I REMEMBERED the warmth of my egg, the squishiness of the albumin I floated in. I remembered the feeling of moonlight on the hard shell that surrounded me, though I never felt the sun. I remembered the silence, the stillness of the cave, where no other being ever entered.
I did not remember the mother who made me. No belly ever warmed my egg; no breath ever air-kissed my shell. There was only the cave and my egg and me.
Then the women came. One of them had a muffled voice, and I could not make out her words. Her voice sounded like music, one long song with no lyrics. The other’s voice boomed, and though I did not know it then, I could hear her voice precisely because I could not “hear” it; the words were in my head.
Where are you, little one?
I struggled to speak, but nothing came out.
I know you can hear me. She said you would be here, that she had left her egg in the mountain cave that only those on dragonback could enter, and only when the moon was full. An egg as white as the moon she loved, as round and spotted and cold to the touch.
Footsteps came closer, then stopped nearby. Steady hands lifted me, and those hands spoke to me too, telling me it was time to come out. Craning my neck, I pecked at the thick shell and scraped my horn and wing thumbs against the home that had suddenly become a cage.
He’s coming, Dena, one woman told the other. He must emerge before the sunbeams hit him, or he’ll drown inside.
I clawed faster and faster, like a gerbil on its wheel. Finally, with one more frantic push, my mandible shoved through the hole I’d made and allowed my lungs to take in their first breath of air.
“Quickly, Allanah, get him to the cave entrance.” Now I could hear the second woman, and I felt her urgency.
The hands lifted me out of the shell and out of the cave, right as the moon disappeared and the sun hit my scales for the first time. My wings disappeared, replaced by chubby arms that lacked my wings’ grace and power. My claws became toes, and my scales became pink skin.
Above me, two faces hovered. Red hair framed one, black the other. One had pink skin like mine, while the other had green. The one with the red hair spoke to me just by looking into my eyes, and I could not look away from the green irises.
Hello, Mani. We’re here to bring you home.
Above me, in the reflection of the yellow sun, a dragon descended.
“GET IT, Mani!” my neighbor, Alex, egged me on as I chased the fat body of a Texas horned lizard. The creature was stout, but it was faster than it looked. We could always tell whether someone was visiting New Mexico or native by the way they mistook a Texas horned lizard for a toad; we knew better. Alex had been one of those strangers a year ago, a strange Northeasterner who wore khaki pants and blazers and kept asking where the nearest subway was, but now I considered him one of us.
Giving up on the run, the horned lizard puffed up its body like an inflated balloon instead. Its pointy scales, raised like that, made the body too hard to hold, so I scooped the lizard up by the legs. It worm wriggled for a minute, then hung limp.
“Watch out,” I warned Alex as he stepped closer. “It’ll shoot blood at you as soon as look at you.”
“Gross.” Alex took three steps back. “Why do they do that, anyway?”
“Protection.” I stared down at the wriggling creature. “The blood tastes horrible, so animals won’t eat the lizard after a good squirt in the face.”
“Even more disgusting.”
Alex got a mischievous look in his eye, the same one he got before proposing we toss hot dogs off an overpass or toilet-papering our eleventh-grade English teacher’s front yard or putting food dye in the school toilets. Before Alex came to Burton High School, I’d been quiet, the emo kid who doodled during class and spent the rest of the time staring at the cloudless sky or sleeping. I was too different from the other kids to be friends with them, even though they didn’t know just how different I was.
Once Alex showed up in my English class and we became friends, however, a whole other side of me had emerged. I would do anything Alex suggested, even if it meant putting myself in harm’s way, just to keep his ever-wandering attention. Our other friends were too busy with girls or stealing beer from their parents’ refrigerators to want to play pranks, but not Alex and me: we were partners in crime, heroes in our own action films, and no punishment our mothers could think of could stop us.
“Let’s dissect it.”
My arms went numb. Unable to hold the lizard, I dropped the poor thing into the sand, where it scampered away into a nearby hole.
“What’s wrong with you?” Alex cried as he lunged for the long-gone lizard. Without hesitating I stuck my foot out and tripped him, and he fell face-first into the sand.
“Sorry, he bit me,” I lied as I helped Alex up.
He had sand stuck in his thick block of hair and on his cheek, but when I moved to brush it off, he smacked my arm away.
“Don’t touch me. God, you’re such a sissy,” he hissed at me. “It’s just a stupid lizard.”
Before I could say anything else, he stormed away. As though the lizard knew which one of us was the real predator, as soon as Alex got far enough from where I stood, the Texas horned lizard scurried back out of the hole and continued on its way.
Why did I do that? I mentally kicked myself. Now Alex might never talk to me again. But I knew exactly why I hadn’t been able to hand over the lizard: there was something too familiar in the horns, the scales, the docile temperament. Something too… dragon.
Mani? a voice asked. Even though I was accustomed to Allanah’s voice in my head, she still managed to startle me. Mani, where are you? It’s almost sunset.
Oh no. I looked up at the orange sky, and sure enough, I had been too upset by Alex’s disappearance to remember my curfew. Not 10:00 p.m. like most high school students, but sunset, when the moon rose in the sky and shined its light on my skin. There was no way I would make it home in time, no way to outrun the sun’s departure.
I’m sorry. I can’t make it.
Hide. We’ll come find you.
Hide where? I was in the desert, with nothing around me but sand, cacti, and, far in the distance, the mountain near our house. This was not exactly a dragon-friendly forest, or even the cityscape with its skyscraper roofs.
Before I could even move, the moon winked on like an eye after blinking and the change began. My chin-length black hair shrank into my head, and my eyes turned an even lighter blue. As my nose stretched into my snout, I hoped for a miracle, or at least no passersby on the quiet road nearby. I rose into the air as my body stretched and grew scales, while my arms reached for the moon and became blue wings. My clothes ripped off of my body, falling as tatters to the sand, and my shoes split open to make way for my claws. This was not a beautiful transformation, as I’d seen in the mirror way too many times. It was messy and scary, even for me.
“Mani?” a voice asked from behind me. I knew it was Alex even before I swiveled around, my body still working its way from human to dragon. He must have felt bad for what he said to me and come back to find me, only to discover my half-formed dragon body.
“Alex, it’s okay,” I tried to say, but all that came out were gasps and growls.
“What’s… what’s happening to you?”
I had to say something.
It’s okay, Alex, I said, using my telepathy. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about my powers, but now that you’ve seen them, I can tell you everything.
Alex stepped back like I was the blood-spurting lizard, and his round, red face twisted in disgust. “I don’t want you to talk to me ever again. You’re a freak, Mani, and after I tell everyone your secret, you won’t be able to—”
I stopped listening as one of the arms of the nearby cacti lengthened into a whip and wrapped its tendril around Alex’s waist. Once it had its needles gripped on the boy, it lifted him into the air and shook him with frustrated reproach.
Mom? I asked into the darkness. Allanah and Dena emerged holding hands, and from Dena’s other hand, a green light streamed its control over the cactus. Dena’s green skin and vine tattoos also glowed, reminding me of a storefront’s neon lights.
“They’re freaks too?” Alex asked, but he shut his mouth when Grian, Allanah’s sun dragon, landed at my side.
Is your best friend always this rude, Mani? And by the way, Alex, I’m not a freak. I’m a witch. Dena is an Igreefee, an ancient race of magical people who were controlling the forest back when humans were struggling to make fire with two sticks, and don’t even get me started on Grian. He’s as tame as a cat, but you’re just a mouse to him. If you insult us again, he just might catch you in his teeth and teach you a lesson.
“Allanah!” Dena scolded, though I could tell she was trying to hold back her pleased smile. “He’s just a boy.”
“Seventeen is not a boy.”
Um, Mom, I interrupted, maybe we can argue about this when we get home? Right now we need to figure out what to do with him.
“Do with me?” Alex cried out. He struggled in the cactus’s grip, then gave up.
Right. We have two choices, and you’re not going to like either of them. Either I turn him into a lizard, or Dena does the nicer thing and takes away his memories.
All his memories?
I’m afraid so. She doesn’t have the power to move through someone’s head like a book, ripping out pages wherever she wants. She’ll leave some of his childhood, of course, but everything else will get wiped clean.
I paused. Not because I would rather have had them turn Alex into a lizard than erase his memories, but because I wasn’t ready to lose my best friend. Sure, he’d called me a freak, but I had to believe that he would have come around eventually, once I’d explained everything to him. Two dragons, a witch, and an Igreefee were a lot to take in one night, and I couldn’t really blame him for freaking out.
Allanah nodded to Dena, who approached the boy and pressed her hands on his whipping head like a coach trying to pep up a player.
“This won’t hurt,” she said, and I knew she meant it. Unlike Allanah and me, the Igreefee could only use their magic for good or they risked losing it.
Green light flowed from her palms into his head, and Alex’s eyes went blank. All of the spunk I’d grown to love just blinked off like a dead lightbulb, and in its place was a man with the memories of a child.
“Mommy?” Alex asked. Dena released the cactus limb, and he fell to the sandy desert, where he began crawling on all fours. “Mommy, snack?”
“So sad,” Allanah sighed. “We’ll need to get him home, and quickly, so that he can wake up in his own bed and assume he had a child’s nightmare. His parents will be in for quite a shock when they wake up, but there’s nothing to be done about that now.”
“I’ll take him,” I volunteered.
“No, you’ll be seen—”
“Please, Mom. I need to do this.”
“Fine. But fly the long way around and then come home—your mother and I have something we think it’s time to discuss with you.”
Gingerly I picked Alex up by his shirt collar. He felt so light to my dragon body, like a fish in the mouth of a black bear, that, as I pushed off into the air, I could barely feel the extra weight.
“Wheeee,” Alex squealed in delight.
For a year I had dreamed of that moment, of flying over New Mexico with Alex and showing him the beauty of the moon without the interruption of house lights. I had dreamed of showing him the world, one night at a time, so that every state and even every country became just a short dragon ride away. In my imaginings he would sit on my back as comfortably as he sat in the driver’s seat of his mom’s car, leaning back and relaxing into the forward motion without a worry in the world. In my dreams he had been able to say more than “Wheeee” and “Waaaa.” He had said he loved me.
I landed on Alex’s roof and gingerly used a sharp nail to unhook the window latch. The house was new, unlike ours, and I felt guilty for digging my claws into their roof. Stretching my neck in a long curve, I rested Alex in his bed and pulled the cotton sheet over his shoulders, after which he turned on his side and fell asleep.
“Bye-bye, dragon,” he mumbled without opening his eyes.
A sound shuffled down the hall, and then a knock came at the door. “Alex, honey, is that you?”
As the door squeaked open, I pushed off and climbed as far as I could toward the moon. My lungs struggled to find air, but still I climbed, until I thought I might faint or even die. Then suddenly I pulled my wings into a hug and nose-dived back toward earth. Once again I was alone.