I crouched under the covers so Dad couldn’t see the glow from my cell phone. He’d flip if he caught me awake after midnight. I texted, “Beat game. Blew everything up.”
My phone buzzed with a new message, but it wasn’t from one of my buddies. It read, “Justin. Do not skip this class: Essential Lessons for Frost Dragon Egg Maintenance. All Lab. No Lecture.”
Like I’d want an extra class when I had pre-algebra homework every day and yet another book report due for language studies. Some loser must’ve got my number and this was his idea of a hilarious joke.
Maybe the message was an ad for a new computer game. I checked again. The screen name of the person who sent it was “Sphinx.” The game was probably fantasy. I might buy it. Sounded sweet.
I yawned so the corners of my jaw cracked. Maybe I should go to sleep. My dad would peel the covers off me before the sun rose in the morning, even if it was a Saturday. He’d drag me on some hike, or bike ride, or kayak trip. Just once, I wished he’d let me do what I wanted.
I fluffed up the covers so I could see better and tapped in another message, “Can’t make gaming party.” No, instead of bringing my laptop to a friend’s house, I’d be discovering a whole new world of blisters.
A light flicked on in my room. By reflex, I stuffed my phone under the pillow. I was so busted. Trying to think of an excuse, I pushed aside my old plaid camping blanket. But Dad wasn't there.
From the window, electric bright light rippled across the wall. The light shaded into pink and then turned burning red.
A noise from outside roared like a freeway at rush hour and then an enormous thump shook the bed. Adrenaline surging through my legs, I ran to the window, threw it open and leaned outside. My mouth fell open. Frozen lightning hung in front of my house, stretching from the lawn up to the roof. Across the narrow street, red haze swirled around a hulking animal the size of a backhoe. It cast about, as if looking for something.
Smoke drifted into my room, making me cough. The animal snapped its head up. It gazed directly at me with golden eyes big as my fist. The pupils thinned to narrow vertical lines.
I jumped back from the window. “Ahhh…” Stumbling further away across the room, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Then my head hit the opposite wall with a thump that made my ears ring. The creature’s gaze pinned me there like a bug.
The door crashed open beside me and Dad charged through. “Justin! There’s a fire!”
I pointed to the monster outside and tried to say something, but my voice was no louder than a gasping goldfish.
Dad didn’t look towards the window, only grabbed the back of my pajamas and hustled me out onto the landing. Mom just stood there, her hands clasped in front of her heart. Dad took her arm and helped her downstairs while I clomped after them.
They headed straight for the front door. That huge animal was out there like a monster from a nightmare. My tongue stumbled over itself. I couldn’t get the words out fast enough. “Wait! Don’t go outside.”
My mom and dad rushed out the front door anyway. I hovered on my toes at the end of the hallway.
But as they stood on the shadowed step, they didn’t scream or recoil. I edged out next to Dad, glad I hadn’t just become an orphan. Beyond, there was no giant beast. The silver thread was gone too.
I craned my neck to look up and down the street. Perhaps it wasn’t as big as I’d thought. It was dark out and there were only a few streetlights in our neighborhood. “Did you see a huge animal run away?”
Dad’s voice was distracted. “You probably saw a dog. Scared by the fire.”
That was no dog.
Flames exploded from the roof of the small house across the street with a shower of sparks.
I clutched my dad’s sleeve. “Amber is in there!” She used to be my best friend, back when we were little kids. She and her mom lived in that house alone.
Dad took a step forward. “I’m going in after them. Justin, take care of your mother.”
She threw her arms around him. “No! I can hear sirens. The firefighters will be here soon.”
I could hear them too, but they sounded distant. What if they didn’t come in time to save Amber and her mom?
Just then, Amber ran from behind the burning house, hand-in-hand with her mom, Ruth. They must’ve escaped out their back door. I didn’t realize how hard my heart was pounding until it slowed.
Crossing to our side of the street, the two stopped and held onto each other. Amber’s bare feet stuck out the bottom of her sweatpants.
I squinted as far as I could see into the darkness for the monster. Maybe it really had been just an animal. It was pretty late and I’d been staring at a computer screen for hours. I’d probably killed a half-dozen virtual dragons. I jogged down the sidewalk to Amber. Her eyes looked almost black in the reflected firelight. “Are you okay?”
She glanced up at me, opened her mouth, then closed it with a little shake of her head.
Ruth drew her daughter in close under her arm. “It must have been an earthquake.” She chewed her lip as she watched fire engulf their home. “Maybe it broke a gas line.”
But there hadn’t been an earthquake. “Maybe the gas line was hit by….” I trailed off. I couldn’t tell them about a monster. Even a giant animal sounded crazy.
Sirens blared, getting closer.
Amber’s hair flew about her face. It was curly like her mother’s but inky black like her dad’s. She leaned into her mom, eyes wide and shocked. “All my things, my clothes, my….”
I remembered her room had been filled with stuffed animals. They even spilled from a hammock strung across the ceiling like fluffy guardian angels.
I tried to sound reassuring. “It’s okay. It’s just stuff.”
She stiffened and cast me a cold look. “Easy for you to say. You’d think differently if it were your precious computer.”
I muttered, “I’m only trying to help.”
“That’s funny. I haven’t noticed you around much, not like when, I needed you.”
Amber’s mom stroked her hair. “Honey, this isn’t his fault…”
Amber clenched her teeth hard and stared at the fire as if I’d just stopped existing.
A fire truck and an ambulance rounded the corner, lights strobing. I slunk back to my parents.
Firefighters attached a hose to a fire hydrant and water gushed through the looping coils. The water made clouds of smoke and steam erupt through the broken windows.
It felt like I’d opened an oven door as I squinted against the heat. Right under my feet, wisps of smoke curled up from our lawn. A wide blackened trail led across the street and to the burning house. It was almost like an arrow pointing from my house to Amber’s.
After a while, Amber’s dad showed up. She hugged him tight around the middle. He stood stiff, arms raised. I hadn’t seen him in years. My mom told me he’d gone home to Shanghai, but he was back now.