There’s a chance that I’m not fully human. My irises are a fiery orange, my heart beats at twice the normal speed, my skin is hot to the touch, with a tan, almost orange color.
My mother passed away when I was a baby, leaving my father in his misery. He never told me exactly how they met, only that it was magical, love at first sight. The only thing I have from my mother is a tiny necklace inlaid with a single cut and polished citrine.
“Hollis!” Father shouts from the kitchen. “Dinner is ready!”
“Just a minute!” I respond, closing the tabs and shutting the lid of my laptop.
For the past month, I have been obsessing over “my conditions” as Father calls them, but nothing comes up when I search for orange eyes or dark skin except fantasy conventions and tanning salons.
“So,” Father starts, as with every conversation. “I was thinking, maybe we could go spend Christmas with your mom’s side of the family this year.” He winced as he said the word your mom. We had never visited my mom’s side of the family before. I didn’t know my other grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles, cousins and second cousins.
“I already called,” he continued. “We’re flying up to Maine in a week, staying for two weeks, and flying back the day before school starts again.”
“Cool.” I shrugged and put my plate in the sink. “I’m going back upstairs.”
Father didn’t respond.
I turned around just in time to see him pitch to the floor.
“Father!?!” I scream and slap his cheeks. I take his pulse.
I dash for the phone and dial 911.
“Help!” I say frantically into the phone. “My father just collapsed and I can’t find a pulse!”
“Where are you?” The attendant asks me.
“728 Jade Drive! Hurry!”
“It’s alright sweetheart. Stay on the phone with me.” The attendant says calmly.
I was anything but calm.
I started to do frantic CPR, remembering my first aid training, when the front door burst open and four paramedics came running into the kitchen with a stretcher. A tall, burly paramedic pushed me out of the way and I was sent sprawling across the cold tile floor. A younger paramedic took Father’s pulse and looked up with a grave expression on his face.
I clambered up and followed them out the door, climbing into the back of the ambulance with the younger paramedic. The ride to the hospital seemed like hours, not minutes. I watched as Father’s face slowly turned blue.
When we arrived at the hospital, the paramedics and several other doctors unloaded Father onto another stretcher and took him inside. I trailed behind in a daze as they pushed the stretcher into the ER. I collapsed into a chair and closed my eyes, slowly drifting asleep.
Two cold hands clasp my shoulders and gently shake me awake. A young woman in a long white coat looked down at me with a pitying look in her eyes. Her name tag reads “Dr. Yamatha”.
“Are you Hollis Wilder?” she asks softly, sitting down in the chair next to me.
“Yeah,” I reply. “Is Father okay? Where is he?”
She pauses for a moment, then continues.
“He’s moved on to a better place.”
I sit in shock. No. It can’t be true. Father can’t be dead. Fat, salty tears sting my eyes and drip down my cheeks as I sit in stunned silence.
“Do you have anyone to call?” Dr. Yamatha asks gently.
“No,” I reply, wiping my eyes. “I have a plane to catch.”
The taxi drops me off in front of my empty house. The whites shutters seem grey under the cloudy sky, and the sandy lawn seems dead in the dusk light. I never realized how empty the house felt without Father.
The door was still open from when they had pushed the stretcher out, and I hadn’t bothered to close it.
Walking up to my room, I pulled out my suitcase and slowly started dragging clothes out of my closet and folding, placing them softly on the bottom. Ten sets of clothes, three pairs of shoes, and a laptop later, my suitcase stood full and ready by my door.
I was never one to get choked up over goodbyes, but this one felt different. It felt like I was leaving my childhood, it felt like I was leaving Mother, and Father.
Trudging down the hall, I pass the milky white door of Father’s room. A bout of sorrow washes over me and I let go of my suitcase. Placing one hand on the cool, brass handle, and the other on the soft, warm wood, I push the door open ever so slightly.
The smell of gingerbread hits my nose. That scent used to follow Father everywhere. The Prussian blue bedspread was neatly folded up against the satin pillows. The creamy curtains were held and tied back to reveal a stunning sunset. A shrine to Mother was arranged on the dresser.
Ever so carefully, I pushed the door open wider, putting a single foot on the soft, plush carpet. Another foot follows, then another, and another, until I am standing directly in front of the shrine.
Pictures of Mother, ranging in age, lay in shining silver frames. The black and white photos were scattered around, along with dried rose petals and unscented candles. A small, uncased photo lay behind a large frame. The picture was in color, unlike all the others, and a pair of familiar orange eyes stare back. I hold the photo next to my arm and admire the impressively similar skin tones. So my conditions were…..hereditary? I gaze at the picture and slip it into my pocket.
Wandering down into the kitchen, I glance around at the dirty dishes still on the table from our interrupted dinner.
Hoping to take my mind off the situation, I gather and stack the dishes, taking them over to the sink and scrub them as if they carry the plague. I dry and thrust them up into their cabinets.
I grab the handle of my suitcase and pull it towards the door. From the daffodil-colored clay dish by the door, I take my keys and Father’s wallet. A feeling of sentimentalism washes over me as I turn around and lock the door. I’ll be back. Someday.
Gripping my phone in my palm, I check the time. 6:00. I don’t really feel like flying at night.
I end up hailing a taxi and staying at the airport hotel. I dig through my suitcase until I find Father’s address book. He had to be the last person in the state with one. I page rapidly through it until I find an address labeled “Anna’s Family”, and a number up in Maine.
“Anna,” I say aloud to the desolate room. “Mother’s name was Anna.”
I call the number and voicemail answers. I leave a quick but explanatory message and check back later to see it was heard.
I barely sleep that night. My Dunkin Donuts latte does little to wake me as I walk through the terminal to my gate. Boarding starts early and I stumble through the aisle until I get to seat A17. Drawing the window shade, I place my earbuds in and turn up my music, lulling me to sleep until the jolt of our descent wakes me.
Heaving my suitcase from the overhead compartment, I stumble off the plane and are blasted with rays of the winter morning sun. An older woman with grey hair and silver glasses waits eagerly off to the side.
“Hollis!” she exclaims as I step off the gangway, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. “I’m your grandma!”
I nod with uncertainty, the way you do when you meet someone for the first time.
“Come with me,” she gently places a hand on my back and pushes me towards baggage claim. “We have a lot to talk about, dear.”
We step out the doors and into a cold Maine winter. The handle of Grandma’s dull red sedan sticks as I yank the passenger door open.
Driving along the highway in silence, I stare out the window at the layer upon layer of glittering white snow. We never got snow down in Virginia.
“So,” Grandma said, trying to break the ice. “I’m so sorry about your father, dear. He really was a very nice man.”
“He was,” I replied, drawing the color picture of Mother from my pocket. “But he was also very quiet, almost sad.”
We paused in traffic and Grandma peered over to see what I was looking at. I heard her release a small and gasp and whisper breathlessly,
I quickly tucked the photo into my bag, afraid that seeing her dead daughter would send her into hysterics.
“You look just like her,” she said serenely, affixing her eyes on the road.
For an hour, neither of us made a noise. Grandma focused on driving and I scrolled through old photos on my phone. I came across a photo of me posing with Mickey and Minnie when I was seven. I wasn’t so worried about what I looked like, or how much my life would change. All I was worried about was being a kid.
We drove through miles and miles of pure forest before we reached the tiny town of Whiting, Maine. The picturesque village shops were snow-capped and strung with Christmas lights. We drove for another five miles until we arrived at a large wooden cabin.
A family of deer skirted off the front lawn as I got out of the car and shut the door behind me. I stood sheepishly behind Grandma as she opened the front door. It opened to the living room where fourteen people sat around a glowing hearth.
The noise of the door and the wheels of my suitcase made the people’s heads turn towards the sound. The three women’s eyes round and they jump up.
“Anna!” They gasped and turned to Grandma for confirmation. She shakes her head and they slump back into their seats, heads lowered.
“This is Hollis,” Grandma announces to the room. “Anna and Tom’s daughter.”
The woman sitting closest to me sticks out her hand to shake.
“I’m your Aunt Andrea,” she greets enthusiastically. “That’s my husband, Adam,” she gestures to a dark-haired man sitting in an armchair with a little blonde girl, no older than seven, in his lap. “That’s my daughter, Sarah,” she motions to the girl. “And in the corner there is my son, Quinn.” She points to a boy around my age who is sitting in the corner, staring into space.
The pale, black-haired woman sitting next to the fireplace waves.
“I’m your Aunt Lily,” she says in a tiny voice, and a brown-haired girl, who looked fifteen, about my age, bounced onto her feet from across the room.
“Hi!” she said super perky. “I’m your cousin, Cora. That’s my dad, Nathan,” she pointed to an older man wearing glasses and reading a newspaper. “That’s my sister, Tiffany,” she indicated to a girl a year or two older, sitting with a thick book in her hands. “And that’s my brother, Noel.” she rolled her eyes.
A boy of about eighteen stood at the back of the room. He had weights in either hand and was wearing a sleeveless navy blue sweatshirt. He takes one glance at me and turns back to the wall, timing his lifts to the second hand on the clock.
The last woman stood up and, keeping her eyes down, waved and stuck out her hand.
“I’m your Aunt Kim,” she said in a monotone. “That’s my husband, Sean,” she pointed to a younger man with chocolate brown hair sitting in front of the fire. “And those are my sons, Gavin and DJ.” she gestured towards the two boys wrestling in the middle of the floor.
I heard the flush of a toilet from down the hall and an old man walked out into the living room.
“So, what did I miss?” he announced, looking around. Spotting me, he wrapped his arms around me and gave me a hug.
“Good to see you, kiddo! Hollis, is it?” I nodded. “Welcome to the family!”
The sun peeked through the clouds and spilled through the windows, illuminating my newfound relatives.
Then I noticed it.
Cora was the first one I spotted. Her coral eyes and pinkened skin caught the rays of light coming in through the window. Noel’s navy eyes and blue-tinted skin caught a single ray before he backed into the darkness again. Uncle Sean’s fire truck red eyes and flushed skin are the brightest in the room next to Uncle Adam’s neon green eyes and green-tinted skin.
“What the…?” I exclaim and brush my hand against my arm, feeling the warmth of my own overly-tan skin.
“Oh, honey,” Grandma soothes. “Your father never told you? Your mother was, same as all of us and you, a dragon.”
Feel the heat surge through your veins, Aunt Andrea telepaths to me, and I look up at her towering figure and see her bronze scales ripple with anticipation. Feel the want and need overtake your brain.
I try to feel the heat, I try to feel the want and the need. But nothing works. Aunt Andrea, disappointed, shrinks down to her normal self and urges me to go inside and get something to eat.
Walking into my shared bedroom, Cora is sitting on the bed with Sarah in her lap, brushing her long blonde hair. Her white eyes shine like pearls in the natural lighting and I sit down next to them.
“You almost had it!” Cora says, reassuringly. “I saw some scales pop up on your forearms!”
Sarah reaches over and gives me a pat on the leg. Sarah never said a word in her life. She wasn’t mute, just had nothing to say.
“Yeah,” Tiffany responds from the doorway. “Your pupils started to dilate.”
Noel passed through the hallway and glared at me.
“Yeah, and if you start trying that hard again you’ll turn pink like Cora!”
“Hey!” Cora threw a pillow at him, but he easily dodged it.
“Has anyone seen Uncle Adam?” Aunt Andrea pokes her head into the room and looks at us with a quizzical expression. None of us move. He had left to go get something this morning and never returned.
Two hours later, I was riding on the back of Grandma as we flew over the forest in a desperate attempt to find Uncle Adam. Grandma landed after tiring of flight. We wandered aimlessly through the trees for another half hour before I spotted something dangling from a tree branch.
The ribbon was pink, slimy, and bloody. I dropped the gut as fast as I could and saw the claw peeking around a tree trunk.
Uncle Adam was lying there, in dragon form, with his stomach sliced open, guts and blood spreading across the forest floor. I heard a shriek as Aunt Andrea landed beside him, letting go the most awful screams a person or dragon ever could. Covering my ears and shutting my eyes, I slid off Grandma’s back and stumbled away from the horrifying scene. Not caring where I was going, I bumped into something hot, smooth, and large. Opening my eyes, I felt the Sacramento green scales. I looked up into the face of Uther, a dragon from a rival tribe, and yelped.
The closest tribe to us was up in Canada. The Eternals never seemed to grow old. They had been there for centuries, the five of them. Drago was the sovereign, and his wife, Tanis, had spawned three evil offspring. Their oldest son, Uther, was gruesome and contemptible. The twins, Lindy and Ladon, were younger versions of their parents. Our two tribes had never really come in close contact, never formed an alliance or friendship. They were feared.
Tanis, Lindy, Drago, and Ladon emerged from the trees surrounding Uther. What happened next was a blur.
Uncle Nathan bolted through the forest, bounding in front of me and snarling. I tried to break into their line of telecommunication, but they were too focused on each other and the line was too strong. Ladon tore his claw across Uncle Nathan’s face and he fell in a heap.
That was it.
They had killed my uncle, they couldn’t kill two.
I felt the heat surging through my veins and my fingernails turned into talons. The want and the need overtook my brain. My dark tan skin shingled and turned into fiery orange scales. A single, heart-stopping roar escaped my mouth as Tanis and Lindy shrank, almost immediately being covered by the men. They slowly shrank away into the darkness, and I turned around to see the rest of my family standing behind me, proud of my transformation.
I nudged Uncle Nathan with my snout. He groaned and growled telepathically,
Thursday, midnight. The clearing up by Rocky Lake.
The air was cold and dark, the forest close to empty. The light of the cabin was growing fainter and fainter every step I took. Sarah bounded through the snow, her breath melting the flakes almost instantly. Cora trudged at my side, her scales rippling along her back. Noel lingered at the back of the group, tight-lipped as ever. Aunt Andrea trekked as the leader, determination in her eyes.
The clearing was just ahead, the moonlight creating a soft glow on the freshly falling snow. The Eternals perched just behind the treeline, help flanking their sides. Aunt Kim was the first to speak on the voyage.
If I die, she said. I want you all to know that I love you.
Always. Aunt Lily replied.
Always. Aunt Andrea seconded.
Always. I repeated.
We stepped into the clearing at the same time as the Canadian dragons, our footprints indenting the perfect powder.