Cham stared at the photo of himself and Mum as he took the bus to Draggington: the city where humans and monsters co-existed. He would arrive soon, but first he needed to remind himself why he was moving there.
The picture was a snapshot Dad took of Mum holding Cham’s younger self in her claws. As an adult drigi, she was as big as an adult human, and her white feathers shone brilliantly in the sunlight. Cham was as small as a human child there despite being in drigi adolescence. He still waited for his growth spurt to this day.
He cherished these memories with his family in the wild: of times spent play-fighting in the forest, preening each other’s feathers, and exchanging campfire stories. A year ago, however, Dad moved to Draggington for welding work because of his fire-breathing skills. Mum hadn’t spoken to him since. He didn’t know how to process it at first, though the slow burn in his heart built up. Eventually he committed to finding out why Dad had left her.
Cham clutched the photo to his fuzzy chest before putting it away. The passengers were leaving the bus, and despite his heartburn, he’d forge on. So, he leapt off the seat and padded over to the exit.
“A thank you would be nice,” growled the human bus driver.
“S-sorry! Thank you! Sorry!” Cham scampered out to the bus station, fur on end. A bad start already.
It didn’t get any better with all the noise outside. Horns blared, testing his nerves. The crowd was a maze of flesh, fur, feathers and scales: regular humans, humans with dog heads, leopards with red coats, cats that walked on their hindlegs, and snakes biting their own tails that rolled around like tires. To get to The M, the hostel Dad booked for him, he would have to brave through that mess. He squeezed through the crowd, trying not to get squished in his quest.
Since leaving the tangle of fanged beasts, he settled into a rhythm as he walked alongside the various passing monsters, soothing the heartburn for now. He tailed another drigi for comfort, but on the way, his stomach growled. Along the streets, a symphony of monster and human cuisines wafted from their shop windows, all singing for his attention - and he hadn’t eaten. He still had money, which he knew how to use, he hoped. Cham approached a pastry shop he remembered Dad frequented. With all the items on offer from the crispy-looking pasties to the drigiberry-topped cakes, it wasn’t hard to see why. Though the line intimidated him, Cham told himself he had to get used to this. He was a drigi, an apex predator, capable of walking on his own two feet. A line wouldn’t hurt him, right?
Being smaller than anyone in the queue already shook his nerves. The stuffy air and the hissing coffee machines created a suffocating atmosphere. But the drigiberry slice would be a good reward for this trouble. Soon it was his turn. He pointed to the item in the glass, mouth watering as the human clerk brought it out.
The price seemed simple enough as the human repeated it. As soon as Cham drew the wallet out and sifted through the coins, however, he drew a blank. They didn’t seem to add up to the price, so he picked three silver pieces and slammed them onto the counter. Then he reached out for his lunch.
“Hey, lizard.” The human batted Cham’s hand away. “That’s not enough; you don’t just take what you can’t afford.”
“B-but—” Cham cut himself off. He looked at the wallet again; there was surely enough in there. “I’m sorry, um…”
He stared into the pocket as he tried to figure out its value. One silver coin meant 10p, but could’ve also meant 20p. And this bronze one wasn’t worth anything. Perhaps the gold pieces would do. He could’ve asked, but didn’t want to seem clueless, since he should’ve been smart enough for this. He dug into his purse, sorting it out coin by coin.
“I’m starving,” a leopard complained to her human companion. “What’s he doing?”
“Eh, don’t pay him any mind,” the companion said. “He’s a tourist. Probably wild.”
“Is he dangerous?”
Wait, what? Dangerous?! His heart leapt, and he coughed, blowing smoke in his own face. Oh no, his fire was getting out of hand! He couldn’t stay there. He dropped his wallet and ran out into the streets. He had to get away from the shop ASAP. What if he was being followed? That could’ve happened back home whenever he scared someone. He sprinted to The M, following the route in his head.
Checking into his room was easy. Dealing with the awkward feeling that followed the pastry incident was not. He wrapped himself in the feather duvet like a drigi burrito, since it reminded him of burying his face in Mum’s plumage. Mum. Dad. Right, he left Dad’s wallet back there.
Dread paralysed Cham as he chewed his claws under the covers. There was no excuse. What, his money vanished because he left the shop in a panic? He had to watch his chops about that. He still had his bag, but that was peanuts compared to the lost allowance. Oh, why didn’t Dad pick him up at the station? Right, because he was at work. Argh.
Whenever Dad took him on trips here, mostly to museums and parks, he kept mum about, well, Mum. He didn’t seem proud talking about her. Likewise, whenever Cham mentioned Henry, Mum shot him down too. Whatever happened between them seemed bitter. But whose fault was it, Mom’s or Dad’s? Or even worse, Cham’s?
Those thoughts stewed as hours passed in the apartment, Cham clutching the photo to his chest, halfway between drowsiness and alertness. The gnawing hunger in his gut kept him awake. Over time, the fire stewed in his chest, and finally, he threw the covers off the bed. He had to call Dad for help. Cham immediately went to the phone on the shelf, waiting for the receiver to pick up. Thankfully, Dad was on the other end.
“Hey, Champ!” he called. “Settlin’ in fine?”
“Um, yeah?” Cham lied. “Can we talk?”
“Of course! Wait, did you wait until the end of my shift to ask me that? Great timing!”
Cham glanced at the windows where the setting sun shone red. So he’d wasted the entire day indoors. “Maybe?”
“Clever lizard. Say, I’m headin’ down The Dog’s Ear now, so come meet me there. Sound good?”
That was the pub they used to frequent on previous day trips. That was familiar to him at least, with the dog-headed people he’d see behind the counters and the beer garden with all the colourful snapdrigi there. Cham muttered a reply, and Dad wished him good luck as he hung up on his end.
At least this would be the one bright spot of the day, he hoped.
As he expected, the pub stank of sweat and alcohol, filled with drunken chatter. He never liked the pub itself, but talking to Dad alone would’ve made up for it.
Speak of the drigi, Dad held a pint of mulled cider out as he chatted with several humans on his table. He stuck out like a sore paw with his long neck, feathered features, and that pink shirt he wore. Those humans must’ve been work chums, but Dad must’ve known he wanted to talk in private.
“Heh,” one of his colleagues said as Cham approached, “d’you clone a mini version of yerself, Henry?”
“Nope, though he is a little’un, isn’t he?” As Cham climbed up the seat, Dad patted him on the back. “How’re you findin’ things, anyway? D’you get to see some fun places today?”
“Um,” Cham said, scratching his fluffy chin, “about that—”
“Well, tell us later. My friends’ll love to hear about it.”
“You’ve already told me enough about your boy today,” another colleague said. “If I took a shot every time you mentioned him at work, I’d be dead by now.”
Drigi’s whiskers pricked up in embarrassment.
“Ah, shaddup.” Dad shrugged, tracing his claw across the rim of the glass as he glanced as Cham. “But now you’re here, we might as well have a bit of fun. You up for some pool?”
As much as Cham wanted to get to the point, he couldn’t’ve said no to a bit of family bonding.
His first time trying his claw at pool was a bust. The game sounded simple, but with his clumsy claws wielding an over-sized pool cue, it was anything but. It didn’t help that he had the eyes of humans on him. He wanted to impress Dad though, so he tried to shoot the cue ball for the first break… only to pocket his own ball into the hole, costing him two turns.
“Uh, wait!” Cham yelled, “that one didn’t count, did it?!”
“Afraid so, Champ.” Dad stepped in. “My turn.”
Unlike Cham, he pocketed one of the red balls in on his first go. Those humans must’ve taught him those skills. Ultimately, the two couldn’t have been more outmatched as Cham lost 0-8.
“You’d be screwed if you were in a tourney, boy,” one human said.
“I-I’m trying my best!” he shouted as steam rose in his head.
“Easy there, Champ, he’s only yankin’ your tail.”
Right. Cham took a deep breath and gestured to Dad to step aside for the moment. Hopefully, he’d be able to talk there.
“Yeah?” Dad said.
“Can we go somewhere else?” Cham clutched his fuzzy tail. “This isn’t working.”
“Aw, really? No need to be ashamed of suckin’ at pool.”
“You wanna see how a drigi like me does it?”
Before Cham could say no, another human stepped in.
“Yeah, you ‘an me, Henry.”
They joined hands and claws together, hunching over the table to play another round. Cham just stared as Dad took turns with that human. At least he was having fun. Time, however, fanned the flames in Cham’s gut as he considered his situation. Still a low point of his day. Why was he even here? It was like Dad only brought him so he could hang out with his work friends at the same time. That was definitely it. He turned to the door, about to stomp back to his flat where he could avoid this mess.
“Hey,” Dad said, patting him on the shoulder, “you need to go to the toilet?”
“Then, to the bar? Y’know, I never asked if you needed a drink, so it’s on me if you want one.”
He was much hungrier than he was thirsty. Cham appreciated the offer, but he felt he’d already outworn his welcome.
“Aren’t you still playing pool?”
“Eh, I lost, and I don’t fancy another round. I—”
Dad’s eyes widened at something far away. Two drigi were having a drinking contest in the smoking area of the beer garden. Their alcohol served as catalysts for their flames, which put on a light show for those watching in the distance. At least that held Cham’s attention. He didn’t, however, expect Dad to pick him up.
“Hey, wh-what’re you doing?” he cried, kicking his talons.
“I thought we’d join in the fun,” he said, “y’know, just to get to know more of our fellow drigi.”
What was Dad planning? Cham wasn’t in the mood for a flame-measuring contest, but as he approached, that seemed to be the idea, as the drigi on the left alternated between swigging his beer and belching up fiery plumes.
“Hey, bro, bro,” the other drigi said, holding a shot of blue liquid, “you wanna see The Magic Flame in action?”
He downed his glass and shot a column of blue flames upwards, casting the whole garden alight with an azure hue. Cham gasped at that; he didn’t know drigi were capable of such a thing.
“How’s it goin’?” Dad called, attracting the pair’s attention. “Mind if my boy joins in? I know he can’t drink yet.”
“Nah, it’s cool!” the left drigi said, linking arms with his partner. “It’s gonna be a barnburner with him around!”
“Yeah!” the right drigi said. “Show us whatcha got, lil’ monster!”
Applause drowned out Cham’s cries. The drigi first, then Dad once he’d set Cham down, and then the bystanders egging them on. Cham was in the middle of all of this, being cheered on by everyone, but he was still a puny dragon that hadn’t found his place in Draggington. What if he messed up? He wouldn’t have made the best impression, but he didn’t want to disappoint anyone either. Why did Dad think he enjoyed this attention anyway, and in this loud, smelly place? His chest became a roaring inferno within him.
Cham couldn’t take this anymore. Sucking in a deep breath, he blew a huge torrent of fire in front of him; flames licking at the audience’s legs. The two drigi jumped backwards just in time, but a human got caught in its path as his sleeve caught fire.
It all happened too fast. The human beat at his chest to get the flames out. Another drigi doused it with a soft drink. It extinguished the blaze. Everyone stared at Cham; eyes all on him.
Cham needed to run. He dashed through the back exit. He screwed everything up. He was a screw-up. That was why Dad left him.
Cham stopped by the pub’s entrance, taking deep breaths as he tried to get his bearings again. The ground pulled him in. The air tasted like ashes. There was nothing to anchor onto, except the foretalon tugging at his shoulder.
“Cham?” Dad whispered.
The world returned to him, and there he was, sitting on the stone steps as Dad rubbed his back.
“Cham,” he repeated, “you alright?”
“No,” he said.
A pause. In the background, drigi laughed like nothing had happened.
“If you’re upset because of that, honestly, it’s fine. You just lightly singed him, and humans know accidents happen there.”
That was a relief, but it still didn’t change things.
“You wanna go back inside then?”
“I just wanna go home. I can’t stay there.”
“Because it’s dumb.”
“What’s dumb, I mean, really now?” He tapped his back. “You’re being silly.”
“Are you kidding me?!” Cham rose, looking down at Dad as he stamped the floor. “Today was dumb! I lost my wallet, wasted all my time in bed ‘cause I was losin’ it, then you kept blowin’ me off when I wanted to talk!”
Dad’s jaw dropped. Cham breathed in and out, trying to contain the inner flame again, then paced back and forth.
“And-and now I feel dumb for even coming here! I called you ‘cause I wanted to ask about Mum, but—” He tried to force the next words out, but he ran out of breath. Tears formed, blurring his vision. “And, and—” he sniffled—“I still don’t know why you won’t talk to her. I don’t…”
“Hey, there,” Dad cooed, pulling Cham in his embrace. He let the waterworks flood into Dad’s chest from there. All the build up from the last year, the moments in between, and from today, flowed out of him.
“Is it my fault?” he said in between sniffles.
“Oh Gods, Champ, no. It’s not something you should worry about. It’s just between us adults, is all.”
“We’re still figuring things out, you and Mum.”
“What things? What did she do?”
“Again, just between us. I don’t really wanna go into it right now.” Dad pulled away from Cham and ruffled his cheek. “But if you miss her, well, I won’t hold it against you if you wanna go back to the sticks.”
“I don’t.” He rubbed his eyes dry. “I wanna stay here so neither of you are too far away from me.”
Dad’s body warmed up upon hearing that, like his feather coat became one of those heated blankets. He smiled and pulled Cham in for another hug. They lingered for a while, ignoring the cold air, the passing strangers, and their place as dragi in a human’s world. Finally, the slow burn within him dwindled to an ember.
“Sorry about the money again.” Cham sighed. “It got too much, and everyone at that pastry place was gettin’ on my case since I took so long, so I panicked.” Smoke fumed from his ears. “I’m such a doofus.”
“Oh, come on, Champ, it’s just paper. And I’m the doofus here.” Another pat on the back. “I should’ve known you’d have problems adjustin’ to this place on your own. I felt the same way when I first moved here. So it’s fine.”
Cham’s stomach joined in the conversation.
“So you haven’t eaten since then at all?”
Cham shook his head.
“Well, I know of this kebab place you’d like, but with a drigi twist. Like, imagine the hottest sauces you can think of, but even hotter.”
“Sounds like lava.”
“Eh, something like that. But…” He trailed off, placing a foretalon on Cham’s lap. “Anyway, why don’t we talk more over dinner? Forget those humans back there; we need to get some grub in your belly, Champ.”
“Mmm hmm,” he said with a smile.
“And, well, why don’t you tell me how Mom’s doing? I bet she’s come up with a few interestin’ stories about her wild adventures since then. Least I can do is lend an ear after all this trouble. Deal?”
Progress would probably be slow for them. If Cham wanted them to reconnect, then he would have to tough it out in the city, with all the noise, lights and traffic constantly blaring. But in that moment, with Dad by his side at last, this was the first time Cham felt at home since arriving in Draggington.