SHE HAD BEEN IN BED for an hour when Tabitha Katelyn Lowell decided she hated daylight. Her easily sunburned skin still felt hot and she blamed that for her exhaustion. Her mother bustled into the room, aloe vera gel in one hand and a cup of one of her many herbal concoctions in the other.
Her mom sighed, sitting down on the edge of the bed next to Tabitha. “Why didn’t you put on sunscreen, again?”
“I wanted a tan. All the other girls tan.” I only burn. She frowned, but that only made the lobster-red skin on her forehead yell, so she stopped.
“Sunscreen doesn’t keep a girl from tanning.” Her mom handed the concoction to Tabitha who obediently began to drink. Mom’s potions were the worst but Tabitha had to admit she felt much better afterward. It’s magic, her mom had told her once, and one day I’ll teach it to you. But Tabitha doubted she could ever be as good at healing as her mom. “Oh,” her mother said, “while you’re here, I keep getting a lot of calls for a girl named Katy. Any idea why?”
If Tabitha’s face hadn’t already been bright red, she would have turned it in embarrassment. “I don’t know.”
“I thought it was a wrong number at first, until some of your friends told me that that was your new name.”
Tabitha didn’t want to talk about this. It’s not like it was a big deal. She just didn’t like the name Tabitha anymore. One of the girls at school had a mom who loved this show with a witch and it turned out they had the same name and now, because her family was already considered a bit New Agey, every girl at school thought she was a witch or at least a witch in training. And what was wrong with the name Katy anyway? It was her name. She should be able to make it anything she wanted.
But she didn’t say any of this because she knew her mother loved the name Tabitha. Why? She didn’t know. But because her mother loved it, she kept quiet.
Her mom sighed again and gently took Tabitha’s arm, spreading the cool aloe vera thick on her reddened skin. Tabitha almost cried from the relief.
“You’re very lucky,” her mom said. “Any worse and we would have taken you to the hospital. As it stands, you won’t be going anywhere tomorrow.”
“Not even the bookstore?” This wasn’t fair! The collection of fairy tales she’d ordered had come in and she was going to get it tomorrow!
“Now, before you start thinking life is unfair, you do remember how to prevent sunburns, right?”
Tabitha reluctantly nodded. This was her own fault.
“Perhaps next time you’ll be a little more careful then.” Her mother gestured for her to roll over and she carefully put gel on her back, then handed the bottle to Tabitha so she could finish the job. Feeling miserable, Tabitha couldn’t help stopping her mom when she gathered her things to go.
“Can you tell me a story?”
Her mother paused, then smiled. “Which one?”
“The one with the princess who eats the poisoned almonds and the dragon steals her away.”
“And the prince rescues her?”
“Yeah!” Tabitha sat up and quickly lay back down, gritting her teeth and breathing deep from the pain.
She’d learned long ago that none of the stories mom told her could be found in a book. And yet, they felt so real she couldn’t get enough of them. Her mom sat down and told the story as she’d always told it, the princess just as stupid as ever, the prince as brave and noble. But this time, her mother watched her more closely during the telling and the dragon, who had always been a cruel beast, somehow became more menacing than before, more calculating. More evil.
Years later, she would see that moment for what it was and guessed it was because of her attempt at finding a new name: that changing who she was had convinced her mom to tell her the reason for the stories. “Tabitha,” she had said when she finished, “which character did you like best?”
When she was little, she had once said the dragon. Her mom had frowned deeply and spent some time lecturing her on why dragons were evil. So, even though the dragon still fascinated her, she dutifully responded with her second choice. “The prince, because he rescues the princess.”
Her mom smiled. “What if the prince turned out to be a dragon?”
That would be great, she almost blurted out. “Well,” she said, thinking this over carefully, “I think he wouldn’t be so good for the princess anymore.”
“Because dragons are evil. They hurt people and destroy everything. They make the world a rotten place.”
Her mom smiled, and Tabitha was happy. “Now, you know I would never lie to you, right?”
“I told you the tooth fairy wasn’t real and I’ve never made you believe in Santa Claus. And the Easter Bunny is—”
“Fake as Aunt Sylvie’s furs.”
She smiled as her mom held back the laughter and nodded. “True. Very true, when did you hear me say that?”
“Dad said it when I asked him.”
Her mom’s smile turned affectionate and soft. Tabitha loved it when her mom smiled like that. One day, she’d find someone who would make her smile like that, too.
“Well, what if I told you that a magical creature was real? Would you believe me?”
Tabitha’s eyes went wide. “It’s dragons, isn’t it. Dragons are real.”
Her mom paused, then appeared relieved. “Yes, they are. They are all too real. And I need you to promise me something. It’s something I haven’t focused on like I should because I’ve had other, more important things, to worry about. Like you.” Her smile became pained, though Tabitha could still see her mother loved her. However, as she kept talking, she seemed distracted…and tired. “Honestly, I don’t think they’re around much anymore. I’ve never seen one and never wanted to spend the time hunting. It’s better to live a good life and raise a good family. But if you ever do meet one, I need you to promise me something.”
Dragons were real. Tabitha could hardly contain it. She could already see the evil glint in its eyes, the cunning revealed in its cruel smile. If she hadn’t been baked half to death, she would have jumped up and squealed in excitement. “What is it, Mom?”
Her mother’s eyes turned hard and cold, worse than any time she’d ever been in trouble. She felt scared.
After that day, her magic lessons began.