The rickety wheels on my bicycle stuttered across the jagged sandstone underneath them as I cycled through town. I skilfully weaved between the ambling crowds, occasionally drawing a shout of shock or anger from a stranger.
“Watch it, kid!”
“Hey, my foot!”
I ignored them all, focused as I was on my singular task.
Benali was a poor place, little more than scrap metal houses hastily constructed on the edge of desert land. There was little agricultural opportunity there, the soil yielding little more than cacti. As such, regular truckloads of food were scheduled to arrive in Benali to supplement the diet of those living in such bleak conditions. The government bought them cheaply from faraway lands and supplied them at an extortionate price.
It was a price my family could not afford. I lived in that awful place with my mother and my newborn sister. The pregnancy had been hard on her, leaving her with wounded pride and debts to neighbours. She was too weak to work in the copper mines, copper smelting, or copper purification – all common and well-paid jobs in Benali. Instead, she became a seamstress.
The work was slow, and newborns are expensive. That month, our money had simply run out.
So, I snuck out of the house on my bicycle, intent on snatching some food from the government delivery that day.
My mother would be ashamed of my behaviour, but she would eat. That is all I cared about.
I crested a small sandy hill, the border in full view. Through the haze of heat, I could see three mountainous trucks ahead, surrounded by the small outlines of people. Two trucks stood idle while the third had an open back. People in green overalls and high boots unloaded crates one at a time, passing them to one another in a line which ended with small vans. Once the vans were full, they would drive into Benali. A large black car stood proud and motionless next to them all.
Next to the car stood a man in a bright white suit and dark black glasses over his eyes. He looked on as those in the green overalls checked the contents of each container thoroughly. He clutched a clipboard in his hands but did not write anything on it.
‘Okay, one crate and then book it back to the tent…’ I thought to myself.
In truth, this was not my first time stealing from the trucks, though usually I would wait until the produce was in the shops and stalls of Benali. The tight security around those areas in Benali was likely an attempt to deter nuisances like me.
The border, surprisingly, had very little security. I smiled to myself and resumed my cycle towards the trucks.
When I arrived, I would see that the workers in green looked exhausted. Sweat poured from their foreheads, and several were sat in the shade of the closed trucks, their heads in their arms. My own skin tingled in protest to the exposed sunlight.
I hopped off of my bicycle, my sandals sinking into the sand a little. With practised ease, I kicked the chain on the gears, which came loose and rattled against the back wheel.
Several of the workers turned in my direction. When I closed more distance between us, one of them spoke.
“Hey kid, you lost?”
She was a tall, willowy woman with an angular face pulled into a frown.
“Eh, no,” I replied casually, “just wondering if you needed any help.”
“No kid, move along,” she replied irately. She grabbed another crate from the person to her right, it was full of potatoes covered in mud. My mouth watered at the thought of such a luxury. Golden potato – fluffy and filling.
“Sure,” I swallowed, “Let me just fix the chain on my bike, it came off on the way here.” I lied effortlessly and without guilt. The woman nodded her permission, her face softening.
I walked to the shaded side of the truck and propped my bicycle up against it. I knelt down and wrestled with the chain erroneously, my fingers began to get coated in the slick oil.
My opportunity came quickly. A worker huffed, unceremoniously dropping the crate of orange-skinned yams he had been holding at his feet. He put his arms above his head to stretch, turning his back to the valuable produce.
I forced the chain back onto the gear wheel, slicing open my thumb in the process. I snatched the crate and used some rope that I had thought to bring with me to secure it onto my bicycle. I moved quickly and precisely.
“HEY KID, STOP!” the female worker shouted.
This set a tidal wave of shouts from the green-clad workers flowing towards me. I hopped on my bicycle clumsily and began to pedal as quickly as I could. Yams flew from the stolen crate as I sped up. Several workers in green ran after me, fingers brushing my back or the stolen crate but to no avail.
I was too fast for them.
I wound the pedals frantically, sand flew from the wheels on my bicycle. Once I crested the hill towards home, I looked back to see the workers shouting, pointing toward me. My heart beat impossibly faster as I looked at the man in the white suit. He was quiet and staring directly at me through his glasses. Two bloated pupils of pure anger.
I swallowed my nerves and cycled back home quickly.
I hid the bicycle under some tarpaulin behind our house before shoving my shoulder into the sheet metal door to open it. My mother sat on a cushion on the sandstone floor, feeding my sister from her breast. My heart broke seeing how exhausted and dirty she looked.
Tentatively, I placed the crate of yams on our floor.
“Listen, Mom, we have to eat something and the money has been…”
“No. Not there. Hide it under the ground, in the dugout.”
The dugout was a tunnel-shaped storage area under our house, accessed by a thick leather-hinged trapdoor. I scrambled to place the crate within it before returning to my mother. We sat in silence for a moment before she addressed me.
“My milk is running dry.” She stated defeatedly.
‘That explains why she wasn’t angry with me for stealing this time,’ I thought. Tears ran down my cheeks.
“You need to eat, mama,” the words whining small in my throat.
She, too, began to cry.
“Go and get some of those yams, Jo honey.” She picked up a small metal pot.
So, I did, walking into the dugout once more.
Dark as it was under the ground, I could see that one yam bulged larger than the rest. Thinking greedily, I grabbed it, only to find its surface smooth and marble-like. I picked it up. It was heavy, cream-coloured, and cold to the touch. I admired it, puzzling its presence in the crate of yams.
‘Must be some kind of polished copper rock…’ I thought, thinking perhaps Benali was expanding the creativity of its exports.
With the large globe stretching the skin on my hand, the wound on my thumb burst open once more. I had forgotten all about it in the panic of my escape.
I remembered how the bicycle chain had stung me in my haste earlier. I stuck my thumb in my mouth and sucked, metal-tasting, oily blood tinging my tongue.
“Jo?” My mother called from above, making my body jump in surprise. I dropped the rock, it landed with a dull thud at my feet.
“Just coming Mom!” I shouted back, grabbing three yams in my hands and climbing up from the dugout.
As with my previous…questionable activities, the government soon launched an investigation into the missing goods. No more than twelve hours had passed before a knock reverberated through my mother’s home.
I moved to move the sheet metal aside before my mother stopped me. She told me to hide in the dugout while she handled it. We were used to these visits and neither of us looked worried.
Climbing into the cold crawlspace was unpleasant, sandstone compressing my elbows into my sides. I had to tuck one of my knees atop the crate of yams in order to fit, the thick leather trapdoor sat atop my head, oppressive.
I could hear the conversation in parts.
“…seen this boy?”
“No, what are you accusing him…”
“Thievery of Benali Government goods…border this morning.”
There was a heavy silence between my mother and the person at the door. Quite suddenly, a shout rang out from outside of the walls. Whatever the voice had said, it caused the man in our house to become irate.
‘They are arresting her. For a crate of yams?' I could not believe what I was hearing. My heart began to hammer in my chest, rising heat in my ears. Even if they had caught me, my mother had only been issued a warning in the past, not before clipping me around the ear first.
“Sir, I have told you…not seen the boy, …this house! I have a baby!” my mother’s cries rose to meet my own panic. I began to push the leather trapdoor upwards with my forehead so I could see a little of... whatever this bizarre situation was.
I could see a pair of rubber boots standing in front of my mother’s bare feet. The man they belonged to advanced on her slowly.
“Ma’am, place your hands behind your back. You are under arrest for impeding a Benali Government investigation,” he spoke plainly and with conviction.
My mother’s feet backed up towards my sister’s crib, standing in front of her.
“The Benali Government will provide appropriate care for the child. Please place your hands behind your back.”
My sister’s shrill voice tore into the air, crying in alarm. I, too, felt a wobbling lump of panic threaten my throat with a scream. It rose and rose until I could not hold it any more…
“Now, now, Johnny Law. There’s no need to be so official.” A smooth voice spoke. With it came a pair of what looked to be men’s dancing shoes. The wearer walked forward, caressing the floor with the tip of his foot with each step. He sauntered over to my mother.
“I won’t lie to you Miss…”
“Dahal,’ my mother filled in, her voice shaking.
“Miss Dahal. My associates and I have found the bicycle involved in the crime just outside your home. Would you care to explain to me how it got there?”
“Well…well…I…” my mother stuttered. The man sighed, disappointed.
“My Miss Dahal! What a delightfully adorable baby!” the man exclaimed suddenly. He reached up for his face and when his hands returned to rest at his hips, a pair of black, round sunglasses sat pinched in his fingers.
‘The man from the border!’ I choked in realisation. That man had been observing every single crate from behind his clipboard. He must be in charge.
“May I hold her?” the man asked enthusiastically.
“uh…sorry, no,” my mother replied.
“Ah well, a shame, Miss Dahal. Moving on, I must address why we are here. Perhaps I can do so more tactfully than my partner here.” With that, the man in the boot stepped backwards. “We know that you know where the boy who stole my property is."
The man twirled his sunglasses in his hand whimsically, appearing to think for a moment. “If you do not tell us where he is, or where the crate is, you and your child will be detained indefinitely.”
My sister continued to cry.
‘What? They can’t do that!’
A sudden warmth spread over my back and shoulders. I ignored it.
“I like you, Miss Dahal. You have the posture of a protective mother – an admirable trait! I am sure you took that crate to provide for your baby, yes, that was it, wasn’t it dear?”
The dancing shoes approached my mother further, standing inches away from her own toes.
“For the sake of your child, I will make you a deal. Return my crate to me, and I will let you keep the food within it. Yams, wasn’t it? Yes, yams. All the yams in the world for you, my dear!”
‘But there’s only yams in the crate!’ I argued to myself.
My mother’s feet planted themselves.
The warmth at my back had become a burning, spreading over my chest. Something behind me began to glow.
“Sorry, I can’t help you.”
“Arrest her, take the child too.”
“NO PLEASE!” My mother begged as the man in the rubber boots grabbed her.
I went to push the leather trapdoor up fully, anger bolstering my entire body. Panic quickly doused it as I slipped on the crate and fell backwards in a pile of yams. From there, I could see the rock I had found on the floor just below me, only it was glowing a bright orange. Its light filled the dugout in an amber glow. The light suddenly exploded outwards, blinding me. I squeezed my eyes shut, shouting out in pain.
I scrambled up and out of the trapdoor, shoving my way out of the house. By the time I had, there was no trace of the man with the sunglasses, the man in the rubber boots, my mother or my sister. There weren’t even tire tracks to follow.
Uselessly, I ran around the neighbourhood, hoping for any small sign of the group. Hot tears burned down my face and dripped from my chin, occasionally landing on my panting tongue. My mother had been arrested for my crime. My foolish, childish, crime! Not only that but my baby sister had also been taken too! I had no idea where they were. I fell to my knees and wept into the sand. Without them, I felt like a grain of sand, at the mercy of torrid winds.
When the sun was falling and I could not see more than a meter in front of me, I had to haul my heavy, defeated limbs back home. I collapsed onto the floor and hugged some of my mother’s clothes to my chest.
“Oh, what do I do? What do I do?” I sobbed into them.
I did not remember falling asleep, but I awoke to the sound of sniffing. Wolves, hyaenas, cheetahs and lions did not regularly visit Benali, but when they did, they were hungry. With a start, I leapt up away from the noise and moved to grab my mother’s metal pot, brandishing it as a shield.
The creature at which I pointed the pot was not a wolf or even a mammal. It was a lizard. Lizards were very common in Benali but this one was unlike any species I had ever seen.
Its scales were a milky white, glistening like tiny pearls under the little moonlight which leaked into the house between metal sheets. Spiked scales of brown ran down its back, darkening at their tips into a dark red. It had a long tail, ending in more reddened spikes. Four legs supported its long body, shaped like paws at the back, and hands at the front. It reached out and gripped my mother’s clothing with one of the front ones. It sniffed them, large nostrils flaring.
“Get away!” I shouted, swinging the pot at the beast.
It squawked in alarm, jumping back but catching its claws in my mother’s clothing and tumbling onto its back.
At the display of clumsiness, I felt a strange ease wash over me. This was not a dangerous beast, it was just a child.
“What are you, eh? Some kind of iguana?” I asked aloud.
In response, the creature approached me with wide curious eyes, nostrils sniffing again. It looked at the pot nervously, so I placed it down and offered the creature my hand.
The creature looked at my fingers in calm concern. I had forgotten once again how the bicycle chain had cut into it. A forked tongue flicked out to lick the wound, fluttering against the broken skin. In the instant it did, I felt a warmth radiating from the cut. It glowed with the same strange orange glow the…iguana had appeared from.
I watched as the sides of the wound stitched themselves together, not stopping when pristine skin smoothed over. Instead, the skin then turned to scales. I panicked and frantically tried to scratch the emerging scales off of my hand.
“What have you done to me?” I bellowed at the creature.
The scales continued to crack through my skin, covering me inch by inch quickly. I could only wail in disappear and panic when I felt it reach my face, drying my lips and burying my nose and ears. My fingers desperately clutched at my eyes when I felt them glaze over in yellow.
When everything stopped, my hair sat in clumps below me, and my tongue could taste my mother’s scent fading in the air. I began to cry again, no, I began to weep.
“I am sorry.”
I did not even stop to consider the strangeness of the creature talking. I was past the point of feeling any sort of shock.
“What is happening to me?” I wailed, forked tongue and sharp teeth slurred my words.
“It is a spell - or a curse. The first to touch a dragon is its guardian – at the sacrifice of his humanity.”
I once again looked down at my hands. Green scales refracted light back at me, coating my body. I felt cold.
“I DON’T WANT A ...A DRAGON I WANT MY M... MOM!” I screamed childishly, spit flying from my mouth.
My companion flinched, lowering it’s head.
“Where is your Mom?” the dragon asked curiously.
It was then that it struck me, first that I was conversing with a lizard and second that the dragon spoke in a child’s voice. My stomach churned over itself, curdling at my current situation.
“She was taken with my baby sister, for a crime I committed,” I replied blankly, eyes still fixed to my green hands.
I lost consciousness again, falling gratefully into the embrace of complete absence.
My mother’s screams tore through my head.
“Arrest her, take the child too.”
“Take her to the Rattlesnake,” the man in the round sunglasses had said at the exact moment I hatched from my egg.
Wait, I didn’t hatch, that dragon thing did.
How do I remember hearing what the dragon heard?
“Hey! Wake up!”
I don’t want to unless my mother is here.
“You need some sunlight!”
No, I don’t.
A warm light appeared above me, bathing my body in its glow.
Mom, please be there when I wake up.
The dragon had knocked a metal sheet from the top of the house, opening a large hole through which the spiteful sting of Benali’s sun could strike.
Only, it didn’t burn me. It didn’t even itch. It felt pleasant, like warming my hands up around a bowl of vegetables in the dead of night. I could feel the warmth seep down into my bones, greeting them with a loving touch. Each one of my scales rippled in delight.
I realised with a start that I must have been unconscious for a whole night.
“Hi!” the dragon greeted me, hopping onto my chest excitedly.
“Who’s the Rattlesnake?” I asked, dazed.
“It was the first thing that I heard when I hatched. Oh, maybe he’s a dragon like me!”
“Why do I feel like I heard it too?”
“We should be able to access each other’s memories fully soon. It doesn't usually happen so quickly," the dragon rushed their words.
“How do you know all this?”
“I’m not sure. Instinct, I guess?”
I leapt up suddenly, scrambling through the clothes my mother had piled in the corner of the house. I threw on some baggy trousers, a large hoodie, and a scarf. I tucked my hands into the hoodie and used the scarf to cover my face.
“Humans wear extra skin?” the dragon asked, horrified.
“No, they’re clothes. Fabric, material, to cover ourselves. You will need a disguise too!”
“What are we doing?”
“The more I wait, the further my mother and my sister are taken away to pay for my mistake. I need to know who the Rattlesnake is, so I am going back to the border where the trucks arrive. I need to find the man in the sunglasses.”
I noticed how mature my words sounded compared to the scared little boy’s heart that beat in my chest frantically.
“Not without you, I also need a way to reverse whatever…skin disease you have given me.”
The dragon looked saddened, but I didn’t have time to deal with any of their feelings. I grabbed one of my sister’s blankets, trying to ignore the ferocious pang of guilt in my stomach as I did.
“Look I think…I think that the people who took my mom and sister were after you. I stole a crate of yams with your egg hidden in it, but they weren't all that bothered about the yams. If I return you, I could get my family back!”
“But… we are bonded…” the dragon mumbled sadly.
“What does that even mean?”
“When a dragon bonds with a person, it means that person is their guardian, and the dragon is their companion. Some would say we share a soul. We become one another, merging into each other. That is why I can speak your language, and why you have dragon scales. They look great by the w…”
“Shut up! I don’t want any of this! If I didn’t think you could help me get my mother back, I would have broken your neck already! I am not your guardian, you are not my companion, and we do not share a damned soul!”
I stuffed my pockets with the yams from the crate, slamming the dugout trapdoor behind me. I commanded that the dragon get into my sister’s blanket so I could carry them around without suspicion. I left my home with them in hand, setting my sights on the border once more.
We did not say a word to one another, much to my contentment. I did not want to hear another thing from that creature, even as I cradled it as I would my baby sister.
We had almost made it to the softer sand before a kindly old woman squealed at us in the street.
“Awe! A baby!”
“Where?” the dragon gasped, trying to look around. I batted its long neck back into the blanket.
“Boy or girl?”
“Does she mean me?” the dragon whispered.
“Shut up!” I gritted my teeth.
Without warning, the old woman pulled the blanket to the side and looked at the dragon directly.
“What’s their name?” she asked, smiling still.
“My name is Agni,” the dragon whispered to me, side-eyeing the woman. It struck me that I hadn't asked the dragon's name before I threatened to kill them. I felt sick at my own behaviour. I pushed my guilt aside quickly.
“Aggie,” I replied to the old woman, "they're called Aggie."
“Aw lovely! Have a good day Aggie!”
I walked away from the woman, my legs wobbling.
“She looked right at you!”
“Oh, she definitely had a bad sense of smell…”
“Sight? Smell? What’s the difference for humans?”
In the distance, I could see some people arriving at the border.
“I’ll have to tell you later, Aggie, we have to focus.”
“It’s Agni!” They growled irately, though, through their scales, I could see a smile grace their lips.
We quickly snuck over to the food trucks, diving under a stationary one to remain hidden. The workers in green were too exhausted to notice us.
Soon enough, I saw the dancing shoes of the man in the sunglasses glide across the sand. Through the thumping of the worker’s boots, I listened to his conversation. He approached a worker whom I recognised as the lady that I had spoken to when I had stolen the yams.
“Marie,” he greeted, his voice bringing anger and ash to my throat, reminding me of my mother’s screams.
“Hey boss, everything alright?”
“Unfortunately, not my dear. That crate that was taken from under your darling little nose had some important cargo in it.”
“We discounted the crate from the itinerary boss, all workers had their pay docked to compensate for the loss…”
“You were docked for the loss of yams. Not the loss of the hidden cargo.”
“The hidden cargo?”
“Marie, you are a smart girl, aren’t you? Yes, yes you are. You can’t possibly believe my company, Tarkhun Industries, would be supplying the Benali government with resources for such little profit?”
With that, I saw the man pull Marie aside, whispering into her ear inaudibly.
Suddenly, she pulled away from him, her face a mix of anger and hysterical comedy.
“Boss, that’s mad!”
“Mad?” he laughed, before turning very serious indeed, “I am not mad.”
He grabbed her by the arm, roughly shepherding her into a black car.
“I think it’s time you and I took a trip to the Rattlesnake.”
This seemed to strike fear into Marie, who began to struggle in earnest.
“No, no darling, none of that now. Get in, I’ll even let you pick the radio station!” he was delighted at her panic, smiling widely. He shoved her roughly into the backseat and locked the door.
“Toby!” a pair of black shoes turned to face the man in white, “I’m off to the Rattlesnake, I’ll see you there.”
The car roared to life, speeding away in a cloud of sand.
“It’s a place! Not a person!” Agni gasped in realisation as the car drove away into the bland desert.
“I don’t understand, there aren’t any places in the Benali Desert, just here.”
“We will have to follow him,” Agni huffed determinedly.
Without taking time to think about my lack of useful supplies, I quickly agreed, nodding at Agni.
“How?” I asked.
“We will use our noses,” Agni stated as if it was obvious, “now come on!”
Agni jumped out from under the truck, startling several workers in green and bounding into the pillowed sand dunes in the distance. I ran after her, apologising for my pet ‘iguana’ to the workers in green from under my scarf.
"Aggie! Slow down!" I shouted after them.
"It's Agni!" they shouted back, showing no signs of stopping.
I followed the little red spikes on Agni's back ahead of me, her leadership comforting me. Dutifully, I set one foot in front of the other in a state of absence. No thoughts but my mother and my sister were on my mind.
I realised that I could not see any signs of life in any direction. I cold rush of panic washed over me. The churning feeling returned to my stomach, seasick, floating in an ocean of liquid rock. I fell to my knees.
“We’re lost!” I wailed in despair.
Agni bounded through the sand to my side.
“No, we aren’t.”
“I can’t see anything, just sand!”
“Sight, smell, what’s the difference?”
“What are you talking about, Agni?”
“Take that scarf off.”
I did as she bid, removing the material from my scaled skin. My bald, spiked head tingled pleasantly in the sun, humming in response to the warmth.
“Now take a long sniff, right into your head.”
Again, I did as she bade me, inhaling through my nose. Several ‘trails’ made themselves known in scent.
A dusty spider sat ten meters to my right. I could smell the hairs on it's back.
A musky mouse burrowed deep into the sand, where it was cool, three feet to my left. It had six young feeding from her.
Two humans, one sourly fearful and the other sickly sweet, left a trail straight ahead. I could smell them clearly.
We weren’t lost at all! We were right on track!
“Let’s go!” I shouted, my eyes flying open, emboldened.
“Let’s go!” Agni shouted back, bursting with excitement, gladly meeting mine.
We travelled all day, energy rising and falling with the sun. When nightfall came, my blood ran very cold, very quickly. I collapsed to the ground, Agni rushing to my aid. My world began to muffle, then turn silent. In exhaustion, I fainted.
At the mercy of the moon’s cold cloak, I sunk into the ground. Engulfed in the desert's parched silence, I was nothing but another grain of sand in the wind.
A/N: Long time, no see! It is great to be back! I had such great fun with this story and I may continue it if anyone would like to see that?
I would like to thank Donna Fox for her wonderful support and Phil Stewart for checking up on me. They are amazing, and supportive, creators that write beautiful content - I highly recommend their works!
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