Billy Wilkins nearly died the first time he saw the kingdom of Orralia. It was evening, during dinner when he felt so cold he couldn’t hold himself upright. The next thing he remembered was waking up from a bump in the night, and realized he was in the hospital. His eyes ached from the swift bright lights passing above him, the intense white luminance smashing into his head like the noonday sun casting hammers instead of rays. Relatively quiet sounds became incredible clatter. The wheels on the gurney rattled with loud, clacking ferocity and the sound of doctors’ footfalls smacking the hard floor striking his ears as they rushed him to who knows where. He didn’t know how he got there, or what time it was. He just knew he was cold, shivering like he was outside in winter without a jacket. The heavy blankets did what little they could to protect him from it. His body put out little heat of its own, and there was less for the blankets to gather. It was painful, and he was scared. The faces of his mother and father appeared upside down, looking over his own face. He looked up at them with confused, shifting eyes. So many things flying this way and that around him, he didn’t know what to focus on. The doctors that pushed him along checked and rechecked his pulse. His father kept looking at the doctors, muttering something, then looking down at him again. Each time he acted more tersely toward them. His mother was in tears, one hand covering her mouth and her other hand gently rubbing his shoulder. Sound came and went, but he could hear his father now, and looked up at him with his eyes.
“Someone get him a blanket?” he said. “Please.” The doctors ignored him, poring over health papers while nurses and aids went about preparations for the I.V. drip. His mother felt him jolt a little. Billy’s shivering grew worse. She turned away and pressed into her husband’s shoulder. His father unbuttoned his shirt and took it off, standing in a dirty work tee as he laid the blue long sleeve over his son and rubbed his arms. They were covered in goose bumps, and shook with every new chill that passed through him. Billy felt the warmth from his father’s hands, and his body soaked it in like a dry man in a desert. He felt safe, the edge of fear taken off of him. The doctors turn into a room and a nurse aid gently stopped them, her face sympathetic but firm.
Billy’s parents disappeared as the doctor’s whisked him into the room. He tried to turn his body to see them. The nurses held him still, removed the shirt his father had placed upon him and set it aside. The fear returned. He fought their restraint as hard as he could. He was truly alone.
“Billy,” said the doctor quietly. “It’s going to be okay. But I need you to be strong. We’re all here to keep you safe.” But it was to no avail. He felt himself begin to fade, a strange shadow flowing over his eyes in the cacophony of the emergency room. He began to hear all sorts of other noises from all directions that were very strange to him. They didn’t seem to come from the same room. He fell asleep.
In his slumber he felt something moving through him, lurching forward with a slow but steady gait. It felt all-encompassing and gigantic. He opened his eyes, still freezing, but distracted by the wonder of what he saw. He floated through a vast expanse, stars swirling underneath him like a little cosmic bed. He saw tiny planets, about the size of a baseball, and reached out to touch them. One of them, red with swirls, felt quite windy, and he kept his finger pressed into its winds until he floated away from it. Another planet, much smaller and deep blue in color, felt very cold as he touched it. It made a tinkling sound. He jerked his finger back from it. To his left, a spindly grouping of stars spun like a slow pinwheel in a purplish light. The space looked vast all around, different colored stars twinkling like bright and tiny eyes against the night sky. He began to float on his own, like swimming in the air as near as he could tell, though he hadn’t learned to do that yet in water. He spun his arms round and round like a windmill, and turned upside down and around. The little flecks of starlight became white streaks as he spun, and soon he noticed something most intriguing.
Green, lush grasslands blew in a calm night breeze. He waved his arms to stop his spin, and looked down at the tiny world below him. Where had it come from? Miniature farms sat sleepily in the shadows of the green hills that formed a valley. He could just barely pick out the small movements of the animals in their stables. He looked above the hills and beyond them to where the faint lights flickered from a sprawling city, the center of which was a great castle whose brick towers stretched high above even the hills. Despite the small stature of the land, it appeared to stretch in all directions as far as the eye could see. There were mountains a great distance away, and an ocean to his left after the stretch of plains ended. It was as if he was everywhere in this world at once. All the things he felt and saw and heard seemed to be so…right. There was a place for everything, and everything was in its place. He felt more alive than he ever had.
He scooped the air in front of him toward the mountains. Before them were forests and foothills.
But he felt himself falling asleep again, and his body growing colder. The fear came again, and with it the convulsing chill that had brought him to the hospital in the first place. His arms and legs grew stiff. A thin white layer of frost spread across his skin, and tiny icicles dangled from his fingers and toes. It hurt worse than anything he had ever felt, and he cried out. Or tried to…his throat was frozen as well, and only his heart cried out to whoever might listen. Help! Mom! Dad! Somebody! Heeeeeelp! But he felt it was too late. The sleep was becoming too heavy, and he could only mutter softly in his heart.
Just then a cloud floated by. It was pastel red and orange, reflecting what appeared to be the early light of dawn. It passed around and through him, sunlight from behind him reflecting off his white hospital gown. The light grew in intensity, until it was nearly blinding. Fiery warmth then came over him such as he had never felt before. The frost melted away, icicles broke off and tumbled through the air briefly, then hissed and popped as they turned to vapor. His entire body glowed brightly, the chills chased away like water buffalo chased by hungry lions. A cosmic summer had rescued him from winter’s frigid grip. He closed his eyes tightly, hearing the heavy thrumming of its power, the light burning through his eyelids. The head was almost unbearable. When it faded, he opened them. Away from him floated a sun. An entire sun. Its rays cast a golden hue upon the land below that spoke a radiant good morning with their waxing and waning. Rays that shot from their spherical perch and said you’re welcome, rays that waved goodbye as if they were an old friend. His heart’s small mutter, it appeared, did not go unheard at all. Yet as he looked on, the sun seemed to have dimmed a little. But perhaps it, like the rest of what he saw, was only his imagination.
“His body temperature is rising!” said a doctor. The others scrambled around him and began their medical procedures. Billy was no longer shivering, and he felt a prickly warmth go through his skin. The beeps on the monitor stabilized, and the doctors only stood there. They looked at the monitor, then back at Billy. No one had any answers.
Billy’s father held his wife close to him, his jaw quivering faint with anger and fear. Billy’s mother was exhausted emotionally, and leaned on her husband for support. The desk was deserted. Not a soul passed by. They were…
“Mr. and Mrs. Wilkins?” Not alone at last. They both stood with trepidation as the doctor approached. He smiled. “Billy is ready to see you now.”
They rushed into the room. Billy lay there, eyes heavy and a face with waning worry. “Billy?” his mother sobbed and wrapped her arms around him. “I love you.” She hugged him gently with a hug that never wanted to let go, but she lay him back again reluctantly. He slept peacefully through the night, and dreamed of the strange land he discovered in the throes of agony.
Eight months later…
Young Billy Wilkins woke up to the sound of a rumble. Startled for good reason, too, since mobile homes aren’t apt to move about on their own despite their inherently movable nature, much less in such an uncommon manner as to shake its own foundations, which rattled the contents off the collectibles shelf hanging above his bed. Several objects smacked him on the top of his head, one after the other, a baseball adding a final sting to his seven year old cranium. He pulled the covers up to shield him from any more falling debris, and once he was sure the toy storm had stopped, pushed aside what had littered his bed and sat up to look out the window. What a night, he thought. Stupid thunderstorm. He half bounced over to the window sill right next to his bed, which was pushed up flush against the wall. He pulled up his blinds and looked out the window, expecting ominous black clouds roiling overhead.
But what he really saw defied belief.
He pushed aside his thin curtain to see what appeared to be a great stone wall inching along the side of his house, as far as the scant moonlight could reveal, towering high above his field of view. When he thought it was sufficiently safe, he unlatched the window and pushed up on it, careful not to let it squeak as it usually did. Waking up his parents, if they hand’t been already, was not a pleasant idea, especially on their night off.
His mother had told him to stay inside, away from the cool night air, as his illness was prone to the cold, but he forgot all about her warning in favor of the grand spectacle which passed before his eyes. He looked to his left and to his right. It was indeed without end. The lot next to his trailer had been empty for some time, and the last neighbors who had lived there were politely asked to take up their personal zoo and go back to the jungle. Since then Billy had used it has his little baseball diamond, which was now being crawled upon by…something. He thought about the houses across the street, which were surely destroyed by the hulking mass of stone that scraped over it. He leaned out the window to get a closer look. It was comprised of mossy bricks, worn with age and the elements, whose cracks and seams were home to any number of different lichens and insects and who knows how much bird poop. Against such thoughts he reached out a hand to touch it. It was cold and wet, having just come from the storm that passed earlier south, and seemed to be slowing down. But where in the world did it come from? And what was it? Just then he felt a smooth surface pass under his fingertips and he looked ahead again. A window passed in front of him. A face both cold and a bit shocked peered back at him from beyond the faint torchlight that flickered behind it, being that of an old housemaid or governess of some kind, to which Billy responded with a slam of his own window which squeaked like nails on a chalkboard. He recoiled at the noise, then hunkered down to the floor.
Was this really happening? He pinched his arm as hard as he dared to. Ouch! he hissed through his teeth. Not a dream at all. And not only that, a bruise to match his smarting head. The rumble stopped. Quiet ensued for a moment until he heard his mother’s footsteps. Billy scrambled into bed with as much silence as he could muster, hoping to fool her this time and get out of another lecture. She was coming down the hall now. Zzzz…
The toys! They still lay atop his bedspread. He quickly grabbed all of them he could find and shoved them under the covers. His mother opened the door to his room and stepped in, tired and a little perturbed. Not an item remained on the covers. Billy was confident he had outwitted her this time.
“Billy,” she said with a tired but knowing voice. “What are you doing awake?”
Rats. “It was the rumbling, mom,” replied Billy.
“What rumbling, sweetie? The storm passed quite a while ago. Were you playing?” Now he was stuck. She looked at the collectibles shelf and saw half of its contents had vanished. She gave him a look of loving consternation, the kind that Billy always hated. He felt those nervous needle pricks all over his body, the ones that always showed up when you were about to get caught. Under the pressure of her stare, he reached under the covers and scooped up the army tank, the Batmobile, several cars of lesser mortals and the merciless baseball. He handed them back to her one by one, his mother biting her lip against a rising mirth. Once they were all accounted for she set them in a pile on his reading desk across the room.
“You can straighten things up the morning,” she said, and walked groggily back to bed. “Go to sleep.” The door clicked shut, her footsteps growing fainter until he heard nothing but the rumble. What rumbling? he thought. How could they not hear it? He wished he could sleep as deep as his mom did sometimes. He was so wound up from what had just happened he fought sleep as hard as he could. He’d wait until his mother was fast asleep again. Sleep had other ideas.
The warm rays of the morning sun shone brightly onto Billy’s face. He was tired, and felt chilled. Not again, he thought. Every time the chills came back, so did the visits to the doctor. And the doctor ordered the same thing over and over. Stay inside. But it was summer, he would protest. Sure it got cold at night, but during the day it was like taking a hot bath in thin air with your clothes on. What could possibly be better for a chill? The smell of pancakes wafted into his room, and his stomach growled.
“Billy,” his mom shouted. “Breakfast is ready.” He sat up, his white pajamas crackling a little with static. As he strolled out of bed he noticed the pile of toys on his dresser. Then he remembered.
He threw open his bedroom door and ran down the hall, past his mother and father who only noticed a three-foot-nine-inch blur whizzing by as pancakes were set on the table. Billy dashed out the front door, down the wooden porch steps and out onto the sidewalk toward the lot where he had hoped to witness the great stone structure in broad daylight. He slowed to a stop, and stared intently for a moment. What he saw defied his belief a second time.
Next door to his parents’ double-wide, in place of his favorite baseball spot in the world, now was a little red manufactured home. Billy was completely bewildered. He stood there with mouth agape. It was a rustic little place, with some hanging pots draped here and there on its eves. Its paint job was on the wrong side of weathered. He hoped there wasn’t a zoo this time. Billy’s parents came dashing out of the house after him, giving only a passing confusing glance at the new place, then gushed their concern over Billy. His father knelt down and looked him in the face. Billy only stared at the window.
“Billy!?” said his father, hands grasping his sons arms. “You know you can just be running around anymore! You need to get back inside. Come on, before you catch get the chill.” But the boy just continued to stare back at the little rust-red house as his father gently pulled him back in by the arm. By now the neighbors had all been awake for some time, gawking and lying to impress about the new neighbors, as people often did when they hadn’t anything else to do with life. And now they gawked at the Wilkins boy, running around in his white pajamas and short brown hair tousled about from sleep. He must have the chill again, they said. Isn’t that the same as the cold? another asked. No no, it’s much worse. May be affecting the poor boy’s head. But he ignored them all, eyes transfixed on the window facing his bedroom. Out of it peered a cautious old face. Billy gasped. The old woman quickly shut the curtain when their gazes met. It was her! It wasn’t a dream. A plan began to form in his head.
It was a slow crawl toward evening. Billy secretly packed a stuff sack full of necessary supplies. Books, candy, several toy cars, some comics, and the mighty flashlight. He clicked it on and off several times to make sure it worked and stuffed it in the pack. His father clomped down the hallway. Billy dropped the sack on the other side of the bed, gently .
“Heya sport,” his father said, peeking into the room. Billy didn’t turn to look at him. “Can I come in?” He nodded forlornly, and his father entered. He had gotten a stern talking to from his father, more afraid than angry at the time, and the dull ache in his heart remained for the day. His father sat on the bed next to him.
“I know you’re feeling like the whole world just left you behind,” he said. “It hurts me, too, seeing you have to give up playing and rough housing with your buddies. I promise you soon…we’re gonna beat this thing. One-two punch, right?” Billy nodded, and looked at his dad. He wondered how long they had to keep punching. His father put his arm around his son, who felt the need to pull away. He didn’t understand why he felt that. Only that he did, and it was strange, but he let his father give him a tight squeeze of reassurance and patted him on the shoulder as he rose from the bed.
“Your mom and I are gonna head to town. The babysitter is here. Be nice to her, like I know ya will. She’ll give you your medicine before bedtime.” It could wait much longer, the boy wagered. “I love you, Billy.”
“Love you, too.” His father left. He heard their muffled conversation with the babysitter. Babysitter…that was a term Billy hated with a passion. He was no baby, he was a kid. And he’d certainly never let anyone sit on him to save his life. The kidwatcher complied with the parents, and reassured them she had everything in hand. They’d return in several hours, don’t let him out of your site, blah blah. Once they shut the door, and the car pulled out of the driveway, she plopped herself in front of the television and vegged away. It was the result of past interludes of non-compliance, as she was apt to call them. They agreed to disagree and went their separate ways in a huff. It was a good thing his mother already fed him supper. Who knows what he’d find in his goulash if the slime beast kidwatcher had a chance at it. He walked to the end of the bed, grabbed the stuff sack, and slung it over his shoulder. Better to get moving now. He walked over to the window and unlatched it. With careful fingers he pried under the lower pane and slowly pushed up, a tiny squeak stopping him in his tracks. He looked back with wide eyes, making double sure she wasn’t tromping down the hall for a skirmish. Satisfied, he pushed it up the rest of the way, skin crawling at the tiny scratchy squeak. It clicked in place and with a sigh, he put one knee on the sill and hauled himself up, crawling through the space to the outside. What he hadn’t counted on was how far a drop it really was from the window to the ground. Fear gripped him, but excitement shoved him forward. The mental push-of-war ensued as he repositioned himself backwards, feet first out the window. He would hang and drop, the most trusty method of escaping one’s bedroom prison. He’d read it in a book, and it worked just fine for them. Billy hung there for a moment, breathless before the plunge. He let go, and hit the ground with a slap, the dirt patch still wet from the night before. Now he was really in for it. No matter, it was time to find out the truth.
He took out the flashlight from his pack and clicked it on. He shined the beam around the skirting of the little home, looking for an opening. Whenever you wanted to find something interesting about the neighbor, you looked under the crawlspace. He moved to the back, careful to stay beneath eyesight from the old occupant who, though surely asleep by now as old people were, could awaken at the most impossible moment. He finished scanning all sides of the home except for the front. Not a seam or crack was visible. Rats. He shut off the flashlight in disappointment. He looked up at the sky where the stone wall had blocked the moon. Nothing there now, but the sky was full of stars and the moon itself glowed with special radiance.
Something floated in front of it. He strained to see what it was. A bat perhaps? No, he thought. Bats flitted about quickly. Eagles didn’t fly at night. Owls weren’t around here. The shape grew bigger and came closer. He dashed around the corner of his house and watched as the looming winged thing swooped over the desert prairie. He could make out something carried in its claws, giant as they were. A box of some sort, made of wood and wrapped in chains which the thing clutched tightly. It was coming in fast. Billy felt the wind of it whoosh forward at him and he was deathly afraid it was going to crash right into the house. In fact, it was on a collision course. He didn’t know what to do. Cry for help? Call the fire department? Who could stop a winged beast from smacking head first into his neighbor’s.
A panel slid open on the back, and the moonlight revealed it’s nature. It was a dragon alright. A real live dragon. The breath got knocked out of Billy’s lungs as it shrank in an instant to fly through the panel in the skirting. It slid shut. A disappearing wall of stone. A shrinking dragon. The pieces were beginning to come together.
Billy dreamed about the dragon. He dreamed of flying high into the sky, and that it was a friendly dragon, and that it would take him wherever he wanted to go. He wouldn’t have to worry about getting cold anymore, because the dragon breathed fire. If he got cold, he could simply say set down old champ! and they’d have a campfire with S’mores and hot dogs anywhere they pleased. At night, when the babysitter was slumped all over the recliner and he was left alone in his room, he would open his window and sound off his secret whistle and the dragon would make haste to his perch. With wings in full span, undulating in the cool night breeze, he would bow his head to his young friend and ask “To where shall we fly this night?” To which Billy would respond “To battle!” because kingdoms always got into trouble and needed saving. The two would be whisked into the night and return as heroes by morning, victorious and celebrated.
Until a knock at his bedroom door ruined it all.
His mother walked in and looked curiously at him lying on the bed. She stood over him as he sat up.
“Billy,” she said with a wry smile. “Did you put the wax back in your ears? I’ve been calling you for the last ten minutes! Lunch is ready, bud.”
“Alrighty,” replied Billy.
“You have thirty seconds before it gets cold,” said his mom, who turned around and left down the hall. Thirty seconds? thought Billy. Plenty of time to take one last flight…
Lunch was satisfying, but Billy never felt full after most meals lately. He felt like he could have eaten three more grilled cheese sandwiches with a horse on the side. Billy was fresh out of candy, so there was no dessert to be had. It wasn’t as though he was starving, but something inside his belly told him things weren’t quite up to specification. So after doing his homework, Billy was allowed to spent a little while outside, being much warmer than it had around his previous incident. It was a welcome distraction. He never got as cold as he had years before, but it was enough to stir the pot as far as his parents were concerned.
He took his plates to the sink and thanked his mother for lunch. He wiped his mouth off with his forearm, grabbed his ball cap and made his way to the front door. A bat and ball were in the corner waiting for him. He picked them up, opened the door and stepped outside. The hot air hit him like an open oven. No problems with the chills today. He stepped out on the porch and shut the door behind him. The sun was behind the house, and cast a long shadow in front of it that loomed into the street where the air was cooler in the shade. Though ‘cooler’ was a relative term today, and it made him leary of heading out into the sun behind his house, where he would hit the ball for a while.
Up and down the street were people milling about their day. Lawns being watered, kids running through sprinklers, dogs being walked, and cars being washed. A group of kids made their way down the sidewalk as Billy stepped out into the yard for some practice swings. Their leader, a showy young man named Ricky who all the girls in the neighborhood had a crush on, saw Billy with his junior bat and too-big baseball cap that pressed down on his ears, causing them to stick out.
“Hey Billy,” sneered Ricky. “Can’t hold a real bat?” The young man kept walking with his entourage, but not before turning the group’s attention to Billy’s very existence.
“Hey everybody,” he continued. “He needs a shelf to keep his hat from falling down over his face. Oh wait, those are his ears.” The group laughed, not knowing that it was rude, only knowing only that their ten year old idol was telling them it was okay. He’s an older kid, he must be right, they thought. Billy remained silent, but he swung his bat a little slower and with a little less gusto. He tried to ignore them even though he knew it wouldn’t work. He could retreat to the backyard, but doing so would make him look like a weakling. He lost either way. Billy made no indication he was upset.
“Awww,” said Ricky. “Does widdo Billy feel sad now? Is he gonna cry? Come on, let’s get outta here.”
He wished the dragon hated Ricky, too. What relief washed over him wasn’t a big deal, because he didn’t feel any. At least they were gone. He started toward the backyard, but stopped before the space between his house and the old woman’s strange haunt. The sun reached half way into the space from the back of the house. He could hide there. But maybe the old woman wouldn’t like that. Maybe the dragon wouldn’t either. He took a few steps toward the space. It seemed to grow warmer. Two steps back and it got cooler. Billy wanted to get into the backyard in the worst way, at least for a little while. He would have taken the other direction, but the neighbors had it fenced off like the snobs they were, saying that our house butted right up against the edge of their lot. Going in through the back was also gravely out of the question. He couldn’t risk his mother making him stay inside, as she was prone to do even if he just had to use the bathroom, which he also had to do now. It was the space or nothing.
With tentative, deliberate steps, he trudged forward. The old woman’s window was closed and shuttered, but he knew she would be watching. She seemed to know a lot. Then again, what old woman didn’t possess the ability to absorb all the secret stuff from miles around? He moved closer, and the heat was almost unbearable. Even more unbearable still was the idea that he would have to spend the rest of the day in his room. The heat didn’t seem to bad then.
Until he took a few steps more. There had to be a fire under the trailer. And a fire could only mean one thing. That dragon was watching and waiting. Billy put down his bat and ball, got down on his hands and knees to see if maybe there was a gap around the base of the skirting. It was dark the last time he went spelunking around the the old lady’s place. He could not tell from his distance. He was too scared to get any closer now, having convinced himself the beast was really there.
Billy heard the other monster running his mouth down the block. Billy ran.
The heat was painful, the blunt words of Ricky even more so. Billy’s legs pounded ground harder than ever before. He imagined himself on a baseball field, running for home plate. The ball was sailing to the catcher for an out, and Billy was a run down from winning. He had to do it. He reached the edge of the houses. He ran into what felt like a bonfire. He began to tear up at the pain. There was no going back. The heat burned his eyes and he had to close them. He kept running straight. Home plate had to be close!
He charged for an eternity, the heat blasting his skin which felt hotter than black top under the noon sun in tourist season. Sweat poured over his eyelids and, even though they were shut tight, he felt the salty sting. He felt his lungs on fire, not just from the heat, and he began to lose steam. The air felt cooler on his face now, and the heat from the old woman’s house was behind him.
Billy came to a stomping halt and sucked air into his lungs like a struggling freight train. He leaned forward, hands bracing against his knees. After a moment, he stood up and untucked his shirt, lifting the bottom up to his face and wiping the sweat from his eyes. His face burned, raw from the dragon’s fire. It felt like a sunburn. After he felt confident enough to open his eyes, he looked up to see the half-desert that stretched out behind his house. Funny, it never seemed so close to him before. Perhaps he was spending too much time in the house, and he would be sure to let his mother and father know the important things he was missing. Dust devils swirled around like playful animals. Tumbleweeds went end over end after them, all pushed along by the easterly wind that swept across the sands that were mottled with patches of weedy tall grass that bent under the small force of the breeze. It was beautiful.
Billy didn’t want to turn away, but he wanted to smack some homers. He turned around to get his bat and ball and stopped cold. His house had never seemed so far away from him before. He looked back at the desert, then back at his house with a slack-jawed amazement. He ran so fast and so far to get through that flame that he was well outside his own yard and then some. Instead of running to home plate, that is, the backyard clothesline, he ran clear to the outfield.
Then he looked at the little red house next door. A small black shape caught his eye. The panel had been opened. A red eye glowed faintly in the darkness. He heard what sounded like a puff, and the panel slid shut with a scraping knock. His spirit was ignited. Billy Wilkins, age eight, had just been the world’s first kid to run through a dragon’s fire and survive. Well, technically not actual fire. Bah, who cares? He ran through it by golly! Something that old Ricky could never do! Would never do! He cheered and jumped into the air, raising his fists in triumph. Billy ran back to his yard on a second wind, waved at the old woman who was surely watching him, and went to smack the ball for a victory celebration. The feeling was unlike any other good feeling he ever had. He didn’t think to analyze it, he just felt it. Let it take him up in the wings of his achievement. His arms were wings, and he flew high up over all the world. He never wanted to come down from it. he wanted to live there for the rest of his young life. No one could beat him up there or make fun of him or stick needles in his arm. It was simply his domain. This memory would be his secret hideout. His feet were on the ground, but his imagination was beyond the sky. He was excited to send the ball soaring away.
When he reached the yard he looked around. A sinking feeling pulled down upon his soaring spirits.
He forgot his baseball and bat in the front yard.
The next dayBilly crept a few steps toward the back of the tiny manufactured home where the sliding panel was. He got to the corner of his own house and swiftly stepped into the shaded space between them. There was a buzz in his belly, that feeling you get when you’re scared and excited at the same time. He crouched and looked at the window to make sure the neighbor wasn’t looking. It was dark inside. The coast was clear.
With the steely resolve of Kit Carson himself, Billy furrowed his brow and hopped over the dirt path between the two homes. He landed on two feet, but his two feet landed on the edge of the concrete slab where the ground had sloped downward a bit. Billy teetered backwards, flailing his arms in a desperate bid to regain balance, his waist wobbling in and out. If he fell again, the old woman would surely hear him this time. Then he remembered why he had undertaken his little gambit. He hadn’t accounted for the possibility of becoming a hot lunch for the beast. Wonder will do that to a person. His parents would really be ticked at him if that happened. He doubled forward and reached for a seam under the vinyl siding. Billy pulled himself up silently and pressed up close against the wall. Phew. Now his nerves were in a twist, and he was afraid to move for a good while.
When he finally regained his courage, he crept toward the back. He knelt down and peeked around the corner. No sound, nothing out of the ordinary. Not even a scorch mark. Billy reached out to touch the panel.
“You there!” came a scratchy, nasally English voice that jolted him like a line drive. Billy would have been on the moon had he not been scared stiff. “What you doing ‘ere?”
Billy pivoted on his knees to see the puffy face of the old woman glaring down at him from the window. That odd face that didn’t seem to fit quite right underneath that overly cottony hair. She pressed him again. “I says, what you doing ‘ere?”
“Nothing! Nothing!” Billy wheezed, too scared to speak loudly. “I was just looking for something.”
The old crone shifted her glasses. “Well aren’t you a paradoxical oddity. You were doing nothing and something at the same time?”
“No. I mean–”
“So you weren’t doing that either? Make up your mind boy, they can’t all be right.”
“No, I mean I was just looking for something. Nothing that was bad.”
“Why’s your back all muddy? Did you fall out the window?”
“Yeah. No. I don’t know!” Billy’s thoughts were spinning so fast they all looked the same.
“Aren’t you the neighbor boy who ain’t s’posed to be out and about?”
That didn’t sit well at all. “My name is Billy,” he said with a frown.
“And you’re sneakin’!”
“But I saw a dragon!” he blurted, and regretted it. The old woman seemed to go quiet for a second, then shifted her glasses again.
“Bah! Don’t give me any–” came a rather husky voice for an elderly lady. She cleared her throat and continued. “Don’t give me any children’s nonsense stories. And that still doesn’t explain why your back is all muddy! Tell me the truth or I’m callin’ yer mum!”
Billy shuffled his feet, and looked down. Nowhere to go but guilty. “My mum’s not home.”
“Very well,” said the puffy old crone. “I’m getting the directory out right this minute!”
“Well good enough, then. No more makin’ up stories, aye? Goodnight!” She slipped back into the house and slammed the window shut.
Billy slumped against the wall of her house like a deflated balloon. He was trapped, and his belly was filled with bees, butterflies, and all things that sting. He couldn’t climb back into his house without a ladder. Walking in the front door was certain death, but a good way to get the psycho-maniac babysitter in trouble. Yet the cost to benefit ratio, a term he learned from listening to his economically obsessed neighbor ranting down the street, was too high.
Inside the house, which was lit only by the orange flicker of a few candles, the old woman watched from behind the curtain. She watched him crouch down, knees propped up to his chest and held tightly in his arms. He had gotten himself into a fair bit of trouble on his own, and needed to learn that bit of it the hard way. Still, he seemed so lonely. And then there was the matter of that dragon…
The old woman looked over at a painting. A starry sky above green grassy fields, a farm on the left resting sleepily for the night. The stars showed a most intriguing constellation. The shape of a young boy, in an aura of light. A sun was passing through him, and something of it was left behind inside the strange aura. The shape of the head…
“Intriguing indeed.” On a fireplace mantle sat a complicated optical device with many lenses and dials. She walked over to it with a strangely steady gait and grabbed the device off the mantle, putting it on her head and walking back over to the window. She pushed the curtain aside. Billy was still sitting there, next to tears. She adjusted several dials, and flipped down a blue lens and a clear lens with a clunky gold iris that closed to a narrow pinhole view. She pointed her gaze at Billy. A great aura glowed within him, yellow and radiant like a small sun. The old woman flipped up the device and stared wide-eyed at the boy.
“It’s him,” she whispered in that strangely masculine voice. It was time for him to go home.
Outside, Billy sat alone and cold. Trouble always hurt worse, but he couldn’t take the cold for much longer. His backpack was next to him, and he picked through the items, finally pulling out his silver flashlight. He clicked it on. The light felt warm. He shined it on and around the ground, onto the walls, slowly tracking it up until it rested at the neighbors window, and the old woman’s face.
“You there,” she said. “Up you go!”
Billy looked at his window. “It’s too high, I can’t climb back up it.”
“Nonsense, you’re a boy. Boy’s can climb anything if they put their mind to it.”
“But I can’t!” replied Billy. “It’s too high up to jump.”
“Well how do you know? Have you ever jumped back into a window before? Hmm?”
Billy shook his head.
“S’what I thought. Now you have to get back inside before it gets too cold. Jump.”
Billy couldn’t understand why she suddenly had a change of heart. It was odd, but welcome. He wanted to try. To leap up into the window like a bird riding the wind. He placed his hands on the ground to push himself up, but dropped back down, knowing he couldn’t.
“Come on lad!” Billy started to tear up. No one ever told him he could do it. And he believed them, because you always have to believe the grown-ups. But the old woman was a grown-up, too, and he started to get confused. She told him he could do it. That he was good enough. But his friends and the neighbors didn’t.
“I’ll help you lad! I promise, but you have to try like a knight!” Perhaps she had a ladder, he thought, her pleading voice confident enough in her assurances. “Trust me!” Billy rose from the ground. He threw the flashlight into the backpack and zipped it shut. He slid his arms through the straps, and walked over to the window. He jumped, reaching high with his arms, grasping at air with his fingers. Billy landed on solid ground again, disheartened.
“I told you!” he said. Everything in him wanted to give up. But he was angry, and wanted to prove to her again he couldn’t do it. He jumped again.
This time, he made it. His fingers grabbed onto the open sill and he pulls himself up. He felt light as air. Billy pushed himself up through the window, and landed safely inside. He stood there for a second, unsure that he had really just done what he thought he did. He turned around and looked out the window. The old woman was gone. He smiled.
Too bad she didn’t have a washing spell to clean his clothes. He pulled off his shirt.
Not a spot of dirt or mud marked a single thread. There was no turning back now. Helping him was an invitation to return, and return he would.