sure, I washed a couple cars but that hardly makes me Mister Rogers. That’s why I need this stupid internship. This is one of those lousy cat twenty two’s.”
“Hm. You know what always makes me feel better?”
Before telling, she picked up Gary and plopped him in Evan’s lap.
As if one lap were as good as any other, the dragon immediately burrowed his head in the crook of Evan’s arm, and curled up against his stomach. Instinctively, Evan began to rock him. Having a living thing to cradle soaked up his attention, so that for a time, he was unable to beat himself up.
Evan was reminded of holding Tanya as a toddler. Not so long ago she had fit snugly in his lap. Back then, to practice reading, he read picture books to his sister. One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish Blue Fish. The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Make Way for Ducklings. Most of the time Tanya requested Evan read her favorite: The Monster at the End of this Book. Without fail, each time they reached the end, with an enthusiasm that never quailed, Tanya shouted, “He was scared of himself!”
He wanted to ask her if she remembered. But he couldn’t say it. Not something that corny.
Before Evan could stop it, one fat, stupid tear landed on his shirt. He tried to hide it, rub it out of his face as quick as he could, but Tanya saw.
“Evan, don’t cry,” she said. “You just need to think about something else. Want to play a game?”
She picked his favorite: Connect Four. Evan played black and Tanya played red. The two of them played so many games Evan lost count. He didn’t want to stop.
“I think I need to finish my homework soon, Evan.”
“Can we play one more?”
“Do you think Dad will be mad if I don’t do the essay? Will you be . . .” it was difficult to picture Tanya ever getting angry. “Disappointed?”
Tanya gave it serious thought.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “But you should do it.”
“I can’t though. What am I supposed to write?”
“Just tell the truth.”
“The truth? Tell them I’ve never done something to help anyone?”
Evan forgot to take his turn.
“Tanya, that’s the first time you ever gave me bad advice I think.”
The truth is, I have never helped anyone. Luckily for me, my sister decided to help me. By giving me kindness lessons, so I could learn to be a better person. I want this internship so I can keep getting better…
Three days before Columbus Day, Dad went to fetch the mail. Among the tiny envelopes, doubtlessly bills, was one enormous red and gold package.
To celebrate his son’s achievement, Dad decided to take Evan on a surprise trip.
“I’m so proud of you,” he kept saying. “You’ve done such a good job, buddy.”
Evan wasn’t sure. Since Dad was so excited however, he managed to summon secondhand excitement, riding the coat tails of his father’s exuberance.
After two hours of driving, they arrived in a town that looked exactly the same as Stonerock in Evan’s opinion. The house Dad stopped at was ordinary enough to be a friend’s. The woman who answered the door had the chipper kindness of a preschool teacher.
She led Dad and Evan to her basement. This was not a dank cellar but a downstairs game room. Complete with cushy carpet, TV equipped with every gaming system, both foosball and air hockey tables. In the center was a pen. In that pen, eight French bulldog puppies frolicked, nipping one anothers’ ears and chewing on squeaky toys.
“Why don’t you pick one?” suggested Dad.
At first it was like winning the lottery on his birthday. Evan rushed over, mouth agape in a perpetual expression of stoked. The puppies were greedy for attention. When their pen was opened, they dashed to their prospective owner, jostling one another for his affection. Evan was licked all over. The puppies kept trying to climb into his lap, but they were too small to manage the feat.
“You can hold one if you like,” said the breeder, scooping one up and putting it in Evan’s arms. “This is Stella.”
Stella’s small heart beat furiously. Evan could feel it in his hand. The puppy panted so much he began to feel nervous. Hoping to calm her, he scratched Stella between the ears and she loved it so much her hind legs began to kick.
Then Evan had a thought that made him ashamed. The kind of thought he knew immediately he would never confide having. One he must mentally hush.
Petting this puppy was nice for about two minutes. After that, he wanted to stop. Only he kept petting her, to keep the puppy happy. If he stopped, it’d feel mean. Cruel even.
While going through the motions of petting Stella, Evan’s mind turned to Gary. Tanya did so much for him. Feeding him. Cleaning him. Taking him on walks. Spending hours and hours and hours with the dragon…
Evan realized the truth with a heavy heart. He liked animals. Maybe he even loved them. But if he had to spend all that time with one, he would be. . . bored.
Evan shuddered. This must be one more way in which he was a terrible person. Unequal to his sister. He did not really want a dog. He only wanted to want one.
Back in the car, Dad asked what Evan thought while beaming a smile so big Evan only felt guiltier and guiltier.
“They were really great puppies,” said Evan. “But I think . . .I think . . . I’m not sure I want a dog. It’s a lot of responsibility.”
A long silence filled the car.
“I’m sorry, Dad.”
The old man seemed to wake up from a trance.
“No, God, no, don’t be sorry Evan. That’s totally fine. You don’t have to apologize.”
Seeing his son’s expression he squeezed Evan’s shoulder with assurance.
“Honestly. It’s really okay. It really is.”
“Yeah?” said Evan.
“Of course. I mean, I’d still like to get you something to celebrate the internship. If there’s anything else you might want.”
Evan nodded, but the truth was he didn’t want anything. All credit for the internship belonged to Tanya. She had done the hard work. If anyone deserved a reward from Dad, it was his little sister.
Until the idea came to him, Evan slept like garbage. During what little sleep he got, he dreamt that Santa Claus kept setting him on fire. “Ho ho ho HOT HOT HOT,” St. Nick cheered in his jolliest fashion while Evan burned.
The idea saved him. During math, Evan was daydreaming. The idea arrived during his mental wandering, with such sweet relief it caused Evan to laugh, seemingly at nothing, inciting several of his classmates to give him funny looks.
Saturday morning, Evan woke up extra early. Before anyone. Outside remained dark. He went to Tanya’s room, cracked open the door and hissed, “Gary! Gary!”
One of the dragon’s eyes opened.
“Time for breakfast!”
Gary’s spiked tail began to wag. The dragon yawned a forked tongue. Stretched on his bed of coins so that nickels and pennies started sliding.
“Come quietly,” said Evan, and the dragon scurried out of the room.
In the kitchen, Evan carefully avoided causing a clatter, by prying a frying pan out of the cabinet with all the restraint of a seamstress threading a needle.
“So I don’t know a whole lot about cooking or what you eat,” said Evan. “But I know you eat a lot of protein. So we’re gonna improvise,” he told the dragon.
He ended up serving Gary a hodgepodge of scrambled eggs that had been converted after sunny side up went awry, cold cut slices of ham, turkey and baloney, three boiled hot dogs, and peanut butter. He had heard once that dogs liked peanut butter.
To Evan’s surprise, Gary ate it all in a frenzied minute. He wagged his tail when finished and licked the sides of the bowl.
I just fed a dragon, Evan thought. How many people can say that? And he liked it!
“I bet you would give me a four star review,” he said, patting Gary’s head.
“Okay so this is the plan,” Evan said, attaching a leash to Gary’s collar. “I’m gonna take you for a walk, then I’m gonna give you your bath. So when Tanya gets up, I can surprise her and let her know she can just relax, cause I helped her out. It’s about making other people’s lives easier, Gary. Tanya does a lot for me, and I’m gonna start helping her out.”
Evan felt proud, excited enough to wag his own tail if he’d had one. Even telling the dragon his plans gave him a surge of mounting delight.
Dawn bloomed. The sky brightened to red. Leaves scuttled across the road. Gary trotted along at an easy pace, while Evan followed, feeling more and more magnanimous.
“You know, Gary,” he mused, while the dragon stopped to pee. “I never stop and think about how cool it is you exist. You’re like the only dragon I know and I guess it’s dumb to feel jealous of Tanya cause she literally said one time we could share you and I guess the second coolest thing besides owning a dragon is having someone in the family own a dragon. Like, I know you’re really nice and all just like Tanya, I mean Mom used to say people’s dogs are just like their owners—and well, so you’re a good dragon and all, but I bet you’d save my life if I was in mortal danger. Just like since I’m Tanya’s big brother I’d kick another kid’s ass if he was bullying her. I really would. Even though I’m not really strong or anything and I never took a karate class. . .”
Gary spread his wings.
“Whoa! Hey buddy, what are you thinking?”
Flapping commenced. Evan became nervous.
“Hey. Uh. Put those away. Put your wings away, Gary.”
The dragon’s feet left the ground.
“Oh boy. Please stop. Gary, you gotta stop!”
Horrified, Evan watched Gary’s body steadily rise. Right past his face.
“Oh no. Oh no.”
Evan’s arm could only extend so far. In moments, Evan felt himself being pulled up. He tried to pull back, but Gary was far heavier and stronger than he had ever imagined. For one crazy moment, he marveled with new respect at the strength his sister must posses in order to yank this dragon back on his leash.
Dragged up to his tippy toes, Evan shouted Gary’s name.
Then his own two feet left the ground.
Evan started screaming. He forgot about Gary. He watched the ground shrinking beneath him and began feeling faint. Twelve feet above the earth, he succumbed to his terror and let go of the leash.
Evan and road collided. The pavement scraped his wrists, tore his jeans, raked his kneecaps bloody. The pain, the burn, these were secondary. Something much worse was happening.
“GARY. GARY, COME BACK.”
Shed of extra weight, Gary rapidly ascended and quickly disappeared over the trees.
Evan did not move. Transfixed, he stared at the spot where Tanya’s dragon had vanished. Unable to close his mouth. Breathing with difficulty.
Finally, he began to speak. “Ohmygod.” He started running home. He needed his bike. “Ohmygod, ohmygod,” he said so many times the words became noises.
On his bike, Evan rode at random through the streets. Since he had no idea where he should go, he often changed directions with no given cause.
The whole development was silent. Asleep. Evan did not know any of his neighbors well enough to go knocking on doors and begging for help. Hopeless, he scanned the skies. Blue and vacant. Useless! There weren’t even any birds for him to mistake as his sister’s dragon.
He hoped a car would run him over. Put him out of his misery.
Maybe he could blame the whole thing on the driver if he survived.
“Gary,” Evan shouted over and over. Again and again. Until it was like the only word he knew.
Whether a couple minutes or several hours went by, Evan couldn’t tell. Eventually, he was certain of his search’s failure. By now, he was positive, Dad and Tanya were up. Both of them must already know he and Gary were gone. Soon they would put two and two together…
Evan leapt from his bike and ran into the woods. He flopped down on the forest floor and sobbed into the dead leaves.
I am truly the worst, he thought. I tried to be good for once and think of others and I ruined everything! I am incapable of kindness. My sister got me a one-of-a-kind internship with Santa Claus and I lost her one-of-a-kind Gary. I will never be forgiven for this. I don’t deserve to be.
He dreaded returning home. He considered not going back at all. Decomposing seemed vastly more tempting. Deserved even.
Although. If there was any chance at all of people finding Gary, Evan first had to confess the dragon had gone missing. It was the only useful thing Evan could do now. He was still a failure, but maybe someone else could make this right.
The way Evan knocked on his sister’s door, it was like he dared himself. There was exactly five seconds worth of wild, elated courage in him left and he expended it all, before returning to a state of nervous wreck.
Tanya answered. Like puke, everything came out at once.
“Gary’s gone, Tanya. He flew away. I was trying to surprise you. I made his breakfast and I tried to take him for a walk, but he started flying and I couldn’t hold him down. I swear. I swear I was just trying to be nice. I was gonna help you out. I was gonna give him his bath and brush his teeth and then I was gonna give you your present, but I screwed up! I screwed up okay? But maybe you guys can still find him, maybe someone who isn’t a failure and a moron like me can find him!”
“My present?” said Tanya.
Evan moaned, as if the question twisted the knife worse than anything else could.
“Dad wanted to give me a present for getting the internship, so I chose to buy you something and I was gonna surprise you and do something fun, like pretend it was for me and then show it to you and say ‘actually, I got it for you’, but I can’t do any of that now. . .”
This was when Evan noticed Gary was also in the room, laying on his bed of coins and looking alarmed at such a display of emotion.
For a moment, Evan was convinced he was about to pass out—fall unconscious from a relief so intense it did not flood him so much as a monsoon destroyed, cleansed and reconstructed his entire stream-of-conscious in the time it takes to say the word “dragon”.
“He came home about an hour ago. He woke me up knocking at the window.”
Evan allowed himself to fall onto Tanya’s bed and to lie there melting.
After a while he said, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s. . . okay,” said Tanya. “Well, I mean, it’s hard to be mad, because Gary’s all right. But if he really was gone. . . your idea was very nice, Evan, but since you don’t know anything about dragons, you should have asked me how to take him for a walk.”
“Don’t feel too bad. Controlling Gary is sort of my secret. I can tell you a few tricks though. Like, if this ever happens again, and he’s flying away while you’re holding him, all you have to do is say in a firm voice ‘Gary. Down.’ And he’ll come down.”
Evan was in the phase of his relief where he wanted to start laughing the sort of laugh that sounds like it might be sobbing. He kept it together by nodding, nodding.
“You probably got scared,” said Tanya, “when you let go. I never would have guessed heights scare you. I like to let Gary carry me over the neighbors’ house sometimes. And we fly over the woods. . .”
“Wait. Exactly like he almost did with me? You fly by holding his leash? Like Gary’s a balloon?”
“Yeah,” said Tanya with the breezy nonchalance of someone who has never heard a better idea.
Evan pictured it to himself and his laughter was freed.
“I have to see this,” he said.
“Not if you’re gonna laugh.”
“I’m not laughing at you. I’m not, I’m not. It’s just. . .” And for once Evan was comfortable saying something corny but true. “It’s just cute, that’s all.”
He was laughing for so much more though. It was not lost on him that his sister should be more severe. No, not that she should be. Rather, that anyone besides her would be. He thought of how little it took to upset him, with regard to what he owned. Had Tanya the nerve to borrow a DVD from him without explicit permission, he would be harping on it without pause. He would be unreasonable, he would be authoritative, he would impress on her his considerable disappointment, the betrayal of respect for privacy, the importance of never, never borrowing without asking. His wrath would be a miniseries, beginning in the morning and continuing for five more.
Tanya had nearly lost what was most precious to her and all but let it go immediately.
Evan’s laughter was mounting to hysteria. He ought to be grounded at the least. If Dad had been in charge of his punishment, there would be new assigned chores, stricter bedtimes, greater restrictions on after-school activity and time spent with the TV and the computer, and many, many lectures about Why What He Did Was Wrong.
He was not marveling that he had gotten away with something. Not at all. He was marveling at the clarity with which he saw and understood his sister. What a Great Kid she really was.
Evan fetched Tanya’s gift from his room. A plum-colored pair of roller skates, with silver glow-in-the-dark wheels. With a dragon breathing flames painted on the sides.
“I thought I could teach you how to use them. So we could do something together. Maybe you could even let Gary pull you while you skate, I don’t know.”
Tanya was quiet for a solid minute. Wrestling to reconcile this gesture of goodwill with everything else her brother had ever done and said. Wondering, could she really take credit for this improvement? Deciding, finally, whatever else, this was a nice moment. One that warranted a bear hug. She nearly knocked her brother to the floor.
If someone were to tell this to the Evan of last Christmas, if someone were to tell him he would get his sister a pair of roller skates and with full blown earnestness offer to teach her how to use them, he would have felt that old itch, the deep reflex to resort to a sarcastic dismissal of all sentiment. When he made the choice, today’s Evan was aware that it was a little saccharine on his part, but then, that was part of the action’s appeal. He thought it was something his sister would do.
Topher Froehlich is, you won’t believe it, a writer. Don’t tell anyone! When he was small, he thought about being a veterinarian and sea turtles still hold a special place in his heart. He’s dabbled in directing film and loves to do silly voices, including a mean Patrick Warburton impression and a locals-approved Scottish accent. More of his writing has appeared in Mythic Magazine and Brooklyn Magazine.