He awoke that morning like any other, and hurried to eat breakfast before Grover and Willie came down. They were a lot older, and ate a lot more.
And he was eating a piece of toast, wondering if he dared pocket an apple for later, when everything changed.
Because Mister Gogan had a set of rusted chains.
He'd come in from outside, having done Pete's job of milking the cow, and he set the chains on the table in a bunch. A centipede crawled out from the metal, and Pete knew Missus Gogan would yell something awful the second she saw something so dirty on her kitchen table.
"Jest gonna get'm all cleaned up, that's all, Petey," Mister Gogan said casually, and he sat down across from Pete, putting his boots on the table, which Pete knew Missus Gogan would also hate. "Make sure they're still good 'n strong." He wasn't bringing up the fact that Pete had missed his job. Nothing about how Pete wasn't pulling his weight, or earning his keep.
Pete kept quiet and didn't remind him. It was best he said nothing to Mister Gogan, most days. They got on much better, when that was the case. He bit into his toast mechanically.
There was a ruckus on the stairs, and he knew Grover and Willie were awake, and coming down. Pete had to decide if he was going to go for the apples. They were in a basket, right in front of Mister Gogan's boot.
Pete didn't move, and a moment later, Willie cuffed him on the back of his head.
"Make room, idget! You done had yer grub."
Pete slid silently from his chair, which Willie then occupied, shoving Pete to the ground for no reason other than he thought it funny.
"Merle! Git yer boots 'n yer farmin' tools offa my kitchen table!" came the familiar screech of Missus Gogan.
"Lena, do we gots somethin' t' clean these?" Mister Gogan picked up the chains, and Pete's eyes took them in; rusted and heavy and caked with dried mud. The rust made wicked-looking burrs on some of the links, and he knew they were for him.
Because Mister Gogan didn't know knots; he'd never sailed none, and he'd caught Pete untying himself, last week, when it was so hot waiting for someone to fetch him for supper, and Pete'd figured they'd conveniently "forgot" to get him, and worked at the knots until he could slip his skinny ankle out of the noose.
Gosh, he'd been mad. He'd got Pete's hand with the buckle end before Pete could tuck it away, and next morning it still hurt, and he could scarce milk the cow—then Mister Gogan had got to him again for missing the bucket.
"Them chains ain't seen the sunny half of Sunday, Merle," Missus Gogan said crossly, wiping at her table where the chains had occupied the space.
"They're fer the brat. Mebbe keep 'im from runnin' agin," Mister Gogan returned.
They often did this: talked about Pete like he wasn't there, or was too stupid to understand.
Pete eyed the chains again, hatefully. The links were huge: this had been a chain to pull up stumps, maybe. Not to pen animals. Or…or children.
He'd only run because Willie…did what he'd done. He'd pinned Pete to the ground one night, like wrestling…and just…smiled. As Pete cried and hollered 'Uncle' and couldn't get away. Willie liked that. Making Pete cry. Or else letting Pete think he was getting away, and then trapping him all over again, hitching Pete's arms up behind his back, bending his wrist so Pete yelled in pain.
And he had run. But the Orphanage brought him back. Because Missus Gogan owned him, so far as Pete could figure. She always said so, anyway. She'd paid for him. Fifty dollars. Plus fifty cent legal. And so she'd work the money out of him.
Every last cent, probably 'til Pete died.
Pete thought and thought. He'd have to run again. He had to. Before Mister Gogan cleaned the chains. He wouldn't be able to escape the chains. He thought, as Mister Gogan tied him to a stake so's he could weed the pumpkins. He thought about when he should do it. Soon. Before Mister Gogan had the chains ready. While he still relied on the rope.
Ropes could be untied. Or cut, with the hoe. Pete was strong enough, now, to do it.
He'd need food. He'd need somewhere to go. Not the orphanage. Maybe he could just…keep running. Until they couldn't chase him, anymore. He could just run right on out of Maine. Find a train and sneak on.
He snuck a half-squashed tomato and a spindly cucumber for lunch. They always left him out here for luncheon. He only ever got to eat supper and a little breakfast with the others.
There was a funny thing that happened, then.
An apple fell into his lap from nowhere.
He ate it, and it tasted fine. It wasn't one of them…mirages. The Schoolmaster back home had talked about them. How your imagination was like to play tricks on you. It didn't taste like a trick.
And, just as he'd finished eating it…another one.
And he heard a funny sound. Maybe he'd just imagined it. Like…someone humming.
He looked around, trying to see where the sound had come from; where the apples had come from.
He set to, eating the other apple, not about to let it go to waste. This was the heartiest lunch he'd had in weeks.
He remembered his Mama. Before she'd died. She would cut apples up for him, to take to school. Because, she said, when she was a girl in school, you cut up your apples so you could share them with your friends. It was something the girls did. Sharing apples was a good way to keep friends. Or make them.
He took another mechanical bite of the apple. He was into the core, now, wishing the apple had more flesh on it. He'd eaten it too fast. He'd probably make himself sick. He wasn't used to eating this much.
But this time, it was hovering in front of him. Like someone was offering it, but…they were invisible.
"Mama?" Pete said softly, like a question, cupping the apple in his hands reverently. And he couldn't help but cry a little. If Mister Gogan or Willie saw, they'd make fun, but…he couldn't bring himself to wipe at his tears.
That…that strange humming again. Or…it was…it was like a funny language. Low-pitched sounds. Tongue-clicking. Nonsense words. "Beomm-bohm bohm beop!"
He felt a…pressure. At his cheek. But….not bad. Not…not a hit. Pete stood utterly still.
The…presence—it was like a hand, but it didn't feel like any hand Pete knew—slid up his cheek…wiping at his tears. Pete…saw them. The tears. Hovering in the air, suspended by the…invisible hand that wasn't a hand.
More sounds, but they sounded…sadder, somehow.
And suddenly, Pete saw the presence—the thing. It was…it was a monster. It was green, and it had wings and claws and scales, and it was so big…it was so much bigger than him.
Pete couldn't even scream. He just…sank gently to the ground, the apple in his hands, more tears falling down his cheeks. He'd…he'd thought it was an angel. He'd thought it was his Mama. But…but it wasn't. It was…it was this beast. It…it looked like a dragon.
"Are…are you gonna eat me?" Pete managed to say through a choking sob, and he clutched at the apple, and he wondered if he might be allowed to finish it, before he died. It seemed a waste, otherwise. And he was still so hungry.
"Wha?" the beast seemed surprised. And then it shook its head vehemently, making more of its funny clicking sounds.
Pete just sat there, for a while. The sun beat down on him, and he was sweaty and dirty and hungry and sticky, and his ankle hurt from being tied so tight, and it was an awful lot to meet some kind of enormous, intelligent animal on top of it all.
One who shared apples.
"What do you want?" Pete asked presently, wiping at his cheeks with the backs of his hands, which were less dirty than his palms.
The creature pushed the apple to Pete. The gesture was clear, even if the vocalization wasn't.
"You…want me to eat it?"
A firm, enthusiastic nod. "Yeahyeahyeahyeah."
Pete almost gave in. Right then. He lifted the apple right to his lips.
But he hesitated. Because…today he was lucky. Today he had a charitable creature to get him magic apples.
But what about tonight? Tomorrow?
"I shouldn't," Pete said sadly, standing up, instead, wincing when the rope moved. The skin had been rubbed raw, where the rope was, and it stung. "I have to get back to work, now. I oughtn't have had so much, anyway. I'll save this." He pocketed the apple, making sure the round bulge didn't show, and making a mental note to stash the apple elsewhere before going to sleep; Mister Gogan would wallop him extra hard for stealing food.
The creature tilted its head: like a dog, who didn't understand why its master couldn't keep playing with it all day long. "Bwah?" It mumbled more of its funny words that Pete didn't understand, accompanied by hand movements that were supposed to help.
"Thank you," Pete said politely. "It was awful nice of you."
And he turned to the squat pumpkins, walking to the edge of the row and bending to painstakingly remove the offending weeds, which had grown nearly a foot, and were likely the reason the cucumbers had come out so poorly.
The beast came and stood next to him, watching, and then, smiling, it reached down with its larger hands and yanked on a zucchini vine, uprooting the plant impressively.
Pete paled. "Oh. Oh, what'd you go and do that for?" he said, his face falling. "Mister Gogan's gonna be so mad."
The creature looked at the vine in its hand, and at the weeds in Pete's hands, and frowned.
"Mine's a weed. Yours is a plant. We're supposed to harvest the plants, not pull them up. Not for another month," Pete said, dropping the weeds to the ground and wringing his hands anxiously.
As if summoned, Mister Gogan appeared. The creature vanished, just as suddenly as it had come, and Pete tried hard not to flinch when he saw the ruined plant: at least ten feet of vine was no longer ready to grow.
It wasn't as bad as it could have been, Pete reasoned, later. He was under the porch; his hands were tied behind him, but he'd long since mastered the art of fetching things from his pockets with tied hands and maneuvering under the porch. It was harder because his back was tender; he'd not dared put his shirt back on. It would just be ruined from the blood. But it made him feel awfully exposed.
He adjusted the apple just so, and took awkward bites, eating a fair amount of dirt. But it was better than no supper at all, which is what he got, whenever he earned a beating.
Which was quite often, these days.
Pete heard the call of the creature—the dragon—and peeked his head out from under the porch.
"Stay invisible," he grunted, shifting like a worm, inching out from his place under the porch. "I'm here."
The creature seemed delighted, but it didn't stay invisible. Instead, it lay down in the dirt, its face close to Pete's as he wiggled out of the small quarters.
Small as it was, Pete loved it, under there.
Willie couldn't fit there, anymore.
The creature's face was round, not at all like dragons Pete pictured, which looked more like lizards. "Breeh," it said, grinning unmistakably.
Pete was free up to his shoulders, now.
"Sorry for earlier," he panted. "I wasn't upset at you. You didn't know better. It's over now, though, so—AAAAAHHHH," he cut himself off with a cry—one of the new, open cuts on his back had scraped the porch as he wiggled out, and it was still very tender.
The beast's face was surprised, for a moment, and then let out an almost comical gasp of horror—its eyes shifted colors, from white to blue to green, swirling like the colors of a lollipop.
Pete held his breath, trying to listen.
A faint laugh from above, in the kitchen.
Tears leaked out of the corners of his eyes, squeezed shut, and he felt them cut through the dirt on his cheeks.
The creature's snout moved to Pete's shoulders, not touching the cuts there; Pete felt the air shifting as he heard definitive snuffling sounds, followed by distressed-sounding not-words and clicks.
Pete breathed slowly as the pain ebbed. He opened his eyes, and the creature's face was morphed into worry. Such a human thing, to show worried emotions.
Pete rested his forehead in the dirt, and coughed dryly when he accidently inhaled some dust. "I'm…too tired to come out," he whispered. It wasn't wholly true. But he was afraid. Afraid of being caught—if he was caught, he'd get more of the same on his back, and he knew it—and afraid of scraping his tender back against the porch again.
There were large hands that weren't hands, entering the periphery of Pete's vision. He flinched away violently—it was going to hurt and the stupid creature wouldn't even know it; like when it had uprooted the zucchini.
A murmured sort of crooning sound emitted from the creature; almost like a…purr? Or…. a growl that was…nice. One of the large not-hands was carefully pushing Pete's hair out of his face, and the other was tracing a tear-track on his cheek. There was a very audible, almost exaggerated sniff, and Pete looked up in surprise—the dragon was crying.
"W-What are you crying for?" he asked hoarsely, feeling that weight in his throat that meant tears weren't far away for him, either.
More of the sad, distressed sounds: clicks and low murmurs.
"What…are you, anyway?" Pete asked, wriggling anew, inching out from under the porch. The dragon seemed even more distressed the more of his back was revealed, but let out a guttural snarl when it saw that Pete's hands were bound.
Pete's eyes went round with terror when he saw black smoke begin to filter through the creature's nose and open mouth. It really was a dragon. A real, fire-breathing dragon.
The hands—claws—flashed toward Pete quick as lightning, and Pete couldn't help the hunch of his shoulders as he flinched away.
And then Pete's hands were free.
The dragon growled again, but lifted up the rope that had just been around Pete's wrists, and blew a stream of fire effortlessly from its mouth, reducing the rope to cinders. Then it nodded in satisfaction, returning its attention to Pete.
Pete wordlessly pulled himself the rest of the way out from under the porch, reaching underneath it to procure his shirt and apple.
"You're a dragon, right?" he murmured, pulling the shirt on, wincing, and taking a large bite of the dirty apple. "We learned about dragons in school. My teacher said they didn't exist."
The dragon nodded, pleased, and the last traces of smoke drifted away from where it had been trailing from the beast's nostrils.
"I never heard of a dragon that could become invisible, though. That's a neat trick. I wish…" Pete cut himself off. He wished he could be invisible. If they couldn't see him, they wouldn't be able to hit him anymore. And Willie…
But it was stupid to wish for something like that. Not like it could ever come true.
"Womp-whee-heel omp," the Dragon said, clicking its tongue and grinning. Its pink hair caught a breeze, and Pete smiled.
"Do you have a name?" he asked, and the dragon shrugged its shoulders.
"What should I call you, then?" Pete returned, devouring the core of the apple. "Should I just…pick a name?"
The dragon nodded. "Yeahyeahyeahyeah!"
Pete thought. "How about…Jim?" he muttered. His dad's name had been Jim.
The dragon shook its head 'no.'
"You…you're a…a boy dragon, right?" Pete asked, suddenly unsure.
The dragon just smiled.
"I'll…pick a boy's name, then," Pete muttered again, thinking harder.
Several rejections passed, and the dragon went from sitting passively by, waiting, to inspecting Pete again, making disappointed, sad clicking noises, lifting up Pete's shirt to view the plethora of marks there.
Pete felt the whuffs of dragon's breath on his skin, almost uncomfortably hot, but it felt…nice.
"Elliot?" he tried at last, and the dragon seemed to consider. Then it nodded.
"Really?" Pete grinned. "All right, then. I'll call you 'Elliot.'"
He felt sleepy, now, and started to crawl back under the porch, only to be halted by the dragon's—Elliot's—tail, and a serious refusal.
Elliot then curled up, right there, and invited Pete to come lay beside him.
"Are…are you sure?" Pete asked, furrowing his eyebrows. "I don't want to get…to get…" he couldn't get it out—because when he passed his hand behind him, feeling for the tender cuts and oozing blood…he'd not felt anything.
His back wasn't bleeding, anymore.
And it wasn't even that it had stopped bleeding, more like it…had never been bleeding in the first place.
Elliot made a pleased sort of sound, accompanied by a cheerful whistle.
Pete found himself easily able to curl up against Elliot, and didn't feel the tenderness of anything at all. His wrists and ankles didn't even hurt.
It was the best he'd slept in months.
Pete's Dragon will just...not leave me alone, I guess. Every time I watch it, I just...wanna write about it :)
** I have other Pete's Dragon stories, too. I'm pretty sure I hold the corner market, here. If ya wanna hunt for them. :)**