Old Pete had been a fixture on Oak Street for as long as people could remember. Out of his small, ramshackle shed he sold newspapers, candies, gum, and other assorted notions to bypassing folks, all of whom knew Pete by only his first name. Old Pete in turn knew his customers respectfully by their last names as Mr. Jones, Miss Johnson, or whatever; Pete knew the personal lives of his customers as well as they chose to share them with him. He knew their buying habits intimately as his customers were creatures of habit, and often had their preferred newspaper or candy bar ready for them as they approached his stand. Pete exchanged a few words with each of his regulars, and sincerely wished all of them a good day following their brief daily transactions.
Now Pete was an unimposing figure and hardly an attractive one; he stood a little over five feet in height, and appeared to be a not too well preserved man in his late fifties to sixties. Pete’s hair was flecked with gray, and his skin bore more than a few wrinkles. Society paid little attention to men such as Pete, preferring to dote on the young and physically beautiful, individuals who would likely themselves draw little attention or interest by the time that they reached the age of forty.
Pete, however, had found his niche in life, and enjoyed the feeling of being productive and self-supporting, and contributing to his community in some small way. He regarded that community as his own, and had a definite affection for it. A curbside merchant, Pete was part of a vanishing breed, one which someday soon would exist no more, eclipsed by faceless and soulless monoliths such as Wal-Mart. This, too, Pete understood and accepted. He lived in the present moment, and was glad for what he had at the time. Tomorrow was, after all, a mystery which might never arrive.
It had been a cold winter, and Old Pete clad in his heavy coat stood in the limited confines of his news stand store, huddled next to the small propane heater which provided his only warmth. Perhaps he would close up early that evening, since sales were likely to be few and far between. Pete began swinging the shutters of his stand closed, and affixing their simple locks. As he stepped outside the stand to remove a few racks of magazines, Pete took note of Mrs. Allison shuffling along the sidewalk half a block away, carrying a small plastic bag which likely carried the ingredients for stew or perhaps tins of food for her cats. In the gathering darkness of the approaching night, Pete also noticed two figures following the elderly woman. Something didn’t appear right here; years of observing life on the streets had given Pete an instinct for that kind of thing.
As he continued to watch, the duo flanked the old woman, one stepping in front of her while the other grabbed at her pocketbook. She resisted its seizure, the struggle causing the grocery bag to spill its contents. Tins of Fancy Feast cat food rolled crazily on the sidewalk.
“Hey, leave her alone!,” shouted Old Pete to unlistening ears, as her two assailants ripped viciously at the straps of Mrs. Allison’s pocketbook. Her balance upset, the elderly woman tumbled to the hard pavement, twisting her ankle painfully as she joined the hodgepodge of cat food and stew vegetables already littered there.
Old Pete was moving, surprisingly quickly. He covered the half block of distance between his news stand and the unfolding assault in a matter of seconds. “I told you to leave her alone!,” repeated the small man to two much younger and larger ones.
One of the assailants looked at Old Pete with a mixture of anger and distain. “Who’s gonna make me, Grandpa?–You?!,” he sneered, driving the slight man backwards against a store front wall with a powerful thrust of his arm. He returned his attention to the robbery, where his partner had finished separating Mrs. Allison from her pocketbook.
Old Pete raised his back from the wall against which he had been thrown, and gave a strange, regretful cry. “Why do you make me do this?,” he anguished as he began an incredible transformation.
The frame and face of Old Pete contorted, and his skin ruptured in multiple locations as spiked, scaled, and jagged components began to emerge from within it. There were glimpses of green wetness as an inner body protruded and then extended taloned limbs and other parts not even remotely human. A pair of leathery wings extended themselves from the back of an emerging torso as human skin dropped away, the shredded cocoon of a new creation. There were wet cracking sounds as reptilian-like structures expanded and clicked into place in a new anatomy. A bipedal dragon now stood before the two hardened street punks, whose jaws dropped in disbelief.
“Jesus Christ!,” one of them managed to say.
“No,” corrected the dragon who had been Old Pete. “He would show mercy...I won’t!” With that, the green-hued creature grabbed the shoulder of the one young man, and threw him against the brick wall of the store building, his head making kind of a soft wet sound as it impacted with great force against an unyielding surface. The second assailant produced a knife and swept it upward, but the blade skittered harmlessly against the armored hide of the dragon, who seized the weapon arm, implanted his jaws upon the neck of the weapon-bearer, and bit down hard, the formidable teeth passing easily through skin, muscle, and bone. Leaving the nearly decapitated body to slump to the ground, the dragon then turned to Mrs. Allison, his features softening to a look of concern.
“Are you alright?,” asked the dragon in a deep but surprisingly soft voice.
“Quite,” replied Mrs. Allison, taking the four-fingered clawed hand which the Dragon offered to her and using its strength to regain her footing. “”You’re really quite special, aren’t you?,” she asked of her savior with quiet wonder, having witnessed his transformation.
The dragon finished gathering up Mrs. Allison’s stew vegetables and cat food tins in the bag, and handed it to her. “I am a guardian,” he said quietly. “I’ve lived among you in an ordinary fashion for many years, and would have preferred to have continued doing so. But my kind cannot through inaction allow one among whom we live to come to harm. Now, I must leave here forever, for I can hardly continue here in this form.”
“Can’t you just change back?,” pleaded Mrs. Allison.
“I can’t!,” responded the dragon sadly. “Don’t you think that I would if I could? But you are well worth the sacrifice, dear lady.” From his clawed hand, the dragon handed the woman a small oval object. “Now I bid you farewell, and remember me to your cats!”
“I’ll always remember you,” promised Mrs. Allison. She watched as the dragon’s powerful legs propelled him into the skies, where his great wings effortlessly carried him to the point of invisibility.
Despite discovering the bodies of her assailants, no one took her story seriously. Who could believe a crazy cat lady, after all? Mrs. Allison didn’t care, however, carefully protecting the dragon’s egg that she carried within her sweater pocket…