After her mother’s death, Loo dreamt of a dragon with scintillating scales that stood very still like an Ash tree with glowing orange leaves blocking out darkness and stars. Loo was in the dream too, standing in a short black dress covered in white dots that showed off her pale knees. Being that she was only a child, she was very tiny, a white speck in the universe of the great dragon.
She waited for the voice to come out of the stomach of the beast.
By the time the dragon spoke, her ears rung and she cried from the sound of its harsh words, syllables and guttural echoes she couldn’t understand except as thunder and screams.
Over the years she drew images of the dragon, counting its leaf-like scales with each pen stroke, closing them as if circles could curse the world for having hollow spaces inside, as if each could somehow magically be a part of a suit of scales constructed of her thoughts, trapping both her and the dragon in a shell of memories.
Loo wondered if the dragon was a symbol of her mother, who she sometimes saw as a ghost in her room, standing as the dragon would, very still in the doorframe, some kind of orange light glowing like scales beneath her skin. “Turn off the light. Save energy,” her ghost-mother sometimes said, always finishing with the words, “Are you seeing that one boy?” And then she would disappear.
Older now, Loo was eighteen. She sat against the wall of her bedroom, opposite the hanging round lantern with the broken bulb. Her green moleskin journal was on the floor. She opened it and began drawing, using the nightlight her mother Yi Min gave her so many years ago. Before her death.
Yi Min’s voice, so low and smooth, popped into Loo’s head like when they used to walk in the tea gardens or take the train around the storybook maze and see all the smiling people. Yi Min pointed out the strangers in those days. “You see that old man. He has the flat face of a dog with no snout. You see that boy on the bridge staring at koi? He looks like a fish. His arms are short like fins.” She pointed out fairytales too. Everything they watched were like shapeshifting clouds. This one’s a rabbit. That one’s an aardvark. Now it’s cake frosting. Let’s go eat cake. And then they did.
Loo’s thoughts faded as her father, James, knocked on the bedroom door. He was part Swedish-American. Grandparents from Stockholm. He himself was born in Los Angeles. Yi Min had been from Chicago. Her mother, Fen, who Loo never met, was from Hong Kong.
James wasn’t always sad, though he could be. He’d long been remarried to Angela, a woman he met at the advertising agency the year after Loo’s mother died. She kind of made him happy, though not always. Loo couldn’t tell whether he was despondent or not when he opened the door.
He wanted to know if Loo was still awake. Was she doing her homework? I’m thinking about you, he told her. Are you making friends?
“I can count them like stars,” Loo said. She actually thought of her friends like they were moons. Grey. Lost. Distant dead planets. Albert, Romano, Eric and Emily. All pieces of rock that wanted to found. Distantly formed though not at the right time. Just there, hovering in the candy dish of her solar system. Loo met them in the tunnels. She’d followed them to Cowells, the tower office where the story of Joanna had begun. Now Joanna was all they could talk about. They thought they would find her soon. Loo didn’t think so.
James asked Loo what she’d been doing, if she went into the city. If so, he wanted to know what for.
“To draw and read. To think,”
“Who walks and thinks?” he asked, feigning a conversation.
“I don’t know,” Loo said.
He pretended he didn’t know either.
Loo knew he just wanted to be a part of her life. She told him about an orange and yellow skirt she saw in a downtown window. She didn’t really want it.
“I’ll buy it for you,” he said. His eyes were getting sad.
She told him she wanted to go to the tea gardens. She didn’t tell him it was because she wanted to hear her mother’s voice. What did Yi Min even feel like? She always disappeared into the doorframe, or ran down the hall before Loo could get to her.
James said he would take her. Then as if he wasn’t sure he wanted to show her, he slipped a letter out of his back pocket. “I’ve been holding onto this for nine years,” he said.
For the first time in months, maybe years, Loo was surprised. It had been that amount of time since her mother died. Nine years since she was nine years old. She asked him who the letter could be from.
James set the letter onto her desk. The paper glowed a muddy grey in the dark. “Dinner will be ready in a little while,” he said and closed the door.