A dragon lives on Governors Island. He is made out of chair legs, bits of discarded furniture, and afterthoughts. His eyes are the negative space left by splintered pieces of scrollwork from a banister, his scales the sawed-off ends of two-by-fours.
By day he sits on display in an outdoor art installation. Cut grass feathers his legs and his faded paint peels. He drowses in the late summer sun while weekend visitors from New York snap his picture and peer at the little plaque by his feet. It amuses him that they believe he is only a piece of art.
At night, when the island is silent, the dragon lifts the planks of his feet and lumbers along the crumbling seaside promenade. His empty eyes gaze out at the Statue of Liberty, illuminated against a dark sky, and he roams the ghost-town barracks, feeling the island's history percolate up through the concrete.
Sometimes he imagines Governor's Island as the somber military fort it once was, long before the Park Service turned it into a summer playground. Sometimes he ponders his origins, mulling over the nature of art and beauty. Sometimes he experiments with creating art of his own. Often this goes badly. He believes his failure is due to a lack of inspiration, but only more experimentation will tell.
Alone in the dark, the dragon sees many things and thinks slow thoughts he shares with no one.
One day in late August, as the sun tilts down toward the New Jersey shoreline, the dragon spots something unexpected. After the island's visitors have been herded across the New York Harbor on the last outbound ferry, the dragon spies a man crawling from the sea.
The man is wet and dripping as he slips over the rocks toward one of the abandoned Coast Guard barracks. Clothes cling to his husky form. As he vanishes into the building's shadow he casts a final, cautious glance behind.
The dragon is intrigued.
The next day, he pays closer attention to the dreary mortals visiting the island. He glimpses their newspapers and listens to their conversations, learning the man he observed is named Simon Shute. Simon is an NYPD officer. Much more interesting, however, is the fact that he is a fugitive from justice.
A loud-mouthed visitor from Queens bleats to his wife that Shute was a dirty cop.
"He killed another officer," she whispers with a twitch of her head.
Nasty business, they both agree.
The dragon cogitates on this.
Night falls and the dragon waits, taking up surveillance and following Simon across the island. Shambling in the darkness, his passing is all supple silence, as quiet as the rustling of leaves or the creak of trees in the wind.
Simon makes his way toward the bank of pay phones near the ferry. The dragon trails behind, a stray bit of fog, a shadow within a shadow. Simon places a collect call and at length the call is accepted.
"Maggie." The word comes out of Simon as an exhalation. He leans forward to rest his brow against the pay phone. His eyes close. The only sound disturbing the silence is the wind threading the beams on the ferry landing.
The dragon watches emotion play across Simon's face as he listens to Maggie. Quiet relief is soon replaced by a tightening around his eyes. Tension enters his voice.
"No. His voice is suddenly hard. "This is all down to Barnes. Don't listen to his shit."
At Maggie's response, Simon shakes his head. "Can't. I make a move like that, they grab me, and it's over. I've got no proof, so don't say nothing yet. I'm gonna talk to Eddie, see what he can do."
Maggie's voice rises. The dragon can hear it from the shadows. Simon spreads his palm flat against the plastic face of the phone bank.
"You believe me, yeah?" The anguish on Simon's face is so visceral the dragon imagines he can feel its weight and smell its coppery burn. He imagines if he flicked his tongue out into the night he could taste Simon's pain.
"Hey. Everything's gonna be all right. I'll call you soon." He pauses. "I love you."
The phone call ends and the wind carries Simon's last words away. Simon takes a long breath, runs a hand through his hair, and dials again.
"It's me," he says as soon as the line connects. After a moment, he shakes his head. "No, man, it ain't so simple. Ballistics are gonna match my gun."
He sighs, listens.
"I fucking know it, but what was I supposed to do? He's my partner."
The dragon follows the edge of the shadows, shuffling closer to his quarry.
"Look, Eddie, I'm not involved in that shit. Barnes just asked me to ride along."
Simon nods at Eddie's response.
"Yeah, him, Oliver, and James were all in on it. I always told them this shit was gonna jump up and bite back." A hoarse, bitter laugh escapes Simon's lips. "Guess they figured it was better my ass than theirs."
He pauses and closes his eyes, remembering. "Yeah, the buyer who set up the meet turned out to be Narco." He shakes his head. "Barnes went fucking ape-shit. Grabbed my gun and lit him up, just like that."
Simon falls silent as Eddie responds.
"He's still got my piece. After he killed the poor bastard he tried to hand it back to me, like it was nothin'. I didn't know what else to do; I ran. Jesus, five years I've worked with Barnes."
The dragon watches how Eddie's next words deflate Simon.
"Come on, man, don't let me twist on this one. Dig a little, that's all I'm asking. This isn't Barnes' first deal; just see what you can turn up." Simon takes another jerking breath. "Don't make me fucking beg, man."
Simon turns his face away, toward the water. "Okay, I hear you," he says, real quiet-like. "Keep an eye on Maggie for me, will you?"
Simon listens a few more minutes and then settles the receiver into its cradle. He stands still a long while, looking at the glow of the city across the harbor.
The dragon pulls farther into the shadows, studying Simon's silhouette against the dark water.
Long after Simon heads back toward the barracks, vanishing by degrees into the darkness, the dragon walks the shoreline. He muses about Simon's predicament, about loneliness, and justice, and art. He thinks about his sculpture garden, his failed experiments, and his origins. He thinks about other things, too.
Before the sunrise, the dragon's train of thought reaches its conclusion. He is inspired. He has a plan.
Simon hides well during the day, evading the Park Service personnel and tourists. The dragon catches glimpses of him only when darkness falls. He watches Simon rummage through trash cans, salvaging the leavings of tourists and searching for discarded newspapers. He sees him hunched against the cold brick exterior of the barracks, knees drawn to his chest, eyes turned toward the stars. Sometimes, the dragon visits Simon's dreams and wanders through his memories.
One night, after another hushed phone call, the third Simon's made to Maggie, the dragon notices the moonlit gleam of tears on his face. He notices Simon no longer bothers to scrub them away.
Weeks pass and Simon's muscular build melts inward. His cheeks grow hollow and his clothes shred into dirty rags.
The dragon waits.
He listens as Simon begins a long series of conversations with himself, muttering plans he will never act upon, cursing his partner's betrayal, watching the lights of a city that each day he is less and less likely to return to.
The dragon observes as Simon scrounges spare change, hoards it until it is enough, and places call after call to Maggie. She will not answer collect anymore, and each call is shorter than the one before; each leaves Simon with tighter lines, less hope. Maggie's doubt is killing him.
But the dragon knows the calls must go on, knows they lead Simon closer to where he needs to be. They carve away at an ordinary man and leave something breathtaking behind. Something beautiful.
When the dragon visits Simon's dreams, he whispers encouragement.
Life beyond the dragon's garden on Governors Island goes on. The manhunt for Simon drags into its third week. Its grim lack of progress is detailed on left-behind, windblown pages of the New York Post.
The headlines read: "Killer Cop on the Loose"; "Betrayed Wife Never Knew"; "NYPD Offers Reward for Shute's Capture."
Fall presses around them. Governors Island closes to visitors and children no longer run through the garden of sculptures.
It grows cold.
It is the grey-blue hour before dawn. Fog has smothered the island. Simon moves through it, hunched, hands jammed into the ragged remnants of his pockets, head down. The dragon follows, snaking between skeletal, abandoned buildings. His form appears here and there, a flash of the impossible. Were Simon not so lost within himself, he might see and begin to wonder. Instead, he makes blindly for the bank of phones by the ferry landing.
Maggie answers right away. For the first time in weeks, her words seem to soften. Their effect on Simon is electric. The dragon watches as he straightens, his eyes clearing, suddenly bright with hope. He babbles to her about Eddie, how he might be close to something, how it could soon be over.
Then Simon stiffens. His eyes snap, bright, hard. "What was that noise, babe?" There's a raw, angry fear in his voice. It stirs something within the dragon.
"Is this line fucking tapped?" Simon's voice cracks. "Tell me you didn't let that fucker in the house."
Her voice comes across shrill and high and Simon's final words are swallowed as he sucks air. Tears and curses spray from his lips. Wild grief twists his features.
Simon slams the receiver down and howls at the sky. He falls to his knees, weeping, wracked.
The dragon catches his breath at the purity of the moment. It is more beautiful than even he imagined.
That night is the first Sunday of October and the moon is large and flat in the sky above. Simon emerges from the barracks, eyes red-rimmed, frame slumped. Even at a distance, the dragon hears him muttering to himself. Simon trudges across the open yard, wending his way among the sculptures. He smells terrible after so many weeks of exile. Despite his deterioration, though, there is purpose in his stride, a promise in the set of his jaw.
Simon doesn't glance at the artwork as he passes. He ignores the magical little boat twisted from the wire of a shopping cart and the trash-bag butterflies flapping in the breeze, their flight futile and poignant. He barely glances at the dragon, still in the moonlight. Instead, he continues across the island toward the shoreline promenade. Silently, the dragon lifts his plank-like feet and follows.
Standing at the rusted iron railing, Simon leans out to look at the inky harbor. The water pushes at the rocks, agitated. Simon clenches his fists and resolve steels his frame.
The time has come at last. This time the dragon knows he will not fail.
He emerges from the shadows and crosses the promenade, coming to a stop at the railing.
"What are you doing, Simon?"
Simon freezes. The dragon hears his breath draw in hard and quicken to a pant, low and rapid. He sees Simon's muscles clench.
Slowly, Simon turns his head to look at the dragon. He blinks rapidly. "Jesus."
"Don't be afraid. I've come to help you."
Simon opens his mouth, then snaps it shut again. Sweat beads on his forehead and his fingers grip the railing, their color fading to white.
"No," he mutters. He shakes his head and looks back out at the city across the water. "Talking art. No fucking way."
"I'm as real as you are. I've been watching since the night you emerged from the sea."
Simon shakes his head again. "No." Letting go of the railing, he turns and walks rapidly away.
The dragon watches his wasted form stagger, marvels at his deterioration and pain. Then he lifts a plywood foot and with a single thought he is in front of Simon again, facing him. Simon pulls up short, a curse on his cracked lips.
"Were you planning to swim back to the city and seek revenge, or were you just going to fall into the harbor's depths and drown?"
Simon ignores him, turning to run the other way. The slap of his footsteps echoes crazily in the night.
The dragon lifts a foot and appears again in front of his quarry. "Your innocence is irrelevant, Simon. You ran. There is no running back."
Simon pants from his flight. He stops and his head drops slowly to his chest. A sob breaks free. When he speaks, his voice carries an anguish that reverberates in the dragon's wooden bones.
"I know. I fucking know it." Tears wend tracks down his cheeks. "God. I'm talking to a freaking hallucination."
Simon takes a deep, ragged breath. He looks away, out across the harbor. The dragon looks too. Moonlight fills the little cups between the waves. Lights glow from the shipyards on the Jersey shoreline.
"My own wife doesn't believe me." Simon's voice cracks and for the first time the dragon finds he must look away.
"What did she see inside me?" Simon whispers. "I know I ain't no saint, but how could my own wife believe I'm a killer?"
"You could still turn yourself in." He's read Simon well enough to play the game.
"No." Simon's denial is emphatic. "There's no way to cut through the shit anymore. I've seen the papers; a move like what Barnes pulled? I'll never get clear of it."
The dragon waits, passive, letting Simon lead himself.
Simon's voice rises an octave. "There ain't no such thing as justice--not for me, not for that poor fucker from Narco." He shakes his head. "No way I'm landing in lock-up with all the scumbags I put away. Screw that. Seeing that look in my wife's eyes when she comes to visit. If she visits. No."
Simon turns suddenly and climbs back onto the railing. "Barnes gets my kind of justice tonight. If I'm goin' away for murder, then I'm gonna murder."
Simon looks back.
"Don't do this. You know you will fail."
Simon's resolve wavers. He closes his eyes and breathes deep. At last, he asks: "Fuck, man, are you even real?"
The dragon feels a thrill of triumph. It's been a long time since he's felt much of anything, and the moment is sweet.
"Don't you see? I am just like you, Simon. I was discarded too."
Simon's eyes widen.
"But discarded things are not always trash. An artist found these parts," the dragon says with a gesture of his clunky forelimbs. "He rescued them and assembled me from a pile of garbage. His belief in my beauty breathed life into me. I was born from unwanted things, transformed into something much more than I was before."
The dragon looks at Simon and wonders what he imagines to be looking back at him. Does he see a soul within these cobbled-together bits and pieces? An artist? Or does he only see the night and the stars? Does he begin to understand what the dragon has planned?
"I am real, Simon. I have been remade, given a second life. I believe I have that same power within me now, the power to transform. All I was missing was the right inspiration, the magic ingredient."
Simon furrows his brow and the dragon smiles, gently.
"Your agony, Simon. It can remake you. I can remake you, if you let me."
Simon stares at the dragon. "What do you mean?"
"Follow me and find out."
For a moment, Simon stays frozen, the city glowing behind him. Then he lifts one foot. Then the other. Simon follows.
The sculptures on Governors Island wait out the winter. Rain falls on them and turns to a coating of ice. The skies are steel overhead. Park Service caretakers come through from time to time and occasionally leave newspapers behind. The papers blow in loose sheets across the island, pressed on by gusts of winter's hard, cold breath. One page tumbles through the parade ground, swishes past the slumbering dragon, and catches, at last, on a sculpture of a man.
Made all of metal, twisted, heavy, and crude, the man kneels in the grass. His arms are tensed at his sides. His fists are clenched and his head is thrown back in an attitude of agony released yet never-ending. His mouth opens in a ceaseless howl to the slate grey sky.
It is good he looks up, good he looks away. He cannot see the newspaper caught against his legs, cannot read the headlines emblazoned there: "Breakthrough! Fellow Cop Exonerates Shute."; "Shute Missing. Second Victim of Partner's Crime?"
When summer comes, families return to Governors Island with their picnic baskets and cameras. Some wander through the sculptures, admiring the charm of the weather-worn dragon and playing in the grass. Many, though, gather to stare at the rusted iron sculpture of the man. He is just a piece of art, just a skeleton of metal and bolts. But his agony silences them in a way they will not soon forget.
Across the yard, where the sun falls in dappled pools, the dragon sees many things and thinks slow thoughts that he shares with no one.