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art by Eleanor Bennett

Smaug, MD

Andrew Kaye is a writer and cartoonist from the suburban wilderness of Northern Virginia. His work has appeared several times in Daily Science Fiction. Feel free to bother him on twitter @andrewkaye or at andrewkaye.livejournal.com.

Doctor Longtooth tapped at the x-ray images with a single gold-sheathed talon. A troubled series of clicks rattled at the back of his throat. Smoke dribbled from the corners of his mouth. "I am sorry, Mr. Callahan," his voice rumbled. "It is at stage four. And the tissue is dying."
My father stared at the images. What should have been the black shadows of his lungs were instead a foggy white reminiscent of frosted glass. "That's it then," he said, taking my hand and squeezing. "It's over. It was a good life while it lasted."
Doctor Longtooth nodded sadly. "You have three months to get your things in order," he said. "Then I'd like to see you back here one last time. You and your daughter can make an appointment with Diana for the week of the 27th."
I led my father to the receptionist's desk, shaking my head in disbelief. He had come in with shortness of breath. He was leaving with terminal cancer.
When the dragons reemerged at the turn of the century, they went looking for work. Looking for careers. By some unspoken consensus, they all went into medicine.
And they were brilliant. Long lives and long memories made for excellent physicians. Dragons saved patients human doctors could not. They handled incurable diseases like my father's cancer with similar efficiency.
Doctor Longtooth ate my father on a Wednesday, per the terms he had agreed to in his insurance plan.
I was there with him the day he was eaten. The months leading up to it had helped my father come to terms with what was about to happen. "I'm going to die anyway," he told me on our way to Doctor Longtooth's office, and not for the first time. "I might as well get it over with quickly. The dragons are right. All that radiation, all those chemicals... that's no way to live."
He was his usual, gregarious self at the office. He smiled, joked with the nurses. They led us down hallways as wide as two-lane roads, past doors like those of single-car garages. Then we reached the far end of the health complex. I said my goodbyes outside the long window of what was labeled the "Receiving Room." Then the nurses led him inside. The glass was thick, the walls soundproof. Through the window, I watched my father chat calmly with the nurses as he filled out some final pieces of paperwork.
The nurses took the papers and left. Doctor Longtooth took their place. He and my father talked for a few moments. I watched my father pause, a quizzical look on his face. Doctor Longtooth lowered his head ear-level to my father. Whispered something.
My father stiffened. Stared, as if transfixed. He maintained that horrible, horrified expression even as one of the nurses returned with an orderly to help him into the back room. He turned his head and looked at me. Mouthed my name.
The door shut. I was escorted away.
A nurse told me to stay in the waiting room. When she returned, she handed me a neatly folded pile of my father's clothes, shoes on top, the socks balled up in the toes.
My father's face haunted me. I went to therapy. Took medicine to chase away the nightmares. And I left Doctor Longtooth's practice. Seeing him, seeing any dragon, destroyed whatever progress I had been making.
Doctor Longtooth had been my physician for most of my life. He had given my father and me excellent care. But I felt like... like I could no longer trust him. My father's face in those final moments was what occupied the black space on the inside of my eyelids--it's all I saw whenever I shut my eyes.
So I left. It wasn't easy. Dragons took their insurance plans very seriously, and looked down on breaking contracts. Terminating a plan was a lengthy, expensive process. But it had to be done. I gladly paid the hefty severance fee.
The extra money in his bank account didn't seem to matter to Doctor Longtooth. The last time I approached him, he made his displeasure known. He spoke to me coldly--not his usual reptilian mannerisms, but the chill of disappointment, or annoyance. His eyes were steely, his pupils slit like daggers. "This is a mistake, Ms. Callahan," he said, smoke thick in his throat. Every time he opened his mouth, it felt as though I was standing too close to an open oven. "You will realize this in time. Pity things should end this way."
I sought out human doctors after that.
And human doctors were fine. Not like dragons, but... I didn't really notice a difference. Fifteen years went by with no major complications. Not any that I was aware of, at least. Not any that I was aware of until too late.
I'm dying.
I can see it in the expressions my caretakers give me every time they open the door, can hear it in the furtive whispers shared between them. My doctors and nurses try to smile, try to reassure me. But I'm no fool. I can feel my condition deteriorating.
It's lung cancer. Just like my father. Lung cancer's eating up my insides, and there isn't a damn thing I can do about it. My doctors have tried treating it with chemotherapy; the entire process is awful. I'm weak, exhausted, and I know the treatment isn't doing any good. Dragons didn't agree with this sort of thing, and in my weaker moments, when the pain and discomfort seem unbearable, I can see exactly why.
If I had still been with Doctor Longtooth, I would have been eaten by now. I think back again to my father, to his pleading, terrified face. I don't want to die. I don't want cancer to kill me. But I don't want to die in a dragon's stomach, either. Human doctors might not be as good as dragon doctors, but at least mercy killings aren't a standard part of their repertoire.
One night, alone in my hospital room, I had a visitor. It was late, long past visiting hours. My room was dark, but through the gauzy blue curtain that separates my bed from the door, the halogen glare of the hallways filtered through. I was exhausted. Couldn't seem to sleep.
A shadow fell across the doorway. I heard a snuffling sound. The door opened, and a familiar head nosed aside the curtain. "Ah," said Doctor Longtooth, his face pulled into a toothy lizard grin. "I thought it was you. I never forget a scent."
I managed a polite, "Hello, Doctor," and followed with, "What are you doing here?"
"I have a rotation here every three weeks." He glowered. "You're dying," he said, as if death were also a smell. He took a slow, thoughtful look at the clipboard at the foot of my bed, his head cocking to one side like a bird's, his pupils expanding. "Hmmm. Cancer." He clicked his tongue several times. "And you're doing the chemotherapy, I see. Such a shame. Were you still under my care, I could end your pain at once." He straightened his neck, looked at me. "I still can, if you wish. There is still time for you to reconsider."
"I don't want to die that way," I said.
"And you'd rather die alone in a hospital bed? Stuffed with medicine and chemicals that make you feel as bad as your condition would? Human medicine is ridiculous. I offer you a clean, painless alternative."
"I don't want to die that way," I repeated.
"You don't trust me. Ever since your father died, you haven't trusted me."
I looked away from him. Didn't answer.
"Your father trusted me," he said. "He was a good man."
I ignored the double meaning. "He was. And he did trust you. Right up until you took him to your back room and ate him. What did you say to him, Doctor? He was fine until you spoke to him. Went from ease to terror in seconds."
Doctor Longtooth sniffed at the air, drew his head closer to mine. I could smell the brimstone stink of his breath, feel the heat from his nostrils. "He asked me a question," he said, his attempts at whispering sounding more like a reptilian hiss. "And I am not one to lie to humans on the verge of death. It was true then. And it is true now."
Smoke dribbled from his mouth. My skin began to crawl. He inhaled deeply through his snout, making me shudder. "He didn't understand how he had gotten sick. And I told him."
His smile was truly horrible. "Dragon breath is a carcinogen."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 7th, 2013
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