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art by Wi Waffles

Breaking Orbit

The platform beneath my shoes vibrates with the approach of a train, though none is scheduled for the next three minutes. Curious, I lean forward to look down the track; the other occupants of the platform are too absorbed in their cell phones to notice. A cold breeze stirs the pleated hem of my skirt and chills my knees.
Two lights appear around the bend, strangely dim and greenish. The roar intensifies, breeze flashing from cold to hot and smelling faintly of tea and spices.
A dragon halts at the platform, its length stretched along the track, tail still around the bend. Its claws scrape restlessly against the rails, whiskers around its head waving like the tentacles of a jellyfish. It turns those greenish eyes on me and breathes out a single word: "Okaeri."
Welcome home.
I rub my eyes, feeling lightheaded. Is this a hallucination? Too many energy drinks from the vending machine? Too many nights studying English and calculus for my entrance exams?
The dragon huffs an annoyed sigh, wraps its claws around the rails, and roars away. The page of a newspaper sails along in its wake. When I glance around the platform, no one has so much as moved.
I ride the Asakusa line home, a regular train where every other day there's a salaryman in a blue suit who stares at me and smacks his lips. He's there today and rubs his crotch while I pretend to text my friends.
I arrive home at ten o'clock every day from juku and eat curry or noodles while I finish homework. I know I'm lucky; I don't have to work, I average six hours a night of sleep. Mother makes my meals and wakes me in time for school. My life is a wheel that rolls along toward the entrance exams.
I feel like the tire rather than the axle.
I fill the margins of my English vocabulary assignment with sketches of the dragon. Murakawa-sensei doesn't mark me down for it, but she leaves a stern comment in the margin, marching across the sinuous lines.
Focus, Ayako. Focus. Study harder and don't be distracted. You need good scores if you want to go to Todai or Keio.
I wait on the train platform after juku and read my e-mail on my phone. Between my shoulderblades itches; someone's staring at me. I know better than to look. I think it's the homeless man who sits near the hot drink vending machine, half-covered with newspapers.
The platform rumbles again, with no train due. I run to the edge and watch the dragon roar in, its scales glittering in the sickly fluorescent lights. The dragon is beautiful in a way no mortal thing could be, perfect and powerful and smooth like water.
He looks at me again. "Okaeri." The dragon's voice is brassy, like a temple bell.
I want to jump on his back. But what will happen? How do I even deserve this, with my middling grades and gnawing fears? This is the unknown stretched in a sinuous line.
He gives me a look eloquent in its annoyance and roars away.
A dry laugh sounds behind me. I look back at the homeless man. "Keep disappointing him and he'll stop coming back," he says.
"You can see him?" I know it's a stupid question as soon as it leaves my lips. "Do you want to go?"
"What do I have to keep me here?"
"Then why don't you?"
He shakes his head and smiles. He only has three teeth. "My dragon stopped coming years ago. That one's yours."
No one names their little girls -ko any more. My family is terribly old-fashioned. Perhaps that's why I'm no fun, always thinking about consequences. What if the worst happens? What if I fail? I'll be a waitress or a secretary or a shop girl, but that's all right. I'll marry a man from a nearby office and quit work to have children like my mother and then roll the wheel along.
If I succeed? I don't know.
Pessimist, Ayako. You can be anything.
But when I say I want to be an astronaut--break free of orbit, fly away, Ayako--they laugh like I've finally told a joke.
I go dutifully from school to juku and to the train station. One more arc and I'll slip into bed then roll back out in the morning. Newspapers blow along the tracks at Skytree station. I smooth down the hem of my skirt and ignore my goose bumps.
Three minutes before the train home. My body feels heavy, heels grinding into the concrete of the train platform. The onigiri I had as a snack is flavorless paste on the back of my tongue.
Two.
One.
Green lights appear down the track. Like living metal, my dragon flows along the track and stops. He looks at me, already resigned. "Okaeri?"
His resignation bounces off of mine, cracks it like a stone on a mirror. Why is it a hard choice between the looming entrance exams and escape on the back of my dragon? Why even hesitate? Why be afraid?
He looks down, gathers to draw away. I feel the coming train, the real one that will take me back to the start of my day, rumble through the platform.
I can be anything. I don't want to be this.
"Wait!" I shout. I run forward and jump out into space, arms outstretched to wrap around my dragon's neck.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

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