I didn’t want to move to Riverside. I didn’t want to say goodbye to my childhood home, to the friends I’d made, the fun we had. I even began to think fondly of Mrs. Roberts, the history teacher that hated the stunts my friends and I pulled in her classroom. But my father told us that his promotion to manager of the new Riverside branch would give him a substantial raise, and he was dead-set on accepting. I think my mother understood how hard it was for me; she’d told me about her own childhood, and how she had never made any friends because her father was relocated to a different base almost once a year. But she and my father had already decided, and all my pleas fell on deaf ears.
At Riverside, I had no friends. When school started, I didn’t make any friends, either. I was the new kid, the person that nobody knew. I wasn’t bullied or anything; just ignored. It’s a feeling I’m used to, but it still hurt.
And then I met him. Two weeks after school started, he came up to me in the hallway after the bell.
“Hey,” he said, holding his bag in his lap and extending his other hand to offer a handshake. “I’m Sam, and I have a pet lizard at my place. Wanna see it?”
I nodded. Of course I did. I called my mother and asked if it was okay if she picked me up from Sam’s house instead. She hesitated a moment, then tentatively agreed, but only if I called her if anything came up, and to promise that I’d be at the door and ready to go home by 7 pm. I rolled my eyes and agreed, hanging up, and told Sam in a stage whisper that my mother just wanted to avoid a horrific death by ax.
We rolled up to his house from the bus stop, Sam chattering about reptiles and lizards the whole time. “Did you know that dinosaurs were warm-blooded?” he asked me. “Lots of them even had feathers!” And in a dramatic tone, he declared that Jurassic Park had let down science.
His lizard was named Bonnie, but he confided that she was actually male. “The clerk at the store told me Bonnie was a girl,” he defended. “But I think she made it up to get me to leave.”
“Bonnie” was sunning himself when we got to Sam’s room. He had a nice terrarium set out for Bonnie, with dusty yellow rocks and a thin layer of sand on the bottom and a bright yellow lightbulb on top to keep it warm. “Leopard geckos are from the highlands of Asia,” he told me, extending a finger into the terrarium. “So I made sure to give him rocks from his native home.”
We talked for a while, about lizards and many other things. Sam and his dad moved to Riverside a few years ago, and he also had trouble settling in and making friends. He was a voracious reader; he knew all about reptiles, lizards, and even salamanders. “They’re not actually lizards at all, but lots of people don’t realize that,” he told me. “Just because it’s small and has four legs doesn’t mean it’s a lizard. Salamanders aren’t even cold-blooded. Know the difference!”
I was at the door when my mother knocked. Sam’s dad opened the door and invited my mother in, which she did once she looked me once-over to make sure I was still mostly in one piece. She raised her eyebrows at Sam and, seeing his extended hand and serious expression, shook it. When my mother’s back was turned, I rolled my eyes at Sam in the universal “parents, right?” gesture and he cracked a smile.
She asked me about Sam on the ride home, of course. She wanted to know everything about the boy I’d made friends with. As we pulled into our driveway, I told her that I wanted a pet lizard.
Three months later, for my birthday, my parents’ gift was a lizard – a bearded dragon. Thanks to Sam, I now felt like an expert on lizards and reptiles. When my parents told me that the clerk had identified my new lizard as female, I could double-check it. (She was.) My parents had even gotten a terrarium with a layer of store-bought gravel, and my dragon looked happy to be sunning on the gray rock under the heat lamp. In a fit of giddy irony, I named her Clyde.
I thought Clyde’s colors were beautiful. My parents thought her scales were bland and dirty; but among the beige and yellow scales there were black flecks, polished to perfection. Her eyes were expressive, flicking around to stare at something or other. Her minuscule claws, surrounded by tiny, delicate pinpricks of scales, flexing slowly under the warm yellow glow of the lamp. The red spot of scales on the tip of her nose. Even Sam didn’t know how she’d gotten that birthmark.
It took Sam and I a few weeks to transform the terrarium to an Australian paradise for Clyde. We added a thick layer of bone-dry dirt and placed some dusty slabs of orange rock on top. We even added some native Australian plants. I’m not a great judge of reptile expressions, but Clyde seemed to be enjoying her new home.
Two months later, my mom invited Sam over for dinner. Afterwards, we were watching Clyde lying on the rock in his warm terrarium, the cold winter rain pounding at the window. “Hey,” Sam whispered. “Is she supposed to have those nubs at her shoulders?” He pointed at two small bumps under her shoulders, bulging up under her skin.
I frowned and looked closer. I had no idea what it was; I certainly hadn’t seen anything like it. Definitely something to note in my diary.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said, frowning. “It’s probably not bad or anything, but– just keep an eye out, ok? For Clyde’s sake.”
The next morning, Sam texted me. He asked me if I had seen his lucky coin. I hadn’t heard of any such lucky coin, I told him, or I’d love to help him find it. He seemed anxious to get it back. “It’s my lucky coin,” he told me at lunch. “When I was 9, I decided I was old enough to get rid of any kid toys like that. And, you know…” he trailed off, staring over my shoulder into space. “After that, I’ve carried it ever since.” I told him I’d keep an eye out for it.
When I got home, there was a gold coin in Clyde’s terrarium, perched proudly on the biggest rock. I told Sam I’d found his coin, and he was at my bedroom door ten minutes later. He was bewildered.
“It was in my pocket the whole time, like it always is,” he told me as he plucked out the coin, Clyde lethargically stretching out a leg. “I have no idea how it got into Clyde’s terrarium. I don’t even know how it got out of my pocket.” Sam’s dad and my mom were talking downstairs on the doorstep; she asked him how he was handling, and Sam and I winced. Thankfully, his father replied with a short, noncommittal statement, and Sam waved goodbye and headed back home with his dad.
I shook my head at Clyde, who stared at me reproachfully.
A week later, my mom asked me at dinner if I’d seen her wedding ring. I had a sneaking suspicion of where it was, so I headed to my bedroom to check Clyde’s terrarium. Sure enough, there was my mom’s wedding ring and its glint of gold, proudly displayed on Clyde’s rock. I reprimanded Clyde with a look and waved my finger threateningly. I fished out my mom’s ring and returned it to her. I didn’t tell her that Clyde took it, because that would be crazy.
When summer break started, I invited Sam over for a weekend. I showed him some of my writing and scribbles of constellations and far-off galaxies, and he said he liked it; we spent some time working together on a group essay for school (about reptiles, of course.) When Sam was getting ready to leave, we were resting on the deck in the backyard, staring up at the clouds, the fiery fringes of light cast from the setting sun. I watched Sam’s hand on his lap, holding the lucky coin. His hand was playing with the coin, flipping and turning it, the glint of gold from the reflection of the sun dancing around on his shirt. And then, from one moment to the next, it disappeared. Sam didn’t fumble and the coin didn’t fall. It just disappeared.
He jerked upright and stared at his empty hand, and our eyes locked. As quickly as we could, we went inside and into my bedroom, checking Clyde’s terrarium. Sitting proudly on Clyde’s rock was Sam’s coin, shining brightly below the lamp. But not Clyde. I glanced around the room; Clyde was nowhere to be seen.
I moved closer to the gold coin. There was a very distinct mark beneath it on the rock. Trembling, I moved closer and, with two fingers, delicately lifted up the coin to reveal the mark.
It was a burn mark. A small starburst of blackened soot. I retrieved the coin and sniffed the small smudges of soot on my fingertips. Definitely soot.
I looked at Sam; Sam looked at me. We agreed to not tell anybody about what happened. The next morning, looking appropriately distraught, I told my mom that Clyde escaped in the night; she was unhappy, but understanding. It had been a warm night, and I’d left the window open. Clyde could have escaped the cage and gotten outside by himself.
At night, I’d lie in bed and stare at the stars outside, thinking about what it must be like to go there, and trying to not glance at the dark terrarium.
I was the only person to show up at Sam’s 14th birthday party. He didn’t seem to mind it at all. I got him a reptile field guide, all 512 pages of it, with some of my art tucked into the pages, hidden away. He smiled and awkwardly wrapped his arms around me, our parents watching.
We went to his bedroom to watch Bonnie as he languidly climbed along the new row of rocks. We’d moved some of them from Clyde’s terrarium; there was no sense in keeping the rocks there if Clyde wasn’t. I didn’t realize how long we were sitting there, holding hands, until my mom knocked on the door and told me it was time to go home.
That night, while I lay in bed and didn’t stare at the terrarium, I heard a scratch and a faint knock at my window. I tried to ignore it; but then it came again, more insistent this time. The moonlit projection of my window on the bedroom door shifted, just a bit; then, the silhouette of a long, sharp claw slowly moved across the window. I froze for a moment, then slowly turned to look at the window.
There was a lizard outside the window. Its head was five feet wide. There was a lizard outside my window. No, it couldn’t be a lizard, I heard Sam say in my mind. The biggest lizard is the Komodo Dragon, and they only reach 10 feet long. Whatever this is, it’s not a lizard. From my bed, I could see the fringe of scales around its eyes, the sharp reflection from its huge black eyes, and behind it – was that a wing, out in the street?
Quietly, cautiously, I got out of bed and pulled myself to the window, not bothering to use my wheelchair. I held onto the windowsill and looked up, at the dragon, at the spot of red scales on her nose. She nudged the window again with her claw, and I automatically opened it. She extended a single claw into the window and gestured at me to come outside. I nodded, pointing silently at the door and my wheelchair, and she seemed to understand. She fell back onto the lawn, patiently waiting for me. I closed the window and pulled myself into my wheelchair, wheeling out to the front door.
Outside, I stopped on the patio, staring at the dragon. Her wings extended from the side of our house all the way to the sidewalk on the other side of the street, and her legs were the size of tree trunks. She stood nearly 8 feet tall at her shoulders, and her head stood a good two feet above even that. Her thick tongue flicked out for a brief moment; it was nearly as big as me.
Slowly, I wheeled down the path to the driveway under her watchful gaze as she angled her head to keep an eye on me. I reached a foot and stopped, unsure of what to do. Slowly, she lifted it up and beckoned at me, leg set out in invitation. I carefully set the brake on my wheelchair, then pulled myself up to her leg. Climbing up was a little bit awkward; there wasn’t much to grab ahold of, and I didn’t want to hurt her.
It took a while, and twice I needed to stop and rest. Clyde was incredibly patient, though, and let me climb up without fussing at all.
Finally, I pulled myself over her spine, reaching the soft spot behind her shoulders. She peeked back at me, and shook her shoulders, prompting me to grab the spikes near her neck. She snorted and looked ahead, then straightened her wings and jumped straight up into the air, her wings pushing down, rustling the trees and pushing aside a stray garbage can, sending it tumbling down the driveway, a lone styrofoam cup rolling out onto the street.
I looked back at my house until it shrank to nothing, then my neighborhood, and finally the city, too, was left behind. I leaned against Clyde’s shoulder, feeling the muscles harden under her skin as she pulled her wings against the warm summer air. It was glorious, to be so free, and when we leveled off, I patted her shoulder to let her know. But I think she knew, one way or another, how I felt.
Up high, the night sky was beautiful. The faint rainbow brushstrokes of color washing over bright pinpricks of the stars beneath and the slash of the Milky Way. This far from the city, the ground was dark, and the only light we’d find was the occasional yellow wobble of a car on some remote mountain passage. Up high, far above us even now, were the dark trails of jet airplanes crisscrossing the sky. I caught Clyde looking up longingly at them, and I patted her to let her know I understood.
We coasted for hours, just Clyde and I, until the horizon went from black to blue to purple and the stars began to fade. She had brought us back around to the city, and when we were only a few hundred feet away, she flew in a dizzying spiral, landing directly in our front yard. My wheelchair was still there, in front of the door, and the styrofoam cup was still spinning along the street, kicked up by the powerful sweep of Clyde’s wings as she settled down.
“Thanks,” I whispered, sliding off along her leg. “Thank you so much.” She reached out her leg, and I leaned into my wheelchair and settled myself in.
My arms were numb from being still for so long, and my back felt funny. It was the best night of my life. I could feel the smile on my face, the dryness around my eyes, a single tear sliding down. I looked up at Clyde, and she nodded at me, then turned around to face the open street. In a single fluid motion, she pushed her wings down and leapt into the air. I watched her as she flew away, shrinking down to the size of my thumb, to the size of my pinky, then to nothing.
For a moment after she disappeared, I watched the spot where I’d last seen her as the sun crested the horizon and shone its flaming colors into the sky, lighting the clouds and shining down onto my house. For a moment, I pretended I was as free as Clyde; free to go wherever I wished to go, to see whatever I wished to see. But only for a moment.
For my 15th birthday, Sam got me a book about the stars.