Teresa Milbrodt

Scouting the Dragon

The attendants helped Grandma get ready, put on jeans and a sweatshirt, her hair neatly brushed, and is that a hint of blush? I suppose this counts as going out, though she’ll be with me and Erich.

“It’s a good night for the watch,” says Erich. We station ourselves on either side of Grandma’s wheeled walker, trooping out to his car.

“I’ve been waiting for this all day,” Grandma says. “I caught up on my reading.”

I found large print books for her at the library with titles like Decoding the Beast and The Meteor, The Enigma. When I visit she’s been sitting in bed with her book pile, skimming pages.

I’ve explained that Erich is my co-worker at the sandwich shop, not my boyfriend, though we’ve been spending time together on stakeouts. One of his ancestors, some baron in England during the Black Death, was appointed by the king to search for the end of times. People in Erich’s family have been doing it ever since. Don’t ask why I’ve become invested. I don’t expect to see anything.

I sit in the middle of the front seat, and Erich helps Grandma ease in beside me. She’s breathing heavily, but smiling.

“I love autumn,” she says. “It feels spooky.”

I brought cookies and crackers for her. She hasn’t been eating well in the assisted living facility. Says the meat is too salty.

“Thank you for taking an old woman out on your date,” she says, patting my knee.

“It’s not a date, it’s surveillance,” I say.

She smiles, then frowns, then winces.

“Are you okay?” I lean forward.

She nods, eyes still closed. “Nothing that should keep me home.”

Grandma’s stomach pains have persisted for months. Years. Not that she told anyone. When I dragged her to the doctor, when they found what was wrong, she didn’t want drugs or surgery. Said it would sap the rest of the life out of her. Then she moved into assisted living. I visit three times a week with boring stories of work, and now more interesting ones of Erich’s search for the dragon.

He’s looking for signs, literal or metaphorical, since his family knows you can’t take end-of-times prophecies at face value. The dragon could be an oil pipeline or the superbug or solar flares. He does research on breaks at work and dragon stakeouts at night, panning the night sky for things unfamiliar. I’ve come with him for the past month and a half. It’s probably all a load of hooey, but we’re getting Grandma out for a night. She hasn’t wanted to do that in months.

“Scientists think a meteor might be the end of us,” she says. “Years ago everyone thought Halley’s comet would do it.”

“Has anyone considered alien death rays?” I said, trying to be funny but also looking for a cause that has yet to be mentioned. Erich’s family has come up with all manner of possible dragon incarnations.

“I have a cousin who’s a UFO investigator in Colorado,” said Erich. “He’s checked out a number of leads but hasn’t verified anything.”

“Great,” I say, crossing my arms. I never can think of anything innovative and new enough. Sometimes it seems like this is a game of pretend, and other times it’s the most important thing in the world, seeking out the awful beauty that will come at the end of things. It’s something to talk about with Grandma other than how she’s feeling that day—she never tells me the truth—so we’ve trained our minds on this dark and oddly addictive strain of prophecies of wars and horsemen and horned beasts, which makes the world feel less real and more like we’re in a fairy tale.

Grandma shifts in her seat. I notice the dirty diaper odor. She frowns.

“I need to use the bathroom,” she mutters. “Could we go to a gas station?”

“Should we take you home to freshen up?” I say.

“I can freshen up in a gas station,” she says, biting down on her words.

“Those stalls are tiny,” I say. “I really think we should take you back to your room.”

“No,” says Grandma, her voice catching as Erich starts the car. In the gas station parking lot he gets out and hauls her wheeled walker from the trunk. Grandma teeters inside the small bright building. I follow.

The handicapped stall is big enough for both of us. We wrangle off her shoes and pants, and Grandma takes a clean adult diaper from her purse. After seven minutes and a whole roll of toilet paper, she’s tidy again.

“You’re sure we shouldn’t take you back home?” I say.

“That’s not home,” she says in the stern voice I hadn’t heard for years, “I’m staying with you.”

We return to our lookout for another hour, silently turning pages in newspapers and books, peering at the sky. Erich proposes milkshakes. Grandma and I agree with a nod. We take her back to the assisted living facility at eleven.

She smooths my hair when we sit on her bed. “I’m sorry for the trouble, honey.”

“It’s okay,” I say and kiss her forehead. “Maybe you can come again sometime.”

“Maybe,” she says. I walk back to the car with Erich to resume the watch. Nothing better to do.

“I don’t mean to brush off your suggestions,” Erich says.

“Sorry I was snippy,” I say, though that feels like forever ago, a different night. Erich rests his arm around my shoulders. I think about his ancestors, the people who looked for Armageddon when those around them were sprouting supernatural boils. Of course they peered upwards for signs the whole world was being struck with tragedy. For snatches of seconds, I understand the dark comfort.

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About the Author

Teresa Milbrodt is the author of three short story collections: Instances of Head-Switching, Bearded Women: Stories, and Work Opportunities. She has also published a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People, and a flash fiction collection, Larissa Takes Flight: Stories. Her fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous literary magazines.

Read Teresa Milbrodt’s other fiction, “Coffee with Mom,” in this issue of Wordgathering.