There were three tragedies in Drea King’s life, all of which occurred before it even began. The first was that her parents, like many other parents, tried to birth her in the year of the dragon. Not only was the dragon the most powerful persona, but it was the year 1988, and 8 was a lucky number, so everybody knew the Dragons of ’88 would be special. Especially the first ones, the ones born right on New Year’s Day. But that New Year’s Eve, Drea’s mother, in a moment of weakness, had eaten a carrot. Drea was born shortly after, not a dragon, not even a tiger or a horse, but a rabbit.
The second great tragedy was that she had been born a girl. Maybe some people wanted a dragoness, but certainly nobody wanted a rabbit-ess.
Still, her parents were creative and sly (both snakes) and so they told nobody about Drea’s birth until the next day, the first day of the New Year. They declared her the first Dragon of ’88, and in honor of that, she would be named Dragon King. It is written clearly on her birth certificate in proud bold letters, followed by a smudged date—a straight-backed seven forced into a bent eight. And so we’ve come to the third great tragedy of Drea’s life, which was that her full name was the same as that of the restaurant next door, which served greasy pork topped with wisps of broccoli.
Drea hung out with the other Dragons of ’88, as she was expected to. Her parents taught her to lie and misdirect, to convince the other kids that not only was she one of them, but she was their leader. Her parents knew she had to be the first one to achieve her breath of fire, so she was signed up for sleight-of-hand classes, weekend classes all about deceiving and convincing. And she was good at it—her flourishes precise, her memory impeccable, her palming quick and clean. Rabbits are quick, she reasoned, or maybe it was that rabbits and magic have always been associated via top hat.
In any case, the first time she showed off her breath of fire she was thirteen years old and waiting for the bus after school. The Dragons of ’88 crowded around her while the other students, as usual, ignored them. She tossed up three colored scarves, then four, then five, juggled them easily, then clicked her tongue. She tasted the bitter fuel and spat it out while waving a match in front of her face. Then she palmed the match. The scarves, pre-laced with fuel, caught fire so a circle of heat framed her. When they fell to the ground, she stomped the fire out amidst cheers from the Dragons. She was immediately sent to the principal’s office. He understood nothing of dragons or personas. He was probably a rat.
The other kids stopped teasing her for her restaurant name. Whenever one got too close, she would inhale sharply. They scrambled.
Still, it was strange to be the first with the breath of fire. Age fourteen, fifteen—none of the other Dragons of ’88—the real ones—had it.
“It is something about this country,” was the rumor that circulated among the parents. “It does not have the power of the old one.”
Her parents continued to push her.
“You are the first of the Dragons of ’88,” they reminded her, a lie they did not even remember as a lie anymore. “You must forge the way for them.”
She perfected her breath of fire. She ran to improve her lung capacity—she became captain of the varsity track team. She learned to mix steam into her breath—she excelled at chem lab. She built small steam-powered animals made of popsicle sticks and paper clips. They ran around her when she breathed into them, little rabbits who hopped with lives of their own and won her every science fair.
Teach us, teach us, the Dragons of ’88 begged, desperate to have their own breaths of fire, something that would make their difference worth it.
But they were the real ones—she was the fake. They were scared, she realized, to be separated from their old country and to be freaks in their new one. Many of them leaned into it— marked their skin in scales of green, wore jackets with wings printed across their backs. She wanted to help, but she did not know how to breathe wind beneath their wings.
With steady breaths, she began to forge new materials together. She replaced the popsicle stick and paper clips of her rabbits with bits of metal, melted together at careful angles. She gave her rabbits wings and breathed into them, watching them fly around her room.
When nobody else achieved their breath of fire, she turned to the budding internet. She found nothing about Dragons of ’88 or breaths of fire, as if it were something that only existed in their small town. She confronted her parents, who slithered and shrank until they shed their second skin, revealing the truth.
“Just something to motivate you all,” they explained, “and to unite you. An agreement between parents—for kids to succeed, and feel belonging. Drea, our little Dragon King, do you see how mighty you’ve become?”
She lay down and sighed, one long, warm, breath.
At night, she toured the neighborhood, staring up at each of her fellow dragons’ windows. She held up her latest creation—a rabbit, given scales to defend itself, wings to fly, and a stomach of fire to keep it warm and loved. She whispered into each rabbit—you are here, you are real, and you belong. She watched her breath propel their little wings into the sky. Each rabbit landed on the window of a dragon in a strange land, twitching its nose at them, reminding them of how far they had already come.
Spread the word!