It had all started, Riselmian reflected moodily, when she killed her parents the week before Christmas.
She had never expected them to accept her change. She hadn't even entertained hopes of grudging tolerance -- just fond fantasies of schadenfreude, which was what got her to actually visit her old house. She was a dragon now, one of the lucky few who had been able to follow their dreams and that first red-winged one's example and shed their human form in those heady days of December. She had survived 19 years of pain, fear and hatred masquerading as religion; she had cast that away with her old shape; and there was nothing more her father and mother could do to hurt her.
Which wasn't to say they didn't try.
Her father had immediately attempted an exorcism by shotgun; the first blast glanced off of her thick silver scales and lanced a wing. So she melted his face off. Her mother, deep in the throes of whatever ecstatic haze of cruelty they associated with the Holy Spirit, started screaming Old Testament verses and picked the gun up. Riselmian gutted her with a mighty claw swipe.
Some passing good ol' boys in a pickup saw the commotion in the front yard and decided to play heroes. More shots zinged in and finished the job of shredding her wing. Riselmian grabbed the truck, screeching in pain and rage, and beat one of the rednecks to death with it while reducing the other one to a pile of foul-smelling charcoal.
To top it all off, the pastor and his wife had chosen that day to visit her parents, and stepped out onto the lawn armed only with chants of exorcism and the armor of their faith. In a blind fury, she'd ripped their bodies apart.
Then -- hurting, unable to fly, and lashing out in vengeance against a world that dared to defend her parents -- the dragon howled a challenge to the sky and stomped away down the middle of the street, ready to kill everyone in her way until someone found a gun big enough to end her rampage.
She hadn't seen another person since.
Riselmian paced out to the end of her street again and stared out into the barren, windswept plain beyond. Where once had been the old Highway 46, the gas station and the always-dirty burger joint, the grain elevator and the fertile fields, now was only an endless desert, featureless out to the horizon in all directions, with a thin layer of dust scudding across parched, cracked earth. At the end of her street two blocks in the other direction, the same. The tiny subdivision's cross street was still there, and all the houses along it, but as if to mock her, the street came to an abrupt halt at the ominous church that had tormented her throughout her childhood. It had been the first and last thing she'd burned to the ground.
Beyond empty backyards and vacant lots, the same wasteland. Inside and outside the modest, low houses, not a trace of a single living thing -- not even the neighbors' pet cats and dogs that she'd spent hours wandering through the neighborhood and calling. Everything was orderly and pristine.
She'd had a lot of time to reflect. It had felt like weeks -- though she had soon found out there was no way to actually measure the passage of time. When the cloudless blue sky failed to darken several hours after her afternoon confrontation, she realized there was no sun, and wondered when it had disappeared. In all of the houses she'd poked her head into, digital clocks flashed 12:00; analog clocks ticked and appeared to move forward, but reset themselves apparently at random every time she looked anew.
Electricity was working, because light bulbs turned on when she flipped their switches -- but she had little use for them, as the world around her was always lit with a steady, omnipresent daytime glow that left no shadows anywhere. Running water still flowed, and she kept herself alive -- if always hungry -- by drinking from garden hoses and swimming pools, and raiding what seemed to be self-replenishing refrigerators in the rows of empty houses.
She had tried watching television, fumbling with remotes that now seemed like dollhouse toys to her thick claws. The channels had been endless static, as had the radio stations she scanned from the dashboard of her parents' car. Then, one day, she found a working channel -- and it was broadcasting a silent, still image of the carnage she'd long since cleaned away from her yard and street.
She stopped turning on TVs after that.
Riselmian had developed a theory: The damn preacher had worked some miracle after all. She really had been exorcised ... or perhaps killed. And this was her own personal hell.
She had told herself, at the beginning, that she would try leaving once she had healed; she didn't look forward to getting lost in that desert. But no matter how much time seemed to pass since humanity vanished, not a thing about her torn-up wing had changed. She found herself wondering more and more if it wouldn't be better to simply walk away into the endless sands and die.
However, before she worked up the nerve, the visitor came.
Riselmian was pacing the empty streets -- walking had become her default way to relieve the boredom between eating and sleeping -- when she heard someone humming an eerie melody. Unable to believe her ears, she quickened her walk and soon tracked the noise to a figure standing by the destroyed church. It was a thin red-haired human woman in a sleek black suit, waiting patiently and observing the dragon's approach.
Riselmian trotted up, tail swishing in agitation and heart quickening for the first time since her exile, and wondered if her eyes were playing tricks on her too.
"You're Dana Scully," the dragon said.
Annotations: As the story progresses, I'll be posting bonus author commentary in the comments section. Today's story is annotated; see comments for a deeper look into the novel and its world.