Tanner's mom was one of the worst kinds of dragon. Moping around inside the mountain all day weeping. Sobbing fireballs that charred the old rugs and smashing steel chandeliers into the wall with her wings when she'd throw herself into her nest-bed-thing. She was usually crying about how she could never have any friends.
Tanner loved her but was resolute that his life would be different. So at the ripe age of 3 he was big enough to venture out (in fact he was already about 50 feet tall if he was ducking). He walked along the road being as friendly as he could to anyone that he past.
But he quickly learned he had to be careful. One time he shouted a hearty "Hi there!" to a flock of sheep. Before he realized it, all their eyebrows had been singed off and their fir was curled into little hard balls at the edges. Smoke rose from each of them.
"It's okay," he thought. "There are others." He kept walking.
Eventually he came to a neat little foresty place. He pushed his way between the tree trunks until he heard little forest creature voices. His heart started to beat hard. He was about to make his first friends.
He laid down and poked his nose between two trees with the biggest, friendliest, kindest smile he could muster. He heard all their little furry voices pause and he kept pushing his snout through until his eyes cleared the leaves and he could see them. It was a family of squirrels playing with a family of bunny rabbits that lived in the same tree. The parents were siting on their haunches sipping little mugs of spiked honey, and watching their children play. There was also a beautiful, big-eyed fawn sitting at the edge, watching it all peacefully.
That is until Tanner had come. They all looked at his big snout and froze. The oldest squirrel spoke bravely. "We are too small to be a satisfying meal, dragon. But you could certainly still eat us. Why have you come? Are you a kind dragon?"
Tanner nodded his big head wedged between the trunks, and held his breath because he was scared if he used his voice, fire might come out (he was still trying to learn to control that.) There was a long pause. The parents all examined his big smile and the squirrel mother said to the rest, "Aw, look. I think he's still a child."
Tanner tried to nod again.
"I like him," she said. "You think it's okay for the kids to play with him?"
The old squirrel discerned for one moment more and said, "Okay, kids why don't you go say hi to our new friend."
A couple of the brave ones approached and after about half an hour all the kids were scurrying up and down his big snout. He twitched his protruding nostrils and winked his eyes to play with them. The fawn eventually hobbled up to him, looked at him with big brown eyes, and laid down, leaning against his big snout. It was a glorious feeling.
That night he went home very happy. He had made friends! His mom walked past his room and noticed this. For a moment she forgot herself and asked, "Hi hunny, you look quite happy. What did you do today?"
Tanner thought how to say it carefully so she wouldn't feel bad about herself.
"I made some friends today, mom." He gave her a careful smile.
She smiled and tilted her head. But it was a sad smile. "Oh, hunny that's great. Are they normal furry animals?"
Tanner nodded hesitantly. "Okay, hunny." She swallowed and looked away. "Just be very very careful. They're very fragile and we're very big."
Okay mom, thanks. He thought to himself, "Nah, I got this. Having friends is easy."
The next day he went to hang out with his friends again and it was great. He moved very carefully and held his breath most of the time. He got to know some bigger animals that wandered through like a teenager badger, a bear who played soccer, and a young falcon with a temper. And he did this every day. Once they felt he was safe, most of the animals accepted him.
But, he liked the fawn most of all. She talked to him about sweet meadows she had been in and the dew on the branches each morning. He would hum his affirmations careful not to open his mouth. She was the most beautiful thing in his life.
Then one day after squirrels, bunnies, and beavers had called their little ones in, the fawn asked, "Would you like to go see the most beautiful place to see the sunset?" He was beyond himself. He nodded with absolute certainty.
She led the way, so delicate and elegant. Her voice so sweet. He was still very careful to breath through his nose so there would be no fire. They went up a hill that overlooked the valley and she was right; it was absolutely beautiful. "Isn't this just the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?" she said.
Tanner was so overcome with himself, with all these feelings of beauty and love that he had never felt before. He couldn't contain it. He jumped up and shouted to the sky (for he knew that's the only direction the fire wouldn't hurt anyone.)
His fire roared into the clouds in a beautiful glowing stream but when he came down he felt a horrifying crunch. He looked down and the beautiful fawn had tried to lean into him just as he had jumped and he had come down on her leg. He had felt the bones in her delicate leg break into a few pieces.
She lay there with pain throbbing through her beautiful big eyes, looking up at him for help. It broke his heart. He scrambled back and forth looking for someone to help. But when he found no one, and was so embarrassed, and he was so sure that he could not help, he could only hurt her if he stayed, he put his head in his wings and sobbed as he rushed all the way home.
He threw himself into his nest-bed, wrapped himself in his wings and sobbed loud enough to shake the mountain.
His mom heard him and silently ducked into his room. She held him as he cried. She didn't have to ask why he was crying.
A few weeks later after moping around in his room and feeling horrible about himself he was sick of listening to his mother sobbing too and he remembered how he had promised himself to never be like her. And he decided he would try again. He had learned a horrible lesson but had to try again.
He just couldn't show his face around his old friends anymore. So this time he went to a valley with a pasture. He flapped down and found himself next to a heard of cows. It would be hard not to accidentally step on them. But he had already startled them and they trotted away. "I don't want to hurt you!" He yelled after them. "I want to be your friend!"
He hung his head until he heard a voice behind him. "I've never been friends with a dragon before. I think I'll try it."
Tanner sheepishly inched around and saw a cow on his hind legs, and crossing his arms, chewing on a piece of grass like a cigarette. He was leaning against the cliff face. Tanner quietly asked, "You aren't afraid I'll eat you-- I mean you shouldn't be! I'm just trying to make friends!"
The cow shook his big head and winked with one big glossy eyeball. "Nah, when a dragon wants to eat a cow they swoop down and chase them. You flew down here so delicately that I thought you might be afraid we would eat you!"
Tanner pinched his mouth closed with his claws as he held in a laugh.
"That's what I like to hear." The cow smiled. "The other cows don't get my sense of humor. They're too serious and careful. They're so boring. That's why I think we'll be good friends. Dragons are about as boring as thunderstorms. Never known a thunderstorm I didn't like."
They sat there and the cow talked about a lot of things. He was funny. He asked Tanner questions about what it was like to be a dragon and almost always included some joke like how Tanner's grandfather probably ate his stinky cow uncle, and why couldn't he have also taken his nagging aunt."
Tanner had to be careful to keep his mouth closed and laugh through his nose. The cow smiled at his new, timid dragon friend. "Hey let's go walking. That way if you laugh it will go straight ahead and clear our path!" He winked and they started walking.
Tanner smiled and nodded. They became good friends. A lot of days they would meet up and they would walk and talk. The cow always said his cow friends were just so bland and that a dragon was way more fascinating. And he added, "You're even nicer than my blind grandmother! If she's not nice we won't bring her her food!"
"Oh yeah," Tanner said sheepishly. "How'd she go blind?"
"Long story," the cow replied. "But basically there was fire in farmer Joe's barn and she had to run through the flames. Wasn't good on the eyes."
"Oh," Tanner replied. And kept on walking with his face forward. They explored a lot of cool things. Old barns, big caves and even saw a rare herd of bears watching theater.
But one day they they found a deep (so they thought) pit in the ground. They couldn't see the bottom. It must be really deep, they marveled.
"I wonder what's down there?"
Tanner knew this was the perfect time to impress his friend and he blew with all his might down into the hole to light it up as far as it could go down.
But as soon as the fire shot out of his mouth he could see the bottom, not very far away. It was just made of very dark dirt. And the fire filled the small cavern and shot back out past both of their faces peering down in.
He suddenly heard the voice of his friend scream in pain. He looked over and the cow was writhing in pain, trying to hold his eyes with his clunky hooves.
"Oh no! Oh no! Oh no!" Tanner couldn't believe he had let that happen. "I'm so sorry are you okay what can I do to help!?"
After his friend stopped rolling back and forth he just held his eyes closed as far as his burned up eyelids could cover them. He whimpered for a few more minutes. "I guess you could help me get home, at least." His voice no longer sounded like his friendly, funny self.
Tanner quickly picked him up in his huge claws and flew across the countryside until he found his flock and set him down among them. Tanner's eyes were streaming as he said, "I'm sorry. I can't help but hurt those closest to me. I'm so sorry." And he flew off before he could hear any of them curse him.
That night his mother comforted him again as he sobbed with even more despair than before. Now he saw why dragons were such a lonely lot.
One evening as he sat with his huge head on a rock on top of their mountain, he looked out over the expansive fields, valleys, and woods. He could hear his mother sobbing inside. Now he intimately knew the pain she felt. The pain that had paralyzed her for almost her whole adult life.
The sun was low and heavy gray clouds were rolling in. A strong breeze blew across his back. A storm was coming. He could not become like her. He didn't know if he'd ever have friends, but he had to try. He would choose to do whatever it took to become safe.
He dug around in the dirt until he found something hard: metal. He pounded it against rocks until it was flat and he tried to bend it but found he only could if he softened it with his fire first. If anyone were watching they would think he was really angry at something and had to smash something. Maybe he was a little bit.
Eventually he had something he could put over his mouth like a mask and he tested it. Fire shot out around his face but it did not shoot forward... that is until the metal melted. Metal was the hardest thing he knew! This was hopeless!
He was going beyond what anyone else had done but it still wasn't enough. But no, he told himself I will not be like my mother. I will try until I die or until I find a solution. He tried many different materials: wood, rocks, roots, woven fibers. Even his own shed scales. But nothing could be molded to fit his face and not melt. Until one day he was so frustrated he yelled at a dried up river bed he had been coming to. The fire shot out of his mouth and roasted the dry ground. And when he crossed that same land to finally go home, it was harder than the rest. He had found clay and had cooked it! It turned out to be a little bit brittle if he put pressure on it, but it could resist all his fire! So he formed it into a mask that would shoot his fire backwards and around his own body instead of forward, or any direction that could hurt others. This might actually work, he exclaimed! He put it on and wore it as he figured out his next problem.
He had to figure out how not to crush his friends. Since now he had learned about all different materials and which were the strongest, he knew which materials might be most promising. And with this knowledge he built a couple of shoes that were on three small, metal stilts. He forged them with his fire so that they were super hard. He would walk just a little higher than before but now at least it would be less likely he would crush something. He had something like the high heels he had seen his mom wear, but there were three little posts instead of one!
He tested them out for a while because he could not mess up again and hurt someone else. And after he was confident they were working alright, eventually, very sheepishly, he went out to make more friends.
He decided to go back to his first friends, partly because he loved them so much but also because he just had to know if his dear sweet friend the fawn was alive.
He showed up and could see all the squirrels and bunnies playing. His friends were now all full grown and even had little ones of their own! He very sheepishly pressed his face through the trees. Everything stopped. They had all heard of what had happened to the fawn.
He spoke, "I am so sorry for what I have done. I have come back to try and be friends again. I have found a way to protect you all from my size and from my fire."
They were all hesitant until a deer emerged from the thicket. She had been watching. Hey eyes were glistening with tears. She walked up to him with a severe limp. She could probably never run fast. It was his friend! She said, "What an interesting thing you have put on your face. And what interesting tree trunks you have put on your feet."
"They are meant to protect my friends."
She looked up at him with those same big beautiful eyes and smiled sadly. He had missed her so much.
He whispered "I'm so, so sorry I stepped on you." tears welled up in his eyes. She smiled sadly up at him and limped over to his big muzzled snout.
"I see you have worked very hard to keep from hurting anyone again." She breathed in as if she were reaching far into her heart. "I forgive you. But I cannot get as close, and you will have to be more careful with us."
"Yes, I know, I know."
Then one of the new baby squirrels scurried up over his mask to check it out. Everyone gasped until the little guy got to the top and shouted, "Hey look! This mask thing is really fun!" And suddenly all the other brave little rodents scurried up and over his snout like had happened before. Soon they were mostly comfortable with him again.
One of the old squirrels had made his way over to the mask and the stilts. He looked up at the dragon's big eyes which were looking down at him. The squirrel asked, "Do you think you could help us build things like this?"
The dragon hummed an exuberant "yes."
"We could really use some sort of structure to hold our big underground cave open. It keeps collapsing."
He said he would love to.
Then on another day he went to find his cow friend. He found him moving carefully next to a farm house, hanging laundry out to dry, blind and being led along by his mother. His grandmother was in a cow rocking chair on the porch.
His mother screamed when she saw Tanner flap down and land. She ran on all fours behind the farmhouse. His cow friend turned slowly around as if he knew perhaps who was coming.
Tanner landed and didn't know what to say.
His cow friend spoke first. "Is that my terrible-breathed friend?"
Tanner started to nod but realized he couldn't see it. He said a very humbled, "Hi."
"Well, life looks a little different for me now, but I'm still the same guy. Get over here."
Tanner stepped toward him. His big triple high-heels pressed most of the way into the grass. His cow friend stepped up to him carefully and felt for him. His hoof touched the clay mask and surprised him. "Oh, well I see you've done something to contain that horrible halatosis."
Tanner hadn't heard the word for bad breath before, but he knew what it meant. As his friend stepped closer his back hoof hit one of Tanner's funny shoes. "Oh, and what are these for?"
"So I don't crush anybody with my freakin huge feet."
"Just make sure you don't skewer them either. But maybe if someone is bound to get stepped on, a shickabob might be the best way to dispose of them."
"I'm so sorry." Tanner finally blurted out. "So, so sorry."
"Yeah, I know buddy. I knew because you flew me all the way home, and I think you were just trying to show off. I know cuz I do that all the time. I forgive ya, big guy. Look at the bright side. You've given me a whole new view on the world."
"I made these myself," Tanner blurted out.
"Well," his cow friend hesitated, "I guess I'm proud of you?"
"I mean, I figured out how to make this stuff so I can help you and your mom and grandma with it maybe? What do you need done around here?"
After talking about it for a while they figured out a couple controlled burn fires in the fields Tanner could help them out with. They chatted as his cow friend followed the sound of Tanner's heavy footsteps through the fields. It was almost like old times again. But it was sad.
Tanner came back many days and helped them do other things around the house. He built big things out of metal because now he understood how to do it. He dug up and fired clay for pots and things that helped them cook.
And when he went home many days, he was sad that he had hurt the people he got close to. And he saw how much his mom was hurting so he tried to teach her to do these things too. She watched half-heartedly but seemed so broken, she didn't even have hope anymore. So he made her a mask and stilt-shoes so she could go make friends.
She said thank you but barely used them. She was too old and used to feeling sad.
Tanner was sad about this but only knew he could control what he would do about it. And he kept carefully hanging out and helping his new friends and always continuing to grow because he knew the ingredients he had been given, if unattended to, would become unsafe for his friends.
He had to work very hard to be a good friend. And a good friend he was to many.