Agoraphobia the Mighty
By Oliver Harris
Gwen marked her page with a ribbon and thundered down the stairs to the kitchen, where Dad was washing last night’s dishes.
‘Look who it is. Hungry?’
‘Starving,’ she said.
She pursed her lips to one side.
‘Nothing else on the menu, sorry,’ he said.
He pursed his lips to one side as well. ‘I can do toasted?’
‘Now we’re talking.’
Dad grabbed some tomatoes. ‘What are you up to today?’
‘I’m s’pposed to meet Alice at the park at 1 p.m.’
Dad paused. ‘Will her parents be there?’
‘Yep. Mum knows about it.’
‘Oh, Mum knows about it, does she?’ He set the tomatoes on the chopping board. ‘I’d better message Alice’s parents.’
She tried to sound casual. ‘You could come?’
‘Not at the moment, Gwen, sorry.’
For a while he didn’t answer, arranging everything carefully on the sandwich toaster. ‘Just dragon trouble. Gotta take it for a walk.’
The first time Gwen heard of the dragon they’d been at the supermarket. Dad had gone quiet for a few minutes, and suddenly they had to abandon their trolley and hurry back to the car. When they got home he just stared through the windscreen, and when she asked him why they had to leave he said, ‘Dragon trouble.’
She was already old enough to be suspicious, and since then she’d been able to confirm that there wasn’t actually a dragon. She imagined it though: a giant, scaly thing dragging itself across the supermarket, poking its nose down the aisles in search of her dad. It even had a name, and like all good dragon names it was long and Greek.
‘Couldn’t you walk it another day?’
‘You don’t understand, sweetie.’ He returned to the dishes. ‘I can’t leave the house without it.’
‘No, I mean, why can’t you just stay home?’
‘Because I like trees and, you know, mushrooms and things. I’d miss them. And even if I didn’t, I need to leave now and then to get Weet-Bix for your mum. It’s gets harder to go out when I’m not walking every day. I guess you could say the dragon gets cross with me.’
‘Can you walk it with us at the park?’
He glanced at her. ‘If it . . . got loose and made a scene and I’d be very embarrassed. And so would you.’
‘What if we just ran outside, really fast, before it knew you were leaving?’
‘I’ve tried that. It catches up.’ He wiped the suds off his hands. ‘Hold on, I need to message Alice’s mum.’
Gwen looked longingly at the sandwich toaster.
While typing he asked, ‘Done much this morning?’
‘That’s my girl. Still reading Rowan of Rin?’
‘Yep. Finished the first one just now. There’s like five.’
He checked the sandwiches. ‘Remind me what happens?’
‘They have to climb a mountain. There’s a dragon at the top.’
‘Of course there is.’
He set the toasties on a plate before her. They were gold and smelt of happiness.
‘No one wants Rowan to come because he’s a coward. But it turns out that he’s the bravest, because he keeps going even when he’s afraid.’
‘That’s right,’ said Dad automatically. ‘Real bravery isn’t being fearless; it’s facing your fears.’
Gwen nibbled the crust. ‘I don’t think it’s right.
‘If you can’t choose what you’re afraid of, how can you choose what you’re brave of?’
Dad paused. ‘I don’t think it works like that, sweetie.’
‘There are some things you choose and some things you can’t.’
‘Why doesn’t everyone choose to be brave then?’
‘Hold on,’ he said, reaching into his pocket. ‘That’s Alice’s mum. Your story checks out.’
Dad took a deep breath. ‘Do you need me to walk you to the park? I could probably manage that.’
‘I’ll be fine.’
He thought about this as she finished her last toasty. ‘Walk quickly. Don’t talk to anyone. If Alice’s mum isn’t at the park when you get there, come straight back here. OK?’
‘And please be careful. If you fall off something, the newspapers will say it’s my fault.’
‘OK.’ She hopped off the stool. ‘By the way, Dad, it wouldn’t embarrass me. Why does it embarrass you?’
‘And I’d be there. I could help.’
A gleam came into his eye then, and some gravel into his voice. ‘Thanks, gorgeous. I knew I could count on you. Just not today.’
‘OK. Maybe tomorrow.’