by Chris F. Holm
(from the short story collection, The Lizard’s Ardent Uniform, Veridical Dreams Vol. I)
Kyle Williams was sleeping. He was sleeping, and this was just a dream. There was no monster in his backyard.
At least, that’s what he told himself—although his eyes told him something else entirely.
His alarm clock glowed 3:17. Kyle’s mother had put him to bed nearly seven hours ago. He’d been sleeping soundly until a few minutes back, when he was roused by a short, sharp rap that echoed through the night, and a subsequent lessening of the darkness all around him.
Light, faint and white like the moon’s, spilled in through his bedroom window.
But tonight, Kyle knew, the moon was new. It said so on the astronomical calendar that hung above his desk. That calendar, along with his very own reflector telescope, was gift from his father—or, more accurately, a bribe—given to him shortly after they left Boston for Santa Fe.
Kyle’s father had been a tenure-track professor of physics at MIT when Ardent Industries came calling, and Kyle himself had been happily ensconced in third grade at The Bellwether Academy, which he’d attended since pre-K. He wasn’t present for the phone call, but he remembered afterward listening in on his parents’ conversation from the upstairs landing of their Beacon Hill row house, his right cheek pressed against the balusters as he strained to hear.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Eric? Leave MIT? Uproot Kyle?”
“For the chance to have the lab of my dreams, and all the funds I’d ever need to continue my research? For the chance to prove to the world that limitless clean energy is not only theoretically possible, but attainable in our lifetime? Allie, how could I possibly turn that down?”
Apparently, he couldn’t, because soon after, they packed their things and drove the family Volvo to their new home—a sprawling ranch-style house on the outskirts of Santa Fe, with russet-colored desert all around. Ardent paid to have their belongings shipped ahead of them, so when they arrived, their furniture was already set up—their dark-stained Colonial pieces looking awkward and out-of-place in this rustic, Southwestern setting. Kyle had barely spoken in the four days it took them to make the drive. He was too heartsick. He missed his old school, his old house, his old life. But when he walked into his bedroom to find amidst his old belongings, a brand new Celestron NexStar SLT Series 130 SLT telescope, his foul mood evaporated.
“I thought you might enjoy that,” said his father from his doorjamb with a grin. “You’ll see a lot more stars here than you ever could in Boston. Too much light pollution there to make them out, even on a clear night. But way out here, who knows what you might see?”
His father was right. In his whole life, Kyle had never seen so many stars as he had that first night. And thanks to his telescope, he soon found there was more to the night sky than he’d ever imagined. The pockmarked surface of the moon. The reddish haze of the Orion Nebula. The majesty of Saturn’s rings. The monster in his backyard.
When that unearthly glow shone through his bedroom window and cast long shadows of his telescope on its tripod, he slipped out of bed and padded, barefoot and pajama-clad, over to the window for a look. What he saw was a beam of light shining down upon a figure in the darkness, some thousand feet of scrub-strewn desert away. At this distance, Kyle could make out nothing of the man—for at that point, he still assumed it was a man—so he aimed his scope in his direction. All he got for his trouble was a blurry mess. But when he dialed back the magnification and adjusted the focus, a figure resolved, standing in an undulating column of white. And that figure was not human.
It was human-sized, at least. Somewhere between five-five and six feet, Kyle guessed, although it stood in a strange, feral half-crouch, which made its full height hard to estimate. It had two arms, two legs, and a head, each in the usual place. But its skin—every inch of which was visible, on account of the creature was naked—was plated with thick, green scales like a lizard’s. Its hands and feet, while broadly humanoid, terminated in nasty looking claws that glinted like onyx in the strange, pulsing light and seemed capable of retracting at will, because they twitched as if testing the air around the beast, and the ground beneath its feet. Its head, which was tilted to the heavens as though basking in the light’s glow, put Kyle in mind of a boa constrictor. Its eyes glistened like puddles of black ink, occasionally clouding over for a moment when the creature blinked—translucent nictitating membranes sliding across its eyes like an eclipse viewed on fast-forward.
When Kyle looked into those eyes, he had a sudden, panicked thought the creature could see him, and he hit the floor. But when his galloping heart slowed to a trot and he screwed up the courage to peek through the eyepiece once more, he realized the lizard-beast hadn’t moved: it was still staring up at the unseen light-source high above. Kyle wondered what could possibly generate so bright a beam. He followed the beam upward with his telescope until it dwindled to no more than a single strand of spider-silk bisecting the crushed velvet of the night sky, but he saw no source. He increased the magnification, and the beam widened.
Using that method—an upward tilt until the beam dwindled down to nothing followed by an increase in magnification—he followed the light back to its source, a spinning disc of deeper dark against the starry black. And as he zoomed in upon the aperture from whence the undulating beam sprang, his reflector scope amplifying the light’s intensity, a strange sensation overtook Kyle. It began as a hum deep inside his inner ear, a rattle in his molars. And then, at once, he heard them.
Heard wasn’t quite right. It was more like he and they—the creature on the ground, and the one with whom it was conversing on the ship—occupied the same headspace. Ideas flew back and forth between them in a rush, all filtered through the limited experience of Kyle’s eight-year-old mind.
From the ship, an interrogative barrage of images. A four-star general, his face unseen, his chest spangled with multicolored medals. A discarded pair of coveralls, plucked off the floor. A policewoman adjusting her belt and putting on her hat.
Did you acquire the uniform?
The beast below’s reply registered in Kyle’s mind as a box checked on a to-do list, a big thumbs-up, a finish line proudly crossed.
The ship, its tone somehow once more questioning: A hand bashing through glass marked IN CASE OF EMERGENCY and retrieving a fire-ax. A cartoon burglar wearing a raccoon-like mask over his eyes and tiptoeing through the darkness, a bag slung over his shoulder. A light bulb glowing ever brighter, and then bursting. Steam billowing from the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant.
What about the … and here, Kyle’s mind struggled to grasp the creature’s meaning. It was somewhere between power source and weapon in his mind. But before he could reconcile the images his brain had been bombarded with, the creature on the ground replied; his mother’s kitchen timer approaching zero, a clock just seconds from striking midnight.
Then, suddenly, the tone changed. The light grew … agitated somehow. Angry. Kyle’s mind flooded with red-tinted images of an ear pressed against a wall, a TV cop wearing a wire.
They knew someone was listening.
The light blinked out, plunging Kyle into night’s full dark. Kyle hit the deck, knocking over his telescope in his haste. A cold sweat broke out across his back and neck. He lay there in the darkness trembling for what seemed like forever.
Helpless. Exposed. Vulnerable.
Eventually, his fear of staying put overwhelmed his fear of moving. He belly-crawled from his spot beneath the window back to his bed, and then—gathering his courage—leapt off the floor, tossing his blankets high into the air. He landed in the boy-sized divot at the center of his mattress as they settled over him.
Kyle lay that way for hours, his fear of the lizard-beast bursting in to find him balanced somewhat by a child’s faith in the mystical protection afforded by pulling the covers over one’s head.
And then, as the coming sun painted orange the eastern horizon, he slept.
* * *
Kyle tossed and turned well into morning, trying in vain to catch up on the sleep the monster in his yard had stolen from him. He ignored his mother’s 8 a.m. urgings to get up, and her attempts to bribe him with chocolate chip pancakes at ten. But it was no use; sleep was fleeting, and when it came, so too did nightmare visions of lizard-beasts hunting for him in the darkness—of spotlights zigzagging across the desert floor as half-seen ships above searched high and low. So instead, he lay beneath the covers, queasy from hunger and exhaustion both, but too frightened to come out.
“I’m worried about him, Eric,” said his mother from just outside his door, shortly after her failed pancake bribe. “He’s been in bed all morning, and refuses to come out.”
“Maybe he’s sick.”
“He’s not, as far as I can tell. His forehead felt normal, and he doesn’t sound congested. I think he’s … frightened?”
“Probably just had a nightmare.”
“Some nightmare. Will you talk to him?”
A long pause. A sigh. And then Kyle’s dad said, “If it’ll make you feel better, sure.”
Kyle heard, but did not see, the door open. Felt the mattress rock beneath the sudden weight of his father, as he sat down on the edge of the bed.
“Hey, kiddo, you okay?”
Kyle nodded beneath the blankets.
“You know I’d find that more convincing if you’d come out of there.”
Reluctantly, Kyle poked his head free.
Kyle nodded again.
Kyle shrugged. “Seemed pretty real to me.”
“You want to talk about it, maybe?”
Kyle shook his head.
“Sometimes talking through a bad dream helps you feel better. You realize how silly it sounds when you say it out loud, and it stops being scary.”
He waited, but Kyle said nothing. “Okay,” he said, “I won’t make you. But your mom’s pretty worried about you. You think you could maybe come out and get some breakfast so she knows you’re okay?”
“I suppose,” Kyle said.
“Attaboy,” his dad said, tousling Kyle’s hair. “C’mon. I hear tell she’s making pancakes.”
The two of them walked hand-in-hand down the hall to the kitchen. Right before they entered the room, Kyle’s dad exclaimed, “Look what I found!”
For a moment, Kyle had the irrational fear that his kitchen would be full of angry lizard-monsters, all slavering at the chance to sink their teeth into his tender flesh. But when they rounded the corner, there was no one in the kitchen but Kyle’s mother. She was mixing up a bowl of pancake batter, and she beamed when she caught sight of him. “Hey, sleepy-head,” she said. “You hungry?”
“Good,” she said, flicking on the stovetop to heat the skillet. “What about you?” she asked her husband.
“Starving,” he said, “but I’ve got to stop into the lab. In fact,” he said, looking at his watch, “I should have been there twenty minutes ago.”
“You have to eat,” she said.
“I know,” he replied. “But I’m already late, and you haven’t even started cooking yet.”
“Promise you’ll grab something on the way?”
Kyle watched his dad lean in and give his mom a peck on the cheek. Watched her fingers graze his chest as he pulled away, a simple gesture of affection. Suddenly, the horrid images of last night that plagued him well into this morning seemed a world away: a bad dream fading into distant memory.
“Later, kiddo,” said his dad as he pushed open the screen door and stepped outside.
“Later, Dad!” Kyle called back, smiling.
But as the screen door’s old spring yanked it closed, and its wooden frame clacked against the jamb, Kyle’s blood ran cold. Because he knew at once that was the short, sharp rap that roused him late last night. That had brought him to the window in the first place.
What did it mean? Had that monster tried to get into the house? He didn’t know, but he was sure now what he’d seen hadn’t been a dream. Which meant they weren’t safe here. Which meant he had to tell someone.
He looked to his mom, but she was busy cooking pancakes, and wasn’t paying him any mind. Not that she’d believe me anyways, he thought.
But Dad might.
Kyle ran to the screen door. Tried to call out to his dad. But the words died on his lips, and all that came out was a strangled wheeze.
Because as he reached the door, he saw his dad crouched in the driveway like a feral animal, his head tracking slowly from left to right. Kyle followed his dad’s gaze, and soon spotted the object that had attracted his attention: a dun brown deer mouse, scurrying across their cracked dirt drive.
As its path across the driveway brought it near to Kyle’s dad, his father leapt quick as death, and came up with the squirming rodent in his hands. Then he snapped its neck, and the poor mouse squirmed no more.
And as Kyle watched, he tilted his head back, opened his mouth wide—revealing a second mouth inside it brimming with sharp glinting teeth, like a snake’s—and lowered the dead mouse into it by its tail.
Then the thing wearing Kyle’s dad climbed into the family Volvo and took off for Ardent Industries, the dirt kicked up by the tires hanging heavy in the air.