Chapter 1 - LOOK FOR ME AT SUNSET
The shadow of the winged dragon moved away from the façade of the old church of St Peter’s and, as if such a thing was possible, disappeared. It vanished in an instant, the time it took for a crack to appear in the stone, but nobody was aware of the sign.
The sound of the bell disturbed the silence of the corridors in the secondary school, which seemed to come to life in a matter of seconds. A group of sweaty teenage girls appeared out of nowhere, quickly crossing the few yards that separated the gym from the girls’ changing room on the same floor.
The trick to getting hot water was to be one of the fortunate few to reach the taps first. The second group would only be able to enjoy it for a couple of minutes, while there was always the odd girl who got left behind, relegated to a third group, whose only option was to have a cold shower.
Mónica wasn’t prepared to fight with anybody for this privilege and so, as soon as she spotted her classmates’ movements, she moved to one side.
The girl preferred to be the last to arrive and to be left alone.
She would never have admitted the reasons why she loathed the changing room so much. Perhaps it was because she’d always been the ugly duckling, until quite recently full of complexes and overweight, the butt of everybody’s jokes. It had been years since the last insult, but she had never forgotten the laughter caused by the underwear her mother had bought her in the market, in amongst all those girls who had everything… except for a little charity.
At home, they never found out that Mónica had returned that day with torn underwear, and she avoided doing or saying anything that might recall the incident. And yet, since then, she had always waited to be in the last group for the showers.
The clock’s hands pointed to two o’clock in the afternoon, but there was no hurry. She helped the gym teacher collect all the equipment and then finally headed in the direction of the changing room to have the cold shower she needed.
As she opened the door, she was struck by a hot blast that smelled of shampoo and deodorant. As always, the floor was flooded, and she took great care to jump over rucksacks, dirty towels, trainers, flip-flops and puddles to reach her destination: the final locker of the enormous wardrobe mounted on the wall.
Invisible at the far end of the room, she waited for the other girls to leave the enclosure. Only then did she remove her sweat-drenched tracksuit and enter the last of the showers.
The icy water suddenly arrived from on high, sliding down her naked body and cutting short her breath and train of thought. Having overcome the initial shock, the girl relaxed, letting the liquid element flow over her neck. Only then was she able to think about Hadrián and the dragon the boy carried inside him.
If there was something that Mónica had learned in the last few days or hours, it was that reality always exceeds fiction, however fantastic this may be. The discovery of the catacombs beneath St Peter’s Church, the confirmation of the existence of an order of knights devoted to keeping the dragon’s secrets, the escape from certain death through the waters of the Moor’s Pool, her friend’s impossible transformation into a fantastical creature that didn’t exist…
She could still hear Hadrián’s final words:
‘Look for me at sunset and, if you don’t find me, leave whatever food you’ve been able to bring on the rocks. I’ll be waiting for you.’
Mónica had those features perfectly etched on her memory and now, with her eyes closed beneath the cold water of the shower, she could visualize each and every one of the scales she witnessed rising up on her friend’s skin, giving him the appearance of a reptile. And she felt frightened.
She’d promised Hadrián she would go to the Moor’s Pool to help him fight the monster he was struggling to turn into. She only had a few hours to search for an antidote, to find a cure for that illness consuming him, but she was afraid – a visceral fear that rummaged through her insides.
‘You’ll just have to come up with something,’ she reasoned after a while, as she stepped out of the shower.
Aware of the time, she searched for the hairdryer in her sports bag and plugged it in. As she turned towards the mirror, she realized the steam had left some whimsical drawings on the glass, which looked alive. The hot air had formed a strange circle, inside which a creature in a foetal position moved about in search of space, as if struggling to complete a metamorphosis.
For a moment, the girl recalled her friend’s strange medallion, on which the winged dragons occupying both sides of the metal coin had the ability to change their appearance. But no, the image forming on the surface of the mirror had human features.
‘Hadrián!’ she shouted as soon as she recognized the face. The image on the glass stopped and gave her a blank gaze.
The steam did look a little bit like her classmate, but the girl preferred to reject that possibility in the stain opening and closing its mouth like a fish out of water. Had she paid attention, she might have heard the warning the boy was trying to give her from the distance he found himself at. Mónica, however, aimed her hairdryer at the mirror and blasted it with a current of hot air that evaporated all that dampness in a matter of seconds.
The message appeared on the glass as if someone had written it quickly with their fingers, but vanished straight away. Even so, the teenage girl scrupulously rubbed the mirror with her towel, as if this might enable her to erase all traces of the experience from her mind.
But that wasn’t possible and, outside the school enclosure, travelling home on the school bus, it was she who reproduced the message on the window of the vehicle:
Given the terrible mess she was in, this warning struck her as a little superfluous. She had to take care of the whole world, herself and the dragon, and she didn’t know where to start.
Back at home, having laid the table for lunch, eaten without a great deal of enthusiasm and helped her mother do the washing-up, Mónica shut herself in her bedroom to ‘study a bit’.
Her priority now was to keep the promise she’d made to Hadrián. She had to find some food for Dragal and had barely half an hour to search on the Internet for information that might prove useful.
Because, she asked herself… what the hell does a dragon eat?
The only references to Dragal’s culinary tastes that the girl remembered were those lines in Friar Paulo de Misteri’s book, where it talked about human sacrifices. Apparently, in the Middle Ages, the dragon had sowed destruction in those lands, feeding on young women, children and entire flocks. Obviously, at the start of the twenty-first century, this was an option she had to reject out of hand.
In response to her questions, she soon discovered online a ‘complete and balanced diet for dragons and other omnivorous reptiles’ that was sold by a certain pet shop in bags of 150 and 300 grams.
Could this be for real?
Mónica carefully read the information that appeared on the computer screen:
This diet guarantees basic nutritional values for the health and development of your pet. All the ingredients in Dragosanix are carefully selected to ensure the highest quality. Dragosanix is reinforced with essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids, meaning your dragon will not need any other food supplements.
As she clicked on the same website, she came across images of several reptile species. Among them, the ‘bearded dragon’ and the ‘Chinese water dragon’, which looked like different kinds of iguana.
‘They’re just pets!’ she exclaimed in disappointment, as if she’d really been expecting to find information about dragons the size of Dragal on that website.
She was startled by the voice of her mother entering the room.
‘Darling, it’s time you…’ her mother started speaking. But when she noticed the images on her daughter’s computer, she interrupted what she was saying with a shriek:
‘What an ugly bunch of bugs! I hope you’re not thinking about bringing one of those home!’
‘No, it’s just…’
What could she tell her mother in such circumstances? That she had a real dragon hiding by the Moor’s Pool, waiting for its dinner?
So she lied:
‘I’m searching for information for a project, mother. You know I never really wanted to have a pet anyway!’
Her mother breathed a sigh of relief:
‘Leave those creepy-crawlies where they are and get your things. If you miss the bus, you won’t make it to class on time.’
Mónica wasn’t planning to attend school that afternoon, not until she’d resolved a few pending issues, so she got off the bus at a stop in the centre of town and walked to a pet shop she’d heard about.
Her idea was to buy some food for reptiles but, since it was before four, the shop was still closed. A sign hanging on the door gave the afternoon opening hours as from four to half past eight.
‘Damn it! I won’t have enough time!’
‘Time for what?’
Mónica was surprised to hear that voice, which she thought she recognized as belonging to one of the policemen investigating the robbery at St Peter’s, and turned around, hoping she might be mistaken. Her worst fears were realized, however. The man waiting for an answer was Officer Cortiñas.
‘Oh, hello!’ she said, not knowing which way to look.
‘Hello there. Aren’t you supposed to be in class?’
Without saying anything, Mónica glanced at the shop window. The inquisitive look of this officer from forensics made her feel very nervous. On the other side of the glass, a little dog stuck in a cage became aware of her presence and started jumping around and wagging its tail. The girl placed a hand on the window, and the little animal started licking the glass in search of an impossible contact.
‘Did you come here to buy a dog?’ asked the investigator out of the blue.
Unable to invent a lie, Mónica remained silent. But the policeman didn’t seem prepared to let her off the hook:
‘Where is your friend, Hadrián?’
This was the question the girl had feared most, but she shrugged her shoulders, feigning indifference.
‘Hadrián? I don’t know, I suppose he’s at school!’ she replied at once, perhaps a little too quickly.
The officer gazed at her intently, as if able to discern the girl’s nervousness in her gestures and aware that she was trying to pull the wool over his eyes.
She was saved by a few muffled barks from behind the glass. On the other side of the window, the dog was desperately trying to get her attention.
But Cortiñas hadn’t finished yet:
‘You and Hadrián are good friends, right?’
Mónica weighed up her answer before replying:
‘More or less. Why do you ask?’
Now it was the man who remained silent. Glimpsing an opportunity to escape this interrogation, the girl looked back at the dog confined inside the pet shop. Perhaps now the policeman, instead of answering her, would leave.
‘I knew Hadrián’s father,’ he murmured instead.
‘Oh really?’ Suddenly interested, Mónica looked away from the shop window.
Cortiñas took a while to continue:
‘It was a shame about the accident. None of us could ever have imagined… I’m sorry about your friend, really I am!’
On the other side of the glass, the dog, realizing it was no longer the centre of attention of those humans, started gnawing at a plastic bone. The investigator gazed into Mónica’s eyes, as if seeking confirmation that he could trust her.
‘When you see Hadrián, ask him to come and talk to me!’ he said, handing over a business card.
The girl stared at the flat piece of paper, which showed a name and a mobile phone number.
‘Ask him to call me!’ repeated the officer, turning to walk down the pavement in the direction of a car parked a few yards away.
The girl waited for the vehicle to pull away and join the traffic before daring to move a muscle. Once the officer was out of sight, she put the card in her back trouser pocket and broke into a run.
Translated from Galician by Jonathan Dunne