Letting Go of the Lizard
When Pre was in third grade, the only marker pens she could find in her classroom were the washable kind that smelled like gross gum. So she carried her own thick black permanent marker from home against her wrist like a pocket knife. At recess the pen in her hand made it difficult to catch a ball or swing from the monkey bars so she spent the whole time on the swings. The yard monitors figured she was just "such an artist" and generally agreed the pen habit was cute. The pen must be a lovey, like a stuffed animal.
Story time involved the entire class piling onto the rug at the corner of the classroom like a litter of hamsters. Pre would hang behind, bent down until her face almost touched her desk, stretching her marker pen toward her ankle. Her teacher, busy holding up the story book and sweeping it back and forth like a lawn sprinkler, would not notice Pre's absence for at least a minute or two. This brief moment gave Pre her chance.
She had to work fast. A sweeping line on her skin, then another, making up the shape of a tiny fish. Long fins and a tail. A little eyeball. A mouth.
Inevitably the teacher would notice Pre was back there and admonish her to join the class. Pre would scurry over, tugging up her sock to hide the drawing on her ankle and wedge herself into a spot on the coarse, knee-burning rug. Her ankle would feel warm, as body parts do when you think about them too much. But her head would swivel with the rest of the class, watching the book move back and forth in the teacher's delicate hand.
That night, Pre smiled and slowly lowered her foot into the warm bath water. The fish wriggled loose, freeing its head first and then the rest of its body. Its long fins swirled around it like the gauzy costume of a dancer. The fish swam around in a lazy circle once, twice, then it disappeared down the drain.
Mondays were Pre's piano lesson days. On those days she walked the three blocks to her teacher's house after school, clutching her music books to her chest and counting the lines in the sidewalk. Before each lesson her piano teacher would take Pre's hands and turn them palms-up to look for any ink that might smear the piano keys. If she found any, Pre would spend the next few minutes in the cinnamon-scented hall bathroom scrubbing it off into a pink sink. Only then could the lesson proceed.
Pre learned piano pieces more easily when she heard them first, so her teacher would play records on a turntable nestled behind the piano bench. Busy retrieving a recording of Bach or Mozart from the shelf, Pre's teacher did not see Pre rest both hands silently on the keyboard. A cascade of tiny ink spiders scrambled down Pre's arms and onto the keys, and disappeared into the cracks before her teacher could turn around.
Pre's best friend Geddy lived on the opposite coast of the dry and weedy field that stretched out between their houses. On summer mornings before it got too hot she would pedal her bike, marker gripped against the handlebar, along one of the winding paths worn in the dirt by sneakers and dogs and tires. One summer the field burned and the paths stood out like veins in the blackened grass.
The snakes Pre had drawn on her thighs wriggled down and around her ankles as she pedaled, dropping to the ground and slithering off to take up residence in a hole or a pile of rocks.
Pre and Geddy sat on the lawn under a mulberry tree in Geddy's backyard. They made a little family out of sticks and gave the sticks a home in the tree's exposed roots. There was a rubber lizard for a pet. Sometimes the marker was a character, too. Pre didn't draw with it when she was with Geddy.
There was a tree house at the edge of the field that existed only at the periphery of Pre's awareness, like something on TV. She knew it was there, but she didn't consider it part of her world. Not in third grade, not even in high school. She must have ridden her bike past it hundreds of times.
Pre would hear mentions of the tree house between high school classes, here and there, in passing, and sometimes Geddy's name would come up too. But the fragments of conversation didn't coalesce and Pre didn't ask questions. She didn't know those people. The ones with the matted hair who smelled like smoke and who skipped class and amused themselves with loud conversations in the hallways. Their social group might as well have existed in another country. Besides, Pre had to get home for piano. Or to do her homework.
Pre drew a lizard on her forearm, forcibly enough that the skin reddened. The lizard had a fierce look, like a tiny dragon with a curling tail. Pre didn't hide the lizard under her sleeves. She didn't care who saw it. She would hear whispers behind her in class, speculation about whether the lizard was a tattoo, and how would she get permission or whether her parents knew. Questions asked with the intent of being overheard and answered. But Pre never turned to respond.
When the lizard would get faded, Pre would draw it over again. She traced the lines darker and darker, scraping the skin raw. She added spots. The tail grew longer and more ornate and spiky.
One evening sophomore year, the phone rang. It was Geddy's parents, wondering if their son might happen to be at Pre's house. Geddy was never at Pre's house, certainly not at night. In all their friendship, Geddy had never come over. Pre always went to Geddy's house, in the daytime, in summer. That was the way it was.
Pre went to her room and traced the lizard again. The lines smeared black, like blood in an old black and white movie.
Sirens. A fire engine. Flashing lights bounced off of Pre's bedroom window. She sat up late into the night on the edge of her bed, watching the lights go around and around. They cast wavy shapes on the walls of her room and made it look as if she were living under water. She drew a fish on her hand and released it into the air and it swam away.
The next morning the news came. The tree house had burned, and with it a teenaged boy.
Pre walked across the field toward the tree house, looking directly at it for the first time. The sky was flat and a sharp burnt smell stung Pre's nostrils. The shell of the tree and the tree house hung there, like a shadow puppet. Police tape blew around in the charred grass. Pre was there after everything, too late for everything.
Pre sat down on the ground and stroked her arm. The lizard stirred and lifted its head, but struggled to pull free. It hurt. The corners of Pre's eyes filled with tears that fattened and then dropped into the dust. Her arm burned like a brand.
Eventually the creature clawed its way loose and scrambled over Pre's knee and onto the ground. There it froze, head up, eyes like pin pricks, and looked at Pre for a long time. Then the lizard scurried across the grey ground and up the blackened tree bark and disappeared.
writes: I'm a novelist, artist and cartoonist working on my third YA-and-up science fiction novel. I have published science and speculative fiction with Perihelion, Fiction Vortex, Literary Orphans
and Jersey Devil Press