by D. G. Driver
with Jeni Bautista Richard
Eric Long’s dad is a champion surfer. His mom is an artist, obsessed with Chinese dragons. On his 15th birthday, both of his parents’ interests collide and change everything he knows about the world.
While on a surfing vacation with his father up near Santa Cruz, California, Eric has visions of a woman from Imperial China with the ability to control a dragon and the emperor who wanted to exploit her talent to fight a war. One foggy morning, Eric and a new surfing friend sneak down to see the off-limits Dragon’s Bluff beach near their motel, and he is rescued from drowning by a real-life dragon. This is the dragon of his visions!
Now Eric realizes that those visions are the dragon’s memories. But why is he able to see them? Why is the dragon warning him to leave and never come back? Could Eric be a descendant of the Dragon Tamer? How dangerous will it be if he stays and tries to find the answers?
BUY THE BOOK
1. Dragons are Bad Luck
The surfboard shot out from under me, launching me into the churning ocean. The yellow painted dragon that was beneath my feet just a moment before, was now above me. It crashed hard onto the top of my head. Bubbles swirled around me, and I saw stars from the impact. I kicked my legs furiously. It didn’t help. I wasn’t going anywhere but round and round.
At last, my head broke the surface. I was above water long enough to see that hideous yellow dragon painted on my board coming at me again. I dodged out of the way, so it caught my shoulder instead of my head this time. It stung and must’ve caught a nerve because my whole right arm went numb and useless.
The waves tossed my body around easily and carelessly. I tried to reorient myself, but the sun, the waves, the sky, and the flashes of color from my surfboard whizzed all over. Up was down, down was up. Was I heading for the surface or going deeper down? My lungs burned, desperate for oxygen. I was running out of air.
This wasn’t how this was supposed to go. My first time at surfing wasn’t supposed to end with me drowning. Where was Dad?
Right when I thought I couldn’t hold my breath any longer, something came up beneath me. It was like an ocean swell but strong enough to support me, lift me up, and push me out above the ocean’s surface and into the sunshine. I loudly gasped for air before another wave came crashing down and sent me back below the surface again.
My working hand reached and grabbed frantically, desperate to grasp anything to hold onto—the surfboard, another person’s hand, anything. It came up empty. From the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of yellow. My board? I reached for it even though the tide pushed against me. I could make out the yellow form through the cloudy, swirling water. I had to get to it, but it was moving away from me too fast. My lungs were about to burst. It was just beyond my fingertips. I stretched my hand out to touch it...and the world went black.
* * *
My fifteenth birthday fell on a Saturday that June, and it happened to line up with one of my dad’s surfing tournaments. He was a champion surfer. More than that, Daniel Long was the only Chinese-American surfer to ever win the California Wave Cup, the biggest prize for a surfer on the West Coast. He looked the part. His skin stayed tan all year, and he always had shells around his neck and wore cool T-shirts. I don’t think I’d ever seen him in long pants or closed-toe shoes. Instead of working in some boring office, he ran a juice and sandwich shop on the beach.
Growing up, I watched my dad ride the waves and compete. How could I not idolize him? No one had a dad more awesome than mine, and I wanted to be exactly like him. I’d been begging for my own surfboard and lessons as long as I could remember. Dad was cool with it and eager to get me started. Mom, on the other hand, kept saying, “Not until you’re old enough, Eric.”
She’d been saying this all my life. When exactly would I be old enough?
When I grew taller than her—not hard to do because she’s tiny—I thought surely that would be the year. When I hit thirteen, I was certain she’d say yes. That’s when she changed the rules and said, “It’s not about your age. It’s about responsibility.”
It’s true that my grades had slipped, and I broke the cell phone they’d gotten me. Mom insisted, and Dad reluctantly agreed, that I couldn’t get my own surfboard or a new cell phone until I pulled my grades up and did more to help around the house.
Oh, and they added one more hurdle on my fourteenth birthday. I had to join swim team when I started high school. There would be no surfing until I could prove myself strong enough of a swimmer to survive an ocean riptide.
It had been hard, but I did every single thing they asked of me. Watching Dad head out in the mornings to go surfing with his friends was constant motivation. My freshman year grades were all As and Bs. Well, okay, I had a C in World History, but it was sooooo boring. My room remained neat as a pin. I even placed in several relays at my last swim meet and added some muscle to my otherwise lanky body. They couldn’t deny me now.
I told my parents I didn’t want a party or anything for my birthday. All I wanted was to go watch Dad’s competition. This particular event was the semi-finals for a major surfing tournament. Winning would earn Dad a ticket to the finals in Northern California. It took a little convincing because Mom would have to take me and watching Dad surf made her nervous. She was always scared that he was going to drown. Like that would ever happen. He was a brilliant surfer and swimmer, and I’ve never seen anyone better.
As promised, though, at 5:30 a.m. on the morning of the tournament, Mom dutifully woke me up. She didn’t have to tell me twice to get ready. Dad was already heading out the door when I got downstairs, and she said that the two of us would follow him after we ate breakfast. She looked pretty in a red sarong over her bathing suit, and her black hair hanging long over her shoulders. I knew that she would never take that cover-up off at the beach, and she’d knot her hair up in a bun on her head as soon as she got hot and put a wide sun hat on top of it. She’d already lathered herself up with lotion and made sure I had some on, too. We smelled like a couple of coconuts as we rode to the shore, which was only ten minutes from our house in Costa Mesa.
Mom winced, gasped, and covered her eyes throughout the competition. I screamed, hollered, and threw my fists in the air at every awesome thing I saw. “Why? Why? Why?” Mom moaned over and over, her face in her hands. I wasn’t sure if she was asking why her husband did such a crazy, dangerous sport or if she was asking me why I wanted to do it, too.
Almost to prove Mom’s worries were unfounded and that there was truly no other surfer better or more skilled than him, Dad won first place in the semi-finals. No surprise to me. I’d been watching him last out on that board longer than anyone all morning. No one came close to matching his balance and skill. My dad totally rocked the waves and didn’t let me down. After five hours of surfing, he staggered back to us and handed me his trophy. I swear the golden surfer on the trophy looked just like him.
He pushed Mom’s red umbrella out of the way and collapsed on our sandy beach towels. Still mesmerized by the trophy, I didn’t get out of the way fast enough and the umbrella toppled toward me. The five dragons painted on the top of it appeared to be viciously leaping at me, and it didn’t help that one of the umbrella’s spokes scratched my arm as it landed.
“Mom, your dragon umbrella attacked me.”
Any other family would have a good laugh at that statement. Because of the dragon part. Like it was a joke. But my emphasis on the word dragon was not intended to be funny. My parents knew full well that I emphasized that word because I hated dragons.
I wasn’t hurt all that bad, but I played it up, holding my arm and sucking my lip with my teeth. Mom put the umbrella upright again and double-checked that it wasn’t damaged while Dad tried to look at my arm.
I moved away sharply. “I’m fine,” I snapped.
I know my mood change was irrational. Dragons made me angry. If I saw them anywhere, I’d get instantly irritated. The mere mention of them got me fired up. Normal people didn’t have to interact with dragons on a daily basis. In my life, however, they were impossible to avoid, because Mom was obsessed with dragons. Her passion for these scaly mythical beasts was as strong as Dad’s passion for surfing.
Mom collected stories about dragons, decorated the house with them, and even figured out how to make a living painting them on things for people. She painted dressing screens, fans, ceramics, tabletops, or anything people presented to her. One time I saw her paint a dragon on a baby’s highchair tray. Someone actually paid her a hundred and fifty bucks for that. Poor baby. I could imagine how terrifying it had to be for that infant, trying to eat applesauce while a green, scaly dragon stared up at him.
Our house looked like a dragon shrine. It’s why I never invited friends over. It was excessive. Like most kids my age, my friends read fantasy books, watched fantasy movies, and played video games that featured dragons. Dragons do some awesome stuff. They breathe fire and eat princesses—all cool things. The difference between my high school friends and my mom was that they knew dragons were imaginary, and she believed that dragons might once have been real creatures.
While I sat in the hot sand outside the shade of the umbrella thinking up ways to accidentally forget to bring it home with us, Dad settled back down next to mom on the towels.
“When are finals?” Mom asked him.
“Next weekend,” he answered.
“Tourist season is almost here.” He closed his eyes and stretched out his arms and legs. “They want to get the finals done before the beaches get crammed with vacationers and amateurs.”
“Makes sense to me,” I piped in.
Mom leaned over and kissed Dad gently on the forehead and whispered into his ear. He smiled but didn’t open his eyes.
I groaned, “Can’t you save that for home?”
“Nope!” my dad shouted, sitting up abruptly. “I absolutely cannot!” He grabbed my mom around her waist and pulled her into his lap. He kissed her hard and then asked her, “So, you want me to get it?”
She did a sound that was a cross between a sigh and a giggle before nodding. She looked at me. “Let’s all walk up there together.”
We left our stuff on the beach. My parents led me to Dad’s SUV, sharing gleeful glances at each other the whole time. I guessed some kind of surprise was coming. My hopes grew with every step. It was finally time!
Dad handed me his keys. “Open up the hatch, Eric,” he said, plainly and matter-of-factly. Mom, on the other hand, was smiling so broadly that I thought her face would split in two. Eyeing the two of them suspiciously, I did as I was instructed and clicked the button to unlock the back of the car. The hatch opened slowly as my birthday present revealed itself.
“NO WAY!” I exclaimed loud enough to be heard all the way across the Pacific Ocean to China.
My parents laughed happily as they pulled a brand-new surfboard out of the vehicle. They stood on either side of it, propping it up horizontally so that I could inspect and admire it. They showed me the bottom first. I ran my hand along the left rail. It was cool and smooth to the touch. The fins caught the light, and I could imagine how well they would cut through water. The whole bottom was painted a pale yellow and was waxed smooth and slick. So far, so good. I couldn’t believe this board was mine.
“Ready?” Mom asked Dad giddily. He smiled back encouragingly. Then she faced me again, looking like she was more excited than me, if possible. This had to be one special paint job for her to want to build up so much suspense. They flipped it over.
My heart sank. The deck of the surfboard was as shiny and smooth as the underside, but that wasn’t what caught my eye. It was the dragon.
Of course it was a dragon.
The yellow serpent dragon decorated the deck of the board bright, colorful, and prominent. The image stood out against the red so much that it looked like it was leaping out of it.
Why? Why did there always have to be dragons? Two conflicting feelings stormed inside me. A new board was thrilling, and definitely the thing I’d always wanted. And it was ruined by that dragon. It felt as if the surfboard had been vandalized before I could even get it wet. My smile froze on my face and a lump formed in my throat as I tried to come to grips with this letdown.
My dad’s voice broke my thoughts. “Well, kiddo?” He eyed me knowingly, his glance darting from my face to Mom’s, whose eyes were still gleaming. He knew. He knew I was disappointed. “Your mom painted it herself. It’s one of a kind.” His expression warned me to be nice.
Before I could say anything, Mom spoke up. “This is a special kind of dragon.” She ran her fingers over the dragon’s head proudly. Its wild eyes mocked me as I silently wished it away.
“A Coiling Dragon. I know, Mom,” I said, trying to keep my voice light and the smile on my face. A stupid coiling dragon. She could’ve painted anything, and this is what she chose. I wasn’t shocked, but I had hoped the board, my surfboard, would feature something that reflected my interests rather than hers.
“According to legend, they can be trained to protect you.” She smiled at her artwork, admiring it. “That’s why I chose it for your board. You’ll train your board not to hurt you.”
That’s the kind of weird thing Mom said all the time. All her dragon symbolism stuff drove me insane. It was embarrassing. Normally, I could bite my tongue and let it go, but this time it was too much. This was a surfboard. Not just any surfboard, but the surfboard I’d been begging them to give me my whole life. The surfboard I’d busted my butt to earn. Dad’s eyes stayed locked on me in warning. I didn’t care about being kind anymore. I wanted to her to know that she ruined it for me.
“Dragons don’t save people, Mom. They eat people.”
“Not this dragon. The legend says—”
“Mom!” I shouted at her. “It’s not real. There were no real dragons. Painting one on my board is only going to bring me bad luck. It’s not going to protect me. It’s going to be the end of me! I just know it!”
I knew I was being a jerk. Okay, I reminded myself. It’s a surfboard. You’ve been asking for a surfboard for years. It’s brand new. It’s awesome. Don’t let the dragon bother you. Don’t let it bother you. Don’t let it bother you... But it did. It bothered me a lot. It zapped ninety percent of the joy right out of me, like getting sucker-punched in the belly.
My mom wilted. Her eyes stayed focused on her painting, refusing to look at me. Dad let his gaze drift to the ocean. He didn’t like to tell me I was wrong, but I could tell by his stiff bearing that he wasn’t happy with me. I stared at my feet. The silence was probably only a couple seconds, but it seemed like forever.
In a very quiet voice, and it’s amazing how quietly my mom could talk, she said. “There are a couple more presents. If you want them.” I raised my head to see her leaning the surfboard, face down, against the side of the car.
Feeling guilty about it, I went ahead and reached for the next present. I laid the box on the pavement and unwrapped it while my parents stood by. The joy of the situation had been sucked away, but I still had a little excitement left to see what else I was going to get. My parents watched over my shoulders.
Several things were in the box, starting with a wetsuit and goggles. Perfect. I needed those. I made a big deal of thanking my parents with as much enthusiasm as I could to make up for my rotten behavior. It seemed to appease Dad, but Mom still looked anxious. A second later, I figured out why.
Underneath the wet suit and goggles were a pair of swim trunks and a beach towel. On them were more dragons. More dragons. Not the kind of dragons that she usually painted, like the dragon that ruined, I mean decorated, my surfboard. Instead of the usual reptilian-looking dragons that you see in movies, Mom’s dragons always had fuzzy heads and looked like someone mixed an evil Maltese puppy with a yellow python. They didn’t even have wings, and I could never understand how they were supposed to fly. Also, a lot of her dragons had an extra foot. Instead of four, they had five. That’s how the one on my board looked, an odd number of feet, with the extra one reaching forward as if to grab me.
The dragons on the swim trunks and towel were the European kind, which meant she bought them. How hard did she have to search to find these things? I knew between the board, the suit, and the towel I would get a nickname. I’d be called “Dragon Boy” or something like that for sure. Just the thought of it made me want to puke.
“This is all… great.” I searched the swimming trunks for a tag. I hoped they might be too small or too big and therefore returnable. No luck. Just my size.
“And there’s one thing more.” Dad grinned at my mom, and she nodded with closed lips. “I’m getting you private surfing lessons.”
“Really?” I asked, my excitement building up again.
“You’re coming with me to the finals next week, and while I’m competing, you’ll go and have your lessons. We’ll make a father-son vacation out of it. Sound all right to you?”
“All right? It’s the best birthday present ever!” Dragons or no dragons, I was finally going to learn how to surf!
“So…” Dad said. “You want to try it out?”
“We’ll just do some paddling. Maybe try to get your balance on it. The waves have died down a lot since this morning.”
“That okay, Mom?”
Mom was biting her lips, trying not to say no. I could tell this was hard for her.
She nodded, and I gave her a big hug. When I let go of her, she avoided eye contact with me and set right to putting all the wrapping and presents back in the car.
Dad grabbed the board, and I chased him down to the water. He waded into the ocean with the board and then held it steady for me while I climbed on. Staying next to me the whole time, he had me lay on my belly and paddle with my arms so I could learn to react to the current rolling under the board. It felt great. After a little bit, he asked if I was ready to try to stand up.
I’d watched him do this hundreds of times, so I thought I knew what to do. It was a lot harder than it looked. The board tipped and dodged with every shift of the ocean. I slipped and planted my knee hard on the board. That would bruise for sure. It took six tries before I finally got to my feet.
Dad had been paying attention to the swells through this whole thing, telling me what direction to put my balance so I wouldn’t tip over. We were past the small waves for the body surfers but not far enough out for the breakers. While I was practicing, one of his friends paddled past us, headed out to the deeper water.
“You’re a glutton for punishment!” my dad called to him.
“I’m addicted, what can I say?” his friend called back.
“You don’t have to tell me.”
“Hey! That’s a sweet dragon on that board,” the surfer said to me. “What do you think about it, Draco?”
Draco? It begins.
“All of this was my idea,” Dad said. “His Mom wanted to put in her touch.”
“She’s something,” the surfer said.
She sure is, I thought. Something completely whacked.
My anger clouded everything Dad had just taught me about watching the waves and feeling the rhythm of the ocean. Dad was busy talking with his friend. Neither of us had been concentrating when a wave snuck up and caught my board, snagging it out from under me...
The next thing I became aware of was vomiting saltwater into the sand and gasping for air.
“There you are,” I heard my dad say gently.
I looked up to see my dad on his knees beside me. With the sun right behind him, he glowed like a hero from an ancient Chinese legend. I’m pretty sure he had saved my life.
My throat burned, and I couldn’t get out any words. I struggled to sit up.
I heard someone shout, “’Atta boy!” All my dad’s surfer friends and a bunch of strangers gathered around us. I guess it wasn’t every day that you got to witness a kid nearly drown, because the other beachgoers all pointed and gawked at me like it was quite a show. Pretty sure I caught a couple of them with phone cameras pointed my way. Great.
The lifeguard broke through the crowd and knelt beside my dad. “Is he all right? Do you need the paramedics?”
“I think he’ll be all right.”
“Good thing you got him to shore as quickly as you did.”
“It was the weirdest thing,” Dad said. “It was like he was pushed up right into my arms.”
That made me think of the yellow in the water. “My surfboard?” I asked weakly.
Dad gestured over his shoulder, where I saw that his surfer friend had it next to him in the sand.
The lifeguard checked me over really quick and said to Dad, “You should keep him out of the water for the rest of the day and take him to the doctor tomorrow if he isn’t acting himself.”
“We’re going to pack it up and head home right now,” Dad assured him.
“Eric!” That was my mom’s voice as she burst through the crowd, her long hair streaming behind her. She dropped into the sand next to me and pressed her hands to my face. Her skin smelled like a fresh coating of sunscreen. “Are you okay?” She looked up at my dad who was now standing beside the lifeguard. Sand stuck to his legs all the way past his knees.
“I told you he was too young for surfing,” Mom hissed at him.
“I am not too young,” I said, defending my dad. My voice was hoarse. “It’s that stupid dragon you painted on the board. I told you it was bad luck.”
My mom pulled away from me as if I’d bitten her.
The lifeguard backed off. “Well, it looks like you’re all right then.” To the crowd, he said, “Give them some space, huh? He’s all right.” Then he walked back to his tower.
The crowd mumbled to each other behind their hands and began to disperse. They were no longer interested now that the near-drowning victim had morphed into the grumpy boy who’d insulted his mom.
I was sorry I’d hurt her feelings, but I meant what I said. I hated dragons. Proving me right, now one of Mom’s painted dragons had almost ended my life.
If that was the only dragon that ever tried to kill me, my story could end here. Unfortunately, that was not the case. As it would turn out, my experience with dangerous dragons was far from over.